DON’T PANIC!

November 9, 2016

OK, So the election is [almost] over, and at a national level, there are a lot of folks (by the latest results a [small] plurality of the nation’s voters) who are feeling everything from glum to despondent to suicidal — and with some reason perhaps.  Our country remains very sharply divided based on race, religion, culture, education, and income.  Each of those carries with it a portion of each person’s worldview, and those worldviews are sharply divergent.  Perhaps even more to the point, it is increasingly difficult to see how one brings those divergent views together into any sort of consensus that can move us – the collective us in the largest sense of all of humanity – to come together and take effective action on the pressing problems that demand our attention.

Those problems are numerous; ranging from climate change to income and wealth maldistribution to hunger, disease, (sounds a little bit like the four horsemen), war, crime, poverty, etc.  In this country, we have people who believe that we need to open our gates to immigrants fleeing war, oppression and poverty and those who believe we need to tightly secure those gates against the risk of terrorists and criminals.  We have those who believe that we need to let the free market loose from government shackles and those who believe those shackles need to be tightened far more to avoid the risk of another financial debacle.  We have those who believe Obamacare has helped millions of people to improve their healthcare and those who believe it is taking many Americans on a road to ruin, both financial and physical.

While the Republicans have now take control of both the Presidency and the Congress, they have not erased those divisions.  All you need to do is look at the electoral map of the country state-by-state, county-by-county, city-by-city, and even neighborhood-by-neighborhood to realize that the country is and will probably remain, at least for a while, very divided against itself.

Some of the checks and balances in our constitution have now be come less effective, but they have not disappeared.  The Republicans may “control” Congress, but they remain divided internally, as demonstrated by the many party leaders who divorced themselves from Donald Trump’s candidacy.  Whether they can unite behind a legislative agenda remains to be seen, as does the long-term effect of whatever legislation they succeed in getting enacted.  The Supreme Court remains, at least for the moment, a deterrent to any proposal that is so radical that it would violate the Constitution’s basic principles.  While Trump will probably appoint a conservative justice, that will only restore the tenuous balance that has been maintained for quite a while.  Even if that balance shifts to the right, it would not be the first time.  Under Reagan, the Rehnquist Court undid many of the precedents the Warren Court had set.  It did not, however, destroy the country.  Set it back, perhaps, but not destroy it.

There’s also the view that U.S. politics tends to “pendulum” over time.  Every time there’s a move to the left, there’s a countervailing move to the right, which is, again, followed by a move to the left.  We can’t predict right now how a Trump administration will work (or not), but chances are that two years from now at least some voters will be unhappy enough to want to change direction again.  Especially if Trump and his Republican allies succeed in their plans for tax and federal budget cuts, we may see ourselves moving into a major recession, which is likely to sour many voters on leaving the Republicans in charge.

In short, as the title of this blog post suggests, it’s not time to panic and start looking for another country to emigrate to.  Besides, there are few issues that respect national boundaries any more.  The economy, disease, and, of course, climate change, don’t stop at national boundaries.  If the U.S. is heading into a minefield, the rest of the world is close behind – or in some cases in front of us.  We’re just as likely to affect the direction humanity takes here as somewhere else.

So, I guess my take-home message in this post is perhaps best stated by paraphrasing alternative radio newscaster “Scoop” Nisker’s closing comment in his news reports:  If you don’t like the news, go out and do something to change it; and that can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors, friends, and relatives about your disagreements.

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The Revolution will not be Televised

March 17, 2016

According to the establishment media, Bernie Sanders’ campaign is done, kaput, finito.  There’s nothing left to do but have him pack up his bags and head off to Hillary’s coronation.  To this I say, “Not so fast.”  From the beginning, Bernie has been clear in saying that this is not about a Presidential campaign.  This is about starting a political revolution to take back the United States Government from the billionaires and special interests who now control it.

It goes almost without saying that revolutions are neither fast nor easy.  Those who claim otherwise are either ignorant or liars.  Even the U.S. Revolution, which was short in time-frame as revolutions go, took far longer than from 1776 to 1781, the time in which open declared warfare between the U.S. and Britain was happening.  The Boston Massacre, the first recognized bloodshed of the revolution, was in 1770.  The Townshend Acts, which gave rise to the revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation,” had been put in place two years earlier.

The Chinese Revolution, led by, among others, Mao Zedung and Zhou Enlai, lasted at least from 1934 (the Long March) to eventual military victory in 1949, but the Communist Party of China had actually begun in 1921.  In India, Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, but India did not gain its independence until 1950.  Other countries such as France and England have undergone repeated revolutions, each of which dramatically changed control of the country.

While Bernie may not be envisioning revolutionary troops storming the barricades of Washington DC, he is looking to ignite a mass movement on a scale not seen in this country since the New Deal of the 1930s.  A movement like that, while it may be catalyzed by an individual, will only have staying power if it can expand beyond any one person to become focused on a vision that is being pursued.

In Bernie’s case, that vision involves reversing many years of gradual domination of America’s political process by wealthy individuals and even wealthier corporations.  (One can argue that from its very beginning, the U.S. Government has been dominated by the well-to-do, but the proportion of people with control over the government has been greatly reduced with the rise of mega-corporations and a large billionaire class.)  It also involves reasserting the Rooseveltian ideal that Government exists to protect the interests of the common people, not the wealthy.

The establishment was shocked when Bernie’s campaign actually gained traction and began attracting not only large crowds, but lots and lots of small donations and volunteers, particularly among the youth of the country.  Not since Gene McCarthy’s “children’s crusade” of 1968 had there been such an outpouring of political activity from college campuses (as well as from the “millenials” not in college).  The combination of anger and idealism was something U.S. political parties were not used to.

Now, a combination of a series of primaries in conservative Southern states on “Super Tuesday,” followed by primaries in somewhat less conservative, but still not liberal, Midwestern states, has splashed cold water on those “feeling the Bern.”  The message the establishment news media are sending is, “It’s all over now.  Better give up on Bernie and get behind Hillary.”  If this is truly going to be a political revolution, the answer needs to be a resounding, “No Thanks!”

The Primaries and Caucuses are still important.  First, it’s not yet clear that Bernie can no longer win the nomination.  However, even if that were the case, convention delegates can still influence the party platform.   Even more importantly, it’s not just the presidency that’s at stake in November.  There are Congressional elections as well as elections for state legislatures and local offices.  All of these can be foci for demands that power return to the common people.  Even if Hillary, Trump, or someone else other than Bernie is elected president, a political revolution with staying power could begin to grab the reins of power away from the corporate elite that currently runs things.

The first thing to do, however, is to stop letting the corporate media brainwash us and control our minds.  As local radio newscaster Scoop Nisker  used to say, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”


Why the Supreme Court Majority, in Misinterpreting the Second Amendment, has Violated the Canons of Statutory Construction

June 19, 2015

A well regulated Militia, being essential to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  U.S. Constitution, Amendment II [1791]

That’s the Second Amendment, one of ten included in James Madison’s proposed first thirteen amendments to the Constitution. Ten of those thirteen were fairly promptly ratified and became the “Bill of Rights”. They are rightfully thought of as a bulwark against the over-expansion of the strong central government that Hamilton had pushed for, and specifically protections for the individual against the power of the federal government (and, since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, against the power of state and local governments).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s current conservative majority has taken the Second Amendment in this context, and has focused on its second half, “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In doing so, however, that majority has violated a central canon of statutory construction – that a statute (or constitutional provision) be interpreted to give meaning to every word of the statute.

The first half of the Second Amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being essential to the security of a free State,” can be seen as a preamble, or perhaps more precisely as a context for the second half. Another rule of statutory construction is that the words of a statute should not be read in isolation, but in context. Here, the context of the second half of the amendment is protecting “a well regulated militia” and its function of protecting “the security of a free State.”

In other words, the right to keep and bear arms is protected so that the people of the United States can continue to have “a well regulated militia”. Again, keeping the context in mind, in 1789 (or 1791) there was no standing federal army. An army was raised as the need arose. In the meantime, there were local and state militias – what we would now call paramilitary organizations, or perhaps militias as the term is used in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

So, in that context, the right of “the people” to keep and bear arms is not an individual right, but a right of the people as organized into militias. Further, those militias were intended to be, “well organized”. Indeed, that was supposed to be the central purpose of having the right to keep and bear arms. A militia needs training and discipline if it was going to function well to protect the security of a free State. (And again, this should be taken in the context of a document written ten years after a prolonged war against what was then the central government, and fought largely by local and state militias organized under General George Washington.)

Bringing those concepts into the 21st Century, the right to keep and bear arms does not protect an individual’s right to own and carry guns (or sabers, or hand grenades).  Rather, it protect the right of the people, organized into well regulated groups intended to protect the security of a free State.

What do such organized militias include? Well, obviously they include the National Guard, as state militias have come to be known, and their members. They also include state and local police forces, which are intended to “protect the security of a free State.” They could also include well regulated local, state or national groups organized to protect the security of a free State. Could that include so-called “self defense” groups? Maybe. Right-wing paramilitary groups? Questionable. Groups of gun-toting skinheads or neonazis? Probably not. The Ku Klux Klan? I don’t think so.  They certainly don’t include individual citizens who aren’t part of a “well organized militia”, and certainly not the millions of deranged individuals and criminals who now, thanks to the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, claim the right to keep and bear [and use?] arms.

Those on the Supreme Court (and I am thinking specifically of Justice Scalia) who strongly espouse strict constructionism and original intent in interpreting the Constitution, appear to have been lured by ideological predilections into straying from their self-chosen narrow path by broadening the meaning of the Second Amendment. Perhaps, in the context of the Charleston Massacre, it’s finally time they reconsider.


November 2012 Election Comments

October 4, 2012

OK.  I got my sample ballot & voter information booklet in the mail, and I’m sure the absentee ballots are going out shortly, so it looks like it’s time to give my usual rundown of candidates and issues.  as usual, I give my standard disclosures and disclaimers.  [Hey, what do you expect, I’m a lawyer!]  These are obviously just my own personal opinions, and while I have read through candidate statements and ballot arguments (and in some cases, the text of the measure as well), and have talked to some of the candidates personally, I don’t claim to be an expert on evaluating candidates or ballot measures.  Well, I guess I can claim some expertise on the latter, having helped to write a few local measures.  That having been said, HERE WE GO!

President

Obviously, the two major choices are Romney and Obama.  Between those two, for me Obama is the obvious choice.  I’m not anywhere close to entirely happy with Obama and how he’s run the country the past four years.  Our foreign policy is still far too militaristic (although lightyears ahead of where it was under George W), Obamacare is a sorry substitute for the single-payer healthcare we ought to have, and, as Paul Krugman has said innumerable times, Obama’s economic policy is anemic compared to what’s needed to pull us out of our current doldrums.  [However, he does have the excuse that with the Republican majority in the house, nothing can be done in the legislative arena.]  BTW, see my separate post critiquing Obama’s performance in the first debate.

All that having been said,  I think that, DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU LIVE, you should take a serious look at some of the third party candidates.  With that, I will once again recite  Ivins’ Rule, named for Molly Ivins, the late Texas [don’t hold that against her] political commentator.  The basic rule is, regardless of what your state or locality allows, don’t vote early unless you absolutely have to.  Wait until, at the earliest, a week before election day, and then look at what the polling results are FOR YOUR STATE.  Because we have the electoral college system, each state is its own election [exception — in Maine, each congressional district is its own election].  Regardless of what’s happening in the national polls, what really matters is who wins a plurality of the vote in each individual state.  Except for Maine, that candidate get ALL that state’s electoral votes for president.

So, now let’s get back to Ivins’ Rule.  When you look at your state’s polling result, the crucial question is whether the difference between Romney’s and Obama’s polling results in greater than five percent.  If either of the two is ahead by more than five percent, then barring a nuclear war or something equally calamitous, the election in your state is essentially over.  That means you can vote for whomever you want, because it won’t make any difference.  If, however the difference is less than 5%, you better choose between Obama and Romney, or you may be kicking yourself for the next  for years.  Luckily, here in California Obama’s lead is unassailable.  (I think it’s  currently over 20% statewide.)

So, if you’re lucky enough to have the luxury of voting for a minor party candidate, my suggestion would be to look seriously at Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.  I say that not just because I’m registered as green.  From what I’ve seen of her, she’s just as smart as either of the major party candidates (she’s a Massachusetts physician), and her platform makes enormous sense — cut the defense budget, enact single-payer healthcare, promote a justice system that, as Jesse Jackson famously said, puts our money at the front end, rather than the back end – i.e., promotes restorative justice, puts the U.S. squarely at the forefront in trying to reverse climate change and promote sustainable care for our ailing planet, etc.  Of coure there’s no way she’ll get elected, but just think.  If she got 5% of the vote nationwide, even if she didn’t win a single electoral vote, wouldn’t that make a statement that there’s a significant number of people who think as she does?  Who knows, maybe a few Democrats might even start paying attention in a real way.

U.S. Senator

Again here, the choice is pretty simple, even simpler because there are no minor party candidates on the ballot.  😦  I don’t particularly like Feinstein.  She’s incredibly wishy-washy on lots of issues, and just plain bad on some, but as with Obama, she’s in a whole different league (or century) from her Republican opponent.  Unless you’re a “tea partier” [and if you are, why are you reading this blog??], you gotta vote for Feinstein.

Note – if you’re not in California, see my discussion of Ivins’ Rule above and act accordingly.

U.S. Representative

Again, given my location in the East Bay, the choice is pretty simple.  Barbara Lee has been on the right side (or perhaps I should say the left side) of just about every issue before Congress.  Her opponent waves her hands around to try to look more reasonable, but we all know that the last reasonable Republicans here in California have already left that disaster of a party.  Unless you want to go back to the gilded age where workers could, if they were lucky, get 10 cents a day for pay, vote for Lee.

If you’re in another district, re-read Ivins’ Rule again.

State Senate

Here’s another place I get to apply Ivins’ Rule.  Loni Hancock has been one of the better senators in the state senate, based on her voting record.  That’s as it should  be, she represents one of the most liberal districts in the state.  She’s going  to win this race overwhelmingly.  Since that’s the case, it’s a place you could show that you’d like some more space on the left of the ballot by voting for the Peace & Freedom Party candidate, Mary McIlroy.

State Assembly

I could just invoke Ivins’ Rule again in urging a vote for the Peace & Freedom Party candidate (Eugene Ruyle), but there’s something more at stake.  I have followed Nancy Skinner since she first ran for the assembly (when I supported her), and have been very disappointed in her performance.  Again, she represents one of the most liberal districts in the state, but she has followed in lockstep whatever the Democratic legislative leadership has told her.  Overall, she’s voted against the party leadership only 0.7% of the time.  By comparison, Hancock, while no eccentric, bucked the party leadership on 1.2% of votes, Leland Yee, from San Francisco (perhaps the only place more liberal than the East Bay), opposed Democratic leaders 2.6% of the time, and Jared Huffman, a liberal stalwart in Marin, voted differently 1.8% of the time.  Maybe Skinner just likes whatever the leadership says.  If so, that’s a disappointment in itself, because the leadership has been, in a number of cases, like its support for the high-speed rail project, just stupid.  Maybe she votes that way to “go along to get along.”  If so, that says nothing any better about her.  We deserve better.

State Ballot Measures

Let me start with a general statement.  California’s initiative and referendum processes are in serious need of reform.  I say that as an attorney who regularly advises local groups on their initiative and referendum battles, and knows the turf pretty well.  Between picayune requirements that make it harder and harder for grassroots campaigns to succeed, and the overwhelming force of a tidal wave of  special interest money that at this point almost totally dominates the statewide ballot measure scene, we’ve got a real mess in California.  Not only that, but because of the nature of California ballot measure law (in the state constitution, no less), if a mistake gets made with a ballot measure, it’s very likely to be permanent, or at least very long-lasting.  I’ve already made it clear in past postings that I think passing Prop. 13 was unwise.  Yes, it did some good and necessary things that the legislature was unwilling to tackle. but its left state and local government in a long-term fiscal disaster.  Likewise for the “Victims Bill of Rights”, “Three Strikes”, and term limits.  The state’s voters aren’t always smart enough to get it right on the first try, but it’s incredibly hard to revise anything the voters have done.  Maybe things enacted by the voters should automatically go back on the ballot in five years, so people get to think about it again, and competing or correcting measures can be put on at that time?

So. Rant finished.  Now on to the specifics:

30 – Jerry Brown’s tax measure – a reluctant yes.  I’m not 100% happy with it, but if it fails, the draconian school cuts are unacceptable.

31- NO!  This initiative, put on the ballot by California Forward, at first glance seems appealing, and it would indeed do some things that would improve how the legislature handles budget issues, like going to a two-year budget cycle.  HOWEVER, it makes radical changes in the relations between state and local government, including allowing local government to exempt itself from various “inconvenient” state laws and regulations, including CEQA, and potentially state labor laws.  This is a really bad idea!  Not only that, but it locks all of its changes into the state constitution, making them extremely hard to change in the future.  [See my rant above.]  A number of members of the initial taskforce pointed out the problems, but California Forward refused to budge.  They subsequently resigned.  (See ballot arguments against.)  Shame on California Forward!!

32 – NO!  A fraudulent attempt to disable labor union political activity while leaving corporate political power basically unchecked.

33- NO.  One insurance company (Mercury) makes a second attempt to tilt the playing field in its direction.

34- YES – the death penalty makes little sense as a deterrent, as public policy, or financially.

35 – No –  Human trafficking is without question a bad thing.  Whether we’re talking about actual enslavement or just the “normal” pimping and prostitution stuff.  There need to be serious consequences for those who screw over their fellow human beings.  However, this measure seems to play into the general punitive bent of three strikes and other efforts to just, “lock ’em all up and throw away the key.”  Our prison system is clear evidence that  this approach hasn’t worked and isn’t working.  Again, once something gets passed by the voters, it’s very hard to change.  This is an issue for the legislature to tackle, not the voters.

36 – YES – again, as with the death penalty, three strikes is a punitive, ineffective, and financially damaging measure.  This reform will help.

37 – YES – truth in labeling for genetically-engineered foods.  People should have a knowing choice about supporting Monsanto’s fiddling with the agricultural gene pool.  BTW, the no argument points to the measure’s enforcement against local retailers.  Unfortunately, California has no direct leverage against national food producers, only against businesses operating in California.  Enforcement against retailers is the only leverage we have against national big business.  It’s a big one, though.  If, for example, California retailers wouldn’t carry General Mills foods because they don’t own up to using genetically engineered ingredients, General Mills could lose A LOT of business.  We need to use our market share power to change the market.

38 – NO – The major alternative tax measure.  Too narrowly focused on education funding, and will impact the poor more than the rich.

39 – YES – levels the playing field for internet businesses who siphon off $$ from California without paying taxes.  Time to end the free ride.

40 – YES – For once, here was a ballot measure (redistricting reform) that was needed, and that worked. The redistricting effort was a resounding success.  Say no to Republican sour grapes!

A1 – NO – public funding for the Oakland Zoo – while zoos are a nice family amenity, I am bothered by the Oakland Zoo’s expansionistic policies, and I don’t think they should be feeding at the public trough [so to speak] when the zoo’s governing board has no public accountability for its actions.

B1 – NO!! – INDEFINITE  extension AND increase in county transportation sales tax.  Sales taxes are regressive.  This would give an unaccountable county agency permanent funding with no requirement to come back to the voters – EVER.  Their predecessor (ACTA) had to be sued to block it from spending money on a project the voters hadn’t authorized.  Would eliminate the ONLY real voter accountability this agency now has.

J – Yes – Another bond fund infusion for Oakland schools.  I’m somewhat bothered by adding more bond debt to a school district that just emerged from a major financial crisis.  On the other hand, many Oakland schools are seriously physically deficient.  We really need to change Prop 13 to allow adequate funding for local schools, cities, and counties.  Until then, band-aid measures like this are the best we can do.

Local Candidates

If you live outside of Oakland/Alameda County, you can stop here if you want.  The rest is just for “local yokels”

AC Transit — Chris Peeples is knowledgeable and listens to the community.  I don’t agree with him 100%, but he’s a good choice.

BART Board – Rebecca Saltzman would seem the obvious pro-environment choice, but I’ve been disturbed by some of her statements in support of high-speed rail and BART extensions, which seem to indicate a knee-jerk support for extending transit even where it may not make economic sense and actually be sprawl-inducing.  I like Anthony Pegram’s candidate statement and plan to vote for him.

Oakland District One Council member:

Top three [ranked choice]  — for more detailed information, look at the write-ups in the recently-initiated Rockridge Patch, or view some youtube clips from a candidate forum:

1) Dan Kalb (knowledgeable, intelligent, pro-environment & pro-neighborhood. Lives in Rockridge.)

2) Donald Macleay (local green party member, pro-environment & pro-neighborhood.  Lives in Temescal) – Update (11/3/12) –

3)  No choice.  See below for why I can’t endorse any of the others:

I DON’T like: Len Raphael – confrontational and pro-development (although he does oppose Safeway’s College Ave. project);

Amy Lemley – knee-jerk smart growth (married to smart-growth fanatic who works at NRDC & pushed for BRT on Telegraph).  Her background is not in the broad public policy areas North Oakland needs.  I fear she’s a stalking horse for her husband, and would be too obeisant to Kernighan and Schaaf, both of whom endorse her and both of whom are aggressively pro-development.  She’s refused to take a firm position on the College Ave. Safeway project, just saying that she’d encourage negotiations.

The other candidates:

Don Link’s a nice guy and supportive on Safeway, but I worry he’d be out of his depth.  Focus is mainly on public safety

Richard Reya – his candidate statement reads very well.  He seems to be saying a lot of the right things.  BUT, it turns out that he’s the policy director for California Forward.  If that doesn’t ring a bell, go back and re-read my discussion of Prop. 31.  Sorry, but as policy director, his allowing Prop. 31 to move forward and go on the ballot shows, in my estimation, very bad judgment.  He’s also non-commital on the College Ave. Safeway project.  Not who I want representing me on the City Council!

Craig Brandt is also pushing for more police, but where’s the money going to come from???  As of late, he seems to have dropped out of the race.

At Large Council Member – Sorry, I’m afraid you’re on your own here. I can’t honestly and wholeheartedly recommend any of the choices.  Neither Kaplan nor De la Fuente have been supportive on Safeway.  De la Fuente is a dealmaker in the Perata mold.  He hopes to use the at-large seat as a stepping stone to another mayoral run.  Kaplan is, in many ways, pretty good, but she’s so focused on smart growth that she loses sight of neighborhood values.  She was the only council member to enthusiastically push Bus Rapid Transit on Telegraph despite strong community opposition.  I fear she’d favor major densification around the Rockridge BART in spite of its damaging traffic impacts.  As for the other candidates, none of them is qualified by background or experience, and Carol Tolbert has a gruesome history on North Oakland redevelopment around the Old Merritt College site — can you say corruption??

City attorney – I’m not real keen on Jane Brunner, but I’m also not excited by Barbara Parker.  I worry that she’s got the typical black Oakland establishment (e.g., Geoffrey Pete, Mary King, Bill Patterson) supporting her.  Yet Jane Brunner’s often been too much of a dealmaker.  No recommendation.  (As with judges, I think this really shouldn’t be an elected position.)

School Board – Jody London has, in my opinion, been doing OK.  The schools are in a tough place, and her opponent fought to keep Santa Fe School (in the Golden Gate area of Northwest Oakland)  open when it was an absolute disaster – probably worse than no school at all. Yes, we need to do more to help children in the poorer parts of the city, but that requires money that the district doesn’t have.  (Can you say Prop. 13?)  It also bothers me that Ms. Pecot was endorsed by the teachers union.  One wonders about the quid pro quo that may have been involved.  Teachers need fair pay, but I’ve also seen the teachers union defend poorly performing teachers just because they were active in the union.  Not how I think a school district should be run.


So Climate Change Is Real – Whatcha Gonna Do About It?

August 5, 2012

As many commentators have pointed out, this summer’s weather: its far-reaching droughts and heatwaves in the U.S., its devastating floods in Asia, and, of course, the rapid melting of the North Polar icecap, are finally getting some “climate skeptics” to change their tune.  A recent statistical analysis of severe weather events is also making the connection between weather and climate.  Just on a probability basis, without even thinking about climate modeling, the weather events of the past ten to twenty years are so improbable based on the events of the previous forty years that something must have changed, and the only obvious candidate is climate.

This leads inexorably to the next question – what are we going to do about it?  Here, however, something hasn’t changed: human nature.  Sadly, humanity has always had a strong streak of self-interest.  Whether it’s the Roman Empire, European colonial powers, or Wall Street bankers, people, as countries, as interest groups, or as individuals always seem to look at situations focused on what will benefit them.  Climate change has, thus far, been little different.

At the global level, developing countries, particularly China and India, have been unwilling to reduce their CO2 production if it would mean reducing their race to catch up to already-industrialized countries in production of goods.  The developed countries, including Europe and particularly Japan and the U.S., have for their part been unwilling to make changes that might require economic sacrifice, pointing to the already-damaging effects of the global economic slow-down of the past twelve years.

Within the United States, the situation has been little different.  Each region of the country is willing to accept change – so long as it’s aimed at another region.  Coal producing states insist that coal mining must continue.  Oil and gas producers point to their superiority over coal and say coal mining should stop first.  Heavy electricity using states demand that power plants continue to be built to prevent brown-outs and another economic slowdown.

Even when global warming has, on the surface, been taken to heart, a closer examination shows that self-interest still rules.  Here in California, our governor points to high-speed rail as a great benefit in reducing climate change.  Yet even proponents are forced to admit that the real benefits are some twenty to thirty years down the road.  In the shorter term, the project will actually significantly increase CO2 production.  More locally, San Francisco has approved the Parkmerced project, which will tear down 1,500 units of moderate-density, post-World War Two, rent controlled housing and replace them with about six thousand units of higher-density market-rate housing.  Again, the project is touted as reducing CO2 production in the long run – meaning some twenty to thirty years in the future. As with high-speed rail, however, before then the project will actually cause an increase in CO2 production.  Meanwhile, climate scientists have warned that we must reduce CO2 production dramatically within the next ten years or face catastrophic changes that will, by that point, become unavoidable.

Why is there this disconnect?  Among other things, powerful political interests, including labor unions, building contractors, and development interests, have much to gain from new construction projects but would get little benefit from projects like retrofitting existing housing and infrastructure to improve their energy efficiency and reduce CO2 production.  These interests influence our elected political leaders with ever more generous campaign contributions and insistent lobbying.  (Thank you, Supreme Court, for your Citizens United ruling!)  As a result, choices are made based on self interest instead of the broader public interest.

Where does this lead in the long term?  The answer isn’t pretty.  As one joke currently making the rounds put it, we’re left asking two questions:  “Where are we going?” and “Why am I in this handbasket?”


My June ballot election recommendations

May 28, 2012

I’m afraid I’ve been neglecting my blog of late – too much work.  However, several people have pointed out to me that there’s an election happening, and at least one or two people like to know my comments and recommendations before they vote.  (That’s not to say they follow my recommendations.  They just like to know them. For all I know, they may turn around and do the exact opposite!

So, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents on the June ballot:

Presidential primary — what’s to say?  It’s already decided.  Let’s just move on.  We’ll come back to this
before the November election.

U.S. Senate — Well, this is the first time we’ve had all the candidates on one ballot.  Kinda interesting.  Lots of Republicans, a few Democrats, two Peace and Freedom, and one American Independent and one Libertarian.   I confess to knowing very little about most of the candidates.  I do note that most of the Republicans are businessmen/women.  I guess that kinda figures.  I’m not particularly thrilled with Feinstein, but it probably won’t make much difference; she’ll win by a landslide anyhow.  Just for the heck of it, you might try voting for Marsha Feinland, one of the Peace & Freedom candidates.  I think this is her third or fourth time running against Feinstein, so at least she’s got a bit of experience at being a candidate.

U.S. Representative — In the 13th Congressional District, where I am, there’s no real contest.  Barbara Lee has voted the way I would have on almost every issue, and has been one of the leaders in trying to get us extricated from Afghanistan.  Would that there were more like her.  Speaking of which, if you live in Pete Stark’s district, please vote for him.  He’s been a stalwart supporter of good things like single-payer healthcare and an opponent of military spending for years and years.  Yes, he’s getting older, but his votes still work for me.

For State Senator, Loni Hancock is running unopposed, as is Nancy Skinner for State Assembly.  Loni has been fighting the good fight for many years, so I can’t complain about her being unopposed.  Nancy Skinner, on the other hand has, in my opinion, been much less impressive.  However, since she’s unopposed, your only other option is to leave her space blank.  (A write-in wouldn’t count.)

For County Supervisor, in my district, District Five, there’s again no contest.  Keith Carson is running unopposed.  Being county supervisor in the current economic climate is no fun, so I don’t begrudge Keith his seat.

Finally, we do have one local contested race — Alameda County Superior Court Judge.  This is nonpartisan, and there’s no incumbent, so you’ve basically got three attorneys who want to be a judge.  I don’t know any of the three, and have only their  candidate statements to go on.  Based on that, however, I’d choose Andrew Wiener.  His emphasis on trying to reduce the adversarial atmosphere of the courtroom and promote negotiated settlements is, to my mind, a very worthwhile one.

Last, but certainly not least, there are the ballot measures.  There are two statewide measures, 28 and 29, and one local measure, a $48 per year parcel tax for the community college district.

Proposition 28 would modify the state term limit law by reducing the maximum [lifetime] allowance from 14 years to 12 but allowing those 12 to be served in either house, by the candidate’s preference.  I have never been a fan of term limits.  As a lawyer who deals with state laws, I’ve seen a definite decline in the quality of legislation since term limits were enacted.  What do you expect?  By the time you figure out how to write good laws, you’re termed out.  At least with this proposal, you could spend your years in one house and perhaps learn it better.  YES

Proposition 29 would put a $1 a pack additional state tax on cigarettes.  The No campaign is being funded almost entirely by the tobacco industry.  Now there is an evil empire!  The only [legitimate] thing that can be said against this measure is it may increase the amount of illegally sold cigarettes in the state, and perhaps in that way contribute to organized crime.  However, there’s more than enough money to be made selling other drugs, so I don’t think that’s a big concern.  Other than that, if the higher prices deter a few people from smoking, so much the better.  It is  sad, however, how many poor, uneducated people are smokers.  😦      YES

Measure B – $48 per year parcel tax to help fund Peralta Community College District.  This community college district has had more than its share of scandals, but whose fault is that?  Ours.  After all, we elect its governing board.  If they don’t do a good job, we ought to run better people for office.  All that having been said, Thanks to the recession and Prop. 13, the District, like all other public educational institutions, is strapped for funds.  The community colleges are especially important because this is about the only place left where working class kids can get an education beyond high school.  (That’s a sad commentary on the state of California’s once glorious higher education system!)  YES.


Strict Construction, Gun Violence, and the Second Amendment

January 10, 2011

The assassination of a federal judge and attempted assassination of a congresswoman, along with the killing of several “civilians”, once again brings to the fore the issue of gun violence and the Second Amendment.  This is especially true now that the Supreme Court majority has applied so-called “strict constructionism” to find that the Second Amendment protects private gun ownership from almost all federal and state regulation.

Justice Scalia, one of the court’s more vocal advocates for strict constructionism, argues that the Constitution’s interpretation can’t change with the times.  According to him, if circumstances change, the answer  is to amend the Constitution accordingly.  By that standard, it appears the time is overdue to amend the Second Amendment.

Back when the Constitution, and specifically the Second Amendment, was written, the primary firearm was the flintlock musket, an inaccurate, short-range, and slow-to-load single-shot gun.  There were also handguns, but they were dueling pistols and the like — again inaccurate, single-shot, and clumsy to use.  Contrast that with the ten bullet clip-carrying semiautomatic pistol used by last Saturday’s assassin, or the Uzi or M-16 type assault weapons favored for gang violence, or, for that matter, the extremely accurate multi-shot high-powered rifle used to assassinate John F. Kennedy.  There’s no comparison.  Indeed, once could argue that they shouldn’t even be described by the same word, and that “arms” as used in the Second Amendment had an entirely different meaning than the guns, IEDs, and other weaponry available to conduct modern-day violence.  Nevertheless, Scalia, the NRA, Teapartiers and their ilk insist that the Second Amendment allows free rein to gun-toters. 

Given the results of last Saturday, and looking abroad to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where assassinations are becoming an almost daily occurrence, the question is, isn’t it time we amended the Second Amendment?  Sure, maybe a single-shot hunting rifle or a BB gun doesn’t need regulation, but an AK-47 or semiautomatic handgun is an entirely different story.

If people like Scalia are sincere in their assertion that the proper course of action when the Constitution no longer works well is to amend it, it’s time for him, and those like him, to get behind a movement to amend the Second Amendment to assure that the kinds of weapons that can cause mass-mayhem aren’t easily available to would-be assassins.

While we’re at it, it’s also long past due to take into account the changed nature of the media and of election campaigns.  The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of last year practically turned the U.S. political system over to corporate control.  We really do need an amendment to recognize that the nature of political campaigning has fundamentally changed.  Unregulated campaign spending might have been perfectly OK in the confines of the thirteen original states, where almost anyone could afford to run off a broadside and have it hand-distributed by volunteers.  In this era of TV and radio ads, mass-mailings, focus groups, and psychologically attuned campaign consultants, however, it is increasingly true that we have been trapped by the “golden rule” — Those who have the gold make the rules.  That certainly wasn’t what the writers of the First Amendment envisioned.  If it takes a Constitutional amendment to bring power back to the people, then we need to get started on that process.

One last thought on Scalia and his strict constructionism friends:  The writers of the Constitution were not gods.  They were men coming from divergent situations attempting to cobble together a working structure for a national  government.  The Constitution includes numerous compromises reached to accommodate the differing view of the powers-that-be in different colonies.  Those compromises, and the reasons behind them, have now been well-documented.  While some of the divergences continue to exist — e.g., between large population and small population states, between urban and rural states, others, such as those associated with slavery, have long-since vanished.  Further, we have, over time, come to realize that some of the Constitution’s structures and procedures were neither functional nor fair.  Some of the worst of these, such as having Senators chosen by state legislatures, have been corrected.  That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to accept the current Constitutional structures and procedures as God-given mandates carved in stone.  Indeed, after almost two and a quarter centuries, maybe it’s time to consider a new Constitutional Convention. … Just a thought.


Democratic Self-destruction

November 2, 2010

There will, of course, be pundits by the dozens attempting to dissect today’s election results.  Obviously, a large segment of the American public was not happy with the Democrats’ record over the past two years.  Obviously also, Obama’s mantra that the Republicans drove the economy into the ditch and now they’re complaining about us trying to pull it back out didn’t really wash (or, at least, not on a national level).  What went wrong? and can the Democrats do better over the next two years?

My personal opinion is that the Democrats’ majority in Congress was really a ticking time bomb that finally blew up today.  Ever since the 1992 election, Democrats have attempted to win over “red” states by running candidates who were slightly less conservative than their Republican opponents.  The tactic was at least somewhat successful, so the Democrats had, until today, nominally impressive majorities in both the House and Senate.  However, many of those nominally-Democratic seats were held by profoundly conservative people; people who had little use for the agenda of  more liberal Democrats, and voted at least as often with the Republicans, especially on key legislation.   As a result, given the unified opposition of the Republicans, Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership were forced to repeatedly water down their legislative initiatives in order to capture enough votes in their own party to get the legislation passed.

It is, to my mind, only poetic justice that some of the victims in today’s rout of the Democratic party were the very conservative Democrats who were most effective in obstructing Obama’s legislative agenda.  Democrats like Blanche Lincoln lost, even though  they fought against Obama at almost every turn, because why would conservative red state voters choose someone who looked like a Republican when they could, instead, vote for someone who was a Republican?

Of course, with the shift in the House majority, we’re going to have, as in 1948 with Harry Truman’s presidential campaign, a “do-nothing” Congress.  While the Republicans will control the House, they will probably not gain control of the Senate.  More importantly, the Democrats will have sufficient reliable votes in the Senate to maintain a filibuster and block Republican legislation.  Even more importantly still, Republicans will have nowhere near enough votes in the House or Senate to override the vetoes that Obama will almost certainly use against any conservative legislation the Republicans might happen to be able to push through.

If the Republicans were inclined to look for bipartisan “deals”, they might still be able to put through a watered-down Republican program, as happened during Clinton’s second term on issues such as welfare and tax reform.  However, the Republicans have themselves been pushed to the right by their Tea Party wing.  As a result, I would expect no compromises and that almost no substantive legislation will make it into law over the next two years.

At that point, what happens next will depend on what the effects of a stalled legislative agenda are, and who gets blamed for it.  If Obama is lucky, the legislation he pushed through in the last two years will have some positive effects, enough that people will start looking back on the 2008-2010 years as a time when some good things happened.  Meanwhile, if, as most economists seem to predict, the U.S. economy remains in the doldrums until 2012, Obama may be able to blame that stalled economy on the “do-nothing Congress” and run a re-election campaign based on letting Obama be Obama again by giving him the Congress he needs to do something.

If, on the other hand, the economy recovers without any further help, that may bolster the Republicans’ argument that government intervention was unnecessary and support a push to further “unleash” American capitalism by electing an anti-regulation president — dare I say, like Sarah Palin.  While I’m not an economist, I find it hard to believe that a rudderless American economy will do anything but bob around helplessly for the next two years while other countries with more effective legislative programs steam on ahead.  However, only time will tell.


A Warning to be Heeded — Or Ignored

October 30, 2010

Today’s New York Times contained an article discussing the alarming similarities between today’s economic situation in the U.S. and the situation in Japan in the late 1990s.  Here’s the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/30/world/asia/30japan.html

To put the article in a nutshell, in the late 1990s, just as Japan was crawling out of a severe recession brought on by an economic “bubble”, the Japanese government decided that the country’s ballooning deficit needed to be brought under control.  Consequently, the government enacted a tax increase (from 3%  to 5% in their national consumption tax) to bring in additional revenue.  The result, however, was to decrease the nation’s money supply and slam the door on economic recovery.  Here’s a direct link to a graph that shows what happened to the Japanese CPI as a result:

http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2010/10/30/world/30japan-graf01.html?ref=asia

Essentially, the decrease in money supply led to a deflationary spiral that took years to pull out of.   Even today, more than ten years later, Japan is still suffering from anemic growth.  (Of course, the recession that began in 2008 didn’t help matters, but you’ll note that the graph only goes up to 2007, when the rest of the world was still experiencing boom-like expansion.)

What’s the relevance to the U.S.?  The current election portends an increase in Republican political power, with most observers predicting that the Republicans are poised to take over control of the House, if not the Senate as well.  Part of the Republican mantra is the prime importance of decreasing the size of the federal deficit.  While Republicans don’t propose to increase taxes — quite to the contrary, they propose to extend all of the Bush tax cuts indefinitely; they do propose to dramatically decrease federal spending, primarily by eliminating spending on federal social programs.  The reduction in federal $$ pumping into the economy will have a similar effect to a tax increase.  It will decrease the size of the money supply.  With less money available, there will be less demand for goods, and consequently prices will fall — deflation.  In short, the Republican economic strategy appears likely to result in a variation on Japan’s economic mistakes of the 1990s.  It’s possible that by 2012, when Obama is up for re-election, the stupidity of this policy will have become apparent enough that the public will repudiate the Republicans, re-electing Obama and restoring a Democratic majority in both houses.  It’s even possible that repudiation will be intense enough that it will give the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority and perhaps eliminate some of the Democrats-in-Name-Only who currently side with Republicans in obstructing Obama’s legislative agenda.  Even so, the U.S. will have lost two years of growth, as well as continuing back-asswards environmental policies at a time when that can be ill-afforded. 

Even worse, however, it’s possible that by 2012 the American public still won’t “get it” and will elect a Republican president and congress in the hope that further reducing the deficit will prove to be a cure-all.  (Americans have always loved magical thinking.)  If that happens, we can look forward to repeating Japan’s mistake in spades, and perhaps dropping off the first tier of world economic powers, to be replaced in all likelihood by China and India.

To look at the bright side, we probably will no longer be able to enforce the “Pax Americana” and there may be a little less warfare in the world overall.  Have a nice day!!


We interrupt this election horserace …

October 24, 2010

With the pre-election brouhaha fast approaching a frenzy, here are a couple of articles that step back a little to look at the bigger picture.  The first, by Robert Reich (it was reprinted in today’s S.F. Chronicle), talks about something I’ve already addressed in this blog — how the wealthy are hijacking the American political system.

http://robertreich.org/post/1344561814

The second, in today’s New York Times, by The Nation contributing editor Ari Berman, talks about what might happen after the election, and how losing some of the Democrats in Congress might not be such a bad thing. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/opinion/24berman.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

This is an interesting article because it suggests that the Democrats might profit from something the Republicans did during the Reagan years — doing some ideological “housecleaning”.  It notes that starting in 2005 [IMHO, actually well before then, going back to the Clinton years and the Democratic Leadership Conference] and led by DNC chair Howard Dean and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emmanuel, the Democrats attempted to recruit “competitive” candidates throughout the country, including the “red” states won by GW Bush.  In order to make sure their candidates were competitive, they looked for people who would fit with the red state terrain they’d be campaigning in.  As a result, Congress received an influx of so-called “blue dog” Democrats — Democrats who hewed to a center-right perspective and voted with the Republicans at least as often as with their fellow Democrats.  It was these blue dogs who watered down Obama’s healthcare reform and financial reform packages, who stymied global warming legislation, and who have contributed to having many Obama appointments stuck waiting for Congressional approval.  In short, the blue dogs have become almost as big an obstacle to the Democratic Congressional agenda as the Republicans.  Further, as Democrats, they hold leadership positions, allowing them to be more effective in their opposition than most Republicans.

While the Democrats will undoubtedly lose seats in both the House and Senate this November, a lot of those seats will be blue dog seats.  So, we’ll have Republicans instead of Republicans masquerading as Democrats.  That may not make a lot of difference.  In fact, as Berman points out, it may actually help the Democrats if it allows them to become more unified and pointed in their legislative program.  So, come November 3rd, before you start shouting that the sky has fallen, it may make sense to take a deep breath, wait a few months, and see how the new Congress shakes out.  Who knows, maybe it’ll be the Republicans’ turn to be saddled with some blue dogs?


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