Sunday, February 21, 2010

‘We have met the enemy, and he is us’ - by Judge Jim Gray

OK, fun is fun, and fair is fair. But our economy is in serious trouble, which, in turn, means our country’s future is at stake. And, as Ayn Rand was quoted as saying, “You can’t fake reality forever.” So this will be a realistic and even blunt assessment of where our economy is, the problems we are facing, and what we should and must do about them. I am sorry to ruin your Sunday breakfast, but realities must be faced.

Just like the government of Greece, our country’s government is virtually bankrupt, which is to say that the federal government spends more than it takes in, and has been doing that for years. As a “short-term remedy,” the government has been using its irresponsible fallback ability literally to “print more money,” but this has simply aggravated the problem by building up huge budget deficits.

In addition, the signs are increasing that China, which holds more of our debt than any other country, is beginning to seek repayment, because their vast holdings are daily decreasing in value. If and when that happens, it will present us with another major economic crisis! So in so many ways our fiscal irresponsibility is inescapably catching up to us fast, and must be faced — now!

Specifically what are we facing? Using figures that come from economist Robert J. Samuelson, the federal government is projected in the next 10 years to spend about $45.8 trillion. But during that same period the government will take in revenues of only about $37.3 trillion, and even that is based upon the fabulously optimistic assumption that we will soon experience a full economic recovery. Thus the deficit is projected for the upcoming decade — in the best-case scenario — to be about $8.5 trillion, which will be about one-fifth of our total spending.

Starkly put, we cannot borrow our way out of debt. So we must now put into practice what we have been preaching for decades to Third World countries, and that is to “tighten our belts,” and act with fiscal prudence.

What are both our president and Congress doing to respond to this genuine crisis? Almost to a person, they are expressly ducking the hard questions, and are instead continuing to pander to us. How can they live with themselves by doing this while facing such economic peril? Because that is what we tell them we want them to do!

In today’s world, voters nationwide are expressing flagrant contradictions — all at the same time. On the one hand, more than a majority of voters are saying that they favor the so-called stimulus plan and want government to fix our economic problems, while on the other hand they are also saying that the government is too big and costly and spending much too much money, and that taxes are too high.

So what Pogo, the Walt Kelly comic strip character, was quoted years ago as observing is once again true: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We are the ones who are vehemently saying that we want our entitlements, while at the same time saying that we do not want to pay for them. So our elected representatives have been listening to us, catering to those perceived wishes, and faking reality for years — and they still continue to do so. So it is we who must change!

The truth is that fiscal balance can only be achieved, and our economic future secured, either by increasing government revenues by further increasing taxes, or by reducing government spending, or by a combination of both. In that regard, simple mathematics tells us that we could probably balance our budget by increasing all federal taxes by about 50%.

But that would probably not actually happen because that approach would, of course, be actively resisted by the people who would be called upon to pay those taxes. With time, those people would simply move their companies and assets out of the government’s reach, which would inflict further enormous harm upon our economy. In fact, we have experienced that phenomenon already, and would be well advised to lower the taxes we have today to entice those companies and assets back.

That leaves us to look at an appreciable reduction in governmental spending as the only remaining path to fiscal responsibility. So what should we look at? Well, as has been written several times in this column, we can start by passing sunset laws for our federal agencies that will inevitably reduce the size and cost of government. We can also repeal things like subsidies for farmers to grow and not grow various crops. Those things would be a start, but in themselves they would not be nearly enough at this point to bring us to fiscal stability.

No, what we are facing is much more serious. About $20 trillion of the projected $45.8 trillion in government spending will go for three programs: Medicare, which is health insurance for those who are 65 or older; Medicaid, which is health insurance for the poor; and Social Security. At present the average federal subsidy for each person who is 65 or older is $11,000 for Medicare, and $14,000 for Social Security, for a total of $25,000 per year. Obviously that is a lot of money, and, even speaking as a person who just qualified for Medicare last week, we can no longer afford it.

So we are going to be forced to change the Social Security system to take into account the wealth of the recipient, and reduce the benefits paid to those people. That is really a hard thing to say, because this was supposed to be our money that was being held for us in trust for our retirement. But in truth, the Social Security system was never set up that way. Instead Social Security was always a “pay as you go” program that paid money to today’s retirees that was taken from today’s workers. That means that there were no savings of money in trust for anybody. In other words, Social Security was a legalized Ponzi Scheme, and now reality is exposing that fraud.

Fiscal responsibility also virtually demands that our Social Security age must be pushed back from 65 to 70. Most mortality tables say that people who are now 65 can, on the average, look forward to another 18 years of life. That is much longer than when the Medicare and Social Security programs were originally put into effect, and the program never took that eventuality into account. This will certainly not be popular with people at that age, but the solvency of our country and our way of life simply require that result!

The counties in our state are in much the same position, but their problems to a large degree are caused by the vested benefits they owe to their public employees. These consist mostly of health and retirement entitlements. Think about it, the various county supervisors are almost always elected and re-elected with the financial help of government employees’ unions. Why are the unions so involved in these elections? Because the unions’ members are highly affected by how those supervisors vote.

So after the elections are over, there exists a definite conflict of interest when the supervisors are called upon to decide upon the various financial benefits for the public employees. If they do not vote for benefits that are lucrative enough, they will arouse the anger of their biggest contributors, and this will probably result in their losing their next election. So often the supervisors go to great lengths with county funds to please the unions. But with this scenario, no one looks out for the solvency of the counties. As a result, probably every city and county in California is financially insolvent, because they have more projected obligations than revenues.

Those are the realities. Discussions like this are certainly not fun, but eventually reality must be faced. In fact, our children demand it. Mostly, you and I will be fine, but our financial security and comfort are being paid for by mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren. And I hope you agree with me that this is too high a cost to pay!

In a democracy our “leaders” are governed by only one universal principle: They will follow where the votes are. That means in this case that they will tell us the truth at their peril. Furthermore, as long as financial ruin does not happen while they are still in office, reality can be postponed until someone else’s term. So in effect, all of them have simply been doing our bidding since they were voted into office, and they will continue to do so. Therefore, it is not the “rascals” we elect to office that are to blame. The rascals are us.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of “Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts” (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Sunday, February 7, 2010

VIP Mentors: a truly wonderful project - by Judge Jim Gray

One thing I learned from my extended involvement with the criminal justice system is that each case is different, and, although it sounds silly to have to say it, each case involves an individual human. So many times with prosecutors and judges, there can be a tendency to categorize each case simply as a burglary case, a hand-to-hand drug sale case, or tax fraud case, etc. But since I had been a criminal defense attorney in the Navy JAG Corps, I had learned to understand that each case involved a real human, and that experience helped me quite a bit as a judge.

Of course, just because each case had a unique human face did not at all mean that the defendants would not be held responsible for their actions. In fact, my experiences often guided me to look directly at the defendants at time of sentencing and tell them that I understood them, and that it made me feel good to be a spokesman for society and sentence them to jail or prison.

Nevertheless, once people have served their time in custody, it is only appropriate to assist them to live productive lives if at all possible, if only to reduce future crimes, victimization and expenses to the taxpayer. And, of course, everyone must recognize that some people have a better chance to succeed in being productive members of society than others.

But all of this brings me to the topic of today's column, which is the Volunteers in Parole Mentoring Program. This is a group of volunteer attorneys who, since 1972, have been serving as mentors and a support system for recently paroled prisoners. Think about it, lots of people who have been in prison for years want to live productive lives, but many have been virtually rendered unemployable by their felony convictions, have never had a positive support system, and actually are scared to be out on their own again.

How would you feel to be released after 10 years in prison with one set of new clothes, about $200 in cash, and a bus ticket to your former place of residence? Probably your spouse has long-since divorced you, and you wouldn’t have any positive family or social connections. And, of course, you would be told that you had lots of reporting requirements to your parole officer, and if you missed any of them you would likely be sent back to the joint. What would you think? What would you do? For most people, the situation quickly seems to be hopeless.

So now comes the VIP Mentors, whose motto is “Partners in Success.” With this program, parolees are first interviewed and screened by a parole officer, and then by VIP Mentors itself. Then if there seems to be a fit, and if there is room for them, the ex-felons will be given the name and phone number of the local director, and a date for an interview in their home town.

Once they get back to their place of residence, they will be assisted in the re-integration process into the community by being assigned an attorney-mentor with whom they are able to develop a one-on-one relationship.

What does that mean? The mentor will be available for telephone calls, hanging out, going to the mall, or going to movies or ball games. In other words, the mentor will be there — just like a family member — to offer these people in need friendship, emotional and social support, and practical problem solving. Specifically, that sometimes translates into guidance about how to interview for and keep a job, obtain a driver’s license, live on a budget, and work through the various inevitable crises that surely will come their way.

When asked about his experience with the VIP Mentors, one of the younger clients said: “I went into Youth Correctional Facility when I was 14. I came out when I was 19. I couldn’t go home, because that was where my trouble started. I really just didn’t know where to go.”

But with his mentor, this young man said he had not only received the first positive male role model of his life, he also received some essential ingredients for success that he had always been lacking, which were motivation and self-confidence. Thus almost all of the ex-felons who have been matched with mentors say that if they hadn’t been involved in this program, they probably would have been sent back to prison. And this is probably true.

But if the human side of the story does not get your attention, taxpayers should understand that a full 70% of parolees in California end up being re-arrested, and that it costs taxpayers about $35,000 per year to keep just one person in prison. So you will be pleased to hear that in fiscal year 2008, VIP matched 321 parolees with a mentor, and of those, only 57 were returned to custody. That is a return rate of 17.8%.

Using those statistics, VIP saved California taxpayers more than $3.5 million in that year alone! And the return rate for juvenile offenders is almost as good.

VIP Mentors began as a program sponsored by the State Bar of California, and, up until recently, was primarily funded by the state. But with the state’s budgetary problems, all state funding for the program has been taken away — and that was 75% of their operating budget! So, where two years ago they had 15 paid staff members, now they have three. Where the state director used to earn a modest $75,000 per year, that has been reduced by a third. Equally painful reductions have been placed upon the other two remaining on-site directors.

Just when the need for help for the parolees is greatest, when the job market is really tough, and the number of people on parole are increasing, the opportunity to help these people stay out of prison has been severely diminished.

Fortunately, all of the surviving four programs happen to be here in Southern California, but without some extra help, that may be lost as well.

The first sentence in the introduction of my recent book about judging said that the best decision I ever made in my life was choosing my parents. And, of course, I have been a life-long beneficiary of that choice. But I think that also gives me a moral obligation to help those who did not “choose quite so well.” In fact, a high percentage of people who have ended up in prison have never had any positive parental leadership or support. What better way to assist them than to support groups like the VIP Mentors.

If you agree, contact VIP Mentors at (877) 484-2139 You will receive a great deal of gratification by supporting this wonderful and successful program.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Monday, February 1, 2010

How to fix a broken government - by Judge JIm Gray

You probably do not need to hear much from me to convince you that our government is broken. The problems come directly from Congress and our state legislature, and the evidence is all around us. It was Thomas Jefferson who told us that we should have a revolution about every generation to keep special interests from being solidified in government. We should have listened. And Alexis deToqueville famously observed that the American Republic would endure until the day Congress discovered that it could bribe the public with the public’s own money. Unfortunately, that day has probably arrived.

For example, for the past decades Congress and our state legislature have been passing gimmicky budgets that simply ignore fiscal problems and pass them along to some unspecified time in the future. Why does this continue to happen? Because politicians are only truly concerned about the next election, not the next generation. That is what our system encourages. But as a consequence, the federal budget deficit for 2010 is projected to be $1.35 trillion, and the state budget deficit for 2009-10 is about $6.3 billion, and it has a projected budget deficit for 2010-11 of $14.4 billion. So what can or should we do about this dire situation?

Well, the first thing to do, short of electing more Libertarians to office, is to have a state constitutional convention that would incorporate some specific changes into our state government. That, in turn, would probably galvanize the rest of the country to get serious about the federal government as well.

What changes should be made? First, we should follow Texas’ lead and have our legislature in session only every other year. Texas has its legislature in session only in every odd year, which has some poetic justice to it. At these sessions, the legislature would be required to pass two-year budgets.

In addition, we should also follow the lead of the government of British Columbia that requires each bill literally to be read three times on the floor of Parliament before it can become law. The first time is mostly for show, and most members of Parliament are not present. But the second reading is done only one paragraph at a time, and that is followed by a debate and a vote on just that language alone. Then the third reading takes place before a vote on the entire measure.

This process accomplishes two important purposes. The first is that it vastly reduces the number of bills that are even addressed, much less passed into law. This tends to get rid of the junk and other special interest measures that routinely find their way into our statutes. The second is that it requires Parliament actually to read, understand and debate what is being presented to them. What a novel concept! Unfortunately, this enforced responsibility is simply foreign to our Congress and legislature in today’s world!

The new constitution should also include a provision for sunset laws that would require an affirmative vote every six years or so from the Legislature before any state government agency could continue to be funded. This suggestion has been discussed several times in this column, and would be one of the most effective ways of controlling the size, intrusion and bureaucracy of government. If an agency could not show it was giving us enough “bang for the buck,” its size could be reduced, its mandate could be delegated to another agency, or it could be eliminated entirely. Of course, that process would also give a performing agency an opportunity to shine by demonstrating its accomplishments.

In addition, no legislation or voter initiatives would be allowed to pass without first designating a funding source. One way our governments have been allowed to sink under the waves of red ink is because even some well-intentioned measures have been passed without any particular plans, or even thoughts, about where the money would come from to fund them. This fiscal irresponsibility must come to an end.

Recently the United States Supreme Court held that corporations are constitutionally entitled to spend any amount of money they choose to support any candidates running for election, as long as they do not give the money directly to the candidates or their political parties. By inference, that rule would also apply to labor unions. The court saw this matter as one of free speech. But actually, the Supreme Court got it backward.

Instead, the Constitution should be changed to disallow any political contributions of any kind from any of these artificial entities. But at the same time, all restrictions should be removed on the amounts of money or support that a human being can donate to any political candidate or cause — subject only to the full and public disclosure of all contributions. As a matter of simple fairness, corporations, labor unions and similar entities should not be allowed to spend communal resources for political purposes, unless each and every stockholder or union member, etc. specifically approves of that expenditure of their money. And if they do approve, fine. Just let them make the contributions in their own names!

Plus, the reality is that wealthy people will always find a way to support their chosen candidates anyway. So let them exercise their free speech and make any contributions they wish — of their own money. Just be sure to force them to do it openly. Then if some other voters become concerned that Candidate Smith might be controlled by Mr. Jones because of a large campaign donation, they can always vote for Smith’s opponent. This process would maximize openness, reduce violations of law and at the same time affirm everyone’s rights of free speech.

Another critically important measure to explore in the constitutional convention is our way of raising tax revenue. Today our income tax system is enormously controlled by special interests. And the largest of those special interests is Congress itself. Why is that true? Because the ability to designate tax breaks for particular special interests directly results in a great deal of campaign contributions. And this is what keeps politicians in office. So we must repeal the entire tax code, and in its place substitute a simple form of flat tax that will do away with this problem.

Just for illustration, the federal flat tax could provide that no one would pay any income taxes at all on their first $30,000 of income. That would both provide equal treatment for everybody, and also protect the poor. Then on the next $50,000, everybody concerned would pay a flat tax of 10% to the government, with no allowances for any deductions of any kind. Then on the next $200,000 of income, everybody at that level would pay a flat 20% to the government. Finally, everybody concerned would pay 25% to the government on every dollar they earned that was above $280,000. A similar program, but with much lower rates, could be used by the state.

This approach would enormously reduce the costs of record-keeping, tax preparation, fraud and enforcement, and along the way also increase basic fairness. And it would probably also increase gross revenues for the government, for each of two reasons. First, the savings to individuals and to businesses would probably spur the economy, so more tax money would be received. And secondly, because simplicity of enforcement as well as the reality and perception of fairness would all be increased, more people would pay their full share of taxes without feeling that they were being treated as chumps.

Obviously, all of these are complicated issues, and there will need to be a great deal of thought, discussion and compromise about them. Thus, we will need everyone to be involved in this critically important process.

But because you have each been religiously planning and practicing your public speaking due to last week’s column, I know you will be up to the task. So let’s all get started!

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .