FLOTSAM & JETSAM

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Campaign financing

From our overstocked archives, a speech by your editor at a rally on the steps of the Capitol fifteen years ago

Sam Smith - I have three objections to our current system of campaign financing.

The first is literary. Being a writer I try to show respect for words, to leave their meanings untwisted and unobscured.

This is alien to much of official Washington which daily engages in an activity well described by Edgar Alan Poe. Poe said, "By ringing small changes on the words leg-of-mutton and turnip, .... I could 'demonstrate' that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be, a leg-of-mutton."

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to "to influence corruptly, by a consideration." Another 16th century definition describes bribery as "a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct" of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving "money or other thing of value, with intent to influence" to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time not so many months ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official "for or because of an official act" didn't mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like "inappropriate gift," "the appearance of a conflict of interest," or the phrase which brings us here today: "campaign contribution."

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, "Officer, I wasn't giving her money, I was just giving her a speech." If that doesn't work you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that "I have the right to remain silent." And so forth. I wouldn't advise it.

As George Orwell rightly warned, "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."

My second objection to our system of campaign financing is economic. It's just too damn expensive for the taxpayer. The real cost is not the campaign contributions themselves. The real cost is what is paid in return out of public funds.

A case in point: Public Campaign recently reported that in 1996, when Congress voted to lift the minimum wage 90 cents an hour, business interests extracted $21 billion in custom-designed tax benefits. These business interests gave only about $36 million in campaign contributions so they got out of the public treasury nearly 600 times what they put in. And you helped pay for it.

Looked at another way, that was enough money to give 11 million workers a 90 cent an hour wage increase for a whole year -- or, to be more 1990s about it, to give 21,000 CEOs a million dollar bonus.

This is repeated over and over. For example, the oil industry in one recent year gave $23 million in campaign contributions and got nearly $9 billion in tax breaks.

The bottom line is this: if you want to save public money, support public campaign financing.

My final objection is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you're dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don't believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century -- a time in many ways not unlike our own.

Before this ruling, everyone knew what a person was just as everyone knew what a bribe was. States regulated corporations because they were legal fictions lacking not only blood and bones, but conscience, morality, and free will. But then the leg of mutton became a turnip in the eyes of the law.

Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that's not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You'll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law.

I close with this thought. The people who work in the building behind us have learned to count money ahead of votes. It is time to chase the money changers out of the temple. But how? After all, getting Congress to adopt publicly funded campaigns is like trying to get the Mafia to adopt the Ten Commandments as its mission statement. I would suggest that while fighting this difficult battle there is something we can do starting tomorrow. We can pull together every decent organization and individual in communities all over America -- the churches, activist organizations, social service groups, moral business people, concerned citizens -- and begin drafting a code of conduct for politicians. We do not have to wait for any legislature.

If we do this right, if we form true broad-based coalitions of decency, then the politicians will ignore us only at their peril.

At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Recovering values

Sam Smith

Last week I attended, as I have for the past quarter century, a board meeting of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which among other things, helps support the work of several groups dedicated to telling the truth about what is happening in government and other American institutions. One is the Government Accountability Project, which, among scores of other cases, is currently helping to represent Edward Snowden, but is also aiding a whistleblower at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who told CNN that 8-10% of UNC-CH revenue-sport student-athletes from 2004-12 could not read at a third-grade level.

Another is the Project on Government Oversight which gained fame uncovering Pentagon waste such as $7000 coffee makers and a $436 hammer and is still at it, recently uncovering that over the last decade, hundreds of federal prosecutors and other Justice employees violated rules, laws, or ethical standards governing their work, but whose malpractice has not been revealed.

Then there’s the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which, among many other things, helped to get rid of the TSA scanners that digitally stripped searched passengers.

These are among the great unsung heroes of Washington and I leave these meetings both inspired, but also somewhat depressed, because over the past quarter century the willingness and/or ability of America – from top down – to react wisely and honorably to such revelations has noticeably declined.

The recent news about NSA’s unconstitutional mass spying on American’s phone use is but one example and demonstrates an underlying evil of such violations of our rights: people become used to what they experience.

For example, four years before 9/11, I wrote in The Great American Political Repair Manual:

“We, too, think we are free. But let's review the bidding. Here are some restrictions on American freedoms that are less than a generation old, each instituted, we were told, to protect us from a danger, a crisis or a threat to national security:
· Roadblocks as part of random searches for drivers who have been drinking or using drugs

· The extensive use of the military in civilian law enforcement, particularly in the war on drugs

· Black school children in Prince George's County MD are being taught by the police how to behave when stopped or arrested. It is assumed by both school officials and the cops that it will happen

· The use of handcuffs on persons accused of minor offenses and moving violations

· Jump-out squads that leap from police vehicles and search nearby citizens

· Much greater use of wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance

· Punishment before trial such as pre-trial detention and civil forfeiture of property

· Punishment of those not directly involved in offenses, such as parents being held responsible for the actions of their children, employers being required to enforce immigration laws, and bartenders being made to enforce drinking laws

· Warrantless searches of persons and property before entering buildings, boarding planes, or using various public facilities

· Closing of public buildings or parts of buildings to the public on security grounds

· Increased restrictions on student speech, behavior, and clothing

· Increased mandatory use of IDs

· Increasing restrictions on attorney-client privacy

· Greatly increased government access to personal financial records

· Loss of a once widely presumed guarantee of confidentiality in dealings with businesses, doctors, accountants, and banks

· The greatest incarceration rate of any industrialized country in the world

· Mandatory sentencing for minor offenses, particularly marijuana possession

· Increased surveillance of employees in the workplace

· Laws in 11 states that make it a crime to suggest that a particular food is unsafe without a "sound scientific basis" for the claim

· Random traffic stops of blacks are so frequent that the drivers are sometimes said to have been stopped for DWB -- driving while black

· Increased use of charges involving offenses allegedly committed after a person has been halted by a police officer, such as failure to obey a lawful order

· Widespread youth curfews

· Expanded definition of pornography and laws against it

· Greatly increased use of private police forces by corporations

· Persons being forced to take part in line-ups because of some similarity to actual suspect

· Loss of control over how personal information is used by business companies

· Eviction of tenants from homes where police believe drugs are being sold

· Public housing projects being sealed to conduct home-to-home searches

· Use of stereotypical profiles (including racial characteristics) to justify police searches

· Seizure of lawyers' fees in drug cases

· Warrantless searches and questioning of bus, train, and airline passengers

· Random searches of school lockers

· Random searches of cars in school parking lots

· Increased number of activities requiring extensive personal investigation and disclosure

· Lack of privacy in transactions such as video rental or computer use

· Video surveillance of sidewalks, parks and other public spaces

· Involuntary drug testing increasingly used as a prerequisite for routine activities such as earning a livelihood or playing on a sports team

· Steady erosion by the courts of protection against search and seizure
As you read this list and find yourself occasionally saying something like, ‘So, what’s strange about that?, you are illustrating the change in your own life that has taken place within a couple of decades. The disturbing, the unreasonable, and the unconstitutional have increasingly become the normal.

This is the tremendous problem against which organizations like GAP, POGO and EPIC struggle. When you blow the whistle, someone has to hear it and be moved into action.

Government and corporations have obviously been the worst offenders in redefining the normal, but there are others that attract less attention, such as the media, churches, and educational institutions.

How do we retain our democracy if our children’s schooling is reduced to learning to pass endless tests in time that once was devoted to things like American history. democracy and civics? How effective can watchdogs be if the media becomes just a bunch of power-lapping puppies? And how are the corrupt greedster values of politics and corporations challenged if the former heartland of values such as churches. community leaders and universities are so silent or afraid?

The dominant values of America today are far more likely to come from a business school curriculum than from teachings of honor and integrity. Without the latter values, the work of whistleblowers and watchdogs is greatly diminished in effectiveness. And if the media will not report such values’ existence, then the wrong becomes the norm.

There are still a huge number of good people in America but they need to find new ways to make themselves heard. For example, communities can come together – businesses, activists, churches etc. –and create a code of conduct for politicians. It need only cover those issues that most decent citizens agree about. Those politicians who pledge to follow these principles – regardless of their policy differences – could indicate this support. And Pope Francis has shown how churches can reintroduce the importance of integrity.

In other words, citizens must find ways to organize not just around issues but around decent values just as the American right has organized around false, cruel and indecent ones. Not just around the minimum wage but around maximum honor. Perhaps then, even the mass media might hear.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Why being first may not be much

Sam Smith - A recent Gallup poll finds Americans think the most positive thing about a Hillary Clinton presidency would be her serving as the nation's first female president. But then they felt the same way about Barack Obama being the first black president and things haven’t quite worked out as well as expected.

I suspect that Jackie Robinson made us unduly optimistic about such matters, for, in fact, being first in no way guarantees that one will be best, or even good.

For example, if you truly believe in equality amongst ethnicities and genders then one has to assume that saints and sinners will be equitably distributed within such categories, in which case the first at the gate may only be a successful hustler rather than an admirable role model.

Of course, it can be argued that, at least, being first opens the gate for others of a similar ilk, but it doesn’t always work that way. For example, a new black candidate for president would undoubtedly have to spend considerable time explaining why he or she was different than Barack Obama. 

It was fascinating, in the Obama instance, how the first at the gate mythology overwhelmed his actual story, such as his lack of significant achievement, his promotion by the anti-liberal Democracy Leadership Council, and the fact that the only election he had lost was to another black man, a former member of SNCC and the Black Panthers. Bobby Rush, who has represented his congressional district for over 20 years, described his opponent this way: “Barack Obama went to Harvard and became an educated fool. Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it." Obama got only 30% of the vote, relying heavily on whites in Hyde Park.

But none of this was talked about in his presidential effort. Portrayed as an heir of Martin Luther King come finally to the voting booth, he was in fact a run of the mill manipulator of favorable circumstances. 

Furthermore, the record since then shows that breaking glass ceilings doesn't necessarily meaning opening more doors. The unemployment rate for blacks, for example, has moved down only slightly since Obama took office. And the poverty rate for blacks has gone up.
 

Hillary Clinton’s inconsistent story is even more dramatic. Not only is she extraordinarily thin on achievements (other than promoting herself), her past is hardly one around which to celebrate gender liberation. With three of her business partners gone to prison, five of her major funders convicted of - or pleading guilty to - crimes, a compliant six years on the board of the anti-woman, anti-union Wal Mart, the subject of a number of serious and potentially criminal investigations, and a record far more in tune with the corrupt culture of Arkansas than with dreams of a new America, there is little reason she would even be considered for the job if she were a man.  Add to the fact, that if elected, she would be matched only by Richard Nixon and her husband in her shady past, it hardly seems the best way to enter a new era.

But we live in a time in which fantasy has overwhelmed reality. We consider Crimea more important than climate, fame more important than achievement, words more important than action, and power more important than integrity  - and something for the media to celebrate rather than question.

We no longer do anything as wise and simple as happened with Jackie Robinson before choosing him as  the first of something new: check his batting record.

Monday, March 17, 2014

America the vulnerable

What if Americans treated their cars and homes the way they do their politics, economics and foreign policy? In which case you might hear them say something like, "My home is a result of American exceptionalism and therefore it won't burn down, so I don't need any insurance."

Insurance is based on vulnerability, and we have learned to pay cash money to cover that vulnerability. Our politics, economics, and foreign policy, on the other hand, are covered to an extraordinary degree only by our pride, presumption and fantasies, encouraged by hustlers and con artists in public office and the public media.

Some years ago, I addressed this issue from the point of view of another subculture that, like insurance agents, puts considerable importance on vulnerability- namely poker players. My suggested principles in dealing with environmental issues included;

1. Figure the stakes as well as the odds.

2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations - especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium - it is the latter odds that are important.

3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.

4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don't have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time - or with the economy or with the environment - that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.

5. Don't let anyone - in industry, government, or the media - define an "acceptable level of risk" for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.

6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can't stand the pain, don't attempt the gain.
Yet these days, when we face a situation like the Ukraine, the Great Recession, or educating our children, such reasonable caution gets dumped in the can, and proposed solutions are typically rated on the basis of who brags about them, how much money they have to do so, and how comfortable they will make us feel if it all turns out like they say it will.

Imagine taking a good chunk of your savings to Las Vegas along with some advisors as unskilled or unsuccessful with poker as Arne Duncan, Bill Gates or Michele Rhee are with educating your kids? Or with some neo-liberal pals who had already lost at the table as many times as they had with their advice concerning Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan?

America at present is extremely vulnerable. Its economy has been downgraded, off-shored and  deposited in the pockets of the few. There is a stunning lack of intelligent or ethical leadership among its elite. Privatization is damaging everything from public spaces to public schools. We have never had so many incompetent frauds seriously trying to get to the White House.  Academia increasingly serves the corporate rather than the mind. Our choices are driven by propaganda rather than by common sense. Our cultural soul is just another commodity to be misleading hawked.

Much of this is the result of having taken risks we should have avoided and now is no time to be taking more of them, whether it be doing our macho thing in Russia's back yard or teaching our children that life is just an endless multiple choice test.

America has done terrible damage to itself in recent decades. The answer lies not in increasing the risks we take but in figuring out ways to reduce our vulnerability for the ones we have already taken and creating more solid ground upon which to move into the future.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What a Comcast technician taught me about Common Core

Sam Smith - For four days beginning last Friday, my Internet and TV system was a mess. Furthermore, I couldn't connect my new Tivo device to my television. I had approximately four hours of discussions with Comcast people on the phone. What struck me as time went on was that a number of these folks were dealing with me just as I suspect many subjected to the Common Core approach to education will deal with life in the future. Their comments and answers seemed robotic and often non-responsive to the specific matters I had raised. By the third day, I realized - albeit with a few pleasant exceptions - that these agents of Comcast considered me a multiple choice test to be answered. Their responses were not good and often didn't apply but they were - as our children are being taught in Common Cored schools - what the system considered correct. And on at least four occasions, they even interrupted the discourse to try to sell me additional new service, not the best idea when a customer's current system is broken.

Then on Monday, the technician finally showed up and my Comcast experience totally changed. Within two hours he had corrected every problem, found a couple I didn't know about, and got my Tivo going (although he has to share credit for that with me who had figured out the problem was in the remote card). He also has me scheduled for a new wire coming into the house once spring finally arrives.

This was actually the second time this had happened to me: endless useless talk on the phone eventually resolved by a pragmatically thinking guy on the scene.

The conflict was, in part, one between deductive and inductive reasoning. Like MBAs and philosophers and Common Core taught students, the Comcast phone people applied presumed overriding principles to specific cases with little attention to the anarchy of details. The technician, on the other hand - like detectives and good reporters - accumulated evidence which created the probability of a solution.

As far back as college, my bias was with the technicians rather than the PhDs, which didn't help me much on campus but since as been highly useful as a journalist. I look first at the facts rather than what Marx, Freud or Henry Kissinger said about them.

It even helps in getting my Tivo working.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A capital without doubt


Sam Smith

The other day I found myself watching one of those CPAN segments in which serious looking men say purportedly wise things in front of a wall full of reduplicated monikers like “Brookings Institution.” I wasn’t enthralled by what the speaker was saying, I even questioned much of it, but what got my attention was the narcissistic self assurance that the speaker had in everything he said, a presumptuousness that lent authority to matters where logic might have had doubts.

Much attention is given these days to the pathological patois of the GOP right, its hustlers and con men. But when you look more closely at the Washington story, people like Cruz, Ryan and Rubio are more like the city’s mosquitos and wasps, stinging, but not defining.

The real power lies in a group that, as Russ Baker once put it, make themselves seem serious by being somber. In Washington you are expected to restrict one's conversation to the limits of Beltway discourse and remain attentive to the appropriateness of one's remarks. Even the worst sins are not described in terms of the evil they have done or the pain they have inflicted, but merely by the fact they are considered “inappropriate.”

I learned this the first summer I worked in Washington as a 19 year old radio reporter. I attended a conference on the Middle East, whose speakers were intensely pro-Israel and anti-Arab albeit in a dignified and reserved manner. Majoring in anthropology, I already had a somewhat different view of the Mid East and I asked a question along those lines.

I don’t remember the question or the answer. But to this day I remember feeling put down and humiliated. I had run head on into somber Washington dealing with an upstart.

Fortunately, I still had a comic book view of journalism: we were meant to be the tough guys battling evil in power and so I was soon embarrassed more by my reaction and promised myself to never let it happen again.

On the whole, I haven’t. Decades later I even asked a question that John Kerry, in his absurdly self important manner, tried to dismiss as ignorant and my immediate reaction was, well, there’s another one you can’t trust. By then I had learned that the more high placed is the person to whom one introduces a new idea, the more likely this individual is to be uncomfortable, dismissive, or suddenly in need of another drink. Unchallenged myopia is one of the most cherished privileges of power.

The problem is that while you can learn to recognize and deal with this sort of thing, but most people in Washington don’t because if you ask too many wrong questions or say too many things burdened with uncomfortable skepticism your days in that fair city may be numbered. It doesn’t matter if those remaining are the same who supported our presence in Vietnam and our failed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Worse, to a degree far greater than a few decades ago, the Washington media is afraid to ask questions the city’s establishment doesn’t like and so have become powerful enablers of the nation’s decline rather than challengers of those responsible for it.

So, yes, get pissed off at Ted Cruz but watch what those guys say on CSPAN in front of the wall with “Brookings Institution” or similar titles replicated on it. Too often, they are ones who helped ruin our economy, our standing in the world, and our democracy. Even if they did it in such a dignified way.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Tales form the attic: The post office pays a visit

From the first 50 years of the Progressive Review:

Sam Smith - Government censorship was never much of a problem for us. Other publications, however, did not fare as well. In B.W. (Before Web) the Post Office was the most powerful prude around. As a young radio reporter in 1959, I interviewed the Assistant Postmaster General in his office on the subject of obscenity, a space grandly baroque enough to have pleased a top official of the Mussolini regime. He guided me from his enormous desk to some comfortable chairs in a windowed corner for the interview. On the floor, randomly tossed in a large scattered pile, was the most magnificent collection of sex magazines I had ever seen. I wondered but did not ask why, given the hazard he told me they presented, he got to read them and I, for example, did not.

Thirteen years later, in 1972, I was visited by one Howard Roberts, a postal inspector, carrying the current copy of another local paper, The Daily Rag. As I later explained in a letter to an official of the ACLU:

"Roberts informed me that he was delivering my copy of the Rag, but that the Postal Service considered the cover obscene and that he was asking that I refuse the publication and return it to him. Naturally I was titillated by this strange proposal, but upon viewing the cover found it to contain only a dowdy cartoon lady with mammary glands bulbous but properly covered. She was wearing a button that read 'Fuck the Food Tax.'"

"I told Roberts no at some length, reminding him of existing legislation that adequately provided for those who wished to refuse mail . . . I'm afraid I was angry and did most of the talking, cowing Roberts sufficiently that he refused to answer any of my subsequent questions. He said that since I wouldn't refuse the publication he wasn't going to tell me anything more . . . He departed, leaving me with my copy of the Rag. He still, as I recall, had two or three other copies with him. Incidentally, Jean Lewton, associate editor of the Gazette, was in the room during the discussion. Roberts carefully shielded the offending publication from her view."

In short, the Postal Service was seriously proposing criminal prosecution not only of the Rag, but of those who read it. It was a classic example of the First Amendment problem Lenny Bruce had raised: "If I can't say 'fuck' then I can't say, 'fuck the government.' I called the Rag and other media and after a story or two ran and the ACLU got involved, the Post Office backed off and ever since the capital has been saying "fuck" without fear of criminal sanction.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

As we were saying: The collapse of liberalism

Sam Smith - One of the things that makes your editor's mornings cheerier is to discover an article in a conventional liberal publication supporting a thesis I have been pushing without success for a decade or two. It reaffirms my self-characterization as a moderate of a time that has not yet come.

A case in point is Adolph Reed Jr.'s excellent piece in Harper's: "Nothing Left: The Long Slow Surrender of American Liberals." In it, he pins Clinton and Obama to the wall with the sort of accuracy one seldom finds in the liberal media. Here, for example is his view of Clinton:
Most telling . . . is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

Notwithstanding his administration’s Orwellian folderol about “reinventing government,” his commitment to deficit reduction led to, among other things, extending privatization of the federal meat-inspection program, which shifted responsibility to the meat industry — a reinvention that must have pleased his former Arkansas patron, Tyson Foods, and arguably has left its legacy in the sporadic outbreaks and recalls that suggest deeper, endemic problems of food safety in the United States. His approach to health-care reform, like Barack Obama’s, was built around placating the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and its failure only intensified the blitzkrieg of for-profit medicine.

In foreign policy, he was no less inclined than Reagan or George H. W. Bush to engage in military interventionism. Indeed, counting his portion of the Somali operation, he conducted nearly as many discrete military interventions as his two predecessors combined, and in four fewer years. Moreover, the Clinton Administration initiated the “extraordinary rendition” policy, under which the United States claims the right to apprehend individuals without charges or public accounting so that they can be imprisoned anywhere in the world (and which the Obama Administration has explicitly refused to repudiate). Clinton also increased American use of “privatized military services” — that is, mercenaries.

The nostalgic mist that obscures this record is perfumed by evocations of the Clinton prosperity. Much of that era’s apparent prosperity, however, was hollow — the effects of first the tech bubble and then the housing bubble. His administration was implicated in both, not least by his signing the repeal of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act, which had established a firewall between commercial and investment banking in response to the speculative excesses that sparked the Great Depression. And, as is the wont of bubbles, first one and then the other burst, ushering in the worst economic crisis since the depression that had led to the passage of Glass–Steagall in the first place. To be sure, the Clinton Administration was not solely or even principally responsible for those speculative bubbles and their collapse. The Republican administrations that preceded and succeeded him were equally inclined to do the bidding of the looters and sneak thieves of the financial sector. Nevertheless, Clinton and the Wall Street cronies who ran his fiscal and economic policy — Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Alan Greenspan — are no less implicated than the Republicans in having brought about the economic crisis that has lingered since 2008.

It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda. Indeed, Clinton made his predilections clear from the outset. “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” he declared, albeit exasperatedly, shortly after his 1992 victory. “We stand for lower deficits, free trade, and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”
His view of Obama is similarly critical:
Barack Obama has always been no more than an unexceptional neoliberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation persuasive to those who want to believe, and with solid connections and considerable good will from the corporate and financial sectors. From his successful wooing of University of Chicago and Hyde Park liberals at the beginning of his political career, his appeal has always been about the persona he projects — the extent to which he encourages people to feel good about their politics, the political future, and themselves through feeling good about him — than about any concrete vision or political program he has advanced. And that persona has always been bound up in and continues to play off complex and contradictory representations of race in American politics.
As it turns out, Reed not only lends support to stuff I've written over past few decades but going back as far as 1965 when, in a piece: "Where are the gutbucket liberals?". I argued:
Perhaps the saddest of the lot is the professional Washington liberal. He is the most vocal in his claim of liberalism and quickest to accede to the whims of the illiberal. The professional Washington liberal attends White House conferences on this and that, writes articles for the press, testifies before congressional committees, and feels proud when he can help tack on fifty million dollars to a piece of constructive-sounding legislation.
Yet give him a legislative placebo to salve his conscience and he will beat his reactionary compatriot to the Chevy Chase Club by a half hour every time. Though his language is rife with intellectual cliches and jargon, he and his brothers throughout the land pride themselves on their intellectual command of the complexities of our society. No mere men of action are they, no scummy populists or red-faced, rasp-voiced demagogues of the rabble, but deep-dish thinkers tackling the intricate philosophical and sociological problems of America. Yet, on those uncomfortable occasions when the liberals are dragged down to reality, they suddenly forget their ideological commitments and rush to support third-rate programs in the interest of - as they say - “gettiing the camel’s nose under the tent?
Then, when the wrong camel’s nose gets under the wrong tent, they return to their seminars to wonder amongst themselves what it is that is wrong with society. Among the things that are wrong with society are that the liberals have accepted the limited goals of a national front government: they suffer from the torpor of excessive intellectualism: and they seem congenitally unwilling to come out swinging for programs our country obviously requires. What we need is more gutbucket liberalism: more down-to-earth struggles in the tradition of the best of the early progressive movements: more liberal politicians willing to say “I’d rather be right than regular;” and more unembarrassedly fighting in the interests of the little people of America   
Mind you, there was plenty of precedent for such an approach in the New Deal and, unfairly tough as I was on LBJ in those days, he proved to be much more effective than the liberal establishment as a whole.

In 1995 I cited some figures that showed how effective real liberalism had been:
We've come across some comments on the accomplishments of liberalism of the last half century that are worth passing on. They were made by Alien Ferguson, President of AFE Inc, before the National Economist Club last fall

Ferguson notes that the real gross national product rose 546% from 1933 to 1980. Real per capita disposable income rose 233% during the same period. In 1929, one percent of nonfarm workers took vacations. By 1970, the figure had risen to 80%. The average work week dropped from around 48 hours in 1929 to around 35 hours in 1980

By 1950, 34 million workers were covered by unemployment insurance; by 1980 the figure was almost 93 million

Social security, during the same period expanded from covering 46 million to 128 million people. While the share of income realized by the poorest 20% of the population has not changed much over the years, the percentage held by the wealthiest 5% has dropped from 30% in 1929 to 15.4% in 1981, indicating a redistribution of income to the middle class. Similarly, the percentage of total wealth held by the top one percent was 36% in 1929 and down to 20% by 1969

Between 1959 and 1979, 9% of whites and 25% of blacks moved out of the poverty classification. And a Congressional Research Service study done in 1982 showed that without the various liberal transfer programs, 24% of the country would have been in poverty rather than the 9% that was the case. Said Ferguson: "It is my view that current attacks on programs of the past decades arise, not because liberal policies failed, but rather because they succeeded too well."
But along came Reagan and scared the shit out of liberals. There were other factors as well. One was that the very success of the liberal New Deal and Great Society moved many beneficiaries into a better social and economic class, where they quietly became more conservative. Thus the concerns of the poorest women or blacks became less important. As Reed notes, "Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling...The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to “disparity,” while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality."

And he quotes the historian Russell Jacoby: “Instead of championing a radical idea of a new society, the left ineluctably retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to expand the options within the existing society.”

And now, with the rush to nominate Hillary Clinton, liberals prepare to repeat years of error once more. In a few decades, however, you can read in some liberal journal why it didn't work out.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The rise of boutique warfare

Sam Smith

As a general rule, I like to have a little time to get ready for the next global crisis. Stuff like deciding which side I'm on, how to pronounce the participants' names and so forth. While I know some people get turned on by rapid developments, and it does save Wolf Blitzer from having to spend so much on Viagra, but for others it's a bit like turning into the wrong movie theater auditorium and finding huge pink and orange monsters leaping at you when you expected to find a reflective Judy Dench.

I know sometimes - as with 9/11 - it can be a little difficult to forecast these things, but I gather, just for example, that Hillary Clinton was stirring up the Ukraine thing back when she was Secretary of State and the CIA was secretly encouraging various protests in Venezuela. They forgot to tell us.

Even George Bush gave us more days to think about invading Iraq. And there was a time - way back in the early 1940s- when a president actually went to Congress and got it to declare war before we found ourselves involved in a major international conflict. But observing the constitutional requirement went out of style and our presidents increasingly acted like the people we were supposed to be horrified by.

The Vietnam disaster was a real blow: Nearly 60,000 American deaths for reasons no one could adequately explain. But the cutback in deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan didn't work either. In part, a younger generation had come to see war as an electronic game to play rather than a reality in which to perish.

Now Barack Obama sits on a sofa watching David Letterman as he decides during commercials which wedding in Pakistan to disrupt with drones, The front line and the Iron Curtain have disappeared - instead, and unnoted in the media, we now have troops in 150 countries. Meanwhile the State Department and CIA search for surrogate victims - aka protestors - to bring down regimes it doesn't like. And even the Pentagon is adapting.
William Hartung of the Center for international Policy notes:

"Secretary of Defense Hagel said that we should no longer size U.S. military forces to engage in 'prolonged conflicts' like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. In doing so, he was essentially acknowledging the fact that spending trillions of dollars and losing thousands of lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not made anyone safer. The majority of Americans understand this, and won't support similar interventions any time soon."

The downside of the rise in boutique warfare is that we no longer know which battles we're about to enter and nobody asks us what we think about it. And so the same crowd that invented such screw-ups as Obamacare and Common Core gets to endanger America's future however and whenever it wants.

On the plus side, boutique warfare can result in far fewer deaths. But given the nearly one hundred percent failure in judgment of those who have chosen our conflicts over the past half century, you really don't want Hillary Clinton and Zig Brzezinski helping to create a potentially disastrous conflict with Russia without at least a few public opinions, say, from real Ukraine experts.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Libya, Syria, Ukraine.

They sound more like destinations for the British empire in its final days rather than displays of American exceptionalism.

The problem with boutique warfare is not only that it is bad strategy, unconstitutional and has the potential to explode into far more serious conflict, it is designed by those who have an extraordinary record of error.

They are, thus, not only dumb but dumb and dangerous, and that's a deadly combination.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Getting conscience back into politics

Sam Smith

When I first got into journalism, the bad guys were few enough that one could go after them with a reform political campaign, a newspaper expose, a righteous district attorney or a bit of organizing. The assumption was that they were a disease infecting one’s community, dangerous to be sure but atypical of the people, the systems, and the organizations that they threatened.

Even in Washington, there were aggressive reporters revealing misdoings, a visible subculture of progressive and honest members of Congress, respected figures in the capital who, while not the best role models, at least helped set limits on power’s abuse.

In short, you had some friends in high places. Often they were not enough, but nonetheless you seldom felt totally deserted, devoid of allies, or helpless in the face of law, politics, media and popular opinion.

Then things started changing:
- The rise of television, which shifted political power from constituencies and their leaders to commercials and their purchasers was a major part of it. Not only did ads buy politics, TV turned political debate into just another commercial.

- There was the Watergate scandal that is today so off the board that I have yet to see a story about this being the 40th anniversary of the first presidential resignation in American history. Forty three people – including dozens of Nixon’s top aides – were convicted, but today – as within anything we wish to forget – “that is just history.”

- There was the Washington media fleeting itself up in status and power by being perhaps the only group ever to significantly improve its social position simply by writing about itself. As early as the 1970s, it was clear the capital media was changing sides. It had written itself into the elite.

- By the 1980s we were ready to be as trusting of the media’s story of what was happening as we were of our favorite TV series. It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan – the man who did more damage to our economic values than almost anyone in history – was a second rate actor. Because that’s all we needed anymore.

- And Reagan would be followed a few years later by Bill Clinton, whose mass media script does not mention his role in helping to create today’s economic crisis or that the number of members of his machine found guilty of crimes exceeded those involved in Watergate.
Much of this happened without fanfare, observation, or criticism from those of the sort that used to guide the conscience of the nation. Academia was losing its moral way as the security of budgets became more important than the wisdom of minds. Liberals were so glad to have someone called a Democrat in the White House they didn’t even notice that he had started to dump the New Deal and Great Society. Financial concerns were driving non profits and churches into passivity as their major funders put a damper on action.

Add the Citizens United case and people of passion, belief, energy and morality that used to protect this country from serious errors or move it onto better ground became nearly impossible to find in high places.

Back in 2007, I came across this example:
Alternet provides an unintended insight into one of the problems of our age [concluding] a review of the new Ralph Nader documentary with this comment: "An Unreasonable Man presents many opinions through the 40-some interviews and leaves it to us to decide whether he was a man of principle or a man who fell behind the times."

There's your choice, folks. Do you try to be relevant or try to be right? It is not that the conundrum hasn't appeared before. Consider the successful German businessman during the rise of Hitler or a member of the Alabama white elite in, say, 1850.

What is interesting, however, is how frank and blase the author is about the choice, with an implicit assumption that being of the times means being without principles and that there is at least a reasonable conflict between the two.

We have, it would seem, entered a postmodern paradise where the pursuit of the moral and the decent is not only unnecessary, it has all the status of a bad 1970s disco band.
Now we have the Koch brothers pouring $27 million into just eight Senate races and a capital city that, according to Nation Magazine, has 100,000 lobbyists, only a tenth of them registered.

And we have a liberal professional class that has settled for a few comfortable issues like gay marriage and abortion, having pushed hardly any significant new economic or social programs in over three decades, while treating those it should be helping, educating and enlisting as racist jerks.

A good politics converts voters rather than condemning them.

It defines itself by policies, not by self assigned virtues

It builds alliances issue by issue rather than requiring an all-encompassing loyalty.

It produces candidates that reflect clear goals and values, not cynically manipulated messages that will be found to be lies soon after election.

And above all, it is driven by principles and conscience.

There is little of that politics at the top any more, which is why the rest of America has to stop looking there for solutions.

After all when you have a Republican governor plotting long traffic jams to get back at non-supporters and Democrats planning to nominate for president someone who was the only First Lady to come under criminal investigation, had five fundraisers found guilty of crimes, and three business partners ending up in prison, you know the answer is not with those in power.

Which is why something like the Moral Monday movement is so important. As Common Dreams described its current efforts:
This patchwork group is what leader Rev. Dr. William J. Barber refers to as an “agenda-based coalition: anti-racism, anti-poverty, pro-justice.”

The agenda covers a wide swath of issues that include equitable and well-funded public education; universal health care; environmental protection; voting rights; poverty reduction; fairness for minorities and the poor in criminal sentencing; and equality for women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people.

But, according to Barber, they are united by the overarching principle of morality. “We are deeply committed to a society where people love one another and don’t kick people when they are down,” he said …

"The same people attacking voting rights are attacking labor rights are attacking health care," he said, adding that under the Forward Together Moral Movement, women’s rights advocates stand on the picket line with the fast food workers.

"That is the point," Barber said, "to begin to see ourselves as existing in society not as isolated selves but as part of the whole."

"Where there is no moral imagination there can be no political implementation.."
And as Ari Berman wrote in the Nation:
The movement’s most important accomplishment has been to build a multi-issue, multiracial, statewide progressive coalition, one that North Carolina—or the South, for that matter—has never seen. “In a Southern state, an African-American is leading a multiracial movement that I believe represents the majority of the people of the state,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that is advising the North Carolina NAACP. “It’s a huge breakthrough in terms of racial barriers in the South.”

The Moral Monday movement, though modeled after the 1960s civil rights movement, is more iconoclastic: it’s a majority-white social movement led by a black preacher who belongs to a predominantly white denomination (the Protestant Disciples of Christ). It’s the type of coalition through which the NAACP can be reborn in Appalachia. “We’re all colored people now,” Barber likes to joke.
This is the moral imagination that has virtually evaporated in high places of politics, corporations, media. As Gertrude Stein put it, “There’s no there there.”

It’s part of our job to reinsert conscience into our collective lives. To become visible witnesses of values those at the top have so sadly harmed. After all, we’re all that’s left.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The road to literacy is paved with words, not tests

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith
2007


 
AMONG THE many myths of No Child Left Behind is that schools are in charge of literacy. I got an early inkling of the fallacy of this as I listened to black teenagers conversing in our DC neighborhood in the 1960s. As a writer, I was struck by their use of metaphor - trading insults while "doin' the dozens" - and by their clear acceptance of language as a weapon of survival in life. Yet these were the same kids who had already been largely assigned to failure by the schools and others.

Why the disconnect? I mentioned this the other day to an educator friend, David Craig, who soon returned with two academic articles that shed fascinating light on the topic.

The first, from the American Psychologist in 1989 by Shirley Brice Heath, dealt with shifts in the oral and literate traditions among black Americans living in poverty.

Heath pointed out that both cold stats and warm culture had changed dramatically among the black poor since the 1960s. This was a period of migration from the rural south to the urban north. Even the ghettos in the north changed. Instead of primarily two family dwellings or small apartment houses "with the 1960s came high rise, high-density projects, where people took residence not through individual and free choice of neighbor and community, but through bureaucratic placement." By the 1980s, not only did nearly half of all black children live in poverty, but "the proportion of young black families with fathers fell drastically."

Among the impacts: a loss of adult contact. Describing the earlier culture, Heath wrote, "Male and female adults of several ages are often available in the neighborhood to watch over children who play outside and to supplement the parenting role of young mothers." In the later urban inner city this was no longer the case.

And, of course, the more adults that are around, the more language is used in both quantity and variety:

"Children take adults' roles, issue commands and counter-statements, and win arguments by negotiating nuances of meaning verbally and nonverbally. Adults goad children into taking several roles and learning to respond quickly to shifts in mood, expectations and degrees of jest."

Further, in these earlier communities families were far more likely to be involved in other organizations, not the least of which was the church:

"For those who participate in the many organizations surrounding the church there are many occasions for both writing long texts (such as public prayers) and reading Biblical and Sunday School materials, as well as legal records of property and church management matters. Through all of these activities based on written materials, oral negotiations in groups makes the writing matter. . . The community values access to written sources and acknowledges the need to produce written materials of a variety of types for their own purposes, as well as for successful interaction with mainstream institutions."

Now jump to the 1980s:

"Young mothers, isolated in small apartments with their children, and often separated by the expense and trouble of cross-town transportation from family members, watch television, talk on the phone, or carry out household and caregiving chores with few opportunities to tease or challenge their youngsters verbally. No caring, familiar, and ready audience of young and old is there to appreciate the negotiated performances."

Heath got one mother to agree "to tape record her interactions with her children over a two-year period and to write notes about her activities with them." During "500 hours of tape and over 1,000 lines of notes, she initiated talk to one of the three preschool children (other than to give them a brief directive or query their actions or intentions) in only 18 instances. . . In the 14 exchanges that contained more than four turns between mother and child, 12 took place when someone else was in the room."

I have just been pouring over this years' dismal NCLB results for DC public and charter schools. As I did so, I wondered whether the experts with whom we have entrusted America's children's literacy are aware the sort of factors that Heath noted:

"In a comparative study of black dropouts and high school graduates in Chicago, those who graduated had found support in school and community associations, as well as church attendance; 72% of the graduates reported regular church attendance whereas only 14% of the dropouts did. Alienation from family and community, and subsequently school, seems to play a more critical role in determining whether a student finishes high school than the socioeconomic markers of family income or education level."

Heath wasn't too optimistic: "For the majority of students that score poorly on standardized tests, the school offers little practice and reward in open-ended, wide-ranging uses of oral and written language. . . Yet such occasions lie at the very heart of being literate: sharing knowledge and skills from multiple sources, building collaborative activities from and with written materials, and switching roles and trading expertise and skill in reading, writing and speaking."

Of course, the danger in all of this is that such occasions also encourage critical thinking, little valued by NCLB or by the establishment that created it, an establishment far more interested in compliant drones than in independent minds.

Once, talking to a large group of DC public high school students, I was struck by the fact that, concerned as they were about drugs and violence, they were unable even to phrase the questions they wanted to ask. I mentioned this to a friend with long experience in the DC public schools and she replied with sadness, "But they are not meant to ask questions; they are only meant to answer them" - perhaps the best summation of NCLB I've heard.

The second article came from a 2001 edition of Reading Research Quarterly, written by Susan B Neuman and Donna Celano, who had gone out and examined four Philadelphia neighborhoods of different ethnicities and economics to discover how much written material was easily available. The poverty rates ran from 0% to 85% and the percent of black residents ranged from 5% 82%.

It was a highly detailed and academic study but over and over again - examining different factors - the mere access to words seemed to play an important role. They considered signage, public spaces for reading and books in child care centers, libraries and drug stores.

The poorest neighborhoods, for example, had 4 stores selling children's reading material while the better off neighborhoods had 11 and 12. More dramatic was the number of titles visible in these stores: 55 in the poorest neighborhood (most in pharmacy and Dollar Store) vs. 16,000 in the wealthiest [including Borders) and 1597 in the second wealthiest. Signage was far more equal: 76 business signs in the poor neighborhood vs. 77 in the richest. But the content was different. In the better off neighborhoods "children could conceivably read their environment though these signs, with pictures, shapes, and colors denoting the library, the bank, and the public telephone." In the poor neighborhoods, signs "were often graffiti covered and difficult to decipher."

None of this really surprises me. After all, I learned to read and write - despite my parents' prohibitions - with no small help from a massive number of comic books. It seems perfectly obvious to me that the easiest way to learn the word "deviation" is to read it in a balloon above the head of a mean looking Nazi officer shouting to his frightened mignons, "I will stand no DEVIATION from my orders!!!" The story-telling and the silent translation of the art combine to make one of the best reading aids of all times.

And at least one academic study found that:

"There was no difference in frequency of comic book reading between a middle class and a less affluent sample of seventh grade boys. For both groups, those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, liked to read more, and tended to read more books. These results show that comic book reading certainly does not inhibit other kinds of reading, and is consistent with the hypothesis that comic book reading facilitates heavier reading."

But comic book sales have diminished and with them another door to literacy is harder to open. Now instead of Captain Marvel, we have No Child Left Behind, a program that gets reading off to a bad start by even lying in its title.

Among my other untested contact with matters of literacy:

- I was blessed to have been a parents' association president of an elementary school that understood the importance of quantity in teaching words. The school realized that the shortest route to good writing was to do it. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. There was also an emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music, which among their other virtues offer the opportunity to sing or say words over and over until they become a part of your soul.

- Starting out in journalism, I had to write nine radio newscasts a day for a while. You won't find that suggested in any writing manual or school curriculum but I still recall trying to come up with new ways of saying the same thing just to keep from being bored.

- As an editor, I have often offered a standard cure for writers' block: just write crap and don't worry about it. Then go to bed and retrieve the good parts the next day.

- My own list of unauthorized literary aids would include memorizing Burma Shave signs, devouring Ogden Nash poems, reading under duress from the Book of Common Prayer at Holy Communion, learning jokes, listening to Edward R. Murrow, following instructions on how to build an HO gauge model freight car and absorbing the lyrics to endless popular songs.

Make a list from your own life and the virtues of constant exposure to words in sound and print without regardless of their purported quality will become clear.

Above all is the need to enjoy what you're reading or writing. The greatest sin of NCLB is to make what should be a lifelong joy into a tedious, bureaucratic exercise - making words far harder to learn and infinitely harder to love.

Kids need more words in their lives - and fewer tests.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

My two years as a politician

 From our overstocked archives

My two years as a politician

 Sam Smith

In 1974, a liberal Minnesota confessmember, Donald Frazer, manged to sneak into DC’s home rule bill for elected advisory neighborhood councils. We became the second city in the country with them.

Washington DC's advisory neighborhood commissions would represent a unique counter-trend in American politics, away from a century-long growth of political institutions isolated from constituencies, city governments made unwieldy by consolidations and rising population, a ballooning federal government intruding increasingly into local affairs and the development of regional agencies controlling such matters as transportation and sanitation, transferring the local franchise to a new elite of administrators and planners.

In 1816, Columbus, Ohio had one city councilman for every hundred residents. By 1840 the figure was one per thousand; by 1872 it was one per five thousand; one hundred years later it was one per 55,000. Before the neighborhood commissions, the lowliest elected official in DC represented 90,000 people. The new neighborhood commissioners represented 2,000.

By contemporary American urban standards, having a politician represent only 2,000 people was a radical idea, although Jefferson thought that about one pol for every hundred voters was about right. Two centuries after it all began many would still find the thought that democracy could be trusted to people to be a scary one. Traditional politicians found it worse. Neighborhood commissions were, they grumbled at city hall, "another layer of bureaucracy," and the papers picked up the theme, ignoring the obvious points that neighborhood commissioners weren't bureaucrats at all, and they didn't get enough money to establish a bureaucracy if they wanted to, and in fact were able to spend less per capita on their neighborhoods than some of the more conventional politicians spent per voter on their campaigns.

My own career as a commissioner got off to a rocky start. On election night, after spending most of the day at the polls, I decided to go down to the Sheraton Park Hotel and watch the count. My wife said to me, "Don't you think you're taking this a little too seriously?" But she was holding a Sunday school teachers' meeting and I figured that if she was going to be tied up with the spiritual, I could attend to the temporal a while longer.

So I drove down to the Sheraton Park Hotel, took a couple of escalators to the catacombs where the count was underway and chatted distractedly with some of the other candidates who were also waiting for word of victory or defeat. Finally the sheet with the morning results for my district -- familiarly known in those parts as 3CO7 -- turned up. My opponent had slaughtered me 75 to 11 in the morning count.

Since I had counted some 35 people coming to the polls before two PM whom I had personally encouraged to vote, I was apparently on the way to one of the most humiliating defeats imaginable. At least two dozen people had smiled pleasantly at me, murmured encouragement and then gone in and voted for my opponent. I had -- with flyers, coffees and telephone calls -- organized the neighborhood against me. My opponent had barely campaigned.

I found Norval Perkins, the affable head of the Board of Elections. and tried to explain why a candidate with only 13% of the vote wanted a recount. He was noncommittal but added my district to his growing list of requested recounts.

Meanwhile I found the table where the evening ballots were being counted. Something was wrong. I had won the evening count 93 to 26. I checked each ballot. It was true.

I found Norval again. He tried to soothe me: "Maybe, Sam, you just have more evening friends than morning friends."

I preferred to soothe myself. Even with the wrong count I figured that I had won by three votes. Later, local election wizard Al Gollin would explain to me that it was statistically improbable to have more evening friends than morning friends.

I found the table where my recount was going on. I had indeed won, but, as I had come to suspect, all my ballots had initially been given to my opponent. I went to have a drink at a friend's house.

I had never paid much attention to the counting. It always seemed like the most boring end of the business and besides there seemed to be enough people involved to prevent anything bad from happening. Now at last I knew what politicians meant when they warned: watch the count.

Out in the neighborhoods, the new commissions met with enthusiasm in some quarters and indifference in others. Some of them deserved the enthusiasm, some the indifference, but I didn't have much chance to check out which was which among the thirty-six commissions around the city. I was too busy with my own.

It began the morning after the election. Congressman Fred Rooney, who lived in my district and had taken a paternal interest in my electoral efforts, was on the phone: "This is Rooney up on Highland Alley. Why hasn't my damn trash been picked up?" A professional politician was taking me seriously. A good start, I thought. I spent much of the day trying to find out why the congressman's trash hadn't been collected but the number downtown was always busy or unanswered. The next morning I checked my constituent's driveway. The cans were gone.

"Well," I said when I reached him at his Capitol Hill office, "I see we got your trash problem cleared up." He never asked me who we were. I had followed one of the first rules of politics: exploit serendipity.

Fred still calls me Commissioner or Commish. Another rule of politics: make people feel good. Years later, he also told me that he had once received a call from a woman in a small town in his district wanting to know why her trash hadn't been picked up. "Have you called the sanitation superintendent?" Rooney asked. "No," the lady replied. "I didn't want to bother him, so I just thought I'd call my congressman."

My second problem was not so simple. Several homes had been flooded. The culprit was a conduit that fed water from a public playground near a row of houses. At issue, it quickly became apparent, was the question of whose conduit it was: the city's or the property-owners'. The city staunchly maintained that it was the property owners; I, as District Seven commissioner, just as staunchly maintained it was the city's and that the government should pay for the damage.

To win I needed proof, which unfortunately was lost in the mists of history; City Hall merely needed to say no. The letters flowed back and forth, lawyers were visited, engineers appeared. I alerted the press to what I called the "Macomb Street Flood Disaster Area," but nothing happened, except for the cracking of walls and sinking of foundations. I recalled that Richard Neustadt had spoken of the power of the presidency as being primarily the power to persuade; I was quickly learning that the power of a neighborhood commissioner was entirely the power to persuade.

The neighborhood commissions were established at the same time Congress gave DC the right to elect a mayor and city council. The prospective candidates for these offices had not taken kindly to the prospect of home rule being distributed to others other than themselves and had campaigned quietly to have the commission section removed from the home rule legislation

The enabling legislation was quite broad, but in coming up with the operating rules the council and the mayor managed to restrict the commission's powers, denying them the right to sue the city, to act in concert with city funds, or to incorporate.

For someone who had long argued that urban neighborhoods should be granted semi-autonomous powers, I found the law excessively timid, but consoled myself with the thought that for once people in the colony of DC were ahead of the rest of the nation in something: we were the first major city with elected and funded neighborhood commissions. Besides, the commissioners were elected by single-member district and, if they acted with political sagacity, they could make their knowledge and influence in these small districts a base of unlegislated power. They could become, in effect, non-partisan precinct leaders, unbeholdened to a machine or to the politicians at city hall. The ward and at-large officials had not had time to develop precinct machines of their own and, with working neighborhood commissions in place, it might become difficult. Still I argue that our first task was to kick the "A" out of ANC so that we were no longer advisory.

In our ward, the representative on the city council seemed to understand this from the start and instead of trying to control the commissions, worked with them, using them as an information source and constant referendum on ward opinion. Perhaps she saw that lurking behind the commission idea was a principle eloquently laid down by Chicago's Vito Marzullo, 25th Ward Alderman, in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times:
I ain't got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we'd beat you 15 to one. The mayor don't run the 25th ward. Neither does the media or the do-gooders.. Me -- Vito Marzullo -- that's who runs the 25th Ward and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them.
The prospect of 300 neighborhood Vito Marzullos telling people in their districts how to vote in ward and citywide races is a disturbing one to traditional politicians. Fortunately for them, the neighborhoods and their commissioners failed to recognize and use this political potential.

Besides, when you're a working politician you don't have much time for theory. Back on 34th Place, they wanted parking stripes. I took a poll of the street to make sure, then petitioned the Department of Transportation. No problem. The parking stripes appeared. Score one for neighborhood government.

So let's try a little harder situation: the traffic on 34th Street, a secondary arterial that divides our neighborhood with a steady flow of suburban commuters. It goes right by our elementary school and every so often a child gets hit. One morning a car jumped the curb at 34th & Newark, ran right over the spot where the mercifully absent school safety patrol should have been standing, bounded off a stone wall, back across the street and into a neighbor's elegantly aging Volvo. Distress at the corner; anger. Then the next day another accident. The now not so elegantly aging Volvo was struck again. I checked with the school safety police officer who produced a computer printout that showed there had been about two dozen accidents at that and near-by corners in the past year. Called up Transportation. Met two engineers early one morning at the corner. They produced a chart that showed (at least it did to them) why traffic could not go slower than 30 miles an hour in a fifteen-mile-per hour school zone. More letters, including one to the director of the Department of Transportation in which I pointed out there have been 26 accidents in the past year in just four blocks of 34th Street. More accidents. A call from the chair of our commission's transportation committee saying that the Transportation Department had reviewed its files on the situation and decided the corner was not sufficiently accident-prone to warrant action. Hung up the phone and went on errands. Couldn't get across 34th Street. The corner was blocked by an ambulance and two smashed cars. Neighborhood government, I thought, means using your eyes instead of your files. Score one for the old way.

On another occasion I found myself embroiled in a battle with the National Cathedral over a piece of beloved community land that the Episcopalians owned and wished to sell to for a Bulgarian embassy. This telegram from fellow commissioner Kay McGrath and myself -- sent to the Right Reverend William Creighton, bishop of the nation's capital -- shows that we were willing to stop at nothing, including the anathematizing of an Episcopalian bishop:
"Emergency meeting of Rosedale neighbors unanimously tonight called on you to honor agreement made with this community to consult prior to changes at Rosedale. Your present negotiations without such consultation are viewed as a breach of faith . . . "
Creighton agreed to a meeting, the first round in a lengthy battle that was eventually won by the community. During the session, the bishop said he had sensed an undercurrent of anti-Eastern European sentiment in the neighborhood. I rose to the defense of my people, telling the bishop in my best Al Sharpton manner that his comment was outrageous and that, besides, I had found that Bulgarians had generally treated me better than Episcopalians. He did not raise the charge again.

During my term on our neighborhood commission, I was asked to deal with a city-caused flooding problem that severely damaged three homes, an alarming number of accidents along 34th Street, the lack of proper signs on other streets, the need for parking stripes and curb improvement at several intersections, a surfeit of trash can-toppling dogs, a controversy over a tennis backboard, an attempt to sell seven acres of open space for a use repugnant to the community, plans for a new community park, the potential closing of a neighborhood school, land use proposals by the city government, the community's effort to come up with its own neighborhood plan, the relocation of a post office, speeding police cars on side streets, the expansion of the Sheraton Park Hotel, problems caused by Metro construction, the lack of snow removal during last winter's storms, the resurfacing of a public basketball court, the granting of the eighth liquor license in a one block stretch of Connecticut Avenue, a dispute over the use of a community garden pot, the proposed introduction of a hospital in our community, changes in flight patterns that would increase aircraft noise, the construction of a new addition to a neighborhood schools, the influx of litter, noise and illegal parked cars due to the opening of "Star Wars" in our neighbored and a teen age rapist roaming our streets.

As time went on, I stopped trying so hard to be an ombudsman. It was a role my constituents expected of me, but both they and I tended to forget that as an individual I had little more power than they. When I called to get the ice cleared off an alley, my complaint was merely added to the list of other citizen calls. There were a few exceptions, but only when the commission acted as a body did we make any impression.

We were handicapped by the prohibition on taking legal action. But when the alcoholic beverage commission ignored our insistence that seven liquor licenses were enough on one block of Connecticut Avenue, we decided to challenge the prohibition. We sued the city as ten individual commissioners and the court gave us standing.

When the commissions were being established, a citizens coalition had met to propose regulations. At one meeting someone suggested that the rules require that the city give the opinions of the commission "great weight.' A lawyer asked the legal meaning of the phrase. I replied, "Damned if I know, but let's put it in and find out."

We did and the term made its way into the official regulations. It was on these grounds that we sued the city. It wasn't easy for me. The new Irish pub, whose license we were challenging, was in my district. So was the home of one of the owners and his lawyer. But so were the 150 people who signed a petition in opposition to the license.

I wrote the lawyer suggesting that the owner appear at the next meeting of the commission, that perhaps we could work things out. The lawyer told the owner not to come. Thus I found myself opposing, on my constituents' behalf, one of my deepest held beliefs: that an Irish pub is a good thing. We eventually won in what became a landmark case. The court said the city could reject a commission's advice but had to put in writing its reasons for doing so, answering point by point each argument. This seemingly weak requirement has altered the politics of development and licensing, because, when you come right down to it, the city often has a difficult time putting in writing logical reasons for what it does.

A new hearing was held on the beverage license and it was granted. We had lost the battle while winning the war. As far as I was concerned, however, we had really won twice because the commissions were now more powerful and I could start using the pub.

My main function on the commission was as chair of the education, recreation and agriculture committee. (This latter role I had assumed after I discovered that we had over 200 garden plots in the commission area - more arable land, I claimed, than any other commission in the city)

My biggest problem was The Wall, a 17-foot high, 40-foot long cinderblock apparition that suddenly turned up on the Hearst playground, obstructing the view of the softball fields for the people across the street. The wall and accompanying fence and asphalt playing surface was, we learned, a tennis backboard area that the recreation department had built with funds from the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. The department, however, had not consulted anyone before doing so.

Within a few days, over a hundred signatures had been collected from the immediate neighborhood demanding the removal of the wall, fence and asphalt. Not only was it unsightly, but the neighbors complained the fenced-in area would block a favored sledding slope.

Word soon drifted back to us at the commission that if we would vote to tear down the wall, the recreation department would have it down in 24 hours. This was stunning news and an opportunity for constituent-pandering that we could not pass up. We voted to tear down the wall and it fell shortly thereafter.

At this point, the tennis players became organized. They presented us with a petition with over a hundred names demanding that the wall be put back up. Meetings were organized, proxy votes collected, and venom volleyed across the community's court. I attended one session that included representatives of the warring factions as well as a sizable delegation from the recreation department; the session lasted four hours and solely concerned the backboard. It was painful and tiring. But out of it came a compromise. Tennis players and neighbors would go along with a soundproofed wooden backboard, situated at a ninety-degree angle from the offending monster -- with no fence around the playing surface so the kids could still sled, if with more difficulty. Everyone gave up something but when the matter came to the commission for a vote, with it was a petition signed by over 100 tennis players in support of the compromise. I couldn't recall from my observations of more significant city controversies an occasion when people had actually petitioned for a compromise.

I retired with my fellow commissioners for our usual post-meeting reflections at the Zebra Room. I was happy. Not just because a compromise had been worked out, but because perhaps a few more people understood how differently things happen if they are decided by the people directly concerned. Downtown, the sheer use of political power was standard operating procedure; in a neighborhood it doesn't work.

I'm glad we saved that open space, that the recreation department agreed to build the new wall in the right place and of the right materials, that Hearst School got a reprieve from being closed, that we were able to help get the city to reopen a food stamp office it had precipitously closed, that the curbs have been cut back down the block so you can turn the the corner without running into the oncoming traffic, that we would be getting a new neighborhood park, that we were able to fund a community-drafted long-range neighborhood plan, that we perhaps helped slow the flood of development, that we were able to buy textbooks for our schools when the downtown system ran out of money, and that the planes from National Airport won't be flying over our neighborhood.

And I was also glad to have participated in a politics that was conscientious, unassuming and productive, the kind you get when you keep politicians within walking distance of their constituents. The kind you get when pressure is neighbors demanding you vote against a license for an Irish bar when you'd rather be in it, when a special interest group is a bunch of irate tennis players, when you know you've made a mistake because the guy across the street tells you, and when the whole business is treated not as a career for a few individuals, but an institution for everyone. And I have to admit that I was especially glad, after just two years, to have my successor, the Honorable Gary Kopff, assume responsibility for these pleasures.

Why politics doesn’t matter much anymore

Sam Smith

It is the assumption of politicians, media, voters (and even me on sunny days) that the problem of politics is one caused by conflicting ideologies and policies that can neither defeat the opposition nor find common ground.

Lately, however, I find myself increasingly of the view that politics itself is disappearing and that our conventional play by play doesn’t really describe what is happening.

The causes for this shift is several fold. For example, as far back as the advent of television, politics started disintegrating in a number of ways:
· It became dependent not on constituents and communities but on contributors who could pay for TV advertising.

· A politician’s record of service and positions was replaced by the politician’s brand. For example, Barack Obama was elected in no small part because he was black, with virtually no attention paid to his failure to have pursued significant policies that favored this constituency. If Hillary Clinton is elected it will be in no small part because of her feminine brand rather than because of what she actually has done. Or consider that a heavily branded icon of fiscal responsibility, Ronald Reagan, actually increased the debt by a higher percentage than Bill Clinton.

· Corruption has shifted from demanding, in the manner of a feudal system, services to a constituency or community in return for power to requiring loyalty to corporate and similar contributors disconnected from any constituency other than themselves.
If you try to discuss political theory or ideology in such a context, it becomes surprisingly irrelevant. You end up with a politics of fictional image, false intent, and one with recent contributions obfuscating traditional principles.

The only question that ends up really mattering is who gave how much to whom and for what? And who best looks the part?

Now add to this the massive shift in the training, background and practice of those in power, whether elected or appointed. Where politics once favored the socially intelligent, it now is overwhelmed by the influence of business management, legal doctrine and academic (rather than pragmatic) economics.

The effects of this change are much underrated. For example, government is not a corporation, but if a corporate model is used for it, then voters become treated like consumers or employees rather than citizens, power is increasingly restricted to the upper levels, and success is defined by those who have the most financial effect on the system and on the livelihood of those on the top.

Furthermore, reliance on the views of economists who are overwhelming devoted to serving the upper echelons obscures such obvious sources of wisdom as history and pragmatic experience, and denigrates policies that favor the many rather than the few.

As for the law, it is a specialty once devoted to giving safe form to substance determined by others, but is now overwhelmingly defining the basic nature of that substance. Not unlike letting your dentist determine your life style.

These factors get virtually no media or political attention and so we find ourselves with programs like Obamacare and Common Core that are historically unprecedented in their confusion, risk and indecipherable consequences.

This is not, however, for any political or ideological reason. It is the product of systemic dysfunction that has overwhelmed so much of what we do these days.

Obama’s role in this is noteworthy only because he is the first president to move dramatically beyond politics. He is the first president fully embedded in the new dysfunctional culture that has assumed control.

There have been, of course, plenty of matters in which his responsibility has been non-existent or minimal. For example, he was not the cause of the Iraq or Afghanistan invasion, two of the most expensive and unnecessary military actions in our history. Or the futile domestic war on drugs. Or the fact that a country that calls itself the best in the world is letting its postal service fall apart. Or Atlanta’s chaotic malfunction during a minor snow storm.

These do not reflect politics, they are not ideology. This is cultural collapse.

If you think metaphorically of Barack Obama and John Boehner as addicted parents, it becomes a little clearer. They are addicted – but instead of to drugs - to conflicting cults, almost political versions of Scientology. Neither cult makes much sense but they have the power to lead the debate and so just like those living in dysfunctional families, we continue with Afghanistan, Common Core, the war on drugs, and insurance companies controlling our medical services.

This is not politics; it is disorder.

The way out is hard, but it begins by distancing oneself from the madness, just as a young adult might move to another town to get away from it all. It doesn’t guarantee success but it reintroduces the potential of sanity.

We may be living in these other towns right now and just not realize it. The more we see the systemic dysfunction at the top of our society as something for which we are not responsible, need not to be loyal to, and can only replace and not repair, then what we do at a smaller level and in concert with other abused citizens becomes ever more important.

We can declare a free America in the space around us – either geographical, organizational or intellectual - easing ourselves out of being victims of cultural collapse and becoming the nascent builders of a second democratic republic that may recover our land from the terrorists who have bombed the American soul.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Legalize marijuana, delegalize our culture


Sam Smith

After listening to two friends debate the legalization of marijuana (the opponent, incidentally, sipping some vodka as he did so), I was reminded again of the degree to which we have become addicted to the law as a primary way to solve life’s problems.

From the multi-page documents we accept unread in order to get our new computer software going to the soaring number of laws being passed at every government level we have, without philosophical discussion or debate, let the law and its practitioners gain unprecedented control over our lives.  

You don’t have to be a libertarian to be stunned by the fact, for example, that about 40,000 state laws were passed in 2012.

This is not a legal or political issue, it is a philosophical and cultural one. Why have we let lawyers and the law intrude so deeply into areas that were once taught, defined and promulgated  by family, church, community and education?

Consider this from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project:

Around the country, school administrators, elected officials, and prosecutors are tackling the truancy problem through the criminal justice system, ratcheting up enforcement, slapping students and parents with big-dollar fines, and threatening jail time. Atlanta, Georgia, and Lynchburg, Virginia sharpened their truancy policies this year with the aim of increasing prosecutions. In Detroit, Los Angeles, and Compton, the police sweep the streets for truants and enforce daytime curfew laws.

… The absurdities of harsh truancy policies made headlines in May when a Houston-area judge jailed Diane Tran, 17, for missing too much school and fined her $100. News reports revealed that Tran was an 11thgrade honor student working two jobs to support siblings after her parents divorced and moved out of state. Tran’s treatment attracted the public’s attention, but thousands of students and their parents are regularly churned through similar courts without public scrutiny of the process, its costs, or its effectiveness.

In this instance, the victims are typically lower income and/or minority students, a bias seen elsewhere in our system, including the enforcement of marijuana laws.

But beyond that problem is a more general one. Why do we turn over to the law so easily matters that we once looked to parents, priests, teachers and social workers to solve? How can you have a decent community or country if the major influence towards doing the right thing has become the brutal remedies of the judicial and police systems?

And would you have been a better person if you had received jail time or fines for various offenses you committed along the way?

It’s a question we seldom discuss, argue about or examine in a rational way.

The reason why marijuana laws are such a good case in point is because they simply haven’t worked. And we didn’t even have to go through four decades of a failed war on drugs to find that out. We had ample  precedent in alcohol prohibition.

Obviously, if you’re a parent, you don’t want your sub-teen smoking pot or your teenager driving under its influence. But how can you arrive at a sensible approach to this when the major solution presented is a legal one?

What if we applied the same approach to doing homework or kids not putting food back in the refrigerator?

Just as with alcohol, you can have obvious points at which the law enters – such as driving under the influence – but our current culture not only uses the law as surrogate parents, teachers and community values, but does so even when it’s patently clear that it’s not working.

Some years back I suggested that a good urban planning principle would be to look for things that normally honest people do that are illegal, such as the 40,000 illegal accessory apartments in Los Angeles at that time. Or that in my neighborhood there was a business block where people normally double parked, but only right in front of the store where they were picking up their cleaning or whatever and only for a short while. The cops, I noticed, left this block alone.

Using marijuana falls into a similar category. At least three of our most recent presidents have used pot and/or even cocaine. Whatever their political faults, drug use did not seem to be prominent among them.

We have ruined far more lives criminalizing marijuana than have been hurt by using it, but we were taught by increasingly bullying politicians, police and their supporting media that this was the way to solve the problem.

It's way past time not only to legalize marijuana but delegalize the way we approach such issues.