The way we talk about prisons

Mike Konczal’s piece from the WaPo linking the economy with declines in the prison population caught my eye, too. Rather than echoing Keith’s point about the manifest falsity – or methodological futility, for that matter – of establishing the association, I’ll highlight a different aspect of the story.

In the five years since the economy tanked, there’s been a recognisable shift in the way people talk about justice policy. The Urban Institute’s John Roman put together a nifty graphic that illustrates how the policy recommendations of various interest groups have aligned in light of recent fiscal instability.

Screen shot 2013-07-29 at 00.37.36

Continue reading “The way we talk about prisons”

What’s happening all over? I’ll tell you what’s happening all over-*

Mark asked for an update on Iowa, but I’ve moved out of the field operation and into voter protection at national headquarters. We sit at telephones and computers and people call in from Nevada and North Carolina and Ohio-especially Ohio!-and Florida and Wisconsin and ask where they can vote early and whether they’re properly registered and what i.d. they need to vote and why their absentee ballot still hasn’t arrived; and tell us that someone came to their door claiming they needed their naturalization papers to vote or that someone came to their nursing home and distributed and then collected absentee ballots which were not the absentee ballot they’d asked to have mailed to their daughter; and we review pages of FAQs and statutes and Board of Elections regulations and say, “You can vote at the public library on Route 31-do you know where that is? Is that close to your house?” and if it’s not we connect them to the local Obama office for rides. And the people who call know all about the Republicans’ efforts to keep them from voting and are getting out to vote early to make sure they don’t get turned away on Election Day and are concerned and disappointed if their state doesn’t have early voting.

When I mentioned to the Latina grandmother confirming her registration that the California Board of Elections Website made it hard to do so, she instantly asked, “Do you think that’s part of voter suppression?” Is that a question you would know to ask in your second language?

Probably I’m just high from solving problems and occasionally seeing celebrities (the First Lady came in today and made some voter outreach calls); but it seems to me every effort to reduce Democratic turnout has only made Democrats more committed to get to the polls.

Start with a fugue, end with an anthem. “You can bend but never break me, and it only serves to make me more determined to achieve my final goals . . .”**

Quick, somebody cut off my supply of caffeine!
*Guys and Dolls
**I Am Woman.

Mobilizing Legal Forces for the Good

Although nonprofit organizations can make a big impact, they tend to have tiny or nonexistent legal teams. Even for the lucky few charities with a lawyer in-house or close by, it’s impossible for one attorney to know enough about all the different areas of law to be able to address all the organization’s needs.  Fortunately, there is plenty of good will in the legal profession for good causes. Pro bono legal services are quite literally yours for the asking. Here’s how.

And here’s more.

One Book, Three Challenges

Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits
by Lesley Rosenthal
(John Wiley & Sons 2012)

As I embarked on writing Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits, well-meaning and concerned folks cited at least three reasons why no one had written such a book before, and (implicitly) why I shouldn’t try: it’s too dangerous, too hard, too scary.

The “too-dangerous” crowd, personified by some of the most successful leaders of nonprofit turnarounds on several continents, worried that legal information in non-lawyers’ hands would result in the unlicensed practice of law by a bunch of irresponsible, budget-strapped do-it-yourself nonprofiteers. Who knows what kinds of mission mischief non-lawyers would make with their newfound knowledge – the legal equivalent of sewing your own sutures! Fortunately my own boss, the President of Lincoln Center, and several of my other mentors before him, including a former Bar Association president and a federal judge, helped forge my conviction that the law belongs to the people. They encouraged my desire to put it into plain English for all to know.

The “too-hard” folks, also well meaning, recognized the enormous variety of laws that commonly arise in nonprofits and thought it impossible to provide a general overview in one volume. I know what they meant: the tangle of specialized state and federal laws that make our sector one of the most highly regulated in the whole economy, such as state nonprofit corporations laws, Section 501(c) of the internal revenue code, IRS rules, regulations and expectations surrounding the tax exemption and good governance, multi-level filing and disclosure requirements, pension, endowment and investment laws, lobbying restrictions, and a web of 50 different states’ fundraising laws. Many fine books have been written on each of these subjects, but rare is the legal resource that touches upon them all. Then, the skeptics continued, there are also general business laws that apply to these organizations – contract law, labor and employment laws, intellectual property laws, consumer regulatory laws, real estate laws, building codes and more. And business laws apply to the nonprofit sector in weird ways not necessarily intended by lawmakers, forcing volunteer-driven organizations, for example, to think long and hard about how to structure their activities to comply with minimum wage and hours laws. Pile on top of all of those layers the additional specialized laws that apply to the wide world of nonprofits, such as FDA regs for blood banks, student privacy laws for higher ed, permitting and accreditation for hospitals and mental health facilities and so on, and the whole enterprise of writing a book about the legal context of nonprofits threatens to die under its own weight.

The “too-scary” people are the most sympathetic people of all. They are the good-hearted lawyers who are already serving as counsel, as board members – or as both simultaneously – to nonprofit organizations. Their values may line up perfectly with the mission of the organization they serve – an elder care lawyer, for example, serving on the board of a community-based senior center, a real estate lawyer counseling a neighborhood development organization, a sports and entertainment lawyer doing board duty on her town’s local Little League or scout troop – but their legal expertise may be far afield of the legal issues facing the organization. It scares them to no end when a legal question arises in the boardroom and all eyes turn toward them. UBIT – what’s that? Conflict of interest policy pertaining to co-investment interests? Ugh. Section 501(h) election for lobbying activities? Isn’t this meeting almost over? They could have just begged off answering these questions – that’s not my area of law, you see, you wouldn’t ask a dermatologist about your chest pains, would you? – if only Good Counsel didn’t exist to connect the dots between the law they do know and the law they need to know to better serve their favorite charity.

Good Counsel is intended – charitably – to defy all three objections. In 300 pages it places the law of nonprofits in the hands of board members that oversee and executives that actually run the organizations – CEOs, CFOs, program managers and staff, fundraisers, personnel directors, communications professionals, operations and facilities managers and more. Does it answer every question? No. Does it sensitize non-lawyers to common legal issues in the highly regulated context in which they operate? I sure hope so.

Lawyers who make their living practicing in this field needn’t worry that this one volume will displace them; to the contrary, placed in the right hands, the book will generate more sophisticated questions and ultimately more and better client relationships. Corporate and transactional lawyers who have not yet found an outlet for their volunteer yearnings – because it seems that most pro bono projects are more aligned with the skills of litigators, not business lawyers – may feel empowered to see how readily they can translate what they know to the legal needs of prospective nonprofit corporate clients.

Law school deans concerned about the criticism being leveled at the entire enterprise of legal education may find a path forward in Good Counsel. With case studies, work plans and focus questions following each chapter, the book lays out a path for law students supervised by clinical professors to engage with a particular nonprofit organization and assess its legal needs – growing the students’ legal skills and stretching their capacities as counselors in ways that will serve them well even if they do end up in private practice after graduation, as most do.

And the legal profession, which despite the canon of lawyer jokes is as public-spirited as any I know, may find that Good Counsel can be used to foster and strengthen more pro bono relationships between lawyers and organizations. There is a great deal of goodwill for nonprofit organizations among public-spirited lawyers. I know, because I have been both a purveyor and voracious consumer of pro bono legal services, that there is more time and willingness to serve among the legal profession than has been fully tapped to date. A pilot program of the New York State Bar Association and the New York Attorney General’s Office Charities Bureau has adopted Good Counsel as a training resource for that very purpose: to help launch up to 50 new pro bono relationships between lawyers and charities in the initial pilot year of a program called Charity Corps: Lawyers Helping Nonprofits.

Far too many of our nation’s one million public charities lack regular access to counsel. At the same time, good-hearted lawyers are floundering in their efforts to help their favorite nonprofits, or are afraid to try because they think the field is so distant from subject matter they know. Law students graduate in debt up to their ears but lacking the practical skills they need to begin servicing clients after law school. Good Counsel is a playbook, intended for all three audiences.

And while I admit it was a little hard, scary and dangerous, ultimately there were far more supporters than skeptics for this project. I invite readers – lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and academics – to take a look and let me know if it works.

Lesley Rosenthal

Schedule of upcoming Good Counsel events in NYC, LA, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, DC and Buffalo, NY available on or at the book’s website,

Available for purchase at

Review copies for academics, media, upon request to

25 billion Turing mitochondria

ARM´s 25 billion general-purpose computer cores are like mitochondria in cells.

ARM Holdings of Cambridge, England, claim that that the cumulative total of the processors manufactured under their license has reached 25 billion. That´s three-and-a half Turing machines for every man, woman and child on the planet.

Turing machines? Yes. Continue reading “25 billion Turing mitochondria”

Guest post: God asks Governor Perry to cancel prayer rally

I was walking through Grant Park, when an angel approached me in the form of a police horse. He tapped me on the shoulder and simply stated, “God wants to release a short statement on RBC tonight.”

Flustered by the request, I wasn’t sure what to say. “Why me? Why RBC? Have you asked Mark?” To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure Kleiman would really want God blogging on the site.

“The boss wants you. He’s decided not to speak through guys with gray beards anymore. He’s had some problems with that. And Keith Humphreys isn’t answering his cellphone. Whatever you do, make up your mind. I feel pretty stupid as a police horse. Continue reading “Guest post: God asks Governor Perry to cancel prayer rally”

Blyleven. Finally.

As correcting historic injustices go, this doesn’t make it anywhere near the top, but I’ll take it.

Growing up in the 1970’s, I was often told that a “curveball” didn’t really curve; it was just an optical illusion.

To that assertion, I had a two-word answer: Bert Blyleven.

No, he was not the greatest pitcher of all time, but he may have had the greatest curve ball of all time, or at least the greatest I have ever seen.  That thing curved, and don’t tell me it didn’t.  Hitters sure as hell thought it curved — that’s why Blyleven struck out 3,701 of them, 5th all time.

For years, he waited for the call from the Hall of Fame, and it never came, mainly because he retired with 287 wins, 13 short of the magic 300 that would have gotten him in on the first ballot.  (A good equivalent is Sam Rice, who retired in 1933 with a lifetime .322 average, but “only” 2,987 hits — and so had to wait nearly three decades for someone to wake up and vote him in.).

Blyleven might be the recipient of the best Chris Berman nickname ever — Bert “Be Home” Blyleven.  (Berman had a chance to beat that one in the early 90’s, when the Chargers had a running back named Natrone Means.  Imagine the possibilities: a friend of mine pushed hard for Natrone “The Ends Justify the” Means, but Berman went with “Natrone Means Business,” which was really a huge wasted opportunity.).

In any event, the injustice to Blyleven is over.  The Hall of Fame announced today that he’s in (together with Roberto Alomar, who had the good sense to get to 3,020 hits before retiring   UPDATE: 3,020 was the total for Rafael Palmiero, still under a cloud — justifiably — for steroid use.).  Congratulations to both, but especially Blyleven, who has been more patient than he should have been.

Naughty world, good deed

The Financial Reform Act surprisingly includes the long-awaited requirement for natural resource companies to publish what they pay to kleptocrats.

Amid the encircling gloom,  a surprising good deed that wasn’t picked up by the sphere at the time. It deserves much more play than it’s been getting. IMF in-house blogs may not be widely read, but you’d expect more traction from a White House press release.

Go to HR 4173, now Public Law 111-203,the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (pdf, text). On page 845 (sic), you find Section 1504,  “Disclosure of payments by resource extraction issuers”.

Money graf:

… Not later than 270 days after the date of enactment …. the Commission [SEC] shall issue final rules that require each resource extraction issuer to include in an annual report of the resource extraction issuer information relating to any payment made by the resource extraction issuer, a subsidiary of the resource extraction issuer, or an entity under the control of the resource extraction issuer to a foreign government or the Federal Government for the purpose of the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals…

This is the fruit of  a decade-long campaign by NGOs focussing on corruption in oil and mining. especially Global Witness and Transparency International, gradually picking up influential supporters: George Soros, Tony Blair, Richard Lugar, the European Parliament, and even some major players in the industry, like Newmont Mining and Statoil. In the end a group of senators (Cardin,  Durbin, Feingold, Johnson, Leahy, Lugar, Schumer)  shoehorned this little change into the enormous financial reform bill. Nothing to do with the last financial crisis of course, but it makes a sort of sense as part of the general clean-up.

The problem is a classic one of collective action. If you are a normal oil company (and not like the former Elf-Aquitaine deeply corrupt and spook-ridden yourself), you should have nothing against publishing the amounts you pay the governments of host countries. But look what happened to BP in Angola in 2001: they announced their intention to do just that,  and got a letter from Sonangol, the Angolan state oil company, threatening loss of the concession. Reproduced here, pages 41-42. It was copied to BP’s competitors just to make the point clear. BP caved in, wouldn’t you? But now they have no choice. Oil and mining companies will face embarassing meetings with officials in Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Kazakhstan, the two Congos, Burma, places like that. Good.

The target here isn’t common-or-garden corruption: a Gucci attaché-case of banknotes here for the Minister, a free shopping trip to Paris for his wife there, a consultancy for a nephew or two. In fact, this will likely increase by substitution. We are talking here of the organized looting of billions, flowing into private armies and police forces, palaces, giant offshore nest eggs, and networks of patronage. In Angola, the siphon at one time was sucking in up to 40% of GDP (according to a Transparency International paper for an OECD conference in 1973). For the looters, section 1504 is not only a financial disaster but an existential threat, as the numbers will be used by domestic opponents, democratic and otherwise. Stand by for fireworks.

The only real reason oil and mining companies should worry is partial coverage. Won’t they lose concessions to companies from countries that allow concealment?  It shouldn’t be too difficult, given all the positive noises that have come out of international summits for years, to secure similar measures within the OECD. Russia and China will be harder. But it’s a good sign that the Hong Kong Stock Exchange introduced a similar transparency measure in June, presumably with a nod from Beijing. Good pragmatic thinking: unconstrained kleptocracies make for unstable partners.

Why now? This was a sound idea ten years ago. Maybe the Gulf oil spill just weakened the oil and mining lobby enough to tip the balance, on an issue that was never life-and-death for them.  We can be sure the hidden lobbyists for the kleptocrats were fighting hard against the reform to the end. Maybe it was displacement activity: Dodd, Frank and company realized the core financial reform was weak, and grasped at an extraneous one to salve their consciences. Anyway, good work by Lugar and friends.

The Greatest Woman in the World

The greatest woman in the world is someone no one would have expected a decade ago.

After winning the War of Independence, George Washington resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon. George III, upon hearing the story, was incredulous: “if he does that,” the monarch is supposed to have said, “then he will be the greatest man in the world.” And the king was right: given the opportunity for power, Washington turned it down.

Well, maybe we are seeing the same thing in India. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the victorious Congress Party, has now turned down the Prime Ministership not once but twice. After an improbable victory in 2004, the job was hers for the taking, and she refused it — instead, giving it to an incorruptible technocrat, Manmohan Singh, who probably couldn’t have even won his parliamentary seat on his own. Cynics might have ascribed that to Gandhi’s fear that the government would be unstable.

But now, she has done it again, announcing less than two hours after the results were released that Singh will stay on — and she will stay out of the government. And she also made it very clear that the new Prime Minister will not be her son, Rahul, who was the very public face of Congress during the election, and would have easily won a vote of Congress members of Parliament. This is a strong blow against corruption in a country where nepotism still remains too much the norm.

Note as well that Sonia Gandhi may have saved the Congress Party, which for all its many flaws, remains the only national party advocating secularism, tolerance and democracy. Before she assumed control of the party, Congress was widely seen as being in inevitable decline, gaining only 114 seats in the 1998 election. Now, under her leadership, it is up to 255.

I’m sure that there are backstories here, and that the real truth is less appetizing than what happens in public. But I’m sure that that was true with Washington, too. Sonia Gandhi’s success — and what she has done with it — is genuinely good news.