Lord of the Flies for One Night

I recently got the chance to catch up on a couple of interesting movies: The Purge (2013), and its sequel, The Purge: Anarchy (2014). Both are set several years in the future, and share a common premise: Every year, for one twelve-hour period from 7pm to 7am, all crime — including murder — is legal. This twelve-hour period is called The Purge. It was instituted by “The New Founding Fathers of America” (NFFA), when the country was “reborn” after a complete economic and social collapse. mv5bmje2odmxmtk1nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdeznjezmte-_v1_uy1200_cr6406301200_al_

As you might imagine, both movies are rated R and are very violent. These are not appropriate for kids. I’d add that both contain a fair amount of profanity, but minimal sensuality (one make-out scene, and a threatened rape or two).

If you do choose to watch these films, I’d recommend watching the sequel first. It gives a much broader picture of the annual Purge, showing all the chaos in the streets that you’d expect. The first movie (which I’d recommend watching second) focuses on a single upper-class family that suffers a home invasion during the annual Purge. Many viewers were disappointed with the first movie, because they thought they were going to be getting something more like the sequel. The nice thing about waiting for Netflix is that you can watch them in any order you want! BTW, the second movie contains no spoilers about the first, and none of the characters carry over. There’s nothing you’ll be “missing” in the second one, the way you usually would if you skipped an initial installment of a series. In fact, I’d argue that you’ll enjoy the first movie more if you’ve already seen The Purge: Anarchy. You’ll have a better sense for what the annual Purge is about, so you’ll appreciate it when it comes home for one family.

So, why was the annual Purge instituted? The NFFA argue that it’s an effective means of channeling criminal tendencies. Everyone gets an annual outlet for their pent-up rage. Everyone gets to “purge” that rage, if they so choose. Furthermore, it’s said to control crime because so many troublemakers — especially the urban poor — go out in the streets and kill each other off once a year. As an additional benefit, unemployment has plummeted to virtually nothing, because the Purge kills off so much of the “excess population.” The well-to-do are able to afford security measures that effectively isolate themselves from the chaos in the streets. The impoverished and the unemployed, especially those who live in big cities, are left to fend for themselves.

These movies are dark and disturbing. They’re also thought-provoking. But before I share those thoughts, let’s get a few gripes out of the way:

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My Idea of Civil Disobedience!

Remember that Amish farmer who the FDA has been treating like some kind of drug lord? His customers are fighting back:

Four weeks after the government moved to shut down Amish farmer Dan Allgyer for selling fresh, unpasteurized milk across state lines, angry moms who made up much of his customer base rallied on the Capitol’s grounds Monday to demand that Congress rein in the food police.

The moms milked a cow just across the street from the Senate and served up gallons of fresh milk, playfully daring one another to drink what, if sold across state lines, would be considered contraband product.

What a terrific protest idea! If we still lived in the DC area, I would’ve shown up and joined them with one of our goats.

The video these moms put together is terrific:


And, as one of them points out, just look at those kids and how healthy they are!

Don’t Call the Cops

They won’t come. Not for a long time, anyway. Unless it’s a real emergency. And even then…who knows?

That’s essentially what’s happened here in our county. While most people are aware of the dramatic police and firefighter layoffs in big cities like Camden, NJ, there is a somewhat different — and more interesting — dynamic at work here in our little corner of Michigan.

Like most counties in our state, the territory is divided up into large townships of about 30-35 square miles. Within these, there are pockets of incorporated municipalities which are administratively separate from the surrounding township. Our particular rural township has about 2,400 rural residents, and there are about 2,300 people living in its one incorporated municipality.

Most of the incorporated municipalities, including the one we live just outside of, have a small police force. (They seem to spend much of their time camped out with a radar gun at the municipal line, where the speed limit suddenly drops from 45 to 25.) However, that police force will not respond to crimes on our property; their responsibility ends at the municipal border. We and all other rural residents are under the jurisdiction of the County Sheriff, whose services are paid for by our property taxes.

Last summer, the County announced that they would need to slash the Sheriff’s budget by $2.2 million for 2011, and that they would no longer have the resources (i.e. deputies) for routine patrols or response to non-emergency rural calls. If we wanted more police coverage than that, we would need to approve a special millage on the November ballot. The money raised would be used to contract with the county sheriff or a local municipality for police coverage, or to form a new rural police force.

The assessment would’ve been about $150 per residence and $250 per business. Of course, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I voted in favor. We tend to oppose most millage proposals, but police coverage should be a no-brainer. Public safety is one of the few truly essential and appropriate functions that government provides. I simply assumed it would pass, and didn’t even bother checking the election results for several weeks.

As it turns out, the millage in fact failed. Miserably. Each of the thirteen townships voted separately, and the measure only (barely) passed in one. It came close (49%) in one other township. Five other townships were in the low forties. None of the remaining seven townships, including ours, could muster a “Yes” vote in excess of 37%.

Interestingly, the one township which passed the millage has chosen not to contract with the County Sheriff for services. They are instead going to hire a local municipality’s police force to cover them.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have been scratching our heads and trying to understand the election outcome. MYF’s working theory is it’s similar to the “boy who cried wolf” one too many times not getting taken seriously. She reasons that voters have gotten sick of being told the sky would fall down if they didn’t approve an additional property tax hike, and finally decided to stop listening. That’s a plausible explanation, especially given that our property taxes are supposed to be covering police protection in the first place — and that, according to some locals we’ve spoken to, the county commission has proven itself less than trustworthy on some occasions. No doubt, some voters thought the County was playing “chicken” with us, and would blink if we didn’t.

The County didn’t blink. The first week of January, they in fact cut the Sheriff Department’s staff from 223 to 187 employees. That leaves exactly two deputies on duty at any given time to respond to calls in the entire 440 square miles they are responsible for.

What does that mean, exactly? We’re starting to find out. Earlier this month, when a student took a loaded handgun into a rural middle school, it took deputies 20 minutes to get there.

Fortunately, our townships are not high crime areas. But many of us are concerned that could now change. If you’re a burglar, what better place to ply your trade than one where, even if you’re surprised by a homeowner, it takes the cops 20 minutes to show up?

Of course, burglars know that most of us here in the country are fairly well-armed. Few would be stupid enough to break in when a rural resident is at home. Our family is especially fortunate in this regard; because we homeschool, and because I work on the property, someone is nearly always here. We’re also on a fairly well-traveled blacktop road that’s not far from a municipality, so lots of eyes would be upon someone carting property out of our house. But that’s not true of most other rural homes; many sit empty all day, and are on isolated lanes. What better target than a house where it’ll take a deputy several days to come out and even file a police report of your burglary? Just imagine how contaminated the crime scene will be by then!

Already, there is talk of putting another police millage on a future ballot; it’ll be interesting to see if, as residents experience the reality of life with reduced sheriff coverage, support for a special assessment increases.

In the meantime, what’s especially heartening is the grassroots response in some townships. People aren’t just sitting back and waiting for the criminals to strike, or for government to act on our behalf. In the true American civic spirit, they’re forming voluntary associations to address the problem themselves. Residents of one township, for example, have been extremely aggressive in forming a neighborhood watch. Signs like these:

have popped up all over the rural roads. The churches, including the Catholic church in that township, have been especially active as centers of coordination. Down in the church basement, there’s a big stack of these signs that the Knights of Columbus and others have been working to distribute.

It reminds me a lot of something that happened when we lived in Illinois, and someone in our rural county began setting fire to barns on isolated properties. As the size of territory was too large for police to keep an eye on, a group of locals began organizing active patrols of roads with likely targets. I myself started taking a different route into town, just so I could drive past and keep an eye on more isolated structures. Anyway, after just a couple of weeks, one of the local patrols caught the arsonist fleeing the scene of a fire. They held him until the cops could arrive.

I’m sure hoping it doesn’t come to that here in Michigan. But we’re all ready to step up for our community if it does.

Why So Unusual?

I’m sure we’ve all been following news about the recent events in Arizona. Saturday’s shootings were especially personal for me because Gabrielle Giffords is my parents’ representative in Congress, and my folks live a short distance from the Safeway where everything happened. My mother learned about the shooting when a concerned friend called, frantic, wanting to make sure she was okay. As it turned out, my mom had gone grocery shopping that very morning at a Safeway not far from the one in question.

In the days since, I’ve read a great deal of material about the shootings. I’ve been particularly moved by what’s come out about the victims themselves (especially Judge John Roll), and by the heroism of those who stopped the perpetrator from firing more rounds. I’ve also been appalled by attempts to ascribe the attacks to some sort of “climate” generated by those on the Right, especially after details about the shooter became known. Even though his victim was an elected official, he was clearly not motivated by ideology or partisanship.

I’ve noticed, however, that one question has gone largely unanswered: why is it that ideologically-motivated attacks on American elected officials are so exceedingly rare? In a sense, this is the “dog that didn’t bark” of American public life. That dog didn’t even bark in the current instance.

It took an article-length article to organize my thoughts. The good folks at MercatorNet have published the piece here. It begins like this:

In the hours following the horrific shooting at Gabrielle Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event in Arizona, the rush to explain the perpetrator’s motivations began. Giffords had recently survived a hotly-contested re-election challenge from a Tea Party-backed candidate who was her ideological mirror image. In the absence of hard information about the shooter, it might be natural to wonder if he had been discouraged at the election outcome or otherwise inspired by the Tea Party’s anti-Washington rhetoric. Indeed, many on the political left ─ including the local county sheriff ─ speculated aloud in just that manner.

Although the investigation is ongoing, the principal suspect is actually a registered independent who was so disconnected from politics that he didn’t bother to vote in the 2010 congressional election. By all accounts, Jared Lee Loughner appears to be an isolated, deeply mentally ill young man suffering from multiple psychoses.

As analysts continue to debate the reasons for the Arizona events, a potentially far more interesting question has remained largely unasked: Why are violent attacks on American elected officials so exceedingly rare?

But please do read the whole thing. And comment if you feel so inclined.

AIG Mess

With every member of Congress now posturing and trying to outdo one another in expressing outrage over retention bonuses paid to AIG executives, it didn’t surprise me to receive an email tonight from Senator Debbie Stabenow. I guess I got on her mailing list last fall, when I wrote asking her to oppose the $800 billion financial bailout (which she did, and for which I give her enormous credit).

Anyway, this is the text of the message she sent tonight:

This morning, Senator Stabenow went to the Senate floor to speak about the outrageous bonuses being lavished on employees at AIG. She spoke about the outrageous double standard between Wall Street and America’s automakers, who have submitted their management plans to the auto task force and are renegotiating contracts with their workers, who have already taken cuts. Our families are struggling, and those who got us into this mess should not be rewarded for their failure.

Here is the link to Senator Stabenow’s speech:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Td2ya5z1Y8

I do agree with the Senator that those who got us into this mess should not be rewarded for their failure — and, as I said above, I credit Senator Stabenow for opposing the original TARP legislation, out of whose funds AIG was bailed out. That said, this was my reply to Senator Stabenow:

Didn’t you vote for the “stimulus” bill which included an amendment explicitly protecting these bonuses? I’m assuming you were not aware of that amendment, given the short amount of time available to review the conference report. But had you been aware of that amendment, would you have voted differently on the bill?

Naturally, every member of Congress will now purport to oppose that provision. But just how much do they really mean what they say? Given that the amendment was indeed part of the final stimulus bill, do they oppose the bonuses enough to have voted against the stimulus?

My larger question, directed at the Senator’s colleagues (including the current President), who did vote for TARP and are now expressing outrage, is this: If you really wanted fundamental change in the way these financial institutions do business, including the way they compensate their employees who “got us into this mess,” shouldn’t you have let those institutions fail and be liquidated? Or at least written your mandated compensation changes in to the original bailout agreement? By continuing to prop them up with $173 billion of no-strings-attached taxpayer dollars, why are you surprised that they continue to operate their business as they have in the past?

Personally, I’m more outraged by the $173 billion that was “loaned” or otherwise entrusted to this failed monstrosity than I am by the way that company spent $165 million compensating the employees which the government’s bailout package enabled them to retain.

Prairie Fire

No doubt many of you have already seen the video of Rick Santelli’s “Rant of the Year” on CNBC yesterday morning. The thing has gone completely viral, getting hundreds of thousands of views on the web — not to mention getting played all over talk radio yesterday. Santelli, who is a floor reporter at the Chicago Board of Trade, is discussing the President’s recent housing bailout proposal:

Based on what I’m hearing and picking up, I think it’s fair to say that Santelli’s rant is igniting what may grow into a prairie fire of backlash against housing bailouts (no matter what these bailouts are euphamistically called). While the floor traders who applaud him in the video may not be a representative cross-section of the American public, the sentiments he expresses (and the sentiments they are cheering) most certainly are. It’s dawning on people that — the President’s assurances aside — those who made some of the most irresponsible decisions about housing, and who contributed the most to the current difficulties, are about to get shielded from the consequences of their choices. It’s as if the old story of the Grasshopper and the Ant has been updated, and the grasshopper is poised to end up with the ant’s house.

I can only share our own family’s experience, but I don’t think we’re atypical. We lived in rental housing, and then a mobile home, the first few years we were married. With Mrs Yeoman Farmer home full time, we lived on what I could earn working part-time for a research firm and part-time as a graduate teaching assistant. We had one car. Extra money we could scrape together went toward paying off MYF’s law school loans and saving for the down payment on a house.

In early 1999, MYF (now five or six months pregnant with our second child), had had enough of living in a mobile home in the San Fernando Valley. She insisted we find something with a yard, where our firstborn (then aged two-and-a-half) could burn off more of his toddler energy. I began searching housing listings, and contacting Realtors, but everything in the area seemed priced far beyond our reach. Our bank confirmed this, telling me we qualified for a mortgage of no more than $130,000. There was nothing with a yard in any SF Valley neighborhood for less than $200,000 at that time.

Someone suggested we widen our scope, and look at the Antelope Valley communities of Lancaster and Palmdale. We quickly discovered that this extreme north, high desert portion of Los Angeles County was one of the few remaining enclaves of affordable housing within 75 miles of the UCLA campus. As we began working with a realtor, we learned the reason for all the good deals (and this is very important): there had been a housing boom throughout the 1980s, which peaked around 1990. Prices had skyrocketed, and then supply outstripped demand. In the early-to-mid 1990s, prices tumbled. People got underwater on their mortgages, and many homeowners walked away (does this sound familiar?). Banks foreclosed. And now, lots of those foreclosed homes were on the market at prices that even families like ours could afford.

Like I said, the bank pre-approved us for a $130,000 mortgage. We saw lots of really nice houses in the $110-$120k range, and thought about buying one. And then we thought some more…especially about our monthly payments. So we looked some more, and found that $65k was roughly the tipping point: even in the Antelope Valley, houses under that figure were either (1) in bad neighborhoods or (2) in need of more work than I could perform.

We ended up buying a 1400sf, 4 bed, 2 bath, foreclosed tract house for $72,000. When it had been built, in 1990, it had sold for about $115k. Apart from being filled with foreclosed “cookie-cutter” stucco homes on slab foundations, and on the northern edge of civilization, the neighborhood wasn’t bad. Our yard wasn’t huge, but it was a yard. And the house was in excellent shape, so we were able to move in the week after Baby #2 was born.

If memory serves, we made a 5% down payment, so had to pay PMI, but we got a 15 year fixed mortgage so we could build equity faster. I think our monthly payment was less than $600. But there were two important things our bank made us do before we could get that mortgage: (1) prove my income, by submitting tax returns and pay stubs, and (2) clear up a blemish on MYF’s credit report. We had taken very good care of our credit, paying everything on time and paying off our credit cards in full every month. But way back in law school, MYF and her roommates had been in a dispute with their landlord; the landlord had lied and deceived them about the terms of the rental contract, and while the students were away for the summer got a court to issue a default judgment against them. MYF was not even aware of this judgment; the first she learned of it was when, eight years later, our bank pulled her credit report to approve the mortgage. The amount owed wasn’t huge, but our bank would not lend to us until we resolved it. MYF tracked down the collection agency to whom the judgment had been turned over, we paid what they wanted, and got the credit report cleared up. And only then were able to get our mortgage.

We made every mortgage payment on time, maintained our excellent credit, and watched as the neighborhood filled up (and housing prices slowly increased). In the spring of 2001, for various reasons, we decided to make our move to the country and become Yeoman Farmers. We were able to sell our house for about $110,000. After deducting what we spent on new carpets and paint, and real estate commissions, and moving expenses, we walked away with just enough cash to put a 20% down payment on our Illinois property. Again we opted for a 15 year fixed mortgage, to build equity faster. Again, we took good care of our credit. And as a result, when we decided to move to Michigan a year and a half ago, we were able to do so.

All of this behavior I have described is called “playing by the rules.” Nothing that we did was particularly heroic or extraordinary. None of it required luck, or special consideration. I’d contend that there are tens of millions of families in this country with experiences more or less like ours: we saved, started with what we could, and with patience got to where we wanted to be. We didn’t splurge and buy more house than we could comfortably afford, even when the bank offered it. We had to prove our income. We had to clean up our credit. And it infuriates me that so many others got away with doing otherwise for so long.

To the banks and financial institutions which made loans without verifying income, or demanding good credit, I say: you deserve to fail, and responsible lenders like ours deserve to fill the vacuum that your demise leaves in the marketplace.

To those who bought more house than they could comfortably afford, and treated their houses like virtual ATMs (cashing out equity to put in swimming pools and dream kitchens): you do not deserve to stay in those houses. Your houses need to go back on the market at reasonable prices that purchasers are willing to pay. Many of those houses will become homes for families like ours was, circa 1999, who would otherwise be locked out of the market if governments were to prop up those inflated prices by trying to provide people like you with the “soft landing” to which you are not entitled.

And, above all, to Rick Santelli, I say: Thank you, sir, for giving us a voice! And if you do decide to have that “Chicago Tea Party” this summer, I will make sure I have a reason for being in town.