Is it time yet?

October 2, 2015

Another massacre on a school campus, this time in Oregon. On average, more than 10,000 Americans are killed every year by gun violence.

The solution to enacting some 21st century rules and regulations around firearms is really very simple; the barriers to attaining rational and appropriate rules and regulations which reflect the realities of life in our current world seem to be insurmountable; but they really are not.

The NRA is the elephant in the room. With a base of about 6 Million members (about 2% of the U.S. population) they are wearing a mighty big hat, but they really don’t have many cattle.

Yet, anytime there has been even a whisper regarding legislative restrictions on ammunition — even bulk sales of armor-piercing ammunition to casual civilian buyers — the NRA has mobilized their base to scream about 2nd Amendment rights!

The same is true about restrictions on the types of arms which are appropriate for people to own and use, for legitimate and reasonable purposes.

The ‘poster child’ for these 2 issues centers on the NYS SAFE Act, which was passed by the NYS Legislature in January 2013 following the unspeakable massacre in Sandy Hook (CT) in December 2012.

Where a majority of New Yorkers — rational and responsible firearm owners and users included — find no problems with the NYS SAFE Act (yes, there were some early glitches which were quickly fixed), there continues to be a vocal contingent of ideological zealots who cling to the thread of some inaccurate information they received about the 2nd Amendment.

The greatest obstacle we face in reforming gun laws in the U.S. is the NRA. They are well-funded by interested parties; they have developed an effective lobbying effort; and they know when and how to ‘juice the system’ to make their position both well-known and well-loved.

Where the NRA {closely aligned with Gun Owners of America} presents a loud and singular voice of renegades and gun rights advocates, the rest of the population has elected to form their own organizations — hundreds of groups with similar, but slightly different mission statements — thus wasting resources and diluting the message.

If only the silent majority could figure out where to invest some money and/or other resources to help enable the gun control movement to score a victory against the ‘2nd Amendment fantasizers’ I think most of us would write the check today.

Unfortunately, until the gun control people sit down and find common ground, and agree to speak with a singular voice, the NRA and their lobbyists will continue to dominate the national stage.

For those who are able to consider new or different perspectives, you may find this analysis helpful: http://www.vox.com/2015/10/1/9437187/obama-guns-terrorism-deaths

I am not a Roman Catholic, although I know many who are.

I wasn’t prepared for what Pope Francis had to say, nor how he chose to convey his message.

I am quite pleased to have observed and listened to most of the things Pope Francis subscribes to. No doubt that the Roman Catholic Church in America has lost a great deal of its luster over the past couple of decades for a variety of reasons.

I think if the American R.C. church (and many other religious institutions) can find a way to embrace some of the values this Pope advocates for; our country could come closer to healing.

Related to this observation, the John Boehner thing came as a bit of a surprise, and for a few moments, I was pleased.

Now that some of the background has been exposed, it seems that Boehner has tried very hard to create an environment where civil discussion and debate was at least possible.

It also seems clear that there is a vociferous contingent of ultra-conservative elected officials in D.C. who share a common thread: ‘Take no prisoners: it’s our way or the highway. We don’t negotiate or compromise, ever.’

I guess I knew before the Boehner announcement on 9/25 that there were at least a few elected characters in our Congress who are mean, rigid, callous and intractable.

I just never would have guessed that there were enough of these bigots and curmudgeons to create an environment toxic enough to drive John Boehner back to Ohio, for good.

I guess the Koch Brothers (and some others) are gaining some real traction from their ‘investments’.

Goes to show: You don’t personally need to wear the white hood if you can write enough checks to mobilize an army of fringe fundamentalists who are willing to align with your doctrine.

There are dozens – hundreds – of examples throughout history which support this theory, perhaps the most frightening of which is the rise of Nazism under the leadership of Adolph Hitler.

Perhaps the spirit of Pope Francis will engage and mobilize enough folks who seem to perpetually sit on the sidelines hoping that – magically or mysteriously – the right things will happen.

History tells us that the right things will only happen when people of good will mobilize in a positive way to stop the fringe fundamentalists from taking control of our economy, government and society.

As far as we know, The Donald is a U.S. citizen, and thus protected by our Constitution, Bill of Rights and subsequent constitutional amendments.

So, The Walrus has no contest to his freedom to say what is on his mind, however…

As a public figure, The Donald ought to realize that what he says may be interpreted literally or figuratively.

Some of his recent comments directed toward Mexicans seem to have energized a group of fellows who are no longer able to fly their Confederate Flags as openly as before, and had been seeking some new causes to help rally the troops.

Mr. Trump has recently been quoted making alleged negative comments directed toward migrants from Mexico (and Central / South America) as a primary contributing cause and source for America’s multiple issues with drugs.

I’m not quite sure what The Donald was trying to tell us, but it is pretty clear that the propensity for U.S. citizens to use “recreational substances” – alcohol, marijuana, peyote and others – predates Mr. Trump.

Prior to 1913, about 40% of federal revenue was generated by taxes and fees on alcohol.

Passage of the 16th amendment in 1913 (which created the federal income tax) addressed the ‘tax issue’ dependency relative to alcohol, and thus paved the way toward Prohibition.

Subsequent to the 16th amendment, income taxes far surpassed liquor taxes, providing solid support for passage of the 18th Amendment – a.k.a. “Prohibition” – in 1919. It banned the ‘manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors’.

The 18th Amendment didn’t stop the manufacture, transportation or sale of booze — it just shifted the activities out of the mainstream economy to the underground economy, where there were plenty of domestic cartels (families, gangs, mobsters, etc.) ready, willing and able to step in and ensure that the supply chain wasn’t interrupted due to some foolish Constitutional Amendment.

At the time, most of these cartels were populated by first or second generation immigrants from Ireland and/or Italy.

As Al Capone is quoted from back in the day, “All I do is to supply a public demand … somebody had to throw some liquor on that thirst. Why not me?”

Since those peaceful days, direct descendants of the Hatfield and McCoy families have joined forces to make and distribute what some consider to be one of the finest of American products, “The Drink of The Devil” — carefully made in small batches in West Virginia, and fully taxed.

For decades, our elected officials have pushed marijuana (and some other goods and substances) out of the mainstream economy and into an off-the-grid cash economy where no taxes or fees are collected, and thus any and all costs associated with oversight, enforcement, etc. are fully borne by those of us who obey the law and do pay taxes. All of this, Despite the lessons we learned from prohibition!

I never thought I would find near 100% agreement with the Cato Institute on any subject, yet this paper pretty much says it all: http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-157.html

Today, many corporations have taken their manufacturing, packaging and more menial tasks “off shore”. Why wouldn’t the domestic marijuana and narcotic distribution cartels follow suit?

Somewhere at the top of any of these current distribution networks is a domestic descendent of one of the original “Capos” – carefully managing his supply chain, and working very hard to ensure that his lifestyle is such that he is above suspicion.

Dig a little deeper, my friends.

This story really has nothing to do with people from Latin America who grow, manufacture, package and/or ship ‘illegal substances’ to the U.S.

The real story is right here, and hiding in plain sight: Which of our neighbors has been blocking legalization and domestic control over the distribution and sale of marijuana?

These are the people who have the most to lose once marijuana becomes part of the regulated, taxed and mainstream economy.

Back in the day, our Founding Fathers envisioned citizens who were leaders stepping forward to run for public office. These would be people who had made their mark, people who had accomplishments under their belt.

And, these citizens from our past were offering their wisdom and experience to help our nation and its people navigate through new issues, unforeseen problems and/or changes in the physical and/or philosophical landscape.

That concept – drawing on the experience and wisdom of our fellow citizens who had already made their mark – was nothing new. History reveals many societies around the globe – as well as the majority of Native American societies – which recognized the value of wisdom and patience gained through experience.

History also reveals what can occur when the focus shifts away from experience, wisdom and proven leadership to a model which values charisma, eloquence and oratory over substance.

It seems clear as I read and listen to commentary and responses from various elected officials on the attributes of the recent Iran Nuclear Accord, leadership is a missing ingredient.

While the main negotiations were between the United States and Iran, the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Britain, China, France and Russia), are also parties to the deal, as is Germany.

This Accord is not a perfect solution. Very much like the U.S. Constitution, it was developed over a rather long period of time, and it represents a series of compromises which neither side of the discussion is fully pleased with.

Today (7/14/2015), a rather large number of US elected officials emerged from the shadows once an agreement had been reached. These elusive folks (Boehner, McConnell, Graham, Rubio and others) seemed to be conspicuously absent during the negotiations – where they may have contributed some positive ideas and energy to the discussions.

They waited in the bushes until the Accord was announced, and they then pounced on any and every facet of the agreement.

Leadership? Wisdom? Patience? Each attribute seems to be sadly missing from this attack group – individually and collectively.

These are folks who have made their entire careers in the political arena.

Other than Mitch McConnell who spent 5 weeks in the U.S. Army Reserve in the late 1960’s, and John Boehner who served 8 weeks in the U.S. Navy, I have been unable to find any examples of experience, wisdom or leadership among this group outside of appointed or elected political positions.

Yet, no one should or could question these fellows on their charisma, eloquence or oratory skills.

Donald Trump: Update

July 13, 2015

Reliable sources have told The Walrus that Donald Trump may be behind the recent prison escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a notorious Mexican drug lord.

Although Mr. Trump has been extensively cited for some derogatory remarks about undocumented Mexicans who have entered the United States, it is believed that his remarks were just a cover for his extensive work with several Central American drug cartels which help to stabilize and enhance cash flow for the Trump Organization.

Rumors that El Chapo is temporarily staying at a Trump property in Chicago could not be confirmed or denied.

More to come….

Donald Trump. ‘The Donald’. ‘You’re Fired!’

The list goes on and on.

Yet, the questions remain: (1) Who is The Real Donald Trump? And, (2) Where is he hiding?

I don’t have enough information to delve into Q1 (at this time).

I thought for sure I had the answer to Q2! It seemed to be a ‘gimme’ – he’s likely hiding somewhere in Donald J. Trump State Park! Summertime. Great weather. What a great place to ‘hide in plain sight!’

Driving north out of NYC on the Taconic State Parkway, you will see the sign announcing the DJT State Park just before mile-marker 16. The sign was erected in 2006 at the twilight of George Pataki’s final term as NYS Governor after The Donald donated some 436 acres of vacant land in the towns of Yorktown and Putnam Valley to the state of New York to be used as a park.

trump_state_park

Turns out that the Park never quite got started (or finished), quite similar to several other projects The Donald announced with great fanfare and plenty of publicity.

Unfortunately, the park didn’t exist in 2006, and it doesn’t exist now — unless you view 436 acres of inaccessible wildland inhabited by deer, squirrels, rabbits, snakes, coyotes and other brethren of the forest – as a park. (It has been said that The Donald is particularly fond of snakes.)

Now, please understand – The Walrus is all in favor of open space. In fact, if The Donald had donated this property to NYS as Open Space, I might have a somewhat more favorable impression of him and his character.

Trump had assembled this land in the early 1990’s with the expectation he would create one or more private golf clubs. His cost of acquisition was somewhere in the $2 Million range. After being rebuffed by several government entities on the potential negative environmental impacts of shoe-horning private golf facilities into wetlands, wildlands and woodlands, in 2002 Trump – with great fanfare – declared that he was “fed up with” governmental delays and overreach. He stopped the application process for the golf course; and began marketing the property as a potential site for luxury housing.

By 2006, it was apparently clear that the property was: (a) over-priced, or (b) not suitable for development, or (c) all of the above.

So, instead of selling the property, which he valued at $100 million, Trump decided to donate it to the state of New York to be used as a park.

The bad news: the cost of converting these 400+ acres of wilderness into a state park, maintaining it and staffing it was beyond the realm of comprehension.

In 2010, the state announced that it would close this and 57 other park and historic sites due to budget constraints. As they said from Albany, “Mr. Trump did not give an endowment to improve the park.”

Trump’s reaction was fast and furious: “If they’re going to close it, I’ll take the land back. This was very valuable property. I gave it away at the height of the market for the purposes of a park, and I always believed that once a park is there, it would always be a park.”

Meanwhile, we’ve determined that The Donald isn’t hiding in Donald J. Trump State Park, because there really is no such place which is accessible by motor vehicle, only on foot or by helicopter.

And, we’ve been able to determine that The Donald is not hiding at his daughter Ivanka’s estate.

Apparently The Donald’s quip on national television a few years back left some people feeling a bit squeamish: “… she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”

Yikes!

We’ll keep searching for The Real Donald and where he is hiding, so please feel welcome to send any tips or leads to The Walrus!

Second Amendment Rights

June 19, 2015

2015. What a year! And, it’s not even half over!

It’s bad enough that we’ve had a recent series of dreadful outcomes which have involved black men and white cops; now, we have the case of a deranged young white male who has easy access to a firearm, and kills 9 people in a Church.

The NRA is all stoked up about “2nd Amendment Rights” and “watch out for Obama, he is coming to take away your home protection.”

I’ve read – and re-read – the Second Amendment, looking for a reference to modern, semi-automatic firearms; high-capacity magazines; armor-piercing rounds; concealed carry; open carry; background checks; etc.

I keep getting stuck on the phrase, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms…”

I keep wondering what were those folks thinking, back in the day? Why did they omit the phrase, “when serving in the Militia”?

Maybe they thought the concept was so obvious that to state such would be redundant?

In several decisions relating to the 2nd Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that, ‘Prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons, or on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, and laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings or imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms are specifically identified as permissible regulations’.

Not long after he retired from his service as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1969-1986), Warren Burger appeared on “The MacNeil / Lehrer News Hour,” (1991) and stated — relative to the Second Amendment — that it “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

All across Upstate New York State are lawn signs urging repeal of the NY SAFE Act.
Why? If anything, the NY SAFE Act didn’t go far enough.

I just can’t imagine any logical reason why gun ownership across the U.S. shouldn’t be coupled to (1) training and certification, and (2) physical and psychological testing and accreditation.

Following the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, there were a number of groups — led by parents of young victims — who promised that they would work collaboratively to promote a national dialogue on gun violence, mental health and school safety — with a promise of “real change.”

The parents and their supporters have been out-spent and “out-gunned” by special interests, most notably the NRA.

Where some of us thought, ‘the Sandy Hook massacre will be the turning point toward sweeping gun control reform’ — it clearly wasn’t.

Yet, soon — very soon — one of these recurring tragedies will become the turning point, the moment when the 146 Million registered voters in the U.S. say to the +/- 4 Million members of the NRA: Enough is enough.

Let’s stop this silly 2nd Amendment charade, and enact real, national 21st Century rules which create a good balance between responsible gun ownership and the senseless tragedies we’ve witnessed over the past several decades.

It’s time to act. Enough is enough.

Let’s pull the curtain back on Wayne LaPierre and his evil charade.

Bowing to extraordinary pressure from both the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish blocs, NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo has put his weight behind an ‘education Tax Credit’ proposal that is just plain wrong.

No matter how you slice this, it is not just wrong, it is also unconstitutional.

Our federal and state constitutions mandate certain services be provided to all residents and citizens, services which include public education.

Sometimes, economists view the shifting a tax burden required to provide sufficient funding to ensure provision of adequate and acceptable services from one taxing entity to another in order to create the illusion of a tax cut or a public cost savings as a “Zero Sum Game.”

This proposed tax credit program is certainly NOT a zero sum game.

The sole beneficiaries of this proposed tax credit charade will be those families – and their allies and supporters – who elect to eschew the free and publicly supported education system which is intended and expected to provide all children in New York State the opportunity for a “sound basic education,” defined as a meaningful high school education that prepares students for competitive employment and civic participation .

When Rhode Island adopted an education tax credit program a few years back, it resulted in a windfall for the state’s two Jewish day schools. Between them, their students received some $400,000 in scholarship money in the program’s first year.

In Florida, tax credit legislation has resulted in nearly $10 million annually for scholarships for Jewish day schools and yeshiva students.

Now New York, which has some 150,000 Jewish day school and yeshiva students — more than all the other states combined — has a chance of getting an education tax credit program that could deliver millions of dollars annually to Jewish day school families.

Another primary beneficiary of this proposed tax credit program will be supporters of private Catholic schools which have been plagued with declining enrollment and decreased core funding from the Church for several decades.

Offering a small number of self-selecting individuals the option to designate (Read:  Divert) up to 75% of their NY State Tax Liability to fund private religious schools is just plain wrong.

As the calendar moves forward toward an expected announcement from current NJ Governor Chris Christie on his candidacy as the potential GOP nominee for president in the 2016 election, stories about – and soundbites from – Christie abound.

With the radio tuned to news in the background, I listened to some of these stories and soundbites today.

I’m left feeling that Chris Christie has no moral compass. Christie is apparently willing and able to lie about almost anything and everything.

Here’s a soundbite from Christie’s appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, June 7, responding to recent comments from Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton who called out for significant expansion in voter access, calling out several prominent GOP leaders – including Christie – accusing them of purposefully limiting voter access in their states through policies such as voter identification requirements and limited early voting.

Said Christie: “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. In New Jersey, we have early voting available to people. I don’t want to expand it and increase the opportunities for fraud. Maybe that’s what Mrs. Clinton wants to do. I don’t know.”

Christie continued, “But the fact is: folks in New Jersey have plenty of an opportunity to vote. And maybe if she took some questions some places and learned some things, maybe she wouldn’t make such ridiculous statements,” he said.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/chris-christie-hillary-clinton-is-clueless-on-voter-fraud/

What Christie failed to note in his response is that it is more common in New Jersey (and many other states) for elected and appointed public officials to commit fraud then it is for a voter to commit fraud.

And, more alarming: Just 31% of eligible voters in New Jersey exercised their voting rights in the 2014 election. [http://www.electproject.org/2014g]. Seems to me that the real opportunity here is to address and/or eliminate existing obstacles or impediments to help increase voter participation, not creating more obstacles which have the probability of discouraging potential voters.

Chris Christie: You are both a phony and an opportunist, and it’s very sad that you were elected to a position of trust (Governor of New Jersey) and as such, (a) you have tremendous power over the infrastructure and inner workings of our 11th largest state, and (b) you have tremendous influence over the functionality and decisions of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the public authority which builds, operates, and maintains critical transportation and trade assets in the NY Metro area.

PANYNJ controls a network of aviation, rail, surface transportation and seaport facilities which annually move millions of people and transport cargo throughout the New York/New Jersey region.

We can only hope that the ongoing ‘Bridgegate’ investigation will soon expose your culpability in the ensuing mess that (at best) inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of bridge users on those days where access to the bridge was restricted; and (at worst) exacerbated economic losses well into the 100’s of millions of dollars through a ripple effect to commercial entities in the Tri-State region, and throughout the U.S.

I, for one, would be delighted to see you spend the next 8 years, or so, in the Big House, not any other house.

Despite the noble intent of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, public schools in New York State are more segregated today than they have ever been in the past 60+ years.

Whether we measure segregation from a racial, religious or economic perspective, it seems clear that some of our students come to school each day ready to learn, and other students face significant barriers which stand between them and educational success.

There are libraries filled with academic research that points to positive parental involvement as the primary force to ensure student success in school.

Most experts agree that when parents promote reading activities at home, the ripple effect goes beyond reading achievement, language comprehension and expressive language skills to positively impact pupils’ interest in reading, attitudes towards reading and attentiveness in the classroom.

The fact is: Family and home life have more bearing on student achievement than anything else.

Classroom teachers have an important role to play, but when confronted in their classroom by a majority of young people who are not prepared, not ready and not inspired to learn, even SuperTeacher faces a Sisyphean task.

From a purely mathematical (statistical/scientific) perspective, it is not possible to use a standardized test to compare groups of anything – including students – when the subjects of comparison lack a common foundation and have insufficient common attributes.

My point is that while elected officials, union members and many others are busy throwing mud at each other, the real issue of ‘failing schools’ has little to do with teachers, and much to do with economic segregation in residential housing patterns across New York State.

The 700 +/- public school districts in NYS serve some 2.7 Million students in some 4,500 public schools (including public charter schools).

Governor Cuomo’s office very recently released an extensive and well-researched report, “The State of New York’s Failing Schools”.

In just over 200 pages, the Report points out many symptoms of a public education system in NYS which is working for some, but leaving way too many students unprepared to become productive citizens.

The Report focuses in on 178 “priority” or “failing” schools in 17 school districts in New York. It says, “Ninety-three percent of students in failing schools are students of color and 82 percent of these students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Student achievement today at failing schools lags behind state averages in every category”.

Somehow, the Report did not really get to the core of the issue: How to address the concentration of disadvantaged and disenfranchised students in these 178 failing schools — just 4% of the overall number of schools in NYS.

While I think there has been some roll-back on the original proposal from Governor Cuomo’s office to tie teacher evaluations more closely to student achievement as measured by standardized test scores, I remain concerned that the debate around Common Core Standards and standardized testing continues to divide parents and other adults in New York State.

It is my belief that the intent of Common Core is really centered on a return to requiring that our students develop and use critical thinking skills.

For the last 40 years, or so, our public education system has relied primarily on Multiple Choice and/or True/False as a way to measure educational achievement.

The shift to Common Core, which relies much more on analysis and critical thinking, is a shock to many adults who were raised on Multiple Choice.

The Common Core State Standards is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know — and be able to articulate — at the end of each grade.

The standards were created through a bi-partisan, multi-state collaborative including teachers, school chiefs, administrators, and other experts to provide a clear and consistent framework for educators to ensure that all students across the U.S. have access to the information and resources they need to graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.

One key role for the elected officials in our NYS Legislature is to ensure that real facts about Common Core Standards and subsequent testing are conveyed and explained to NY residents in a calm and rational way.

Another key role for our Legislature is to ensure that sufficient resources – including new and emerging paradigms – are made available to the 178 priority (or failing) schools in 17 school districts in New York.

As Governor Cuomo’s report, “The State of Failing Schools” points out: It’s not about money.

Some claim that their magic solution involves an unproven model such as: Charter Schools; Teach for America; Say Yes to Education; School Vouchers; Private School Tax Credits; or one of many other ‘snake oil’ solutions.

We are so fortunate in New York State to have some of the best colleges and universities, and some of the most experienced experts on teaching and child development.

Why are we – the residents, voters and taxpayers of New York State – left holding the bag: paying the most of any state in the U.S. per pupil, and achieving mediocre results?

I don’t think it has much of anything to do with teacher quality or teacher evaluations.

I think our approach to delivery of public education in New York State is obsolete, and until we are able to honestly and openly evaluate the system, and to seek optimum configuration, we will continue to spend too much; achieve mediocre results; and have this debate long into the future.

Many thanks to those elected officials who have taken the time and put some attention to this critical issue, and please feel welcome to contact me with any questions or concerns on my commentary.