Friday, August 30, 2013

On Syria/Remembering “Shock and Awe”

Aptitude and madness flew together,
creating irregular arcs of light in night.

Pilots winged without sleep
and with crazed eyes and clenched toes.

Jets rumbled with fevers of impatience.
The armchair commanders said,

“The world could wait no longer.”
So they rushed into the unknowable,

and the world was tilted by an invasion,
choking with fiery air.

We were never shown unspeakable shocks:
mutilations and murders.

But we were awed by broadcasts
of sorties unleashing raucous skies,

leaving behind in their wake
bursts of death and torrents of terror.

How was it to live among Blitzkriegs
of shattered glass and concrete,

sirens and foreboding clouds
of hydrogen sulfide?

When they dropped their payloads,
smoke rose from behind upturned thumbs.

A version of “On Syria/Remembering ‘Shock and Awe’” was originally published in Prairie Light Review and with a different title.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

…Nothing is 'saved' in pension 'fix'? by Jim Broadway

“…Here's why: for seven decades our elected officials - governors and legislators - gave us programs and services that cost far more than they had the courage to ask us to pay with our tax dollars. They ran up debts yearly, but they papered over these debts with thefts from the pension systems - with public employees' money - and with artfully crafted lies.

“Add to that the Great Recession's effects and we find that the five state-administered pension systems are obligated by about $100 billion… more than their current assets can cover…

“‘Why do we have to pay it?’ you ask. ‘Can't we just 'save' it?’ You just can't, okay? The obligation has been incurred. It won't go away, not a dime of it. Every dollar will be paid by somebody and will be accounted for in some way.

“But our policymakers - governors and legislators - are afraid to ask us to pay for the fiscal mismanagement they have committed on our behalf. They always look for someone else to pay inconvenient debt, someone powerless to complain.

“Their favorite victims are "sin tax" payers. In the past they've hit up smokers, drinkers and gamblers to pay for services unrelated to smoking, drinking or gambling. Now that medical marijuana is legal, look for the tokers to pay their price.

“But [$100B], that's a lot of money. The tokers can't afford it. And hitting up the general taxpayers - that is, us - is out too. The policymakers are afraid of us, you know. They've pandered on taxes so long that they now believe their own pander.

“Does that mean there's no one to victimize, no constituency that has played no role at all in creating $100B in pension debt but whom our policymakers - our governor and legislators - can coerce into paying it off anyway?

“Calm down. A class of victims is visible through the fiscal fog. It is the members of the pension systems themselves. Sure, they've made all their payments, every one of them, to secure their relatively modest retirement benefits. But they're still vulnerable.

“We - that is, the State of Illinois - can just renege on our - that is, its - promises made to them in their contract (state law) and slashing their benefits. That will cut our (the state's) obligations by a big number - which we then will call ‘savings.’

“You want details? Forget it. The Conference Committee on SB 1 - ten legislators whose job it is to come up with a way to screw over the pension members - are deliberating behind closed doors. (The Open Meetings Act doesn't apply to them.) There's no way of knowing exactly how the deed will be done.

“The details provided by the Associated Press are of little help. They're going to fiddle with the COLA and allow pension members actually to reduce their employee contributions - and somehow that's going to save the systems. It will be interesting to see how that is purported to add up.

“[The AP] article goes on to mischaracterize other proposals as ‘saving’ vast sums of money, $187 billion in the case of a plan favored by House Speaker Michael Madigan, $47 billion by one backed by Senate President John Cullerton.

“Get it straight. Nothing is ‘saved.’ Part of the obligation may be reduced by state payments. Part may be accounted for as benefits and subtracted from what the contract (state pension law) currently calls for. But someone will pay every dollar.

“What's next? Isolated details of the committee's discussions may dribble out now and then, but no legislative action is expected before the veto session that convenes on October 22. We'll all be mushrooms until then.

“Bond ratings 'talked down?’ Corporate interests have warned for years that, unless Illinois (that's us, remember) solves our ‘pension crisis,’ the credit rating agencies will lower Illinois' ratings making it costlier for the state to borrow funds.

“Recently the state's credit-worthiness ratings were lowered. Now the We Are One Illinois coalition of unions believes corporate leaders actually lobbied the agencies to lower the ratings - to lend credibility to the ‘pension crisis.’

“Former Illinois Attorney General Ty Fahner flatly denied (in media interviews) that he would never do such a thing. But the coalition hopes you'll pay attention to Fahner's comments at a closed-door meeting of corporate leaders in Chicago.

“The meeting was for the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. Fahner is the committee's president. You wouldn't think anyone would even consider doing anything with such costly effects just to lend a sense of urgency to an issue of public policy. The state's former top law enforcement officer would be especially reluctant to do so, right?

“Those folks are pretty disgusting sometimes.”

 Jim Broadway is publisher of State School News Service

Monday, August 26, 2013

On Illinois Pension Reform and the U.S. Constitution

It is a matter of public interest when current policymakers attempt to rob public employees of their constitutionally-guaranteed contracts, for punishing and victimizing public employees through a breach of contract instead of addressing the state’s inadequate revenue system and underfunding of the public pensions is a form of violence upon a group of people who have faithfully served the citizens of Illinois. It is a violation of due process and equal protection.

“…No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV—Due Process and Equal protection, Section 1).

It is reprehensible when Illinois policymakers choose not to uphold their oath of office and protect the state’s constitutional contracts. It is deplorable when Illinois policymakers support and listen to wealthy interest groups instead – those organizations that drain state contracts of their legal and moral content and, thus, exploit the citizenry of Illinois. 

-Glen Brown

This letter was published by The State Journal-Register.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

If Anthony Weiner had met Little Red Riding Hood Instead

The plot is flawed; the dialogue is unbelievable.
The wolf lacks a compulsive trait.
Why not make him a politician
with an addictive sexting problem
and pump him up with arrogance and a stump speech?

As for Red, wearing a velvet coat
black tights, satin blouse and high-heels,
just add a pouting mouth, legs of a runway model
and the endurance of a triathlon athlete.

Now put them somewhere downtown in Manhattan
with the Budweiser horses panting
around a clock in a smoke-filled bar,
blaring music and six-dollar beer calls.

And let’s say she doesn’t have a florist’s heart
for long-stemmed roses or daffodils,
or drink imported wines or eat French pastries.
Instead, she’s smitten by the scent of loud cologne,
dizzy with come-ons and roving hands –
their conversation stale as the popcorn and Frito-Lays.

We know the odds, perhaps ten thousand to one,
like the first day of major league baseball tryouts.
But he’s determined and she’s willing,
lust floating in his brain and love in hers.

Oh, I’ll spare you the happiness forever after
and little-lost-girl-saved-by-a-prince routine.
There is no rise in concentration
of some polypeptide hormone
in his hypothalamus. Besides, he’s married.
They wake up with separation swirling in their hearts,
lost in a forest of ordinary in the haze of day,
lying with the promise to see each other
before his next political debate.

He rises out of bed, taps a text message
on his iPhone, counts the bills in his billfold
to make sure, then straightens his tie
while she brushes her hair, her bare arm
twitching as the door clicks shut.

“Red Riding Hood” was originally published with a different title in Spoon River Poetry Review, 1993.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The latest on so-called “pension reform” or breaking a contract in Illinois

No consensus from the conference committee yet, but in a new draft or outline from Nekritz, Biss, Brady, et al:

·         Retirees’ COLA increases would be ½ of rate of inflation with a base and cap for rate

·         Current employees would contribute 1% less to pension fund

·         No increase in retirement age

·         Pension benefits could be based on salary over career instead of averaging last four years

·         State of Illinois would contribute “extra money” into retirement funds beginning in 2019

·         State of Illinois could save $145 billion over 30 years

·         The retirement systems would be fully funded in 30 years

·         Committee is looking at more options as well

·         We Are One Coalition of Illinois “will file lawsuit to stop any proposal they believe violates the constitution”

·         Meanwhile, Madigan and Cullerton are still suing Quinn’s line-item veto that delays legislators’ monthly salary; they are calling Quinn’s line-item veto “Unconstitutional”

·         A Cook County Circuit Court judge has yet to rule on this suit

“There can be no doubt that behind all the [attempts at breaking a public employee's contract in the Illinois legislature]…, there is [some sort of unethical and ineffectual] organization at work. An organization which not only [perpetuates] corrupt [dealings by politicians]…, of whom the best that can be said is that they recognize their own limitations [and lack of business ethics], but [this organization] also has at [its] disposal [bureaucratic alternatives in addition to suborning corporatists and lobbyists]... And the significance of this… [unethical and ineffectual] organization…? It consists in this, that innocent persons [can be victimized by] senseless [reforms that] are put in motion against them… How is it possible… to prevent gross corruption…? It [seems] impossible [in the State of Illinois]…” (Franz Kafka, The Trial).

Please click on this link for an analysis: Illinois pension reform is without legal and moral justification


Friday, August 23, 2013

Coming Attractions: The Committee of Ten’s Procrustean Illogic by John Dillon

“Procrustean:  (adjective) from the noun Procrustes, a mythological and lawless bandit who terrorized the countryside surrounding Athens, Greece until he was defeated by the hero Theseus.  Procrustes had two very different beds, one very short and one very long.  Captured travelers were forced to lie upon a bed.  Those too short to fit were stretched to death, and those too tall had their legs and feet cut off. 

“The word Procrustean has therefore come to describe a person’s imposing a conformity or reason without any real concern for individuality or factuality…

“Very soon now, we will likely witness committee members schmoozing on radio and parading on TV with the compromise proposal intended to pass both House and Senate in the fall veto session. 

“The task of finding an answer to the state’s debt problem without seeking revenue solutions – instead taking from promised benefits of future, current, and past workers – will assure a litany of upcoming Procrustean explanations – as well as a court challenge…”

For the complete article, please click Here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

This unbalanced pension reform proposal is also being considered by the pension committee

“[A] proposal to alter public employee pension systems in Illinois would significantly undermine the retirement security of teachers and state workers. An estimated 80 cents on the dollar of pension system savings from the plan would be borne by retirees through a reduction in cost-of-living increases over the course of retirement. These benefit cuts would make it more difficult for Illinois public schools and the state to recruit and retain qualified college-educated employees. Additionally, the plan would create a new threat to the financial sustainability of the state's existing public pension systems, in part by diverting a third of funds contributed by new employees away from defined-benefit pension pools to individual retirement accounts. The plan could result in a drop in investment returns on the state's pension assets with state tax payers left to make up the difference...

·         [This proposal] would be highly inequitable in its distribution of costs…

·         It would undermine the retirement security of Illinois public-sector retirees, and especially harm those who live a long retirement… The proposal would give most Illinois public-sector employees less protection against inflation in their retirement income than the average inflation protection enjoyed by most other U.S. retired seniors…

·         [The proposal's] COLA reduction is more than four times larger than a proposed adjustment to the Social Security inflation index perceived by many as an unacceptable erosion of retirement security…

·         [The proposal] would hamper the ability of Illinois public employees to attract and retain qualified college-educated employees, including teachers…

·         It would introduce a new risk to Illinois taxpayers. The proposal would reduce funds going into the state’s existing defined-benefit pools and increase the share of defined-benefit pension obligations owed to retirees and to older active employees…

·         The proposal’s hybrid defined-benefit/defined-contribution plan would have additional downsides for retired public-sector workers. Future Illinois public-sector employees would bear increased financial market, or investment, risk in their retirement plan because of the shrinkage of the defined-benefit multiplier under the hybrid plan from 2.2% to 1.5%... (Someone who works 30 years with a multiplier of 2.2% receives a base pension benefit equal to 66% of salary. With a multiplier of 1.5%, this benefit drops to 45% of salary)… The combination of a lower multiplier and a lower COLA would mean a reduction in retiree benefits of more than half (53%) compared to current Illinois pension plan participants who were in the system before 2011…

·         The overall pay package for Illinois public school teachers could become increasingly non-competitive. This would compound the challenges of attracting and retaining a great teacher for every Illinois public school classroom…”

To read the full report, click here: “Universities” Proposal Would Erode Retirement Security, Weaken School’s Ability to Retain Talented Teachers, and Create New Threat to Financial Sustainability of Illinois Pension Funds by Stephen Herzenberg and Howard Wial

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Have you seen Michael Connelly’s legislative survey for Illinois' 21st district?

I received Connelly’s “What’s your opinion on the issues facing Illinois” yesterday. I thought about what is more important to a sycophantic politician like Connelly who asks loaded questions such as “Should government pensions move to a defined-contribution plan, which are like pensions used in private business, instead of the current defined-benefit plan system” and “Teacher pensions make up the largest portion of the public pension funds. Some think teacher pensions should be shifted from the state to local school districts to make them accountable for hiring and pay hikes. Others say this will result in higher property taxes without reforming the system. Should Illinois shift responsibility for some pension payments to school districts? Yes, No, Undecided?”

Politicians like Connelly do not concern themselves with the examination of evidence, the causes of the state’s financial problems, and the best solutions for these complicated issues. They are concerned about their reputation and re-election and about maintaining their power and influence. They like simple surveys that ask their constituents to make simple choices to complex questions, questions that are constructed so they are not comprehensive and that demand no relevant and accurate scrutiny in order to answer intelligently.

Connelly’s legislative survey is a distortion based on his unwillingness to survey fairly the real “issues facing Illinois”: pension debt and revenue problems that were caused by incompetent, irresponsible and corrupt leadership. Instead, Connelly casts the issues of raising crucial state revenue and public employees’ pensions as objects of his bias to provoke mindless, hair-trigger responses.

How about asking constituents whether the State of Illinois ought to keep a promise (as a rule of prima facie duty), and whether a politician can break a constitutional contract with ANY citizen in Illinois if it suits a politician’s advantage? How about asking whether a politician should continue to hurt the lives of people who were not responsible for the state’s pension debt and lack of revenue? How about asking whether so-called pension reform, or the breaking of a constitutionally-guaranteed contract, is a good thing, and whether it is legally and morally right to ignore the State and U.S. Constitutions?

Illinois Pension Reform Is Without Legal and Moral Justification, Mr. Connelly. You know past state governments created the severe unfunded liability for the five public employees’ retirement systems in Illinois. Your attempt to isolate and offer up one group of people for hardship and, for many of these public employees, create a dispossession by way of intentionally-diminishing laws while you perpetuate special exceptions and windfalls for the wealthy elite is a mockery of justice.

Public employees’ benefits and rights are guaranteed by contract. It is critical that today’s politicians protect legitimate expectations and concerns for all the state’s citizenry, especially for people who must be defended against those with excessive economic clout and inequitable schemes to pass prejudicial legislation that benefit the financial elite (and their politicians) at the expense of everyone else.

To ignore the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and change laws that protect one group of people is to ignore due process and equal protection of the laws that guarantee contractual agreements. It is shameful that politicians (like you) are willing to renege on a contract when (you and) they are the debtors. It is wrong to modify public employees’ contractual rights and benefits prospectively and retroactively when there are other ways to address the pension debt problem, such as through debt and revenue restructuring.

Legal and moral sense dictates that you and the rest of the Illinois General Assembly must align with the U.S. and State Constitutions and sanction the vested rights of its middle-class public employees. Politicians should understand the economic, social and psychological harm that will be done to this significant body of voters, of which there are approximately 693,000 members, when they break a contract. It is a matter of moral and legal concern for EVERY citizen of Illinois to pay attention to any proposed violations of rights and benefits.  

-Glen Brown

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

There seems to be no alternative to a political process in which parties compete to win votes and money. That competition always involves trickery and demagoguery, as politicians play fast and loose with the truth... [America] now [is] polarized and embattled to the point of dysfunction... Candidates... spend more time and money on opposition research, in which staff members or paid consultants dig up dirt on opponents (sometimes illegally) and then shovel it to the media... America's hyper-partisanship is now a threat to the world...

The Grand Narratives of Liberalism (Democrats) and Conservatism (Republicans): 

“‘Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism… But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximize the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving’ (Smith, Christian. Moral, Believing Animals).

“‘…Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way… Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hardworking Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crimes, they worried about the rights of criminals... Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle… and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles… Instead of projecting strength to those who do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism…’ (Smith).

...Conservatives... are... concerned about their groups, rather than humanity. For them, the Liberty/oppression foundation and the hatred of tyranny supports many of the tenets of economic conservatism: don't tread on me (with your nanny state and its high taxes); don't thread on my business (with your oppressive regulations); don't tread on my nation (with your United Nations, [NATO], and your sovereignty-reducing international treaties). American conservatives, therefore, sacralize the word liberty, not the word equality...
...Liberals... rely more heavily upon the Care/harm foundation--the Liberty/oppression foundation is employed in the service of underdogs, victims, and powerless groups everywhere. It leads liberals (but not others) to sacralize equality, which is then pursued by fighting for civil rights and human rights. Liberals sometimes go beyond equality of rights to pursue equality of outcomes, which cannot be obtained in a capitalistic system. This may be why the left usually favors higher taxes on the rich, high levels of services provided to the poor, and sometimes a guaranteed minimum income for everyone...

“People don’t adopt their ideologies at random, [however], or by soaking up whatever ideas are around them. People whose genes gave them brains that get pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat, are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals. They tend to develop certain ‘characteristic adaptations’ and ‘life narratives’ that make them resonate—unconsciously and intuitively—with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left (such as the liberal progress narrative).

“People whose genes give them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with the grand narratives of the right (such as the Reagan narrative). Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix. They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere, and it’s difficult—perhaps impossible—to convince them that they are wrong if you argue with them from outside of their [moral] matrix…

“…When a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds… Moral reasoning [is] mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people [have] already made… We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves [come] to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment… You can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments…! Reason… was designed to seek justification, not truth… to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways to confirm what you already think [This is called confirmation bias]…

“The social psychologist Tom Gilovich [studied] the cognitive mechanisms of strange beliefs. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Can I believe it?’ Then… we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification…

“In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, ‘Must I believe it?’ Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must…

“Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. We lie, cheat, and cut ethical corners quite often when we think we can get away with it, and then we use our moral thinking to manage our reputations and justify ourselves to others. We believe our own post hoc reasoning so thoroughly that we end up self-righteously convinced of our own virtue… 

Yes, people are often selfish and a great deal of our moral, political, and religious behavior can be understood as thinly-veiled ways of pursuing self-interest. (Just look at the awful hypocrisy of so many politicians and religious leaders, [especially today])… [However], we have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves…”

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.