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Archive for the ‘National or out of state politics’ Category

Deportations of illegal immigrants has been in the news quite a bit since Donald Trump took office.

Possession of stolen Social Security numbers by the those detained or deported have played a role in some of the cases. A recent, well-publicized, deportation involved Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos. She was arrested in Arizona and returned to Mexico for a 2009 felony conviction stemming from a stolen SSA number she used.  Her case was reviewed by ICE seven times after the conviction. A removal order was issued in 2013.

One source reported the actual owner of the number was a young man in Tucson.  While I cannot confirm that, even if Garcia de Rayos had created one from randomly selected digits there would have been at least a 50% chance of it belonging to a citizen, living or deceased. As of 2014, approximately 450 million numbers had been issued out of one-billion  possible  numeric combinations.

The remaining 50% will be issued over the next several decades. The current rate is 5.5 million per year (there are blocks of numbers which are unavailable). Eventually, all illicitly used random numbers will, in effect, be stolen.

That begs the question: if you are aware that an action you have taken has a 50% chance of amounting to theft, are you guilty of a felony? There is no easy answer, but it at least can be considered some form of fraud or misrepresentation. It would be enough for me to lose my CPA license (or worse) if I filed a tax return for a client who I knew was using a W2 with an unauthorized SSA number.

SSA numbers are stolen for two purposes: financial gain, as in taking out a fraudulent loan in the name of the person to whom it is legally assigned, or for purposes of obtaining employment.  The former can create significant harm to a person’s credit and reputation; the latter can create other problems, such as impeding a background check or delaying the payment of a federal entitlement. The most vulnerable victims in either case are children. Until they are old enough to enter the job market or apply for certain federal benefits, they will not be aware of the theft.

Thefts for financial gains will always be a problem.  Nothing short of persistent, proactive measures by the government and other institutions who possess SSA numbers will make a dent in this form of criminal activity. Even then, sophisticated hacking will occasionally breach any firewall. It is ultimately up to individuals to prevent or limit damage by practicing relentless vigilance.  Take any seemingly legitimate communication you receive from a financial institution  with a grain of salt. Carefully scrutinize all requests for information appearing to originate from a government body.

Preventing the use of SSA numbers for employment purposes is difficult to stop, too, maybe even more so because theft can be accomplished using low tech resources. Illegal immigrants normally use their own names for the stolen numbers. Creating authentic-looking documents is fairly easy.  However, they will not accrue benefits if the number is fictitious or has already been assigned.  The Social Security Administration screens employer W2 filings for mismatches or no evidence of issuance. Employee contributions will be held in the Earnings Suspense File.

In 2010, it was estimated that these suspense dollars provided around $12 billion to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.  While that is a windfall, it is a pittance compared to the funding needs of the two programs.  The contributions are likely more than offset by the uncompensated services provided by emergency rooms across the nation to those who are not authorized to be here.  That’s according to the American College of Emergency Physicians. 

I would not rule out future benefit claims against previously unmatched contributions by those who may one day attain legal status, or through a class action. If that occurs, the windfall effect could be greatly diminished. The United States could be facing a growing contingent liability that could bite a large chunk from the Retirement and Medicare trust funds when we least expect it, and when less prepared to deal with the fallout. The Suspense File has accumulated $1.2 Trillion through 2012 from 333 Million unmatched W2s.  Claims against a fraction of that could easily exceed $100 Billion.

Except through a small pilot program, neither the IRS nor SSA will notify you if your Social Security number pops up as a mismatch.  It is important for you to compare your earnings against those shown on your annual Social Security Statement. Do not depend on the SSA to catch all fraudulent W2s and assign them to the Suspense File.

The most sensible line of defense against illicit use of SSA numbers for employment purposes would be to increase the use of the E-Verify system.  There must be penalties for employers who do not perform reasonable due diligence in screening hires.

There are concerns about  mandatory use and the cost of the system to businesses. My suggestion would be to use it as an audit tool – not everyone would be required to use it.  Employers submitting too many W2s with mismatched SSA numbers would have to as long as the problem persists…..and suffer consequences for their carelessness if it did not cease.  In time, it may be practical to require widespread use as efficiency is improved through experience.

Ultimately, we need to come to grips with the primary cause of employment-purposed SSA number theft.  There are some jobs Americans will not do at current levels of compensation, in some cases kept artificially low by the availability of cheap labor. Rooting out unauthorized SSA number use could open up some labor segments to American citizens. Then there are those jobs most citizens will shun at almost any rate of pay.  Do not expect to find more than a few Americans picking crops or working in a poultry processing plant. That was not the case in days gone by, but that train left the station many decades ago, and it is not returning.

There should be regulated guest worker programs, subject to the protection of labor laws, for certain industries and jobs when needs are proven. Employees will not get rich, but could earn a path to citizenship and all the opportunities that has to offer.  Costs of certain products would rise, but the use of unauthorized SSA numbers could significantly diminish.

If  the integrity of the SSA database is compromised by a steady inflow of bogus information, the ramifications will be painful to the economy and greatly diminish trust in the institutions responsible for our financial and physical well being. That pain will be far worse than what would be felt by taking steps to deal with the problem now.

 

 

 

 

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By the time this article is published,  either the most awaited or unawaited presidency, depending on your point of view, will have begun.

Trump’s loyal supporters believe he will initiate sweeping, long-overdue changes; his most ardent detractors fear he will take us down the road to fascism.

For certain, we are in for a wild ride, but I do not believe President Trump (can’t believe I am typing those two words together) will be able to wave a magic wand and have his way across the board. This is a guy who did not have a majority of his own party behind him.  His victory was more about the other candidate’s problems.

A Washington Post/ABC poll showed his favorability rating on the eve of taking office as 40%.  That does not signal a honeymoon; an impending divorce is more like it, a nasty one at that.

Without a broad consensus behind him, Congress will not rubber-stamp much of Trump’s agenda, assuming he really has one other than poorly defined tweeting points.

So one should not expect broad support for any of his plans beyond the selection of a new Supreme Court judge. That’s a big one, but the High Court has always ebbed and flowed between conservative and liberal influence.  It’s been that way for a few decades. There’s always a wild card, too, like Justice Kennedy. Let’s not forget that Chief Justice Roberts saved Obamacare. You just never know.

I anticipate we will have a balanced court, unless one of the liberal judges retires during Trump’s term. It is unlikely any of them will retire during a first term.  It would take a Scalia-type departure for another vacancy on the left side of the bench.

What about a wall across our southern border?

I think you might see some segments constructed in strategic locations, but funding will be a problem for any lengthy stretch.  It will be more show than substance. The repercussions will give Republican lawmakers pause.

But there will be some extensive changes to immigration policy, some of which will be embraced. Take for example tightened restrictions on H-1B visas.  Even there, Trump will learn that this abused program can only be throttled back so far, because our schools are not turning out enough STEM talent to meet the demands of science and industry.

A beefed-up Border Patrol is one practical objective many will support.  The members of the USBP save lives and interdict dangerous criminals. Unlike a wall, they offer a flexible response for dealing with illegal immigration. Walls cannot make arrests or render assistance to those challenging the hostile terrain which exists over a vast swath of the border.

Government environmental regulations will be reduced, but to what degree depends on popular support. A majority of our citizens do care deeply about the environment.  People depend on it for recreation, comfort, health and a safe food and water supply. If they feel the environment is significantly threatened, they will push back in noticeable numbers, enough to turn up the political heat in Congress.

A reduction in corporate taxes is almost a certainty.  However, it will be a balancing act between what it will take to bring offshore earnings back home and avoiding the appearance of catering to Wall Street. And no politician wants the Wall Street label to stick. This could be the biggest battle Congress faces, one in which Trump will have the least influence for fear of alienating blue collar workers, the very constituency that helped push him over the top in the election.

The greatest uncertainty involves international relations.  A president has wide leeway in deploying or redeploying troops. Some would argue he has the power to terminate a treaty without the consent of Congress. The Constitution is not specific on this subject.

Most certainly, Trump could effectively undermine NATO by pulling resources from it, turning the alliance into a mere shell.

How about a trade agreement such as NAFTA?

NAFTA is a congressional-executive agreement, not a real treaty. There are no rules as to who can terminate one, so it would appear Trump could pull out over the objections of Congress.

In the end, for Trump’s policies to prevail, he needs broad support from both Congress and the public.

You do not earn broad support with provocative remarks in social media.  Think of the number of people who are unfriended on Facebook because of their relentless partisan posts and memes.

The Tweeter-in-Chief will have more to lose than gain in his use of the internet. People just might unvote him.

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The outcome of the presidential election was a surprise to me as much as it was to anyone.

What is not a surprise is the reaction to it.

There have been some extreme events and outbursts, including rioting by some Clinton supporters and some nasty displays of neo-Nazism by the loosely organized Alt-right group. Fortunately, these reactions are not acceptable to the population as a whole. Most of us are moving forward and dealing with change in a rational manner. The checks and balances embedded in the Constitution will prevent significant, or even sudden, permanent changes to our government.

However, one proposed remedy to Trump’s victory resurrects an issue this nation has faced before…..secession from the United States.

As a practical matter, according to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, it is virtually impossible, short of an apocalyptic disaster which throws our nation into dysfunctional chaos. Although there are many who believe we have been dysfunctional for a long time, I have news for you – the national government has not only survived, it has expanded its influence.

The Post article states: Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution specifies how a state can gain admission to the United States. There is no stipulation, though, for the reverse. Even if Obama wanted to let Texas go — a thought that probably appealed to him for at least a second — there’s no mechanism for him to do so. There’s no mechanism for Congress to simply say, Sure, off you go. Once you’re in, you’re in. The United States was born an expansionist enterprise, and the idea of contraction, it seems, never really came up.

To those proposing a Cal-exit , don’t waste your time, or those of the state’s voters, with a referendum to seek secession.

Having said that, the topic is worthy of an interesting hypothetical discussion.

Did the Civil War really resolve whether secession is constitutional? I touched on this subject in an article I wrote for Citywatch in connection with the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

As I pointed out, the seven states that seceded prior to Lincoln’s inauguration could have gotten away with it had Fort Sumter had not been fired upon by Confederate batteries. Absent the catalyst the attack provided, the nation had no stomach for war, much less a civil war. Had Lincoln raised troops to forcibly end secession, it is likely the entire Upper South would have joined the Lower South, including the critical border states of Kentucky and Maryland. Washington would have been isolated; Lincoln’s administration would have been dead on arrival.

A southern-leaning Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger Taney, a slaveholder himself, may have ruled in favor of the break.

What the Civil War did make certain was the illegality of forceful secession.

Does that mean peaceful or passive secession is permissible?

As mentioned earlier, there is no process for separation via legislation. There is nothing in the Constitution to guide Congress; nothing even stipulating a voting margin for such an action. Any request by a state to secede would simply die.

But let’s just say it did occur.

Just like divorce, there would be a property settlement…..and would that be costly to California! Do you think the rest of the states would transfer control of Yosemite and other national parks for a song? How about military installations and other federal government real estate?

The financial obligations California would incur for buying out its share of the unfunded liability of Social Security and Medicare of its citizens would be worse.

California claims to receive less monies from the federal government than it sends. That is so much BS. The benefits to the state from physical protection and security provided by the federal government is incalculable. In terms of economic trade, California’s primary trading partners are part of the Pacific Rim. Without the leverage of the federal government behind us, we would be at a disadvantage in negotiations with China and Japan, whose economies dwarf those of the Golden State.

Then there are details of establishing a monetary unit and a central bank.

How about supporting embassies throughout the world?

The nation of California would be bankrupt from the get-go.

One other thing. There are regions within California which will not go along with the plan. Much of California’s agriculture and water is attributable to the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, respectively. Those regions would balk at the plan. They would form their own state, or possibly request to join Nevada. Sacramento would find itself isolated from the rest of its subjects. California would be totally dependent on a foreign government for food, water and energy.

The secession movement is laughable until you realize its proponents really believe it is plausible. For their sake, I sure hope they do not receive Nigerian e-mail solicitations.

But just the talk of secession further alienates California from the rest of the nation.

One of our top attractions is Wine Country. We do not want to be labeled Whine Country.

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Ivanka Trump will take the oath of office as President of the United States in 2032. By then, she will have served in Congress for ten years, filling Rep. Peter King’s seat in New York. This would come after four years as White House Press Secretary.

I can hear the readers of this article madly typing comments, many of them expressing outrage.

Before you hit the “send now” button, you should understand that those who are well-acquainted with me know my affection for satire. I have even written a few satirical pieces for Citywatch.

In my early youth, I developed an appreciation for the genre. Steve Allen’s and Ernie Kovacs’ off-the-wall skits, while not about politics, not to mention tame by today’s standards, were the prototypes for contemporary comedic interpretations of current events and social norms.

John Oliver’s work is at the top of my list these days (Jon Stewart is OK, but Colbert is a frightful bore). Oliver pulls no punches and uses gut-busting delivery and politically incorrect content, although I wish he would refrain from over-reliance on the F-bomb.

I’m waiting for someone to perform a skit about Ivanka Trump rising to power; Chelsea Clinton too – it has been reported that she is being groomed to run for Congress. There’s great potential material here. It could top all of the Donald Trump/Hilary Clinton sketches that appeared on SNL.

I thought Donald Trump’s campaign was satire – until November 8th – but Clinton ended up as the punchline. So, while I am not serious about either Ivanka’s or Chelsea’s prospects for leading the nation, the recent election proves that anything can happen. Maybe Billy Bush can resurrect his family’s political fortunes.

Yes, anything can happen, but, judging from partisan Facebook posts, few of Clinton’s supporters failed to recognize that right up through late in the afternoon of November 8th. By the way, Dave Chappelle’s sketch with Chris Rock on SNL hilariously made that point.

Both candidates took their lumps in the parodies; perhaps Trump more so, but his rants were softballs which the writers were able to knock out of the park. Many Clinton supporters may have developed a false sense of security by assuming the satire reflected the prevailing sentiment across all regions. However, what may seem funny and improbable one day, can become reality the next.

Too many people have a myopic view of the world. They do not understand how anyone can hold an opposing position. As a result, they can get blindsided and unduly horrified when results do not go their way.

We owe it to ourselves to understand the underlying reasons for the views of a wider audience, not just what is reported in the mainstream and social media, or fed to us by partisan organizations. Michael Moore had it right.

Unless we make an effort to understand each other, we will allow satire to obscure reality. Then it will no longer be funny.

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I have been wrong every step of the way in this campaign.

I thought Trump would be defeated in the primaries or taken down at the Republican convention. And certainly there was no way he could win a national election after alienating large segments of the population.

Wrong, wrong, wrong……but so were the pollsters.

How did it happen? After all, Clinton had the organization, hardened foot soldiers reaching out to key demographic groups and the backing of a popular president.

Basically, the same playbook she followed in 2008; it failed her then, too. In hindsight, it was doomed to fail again when you consider decreasing support and disgust for the two major political parties. I guess you can say Clinton is a slow learner.

She also alienated important groups, just as Trump did. It started back in 2016 in West Virginia, when she threw the coal miners under the bus, in so many words dismissing them as a non-factor. I wrote about it in Citywatch then:

Pulling the rug out from under those whose livelihoods depend on the coal industry is not how you win their hearts and minds.

The bad feelings will not be limited to West Virginia either. The swing state of Ohio is in play, where 33,000 are employed in the industry and coal provides 69% of the state’s electricity. Those employees have friends and relatives, so the potential for a meaningful block turning out in a tight race is there.”

Apparently, the effect went beyond coal miners and their families: blue-collar families of all stripes, all throughout the nation, who share the same values as their brethren toiling in the hills of Appalachia, felt insulted.

The e-mail fiasco just added fuel to the fire. Even that crisis would have diminished if she had taken the criticism seriously from the start, instead of her initial humorous take on it.

The Clinton Foundation donations from foreign countries also undercut her.

Basically, all of this contributed to the public’s poor perception of her trustworthiness. When you lose trust, it is difficult to get it back, more so when your personality does not convey warmth and sensitivity. The personality issue was more pronounced when compared to President Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s charisma.

Trump had more than his share of problems – offensive remarks, refusal to share his tax returns, trash-talk about world affairs – but amazingly that was not enough to offset Clinton’s negative image. It is as if voters perceived him as being genuine, in a perverse way.

Bottom line, this race was never about ideology. Otherwise, President Obama’s popularity, which was partly due to his policies, would have carried her.

Our nation hasn’t changed. People still care by health coverage. Most people do not want to see a wall along the border. We do not want to abandon our allies.

It appears all most people want is a president they can read like a book. And one who can read them.

And what a book.

Don’t know what the next chapter has in store.

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Growing up, novels and films about political intrigue and international conflicts were my favorites.

To an extent, they still are. There just haven’t been enough of them; the last notable one was Bridge of Spies, about the real-life negotiations to free downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers during the height of the Cold War. Coincidentally, the hero, James Donovan, graduated from the same school I attended in the Bronx – way more than a few years before I entered its doors.

Ian Fleming, who created James Bond, sparked my interest in the espionage genre. I binge read all twelve Bond novels before freshman year in high school.

My all time favorite thriller, though, was The Manchurian Candidate, a novel by Richard Condon, and released as a film in 1962. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey were the leads, but Angela Lansbury stole the show with her portrayal of a conniving, cold-blooded conspirator – a far cry from Jessica in Murder, She Wrote. The 2004 version was disappointing, but that is usually the case with a remake of a classic.

In the novel and the film, a seemingly ultra-conservative demagogue and his wife are part of a communist plot to win the presidency.

My memories of the story have been reawakened by the potential subterfuge involving Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Julian Assange. I can’t help but to project those three against the fictional plot: Trump as the blabbering demagogue serving as a front for the communists, Putin as the Soviet handler responsible for enabling the conspiracy and Assange as the one who pulls the strings (Lansbury’s role). The plan entails playing on the emotions of the nation in order to achieve the sinister objective.

Am I allowing my imagination run wild?

You bet, but I just can’t pass this stuff up. It has all the components of the film: deceit, conspiracy and reprehensible characters.

Can life imitate art?

Yes, but with limits.

Although it is true that Putin and Assange would dearly love to embarrass the United States by exploiting the DNC and Clinton e-mail fiascoes, it is far less likely that Trump possesses the planning skills to make it work in his favor. His campaign, after all, is a series of spontaneous outbursts. Encouraging Putin to continue hacking the Clinton campaign e-mails, while disgusting, is not a crime. It is more like irrational bombast. If he did go as far as to conspire with them, his next reality show would be broadcast from inside his cell at a federal prison.

That’s not to say Trump will not benefit from Putin’s caginess and Assange’s willingness to release potentially embarrassing e-mails about Clinton, but any gains will be offset by his ongoing diatribes against any person or group who possess any sense of moderation. More than 20 Republican senators, not to mention a fair handful of Members of Congress and governors, as well as key party figures, did not attend the RNC. They have followers who will sit this election out, if not cross over and vote for Clinton.

But this nation has never before experienced such an asymmetrical campaign strategy. No one can reasonably estimate the degree of emotion, especially among voters who have stayed on the sidelines in other presidential elections, doing so out of disgust with the establishment.

Last December, I wrote an article describing Trump as America’s Putin, emphasizing the destructive synergy that could result if both men were in power. However, I concluded that Trump would not win the Republican nomination.

Boy, was I wrong. The Manchurian Candidate still has a chance.

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Politicians have a knack for making some of the dumbest statements. Hillary Clinton not only made one, but chose the worst place to utter it.

Saying “..we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business..” in a state that mines 10% of the nation’s output of the fossil fuel seems comparable to some of Donald Trump’s many foot-in-mouthisms.

The statement was taken out of context – Clinton did indicate her administration would help prepare coal miners for different careers – but specific solutions were neither offered nor alluded to beyond unspecified retraining .

Retraining: a promise we’ve heard before from many candidates at all levels. But if you are going to suggest it as a solution to a group facing the growing prospects of unemployment, then specifics are in order, not to mention facing up to reality.

Coal miners do have generic traits any employer would welcome: fierce work ethic, commitment to productivity, unselfishness….but the transition from a lifetime in the mine shafts to other industries where technological skills are becoming increasingly common will represent an insurmountable challenge for many.

Determining what industries or skills would provide the best prospects for miners is almost a crap shoot –  even retail.  How many Wal Marts can West Virginia support? In any event, competition for any job will be fierce. Some employment opportunities could also involve relocation, a prospect which may not be practical for many.

A more sensible approach is to let the coal industry die a natural death over a long period of time.  It is already in a steady state of decline in Appalachia: five major coal companies have filed for bankruptcy within the last twelve months.  Mining jobs have also vanished, especially in West Virginia. It hasn’t helped the state that easier-to-mine coal can be found in Montana and Wyoming, and cheaper natural gas is abundant.

There is no need to rush it along for the sake of climate change, especially when coal is and will continue to be heavily burned in China and India.  We will also always need some coal production, as it is important to have diverse and secure energy sources.

In the long-run, though, coal usage will diminish as cleaner sources become more economical. That’s a good thing.

Let as many as possible of the current generations of miners work to retirement. Encourage the rising generations in the coal mining regions of Appalachia to aspire to other careers by emphasizing the benefits of science, business, engineering, agriculture and technology careers in schools.  More importantly, apply the resources necessary to make that happen.

According to CNA (it is not an acronym), a company specializing in economic, social and defense research, referring to Appalachia,”the national focus on college and career readiness for all students presents a particular challenge in a region where, in the past, college was neither needed nor desired and careers outside the coal industry are limited.”

CNA’s study also suggested a strong desire for students to remain close to home and choose occupations where a college education is not required.

That particular aspect of the region’s culture has to change. The support of the adult population is critical in order for that to occur.

Pulling the rug out from under those whose livelihoods depend on the coal industry is not how you win their hearts and minds.

The bad feelings will not be limited to West Virginia either. The swing state of Ohio is in play, where 33,000 are employed in the industry and coal provides 69% of the state’s electricity.  Those employees have friends and relatives, so the potential for a meaningful block turning out in a tight race is there.

I have no horse in this presidential race, but I understand the volatile mix present in this nation which could make the outcome go either way.

 

 

 

 

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