Let Them Eat (Nonpartisan) Cake

San Diego’s Bonny DA, Bonnie Dumanis, was quoted on KPBS this morning bemoaning the politicization of local Superior Court Judge elections by partisan political groups.  The problem seems that one such group is targeting several such judges up for election this June  for not being ideologically acceptable to the group’s own partisan tastes.

I empathize with our for Primary Prosecutor’s concern over ideologically litmus-testing people who are really supposed to be fair and balanced  (as opposed to Fox which is fair and balanced in so much at it tells its audience demographic exactly what it wants to hear) in the exercise of their public duty .  At the same time I’ve got to ask, “Well what did you think is going to happen when you pick custodians of Justice like these judges—and officers of the court like yourself—by popular election?”

California operates under a noble (or simply foolish) myth that simply striking party affiliations off from the names of people running in local elections makes such elections, viola, non-partisan.   It doesn’t, it hasn’t and it never will.  Elections are by their very function a partisan affair.  For decades San Diego could participate  in the ruse of nonpartisanship when a homogenous voting majority (read “white Republican”) almost always got it’s way in municipal (read “city-wide”) and judicial  elections.  As San Diego has become more diverse ethnically, socio-economically and politically—in other words as the former political homogeneity broke down—non-partisan (read non-competitive) elections became increasing partisan.

So if the good DA doesn’t like the partisanship there is only one solution:  the Federal Model (you know, the one created by those pesky constitutional framers) in which the custodians of Lady Justice’s virtue are appointed (by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate) to a life tenure.   Such  longevity of appointment is supposed to provide insulation from the very form of ideological pressure Dumanis alleges these judges are being exposed to.  (It might be pointed out that her Federal counterpart is also appointed by the President with the Advice and consent of  the Senate though not for life.  These prosecutors—the Bush Justice Department notwithstanding—are then supposed to be allowed to proceed with their judicial duties in a judiciously nonpartisan manner.

The Framers in their wisdom (ok, they blew that slavery thing.  And the Articles of Confederation were a miserable failure.  And they didn’t think through the long term impact of the apportionment of senators, the electoral college or the rise of political parties transcending state-based politics.  But one quibbles…)  understood  that too much democracy—the kind that leads to the tyranny of the majority—can produce just as many problems as too little democracy. Tyranny is tyranny, if you are on the non-repressing side.  So maybe, what with all the other ideas being floated around for constitutional reforms in the Golden State,  reconsidering the election of judges—and Das—need be discussed.

Until then Californians need remember that you can not have your nonpartisan judges and eat your political election cake to.

(And on that strained proverb, it’s off to the obviously—on my part—much needed weekend.)

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In Nobody We Trust

This week’s Pew Research poll showing public satisfaction and trust with government are at all time lows should come as no surprise to anyone.   The American People’s  trust in their  government has been declining since JFK was blown away in Dallas .  As the chart above shows, one assassination, Vietnam War,  Nixon Watergate Scandal and a decade of 1970s Stagflation later public trust had plummeted from  near eighty percent  to the low twenties. Reagan restored some degree of trust, Bush I lost it, Clinton restored some then Bush II lost it.  (Note to Americans: Next time a guy named “Bush” is on the ballot, vote the other way.)

Two things have been driving this trust-deficit:  recurring  business cycles and increasing middle class anxiety.  While the public vents its frustration with the vagaries of their standard of living on Congress and government in genra, the   real  problems confronting America’s faith in its government (and, therefore itself) are far more systemic.  Which means, whatever the November midterm elections is going to have precious little impact on American’s trust in their government, no matter the outcome.

Look at the trust poll above.  Now look at the graph below with the  last 30 years with a rough overlay of economic recessions.

Trust in government always plummets with an economic downturn, as during the recessions of the early 1970s,  late 70s & early 80s, early 90s and today.  Then,  as recovery sets in, trust goes back up.  The Reagan boom saw trust go back up to a ten year high; the Clinton boom sent it even higher.  Americans seem to see the world through the narrow prism of their own pocketbooks.  (And, yes,  we ARE that simple and shallow.)  So, when times are good we trust government.  When they’re not we want to burn it to the ground.

The only other thing that spikes and depresses trust are major foreign policy events such as the 1st Gulf War and 9/11 (spike up) and the protracted Vietnam and Iraqi wars (trust down.)  How many congressmen are or are not reelected really has no impact on any of this.   Barring a major attack on America any time soon, the only thing that will bring a sustained return to trust will be economic recovery.

The second factor in all of this is the simple fact that, since the late 1960s, getting and staying in the broad middle class has become a progressively more tenuous proposition for an increasing number of people.  The pillars of the middle class have been growing incomes, secure home ownership, access to affordable healthcare and education and the promise of retirement.  All of these have come under growing pressure for the last generation.  This has made the middle class antsy.  Antsy people trust less.

Between the Second World War and the early 1970s the standard of living doubled in a generation.  It now takes 3 generations to replicate the gain.  Most Americans are living much better than in 1960or 1970–but it’s taking longer to see the gains of children over their parents.  Political Scientists call this “relative expectation,” the problem of people expecting improvement faster than government can provide it.  This leads, again, to middle class antsiness—like blue-collar support for George Wallace’s rebellion against “big government liberals.” (Read “government helping the poor and people of color and not blue collar whites who were starting to lose jobs not to affirmative action but to globalization.  Those textile jobs disappearing in the Southern US weren’t going to Watts or Harlem, they were going to Japan and Hong Kong.  Now they’re going to Vietnam and Bangladesh, exportation of low-end Chinese goods being SO early 21st century now.)

During really harsh economic times (like the Great Depression) relative expectation turns into “relative deprivation”—where the middle class, now desperate as it sees itself sliding back towards poverty, wants to find enemies to blame (and supports more radical political movements—aka fascist—that promise to restore the power of the Volk by making government more socially intrusive,  powerful—and authoritarian.) Thus the rise of the Fascists in the 1920s & 1930s.  We haven’t seen economies as bad as the 1930s in western democracies.  With each recession, though, more reactionary political movements form (e.g. the Wallace reaction to civil rights, the Militia movement reaction in the 1990s and even, one dare say, the Zonian reaction of this week, essentially criminalizing  being Hispanic while in the Grand Canyon State).

For most American households the Great Recession is far from over.  Even when it is in two or three years, most American households will probably find their buying power no greater than it was in 2007 which, adjusted for inflation, is not a whole lot better than it was in 1997 or even 1987.  Only this time Americans will not have an easy-credit gravy train to hitch on (those mortgages and credit cards becoming more elusive for the masses) which, in the long run, is a good thing. In the short run it’s going to hurt like hell.  And that means a prolonged visit by two really annoying relatives – Aunt Expectation and Uncle Deprivation.

So, for all of those who are hoping that a “Throw the Bums” out movement come November will make everything in America right as rain, lot’s of luck with that.  First, the bums rush ain’t gonna happen.  Congressional reelection rates have been averaging 90%-94% plus for several decades.  Even the 1994 Republican Revolution resulted in an incumbent defeat rate of less than 10%.  If, on the off chance, this November produces a changeover in the 10%-20% range (at the extreme – that’s 80 seats) it will hardly constitute a thorough housecleaning.

Second, even if we started over with a 100% new Congress (and imagine the fun with all those newbies on Capitol Hill—the lobbyists will think they’ve died and gone to paradise and their 77 legislative virgins) trust in government will not, Q.E.D., return.   Until the economy goes back up (meaning unemployment goes down and household economic security as measured by buying power and  mortgage viability goes up) trust stays low.  And until the middle class economic miracle of the 1940s-1950s get’s replicated again, trust never returns to the glory days of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, for those Progressives and Liberals hoping that things will tilt their way once the unpleasantness of the 2010 midterm is behind them, lot’s of luck with that, too.  The economic downturns of the 1970s & 1980s turned America from a center-left New Deal society to a Center-Right Reagan Revolution land.  Baring a quick turn around in the economy—or, worse, a further downturn—America becomes a plain old right society.   Which should give the GOP another grand decade or two of prominence before shifting demographics undercuts it.

Most pundits have fretted about the American left becoming like the European left.  They should be equally concerned if the decline in trust and middle class economic insecurity results in the American left becoming more like the European right.

Roasted Pork

Loyal reader LJdiver posted the following comment to my “Tea Partiers Unite” blog:

ljdiver Says: Here is the 2010 list of pork!

http://www.cagw.org/reports/pig-book/2010/pork-database.html

Consider your tax dollars well spent!

Intrigued, I followed the link.  According to the Citizens Against Government  Waste (America’s self-described #1 taxpayer watchdog) :

The Congressional Pig Book is CAGW’s annual compilation of the pork-barrel projects in the federal budget.  The 2010 Pig Book identified 9,129 projects at a cost of $16.5 billion in the 12 Appropriations Acts for fiscal 2009.  A “pork” project is a line-item in an appropriations bill that designates tax dollars for a specific purpose in circumvention of established budgetary procedures.  To qualify as pork, a project must meet one of seven criteria that were developed in 1991 by CAGW and the Congressional Porkbusters Coalition.

Now let’s see, the total Federal Budget for 2010 was $3.55 trillion .  That would make the pork percentage of the budget–lessee—divide $16.5 billion…carry the two…My gosh – how outrageous!  That means that–are you ready for this, outrage in hand–the percentage of pork in the Federal Budget is .0046478873 or, to round it , five-hundredths of one percent.  My Lord, if only we cut all that pork out we’d only have to find another trillion or two to balance the budget!

My point in all of this is not to justify government waste no matter how trivial it all amounts to in the big scheme of things.  Government can be more efficient, no doubt about it.  (As can Wall Street in handling what’s left of my 403(b) and me in handling my food to exercise ratio.)

I do have two beefs with the most vocal of the  anti-pork crowd, though.  First, given that, according to the CAGW figures,  my Nonfat milk has more fat in it that the Federal Budget  I’ve got to question why it’s worth spending so much time and effort on attacking government for the money it shouldn’t spend rather than attack it for not spending the money it does more effectively?  (Unless, of course, all these pork-attacks are a smoked pork screen to hide the real agenda of these “save the taxpayer” advocates which is to attack ALL government spending. In which case the argument being waged is purely ideological and not fiscal.)

Second, must one person’s pork is another person’s well-balanced meal.  I grabbed one of the CAWG’s “pork” items completely at random from the list. It’s $200,000 for:

KidsPeace, Altamonte Springs, KidsPeace Florida Therapeutic Foster Care Program (Juvenile Justice)

The earmark was sponsored by Florida Senator Bill Nelson.  Now, I can see where some might consider Therapeutic care for foster kids a big waste of time.  I mean, if anybody really cared about them they’d have real parents, wouldn’t they?  Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouse for they likes of them?

You get my drift.

So LJDiver, I can’t really say I consider this piece of pork to be necessarily badly spent.  As for the list as a whole I repeat, $16.9 billion in pork is something to think about cutting.  But slaughtering a piglet that small just ain’t gonna feed the whole Deficit family.

Death Tax

Fitting the First Lady was in town  on tax day yesterday talking about nutrition, children’s health and obesity.  That’s because her visit underscored one of the greaqt inequities in our  society: the real death tax.

The First Lady was highlighting all the negative health effects people in poorer neighbors suffer due at least in part to lower income levels, access to reasonably priced alternatives to fast and processed foods and limited  availability of exercise and outdoor  recreational spaces  Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of the California Endowment was more direct stating:  “And so if you live in City Heights I can tell you that you will probably live 12 to 14 years a shorter lifespan than someone from La Jolla.” Ross’ assertion that zip code plays a big role in life expectancy is supported by study after study. Fitzgerald was right:  the rich ARE different than you and I.  They live longer.

So, as the anti-tax and death-tax rhetoric heats up (especially with the expiration of George W’s tax cuts next year—Hey George, way to go forgetting to make the centerpiece of your legislative legacy permanent! Heck of a job there, Bushie!) let’s save a little outrage for the ultimate of death taxes–the one that really does kill people.  But what’s a little death-related social inequity in a country of the people, by the people and for the people dedicated to promoting the general welfare.  So what if  La Jollans live longer than Encantoians—it all averages out.

Come to think of it,  that would be Clairemontians.

Tea Partiers Unite!

Tax  Day!  Yikes.  This is the day I, like all the other outraged taxpayers out  there, must confront the so-called price tag  for living in a civilized society. Civilization—hah?  Civilization is just another fancy name for the undeserving to pick  my hard working pockets every 15th of April.   Having filed my returns I’ve got to say, paying taxes in the five figures ain’t no walk in the park, by golly. And I’d really like to go off with all those Tea Party activists and demand Big Government leave more of my little paycheck alone.  (I’d love to go but I have a full time job making the money to be taxed, where many of these activists apparently have plenty of free time to protest—likely because a big share of the  Tea Partiers are wealthy old white guys.)  But obligations call closer to home so at least let me offer them my free two cents worth of support.

Now, I want to slash government 50% or 60% or 80% percent as much as the next “make government small enough to drown it in its bath water” crowd.  Luckily, my online tax service happens to throw in a nice little summary at the end of calculating how much of my life’s blood   will be violently extracted by the powers of voracious  government.  With their help I can now see exactly where this socialist tyrannical government is spending my money.  And I want them to stop giving my hard-earned money –and yours too—to all those undeserving welfare  leaches on the body politic

Just look at it.  According to the table 37% percent of my money (and by my I mean my lovely wife’s and mine)  goes to all those greedy old people who have the gall to not only get old but to even get sick every now and then  and whine that because they worked and built our society for forty or sixty years they shouldn’t be left to die in poverty.  Yo Grandmare and Pop Pop: Get off my back!  More civilized cultures used to float you old farts off on ice floes. Hey, I plan to live fast, die young and leave a handsome corpse (ok, those options are becoming increasingly problematic with each passing birthday…) so why should I have to I carry the burden of all these geriatric goldbrickers.  Get a job, Grams.

And how about that 20% that goes to defense?  Talk about the ultimate in social welfare states.  Do you know those lazy, government bureaucrats over at the Pentagon (and in its multitude of regional offices  and camps in cushy  exotic locales—I hear Kandahar is the Club Med of the Himalayas) get cradle to grave government freebies?  Universal government healthcare, housing and shopping subsidies, lucrative government defined benefit retirement plans?  Good lord, the goodies just don’t stop.  Don’t even get me started on that combat pay bonus and all those extra benees they’re entitled to just because they stepped on an IED.  Hey, if you weren’t smart enough to keep your limbs  attached why should I pay for it?  You military guys are volunteers, after all.  So how about we put them all on 401k plans and make them sign up for an HMOs like the rest of us hard working tax payers?.  (By the way, would traumatic brain injury caused by an IED be considered a preexisting condition?)

That 14% for Medicaid, food stamps and the like?  Cut, cut cut! Some little kid is foolish enough to be born into the wrong kind of zip code they don’t deserve  food or medical care.  As that great stalwart of Tea Party activism once said, “Let ‘em die and decrease the surplus population.  Nine percent for physical, human and community development?  Screw it.  You want a park or a road or a senior center hold a bake sale and raise the money yourself, you leaches.  Bighted  urban areas  are just God’s way of telling those people stupid enough to keep living there it’s time to move on out to  the suburbs, after all.    Eight percent on the debt?  Screw that too.  And the people we borrowed the money from. If they were dumb enough to loan money to America then they’re  dumb enough to lose it all.  I mean, if they were smart they would have put their money in Wall Street CDOs, after all.

Geesh.  After all that slashing of bloated, unnecessary government I’m pooped.  I barely have the energy to rant about that absolutely colossal 6% of my taxes that went to people too dumb to make enough money not to be poor.  But what the heck: compared to the 65%  our communist government wasted on Granny, GI Joe and bonds holders, it’s a drop in the bucket, anyway. If you’re serious about cutting bloated totalitarian government like I am you need to go for the big money.  Senior World and NORAD—I’ve got you in my sights!

So I’m right with there in spirit with my fellow Tea Partiers!  I’m outraged my taxes are so high.  I’d like to keep more of my money.  Then I can spend more of it on my cable bill (also way too high) , my cell phone bill (which, with 4 daughters on our family plan approximates the monthly budget of a Central African nation), my Costco runs (where the minimum I seem to spend just to dash in for a couple of 40 gallon mega-jugs of milk runs around $3,000—but my God that Kayak was a good price), or my  incredibly successful investments.  You see I really need to get my portfolio back up so it can be nice and plump so I can lose it all again when the next financial collapse comes –which, as the big honchos have told us should appear with the regularity of locusts  every  five years  or so.

And, best of all, if my Tea Bag Buds get their way and we finally do slay this evil beast of  big government I’ll finally have enough extra moola to go out and buy myself some really, really big guns.  Which I figure I’ll need to fight off all those starving grannies and little sick  kids  who’ll be swarming my house like extra’s from a George Romero zombie flick trying get some of my hard earned and now unshared daily bread.  Lucky for me that, once we get rid of all the Medicare and Medicaid most of ‘em will be too sick and weak to put up much of a fight.

I do worry about all those permanently unemployed ex-military types though.  Maybe I better buy a few extra guns to deal with them.  And, hey—maybe we can organize or Tea Party into our own armed militia to protect ourselves from this rabble.  We could call ourselves the United Tea Partiers of America!  Or TeaTopia—even better. We could elect officers, organize our defense forces, build a few schools to teach our kids the virtue of the Tea Party Dream.  Maybe build a hospital or two to take care of us and throw in a Tea Party Fire Department.   Now, to provide for our common TeaTopian Defense and promote our general TeaTopian welfare we’ll have to pool some of our resources.  We could call that a….er, what?  Fees?  Subscriptions? Or how about Associational Dues for the Underwriting of Our Common TeaTopian Civilization.

Something tells be though,  some people might gripe on Underwriting of Our Common TeaTopian Civilization paying day.

Selfish prigs.

Road to Nowhere

The filing for bankruptcy by the South Bay Expressway underscores a fundamental flaw in the “government as business” crowd’s political philosophy.  Simply stated, the “private property” model, in many if not most cases, has serious difficulties providing “public goods.” Which is why, for the last, oh, I don’t know—just how old is civilization?  Six thousand or so years?—the private sector has continuously failed to displace the public sector from key areas of human life.

Human beings form civilizations to collectively provide the things which humans need to survive and prosper but can not efficiently provide on their own.  Things like collective security (cops and troops).  Things like public works (roads, bridges, dams).  Things that cost any individual too much to produce.  Ever try to pay for your own private army or bridge?  A few wealthy—really wealthy, like Kingly  of Gatesian wealthy—people might be able to do so on a small scale but most can not do so at all and no-one can do so on a scale that supports a modern industrial economy.  By collectivizing labor, either through the direct contribution of labor “in kind” or indirectly through taxation–which is simple a monetarization and reallocation of labor—the community can produce the things we all need but can not or will not produce for ourselves.

Road and other infrastructure construction has been  a function of the state since ancient times.  When the great Western civilization of antiquity collapsed, so did such construction.  The result was the dark ages.  Not a lot of new road building then by private or public entities.  A handful of toll roads replaced the great Roman road network. The rest was Medieval history.

Over the last 500 years resurgent civilization (Some call it “big government– I call it what it is: Civilization.) began harnessing collective energies to produce public works again. The result was the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.  Recent efforts to privatize essentially  public goods in the names of an exaggerated conceptualization of the free market have typically gone the fate of the South Bay toll road.  The private entity that takes over providing the public good for private profit either becomes heavily subsidized by the state to meet its bottom line (private prisons come to mind) charge an incredibly inflated price to provide formerly  publically provided services (vocational training by community colleges being replaced by  for-profit technical institutes and colleges like the University of Phoenix and its nursing program)  or simply fail and go bankrupt (like the Toll Road crew.)

Except they can’t just fail and go away like any other business.  Mervyn’s can close its doors forever.  A toll road that is now a major artery along which homes and businesses have sprung can not be plowed under and forgotten. Government will have to step in and take over the operation and funding though at potentially higher costs than if government had simply controlled the project from the onset.

Candidates for public office, from local city council to statewide positions who proclaim how government should operate like a business and that  the private sector can pretty much do anything the public sector does cheaper and more efficiently should keep the fate of the South Bay Toll Road firmly in mind.    There are simply some things government does better.  That’s why government and civilization have evolved together for millennia.  Of course, I don’t expect ideologues driven by their visions of Utopian free markets to be swayed by such simple appeals to history and logic.  I would wish they would at least remember what is becoming my favorite phrase these days:

The Government that  governs least is Somalia.

The Golden (Door) Rule

I scratched my head last week when San Diego County’s Board of Five  (or you may know them by one of their other handles like “The Gang That Couldn’t Say No To Back Country Development,”  “The Cast of That Seventies Show Minus The Ethnic Guy Now All Grown Up And Republican,” or their street name, “Cinco Blancos”) said a close “nyet” to  the Merry Merriam Quite Contrarian ( to existing density, traffic flow, environmental impact and fire safety plans) Mountain proposal.  I mean, what’s another 2,700 rural houses after the last three decades of wilderness-conquering expansion?

Sure, the Merriam Mountain project violated the General Plan.  Sure it raised the hackles of the local yokels who thought that rural meant rural and not suburban on its way to mid-city urban.  When has that mattered a pallet of building materials in theis county? So when the 3:2 thumbs down came down, bringing the Mountain down with it, you could have knocked me over with an 18kt Golden Door Charm available from the Golden Door Boutique (a steal for only $780).

So you can imagine my surprise when I read that it wasn’t the locals that brought down the mountain. It wasn’t the General Plan or safety concerns that kept them from paving paradise.  The tipping point in the debate was the fact that the spa of spas of the hoity and the toity, owned by the Blackstone Group, the equity company of equity companies for the wellest heeled of the wellest heeled (You know the Blackstone Group—the place retired Bushes go to get really, really rich and not the paltry rich being an oilman or President of the United States makes you?)  was in a snit about so many common rabble moving in within a shiatsu massage of their hallowed grounds.

Whodda thunk it?

So now local grannies can stitch samplers for all our kitchen walls with the new San Diego Golden (Door) Rule:  “Mega-Equity Money Does On To Smaller Developer Money as Smaller Developer Money does on to  Neighborhood Interests.”

And that, class, concludes our Easter Weekend Moral Philosophy Session.