Sunday, December 18, 2016

Eminent domain: public good or crony capitalism?

Kelo v New London is arguably the worst Supreme Court decision of my life time still in effect. Citizens United is terrible too but it mostly legimitized a system that was increasingly corrupt anyways.


The US Constitution permits the taking of “private property for public USE" with just compensation.This process was typically used to obtain land to build highways, bridges, parks and other things the public has access to. There have often been battles over what constitutes just compensation but the principle of what constituted “public use” was pretty clear.


The Kelo ruling threw this out and authorized eminent domain  to be used for the far more nebulous reason of the public benefit. This is often invoked to justify giving the land – or selling it at a pittance - to a private developer to build a private structure because of the “public benefit” of greater tax revenue.


In other words, it opened the door for the government to seize property and use it to further crony capitalism.


In this story, the city of Hartford, CT, seized land from a developer who wanted to build a mixed-use structure adjacent to where a new baseball stadium was being built. The city seized the property from one developer and gave it to another developer.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The biggest loser of this presidential election: journalism

I’ve been saying for a long time that the decline of journalism would have a major impact on civic life in America. It was not an original though... Chris Hedges even wrote a book about it. 

This decline did not start in 2016 nor did its effects.

My dad pointed out the start of this trend about 20 years ago. It was reinforced to me when I lived abroad and listened on shortwave to foreign radio stations and noticed how differently they covered issues.

The decline is essentially the increasing emphasis on polls and “analysis” and opinion at the expense of in-depth factual reporting. Journalism has become less about revealing what’s going on beneath the surface and mostly dominated by parroting of superficial conventional wisdom. It’s shallow b.s. and the media that pats itself on the bdack as watchdog is suffocated by it.

For the last several years, Nate Silver has been canonized by adherents of the analysis school of “journalism.” I think only a week before the election, I checked his site. It said that Hillary Clinton had at least a 95% chance of winning (might have been 99%). It said that she had 268 electoral votes in the bag and Trump 210. And that basically Trump had to win every single swing state, bar none, to win the election. Clinton will end up far short of even that 268 that Mr. Infallible predicted. He epitomizes the failure of modern journalism. He’s a statistician yet the media treated what he did as journalism.

Trump/Pence’s fascist bigoted agenda was only endorsed by one of every four Americans. Trump is our president but the overwhelming majority did not endorse his agenda. Only one of our four

Nearly half of all Americans did not vote. This shows how sick our democracy is far more so than the identity of the winning ticket. The media only reports on two choices. And despite overwhelming disgust with those two, they almost completely ignore the two (national ones) that offer something meaningfully different. “Conventional wisdom” was that you were wasting your vote if you voted for a smaller party candidate. Even on those rare occasions a smaller party candidate gets media attention, there is NEVER an occasion where s/he isn’t asked about being a “spoiler” or chances of winning or other horse race garbage. S/he is lucky if meaningful policy discussion is even half of the interview.

So when you are told that your choices are to waste your vote on a good candidate or support someone you find morally repugnant, it is any surprise nearly half of Americans said “the heck with all this”? When they find out that the person who gets the most votes doesn’t win – unlike EVERY OTHER OFFICE IN AMERICA – it makes the process seem even more pointless. When “experts” and the professional pundit class tell them must vote for the “lesser of two evils” and to vote for A because B sucks even more, does that really inspire them with a deep sense of patriotic and civic pride?

If you want those half of Americans to actually vote, don’t lecture them. Don’t condescend to them. Give them a positive reason to do so.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Donald Trump will be your president. It's up to you to make sure he knows that.

Donald Trump will be my president in a few months. Just as Barack Obama will be my president until then. This is true even though I never voted for either of them.

There is a very simple reason for this.

If he is not my president, he owes me nothing.

If he is my president, then he is my public SERVANT. If he is my president, then he has the obligation to represent me. If he is my president, then I have standing to hold his rear end accountable and his administration's if he doesn't. If he is my president and I don't think he's doing a good job, I can try to get him fired in four years.

He will be the president of ALL Americans in a few months, whether he likes it or not. He needs to be reminded of that. Don't give him and his team an excuse to do otherwise.

He will be your president. It's up to you to make sure of that.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Fearmongering didn't prevent Brexit, won't prevent President Trump

The departure of the UK from the European Union and the rise of Trump are interesting and related phenomena. 

It's often said in this country that Trump is a threat to our democracy. In fact, he's a product of our democracy's failures. The same could be said of the Brexit.

Hatemongering fascists have always been an undercurrent of most societies. They only rise to prominence when the ruling elite is discredited as corrupt and dishonest and betraying those who work for a living. 

The EU is not really a coherent organization or set of institutions. Although it does confer many benefits, it's marginally democratic and hard for people to feel a sense of loyalty toward. Fixing it was a harder sell that quitting it. But the latter will have consequences too. 

It's easy for someone to look at Hillary Clinton's traditionally sketchy relationship with truth and ethics and think "The heck with that." As Trump is the only alternative most are made aware of, the disgusted gravitate toward him. 

It's beyond question that many racists and other bigots support Trump. But it's a mistake to infer that all, or even most, Trump supporters are like that. Many just want something different from the corporatist sellouts that the Democratic and GOP elites have been shoving down our throats for decades and erroneously think Trump is their only option. 

Trump's a more firmly part of the exploitative elitist class than even Clinton. And he's not their only non-Clinton option. Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Dr. Jill Stein are both far better choices than Trump and Clinton and offer positive, affirmative agendas. 

Spending decades trivializing the concerns of people who work for a living - and claiming they are just racists - is what's caused the huge backlash against the Democratic and Republican elites. 

Establishment fearmongering didn't prevent the Brexit and it will not be enough by itself to prevent a Trump presidency. When you don't give people an affirmative option to say yes to, the vacuum will usually be filled with something more nefarious.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Why the 'spoiler' and 'wasted vote' smears are so resented

"The reality of Washington, D.C., today is that we have one party, the Republican Party, completely dominated by big money and right wing folks. And you have another party, the Democratic Party, too much controlled by corporate money...” –Sen. Bernie Sanders. This is presumably why he himself is not a registered Democrat. This is definitely why I am not one.

A lot of mainstream Democrats and Republicans do not understand why phrases like 'spoiler' and 'wasted vote' are so resented by smaller party and independent voters. The reason is simple: it profoundly offends our notions of fair play and of what democracy is supposed to be about.

I think voting is supposed to be an expression of your values and priorities. If you vote this way, you, by definition, cannot spoil democracy because this IS democracy. If you honestly believe that a Democrat or Republican better corresponds with your values and priorities than a smaller party opponent, then by all means vote for him or her.

Somebody saying, "[Democrat/Republican] is the best choice because of positions on x, y and z and is superior to [smaller party candidate] because of a, b and c" is not only fair game but exactly how democracy is supposed to work.

Whereas, somebody saying, "Vote for [smaller party candidate] is a wasted vote" or "... is only running to feed his ego" is offensive. It's saying that ideas are irrelevant to how one should vote.

(Incidentally, you don't subject yourself to the grind and expense of an electoral campaign as a smaller party candidate with no money because of the glory. It's a fairly absurd implication)

In the last Congressional race in my area, nearly 20,000 citizens voted for the Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello. Everyone did so because they thought he reflected their values and beliefs better than his Democratic and Republican opponents. If you want to those citizens and told them to their face that they only cast their votes that way to 'spoil' the race, I suspect you'd get some unpleasant reactions.

Smaller party members are going against so-called conventional wisdom simply by joining a smaller party. Most do so because they still think elections should be governed by ideas, not polls, analysis, speculation and punditry. Telling them otherwise is usually going to be counterproductive. Make the case based on ideas or don't bother.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Trump, not Sanders, is the candidate for the entitled generation

Sen. Bernie Sanders promotes taxpayer-funded college so that students can earn a degree, EARN a living, pay taxes and contribute to the system, rather than live off social programs. And he's the candidate of the entitled?

Sorry, but Donald Trump is the spoiled brat. Don't get what you want? Don't like the well-established rules? Just throw a temper tantrum and bait your supporters into doing the same. Try to intimidate the judges. Compare your critics to ISIS (but then claim you don't want them hurt). And enable this entitlement by paying the legal bills of thugs who break the law as long as they support your candidate. Trump is an entitled brat for the entitled brat demographic.

Oh and if building a wall and expecting someone else to pay for isn't 'socialism,' then I don't know what is.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Happy birthday Peace Corps

Today is national Peace Corps Day. In 2004, I wrote this essay (slightly modified since) in honor of Peace Corps Day. It's become a bit of a tradition for me to re-post it every March 1.

Moms and dads have their day. Old presidents have their day. So do labor unions and medieval saints. Soldiers have two official days plus numerous 'support our troops' rallies. Even bosses and secretaries have days, according to Hallmark. So why not Peace Corps volunteers?

Today is Peace Corps Day. It's the 54th anniversary of the day President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.

Some people think the Peace Corps is a military organization. In fact, it's the antithesis. It's an organization which sends volunteers to developing countries to engage in such activities as teaching, public health, environmental management and small business development.

Volunteers receive a living allowance to cover their basic expenses and are provided housing, but are otherwise not paid. They received a modest readjustment allowance following completion of their service and a small (10 percent when I left) reduction in federal student loans. But they otherwise receive no further medical care or educational benefits. There is a small movement to obtain for departing volunteers benefits more similar to those received by those leaving the military, but it hasn't gotten anywhere.

The goals of the Peace Corps, according to the organization's website, are three:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Suffice it to say, all three goals have been important since the organization was created but #2 seems particularly crucial in the era of post-9/11 random invasions. Though increasingly, it feels like a "one step forward, three steps back" routine.

There have been many books on "the Peace Corps experience" (which is about as broad a generalization as "the American mentality"). Nevertheless, some themes tend to be pretty common among them.

-Go to God-foresaken country with the expectation to save the noble savages.

-Learn that they are not savages and that they are noble/ignoble in more or less the same proportion as Americans.

-Sense of loneliness in a totally alien culture.

-Learn that life without TV/computer is not the apocalypse.

-Leave with the realization that you learned more than they did.

-Sadness when they have to leave their village/city.

-Transmit these themes interspersed with a lot of humorous anecdotes.

-Commentary on the impact of American foreign policy, French foreign policy and the IMF/World Bank may be included.

Common themes for volunteers who served in sub-Saharan Africa, as I did, are as follows:

-Annoyance at people who call you 'toubabou' (or whatever the local language word for 'white person' is); "My name isn't 'toubabou'," fumes the author. "My name is John!"

-Agitation that everyone wanted you to marry their sister/brother/son/daughter or get them a visa to go to America.

-Rage at the dichotomy between the fabulous wealth of the political elite and the overwhelming poverty of the masses.

-Observation to the effect that "[nationality] are so poor monetarily but so rich in spirit/culture/community."

-Elegies about how welcoming [nationality] are to strangers.

-A brief history of the country and the legacy of European colonialism.

-Maddening anecdotes about dealing with corrupt officials, musings on heat, mosquitoes and hygeine and comical (or frightening) travel stories.

-General commentary about "the African condition" may be included.

(And just so I don't sound like a snob, I included every one of these themes in my journal and letters home)

The best book I've ever read about "the Peace Corps experience" was George Packer's The Village of Waiting. It was a wonderfully written book in its own right. But I enjoyed it even more because, even though it was set in Togo and I served in Guinea, it was pretty much the story of my experience. Reading The Village of Waiting is why I decided not to write a strictly autobiographical account of my experience: it had already been done.

Update: Just a reminder that in the history of the Peace Corps, 296 men and women have died in service, at least one in every year (except 1986) that the Peace Corps has existed. A website has been devoted to them.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sloppy Post-Star's death by a thousand (self-inflicted) cuts

I know quality control at the Post-Star has become pretty close to non-existent but this is inexcusable even by their standards.
They ran a front page graphic earlier this week which claimed that teachers at Warrensburg missed an average of 10.6 days per year per teacher. This was far higher than any other local school, so obviously it gave the district a black eye.
Then the paper ran a correction - buried in middle of the paper in a tiny segment - stating that OOPS they had used an incorrect data point and that Warrensburg teachers had actually missed only 3.27 days per year per teacher. This was well within the norm of local schools. 
So what did they do yesterday? The print edition* re-ran the old graphic with THE DATA THAT THEY THEMSELVES HAD STATED WAS WRONG.  
(*-this has been corrected in the online edition)
Incidentally, this discredited table was paired with a deceptive editorial using a troubling national statistic and implying that it was a problem locally, even though local numbers are 1/2 to 2/3 lower.
This is what you get in product whose price has doubled in recent years. 
Mainstream journalists like to tell themselves that newspapers' implosion is due to the increased desire for commentary and contempt for objective journalism. And to a large extent, that's true. But there's also a large number of people who see sloppiness like this and no longer see the use in spending their money on an entity with a credibility suffering a death by a thousand self-inflicted cuts.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hillary Clinton's Al Gore problem

Even aside from propping up the oligarchy, purely as a campaigner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to have two of the same problems as then Vice-President Al Gore did in 2000.

The first is that she, and her supporters, give the impression that she thinks she is owed victory, simply because it's her turn. When the fate of people who work for a living is center stage, coming across as entitled is bad politics.

Outrageously offensive comments by feminist icon Gloria Steinem and another former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, both supporters of Mrs. Clinton, illustrate that. Both are upset that young women overwhelmingly support Clinton's primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders. Steinem said that young women only supported Sanders to get boys. Albright said that a "special place in hell" was reserved for females who supported Clinton's opponent (some argue that there's a special place in hell reserved for Albright herself).

Their "feminist" message is that young women should shut up, turn their brains off and do what their (feminist) elders command them to. Does their idea of feminism want to replace patriarchy with matriarchy or with meritocracy? Seems like they are hijacking feminism to push their partisan agendas.

The second, and it's really related to the first, is that Clinton and Gore both suffer from what the French call syndrome de premier de classe, the smartest kid in the room syndrome. They are both extremely intelligent people. They think that alone is enough.

Being intelligent and well-versed on key issues is very important to being president. We've seen the disaster of presidents who aren't and end up being manipulated by their inner circle.

At the same time, we've also seen extremely intelligent presidents get themselves into trouble because either they were borderline sociopaths (Nixon) or they grew up thinking their intelligence gave them impunity (Bill Clinton).

Politics and governing are not school exams where the smartest person always come out on top. But politics does have one similarity with school: no one likes the person who thinks they're entitled.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Dr. King's real dream: dignity for all

Below is my annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day essay. Those who turn Dr. King into some sort of saccharine saint, as being solely about government equality under law for all skin colors, trivialize his  struggle. He was about that, but about much more than that. His struggle was about the dignity of human beings, in the broadest sense. This New York Times essay says it best: Martin Luther King Jr. Would Want a Revolution, Not a Memorial. My essay Confrontation is central to human rights movements explores another misrepresented aspect of Dr. King.


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy against segregation and other forms of state-sponsored racism. On this national holiday honoring him, it's worth remembering that King viewed as more than mere legal racial equality. He viewed the struggle more broadly as one in favor of human dignity. This is why he did not retire from public life following legalistic victories such as Brown vs the Board of Education or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Although legal segregation was crumbling in the last years of his life, Dr. King did not diminish his activism in any way. He merely refocused it toward another aspect of human dignity.

At the time of his assassination in 1968, King was in Memphis as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SLCC) Poor People's Campaign, where the city's garbage workers were protesting against unlivable wages. The SLCC had conceived the campaign as a way to mobilize poor  people of all skin colors on behalf of a federal economic plan to rebuild American cities.

King realized that the end of state-imposed segregation would not improve the lives of black people if they remained miserably poor. In much the same way the lives of blacks in the south remained virtually unchanged long after the 'transition' from slavery to sharecropping.

King viewed the campaign part as the second phase of the civil rights' struggle. He viewed endemic poverty as a civil rights' issue.

This commitment to human dignity animated another lesser known aspect of King's work: his opposition to the Vietnam War and to militarism more broadly.

During his Beyond Vietnam speech given exactly one year before his murder, he explained why opposition to the aggression against Vietnam had entered into his activism:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men [in the ghettos of the north], I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have  tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Americans were being shipped off to Vietnam to kill, to destroy and to die. Nothing good was happening because of this. And King knew that the war machine specifically sought those with few other economic options to serve as its cannon fodder, a situation that's little different today.

Like many social justice advocates before and since, he deplored how much of our national resources (both financial and human) was wasted on fabricating foreign enemies to obliterate. "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom," he warned.

King probably realized that the fact that many young people had few other economic options was no accident, but the result of conscious policy choices made to ensure an insatiable monster created, funded and propped up by your tax dollars always had food.

(It's not the only insatiable monster but the other main one merits an entry of its own)

To restrict Dr. King's legacy to the fight for legal equality for black people is to sell him short. And it's misleads people into believing that his dream has been realized. His true struggle was the quest for human dignity for all people.

He could be no clearer about this when he concluded his Beyond Vietnam speech:

We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

If you truly want to honor him, then follow this injunction.