Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It comes down to money:
Turning out voters in month-long elections

A recent article in the National Journal highlighted how early voting is changing political campaigns. The story's focus was on the fact that currently the Republican National Committee perceives itself as outclassed by Democrats in the necessary work of pushing its voters to the polls. Here's that article's nut graf:

... the GOP also faces a problem only rarely acknowledged among top party strategists: The Republican Party’s turnout operations, which can suck up millions in funds during the critical last days of a campaign, are much weaker than those of their Democratic counterparts. And without a serious investment soon, the turnout gap threatens to undermine Republican efforts to win key contests in the 2012 election cycle.

Thanks to rules that allow voters to cast ballots early, or by absentee, the new reality is that turning out voters is a monthlong process. Republicans once wielded a vaunted 72-hour program, which identified voters most likely to cast ballots for Republicans and whipped them into heading to the polls. Now, the parties must begin turning out voters weeks in advance of Election Day. At the moment, Democrats are much better equipped to get their voters to the polls over that stretch than are Republicans.

This development has both national and local ramifications that seem worth unpacking. Here are a few thoughts about the implications for the 2012 national campaign:
  • The advantage in this arena can shift fast! There should be no Democratic complacency. Working the 2004 election in New Mexico, I saw Republicans execute their highly targeted 72-hour program apparently smoothly, while a multitude of Democratic groups were making a hash of our efforts. Since the state margin was less than 6000 votes, turnout operations may well have made the difference. In 2008, working turnout for Obama in Colorado, we'd pretty much run out of targeted voters to hunt up by election day -- advantage Democrats in that round.
  • Effective turnout operations depend on accurate, up-to-date voter databases. The cost of data and data management has come way down over the last decade -- but effective planning and the organizing of volunteer turnout workers isn't getting any cheaper. Recruiting, training and overseeing turnout workers for a month long project is expensive. And it is not flashy stuff; the messaging component of the campaign will always think another TV ad is more worthwhile and fight spending on turnout. The Obama campaign invested in turnout apparatus; it had the money to burn. This is what the GOP is trying to catch up with.
  • Because the GOP is currently behind in creating an effective month long turnout operation, the party has that much more incentive to legislate obstacles to early voting and easy voting, as they have in Florida and Wisconsin.
  • Yet, though in the very short term less accessible elections may serve Republican interests, in the longer term dilution of Election Day is almost certainly more harmful to Democrats than Republicans. First time voters, new citizens, poor people and young people need to be mobilized to turn out. Election Day as a universally observed civic event is more important to getting them moving than it is to older, more experienced voters, who are nowadays usually Republicans. David Plouffe discussed how this came as a surprise to the Obama people in his campaign book.
These are consequences of the long voting periods that apply in the national contest between Dems and Reps. But what do month long voting periods mean to turnout operations in local campaigns, perhaps especially in off year elections? I don't think campaigns that don't have much money have figured this out yet.
  • If most (or all) ballots come to voters in the mail and need to be returned by mail, it is possible that campaign mail, arriving in the same medium, has higher effectiveness. Or not. I know of no research.
  • Keeping track of who has voted and should no longer be among the voters slated for campaign contact becomes vital. Although this has become cheaper and easier than in the past, managing the data will still test the human resources of small campaigns. But the task must be done, otherwise limited resources will go into useless activity aimed at people who can no longer participate.
  • Small campaigns that aim to substitute volunteer people power for cash are going to have to be more sophisticated with their limited resources. It used to be a rule of thumb that activity before September 1 amounted to base collecting, mobilizing the folks who were easy to bring on board and training them in the specific tasks of the campaign. Intensive voter identification would follow through September and October; this stretch gave organizers a chance to mold their volunteer base into a disciplined team. The stars would show themselves and be given enhanced responsibilities; the deadwood would drop away. Then, over the last week, the campaign would replicate all the activity of the previous eight weeks in a final burst of intensive efforts to get out the vote. These timelines no longer work and I don't think organizers of small, under-resourced campaigns yet know how to establish the new rhythms that suit the new calendar.
All these consequences only reinforce the likelihood that even small local campaigns will have to raise more and more money to be successful. This can't be good for democracy.

Monday, May 30, 2011

War memorials for the 21st century

Walk with a child on the Mall in Washington DC and it is easy to explain America's wars as enshrined by the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial. Walk to the Korean War Memorial and it becomes a little more difficult to explain that part of American history, but it is still possible. Walk now to the Vietnam War Memorial and try and explain that Wall and her names to a child. Purposeless is the honest answer.

We will have a memorial one day to these wars of the early 21st century. If built today nearly 6,000 names would appear. Many thousands more will be remembered if we justly and honorably include those whose lives ended at home by their own hand because they returned from war desolately changed and traumatically ill.

Iraq Vet, Marine, and former Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh

How many more dead must we erect memorials for? For what purpose?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Glimpses of Black communities in pre-Civil War Canada

If you approach From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Hettie Jones looking for historical understanding of mid-19th century African American communities in Canada settled by fugitive slaves and free Blacks, you might be disappointed. This little book is more a data dump, a collection of documentary tidbits and pictures of historical sites, than an integrated story of the life these mostly short-lived towns. Blacks escaped the United States to Canada because life under the British Crown was reliably free of slavery and opportunities were somewhat more equal with whites. But most deserted their new homes when the Civil War ended U.S. slavery, many serving in the Union Army before returning to the States.

I grew up adjacent to the Niagara Frontier area (across the river from Buffalo, New York), which, along with the Windsor, Ontario region across the river from Detroit is one of the foci of this book. I remember a few less-than-enlightening historical markers of crossing points and churches that had been used by these Black communities, but little remained that gave a sense of the lives once led there. So I was interested in what these authors had retrieved even though I wished they had made more of it.

Just to give a taste, an ongoing theme of the communities seems to have been a controversy over "begging," the practice and consequences of soliciting support from white allies to help escaped slaves and free blacks get started in a new country. Frederick Douglass, himself an escaped slave and major abolitionist leader who did not join the exodus to Canada but did run some of the more stable Black newspapers from upstate New York, was drawn into the fray, publishing both sides. Tobin and Jones report the argument he got into with Dr. Martin Delany who later served as commanding officer of Black troops fighting for the Union, but in earlier decades promoted Black emigration back to Africa and self-sufficiency in Canada. He particularly despised white abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, an extremely propogandistic novel attacking slavery.

In 1856, Dr. Martin Delany, a free black man who had already made a name for himself in the States as a writer and physician, moved to Chatham to pursue his interests under the security of the British flag. ... Delany was outraged that Douglass would embrace Stowe's work yet not even mention his, and wrote several letters to Douglass expressing his views. "I beg leave to say that she knows nothing about us, the Free Colored people of the United States," he wrote about Stowe, "neither does any other white person--and, consequently, can contrive no elevation; it must be done for ourselves."

To his credit, Douglass published Delany's letters, creating a written dialogue that represented, in essence, their philosophical differences. "To scornfully reject all aid from our white friends," Douglass responded, "and to denounce them as unworthy of our confidence, looks high and mighty enough on paper; but unless the back ground is filled up with facts demonstrating our independence and self-sustaining power, of what use is such display of self-consequence?"

Controversies about "the begging" repeatedly divided Canadian Black leaders as they accused each of profiting from donations or becoming dependent. Tobin and Jones quote another author rather than offer their own interpretation of the issues:

Historian Donald Simpson, with a century of hindsight, has suggested that the "whole struggle over 'the begging system' was a philosophical battle of major importance." He writes: Most blacks who had self-emancipated to Canada sought autonomy and self-sufficiency and to be let alone. It was difficult then, and it is difficult now, for well meaning whites to grasp the importance of this concept. Some whites through the years moved from the position of doing things "to blacks" to a point of doing things "for blacks." It remained difficult for most, however, to move further to the position of doing things "with blacks" and undertaking projects only if and when they were asked by blacks for assistance.

All of this seems extremely contemporary: people whose need forces them to ask for and use help from individuals and institutions that belong to the class that holds them down necessarily chew over the implications of "the begging." The anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded is a fine contemporary example.

Obviously I'm not urging anyone to run out and acquire From Midnight to Dawn, but the authors provide a tantalizing peak at some significant historical by-ways.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Krugman insight

Having an insane week here during which most news passed me by, but can't resist sharing one thought. This morning I caught up on several days worth of Paul Krugman blog posts, always a useful and often amusing exercise.

I think I finally get why his economist opponents and detractors pain him so much, eliciting observations on their foolishness like this one:

Learned helplessness can be a terrible thing.

The ones who set Krugman off are not those who are just whores, academics whose "learning" simply amounts to apologies for rich people stealing from everyone else.

His greater objects of scorn are another sort of "expert" who has come to believe that the object of the economics is the well-being of an abstraction called "the economy." Krugman manipulates data with the best of them, but he never forgets that "the economy" is exists for the well-being of the people whose activity (and inactivity) is the economy. This puts him out of step with too many of his peers.

View out my window

The neighbors have a new TV. A LARGE TV.

I wonder, who will get a curtain first? Not us, I don't think. Maybe no one.

Friday, May 27, 2011

1500, growing, and no end in sight

We don't even notice any more, but the toll of dead U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan keeps creeping up. The counter over there on the right sidebar has been stuck for several days at a total of 1499 deaths, 575 under Bush, 924 under Obama.

But that's about to climb again with this report of nine more NATO deaths yesterday in the south and east of that occupied country.

Thursday’s attack was the deadliest involving improvised explosive devices this year, according to statistics compiled by icasualties.org, an independent reporting organization. On May 16, four American servicemen were killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Zabul Province, where Afghan forces recently have taken greater responsibility for security.

Thursday’s deaths also represented the worst loss of life for NATO since April 27 ...

You probably didn't notice this either, but the U.S. House of Representatives voted yet more funds for the war to go on and on and on yesterday.

house vote.jpg

As this graphic illustrates, many Democrats are beginning to listen to their constituents (the blue part of the line) and want to be on record against the endless bloodletting. And a growing number of Republicans have the same idea. Losing by only six votes on a motion to begin drawing down is a start. How long, we have to ask?

Congressional muttering isn't going to end this war -- but without Congressional opposition that gives some voice to popular disillusionment, the permanent wars won't end at all. So this is progress. Kudos to all the peace outfits, some in DC and many at the grassroots, that worked on raising the Congressional tally to encourage withdrawal, including Peace Action, Win Without War, Rethinking Afghanistan, and United for Peace and Justice.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

When are we going to see this headline?

Accused top U.S. war criminal taken into custody
George W. Bush, a former U.S. head of state accused of waging illegal aggressive war against the people of Iraq and sanctioning torture of captives, has been arrested and will stand trial before an international tribunal. He is believed to have been protected for years by a cabal of U.S. politicians of both political parties, by the military and by judicial authorities in defiance of the international community ...

We can dream.

Congratulations to the people of Europe whose governments indicated they would prevent Serbia from joining the European Union without this step.

"The road to truth involves a certain amount of diarrhea ..."

Nir Rosen's reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan has given people in the United States an unsurpassed window on what our wars and occupations have meant for people in those countries. I've called attention to his writings often, most recently here and here.

Recently Rosen delivered a talk titled A Critique of Reporting in the Middle East at a conference sponsored by Jadaliyya. He doesn't think much of how U.S. (and other "western") reporters do their job and he has a suggestion as to why often they perform poorly. He's especially critical of confused and superficial reporting of the current democratic uprisings.

... the so called Arab Spring with its revolutions and upheavals evokes anxiety among white Americans. They are unsettled by the autogenetic liberation of brown people.

Beyond such generalized racial anxiety, most reporters also just don't get out much, what with not speaking the necessary languages and/or being able to move and live among unfamiliar people.

... there are the daily Abu Ghraibs you endure when you live in an occupied country, having to navigate a maze of immense concrete walls, of barbed wire, waiting at checkpoints, waiting for convoys to go by, waiting for military operations to end, waiting for the curfew to end, military vehicles running you off the road, fifty caliber machine guns pointed at you, M16s pointed at you, pistols pointed at you, large foreign soldiers shouting at you and ordering you around. Or maybe in Afghanistan the military convoy runs over a water canal, destroying the water supply to a village of thirty families who now have no way to live, or they arrest an innocent Afghan because he has Taliban music on his cell phone like many Afghans do, and now he must make his way through the afghan prison system.

But if you are white and/or identify with white American soldiers then you ignore these things. If you identify at even the deepest level with US fetishizing of militarism and the myth of the heroic US GI, they just don’t occur to you. And so they never occur to your readers. ...But in Iraq, Afghanistan, other developing countries and areas of conflict in some countries, you have to leave your comfort zone.

Even less than print reporters, he criticizes TV correspondents.

Television reporting is overprotective of the celebrity correspondent; they barely go out, they just embed, and they do their live shots on the street inside their safe compounds, while making the story more about the celebrity correspondent rather than the story. Then they show the “back story” about the journalist and his work rather than the story. ...

It's easy to see how Rosen might have blurted out a deeply unsympathetic and sexist reaction on first hearing of TV reporter Lara Logan being sexually assaulted in the midst of Egypt's revolutionary crowds. He's had it TV stand-ups passing for journalism. Rosen has since apologized repeatedly for his Twitter outburst, saying he is "deeply ashamed." Let's hope it hasn't gotten him blackballed from U.S. media; we'd be poorer and even dumber about the Arabic speaking places we afflict without Rosen's insight.

H/t The Mex Files for Rosen's media critique.

Individual solution to a collective problem?

climate change flood.jpg
A levee protects a home surrounded by floodwater from the Yazoo River on May 18, 2011 near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The flooded Mississippi River is forcing the Yazoo River to top its banks where the two meet near Vicksburg causing towns and farms upstream on the Yazoo to flood. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Somehow I don't think building our own floodwalls is going to work for most of us. As we experience more and more extreme weather as a consequence of climate change, we're all going to be in the soup together.

Bill McKibben weighed in at the Washington Post:

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas — fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been — the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected.

If you did wonder, you see, you would also have to wonder about whether this year’s record snowfalls and rainfalls across the Midwest — resulting in record flooding along the Mississippi — could somehow be related. And then you might find your thoughts wandering to, oh, global warming, and to the fact that climatologists have been predicting for years that as we flood the atmosphere with carbon we will also start both drying and flooding the planet, since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air. ...

Worth reading the whole thing.

H/t The Slackwire.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why did the snake cross the road?

I have no idea, but this slow moving three foot garter snake seemed unconcerned about being observed.

Even from close up.

Warming Wednesdays: heat waves ahead

Apparently Mark Twain never said

"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

Oh well -- anyone who has spent time here understands why the thought seems so plausible. It can feel cold and dank in this city, most any time of year, perhaps especially in the summer. Being next to the ocean, we actually experience pretty stable, relatively cool temperatures in the 50 to 65 degree Fahrenheit range most of the time. Compared to people who live with real seasons, we're just coddled weather wimps.

Consequently, I was struck by the emphasis in a new report, "Climate change hits home," from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research association (SPUR) on projected extreme heat conditions. It took a little digging into the verbiage, but here's what they mean:

Increases in extreme heat, particularly during heat waves, could kill more people than all other climate change impacts combined. Warmer days also worsen air quality, create urban heat islands and can increase people’s risk to vector-borne and infectious diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease. ...

While the Bay Area may not experience the same severity or frequency of extreme heat days as other parts of southern and central California, by midcentury we may see three to four times as many extreme heat days as we do today and six to eight times as many by 2100. In San Francisco, from a 20th-century average of 12 days per year exceeding 81 degrees Fahrenheit, we could have 70 to 94 days exceeding this temperature by 2070 to 2099. ...

... the low-income, the very young and the elderly are the populations most vulnerable to climate change impacts. In large part, these groups’ vulnerability stems from having less ability to anticipate, cope with and/or recover from a disaster.

Temperatures exceeding 81 degrees probably don't seem particularly extreme to many folks. But there is a good reason that they seem extreme here that the new report fails to mention: Older San Francisco houses are scarcely insulated at all. Because our climate is so moderate and unvarying, our older houses mostly didn't come with heat. I lived in this city for over 20 years before occupying a space with central heating. And at the other end of the spectrum, the same unheated houses were built with no more insulation than some old newspapers in the walls.

The massive gentrification over the last 30 years has brought substantial improvements along with rising property values, but many San Francisco houses still lack the amenities that people count on in hot climates. We're going to be in serious shock here with the arrival of many genuinely hot days.

Time to bring on the insulation.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What the Republican budget would really do to Medicare


When the new Obama administration was appointing economic advisers in 2009, there was really only one whose history suggested he could be trusted to speak up for Main Street against Wall Street speculators and against the apologies for greed that masquerade as economic wisdom. That was Jared Bernstein, previously of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank specializing in straight talk about "research and ideas for shared prosperity." Bernstein served for three years as Economic Policy Adviser to Vice President Biden.

Now he's out of the administration, not alienated, but perhaps freer to name what's going on in DC. Here's his simple description of what would really happen under Republican's plan to phase out Medicare by giving elders vouchers to pay for private insurance. The trouble is, there can be no such thing as an efficient free market in health care.

Suppose you send me to the grocery store to buy you a gallon of milk. Milk costs $3.50 a gallon but you give me $2. I spend the whole day “denying business to inefficient providers”—i.e., grocers who all charge more than that—and at the end of the day, bring you back a pint.

Now, instead of milk, where I’ve got the information I need to be a smart shopper, suppose you give me the same under-priced voucher but ask me to bring you back a plan for treating that strange pain you’ve been experiencing on your left side on humid days.

There’s no “denying business to inefficient providers” in the Ryan plan because there’s no market discipline that average folks with incomplete information armed with an inadequate voucher can enforce on a private health insurance market ...

It's not hard to see that Congressman Paul Ryan's "plan" is just a phony baloney cover for ending the federal promise of affordable, accessible health care for old people. Democrats and anyone who gives a damn about our future need to be unafraid to call out the obvious.

These days Bernstein is writing a plain speaking blog called On the Economy. If you follow this stuff -- and we have to or the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance lobby will steal us blind -- bookmark it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gay marriage is serving as a partisan maker

gay marriage-gallup-5-20-11.gif

On Sunday at the kick off for John Avalos' campaign for mayor of San Francisco (win John win!), Assemblyman Tom Ammiano greeted me with "Happy Harvey Milk Day!" Indeed, yesterday would have been the murdered gay liberationist's 81st birthday; May 22 is officially observed by the state of California in Milk's honor.

I had to wonder what Milk would have thought of the change in attitudes toward gay people indicated by the Gallup Poll findings charted above. For those -- like Ammiano who was a liberation pioneer himself as a young gay teacher -- like so many of us who were publicly "out" long before it was safe or simple -- the seemingly sudden acceptance that gays and lesbians are just ordinary people who just want to love and live is still a little shocking.

And that our full inclusion in the life of the nation seems to be coming through extending us the right to get married seems particularly incongruous. People who took the risk of coming out back in the day didn't do it to win the right to get married. We stepped out of the closet so that we could experience fully who we already knew ourselves to be. We didn't know whether being our true selves might mean falling off a cliff; we just knew that hiding or pretending to be straight was intolerable. We had never had the option of marriage and weren't mostly even thinking of it; we were busy discovering that it was okay to be gay, lesbian, queer, different and alive!

For the first time in a poll, apparently a national majority of our fellow citizens now think we ought to be able to get married, able to have our relationships recognized by the state. Marriage rights for gay people are coming; the trend seems irreversible. Who'd have thought it?

Being a political person, I have to wonder what this all means to the wider political environment. The internals of the Gallup findings confirm what we've known for awhile: younger people are strongly of allowing gay marriage (70 percent), older people less so. This change is partly generational.

But what is striking is that ALL the gain since 2010 in support for the pro-marriage position seems to have come among Democrats (13 points higher) and independents (10 points higher). Republicans show no change at all in this volatile moment. None.

With this kind of split, gay marriage can be thought of as yet another highly partisan issue between the political parties. All Democrats may not be deeply invested in legalizing gay marriage, but a pro-marriage position is well on the way to being the default stance for Democrats. Similarly, an anti-gay attitude has become a norm for Republicans.

This has consequences that may seem obvious, but I'll spell them out anyway.
  • Most gays who participate in politics will continue to vote Democratic. As a community, we've made enough progress toward normalizing ourselves that we might be expected to split along class and race lines, acting on other interests besides our sexual orientation. But as long as the default position for Republicans continues to oppose our full civil rights, broadly we just aren't going to go there in large numbers. Segmenting by class and race is postponed.
  • By fighting gay marriage, Republicans further brand themselves as the party of institutionalized intolerance. This is particularly the case among younger voters. For most young citizens, gay marriage is probably not their most vital issue. But supporting gay equality seems an obvious position and without a down side: it's a way to signal tolerance and hope for a better country with no discernible cost. What's not to like about that? Republicans are making themselves stodgy, mean losers to a generation.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rays of effing sunshine: found icons

An icon -- at least as I'm referring to icons here -- is "an image or depiction, that represents something else of greater significance through literal or figurative meaning," especially a religious picture. I often find icons powerful. Here are some I've encountered recently.

While looking for something else, I can't remember just what, I recently ran across this picture created in the workshop of Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic and abbess.

die wahre dreiheit in der wahren Einheit-Scivias.jpg
The German title says it is an image of the Christ, displaying his wounded palms, enfolded in the unity of the Trinity -- don't ask what that means, just look. I find it strangely calming. It was an illustration for one of the abbess' books of theology.

Robert Lentz is a Roman Catholic Franciscan friar who paints contemporary icons. Sometimes I'm a critic of his work -- I don't much like his Harvey Milk. The gay leader and martyr was a Jewish secularist who seems to me violated by depicting him as a Christian saint. And I loathe his Dorothy Day. Alive, Dorothy was beautiful even when old, even when distracted, or tired, or feeling stern.

But I am gripped by Lentz's Ss. Brigid and Darlughdach of Kildare.
Lentz, Brigid & Darlughdach.jpg
Now there's power. An explication of these two women:

St. Brigid and her soulmate St. Darlughdach were sixth-century Irish nuns who brought art, education and spirituality to early medieval Ireland. Brigid (c.451-525) shares her name and feast day (Feb. 1) with a Celtic goddess -- and she may have been the last high priestess of the goddess Brigid.

Raised by Druids, Brigid seems to have made a smooth transition from being a pagan priestess to a Christian abbess. Today she is Ireland’s most famous female saint. Legend says that when she made her final vows as a nun, the bishop in charge was so overcome by the Holy Spirit that he administered the rite for ordaining a (male) bishop instead.

A younger nun named Darlughdach served as Brigid’s ambassador and her “anam cara” or soul friend. The two women were so close that they slept in the same bed. Like many Celtic saints, Brigid believed that each person needs a soul friend to discover together that God speaks most powerfully in the seemingly mundane details of shared daily life.

I can relate to that.

I'm not the only one drawn to icons. Ran across this left in a barred window on San Francisco's hip Valencia Street:
The mother looks over the passing stream of humanity.

I don't want to just gripe here all the time. I do after all, quite frequently, encounter things and people that delight me. Hence a new feature: occasional posts labeled "rays of effing sunshine."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

In honor of Judgment Day

Here's the scene as envisioned by a painter labelled "Tyrolean Master," circa 1500. The piece hangs in the Palace of the Legion of Honor (a museum best known for many, many, many Rodin sculptures) in San Francisco.

Here's where most of us were thought to be going on Judgement Day. Apparently the demons are the naked ones.

The Legion has a rather nice in-house restaurant.

Still here, so far


Has judgment been postponed? Or are we living it?

Economics lesson for the USA

Four bucks for oil? That shit is whack!
We went to war for oil, I want my cash back.
Who can tell me why this time around,
Oil is up but the economy's down.
But I'm an American damn it, I'm willing to fight
Cheap gas to me is a natural right.

From Taiwan. H/t James Fallows.

A little complex for most of us at the end, but it explains much of what we need to understand about energy prices in the real world (not the Washington world) we live in. It also offers a glimpse of what a gas-guzzling patriot looks like from elsewhere.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday cat blogging

Do you have to keep flashing that thing at me? You're rude.

I'll just curl up and ignore you. Time for a little nap.

U.S. demographic changes mapped

By way of PolicyLink:

The face of America is changing.

By 2042, the nation will be a majority people of color.

This decade, the majority of young people will be people of color.

From Southern California to rural Iowa, every corner of America is seeing these changes.

What does this map say about the future of America?

The map's publisher hopes for comments here. I'll add my own below, as a resident of a state where no community is a majority and a majority of young people have come from the various communities of color for several decades.
  • These developments can make white people anxious. While we retain an electoral majority, whites may use our ability to influence politicians to create structural barriers to majority rule by others. It's no accident that in California we've stymied state government, created an impossibly unwieldy tax framework, and traded schools for prisons. It's no accident we see Republicans trying to make it harder for people to vote through expanding identification laws. The other day, Newt Gingrich even suggested a poll tax, a tax to be paid in order to vote.
  • Forget the Republican Party as the new multi-ethnic society develops. Unless the GOP can stop being the party of xenophobia and racist reaction, it's not going to attract the votes of people of color, no matter how economically or socially conservative these communities may be. Very few people will vote for people who hate them.
  • These kind of demographic predictions hinge on an assumption that racial categories currently recognized will endure. But will they? Many Latinos very likely will gradually become "white," particularly if immigration reform enables people to regularize their legal status. That's probably the GOP's best shot at retaining relevance -- but its current base won't let them go there.
  • Speaking of categories, some "Asian-Americans" (whatever that broad category means) seem to slide unobtrusively into being "white" -- but will that hold as U.S. attention and anxieties come to focus on rising East and South Asian economies?
  • This emerging multi-racial, multi-cultural country is simply a more interesting environment than the monochrome United States some of us were born into!
How do you respond to the changing map? Comments welcome.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hypocrisy watch

U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Syrian Leader and 6 Aides
WASHINGTON — President Obama imposed sanctions on Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, and six other senior Syrian officials on Wednesday, ratcheting up American pressure in the wake of a bloody crackdown on political protests in the country.

New York Times, May 19, 2011


Afghanistan: 12 die in Afghanistan protest over U.S.-led raid
Furious anti-American protesters poured into the streets of a city in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday, shouting out objections to an overnight U.S.-led military raid that killed four people, including two women. Subsequent clashes with security forces trying to quell the demonstration killed 12 people, provincial officials said. ...

The Taloqan raid and its explosive aftermath pointed up the striking degree of discord between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and ordinary Afghans over nighttime operations aimed at capturing or killing insurgent figures.

Many people here are skeptical of Western military claims that the targets are carefully vetted, and believe in any case that such home invasions carry too great a risk of harming or killing innocent people in the confusion of nighttime. They particularly fear that U.S. forces, flush with success over the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this month, will increasingly rely on the tactic of swooping down in darkness on residential compounds.

Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2011

What's to say? One country is a designated enemy, so shooting protesters is grounds for penalties. It can even be grounds for siccing NATO to overthrow a dictator in Libya. In the other case -- and in such "friendly" jurisdictions as Iraq, Bahrain, and Israel -- shooting people who protest brutality is just an unfortunate necessity to keep order.

I wonder what President Obama can say to an international audience less inured to these contradictions? He tries to square circles today.

Photo from Afghanistan protests by way of IndiaVision News

Onward to gender neutral pronoun usage!

Somehow, until I recently read a New York Times obituary for Kate Swift, I'd been unaware there was such a thing as The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. But there is. And it's lots of fun if you think women are people, as the cartoon illustrates.

I particularly like the section on what Swift and co-author Casey Miller call "The Pronoun Problem."

"God send everyone their heart's desire."

Most people are taught in school that the above sentence is ungrammatical. It should be corrected, we are told, to read:

God send everyone his heart's desire.

... Present-day linguists, tracing the history of the so-called generic he, have found that it was invented and prescribed by the grammarians themselves in an attempt to change long-established English usage. The object of the grammarians' intervention was the widespread acceptance of they as a singular pronoun, as in Lord Chesterfield's remark (1759), "If a person is born of a gloomy temper. . . they cannot help it."

In 1850 Parliament got into the act, passing a law that "words importing [signifying] the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females." Perhaps so, as a matter of law, but speakers of English have never quite bought it, say Miller and Swift.

... at all levels of education people whose native tongue is English seem to know that he, him, and his are gender-specific and cannot do the double duty asked of them.

So precise writers quite commonly use they as a singular, to indicate they are speaking of both men and women. Miller and Swift provide nearly a page of examples from the works of people no one doubts write proper English.

"Nobody prevents you, do they?" -William Makepeace Thackeray

"I shouldn't like to punish anyone, even if they'd done me wrong." - George Eliot

"And how easy the way a man or woman would come in here, glance around, find smiles and pleasant looks waiting for them, then wave and sit down by themselves." - Doris Lessing

"If anyone doubts that democracy is alive and well, let them come to New Hampshire." - Ronald Reagan

I've long used they and them as gender inclusive singular pronouns. Now I've got a couple of accomplished grammarians to back me up. Most of us do this in speech. If enough of us insist on the usage in writing, perhaps we can get rid of the sexist grammatical prejudice against this usage.

There, I've got a new campaign.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: HOT and high Mississippi waters

Mark Hertsgaard's HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth envisions what sort of planet the author's daughter is going to live in as a consequence of how we're altering the climate now -- and inquires what we can do to mitigate or, failing that, adapt to coming changes. Hertsgaard had been writing about climate disruption for mainstream media outlets for 20 years; the arrival of his own child gave him a focus reflected here. This is a readable approach to the difficult reality that so many of us hope someone else will understand and deal with.

I came away with two main lessons:
  • Whatever public event, project, or happening I may be looking at, I need to ask how does the fact of climate change/global warming play out in relation to it. As the former Kings County Executive (Seattle) Ron Sims put it, I've learned to

    "Ask the climate question."

    For example, as I discussed here, it seems necessary to ask whether European anxiety about climate change refugees pushed north toward their continent has a role in French and Italian enthusiasm for the Libya war.
  • How successfully our species (and many other species) get through this radical change from our past environment will depend on whether our political institutions can achieve a good enough balance between wide citizen buy-in to adaptation and scientific and technical understanding and invention. We can survive what we have made and we will, but how catastrophic the consequences of climate change become will depend significantly on whether we can make political systems designed for other challenges work for this one.
Hertsgaard approaches the latter issue by comparing the enormous and apparently effective preparations the Dutch are making to combat rising seas with much less promising efforts in the state of Louisiana. The Dutch are building mammoth sea walls and canals, sometimes requiring farmers to leave lowlands that have been in their families for generations.

"But what about the farmers who live here?" [Hertsgaard] asked. "What happens to them if this land becomes a lake?"

"We will buy them out;' said Leusink. "They will be paid a fair price."

"What if they don't want to be bought out?"

"They have no choice;' he replied. "This decision was made in a coordinated fashion by the provincial government, the federal government, and the national water board. We had an open, democratic process. We spent four years talking it through at the local level. But finally you must act. You cannot allow one or two people to block an action that is best for everyone else."

There's a conversation that's hard to imagine anywhere in the United States. We just don't trust that governments are our own creations, working for the general welfare.

Louisiana's [storm surge] efforts have been crippled by the state's history of poor government, its dysfunctional relationship with the Army Corps of Engineers, the power of its oil and gas interests, its continuing reluctance -- even after Katrina -- to acknowledge the reality of global warming for fear that might harm oil and gas production, and an abhorrence of taxes and public planning as somehow socialistic. (Only after Katrina did Louisiana adopt a statewide building code.)

I couldn't help thinking about this comparison as I read current reports about Mississippi River flooding, about the Corps of Engineers opening the Morganza spillway to spare Baton Rouge and New Orleans by inundating vast swathes of Cajun country. I don't know whether this "100 year flood" should be considered a consequence of climate change or just a fluke. I do know that a lot of people found themselves involuntarily leaving their homes and the commerce of this entire region profoundly disrupted. This flood may or may not be directly attributable to global warming, but the poor preparation of our governments to deal with it seems a portent of worse things to come.

Floods waters from Mississippi River inundated Tunica Cutout, MS on Sunday, May 15. 2011. The entire population was relocated nearby to the protected side of the levee. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good candidates need to be monomaniacs

When running for office, the most useful attribute you can have is to believe that the world absolutely, positively needs YOU!! in the position you seek. The process of running is simply too ghastly to tolerate if you don't have a good dose of this sort of egotistical self-assurance.

Most successful politicians have this. I evaluate candidates I might work for in part by looking for this useful monomania; if they haven't got it, they will have a much harder time winning. Sometimes good people who are more reflective than the perfect candidate still make it into office, but in highly contested races, exaggerated egotism helps. Being a candidate is about playing a 24/7 theatrical role, seeming to attend to and happily interact with all-comers. It's most readily accomplished by people who can excuse something less than complete personal candor in service of what they generally believe is a higher good: their own victory.

Does surviving this ritual give us the best people in office? That's something I think about a lot. Policy experts -- wonks -- tend to make lousy candidates because they think too much. But we need people in government who can explore and evaluate problems they don't know about yet. I don't have any answers.

Here's an example of the candidate's fate, not an uncommon one. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving egomaniac, though Newt Gingrich doesn't seem to handle it all that well.

"You're an embarrassment to our party. Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself?"says this Iowa voter.

H/t to Paul Waldman at TAPPED.

Japan: past defeat and present recovery

The images from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan were devastating, that wall of water crashing through houses, highways, entire towns. I found myself wondering not only about the the ongoing crisis at the nuclear plants and the people killed, but also about the survivors. What does it mean to people to survive in a place where friends, family and even most familiar structures have been swept away?

Someone suggested John W. Dower's Embracing Defeat: Japan in the wake of World War II. Dower is an historian I've read before. His War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War is, as far as I'm concerned, the indispensable history of that conflict, showing conclusively that for all parties it was a race war.

Embracing Defeat didn't actually tell me much about how Japanese will adapt, respond and recover from the current horror. But it is quite fascinating. Among other insights, Dower emphasizes that if there was one experience postwar Japanese were socialized to expect, it was being subjected to involuntary changes. Constant change had been the texture of Japan's modernization and imperial ambitions since its "opening" to the West in the mid-1800s.

For almost a century, the Japanese had been socialized to anticipate and accommodate themselves to drastic change. When World War II ended, they were well prepared -- not merely by the horrors and manifest failures of the war, but also by the socialization of the past and even the psychic thrust of wartime indoctrination -- to carry on the quest for a "new" Japan.

The arriving U.S. military occupiers, expecting an exotic, hidebound and feudal society, were astonished by the unexpected flexibility of Japanese responses to defeat, responses which were far more creative than just putting on a show of compliance for the conquerors. I wonder if some of that resilience may still be available to the survivors in Fukushima Prefecture?

General Douglas MacArthur's army of occupation threw itself into the contradictory project of creating a democratic "revolution from above" -- the original instance of George W. Bush's mad fixation on implanting his idea of democracy in other peoples' countries. Oddly enough, according to Dower, a remarkable synergy between indigenous Japanese impulses and an uncomprehending imperial authority, did leave Japan with a governmental system very much its own and partially democratic.

Some Japanese even liked the strange experience of U.S. occupation. This contemporary Japanese cartoon, according to Dower not intended to express irony, shows that, for at least a short season, those conquerors were greeted as donors of a welcome gift of democracy.
Dower-Embracing Occupation001.jpeg
As pure curiosity, this history would be hard to beat.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Department of Discrimination Defense is on the move!

This might just be the dumbest ad I've ever seen.

If you live in New York State, contact Marriage Equality New York to learn how you can help turn back the discrimination offensive.

H/t Susan Russell.

Thinking differently about capitalism

They want us to think things couldn't be any other way. Our economy, our society, are just manifestations of the natural order, how (good) human beings organize themselves. If there are problems, they are at the edges.

Ha-Joon Chang thinks there are other ways an economy and a society could work that Europe and the United States are failing to recognize. He's not some kind of hippie agitator. Raised in Korea, he has taught at the Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom since 1990 and is the author of many academic articles and several books about how economic development happens.

In 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, he cheerfully debunks many pillars of conventional Western economic wisdom. The book is short, pithy, easy to read and worth dipping into. It would make what I think of as a good "bathroom book" -- a volume best consumed in short chunks and mulled over, rather than read through at one sitting.

He begins by politely kicking over our defining economic myth:

Thing 1: There is no such thing as a free market.
...We accept the legitimacy of certain regulations so totally that we don't see them. More carefully examined, markets are revealed to be propped up by rules -- and many of them.

...Electoral votes, government jobs and legal decisions are not for sale, at least openly, in modern economies, although they were in most countries in the past. University places may not usually be sold, although in some nations money can buy them -- either through (illegally) paying the selectors or (legally) donating money to the university. Many countries ban trading in firearms or alcohol. Usually medicines have to be explicitly licensed by the government, upon the proof of their safety, before they can be marketed. All these regulations are potentially controversial -- just as the ban on selling human beings (the slave trade) was one and a half centuries ago. ...We see a regulation when we don't endorse the moral values behind it.

...Free-market economists may want you to believe that the correct boundaries of the market can be scientifically determined, but this is incorrect. If the boundaries of what you studying cannot be scientifically determined, what you are doing is not a science. ...

So, when free-market economists say that a certain regulation should not be introduced because it would restrict the 'freedom' of a certain market, they are merely expressing a political opinion that they reject the rights that are to be defended by the proposed law. Their ideological cloak is to pretend that their politics is not really political, but rather is an objective economic truth, while other people's politics is political. However, they're as politically motivated as their opponents. Breaking away from the illusion of market objectivity is the first step towards understanding capitalism.

Amen to that! Being more jaundiced than Chang, I'd simply propose that we always look at who benefits from a particular market-infringing law or regulation. Past winners are nearly always seeking to preclude anyone imagining novel alternatives -- and insurgents would do the same if we were in a position to do so.

Perhaps surprisingly for a thinker who reminds us to look for the political or profit motive that undergirds what we think are natural outcomes, Chang insists that free-market capitalism underestimates the power of non-economic motivations in human behavior.

Thing 5: Assume the worst about people and you get the worst.
Self-interest is a most powerful trait in most human beings. However, it's not our only drive. It is very often not even our primary motivation. Indeed, if the world were full of the self-seeking individuals found in economics textbooks, it would grind to a halt because we would be spending most of our time cheating, trying to catch the cheaters, and punishing the caught. The world works as it does only because people are not the totally self-seeking agents that free-market economics believes them to be. We need to design an economic system that, while acknowledging that people are often selfish, exploits other human motives to the full and gets the best out of people. The likelihood is that, if we assume the worst about people, we will get the worst out of them. ...

Morality is not an optical illusion. When people act in a non-selfish way -- be it not cheating their customers, working hard despite no one watching them, or resisting bribes as an underpaid public official -- many, if not all, of them do so because they genuinely believe that that is the right thing to do. Invisible rewards and sanctions mechanisms do matter, but they cannot explain all -- or, in my view, even the majority of -- non-selfish behaviors, if only for the simple reason that they would not exist if we were entirely selfish. Contrary to [former British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher's assertion that 'there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families,' human beings have never existed as atomistic selfish agents unbound by any society. We are born into societies with certain moral codes and are socialized into 'internalizing' those moral codes.

Economists are not supposed to point out the non-economic glue that holds societies together. To mention the obvious is to be unserious, perhaps less than properly "butch" -- not professionally dominant. But of course that moral glue is there. If our societies were really just nasty containers for Hobbesian wars of all against all, they'd have collapsed long ago. When times are tough, people routinely act beyond personal self-interest, narrowly conceived -- we rescue each other, share, lend a helping hand -- and society applauds these irrational actions.

Not every aspect of 23 Things will be comfortable to progressive Western readers. Chang points out -- accurately I think -- that the level of wages in a country is pretty much determined by immigration controls. If everyone could freely migrate where they'd get paid best, we'd all be stuck in a leveling process that would be radically downward for most people in what are now rich countries. (We are experiencing such a process when the work, instead of the people, migrates via international outsourcing.) This is not an argument for or against some level of legal migration, just something that needs to be understood.

Chang, no radical, thinks capitalism can be improved. He offers challenging conclusions.

To begin with: paraphrasing what Winston Churchill once said about democracy, let me restate my earlier position that capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others. My criticism is of free-market capitalism, and not all kinds of capitalism. ...the market is an exceptionally effective mechanism for coordinating complex economic activities across numerous economic agents, but it is no more than that -- a mechanism, a machine. And like all machines, it needs careful regulation and steering.

There are different ways to organize capitalism. Free-market capitalism is only one of them -- and not a very good one at that. The last three decades have shown that, contrary to the claims of its proponents, it slows down the economy, increases inequality and insecurity, and leads to more frequent (and sometimes massive) financial crashes.

...while acknowledging that we are not selfless angels, we should build a system that brings out the best, rather than worst, in people. Free-market ideology is built on the belief that people won't do anything 'good' unless they are paid for it or punished for not doing it. This belief is then applied asymmetrically and reconceived as the view that rich people need to be motivated to work by further riches, while poor people must fear poverty for their motivation.

...Organizations -- be they corporations or government departments -- should be designed to reward trust, solidarity, honesty and cooperation among their members. The financial system needs to be reformed to reduce the influence of short-term shareholders so that companies can afford to pursue goals other than short-term profit maximization. We should better reward behavior with public benefits (e.g., reducing energy consumption, investment in training), not simply through government subsidies but also by bestowing it with a higher social status. This is not just a moral argument. It is also an appeal to enlightened self-interest. By letting short-term self-interest rule everything we risk destroying the entire system, which serves no one's interest in the long run.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Misleading advertising or something much worse?

Have you ever looked at test questions the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) uses in interviews with aspiring citizens? This isn't easy stuff. They ask new citizens to learn a lot. I doubt most U.S.-educated high school grads would do very well on this test.

While looking for something else, I recently ran across a website that purports to offer a "Free Online Practice System for United States of America Citizenship Test." Ever curious, I thought I'd give it a try. It throws up 5 multiple choice questions and grades your answers. Here's one result from my first set:


That was interesting I thought. I'm enough of a student of history so I could certainly make a case for "economic reasons." I could even, maybe, make a case for "election freedom," based on some of the overheated passions that accompanied voting in the 1860 Presidential election, especially in the states located between far South and farther North. But I did think that an election whose subtext was an argument over continuation of human slavery might have something to do with "human rights." Apparently not on this site's version of the test.

Curious, I tried another round of questions:

Since I was now on to the test's biases, I had no trouble with this one. But unless you were brought up in the states of the Old Confederacy about 40 years ago, you probably think the war in question had a more familiar name. Don't you? I thought so.

The biases demonstrated by this test prep site are not present in the list of official answers provided by the USCIS to examiners. The test prep site answers are not "wrong" -- but they sure aren't the most common answers expected. Here are the relevant real acceptable answers:

I'd like to think new citizens aren't being tutored in regressive history. We have enough regressive present.

Ethical and religious conundrums

Polling is a bit of a "garbage in; garbage out" business. If you ask people dumb questions, you are likely to get dumb -- or simply weird -- answers. Or so I suspect.

Case in point: a recent Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service Survey that asked people in the U.S. whether they "believe the Bible's admonition not to 'rejoice when your enemies fall' applies to how Americans should react to [Osama] bin Laden's death." About 60 percent of us agreed with this formulation. Interestingly, the group least likely to agree were white mainline Protestants. Perhaps we're not accustomed to turn to Proverbs for our everyday moral instruction?

"Minority" -- presumably that means non-white -- Christians of whatever denominational persuasion were the most likely to think there was something unseemly, unwise, or even wrong (motivations are not specified) with celebrating the death of an enemy. Some communities may have had too much experience on the wrong end of this sort of thing. A Native American friend concurs in this.

My favorite finding from this oddly designed poll was this:

Nearly half (49 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated agree that bin Laden will be eternally punished for his sins in Hell.

I have to wonder where these folks think they themselves are going beyond the grave?
A more challenging clash of perspectives on how to deal with evil in the world seems to have happened at a recent Newark Peace Education Summit. The big draw at this talkathon was the Dalai Lama. (I get that; I'd go a good ways to hear the gentleman.) Among the other speakers was Jodi Williams, also a Nobel Peace laureate, celebrated for her work to rid the world of land mines. His Highness urged attendees to seek inner peace in order to promote peace in the world. Williams on the other hand was "quite blunt:"

“It’s anger at injustice which fires many of us.”

Smart move on the part of the organizers to include both voices. I can't speak for anyone else, but I need both.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Messaging from behind

Nothing to argue with there, for most of us.

Seems like the right idea.

In these days of attacks on the people who keep our cities going, this seems an important thing to be said, over and over.

Education activists have the back of families.

Tree planters work to leave a greener city to the kids ...

And if all else fails, there's always this.