June 30, 2009

Spiritual Advisors

Let's begin with a short quote from the Associated Press about Mark Sanford. I'm not writing about Mark Sanford in particular here, but I got to this point in the story and my B.S. detection meter began to spike:
Sanford also detailed more visits with Chapur, including an encounter that he described as a failed attempt at a farewell meeting in New York this past winter, chaperoned by a spiritual adviser and sanctioned by his wife soon after she found out about the affair.
The phrase that jumped out at me is this: "...chaperoned by a spiritual adviser...". Is there any context in which any prominent person has a "spiritual adviser" and things are going well? Oh, I'm sure there are religious people out there who will reflexively leap to the defense of a person called a "spiritual adviser" for no reason other than that it seems somehow religious and therefore good. But here, you've got some convincing to do before I'll buy into that idea.

First, since I disbelieve in the supernatural, I will tell you that the spiritual adviser is advising the subject person about something that is by definition not real. So right away, I'm thinking "charlatan." About the only way to rescue the spiritual adviser from charlatan status is to convince me that the spiritual adviser sincerely believes in the hokum he's pushing on the subject.

Second, the subject involved only seems to acquire a "spiritual adviser" in one of two contexts. Either the subject is already in the midst of a significant moral lapse -- in which case what the subject needs is an ethics adviser, not a spiritual one -- or the subject is trying to assemble a team of people to accomplish some sort of a goal.

If there is a moral or ethical issue that the "spiritual adviser" is there to act or advise on, then why not describe this person as simply an "adviser"? What does "spiritual" add to the description? Now, I've tried on many occasions to get people who believe in and claim to interact with the supernatural to tell me what "spirit" is, what it is to have a "spiritual experience," or otherwise to define this. No one has ever been able to do that in any way I have ever found meaningful. They are unanimous, though, in saying a "spiritual experience" is something different than an "emotional experience," and that one's "spirit" is different than one's sense of ethics. So within the community of people who attribute meaning to that which is "spiritual," I have been able to figure out that they're talking about something that is neither ethical nor emotional.

If that goal is not explicitly religious, then what exactly does the "spiritual adviser" bring to the team? If the goal is explicitly religious, why isn't the "spiritual adviser" described as an actual cleric of some kind?

Case in point, a real telephone call I got from a real prospective client many years ago:
Hey there, TL, I need a lawyer for my new business. Yeah, we're gonna do [business activity]. I'm getting a whole team together and I wonder if you're the guy to be a part of that team, I'd like to meet you and find out. The other team members? Sure, I got an accountant, and I got a marketing guy, and I got a spiritual adviser, I got everything but a lawyer. I think we need to incorporate. What, a thousand dollars to incorporate, you say? I don't have that kind of money after hiring all these other people!
(This was more than five years ago so of necessity I paraphrase based on memory. But the substance of this statement was really something my client said.)

If the dude hadn't spent money on a "spiritual adviser" to offer no substantive assistance with his [business activity], he might have had enough money to incorporate. From my perspective as the lawyer, I wasn't all that concerned about a thousand-dollar fee to incorporate (I would charge more than that now, and this episode is one of the reasons why) but it did bug me that the guy was deciding, right off the bat, to bring a leech on his business team. He didn't hire me because, of course, what he really wanted was for me to work for free. And Homey don't play dat.

And third, there's another point about "spiritual advisers" that I hinted at before. If it were a minister, priest, rabbi, monk, bishop, deacon, guru, altar boy, or someone else holding some kind of an actual clerical title, I might be inclined to respond to the subject associating with a "spiritual adviser" by understanding that the subject is a very religious person and has a psychological need for religious support in whatever they are doing. In the case of someone who is in the midst of a moral lapse, a clergy member can serve as an ethical guide as well as a "spiritual" one (whatever that means). But when someone describes a "spiritual adviser," that's a phrase that describes a lay person performing some sort of quasi-religious function.

If the "spiritual adviser" were an actual minister, someone who had been ordained by some kind of actual religious institution, the subject would identify the person as a "minister," not a "spiritual adviser," even if the minister were fulfilling the role of providing spiritual advice. To the extent that a religious person performs a service that has value for the subject, it would seem that one would prefer to have a professional doing that service rather than an amateur. Certainly the phrase "spiritual adviser" lacks the social legitimacy associated with being a formal member of the clergy.

So, a "spiritual adviser" says to me that we're talking about someone who is a) performing a service for which he has not been educated or recognized as having any particular skill, b) charging the subject money for providing this service, and c) who I assume knows full well that the service being provided is illusory. It gets me thinking of what is a very dirty word in the law, the word I call the "f-word:" fraud.

Again, you might think I'm being deliberately uncharitable here. Let me assure you it's not just because the subject matter is religious. I feel this way about a "talent manager" leeching off of a promising up-and-coming artist. I feel this way about a great many "business consultants" of dubious qualifications and training who provide services of uncertain nature to their victims clients. Same category as "spiritual advisers."

Political Abuse Of The English Language

See if you can spot the astonishing misuse of the English language by the Speaker of California's Assembly, Karen Bass* -- ostensibly the second-most powerful person in the state government after the Governor -- in this Fish Wrapper interview. I'll give you a hint: the passage also betrays Speaker Bass' contempt for individual rights and democracy -- and incorporates a transparent but benevolent-sounding euphemism for "taxes."

Make no mistake -- while I don't think Speaker Bass has ever taken the time to read this essay, she has demonstrated the distilled essence of what George Orwell was writing to warn us about nearly two-thirds of a century ago.

With people like this not only in the Legislature but running it, it's no wonder we still don't have a budget and state employees get to be paid with IOUs, starting tomorrow.

* Whose online political resume, linked above at the footnote, is a remarkable example of how much you can write about almost nothing.

Senator Al Franken (DFL-Minnesota)

I think this finally brings the 2008 election cycle to a close. I've grown resigned to this idea of this for a while now. It will become a reality soon. Doesn't mean I like it. Not that I ever disliked Franken's comedy -- he was good at the comedy. It's when he's being serious that I'm not a fan. And I'm not a fan of either party having a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, which is the way things will stand once Senator Franken is seated -- which could be as early as next week.

Most Interesting Of 219 Accumulated Posts

When I let my blog reader utility go unused for more than 24 hours, the number of posts from the many blogs I read -- some political, some related to cooking, some of friends and family, some legal, some historical, and almost all of them hybrid or multi-subject -- accumulates precipitously. This afternoon I had some free time at lunch and no lunch date, so I ate at my desk and caught up on 219 accumulated unread posts.

This was, by far, the most interesting. Dave Schuler, usually a writer on matters political, suggests that there may have been no such thing as the Great Library at Alexandria. Rather, he thinks the phrase may refer to the fact that Alexandria was a center of learning and education in a more generalized sense -- the way a contemporary westerner might refer to, for example, "Cambridge." But was there a physical building, a single collection of books? The idea is firmly embedded in our historical consciousness but contemporaneous writings do not mention such an institution, at least in the way one might expect them to.

Even if there was a "library" it does seems to have been spread out in multiple locations throughout the city, including in schools, private homes, semi-private "gardens", pagan temples, and the Museum (which was, literally, the "house of the Muses," or a place for the arts). This would go a long way towards explaining the multiple destructions of the library referred to retrospectively in various histories, beginning with Julius Caesar and ending with the Muslim conquest.

Schuler's post was based on responses to the blogging equivalent of a parlor game: if you could change any single event in history, what would it be? All kinds of interesting things suggest themselves. Of course, it's hardly a new game. I first came across it in a wonderful book about a time-traveler in a relatively obscure period of history, and I've not settled on an answer for myself

June 29, 2009

The Costco Dog Birthday Wish

I would have liked to have been a fountain of bubbly energy and enthusiasm for The Wife's birthday tonight. But I had little energy left over after an all-over-the-place day at the office. I hope that a bunch of gifts over the weekend, even if not presented with spectacular elan, was enough to keep her happy and let her know that I love her and that I enjoy indulging her.

See, I really enjoy making her a special dinner on her special days. I'd like to think that's when I can pull out the stops, use all premium ingredients, kick it up a notch, and really put in the effort to turn out some spectacular food. Usually what she wants is crepes with lemon filling, which is relatively easy -- I just have to make sure to turn the crepes before they brown. But this year she said no, she didn't want that.

I kind of had to draw the line at her request to have Costco hot dogs for dinner, though. And I feel bad because my initial reaction to that should have been to say "You got it! If that's what you want, that's what we'll do!" But it had already been a long, mostly unpleasant day by the time she called me and said that's what she wanted for her birthday meal.

Seriously, she wanted to get hot dogs from Costco. Sorry you had to deal with the trays of canteloupe, blackberries, two kinds of pears, apples, soprasetta; another tray of mozzarella, smoked gouda, Parmaseano reggiano, and roasted garlic-inflused cheddar; and a green salad; followed by ice cream cake brought over by your best friend. Maybe next year we can go to Costco instead, honey.


I don't like doing evictions. I don't dislike everything about them, but they are time-consuming, and they expose me to a lot of disagreeable people -- some tenants, some landlords, and occasionally, disagreeable attorneys. Every once in a while, like this morning, disgruntled tenants come back to the office complaining that things didn't work out the way they had thought it would.

I try and settle the cases, and to do that we have to make deals. That's a problem with unsophisticated people, because they hear what they want to near, not necessarily what I say to them. The tenant wants to protect their credit rating, and the best I can do for them is give them a dismissal of the case. I can't change the fact that I filed it in the first place. The folks this morning were like that -- they thought I'd promised them a clean credit report, when in fact what I promised them is that I would dismiss the case after they moved out and that they could report that to the creidt bureaus. Yes, the case was something like three months ago, but that's what I say to everyone. It may not even be correct -- another lawyer told me that credit reporting bureaus do not actually report dismissed cases, so this might have been a mistake that somebody made.

But what is said to people, and what they hear, are often very different things. And when someone wants to hear what they think they've heard (there is a cause-and-effect relationship between those two concepts), and then they reinforce that selective memory through repetition for three months, you get something of a Rashomon phenomenon going on. No doubt they believe in good faith that I did promise them something that would require me to travel back in time and un-file the complaint. Of course, if I could travel back in time, I'd undo a lot of things and frankly, their eviction lawsuit would likely not be near the top of the list of things I'd undo.

So now they think I lied to them, and when I said that I had not and if they felt otherwise they should go get their own lawyer, they proceeded to swear loudly at me until both I and another lawyer in the firm commanded them to leave the office about ten times. I was wondering when I should ask the staff to call the police when they finally relented, making ambiguous threats about how they would make sure I had not heard the last of them. Chances are good that I have heard the last of them, but you never know.

Someone has to do this work, and I'm still low man on the totem pole at work, so that means I get to do them. I fully accept that and I'm happy to have the work. In some ways, I like going to court most of the time -- I've made friends with many of the other lawyers who are there frequently, with many of the judges, and many of the courthouse staff. I enjoy a good reputation at the courthouse, both in my own right and bolstered by working for a firm that enjoys a good reputation aside from me. And some of the clients, and sometimes even some of the tenants, are pleasant to work with.

Hell, I'm coming to even like working with one of the tenant's defense attorneys because he's at least reasonable in tone and has the ability to get his clients to make deals. He's smart and a good lawyer, which makes it pleasant to talk to him, and more importantly, when he's involved, he serves as a filter between me and his invariably-unpleasant tenants. (Which is not to say that I approve of his business model, because I do not, but it's become a fact of life.)

I'm not uncomfortable with conflict and disagreement. But then again, I work in an environment and a profession in which conflict and disagreement are resolved on the basis of pre-established rules, evidence, logic, and persuasive argument. Or sometimes, by democracy. Other methods of conflict resolution are significantly less comfortable for me.

Maybe what I need to do is change my style when I do this part of my job is not work so hard to settle the cases. I should try more cases, and settle fewer. There is no doubt when I try a case to judgment who I represent and no one can later accuse me of promising them anything after I roll them over at trial. The big question is, would that get me out of the courthouse faster in the mornings?

Pizza From Scratch

Cooking "from scratch" means, to me at least, that you begin with flour and uncut meats and vegetables. Other people seem to use different definitions of this phrase, which confuses me. I don't think you need to grind and pack your own sausages, clean your own fish, press your own oil, or mill your own flour to qualify the meal as "from scratch." But neither is adding water and an egg to a pre-mixed blend of ingredients sold in a box.

So here's how I made pizza from scratch Saturday. Start with a foccacia dough for the crust:

Put in two teaspoons of dry yeast and a pinch of bread flour* in a cup and a half of warm water. Stir well, allow to sit for about five minutes. Meanwhile, take six cups of bread flour, and begin sifting in a stand mixer. Add about a teaspoon of salt and seasonings -- I put in dried rosemary, oregano, basil, and black pepper. Less is more for the spices, but do not omit the salt.

When the yeast solution proofs (a layer of bubbles forms from the yeast and it begins to smell like brewing beer), pour the proof into the stand mixer. Then, add three to five tablespoons of olive oil, and watch the mixture. Over time, it will blend together and form a dough. Add more bread flour, maybe three tablespoons at a time, until the dough stops sticking to the side of the mixing bowl and instead forms a large ball.

Remove the ball of dough, and put it in a bowl several times larger than the dough. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, allow to stand for two hours or so on a warm, draft-free counter. After two hours, the dough will have risen to be three or four times the original volume; punch the air out and allow to stand for another two hours or so.

Prepare your cooking surface (a pizza stone, or in my case a cookie sheet) by sprinkling it with corn meal. Roll the dough flat, and shape it to your cooking surface.

Now, prepare the pizza. Both sauce and cheese are optional, and there is no particular rule that you need to use red marinara sauce. These are popular and you won't go wrong with them. The Wife likes a garlicky cream or alfredo sauce. I like olive oil. You don't have to have sauce at all. There also is no rule that you have to use cheese. Mozzarella cheese, or commercially-available blends, are popular and easy. After that, you can top it with whatever you want (or, perhaps more realistically, whatever you have on hand).

For this weekend's homemake pizza dinner, I made two pizzas. One was with the creamy garlic alfredo sauce and a mozzarella-smoked gouda blend of cheeses, topped with black olives, mushrooms, roasted garlic, and thinly-sliced red onions. The other had red sauce, again with the mozzarella-gouda blend, topped with roasted red peppers, roasted garlic, thin red onions, and morsels of hot Italian sausage removed from their casings (brown the sausage in a saute pan first; do not put raw pork products on cheese even if you're going to cook it). Bake at 350 degrees for twenty minutes or until the bottom of the crust is cooked all the way through. Two cookie sheets' worth of these pizzas was consumed by four people that evening and the following afternoon -- no leftovers.

* Bread flour, as I have learned, is not the same thing as all-purpose flour. It has a higher gluten and protien content.

A Teenager Tries A Walkman

Kids these days, having grown up used to digitial music players that weigh less than four ounces and can be concealed in the palm of a child's hand, probably don't realize that technology had to go through a lot of steps before it looked like it does today. Here are some amusing and nostalgia-inducing observations of a British teenager who traded his iPod for his father's Walkman on the thirtieth anniversary of that device's release.

I suppose some of the things that he encountered on that device would be non-obvious to a teenager today. It seems amazing that people would have spent fifty dollars, in 1979, for one of these things. But the technology was revolutionary for that period of time, and in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, it's about the same price as an MP3 player today. And the kid liked that there were two headphone jacks, so you could enjoy your music with a friend on it.

What may also not be obvious to him was that back in the late 1970's when these things were first introduced, people who used them in the presence of others (i.e., in an elevator, at the mall) were widely thought to be behaving rudely. They were appropriate for jogging or other solo activities, but that was about it.

Today, we would call jogging with a walkman "cross-training." One form of cross-training is to jog while carrying weights in your hands. After you added four AA batteries and a cassette tape, the contraption weighed something like five pounds. That rendered the belt clip something of a bad joke by Sony on joggers worldwide -- the Walkman would stay on a regular belt that had been cinched up tight enough to restrict blood circulation to the pelvis, but otherwise the belt clip on this thing was a joke. If you tried to clip it to to the side of your dolphin-fin jogging shorts or put it in a pocket, the weight of the device would drag whatever you were wearing below your waist right on down to your ankles, with the taut headset cord snapping back into your face and the headphones getting flipped forward into your nose and mouth. And you couldn't let it flop around, because the mechanical motion of jogging would cause the tape head to separate from the tape every time you took a step, so your music would be interrupted. So as a practical matter, you had to either invent some device to strap it to your chest or arm, or carry it in your hand, for it to be of any use while exercising.

Ah, memories.

June 26, 2009

Whip Ads: A Sign Of The Times

A cruise of Real Clear Politics this morning revealed videos six hit advertisements from moveon.org -- aimed at Dianne Feinstein, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, and Tom Carper. What all of these politicians have in common is a reputation as "moderate" or "centrist" Democrats. What all these advertisements have in common is that they take these Democrats to task for deviating from the "progressive" agenda moveon.org would prefer to see enacted into policy.

In the past, moveon.org has focused most of its vitriol at Republicans. But this seems to be becoming a thing of the past -- these "whip ads" are intended to push the Democrats into a more rigid, left-wing conformity. For better or for worse, though, they also signal the fact that for political progressives, the Republicans have become simply irrelevant:

Which is, frankly, becoming a less and less controversial sort of position for people to take -- even those who feel a natural gravitation away from Democrats.

As further support for my proposition that, until further notice, the GOP is irrelevant, consider this. If there were to be a Republican Presidential primary held right now, it would be Mitt Romney versus Sarah Palin, with Mike Huckabee playing spoiler. The tactical parallels to the Democratic primary in 2008 are obvious. The difference is that all three of these "leaders" are what counts as "old news" and therefore substantially weakened as candidates despite the fact that they would be running against a charismatic incumbent Democrat with the best political fundraising machine ever assembled.

Tow of the four even remotely interesting GOP Presdiential possibility from the GOP have been plucked out of the running already, one by a clever political appointment from that same formidable incumbent, and the other through an act of political self-immolation. I use the phrase "remotely" interesting because from what I can tell, Tim Pawlenty is really dull. The Exorcist is not boring, but does appear to be from the crazy wing of the party rather than the one that might one day become a force to contend with again.

So it makes a lot of sense for people who are trying to affect and control public policy to simply ignore Republicans completely. As things look right now, the chances of the Republicans being relevant to shaping or influencing national policymaking in a meaningful way are slim to none, at least until after the 2016 elections. That's a long way out, and yeah, a lot of things can happen between now and 2012. But sometimes, the road out of the wilderness is exactly as long and difficult as it appears when you go in.

There are two strategies being suggested as the way to get out of the wilderness. One is to narrow the party's focus and pump up the base's numbers -- that is to say, the 2008 platform, only more of it. The other is to broaden and expand the base by reaching out to different groups and presenting different kinds of policies -- that is to say, the "big tent." I'm a big-tenter. But it seems likely that the "pump up the base" strategy is what's going to be tried first.

From Today's Associated Press Headline Sheet

That picture is from this morning's AP headline feed. Notice:

1. The dateline for the story is in London, which is the capital of the United Kingdom.

2. The picture is of the Petronas Towers. Which are in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia.

June 25, 2009

Celebrity Deaths

Celebrity deaths are strange events. Some people act like someone close them has died, they go into mourning or participate in massive displays of love for the dead celebrity. This makes so little sense to me that I cannot even begin to fathom why they should particularly care.

If I actually knew the person who died, then it was my friend who died and that's a good reason to feel bad and mourn.

But if I didn't know the person who died, then the best I can do is summon empathy. People died earlier this week in the metro train crash in D.C. I can summon up empathy for that easily enough. I have friends, people I care about, who ride those trains every day. It takes little imagination to understand how their families would feel, how I would feel, if they had been one of the victims. That makes it easy for me to empathize with the families of the actual victims, who are people I do not know.

But let's be honest here. There's a limit to how far that empathy is going to go. I'm not walking around gloomy and depressed at the deaths of some people I actually did not know; it's not weighing hugely on my mind. That's about how I feel about celebrity deaths. Michael Jackson had a heart attack and died today. He was 50 years old. That's scary because a fifty-year-old man should not be having a fatal cardiac arrest. I'm nearly 40 -- seeing someone only eleven years older than me bite it from his heart giving out is a sobering, scary thought.

The fact that he was Michael Jackson, however, neither enhances nor diminishes the effect of the revelation that a 50-year-old's heart can in fact just plain stop beating in his chest. Whether this particular 50-year-old man was in good health or not is something I'm sure we'll be hearing a-a-a-a-all about over the next seventeen weeks or so.

Frankly, today's celebrity death that made me wince and say "Aww!" was Farrah Fawcett. Like a lot of boys, gawking at the famous poster of her in the red swimsuit represented one of my earliest stirrings of sexuality. In that sense, she touched me in a much deeper and more personal way than Michael Jackson ever did. (For which I'm glad, had being touched by Michael Jackson been of of my earliest stirrings of sexuality, I'd probably be spending a fortune on therapy right now and you would probably know me by way of the unflattering alias "the unidentified victim." I joke, but I suppose making Michael-Jackson-molesting-little-boys jokes on the day the man dies is probably joking in poor taste.)

What's more, Fawcett really did prove herself to be someone weightier than a hot blonde pinup girl with that "Burning Bed" TV movie -- that's something that touched a serious nerve in our collective social consciousness, which people are still talking about today, which still motivates law enforcement and public policy today. There wasn't a lot of discussion of spousal abuse before that; today, understanding it and dealing with it is an integral part of what courts and cops do, in no small part because people saw Farrah Fawcett playing a woman who got beat up by her abusive husband on a TV movie back in the early 1980's. That's a big deal, and she was the mastermind and primary motive force behind it. She could have been, and should have been, proud to have really shifted the public consciousness on that issue.

Michael Jackson? Not so much. Child molestation was bad before we found out that Michael Jackson had been accused of it. Exploitation of child performers was bad before we got a good insight into how that happened with the Jackson 5. And as an adult, he was a case study of how a warped childhood produces a warped adult. This was a guy who seemed to go out of his way, all his life, to behave and act in some of the most bizarre ways possible.

I think he came to hate his own existence so very much that he felt the need to completely change who and what he was for his entire life I think he became so afraid of the world, that he had to distort and change it. He had the money to do it and the enablers surrounding him who were all only too happy to take the money and make it happen. I think that in that sense, death is probably something of a release for him.

But it will be Michael Jackson, not Farrah Fawcett, who will be mourned by millions, for whom there will be candelight vigils and massive displays of emotion. And almost none of it will be because of the loss of an actual relationship. Being as charitable as possible to the late "King of Pop," he was a guy who had remarkably few personal friends, whose relationship with his own children was off-kilter at best, and who seemed to prefer the anonymous, distant love of strangers and music fans to the genuine thing from people close to him. The genuine love of someone close to you carries risk, and sometimes pain, because people let you down and make mistakes sometimes. (Just ask Jenny Sanford!) Learning to love those around you in spite of that risk is what it's really all about, a big part of the key to a happy, fulfilling life.

I question whether Michael Jackson ever really knew that despite his marriages and friendships. That's the part that makes me really sad. That's the part that is really worrisome and scary about his death. Which is why I'm going to spend some quality time with good friends and then some quality time with my wife tonight. You only get one shot at this life, so you should make it as good as you can.

Words That Seem Dirty But Probably Aren't

From the writeup of the Brazil-South Africa match in the Confederation Cup today:

Spurred on by the deafening buzz of their delighted fans’ vuvuzelas, South Africa unsettled Brazil with a frantic, hustling game of quick challenges and tight defense.

Normally, if we're talking about Brazilians and vuvuzelas in the same sentence, I'm thinking you probably want to get the kids out of the room first because it's about to get really interesting. But in fact, a vuvuzela is a horn about three feet long that some people say mimics the sound of an elephant trumpeting.

So it looks like S's wish gets granted -- the U.S. has to play Brazil for the Cup. Well, if we're going to win, we want to play against the best available, and we already beat Spain. (She has a nice blog, by the way -- go ahead and give her a few hits, why dontcha?)

June 24, 2009

Crack Cocaine For The Computer

A friend asked me, "What's the point of The Sims? How do you win a game like that?" The answer is, you don't "win" this game. It's not really a game at all, it's a toy. And it's a deeply addictive toy. I'm done blogging for today because I'm going to play with my electronic dolls now.

TL's California Budget Resolution Generates A Surplus

The Fish Wrapper's "budget balancer" toy is admittedly simplistic, but by accepting that I had to both raise some income taxes and cut a bunch of stuff, I got from a $24,000,000,000 deficit to a $789,000,000 surplus for the state budget. It wasn't exactly easy, but it wasn't mind-bendingly difficult, either. I played with the toy for about ten minutes and got a result I could live with, and that's what I linked.

My approach was "no sacred cows." That had to apply on both sides of the revenue-outlay equation.

Income and sales taxes got hiked, and sales taxes got broadened.

Yes, I cut the education and prison budgets. I cut the state's school year short by one week for all grades from K-12.

But, I kept a bunch of things that don't cost much but which we'd miss a lot when they were gone, like state parks and the CCC. I avoided cutting the things that would definitely get the state sued, like tinkering with pension plans. I kept intact every penny of funding to the community colleges. And I didn't have to furlough the state government.

I did cut a lot of things that I think need to be cut anyway, like the bulk of the home health care boondoggle. There is significantly less social welfare in my proposal.

See, conservatives and liberals alike can find things in the proposal which are distasteful to them. I've come to sort of enjoy my ability to do that -- I'm a uniter, not a divider.

Now, the budget toy doesn't allow fractional adjustments, and I wouldn't really ask the state's taxpayers to bankroll a surplus under these circumstances if I were a politician. So since there were no discrete units to move back, I would have proposed the $789,000,000 surplus be split equally as follows: $175 million to mitigating budget cuts to K-12, $100 million to mitigating CSU/UC cuts, $200 million to defray increases in gas tax hikes, and the rest ($314 million) to buy back long-term state bonds ahead of schedule. No refunds, no rainy-day fund, and no tax cuts, until the state's bond debt gets back under control, defined as the state's bond rating rising to at least "C" status.

Now, this budget resolution would please no one. In fact, it sucks, just like we all know the real solution is going to have to. Still, I think a lot of people -- significantly more than a majority of Californians -- would be able to live with it, at least for a few years. What I'd be hoping for if I were in government is that 1) the economy will come back in eighteen months or so, increasing revenues, and 2) in the intervening time, peoples' expectations of the level of services they're getting from the state will diminish so outlays will not increase again down the road.

The lesson I take from this is that what it really takes to govern is being divorced from the control of interest groups and ideologies, and accepting that people are just going to have to not expect too much from the government.

Stunner In South Africa

Many sports fans in the United States have little idea of just how big it is that the U.S. national team is in the finals of the Confederation Cup. We lost our first two games against powerhouse Brazil and the defending world champions, Italy.

In order to edge Italy out for the right to advance to the semifinal game, we needed to beat a strong Egypt team by three or more goals, and Brazil needed to beat Italy by three or more goals. The chances of that happening were roughly one in a thousand. But it happened.

For that, we got the privilege of going up against Spain. Spain, the best team in Europe. Spain, the heavy favorite to win the World Cup next year. Spain, who hadn't lost a match in 35 meetings, since the team formed in more or less its current incarnation.

Well, tonight we won, 2-0. Maybe Spain can't play well in cold weather (it's the dead of winter in South Africa right now).
This is the first time the U.S. national team has progressed to the finals of any international soccer tournament; Brazil and South Africa play for that tomorrow. I could have sworn I saw somewhere that winning the Confederation Cup generates an automatic bid to the World Cup, but maybe I was wrong. In any event, this is by far the best the U.S. has ever done, and it's done it by somehow getting past three of the four best teams in the world. (Germany is not in the Confederation Cup.) I'm kind of rooting for South Africa tomorrow.

Hope It Was Worth It

Man, that's one expensive trip Mark Sanford just took to Buenos Aires. I don't mean the airfare, hotel, and car rental. He'll be paying that price in the future.

June 22, 2009

No Jokes Here

D.C. Metro crash -- very bad news. At least nine people dead and fifty seriously injured. I've got many friends who live in D.C. and they all seem to be okay, for which I'm grateful. But that's no consolation to the families who lost their loved ones and breadwinners today and of course my heart goes out to all of them.

People die in auto accidents all the time and we don't seem to think much of it. Certainly it's not newsworthy on a national level. But that doesn't really make sense. Dead is dead, whether it's by way of a commuter-rail accident or an auto versus auto collision. But something about mass transit deaths seems to be more horrific. The victims had absolutely no ability to control what was happening; they just got on the train to go home from work, the same as they do every day, and then this happens. Again, for a lot of people, there isn't a lot of control or choice in an auto accident, but that still somehow feels different.

Well, maybe it doesn't have to be rational.

Soldiering On

Iran falls into national paralysis as the nation reels from apparently-corrupted elections. Initially, there's little way for us in the West to tell if the elections were less democratic than expected, but over time we learn that the returns came in way too fast and many cities reported more votes counted than there were people registered to vote, and that pretty much can't help but look suspicious. The candidate who officially lost the election, Mousavi, issues statement after statement denouncing the election and the government of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad sends out thugs to break up the resulting street protests. Mousavi's denouncements continue, the protests continue. Then, Supreme Leader Khameni tells Mousavi, "Toe the line, bitch."* Mousavi replies, in effect, "Or what? You gonna kill me? Dude -- you think I'm more dangerous to you alive... or dead?" Just then, a young woman is shot to death by one of Ahmadinejad's thugs and the event is captured on a cell phone's camera and tweeted all over the world. Gasoline, meet fire.
All this has been a little bit overwhelming to see. I'm not entirely sure that the importance of this youth revolution in Iran is of such surpassing importance. The young voters are not protesting the institutions of the Islamic Republic. They are not protesting against theocracy, at least not yet. They are mad because they thought their guy was going to win and it looks like they got the election stolen from underneath them. So far the clerics who ultimately run the show there haven't given them any reason to be worthy of trust. If the kids were out in the streets demanding a secular democracy, I'd be very excited. Until then, this really looks to me like election violence as we'd see pretty much anywhere. It would be really cool if Iran stopped being a theocracy but at this point it doesn't look to me like that's in the cards.
President Obama, meanwhile, takes his daughters out for ice cream on Father's Day, and seems to be concentrating on a health care reform package of at-best questionable wisdom and at-most dubious affordability -- so much so that even Democrats are starting to be concerned about the price tag.
Well, what's he supposed to do? The U.S. and its leaders have been demonized for more than a generation in Iran. Whatever we say or do, Iranians reflexively want to do the opposite. And we're a huge political bogeyman against whom the worst of the bad guys over there rally their minions. Silence is about the best possible policy imaginable from the White House. I may not be real fond of the health care reforms coming down the pike, but give the President the credit he's due when he's making the right call and keeping his mouth shut on this one. Maybe he should be concentrating on...
As the nation sinks further into crushing debt, a preview of what's to come appears to be playing out in Sacramento. The nation's largest state is still far away from making the additional cuts and tax hikes needed to solve what has now grown to a $23 billion budget deficit. That's a deficit on the order of what the United States had to deal with as deficits -- within living memory. Ultimate cuts are clearly going to be made in law enforcement, education, social welfare, and infrastructure. There is talk of a constitutional convention to re-structure the state government from the ground up.
Well, I've been saying for a long time that we need to make cuts and that they're going to be painful. I'm of two minds about the idea of a constitutional convention -- on the one hand, yeah, we clearly need something radically different than what we've got right now, but on the other hand, what evidence is there for the proposition that a convention be any better-equipped to solve the problems of the state than the Legislature is right now? Who gets to pick the delegates to the Convention, anyway, and if it's going to happen, where do I sign up?
Oh, and the mayor of Los Angeles will not be running for Governor in 2010. Not that I blame him; I wouldn't want the job, either. Tom Campbell and Meg Whitman have both got to be insane if they think they stand a snowball's chance in Death Valley of winning the general election. It'll either be San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom or Attorney General (and former Governor) Jerry Brown.
What? Didn't I say a year and a half ago that it was the 1970's all over again? Huge budget deficits, revolutions in Iran, disco music, a popular Demcoratic President unable to rein in a runaway liberal Democratic Congress, teenagers with really bad shaggy haircuts and strange clothing, inflation, politicians arguing about abortion and gun control, massive pop-culture resentment to the previous Republican Administration, John Travolta a major star falling into obscurity, unemployment, and tiny unattractive cars -- and it looks like Jerry Brown is going to be the Governor of California. Anything I miss? Oh, yeah, this time around no one's talking about the metric system, other than now everyone knows how much soda you get in a two-liter bottle.
South Carolina's governor, a widely-touted Presidential candidate in 2012, vanishes. No one's seen or heard from him since Thursday. His wife has no idea where he is, but she says she's "not concerned," he's just "recharging" after a tough political battle. His political enemies are ready to start drawing blood. His bodyguards have, well, some egg on their face. And his Presidential prospects are at serious risk.
If the guy is sane, he's looking out at world events and looking ahead to the debt the country will be saddled with from 2013-2016, and the bizarrely high level of popularity President Obama enjoys despite the Carter Administration-like problems that are emerging during his Presidency. I'd be on a flight to Vegas, saying "F*@% that noise. You want it in '12, Sarah Palin? It's all yours. I try and do the right thing and get stabbed in the back by my own party? No thanks, I'll take wall-to-wall hookers and desktops full of blow instead of dealing with this government crap. Oh, what, my future? Shit, even Elliot Freaking Spitzer's making a comeback, so maybe I'll just grab me a room at the Venetian, have them send up a baseball steak medium rare, a fifth of Jimmy Beam, and a brunette. I'll come back when I'm good and damn ready to."

...Oh, wait, he's hiking the Appalachian Trail? Damn, that's not nearly as interesting as what I wrote. It's not even in South Carolina at all.
Pat Buchanan was the keynote speaker at an English-only event. The banner misspelled the word "conference."
Sometimes these things just write themselves. In fact, no one would have paid much attention to the English-only conference if it hadn't been for the amusing mistake.
So that's my news roundup from the past four days or so.
Truth be told, it's exhausting keeping up with current events. I've considered putting the blog on hiatus for a week or two because I need to recharge my creative batteries and focus on some other projects instead. Hell, if Mike Reynolds can go for three months doing nothing but a squib bragging about referring to "sport peppers" in a British newspaper, then damnit, I can take a week off, too. You don' t owe us anything, but we miss you, M. Takhallus.

* An admittedly loose translation from the original Farsi.

Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes Sells Some Strange Stuff

So we got our entry for the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. Mostly, this contains a tremendous amount of advertisements for a tremendous amount of crap that no one wants and a tremendous number of magazines that you are unlikely to want to read. And if you want to enter the sweepstakes without actually buying any of this crap, the entry form still makes you have to pick something from the approximately fifty slips of filmy, slick paper advertising all of this crap and say that if you were going to buy something, this would be it. Naturally, my eye was attracted to the inserts pictured to the left.

Hmm. Thinly-disguised "instructional" pornography, or eighteen ounces of pomegrante-flavored jelly beans. Both available for the same price of $15.96 (plus S&H). If I were going to buy something from Publishers Clearing House in exchange for the infinitesimal chance of winning one of their fantastic prizes, which of the two would I pick?

Notice how it appears you can get these things for only $3.99 each. That's until you read that it's "4 easy payments" of $3.99 for your product selection. Which makes me ask myself -- "Self, do I really need to buy jelly beans on credit?" Ah, but I still haven't revealed whether I picked the jelly beans or the DVD.

Well, seeing as a human being (specifically our postal carrier) is going to be inspecting the results of this choice, of course I picked the jelly beans. But just think of how interesting our mail could have been otherwise. Who knows, maybe we'll get both! What kind of demographic choices pop up on marketing computers when you order both porno and candy at the same time?

It's A Fine Line Between Discretion And Cowardice

Scene: [The office, by the coffee machine. Morning. ENTER Transplanted Lawyer and a Co-Worker.]

Transplanted Lawyer: "Hey, 65-year-old co-worker, I see you got a tattoo on your forearm this weekend! That's very cool!"

Co-Worker: "Yeah, Younger Co-Worker gave it to me over the weekend! See, here's the cross, on top of the Star of David, and behind them, the flag with the original thirteen stars. I didn't want to get all fifty because she did them last and it was starting to hurt."

TL: "I think thirteen would have been enough! The bruising doesn't look too bad."

CW: "No, and I usually bruise up pretty good. But it was kind of fun."

[ENTER Paralegal]

Paralegal: "You know, I've thought about getting a tattoo myself. But I'd want an anklet, something that looks like an anklet. Isn't there a rule here at work about no visible tattoos?"

CW: "Well, no one's said anything to me about that. If they want me to roll down my sleeve, I'd do it at work, but I got this tattoo for a reason."

TL: [Waves hands and shakes head at Paralegal in "no-no-no-no-no-no" gesture. Is ignored.]

PA: What was that?

CW: [Progressively faster and louder] "Our President really pissed me off when he said that this wasn't a Christian nation. So I said--"

TL: [Interrupts] "Hold it, hold it. We need to stop here."

PA: [To TL] "Huh?"

CW: [To PA] "What I said was, the President said this wasn't a--"

TL: "This is the part of the conversation where everyone can still go back to work happy. I'd like it to stay that way."

[All pause for a beat.]

CW: "Oh. I mean, this is my way of saying --"

TL: [Interrupts again] "And you're absolutely entitled to say it. I'll just head on over to my office now and get back to work on that motion." [EXITS.]


Bear in mind two things:

First, TL is not a partner of this firm but does have quasi-supervisory authority over both CW and PA. This means he can tell them to do things, and they're supposed to do them. But TL does not have the independent authority to impose discipline or dispense rewards, although he is known to have the ear of those who do hold that authority.

Second, no one actually articulated an opinion on the "Christian nation" issue. Some might say this is a distinction without a difference, since at least as to the basic issue, it was perfectly obvious how both TL and CW felt, and it should have been obvious that both had very strong feelings.

Now, do you think TL was...
A) ...exercising appropriate discretion and wisdom for a workplace, or
B) ...passing up a good opportunity for a productive exchange of thoughts, or
C) ...shrinking needlessly from a confrontation?

Follow-up question: If you think TL did the wrong thing here, what would you have done in his place?

June 20, 2009

Real Life Badasses

Here's fifteen real people who did stuff just like big-time heroes from the movies. Only more impressive in some cases. Not all of them are attractive like movie stars. But it's somehow more interesting to know that people have really done extraordinary things than it is to watch Hollywood's version of them.

See also Badass Of The Week.

June 19, 2009

Brilliant. Absolutely Brilliant.

Dr. Seuss explains the Iranian election protests.

(Source here.)

Literal Video: Head Over Heels

Theme And Variations

It's almost as if neglect of the responsibility of filing tax returns (and paying taxes) is a qualification for service in the Obama Administration. I can't say that this is a "take-a-swipe-at-Democrats" thing because I don't recall an unusually-high number of Clinton or Carter appointees who had failed to file or pay their taxes. I certainly can't remember an unusually-high number of Republican appointees in the past three GOP Administrations. Before that, my political memory is somewhat hazy -- the last prominent Republican politician I can think of who got in serious tax trouble was Spiro Agnew.

Yes, that was some pretty serious tax trouble the Vice President got into back in the day. It wasn't as if Agnew could say, "Oops! My bad. Here, let me file an amended return and pay a penalty, that'll make it a-a-a-a-a-allll better." This most recent Obama appointee can get out of her problems in this more easy, less punitive way. Which is the way it should be -- if someone is willing to make it right with the government financially, and pay a heavy but not crushing penalty as a deterrent to others, that ought to be the end of pretty much any tax problem.

But somehow, Obama seems to be picking a lot of people like this. This is particularly galling, of course, given that this Administration (made up of a lot of people who couldn't be bothered to fill out a return much less write a check to pay their legally-required share of the burden of government) is very soon going to have no choice but to ask the rest of us to pay more than we have been.

If we had a consumption-based tax regime instead of an income tax, of course, none of this would have ever been a problem. I'm not a big fan of Mike Huckabee on a lot of things, but this was a pretty good idea he got floated out into the political dialogue. I hope other politicians -- of both parties and a wide variety of ideological stripes -- look at it seriously.

Schizephrenic Schwarzenegger

I don't get it.

First the Governorator says he likes same-sex marriage.

Then, he says that he won't let the City and County of San Francisco issue same-sex marriage licenses because Prop. 22 was the decision of the people of the state, whether he liked the peoples' decision or not.

So far, I can kind of see that. "Yah, I like the gay marriage but that's my personal preference and the people disagreed with me, so I have to do what the people want." I can see that.

But then, the state Supreme Court overruled Prop. 22 and said that gays can get married after all, Prop. 22 be damned. And the Governator says he accepts the Supreme Court's ruling and congratulates gay couples.

And then the people pass Prop. 8, amending the Constitution, and again, Schwarzenegger's attitude is all "okay, that's how they want it after all, so that's what the people said."

But then the latest passive reversal from the Governor's office is this -- he sees that Attorney General Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown supported the plaintiffs in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, urging the overturn of Prop. 8. And yesterday, Schwarzenegger himself elected to not oppose the plaintiffs. This means that there are no state officials who are defending Prop. 8.

I'm not complaining; it pleases me to see moves that make it easier for same-sex marriage to become a reality here again. But the people amending the state constitution is not insignificant, and that's important, too. Attorney General Brown is taking a stand that there are federal rights violated by Prop. 8. At least he's taking a stand, even if he isn't defending the state in his capacity as the state's top lawyer. If Schwarzenegger joined Brown, that would be his position. Or, Schwarzenegger could take a position consistent with his statements that regardless of his personal appearance, his intent as a public servant is to fulfill the desires of the people and seek to uphold the law as written. That makes sense, too.

But the passivity is maddening. To be sure, the Governor's top priority has to be getting the state's finances back on track -- but at the same time, the issue is of great importance to a lot of people, on both sides of the issue. It's disappointing at best to see him ducking the issue completely.

June 18, 2009

A Bite At Some Low-Hanging Fruit, Namely, The Arrogance Of A California Democrat Holding Public Office

I'm hearing slow burn here in my elected representative's voice:

Apparently, she Senator Boxer didn't realize that "Ma'am" is a formal title which military people call women who outrank them in the hierarchy, the equivalent of using the honorific "Sir" to address a man. Or maybe, she Senator Boxer let that little factoid slip her mind. Seems to me that he was being respectful of Senator Boxer by using the phrase "Ma'am." I know that there is a way to use a phrase like "Sir" or "Ma'am" to convey condescension, but I'm not hearing that in the clip; it sounds like he was trying to answer her question in good faith.

It also seems to me that in the U.S. military, a star on your shoulder signifies something more than a reward for perfect attendance and good penmanship, so it's not as if the General himself is insensitive to title and honorifics. And he's earned a right to be given a degree of respect himself. He might have reason to believe that he was midly disrespected by, um, his interlocutor, She-Who-Must-Be-Titled.

I've little to add to this well-drafted blog post from the Christian Science Monitor describing the incident, including the apt reference to South Park. But I also would like to take the time to find a clip of the "shopping on Rodeo Drive" scene from Pretty Woman in which the snooty shopkeeper asks Richard Gere if everything is going well and he says,"We're going to need more sucking up, please. Not me. Her."

A Cooler, Wetter Earth

From two separate sources on the same day -- news that we possess, right now, the technological ability to reduce global temperatures by several degrees. The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic both discuss two proposals -- the first and apparently the more interesting one being the distribution of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, mimicking the effects of a major volcanic explosion. The second one is the creation of a fleet of ships that would churn and spray ocean water into the atmosphere, creating increased evaporation and increased cloud cover.

Several caveats, and both articles forcefully include the most important one -- this would not be a fix for global warming, only a band-aid. The fix is the reduction and control of industrial processes, however that is accomplished. Fewer pollutants have to make their way into the atmosphere, no matter how many zeppelins we use to distribute sulfur to the stratosphere and no matter how many ships churn up seawater. Unfortunately, you have to read the whole articles in order to get to that point because both writers and both editors chose to put this information towards the end.

But the good news is, we don't have to cook ourselves to death just yet. And as time passes we may think of newer things to do or find cheaper ways to get the job done. The methods discussed would be expensive but (from a governmental or inter-governmental scale) not impossibly so.

From an expense and political angle, the seawater option seems more interesting than the zeppelins. We could devise ways to retrofit existing vessels to do the job while they are engaged in other kinds of activities -- if every cargo carrier in the world churned up clouds in their wake, while moving our goods around the planet, that would apparently be enough to reverse mean global temperatures to what they were in the 1950's. It's also probably more politically salable because it doesn't involve strange-looking hoses shooting fifty thousand feet into the sky and belching sulfur into the environment we're allegedly trying to protect. Retrofitting all these ships would take some time and money, and presumably would be subsidized by the government(s) and benefactors funding the project.

Making a fifty-thousand-foot long, gas-impermeable hose would be a challenge from an engineering perspective. The hose would have to be damned strong -- strong enough, probably, to anchor the zeppelin to which it would be attached, and still be flexible enough to handle the swirling winds of the lower and middle atmosphere. Whatever sheaths the skeleton of the hose would need to be, again, both strong and flexible while not allowing the gas inside to escape. But it doesn't seem like the sort of thing that engineers would be unable to get done. The real problem would be fixing the hose when something breaks on it, especially above helicopter-accessible altitude.

We'd also have to make our air traffic control practices significantly more complex in order to prevent aircraft and spacecraft from hitting the hoses and the zeppelins. Again, this is more demanding than what we're doing now, but fairly obviously within our reach if we were to really try.

Besides, hoses twisting their way into the sky just look creepy, like something from The Matrix.

Satellites would become somewhat less useful with increased cloud cover. Many satellites do not do things for which visibility is an issue -- television relays, for instance, operate at a frequency for which visible light matters. But observation and weather satellites do use optical data of the Earth, and if we cloud up our skies, they will be less useful. One of the unintended side-effects of these ideas would be increased use of reconnaissance aircraft, both for military and governmental purposes as well as for scientific and other "peaceful" sorts of activities. Reconnaissance aircraft are, however, quite expensive to fly, even as compared to other sorts of air traffic, and there is nothing other than petroleum-based fuel that can effectively power an aircraft.

Increased cloud cover would also result in increased rainfall. From where I'm sitting in a state savaged by a seven-year drought, more rain sounds pretty good. For places watching their glaciers and snowpack recede -- things that are necessary to keep enough fresh water in their ecosystems -- that also sounds pretty good. But if I were in places like Bangladesh, portions of the American and Canadian midwest, which are prone to very destructive flooding every couple of years, increased rainfall would sound like a significant threat.

On the other hand, increased rainfall and snowfall would mean increased access to fresh water globally. Water is life, and more rain means more crops -- and less reason for countries to intrude on one another to get the water. It's not hard to imagine that wars will take place, this century, for control of fresh water. Some people believe that China is acting the way it is towards Tibet (that is to say, incorporating it into metropolitan China, sometimes forcefully and in a way destructive of Tibetan culture) in order to make sure that it controls the fresh water sources in the northern Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau -- China has a billion people who need to drink and its primary agricultural product is rice, possibly the most water-intensive crop available. If there were not a perceived need to protect this source of water, the PRC might be more willing to permit Tibet the status of a semi-autonomous region like some other provinces in its northwestern deserts.

The phenomenon of global warming is real enough. The causes of it are as-yet indeterminate but likely to be based in industrial and/or vehicular pollution. Sulfate-spewing stratospheric zeppelins and cloud-seeding sea vessels are not the answer. And they would have indirect consequences, which I've only explored a little bit here. But they might buy us time to solve environmental problems while we work out how to balance our economic needs with environmental imperatives.

Pretty Much The Least He Could Do

Yesterday, President Obama signed an executive order extending just-barely-non-trivial benefits to same-sex couples employed by the Federal government. It's better than nothing, but it's hardly treating a same-sex couple equally with a married opposite-sex couple.

Which is why the population intended to be politically mollified by this gesture, gays and lesbians, are the ones griping most loudly about it. As well they should. They were promised an effort to repeal DOMA and inclusion as a protected class in the Civil Rights Act. What they're getting is allocation of housing for overseas job postings.

President Obama says this is only "one small step" but has yet to articulate anything resembling a plan towards a multi-step approach to giving these Americans the same treatment from their government which their heterosexual peers all too often take for granted.

June 17, 2009

A Newly-Minted Mediator's Reflections On Negotiation Training

I've just completed a mediator certification program and now I, like hundreds if not thousands of other lawyers around Los Angeles County, am a certified mediator. My name will be appearing soon on computer-generated lists of people who handle various kinds of cases and I will have to volunteer three hours a month to mediate some local cases.

In fact, the mediation school is excellent training for a litigator. There are some very good insights into how negotiations work, both from a technical and psychological perspective. I have never had a negotiation that proceeded along the lines described as a "traditional" sort of haggle, but I have had several that proceeded along the general pattern -- and I suspect I could have had better results, or at least had more control of the situation, if I'd understood not only the formal framework but more importantly, how the particular negotiation I was in had deviated from that framework. For that alone, the training was well worth my time.

Now, the real value here is in the fact that as a mediator, I can charge a premium rate, and the volunteer mediations are the manner in which those services are advertised. The next challenge will be to create a series of appropriate documents and procedures to get this new part of the practice set up properly.

Still unanswered, however, is the question of how to deal with the guy who says "It is not enough that I win. You must lose." I think there are a lot of people out there who are strangers to confrontation, people who have avoided confrontation all their lives. When it comes and smacks them in the face and they can no longer avoid it, they have no other way to deal with it other than to completely demonize their opponent, no way to understand the conflict other than as a deeply personal and potentially bloody and life-threatening fight. They turn into sadists. I still don't know, and no one could tell me, how to get a sadist to compromise.

And an otherwise-excellent program was marred by the suggestion that resolution of conflict is facilitated by getting the parties to talk directly to one another, to explain how they are hurting as a result of the dispute and the resulting conflict -- the idea that this will make fundamentally good people see one another as fundamentally good, build rapport and empathy, and make them more likely to want to compromise and work with one another. I scoff at this idea because far too often, I have seen people scoff at their adversary's pain. They want their adversary to be hurt, they like it. For many people -- not necessarily even the ones who turn sadistic -- measuring their adversary's discomfort is an indication to them of their own strength, their own progress towards realizing their own objectives.

Figuring out how to break through this is something that I rather strongly suspect will take experience rather than education. In the meantime, a good nuts-and-bolts training on what happens most of the time when people haggle is a very good background. (You'd think they would teach more of this sort of thing in law school, but no; all too often law students wind up in useless specialty classes like "The Law Of Prime Numbers" or "Intermediate Arboreal Law.")

I suspect a good number of the cases I'll have to handle, at least on a volunteer basis, will be soft tissue personal injury cases. Those are generally not hugely emotional and are driven not by the parties but rather by the attorneys and insurance adjusters. That's a process of getting them to first make reasonable offers favorable to themselves and then working through the dance of direct numbers negotiation, which is really an exercise in patience and in discerning between real and feigned frustration on the part of the negotiators.

Seriously, I think most lawyers should take a class like this and the reason they don't is hubris. Very few of us have actually done this. None of us are so good at what we do that we can't benefit from learning other people's perspectives. None of us are such good negotiators that an abstract understanding of how negotiation works would not be profitable. And if you think you're already so good at it that the class would be a waste of your time, then chances are very good that for a good part of your career, you've been leaving a lot more money on the table than you think.

See What Happens, Republicans!

Moderates respond well to messages of fiscal conservatism, when they are devoid of social authoritarianism. The appropriate response to this revelation is not to explain why moderates should become more conservative.

June 15, 2009

Iranian Democracy

Just a few quick thoughts on the elections in Iran.

First, has it occurred to anyone that maybe Ahmadinejad actually won? That the results are genuine? This doesn't even seem to have been considered as a possibility in the western media. That doesn't mean I doubt for a second that the mullahs wouldn't rig the election or that Ahmadinejad wouldn't, either -- but just because they would do it doesn't mean they had to, or that they actually did.

Second, and on a related note, the irritating thing about democracy is that sometimes voters make the wrong choices, for the wrong reasons. Deft politicians are able to sway voters to support them based on appeals to emotion rather than appeals to their self-interest, and that's true here in the U.S. as well as Iran and anywhere else. Democracy was a great way for the Palestinians to govern themselves until Hamas won the elections.

Third, we in the west wanted Mousavi to win, and to try to bring reform to Iran so badly that we have almost certainly projected our desires onto our willingness to see reality with a clear eye. We want very much for the young people in Iran to take action, seize power, and open their nation up to the west so that it can become a more responsible member of the community of nations. That doesn't mean it's going to happen.

Fourth, brutal dictatorship does not necessarily mean an impoverished and brutalized public. Iran has been doing pretty well for twenty-five years -- sure, we believe that an alternative path could be even better for it, but it would not be unreasonable for the man on the street in Tehran to look around his circumstances -- he likely has a job that pays enough money for him to keep a roof over his family's head, put good food on the table, keep gas in his car, and see periodic demonstrations of national pride and power -- and think, "You know, it could be a whole lot worse." High demand for petroleum in the industrialized west is the principle reason why Iran is prosperous despite its oppressive and theocratic government. As long as that is the case, it will seem safer to many Iranians to simply go along with things in order to get along as they have been.

Finally, suppose there was election fraud. Really, so what? Everyone knows that a council of clerics holds the real ultimate power in Iran, that the alliance between the religious institutions and the military is the force that keeps that country's status quo going. The more or less democratically-elected government is entrusted with a variety of tasks and given varying amounts of latitude to do a variety of things -- but it is always kept on a leash. In Ahmadinejad's case, the lease is long and slack, but do not think for a second that it's not there. The self-appointed, unelected power brokers exercise veto power over anything that the government does as a practical matter, so even if Mousavi had won or somehow invalidates the results of the maybe-it-was-maybe-it-wasn't-stolen election, there's only going to be so much he could do anyway.

So while Iran moves into its third day of post-election violence and government crackdowns -- eerily reminiscent of China's crackdown on its pro-democracy movement twenty years ago -- we in the west can really only stand back and watch Iran try to solve its own problems. The Iranians do not want our help, they have sufficient resources to resolve their situation on their own, and if we don't like how they do it or the result they settle on, well, they have their own country so their response to us will be, in so many words, "Tough noogies. What are you going to do about it, invade us?"

We can't do that, and they know it, so that leaves us with only the ability to cluck at them disapprovingly. Which, as it turns out, only plays into the hands of the people we would prefer didn't hold power there in the first place.

Sports Morning

1. Why doesn't the NHL time its playoff schedule so that they are separated from the NBA playoffs by several weeks? Haven't they figured out by now that putting the Stanley Cup finals out in head-to-head competition with basketball finals is a loser move for hockey?

2. At 11:300 today, the U.S.A. plays Italy in a pre-qualification round for the World Cup. U.S. versus Italy leaves me deeply conflicted. It's too bad they can't both win.

June 12, 2009

For Shame, Mr. President

In the first of a rash of federal lawsuits filed against the federal Defense Of Marriage Act (1 U.S.C. and 28 U.S.C. 1738c) has just been made the subject of a strongly-worded motion to dismiss filed by the United States Department of Justice. This is not the high-profile case filed by David Boies and Ted Olson (called Perry v. Schwarzenegger) but rather a case involving a gay couple who were married under the pre-Prop. 8 Marriage Cases law, which means that under California law, they still are married. Note also that the brief (linked below) is signed by political appointees of President Obama.

The U.S. Attorney has argued that indeed, these men are married under California law, but that doesn't matter a bit in Federal court because DOMA prohibits the Federal government from recognizing the state-law proclamation that they are married. This represents a reversal of position from President Obama, who in his campaign promised to push for a repeal of DOMA:
I support the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)– a position I have held since before arriving in the U.S. Senate. While some say we should repealonly part of the law, I believe we should get rid of that statute altogether. Federal law should notdiscriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does.

Well, that's not what his Administration argued in court today. Today, lawyers acting at his behest argued for the Court to uphold DOMA, and did so in fairly strong terms, terms which wpuld please Prop. 8 supporters:
  • DOMA is Congress exercising its powers under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, not a violation of it.
  • DOMA was not passed as a result of discriminatory animus towards gay people.
  • DOMA is non-discriminatory because it still allows gay people to marry people of the opposite sex.
  • DOMA is justified because it's okay to have laws against marrying children and prohibiting incest.
  • DOMA is consistent with the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses, Roemer v. Colorado and Lawrence v. Texas notwithstanding.
  • DOMA saves the Federal government money by restricting the scope of Federal benefits provided to married couples.
  • There is no constitutional right of gay people to marry one another; any contrary analogy to Loving v. Virginia is not well-taken.
Don't believe me? Read the brief here. About the only thing I can say in DOMA's defense, myself, is that it seems to be deferential to the states on a matter that is traditionally left to state law, and therefore presumptively appropriate from a federalism point of view. Which is not an insignificant concern, but in fact DOMA is about as nationalised as a law can get. What happens when a state (like, say, Iowa or New Hampshire) adopts same-sex marriage? Doesn't deference to state law and local political decisions made under a state's plenary police power compel the Federal Government, under the Tenth Amendment, to recognize that marriage as valid?

And why is he doing this? The claim is that the Department of Justice is required to defend the law regardless of what anyone in the Department or the White House thinks about it, and the President wants to see Congress repeal DOMA rather than eschew his duty as the chief executive mandated by Congress with enforcing the law as written. This, however, is complete bullshit. Administrations of both parties and a wide spectrum of political beliefs have taken positions that various laws were unconstitutional and urged the courts to strike them down as such.

I don't know how else to say this. Barack Obama is not a friend of gay people. He doesn't care about them and knows he doesn't have to do anything to gain their support. He takes their political support for granted, because he knows that the Republicans have made themselves so odious to gay people that they'll never throw their political support there. Which, of course, is a gift Republicans have given Obama; he's simply using that gift he's been given. About all he has to do is say nice things about gay people every once in a while, and blame Congress for not repealing DOMA the way he asked it to (despite arguing that it should be upheld).

If a Republican were to come along and say "I think that leaving the decision to the states means just that, and the Federal government ought to defer to the states on this issue, whether it's for gay marriage or against it," that would be a vast improvement from a same-sex marriage rights perspective over the Obama Administration's position. The problem is that the social conservatives have made it impossible for a Republican to make that pitch, make that bid for gay voters, and still survive politically as a Republican.

Shame on you, Mr. President. You courted the votes of gay people and same-sex marriage proposals. Now, these Americans who have done nothing wrong, broken no law, and for the most part given you their political support, look to you to protect their civil rights, asking you only to keep your promises to them. But in fact you talked out of both sides of your mouth on this issue during your campaign, you're talking out of both sides of your mouth on the issue now, and you are betraying the trust of these Americans by attacking instead of defending their rights. For shame.

The Best-Sounding Bad Idea To Come Along In A Long Time

Reading at Left Coast Rebel about a month ago, I was dismayed to learn last month that the Cash for Clunkers program was gaining political purchase. I can see the logic behind the initiative -- subsidize the ability of people who are driving around old gas guzzlers for newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles -- and I can see that there would be some environmental good done by realizing the objective of updating our fleet of personal vehicles.

But this is definitely a thing to do when times are prosperous, when there is excess money to be spent on this sort of thing. Right now, we're only seeing subtle macroeconomic hints that the recession may be receding, but that doesn't mean times are getting better and it certainly doesn't mean times are good. We're deficit-spending ourselves into fiscal anemia and paying people between $3,000 and $4,000 for what Congressional sponsors hope will be 625,000 vehicles is $2.5 billion that we simply don't have right now.

But even under the best of theoretical circumstances, it is also not clear that the policy would work, or that its benefits would not be swamped by unintended adverse consequences. As I wrote at LCR, if we were in a budget surplus condition, I could call this policy proposal defensible, at least in the abstract; but still a luxury we can't presently afford.

Now, the bill that the House of Representatives just passed has been so compromised that it seems unlikely that it would effect so little advancement towards its policy goal that it seems like a waste of time. In its current form, "cash for clunkers" will benefit almost no one. There are simply not a lot of people who own crappy old cars and who are looking to buy brand-new cars to replace them. So who would be cashing in on this program? As Prof. Steven Levitt writes in today's Gray Lady:

If any vehicles are going to qualify under this program, I suspect it will be because enterprising people who already plan to buy new cars will go out and buy old junkers on the used-car market and then trade them in under the program. But those transactions won’t represent incremental new car sales; it will just be a way for people who were already going to buy a car to rip off the government.
Prof. Levitt points out that, although about ten percent of the total fleet in the United States get low enough mileage to meet the initial threshold for subsidy eligibility status, the bulk of those vehicles are light-duty pickup trucks. Now, light-duty pickup truck owners tend to hang on to those vehicles longer than car owners do because light-duty pickup trucks have utility as cargo carriers in addition to their ability to move passengers around. They therefore become auxiliary rather than primary vehicles, part of the reason why there are more vehicles than drivers registered in nearly every state. The incentive to get rid of a high-utility auxiliary vehicle is much lower than the incentive to upgrade a personal-transportation-only primary vehicle.

Additionally, the person asking for a subsidy on the clunker trade-in will need to prove that the vehicle was registered and insured for the previous year. Well, here's a couple of facts for you coming from a guy who sometimes serves as a traffic judge -- between 20% to 25% of the vehicles on the road are not insured and about one in thirty don't have current registration. They aren't insured and they aren't registered because the people who own and drive them are poor and cannot afford to pay the money to insure and register their vehicles. The vehicles that are uninsured and unregistered tend to be old-model vehicles, the ones that this subsidy is aimed at, because those low-quality vehicles are the only ones that poor people can afford to buy in the first place to meet their transportation needs.

In other words, I would predict that the insurance and registration requirement would substantially narrow the number vehicles that will qualify for the subsidy in the first place. And of those vehicles, the true economic incentives to part with them may be lower than the cash price for such vehicles available on the open market and indeed may be lower than the subsidy offered by this program.

When it's the only car you've got, even if it's a clunker, and you probably can't scrape together enough money to buy a replacement, the utility value of that crappy old car is very high. Higher than the marginal value of $500 to $1,000 in cash that you could get on the open market for it, and probably higher than the $3,500 to $4,500 subsidy you could get for trading it in to be crushed into a small, heavy metal cube. And since you can't scrape together enough cash to replace your junker-with-a-market-value-of-$1,000, you're not in the market for a new car anyway, so the $3,500 to $4,500 subsidy is a non-issue.

In other words, the transactions Congress intends to incentivize are simply never going to happen. Let's consider what would really happen.

If you had maybe $6,000 in available cash, you could buy up a dozen junkers at $500 each, and trade them all in at once, getting a $3,500 subsidy for each trade-in. You'd use that money to get new car worth $42,000. You could then re-sell the new car to a third party without ever putting the key in the ignition, realizing a profit of $36,000.

Given an infinite number of $500 cars eligibile for the subsidy available to purchase, your $36,000 in profit from the first turn-around would buy you 72 more junkers, which for your next cycle of purchases and trade-ins, would be worth $252,000 in new car purchase subsidies. Even after paying sales tax, re-registration fees, and rental on property large enough (and zone appropriately) to store 72 crappy old cars at a time, you could theoretically wind up with something like $200,000 in profit.

What makes this worth doing is the government subsidizing the junkers to seven times their open-market value -- paying $3,500 for a car that would sell for $500 on the open market. In real life, you'd be shelling out cash for more than eighty crappy old cars to make this work. Also in real life, the universe of people who are actually selling $500 vehicles that get mileage below eighteen miles per gallon and who have been able to keep their cars registered and insured for an entire year is not infinite; indeed, it is relatively small.

These owners would respond to your market activities by demanding higher prices for the suddenly-desirable subsidy-eligible cars they had to sell -- I'll go so far as to predict that the supply side portion of this market is small enough that even a single entrepreneur behaving this way would, in short order, move the demand curve of that market and drive up the market cost of these vehicles.

This assumes, moreover, that you're the only person in the area clever enough to have figured this out and exploit it -- which wouldn't be the case; this is a pretty easy business model for pretty much anyone to puzzle out. That would also create upward pressure on the demand curve. So it wouldn't take long before sellers began demanding $1,000 or more for the same cars they had previously willing to sell for $500; eventually, the market price would rise to something very close to the subsidy and now all of these middle-men would be out of business.

What's amazing is not that this happens, but rather how fast it happens. Frankly, I doubt that you'd be able to make it through the first cycle of purchases and re-sales before the market price rose to a point that made the business model unworthwhile. You'd never get to the point that you could pocket $200,000 in after-tax profits because you'd have run out of subsidy-eligible cars to buy at any price.

What's more, all of these owners of subsidy-eligible cars would be out of customers. So they would hang on to, and drive, their old junkers until they were in a position to buy new cars for themselves and exploit their own subsidies. That's what the new equilibrium would look like -- people holding on to old, crappy, inefficient cars for longer, creating an even older, less-efficient fleet of cars than we have now. I don't think this is what Congress intends.

Ah, the pernicious and perverse effects of government intervention in the economy!

The only people who would find practical value to this program, as Prof. Levitt suggests, are entrepreneurial sorts who would look to exploit both the government and the economically-disadvantaged owners of the junkers who are intended to be the beneficiaries of the program. I'll go a step further than him and predict that these entrepreneurial sorts will wind up being the auto dealers themselves. They'll "sell" the junkers to their customers who are buying new cars anyway. Then, their customers will "trade them in" and use the voucher to underwrite new car purchases. The dealers will keep a portion of the subsidy for themselves as an "administrative fee," or build that fee into the ultimate purchase price of the new car.

I don't think this is what Congress intends to happen with this program, either. But I could be wrong about that.

Finally, bear in mind that each and every transaction under this program would be a piece of the $2.5 billion line-item of deficit spending, which will also incur transaction costs, paying for clerks and administrators to make the subsidy happen, and of course the cost of creating a new branch of the Department of Transportation and training the people who will work there to do the job. All of that will also be paid for out of deficit spending.

Could the idea be made better? Yes. Remove the insurance and registration requirement for subsidy eligibility. Expand the scope of the subsidy to allow for the purchase of a previousy-owned vehicle with improved mileage instead of only to brand-new cars. Render vehicles sold to the subsidy claimant in the previous six months ineligible for the subsidy to deter exploitation by middlemen and the economic drag that would produce. These things would steer the subsidy back towards the intent of the bill, which is to help people upgrade crappy old cars to more fuel-efficient ones.

But even then, it's still spending billions of dollars that our government just plain doesn't have in the first place. Cash for clunkers -- a creative idea, to be sure, but not one that I can endorse.