Saturday, August 31, 2019

Some workers for Labor Day

These days, the whole of San Francisco feels like a construction job site. No recession here, yet.
Much of this is at superhuman scale.

With increased traffic, overburdened streets need all the help they can get.

In the residential neighborhoods, there's plenty of sprucing up going on.

Many a residential foundation needs replacing which can be a pretty drastic enterprise. This is what I used to do in the 1980s; as I realized while chatting with a new acquaintance recently, homeowners end up with a ton of concrete, perhaps some reassurance about earthquakes, and nothing to show off to their friends.

Better reinforce that roof.

With all this activity, how could Amazon deliveries be far behind?

Meanwhile, some has got to guard the store, lackadaisically.

All photos taken while Walking San Francisco in 2019. Women remain sadly rare in these jobs ...

UPDATE: Here's a woman worker I encountered while walking today:

I'm taking a short break. Blogging will resume after Labor Day.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Whiners for the Lord

Michael Gerson is trying to explain for the umpteenth time just what white evangelical U.S. Christians are so afraid of:

There is a certain type of political progressive who would grant institutional religious liberty only to churches, synagogues and mosques, not to religious schools, religious hospitals and religious charities. Such a cramped view of pluralism amounts to the establishment of secularism, which would undermine the long-standing cooperation of government and religious institutions in tasks such as treating addiction, placing children in adoptive homes, caring for the sick and educating the young.

Yes. Count me in as that sort of progressive.

It's a labor issue. Unless the school, hospital, or charity hires only its own members who chose to give up their individual citizenship to the prescriptions of their religious tribe (their choice!), this creates a labor issue. No, institutions serving diverse communities in diverse communities have no business firing their LGBT employees for getting legally married as too many Catholic schools have been doing.

It's a discrimination issue. Nor can they make up their own standards for who is a qualified potential adoptive parent or a qualified nurse. In a diverse society, that has to be a job for the state, mediating conflicts between tribes.

The white evangelical complaint is simply that they can no longer make the rules without engaging in the pulling and hauling of democracy. And that when they do try to engage in the country we have become, they largely lose, though they can do a lot of harm while declining. See also women denied reproductive health care and Mr. Trump.

Gerson goes on to lament that the religious right drives away its own children (as the chart shows). No wonder.

I can be sad in response to this without feeling any sympathy.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The undead just keep on coming

It happened every year. My mother owned some shares of stock in the Phillip Morris corporation; at Christmas, the tobacco company would send her a beautifully wrapped package containing a selection of packs of their cigarette brands -- Winstons, Newports, Marlboros, etc. She was charmed and loyal. Smoking was a habit she'd picked up as a teenager in the 1920s. It branded her as mature and modern -- oh yeah. This was before the 1964 Surgeon's General Report which stated unequivocally that smoking caused cancer and numerous other diseases. By then her generation was hooked, as were many of my generation coming along a little latter. The stroke which eventually killed her certainly had damage from decades of smoking as a contributing cause.

So I can't say I was happy to see versions of this in the business sections of major media:

Philip Morris and Altria Are in Talks to Merge
With Altria’s investment in Juul, a combination of the tobacco giants would dominate the international market for e-cigarettes. The tobacco giants Philip Morris International and the Altria Group are in talks to reunite, the companies said on Tuesday, in a deal that would combine the most popular brands of both traditional and electronic cigarettes.

... The number of cigarettes sold in the United States fell 3.5 percent in 2017 from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The e-cigarette market was worth about $11 billion in 2018, and it is projected to surpass $18 billion by 2024, according to a report from Mordor Intelligence, a market research firm.

... “This is very dangerous for public health,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “There’s a real concern that a strengthened Philip Morris poses an increased threat to tobacco control measures both in the United States and around the globe.”

The zombies just keep on coming.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, the zombies are fighting for their lives and their business plan to hook yet more generations.

Juul Spending Money Like A Drunken Sailor To Overturn E-Cigarette Ban
It’s terrible timing for the electronic cigarette manufacturer Juul that lung illnesses believed to be related to e-cigarette use have just been reported in 14 states. These 94 cases of still-unsolved lung illness tied to vaping come less than three months before San Francisco votes on Prop. C,  a November ballot measure meant to undo the San Francisco vapor product sales ban, and sponsored by the vape company Juul.

But Juul has an important weapon to sway voters ⁠— a whole lot of dollars. 

Juul has spent more than $4.5 million on their measure to defeat the vaping ban according to campaign filings at the San Francisco Ethics Commission.

Juul is promoting its drug delivery system through the misleadingly named "Coalition for Reasonable Vaping Regulation." They claim, falsely, that Measure C would protect people under 18 from their addiction machine. Expect to drown in lying direct mail, ads, and door hangers until November. No on C.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The fire this time

Maybe I missed something, but alongside the news of the fires in the Brazilian Amazon rain forest decimating that unparalleled marvel (and carbon sink), there's been a lot less about this. Central Africa is burning also.
Weather Source has recorded 6,902 fires in Angola over the past 48 hours, compared to 3,395 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 2,127 in Brazil. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for Central Africa.

Maybe the relative omission is because western media (understandably) have it in for Brazil's autocratic president, Jair Bolsonaro. Or maybe we just don't give much of a damn about what happens in the Congo Basin.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Remembering our own

The outline of a new mural is coming into view on the Calle24 Latino Cultural District building at 24th Street and Capp.

Guatemalan migrant worker Amilcar Perez Lopez (left image) was shot by the police with six bullets to the back on February 26, 2015 just two blocks away. At right, the mural includes lights for Alex Nieto and Mario Woods, two other local victims of trigger happy cops. No police officers were ever charged for their killings, nor for the shooting of homeless Mission resident Luis Gongoro Pat also pictured on the mural.

Soon their images and their stories will cover the side of the building in the center of the Mission, less than a block from BART. The Mission remembers thanks to the Justice4Amilcar Coalition with Fr. Richard Smith, HOMEY, Mission Housing Development Corporation, and Calle24. The mural team is led by Carla Elena Wojczuk.

There's a GoFundMe raising money to support the mural.

Monday, August 26, 2019

A "moderate" is swayed

Last month I highlighted Democratic Congresswoman Lauren Underwood as a stunning political talent, albeit a "moderate." In 2018, she flipped an 85% white, longtime Republican, district in the western suburbs of Chicago. Republicans think her one of their easiest targets to defeat in 2020.

But she insisted that she sticks to the bread and butter issues about which she hears from her constituents -- health care access and costs, college costs, ... In her telling no one asks about "the Russia thing." Probably true.

But something has changed. Now she has read the Mueller report. She has joined her Democratic colleagues in deciding it is time to look into impeachment:
I find this telling, though of just what I don't know. I would not have expected the down-to-earth Underwood to stick her head up. Whether impeachment is a strategic political move -- or timely -- is beyond my pay grade. (Obviously Trump is a walking high crime, but that's not the issue.) But if this Congresswoman is moving, something is stirring.
UPDATE: Via Daily Kos Elections:

• IL-14: Catalina Lauf, who worked in the Trump administration's Commerce Department, announced Tuesday that she would seek the GOP nod to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood. Lauf, who is 26 and whose mother emigrated from Guatemala, portrayed herself as the conservative answer to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

I'd bet on Underwood.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Can democracy cure itself?

Since November 2016, I've read quite a few books that explore various interpretations of what the Trump election (and the Brexit vote in June 2016) might mean. Has our underlying tribal white racism overrun our politics? (Yes.) Have the gross economic injustices of contemporary capitalism made many people willing to risk burning it all down? (Yes.) Do we have kleptocratic enemies whose own survival depends on undermining the appeal of the democratic ideals we honor even while we also breach them? (Yes.) Are our legal constitutional arrangements outdated and incapable of delivering legitimate government? (Yes.) The list goes on.

Cambridge University luminary David Runciman's The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present - Revised Edition takes a comparative, political science-grounded, stab at the question whether democracy itself is a sustainable system for organizing a society. First published in 2013, before the Brexit and Trump shocks, Runciman certainly can claim to have seen bumpy times ahead for the system pioneered in the Anglophone world. An afterward looks at democracies' prospects in the light of subsequent events.

This is an alarming book. The writing is wonderfully lucid, jargon-free, something you seldom get from an academic political "scientist." But Runciman's point of view is irritatingly Olympian; if democracy is doomed, he'll describe its demise without betraying much distress.

Runciman grounds his discussion in 19th century musings of French politician Alexis de Tocqueville about the then-novel American democratic system. Tocqueville found the America of the 1840s both attractive and repellent (these lovers of "liberty" owned enslaved people!) -- but concluded it just might have enough inner resilience to survive and even thrive.

The key to making sense of American democracy was to learn not to take it at face value. It worked despite the fact that it looked as though it shouldn’t work. Its advantages were hidden somewhere beneath the surface and only emerged over time.

... Faith was the lynchpin of American democracy. The system worked, Tocqueville decided, because people believed in it. They believed in it despite the fact that it looked like it shouldn’t work ... You could have genuine faith in it. In that sense, he accepted that American democracy had passed a confidence threshold. His worry was about what lay on the other side. He was afraid that confidence in democracy would prove to be a trap.

The book records cycles of crisis in which democracies repeated a pattern of semi-functional response.

First, democracies are not good at recognizing crisis situations: all the surface noise of democratic politics makes them insensitive to genuine turning points. Second, crises need to get really bad before democracies can show their long-term strengths, but when they get really bad, there is more scope for democracies to make serious mistakes. Third, when democracies survive a crisis, they may not learn from the experience. All crises generate lessons about the mistakes to avoid in future. But democracies are capable of taking a different lesson: that no matter what mistakes they make, they will be all right in the end.

This is the "Confidence Trap" of the title.

In the fashion of academic disciplines which cherry pick examples from history that can yield insights within their frameworks, Runciman offers a catalogue of interesting tidbits.

On the aftermath of World War I:

Democracies tend to overreach themselves when they outlast or defeat autocratic rivals, because they assume the truth about democracy has finally been revealed. It hasn’t. What eventually gets revealed instead is the inherent difficulty democracies have in seizing the moment.

On German democracy's failure that ended in Nazi rule and devastating war:

German experiences before and after 1933 confirm how dangerous it is to assume that democracies can improvise a solution to every crisis they face. Improvisation destroyed the Weimar Republic, because it unraveled the authority of the state. But the demise of Weimar was not the whole story. Democracy looked to be in deep trouble almost everywhere in 1933. Yet that impression was ultimately misleading. No one can know for sure when established democracies have finally run out of road. Sometimes, despite the risks, improvisation remains the best bet.

On President John F. Kennedy's choices in the Cuban missile crisis:

[Kennedy faced] the two nonnegotiable requirements of democratic public opinion: first, that he should do everything in his power to avoid a conflict; second, that he should not be seen to back down. Democracies hate unnecessary wars, but they also hate making concessions.

On "winning" the Cold War:

... it was won by democracies that did not know what they were up to. ... Western democracy had not reined itself in. It had not even franchised itself out. It had simply kept going. Its victory relied on its underlying adaptability, not its self-control. Democracy had failed to take charge of its destiny, but it had taken whatever history could throw at it and come through, in ways no rival system could match. It was still standing when everything else had fallen down.

... This is the ongoing dream of democratic fulfillment: to harness the underlying benefits that only appear sporadically at times of crisis and turn them into solid, enduring gains. The problem, though, is that crisis politics does not map onto routine political decision making in a democracy.

On the Great Recession of 2008:

Outright disasters produce new beginnings. Successful firefighting tempts you to keep putting out fires.

These cringe-inducing insights are not comforting in our current predicament. He concludes that, having seen our system muddle through for a century and more, we've been complacent beyond reason.

... The cumulative success of democracy has created the conditions for systemic failure. The time may be past for muddling through.

A vote for Trump was simultaneously an expression of disgust with the system and a declaration of confidence in it. After all, who would entrust power to such a man unless they had some residual faith that they could be protected from the consequences of their choice?

He speculates that the catastrophe of financial collapse in 2008, for which nobody seemed to suffer except most ordinary people, may have wrung out democracy's resilience.

It took a while to work through, but eventually the belief that no one had been punished for the near-calamity—and indeed that those who should have been punished were making more money than ever—needed to find an outlet. ... Improvised solutions kept the show on the road but they also put off the day of reckoning. So two days of reckoning were improvised: 23 June and 8 November 2016. However different the circumstances and consequences of these two votes, they have this in common: they were an opportunity for sufficiently large numbers of people to register that the crisis was not over for them. As a result, they have produced a fresh crisis of their own ...

... Populism will only drag democracy down if it forces mainstream democratic politicians to remain stuck in a defensive mode, frightened of making mistakes for fear they lack the resources to correct them. The history of democracy in the twentieth century shows that it does not have to be that way. Nothing is certain. However, it is hard to escape the suspicion that what kept democracy moving forward through the twentieth century were the galvanizing effects of repeated crises.

... The arrival of Trump in the White House does not represent a reckoning. It is simply another diversion from the underlying challenges of an interconnected, networked and slowly warming world. Once, populism provided a spur to action. Now it is a sign of stasis. That is why I increasingly believe that the story I tell in this book—the story of democratic progress through adaptability—is coming to an end.

All the more reason to look for politicians among the Democratic presidential hopefuls who embrace drive and daring, rather than a return to an illusory "normal." And beyond politicians, all the more reason to look for peoples' movements that strive for justice and compassion, usually initiated and based among people for whom democracy has not (yet?) been a good deal. There are many such out there.

Runciman can ruminate from his elevated perch. Most of us are living in a place and time to get moving, not to agonize.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Saturday scenes: the coons are back in Golden Gate Park

The animal looked a bit like that rock, but I noticed movement as I ran toward him.

He noticed me as I approached.

As I rounded a curve, I saw there were more. Perhaps a family? Perhaps the first raccoon was a sentry?

The galumphing runner signaled time to beat it out of sight.

Some made for cover under the bridge while others knew they could easily outrun me.

I haven't seen this many raccoons in the park for awhile. Some years ago I encountered a group near this same spot on the trail around Chain of Lakes Drive. I later read that Animal Control had captured that batch; apparently they are hell on pet dogs. As far as I'm concerned, I'd say leave them be.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Friday cat blogging

There are only so many hideaways in a smallish house -- but Morty found a new one. Once he got through posing, he climbed on my lap where he now is trying to create typos by head-butting my hands.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Does it really require closing a mountain peak to monitor storms and rainfall?

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission thinks so. I run on this rocky outcropping -- Montara Mountain which sits between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay -- as often as once a week. It's rugged and often nearly empty of recreational users. But city bureaucrats have decided they have to close the top -- because, well, I guess the decaying communication towers weren't enough unsightly litter. Seriously now, must they close off yet more wild land that is only lighted used?
This is an agency with an imperial attitude about the watersheds it "protects." For decades, it has made the ridgeline fire road west of Crystal Springs Reservoir off limits. Meanwhile San Mateo County has no qualms about its heavily used Sawyer Camp Trail on the east side where a determined polluter could probably toss a stone into the water. But hey, SFPUC closes its side to all but its own employees, some of whom get to live in this lovely wild area. (I went on a legal, supervised hike there once during which the water guys tracked us in a pickup.)

Please sign this petition asking the SFPUC to find other options than closing off the North Peak of the mountain.

Extending that Republican Rx for sickness: "just die"

If I didn't have some (weak) confidence that the Times does elementary fact checking, I'd find this unbelievable. But it's widely reported.

Charles Blow digs into how deliberate cruelty makes Trump a "folk hero" for many (most?) Republicans.

A Lust for Punishment
... Trump’s own punitive spirit aligns with and gives voice and muscle to American conservatives’ long simmering punitive lust. And this insatiable desire to inflict pain has particular targets: women (specifically feminists), racial minorities, people who are L.G.B.T.Q. and religious minorities in this country. In short, the punishments are directed at anyone who isn’t part of, or supportive of, the white supremacist patriarchy.

... The whole discussion of abortion and those who oppose a woman’s right to choose this legal and legitimate medical procedure is in part rooted in punishment. The woman was a reckless custodian of her body and dared to have sex, unprotected, at a time when she wasn’t prepared to be a mother or with a man she didn’t want to be her child’s father. For shame. She should be made to complete the pregnancy, give birth to the child and raise it. This is her punishment for sex.

... In discussions about the disproportionate rates of black male incarceration or black men gunned down by the police, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard conservatives say that these black males’ own actions courted the punishment, that they got what they deserved.

This has ever been the case: the flaying of black flesh as punishment for some infraction, perceived or real, from the lash and hounds of slavery to the lynchings that surged after the Civil War, from state execution when the killing moved indoors to our current extrajudicial killings by the police in which the morbid act moves back outside. ...

Read it all.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Does this medal remind you of anything?

Soldiers who Trump has sent to guard the Mexican border against the "invasion" lodged in his feral imagination will earn a medal that looks like this.
As Erudite Partner remarked: "Repulsive."

The Armed Forces Service Medal was created by President Bill Clinton in 1996 through an executive order. The award ... was previously given to troops who operated along the border under President George W. Bush. It has also been awarded to troops who have deployed to Bosnia, Haiti and West Africa on humanitarian or peacekeeping missions.

So there is a precedent. Sort of. Trump treats the U.S. Armed Forces like his personal toy soldiers.

U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The "stop the world, I want to get off" crowd

Since November 2016 when the Trump election was enabled by votes from 81 percent of white evangelical Christians, I've noodled away at understanding what drives these people. The simple explanation -- these are terrified white people grasping at the Making America White Again straw despite its repugnance -- is both irrefutable and yet feels incomplete. John Fea helped me appreciate how terrified these people are in a culture they can't seem to grasp, much less control and constrain. Fear overrides both sense and common decency.

Major media are taking another run at understanding white evangelical Christians. Washington Post writer Elizabeth Bruenig braved the wilds of north Texas from which she sprang last spring during Holy Week, reporting sensitively on the folks she'd left behind. Amid her compassion, there were hints of something chilling. She quotes "Lydia Bean, 38, a researcher who taught at Baylor University":

“Basically, it’s like a fortress mentality, where it’s like — the best we can do is lock up the gates and just pour boiling oil over the gates at the libs,” ...“I really think one of the things that’s changed since I did my fieldwork at the very end of the Bush administration is a rejection of politics in general as a means to advance the common good, even in a conservative vein.” In that case, politics “becomes a bloodsport, where you’re punishing and striking back at people you don’t like” without much hope of changing anything. For that kind of “hopeless cynicism” regarding politics — walls up, temporary provisions, with just enough strength and zeal left to periodically foil one’s enemies — Trump is an ideal leader.

That is, terror at imagined loss can morph into nihilism. A few can become the El Paso terrorist. Far more simply cheer on Trump from within imagined fortress walls that ratify their purity:

By voting for Trump — even over more identifiably Christian candidates — evangelicals seem to have found a way to outsource their fears and instead reserve a strictly spiritual space for themselves inside politics without placing evangelical politicians themselves in power. In that sense, they can be both active political agents and a semi-cloistered religious minority, both of the world and removed from it, advancing their values while retreating to their own societies.

Conservative white evangelical internet troll Ben Howe explained his own kind less sympathetically to Emma Green:

...Trump’s appeal is not judges. It’s not policies. It’s that he’s a shit-talker and a fighter and tells it like it is. That’s what they like. They love the meanest parts of him.

Okay, I get it. White evangelicals are just scared witless by losing racial and cultural hegemony; they are using Trump to defend their bunker.
But I'm left with the question: how did white evangelical Christianity become the bastion of ignorance that this strain among us serves as today? If you are accustomed to using your wits to comprehend your surroundings, you are a lot less likely to be scared witless. And it wasn't always this way. It was some pretty rock-ribbed white Protestants who founded the country's early intellectual and scientific institutions -- Harvard, Princeton, even the first public schools.

And for all that, by the early 20th century, too many (most?) white evangelicals experienced basic science, especially in the form of evolutionary theory, as incompatible with their most cherished beliefs. Catholic and Protestant Christians made peace with science; evangelicals did not. It's awfully hard to live at peace with modernity -- with a civilization that can put a human on the moon, blow up the planet, and is creating climate chaos -- without living in a world informed by science.

A Pew Social Trends survey concludes that the same divide that gave us the blind partisanship which led to Trump also is leaching into attitudes toward education. By and large we think we need it -- but we are becoming dubious:

Americans see value in higher education – whether they graduated from college or not. ... Even so, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction – even suspicion – among the public about the role colleges play in society ...

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days. About four-in-ten (38%) say they are having a negative impact – up from 26% in 2012.

And that divide has a partisan cast:
Healing for this country must include helping people -- especially white evangelical Christians -- both think and feel that knowledge of the world is a good; can we do that?

Monday, August 19, 2019

When the well runs dry: cooperation yields better result than competition

This map offered today by the Washington Post provides a scary picture of the many areas of the United States where climate chaos and human density are putting strain on water resources, especially in southwestern states. Are we going to end up like Cape Town, South Africa, where increasing shortages almost led to a complete municipal water shut off in a modern city? The story is worth reading.

But there's another story worth contemplating:

The climate-inspired detente on the Colorado
For the first time in history, low water levels on the Colorado River have forced Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico to cut back the amount of water they use. ... “It is a new era of limits,” said Kevin Moran, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River efforts.

... But these water-use reductions are also an example of people binding themselves to rules to deal with scarce resources, rather than going to court, or war. The cutbacks come from an agreement hammered out by the Southwestern states and Mexico to impose limits on themselves.

“It’s not necessarily well known or talked about, but this collaboration between the states and Mexico is one of the most successful cross-border water management stories in the world,” Moran said.

Over the long course of history, the various parties have fought each other over water, but found that cooperation simply works better, Moran said. ...

Read all about it.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Got the grumps

What could be more banally representative of our hyper-connected lives than what I spent yesterday doing ... repairing the havoc caused by a hacked credit card? This grumpy gargoyle seems to feel rather as I felt while changing my settings online on a multitude of websites.

This is not the fault of the credit card company. They caught the hack before any serious damage was done and promptly issued a replacement.

But it was a lot of labor. Every regular vendor I use -- health insurance, internet access, e-commerce, a gym, some charities -- had to be changed. And every one of them had a different procedure and a differently organized web site where I could accomplish this. The process was a kind of tutorial in web design, mostly bad.

Such is convenience.

Blogging will resume when I recover.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Saturday scenery: Woodstock

It's been 50 years since the iconic counter cultural gathering.

It's certainly a lovely setting.

In 1969, 400,000 people crowded into this field. And yes, then it rained.

For someone, the memory is so happy they've put the name of the property owner on their license plate. Perhaps part of the family?

No, I wasn't there. But I keep running across people in my circles who were -- guess that says something I find endearing about my friends. I took these shots in 2014 when one of the ones who had been there showed us the site.

Friday, August 16, 2019

U.S. actions have Central American consequences

Amilcar Perez Lopez traveled to San Francisco to work for his family's well-being; the boy from Guatemala kept his head down and was a "good worker" according to those who knew him. He found a neighborhood where there were many others like him; in the photo, the Mission community turned out to protest impunity for the SFPD officers who shot him in the back in 2015.

Erudite Partner argues that the current surge of migration from Central America that Donald Trump is using to stir up racist fears of "invasion" has been building for decades. In fragile states, corruption, and climate chaos have pushed people onto a terrible road."The US has driven Central Americans to flee," she explains:

There is indeed a real crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of thousands of people like Amílcar are arriving there seeking refuge from dangers that were, to a significant degree, created by and are now being intensified by the United States. But Donald Trump would rather demonize desperate people than deploy the resources needed to attend to their claims in a timely way — or in any way at all.

It's time to recognize that the American way of life — our cars and comforts, our shrimp and coffee, our ignorance about our government's actions in our regional "backyard" — has created this crisis. It should be (but in the age of Trump won't be) our responsibility to solve it. ...

We broke these countries, we continue to break them, and we don't understand we own this.

Friday cat blogging

The unaccustomed hot weather has us pulling curtains and opening windows strategically. We don't actually have to worry about Morty trying to escape. He doesn't like heat and he's a bit of a fraidy cat.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Chronicler of power

Is Robert A. Caro a biographer? Perhaps a political reporter? A social historian? An investigative journalist? All of the above? That seems right. I know of no other writer of contemporary history whose works present such a broad yet still human-scale portrait of his subjects' lives and surrounding times.

In this little book -- Working -- he shares with his readers something of how he does whatever it is he has been doing in writing The Power Broker about New York titan Robert Moses and the still unfinished five (?) volume The Years of Lyndon Johnson. In particular Caro shares nuggets about some of the most powerful passages in those volumes. Even if you haven't read about how Moses devastated the South Bronx community of Tremont Street or how the women of the Texas Hill Country survived in Lyndon Johnson's youth, you get a manageable taste here. The book is a delight.

And what we learn of Caro's process certainly seems in harmony with his product. He researches obsessively, immerses himself in his subject's places and artifacts, researches some more, interviews available witnesses repeatedly -- and finally writes draft after draft, long hand. He works doggedly and apparently happily. He knows that his readers now wonder whether he'll live to finish his decades long Johnson opus; what's he doing offering this distraction from the main work?

I have so many thoughts about writing, so many anecdotes about research, that I would like to preserve for anyone interested enough to read them. I decided that, just in case, I'd put some of them down on paper now. ...

He claims he's actually a fast writer, a newspaper re-write man on a lifelong detour. But investigative reporting taught him to "turn every page" -- to follow every lead as far as it may lead him. He's a almost precious about this.

It's the research that takes the time -- the research and whatever it is in myself that makes the research take so long, so very much longer than I had planned. Whatever it is that makes me do research the way I do, it's not something I'm proud of, and it's not something for which I can take credit -- or the blame.

Ultimately, Caro's subject is "an examination of the essential nature -- the most fundamental realities -- of political power." Taking Robert Moses as his subject, he refined what that meant:

I had set out to write about political power by writing about one man, keeping the focus, within the context of his times, on him. I now came to believe that the focus should be widened, to show not just the life of the wielder of power but the lives on whom, and for whom, it was wielded; not to show those lives in the same detail, of course, but in sufficient detail to enable the reader to empathize with the consequences of power -- the consequences of government, really -- on the lives of its citizens, for good and for ill. To really show political power, you had to show the effect of power on the powerless, and show it fully enough so the reader could feel it.

Having explored an urban and state wielder of power, he looked to the national level. He wanted to describe some one who had done ""something that no one had done before." Johnson, among myriad accomplishments and failings, fit that bill:

For a hundred years before Lyndon Johnson, since the halcyon era of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, no one had been able to make the Senate work -- and in the fifty-nine years since Lyndon Johnson left the Senate, no one's been able to make the Senate work. But he made it work.

His volume on Johnson's Senate tenure remains an essential text on that impediment to the popular will for all the changes in style and content of US politics since the 1950s.

Speaking of changes, Caro's description of his working relationship with his wife and partner Ina reads quaint and, perhaps, under-considerate in 2019. He is unstinting in his praise of her contributions -- her contributions to what he nonetheless considers his great project. They worked together in the LBJ library, digging through the impossible volume of records. But he had another idea:

Working in the Reading Room with me would be Ina, in whose thoroughness and perceptivity in doing research I had learned to trust. ...

... I said to Ina, "I'm not understanding these people and therefore I'm not understanding Lyndon Johnson. We're going to move to the Hill Country and live there." Ina said, "Why can't you do a biography of Napoleon?"

But Ina is Ina: loyal and true. She said, as she always says: "Sure." We rented a house on the edge of the Hill Country, where we were to live for most of the next three years."

I can't help but wonder if Ina had more to say here, but I suppose we'll never know.

For all that, Robert A. Caro is a treasure of truths about power. Studying these great and horrible men of power, he reflects on what redeems the squalid squabbling of government, not always by the people:

There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power, but there is also great good. It seems to be that people have forgotten this. They've forgotten, for example what Franklin Roosevelt did: how he transformed people's lives. How he gave hope to people. Now people talk in vague terms about government programs and infrastructure, but they've forgotten the women of the Hill Country and how electricity changed their lives. ... We certainly see how government can work to your detriment today, but people have forgotten what government can do for you. They've forgotten the potential of government, the power of government, to transform people's lives for the better.

I read this as an audiobook and strongly recommend that medium. Caro reads it himself.
Previous blog posts here about Robert A. Caro's books:
The Power Broker:
He got things done

Lyndon Johnson:
The hardness of the women's lives
A politician with no redeeming features
Lyndon Johnson, the Senate, and the people
A Lyndon Johnson tease

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A haunting border-crossing narrative

This short film follows the ordeal of a Honduran asylum-seeking family separated by Trump's border police -- and ultimately reunited in the U.S. onto a difficult path forward.

It is beautiful, contradicting the story it tells. I guess that is the story of our times.

I usually don't watch video content, but this is not to be missed.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Creating friction where he could

US champion fencer Race Imboden acted in response to his feeling that something ought to be done. He explains himself here.

I’m proud to be an American fencing champion. Here’s why I knelt for our anthem.
... at the podium, my palms wet from nerves, when the “Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, I took a knee — following in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith: black, LGBT, female and Muslim athletes who chose to take a stand. I’m not a household name like those heroes, but as an athlete representing my country and, yes, as a privileged white man, I believe it is time to speak up for American values that my country seems to be losing sight of.

I’ve been honored to represent my country in international competition, and each time I hear our national anthem played, it’s a moment of personal pride. I love my country, full stop. When I look around, though, I see racial injustice, sexism, hate-inspired violence and scapegoating of immigrants. This isn’t new, but it feels like it’s getting worse, and after the mass killings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, I wanted to use that moment on the podium to send a message that things have to change.

Rather than acquiesce in hate and passivity, each of us we resists where we can. Each of us can learn from others that resistance is possible.

Unexpected good news

The findings from this Gallup Poll blow my mind. Apparently Trump/GOP howling about "an invasion" and visible cruelty to migrants at our southern border have had the effect of sensitizing an increasing fraction of us to our neighbors who are seeking asylum. Even rank and file Republicans are becoming more sympathetic toward migrants.

Support for allowing Central American refugees entry is now higher than Gallup has found for most refugee cases it has polled on historically, including Syrian refugees in 2015 as well as stretching back to refugees from the German Holocaust in the 1930s and 40s.

More and more us think there's a border "crisis." Apparently more and more of us also understand that people coming our way are not marauding hordes, but desperate vulnerable humans.

It's time to isolate the hard core racists and oust craven Republican enablers.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Nevada on my mind

Having spent two months in 2018 working to ensure that Nevada elected a Democratic US Senator and Democratic governor, I find myself tracking political doings in the Silver State.

This is facilitated by Nevada's having a courageous, thoughtful state nonprofit news site, The Nevada Independent. It's founder, Jon Ralston, is considered the go-to authority on state political machinations. The Independent posts a site that other journalistic outfits would be smart to emulate, the "Sisolak Promise Tracker" -- Steve Sisolak was that gubernatorial candidate whose name so many campaign visitors struggled to pronounce in 2018. Here's how they describe it:

Steve Sisolak made a lot of promises on the campaign trail and after taking office as governor. Below, The Nevada Independent tracked the progress and outcomes of Sisolak’s biggest pledges and promises after the 2019 Legislature. We have decided that the fairest way to track promises is to label the ones that have been completed as such and the ones that have not yet been addressed as such. We will continue to monitor progress on promises throughout Sisolak's four years in office. We will not label any of the promises as failures until the end of the governor's tenure if they still have not been addressed.

So what has Sisolak accomplished so far? With Democratic majorties in the legislature, a lot:
  • invested in mental health services;
  • helped lower drug prices by increasing state bargaining for Medicaid rates;
  • increased selected Medicaid reimbursement rates to doctors to encourage them to remain in Nevada;
  • established a Patient Protection Commission one of whose charges is avert surprise emergency room billing;
  • created a Maternal Mortality Review Program to figure out why too many women die in childbirth;
  • and joined other states' briefs against the Texas/Trump Justice Department attempt to bring down Obamacare through an ongoing lawsuit.
And that's just in the (very politically salient) area of health care.
Nevada will be the fourth state to express its preferences in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes -- after Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, but before the biggies like Texas, Massachusetts, Virginia, and California on March 3. It will be the first primary state which has a large Latinx population. Yet Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight reports it's not getting much attention from the squabbling crowd. Marianne Williamson has been there more than any of the others.

... most Democrats are spending barely any time there. In the period we looked at, from the 2018 midterms to the end of July 2019, six candidates didn’t visit Nevada at all after declaring their candidacy. And all but one have spent less than 5 percent of their campaign days there.

Hmmm -- you might think they'd show more interest. Though it is probably true the state is now purple-ish trending toward blue, it's been a recent battleground.

It's a very urban place. If what you know of Nevada has been driving across it on Interstate 80 you might think its an empty desert. However, almost all Nevadans live in either the Las Vegas area or around Reno/Sparks.

It's also a place with an authentically capable labor movement -- that is, something of a politically engaged working class.

These are Democratic strengths not well represented in the earlier primary states. Shouldn't some of these candidates be working them? If there's anything we know about 2020, it's that Democrats cannot be complacent!

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Two sides of our healthcare system failures

Couple dead in apparent murder-suicide left notes saying they couldn’t afford medical care, police say
... Health-care spending in the United States has been increasing for decades, and costs for senior citizens are higher than those for citizens as a whole, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

An average of $18,424 per person was spent on medical care for people ages 65 and older in 2010 — five times the spending per child and three times the spending per working-age person, a report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says.

Roughly 65 percent of senior citizens’ medical costs are paid for through government services such as Medicare, which covers almost all seniors, and Medicaid, which covers low-income people and families. Health-care expenses more than double between ages 70 and 90.

Note that these old people were not uninsured. They had what our system offers. They were simply people for whom the US healthcare system didn't work because it cost too much.

The real reason the U.S. spends twice as much on health care as other wealthy countries
... the United States spends almost twice as much on health care as 10 other wealthy countries, a difference driven by high prices — including doctors' and nurses' salaries, hospital charges, pharmaceuticals and administrative overhead. ...

Nonspecialist doctors in the United States are paid on average $220,000 per year — double the average salary in the other countries. Nurses and specialists were also compensated better.  ... Administrative costs were 8 percent of health care spending in the United States, vs. an average of 3 percent among wealthy countries. ...

... prices can be difficult to curb, because one person's high price is another person's profit margin or salary. Hospitals are often among the biggest employers in a region. Pharmaceutical companies offer American consumers big innovation but big price tags — and the debate about how or whether something needs to be done about drug costs has typically fallen apart under the weight of extensive lobbying by the industry. ...

I may be wrong, but a heck of a lot of the political discussion of healthcare focuses on what seems only the first half of the problem: yes, we all need access. That means to the providers -- doctors, hospitals, etc (etc. of which there is a lot) -- there's some assurance they'll get paid something if they treat us. But we also need to be able to afford the care we need. Too many people have "insurance" which comes with costs so high they don't dare use it except in the most dire emergencies.

I'd be happier with the Democratic health care debates if more energy were going into saying directly what they hope to do about the affordability side of the challenge. We don't easily believe that "Medicare for all" would completely relieve us of impossible bills. After all, Medicare as it exists doesn't do that, though those of us who've made it past 65 are glad and grateful to have it. But we wonder ...

Saturday, August 10, 2019

One path out of the woods?

Sometimes I get an inkling that our infuriating, endlessly clever, too frequently self-absorbed, species may -- just perhaps -- figure out how to avert the most devastating consequences of climate crisis.
Here's a woman with a consequential good idea -- and it has already gone into production.

Friday, August 09, 2019

To be afraid is appropriate, not crazy

Friends online, seeking to contextualize the El Paso massacre, pointed to this PBS documentary. (I snagged it from Netflix, but it is readily available in many outlets.)

It's a good, thorough, narrative of the sequence of events -- the ATF storming of Ruby Ridge, the incineration of the Waco Branch Davidians -- that formed the 1990s catalogue of government offenses that right wingers used to justify organizing in violent militias and, eventually, the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma's federal building. That domestic terrorist act killed 168 people, of whom about 100 were low level government employees and many of the others children in a daycare center. The film asks an all too contemporary question.

How could somebody get to that state in their life where they would be so angry and upset they would do something like this?

Joe Hersley, FBI agent

The perpetrator, Tim McVeigh, wanted to start the "next American revolution." A disgruntled failed soldier who loved guns, he drifted into neo-Nazi circles and became convinced that "the only way government is going to get the message is with a body count ..."

In the film, that indefatigable researcher of the right-wing, Leonard Zeskind, answers what we are now asking about El Paso suspect Patrick Crusius: was McVeigh some kind of sick sociopath, or did he come out of an identifiable right wing milieu?

There was no massive conspiracy, that much is true, but the idea that Timothy McVeigh was a lone killer, that is wrong headed. because it absolves the movement from which it all sprang. Timothy McVeigh was not on his own, he was the creation fo the white supremacist movement. He carried the Turner Diaries around and read it to people. He lived at the gun shows. He met neo-Nazis ... and the idea that there was no connection between the white supremacist movement and the events in Oklahoma City is patently false. There was a strong connection ...

And now we have a president who vibes with white nationalists ...

Friday cat blogging

Every morning, Morty gets his blood pressure medicine stuck down his throat. Every evening, he gets a squirt of antibiotic before our bedtime. Not surprisingly, he spends a good bit of time in his hideaway, escaping these indignities.

But these assaults have given him a new lease on life. Looking quite well, isn't he, for an old gentleman.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

A curiosity

Encountered in a heavily used public restroom.

What was whatever authority that put it there thinking? The setting is multilingual -- do users who are not English speakers respond? What do managers expect to learn from asking for feedback? Do they think users will treat the facility more gently if asked their opinion? What's the distribution of answers? -- I wouldn't be surprised if responses tended to the ends of the spectrum. I sense an instinct in myself to look for the positive button on the far right -- is this common and does it effect response? How many of us use this opportunity to rate a public toilet?

I didn't push a button. Sorry.