Thursday, April 24, 2014

Where are the volunteers?

Have you ever wondered why it seems like you see the same people engaged in the efforts of numerous non-profits, churches, fire companies, and youth organizations within your community? It’s not an illusion. Those tireless souls really are involved in everything. They not only want to be, but they have to be because no almost one else is giving up their time.

For a state and a people that pride themselves on being leaders, New Yorkers, as a rule, sure do a poor job of showing it.

The Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship produce an annual report that looks at volunteerism rates across the nation. The Empire State ranks 50th, with just 20.6% of its residents volunteering. Now, compare that to first-ranked Utah (43.8%) and our neighbors like Vermont (34.4%) and Pennsylvania (26.7%).

It’s a little unsettling to realize that observations about heavily-engaged volunteers aren’t anecdotal and really do emphasize the lack of community pride in New York. Think about it: Only 1 out of every 5 residents cares enough about our neighbors and our neighborhoods to lend a hand.

The lack of participation is pretty universal when you break down the demographics. Only 18.1% of older adults volunteer, as compared to 22.7% of Generation Xers, 16.3% of young adults, 17.9% of college students, and 20% of teenagers. Our highest rates of volunteerism come from parents (25.9%) veterans (25.4%), and baby boomers (24.2%).

Even though the parental participation rate is fairly high versus the rest of New Yorkers, it still lags nationally where the median is 36%, topped by a whopping 52.8% of parents who are engaged in Utah. New York, just as in its overall rankings, sits in 50th place.

What does that say about New York parents? Worse yet, what do our overall numbers say about our state in general?

If parents aren’t volunteering, their kids won’t (proven by the statistics) and likely their own parents didn’t (proven by the statistics). We evidently have a culture in New York that sees volunteerism as something foreign.

It’s counterintuitive, because we should have one of the highest - if not just middling - participation rates based on apparent need alone. God knows so many people need help. New York is the 29th most-impoverished state in the Union (Buffalo is the third-poorest city in the US). We rank 27th in the nation in terms of disability rate. We have the 24th greatest population of senior citizens (in terms of percentage). 23% of New Yorkers drop out of school. There are almost 2,000 volunteer fire departments in the state.

It’s unknown if New York’s volunteerism numbers will ever dramatically improve. One would have thought that the Great Recession would have been a wake-up call. In past economic collapses volunteerism skyrocketed because people were compelled to help those hit hardest, they had time on their hands, and people stuck closer to –and became more interested in - their communities. That didn’t happen this time. In 2009, just as the Recession started to come to an end, New York’s volunteerism rate was 19% actually worse (though not much) than where we are now. 
So, what can we do?

For starters, if you or your family have ever partaken in an event or club run by volunteers (Easter egg hunts, Boy Scout troops, little league teams, church school, etc.) or had a property or life saved by unpaid first responders, thank those who made that all possible. A simple “thank you” goes a long ways in validating their efforts. 

Secondly, take the time to participate yourself. Make it a point to help others. Join a community organization. Assist a youth group. Go out of your way to make one’s day (if not one’s life) brighter. It’s challenging, fun, and extremely rewarding. There’s an unmatched joy that’s had in giving and watching others receive the services you provide.

There’s a reason that the 20.6% do what they do. Let’s not let them hog all the fun.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Property rights and the Clean Water Act

The United States of America were founded on the premise of natural rights, succinctly dictated as the unalienable rights of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

During the era in which the Declaration of Independence was framed the Pursuit of Happiness applied to property rights. Our founding fathers knew that Man has the right to attain property, keep it, and engage in its use to make his life better in manners that he saw fit as long as the rights of others were not infringed.

Despite the obviousness of these rights, the framers of our nation found it necessary to clearly define them in the Declaration and once again in the Fifth Amendment because history had showed to them that the inalienability of property rights had been cast aside by numerous despots and societies which in turn led to one of two things: oppression of their people or the ruination of those societies.

Over time, our government has purposely strayed from these basal tenets. Property has become something that our federal government has gained illegally and expanded its power over, controlling its use at whim.

Matters look to only get worse with subjugation of water rights by the federal government through amendment of the scope of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

In its current form the Act gives jurisdiction over navigable waters to the federal government. This is not a perfect law, but it does have some merit because regulation of navigable waters are necessary for the maintenance of interstate trade (one of the defined powers of the federal government), and those upstream can very easily affect the life, liberty, and happiness of others downstream if they weren’t regulated in their industrial and waste outputs or kept from damming the waterway.

The modified version, the draft of which was introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) less than a month ago, would expand their regulatory powers beyond navigable waters and would throw into the mix any waterway that contributes to the watershed of the navigable water. Therefore, federal jurisdiction would be extended to all bodies of water – permanent or intermittent – everywhere in the United States, be they in your backyard or on your farm. The federal definition will be extended to include, among other things, streams, wetlands, sloughs, wet meadows, ponds and ditches.

This would allow the federal government to regulate how you manage any body of water on your own private property. They will be allowed to control what you do and how you do it and will be empowered to force you to mitigate anything they might perceive as detrimental.

This will have an undeniably negative impact on millions of property owners. Those who will have to answer for land and water they own will be: people who manage their ponds for fishing and leisure; miners who need water to pump their mines and wells; ranchers who need watering holes for their cattle; farmers who need to irrigate their fields and any homeowner with a stream in his lawn or woodlot.

Not only would the revised Act be an affront to personal property rights, but it is also devised in strict defiance of the rights of the people as a whole. Our nation was built on a republic style of government. Governance was supposed to work from the bottom up, from local to state to national, not the other way around as we’ve become so accustomed (forced) to. The EPA’s rule would only extend this ill-advised practice as it would supersede local and state laws and control – those entities are the ones that should have the regulatory power, if any at all.  

Also, almost every year this century members of Congress have tried to change the language of the Clean Water Act in similar ways. Since they failed, they are taking the inappropriate - even illegal - route of using executive power to fashion new laws.

The nearly-400-page draft of the EPA’s proposed expansion of power can be downloaded at, a website that also includes a trove of documents supporting their views.

The public comment period is not yet open, but will be within the next 2 months. When that time comes, it is imperative that you participate in the process, because it’s your last chance. Know that the modified language of the Clean Water Act is a disaster waiting to happen, one that’s in lockstep with the continued erosion of what it really means to be an American.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


New York is one of 2 states – North Carolina being the other – that automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in misdemeanor and felony cases. Other states do so only on a conditional basis at the whim of the presiding judge.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been adamantly opposed to this. In his January State of the State he briefly touched on the matter:

“Our juvenile justice laws are outdated. Under New York State law, 16 and 17 year olds can be tried and charged as adults…It’s not right, it’s not fair – we must raise the age. Let’s form a commission on youth public safety and justice and let’s get it done this year.”

Just a couple of weeks later in his mass e-mail to constituents honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., he called this a “civil rights crisis” and said that “changing this practice has to be a priority in the legislative session”. 

So far we have yet to see a commission and it hasn’t yet been a legislative priority, but now, with the budget rigmarole out of the way, it will be certain to take center stage before the session concludes in 2 months. Some of the chess pieces are already in play: Assembly bill A.3668 and Senate bill S.1409, sponsored by Joe Lentol and Valmanette Montgomery respectively, would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18.  

Proponents of the legislation say it is necessary for the betterment of the youthful offenders because a kinder, gentler approach will prevent travesties that are alleged outcomes of incarcerated teenagers. Among those they cite are recidivism (teens will become trained, hardened criminals when living in close quarters with adult criminals), emotional damage (juveniles placed into solitary confinement emerge with emotional problems), suicide (the suicide rate for juveniles in adult jails was 7.7 times higher than for those housed in juvenile detention centers), and sexual abuse (a juvenile offender is at greater risk of sexual abuse if he or she is the youngest inmate on the block).

There is a little too much focus, most of it melodramatic in nature, on the supposed plight of these lawbreakers. What about the victims of their crimes?

There are approximately 50,000 arrests of 16 and 17 year olds in New York State annually. Think about that: 50,000 arrests. That’s for crimes for which they were caught -- that means there are countless multiples of those 50,000 affected by the actions of these teens who were arrested and their peers who weren’t. We aren’t taking a trivial amount of lawbreakers here.

Nor are the crimes themselves trivial in nature. These young adults commit old adult crimes. They deal drugs. They burglarize homes and businesses. They assault people. They kill.

How soon we forget the 3 teens who just 7 years ago put the City of Niagara Falls into a frenzy when they conducted their own crime spree for kicks, robbing 4, maybe 5, taxi drivers and shooting 2, killing one of them in the process. Or, what about the 17-year-old who in cahoots with a 19-year-old beat a Niagara Falls man to death with a golf club in 2010, the result of a drug deal gone bad?  

Cuomo and Company would prefer to see degenerates like those have their hands slapped, live in a juvenile detention center or be returned to their families. None of those actions work – if they did, their families would have prevented them from ever even considering such abhorrent behavior in the first place.

It’s simple: If you commit adult crimes you need to face adult penalties and adult rehabilitation. At 16 and 17 you certainly know the boundaries between good and bad, legal and illegal. It’s been drilled into your mind by society -- family, friends, schools, television, and community – and it’s that same society you must answer to for your transgressions. 

If New York were to amend it penal code, what’s next? Scientists and psychologists have long said that the brain’s judgment-control and risk-assessment systems don’t fully mature until the mid-20s. Will that one day mean that criminals shouldn’t be tried as adults until they are 26?

Yes, it’s silly to think that, but it’s just as ridiculous to give thugs of any age a free pass.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tax refunds are no reason to be happy

A strange thing tends to happen this time of year: taxpayers who should be damning the government end up praising it. These brainwashed souls, numbering in the millions, feel rewarded by what appears to be government benevolence in the form of a tax refund, failing to realize that they are getting back only a little of the money that was rightfully theirs to begin with.

They are so focused on the last line of a 1040’s calculations that they completely ignore what are the most important lines of the document and its supporting schedule. They should be focusing their attention on all of the federal (income, Medicare and Social Security), state, and real estate taxes paid.

It is from that accumulation that one can understand how much of one’s hard-earned money is really being taken away rather than returned. They may think that they are in the 15% to 25% tax bracket (because that’s what their tax professional and federal schedules told them), but when all is added up, most will find themselves in a 33% -- or higher -- tax bracket, and that’s without sales and excise taxes on their regular purchases being added to the mix!

Slyly, the system inhibits such inquiries into the reality of taxation because it is devised in such a way that the gratification of a check in your name trumps the thievery that preceded it. Consider the art of income tax withholdings. Looking back through history these withholdings were brought about with the best of intentions as a scheduled – rather than lump sum – collection of taxes meant to consistently fund our forces in World War II. Unfortunately, the best intentions oft become soured. It didn’t take the post-war government long to figure out that it created a profound method of collections that could be applied to all future taxation and that would, for all intents and purposes, create a passive, captive and unknowing audience.

This ploy is strengthened by demanding that every business act as a tax collector on the government’s behalf, which often makes the taxpayers wrongly point the finger at their employers. A tax-deflated paycheck or bonus can be frustrating to workers and it is easier for them to blame than the one who issued the paycheck (the business) rather than the one who pilfered from it through the backend (the IRS).

The weekly infringement upon one’s financial well-being also softens the blow that government yields. If these withholdings did not occur and Americans were obligated to pay a lump sum on April 15 (rather than anticipating a token return) then the taxpayers would realize how badly they are being mistreated. The ecstasy of tax refunds would be replaced with the agony of cash outlays in the thousands of dollars. Most taxpayers would be utterly mortified - if not borderline revolt-minded - by such a payment.

Withholding quells such dissent and it is without a doubt our government’s greatest brainwashing trick of them all. By slowly and deliberately taking from the taxpayers the government can confuse and confound them in regards to what the final bill will be.

The mind games of refunds and withholdings truly limit the concerned citizen mindset in America. The average person pays little attention to what happens in politics and governance because, to them, there is no reason to care: Government’s most abusive act – the leeching of our pocketbooks - is kept almost clandestine, muted to the point that they do not realize how much they’ve "invested" - and truthfully lost - in a floundering system.