Friday, December 21, 2012

Editorial: North Korea threat is no joking matter

Once again the unnamed Courier editor takes on an international news story and steps immediately out of his depth based on his armchair research before his mighty bigscreen boobtube.

Regular readers know that I lived for some years within missile range of North Korea. I know firsthand that Japan relied then for its security against the weird and sociopathic state not on its own military or the massive US forces occupying it, but rather on an extensive chain of shady gambling operations, to which Japanese authorities turned a blind eye, run by North Koreans who supplied most of the nation's hard currency by remitting the profits homeward. It was a not heroic, it wasn't something to brag about, but it worked and as far as I know continues to work.

It's correct to think that North Korea could do a lot of damage in a short time. It couldn't sustain a war or any more than a single hostile move, but it would hurt people all the same, by far the most likely in Seoul. It would then bring sure annihilation for the North Korean regime, and it's ridiculous to presume that just because they act crazy sometimes, they're really that crazy. To even begin to understand this regime you have to see it from the inside, a place so foreign that even most pro Asia-watchers stumble continually over its contradictions and absurdities.

The bottom line is that North Korea is building missiles not to hit the US, but to pretend to itself and its people that it maybe could. This it uses as what amounts to extortion leverage against China, which trades food and technology for maintaining a more or less secure border against the horde of North Korean refugees bursting to escape.

This graf caught my eye:

"North Korean officials insist that the purpose of the launch was peaceful - to put a satellite in orbit. Yet missile experts correctly point out that the technology for that task matches the technology for launching long-range armed missiles."
For "North Korean" the reader could substitute "The USSR" or "The USA" and create a direct quote from thousands of worried papers during the Space Race, and it's absolutely true. The American military made it eminently clear that the space program was entirely about ICBMs the day it ordered Chuck Yeager to abort taking the X-15 out of atmosphere and kiboshed the whole piloted space program. It's utterly naive to think that any missile-based space effort is not about the missiles, and that includes India, China, Japan, Iran, France and everyone else spending a dime on it. We've only got a lot of good science out of it by taking advantage of the military need for expensive fig leaves.

What makes North Korea special is that it won't make a deal and join the club. I have to think that if its military and political leaders (not Kim the third, who like his father is obviously just a pampered figurehead) really are as lame as our media and government would have us believe, it would be the easiest thing in the world to flatter and bribe them into complacency and exploitability. They're clearly not. They've long since decided that leaning into the crazy image will get them all they want and maintain their (imagined) independence and very real local power.

It keeps going this way because our own military-industrialists can use North Korean crazy to justify themselves and their high salaries. Since the War to End All War there has always been an irrational, implacable enemy tailor-made for building war machines. If the enemy's irrational, we don't have to explain why they hate us, we can just take it for granted (and not think about it). We used to go and actually fight them, now for the most part we just "prepare" for their eventual aggression, spending endless billions without ever having to prove there's a threat. It's a close to perfect con.

North Korea will continue to play this game as long as China goes along, and that's where the calculus ends. It's not about us, it's not even about South Korea, really. It's not inconceivable that if we were to drop our sanctions and pump enough aid into North Korea to get its people off the starvation bus, we'd see Chinese military hit teams cleaning out the alpha dogs posthaste. But the card-house of rhetoric we've built around this issue will never allow that.

North Korea is a complex diplomatic problem involving freakish internal politics and interlinked international interests in the status quo, which makes it frustrating. But "alarming"? No, Tim, not really.

Wiederaenders: World keeps turning despite predictions


In the graf after his requisite lame attempt at a gentle-humor column (consider trying this on the Angus page, Tim, he's no funnier than you are), Tim plays a little catch-up on what he should have written for Monday, stating that the City money going into the courthouse lights is unrelated to the lighting ceremony and therefore there's no constitutional violation of church and state. (His first point, that no one is forced to attend, is completely irrelevant to the question of whether public resources are being spent on religion, showing just how unfamiliar he is with the legal questions.)

Doing this right would have meant acting like a journalist, getting the complete facts and citing sources. Making  a bald assertion on the opinion page does nothing to inform anyone but those who are already sold, so it really only throws fuel on the fire. (Fer gadaskes, act like  pro and try to see it from someone else's POV for a second, wouldya?)

Later he does a little more sucking up to Carol Springer, following up on a gushy editorial and a long political obit nervily slugged "THE PEOPLE'S POLITICIAN." It would be a major challenge to back that one up, I'm afraid, unless "the people" can be defined as rape-and-pillage developers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Editorial: Objection to ceremony is wrong

Wow, the group that wrote letters objecting to the religious content of the courthouse lighting ceremony really got the unnamed editor's goat! I haven't before seen a Courier editorial written with such anger, seen not just in the word choices but in the hasty, sloppy thinking.

First to the facts: It's not the "Freedom of Religion Foundation," as seen in the news piece, but rather the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and it's not an "atheist group," as seen in the headline and body copy of same, but rather atheist, agnostic and nontheist. I'm sure that's a little nuanced for the mouth-breathers around here, but an editor ought to have the circumspection to get it right. Clearly "atheist" is meant as an offensive epithet.

When civil libertarians object and sue to halt religious use of public resources, the adherents to the affected cult (pretty much always white Protestants) go to the mattresses as if the next step is to raze the churches and put them all in reeducation camps. They invariably forget that the strongest protection for their religious practices is keeping all such practices out of government.

Had the editor been able to take a breath and think for a second, his defense could have been a lot more sober and effective. As far as I know the courthouse lighting is supported entirely by private funds and groups, primarily the Chamber of Commerce. If that's true as I suspect, the ceremony does not infringe on constitutional protections and there's no legal case to be made against it. The Wisconsin-based national watchdog group responded to a local complainant, probably without access to the accounting or other pertinent facts. Given the penchant among small red-state towns across the country to play fast and loose around religion, the objection isn't surprising, but it's likely an overreaction.

That said, it would be a good idea for local leaders to take this as a cue to check themselves on where the legal lines are. Prescott's state recognition as "Arizona's Christmas City" is likely over that line, for instance, both when the Legislature placed it on the statute books and whenever the City puts money into promoting it. To be within the law, we have to ensure that only private funds and resources go into this sort of nonsense, and the City stays officially clear of it.

Staying within the law (which despite all the religious wannabe legal eagles is clear and well established: church and state must remain strictly separate in this country) isn't any more difficult than adhering to the speed limit on 69, and most importantly, it protects all the silly celebrations and freedoms of religion. People of faith should be the first to support and maintain that separation.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Editorial: Foreign aid: Small dent, big impact

Once again we find the editor aiming for the right target, but his technique isn't quite up to hitting it.

For starters, he undermines his own point by parroting the talking point, "Congress has been spending too much money for decades." Every time researchers ask Americans about specifics, they find that we generally support the spending. What Congress has failed to do is maintain the revenue streams to pay for it.

At the end of the same graf he yarbles, "foreign governments such as China hold the notes on our debts." It's true that China holds American debt, but it's a minor piece. Over half of total US debt is held by the Federal Reserve and the US government itself. Americans hold over half the remainder (right, three quarters of the debt that everyone's screaming about we owe to ourselves), and China holds about a quarter of the foreign component. Here's a primer on our public debt worth studying.
Every American should know this stuff, especially a newspaper editor.

"We deem [foreign aid] an investment of monumental proportions," writes the editor. What he pretty clearly means to write is that it's a small investment with monumental returns. Would it be so hard to run this stuff past a copy editor?

The embarrassingly tiny amounts of money relative to GDP that we reluctantly leak out to assist foreign governments and NGOs for humanitarian aid are indeed invaluable investments in the people they reach and our own image and security. The editor's entrapment in teevee thinking and slapdash writing unfortunately cripple him in his otherwise noble attempt to defend common sense.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Editorial: What will it take to enact gun control?

In the context of the mass shooting events that come  around regularly every year, the Newtown event isn't objectively remarkable by itself, but something about the average age of the victims combined with the temporal proximity to a certain pseudo-religious holiday has got the attention of the unnamed Courier editor, who writes, "In this country, there has never been a serious or credible push to ever ban all guns. That is patently insane." The "ever" is obviously out of place and I'm not quite sure whether he means that never having pushed is insane or the idea of banning all guns is insane, so I can't offer any cookies for clarity, but it's clear in the body of the piece and the headline that he's had about enough of the killing and is encouraging readers to think in terms of stopping it. This is healthy.

Of course this brings out the anti-gun hardliners to joust with the firearm devotees, horsed on swaybacked old nags of argument and carrying blunted lances that never engage the opponent, because most everyone is talking past one another. An exception, from a commenter signing herself Kat Camacho:

"In July of 2011 I buried my child because it's okay for anyone to have a gun, get mad, go into a home a shoot and kill another human, MY SON. Until any one of you folks above have to bury your child because there is no control or justice, I urge you to shut the heck up! Guns don't belong in all of society because sick, evil, spineless creatures live and creep around in this society and Kill with these weapons. Shame on you people."
Hear, hear. She's exactly the sort of person to which I referred in my comment earlier, viz:
On the very same day as the Newtown mass murder, another madman attacked a school in the Henan Province village of Chengping, in China. He knifed 22 children between the ages of six and eleven. Local health-care workers say none was seriously hurt. If the madman had had a gun, of course, that story would have ended quite differently. 
My position on the American cult of the gun is well known, and I'm not the guy who's going to convince any gun lover that it's finally time to start talking seriously about the elephant in the room. It's not the editor either, though it's encouraging to see these words on this page after so many years of this paper going along with the gag*. No, the people who will matter in this debate are the parents in our community who heard the news yesterday and shuddered and cried to think that it really could be their kids, at any time. It's long past time for them to clear their heads and get serious about protecting their children and our society as a whole from this deadly and eminently preventable disease.
Since then I've seen more details come out. The presumed shooter,  Adam Lanza, was a 20-year-old with a disorder on the autism spectrum. The three guns, including an AR-15, belonged to his mother, a kindergarten teacher at the school, with whom Adam lived. She was the first to die. Others are missing who may be victims as well. You're probably ahead of me on this, since this is probably running nonstop from the cable news monsters.

Aside: What kind of society are we living in where a kindergarten teacher with a mentally disabled adult son feels the need to keep two handguns and an assault-style semiautomatic weapon?

Back to the editorial and the subject du jour, the editor's heart is in the right place, but like pretty much all the commenters he's trapped in the world of simple answers to complex problems. Leaping to the idea of "gun control" only raises the defenses of the fearful and locks up the brakes on progress. We have to recognize that to some extent, everyone in this argument has a piece of the truth and no one has all of it.

Gun lovers have it right when they say that the mentally deranged and the criminals (often the same thing) will always be among us,  and that there's no way we can hope to disappear guns from our society.

Gun despisers like me have it right that more guns lead to more violence, that far and away the likeliest person to be hurt by a given gun is its owner or a loved one, and the idea of citizens using their trusty pistolas to face down determined criminals or a tyrannical government is juvenile fantasy.

Even if we could legislate away the weapons, we can't legislate away the sense of entitlement to personal deadly violence that many people read into the Second Amendment. And we can't censor away the fascination with deadly violence in our media and culture without becoming something we all agree would be bad.

Like other forms of crime, gun violence on the whole has been diminishing with our aging population. Mass shootings/suicides have not, and stress-related emotional and domestic violence is as bad or worse than ever. This implies that what so many of us see as individual criminality or derangement is the extreme expression of a much broader-based pathology. Our society is sick.

You've likely heard that one before, but if we take it to heart it means that the practical solution to the problem of endemic gun violence is much more complex, involving the entire society in multi-front treatment that under the best of circumstances will take generations to show positive effect.

But it may not be all that difficult in day-to-day terms. Consider the example from Chengping. Another mentally diminished individual lashes out emotionally, chooses children as his victims and wields his weapon with impunity. The differences: his access to a firearm of any kind was much more restricted than it is here, and his society is much less tolerant of social violence. China is near the other end of the spectrum from us in both these factors, with the rest of the civilized world falling in between somewhere and producing far less gun violence as well. You need both parts, less access and less tolerance.

It's a canard to say that a given deranged person bent on violence who doesn't have a gun will either find a way to get one or kill as effectively with some other weapon. The crimes we're talking about here are emotional paroxysms, not calculated mayhem, and the aggressors use whatever they have at hand. Access to firearms makes death and maiming more likely in the encounter. That's why gun lovers love guns, after all — they're more effective.

We can't start to have a useful dialogue about this very real and deadly problem until we can move out of our accustomed entrenched positions. If you keep a gun because you feel the need to protect yourself, you should be amenable to the idea of reducing access to guns in sensible ways for the people you fear. If you want to see fewer guns in our society because it will reduce violence for all, you're smart enough to  recognize that we can't wish half a billion guns away.

The ultimate solution is bottom-up: we'll have less gun violence when we reduce our tolerance for violence, in daily life, in conversation, in media, in our children, in how we talk about solving problems. If we can make progress on our twisted, adolescent thinking and grow up a bit, then all that's left to do is clear away the mess.

The path to that kind of maturity is to keep the innocent victims in mind and see that it's only luck that you or I isn't in today's body bag. Tomorrow brings another roll of the dice. Wouldn't you like to increase your odds?

*: As recently as nine days ago, btw.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Must read: Worrying about the wrong kind of debt

Robert Wright, writing in The Atlantic, considers what may be a key metric of danger to the economy in What if the Fiscal Cliff Is the Wrong Cliff?, making a strong argument for restructuring of private debt not just to improve the economy, but to avert the continuing threat of economic depression. Key concept: we're still in deep enough to crash the bus.

Where's winter?: November was hot and dry here; heat and emissions on the rise globally

I was briefly flabbergasted to read this piece — a straight news story in the Courier calmly relating facts about climate change. Who screwed up and let this through?

Even that gratuitous final reference to trumped-up controversy, "In conservative states, the term 'climate change' is often associated with left-leaning politics," points up the isolation of the critics from reality. I notice no one took a byline on this one, no surprise in a town where such behavior might get you disinvited from the parties, but even so, just having it appear in the paper is a breakthrough. Could the tide be turning at last?

Related: End of the Arctic Era

Williams: Minority conservatives get unfair deal

In which our token local reactionary defends the honor of poor downtrodden nonwhite and women reactionaries, assailed and vilified in public not for their actions and policies, but for their nonwhiteness or gender.

Putting on his Pat Buchanan-signature blinders, Buz pulls examples out of thin air and ancient history to construct a way to see non-reactionaries as the racists in the room, a classic psychological projection all the more pitiful for its transparency.

Here's a clue, Buz: If you were to go back and review the actual coverage and commentary about Clarence Thomas, Alberto Gonzalez, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of your list, you might discover that the criticism was substantive and focused on their actions and policies, just as it was for Robert Bork, John Ashcroft, Henry Kissinger and the rest. Seeing the nonwhite-nonmale group as separate, while refusing to countenance the substance of the arguments against them, only indicates your own prejudices. It's really that simple.

Another example of this kind of "thinking":

Editorial: Once again no, we can't talk about gun laws

Yet another deranged man shoots his domestic partner to death, then pops himself off in a public display. He's famous, she's not, and he gets all the media attention, even sympathy. A sportscaster steps out of his accustomed role and mentions the tragedy of the deranged man having easy access to a deadly weapon. America's powerful gun cult swings into action, and suddenly the criminal isn't the deranged man, it's the sportscaster. The victim is forgotten. What ought to be satire has long since become daily reality here on Bizarro World.

What strikes me about this podunk-paper editorial reacting to a national media-hype story that has nothing at all to do with our community other than our unhealthy average time suckling the glass teat, is the raw defensiveness underpinning it.

Why do gun cultists feel the need to rush to the defense of their demigod and man the barricades at the slightest suggestion that we might consider rethinking our insane national addiction to firearms? Could it be that deep in their hearts they realize just how shaky their argument is? Could perhaps their faith be flagging just a little?

If so, it's about time.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Editorial: Humiliation is not the way to go

The unnamed editor seems so confused about the issue of school discipline that I have to wonder why the board thought it was a good idea to write about it at all.

How many sides of the issue can one editor stand on? He writes, "... a bright red, aching backside was effective. ... We just can't believe that public humiliation is an appropriate way to deal with a juvenile problem ... but it seems very unlikely that those two boys will fight on school grounds again. ... In-school suspensions also are an effective innovation. ... an area that used to be as simple as swatting away trouble. .... raining down scorn on a pair of wrongdoers, effective or not, is a stretch of that authority."

First, it's off-base to imagine a clear distinction between the corporal punishment of old and the public shaming that the editor refers to here. They are essentially the same. The act of placing another human in a helpless physical position to inflict pain with impunity isn't about the pain so much as the humiliation, and you can be confident that whenever someone was paddled in school, it was known to all the students, making it pointedly public. Second, shame is where it's at. Instilling discipline means shaming, in every human society everywhere. It's essentially the society telling the perpetrator that bad behavior carries the risk of societal rejection, the worst punishment for a social animal.

If there were a broadly effective method for getting every kid to behave well in class, our schools would be using it. Let's talk about the "in class" piece of that. What we have to recognize is that assembling kids in large groups with minimal adult supervision leads them inevitably to make up their own social structures, which will be immature by nature. The problem is not the kids, it's the culture they come from plus the ones they create in the context of the industrial-style education model that we all grew up with.

I think the old way is better, but I go back a lot further than the corporal-punishment fascists. Preindustrial education was done on a much more individual basis, the children working among adults, not with other kids, acquiring skills directly from the people who used them. This raised the child directly into the adult social context, providing both structure and role models, and if later in life they worked with a teacher, it was someone with specialized skills that would clearly lead to professional and/or social advancement.

This isn't a perfect model either, but it offers a contrasting angle that throws the deficiencies of the current model into relief. Warehousing children in large groups to train them in a standardized curriculum seems insane when we need to produce adaptive, creative self-starters for an increasingly entrepreneurial society. Until we can find a way to get out from under the old industrial model, discipline in the classroom (and society at large as a result) will be a growing problem, no matter what methods we try.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Editorial: Forum a microcosm of nation's polarity

The unnamed editor's Barcalounger turns in the column for today, rehashing Ken Hedler's piece from Friday's edition about an amateur theatrical ostensibly about economics, held by and for Prescott's Very Serious People Club.

The chair seems to get it right in characterizing the show as "an accurate picture of division in our country." I'm a little skeptical that it really understands why, however.

Where the chair seems to have seen "contrasting views on America's slow recovery from the Great Recession," what actually happened, as Ken describes it, was that one guy gave a talk on economics while the other ranted about his political ideology.

This is indeed how the bulk of our public discourse has been playing out for about twenty years. One side talks about facts and policy, the other talks trash. And no, these roles do not reverse according to the issue -- the trash comes from the reactionary Republicans. It's long past time for us to stop pretending that the sides are equally at fault and simply trashing one another at every opportunity. There is legitimate, fact-based criticism based on facts, and there is schoolyard name-calling. They are not of equal value, and the sooner we stop pretending as much, the sooner we'll begin to move forward in addressing the systemic and cultural problems that are crippling this nation. If we can't have an adult conversation, we can't have adult solutions, let alone smart ones.

On that score I've got a cookie for Ken for having the balls to point out in print that one guy was talking and the other just barking. I can't speculate on how that got past the editors, but let's have more of it.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Letter: Founding Father avoided fiscal cliffs

Tom Steele writes to wag his finger against public debt, using a quote from Thomas Jefferson.

Mr Steele is here parroting a line that's appearing all over the right-wing blogosphere and in not a few letters to the editor. The quote is from Jefferson's 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval (click here to see it all), and neglects his main point, which may irk "originalists" like Mr Steele:

"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead.  I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. It is this preposterous idea which has lately deluged Europe in blood. Their monarchs, instead of wisely yielding to the gradual change of circumstances, of favoring progressive accommodation to progressive improvement, have clung to old abuses, entrenched themselves behind steady habits, and obliged their subjects to seek through blood and violence rash and ruinous innovations, which, had they been referred to the peaceful deliberations and collected wisdom of the nation, would have been put into acceptable and salutary forms. Let us follow no such examples, ...."

Jefferson lived and died in an agrarian backwater that we would not recognize as a viable state, let alone the richest and most powerful nation on the planet it is today. His economic sagacity left him perpetually broke. I imagine were he confronted with the challenges of governing this land in the 21st century, he would likely have the humility and wisdom to heed his own advice and avoid foolishly standing on outdated principles.

Further, Sunday: We should also note the context for Jefferson's rant about debt. In 1816 the US had just come through its first war of choice, a disastrous encounter thoughtlessly trumped up for political gain from which we managed to escape only lightly scathed because the British had more serious business to attend in Europe. In those days government borrowing was almost exclusively about financing war. So we may take Jefferson's admonishments, in context, to be against running up debts to finance military adventures, a no-brainer in my book.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Editorial: Economy doesn't need more red tape

Today the unnamed editor reacts to the idea of a federal Secretary of Business, under which the government would consolidate related functions.

From the vague official trial balloon the editor imagines a nightmare of new bureaucracy and more problems for business. Having built this straw man, he dances with his torch and sets his helpless adversary alight.

In point of fact neither I nor the editor nor anyone else knows how this proposal might shake out in real life, because the plan is not yet written. The editor is writing against his own imagination, nothing more, failing at the starting gate.

The core of his argument, that "red tape" would increase, is clearly contrary to the intent of the proposal. Having never set up and run a business himself, perhaps he doesn't realize how much red tape is generated because related government divisions don't talk to one another or coordinate their responsibilities, forcing business owners to negotiate complex minefields of overlapping and often conflicting regulations. At least in theory, an overseeing authority could improve on that. So let's wait for the details before we fire our torches.

In context, it's interesting that when the idea arose to consolidate authority over intelligence, border security, travel security, customs and the Coast Guard under the Orwellian title of Homeland Security, the Courier was all for it, once again reacting to parochial imaginings rather than reality on the ground. We can only get above this reflex by reserving judgment till we've done the research.

Williams: Photo speeding tickets should be outlawed

Perhaps former cop Buz Williams will grow into his new role as a regular columnist. So far his stuff's been not much better on content or style than the right-wing rants in the comments. But like in ninth-grade English, a regular writing assignment can lead to better writing, so we'll see. Look what it's done for Mike Reagan.

In today's column on our hated electric traffic cops, Buz buries his best idea. Well down in the piece he writes, "(During my years as a police officer, it didn't occur often, but there were a few occasions when I didn't write a ticket after speaking with the driver)." (pic) To a certain degree this runs against the usual "it's-the-law" position of the right wing, and interesting in that Buz uses it as the linchpin in his argument that the mechanical enforcement of law is inherently unjust.

Buz is saying that the discretion of the enforcement officer is an essential component in a just system. To at least a certain extent, he trusts cops to understand the context of an action and choose or decline to apply the law according to whether it poses a real threat to others.

If lawnforcement cheerleaders like Buz were to think this through (beyond their own fuming at getting a ticket themselves, as this column seems to be), we might be able to put together a social consensus on raising our standards for police officers to make them less about hardline enforcement (particularly for the sorts of people they personally don't like) and more about real threats to society. We might see more sensible traffic rules that are less about mindless adherence to standards and more about what makes sense in the specific situation. We might actually begin to expect our legal system to think.

Imagine that.

Cantlon: Fiscal cliff fix requires a grain of salt

Tom runs down the Keynesian basics for the many Courier readers who should have learned all this in high school, and does it in a way that avoids both ideology and academic complexity. Good work!

The sidebar of references is a great tool for readers, and a good example of how an online newspaper can be fundamentally better.

The headline is cute at the expense of information, but I'm sure Tom's not responsible for that.

Related: I covered some of this a little while ago.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Muggs: Holiday Cheer at the End of the World

Pop Rocket, December 2012

The sound of clanking chains awoke Bob Scrooge from a warm, comfortable sleep. The hackles rose on his neck as his bleary eyes focused on the apparition at the foot of his bed. It rose nearly the nine feet to the ceiling, human-shaped but all of iron, rivets and burning coal eyes. "I am the ghost of the Industrial Age," it spoke in a gravelly voice to the dumbfounded man, "Awake, and see your past."
     It rattled the heavy chains in its metal hands, and Bob found himself suddenly freezing in his thin rayon pajamas. His bare feet were on the slick, listing wood deck of a huge ocean liner, and all around him in darkness he heard the cries of people scrambling for safety in the few lifeboats left, or rapidly freezing to death in the water. "This is the unsinkable Titanic," growled the monster, "done in by human complacency and the myth of invulnerability." "What has this to do with me?" demanded Bob, shivering. "A lesson in humility, perhaps," the monster replied, "or hubris. But more than that, the coal that drove this ship and humanity's other machines has already preordained that your time will see rising oceans, chronic drought, monstrous storms and the beginnings of disaster for you all."
     "I've heard some nonsense like that, but there's nothing we can do about the past," retorted Bob, "It's not my fault! Anyhow, our technology will find a way to keep it from being a problem," he sputtered, confidence fading. The apparition turned to him as the broken ship groaned and began its final descent, "That, sir, is much what the captain of this boat imagined before his collision with Nature."
     A whirl of chill North Atlantic air caught Bob, and he found himself back in his warm pillowtop bed made in China. "Bah," he spat, "Bad dream. Must've been the pizza," as he settled back to slumber. But the sounds of clinking crockery told him there was a prowler in the house, and he rose and crept into the hall. Light blazed in the kitchen, and the sounds grew louder. "What's this, a raccoon?" thought Bob, and he burst into the room.
     It was no animal, but a little fat man, no more than three feet in height and at least equal that in girth, dressed for a party and gorging himself, pulling food from the open refrigerator with amazingly long arms. "Ah, Scrooge!" he smiled in greeting, "You're awake at last! You've got some lovely leftovers here. Come dine with me!" He tossed a chicken bone at the sink. Bob noted the nearly empty fridge and scattered containers. "Who the hell are you?" the unhappy homeowner cried, wondering where he'd left his cellphone. "The cops will have something to say about this, bubba!" The imp grinned again, his mouth nearly as wide as his head. "Why I'm the spirit of the Age of Consumption, here to share your joy in plenty!" He belched noisily, and Bob found himself thrust into a crush of people.
     It was well before dawn, and cold, but the teeming crowd was pressed against the glass front of a big-box store. "I love Black Friday!" cackled the imp, and in a rush the doors opened and Bob was swept into the store with the mob, people trampling store workers and each other in their frantic haste to grab for themselves the gadgets, gewgaws and nostrums that populated the canon of their true religion. "Get me out of here!" begged Bob, screaming above the din. "I never shop like this! I buy online!" The little fat man only laughed harder. "Fine, you're innocent!" he chuckled, gobbled a stray jumbo Toblerone and and placed a long, knarled finger beside his nose.
     Bob turned his head to find himself standing on a hardpan desert under a burning sun. Around him were the abandoned wattle-and-daub huts of an East African village, surrounded by what must once have been fields of maize. But there was no blade of green in sight, the trees dead, the people long gone, not even a bird left to pick the bones.
     "This is plenty?" snarled Bob, with more than a hint of sarcasm. The imp wiped the last of the chocolate from his cheeks. "This is what our appetites leave for the rest of the world," he said slyly, and pointed to the sun. "Feel that? It's getting hotter. As you lie comfy in your bed, you have already doomed your grandchildren to failing crops and system breakdowns worldwide as the heat begins to spiral out of control, beyond levels not seen for ten thousand years. So party on! The best times are here!" Bob covered his ears to the raucous laughter, squeezed shut his eyes and fell from the ceiling flat into his bed again.
     He had barely time to thrash himself to a sitting position and get his bearings when he felt rather than saw the cowled figure by the window. It loomed black, silent and faceless. Bob cowered and whimpered, "I know this story. You're my Future, aren't you?" The figure only raised an arm, revealing the bones of a hand, the forephalanges extended accusingly. "What have you to show me?" quavered Bob, now frightened out of his wits. With a whoosh he felt himself drawn bodily into the empty cowl, falling into space.
     Bob realized he was floating high above the earth, yet still he could see the details of the surface. Evidence of humans was everywhere, but try as he might he could find no people. Away from the sun no light shone where billions once thrived, on the day side the cities were fallen and ravaged by war, weather and decay. Mats of green and orange algae choked the little remaining of lakes and rivers, equatorial deserts stretched to what was once tundra, even the continents were barely recognizable for the encroaching oceans. A nearly Pacific-sized cyclone obscured a quarter of the globe.
     Scrooge caught his breath. "What happened to us?" he wailed, "What did we do to deserve this fate?"
     The dark figure whispered one word, the voice scratching like a dead stick on a window, rattling with disdain. "Nothing."

Must read: The War of 1812, again

Pietro Nivola, a senior fellow with the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, offers a fascinating perspective in The Atlantic on how escalating partisanship and, more importantly, hardline ideology has led us to disaster before, and no doubt will again. That we as a nation survived the War of 1812 can be fairly attributed to dumb luck.

Read it: What the War of 1812 Can Teach Us About the Fiscal-Cliff Debate

Muggs: Escape from the Poll-Work Chain Gang

Pop Rocket, November 2012

Wow, I got fired. Sort of.

     I've been a poll worker for the county for something like a decade, showing up at the precinct in the freezing crack of dawn on election day, helping voters navigate the increasingly complex process of exercising their franchise, enjoying the fleeting esprit of building a working team from a group of random strangers as we endure one very long day of dull imprisonment punctuated with bursts of enthusiastic customer service. It's an odd little world that everyone aspiring to community involvement should experience, where small-r republican idealism meets a chain gang over a potluck supper.
     I'd missed a couple of elections when they called me for the state primaries this year, and there were some pretty big changes in the system and its technology to catch up on, but it went well enough and I found work in the newly created office of Election Day Technician, aka tech wrangler or house geek. The county scheduled me to do that again for November in the same voting center, and I was looking forward to it because the team there is happy and efficient, and puts on a good feed besides.
     So it came as a surprise last month, a few days before the regular pre-election training day, that I got another call from the County. The elections official organizing the poll-worker staff, who impressed me with her ability to be both assiduously professional and personable at the same time, apologized profusely, but the County wasn't able to use me at the polls because I'd taken "a public position on an election issue." I took that to refer to this column last month, in which I set out opinions on the propositions. OK, well, I might've been a little harsh about some of them.
     I've been writing about local issues for six or seven years, of course, but apparently this was the first time anyone at the County noticed, so props to Pop Rocket, I guess. Someone's actually reading.
     My elections official, who shall remain nameless, as I'm sure she'd prefer, was quick to offer another position in the election hierarchy, answering calls from the poll workers, fielding their questions and helping solve their problems. This presumably put a sufficiently safe distance between scary old me and the voters to make everyone comfy again. (Good workers are hard to come by, and if you're not afraid of a computer, you might consider signing up.)
     I don't mind a bit, I get the picture and I don't take it personally. (Taking things personally is a bad habit everyone should try to break.) I think it's a testament to how seriously our elections officials are about their duties that they want to avoid any possible perception of bias in the system. I know these people, from the County Recorder on down, to be sincere in their dedication to doing things the right way, rigorous in their execution, and just good people.
     I do have to wonder about the "public position" thing, though. It seems a little hard to get a line around, particularly in our age of personal blogs and social networks, where proclaiming opinions and chronicling one's life in sweaty detail in public is so common as to be almost expected.
     It's not like poll workers don't have opinions. I'm reminded of one who stated with great conviction that George Washington was a Republican, and another who expressed during training to all in earshot how much he looked forward to "wiping out" Democrats as a species. But I'm completely confident that neither would say or do anything less than decorous in the polling place, and I've yet to meet a poll worker who struck me as even capable of trying anything untoward. It's as hard to imagine as having someone try to steal a vote. It just doesn't happen, whatever the scaremongers would have you believe.
     As of this writing, on magazine deadline, I don't know what my call-center job will be like in detail or how the election turns out. All I know for sure is that it's a promotion to something new and I won't be trapped all day in a place where a Roman torture machine is an object of worship, peach cobbler notwithstanding. Who knows, the food might be even better.
     I just want to assure you that however the electoral map has tilted and whatever fresh hell we must now anticipate from the political system, your vote in Yavapai County is in the hands of people who care and the system is impeccably run. So here's a shout-out to my fellow PWs: you guys rock.

Followup, Nov 27: Arizona has taken a lot of heat from the left over the seemingly immense amount of time it has taken to finalize the vote canvass, placing it in context with the Legislature's attempts to discourage and oppress non-Republican voters and implying that the slow vote count is part of that effort. I don't buy it.

We interviewed Ken Bennett on The People's Business, and he says that the voting patterns and canvassing process have been equivalent to those in previous presidential elections, which is easy enough to confirm. Different this time was the fallout from redistricting, which I expect led to a lot of voters being confused about where they were supposed to vote, forcing more provisional votes. Further, a lot of voters on the early-voting list apparently held their ballots until election day, and others were apparently encouraged by party hacks unnamed to go to the polls after they'd already voted early to "make sure" their votes were counted. These factors monkeywrenched the system as well.

In the past week or so Bennett has released statements signaling legislation to improve the election system, and the state Senate has instituted a new committee to that end, chaired by Michelle Reagan, generally known as a moderate. The few specifics I've seen indicate a look at going statewide with the voting-center system used here in Yavapai and in Yuma counties this year as pilot programs. This I think would be a good thing, as it would only expand voter access to the polls.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Muggs: Mixed Bag o' Props

Pop Rocket, October 2012

With the primaries behind us and the relentless national campaign ahead, it's time to take a look at the initiatives on the ballot, which will likely be lost in the noise. It's a mixed bag this year.

Prop 114: Stupid

The backers of this proposition hope to employ the serious business of a constitutional amendment to address an entirely mythical problem.
     The design is to prevent criminals from winning civil damages from their victims if they are injured "while attempting to engage in, engaging in or fleeing after having engaged in or attempted to engage in conduct that is classified as a felony offense."
     My gosh, I hear you cry, we certainly don't want felons suing us for victimizing us! Of course we don't. The thing is, even if a felon had the subtle sense of irony to consider a such a suit, no judge or jury would award such damages and no lawyer would take the case. It just doesn't happen.     As an example of how absurd the whole trip is, in his official statement of support for the amendment, former Mesa state Senator Russell Pearce, the only sitting Senate president in US history to lose a recall vote, writes: "Here is one true story — a burglar fell through a kitchen skylight of a home, landing on a knife that was left on the counter. The burglar impaled himself on the knife, and then sued the homeowner for an 'unsafe condition'; the court awarding him damages for his injuries." It's an crazy scenario, taken nearly verbatim and exclusively from the Jim Carrey comedy Liar, Liar. When a Capitol Times reporter called Pearce on this, the Senator replied, "I was told it was accurate," illustrating why even longtime supporters have abandoned him as utterly clueless. His scare-tactic proposition gets the same grade.

Update, post election: It passed.

Prop 115: Evil

You won't find the phrase in the text of the proposition, but this one is about the judicial merit-selection system that Arizona has used since 1974.
     Currently we employ a bipartisan commission of lawyers and non-lawyers to vet and submit nominees for judgeships above the local level. The initiative would eliminate that, giving the Governor and Legislature essentially total control of the nomination process. It would bring back the political patronage, cronyism and corruption that led to creation of the system we use now, which by all credible accounts is working just fine.
     This is evil because it wraps corruption in the cloak of "reform," trying to fool you into voting against your own interests.


Prop 116: OK

This one would increase the exemption from property tax on business and industrial equipment from about $68,000 to "full cash value," meaning all of it. It's called the Small Business Job Creation Act, and while it seems to me that its real effect on employment will be close to nil and the "small businesses" taking the deduction will be pretty big, Republicans and Democrats agree that its effect on state revenue will be small, and it will help encourage existing businesses and attract new business from out of state.


Prop 117: Bait and switch

Every pol running for reelection wants to be able to say that he or she is doing something to reduce your taxes. The Legislature set up this proposition as a campaign booster — but not an actual tax-reducer.
     It would amend the Constitution to put a cap on annual increases in the assessed value of property to 5%, where there's no limit now. This sounds great, especially to fixed-income homeowners who watched their assessments rise like Charlton Heston's jell-o flood during the boom years.
     Keeping tax increases to reasonable levels is a fine idea, but this measure won't do it because it caps assessed value, not taxes on the property. Counties set their tax rates to pull in enough revenue to support their budgets. There would be no cap on how much revenue the state draws in property taxes overall. Assessed values are only used to determine who gets to share how much of the load, and properties rising more quickly in value are more sheltered, so, counterintuitively, this amendment would shift relatively more tax burden to lower-value properties as the county makes up the difference in rates. The taxpayer who votes for this hoping to reduce his taxes could easily find his bill going up faster afterward.


Props 118, 119: Good

These are both technical issues related to the administration of state lands, to which no one apparently objects. It's odd to see Governor Brewer and the Sierra Club both in support, so I don't think we're likely to go wrong here.
     Briefly, Prop 118 would allow a ten-year change in the formula used for distributing profits from the state land trust to increase the flow of funds to the schools. Had it been in place in 2010, says State Land Commissioner Maria Baier, our education system would have received $48 million rather than nothing from the fund that year.
     Prop 119 would change the system to allow land swaps to maintain or improve the value of state trust lands. If you've ever looked at a public-lands map of the state, you've seen the checkerboard created by alternating public and private land sections. This amendment would allow the state to consolidate high-value public areas and trade out lower-value land for development.

Update: 118 Failed, 119 Passed

Prop 120: Evil and stupid

This is silly grandstanding by the group of people who can't read well enough to understand the Tenth Amendment and wrongly deduce that the federal government is essentially illegitimate inside the borders. With a few exceptions Prop 120 declares "sovereignty" over all lands in the state and turns them over to the tender care of the Legislature. It's a little over the top to imagine that our pols might decide to allow condo developments inside the Grand Canyon, but from my reading of this constitutional amendment, there'd be nothing to stop them — except, of course, the very real and well established powers of the federal government, which would squash this amendment like a bug.
     Dream on, Tenthers, the world does not work in the way you imagine it should.


Prop 121: Maybe

Finally we get to a couple of propositions that are worth the ink to debate.
     Prop 121 is a fairly radical proposal to change our state electoral system. It would eliminate all partisan primary elections for state offices in favor of a qualified open primary, putting every candidate on the same ballot. The top two vote-winners in the primary would go on to the general election, regardless of party. The logic here is that it would dilute the influence of extreme voters in the primaries, which has been clearly giving us increasingly extreme candidates in the generals.
     California just started using this system, and so far the results have been mixed. It will take a few cycles for candidates and party organizations to figure out how it works. More candidates in the field make the results less reliable, for example, so third parties stand to lose as much as gain, and parties will have to be more focused in choosing candidates to support.
     We know that by several measures our system isn't working as it is. Is this the solution? Give it a think.


Prop 204: Maybe not

The proposition you'll hear most about in the campaign is about taxes, specifically reviving the 1% state sales tax after it expires next year. It's a very heavy and detailed document that attempts to lock the revenue in a series of boxes that the Legislature can't touch, thereby preventing the wholesale ripoff we've seen in the past three years and providing badly needed funds directly to our education system.     Can the boxes stay locked, in either the short or long term? That's hard to call, but I can say from reading it that the people behind this have gone to great length to try.
     The bigger question for me is the ripple effects through the economy of a permanent, arbitrary sales tax. Sales taxes are always harder on those with less money, including small businesses that depend on retail sales. Municipalities rely on setting local sales taxes as well, and that 1% lump substantially reduces their room to maneuver.
     The real problem here is that our Legislature has lacked either the wit or the stones to build a sensible, sustainable revenue system for the state. Taxation by initiative is acceptable as a stopgap measure when the capitol is as dysfunctional as it's been lately, but ultimately we need a better long-term solution.
     That said, no one gets a second chance to be eight years old, and for kids in school now there's no time to wait for a new crop of pols to appear. It's a tough question.


Muggs: Guns Do Kill People

Pop Rocket, September 2012

Bear with an old-car guy for a minute.
     In the decades around the turn of the 19th century, automobiles were a fascinating but mostly frivolous luxury, toys for the rich, simply because there was no real need for them. Cities and towns were compact because people walked or used horses to move themselves and their goods. Greater distances and heavier loads were handled by railroads. The system was complete, and it worked.
Industrialists got busy, the world spun a few times, and by the end of the 1920s automobiles were essential to commerce and middle-class life. Affordable personal cars created new possibilities, roads were built and smoothed, people were getting out of the crowded, dirty cities and living farther from their workplaces. Suburbs sprang up, social classes separated further, and once nearly unimaginable long-distance travel for pleasure became commonplace.
     Reel forward to today, and there can be no question that the availability of automotive technology has radically transformed our world. Owning a car is essential to identity and social status for most of us, and it obviously changes how we think about the world and act in it.
We embrace the benefits of that technology and try not to think about its costs, amounting to between 30,000 and 43,000 dead and a quarter of a trillion dollars in economic impact every year in this country alone. But does it mean anything useful to say, "cars don't build suburbs, people do"?     
     In the aftermath of the Aurora mass shooting I read a fascinating piece in The Atlantic by Evan Selinger, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, introducing me to the little-known field of the philosophy of technology. Leading thinkers in the field agree on the basic premise that a person with a given technology in hand is different from one without, in terms of how we view the world, what the elements we perceive mean and which matter more, and the choices we make.
This rings true for me, like a bell, and brings a fresh point of view to the public debate over personal firearms, one that I think essential to clarifying the basis for how we act as a society.
      Like most old saws labeled "common sense," the cliche "guns don't kill people ..." is ridiculously simplistic. Yes, the human pulls the trigger, but how we understand that act has to change if we recognize that, to some degree, holding a weapon changes us, gives us a range of different choices, and significantly alters our perceptions of ourselves and others. Who can deny the feeling of power that comes over us when gripping a handgun for the first time?
       Selinger writes, "To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets. Furthermore, gun possession makes it easy to be bold, even hotheaded. Physically weak, emotionally passive, and psychologically introverted people will all be inclined to experience shifts in demeanor. ... there is a reduction in the amount and intensity of environmental features that are perceived as dangerous, and a concomitant amplification in the amount and intensity of environmental features that are perceived as calling for the subject to respond with violence."
       It may be that this has been a more or less constant factor in the history of our relationship with firearms. But neither the technology nor our society has stood still. The weapons have grown steadily more powerful, dangerous and accessible, while at the same time our social fabric has deteriorated, leaving most people relatively isolated from larger communities and other kinds of people, infantilized in their focus on self, suckling a steady stream of media sensationalism encouraging distrust and fear. From this is born the cult of the gun, showing just how sick our societal relationship with firearms has become.
      Leaving aside our occasional fascination with mass killings like that in Aurora, Americans generally avoid thinking about cost. Each year something on the order of 100,000 Americans are killed or injured by firearms. Yet most people seem confident that the benefits of access to this technology outweigh the costs. The main benefit seems to be that a gun helps alleviate fear, usually unjustified, which has to feed back into changing the gun-wielder.
        It's a cliché to say that the men who wrote our Bill of Rights could not have imagined an AK-47, but it's also true that they had no concept of how guns change people and ultimately the society they inhabit. Anyone with better than a gnat's brain can see that the situation is out of control. Our sensible 18th-century safeguard against invasion has grown into an unrecognizable and self-destructive social pathology.
      Sensible people everywhere in this country are beginning to rethink their individual relationships with guns. I think it's high time we as a nation start to grow up about this issue, face the massive and insidious cost of the mythology we've built around it, and dig into making changes to head off an even more threatening future.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Must read: We really are all egalitarians

In another fascinating piece in The Atlantic, researchers report on a large, broad group study designed to uncover how Americans really feel about income distribution, with surprising results:

Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don't Realize It)

Muggs: Back to Primary School

Pop Rocket, August 2012

The horror is upon us, and on August 28 some of the voters in our area will choose who represents us all in the state Legislature and the county Board of Supervisors.
    If you're a registered Democrat, Green or Libertarian, you'll be sitting this particular election out, sad to say. Your parties have either failed to come up with any candidate at all, or are stuck deep in the rough. If you want to do better than that, you'll have to start showing up at some meetings and doing spadework for next time.
    Sure, there's another election in a few months, and that has its own charms, but the local races are all about the Republican primary. The November poll only ratifies the decisions made this month for the offices I'm talking about. So for now I'm addressing you Republicans and independents, since you are our only real hope for improving the political landscape.
    You've been switching the channel away from the political ads, maybe you grumble about the signs cluttering up the streets, and you've probably been dodging chats with politics geeks like me, but let's say you're not one of the hopeless cynics intoning with moral superiority about the uselessness of voting and, not incidentally, making things worse.
    Assuming you've kept the county up to date on your address, pretty soon you'll get a sample ballot in the mail. If you're registered as unaffiliated or independent, you'll get three or four, and you get to pick one to vote.
     You're probably a working stiff with a family or other overcommitments, so you won't have time to sit in on one of the rare candidate forums or show up for a meet-and-greet. If you have any sense at all you're not listening to talk/hate radio, so you won't likely hear local political advertising. Maybe you glanced at the brief profiles in the paper on your way to the funnies, or if you've been paying unusual attention you remember one or two things that one of the more experienced candidates did in the past. There's a small chance that a candidate has actually shown up at your door, asking for a signature on a petition and hoping for the chance to make a case to you, which you more than likely declined without hesitation. But if you're living an average life you're unlikely to have any useful information about the candidates beyond the names on the yard signs.
    The ghastly reality is that an awful lot of people are casting ballots based on no more than that.
    But let's say you're ready to put down the cheese puffs, whip into your Super Voter suit and rush out to save the world for democracy and The American Way.
    Just do us all a favor and try to avoid choosing candidates who are no better prepared than you are.
    Political issues are complex, so candidates offering promises and simple answers should provoke immediate suspicion. Usually this sort of talk comes from people with the least experience. Those who know the ropes are much slower to give an opinion, and that only after careful study of the details.
    As illustrated by our hopelessly deadlocked Congress, the public-policy process requires cooperation and compromise. We're not elevating monarchs here to wield power by fiat, we're choosing volunteers to go into harshly lit rooms for low pay to work out solutions that no one's completely happy with. That demands the ability to check the ego at the door, really hear and respect the ideas of others, and work cooperatively to find the best and most practical solution.
    Experience with the political process matters. There's a huge learning curve going into any office for the first time, and much as you dislike the idea of "career politicians," someone who's been around the block a few times is far more likely to be able to make good things happen.
    Most important, policy is always about the future. We usually wind up reacting to the current crisis because some previous officeholder failed to think about what was coming, or (worse) was working to take us back to some mythically wonderful past. Above a clear-eyed understanding of the problems we face, a good candidate offers a positive vision for the kind of community he or she wants to help build in the years ahead.
    "But but but," you cry, "none of them is good enough!" You know what? You're right. But no one's been good enough since 1776, and the old machine is still ticking over.
    If you're waiting for Superman, give it up. We govern ourselves, and that means putting ordinary people in place to do extraordinary things. That starts with you, Ordinary Voter, doing what has become the extraordinary work of figuring out whom to elect. Your decision matters to me and everyone else here. Get to it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Must read: How I Ended My Lifelong Love Affair With Guns

Again from The Atlantic, Chauncey Hollingsworth describes the evolution of his thinking about guns and how changes in social attitudes are increasing the risk of our endemic gun culture. I think this line of thinking is essential to the gun-violence debate, and not much considered in the media.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Editorial: Screw the voters

Today the unnamed editor sticks up for Secretary of State Ken Bennett in trying to kick the sales-tax initiative off the ballot. After clearly stating his opposition to the measure, he declares adherence to the fine points of procedure more important than the will of the voters.

If this stickling for the letter of the law were his real motivation, why does he feel compelled to go on about how he doesn't like the idea of a new sales-tax extension? To me this screams of an argument rigged to reach a preset conclusion.

Along the way, the editor mischaracterizes the proposed tax as "only an extension of a current tax." In point of fact the new proposal is better designed to focus the funds on education and keep them out of the hands of the Legislature, which has misappropriated them over the past three years.

He also holds back some important information in saying that Bennett "believes that the group's submitted paperwork does not match the verbiage on the circulated petitions." The backstory is that the group did indeed file two versions with the SoS's office, one in hard copy and a slightly longer one in electronic form that it wound up using for its petitions. Bennett's staff never looked at the version on CD to make sure the two versions were reconciled, and rather than do the sensible thing and paste the CD version into the website, they accepted the paper version as the only one and retyped the hard copy. This doesn't sound like smart management to me.

For the record, I won't support another sales-tax extension either. I think our retailers and less-well-off consumers have taken it in the shorts for the Legislature's incompetence long enough.

But liking or disliking the tax is beside the point. More than 290,000 voters signed petitions asking for the vote, and the mistake by Mr Bennett's office in putting the wrong version on his website cannot invalidate the intentions of the voters who signed on to the actual petition language.

If we truly care about the the headline's "integrity of the process," we have to go with the voters, not the legal dodge that best suits the outcome we want, and the court agrees.  If we hope to live up to our ideals and encourage more people to participate in public life, our electoral and initiative processes have to be inclusive. We have to do our best to give ideas and people a chance to prove themselves whenever we can. Using niggly procedures and arbitrary obstacles to keep people out only confirms the idea that the game is rigged.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Must read: The Geography of Gun Violence

Writing in The Atlantic, Richard Florida presents some illuminating facts about gun violence in this country . Hint: the most common ideas in the culture are myths, and mythic thinking is a factor.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The "Overtaxed Middle Class" myth

The head of Harvard's Economics Department, Greg Mankiw, crunches some numbers and finds, surprisingly, that middle-class Americans are now receiving slightly more from the government than they pay in. The blog post is non-technical and a good, brief primer on the tax/transfer balance.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Stealth voters

The AZ Capitol Times (sub req)  is reporting that the shift in voter registrations to the "other" columns continues, favoring Republicans against Democrats in some key races this fall. The article leaves independents out of the vote calculus, so its conclusion has a pretty high bogosity ratio, but the chart is interesting:

This clearly shows that the shift to independent status is almost entirely from the Democratic voter rolls, and from it I'd like to speculate that lots of Dems are waking up to the idea that voting in the Republican primary is where the action is. 

If you're registered as a Dem and you'd like to have something to say about who's representing us in our area, it makes a lot of sense to reregister as independent and pull the R ballot in primary. You've got till the end of July. Check into it. 

A license to print money

In a blog post yesterday, Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman calls the lie that the US economy is headed for some sort of Greek-style meltdown, based in part on this chart, showing that US bond rates have reached their lowest point since the war:

The logic here relies on the intelligence of the market: if investors were concerned about the US ability to fulfill its debt obligations, bond rates would be trending higher. The opposite is clearly the case. 

There's another important takeaway from this that Krugman doesn't mention. As the cost of borrowing (a bond is essentially a fixed-rate, fixed-term loan from an investor) goes down, investment based on bond capitalization (infrastructure, education, jobs programs, energy retrenchment, etc.) makes more sense economically, as the returns on the investment improve. New lower-rate bonds can also be used to pay off older higher-rate bonds, a standard move that's a lot like refinancing your home, but with much lower associated cost.

Obviously an unusual  flood of new bonds  on the market alters their value overall, but within sensible limits these low values support larger borrowing for economic stimulus. Handled cannily, this can actually reduce projected debt service even as it raises short-term deficits. 

This puts the US in the best position since the 1950s to leverage prosperity from debt, making massive debt-based stimulus more practical than at any time in generations. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Senator Kyl eats your brain

In which the retiring Arizona senator characterizes our recovering economy as half-dead and proposes that we should turn it back over to the Republicans, who will finish it off with a bullet to the head.

He starts with the monthly employment report, that is the unexamined bottom-line number of 80,000 jobs gained (like, new jobs for everyone in the quad-city area in a month), characterizing it as  "disappointing." This presumably opposed to the end of the Bush administration, where we started losing twice that many a month.

I get it, if we want to put the zoom back in the economy and make more money for the rich white guys that might trickle down to us peons, we want to see bigger employment numbers, sure.

But let's bust out some figures to get a little clearer idea of what's actually going on.

The number of people employed in the private sector has broken through its level at the beginning of the Obama administration and is steadily clocking upward:

Surprised? I was. That's right, private-sector employment has fully recovered and is gaining strength, with about 3 million people hired the past year.

So why is our unemployment number still high? Take a look at state and local public-sector jobs — cops, firemen, teachers, administrators, builders, maintenance workers, etc:

Check that scale above. Since '09 700,000 people have been pushed out of the public sector and the trend is still downward.

It gets worse. The chart below counts federal employees. (The spike was census hiring.)

That's another 200,000 jobs lost, and trending down again.

So our overall employment problem is clearly in the public sector, where states, municipalities, school districts and federal agencies have been laying off droves of people.

These charts are from a 24-chart presentation on Business Insider that gives a very solid, graphic perspective on these cross-currents in our economy. Worth a look.

Eating our brains since '87.
Now, class, who's responsible for this public-sector collapse in employment and investment? Right, it's the critters in Congress who've demanded their pound of flesh in the form of shrinking government — critters not at all unlike our own Senator Kyl — as well as Republican governors, legislators, county officials and city councillors who have insisted on cutting jobs willy-nilly rather than do anything to shore up revenues and maintain the vital services that public employees provide.

The result is a national malaise and a more or less stagnant situation for Main Street while Wall Street and International Street rake in hyperbolically increasing profits.

It's a zombie economy, maybe, and we're doing something wrong, absolutely. But I think it's listening to ideological zombies like Mr Kyl. Can we please stop now?

Editorial: Quantum effect of lying

In today's column the unnamed editor reviews his fact-check fail in the case of last month's puff piece on William Few, who apparently made some claims about his military record that were untrue. The editor seems unhappy about this, but generally deflects the paper's responsibility for reinforcing the story back on its subject, while refusing to call his lies anything worse than "unacceptable."

Fictionalized personal war stories are somewhat ickier than fish stories, I'll grant. But as the Supreme Court ruled last week, there's nothing illegal about it. That comes as a relief to anyone who's ever padded a resume.

The editor, on the other hand, sees specific harm in the practice. He says, "Misrepresenting one's military service is much more serious, though. In doing so, a person seeks to elevate his or her own perceived value while diminishing that rightfully belonging to someone who really did the work, faced the dangers and accomplished the missions," (emphasis mine).

This is an Evel Knievel  leap in logic, describing a world that contains a fixed amount of respect for military service that can be stolen, borrowed and presumably bought, sold and donated. In this world a lie on one side of an opaque screen magically makes a non-liar on the other side less believable, a sort of quantum credibility effect.

One man's excessive bragging does not affect the perception of someone else's deeds, editor, that's just ridiculous. This is why it's not illegal. When one tells lies to do harm to another, we call it fraud, and it's prosecutable. Finding out that someone lied to you is a bummer, but you can't sue for a bummer, sorry. 

A little more critical thinking is in order here, and some reflection on our culture's recent penchant for elevating soldiers to demigod status. What's next, prosecuting a guy for overstating his minor-league baseball experience?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cantlon: Another Great Recession is on horizon

I was a little startled to see how my friend Tom, whose style is normally quite carefully measured and his arguments stolid and calm, breaks out in today's column to a new level of alarm and apparent deep anger at the craven gamblers who hold our economy hostage to profit at any cost.

He's been reading Matt Taibbi, who's always inspiring in showing how to combine solid reporting with a strong point of view and emotional clarity. Taibbi takes no prisoners, and is often ahead of the pack in getting to the root of a complex problem.

The house always wins.
But I gather Tom's just reached his boiling point on the greed-is-good culture, which ought to soundly piss off everyone who cares more than a gnat's eyelash about social stability and economic security. It truly amazes me that Americans continue to tolerate the crazy casino that has accumulated on the foundations of what was once a perfectly sensible trade in equities as the basis for capital concentration to accomplish positive objectives. As we've seen over the past few years, everything we care about is at risk every day to the greedy whims of rank sociopaths.

The obvious question that Tom raises is how to go about containing the threat. Miles and miles of ink have been spent discussing how we could monkey around on the fringes and maybe do a little good. A tax on equity trades is one example of trying to rig incentives to make investors act more sensibly. I'm afraid it's too late for this kind of small thinking, though. Already the sociopaths have gathered  too much wealth to themselves to care much about fingernail parings from their profit margins, so this sort of reform would do little more than hurt people and companies who are already investing sensibly to serve real needs.

What makes sense to me is finding a way to legally define and strictly limit purely speculative and short-term investment, for example by requiring hard settlements and transfers, pricing equities according to investment term (like bank CDs, with penalties for early resale accruing to the invested company), and outright bans worldwide on computer-triggered trading. If we can slow the system down, we can hope that traders will think more carefully about what they're doing, and if we rig the system to favor longer-term investment, we'll see better reflection of real values.

Considering that even brief discussion of this area of public policy causes immediate eye-glazing in most people, I have to wonder what, with his call to the streets, Tom is hoping they will write on their protest signs. Perhaps he'll expand on this next week.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Tapped Out

Pop Rocket, July 2012

The annual monsoon is upon us, or it should be. Late immigrants to our area will be forgiven for scoffing at the idea that significant amounts of water fall from the sky this month, as the weather trend has been progressively drier in recent years. June and the anticipation of July always remind me of our dire situation with water and our glacially slow progress in doing anything about it.
     Contrary to appearances, we're not completely paralyzed. I recently spoke with Prescott Valley Water Resources Manager John Munderloh about a pilot project he's working on with the Upper Verde Watershed Protection Coalition (which in documents goes by the mind-numbing acronym UVWPC) to study various engineering schemes to keep rainwater from evaporating and get it into our aquifers instead.
     It's called macro rainwater harvesting, and the plan is to take five half-acre plots donated by Chino Valley, treat them in different ways that promote concentration and penetration of water, and study and compare the results to come up with engineering cost-benefit analyses.
     This small pilot project has been in development for four years and will run for three, maybe five years before it offers conclusions. The five governments involved, including the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe, have put up $130,000 for it. If everything goes well, construction could begin late this summer.
     Obviously no one's planning to bulldoze vast areas of the county and do landforming and soil amendments to catch rain. But on a scale of a few acres here and there in spots most conducive to recharging the aquifers, it could do some good. Says Munderloh, "The days of large single-source water projects may be waning. Those things have already been developed. There's probably not going to be another canal from the Colorado River for us. So we need to look at all the possible solutions. This may not be the panacea, but it may fill in a number of gaps."
     See, it's all about small percentages. Currently only about 2% of rain makes it into groundwater supplies. About the same amount runs off to sprinkle golf courses in Maricopa County. The rest evaporates after it hits the ground or transpires from plants. Encouraging another 1% to sink in could make our area far more sustainable long-term.
     It'll cost us, of course. Munderloh: "We have to let water supplies go by that would be cheap for us to appropriate, but because there's a senior appropriator downstream, we have to let the cheap water go, and we go after the more expensive stuff."
     This really brings home to me how we have to put a much higher priority on securing water resources. Other than some pretty tight individual conservation on a large scale, which no one in officialdom thinks we're ready to even contemplate, no option is easy. (Did I just mention that conservation is easy?)
     The UVWPC is moving ahead with this in a perfectly rational way, carefully looking at options, building consensus and doing long-term studies to get an idea of what sort of initiative will be most effective. On top of the physical challenges, we'll also have to satisfy a recently constituted committee in the state Legislature that nothing we're contemplating will have any effect on the big cities downstream.
     Given the already huge groundwater deficits we run every year to quench the thirst of a population too large for the ecosystem to carry, compounded by a decades-long drought with no end in sight and accelerating climate change promising worse, all this careful incrementalism sets my hair on fire. We're moving slower than grass growing, and there's no grass.
     Rick Shroads, president of Civiltec Engineering and the contractor handling the project, tells me there are other ideas on the table: "We have a menu of pilot projects that we'd like to do, but of course funding is our stumbling block." The coalition picked this project to fit its budget, essentially. The designs that it'll be testing for five years are already working elsewhere in the world, presumably racking up hard results daily. I try to imagine why we're not plugging those numbers into our spreadsheets and moving to the next phase, and all I can think is that Americans simply won't take anything seriously that's not invented here.
     This is not a problem we can put off for decades, and there's no silver bullet. We're already using a lot more water than we have coming in, and every sensible scientific projection shows progressively less coming in for the foreseeable future. All around us, the ghost towns show us what happened when the mines tapped out. Imagine how much more decisively a lack of water will wither our economy.
     We need a very serious concentration of human and monetary resources working this problem with old-school wartime priority if we're to hope to solve it. We're all going to have to kick in, and there's no getting around paying much more for water. (Think I mean "a lot more"? Double it.) That will come sooner or later, and the sooner it comes, the more time we have to build and balance a sustainable system. But bear in mind that anything we do with engineering will still depend on rain, and there will be less of that all the time. Use less. Now use less than that.

Courier confirms god is a fact

Front page top: "'Help from above' saved church camp." Oh, please.

The headline is in half quotes, yes, but the same idea is in the body of the piece without them. Obviously there was no miraculous event in the story. Humans started the fire, humans put it out.

Religionists talk like this all the time, sure, and there's nothing against putting such blather in news stories with attribution and quotes. The offensive sloppiness here comes from the editor's blind spot around religion. Some self-examination and professional review is in order. But to that I'll add an apology to the firefighters for cheapening their work in favor of the sky-pilot myth.

Update, Wednesday: It's fascinating how quickly and uniformly the Xtians rise up, recast criticism of the editor's mistake as an attack on the faith, and bemoan their persecution in the comments. The persecution mythos, inherited from Judaism, is one of the dangerous angles of this particular faith — if you believe someone's out to get you, it justifies all sorts of aggression.