Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Constitution is more than the 2nd Amendment

It’s a treat when our citizens come out in numbers and with passion in the defense of one of our rights, just as they consistently do with the second amendment. We’ve seen this again in spades following the Las Vegas massacre; gun owners took to social media and the airwaves to decry any attempts to take away all their firearms, whether or not that bogeyman is real.  

Despite all of those efforts and concerns, the activists may not be as sincere as they put on. All of them to a man consistently highlight the importance of the Constitution -- our formative document takes center stage in all debates associated with gun rights. Even those folks with just a passing interest in the Constitution can cite verbatim the entire Second Amendment.

But that is where their constitutionalism seems to begin and end.

If the Constitution is really that important to so many Americans, then where is the uproar when our other rights are infringed?

I’ve hear nary a peep and have not seen one lawn sign or bumper sticker expressing disdain – and there should be lots of it – over the federal government’s elaborate domestic spying programs that we’ve always assumed existed post-9/11 and were finally brought to light by Edward Snowden a few years back.

It sometimes seem that no one cares about high-volume eavesdropping on cell phones, maintenance of phone records, scanning of email messages, and other surveillance endeavors against suspected terrorists and all innocent Americans alike, tactics that are all in defiance of the Fourth Amendment and could be argued are far worse transgressions than anything that the SAFE Act or any other gun regulations have done (and that’s saying a lot).

To see this constitutional selectivity perfectly played out locally and in the form of one high-profile individual just look south across the county border.

Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard gained notoriety and accolades a few years back for his stance against the SAFE Act and its un-constitutionalism. He went so far as to say his officers wouldn’t enforce that law. To this day, if there’s a gun rights rally or proposed pro-gun legislation, he’s front and center.  

Despite his care for the Second Amendment, his obviously doesn’t give a hoot about the Fourth.  For years his department utilized cell phone spying devices known as Stingray and Kingfish until the media and the ACLU caught wind of its illicit use. The equipment indiscriminately intercepts cell phone transmissions and can capture and eavesdrop on conversations and text exchanges. These are activities that need a warrant (which the Sheriff’s Department lacked) and pinpoint accuracy (Howard has admitted to the press that they tune across multiple transmissions to find the one they want). 

Despite this patently obvious abuse of the Fourth Amendment, Howard still remains something of a constitutional folk hero with conservatives.

Taking into consideration what’s happening at the federal and local levels with the Fourth, Americans should be storming the Bastille over such transgressions. But we’re not. We’re not even raising a minor stink. Most of us might not even care.

And that’s what makes America so easily manipulated by the politicians. They know that most folks are single-issue voters and if they can tug at something near and dear to them – such as guns – they can turn that focused passion into a vote.

We shouldn’t be that way. We should be fighting for every part of the Constitution, not just one. No part is more important than another. The entire document carries meaning, weight and importance: The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were devised as a set of laws to recognize and protect some of the most basic of natural rights while creating a framework for just governance.
If we spend too much time and effort focusing on just one part of the Bill of Rights, we could lose our rights to free speech, self defense, privacy, due process of law and self government just by being too selective or self-centered in our needs.

Continue to fight for our rights…but fight for all of them.

From the 16 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Friday, October 6, 2017

Columbus Day activists ignore the plight of Native Americans

For the past few years, activists have taken to social media and occasionally the streets to protest our nation’s practice of celebrating Columbus Day as a government and bank holiday. As they see it, Columbus and his crew contributed to Europe’s exploitation of the North American continent’s natural resources while fostering the mass slaughter and degradation of the Native American people.

The activists have turned the table on the holiday and instead celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, honoring the culture and people whose heritage was here before the white man.

While a Native American holiday is truly a must-have – they are remarkable people with a fantastic culture -- the activists come across as blatantly disingenuous. Quite frankly, by living in the past and riding a popular politically-correct movement, they offer little consideration for the plight of modern Native American.

That’s typical with modern political involvement, more appropriately known as “slacktivism”. People use the internet as a sounding board but rarely invest actual time or physical, mental and financial effort beyond the cause du jour. It’s cool to be a part of the in-crowd in that moment, but after that, it becomes an afterthought.

And, the Indigenous people have become the ultimate afterthought.

After that one day of celebration and alleged respect, the masses go back to allowing them to suffer in silence. They become forgotten -- the minority of minorities.

While society and our public policy systems wring hands over the socioeconomic obstacles faced by blacks and Hispanics, almost no consideration is given to the similar plight faced by Native Americans.

Even here in Western New York, that’s an issue. We obsess (and rightly so) over the profound poverty in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, but in a region where we have eleven reservations there is no substantial or sustainable coverage in local papers, radio or TV that addresses, let alone identifies, the similar conditions faced by Natives.  

How bad is their situation? Consider these damning statistics that look at Indigenous populations across the country:

Their high school dropout rate is a staggering 11 percent. For African-Americans that number is 8 percent, for whites just 3.

Their attainment of higher education is also depressed. 17 percent of Native Americans over the age of 25 hold a college degree, while 19 percent of blacks do. A third of Caucasians have a degree.

The poverty rate for Indigenous people is 26 percent, beaten only by that of blacks (28 percent). 11 percent of White Americans are considered poor.

There’s no easy or quick fix. We need schools to put an added focus on these kids. We need to help Native populations develop more community development institutions. We need to hold up high-performing communities as examples to learn from. Above all, we need to end the discrimination and stereotypes placed on Indigenous People and welcome them into our labor markets and into our larger community.

It will take investments of time, money and innovative policy, which they aren’t getting enough of now, despite a third of Native Americans living on reservations. That is where they face a no-win situation similar to those of people living in our inner cities where most of New York’s and the federal government’s anti-poverty resources and economic development activities are invested.

Realize that nary a penny of the Buffalo Billion has been spent on advancing their population. Our Governor chooses instead to use state resources to do battle with the Senecas over casino funds while at the same time launching private and public casinos to compete with their best source of mass income, employment and social advancement. He is pitting the general NY population against those who live on sovereign Native land when we should all be working together for the development of all people. 

The only economic official in the state who has made a concerted effort to help the Native Americans is Steve Hyde in Genesee County whose STAMP project will bring well-paying manufacturing jobs to the border of the Tonawanda Reservation.

More public officials should follow Hyde’s lead, think outside of the box and act grandly.

As a matter of fact, those social media activists we mentioned earlier must do the same…get away from the computers and go into the real world. Stop protesting Columbus Day; do something real, measurable, and impactful.

We need everyone to help Native Americans succeed. If we don’t, we are only contributing to the carnage that Columbus allegedly wrought 525 years ago.

From the 06 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Kill the estate tax

Last week, President Trump announced his tax reform plan. Among the changes he proposed was an all-out repeal of the estate tax, which taxes individuals on larger inheritances. Currently, it impacts estates in excess of $5.49 million but that amount changes with the political winds of the day. It’s a considerable tax, too, charging heirs 40 percent of the value of the estate.

Key Democrats roundly criticized the proposed repeal, saying that it helps only the very rich, folks with unfathomably-high net worth like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and the President himself.

That false narrative ignores the fact that the estate tax in some way or another has a significant impact on many small business owners. Among those are countless farmers across Western New York and others who, like this writer, might own shops and factories.

We farmers and manufacturers aren’t sitting on millions in the bank -- or even thousands of dollars for that matter -- like the Buffets and Trumps of the world. Instead, many small business owners are cash poor yet wealth rich due to the assets of the business itself (property, plant and equipment).

Consider what farmers hold in land alone. Large dairy farms abound on the Niagara Frontier, many having 300 to 1,000 cows. To make such an enterprise work they need considerable acreage to allow the cattle to range, to grow the feed for the cows, and to raise crops that allow the farm to ride out the financial roller coaster that is the milk market. It is not uncommon for those dairymen to have at least 5,000 acres of land to meet those needs and keep their business solvent. Rural land has become expensive in recent decades and can now be had for around $2,000 an acre in this area. One 5,000 acre farm could therefore hold $10 million in value in just the land.

That farm also needs considerable equipment to make it work. That is not cheap. Small tractors which serve the feedlots come in anywhere between $50,000 and $100,000. The large tractors needed to plow, plant and harvest large tracts of acreage range from $110,000 to almost $270,000 for the latest and greatest. Now, imagine a whole fleet of those machines to handle all the various tasks and crops. That same farm could have almost two million dollars invested in tractors alone.

Now, think about the men and women who own those farms. They live simply. There’s no extravagance. They’re not rolling in cash. In many years, when there’s a drought, a late frost, or a dairy crisis, they aren’t even making any money at all.

But, if they died, the IRS would come knocking. Their kids, who would have hoped to keep the farm running for they and their kids, have to pony up and give Uncle Sam cash they don’t have by selling off assets, taking out backbreaking loans, or getting rid of the farm entirely.  

It’s so scary of a scenario that this statistic tells it all: 80 percent of farmers plan to pass off control to the next generation, but only 20 percent of them are confident in the ability of their succession and estate planning to do so.

Then there are companies like mine; let’s go from talking about businesses that raise produce to those that make products.

Confer Plastics has been in operation for 45 years. Over that time, the company has accumulated 19 molding machines, 2 large buildings, acres of land, and a flourishing product line. That’s a lot of wealth held only as objects, not as cash (as matter of fact, we have loans to pay off that allow us to acquire those things).

To make sure that the company can go to the next generation – which guarantees an determined effort to keep my 240 coworkers employed – the company has spent considerable amounts of money on making sure that there is a clean succession in the event that my dad or I (or, God forbid, both of us at once) pass away. Every year, the company pays nearly a quarter of a million dollars in life insurance policies on the two of us to manage the very real threat posed by the estate tax.

It grosses me out to think what we could do with that $220,000 annually. We could pay off debt, buy new machines, dole out bonuses to our team, fix up the building, and develop new products -- you know, the things businesses are supposed to do. But instead, we have to prepare ourselves to pay the piper in death, even though that same government has already reaped millions from the company in regard to corporate taxes through the years.

We’re not alone in that regard. Drive through WNY and you see countless, long-lived family owned and operated plants. I guarantee that the owners wonder often how to keep the company going for the future.
When death comes for a family member, it shouldn’t come for the company, too. The estate tax is a cash grab by the government that comes at the worst time, under the worst conditions possible, and for the worst reason possible.

It’s immoral to believe that an inheritance belongs to the public coffers. It belongs to the families trying to keep farms and factories alive for themselves and the families they employ.

From the 02 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers