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Minimum Wage Proposal A Small Step

In his State-of-the-Union Address President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9.00 per hour and indexing it to inflation. He said a family of four with two children still lives below the poverty line when one parent works full-time at minimum wage. The proposed increase would lift them out of poverty, he said.


by Google Images

What a welcome suprise! Virtually no attention was given to the working poor in the last election. In the past decade real wages rapidly declined for the working poor, driving ever more citizens into the grip of intractable poverty.

When a person works full-time for a profitable company their compensation should enable them to care for their family. When this isn’t the case, they must rely on taxpayer-subsidized housing, food stamps, medical care, daycare, or other supportive services. This takes a toll. It  can erode a person’s dignity and self-worth. It can foster a sense of inadequacy or self-loathing.

On a social level the working poor are often labeled and marginalized. They are deemed to be less worthy. They are less likely to be promoted or rehired after a layoff. Any economic hardship at all can lock them into a cycle of poverty where their hope for a better life evaporates with each passing year. Escaping poverty in America  today is the exception, not the rule.

Many wealthy companies are just as dependent on government subsidies for cheap labor. Without taxpayer assistance for their workers these companies would have to pay a living wage in order to maintain a stable workforce.

And what is wrong with that? Shouldn’t adequate compensation be part of the cost of doing business? Why should business owners be allowed to pad their profits by cutting labor costs at taxpayer expense?

We can expect the pro-business lobby to oppose an increase in low-wage pay while calling for more spending cuts and lower business taxes. Austerity can’t create more jobs and spending cuts will never result in more pay for low-wage earners. Only an increase in the minimum wage or a living-wage law can do that.

Pro-business economists will claim that a higher minimum wage will increase unemployment and hamstring businesses, especially small businesses. Much evidence suggests the opposite. Higher minimum wages have a simulative effect on the economy. The extra $1.75 per hour will be spent immediately, boosting business profits and sparking more demand.

The pro-business lobby will claim the proposed increase is excessive, but here the facts are against them. Even President Obama got this wrong. The poverty wage for a family of four is current $10.60 per hour. If passed, President Obama’s proposal would still means a minimum-wage worker would have to work overtime, take another part-time job, or have their spouse work part-time to reach the poverty line.

And what does it really mean to be at the poverty line? Does this make a family economically self-sufficient?

No, it does not. A living wage to lift a family of four above the need for taxpayer subsidies is considerably higher. In Wyoming, for example, a living wage for this family is $16.93 per hour. In Virginia it is $20.88 per hour, and in California it is $22.15 per hour. These figures are not government artifacts. They are actual costs based on local free-market economies.

While business owners and corporations may squeal at the size of the proposed increase in the minimum wage, they would still benefit greatly from taxpayer subsidies for their low-wage employees. Raising the minimum wage shifts some of the burden of caring for employees to the employers, but not much. It still doesn’t hold wealthy corporations responsible for their low-wage workers or for the harm that poverty wages inflict on their families.

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The Death Penalty in Alabama: Judge Override

Equal Justice initiative
122 Commerce Street
MontgomeryAlabama 36104
334.269.1803
July 2011

 EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND MAJOR FINDINGS

No capital sentencing procedure in the united States has come under more criticism as unreliable, unpredictable, and arbitrary than the unique Alabama practice of  permitting elected trial judges to override jury verdicts of life and impose death sentences.

  • Of the 34 states with the death penalty, Alabama is the only jurisdiction where judges routinely override jury verdicts of life to impose capital punishment.
  • Since 1976, Alabama judges have overridden jury verdicts 107 times. Although judges have authority to override life or death verdicts, in 92% of overrides elected judges have overruled jury verdicts of life to impose the death penalty.
  • Twenty-one percent of the 199 people currently on Alabama’s death row were sentenced to death through judicial override.
  • Judge override is the primary reason why Alabama has the highest per capita death sentencing rate and execution rate in the country. Last year, with a state population of 4.5 million people, Alabama imposed more new death sentences than Texas, with a population of 24 million.
  • Override is legal in only three states: Alabama, Delaware, and Florida. However, Florida and Delaware have strict standards for override. No one in Delaware is on death row as a result of an override and no death sentences have been imposed by override in Florida since 1999. In Delaware and Florida, override often is used to overrule jury death verdicts and impose life – which rarely happens in Alabama.
  • Alabama’s trial and appellate court judges are elected. Because judicial candidates frequently campaign on their support and enthusiasm for capital punishment, political pressure injects unfairness and arbitrariness into override decisions.
  • Override rates fluctuate wildly from year to year. The proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years. In 2008, 30% of new death sentences were imposed by judge override, compared to 7% in 1997, a non-election year. In some years, half of all death sentences imposed in Alabama have been the result of override.
  • There is evidence that elected judges override jury life verdicts in cases involving white victims much more frequently than in cases involving victims who are black. Seventy-five percent of all death sentences imposed by override involve white victims, even though less than 35% of all homicide victims in Alabama are white.
  • Some sentencing orders in cases where judges have overridden jury verdicts make reference to the race of the offender and reveal illegal bias and race-consciousness. in one case, the judge explained that he previously had sentenced three black defendants to death so he decided to override the jury’s life verdict for a white defendant to balance out his sentencing record.
  • Some judges in Montgomery and Mobile Counties persistently reject jury life verdicts to impose death. Two Mobile County judges, Braxton Kitrell and Ferrill McRae, have overruled 11 life verdicts to impose death. Former Montgomery County Judge Randall Homas overrode five jury life verdicts to impose the death penalty.
  • There are considerably fewer obstacles to obtaining a jury verdict of death in Alabama because, unlike in most states with the death penalty, prosecutors in Alabama are not required to obtain a unanimous jury verdict; they can obtain a death verdict with only ten juror votes for death. Capital juries in Alabama already are very heavily skewed in favor of the death penalty because potential jurors who oppose capital punishment are excluded from jury service.

Reflections on the Human Spirit

Spirit is a word with many meanings, but the difficulty we have in defining it should not take away from the fact that it is real.

 For me, spirit is a personal, intuitive sense of being, distinct from, yet an integral part of the greater universe. It is the source of morality, ethics, justice and universal truths. It is not synonymous with religion. I believe human spirit is the source, not the result of religion. It is what makes human rights unalienable. It is what knits us all together while singling each of us out as somehow special at the same time. It is the organizing force behind our social economy and the broader social ecology of our collective development.  It is that which, despite all individual and group differences, makes all of us equal from birth. It broadens and deepens our social bonds. It is the essential element for our personal well being, our survival as a species and the survival of Earth as we know it today.

 From my perspective, spirituality is indwelling. It invades conscious awareness from  fundamental sources deeply imbedded within each of us, as if our whole body is a spiritual organ physically connected to all things. Other people experience spiritual perceptions from a different direction, such as emanating from outside the body and beyond physical existence. It hardly matters.  What matters is that it connects us to the world and to each other. It reveals to us pure and enduring insights that we all share. It is a source of knowledge, accessible through introspection and heightened perceptions, that dissolves the estrangement we sometimes feel towards nature or other human beings. The human spirit always arches towards a broader, deeper unity and that special sense of well being we call love.

 With all the tensions and challenges today, are we loosing our humanity?  I don’t believe so.  The human spirit has always faced competitive forces. The most persistent form of this competition pits self-interest over communal interests or present advantage over future needs. Nearly every challenge we face today fits this form.  Our challenge, as always, is to elevate the human spirit in our selves and in our world. There are no secret strategies. Most everyone reading this knows what they need to do. Together we must overcome greed with our generosity, both materially and in spirit.  We must empower the marginalized, inspire the dispirited, organize the discouraged, protect the vulnerable, overpower the skeptics, confront the intolerant and above all, bring up our children to be champions of the human spirit.

HOUSTON, TAKE DOWN THIS THREATENING MESSAGE

An Orwellian chill ran through my veins as I sat waiting for my connection at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport.  It was the early hours of the morning and the Eastern sky was just starting to brighten.  Travelers milled about the vast terminal or sat in various stages of slumber at the terminal gates as a female voice echoed over the public address system.  It was that familiar security announcement about keeping track of your luggage and such.  No one seemed to notice when this particular message went on to say:

 “You are also reminded that any inappropriate comments or jokes concerning security  may result in your arrest.  We appreciate your cooperation while these measures are in effect.”

Arrest?  “While these measures are in effect”?

I looked around.  No one else seemed to notice they had just been threatened with arrest for cracking jokes or making comments that some security agent might not like.  I suddenly felt less free and less safe from the mercurial powers of the state.

Once we discovered that jetliners can become weapons, tightened security was inevitable, but infringing on our First Amendment rights was not part of the bargain.  It’s one thing to take off your shoes and empty your pockets,  it’s quite another to face arrest for “inappropriate” speech.

Free speech has boundaries, of course.  Everyone knows you can’t yell “fire” in a crowed theater or threaten someone with bodily harm, but when was the last time you were reminded about this in a public announcement at your local cinema?  Houston’s airport message was obviously not referring to the normal boundaries of free speech.

From where does this authority to arrest come and how broadly is it being interpreted?  What law enforcement authority approved this chilling message?  And why is this additional “measure” in effect in Houston but not in most other airports, such as in Newark’s Liberty or New York’s Kennedy Airport?

It seems unlikely that the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would be behind this announcement.  The TSA has very limited law enforcement authority.  Unless you are committing a felony under US law in their presence, TSA agents have no routine power to arrest you (49 USC 44903(d)(2)).  And as far as I know,  joking about airport security isn’t a felony.  The authority of the TSA extends mostly to allowing passengers to fly or not fly.  They can detain you for the purpose of screening or inspecting your personal property, but can’t arrest you if they find, say, a pen knife in your bags.  If you refuse to be searched, they can deny you access to the plane.   Having said that, the practical reach of the TSA is still an open question and there are examples of apparent abuses of their power.  (For an interesting post on TSA authority see: http://www.papersplease.org/wp/2009/04/20/tsa-claims-new-powers-of-detention-search-and-interrogation/).

Most large airports are owned by state or local governments in the US.  They operate under state or local authorities, sometimes through an airport authority administration or private management company.  Airport security, other than passenger screening, is usually provided by state or local law enforcement agencies.

The George Bush Intercontinental Airport is owned and operated by the City of Huston.  It is likely that the Houston Police Department is in charge of airport security.  In fact, on the Houston Police Website, M. A. Eisenman is the Assistant Police Chief in charge of the Homeland Security Command and C. W. Driskel is Captain of the Airport Division.  If there is a law or temporary measure to limit free speech, the city of Houston and not the TSA would be responsible.

There is internet evidence that this same message has been playing in Houston since at least 2007.  In the years since this security message first played, the Iraq war ended, Osama Bin Laden was killed by our special forces, his terrorist network has been decimated, the war in Afghanistan has nearly drawn to a close and there has been no  significant attacks in the United States.  The “war on terror” is settling into a more or less routine program of security vigilance and covert actions.  The flying public accepts today’s airport security arrangements.  If there was ever a need to threaten citizens with arrest for inappropriate speech, that heightened need has surely passed.  It is time for the City of Huston to stop threatening citizens with arrest for making bad jokes and restore respect for our First Amendment liberties.  Houston, take down this threatening message!