The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Remember those parking meters?

In 2008, Chicago gave up its parking meter revenue for 75 years in exchange for $1.16 billion, which made no sense at the time and got widely criticized by everyone who knows what "Net Present Value" means.

Guess what? The deal still sucks:

In their failed attempt to block Bally’s $1.7 billion River West casino, downtown City Council members warned the deal was being rushed — just like the one that privatized Chicago parking meters — and that it would end up being “even worse” for taxpayers.

That dire prediction is difficult to imagine, considering results of the latest parking meter audit by accounting giant KPMG.

It shows Chicago parking meter revenues nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. After dipping to $91.6 million in 2020, they climbed to $136.2 million last year.

Not a penny of those revenues went to ease the burden on Chicago taxpayers, who had to absorb a $76.5 million increase in the city’s property tax levy after a $94 million hike in real estate taxes the year before.

Factoring in the newly reported figure for 2021, private investors have already extracted $2.1 billion from the deal, in part by refinancing three times. The latest refinancing for $1.2 billion was completed in 2019.

Well, it turns out, if they got $900 million in revenue off a $1.2 billion investment over 14 years, that's an annualized ROI of just 4.1%. It's just that the ROI in the past year was well over 11%, so that 4% number is depressed by the deal's startup costs.

We'll have to see whether they continue making that kind of revenue. But the deal still sucks. We could have upgraded the technology and controlled our own parking destiny for a lot less money, and we'd have all that income now. I mean, if the Council didn't squander it. Ah, ha ha, ha.

Chicago's great sports teams

Chicago's two baseball teams gave up a combined 36 runs yesterday, with the Cubs losing to the Reds 20-5 and the Sox losing to the Red Sox 16-7. Perhaps the bullpens could use a little work, hmm?

In other news:

Finally, astronomers have produced a photo of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and were surprised to see it looks nothing like Ted Cruz's head.

We know how to prevent mass murder

Australia, Canada, and the UK managed to prevent mass shootings in the aftermath of horrible crimes. And as The Onion reminded people again this week—for the 21st time since 2014—the United States is the only place where this happens.

You know how they do it? How other free, English-speaking democracies keep their citizens alive? How every other civilized country in the world does? They ban the fucking guns.

Civilians do not need assault rifles. They do not need large-capacity magazines. They do not need guns of any kind before they prove they're capable of using them properly.

By civilians, I'm including civilian police forces in most places, who only think they need them right now because other civilians have them.

To be clear: I don't want to ban all guns. In the dense urban core of Chicago where I live, no one needs a gun. But at my colleague's father-in-law's place in Montana, 50 kilometers from the nearest town, you'd be stupid not to leave the cabin without a high-powered hunting rifle at hand. The Chicago Police Department has a response time of around 30 seconds to my neighborhood. No one will save you from a bear in rural Montana.

For fuck's sake, what kind of societal insanity does a country have when you can buy a military-grade weapon easier than you can adopt a dog?

Commonsense rules already exist to mitigate the worst risks: limit magazine sizes, raise the minimum age to own a gun, close the gun-show loophole, license gun owners and guns, and end the product-liability protections for gun manufacturers.

So why haven't we adopted these rules? After 27 mass shootings this year alone? Because we can't get 50 US Senators to retrieve their testicles from the NRA.

The next time a Republican politician offers "thoughts and prayers" for the families of murdered children while voting against even the least intrusive gun regulation, I hope someone punches him in the head. My thoughts and prayers will follow.

American exceptionalism in the worst way

Three reactions to this week's school shooting, the 27th of the year (despite this being only week 22 on the calendar). First, from Josh Marshall:

The “good guy with a gun” theory was always absurd. These events make that all the more clear. But this is a bit more than that. In both these incidents armed police officers or security guards exchanged gunfire with the perpetrator. But they were outgunned. The assailants had more powerful weapons and they had body armor that allowed them to absorb gun shots and return fire. These aren’t cases with a mythical armed good samaritan. The cops are there, armed and on the scene, and they’re losing in fire fights with the assailants.

When you combine high powered rifles and body armor, these guys are close to unstoppable, at least at first. That’s not their only advantage. These shooters have all accepted that they’re likely going to die within minutes. They also, by definition, have the element of surprise. Unless police have a decisive advantage in firepower and defensive equipment, the shooter is always going to have a big advantage in those engagements.

Second, from James Fallows:

The “originalist” conceit that Americans’ birthright is to be armed with AR-15s is lethal bullshit. You don’t have to have been around at the time of the Founders to know that. You only need to have been a working reporter, or sentient human being, as recently as the 1980s, when I happened to have done a hugely long Atlantic article on how the AR-15 was designed.

You can read the article here. Its central argument is that the AR-15 is an even more effective weapon-of-death than the U.S. military’s M-16, which was derived from the AR-15 and first put to serious use in Vietnam. Don’t believe it? Read the article, and the Congressional hearings it cites. Or check the footnotes in this recent post.

Gun control hasn’t ‘failed.’ Specific people have blocked it.

Many people have played their part. But none has mattered more than Mitch McConnell. I made the case in detail here, after the Parkland gun massacre.

The children and teachers of Uvalde are the latest who deserve a vote. As do the families of Buffalo, and of hundreds of other places.

Will they get it? Mitch McConnell is still there, with 50 members of his bloc, to say No.

“When in God’s name?” Joe Biden asked this evening. When in God’s name.

Third, from the governors of Texas and Illinois, when the former tried to smear my city to deflect blame from his own party's actions:

Taking the stage at a press conference today flanked by U.S. senators, law enforcement and other officials, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was asked about gun laws in other states. “I hate to say it,” Abbott said, “but there are more people who are shot every weekend in Chicago than there are in schools in Texas.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, was quick to respond to Abbott’s remarks with an extended Twitter thread.

So we'll get "thoughts and prayers" from the Republican Party, then the National Rifle Association will go dark for a couple of days, then nothing will change. Because a large minority of people in this country fantasize about armed conflict and don't want the deaths of a thousand children to keep them from their guns.

Ruling seasons begins

The Supreme Court began its early-summer ruling season a bit early this year, starting with an opinion from Justice Thomas (R) that will make it easier for the state to kill innocent people:

[The] opinion claimed that a law restricting the power of federal courts to toss out convictions in state courts prevents Jones from seeking relief. But Thomas’s reading of this law is novel — his opinion had to gut two fairly recent Supreme Court decisions to deny relief to Jones.

Before Monday, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Martinez v. Ryan (2012) and Trevino v. Thaler (2013) should have guaranteed Jones a new trial. Both decisions deal with what should happen in the unusual circumstance when someone accused of a crime receives ineffective assistance of counsel, twice.

In Strickland v. Washington (1984), the Supreme Court held that a conviction must be tossed out if defense “counsel’s performance was deficient” and if this “deficient performance prejudiced the defense.” This safeguard against constitutionally inadequate lawyering would be meaningless if people who received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial could not challenge that conviction, either on appeal or in some other proceeding.

Martinez and Trevino established that someone convicted of a crime must have at least one shot at challenging their conviction on the grounds that they received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial.

“The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial,” [Justice] Sotomayor (I) writes in the first line of her dissent. She continues that “this Court has recognized that right as ‘a bedrock principle’ that constitutes the very ‘foundation for our adversary system’ of criminal justice.”

Thus in Sotomayor’s mind, and in the minds of the two other justices appointed by Democratic presidents who joined her opinion, the purpose of a criminal trial is to determine whether or not someone is actually guilty of a crime — and to do so through an adversarial process where both sides are represented by lawyers who can present the best possible legal and factual case for the prosecution and the defense.

This is consistent with Thomas’s longtime position. As far back as Herrera v. Collins (1993), Thomas joined an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, which claimed that there is “no basis” in the Constitution for “a right to demand judicial consideration of newly discovered evidence of innocence brought forward after conviction.” At the time, however, Thomas was the only justice who joined Scalia in this view.

Scotusblog also has its doubts:

Thomas spent the first 11 pages of his 22-page opinion recounting the grisly facts of the murders the defendants were convicted of, extolling the states’ authority to enforce criminal laws, and emphasizing the importance of the finality of convictions. Finally arriving at the issue at hand, Thomas cited cases holding that defendants are generally held responsible for their attorneys’ errors, and noted that while that general rule does not apply when counsel is constitutionally ineffective, the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee a right to counsel at the post-conviction stage – therefore, at this stage, the defendants were “at fault.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, dissented. Her opinion was striking, even for a justice who is known for passionate dissents. She called the majority opinion “perverse,” “illogical,” and said it “makes no sense.”

The dissent zeroed in on the court’s prior holdings that the procedural default rule only applies to defendants who are “at fault” for failing to raise a claim, and that a defendant represented by a constitutionally ineffective lawyer cannot be held to be “at fault” for his lawyer’s errors. This requirement underscored what Sotomayor saw as the core absurdity in the majority’s reasoning: “A petitioner cannot logically be faultless for not bringing a claim because of postconviction counsel’s ineffectiveness, yet at fault for not developing its evidentiary basis for exactly the same reason.”

The debate between Thomas and Sotomayor in Shinn has reverberations beyond the cases of Barry Lee Jones and David Martinez Ramirez. Sotomayor argued that the majority opinion “tellingly” relied on dissents in Martinez and Trevino to support its reasoning. While the conservative majority’s explicit overruling of precedent has recently captured the public’s attention (albeit through a leaked draft), the practice of citing dissents to “hollow out” past precedents has garnered less scrutiny. But Sotomayor’s opinion subtly emphasized the danger that practice poses for the legitimacy of the court’s decision-making. Noting that the court in this case “resuscitates” an argument “that previously was relegated to a dissent,” Sotomayor contended that the argument “is just as unavailing now that it has captured a majority.”

Finally, one procedural quirk is worth mentioning in a case all about whether death row defendants are “at fault” for the failures of their constitutionally ineffective lawyers. In Ramirez’s case, Arizona did not object to the evidentiary hearing in the district court and did not raise AEDPA’s bar on developing new evidence until the case reached the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Ordinarily, an argument not raised in the district court is forfeited. But here, in a footnote, Thomas stated that the Supreme Court has “discretion to forgive any forfeiture” and because deciding the issue would reduce the likelihood of future litigation, “we choose to forgive the State’s forfeiture before the District Court.”

We will no doubt see a series of rulings like this, shielding the state from its errors while making life much more random and unforgiving for people already at a disadvantage economically or socially. As I hinted yesterday, authoritarians don't accept dissent of any kind, no matter how obviously stupid their own positions. Thomas wants to live in the world of Inspector Javert and Brazil. So, clearly, do the other four Republicans on the Supreme Court, and for some reason in this case, the Chief Justice.

We're in for a decade or so of really bad judicial outcomes. Let's hope we can get the pendulum swinging the other way soon.

Theocratic rumblings in America

Two stories that bear connecting. First: the Southern Baptist Convention found in an internal investigation that its leaders had covered up sexual assaults and other bad behavior throughout the hierarchy:

The SBC is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, by far. It is the nation’s most powerful and influential evangelical denomination, by far. Its 14 million members help define the culture and ethos of American evangelicalism.

Last June delegates, called “messengers,” to the SBC’s annual convention responded to proliferating reports of inadequate or corrupt responses to sex-abuse allegations by voting overwhelmingly to commission an external review of their own leaders. The executive committee hired a firm called Guidepost to conduct the investigation.

The report is a calamity. My friend Russell Moore, a former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called it an “apocalypse.” The report says that “for almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists” contacted its executive committee “to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff.”

Page after grim page reveals crushing scandal after crushing scandal. One abuse survivor, a woman named Christa Brown, said that an executive-committee member turned his back to her when she addressed the committee in 2007. Another member allegedly chortled at her.

I highlight reports of abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, in one of its largest Christian camps, in one of its largest Christian universities, and in its most prominent apologetics ministry because it is past time to recognize that the culture of American evangelicalism is broken at a fundamental level. How many times must evangelicals watch powerful institutions promote and protect sexual predators before we acknowledge the obvious crisis?

Meanwhile, these same religionists have slowly but surely imposed their (need I bother to say hypocritical?) version of morality on the majority of Americans who disagree with it, culminating, we all expect, in the reversal of a secular view of abortion that has been law for 49 years:

In deciding Roe, the court made its commitment to secularism explicit. It had to. The question of when human life began and the exact status of a fetus were essentially religious questions. Different religious groups took divergent positions on abortion. Taking a stance within the dispute would involve the court in a religious debate, which it was loath to do because such a decision would violate the separation of church and state that it had earlier proclaimed.

[C]onservatives...became aggressively hostile to the ideal of secular legislation and to the notion that the state has any role in protecting the individual from religious groups. In recent years, the conservatives on the court have used the notion of religious freedom to carve out larger and larger institutions in American life — including for-profit corporations — that are able to make religious determinations limiting the choices of others. In doing so, they have helped unleash the religious authority that the court tried to contain in the 1960s and early 1970s.

With this history before us, the next steps may be easier to see. The invalidation of Roe, and of women’s right to an abortion, is not really an end but a beginning. Just as the court’s original decision in Roe v. Wade represented the apotheosis of a secular order through the privatization of religious sentiment, the court’s coming decision to overturn Roe represents a straightforward attack on the American secular ideal. It will probably be the first of many developments, as the wall of separation crumbles and as conservative religious authority floods American life.

You don't need a Ph.D. in psychology to understand why, either. The Christianist mindset is authoritarian, teaching that there is only one correct answer to any question. I'm not even sure that the abortion "debate" really matters to Christianist leaders except that they don't want anyone to challenge the authority they believe comes to them from their imaginary sky friend.

The end of Roe may wake up a few more people to the creeping Christianism coming from the Right, but maybe not. The revanchists will lose, but it may take a long time.

Texas: where the 1860s meets the 1960s?

Today's head-scratcher comes from Loving County, Texas, population 57, where state authorities have arrested the county judge for—wait for it—cattle rustling:

Judge Skeet Jones, 71, the top elected official since 2007 in the least populated county in the continental United States, is facing three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in criminal activity, accused of gathering up and selling stray cattle, authorities said.

Officials with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the lead agency on the case, offered few specifics about the alleged crime. Commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety, the association has “special rangers” —  certified peace officers — who investigate livestock theft and other agriculture crimes. 

Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the association, said the yearlong investigation is ongoing and more charges are possible.

Skeet Jones has gotten into trouble before, but nothing like this. In 2016, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct determined Jones failed to follow the law by charging steep fees — about $600 to $750 — for reducing tickets including speeding and marijuana possession down to parking tickets.

The judge denied any involvement in negotiations over tickets and told the commission he just approved the plea deals presented to him. He was issued a public warning and ordered to take 10 hours of additional education.

Read the whole story. Texas just ain't like most places.

Waiting for the cold front

It's mid-July today, at least until around 8pm, when late April should return. The Tribune reported this morning that our spring has had nearly three times the rain as last spring, but actually hasn't gotten much wetter than normal.

Meanwhile:

Finally, via The Onion, Google Maps now shows you shortcuts through people's houses when they're not home.

Covid isn't like the flu. It's like smoking

The Atlantic makes a solid case for treating Covid-19 as a behavior problem, not a virus:

The “new normal” will arrive when we acknowledge that COVID’s risks have become more in line with those of smoking cigarettes—and that many COVID deaths, like many smoking-related deaths, could be prevented with a single intervention.

The pandemic’s greatest source of danger has transformed from a pathogen into a behavior. Choosing not to get vaccinated against COVID is, right now, a modifiable health risk on par with smoking, which kills more than 400,000 people each year in the United States.

The COVID vaccines are, without exaggeration, among the safest and most effective therapies in all of modern medicine. An unvaccinated adult is an astonishing 68 times more likely to die from COVID than a boosted one. Yet widespread vaccine hesitancy in the United States has caused more than 163,000 preventable deaths and counting. Because too few people are vaccinated, COVID surges still overwhelm hospitals—interfering with routine medical services and leading to thousands of lives lost from other conditions. If everyone who is eligible were triply vaccinated, our health-care system would be functioning normally again.

We haven’t banned tobacco outright—in fact, most states protect smokers from job discrimination—but we have embarked on a permanent, society-wide campaign of disincentivizing its use. Long-term actions for COVID might include charging the unvaccinated a premium on their health insurance, just as we do for smokers, or distributing frightening health warnings about the perils of remaining uninoculated. And once the political furor dies down, COVID shots will probably be added to the lists of required vaccinations for many more schools and workplaces.

It's time to cough up a better strategy for getting people jabbed.

Two thoughts about the world

First, I believe this might be the greatest gaffe* of the 21st century:

Second, for everyone whinging on about paying $5 per gallon of gas, why not take this opportunity to finally switch to the metric system? Then you'd only be paying $1.29 per liter** of gas!

* And I do mean "gaffe" in the sense that it's an absolutely true statement made absolutely unintentionally.

** Of course, they're used to this way of pricing petrol in London, where they're today whinging on about 159p per liter ($8 per gallon).