Friday, December 21, 2012

Group Think Mega-Fail

Stupid, stupider, stupidest. The House GOP was clearly not content to lose the Presidential election as well as seats in both chambers. They are determined to miss the next huge gimme election, the 2014 mid-terms.

Last evening, the majority scuttled their Speaker's already absurd, extreme budget proposal. Yes, that would be the one that only raised taxes on those with taxable income over $1 million a year...and with huge additional write-offs so even these affluent effluents would not feel any pain. Instead the Tea Partiers held to absolutist anti-tax positions and spurned their own GOP's efforts.

By all polls, Americans get it where the TPs don't. They know giving huge piles of money to the richest crushes the economy, decidedly does not lead to more jobs, and harms nearly all of us.

The worst of the party extremists are now set up to lose elections and primaries in two years. Normally the mid-term is when the party without the Presidency pick up many Congressional seats. Regardless of how the fiscal cliff thingummy resolves, we are not likely to forget the callous arrogance and deep stupidity of Republicans.

That's Republicans, not Congress, not the President, not even the vagaries of economics. If the Tea Party Reps need a slogan, let's go with Smug and Stupid.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

No more gun lies

We as a nation are unlikely to tune out this time. Even after the likely announcement Friday by the NRA that 1) a loony with a knife could be a mass murderer and 2) violent flicks and games are the real cause, not assault weapons and ammo magazines.

The Newtown murders keep us focused and are likely to continue to do so. It is the number and ages of the 20 first graders and their teachers and principal that strip the shield of lies from gun absolutists.

Despite the hourly gun murders of kids and young (almost entirely) men, Sandy Hook makes PR lies and NRA-bought legislators' justifications moot.

Pic note: This is an image from Boston's Forest Hills Cemetery. It is from the days when many parents buried their infants and small children...but after measles and other untreatable diseases, not military assault weapons. It is Creative Commons. You are welcome to it so long as you credit Mike Ball once.

Yesterday, Ryan and I offered our own take on the short-term partial prevention of assault-rife and mega-magazine bans, shutting off secondary markets, requiring all gun sales even at show to perform background checks, and doing what Australia has with such laws that has literally stopped its mass murders by guns.

Pub note: Both of the Globe and FT likely require subscriptions to view. Boo.

From elsewhere today we can two seminal examples of commentary. At the Boston Globe, its ever illogical and disingenuous token winger columnist Jeff Jacoby laid out nothing but stupid clichés. No one law or even set of them will do away with evil. He lies in claiming "Nightmares like the one in Newtown are rare," when we have we average a mass slaying by gun ever two weeks, including 161 kids since 2006. That of course does not count the shooting deaths of one or two at a time that happen daily.

Jacoby's solution is "cultivation of human goodness." While we agree that we need a cultural change long term, immediately we need gun-law revisions. Then we must examine our systems of mental health evaluation and availability of treatment. We can't click our heels as Jacoby would have the magic occur.

The other set of arguments is in contrast sensible and far more realistic. At the Financial Times, Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, does not expect huge changes in gun laws from the President and Congress. Instead he points to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's action on smoking.

There, Bloomberg used the city's regulatory and enforcement powers. He led to a ban on smoking and restaurants and bars. That in turn is becoming normal in the nation. In NYC, in a decade the smoking rate has gone from 19% to 7% for teens and overall from 22% to 14%.

Likewise, Weisberg says give Treasury's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms department the same power to enforce gun laws as the Traffic Safety Administration has over cars. Moreover, he wants tort reform so gun makers and sellers are no longer exempt from murders committed with their weapons.

None of his suggestions address the longer-term need to change our gun-and-violence culture here. Australia, Scotland and Finland among others had similar big issues. They started with gun laws that took military weapons away from all but cops and soldiers. We can do that.

Link update: I see that Slate is running the Weisberg commentary, in a form that won't require registration or subscription.

Yes, we do have several centuries of far too many of us ending conflicts with guns. Yes, far too many of us also hold the fantasy we are powerful and worthy in relationship to our firepower. Changing these attitudes is the long-terms answer. Meanwhile, we have crucial changes short-term.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Something Little, Something Big About Violence

As individuals, as elected officials, and as a nation, we can start with the most obvious — no sympathy or allowance for any self-absorbed whiner saying having to press a gun's trigger once for each bullet it fires takes away liberty. The right to life and safety far trumps any such lunacy.

Ryan and I shall talk (almost certainly rant) about massacres here, guns and violence tomorrow, Tuesday, December 18th at 2:30 PM on Left Ahead. You can catch that live at this URL or later back there, on Left Ahead, or our iTunes page.

Fast enactment of better gun registration, licensing and of course re-instituting bans on assault weaponry is an essential component, but nothing like a panacea.

Cultural Change

We have done this before, or rather we are still in the process of completing the transformation in such cultural areas as racism.

I'm old enough to have grown up in times and places of legal racism here.

Up here in Boston, we could and did pretend. Because public schools were nominally integrated, because in theory anyone of any race or nationality could legally buy any house or rent any apartment, we liked to say we were not like Alabama or other Deep South states. That was crap.

I heard locals in the 1960s say that Negroes (as the term was then) chose to live with their own kind. That was the reason the city was so obviously segregated in all aspects. Before the infamous busing ruling to compel school integration, neighborhood schools (bad in black ones/good or better in white) were assigned by geography, which was in reality race and for most, destiny.

We are over half way to changing that in and throughout the South.

Sure, it took laws, Presidential action, and other compulsions. What eventually changed though was American attitudes. When two factors squeezed the complacent racism, we started getting better. First, we saw that Congress, the Executive Branch, and even states would not allow overt racism. Second, folk of various races got to know each other, as schools, jobs, housing and all aspects of life opened.

I remember in the late 1970s sitting down in what had been a typical bar in Beaufort, South Carolina...definitely not a fern bar for the emerging Yuppie class. Three rural sorts, all middle-aged white men, were drinking beer. One used the N word in passing to disparage a black man he knew. Both of the other guys scolded him for it. Now that's change that lasts and goes deep.

Climbing UP the slippery slope

This is the simple road map for violence here. It is at once simple and extremely difficult.

An effective ploy of the NRA and other gun absolutists is that any restriction at all of guns or ammo is the end of our Constitutional rights under the Second Amendment. More crap, that.

They have led and pushed the nation down that very slippery slope of inaction and the of reaction to even the most sensible regulation of mass-murder weaponry. We need to crawl up that slope and back to the safe and sensible life we want. We won't come back into the sunlight of reason and compassion quickly but we have to do it.

We can grunt and ignore the mass-murder-gun types when they say this or that law would not have prevented the Sandy Hook murders. They are oblivious to both the necessary tweaks of law and the deeper cultural shift necessary. Let them stick with their literal specifics. Sadly, they are limited to such thinking and Americans must leave them behind as we're doing with racists.

The toughest part won't be the laws and regulations. It will be transcending centuries of pioneer-era, wild west times, and even more modern Rambo mentality. Yes, we have definitely been a gun-centric, violent country. Many of us are self-indulgent fantasizers about weapons. We want to have the power and tools to kill many fellow Americans and in a very short time. We state with apparent sincerity that this is for self-defense, that it is our inherited freedom, and that we are the exceptions to the reckless monsters who kill tens of thousands of Americans with guns every year.

The pretense is that we understand gun safety, we keep our weapons locked and unloaded, we never use or even touch our guns unless we are hunting, target shooting, or protecting our lives from criminals. While stats show a totally different story, these fantasies are widespread in a nation with one gun in circulation for every adult and child.

No you absolutely do not need and should not own an automatic or semiautomatic rifle or handgun. No you absolutely do not need clips or magazines that hold 30 or 100 bullets. The only reason to sell or possess those outside the military and constabulary is to enable mass murder.

Say it, members of Congress. Do you favor mass murder or oppose it?

Pass reasonable laws forbidding assault weapons and magazines. That's a start.

You likely will slink away after that. That's probably the best we can hope from a gormless, gutless group of legislators.

Yet, it's a start, one that worked superbly so far for Australia from 1996 after its most recent gun massacre. Among the industrialized nations, Australia had a similar guns-equal-liberty mentality until those restrictions on the most extreme mass-murder tools. They got better. Yet no one confiscated their hunting, target, and protection rifles, shotguns and pistols. That same would happen here, if only the Prez and Congress do the minimum.

Longer term, we need to aim for a world where macho gun behavior and mentality is not popular or even accepted. When Americans ridicule those who talk cowboy or Rambo about guns, we'll be getting there.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reverse Engineering Dem Machinery

Those who enjoy the good fight in politics dismayed at GOP Chair Reince Priebus' recovery-by-committee announcement this week. Rather than taking the route of personal responsibility, he and what passes for party leaders kept up their delusions.

Forget the many tea-party types who claim that Mitt Romney would have won if only he had been more brutally right wing, a.k.a. more like what actually cost them the election, including Senate and House seats. The alleged brains of the GOP are the back end of the elephant.

Priebus inexplicably to those who live in the real world looks to retain his job after his abject failures. Now he claims that all the party has to do under his pathfinding leadership is copy what the Dems did right this time. All will be well.

I snort in his direction.

His newly acronym-ed GOP (Growth and Opportunity Project) applies RNC members plus Jeb Bush and Ari Fleischer. Let's call them the usual suspects, á la Casablanca. Their eight mission-impossibles are campaign finance issues, demographic changes, fund-raising, geting out the vote, messaging, outside groups, and presidential primaries — buzz words each and all. 

Together this abrogation of duty must also cause considerable amusement among Dems. The task before the GOP's alleged leadership is not to pretend they can emulate and maybe improve on lefty tactics and strategies. In fact, instead of thinking that adding more high-tech aids and PR ploys will reverse their fortunes, they should look beyond messaging and into message. 

(Click below to hear Dem campaign god Howard Dean on MSNBC giving real advice to the dumb.)

For the GOP to get its act together, it has to admit its essential platform and policy blew the election. They simultaneously managed to offend and turn off large portions of the middle class, women, Latinos, African Americans and far more. 

Priebus hinted at that to the WaPo, while making it plain he would not push for policy revisions. He told Jennifer Rubin, "I can’t tell you what policy recommendations, if any, will be made, but when you are doing a deep dive like this it is hard not to look at the message. Policy bleeds into a lot of things." Yet reading all of his recent statements, I figure it's plain he will get this little traveling circus to study everything and then try to nudge it to recommend (never demand) comprehensive immigration reform and similar planks that will bring in the millions disgusted with the GOP now.

In other words, as I and many could tell him right now, Dems won in a terrible economy because their message was superior, rational, compassionate, and little d democratic, a.k.a. American. Republicans don't need new tricks and toys. They need new hearts and minds.

Here in MA, we can recall when the Dems lost the U.S. Senate seat in the special election following Ted Kennedy's a do-nothing state senator, Scott Brown. The extremely capable state party chair, John Walsh, did not play Let's Form a Committee. He first admitted the obvious failings of both their candidate and the campaign. He considered it a personal failure, the worst of his life. He dug right into the issues, after first setting them out for all in and beyond the party to see.

That's what having personal responsibility, courage and insight can do.

Friday, December 07, 2012

SCOTUS Grabs the Monsters

Buckle my knees and pass the smelling salts. I was prepared for the SCOTUS to pass on the 10 marriage-equality cases petitioned. Instead, it picked two for arguments, two that cover nearly all key aspects of same-sex marriage and benefits.

The just-the-facts-ma'am version is in the WaPo. Detail is in the initial report from the NYT. Analysis of the menu of cases before the court was in the Advocate in September.

The short of it is first is the CA Prop 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, argued by Olson and Boies. This surprised me because it deals with the state-level override ballot that overturned the legislature's legalization of same-sex marriage. The SCOTUS could have chickened out on this, saying it was a state issue. Instead, they'll likely consider whether marriage is a fundamental right subject to equal treatment under law — big stuff.

The other could overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, Bill Clinton's biggest mistake as Prez, worse than cigar fantasies and the blue dress. In the United States v. Windsor, the survivor of a pair of women married in Canada sued when DOMA, Section 3 prevented her from inheriting her wife's estate.

This is pure discrimination by gender and orientation. Justice Kagan worked on a related case as solicitor general and likely would recuse herself.

These cases are likely to warm up a lot of people's winters in anticipation.

Arguments in the spring should bring decisions in June.

A Few U.S. Risk Takers Exist

In a very sparsely populated mini-parade, Apple wants to create jobs here in America, maybe 600,000 soon. This may inspire a few more big and little companies to get with the program...the program of national recovery.

Of course the giant fruit is the same and different. It has much more cash than many, but most U.S. corporations are sitting on piles of cash they've been afraid to invest. We can be sure Apple wouldn't repatriate jobs unless it figured it would do so at a good profit, perhaps equal to Asian factories and without the headaches, logistics issues and terrible PR. It is also certain to use new, highly efficient production to maximize margins and productivity.

There are the lessons all manufacturing companies can learn by observing. Sure, Apple has a cash buffer, but it is also showing moderate amounts of courage, love of country, and business savvy. For the latter, each company doing its part to provide consumers, particularly middle-class ones, enough income to buy their products is the long-term counterbalance to maximizing margins regardless of effects on America.

Meanwhile, the smartest, most America-loving rich types, think Warren Buffet and George Takei as just a few, call for minimum and increased taxes on highly profitable companies and the wealthiest individuals. It's not that they take Matthew 19:21 literally (sell everything and give the money to the poor). While the Montgomery Burns types may see them as traitors to their class, they blend good economic sense and patriotism.

Alas, for all the irrationality about job creators, large and small U.S. corporations in the main do not expand or add jobs, have not for years, and would rather sit on capital than risk it. Even for those who idealize capitalism and idolize capitalists, most bosses are too cowardly and unpatriotic to create jobs.

When called on it, the most common response they provide is that 1) after the great recession, banks and venture capitalists are harder to convince for loans and investments, 2) government regulation and paperwork is just too, too hard, and 3) it's more dangerous financially to make jobs than profit off invested money.

The stench of the gutless is overpowering. The parody of the bold capitalist is risible.

Hell, sure lenders are wary. That just means you have to think your proposal more fully and make the pitch. Do the work. For regulation, it's as light and in many cases lighter than it has been in decades. No excuse here. For risk, that is how business owners define themselves. Take smart risks or retire!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Let's Get Serious About Cycling

Time to get serious, boys and girls, rather far past time.

Today's catalyst was the latest death of a cyclist on Boston streets. This one was Chris Weigl, a 23-year-old photographer (website up at least for now). The wreck (never call these "accidents" as though they were unavoidable fatalities) had familiar basics, as limned by the Globe report.

A tractor-trailer took a four-lane right turn on a major avenue, aiming for a tiny side street by a local university. The cyclist in a bike lane was instantly mushed to death.

As long as they are up, the comments at the Boston Herald let cycle haters drink their fill. The this-but-that versions will stay up at Universal Hub. This is no place to broach the craziness of all-cyclists-always-break-all-traffic-laws or cyclists-don't-have-licenses-or-pay-taxes or ban-all-bikes folk. They are beyond reason as well as compassion.

Instead, Boston has started its bicycling evolution. What must be do next for safety and civility?

Simple legal stuff

Stop signs and traffic lights. We have to stop being puerile here and look to what has been successful in Idaho since the 1980s — rolling stops for bicycles.

Stops as yields. Somewhat different but a corollary is treating red lights and stop signs as yield signs.
Both of these do many of the same things. Most important is increasing safety for all concerned by taking into account the huge differences between bikes and motor vehicles.

Two emotional responses to overcome are ingrained but not immutable. Most drivers here love the dumb cliché promulgated by the likes of Mass Bike, the barely logical same-road/same-rules chant. The anti-biking types like it as a weapon to pull out and slug cyclists with for any real or perceived infraction of a traffic law or regulation.

There are two underlying pretenses here. First, all cyclists are total scofflaws and all drivers are absolutely law obedient. For the latter, I have yet to follow a driver for more than 10 miles without observing violations, such as changing lanes without signaling, failure to yield to pedestrian in crosswalks, not coming to a complete stop for a light for stop sign and before the marked line, stopping on a crosswalk, exceeding speed limits, passing through an intersection after the light changed red and on and on. If all traffic laws were evenly enforced, a tiny percentage of drivers would retain their licenses. Yet that does not prevent most of living in a fantasy world of reckless cyclists and virtuous car drivers.

The second is more childish and visceral. The sense that even if a change in law is for the safety of all, anything that gives a right to a two-wheeler that a four-wheeler does not have is morally wrong, damn it! It's the three-year-old's wail of "She got an ice cream and I didn't!"

To the same-rules bozos, I have little but disdain. We can easily observe and surmise myriad differences. Cars can drive on interstates and other limited access highways. Bikes can travel bike paths and lanes. Drivers must signal before every turn or lane change, cyclists when it is safe to do so taking a hand off the bars. Cyclists can dismount and use a crosswalk. It goes on and on.

More significant are physical differences. A cyclist is hard pressed to hurt or kill anyone, but doing so is built into the one to three ton motorized vehicle. A bike can stop at speed in only a few to 25 feet, long before a driver can move a foot from gas to brake. Even then, a car  or truck total stopping distance is in hundreds of feet. Likewise, a bike has the same tiny inertia leaving a red light, so it can be into or across the intersection before a driver can give it gas.

These and many other differences beg for reasoned nuance in laws and regulations.

Yet both driver gut responses of these are so real, and both so enabled by the lunacy of same-road/same-rules that any improvement has to deal with them. Unfortunately for humankind, about half of us seem very literal minded, like rules-are-rules bureaucrats. They need extra care and attention on any topic.

I can remember when I first introduced the stop-as-yield law and testified before the MA Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security hearing and sensing that is-this-fair attitude from the senators and reps. My proposed law, dutifully introduced by my then Rep. Willie May Allen, would indeed have granted cyclists an option motor-vehicle operators would not have. I explained how as a multimode guy — car, T, ped, bike — I was aware how nervous and thus dangerous drivers were when they were beside a cyclist at a light or red octagon, when it was time to proceed. On the other hand, when the cyclist leaves first, the driver overtakes the two-wheeler and feels in control. The driver doesn't worry about the car's width or where the bike is.

I could feel the progress but also those present would need to hear this more than once. I didn't think there was a cyclist there other than I. This must be what folk used to this process have told me, that you need to introduce a bill three to five times and make your arguments each time to get it through.

Hard legal stuff

Meanwhile, the pros here, bike czars in major cities here and in Europe, concur that presence equals awareness. As we get more cyclists on the roads, drivers gradually accept that they are sharing the road not only with pedestrians, trucks, buses and trolley, but also with cyclists. Wish as they might that all the others would disappear, they come to accept that they're all there forever, like mosquitoes. They learn to deal. When they do that, they are less likely to do thoughtless maneuvers that can bring death and dismemberment.

This process has one great accelerator, enforcement.

If you read the Herald anti-bike comments, you'll see one-sided calls for that, as of course, drivers are always blameless in any wreck. Cyclists need bike licenses, need to pay cycling insurance, and most of all need a cop on every block to ticket them for their incessant law breaking.

Those multimodal types among us, including me, snort in their general direction. If virtually any driver were ticketed for every infraction large or small, none would take a trip to the grocery or flick without multiple tickets and perhaps a trip to jail.

Instead, I have to agree with  the rules-are-rules types here, but for everyone. Ticket and even tow the bad guys!

Pause here for the self-pitying and self-righteous keens of cops. Oh, Lawdy, no. "If we have to enforce traffic laws for drivers, that's all we'll do. Murderers, thieves, and dealers will rule the streets!"
That's the most flammable of strawmen, of course.

In the real world, when cops or umpires or any enforcer does the job, it's short term. If local police enforce the laws, words gets around quickly and drivers even cyclists would show some restraint and sense. Then cops can go back to pretending they are serious crime fighters.

Boston is infamous as a city where the police live by the no-blood/no-ticket model. They hate paperwork and are insulted by the $1 jaywalking tickets, the $20 cycling ones, and other pissant enforcement. They can go decades or whole careers without a felony arrest, foot chase or detective-level investigation, but they love to live the fantasy. Any moment, their duties will call them to major crime busts.

That melodrama can't continue to interfere here. The local commissioners, supers and unions have to know that public safety is more than a bromide. Enforce the damn laws for a couple of months. The citizens will get the idea and straighten up.

Let both drivers and cyclists (hell, peds too) be afraid they'll get hauled away and maybe financially ruined if they cause injury or death. Make it certain. Let them sweat for a few months. They'll adapt and we'll all be safer and saner.

 By the bye: I'm overdue for reintroducing my cycling bills and testifying.

Cross-post note: This appears in Harrumph

Monday, December 03, 2012

American Quasi-Exceptionalism

"They'll never meet U.S. requirements," said the old, experienced, savvy guys in construction. The they were Asian heavy-equipment makers and the reqs were onerous and seemingly highly technological safety specs.

The pretense was that particularly Japanese companies could sell their junk excavators, track-mounted tractors (bulldozers in the vernacular), and graders outside this country and Europe. They'd never meet our much higher standards.

My boss, John Rehfield, editor-in-chief of Construction Equipment, would smile benignly when he heard this common wisdom. He told me as the junior on the staff in my first full-time job in New York after J-school that it would be a matter of a few years, certainly under 15 before the Asian companies mastered the manufacturing, design and regulatory steps.

A fine writer, legendary punster, and insightful business sort, John was right as usual. He had to update me on such silliness. The only experience I had in the field was on a carpentry crew building townhouses in Pittsburgh in the summers. John had been smart enough to hire me because I was a good writer and not for being steeped in construction. What I didn't learn writing articles, he told me.

What was telling about the 1970s attitudes is how pervasive it was in other areas. The they-won't-ever fantasy comes right back to American exceptionalism. That jive trips us up again and again.

Whether it's warring or tech or fashion, we do it better than anyone, many of us hold. Despite myriad proofs that we are not necessarily unique, we keep at it. Exceptionalism is the beat of the bobble head. The corollary that others in those different nations will never come up to our level is where we blunder worst.

Let us not touch on stupid, needless wars that have cost us many thousands of American lives and billions, no trillions, of dollars that should have bettered our lot. Instead, think of the business angles.

Reaching back personally again, as an infant into my kindergarten years, I was an accessory to the Occupation Army in Japan. We returned to the United States with some treasures purchased or given. My sister and I still have some kimonos, ceramics and paintings, truly fine art.

At the same time, despite thousands of years of such craftsmanship, the Japanese were ridiculed by many Americans. We had destroyed their cities and factories during the war. We then laughed at what we called pitiful attempts to restart their economy, only we pretended that was the best they could ever do. MADE IN JAPAN quickly became synonymous with cheap crap, like glow-in-the-dark crosses, woven reed finger traps and wee toys suited for Cracker Jack box prizes.

That war was not fought in U.S. cities and our industrial base emerged stronger than ever after the martial manufacturing years. I don't recall anyone who disdained Japanese goods noting that their factories were gone, that these plastic tchotchkes were small stepping stones for an economic recovery.

In our house, we could see, touch and admire the artistry and craftsmanship of Japan. That though was an artifact of our accidental contact. The Army sent; we went.

No you can't. Yes, I can.

Americans though played out the Annie Get Your Gun lyrics, anything you can do, I can do better, with other nations too. One exceptionalism fantasy was that if the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese or anyone competed with U.S. companies it was only because they mimicked our products. Whether it was consumer electronics, computers or cars, they were too ignorant and stupid to be in the game at all were it not for reverse engineering.

We should have learned our lesson. There was Sony revolutionizing portable music, numerous Korean firms skunking us on semiconductor technology as well as pricing, and on and on.

One might think at some point that Americans might pay attention to the obvious.

The savvy observers here and in Europe eventually admitted companies in Asia were far beyond mimics. A few spread the panic that Japanese (and now Chinese) industry would dominate the world economy and crush us old-school sorts. Instead, we did rouse ourselves on a corporate and governmental level to keep ahead of or at least with the pack.

I'm not at all sure the hearts and heads of most Americans made any of these switches. We love this exceptionalism mirage.