The “T H U G O L O G Y” 101 Lectures

[This is an annotated version of a Speech given by the author in Walnut Creek, CA on 10/11/ 2012]


Jay B Gaskill

The Former Alameda County Public Defender[1]

Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law[2]

Over the years I came to enjoy the old fashioned criminals.  They were much like us – but burdened by their bad choices, their rap sheets and arrests. They were flawed screw-ups with a residual conscience, men and women who hold, deep down, a hope for better days. I got to know them very well in a career that I call my life of crime, the years during which I enjoyed, if that is the term, close, confidential interactions with the crooks of Oakland and the rest of Alameda County.  My three decade career ended in a final decade as the boss, when I served as the head public defender for that county, supervising 140 lawyers and professional investigators, reporting to country bureaucrats and five elected officials.  Over that period, I estimate that I had conducted considerably more than 14,000 confidential, in-depth encounters with crooks of all ages. I spent enough time behind bars (excluding nights, of course) to serve a term for car theft.  No sociologist or criminologist has been able replicate that experience.  No typical public defender was paying attention in quite the same way that I was, because I was a student of the human condition. What a field study!  I have some lessons I would share from those years. At the end of this discussion, I will take any of your crime-related questions, including three strikes, the death penalty, drug legalization, jail crowding, or anything else, as our time permits.

I remember a September 3, 2012 HEADLINE —OUTBREAK OF HOMICIDES LEAVES SAN JOSE REELING Once Peaceful City Seeks Answers

I poured my first cup of coffee and read on.  San Jose had 11 murders in 8 days.  This is like Oakland, I thought:  a variety of scenarios, a 27 year old student stabbed in Safeway, gang killings, carjackings…  In August the police chief reported a 39% increase in home burglaries, double digit increases in rapes, car thefts, robberies….you get the picture. At the time of the article, the San Jose murder rate had doubled.

The newspaper’s use of the term OUTBREAK was a “tell”.  Most of the local media tend to portray crime as a disease instead of a series of moral transgressions.  This is careless journalism.

Under the watch of Mayor Reed[3], San Jose had downsized the police department from 1,395 cops to just over one thousand.  Yet, when interviewed, the mayor rejected any notion that quote “there is a correlation between police force size and homicide” unquote.

The San Jose mayor is apparently an idiot.  If you uncritically buy into the medical analogy, you’ll never quite “get” criminal behavior.  But let’s humor those who use medical terms to describe a crime wave (really a moral calamity). The number of street-deployed cops is not like the number of doctors (after all, a doctor shortage does not cause disease); instead, police are more like the cells in your body’s immune system.

San Jose, Oakland and other California urban centers, have subpopulations of thugs. Stay with the medical analogy: Gutting a city’s police force is like taking someone though a brutal course of chemotherapy, gravely weakening his or her immune system – then forcing the victim to live in a ward of disease-ridden patients.  Any American urban city can be that victim, too.  Take away the law enforcement immune system and your neighborhood is going to “catch” a plague of thugs.

A working understanding of thuggish behavior is basic to any study of the human condition, essential to the study of history, important for the conduct of American foreign policy (I’m thinking of the Arab springtime for thugs here) and a key to local police staffing issues.  What I’ve learned about thugs comes from 28 years of interactions with the crooks of Alameda County. To understand the criminal mind, some careful distinctions are necessary.  Most thugs are crooks, but some crooks are not thugs.  Almost all criminal behavior is bad in the moral sense, but very little of it is truly evil. And some criminal behavior, think serial killer, suicide murders, for example as so different in kind that they get their own special categories.

I need to share another “teaching moment”.  After I left my life of crime, my wife and I were visiting family in Manhattan.  We were there on September 11, 2001, within smelling distance of Ground Zero, spending days moving among the stunned, the worried, the grief stricken, seeing more love for the American flag than I ever had witnessed before.  And I learned a new lesson.

Very few criminals are truly evil.  I learned this because, when you actually encounter authentic, full-on evil, it is absolutely unmistakable, and qualitatively different from the merely bad and despicable.  I looked around the city and saw the rest of us, the cab drivers with turbans, the shopkeepers, the tourists, the ordinary crooks, the beautiful people and the broken ones, and I realized two things with a terrible, unforgettable clarity:  Evil is a very narrow category, terrible and dangerous, and in its presence we are privileged to see all the rest of us, however broken and imperfect we are, as versions of the good.

Flash back to the year 1969.  I was a newly minted lawyer with the Alameda County Public Defender’s office. As I was oriented by my first boss, a tough, pipe-smoking trial lawyer with a biting wit. He introduced us newbies to the world of crime with a warning: “This job,” he said, “is like touring a sewer in a glass bottomed boat.”

Nobody issued us scuba gear.

Flash forward about twenty years: I find myself standing in the Command Center of the modern Jail complex near Pleasanton, California, the replacement for the infamous old Santa Rita Jail.  I was the chief Public Defender for Alameda County, invited to give an address to the graduating class of the Sheriff’s 102nd Police Academy, by Sheriff Plummer.  He introduced me as “the best public defender in the country.” He added, “When I see him on the elevator, I tell him ‘Have a bad day.’”  God love him, Charlie Plummer is one of a kind.

In that speech, I described a time when my colleagues and I were allowed to mingle with the prisoners in the old Santa Rita.  Often not a deputy was in sight as we moved among the jail population. They were a lot like the prisoners in the film, the Shaw Shank Redemption.  We were hassled, cajoled, complemented, bullshitted, begged, amused, and aggravated by our clients. Some were appealing characters, caught up in the web of their own bad decisions, now being processed by the impersonal justice machine.  Others were the classic assholes for whom flunking the attitude test was just the first in a series of life’s lessons ignored.

We really had no sense of danger as we stood in the open by wooden barracks, waiting to interview our new clients. The wind ruffled our files and papers; the crooks lined up in orderly queues.  If anyone got out of line, the other inmates would make sure we were okay.

I looked out at the academy graduates and said: “Those days are gone”.  There were knowing looks from senior deputies. We had seen it in certain prisoners’ hard, wary eyes, and their coiled-spring body language. There are reasons for this human deterioration, for the necessary bulletproof windows between lawyer and client, for the difficulties getting approval for a “contact” interview – meaning a real face-to-talk – and for all the other security precautions.  The prison and jail population is more dangerous.

Why this change? Two main factors: The drug culture – it’s a character poison.  And the drop out of the moral foundations of society, formerly supplied by religion.  As a result, an entire male criminal subpopulation has gradually been brutalized.

Within the larger group of crooks, I began to notice more dead eyes, more cold hearted thugs, including teenagers in juvenile hall for whom the act of killing someone had all the moral and psychological significance of turning off a bad television program to go to the bathroom.  These soul-damaged ones are the “New Breed”.  …More on them later.

One day, I was walking back from the North County Jail in downtown Oakland where I had just seen one of my murder clients.   Behind me on the sidewalk I noticed a woman in her twenties and her child, a girl about nine or ten.  The pair had obviously just visited a prisoner charged with felony assault.  “See,” the mother was saying to her girl, “if you cut somebody, you can end up in there.”

Now I need you to stop and think about that exchange, as I did.  It spoke volumes to me.  The tone of the mother’s remark was flat and conversational.  There was no sense at all that the woman was communicating an event of moral significance.  It was as if she had said, “See those weeds, if you don’t cut the grass, that’s what your lawn will look like.”  Her tone was coolly practical, without moral judgment.  She could have been talking about a parking ticket.

Put yourself in that conversation. You are talking to one of your own, perhaps a son, daughter, a grandchild, godchild, a niece, nephew or student.  Someone she knows is in jail for stabbing somebody. Imagine what you would say.  Consider your tone.  You would feel a gut reaction to the event, a sense perhaps captured in the “My God, how could he have done that?” Every part of you would tend to communicate that the act of assault itself was wrong.  Whatever your words, you would be speaking in a context in which the given was – We just don’t do that. That was what most disturbed me about that woman’s overheard remark: the context it revealed, a world in which basic morality was simply absent, just as if you were talking about color to a blind person.

This was not an isolated sample from an atypical population.  It was like finding dry rot and a termite in your kitchen floor, then finding telltale powder along the bedroom walls.  There is never just one termite.  Outside this room, there is a world where the moral compass is broken, where people don’t know north from south because their compasses point only in one direction – immediate, predatory self-advantage.

This didn’t just happen.  The first famous philosopher who announced that morality was an invention set in motion a chain of events that has now put us all at risk. That one idea – morality as made up – has eaten its way through the social fabric with the same effect as a computer virus corrupting an irreplaceable data base.

By the time these notions get down to the street level, their carriers are like the drunken sailors who build a bonfire in the hold of a wooden boat far from shore.   Here are some examples of bonfire building:

Everybody does it.

She had it coming.

Nobody’s going to find out.

Money can buy anything.

Only an idiot would tell the truth about that.

I had no choice.

Once upon a time there was a great cultural transmission belt that carried the essence of the Moral Law from one generation to the next. But not far from this room, that belt is broken.

Most of the crooks I talked to were more than three generations away from anyone who ever set foot in a church or had otherwise received any formal moral instruction.

Ordinary criminals are not hopeless cases.  You’ve heard about “honor among thieves”? It is true.  Any functioning criminal enterprise requires minimal social cooperation within the criminal cohort.  Cooperation demands a set of basic rules in order for the caper to be pulled off and the spoils to be distributed.  Crooks mimic primitive tribal behavior where outsiders are prey, but not the inner circle…at least not until after the spoils are distributed.  Minimal trust and fidelity are needed in even the criminal gang: Do not steal from or cheat your fellow crook.

Here is a true story about two thugs and a prostitute, a gang of three.  The woman’s job was to signal the thugs when she thought her John was worth robbing.  But one day she failed to account for the Thugs’ share and Thug one went into a tantrum.  He pulled a gun on “that Hoe” (as he put it) and shot her. But the round went clean through, exiting her back.  Unfortunately for Thug two, he was standing behind the “hoe”, and took a mortal chest shot.  His dying words were, “You dumb…bleep. [The bleep word rhymes with grit.]  The prostitute lived to testify against Thug one.  Under the law, his murderous intent to kill the prostitute was transferred to his crime partner.  The jury convicted him of murder,   agreeing that he was, in fact, a dumb…wit.

Keeping order among crooks for more than a few hours requires more than a calculation of advantage.  As soon as conditions change, somebody gets stabbed or shot.  This is why thugs tend to get caught.  The baseline trust thing requires something thugs lack; it’s called character.

Ordinary crooks are severely foresight challenged.  Their capacity for advance planning is negligible and their impulse control is weak at best.  For the common crooks I dealt with, it was almost impossible to plan ahead.

Most of our practice was spent attempting to persuade a subpopulation of crooks to act in their rational self-interest when to most of them it was a novel idea, never before tried.  Two cautions here:  Both three strikes and the death penalty are effective in spite of this short term thinking for reasons I can develop if we have time for questions.

Not all lawbreakers are crooks and not all crooks are thugs.  There is a dividing line between ordinary crooks and thugs. On the thug side, you have a casual readiness to do violence, and the complete absence of shame. Thugs live in a world where life decisions are motivated by greed and settled by intimidation.  And for thugs, intimidation means nothing short of a credible threat of violence – meaning I’ll get you soon, not someday.  Cooperation is a temporary alliance, a transition state between betrayals. Lying and deception are art forms to be admired and imitated.

Alpha crooks, including Alpha thugs, are different.  For one thing they are smarter and better organized.  In fact, they share a number of traits with our political leaders.

BUT…in spite of all the evil, sin, bullshit and depravity in the world, redemption is real.  But it is an individual epiphany, the occurrence of which is only as real as we are realistic about what it entails.  I want to use the term redemption very carefully.  Redemption requires recognition that you have committed a wrong, a commitment to turn away from that, and an actual new path in the better direction.  I like the Hebrew term shuvah. It means turning away from wrong and a turning toward the Author of all good.  When a thug lacks the moral framework to recognize that he has done something wrong, redemption is not happening.

George Orwell is credited with saying, “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”  The possibility that redemption will strike your local burglar like a lightning bolt does not make you safe in your bed at night.  For that we need crime control.  And that starts with thug control.

Most thugs are controllable by a robust police presence.  The cop on the street suppresses impulse crime – by far the most common variety.  Beyond the blue uniform deterrence effect, crime control requires three equally essential elements: [1] robust, effective police work; [2] swift, tough criminal justice; [3] the integration of these two with the Moral Law. What?  …The moral law? What about medicine, psychology and behavioral science? The latest politically correct fad is to substitute medical terms for moral categories. It’s almost as if we are being asked to worship a secular savior – the Great Therapist.  A few of my clients had a version of this, referring to some pervert as a sick bleep (the bleep word rhymes with luck).  The attempt to medicalize anti-moral behavior is one of the worst mistakes of the last two centuries.

I had assumed that the K-12 educational curriculum included the essential moral injunctions of the bible, the Torah and the Gospels. But the doctrine of separation of church and state has become the doctrine of the separation of moral law from all state ceremonies and institutions. This is as self-defeating as refusing to teach Newton’s laws of mechanics because he believed he was decoding the mind of God, or refusing to teach the Golden Rule as if it were just Christian doctrine, or refusing to celebrate the American Revolution because its architects taught that human freedom was a gift from the Creator.

The Moral Law is indispensable it is not sufficient.  In 12th century Europe, a single priest could face an angry sword wielding man, stopping the would-be killer in his tracks with a single phrase:  “Put down the sword or I will deny absolution.” Just try using that threat against a 21st century thug.

Religions are equipped by tradition to provide an answer to the “Why the hell be good?” question.  But just answering the question is not enough for the thuggish mind because thugs represent the subset of humanity who grew up without caring why other people are foolish enough to be good. Though indispensable, the Moral Law is not sufficient because the 21st century thug kills the priest.

In church or synagogue or academia, we may hear “love conquers all” without being reminded that protecting the weak requires somebody strong to step up to the protection task carrying a big stick.  Love, without robust action to protect the innocent, is an invitation to a visit from predatory thugs.

The time honored “Rule-and-consequences” model actually works. It is as basic to the human condition as Newton’s Laws are to mechanics.  The model works because people do respond to incentives and disincentives.

But any system of laws will erode unless the rules are well aligned with the Moral Law.  Ever have a five year old boy shout at you – “You’re not the boss of me!”  As he grows up, the words change but the attitude persists.  You really need the support of the Big Rules to which you both are subordinate. This is why we need to protect the core integrity of the justice system.  Exceptions to the reach of justice de-legitimize all authority, especially when exceptions become exemptions based on power, privilege or victim class.  Diversity politics undermine moral authority whenever they legitimize status exceptions to justice.

We need to unite on the basics to get our thugs in order.  The pursuit of high virtue is admirable, but the prideful pursuit of purity is a distraction and an irritant.  By back to basics, I mean attention to the core moral boundaries that hold back the thugs. These boundaries are weakened when we are distracted and confused by too many petty rules or too much petty purity.

Discovering the core of the moral law is not rocket science.  Respect for the property, privacy and persons of others, as in not robbing, cheating, tricking, assaulting, raping or killing them, and respect for family obligations are the core elements.  Each is protected in the Decalogue, the English Common law and most world moral traditions.  There is one overall design behind these core elements: Protect human dignity from the predators.  All the rest is small change.

By the way: Have you noticed that males predominantly fill our prisons and jails, while females increasingly fill our classrooms? Allowing for obvious exceptions, males tend to be more aggressive, more restless, less touchy-feely and less compliant than females.  Put differently, while most males are not thugs, most thugs are males.  Females respond more readily than males to nurture and the appeal to one’s better angels. Males especially young ones, need bright line boundaries and clear, consistent consequences.  Did you ever wonder why nuns were issued rulers?

Thugs can actually thrive in a robust, moral environment; sociologists call it a “structured environment”; that model works very well provided it is run on a rational, impartial rules-and-consequences basis, especially when the rules make moral sense. This is the secret of the remarkably effective drug court “rehabilitation-with-teeth” programs that sprung up all around the USA from their point of origin in a single Oakland courtroom three decades ago.  When these programs were run with strict accountability, determination, and the patience that tough love can only provide, they reversed the high recidivism rate typical of drug offenders.  Sadly, whenever accountability has been weakened, and addicts are prematurely graduated, the same programs begin to look like failures.  The bad outcomes are then concealed by the treatment bureaucracy, and we begin to hear calls for drug legalization…which in my professional opinion will be an epic mistake.  The drug court experience, honestly told, is a great story worthy of study. It has powerful implications for how we should be running our prisons.  The tough love that denies an addict the degrading oblivion of the needle is the harder course, but it is the right course.

Congratulations. We’ve just covered the essentials of the criminal mind.  If this was year 1800, we’d be through.  But it is the 21st century.  We still need to talk about the New Breed, the Serial Predators and the Suicide Killers.

An angry male suddenly kills several people he knows, the details vary – coworkers, boss, girlfriend, an entire family – then, he kills himself.  My first impulse on reading this stuff is always the same: Why didn’t he kill himself first? This is not common thug behavior, by the way.  Obviously there is a toxic dynamic at work here.  What is it? As it happens, the suicide jihad bombers provide a clue.  The suicidal murder pattern is a recurring theme.

The key is something called malignant narcissism.  This term, popularized by the writer Scott Peck, describes a very dangerous mindset. It describes someone who is so into his or her own “I’m the center-of-the-universe” position that the craving to be recognized, to be successful and the center of attention, amount to a God-given entitlement.  For such narcissistic minds, the mere fact that others are doing better is almost intolerable. These narcissists automatically believe that the all better off  ones are cheating; that the well-being, or achievement, or healthiness or happiness of these other people, is the greatest injustice in the world.  The malignancy in this form of narcissism makes them wish to cut all those other people down to size.  For a broken-down addict, it means getting the clear and sober people addicted, too.  In other cases, it can mean killing the ones whose very existence makes the narcissist feel bad about himself – or his religion.  “Going postal” was an early example of workplace-centered malignant narcissism.  Killing one’s spouse and children is another example, and the suicide that follows these killings is the final “I’ll show you!” gesture.

The architects of the terrorist jihad have learned how to weaponize this kind of discontent and make it work for them as a tactic of war against what they see as a decadent civilization whose very material success is an affront to their version of God.

Evil is real. The 911 hijackers were the dupes and tools of an evil agenda.  Consider Anders Behring Breivik, who committed murders on Utoya Island in Norway June 22 last year, immediately following his Oslo bombing. He was an example of evil incarnated.  The civilized Norwegians insisted on seeing this mass murderer through a medical lens. When this atrocity first came to my attention, I wrote that Norway was asleep when the bastard-spawn of that mythological monster, Grendel, harvested 71 innocent bodies.  I wrote that “Norway has yet to wake up from the half-sleep called post-modern liberalism”, and that “In my professional opinion, Norway is attempting to deal with an evil, homicidal sociopath for whom ideology was just a means and a justification – part of a larger nihilist game that is playing out in a vulnerable culture.”

Just talking about evil and nihilism in these terms makes many moderns squirm, partly because the term evil is overused, but mostly because many of us hate to think that evil is real at all.  We prefer the term “sick”, instead, as if by “medicalizing” such a profound moral mal-orientation, we can hold onto the illusion that the world consists entirely of good people, some of whom occasionally “catch” a case of “badness” as if it were some kind of flu.

Evil with a capital “E” is a large, separate topic, but here is a shorthand definition.  Badness and wickedness are part of the human tendency to fall away from the good, often for narrowly selfish reasons.  Evil is a complete motivational turnaround, the active, motivated pursuit of the polar opposite of the Good as a value in its own right.

If we were to look at an evil mindset as an infection, then would be a moral infection. The process of any profound moral breakdown begins with nihilism. This is the world view that represents the affirmative rejection of morality. Nihilism is like the wipeout of the moral immune system. Drawing room elites have toyed with the theory that morality is personal preference, like one’s lipstick choice or brand of beer.  For these intellectuals, such ideas are a harmless parlor game. Of course, these elites do not rape and pillage their neighborhoods; but that’s a small consolation.

They are the Typhoid Maries of the culture. Nihilism is their gateway drug to full-on evil.  And the New Breed (the dead-eyed ones I mentioned) is their progeny.

[] [] []

Nihilism always grants the license to do evil.  I have one chilling example. It took place a few miles from here. On October 15, 2005 Daniel Horowitz and Pamela Vitale were building their dream home on a site in Lafayette, living temporarily in a trailer near the construction site.

Pam was home alone.

Dan returned from work to an eerie silence.  He opened the door and stepped in, first noticing the blood; then he discovered Pam’s bloody body.  His wife had been brutally beaten, and extravagantly stabbed.

A pot was shattered with such force that her outer skull was exposed. A chilling symbol was carved into her back by the killer, a crudely formed “H”, seen on the side – a double armed cross.  An expert testified Pam Vitale was still alive during that carving.

I knew Dan Horowitz from the old days, and when I saw the evening news, I found the sight of his agony wrenching and unforgettable.  I decided to follow the case.

There was no obvious ordinary motive for this slaughter, not theft, not revenge. It looked like a killing for killing’s sake.   Eventually the forensic evidence at the bloody scene and testimony from friends and neighbors pointed to a high school student, Scott Dyleski. His arrest, trial and conviction followed.  Dyleski is doing life for special circumstances murder.  An accused person’s character is almost never introduced in a criminal trial because of its prejudicial effect.  The conviction left a huge, unanswered question: WHY?

Scott Dyleski was an artist, deep into the Goth scene.  One of the pictures he made for art class depicted a human figure with an animal head holding two severed human heads, one in each hand.  And what about that mysterious double armed cross he carved in Pamela’s back?  Several theories were suggested, but I concluded it was the Cross of Lorraine, a heraldic emblem that has been appropriated by modern Satanists and some Goth rock bands.

The symbol carved in Ms. Vitale’s back resembled drawings and a CD album cover recovered from Dyleski’s personal effects.  In Medieval France, when conspirators against the regime used the “Cross of Lorraine”, it depicted both the “arms of Christ” and the “arms of Satan” and the blood of both.  At trial, Dyleski’s girlfriend testified that Scott had told her that and he saw good and evil in both the devil and God. It became apparent to me that Dyleski lived in an anti-moral universe, seething with death images and malevolent ideas, a universe represented for him by this cross symbol. The confusion and intermingling of good and evil in a single holy and anti-holy symbol, the cross of Satan and God, had conferred psychological and moral permission to do dreadful things.

Based on Dyleski’s dark musical tastes, I discovered a connection to the “industrial noise” musician Boyd Rice.  Mr. Rice, who was made a High Priest in the Church of Satan founded by the nut case Anton LaVey, wears a version of the two armed cross.  Rice is a stone cold misanthrope.  His “think tank”, the Abraxas, has proclaimed the following ethos: “The strong rule the weak, and the clever rule the strong”.  This might be an accurate description of the social climate in the nation’s capital, but it is not a moral sentiment.

This is the nihilist’s creed.

The information-swamp carries all sorts of bizarre, malevolent ideation, death fantasies and dark power-ideologies. They are floating through our culture, just below the radar of most adults. They mainlined into this kid’s mind.

These ideas and images act like an odorless and colorless toxic gas that attacks the morally vulnerable.  As I followed Dyleski’s case, I coined a term for these toxic, pathogenic, anti-moral images:  They are “malogens”. This new term is now in use – having been cited by a political scientist with attribution to my Dyleski commentary[4]. Malogens are malevolent and pathogenic cultural influences, in effect the seductive forms of anti-life nihilism, promoted in entertainment. They are impossible to avoid in this culture because they are embedded in media carried on computers, phones, music players, and endless list of potential inputs.

Scott Dyleski’s New Age mother was apparently clueless about the danger, and oblivious to her son’s vulnerability.  It was apparently of no significance to her that Scott Dyleski was into to the music of a Goth band called Velvet Acid Christ. He was carrying his malogens in a portable MP3 player. The jury did not hear the words I’m about to read to you, but they are representative of the material that assaulted young Dyleski’s mind through his ear-buds:

“…feel the machines implanted in your thoughts/ mangled nervs twist and turn /form new paths in your brain/ pull out all the wires and push them into your heart/ yeah push it into your heart/ yeah push it into your heart…so shoot it out/ your sick life has come to me/ your life ends/ you’ll never cry or breathe again.”

There was much more of this toxic material.  The intergenerational moral transmission belt failed in Dyleski’s situation.  Here is the takeaway lesson.  We ignore malogens at our peril.  Because we live in an information saturated age, we will never shut off all the malogenic input.  There are far too many vulnerable minds.  If we were computers, we would look for virus protection programs and a firewall. We need a firewall.  Fortunately, the firewall technology already exists.

It is moral character… eight thousand year old technology.

But character is inspired, not installed like a computer program. Character is forged by trial, not played like a video game. Character is sustained by faith.  Yes, faith. All trust relationships are founded in faith. No institution, whether religious or secular, owns the patent.  Faith is open source software.  It was issued along with the human capacity for moral intelligence by the Author of the Moral Law.

Character is our firewall against 21st century malogens. To the extent that those of us in this room still have vital connections with the later generations, we have our work cut out for us.

You and I could be the last strong link in that great intergenerational transmission belt, possibly the last, best vital connection to the Moral Law.

Real moral confidence is contagious.  Character is a form of teaching by example. Far too many of the later generations are not all that sure of the moral ground, including, in many cases, our own children who are parents.  So, here’s the deal: Adults cannot fake moral confidence. Children can sense any parent’s moral ambivalence like a dog can smell fear.

The problem is clear enough and you and I are still healthy enough to be part of the solution. As Hillel the Elder, that ancient Jewish sage, said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

This is why the rest is up to you and me.

Author contact: law@jaygaskill.com

Author profile: www.jaygaskill.com/Profile.pdf

Additional Remarks and Answers


Three strikes laws are designed to set up a system of increasing mandatory incarceration periods for repeat, dangerous felons.  Thugs are actually aware of this and most keep track of their “strikes”.  The crime reduction effects are threefold.  One: Many, but not all thugs are deterred…they may not do the math, but they do understand that more is more and a lot more is even worse.  Two: More importantly, most felons are serial repeaters.  Many burglars do ten to twenty break-ins a month.  When even of them gets another ten years, the overall burglary rate drops by the same amount.  Three: Police allocate resources and time to get the best results, and three strikes givens them an extra incentive to work harder, and the results show it.


The death penalty is controversial, especially among those who are least familiar with the operation of the criminal mind.   As a trial lawyer and later as a supervisor of trial lawyers, I devoted every ounce of my talent and energy to see that each individual client who faced the death penalty got the most energetic, competent and effective representative possible. We owe the accused nothing less.  But, as I acquired a deeper understanding of the issue (and as some of my favorite clients became murder victims themselves), I realized that my own instincts and preferences were one thing, but sound public policy is another.  As one scholar pointed out (see the Brookings/AEI study link below), each execution of a convicted murderer saves six innocent lives of would-be murder victims. We can quibble about the numbers, of course, but the data do not lie: The death penalty, properly and narrowly applied, saves far more lives than it costs.

Granted, not all murders are deterrable; not all thugs are deterred by the prospect of the death penalty.  But in my experience, the idea of the death penalty is bright-line simple and fits perfectly into the thug mindset.  Moreover, the very prospect of being held for years on death row, isolated from one’s prison buddies, with execution dangling as a possibility, is a strong deterrent in itself.

The subset of killings that are most deterrable include the situation where the would-be killer has the victim in his power and must then make a decision to kill or not to kill.  Imagine you have been carjacked and placed in the trunk of your car.  You are the only witness who can put this thug away.  You may not believe in the death penalty, but you sure as hell will wish, in that moment of peril, that the thug in the front seat does.

Many possible murder victims are spared. The study I referenced is an important one and is hard to find because of the politically correct soft censorship of death penalty opponents, whose passion I respect, but whose judgment I do not.  This important study was jointly produced by the American Enterprise Institute (center-right) and the Brookings Institute (center-left). When it uncovered compelling evidence of the deterrent effect of the death penalty, its liberal sponsors quickly dissociated themselves from the work.

I’ve preserved a downloadable PDF of the study and its early findings. I have posted it on my website at: http://jaygaskill.com/AEIBrookingsDeathPenalty.pdf

Also see my essay, Death, Deterrence and Reform – The Death Penalty Saves Liveshttp://www.jaygaskill.com/DeathDeterrenceReform.htm


Addictive narcotics are character poison. They pose an existential threat to the very fabric of civilization.

There is a malign feedback loop between a growing population of addicts and the fragile social fabric that sustains civilization (I’m thinking especially of the hard drugs, here, like meth, heroin, and their psychotropic analogues, and many others that are constantly being brewed up).  As the moral underpinnings of the social order are weakened, addictive psychotropic drugs will be the coup de grâce of any vulnerable civilization.

The “victimless crime” nonsense rests on the false beleif that each person is an island, safely insulated and isolated from the rest of us.

See my essay, Narcotics and Freedom, the Case Against Drug Legalization, posted on-line at http://jaygaskill.com/narc.htm .

[1] Founded in 1927 by the chief attorney for Alameda County (DA and County Counsel), Earl Warren, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office was far ahead of the constitutional curve in the country; the notion of providing professional, well compensated counsel for the indigent accused was not on the national radar. Mr. Gaskill served as that county’s seventh public defender.

[2] All rights reserved.  Copies for personal use or small discussion groups are welcomed – just send the author an email note. Anything more, especially something constituting a republication, must be done by making prior arrangements with the author.  Links to this article and quotations with specific attribution are always welcome.

[3] To be fair, Mayor Chuck Reed is on record “in favor of” restoring police cuts by using pension reforms and other measures to pay for the costs.  After ten years of budget deficits, the city of San Jose his a fiscal wall in 2011. In an April 21, 2011 CBS Report, viewers were told that “San Jose Police Union President George Beattie said it’s disturbing that the city is spending $120 million on Convention Center expansion while at the same time, laying off the officers. ‘Never before in the history of the San Jose Police Department have we had layoffs. I think most people know that we’re the most understaffed major city police department in the country so even laying off one officer is unacceptable.” But San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed disputes those claims, explaining that the money to expand the Convention Center is coming from a special tax and not the general fund. ‘The sad fact is that the cost of benefits for our police officers is going up dramatically next year,’ he said. “Pension retirement costs are going up by $25 million. There’s no extra money.’ Reed has said that he doesn’t want to lay off any police officers, but the city has little choice…” Right

[4] See Peering into the Abyss by Professor Maria Chang in the New Oxford Review, October, 2008 {http://www.newoxfordreview.org/article.jsp?did=1008-chang}.  Also, see Malogens, a Case Study http://jaygaskill.com/Malogens.htm.



A Naked Emperor’s Clothes Analysis


Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law

Also on the Policy Think site as an HTM file                http://jaygaskill.com/STAGNATION.htm

I prefer good news over bad, but the truth over delusion. Has unemployment really taken a sudden pre-election decrease?

Long term employment improvement prospects are linked to the growth of the general economy (as expressed in the GDP), and in the growth in the labor force, the new workers who enter the job market every month as our population increases.

Understanding this context changes everything about the government press release trumpeting an unemployment decline from 8.1% to a mere 7.8%.  The real number was 14.7% and remains stuck at 14.7%.

FIRST: GDP is not growing fast enough to support the current labor market…

…let alone fast enough to make a dent in the 12.6 million army of the out-of work men and women. Spin can only go so far, but the true numbers have a way of leaking out.

“NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — The U.S. economy grew even slower than initially reported in the second quarter, as both consumers and businesses spent less than originally thought, and the drought in the Midwest limited agricultural production.

“Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation’s economic health, grew at an annual rate of 1.3% from April to June, the Commerce Department said Thursday, slower than the 1.7% rate the government last reported in August.

“The downward revision came as a surprise to economists who were largely expecting the figure to remain unchanged. It also marked slower growth than in the first three months of the year, when GDP accelerated at a 2% annual rate.

‘”The 1.3% increase in GDP was the weakest since the third quarter of last year and one of the weakest seen since the recovery began three years ago.”’ http://money.cnn.com/2012/09/27/news/economy/gdp-report/

SECOND: Real unemployment is not down .3% for September.

In the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics press release (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf), we were just told that the unemployment rate has fallen .3% from – 8.1% to 7.8% for the month of September.

“Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 114,000 in September. In 2012, employment growth has averaged 146,000 per month, compared with an average monthly gain of 153,000 in 2011. In September, employment rose in health care and in transportation and warehousing.”

But most of the employment growth is automatically eaten up by the growth of the labor force.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) (whose advisory board includes Nobel Laureate economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz; Janet Gornick, Professor at the CUNY Graduate School and Director of the Luxembourg Income Study; and Richard Freeman, Professor of Economics at Harvard University) reminds us that “the underlying rate of labor force growth is now just 0.7 percent annually. This comes to roughly 1,050,000 a year or just under 90,000 a month.”

Buy this measure, our advertised recovery has been little more than treading water, while the GNP has gradually weakened.

The employed/unemployed numbers for the prior month (August) were   Labor Force: 155,255,000 /Employed:  142,558,000 / Unemployed: 12,696,000 (8.2%  /  8.1%)

Source: Research and Analysis Unit, Indiana Dept. of Workforce Development – using federal Data & procedures. http://www.nidataplus.com/lfeus1.htm.

Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics ‘ own numbers, the September 2012 press release claimed a net gain (over the baseline labor force growth) of only 24,000 jobs.

This is a straightforward calculation. Let’s refer to the raw number of August unemployed (12,696,000). Add the new labor force growth of 90,000 and subtract the claimed new jobs in September of 114,000.  By this measure unemployment would have diminished in September from 12,696,000 to 12, 974,000, an unemployment decline of only 24,000 jobs. But that’s a change of .189 %, not the .3% claimed.  Has someone has been tinkering with the underlying rate of labor growth?

Look for a downward revision of this number in the next few weeks.


It gets worse.  On the face of it, when we take into account the underemployment figures that have disclosed that we have been living with a double digit unemployment problem for the last three years, the achievement is even more underwhelming. The “other” measure of employment distress is called U6

“The 7.8% figure reflects the percentage of the total workforce who are unemployed and are actively looking for work. This figure does not include unemployed members of the workforce who are not actively looking for work; nor does it factor in workers with part-time jobs who are seeking full-time employment. When these workers are included, the (U-6) un/underemployment rate for September remained at 14.7% as it had been in August.”


In the same Bureau of Labor Statistics press release, we learned that-

“The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) rose from 8.0 million in August to 8.6 million in September. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job.” That is a net negative change of 600,000, a negative percentage change of 7.5%.

FOUR: Don’t be spun by the spin.

When you fold these factors back into the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics press release, you end up with a snapshot of what stagnation looks like, not a recovery. When our new president confidently predicted that his first stimulus program, consisting mostly of money for time-limited government projects, would shock the economy into life, his maladroit medical image revealed a critical error in his economic thinking.  You don’t shock a cancer patient into health.  Every measure Mr. Obama or fed head Bernanke have used or proposed since then have been directed at stimulating consumption.  But these days consumer consumption eventually finds its way to Chinese factories, not US ones.

If we were a corporation by now we would have replaced the management team. Where is Steve Jobs when we need him?

Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, attorney at Law

As always, quotations with attribution, links and forwards are welcome and encouraged.

For everything else, please contact the author directly via email jaygaskill@yahoo.com.



A Quick Post-debate Analysis

Also available

HTM on the Policy Think Site   http://jaygaskill.com/DebateWON.htm

PDF download                                 http://jaygaskill.com/DebateWON.pdf

By Jay B Gaskill

In an unguarded comment about Governor Romney last week, one of CNN’s liberal analysts, when talking about the governor’s performance in the primary debates, observed – “it seemed like he was the only adult on the stage.” How prescient.

After the debate last night, a focus group (this was on Fox) consisting entirely of uncommitted voters most of whom had voted for Obama last time, were converted to Romney.  The most salient comment was to the effect that the filtered campaign image of Romney was so skewed that, when the real man showed up, they were blown away.  Frank Luntz, the focus group specialist a veteran of many campaigns (he worked for Ross Perot back in the day) said that this was unique in his experience, a very big deal.

I have maintained that Mr. Romney (who blew through both a law degree and an MBA at Harvard) is both more disciplined and more intelligent than Mr. Obama.  That showed.  He is also more decent than Mr. Obama is.  And that also showed.

The real problem for the incumbent president, now that a real opponent who has moved to front stage has showed up, is what analysts are calling the objective factors.  As I pointed out earlier,

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) (whose advisory board includes Nobel Laureate economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz; Janet Gornick, Professor at the CUNY Graduate School and Director of the Luxembourg Income Study; and Richard Freeman, Professor of Economics at Harvard University) reminds us that “the underlying rate of labor force growth is now just 0.7 percent annually. This comes to roughly 1,050,000 a year or just under 90,000 a month.”

The CEPR and similar credible sources remind us that the touted net gain of 300,000 jobs for the Obama administration to date was at least 2.7 million jobs short of treading water.

{ http://jaygaskill.com/ElectionWatchObjectiveFactors.pdf }

To prevail in November, Mr. Obama must persuade a majority of voters that, having gravely misunderestimated the gravity, scope and seriousness of the nation’s economic problems, he is still the best person to fix it.  Mr. Romney’s appearance late night, gracefully dominating the stage, looking and acting more presidential than the incumbent, must have seemed like the ill wind (from the Obama campaign’s frame of reference) that augurs that perfect storm they have always feared.  Their problem is twofold: [1] Now that Governor Romney’s core decency is fully evident, all the personal attacks on him will fall flat. [2] The objective factors will dominate.

Stay tuned.


Copyright © 2012 by Jay b Gaskill, Attorney at Law

Forwards, pull quotes with attribution, and links are welcome and appreciated.

For everything else, please contact the author via email at < law@jaygaskill.com >.



On the PTS (HTM)   http://jaygaskill.com/TheDEBATEOne.htm

A downloadable PDF http://jaygaskill.com/TheDEBATEOne.pdf

Unsolicited Advice


Jay B. Gaskill, Attorney at Law

“As in 1980, voters want a better president — but they first have to be assured he’s on the ballot.”

Victor Davis Hanson, Hoover Scholar, Classicist and Farmer


I am an experienced debater and I am well aware that someone can win the debate and lose the argument.  There is no advice that I could provide Governor Romney that someone else – and closer to him – has not already provided.

Over the years I’ve trained scores of trial lawyers, hired many of them, promoted some of them, and my core advice about the conduct of final argument before the jury always started and ended with some version of this:

Be true to who you are. A jury can spot a phony a mile away.  Identify the lynchpin point or points (never more than three) on which the case will turn.  Then focus 99% of your energy, your thinking and persuasive abilities, on just those lynchpin points.  Stay focused.  Stay in yourself.  Move the needle.  Quit when you’re ahead.

Having watched our president as an on-his-feet, in-the-moment thinker/debater, I would not have hired him as a trial lawyer, partly because of his thinking and speaking speed deficiencies (not a problem for an academic, but a big problem for a litigator), but mostly because of his obvious resistance to training (he’s just too into himself).  Governor Romney would have made a solid trial lawyer, not because he is one at the moment, but because he has a quick intelligence, great discipline and determination and, unlike his opponent, he’s not so into himself that he is untrainable.

So, ignoring my own advice to myself, here is what I would tell each candidate.

Mr. Romney: This is not a resume presentation, not an executive hiring interview.  It is a sales pitch.

Mr. Obama: Be a graceful looser.  If you insist on winning, bomb Iran and postpone the debate in the interests of national security.


Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law

Forwards are welcome.  For everything else please contact the author at < law@jaygaskill.com >.


The Three Red Lines

Why Character Matters



The debates matter because winning the election matters.  Winning the election matters because policy matters. And the Red Lines matter the most. These lines should be, but are not always blatantly obvious.  Once they are recognized (or officially acknowledged), only three things matter: direction, timing and courage.  The latter is an attribute of character.



Jay B Gaskill

When Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN Thursday that war over Iran’s atomic bomb program could only be averted by announcing a Red Line, he was restating a lesson of history that the current administration has not yet adopted.

The point of the Red Line is to prevent war.  A credible threat of military action, clearly and unambiguously given by a nation that enjoys a proven capability to carry out the threat, a threat that is also a promise, made specific in terms and without ambiguity as to time, meets the minimum threshold of deterrence.  Nothing short of that works in the real world against a determined adversary. Indeed, in a world well infected with thuggish leaders, the credibility of the good governments erodes with time.  Once Iran acquires the atomic bomb, no threats will work.

Red Lines are those consequential bridge moments that, once crossed, all hell breaks loose. The Iran nuclear issue presents a particular type – the “I’m not bluffing” Red Line directed at a miscreant or other adversary, in which the failure to heed brings down real and terrible consequences.  The police officer’s shouted, “Put down that gun!” is another example.  We do the Red Line thing because we must, because the consequences for innocent people if we do don’t, is unacceptable.

The prospect of a nuclear armed jihad is sobering enough, but that is not the only red line problem that we face.  There are three.  The other two red line moments were self-inflicted.



The Iranian atomic bomb program – the irreversible tipping point ↓




The deficit/debt crisis – the irreversible tipping point ↓




The politicization of the economy – the irreversible tipping point ↓



Conservatives and liberals tend to have different approaches to the red line issues. Conservatives historically respect boundaries (which causes them to notice the red lines), and liberals challenge boundaries (which causes them to downplay the red lines).  …But not all the time… In an almost forgotten era, both conservatives and liberals came together to defend the red lines of the day (the vital boundaries that we must defend), against the brutal march of Nazism and against Soviet communism; and they came together to dissolve one of the worst of the gray lines (the toxic, arbitrary boundaries we must overcome) of the era, that of racial segregation.

What about today’s progressive liberals and that cohort of elected conservatives caught up in their current?  For decades the congressional GOP was complicit with the liberals and others in growing the national debt, and its leaders were unwilling to bring the Iran nuke problem to a head. For decades the creeping political interference with the economy was accepted as a given by almost everyone; and for all this time, neither side of the partisan aisle actually saw (or pretended no to see) the looming red lines for what they really were.

Among the small number of elected leaders who did notice, their warnings met denial, a mixture of “‘go-along-get-along”, ridicule and procrastination. The real courage to take on the red line problems in either party was as rare as Ross Perot showing up at a pot party in Berkeley.

Each of the three Red lines I’ve identified is urgently blinking on the incoming radar.  Each represents a threatening, catastrophic collision.  The first of them must be addressed within four months, the second within six months and the third within two years.

The issue of the moment is simple to state: Who among our leaders of the moment has the character – (a) to bluntly tell the truth, and (b) to actually lead us by drawing and enforcing the Red Lines before we are overcome?


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN last week, he did a better job sounding and acting presidential than our own president has managed to do to date.[1] Netanyahu did this by simply telling the truth.  These were some of his remarks:

“I ask, given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons, ‘Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America? Who would be safe anywhere?’

“Shockingly, some people have begun to peddle the absurd notion that a nuclear-armed Iran would actually stabilize the Middle East.

“Yeah, right… That’s like saying a nuclear-armed al-Qaida would usher in an era of universal peace. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve been speaking about the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for over 15 years.”

“At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs. That’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Red lines don’t lead to war; red lines prevent war.

“Look at NATO’s charter: it made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all. NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.

“President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.

“In fact, it’s the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression. If the Western powers had drawn clear red lines during the 1930s, I believe they would have stopped Nazi aggression and World War II might have been avoided. In 1990, if Saddam Hussein had been clearly told that his conquest of Kuwait would cross a red line, the first Gulf War might have been avoided.

“Clear red lines have also worked with Iran. Earlier this year, Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormouz. The United States drew a clear red line and Iran backed off. Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.”

None of this is controversial among long time members of the national security community. But Netanyahu’s measured remarks are considered shrill and insensitive among certain liberal apologists for militant Islam in general, and Iran in particular, men and women who seem to have our president’s ear at the moment.

I’ve been describing the growing danger for some time now, calling attention the as-yet-not-acknowledged likelihood that even a “modest” nuclear exchange in the Middle East (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) will disrupt world food supplies, leading to widespread famine.  Therefore, isolationism no longer is defensible on any level. [2]

The experts agree that attacking Iran will be a major undertaking, and many concede (especially if we are timid and surgical about taking out the threat) that the Iranian regime might get away with temporarily closing the Straits of Hormouz in retaliation, thus spiking oil prices for a time.[3] But the real costs (both monetary and in terms of human suffering and death) will be far greater if that rogue regime ever gets control of nuclear weapons.[4]

If we are entitled to be uncertain about our president’s resolve (and we are), then the Iranian regime is also entitled to doubt that the US will actually do anything about their nuclear program until it’s too late.

When an American administration announces (as the previous administrations have) that the US will not “tolerate” the acquisition of such weapons by Iran, adding that “all options are on the table,” this was not laying down a bright, clear, red line. However, because of Bush I’s post 911 military actions, especially deposing Saddam in Iraq, such admonitions took on genuine force.  And in fact (when coupled with a projection of power) they prompted worry in Teheran and Pyongyang; and actually led Libya’s (now dead) Muammar Gaddafi to scrap his country’s nuclear program in 2003 without a shot being fired.

But the current administration has restored a sense of policy ambiguity bordering on ambivalence. This is the result of  softening the rhetoric, promising a less militaristic policy towards Islamic aspirations, bending over backwards to avoid provoking the jihadists. And the president has continued to cloud the water further with interviews like this one;

“…in Obama’s five-minute interview, meaningfully inserted in the pre-Super Bowl television coverage watched by hundreds of millions around the world, was his admission that he did not “see any evidence” that Iran had the “intentions or capabilities” to mount a terror attack on US soil, thus contradicting last week’s congressional testimony by James Clapper, head of US intelligence community, who accused Iran of engaging in such terror plots.”

As reported in the Asia Times 2/9/12. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/NB08Ak01.html

Mr. Obama’s vague hints at possible action against the Iranian atomic bomb program are too weak, too vague and, frankly, he seems too insincere for the power of his administration’s proclamations, with or without economic sanctions, to avert war or to prevent a nuclear bomb equipped terrorist state from emerging in the Middle East.

The chattering classes are fluttering with discussions about all the possible negative consequences that might follow strong military action aimed at delaying the Iranian nuclear juggernaut, without a thought to the dire consequences of allowing that to happen.  Had these timid minds been in charge as we contemplated entering WW II on the side of Great Britain, our surviving English brothers and sisters would now be speaking German; most of our Jewish brothers and sisters would be dead; and any residual American conscience would have been so wounded by complicity with evil that all the gains of the civil rights struggle would remain a fantasy, never achieved.


There is a famous line that was spoken with great passion by former Alan Senator Simpson (R WY), of the Simpson Bowles Commission – the Obama deficit commission that the president sidelined in 2010-11. After looking at the mountainous sovereign debt numbers, Alan Simpson said, “You can’t cut spending your way out of this hole. You can’t grow your way out of this hole and you can’t tax your way out of this hole. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

The Simpson Bowles Commission was the unacknowledged love child of this president, disowned and ignored.  But it lives on in the “gang of six” – six US Senators now form a group committed to working on the problem in order to build a senate majority around a solution.  They are Democrats – Mark Warner (Virginia); Dick Durbin (Illinois); Kent Conrad (North Dakota), and Republicans – Saxby Chambliss (Georgia), Mike Crapo (Idaho); Tom   Coburn (Oklahoma).

“Even with Congress at a nadir of bitter partisanship, the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who came together last year to try to devise a way to strike $4 trillion out of federal spending in the coming decade, is still quietly at work. The group expects to have a debt-slashing plan of the $4 trillion variety ready well before the November election, in the event that spillover from Europe’s financial strains or changes in the Republican presidential race present an opportune moment to present it for consideration.”

CS Monitor – http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2012/0302/Try-try-again-Senate-Gang-of-Six-hatching-plan-on-US-debt-reduction

As Jon Healey of the LA Times reminded us,

“The public has a famously low opinion of Congress, even though people tend to hold a less disparaging view of their own representatives. The last two years have been especially tough on the institution’s reputation, a response to the body’s relentless brinkmanship and paralyzing partisanship in the face of a slow economy.

“So it is with some trepidation that I throw out a little love for a handful of senators still seeking bipartisan agreement on a plan to bring the federal government back to fiscal responsibility. The core of this group is the so-called Gang of Six senators who have coalesced around the recommendations of Erskine Bowles, a Democrat who was chief of staff to President Clinton, and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), the co-chairmen of the White House’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

“The conventional wisdom is that Congress won’t try to do anything meaningful about the federal budget gap or burgeoning debt until after the election. Then, lawmakers will have no choice but to act: Something on the order of $600 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts are due to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Simply canceling those hikes and cuts would cost more than $7.5 trillion over the coming decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. But letting them go into effect, the Congressional Budget Office warns, could trigger another recession.”


And, sadly, the President is not leading out on this: to the contrary. Read the Wall Street Journal account, September 11, 2012, “The True History of Simpson-Bowles” From the September 10, 2012, page A18 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, I’ve pulled these quotes:

Media elites … suggest that Simpson-Bowles would have succeeded if not for the all-powerful House Budget Chairman. This rewrites history, so allow us to remind readers what really happened to the Obama deficit commission.

Mr. Obama created the panel in February 2010, without a trace of irony, after he had raised federal spending to post-World War II highs. His political goal was to blunt attacks on his overspending, while also trying to lure Republicans into becoming tax collectors for his agenda in the name of a balanced budget. Mr. Simpson is the kind of Republican who had fallen for this in the past. So it was a pleasant surprise when Messrs. Simpson and Bowles instead endorsed a more efficient and competitive tax code. Their draft swapped fewer brackets and lower rates for fewer loopholes and “tax expenditures.”

The real reason the deficit is still so high is that Mr. Obama lacks … good-faith flexibility. It’s hard to remember now, but Washington was optimistic about Simpson-Bowles early in 2011 as a blueprint for compromise.


Simpson-Bowles did offer some useful ideas, especially on tax reform, helping to make that politically possible in 2013 if Mitt Romney wins in November.

What happens if, through timidity and lack of leadership, the country is allowed to slip over the fiscal Red Line?  Interest rates paid by the US to service its debt will become too costly to sustain. We are already paying more to service current federal borrowing than the combined budgets of homeland Security and the US Army.  The last available number is for debt service for the year 2011.  The sum for the gross interest paid was a staggering .454 trillion dollars. This is more than the budget for the US Army and Homeland security combined. And that is at comparatively low interest rates. http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/ir/ir_expense.htm

Debt repayment will consume much of ongoing budget while deficit spending continues, leaving a stark choice: economy-crippling tax increases or catastrophic hyperinflation or some combination of the two.

None of the choices that will face a President Romney or Obama is 2013 will easy, and few of the necessary actions will be politically marketable unless they are proposed in the context of truth-telling by a leader with character. Ross Perot has surfaced and, quite properly, he is asking for specific policy commitments from the candidates.

I have it on good authority that members of the gang of six have Candidate Romney ear, and that, if he is elected, he is prepared do to what is necessary to avert going over the fiscal cliff.  Will we hear about the details in the debates? I have no clue.


There is no meaningful democracy without a meaningful discussion among political players about the real issues and real alternatives.  And that will not happen unless and until there is a genuine likelihood that the electoral process will be allowed to settle these disputes in either way.  There has never been a twenty years period in our history during which only the liberals or only the conservatives were consistently right on the big policy issues, except in the rare cases when a consensus was reached, as in national security during a time of threat.

There is far too little meaningful freedom in a country whenever there is a single, overarching authority over the entire commercial sector of the economy, especially one exercising an increasingly heavy hand over almost every economic decision, especially when this is done by unelected bureaucrats endowed with almost plenary day-to-day power.  Marx was partly right.  No, economics does not determine our every action (in this Marx was dead wrong), but the control of economics is the key to the control of political power.

We are terribly close to a system that is closed to all but the prevailing, accepted view. And there is little prospect of pulling back from a Tyranny Lite of this sort once a critical mass of political involvement in our daily lives is reached. If/when our political system arrives at such a saturation of the economic system that most of the electorate is actually dependent on political decision makers for their very livelihoods, we will have reached a constitutional end point. The protections of the constitution will have been breached from within, converting them to a hollow, impotent structure, honored without being actually followed.[5] This will turn the typical election into a contest between petitioners for government favors.  It will set the stage for a semi-permanent rule by a grand alliance of political interest groups, a dependent media, and a “musical chair” elite of “benign” rulers, increasingly insulated from serious criticism or meaningful opposition.

I have written extensively about this from several angles, and I don’t want to repeat myself here.[6]

A fiscal collapse or a currency bubble collapse would be a very dangerous wakeup call, one that might cause a moment of sobriety or – more likely – awaken our worse demons.  Our constitution hangs by a slender thread.  Few students are able to understand, and fewer still able to deeply appreciate, what a  precious gift to us and to the future of creative civilization (if it survives) was the gift of limited government.  See http://jaygaskill.com/CreativityAndSurvival.pdf and http://jaygaskill.com/ACS2011.htm.

The gift of limited government was also the gift of limited political interference in our daily lives.  If you have access to a memory bank for, say thirty adult years, you might ask – How far have we come to or away from that kind of freedom?

In a sane world, the next presidential election in the USA should not matter as much as it does.




Policy direction only gets you so far.

I am fully persuaded from all the evidence that Mr. Romney’s policy direction is coherent with the change of direction urgently needed to avoid disaster in each of the Red Line areas.  At least his aim is right.

Where will Obama go? Only the mystical faith of the now-disappointed moderates who initially supported Mr. Obama can sustain the fragile assumption that a second term Obama administration would finally get things right.  This is like saying that when a vessel on the sea had access to full power, its captain still chose the wrong course, but now, when the fuel is nearly spent, he will take on the difficult tasks and the right direction.

You should know that I am a democrat who grew up in a bipartisan, patriotic era when the current cohorts of progressives who now run the Democratic Party were marginalized outsiders.  Today the sensible patriots, like Joe Lieberman, have been marginalized to the point of extinction.

As a non-Mormon, I grew up among LDS boys, girls, men and women, many of who are lifelong friends.  Anyone in the business world who has dealt with Mormons knows that the stereotypical image that they tend to be almost faultlessly honest in their dealing is merely an accurate observation.

There is simply no contest on the character issue in the presidential race.  Mitt Romney is prudent, sober, honest-to-the-core, a man of his word, someone who would go a great deal out of his way to do the right thing.  I don’t need to descend into smear politics to make the observation that our incumbent president is less authentic and less reliable.

Mr. Obama may or may not come around on the three Red Lines.  If he does, he may or may not have the courage to do the right thing, assuming he is able to come to a decision in time.[7]

Vote as you will, for Hope and Change, 2.0, or for New Leadership and Hope for Change.

For my part, I just do not think Mr. Obama has earned the right to ask us to take another chance on him.


As published on The Policy Think site and the linked blogs, and by permission on other sites, this work is Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law.

As always, readers may quote with attribution, link or forward.  For everything else, please contact the author via email at < law@jaygaskill.com >.

[1] Full text is in the Jerusalem Post at http://www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?id=286404

[2] My recent pieces, – Nine Eleven 2012 and Nukistan and Islamageddon are posted at these links: http://jaygaskill.com/NineEleven2012.pdf and http://jaygaskill.com/NukistanIslamageddon.htm

[3] There is no shortage of doomsayers, but Colin Fenton, who heads commodities research at JP Morgan says that it is more likely that oil prices will remain fairly low.  See his analysis summarized in the Financial Times at this link. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e977f55c-f780-11e1-ba54-00144feabdc0.html#axzz285PPE3tb

[4] A fairly neutral assessment by a set of well-known experts, many like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, known doves, have reached agreement. “[A] nuclear-armed Iran would pose dangerous challenges to U.S. interests and security, as well as to the security of Israel. After reviewing many studies on this controversial question, we have come to believe that extended military strikes by the U.S. alone or in concert with Israel could destroy or severely damage the six most important known nuclear facilities in Iran, setting back Iran’s nuclear program for up to four years.” LINK –http://www.worldaffairs.org/assets/documents/iranreport_091712r_final.pdf

[5] If you doubt this is a possibility, consider that our major federal regulatory agencies are endowed with the power to issue rules that have the force of criminal laws (a legislative function), to enforce them by filing charges (an executive function) and to adjudicate wrongdoing in administrative hearings without benefit of a jury (a judicial function), and to do all of this without congressional or presidential approval.  The EPA, for example, made C02 gas, something that every animal exhales, into a pollutant on the grounds that the Clean Air Act gave it that power. Under that Act, “The term ‘hazardous air pollutant’ means any air pollutant listed pursuant to subsection (b) of this section.” But the Congress did NOT list CO2 in that section. Instead, the “administrator” was allowed to make rules adding substances that present “a threat of adverse human health effects.” Don’t exhale!

[6] Here are the links: http://jaygaskill.com/ModernProgressiveLiberalismEndgame.htm & http://jaygaskill.com/MotherJonesAndTheTippingPoint.htm &  http://www.jaygaskill.com/WhenTheSleepingGiantWakes.htm .

[7] I have read the accounts that describe how conflicted and hesitant our president was when our intelligence services finally traced Bin Laden to his clandestine hiding place in Pakistan.  Some details may be in dispute, and others are deeply classified, but we can glean from leaked details that this was not an example of the Harry Truman style of decision making.