Saturday, December 15, 2018

#349 / Bear Hug

The colorful illustration above showed up on the Internet recently, and I felt drawn to it immediately. I am passing it along.

Though I was never an actual member of the fraternal organization, I can recall describing myself to people, many times, as a "Native Son of the Golden West." I think my mother first used that phrase to describe me. To me, that meant only that I was born in California (a requirement for official membership in the organization). I just repeated the phrase as a way to indicate my commitment to, and my genuine love for the state. I have exactly the kind of spontaneous affection for California that the Yosemite Black Bear is demonstrating in this drawing.

It is the entire state for which I have such feelings. While I was born in San Francisco, I spent my young years on the Peninsula, and have lived in Santa Cruz County since 1961. I have gotten around to other places, though. Right below is a picture published yesterday, showing me walking with then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Tejon Ranch. The Planning and Conservation League, of which I was then the Executive Director, worked with other environmental groups to provide permanant protection to an extraordinary property. The preserved part of the Tejon Ranch is almost exactly the same size as the entirety of Santa Cruz County, and it will be retained in its natural state forever.

I am swiftly approaching one of those "significant" birthdays, which is probably one reason this drawing with the bear attracted my attention. I still have all that affection for California, but like the bear (as least as I see this drawing) I am feeling tender about the state of the state. I am not very happy about everything that has gone on in our great state since 1943, which is the year I showed up on the scene, in San Francisco.

Below, I am furnishing a couple of pictures of San Francisco in 1943, published in Life magazine. You can click this link to see a lot more of them. I used to read Life magazine every week, when its big format pages showed up in our mailbox. It's a little hard for me to accept that Life is no longer with us, though I do like my iPhone, too. There is no doubt that life, itself, if not the magazine, goes on!

Amazingly enough, with a picture from Life providing the proof, horse-drawn wagons were still being used in San Francisco in the year I was born. I wouldn't have guessed that. A lot happens in a lifetime! Looking back (and looking around), I am affectionately grateful (just like that bear) for having been able to live my life in California, for all these many years.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

#348 / Where Power Resides

This past Wednesday, December 12, 2018, The New York Times reported that Nancy Pelosi has put together the votes she needs to be elected Speaker of the House when Congress reconvenes in January.

On November 19th, The Times ran a long article on Pelosi and her career, which is well worth reading. The article documents Pelosi's long history of personal and poitical success.

If you read the earlier article, the most recent article came as no surprise. I did read the earlier article, and I was struck by this statement by Pelosi:

"No one gives you power. You have to take it from them."

Pelosi's assertion made me think about Frederick Douglass. It was Douglass who said:

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will." 

Before we can "demand" power, and before we can "take" power, we need to realize that we have the power, ourselves, to demand and take the power we need.

Let's realize that, first.

We do have the power (potential) that can be transformed into power (actual).

Once we realize that, once we know that's true, once we really believe that, then we will be able to implement the Douglass-Pelosi prescription!

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

#347 / How To Save The World

Malia Wollan has written a column for The New York Times that is the perfect follow-on to my blog posting yesterday. Yesterday, the topic was loneliness. I suggested that in order to combat the political variety of loneliness we are going to have to resuscitate a politics that is based on our personal participation. That mostly means local politics, where we can be the most powerful. I do know something about local politics, having been elected to an important local government office five different times.

In terms of local politics, going door to door is how it's done. If we consider our "community" to be the relationships we have with others in the place we live, and if we admit that these relationships are vital, and that these relationships actually define "the world" that we most immediately inhabit, then going door to door, as Wollan outlines in her engaging column, is just exactly the way to save it.

Talking to ordinary people. That's the secret. If you can accept the idea that it is, in fact, "politics" that is going to save us (and what else will?), then more of us need to learn how to go door to door. Wollan's column gives us "a tip."

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

#346 / The Loneliness Epidemic

Arthur C. Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute. In a recent column in The New York Times, Brooks endorses the views of Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska:

Mr. Sasse argues that “loneliness is killing us,” citing, among other things, the skyrocketing rates of suicide and overdose deaths in America. This year, 45,000 Americans will take their lives, and more than 70,000 will die from drug overdoses. Mr. Sasse’s assertion that loneliness is killing us takes on even darker significance in the wake of the mail-bomb campaign against critics of President Trump and the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, both of which were perpetrated by isolated — and apparently very lonely — men. Mr. Sasse ... believes lonely people increasingly turn to angry politics.

Brooks asks, "Why are we becoming so lonely?" "One reason," he says, is "the changing nature of work. Work is one of the key sources of friendship and community. Think of your own relationships; surely many of your closest friendships — perhaps even your relationship with your spouse — started in the workplace. Yet the reality of the workplace is rapidly attenuating, as people hop from job to job, and from city to city, as steady work becomes harder to find and the 'gig' economy grows."

Let me suggest that the changing nature of "politics" is another reason for our real and perceived loneliness. If it is correct that we can fully realize ourselves only in community, and I agree with Brooks that this is true, then we need to admit that our community is, ultimately, a "political" reality. That is the American idea, at least. We are a people that believes in "self-government," a government that is both "of" and "by" the people, and not just "for" them. Politics is so important to us because while we are all "individuals," we are more than mere individuals; we are "together in this life." We can only feel secure and supported when we know ourselves to be part of a political reality that truly does connect us. Increasingly, our politics does not provide this reassurance.

Individual dangers come from a feeling of radical isolation and loneliness. Drug abuse and suicide top the list that Brooks provides. Hannah Arendt points out what comes from "political" loneliness:  despotic governments and totalitarianism.

It is becoming ever clearer to me that we will either reinvest, personally, in the politics of "participatory democracy" or we are going to be committing suicide at the collective level, and not just at the individual level.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

#345 / A Good Idea

Mohandas ("Mahatma") Gandhi is shown visiting, in 1947, with some members of the British ruling class, Lord and Lady Mountbatten.

Gandhi was once asked by a reporter what he thought about Western Civilization. He said, in a famous response:

I think it would be a good idea. 

Gandhi had a lot of good ideas, and a new book about Gandhi tells us about some of them. Click here for a review. A suggestion that you buy and/or gift this book may come just in time for this holiday season, but one way or another, think about putting this book about Gandhi on your New Year's reading list!

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Monday, December 10, 2018

#344 / How To Attract A Mate (And Alternatives)

The Wall Street Journal ran a column recently that opined that "one fundamental reason people are altruistic is to make themselves attractive to sexual partners." The article is a fun read, and it may not be, ultimately, only about how to attract a mate.

According to Dr. Glenn Geher, a professor of psychology and the founding director of the Evolutionary Studies Program at the State University of New York at New Paltz, a cross-cultural study of qualities found attractive in mates, carried out in 1990 by David Buss and colleagues, found that "kindness placed toward the top of the list" across a broad range of cultures.

Mate preferences are a very strong evolutionary force, so if people prefer kindness in mates, kindness will become a common attribute in the species. This is one reason why there are so many good people.

Terrific! This sounds rather hopeful. The nice guys get the girls! But then why are there so many "bad" people? There are lots of people (let's remember our president) who evidence what Geher calls "the dark triad." This dark triad of personality traits consists of "narcissism (an excessive focus on oneself), Machiavellianism (manipulating others for one’s own gain), and psychopathy (an overall disregard for others)." Those "dark triad" types aren't full of loving kindness. They get the girls by "grabbing them by the p**ssy."

Geher moves from what amounts to an explanation of how our president operates (without ever making the connection explicit) to an evaluation of the reproductive strategies of wood frogs. He ends up coming down on both sides of the "how to score with a woman" question:

To understand how some people flourish in life by being nice while others succeed by being jerks, evolutionary psychology turns to the concept of "strategic pluralism." This is the idea that members of the same species might evolve different and even contradictory strategies for survival, depending on the conditions they face.

Evolution, in other words, wants it both ways, and evolution gets it both ways, too. You can have reproductive success as a kind person, and you can have reproductive success as a "jerk."

This Wall Street Journal article wouldn't have been written, I bet, if our president were still Barack Obama. Obama is clearly on the "nice guy" side of Geher's discussion about successful reproductive strategies. But this discussion of the strategies of reproductive success, at least I think, is actually intended to make us wonder about the strategy of political success that gave us these two, sequential, presidents, with "Mr. Nice Guy" giving up his place to that dark triad "jerk."

Evolution is a phenomenon that appears to operate beyond the realm of individual human choice. Politics is not. Whatever evolution may produce, over the long run, politics operates on a short run basis, and I think the lesson of this fun article is clear: next time, let's not choose a "jerk" for president! 

If you choose the jerk, after all, you know you'll get screwed!

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

#343 / Hillary Clinton On Refugees: Shut The Door

On November 11, 2018, The Wall Street Journal ran an article that claimed (as a matter of fact, not supposition) that Hillary Clinton would run for president in 2020. The article was authored by two of Clinton's close political associates. I have mentioned this article before.

On November 22, 2018, The New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton is now claiming that "Europe has done its part," with respect to making a place for immigrants and refugees. According to The Times, Clinton thinks Europe "must send a very clear message — ‘we are not going to be able to continue [to] provide refuge and support’ — because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

Clinton made these comments about immigration issues in Europe on the same day that our current president threatened to close our border with Mexico. President Trump wants to be sure that the United States will stop the "disorder" that the president associates with efforts by refugees to find safety in the United States.

It is precisely "disorder" in their own countries that is driving refugees into the wealthier countries of Europe, and into the United States. If the United States and the wealthy countries of Western Europe want to discourage immigrants from seeking refuge, then the best way to do that is not walls, razor wire, and guns. It is to make life tolerable in the countries from which the refugees are fleeing.

I have a modest proposal that could help deal with the problem. Stop sending over airplanes and bombs to destroy the countries from which the refugees are fleeing to Europe. Stop supporting bad governments in South and Central America that victimize their own people!

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Saturday, December 8, 2018

#342 / Last Day Of Class

Thursday, December 6, 2018, was the last day of class in LGST 196, the "Senior Capstone" course I teach in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

As I teach it, the course revolves around an exploration of "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." Each student writes a "Capstone Thesis" related, in some way, to these themes. While the last class day has now come and gone, the theses from the students will soon arrive in my email inbox! I always look forward to seeing what the students have to say about such powerfully important topics. 

On the last class day, we have a class celebration, with each student reading "Acknowledgments," identifying those who have helped the student advance to and through college. These student presentations are often quite moving, and not infrequently bring tears to my eyes. I try to add in my own thoughts, usually by quoting a verse from "Mississippi," a Bob Dylan song, and a verse from a play by Ugo Betti, The Burnt Flower Bed. These valedictory words can bring tears to my eyes, as well:

Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinkin' fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free

I have nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me

Bob Dylan, "Mississippi"

That's what's needed, don't you see? That! Nothing else matters half so much. To reassure one another. To answer each other. Perhaps only you can listen to me and not laugh. Everyone has, inside himself ... what shall I call it? A piece of good news! Everyone is ... a very great, very important character! Yes, that's what we have to tell them up there! Every man must be persuaded - even if he is in rags - that he's immensely, immensely important!

Ugo Betti, The Burnt Flower-Bed 

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Friday, December 7, 2018

#341 / The Hard Problem

If you happen to be heading to New York City, and want to indulge in some theatre, it appears that Tom Stoppard's play, The Hard Problem, will be playing at the Lincoln Center through January 6th.

The play got a good review in The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker has writtten it up, too, in a rather positive way.

The "hard problem" that Stoppard is talking about is the "conundrum of human consciousness," as The Wall Street Journal puts it. Another way of formulating the question is to ask whether "we," who appear to ourselves, at least, to exist, actually have any "independent" or "individual" existence at all. Is there an "I" that is anything above, beyond, or different from the human flesh in which we find ourselves incarnated?

Or, is that even true? That incarnation thing? Maybe there isn't any "I" that is anything other than the flesh, blood, brain, and bone that we do know is associated with who we think (or at least sometimes think) we "are."

It's a hard problem, indeed, and it may just be a kind of foolish pride, but it's not easy to write off what we experience as our "self." I am not sure that Stoppard (or anyone else) has solved this puzzle. Based on the reviews, it appears (quoting The Wall Street Journal, again) that Stoppard is at least "asking the right question."

I think I've mentioned Iris DeMent in some earlier blog posts, and I'm casting my vote with Iris. She knows all about this "hard problem," but she's not going to try to solve it. You can listen to her approach, by clicking the link, below, and activating a video with some very nice music. Iris says, not without an appreciation for Tom Stoppard's efforts, I feel certain, that we had better stop fretting about that "hard problem," and just "let the mystery be."

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

#340 / Analog II

Teaching is like sex: technology can improve it at the margins.
       - Leon Botstein 
On November 10, 2018, the day I published a blog posting with the title, "Analog," I happened to reread an essay by Leon Botstein (pictured above). Botstein is the president of Bard College, and his essay, "Democracy and Public Space," is a written transcription of the remarks he gave at the opening of the Hannah Arendt Center's 2017 conference, "Crises of Democracy." 

Botstein is a pretty amazing person. You can see a short summary of his accomplishments, produced by Wikipedia, at the bottom of the page. For the moment, I would like to focus on Botstein's commentary on teaching and sex. In the essay, Botstein made clear that the analogy applies not only to teaching, but also to politics.

I trust most would join with me in acknowledging that sex must be, for the most part, an "analog" activity. That is, to be fully satisfying, it must be carried out within a real, physical space. Technology can provide some augmentations, perhaps, but only "at the margins." 

I agree with Botstein that the very same observation can (and must) be made about both teaching and politics. Real contact, with real people, in a real, physical space, is an absolute requirement. 

We are not going to change our politics online!


Leon Botstein

Botstein is the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO), where he served as music director and principal conductor from 2003-2010. He is also the founder and co-Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival. He is a member of the Board of Directors of The After-School Corporation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for all students. Botstein also serves as the Board Chairman of the Central European University, a graduate-level, English-language university accredited in the United States and Hungary and located in Budapest. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Open Society Foundation. In July 2016, Austria's Grafenegg Festival, a major international Austrian festival for classical music, appointed Botstein artistic director of the Grafenegg Campus and Academy, effective in 2018.

Botstein is the author of Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture and Judentum und Modernitaet. He graduated at age 16 from the High School of Music and Art in New York City, and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in music history. He credits David Landes and Harold Farberman as his mentors.

Botstein became the youngest (or possibly second youngest) college president in U.S. history at age 23, serving from 1970 to 1975 at the now-defunct Franconia College, after which he was named president of Bard College [at age 27].

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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

#339 / It's A BUMMER!

Pictured is Jaron Lanier. As I reported earlier, Lanier appeared recently on the UCSC campus. I was, unfortunately, not able to be there myself, but I did hear about his presentation from an extremely reliable source. She told me that Lanier is "really smart."

Among other things, Lanier is now promoting his latest book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Lanier makes a pretty good case, too! His basic argument is that social media sites actually comprise what he calls a "BUMMER Machine."

"BUMMER" is an acronym of sorts. It means:

Behaviors of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.

Lanier likes to think up clever ways to make his points. After giving us the secret key to understand what Lanier means by calling social media sites the BUMMER machine (see above), he then tells us that there is a "mnemonic for the six components of the BUMMER machine, in case you ever have to remember them for a test." They are:

A is for Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy
B is for Butting into everyone's lives
C is for Cramming content down people's throats
D is for Directing people's behaviors in the sneakiest way possible
E is for Earning money by letting assholes screw everyone else
F is for Fake mobs and Faker society

"Blogger" is the website I use to write these daily posts. It isn't, really, a social media site, and thus is not part of the BUMMER machine. Lanier is pretty clear in differentiating social media from the Internet in general. However, if you happen to be reading this post about Lanier and his admonitions, you may be seeing the post on Facebook or Twitter, and these are definitely sites that Lanier is hoping you will abandon RIGHT NOW. He prints that part of his title in red on the book's dust jacket.

I haven't yet taken Lanier's advice myself, but I do encourage you to read his book. It is short (146 pages), and might at least "vaccinate" you against the worst abuses of the BUMMER machine, even if you don't choose to do what his title tells you to do!

If you do choose to do what Lanier tells you to do, which means that you decide to delete your social media accounts, allow me to point out that you can subscribe to this blog directly, by clicking this link. If you enter your email address in the "Follow by Email" form that can be found right on top of my picture near the upper left-hand corner of my blog, you will receive my blog postings direct, and you won't have to pay any postage to the BUMMER Machine.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

#338 / "Originalism" Reconsidered

"Originalism" is a doctrine of Constitutional interpretation, often identified with former United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The idea of "originalism" is that there is "an identifiable original intent or original meaning, contemporaneous with the ratification of a constitution or statute, which should govern its subsequent interpretation."

That seems like a plausible way to think about how to interpret the Constitution. Let's look to the intent expressed in the words of the document. 

In recent times, the Supreme Court has tended to put forward "originalist" arguments in favor of its profoundly conservative decisions. Erwin Chemerinsky, the founding Dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law and now Dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, says "It’s Time for a Progressive Reading of the Constitution." He makes a good case that the so-called "originalist" decisions aren't reflecting the Constitution's original intent at all, and urges us to develop a "progressive reading."

Among other things, Chemerinsky notes that any genuine "originalism" would admit that the words of the Constitution ought to be understood and interpreted according to the intent of the Framers, as that intent is found within the document itself. Thus, Chemerinsky says:

The document should be interpreted to fulfill its central values. Therefore, it is essential to begin by identifying the core underlying values that the Constitution is meant to achieve. The place to start is at the very beginning, with the Preamble, which articulates the purposes for the document. The Preamble states: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I think Chermerinsky is onto something, in terms of how we should be thinking about the Constitution. Decisions on issues like gun control and campaign finance reform should reflect those Constitutional purposes. Let's think about "gun control," for example, in connection with the Constitution's commitment to "domestic tranquility." Seems like there is an important relationship right there!

Just to add on, let's also not forget that the Constitution was (and I would say still is) a "revolutionary" document. 

Let us not forget that "revolution" is what this country is supposed to be all about!

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Monday, December 3, 2018

#337 / Evelyn Y. Davis, R.I.P.

Above is a picture of Evelyn Y. Davis, who died on November 4, 2018, at age 89. I didn't know Evelyn Y. Davis, and I only found out about Davis' death from an obituary in The Wall Street Journal, published on November 10, 2018. Online, Davis' obituary ran under this headline: "Evelyn Y. Davis Would Have Wanted a Bigger Headline on This Obituary."

As I say, I had never heard of Evelyn Y. Davis until I read her Wall Street Journal obituary. Maybe you have never heard of her, either. She was, apparently, well known in some circles as a person who attended shareholders' meetings of a lot of different companies, often doing somethng dramatic to call attention to herself. Davis called herself “the Queen of the Corporate Jungle," according to The Wall Street Journal, and would do almost anything to attract attention. What was Davis' objective in making all these appearances at shareholders' meetings? "Discussing her goals with People magazine in 1996, she confided: 'The main thing is to keep my name out in front.'"

As we know (I am talking about president Trump), narcissistic, attention-seeking flamboyance can become dangerous to the public health, safety, and welfare. That happens when the Trump/Davis disease afflicts persons who are in positions of genuine responsibility. Luckily for corporate America, Davis was never in such a position, at least as far as I can tell. This did not keep her, of course, from evaluating her own achievements in the most flattering light, and claiming to have great "power." 

Below is a picture of Davis' three-tablet, memorial tombstone, which she designed in advance of her death. If you want to see a larger, and more readable version, you can click this link.

The tablet on the left reads as follows: "Power is greater than love, and I did not get where I am by standing in line nor by being shy."

As an advisory to the living, the irony of this pronouncement on a tombstone could hardly be greater. Evelyn Y. Davis did not get buried in the ground by standing in line, nor by being shy. But those who did stand in line, and who were shy, are buried in the ground all around her. Death is our common fate, and in the end, those who pursue "power" or "publicity" in this life, as differentiated from those who manifest "love" for others, are equally found down under the ground. What is left behind, after we are gone, are the memories of us that remain, that others hold in their hearts and minds.

I didn't know Evelyn Y. Davis, but I do have some postmortem sympathy and compassion for someone who was, I gather, just about as obnoxious as our current president, though posing a lot less danger to herself and others. 

Bob Dylan, as is so often the case, has some appropriate words

For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

Carl Sandburg also has written some words worth remembering:

At a Window

Give me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.

I fear that Evelyn Y. Davis may have had a rather sad and lonely life, granting that she may not have seen it that way herself. I fear that she may have missed that "little love" that makes this life worthwhile, though she may never have even noticed.

I want a different tombstone when I go down.

Evelyn Y. Davis: R.I.P.

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Sunday, December 2, 2018

#336 / A Story About Shouting

Deval Patrick is the former Governor of Massachusetts. He is pictured to the left. Patrick is contemplating a run for president, as a Democrat, in the upcoming 2020 elections.

It appears, from news reports, that Patrick has been getting some encouragement from the political allies of former president Obama, and also from the former president himself.

Those who would like to know more about Patrick might want to consult a recent profile in The New Yorker.

In The New Yorker profile, Patrick told a story that I think makes an important point. 

In 2014, as Governor, Patrick committed Massachusetts to accept young refugees from the Mexican border, and he described a visit to a Home Depot just after he had made his public announcement about this decision:

“I was confronted by a man in the checkout lane who just let me have it,” Patrick said. “‘Governor,’ he said, ‘I can’t tell you how strongly I disagree with your decision.’ He said, ‘My own wife is an immigrant, she came here legally, that’s the way it ought to be. I think you’re wrong.’ Now, he wasn’t threatening, but he was loud and he was angry and everybody in line knew who was angry at whom and what he was angry about."
But Patrick had six other encounters in the store, and “all six others in the store that day whispered, ‘Governor, you’re doing a good thing,’ ‘Governor, thanks for sticking by those children,’ ‘Governor, thanks for looking out after those kids.’ ” His office received many calls, too, most of them in favor of sheltering the refugees.  
“It struck me that something is so wrong when we learn to shout our anger and whisper our kindness,” Patrick said. “We have got to learn to stop being ashamed of being kind."

I do think that's good advice, and I would also suggest, when someone is shouting at us, that we don't shout back!

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Saturday, December 1, 2018

#335 / A Lesson From Nairobi

Here is a lesson from Nairobi, as conveyed to the United States by Kennedy Odede, whom Wikipedia identifies as "an internationally recognized social entrepreneur."

Don’t put your hope in elected officials. Real change starts locally.

This advice appeared by way of a column in The New York Times on Saturday, November 17, 2018, "What a Kenyan Slum Can Teach Us." It is a short column, and well worth reading.

Electing the people, who hire the people, who run our lives for us is not going to produce a satisfactory result - in Nairobi, Kenya or in Anywhere, America. We may think that power is located in those tall and imposing buildings, seen above, beyond the slums, but it actually comes from our own homes, and our own actions.

We will realize the benefits of self-government (a treasure truly to be prized) only when we get involved in the government ourselves. As one of our better presidents reminded us, our government is supposed to be "of" and "by" the people, not just "for" them. 

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Friday, November 30, 2018

#334 / The Good Mayor

Sam Liccardo, pictured, is the Mayor of San Jose. He appeared as a featured speaker, a little over a month ago, at an annual conference of environmental lawyers held at Yosemite. This was the 27th annual environmental law conference held at Yosemite, and while the conference this year seemed just like earlier editions, it actually took place under modified legal auspices. The conference used to be sponsored by the Environmental Law Section of the California State Bar, but now the various special interest and voluntary sections of the the State Bar have been spun off to a separate and independent nonprofit, the California Lawyers Association. The conference met at Tenaya Lodge, at Yosemite, from Thursday, October 18th to Sunday, October 21st. I have mentioned it in a couple of previous blog posts. You can click right here for the program.

Liccardo was chosen to speak, I feel certain, because he has been an environmental leader in two different ways. First, he is working to make more "infill" housing available in the center of his city. Many environmentalists think that preventing sprawl and infilling our central cities is the best way to accommodate population growth with the fewest environmental impacts. Liccardo is advancing that agenda in the City of San Jose.

Liccardo is not just promoting more residential growth and development inside the city, though. He is also pushing for permanent protection for the open spaces surrounding the city (and within it, too). Specifically, Liccardo has been a leader in trying to preserve and protect the Coyote Valley, which has long been slated for industrial development, even though it is a vital natural link between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range. Protecting the Coyote Valley is critically important if we want to maintain our midcoast region as a biologically healthy environment. Liccardo's strong support for Measure T, a bond issue that appeared on the November 6, 2018, City of San Jose ballot, helped convince voters to approve this measure. Measure T will provide up to fifty million dollars for land conservation in the Coyote Valley.

Because Sam Liccardo is working hard to protect the natural world, not just building more of the human world, I'm calling him out as a "good mayor." Most city leaders are devoted to lots more "development," and little else. A mayor who is at least equally dedicated to the preservation and protection of the natural world deserves to be called a "good mayor," in my opinion.

Liccardo spoke at a plenary session on Saturday morning. At one of the panel discussions held later that day, panelists addressed "The High Environmental Cost of California’s Housing Shortage," and promoted some of the ideas advanced by Liccardo. I was not completely sold on the proposals made during that panel, however, which tended to credit the idea that simply building "more" housing will make that housing more "affordable." 

"Affordable," of course, is a word that may disguise as much as it reveals, since everything is "affordable" to some one. If the people who most need "affordable" housing are those who have average or below average incomes, then the housing that meets the needs of those persons must be "affordable" to an individual or family earning a lot less than the more economically fortunate people in the community (or those who come from outside the community) who will likely be competing with local, and lower-income, residents for the housing that is available. The suggestion that building more infill housing will automatically mean more "affordable" housing is mistaken. The only housing that will be truly "affordable" to an individual or family with an averge or below average inome will be housing that is, somehow, price-restricted. In other words, "affordable" housing must be taken out of the so-called "free market." In a market, those who have the most money get what they want. 

One important thing to realize, in the Bay Area, anyway, is that those generating a huge part of housing demand (the large corporations with their jobs) are not paying for the impacts they are causing and there isn’t any solution unless we get money to write down the cost of newly-produced housing, keeping it as permanently “affordable” through price restrictions. Why not get  some of that money from those corporations?

Anyone who observes what is really happening can see that the private market will never produce "affordable" housing. It will just produce MORE housing, and that housing will be taken by those with more money. Since we have a global market competing for our very scarce housing supplies, plus a lot of billionaires and want-to-be billionaires competing for any housing that is produced, simply increasing supply won’t do anything except gentrify and otherwise drive ordinary working people out of the homes they may barely be holding on to. 

This is true throughout the Bay Area; in Santa Cruz County, this problem is acute, exacerbated by the growth of the UCSC campus, which is aiming to add 10,000 more students to a community where ordinary income workers are, literally, becoming homeless. Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz City Council, pushed by a pro-development city staff, has bought into the argument that we need to let the developers build more, and has actually reduced inclusionary requirements that can produce at least a little bit of price-restricted, and thus "affordable" housing. Maybe the new City Council, with three new members elected on November 6, 2018, will change that pattern.

In Santa Cruz, a "good mayor" will have to go one step beyond Sam Liccardo. We need city leaders who will demand that developers set aside a significant percentage of any new development permitted for price-restricted "inclusionary" housing that will actually be "affordable" to those who live and work in Santa Cruz!

PS: Just as a brief postscript, The Mercury News has reported that Mayor Liccardo (and other members of the San Jose City Council) signed "non-disclosure" agreements with Google, as the City negotiated in secret with Google over a proposed development in the heart of the San Jose. You can't really continue to qualify for "Good Mayor" status if you are hiding the ball from the people you represent. Just a thought for the Mayor! There is a lawsuit about this in progress, and any one who cares about self-government should definitely be on the side of full disclosure by public officials, not "non-disclosure." 

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

#333 / Our Bad

The FiveThirtyEight newsletter arrives in my email inbox on a daily basis. On Wednesday, November 14, 2018, the newsletter reported as follows (this report, of course, is no longer actually "news" to those reading this blog post on November 29th):

$2 billion in tax incentives
Amazon has announced New York and Virginia as its chosen sites for its second headquarters, or “HQ2” — never mind the mangled fact that these are not close to one another and at the very least it’s HQ2 and HQ3, or something similarly stupid. More pertinent is the fact that New York, yours truly apparently included, is paying Amazon $1.2 billion in tax incentives. We — meaning New York — have also apparently agreed to secure Jeff Bezos “access to a helipad.” Jeff, listen, because I’m paying for your gaudy lifestyle: You take the broken-ass subway for a month, and I’ll take the helicopter. After that, I’ll take you out for a beer at a good New York place, on me, we’ll exchange notes on commutes, and go from there. Deal? [The New York Times]

Jonathan Tashini, author of The Working Life podcast, made a comment about this same topic on the very same day. Tashini's podcast was distributed under the headline, "Amazon Bigfoots NY and VA." Tashini called Bezos "Robber Baron of the week." 

Let me suggest that it might have been more accurate to say Robber Baron of the YEAR, or maybe the decade, or maybe even the Century (though this Century is, admittedly, just getting started and there is a lot of Robber Baron potential still to come).

Robert McNamara is an historian now writing for the ThoughtCo website, which identifies McNamara as "the first-ever history editor for" McNamara defines "Robber Baron" as outlined below. I wonder whether or not he would agree with Tashini that this definition should be applied to his old boss:

Robber Baron was a term applied to a businessman in the 19th century who engaged in unethical and monopolistic practices, utilized corrupt political influence, faced almost no business regulation, and amassed enormous wealth.

McNamara's definition focuses on the "corrupt political influence" exercised by the Robber Barons. I have no knowledge whether or not Bezos utilized his immense wealth "corruptly" to get the commitments he received to subsidize his business. Maybe he did. My complaint is more along the lines of the objections put forth by Oliver Roeder, who was the actual author of the observstions made by FiveThirtyEight. 

Why should our local governments (or our state and national governments, for that matter) be providing massive subsidies for businesses and developers who are proposing changes that will benefit the businesses and the developers but that will almost certainly also reduce the quality of life for those already living in the community, and that will quite often saddle them with new economic burdens, as well?

I do think there is some "corruption" involved in these kind of deals, and sometimes it is the "Robber Baron" type of corruption, where political payoffs are given in exchange for selling out the public interest to those who are paying the bribes. However, even if this bribery-type of corruption is not present, we do need to recognize that our system of self-government has been corrupted at its core if we allow our elected representatives to make secret deals that will profoundly affect our future, without us (the public, the hypothtetically self-governing public) knowing anything about it in advance. 

If we allow our elected officials to do this to us (and it is very common that we do), then it is what some might say is "our bad!"

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

#332 / Capitalism And The Market

I have never been all that interested in jumping into the often highly-charged and highly-theoretical arguments that revolve around "capitalism" and the "market." Marxist and socialist friends and acquaintances have enjoyed the debate, I think, but I have never really wanted to get into it. I don't like the kind of results that our current economic system is producing, but I am not very enthusiastic about a system that would reduce or even eliminate the central role that individual choice plays in our current economic arrangements. 

The problem with "the market system," as we typically think of it, is that individuals don't have an equal status within the marketplace. We rely upon the marketplace to regulate the production and distribution of goods, but the system we have reflects the "golden rule" of economics. Those who have the gold get the goods. They get their way with respect to pretty much everything else, too. 

I enjoyed an article that appeared in a recent edition of Truthout, "Capitalism Is Not the 'Market System." I thought the article clarified a key point: 

Markets are a means of distributing resources and products, goods and services. Quid pro quo exchange defines markets: one person offers to sell to another who offers to buy at a mutually agreed ratio that may or may not be mediated by money. To say that a market exists means that such an exchange system is what accomplishes distribution. To say that a market exists says nothing about how production is accomplished or how resources are converted into products. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a description of how the production of goods and services is organized, and how the participants relate to one another in the process of production. Thus conflating “capitalism” with “the market system” loses sight of the fact that markets can exist in relation to different systems of production....
If productive enterprises remain structured around the employer-employee relationship, they remain capitalist with or without a coexisting market system.

The way I read this, the problem is found in the "ownership" structure of capitalism. Capital, or "money," owns the means of production, and that "golden rule" definitely applies. Money wins over the workers, and those who actually produce don't "own" the production for which they are responsible. 

The solutions are many, and they all involve ensuring that the workers who are "employees," and who, through their employment, actually produce the goods that represent the wealth of the nation, are also "owners" of the goods they produce.

This is really what Jeremy Corbyn, of the British Labour Party, is advocating. I wrote about the idea of worker ownership on October 6th. This Truthout article makes the point quite clearly: the "market system," which has a lot of advantages over placing government bureaucracies in the role of making the key decisions about production and distribution, can be completely divorced from "capitalism," which means that money owns everything. 

Money doesn't own everything. At least it doesn't have to. Not if we decide differently about who gets to "own" the products that result from our productive work!

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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

#331 / Integrities Makes A Recommendation

I am once again recommending the journal Integrities, published by the IF Foundation. The most recent edition has what I thought was a particularly insightful opening essay: "Confusion! What Is Really Happening?" 

The essay suggests that the confusion that abounds in our national politics is the result of a deliberate effort by the rich and the powerful to discourage political engagement and participation. The fact that it is difficult to know what is really going on is the desired outcome of those powerful forces that are seeking to abolish democratic self-government. The essence of our political "confusion" is that it is no longer easy (or maybe even possible, sometimes) to determine what is true and what isn't. 

The essay does not suggest retreat and disengagement. In fact, it counsels quite the opposite approach. It ends with the following piece of very good advice: 

Fight Truth Decay

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Monday, November 26, 2018

#330 / Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?

Democratic self-government is subject to many maladies. One of them is best epitomized by a wonderful song from 1965. That year, The Lovin' Spoonful released "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?" The group is pictured above. Click that title link for the music. Click this link for the lyrics

What made me think about this song (and not for the first time, either) is a continuing failure of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors to "make up its mind" when confronted by a difficult political choice. There is a pattern and practice at work here. I first became aware of this significnt problem with the decision-making process in Monterey County government when I was the Executive Director of LandWatch Monterey County. The Board continually refused to make a decision about what sort of General Plan it should adopt. Should the General Plan protect farmland, or not? Should it mandate regulations to stop building on steep slopes, or not? There were a number of such questions, with arguments on all sides. The Board preferred simply not to decide at all. It took the Board ten years, as I recall, to come to a decision, and then only by way of a settlement of a lawsuit.

The latest example of this pattern of decision avoidance is the County's failure to make decisions about the future of Short Term Vacation Rentals located in the Coastal Zone. This is a contentious political topic in Monterey County, and there are arguments on all sides. To be clear, I have been helping the Monterey County Vacation Rental Alliance, as its members seek to have the County adopt a set of rules that would permit (and regulate) vacation rentals in Monterey County's unincorporated areas. In other words, I am not a neutral party. My comment here, however, is not really about "what" the Board should do; it is an observation that refusing to make a decision at all is simply bad government. 

There are lots of good reasons to allow vacation rentals, and there are lots of good reasons to provide appropriate regulations, of various kinds, to make sure that when vacation rentals are permitted they are good neighbors in the neighborhoods, and don't end up causing impacts that undermine the integrity of residential areas. In addition, it is important that any regulatory program take account of the possibility that landowners who would otherwide provide needed rental housing don't convert such rental housing to vacation rentals. Real questions are involved, but there are real answers! The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, for instance, adopted a regulatory program for vacation rentals some time ago. Click right here to see the Santa Cruz County ordinance. San Luis Obispo County did the same.

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors has been working on this issue (to be generous in saying that the Board is "working on it") since 1997! 

1997 was the year that the Board sent an ordinance regulating vacation rentals in the Coastal Zone to the California Coastal Commission. The Commission staff promptly returned it to the Board, with various suggestions for amendments. The Board did nothing, ignoring the issue. More recently (though that word "recently" is problematic), the Board has been dodging the issue. Board Members have been doing that since 2013. A report on the website of the Monterey County Resource Management Agency, posted rather recently, now says that a draft ordinance may be presented to the Board by the end of 2019!

Having been on a Board of Supervisors, I know how long it takes to develop and decide upon proposed land use legislation, It doesn't take twenty-one years. It doesn't take five years. It doesn't even take one year!

The Board of Supervisors of Monterey County is trying to avoid making a decision about a difficult and divisive issue. That is perhaps understandable, but making such decisions is actually the Board's main job. The Board's failure to act impacts hundreds (and maybe even thousands) of local residents and property owners. I think the Board should face the music.

I also know exactly what music the Board needs to be listening to. Here's some very good advice from The Lovin' Spoonful. It's a metaphorical message, but right on target. Board members ought to put this song on their playlist:

Sometimes you really dig a girl the moment you kiss her,
And then you get distracted by her older sister.
When in walks her father and takes you in line,
And says, "Better go on home, son, and make up your mind."

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

#329 / America's Values

The above cartoon appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, November 23, 2018. On the same day, the editorial I reproduce below appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the title, "Trump's Crude Realpolitik." Same day, different papers, but a common theme. 

The editorial decries the president's statement on the Kashoggi assassination as failing to have referenced American "values." Are there, in fact, "values" that our national leaders should exemplify, when they can properly be seen as representing our nation? That would be nice, but I am of a mixed mind as I consider the criticism contained in The Wall Street Journal's editorial.

I surely agree that our president's statements about the brutal murder of a Saudi journalist, by agents of the Saudi government, deserves the rebuke that is delivered by The Wall Street Journal (and by the cartoon). If we are honest, though, as we pontificate about "America's values," we ought to admit that the United States of America practices a "realpolitik" that is fully as brutal as that exemplified by the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. The Journal's editorial, mentioning our national support for the arms business, provides several examples. But May I refer you, also, to the assassination of hundreds, or even thousands, of people that the president nominates for drone-delivered death, with no due process whatsoever, and with absolutely no accountability. That is what the United States is doing, daily, in places like Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

"Realpolitik" is not the kind of politics that I think should dictate our national conduct, and if the American people want to feel good about our "values," we need to change our own behavior, not just point the finger at others.


Trump’s Crude Realpolitik

President Trump did himself and the country no favor with his crude statement Tuesday on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents. 
Commenting on whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about the murder, Mr. Trump said in a statement only he could have written: “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
We are unsure of the purpose of the exclamation point here, just as we are unsure what goal Mr. Trump hoped to achieve with what can only be described as a raw and brutalist version of foreign-policy realpolitik. 
The bloody realities of the Middle East and the clear threat from Iran, which Mr. Trump described in his statement, give any U.S. President some latitude in forging a policy toward the region that reflects America’s interests. 
But we are aware of no President, not even such ruthless pragmatists as Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, who would have written a public statement like this without so much as a grace note about America’s abiding values and principles. Ronald Reagan especially pursued a hard-line, often controversial, foreign policy against Soviet Communism, but he did so with a balance of unblinkered realism and American idealism. Mr. Trump seems incapable of such balance. 
It is startling to see a U.S. President brag in a statement about a bloodthirsty murder that, in his “heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia” last year, he did $450 billion in commercial deals, including $110 billion to benefit Boeing , Lockheed Martin , Raytheon and “many other great defense contractors.” From Mr. Trump’s point of view, U.S. interests in the Middle East can be reduced to arms deals, oil and Iran. That is crass; no other word suffices.
We don’t mean to join the critics who through moralizing glasses seem to be suggesting that the U.S. has no choice other than to sever its relationship with Saudi Arabia over this murder. That wouldn’t cause the Saudis to change their behavior or serve U.S. interests. The Saudis, as Mr. Trump asserted, are important allies in a still-dangerous war against Middle Eastern terror fomented and supported by the mullahs in Iran. 
But Crown Prince Salman’s misjudgments have sometimes made protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East more difficult. He has shown himself to be reckless in his prosecution of the war in Yemen and willful in his dispute with Qatar. Even if he did not sanction Khashoggi’s murder, it’s clear he was aware that the journalist would be kidnapped and brought back to the Kingdom. 
That too is bad judgment that should raise doubts about the Crown Prince’s reliability and effectiveness as an ally. The risk is that Mr. Trump’s public reduction of the relationship to crass interests is that the Crown Prince will feel he can do anything and suffer no diminution of U.S. support. We hope Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are delivering a much tougher message in private. 
Like any President, Mr. Trump also needs domestic allies in pursuit of a foreign policy that sometimes requires hard choices. Instead, Mr. Trump’s statement isolates him from his natural supporters on Mideast policy, such as Senator Lindsey Graham or Senator-elect Mitt Romney, who both separated themselves Tuesday from the President’s position. 
The reality is that few members of Congress will align themselves with a statement bereft of asserting America’s abhorrence for the murder of political opponents. Without political or public support, Mr. Trump diminishes the odds that his Middle East strategy will succeed.

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