Thursday, April 17, 2014

#108 / Reversing Polarity

I really do think that my "Black Dog Theory," mentioned in my posting yesterday, is worth taking seriously. As citizens, we often cut our elected officials way too much slack, focusing our discontents about government on the governmental staff people who most directly carry out the programs and policies that our elected officials establish, and for which our elected officials are ultimately responsible. We need to direct our attention to the people holding the leash, and make them accountable for what their dog may be doing.

That said, I have noticed another (and frightening) phenomenon in the conduct of government business, particularly at the local level. I am sorry to say that the City Council of the City of Santa Cruz, my hometown, seems to afflicted. As I diagnose the problem, I believe that elected officials are increasingly getting it completely backwards with respect to who is "in charge" of governmental policies. In other words, many elected officials act as if their main role is to "back the staff." In fact, in our system of representative government, our representatives are supposed to represent "us," the public, and to tell "the staff" what to do, based on what the elected officials are hearing from the citizens they represent. 

Unfortunately, I have seen way too many instances, in recent years, in which the elected representatives represent "the staff" to the public, as though that were their job. When this condition sets in, our elected officials act like it's their main responsibility to make the public understand and appreciate how good a job the staff is doing. In essence, these elected officials, even though they are holding the leash, actually seem to believe, themselves, that the dog is in charge.

When that situation begins to manifest itself, it's time to reverse the polarity of how power flows in our governmental systems.

And we, the public, citizens and voters, are the ones who have to flip the switch!

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

#107 / Black Dog Theory

I think I know quite a bit about being an elected official, since I was one for twenty years. My current job, as an environmental attorney in private practice, is to represent individuals and community groups as they deal with governmental agencies, usually with respect to various land use related matters. That puts me in constant contact with elected officials and their staff. 

In connection with my current job, I often find that "the staff" gets blamed for some of the problems that my clients are concerned about. A staff report, for instance, recommends a course of action that is contrary to what my clients think is the right policy; and then the City Council, or Board of Supervisors, actually does what the staff recommends. The staff denies requests for information, or sets hearings in a way that actively discourages citizen participation. Appeals to the elected officials, to get involved, don't bear fruit. You get the idea. 

When the individuals and groups for whom I work tell me it's "the staff" that is responsible for the problems they are encountering (and this is a pretty common complaint), I tell them about my "Black Dog" theory.

My theory that says that if the black dog is biting you, you need to blame the person holding the leash, not the dog itself. I think that's basically true, and we all need to keep that in mind as we deal with governmental bureaucracies. Ultimately, if our system of representative self-government is going to work, we need to place responsibility on our elected representatives, and hold them politically accountable. Doing anything else just let's them off the hook. 

Doing anything else, and the black dog keeps biting!

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

#106 / Weird

I  have always adhered to the "Keep Santa Cruz Weird" philosophy. Speaking as a former elected official, I liked the fact that the people I represented actually wanted the government to represent the majority, and to act in their interest. Oddly enough, that approach to government is actually kind of weird. That doesn't seem to be true elsewhere. 

To take my favorite example, in Santa Cruz County, the majority of voters, given the chance, voted to restrict the use of farmland. The uses permitted on farmland were determined by the community, not by the individual property owner. That seems kind of weird to people who don't live in Santa Cruz County. There are not many places where the community thinks it's just fine for the community to establish what individuals can do with their land, establishing uses that the community believes are best for the community at large.  

Measure J, a referendum measure adopted by the voters in 1978, said that any land that is commercially viable for agriculture must be used only for agriculture. Period. No real exceptions. That agricultural land preservation policy was felt by the community to be good for the community at large. But the policy actually disadvantaged individual farmland owners, at least in economic terms. A parcel of farmland is worth a lot more if you can turn it into a residential subdivision, or a car sales lot, or a shopping center. In fact, if those kind of uses are allowed, the per acre land price for agricultural land is about ten times higher than if the land can only be used for farming. 

There are not too many communities in the state or nation (OK, none except for Santa Cruz County) that would have had the gumption to tell a lot of well-connected farmland owners that their individual opportunities to profit were just going to have to be set aside, so that the greater good could be achieved. That was pretty weird, but it was a GOOD kind of weird, at least as I see it; it was the kind of weird celebrated on the famous Bookshop Santa Cruz tee-shirt. 

Because of the passage of Measure J in 1978, Santa Cruz County does not have the kind of "Good Old Days" problem I wrote about on April 7th. If you are not familiar with how Measure J got adopted, click right here to read The Story of Measure J. 

If you want to read about how the word "weird" has become a "weird" marketing tool, you can click on this link. It's all about that "one weird trick" to (1) eliminate that unsightly belly fat; or (2) enlarge your penis; or (3) stay asleep all night!

Three weird tricks and you're home free!! Ready for the good life!!

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Monday, April 14, 2014

#105 / The Fate Of The Earth

Jonathan Schell (pictured above) died on March 26th, at the age of 70. An obituary in The New York Times outlines his accomplishments. Words of tribute have appeared in The Nationand Bill McKibben has written a  moving "Postscript" in The New Yorker.

As McKibben says, Schell wrote important books on the Vietnam War (The Village of Ben Suc) and on the Watergate scandal (The Time of Illusion), but he is best known for his book on nuclear armaments, The Fate of the Earth, the publication of which was hailed by The New York Times as “an event of profound historical moment.” 

The Fate of the Earth is about the dangers of nuclear war, and McKibben, who talked to Schell during the last weeks of Schell's life, said that Schell thought that the world had "failed to come to grips with the nuclear question." Schell also said that "the same dynamic was at work with climate change." Both crises "reveal a kind of bankruptcy at the crucial hour of many of the things we place our faith in." 

The "Fate of the Earth" is our fate, too. Even if we tend to forget it, we are inevitably from and of the Earth. The world we most immediately inhabit, and that seems most vivid and "real" to us, is none other than the human world we create ourselves, but our world is a world that is ultimately dependent on the World of Nature, a world that we do not create, the world that is this Earth, this planet that supports all life, including our own. 

A thoughtful review of our human situation should convince us, as the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns, that one of the most significant and immediate consequences of climate change will be an increased temptation to human conflict, at all levels, everywhere. And while nuclear weapons continue to exist, those conflicts will be the occasion for someone, somewhere, actually to use these horrific engines of destruction. 

I think it is important, as we salute Jonathan Schell, that we do so with a reference to another book of his. Written in 2003, it may be that this lesser known book has something to tell us that we don't already know. It may give us some ideas that we may not yet have thought about. 

We all know the dangers of nuclear weapons, and we really do understand that their continued existence is a holocaust in the waiting. More and more, we do all appreciate the reality of the global warming crisis that is putting our civilizations and much of the natural world at risk. The word is out on these crises, and if their existence reveals a kind of "bankruptcy" of many of the things we place our faith in, we might look to this book, by Jonathan Schell, to find a way forward: 

The Unconquerable World teaches the power of nonviolent action. If our governments and other institutions have gone into bankruptcy, and action is needed, and if violent action (historically our recourse in times of trouble) is itself a world-terminating danger, then it just may be that the fate of the Earth will literally depend upon our ability to act, now, through nonviolent direct action, to end the crises that have put both of the two worlds we inhabit into profound peril. 

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

#104 / A "Political Question"

The President of the United States has taken the position that he has the right, as President, to tell members of the United States military services (or U.S. spy agencies) to track down and kill individual people, including United States citizens, when the President has determined that such individuals are engaged in terrorist activities.

In the so-called "War on Terror," the whole world  may be considered a battlefield, so there is no particular geographic limitation to the killing that the President can demand. Anywhere the supposed "terrorist" can be found is an acceptable place to kill that terrorist, and there really isn't any mechanism for an impartial or third party review, to second guess or otherwise examine that "terrorist" designation. After all, in a war you kill people, and you don't give them a trial first. If we are at war, and the President decides that someone is a terrorist, it's the President's position that the President should be able to have that person killed. Kings used to claim those prerogatives, too, in case you forgot.

If Alexis de Tocqueville were right, this "political question" about the powers of the Presidency should resolve itself into a "judicial question," and our courts should decide the validity of the President's claim that he has the right to order the killing of any person that he, in his sole discretion, decides is a terrorist. How does that Presidential claim hold up against the requirements of the Constitution, which mentions "due process" in quite a few places?

I think that most U.S. citizens would naturally expect that a Presidential claim that the President has the right to decide, based on his own judgment, whom to kill, and whom not to, ought to be subject to some sort of review, somehow. If, for instance, the President decided that my son was a terrorist, and should be killed, I'd like a Judge to review that decision before someone actually carried out the Presidential directive and killed him. You might feel the same about your son. Or your daughter. Or your friend. Or any other person!

Recently, this very case did come to a federal court. And the court proved de Tocqueville wrong. Click right here to read a copy of the Judge's 41-page decision in the case of Nasser Al-Aulaqi v. Leon Panetta. Yes, the former Member of Congress from the Monterey Bay Region was one of the people who carried out those kill orders for the President, and Mr. Al-Aulaqi's son (a United States citizen) was killed. If you would like a shorter summary of the case, you can click on this link for an article published in the Supreme Court of the United States Blog (also called the SCOTUS Blog).

It has long been a policy of the federal courts not to make decisions on "political questions," which are questions which seem to be under the jurisdiction of one of the other branches of our tripartite government. The courts hold that since the President is the Commander in Chief, he and he alone has the right to make determinations like whether or not to kill Mr. Al-Aulaai's son. Or my son. Or yours.

Maybe the Supreme Court will decide it differently, but as for now, the President's asserted right to order the killing of an individual U.S. citizen, if the President decides that he or she has been engaged in terrorist activities, is not an assertion that the courts will review.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

#103 / Corruption Finance Reform

Lawrence "Larry" Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and a political activist. One of his causes is campaign finance reform, which he calls "Corruption Finance Reform." I like that. Gets to the point!

Most recently, Lessig is telling us to "take a hike." Specifically, he is calling for a "march through New Hampshire," the second in what he clearly sees as a series. Click this link to hear Lessig talk about this at a TED presentation. You can watch Bill Moyers' coverage of the first march by clicking this link.

"Taking a hike" as a way to bring about fundamental political reform may seem an unlikely path to success. Let's not forget about that "salt march," though. Or the "freedom marches" in the South that brought us federal legislation on civil rights.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. might have been on to something.

I hope Lessig is, too.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

#102 / Greed

The Atlantic has run a nice essay on greed and our economic system. It's worth reading. It covers the ground from St. Thomas Aquinas to Ivan Boesky

St. Thomas Aquinas, who ranked greed among the seven deadly sins, warned that trade which aimed at no other purpose than expanding one’s wealth was “justly reprehensible” for “it serves the desire for profit which knows no limit.”

“I think greed is healthy,” an apparent acolyte told the graduating class at Berkeley’s business school in 1986. “You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” The speaker was Ivan Boesky, who shortly thereafter would be fined $100 million, and later go to prison, for insider trading. His address was adapted by Oliver Stone as the basis for Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in Wall Street. 

The "Greed Is Good" mantra (and the title of The Atlantic article, by the way is exactly that phrase) comes from a misapprehension of who we really are. We know that we are individuals, but we forget, all too easily, that we are also part of a greater whole. When motivations are analyzed and defended, a good argument can be made for greed if the unit of analysis is the individual alone. When we see ourselves as being "all in this thing together" (life, I mean), then greed loses its allure.

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