Maybe you have a dozen credit cards in your wallet. Maybe you have none. But if you owe the government money, and especially if you’re a small business, I’ll be you didn’t know you have one labeled IRS. It’s true. No, it’s not a physical card, but thanks to our wonderful legislature, the IRS uses the same usurious practices that credit card companies do in order to generate even more revenue than the tax code originally authorized them to collect. Even more troubling is the massive increase in the IRS’s uncompromising use of collections tools at a time when tax payers can least afford it.
According to testimony in April 2011 by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, before the House Committee on Small Business, from FY 2006 to 2010 (i.e. the heart of the Great Recession) IRS Notices of Federal Tax Liens increased 55%. Actual liens increased a whopping 172%! (Footnote 74, page 21—pdf) The scary part is, once taxes become delinquent, the IRS is authorized by Congress to charge A) late fees, B) interest, and C) for every ‘breech of agreement’, a penalty. Tactics eerily familiar to those who’ve had to deal with credit card companies.
Is this fair? Is it right?
Is it right that even though unemployment is higher that at any time since the Great Depression; even though home foreclosures are higher than they’ve ever been in our nation’s history; even though construction related unemployment, many of whom are self employed small business (contractors), is at 34%; that according to Reuters, in FY 2010 the IRS accepted only 13,886 offers in compromise and “just 95,000 installment agreements on business-related tax delinquencies, which typically involve small-business taxpayers?” Is it right that “less than 4 percent of the delinquent accounts were reported [by the IRS] as noncollectable due to economic hardship?”
One would think that, given the historic nature of the hard times in which we find ourselves, and given that both the Congress and the President want to see more jobs created, that both the Executive and the Legislature would suspend the fines and penalties and other usurious practices they have authorized the IRS to engage in. One would think they would be instructing the IRS to be as flexible as possible in working with citizens who wish to do their part for their country, but find themselves on hard times. As Olson said: “The government needs to offer a taxpayer who cannot pay in full realistic options to pay what he or she can, so that voluntary compliance is practical.”
Unfortunately, practical and greed don’t mix, and our government’s appetite for money is nothing if not insatiable. Apparently that means damn the little people who get hurt along the way.
So, yesterday the San Francisco Chronicle published a PRWEB press release about “[Chris] Van Hook, an attorney well-versed in medical marijuana law and the founder of the Clean Green Certified inspection program,” who is helping California Counties “ensure that local medical marijuana growers and dispensaries are operating in accordance with state and local laws.” Van Hook is apparently running around to different counties encouraging them to implement a marijuana inspection program similar to the USDA National Organic Program. He’s encouraging “vendors who supply local collectives” (i.e. growers) to be forced to purchase business licenses and to be certified by his new inspection agency. His new inspection agency would be required, of course, to work under the direct supervision of an attorney. (He’s a lawyer. What else would you expect?)
Now, setting aside the dubious assumption that the only way for an industry to be considered legitimate and legal is for it to be heavily regulated for a moment, the first thing that struck me was: Wait a minute! It’s (more or less) illegal to grow cannabis for sale in California. If this guy is as experienced as the press release claims, he should know that virtually every medical marijuana case that comes before the courts pivots around the question of whether the individual whose liberties have been deprived was growing/carrying/and or possessing enough marijuana ‘for personal use’. Just a couple of months ago there was a rather ridiculous case in Modesto where the accused, who held both a verified medical marijuana card and a doctors order, was arrested because the quantity of processed marijuana s/he possessed was considered too small and was therefore inconsistent with the growing operation found at the residence. Therefore, the cops asserted, s/he was growing ‘with the intent to sell’—the standard umbrella charge.
Right now, growing marijuana is legal in California ‘for personal use’—though what amount constitutes enough for personal use is dubious, even with a doctor’s order. Never-the-less, the courts have refused to allow an affirmative defense. If the cops decide whatever amount you have on you (over the clearly stated half-pound allowed under State Law) is too much for your personal use, or now apparently to little, they can arrest you. Then you’ll have drain your bank account to prove your medical use case in court. Right now, cannabis clubs and dispensaries are nominally legal as they are covered somewhat thinly by the State Attorney General’s guidance on the matter, though the courts maintain they flatly refuse to be bound by the AG’s guidelines. The only part of the puzzle that remains seriously gray under California’s current crazy quilt of medical marijuana laws is the very part on which Van Hook is running around advising local governments: The supply of medicine by growers to dispensaries. And given the current legal situation, his advice to local governments seems crazy!
Is Van Hook seriously suggesting that California Counties put themselves on the hook for inspecting an agricultural product that it is essentially illegal to market under State law and blatantly illegal under Federal law? Is Van Hook suggesting that counties, some of which are totally dependent upon their marijuana growers for their financial survival, force their growers out into the open by mandating business licenses and agricultural inspections of their operations? (Come on in, DEA. You’re welcome!) And even after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Raich, is Van Hook seriously suggesting the State of California take on the Federal Government over the issue?
I seriously hope it’s none of the above. Hopefully Van Hook is merely preparing California Counties for the time when marijuana is fully legal, but (unfortunately heavily) regulated. Such a time is coming, but it may be a few years off. First, California voters will have to approve State legalization via the coming 2012 ballot initiative. Second, the Frank/Paul bill will have to pass and become law, removing Federal criminalization and returning control of the drug to the states (where all drug enforcement properly belongs). But that may be even further down the road. Congress is extremely distracted by the bright shiny issues that attract media attention, and is likely to stay so through the coming election cycle. So unless Federal decriminalization suddenly becomes a darling of the national media (and if it does, there’s a 50/50 chance it will be cast in a negative light, rather than a positive one), don’t look for the bill to gain enough traction to fly through Congress on wings. Too, the DEA is unlikely to let funding for its ‘war on drugs,’ of which marijuana is a major part, go without a fight. So push back by the agency will be hard and harsh; the will of the people be damned.
In the mean time, Van Hook needs to be very very careful about what actions he advises his clients to take—and when.
I don’t usually read the comments on articles as I cruise the web. All it normally does it raise my blood pressure and make me faintly nauseous. But for the last couple of days, for some reason I’ve found myself scrolling through the comments on articles I’ve read. It had the desired affect: I now need my antacids and a blood pressure pill.
It also leaves me rather said and worried about the future of our union. Because rarely do I see a comment that represents real thought and understanding of the issue being discussed. Rather, the vast majority resemble talk radio or cable TV sound bites loaded up for shock value and one sentence partisan zingers. Here’s an example:
You think the private sector creates wealth and the government doesn’t? You’re a joke!
This is, apparently, now what passes for political converse and economic literacy in our country, because the discussion quickly descended into foul language and finger pointing from there. And it’s hardly unique. No, it’s about on par with most comment threads I looked at. It doesn’t take perusal of many comment or forum threads to understand why the Washington political landscape is as dysfunctional as it is. Not just for its hard line “my way or the highway” attitude, but also for its complete lack of common sense. The reality that, while government can create an environment in which the private sector can better create wealth, government does not create any wealth on its own was standard fair in economics 101 when I was in high school! And yet, over half of the posted to the comment thread above seriously believed that either only government created wealth or that it was at least as good at it as the private sector, and that there was no difference, economically speaking, between a government salary and a private sector salary.
With that kind of economic and political literacy, Is it any wonder the national debt now exceeds our GDP?
Ah yes, here we go again some more. The Minnesota State government is still shut down and the masses are whining that their government won’t plunder the ‘rich’ and give them their money, while the rich complain that they’re being unfairly targeted and should be allowed to go their way, protecting their monopolies so they can soak the masses unimpeded. Meanwhile, in an oh so typical move, New York City is actually rationing toilet paper, claiming it “is so hard up for cash that it’s rationing toilet paper in women’s public restrooms—to the point where bathroom attendants are doling out a few measly squares per patron—along the world-famous Coney Island boardwalk.”
Okay, so if I’ve got this straight, it’s cheaper to pay City employees to ration toilet paper than it is to buy the cheap, single ply crap, governments always buy?
The logic there kind of strains credulity, don’t you think? On the other hand, political analysts are well aware that women, as a group, are more liberal than men. So from that point of view, rationing toilet paper to women, and women only, makes a great deal of political sense even though it’s fiscally stupid. It’s guaranteed to put enormous pressure on those trying to deal seriously with New York City’s financial problems.
And of course, neither the finger pointing in Minnesota nor the toilet paper rationing in New York City has or does diddly to address the real problem: When everybody plunders everybody else, only the politicians win—and then only for a short time. Because plunder adds no value to an economy, no matter where the money was plundered from. You, me, the rich—it doesn’t matter. No redistribution of wealth, no government project creates real wealth. Until the masses understand that basic fact (and don’t hold your breath) there is little hope for New York City, Minnesota, America, or the European Union.
Article V of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution (also known as ‘the fifth’) states quite explicitly that: “No Person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law… ” This prohibition is repeated in paragraph 1 of Article XIV (the fourteenth amendment) in admonitions to the States, and tacks the now famous ‘equal protection’ clause on to the end for good measure. We commonly interpret this to mean that, as U.S. citizens, we are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, and that we should all be treated and tried equally under the law without regard to race, gender, religious affiliation, or wealth.
So when a cop showed up at his son’s school and clapped the irons onto Louis Gonzalez III without so much as a by your leave, he must have thought he’d been transported to a third world country. He received no Miranda warning, no explanation of why he was being deprived of his liberty and, as soon as he arrived in the jail holding cell, his property. Only after he’d been stripped naked and dressed in prison scrubs was he, hours later, dragged into a briefing room where a police detective told him why he was arrested and finally ‘read him his rights’. The cop was, as all cops are, convinced he was guilty. The LA Times, in an excellent piece of reporting, describes Gonzalez’s ordeal this way:
He was standing on the sidewalk outside the Simi Valley Montessori School, having just flown in from Las Vegas, hoping to get a look at his 5-year-old son’s new kindergarten. Standing there, waiting for the door to open so he could scoop the boy up in his arms and fly him to Nevada for the weekend.
The first officer arrived on a motorcycle and headed straight for him. He did not explain the charges as he snapped on the handcuffs. As Gonzalez stood there stunned, he noticed little faces pressed against the schoolhouse glass, watching, and asked if he could be moved just a bit so his son didn’t have to see.
Soon he’d surrendered all the items that tethered him reassuringly to the rational, workaday world. The BlackBerry he used a hundred times a day. His Dolce & Gabbana watch. His credit cards and photos of his son. His leather shoes and his socks, his pressed shirt and jacket, his belt and slacks and underwear. Naked in a holding cell, he watched his things disappear into plastic bags. He stepped into a set of black-and-white-striped jail scrubs, the kind his son might wear on Halloween.
A month passed in his single-bunk cell, and then another, and he had nothing but time to reckon all he’d lost. His freedom. His son. His job. His reputation. He had to wonder how much he could endure.
The other inmates in the solitary wing of the Ventura County Jail didn’t talk about their cases, because anyone might be a snitch, but his charges were well-known on the cellblock. More than once, they warned him about what awaited if he were convicted and sent to state prison. With a sex crime on his jacket, he knew, he would be a target forever.
“Like you’re waiting for death,” he said. “Dying would probably be better.”
If Gonzalez was presumed innocent under the law, the Ventura County Jail did not expect other inmates to honor that distinction. He was held in a segregated unit and received his meals through a slot in the heavy metal door. He wore a red-striped wristband denoting a violent offense. An hour a day, the doors opened so he could shower and make phone calls.
Now and then he could hear people going crazy in their cells, kicking their doors, screaming on and on until they had to be removed. He thought of himself as mentally sturdy, a survivor, but knew how easily anyone could crack. So he crammed every waking hour with routine. He read out-of-date newspapers and John Grisham novels and the Bible. He made a paper chess set and stood at the crack in his cell door, calling out moves to opponents down the corridor.
He listened to other inmates dwelling on the food they missed. One guy would say, “TGI Fridays, calamari,” the others would groan, and it went on like that for hours.
He learned a rule about surviving lockup: Never take a daytime nap, no matter how tired you are. Because you might not sleep that night, and you’d be left for hours in the dark of a cold cell with only your thoughts and your fear.
In his single-bunk cell in the Ventura County Jail, on a concrete slab desk, Louis Gonzalez III found himself compulsively writing letters to his 5-year-old son. They were a chronicle of their truncated time together. Telling him how they’d cheered for the Yankees. How his favorite toy had been a mechanical garbage truck. How he’d been a picky eater from the start, but crazy for Cheerios. He never mailed them.
He imagined his son in the cell with him, pushing around his Hot Wheels. In the silence and the isolation, his dream life had acquired surprising vividness. He could almost hear the little plastic wheels on the concrete.
He had a recurring fantasy. He saw himself in prison, 10 or 15 years from now, his conviction long since sealed, his appeals denied. His son, grown into a young man, would be his salvation, would take it upon himself to look into the case. He’d show up and say, “Mom admitted that she lied.”
Gonzalez, an innocent man, would spend 83 days in a tiny, solitary cell, deprived of everything that helps keep us sane: Family, useful employment, entertainment, interacting with other human beings, and for most of us, room to move around. (Most jail cells are no more than six feet by eight feet.) And he was treated better than many. I recently interviewed a young man, also innocent, who had spent ten days in the Sacramento County jail, fending off repeated rape attempts by other inmates. Being ignorant of the ways ‘inside’, he reported the first attempt to one of the jailers and was laughed at. “What do you want me to do? You’re in here to be punished,” the jailer scoffed.
Like Gonzalez, there had been no trial, no conviction by the Constitutionally mandated jury of his peers. But in the eyes of the jailers, the cops, the DA, and pretty much everyone else, both men were already “in [there] to be punished” for the crimes of which they were accused.
And in Gonzalez case, even having the charges dropped, even getting a judgment against his accuser ordering her to pay his legal fees for the false accusation didn’t undo the damage. Eventually his defense team would win a judgment of ‘factual innocence’ for him: A legal statement proclaiming his innocence. It would save his career, but the damage done to his reputation, the fact that he’d ‘done time’—83 days of time—with all that meant in the eyes of the public, could never be undone.
Some will say that all of this is necessary for the public safety. To which I must reply: Is it? As can be seen from the graph at right, the United States incarcerates eight times the numbers of people found in European prisons. And yet, the crime rates are comparable. The French were furious when videos of former IMF president, and French citizen, Dominique Strauss-Kahn were broadcast around the world showing him being led around in hand cuffs by New York police. In France the accused are the accused, not the guilty. For a French citizen to be treated like a criminal before conviction is unthinkable. And yet somehow, even though they don’t attempt to drive those accused of a crime insane with solitary confinement, boredom, and constant threats to their safety, their society doesn’t seem to suffer from a constant plague of crimes committed by the accused.
America likes to think of herself as a shining beacon on a hill, as President Reagan once put it. An example for all the world to look to of liberty, with justice for all. But if the Gonzalez case proves nothing else, it shows us how far away from that shining beacon we have strayed. Had Gonzalez not been wealthy enough to fund out of pocket legal expenses greater than most of us could borrow for a new car; had he, like so many Americans, been dependent upon public defenders—who are known to the poor as “public defectors”—he most certainly would have been convicted. Because in American we do not get equal treatment under the law. We are not innocent until proven guilty. We are guilty until proven innocent, and that is exactly how we are treated; and we only have the best justice system money can buy.
Which is why our prisons are full of, not rich people, but of the poor.