Sunday, November 17, 2019

#321 / When You’re Facing A Land Use Battle

I was asked, recently, about what local groups and individuals facing an upcoming land use battle should know, as they think about getting help from an attorney. Here are some thoughts. 

If an individual or group learns about a potential land use “battle,” that usually means that there is likely going to be a major disagreement about some proposed action by a governmental entity that will probably have adverse impacts on a local neighborhood, or on a river or creek, or on a piece of natural land, or that might involve the use of toxics, or that might otherwise pose a potential public health danger. In general, such land use “battles” usually involve a proposed project that would adversely impact the natural environment. 

Even “private” proposals - like the construction of a new home - almost always require governmental approvals of various kinds, so while it makes sense to approach and have discussions with the private parties involved in a proposed project, it is most important to understand what governmental approvals will be necessary, and to focus on affecting those. A local City Council, or a Board of Supervisors, or the Coastal Commission, or a host of other governmental agencies, including state and sometimes even federal agencies, are almost always going to play a central role. The “battle” will be fought out on the terrain established by the governmental rules and regulations that apply to the proposed project. When you first conclude that you are going to be facing such a “battle,” it is most important to “get organized” as soon as possible. “Groups,” not individuals, do better in such battles. So, step one is to form a group, and to learn in great detail what the rules will be. Know in detail just how the process will move forward.

Decisions made by governmental bodies are, by definition, “political.” Thus, garnering widespread support from those who will be affected by the proposed project, or who share a common appreciation of the environmental dangers or community impacts involved in the proposed project, is absolutely key. One person who raises legitimate concerns is good. A well-organized group of ten, or twenty-five, or fifty persons or more will have a much greater “political” impact, and elected officials will pay much more attention to the concerns advanced by such a group than it will pay to the very same concerns when expressed by a single individual.  

“Legal” issues, while they will play a role in the decision-making process, are almost always less important, in the end, than the political decisions made by elected officials. This is not only pragmatic “political advice,” it is also pragmatic “legal” advice. Those opposing proposed projects should NEVER assume that the courts will correct bad decisions made by elected officials. In our system of government, we expect disputed and “tough” decisions to be made by our elected representatives. Thus, the courts will almost always “defer” to elected officials, and the courts will uphold a governmental decision if there is “any” substantial evidence in favor of the decision. Again, the courts “defer” to the decisions made by elected officials, and a mistake often made by those opposing a destructive project is to suppose that the courts will “correct” a decision made by an elected body, or by some non-elected governmental agency that approved the project. Is that true? Not usually!

I encourage all those facing land use "battles" to review my earlier blog posting on "Deference." That blog posting makes clear just why the courts will, in most cases, be willing to uphold governmental decisions (even when the courts think that the governmental decisions were "wrong").

Let me speak, specifically, about the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. This is California’s most important environmental protection law, and many people think that CEQA will make it impossible for governmental entities to approve “bad” projects. That is not, in fact, generally the case. CEQA requires that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) be prepared for any project that “might” have a significant adverse impact on the natural environment. Governmental agencies and project proponents will often try to avoid the preparation of an EIR, and unless a project opponent is well organized and well-prepared it is often possible to avoid the EIR requirement. Let’s assume, though, that the group facing an environmental battle has prepared well and is able to make sure that an EIR is prepared. CEQA requires a three-step process. 

First, the governmental agency that is going to carry out or approve the project prepares a “Draft EIR. Then, that Draft is circulated for public comment (and opponents need to submit very strong and legally significant comments). Then, the governmental agency must respond substantively and in detail to each comment received on the Draft. The Draft, plus the comments received, plus the responses to those comments is the “Final” EIR. Before acting on the proposed project, the decision-making body must “consider” the Final EIR. The agency, however, in most cases, does NOT have to do what the Final EIR might recommend. 

The EIR is an “informational” document. So, the whole idea of CEQA is that the governmental officials making decisions should be “informed” about the possible impacts of a proposed project before approving it. The process is sometimes called a "Stop and Think" process. If the governmental agency does "stop and think," by properly undertaking a CEQA review, and if those officials who will make the decision are properly “informed,” according to the procedures specified in CEQA, then the officials can generally approve a project despite the fact that it will have lots of negative environmental impacts. Again, the courts will generally not tell a City Council, for instance, that they must do everything that the EIR recommends. The courts will defer to the governmental officials. The courts will reverse a governmental decision, generally, ONLY when the procedures specified by CEQA have not been properly followed. If they haven't been, then, the governmental agency simply has to go back and correct those procedural errors specified by the courts. So, delay but not denial. That is the best that CEQA usually has to offer.

Short summary: These land use battles are “political” battles; the laws are important - and CEQA is very important - but the ultimate decisions are “political.” You might want to think about that, by the way, when you go to the voting booth.

As you can see from what I have written so far, the sooner you organize, the better. The sooner you contact and then hire a lawyer is also better. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the week before the public hearing! Lawyers who know their way around land use law will have lots of good ideas about organizing, and about how to develop evidence that can support a decision against a destructive project. Of course, getting in touch with such an attorney may not be all that easy. Ask around in the community. Go online and search for “environmental attorneys,” but be aware that lots of so-called “environmental attorneys,” who are familiar with environmental rules and regulations, may mainly or exclusively work for project proponents and developers, helping them to comply with environmental regulations. Sometimes, there are local groups that know attorneys who are experienced in the political/legal issues involved in land use decision-making. Ask them!

How much will an attorney charge? You will have to work it out with the attorney you would like to have representing you, but it could be a lot. Attorneys, these days, often charge fees of $300/hour or more. But there are some attorneys who will charge less, or who will take cases on “contingency.” Usually, that happens when the attorney believes that he or she will be able to win a lawsuit, if the applicable governmental agencies approve the proposed project. Typically, in that situation, the attorney will ask for a contribution up front, capping the legal fees of the project opponents at that amount. In that situation, the attorney will almost always require his or her client to make a commitment to pay for any court costs, etc., which tend to be rather minor. In a “contingency case” situation, along with this promise by the attorney to represent the opponents for a “capped” amount, the attorney will almost always want a commitment by the project opponents that if the attorney ultimately goes to court, and wins, the group or individual hiring the attorney will allow the attorney to collect and keep all the attorneys fees that the court may award the attorney, who will ask for those fees because the attorney was acting as a “private attorney general.” In California, the law is clear that when someone goes to court to enforce the laws that protect the public from environmental harm, they are entitled to reasonable attorneys fees if they win. Usually, there will be a proviso in the contract between the group and the attorney that provides that if the attorney receives such a private attorney general award of attorneys fees, the attorney will pay back the initial amount and the court costs contributed by his or her clients. Again, you need to ask around, and negotiate.

The most important thing to decide, when you think you may be facing a land use “battle,” is whether or not you really want to get into the “fight.” You need to be "serious." A lot of time and money may well have to be spent. It is NOT easy to stop proposed projects, but such projects absolutely can be stopped, and environmental and neighborhood battles can be won. But let me say it again, you do need to be “serious.” Many assume that because a proposed project is pretty clearly a “bad” idea no governmental agency, in the end, will approve it. Such people think they shouldn’t really have to spend their own money, or spend a lot of time in opposing what is clearly a bad idea.

Big mistake!

Get organized. Get an attorney. Win. And keep this in mind: You can’t win a “battle” unless you fight!

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Saturday, November 16, 2019

#320 / Another "Norms" Violation By The President

Daniel Henninger, who writes opinion columns for The Wall Street Journal, watched the first day of the public hearings exploring the possible impeachment of President Trump. Henninger then penned a column, which opined as follows: 

Nancy Pelosi was right the first time. The Democrats shouldn’t have done this. They should not have tried to make the already overwhelmed American public believe that Donald Trump’s umpteenth “norms” violation was a constitutional crisis.

The New Times' columnist, Nicholas Kristof, has a rather different take on how seriously to take the "norms violations" that Henninger excuses as a distraction and as of minor importance:

Suppose that a low-ranking government official, the head of a branch Social Security office, intervened to halt a widow’s long-approved Social Security payments. The widow, alarmed that without that income she might lose her home, would call the branch director to ask for help. 
“I’d like you to do me a favor, though,” the director might respond. He would suggest that her Social Security payments could resume, but he’d like the widow to give him her late husband’s collection of rare coins. 
Everybody would see that as an outrageous abuse of power. Whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, we would all recognize that it’s inappropriate for a federal official to use his or her power over government resources to extract personal benefits. The Social Security official could say that the payments eventually resumed, or assert that the widow’s son had engaged in skulduggery — but he’d be out of a job in an instant and would face a criminal investigation.

Kristof cites further, similar examples of how an abuse of governmental power to achieve a personal benefit would not be condoned by any reasonable person. As between Henninger and Kristof, I think Kristof's column makes the better case.

However, it is true, which is Henninger's point, that Democrats tend to think that Trump "stole" the election (many think with Russian connivance), and believe that the fact that Trump is a narcissist and a liar is reason enough for Trump to be removed from office forthwith. 

Trump defenders assert that if their candidate "stole" the election, he stole it fair and square. Hillary Clinton, apparently, was also trying to get the Russians involved, and Clinton's personality is also flawed. Trump's claim that efforts to impeach him are a "witch hunt" rings true to many. Better to beat this guy at the ballot box. After all, the voters had every reason to know that Trump was a narcissist and a liar before they voted in 2016, and since the people picked him, knowing these things about him as a candidate, it would be wrong, now, absent some genuine malfeasance in office (as opposed to Trump just being "Trump") to use impeachment to change the results of that election in 2016. Seen from this perspective, impeachment is simply an illegitimate effort to accomplish an electoral "coup." These are the claims made by Trump and his supporters. These are the claims made by Henninger.

Again, there is a good deal of truth in this viewpoint, but I do think that Kristof makes the better case. And why? Read Kristof's entire column. Consider the examples that Kristof provides. Trump's offensive personality (his narcissism and the fact that he is a congenital liar) aren't enough. We picked him, knowing all this, but actions that undermine the interests of the nation, in order to achieve a personal, political benefit for the president, seem to be something quite different. We wouldn't accept this kind of conduct in anyone else; why, then, should we accept it in Donald Trump, and particularly not when it puts the national interest in jeopardy. It's actions, not "norms," that are in question. That is really the answer to Henninger.

Most observers seem to think that an impeachment by the House of Representatives will lead, in the end, to an acquital in the Senate. Still, supporters of the current inquiry contend, it is important not to let abuses of power go unchallenged. I think that is the better case. 

Consider, also, George Washington, our first president, pictured above. "Lying" is a "norms" violation. I guess you could call it that. And we have, historically, thought that it is not "normal" for a president repeatedly to lie. From the beginning, George Washington's reputation for truth telling ("Father, I cannot tell a lie"), has set the standard to which are presidents are expected to adhere. The Cherry Tree story might be a myth, but it is a myth with a message. Elected officials are not supposed to lie. If violating such a "norm" is not, in and of itself, an impeachable offense, such "norms" are important in anorther way. Making sure that we vote for candidates who we reliably believe will "never tell a lie," the "norm" established by our first president, is an important way to make our ballot box decision. 

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Friday, November 15, 2019

#319 / DACA And The Elected Monarch Syndrome

The New York Times carried an article on Wednesday, November 13, 2019, reporting on the arguments about the DACA program presented before the Supreme Court on Tuesday. 

DACA stands for "Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals." It is a program that was initiated by President Obama. Reuben Navarrette, Washington Post columnist, may be right that DACA is a bad deal for those who are enrolled, and that it "isn't worth saving," but in the absence of the kind of "comprehensive immigration reform" that Navarrette properly calls for, DACA does provide participants with some assurance about their immigration status.

DACA participants are persons whose parents brought them to the United States when they were extremely young. They are sometimes called "Dreamers," alluding to their hope to be able to continue to live in the United States, and to pursue the "American Dream." They are all undocumented. The DACA program insures qualified participants that they can continue to live here, without fear that they might be subjected to summary deportation. Most people agree that it would be unconscionable to deport these young people who, while they did nothing themselves that was "illegal," find themselves without legal status in this country.

Our current president is proposing to terminate the DACA program. He does also promise that he will "take care" of those currently enrolled. Just what the president means by "taking care" of DACA participants is, of course, unknown. In Mob-speak, "taking care" of a problem often means killing off one or more inconvenient persons. Many people, including many Dreamers themselves, don't trust the president. While the president has, without doubt, made some very nice statements about how the country is benefitting from the presence of DACA participants (statements that are demonstrably true), the president has also made some demonstrably untrue statements about DACA, and specifically that "many" participants are "very tough, hardened criminals."  

The president has ordered the termination of the DACA program. After the president gave that order, legal challenges ensued, and lower courts have said that the president's order terminating DACA is invalid. The challenge has now reached the Supreme Court. 

The president's argument that he can legally terminate DACA is based on the fact that the program was created by Executive action (by President Obama), and that what one president can do by Executive action another president can undo by Executive action. Frankly, there does seem to be a good deal of logic supporting that argument, as made on behalf of President Trump and his order to terminate DACA.

There are, though, arguments on the other side (which is why lower courts have found President Trump's order terminating DACA to be invalid). The argument against the president's order terminating DACA is that the order was "arbitrary and capricious." While the president has authority to decide what happens with programs based on executive decisions, any presidential decision does need to comport with basic standards of fairness - including the idea that there needs to be some well-supported justification for terminating an ongoing program that so profoundly affects the lives of about 800,000 DACA participants. 

Since I haven't read the briefs, and since I didn't listen to the attorneys who argued the case before the Supreme Court, I have no informed opinion about which side has the better argument. From a personal perspective, I am hoping that the Court's decision will not lead to the termination of the DACA program, since I so strongly support the idea that those young children brought to this country by their parents should be welcomed, not rejected. I am not very confident that President Trump's statement that he will "take care" of DACA participants can be trusted in any respect. 

However, all that said, I am not very happy with the idea that presidents should have the right to set immigration policy by Executive action (and DACA wasn't established even by an Executive Order, as Navarrette points out). I like what President Obama did, in terms of what it has meant for those involved, but I really don't think it was a proper subject for Executive decision-making. 

Congress - the Legislative Branch - is supposed to set policy in our country. If we are willing to entrust basic decisions to an elected president, then we are really suggesting that our nation, at bottom, relies on an "Elected Monarch" to grapple with the really tough policy calls. At one point, before establishing the DACA program, President Obama said he couldn't do it, because he "wasn't a king." Navarrette's column recites that bit of history, and it's an important part of the story. Obama apparently did what he did with some reluctance.

President Trump is truly comfortable with the idea that the president has the powers of a "king," and that the president essentially serves as an Elected Monarch. We need to reject that idea, but the only way for that to be done properly, under our Constitution, is to demand that Congress make the decisions (and take the heat). If, as expected, the Supreme Court decides that what one president initiated by Executive action another president can terminate, our efforts ought to be to insist that Congress take action to establish a set of immigration laws that comport with our values, and that produces positive results for the nation as a whole, and for all those individuals, including "Dreamers," who are so profoundly affected by the immigration policies of our nation. 

If the Supreme Court backs Trump (currently the expected result) we should not get mad at the Supreme Court. We should not even get mad at the president. 

We need to get mad at each and every Member of Congress whose failure to act seems to be carrying this nation to a shameful result, crushing the dreams of those enrolled in the DACA program, and crushing even more completely the ability of our nation to escape from a government by an "Elected Monarch." 

That is not the way it is supposed to be!

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

#318 / Wake Me Up When The Party's Over

Pictured above is a scene from a political celebration that took place on Tuesday, November 5th (or maybe the photo was taken early on Wednesday morning, November 6th, I am not sure). The photo shows supporters of Ghazla Hashmi on election night in Richmond, Virginia. Hashmi, born in 1964, was just elected to Virginia's 10th State Senate District. She is the first Muslim woman ever elected to the State Senate in Virginia. The photo, above, accompanied a column in The New York Times (hard copy version): "Democrats Turned Virginia Blue. Next?"

I am delighted by most of the recent election results, and that includes being delighted by Hashmi's victory in Virginia. I do, however, want to make one point. As Democrats party on, and ask, "Who's Next?" I think we need to examine the whole concept of "party" as our best way of evaluating the state of our politics.

As evidenced by The Times' headline, political decisions are frequently color-coded, with "red" states turning "blue," or (heaven forbid) the opposite. These two colors represent, of course, our two major political parties, the Red Republicans and the Blue Democrats. I am definitely "Blue," if not a "blue blood," but I do want to make a point about "party."

We have tended to organize our politics by "party." This is particularly true at the national and state levels, but there is a "non-partisan" brand of politics, as well, which is mostly found at the "local" level. I, for instance, self-identify as a "politician," having served for twenty years as a local elected official in Santa Cruz County, California. I was elected five different times, in highly contested elections, but my "party" affiliation was never an issue, since County Supervisors hold a non-partisan office. I can't tell you how happy I am that I was never put into a "party" category, as voters evaluated my positions and my record.

One important part of politics is making clear that there are different choices to be made about what we should do. Political parties do help make that clear, and thus facilitate our efforts to make political choices. All to the good! However, as we have pursued our politics, and made difficult political choices at a time when the political choices have momentous consequences, we find that we have created a politics that is ever more deeply divided along partisan (and color-coded) lines. That may not be the best thing!

If the "divisions" we highlight, for the purpose of making political choices, come to be seen as fundamental realities, dyed into the actual nature of things (as "red" and "blue" might permeate every fiber of the social tapestry), it may be hard to remember that while differences are real, and need to be understood as we make political choices, we are also, in the end, "together in this."

"Division" is not, in fact, the only (and perhaps not even the most important) reality of our political life. We are not only "divided," but we are commonly joined in a society that can cohere and function only on the basis of shared effort, cooperration, and mutual tolerance. While a politics that admits of no differences is fundamentally flawed (we call that kind of politics "totalitarian"), also flawed is a politics that posits political differences as fundamental, deep-dyed, and irrevocable. I fear our contemporary and very "partisan" politics is more and more reflective of this idea about the nature of our political relationships.

"Division" is a word that is used not only to refer to opposing groups. The word is actually used, less frequently, true, to mean the act of voting itself, the act of chosing one possibility over another. I want to urge us to catalogue our political "divisions" as reflecting political choices made in the past, not as fundamental realities that identify and determine which persons, districts, or states are to be placed in which, quasi-permanent, category.

A belief that our political divisions are quasi-permanent (which is what we tend to see in our politics today, with entire states or districts being categorized as either "red" or "blue"), is a belief that is inevitably destructive of something that is critically important in our political life; namely, the recognition that we  all inhabit one body politic, and that we are, as I said above, all "in this together."

Responding to global warming, or income inequality, or racial injustice, or dealing with the infrastructure that we have failed, collectively, to maintain, and that is now failing us, can never be successfully accomplished if our politics is defined by "red" and "blue," with deep-dyed partisanship being accepted as the ultimate truth of who we are.

I believe that this is a point worth making, and in terms of political participation and civic engagement, it is my belief that most Americans understand that this is true, and understand it at a  deep and profound level. This was, in fact, the truth that made it possible for us to elect our first black president, in 2008.

If we want to work together to save human civilization and the natural environment, and to create a just and fair society, it won't be by turning one state, or district, "red" or "blue."

Wake me up when the party's over, in other words!

I think that millions of Americans are thinking about politics in just that way. They are ready to wake up, and to engage, but they'll engage, and become active in efforts to confront local, state, and national issues only when we have been able to escape the extreme partisanship that infects our contemporary politics.

There is a lot to be done, and not much time. We had better all wake up!

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

#317 / Two Feet Away

Well the desert is hot, the mountain is cursed
Pray that I don’t die of thirst
Baby, two feet from the well

"Under Your Spell," is one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs. The song is the last track on his Knocked Out Loaded album, and is not particularly well known - at least, that's my impression. According to the official Bob Dylan website, Dylan has never played that song on his never-ending tour.

If you would like to listen to "Under Your Spell," you can click the link. It's the last verse (shown above) that counts most for me. I tend to ascribe great significance to Dylan's poetry, and I have from the very first. With Dylan, I think, things are almost always more than they seem. There is, for instance, a Biblical reference in that last line. I was pleased to find that the Swedish Academy has agreed with my evaluation of the significance of Dylan's poetry and song, which is why they awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan in 2016. 

At any rate, and back to the song, I believe that Dylan is telling us that we are really just "that close" to doing what we need to do; that we are just "that close" to knowing where we really are, and to making the transformative changes we need to make to escape from the death-threatening situation in which we find ourselves. I think Dylan is letting us know, in this song, what William Faulkner said in his own Nobel Prize acceptance speech. We need not just endure. We can prevail.

The deserts are getting hotter, and the mountain glaciers are melting away. As we confront the curse of global warming, a curse upon all humanity that is our own curse, come back to kill us, let us pray that we don't miss our chance to make the changes we need to make. Let us pray that we don't all die of thirst... 

Two feet from the well!

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

#316 / How To Predict The Future

LandWatch Monterey County is a nonprofit organization based in Salinas, California. Its mission is to promote sound land use policies that benefit the local community — advancing Monterey County's long-term economic vitality, high agricultural productivity, environmental health, and social equity. 

LandWatch is most specifically focused on policies that will provide truly affordable housing, that will protect agricultural and natural lands, and that will ensure that any new development is based on sustainable water supplies. 

Last Friday, I was privileged to attend the annual "LandWatch Lunch," its most famous fundraising event. I always enjoy attending, meeting both old friends and new. This time, I was delighted to be able to sit next to Congress Member Jimmy Panetta, and to greet many more elected officials from Monterey County. Marina Mayor Bruce Delgado, who was there, is a special friend. He and I worked together in the very early days of LandWatch, to establish the City of Marina Urban Growth Boundary, which is now almost twenty years old and is up for renewal. Besides supporting that effort, it turns out that LandWatch is involved in trying to establish a comparable urban growth boundary in the adjacent City of Seaside.

As the large crowd ate lunch, LandWatch Executive Director Mike DeLapa described what LandWatch is doing - and outlined just how LandWatch works to accomplish its mission. One of the slides that Mike DeLapa put up on the screen said this:

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

This is an unpretentious statement, but it is, in fact, profound. The future doesn't have to just "happen to us." We sometimes forget this. In fact, we can make the future happen the way we want. To do that, however, we must work together, not act as individuals, and we must shift our self-understanding, and stop thinking that we best know the future through our role as "observers." 

We are, of course, "observers," but we are "actors," too. When we stop observing, as a way to try to "predict" the future, we may figure out that Mike DeLapa's slide really is a profound statement about human possibility. We can "act," not "just observe," and that is the very first step to helping create the human future that we both want and need.

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Monday, November 11, 2019

#315 / Gates And Rates: The "Perturbed Plutocrats"

Let me follow up my blog post yesterday, which I titled, "The Billionaire Boys Club." On Sunday morning, when I picked up the papers, I was happy to find the following editorial in The New York Times. I have copied The Times' editorial, in its entirety, below.

It seems that The Times has noticed that the billionaire class is getting just a little bit restless. I endorse the newspaper's response to these "perturbed plutocrats!"

When Bill Gates founded Microsoft in 1975, the top marginal tax rate on personal income was 70 percent, tax rates on capital gains and corporate income were significantly higher than at present, and the estate tax was a much more formidable levy. None of that dissuaded Mr. Gates from pouring himself into his business, nor discouraged his investors from pouring in their money. 
Yet he is now the latest affluent American to warn that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan for much higher taxes on the rich would be bad not just for the wealthy but for the rest of America, too.  
Mr. Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, suggested on Wednesday that a big tax increase would result in less economic growth. “I do think if you tax too much you do risk the capital formation, innovation, U.S. as the desirable place to do innovative companies — I do think you risk that,” he said. 
Other perturbed plutocrats have made the same point with less finesse. The billionaire investor Leon Cooperman was downright crude when he declared that Ms. Warren was wrecking the American dream. Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, complained on CNBC that Ms. Warren “uses some pretty harsh words” about the rich. He added, “Some would say vilifiessuccessful people.” 
Let’s get a few things straight. 
The wealthiest Americans are paying a much smaller share of income in taxes than they did a half-century ago. In 1961, Americans with the highest incomes paid an average of 51.5 percent of that income in federal, state and local taxes. In 2011, Americans with the highest incomes paid just 33.2 percent of their income in taxes, according to a study by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman published last year. Data for the last few years is not yet available but would most likely show a relatively similar tax burden. 
The federal government needs a lot more money. Decades of episodic tax cuts have left the government deeply in debt: The Treasury is on pace to borrow more than $1 trillion during the current fiscal year to meet its obligations. The government will need still more money for critical investments in infrastructure, education and the social safety net. 
This is not an endorsement of the particulars of Ms. Warren’s tax plan. There is plenty of room to debate how much money the government needs, and how best to raise that money. The specific proposals by Ms. Warren and one of her rivals, Senator Bernie Sanders, to impose a new federal tax on wealth are innovations that require careful consideration. 
But a necessary part of the solution is to collect more from those Americans who have the most. 
And there is little evidence to justify Mr. Gates’s concern that tax increases of the magnitude proposed by Ms. Warren and other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination would meaningfully discourage innovation, investment or economic growth.
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Sunday, November 10, 2019

#314 / The Billionaire Boys Club

On Friday, we got the word that Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is "taking steps to enter the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination." That is what we were told by The Wall Street Journal, in an article that appeared right on the front page of the paper. 

Bloomberg, a former Republican (and a former Mayor of New York City), is apparently planning to take on another billionaire, Donald Trump (billionaire #1), who has recently shed his New York citizenship in order to avoid paying taxes. It appears that there are now THREE billionaires in the running (if Bloomberg follows through). 

Donald Trump, our  incumbent president, is billionaire #1. Bloomberg (if he follows through) will be billionaire #3.

Let's not forget about billionaire #2. That would be high-tech billionaire Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager who hates global warming (that's good!), and who hankers to be president in the very worst way. He has been leading the charge to impeach the president from almost the first day of Donald Trump's time in office, lending credence to those who claim that impeachment is just an effort by "sore loser" Democrats to replace the president without having to bother with another election. Steyer was also in the news on Friday. And what was that news? The news was that Steyer has credibly been reported as trying to "buy" political endorsements in Iowa. He denies this, of course. 

My favorite for the presidency is the guy who keeps on telling us that the "billionaire class" has perverted American democracy, and that we need to reject the idea that we should be electing "successful" people to run our country. Naturally, "successful" in this context is equated to "rich." That also translates to "electable." Let's not forget, to pick the most prominent example of this thinking, that Joe Biden was Vice President, so he will be "electable" now, as he tries for the top spot. The pundits who have that view might take a brush up course on "The Peter Principle." 

As frequent readers of this blog know, I'm with Bernie Sanders. We don't need any billionaire class, or any billionaire boys club, to be in charge. We can run this country just fine, all by ourselves!

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Saturday, November 9, 2019

#313 / Thoughts On A Door Handle

The photo to your right shows the doorway leading out from a men's restroom at UCSC. The second photo shows the condition of the floor. I can testify to these conditions. I was there!

In fact, I have used that doorway quite a bit, and the doorway condition pictured is not unusual. If a wad of slightly wet paper towels has not been left on the door handle, as pictured, it is likely that a similar wad of towels, wet or dry, will be found on the adjacent floor, where they have been discarded by whomever felt that germs on the door handle are an existential threat to good health. 

There is a significant debate about whether a strategy of maximum germ avoidance is, in fact, protective of good health, or whether that approach to disease prevention actually undermines the opportunity of a person's immune system to learn how to identify and destroy the germs that might otherwise cause an illness. The debate often centers on the protections needed for babies. Click that link to read all about it.

I want to assure those reading this blog post that I do wash my hands frequently. I practice basic cleanliness and good hygiene. However, I do not hesitate to touch doorknobs or door handles that others are also certain to have touched. I am, in other words, in the camp that suggests that we should trust our immune systems to protect us, and that human efforts to improve upon our natural systems of disease prevention (using those sanitary gels, for instance, now found almost everywhere) are not only likely to be futile, but may even be counterproductive. 

As I reflect upon this thought upon a door handle, I realize that it mirrors my general understanding of how human beings should relate to nature. We should assume that nature will take care of us - that there is something very real in that "Mother Nature" metaphor. 

When humans try to "improve upon nature" the result is generally not what we hope. 

This goes for a lot more than door handle avoidance. Most of modern society seems to be based on the same, dubious, premise - that we know better than Mother Nature. 

I beg to disagree!

Image Credits:
Gary Patton personal photos

Friday, November 8, 2019

#312 / Thinking About The Anthropocene

Peter Brannen is a science writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Writing in The Atlantic last August, Brannen derided the idea that human beings would ever have a geologic epoch named after them. Forget about the "Anthropocene," says Brannen. there is no "there" there!  Brannen titled his article in The Atlantic, "The Anthropocene Is a Joke." 

Brannen argues that people like Elizabeth Kolbert, who has promoted the idea that human beings have brought on a new epoch in the history of the planet, are just proving how arrogant human beings can be:

For context [says Brannen], let’s compare the eventual geological legacy of humanity (somewhat unfairly) to that of the dinosaurs, whose reign spanned many epochs and lasted a functionally eternal 180 million years—36,000 times as long as recorded human history so far. But you would never know this near-endless age was so thoroughly dominated by the terrible reptiles by looking to the rock record of the entire eastern half of North America. Here, dinosaurs scarcely left behind a record at all. And not because they weren’t here the entire time—with millions of generations of untold dinosaurs living, hunting, mating, dying, foraging, migrating, evolving, and enduring throughout, up and down the continent, in great herds and in solitary ambushes. But the number of sites within that entire yawning span, and over these thousands of square miles, where they could have been preserved—or that weren’t destroyed by later erosion, or that happen to be exposed at the surface today—was vanishingly small.

Actually, Brannen does agree with Kolbert about one thing, Kolbert's book on the anthropocene is called The Sixth Extinction, and the point of her book is that human beings are directly responsible for the massive numbers of extinctions now occurring. This massive extinction event, and not any positive evidence of human civilization, is what will be found in the geologic record, if there are any beings, in the future, who care to study geology: 

[Our] most enduring geological legacy ... will be the extinctions we cause. The first wave of human-driven extinctions, and the largest hit to terrestrial megafauna since the extinction of the dinosaurs, began tens of thousands of years ago, as people began to spread out into new continents and islands, wiping out everything we tend to think of as “Ice Age” fauna—mammoths, mastodons, giant wombats, giant ground sloths, giant armadillos, woolly rhinoceroses, giant beavers, etc. This early, staggered, human-driven extinction event is as reasonable a starting date as any for the Anthropocene and one that has, in fact, been proposed. However, a few thousand years—or even a few tens of thousands of years—will be virtually indistinguishable in the rocks a hundred million years hence. That is, it would not be obvious to the geologists of the far future that these prehistoric human-caused extinctions were not simultaneous with our own modern-day depredations on the environment. The clear-cutting of the rain forest to build roads and palm-oil plantations, the plowing of the seabed on a continental scale, the rapid changes to the ocean and atmosphere’s chemistry, and all the rest would appear simultaneous with the extinction of the woolly mammoth. To future geologists, the modern debate about whether the Anthropocene started 10 minutes ago or 10,000 years ago will be a bit like arguing with your spouse on your 50th wedding anniversary about which nanosecond you got married.

From the perspective of a geologist, I dare say Brannen is probably correct. As much as our human activities have hugely modified the planet, leaving evidences everywhere, the impacts of our human activities are likely to seem insignificant to any future geologists who might be around to evaluate them. In fact, our past presence on the planet may be hard to detect at all, presuming that there is actually anyone around to be looking for evidence of our time on Earth.

That's where I am more drawn to Kolbert than to Brannen.

Brannen is worried about rocks.

Kolbert, writing for living human beings, now, is worried about us!

Image Credit:

Thursday, November 7, 2019

#311 / What We Really Discovered

The photograph above, depicting one of the first two Voyager spacecraft launched from Cape Canavaral in 1977, was placed at the top of a column, "Speaking of Science," made available as a periodic free bulletin by The Washington Post

I think the short little column I have linked above is well worth reading, and I believe that it should be available to anyone who clicks that link. Most worthy of consideration is this statement from the column: 

When the Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders photographed Earth rising behind the moon for the first time, he was struck by the thought that “this is not a very big place.” ... It was strange, he thought, that he had traveled so far, risked so much, to study the moon. “And what we really discovered was the Earth.”

Life on this little blue planet, floating in the infinite darkness of space, is now at risk - and it is our fault. I commend the "Speaking of Science" column, but this trailer, advertising Al Gore's powerful movie, An Inconvienent Sequel, is perhaps even more important: 

Image Credits:
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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

#310 / Snowflakes Swarm And Wall Street's Warm

I enjoyed Paul Krugman's column in yesterday's New York Times. The purpose of my blog posting, today, is mainly to quote it: 

Warren is ... a big believer in stricter financial regulation; the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was highly effective until the Trump administration set about gutting it, was her brainchild. 
So if you are a Wall Street billionaire, rational self-interest might well induce you to oppose Warren. Rationality does not, however, explain why a money manager like Leon Cooperman — who just two years ago settled a suit over insider trading for $5 million, although without admitting wrongdoing — would circulate an embarrassing, self-pitying open letter denouncing Warren for her failure to appreciate all the wonderful things billionaires like him do for society
Nor does it explain why Cliff Asness, another money manager, would fly into a rage at Warren adviser Gabriel Zucman for using the term “revenue maximizing” — a standard piece of economic jargon — describing it as “disgustingly immoral.” 
The real tell here, I think, is that much of the Wall Street vitriol now being directed at Warren was previously directed at, of all people, President Barack Obama. Objectively, Obama treated Wall Street with kid gloves. In the aftermath of a devastating financial crisis, his administration bailed out collapsing institutions on favorable terms. He and Democrats in Congress did impose some new regulations, but they were very mild compared with the regulations put in place after the banking crisis of the 1930s. 
He did, however, refer on a few occasions to “fat cat” bankers and suggested that financial-industry excesses were responsible for the 2008 crisis because, well, they were. ... The result, quite early in his administration, was that Wall Street became consumed with “Obama rage.” ... 
It’s not surprising that Warren is getting very little money from the financial sector. It is, however, surprising that the top recipient isn’t Joe Biden but Pete Buttigieg, who’s running a fairly distant fourth in the polls. Is Biden suffering from the lingering effects of that old-time Obama rage? In any case, the point is that Wall Street billionaires, even more than billionaires in general, seem to be snowflakes, emotionally unable to handle criticism
I’m not sure why that should be the case, but it may be that in their hearts they suspect that the critics have a point. What, after all, does modern finance actually do for the economy? Unlike the robber barons of yore, today’s Wall Street tycoons don’t build anything tangible. They don’t even direct money to the people who actually are building the industries of the future. The vast expansion of credit in America after around 1980 basically involved a surge in consumer debt rather than new money for business investment. 
Moreover, there is growing evidence that when the financial sector gets too big it actually acts as a drag on the economy — and America is well past that point. ...
Human nature being what it is, people who secretly wonder whether they really deserve their wealth get especially angry when others express these doubts publicly. So it’s not surprising that people who couldn’t handle Obama’s mild, polite criticism are completely losing it over Warren (emphasis added).

According to Wikipedia, "snowflakes" are persons who have "an inflated sense of uniqueness, an unwarranted sense of entitlement, or are overly-emotional, easily offended, and unable to deal with opposing opinions."

The "financial wizards" who comprise a big share of the "billionaire class," have every right to be defensive about their role in society. Undeserved entitlement about sums it up. Krugman hits the nail on the head! 

"Here's the deal, though" (to quote Joe Biden), Wall Street "snowflakes" don't just melt away. They are snug and safe, warned and protected. But protected themselves, they have frozen out most of the ordinary men and women struggling to survive in the gale winds of an ever more predatory economy. 

So, who does the billionaire class hate the most? Maybe it is, as Krugman says, Elizabeth Warren. But how about Bernie Sanders? He's the one who first "outed" that billionaire class and denounced them for what they really are. 

Image Credit:

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

#309 / Seriously?

Here is a picture of Greta Thunberg, speaking to a rally in front of the White House. The picture comes from a column that appeared in the October 5-6 edition of The Wall Street Journal. The column was titled, "Greta Thunberg Has the Climate Alarmists’ Number." 

The main point of the column, and I don't disagree, is that Greta's work to change national policies on global warming have revealed a lack of genuine seriousness among those in the activist and political community who have been outspoken in urging action to combat global warming and climate change:

Ms. Thunberg ... is aware—and has the bad manners to say so—that the vast majority of wealthy transnationals who intone rote demands that governments “take action” on climate change don’t actually believe what they’re saying. At the U.N., Ms. Thunberg wasn’t speaking to rubes and oilmen and climate “deniers.” She was speaking to the swarms of diplomatic elite who had earlier disembarked from jumbo jets and descended on Midtown Manhattan’s bars, restaurants and five-star hotels and clogged its streets with phalanxes of giant sport-utility vehicles. Ms. Thunberg appears to suspect—rightly—that these people don’t think we’re headed for doomsday. They enjoy the moral uplift afforded by their fashionable views; otherwise they’re along for the ride.

The author of the column, Barton Swaim, uses the word "hypocrisy" to label the behavior he says that Thunberg is revealing:

Ms. Thunberg grasps that if today’s climate leaders believed what they claim to believe, they would use their power to impose drastic reductions to greenhouse emissions, whatever other nations might do. They would also, if their convictions were genuine, engage in terrible and revolutionary deeds for the salvation of humanity: intimidation, brutality, sabotage. Instead they are content to trumpet the right opinions and otherwise persist in their ordinary habits of consumption as though none of it really mattered. Greta Thunberg has a point. How dare they?

I am not so sure I completely agree with this analysis. "Hypocrisy" seems to indicate, as Merriam-Webster defines it, an active intent to deceive: "a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not : behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel."

I would like to give the benefit of the doubt to those who are speaking out about the importance of taking immediate action on global warming. While we can call it "hypocrisy" that various people who are "saying" things about how we need to take effective and immediate action on global warming aren't making the kind of immediate and effective changes in their own behavior that should go along with the analysis, I think that what may be most at work is simply a failure of imagination. What we face - all of us, everywhere on this planet - is profoundly "serious," and we are overwhelmed, I think, by the scale of the disaster. It should not really be unexpected that we have not yet been able to get our wits about us, to figure out practical actions (in our own lives, and generally) that can properly respond to our analysis. 

We can say, of course, that it is "hypocrisy" to be talking about global warming and climate change, and saying they are "serious," even before we have taken our automobiles out of commission and have determined never again to travel by airplane. But I'm not sure that "hypocrisy" is the right word. At least, that's my effort to be charitable, charity being the greatest of the virtues!

What I think we need to focus on - instead of trying to score points off others - is just how "serious" things really are. In this regard, let me present a statement in Swaim's column that I think has revealed his own failure to respond properly to the planetary crisis in which we are all involved, and  in which we are all implicated:

[Thunberg] gets praise for her bold preaching on climate change, which the right can’t criticize without appearing boorish—great. But a political movement spoken for by a teenager can’t be taken altogether seriously (emphasis added).

Really? I mean, seriously? Can you actually mean what you just said? Are you honestly claiming, Barton Swaim, that we are not to "take seriously" a political truth if it is "spoken for by a teenager?"

That judgment is mistaken!

The truth, however we come to know it, must always be taken seriously. That is the first rule of moral discernment. As I said in my earlier column on Thunberg's efforts:


Image Credit:

Monday, November 4, 2019

#308 - In Her Words

Pictured above are Jodi Kantor (L) and Megan Twohey (R). These two women reporters began to investigate the sexual predations of Harvey Weinstein "when his name was still synonymous with power." The news story revealing the results of their research is credited with launching the #MeToo movement, and the two reporters received the Pulitizer Prize. Utlimately, Kantor and Twohey wrote a book about their investigation. The book is titled She Said.

On September 8, 2019, The New York Times ran a review of the book. You can see an actual photograph of the authors if you click that link. The picture looks a lot like the drawing. 

On September 19, 2019, The Times did a follow up interview with Kantor and Twohey. A link to that interview is right here. Right at the top of the interview, the authors are quoted as follows:

Women can have far more impact together than separately.

Referring to one of my earlier blog posts ("Unit of Analysis"), what Kantor and Twohey are saying is true for all of us - men, women, and children! Together, we can accomplish almost anything. Individually? Maybe not so much!

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Sunday, November 3, 2019

#307 / 2050 Is Just Around The Corner

2050 is "just around the corner." At least, that is the perspective of someone like me, who has already lived for seventy-five years. 2050 is roughly thirty years away, so I have lived more than twice as long as the thirty years that now separate us from 2050. For someone who has lived thirty or fewer years, of course, thirty years is likely to appear to be a rather long time. It is a "lifetime," in fact.

From whatever vantage point you consider the year 2050, and whether you think that thirty years is a "long" time or a "short" time, the following headline should make that 2050 date significant:

High likelihood of human civilisation coming to end’ by 2050, report finds

Here is a link to an article in The Independent, published in Great Britain, to which the headline above applies. Harry Cockburn, who wrote the article, is reporting on a paper produced by the Melbourne-based think tank the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.

The Breakthrough Centre defines its mission as "the development and promotion of strategies, innovation and analysis which are required to restore the climate to a safe condition." The Breakthrough report was written by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, with a forward by Chris Barriethe former chief of the Australian Defence Forces and a retired Admiral in the Royal Australian Navy.

Clicking this link will take you to the full report. The article already linked provides a good synopsis. The key point, and the reason for this blog post, is not just that we need to take very seriously the impacts that accelerating global warming is having on the natural environment. We do need to do that, of course, but we also need to think about what the impacts of the coming changes in the natural environment will mean for our human civilization. We need to think about those dangers and threats, in other words, the way Admirals and Generals have always thought about the threats and dangers posed by other nations, as nations skirmish for geopolitical advance and/or domination. 

Human-caused global warming is initiating a Sixth Mass Extinction. That is horrible, but what the Breakthrough Report is trying to make clear is a point that I, too, try to make clear in the series of daily blog postings that I have been making on this website for almost ten years. 

We live ultimately in the World of Nature, but we live most immediately in a Human World, a "Political World," a world that we can properly call our human "civilization." While we have the ability to undermine the integrity of the Natural World, and are doing so (witness that Sixth Mass Extinction) our own, human world is less resilient and more vulnerable than the World of Nature. 

In other words, our human civilization will break down BEFORE the worst has happened in the Natural World. In fact, according to the Breakthrough report, we don't have long to get ready and to do something about that. 

This is obviously very bad news, but is there an upside? Is there any good news? 

Maybe there is! If we can truly understand that we live, most immediately, in a human world, and that all our lives depend on being able to maintain the viability of our human civilization, then the unity of human beings across all perceived boundaries and differences will melt away. We are in this together. All of us. Every single one of us. In our current situation, in our current crisis, it is only human empathy, love, and commitment to each other that can avert the end to the human civilization we have created and that makes it possible for our lives to continue. 

Sooner or later, we are going to realize this. Young girls are sailing across the ocean to bring us this news. I think we're going to figure this out, but we don't have much time.

2050 is just around the corner!

Image Credit:

Saturday, November 2, 2019

#306 / The Smog Of Praise

Above are pictured film actress Salma Hayek and her husband, François-Henri Pinault. Pinault is a billionaire businessman and philanthropist. I guess he supports the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The picture above, showing Hayek and Pinault, was taken at a 2019 Met Gala. A very similar photo was recently posted to the online magazine Aeon, accompanying an article titled, "Let us now stop praising famous men (and women)."

That is an idea that I endorse. I particularly liked the article's objection to the "smog of praise" that so often surrounds the extremely rich. Read the article on why excessive praise for the wealthy (who mobilize their outsize fortunes to do "good works") helps to undermine any genuine democracy. 

The Aeon article ended by quoting (I think) former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, along the same lines:

If we want to foster a truly democratic society – a society in which we treat each other as equals – we must rein in ... excessive praise and the perverse incentives that encourage it. We should aim for the opposite extreme, toward withholding praise and being more circumspect about the wealthy and powerful, to restore balance. As Justice Louis Brandeis, who witnessed our previous Gilded Age, might have said: "We may have democracy, or we may have praise showered on the heads of a few, but we can’t have both."

"Treating each others as equals" is the key to democratic self-government. It is easy to forget our fundamental equality, as citizens, in the midst of so many celebrations of the superior situation of the rich.

Pollution kills - and not just the kind that comes out of the tailpipes of gasoline-powered vehicles.

Watch out for that "smog of praise."

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Friday, November 1, 2019

#305 / A Little Complaint About A Turn Of Phrase

Pictured above is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He was killed by United States military forces on Sunday, October 27, 2019. Here is what Robin Wright says about Baghdadi in a New Yorker article, "ISIS’s Leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the World’s Most Wanted Man—Is Dead":

Since 2014, Baghdadi had been the world’s most wanted terrorist; he long had a U.S. bounty—of twenty-five million dollars—on his head. ... His real name was Ibrahim Awad al-Samarrai. He was born in Tobchi, Iraq, near Samarra, to a devout family that followed the ultraconservative Salafi school of Sunni Islam. He joined the resistance against U.S. troops after the invasion, in 2003. He was arrested by American forces in 2004 and held in Camp Bucca, a prison that became infamous as a breeding ground for extremism. At the time, Baghdadi was deemed a minor player and released after a few months. He later went on to assume the leadership of Al Qaeda in Iraq, after U.S.-led air strikes killed its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. The Islamic State in Iraq, as it later came to be known, was forced underground. It had only a few hundred followers.

President Trump held a special news conference on Sunday, to inform the world of Baghadi's death. Among his other remarks, the president said that Baghadi "died like a dog. He died like a coward...." The president, however, began his statement as follows: 

Last night, the United States brought the world's No. 1 terrorist leader to justice. 

It seems that presidents of both parties like to brag about killing terrorist leaders. President Barack Obama celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, who was also killed by American military personnel. You can click here for a transcript of President Obama's statement, which was made shortly after bin Laden's death. President Obama, like President Trump, used the phrase "brought to justice," albeit President Obama did not use it in the first line of his statement.

I am posting this note to protest claims that Baghadi and bin Laden were "brought to justice." 

Neither Baghadi nor Osama bin-Laden, both killed by American soldiers, were actually "brought to justice." Both bin-Laden and Baghadi were killed in actions that were and are part of a war - albeit it is an unofficial and undeclared one. War and Justice have little, if anything, in common. Justice (as we understand it in the United States) includes due process for the accused. It includes due process for the guilty. Due process includes the right to confront one's accusers and to bring forth arguments in one's own defense.

People hunted down and killed "like dogs" (to employ President Trump's phrase) have not received "justice." They have simply been "killed." 

Actually, this is an important point. If the President of the United States can order people killed because he (or she) is convinced, on evidence never fully disclosed to the public, that the person should die, then who can tell when that list might include you; or me; or anyone else? 

Both President Obama and President Trump assert that presidents have the right to kill "terrorists." And they know who they are, of course!

Terrorism is horrible. Maybe the presidents' assertions are tolerable. Maybe they are necessary. 

But let's not call that "justice." 

That's not what it is!

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