Sunday, September 26, 2021

#269 / In It Together

 

The New York Times published an article on September 21, 2021, with the following headline: "The World Is At War With Covid. Covid Is Winning." Here is one of the points made, quite forcefully, in the article: 

If countries commit to a global vision for vaccination and if they work together toward its realization, it’s possible the vast inequities of today will be avoided next time around. If individualism is allowed to prevail instead, the world’s resources will only grow more concentrated, and the world’s poorest nations will continue to be left out.
 
That the poorest nations are being left out, as the richest nations protect themselves from the current pandemic, is not really "news." That's more or less business as usual. 

In fact, the article actually makes another point, and a much more important one. Perhaps it is a point that those with "self-interest" as their main motivator in life will think about. 
 
If "individualism" is the way we think about the world, and our relation to it, then it is natural for individual persons, and individual nations, to care about themselves first. "Vast inequities" may be regrettable, but they aren't really very bothersome. That's just the way it goes. That's the nature of things. 

If, however, we could get our mind around the idea that we are living in this world "together," and that we are not just a collection of individuals, then we would realize that OUR fate is connected to the fate of the entire world - to the fate of every other person, and to the fate of every other nation. 

With respect to pandemic diseases, that is, in fact, the way things actually are! As Covid shows us, we are in this world together. 

Let's start acting as if we understood that!
 
 

 
Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/21/opinion/sunday/covid-vaccine-world.html
(2) - https://furhhdl.org/about-us/the-foundation/

Saturday, September 25, 2021

#268 / Happy Talk?

 

I have recently discovered that my father's most consistent and heartfelt admonition to me was almost certainly not original with him. Since September 25th was my father's birthday, today seems like an appropriate day to get this matter cleared up. Consider this blog posting as a tribute to Philips B. Patton, my Dad, born on September 25, 1914.
 
As previously reported in these blog postings (and on more than one occasion), my father consistently advised me of the following: "If you don't have a dream, Gary, you can't have a dream come true." 
 
I have always considered that to be extremely good advice, and that advice goes right along with what I learned from having "majored in utopia," and with that book my father gave me, too, As A Man Thinketh. "Possibility" is my favorite category - and I still hold to the idea that "nothing is impossible." Hannah Arendt, certainly one of the most important political thinkers, ever, is on exactly the same page with my father where possibility is concerned.

Given where I first (and repeatedly) heard that admonition about having a dream (Martin Luther King, Jr. only reinforced a message I had already received), I think it is natural that I believed that my father was the author of that "you've got to have a dream" piece of advice. 
 
While I must, undoubtedly, have listened to the musical South Pacific at some point in my life, I have no real recollection that I ever did, and since my life has been a lot more focused on "reading" than "listening," perhaps I can be forgiven for never having realized that my father got his heartfelt advice right out of Rodgers and Hammerstein

My wife (who totally remembers musicals of all kinds, from Oklahoma, to The Music Man, to Evita, to The King and I, to Hamilton, etc.), probably got tired of hearing about how smart my Dad was. At any rate, she recently revealed to me that the likely source of my father's "you've got to have a dream" speech is that "Happy Talk" song from South Pacific, for which a YouTube link is provided above. The entire set of lyrics can be reviewed right here, by clicking this link

I do a lot of quoting of Bob Dylan (to pick my favorite), so I am not offended that my Dad's best advice to me came from a world class songwriter. I do want to say, though, that I am disappointed that what I consider to be a serious, and even profound, advisory has its origins in a song that is titled, "Happy Talk." 

The expression "Happy Talk," as that expression is generally used, suggests something that is inconsequential and that is, in fact, an attempt to divert a listener's attention from all that is serious in the world. 

My father's advice (and so I will always consider it) is the opposite of "Happy Talk," as conventionally understood. My father's advice is serious advice!

"Possibility" is the realm in which freedom is found, and "if we don't have a dream, people, we can never have a dream come true!"
 
 
Image Credit:
https://youtu.be/JXgmQDFhPjo

Friday, September 24, 2021

#267 / Eric

 

Pictured is Eric Hoffer, sometimes known as the "Longshoreman Philosopher." According to Wikipedia, Hoffer was born in 1902 and died in 1983. 
 
In 2017, talking about Hoffer, The Wall Street Journal said that "no historian, political scientist or journalist of the past 60 years has predicted the current moment with such accuracy." The Journal was talking about the election of Donald J. Trump.
 
In the 1960s, as a college student at Stanford University, I remember being blown away by Hoffer's books. His most famous book is probably The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of Mass Movements. That book is still available in print, and if you haven't already read it, I suggest that you do. 
 
I read everything that Hoffer wrote, and with a couple of other Stanford students I once went to Berkeley, where Hoffer was then teaching. He was kind enough to meet with us during his office hours to discuss the concerns we brought him. We approached him as a wise man and a sage who could give us life guidance. Though I no longer have any memory of the particulars and specifics, I am pretty sure that we talked about the War in Vietnam and what we, as young students, could do to change the direction in which our nation was heading.

I was prompted to remember my good fortune in getting to meet with Hoffer personally by a reference to him in the September 2021, edition of In These Times. That magazine, just incidentally, is a publication that is quite a bit different from The Wall Street Journal.
 
In an editorial titled, "The Political Magic of the Democrats’ Infrastructure Plan," Rick Perlstein quotes Hoffer as follows: 
 
Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket.

This is, clearly, a bit of cautionary advice, and it rings true to what I remember about Eric Hoffer. The "Longshoreman Philosopher" did not defer to the supposed greatness of the self-proclaimed "leaders" in the Congress or the agencies. We shouldn't, either. It's great that the Administration has been able to craft an ambitious infrastructure investment plan, but we (the people) had better stay right on top of how all that money is going to be spent. 

Take it from Eric!
 
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Eric-Hoffer-1898-1983_fig2_337466964

Thursday, September 23, 2021

#266 / I Can't Understand The Markets



 
That is James Mackintosh pictured above. He writes a "Streetwise" column for The Wall Street Journal. The column title is not, really, or at least not intentionally, a reference to the dictionary definition of "streetwise" found in Merriam-Webster:

Definition of streetwise
Possessing the skills and attitudes necessary to survive in a difficult or dangerous situation or environment

Mackintosh is writing about Wall Street, and about the world's financial markets, and he has been given his column in The Journal because he, supposedly, has some expertise in this subject matter. 

Naturally, for those who might be reading the column for advice about what to do with their money, and who are relying on Mackintosh's expertise, the initial paragraph of his August 16, 2021, column might have been a bit nervous-making: 

I get uncomfortable when I can’t understand what’s going on in the markets, and I’m not really happy with my explanation for the weirdness of the Treasury market over the past few months. Given that pretty much everything else rests on Treasurys behaving sensibly, my level of discomfort is high (emphasis added).
 
Let me confess that I "can't understand what's going on in the markets," either, and that this disability is not a condition that has afflicted me only in the "past few months." Even though I have read The Wall Street Journal for years, I would never pretend to "understand" the machinations of those who move money and its equivalents around in the financial markets that people like Mackintosh scrutinize with such obsession. 
 
In fact, I long ago decided that I did not want to try to "make money" by investments, and by stock market "bets," and most recently by speculation in crypto-currencies and meme-stocks. That is not the way I want to provide food and shelter (and amenities) for me and for those I love. I decided that I should work for the money I need, rather than trying to "make money" by financial manipulations of one sort or another. 
 
That is an approach I recommend, and in my opinion, our government should be designing an economy that "works" for working men and women, instead of trying to make the financial markets "work" for those who want to "make money" in finance.
 
If our government had the interests of working men and women as its prime focus, "understanding the markets" wouldn't be such a big deal. 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-solve-the-mystery-of-falling-bond-yields-11626101962


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

#265 / Trickle Down Housing?

 

The Los Angeles Times is celebrating the fact that Governor Gavin Newsom has recently signed both SB 9 and SB 10. The Times' editorial is titled this way: "Watch out, NIMBYs. Newsom just dumped single-family zoning."  

The Times' headline is a pretty accurate statement of what just happened in Sacramento. No more single-family zoning, period, anywhere in California! 
 
For the information of Santa Cruz County residents, State Senator John Laird and State Assembly Member Mark Stone both voted in favor of SB 9, which directly attacks single-family zoning. They both voted against SB 10. In my opinion, SB 9 is by far the most dangerous and destructive of the two bills, since SB 10 is, quite likely, unconstitutional.
 
SB 9 is the most recent example of state legislation that is intended to eliminate the ability of local government elected officials (City Council Members and Members of Boards of Supervisors) to make decisions about local land use. Traditionally, local land use decisions are made by local officials. Increasingly, the State Legislature and the Governor are making sure that local officials will not be able to act locally, to determine whether a proposed development is good for their local community. The State Government is now taking over zoning and land use powers. Of course, since the State Legislature can't possibly review individual development proposals, the state has been making blanket rules. Local and neighborhood impacts have become legally irrelevant, thanks to these new state laws.
 
As an example of what this means, SB 9 gives the owner of virtually any single-family lot the right to divide that single-family lot into two lots, and then to build two residential structures on each of those lots. What was once one home on a single lot can now become four homes on two lots. Maybe, although there is definitely some question about this, additional accessory units can also be constructed on the two lots, leading to the development of six or more residential structures on what was that single-family lot.
 
SB 10 permits local officials to allow a property owner or developer to develop up to ten residential units on certain properties, at whatever height the local officials determine is appropriate. Local officials do need to make decisions like that by a 2/3 vote. SB 10 also allows local governments to ignore local land use regulations that have been directly adopted by local voters through the initiative process. Because the initiative power comes from the California Constitution, it is quite possible that SB 10 will not survive court challenges.
 
In addition to limiting, or even eliminating, the ability of locally elected officials to make land use decisions, the state government has also decided that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) should not be used to judge the potential environmental impacts of many proposed development projects. 

If you think that elected officials operating out of Sacramento are better equipped to make good decisions about land use than elected officials who have been put into office by local voters, you will be a big fan of SB 9 and SB 10, and the many other, similar, laws that the State Legislature has been enacting. If you think that all those "environmental reviews" that have been required under CEQA are just a time-wasting diversion, you will really be happy!

I am not predicting that everyone will be happy with what the Legislature and the Governor have been doing, particularly as they see the results of what the State Legislature and the Governor have already done. I know I am not alone in thinking that the State has made a fundamental mistake in eliminating the right of local communities to set most of their own rules for land use, as has traditionally been the case. A group called Livable California has already submitted a proposed state initiative measure to the Attorney General, to reverse the state's takeaway of local land use powers. Click this link if you would like to review what Livable California is proposing. In general, the Livable California initiative would return local land use powers to locally-elected officials.

oooOOOooo
 
But We Need Affordable Housing, Right?
 
Do we? Yes we do! There is no doubt about it. The problem is this. What the state is doing assumes that "more" housing development means that there will be more "affordable" housing opportunities for those who currently can't afford to rent or buy adequate housing. This is the idea that the "market" will provide the solution to our social and economic problems. If you believe that, you'll be delighted by what Sacramento has done, and is continuing to do.

However, let's take SB 9 as an example, once again. There is NO provision in SB 9 that says that the new housing to be developed (four houses on what was once a single-family lot) will have to be sold or rented to persons who have average or below average incomes. Instead, all the new housing will be "market rate" housing. The actual outcome, in a place like Santa Cruz, is that existing "lower end" housing (old and "tired" housing found in many single-family neighborhoods in Santa Cruz) will now become more valuable (since now that "lower end" and "tired" single-family home can be turned into four new homes). SB 9 provides an economic incentive for owners and purchasers to "upgrade" their properties from that one "tired," and thus lower-cost home to four new market rate units. The net result will be less, not more, affordable housing. 
 
 
The single-family rental business has faced criticism from housing advocates for driving up the costs of homes and pricing local bidders out of the market. A 2016 analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta determined that Wall Street landlords are significantly more likely to file eviction notices than mom-and-pop landlords. 

If you think that legislators in Sacramento are working for YOUR best interests, consider the possibility that they may be working on behalf of the monied special interests, instead. Such monied interests might not be able to beat out concerned neighbors, at a local level, but they will almost always prevail at the state and national level, where ordinary people can't possibly out lobby them. 

Are you happy that the state government is usurping local control? Do you really believe in "trickle down housing?" I don't think "NIMBYs" are the reason that ordinary income people can't afford housing in my community. I believe that our problems stem from the massive wealth inequality that is perpetuated by the giant financial corporations that control our government, and that those big money interests have just outflanked governments that might - in many cases - have actually been able to act in the interest of those ordinary people who are being priced out of our local communities. 

Was the enactment of SB 9 and SB 10 really a victory for those who want more affordable housing? I have already written a blog posting about this topic. Click the following link if you would like to revisit what I have had to say about what's really going on - and suggests that we need a "Marshall Plan" for housing, not a "Market Plan!"

 
 

 
Image Credits:
(1) and (2) -  https://www.livablecalifornia.org/


Tuesday, September 21, 2021

#264 / Ending In A Revelation

 

Pictured within the YouTube clip above is Jad Abumrad, creator of the hit public radio series RadioLab. RadioLab is produced by WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, and is then broadcast on public radio stations throughout the United States. 
 
Since I am not much of a podcast listener, I had never heard of Abumrad until I ran across the TED Talk presentation linked above. I encourage you to listen to it, in its entirety. It is extremely professionally produced (though I was personally disappointed that no one ever picked up that banjo in the background). Abumrad's TED Talk is just over thirteen minutes long, and celebrates Dolly Parton's wonderful song, "My Tennessee Mountain Home." Hearing from Abumrad, in this TED Talk, is a worthwhile commitment of your time.
 
Abumrad tells us how his work with Dolly Parton gave him a new perspective on what his RadioLab segments should be trying to accomplish. Getting to "Wow" is good, and that is where he began, but Abumrad started to think that "Wow" wasn't quite good enough. Then, Abumrad began understanding that if his podcasts could present and dramatize significant divisions and difference within our society, this could help listeners gain important and worthwhile insights. He focused his podcasts on doing that, but he ended up not being completely satisfied with that kind of focus, either.

Finally, Abumrad did a nine-part series on Dolly Parton, and came up with a new idea. "A story cannot end in difference," says Abumrad. "It has to end in revelation." We have to find a place, he says, "where the things we hold as different resolve themselves in something new." Dolly Parton, Abumrad says, has found a way to do that with her audience. 

We have to do that with our country.

 
Image Credit:
https://youtu.be/Ji4sq73W7BM
 

Monday, September 20, 2021

#263 / System Error

 

Since I teach a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz on "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom," I was naturally interested in a July 14, 2021, editorial statement by The New York Times, titled, "The Assault on Our Privacy Is Being Conducted in Private." I have reprinted the statement below, to help those who might like to read the statement avoid any possible frustration at The Times' paywall.

Besides announcing a soon-to-be-released book by three Stanford University professors, System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot, The Times' statement made this very important observation: 

Much of the erosion of online privacy stems from the Federal Trade Commission’s policy known as “notice and choice,” which grants companies almost no boundaries on what they can collect, as long as users are informed.
 
I'll be interested to read System Error when it comes out, to see if the authors have a workable alternative. As we all know (as I hope we all know), we are compelled to agree to surrender our privacy if we want to make use of the many internet-based services upon which we rely. We do get "notice," and our "choice" is either to surrender access to our private information or not participate in modern, internet-based life. 
 
Social media platforms like Facebook, and companies like Google and Amazon, are accumulating a vast database of information on each one of us - which may even include the content of conversations carried out in our private homes, when we have internet-connected assistants like "Alexa" on the job. The databases maintained by these internet platform corporations are routinely opened up to the government, with no notice to us, and without any "search warrant" or other judicial review in advance.

If you don't think that there is any significant danger in the current system, think again. Not only are we easily manipulated for commercial purposes, based on the personal information available to the huge internet platforms that play such a controlling role in our lives, the information available in these databases provides an open door to authoritarian, and even totalitarian, governmental actions.

There is, indeed, a "system error." We have permitted a very bad system to become deeply established. I don't think it's going to be all that easy to change it!
 
oooOOOooo

The Assault on Our Privacy Is Being Conducted in Private

Mr. Bensinger is a member of The Times editorial board.
 
“You have zero privacy anyway,” Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, infamously declared more than 20 years ago. “Get over it.”

Well, you shouldn’t get over it. The rise of social media, Google and online shopping and banking has made us far more exposed than back in the internet’s infancy in 1999. Today, personal data like your Social Security number, bank account information, passwords, purchases, political beliefs, likes and dislikes are stockpiled in central databases. That makes it more easily analyzed than ever before by companies that want to part you from your money, and easier for criminals to steal or for the government to sift through. Worse, we hand over much of it willingly.
 
Perhaps you feel Mr. McNealy’s remark was prescient and that tech companies have simply won out in the battle for access to your every desire or private thought. (They even track your mouse movements.) And it may feel benign to turn over your shopping and web browsing history to technologists in Silicon Valley. But it should worry you that access to your data and myriad inferences about you are a mere government request away.
 
At a congressional hearing last month, Tom Burt, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for customer security, said his company fields as many as 3,500 federal law enforcement requests annually for sensitive customer data, all under order of secrecy.
 
“Most shocking is just how routine secrecy orders have become when law enforcement targets an American’s email, text messages or other sensitive data stored in the cloud,” said Mr. Burt. In other words, the days of trench-coat-clad G-men riffling through filing cabinets are long over, and the assault on our privacy is being conducted, well, in private.

There are real consumer benefits to this data aggregation, of course. Facebook and many other sites are free in large part because of the volume of data fed daily into the companies’ ravenous maws, which in turn feed their lucrative targeted advertising business. The more that ads can be tailored to each consumer, the higher the ad price. It’s the difference between being shown a generic Nike shoe ad and being shown one for Nikes in the correct size, color and style.

Any notion that digital privacy is overrated is belied by Facebook’s very public anger over Apple’s recent move to allow iPhone users to choose to stop being tracked across the mobile web. Your data is worth billions.

Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, recently argued in The Washington Post for curtailing the secret gag orders to help restore consumers’ privacy. But he failed to acknowledge that Big Tech makes itself an obvious stop for investigators through its voracious aggregation of data on its users, nor did he offer solutions that would reduce the flow of information from users to corporate computers — and ultimately to governments.

The assaults on our privacy have become not only more secretive but also far more efficient. Americans once blanched at government efforts to sweep up data, including through the Patriot Act after Sept. 11 and programs like the Clipper Chip, which created a back door for the government to monitor phone conversations.

Much of the erosion of online privacy stems from the Federal Trade Commission’s policy known as “notice and choice,” which grants companies almost no boundaries on what they can collect, as long as users are informed, often in unwieldy terms and conditions statements, according to “System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot,” a forthcoming book by three Stanford University professors. “Nobody expects, much less desires to be tracked from moment to moment, with the intricate details of our lives pieced together and made permanently reviewable by companies or governments,” they write.

The trouble, they argue, is that Big Tech places the burden on users to protect their own privacy, which the companies would otherwise exploit at will. But most consumers can’t be expected to read hundreds of pages of disclosures, nor, if they object to their data being collected, to exclude themselves from participating in discourse through Facebook, Twitter or Google.

In their efforts to prosecute or prevent crime, governments may sweep up health, sexual or financial information that can affect future employment or benefits and that most people wouldn’t otherwise willingly release. Facial recognition software, made available to governments, has sweeping and chilling implications for surveillance and law enforcement and even for legal activities like participating in protests.

President Biden signaled his own concerns, directing the F.T.C. in his broad executive order this month to write new rules concerning private surveillance and data collection. While the changes could take years to come to fruition, they are a welcome acknowledgment of the extent of the problem.

Technology companies have exploited for far too long users’ and lawmakers’ indifference to a market devised by them that optimizes for ever-greater data collection in exchange for free products like email and digital maps.

The authors of “System Error” call for three reforms: a federally mandated right to privacy, revisions to the rules on informed consent so that consumers know what they are agreeing to and a new government agency to protect citizens’ privacy rights.

Congress has considered federal privacy legislation for several years but has been unable to pass a bill, leaving states to pass their own patchwork of protections. 
 
However, the Biden administration appears to be turning the tide on regulatory apathy, in addition to a promising slate of antitrust bills in Congress that would fix some of the imbalance between Big Tech and consumers. But it will also require a collective sense of outrage — you don’t have to be OK with signing your life away to Silicon Valley technocrats.
 
Image Credit:
https://isg-one.com/consulting/strategy/articles/striking-the-balance-data-privacy-vs.-personalization
 
 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

#262 / How Equality Slipped Away

 
 
An article published online by Aeon tells us "How Equality Slipped Away." According to this article, "our particular species of humans has been around for about 300,000 years and, best as we can tell, for about 290,000 of those years we lived materially poorer but much more equal lives." 
 
So what happened during the last 10,000 years? We have gone from Ubuntu (click that link and/or see the picture below) to the construction of human societies that are premised upon vast disparities in wealth and privilege. And that definitely includes our own society, here in the United States of America, where massive income and wealth inequality is one of the realities that most determines how we live today.


Kim Sterelny, who is a professor of philosophy at the Australian National University, and who has won several international prizes in the philosophy of science, is the author of the article in Aeon to which I am citing. He says that we went from societies that were fundamentally egalitarian to our currently unequal ones when farming and "storage" supplanted economies based on foraging. Sterelny concludes his article by stating that "egalitarian, cooperative human communities are possible, and that widespread sharing and consensus decision-making aren’t contrary to ‘human nature’ (whatever that is)."
 
Well, that sounds rather "upbeat," by way of a conclusion - at least if you think that equality is basically a good thing. However, Sterelny goes on to point out that such egalitarian and cooperative communities are "not inherently stable." I guess not! I am not seeing too much evidence that there are any such communities, anywhere, in our world today - except, maybe, those religious communities that sill exist, here and there, and which you can find out about by reading the Plough Quarterly.
 
As I pondered Sterelny's explanation of how equality "slipped away," as something that used to be, but is no longer, the basic organizing principle for human communities, Sterelny's observations about "storage" seemed most pertinent: 

For mobile foragers, sharing is insurance. Hunting especially is very chancy, requiring both luck and skill, so it’s adaptive to share if you succeed today, on condition that others share with you when you fail. Targeting plants and small animals is more of a sure bet, though in some forager communities even these are shared, as the social rewards of generosity are important, and the social costs of refusing are high since the intimacy of forager camps makes success hard to conceal.
Storage, however, tends to erode sharing. Storing, like sharing, is a way of managing risk, and farmers are more likely to store than to share. Variation in supply within the community is likely to flow from variation in commitment and effort, not differences in luck. Local bad luck – unfavourable weather, a plague of pests – will probably affect everyone in a community, which makes sharing a poor form of insurance. It’s to my advantage to share with you, if my good years are your bad ones, and vice versa (so long, of course, as you return the favour). Not so if we’re both having it tough at the same time, as we have no surplus to share; and not so if we both have good years together, as then we don’t need one another (emphasis added).
 
Another way of talking about "storage," particularly in a modern, non-agricultural context, is to equate "storage" to "wealth accumulation."
 
In other words, if we want to build a more "equal" world, we might want to try turning our attention to the massive income inequalities and wealth inequalities that typify our contemporary societies (and particularly in the United States). Developing an economy and society in which wealth accumulation isn't the objective of every person could go a long way to recapturing that spirit of equality that can sustain us for the long term.


Image Credits:
(1) - https://aeon.co/essays/for-97-of-human-history-equality-was-the-norm-what-happened
(2) - https://www.gapatton.net/2014/07/197-ubuntu.html
 
 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

#261 / An Immense Human Idea


 
That is V.S. Naipaul in the picture above. As Wikipedia tells us, Naipaul, who died in 2018, was "a Trinidad and Tobago-born writer of works of both fiction and nonfiction."  Naipaul is "known for his comic early novels set in Trinidad, bleaker novels of alienation in the wider world, and his vigilant chronicles of life and travels." He published more than thirty books over fifty years.
 
This blog posting was stimulated not by my personal reading of Naipaul, but by a reference to Naipaul in an August 4, 2021, New York Times column by Bret Stephens. Stephens is a political conservative, and his August 4th column was titled, "What Should Conservatives Conserve?
 
In his column, Stephens writes approvingly of Naipaul's celebrated 1990 lecture on the subject of "Our Universal Civilization." Stephens makes clear that what Naipaul means by this is "The West." Stephens thinks we should be conserving an appreciation of "The West," or what is often called "Western Civilization," and that we should also, specifically, appreciate the contributions of the American Revolution. I am not exactly a political "conservative," but I do agree with Stephens' sentiments on this last point. 

In his column, Stephens mentions the uniquely American idea that all human beings have an "inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness." Here is Stephens' reference to what Naipaul has to say about that:

"This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery,” said Naipaul in his 1990 speech. “So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism (emphasis added).”
 
I have long thought that we have not paid nearly enough attention to exactly what the Declaration of Independence means when it claims that it is "self-evident" that every person has an "unalienable" right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Those who study (or teach) the Constitution, as I do, will be familiar with the Ninth Amendment, the statement within the Bill of Rights that played such an important role in securing, for women, a "right to choose," as that right was recognized by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, a Supreme Court decision that came by way of Griswold v. Connecticut

The Ninth Amendment provides that "the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights [like the Fourth Amendment right to be free from arbitrary searches and seizures, for instance] shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." And, of course, the Framers of the Constitution definitely knew that those "other rights" included the unalienable rights claimed for all of us in the Declaration, including the right to the "pursuit of happiness." 
 
The assertion that you and I - and everyone - can absolutely claim an individual and unalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness" - and that we can each decide and determine for ourselves what happiness will require, for us - is truly an "immense human idea," as V.S. Naipaul claimed.

The question for all of us - individually and collectively - is whether we will actually accept the challenge that is posed to us by the assertion that we have the right to "pursue happiness." 

To take the time to discover what will make us happy, and then to realize, exactly, what that truly means for what we will do, and for how we will live, and then actually to pursue, through thought and action, those things that will bring us "happiness," is a challenge that will define the meaning and purpose of our individual lives, and the meaning and purpose of our collective life, the life we make together.
 
Claiming that we all have a right to the "pursuit of happiness" is an all-encompassing assertion. It is an idea that is life defining. Naipaul was right.  This is an "immense human idea." 


 
Image Credit:
https://time.com/5367849/vs-naipaul-legacy-reactionary/

Friday, September 17, 2021

#260 / A "Marshall Plan" Or A "Market" Plan?



On September 16, 2021, The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized about the failure of the Newsom recall. The picture above comes from the online version of The Chronicle's editorial, which may, or may not, be something that non-subscribers can access. 
 
For those who might be stymied by a "paywall" problem, if they click that link, let me summarize the basic thrust of The Chronicle's editorial by giving you the headline: "Recall was a slaughter. Will Newsom start acting boldly or play it safe until 2022?" 
 
Below, I am providing the final two sentences of the editorial, just to make crystal clear that Newsom's hometown newspaper wants him to pursue the "acting boldly" option, not the "play it safe" approach:
 
It remains to be seen, however, if Newsom will regard his recall sweep as a mandate for bold action or justification for cautious triangulation. California doesn’t the have time, or, likely, the inclination, to indulge the latter.

Mentioned in the editorial was a promise Newsom made in his 2018 campaign for Governor. He "vowed to lead a 'Marshall Plan' to build housing." Instead of doing that, says The Chronicle, housing production was "a mere fraction of what Newsom promised."
 
If our state really wants to pursue a "Marshall Plan" for housing, we need to understand what would be involved in such an approach. The approach actually supported by The Chronicle, and by the State Legislature (and, as it turns out by Governor Newsom), is not based on the "Marshall Plan" at all, and is not going to achieve the results that The Chronicle says it wants to see. 
 
So far, the state's approach to our affordable housing crisis (strongly supported by The Chronicle and now supported by Governor Newsom's decision to sign both SB 9 and SB 10) has been to cut back on environmental review, and on local government discretion, to allow developers to "build, build, build." The idea, of course, is that there is some sort of "law of supply and demand" that turns "more" housing into housing that is "more affordable." That's a "Market Plan," not a "Marshall Plan."
 
Unfortunately, the idea that the "market" can produce affordable housing does not pan out. The experience in my own hometown, Santa Cruz, indicates the problem. There have been lots of new housing developments approved, but only a very small percentage of the new units will ever be affordable to persons with average and below average incomes. Rich people, who quite frequently do not currently live or work in Santa Cruz, are buying up the new housing (and existing housing, too, for that matter) and are often turning both new and existing housing into "second homes," left vacant much of the year. Other coastal communities are having the same experience. In Carmel, 50% of all housing units are vacant. Luckily, Santa Cruz is not there yet, but that's where we are heading.

Betting on "the market" to produce housing that is affordable to persons with average or below average incomes is a failing strategy because the purpose of a "market" is to allocate scarce goods to those who have the most money. And that is how it works, too. In our 21st Century society, conditions of wealth inequality mean that ordinary men and women can never outcompete those at the top of the income scale. Pretending we can do that (and that the need to produce "affordable" housing for the market should trump every other community value) is simply a license for developers to maximize their profits, while undermining the integrity of city neighborhoods and the long-term financial stability of the city, and doing very little for the people who actually need the affordable housing that is the bait affixed to the developers' hook. 

As opposed to the "market" approach, let's take that Marshall Plan idea seriously!

The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, was a U.S. program providing aid to Western Europe following the devastation of World War II. It was enacted in 1948 and provided more than $15 billion to help finance rebuilding efforts on the continent. The brainchild of U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, for whom it was named, it was crafted as a four-year plan to reconstruct cities, industries and infrastructure heavily damaged during the war and to remove trade barriers between European neighbors—as well as foster commerce between those countries and the United States (emphasis added).
 
As indicated above, the "Marshall Plan" was not a plan that relied, primarily, on "market forces." It relied on direct government investment (albeit this investment did, of course, then stimulate the market to help build an economic recovery). A "Marshall Plan" approach is what is actually needed in the United States, to address our affordable housing crisis. 
 
We need a program by the government (and it is the federal government that has the most access to the money needed) that directly subsidizes and underwrites housing that will be rented or sold, exclusively, to persons with average or below average incomes, and that will be permanently price-restricted, to eliminate future housing speculation, and to maintain our housing stock as a resource available to house people, and not as a commodity in which the wealthiest people can invest and speculate. 

A "Marshall Plan" for housing would actually work. The housing produced would not be for "the market," but for those persons who can't compete in the market to obtain housing they can afford. The Chronicle spoke better than it knew, since the paper has consistently backed the "free market" approach to housing affordability - a strategy that actually did work in the 1940s and 1950s, when wealth inequality had not yet hollowed out the so-called "middle class." Today, the "market" approach has demonstrably failed to provide adequate new affordable housing. 
 
A new "Marshall Plan" for affordable housing is exactly the right prescription, and if Governor Newsom is willing to "act boldly," as the Chronicle urges him to do, he should be using state resources (and every bit of federal resources he can manage to acquire) to build housing that will be rented or sold only to average or below average income persons - and that will be permanently price-restricted to keep it that way.


Image Credit:
https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Editorial-Did-Gavin-Newson-survive-recall-too-16461328.php

Thursday, September 16, 2021

#259 / Plunkitt's Proposition




A July 13, 2021, editorial in The Wall Street Journal put me in mind of George Washington Plunkitt. Plunkitt is pictured above. The editorial was titled, "The Meaning of Biden's Firing Spree."

The specific "firing" to which The Journal directed its attention was the firing of Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul, who was appointed by former President Trump in 2019, and whose six-year term as the head of the Social Security Administration wouldn't have expired until 2025.

I read about Plunkitt when I was in college, in a book titled, "Plunkitt of Tammany Hall." The book I read (I still have it) was published in 1963, but its contents are contemporary with Plunkitt himself. Plunkitt was a proponent of "Honest Graft," and the book is subtitled, "A series of very plain talks on very practical politics, delivered by ex-senator George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany philosopher, from his rostrum - the New York County Court House bootblack stand." These talks were "recorded by William L. Riordon," so the advice contained within the book really does come directly from Plunkitt himself.

Among Plunkitt's speeches, faithfully recorded, was a speech on "The Curse of Civil Service Reform," which Plunkitt labeled "the biggest fraud of the age," and "the curse of the nation." 

Plunkitt's point is worth considering. The book was assigned reading in college for a reason. In essence, Plunkitt's argument is this: when a political party wins political office, it can accomplish what it promised the voters only if it can, itself, name the agents who will carry out the policies advocated for in the campaign leading up to the election. 

President Biden and the Democratic Party did a lot of promising about Social Security during the 2020 election, and President Biden won. Suggesting that Social Security officials named by the former president, the president who ran and lost, should be in charge of the Social Security System, rather than a person appointed by the president who got elected, does tend to defeat the idea that a democratic election is supposed to mean something. 

Think about it. Insulating governmental officials from "politics" does not, really, improve the ability of our democratic system to deliver for the people. As it turns out, and as The Wall Street Journal notes, the United States Supreme Court is of similar mind. In Seila Law v. CFPB, a 2020 decision, the Supreme Court held that President Trump could fire the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Court also held, in Collins v. Yellen, a 2021 decision, that the president could fire the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

George Washington Plunkitt would be gratified!

I think we should be, too.


Image Credit:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_W._Plunkitt

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

#258 / Which Way To Uptopia?

 

The July-August issue of The Nation magazine is dedicated to utopian thinking. I have reproduced the cover, above. The magazine contains a number of articles that reference utopia, and I particularly liked an article by John Nichols, "Politics: Utopia Is Possible, If We Demand It." 

Nichols names Tom Paine as "the most influential utopian thinker in American history." He then goes on to identify Paine as a "gritty political agitator."

To the degree that Paine is remembered today, the "agitator" label is probably what would seem most appropriate to those who do remember him. However, I think Nichols is right to suggest that Paine should really be classified as our "original utopian thinker." Why does Nichols so denominate him? He does so because of this quotation from Paine, which is the essence of what utopian thinking is all about:
 
We have it in our power to begin the world over again. 
Paine was right, you know (as the American Revolution demonstrated), and his observation that we always have the ability to do something new, something never ever even thought of before, is exactly the observation that Hannah Arendt makes in my favorite book in the world, On Revolution
 
We do (always) have it in our power to begin the world over. We still do! 
 
And we had better give it a try, too! 

Soon!
 
 
 Image Credit:
 https://www.thenation.com/issue/july-26-august-2-2021-issue/
 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

#257 / The Weekly Dump



The picture at the top of this blog posting comes from the Santa Mierda website. Santa Mierda translates as "Holy Shit." The website claims to have been "Keeping Santa Cruz Vibrantly Honest Since 2016."
 
The owners and operators of the Santa Mierda website produce a periodic bulletin, "The Weekly Dump," which chronicles lots of the bad things that are happening in the local community, specifically including any outrages associated with homeless persons (see the picture above). "The Weekly Dump" also pays close attention to crimes of all varieties, from murder to petty theft. A short summary of the July 31, 2021, edition is as follows: 

Time for the latest, fashionably late, Weekly Dump! Lots of people dying under suspicious circumstances this week. Killing us softly with their song and dance. We’re also talking dire straits, lumberjacks, suspected rapists causing mayhem, falling into the Gap, local murder suspect arrested in Idaho, crash into me, ungrateful spread, Keith McKaren, ass dismissed, and the return of the Weekly Seen.
 
As I read through that particular bulletin, which appeared in my email inbox not fashionably late at all, but exactly on July 31st, I had a thought that I had not really had before - not, at least, in the form that this thought came to me on Saturday, July 31st. The thought had to do with how we think about persons who have ("allegedly") committed crimes, and who, in fact, probably did commit them.
 
The "Weekly Dump," as it reports on murders and other crimes, always focuses on what the murderer or other criminal did, and how outrageous that was. That is not, of course, unusual. The way ("alleged") criminal violations are usually covered focuses on what the "bad guy" did. "The Weekly Dump" may provide a more "colorful" description than the typical journalistic account - it's far more scornful and dismissive of alleged lawbreakers than other journalistic reports - but all reports about crimes tend to focus, generally, on what the alleged "bad guy" did.
 
Here's the "Lumberjack" item, from the July 31, 2021 edition of "The Weekly Dump," as an example of how "The Weekly Dump" generally informs its readers about the apprehension of (alleged - but probably guilty) lawbreakers: 

He’s a Lumberjack and He’s Not OK
Last Friday night around 10PM, Santa Cruz Sheriff’s deputies pulled over a vehicle on Felker Street. When they ran the driver’s name, it came back that he was wanted for a number of felony warrants out of Campbell. Deputies could visibly see a handgun from outside the car, and when the driver resisted arrest he was pulled out of the vehicle. They also found crystal meth in the car. The 26 year old male, who listed his occupation as “Lumberjack”, was arrested for a variety of charges, including being a felon in possession of a gun, resisting arrest, drug possession while armed, carrying a loaded gun in a public place, and possession of a stolen gun. Campbell Police actually were willing to pick this bum up, so he did get arrested and he’s currently sitting in county jail waiting for his ride back to Campbell.

What follows is the thought I had as I read this and other items in the July 31, 2021, edition of "The Weekly Dump." What if, when we think about the apprehension of an alleged criminal (who probably is guilty) we focused not on what that person did - what that person did to others, or to society - but thought, instead, about what had happened to that alleged lawbreaker (who is probably guilty, of course). 

Our entire criminal justice system is set up to punish people who have done something bad. We focus on what the "bad guy" did, and since what that person did was often quite bad, indeed, we instinctively then turn our attention to what we, society, should do to that person in return. Here's what that person did to us. So what are we going to do to them?
 
We could have a different point of view, and think, when we learn of a crime, what a horrible thing must have happened to the person who was involved in perpetrating that crime (and who was probably guilty of it, of course). We would then tend to think about what we could do to offset what had happened to the person who committed the crime, and that could restore him or her to what we might think of as "factory settings," defined as our basic humanity at the time of our birth. 

Some people, after they come into this world, are lucky enough to have experiences that mean that they end up as positive, contributing members of society. Surely, that's the way it is "supposed to be." Others, however, like that "Lumberjack" fellow, have experiences that end up turning that person into a criminal. That is horrible for society, of course - all those bad things that the Lumberjack did. But it's pretty horrible for the Lumberjack, too. What a sad thing. What if we saw it from that perspective, and thought about what we, society, could do to make that right for the (alleged, but probably guilty) lawbreaker? What could we do to make sure that the Lumberjack will never end up doing more really bad things?

That shift of perspective could lead us into a new idea of what a system of "restorative justice" ought to be all about. 
 
That's just the thought I had, as I was reading the July 31, 2021, edition of "The Weekly Dump." That is the day I first had that thought in exactly that way. 
 
The concept, though, is certainly not new - either to me, or I hope to you. Joan Baez, in fact, sings a pretty nice song about that way of looking at the world (and at alleged, and probably guilty) lawbreakers: 



Image Credit:
http://www.santamierda.com/category/the-weekly-dump/


Monday, September 13, 2021

#256 / Speed Limits (And Similar Matters)

 

If you drive a car in California, you're familiar with the speed limit mandate. At least, you should be. If you're not familiar with it, you can inform yourself by clicking the link right here. That will take you to an online tutorial on California speed laws. 
 
I may have missed it, but I have not seen any online organizing around the assault on basic American freedoms associated with the speed limit mandate. I have, however, noticed that there is a substantial amount of outcry and organizing aimed at vaccination and masking mandates, whether promulgated by state and local governments - or by our national government. An article on the front page of The New York Times on Friday, September 10, 2021, headlined the issue: "Biden Issues Sweeping Mandates For Shots."

When we think about our government, we should place an emphasis on the "our." We are not just an unconnected bunch of individuals, operating independently. We are in this life together, and the way we conduct ourselves individually affects the health, safety, and welfare of everyone else. Some kind of rules are obviously needed. The nice thing about our democratic form of government is that we have established mechanisms to insure that the rules that constrain our individual activities are the product of a collective deliberation, and that whatever rules may be put in place are always subject to amendment and correction by our democratically-elected officials.

Out on the road, speed limit mandates save lives. Out in a society in which a highly-infectious virus is rampant, a requirement for individual masking and vaccination saves lives. 

Don't you think I am right about that?

If I am, then vaccination and mask mandates are not evidences of totalitarian efforts to deny basic freedoms. They are evidence of our collective efforts to try to provide maximum safety for us all. 

 
Image Credit:
https://www.driverseducationusa.com/resources/speed-laws/


Sunday, September 12, 2021

#255 / Spare Me That Inevitability!



On Saturday, the newspapers all had articles and editorial statements reflecting on the 9/11 attacks. In my own blog posting on that day, I referenced them, too. September 11, 2021, was the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, and so retrospective looks at what had happened that day (and what has happened since) were certainly topical and appropriate. 
 
I was particularly touched by a column that ran on the opinion pages of The New York Times. In his article, "I Wrote the Lead Times Article on 9/11. Here's What Still Grips Me," Serge Schmemann revisited a set of seventy-seven poems that were sent to him shortly after the attacks of September 11, by an English teacher in central Washington, who had assigned her eighth and ninth graders to write poems about 9/11, using Schmemann's article as the basis for their reflections. 

I was not, on the other hand, much moved by what Dean Rotbart had to say in The Wall Street Journal. Rotbart is a former reporter for the Journal, and the author of a recently-published book, September Twelfth: An American Comeback Story
 
Rotbart's article in the Journal was titled, "How The Wall Street Journal Published on 9/11." The article, itself, was actually fine. What I did not appreciate was what journalists call the "lede." Here it is: 

It will happen again. Though few of us want to admit it, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are destined to be repeated, probably amplified, at some point. There is no scale to measure the degree of human suffering that follows such events. We can’t change history or prevent the inevitable sequels.
 
Spare me, please (spare us!) the idea that history is driven by "inevitabilities." Everything is "possible" and nothing is "inevitable." The good. The bad. The ugly. The greatest of triumphs. The most abject of failures. 

Let us not agree with the idea that another 9/11 (an even worse one) is somehow "inevitable." 

Let us, instead, change the world so that never happens again. 

That's what we should have been reflecting upon on 9/11 this year!


Image Credit:
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-10/how-the-design-of-the-twin-towers-made-evacuation-hard/100436856

Saturday, September 11, 2021

How You Can Subscribe

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