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Our government in action, for good, and mostly for worse

Divvy Bike-sharing Program Off To A Good Start

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Yayyy, got my DivvyBikes key today
Yayyy, got my DivvyBikes key today

Jon Hilkevitch of the Chicago Tribune reports:

The Divvy bike-share service, less than two months old, surpassed the 150,000-trip mark Friday, according to CDOT. About 5,000 annual Divvy members are enrolled, at $75 each, and more than 37,000 24-hour passes have been sold, at $7 each.

More than 458,000 total miles have been logged on individual trips since the service was introduced June 28, and the trips have averaged roughly 18 minutes each in recent days as more docking stations have opened, according to city transportation data.

Also, the three-speed bikes painted “Chicago blue” have logged more than 11,000 miles a day in recent days this month, with some weekend days exceeding 25,000 miles, the data show, based on the start and end points for each trip.

The service, dubbed Divvy to reflect the divide-and-share nature of bike-sharing, is not designed or priced for users to hog the bikes on leisurely, hourslong trips. Customers are supposed to use the bikes for 30 minutes or less on each ride. Riders get unlimited trips lasting up to a half-hour; after that, overtime fees are charged.

While on the one hand calling the public response to the Divvy program “beyond expectations,” city officials have set a high bar for ultimate success.

(click here to continue reading Divvy bike-sharing program, almost 2 months old, getting in gear, data show – chicagotribune.com.)

You Always Have Options
You Always Have Options

I signed my company up for Divvy Bike membership about two weeks ago, wanting to wait until the opening night jitters were worked out, and have been using the bikes for short trips around my office. I’ve taken more than ten rides so far, experiencing only one incident of faulty station – but a Divvy Bikes employee was on hand and took my bike to a different location for me. Also once the station I was planning to use didn’t have any bikes in it, but the next station was less than 2 blocks away. One other minor issue I encountered was that the amount of force you have to use when docking a bike surprised me, and at first I couldn’t get the bike to dock, but eventually a fellow Divvy-rider did it for me. I returned to favor to another rider the next day.

I own a bike of my own, but having a Divvy bike membership encourages brief bike rides; times where I might have taken a cab, or walked, instead I’ll jump on a Divvy bike. Of course, it’s summer right now, and Chicago has been having a beautifully mild season, the real test will be in mid-January. I’d also like to be able to travel farther, this will be possible when more stations are installed. Currently only 160 out of a planned 400 are active, less than half.

Regardless, I’m happy to support the idea of more bikes in Chicago. More bikes on the road means less cars, in general, and also encourages the government to install more bike lanes, which encourages more bikers, and so on. 

Written by Seth Anderson

August 19th, 2013 at 9:16 am

Your mortgage documents are probably fake

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There Oughta Be A Law
There Oughta Be A Law

If you didn’t read about Lynn Szymoniak recently, you should familiarize yourself with her lawsuit against the corrupt mortgage banking industry. According to her research, some $1,400,000,000,000 of mortgage-backed securities are actually not mortgage-backed securities. That’s a lot of missing cheese!

If you know about foreclosure fraud, the mass fabrication of mortgage documents in state courts by banks attempting to foreclose on homeowners, you may have one nagging question: Why did banks have to resort to this illegal scheme? Was it just cheaper to mock up the documents than to provide the real ones? Did banks figure they simply had enough power over regulators, politicians and the courts to get away with it? (They were probably right about that one.)

A newly unsealed lawsuit, which banks settled in 2012 for $95 million, actually offers a different reason, providing a key answer to one of the persistent riddles of the financial crisis and its aftermath. The lawsuit states that banks resorted to fake documents because they could not legally establish true ownership of the loans when trying to foreclose.

This reality, which banks did not contest but instead settled out of court, means that tens of millions of mortgages in America still lack a legitimate chain of ownership, with implications far into the future. And if Congress, supported by the Obama administration, goes back to the same housing finance system, with the same corrupt private entities who broke the nation’s private property system back in business packaging mortgages, then shame on all of us.

(click here to continue reading Your mortgage documents are fake! – Salon.com.)

Some additional back-story here

Sometimes That's How It Works
Sometimes That’s How It Works

and what her lawsuit revealed is systematic, intentional fraudulent activity:

A mortgage has two parts: the promissory note (the IOU from the borrower to the lender) and the mortgage, which creates the lien on the home in case of default. During the housing bubble, banks bought loans from originators, and then (in a process known as securitization) enacted a series of transactions that would eventually pool thousands of mortgages into bonds, sold all over the world to public pension funds, state and municipal governments and other investors. A trustee would pool the loans and sell the securities to investors, and the investors would get an annual percentage yield on their money.

In order for the securitization to work, banks purchasing the mortgages had to physically convey the promissory note and the mortgage into the trust. The note had to be endorsed (the way an individual would endorse a check), and handed over to a document custodian for the trust, with a “mortgage assignment” confirming the transfer of ownership. And this had to be done before a 90-day cutoff date, with no grace period beyond that.

Georgetown Law professor Adam Levitin spelled this out in testimony before Congress in 2010: “If mortgages were not properly transferred in the securitization process, then mortgage-backed securities would in fact not be backed by any mortgages whatsoever.”

The lawsuit alleges that these notes, as well as the mortgage assignments, were “never delivered to the mortgage-backed securities trusts,” and that the trustees lied to the SEC and investors about this. As a result, the trusts could not establish ownership of the loan when they went to foreclose, forcing the production of a stream of false documents, signed by “robo-signers,” employees using a bevy of corporate titles for companies that never employed them, to sign documents about which they had little or no knowledge.

Written by Seth Anderson

August 13th, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Business,government

Tagged with , ,

Why The US Congress Is So Dysfunctional

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Your Radiant Squares
Your Radiant Squares

If you were told you needed to spend 5 hours of every day in office doing a certain activity, wouldn’t you assume that activity was the biggest reason you were hired for the job? The US Congress is dysfunctional for a lot of reasons, but this is a large one.

After the elections in November, Democratic Party leaders gave a PowerPoint presentation urging their freshman members to spend as much as four hours a day making fund-raising calls while in Washington, and an additional hour of “strategic outreach” holding breakfasts or “meet and greets” with possible financial supporters. That adds up to more time than these first-term lawmakers were advised to spend on Congressional business.

(click here to continue reading For Freshmen in the House, Seats of Plenty – NYTimes.com.)

Of course it buys happiness
Of course it buys happiness

Five hours a day fundraising, on average, probably some days more. How is this even considered serving the citizens? How does this advance the national interest? It only advances the moneyed interests…

The amount of time that members of Congress in both parties spend fundraising is widely known to take up an obscene portion of a typical day — whether it’s “call time” spent on the phone with potential donors, or in person at fundraisers in Washington or back home. Seeing it spelled out in black and white, however, can be a jarring experience for a new member, as related by some who attended the November orientation.

Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), now a top official at the Center for American Progress, said that the four hours allocated to fundraising may even be “low-balling the figure so as not to scare the new Members too much.”

Congress members make the dreaded calls from a room in the office of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or a similar one at the headquarters of the National Republican Congressional Committee. After votes in the House, a stream of congressmen and women can be seen filing out of the Capitol and, rather than returning to their offices, heading to rowhouses nearby on First Street for call time, or directly to the parties’ headquarters. The rowhouses, where Larson said he prefers to make calls, are typically owned by lobbyists, fundraisers or members themselves, and are used for call time because it’s illegal to solicit campaign cash from the official congressional office. Former Rep. Walt Minnick’s (D-Idaho) career in finance enabled him to buy a Capitol Hill rowhouse that he allows Democrats to use for call time. “There’s less turmoil and background noise” in the rowhouses compared with the DCCC call center, said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), who retired from office this year.

 

(click here to continue reading Call Time For Congress Shows How Fundraising Dominates Bleak Work Life.)

Written by Seth Anderson

August 11th, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Posted in government,politics

Tagged with ,

Investor Group Sues Richmond, CA Over Eminent Domain Plan

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plus ça change…
plus ça change…

Complications. This had sounded like an interesting way out of the national home owner crisis, but the banks are worried they will lose their paper money value. Of the 624 properties in discussion, 444 are still current in their payments, just that their houses assessed valuation is significantly less than the mortgaged value. Is eminent domain allowable in this sort of circumstance? The legal precedent is unclear, so presumedly, this lawsuit and similar is going to take a while to be settled.

Banks representing some of the nation’s largest bond investors filed suit against the city of Richmond, Calif., on Wednesday to block plans by city officials to seize and buy mortgages using their powers of eminent domain.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, could serve as a key test for whether a city can move forward with such a strategy, which would allow it to forcibly buy mortgages from investors at a price potentially below the property’s current market value. The city would then reduce the loan balance and refinance the mortgage to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

The legal challenge could serve as a key test for whether cities from Newark, N.J., to Seattle are able to follow Richmond’s lead.

City leaders in Richmond, a working-class suburb of around 100,000 on the San Francisco Bay, began sending letters last week to mortgage companies seeking to purchase loans on 624 properties and threatening to force sales via eminent domain if investors resisted. The city is partnering with Mortgage Resolution Partners, a private investment firm based in San Francisco, which was also named a defendant in the lawsuit.

 

(click here to continue reading Investor Group Sues Richmond, Calif., Over Eminent Domain Plan – WSJ.com.)

Back in Feburary, 2013, The New Yorker’s Tad Friend wrote an interesting overview about Steven Gluckstern’s plan1

LETTER FROM CALIFORNIA about Steven Gluckstern’s solution for the foreclosure crisis. At sixty-one, Steven Gluckstern has extensive experience handicapping risk propositions on Wall Street. This past fall, Gluckstern, the chairman of a San Francisco-based group called Mortgage Resolution Partners, was in the midst of a tour of Southern California. In between hasty meals, he raced his rented Mercedes to meetings with mayors and activists and real-estate agents and developers, trying to interest them in his company’s sole product: a plan for cities battered by the foreclosure crisis to keep their citizens in their homes.

It’s a tool so ingenious that Wall Street treats it as the gravest threat to civilization since the breakfast burrito. Even as America’s home prices have risen for six of the past seven months, twenty per cent of homeowners remain “underwater,” owing more in principal than the house is worth. It’s a national problem that’s concentrated in a few locales, most notably California. Mentions Salinas councilwoman Jyl Lutes.

In places like Salinas, a large part of the problem is not the loans that are held by banks. It’s the ones that were pooled in “private-label securitizations.” Under Gluckstern’s plan, a city would use its powers of eminent domain to seize a homeowner’s mortgage in court, pay off the bondholders, then arrange a new mortgage for the homeowner at a price much closer to what the home is actually worth. M.R.P. started its campaign in San Bernardino County. In June, the county and the cities of Fontana and Ontario established a “joint powers authority” to examine M.R.P.’s plan. The foes of eminent domain rose up almost instantly and assailed the plan. A coalition of twenty-six financial-service and real-estate groups sent a letter threatening lawsuits.

The opposition often invoked what’s known as the “moral-hazard argument”: if you reward people for risky behavior they’ll just do it more. By the time Gluckstern visited the San Bernardino area, last fall, he was a marked man. When Gluckstern dropped by county C.E.O. Greg Devereaux’s office, Devereaux ruefully acknowledged that the opposition had gummed up M.R.P.’s plans. Without quite conceding in San Bernardino, Gluckstern began stealthier campaigns, in Michigan, Maryland, and southern Florida. He hopes to convince the opposition that his campaign will continue.

(click here to continue reading Tad Friend: Can Steven Gluckstern Solve the Mortgage Mess? : The New Yorker.)

Mini Bank In Fine Style
Mini Bank In Fine Style

and from what I recall, it turns out the mortgages are often held by multiple entities because of the mortgage derivative market.

and it is unclear if these particular legal challenges are going to stand up in court:

Legal advocates of the eminent domain plan have said that constitutional challenges aren’t likely to hold up in court. The loan strategy wouldn’t burden interstate commerce “because it doesn’t prevent credit from flowing in any particular way,” said Robert Hockett, the Cornell University law professor who was an early advocate of using eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages.

“This is a bluff,” said Mr. Hockett. “It’s meant to scare city officials into saying, ‘Oh, who are we to argue with the big guns.”

Supporters say their plan would help not only specific homeowners but also the broader community by reducing foreclosures that are hurting property values and eroding the tax base. “It’s the responsibility of banks to fix this, and they haven’t, so we’re taking it into our hands,” said Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin in a call with reporters last week.

 

Footnotes:
  1. not available for non-subscribers []

Written by Seth Anderson

August 7th, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Free Congress From Grover Norquist

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Interesting discussion from Professor Robert Thurman, attempting to start a meme, questioning why signing Grover Norquist’s pledge to destroy the government is not a subversive, impeachable act. The professor has a point: signing an oath to an unelected organization whose sole purpose is to starve the “beast” of government is akin to signing an oath to violently overthrow the US Constitution. Unpatriotic at the very least, and maybe an impeachable offense. Why should we hire (i.e., elect) people who hate the country so much?

Give a listen to his ten minute speech, what do you think? 

The Oath of office1 reads:

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Americans For Tax Reforms oath against the interest of the United States Government reads:

I, ________________________, pledge to the taxpayers of the state of _______________________, and to the American people that I will:
ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses;
and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Footnotes:
  1. full name is United States Uniformed Services Oath of Office []

Written by Seth Anderson

August 5th, 2013 at 8:31 am

Posted in government,politics

Tagged with , ,

Illinois governor to sign medical marijuana bill

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Just Catnip
Just Catnip

Welcome to the 21st century, Illinois…

Though Illinois is drastically restricting what medical conditions and under what conditions a patient can legally have the herb, nonetheless, this is progress from the Bad Old Days when Mayor Richard J. Daley’s thugs beat people with billy clubs for smoking a joint.

But unlike Colorado, which has come under fire for lax marijuana regulations even as the state gets ready to legalize recreational pot use next year, drafters of Illinois’ law say it will be among the toughest in the nation.

Patients here can’t grow their own pot and must have an existing relationship with a prescribing doctor. To qualify, patients must be diagnosed with a serious to chronic illness laid out in the law, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma or HIV. It’s likely that patients would have to pay out of pocket for marijuana, as it is not typically covered by insurance companies.

The Illinois Department of Public Health will be in charge of issuing medical marijuana cards to patients and their caregivers, who could purchase and administer pot on behalf of those who are ill. Patients and caregivers would be fingerprinted, undergo background checks and must promise not to sell or give away marijuana. Workers at grow centers and dispensaries will undergo the same vetting.

The state will license 22 growers, one for each State Police district, as well as up to 60 dispensing centers to be spread across the state. Exactly where those growers and sellers could locate will be up to state regulators. Local communities could enforce strict zoning laws, but they could not prevent a grower or dispensary from setting up shop in town.

Growers and dispensaries will be charged a 7 percent “privilege tax,” which will be used to enforce the medical marijuana law. Patients will be charged a 1 percent tax for purchasing pot, the same rate that applies to pharmaceuticals. Additionally, growers and dispensaries would be banned from donating to political campaigns.

Marijuana use would be banned in public, in vehicles, around minors and near school grounds. Property owners would have the ability to ban marijuana use on their grounds. Employers would maintain their rights to a drug-free work place, meaning someone with a valid medical marijuana card could be fired for using the drug if their employer prohibits it.

Advocates argue that Illinois’ law is drafted tightly enough to prevent intervention from the federal government, which classifies all marijuana use as illegal. But the discrepancy between state and national law is already causing concerns for some military veterans, as federally run veterans hospitals say their doctors won’t issue prescriptions for illegal drugs.

(click here to continue reading Illinois governor to sign medical marijuana bill today – chicagotribune.com.)

Afghanistan Kush

Afghanistan Kush

 

and the qualifying medical conditions are currently listed as:

 “Debilitating medical condition” means one or more of the following:

  • (1) cancer,
  • glaucoma,
  • positive status for human
  • immunodeficiency virus,
  • acquired immune deficiency syndrome,
  • hepatitis C,
  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,
  • Crohn’s disease,
  • agitation of Alzheimer’s disease,
  • cachexia/wasting syndrome,
  • muscular dystrophy,
  • severe fibromyalgia,
  • spinal cord disease, including but not limited to arachnoiditis,
  • Tarlov cysts,
  • hydromyelia,
  • syringomyelia,
  • Rheumatoid arthritis,
  • fibrous dysplasia,
  • spinal cord injury,
  • traumatic brain injury and post-concussion syndrome,
  • Multiple Sclerosis,
  • Arnold-Chiari malformation and Syringomyelia,
  • Spinocerebellar Ataxia (SCA),
  • Parkinson’s,
  • Tourette’s,
  • Myoclonus,
  • Dystonia,
  • Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy,
  • RSD (Complex Regional Pain Syndromes Type I),
  • Causalgia,
  • CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndromes Type II),
  • Neurofibromatosis,
  • Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy,
  • Sjogren’s syndrome,
  • Lupus,
  • Interstitial Cystitis,
  • Myasthenia Gravis,
  • Hydrocephalus,
  • nail-patella syndrome,
  • or the treatment of these conditions; or

(2) any other debilitating medical condition or its treatment that is added by the Department of Public Health
by rule as provided in Section 45.

(click here to continue reading HB0001ham001 98TH GENERAL ASSEMBLY.)

 

Louis Armstrong with Gage

Louis Armstrong with Gage

Written by Seth Anderson

August 3rd, 2013 at 10:59 am

Airport Security Is A Sham

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The Truth Is Not So Comfortable
The Truth Is Not So Comfortable

The TSA is a joke, as is 98% of American airport security protocols. It isn’t that we passengers want unsafe flights, it is that the anti-terror measures taken are simply security theatre, and not at all an enhancement of our safety.

But it is absurd for the T.S.A. to demand background checks and fingerprinting for what amount to small modifications in the screening routine. The agency could relax airport security for everyone without gravely endangering the traveling public.

The former head of the T.S.A., Kip Hawley, has argued that the agency should allow passengers to carry on all liquids, in any quantity. As a safeguard against explosives, passengers would simply have to put their liters of Evian in gray bins and pass them through scanners. Mr. Hawley sees reasons for keeping footwear checks, but those, too, are of questionable value. Passengers do not remove their shoes in the European Union, or even in Israel, one of the world’s most security-conscious countries, with a famously stringent screening process.

It is time to stop pretending that annoying protocols like these are all that stand between us and devastation. The most effective security innovation post-9/11 was also the simplest: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, which has made it virtually impossible to hijack an aircraft.

As things stand, the T.S.A. asks its officers to enforce rules of questionable utility while giving them remarkably little discretion; they’re more like hall monitors than intelligence personnel. That is a huge waste of human talent and a source of inefficiency. At Heathrow Airport in London, passengers need to remove their shoes only if asked to do so by security officers. Imagine that: a screening agent entrusted with the solemn power to wave through a teenager in flip-flops en route to Honolulu.

(click here to continue reading Airport Security Without the Hassle – NYTimes.com.)

Ready For Take Off
Ready For Take Off

Kip Hawley, the former head of TSA, admits what we knew, the TSA was more concerned about confiscating our nail clippers than stopping a terror incident:

More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.

The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.

By the time of my arrival, the agency was focused almost entirely on finding prohibited items. Constant positive reinforcement on finding items like lighters had turned our checkpoint operations into an Easter-egg hunt. When we ran a test, putting dummy bomb components near lighters in bags at checkpoints, officers caught the lighters, not the bomb parts.

I wanted to reduce the amount of time that officers spent searching for low-risk objects, but politics intervened at every turn. Lighters were untouchable, having been banned by an act of Congress. And despite the radically reduced risk that knives and box cutters presented in the post-9/11 world, allowing them back on board was considered too emotionally charged for the American public.

 

(click here to continue reading Why Airport Security Is Broken—And How to Fix It – WSJ.com.)

Written by Seth Anderson

July 28th, 2013 at 8:50 am

Posted in government

Tagged with ,

Cities Need to Weigh Costs of Private Partnerships

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The city is sucking the life out of you and you just give coins
The city is sucking the life out of you and you just give coins

The parking meter debacle will always be Mayor Daley’s legacy, and a stain on Chicago’s history. Daley made this decision, rammed it through a compliant City Council, and then decided not to run for Mayor again, leaving behind a budget in shambles. 

An after-the-fact investigation (PDF) by the city’s inspector general concluded that the decision to enter the lease contract lacked “meaningful public review” and neglected the city’s long-term interests to solve a short-term budget crisis. Specifically, it found that “the city was paid, conservatively, $974 million less for this 75-year lease than the city would have received from 75 years of parking-meter revenue.” That’s nearly $1 billion that could have been used for better police and fire protection, longer library hours and many other services that would benefit the public good rather than private profits. By Dec. 31, 2009, Chicago had only $180 million left from the $1.15 billion parking meter deal, forcing the city to consider alternative sources of revenue rather than relying on long-term reserve funds generated by the parking meter lease.

Parking rates increased to as much as $8 for two hours. The initial contract required seven-day-a-week paid parking. The city was able to negotiate out of that requirement but in exchange had to extend paid parking until 10 p.m. Downtown business owners have blamed the increase in rates for a decrease in economic activity.

Taxpayers are further harmed by the contract’s fine print, which says that they must reimburse Morgan Stanley and its Qatar-based business partner for any time the space is used for anything other than parking — including parades and festivals. The city is prevented from performing routine road maintenance that would occupy a parking space on all but a few days a year without paying a penalty.

Perhaps most egregious, Chicago cannot build parking lots for the entire duration of the contract because they might compete with the outsourced parking meters.

In fact, the “noncompete” and “compensation” clauses mean the city won’t be able to make, for 75 years, fundamental economic development, land use or environmental policy decisions — anything that would affect the revenue of the parking company. Roderick Sawyer, alderman for Chicago’s Sixth Ward, has called this parking privatization scheme “outrageous for taxpayers, undemocratic, and un-American.”

(click here to continue reading Cities Need to Weigh Costs of Private Partnerships – NYTimes.com.)

Mayor Emanuel
Mayor Emanuel

Of course, the experience of privatization hasn’t stopped the current mayor from selling off more of the city’s assets as quickly as he can find bidders.

A preliminary agreement for a 62-year lease, not yet spelled out in a contract, calls for Denver-based transportation behemoth the Broe Group to invest a minimum of $100 million, and perhaps as much as $500 million, over the next 10 years in the port to modernize its infrastructure and draw new business. In return, Broe would retain 90 cents of every dollar in new revenue generated by port operations, with the remaining 10 cents going back to the port district, a hybrid city/state entity. Broe also will pay the agency $1 million a year.

The shared revenue would be used to pay down the district’s debt, around $30 million, and its pension liability, around $5 million, Forde said.

Emanuel said the project ultimately would create 1,000 new jobs.

The district’s board approved the framework Friday and authorized Forde to negotiate the contract, which could take about 60 days. The district anticipates port improvement work would begin next year.

The move to private management is the latest step in that direction by local and state government, and bears some resemblance to the privatization of management at the McCormick Place convention center. In both instances, public boards appointed by the mayor and governor will continue to have oversight.

A major question is whether such a deal robs the public agency of potential future revenue — a major criticism of the city of Chicago’s privatization of parking meter operations. Currently, the district’s operations are supported entirely by rent and fee payments.

Transportation expert Joe Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University, said such a negative scenario is possible, in theory, if the industrial segment of the economy were to take off, robbing government of revenue.

(click here to continue reading Private operator Broe Group to invest in Port of Chicago – chicagotribune.com.)

Increased Risks
Increased Risks

and you have to wonder at the timing of articles like this:

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Sunday that a private company would take over management of the Port of Chicago on the city’s Southeast Side, it was evident port operations were not shipshape. For one thing, the port lost money every year for the past decade, until last year.

Now it’s clear the port — run by a government authority — was more deeply troubled.

A blistering 155-page report by the Illinois Auditor General released this week details instances of rampant mismanagement at the port, sloppy record-keeping, issuance of no-bid contracts for sizable purchases and generally poor oversight by the Illinois International Port District. The district owns and operates the Port of Chicago as a landlord, leasing land, buildings and docks to private operators.

The report details numerous shortcomings in how the port operated, from big-picture failings such as having no long-term strategic plan for developing the port, to day-to-day operating failures, such as not having written leases with some tenants and many instances of poor or non-existent record-keeping.

It noted the district’s policies governing use of port facilities and services, including rates for dock and wharf fees, hadn’t been updated in 30 years, since April 1983, also noting the rates are the lowest among several comparable ports.

(click here to continue reading Audit of state port authority turns up widespread mismanagement – chicagotribune.com.)

Written by Seth Anderson

July 26th, 2013 at 8:29 am

Welfare for the Wealthy, Corn Cobs for the Poor

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Sprang from Shame and Pride
Sprang from Shame and Pride

As a follow up to Paul Krugman’s outrage re the Right’s push toward more food insecurity for citizens of America, Mark Bittman adds his own…

The critically important Farm Bill1 is impenetrably arcane, yet as it worms its way through Congress, Americans who care about justice, health or the environment can parse enough of it to become outraged.

The legislation costs around $100 billion annually, determining policies on matters that are strikingly diverse. Because it affects foreign trade and aid, agricultural and nutritional research, and much more, it has global implications.

The Farm Bill finances food stamps (officially SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the subsidies that allow industrial ag and monoculture — the “spray and pray” style of farming — to maintain their grip on the food “system.”

…The current versions of the Farm Bill in the Senate (as usual, not as horrible as the House) and the House (as usual, terrifying) could hardly be more frustrating. The House is proposing $20 billion in cuts to SNAP — equivalent, says Beckmann, to “almost half of all the charitable food assistance that food banks and food charities provide to people in need.2

(click here to continue reading Welfare for the Wealthy – NYTimes.com.)

Exposed and Juicy
Exposed and Juicy

Sadly, I doubt much will change, the Christian Taliban currently calling the shots in the Republican Party is too opposed to Christian principles as espoused by Christ: you know, ones about feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick. In stark contrast to the teachings of Christ, we instead have evil hypocrites like Congressman Stephen Fincher:

This pits the ability of poor people to eat — not well, but sort of enough — against the production of agricultural commodities. That would be a difficult choice if the subsidies were going to farmers who could be crushed by failure, but in reality most direct payments go to those who need them least.

Among them is Congressman Stephen Fincher, Republican of Tennessee, who justifies SNAP cuts by quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

Even if this quote were not taken out of context — whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians was chastising not the poor but those who’d stopped working in anticipation of the second coming — Fincher ignores the fact that Congress is a secular body that supposedly doesn’t base policy on an ancient religious text that contradicts itself more often than not. Not that one needs to break a sweat countering his “argument,” but 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, and in 2010, the U.S.D.A. reported that as many as 41 percent are working poor.

This would be just another amusing/depressing example of an elected official ignoring a huge part of his constituency (about one in seven Americans rely on food stamps, though it’s one in five in Tennessee, the second highest rate in the South), were not Fincher himself a hypocrite.

For the God-fearing Fincher is one of the largest recipients of U.S.D.A. farm subsidies in Tennessee history; he raked in $3.48 million in taxpayer cash from 1999 to 2012, $70,574 last year alone. The average SNAP recipient in Tennessee gets $132.20 in food aid a month; Fincher received $193 a day. (You can eat pretty well on that.) [4]

Fincher is not alone in disgrace, even among his Congressional colleagues, but he makes a lovely poster boy for a policy that steals taxpayer money from the poor and so-called middle class to pay the rich, while propping up a form of agriculture that’s unsustainable and poisonous.

If there were a god, publicly pious devils like Rep. Fincher would be zapped by lightning, or at least be forced to give back the $3,483,824 he’s collected from the federal government. Instead, they continue to get corporate welfare, and cash from lobbyists to continue the scheme, and the ability to set our national policy. In Rep. Fincher’s world, those children who rely upon food stamps should go to work, preferably in a coal mine or as chimney sweeps.

Dance of the Devil Corn
Dance of the Devil Corn

From USA Today last year:

Who gets food stamps?

The most recent Department of Agriculture report on the general characteristics of the SNAP program’s beneficiaries says that in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010:

••47% of beneficiaries were children under age 18.

••8% were age 60 or older.

••41% lived in a household with earnings from a job — the so-called “working poor.”

••The average household received a monthly benefit of $287.

••36% were white (non-Hispanic), 22% were African American (non-Hispanic) and 10% were Hispanic.

Update, Feb. 5: USDA data understate these figures, however, because participants are not required to state their race or ethnic background. As a result, 18.9% are listed as “race unknown.” A more accurate estimate of the racial and ethnic composition of food-stamp recipients can be drawn from U.S. Census data, based on a sample of households surveyed each year in the American Community Survey.

For 2010, Census data show the following for households that reported getting food stamp assistance during the year:

•49% were white (non-Hispanic); 26% were black or African American; and 20% were Hispanic (of any race).

Note that Census data somewhat understate the total number of persons receiving food stamps, compared with the more accurate head count from USDA, which is based on actual benefit payments. Survey participants may be reluctant to state that they have received public assistance during the year. So the Census figures on race and ethnic background can’t be guaranteed to be completely accurate. But we judge the Census figures to be a better approximation of reality regarding race and ethnic background than USDA figures.

(click here to continue reading Fact check: Gingrich’s faulty food-stamp claim – USATODAY.com.)

and then there’s this little bit of trickery:

Knowing that direct subsidy payments are under the gun, our clever and cynical representatives are offering a bait-and-switch policy that will make things worse, and largely replace subsidy payments with an enhanced form of crop insurance — paid for by us, of course — which will further reduce risks for commodity farmers. As Craig Cox explained, “The proposed crop insurance would allow — no, encourage — big farmers to plant corn on hillsides, in flood-threatened areas, even in drought-stricken areas, with subsidized premiums and deductibles, and see a big payout if” — should we say “when”? — “the crop fails or is damaged.”

You should get such a deal on insurance: the premiums and deductibles are subsidized and there’s no limit to what can be paid, so bigger farms and bigger risks reap bigger rewards in the event of failure, even if that was a failure of judgment.

Footnotes:
  1. This year going by the fun names of “Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act” (House version) and “Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act” (Senate). Note that the titles tell us what matters to each of these bodies, and that food doesn’t cut it in the House. []
  2. “People in need,” by the way, outnumber food stamp recipients, since not everyone eligible for food stamps signs up. So really it’s a bit worse than it sounds, and it sounds bad enough. []

Written by Seth Anderson

June 6th, 2013 at 9:28 am

The Misguided War Against Food Stamps

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Snappy Snaps
Snappy Snaps

Dr. Paul Krugman writes about the latest Republican culture war: against Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a/k/a food stamps. First, some reasons why SNAP is good for our nation:

Food stamps have played an especially useful — indeed, almost heroic — role in recent years. In fact, they have done triple duty.

First, as millions of workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, many families turned to food stamps to help them get by — and while food aid is no substitute for a good job, it did significantly mitigate their misery. Food stamps were especially helpful to children who would otherwise be living in extreme poverty, defined as an income less than half the official poverty line.

But there’s more. Why is our economy depressed? Because many players in the economy slashed spending at the same time, while relatively few players were willing to spend more. And because the economy is not like an individual household — your spending is my income, my spending is your income — the result was a general fall in incomes and plunge in employment. We desperately needed (and still need) public policies to promote higher spending on a temporary basis — and the expansion of food stamps, which helps families living on the edge and let them spend more on other necessities, is just such a policy.

Indeed, estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue.

Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.

(click here to continue reading From the Mouths of Babes – NYTimes.com.)

I’d add that a fabulously wealthy nation such as ours should be able to feed everyone. We have the food, frequently rotting in warehouses, or shipped away to underdeveloped nations. Why not feed our own people in need? The truth is most people don’t want to have to depend upon hand-outs, and would rather be able to earn their own bread.1 Sure, now and again people will abuse the system, but so what? Bankers abused our capitalist economy, we didn’t collectively decide to eliminate banks. 

Jerk City
Jerk City

More Krugman:

So what do Republicans want to do with this paragon of programs? First, shrink it; then, effectively kill it.

The shrinking part comes from the latest farm bill released by the House Agriculture Committee (for historical reasons, the food stamp program is administered by the Agriculture Department). That bill would push about two million people off the program. You should bear in mind, by the way, that one effect of the sequester has been to pose a serious threat to a different but related program [WIC] that provides nutritional aid to millions of pregnant mothers, infants, and children. Ensuring that the next generation grows up nutritionally deprived — now that’s what I call forward thinking.

And why must food stamps be cut? We can’t afford it, say politicians like Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican of Tennessee, who backed his position with biblical quotations — and who also, it turns out, has personally received millions in farm subsidies over the years.

…and the saddest part is Rep Fincher could continue to slurp at the lobbyist trough of agribusinesses without a hint of shame.

Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said that Mr. Fincher was being hypocritical. “Not only is he advocating deep cuts to other people’s money while he is getting subsidies, he also voted to increase the subsidies that he benefits from,” Mr. Faber said.

So you say

So you say 

I don’t like corporations getting free cheese, but if agribusinesses excess products were purchased by the government and incorporated into SNAP and WIC, wouldn’t we all benefit? Even slugs like Rep. Fincher?

Footnotes:
  1. I speak from experience; my family was poor enough to qualify for free federally-subsidized lunches when I was in grades 7-11. But once we didn’t need that assistance, we stopped taking it. []

Written by Seth Anderson

May 31st, 2013 at 7:13 am

Illinois sues over business letter scam from Corporate Records Service

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This Is Not A Government Document
This Is Not A Government Document

Amusingly, I received a letter from Corporate Records Service such as described by Ms. Madigan earlier today, and the envelope amused me enough to take the above photograph. I laughed, took the photo, and discarded the entire thing into my recycling bin. However, I did retrieve it just now, if anyone wants a copy…

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has filed suit against a company [Corporate Records Service] for allegedly conning businesses into paying unnecessary fees with an official-looking letter.

The bogus letters instructed companies to pay a $125 fee for an “annual minutes records form.” Madigan’s office says the letters were made to look like they were from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.

Madigan says companies can toss those letters in the garbage. The fee isn’t required by Illinois law.

(click here to continue reading Illinois sues over business letter scam – Springfield, IL – The State Journal-Register.)

via (on Flickr).

I should have taken a clearer photo, but not worth it to take a second.

Written by Seth Anderson

May 29th, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Posted in government

Tagged with , ,

Government Disaster Relief Should Be Automatic

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Sadly, the idea that government is a problem has consumed American politics to the point that it is ridiculous. Politicians decry the very job they are requesting, then once in office, continue the dismantling of the government from the inside, defunding agencies, reducing government income, and so on. This is often a right wing concept, unfortunately, not exclusively. The hypocrisy is more rank when natural disaster relief becomes a television talking point, such as when enemies of the civilized world like Senator Tom Coburn demand national spending cuts to offset Oklahoma disaster relief, but when this proved to be unpopular with his fellow Senators1, then there were mealy-mouthed phrases from co-conspirator Senator James Inhofe about how Hurricane Sandy relief was filled with pork, and relief for Oklahoma is totally, totally different. 

Remember a day when people became politicians to help their nation? Not line their pockets and their friends pockets?2

Talk about taking the country back, I’d like to take the government away from those who would destroy it. The entire point of having a civilization is to collectivize responsibility, ideally with consent of the governed. Disaster relief, maintaing sewage systems, roads, educating our kids, parks, and so on, paid for with voluntarily collected taxes from all of us. The government should be responsible for more than just fielding a military and monitoring women’s uteruses. 

I Doubt That Is True
I Doubt That Is True

David Sirota writes:

It all suggests that the anti-government zeitgeist in America has become so powerful that public officials now feel compelled to downplay the public sector for fear of being tarred and feathered as a socialist, a Marxist or an opportunist unduly “politicizing” a tragedy.

Of course, avoiding a discussion of the government’s role at times like these is, unto itself, a politicized decision — one promoting the illusion that we don’t need government. And no matter how much anti-government conservatives deny it, that is an illusion.

Think about it: When you find yourself riveted by disaster response coverage on television, what you are really watching underneath all the graphics and breathless punditry is footage of government in action.

Think about it: Whether dealing with a hurricane on the East Coast, a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas or a tornado in Oklahoma, government remains the best, most powerful and most reliable defender against and responder to large-scale emergencies.

Think about it: For every headline-grabbing story of a private citizen rescuing another individual, there are scores of never-told stories of police officers, firefighters, first responders, public school teachers, government-created warning systems, public hospitals and emergency management agencies saving hundreds of lives and/or rebuilding whole communities. Those stories, in fact, are rarely told because for all the petulant anti-government whining that dominates American politics, we’ve come to so expect such a strong public sector response that it’s barely even considered newsworthy.

That expectation, by the way, is not something to lament.

(click here to continue reading There’s no substitute for government disaster relief – Salon.com.)

Steve Benen adds:

It’s worth emphasizing that there may not be a fight over disaster relief because a congressional bill may ultimately be unnecessary — FEMA has not yet exhausted its reserves.

But if a funding bill is necessary, there appears to be little appetite for another political fight like the last one.

Here’s hoping we’ll see a return to traditional American norms when it comes to post-disaster aid. For generations, Congress didn’t fight over offsets in the wake of a crisis, it simply moved to help American communities in their time of need. That changed after Republicans took control of the House in 2010, but given GOP reactions yesterday, we may be seeing the first signs that the party is rethinking the utility of its posture.

(click here to continue reading Steering clear of another disaster-relief fight – The Maddow Blog.)

Division Street Bridge
Division Street Bridge

We’ve written for years about America’s politicians puzzling reluctance to invest in infrastructure repair. Instead of forcing ExxonMobil or General Electric or Apple to pay taxes, Washington diddles, and the infrastructure continues to decay. I guess if a bridge collapsed outside of Tulsa, perhaps some of our nation’s D grade bridges could get repaired. Well, at least those in that state. Maybe if the bridge that collapsed was in Virginia, the government might pay attention. Or not. 

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Illinois’s Report Card Grade is a D+, although our bridges are a C+. 

  • 2,311 of the 26,514 bridges in Illinois (8.7%) are considered structurally deficient.
  • 1,976 of the 26,514 bridges in Illinois (7.5%) are considered functionally obsolete.
  • Illinois received $115.8 million from the Federal Highway Bridge Fund in FY2011.

How’s your state rank?

Footnotes:
  1. remember the Hurrican Sandy relief fiasco? The Republicans do []
  2. Ok, this probably rarely happened, even in the “ole” days []

Written by Seth Anderson

May 24th, 2013 at 9:41 am

Illinois Senate approves bill to legalize medical marijuana

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Venice Beach Physicians
Venice Beach Physicians

Welcome to the 21st century, Illinois! Of course, there won’t be a place like Venice Beach anywhere in Chicago, at least for a few years…

Illinois has come within a signature of becoming the 19th state to allow marijuana use for medical purposes.

On Friday, the state Senate voted 35-21 to approve a medical marijuana measure, which now will head for Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes. California did so in 1996, when the state’s voters approved Proposition 215.

 

(click here to continue reading Illinois Senate approves bill to legalize medical marijuana – chicagotribune.com.)

Keith Richards Drug Free America
Keith Richards – Drug Free America

And the details:

Under the proposal, a four-year trial program would be created to allow doctors to prescribe patients no more than 2.5 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. To qualify, patients must have one of 42 serious or chronic conditions listed in the bill — including cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and HIV — and an established relationship with a doctor.

They would undergo fingerprinting and a criminal background check and would be issued a registration ID card. Marijuana use would be banned in public, in vehicles, around minors and near school grounds. Property owners would have the ability to ban marijuana use on their grounds.

Patients could not legally grow marijuana, and would have to buy it from one of 60 dispensing centers across Illinois. The state would license 22 growers, one for every state police district.

If Pat Quinn wants to be re-elected, he should sign this bill quickly.

Written by Seth Anderson

May 18th, 2013 at 7:49 am

Posted in government,health

Tagged with ,

Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform

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Continuous Video Recording in Progress

Continuous Recording in Progress 

This does not make me warm and fuzzy…

The immigration reform measure the Senate began debating yesterday would create a national biometric database of virtually every adult in the U.S., in what privacy groups fear could be the first step to a ubiquitous national identification system.

Buried in the more than 800 pages of the bipartisan legislation (PDF) is language mandating the creation of the innocuously-named “photo tool,” a massive federal database administered by the Department of Homeland Security and containing names, ages, Social Security numbers and photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.

Employers would be obliged to look up every new hire in the database to verify that they match their photo.

This piece of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is aimed at curbing employment of undocumented immigrants. But privacy advocates fear the inevitable mission creep, ending with the proof of self being required at polling places, to rent a house, buy a gun, open a bank account, acquire credit, board a plane or even attend a sporting event or log on the internet. Think of it as a government version of Foursquare, with Big Brother cataloging every check-in.

 

(click here to continue reading Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform | Threat Level | Wired.com.)

I imagine that if people hear of this proposed plan, there will be bipartisan, vehement objection to it. 

Written by Seth Anderson

May 11th, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Brewing Controversy Over Proposal to Make Water Cheaper Than Beer in Czech Republic

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Afternoon Pilsner
Afternoon Pilsner

Probably won’t happen, as the Czech are all shook up about this proposal, but still amusing to an American. We are very familiar with a government that wants to control what and how we eat and drink…

PRAGUE—In most restaurants and taverns across the Czech Republic, a mug of beer is, literally, cheaper than water. The country’s health minister wants to change that as he tries to put Czechs on a lower-hops diet.

It won’t be easy. Here in the birthplace of pilsner, beer is known as “liquid bread.” Czechs drink an average of 37 gallons of the stuff per person per year, the highest per capita consumption in the world and more than double U.S. levels.

Pub patrons go through the sudsy amber liquid so fast that the nation’s largest brewer, SABMiller unit Plzensky Prazdroj, maker of famed Pilsner Urquell, delivers beer with the kind of tank trucks used to haul gasoline, and pumps it into bars’ storage vats.

“Beer is like mother’s milk for adults,” said Marek Gollner, a 36-year-old computer programmer and regular customer at the U Zelenku pub in the Prague suburb of Zbraslav. “For a Czech, it’s like wine for a Frenchman or vodka for a Russian.”

Faced with such attitudes, Health Minister Leos Heger’s campaign to make Bohemia a bit less bohemian is starting with baby steps.

He wants to require restaurants and bars to offer at least one nonalcoholic beverage at a price lower than that of the same amount of beer, primarily to offer teens, who can legally drink at 18, an alternative. The easiest thing to do, Dr. Heger said, would be to offer patrons pitchers of tap water.

 …

For at least a thousand years, beer has been a staple in the Czech lands, and the country’s native hops are renowned for being aromatic and bitter. St. Wenceslas, a martyred 10th-century Czech nobleman, is a patron saint of brewing and malting, in addition to being the patron saint of the nation.

When the city of Plzen, about 60 miles southwest of Prague, got its charter in 1295, its people were given the right to brew beer, helping ensure the settlement’s prosperity.

At a typical local pub, a pint—500 milliliters, actually, in this metric-measuring country—costs about $1. A similar portion of water, juice or soda generally costs twice as much. Offering free tap water as at U.S. eateries is extremely rare.

At U Zelenku, a neighborhood institution for more than a century, for instance, a pint of the cheapest beer goes for 99 cents. The same size of soda water is $1.30. At the fancier Kolkovna restaurant in touristy Old Town, a pint is $2.50, while mineral water is $2.29, for a bottle less than half the size.

 

(click here to continue reading Brewing Controversy Over Proposal to Make Water Cheaper Than Beer – WSJ.com.)

Written by Seth Anderson

March 19th, 2013 at 8:20 am