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Archive | Voices and Views

No more errands; stay home for the holidays

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

 

Let’s face it, the last thing you’re going to want to do during this holiday season is another errand. You’ve hung the lights, plugged them in, and were frustrated when you realized you needed to replace one little bulb to make the entire string work. That’s a trip to the store. You thought this holiday season would be easy. When it comes to taking care of Social Security business, it is easy. You’ll find that www.socialsecurity.gov makes it easy to stay home and get that one last thing done. You can check off much of your Social Security business quickly and securely from your home using your computer or tablet (which you might have unwrapped early). At the Social Security website you can—

* Create a my Social Security account, which enables you to:

• obtain an instant, personalized estimate of your future Social Security benefits;

•verify the accuracy of your earnings record—your future benefit amounts are based on your earnings record, so it is important to make sure your earnings are recorded properly;

• change your address and phone number, if you receive monthly Social Security benefits;

• sign up for or change direct deposit of your Social Security benefits; and

• obtain estimates of the Social Security and Medicare taxes you’ve paid;

* Apply for retirement, disability, spouses, and Medicare benefits;

* Check the status of your benefit application;

* Request a replacement Medicare card; and

* Apply for Extra Help with your Medicare prescription drug plan costs.

Keep in mind that during the holiday season, your wait time may be longer if you call or visit a local Social Security office. If you need to reach us by phone, you can call us toll-free at

1-800-772-1213. We can answer specific questions from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

 

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Report shows need to rein in Wall Street

_V-LevinBy Sen. Carl Levin

 

Recently my Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held the final hearing I will hold as its chairman and one of the most important. Our hearing, and a 396-page report we issued, examined the involvement of three Wall Street banks in the market for commodities like metal, coal, uranium and energy.

These are not activities that banks typically take on. For decades, our laws restricted banks to traditional banking businesses like taking deposits and making loans, and they were generally barred from commercial businesses like mining coal, warehousing uranium or running power plants. That changed in 1999, when Congress passed a law that weakened that traditional separation of banking and commerce. Our subcommittee spent more than two years examining the impact of those changes, and what we found was worrisome.

While Wall Street’s growing role in physical commodities has been discussed and debated, the scope of this involvement and the potential for abuse have not been widely known.

One problem is that operating things like oil tankers and coal mines exposes banks to immense risks in the event of a natural disaster or a catastrophic accident. A Federal Reserve study we reviewed showed that banks involved in these activities lacked the capital reserves and insurance coverage to cover potential losses. Should catastrophe strike, it could undermine a bank or spark fears that it might fail, which would bring turmoil to the U.S. economy. My colleague on the committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, noted the enormous expense of the BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and asked, “What if BP had been a bank?”

Bank involvement with physical commodities also raises concerns about unfair trading, and in some cases, outright market manipulation. JPMorgan recently paid $410 million to settle charges by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it used manipulative bidding schemes at its power plants to elicit $124 million in excessive electricity prices in Michigan and California.

One case study from our report highlights the risks to manufacturers, consumers and markets. In 2010, Goldman Sachs bought a Detroit-area company called Metro International Trade Services LLC, which owns a global network of warehouses certified by the London Metal Exchange, or LME, the world’s largest market for trading metals. Under Goldman’s ownership, Metro mounted an unprecedented effort to dominate the North American market for storing aluminum.

Under the LME’s warehouse rules, no matter how many customers want to remove their metal, the warehouse is only required to ship out a limited amount each day. If customers ask to withdraw more metal than the daily minimum, a line or queue forms, and customers have to wait to take delivery. When Goldman bought the warehouses in 2010, the queue in Detroit was just a few days long. But by this year, it had grown to more than 600 days.

We found that Goldman’s warehouse company made a series of complex agreements with some warehouse customers that made it longer. Goldman would pay the owners of aluminum to put their metal in the queue for withdrawal. When that aluminum reached the head of the queue, it was loaded on trucks, but instead of going to a manufacturer, it was shipped a short distance – sometimes just a few hundred yards – to another Goldman-owned warehouse, and placed back in storage. The effect of these deals was that the queue got longer and longer without actually removing any aluminum from the warehouse system.

The lengthening queue boosted revenue at Goldman’s warehouses – the more metal stored in the warehouses, the more rent and fees. But this merry-go-round also affected aluminum prices by increasing the so-called “premium” that customers must pay to cover logistical costs such as storage. Our report found, and expert witnesses confirmed at our hearing, that Goldman’s warehouse, by making the queue longer and pushing the premium higher, was hurting manufacturers and consumers by making aluminum more expensive.

Expert witnesses also told us that if Goldman could use its warehouse to manipulate the queue, and therefore affect aluminum prices, it could profit by employing trading strategies to take advantage of that power. And in fact, Goldman rapidly increased its own aluminum trading after it bought the warehouse company.

Our report offers a number of ways to address these issues. The Federal Reserve is considering rules that could limit banks’ activities in commodities, and it should do so. We also need stronger rules against improper use of insider information and market manipulation. Until such protections are in place, our manufacturers, our markets and our economy are at risk.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

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Remembering a classmate

 

 

Dear Editor,

I didn’t know Carolyn Gillette Green died until I read last week’s Post. I remember Carolyn when she rode the Sand Lake High School bus with us. And I remember her being on the cheerleading team for the Sand Lake High School boys basketball games in the Sand Lake auditorium with three or four other girls. All those girls had a lot of pep. Just like nowadays. Carolyn was a wonderful person. She will be sorely missed.

 

Lyle Perry Jr., Cedar Springs

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Faces and facts tell the story of disability

 

Vonda VanTil

Vonda VanTil

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

 

Every family has stories—stories are a great way to carry on family legacies, pass lessons on to future generations, and share what is important to your family with the rest of the world. Your family stories may include ones about the birth of a child, serving in war, helping people in need, or the deaths of loved ones.

We’d like to share some stories about what it means to receive disability benefits from Social Security and we have a website that does just that:  The Faces and Facts of Disability is ready for you to explore at www.socialsecurity.gov/disabilityfacts.

Learning the facts and hearing people’s stories about disability allows for a fuller understanding of what is perhaps the most misunderstood Social Security program.

The Social Security Act sets a very strict definition of disability. To receive disability benefits, a person must have an impairment expected to last at least a year or result in death. The impairment must be so severe that it renders the person unable to perform not only his or her previous work, but also any other substantial work in the national job market. Social Security does not provide temporary or partial disability benefits. Because the eligibility requirements are so strict, Social Security disability beneficiaries are among the most severely impaired people in the country and tend to have high death rates.

In addition, Social Security conducts a periodic review of people who receive disability benefits to ensure they remain eligible for disability. Social Security aggressively works to prevent, detect, and prosecute fraud. Social Security often investigates suspicious disability claims before making a decision to award benefits—proactively stopping fraud before it happens.

Please read and watch some of the stories about real cases of people who have benefited from Social Security by visiting the Faces and Facts of Disability website at www.socialsecurity.gov/disabilityfacts.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

 

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Michigan’s criminal code most expansive in region

 

From the Mackinac Center on Public Policy

 

MIDLAND — Michigan’s 918-section criminal code is more than twice the size of Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s—and it’s only growing larger. In the past six years, Michigan has added an average of 45 new crimes to its criminal code each year, about half of which are felonies, according to a study released jointly by the Manhattan Institute and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy titled “Overcriminalizing the Wolverine State: A Primer and Possible Reforms for Michigan.”

“With thousands of laws and rules on the books, many people are at risk of being charged with a crime for something most people wouldn’t consider inherently wrong,” said Mike Reitz, executive vice president at the Mackinac Center and co-author of the study. “Being prosecuted for breaking one of these laws can have devastating consequences for individuals and families. It is encouraging to see lawmakers start to address the problem of overcriminalization, but the state needs to do more to prune archaic, unnecessary laws from books.”

The code includes several obscure crimes, many of which do not require criminal intent, meaning that individuals can be held criminally responsible for violating laws unknowingly. Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, recently introduced House Bill 5807 to address this problem by establishing a default criminal intent standard for newly enacted crimes.

Without a default criminal intent standard, many Michigan residents still face punishment for unknowingly committing crimes, including:

Kenneth Schumacher, who disposed of his scrap tires at a facility that appeared to be legal, but was sentenced to 270 days in prison and a $10,000 fine for unlawfully disposing of the tires because the facility didn’t have a license.

Lisa Snyder, who faced charges of operating an illegal daycare because she helped her neighbor’s children board the school bus each morning, free of charge.

As it stands, Michigan’s criminal code puts residents in jeopardy of prosecution for unknowing violation of obscure laws and stretches scarce law enforcement resources that could be devoted to prevention and prosecution of serious violent and property crimes. Michigan currently spends one out of every five general fund dollars on corrections.

James R. Copland, director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, said, “Michigan has an overcriminalization problem. We knew that when we selected Michigan to survey first among states in the Midwest, but our research has uncovered just how much more complex Michigan’s criminal code is in relation to its neighbors.”

The study’s authors make three recommendations for policymakers:

  • Create a bipartisan legislative task force to further investigate overcriminalization and make recommendations to the Legislature;
  • Create a commission to the review current criminal law with the intent to consolidate and clarify these statutes;
  • Enact a default mens rea provision, which would require all new criminal laws to meet a minimum standard for establishing intent before a person could be found guilty of a crime.

The full study can be found at http://www.mackinac.org/archives/2014/s2014-06.pdf.

 

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Some Thoughts on Governing 

V-Lee-Hamilton-web

By Lee H. Hamilton

 

I have been working in or around government for over 50 years, and if you asked me to boil down what I’ve learned to one sentence, it is this: Governing is much harder work than most people imagine. This doesn’t excuse its lapses or sluggish rate of progress, but it does help explain them.

Why is it so hard? Partly it’s the country we live in. There were 130 million Americans when I was in high school. Now we number over 300 million, with a diversity and cultural complexity that were impossible to imagine when I started out. Finding common ground, meeting complex needs, answering to an overwhelming diversity of interests — this is not work for the faint of heart.

The structure we do this with makes it even tougher. We have governments at the federal, state, and local levels, and they in turn have branches — executive, legislative and judicial — and a cornucopia of massive agencies. To solve a problem you have to navigate a slow, complex, untidy system whose transparency and accountability are always less than they should be.

This is magnified by an American public that, these days especially, wants mutually contradictory things. We want to rein in Wall Street excess, but we don’t support the regulatory structure to do it. We want affordable health care but don’t like Washington’s involvement in the health-care system. We want to shrink the deficit without any cuts in defense spending or entitlements.

Our diversity, complex structure, and difficulty settling on coherent policies make the hardest part of governing even harder. Building a consensus is the most important and most difficult part of political leadership. If politics is ultimately about the search for a remedy — I know, for many politicians it’s about ego or power or money, but I’m interested in the ideal — then you have to be able to get a consensus around that remedy. You need a majority in the U.S. House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the President’s approval. This country cannot be governed without compromise, dialogue and accommodation, and it comes apart at the seams when we go too long without them.

We often have disagreements in politics, but good politicians know that we have no choice but to work through them. The best want to bring different groups of people together, not pull them apart. They understand that not all the good ideas come from one source, and they reject the idea of constant conflict and permanent gridlock. In a divided country with a government specifically set up to divide powers, we need to follow this process — not because we want to but because we have to.

They know, too, that you have to treat every person with dignity and respect, even though the clashes may be hard. I used to watch Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill engage in tough, hard-hitting dialogue over the issues of the day, but for both of them the underlying premise was that they had to reach an agreement and move ahead. They knew civility had to be the rule — and always ended by trying to top each other with a good Irish story, doing their best to leave everyone in the room in an upbeat frame of mind.

Don’t get me wrong. The clash of ideas is important. In a dynamic system, with competing power centers and a panoply of interests trying to use their power to achieve their objectives, better policy — a policy that more nearly reflects the will of the American people — can emerge from this debate. Playing one side against the other, or merely stating the problem in order to rile up listeners — these are easy. Moving ahead to reach a solution: that’s the hard part.

Which is why our system works so slowly. It’s unwieldy, messy, and often very noisy, but most of the time, it gets there.

Yet there are no guarantees. Our system is not self-perpetuating. There is no automatic pilot. The question Abraham Lincoln asked at Gettysburg 151 years ago is as fresh today as it was then: Can a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure? We’re still finding out, but we know one thing: It will take hard work.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. Go to Facebook to share your thoughts about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

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Look for what’s right

Dear Editor:

 

It’s a simple fact: You find what you’re looking for. If you are looking for bad news, you will find something to criticize; if you are looking for good news, you will find something to compliment.

In this election cycle, I hear and read far too many candidates that are looking for the things that are wrong. Electing those candidates perpetuates bad news. Is everything perfect in Cedar Springs? In Michigan? In the United States? Of course not. But there is a lot that is right. I’m much more interested in focusing on those things.

The way to move our city, our state, and our country forward is to support those candidates that are focused on our strengths—on what’s right in our communities—and electing them into positions where they can help our strengths overcome our weaknesses.

Send a message this election cycle: Vote for the candidates that are looking for what’s good and right and strong.

 

Sincerely,

Craig T. Owens, City of Cedar Springs

 

 

Post Scripts Notice: The Cedar Springs Post welcomes letters of up to 350 words. The subject should be relevant to local readers, and the editor reserves the right to reject letters or edit for clarity, length, good taste, accuracy, and liability concerns. All submissions MUST be accompanied by full name, mailing address and daytime phone number. We use this information to verify the letter’s authenticity. We do not print anonymous letters, or acknowledge letters we do not use. No letters against a candidate will be published the week before an election. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to PostScripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

 

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Nelson Township Library millage request

The November 4, 2014 General Election ballot for Nelson Township voters will include a request for the Nelson Township Library operating millage to be restored to the original .5 mills which was approved in 1987.  Since 1987, the effect of the Headlee Amendment has reduced the levy to .3940 mills.  The November ballot request is asking for an additional .1068 mills to bring the levy back to the original ½ mill.

Since the construction of the new library in 2007, operating expenses have continued to rise and millage receipts have diminished.  The 2014-15 budget for the library was set at $51,400.00. Expenses for the building include utilities, insurance, custodial services, grounds maintenance and miscellaneous items.

The reduced millage of 0.3940 mills generates $46,600.00 annually. Approval of the requested additional 0.1068 mills will add $12,718.00 to the dedicated library operating funds. At present, the shortage comes out of the township general fund. If passed, property owners will pay 11 cents per thousand dollars of taxable value or $11 on a home with a taxable value of $100,000.

In August, Kent County voters approved a millage request by the Kent District Library. This money provides librarians, programs, books and magazines in both print and audio, music, videos, programs, computers and internet access, plus more. The townships in turn must provide a facility for the library to operate in and like KDL, our funds have remained flat while our costs have increased.

Please vote YES on November 4.

Dorothy Bishop, Nelson Township

Post Scripts Notice: The Cedar Springs Post welcomes letters of up to 350 words. The subject should be relevant to local readers, and the editor reserves the right to reject letters or edit for clarity, length, good taste, accuracy, and liability concerns. All submissions MUST be accompanied by full name, mailing address and daytime phone number. We use this information to verify the letter’s authenticity. We do not print anonymous letters, or acknowledge letters we do not use. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to PostScripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

 

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Message to woman who hit mailbox

The Cedar Springs Post welcomes letters of up to 350 words. The subject should be relevant to local readers, and the editor reserves the right to reject letters or edit for clarity, length, good taste, accuracy, and liability concerns. All submissions MUST be accompanied by full name, mailing address and daytime phone number. We use this information to verify the letter’s authenticity. We do not print anonymous letters, or acknowledge letters we do not use. Email to news@cedarspringspost.com, or send to PostScripts, Cedar Springs Post, PO Box 370, Cedar Springs, MI 49319.

 

 

Dear Editor,

 

On the morning of October 7th, a lady in a silver Buick hit my mailbox. While it’s inconvenient that I now have to put up a new one, I really just want her to be careful. My mailbox is a full car width from the travel lane on Fifth Street. So whatever it was that she was doing caused her to cross the equivalent of another lane, and she was going fast enough to snap the 4×4 off below ground level.

Whoever you are, please be careful. Had it been earlier in the day, my four-year-old would have been out there. You and you alone are responsible for controlling that 3,500 pound piece of metal. If you were sending or receiving something on your phone, shame on you. You could have killed someone. If you were distracted by something else in the car, pull over. The lane you had to cross to hit the mailbox was big enough. I am not interested in pressing charges, but remember that the difference between an “oops” and a felony is telling someone that you made a mistake.

Hope you are all right.

 

Molly Nixon, Cedar Springs

 

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President and Congress should work together on military intervention 

V-Lee-Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

In his speech last week outlining his plans to use military force against the jihadists of the Islamic State, President Obama gave Congress only passing mention. “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” he said. “But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.”

He’s right, of course. But that’s not the half of it.

Our process for deciding to use force has not caught up with these dangerous times. It has been decades since Congress asserted any meaningful role; its members prefer to avoid a potentially difficult political vote, let the President take the lead, and then criticize him if he was wrong.

There are certainly occasions when the President must act alone. If we’ve been attacked or hostilities are imminent or some emergency presents itself for which force is the only response, we’d expect the President to respond effectively.

But there are powerful political reasons for making the decision to use force abroad a joint one with Congress, in all but emergencies. When our nation must deal with controversial, complicated questions, there is great value to making the President articulate his analysis of the situation and the reasons for his decisions, and to test that thinking beyond close advisors who naturally tend to support him. The best place to do so is in Congress.

Moreover, military action supported by both the President and Congress carries more legitimacy at home and more conviction abroad. The U.S. is in a far stronger position before the world if it is clear that the branches of government are unified and we are speaking with one voice as a nation.

It is common wisdom that our Constitution is ambiguous on war powers, since it makes the President the commander in chief, yet gives Congress the ability to declare war. In a sense, though, the Constitution’s message is anything but ambiguous: by giving a role to each branch, it clearly considers the use of force to be a shared decision.

This imposes a responsibility on Congress. Congress cannot be a bystander when it comes to the grave decision to use our military abroad. It, too, needs to take ownership of decisions to use force, for the good of the American people’s understanding and acceptance of the issues at stake, and for the benefit of the nation’s profile abroad.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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