Friday, January 30, 2015


In his oral biography, Harry Truman stated that any political leader should be a student of history so as to not continue to commit past mistakes. 

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but there is one area in which I agree with many Tea Party members. Recently Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, made the mistake of not remembering past mistakes -- to the detriment of America and its citizens.

Only a few years ago America’s entire financial system was teetering on the brink of collapse, primarily because of greed by big banks, big lenders and lack of oversight by the government. Lack of oversight allowed lenders and investors to package home loans. This was done without regard to the quality of loans and without fully vetting the borrowers. In fact, many of the packages contained loans never examined by a real bank official or regulatory investigator.  Many were phony packages included along with a few that were legitimate. 

When revealed, the perpetrators of these misadventures began the cry that the banks were too big to be allowed to fail, and that failure of our institutions would drive America into a recession or depression much like the 1920's. In all probability, we, the people of America, had little or no choice but to pony-up the billions of dollars to bail these folks out. As a result of saving Wall Street--and leaving Main Street citizens to fend for themselves--many oversight laws and regulations were re-instituted to prevent the same calamity from occurring again.

But then, on the eve of a lame-duck session of Congress about to depart for Christmas vacation, Republicans and Democrats alike yielded to lobbyists, allowing lobbyists for big firms to even write the law allowing the continuation of many of the practices which led us to the brink of disaster a few years ago. Provisions which remove the difference between banks and derivative trading banks were slipped into a “must pass” spending bill which will preserve essential government services. Mortgage giants and mega-loan companies making home loans and auto loans were allowed by these provisions to ignore formal standards about credit worthiness of would-be homeowners or big car buyers.

As an old, experienced and wise traditional banker once told me, “When you make a loan to someone who cannot afford it, you do a disservice to the borrower and to the bank.” 

In this case, Congress appears to be doing a disservice not only to the borrowers who can’t afford it, but to the future of America, and to our children and grandchildren who will receive the bill for our Congress’ folly.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Torture is commonly defined by a standard dictionary as inflicting severe pain or punishment in order to force the person receiving the pain to either disclose something or do something required by the person inflicting the pain. A more modern definition as found in Wikipedia describes torture as severe pain, either physical or psychological. The Archaic definition is found in Black’s Law Dictionary as “Inflicting severe or violent pain in order to secure a confession or the names of accomplices.” 

I am appalled at two things: The apparent acceptance of the use of torture by a majority of American citizens, and the fact that the former Vice-President of the United States has no shame or regard for humanity, favoring the use of torture so long as it accomplishes the ends favored by him.

Since the formation of America, torture has been considered a criminal act. Torture for thousands of years has typically been used as a method of obtaining information, whether true or false. I recall as a young man discussing the treatment of prisoners with a then-deputy sheriff. This officer of the law bragged to me that, given a slap-jack and enough time, he could make a prisoner confess to murdering Lincoln. If nothing else, this alone demonstrates why torture should not be used. Given enough pain, an ordinary person would generally admit to almost anything rather than continue to endure the infliction of pain and discomfort.

The shocking thing about Vice-President Cheney is that he seems to adopt the same attitude as adopted by the leaders of the Nazi movement prior to WWII–-that is, "the ends justify the means." Cheney, in his defensive position, argues that the perpetrators of torture should not be punished because they were basically ordered to do so by their superiors. This same argument was made in an attempt to defend misconduct by the Nazi war criminals who were tried and hanged after WWII. To me, Mr. Cheney is an evil person with no regard for humanity or the image of America if it accomplishes his purposes at the moment.

Another common argument put forth in defense of the use of torture by American operatives is that things like water-boarding are, in fact, used as a part of training on our own people.  There is, however, a vast difference in water-boarding as a part of training and water-boarding to obtain information from a prisoner. In training the person receiving the water-boarding is keenly aware that there is not an attempt to take his life. The opposite is true of a prisoner being subjected to water torture in that the whole operation is designed to make him or her believe their life is about to end via drowning.

International protocols, even for war, dictate that torture not be used. America should not use torture if Americans truly believe such policy as the Geneva Convention constitute valid, international law.

There are other problems with torture. First, the respect for humanity itself should be honored. Second, torture seldom produces valuable, reliable information. However, the third and most important reason torture should not be used on our enemies or prisoners is what it will lead to. Once Americans buy into the attitude of 'what does it matter if these people were guilty anyway,' we are one step away from approving its use in the American criminal system.  

In other words, if a person committed murder, rape, robbery or kidnapping, what does it hurt if we inflict a little pain on that person to obtain a confession?  This wholly departs from our constitutional notion that persons are innocent until proven guilty.  

The recent report on torture indicates there were multiple people tortured to no avail and later proven innocent.  As a parent, can you imagine having your child hung by his or her arms for 48 hours in order to obtain a confession?  Or water-boarding a young person to solve a suspected crime?  I wholeheartedly believe that we, as Americans, are better than that–or should be.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Citizen Input in Law Enforcement

Recent events have brought to the forefront a great nationwide debate about conduct of police officers. There have been numerous suggestions how to hold police more accountable in their role to serve and protect. These suggestions range from changing the grand jury system to requiring special prosecutors when a police officer is accused of serious misconduct to simply requiring automatic indictment and trial of any police officer accused of abusing or taking the life of a citizen.

I don’t deny there are bad actors in every profession, mine included. It has been my experience that, short of murder, the first offense punishment for a peace officer having committed some minor crime is that he must resign his job and go to work for another police agency somewhere else. While I say it somewhat tongue in cheek, too often it has proven true. I have personal knowledge, for example, of two police officers who were caught red-handed hauling liquor from a bar at 2:00 AM. They were not fired but given the opportunity to resign. They soon became employed in a city not 20 miles away from where they had formerly worked.

While a great deal of attention becomes focused on peace officers--particularly when there is serious injury or death, and it is alleged the peace officer was guilty of wrongdoing--little, if anything, comes of lesser complaints by the public. About all a citizen can do about rudeness or downright bad conduct on the part of a policeman is to complain to that policeman’s superior.  In more cases than not, it results in a slap on the wrist and nothing more.

To deal with such conduct, in the past there has been a hue and cry to create police commissions made up of lay people. Several communities and several states have such bodies. Some work and some don’t. Unfortunately, citizen oversight committees too often become highly political and divisive for the community.

I think I have a better idea. Texas has an entity known as the Texas Commission on Law
Enforcement. This agency is made up of 9 board members and a small staff. It is the agency in Texas that issues the certification allowing a person to be a peace officer. It has limited authority basically allowing only investigation of serious complaints, giving tests, determining qualifications to be certified as a peace officer, and--in rare occasions--removing the certification from a person currently serving as a peace officer. My idea would provide citizens an avenue of complaint other than simply complaining to the sheriff about his deputies, or the chief about his police officers.

My plan would allow a citizen who was offended, or who believed he or she was abused by a peace officer--even in a matter circumstance--to file a complaint with the supervising officer of that law enforcement person and give them an opportunity to resolve or remedy the situation. If a citizen were not satisfied with the result, the citizen could then file a complaint with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement who could conduct an investigation and hearing and be armed by the Legislature with authority to administer a large range of remedies--from dismissal as a peace officer to a reprimand or temporary suspension.

The Legislature would be required to grant more funding to the agency--to allow an enlarged investigatory staff and provide hearing officers--and to give the authority of the wide range of remedies available to address misconduct or bad behavior by a police officer.

This procedure could alleviate frustration of citizens who feel they have no real voice in addressing the behavior of law enforcement people. It would also remove it from local politics and take it out of the hands of a county prosecutor or district attorney who is criticized for not being fair toward the people he or she works with every day.

Current citizen frustration in being unable to have their complaints heard about the conduct of law enforcement has led to numerous frivolous lawsuits, or lawsuits with merit, which in turn costs cities and counties millions of dollars. This plan would have the effect of creating an administrative remedy to avoid misunderstandings, to weed out folks who have no business being law enforcement officers, and to empower ordinary citizens who should be the objective of a peace officer’s mission to protect and defend.

While we hear of the major allegations of misconduct such as shooting an unarmed citizen, addressing minor areas of misconduct should lead to better policing and more faith in our policing agencies on the part of citizens.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

An Idea For Productivity

Having watched the appropriations process of the state for many years, I have an idea that I believe would improve productivity and save money.  The current system of appropriation provides little incentive for managers in various positions throughout the state to save money.  Zero-based budgeting sounds great, but it encourages department heads and various institutions to spend every penny they are appropriated.  

Zero-based budgeting simply means the committee responsible for appropriations requires each entity seeking an appropriation to justify their budget from the ground up—starting with zero.  If an agency ends up with a large balance left in their budget at the end of the fiscal year, their only reward is perhaps a slight pat on the back while the balance of their budget simply disappears back into the state treasury.  It is quite likely their savings will subsequently be appropriated to some agency or entity which was not as wise with their productivity or expenditures.

Because of the fact that in Texas one Legislature can’t bind a subsequent Legislature, the budget must be appropriated every two years.  There’s no authority for any agency or department to keep unspent monies from the year before. Although not binding, a statutory policy relating to unspent appropriations (agency by agency) could provide incentive to save and to enhance productivity.

The plan would work like this.  First of all, as an example, managers or department heads would be able to reduce the number of employees with the option of granting pay raises to their remaining employees when one employee retired or was laid off.  The manager could offer the incentive of higher pay if the remaining employees could increase their productivity.  In other words, “If you’re willing to work a little harder, I can pay you a little more with the money not spent for the employee who was leaving.”  This system has proven very efficient in private industry.  Crews which work by the piece are often given the option of shouldering a little more responsibility for a little more pay rather than simply adding another employee.

Our state colleges are another example.  College administrators are encouraged to spend every penny they are appropriated because to do otherwise would indicate they didn’t need what they got.  If we would somehow allow colleges to maintain savings which they institute through better efficiency, it would encourage thriftiness, as well as allow the colleges to build up a little reserve fund for special projects which are constantly arising in the world of higher education. 

In order for the system to work, however, it would require an audit of responsibility on the part of the state assuring the spending of budget surpluses were in fact enhancing the efficiency of the institution or department.  As for colleges, this could easily be overseen by the college coordinating board which regularly audits expenditures of colleges and sets formulas for the appropriations.  The Legislative Budget Board and staff of the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations Committee could easily determine whether or not standards were met by department heads.