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Posts published in September 2018

Cruel and unusual


When we think about the eighth amendment to the Constitution, the one banning “cruel and unusual punishment,” torture and the like spring to mind. No drawing and quartering, presumably; no waterboarding, one might think.

But last week’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case blasting the city of Boise for running afoul of the amendment may give us some new ways of thinking about that constitutional prohibition.

The case is is Robert Martin v. City of Boise, decided on September 4, and partly upholding, partly rejecting a district court decision (which appeared to side to a greater degree with the city). In the ruling, the judges said “We consider whether the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to. We conclude that it does.”

And there are significant numbers of homeless people in Boise. Most do spend their nights in shelters, but not all do; the estimate in 2016 was that 125 were sleeping on sidewalks or in parks or similar places. That number of unsheltered almost certainly was low. Shelters do turn away people because they run out of room.

This is not the first time a similar idea has come to the court. In a 2007 ruling, in June v. City of Los Angeles, the 9th Circuit held that “‘so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds [in shelters]’ for the homeless, Los Angeles could not enforce a similar ordinance against homeless individuals ‘for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in
public’.” (The Jones ruling wasn’t binding, but it does show ongoing reasoning by the judges.)

Well, after all: Where would you expect the homeless to go? What would you expect them to do - simply not sleep?

And isn’t sleep deprivation - apparently required under the law - a form of cruel and unusual punishment?

The question of what is and isn’t cruel and unusual takes up about seven pages of the ninth circuit decision, and it’s worth reading by any citizen. It specifically stops short of requiring the city provide shelters for homeless people. But “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

When does the punishment become cruel and unusual? Maybe around the point where people lose their ability to make a realistic decision to the contrary - when they lose control over their lives, as people in really impoverished circumstances may do.
That raises some questions about how we should deal with the impoverishment, homeless or not, of so many people in our midst.

Which raises another question. The eighth amendment in total says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” When are bails and fines excessive? They’ve been increasing steadily, sometimes at galloping pace, in recent years. When is it too much?

Some states, California for one, have begun revisiting such questions. In Idaho it’ll be a matter for another, but surely arriving, day.

Wanting to believe


For the last couple of years, conventional wisdom has held that Trump’s loyal base of supporters is unshakeable, that Trump could – in his words – “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “not lose any votes.”

That conventional wisdom may be about to change.

When a voter supports a candidate for president, it should come as no surprise that the individual will think the best of the candidate they supported. It can be difficult to accept that the supported individual has fallen short, to realize they have been untruthful. I know this from personal experience.

I strongly supported the candidacy of Bill Clinton. I thought his keen intelligence, progressive vision, and strong work ethic – coupled with rare communication skills – would make him a great president. In many respects he was.

But Clinton did have sexual relations in the Oval Office. He not only lied about it under oath in a deposition in a civil suit, he lied about it directly to the American people. Like many of his supporters, I believed Clinton when he looked straight into the camera, shook his finger, and adamantly proclaimed his innocence.

I wanted to believe him, and so I did. I’m no ingénue, but I was genuinely aghast when I heard him finally admit the truth.

Clinton lying under oath about sexual activities pales in comparison to today’s many scandals swirling around Trump. I reference it, though, because my strong impulse to credit Clinton's denial is, I think, mirrored in the insistence of many who voted for Trump to believe his increasingly incredible assertions that “there was no collusion with Russia” and no attempt to obstruct justice.

Recently, Rachel Maddow noted that George Herbert Walker Bush had been chairman of the Republican National Committee at the height of Watergate and was, in fact, RNC chairman when Nixon resigned in the fall of ’74. The previous summer, Pappy Bush went on a listening tour to assess the views of the “party faithful” outside the Beltway. At the time, Bush himself was convinced that Nixon was not involved with Watergate.

Following his listening tour, Bush summarized his findings in a memo to White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig. He noted that “party people” held an “almost unanimous desire to believe that the president is telling the truth.” Bush concluded: “They want to believe in the president.”

Of course they did. That is human nature. Having supported Nixon, they wanted him to merit their support.

But, in time, even many of the GOP faithful were disabused of Nixon’s innocence. However strongly they may have wanted to believe in the president, they couldn’t explain away the evidence on the White House tapes that exposed the cover-up.

Unlike Trump, Nixon did not have Fox News with its 24-7 drumbeat of propaganda. With the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity running interference, Trump may never dip to Nixonian levels of disapproval (only 24% approved on the day he resigned). But Trump’s support, even among those who desperately want to believe him, may be in the early stages of unraveling.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC survey shows Trumps disapproval rating at an all-time high. 60% of Americans disapprove of his performance in office. Only 36% approve. Clearly, some of those who now disapprove of Trump’s performance once supported him. Something has, at long last, shaken lose their support.

Perhaps it was the Manafort conviction, or the Cohen guilty plea, or maybe it was the churlish manner in which Trump treated American hero John McCain, not only in life but in death. It might have been the news that the National Inquirer’s David Pecker and the Trump Organization CFO had been granted immunity and were cooperating with the Special Counsel. Perhaps it was all of these things and more.

Nixon’s resignation didn’t happen overnight. It took time for the nation – and especially a critical mass of Nixon loyalists – to absorb what he had done. It is not an easy thing to accept that the president has broken the law. I am among those who believe many transgressions, especially those pertaining to obstruction of justice, have taken place in plain sight; however, most of the nation is waiting to see more evidence of wrongdoing. But the rising support for the Special Counsel suggests that a lot of people are rejecting Trump’s characterization of the probe as a “witch hunt.” It would seem that even some Trump supporters are experiencing doubt in the president’s veracity; the eroding of unconditional support has begun.

For many who have long resisted Trump’s venal policies and even the legitimacy of his election, the temptation to belittle those who are only now beginning to question their support of the president must be almost irresistible. But that would be unwise. We will need to work with them in the days to come.

Should the Democrats win a majority in the House, impeachment -- requiring only a majority vote -- will be likely. But “impeachment” is only the process of charging. In order to be removed from office, the president must be tried by the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict. Trump will only be convicted if some Republican senators are willing to vote for conviction.

In a perfect world, the senators would look only to the evidence and the Constitution. The world is imperfect. They will also look to their base.

With Watergate, arch-conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater delivered the bad news to Nixon. His presidency wouldn’t survive a Senate vote, were it to come to that. It seems that many of the Nixon-era GOP senators had stronger spines than are to be found among members of the McConnell led cabal that now holds sway.

Yet, if we are to remove Trump from office, today’s GOP senators will need to find their spines. And that will require further erosion of Trump’s base, which will happen more readily if the rest of us stop buying – and repeating – Trump’s story that his base in unshakeable. Much of it likely is. But some of it is not.

We’re beginning to feel tremors. Some pebbles are starting to roll, and the needle on the political Richter Scale is moving, however slightly. The time has come to re-visit the conventional wisdom.

(photo/Gage Skidmore)

The swamp


You know what it is when you talk about it, right?

But, well, who and what are part of the Swamp?

The “drain the swamp” formulation was one of the more clever linguistic developments of the 2016 election. It had been used before, such as by both Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi in 2006, but not as commonly. And it has some uses. Donald Trump used it often in his campaign that year, and the #DrainTheSwamp Twitter hashtag is highly popular. (It’s a busy Twitter handle as well.)

It caught fire and a lot of people adopted it because it had resonance. The idea of the political and economic centers of the country (even in the states) as a dank, sunken, corrupt place that does in the unwary and is full of “swamp things” is easy to get and even appreciate. And if you drain it, you get rid of disease-carrying insects and other unwanted pests. The metaphor is clear.

A John Kelley article in Slate points out that the phrase goes back much further, and was long used by the anti-capitalist left: “In a 1903 letter to the Daily Northwestern, Winfield R. Gaylord, state organizer of the Social Democratic Party, precursor to Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America, wrote: “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes which come from the capittalist [sic] swamp; they want to drain the swamp.” So it has referred to the swamp of capitalism.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan spoke of “draining the swamp” that is the federal bureaucracy.

There is even some loose truth to it.

But be wary of this one. “The Swamp” sounds wonderfully specific and concrete, but it is neither. It evaporates the closer you look at it.

So what exactly is The Swamp?

While Washington, D.C., was built on lowlands by the Potomac River, and the area around the State Department long has been famously called Foggy Bottom, the fact is that the district (or at least nearly all of it) never has been, in its time of human habitation at least, swampland. Humid and mosquito-ridden, yes; swamp, no. So that direct link doesn’t work.

An Illinois group called American Transparency in 2017 issued a report called “Mapping the Swamp,” but that was simply an attention-getter: Its content consisted of budget reports (and employee compensation statistics) about federal administrative agencies. Is the swamp, then, federal administrative agencies, or does it cover much else?

Kelly’s stab at a definition, at least one for the 2010s: “Trump’s swamp isn’t just home to political cronies and crooks, whom the expression typically targets: The media, polling, leaders of his own political party, the abstract Establishment, and just about anything that challenges his view of the world, and himself, gets sucked into his vortex.”

Writers Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles suggested in an October 2017 New York Times article, “Donald Trump’s pledges to 'drain the swamp' of corruption in Washington attest to his genius for unintentional irony. Nepotism, egregious conflicts of interest, flights on the public dime to see Wimbledon and the eclipse — the Beltway wetlands are now wilder and murkier than ever.”

In the end, the swamp is a test: It is whatever you don’t like.

Medicaid expansion: more harm than good?


NNU economics professor Peter Crabb recently opined that expanding Medicaid coverage to approximately 62,000 Idahoans “is likely to do more economic harm than good.” His thesis is that people who get government health coverage are more likely to engage in risky behavior and therefore require more medical care. Where to start?

The people who will be covered by Medicaid expansion are working people who make too much to get Medicaid, but not enough to get subsidized health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The prof worries that these people will have little incentive to stay healthy if they get “free lunch” government health care. If you are barely making enough to feed and shelter your family, you have a strong incentive to stay healthy so as not to lose your paycheck.

If the prof is correct, there are already hundreds of thousands of Idahoans doing things that are hazardous to their health because they receive government help. About 240,000 of us are getting Medicare, almost 300,000 are on Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance, and about 125,000 are getting insurance through government jobs. Medicaid expansion would add only about 62,000 people to the list of Idahoans getting government help for medical care, which would probably not greatly increase the risky behavior factor.

Many more Idahoans get insurance through their jobs, and their employers can justifiably deduct it from their taxes. Veterans and retired military deservedly get government health coverage. And let’s not forget the many thousands who get subsidized insurance through the ACA. Why should the government subsidize almost everyone else’s health care and not the people in the coverage gap?

As for cost, Milliman, a highly regarded actuarial firm often used by the state, recently reported that Medicaid expansion could actually save the state up to $15 million per year by eliminating the need for the state’s Catastrophic Health Care Fund and the county indigency programs. The indigency programs are a real drain on the counties because they pay for often routine medical care at emergency room rates.

Perhaps the best way to find out what expansion might do is to see how it has worked in the 33 states that have expanded Medicaid to get the many millions of federal dollars available. When Ohio expanded its program, an additional 700,000 people got Medicaid coverage. Governor Kasich reports that 290,000 of those have since left the program. Most of them told the state that having the insurance helped them find or keep their job. And, one would suppose those people are contributing to Ohio’s economic well-being.

As far as the economic impact of Medicaid expansion, the infusion of federal money will create many additional health care jobs for Idahoans, help keep rural hospitals financially solvent, and keep that money circulating and multiplying through our communities. It will allow people with routine illnesses to get medical care before their conditions turn into expensive medical emergencies that taxpayers will pay for either directly or indirectly.

And, in the final analysis, isn’t it the morally correct thing to do? Why should people who are working hard to take care of their families have to choose between bankruptcy or death when they are confronted with a serious illness? Especially when almost everyone else in the state gets at least some “free lunch” medical help from the government already?

Let’s approve the Medicaid expansion initiative on the November ballot. It is the right thing to do, economically, morally, and equitably.

Taking out the trash


With all the garbage coming out of the West Wing theses days, you’d be forgiven if you weren’t aware of a piece of pure trash resting in a U.S. Senate committee.

It’s euphemistically called the “Restoring American Immigration for Strong Employment Act” or “RAISE.” It’s the handiwork of Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who, more than occasionally, reminds us of his racist tendencies. Only one other Senator - Purdue of Georgia - has signed on.

Here are the highlights (?) for you to decide if my word “trash” is appropriate. Should RAISE become law, it would create a point system to approve/disapprove applications for entry into the U.S.. Perfect score is 30+. If you want in and have a high-paying job waiting, that’s worth up to 13 points. If you’re close to 25-years-old - or either side of that arbitrary number - you can get 10 points which decline with the age difference. College degrees - especially in STEM - can “earn” 13 points.

If you’re coming to invest $1.35 million in the States, a maximum of 12 points. Extraordinary achievement - Nobel Prize or some such - or if you’re an Olympic athlete can get you 25 points. Speaking English gets 15 points.

So it would seem a 25-year-old English-speaking Olympian with a doctorate and a couple of million bucks would be a shoo-in. But, a high school graduate with a family of five, trying to escape death at home, would be turned away. Not enough points.

But, back to RAISE. Each year, those with the most cumulative points could apply for a green card. Those not scoring high enough could try again next year. Nearly all other employment or country-of-origin caps would be eliminated. H-1B visas - normally associated with high tech skills - India and China - and those with the most students already here - China, India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea - would likely have the most points.

There’s more. RAISE would cut green card issuance in half. It eliminates pathways for siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and legal temporary residents to apply for permanent lawful residency status, limiting the family path to spouses and minor children. It also would end the visa diversity lottery.

Nearly all economists aware of RAISE say it’s pure trouble. They conclude such a law would likely cause the average American worker to lose wages and other gains.

Opponents say RAISE is a “nativist and xenophobic” attempt to keep out foreigners, including many who would benefit the U.S. and our economy.

It’s interesting to note nothing in RAISE mentions farm workers, a major draw for people coming for work. And, “past may be prologue” here. In 1964, a similar bill was enacted affecting farming. Conservative economist Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute wrote “Instead of hiring more American workers or raising wages, farmers turned to machines and altered crops to take account of the new dearth of workers. Instead of planting crops requiring labor-intensive harvesting or care, they planted crops requiring fewer workers.” Sort of “more potatoes and less radishes.”

Research also strongly indicates RAISE would not only negatively affect the status of millions of legal immigrants and harm the entire national economy, it would also change our entire demographic structure. Sort of like building “the wall” without building “the wall.”

Those supporting RAISE are notably anti-immigration folk. Stephen Miller - White House resident racist - and Steve Bannon - Trump’s political “Captain Destructo”- are lobbying for passage.

All of that - and more - leads me to call RAISE anti-immigrant trash. I suspect most Senators ascribe to that nomenclature since Cotton’s handiwork has languished in committee since a year ago January. He now has a second version which has attracted no other sponsors, either.

Will RAISE get to the floor for a vote? I doubt it. Too vile even for the gutless majority. But, it’s there, like a benign cancer. Now, at least you’ve heard about it.

I’m sticking with the “T” word. What say you?

Idaho Weekly Briefing – September 3

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for September 3. Interested in subscribing? Send us a note at

Fires eased back last week as Idaho readied itself for Labor Day weekend and the fall season – and school reopenings and the return of heated political campaigns.

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter's office facilitated a meeting on August 30 with the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association, the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association, Idaho State Police, Idaho Association of Counties, the Idaho Transportation Department and other stakeholders to discuss ongoing computer problems at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

The Idaho Department of Lands auctioned 51 state-owned lakefront lots on Priest Lake for deeded ownership during public, oral auctions Friday and Saturday in Coeur d’Alene. The land sales generated $25,580,124 for the endowment fund that supports public schools. Competitive bidding on five of the lots drove up the bids $625,500 over the appraised value of the lots.

The governor of Idaho and the administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration met in Sandpoint, Idaho, today to celebrate the completion of the historic Albeni Falls wildlife settlement agreement. Idaho agrees that the $24 million settlement satisfies BPA’s wildlife habitat mitigation responsibilities for impacts from Albeni Falls Dam.

The 2017 Crime in Idaho Report has been released on the new interactive Crime Dashboard. The 2017 publication was created on the newly implemented database with the upgraded system.

The state of Idaho auctioned another U.S. Forest Service timber sale today under Good Neighbor Authority, a State-federal partnership that increases management activities on federal lands in Idaho.

Micron Technology on August 29 announced plans to invest $3 billion by 2030 to increase memory production at its plant in Manassas, Virginia, creating 1,100 new jobs roughly over the next decade.

In order to reduce harvest on hatchery steelhead and protect wild steelhead, Idaho Fish and Game has temporarily reduced the daily bag limit to one steelhead starting Sept. 3. The lower bag limit applies in the Clearwater River from the mouth to Memorial Bridge, North Fork of the Clearwater River, Snake River, Salmon River and Little Salmon River.

Rates for customers of Intermountain Gas Company would decrease by an average of 10.2 percent if state regulators adopt the company’s annual Purchased Gas Cost Adjustment proposal.

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter on August 30 announced the appointment today of school teacher Galen Earl Colter to fill a vacancy created on the Camas County Commission by the death earlier in August of Commissioner Bill Davis.

IMAGE A view along Indian Creek in downtown Caldwell, an area of extensive recent redevelopment in that city. (photo/Randy Stapilus)



Of all the dirty words that do not deserve the description, “politician” must rank near the top.

Almost every candidate for office who’s new to it, or even semi-new, will start their spiel by proclaiming, “I’m not a politician …” Even a lot of long-time, career-spanning pols do it.

With, of course, the assumption that people will then think more kindly about them. And may be right.

But shouldn’t be.

The comedian George Carlin, who knew something about “dirty words”, said in one routine, “Everybody complains about politicians. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? . . . They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. . . It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders.”

Politicians r us. Or should be.

Actually, to be called a politician ought to be a badge of civic honor. These, after all, are people willing to put themselves out there, to enter the arena. Wikipedia's definition will do: "Politicians are people who are politically active, especially in party politics." In other words, they are civic-minded. Some of them may have darker motivations, but most of them are in it to try to make their community or state or nation a little better.

Just as many people think of people in “the media” as simply high-paid Washington talking heads, ignoring the local reporter who covers the city planning and zoning commission, many people think of “politician” in a limited way: prominent members of Congress, the president, a governor, occasional others.

But one common definition runs like one at “A politician is a person who campaigns for or holds a position in government.” That’s a lot of people, from the local mosquito district commissioner up to, say, the (non-elected) secretary of the treasury. And how about many lobbyists? Much of what they do is as richly political as that of any elected official, even if they lack the title.
They’re not all rotten. In fact, most of them aren’t.

Okay, there are reasons politician is a reviled description. The word can be used to describe someone outside of government, but with the attached negative context, such as the online description, “a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization.”

Wikipedia again: "In the popular image, politicians are thought of as clueless, selfish, incompetent and corrupt, taking money in exchange for goods or services, rather than working for the general public good. Politicians in many countries are regarded as the "most hated professionals". Many ex-politicians who could not bear the leadership in politics that causes reprisals for critical thought criticize those who remain politicians for lacking critical thought."

There are plenty of examples of lousy politicians, people who deserve the opprobrium.

But, as everywhere else, there are plenty who do not - many who work day in and out trying to get something useful accomplished, in a government system that ultimately reports back to - us.

They're also doing the more or less invisible hard work of keeping our system of government running. If politicians we're doing it, who would? Us? Are you kidding? We so often do such a terrific job even at the far more limited job of just choosing which politicians will represent us ... but that's a subject for another post.