Saturday, July 11, 2020

Virginia Gun Enthusiasts Create Better Democracy (and not from the cartridge box)?

Prolonged Debate on Gun Control Bills led to resurrection of Fair Redistricting Amendment. Here’s how it played out.

Gun Control Lobby cost Virginia low-wage workers income increase in ’21 and ‘22
Flush with Mike Bloomberg cash, Democratic leadership made gun control bills the number-one priority for the January & February legislative session. They did not anticipate pushback from citizens, local jurisdictions and especially the Virginia Senate, which required rewriting and reconciling bills.   Debate on an increased minimum wage fell off the schedule of the two- month legislative session. Two points apply here:
No minimum wage bill would have passed this year, without exceptional intervention by the Virginia Senate.
Had the minimum wage bill been discussed as a priority in January, before the COVID crisis, the timeline of wage increases would have started in July 2020 instead of 2021.
What was the exceptional intervention? In exchange for Virginia Senate extending the legislative session to allow a vote on the minimum wage increase, the House of Delegates would allow a vote on the Fair Redistricting Amendment.

Fair Redistricting Amendment
It is not easy to add an Amendment to the Virginia Constitution, and it almost died this year. Last year, in the uncertainty of upcoming elections, both parties favored a Fair Redistricting Amendment, the first east of the Mississippi River. It had to be reapproved this year, and the Virginia Senate was favorable.

The 21-19 split of the Virginia Senate, currently favoring Democrats, requires collegial relations between the two parties. Embracing the Fair Redistricting Amendment diffuses tension: The foremost prize of partisan redistricting creates an incentive for the nominally-minority party to take advantage of another member’s short absence- which did happened back in 2014. These absences from the legislative session may include sick days, important meetings for their small business, family weddings and hunting trips.

Democrats in the House of Delegates, who have a stronger majority, are legislating like there is no tomorrow- they even acknowledge the likelihood of a voter backlash in 2021. Republicans and a handful of Democratic legislators, held to their campaign promises, narrowly passed the bill through the House of Delegates this year. It would have been tabled without debate, had it not been resurrected as a bargaining chip.   

The Democratic Party of Virginia has since come out against the Amendment on vague civil rights grounds- the Black Caucus would prefer Democrats- instead of a bipartisan committee and Virginia Supreme Court- to control redistricting- even though it is likely to pass voter approval in November. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican in a heavily-Democratic state, has been looking to the Virginia fair redistricting developments as a model for his own state.

Private Sales without Background Check to become a Felony, Gift Transfers Unaffected
Virginia is a very economically diverse jurisdiction, and this bill did not sit well with rural and small-town voters, who made their voices heard in the mid-year municipal elections. With the average gun pricing between $500 and $1000, this new law to regulate private sales has hit at the heart of arguments over economic injustice. While the average resident of Fairfax County can afford to give guns as gifts, a gun purchase represents two weeks of income in a rural country.
The background checks are available from any licensed gun dealer for $15.00, or at a gun show for $2.00. Nevertheless, it will likely be challenged in court under equal protection claims.

Minimum Wage to eventually increase to $12 per hour, will lock in wage gains from tight labor market.
The minimum wage in Virginia is currently $7.25 per hour. Unskilled labor in low-cost parts of Virginia currently demands $10.00 or more per hour, so effects of stepped increases will not be seen until 2023. The House of Delegates sought to double the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour, a proposal rebuked by the Virginia Senate and Democratic Governor.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

State Capitals and Railroads: A Historical Symbiosis

Where’s your state capital? If on the East Coast, look for the train station. Railroads and majestic state capitals were built in tandem. As reliable streetcars were not available until the 1890’s, state capitals had to be located near downtown hotel and restaurant districts, and to mainline railroads reaching across their respective states.   

Washington, DC’s Union Station was built in 1906 six blocks north from the US Capitol. Most of DC’s municipal offices are located six blocks west in Judiciary Square. Simultaneous projects included a tunnel for trains to pass underneath- instead of across- Capitol Hill, a streetcar terminal for service to the old downtown, and construction of the restricted-access US Senate subway.
Legislators and staff in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia also walk six blocks to their respective state capitals. 

Even though all parts of the state can be reached in a day’s ride on horseback, Providence, Rhode Island’s train station is located at the back door of the state capital.
The capital in Trenton, New Jersey is a half-mile from the train station, which serves high-speed electric trains between Washington, DC and New York City via Philadelphia.

Although the station is located on the “wrong” side of the navigable Hudson River, train service operates frequently on the Empire Corridor between Buffalo; Albany, New York; and New York City.

The very historic state house in Annapolis, Maryland, dating to 1772, used to be located at the terminal of a rapid commuter rail line to much-larger Baltimore; but was stranded after the railroad was abandoned in the 1950s. Light rail service was restored over a portion of the corridor in 1992, but ends some 15 miles from Annapolis.

Then-Senator Joe Biden commuted from Wilmington, Delaware to the US Capitol by Amtrak; but passenger trains have not served his peninsular state capital of Dover, Delaware in decades.
Augusta, Maine sadly lost their train service, which used to run in front of the state house promenade. A similar fate befell Concord, New Hampshire, where buses have replaced trains since 1967. Nevertheless, there’s always talk of restoring commuter rail service to Boston.

Montpellier, Vermont still has Amtrak service; although the hilly topography put the station a mile from town.

Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut are served by Amtrak Northeast Corridor’s “Inland Route”, as well as respective state commuter rails.
Although few trains operate here today, Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital is also within walking distance of the rail line.

West Virginia is a young state, born during the Civil War. Three passenger trains a week serve Charleston, West Virginia on Amtrak’s sleepy and mountainous Cardinal Line between Chicago and Washington, DC.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Medgar Evers' 30-Year Trial

If a defendant is wrongfully acquitted, he is still a free man. This is a pillar of the American judicial system, even when it opposes other ideals like equality and justice. Such values were tested during the trial of Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers on June 12th, 1963.

Beckwith was brought to justice shortly after the killing. Due to the continued presence of Jim Crow racism, this case was designed to fail. In 1964, during the first trial against Beckwith, the local prosecutor pursued the death penalty, instead of a more probable term sentence. In the Deep South, it was not until the 1990s that white men were executed for killing black men. Predictably, the first trial deadlocked into a mistrial, and so did the second. 26 years elapsed between a second mistrial in 1964, and a third trial in 1990, in which Beckwith, then 73, was sentenced to life in prison. Was this a victor’s justice?

Contemporary writing suggested that Beckwith would walk as a free man on appeal. Beckwith believed that his right to a speedy trial had been violated, twice; and that he was facing double jeopardy.

Beckwith held that the 26 years between the second mistrial and arrest for a third trial was excessive; and that the 1,100 days between the 1990 arrest and his final trial was likewise excessive.
The State had to find that a Nolo Prosequi (Decline to Prosecute) issued in 1969 was not an acquittal; nor was it permanently binding, provided that in the State of Mississippi there is no statute of limitations for murder.

To the credit of the Mississippi Supreme Court in the appeal process, they were able to disregard the fact that Beckwith still held white supremacist views, and ignore the weight of social and political implications during the third trial and appeal in the early 1990’s.

By this time, the South had entered the “tough on crime” era. Racial favoritism gave way to a firm but outwardly fair hand. Any leeway given to Beckwith could be used by a future defendant brought to justice in a “cold case”. Beckwith, in poor health, spent the last seven years of his life in prison. His futile appeal, Beckwith vs. State of Mississippi, is often cited today in Fifth and Sixth amendment cases.

In 2009, a naval supply ship, USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE 13), was named by then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. A social progressive, he was sitting governor of Mississippi at the beginning of Beckwith’s third trial.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Good Intentions versus Bad Actors

My eyes were fixated on the Crew Dragon spacecraft this weekend. This launch was the epitome of the prowess of scientists and industry. A successful space program is the sign of a healthy nation. The war in Iraq had derailed George W. Bush's early presidential ambitions for spaceflight, but not before NASA funded summer camps for youths like myself. So nothing said it better that we were a nation at peace again.

This weekend certainly had the flavor of turbulent 1968-1969. Had I posted this sooner, I would've spoken too soon. Many of the recent protests over Floyd George's death have been orderly, especially during the sunlight hours. Others have been disorderly, characterized by arrests and the use of tear gas, but nothing beyond the pale. However, during the cover of night, there has been arson and looting of boutique shops and liquor stores. Peaceful protest is a keystone of democracy. Rioting has an ugly history of suppressing the rights and security of marginalized groups, the destruction of Tulsa's Black Wall Street at the hands of white supremacists being one of many examples.

This last point is salient, because this week has seen many privileged individuals joining in the destruction of other peoples' property. These rioters truly believe they are advancing the goals of social justice, as they destroy minority-operated businesses. If history is any lesson, neighborhoods damaged in three hours by the bricks and gasoline of "social justice warriors" will stagnate for three decades. It is the underprivileged residents who will live among the burned-out buildings and lack of amenities. This was the case of Washington, DC in the aftermath of the 1968 riots.

Elected officials and community leaders, in both parties, are abdicating the responsibility to mediate in civil unrest, which requires both understanding the concern at hand, while demanding the rule of law and order. This was shown by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's successful handling of Baltimore's Freddie Gray riots in 2015. Minnesota, the generally harmonious Scandinavia of America, was ill-prepared to deal with urban riots, and the genie left the bottle.

Among intellectuals, moral relativism has taken precedence over absolute rights. "Arson does not cancel out a murder", or "this is justified", they say. When this thinking enters political philosophy, inaction prevails. Learned politicians vacillate over 'systemic injustice' and 'inclusiveness', instead of  building practical affirmative action plans that would get immediate results.  This weekend, looting was not confined to inner-city areas, but spread to affluent, educated suburbs like Bethesda, MD.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Two West Coast Presidents

Did you know that just two of America’s 45 Presidents were born west of the Great Plains? Their names are Richard Nixon, born in 1913 in Yorba Linda, California; and Barack Obama, born in 1961 in Hawaii.

This trivia is less surprising if you remember that every President, except Obama, was born in 1946 or earlier.  In the summer of 1946, when Bill Clinton, Bush Jr., and Trump were born; Southern California still hummed on 50 hertz power instead of 60, television was a scientific experiment, transcontinental phone calls were expensive, and air travel in propeller aircraft was reserved for adventurous members of the 1%. The mean center of US population was at the Illinois-Indiana border; today it sits 350 miles southwest in Hartville, Missouri. As a foregone conclusion, a septuagenarian cut from this long-bygone era will be elected this November. The 2024 race will certainly represent "passing the torch" to a new generation.  

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Classroom and Coronavirus

In privileged quarters, students of elite colleges are asking for a “universal pass” on this semester’s courses. These colleges have returned the favor with Pass/Fail grading. (Anemona Hartocollis, NY Times, 3/28/20). Who are they to speak? Meanwhile, in the K-12 environment, contingency plans “tore off the bandage”, revealing deep discrepancies in our first-world society.

Internet access- Many families with broadband internet access face strict bandwidth limitations, which prevent full utilization of online meetings and classwork. Many rural households rely on dial-up internet, running over phone lines placed during the 1930’s Rural Electrification Act.

Technology- Among the working class, cell phones serve as the family’s primary link to the internet. Household surveys focus on whether or not a family has a home computer, etc. It does not consider if each member of the family- adults and school-age children- has a way to work online.   

Childcare arrangements- Among working-class and poor families, we might as well be back to the Upton Sinclair’s Chicago stockyards. Because of smaller and atomized families in a more mobile America, teachers have found that older children are taking care of younger siblings. In other cases, small children follow their mothers to attend chores outside the home. In certain quarters, teachers and the school system have been equated to child care providers; Kamala Harris was of this opinion.

Economic strategy for adverse time- This comes up in crisis management training for EMTs and fire squads: keep track of your receipts so the governor can hand FEMA the bill. Yet prior to this outbreak, the US had no clear strategy to handle the personal and small-business economic fallout of contagion. We are highly leveraged as a society, and run on thin margins as household budgeters, landlords, and business owners. Our savings rate is much lower than in Asia. Over the next year, displacement and eviction, as well as household consolidation into shared quarters, pose a risk of disruption to student’s learning.

Control of contagious diseases- Special protections for service workers, such as Plexiglas shields, were introduced too late. Outside of the medical field, transportation workers, police, and cashiers have been punished hard by the virus, with many untimely deaths. COVID joins a handful of other maladies whose patients receive care at government expense. Each of these diseases has a chapter in American history: Polio, leprosy, kidney failure (ESRF) and, until 1981, shipboard medicine.  

Monday, May 11, 2020

Coronavirus: Price Gouging Works for Me, but…

Panic-buying emptied the shelves of rice, canned goods, bleach, toilet paper and paper towels at the base commissary. Even the much-neglected Underwood potted meat was sold out. This was not a surprise, as every military family is required to have a nucleus of survivalist / prepper mentality (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape is the name of the mandatory course).

But the grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies in town were also laid bare. I thought of one place that hoarders may have passed over: the windowless urban corner store. Tiny and dim, small selection, but carrying all essentials. Including toilet paper and paper towels. They had a different supplier, perhaps the back of a family minivan or pickup truck: The brand names on the shelves were from Maryland and New York, not Lower Virginia. Or perhaps, living paycheck-to-supplement check, the neighbors couldn’t afford to hoard like the city gentry and suburbanites. More likely, the shopkeeper controlled demand by raising prices. Any big store or chain which took that libertarian step would’ve been pilloried by the press, excoriated on social media, and investigated by the attorney general. The corner store was small fry, probably selling 12 rolls of paper per day.

In the end, nobody ran out of toilet paper. Most consumers were able to procure their paper products through traditional means, as supplies were available, and at a fair price. Voluntary rationing and redistributing toilet paper from offices and schools to retail stores helped close the gap. As I only shopped once every other week, there was a snowball’s chance in hell that products would be on the shelf during the two hours a month I was in the grocery store. Paying a bit more for toilet paper saved me from making a special trip to the office, where that commodity is kept unused by the crate-load.