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August 10, 2013

Collateral Damage
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 08:56 AM * 72 comments

When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.
— Deuteronomy 24:21

Remember the nineteen firefighters who died in Arizona earlier this summer? Young men, many of them leaving widows and orphaned children behind.

There was a lot of speechifying after their deaths. There were promises of support. But now the news cycle has moved on, and depressing reality has set in. Thirteen of the firefighters were classed as “seasonal” or “part-time” employees, meaning that their survivors don’t get the same benefits as the permanent, full-time hotshots they died beside*. Family members are questioning the treatment of two of them, Andrew Aschraft and Christopher Mackenzie. In both cases, the men’s status was ambiguous: they had recently started working full-time hours, but their employee files do not contain updated contracts. The city of Prescott, Arizona is not paying out full benefits for them. Survivors of the other eleven men have even less basis to appeal.

I don’t know what the legal situation is. I suspect the finances of Prescott are as screwed as those of anywhere else in this economic train wreck, and that even if the city officials had a legal obligation to pay out the benefits, they’d be struggling to do so. This is what happens when you starve the beast. Widows and orphans go without, because generosity to them means libraries close, class sizes go up, and roads crumble.

This is financial reality, say the Serious People. This is fiscal responsibility.

Maybe, in the short term, for this year’s budget cycle. But it’s madness in the long term. Settlement patterns have changed. More people are living in the exurbs, out where the regular fire department can’t come. Not all of them have very good fire discipline, keeping tinder away from their houses, reducing fuel loads on their land, exercising care with fire and flammables. And the climate is changing, so that formerly marginal areas will become hotter and drier. Expect more wildfires: rural, exurban, and suburban. And that’ll be the tax base burning, which will tighten finances even further (if money is what matters here). People may die, too.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to bet that every hotshot and smokejumper in America is watching Arizona. I’m certain it’s a topic of dinner-table and late-night conversation in many households. And in the end, their financial reality, their fiscal responsibility, may very well mean that it’s time to get a safer job, or at least one that leaves their widows and orphans with the resources to rebuild their lives.

It was pointed out in the earlier thread on this subject that there are advantages to not paying firefighters banker-level salaries: it keeps the job for people who want to do the job rather than get the money. But that’s not to say that compensation is not important; it’s simply not all in the pay packet. The security of what the firefighters value most—which can be presumed to include their families—is also part of what allows them to take the risks they take. That security is, in a very real sense, collateral for the loan of their service and their courage, which (for many reasons) we do not buy outright.

We’re going to regret this.

* Personally, I find this facet of American employment law entirely disgusting. But it is law, so we work within it.

Comments on Collateral Damage:
#1 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 09:36 AM:
Widows and orphans go without, because generosity to them means libraries close, class sizes go up, and roads crumble.

That's a very optimistic way of putting it.

#2 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 09:42 AM:

What, in the sense that the libraries may close, the class sizes rise, and the roads crumble anyway?

Yes, but I'm arguing this on the ground where it lives. The system is set up so that our desperate needs fight against one another for resources, so that our neighbor's gain will be used to excuse our loss.

I'm saying that even within that context this is a damn fool situation. Outwith that context, it's even stupider, but there are so many bricks in the wall. I'm trying to focus on just one.

#3 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 10:06 AM:

I think there are advantages to not paying bankers banker-level salaries, if it comes to that.

#4 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 10:17 AM:

abi @ 2: I admire your optimism. I wish I shared it. I usually do. Lately, though, I've been thinking about how the wealthy and powerful are doing a real good job of trashing the country so it can't threaten them. Vicious shit-sucking scum, one and all.

(Come to think of it, what do I have against coprophrages?)

But yeah, this is spectacularly stupid. I have a good friend who does this as part of his job. Every time I hear about a death like this, it's a miniature Katrina for me, clicking over and over till I see the names. This time was no exception, even though I was sure he wasn't there.

#5 ::: Tracey Henley ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 10:20 AM:

I continue to be stunned & frightened at the short-sightedness of ppl in our country, and have only one question: how did we get so eaten up with the stupid? How in God's name did this country rise to such prominence, when we continue to demonstrate our shit-for-brains? (Ok, two questions, but still.)

#6 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 10:24 AM:

I'd rather many, many service-to-world jobs be paid tons of money. Yes, you will get people trying to do the job for the money-- but it is better to have people in it for the money that you can then select from than to have people in it for the love of the job and can't do it for financial reasons. Loving the job doesn't mean you'll be good at it, and doing it for the money doesn't mean you'll be bad at it. More people trying for the job means more people to choose from and more people who can be taught to love the job (like me and kiddos... and like me and kiddos, not paying tons of money means people leave for jobs they can have lives outside).

If you die doing a job, you are not part-time. You shouldn't be. You have given all the time you had left. I want to live in a world where people treat it that way.

#7 ::: Tam ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 10:34 AM:

Mongoose @3: I'm the same way. The sentiment that the arts and certain other professions (smokejumpers, paramedics, etc. What would you call them? Emergency professionals?) ought to be low-paid so that they're filled with passionate people is the flip-side of the same fallacy that says we need to provide massive salaries to bankers and tax breaks for the rich, because we need to pay for great bankers and we want the rich to stay here. I do not buy into it at all.

#8 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 10:43 AM:

Short-term thinking leads, inevitably to the mire.

#9 ::: Richard W ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 10:52 AM:

This has some bearing, although it's certainly not a comfortable discussion:

http://www.nationaljournal.com/magazine/how-much-is-a-life-worth-20130801


Hat tip to Three Quarks

#10 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 12:35 PM:

there are advantages to not paying firefighters banker-level salaries: it keeps the job for people who want to do the job rather than get the money

Okay, I understand this logic. But not paying firefighters banker-level salaries while they're on the job doesn't mean we (as a society) could not offer banker-level casualty benefits to the firefighter and family. Because unlike bankers, there's a very real chance that being a firefighter can be hazardous to your health.

#11 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 12:40 PM:

Oh, I think firefighters should be paid a living wage, have job security, get good health care, have reliable death in service benefits, and be secure in their old age.

But then, I think that every employee should have that, or as close as possible. But again, my beliefs about US employment law in general are not the brick I was peering at in the OP.

(Happy to talk about them in the comment threads, but you won't see me disagreeing!)

#12 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 12:43 PM:

If you die doing a job, you are not part-time. You shouldn't be. You have given all the time you had left.

Diatryma, may I quote this on G+ with attribution to your ML screenname?

#13 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 01:09 PM:

Seconding what Diatryma @6 said. They gave their lives and impoverished their families for someone else's property, that was likely insured anyway.

https://plus.google.com/104119855035793551431/posts/abwzQuKt1Jj

We ask a lot of those who have the least to give while expecting little from those who have the most.

#14 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 01:33 PM:

When my father was killed in an accident, I was four. My mother was very severely injured the same accident. What saved us, as a functional, independent family, was my father's life insurance, which he obtained through work.

Now, we had other advantages. My grandmother stayed with us until my mother could walk again (a year). We had no medical bills (Canadian). Nevertheless, without that lifeline, I can't imagine what we would have done. I don't think we had much in the bank, 'cause I know my grandfather had to pay 2 months rent, until the paperwork for the benefits cleared. My grandparents paid for my father's funeral. As crazy as my dysfunctional family makes me, it is a true thing to say they carried us for that year, and more besides.

If we had not had that money, where would we have gone? What would my mother have done? Some of those moms must be terrified at their prospects.

#15 ::: Diana ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 02:16 PM:

"We’re going to regret this."

Tip of the iceberg. It's going to cost billions to safeguard just NYC and Boston from rising seas and Miami probably can't be saved for any price. Not to mention drought, floods and the erratic climate we're already beginning to experience due to fluctuations in a jet stream no longer anchored by Artic ice.

But we can't prepare for climate change because that would be "too expensive." Just like paying for Social Security, public pensions, and universal healthcare is "too expensive."

#16 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 02:32 PM:

>Meanwhile, I’m willing to bet that every hotshot and smokejumper in America is watching Arizona.

Nitpick: I bet they aren't just watching. I suspect that the mere fact the question of benefits has come up is enough to make them less trusting, regardless of how the case is decided.

And I'll bet that the lawyers in this case will cost enough to cover a fair chunk of benefits.

#17 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 07:33 PM:

Next time wildfires threaten Prescott, I hope all the firefighters everywhere call in sick. "No, I'm not sick...but I'm too sick to go save Prescott."

#18 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 07:42 PM:

More moderately, the firefighters should be warning everyone not to take part-time contracts with that rotten little town.

#19 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 08:01 PM:

It's not just Prescott. It's the state of Arizona, and where the fire was. State land, federal land, private land...it's a lot cheaper to play pass the buck, and deny responsibility.

Given how rich and powerful some of the people who own property up there are, I imagine that a fire team boycott would be mighty effective.

#20 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 08:02 PM:

I would think there'd be insurance policies taken out by small cities like Prescott to cover death benefits for firefighters, cops and other emergency personnel. Big cities may self-insure, figuring they can pay out of current cash flow.

Jim Macdonald, are your local EMTs covered if they lose their lives on the job?

#21 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 08:19 PM:

Xopher, the memorial float in the Prescott parade and all the people watching the line of hearses pass on the highway doesn't make up for no pension benefits, no matter what the officials think.

#22 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 11:37 PM:

P J, of course not.

#23 ::: Steve Smith ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2013, 11:53 PM:

Simple arithmetic:
(services people want) > (taxes people are willing to pay)

I'd say that if Prescott can't pay for vital services like firefighters, they should disincorporate as a city. (No loss, IMHO. My previous experiences in Prescott were not pleasant.)

From my experiences with various city governments, they could probably balance their budgets by firing all of the "consultants" making six-figure salaries for poorly described job descriptions.

#24 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 04:43 AM:

I am mystified every time something like this happens. Why does America allow vital services to be handled piecemeal by individual towns, some of which aren't large and/or prosperous enough to do so effectively? Why are they not handled at a federal, or at least a state, level?

In this country, a firefighter is an employee of national rather than local government, regardless of where s/he is based. They are on a standard pay scale, so you will be paid at the same rates whether you fight fires in London or some remote corner of the Peak District. You, or your surviving relatives, will also get exactly the same benefits. What matters is that you fight fires, not where you fight them or who you fight them for.

I'm not saying by any means that this country is perfect - in fact, there are enough bad things about it to have made me seriously consider emigrating until I discovered that the place I was thinking of emigrating to was no better. But I do, at least, think we have it right about firefighters.

#25 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 04:55 AM:

(On reflection, I think I may have got that slightly wrong; it may be local councils who have direct responsibility for paying them. But, if that is the case, they get ring-fenced government funding in order to do so. The fire services are paid for nationally, whether that's directly or indirectly.)

#26 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 04:58 AM:

PJ Evans @21:
the memorial float in the Prescott parade and all the people watching the line of hearses pass on the highway doesn't make up for no pension benefits, no matter what the officials think.

Martin and I were driving through rural California a couple of weeks ago, looking at the banners of dead soldiers that hang from the lampposts on the main streets of so many of the small towns there.

"I know they're doing what they can, but it strkes me that 'Thank you for your service' and a banner if you die are a pretty poor substitute for a GI Bill and proper health benefits," I remarked.

He replied, "Also, there are more ways of serving your country than fighting for it. When do those people get thanked?"

Mongoose @24:
Why does America allow vital services to be handled piecemeal by individual towns

American culture has a strong element of suspicion of centralized government running through it. Things are less often "allowed" and more often just kind of grow that way.

(Of course, the fact that half the politicians running the centralized government have pegged their electoral success to the notion that government is incompetent doesn't help the issue.)

#27 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 07:09 AM:

There's a scaling thing in this.

Over the whole country, as an average, firefighter deaths are unusual. But if something bad happens, several firefighters can die.

This is where the insurance model makes sense, whether you're dealing with firefighters or collisions with garbage trucks.

Maybe a large municipality can self-insure. There are ways of figuring out the risks, maybe even ways of insuring some of the risk. Here in the UK, for motor insurance, I understand that money has to be set aside, and insurers routinely use Lloyds to reinsure risks. This is all not so different from a damage excess on your motor insurance, where you pay the small bills yourself.

Bluntly, if a municipality in the US cannot pay this sort of bill, it is not being competently run.

#28 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 08:07 AM:

Dave Bell @27 Yes. I know from personal experience motor and home insurers reinsure aginst large losses (and reinsurers do things to spread the risk that are kind of convoluted). For example, the guy who fell asleep at the wheel and ended up on the railway line causing a train crash. The total cost was somewhere in the region of £25 million; his insurers picked something like the first two and a half million and the reinsurer had to pay the rest. Because they were a responsible and level headed reinsurer they had the resources to do so, and this was within the limits for expected claims. Not that they were happy to be on the receiving end of the the largest motor claim in British history of course.

#29 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 11:39 AM:

Lila at 12, yes, you may quote it as you please. If you wish to attribute it to my legal name, it's Catherine Krahe. I'm fine either way.

#30 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 05:45 PM:

Thanks!

#31 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 08:22 PM:

Prescott is in a bind over doing anything retroactively to fix this. Legally, they're not permitted to offer any compensation beyond what was contracted -- it violates the state constitution's prohibition on "gifts".

#32 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2013, 11:05 PM:

Abi @26: I had the impression that around here (various suburban cities in Los Angeles County), those banners are for all soldiers currently serving from that town, rather than only the deceased.

#33 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2013, 09:16 AM:

A tidbit of information about firefighters in America, courtesy of FEMA.

http://apps.usfa.fema.gov/census/summary.cfm

Of a census of fire departments across America, the breakdown between paid and volunteer:

Department Type

The department type is based on the NFPA definition (Career: 100 percent of a department's firefighters are career; Mostly Career: 51-99 percent of a department's firefighters are career; Mostly Volunteer: 1-50 percent of a department's firefighters are career; Volunteer: 100 percent of a department's firefighters are volunteer). Of the fire departments registered with the census,

8 percent are career
5 percent are mostly career
16 percent are mostly volunteer
71 percent are volunteer

Most firefighters (esp. rural firefighters) are already taking on a risk that is very much lop-sidedly against the compensation received.

I've been a volunteer firefighter for almost a decade. I can remember vividly the faces of every person whose life we've saved in that time.

Oftentimes it's harder to get a firefighter to not take a risk than to get him to take it. (risk management is one of the big things we're working on in my department--minimize risk when there's nothing to gain, right?)

I'm not sure this is terribly coherent. Posts like this tend to strike me directly in the feels, as they say.

#34 ::: Howard Bannister has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2013, 09:28 AM:

I'm not sure why. One link, to a nice reputable site? It is a Monday morning, so there's coffee and day-old cake that the gnomes are welcome to.

#35 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2013, 09:59 AM:

Alan Hamilton @ #31, Detroit managed to solve a similar problem, setting up an independent fund for contributions to process thousands of warehoused rape kits.

#36 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2013, 03:13 PM:

#33: Are you making a jump from "most departments" to "most firefighters"? ISTM that the size of a department may (a) vary quite a bit and (b) be related to its position on the professional-to-volunteer scale.

Not to take away from the point of providing good benefits to the people who *are*, after all, risking their lives to protect other people from fires, but an analysis by department type doesn't necessarily prove where most of the *people* are.

#37 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2013, 03:34 PM:

Jeremy Leader @32:

That's possible, although those were pretty small towns for the proportion of people actively serving, based on lampposts. Maybe they're doing it at county level or something.

Doesn't change my feeling that we should be doing better by these people than a banner and a thank-you.

#38 ::: Manny ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2013, 05:25 PM:

Wildfires don't know about city boundaries or property lines. They just go. How does it make sense to have a town paying a big share of fighting a large fire passing by? Isn't this just about the dictionary picture of the kind of thing that larger government units (state or federal) are for?

#39 ::: Shawn Crowley ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2013, 09:18 PM:

I have to disagree about not paying people well for doing difficult, dangerous, or just disagreeable work. There are lots of jobs that don't come with innate satisfaction but for even the ones that do, people need to support themselves and have enough security to stay on the job.

Many years ago (when Detroit was sick but not yet dead) a friend moved out to Seattle from Detroit. He was greatly impressed with our garbage service: on time, no debris left on the street and a fast response on a missed pickup. Sanitation workers in Seattle are paid good wages with benefits. They have an incentive to do a good job and stay on the job. Experienced workers are more efficient than a revolving door of short-timers.

Banking is easy work. Cut the pay until people start quitting.

#40 ::: Howard Bannister ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2013, 09:59 AM:
#33: Are you making a jump from "most departments" to "most firefighters"? ISTM that the size of a department may (a) vary quite a bit and (b) be related to its position on the professional-to-volunteer scale.

Not to take away from the point of providing good benefits to the people who *are*, after all, risking their lives to protect other people from fires, but an analysis by department type doesn't necessarily prove where most of the *people* are.

You are correct; the break-down of paid vs. volunteer firefighters rather than departments is slightly different. But that difference might surprise you.

http://firechief.com/volunteers/firefighting_volunteer_numbers_strong


According to the report, of the total of 1,108,250 firefighters in the United States in 2002, 816,600 (74%) were volunteer and 291,650 (26%) were career.

I was surprised by these numbers myself, since I knew that since the 80s the trend had been less volunteers, more careers. Apparently that trend reversed at some point, and we're becoming increasingly a volunteer force in this nation.

#41 ::: Manny ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2013, 11:28 AM:

Wil Wheaton was renogiating his ST:TNG contract and the counteroffer was to promote his character to Lieutenant. It's hard to pay for groceries with that. Likewise, you can't pay the rent with "attaboy" and "thank you for your service".

#42 ::: David Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2013, 01:30 PM:

People in the United States seem to (in general) have an aversion to paying for things that benefit the community. Thus, the annual fight over the school budget around here (because it's based on property taxes). Thus, the lack of anything resembling comprehensive health *care* (not insurance, but actual care) for people who aren't employed at a job that has benefits. Thus, the lack of mass transit out in my fairly densely-populated suburb (because that would cost money).

I admit, it's selfish of me to want these things. I don't like being surrounded by sickly, uneducated people.

Civilization costs money.

#43 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2013, 04:45 PM:

There was a piece on All Things Considered about consolidation of services, where several towns and cities will unite under one provider of emergency services. Of course, even when citizens realize that would save money and provide higher quality (theoretically), it hard to give up autonomy. Plus, such a move no doubt will result in some people losing jobs.

#44 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2013, 02:54 PM:

Tracey, #5: The answer to your second question is that we haven't always been this way. The short-sightedness and bottom-line-only thinking are the product of some 30 to 40 years of deliberate sabotage of our educational system and mass-media information outlets by a mostly-informally-associated collection of powerful people who stood to become even more powerful if nobody ever heard about what they were doing, and even if people did hear about it they wouldn't understand it.

That's the short version. The long one is a wall of text that I don't especially want to type, but if you read back thru the political threads here you can find most of it scattered around (not always by me).

abo, #26: Of course, the fact that half the politicians running the centralized government have pegged their electoral success to the notion that government is incompetent doesn't help the issue.

Precisely. If your core belief is that government can't do anything right, then you have no incentive to govern well. Personally, I think that expressing such a belief should disqualify a person for running for any public office -- or from running a second time, if it turns out they lied the first time. The question that should be asked of everyone of those people, loudly and repeatedly, is, "If you think government is fundamentally incompetent, WHY DO YOU WANT THIS POSITION?"

Lila, #35: I've heard about that before. It still makes me wonder if someone highly placed in the hierarchy there didn't consider rape to be a "real" crime, and decided the easiest way to handle it was to let rape cases age out of the statute of limitations.

Shawn, #39: Banking is easy work. Cut the pay until people start quitting.

Agreed, with the caveat that you start the cuts from the top down. Cut CEO/CFO pay, and the 2 or 3 levels immediately under that, by 50% for starters -- but don't mess with the tellers' pay, which isn't that great to begin with.

Steve C., #43: Also, unless they retain the individual base stations, then you get time-of-response issues for the locations further away from the consolidated base.

#45 ::: Lee apologizes for typos ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2013, 02:56 PM:

Geez, you'd think I'd catch that in preview. Sorry, abi!

#46 ::: Renee ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2013, 11:06 PM:

Somewhat off-topic, but the Arizona firefighters reminded me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWLSbWhwTE0

I'm thinking that memorializing such sacrifices is the least we can do -- and that the least is still better than nothing.

#47 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 12:37 AM:

"I suspect the finances of Prescott are as screwed as those of anywhere else in this economic train wreck, and that even if the city officials had a legal obligation to pay out the benefits, they’d be struggling to do so. This is what happens when you starve the beast. Widows and orphans go without, because generosity to them means libraries close, class sizes go up, and roads crumble."

I just read this New Yorker piece on civil forfeiture, a process by which police departments seize the money and possessions of people accused of, or just suspected of, crimes. Or the property of people related to people suspected of crimes. The proceeds from this go almost directly to funding the police department--money urgently needed in this era of shrinking government budgets.

Thus "starving the beast" involves not only kicking widows to the curb, but legally-sanctioned highway piracy as well.

#48 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 11:21 AM:

Oh ghod, Tenaha -- which is currently under Federal investigation for this kind of legalized blackmail. Even Google Maps won't route you thru Tenaha as a default any more, it's that notorious.

This is something we have to be very aware of as traveling vendors. Other routes we won't take on the way back from an event are I-40 thru Tennessee and I-70 thru Collinsville, IL.

Remember that you can refuse to let them search your car; also that you can ask them, "Am I under arrest?" and if the answer is no, "Then I'm free to go." And then be very careful about driving until you're out of their area.

You can also send cash by registered mail. We haven't had to resort to this yet, but it's only a matter of time, I suspect -- unless we do the right thing and raise taxes on the 1%.

#49 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 12:10 PM:

#48 ::: Lee

I'm pretty sure that abusive police practice and extremely rich people aren't the same issue, and it's at least plausible that one could be changed without changing the other.

#50 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 02:32 PM:

Nancy, #149: The rationale offered for these thefts is that the money is needed to augment tight police budgets. Why are the budgets tight? Because there's not enough revenue coming in. Why isn't there enough revenue coming in? Because taxes on the ultra-rich are lower than they've been since the 1920s, and the rest of us can't carry the load. How to address the problem? Raise taxes on the ultra-rich.

The connection isn't absolutely direct, but the steps aren't obscure at all.

#51 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 03:34 PM:

Charlie Stross notes that the trend of not showing loyalty and backing up your employees is now coming back to bite the intelligence community in the ass.

#52 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 03:51 PM:

Lee:

I'm sure the more articulate sort of burglars, bank robbers, and similar crooks would give the same explanation. My guess is, they shake out of towners down for money for the same reason muggers steal little old ladies' purses--because they can. Higher taxes would probably have little impact, since you really can't ever have too much money.

#53 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 04:20 PM:

Lee, the not enough money excuse is used for civil forfeiture, but civil forfeiture is hardly the only kind of police overreach.

Everything else *costs* money, especially the excessive number and use of SWAT teams.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/15/texas-swat-team-conducts-_n_3764951.html

#54 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 05:52 PM:

albatross @ 52: "Higher taxes would probably have little impact, since you really can't ever have too much money."

I'd say that you can, actually, but regardless, it doesn't follow that it's therefore impossible to have too little money. The prevalence of civil forfeiture is pretty clearly a strategy adopted to deal with tight budgets. From the article:

"The strategy helped reconcile President Reagan’s call for government action in fighting crime with his call to reduce public spending....Many states, facing fiscal crises, have expanded the reach of their forfeiture statutes, and made it easier for law enforcement to use the revenue however they see fit. In some Texas counties, nearly forty per cent of police budgets comes from forfeiture."

Starve the beast, and it begins to metabolize morals.

#55 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 06:24 PM:

heresiarch, 54: "Starve the beast, and it begins to metabolize morals."

Don't mind me, I just wanted to admire that by itself for a second.

#56 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 06:38 PM:

heresiarch:

I'm pretty skeptical of the causality here, but I don't know how we'd find out. I don't think it's a good idea to just accept the claims of the no-trial-property-seizure guys that they're only doing this because they're short of money. (For one reason not to accept these claims at face value, note that the trend toward police militarization and every one-horse town having a SWAT team and a tank is always justified by the increasing danger from violent criminals, and yet violent crime has been going down for decades.)

My intuition is that if the police shakedown racket were the result of widespread changes in willingness to pay taxes or fund government services, we would see it happening everywhere at a similar level. Instead, it looks to me like it's very concentrated--specific towns and counties raise money this way, while others in similar financial situations do not.

Is there evidence that police funding has actually significantly gone down over time?

My guess is that there is some kind of ugly cycle that happens with police shakedown operations, similar to what happens in a society where bribery becomes pervasive. Once everyone expects to take bribes, the effective salary of government employees incorporates an assumed level of bribe income. That means that getting rid of bribe-taking involves either coming up with more pay, or making a whole lot of people learn to make do with an effective salary cut.

My other guess is that the no-trial seizure laws are a temptation to corruption, and that the awful tendency to fund police with traffic tickets (which is extremely widespread in the US, along with policemen having quotas for tickets per month) is like a gateway drug. The cops bring in $X per month on traffic tickets, and some enterprising and unethical cop realizes that they can take in even more if they start seizing cash and cars. And probably the first few seizures are pretty obviously actual drug dealers, and over time the police department and city gets dependent on that money, and they have to find N drug dealers driving through per month to keep their expected cash flow. And in some communities, the police and prosecutors and judges realize that they've got a legal license to rob people (as long as they don't rob the wrong people, anyway), and so they do.

Now, I absolutely agree that police departments need to be funded by taxes. If it were up to me, no local government would ever get a dime from fines or property seizures, as it's inherently corrupting. But I doubt unwillingness to raise taxes is much of an explanation. Nor would it be any kind of an excuse for police shakedown operations--even when I'm short on money, it's not okay for me to rob people, and I think the police ought to be up to the same moral standard.

#57 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2013, 07:24 PM:

heresiarch @ 54... What TexAnne said @ 55.

#58 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2013, 12:05 AM:

albatross, #52: Ah yes, the Willie Sutton defense. The flaw in your argument is that your average mugger, bank robber, etc. -- no matter how articulate -- cannot claim to be using his ill-gotten gains for the good of the community, and is unlikely to get any significant fraction of the community to support his endeavors, unlike these rogue police departments. And while I'm quite sure the departmental expenditures could be expanded to absorb any legally-obtained amount of revenue, the excuse gets a lot thinner when there's not a genuine budgetary shortfall to pin it to.

Nancy, #53: And so it becomes a vicious cycle. The overuse of expensive SWAT teams, armored personnel carriers, etc. becomes the excuse for the next round of tight-budget whining.

Here's what one retired cop has to say about it.

#59 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2013, 10:09 AM:

More generally, "tax the 1%" makes me twitch because it seems to have an underlying assumption that the government can be trusted to use the money benevolently.

#60 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2013, 02:44 PM:

Lee @58 (and others in the discussion on the rise of expensive policing): a really clean example from HuffPo. Note the line "The report went on to explain that all felony warrants (in Lewis County MO) are served with a SWAT team, regardless whether the crime being alleged involves violence."

I'd be much happier if examples weren't so easy to find.

#61 ::: Tom Whitmore visits the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2013, 02:46 PM:

I blew it on the URL, forgetting a quote at one end or the other. Here's the correct link.

#62 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2013, 03:28 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 59;
The goverments' (local, state, and federal) benevolence can be called into question. Thus the importance of voting. I would still consider that government's use of money to be more benign that the 1%.

I do not think that you are saying that the 1% is more trust-worthy, but consider the reverse. Seriously, trusting the 1%'s benevolence to: fix and maintain critical infrastructure, ensure uncontaminated air and food and drink, track storms, fair labor and wages, and a whole list of other (dare I say it?) liberal ideas, is for the rubes.

"The lord in his manor, the servant in his field, the Good Lord in his Heavens and all's right in the World" and the "Great Chain of Being" are only good ideas for the manor-born.

#63 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2013, 05:46 PM:

Nancy, #59: Everything linnen said @62, with a few further thoughts:

1) For much of history, government has been the 1%, until you get to the last couple of centuries in (mostly) the western world. And those governments, by and large, have not been particularly benevolent.

2) For the better part of a century, we had a form of government that was not under the direct control of the 1%... and things were often much better for the common people, and when they weren't, the government could be influenced by public outcry and by voting.

3) The 1% cannot be so influenced, because they have enough money and power to thumb their noses at any such attempt, and there's no way to vote them out of power.

So when you say "there's an assumption that the government can be trusted to use the money benevolently," my response is that there's more reason to trust the government than there is to trust the 1%, who are certainly not going to use one red cent of it for anything that doesn't directly benefit them, nor even for that if they can instead buy their way out of the consequences. The government has more accountability.

#64 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2013, 07:35 PM:

Lee @63: the 1% doesn't even have to be correct that they can buy their way out of consequences, they just have to convince themselves that they can (see, for example, global climate change).

#65 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2013, 01:49 AM:

linnen (@62) "I don't think the *king* woke up one morning and said all the people should be better paid"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Au6FS3zGrR8

#66 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2013, 09:22 PM:

The governments we're supposed to trust to use more money benevolently, I'll note, are the ones that are funding their police operations partly on speed traps and partly on no-trial property seizures. It's not like their actions so far inspire a whole lot of trust. There aren't really a whole lot of situations in which my first thought, when confronted with the fact that a particular person or group of people are engaging in highway robbery, would be to think we ought to reward them with higher budgets.

#67 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2013, 09:24 PM:

It's worth noting that most of the 1% don't have all that much power over the world. It's a much tinier fraction than that that is in a position to buy itself laws or effective immunity from prosecution.

#68 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2013, 10:04 AM:

albatross @ #66: The governments we're supposed to trust to use more money benevolently, I'll note, are the ones that are funding their police operations partly on speed traps and partly on no-trial property seizures.

If the police are so underfunded that they're resorting to exploiting illegitimate revenue sources, why is that an argument against giving them more money?

#69 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2013, 10:27 AM:

albatross, #66: This is the "why should we give the poor more money when they don't manage what they already have?" argument applied to governments, and I don't buy it here either. And as I said above, a government can be pressured to change, or voted out; that's an important consideration.

#70 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2013, 10:42 AM:

Regarding the govt's poor management of money... That seems to imply that the govt has a monopoly on the mismanagement of funds. Shall I tell you of my employer, where a project cost well over $10,000,000 and had nothing to show for it? And I bet you they passed on the loss to customers thru more expensive services.

#71 ::: Tom Whitmore suspects spam ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2013, 10:03 PM:

Not bad content, but not good name/website.

#72 ::: P J Evans agrees it's spam ::: (view all by) ::: December 13, 2013, 10:51 PM:

It's at least the second time for this name.

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