Tuesday, January 31, 2023

What we feel doesn't agree with the numbers

There's all sorts of evidence that the U.S. economy is humming along happily. Many economic indicators say we've recovered from the terrible bottom this fictional entity plunged to during the pandemic. People are working and earning. Heather Cox Richardson wrote last week:

The December jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that job growth continues strong. The country added 223,000 jobs in December, and the unemployment rate went down slightly to 3.5 percent. The last two years of job growth are the strongest on record, and the country has recovered all the jobs lost during the pandemic. According to the White House, 10.7 million jobs were created and a record 10.5 million small businesses’ applications were filed in the past two years.

On Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that median weekly earnings rose 7.4% last year, slightly faster than inflation. For Black Americans employed full time, the median rise was 11.3% over 2021. A median Hispanic or Latino worker’s income saw a 4.8% raise, to $837 a week. Young workers, between 16 and 24, saw their weekly income rise more than 10%. Also seeing close to a 10% weekly rise were those in the bottom tenth of wage earners, those making about $570 a week. The day after the Wall Street Journal’s roundup, Walmart, which employs 1.7 million people in the U.S., announced it would raise its minimum wage to $14 an hour, up from $12.

All true, but, somehow, many of us find it hard to believe these are good times. 

Economist Paul Krugman has noticed the disjunction between the statistics and what we believe. He asked in the NYTimes, Will Americans Even Notice an Improving Economy?

Political observer Brian Beutler knows something is out of kilter:

The reality of our strong economy has not defined perceptions of it, which have tended to resemble doom-laced political reporting and outright propaganda, rather than raw data gathered by government agencies and other researchers. A huge percentage of Americans believes that the country is in the midst of a recession. [It's not.]

It shouldn't be surprising that the various information media -- even if they aren't in tank for the Republicans -- should overestimate the bad economic news. That's what attracts an audience.

Here in San Francisco, I find it not surprising that people feel the economy sucks. We've been living a tech boom for a decade, so big layoffs in the sector feel scary and novel (and crummy for the people laid off). A young man in our household is part of the collateral damage of tech retrenchment. He'll be able to find another job, but it's tough that he has to.

Further, this city has not fully recovered from the pandemic bust. Downtown S.F. still has North America’s weakest pandemic recovery, reports the Chron.

And out in the 'hood, Mission Street sure doesn't look like it is experiencing a vibrant recovery.

Maybe the vacancies and boarded up storefronts are just normal urban churn, but it sure feels as if something died and has not yet been replaced.

There's no local election this year in which to take out our sense of gloom and doom on our office holders. But 2024 could be something of a local earthquake if the powers-that-be can't help the city feel as if it is humming again.

Pedestrians: proceed defensively

Watch the cops try to catch the car ... this is a nine month old video, but still worth a look. Sure, it's amusing, but not reassuring. 

San Francisco has been a test site for driverless cabs. There is apparently no requirement that incidents and screw-ups be reported anywhere. The Chron has a good map of where driverless cars have been known to "cause mayhem." I particularly noted the story of several of these cars blocking Mission Street and the Muni buses for no discernible reason on the north side of Bernal Heights.

The self-driving car industry is going after their real prize in Sacramento: state approval for self-driving semi-trucks on California highways. Naturally the Teamsters Union wants a requirement for human drivers to ride along; gotta protect their members, as well they should. 

I'm not sure that any portion of the state regulatory apparatus has a mandate to protect pedestrians, cyclists and other non-vehicle users of the streets. 

Walk San Francisco is a nonprofit trying to do the job. They are urging a series of defensive measures on the city, some of which I have noticed while driving about.

Click to enlarge.
As I get less nimble, I'm paying attention.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Lessons from a wise woman

Sherrilyn Ifill led the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, serving from 2013-2022. Because we have not found a way to provide safety to all without empowering killer cops, wise women like Ifill have to explain it all again, over and over, amidst trauma and grief. It's hard to say anything remotely helpful after something like the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. But Ifill tries:

What has been most successful is the building of a movement of people who work every day to reimagine a new kind of public safety. Most people who are not afraid to imagine that our lives could really matter, now agree that the current system cannot be reformed and must be made over. Indeed it seems inevitable. The under-staffing and recruiting failures of police departments around the country demonstrate that no matter how much money is thrown at policing, the work itself has lost its appeal to a significant number of young people and is unlikely to reconstitute itself in the same form.

That is the moment that we are in. The outrage is perhaps even more intense, albeit less inclined to express itself in mass protest. It is combined now with the growing sense that the current system is simply not sustainable. The failure of the police response in Uvalde, and the lack of support shown by the most rabid pro-police political factions towards the Capitol Police officers assaulted on January 6th, 2021 has been a huge blow to law enforcement that will have repercussions for years to come, as will the revelations of infiltration by openly white supremacists groups into law enforcement agencies. Unraveling mythologies is a long process. But once it starts, the end is inevitable.

... Where should we assign blame for continued police violence? On the failure of the movements created by racial minorities to resist police brutality? On crime within our own communities, and some suggest? Yes, violent crime is real, and felt most profoundly in minority communities. We want solutions more than anyone, but refuse to believe that we must surrender our dignity and the lives of our sons and brothers to police violence, in exchange for protection from violent crime.

... Black Lives Matter continues to be a rallying cry for the very reason that the phrase became so popular. Every new police killing or beating of innocent Black people reinforces that in this country our lives are afforded little respect - especially when what is at stake is the myth of white supremacy that lionizes armed white men and distressed white women, and protects at all costs white masculinity and property and power structures. ... there is one thing about which I’m sure: the way forward to ending the white supremacy that fuels systemic police violence at this moment, begins with white people.

San Franciscans: note that the SFPD claims it cannot fill its vacancies, despite all the money we throw at the force. Meanwhile, Chief Scott and the POA fight even minimal reforms. And yet residents feel fearful of crime. This isn't working. Unraveling mythologies, perhaps?

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Bird sighting

I went for a walk in the park. So did this great blue heron -- a juvenile I think. We paced along beside each other for a stretch.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Friday cat blogging

I often post pictures of Janeway in undignified postures, so I feel an obligation to offer here the household's ruler at her most matronly and almost regal. The kittenish looks and behavior are not entirely gone. But at three years old, she's becoming fully adult. No less imperious, though.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Where's the moral responsibility? How can we see it?

As a side effect of trying to learn more about the Ukraine war, I've watched all of historian Timothy Snyder's Yale course on the convoluted history of that country. It's free and well worth your time.

I also branched out to read Snyder's broader account of the Nazi "final solution," Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. This is a horrifying volume advancing a tendentious thesis about the criminal destruction of European Jews. I find his approach both convincing and possibly not fully proven, despite Snyder's evident command of the incidents of the atrocity. I don't know whether I'll ever feel I have enough background to write about my questions. Or whether I have the stomach to acquire that background. But I feel drawn into this historiographic discussion by encountering Snyder.

Meanwhile, here's a short exposition of his view that we must understand the Holocaust as history in a particular time, place, and institutional framework. The center of Snyder's thesis is that Nazi destruction of states was what made mass murder possible, while Nazi anthropology made it necessary. From there he engages to the ethical questions this historical perspective raises.

"When we get down to the question of why people collaborate, or why people in some way take part in the murder of their Jewish neighbors, we can't really handle that question without talking about the material and legal reality. ..."

".. if we treat this only as memory, it becomes a matter of respect for something that we don't really understand anymore."

All this has left me attuned to contemporary discussions of personal moral and practical responsibility when the state which we would call our own acts badly or even evilly. (Yes, I'm from the Vietnam generation. Many of us stewed in this as young people and some of us have never stopped.)

I thought I'd share a couple of interesting current tidbits from this discussion:

At the academic blog Crooked Timber, a commenter chimed in with this:

As an earnest young undergraduate I went to see Die Weisse Rose with friends, all of us not knowing what to expect. We were not alone in not leaving the theatre for quite some time after the credits rolled. We sat there literally stunned into silence and a discomforting degree of introspection. On our way home, finally, I reminded my friends of a comment aimed at western commentators in general that had very recently been offered by, I think, either Natan Sharansky or Andrei Sakharov: “The question is not, whose side are you on? The question is, whose side would you be on in our situation?” I was not alone in coming away from Die Weisse Rose knowing whose side I should have been on but now, thanks to the power of the film, quite unsure whose side I would have been on had I been in that situation, given the courage and integrity the right answer would have required.
This week the New York Times passed on a fascinating story about the controversy stirred by a Dutch museum which tried to display a balanced picture of both resistance and collaboration with the Nazi occupation of 1940-1944.
The Netherlands lost a higher percentage of its Jewish population than any other country in Western Europe. Nearly 75 percent of Dutch Jews — a total of 102,200 — were deported and murdered during the war, while in neighboring Belgium the number was closer to 40 percent, and in France 25 percent.

... [Liesbeth van der Horst, the museum’s director] agreed that the Dutch resistance was diffuse, “but some people may be surprised that there was more resistance than they realized.” However, she said, the museum sought to show that resisting the Nazis was difficult. “In the face of a threatening dictatorial regime, it’s not easy to just act,” she said.

... The exhibit portrays the lives of victims and perpetrators, bystanders and resisters, “and everything in between,” said Liesbeth van der Horst, the museum’s director, in an interview. “We wanted to tell the story of all the Dutch people.” 
“Sometimes people judge too easily, in hindsight,” she added. “They say, ‘More people should have been involved in the resistance,’ and ‘They didn’t do enough.’ Of course, it’s true, they didn’t do enough, but it was not that easy to do enough. You had to be prepared to die if you wanted to go into the resistance.”

In Black Earth, Snyder briefly applies his historical thesis to the Dutch occupation; this is both plausible and the sort of tendentious fitting of fact to thesis that his book leaves me wondering about.

The Netherlands was ... the closest approximation to statelessness in Western Europe. ... There was no head of state once Queen Wilhelmina left for London in May 1940. The Dutch government followed her into exile. The bureaucracy, in effect decapitated, was left with instructions to behave in a way that would serve the Dutch nation. Uniquely in western Europe, the SS sought and attained fundamental control of domestic policy. ... The Dutch police, like the Polish police, was ... directly subordinate to the German occupier. ... In the Netherlands, all religions had been organized into communities for purposes of legal recognition, and all citizens were registered according to religion. This meant Germans could make use of precise preexisting lists of Jewish citizens. Dutch citizens protested, but it made little difference. ... The Dutch were treated as citizens of an occupied country, unless they were Jewish. ...
I study history's horrors to engage the moral issues which events and actors raise. None of us know how we would react if push came to shove. And none of us want to find out.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Can we just grow up?

It's the most banned book in the country so naturally I asked my public library for a copy. Happily, the San Francisco Public Library obliged within a week.

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, a graphic novel, is a sweet, relentlessly positive young adult account of trying to figure out sex and gender. It currently has many homophobes and misogynists in a tizzy.

Considering the book has been around almost 10 years, it's a little surprising that Governor Ron DeSantis's Florida should have gone ballistic about it last year, condemning it as a danger to kids.

Oh well, young people will find out what they need to find out regardless of adult anxieties. Adults can make this easier or harder. The availability of books like Maia's may make it easier for some.

A couple of comments on this highly recommended volume:
• Maia describes parents, family, and a community that seems amazingly supportive of e's exploration of a non-conforming identity. We can hope that such an environment is available to many people -- and I certainly see more of this around me. But most gender non-conforming people are still certainly not so lucky. Those of us who feel stable in where our gender identities have landed owe it to the searchers to provide as much support and acceptance as we can.

• Maia defaults to approving the (to my mind) pseudo-scientific view that felt gender and sexual identities are genetically determined. That is: "We're born this way." It's a convenient notion while struggling for social acceptance. And I'm sure this is true for some; but I am also profoundly aware that social and power dynamics influence how people can express their inner felt identities and that, in different social circumstances, people have and will make different accommodations. Often this is and has been literally about survival.
Finally, here's a panel from this book -- juvenile Maia's reaction to discovering that eir Mom thinks e can't swim without a bathing suit top. It captures the naive truth about gender norms that I wish we could all preserve:

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

"Nature red in tooth and claw" on Bartlett Street

Neighbors gathered round yesterday to watch a hawk dismember what seemed to have been a pigeon, judging by feathers that floated down from the electric pole. The light fixture made a perfect dining table for the predator. The hawk seemed undisturbed by the audience, just doing what hawks do, per the line from Alfred Tennyson quoted in the title.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

After the deluge

Sticking their heads up amidst the indefatigable oxalis in the front yard. Though I've lived in this state nearly fifty years, I still find daffodils in January a little shocking.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Solution looks pretty simple to me

Times econ columnist Peter Coy passes on a chart that we might all keep in mind while the Republican Congress plays games about letting the government pay its bills:

If we're worried about having enough money to pay the government's bills, we know where to find it. There are people who have more wealth than they need. Elizabeth Warren had it right: we should be taxing wealth. Not to the extent of confiscating it, but enough. "Enough" is a concept which capitalism (organized anti-social greed) destroys. We need to retrieve it.

• • •

And no, this has nothing to do with the "debt ceiling" which is an arbitrary piece of nonsense generations of legislators have allowed to infest our law-making processes. They voted (or didn't) to incur some bills under budgets they passed. The United States has historically most always borrowed to pay its bills and this hasn't sunk the country yet. Our vast economic engine has made the country a good bet for lenders who need a safe place to park money. Republicans are willing to trash that by reneging on our promises to pay --- for what purpose? Perhaps an appearance on Fox or approval from Victor Orban? 

Do your damn jobs!

Friday, January 20, 2023

Friday cat blogging

If we were perfect humans, we'd let Janeway go outside and chase mice and other critters. She tries to escape if we are incautious about opening doors. But we're big meanies who want to keep her alive. We don't know whether we can trust her to take on prey her own size.

A friend sent her a holiday present which gives her some release for her instinct to disembowel small animals. What is it about catnip that sets cats off? I suppose Google could tell me, but I'll just post the question.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Not going to happen, but consider the implications

Having written yesterday about how novel tax, currency, and banking measures adopted by President Lincoln's 1961 Unionist Congress put the country on track to become a 19th and 20th century economic colossus, it comes as no surprise to me that contemporary Republican Congress clowns are trying to undo these Civil War-era structures. That they don't believe in the full citizenship of all of us should be obvious; that they don't have the faintest notion how the economy that enriches them and their donors functions might be a little less obvious.

Here's historian and Substacker-extraordinaire Heather Cox Richardson explaining:

One of the promises House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made to the extremist members of the Republican conference to win his position was that he would let them bring the so-called Fair Tax Act to the House floor for a vote. On January 8, Representative Earl “Buddy” Carter (R-GA) introduced the measure into Congress.

The measure repeals all existing income taxes, payroll taxes, and estate and gift taxes, replacing them with a flat national sales tax of 30% on all purchased goods, rents, and services  ...The measure abolishes the Internal Revenue Service, leaving it up to the states to administer the tax.

The bill says the measure will “promote freedom, fairness, and economic opportunity.” But a 30% sales tax on everything doesn’t seem to do much for fairness or economic opportunity for all, since it would, of course, hit Americans with less money to spend far harder than it would Americans with more money to spend. And the end of income, gift, and estate taxes would be a windfall for the wealthy. 

... Members of the Republican Party invented the U.S. income tax during the Civil War, and they created the precursor to the IRS to collect it. To find money to fight the war, they raised tariffs on common products but immediately turned to the novel idea of an income tax, and a graduated one at that, to make sure that “the burdens will be more equalized on all classes of the community, more especially on those who are able to bear them,” as Senator William Pitt Fessenden (R-ME) put it. 

... The Republicans then quite deliberately constructed a national system for collecting the new taxes. In the midst of the Civil War, they urged their colleagues to imagine what would happen if a disloyal state were permitted to manage the collection itself. A Democratic legislature could simply refuse, and the government might perish for lack of funds to support the troops. The government had a right to “demand” 99 percent of a man’s property for an urgent necessity, [Vermont Senator Justin Morrill] said. When the public required it, “the property of the people…belongs to the Government.”

Today’s Republicans are taking a position opposite to the one that the men who formed the Republican Party did during the Civil War. They want to get rid of the income tax and put state governments in charge of the nation’s revenue system....This radical tax bill strikes a blow for states’ rights, much as the southern leaders the original Republicans stood against did in the 1860s. It is far easier for a minority to take over a state and impose its will on a majority there than it is to do the same at the national level. And Republicans are definitely working to cement their control in the states.

Think what Florida governor Ron DeSantis or Texas's Greg Abbott might do if taxation for government depended on them ... basically, forget government for anyone disfavored by their white nationalist "base."

This is not going to happen. But it really does seem we are re-fighting the Civil War of mid-19th century.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

But is it paid for?

What would our country be like if most of the goofy Republican caucus in Congress walked away from their jobs for some goofy reason, and Democrats suddenly had majorities which could try to implement their legislative priorities? The well-thought-out policy ideas of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would instantly be on the legislative agenda and politicians would jockey to find ground from which to distinguish themselves in the novel environment. Add in an existential war in progress that had to be funded by previously unheard of expedients and things might get radical.

That's a fair parallel to where newly elected President Abraham Lincoln and the then-newly consolidated Republican Party found themselves in 1861 when southern states tried to end the Union -- and thus end the experiment in constitutional government which was the federal United States.

We can be confused reading this history today because 1) the Republicans were both the progressive force and the mostly anti-slavery political party and 2) the Democrats were the hide-bound conservatives whose attachment to states' rights hamstrung government action and support the slavery system. In the century and a half since, our political parties have roughly traded sides.

Roger Lowenstein is an American financial journalist and writer who recently explored aspects of governance in the 1860s in Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War.

This is a book that probably tries to do too much. Others have written gracefully about Lincoln's Team of Rivals, his contentious Cabinet. I didn't really care about how the Confederacy tried to solve its fiscal problems; my understanding of Confederate fiscal history is that what happened there was mostly decided by the failure to bring Britain in on the side of the South in the war.

What interested me here was what the Republican Congress of 1861 accomplished with its new freedom of action. And Lowenstein offers plenty that is interesting. This prologue helps with imagining Republican priorities which were not what we might assume in 2023:
Few northern whites had much to do with Blacks, slave or free, and even fewer supported abolition. They were opposed to slavery's extension mainly because they preferred their own societies to the slave societies of the Deep South. Whigs, and later Republicans, advocated a system "free labor," which connoted not just the absence of slavery, but a positive culture of small farms, cottage industries, and independent craftsmen. ... What northerners truly abhorred was the South's economic and social backwardness. The South was less urban, less educated, woefully under-industrialized. ... Republicans did not plan on a war in 1861, but their social vision prepared them for one. Their ideal of a stronger and larger central government not only enabled them to harness the necessary resources to win the war, it encouraged them to do so in a way that helped bring about a modern and dynamic industrial society.
The accomplishments of the freed-up Republican Congress were great -- and the consequences unexpected when they finally were able to pass what northern social movements had envisioned. Lowenstein labels the Congress of December 1861-July 1862 the "Forgotten Congress."
... [they] enacted a blizzard of legislation that made the federal government, for the first time, a visible presence in the lives of ordinary Americans. ... It broke from the "governing least" philosophy of Jefferson and legislated in the spirit of the "more perfect union" advanced by Lincoln. It abandoned laissez-faire and interposed a visible hand in the hope that, also in Lincoln's words, "every man [might] have the chance." Congress enacted a protective tariff ... and enabling legislation for a transcontinental railroad. It involved the federal government in agriculture, education, and land policy. It legislated an income tax and refocused the war's purpose to include a frontal attack on slavery. It could almost be said that it created the government itself. ... They legislated boldly and to the perceived edge of constitutional license. A San Francisco newspaper approvingly declared, "Constitutions are made for peace. We are at war." ... On the whole, they were less intent on preserving, more on building and improving. ...
By war's end and the defeat of the South in 1965,
... it was now, as it had not been before, the federal government's business to help educate farmers, to preserve natural lands, to fix the standard railroad gauge, to nurture the sciences, to operate an expanded postal service, to regulate banks, to encourage immigration. Even abolition, on the surface a stand-alone event, was enabled by the new ideology of centralism.
... The purposes of the government were also elevated in the minds of Americans. They looked to it, as they hadn't before, to solve national problems. Since the government had freed the slaves, people expected it to address other pressing issues, such as low farm prices, labor disputes, the power to the railroads, and monopolies. ...
Though in the war's aftermath the Republicans were soon captured by the industrialists and plutocrats of the Gilded Age, in a vital moment, they gave the country its most benign institutions.

• • •

I was curious about this book because a great-great grandfather of mine played a part in its story. Elbridge Gerry Spaulding (1809-1897; yes, named for the relative and Massachusetts governor who gave his name to our present dubious redistricting processes) had been a Buffalo mayor, an early adopter of the new Republican Party, and a successful banker who sat in the Forgotten Congress. I'm sure the idea was floating around in the wider policy ether, but he was the guy who proposed that the Treasury could fund the war with "greenbacks," the paper currency that led to the current dollar. Previously government, and especially war, had been funded by a small stream of tariff revenue and by borrowing from banks and bankers. That was where the cash was. Banks were chartered by the separate states and they all issued their own notes; this was not a system which inspired confidence in paper money.

By the winter of 1861-1962, the federal government was desperate for cash. According to Lowenstein, Spaulding proposed a bill to pay for the war that was "revolutionary."
As if by a conjurer's trick, it authorized the Treasury to print United States Notes to distribute to soldiers, suppliers, and others. The catch was that, unlike virtually every other bill in circulation, Spaulding's notes would not be redeemable for silver and gold. This meant the government would not be constrained by the supply of metal; it could print as much as it liked, or at any rate as much as Congress authorized.
And Spaulding's notes would not pay interest. Today, we scarcely pause to consider that the money in our wallets does not yield a return. After all, it is "money." In 1861, virtually all government paper did pay interest. That was the inducement for holding it. Finally, Spaulding's paper would not have a maturity date. This, too, was unusual. A maturity date was a pledge that the paper could be exchanged for something of value at a specified time. But these notes would not be redeemable. They were issued for perpetuity.
To the Civil War mind, these features were both shocking and blasphemous. ... U.S. Notes would be "legal tender" -- they would be money by proclamation, that is, by government fiat. They would suffice for all debts and commercial exchanges; acceptance would be compulsory and universal.
The twists and turns of getting the greenback bill passed were many; Lincoln supported it, but left it to his doubtful, but desperate, Treasury Secretary to do the legislative lifting. Once passed, the system made it all the more obvious that a system of state-chartered banks could not serve the Union cause. Financial entrepreneurs jostled to cash in on the reform. The Confederates tried something similar but you have to win on the battlefield to make a fiat money system work.

By the end of the war, both enhanced revenue and national banking had been added to the federal arsenal, creating something akin to the financial system as we have known it. That system might be due for another upgrade; I am sure Elizabeth Warren is working on it. Imaginative and determined individuals make these things happen, remote as they may seem.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

On beyond atmospheric rivers ...

The Los Angeles Times reported today on a study whose import is captured in this headline: New Bay Area maps show hidden flood risk from sea level rise and groundwater.

Much of the Bay Area is built on flood plains, natural and human-built, often only inches above the groundwater level. I've long been aware of this from building concrete foundations under existing houses in the Berkeley flatlands in my past life as an earthquake retrofit contractor. 

Sea level rise as a consequence of global warming means more ocean is actually pushing up from underneath current freshwater levels.

I hadn't realized how common this condition was all around the Bay -- the article is illustrated with photos of flooding in Mill Valley.

This snippet of map shows particularly vulnerable areas in my part of the city; darker red areas show where the current water table is closest to ground level, but even the yellow areas are only 6-9 feet above current sea levels. As the sea rises, we can expect the low-lying red areas to grow larger and groundwater to break through more often as flooding.
“People still tend to think of these things as isolated terrible things, rather than as part of a collective shift … in what the future might hold,” she said. “We live in nature and too often think of ourselves as separate from it … but nature is still very much in charge.” -- Chris Choo - planning manager for Marin County

Monday, January 16, 2023

Family enhancements

California's parade of atmospheric rivers has made it necessary to add a new member to the household; we call him Howie. He's great for bailing out the back garage and will also attend to E.P.'s basement weaving studio.

But lovely and efficient as Howie seems to be, this post isn't about him. Rather, it's about the handyperson's work truck I encountered in the parking lot of the Big Box store which provided Howie. 
Understand, I loathe these stores. I come from the era of hardware stores boasting odd assortments of tools and fittings. The workers often actually knew how to fix things and could help someone figure how to jerry rig an unfamiliar project. Nowadays, like much else, there's more variety but seldom as much ingenuity.

Anyway, somebody's truck here was beyond old school.
How about this for a cuddly menagerie?

I'm sure these critters enjoy waiting for their person to emerge from today's job. And presumably they don't mind riding with a mix of construction debris and the likes of Howie.

Wokeness without works

Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon Jr. offers a dispiriting assessment of the condition our condition is in:

The racial reckoning led to lots of talk but little real change

Click to enlarge.
... In many ways, the racial reckoning ended on Nov. 3, 2020. Instead of Democrats winning a huge majority in the House and enough Senate seats to get rid of the filibuster, as polls suggested was possible, they won tiny majorities in both chambers. Major changes to improve Black people’s lives require funding, and the federal government is where a lot of the money is. With such small majorities during Biden’s first two years in office, a sweeping pro-Black agenda was immediately off the table, because centrist Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) weren’t likely to be on board.

... From its start in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t had a formal organizational structure or a singular leader. That was both intentional (many of the activists didn’t want that kind of leadership) and unintentional (the movement was so broad and diffuse it was hard to organize, even in informal ways). So there was no organization that the millions of people who protested Floyd’s killing could join, nor a clear set of goals they could embrace and urge their local politicians to adopt.

... But overall, we have wokeness without works.

This seems spot on. Here on the home front, the San Francisco Police Department incurs no penalty for killing unarmed individuals with abandon, while residents are frightened by (some real, some over-hyped) property crime, and the sight of homeless people suffering. We want the irritants swept away, sometimes literally; we replaced a progressive D.A. who might have held police killers to account; we elected a police flack to the Board of Supervisors. That's backlash in San Francisco. We make noises about caring for impoverished people, for Brown and Black lives -- but, as almost always, we make those lives carry the burden of our distresses. 

Yet I am struck by one line here: "... there was no organization that the millions of people who protested Floyd’s killing could join, nor a clear set of goals they could embrace and urge their local politicians to adopt." 

This complaint makes me feel old. I've seen something like this before. It feels much as I think many of us ally folks, especially those of us who were white, felt in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- the Black Freedom movement had been our guiding moral star amid the horrors of the country's immoral war in Vietnam and the country's turn to Richard Nixon. That movement was splintering into its component threads under violent state repression and simple exhaustion. The leaders who survived needed to rethink, retrench, and regroup. Allies often became wandering lost sheep -- and did a lot of floundering because the unifying lodestar of Black freedom was clouded over. That was the 1970s -- for many in my generation.

We all had to learn new ways for new times, new ways that built on what had come before.

But since freedom is a constant struggle, movement veterans and new blood took up struggles old and new, many local, all vital. The drive to give organizational form to the moral imperatives raised up by the Civil Rights struggle was rekindled over and over. And new cycles of organization and uprising began, to be repeated as long as white supremacy and other injustices coexist with the national dream of freedom.

Maybe we can't -- at the moment -- drive forward toward freedom and justice at the scale we could imagine in 2020 and wish had born more fruit. But what else is there to do but try and try again in whatever organizational forms fit the moment?

Saturday, January 14, 2023

When abortion rights are on the ballot, rights win ...

Californians can be excused for feeling that our state's initiative process is a plague. Every election we are confronted with long lists of measures and propositions requiring up and down votes, often on matters about which we know little and don't really have opinions. Some of these things are misleading to the point of culpable dishonestly. And the money that goes into campaigns ... disgusting.

The initiative in state politics came into use as a Progressive Era (1897-1920) reform aiming to restore more power to ordinary citizens in the country's Gilded Age. Banks and corporations seemed to have bought the legislatures; citizens responded by embedding an initiative process in many state constitutions.

In recent decades, political professionals have turned the initiative process into a lucrative gravy train, most notably in California. This "direct democracy reform" can seem hopelessly polluted, even when we vote happily for things we want, like a state right to abortion that passed on the 2022 ballot.

But since the Supremes killed the national Constitutional right to choose abortion, an initiative process which seemed half-dead as an instrument for direct democracy has spring to life. The right to abortion was forced to the top of mind for many voters who had been unconcerned or oblivious. When directly posed the question, much more often than not voters rejected denial of the right to choose.

Kaiser Health News offered a nuanced overview of this development; their terms of service allow me to paste it here and I've added some emphasis.

This is shaping up as a critical year in the country’s battle over abortion rights, as both sides struggle to define a new status quo after the Supreme Court struck down the nearly half-century-old constitutional right last year.

It is important not to misread what happened in 2022. After a 6-3 majority of justices overturned Roe v. Wade, voters in six states were asked to choose between preserving or reducing abortion rights. In all six — Kansas, Michigan, California, Kentucky, Montana, and Vermont — voters sided with abortion rights.

Anti-abortion politicians have fared well in recent elections, contributing to a wave of anti-abortion legislation in many statehouses. But when voters are asked to consider a direct ballot question about abortion access — as opposed to weighing in on a candidate, whose anti-abortion position may be one of many stances they hold — voters strongly favor abortion rights.

Many pundits were shocked by last year’s results, particularly in Kansas, where voters have backed the Republican candidate in nearly every presidential election since 1940. Less than six weeks after the court’s decision, Kansas residents — including a large, mostly female contingent of newly registered voters — rejected an amendment to the state constitution that was put on the ballot by anti-abortion state legislators in an effort to overturn a 2019 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court.

It was unquestionably a big deal that the abortion-rights side won by 18 percentage points, particularly since the measure appeared on the ballot during the state’s August primary, when its backers anticipated lower and Republican-leaning voter turnout.

But was the defeat of their effort to limit abortion truly a surprise? Not if you look at the history of state-level ballot measures related to abortion.

According to the website Ballotpedia, there have been 53 abortion-related ballot measures in 24 states since 1970. Of the 43 questions supported or placed by anti-abortion groups or legislators, voters approved 26% and rejected 74%. Of the 10 questions supported by abortion-rights backers, voters approved 70% and rejected 30%.

In other words, the abortion-rights side has won nearly three-quarters of the ballot measures.

More than a few of these ballot questions have been in states where Republicans have even more control than in Kansas. In South Dakota, for example, voters in 2006 overturned a sweeping abortion ban passed by the legislature, which was designed to prompt the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade. Two years later, South Dakota voters also rejected a second, slightly less draconian ban.

Even in Mississippi, historically one of the most conservative states, voters in 2011 rejected a “personhood” amendment that would have added language to the state constitution stating that life begins at fertilization. Voters demurred after it was pointed out that such a law could outlaw some common types of birth control and in vitro fertilization.

And many of the anti-abortion ballot measures that were approved dealt with issues that have long enjoyed considerable public support — such as banning public funding of abortion and requiring parents to be involved in a minor’s abortion decision.

That is in stark contrast to the more recent success of candidates who oppose abortion, whose numbers have dramatically increased at both the state and federal levels in recent years. Conservative Republicans won control of so many governorships and state legislatures in 2010 that it led to a landslide of anti-abortion legislation in the following years.

Abortion isn’t the only issue for which voters have split ballots, weighing in on a ballot initiative while backing a candidate with an opposing viewpoint. Expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act is another example. So far, in seven states where Republican governors, lawmakers, or both have refused to extend Medicaid coverage to certain moderate-income residents, voters have approved expansion over those objections.

What explains how some of the same voters who elect and reelect candidates opposed to abortion also support abortion rights in stand-alone ballot questions?

One reason is that until 2022, abortion was not among voters’ top priorities when choosing whom to vote for. As recently as 2016 — when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump promised to work to ban abortion, while Democrat Hillary Clinton vowed to protect abortion rights — only 45% of voters said abortion was “very important” to their vote, compared with 84% who cited the economy and 80% who said their top issue was terrorism. Out of 14 top issues that year, abortion ranked 13th in the poll from the Pew Research Center.

What does it mean for the future? In 2022, according to an analysis by KFF pollsters, support for abortion rights may have helped Democrats soften their expected midterm losses. As abortion has surfaced more in headlines, the issue has become more salient for voters of both parties.

State and federal lawmakers, emboldened by the court’s decision, may need to be more careful in deciding how to legislate on abortion-related matters in 2023. The voters are watching.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues.

Subscribe to KHN's free Morning Briefing.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Friday cat blogging

Janeway spends a lot of time on windowsills these days, observing the wet world out there. Are there small critters driven above ground by flooding? I can't see them, but she seems to.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

It's very pink ... and got my attention

This mobile billboard was not something I expected to encounter while trotting around in damp Golden Gate Park.
The sponsoring organization is something called Jewbelong. The organization bills itself as a gentle, benign resource for Jewish people who feel disconnected from Jewish religion and culture. In their words:
Most Jews know that Judaism can be a little intimidating, which for some people is a good enough reason to run for the door. Or maybe you gave Judaism a try, but you didn’t get enough out if it to keep you coming back. The fact is that Judaism sometimes gets a bad rap and that’s led to too many people missing out on the good stuff. JewBelong is out to change all that.

I'm sure they've got a constituency, though this doesn't describe most of my Jewish friends who have found other, more traditional, ways of investigating a culture that the secular US can conceal and obscure. (The same secular forces also erase nuanced Christian belief and practice; instead we get evangelical megachurches, with a a dash of Christian nationalism.)

Exploring the Jewbelong website, there seems a bit of a lean toward US commentators I think of as part of the performative American Right, like Bari Weiss.

But hey -- anti-Semitism is real and apparently increasing. As is willingness to discount the humanity of Palestinians in conflict with the Israeli state which claims to represent the height of Jewish culture. There's plenty to concern humane people of all religious traditions. 

It may be significant to see whether the arrival of this pink themed campaign is a harbinger of an enduring effort -- or just another scream for notice passing through the fertile terrain for justice demands that is the Bay.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Stormy interlude

Current conditions outside my front window have put me in mind of Piglet's plight.

To everyone feeling (or actually) surrounded by water, do yourself a favor and read A.A. Milne's story of Winnie, Piglet, and Christopher Robin in the original (long before Disney) version.

... it wasn't much good having anything exciting like floods, if you couldn't share them with somebody.

Winnie the Pooh came into the public domain in the United States on January 1, 2022.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Old words as potent new beginnings

In a discussion of my post on Cultural Literacy, I explained that I'd been taught (indoctrinated in?) the US Constitution in eighth grade. That year, we also were expected to memorize the entirety of Lincoln's Address at Gettysburg in 1863 consecrating the burial ground built in the aftermath of the great battle where Union soldiers repulsed the Confederacy. I'm not sure I could still spit it all out, but phrases have stayed with me.

"... to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom ..."
It feels corny, but that thought supported me while putting in the work to re-elect a Democratic US Senator out of Nevada last fall; our motley crew of hospitality workers was carrying on the great task of making democracy and freedom. And we did our bit.

So when the campaign was over, I decided to learn a little more about the speech. Historian Garry Wills provided what I was looking for and more in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. Published in 1992, Wills won a National Book Critics Circle award and a Pulitzer Prize for this work; he struck a vein.

Though I have been deeply moved by walking over the Gettysburg battlefield, the national park there now a memorial to the carnage at the high water mark of what my Union ancestors called The Rebellion, I don't think I had ever visualized what Wills insists we understand about the contemporary condition of those fields.
The residents of Gettysburg had little reason to feel satisfaction with the war machine that had churned up their lives. ... [The residue] was mainly a matter of rotting horseflesh and man flesh -- thousands of fermenting bodies, with gas distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat. For hygienic reasons, the five thousand horses (or mules) had to be consumed by fire, trading the smell of burning flesh for that of decaying flesh. Eight thousand human bodies were scattered over, or (barely) under, the ground. Suffocating teams of soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and dragooned civilians slid the bodies beneath a liminal covering as soon as possible ...
Wills goes on to make a point which time has obscured: Lincoln was apparently audible to the thousands gathered to hear, not him, but the orator Edward Everett, because his unamplified voice carried to the crowd.
Lincoln derived an advantage from his high tenor voice -- carrying power. ... Modern interpreters of Lincoln, like Walter Huston, Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda and the various actors who give voice to the Disneyland animations of the President, bring him before us as a baritone, which is considered a more manly, heroic voice ... Lincoln was himself an actor, an expert raconteur and mimic, and one who spent hours reading speeches out of Shakespeare to any willing (and some unwilling) audiences . ...
But what has lasted is what Lincoln affirmed in his address:  "... government of the people, by the people, and for the people ..."
[Lincoln's] speech was economical, taut, interconnected, like the machinery he tested and developed for battle. Words were weapons, for him, even though he meant them to be weapons of peace in the midst of war. This was the perfect medium for changing the way most Americans thought about the nation's founding acts. ...He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values ... He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken ...
The spell still holds for me and for the democratic (small-"d") national majority the recent election revealed. We must not let Republican kooks in Congress obscure our ongoing hope for greater freedom.

Monday, January 09, 2023

Ushering in 2023

Today Erudite Partner explores American Exceptions and American Expectations in the LA Progressive:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were just a little less exceptional?

She pulls few punches. After watching the clown show that is the Republican Congress it's hard to enter the New Year with sunny optimism, but we can hope and yearn and working for a happier future.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Old people work, most everywhere

A long article in the New York Times this morning made it seem as the fact of old people working well into their 70s and beyond was a phenomenon of some East Asian cultures -- though one likely to be replicated in other developed societies as birth rates fell. Around the world, birth rates are falling fast, especially when women have more control over our bodies, resulting in less people of what has been considered prime working age.

And far too many old people don't have much of a social safety net to fall back on in many countries.

But please -- I can look out my front woman most days and see old people -- apparently immigrants, though I can't testify -- collecting bottles and cans to sell for recycling. Are they feeding themselves or doing their bit in families in which everyone of every age works? I don't know, though I like to guess the latter.

The notion that there is some society where most people are guaranteed a comfortable old age is a dream. Those of us who get to have one are damn lucky.

Saturday, January 07, 2023


I'm a day late with this depiction of the Holy Family at Epiphany -- the feast of Light made manifest in the world.

Click to enlarge
Perhaps we should think of them as holed up in Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.

Once one of the best-looking cities of the industrial part of Donbas, the famous manufacturer of salt, Bakhmut is dead now. 

Almost no building is left intact. Some buildings are completely razed to ashes, with giant, meters-deep impact holes next to them. Most are damaged but still standing. The street signs wrecked with shell fragments still tell the story of vibrant life in the very recent past. 

The apocalyptic streets are empty and silent, except for the roar of artillery guns and the buzz of drones high above. Every now and then, one of the few remaining locals is seen in the street, often carrying bags of humanitarian aid. 

According to the military-civilian administration responsible for the area, some 90% of residents have fled. But some 8,700 civilians out of a pre-war population of over 70,000 are still hiding in ruins.

• • •

Soldiers gladly pass an opened bottle of whiskey to journalists. They are just dying to spend a minute talking to a new face before they have to move on.

“It’s such a mess,” they get emotional. 

“What they write about us on the internet, all the glorious victories, is so different from what we see here every day. Where is our artillery, what are they even doing? It’s a complete mess. We don’t give a fuck if that’s Wagner or anyone else, we’ll keep fighting anyway.” 

“But we want to fight and win, not just fight and die sooner or later.”

The linked account of Ukrainian Bakhmut is worth your time and moral contemplation. Yet the Light still shines and darkness has not overcome it.

Friday, January 06, 2023

An anniversary to remember and deplore

On the second anniversary of Donald Trump's January 6  insurrection against a democratic election and Constitutional government, Yale historian of eastern Europe Timothy Snyder offers some thoughts which work for me:

...  giving money is an action, a commitment.  You don't give money to people you think are scamming you.  And once you have given the money, it becomes almost unthinkable that you have been scammed.  Once Trump’s supporters made a contribution, they had bought in to the Big Lie.  And once they had done something on that basis, they were probably more likely to do something else -- like storm the Capitol, or, later on, vote for Big Liars in the 2022 elections.

... And so, between early November [2020] and early January, the Big Rip-Off created two important emotional investments, one on the part of the scammers, another on the part of the scammed.  The Trump campaign was making so much money from defeat that it naturally wanted the propaganda machine to crank on for as long as possible.  Meanwhile, the victims of the scam continued to receive the same kinds of energizing emails and texts long after the election results were absolutely clear, furthering separating them from reality, solidifying their conviction that their cause must be righteous.  The endless stream of emails and texts, echoing what Trump said in public and tweeted, were an essential element of the alternative reality Trump sought to create.

The results of this became clear on January 6th, 2021. ...

How did we end up here?  It mattered a lot that Trump told a Big Lie.  But it also mattered a lot that Republicans chose not to correct him (or just mock him) when it mattered.  What people said and did in those first 24, 48, or 72 hours after Trump declared victory had tremendous importance, and too many people who mattered did nothing.  Much of what is wrong with this country now began just then.  In the first few days after the election, too few prominent Republican politicians did the right thing.  Had more such people spoken up right then, the Big Lie would never have gotten off the ground.

... That is a familiar story: a tiny bit of courage, a tiny bit of truth, can change history.  Unfortunately, this time around, that tiny bit of courage and that tiny bit of truth were utterly lacking.  With some honorable exceptions, the people who needed to take a stand did not do so.

This is not something we can look away from, mesmerized by today's antics from the seditious cuckoo bird caucus. 

Friday cat blogging

When the electric went out during the big storm on Wednesday, I was more or less ready. I slipped on my headlamp and continued cutting up veggies for a stir fry. 

But there was a scrabbling noise from the back porch. Now what had Janeway got into?

I looked and found her at the back door. The light from my headlamp only made the cat outside look more substantial. Moving my head changed the reflection. Eyes shone green.

The interloper cat gave Janeway minutes of amusement, then she stalked away to wait out the darkness,

Thursday, January 05, 2023

What do we need to know?

At the suggestion of a friend, I borrowed from the library a thick volume called The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. The first edition of the book came out in 1987; the edition I'm looking at came out in 2002. It consists of over 5000 entries for what its editors considered everyday knowledge, from "Abraham and Issac" in the opening section on the (Judeo-Christian) Bible to "Yucca Mountain" in the section on Technology. The book has been a best seller. And a cultural flashpoint in its own way in education policy circles.

Here's how the 2002 edition states its purpose:
In the United States, reading with understanding is based on the kind of background information identified in this book ... From the start, the premise of this dictionary was that true literacy -- reading with comprehension -- requires a lot more than sounding out the words on the page. Those who possess the needed, taken-for-granted knowledge can understand what they read, and those who lack that knowledge cannot. The haves learn ever more from what they read and hear; the have-nots fall further and lose the chance to become participating members of the wider community.
The book's instigator, E. D. Hirsch, was distressed in the early 1980s to learn that community college students in Virginia had no idea who either Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant might have been or what they had done to shape the place in which they lived. He believed that there was a common American knowledge base which was needed for democratic citizenship and successful adulthood. This insight led first to this dictionary and later to advocacy of a "Common Core" movement in educational practice. Though Hirsch insists he is a "liberal" -- "practically a socialist" -- in education policy circles he has many detractors, usually Democrats, sometimes classroom teachers, who consider his common core project "elitist." Or perhaps limited, or sexist, or racist.

This is not the sort of debate anyone definitively wins.

My interest in issues of common knowledge base is highly practical. Over the years I've learned that a vital prerequisite to running a persuasive get-out-the-vote campaign, such as UniteHERE just managed in Nevada, is enabling door-knockers to explain what the offices are that your candidates are seeking, what those offices do, and what policies the "good" ones might be able to implement. Canvassers have to be able to talk about this stuff fluently -- and very few, regardless of education or economic status, arrive able to do so. Erudite Partner has repeatedly led an appreciated training on "what is a governor -- what is a U.S. Senator." Personal experience carried many of us a long way when it came to talking about reproductive freedoms. But to meet the voters where they had concerns, we had to learn something about housing policies. 

I can sympathize with the impulse to wish that as a society we shared more of a common knowledge base. But we're big and we're different and it's not likely such a thing can be agreed upon universally. However common knowledge can sometimes prove its worth in practice, when we take ourselves out of our bubbles and have to communicate. It's heartening to realize we can do that; democratic survival may depend on it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Shards from the wide web: too good to be missed

This collection originally contained some musings about NFL football from smart sportswriters, but after Damar Hamlin's nationally televised collapse, I think I'll skip those ... What follows are other oddments.

From the San Francisco Chronicle's Soleil Ho:
I’m a restaurant critic. Am I fueling gentrification in the Bay Area? As a restaurant critic, I see part of my job as rooting out the “real”: relying on experience and know-how to highlight what is sublime and singular in the world around me. But the real has started to feel more and more elusive as the urban growth machine has facilitated culinary landscapes entrenched in an endless configuration of white walls, salad bars and food halls. Yet I’ve struggled with finding a productive way to talk about that in my work.

And it wasn't even raining when I met this anonymous man.
From Anthony Flores on the streets of San Francisco

“Who wants to be clean when you’ve got nowhere to stay?” Anthony said. “Your life’s pretty much a bummer sometimes.”
By way of sociologist Zeynep Tufekci

“Medicine doesn’t like what it can’t understand, so it often ignores it,” Ravindra Ganesh, a physician scientist who directs the post-Covid care clinic at Mayo Clinic, told me.

From Time columnist Charles Blow

... when I was writing my first book, I found myself in the main branch of New York City’s public library not because I needed to do research — the book was a memoir — but because the space itself seemed most aligned with the task of writing. It was like going to church to pray. 

I too am abundantly grateful for libraries.

And grateful also for a laugh induced by this squib from a tweet:

Looks like we're going to need all the laughter we can get in the New Year.