Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Recent writings not posted, now posted.

No,  I have not been on a writing binge the last two days.  But I have put a lot of mostly published op-ed columns written in the last year and a half here on this blog.  For the published ones,  you can google to get the published versions.  Enjoy!

Same-Sex Wedding Cakes and Due Process of Law

I recently wrote a column maintaining that the recommended fine against a small bakery for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding is grossly and unjustly excessive.  A number of letters and comments in the Oregonian, where my article appeared,   have defended the fine.  Some indignant readers even think the fine should be larger.

Something that seems to have been overlooked in recent discussions is the constitutional requirement that people not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.   A fundamental part of due process of law requires  “notice,”  namely that people be clearly warned about what actions are illegal and what the maximum possible punishment will be. For example,  signs limiting parking to people who have handicap permits state the maximum fine---so many hundred dollars--- that may be imposed on violators. 

Clearly the owners of the Sweet Cakes  bakery could not have known that their refusal to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple could be punished with a $150,000 fine (now reduced to  “only” $135,000).  A somewhat similar case in the state of Washington recently drew a $1,000 fine,  and I am not sure that case had been decided yet when the Sweet Cakes incident occurred.  I would bet that Sweet Cakes would have made the cake if they had known they might be fined even $1,000 for refusing.

And this brings up a related point.   The deterrent effect of a fine is a function both of the magnitude of that fine and of the likelihood that it will be imposed.  It may well be, for example,  that a 90% chance of a $5 fine would deter far more littering than a 1% chance of a $1,000 fine.  And the owners of Sweet Cakes already incurred a “fine” for refusing to sell the cake:  the loss of the profit they would have made on the cake.  This “fine” was automatically levied on them without any need for the government to do anything.  It was 100% certain.

It is not as if government has nothing else to do than to prosecute this kind of case.  St. Thomas Aquinas, a Christian theologian,   noted many centuries ago that it is impossible for government to outlaw all sins.  He pointed out that government has limited enforcement capabilities and should not spread them too thin,  neglecting to enforce more important laws which prosecuting less important ones.  In cases like Sweet Cakes,  where a small but 100% certain “fine” is automatically imposed on businesses which refuse to serve someone,  it is particularly hard to justify an expensive tax-payer funded bureaucratic apparatus, particularly one which is free to impose huge additional fines without giving people the notice required by due process of law. 

The problems facing members of racial minorities vastly outweigh those facing people trying to buy a cake for a same-sex marriage.  Perhaps the state should concentrate its limited enforcement resources on enforcing duty-to-serve laws in the racial context and rely on the enlightened self-interest of bakeries to take care of the wedding cakes issue.

Impending Injustice In The Sweet Cakes Case

As I write these words an Oregon administrative law judge is hearing arguments about how much damages the owners of the now closed Sweet Cakes bakery must pay for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

If the judge accepts the $150,000 fine proposed by state civil rights investigators,  it will clearly be a gross injustice.  As Pooh-Bah in the Mikado put it,  “My object all sublime is to make the punishment fit the crime….”   Can any reader believe that $150,000 fits this particular violation of the law?  I do not know anything about the financial situation of the Sweet Cakes owners,  but for most owners of a small business having to pay this much money would undoubtedly ruin them.

And how much damage did the bakery’s refusal to bake a cake actually cause the couple?   Let’s assume that the value of the couple’s time is $100 an hour and that it took them two hours to locate another bakery which was willing to bake their cake.  Perhaps they needed to drive around Portland burning $50 in gasoline in pursuit of the cake.  Voila:  Damages:  $250. 

All this is assuming that the law under which this case arose is valid,  constitutional, and reasonable,  which is doubtful.   Duty-to-serve-everyone rules applying to innkeepers and restaurants are so reasonable that they existed under English common law centuries before antidiscrimination legislation was enacted in the U.S.  Travelers, not least in the old days when transportation was very slow,  were often at the mercy of a single local innkeeper or restaurant, and if arbitrarily refused service they might have nowhere to sleep or eat. 

The more recent legislation under which the Sweet Cakes case arose considers a much wider range of businesses to be “places of public accommodation.”   But as the Sweet Cakes case illustrates,  there is a big difference between hotels and restaurants, on the one hand,  and places  which bake wedding cakes,  on the other hand.  Wedding cakes are ordered well in advance, so there is nothing like the time pressure confronting a traveler seeking a roof under which to sleep or a place to have dinner.  And there are many places which produce wedding cakes and would be delighted to serve this couple;  it is not a local monopoly.

Legislation going beyond the traditional duty-to-serve,  requiring expensive government agencies and imposing potentially huge fines on places like Sweet Cakes,  may therefore not be reasonably related to a legitimate public purpose and therefore may be unconstitutional.

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “excessive fines” restricts only the federal government and therefore does not place limits on the government of Oregon.   But the spirit of the Eighth Amendment makes it clear that to impose more than a very nominal fine on the owners of the now closed Sweet Cakes would be a manifest injustice.

Getting Rid of Government-As-Bandit

The Catholic philosopher,  St. Augustine, famously asked:  “Justice being taken away, then,  what are kingdoms but great robberies?”      

Augustine understood that the fundamental power of government, like that of a robber,  is the power of the sword.  More recently the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung updated the metaphor, noting that “All political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” 

True,  government also wields the other two kinds of social power:  the pen,  and the purse.  But its ability to buy pens and to fill its purse with money needed to induce people to do things is based on taxes.  Taxes are collected at the point of the sword.  We do not have telethons---the power of the pen--- asking us to send in donations to support government.

The fact that government rests on the power of the sword means that it is potentially dangerous.  Government-as-bandit can single out individuals or particular groups  and do terrible things to them.  It can just kill them outright,  as the Nazis did to Jews during the Holocaust.  Or it can imprison or fine them or strip them of their property.   

However government is still necessary if we don’t want to find ourselves in a Hobbesian free-for-all where life is “nasty,  brutish, and short.”.  Legitimate government,  government-as-legislator,  must be able to deprive people of life, liberty, or property, but it cannot do so arbitrarily.  It can inflict sanctions only on individuals who violate genuine laws,  general rules of action which apply to anybody who takes the prohibited action.  And of course rules which apply only to certain kinds of people are not general rules.  Such rules, since they do not rise to the dignity of genuine laws,  should therefore be called pseudolaws. 

The requirement that government only inflict sanctions on people who have violated general rules of action gives everyone great protection from being treated arbitrarily.  Legislators hesitate to enact obnoxious general rules if they, too,  would be subject to the same rules.

An ideal government would be one where there are laws but no pseudolaws. The opposite of such an ideal government would be one in which there are no laws,  but many pseudolaws.  This is probably how the first governments originated, in the dim and murky past, as protection rackets run totally for the benefit of the racketeers.

The history of political progress since then has consisted of prolonged,  intelligent resistance to government-as-bandit,  resistance which has gradually moved us away from pseudolaws and towards societies governed only by genuine laws.  We are not there yet,  and some countries still have much further to go.  But it is now possible to imagine the day when government-as-bandit will have disappeared from the face of the earth. 

Perhaps the final blow against government-as-bandit will come when people in general engage in civil disobedience to pseudolaws.  This will be feasible only in countries which are close to the goal.  In countries which still have many pseudolaws,  civil disobedience to them could destroy all order and thereby make bad situations even worse. 

But in more advanced countries civil disobedience to pseudolaws could be helpful.  And the usual fears that civil disobedience erodes respect for laws would not apply, since disobedience to pseudolaws hardly implies disrespect for genuine laws. 

A Platform For Hillary Clinton: Single Payer

The United States has painted itself into an Obamacare corner.   Obamacare has enough good elements that repealing it would harm millions of people.  Keeping it in its present form will harm other millions and inflict serious economic damage.   But it is impossible to reform Obamacare,  since Republican politicians won’t support changes that prolong its longevity. 

To escape this mess we need a magician who can pull a political rabbit out of their hat,  and the best person to do this may be Hillary Rodham Clinton.  If Mrs. Clinton decides to run in 2016,  she should come out in favor of replacing Obamacare with a simple single-payer insurance system financed by general taxes.

The Clinton campaign should make this proposal its centerpiece  and seek to persuade all voters,  Democrats and Republicans,  that  Medicare-For All would be in their interest.

Such a campaign would have many advantages.  For one thing,  the claim would be true.  Taxes would have to go up,  but the increase for the average person would be more than offset by reductions in individual premiums, in money withheld from wages by employers  in order to pay insurance premiums,  and in co-pays and deductibles.   Mrs. Clinton could point out that people should care more about what medical care costs them than about whether they are paying for it through taxes or by more convoluted and indirect means.

A single-payer system, unlike Obamacare,   would cover everybody.  Unlike Obamacare it would not force individuals and employers to make complicated choices between plans with different coverage,  costs,  and in-network doctors and hospitals.  Unlike Obamacare it would not need to determine individuals’ continuing eligibility for subsidies,  since the tax system would implicitly take care of this. Unlike Obamacare,  Medicare-For-All would not motivate employers to reduce the number of full-time employees in order to avoid the mandate. 

Politically,  Hillary Clinton could appeal simultaneously to Republicans (by openly acknowledging Obamacare’s defects) and to Democrats who have soured on Mr. Obama and on Obamacare.   She could capitalize on her expertise gained from her failed effort to design a national program during the first Clinton administration.  She could admit learning from that experience that a national system must be simple and understandable. 

If Hillary Clinton campaigns on a single-payer platform,  the usual vested interests will attack her.  But Americans have become suspicious enough of corporations (not least hospitals, insurance, and pharmaceutical companies) that she should be able to turn the tables on them by pointing out the inefficiencies of the current system,  the bloated compensation to corporate executives,  and deceptive marketing.  Many doctors,  who used to oppose single-payer insurance,  have changed their minds because of frustration with the current system..

If Americans understand where their bread is really buttered,  they will support a single-payer system.  As a presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will command the national attention necessary to persuade people that such a system would truly be in their interest.

The campaign should be completely honest about the insurance issue.   It should frankly admit that single-payer is no panacea and would have some drawbacks as well as advantages.  But that is true of all policies,  and the real question is how the advantages and disadvantages net out. 

By making Medicare-For-All her central platform plank,  Mrs. Clinton can help the U.S. escape from the Obamacare  corner into which it has painted itself.   Even if she loses the election,  she will have increased national understanding and paved the way for eventual progress.  Win or lose,  she has an opportunity to make a real difference.

Who Was That Masked Man?

When I was in grade school,  Oregon had no television and I listened a lot to the radio.   One of my favorite programs always ended with someone asking about the hero of the series:  “Who was that masked man?”  The answer,  of course,  was “the Lone Ranger.”

I remembered this program  recently when I noticed how many pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine and  Islamic State fighters are wearing masks so we cannot see their faces.  And of course there is the masked fellow with a British accent who has been beheading western hostages for us to admire over the Internet.  The implications of these masks only gradually began to sink in. 

The usual distinction between killing people in war and murdering them has, in recent centuries,  been that war is a collective endeavor engaged in by political bodies while murder is an individual activity.  Under  international law people in armies must wear identifiable uniforms to inform people under whose flag they are fighting.  Captured soldiers are required only to answer questions about their name,  rank, and serial number,  and are not supposed to be killed or  held personally responsible for the people they have killed in battle.  Murderers,  however,  are deemed to act as individuals and can be punished for violating the law. 

Under the modern laws of war combatants who do not wear a uniform can be treated as spies and executed if they are caught.  As I recall,  the German saboteurs who landed clandestinely in the eastern U.S. during World War II were executed because,  of course,  they were not wearing uniforms.  And my father,  not a military man,  was required to wear a uniform in the early 1950s when engineering work at American military bases required him to fly from point to point in Japan.  There was concern that if the plane blundered into North Korea,  then at war with the United States,  he could have been shot. 

So who are the masked men fighting the Ukrainian government?  How many are disgruntled Ukrainians and how many are Russian soldiers?  Are the Russians in organized military units or are they are enthusiastic soldiers who have come in as individuals while on leave?  The Putin regime came up with the latter version when body bags started showing up in Russia, though it has also tried valiantly to hush the facts up. 

The fact that the rebels and Russians are wearing masks suggests that something fishy is going on.  The masks and lack of uniforms probably represent an effort to avoid both the collective responsibility entailed in war and personal responsibility for private individual actions.   I suppose the masks on ISIS fighters in the Middle East represent a similar attempt to have their cake and eat it too.

One of my favorite Frank and Ernest cartoons shows a lawyer talking to his jailed client:  “Well, no wonder you got caught, Ernie…You’re not supposed to wear a mask when you shoplift.”   I included this cartoon in my 1981 college textbook, along with a deadpan comment”  “Lawyers can be excellent sources of good advice.” 

I wish someone could give us equally good advice about what to do about the current battles where so many people are wearing masks but not uniforms. 

Two Cheers For The Top-Two Primary


Primary elections like we currently have in Oregon have two major problems:

1.  Republican primaries are dominated by extreme conservatives and Democratic primaries by extreme liberals because extremists vote more often than moderates.  In the general elections more moderate voters must choose between the resulting candidates.   We end up with legislative bodies which are polarized and frequently deadlocked.

2.  Primary elections tend to include candidates people do not know much about.    Most learning about them comes from the media - which may be biased.    Media based campaigning is expensive, so financial status may have undue influence.
Measure 90,  on the Oregon ballot in November,  could solve the first problem.  It
eliminates separate primaries for Democrats and Republicans.  All voters (including independents) would vote in a single primary election.   The top two candidates in this election would fight it out in the general election, even if they are members of the same party. 

In such a single primary,  candidates would need to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters.  Extremists in both parties would tend to cancel each other out as they do in general elections.  Even in election districts heavily dominated by one of the major parties,  general elections would become competitive because both candidates who win in the primary may come from the dominant party. 

Unfortunately, Measure 90 would not solve the second problem with today’s primaries, voters’ lack of knowledge about the candidates.  Nominees would still be selected on the basis of costly images,  not on personal acquaintance.  We could solve this second problem by completely eliminating primary elections and going back to having party leaders select candidates.  

Unlike the extremists and their special interest supporters who dominate today’s primary elections,  party leaders would evaluate possible candidates in terms of their ability to appeal to the majority of voters in the general election.  And party leaders would not have to decide on candidates they know superficially only through image-mongery in the media;  instead,  they would nominate people they know personally and can evaluate on the basis of their actual qualities.

It is true that voters would still have to rely on the media when voting in general elections, but they would only need to learn about two candidates for each office and in any event there is no reasonable alternative if we are to have elections at all.  Hopefully party leaders would have weeded out potential candidates who are only image and no substance when they decide who to nominate.  

 Unfortunately,   any proposal to eliminate primary elections would be labeled “undemocratic” and rejected out of hand without serious consideration of the damage they are causing.   A campaign to eliminate primaries might succeed in the long run, but it is not in the cards for today.  

Under these circumstances, the best thing Oregonians can do for now is to vote for Measure 90,  realizing that it solves only one of the two major problems caused by today’s primary elections.   As a serious reform,  it deserves our support,  but we should give it only two cheers,  not three.

Where Was Tiffany B. When The Soviet Union Needed Her?

As a long-time student of political attitudes expressed on radio,  TV,  and in newspapers,  I have recently been thinking about what I am seeing on the new social media.  Many people are posting comments  on Facebook claiming that America no longer has a free press.  These claims,  freely transmitted over the internet,  would seem to contradict themselves.  And they make me wonder if these people have any understanding of what life was like in a country that really did not have a free press:  the Soviet Union prior to Gorbachev’s glasnost (free speech) and other reforms.

The Soviet government employed 80,000 people in the central censorship agency,  Glavlit,  and nothing could be published—not even a message on a book of matches--- without permission from this agency.  It spent huge sums of money, and electricity,  broadcasting jamming signals so Soviet citizens could not listen to shortwave radio stations like the Voice of America and the BBC.  One had to have a license from the police to own a typewriter,  which was obviously considered a dangerous weapon, and copy machines were rare and tightly controlled. 

Boris Pasternak defied these controls when he smuggled the manuscript for his novel,  Dr. Zhivago,  out of the country in 1956 after Soviet authorities refused to allow publication, since they considered it hostile to their regime.   Pasternak had been subjected to tremendous pressure not to do this, and after it was published abroad his situation became so intolerable that he briefly considered killing himself. 

Meetings were held by the Writers Union in which dozens of his friends and colleagues were forced to denounce him in the most vicious terms.  He was expelled from the Writers Union by a vote the leader of the meeting deemed unanimous even though one dissenter shouted “Not true!  Not unanimously!  I voted against!”   (Ironically, the dissenter was the sister-in-law of the late dictator,  Josef Stalin!)   

Earlier in his life Pasternak had gotten in trouble for refusing to sign petitions demanding execution of  “enemies of the state.”  “Don’t yell at me,”  he told some fellow writers at a public meeting.  “But if you must yell, at least don’t do it in unison.”

Then the controlled press got into the act.  Letters denouncing Pasternak were published,  along with articles reviewing Dr. Zhivago in the most negative possible way.  Naturally no rebuttals were allowed.   Some of the reviewers admitted that they had not read the book.  Probably none of them had read it, since it hadn’t come out in Russian yet and copies in other languages could not be brought into the country.

Of course the Soviet editors who allowed these “reviews” to be published were under the thumb of  the authorities and knew they would be fired (or worse) if they defied their orders,  But the situation reminds me of one of my students at Adrian College,  Tiffany B., who was one of the editors of the College World newspaper.  There was a very controversial book,  The Bell Curve,  at the time,  which was based on statistics in which the IQs of white Americans and black Americans were graphed with the distribution of the scores of the black people somewhat to the left (i.e. lower) of the distribution of the scores of white people.   The interpretation of these facts in this book was very doubtful and drew lots of well-founded criticism.  

One of our black students asked Tiffany if he could write  review of it for the College World.  She replied, as any good editor in a free country would have,  “of course,  but you have to read it first.”                                                                                                                                                       

Where was Tiffany B.  when the Soviet Union needed her?


U.S. Labor Law: A Model For International Relations

A liberal education enables us to see techniques in one realm that could solve problems in very different parts of life. Specialization has its own advantages, but people who are too specialized may overlook important opportunities.

Major problems today are caused by groups seeking to break away from various governments and to become independent countries or part of some other country. The Russian seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, after what was billed as a secession movement,  is a dramatic recent example.   Other countries currently afflicted by secession movements include Canada,  Ukraine,  Spain,  the United Kingdom, Iraq,  China, and Russia itself, which has been fighting Chechen separatists. 

Secession movements are a problem because there is no peaceful, orderly way to decide what to do about them.  Once in a while two parts of a country can go their separate ways peacefully, as happened with Czechoslovakia in 1993.  But the more normal departure of part of a country has come through violent revolution and civil war. 

The American Constitution provides procedures by which states can be subdivided.  It actually happened once,  when West Virginia was split off from Virginia in 1861 and admitted as a state in 1863.  By analogy, if we had a world government it could decide when to allow secession from member countries.  But we have no world government and no immediate prospects for one.

Experience from a completely different ball park—American labor law--- suggests how secession questions could be adjudicated peacefully.  Our labor law allows workers to vote whether to designate a union to be their sole bargaining agent.  But firms may have different types of employees and it is therefore necessary to determine exactly which employees will be included in the bargaining unit to be represented. This determination cannot be made by voting. Exactly who will be included in the bargaining unit and thus in the electorate is determined by a “unit clarification proceeding” conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. 

Decision about boundary changes between countries,   like decisions about the membership of a collective bargaining unit, cannot be made democratically because challenged boundaries call into question just who could vote. What we therefore need is a world agency that can hear arguments by supporters and opponents of any proposed change and then render a decision, binding on all parties,  allowing or denying the proposal. Such a unit clarification agency,  having only this one power, would not be a full world government.

To establish this agency would require a multilateral treaty adhered to by all or nearly all countries.  Each country would agree to be bound by decisions of the boundary clarification agency about its own borders and to respect its decisions regarding the borders of other countries. 

Many countries contain very motley and troublesome assortments of cultures, languages,  and histories, so  the advantages to existing governments of delegating responsibility to determine their exact jurisdiction would be considerable. 

Although a world government with general jurisdiction is politically impossible for now,  a specialized world agency performing just one of the functions of such a government—determining the boundaries of national governments-- just might be possible.

Given that World War I (beginning exactly 100 years ago), World War II,  and most current wars grew out of disputes about the boundaries of political systems,   even a limited world agency could greatly decrease the danger of war,  allow reduced military expenditures, and make the world a more decent place for all of us.

Has the time come for a world borders clarification agency? 

Advertised Airline Fares Should Be Fair

Peter DeFazio should take little pride that the House of Representatives recently passed a bill he co-sponsored with Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican.   The bill would allow airlines to advertise prices that do not include taxes and fees.  Since taxes and fees can be fairly substantial,  advertised prices  excluding these add-ons will be grossly deceptive. 

During House debate DeFazio ridiculed current legal requirement that advertised fares must show the full amount,  including taxes and fees,  most prominently.  “Talk about the nanny state,”  he said.  “Give me a break.  What do they think,  Americans are idiots?”

I do not recall DeFazio objecting to heavy-handed federal regulations in general, and unlike many rules the one currently in place is simple,  easily complied with, and reasonable.  In fact I would argue that similar rules requiring an honest total price should apply not only to airline tickets but also to car rentals,  hotel rooms,  and telephone and cellphone service.

Supporters of the DeFazio-Shuster legislation argued that advertising the full price of airline tickets is bad because it “can dampen demand for travel.”   In other words,  people will buy more tickets if deceived about the price.  But there is no public interest in higher levels of travel, since if people travel less they will spend more on other things, boosting employment on those areas.  But there is a major public interest in preventing false advertising and in helping people avoid overextending themselves financially.

Proponents also argue that DeFazio-Shuster will inform flyers about how much of the price they pay goes to taxes and fees.  This is a legitimate goal,  but could equally well be served by disclosing taxes and fees in a footnote.  (Since proponents of DeFazio-Shuster argue that under their bill total costs must be disclosed in a footnote,  they can hardly argue that people don’t read footnotes.)    

Advertisers use all kinds of tricks to avoid disclosing the actual price of their wares.  Cheap internet service is offered “for 12 months” (with an unstated but major price increase a year later),  goods are offered inexpensively (with a humungous “shipping and handling” charge mentioned in very small type),  adjustable rate mortgages sell to people who will be ruined when the adjustments (read increases) kick in.  Those of us who try to know the real price before we buy something find it harder and harder to find out that real price.  It is therefore hard to compare offers from different providers.

Let us hope that the Senate shoots this bill down.  If necessary,  perhaps some public-spirited senator will filibuster it.  If the Senate goes along with the House,  it would be a great occasion for President Obama to cast a veto. 

When my wife and I go to Newport,  our favorite place to stay is the Sylvia Beach Hotel.  One of the many nice things about this hotel (in addition to its welcoming house cat) is the fact that its price list includes all taxes.  This honesty may work to the Sylvia Beach’s disadvantage when people compare, but it  is a real service since people from out of town or out of state cannot always know what the taxes are in a given city. 

Would that all hotels,  phone companies, and airlines were equally honest!  But in an imperfect world,  government regulations requiring honest bottom-line prices are the next best thing.  I hope people in Rep DeFazio’s district will inundate him with mail demanding that he reconsider his position on his so-called Transparent Airfares Act.

The “Unimportance” of Politics

My discovery of the “unimportance” of politics began when I was a student at Willamette University.  Theodore Shay, a political science professor,  observed that Republicans could take Portland only if  telephone service could be knocked out on election day.

This was before mail-in voting came to Oregon.  Shay’s prediction assumed that Portland’s outnumbered Republicans would turn out anyway,  but that many Democrats would not vote unless poll-watchers phoned them a reminder.

Back then, I was a Republican and thought knocking out the Portland telephone exchange was a great idea!  And I devised a simple way to do just that (not revealed here in the unlikely case the idea would still work). 

My enthusiasm vanished, however,  when I considered the side effects of turning off all telephone calls.  People whose houses catch fire couldn’t  call the fire department.  People who suffer a  heart attack or an accident couldn’t  summon an ambulance.  Suddenly a Republican victory seemed a lot less important.

As a political science student, and later a professor of political science,  it took me years fully to realize the dangers of exaggerating the importance of politics.  I considered politics important enough to devote my professional life to its study.  And most people pay too little attention, often no attention at all,  to public policy questions, not too much.

But for a small minority of people, politics is at the “core of their existence” (as Marxist Herbert Marcuse put it),  they eat, breath, and sleep politics.  According to Mao Tse-Tung, “Not having a correct political outlook is like having no soul.” 

Exaggerating the importance of politics,  fanatical minorities justify inflicting horrible atrocities on people because they think they can produce changes that will bring total bliss forever after.  Exaggerated benefits outweigh any possible costs of getting them.  Thus we see millions slaughtered by Communists,  by Nazis,  by religious extremists with a political agenda (the Inquisition, Zionists,  Islamists).  We see car bombs,  shot-down airliners,  the 9/11 attacks,  Gulag Archipelagos,  Holocausts. Today’s newscasts and papers are full of these atrocities: Ukraine,  Israel-Palestine,  Iraq,  Syria,  Nigeria ….   

The common denominator here is that all these disasters were engineered by a minority of fanatics seeking political changes.

In order to restrain fanatics who grossly overestimate the importance of politics,  it would help if the vast majority of people who now won’t pay any attention to the subject would spend an hour a week—better, an hour a day---informing themselves and learning how to engage in thinking about politics.  (Capitalize these last words and we have a shameless plug for my 1981 college textbook,  Thinking About Politics,  available for free reading at my website.)  

This would immunize them from manipulation by fanatics as well as by economic interests,  help them do their own thinking instead of mouthing platitudes fed to them by demagogues, help them to know which side their bread is buttered on and to vote and act intelligently.  After all,  a few fanatics by themselves cannot cause much trouble.  They need help from the multitudes they stir up.

Alfred Lord Tennyson may have exaggerated the importance of politics in his 1835 poem “Locksley Hall,”  but he made a very important point when he hoped for a future when:

“The war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of men, the Federation of the world.

“There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.”
Paradoxically,  for the “common sense of most” to prevail over political fanatics of all types,  it will be necessary for many people to take more of an interest in politics.

Lighting Many Candles: Saving The Children

The flood of  “undocumented”  children coming into the U.S. from Central America poses an unsolvable problem for the governments of the U.S. and many of its states.   Legislation enacted during the George W. Bush administration prevents sending them back without individualized hearings, and unless Congress appropriates the money requested by President Obama there will not be enough hearings officers to handle things without huge delays.

In the meantime,  what happens to these kids?

Of course we cannot assume that Congress will do anything—doing nothing is what it does best!-- and in some respects that is not a bad thing.  The horrible economic and security conditions prompting parents to send young children off across Mexico to enter the U.S. without official permission make sending them home pretty close to wholesale child abuse.  

In an ideal world,  this kind of thing could not happen.  In an ideal world individuals and whole families would be just as free to move anywhere in the world as U.S. citizens are free to move to any of our fifty states.  In  ideal conditions people would consider themselves and all other people to be citizens of the world and would acquire citizenship in particular countries just by moving there,  exactly like Americans become citizens of Oregon or Michigan by moving there. 

We do not live in an ideal world,  and  recent headlines from Ukraine,  Syria,  Iraq, and  Nigeria  suggest we will not live in an ideal world any time soon.  Even so,  even without help from Congress, there are steps we can take as individuals and organizations to help these poor children.  Even an imperfect world offers many opportunities to help people,  to make a significant difference,  to light a large number of candles rather than cursing the darkness.

Half a century ago my parents,  who were comfortable but not particularly flush,  decided to sponsor a child in Hong Kong through one of the several organizations that handle this kind of thing.  Their monthly payments helped support my new foster sister Kit (whom I have never met, but corresponded with when my folks died) until she came of age.  Several decades ago my wife and I did the same thing, supporting a young boy—Angel--down in Ecuador until he became an adult.  My big regret with Angel was that I had forgotten so much of my Spanish that I was never able to communicate very well with him, and we have not kept in touch. 

Perhaps one or more of the child support organizations could undertake to connect American families and organizations such as congregations and civic groups with these children when and if they are returned to their parents.  Financial support would not solve all of the problems which caused the children to flee,  particularly the dangers of  just living in countries where crime runs wild and governments are corrupt,  but such support could at least make their lives less intolerable.

Critics might object  that to put children who had entered the U.S. illegally at the front of the line for economic support when they return home would encourage even more people to send their kids on this highly dangerous journey:  “moral hazard,” as it is called.  Well,  that’s what we get for living in an imperfect world!  In an imperfect world doing good sometimes has bad side effects. 

But that is not necessarily a reason for doing nothing, and in this case there is an obvious way to avoid the bad side effects:  get enough people to support children in these countries so that all the needy children can be supported,  not just those who came up to the U.S.


Discussions about proposed hotels in Portland and Corvallis again draw our attention to the danger that unprincipled discrimination favoring selected businesses will undermine respect for government. 

The problem is not just with hotel developers scheming to get their fingers in the public cookie jar.  Several years ago Boeing got more than a dozen states into a tax-break bidding war before deciding where to locate a new plant.  More recently Governor Kitzhaber called a special session so the legislature could authorize him to lock in the state's current tax policy for Nike so it would build a new plant in Oregon.  

Then there is the scandalous use of public money and tax breaks in many parts of the U.S. to build stadiums for professional athletic teams. 

As Governor Kitzhaber pointed out,  the expansion that Nike had conditioned on a tax guarantee would increase Oregon’s tax collections and employment opportunities, and no doubt it did.  But legitimate taxes, like legitimate laws of all kinds, must apply the same rules to one and all.

The rule of law says that we cannot just reduce the tax rate for Boeing but must apply the reduction to all who pay the same type of tax.   We should not make tax guarantees to Nike that do not apply to all corporations in Oregon.  

As soon as we deviate from this principle, the door is opened to all kinds of corruption, influence-peddling, and favoritism. As soon as we deviate from this principle, we all lose the protection that is provided by the rule of law.

By way of analogy, imagine that Oregon were to offer to tax Microsoft's Bill Gates at only 2 percent if he would move from Washington to Oregon. This would be a substantial discount from the 9 percent income tax paid by other Oregonians, but would increase state tax revenues if Gates moved in, since 2 percent of something (a rather large something!)  comes to more than 9 percent of nothing.

Although it would make sense for Oregon to offer such a discount to Gates, everyone would recognize that doing this would be an outrage, a manifest violation of equal protection under the law.
Why then do we tolerate discriminatory taxation when rich corporations rather than individuals are the beneficiaries?

As a Corvallis resident I have studied the details of the proposed hotel here more than I have studied the convention center hotel in Portland.  Essentially the developers in Corvallis want property taxes and room taxes paid by the proposed hotel to count twice:  once, as the taxes they, like all other hotels in town, must pay,  and then again, to pay off city bonds that would contribute $4 million to their construction costs.   And the proposed deal is structured, according to the developers’ own estimates,   to save the hotel $39,445 per year in property taxes in 2016-2020 rising to a saving of $142,146 per year in 2046-2060. 

We cannot blame hotel developers,  athletic team owners,  and corporations for asking for tax breaks or financial support.  Often they offer up complicated economic arguments trying to convince people that their proposals are no-brainers.  But our public officials should not swallow these arguments uncritically.  Even on the rare occasions when such proposals might have actual merit they should reject them out of hand as a violation of the basic principle of good government:  genuine laws must apply the same rules to everyone. 

Eliminate VA Bottlenecks: Put Veterans on Medicare

Veterans Administration medical facilities recently have been under intense criticism for concealing how long patients must wait to see doctors and receive treatment.  A number of veterans may have died while waiting to see a VA doctor. 

Veterans Affairs Secretary  Eric Shinseki recently testified about the situation before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee.  He was not warmly received.  Several senators suggested that he ought to resign or be fired.

Unfortunately the problems with VA medical care will provide ammunition to politicians who oppose replacing Obamacare with a simple single-payer system, “Medicare for all.”  
Although the Affordable Care Act made no changes to veterans’ medical benefits,  critics of Obamacare have already seized the opportunity to charge that “government-run health care doesn’t work---just ask a veteran.”   

Of course the problems with veterans’ benefits do not prove that “government health care” doesn’t work.  Medicare,  for example, is a government program and it works quite well, with none of the problems afflicting Veterans’ Administration facilities, or,  for that matter,  Obamacare. 

A key difference between Medicare, on the one hand,  and veterans’ benefits and Obamacare on the other hand,  is that Medicare patients can go to virtually any doctor or hospital in the country, most of which are not operated by the federal government.   The VA has only limited facilities,  not always conveniently located,  and insurance policies sold under Obamacare often severely restrict the doctors and hospitals people can go to. 

Firing Secretary Shinseki would not solve the problems with VA medical facilities, which go much deeper than current complaints might suggest.  A major reform is needed here, and the simplest approach would be to privatize or close all VA facilities and put veterans on Medicare without regard to their age.  Like all other Medicare patients,  veterans could then choose freely among doctors and hospitals and not have to wait for appointments any longer than anybody else.  Money saved by closing VA facilities could be moved to the Medicare Trust Fund;  perhaps part of the savings could be used to provide supplemental insurance to veterans if that is needed to duplicate the coverage they had under the VA. 

The United States is unique in the industrialized world in having completely separate medical insurance systems for veterans,  retired people,  employed people,  the unemployed,  and for native Americans.  Other countries have single-payer systems covering everybody, systems which have worked quite well and which hold administrative costs down to a bare minimum.

Let’s treat the current criticisms of VA medical facilities not just as a problem,  but as an opportunity.   Moving all veterans into Medicare would eliminate one of these separate systems and would be a step in the right direction towards eliminating all of them and providing Medicare for all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Hotel parking garage: heads they win, tails we lose

 Corvallis taxpayers may be asked to contribute $4.2 million of the $23 million cost of a waterfront hotel and parking structure.    Taxpayers should give this proposal their undivided suspicion.

Although details of the proposed deal are sketchy, those that have come to light do not suggest that Corvallis would be getting a good deal.  If Tom Jensen’s thoughtful letter to the editor has its numbers right,   for $4.2 million Corvallis could build its own downtown parking garage that would accommodate 400 cars day and night.  Under the proposed deal with the hotel developers around 100 parking spots in their garage would be available to the public in the daytime, and perhaps 60 spots at night.  Anyone who has tried to park downtown in the evening knows that 60 spaces would be a drop in the bucket, especially if the same money could have produced 400 spaces. 

The proposed bonds to finance this garage would be paid off at the rate of $325,000 per year,  while the hotel would only be paying $70,000 a year for getting to use as many of the parking spots as needed for its guests.  So where would the additional $255,000 a year come from?  Supposedly, it would come from room tax collections and property taxes paid by the hotel.  But if the hotel is built,  those taxes will be collected by the city even if it has not financed the garage, and these revenues would be available for other city purposes if it doesn’t have to pay off bonds with it.   So it is not reasonable to say that the proposed deal would be self-financing.

Of course the developers have threatened that the hotel would not “pencil out” if the city doesn’t kick in the $4.2 million.  In other words,  it would not be built and the city would not be collecting any room or property taxes from it.  This is an interesting bargaining argument, but the city need not and should not buy it.  As a general principle,  projects like this that cannot attract enough private capital to be built without public “participation” probably are not economically viable and should not be built.  I strongly recommend that the city call the developers’ bluff here,  and see what happens.

One cannot blame the developers for proposing this deal,  since it allows them to keep all of the profits from operating the hotel while shifting a great deal of the risks of loss to Corvallis taxpayers.  And while we should hesitate to impugn the motives of our officials,  the proposed deal does smell rather like crony capitalism at its worst.  

Since the whole proposal has only recently come to light, at the very least the Corvallis City Council should postpone a decision until more public scrutiny and discussion can take place.  If I were on the Council,  though,  my inclination would be to shoot the idea down at the earliest opportunity.   

Student writing assignments for the internet age

Half a century ago my freshman writing teacher at Willamette University was Paul G. Trueblood,  a leading expert on Lord Byron.  I did not appreciate him at the time.  I thought he wasted immense amounts of class time,  telling stories about conducting class out on the lawn when someone turned on the underground sprinkler system and the like.  But when I look back at my development as a writer I realize that his class may have been the most important one I took at Willamette.

Trueblood had us all write major term papers which had to be based entirely on an Everyman’s Library edition of Abraham Lincoln’s Speeches and Letters.  Although the book had an index of sorts,  each of us had to make our own index of passages relevant to the topic on which we were writing.  I still have the book and the index I made. 

The assignment forced us to organize a large but manageable body of information into categories conducive to writing a coherent analysis.  And since we were all working with the same collection of documents,  Professor Trueblood could verify that we had done the work ourselves.

Thanks to this assignment, books accumulated during my 36 years of teaching at Adrian College and 14 years since retiring have indexes that I scrawled inside the covers on topics I was researching. 

Only one other experience contributed as much to my development as a writer.  In 1970-71  I spent a sabbatical year as a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School.  The Liberal Arts Fellows in Law program was designed for college teachers whose classes involved law but who did not want to become lawyers.  There were five of us---two political scientists,  one philosopher, one business professor, and one historian---and we sat in on selected classes,  met as a group, and had plenty of time for independent reading and research. 

I happened to read a book which I considered to be an extremely well-done presentation of a perverse thesis.  After taking 60 pages of notes and comments,  I volunteered to review it for the American Political Science Review.  The editor accepted my offer and told me to limit my review to 1,000 words. 

My first draft, after  I had polished it, turned out to be nearly 2,000 words!  (I had to count them by hand since we did not have computer editors and word counters in 1971.)  My review was tightly reasoned and there wasn’t anything in it that I thought could be left out.  But I went through it with a tally sheet striking out unnecessary words here and there,  replacing five words with two when possible, eliminating sentences that didn’t pull their own weight, occasionally finding whole paragraphs that were not critical to my discussion. 

Finally,  my tally sheet indicated that it  was down to 1,012 words.  Figuring the APSR editor would not count the words by hand,  I sent it in.  My wife,  a more experienced writer, thought it was the best thing I had ever written.  The APSR, whose editors were famous for giving all manuscripts the works,  didn’t change one comma.

My experiences at Willamette and Harvard contributed to my ability to organize and write a highly unorthodox college textbook,  Thinking About Politics:  American Government in Associational Perspective,  published by D. Van Nostrand in 1981.  They also helped me try to improve the writing of my political science and pre-law students, which I considered a very important part of my work. 

By the time I took early retirement in 2000 the Internet and World Wide Web had come along,  complicating the teaching of writing because it made plagiarism so easy.  Students could copy essays on virtually every subject and then just mess with them enough to avoid getting caught if their professor checked using search engines.  Lazier students didn’t bother to do even this, and of course we made them wish they had.  I presume that today’s students know how to cover their tracks better.

More recent developments on the Internet offer new opportunities for college and high school teachers to give students the kind of experience I had at Willamette while minimizing the danger that students will turn in someone else’s writing.  Many newspapers now allow on-line comments about articles, editorials, and op-ed columns, and some of them weed out the most off-the-wall comments.   Some articles in the New York Times,  for example,  get several hundred comments even after editorial scrutiny. 

The comments for a particular article could function as the equivalent of the book of Lincoln’s speeches and letters that were the basis for the term papers Professor Trueblood had us write.  Students could be assigned to read the same published article and then examine all the comments,  sort them into categories,  and write individual analyses and evaluations of the patterns they find in the comments. 

Teachers who really want to pile it on could grade the papers turned in,  then return the papers with instructions to cut the number of words in half without eliminating any of the key points or supporting arguments made in the original paper.  This second assignment,  graded separately,  could replicate my highly educational experience writing the book review for the American Political Science Review.  And it would drive the students mad! 

But maybe 50 years later the students would realize they had really learned something important in the process.