Wednesday, March 31, 2021

It's a big world

Maybe if our right wing nitwits got out and about more, they wouldn't be so stupid. This week they are whining about "vaccine passports" -- some, not yet extant, proof that people might use to show that they've gotten their shots against the coronavirus. 

Representative Marjorie Taylor Green insists any such instrument is "Biden's Mark of the Beast." This despite the fact that the administration is leaving the development of such a thing to private actors. Well, Greene is the Congresswoman from QAnon ...

For the last two decades, I've traveled with one of these tucked in my passport. 

Sometimes border authorities glance at it; other times not. There are still countries that want to be darn sure that visitors aren't bringing some dangerous germ along with them.  I think the original purpose was to combat smallpox. Hey, that worked.

I can't remember which country it was whose demand led to my getting one. Judging by the dates inside, probably Tanzania ... I'm not sure.

And I certainly don't feel oppressed by being expected to produce it ... It has too often been the case that we here forget that other countries get to run their own borders.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

COVID-19 doesn't do borders. We must vaccinate the world.

Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend in Nicaragua. Several of us on the call reported that we had received our vaccinations. We asked, "how's it going there?"

He replied that there didn't seem to be any organized effort from the state to get people shots -- maybe the country of 6 million had inoculated 3000 people. He didn't know where they'd been getting the vaccine -- it was a discussion that was so remote from his reality that he seemed not to have much thought about it.

What came to my mind immediately was that, if Nicaragua and other poor Latin American countries were ever going to get vaccines, they would probably be looking to Cuba. Cuba has historically shared medical resources with Nicaragua. The Caribbean island has a developed biotech industry and a history of assisting other impoverished nations.

And so I wasn't surprised to run across this from the Washington Post:
Cuban leader Fidel Castro vowed to build a biotech juggernaut in the Caribbean, advancing the idea in the early 1980s with six researchers in a tiny Havana lab. Forty years later, the communist island nation could be on the cusp of a singular breakthrough: Becoming the world’s smallest country to develop not just one, but multiple coronavirus vaccines. 
... Cuban officials say they’re developing cheap and easy-to-store serums. They are able to last at room temperature for weeks, and in long-term storage as high as 46.4 degrees, potentially making them a viable option for low-income, tropical countries that have been pushed aside by bigger, wealthier nations in the international scrum for coronavirus vaccines. 
They could also make Cuba the pharmacist for nations lumped by Washington into the “Axis of Evil” and “Troika of Tyranny.” Iran and Venezuela have inked vaccine deals with Havana. Iran has agreed to host a Phase 3 trial of one of Cuba’s most promising candidates — Soberana 2 — as part of a technology transfer agreement that could see millions of doses manufactured in Iran. ...

This article treats Cuba as an unreconstructed authoritarian hell-hole. Now there's certainly plenty wrong with Cuba for Cubans. But let's credit the Cuban project with understanding that health care is a right, not a commodity. We in the United States have nothing to brag about while we defend the patents held by rich world pharmaceutical companies against the international effort to make life-saving shots cheap and accessible around the world. 

Meanwhile scientists with a big picture view warn that rich world indifference and corporate greed might mean that mutations render the first wave of coronavirus vaccines obsolete within a year if we're too cheap to make sure protection reaches everyone, everywhere.

The grim forecast of a year or less comes from two-thirds of respondents, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of organisations including Amnesty International, Oxfam, and UNAIDS, who carried out the survey of 77 scientists from 28 countries. Nearly one-third of the respondents indicated that the time-frame was likely nine months or less. 
Persistent low vaccine coverage in many countries would make it more likely for vaccine-resistant mutations to appear, said 88% of the respondents, who work across illustrious institutions such as Johns Hopkins, Yale, Imperial College, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of Edinburgh. 
“New mutations arise every day. Sometimes they find a niche that makes them more fit than their predecessors. These lucky variants could transmit more efficiently and potentially evade immune responses to previous strains,” said Gregg Gonsalves, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University, in a statement. 
“Unless we vaccinate the world, we leave the playing field open to more and more mutations, which could churn out variants that could evade our current vaccines and require booster shots to deal with them.”

Monday, March 29, 2021

Vaccines and the limits of intellectual property

These ever-so-welcomed vaccines we're getting shot with bring to front of mind the injustice and profiteering which can underlie our reliance on private, profit-driven actors to supply essential social needs. 

The U.S. government -- that means we, the taxpayers -- put up billions of dollars to ensure that pharmaceutical companies did the work and dared to invest in creating these magic shields against the coronavirus. And a very proper use of our common goods it was. 

But should our government use its cash and influence to ensure that, as vaccination advances speedily here, the whole world will have access? We've pledged $4 billion toward an international effort and are sending vaccine supply not needed here to Canada and Mexico. Our more civilized politicians insist we must do more. 

Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups are pressing [President Biden] to go further by supporting a request by India, South Africa and 55 other countries for the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections on vaccines. Those countries argue that would enable manufacturers around the world to copy the formulas and massively increase production.

Drug companies, including the ones making the vaccines now authorized in the U.S., widely oppose the move, which they say would undermine the global response to the pandemic and not have the intended effect of speeding up production. The Trump administration opposed it at the WTO. But House Democrats say they have already collected close to a hundred signatures on a letter urging Biden to change the U.S. position. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also have weighed in. Those critics accuse the drug companies of prioritizing profits over saving lives.

Here's Senator Sanders:

The discussion raises the perennial issue of whether governments must create such generous protection for patents -- for the exclusive right of companies to profit from inventions that often take their germs from government funding and public academic institutions.

The economist Dean Baker took on excessive deference to patents in The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. He believes so deeply in freeing vital information that you can get the book for free at the link. Here are some snippets of Baker's argument:

In policy discussions, patents and copyrights are usually treated as part of the natural order, their enforcement is viewed as being as basic as the right to free speech or the free exercise of religion. In fact, there is nothing natural about patents and copyrights, they are relics of the Medieval guild system. They are state-granted monopolies, the exact opposite of a freely competitive market. The nanny state will arrest an entrepreneur who sells a patent-protected product in competition with the person to whom it has granted a patent monopoly.

Patents and copyrights do serve an economic purpose — they are a way to promote research and innovation in the case of patents, and a means of supporting creative and artistic work in the case of copyrights. However, just because patents and copyrights can be used for these purposes, it does not follow that they are the only mechanisms or the most efficient mechanisms to accomplish these purposes.

… It is necessary to have mechanisms for supporting innovation, and many alternatives to patents and copyrights already exist. The government directly funds $30 billion a year in biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health, a sum that is almost as large as the amount that the pharmaceutical industry claims to spend. A vast amount of creative work is supported by universities and private foundations. While these alternative mechanisms would have to be expanded, or new ones created, in the absence of patent and copyright protection, they demonstrate that patents and copyrights are not essential for supporting innovation and creative work. The appropriate policy debate is whether they are the best mechanisms.
My emphasis. A worldwide pandemic which can only be defeated on a worldwide basis should bring this discussion to the fore even in this country where we so often assume we have the best form of "free market" anywhere.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

San Francisco: hints of a post-pandemic phase

It was announced last week that the hard working (and often fractious) crew that runs San Francisco's annual LGBTQ Pride celebration in June has decided to skip the monster parade this year in deference to the pandemic. Good for them. Most of us will probably be vaccinated by then, but it wouldn't seem responsible to attract throngs of travelers possibly passing around viral gifts. 

They are planning substitute activities:

... the annual celebrations for LGBTQ Pride Weekend will be expanded into a month of programming with three socially distant, outdoor events anchoring the schedule, organizers announced Wednesday, March 24. In addition to being envisioned with pandemic safety measures in mind, the new format also gives the organization the opportunity to focus on renewed discussions around equity in the LGBTQ community.

“Pride every year is going to take into account the zeitgeist of the current moment, not only in LGBTQ communities but in the larger community,” said Fred Lopez, executive director of San Francisco Pride. “We learned a lot in 2020 about putting on a virtual event. We’ve been doing some internal investigation into unconscious bias in our community, listening to BIPOC people and making sure that learning is at the forefront in 2021.”

Undoubtedly steps in the right direction ...

Meanwhile, venturing into downtown last week for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, I was delighted to come across this:

Click to enlarge.

Was this lesson in lesbian history left over from the 2020 celebration that wasn't? ... or do we just teach queer history as an everyday matter? 

Thanks to Google, I now know this was a February art display (I saw it in March). Much more of gay comic artist Justin Hall's work on display here.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Our gerontocracy

Click to enlarge.
I find this chart evidence that we are a country disproportionately ruled by the old. And that's disturbing. Here I am in my 70s and 73 members of Congress were born in the same decade when I came along. Twelve more were born in the previous decade! 

It's possible that we pick up usable wisdom from living through so much, but sometimes it feels as if we've clogged up the arteries of society. The world has changed a lot; have we internalized those changes? Not always happily.

This tweet brought me up short:

I remember vaguely when there were 48 states; Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union in 1959. Interestingly, given subsequent history, Republicans thought Hawaii would benefit their electoral coalition, while Democrats counted on Alaska to vote their way. 

Many of us have no business thinking that adding the District of Columbia as a state would be so radical. Yes, I know -- it's about who lives there. But the country is changing ...

Friday, March 26, 2021

For most of us, solutions are collective

It cheered me plenty to receive this from our local power company (which contracts with PG&E for delivery over the grid.) San Francisco customers have the option to pay slightly more and purchase "100% renewable energy." 

This year's notice promises 50% solar and 50% wind-generated electricity.

The promise seems real, though I always fear I'm not equipped to evaluate such claims.

In dense cities, rather than hoping some building owners will install local solar panels, this is the way to go. 

Climate chaos means we have to electrify as much as possible -- and that starts with the electric supply.

Friday cat blogging

This animal wasn't sure about the passerby with the camera. Not startled or ready to run away, but suspicious. Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A 23rd state ends capital punishment

Virginia's Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill yesterday that abolishes the death penalty in his state. 

Diligent local activists and a fortunate conjunctions of political forces made this long sought change possible. 

Last summer’s reckoning with racial inequity, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, altered and intensified the public conversation about criminal justice, several Democrats said.

Northam, facing the last year of his term, considered statistics showing Black Virginians are many times more likely to face the death penalty and decided it was time to act, he said in an interview. Several lawmakers said Northam’s declaration of support for abolishing capital punishment made the issue a priority.

With the governor’s mansion and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates on the ballot this fall, there are no guarantees that Democrats will maintain their grip on power into next year. They had to act now or risk losing the opportunity.

Democrats down the road in D.C. should pay attention -- thanks to citizen activism, they have a conjunction of forces in Congress that could enable them to seize the time and strengthen democracy and justice in many arenas -- if only they'll act decisively.

• • •

Duke University Law professor Brandon Garrett provides a short, comprehensive analysis of how death penalty opponents got the change done in Virginia and will eventually across the country. The death penalty is racist, applied unfairly by contemporary standards which good lawyering can reveal, expensive, and to many, simply repugnant. We no longer have to kill people identified as offenders in order to feel we are a just society.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Transit questions

I'll know my personal pandemic is over when I again feel I can ride a bus. Though I'm fully vaccinated, that time has not yet come for me.

I've used BART (our subway) for a short distance this month. It felt fine -- drafty and empty actually. But perhaps irrationally, I'm not ready to try the buses yet.

I came to my enthusiasm for our underfunded bus system (that's "MUNI" in this city) late in life. Though I used public buses to get to elementary school and occasionally to get to jobs, I never liked them. But in the last few years, like NY Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, I've had a bus epiphany. If the system were just a little better, I'd be a vigorous evangelist for buses. Even as it is, creaky and not always on schedule, I love that I can get pretty much anywhere in the city in two bus rides.

The irritating but sharp Matthew Yglesias offers some reflections on what makes for good bus systems and what practices might make them more desirable to more riders.
The truth is that people ride the bus when it makes sense. ... When good transit exists, it’s broadly beneficial and useful to all kinds of people who — for whatever reason — don’t want to drive a car for that particular trip.  
First, there has to be someplace to go where driving your car has some downsides. Second, there has to be a frequent bus that goes there.  
... the key thing about reforms that maximize ridership given a fixed pool of resources is that getting more riders is the way to get more resources.  ...On a political economy level, the biggest problem with U.S. mass transit policy is it’s always conceptualized as something that someone else is going to ride, which is good because it reduces traffic congestion and now it’s easier for you to drive your car.
This is a city, a genuine urban agglomeration. There's plenty of disincentive to driving for most of us, at least into crowded areas and even into neighborhoods with regulated parking. So that points to needing better bus service.

Yglesias argues that transit systems would become healthier if designed to maximize ridership rather than extensive coverage. Bus riders vote! More bus riders vote more! Maximizing means more frequent buses on some lines and doing away with infrequent satellite lines that go where demand is lowest.

Even though I benefit from living adjacent to one of this city's most active bus lines, I find it hard to accept this -- isn't there something wrong with a public utility neglecting what are most likely both the richest (say Seacliff) and the poorest (say Bayview) off-the-beaten path neighborhoods? I think so.

Another Yglesias suggestion is for more widely spaced bus stops, as much as a quarter mile apart. I get it -- the buses would run more smoothly. MUNI has implemented some of this, to a firestorm of upset from small merchants who claim they lose foot traffic. And what about disabled riders and elders who don't walk well? Again, transit is a public utility -- it has to be useful to as many as possible.

Yglesias does help me understand why I can be a MUNI fan -- quite a rarity among San Franciscans who use the system. Because I'm retired and can control my time, I can make a system with relatively infrequent  service convenient -- I just plan on trips taking however long they take. I like to listen to audio books while riding, as buses proceed along circuitous meandering routes to outlying areas. And with my senior fare, it's dirt cheap! Those systemic conveniences don't exist for everyone.

He asks whether pandemic changes that render "the future of the commute in doubt thanks to remote work" might make bus systems less relevant.  Perhaps.

I ask a different question at this fraught pandemic stage: will people who have any alternative come back to the buses when this is over? These days, the buses look empty. Nobody is riding who has another option.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Elastic conspiracies

I thought I was going to write this morning about buses, and transit policies, and the pandemic -- and eventually I will.

But instead I got lost reading a long, heart-breaking account by Buzzfeed reporter Albert Samaha of his mom's slide into the alternative hellhole that is the Q world. Take the time -- read it. It's an all-too recognizable family story, and very San Francisco as well. Roman Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone even plays a bit part.

A snippet: 

... By 2020, I’d pretty much given up on swaying my mom away from her preferred presidential candidate. We’d spent many hours arguing over basic facts I considered indisputable. Any information I cited to prove Trump’s cruelty, she cut down with a corresponding counterattack. My links to credible news sources disintegrated against a wall of outlets like One America News Network, Breitbart, and Before It’s News. Any cracks I could find in her positions were instantly undermined by the inconvenient fact that I was, in her words, a member of “the liberal media,” a brainwashed acolyte of the sprawling conspiracy trying to take down her heroic leader.

The irony gnawed at me: My entire vocation as an investigative reporter was predicated on being able to reveal truths, and yet I could not even rustle up the evidence to convince my own mother that our 45th president was not, in fact, the hero she believed him to be. Or, for that matter, that John F. Kennedy Jr. was dead. Or that Tom Hanks had not been executed for drinking the blood of children.

At some point last summer, my mom stopped telling me in advance when she was going to Trump rallies. ...

• • •

At this moment, we might think that the Q-obsessed would be becoming disillusioned by the failure of their prophecies. But a Los Angeles Times report emphasizes the capacity of this kind of unhinged thinking to change focus as its environment changes. Its trajectory leads to well-trodden and dangerous tropes:

At the start of the virus shutdowns, said [Joel] Finkelstein [director of Rutgers University’s Network Contagion Research Institute], much of the racially charged conspiracy dialogue centered around the virus originating in China and included “disgust” toward Asians, with leaders including Trump insisting on labeling it as the “kung flu” or “Chinese flu.”

Since the election, the anti-Asian sentiment has shifted to anxiety about worldwide dominance, specifically a communist overthrow of governments backed by Jewish people who control wealth. President Biden is seen as a pawn of these elites.

“The latest round seems to be motivated by the political dominance stuff,” Finkelstein said. “There is a huge component of this that China is taking over.” 

This stuff doesn't go away; it morphs. 

Still we can hope that if the promised post-pandemic economic boom really does turn up by the end of the year, some people will find happier objects for their imaginations. We can hope ...

Monday, March 22, 2021

QAnon in the 'hood?

It's easy to think this craziness is somewhere else -- until it isn't.

The Mission Mental Health facility down the block from us runs a walk-in COVID test site. People line up there all week; it's free and no appointment required. Friends who've used it appreciate the ease and respect the workers offer. 

Apparently someone doesn't like it.

Some graffiti protester apparently equates coronavirus testing with human trafficking. That's QAnon talk.

Imagine what they think of the Unidos en Salud Vaccination site around the block.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

We have to pay attention to U.S. policy toward China

Well before the atrocity in Atlanta, I began collecting material about the apparent bi-partisan agreement among U.S. elites that China was our Big Bad Enemy, a worthy opponent for a new Cold War. A declining empire needs a hate-object -- here we go again ...

In the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria pointed out that the fear of an Enemy props up the military budget:

Having spent two decades fighting wars in the Middle East without much success, the Pentagon will now revert to its favorite kind of conflict, a cold war with a nuclear power. It can raise endless amounts of money to “outpace” China, even if nuclear deterrence makes it unlikely there will be an actual fighting war in Asia. Of course, there might be budget wars in Washington — but those are the battles that the Pentagon knows how to win!

My most trusted Pentagon reporter observes too many generals wallowing in warlike glee:

... there is a difference between being clear-eyed and objective about China as a national security threat and treating China as if it were Sauron from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

It does not appear that anyone in the Pentagon realizes that a conflict with China would be a total war – which the United States has not waged since 1945. The last time the U.S. military fought a war of that scale in the Pacific, it ended with the world’s first nuclear strikes. 

There are far more nuclear weapons in the world today.

The pattern is familiar. Mark Hannah was writing about Afghanistan, but everything he says could apply to U.S. policy toward China. 

Despite promises to make foreign policy serve the interests of everyday Americans, many of Washington’s decisions are circumscribed by a professional culture among policymakers that normalizes war and idealizes military might.

... The people who make foreign policy tend to be walled off from public opinion and all too eager to conform to a bipartisan consensus that favors intervention over restraint. Washington isn’t solely to blame. American voters don’t often prioritize foreign policy during election season and so don’t exert the political influence they might. ...

If we don't start paying attention,  we could find our militarized imperial state in direct conflict with a rising China. 

Ian Johnson, whose The Souls of China took us past the posturing of leaders into Chinese daily life, offers some concrete prescriptions for U.S. polices that would leave the Trump anti-Chinese offensive behind.

What’s needed are immediate low-rent measures to reverse the downward spiral in the two countries’ relations. 
One, the Biden administration should offer to restart the Peace Corps and Fulbright scholarship programs in China, two key ways that Americans have learned about the country over the past decades. The Trump administration canceled both as part of an effort to isolate China. All that accomplished instead was to hurt America’s ability to train a new generation of scholars and analysts. 
Two, in exchange for this, the U.S. government should stop vilifying China’s Confucius Institutes as sinister propaganda machines. These are largely cultural centers and much like educational outposts from other countries trying to push a good image of themselves. ... 
Three, the Biden administration should allow back into the United States some of the scores of Chinese journalists expelled by the Trump administration last year — provided that Beijing also agrees to welcome again accredited journalists from American news organizations and commits to not harassing them. 
Four, the U.S. government should lift restrictions on visas for Chinese Communist Party members wanting to travel to the United States. The policy was crafted to protect Americans from the C.C.P.’s supposedly malign influence. But the party counts some 90 million members, the majority of whom are civil servants doing normal jobs, not followers of some evil cult that needs to be kept at bay. 
Finally, China should be invited to reopen its consulate in Houston, which the Trump team closed last year in retaliation for alleged espionage. In return, the Chinese government would allow the United States to reopen its consulate in Chengdu, which Beijing had closed in retaliation.

Yes -- China's violent attempt to eradicate the Uighur ethic group's culture and religion is probably properly called genocidal. Yes -- China's destruction of Hong Kong's democratic freedoms violates treaty obligations. Yes -- China's threats against Taiwan's chosen autonomy are insupportable. This is not a nice regime.

But when our elites make China the Big Bad Enemy, they are not serving the interests of most of us. They are certainly further endangering Americans of all Asian origins -- our know-nothings will consider all Asian Americans spawn of the Enemy. 

This is a bad game. During the Trump era, progressives of necessity took our gaze off U.S. foreign policy. But the creation of a new designated Enemy isn't good for any of us.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Solidarity rally in Chinatown's Portsmouth Square

We showed up for the victims of the massacre in Georgia and for all Asian American communities feeling the hate.
Shaw San Liu spoke for the Chinese Progressive Association which had called Saturday's rally.
We are hurt. We are angry. We are tired. We also know that in moments like this, we must call for action. We also need to come together to grieve and acknowledge the collective hurt and pain our community is feeling.
This is San Francisco -- we came in all kinds.

Some signs were utilitarian.
Others were clearly home-brewed.
Some were appropriately angry.

Some participants decorated the plaza; others wrote notes to the Atlanta Asian American community.

Some shared a lesson with a child who had their own message.

• • •

It felt novel after a year sheltering inside to be back rallying among one of my tribes, the activists who turn out in public. Several of us said to each other that we knew were acquainted with far more people present than we'd spoken with -- but couldn't identify them because of masks. This too will pass.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Friday cat blogging

That sharply curious stare is all very well, even attractive, when Janeway is watching the world from her house. If I got the same look while she is sitting on my lap -- one of her favorite things -- would she be about to jump up to lick my nose or nip at my chin? She's still a young thing, discerning boundaries, not always where we'd wish them.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Tech industrial hope and fantasy for Nevada

Working the election in Reno, NV in 2018 to snag another Democratic U.S. Senate Seat (that would be Jackie Rosen) and a Democratic governor (that's Steve Sisolak), I necessarily became interested in how the city and Washoe County functioned. The place was obviously changing fast. Once "the Biggest Little City in the World," a pitstop on Interstate 80 for California gamblers and outdoor adventurers, it was growing like mad. When we talked to voters, they complained about crowded schools, rising home prices, downtown construction, and increased numbers of unhoused people.

At the time, I realized I was seeing a new sort of economy, which I thought of as "tech industrial." Its crowning manifestation was Tesla's Gigafactory, touted as expected to add over 20,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. In the nondescript warehouses south of the town and the glitzy casinos, there were mysterious blockchain prospectors and server factories. Something was happening here. 

These days that Democratic Governor we helped elect has become a proponent of "Innovation Zone" legislation which would allow Blockchains LLC to build a new, 36,000 person city in nearby Storey County, current population a mere 4000 desert rats. The county doesn't want to be developed, at least this way. The state sees potential jobs and perhaps eventually revenue; the tech entrepreneurs would get the freedom to experiment, according to CEO Jeff Berns.  

“Now we’re saying to the state: ‘Look, the county doesn’t really want us to do this,'” Berns said. “This is the impact on our whole state of what we’re attempting to do. Yes, there are hundreds of things that can go wrong. But if it goes right, think of what it could mean for the state.” 
With Sisolak’s endorsement, Blockchains is asking lawmakers to establish new laws that would allow wealthy developers with an innovative technology and large land holdings to break away from existing counties and create a new local government, known as an “Innovation Zone.” 
Blockchains, which controls about 67,000 acres of land outside of Reno and recently purchased water rights, wants to build a technology park and new city along the Truckee River that would incubate blockchain technology, which offers a decentralized form of information storage that experts say is more secure and could give individuals more authority over their data.
The new city would set up its own local government, apparently run on the company's blockchain-based currency, and generally promises to be something new -- and profitable -- under the sun. 

Not surprisingly, there are critics. Environmentalists worry about where the new city would get its water. This is, after all, a desert. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is concerned that the Blockchain project would hinder their restoration efforts which seek to repair the lake. (EARTH FOCUS: The New West and the Politics of the Environment is a wonderful Nevada film that tells that story.)  

And, there's the fact that Berns has been a major political supporter to Governor Sisolak, helping to fund his campaign.

Berns said he approached state officials because the company’s plans, if successful, could have a significant fiscal impact on the state. With plans to launch a digital currency tied to the dollar, Blockchains said it would charge a micro-fee on transactions that could generate revenue.
... “My vision for this is a place where people can come to create,” he said. “In innovating new ideas, you have failing. That’s just the nature of innovation. We have failed probably 50 times already on what we’re trying to develop. So I want to create a place where that’s OK.” The goal with the Innovation Zone is to create a place to develop new blockchain technology.
Whether Berns and his buddy Sisolak have a chance to subject Nevada to this vision remains to be seen. The state legislature has to sign on and Nevada has many competing interests. But in a state whose paradigmatic urban center is Las Vegas (with 85 percent of the population), betting on hope and fantasy comes naturally. Maybe the tech industrial vision being peddled outside Reno will make a go of it. 

Steven Colbert thinks not -- he thinks this scheme is a classic "Uh Oh!" It's worth watching through the intro to get Colbert's take on the story.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

San Francisco's big dick does right by voting rights

Wherever you go in this city, the still-novel Salesforce Tower looms.

Salesforce, the data/software company has an important presence in Atlanta. It has announced unequivocal support for inclusive voting rights, against the Republican push for suppression in Georgia, according to Judd Legum

The news came by tweet

A person’s right to cast their ballot is the foundation of our democracy. Georgia HB 531 would limit trustworthy, safe & equal access to voting by restricting early voting & eliminating provisional ballots. That’s why Salesforce opposes HB 531 as it stands.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

On flipping states toward democracy

The corporate campaign to push back against Republican voter suppression legislation is on in Georgia. This billboard targeting one of Atlanta's biggest businesses was paid for by the New Georgia Project which is leading the resistance to GOPer efforts to crush democracy when they don't like the results of people voting. The sort of ant-democratic voting rules they are pushing are only a little less violent than the 1/6 assault on the Capitol. I mean, outlawing giving out water to people waiting in long lines to vote? 

In a recent interview with the Times' Kara Swisher, Georgia voting rights leader Stacey Abrams explained the strategic insight which led to the creation of the New Georgia Project. All of us concerned with organizing ourselves for more effective progressive politics can learn from her.

I am part of a coalition of organizations. I would say I had a bit of a lead in the process in that I helped to secure tens of millions of dollars for the state of Georgia. I have been a clarion demanding attention for the state for about a decade. I helped build infrastructure and invest in organizations. I mean, one thing that Lauren [Groh-Wargo, Abrams' political director/side-kick] and I are always very intentional about is when we raise money, we share our resources. So when we did the New Georgia Project back in 2014, we took a quarter of a million dollars and made sure we gave it to other organizations that weren’t going to have access to the resources we did. 
In 2020 and 2021, we shelled out more than $25 million to other organizations. And so my posture is that, yes, I had a leadership role in this, and in a lot of ways became sort of the avatar for what happened. But what I always want people to remember is that it took a coalition of organizations more than a decade to get us here.

Swisher: So what did you learn from Georgia 2020 that you think would help turn states blue? How do you scale? 

Abrams: There’s scaling, and then there’s replication. Sometimes you scale an organization so that the organization just expands its service map. 

And sometimes you replicate it in the franchise system. And instead, you say here are the benchmarks, here are the metrics, and here are the resources you need, but then you allow each franchisee to adapt to where they are. Changing a state is a franchise model. It’s not a scaling model. 

And our responsibility, my responsibility is to make certain that any franchisee of democracy, plus any franchisees of Democratic transformation, big D, that they have the building blocks they need as a franchise would. But my intention is not the scaling notion. That is, I should not be making the decisions —

She's talking about creating and aiding organizations that are rooted in their places and can, with investment of sweat and money, turn their places in a progressive direction.

Abrams: ... you got to figure out what your opportunities are where you are. Then the building blocks are the same. The building blocks are, you’ve got to build political power within your actual party. Your party has to be effective. You have to understand what the party is and what the party isn’t. You have to have political leaders that are willing to take risks and work with other political leaders, not worrying about who gets the credit. 

You’ve got to raise absurd amounts of money, but that money can be raised. And part of the conversation we’re having is with donors that they need to invest in places and understand that investment cannot be a one-off, and they cannot only show up during elections. 

You’ve got to work with the grassroots organizations and recognize that they don’t have to have the exact same methodology that you have. But they have to have a combined ethos and an intentionality of working together. And then you have to wash, rinse, repeat, and evaluate what you did that worked and what you did that didn’t work and whose fault it was.

She has proved she knows whereof she speaks.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Hell and damnation

Whatever you do, don't venture into a theological controversy with David Bentley Hart. You might find your eviscerated remains wiped across the floor by this professor's erudition and argumentative prowess.

That passion and skill makes for a delicious little volume, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation, which destroys the intellectual and moral underpinnings of Christian enthusiasm for belief in eternal damnation of souls. Hart will have none of it; fear of hell may be a useful threat when wielded by church and state seeking to control fractious humans, but it is neither scriptural and nor patristic, nor, in his view, healthy.

He maintains:
There have been Christian "universalists" -- Christians that is who believe that, in the end, all persons will be saved and joined to God in Christ -- since the earliest centuries of the faith. ... the universalist faction was at its most numerous .. in the church's first half millennium. ...In the early centuries these were not, for the most part, an especially eccentric company. They cherished the same scriptures as other Christians, worshiped in the same basilicas, lived the same sacramental lives. They even believed in hell, though not in its eternity; to them, hell was the fire of purification ... the healing assault of unyielding divine love upon obdurate souls ...
But as the Christian church became the state and vice versa, especially in the West, the doctrine of eternal damnation of those souls who had rejected, or somehow flunked, salvation became orthodoxy. Hart knows he's up against a potent received "truth."
I find it a very curious feeling, I admit, to write a book that is at odds with a body of received opinion so well established that I know I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything, except perhaps of my sincerity. ... I suspect that those who are already sympathetic to my position will approve of my argument to the extent that they think it successfully expresses their own views, or something proximate to them, while those who disagree (by far the larger party) will either dismiss it or (if they are very boring indeed) try to refute it by reasserting the traditional majority position in any number of very predictable, very shopworn manners. 
Some, for instance, will claim that universalism clearly contradicts the explicit language of scripture (it does not). Others will argue that universalism was decisively condemned as heretical by the fifth Ecumenical Council (it was not). The more adventurous will take what they take to be stronger versions of those same philosophical defenses of the idea of an eternal hell that I describe and reject in these pages. The most adventurous of all might attempt to come up with new arguments of their own (which is not advisable).  
... there is, at least, something liberating about knowing that I have probably lost the rhetorical contest before it has even begun. It spares me the effort of feigning tentativeness or moderation or judicious doubt, in the daintily and soberly ceremonious way one is generally expected to, and allows me instead to advance my claims in as unconstrained a manner as possible ...
Hart finds the idea of eternal damnation, what he labels "infernalism"  both wrong and repulsive, incompatible with belief that God is good.
... I certainly cannot believe what I find intrinsically unbelievable. I have never had much respect for the notion of the blind leap of faith, even when that leap is made in the direction of something beautiful and ennobling. I certainly cannot respect it when it is made in the direction of something intrinsically loathsome and degrading. And I believe that this is precisely what the infernalist position, no matter what form it takes, necessarily involves. ... 
... Let me, at least, shamelessly idealize the distant past for a moment. In its dawn, the gospel was a proclamation principally of a divine victory that had been won over death and sin, and over the spiritual powers of rebellion against God that dwell on high, and here below, and under the earth. It announced itself truly as the "good tidings" of a campaign of divine rescue on the part of a loving God ... it was, above all, a joyous proclamation, and a call to a lost people to find their true home at last ... It did not initially make its appeal to human hearts by forcing them to revert to some childish or bestial cruelty latent in their natures; rather it sought to awaken them to a new form of life, one whose premise was charity. Nor was it a religion offering only a psychological salve for individual anxieties regarding personal salvation. It was a summons to a new and corporate way of life, salvation by entry into a community of love.

 • • •

Anyone who has read this far will have guessed that I'm among the "already sympathetic" who find Hart expressing my views, eloquently. I think, until very recently, it was probably pretty much impossible for any sort of queer person to get anything out of Christianity unless we could slough off the notion of eternal damnation. After all, how to believe in a good, benevolent God/creator, if She had damned what She had made -- that is, damned us? Most of us sloughed off God; some sloughed off eternal damnation.

• • •

While I'm on the topic of how it's all good, here is some bonus home truth from Lutheran minister and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber:

What I am saying is that faith is optional. It really is. Just like gratitude, faith is not an obligation, it’s an invitation. It’s not the cost, it’s the gift.  
... My friend James says that faith is relaxing. Relaxing in the presence of God in the way we do when we are in the presence of someone we are certain is fond of us. Perhaps that is true praise of God, trusting that there is no extra credit to be had. No ranking to be jostled for. No worthiness to be earned. No one to vote off the island so that I have a place. We can all relax, and have our actions explained in the kindest way possible. Thanks be to God, Amen. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

She's a winner

click to enlarge

Look at that determination! In Nizhny Tagil, Russia, our courtesy niece, Tara Geraghty-Moats -- the world's best Women's Nordic Combined competitor -- just won the final Continental Cup event of a difficult year. Competing around Europe in this pandemic year hasn't been a picnic. 

I've written before about what it takes to make a world class athlete.

After the competition, she's a picture of grace -- which is what it takes to stay sane at that level.

In which a journalist makes a fool of himself ...

Now the administration does have to do something for those kids, though.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

How are you doing?

Artist's impression
It's easy for me to feel at this moment that the pandemic is turning a corner. My second shot will be fully activated by early next week -- I know enough to know that I'm finally at very, very low risk of getting sick with COVD. Yippee!!

But the next few months might be disturbing. Something like a half to three quarters or more of people over 55 will have immunity, while most younger people will remain unvaccinated,  Are the generations going to resent each other? Will the disparity make us uneasy -- a little crazy -- in new and as yet unknown ways?

Mulling these issues, I particularly miss my friend Ronni Bennett who for 15 years built a community which shared notes on getting older, built on the truth that every person ages in their own way and time. She'd have plumbed this discrepancy; I can but try.

Back at the beginning of January, social scientists were expressing some astonishment with how well old people were doing through lockdown, isolation, and fear of infection.

A surprise of the pandemic has been how well many older adults have adapted to the restrictions. “There’s crisis competence,” said Mark Brennan-Ing, a senior research scientist at Hunter College’s Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging. “As we get older, we get the sense that we’re going to be able to handle it, because we’ve been able to handle challenges in the past. You know you get past it. These things happen, but there’s an end to it, and there’s a life after that.
”While people of all ages have struggled this year, those 65 and up are still more likely to rate their mental health as excellent compared with people under 50. ...
John Leland's article, from which I've pulled this quote, is a sweet story of a particular elder's coping experience. If you missed it, take a look.

This week, as we move into what we believe and hope is the pandemic endgame, we get a report of a broad social science study comparing the emotional health and elders and younger folks during the time of the disease.

... psychologists at the University of British Columbia exhaustively surveyed some 800 adults of all ages in the first couple of months of the pandemic — and found the same thing.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an outbreak of ageism, in which public discourse has portrayed older adults as a homogeneous, vulnerable group,” the authors conclude. “Our investigation of the daily life amid the outbreak suggests the opposite: Older age was associated with less concern about the threat of Covid-19, better emotional well-being, and more daily positive events.” ... Older people, especially those with some resources, have more ability than younger adults to soften the edges of a day, by paying for delivery, hiring help, staying comfortably homebound and — crucially — doing so without young children underfoot.
That feels right. Some of us -- I'm one -- can truly say we've had a pretty good pandemic. Sure, my habits and plans have been disrupted. Participating in church on zoom isn't what I consider quite the real thing (though that's narrow minded of me.)  I wasn't able to go out of state to work on the fall election, but -- after things got organized -- phoning became reasonably well-done and perhaps efficacious for voter turnout. So I did that. Since January 5, I've focused on Walking San Francisco, completing in two and half months about the amount of the city I might have walked by July in a different year. Not a bad pandemic here.

I expect the next phase to be confusing. I'm already chafing at having to wear a mask while walking outside. But I accept that solidarity demands this, even if the science might not, until more people are vaccinated.

A group of old women I'm part of that has not had our face-to-face meetings for a year decided we weren't ready to get together in the same room, even though we're all vaccinated. There's a learned hesitancy we'll have to overcome. 

On the other hand, I expect to see older friends in person and inside without masks during this coming week -- we're all fully vaccinated. 

The interruptions in younger people's lives have been so much more drastic than has been the case for elders who don't live with children; they've suffered remote school, no graduation celebrations, no casual socializing, deferred weddings, delayed first jobs ... It's going to be incumbent on elders to ask, how are they doing? People are resilient, but this has been hard.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Friday cat blogging

The blog has visitors today. These beauties live with my cousin Krista, her partner Betsy, and their sons. Krista writes:

We are crazy cat ladies, and it is actually Betsy's fault. We had Hazel (brown tabby) and we thought she needed a friend. So our vet tech offered us a mommy and baby, Ginger and Sheldon (tortoise shell-ish and grey tabby), and Betsy said "Yes!" Now here we are with cats everywhere....

And lovely animals they are. Someday this pandemic will be over and we might get to meet them. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Don't let the sponsors off the hook

Georgians struggling to preserve their access to the ballot against a deluge of state voter suppression bills know where Republican politicians' weak spots are: among their corporate funders. 

Here's Nsé Ufot from the New Georgia Project Action Fund:

Some of the country’s biggest corporations are getting away with a stunning level of deception in Georgia. 

Companies like Coca-Cola, Delta, UPS, and AT&T have made a public show of supporting voting rights, and the rights of Black voters in particular. With splashy ads and Black History Month campaigns, they’ve tried to curry favor with customers by trading on the history of the Civil Rights Movement and portraying themselves as allies of its modern-day equivalent. 

But behind the scenes, these same corporations have been donating millions of dollars to the politicians who continue to spout racist lies about the 2020 election and who are working feverishly, right now, to roll voting laws back to the Jim Crow era and silence the voices of thousands of Georgia’s voters. 

These companies cannot have it both ways. It’s time for them to take a stand. They either support the freedom to vote or they do not. We will no longer accept empty rhetoric....

In many states where Republican legislators have believed themselves free to roll back civil rights, calling out their corporate ties is a tried and true tactic. Big national corporations often care more about their national brand and "good will" than about retrograde local politicians. 

In Georgia in 2016, LGBT activists fought off a discriminatory anti-gay bill with help from the Walt Disney Co., Marvel Studios, AMC, and Viacom. Georgia's governor decided he didn't want to face a boycott by dozens of pop culture stars.

Arizona, which also flipped from GOPer to Democratic in the 2020 presidential election, is another target for voter suppression by a Republican legislature. Arizona also has experience with corporate push back against right wing state policies. In the early 1990s, this then very conservative state refused to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday -- and the NFL removed a Super Bowl from Phoenix. In 2014, American Airlines and Marriott hotels joined the opposition to a bill allow discrimination against gays.

This year, Popular Information reports that major Arizona political donors including Union Pacific and Prudential Financial have pushed back against the current restrictive bills. Others have not taken a pro-inclusive voting stance, including Pinnacle West (the Phoenix area electric power provider), Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Farmers Insurance.  

Campaigns to expose corporate sponsors of right wing power grabs have a good track record.

And, of course, Democrats in Congress must pass the For the People Act to stop most all these anti-democratic shenanigans.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Working during the pandemic

Follow up on the topic of how people find dignity in work: I recommend Ann Larson's My Pandemic Year Behind the Checkout Counter very highly. Grocery clerks may be "essential," but they sure feel expendable and expended. Some excerpts:

... Vox advised readers to “pick up groceries at the curbside” instead of going into the store, as if the desired items just assemble themselves.

The Times reporter’s way of disappearing low-wage employees from a scenario that actually features them was even more striking. “Some stores,” she wrote, “sanitize the carts several times a day as part of their regular cleaning procedures.” This is correct. At my workplace, shopping carts are sanitized after each use. However, they are not sanitized by the “store,” but by people who are paid between $10 and $12 per hour to do so.  

... A good percentage of customers at my store know that my colleagues and I are doing a dangerous job that they are grateful not to have to do themselves. Some even take time to say thanks. But gratitude is not the same as solidarity. In fact, it may be its opposite. Gratitude allows a profoundly unequal situation to continue as long as its beneficiaries are nice about it.

... One customer even sniped at a bagger, an 80-year-old woman who was working my line. “Stop touching my groceries!” he yelled. When [the bagger] walked away in frustration, he turned to me and said, “We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” as if I needed to be reminded. I don’t think it would have helped to inform him that, before a customer purchases a grocery item, it has already been touched by multiple people, including those who work in my store between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. unloading trucks and stocking shelves. For people like him, in that moment, the world is already divided up neatly and correctly into people who have to work at grocery stores and people who don’t.

Read it all.

Working for a living

Yves Smith has posted Erudite Partner's latest column, What Makes a "Good Job" Good? at Naked Capitalism, an influential financial news and information blog.

She adds an extensive and satisfyingly acerbic comment on the topic of work:

... don’t tell me you plan to become a subsistence farmer. Report back to me after you’ve killed and cleaned your own deer and are figuring out how to cook it. It’s very bloody business.

My gene pool on my father’s side for >10 generations until his grandparents was entirely Yankee farmers and fishermen. Living off the land or sea is hard work, as in “hard on your body” work. And even then, they used implements made by others: knives, butter churns, plows, tillers, anchors and rope, sails.

In other words, you have to go to lower than Little House on the Prairie standards of living to escape the modern paradigm of paid, specialized labor providing goods and services for use by others.

Similarly, a lot of what makes work valuable is not so much the task but having some measure of control over your tasks or pacing of your day, how well you are paid, and the amount of respect you are accorded. I grew up in a series of paper mill towns. The mill employees had status in their communities. They produced the paper for the stock and covers of major magazines like Time (they much later went to lighter grades of paper to save money); they could buy a house, support stay-at-home wives and kids, and regularly had a small “camp” house in the woods on a lake or owned a boat. Friends of mine from those days often went to college; one became a full professor, another went to Harvard on scholarship (I ran into her my freshman year).

Or think of being a receptionist, a role that has been disappeared at most firms. The ones I know even now take pride at being a face of their employer. They exchange pleasantries with visitors and sometimes have to make excuses as to why their host was running late. Or how about one of Lambert’s early jobs, of putting books back on shelves at his library, or my having a paper route? I enjoyed my delivery duties and wouldn’t mind doing something like that even now if I didn’t have to earn more to cover my expenses. ...

If you liked or were intrigued by Rebecca Gordon's essay, go read all of Smith's commentary.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Preserving democracy through the ballot

President Biden marked the anniversary of Selma's Bloody Sunday in 1965 -- when Alabama state troopers broke up a peaceful civil rights march with clubs, whips and horses -- with a strong call to protect every citizen's right to vote.

“The legacy of the march in Selma is that while nothing can stop a free people from exercising their most sacred power as citizens, there are those who will do everything they can to take that power away,... Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have it counted, ... If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let more people vote.”

Today, the Republican Party has become the enemy of inclusive voting rights. They don't believe they can win if everyone can vote. GOPers have introduced 253 state laws to make voting harder. One version just passed Monday in Iowa. Some really bad state laws are advancing in Georgia.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives has passed, and sent to the Senate, the For the People Act which would create nationwide rules for open and fair federal elections by outlawing many of the tactics that Republicans are using to make voting harder. There's going to be a knock-down, drag-out process which will reveal whether the tiny Democratic majority will act to protect democracy. They'll have to be willing to modify the filibuster rule which enables a minority to block legislation; Senators fear any change would lessen their individual power. Are they for the people, or for their own quaint privileges?

This process is likely to be confusing, so I thought I'd reproduce here an exhaustive catalog from DailyKos Elections of what's in the bill that will be generating all this noise and fury. It's a lot of positive changes. I've divided the list so the various categories of changes are grouped:

Using Congress’ power to regulate Senate and House elections under the Elections Clause and enforce anti-discrimination laws under the 14th Amendment, the bill would:

            Drawing district boundaries: 

    •    Require states to establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions for congressional redistricting;
    •    Establish nonpartisan redistricting criteria such as a partisan fairness provision that courts can enforce starting immediately no matter what institution draws the maps;

    •    Establish automatic voter registration at an array of state agencies;
    •    Establish same-day voter registration;
    •    Allow online voter registration;
    •    Allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register so they'll be on the rolls when they turn 18;
    •    Allow state colleges and universities to serve as registration agencies;
    •    Ban states from purging eligible voters' registration simply for infrequent voting;
           Polling places and procedures:

    •    Establish two weeks of in-person early voting, including availability on Sundays and outside of normal business hours;
    •    Standardize hours within states for opening and closing polling places on Election Day, with exceptions to let cities set longer hours in municipal races;
    •    Require paper ballots filled by hand or machines that use them as official records and let voters verify their choices;
    •    Grant funds to states to upgrade their election security infrastructure;

           Voting by mail:

    •    Provide prepaid postage on mail ballots;
    •    Allow voters to turn in their mail ballot in person if they choose;
    •    Allow voters to track their absentee mail ballots;

           Voting rights for prisoners:

    •    End prison gerrymandering by counting prisoners at their last address (rather than where they're incarcerated) for the purposes of redistricting;
    •    End felony disenfranchisement for those on parole, probation, or post-sentence, and require such citizens to be supplied with registration forms and informed their voting rights have been restored; 
Campaign finance:

    •    Provide public financing for House campaigns in the form of matching small donations at a six-for-one rate;
    •    Expand campaign finance disclosure requirements to mitigate Citizens United;
    •    Ban corporations from spending for campaign purposes unless the corporation has established a process for determining the political will of its shareholders;

Honest administration:

    •    Make it a crime to mislead voters with the intention of preventing them from voting.

That's a lot of new rules. People in California already vote under a voting regime much like this, as do quite a few blue states. It's taken some years to get this huge state onto this system; election administration has become more and more professional despite being underfunded. 

There's no reason except that Republicans think it gives them an advantage that any eligible citizens should find voting hard, anywhere in this country.