Saturday, February 24, 2018

“American democracy is being corrupted out of existence” by Juan Cole

“Those ratings that castigate Afghanistan and some other poor countries as hopelessly ‘corrupt’ always imply that the United States is not corrupt. This year’s report from Transparency International puts the US on a par with Austria, which is ridiculous. All kinds of people from politicians to businessmen would go to jail in Austria today if they engaged in practices that are quite common in the US.

“While it is true that you don’t typically have to bribe your postman to deliver the mail in the US, in many key ways America’s political and financial practices make it in absolute terms far more corrupt than the usual global South suspects. After all, the US economy is worth over $18 trillion a year, so in our corruption a lot more money changes hands.

“1. A sure sign of corruption is an electoral outcome like 2016. An addled nonentity like Donald Trump got filthy rich via tax loopholes a predatory behavior in his casinos and other businesses and then was permitted to buy the presidency with his own money. He was given billions of dollars in free campaign time every evening on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and other channels that should have been more even-handed, because they were in search of advertising dollars and Trump was a good draw. Then, too, the way the Supreme Court got rid of campaign finance reform and allowed open, unlimited secret buying of elections is the height of corruption. The permitting of massive black money in our elections was taken advantage of by the Russian Federation, which, having hopelessly corrupted its own presidential elections, managed to further corrupt the American ones, as well. Once ensconced in power, Trump Inc. has taken advantage of the power of White House to engage in a wide range of corrupt practices, including an attempt to sell visas to wealthy Chinese and the promotion of the Trump brand as part of diplomacy.

“2. The rich are well placed to bribe our politicians to reduce taxes on the rich. The Koch brothers and other mega-rich troglodytes explicitly told Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan in 2017 that if the Republican Party, controlling all three branches of government, could not lower taxes on its main sponsors, there would be no billionaire backing of the party in the 2018 midterms. This threat of an electoral firing squad made the hundreds of bribe-takers in Congress sit up and take notice, and they duly gave away to the billionaire class $1.5 trillion in government services (that’s what Federal taxes are, folks, services–roads, schools, health inspections, implementation of anti-pollution laws–things that everyone benefits from and which won’t be there anymore. To the extent that the government will try to continue to provide those slashed services despite assessing no taxes on the people with the money to pay for them, it will run up an enormous budget deficit and weaken the dollar, which is a form of inflation in the imported goods sector. Inflation hits the poor the worst. As it stands, 3 American billionaires are worth, as much as the bottom 150 million Americans. That kind of wealth inequality hasn’t been seen in the US since the age of the robber barons in the nineteenth century. Both eras are marked by extreme corruption.

“One sign of American corruption is the rapidity with which American society has become more unequal since the 1980s Reagan destruction of the progressive income tax. The wealthier the top 1 percent is, the more politicians it can buy to gather up even more of the country’s wealth. In my lifetime the top one percent has gone from holding 25% of the privately held wealth under Eisenhower to 38% today.

“3. Instead of having short, publicly-funded political campaigns with limited and/or free advertising (as a number of Western European countries do), the US has long political campaigns in which candidates are dunned big bucks for advertising. They are therefore forced to spend much of their time fundraising, which is to say, seeking bribes. All American politicians are basically on the take, though many are honorable people. They are forced into it by the system. The campaign season should be shortened to 3 months (did we really need 2 years to get an outcome in which a fool like Trump is president?), and Congress should pass a law that winners of primaries don’t have to pay for political ads on TV and radio.

“When French President Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in 2012, soon thereafter French police actually went into his private residence searching for an alleged $50,000 in illicit campaign contributions from the L’Oreale heiress. I thought to myself, seriously? $50,000 in a presidential campaign? Our presidential campaigns cost a billion dollars each! $50,000 is a rounding error, not a basis for police action. Why, George W. Bush took millions from arms manufacturers and then ginned up a war for them, and the police haven’t been anywhere near his house. American politicians don’t represent ‘the people.’ With a few honorable exceptions, they represent the 1%. American democracy is being corrupted out of existence.

“4. Money and corruption have seeped so far into our media system that people can with a straight face assert that scientists aren’t sure human carbon emissions are causing global warming. Fox Cable News is among the more corrupt institutions in American society, purveying outright lies for the benefit of the fossil fuels billionaire class. The US is so corrupt that it is resisting the obvious urgency to slash carbon production. Virtually the entire Republican Party resists the firm consensus of all respected scientists in the world and the firm consensus of everybody else in the world save for a few denialists in English-speaking countries. This resistance to an urgent and dangerous reality comes about because they are bribed to take this stance. Even Qatar, its economy based on natural gas, freely admits the challenge of human-induced climate change. American politicians like Jim Inhofe are openly ridiculed when they travel to Europe for their know-nothingism on climate.

“5. That politicians can be bribed to reduce regulation of industries like banking (what is called ‘regulatory capture’) means that they will be so bribed. Scott Pruitt, a Manchurian candidate from Big Oil, has single-handedly demolished the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of polluting industry. This assault on the health of American citizens on behalf of vampirical corporations is the height of corruption…”

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

For the complete article, Top Ten Signs the U.S. Is the Most Corrupt Nation in the World by Juan Cole, click here.

Monday, February 19, 2018

America and Guns by Glen Brown

It is said that laws and their restrictions will never apply to deranged criminals. Moreover, the fact that there are an estimated 400 million firearms already in circulation make it impossible for most gun control laws to have any effect on reducing violent crimes. Because most gun control laws also prohibit people’s self-reliance and self-defense, they can also cost the lives of more innocent victims. 

Nevertheless, I support universal background checks for anyone purchasing a weapon and imposing a waiting period; I support increasing age limits for those purchasing a gun; I support banning high-capacity magazines and modifications on semi-automatic weapons; I support banning semi-automatic and fully automatic assault rifles; I support holding firearms manufacturers of assault rifles legally liable for gun violence, even though most homicides are committed with handguns; I support red flag laws: legislation that will mandate prohibitions on concealed weapons and possession of firearms by people convicted of violent crimes and people who are considered a public threat; I support interventions where violence is imminent and the removal of all protective legal barriers for any person who has threatened violence; I support banning anyone from owning a weapon on no-fly or watch lists and for anyone taking prescriptions for psychotic and antisocial personality disorders and other psychological illnesses; I also support gun safety at home and keeping weapons away from children and teenagers.

Instead of sweeping gun control laws that will affect law-abiding responsible citizens who own reasonable self-defense weapons for protection and may conceal and carry those weapons; instead of more political party accusations and useless prayers for the victims, legislators should focus upon and address the causes of violent crimes: domestic white nationalism, racism, bigotry (power, hatred, revenge, anger, notoriety), religious fundamentalism, economic injustice, poverty, unemployment, gang activity, drug trafficking, inefficient law enforcement in high-crime areas, suicide, mental illness* and the internet and social media's proliferation of vitriolic commentary, fear, demagoguery and xenophobia.

Let’s pursue a policy goal that shifts “the distribution of gun possession as far as possible in the direction of likely aggressors being disarmed [e.g., those people who are on social media espousing hatred and terrorist ideologies], with as few prospective victims as possible being disarmed [of their handguns]. To disarm non-criminals [through indiscriminate gun control laws] in the hope that this might indirectly help reduce access to guns among criminals is a very high-stakes gamble, and the risks will not be reduced by pretending that crime victims rarely use guns for self-defense” (Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and Their Control). 

Let’s also pursue a policy goal that eliminates so-called “corporate personhood” (Citizens United): this corrupt, unlimited campaign spending from moneymaking, mendacious powers like the NRA and the Koch Brothers, et. al. that funds and coerces Republican legislators to ingratiate them. 

-Glen Brown

*Anyone who kills another human being other than for self-defense has severely impaired psychological functioning; moreover, anyone who suffers from severe depression and is taking anti-depressants (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) should not be allowed to own a weapon.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Regarding Rauner's Budget Proposal (from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability)


Governor Rauner proposed a $37.6 billion General Fund Budget for FY2019 (the “FY2019 Budget Proposal”). While it will take some time to complete a detailed analysis of the FY2019 Budget Proposal, one problematic element of the Governor’s budget proposal is already clear:
2.    The Governor’s FY2019 Budget Proposal Would Materially Cut Funding for K-12 Education from FY2018 Levels—And Frustrate the Core Purpose of the Historic School Funding Reform Legislation Passed Last Year.
During his budget address, the Governor claimed to be a strong advocate of investing in K-12 education. He also maintained that he supported the historic school funding reform legislation, known as the “Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act” (the “EBM”), that passed into law last year.1 The EBM ties the dollar amount taxpayers invest in schools to those educational practices which the research shows enhance student achievement over time. By doing so, the EBM creates a rational, evidenced-based approach to building the capacity of all schools statewide to meet the educational needs of the students they serve.
After running the numbers, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) noted that currently, K-12 education funding statewide is some $7 billion short of what the evidence indicates is needed for all schools to implement these evidence-based practices that lead to student achievement. Hence, the Governor’s stated desire to invest more in schools is both rational and necessary to build the capacity of the state’s K-12 education system based on what the research indicates works.
Unfortunately, if the Governor’s FY2019 Budget Proposal were to become law, it would actually frustrate the core purpose of the EBM, by decreasing the total state and local resources available to fund education from FY2018 levels. To understand how requires a quick review of the FY2019 Budget Proposal appropriations for K-12 education.

As shown in Figure 1, under the Governor’s FY2019 Budget Proposal, in nominal, non-inflation adjusted dollars, the state would invest $98.1 million more in K-12 than it did in FY2018.2 That is not likely to provide resources sufficient for schools to move the needle forward on implementing evidence-based practices, given that it represents only 1.4% of the state’s shortfall in funding an adequate education identified by ISBE.
Impact of Governor’s FY2019 K-12 Funding―Nominal Dollars ($ in Millions)
TOTAL K-12       FY2018 ENACTED       FY2019 PROPOSED      NET CHANGE

Source: CTBA analysis of Illinois State Budget, Fiscal Year 2019 (Proposed)
Indeed, that year-to-year nominal dollar increase is so small that it does not even keep pace with inflation, using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).3 As shown in Figure 2, after adjusting for inflation using CPI, K-12 funding in FY2019 would have to be increased by $155.2 million, just to stay even with the FY2018 funding levels in real terms. Of course this means in real, inflation-adjusted terms, the Governor is proposing that funding from the state for K-12 should actually be cut by $57.1 million from FY2018 levels. Note this likely understates the real, year-to-year cut in funding for education, because the inflation metric used is the CPI. Since most educational costs are tied to salaries, the Employment Cost Index, or ECI, would provide a more accurate measurement of real change, and the ECI generally increases at a greater rate annually than does the CPI.
Impact of Governor’s FY2019 K-12 Funding―Inflation Adjusted Dollars ($ in Millions)

Total K-12                     FY 2018               FY 2019
FY 2018 Nominal         ADJ for Inflation    Proposed               Net Change

(Source: CTBA analysis of Illinois State Budget, Fiscal Year 2019 (Proposed); Inflation adjustment using CPI from BLS)
In any event, regardless of the inflation metric used, it is hard to justify a real cut in K-12 funding when ISBE’s analysis of the EBM shows that current funding levels are billions short of what the research indicates is needed.
And while adjusting for inflation reveals that the Governor’s proposed K-12 funding level for FY2019 actually represents a step backward for education—it does not reveal how significantly his FY2019 Budget Proposal could decrease total state and local funding available for educating students from FY2018 levels. That is because under his FY2019 Budget Proposal, the Governor would like to shift the obligation for paying 25% of the normal costs associated with pensions for teachers under the Teachers Retirement System that the state currently pays to local school districts. The Governor estimates this will result in $262 million of pension costs being paid by local school districts. 
He also proposes to shift 100% of the normal pension costs associated with the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund the state paid in FY2018—estimated to be some $228 million in FY2019—to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Obviously, if these pension cost-shifts were to become law, school districts would be forced to divert local property taxes that they were using to educate students, to instead cover these new pension cost obligations.
Figure 3 shows that after accounting for the Governor’s proposal to shift education-related pension costs from the state to local schools, statewide schools would have $547.1 million less to spend on educating children in FY2019 than in FY2018. Obviously, that would be a tremendous step backward in the fiscal commitment to students—and would frustrate the core purpose of the EBM which is to build the capacity of Illinois’ K-12 education system to implement the research-based practices needed to promote student achievement.

Impact of Pension Cost Shift from State to Local Schools on K-12 Funding ($ in Millions)

Net K-12 state level funding change from FY2018 Enacted to FY2019 Proposed, after inflation
Statewide charge to local school districts of 25% TRS pension cost shiftto be covered by local property taxes that were used to fund the classroom in FY2018
Cost to CPS in local property taxes formerly used for the classroom of 100% pension cost shift
Total reduction in year-to-year state and local funding for K12 education services from FY2018 Enacted to FY2019 Proposed
Source: CTBA analysis of Illinois State Budget, Fiscal Year 2019 (Proposed) Executive Summary; Inflation adjustment using CPI from BLS
Interestingly, the primary way local school districts could reduce the education spending cuts that would otherwise be forced upon them by the Governor’s FY2019 Budget Proposal would be to increase local property taxes. Which is ironic for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the Governor’s frequently stated desire to freeze or reduce property tax burden in Illinois. Sifting $490 million in pension costs from the state to local property taxes is an odd way to accomplish that goal. Second, Illinois is already the most reliant state in America on local property taxes to fund education.4

Indeed that over reliance on property taxes is the primary reason Illinois’ former school funding system consistently ranked as one of the most inequitable nationally—and provided much of the impetus for the bipartisan support of replacing Illinois' former school funding formula with the EBM. 

1 P.A. 100-0465
2 CTBA analysis of Illinois State Budget, Fiscal Year 2019 (Proposed), Operating Budget Detail (excel file).
3 CTBA analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index, Historical CPI-U.
4 CTBA analysis of U.S. Department of Education, National Center on Education Statistics, 2016. “Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2013-2014 (Fiscal Year 2014)”

Ralph M. Martire, Executive Director (312) 332-1049
Bobby Otter, Budget Director (312) 332-2151
Daniel Hertz,
Research Director
(312) 332-1481
Gaby Roman
Research Associate
(312) 332-1348

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Call Your Representative and Senators. Tell them to support The Stop School Violence Act, HR 4909

January 30, 2018

Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) is supporting the STOP School Violence Act, HR 4909, to create new federal funding that will bring efforts like our Know the Signs programs to schools across the country, so students and adults know how to spot and report warning signs of gun violence before a tragedy occurs. Help us pass this important bill by taking action today!

What is the STOP School Violence Act?

The STOP School Violence Act will give our states the funding they need to bring life-saving violence prevention programs to schools. It will help train millions more students, teachers, and adults to prevent violence and suicide in our schools BEFORE it happens. The STOP School Violence Act invests $50 million in federal funding each year to:

-Train school personnel, local law enforcement, and students to identify warning signs and intervene to stop interpersonal violence and suicide

-Develop and implement anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence in coordination with local law enforcement

-Train and operate school threat assessment and intervention teams to preemptively triage threats before tragedy hits

-Enable better coordination between schools and local law enforcement

How Can I Help?

We need to build support for this important legislation! You can help SHP pass the STOP School Violence Act by calling your representatives now and asking them to cosponsor the STOP School Violence Act to protect more children from gun violence.

Dial 202-224-3121, press 2 for the House and type in your ZIP code to get connected to your member's office.

Dial 202-224-3121, press 1 for the Senate and type in your ZIP code to get connected to your senators' offices. Remember, we have two senators. Be sure to call them both!

Here's a script you can follow:

First say your name and that you're a constituent. Then tell your representative's staff person that you urge the congress person to pass HR 4909, the STOP School Violence Act, because too few of our schools and law enforcement have access to evidence-based strategies to prevent youth violence. Mention that school violence can be prevented when schools and law enforcement have the tools to identify, intervene, and help individuals who display at-risk behaviors. That's it!

The STOP School Violence Act Our Challenge:

Each year there are hundreds of thousands of acts of youth violence, including assault, bullying, suicide and homicide, in our schools. In a majority of these acts, youth display warning signs or signals before taking any action.

Unfortunately, the youth and adults who observe these signs or signals do not always recognize what they are seeing or do not report what they observed. Eighty percent of school shooters tell someone of their plans (69% tell more than one person)* and 70% of those who complete suicide tell someone of their plans or give another warning sign.**

Through training about these warning signs and better coordination with law enforcement, we have a real opportunity to STOP school violence before it happens.

Federal Response:

Following tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, the federal government has funded short-term school safety initiatives focused on crisis response, active shooters, and physical infrastructure.

While these are important investments, we have not yet seen sustained strategies to curb youth violence or STOP suicides and violence in our schools before they happen. Our students, educators, and local law enforcement need the tools and support to take proactive and continuous steps towards improving school safety.

STOP School Violence Act:

The “Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing” School Violence Act, known as the STOP School Violence Act, is a fully offset bill that reauthorizes and amends the 2001-2009 bipartisan Secure Our Schools Act to offer Department of Justice grants to states to help our schools implement proven, evidence-based programs that STOP violence before it happens.

The STOP School Violence Act would

• Through DOJ: Authorizes the Bureau of Justice Assistance to make grants to states for training and technical assistance to stop school violence, aimed at the entire youth ecosystem: local law enforcement, school resource officers, school personnel, parents/legal guardians, and students

• State-based Grants: Permits grants to fund evidence-based strategies and programs for:

1. Train everyone in the school ecosystem - school personnel, SROs, and students - to identify and intervene to stop dangerous, violent or unlawful activities

2. Coordination with local law enforcement to implement anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence

3. Development and operation of school threat assessment and intervention teams

4. Coordination with local law enforcement.

• Using Existing Funding: Authorizes $50 million dollars for grants, fully offset by directing existing funding from the NIJ Comprehensive School Safety Initiative (CSSI) research and pilot program into this legislation, shifting the CSSI program from pilot projects into the next phase of full school implementation.

*Vossekuil, B., Fein, R.,Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzelski, W. , The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. US Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Programs and U.S. Secret Services, National Threat Assessment Center, Washington, D.C., 2002.

**Robins E, Murphy GE, Wilkinson RHJr, Gassner S, Kayes J. (1959). Some clinical considerations in the prevention of suicide based on a study of 134 successful suicides. American Journal of Public Health, 49: 888-899.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Rauner's budget plans to zero out health insurance for retirees and change public pensions

From the Illinois Retired Teachers’ Association:

“…[T]oday marks the Illinois Governor’s final budget address of his first term, and already he is again proposing balancing the budget on the backs of retirees, teachers and state employees.

“He has zeroed out any funding for the Teachers Retirement Insurance Program. In addition, he is proposing lowering the states cost to TRS by shifting cost to local school districts.

“Roughly $1.3 billion in proposed savings will come from shifting $490 million in pension costs onto schools, as well as a proposal to slash health insurance benefits for retired teachers and state employees. 

“The cost shift would be phased in at 25 percent per year over the next four years. Provided that the General Assembly enacts these cost shifts to school districts and universities, the state will save $363 million in fiscal year 2019 in pension contribution costs.

“The proposal also relies on putting in place a new pension plan. It suggests state worker and teacher retirement benefits can be scaled back, but only if they agree to the changes and are given something in return.

“Rauner estimates that plan could lead to $900 million in savings and would allow for a 0.25 percentage point cut in the income tax rate.

“Whether the governor’s pension proposal would pass constitutional muster is an open question, as a previous sweeping law to cut benefits was struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court [See Commentary at the Bottom of Page]. 

“Any pension change would almost certainly face a legal challenge, delaying any cost savings. The governor does not count that money toward his proposed budget for next year, unlike in 2015, when he factored the savings into his spending plans.

“The governor’s budget calls for boosting funding for education by $556 million, with about $350 million of that going toward the new funding formula that was enacted last year.

“The governor claims that this $556 million is a ‘record’ funding increase for K-12. After the pension cost shift, however, K-12 would receive an extra $76 million or so in net additional funding next fiscal year under this plan. 

“Universities would be expected to pay about $101 million more in pension costs, but that money would be replaced by an increase in discretionary funds, according to the budget documents.

“The proposal also calls for eliminating current programs for k-12: After School Programs, Advance Placement, After School Matters, District Intervention Funding, Parent Mentoring, National Board Certified Teachers, School Support Services (Lowest Performing Schools), and Teach for America. The total savings this would achieve is $28.9 million from the general revenue budget.

“Major savings come from the government spending side. The governor wants to remove health insurance from the list of items that are negotiated through collective bargaining with government employee unions. He estimates that change would result in savings of $470 million next year.

“Rauner also wants to cut the General Assembly and judicial budgets.”

Governor's Pension Plan vs Actual Certification by TRS of how much the state owes:

 FY19                          Cert. Gov FY19           Underfunded
 $4,466,178,109          $4,209,584,000          $256,594,109

Mary Shaw
Illinois Retired Teachers Association
Government Affairs Director


from John Fitzgerald of Tabet, DiVito & Rothstein LLC:

Kanerva v. Weems: Health Insurance Benefits Are Protected!

•       This was a constitutional challenge to an amendment to the State Employees Group Insurance Act which reduced State contributions toward health insurance costs for retired public pension system members and their survivors.

•       The Court held that this amendment was unconstitutional.

•       The Pension Protection Clause protects more than the pension annuity.  It protects all “benefits” of membership in a pension system, including health insurance benefits.

•       If there is any doubt about the scope of a constitutional protection for pension rights, those doubts are resolved in favor of the pensioner.
Kanerva and your health insurance benefits:

•       In Kanerva, the Supreme Court ruled that the Pension Protection Clause protects not only pension annuities but also “health insurance subsidies.”  (Kanerva, par. 49.)

•       In Kanerva, the Supreme Court invalidated amendments to the State Employees Group Insurance Act that “altered the State’s obligation to contribute toward the cost” of coverage by increasing retirees’ premiums and reducing the State’s contributions.  (Kanerva, par. 12-13.)  Importantly, the amendments challenged in Kanerva didn’t abolish a health insurance program.  They just made the benefits more expensive and pushed more costs onto retirees.