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.