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!”

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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?”


Follow the Money – the statewide ballot measures

October 20, 2010

Unlike Oakland ballot measures, it’s pretty easy to find out who’s contributed – both for and against – on the statewide ballot measures.  The information must be provided to the Secretary of State and is posted on her website.  However, it’s been made even easier because the California Voter Foundation has compiled a listing of the top five contributors, both pro and con, on each of the nine measures on the November ballot.  You can find that information, along with a lot of other general useful information about each measure, here:

http://www.calvoter.org/voter/elections/2010/general/props/index.html

The information is quite revealing.  Go take a look.


Prison Guard Union Muscles into Oakland Mayoral Election

June 28, 2010

If you’re like me, you get bunches of political ads in the mail.  I just got two today: CSC mailer & filing, both from “Coalition for a Safer California,” which is identified as a political committee sponsored “by public safety organizations.  OK, so what kind of public safety organizations?  Well, it couldn’t be police or fire departments, or the CHP, because they’re all governmental organizations and can’t contribute to political campaigns.  Well, maybe it’s a bunch of police and fire chiefs?  Nope.  It’s a couple of police unions and the state prison guards’ union.  In fact, the group’s latest filing shows the biggest single source of their money is the state prison guards’ union ($100,000 in their most recent filing).  Huh??  I didn’t know there were any state prisons in Oakland, or even near Oakland.  There aren’t even any state prisons anywhere in Alameda County.  So what gives??

Well, although the fliers are nominally about proposed layoffs of Oakland police (and factually inaccurate at that), what they’re really about is the November mayoral election, and they target two mayoral candidates, Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan. 

So, why are the prison guards trying to put  the finger on these two Oakland politicians?  The answer isn’t hard to figure out.  The third major candidate in the mayoral election is none other than Don Perata, former President Pro Tem of the state senate, deal-maker extraordinaire, and close ally of the prison guards during past state budget processes.  (It’s one reason the prison guards have gotten such sweet deals on their contracts — to the detriment of the state’s huge deficit.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Oakland Police Officers Association has endorsed Perata’s candidacy (using a public appearance by Oakland’s new police chief [who hasn’t endorsed Perata] as the venue to announce the endorsement).  In the best political “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” tradition, Perata has returned the favor by coming out four-square against any police layoffs.

What Perata’s bold stance doesn’t answer is:  How is he going to balance the city’s budget and address its $30 million deficit, which is projected to balloon to $50 million next year?  Maybe he’ll finance it by selling bonds or push it over for the next mayor to deal with — what he did when he was leading the legislature.

As you may be able to tell, I have not endorsed Perata.


An Oakland Column You Probably won’t like

June 23, 2010

Oakland is a mess; not Oakland the city, although parts of it certainly are messed up, but Oakland’s city government.  Oakland is far from unique in this  respect.  In these days of economic crisis (no, the recession is NOT over yet), and with California’s state government in a self-induced state of paralysis, many California cities are messed up, and Oakland isn’t the worst.  That honor belongs to Vallejo, which is entering its second year of bankruptcy, payback for a spending binge in the ’90s fueled by real estate speculation.   Other Bay Area cities also share Oakland’s plight, notably Richmond and San Francisco.

All these cities are faced with enormous looming budget deficits, and not for the first time.  Unlike the federal government, however, Oakland and its fellow California cities can’t simply print more money to cover their debt.  Nor can they invoke Keynesian economics and say that  running a deficit is OK.  No, there only three ways for Oakland to get out of its predicament:  1)  raise taxes -and/or fees – not a popular option, 2) cut services — also not a popular option, or 3) join Vallejo in bankruptcy and then proceed to rewrite its contracts with city labor unions — again, not popular, especially with said employee unions.

How did Oakland get into this fix and who’s to blame for it?  OK, OK, I know pinning blame on someone won’t solve the problem, but in this case understanding the bad decisions involved is part of keeping them from happening again.  Of course, not all of this problem is  Oakland’s fault.  The state government’s deficit and paralysis have led to it cutting back state contributions to local governments and shifting state responsibilities onto cities and counties.  Even more importantly, cities are highly dependent on revenue from sales and property taxes.  The recession, and its underlying housing bubble collapse, have led to major drops in both these revenue sources.  Unfortunately, in the 1990s, when sales and property tax revenues were booming during the internet bubble, the Oakland city council made a series of (in retrospect) irresponsible contracts with city unions, including notably the police and fire department unions.  Not only did these contracts involve major pay raises and benefit improvements, they committed the city to providing retirement benefits long into the future.   Even more irresponsibly, the city renewed these contracts even after the market collapsed in 2000.

Was this dumb?  Absolutely!!  Then why did it happen?  The answer lies in Oakland politics.  Oakland’s police and fire dept. unions have traditionally been strong political forces.  They share this attribute with the police and fire unions in other cities, notably Richmond and Vallejo [notice a pattern here?].  The police and fire unions endorse candidates for mayor and city council.  They also make major  contributions (both in money and volunteers) to the election campaigns for those offices.  Not surprisingly, the candidates they support often get elected.  Also not surprisingly, once they’re elected, these unions expect, and usually receive “payback”.  We’re not talking  graft here [at least, not that I know of].  This is not about suitcases full of small bills left at dark corners in the dead of night.  The payback happens in the full light of city council meetings and the somewhat dimmer light of labor negotiations and council closed sessions.

If you, as a council candidate, received a major amount of campaign help from the police and fire unions, you’ll have your office door open to their representatives.  You’ll also be thinking (either consciously or unconsciously) “If I cross these guys, they’ll be campaigning for my opponent next election, and I’ll lose. …  I better not cross these guys.”  Even if you weren’t thinking that when their representatives walked in your office door, you’d undoubtedly be thinking it by the time they walked back out.   With the police and fire unions helping to elect many council members (a majority?  I don’t know), it’s no big surprise that the council would approve contracts favorable to these unions.  Were the unions irresponsible to propose contracts that weren’t sustainable in the long-term?  I think so.  Were the council members irresponsible for agreeing to those unsustainable terms?  Well, Duh.  But you know who was the most irresponsible   in this whole process?  Us, the voters of Oakland.  We weren’t paying attention to what the city council was doing, and we weren’t paying attention to how city council election campaigns were being funded.  Where were the crowds of citizens at city council meetings in the 1990s when the police and fire contracts were approved?  Where were the crowds when, even after the bubble collapsed in 2000, the city council renewed those contracts?  (Also, where were the newspapers and reporters who are now lambasting Mayor Dellums  and trying  to pin all the blame on him?  Does he deserve part of the  blame?  Sure; but when he took office, the seeds of the problem had already been sown and were already growing fast.)

Oakland’s voters also have to take ownership of approving two incredibly dumb city ballot measures — Kids First and Kids First II.  Now, of course nobody wants  to vote against helping kids, but these two measures, and especially the second one, committed portions of the city budget to funding children’s services by non-city groups.   These were not bad groups, and  I’m sure that  the money has done good  things, but so do libraries, parks, senior centers, and, yes, police and fire departments. 

The result of all this short-sightedness and, yes, stupidity, is that now the city is in a serious financial bind.  Revenue has dropped and expenses continue to grow.  Perhaps most importantly, under past city contracts, the city is still required to help fund retirement benefits for police and firemen that have already retired, and those benefits  can’t be modified in future contracts.  They’re locked in as “entitlements”.

So, what do  we do now?  Well, if the  voters are willing, the city will have to enact new taxes to cover some of the current deficit and avoid major layoffs of police.  On the union side, they, and  particularly the police, will have to be willing to agree to major give-backs, especially as regards to retirement benefits and how they’re paid for.  Somehow, it’s also going to be necessary to bring the already-retired union workers back to the table to discuss what the city is required to do for them. 

Ultimately, the one threat the city may have available as leverage, one that it would be understandably loath to even talk about (as it were, the “nuclear option”), is declaring bankruptcy, with the prospect that an appointed administrator might be empowered to abrogate contracts and even retirement benefit payments as part of an overall package.  Looking north at Vallejo, it’s pretty clear that its bankruptcy has tarnished that city’s image severely, and it’s still not clear if Vallejo city’s officials are willing to make the tough calls needed on reducing city union employees’ pay and benefits.

In the long run, what may really be needed is something  similar to, but more far-reaching than, the  federal Hatch Act, which limits federal employee’s participation in partisan election campaigns.  Oakland needs to have a measure that says that if you’re getting paid out of city coffers, you can’t be influencing the  electoral process that picks your bosses.  The potential for corruption, malfeasance, and, at the very least, conflict of interest, is far too great.  At the very least, Oakland voters need to be far more careful in thinking about and deciding which candidates for mayor and city council they vote for.  Maybe an endorsement from the city’s unions, and particularly the police union, shouldn’t be looked upon as a plus??


Making Sense of the Primary Election Results

June 9, 2010

Well, the election is over, and the  results are in.  What do they mean?  A lot of things.  Lets start with some big lessons:   

One key lesson is that money still talks; but money, by itself, isn’t always enough.  Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorini won their respective contests by landslides, and a large part of the reason is that they buried their opponents with huge personal campaign contributions.  Whitman’s was the more egregious example, even though both she and her major opponent were both multi-millionaires who threw more  of their personal resources into their campaigns than 99.99% of Californians even have.  That didn’t appear to bother Republican voters.  It remains to be seen if such lavish spending of personal resources will alienate independent voters.  (I think one can safely assume that the number of Democrats who’ll vote for a self-proclaimed conservative Republican is vanishingly small.)   

On the other hand, the “spend your opponent to death” strategy didn’t work for either PG&E or Mercury Insurance, both of which tried and failed to buy passage of a corporate-sponsored ballot measure.  In each case, though, they did come close (within five points) to getting their corporate perspective incorporated into California law.  What’s also interesting is the distribution of votes.  In both cases, it was a coalition of voters, primarily in coastal and urban areas, that defeated the measure.  Here, for example, is a link to a map on the Secretary of State’s website showing the county-by-county distribution of votes for Prop. 16:   

http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/prop16.htm   

I think several factors were at work.  One, urban voters are more sophisticated and less easily taken in by the simplistic arguments used in these corporate campaigns.  They’re also more skeptical of whether their interests are aligned with corporate interests — i.e., “I know what in it for you, the corporate sponsor, but what’s in it for me, the voter and citizen?”  Also important is that the coastal and urban areas tend to be more liberal and accepting of government.  Both PG&E and Mercury aimed part of their campaigns at public distrust of government.  PG&E, in particular, argued that the people can’t trust government with the money needed to run a public power operation.  That met a receptive audience in “Red State” California, but not in California’s even larger “Blue State” population.  I suspect that in a November election, when urban turnout is higher, the result would have been more lopsided against the two measures.   

Despite the skepticism of corporate-funded campaigns, however, California voters were not ready to allow public financing of election campaigns.  Prop. 15 failed decisively, although not quite by a landslide.  The vote distribution here is particularly interesting.  Here’s how the map looked:   

County-by-county map of Prop 15 results

County-by-county map of Prop 15 results

Here’s a link to the Secretary of State’s webpage, which allows you to see the actual county-by-county voter totals:  http://vote.sos.ca.gov/maps/prop15.htm   

Most Bay Area counties voted “yes”; but the rest of the state (including LA) voted “no”.  What’s this mean?  The Bay Area counties tend to be the most liberal, with the highest percentage of Democratic registration in the state.  They also tend to have some of  the most highly educated voters.  We’ll have to wait for detailed exit polls for a more precise analysis, but my suspicion is that the rationale for Prop. 15 — that public financing would allow better control on campaign spending and reduce the influence of big money on elections — didn’t get through to the public.   Also, especially in hard economic times, many people were probably averse to allowing government to spend money on financing political campaigns, even if that money would come from taxing lobbyists — certainly not a popular group.  This measure, unlike Props 16 and 17, might have done better in a November general election, with its higher turnout and more liberal electorate.   

Finally, Proposition 14, the open primary measure, won quite handily, although again not by a landslide.  The county-by county vote distribution was less lopsided, however, than for Prop. 15.  Only two counties voted against Prop. 14 — San Francisco and Orange.  (A few other counties: Alameda, LA, Santa Cruz, and — surprisingly — Fresno and Tulare, were close, with the measure winning by margins of less than four percentage points.)  SF and Orange represent, of course, opposite ends of the political spectrum.  What they have in common, however, is the strength of their respective primary political party.  Across the political spectrum, the parties were united in opposing Prop. 14 because it would weaken the parties’ role in elections.  It seems, however, that most Californians don’t consider political parties to be all that important.    

Prop. 14’s biggest impact may be in future budget negotiations.  Not only will it make it harder for “hard-line” candidates to get elected, but party leaders will have less leverage over legislators by threatening to run candidates against them in the primary.  Prop. 14 is likely to be challenged in court, and won’t take effect until at least 2012.  We’ll just have to wait and see if it survives, and if so, whether it changes the current toxic budget dynamic.   

Finally, a couple more comments on the candidate side.  For all the talk about “tea parties” and anti-incumbent fever, incumbents did pretty well, at least in the congressional and legislative primary contests.  Off-hand, I can’t think of a race in which an incumbent was defeated.  [Readers — please point out if I’m wrong here.  I haven’t followed all the races that closely.]  Maybe the mood will be different in November, but for now, it doesn’t seem like incumbents are carrying a big stigma.   

The other race that may be worthy of note is for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  This is nominally a nonpartisan office, although traditionally Democrats have had an edge.  It was basically a three-way race, between two legislators: Tom Torlakson — supported by the teachers’ union, and Gloria Romero — supported by “reformers” who favor charter schools; and Larry Aceves, a retired administrator who tried to chart a middle   course.  The November run-off looks like it’ll be between Torlakson and Aceves.  It seems likely that many of Romero’s supporters will gravitate towards Aceves, who already had a slight edge in the results.  However, one can expect the teachers’ unions to spend heavily on Torlakson’s behalf (and expect corresponding rewards if he wins).  Looking at the results, Torlakson’s strength centered heavily around the Bay Area.  If he’s going to win, he’s going to have to expand his base.  Conversely, Aceves is going to have to gain better name recognition outside of his South Bay base, although his Hispanic roots may help him in many parts of the state.  This election is generally, however, a low-profile race. It’s the legislature and the governor who, by their budget decisions, have the biggest say about whether California public education will improve from its current dismal state.


A voice from the right says, “Vote No.”

May 16, 2009

George Will, the notorious right-wing columnist, has his thoughts on California’s special election.  His prescription — in common with that of many unions and left-wing Democrats — vote no on everything. He’s hoping the result will be to deepen California’s economic tailspin and finally force the legislature’s Democratic majority to cry uncle and slash the state’s budget. Here’s a link to his column:

http://www.dailycamera.com/news/2009/may/05/california-sagging/


The Market Implications of the California Special Election

May 7, 2009

I’ve been somewhat of a broken record stuck on discussing the May 19th special election here in California; but, after all, it is fast approaching.  One topic I haven’t touched upon yet, though, is the implications of the election for the financial markets.

Obviously, California doesn’t really have its own financial markets.  There isn’t even a Pacific Stack Exchange any more.  So, if the special election is going to have an impact, it’ll be on Wall Street and the national markets.  That doesn’t however, mean it will be ignored.

Right now, I’ve seen little if any discussion in the national financial press about the implications of the California election.  That doesn’t, however, mean it won’t have any.  If anything, it means the effects of the election will be felt even more strongly because they won’t have been anticipated and taken into account beforehand.

What will those effects be?  If, by some miraculous turn of events, most of the ballot measures pass (I’m ignoring Prop. 1F, which will have zero effect on financial markets [or almost anything else]), the effect would be positive.  It would send a message that California’s financial mess, while not totally solved, is at least being addressed and taken seriously.  What, however, about the more likely outcome?  What if most or all of the measures go down in flames?

I think the effects will be dramatic and negative.  The Governor is already raising the threat of major budget cuts, as well as poaching from cities’ and counties’ property tax proceeds (see, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/05/07/BAPC17FU69.DTL&type=politics).  While the legislative leadership has been noncommital on specifics, it doesn’t seem the Democrats will have the stomach for another long and draining budget stand-off; especially when their last compromise solution was rejected by the voters.  The Republicans, on the other hand, will feel vindicated and strengthened by the elections results.  They’ve already indicated that they intend to push for even more and deeper cuts when/if the budget comes back to them post-election.

I can see one of two results; and neither would be good news for financial markets.  The first would be that a new, even more austere state budget gets approved — one not dependent on voter approvals.  That would mean the balancing would happen through cuts alone.  Look for major lay-offs of state employees — especially union employees, wage cuts for all employees not protected by a union contract, further drastic cuts in allocations for social services and education, and a grab for local property and sales tax revenue.  The misery would then trickle down to the local level, with major lay-offs of teachers and municipal employees and more than a few bankruptcies for vulnerable cities and counties.  (Vallejo, already in bankruptcy, might actually have to “disincorporate”, whihc, in turn, might drive Solano County into bankruptcy.)  The California municipal bond market would, needless to say, take an enormous hit.

In the alternative, the Democrats might stick to their guns, resulting in another budget impasse.  However, this time I don’t see a compromise forthcoming.  Those few Republicans leaders who might have been open to compromise have been removed form the party leadership, and those Republicans who supported the last compromised are already being threatened with retribution at the next election. 

If no compromise is reached, state bankruptcy could well be the end result.  That would, of course, have major repercussions in the financial markets.  Just for starters, the state’s huge bonded indebtedness would be put at risk.  At the very least state bonds would start to go into default on their interest payments.  The price of California bonds would plummet, and it would be a practical impossibility for California to issue any new bonds. 

My assumption would be that a federal judge would be assigned to preside over California’s financial restructuring.  As with Vallejo, all labor contracts (and other contracts as well) would be subject to being restructured or even voided.  Since a court couldn’t order any new taxes, the judge would have to order the same kind of drastic budget cuts the legislature would have faced; but a judge could ignore the protection of labor contracts.  Expect major cuts in the wages of state employees, as well a a huge wave of lay-offs in all state agencies.  Any expenditures not mandated by federal law would be subject to being reduced or eliminated.

One effect of all this would be that California’s unemployment rate would explode, hitting levels not seen since the Great Depression.  In fact, sad to say, I think there’s a (in)decent likelihood that the special election results and their repercussions might be enough to convert the “Great Recession” into a true depression, unless Obama can scrounge together enough federal funding to step in and save the day.  Even Obama, Superman cape and all, isn’t likely to be able to do that.

So go ahead, vote against all the ballot measures.  What the heck.  When have Californians ever thought much about the implications of their votes?  After all, we elected Ronnie Reagan governor — twice!


Will Democratic Voters Help Republican Legislators?

April 29, 2009

This week’s news is bad for the Democratic legislative leadership, and good for the minority Republican legislators.  First was the news from the state Democratic Party convention, where rank-and-file delegates narrowly refused to endorse several ballot measures in the May 19th special election.  Then, yesterday, was the release of a statewide survey showing that five of the six measures were in serious trouble.

Current voter sentiment on May 19th ballot measures

Current voter sentiment on May 19th ballot measures

Here’s a link to the full news story:   http://www.sacbee.com/topstories/story/1818253.html

It goes almost without saying that most Republicans oppose the measures (except, perhaps, for Prop. 1F) since they didn’t like the Governor’s budget deal with the Democrats.  What’s a little more surprising is that many Democrats also plan to vote no — including several major labor groups (see the next post for more on this).

What these Democratic voters and groups don’t seem to realize is that by rejecting the ballot measures, they leave the budget unbalanced, and therefore throw it back to the legislature.  Once back in the legislature, Republicans will have a “second bite at the apple” in terms of further reducing state spending and eliminating the already-approved tax increases.  That’s because a revised, balanced, budget will still need a 2/3 vote, and Republicans hold more than 1/3 of the legislative seats.  With grassroots Republicans on the warpath, it’s anyone’s guess whether the few hardy Republican legislators who broke with the party to approve the last budget will be willing to do so again, especially since the voters turned thumbs down to that compromise.

The final effect of voter rejection is likely to be one of two things:  either a budget that’s even more favorable to Republicans than the last, or a budget stalemate, followed by state bankruptcy.  One has to ask whether those Democratic groups urging a No vote on May 19th have seriously considered what the consequences of that vote will be.


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