Inequality in America: Pox and Progress

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0 (September 20, 2011)

By Georgia Levenson Keohane

The gap between America’s rich and poor is growing wider, and a new IMF study shows why that inequality is hurting our economy.

Nowhere is the divide in America between the haves and have-nots a stark as it is in New York City, where one in five people — and 30 percent of children — have fallen into poverty. Last week, as global dignitaries and local luminaries crisscrossed midtown between UN gatherings, CGI’s soirees, and presidential-hopeful fundraisers, the Census Bureau conferred on Manhattan a less-than-luminous distinction: It is now the income inequality capital of the United States.

In the city’s center, the top fifth of earners makes 38 times as much as the bottom fifth, which means that by Gini coefficient — the ratio economists use to measure economic inequality — Manhattan ranks among some of the world’s most economically unstable and politically unsavory countries.

Unfortunately, our country as a whole doesn’t fare much better. That the recent Census data confirming depressing — and Depression — levels of poverty were “worse than many economists expected” just tells us that economists don’t get out much. 42 million Americans and rising are poor, and median family income continues to decline while those earning more than $100,000 have experienced improvementsin income. This kind of inequality — the growing chasm between the rich and the rest — is at levels unseen since 1929.

The United States falls well behind France, Germany, the UK, and almost all other developed countries on this score. We are living, some argue, in a North American banana republic: our income inequality is worse than that of Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. When it comes to shared prosperity, we keep company with Iran and Yemen.

Though Manhattan may reign supreme, it turns out that poverty in the U.S. is not an urban — or even rural — phenomenon. Most poor Americans — nearly one third of all people in poverty in this country — live in the suburbs, where poverty has exploded by more than 50 percent since 2000. By any measure — antiseptic community survey data, lines in our cities’ soup kitchens, hidden and hard-to-reach hardship in large swaths of the country — poverty is a national crisis. And inequality — want amidst unprecedented prosperity — is not only a dystopic inversion of the American dream; it represents a series of moral and policy choices we have made as individuals and a society. Reversing this slide — to salvage a lost decade and give us hope for the next — demands a very different set of choices. This won’t be easy (for starters, it will require the political will to reform tax, immigration, labor, and education policy, and to rethink the relationship between the financial sector and the rest of the economy).  So why bother?

Concerns about local and global inequality are not new, but our understanding of the causes and consequences may be showing signs of progress. Lost in last week’s hullabaloo about class warfare was the quiet publication of a report from IMF economists challenging the macroeconomic orthodoxy that there is an inherent trade-off between the pursuit of economic equality and efficiency. As articulated by the late Yale economist Arthur Okun and others, that logic goes something like this: equal distribution of incomes reduces incentives to work and invest, and the costs of redistributive tools — say, increasing income taxes or the minimum wage — can outweigh the benefits.

In their groundbreaking reappraisals, Andrew Berg, Jonathan Ostry, and Jeromin Zettlemeyer examine the long-term growth of countries over the last half century and find that this trade-off may, in fact be false. “Do societies inevitably face an invidious choice between inefficient production and equitable wealth and income distribution?” they ask. “Are social justice and social product at war with one another? In a word, no.” The author’s conclusions get to the heart of the “why bother?” matter. “More inequality,” they find, “seems associated with less sustained growth.”

It may seem counterintuitive that inequality is strongly associated with less sustained growth. After all, some inequality is essential to the effective functioning of a market economy and incentives are needed for investment and growth… But too much inequality might be destructive to growth.

The notion that we have long passed the growth-maximizing level of inequality in the U.S. has been gaining currency. By supplying rigorous analytics for the economic growth case for greater equality, Berg, Ostry, and Zettlemeyer may have profoundly altered the way we collectively think, talk about, and act on gaping economic disparities.

Throughout history, we have been concerned with the moral dimensions of inequality, yet even in the United States — a country founded on egalitarian precepts — the last 50 years have shown that the case for fairness rarely wins the economic policy day. The fact that inequality correlates so closely with other noxious social indicators (poor life expectancy, high infant mortality rates, low levels of health insurance and physical and mental well being) and that the U.S. lags most of its developed country peers on these measures has also failed to move the policy needle, even when we know that remediation of these problems is costly. The failure of this evidence to sway U.S. policy makers does not surprise those who make the political corruption case that inequality — and the plutocratic influence of the super-rich (who do just fine on social indicators) — subverts our politics process.

What then of instability? Surely the threat of political and economic fragility worries our elites?  Some contend that pronounced inequality caused the 2008 financial crash (this argument usually has two variants — the “let them eat credit” school, which posits that politicians respond to economic anxiety in the electorate by allowing easy credit, and the reckless investor theory of asset bubbles). To the extent that Wall Street has recovered from the ‘08 unpleasantness, these arguments hold even less truck there. On the political side, comparisons to unstable Latin American or repressed Middle East regimes could beg the uprising question; indeed, the last time we saw these levels of inequality in the U.S. in 1929, fear of socialist revolution was real and palpable. In response, we developed important safety net features like Social Security and Medicare, which, for the most part, have kept seniors out of poverty. The success of these programs ensures that political revolt in this country will not take the form of Bastille-storming for greater egalité. It may amount to voting President Obama from office, but this prospect has not galvanized the Republican Congress to fight economic inequality.

This is why the findings of Berg, Ostry, and Zettlemeyer — their challenge to the efficiency trade-off, their linkage of equality and growth — are so important. This fundamental paradigm shift in how we understand inequality may be our best hope for combating it. Our nation’s economic recovery and long-term health is at stake.

Georgia Levenson Keohane is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Dear Big Coal: You’re Not Above the Law

Reprinted from Yes! Magazine (September 20, 2011)

How many times can a corporation break the law and continue to exist? Inside the fight to revoke Massey Energy’s corporate charter.

By Sarah Van Gelder

A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices and some politicians like to refer to corporations as “persons.” Few actual people, though, could get away with years of lawless behavior resulting in injuries and deaths, and the destruction of entire communities and ways of life. To do that takes the protection of a corporate charter and a legal and regulatory system that has succumbed to concentrated money and power.

On Friday, two public interest groups asked the attorney general of Delaware to revoke the charter of Massey Energy, a company they call a criminal enterprise.

“Massey Energy operates outside the law,” says Lorelei Scarbro, who lives a few miles from the West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, which is owned and operated by Massey Energy. Scarbro traveled to Delaware to speak in support of revoking the Massey charter. “The people of Appalachia are collateral damage; they believe it’s okay to wipe out a whole culture.”

An April 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine claimed the lives of 29 coal miners. The accident investigation, commissioned by West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, pins the blame for the disaster squarely on Massey’s “total and catastrophic systemic failures … in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm.”

According to the report, Massey is also responsible for “incalculable damage to mountains, streams and air in the coalfields; creating health risks for coalfield residents by polluting streams, injecting slurry into the ground and failing to control coal waste dams and dust emissions from processing plants; using vast amounts of money to influence the political system; and battling government regulation regarding safety in the coal mines and environmental safeguards for communities.”

Massey is chartered in Delaware, which is known for its corporate-friendly policies, although the company has no operations there.

The two public interest groups, Appalachian Voices and Free Speech for People, cited the company’s long history of safety violations in asking the state attorney general to revoke Massey’s charter. They also pointed to the thousands of Clean Water Act violations resulting from the company’s mountaintop removal mining practices.

“I know people who have died. I know people raising family on poisoned water. We need the attorney general to know that atrocities are occurring on the ground on account of an outlaw corporation,” Scarbro said at a press conference on Friday. Scarbro is part of a family of coal miners going back three generations, and a leading spokesperson in a campaign to stop mountaintop removal mining on Coal River mountain and instead install a 328-megawatt wind farm on its ridges.

How has Massey been able to routinely ignore health and safety standards and environmental regulations?

“Many politicians were afraid to challenge Massey’s supremacy because of the company’s superb ongoing public relations campaign and because CEO Don Blankenship was willing to spend vast amounts of money to influence elections,” notes the report to Governor Tomblin. “In one well-documented instance, he used his resources to elect a relatively obscure judge to the state Supreme Court.”

“It is well established that the corporate charter is a privilege, not a right,” says Jeff Clements, co-founder of Free Speech for People. “Delaware, as with other states, reserves the right to revoke or forfeit state corporate charters when they are abused or misused, as in cases of repeated unlawful conduct.”

“The Massey Energy Company presents a classic case of a corporation whose charter should be revoked,” says Clements.

“We are strongly urging Attorney General [Beau] Biden to stand up to corporate power and say, at some point, corporations do not have the power to dismantle our democracy and to violate our laws willfully and systematically,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has been part of the effort to decharter Massey.

Jason Miller, a representative for the Delaware Department of Justice, told YES! that the petition to revoke Massey Energy’s charter is “under review.”

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and executive editor of YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.


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How State Banks Bring the Money Home

Reprinted from Yes! Magazine (September 23, 2011)

Big banks freeze out small business, but North Dakota’s state bank supports local jobs. The idea is catching on.

By Stacy Mitchell

One of the most significant, but least noticed, consequences of the rapid and dramatic consolidation of the banking industry over the last decade is how much it has hindered the U.S. economy’s ability to create jobs.

To begin to understand this, take a look at each end of the banking spectrum. On one end are the nation’s 6,900 small, locally owned, community banks. These institutions control $1.4 trillion in assets. That’s 11 percent of all bank assets. They currently have $257 billion in loans to small businesses and farms on their books.

On the other end, four giant banks — JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, and Wells Fargo — now command $5.4 trillion in assets, or 40 percent of the total. Given that they are nearly four times as large as all local banks combined, one might expect that they would have made four times the small-business loans, or about $1 trillion. In fact, these banks have a mere $85 billion in small-business and farm loans on their balance sheets.

Why do giant banks make so few small-business loans? Automation is the short answer. The only way these sprawling institutions can function efficiently is by taking a mass production approach to lending: Plug credit score, income, and appraisal into the computer—out comes the loan. That’s why the mortgage business was supposed to be so safe. The economic meltdown of 2007 shows that it’s actually very risky.

Small-business loans are not so easily mechanized. Each is a custom job, requiring human judgment to evaluate the risk associated with a particular entrepreneur, a particular business plan, and a particular market. Community banks excel at this. Their lending decisions are made locally, informed by face-to-face relationships with borrowers and an intimate understanding of their hometown economies. Big banks, whose decision-making is long-distance and dictated more by computer models than judgment, are pretty bad at it. So they don’t make many small-business loans.

It’s no wonder, then, that unemployment has been so persistent. Our financial system is top-heavy with big banks that are scaled to meet the needs of large multinational corporations. The Commerce Department estimates that U.S.-based multinationals have eliminated 3 million American jobs over the last decade. Meanwhile, small businesses, historically responsible for about two-thirds of new jobs, have found it harder and harder to obtain credit.

In short, we have a financial system that is mismatched to the economic needs of American communities. This mismatch will become more acute as we attempt to transition to a carbon-efficient economy, which, by its very nature, will be the domain of small-scale enterprises: local food producers, community-owned wind and solar electricity, neighborhood stores that provide goods within walking distance of homes, and so on. To take root, these businesses will need a robust array of community-based financial institutions capable of meeting their capital and credit needs.

What a State Bank Can Do for a State’s Economy

Lots of lending by banks is a measure of a healthy economy.
1. Lending in North Dakota is consistently higher than nearby states that are economically similar. One reason? The support that the State Bank of North Dakota offers local banks.
2 That’s also why North Dakota has nearly double the number of banks per 100,000 than its neighbors, and more than four times the national average.

State Partnership Banks

There’s no single solution to the thorny problem of how to restructure our financial system, but one of the most promising strategies involves creating state-owned banks that can bolster the lending capacity of local banks, helping them grow and multiply.

North Dakota is the only state, so far, that has a publicly owned bank. Founded in 1919, the Bank of North Dakota (BND) was a populist response to dynamics similar to those we face today. The state’s struggling farmers, tired of being at the mercy of powerful out-of-state financial interests that controlled the availability and cost of credit, decided they needed a bank better aligned with their own interests.

BND is wholly owned by the state, which deposits all of its money, except pension funds, with the bank. BND does not compete with local banks; it does not solicit retail banking business and has no branch offices or ATMs.

Instead, BND partners with local banks to expand their lending capacity. Much of BND’s $2.8 billion loan portfolio consists of “participation loans.” These are business loans originated by local banks, which then invite BND to finance a portion of the loan (and share part of the risk). This enables local banks to make more loans and maintain more diverse portfolios.

Thanks largely to BND, North Dakota has a more robust community banking network than any other state. It has 35 percent more local banks per capita than South Dakota and four times as many as the U.S. average. Small local banks account for 60 percent of deposits in North Dakota, compared to only 16 percent nationally.

Over the last decade, lending by North Dakota’s local banks has averaged about $12,000 per capita (plus about $2,400 in participation lending by BND), compared to just $3,000 for community banks nationally. BND has also enabled local banks to maintain a higher loan-to-asset ratio than their counterparts in other states, which means they devote more of their assets to productive lending, rather than safer holdings like U.S. securities.

Although BND has some loan programs that accept a higher risk or lower return to meet specific economic objectives, such as its Beginning Entrepreneur Loan Guarantee Program, the vast majority of its lending decisions are made on a for-profit basis. It participates only in loans that make economic sense. As a result, BND has pumped $300 million in profit into the state’s general fund over the last decade. (In a state like Illinois that has a population of 13 million, the equivalent return would be about $6 billion.)

Inspired by the North Dakota model, activists and small-business owners in more than a dozen states, including Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, and Washington, backed bills this year to create state-owned banks. Although none of these bills passed on the first round, they did pick up a remarkable amount of support from lawmakers, given how unfamiliar most people, including most local bankers, are with BND.

To help educate lawmakers and counter misinformation put out by big-bank lobbyists, the Center for State Innovation has produced several reports analyzing how a public bank would function in various states. Its analysis of Oregon, for example, concluded that a state bank would help local banks expand lending by $1.3 billion, leading to 5,391 new small-business jobs in its first three to five years.

Many of these states, and others, are likely to take up the state bank idea again in the coming months. Although opponents like to suggest that these proposals would simply create yet another (unnecessary) state loan fund, the real power of a state bank lies not so much in its own lending, but rather in its capacity to support local banks and remake the financial landscape to better meet the needs of small businesses and communities.

Stacy Mitchell wrote this article for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. She is a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s New Rules Project, where she heads up initiatives on community banking and independent business. Her latest book is Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses.


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There Went the Sun: Renewable Energy Needs Patient Capital

Reprinted from New Deal 2.0 (September 23, 2011)

By William Lazonick and Matt Hopkins

Solyndra’s bankruptcy is a lesson in the need for more than political points and investors out to turn a profit.

Solyndra, a venture-backed solar panel maker founded in 2005, was the poster child of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It was the first company to receive federal loan guarantees under the already existing Energy Policy Act of 2005. A hefty $535 million in government-backed loans was going to provide 73 percent of the funds to build Solyndra’s second manufacturing plant in Fremont, California, with the rest of the financing coming from private equity. It was said that 3,000 workers would find employment in the plant’s construction and 1,000 workers in its ongoing operation.

The factory was built, but, overburdened with capacity, Solyndra went bankrupt in August 2011. The company’s 2010 sales of 65 megawatts of power were not even 60 percent of the capacity of its first factory, making the 500-megawatt capacity of the second factory totally redundant. As Yuliya Chernova has written in the Wall Street Journal, some investors with knowledge of Solyndra’s operations see the government-backed loan as the source of the company’s downfall.

There is little doubt that Obama’s team could not resist the opportunity to score political points through a deal that promised to stimulate the economy while investing in our renewables future. As President Obama put it when he visited Solyndra in May 2010, “Before the Recovery Act, we could build just 5 percent of the world’s solar panels. In the next few years, we’re going to double our share to more than 10 percent. Here at this site, Solyndra expects to make enough solar panels each year to generate 500 megawatts of electricity.”

But Solyndra was not the only U.S. solar company to go bankrupt last August. Seventeen-year-old Evergreen Solar Inc., a Massachusetts-based company that had received $58 million in state subsidies, closed its factory last March, and then in August entered Chapter 11 with almost $500 million in debt. Also in August — in between the bankruptcies of Evergreen and Solyndra — another solar manufacturer, SpectraWatt, called it quits. These three failures resulted in the loss of 2,000 U.S. jobs. As it was, Evergreen had already moved some of its manufacturing to China in an effort to remain competitive.

The global market for solar power was over $71 billion in 2010, double what it was in 2009. Yet there is no question that the future is bleak for solar manufacturing in the United States. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, in late August SpectraWatt asked the bankruptcy court to permit it to auction off its plant and equipment quickly because “within six months, used solar cell manufacturing equipment and related assets could flood the market and lower its auction bids.”

The manufacture of solar panels is a capital-intensive business that requires huge plant-level economies of scale for competitive success. The Chinese have become the leading producers of solar panels for both their home and global markets. Allegations of corruption aside, is it possible for a high-wage economy such as the United States to compete as a global manufacturer in the solar industry?

In the case of Solyndra, besides its government-backed loans the company raised over $1 billion in venture capital from 11 major sources. Beyond government subsidies, it is these financiers upon whom we rely for the committed finance required to sustain the operations of a solar manufacturing plant until it can achieve sufficient scale to be profitable. If a venture like Solyndra had not promised eventual success, why would this “smart” business money have flowed so abundantly into it?

The answer is the stock market. The holders of private equity were betting that they could recoup their investments and make a handsome profit for themselves when Solyndra did its initial public offering (IPO) on NASDAQ, even if at that point Solyndra itself might be a long way from attaining profitability. In 2005, when Solyndra was founded, the IPO market was heating up after a sharp slump with the Internet bust at the beginning of the decade, and 2007 was the strongest year for IPOs since 2000. Then the financial meltdown of 2008 killed the IPO market. In December 2009, with the economy in recovery and with its $535 in government-guaranteed loans in hand, Solyndra registered its IPO.

At the time, however, the company had accumulated $558 million in losses since its founding, and in a filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission in April 2010 Solyndra’s accountant, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, wrote that its financial condition raised  “substantial doubt about its ability to a continue as a going concern.” That nixed the possibility of an IPO. Now, with Solyndra in bankruptcy, the investors have lost their money and U.S. taxpayers are on the hook as the company’s largest creditor.

For solar manufacturing in the United States to be profitable, it will need committed finance that the U.S. venture capital community — still by far the world’s richest — is unwilling to provide. They have learned that solar companies require more capital and a longer incubation period than they are willing to endure. If we want advanced solar research to go forward in the United States, we need to engage in advanced manufacturing here as well. In renewable energy, as in other high-tech fields, government and business both need to be involved in providing the “patient” capital required to develop and utilize productive resources. At present, however, notwithstanding its massive wealth, the United States lacks the financial institutions that can cope with the 21st century world of high-technology and global competition.

Matt Hopkins is a research fellow at the UMass Center for Industrial Competitiveness, focusing on issues of clean technology and economic development. He has written a soon-to-be-released report on the U.S. wind turbine industry.

William Lazonick is director of the UMass Center for Industrial Competitiveness and president of  The Academic-Industry Research Network.  His book, Sustainable Prosperity in the New Economy? Business Organization and High-Tech Employment in the United States was awarded the 2010 Schumpeter Prize.

Inside the Wall Street Protests: An Eyewitness Account of Police Crackdown on Peaceful Demonstrators

Reprinted from Alternet (September 25, 2011)

By J.A. Myerson

Protesters from the week-old “occupation” in New York’s financial district were arrested, penned up, and Maced on Saturday when the NYPD showed up to their march.

Deep in the belly of the beast, among the financial district’s skyscrapers, next to derivatives traders in business suits and Rolex watches, you will find a one-block large democratic society, governed by consensus, whose features include free food, free professional childcare, an arts and culture area, medical and legal teams, a media center, constant music, a library and a stand with refreshments for the many police stationed to supervise the area. This is the one-week-old occupation of Wall Street, located at Liberty Plaza Park.

Protester Arrested (Photo Credit: @nycrevmedia on Twitter)

A group of protestors from the camp ventured outside the park and marched on Union Square Saturday morning, and around 100 of them were arrested. Police sprayed peaceful protestors in the face with pepper spray, threw them to the ground and assaulted them with elbows, dragged a woman around by the hair, jumped over barricades to grab and rough up young people, and, when all was said and done, laughed to themselves triumphantly. This is exactly the sort of violence and brutality American authorities routinely condemn when perpetrated against non-violent civilians demonstrating for democracy in Middle Eastern dictatorships, even as they employ horrifying cruelty right here.

Filmmaker Marisa Holmes was recently in Egypt, documenting the revolutionary movement there in its attempt to transform the ouster of Hosni Mubarak into a democratic society. Inspired by the movement there, she became involved with the group organizing the Wall Street occupation, hoping to emulate the Egyptians’ success in mobilizing the public to wrest their country from the brutal forces in power. Video shows police abusing her, confiscating her belongings and falsely alleging that she had resisted arrest.

In the aftermath of the mass arrests, Liberty Plaza was gripped by an agitated nervousness. Would the cops move in on us in an attempt to seize the square? What was in store for our comrades? Some of them texted people back at camp, giving brief glimpses into the fate they were meeting – a concussion incurred from police brutality on a marcher denied access to medical attention, a group locked in a van parked at Police Plaza, people clubbed about the head and chest with police batons.

As the reports came in and people in the camp began to see video and photos of the violence, nervousness turned to anger. These were our friends who had been brutalized for no reason apart from their earnest desire to avail themselves of their guaranteed First Amendment rights in order to call for a more just, more humane, more equal America. One young man implored those assembled, “There are people right now bleeding in handcuffs! Let’s march!”

As tempers rose, the NYPD let us know that they were, as one friend put it, “playing for keeps,” standing shoulder to shoulder and occupying every inch of the block of Broadway adjacent to the square, displaying the orange nets the same police force had used to corral demonstrators at 2004’s Republican National Convention. During a shift change, as the sun dropped behind the buildings to the west, dozens of cop cars, sirens and lights blazing, began to circle the plaza, intimidating its denizens. Rumors began to circulate that the cops were waiting for cover of dark to invade the square and avoid the watchful eye of the media.

After all, they had targeted the internal media team in the arrests, capturing, among others, Marisa. That would have been bad enough, but the cops stationed at Liberty Plaza were also spotted harassing the mainstream media and prohibiting news vans from parking in convenient locations. (One candidate response to having been busted being sadistic and pitiless by the media is to stop being sadistic and pitiless; another is to eliminate the media).

In a true democracy, though, knee-jerk reactions don’t happen. A consensus eventually emerged that a hastily-organized march to the precinct would divide the group, leave the marchers vulnerable to arrest and the camp vulnerable to seizure by the police, and heads began to cool and focus on the task at hand. A lawyer addressed the general assembly and reviewed the proper procedure for dealing with hostile police. Some campers volunteered to surround the media center to protect the livestream from potential police encroachment for as long as possible; an outreach committee went to work trying to recruit more occupiers. Community is a magical thing, and social solidarity is a reliable antidote to the aggressive impulse.

As of today, most of those arrested have been released; the rest, including Marisa, await arraignment. But the mood back at camp is defiantly jovial. The occupation will not be intimidated by state violence, will not be suppressed by a hostile police force and will not be discouraged by snarky hack journalism like that in the New York Times.

This group remembers that tea party dissenters were allowed to bring guns brazenly to town hall meetings, without being subjected to mace and arrest. Similarly, the crooked Wall Street thugs who obliterated the economy and then extorted the country for staggering sums of money have never faced police brutality or even justice. And the congress (a subsidiary of Wall Street), as it proposes huge budget cuts, is even jeopardizing the pensions of those cops whose batons bloodied my friends’ face.

If only they knew what really needed to be smashed.

J.A. Myerson is the executive editor of  The Busy Signal and a frequent contributor of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Book Launch in Nevada City Council Chamber: Richard Tuttle’s “Nevada City and Beyond: An Unscripted Life”

Richard Tuttle

A day or so ago I received this email from our friend, Dave Comstock, publisher of Comstock Bonanza Press, concerning a “book launch” on October 15th in the Nevada City Council Chamber … of judge Richard E. Tuttle’s book, “Nevada City and Beyond:  An Unscripted Life:”

Here’s the announcement Dave sent along with the email:

Some Thoughts on the Death Penalty

I was for the death penalty before I was against it.

I was for it when our children were little and their care was my obsession. The world seemed so full of murderous and dangerous people.

Later when they were grown and responsible for their own care, I was against it.

And I’m still against it today.

Questions of such searing import deserve much consideration and reconsideration as we pass through the stages of our lives. Hopefully the perspective of years allows us to make wiser decisions.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve reached after many decades of struggling with the issue:

The entire system of the death penalty is not worth the wrongful execution of even so much as one innocent person (as we most likely saw yesterday with the Troy Davis execution).

Notice that this is not an argument over its efficacy as a deterrent or any such “practical” consideration. Rather, it’s a moral/ethical judgement.

Nor is it a sentimental argument based on an unrealistic view of the possibility of reforming every guilty criminal. The sad truth is that there are some genuinely guilty violent human beings who are beyond repair. It’s true that society would always be better off without such irredeemable people.

But here’s the question: Do you trust the state to unerringly determine who is innocent and who is guilty in every case, without exception?

I could support a death penalty that is perfect, but since it isn’t perfect and can never be perfect, I oppose it absolutely.

To understand this moral/ethical opposition, try the following “thought experiment:”

Think of someone you love more than you love your own life, someone for whom you would willingly give up your own life. Then ask yourself whether the entire system of the death penalty is worth the wrongful execution of that person, who has been wrongfully charged with a crime s/he did not commit?

If, after doing this thought experiment, you still support the death penalty, then you have some ‘splainin to do. Not to us, but to yourself. At the very least, arriving at such a perverse conclusion should make you want to review your own moral/ethical frame. How could it not?

You should at least consider whether there might be a different frame within which the abolition of the death penalty returns a benefit to society far beyond any ever gained by the “justice of retribution,” and is in that sense even more practical. “Restorative justice,” we might call it.

I agree with Mario Cuomo, whom I once heard say about the death penalty something like this: “I may wish for revenge personally in any given case, but our laws should reflect our highest and best impulses as human beings.”

His statement binds together what is ultimately most practical with what is most moral and ethical, and rises above the natural lust for revenge and the remnant tribal religious impulses that continue to drive support for the death penalty.

My strong personal reaction to the killing of Troy Davis yesterday was sadness and revulsion.


Elizabeth Warren Rebuts the GOP’s “Class Warfare” Accusation

Elizabeth Warren reminds us of the social contract we are born into in the United States.

Click here to find out more about Elizabeth Warren.

Nanny State

What’s the opposite of police brutality?

See for yourself.

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