31 December 2012

The rich don't pay their taxes anyway

"You know what happens with this kind of tax the rich deal. That's why they've got accountants and lawyers. So the rich figure out ways not to pay, and you get stuck with the tab."
-- George W. Bush, Hudson, Wisconsin, 18 August 2004

The Republicans in Congress are set against raising taxes on the wealthy. It's like a religion to them.

I wonder if they ever consider the fact that the rich don't tend to pay much in taxes to begin with, because of all the loopholes.

As we learned during the presidential campaign season this year, Mitt Romney hides much of his fortune overseas, and paid 14.1 percent on his 2011 tax returns.

And zillionaire Warren Buffet once famously pointed out that he paid a higher tax rate than his secretary (17.7 percent on $46M compared to her 30 percent on $60K).

All things considered, I have a strong hunch that raising their tax rates when the Bush tax cuts expire won't bankrupt the rich, even though they'll owe more on their capital gains.

On the other hand, those of us who are not so fortunate will see cuts in our paychecks that could significantly impact how we live. And many of us are already struggling to make ends meet.

A Facebook acquaintance of mine, who happens to be disabled, recently shared his dismay with the fact that Romney has such a low tax rate, while he himself pays 28 percent on $36K per year. He pointed out that Romney has argued that he (Romney) pays plenty of income tax and will not pay a dollar more. I'm sure he won't, even when the Bush tax cuts expire. But my disabled friend has no such choice, lest he land in jail for tax evasion.

And, to add insult to injury, I'm sure the GOP would like to take a hatchet to this guy's disability benefits as well.

30 December 2012

Two New Year's resolutions for the state of Arkansas

I propose two New Year's resolutions for the state of Arkansas:

1. Fully exonerate the West Memphis Three.

2. Reopen the case and find the real killer(s).

The world will be watching.

On Christmas Day, 2012, the documentary film West of Memphis opened in New York City and Los Angeles. It will be more widely released starting in January. The film tells the updated story of the West Memphis Three - a trio of men who were convicted as teenagers for the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Presumed ringleader Damien Echols, who was 18 years old at the time of the murders, was sentenced to death. His codefendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley, Jr., who were still minors at the time, were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A prior trilogy of HBO documentaries on the case, titled Paradise Lost, raised serious questions as to whether the three were actually guilty. Indeed, the first Paradise Lost film, which captured the proceedings within the courtroom, showed something that looked more like a modern-day witch hunt. The West Memphis police had no physical evidence definitively linking the defendants to the crime. The best they had was a coerced "confession" by Miskelley which occurred after several hours of high-pressure interrogation with no lawyer or parent present. In his partially taped interrogation, Miskelley, who has an IQ of 72 (borderline intellectual functioning), kept changing his story regarding the murders - and his lack of firsthand knowledge about them - until finally, in tired frustration, he resorted to repeating the self-incriminating story that the police were spoon-feeding him. It seemed so bizarre to him that he eventually assumed it was a game - and so he played along. And he lost that game.

Echols and Baldwin were tried separately from Miskelley. Miskelley refused to testify against his friends, despite offers of a reduced sentence. And his confession could not be used as evidence against the other two. However, one of the jurors had learned of the confession, and there is evidence that he illegally brought it up during jury deliberations. Other "evidence" presented at the Echols-Baldwin trial included two witnesses who later recanted their testimonies, and an occult "expert" who had bought his PhD from a mail-order diploma mill and had never taken a formal class on the subject.

As in Salem 300 years ago, the trial focused on the occult. This was in the midst of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and '90s, which was later exposed as having no basis in fact. But back then it gave the cops - who were floundering in their investigation - an excuse to do something about Damien Echols, who had been making them nervous for some time simply because he was different. He wore black, he listened to heavy metal music, he read Stephen King novels, and he kept a journal of rather deep and edgy sentiments. Sure, these are things that a lot of teenage misfits do; but in the heart of the Bible belt, it's risky business. So the police and prosecutors contended that the defendants belonged to a satanic cult, and contrived the theory that the murders were part of a satanic ritual.

And the terrified jury bought it.

Fortunately, the Paradise Lost documentaries, which captured the trial and other case-related details on film, were widely viewed, and raised public awareness of the unfairness of the trial. People worldwide were soon convinced that the West Memphis Three were innocent. Celebrities including actor Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks held benefits for their defense fund. Filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, of Lord of the Rings fame, funded an investigation into the case which yielded important new exculpatory evidence, including DNA testing which would rule out all three defendants - and which points to the stepfather of one of the victims. New York landscape architect Lorri Davis, who had written to Echols in prison after seeing the first film, eventually fell in love with him, moved to Little Rock, married him in prison, and quit her job to work tirelessly full-time on the case. And better lawyers got on board.

It paid off - kind of.

On August 19, 2011, the West Memphis Three walked out of prison as free men after each agreed to an Alford plea deal. Under an Alford plea, the defendants can maintain their innocence while officially pleading guilty - a controversial deal that sometimes serves a defendant's best interests. Their sentences were then commuted to time served, and they were released. Baldwin had initially resisted the deal, not wanting to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. But he eventually agreed in order to save his friend on death row, saying, "This was not justice. However, they’re trying to kill Damien." (All three defendants had to agree to the deal or none would be released.)

The plea deal strongly suggests that the state of Arkansas was nervous about retrying the case with the new evidence. Surely the state would not have agreed to release the three if they truly believed they were dangerous murderers. And so the deal includes some caveats that allow the state to save face.

First, as part of the deal, the three had to agree not to sue the state of Arkansas.

Second, the state considers the case closed. The West Memphis Three remain convicted felons, and the authorities maintain that they caught the right guys.

And so, alarmingly, the real killer(s) are still out there somewhere.

As Baldwin pointed out, that's not justice.

Don't the victims in this case deserve better?

All six of them?

23 December 2012

'Tis the season for giving

I just finished making my year-end donations to a handful of non-profit organizations. While times are tough, and I don't have much money, it feels good to donate to some worthy causes.

This year, I chose the ACLU, Amnesty International USA (of course), and Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I wish I could afford to give more money to even more good organizations.

Before the year is over, please take some time to donate what you can to your favorite charities. Every dollar can make a huge difference in the world. And the effects will last much longer than those double lattes that you might have spent that money on instead.

16 December 2012

Sensible sportsmen should abandon the NRA

In the wake of the elementary school shootings in Connecticut on Friday, the talking heads and bloggers are again arguing gun control. And, as usual, I am sure the talk will fade before any action is taken, and it will all be put on hold again until the next shooting. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Why? Because the National Rifle Association (NRA) has somehow acquired so much power that our lawmakers are afraid to oppose them. Indeed, even Democrats are afraid to speak out for sensible gun control.

The NRA keeps talking about protection of Second Amendment rights. But what they actually call for is unfettered access to even the most powerful assault weapons - far beyond the handguns kept for self-defense and rifles used for hunting.

Then, when mass shootings occur, they drag out their tired excuse that "guns don't kill people; people kill people." They refuse to admit that you can kill more people more efficiently with guns than with most other readily available weapons.

Thanks to pressure from the NRA, it is now easier to get an automatic rifle than a driver's license. But since, as they love to point out, "people kill people," shouldn't they be eager to keep their beloved weapons out the hands of the crazies who might kill people?

Apparently not. This is despite the fact that NRA members themselves overwhelmingly support some kinds of sensible gun control.

Therefore, I call on current dues-paying NRA members to abandon the organization until it backs off from its extreme positions.

Sensible gun control will not prevent all mass shootings, but it will certainly make them more difficult. Is that not a worthwhile goal?

10 December 2012

On December 10, take action for Human Rights Day!

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. It is the anniversary of the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly. This project was led by Eleanor Roosevelt in the wake of World War II, to define a worldwide, inter-cultural set of non-derogable human rights.

It wasn't an easy undertaking. There were lots of disagreements, lots of arguments. But, in the end, this inter-cultural group, representing virtually all regions and cultures of the world, agreed on the 30 articles set forth in the Declaration.

These rights were determined to be the fair universal standards required to ensure the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, which is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The cultural diversity involved in developing this Declaration is a testament to its universality and lack of bias.

Still, however, human rights continue to be violated - right here in the USA and all around the world.

What you can do:

Here are some things you can do today - or anytime - to help advance the cause of human rights worldwide:

Read the UDHR and share its message with your friends, family, and social networks.

Take action online to fight human rights violations. Individuals can make a difference!


• Make a year-end donation to a human rights organization. Here are some of my favorites:
     Amnesty International
     Human Rights First
     Human Rights Watch

09 December 2012

Jeb Bush is new Constitution Center board chair

I love all the historical and cultural resources here in Philadelphia, and one of my favorites is the National Constitution Center. I've been a member of the Constitution Center for several years now.

So I have mixed feelings about the fact that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has recently been named as the new Chairman of the Constitution Center's Board of Trustees.

But then, his father also once served as Chairman, and the Constitution Center still continues to be nonpartisan in its displays, and bipartisan in its special programs.

And I admit that the choice could have been much, much worse.

Still, I'll be keeping an eye on things.

04 December 2012

This (and every) holiday season, say no to the Salvation Army

Today I drove through a nearby shopping center and, since it's the holiday shopping season, I saw the usual Salvation Army representative ringing his bell and asking shoppers to please fill his little red kettle with money.

I wanted to pull the naive donors aside and give them an earful; or maybe stand there and hand out anti-SA flyers. But I didn't have the time nor the soliciting permit nor any prepared flyers, so I came home and wrote this blog post instead - for now.

You see, the Salvation Army is not the kind and generous operation it purports to be. The organization - and its leaders at all levels - have a long and disturbing history of religious coercion, abuse, and intolerance.

I wrote a piece in December of 2008 that provided an overview of the issues.

That generated a lot of other stories from readers who showed me that the Salvation Army was even worse than the entity I had exposed in 2008. So I wrote a follow-up piece in December of 2009.

Here are links to those two pieces:

• December 2008: The Salvation Army's red kettle of trouble

• December 2009: The Salvation Army: It gets worse

Please just say no to the Salvation Army - this holiday season and every year. And tell everyone you know.

01 December 2012

For World AIDS Day, Hillary Clinton envisions an AIDS-free generation

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. On this date each year, organizations and individuals from around the world work together to call attention to the global AIDS crisis.

This year's World AIDS Day theme is "Getting to Zero", marking a campaign that runs until 2015 with the goal of getting to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths.

In observance of Worlds AIDS Day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a "blueprint for an AIDS-free generation".

Some excerpts from her speech:

Now, make no mistake about it: HIV may well be with us into the future. But the disease that it causes need not be. We can reach a point where virtually no children are born with the virus, and as these children become teenagers and adults, they are at a far lower risk of becoming infected than they are today. And if they do acquire HIV, they have access to treatment that helps prevent them not only from developing AIDS, but from passing the virus on to others.


First, let’s remember why, after so many years of discouraging news, this goal is now possible. By applying evidence-based strategies in the most effective combinations, we have cut the number of new infections dramatically. Just last week, UNAIDS announced that, over the past decade, the rate of new HIV infections has dropped by more than half in 25 low-and-middle-income countries, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. Just listen to these numbers: In Zimbabwe, a 50 percent reduction; in Namibia, a 68 percent reduction; and in Malawi, a 73 percent reduction in the rate of new infections.

So as we continue to drive down the number of new infections and drive up the number of people on treatment, eventually we will be able to treat more people than become infected every year. That will be the tipping point. We will then get ahead of the pandemic, and an AIDS-free generation will be in our sight. Now, we don’t know how long it will take to do this everywhere, but we know that we can do it.

I hope she is correct.

>> Read Secretary Clinton's full statement here.