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Posts published in November 2015

The Wages of Savings is Debt

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Ever think about opening a savings account for your kids or grandkids? Prepare for a coronary.

Times have changed. I have fond recollections of my father marching me down to the Canada Post Office to open a savings account in which to squirrel away a small portion of my monthly newspaper route earnings, seeded by his very generous $5 Christmas gift. I promised to deposit 50 cents into the account every month, learning the virtue of thrift as I watched my money grow.

Every month I did as promised, and watched the postal clerk tote up the balance and hand-enter it into my passbook – but something was haywire. Every now and then, extra pennies were included in the account balance: three here, a nickel there. Confused, I asked the clerk to re-check his arithmetic. “Oh,” he said, “that extra money is the interest you earn on your deposits.”

At the time, the Canada Post was paying around 3 percent per year on simple savings accounts – as were most banks north and south of the border, and the U.S. Post Office as well.

Three cents free money for every dollar you had in there. Pretty cool, the young paperboy thought.

To digress a bit: Yes, you used to be able to open a savings account at the post office in the U.S., Canada and many European and Asian countries. You still can in Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, France, Germany, South Korea, India, South Africa, among other places.

(It is, one is certain, just coincidence that the U.S. Post Office closed its 55-year-old savings accounts service in 1966 – the year after LBJ removed silver from U.S. coinage – and that Canada Post closed its 100-year-old savings accounts service in 1968, the same year our northern friends likewise abandoned silver coinage.)

As we said, how times have changed. Five bucks can't open a savings account in any state or province in North America we're aware of. Our own bank requires an opening deposit of $25 and pays a staggering 0.01 percent in interest. Additionally, it exacts a $4 monthly “service charge” if one's balance drops below $3,000 – even for a day.

Under those terms, your minimum $25 deposit would shrink at the rate of $4 per month, leaving you with a $1 balance at the end of six months and $3 underwater at seven months. One's money is clearly safer under the mattress.

Back when we still young and tossing newspapers off the back of Copper, our chestnut-coloured cutting horse, we didn't know anything about mortgages, compound interest, or any of that other adult stuff.

Looking to history, however, we learn that while the banks and post offices were paying 3 percent interest on savings accounts, the banks and government agencies like FHA and the VA were charging twice that rate – 6 percent – for 30-year fixed-rate home mortgages. That's a 100 percent mark-up. A grocery store owner should be so flush.

It's gotten much better for banks these days and much worse for us in the intervening 55 years since we first started in the newspaper business.

Nowadays and with stellar credit, one can obtain a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for 4 percent from a lender which is meanwhile paying a wholesale price of 0.01 percent for its “raw material,” that is, the cost of its savings deposits. That's a 40,000 percent mark-up, not the seemingly extravagant (but in hindsight niggardly) 100 percent mark-up typical of 1960.

Surely there is an economist who can explain to us why this cavernous difference between 100 percent and 40,000 percent exists without needing such words as “larceny” or “criminal,” or busting out laughing at our naivety – or at least explain to us why opening a savings account is such a speedy way to go broke.

First take/corporate taxes

Over the last few days the word has gone out, through a variety of media: Raise Oregon taxes significantly on major corporations, and a bunch of them may leave the state. That's a tough argument against the tax initiative now underway.

It doesn't seem to have hurt support for the measure though. A DHM Research poll conducted just before last week shows twice as much support (60% to 30%) as opposition to the measure. What it would do would tax sales (of tangible goods) and services above $25 million in the state; the idea would be to capture substantial tax revenue critics say has been escaping for some years.

The group Our Oregon, which is backing the initiative, said that "Just looking at Oregon, we know that in 2012, nearly 400 corporations exploited a loophole to bring their tax bills down to zero. That cost us $9 million dollars in much-needed revenue. Oregon taxpayers have handed out $6 billion in corporate subsidies. That money could have gone to our schools (which have been hit with devastating cuts in recent years), or to services for our seniors. It could have made healthcare more affordable, or made waiting lists for state services a bit more approachable."

There will be plenty of opposition; the poll was financed in part by someone apparently interested in supporting an "alternative" proposal. And it is true that support for ballot issues tends to drop as time wears on, and a lot of time remains before the vote.

The argument that a bunch of corporations may pick up stakes walk from Oregon feels a little hollow, though. We heard the same kind of argument a few years ago that wealthy people would flee the state if voters passed an income tax increase on upper incomes; the voters did, and the flight didn't happen. It wasn't a big enough factor to outweigh the other costs and loss of income. Most likely, neither is this one. - rs

Welcome to our house

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Seniors, by virtue of having lived many years, often fall into mental “traps.” One such is thinking you’ve “seen it all.” Another is “there’s nothing new under the sun.” And, of course, “because I’m older, I’m wiser.” Fact is, if you stay connected to the world while learning to let your thinking “go with the flow,” there are lots of new things to see, plenty of new things to experience and you’ve found age and wisdom are entirely unrelated.

All of this has come home in the recent days as I’ve experienced the most disgusting, racist, obscene, hate-filled and embarrassingly ignorant rhetoric of too many fellow citizens and, especially, the trash talk coming from many of the Republican candidates for president. It’s the subject of likely Syrian immigration. With the possible exception of John Kasich, that bunch has earned our contempt and outrage by engaging in behavior unfit for anyone in public life. Or, aspiring to be.

As a registered Independent in Oregon, my voting pencil swings from side to side on our election ballots. Neither major party earns blind allegiance nor acceptance of the entirety of all candidates offered. So, when I condemn the major affront to our national dignity by Trump, Huckabee, Bush, Paul, Forina et al, it’s without picking one party over the other. All are deserving of our collective contempt as individuals and by the despicable trash coming from their own campaigns. Party aside.

Maybe more than any other recent issue, this one of how to deal with accepting Syrians fleeing war and all its madness has exposed the absolute fractures and canyon-like separations found in our national consciousness. It appears all who’ve voiced their opinions from the neighborhood bar to the national Capitol are entrenched and unmoveable in support or opposition to accepting these human beings in our house.

I came across a new word in all this rhetoric as I’ve tried to see this issue from more than one viewpoint. It’s “asylee.” Not something found in everyday conversation. It means an alien at our doorway “found to be unable or unwilling to return to his/her country of nationality or to seek the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution." That “persecution or fear thereof must be based on the alien’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

Asylees are eligible to adjust to lawful, permanent resident status after one year of continuous presence in the United States. The number of immigrants defined by this description is limited to 10,000 per fiscal year. The same number the President has set for 2016.

This seems to be the nub of the whole immigration legal status. Oh, there are presidential executive orders, various laws and even the U.S. Constitution. But the asylee status is regarded by most immigration experts as the best definition under which the current crop of Syrian and other refugees from war and persecution fall.

My point of going into this one brief, non-political and non-emotional example is to show there really are some legal and humanitarian parameters for a realistic discussion without all the B.S. emanating from presidential campaigns and cowardly, uninformed residents of statehouses coast-to-coast. Of course, there are other legally descriptive and fitting approaches to the immigration debate. But reasoned debate has been entirely overcome by huge numbers of people with no idea what they’re talking about. Voices playing to other sick minds with unfounded fears with large helpings of racism and unfounded nationalistic hate.

As usual in subjects of national political import, the governors of Oregon, Washington and California seem to be leading voices of what the situation is, what the facts are and what actions need to be taken. Or avoided. All three have said Syrian refugees will be admitted and welcomed. The plain fact is, any citizen, governor or ignorant politician who takes the opposite stance does so with no recognition of what the laws are in such instances and what powers they have - or don’t have - to deal with immigration.

When the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, exhibited massive ignorance for all to see in a letter to the White House, bringing up the shameful subject of internment camps for Syrians, he established the bottom of the barrel on the issue of immigration. What we did to Japanese-Americans in 1942 was the most unconscionable act of widespread degradation this nation has ever taken into the depths of racist hatred against an entire segment of our society. If hizzoner is truly serious - and that stupid - I propose his personal Virginia living room be designated “Camp One.”

This Syrian issue represents a lot more than just a new home for people trying to keep their families safe and together. It goes to our national conscience - it questions if we really mean all the words in our Pledge of Allegiance - it challenges all those high-flown images of a truly just America we all were brought up to believe in. It questions that massive statue in the waters off New York City - the one inscribed “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ... send these, the homeless, tempest tost (sic) to me.”

We have an empty house next door. A Syrian family would be as welcome to move in as any other - much more welcome than the bellicose, racist, trash-talking, mindless political hacks that fill our evening airwaves. Their kind should not be welcomed anywhere. Especially at the ballot box.

First take/Trumped

Live by the way too far out there - I mean, we're into honest-to-God fascist territory here - and don't be surprised if a heavily-armed rebuttal comes your way.

Shut down or big mosques? Track people because of their religion? Badges for Muslims (not proposed but not rejected either)? Just part of the plan for Donald Trump, who has gone beyond trash-talking groups of people to issuing this warning:

"We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it…. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

President Barack Obama has weighed in on some of this, to a point, in the last few days. A satiric piece out on the web on Sunday had him linking on Twitter to "realdonaldtrump" saying, "Perhaps ignorant racists should wear special ID badges too. I'll have one made up for you."

That was satire. But don't be surprised if the real-world responses get a lot tougher.

Today on Daily Beast writer Michael Tomasky quoted former Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who stood up to Joseph McCarthy, as saying about his accusatory movement and the fact that so few Republicans then were standing up to it: "The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.” - rs

Kempf’s corrections

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In January I ran out a list of 100 influential Idahoans, among them (at number 43) a brand-new state official, appointed to the office just a couple of months earlier: Kevin Kempf, director of the Department of Correction.

A year after his appointment, I’m glad I included him. The indicators about his background I was advised of, that might make for significant changes at the state lockup, seem in fact to be leading to something new.

Kempf arrived as director on the shores of a troubled period in Idaho prisons, not least because of the private prison (aka “gladiator school”), then returning to state control. The typical response to hiring a new director, tasked with making major improvements after a bad patch, is to look outside the state, or at least the department. In this case, the Board of Correction promoted from within, and that may have been a key to significant reform.

Here’s some of what I wrote about him at the time: “Kempf is a career corrections officer, with work all along the line. He started in 1995 and spent his first years as a corrections officer, a parole officer and an investigator. He moved up through executive ranks, becoming a district (southwest area) manager, prison warden (at the Idaho Correctional Institution in Orofino) and then a central office administrator, finally deputy director in 2012 (before which that particular job didn’t exist). His understanding of the
department has to be thorough.

“But it’s the combination with the next factor that really seals his spot in this list: He has done a lot of outside work, and made a lot of outside connections, suggesting an interest in trying new directions and new possible solutions. He spent years quietly working on court-corrections relations and planning, and discussions about how results could be improved. He has been highly active in national corrections organizations, starting his Linked In page by saying, ‘I love networking and getting to know fellow Correctional Professionals from across the country.’ By various accounts, that’s accurate.”

In other words, he knew the Idaho system from top to bottom, but also stayed involved enough with outside interests to pull ideas for improvement from a wide range of sources.

In his first year, Kempf has pushed for a variety of changes. One has been a significant pay raise for corrections officers. Another - which may help with the first - is an “open door” policy, especially for legislators who want to check out the insides of a prison, but also for others as well. Kempf has become quite visible in the news media.

He is also changing some significant aspects of prisoner treatment, including - at least this is his plan, as outlined to the Board of Correction on November 12 - eliminating solitary confinement. The department has started a community mentor program for prisoners, to help them transition back to the outside world, which ought to be good news to anyone who realizes that almost all prisoners one day will be back out on the street.

He has responded quickly to outside criticisms as well. In July a federal judge described as “barbaric” the dry cells - cells without running water, without a toilet - used in one of the units. Within a month, Kempf had ordered their use abolished.

Last week he reported progress to legislators on a range of areas, even reporting a welcome decline in prison population, while noting improvement in others that will take some time. “We are trending in the right way.”

In a Boise Weekly article, Kempf was quoted, “We're behind the times and that's not a position I want to be in.” If he holds to the trajectory of his first year, Idaho corrections won’t be.

The music of elections

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Events in Canada this week show why elections matter. Yes there will be better policies put in place: Perhaps a return to government-to-government relations with First Nations; more federal investment in Indigenous education; and, a serious, nationwide probe of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. All those things show a government moving in the right direction.

But there is something else: tone. The music of elections.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered the message that Aboriginal Canadians are significant intellectual contributors to Canada’s political discourse. Trudeau’s appointments, his first day of images, really set a high bar for what hope elections can stir in communities, including those representing First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

Most of us are surrounded by a narrative that says real shared power takes a long time. We have to move slow, methodically, bringing people along.

But that’s not what happened in Canada. Trudeau’s appointments were like a lightening bolt. In one instant the cabinet of Canada is representative of gender, of region, and, of Aboriginal people. When he was asked, “why?” about gender, the prime minister replied, “because it’s 2015.”

Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde told the CBC that Trudeau’s appointments begin a “new era of reconciliation.”

“I was very impressed with the opening ceremony, but even more impressed that out of eight aboriginal members of Parliament that were elected, two have made it into cabinet," said Bellegarde. “It sends a powerful statement about inclusion and it sends a powerful statement about the reconciliation that is going to be required in rebuilding a new relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples."

The new minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould shows how a government can match diversity with extraordinary talent and experience. Much has been said about the attorney general’s role as a regional tribal chief and as an advocate for reconciliation with Aboriginal people. But she’s also been British Columbia crown prosecutor. The fact is she’s extraordinarily well qualified for this post. Wilson-Raybould is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation and a descendant of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples, which are part of the Kwakwaa’wakw and also known as the Kwak’wala speaking peoples. When she was a child, her father said it was her goal to be Prime Minister.

That same richness of experience is true for the new minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Hunter Tootoo. Yes, he is Inuit and has a track record on issues such as economic development or housing. But he also was Speaker of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly.

The Tyee in Vancouver quoted Aaron Hill of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society saying Tootoo’s appointment could mean a “seismic shift” in Canada’s approach to First Nations fisheries.

Imagine what these kinds of appointments would be like in the United States: A leader of a fishing tribe named to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Or a tribal judge or attorney as the next United States Attorney General. Lightening bolt.

First take/database

Donald Trump - resurgent in the polls Donald Trump - has a new idea out there: Create a national database for tracking Muslims. He said Thursday "I would certainly implement that. Absolutely."

Tracking people by religion? In this country, you don't do that. Not, at least, by any government agency.

From time to time, I've wanted to check out the religious character of various places or regions. Information along that line is available. One of the best sources is adherents.com, which has a wealth of statistical information. The Association of Religious Data Archives has somewhat more limited but finely tuned resources available too.

But these are statistical resources, and they purport to have no data about individual people. And they are not governmental. You can't find information in the governmental records of this country about who goes to what church, statistical or individual, nor should you be able to. Freedom of religion means it's not my business, or yours, or our society's, what church if any someone attends.

A database of Muslims? What's next? A requirement they wear yellow crescents? Just wait . . .

As journalist Emily Arrowood wrote this morning: "'It can't happen here' used to be a warning that it really can if we're not careful – not a campaign promise that it will." - rs

Open public records?

From a statement by the audits division of the Oregon Secretary of State's office, about a look into just how open the state's public records are.

While Oregon agencies follow the public records law for most public records requests, more needs to be done to address the complex, non-routine requests that agencies receive, according to an audit released today by the Secretary of State’s office.

Auditors examined nine state agencies of varying sizes and missions to determine how agencies are both responding to public records requests and retaining their public records. Their findings are outlined in the audit report released today, entitled: “State Agencies Respond Well to Routine Public Records Requests, but Struggle with Complex Requests and Emerging Technologies.”

The audit found that most public records requests agencies receive are simple and can be fulfilled within just a couple weeks, often at little or no cost. But agencies struggle to respond to the occasional complex request, leading at times to delays, high fees, and the perception that agencies are using these tactics to block the release of public information.

The audit recommends that policymakers consider creating a neutral third party, such as an ombudsman position, to serve as an intermediary between the public and state agencies on complex records requests. Third-party mediation services between agencies and requesters have been employed successfully in other states to help protect confidential information and ensure public access to state information.

“The public and the press have a right to see how their government operates to serve Oregonians,” said Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins. “This audit demonstrates that state agencies need to improve consistency and develop strategies to better respond to public records requests of all sizes. We must improve the public’s trust in Oregon government.”

Agencies are also struggling to keep up with the latest communication technologies, such as social media, text and instant messages, and the use of personal devices or personal email accounts. Very few agencies examined have policies in place to specifically dictate how these technologies should be used in the context of public records, and how to retain the data.

Some of these issues stem back to how agencies retain their public records. The audit found that agencies are keeping too many records past the required retention schedule, resulting in a significant volume of public records that are difficult for agencies to efficiently manage.

“Public employees want to be good stewards of state information,” said Secretary Atkins. “Given the rapidly changing ways we use technology to conduct state business, it is clear we have work to do to maintain transparency and accountability to Oregonians.”

The audit also found variation among agencies in the fees charged for public records requests and the timeline in responding to them. The audit has recommended that the Department of Administrative Services take the lead in establishing guidance regarding fees and rates for the cost of public records requests. Auditors further recommended agencies establish timeliness goals for responding to records requests, and hold themselves accountable to those goals.

Audit findings further touched on a number of related issues, including exemptions in the law and how agencies can benefit from technology to be more transparent and accountable.

The audit released today was in response to Senate Bill 9 from the 2015 Session, legislation requested by Governor Kate Brown. Read the full audit on the Secretary of State website or an executive summary on the Audits Division blog.

First take/next Thursday

Maybe the criticisms last year of a growing trend toward Thanksgiving shopping actually had an effect. The likelihood now is that fewer retailers will be open a week from today, and more employees will get a day off.

The San Francisco Business Times is reporting an extended list of retailers that plan to stay dark on Thanksgiving and reopen the day after, the (more) traditional Black Friday. It cited Staples specifically as an example of a retailer open last year and closed this, but indicated more would be doing the same.

The report said that "Many large retailers are closing down shop for Thanksgiving this year, and while they may also have employees’ best interests in mind, it has become more clear that having brick-and-mortar stores open during a holiday isn’t very helpful for the retailers’ bottom line anyway, especially with the rise of online shopping. Staying open on a major American holiday may be more trouble — and bad marketing — than it's worth."

Surely the Friday after Thanksgiving is early enough. - rs (photo)

How many elk are killed?

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A friend sent a note recently recounting a discussion he had with an employee of Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game. My friend is more of a fly fisherman than a hunter. Nonetheless, they talked hunting. He said the Fish & Game employee stated the department is developing data which could show two out of three elk killed in Idaho annually are poached.

That number seemed high so I called my neigbhor, Brad Corkill, who lives a few miles down the road near Rose Lake, and is the north Idaho representative on the Fish & Game Commission.

Corkill said he too thought the number was high, but to a Fish & Game commissioner any number above that of tags sold is too high. He added the figure of two out of three would be hard to prove. It presumes a degree of hard, factual data the department does not yet possess.

If one includes in the “illegal take” the number for “party hunting” (The number shot by one member of a hunting party but someone other than the shooter puts their tag on the game) Corkill conceded the two of three number might be getting close to the real answer.

It should also be pointed out that the number for “road kill” is not utilized though it is an “untagged” taking. As long as one calls the department to report their taking the kill with them, it is legal to do so.

Nonetheless there is ample evidence Idaho has a serious poaching problem. Corkill referred me to Chip Corsi in the regional office. He was informative and helpful in digging into this issue.

Corsi said the number of illegally taken elk was thought to be high by many in the agency, but no one really knew how high. He thought their agency was getting increasingly better at drilling down on the real number and was doing more “focused research” to get at the actual total take. Still there was not enough evidence to warrant significant changes in the length of elk hunting season.

Both Corsi and Corkill praised the work of Citizens Against Poaching, an independent group made up largely of hunters who keep their eyes and ears open for people who brag about illegal takes or, as is often the case in poaching, multiple takes. They report sightings, rumors and suspicions to the agency for follow up.

Both were asked if they thought poaching was ingrained in north Idaho’s “culture?” The argument is the poaching that does occur is often necessity driven----a hunter has little income, has to feed his family and keep the larder full, so he spotlights and shoots game from the road at night even though against the law. The second aspect of this argument is many north Idahoans living up the various creeks, draws and canyons feel any game on their property is fair game and their game. It is viewed as an extension of their right to the benefits of their land ownership.

It would appear also that many hunters do not view “party hunting” as illegal conduct and still view themselves as law-abiding citizens.

Both Corsi and Corkill firmly reject the “in the culture”view. Corsi said there may be some families who hold these views but indicated that at many of the poaching sites Fish & Game discover there are multiple kills perpetrated by hardened criminals---individuals who have committed or are commiting other crimes.

They acknowledge that when one hears a series of rifle shots after dark and a few days before a season opens, it is a poacher at work. Corkill pointed to the obvious: a person doesn’t sight –in his rifle after dark.

Both, though, believe the vast majority of north Idaho hunters are law-abiding citizens who recognize the Fish & Game department is a trustee who manages for the long-term, and whose goal is to create ample opportunities for Idahoans to enjoy hunting for years to come.

Corkill speaks eloquently about the evolution of game management philosophy and the great difference between the European approach and the American. He points out to anyone who will listen that in Europe the landowner does own the game. In the classic tale of Robin Hood one should recall his worst offence for which he was sentenced to die is that of killing the Duke’s deer.

As a consequence hunting in Europe is largely confined to the wealthy, which Corkill sees as tragic.

He also believes the public gets the nexus between future sustainability of big game and the need to be diligent in protecting the resource so the many may enjoy.

Still, when all is said and done, Fish & Game recognizes its responsibility to come up with a valid number on illegal take and to factor that into its calculation of what it takes to protect a resource in order to manage successfully in perpetuity. And while today they may not have a hard number before long they will. The result indeed may be shortening of seasons which can be laid at the feet of the poacher. If you see someone poaching, call Fish & Game. The elk they might be about to kill just could be the one meant for you.