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Broad Popular Support for Demilitarizing the Police

By: Friday August 22, 2014 10:07 am

68% of Americans think local police forces shouldn’t have military style weapons and vehicles.

The silver lining of the tragedy in Ferguson is it might actually push the country to adopt some real reforms. One area which is ripe for change is demilitarizing the police.

The idea has recently gotten very public support from a diverse set of politicians ranging from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to President Obama. It also has strong support among the public, according to a new NYT/CBS poll.

The poll found 68 percent of Americans think local police forces shouldn’t have military style weapons and vehicles and instead believe this equipment should be reserved only for the military or national guard. Only 26 percent of the public thinks local police should have this heavy hardware. Demilitarizing the police has strong support among whites (65 percent) and Blacks (80 percent).

Unfortunately, Congress is scheduled to be back in session only briefly during September and will spend most of the next two months campaigning so there it little time for them to get anything done in the near future. It would be really disappointing if the momentum for addressing this issue was lost as a result of it happening at an inconvenient time in the election cycle when we have a deeply dysfunctional Congress.

Down With the Traditional Wool Suit in D.C.

By: Thursday August 21, 2014 11:16 am

D.C. is a sub-tropical swamp but in an act of collective insanity the entire male professional class insists on pretending it has the climate of northern Scotland. That is why I’m glad to hear the traditional business suit has suffered at least a minor setback in Washington D.C. professional culture. In an attempt to recruit more people, the White House is telling technology workers they won’t need to wear formal business clothes.

The White House has a new recruit video where the fact that male programmers won’t regularly be expected to wear a business suit is mentioned a dozen times.

I really like the district, but roughly a third of the year it is an incredibly hot and humid place with weather on par with any tropical rain forest. It often gets over 90 degrees with extreme humidity.

Yet despite the tropical weather professional men are expected to wear dark wool suits over long sleeve shirts – with a tie – to make sure none of their trapped body heat escapes. If it weren’t mindlessly accepted as “traditional attire” for men, I suspect anyone walking around D.C. in head-to-toe black wool in one hundred degree heat would be assumed to suffer from a potentially life threatening condition or mental illness.

Not only is it an unpleasant sweaty mess, but importantly it is bad for the environment and a waste of taxpayer money. The idiotic practice of wearing full suits in the summer means government buildings need to set their thermostats lower which costs more money and results in the release of more greenhouse gases.

I hope one day we will collectively have an ‘the emperor is wearing too much clothing’ moment.

Four Ways to Make Law Enforcement Less Adversarial

By: Wednesday August 20, 2014 10:33 am

fergusonLaw enforcement in America has often strayed from the role they should be playing in a fair and democratic society. We have seen police turn into warrior cops instead of keepers of the peace. There is no easy solution for a complex problem so long in the making. Undoing centuries of racism and decades of bad policies is not going to be accomplished quickly, but here are three broad goals to at least create a less adversarial relationship between the police and the public:

1) End the Drug War – Ending the drug war means truly deciding to treat drug use as a public health problem instead of a law enforcement issue. It has poisoned the relationship between the police and the public in numerous ways.

Harsh drug laws have turned a huge swath of the population into criminals, making them see the police as adversaries not protectors. It makes drug users afraid to seek help from authorities when they are the victims of crime. It redirects police resources away from where they should be spent on issues like violent crime.

The drug war has caused our prison population to explode, especially among minorities. This created a destructive cycle of criminal records, lost employment opportunity and poverty.

2) End the Militarization of Police – If you tell people they are fighting a “war” and arm them like soldiers, don’t be surprised when they start acting like soldiers instead of cops. Ending the war mentality starts with ending the drug war and ending this insane practice of supplying local law enforcement with military equipment. If you provide people with toys they will find a reason to use them. We have seen a frightening rise in SWAT teams and raids in the past few decades.

3) Police Departments should not be money making operations – The sole job and duty of police should be to protect the public, but several terrible policies have undermined this function by instead turning many law enforcement agencies into revenue generators. This leads to law enforcement focusing on what makes money, not what is best for promoting safety. Some local government, like Ferguson, have come to rely on cops writing tickets to meet their budgets. Even worse is the corrupting influence of asset forfeiture laws, which allow police departments to keep assets they seize in a possible drug case even if no one is ever convicted of a crime. Pursuing rapists costs police money but arresting suspected small time drug dealers can make them money even if they never find any drugs. These terrible incentives breed distrust for the police.

4) More Accountability for Everyone – Dashboard and body cameras improve accountability for everyone. Indications are they make both the police and the public behave better in interactions. When police in Rialto, California started using body cameras they saw a 88 percent decline in complaints against officers and nearly a 60 percent reduction in police officers using force.

I won’t promise these changes alone will fix all the problems but they will go a long way to dramatically improve things.

 Photo by Helium Factory under Creative Commons license

McConnell Plans for 2015 to Be Even More Confrontational

By: Wednesday August 20, 2014 7:25 am
Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

If you thought the recent Congressional term just didn’t have enough showdowns, big political confrontations and government shutdowns then you should be really excited for 2015. In an interview with Politico Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promised very aggressive confrontations with President Obama if Republicans win control of the Senate, and possibly even another government shutdown. From Politico:

Mitch McConnell has a game plan to confront President Barack Obama with a stark choice next year: Accept bills reining in the administration’s policies or veto them and risk a government shutdown.

In an extensive interview here, the typically reserved McConnell laid out his clearest thinking yet of how he would lead the Senate if Republicans gain control of the chamber. The emerging strategy: Attach riders to spending bills that would limit Obama policies on everything from the environment to health care, consider using an arcane budget tactic to circumvent Democratic filibusters and force the president to “move to the center” if he wants to get any new legislation through Congress.

Most Americans are sick and tired of the level of fighting in Washington, but not the Republican base which wants their leaders to aggressively rein in Obama through all available means.

McConnell is very unpopular but up for re-election in a red state, so trying to drive up turnout among the solid Republican base by throwing them red meat could be a winning strategy for him.

I do appreciate that McConnell is honest when it comes to what is really at stake in this election. Since Republicans can’t win the presidency and Democrats are very unlikely to take the House there is little hope of anything substantial being accomplished next year. The big thing that will change if the GOP narrowly wins control of the Senate is whether Congress will be fighting with Obama most of the time or practically all the time.

FDL’s Kevin Gosztola is on his way to Ferguson

By: Tuesday August 19, 2014 12:34 pm

Missouri cops in camouflage are tear-gassing, beating up and arresting protesters and journalists, threatening more if they don’t quiet down over the murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown

But until the officer who killed Brown is brought to justice, the unrest is unlikely to subside. FDL reporter Kevin Gosztola is en-route to Ferguson right now to bring you reports on the police siege you won’t find anywhere else — but we need your help you cover his modest reporting expenses while he’s there.

Can you please donate $10 to cover Kevin Gosztola’s on-the-ground coverage in Ferguson, MO?

Kevin’s reporting on Ferguson is already having an impact. He recently covered the story of Joshua Hampton, who was arrested after “police in military fatigues pulled his girlfriend, her sister and him out of his car at about 2 am” for smoking a cigarette in his aunt’s driveway past curfew.

This outrageous story prompted the Washington Post to follow-up with Hampton, and is an example of how Kevin’s work can shed light on police abuse and misconduct in Ferguson.

With most outlets focusing on the dramatic clashes between protesters and police, Kevin will be telling stories that show how Brown’s murder and the militaristic response are emblematic of the daily injustices black people are made to suffer in Ferguson and elsewhere in America.

Donate $10 or more to fund Kevin Gosztola’s reporting from Ferguson, MO.

If you’ve been reading The Dissenter for the past few years, you know Kevin is one of the best at covering protests movements on the ground. He visited dozens of Occupy encampments, he faced down threats from an undercover officer at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and he exposed the truth about police militarization at the 2012 NATO summit.

Kevin will provide a critical eye and important independent voice to the situation unfolding in Missouri. Thank you for supporting his work.

Would Marijuana in Michael Brown’s System Make Him Act “Crazy”?

By: Tuesday August 19, 2014 8:49 am

In an interview on FOX news Dr. Michael Baden, who performed the second autopsy on Michael Brown’s body, said the toxicology report revealed Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot.  Baden then went on to speculate that this potentially could have led Brown to act “crazy” and that he “may have done things to the police officer that normally he would not have done.”

The toxicology report hasn’t been released yet, and Baden says he got his information on marijuana in Brown’s system from the Washington Post.  In the absence of a lot more evidence it’s pretty pie-in-the-sky to speculate on how anything in Brown’s system might have influenced his behavior.  But as long as we’re going there, here is what former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper wrote about dealing with people who had smoked marijuana:

In all my years on the streets, it was an extremely rare occasion to have a night go by without an alcohol-related incident. More often than not, there were multiple alcohol-related calls during a shift. I became accustomed to the pattern (and the odor). If I was called to a part of town with a concentration of bars or to the local university, I could expect to be greeted by one or more drunks, flexing their “beer muscles,” either in the throes of a fight or looking to start one. Sadly, the same was often true when I received a domestic abuse call. More often than not, these conflicts – many having erupted into physical violence – were fueled by one or both participants having overindulged in alcohol.

In case you might be thinking my observations are unique, let me share the results of some informal research I have conducted on my own. Over the past four years, out of a general interest in this subject, I’ve been asking police officers throughout the U.S. and Canada two questions. First: “When’s the last time you had to fight someone under the influence of marijuana?” (And by this I mean marijuana only, not pot plus a six-pack or fifth of tequila.) My colleagues pause, they reflect. Their eyes widen as they realize that in their five or fifteen or thirty years on the job they have never had to fight a marijuana user. I then ask, “When’s the last time you had to fight a drunk?” They look at their watches. It’s telling that the booze question is answered in hours, not days or weeks.

The plain and simple truth is that alcohol fuels violent behavior and marijuana does not. Alcohol contributes to literally millions of acts of violence in the United States each year. It is a major contributing factor to crimes like domestic violence, sexual assault, and homicide. Marijuana use, on the other hand, is absent from both crime reports and the scientific literature. There is simply no causal link to be found.

Baden could just as easily speculate that marijuana in Brown’s system made him less likely to engage in violent activity, not more.

Sick People Make for Poor Watchdogs

By: Tuesday August 19, 2014 7:23 am

We expect people to be insurance company watchdogs when they’re at their sickest and most vulnerable

Over at USA Today they have a helpful list of reasons why your insurance company may not be paying your medical bills and the remedy is basically that sick people should aggressively monitor, research, and follow up on every single health care interaction.

You need to be very knowledgeable and diligent to not be screwed. Just because a providers says they “accept your insurance” doesn’t mean they are in your network. For example here is their advice on how to handle a disagreement between your hospital and insurer about how multiple procedures have been bundled together:

Bundling cases are interesting, because sometimes, the doctor is correct, and sometimes, the insurance company is correct. These cases require research into the billing codes used, what occurred during the procedure, and the specialty’s (i.e., orthopedics vs. cardiology) standard billing practices. If you have a complicated bundling issue that has lead to massive bills, you might consider hiring a medical billing advocate for professional help getting your bill resolved.

This is not a new problem, but it is deeply disappointing “health care reform” didn’t attempt to fix this. The core structure of the Affordable Care Act was to keep the dynamic between one sick person and big powerful corporations in the name of “consumer driven” innovation.

Individuals are expected to understand every term and clause of multiple insurance policies to choose the right one every year, shop around for the best hospitals, make sure their providers are doing everything in accordance with the insurance rules so they don’t get hit by unexpected costs, constantly update their exchange with any change in their income, and track that obscure billing codes are handled correctly by all sides.

We expect people with little health insurance literacy to do this all when they are at their sickest and most vulnerable. Sick people make bad watchdogs and personal advocates.

I think the advices USA Today gave is good but it shouldn’t be too much to ask for a health care system where this level of diligence isn’t necessary.

Photo by Sergio Alvarez under Creative Commons license

Huge Price Differences in Blood Tests Is Another Reminder Our Health Care System Sucks

By: Friday August 15, 2014 10:46 am

In a sane health care system the same basic services would cost about the same everywhere. Prices should be roughly identical across hospitals with only a modest variation based on issues like cost of land, number of personal, and volume. This is how it works in most of the world but now how it works here.

A new study in BMJ Open looked at the prices of common blood tests in California and found prices varied as much as 1,000 fold. From the research’s results:

Our findings demonstrate the wide variability in charges for 10 common blood tests performed at California hospitals in 2011, as well as the hospital-level factors that explain some of that variation. We found that a patient could be charged as little as US$10 or as much as US$10 169 for a lipid panel, depending only on which hospital they visited. Eight of the 10 blood tests had coefficients of variation greater than 200%. For comparison, prices for consumer electronic goods have an average coefficient of variation of 12.5%.

The paper concludes:

Charges for 10 common blood tests performed at California hospitals vary widely across hospitals, with charges for a lipid panel, for example, ranging from US$10 to US$10 169. Though hospital ownership and teaching status were correlated with charges for many blood tests, few other hospital or market-level predictors significantly predicted blood test charges. At most our models predicted 21% of the variation in charges for these identical services.

This insane level of disparity exists across all services in the system but the fact it exists in something so standard is especially telling. You can’t look at data like this and not come to the conclusion that the system is deeply and profoundly broken. If a necessity, like a hospital, is able to essentially just make up prices there is a clear market problem.

This is why basically every other first world country either sets health care prices directly by being the single payer, or they use an all-payer system where a fair price for everyone is collectively negotiated.

Having every hospital individual negotiate every price for every service with every payer doesn’t just create a massive amount of administrative spending, it also allows them to dramatically rip people off. The core problem with American health care comes down to the fact that the government refuses to step in to keep people from being ripped off by the industry.

Bureau of Prisons Should Consider Ohio Inmate Protest Before Renewing Private Prison Contract

By: Thursday August 14, 2014 2:24 pm

140 prisoners at CCA’s private immigrant prison in Ohio protested this week against violence, abuse and substandard food at the facility.

But with CCA’s contract up for renewal this spring, Warden Mike Pugh may have violated protocol to keep it under wraps.

If CCA’s disgraceful track record in Youngstown isn’t enough to give the Bureau of Prisons second thoughts about their contract, this fresh cry for help from its prisoners should.

Call BOP Director Charles Samuels Jr. today to voice your concern for the protesting prisoners and oppose renewing CCA’s contract in Youngstown.

It is completely inappropriate that the police chief and the mayor only found out about the protest because a prisoner’s family member called 911. The Warden also denied state Rep. Robert Hagan’s request to visit with protestors and the press was not notified about the incident until 4 hours after it happened.

Prison staff are obligated to inform the city whenever there is unrest at the prison. So why didn’t they?

Perhaps CCA is being so cautious because they know that if enough people complain to the Bureau of Prisons, it could cost them this lucrative contract, just like it did in Idaho. They are already funding advertisements in Youngstown encouraging residents to call the BOP on their behalf.

This protest and the way it was handled is a perfect example of why CCA cannot be trusted.

Tell BOP Director Charles Samuels Jr. you want the demands of the protesting prisoners taken seriously, and you don’t want CCA’s contract to be renewed.

Will Republicans Eventually Try to Turn Everything Into a Lousy Version of Obamacare?

By: Thursday August 14, 2014 12:59 pm
Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from Janesville, Wisconsin.

Paul Ryan and the Republicans still hoping to kill Medicare

Many Democrats and liberal commentators remain upset that the Republican party has refused to embrace the Affordable Care Act, but in some ways that is a good thing. If/when Conservatives embrace the law we could end up very unhappy with the ultimate outcome.

This Politico column from Avik Roy from the Manhatten Institute is a perfect example why. From Politico:

It turns out that this isn’t true. Conservatives don’t have to repeal Obamacare in order to advance their principles. Indeed, it’s actually possible to take advantage of one of the law’s core provisions—its tax credits for the purchase of private coverage—to reform America’s entire health-entitlement behemoth, and to finally put the country on a fiscally stable trajectory.

Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to reform Medicare—giving future retirees “premium support” subsidies to shop for private health insurance—is, in fact, quite similar to Obamacare’s usage of “premium assistance” tax credits to offer coverage to the uninsured. So what if we used Obamacare to reform Medicaid and Medicare, by gradually migrating future retirees and Medicaid recipients onto a reformed version of Obamacare’s exchanges?

The basic plan is explored in more detail in a new white paper, but the general idea is to make the coverage on the private exchanges worse by reducing the tax credits, consumer productions, and minimum requirements. Then the plan is to effectively kill Medicare as we know it by steadily moving more and more people onto these private insurance ACA exchanges. Effectively it would replace one of the cheapest and most popular ways of provide coverage with a much more complex and expensive one that needlessly enriches private middlemen.

At some point the GOP will probably need to accept they can’t just repeal the law and start looking for ways to exploit how much effort Democrats put into defending its idiotic conservative design. It might seem hard to believe now but there is a real possibility Obamacare’s exchange will be the tool Republicans eventual use to try to achieve their long sought-after goal of killing Medicare.