Current Affairs – US

Dear Grapevine-Colleyville ISD

Dear GCISD,

Well, my my my.

You seem to be in a bit of a hole.

No, I take that back.

You are in a big hole. A deep, big, embarrassing hole. It is, at the very least, a major PR black hole. It may also be a legal hole.

You have a school principal now suspended (albeit on full pay) because you may have been paying attention and listening to the wrong people.

One of the enduring myths of service in the USA (although the myth does exist elsewhere) is that the Customer Is Always Right.

Logical, huh? After all, without customers, many businesses would cease to exist. So, if they need customers to survive and thrive, then those customers deserve the best service and deserve to be treated well.

However, as you will discover after a while, there is a difference between treating people well, and obsequiously catering to their every desire, need or want, even when that desire, need or want is batshit crazy, stupid, or, worse still, damaging to your business.

That is not catering to needs, or engaging in great customer service. That’s called pandering.

If you do not understand the road you are heading down, pandering leads to spineless capitulation to increasingly stupid and dangerous demands from people.

Based on what I have read, you are in this hole partly because you have been pandering to stupid, racist and irrelevant demands, either from parents, or from people purporting to represent parents.

This is stupid on several levels.

Firstly, it is stupid, because your parents are NOT your customers. The customers are your students. Your parents may be paying the bills for your students, via their school taxes, but your primary duty of care is to the students. If they flunk out of college because you gave them a shitty high school education, that’s on you. The parents have flunked nothing. You failed to prepare their children for that next phase of their education. You might want to remind the next parent that storms into your office and starts ranting about some real or perceived injustice that they are not your customer, their children are. Will it shut them up? Probably not. Entitled parents usually only shut up when they are breathing in, or when they are gagged. But it might make them think for a wee second.

Secondly, it is stupid, because, by essentially terminating the career in GCISD of the first African-American principal in the district (let’s not be cute here, by suspending him, you have made it impossible for him to continue in his role), you are begging the asking of all sorts of awkward questions. Question #1 is Why. Absent a compelling, legally viable answer to that question, Question #2 will show up really quickly. Question #2 is “how come this just happened to the first African-American principal?”.

As politicians are fond of saying, amidst their massive collection of in-group cliches, Question #2 has terrible optics. You and I both know what the subtext is, and it is a bad subtext. Really bad.

So what is the answer to Question #1?

Well, that is where you start to look even more stupid. Based on what I have read, (and here is an article from NBCDFW), in 2019 you decided to criticize the principal, based on the discovery of pictures of him and his wife on the beach…on social media. This was not a nude beach, both the principal and his wife were wearing clothing, and several of the images, clearly taken by a professional photographer, seemed to comprise a re-enactment of the famous beach seduction scene from the movie “From Here To Eternity“. A movie that these days is regarded as classic, good old fashioned entertainment.

The word seemingly used in communications about the photos was “questionable”. If that is what you think, then OK. What questions do you have about them?

I think you should have to answer. You don’t get to use ambiguous words in a statement and not have to explain them. That’s not how the world works. You’re accountable to the citizens of Grapevine and Colleyville.

But, since the photos were clearly taken in the principal’s private time (on vacation), I think I already have a question for you. Whose damned business is it anyway?

You employ (or in reality, you did employ) James Whitfield to lead and manage a middle school. You do not own him. He is not a slave or an indentured servant. You have no control over his life outside of school time. You do expect him (as is your right) to uphold the standards of the district in his life, but photos of him with his wife on vacation cannot be said in any way to be a bad reflection on the school district.

So, my question stands. Who in the school district leadership thought this was any of your damned business? Because from where I am viewing this, any admonishment to him about the visibility of the photos was irrelevant, vexatious and way out of line. It was, quite simply, an abuse of power.

But continuing with Question #1 (Why?), it now seems that you suspended James Whitfield, not for this supposed infraction, but possibly because some parents, in July 2021, accused him of teaching Critical Race Theory in the school.

This is even more stupid. First of all, as a principal, I would be surprised if he actually does any significant teaching. So if Critical Race Theory was (or is) being taught, he probably wasn’t teaching it.

Secondly, your job is not to pander to the curriculum demands of a few parents. They are not your customers (remember what I said earlier?) There is also an old saying that empty vessels make the most noise. If you did not poll all of the parents at the middle school (and no, you do not ask parents from other schools, and you especially do NOT listen to people with no skin in the game, like non-residents) to determine if these parents are at all representative of the views of all of the parents, you were professionally negligent.

A few loud, yelling parents does not mean anything in the grand scheme of things. You know as well as I do that there are always unhappy parents, for many different reasons, and you cannot please everybody all of the time. That is NOT your job, partly because it is impossible, and partly because it elevates the loud whinings of the few to a higher level of importance than the quiet of the many.

You also should not be paying attention to and readily accepting hyperbolic claims being made by former candidates for School board positions, like Stetson Clark. Hyperbole is a poor basis for credible argument. You should also be putting accusers on the spot. If you were an observer in a court room, you would expect to see prosecution witnesses being cross-examined in order to validate or expose flaws, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in their statements or testimony.

If an angry parent gets up in front of me and accuses one of my leaders of teaching Critical Race Theory, I am going to want to see if that person can answer one or two fundamental questions:

  1. What is your definition of Critical Race Theory (HINT: A lot of people cannot define it, because they are using it as a weaponized slogan)
  2. What compelling evidence do you have that it is being taught in a school in this district

Answers to (2) that are hearsay or speculation, like “some people told me that they think that the school might be teaching it” need to be filleted up and tossed back on the ground. Preferably buried underground where they belong.

You have to perform due diligence, otherwise you start to look credulous, gullible and professionally negligent. If you didn’t do that sort of due diligence, shame on you.

Oh yes. You should have gaveled Stetson Clark off the podium immediately, the second time he violated the meeting rule by mentioning Dr. Whitfield’s name. You warned him once, he ignored the rule and the warning, which showed that he was not acting in good faith. That cancels any obligation on your part to let him continue speaking. The rules are there for a reason.

The fact that you suspended James Whitfield with no explanation is just…optically bad. There is no good way of explaining that event. You suspended him on full pay, which suggests that you currently lack any case to terminate him for cause, or presumably you would have already done so.

Your failure to articulate any reason for the suspension, given the fact that he is African-American, is, given the recent allegations and other past events, the equivalent of sending up a large hot-air balloon with “pandering to race-based fear” stenciled on the side of it in very large letters. Optics. Abysmal. There are good legal reasons for staying silent, but that is not a good place for a school district to be for any length of time.

If you had evidence that the school was teaching Critical Race Theory, where is it? If you had any other evidence of malfeasance, where is it? You should have, at the least, had all of this sorted out before the news leaked out that he has been suspended. Instead, right now James Whitfield can play the aggrieved party. He is actually being very restrained, probably because he is already being advised by lawyers.

The prior abuse of power over his family images means that, in my humble opinion, James Whitfield is probably sitting at home right now, trying to decide exactly which prestigious firm of employment lawyers will represent him in his upcoming lawsuit against the GCISD. I suspect that your options, unless you have a compelling non-public reason for action, might center around how many zeroes to the left of the decimal point his compensation check will prevent him from dragging you all the way through discovery. Discovery would result in the reasons for his suspension becoming public domain.

There is going to be collateral damage. Like appearing at the top of Google Search for the wrong reasons. Instead of your glorious football teams, the search results will show lines like “terminated principal wins settlement after suspension following Critical Race Theory allegations”.

You could have avoided this mess, if you had actually engaged in proper dialogue with ranting parents, and then thought long and hard before reacting. Parents are not always right, and you should not be pandering to their worst behavioral impulses.

My message to the School board:  Those of you who supported this train-wreck have dragged down the name of the entire GCISD, and have sent the message to the outside world that both Grapevine and Colleyville have dysfunctional school districts, where scurrilous rumors and abusive speculation can override sound, ethical and visionary leadership. The school district and the cities now look like repositories of casual suburban racism. You’re culpable for helping to convert the school district to a poster child for that, a place where no sensible leader is going to want to work. If there is any justice in the world, you need to be voted out of office at your next election.

My message to the School district leadership that made these decisions: If you worked for me, I would give you all 24 hours to resign, or I would terminate all of you for cause. The causes would be: abuse of power, gullibility, pandering, and total failure of leadership.

My message to the parents who did not want James Whitfield removed:  This is what happens when a loud and malevolent minority seizes control of the dialogue. The school district leadership and the school board did not represent your interests, and you need to be much more vigilant. Crackpots and wackaloons can easily be elected to or influence school boards. You will have to make sure it does not happen in future.

UPDATEThe school district has issued this statement which seems to list all of the reasons that were not causes for the suspension of Principal Whitfield.

I am not sure exactly why they did this, but I have to assume that it is part of a legal CYA process for them. It would have been better for them to have said absolutely nothing. The statement cannot answer the question of why they suspended him. The reasons will not be revealed unless the district has no choice, but if he decides to sue the district, and there is no settlement, that will end up being revealed in discovery.

I would bet that any lawsuit, if there is one, will be settled confidentially. The complaint, if there is one, will probably be some form of hostile work environment complaint, based on the abuse of power over the photos and the failure to defend him and his school from the rush to judgement on the allegations of the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

UPDATE 2A Twitter user who thinks that Principal Whitfield is playing the race card and whining about white fragility directed me to this website.

This website is new, having been created on or shortly after April 7th 2021. The domain creator is hidden, and the site, superficially, tries to look like a non-partisan site that covers events and policy in the school district.

That only lasts until their page on Critical Race Theory, which is a distorted strawman collection, pushing all of the white fear and resentment buttons. It contains the usual slew of allegations, with several cut-and-paste polemics, including one from the Heritage Organization, containing lines like “Critical race theory is an ideology which maintains that the United States is a fundamentally racist country”. It is the usual theme of “people need to stop talking the country down and instead talk it up, and stop trying to make us look and feel bad”.  The writer of the web page even shows the cover of the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo at the top. I am not sure how they think that makes their complaints about CRT any more credible, because to my reading eye, what is on the rest of the page kind of proves most of the point she was making in the book. (Not that the book is that good, since, as many reviewers pointed out, it is long on diagnosis and short on suggested solutions).

UPDATE – The GCISD board has, by unanimous vote, proposed not renewing Dr. Whitfield’s contract, which expires at the end of the school year. Based on this article from CNN, it seems that the board, aware that violation of due process will likely result in legal action, are attempting to obey a formal administrative process of asking Whitfield to respond to the allegations against him.

The meeting was, by all accounts, dominated by supporters of Dr. Whitfield, who all spoke in his favor in the public comments period. Dr. Whitfield was also there and spoke briefly. The list of accusations against him does not look substantive. When I read that the allegations against him include claims that he was “insubordinate”, “unreasonable” and “disrespectful”, my BS detector is triggered. I have heard these phrases used in the past in a post hoc justification of terminations. They are allegations largely based on perceived style, and without specific examples, they end up sounding to many neutral observers like “we didn’t like the person on a personal level”. To an African-American person, this also reads like a variant of the classic complaint of white racists about AA people being “uppity” and “not knowing their place”. Whitfield has apparently requested that as much as possible of the process be held in public. This, to me, suggests that he intends to try and put the school district in a hole of their own making over his imminent non-retention.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram points out the obvious; that the public falling-out with Dr. Whitfield is going to have a negative impact on the district’s ability to recruit teachers and administrators.

 

 

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Trump and anti-vax partisans – the deep hole of Denial

Once in a while in life, one comes across one or more individuals who have backed themselves into a corner or dug themselves into a hole over an issue or an event.

They usually defend their position by repeating the same general rhetoric over and over again, peppered with tough-sounding justification phrases like “it’s the principle!” (that, folks, is a really big Tell that you are dealing with somebody who is dug in and not coming out).

The ultimate fate for these people (which some of them actually come to embrace) is martyrdom. Martyrdom, giving up your entire life for a cause, be it personal or a group cause, removes you from the planet, but probably gets you into the history books. Ashli Babbitt, one of the January 6th insurrectionists, who was shot and fatally wounded while attempting to break into a secure area inside the Capitol building, is being re-born as a martyr as I write this.

Cults and cult followers often end up in a hole, sometimes because they collectively break laws, or because they adopt ideological positions that are incoherent, self-contradictory, or in many cases, totally at variance with reality. When a belief system does not match reality, it becomes a collection of delusions.

Right now, in the USA and the UK, there are millions of people who have adopted beliefs totally at variance with reality. Those people are trapped in a worldview that they adopted. They are also usually surrounded by people who have identical or mostly similar worldviews. Those people are their social circle, comprising friends, family, church and other sources of social and ideological validation. Those sources provide powerful and continual reinforcement.

The insistence by supporters of Donald Trump that he won the November 2020 Presidential election, for example, is being perpetuated today, 9 months after the election concluded with him losing the Electoral College to Joe Biden. The delusion that Trump won extends far beyond the insistence that he was in fact the winner. There are people out there insisting that Trump really is in charge, and that the images of President Biden are digital manipulations, and that Biden is under arrest or has been executed. To an observer who deals in facts, the people making these claims look utterly deluded, and are living somewhere between Lalaland and Cloudcuckooland.

Any attempt to engage with these people on social media is largely futile, except for the grim amusement of seeing how many ways they can contradict themselves in the course of a discussion, and how many more and more bizarre methods of rationalization they can invent. Their fundamental convictions and beliefs remain fixed, immovable, and insistent. When stressed by contrary fact, they act like 8 year olds found stealing from the cookie jar, throwing tantrums, blocking people and ultimately stalking off in a huff.

I have yet to see a single person in this group admit to making a mistake. Nor do I expect to. The reason, as explained in this article, is that people dug into a defective worldview are sustained in that worldview by their social world, which is their primary support system. They are not going to pay attention to any perceived opponents, since those people are outside of their social circle already. Nor are they going to pay much attention to experts, which explains the parallel (and often overlapping) resistance of anti-vaccine individuals to inputs from epidemiologists and medical professionals. An experienced epidemiologist on TV doesn’t stand a chance next to Fred down at church.

A parallel contributory factor to the communication failure is the infantilization of communication and interaction in the modern USA. Covid-19 has magnified this tendency by dramatically limiting social interaction opportunities, where people congregate together for extended periods of time to discuss all manner of subjects. Now, instead of talking over dinner or drinks, exploring issues, people huddle over smartphones and consume limited-bandwidth soundbites that neatly summarize a complex issue down to binary math. This good, that bad. Me good, you bad. This helps to explain why so many partisans, especially Republicans, seem to have adopted the interaction style of emotionally stunted adolescents, complete with all of the signs of Oppositional Defiance Disorder. “You’re not the boss of me!” is merely a different version of the adolescent foot-stamping cries of “Shan’t” and “You can’t make me!” that most parents get to hear at some time in their life as parents. Of course, most adolescents eventually do learn how to Adult, at least most of the time. But right now, when it comes to political issues, an awfully large number of people seem to have regressed to adolescence, or something preceding adolescence.

They are, to some extent, taking their cues from above. Donald Trump’s communication style, right now, is that of a jilted, emotionally injured adolescent. One thing I have had to come to terms with is that people spend far too much time imitating those above them, and too little time asking the question “is this person talking or acting like a dick?”

The evidence is all around us that being pro-Trump and being anti-vaccine are positions which are deluded, and dangerous for the collective welfare of society.

Desperate supporters of Trump believe that insurrection is a valid tool for redressing their electoral grievances, since Trump told them that the election system is corrupt and rigged, which therefore justifies seizing power by other means.

Anti-vaccine activists believe that harassment, intimidation and refusal are valid tactics, despite all of the visible evidence that people that refuse vaccination are harming not only themselves, but also their families and wider society. One would think that the sheer numbers of prominent people who ranted against vaccines, only to contract Covid-19 and die from its effects, would be having some impact on anti-vaccine activists. So far, the impact seems to be limited.

The big question is how long the Trump and anti-vaccine cults (when you examine their collective behavior, the parallels to religious cults are obvious) will keep up their collective and individual positions.

The likely answer is: quite some time. We are dealing with people who are in the first stage of change: Denial. The other stages, classically analyzed by psychologists, are Anger, Bargaining, Acceptance and Commitment.

This, as you will have noticed, is the classic transition that all addicts go through. And, as Nick Carmody has pointed out, the supporters of Trump show all of the signs of addicts, in that they eagerly accept and like any information that reinforces their convictions that they are right. Any and all information of that type gives them self-validation, the dopamine high of “see! I am right!”.

Right now, the rapid transition of Trump partisans to anger when their delusions are challenged tells me that many of them are in the transition from Denial to Anger. This is dangerous, since angry people tend to do stupid things as individuals, and as groups, can do terrible things to others. I would not be surprised if highly hyped individuals try to assassinate or attack politicians and government officials who are seen as supporters of Biden or supporters of authoritarian measures related to Covid-19 mitigation. There is plenty of evidence of this latent anger, in the form of activists harrassing and threatening medical professionals and people wearing masks. (Ironically, in Florida, the state government is adopting the Orwellian position that being required to wear a mask at school can be defined as harassment).

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Wednesday Round-Up – June 23rd 2021

  1. Moorish Sovereign Citizens

The Moorish branch of the SovCit movement is…different. Unlike the more mainstream, very white SovCits, who mostly attempt to be scofflaws over matters like firearms ownership, Citizens Grand Juries, Covid-19 restrictions, vehicle licensing, and (their favorite) paying any form of income taxes to anybody, Moorish SovCits have an obsession about claiming properties owned by other people. They routinely get arrested for waiting until home owners leave a  house for a vacation or some such, then they occupy the house, sometimes filing nonsense claptrap documents with local authorities and courts containing cockamamie rationales to the effect that they are repossessing the house for the Moorish nation, claiming that it is part of their ancestral property. Alternatively, they file voluminous paper claiming bogus tax repayments.

Another Moorish SovCit has just been arrested for this kind of nonsense. As the home owner explained:

She said she had received a letter dated May 20 in the mail from a group called Al Moroccan Empire Consulate at New Jersey State Republic telling her the home belonged to them. She also received a second letter in June from the same group with red fingerprints and seals on it, the woman said.

This is SOP for Moorish SovCits. It never quite seems to work out well for them, however.

2.  The disintegration of the Libertarian Party in the USA

I am going to write about this at more length, but the Libertarian Party in the USA is currently disintegrating. The root cause is the attempted takeover of the party by authoritarians.

This is completely hopeless. The authoritarian swamp ground is already occupied by the Republican Party. For any party to have any different competing appeal, they would have to be even more authoritarian, or definably libertarian. It looks like the party is going full authoritarian, dominated by people who follow the philosophy of Ludwig Van Mises. This will not end well. It will repel most of the current party voters in elections.

In my opinion, the entire libertarian movement in the USA is fatally damaged for a generation, and will need to be rebuilt around durable principles that take into account the reality that the USA is no longer an agrarian society where every man can be an island. Covid-19 should have proved this, but the authoritarian wing of the Libertarian party has no clue about totalitarianism in practice, and as a result the party is throwing itself off the cliff, while the GOP is busy trying to gerrymander its way to permanent one-party rule in the states that it currently controls.

3. Plea Deals after the January 6th insurrection 

This week, the floodgates are opening, with a number of court hearings to ratify plea deals for participants in the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol.

We can see the classic pattern developing:

  1. Small fry and peripheral participants are being offered plea deals based on pleading guilty to one or more misdemeanors, with no prison time
  2. Bigger fish are being persuaded to plead out to lesser felonies. Some may end up doing jail time. Those plea deals also will contain co-operation agreements, probably with the reduction in felony charges as a quid pro quo. (Graydon Young, supposedly a member of the Oath Keepers, is due in court today for a plea agreement hearing where he is expected to plead guilty to multiple felony charges)
  3. The organizers will find themselves snowed under with evidence from the co-operating bigger fish, and will be staring at some serious felony charges

I expect this process to go on for several months, probably into the Fall. After that time, we can expect the underlying organizers to be indicted on numerous more serious charges. It will be interesting to see if the DoJ actually uses the formal laws against insurrection (my guess is that they will not, since those laws were really designed for a war situation).

UPDATE from Zoe Tillman:

Graydon Young is pleading guilty to two counts from the indictment: conspiracy and obstruction of an official proceeding, both are felonies, the former has a max sentence of five years in prison and the latter has a max of 20 years.

Young has promised to cooperate with the government as part of his plea deal, incl. testimony before the grand jury and at a trial, and interviews with law enforcement (and waived right to counsel)

UPDATE 2 – The terms of the deal include the option for the DOJ to file a petition to reduce Graydon Young’s prison time from the sentencing guidelines (currently 5 years minimum) based on his co-operation with law enforcement. So the more he tells, the less jail time he will have to serve (probably).

UPDATE 3- Anna Morgan-Lloyd, a minor participant, has been sentenced to 36 months of probation and a fine after pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor count. We can expect this pattern for the minor players.

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Round-Up – Monday 21st June 2021

  1. Poison Ivy 

Mary and I are suffering from Poison Ivy poisoning. We are covered in spots, welts, lines of spots and other symptoms, from when we unwittingly handled a plant 2 weekends ago. We both look like prime candidates for exclusion from a Middle Ages English town on the grounds of being “unclean”. Doctors tell us that it will take 1-3 weeks for the ugly rash to completely vanish. Mary is sleeping downstairs as I write this, because she has not slept properly for 2 nights due to discomfort and pain. I did not sleep much, mainly because the blotchy pink patches all over my torso arms and legs make it feel like I have sunburn. Plus, itching. We are both on anti-inflammatory drugs and creams to damp down the symptoms.

Stay away from poison ivy, folks. It ain’t going to be fun if it contacts your body.

2. Brexit 

Brexit continues to be a shambles, as predicted by many (and similarly ignored by many). However, the opinion polls seem to show that the previously large margin of people thinking that Brexit was bad has diminished recently. This is counter-intuitive for me, since the news continues to be bad. However, the government’s blaming of the EU for all of the problems may be finding a receptive audience. I suspect that the support for Brexit will continue to hold steady as long as the effects are largely confined to the professional classes or artistic communities. If essentials like food and medicine start to disappear, then things will change rapidly. People expect governments to assure the supplies of essentials.

Despite being beaten up by the EU, and pressured by the USA, Boris Johnson is sailing along as though all is well. However, on the other side of the Irish Sea, the DUP, the most hardline Protestant group, is in disarray, having forced out its new leader, Edwin Poots, after only 20 days in the job. Poots apparently alienated most of his supporters by nominating The Wrong Guy as First Minister (translation: somebody way too sympathetic to the Irish language). Poots came to office talking a tough game, threatening to get tough with Ireland and generally strutting his macho Protestant stuff. Now he is gone, and the DUP has to look for its third leader in 4 months.

The DUP continues to threaten the UK government over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the decision to put a logical border in the Irish Sea is starting to look more and more impractical and dangerous with each passing day. The problem is that the UK government cheerfully signed up to it, and it is now part of the Withdrawal Agreement. That, plus other conditions in the UK-EU trade deal, which have in turn led to The Sausage Problem (caused by an impending EU ban on the movement of chilled meats between the EU and third countries), have backed the UK government into a small box of its own making.

Boris Johnson can huff and puff and threaten the EU, but he has no real leverage, because the UK folded on a lot of issues in order to rush through a deal before the end of 2020. The negotiating style of “talk tough, then fold” is proving to be dangerous for the whole of the UK. At the present rate, Northern Ireland is likely to be more of a challenge than Scotland. Unlike in Northern Ireland, the Scots have not taken to bombing and shooting to get their point across recently.

3. Covid-19 

The UK continues to transition rapidly to being dominated by the new B.1.617.2 variant of the virus, which has, in the space of a month, taken over from the B.1.1.7 variant. This new variant is more contagious, and vaccines are slightly less effective against it, although if enough of a population is vaccinated or immune, herd immunity can still be achieved.

Prof. Christina Pagel explains the latest situation in the UK in this thread. Basically, unless there is a return to social distancing and lockdown, this new variant is going to trigger a large increase in cases and hospitalizations. The number of people testing positive is rising exponentially again. 

4. The Roman Catholic Church and Joe Biden

No, the Roman Catholic Church in the USA is not going to excommunicate Joe Biden. Many priests, including his own, and main of the laity wouldn’t tolerate it. The bishops are engaging in performative posturing.

5. Yes, the Republican Party has eliminationists in its ranks

Not exactly a surprise, but it is good to have conclusive proof. The GOP is now a profoundly anti-American party.

 

 

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Lawyers Letter – Jan 6th

Dewey Cheatem and Howe LLP

17th June 2021

Re:       Insurrection Day Trip

We represent John and Julie Smith, who were customers of Revolution Travel LLC on 6th January 2021.

Mr and Mrs. Smith purchased a Day Trip Insurrection Package from your website revolutiontravelllc.com on 3rd January 2021. On the website, the package was described thus:

“An unparalleled opportunity to visit our great nation’s political capital, see the sights, and participate in a unique one-time only insurrection to re-install Our Type of Government”.

As true Americans and patriots, this was very appealing to our clients.

In the e-Brochure, you promised our clients that they would get to participate in the insurrection, and that it would be a unique opportunity for them to help to make history, not just read about it after it happened. However, at no time did you warn our clients that doing so might place them at risk of legal consequences. It appears that you failed to indemnify our clients

Your failure to itemize all of the potential legal consequences of participation in this day trip, and ensure that our clients understood and agreed to them, or to give them the chance to cancel their order, has resulted in our clients currently being incarcerated in a federal jail, awaiting trial on a total of 7 public order, trespassing and conspiracy charges. Their lives have been ruined, and they are not due to be tried until February 2022. This whole event and its aftermath has caused them profound financial, mental and emotional distress. When they booked the trip, they were under the impression that it would be an exciting day out in Washington DC, with the possibility that they would be identified as participants in a historical event. The event itself did not meet the advertised objectives.

Accordingly, we are demanding the following:

  1. a full refund of the total cost of the Day Trip Insurrection Package
  2. payment of all of our clients’ legal costs to defend themselves against any and all legal actions, both criminal and civil, arising from this day trip
  3. a public apology for failing to notify our clients as to the potential legal consequences of the afternoon Insurrection Party

Failure to meet these demands within 30 elapsed days, will lead us to begin the process of filing appropriate legal complaints against your company in the appropriate State and Federal courts, for misrepresentation.

 

Kind Regards,

M.A. Ko

Partner

 

 

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The sad truth about Donald Trump

The saddest and most enduring aspect of the era of Donald Trump as a pretend politician is not his lying, bullshitting mendacity, his utter incompetence as a human being, or his fascist tendencies.

It is that he operated as a human permission slip to his supporters. He gave them permission to act like the worst possible versions of themselves, in private and in public. That behavior is going to continue for years.

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Working from Home – The New Normal

To paraphrase a famous UK singer, I want to tell you a story.

While I was working for Sabre and then EDS, the corporation adopted an approach to remote working by employees where, if you lived 40 or more miles from your defined work location, and you could obtain leader approval, you were allowed to work from home for 4 days a week, only having to be in the office for meetings one day a week.

This was not a full Work From Home employment agreement. However, a small number of employees did have Work From Home agreements, and in that scenario, the corporation also provided and paid for home computing infrastructure, including internet connectivity, monitors and printers. In practice, a number of employees who lived less than 40 miles from the office location also began to mostly work from home, on a “nod and wink” basis with their leaders. After a while, at least 5 people in my group were working from home, but only 2 people in the group really qualified under the 40 mile rule.

There was a period, in the 2006-2007 time period, where, for reasons that were none too clear, the new EDS leadership decided to enforce the 40 mile rule strictly. As a result, all but 2 of the group members who had been working from home were told they had to be working from their office locations 5 days a week once more. This was not a popular edict. At least 1 person in the group, one of the business analysts, left the company for another job.

After I ceased to support a local client (American Airlines) in 2007, I moved to the America Testing organization, and went on the road for a while. I was re-classified as a Remote worker, meaning that when I was not on the road, I worked from home. Most of the time I was on the road, so working from home was a pleasant, albeit temporary, respite. (contrary to what many people believed, my life as a consultant did not comprise an endless series of stays in luxury hotels, surrounded by Captains Of Industry and voluptuous pouting women. It was a whole lot less glamorous than that).

In practical terms, I have been a Work From Home person since 2008, except when consulting assignments required me to be on the road at client locations.

By the early 2010s, a significant percentage of EDS employees were working from home full-time. Part of the reason was that EDS had closed a number of city offices because there were too few people in the city to justify the retention of a physical office. They simply gave their employees in those cities money to purchase home computing infrastructure, and those employees moved to working from home.

During the transition from EDS to HPE, we suddenly were told that we had to be working from an EDS location. As a result, I started going to the Plano HQ for 2-3 days a week when I was not on the road (which was not often). The reason for this, it was explained to me, was that the selling price of EDS when sold to HP depended to some extent on real estate occupancy, so the order had some down to pamper presentation and maximize the sale price of EDS.

After the transition to HPE, there was another relaxation of the work at home rules.

Then one day, there was a sudden change in the HPE era, with Meg Whitman now the CEO. Suddenly, an edict went out that people needed to be working from an HPE office location. Consultants such as me were exempted, but many employees were told that they had 2 options:  work from an HPE office, or be laid off.

For employees who had moved to home working because there was no longer an HPE office in their city, the choice was stark; move house or leave the company. Unsurprisingly, many employees chose to leave rather than uproot themselves and their families. Or they refused to move, and were WFR’d. The choice tended to depend on which action was the most financially compelling.

Employees living in cities with an HPE office reverted to working at that office, although some of them rapidly learned that in order to be in good standing with leadership, all they had to do was “clock in” by entering the building 4 times a week. So I soon heard of legacy EDS employees who would go to the former EDS Plano HQ, clock into the building, say hello to a few people, and then go home and work at home for the remainder of the day.

Then the rumor spread that the building measurement processes were counting not only whether you were in the building, but for how long. So, for a while, I would go to Plano 2-3 days a week and work there every day, when I was not on the road. I was on the road about 50% of the time. This was not a good use of time, since it is a 1.2 hour drive from my home to the Plano office. I used the time to catch up on conversations with colleagues to take the pulse of the Testing delivery organization. But it was up to 2.5 hours that could have been spent on better use of my time on the planet.

When the legacy HPE business was merged with CSC and we became DXC, the rules on remote working were slowly relaxed again. What I realized was that every time there was a takeover or merger, leadership would insist on employees being in an office, to keep real estate occupancy rates high and help to justify that the buildings or building leases were assets, not liabilities. I was officially assigned to a new DXC office in Dallas, but I have never been there.

More recently, of course, Covid changed everything for a lot of people.  Right now, I work from home, and I expect to work from home for the rest of calendar 2021. My wife is in the same situation, having begun to work from home in April of 2020, once it became clear that Covid was taking root in Texas. Her employer has already postponed a return to office work twice. Currently they have no timetable.

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the media about how employers will try to treat employees in the future if and when the Covid-19 pandemic recedes. There is speculation that many employers will try to force employees back to office locations. This makes no economic sense for either the employer or the employee:

  • The employer has to provide office space and amenities for the employee
  • The employee has to give up time, and money to travel to and from the office location

There may be other cost considerations for parents such as child care (I can tell from what I hear on conference calls that a lot of parents of young children are using working at home as the chance to perform their own small child care).

So, if you are an employer, and you suddenly demand that your employees take a pay cut, and give up possibly 2 hours of their day to commute? Somehow I don’t think that will ever lead to a positive aggregate result.

My prediction is that the climate for employees who either want to force home-workers back to an office, or recruit people on the basis that they will mostly or entirely work from an office, is not going to be favorable. This survey tells you a lot about employee attitudes at the present time.  An employer who gives an employee a $30k raise to work from an office (when they are incurring the cost of the office space) is, bluntly, bonkers. 

This transition period will take time. Some corporations are locked into building leases that they may not be able to get out of in the short term. But the New Normal for many employees that do not have to interact with other employees face to face, or interact with the public, is not going to be the same as the Normal that existed prior to 2020.

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Dear Texas Part 1 – the S word

Dear Texas,

To use the old British joke, I see that some of the peasants are revolting…a proposal for the option of secession from the Union to be put into a referendum was just shelved in Austin. 

This is merely the latest in a series of periodic outbreaks of enthusiasm for secession of the Lone Star State. Back in the early 2000s, when UseNet was still a thing, I remember becoming involved in discussions and debates with several Texas secessionists on libertarian discussion groups. They were blithely confident that the Great State of Texas would thrive when not under the yoke of the Evil Feds.

One of the myths that many of the would-be secessionists kept talking about was that Texas somehow, magically, unlike the other states, has some magical right to secede. Something something Articles of Accession something something. This is not correct, so a little history analysis is in order.

When Texas agreed to join the Union in 1845, it was partly as a defensive measure, since Texas had split from Mexico in 1836, and the protection of the United States looked like an attractive option as a way of protecting the state from further provocations and incursions. There was a lot of debate over the terms of accession, the US Congress initially voted against it, and it took quite a while for enough Texans to vote in favour. The annexation by the USA was also accompanied by the creation of a new Constitution of Texas.

This was the text of the annexation treaty. There was no provision included in the annexation treaty for Texas to leave the Union at any point. And following that contretemps a while back, where a number of states tried to leave the Union, only to be subdued by military means, Texas has been a solid member of the United States ever since. So, if you want to secede, you will not only have to convince yourselves, you will need to enter new and uncharted territory and negotiate your departure from the Union. I kept telling some of you “there is no process” back in 2000 or so, you weren’t listening then. No, you can’t do it just by sending an email to Washington DC saying “We’re leaving thanxbai”.

Now…I understand that many of your good folks in Texas are also convinced that your state has the right to split into up to 5 states. I believe that Republican folks rather like this idea, since SHAZAM! Instantly the Senate acquires 8 more Senators, most of whom would, by an amazing piece of happenstance, turn out to be Republicans…

The reality is that it is not quite as simple as that. This article should make that clear. For starters, Congress would have to agree to that expansion. It is also far from clear that the right is explicitly codified in any legislation. Even if such a process exists, it would be something new and unique in US governance. Me being a poor gambler, I wouldn’t bet any of the family moolah on it being a viable and legal course of action.

So, making large assumptions, like (1) Texas really does want to leave, (2) The United States is OK with the idea of this, what about those pesky details?

There are a lot of them. It’s not like an uncontested divorce where both of you split shit down the middle and go your separate ways. No sir. Texas and the Federal Government are kind of welded together, so a lot of stuff has to be, how do you say this, unwound.

First, money. The United States national debt is heading towards $24 trillion at present. The Party Of Fiscal Responsibility spent 4 years, under the tutelage of Donald Trump, cutting taxes, which has increased that number by a significant number of trillions. I never want to hear any lectures again on balancing the books from the GOP. But I digress.

Texas would have to be prepared to assume a pro rata share of the national debt. The most obvious approach is to do it based on population. If we do that math <whirrs calculator>, and we add in the state’s own debt, that means that Texas leaves home with a debt of…$2.087 trillion. A f**k of a lot of debt. However, when divided by the GDP of Texas, which is rather impressive, the Debt to GDP ratio is 113%. This is actually not bad compared to many other countries.

Of course, you don’t necessarily need to use the number of citizens as a measure for how to apportion the debt. You could use land area. That would be better for Texas, because Alaska has the most land area of any state. If you use land area, the number would be $1.721 trillion. Alaska would object, of course.

You could use…ooh, how about head of cattle? But oh dear, this is not a good idea. If you do that, the share is now $2.889 trillion. Texas has the most cattle of any state at present. (At this point, I am sure that the devious secessionists would be working out how to have a massive cattle cull prior to the point at which secession metrics are measured…)

The actual debt is actually less important than the little matter of interest servicing for the debt. You will need to get a really good deal from somebody, in order to avoid the fate of some countries in the past, where interest payments kept adding to their national debt, leading to perpetual insolvency. You will need to find the best deal, so you will need to negotiate with your future lenders (which in the case of the National Debt, will be the US Federal Reserve). The United States will want a deal that is best for it as a country, so you can expect that your debt servicing will be larger in the New Independent World.

The good news is that unlike some of your neighboring states (like New Mexico and Mississippi) you are not dependent on the Federal Government for revenues and money. So you should have no trouble paying your way in the Real World. However, there is one small item that you will probably need to address. You have no State income tax, and the only countries that I am aware of that survive without a personal income tax are a small number of high-dollar tax havens with names like Monaco. So you will probably have a large pill to swallow in that area of fiscal governance. Yes, I hear phrases like “over my dead body” whenever a state income tax is mentioned, but if you (to use an old analogy) want to leave home and buy your own house and live in it you have to have enough cash flow to maintain that house. After the complete disaster this Winter, when Texas showed that it leads the world in electricity generation SNAFUs, I would respectfully suggest that some investment in public infrastructure needs to be at or top of the list of priorities for an independent Texas.

Now…military stuff. Texas has military bases all over the place. They exist in Texas because of the wide open spaces, which provide unparalleled opportunities for military units to Shoot Shit Up and Blow Shit Up without, you know, upsetting the neighbors too much. However, those bases also make major contributions to local economies. You can tell that, by the unseemly lobbying scrum that results in DC whenever, say, the US Navy tries to decide where to base a new leviathan of the sea such as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Some of the elected representatives doing the lobbying would sell family members without a second thought if they could have the new USS Dwayne D Leviathan parked in their district.

You can decide to charge the US military more rent for these bases if you like. Your call. However, the US military has plenty of other states eager to accept those bases. There are other states with their own surplus of Wide Open Space, states with names including Dakota, Idaho, Nevada and such like. So you probably shouldn’t try to drive too hard a bargain. A base the size of Fort Hood would leave a major hole in the regional economy if it closed, if you get my drift.

Land borders? Your call if you want to introduce proper land borders. I wouldn’t recommend it. Have you noticed how long those borders really are? How much do you think it would cost to secure that border? I always hear a lot of you Texans whining about “open borders”, and you’re only talking about the border with Mexico. It would be amusing to see you actually having to set up and manage your own non-open border covering Mexico, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana…a lot of miles.

You probably want to negotiate a Free Trade deal and a Freedom of Movement deal with the United States. As for diplomatic representation…your call. However, if you really want to open Texas diplomatic posts worldwide you will need to build new embassies, our own embassies are already full of spi…er, I mean diplomats. And…Texas would not enjoy the benefits of the current US United Nations membership, like the right of veto over a lot of decisions, and the permanent membership of the Security Council.

Air road and rail travel? Texas will have to pay for continued FAA coverage and inclusion in the Federal highway system at normal commercial rates. We do not recommend that you start a toll war. A blockade of borders will hurt Texas far more than the United States. No, you may not charge for the use of Texas airspace, even if you set up your own ATC operation. Airlines will simply divert around Texas, and you will suddenly find Lone Star Air (or whatever you call your shiny new flag carrier) having certain…routing difficulties elsewhere.

The USA will also require you to adhere to its anti-pollution laws. The good neighbors to the North and East do not want to have to clean up after oil refinery blow-ups. Texas is not exactly a low-pollution state. You have been pretty damn lax for decades in environmental enforcement. You’re not going to get to continue like that, even in the New World.

I would recommend that you actually, you know, formulate a detailed business plan for what happens during and after secession. I know that sort of interferes with the normal political approach of making expansive, emotionally appealing promises mostly based on total bullshit, but you will have one chance to get this right, and if you screw up, Texas will become a miserable sinkhole. Think Brexit.

Over to you, my Lone Star friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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St. Croix and the refinery disaster

In 2012, the US Virgin Islands suffered a major negative impact to the economy of St. Croix when the island’s oil refinery closed. The refinery was owned by Hovensa, and had first begun producing oil products in 1966. It was a joint venture between Hess Petroleum and Petroleos de Venezuela. For most of its life, the refinery processed sour crude from Venezuela. it was one of the largest refineries in the world, capable of processing up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day when operating at peak capacity.

The refinery’s closure was for the same reason that several other refineries in the USA have closed in the last 10 years – its equipment was worn out and obsolete, and the purity requirements for newer fuels such as low-sulphur diesel would require additional equipment to be installed. In addition, the refinery used oil to run its equipment, whereas modern refineries use natural gas or have been converted to use natural gas, which is cheaper than crude oil as an energy source. Margins in refining are very low (1-2%) so if your costs are 3% higher than a competitor, you lose money, and because of the size of the refinery, the monthly losses were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

After closure, the site was mothballed except for the storage facility. The closure put thousands of people out of work on the island. So the US Virgin Islands government began exploring ways in which they could get the refinery to re-open. At the time that the refinery closed, it was estimated that $2bn of upgrades and rework would be required to make the refinery competitive.

In 2015, the US Virgin Islands government sued Hovensa, claiming that the closure was illegal. How they could expect to force a business entity that had made an economically obvious decision to close a loss-making plant was not exactly clear. The owners responded by filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. After the usual legal manouvering, the government settled with Hovensa, and the refinery was sold for $800m to a venture capital consortium. 

Now named LImetree Bay, the new owners had to work hard and spend a lot of money to re-activate an old (and in many ways, obsolete) facility that had not been operational for 8 years. They spent $2.7bn on updates, repairs and upgrades, with a focus on creating low-sulfur maritime fuels, and Limetree Bay Refinery re-started operations in 2020.

Almost immediately there were problems. And the problems have been continuing, to the point that the EPA is considering cancelling the plant’s operating approval. Limetree Bay was an environmental problem in its previous life, and the new version of the facility seems to be no better.

The underlying challenge is a real one. Island archipelagoes lack good sources of employment for residents. Tourism only provides so many jobs. There are little to no employment sources for regular blue-collar men. The refinery generates a lot of cash into the local economy when operational, so the government had a powerful political and societal incentive to get it re-activated. However, the age of the refinery’s base equipment was always going to result in problems. Ideally they would have bulldozed the facility and started over, but that would have been cost-prohibitive. 

In the meantime, the US Virgin Islands is stuck with a leaky bucket economy job generation engine, which sooner or later will generate yet another environmental mini-disaster.

 

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Being lenient with pre-trial defendants – remember Lyle Jeffs

The current public outcry over the absurdly lenient pre-trial arrangements being agreed to by judges for a number of the January 6th Insurrection defendants are dangerous and stupid, not because they show the massive contrast between the treatment of white defendants vs. minority or immigrants and refugees. This is not even a debating point. It’s as obvious as night follows day.

The insurrectionists seem to fall into two groups:

  1. Long-term anti-government activists, many associated directly or indirectly with Oath Keepers, and Sovereign Citizen groups
  2. People sucked in by the charisma of Trump, fully invested in his “I was robbed” story, and also seduced by the conspiracy siren songs of QAnon.

Both groups believed they were doing what Trump told them to do, and that they would be treated as heroes, and not as criminals. Of course, they expected that the January 6th Insurrection would be successful.

The decision to let defendants like Kyle Rittenhouse and Jenny Cudd not only stay out of jail, but (in Cudd’s case) actually travel to Mexico for some sort of “bonding” trip, is indicative of a naive approach that I expect to lead to embarrassment for more than one judge in the next few months.

I remind everybody about the case of Lyle Jeffs, the brother of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving what is essentially a life sentence. After government investigations into welfare claim activity by the FLDS, Lyle Jeffs was indicted in 2016, along with several other FLDS men, with running a welfare fraud scheme.

Jeffs appeared in court on the charges, and the prosecution argued strenuously for him to be remanded in jail because he was a flight risk. They reminded the judge that Warren Jeffs had also absconded and become a fugitive before being apprehended in a car stop due to failure to correctly display license plates on the car in which he was a passenger (anti-government activists love to not legally tax and look after cars, as part of their low-level scofflawing).

The judge, instead of listening to the prosecution, instead decided to issue a home confinement order to Jeffs, and order him to wear an ankle monitor. Within a couple of weeks, law enforcement discovered that Jeffs had removed the ankle monitor, and had disappeared from his home in Salt Lake City.

Despite all of the fanciful rumors that he had fled to more hospitable climes South of the border, Jeffs was eventually recaptured just under one year later in South Dakota, after he tried to pawn pairs of pliers for cash and the pawnshop owner recognized his image as a fugitive and reported his presence to law enforcement. He had been living out of his truck on the run for months.

Jeffs, a leader of a cult that regards itself as above government, with his brother having already gone on the run to avoid court,  was allowed out of jail, and promptly proved the prosecution right by becoming a fugitive. Ultimately he agreed a guilty plea and was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment in November 2017.

Now we have Kyle Rittenhouse, supposedly in home confinement with strict movement restrictions, whose whereabouts are currently not officially known, after a letter addressed to the location lodged with the court was not returned. The plot thickens…it seems that the original address lodged with the court was falsified at the request of the Kenosha Police Department. Whether the judge knew about this falsification is not clear. We may yet see an awkward conversation between the judge and the defense lawyer. The prosecution has asked for a bond increase and an arrest warrant to be issued.

Many of the January 6th insurrectionists are showing, by their cavalier post-arrest actions, that they are scofflaws. The legal system needs to take a much tougher line with some of these defendants, or we will soon be reading about a disappeared defendant or three who, it will eventually become clear, have fled the USA.

 

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