Tuesday, April 30, 2013

We just got word that there has been a bomb threat at the post office in Farragut. More news as we learn it.
Debra Shifrin: Social Security Disability Insurance benefits our neighbors. The takeaway from this op-ed is the following:

[W]hile it is also true that the Social Security Trust Fund's outlays will exceed the income generated, this is not an unexpected occurrence. Like the increase in the number of people receiving disability, this has been anticipated since 1994. According to the Social Security Administration, the number of disabled beneficiaries will decrease as the baby boomers reach retirement age. A simple reallocation by Congress of taxes from the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund would be one solution. Such reallocations in both directions have occurred many times in the past.

Speaking as a lawyer who has represented Knoxville Social Security claimants for almost two decades, this approach makes sense. As disabled workers reach retirement age, their disability benefits switch to retirement benefits. A re-allocation now from retirement to disability makes up for the aging -- and therefore increasing numbers of -- workers becoming eligible and entitled to disability. As they transition into retirement age and beyond, funds are re-allocated back toward retirement.

One thing is sure: we've got a lot of people who are legitimately unable to work, according to the very stringent Social Security rules on disability. Instead of cutting their relatively paltry benefits or foreclosing altogether their ability to obtain those benefits, we as a society need to make sure that those less fortunate than us are taken care of, at least to some extent.

Do unto others....

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Once upon a time, there was a band called Chicago. As an ex-trumpet player and as a drummer, I loved that band, with its unique blend of rock and roll with horns. Their drummer, Danny Seraphine, was a monster player, and one of my early influences as a drummer.

Then Terry Kath, the guitar player who even Hendrix idolized, suffered death by stupidity (gun), and the band that had become known for setting trends, instead began following the latest vogue. First it was disco (Chicago 13), which resonated with a resounding “thud.” Then, starting with 1982's Chicago 16, Chicago was resurrected by embracing the fat 80s sound, as well as moving to slick urban contemporary “power” ballads. These mostly insipid tunes, many of which were not written by members of the band, featured bassist Peter Cetera vocalizing, and did not feature horns. Chicago gained a whole new following in this genre and again achieved great success, but lost its soul in the transformation.

Then Cetera left the band for a solo career. Three years later, unbelievably, the band fired co-founding member – and drummer – Danny Seraphine.

Seraphine’s firing seems to have completely destroyed the relevance of the band. In 1991, Chicago Twenty 1 went in the tank big time, 1993's “Stone of Sisyphus” was rejected by the record label and shelved for another decade and a half, and Chicago failed to release an album of original material for another 13 years. When it did, Chicago XXX’s material was, with a few exceptions, mediocre at best, and the album was annoyingly over-produced. While replacement drummer Tris Imboden is a fine drummer, his body of work with Chicago has been lackluster, at best.

Seven years – and a bunch of Christmas albums – later, Chicago has been relegated largely to the oldies band circuit. While Chicago member Robert Lamm’s 2003 “Subtlety and Passion” featured good writing and outstanding horns, afficionados of “jazz-rock” largely have given up hoping for any significant new music in this genre.

All this history is prelude to the welcome news, however, that there is joy in Mudville. Danny Seraphine, who emerged in 2006 from 15 years of self-imposed musical exile to form California Transit Authority (CTA), still wants to create horn-integral “jazz-rock.” CTA’s sophomore effort, “Sacred Ground,” is easily characterized in one word: triumphant.

Originally named “Promise,” CTA decided to change the name of the record to emphasize the connotation that the “Sacred Ground” of jazz-rock music for which Chicago became incredibly successful is worthy of continuing into new iterations and for new generations. Biased as I may be, they are right.

Seraphine has assembled a bunch of talented musicians in the new CTA: Marc Bonilla on guitar, Ed Roth playing keyboards, Mick Mahan on Bass, Peter Fish on Keyboards, and a host of guest singers and players. The result of this musical confab approaches brilliance.

From the opening title cut, through “The Real World, a sly but powerfully well-arranged cover of Blood, Sweat & Tears’s “I love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” to the boss hit-bound single candidates, “Strike While The Iron’s Hot” and “Out of Reason,” as well as the evocative “Full Circle” and CTA’s furious re-arrangement of the classic “Take Me Back to Chicago,” this band thrills the listener with its tight arrangements, unselfish playing, killer horn charts and performances, and of course, Seraphine’s spot-on pocket playing. There are few drummers who seamlessly can play the various funky grooves embodied on “Sacred Ground,” including some wicked 15/8 time (in the middle of a straight 4/4 groove) in “The Real World.” We shouldn’t be surprised, however; Seraphine practically invented (and certainly perfected) playing in off-time rhythms, especially in the earlier Chicago days. Except for a short solo section at the beginning of “The Real World,” he doesn’t step out on his own, but rather provides that rhythmic backbone that is essential to any good song.

"Sacred Ground" is a dense album. A listener who keeps listening to the record will find more and more musical layers to explore. The “Oh Yeah Moments” – those passages that make the listener stop and say, “oh yeah!” abound. “Sacred Ground” is a record that will make the listener smile in many, many spots.

As a horn guy, I just love the album. One of my many Chicago beefs is that they have stylized their horn sound so much that it sounds like a fat trombone; you can’t even hear the saxophone holding down the center.

Not so with CTA. The horn parts are multifarious, and essential to the integrity of the various songs on the album. While it is clear that the various horn arrangers are stylistically tipping their collective hats to the brilliant arrangements of Chicago trombonist James Pankow, they extend the form into new territory. In addition to unison playing, there are multiple instances where the brass plays off against the woodwinds, and vice versa. The dissonance in places works as it did in the early days of Chicago. Seraphine and company have found some great song endings, as well, such as the capper to "Staring at the Sun" (think "Introduction"). And when the horns break out into a solo section, the listener just wants to jump for joy. Well, this listener does, anyway.

This record marks Seraphine's return to mid-seventies form, featuring Adventurous song structures that challenge the listener, without resorting to side-long solo sections. In this respect, "Sacred Ground" is remiscent of Chicago V, VIII, X and XI.

Ultimately, “Sacred Ground” is a renaissance for Seraphine himself, as well as proof positive of the talent and group synergy that Chicago threw away when they fired him. After being summarily dumped from the band he co-founded and led for two decades, he withdrew from playing music for a decade and a half. Now, as he says in “Full Circle:”

I’ve held on long enough inside It’s time I made a stand Day by day the darkness pulls away And pushes me to understand I feel the spirit lift again

I’ve come full circle All the clouds have flown I’ve come full circle Sweet music calls me home

“Sacred Ground” hearkens back to Chicago’s early period before 1982, and brings that singular rock and roll with horns sound to the post-millennium. Chicago would do well to listen closely to – and learn from – the songs, the performances and the production values that make “Sacred Ground” a triumph. Based on this record, the legacy of the real Chicago lies with Danny Seraphine and CTA, and not with the group that still bears that iconic name.

It's a pleasure to say: He's back. They're back. It's back.

Sacred Ground is available at Amazon, CD Baby and on the band's web site.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Truth About Social Security Disability

Social Security facts:

(1) The percentage increase in people on Social Security disability in recent years was expected, due to the aging Baby Boomers, half of whom are now reaching "high disability years." Additionally, there has been an increase of women in the workforce in recent decades, women who are now eligible to draw on their own earnings record when they become disabled.

(2) Social Security does not contribute to the deficit; it is self-financed by payroll taxes. By law, the system cannot spend money it does not have and cannot borrow. People with disabilities who need these benefits when they cannot work should be able to receive the benefits they paid for in payroll taxes when they were able to work.

(3) Only around 40 percent of those who apply for benefits are eventually approved, ensuring that only those who meet the strict requirements are found eligible.

(4) Benefits are modest. Individuals receive on average around $13,500 per year, just enough to help beneficiaries avoid homelessness and bankruptcy.

Considering these facts, why is it that some in our government want to cut or eliminate benefits that, literally, are keeping people alive and off the streets?
Britain's security service, MI6, pays out over secret LSD mind control tests. So I guess the Austin Powers movies were based on truth?
Workers' comp changes only help big business:
Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing changes to workers’ comp that will cut benefits to injured workers, unnecessarily create a new government bureaucracy that is completely controlled by the executive branch, remove workers’ comp cases from the impartial court system, seriously jeopardize workplace safety and allow employers to “throw away” injured employees.

I thought the Governor and the Legislature were supposed to help the people of this state, to be on their side. I guess I was wrong.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Jackson Sun:
Since 1919 workers’ compensation has given hardworking men and women injured on the job the security they need to continue to take care of their families. Workers’ Comp has come to mean security, well being and peace of mind for dependents. It is, quite frankly, the only recourse workers who are injured on the job have to make ends meet until they are able to work again.

In a few days, the legislature will begin to debate the changes to workers’ compensation proposed by Go. Bill Haslam. Jackson’s own Rep. Jimmy Eldridge will preside over the debate.

Under Haslam’s plan, all workers’ compensation cases will be removed from the impartial court system and brought under a newly created workers’ comp government bureaucracy with appointed, not elected, judges. This brand new state agency will handle all workers’ compensation claim disputes and will be yet another hoop to jump through for workers who are injured on the job.

The governor’s representative recently explained to Rep. Eldridge’s committee that the governor wants the changes to create a ‘fair playing field.’ But what is fair about a system with zero impartiality? Currently, the system is fair and impartial because elected judges hear the cases. If Haslam’s changes are approved by the legislature, the Governor will get to appoint a workers’ compensation “czar,” who will have the power to choose all the judges (and review all decisions). The “czar” and staff will also determine if injuries are work related, determine the allowable treatment for each injury (including the number of therapy visits, the type of surgery, the types of medications, etc.), reduce physician judgment, and ration treatment.

In addition to the “czar,” the governor will also appoint all three appeals judges.

Even the supposed “neutral” ombudsman is an executive appointee. In this insular system, decisions made will become political, susceptible to even more influence of special interests. Instead of “fair and impartial,” the governor will trade the well-being of the hardworking people of the state for a favor to the insurance industry.

The proposed changes would also cut paychecks to injured workers who can eventually return to work by one-third and drastically cut payments to workers who are so injured that they cannot go back to work. These cuts, along with cuts made in 2008, mean an injured worker who goes back to work collects 60 percent less than in 2007. Has anyone considered the families of injured workers in this proposed “new normal?” Has anyone considered that if an injured workers has less in his paycheck, then he has less to sustain his or her family?

Finally, under current Tennessee workers’ compensation law, employers have an economic incentive to put injured and recovered workers back to work. The new system removes that incentive and makes it easier, and cheaper, for an employer to fire an injured worker and hire a younger or healthier worker. Hardworking Tennesseans are our most valuable resource. They manufacture, fix, create and build. They are the engines of the economy. Why would we want to treat them as if they are disposable?

As they consider the changes, they have a choice to make: Are they going to fight to protect the families of the hardworking Tennesseans who elected them OR will they side with special interests like big insurance companies and large corporations who already benefit from so many loopholes and tax giveaways?

At a time when almost no one in politics agrees on anything, everyone can agree that when workers get injured on the job, they should be able to take time to heal without worrying about the health and well-being of their family.

The Tennessee General Assembly must get serious about strengthening Tennessee by saving workers’ comp and protecting the families of working folks. That means prioritizing working families ahead of special interests and large corporations.

The Legislature and the Governor that the people of Tennessee elected to represent their interests are about to strip those citizens from rights they have had for almost 100 years. What they are doing is cynical, self-serving, damaging to working people everywhere, and just plain wrong.

If you did not elect your state senator and representative to take away your rights, call, wirte and email them and let them know you oppose this legislation. You can find your legislator here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How the Hobbit SHOULD have ended:

Friday, February 01, 2013

Changes to Tennessee Worker's Compensation: "Not fair. Not Helpful. Not Reform. Not Relief:"
The proposal to change the way the system works - and it's a big, big, BIG change - will not only severly limit the amount of relief that will go to an injured worker and his family, but changes the way the system works so much that it will primarily concentrate all the decision-making power into the hands of one politically-appointed bureaucrat.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Tennessee may revamp workers' comp laws: Our system, which has been good enough for almost 100 years, apparently no longer is good enough. Understand that the state government has quietly been gutting peoples' rights in worker's compensation for years. The only real possibility of a fair and just result was the chance to take a decision before a judge or the Supreme Court. The current Worker's Cpmpensation Specialist program is under-funded, understaffed, and has people sitting in judgment of peoples' claims who often are not qualified to be a "judge." Regardless, the state wants to create an entirely new agency -- imagine how much that will cost -- to extend and perpetuate the increasing unfairness experienced by the workers of our state on a daily basis.

Why? Here's the answer, right at the end of the article: "[Court involvement] really has led to some court decisions that have been quite adverse to employers.” Big Business has so little respect for the public that they don't even come up with a new excuse for taking away your rights; this is the same canard they used last year and the year before.

Whatever legislation is proposed by the Pilot state government, er, the Haslam Administration, will pass; the Republicans have more than enough votes to do basically whatever they want. And what they want is for no individual in this state to have either the right or practical ability to seek compensation for personal injuries.

To paraphrase Herman Wouk, in War and Remembrance [ebook, p.125], when individual rights die, they die like a cloudy day, without a visible moment of sunset. So it is with worker's compensation, and so it has been for the rights of Tennesseeans to see legal redress in the courts.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Are you smarter than an 8th grader (circa 1895)? I'm not.