It ain’t acquittal less’n ah SAY it’s acquittal

Dear President Obama,

Much as I consider you an enormous improvement over your predecessor, there is no way in the world I can support your administration’s claim that you have “post-acquittal detention power,” a baldly tyrannical claim that is one of the very things against which our Founding Fathers rebelled in creating the United States of America.

OK, I lied. There is one way, and only one, that I will support this claim: if you will exercise that power to detain the top members of your predecessor’s administration, for inventing that perversely anti-American doctrine in the first place.

What’s in a number, part 2

Gay-rights activists everywhere are abuzz with political strategy in the wake of last week’s decision by the California Supreme Court to uphold the ballot measure, Proposition 8, in the face of a challenge to its constitutionality.

I admit I’m a little confused. Proposition 8 was clearly flawed, but why do gay-rights activists in particular care so much about a mildly hysterical attempt to keep drugs out of K-12 classrooms, toughen teacher credentialing standards, and reduce class sizes? Besides, even though it was a long time ago, I seem to recall that measure failing at the ballot box, so what is there to uphold, and why all the furore now?

Ohhh… it’s the Proposition 8 of 2008 that everyone’s buzzing about, outlawing gay marriage; not the Proposition 8 of 1998. Well that explains everything…

…except why California has two Proposition 8’s. I arrived in this state in time to vote on propositions 152 through 154 (and to choose Bill Clinton as my party’s candidate). I still remember the controversy over Prop 187 a couple of years later. Even today people still refer to 1978’s Prop 13 as shorthand for the state’s constant budgetary woes. For decades, California’s ballot initiatives were numbered sequentially, which meant that important propositions, which were occasionally burdened with awkward titles (“Permanent class size reduction funding for districts establishing parent-teacher councils; requires testing for teacher credentialing; pupil suspension for drug possession”), had a unique, handy-dandy built-in nickname.

Until 1998. In the primary election that June, voters weighed in on propositions 219 through 227. Then, unaccountably, the numbering system reverted to 1 for the November ballot, started at 1 again in 2000, counted sequentially for a while, then rolled over to 1 once more in 2008 after reaching only 90 in 2006.

I know California’s education system is badly broken (thanks, most agree, to Prop 13 — the 1978 one), but really, I think most voters can count at least a little higher than 227.

(Previously in inexplicable innumeracy.)

Boy was I wrong

I sure am glad I didn’t get my way during the presidential primaries. John Edwards would surely have been a step up from the Bush administration, but as one negative news item after another makes clear, he wouldn’t have been the leap forward that Obama already has been. And considering that these stories started breaking while the election was still in progress, we might now have President McCain, or perhaps by now even President Palin.

Bullet: dodged.

Rental mentality

American capitalism is broken, and in the race to fix it there is a lot of prognosticating about what will work, what won’t, and what things will look like after this crisis passes. One of the best things I’ve read in the latter category is Richard Florida’s article, “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” in the March 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

It’s a very long, in-depth analysis and rewards a full, careful reading; but since I suspect you’re not going to do that, let me sum up. Most of the article argues that industrial centers like Detroit are doomed in the long run, and that population-dense areas with diverse economies, like New York, will thrive, based on a notion of the “velocity of ideas” that such places generate, which may sound a little vague but rings true for me.

The article holds up Pittsburgh as a model for successfully managing the transition from a large industrial economy to a smaller idea-based one, and it wraps up with some prescriptions for managing this crisis to a comparatively soft landing. The most compelling suggestion the author makes is for “the removal of homeownership from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy.” Its benefits aside, homeownership creates economic ills of various kinds: for example, it anchors people to a region that may be in economic decline, producing a “creeping rigidity in the labor market,” when those people ought to be mobile and able to go where the work is. Further, government incentives encouraging homeownership distort demand, producing, for example, speculative bubbles of the kind we’ve just seen pop.

Richard Florida would rather see government policies favoring property rental, and calls the current tidal wave of foreclosures an opportunity: banks could be required to rent a foreclosed home to the erstwhile owners at the prevailing market rate (typically much less than a mortgage payment). This would achieve the goal of keeping families from ending up on the street, in a less artificial way than prohibiting foreclosures would. Just as importantly, it provides a basis for valuing some of those “toxic assets” you’ve heard so much about.

Digression: a big part of the problem in the financial world right now is that years of bad lending decisions have led banks to accumulate a lot of worthless assets on their books — worthless in the literal market sense that no one, no one wants to buy them at any price. In the absence of at least a potential buyer, it is literally impossible to compute a value for an asset, and in the absence of some way to place a value on those assets, banks will sooner or later be forced to “write them down” — to admit they’re worthless and that the bank as a whole is worth a lot less than before. If the bank’s assets shrink enough, its liabilities may overwhelm it, at which point it becomes insolvent.

This is one reason why compelling banks to turn foreclosed homes into rental properties is so attractive: in many cases it guarantees a stream of rental income from the property, meaning that the property now has a non-zero value even in a glutted real-estate market where the house itself can’t be sold.

I am a somewhat reluctant homeowner. Having grown up in New York City, renting was always the norm, and I never felt the urge to own my own home. But after a few sour landlord-tenant episodes, and after we made some money in the dot-com boom, and after our first son was born, Andrea got the homeowning bug and I went along — mainly because, even though renting had always been the norm, there was always lip service paid to the unalloyed good of property ownership.

I cottoned at once to Florida’s repudiation of this idea, but if we’re going to transform ourselves from a nation of hopeful homeowners to one of eager renters, there are some things about rental that we’ll have to make less painful. Here’s a short list of rental pain points that I’d want addressed if I were going to take that step myself:

  • Rent control (though unfortunately, when economists agree, the thing they agree about the most is that rent control is bad)
  • Ample notice of lease non-renewal or significant changes in lease terms
  • Authority to hire approved vendors for basic maintenance

Since I would expect to move more often as a renter, I’d also want a more robust and economical network of storage and moving services than exists today; but in a successful transition to the rental-oriented new-urban utopia of tomorrow that should follow naturally. I can’t wait.

The Arbitration Fairness Act

Here’s some unexpected good news: the Arbitration Fairness Act has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As I wrote last September, the mandatory binding arbitration clauses that are ubiquitous in the service contracts we sign are “as un-American a practice as I can imagine” because they deny you your day in court should you have a grievance. It’s a measure of how well the monied interests have us brainwashed that most of us think this is a good thing — there are too many frivolous lawsuits and too many lawyers getting rich, driving up the prices of everything, right? Wrong. That’s just what they want you to think.

So most of us think mandatory binding arbitration clauses are no big deal, if we ever think about them at all, and hardly any of us do, even though we agree to them almost every time we enter a professional relationship with someone: a doctor, a landlord, an employer. Which is why it’s such a surprise to see opposition to this practice getting a little traction in Congress — in these days of global megacrisis piled atop global megacrisis, the phrase “mandatory binding arbitration” isn’t exactly spilling from everyone’s lips.

So extra kudos to the sponsor of the bill, U.S. Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia’s fourth congressional district, for doing what’s right even when all the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. Let’s show him some love in the form of a token contribution to his campaign fund.

Once in a lifetime

This morning we woke up a little earlier than usual. I sent e-mail to Jonah’s teacher saying he’d be late to school. We ate breakfast, piled into the car, and drove to 142 Throckmorton, a theater in downtown Mill Valley. The sky was blue and the bright sunshine made it too warm for the jackets we wore. Inside the theater were old hippies, young families, and teens gathered to eat pastries, drink coffee, and watch Barack Obama take the oath of office. On the screen at the front of the theater, C-SPAN showed the activity on the steps of the Capitol and the throngs packed onto the National Mall. The crowd cheered for Bill Clinton and booed for Bush and Cheney. We took our seats, Jonah on my lap, Archer and Andrea beside me. Obama appeared and the kids began to cheer without any prompting. The audience rose to its feet for the first of several times. We watched the ceremonious proceedings with our arms around one another, exchanging frequent smiles. Andrea and I cried. Obama was sworn in; the place erupted with jubilation. He delivered his speech. The kids asked questions; we explained. Many times, a phrase spoken by Obama was answered with a heartfelt “Yeah!” from one person or another in our audience. “We will restore science” — huge cheers. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” — huge cheers. Afterward: catharsis, hugging, strangers congratulating one another, and as we filed out, an impromptu drum circle on the street.

It meant more to me than I can express to watch this inauguration with my sons in my embrace, all of us appreciating the historic importance of the occasion. It is for them, after all, and for their adorable counterparts Malia and Sasha, that President Obama and I must fix America.

Failure? Oh yeah: not an option

Today newspapers and blogs are full of praise for Chesley Sullenberger, pilot of US Airways flight 1549, and his crew, and the rescuers who saved every life aboard that plane when it ditched in the Hudson yesterday. And rightly so: Captain Sullenberger had just moments to make a difficult decision, and he made the right one; and then he executed a flawless water landing while superb coordination of resources on the ground meant that several watercraft were almost immediately on hand to pluck the survivors from the icy river. Kudos all around; a tickertape parade would not, in my opinion, be unjustified.

But if all the lionization today and the talk about heroism and miracles seems a little too breathless, I blame — who else? — George Bush. This impressive display of can-do professionalism comes in the final hours of an eight-year interregnum marked primarily by no-can-do incompetence.

You couldn’t ask for a more vivid way to throw the past eight years into sharper relief. America, we were always taught, was the land where an abundance of know-how and elbow grease could defeat the Axis, put a man on the moon, create a succession of world-changing technologies, and be a beacon of justice, progress, and courage for the whole human race. Yet for most of this past decade we’ve witnessed fear dominating our policymaking, the loss of a major American city through neglect, the destruction of our present and much of our future wealth (and the crippling of our very system for generating new wealth), stagnation in the sciences, official disregard for the law, our international alliances in tatters, an assortment of ecological crises growing more severe and numerous by the week, two disastrously mismanaged wars, an avalanche of doublespeak, and a much, much longer litany of abuses and failures than I can bear to put down here but which you can find enumerated in many essays and articles this week reflecting on the exit of the Bush administration. Bush used his farewell address to the nation to make petulant excuses for why things weren’t better under his watch.

That’s not America.

America is where a seasoned pro with a cool hand on the controls can set his disabled jumbo jet in the water and be met by dozens more seasoned pros with a plenitude of training and equipment to rescue passengers who were marshaled out of the sinking wreckage in an orderly fashion by an equally well-trained crew of professionals.

America is where the incoming president has lined up an all-star team of experts and achievers to help him govern, instead of what we’ve grown accustomed to: cronies, patrons, figureheads, and yes-men.

In short, America is where the people are competent. It’s been so long since that was the case, we’ve all forgotten what competence looks like, so that when we see it in action like we did yesterday in the Hudson River, it takes our breath away.

Think of how routinely our parents and grandparents got to see American competence in action, and how little this generation has seen of it. We’re right to laud Captain Sullenberger and the others as heroes, but we’d be wrong to place them on a pedestal. Theirs is the ordinary heroism we should expect from any American in a position of responsibility. If we’re to learn anything from the Bush administration, it’s never to let them lower our standards. No more setting the bar low. From now on, we demand competence.

An open letter to Paul Krugman

Dear Professor Krugman,

Congratulations on your well-earned Nobel prize.

I was heartened recently to read your column, “Life Without Bubbles” — not by the part where you write, “we’re in for months, perhaps even a year, of economic-hell,” which is just acknowledging the depressingly obvious, but by your assertion that “Late next year the economy should begin to stabilize, and I’m fairly optimistic about 2010.”

In dire need of some positive news, of something to look forward to, I seized on that “fairly optimistic” line as many others have done in the week since you published it, despite its vagueness, its throwaway nature, and the fact that it’s mostly beside the point of your article.

But then I thought, “Hmm. Suppose I were Paul Krugman, Nobel-prize winning economist and one of the best-known, most well-respected voices on current affairs. Suppose I knew the basic fact of economics that the public’s collective confidence in the economy is self-fulfilling: when people are optimistic about the future, by and large the economy improves; and even more certainly, when they’re pessimistic, it deteriorates. And now suppose that I, Paul Krugman, believed that things were going to get bad, really bad, for a long time — Weimar Germany bad. Would I tell it like it is — and knowing my own influence, be responsible for the resulting nosedive in public confidence and the economic ruin it would cause? Or would I feel a responsibility to say something positive even if I didn’t really believe it?”

So I’m having trouble knowing whether you’re sincere, or whether you’re secretly with Roger Ebert and just not able to express your sense of doom without hastening it.

Don’t bother replying. If you would write that you were really being sincere, I won’t know whether to believe that and we’ll be right back where we started. But if you would admit that you were being unsupportably rosy in an effort to delay the inevitable, that’s something I’d just rather you not say in public.

Whistling in the dark,
– Bob

Eat your vegetables

[This post is participating in The Cooler’s Politics and Movies blog-a-thon.]

I don’t know how my mom ever got me to watch the film 1776 in the first place. Probably it was by turning it on to watch it herself and relying on the hypnotic spell of the TV to pull me in. Ever since she did, I have spent a large part of my life trying — and failing, mostly — to persuade others to see it too. You see, the movie is almost impossible to describe without making it sound like “eat your vegetables” or “floss your teeth” or “do your homework” — something boring but essential because it’s good for you (shudder), even though it’s actually as entertaining a two hours as you’re ever likely to spend. Its educational value is just a nice little plus.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean:

1776 is the true story of how the Second Continental Congress, which at first opposed the idea of separating from Great Britain, eventually came to adopt the Declaration of Independence. And it’s a musical!

See? You couldn’t possibly want less to watch it now, could you? The fact that it’s a musical only seems to confirm that it’s a subject so dreary that it needs some added flavor, like oatmeal. Let me try again:

In 1776, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin persuade a reluctant Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, and a reluctant Congress to adopt it.

Ugh, that’s worse. Try this on for size:

Franklin.
Jefferson.
Adams.
They’re not just names in history books. They’re not just stodgy portraits, marble statues, or dry-as-dust lists of accomplishments. They were ordinary people like you and me. 1776 makes them accessible and shows how they achieved the impossible.

Oy. Clearly I’m trying too hard. Maybe if I concoct a modern high-impact movie trailer using scenes from the film and some dramatic narration…

            NARRATOR
      You know how it ends.

Close up on the new Declaration of
Independence as John Hancock adds his
distinctive signature.

            HOPKINS
      That's a pretty large signature,
      Johnny.

            HANCOCK
      So Fat George in London can read
      it without his glasses!

            NARRATOR
      But it almost didn't happen.

Congress in session.

            RUTLEDGE
      South Carolina will bury now and
      forever your dream of
      independence!

Congress in session.

            ADAMS
      They stopped our trade, seized our
      ships, blockaded our ports, burned
      our towns, and spilled our blood!

            NARRATOR
      In a world that doesn't know
      freedom...

Congress in session.

            DICKINSON
      I have no objections at all to
      being part of the greatest empire
      on earth!

Congress in session.

            RUTLEDGE
      Black slavery is our peculiar
      institution and a cherished way of
      life.

            NARRATOR
      ...a secret cabal...

Franklin indicates Jefferson, Adams, and
himself.

            FRANKLIN
          (singing)
      A farmer, a lawyer, and a sage!

            NARRATOR
      ...defies the mightiest army on
      earth...

Congress in session.

            THOMSON
          (reading a dispatch)
      "There can be no doubt that their
      destination is New York for to
      take and hold this city and the
      Hudson Valley beyond would serve
      to separate New England from the
      other colonies permitting both
      sections to be crushed in turn."

            NARRATOR
      ...and an even greater enemy:
      apathy...

Congress in session.

            HANCOCK
          (distractedly)
      General Washington will continue
      wording his dispatches as he sees
      fit, and I'm sure we all pray that
      he finds happier thoughts to
      convey in the near --
          (swats a fly)
      -- future.

Outside Congress.

            ADAMS
          (singing to the heavens)
      A second Flood, a simple famine,
      Plagues of locusts everywhere
      Or a cataclysmic earthquake
      I'd accept with some despair
      But no, you've sent us Congress!
      Good God, sir, was that fair?

            NARRATOR
      ...to attempt the impossible.

Franklin and Adams scheming outdoors.

            FRANKLIN
      No colony has ever broken from the
      parent stem in the history of the
      world!

            NARRATOR
      One man with a vision...

Congressional chamber, empty.

            ADAMS
          (singing)
      I see fireworks!
      I see the pageant and pomp and parade!
      I hear the bells ringing out!
      I hear the cannons roar!
      I see Americans, all Americans
      Free forevermore!

            NARRATOR
      ...one man with a quill...

Jefferson appears at his window and lets
a paper flutter down to Adams and
Franklin in the street below.

            ADAMS
      Franklin, look!  He's written
      something -- he's done it!
          (reads)
      "Dear Mr. Adams: I am taking my
      wife back to bed.  Kindly go away.
      Your obedient, T. Jefferson."

            FRANKLIN
          (admiringly)
      What, again?!

            NARRATOR
      ...and one man with the savvy to
      see it through...

Congress in session.

            FRANKLIN
      We've spawned a new race here --
      rougher, simpler, more violent,
      more enterprising, and less
      refined.  We're a new nationality,
      Mr. Dickinson.  We require a new
      nation.

            NARRATOR
      ...must overcome incredible
      odds...

Congress in session.

            ADAMS
      But it'll never be unanimous,
      dammit!

            DICKINSON
          (pleased)
      If you say so, Mr. Adams.

            NARRATOR
      ...their personal prejudices...

Franklin and Adams scheming outdoors.

            FRANKLIN
      Nobody listens to you.  You're
      obnoxious and disliked.

Hopkins and Franklin milling about in
the Congressional chamber.

            HOPKINS
      You are without a doubt a rogue, a
      rascal, a villain, a thief, a
      scoundrel, and a mean, dirty,
      stinking, sniveling, sneaking,
      pimping, pocket-picking, thrice
      double-damned, no good son of a
      bitch.

Outside Congress.

            JEFFERSON
          (singing)
      Oh, Mr. Adams, you are driving me
      to homicide!

            NARRATOR
      ...and their own weaknesses...

Adams and Jefferson in Jefferson's
apartment.

            ADAMS
      Do you mean to say it's not
      finished?!

            JEFFERSON
      No, sir.  I mean to say it's not
      begun.

Adams and his wife.

            ADAMS
      I've always been dissatisfied, I
      know that.  But lately I find that
      I reek of discontentment.  It
      fills my throat and floods my
      brain.

Franklin and Adams in Congress.

            FRANKLIN
      What will posterity think we
      were -- demigods?

            NARRATOR
      ...to prove to the world...

Congress in session.

            ADAMS
      Certainly we require the aid of a
      powerful nation like France or
      Spain.

Congress in session.

            DICKINSON
      Mr. Jefferson, are you seriously
      suggesting that we publish a paper
      declaring to all the world that an
      illegal rebellion is, in reality,
      a legal one?

            NARRATOR
      ...that all men...

Adams and Franklin in the Congressional
chamber.

            FRANKLIN
      Whether you like it or not, they
      and the people they represent will
      be a part of the new country you'd
      hope to create!  Either start
      learning how to live with them or
      pack up and go home!

            NARRATOR
      ...are created equal.

Congress in session.

            FRANKLIN
      There's no backing out now.  If we
      don't hang together, we shall most
      assuredly hang separately!

Laughter.

            HANCOCK
      Gentlemen, forgive me if I don't
      join in the merriment, but if
      we're arrested now, my name is
      still the only one on the damn
      thing!