Tuesday, January 16, 2018

#16 / Community Rights

In These Times posted an article on December 29, 2017, that asked this question: "Can The Community Rights Movement Fix Capitalism?"

Wouldn't that be great!

The article was written by Thomas Linzey, a prime mover and shaker in the Community Rights US organization, and the executive director and co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). As might be expected, Linzey is holding out high hopes! 

Here is a brief description from the Community Rights US website, explaining the idea: 

In 1999, CELDF made a dramatic turn in its public interest environmental law work when it stopped being involved with more conventional single-issue one-corporate-harm-at-a-time legal defense work through the regulatory arena of law, and instead began to help rural communities to write paradigm-shifting laws that banned (rather than regulated) harmful corporate activities, and challenged for the first time the legitimacy of corporations exercising constitutional so-called “rights”. It was at this point that the movement took on the name Community Rights, a name that has since stuck. 
It all began in the conservative family farming community of Wells Township, Pennsylvania, when the local farmers rose up to stop a massive farm factory of hogs from being built in their township. Their township supervisors unanimously passed an anti-corporate-farming ordinance that directly challenged three structures of law that the farmers considered to be illegitimate – corporate constitutional “rights”, state preemption, and Dillon’s Rule. From there, the movement took off across rural Pennsylvania, rural Maine, and beyond. 
Fast forward to the present, and there are now more than 200 communities and counties in nine states that have successfully passed Community Rights ordinances. And so far, only about 5% of these places have had their local ordinances legally challenged.

The "community rights" idea is not some new or innovative experiment. In essence, it is good old American "democracy." We are all individuals, of course, but we are not only individuals. We are also members of a community, and "politics," leading to the enactment of "laws," is the way we "govern" what happens in the communities in which we live. 

Our communities have "rights," just the way individuals do. What is the basic "right" that communities have? The right of "self-government." We have the right, through our local lawmaking, to decide what will happen, or what will not be allowed to happen, in our local communities. 

In Santa Cruz County, in 1978, the people voted on Measure J, enacting a growth management system that said, among other things, that commercially viable agricultural land located in Santa Cruz County could be used only for agriculture. As far as I am aware, no other local community has ever taken that step. It was an important step, too, and has largely shaped the development (or, rather, non-development) of Santa Cruz County since that time.

The people of Santa Cruz County had the "right" to do that. So, here, and in every local community around this country, it's time to look around for what's next!

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Monday, January 15, 2018

#15 / Contrary Forces

David Brooks titled his January 2, 2018, column in The New York Times, "The Retreat To Tribalism." His thesis is that the United States has gone "from an identity politics that emphasized our common humanity ... to an identity politics that emphasizes having a common enemy." In other words, it seems to be true, according to Brooks, that the groups with which we identify are increasingly defined by what the group is against, rather than by what the group is for.

Undoubtedly, there is truth in what Brooks says, though I believe the reality of our social, political, and economic situation is more complex than what the quoted statement might suggest. What attracted me to Brooks' column was not so much its message, but the metaphor he used, in talking about social cohesion and social breakdown.

Brooks employed the metaphor of "centrifugal force," versus "centripetal force," as a way of analyzing the state of our society. I do think it's useful to take account of these contrary forces in considering the world around us, and our own place within it. Are things bringing us together, or driving us apart? And what are we doing?

My contention, often expressed in this blog, is that, "we are in this together." That is true whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. The ultimate reality of our human existence is that we depend upon each other, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. so accurately told us:

We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.

As we evaluate and critique others and ourselves, as we participate in actions of various kinds, it would be wise to think of Brooks' contrary forces. Are we helping to create a centripetal force that can bind us in a common enterprise, or are we pulling the world apart?

Martin Luther King, Jr., who can never be charged with any inclination to accept the unacceptable, has wise advice. Advocacy and action do not need to be centrifugal in either intention or effect!

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

#14 / Before It's Too Late?

"Just How Stupid Is Trump?" That's the title of an opinion piece published on January 8, 2018, by Robert Reich. Reich served as Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, and is now employed by the University of California. He is, besides holding down his university position, a prominent political pundit. Reich doesn't think that President Trump is necessarily stupid, but he does think that our president poses "a clear and present danger to America and the world." 

Reich concludes his article by saying:

The 25th Amendment must be invoked before it’s too late.

The 25th Amendment is pretty complicated. Click the link if you would like a briefing on how it works. My own sense is that neither the 25th Amendment nor an impeachment of the president is going to rescue the nation (and the world). This is also the conclusion of The New York Times editorial board. On January 10th, quite possibly in direct response to what Reich said, The Times ran an editorial with the following title: "Is Mr. Trump Nuts?

Is he "nuts," or is he "stupid," and what should we do about it? The Times evaluates both impeachment and the use of the 25th Amendment, and comes to the following  conclusion, which I believe is right on target:

The best solution is the simplest: Vote, and organize others to register and to vote. If you believe Donald Trump represents a danger to the country and the world, you can take action to rein in his power. In November, you can help elect members of Congress who will fight Mr. Trump’s most dangerous behaviors. If that fails, there’s always 2020.

The fact that we have placed a highly unsuitable person in charge of the Executive Branch of our government does not mean that we our normal governmental processes are no longer functional. In fact, they are!

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

#13 / My Celebrity Can Beat Your Celebrity

If I were forced to choose between billionaire celebrities for president, I would definitely choose Oprah Winfrey over Donald Trump. However, it does strike me that we, as a self-governing nation, when we are casting around for presidential candidates, should be looking to those who have previously been involved in the self-government process, and who have actually represented voters, and who have demonstrated their ability to make our self-government process work.

I hope both Ms. Winfrey and the Democratic Party come to this same conclusion!

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Friday, January 12, 2018

#12 / What This Guy Doesn't Get

The picture above, of Elon Musk, comes from an article titled, "What Elon Musk Doesn't Get About Urban Transit." Jarrett Walker, who wrote the article, is a transit expert. 

Walker's article is relatively short, and is definitely worth reading, if you care about transportation policy. In summary, Walker says that Musk is wrong about transit because Musk evaluates transit from an "individual" instead of from a "social" perspective.

That difference between "ME" and "WE" makes all the difference in the world. Building good transit system is only one example of where "individualism" falls short!

Notes for further discussion:

  • Health Care
  • Land Use
  • Education
  • Etc.

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

#11 / We Just Move On (Or Not)

Pictured is Amadeo García García. He is the last surviving member of the Taushiro, a tribe that has been a "mystery to linguists and anthropologists alike ... a tribe that vanished into the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru generations ago, hoping to save itself from the invaders whose weapons and diseases had brought it to the brink of extinction." 

But the tribe did not succeed in saving itself, and Amadeo is the last person on Earth who knows the language; he is the last evidence of the reality of a people, of an entire world, in fact, that is fading from reality into nothingness. 

Amadeo's story is told by Nicholas Casey, in an article that appeared in the December 26, 2017, edition of The New York Times. It is a heartrending story. Speaking to Casey, Amadeo said:

At any moment I might disappear, my life will end, we don’t know how soon. The Taushiro don’t think about death. We just move on. 

But the Taushiro won't be able to "move on." In Amadeo, they have come to the end. Casey's account of his conversations with Amadeo is deeply dyed with an almost unbearable poignancy, with the distress of an irremediable loss, of a sorrow beyond any power accurately to name it.

As I read Casey's story, I could not help but universalize. This story made me think of the history we are making now, as we drive the human species ever closer to extinction.

Perhaps, if we can feel what it would be like to be Amadeo (because we are so much like Amadeo), we can save ourselves from the extinction event that even now, we know, is coming after us, as the invaders came for the Taushiro.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

#10 / Fed Up?

Joseph Ohayon is a film director, with a specific agenda in mind. Ohayon is hoping that his films will help engender a new worldview, as the first step towards transforming our current reality into one that more fully meets our deepest human aspirations. Ohayon maintains a Facebook page, promoting his film, Crossroads, which is an effort to get his message across.

The video here, "My Generation Is Fed Up With Capitalism," is another such effort. Click for the message. It's less than four minutes long.

In my way of thinking, "socialism," as some kind of political agenda, comes from a recognition that we are "in this together," and that any social, political, or economic system that doesn't recognize our mutual interdependence, as a fundamental reality of human existence, is doomed to be unsatisfying - and probably a lot worse than that.

If capitalism is based on "me," not "we" (and I think that's a pretty good way to put it), then I'm encouraged to hear that Millennials are "fed up" with capitalism.


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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

#9 / Everything

Sometimes, just a quote seems quite sufficient. Here's Martha Gellhorn, from the "Sunbeams" section of the January 2018, edition of The Sun magazine: 

Politics is the business of governing, and nobody can escape being governed, for better or worse. In the few fortunate societies where voting is free and honest, most people take the weird view that politics is a horse race - you bet on a winner or loser every so often, if you can bestir yourself; but politics is not a personal concern. Politics is everything - from clean drinking water through the preservation of forests, whales....to nuclear weapons and the disposal thereof. If we mean to keep any control over our world and lives, we must be interested in politics. 

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Monday, January 8, 2018

#8 / Kudzu Outrage

I am always in the market for a good metaphor. In his Washington Post column on December 27, 2017, Hugh Hewitt said Americans were "addicted to outrage." He specifically called out kudzu, a family of "climbing, coiling, and trailing perennial vines," as the biological equivalent to the phenomenon of political outrage:

Outrage is the kudzu of all media platforms. It will cover us all completely soon enough.

Kudzu does pretty much take over everything, once it gets started. I think Hewitt is right that we had best beware that our politics not succumb to the coiling outrage that seems so justified, so often, but that can choke out everything else. Including effective political action!

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

#7 / Hike Of The Week

My son, Philips, is advising a "hike of the week" program, as the New Year begins. In order to get a walking start on this proposed program (a "running start" is definitely beyond my capabilities), Philips suggested a simple stroll to the top of Mount Umunhum. This is an area newly-opened to the public, thanks to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Click on that Mount Umunhum link to get all the details.

To give you some of my own details, my hike with Philips and my grandson, Dylan Drottar, took place on December 27, 2017, the day after my birthday. Assuming that my iPhone is accurate, this simple stroll was 8.3 miles, up and back, required 20,182 steps, and had me climbing the equivalent of 59 floors.

I didn't faint or fail, although I did slip once, providing me with a badly-scraped forearm to document my endeavors. I was pretty sore on the subsequent day, too. For my next foray, I may try a different, less arduous hike, and I am already mentally reimagining the program as the "hike of  the weak."

Seriously, I think my son is on to something! There is lots of time to think about politics as you climb those 59 floors!

Image Credits:
Gary Patton Personal Photos

Saturday, January 6, 2018

#6 / American Spies

This coming Tuesday, January 9th, is going to be my first day of teaching during this Winter Quarter at UCSC. I will be teaching a lower division class in the Legal Studies Program, "Introduction to Legal Process," as well as a "Capstone" course for fourth-year students. That course is titled, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." 

Over the holiday break, I read a very good book that definitely relates to that last-named topic: American Spies, by Jennifer Stisa Granick. The cover is pictured to the left. 

Granick has just ended a term as the Director of Civil Liberties at Stanford Law School, and is a residential fellow in the Law School's Center for Internet and Society. Granick's background includes almost a decade practicing criminal defense law in California, as well as a stint at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of my very favorite nonprofit groups. EEF lists its mission as "defending civil liberties in a digital world."

Sometimes, I comment on books without having actually read them. This is a book I have read! If you are at all interested in the kind of spying and surveillance that our government is doing - and I do mean the kind of spying and surveillance that includes YOU - then this is one of those "must read" books. 

You can't take my course at UCSC unless you are a graduating, fourth-year student in the Legal Studies Program. If you read American Spies,  you will pretty much have the course wrapped up, anyway. I recommend it!

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Friday, January 5, 2018

#5 / UFO

Late last year, we learned from an article in The New York Times that the United States Government funded a program to investigate the possibility that Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) are real, and that they represent an alien, non-human invasion of Earth's airspace. Apparently, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a major supporter of this military effort to find out more abut UFOs.

New York Times columnists Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column called "The Interpreter," had this to say about these recent revelations:

The U.F.O.s in the article have been puzzled over by a handful of top military minds for years. They have kept these investigations and their details secret, for obvious reasons.

When I read that, I thought to myself: What "obvious" reason could there possibly be to keep such a program and its discoveries secret, particularly since this program cost what would seem to be quite a lot of money to most of us. 

As it turns out, Fisher and Taub were on the same frequency. All I had to do was to read further: 

Trey Menefee, a political scientist at Education University of Hong Kong, told a story, on Twitter, about what happened when Chile opened its own U.F.O. investigation to the public. 
The video of the U.F.O. encounter, taken by the Chilean Navy in 2014, “was the most convincing U.F.O. video I’d ever seen,” Mr. Menefee wrote. The Chilean military spent two years investigating the incident. They concluded that the footage was real, confirmed by first-person accounts, and that it showed a propelled, flying object that should not exist. 
Rather than keep their information secret, as the United States does with its encounters, the Chilean government released it publicly. 
And, pretty quickly, a bunch of nerds on the internet figured out that it was a commercial airliner. They even matched it up with public tracking data from the flight: Iberia Airlines 3860. 

The "bottom line" conclusion of Fisher and Taub, as they have pondered what is now known about the military's U.F.O. detection efforts, is that we ought to be concerned that such "unidentified" flying objects might touch off a nuclear war:

Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, Calif., made a disturbing connection. 
“Your life depends on these very same people being infallible when it comes to nuclear weapons, false alarms and launch under attack,” Mr. Lewis wrote on Twitter.  
In case of a major crisis with, say, North Korea, the American military will be watching for signs of a North Korean nuclear launch. The logic of these weapons means that they are on hair-trigger alert, and that North Korea might decide to use them if its leadership feels it is at mortal peril. The United States would have mere minutes to detect and respond before the missiles hit. 
Those detection systems aren’t exactly the same as the ones that led American officials to (possibly wrongly) identify normal encounters as U.F.O. ones. But they’re pretty similar. So are the processes of evaluating and acting on that information.  
Mistaking, say, a Spanish airliner for an extraterrestrial craft is pretty low stakes. But in a crisis with North Korea or Russia or China, similar mistakes would be riskier.  
And such mistakes have happened in the past. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, still keeps a statue of a goose in his home to remind himself of the time that Soviet radar mistook a flock of geese for an American missile attack, nearly prompting a rapid Soviet counterattack that would’ve killed millions.  
Fortunately, the Soviets quickly realized their radars had detected mere geese. But the Americans in the U.F.O. story have spent years unable to decipher these encounters. In a crisis, they would have minutes and, unless they reached a clear and correct conclusion in that window, might feel compelled to assume the worst.

 Good point, of course! My "takeaway," though, is somewhat different. 

Why not stop all these efforts at "secrecy?" Those so-called "obvious reasons" for secrecy are bogus. We will all do better, as they found out in Chile, when many people are able to know about, and to think about, the facts - or apparent facts - that government leaders marshal as they take action in our names.

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

#4 / Here Comes The Sun (Subscribe Now)!

I have recently become a subscriber to The Sun magazine. I am not sure how I missed it before, but better late than never. Since I have started subscribing, I have been consistently amazed at the power and the value of the writing it delivers. A lot of the writing comes directly from the readers, and every edition of the magazine I have received, since I received the first promotional issue that got me hooked, has had at least one piece of writing, or a letter, from someone who lives in Santa Cruz County. The Sun is definitely my kind of a magazine!

The January 2018, edition of The Sun has reprinted a 2006 conversation with Tom Hayden, titled "A More Perfect Union." Hayden is pictured above. I am encouraging you to subscribe to The Sun, to get your own hard copy edition of the Hayden interview, and to benefit from whatever writing comes later, in the editions to follow (click right here). 

Here are some excerpts from the Hayden interview to whet your appetite. I am sorry Tom is no longer with us, but his writing is:

  • Elements of the CIA now seem to be secret unto themselves, and the Pentagon has developed its own intelligence network and spying capacity. I think of these powerful elites as being on the run; others think that they’re wielding more power over us than ever. Whatever the case, I think we have to fight all the time to keep participatory democracy the norm.
  • We’re in a phase in which corporations are trying to burst the fetters of the welfare state and the New Deal and the sixties reforms, and it makes me more inclined to believe that they have an inherent unwillingness to coexist with democracy and will always try to do away with it. 
  • I don’t think there’s any assurance as to how things will turn out, but I’ve always believed that the action we take, successful or not, reminds people that progress is possible. If we don’t take action, we give the appearance that it’s impossible to change things. Any action, while not guaranteeing change, creates possibilities that weren’t there before.
  • Just as hostility toward people of color and the fear of crime are turning our suburbs into gated fortresses, the so-called war on terror is turning the country as a whole into a fortress against much of the rest of the world. This is not a defense against terrorism; it’s part of the framework in which terrorism arises. But that framework is not discussed. Terrorism is said to be a result of “evil,” rather than a symptom of profound dislocation.
  • Just as they succeeded in avoiding the charge of being racists, the Republicans have succeeded in avoiding the charge that they are greedy capitalists by speaking of “small business” and “market solutions.” They don’t generally get out there and speak unapologetically in favor of more capitalism. 
  • The word that they’ve deceived the public with the most is growth, which always sounds appealing. Progressives have to establish a quality-of-life index that challenges the gross national product as a measure of how we’re doing as a society. It’s not a question of growth versus no growth; it’s which type of growth do you prefer: growth in prenatal care, or growth in the number of AK-47s on the street? This is an ideological battle that the Left has to win.
  • If the Quakers had had their way in colonial times, we could have had peaceful coexistence with the Native Americans. There were attempts to create an Indian state. Can you imagine the thirteen colonies adding a fourteenth, Indian state? There were other attempts throughout history, but the voices for coexistence were just drowned out.
  • You can’t bring about justice without personal transformation. The effort to abolish sweatshop labor, for example, has to arise from a personal disgust with sweatshops ... Change begins in the individual lives of countless people when they no longer accept existing conditions as inevitable.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

#3 / Resolute

HMS Resolute*

Thinking about my New Year's "resolutions," 
I came to realize,
That the "resolute" part 
Is what we really must prize.** 


*HMS Resolute was a mid-19th-century barque-rigged ship of the British Royal Navy, specially outfitted for Arctic exploration. Resolute became trapped in the ice and was abandoned in 1854. Recovered by an American whaler, she was returned to Queen Victoria in 1856. Timbers from the ship were later used to construct a desk which was presented to the President of the United States and is currently located in the White House Oval Office.

**The Resolute was returned to its proper place. With resolute commitment, we will get that Oval Office back, in the right place, too!

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

#2 / Tomb Or Womb?

While we are still thinking about New Year's resolutions, and are still feeling that religious afterglow of the holidays, here is a video that might help to "change our way of thinking," to allude to one of my favorites from Mr. Dylan

We know it's dark times,
But just what kind?

That's the question this speech (or sermon) seeks to answer. 

If you aren't familiar with Valarie Kaur, and this video in particular, I think you are in for a treat. Just click that arrow, and spend six minutes now, before you face the rest of the year. 

Those six minutes just might change the way you handle the year ahead!

Waheguru ji ka khalsa waheguru ji ki fateh

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Monday, January 1, 2018

#1 / Now Here's A New Year's Resolution

On Saturday, December 23, 2017, the San Jose Mercury News carried an inspiring story about Doctor Matthew Wetschler, a surfer, a doctor, and now a patient at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. 

"Eight days before Thanksgiving, Wetschler was body surfing at San Francisco's Ocean Beach when a crashing wave drilled him head first into the ocean floor...." The result was a broken neck. Dr. Wetschler, who works in the Santa Clara County emergency room, did a self-diagnosis, while he was still under water, and he figured it was pretty clear that he was going to die. Luckily, a couple of persons with medical training were at the beach, and gave him immediate help. He didn't die, but the prognosis was for total and complete paralysis.

In fact, Dr. Wetschler is making "incredible progress," as the picture shows, and he is doing that one step at a time. The story is worth reading as an instruction about what human determination can do to overcome even horrendous physical injuries.

We might also consider the story as a metaphor for our current political situation. We have, I think it is fair to say, just experienced the political equivalent of a "crashing wave" that has driven our nation, head first, into what amounts to a very hard surface. Politically speaking, we are almost paralyzed, and might think we're dying. 

As this New Year begins, let's decide we're going to take it one step at a time, and that we will insist on regaining control of our "body politic." 

I mean, if you're looking for a New Year's resolution, that seems like a good one!

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

#365 / Crossing Over: Moving On

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada mas;
Caminante, no hay camino,
Se hace camino al andar.
Al andar, se hace camino,
Y al volver la vista atrás
Se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
Sino estelas en la mar.

Listen to the music. We are walking on the waves!


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For a translation, click here
For a biography of Antonio Machado from Wikipedia, click here

Saturday, December 30, 2017

#364 / The Digital Republic

An article by Nathan Heller, in the December 18 & 25, 2017, edition of The New Yorker, identifies Estonia as a "digital republic." 

In other words, the article is not talking about some "abstraction," but is claiming that an actual country, a nation, is now qualitatively different from the kind of political republics that exist in what most of us still consider to be the "real" world, a world that is definitely more "analog" than "digital."

Heller's article is worth reading, perhaps particularly if you teach a course in "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom," as I do. Here's a sample of what Heller has to say:

I booked a meeting with Marten Kaevats, Estonia’s national digital adviser. We arranged to meet at a café near the water, but it was closed for a private event. Kaevats looked unperturbed. “Let’s go somewhere beautiful!” he said. He led me to an enormous terraced concrete platform blotched with graffiti and weeds.

Seagulls riding the surf breeze screeched. I asked Kaevats what he saw when he looked at the U.S. Two things, he said. First, a technical mess. Data architecture was too centralized. Citizens didn’t control their own data; it was sold, instead, by brokers. Basic security was lax. “For example, I can tell you my I.D. number—I don’t fucking care,” he said. “You have a Social Security number, which is, like, a big secret.” He laughed. “This does not work!” The U.S. had backward notions of protection, he said, and the result was a bigger problem: a systemic loss of community and trust. “Snowden things and whatnot have done a lot of damage. But they have also proved that these fears are justified.

“To regain this trust takes quite a lot of time,” he went on. “There also needs to be a vision from the political side. It needs to be there always—a policy, not politics. But the politicians need to live it, because, in today’s world, everything will be public at some point.”

What Kaevats says about the United States is accurate. I know that because of the readings I have done for my course. Citizens in the United States most emphatically do not control their own data, and this makes the possibility of totalitarian political control a continuing and looming threat. This is what the documents revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013 conclusively demonstrated. And the reaction of government officials in the United States has been anything but positive, if you think the politicians should be trying to "regain trust."

Even more important to me than Kaevats' criticisms, as outlined above, was the way he described why he got involved in an effort to establish a "digital republic."

Kaevats admitted that he didn’t start out as a techie for the state. He used to be a protester, advocating cycling rights. It had been dispiriting work. “I felt as if I was constantly beating my head against a big concrete wall,” he said. After eight years, he began to resent the person he’d become: angry, distrustful, and negative, with few victories to show.

“My friends and I made a conscious decision then to say ‘Yes’ and not ‘No’—to be proactive rather than destructive,” he explained. He started community organizing (“analog, not digital”) and went to school for architecture, with an eye to structural change through urban planning. “I did that for ten years,” Kaevats said. Then he found architecture, too, frustrating and slow. The more he learned of Estonia’s digital endeavors, the more excited he became. And so he did what seemed the only thing to do: he joined his old foe, the government of Estonia.

To transform our world, we must be "for" something, and must say, "Yes," not "No," if we are to create a future that will respond to our deepest aspirations. New digital technologies are the latest way that human beings are projecting human agency into the world, to control it and make it theirs. Republics are, at least as Americans understand them, "democratic" in both their origins and intentions. This is, of course, the story of our American Revolution. 

A new revolution is needed, now, and it cannot be a revolution premised on violence and destruction, if democracy and the nation are to survive. Maybe, just maybe, the "digital republic" of Estonia has some lessons we should learn.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

#363 / Nosedive

I have a recommendation for those who have not yet tuned into the Black Mirror series on Netflix. You should! For those not familiar with Black Mirror, here is what Wikipedia has to say about it:  

Black Mirror is a British science fiction anthology television series created by Charlie Brooker, with Brooker and Annabel Jones serving as the programme's showrunners. [Black Mirror] centres on dark and satirical themes that examine modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies.

The image above is from Episode #1 in Season #3, "Nosedive." This episode was a pretty compelling picture of how our society would look if we took seriously all those social media "likes." In the world portrayed in "Nosedive," a person's ability to participate meaningfully in society depends on the "score" that he or she has received from those persons with whom he or she has interacted. Those "likes," or "dis-likes," add up. Every interaction gets a score from 1-5, and if your overall score is too low, you won't even be able to rent a car, must less move into the gated community of your dreams. 

As it turns out, the "Nosedive" world may already exist ... in China. Here's a report from The Wall Street Journal:

Apple CEO Tim Cook looks forward to a “common future in cyberspace” with China, he told the Chinese government’s World Internet Conference earlier this month. This was an embarrassing gesture toward a state that aggressively censors the internet and envisions a dystopian future online.
The experience of lawyer Li Xiaolin may give a taste of what that future looks like. During a 2016 work trip inside China, he tried to use his national identity card to purchase a plane ticket. To his surprise, the online system rejected it, saying he had been blacklisted by China’s top court. Mr. Li checked the court’s website: His name was on a list of “untrustworthy” people for having failed to carry out a court order in 2015. He thought he had resolved the issue, but now he was stranded more than 1,200 miles from home.

Mr. Li’s dilemma was due to the Chinese government’s ambitious “social credit system.” Launched by the government in 2012, it vows to “make trustworthy people benefit everywhere and untrustworthy people restricted everywhere” by the time it is fully implemented in 2020.

The main character in "Nosedive" had problems getting on a plane, too.

What Black Mirror tells us is that our modern technologies may, indeed, have dark consequences. One good reason to watch Black Mirror is to help inoculate oneself against the glittering promises that our new technologies advertise. That iPhone X, with its powerful facial recognition capabilities, may not be such a wonderful invention, after all!

I have a hunch we may get a look at why facial recognition isn't such a good idea in some future Black Mirror episode!

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

#362 / Wrestling With A Pig

David Litt, a former speechwriter for President Obama, and the co-executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, has written an engaging column on how Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama. Click this link for his post-election analysis, which features a deconstruction of the language Jones used in commenting on one of Moore's most colorful campaign gambits.

In the column, Litt quotes a somewhat famous political expression:

You shouldn’t mud-wrestle with a pig, because you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

That makes me think about how our current president keeps inviting us all to jump into the pigpen with him - and about how most of us are willing to accept the invitation. National journalists try to match the president, Tweet for Tweet. The rest of us repair to our Facebook pages, where we can pillory our president's latest stupidity with what often amounts to a savage seriousness. Just remember that political wisdom that I have cited above: "The pig likes it!"

Litt has another idea. It's worth thinking about, too, as we get ready to put the holidays behind us, and to climb into the ring for the 2018 elections:

No, most 2018 races won’t feature an (alleged) child molester. But in the age of Trump and Bannon, plenty of them will feature ersatz tough-guys eager to turn politics into a pissing contest. By making his opponent look ridiculous, Doug Jones reminded us that Democrats don’t have to play that game to win elections. With carefully-chosen words, and a healthy appreciation for the power of mockery, they can corral the pigs without getting mud on their hands.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

#361 / American Carnage

A recent edition of City Journal (a rather conservative magazine) carried an article on homelessness in Portland. According to the article, homeless persons in Portland are having an extremely negative impact on downtown businesses. The magazine called what is happening in Portland a kind of "disgraceful anarchy." 

The situation described in Portland did not seem that different from the situation in my own home town of Santa Cruz, California. It did not seem that different from what I believe is the current situation in many places throughout this country. 

Seeing our current homeless crisis described as a "disgraceful anarchy" reminded me of the inauguration speech that President Trump gave on January 21st. As you will probably remember, President Trump painted a dark picture of an America characterized by shuttered factories, crime-infested communities, and failing infrastructure. He promised the nation:

The American carnage stops right here, right now.

"Carnage" is defined as "the flesh of slain animals or humans." A second definition is "great and usually bloody slaughter or injury (as in battle)." "Anarchy" means "a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority." Given the actual meaning of these terms, it would seem fair to say that both the president, and City Journal, are way too extreme in their descriptions. 

While that is undoubtedly a fair assessment, let me suggest another thought.

The extreme terms, "disgraceful anarchy," and "carnage," were used by City Journal, and by the president, to make clear that their position is that the current situation is unacceptable. Let's not quibble with the words. I, personally, might be more inclined to say that the situation "sucks," as does the woman in the picture at the top of the column, a picture pulled from the City Journal article. Whether you say it "sucks," or is nothing but a "disgraceful anarchy," or that the situation amounts to "carnage," it is absolutely true that our current economic and social situation is unacceptable and intolerable. Extreme words get this message across. 

Perhaps the fact that candidate Trump called out our current American reality as unacceptable, and used extreme terms in doing so, is one of the main reasons he is president today. Those who don't like his approach to dealing with the problems (shutting down our system of environmental protection, and giving tax cuts to the rich), had better start showing some similar outrage. 

And I don't mean outrage about President Trump. There are plenty of reasons to be outraged about our current president, and about what he and the Congress are doing. But what about the American carnage that has turned our cities into a kind of disgraceful anarchy?

Trump, City Journal, and the woman in the picture are right on target. Those who want a government that is more humane, and more protective of the natural environment, and that works for the benefit of ordinary men and women, people who are increasingly being driven into homelessness, will have to campaign on the outrage of the real situation that ordinary Americans face.

Being outraged about President Trump, and about what he is doing, may be well justified, but that is an outrage that is largely misdirected. 

If we want to replace the politicians who are selling this nation down the river (the president is right up there at the top of the list), we'd better start getting outraged about the conditions that are impacting ordinary Americans, and ordinary American communities. 

Current conditions are absolutely unacceptable, and if the president and his supporters are the only ones saying that, with the president's opponents focusing on the president's obvious and enormous personal failings, the voters are likely to go with the guy they think understands just how outrageous conditions have become. 

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

#360 / Reflections On My Birthday

The image above does, pretty much, capture the nature of the reflections I have on my ever more frequent birthdays. They seem to be coming around more often, at least!

I am not ashamed to admit that I tend to see myself as quite capable and energetic. Possibility is my category of choice, as it always has been (or as it has been ever since my father finally got me to see the light). Utopia is my educational background, and that's the honest truth. I got "Honors in Utopia" at Stanford University!

I don't think I am unrealistic about which way that "arc of history" bends, at the individual level. Still, I'm sticking with The Traveling Wilburys, all the way, and I am definitely "going to the end of the line."

You can listen to the whole song using the link I've made available, and I recommend you do that! It's a great song. A pertinent verse is provided, right below, and you can click right here for the full lyrics.

Well it's all right, even if you're old and grey
Well it's all right, you still got something to say
Well it's all right, remember to live and let live
Well it's all right, the best you can do is forgive

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Monday, December 25, 2017

#359 / A Wall Street Journal Merry Christmas

It is always difficult (at least for me) to decide upon an appropriate Christmas Day posting for this blog. The blog is, by its nature, both personal and political. Do I try to remind myself (and anyone reading the blog) of the Christian message that is, at least supposedly, the reason for the celebration? Or, should I do what our current President complains about, and take the "Christ" out of Christmas, and comment, in one way or another, on the more crassly commercial aspects of the holiday?

In the past, I have taken different approaches. In 2015, I focused on the commercial aspects of Christmas, and discussed "Christmas And The Three R's." I crafted my Christmas message as a pitch for recycling, with an emphasis on the very first of the "R's," that commandment to "Reduce."

In 2013, my posting was much more "religious." A picture of Jesus was at the top of the column, which I titled, "Something Is Happening Here." I managed to quote my friend Bob Dylan to that effect.

This Christmas - and Merry Christmas to all who may be perusing this posting! - I can accommodate both approaches by simply referring interested persons to the December 23-24 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

The Opinion Page of that edition of The Journal has an editorial by Vermont C. Royster, who was the editorial page editor from 1958 to 1971. Royster's editorial, In Hoc Anno Domini, was apparently first published by The Journal in 1949, which has published it every year since. Because The Journal has a paywall, clicking the link above may not get you the whole text. If that turns out to be true, you can get the idea by clicking right here. Royster's editorial gets right at the heart of the holiday: Something is happening here, and it's very, very good!

But the pre-Christmas edition of The Wall Street Journal has a very non-religious holiday treat for readers, too. Accompanied by the lively illustrations of John Cuneo (one example above), The Journal has published an extremely engaging piece of short fiction, called "Santa #9."

I recommend this "Christmas Short Story" to you, and if you can't get through The Wall Street Journal's paywall, then try clicking this link. There is nothing particularly "religious" about this story, which ends up being a not-too-subtle critique of the octopus of capitalism, and what it has been doing to America.

Merry Christmas is my message! I think I said that before. It's worth repeating, and let me be clear. This greeting is emphatically NOT brought to you by any politician, living or dead.

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

#358 / Paying A Visit To The World Of The Rich

I teach a Legal Studies course called, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." One of the most important topics addressed in the course is the way "Big Data" is being used to impact politics. Anyone wanting a quick introduction to this topic is invited to click on the following link, to read an excellent article by Zeynep Tufekci

The December 18 & 25, 2017, edition of The New Yorker ran a profile entitled, "The Numbers King." Jim Simons is a mathematician and hedge fund manager, and he is the subject of the profile. Simons is fabulously wealthy, with his income, last year, being $1.6 billion dollars. That figure is not assets; that is Simon's annual income. Most of the assets, apparently, are sequestered far from the reach of the United States Internal Revenue Service. 

Before I read the article, based on a quick scan of the first page, I thought it might be a kind of follow-up to the Tufekci piece, since a heading summarized the article with this description: "Algorithms made Jim Simons a Wall Street billionaire. His new research center helps scientists mine data for the common good." Algorithms are what makes it possible to release the power of "Big Data," which is why I was particularly interested in how the "computational science" being supported by Simons might relate to the "computational politics" that Tufekci analyzes.

As it turns out, the article is largely focused on issues relating to philanthropy, and not so much on the various algorithms that Simon's nonprofit research center, The Flatiron Institute, is helping to develop and deploy. Ray Madoff, who runs the Boston College Law School Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good, put her concern about what Simons is doing this way: "The rich are running things, and we're just visiting their world." 

Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and an expert on philanthropy, is quoted as follows, along the same lines: 

Private foundations are a plutocratic exercise of power that’s unaccountable, nontransparent, donor-directed, and generously tax-subsidized. This seems like a very peculiar institutional and organizational form to champion in a democratic society.

The algorithms being developed at The Flatiron Institute are currently being utilized to understand human biology, and the structure of the physical universe. There are three active divisions of the Institute: computational biology, computational astronomy, and computational quantum physics. More divisions (at least one, anyway) will soon be added.

I was disappointed, in one way, that "computational politics" were not mentioned in the article, but I was certainly not disappointed by what D.T. Max, who authored the Simons' profile, had to say about philanthropy. Finding ways to develop and use computer algorithms to "expand knowledge," and to "help humanity," which are the goals that Simons says he is pursuing, is certainly a worthwhile enterprise. But who is in charge of these efforts is pretty important.

Only slightly mentioned was Simons' friend and hedge fund partner, Robert Mercer, who recently stepped down from his management position at the Simons' firm, Renaissance Technologies. Mercer is a person, you might recall, who is providing major funding for alt-right media and the political efforts of Steve Bannon and our current president, Donald J. Trump. 

If we don't want, in the future, to have to beg for a "visitor's pass," to visit the world of the rich, we will need to put democracy back in charge of the algorithms that, more and more, create the realities we inhabit.

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

#357 / When That Bubble Bursts

Desmond Lachman, who seems to have significant credentials as a member of the economic and financial elite, asks this question in a New York Times' column published on December 14, 2017: "Are We In Another Bubble?

If you click that link, you'll see a different headline on the column, but the "Are We In Another Bubble?" question was definitely being posed by the headline in the hard copy version I read. Lachman's column suggests that we ARE in another "bubble," and a bigger bubble than ever before. The way he sees it, another crash is on the way:

Are we about to make the same mistake? All too likely, yes. Certainly, the American economy is doing well, and emerging economies are picking up steam. But global asset prices are once again rising rapidly above their underlying value — in other words, they are in a bubble. 

We all, undoubtedly, remember the last time around, which wasn't that long ago. In 2007-2008, residential real estate was the main category characterized by "asset prices ... rising rapidly above their underlying value." Our current situation is even worse, and other asset categories are now implicated (read the column to find out why Lachman thinks so), but it can't be disputed that the prices now being paid for residential real estate are, as in 2007-2008, vastly greater than the "underlying value" of the homes being bought and sold.

Given that a crash is on the way, I have a proposal for something our government can do when the residential real estate bubble finally, and inevitably, does burst. In a way, my first thought is that our national policy should simply be to let the speculators lose. Let the banks and those other financial institutions that have promoted the speculation go bankrupt.

It's a nice thought, but I think that is an unlikely scenario. While he and I might not like it very much, Ry Cooder is pretty much "on the money" when he opines that no banker will ever be left behind. If you don't know the song, you can listen right here, by clicking to view the video below. At the end of the video, you'll see pictures of the kind of residential real estate left behind, after the last bubble.

Here's my idea: The title to all of those houses went to the banks, after the crash, because the homes were the "security" for the inflated loans that the banks made, pumping the bubble ever bigger. After the crash, the United States government bailed out the banks (and the bankers, personally), but those assets stayed with the banks. Next time, when we bail out the bankers once again, the government should take title to all those foreclosed homes, and sell them back to their former owners for a price that the owners can actually afford, and sell them back with a "resale restriction" that will keep the price down to what an average or below average income person can afford.

If that were done, the government would end up creating perhaps millions of permanently affordable homes, which would not longer be speculative assets, but which would simply be homes available on the market at affordable prices. 

This is not, really, a radical idea, and it sure would help us out with our affordable housing crisis, a  crisis caused, in many ways, by the speculative bubble that we know is going to burst....


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