Friday, October 29, 2010
Our Undemocratic System of Government
I think that Obama's followers have a different view of "change" in Washington from that of Obama. I believe that Obama wanted to try to make the constitutional system work by trying to work out compromises with his opponents. He knows that our system is not designed to reach decisions by mere majority rule. Important decisions require consensus, or an overwhelming majority. The Senate is, in fact, deliberately structured to thwart majority rule, not merely by the filibuster but by the system of representation. Each State, regardless of population or economic power is entitled to just two Senators. Populous and rich California has two. Little Rhode Island has two. Alaska has two. It is possible to achieve a fifty percent margin in the Senate in favor of a proposition in which the fifty percent of Senators represent only about ten percent of the total population.
As a consequence, it has always been necessary, since the first days of the American republic, to put together voting majorities by special deals. Senators and Representatives from certain States or districts have to achieve some benefit for their constituents in exchange for a favorable vote. This is a consequence of our constitutional system and Obama wisely decided not to try to buck it. He was looking for a change back to the days of President Lyndon Johnson, when President Johnson and Senator Dirksen, the minority leader (and also a Senator from Illinois) would make deals to get some Republican votes for Johnson's favored program in exchange for some judicial appointments for the Senators to make. There was comity in Congress in those days. Democrats and Republicans could talk to each other, make deals, collaborate on things they agreed on, and so on. That was the kind of change Obama was hoping to achieve.
The spirit of comity and compromise has been poisoned in Congress. I won't try to assess blame or even to estimate when the poison started. It was certainly in evidence after the election of 1994 when Gingrich became the Speaker and the Republicans were enthusiastically trying to implement their "contract with America." It's in evidence today with Pelosi as Speaker, Boehner as the minority leader in the House, and McConnell as the minority leader in the Senate.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Lament of an Old Democrat
Let's consider Universal Health Care. That's an ideal that I cherish. Many countries have achieved systems of providing and paying for health care that provide needed health care, including preventive care, to every resident. Our country hasn't managed to do that. The President has tried. The Democrats in Congress have enacted a piece of legislation that can achieve that goal if it is allowed to operate. There are political and legal challenges to the legislation. Some States are refusing to cooperate with the federal government in implementing some of the provisions of the law. Some individuals are mounting court cases against an unpopular provision, the requirement that everyone have health insurance. Some Republican politicians have vowed to repeal the law if they are elected to Congress and if the Republicans gain majorities in the two chambers.
If the case against requiring uinversal insurance coverage gets to the Supreme Court and is ruled unconstitutional or if a Republican Congress repeals the entire law I will accept the real situation in this country, namely, that Universal Health Care can not be achieved in the United States. This thought makes me depressed.
Closer to home, another discouraging thought is that the State of California is doomed to have insufficient tax revenue to provide all the services that the people of the State want. Because of the screwed-up tax system, most counties and cities depend on the State for part of their funding. Because of the deficit in the State budget, these local government entities will also not be able to provide all the services that the people want. The only consolation to me is that the people of California are getting just what they deserve. They have voted for this screwed-up tax scheme and for requiring the legislature to pass taxes and budgets with 2/3 votes rather than simple majorities. This supermajority vote requirement gives undeserved power to the minority of legislators who believe that there should be no government at all. They routinely refuse to allow the State to increase its revenue, yet refuse to specify which services they would like to se reduced. Their ideal is no government, including getting rid of all the services that government provides, but they know that if they actually started eliminating services, such a public education, local police and fire protection, and street and highway maintenance, the voters would vote them out of office.
My ideal was that the public would be willing to pay the taxes needed to provide good services. It appears that I was fooling myself. The public demands the services and yet refuses to provide the funds to pay for them. That's another depressing thought.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Some Dangerous but non-religious Beliefs
I am thinking particularly about the Anarchist movement in Russia during the nineteenth century. The Anarchists were appalled at the conditions of the poor and the not so poor people. They wanted western style reforms for Russia, such as freedom of speech, free and fair elections, government of, by, and for the people rather than for the aristocracy, and all that. They believed ("knew") that the key to bringing these liberal ideas to Russia was to abolish the Tsar. They also believe that the way to abolish the Tsar was to kill him. Accordingly, they plotted to kill the Tsar. Eventually they succeeded. The Tsar that they killed was the most liberal and progressive man to occupy that office ever. All that happened was that a new Tsar was installed. He was ultra-conservative. The Anarchists learned nothing and continued their efforts to kill whatever person happened to be the Tsar. Eventually another group, much better organized and more realistic in their thinking managed to overthrow the entire government and replaced it with their own.
This bit of recollection - actually, remembering things that I have read, as I am not old enough to have witnessed the assassination of the Tsar in the 1870's - led me to wondering about other movements of poorly informed idealists in history. Today we have, of course, the Tea Party Movement. Their goal is similar to that of the Russian Anarchists. They want to destroy "big government." If only government can be made small so it doesn't spend much money, collect much in taxes, issue regulations that annoy businessment, etc., things will fall into place and we will be back in the good old days when everything was wonderful.
I think another example of misinformed idealists is the crusade movement in Europe. The aim was to recover the holy land (Israel, Jerusalem, etc.) that had been conquered and occupied by Arabs and Turks who installed Islam as the dominant religion of the area. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that there were some influential clerics who told the people that God was punishing them for allowing the infidels to take over the holy places, and that things would improve for everyone if only an army of brave and armed men went to the holy land and chased the infidels out. I know that conditions of life for most people were pretty miserable then, at least by modern standards. People died early in life from diseases which they believed were caused by God as punishment. Most people were poor. Soap was extremely expensive, so everyone stank. Acolytes used strong incense in churches to conceal the collective body odor of the congregation.
The crusades were a complete failure. They didn't liberate the holy land and they didn't persuade God to lift the curses of disease and poverty from the people. They also caused the Muslims to have bad feelings toward Europeans, which have lasted to the present day.
There are many other examples of idealists who foolishly had simple solutions to complex problems. I will write about them later.
Friday, October 15, 2010
Dangerous Religious Beliefs
In the past two or three millennia zealots of these faiths have carried out acts in which the object was to kill members of a different faith. In spite of history, each of these three faiths teaches that it is wrong and immoral to kill another human being, except as a punishment for a heinous crime. All three faiths tolerate a death penalty for convicted murderers.
We Christians have a long history of killing our enemies (and our annoyances) in the name of religion. A thousand years ago we organized crusades to recover the holy land (Jerusalem and environs) from the control of the Muslims. Our guys won many battles and killed many Muslims, but in the end, the Muslims prevailed. More recently we American Christians wiped out more than ninety percent of the population of North America. The occupants (only recently have we conceded that they were and are the true natives) were using farm land that we coveted. We discovered early in our history here that the natives were susceptible to measles and small pox. We now know that they simply had never been exposed to such diseases and had therefore no immunity to them. At the time we knew nothing about viruses, bacteria, and other biological causes of disease. Our religious leaders assured us that the deaths of the occupiers were signs that God wanted us to have the land. We believed and we accepted this presumed gift from God. The slaughter by disease of the native population was the greatest act of genocide in history.
Islam spread rapidly from the faithful surrounding the Prophet Muhammad and his family to a vast area from Central Asia and India to the northern parts of Africa. The spread was rapid and was helped along by some battles and killings of those who didn’t want to convert. Islam penetrated parts of Europe (Southern Spain and Portugal. Later, when the Turks finally overthrew the Eastern Roman Empire, they introduced Islam into Bulgaria, Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia. The church and government of Spain got rid of the Muslims after 1492 by various unpleasant practices of the Spanish Inquisition. Deaths were used to induce conversions from Islam to Catholicism. At the same time, Jews were allowed to leave.
I have not read much about the spread of Buddhism across much of Asia. There is one important difference between the teachings of the Buddha and those of the Christ and the Prophet. The Buddha taught that each person should decide for himself whether to adopt the teachings of Buddhism. There was no promise of heaven or any other reward for a convert and no threat of death or other punishment for the non-convert. I do not advance this difference as an argument that Buddhists have been less lethal in their competition with strangers than Christians and Muslims. I argue only that the Buddhist religion has no justification for forced conversions, no promise of heaven for those who die fighting for defense of the faith, and no story about Armageddon and the Return of Christ. I do not cite any examples of mass murder, forced conversion, or genocide by Buddhists simply because I am not aware of any such examples.
One can not say with any certainty that one religion is better or truer than another. We’re each free to choose our belief and live according to it. We’re also free not to choose any system of belief. Our federal constitution guarantees us this freedom of belief. Another aspect of this uncertainty is that no religion is inherently evil. However, clerics and holy men and women of any religion can and sometimes do incite their followers to do evil things in the name of their beliefs. Some Muslim clerics have for centuries used Islam to justify the murder of perceived enemies. Recent history has shown us the power of the fatwa issued against a specific person. Salman Rushdie was for years the target of a fatwa for a book he had written. A cartoonist in Denmark, a movie producer in the Netherlands, and others, have been the targets of fatwas for insulting the Prophet.
Christian and Buddhist clerics have no weapon like the fatwa with which to intimidate enemies. The worst thing a Christian cleric (e.g., a bishop) can do is to excommunicate a follower. Several American politicians have been punished in this way. They are all still in good health.
The issuance of fatwas and the promise of going straight to heaven to meet and enjoy seventy voluptuous virgins are Islamic religious beliefs that I regard as dangerous. They’re not evil in themselves, but they put dangerous power in the hands of the clergy. Our constitutional guarantees of various individual rights have evolved over centuries as tools to restrict the absolute power of public officials.
Finally, I’m getting to my point. Certain current Christian beliefs are dangerous. A very dangerous belief is the immanence of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. Many Christians today, especially in the more radical sects, believe that these events will occur very soon, perhaps within the next ten years. If they are to be that soon, then we should do one of two things:
1. Immediately get our religious lives in order. Pray. Confess our sins. Do everything possible to be on the good side of Christ when He returns so that we may live and enjoy his 1000 years of rule.
2. Immediately start enjoying whatever life we still have. Forget about protecting the environment; Christ will tend to that. Make money. Spend money. Cheat. Rob. Steal. Rape. Kill. We will die and nothing will count when the time comes. In the mean time, live well and make merry.
You can see in an instant how destructive this belief can be. The only way to control the crazies among us is to convince them that the Apocalypse isn’t going to occur during our lifetimes. At the earliest, it will happen to our great-great grandchildren in their old age. We haven’t done a very good job of convincing. Many of the crazies see the triumph of Israel over the unfortunate Palestinians as a necessary prelude to the Second Coming and the Armageddon and the Rapture and all that.
Another point is that we have to live in a world with many belief systems. Some of them conflict with others. One belief system is the scientific one. In this system we neglect and ignore the possibility that a great divine power is present and is active in the events that we see and experience. Everything is explained or understood to happen without the interference or action of a creator. This is the world view the physicists, the chemists, the geneticists, the archeologist, the astronomers, and other scientists have put together and described. Another belief system is one of the religions I’ve mentioned or some religion I haven’t mentioned; e.g., Judaism, Hinduism, the Bahai’i Faith. If we are sincere in our religious beliefs, we then must accommodate two or more mutually contradictory ideas before breakfast. One test of civilization is how well we do at such accommodation.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Fish in a Barrel
The Republican Party is the party of the rich and affluent, and also of those who intend to become rich and affluent. It is the party of people who hate to pay taxes and who welcome any attempt to reduce their taxes. Never mind that important services are unfunded or that others have to pay in some form to make up for the taxes that the affluent greedy do not pay. They like a party and politicians who, when in office, allow them to keep more of their mone.
As a result, the Republican Party always has a reason or an excuse to vote for tax reduction and against any tax increase. If times are good, the government doesn't need the money. The requirements for services, the needs of the unemployed, and all the other reasons for government to spend money are reduced and therefore taxes can and should be reduced as well. If times are bad and even though the need for more services and more relief for the unemployed are increased, the argument goes that "a recession is not a time for increasing taxes." In other words, whatever the problem is, a tax reduction is the answer.
Wednesday, October 06, 2010
Bursting of the Housing Bubble
In those days (around 1970) what Andy did to acquire a house was very typical. Andy had a second mortgage with a balloon payment. That is, after five years the entire mortgage was due. Andy solved that problem as did his cohort. Before the five years was up, he was able to sell the house for substantially more than he paid for it. I don't know any particulars, so I will make up some typical numbers. After five years the house was sold for about $40,000. Andy paid off both mortgages and had $10,000 cash left over.
He used part of the cash as a partial payment for another house. Let's say he bought a house for $50,000 (a bit better than the house he'd just sold) with $10,000 cash and a loan of $40,000. No second mortgage this time. In a few years he sold this house for, say, $70,000 and put part of the cash into a third house. In this way he was able to take advantage of the housing boom to acquire equity and comfortable living accommodations.
At no point in Andy's rise from living from paycheck to paycheck to relative affluence did anyone question his credit worthiness. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that housing prices were rising. This situation prevailed until about 2005 or so, give or take a year. At that point housing prices peaked and started declining. Now all the young people like Andy were in a bind. They owed more than their houses were worth. There was no chance of selling the house and moving to another one with an increase in net worth. Their only choice was to abandon their houses.
Much has been said to disparage both the borrowers and lenders. Borrowers have been blamed for taking on debt that they couldn't manage. Lenders have been reviled for lending money to people who obviously couldn't handle that much debt. Do I think that my friend Andy should be held up to shame for what he did? No. Everyone did it. There was almost no risk as long as housing prices kept going up and up. If people are to be regarded with shame for gambling on increasing house prices in 2005 but equivalent people are to be regarded as clever for doing the same things in 1985, are we not then a bunch of hypocrites? Enough of blaming the people involved - that is the people who made and who took out the loans. Blame the system; blame the bankers who packaged the mortgages and created the "toxic assets." In the end, why blame anyone? It happened. It was a natural consequence of our world-wide economic system. We should pick up the pieces and go on.
Labels: housing boom collapse
Monday, October 04, 2010
My choice for candidates and why
With respect to Brown, there is a good chance that as Governor he will sign an act passed by the Legislature to create a single-payer universal health care plan for California. The Legislature has passed such an act twice and our present Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has vetoed it both times. If Republican Meg Whitman is elected Governor, she will also veto such a bill. I have hope that Jerry Brown would sign it if he is elected. Therefore, since I believe strongly in such a plan I will vote for Brown. It may be that Whitman would be a better Governor (I doubt it); even so, I believe Brown would sign the bill and I am certain that Whitman would veto it.
With respect to Boxer, she comes a lot closer than Ms Fiorina to expressing and representing my concerns regarding national policy. Carly Fiorina suffers from being a Republican and having to cater to the ultra-conservative wing of her party in order to win the primary election. In addition, she has to keep the conservative wing in line in order to have a chance of winning the general election in November. Finally, she has no experience in politics and would be easily influenced by her staff and the staff of leading Republicans in the Senate. Boxer, after all, came to the Senate after serving for years in the House. Most importantly, in the present political scene there are no prominent Republican office holders or candidates that I have the least enthusiasm for. This has not always been the case, as I have voted for a few Republicans in past years.
I expect to vote strictly for Democratic candidates this fall.
Sunday, October 03, 2010
Debates, Jobs, Lies
These days are memory. I have learned that one can't learn what a candidate will or won't do in office from what he or she says in a debate. The aim of the debater is to persuade voters who haven't made up their minds and who have not concerned themselves with some of the more intricate problems in the success or failure of government to provide needed services. Quite often debaters spend a lot of time on an issue that they will have no control over if they are elected. A good example is the claim to create jobs for Californians. Neither Jerry Brown nor Meg Whitman want to be tarred with the accusation that his or her election would cause Californians to lose jobs, particularly because businesses decide to move out of California because of high taxes or excessive regulations. They both favor more jobs. That's commendible of them, but neither one will have the power as Governor to create a single private sector job. The best either can do is to start work on some infrastructure project that will require lots of workers and lots of money. And, where is the money to come from?
Many people in politics who favor the interests of businesses claim that California loses jobs to neighboring States because of (a) high business taxes and (b) excessive regulation, especially regulations relating to creating a clean environment. Environmental laws are said to be bad for business.
I assert that the claim that taxes and regulations drive businesses out of the State is a lie. Regulations and taxes are a problem for a person running a business, especially a small business. However, they are a minor irritant compared with the major cost to any business: the high cost of labor. One can cite many cases of businesses that have left the State because of labor costs. They have gone mostly not to other States but to foreign countries that have really low labor costs. Jolly Green Giant used to can peas in California. A number of years ago it moved its operation to Mexico to take advantage of lower costs for labor and for raw peas. Although it made a profit in California, it made MORE profit by moving to Mexico.
There is nothing that Governor Whitman or Governor Brown could do about high labor costs. I suppose she or he might propose lowering the minimum wage to 25 cents an hour. Her or his term of office would end soon after that suggestion. Remember how the voters got rid of Gray Davis after he raised the auto license fee?
Friday, October 01, 2010
- 19, Legalizes marijuana and permits taxing of it
- 25, Reduces from 2/3 to 1/2 the majority for the legislature to pass a budget; leaves 2/3 majority the requirement for raising taxes
20, Redistricting of Congressional Districts -- This would remove from the Legislature the power to determine the boundaries of Congressional districts and give that power to the new redistricting commission, which already has the power to set boundaries of State Senate, State Assembly, and Board of Equalization. My argument is, the new redistricting commission has not been tried yet. Why add to its responsibilities now? Let's wait and see how it works in practice.
21, Vehicle License surcharge to help fund State parks, etc. -- The goal is laudable but impossible to achieve in this manner. Money is fungible. Years ago we found out that devoting revenue from the State lottery to fund schools simply allowed the Legislature to decrease funding by the amount of the lottery revenue. The same thing will happen with the money for parks.
22, Prohibits the State from taking funds used for transportation, redevelopment, or local government projects -- Here also part of my argument is that money if fungible. Because of our cock-a-mamie tax laws local governments are forced to depend on the State for a subsidy. If the State can't take money from the transportation fund, for example, it will simply reduce the subsidy to the local governments. The solution is to repair the broken tax system.
23, Suspends Implementation of Air Pollution Control Law (AB32) until unemployment rate falls below 5.5 percent -- This is simply a gift to two big Texas oil companies and has nothing to do with unemployment.
24, Repeals recent legislation that would allow businesses to lower their tax liabiity -- The legislation in question allows a business with a loss in the current tax year to apply part of that loss to income in later years and in previous years. In addition the legislation allows tax credits for certain types of business that the State wants to encourage. I am not a pro-business activist, but neither am I anti business. The laws in question are new and are about to take effect. Many other States have similar laws that allow business losses in one year to be applied to profits in other years. I see no reason not to allow the California laws to take effect. If there are abuses, legislation can be enacted when the abuses are discovered.
25, Changes legislative vote requirement for enacting the State's budget from 2/3 to a simple majority in each chamber. The 2/3 vote required to enact a new or increased tax would remain. -- I heartily endorse letting the Legislature decide matters with a simple majority vote rather than a difficult super-majority. The reason that California has had so much trouble in recent years enacting a budget is because the 2/3 vote requirement gives a rather small group of ideologues a veto. The public has put the Legislature in a straitjacket by enacting the 2/3 vote requirement, then blames the Legislature for not being able to agree on a budget before the constitutional deadline. I would like to see the power to raise taxes also decided by a majority rather than 2/3, but I accept this change eagerly. Half a loaf is better than none.
26, Requires that certain State and local fees be approved by 2/3 votes rather than simple majorities -- This is simply a move in the wrong direction. It would make governing a city or county or other local voting district more difficult than it is. We should give our elected representatives the power to do what we want them to do and then hold them accountable if they don't do it. At present they have the excuse that 2/3 vote requirements make it impossible to secure sufficient revenue to provide all the services demanded.
27, Eliminates the Commission on Redistricting -- This goes in the opposite direction of Proposition 20. 20 would require all redistricting to be done by the commission; 27 would give the entire job back to the Legislature. This proposal may be a good idea. States that use commissions let the commissions redistrict both the State and the federal election districts. Before we make any changes in the Redistricting Commission, we should let it operate so that we can see the results. If the results are bad, then the commission can be eliminated and the redistricting returned to the Legislature. The public should exercise patience.
These are my voting choices today, October 1. If I change my mind on any of them, I will write about the changes here.