The June Primary is almost here!

May 20, 2018

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Gosh!  It’s election time again already.  What fun!  [Ha HA].  As usual, I’m putting up my opinions and recommendations for anyone who’s interested.  Take them for whatever they’re worth.

This isn’t a presidential election, but there’s still a lot to vote on.  A whole bunch of offices and eight ballot measures are on my ballot. (There may be more or fewer on yours, depending on where you live.)  As usual, I’m going to start “at the top”, both in terms of candidates at the top of the ballot and those representing the largest constituencies.  The closer where you live is to where I live, the further down the ballot you’ll get before our ballots diverge.  However, don’t forget to look at the ballot measures after the candidates, as these are often the most important decisions you’ll make.

Starting with statewide offices:

Governor 

Can you believe there are twenty-seven candidates on the ballot!!? I can’t recall an election with that many that everyone could vote for.  I’m not sure if this is a plus or a minus of the new “top two” approach, where the primary allows everybody to vote for any candidate.  The candidates aren’t even separated out by party preference.

I got my official statewide voter information guide last week. Not as huge as I expected it to be, with all the candidate statements to be included.  One problem with having this many candidates, and only one vote, is that the likelihood of any random candidate getting to the November ballot is extremely low.  The elections becomes as much a matter of name recognition as anything else.  If you ask me, it’s a pretty stupid way to run an election.  At the very least, we should be able to rank, for example, our top five candidates, and then narrow the number of candidates on the November ballot to no more than five.  Ranked choice voting would also make sense in November.  However, it is what it is, so you just get your one shot per race.  Maybe someone will put up an initiative to change this disaster.  [I hope]

Unfortunately, given the lack of name recognition, there may well be numerous very worthy candidates who won’t get to the November ballot.  Consequently, since I presume many people would like their vote to mean something – in terms of actually helping to choose who’s on the November ballot, I’m going to limit my initial comments to the more high-profile candidates.  I will probably add some more before election day, if I get time.

Among the main candidates, the Democrats clearly have a strong edge in getting to November.  In fact, it’s not at all unlikely, given the low name recognition of the Republican, minor party, and unaffiliated candidates, that the top two candidates will both be Democrats in most if not all races (at least for the Bay Area).  The same may well be true for all statewide races, especially given that California is a “bright blue” state.  Consequently, I’m going to focus my comments on the major Democratic candidates.  Late update (5/28/18) – it appears the top Republican gubernatorial candidate is currently outpacing the second-ranked Democrat, so at least in that race, November may be one Republican vs. one Democrat.  Still not a lot of options!

Here’s my rundown:

Gavin Newsom – current Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor.  He’s clearly the highest profile candidate.  He’s also raised by far the most campaign funds ($14 M thus far!).  One of my rules of thumb is “follow the money.”  Contributors may not necessarily “buy” a candidate (although it’s been known to happen), but who the major contributors are tells a lot about where a candidate is coming from.  Reyes Holdings is Newsom’s biggest contributor ($146K).  They own beverage bottling and distribution companies around the U.S.  What’s their interest in Gavin?  Maybe they just like him, but more likely they think he’ll go light on taxing big corporations.  Next is Creative Artists Agency ($127K).  According to Wikipedia, it’s “is an American talent and sports agency based in Los Angeles, California. It is regarded as a dominant and influential company in the talent agency business and manages numerous prestigious clients.”  Maybe they like Gavin because of his “star” qualities?  Or maybe they think he’ll be sympathetic to Hollywood’s interests?  After that comes Hueston Hennigan LLP, a big law firm specializing in commercial litigation and white collar defense.  Why do they like Gavin, well, for one thing, they’re defending Southern California Edison in this winter’s Southern California wildfires.  Maybe they think he’ll be sympathetic to that utility’s interests?  Number four is Winklevoss Capital Management ($117K) – a big investment company and venture capital firm.  I guess they figure Gavin will be good for big business.  Rounding out his top five is Social Finance ($116K) – a big finance company (i.e., student loans, mortgages, commercial loans, etc.)  One can guess that they’re hopeful that Gavin will NOT be doing something to ease student debtors burdens.  Perhaps significantly, Gavin hasn’t put up any policy positions on the Voters Edge website; nor did he bother to put a statement in the voter information guide.  Shows how much he respects California voters’ interest in issues.  While Newsom has supported some liberal positions, notably on gay marriage, he’s become pretty establishment Democrat as Lieutenant Governor.  He’d probably be a bit to the left of Jerry Brown, but for a Democrat, that’s not saying much.

Antonio Villaraigosa – Former Mayor of Los Angeles, and currently titles himself a “public policy advisor” (whatever that means – maybe lobbyist?).  He’s raised just over $7M in funds, with major contributions by contractor Tudor Perini ($87K), various pipetrade unions and locals (just under $117K) and Harborview Capital Partners ($just under $117K), which describes itself as ” a full service commercial real estate finance, equity and advisory firm.”  Let’s just say it’s representing real estate and development interests.  So, I think one can safely say he’s well-liked by the real estate and development community – at least in Southern California.  Like Gavin, he also hasn’t put up any policy positions on the Voters Edge, or in the voter guide, but one could safely say he’d be pro-business and pro-development – probably not all that different from Jerry Brown, although again maybe a little more liberal on social issues.

John Chiang – current California State Treasurer – rounds out the top Democratic candidates (at least by $ contributions).  He’s collected about $5M, with major contributions from Northern California Carpenter unions ($58K), California United Nurses Union ($58K), and MWM Global Holdings, a financial consulting firm that “offers trust, wealth management, legal, corporate consulting, audit and accounting services” from its headquarters in the British Virgin Islands.  One might guess that the firm has done a fair bit of business with the treasurer’s office.  Mr. Chiang’s contributors suggest links to construction and other unions as well as financial management interests.  That would fit with his history of public finance (he was State Controller before he became State Treasurer.  Unlike Newsom and Villaraigosa, Chiang has put up some policy positions on voters’ edge, but not in the voter pamphlet.  He emphasizes housing, public education, and generally opposing the policies being put forward by the Republican Trump Administrations.  His platform appears considerably to the left of Villaraigosa’s and Newsom’s but there’s not a lot of policy history behind that.

Delaine Eastin – former Superintendent of Public Instruction – it’s an open question whether she should be considered a “main” candidate.  While her fundraising has been significant – just under $1 million, it’s far below any of the other major candidates – even the main Republican candidates.  However, she’s the only well-known candidate who’s a woman, and she has enough name recognition to possibly stage an upset and reach the November election.  I actually like he platform far better than any of the other main candidates, (and she’s the only major Democratic candidate to bother putting information into the voters’ guide), so she’s my long-shot recommendation.  Shame on the California establishment Democrats for their disdain for California voters!

John Cox (Republican) – added info (5/28/18) – Cox is a “mainstream” Republican – which at this point means he generally supports Trump, and Trump has endorsed him.  According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, the charter school movement is funding a major campaign effort against Cox, in the hopes it will allow Villaraigosa – a charter school supporter – to bump him out of second place, and bump Villaraigosa into the November election.  (Maybe if you really hate Villaraigosa, you should vote for Cox in June??)  He’s got a reasonably hefty campaign war chest (almost $6 million), but most of that is self-funded.  (Cox is, perhaps not surprisingly, quite wealthy.)  He’s anti-immigration, anti-regulation, pro-gun, and pro-Prop 13.  In other words, if you’re anything close to a Democrat, he’s a total anathema.  If he does make the November ballot, he’ll almost certainly continue the string of Republicans who lose resoundingly.

Lieutenant Governor

There are still a lot of candidates here, but nowhere near as many as for Governor or U.S. Senator.  Because time is growing short, I’m going to just cut to the chase and give you my pick – Gayle McLaughlin.

This is a rather insubstantial office.  The Lieutenant Governor does, however, get to sit on a number of significant boards, notably the State Lands Commission, the U.C. Board of Regents, the Cal State Univ. Board of Trustees, and the Economic Development Commission.  Gayle, as mayor of Richmond, led a progressive city council majority (which she helped elect) to make some major reforms, including hiring a top-notch police chief who made major changes in improving the police dept.’s sorry reputation.  She was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders and carries his endorsement.  None of the other candidates are anywhere near as impressive.

Secretary of  State

This office is also considered a “minor” statewide office, but the office’s duties are considerable.  The Secretary of State is the state’s chief elections officer, responsible for setting up and running the state’s formidable elections apparatus.  The Secretary of State also maintains the state’s records of corporations and other legal entities, and maintains the state’s archives of historical materials.

Because the Secretary of State has a statewide platform, it’s a good place for someone to push for electoral reform, and as you can tell from my comments about our “top two” primary system, I think we badly need reform.  That’s why I’m supporting Michael Feinstein, Green Party candidate and former mayor of Santa Monica.  Will he get elected?  Not likely, but he’s pushing reforms that ought to be taken seriously; notably proportional representation in the Legislature, which would give us a more diverse and representative Legislature, as well as campaign finance reform.  While C.T. Weber (Peace & Freedom Party) supports much of the same platform, I think Feinstein has more visibility and credibility as a former elected official.

Controller

Another “minor” office.  There are only three candidates.  The Controller essentially is responsible for writing the state’s checks and ensuring there’s money to pay the bills.  If there’s illegal state spending going on, the Controller’s who you sue.  arguably, the Controller could refuse to write a check for something he/she felt was improper.  That, as far as I know, has never happened.  The Republican candidate says he’d make state spending more effective and efficient.  I don’t think he has that power.  The Democrat, Betty Yee, has been a loyal Democrat in various minor positions for many years.  Don’t expect her to do anything revolutionary, or even reformist.  The Peace & Freedom Party candidate says she’ll do things that I don’t think she has the power to do.  No endorsement for any of these candidates from me.  Maybe I’ll write in Bill Lockyer?

Treasurer

Yet another minor office, although the Treasurer does have the ability to refuse to authorize bond issuance if he thinks it would be unwise.  (As Treasurer, Bill Lockyer at one point said he wouldn’t issue bonds for the high-speed rail system because he felt that, with the lack of investor trust, the interest rate would be too high.  He eventually relented.)  I emphatically would NOT vote for Fiona Ma.  While she was on the State Board of Equalization, there were major scandals involving misspending of funds.  Was she involved?  She claims she wasn’t.  I’m not so sure.  In the Legislature, she voted in lockstep with the Democratic Party leadership.  I think she’d be a well-oiled cog in the Democratic state party machine.  I’d like to throw a shoe or two into that machine.  Maybe Greg Conlon??  Yeah, I know, he’s a Republican, and has about a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting elected, but he does seem well-qualified and less likely to just be a rubber stamp on the Democratic leadership’s checks.

Attorney General

While a “minor” office, it’s probably the most important of them.  Not only is the AG the state’s chief law enforcement officer, but he also heads up the state’s legal team, which both advises most state government entities and defends them in court.  When a state entity seems to be doing something that’s “not quite right”, it’s supposed to the the AG’s job to set them straight.  That hasn’t been the case for a long time, with the AG being filled by people with political aspirations who follow their party’s line.  Sadly, I don’t expect that to change in a major way with any of the candidates, but Dave Jones may have the best shot at doing it, as he’s running against a Democratic incumbent and bucking the system by doing that.  He’s also done a fairly credible job as insurance commissioner.

Insurance Commissioner

Speaking of Insurance Commissioner, this is one place I would NOT want to elect a Republican.  The last time we had a Republican in the office, it was a mess.  My choice would be Ricardo Lara.  as one of the co-authors of the proposed state single-payer health insurance bill, he showed he was willing to take on some powerful opponents.  The bill didn’t get very far, but maybe as Insurance Commissioner, he can do some good things with other insurance issues.

State Board of Equalization

This office really needs to be abolished!  There’s no reason why its duties couldn’t be absorbed into the Franchise Tax Board.  I frankly don’t trust ANY of the candidates particularly.  I may leave my ballot blank.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Tony Thurmond – This is where he should have been in the first place, instead of the State Assembly.  His heart is in educational issues.

Federal Offices

U.S. Senator

Lots of candidates again here, but it’s basically a two person race – Diane Feinstein versus Kevin De Leon.  Of the two, I’m going with Kevin De Leon, even though the polls seem to show that Feinstein’s the runaway favorite.  Feinstein’s middle-of-the-road stance has bothered me ever since she was San Francisco Mayor.  I think it’s time for her to be moved aside.

U.S. Representative

Barbara Lee – this seat is uncontested.

Local Offices

State Assembly 15th District

There are twelve candidates here.  There are three that seem to me worth voting for:  Dan Kalb, Ben Bartlett, and Jovanka Beckles.  Each of them is currently a city council member and thus has some legislative experience, although at the local level, and each has what appear to me to be some good ideas.  Unfortunately, all three may be swamped by the deluge of outside money pouring into Buffy Wicks’ campaign.   She has NO legislative experience and her money and endorsements come from having been a political flack in Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign.  She also worked on setting up Obamacare, and we all know all too well the flaws in that system.  (Yes, it’s better than nothing, but it was not well thought out and really needs to be replaced by something better and more inclusive.)  PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, Don’t vote for Buffy!

New information (as of 5/28/18) Follow the money.  As I said earlier in this post, who’s contributing to a candidate can be more telling than what they say they will do, or even who endorses them.  Here’s more information (from the Secretary of State via the groups – and websites – Maplight and Votersedge).  Summary of major donor info and classifications of donors (large vs. small, in-state vs out-of-state, individuals vs groups) for some of the major candidates:

Buffy Wicks:

Wicks contributions     Dan Kalb:

Kalb contributions

Jovanka Beckles

Beckles Contributions

Ben Bartlett:

Bartlett Contributions

Take-home lesson – Buffy Wicks has gotten much more $$ than any other candidate [and it shows in how many mailers she’s sent out and other campaign expenditures], a much higher proportion of out-of-state donors, and a high percentage of large corporate donors.  Draw your own conclusions!  For the others, lots of union donations – with the type of union varying by candidate (again, what unions are donating says a lot about how you can expect the candidate to vote), and almost nobody getting a lot of money from small donors.  (Jovanka Beckles has the highest percentage.)  None of this is good news, but none of it is unexpected either, given how the courts (especially U.S. Supreme Court) have emasculated campaign finance reform laws.

Superior Court Judge

No Opinion – I don’t think we should be electing judges.

Board of Education – 1st Trustee Area

Thus seat is uncontested.  It’s unclear to me what the County Board of Education does in incorporated areas of the county that have their own school board.  At any rate, the seat is uncontested, which says either that the incumbent is doing a good job or nobody cares enough about the position to run for it.  Since it makes no difference, I may leave this one blank too.

County Assessor

This is basically a technical job – the assessor doesn’t decide what gets assessed or for how much, just supervises the operation of getting the data.  That may change if we go to a split roll in November.  Given that, I’d go for John Weed, who’s the only candidate supporting a split roll.

County Auditor-Controller/Clerk-Recorder

This office is a peculiar mix of clerical and analytical responsibilities.  To my mind, the most important responsibilities are as auditor.  The auditor is supposed to look for honesty and efficiency in government.  I’d go for Irella Blackwood, who emphasizes that aspect of the office, while Melissa Wilk emphasizes the more routine duties that really hardly need an elected official to do.

County District Attorney

To my mind, this is the most important county office on the ballot this election.  While the District Attorney’s role in criminal prosecutions gets the most attention, the District Attorney also superintends the county civil grand jury, which studies and makes recommendations about county government.  The DA can also prosecute “political” crimes, like violations of campaign reform laws, conflict of interest laws, or Brown Act violations.  Usually, DAs are closely tied to the county’s political establishment, so these laws only get enforced against disfavored officials.  I’d expect Nancy O’Malley, a very well-connected Democrat, to continue that tradition.  My recommendation is Pamela Price.  She’s definitely looking for reform of the criminal justice system in the county – which IMHO it badly needs.  However, she’s also not tied in with the political establishment, which IMHO is another big pllus.

Ballot Measures

Prop 68 – YES –

while I distrust bonds these days, this one will do good things.

Prop. 69 –  YES –

Well, Duh.  You mean you want your transportation money frittered away?  (Not that it won’t be even if it’s spend on some state projects)

Prop. 70 – YES –

Case in point – 1/4 of the cap & trade funds are now going to high-speed rail construction, a project that is NEVER going to get completed and, in the meantime, is INCREASING GHG emissions!!  Here’s a link to a recent article about the debacle.  This one-shot at demanding more accountability in what gets funded isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing.  IMHO, cap & trade is a classic demonstration of the flaws in California’s Democratic Party establishment.  Decisions get made based on political pull, rather any rational consideration of public policy.  Shame on Jerry Brown and the Democratic legislative leadership!

Prop. 71 – YES –

very common sense measure.

Prop. 72 – YES –

water conservation measures like this should be incentivized, not disincentivized.

Regional Measure 3 –

NO,NO, NO – This is throwing bridge toll money at a laundry list of projects chosen to satisfy political and special interests.  As U.S. Representative DeSaunier says, it won’t solve our transportation problems.  MTC should be told to go back and start over!

Alameda County Measure A – YES –

childcare for low income families – badly needed

Oakland Measure D – YES –

library parcel tax – do we really want libraries to close???

 

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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.

 


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.


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.


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?


The Curse of Ideological Rigidity

June 5, 2010

Much has been made of the red state-blue state division in U.S. politics, and more recently of the rise of “tea party” Republicans as a political force.  However, the seeds of much of our current political mess were sown back in the early 1960s by Barry Goldwater and his allies in the Republican party.  They insisted that ideological purity was essential to revitalizing the party.  In particular, they lambasted pragmatists like Eisenhower and liberals like Nelson Rockefeller for tarnishing what they considered to be the core conservative values of the party.

While Goldwater himself was blasted out of the water in the 1964 presidential election, giving the liberal but pragmatic Lyndon Johnson the most lopsided win (61% of the popular vote) since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency — a margin that no president since then has reached or exceeded — nevertheless his conservative ideology had taken hold within the party.  The failed Nixon presidency weakened the moderate wing of the party, and Gerald Ford’s decisive loss to Jimmy Carter was, for conservatives, more convincing evidence that Americans were tired of bland, centrist, Republicans.

The nomination, and then election, of Ronald Reagan, who had started out as a main-stream Democrat but shifted rightward politically as he grew older, completed the ideological victory of the right-wing within the Republican Party.  From that point onward, the battle within the Republican Party has only been between those who wanted to see a right-of-center government in coalition with conservative Democrats and those who insist that Republicans deserve and need to govern alone, based on an ideologically pure ultraconservative political philosophy.

The latter perspective is, perhaps ironically, best exemplified not by a presidential candidate or Congressional leader, but by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his trusty sidekick, Clarence Thomas.  These two justices have loudly proclaimed their adherence to “original intent”, the doctrine that the Constitution is to be interpreted based entirely on the “intent of the framers.”  This doctrine suffers from the flaw, common in statutory interpretation, that it’s almost never possible to discern a single unified intent in the actions of a legislative body made up of many individuals with differing interests.  A review of opinions written by the Scalia/Thomas wing shows, however, that they are guided, not by original intent, but a rigid right-wing ultraconservative ideology that wants to see a federal government with only extremely limited powers and controlled by a strong “imperial” president.

Ideological rigidity did not, of course, originate with Barry Goldwater.  Indeed, one can argue that it goes back at least as far as some of the harsh punishments for sinful behavior set forth in the Old Testament.  Indeed, a good case can be made that Jesus’ rejection of the traditional Jewish faith of his time stemmed at least as much from revulsion against that rigidity as it did from his rejection of the corruption of the Jewish officialdom of Roman era Palestine.

The Romans themselves also showed a strong streak of ideological rigidity.  One thinks of Cato the Elder, who, it is claimed, ended each speech he gave in the Roman senate with the same sentence, “Carthago delenda est!” [Carthage must be destroyed!]  The Catholic Church has also had its periodic bursts of ideological rigidity, perhaps the most notable being that demonstrated in the Spanish Inquisition.  More recently, the Jacobins, and most notably Robespierre, espoused an extreme ideology during the French Revolution, imprisoning and guillotining those whom they felt threatened the purity of the revolution.  In the Twentieth Century, ideological rigidity has had its adherents on both the left and the right, ranging from Lenin to Stalin to Hitler and Franco to Mao, especially in his later years when the cultural revolution was proclaimed.

One would think that the list of sordid adherents to ideological rigidity would have given this political approach a bad name.  One would be wrong.  Why is that?  I believe it is because ideological rigidity allows people to reach simple answers to complex and vexing questions, ranging from what to do about the federal deficit to what should the country’s stance be towards immigration.   Once one accepts a pure ideological approach to political issues, one need not spend one’s time poring over volumes of data and listening to the complicated explanations of experts.  As the saying goes, “Don’t bother me with evidence, I know THE TRUTH.”  In this, political ideologists have much in common with religious ideologists, and it seems to me far from coincidence that many Tea Party adherents are also adherents to fundamentalist evangelical sects.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers about how to deal with those who have succumbed to the siren call of ideological rigidity.  Perhaps the best one can hope for is that recent disasters such as the Great Recession and the gulf oil spill will cause some of the far-right’s current adherents to begin to question whether their leaders really do have all the answers, and wonder whether it might be worth turning their brains back on.


Columnist Dan Weintraub on the Special Election.

May 16, 2009

Here’s Daniel Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee’s latest take on the ballot measures.  Actually, he’s just recounting comments of a “friend” who’s voting no on all the measures.  Bottom line –sometimes you have to tear down a house before you can rebuild it.  I wonder what it’ll be like for Californians to live in the debris of a torn-down state for several years while we figure out how to build our new structure?

http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/story/1856206.html


The Insanity of the California Constitution

March 11, 2009

If you read through the California Constitution, you’d have to think California must be a state full of certified lunatics. (Of course, you’d also probably have to be a certified lunatic to read through the California Constitution. It’s about 35,000 word, it takes up five 500 page volumes of West’s California Codes.)

One of the reasons the Constitution is so large and ungainly is because it’s so easy to change it.  All it takes is to circulate an initiative petition and get 700,000 valid signatures on it, then win the statewide election with a bare majority of votes cast.  Granted, neither of these is the kind of thing you can do in a spare weekend with $50 and a few friends, but it’s no more than it takes to pass a simple statutory initiative.  There have been many, many constitutional amendments enacted through the initiative process. 

On the other hand, the California Constitution makes some actions very difficult to accomplish.  A budget may only be approved by a 2/3 vote of both houses of the legislature.  Likewise, under Proposition 13, a new state tax may only be adopted by a 2/3 vote of both houses.  Further, bonds and local taxes require a 2/3 vote of the electorate.

What this means is that rights established under the state constitutions, such as California’s right of privacy and California’s enhanced right of free speech, can be modified or abolished by initiative through a simple majority vote of the statewide electorate, while establishing a new tax or approving a bond requires a 2/3 majority vote.  Does this mean that Californians believe that money is more precious than human rights?  Apparently so.


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