Thursday, March 23, 2017

Prisons and Phones

When at last this little instrument appeared, consisting, as it does, of parts every one of which is familiar to us, and capable of being put together by an amateur, the disappointment arising from its humble appearance was only partially relieved on finding that it was really able to talk.
— James Clerk Maxwell, The Telephone [1878]

Who knew they could be profit centers. Thanks to action emanating from the white House of Horrors or, as it was formerly more simply known, the White House, there’s good news for phone companies and private prisons. This week the phone companies.

October 22, 2015, was the date on which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), proved itself to be the prisoners’ friend. It announced that it was taking a big step to reduce what it called “excessive rates and egregious fees” of up to $14 a minute that were being charged by phone companies providing phone service to inmates in state and federal prisons. In announcing the change, the commission observed that “high inmate call rates have made [phone] contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty.” As Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, said in a statement accompanying the rule revision, “[F]ew issues have a more direct and meaningful impact on the lives of millions of Americans than inmate calling reform. With today’s action we will provide material relief to nearly two million families with loved ones behind bars. . . . Inmate calling reform is not only the right thing to do, it is also good policy. . . .By adopting tiered rate caps that apply to all interstate and intrastate Integrated Communication Services (ICS) calls, and limiting and capping runaway ancillary service charges, this item addresses unaffordable ICS rates . . . . Today’s actions . . . address a prime example of a market failure. Where, as here, market forces have not been able to discipline costs to consumers, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting communications services that do not leave the most vulnerable of our population behind.” (Whether inmates qualify as “the most vulnerable of our population” others can decide.) As a result of the FCC’s action, the price for prison calls went down to as low as $.11 a minute.

Phone companies providing prison service were, of course, upset with the ruling since prisoners were, at up to $14 a minute for in state calls, a profit center that the companies hated to lose. Depriving phone companies of the opportunity to charge exorbitant rates to prisoners was just as bad as if some court had suddenly decided to shorten all the prisoners’ sentences, thus depriving phone companies of their highly desirable prison customers. Not wanting to sit quietly by as this important source of revenue was taken from them, the companies filed suit in the D.C. Court of Appeals claiming that the FCC lacked the authority to put caps on what they were charging the inmates, and, even if it had the authority, it had abused its authority by setting caps that were too low. (An intriguing argument in favor of higher rates, was put forth by Mithun Mansinghani, a deputy solicitor general from Oklahoma who got involved in the suit on behalf of Oklahoma. His argument suggests he must have been one of the top students in his law school class. He said phone companies should be able to charge higher rates than those that had been set by the FCC, because of the risk they assumed by furnishing phones to prisons. The prisoners might, he suggested, use the phone to further criminal activity, and should that happen, the phone company might incur liability. The creativity of his theory cannot be overstated. The possibility that any time a phone is used in furtherance of any criminal activity, whether a ransom demand, or a plan to rob a bank, the bad results flowing from the phone call may be charged to the phone company, is an intriguing one for lawyers and presents the creative lawyer with a whole new arena in which to conduct litigation

In 2017, a funny thing happened on the way to the phone booth. Republicans became a majority in, among other places, the FCC. The Democrats, the authors of the cap when in the majority in the FCC, had left the FCC, and Republicans were then in the majority. Among their early activities was to roll back the rules that capped the cost of prison phone calls. The attorneys who had been representing the FCC in upholding the FCC’s 2015 actions, notified the court that they would no longer defend the lower rates that had been set by the democratic majority in 2015. Since the Court had already set the matter for argument, and declined to postpone the argument, it is not clear as of this writing, where the case is headed. Where phone rates for prisoners are headed is clear-they are going back up. The off spring of the white House of Horrors know how to make prisons profit centers. Phones are one. Prisons another. Prisons, however, are a matter for another day.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Trump and Taxes II

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Companio de Tobacos v. Collector (1904)

It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Now that he is president of ALL the people, and especially those who have not enjoyed the lavish life style he enjoys, he would naturally want to try to help them. It all came to mind when DJT’s budget proposals for 2017 were disclosed. What one part of the proposed budget does, is give every taxpayer the opportunity to make money the way DJT did, by not paying amounts that were rightfully owed by him.

Followers of such things remember the many bankruptcies DJT enjoyed while accumulating his fortune. They enabled him to enhance his wealth by not paying contractors and suppliers for services rendered and materials furnished. The adverse consequences of those DJT practices fell on those DJT refused to pay. They were forced to file liens to get payment, sue DJT, or sit by helplessly as DJT’s obligations to pay them were discharged in bankruptcy. That practice produced a better result for DJT, the debtor, than for the creditors.

A good example of the success of this business practice can be seen in the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. that by all reports is a great success and raking in lots of money for the Trump family. Nonetheless, there are still laborers and suppliers who have not been paid and have been forced to file liens against the hotel in the hope of forcing the Trumps to pay what they owe. As of January 2017, there were more than $5 million in liens filed against the property for unpaid bills.

DJT now wants the citizen to be given the same opportunity not to pay what the citizen owes, as he himself has done over the years, thus enhancing the citizen’s personal wealth. To do that, DJT has proposed a budget that will severely cut funding for the IRS, and lessen the chances that those who fail to pay taxes will get caught.

According to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, dated April 4, 2016, since 2010 the IRS budget has been cut by 17 percent after adjusting for inflation. According to the report, three quarters of the IRS funding is applied to personnel costs, and the number of staff engaged in enforcing the tax laws has declined by 23 percent. In 2010, 1.1 percent of individual returns were audited, whereas in 2015, only .8 percent of returns were audited. In the five years preceding the report, the IRS collected $30 billion less than in the same time period five years before that. For every $1 spent on IRS tax enforcement, the government gets $4 in increased revenue. Cutting the IRS budget means less revenue for the country. And that’s where DJT comes in.

Although recently approved Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, at first said he wanted to add staff and update IRS technology in order to increase collections, DJT has changed Mr. Mnuchin’s mind. The most recent DJT budget documents show that the IRS is slated to get another 14% cut to its budget. That means less of everything, including audits. And here is where the run of the mill taxpayer gets to enjoy the same benefits DJT has always enjoyed in his business dealings.
The average taxpayer can simply cheat on taxes the way DJT cheated people who worked for him. As the IRS budget is slashed, there is less chance the cheating taxpayer will be caught. Thus, taxpayers who do not pay what they owe, are less likely to be caught and prosecuted, and will be able to enjoy the higher standard of living such conduct provides, just the way DJT has enhanced his standard of living by refusing to pay what he owes. Readers hoping to take advantage of this good fortune should realize, however, that the consequences of cheating the IRS are somewhat different from DJT cheating people with whom he does business, although it is not clear which is less honorable. If the taxpayer is caught, the taxpayer faces severe penalties and possibly prison time. The only adverse consequences DJT suffers from cheating those with whom he has business dealings, is the need to pay legal fees while the effect of the cheating is sorted out in court. Notwithstanding the downside for the cheating taxpayer, by reducing funding for the IRS, the chances those who cheat on their taxes will get caught, are reduced.

There is one additional benefit to slashing the IRS budget by an additional 14%. That is, however, only a benefit for DJT. With fewer auditors employed at the IRS, it will take more time for the IRS to complete auditing DJT’s returns. Those are the returns from which stray pages occasionally make their way into the public domain, but which DJT has promised to release in their entirety as soon as the audits are completed. So sad. Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Trump, Tapps [sic] and Twitters

O envy! Envy! Thou gnawing worm of virtue, and spring of infinite mischiefs! There is no other vice, my Sancho, but pleads some pleasure in its excuse. . .but envy is always attended by disgust, rancor, and distracting rage.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote

It is all explained by envy. Who’d have thought it? It was envy that inspired tweets early in the morning on March 4, 2017.

Tweets, as followers of DJT know, are vehicles that impart the most important information DJT has to share with his devoted and adoring followers. Tweets, by their nature, are limited to very few words, and their virtue lies in their ability to impart, but nothing more, important bits of information. They are not expected to, nor do they, offer any support for their assertions. With tweets it is the information, not its source, that matters. Once imparted, others can be expected to corroborate the tweet, if its validity is questioned.

At about 4 A,M. on March 4, 2017, DJT awakened and, egged on by envy, and seeking a way to tame her, he recalled a Breitbart news story from the preceding day. In that story, Breitbart had referred to “known steps taken by President Barack Obama’s administration in its last months, to undermine Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and, later, his new administration.” As DJT contemplated that story, he thought up a way to dispatch envy by diminishing her cause. At 4:35 A.M. he tweeted that he had “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower. . . This is McCarthyism!” Having implicated the former president in a nefarious scheme, even though it lacked even a semblance of truth, DJT felt better. His envy of the former president abated for fourteen minutes. At the end of fourteen minutes, DJT realized that to firmly squelch envy he needed to comment further. At 4:49 A.M. he sent another tweet asking whether it was “legal for a sitting president to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW.” The important new information imparted by the 4:49 A.M. tweet that was not included in the earlier tweet, was that a court had turned something down earlier. The inference was that the turn down pertained to the wiretapping, but that wasn’t said, nor has anything been suggested since, nor does anyone know, to what court DJT was referring.

Having sent out the second tweet, DJT sat in his room believing he had evened the score, and was content for thirteen minutes. At 5:02 A.M. he realized he had not said something in his earlier tweets that needed saying. He sent out another tweet in which he asked: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” (The misspelling of the word “tap” might suggest that DJT was so agitated he just hit the ‘p” twice but, as numerous commentators have observed, messages from DJT and his White House are commonly filled with misspellings, since among the many skills not required of those who work for DJT, spelling is included. Indeed, spelling errors are so common, that if one encountered an anonymous misspelled tweet dealing with matters of government, one could safely assume it came from DJT or one of his operatives.)

Since many commentators have compared the speed with which President Obama selected and obtained approval for cabinet members he was required to appoint, to the speed at which DJT has accomplished the same task, one might assume that the perceived slowness of the DJT process and observations about that, is what inspired envy. That is not, however, its source. DJT knows that he will someday have made all the appointments he believes are needed, and the appointees will all be far more qualified than any appointees appointed by any other president since before Washington became president which, all would agree, is a very long time ago. The source of DJT’s envy is an honor bestowed on Barrack Obama that has nothing to do with what he accomplished in his first 40 days. It has to do with the fact that nine days after President Obama took office, he was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and in October of his first year in office, he received the prize. Although this has not been commented on in the press, it is this achievement that galls DJT. Although DJT is among the 318 people who have been nominated this year, he was nominated by an unidentified American and, as far as is known, (a) was not nominated within the first nine days of his presidency and (b) is a prize he is unlikely to receive. The suggestion that Mr. Obama tapped DJT’s phone alleviates envy’s distracting rage that so obviously afflicts him and awakens in him the need for a twitter storm. That is perfectly understandable.