Monday, December 10, 2018

Something to be thankful for, I think

Because we all voted in the recent election, it is going to take a lot more signatures to put initiatives and constitutional amendments on the California ballot over the next four years. The number of signatures required is a percentage of the votes cast for Governor.

State law links the number of voter signatures required on an initiative or referendum to the total number of votes cast in the most recent election of a governor. The threshold for qualifying a measure was at its lowest point in decades for elections in 2016 and 2018, after record low turnout in 2014 for the reelection of Gov. Jerry Brown.

... Unofficial election tallies show initiative campaigns will need to collect 620,439 valid signatures for statutory measures appearing on the November 2020 ballot — compared to just 365,880 signatures the past two election cycles. Constitutional amendments will go from needing 585,407 valid signatures to requiring at least 992,702 signatures.

L.A.Times, December 8, 2018

This will be good for people who make their living collecting signatures, but perhaps discouraging to tech billionaires who promote vanity measures.

In general, I believe that when costs are lower, we find ourselves voting on too many matters of which we know little and on which an informed vote would be require information most of us don't have time to acquire. Pulling and hauling over relatively small interests should be resolved through the legislature. We pay our representatives to learn this stuff so we don't have to.

Public issues with wide constituencies will still find the wherewithal to get on the state ballot; I don't fear we'll miss much.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Sure hope they are right

A growing number of Republicans fear that a battery of new revelations in the far-reaching Russia investigation has dramatically heightened the legal and political danger to Donald Trump’s presidency — and threatens to consume the rest of the party, as well.

Washington Post, December 8, 2018

They bought into this swindle -- let's make sure they own it.

Inadequately-noted: It's about (c)(4)s all over these days

Maybe not everywhere, but (c)(4)s are the way we rock for an awful lot more of us than were engaged in political activism in the last couple of decades.

What do these letters and numbers mean? They refer to section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue (tax) Code defining a kind of not-for-profit charity that is tax exempt as to its own income, but permitted to engage in some direct political activity. Used to be, most advocacy outfits were organized under section 501(c)(3) which treats contributions as tax deductible to the donors, but constrained direct political activity, especially endorsing candidates. Nonprofits were able to offer their donors (people, corporations and foundations) a tax deduction in return for staying out of politics.

These restrictions were drummed into nonprofit managers and boards. They were little understood and little explored. And, too often, they scared the stuffing out of otherwise transgressive advocates. I mean, how can you claim to stick up for undocumented immigrants and communities subjected to police abuse if you won't publicly denounce the politicians whose schtick is bashing your people? To a great extent, you can't. Can you claim to be serious about your goals if you are organized under a legal structure that amounts to accepting handcuffs on your advocacy? You've pretty much promised not to contend for power when only real political power will get you where you aim to go.

Nonprofits weaseled around amid the (c)(3) restrictions, more and less openly and bravely. Groups on the left always suspected that "charities" (especially churches) on the right ignored the rules; the suspicions were mutual.

Fortunately, the necessity to build new institutions and adapt old ones in response to the 2016 election of an anti-democratic GOP and an authoritarian president has pushed us onto new ground. Columbia Law Professor David Pozen explained in the Atlantic:
resistance groups have ... been transforming American politics behind the curtains, through the choices they are making about their place within the tax code. This seemingly dry legal development could turn out to be one of the movement’s most significant legacies, as it presages a new model of liberal activism for the age of Trump and beyond. Nonprofit groups that used to focus their energies on litigation and education are increasingly structuring themselves to be political players.

... Many of the key groups founded to resist Trump, including Indivisible Project, Onward Together, Our Revolution, Sixteen Thirty Fund, Stand Up America, and Women’s March, are abandoning the 501(c)(3) public-charity route and incorporating as 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations instead. Social-welfare organizations are also exempt from federal income tax, but they have fewer fiscal privileges. Donations to them are not deductible. Yet unlike public charities, they may lobby as much as they wish, and they may engage in partisan political work—from asking candidates to sign pledges to registering like-minded voters to endorsing specific pieces of legislation—as long as that work is not their “primary” purpose or activity (a requirement so hard to define and enforce that, in the words of one leading nonprofit tax scholar, it “virtually invites wholesale noncompliance”). Since this past summer, social-welfare organizations have also been allowed to withhold the names of their donors from the Internal Revenue Service.

... Federal tax law allows social-welfare organizations to be affiliated with public charities as well as with PACs. So while anti-Trump start-ups are setting up shop as 501(c)(4)s, long-standing civil-liberties and civil-rights groups are reallocating resources to (c)(4) arms. In fiscal year 2017, for example, total assets of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (c)(3) grew 17 percent. Total assets of its (c)(4), on the other hand, grew 89 percent. This past June, the Southern Poverty Law Center spun off a (c)(4), the SPLC Action Fund. The NAACP went further and transformed itself entirely last year from a 501(c)(3) into a 501(c)(4). This restructuring was necessary, the incoming president explained, for the NAACP to “have the collective voice and impact that a civil-rights organization in 2017 and forward should have.”

... the shift toward 501(c)(4)s, PACs, and hybrid legal structures represents more than just a temporary adaptation to Trumpism. ...
I certainly hope so. The task of preserving rule of law and democratic rights is too important to allow it to be constrained by fears that donors are so attached to their (often negligible) tax deductions they'll run away if they don't get them.

The outpouring of direct (taxable) political donations to Dems in the midterms seems to prove that the money for democracy is there, if people are convinced it must be.

Importantly, labor unions are heavily regulated in their political work, but they too are sometimes reaching for the flexibility of the (c)(4) status. The UniteHERE effort we just worked on in Nevada was part of a big (c)(4) coalition providing an "independent expenditure" boost to Jacky Rozen's run for the Senate without coordination with the Democratic campaign.

Sure, the rich always have more with which to push back, but if we have the people, we can find enough so long as democracy holds. So let's continue to move away from letting tax code worries keep us quiet -- and, when we win power, clean up the tax code and campaign finance law to level the playing field. A right wing Supreme Court that confuses cash with speech will be a barrier -- but a determined people's ingenuity amplified by lawyers is deep and wide.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Saturday scenery: finally the rain came

Just an ordinary San Francisco street
Afterward there was air to breathe again.

Folks who didn't experience the Bay Area's 10 day lockdown caused by smoke from the Camp Fire can only imagine how glad locals were to get outside again.

I ran across this which helps quantify how damaging our air was:
Since 2008, pitch calls have been checked by Major League Baseball with an electronic system. In a typical game, an umpire makes 140 ball/strike calls. When there was a 150 percent increase over average carbon monoxide levels or the same increase in small particulate matter, the study found an average of 1.4 additional incorrect calls. Levels of pollution that high occur in about one in 10 games.
Our air quality was probably at least three times as bad as that at these ball games.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Speed kills

Erudite Partner nails it again: The Trump administration makes the news cycle feel like a bad dose of amphetamines.

Friday cat blogging

Morty knows what's competing for our attention. He intends to win.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

So many worse crimes

I didn't think I'd ever say this, but I can't get into the pile-on of President Trump for failing to recite the Apostles Creed at HW Bush's funeral.

The guy is a classic upper class nominal Protestant of his generation. He doesn't have and never acquired the cultural capital to make appropriate noises during a liturgical church service. That makes him normal among privileged mid-20th century US Protestants for whom church was a social signifier, not a source of inspiration, values, or ethics. And he certainly doesn't have a glimmer about what that particular little formula is supposed to mean.

The creed is not a prayer. It's a laboriously negotiated 5th century philosophical statement designed to give Christians something to hold on to while they argued about the nature of God and humans. Though widely formally recited by multiple flavors of Christians, our credulous media would be hard put to find many people outside academia who look to it a source of meaning for their beliefs.

Let's bash Trump for the harm he inflicts on people, not for flunking at performing church.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Inadequately noted: AMLO ¡Presidente!

What if a massive earthquake shook the big building down the street we live on -- and we shrugged, if we even noticed? That's how the US media seems to be treating the inauguration of AMLO as president of Mexico on Saturday. No, Mexico is not some poor backward country of no account in the world. Our southern neighbor is a large, complicated, oil-rich, middle class nation and one of our most important commercial partners; AMLO's arrival may well force the self-referential USA to pay some attention.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador won election in July, but Mexico puts presidential winners through a long transition period. He is
the first classical leftist president of our southern neighbor since the end of the Mexican Revolution.

His inauguration day marked a radical shift from the same moment six years earlier, when tens of thousands of protesters streamed onto the streets of Mexico City and violently clashed with repressive riot police as former President Enrique Peña Nieto came to power.
AMLO is a man of the left, an immensely popular politician -- and a proven success at making government work in near impossible circumstance. As Mayor of the unwieldy monster that is Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, he managed to both fund social programs to improve the lives of the urban poor, and rebuild the city center while leading a commercial renaissance. No wonder Mexico's urban masses have long supported him.

The few mentions of the new Mexican president I've seen in the US press were speculations about whether the new government will cut a deal with Trump to hold asylum seekers in their insecure country; Vox's Dara Lind speculated on the Weeds podcast that AMLO might be open to a deal on migrants that paid off enough to fund his social development plans for Oaxaca. Could be; he's a far more sophisticated wheeler-dealer than our Orange Maniac. But he is also likely to prove a surprise on both sides of our border.

This story from L.A. Taco catches some of the excitement many Mexicans, in that country and here, are feeling about AMLO. He quickly took up Mexico's migration quandary.
During his inauguration speech this weekend, Lopez Obrador did make a nod to the sacrifices and resilience of Mexicans in the United States — another first. “During the neoliberal period, we became the second country in the world in terms of migration,” Lopez Obrador said, according to the official transcript of his remarks at Mexico’s congressional chambers.

“Twenty-four million Mexicans work and live in the United States,” he went on, apparently grouping both immigrants and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. “We have the example of our compatriots who out of necessity have gone to build a life in the United States, and now they send their families $3 billion annually.”

... Migration north is a brain-drain, a population drain, and a fundamentally destabilizing phenomenon for both Mexico and the U.S., although for neoliberal, free-market enthusiasts, it’s always been a sort of too-bad, oh-well status quo. ... Mexican migrants in the United States continue to prop up both countries’ economies through taxes, remittances, and purchasing power ...
L.A. Taco wonders where AMLO will go with migration policy, but they enjoy the fresh breeze as it blows in.

North Americans need to stop treating Mexico as a poor, helpless, dependent; this attitude is our racism showing. Mexico has a new president who may well surprise us all.

Monument in Mexico City commemorating the nationalization of the country's oil. Gotta love a city with one of these.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

What it is really like to work on a campaign: wide and also deep?

A nugget from Erudite Partner's article about organizing in the UniteHERE-sponsored election campaign in Reno this fall:

Organizing absolutely requires talking to people who’d rather be left alone, about things they’d probably rather not think about. But I’d probably state it differently: organizing requires skillful conversations that help people to consider carefully what they do want and that show them how they can work with other people to get it. Organizing is not so much a practice of convincing people to act against their own interests and desires as it is one of motivating people to identify those interests and desires – and to go for them.

Read it all here.

Monday, December 03, 2018

History, politics, elections and getting from here to there

Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian and New Yorker magazine writer whose new book, These Truths: A History of the United States, is receiving a lot of current attention. This post is not about that one. I'll get to it soon enough: I'm currently sitting at request number #109 for 62 copies at the San Francisco Public Library.

But today I want to muse on a short introductory passage from an earlier Lepore volume. In The Story of America: Essays on Origins she writes:

Politics involves elections and votes and money and power, but the heart of politics is describing how things came to be the way they are in such a way that you know how to make things the way they ought to be.

This is curious, and worth pondering, because it reveals how much politics has in common with history. Politics is a story about the relationship between the past and the future; history is a story about the relationship between the past and the present. It's what history and politics share -- a vantage on the past -- that makes writing the history of politics fraught. And it's what they don't share that makes the study of history vital. Politics is accountable to opinion; history is accountable to evidence.

I find myself asking: is this true? and if not entirely true, what parts are true?

Actually working in our current partisan tribal politics does little to confirm the idea that politics is about successfully describing how we might get from where we are to a potentially better future. The broad mass of voters who don't focus on politics, elections, and government on a daily basis, neither have a very firm sense of where we sit now nor any articulated thoughts on where we ought to go. I'm not saying they are dumb. Rather their knowledge does not consist of information so much as feelings. They mostly can't tell you who their Congressperson is nor what a Governor does. But, if listened to, they can tell you whether they feel good about their lives as they are and, sometimes but not always, who they blame for the impediments to good lives they experience. Grievance comes relatively easily, but does not automatically lead to much of a sense of what might be more desirable. Nor does it lead to action to move somewhere else. Most people, especially most infrequent voters, don't understand themselves as part of, or actors within, a story that leads from somewhere in the past to some future which they are contributing to shaping.

That said, I agree with Lepore that democratic (small "d") politics is about people adopting a picture of their own past that might imply the possibility of a desired future. But experience makes me skeptical that this has much to do with "opinion" (or information.) It seems rather to be about feelings whose potency waxes and wanes -- and which politicians and other political actors strive to bend to their purposes, whether purely selfish or less so.

That "history is accountable to evidence" is the precept I try to live by. It's very demanding. All our impressions of what went before are shaped by the times and currents within which we live. To take the obvious contemporary example which is causing some consternation and often panic among white people in the United States, as we become a "majority minority" (absurd locution) country, we are forced to notice that our history consists in great part of conquering white tribes inflicting death and exploitation on people of color within our expanding boundaries. We also, gradually and haltingly, have pursued a vision that all people were created equal. But faithfulness to evidence requires that we stare at our exclusion of and indifference to laboring people, most women, and people that whites have defined as "different" by race throughout that history.

Faithfulness to evidence when looking at the past can hurt. It can also inspire. Each era creates its own unstable balance.
Lepore's Essays on Origins are fun. She skewers campaign biographies, tries to resurrect the anti-slavery influence of what we read as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's insipid patriotic verse, and gives us a glimpse of Thomas Paine's radical essence which has confined him to the status of a "lesser Founder." Of particular delight to me is the essay "Rock, Paper, Scissor" which explores the tumultuous history of election mechanics and voting in the 19th century. All highly recommended.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

This still amazes: we just wasted 'em

Must be noted: more vet suicides than Iraq deaths since 2003:

The latest Pentagon statistics on suicides in all service branches, combined with previously-released data compiled by the San Antonio Express-News, brought the total to 4,839 for the years 2003 through 2015. In the same period, 4,496 American were lost serving in Iraq.

Via Thomas Ricks. This is not new news, but it still shocks.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

If not "rides to the polls," perhaps try "ballot harvesting"?

In a post here about "rides to the polls" as a means to increase turnout among infrequent voters, I wondered how this would work when most, or all, voting moved to vote by mail. It would be hard to replicate the immediacy and convenience of just coaxing the hesitant or reluctant voter into the car and driving to the polling place.

California GOPer election consultants, smarting from losing seven Congressional seats in the state to energized Democrats, think the Dems have figured this out.

Some Republicans have cast a skeptical eye on Democrats’ use of “ballot harvesting” to boost their support. The idea’s backers say it’s just one of several steps California has taken to enable more people to vote.

Few people noticed when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the changes in AB1921 into law two years ago. In the past, California allowed only relatives or people living in the same household to drop off mail ballots for another voter. The new law allowed anyone, even a paid political campaign worker, to collect and return ballots — “harvesting” them, in political slang.

... For Democrats, the ballot harvesting was all part of a greater effort to get out the vote from their supporters, particularly from occasional voters.

“We beat Republicans on the ground, fair and square,” said Katie Merrill, a Democratic consultant deeply involved in November campaigns. “Many of the field plans included (ballot harvesting) as an option to deliver voters or their ballots” to the polls.

John Wildermuth and Tal Kopan, SF Chronicle

This account leaves me with all sorts of questions. In California, voters still have to ask, opt in, to vote by mail. Does this tactic require a first contact to encourage the infrequent voter to do that first step? Then, do county registrars post lists of who has been sent a vote-by-mail ballot so campaigns can track down who hasn't cast that mail ballot? (Probably yes, but how fast and how accurately may be an issue.) Then can canvassers achieve contact with the target voter in order to encourage her to mark her ballot? Can that voter find the ballot that turned up along with her junk mail? Will the voter be willing to turn over her ballot to some campaign to mail? (Probably quite a few will; the willingness of people to do this even in Nevada where vote-by-mail is rare surprises me.)

Republicans seem to attribute the deluge of late vote-by-mail ballots that turned many contests toward Dems to campaigns turning in "harvested" ballots late. But why would campaigns hold these until the last minute? It would seem to make more sense to just get them in as they were collected -- to drop them off at the country registrar office if that would be the only way to turn them in.

Any readers who were active in California campaigns -- can you comment on whether you collected mail ballots or were at least were instructed to try to do so? How did the mechanics work?
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