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This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Wednesday Madman

December 30, 2007

 

Housing Crisis? What Housing Crisis?

Just why do we need regulations anyway? After all, if we allow the polluters to police themselves; the banks to choose their own rules; and the credit card companies to set, and change their own rates and rules at will, what can happen?

Well, we've seen what could happen. Just how well have things like the Clear Skies Initiative and the Clean Water Act cleaned up our act? Not so good, huh? And how about those eased bank regulations that now allow giant companies the ability to stiff (not pay) their smaller contractors but penalize those of us who may have fallen on hard times due to health care bills, credit card debt or just trying to keep up? And about those credit card companies... miss a payment and your interest rate will increase to somewhere around thirty percent! Imagine trying to catch up with your bills when the vig keeps increasing.

The Bush administration-designed housing situation is probably the best example of non-regulation run amok today. Take a look at your home's present value and ask yourself if allowing banks, investors and fly-by-night mortgage companies a free hand in lending money to deadbeats and those whose home-buying eyes were bigger than their wallets the ability to purchase the most expensive thing they couldn't pay for was a good idea.

Then ask yourself why we, the American middle class, have had the buck passed down to us in the form of bailouts for those who either should have known better, or knew better and only saw their pot at the end of their own, personal rainbow.

And now those same lending institutions are going to start complaining about government investigations into their questionable practices. After all, in this, the administration of diminished responsibility, they were never held up to scrutiny to begin with. So why now?

"Law enforcement officials including those at the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York attorney general's office are scrutinizing whether banks and mortgage lenders helped fuel the crisis by misleading investors about dicey housing assets and then covered up losses when the markets turned sour."
-The Washington Post, Mortgage Probes Face Big Hurdles, by Carrie Johnson

That's why.

High risk borrowers are high risk not because they have lots of money to spend wildly, but because they don't pay at all. And when they don't pay for the small things, the ripple effect is limited. But the housing market is not a ripple - it's a tsunami!

The damage caused by the loss of one's home, en masse, can be felt not only in those who have to leave their homes' purses, and on the banks' balance sheets, but by all of us. When a home on your block has been devalued, yours is devalued, too, and that's a punishment which those of us who played by the rules didn't "bank" on.

"Just because you have a business reversal doesn't mean there's a basis for a government investigation. The kinds of things we're talking about here turn on valuation judgments and market forces. This is not the stuff of a securities fraud case."
-Robert J. Giuffra Jr., a New York securities defense lawyer

"Reversal", huh? I wonder if Attorney Giuffra's nose grew during that statement. And so it begins. The excuses, the indefensible defenses and the "I don't know's" are sure to follow. After all, one can't expect lending institutions to take responsibility for their own actions fueled by greed, can one?

This is the atmosphere pursued by those in the Bush "base" of "haves and have mores," and the reason their hopes and dreams were realized on January 20, 2001 and 2004. This administration not only turns a blind eye to misdeeds by the banks, the energy companies, no-bid contractors and anyone else "loyal" to the cause of getting richer, they keep their eyes closed until something worse comes along and hope we all forget about the former.

And something else always seems to came along, doesn't it?

How mad are you going to get when that ad comes across your television screen "explaining" the banks' situation? How high is your blood pressure going to rise when those same banks pay millions to bring "their story" to you, the viewing public, with actors in rags walking away from shacks saying, "but it wasn't our fault"? And what's your reaction going to be when you realize that it was your middle class tax dollars that paid for that ad?

Frustrating, isn't it?

As of now, federal investigators are trying to blame the little crook - the small lender, mortgage broker and such - for all of these dealings. But who had: (A) the money to back these deals, and; (B) the ability to escalate it to the extent to where we stand today? Make no mistake about it, this debacle falls directly on those at the top of the financial food chain and they're going to ask the Bushies to have the American middle class bail them out yet again.

And bail them out we will. Does anyone remember 2004 when all of those hurricanes hit the Florida coast? When the insurance companies cried poverty and cmplained that they couldn't pay for all of those policies they had taken huge premiums on for all those many years, it was us, through the good graces of "President Bail-Out the Rich", that gave those same insurers the cash, and allowed them to decide how to distribute it (or not distribute it).

Amazing.

And now we're going to do it again. We're going to bail out people who bought way above their heads; those who purchased with the knowledge that they can "just walk away" or make a killing; and the banks who don't want to own devalued homes just because they have the right guy in charge. And we're going to do it because those very same people who took our money are going to tell us it's the right thing to do.

Yuck!

"This is one of those situations, kind of like the Internet bubble, where everybody and his brother guessed wrong. There are going to be very strong and powerful defenses that most of these firms are going to have."
said Jonathan Dickey, whose firm defends companies, including Freddie Mac, against government investigations and investor lawsuits

The difference is that homes are tangible and real while many of these internet companies were basement organizations with no real business or business plans to speak of. And while it is true that many investors threw their money at the mortgage industry in much the same manner as they did during the internet bubble, the losses don't only effect them alone - they affect us all.

 

And if those investors have their way, it will only affect us.

-Noah Greenberg



ENDING THE DEATH PENALTY
by Victoria A. Brownworth
copyright c 2007 Journal-Register Newspapers, Inc.

The Coliseum in Rome, Italy, was lit up on the night of December 19th in solemn celebration of New Jersey outlawing the death penalty. Governor Jon Corzine signed the bill after it was passed by the legislature. The bill made New Jersey the first state to abolish the death penalty since the U. S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.

In November, a New Jersey state commission concluded that capital punishment does not deter nor prevent violent crime. The commission also found that too many variables exist in the death penalty process that could result in an innocent person being executed and was therefore potentially dangerous to the citizenry.

Since 1978, more than 100 people have been released from death rows across the U.S. after having been found innocent of the crimes of which they had been convicted. DNA evidence cleared many, as did appeals that revealed everything from drunken attorneys to witness tampering.

Some groups, like the Innocence Project in New York and a criminal justice group at Northwestern University in Illinois have devoted their attention to prisoners on death rows who have protested their innocence. In fact, after the Northwestern project orchestrated the release of three inmates from Illinois’ death row, then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan issued an executive order declaring a moratorium on executions in that state. Since he issued the edict in January 2000, there have been no executions in Illinois. Ryan–a Republican who had run on a pro-death penalty platform–noted that 11 people had been released from the Illinois death row since the reinstatement of the death penalty. He said the likelihood that innocent people had already been executed was high and that he could not, in good conscience, risk the execution of any other innocent people.

Of the 104 death row inmates released nationwide since 1976, most had spent at least five years on death row prior to their release. More than half had spent 15 years or more on death row. A majority of those released went on to sue the states that had wrongly convicted them for damages. Several men were released after nearly twenty years on death row.

In his objection to the death penalty, Corzine echoed Ryan. He noted that the possibility of executing innocent people had been revealed to be much more probable with these findings of the commission. Corzine, a death-penalty opponent, added that New Jersey should not be in the business of state-sponsored killing.

No one has been executed in New Jersey since 1964. The bill to abolish the death penalty was introduced in November after the commission’s report.

I have written about death penalty issues for over 15 years. I authored several series on women on death row, which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Village Voice and the Advocate magazines in the 1990s. I am an opponent of the death penalty for a range of reasons, starting with the immorality of state-sponsored killing.

But even if one sets aside–if one can–the moral element of the inherently immoral death penalty, then purely from a practical standpoint the death penalty simply does not work. There is no more expensive cost in the criminal justice system than death row inmates. The average death row inmate, regardless of state, costs between $1 and $2 million to accommodate.

This is not solely the actual separate accommodations needed for death row inmates, who are segregated and kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and require special guards and may even be housed in a separate facility from the larger prison. It is also the appeals process, which lasts, on average, for a decade or more, the costs of which are wholly absorbed by the state. Because death row inmates are dealing with capital cases, all appeals, up to and including to the U.S. Supreme Court, must be exhausted before executions can be carried out.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has been narrowing the scope of the death penalty. In 2002, the High Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded and in 2005 banned the execution of teenagers. (The U.S. had been, up to that time, one of only three nations worldwide that allowed the execution of children.) However, executions of the mentally ill are still allowed.

My objections to the death penalty are manifold, but in reporting on the death penalty over the years and going to death rows in various states and interviewing the families of victims as well as death row inmates themselves, the picture of why the death penalty is so morally repugnant was painted vividly for me.

The two-fold excuse for the death penalty has been repeated ad nauseum: that it is a deterrent, which it clearly is not and that it provides closure for families of victims, which has also been proven to be false, as executions are never carried out in fewer than five years after conviction and generally the death row inmate languishes for decades. Numerous family members of victims testified before the New Jersey state legislature about the endlessness of the process, noting that it would be easier to move on with their own lives if a sentence of life without parole had been meted out to the perpetrators. Others noted that they did not want their loved ones’ killer murdered in their name.

This response on the part of victims’ families reflects the changing perspective on the death penalty by the nation as a whole. The country is split on the death penalty, whereas it used to be overwhelmingly pro-death. And death sentences themselves are being meted out less frequently. In 1999, there were 284 death sentences nationally. In 2007, there have been 110.

New Jersey, like many other states, now adopts the sentence of life without possibility of parole as the most harsh sentence for aggravated murder. And the reality is, despite the number of people who have been found innocent and released from death rows, most of the people on death rows throughout the country are indeed guilty.

There are currently 3,301 men and 49 women on death rows across the country in the 34 states that permit the death penalty. But the demographic of those death penalty states should be disturbing to all Americans, whether they live in a death penalty state or not, and provide yet another reason to abolish the death penalty nationwide.

There are no wealthy perpetrators on death row in America. It is definingly a sentence meted out to those who cannot afford good legal representation. The trials of most inmates on death row lasted less than a day.

In addition to poverty, what denotes a death row inmate is also lack of education (the average death row inmate did not complete the ninth grade), low IQ and substance abuse.

Race is also a factor. In a series I wrote a decade ago, I found that the majority of death row inmates, regardless of their race, were convicted of killing someone white. This is equally true today.

People of color are disproportionately represented on death row. This is particularly true in the four states with the largest number of inmates on death row: California (660), Florida (397), Texas (393) and Pennsylvania (226). Pennsylvania has the largest number of non-white death row inmates of all states in the nation–70 percent. Texas is second with 65 percent. This means that there is a higher percentage of blacks and Latinos being sentenced to death than whites.

The event at the Coliseum, where gladiators once fought to the death, was indicative of world opinion on the death penalty which has been abolished in Canada, the European Union, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, Israel, a third of Africa and almost all of South America have wholly abolished the death penalty–90 countries in all.

The only democracies in the world that still maintain the death penalty are India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S., although there has been an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in South Korea for the past decade and Russia has not executed anyone since 1999.

All other nations in which the death penalty is legal are dictatorships, such as Burma, Cuba, Libya and Pakistan, or Islamic theocracies, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Sudan, or totalitarian regimes, such as China. In all these countries the death penalty is applied randomly: in the Islamic countries, for example, the death penalty is applied for consensual homosexuality and apostasy (converting to a faith other than Islam), while in dictatorships, such as Libya and Cuba, it is applied for attempting to promote a government other than the current regime.

But civilized nations as a whole decry the death penalty. When Turkey applied for inclusion in the EU, for example, their adherence to the death penalty became an issue; the country was informed it would have to rescind the death penalty in order to apply for membership in the EU. Turkey refined its death penalty statutes to include execution only in times of war.

No one refutes the notion that there are some crimes so heinous, the perpetrator should never again walk the streets. Which is why life without parole provides a reasonable alternative to the death penalty. But there can be no rationale for the death penalty in the U.S. or any other nation. It is a barbaric act of state-sponsored murder in which every citizen is forced to participate if they pay taxes. New Jersey took a bold step into the 21st century when it abolished the death penalty last week. There are 34 more states which need to do the same.



In response to "Another Mission Accomplished", regarding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the Bush administration's inability to foresee, prepare for or apathy towards possible disastrous world events, David McReynolds responds:

Yes, a sad, complex, and very frustrating situation.

Bhutto was not the unblemished democrat some of the media portray, but she had great courage and was, even if the chances were slim, the best chance of getting "beyond Musharraraf".


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-Noah Greenberg