What the Ferguson Fines on Poor People Were Really About - Race is Who, but not Why

I previously had the name of the town wrong in the title. Thanks to Jon for noticing.

I recently read a post by Dicky Neely


about how the Agriculture Commissioner of the State of Texas, Sid Miller, wants to reverse a policy of several years and sell junk food and soft drinks in the public schools because allowing these to be sold there would generate revenue. Why would anyone think it was a good idea to give children food that is blatantly bad for them?

And then I started to connect the dots. 

Not too long ago, the Justice Department issued a report about Ferguson, MO and surrounding communities. I don't mean the one about the shooting, I mean the one about how police were arresting people, overwhelmingly poor Black people, on capricious charges, charging them with hundreds of dollars in fines, and charging them with hundreds more if they didn't pay on time. The police were found to be actively seeking revenue for the city via this means. (I first found out about this phenomenon before the report came out from a link sent to me by Token. It isn't only liberals who think this is an awful thing.)

This appears to be a new phenomenon. Not the persecution - that's been going on forever - but the police in a revenue-generating role. What's going on?

I've been writing about how money in the United States is concentrating into fewer and fewer hands since I started blogging. Taxation on the wealthy, both individuals and corporations, has not kept up with this trend;  if anything, over time it's gone in the opposite direction. We have seen opposition to increasing taxes at all on the wealthy so virulent that those in Congress in opposition were prepared to throw the United States Government into default rather than allow any increases at all. This has been aggravated by a relatively recent major anti-government ethos in the United States, the concept that government itself is inherently inefficient, confiscatory, and generally tyrannical. Such an ethos means that stripping the public sector of funding sources becomes more and more legitimate. I could make the case that this assessment of government vs. the private sector is way off base and, in the past, I have, but for my purposes today we just need to notice that the phenomenon exists and that this phenomenon has a negative effect on government income. 

So government's sources of revenue are shrinking, but the demands on government still exist. At a local level, governments are being squeezed by Federal and State governments reducing financial support (but not reducing requirements in a commeasurate way) and by local populations that are more anti-tax. 

These governments still have to operate, but their normal sources of money are shrinking. Where can they turn to for money?

To those who can't stop them from taking it.

In other words, they are preying on the vulnerable, institutionally. 

In Missouri, the vulnerable are the poor Black population, who don't have the resources and allies to fight the police from their own cities. When I say in the title that race is who but not why, I mean that race has a great deal to do with which population is targeted but very little to do with the fiscal necessity of targeting a population in the first place. Keep in mind that police officers didn't sign on to find themselves in the collections business and, as racist as many may be, chances are most are not targeting poor Black people for fun. We're looking at racism that is in some ways analogous to the racism inherent in "Last hired, first fired" - Black people are targeted, but everyone would rather that no firings were necessary. 

In Texas, the vulnerable targeted by the Agriculture Commissioner are public schoolchildren. 

The Justice Department will raise a stink, there will presumably be a lot of hand-wringing, fines, and firings, and maybe even some prosecutions, but the cause won't go away nationally, so the phenomenon won't, either. In that respect, it will work a whole lot like illegal immigration has. The big reason we've seen so much illegal immigration is that there have been a lot of jobs in the United States for illegal immigrants. We can put up all the fences we want, but if the incentives exist, people are just going to react to them in more ingenious ways. For political reasons, we have found it far easier to go after immigrants than to go after employers who are, after all, wealthier, politically influential, and seem a whole lot more like us. But we tried to have our cake and eat it, allowing a population of employers to benefit from hiring illegal immigrants while complaining about the fact that they did. 

Coming down on the Fergusons of America will be about as effective as coming down on illegal immigrants, for essentially the same reasons. Trying to keep the Fergusons from racist solutions is all well and good but it doesn't address the problem that those racist solutions address. 

Maybe we'll get lucky in the next election. All the visible likely Democratic candidates talk about inequitable taxation including, at this point, Hillary, in ways that the current President by and large has not. I certainly hope so.

The alternative is that we're going to see a lot more institutional racism as the majority of Americans fight harder and harder over the fewer and fewer crumbs left us in an economy that grows without us.


Today, my wife sent me a very interesting link:


from a site called Estately that did research into what each state in the Union has more than any other, per capita. Some of these can be rather arcane. North Carolina leads the nation in per capita snake bites. Maryland leads the nation in Democrats and millionaires.

Massachusetts leads the nation in people who identify as liberals and
  Obama supporters
  Energy efficiency
  People with health insurance
  Primary care physicians

Mississippi leads the nation in people who identify as conservatives and
  Access to high speed internet (the one good thing)
  High blood pressure
  Infant mortality
  People who can't afford food
  Residents on food stamps
  Total deaths

Be very careful about what you assume about the efficiency of conservative policies

Views: 535

Comment by JMac1949 Memories on April 25, 2015 at 1:28pm

R&L... back in the 1950's and early 60's before the Interstate Highway system was built, almost every two lane US Highway went through the middle of every podunk town in the Midwest, South and Southwest and almost every local law enforcement jurisdiction made most of their revenues through "speed traps."  Locals knew where the cops staked out the highway but tourists would get tagged and have to drive down to the local courthouse where they had to pay their fines in cash!  I remember "Mac" trying to cash a check at some small town bank before we could get on down the road. 

Comment by koshersalaami on April 25, 2015 at 2:14pm

Yes, they did. It was a good idea to get money from outsiders, particularly outsiders who might have endangered their own pedestrians, but that's not the same as victimizing their own school children and minorities. 

So there were police essentially in collections, you're right about that, but there was another difference: These were mostly fairly tiny towns. Police work expectations would probably be different in larger communities like Henderson. 

And there's a third difference: Speeding is an actual crime. Some of the crimes reported by the Justice Department really weren't. 

Comment by Poor Woman on April 25, 2015 at 2:17pm

here, we have fire departments putting on lavish fireworks shows every 4th, and then collecting cash from ticket sales and/or w8ith their boots at roadsides as drivers tootle slowly home in bumper to bumper traffic.

Moneys collected at that point don't simply pay for the next fireworks show.

The wealthy have to man up and pay their taxes like everybody else has to!


Comment by koshersalaami on April 25, 2015 at 2:37pm
If the country is going to function decently, we need to collect money from where the money actually is. There isn't a way around that. If we don't, the economy will get worse and general conditions will get worse.

And it's not like we're talking about big sacrifices. The top fortunes are completely out of proportion to anything that affects lifestyle or security. The company with the most part time employees to save money is owned by a family of multibillionaires. There are four members of that family whose wealth is on a scale that if you were to confiscate 99% of the wealth of any one of them, the paltry 1% leftovers would be approximately three hundred million dollars. Each. This is who the Tea Party risked throwing their own country into default over rather than see a tax rise on them At All. Any. Not a big one, Any.
Comment by Jonathan Wolfman on April 25, 2015 at 2:38pm

This one's airing next Saturday...pls.

Comment by koshersalaami on April 25, 2015 at 2:44pm
Comment by Poor Woman on April 25, 2015 at 2:54pm

Kosher, those figures are appallingly ugly.

Wow. Amazing. Makes me wanna send pies in the face deliveries to every person ensuring this would occur.


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Comment by koshersalaami on April 25, 2015 at 3:09pm

I have a lot of old posts about income polarization. In some, I drew analogies. In others, I just cited figures. The extent of polarization is beyond insane. I'll give you a few quick examples here. As of a few years ago, and things are probably worse now, the richest 20% of the population had something like 84% of America's wealth while the poorest 40%, that's two out of every five Americans, collectively had 3/10 of 1% of America's wealth. In order to get people to understand the disparity, I tried a couple of ways to draw analogies that would represent the scale in ways people would understand. The first time I did this, I used time, because people understand a minute and a decade, vast differences in scale. I used 1 second = 1 dollar. A reasonably expensive meal costs about a minute a person ($60). A mid-priced luxury car is about half a day. An average suburban house is maybe 2-5 days, keeping in mind that most people have mortgages and this is the whole worth. A million dollars happens at 11 1/2 days. Got that?

OK, each Koch brother is worth over a millenium. That explains pretty graphically how they're distorting American politics by themselves, like buying a Senate seat in my state by paying for a whole lot of advertising. 

A British financial magazine did a report on how much money worldwide is kept in offshore banks, in other words the total wealth put in places to avoid taxes. Not the total wealth of the people who have this money, just the portion of the wealth that's socked away. And they weren't sure their estimates included all offshore banks. 

Their estimate was 36 trillion dollars. To put that in perspective, that's slightly more than the combined GDP's of the European Union and the United States of America.

Houston, we have a problem. 


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