Give Thanks

As traditional as pumpkin and leak  pie and turkey with jalapeno nigiri stuffing  , I serve up to you, faithful City Beat readers, my annual Thanksgiving blog.  Bon Appétit and have a happy day.

It is time, once again, for the traditional National day of Thanksgiving, left to us by our Pilgrim forbears . Of course the Pilgrims were a branch of the English Puritan movement, violent revolutionaries who triumphed in the English Civil War of the 1640s, overthrew their king, cut of his head and, under their leader Oliver Cromwell, established history’s first modern military dictatorship. Well, no-one is perfect. (The Puritans, as you may also recall, were also big on authoritarian Democracy, meaning the community could chose its leaders but, once doing so, no-one had the right to dissent, for to dissent was to put oneself in Rebellion against the will of the community, which was a big no no — hence the Cromwell dictatorship. (I’m sure that little historical fact, even more than the turkey and pumpkin pie, makes the Puritan holiday all the more special for the Anne Coulters of America!)

Beyond such historical musings, of all our national days of celebration and solemnity this day stands out because it gives us all a moment to pause and consider the fact that none of us–even in this age of rugged individualist capitalism and ubermensch conservatism–are completely the masters of our own destiny. Each of us owes, in no small part, whatever we have to be thankful for to the divine provenance that guides us and to the community of our fellow men whom support us, without which we would be left to struggle alone as do the beasts of wood and glen.

There are numerous reasons for we as a nation to give thanks. There are, of course, Thanksgiving’s 3 F’s (family, food and football) and the big S (shopping!) to be thankful for. Now, purists, please, least you bemoan the commercialization of Thanksgiving, do know that, as a holiday, it only really took off once it became firmly associated by the rising retail department stores of turn of the 20th century America with Christmas shopping, so the After-Thanksgiving sale is legitimately just as much a part of the tradition as the Turkey and Pilgrims in funny buckle hats (which they never really wore – nor did they eat turkey—you want a traditional Thanksgiving slap Bambi on that platter–but enough icon popping.) There are worse things than living in a country with a McDonalds or Starbucks on every corner, and one of those is living in a country too poor to afford a McDonalds or Starbucks on any corner.

Here are a few other less jocular notions you might reflect on while cataloging your list of things to give thanks for over the past year:

If your child is not one of the ten million American children—almost one in five– living in poverty, give thanks. If you are one of America’s 2 million millionaires, give thanks. If you are one of America’s 228 billionaires, give a lot of thanks.

If you are not one of the 40 million Americans, including over two million with severe disabilities, who have no health insurance, give thanks. If you are one of the 45 million Americans still covered by a pension plan, give thanks.

If you were not one of the 50 million Americans downsized over the last twenty years, give thanks. If you are a CEO with an average compensation of over $10 million dollars–250 times the average pay of your corporate worker–give thanks. If your are part of the 30% of American workers able to save for future, give thanks. If you are not one of the 30% of American workers barely making enough to get by on, give thanks.

If you are one of the 50,000 families with estates large enough to have to pay federal estate taxes last year (only 2% of all estates) give thanks. Paying taxes on wealth beats all heck out of simply being poor. If you are in the top 5% households that own 59% of all our Nation’s wealth, give thanks. If you are in the top 1% of households that own almost 40% of our National wealth, just give a big old mess of thanks. You own 200 times as much as all of the people in the bottom 40% of households combined.

And, finally, if you are not one of the two million Americans in military uniform, or hundreds of thousands wearing a police badge or firefighting gear, give thanks for the valor and sense of duty of those who are.

  Last but not least, if by the end of the Obama administration I can deduct at least a few of these thankful items off the list,  then we can all give an extra helping of thanks.

Boxed Out

The new movie “The Box” is out in theaters  and is doing decent business. Though watching Frank Langella play yet another spooky character—but I’ve already consigned it to my DVD rental list for the future.  I read the classic story the film is based on decades ago so the film does not promise to offer much surprise.  And besides, I’ve been watching Congress and the American public live “The Box” for years now.  It really is an overused story line  (kinda like Jennifer Aniston playing plain girls who just can’t find love).   It’s one of our favorite national plot lines.

Take healthcare reform. (Please. Ba-dump-bump.) Numerous studies tell us that lack of universal health coverage in America costs thousands of lives a year.  But does the debate focus on the fact that more mothers and infants die in America from preventable causes that weren’t prevented due to lack of affordable health care than in any other country in the developed world?  (And I just LOVE that canard that everyone in America has healthcare—they just have to go to an emergency room.  Emergency rooms are where you go when your problem has developed into an emergency—the kind of thing that can kill you.  That’s why lots of people die in emergency rooms, including lots of eclampsic mothers with metabolic toxemia who couldn’t afford routine prenatal care.  And why very few people—like mothers—die in the waiting rooms of their primary doctor while leafing through three year old Time magazines. )   Does the healthcare debate in America focus on the fact that our “best healthcare system in the world” places Americans 42nd in global life expectancy lottery?  That’s right, all you jokers of jingoism, put on those big ‘ol foam fingers and repeat after me:  USA 42! USA 42! Which puts us   not only behind all those Europeans with their (say the word! Say it dripping with venom!) SOCIALIST medical systems, not to mention (but let’s)  Jordan, South Korea and the Cayman Islands too!  Does the national debate focus on any of these legitimate, rational, life and death concerns?

Of course not. 

Our healthcare debate focuses not on the people who ARE dying but on the people who won’t die—at least for lack of government-provided healthcare.  Meanwhile, while we obsessed about granny’s being hauled before death panels their grandchildren and great grandchildren were left to face the highest risk of dying in childbirth or in childhood in the developed world.

And why?  Because we’ve put healthcare, like much of our public policy these past decades, in The Box.  The same Box as in a movie.  You know, the Box where, if you push the button, thousands of strangers will die, but you get to keep your own current affordable healthcare?  The Box where, if you chose, you can keep your taxes from going up even if it means somebody’s wife or baby will die? A Somebody who exists only to you as a statistic, whose  pain, suffering  and anguish at their mortal extinguishment has been rendered a moral abstraction.  So you can gather all the perceived benefits of pushing the button—even if these benefits prove as illusory as the victims of your actions prove real.  

That Box.

That is, basically, the box we’ve place the healthcare debate in.  So the large majority of us can keep our healthcare as is and pay no additional monies we’re going to push a button in Washington and thereby consign thousands to death.  Simple as that.  And we’ll do it  even though, under most of the discussed plans, the large majority of us  will keep our healthcare as is and pay no additional monies.  In the context of the Box, this is like pushing a button to kill someone and then getting nothing in return. 

In other words, it’s freakin’ nuts.  Not to mention incredibly immoral but, hey, why be picky.

The Box is nothing new in American politics.  We’ve done the Box on the environment, for example,  endless times. The Bush Administration allowed increased arsenic into water supplies; mining companies profit, children drinking contaminated water die. The Bush Administration  watered down the recommendation of government scientists and allowed coal-burning power plants to emit millions of additional tons of fine particulate pollution into the air.  Power plants—and ratepayers—profit; thousands will die from lung-diseases caused or exacerbated by the decision.  Buttons pushed.    When we have had the chance to push the costs of our own benefits onto other people—particularly weaker minorities—we Americans just love to push the button.

As the brouhaha over breast examinations prove, however, one we identify ourselves as the potential victim at the other end of our own button pushing and abstractions become personal realities, we don’t like pushing the button.  We push the Other Button in the Other Box, the one where someone out there—a bunch of statiscal abstractis–pays the money to give us the things we want. 

While we’re playing yet another round of The Box game in Washington over the next few months it might, however, behoove us to remember how the story—and, spoiler alert, the movie (though if you can’t guess the end from the trailer you just ain’t trying)–concludes.  The moral of the Box is that we are all connected to the button.  Push it and someone else may suffer but you, by your own moral failings, shall suffer, too.  Ask not for whom the bell, etc. etc.  It’s simple as that. 

Kill healthcare reform this year and the blood of that slaying—the thousands of Americans–mostly poor,  mostly young, a lot of pregnant women and even more precocious little babies—will die.  And that blood is on all of our hands.  But, as healthcare costs continue to skyrocket, as employers shed providing healthcare benefits even faster than shedding workers, watch out.  You push the Kill Healthcare Bill button this year, America, and next year—or the year after or year after that—you may wake up to find Frank Langella and his all too normal revenge-seeking zombies on your doorstep. You may find yourself with a cancellation notice from your insurance provider or a pink slip from your boss.  You may find yourself with a condition that could have been oh so easily treated six weeks or six months before but, for lack of primary care you are forced to queue up in an overcrowded emergency room.

You may find yourself dead.  Our your child. Or your grandchild.  That Frank Langella–he  doesn’t like to be messed with.

As we enter into the season of gift-giving full bore this week, let’s remember the true price tag of some of the boxes we’re trying to give out right now.  Like the healthcare box.  Sometimes nice little presents for baby and me come in a box.   Sometimes it’s death. 

So which are we giving this year, America?


Where’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” When You Really Need It?


The information coming out on the tragic shootings at Fort Hood are beginning to paint a portrait of a potentially dangerous man who was not adequately tagged and bagged as such by the military powers that be.   Which of course is allowing conservative pundits to have a field day making political hay out of carnage to justify every political bugaboo they’ve ever warned of about “political correctness” fostering a danger from within from America’s Muslim community.  One can only imagine how many military careers  now stand to be ruined as pressure builds to throw Muslim American military personnel out with Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s bloody bath water.

Pity the murderous major wasn’t gay.  If he had been he would have been given an express ride out of his man’s military, just like the over two dozen military Arabic translators mustered out for personal peccadilloes, critical  war skills or no, threat or no. 

Oh irony. How bitter is thy bite.

And the Wall Came Tumbling Down


Nineteen Eighty-nine was a miserable year to start teaching political science.  I mean, between Tiananmen  Square, the Fall of the Wall and the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe  it was  almost impossible to stay on syllabus.  (And, yes,  we of the professoriate are such a myopically focused breed that staying on syllabus, come hell or high collapse of communism,  is our greatest goal in life.  Except, of course, that we almost never manage to accomplish that simple task….).  Most of my students these days were not even alive when the wall fell. When I first started teaching I asked myself “How do I explain a political world to students who weren’t around for Nixon?”.  Now they weren’t around for Reagan—or the Soviet Union and the Cold War.   Listening to all the celebrations and reminiscences of the Cold War and its end in the media the past week or two has come with a sense of nostalgia, therefore, for people of my generation.  Oddly enough, of all the history and factoids about the wall discussed on CNN and NPR one in particular–one particularly relevant,  I feel, for someone living in San Diego on the nation’s southern border—was the real, immediate human toll the wall claimed. 

Historians estimate between one hundred and two hundred people died ttrying to go over the Wall in its twenty-eight years, one hundred to two hundred people who gave their lives from a chance at freedom, at liberty and at a better life, plain and simple.  Over the last fifteen years, meanwhile, estimates of the number of people who have died attempting to cross over from Mexico into the United States  range from two thousand to six thousand.  That is a death rate ten times greater than the Berlin Wall’s—twenty times greater in a yearly average of mortality.

And what did those two to six thousand people die for? A chance for greater freedom, greater liberty and at a better life, plain and simple. 

In the scheme of human history the United States stands out as the one place  that thousands of people have died trying to get into.  That is the greatest distinction between this society and all the despotisms and tyrannies that have dominated so much of mankind for so long.  The day people stop dying to come here is the day American Exceptionalism dies as well. Which is something all of us should keep in mind whenever America’s attention drifts back from healthcare, war and recession to more prosaic matters of hundreds of people dying each year on our own border, our reverse Berlin Wall.

In my more neofascist moments I ask myself, if we really want to build a lean, mean American fighting machine that can take on the world, who do we want living here?  A bunch of whining faux patriots screaming  that since they were born here by random genetic luck they actually deserve the blessings of liberty more than anyone else who wasn’t born here, even if they themselves have done nothing of note nor paid no sacrifice of value to get those blessings?  People like most of those beer-bellied, baseball cap wearing faux Patriot Minutemen sitting on beaten up old lawn chairs beside beaten up old  RVs scanning the border for illegal aliens while chugging Coors.  (Side note: when I see people camping outside of nuclear power plants  in protests for weeks on edge or sitting by the border of binoculars, I’ve got to ask:  Don’t these clowns have jobs and responsibilities?”.  But I digress.)

Orrrrr,  if you want a strong, exceptional America would you rather have a citizenship composed of people who were willing to cross hundreds of miles of scalding desert or hundreds of miles of shark-infested waters on driftwood rafts, risking body and soul to do so? Forget “Send me your tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.”  The real motto of this country for three centuries has been “Send me your risk takers, your courageous, your dreamers willing to lay it on the line for a better life.”

So how about this: let’s take everyone  in America when they turn eighteen and drop them ninety miles off Florida or smack dab in the middle of the California desert and, if they make it to shore or to LA alive , we meet them, shake their hands and say “Welcome to America,  Citizen.” Or at least the Minutemen.  (Now THAT would be a great reality show:  “Survivor: American Citizenship Edition.”)

 Or at least let us acknowledge that those two to six thousand people who’ve died on our southern borders are every bit as much a testament to and martyrs for the same concepts of hope and freedom as those brave souls who perished going over that hideous wall.



Castles in the Sky

I’ve followed with some interests efforts of the San Diego City Council, spearheaded by council newbie Todd Gloria, to balance homeowner property rights with community interests. Preservationists and residents of “Historic” neighborhoods like Gloria’s own Hillcrest worry that redevelopment unchecked by regulations to provide for continuity in architectural design can mar the rhythm and harmony of neighborhoods long established. I can understand their concern. A glass and stucco modern apartment building replacing a Craftsman bungalow can certainly alter the unique character of a street. Increasing densities changes the dynamics of a neighborhood, from impacting the use of public spaces to impacting socio-demography; a neighborhood of single family homes becomes a mixed-use hodgepodge of single-resident apartment dwellings. And the essence of community and tradition that brought many to homestead and rejuvenate older neighborhoods disappears.

Yet my ultimate sympathies lie with the property owner and the right of every man and woman to be lord of their own little real estate castle. Too often new regulations are placed on residential real estate to achieve a perceived public good while placing too onerous a cost on individual property owners. If a community wants to be rezoned from an R-3 or such down to R-1 to prevent increased density, or the community wants to change FARs to limit the size of new or remodel construction to keep a “quaint” “village” feel, more power to them. But if these changes means a property owner can no longer build out the property as they were originally entitled to do under the old rules and this results in a reduction of the property’s value, than some consideration to fair-market compensation needs be given to the original owners. Otherwise these regulatory actions constitute, in my mind, an unfair “taking” of personal property by the community.

Let me share yet another tale from the Luna family archives. Some years ago, my wife and I found ourselves living in a two-bedroom (read: one regular bedroom, one broom-closet bedroom), one-bath house with three kids and a fourth on the way. We wanted to remodel the 1911 stucco bungalow to add a second story with additional beds and baths. By the time we calculated costs, it was half again as much money to add on to the old structure, which had sagging walls, a crumbling foundation, zero in the way of insulation or modern windows (you’d walk out of the house, which was maybe 50 degrees inside, wearing sweaters at 9 a.m. to discover it was 85 outside; reverse that at night). The architects said we’d basically have to completely rebuild the foundation and exterior walls to take the stress of a new second floor. Ultimately, we decided to start new, from the ground up. When we took the plans for the new house to the local planning committee, several of the members expressed concern that we were demolishing a house with classic style and historical significance. One of the panel members waxed on about the beveled-glass-diamond-pane windows in the front of the house and other classical adornments—until I informed her the glass was plain pane, the front door basically painted plywood and the other “ornamentation” near balsa-wood add-ons. The house was one of dozens built slap-dash out of stucco, spit and old board in the area for summer rentals in the beach community; only later did they become permanent dwellings. The only thing Craftsman about it was that it took a craftsman to keep it habitable. We eventually got our plan through the board and today live in a larger home that, with better windows, insulation, new pipes and heating system, has a better environmental footprint than did the old clunker.

That’s my beef with many attempts to turn people’s private property into a public good. Just because a house is old doesn’t mean it is a classic worthy of preservation. It is often cheaper and more environmentally sustaining to go new with green products and technologies than trying to turn an early-20th-century pig’s ear into a 21st-century silk home. Moreover, the cost of preservation must be weighed against other social benefits of redevelopment, such as increasing “inner-burban” densities to reverse suburban sprawl, making homes more affordable to middle and working-class homeowners and the like.

Moreover, it’s been my observation that idea of community “preservation” has often been used as a code word for community exclusion: keeping the right sort of people in and the wrong sort out of neighborhoods. It’s also been my observation that, in an interesting irony, it is often wealthier and politically more conservative neighborhoods that are most actively willing to use the heavy hammer of the state in their own backyards to force compliance with their own views of community on fellow property owners while decrying the power of the state in other aspects of life.

But, then, what is life without its little ironies?

Meanwhile, my empathies lie with Todd Gloria and the council in trying to thread the needle between public good and private rights. Balancing the two is one of the greatest challenges in a democracy, where the many can have a propensity to achieve gains at the expense of the few. A person’s home is her castle. If the community wants to demand that castle come with cedar shingles and box windows, the community should provide something in the way of fair compensation to castle dwellers in return.