Saturday, August 22, 2009

Free is a very good price

The ticket to better health care

So here’s the solution to our health care crisis: send all the uninsured sick people to another country that has socialized medicine.

This idea springs from a guest column in The Oregonian by David Lister, a genuinely nice and reasonable guy who also is a political conservative. Lister opposes the single-payer health care systems in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and probably also the public option proposed and possibly abandoned by President Obama.

Yet he recounts his own experience with Britain’s nationalized health care and comes away begrudgingly satisfied:

“Last April, during a trip to Scotland, I had my own encounter with a "socialized" health system. The day before our scheduled return I experienced severe chest pains and labored breathing. Our hosts insisted that I allow them to call the health service. After some discussion with a screener, I was told I should come in to be examined. In less than an hour, I was sitting in an exam room with a Scottish physician. A rapid examination satisfied him that I was not in cardiac distress, but merely suffering from acute indigestion.”

Lister mentions that his attending physician said he would move to American “in a hot minute,” presumably because of better pay, but also notes that his trip to the doctor cost him nothing.

If a doctrinaire conservative can experience socialized medicine first hand and not launch into a voluminous rant about how awful it is, think about how ordinary, non-ideological Americans would react. It seems that Americans are afraid of health care reform because they view it as the devil they don't know. So introduce them to the single-payer system and see how they like it.

This would have two positive effects:

  1. In the short run, it would save us billions of dollars. Buying a plane ticket for an uninsured American would be a lot less expensive than providing health insurance for that person, or treating the illness. Of course, there would have to be some kind of screening to make sure the sick person was actually sick and not trying to finagle a free trip abroad.

  2. After awhile, Britain, France and all the other countries with socialized medicine would catch on and start denying care to American tourists, but by that time, enough Americans would have been treated overseas—or in Canada—to greatly expand the movement for publicly-financed universal health care here. These people would then start showing up at town hall meetings demanding that their representatives pass the legislation that recently was getting shouted down.

In addition, if more people spent time abroad, they might develop an appreciation for such European things as fast and reliable public transit, walking, eating food in small portions and five-week vacations—all of which are good for one's health.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Where there's smoke, there's ire

Ah, the Great Indoors

Last night I went to Laurelhurst Park and watched “Singing in the Rain” along with a few hundred other Portlanders. I'm not sure there is a better way to enjoy a balmy summer evening that doesn't involve taking off all one's clothes or imbibing tall drinks with Spanish names. There were snow cones for sale at a tropical-themed cart, though most people brought their own picnics. The movie, which I hadn't seen in years, is one delightful song and dance routine after another, including the famous eponymous scene, plus the songs “Make 'Em Laugh,” “Good Mornin'.” and the incomparable “Gotta Dance.”

But this is a somewhat political blog, so for me, it's “Gotta Kvetch.”

It was the cigarette smoke. Enough people were smoking in the crowd that at times I grew a bit nauseous. At the least, it was irritating. And that brings me to my point: cigarette smoking must be prohibited in outdoor public places.

I applauded the extension of cigarette bans to bars, although it went into effect about a year and a half too late. Now I can go into even the most divey (and therefore most interesting) bars in town and inhale comfortably. It's great to be able to walk to my neighborhood pub and have a beer and dinner without suffocating from tobacco smoke.

Unfortunately, by implementing this ban on smoking in bars, we have ceded the outdoors to smokers. It's great indoors now. But it's virtually impossible to sit on at a sidewalk table, or on the patio of a restaurant or bar, without wondering if a tremendous fire is consuming Mt. Hood National Forest—except that forest fires, as devastating as they are, smell better than the incineration of tobacco.

So let's just ban outdoor smoking. Let the smokers puff away in a closet or a car with the windows rolled up. Or their own home, if they own it themselves, since very few landlords want to rent to smokers anymore.

Not that I'm totally unsympathetic. I did make this suggestion last winter when the bar ban took effect:

But don't cry to me about smokers' rights. Those of you who smoke should have no rights. You are drug addicts. You suck on an extremely lethal drug that is more addictive than heroin. Like meth tweaking, your addiction harms the people around you. And the weird thing is, it doesn't even get you high.

In any sane society, tobacco would be illegal. Only the largess and lobbying power of the tobacco companies keeps it legal. So that's not going to happen, but the non-addicted public is going to keep making it more difficult to feed your addiction. Get used to it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dagnab gummint burrocrats

If the DMV did health care

One of the main points in the argument against a single payer, government-sponsored health care system is that it would be run by heartless gummint burrocrats. One line I’ve heard several times is: “Do you want to trust your health care to the kind of people who run the DMV?”

A week ago, I got a letter from the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. This letter informed me that a vehicle registered to my name was not insured and that I had to procure auto insurance for it unless I had sold it or if it had been wrecked and thus taken out of circulation. In my case, however, the vehicle in question, a 1960s vintage Ford stepside pickup, was in a friend’s garage, not going anywhere until a loving restoration was completed.

There was a phone number at the bottom of the letter. I called it. A person answered. Yes, a real human being answered. No tedious menu of numbers to push or things to say to eventually get to a point where you are on hold long enough to watch Schindler’s List. A woman just answered the phone, said her name and asked how she could help me.

When was the last time that happened when you called your insurance company?

She was very helpful and told me to write my explanation at the bottom of the slip that I was supposed to return and all would be fine.

Again, when did that ever happen when you inquired about something from a health insurance company?

Fact is, the DMV Express center at Lloyd Center has always given me better service than I get from any other commercial interaction, with the possible exception of my favorite coffee house. The people there are friendly, courteous and extremely helpful. And most of the time, you get right in and out, with a minimum of waiting.

So, as to whether I want to have my health care administered by the same people who work at the DMV, I’m saying, “Hell, yes!”

Monday, July 13, 2009

Our sick economy

Nothing Pencils Out

Nothing pencils out anymore. Maybe nothing ever did, but it seems flagrantly more obvious today that virtually all business activities are entropic. Unsustainable. Oh yes, businesses survive, even thrive, but only by begging, borrowing, stealing, cheating or government subsidy.

No business seems to make it on its own. No business can operate profitably without either cutting corners or receiving unearned revenue.

You know the big names, the ones who got the billions and hundreds of billions from the feds. So you know:

--Banking doesn't pencil out. Banks need large infusions of your tax dollars to stay afloat.

--Ditto for insurance companies. In addition, insurance companies have to aggressively deny benefits to their customers to stay in business.

--American auto companies haven't penciled out for decades and now need not only government money but supervision.

Certainly, the failed economy doesn't help matters, but this thought came to me awhile ago, before millions of jobs went up in smoke.

--Big agribusiness doesn't pencil out. The corporate farms are totally dependent on the pork-laden agriculture bill that Congress passes every few years.

--Small farms haven't penciled out for nearly a century.

--Food product manufacturing doesn't pencil out unless the product is loaded with heavily subsidized commodities such as corn and soybeans.

--Most other kinds of manufacturing doesn't pencil out in the U.S., which is why it's done in China and elsewhere.

In Portland, however, it's no different, just perhaps more bungled up than many other places, but definitely not alone.

--Major league sports franchises, though universally owned by billionaires, evidently can't make it unless taxpayers pay for their stadiums and arenas.

--The hotel industry doesn't pencil out, since it needs to hire illegal aliens to clean the rooms. And it needs subsidies from local governments to build new hotels.

--Restaurants, too, need illegals in the kitchen to pencil out.

--Bars evidently will go bust if they don't get revenue from video poker.

--Newspapers aren't penciling out and thus are near extinction.

--Radio and television news doesn't really pencil out either, because these media really don't report news, just gossip and opinion.

--The construction of buildings no longer pencils out, because there's no buyers anymore. Unless a builder wins a contract from the government, at which point taxpayers foot the bill.

--Pharmaceuticals don't pencil out. Yes, the drug companies make obscene profits, but only by convincing people to take lots of drugs they don't need—and then the government or the insurance companies pay for those drugs.

--Health care in general doesn't pencil out, even though prices are escalating at three times the general inflation rate. Hospitals can't make money treating the sick, but instead have to seek profits treating the vain.

--A lot of little boutiques in trendy areas may appear to pencil out, and do so in the short run, but wait a couple of years and see how many are still around.

--Small business in general hardly ever pencils out. Either the employers or the owners make pitiful wages for what they do, and never have good health plans.

--Big business doesn't pencil out either, because it doesn't have to. Big business is too big to fail, so the government keeps it alive.

I can come up with a handful of business activities—coffee, sex, IPhones—that seem to pencil out. Maye I haven't examined them closely enough. Maybe there are more. There definitely are more that don't. Give me your list.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Keillor gets it right

Potato Salad is NOT Ice Cream

Garrison Keillor's latest commentary is on potato salad and he nails it. I, too, went to a July 4 potluck and found, among the chips and guacamole, crackers and cheese, carrots and celery sticks, pork and beans and fried spring rolls, buckets of over-mayonnaised goop containing finely diced potatoes and some other stuff mostly added for color. This stuff passes for potato salad in grocery stores and delis these days.

Keillor observes:

The eerie-yellow store-bought stuff in the tubs was manufactured at Amalgamated Salad in Houston by undocumented 12-year-olds from the hills of Michoacan. Worse, it is teaching our children that accomplishment doesn't matter.

A child served yellow slop from a bucket is being told that it's OK to plagiarize a term paper off the Internet just so long as it's poorly written.

He then gives the basics for real potato salad: "Take half an hour away from your Facebook page and do the job right. Boil some eggs, chop the celery and chives and green onions, boil the potatoes, make your mayonnaise, maybe toss in a little sour cream, use plenty of dill, and sprinkle paprika on top." To that I would add some dill pickle and a dollop of mustard (dijon or spicy brown), and probably take out the chives.

Myriad reasons exist for the promulgation of crappy potato salad, not the least of which is at most Americans will put up with anything that has too much mayonnaise in it. But one culprit is the ice cream scoop. Old fashioned potato salad is chunky and you have to use a big spoon to get it out of the bowl and a small spoon or fork to pull it off the big spoon and onto the plate. But sometime in, I think, the 70s, though maybe earlier, deli counters figured out they could more efficiently transfer potato salad from one container to another with an ice cream scoop, if the salad was modified to something with the consistency of rocky road ice cream. And out went the big chunks of potato and the halves of hard boiled eggs and celery slices big enough to crunch. Thus potato salad became tasteless and bland.

So you ask, why didn't I bring real potato salad to this potluck? I guess I should have, but I decided there would be plenty of starchy salads (potato and pasta), and opted to bring real cole slaw instead. Not the ice cream scoop variety, but slaw with coarse cut cabbage, chunks of apple and onion and a few diced pepperoncini tossed in for spice.

Rule of thumb: other than ice cream, food should not be dishable with an ice cream scoop.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Embracing Chavez Blvd.

Naming Rites

If you were asked to prioritize all of the issues that can be appropriately addressed by the Portland City Council, where would you place renaming a street after Cesar Chavez?

Yeah, me too. It definitely wouldn’t crack the top ten. I suspect a significant number of Latinos actually feel the same way, considering the unemployment rate, high cost of housing, decreased funding for public schools and shabby state of public parks. Nevertheless, the issue is not only on the table, it’s jumping up and down and demanding attention like a four-year-old who didn’t get dessert.

Not that I’m opposed to renaming a street after Cesar Chavez. In fact, I have the perfect street in mind. It’s not 39th Ave., nor Broadway, nor Grand Ave. all of which have been suggested. No, it’s Glisan Street. Glisan is one of the longest and most culturally diverse streets in all of Portland—and even stretches out to the eastern edge of the city where most Latinos live.

Besides that, no one pronounces Glisan correctly. Named after Rodney Glisan, an early Oregon physician who married into wealth, it is supposed to be pronounced like “glisten.” Instead, it’s commonly pronounced “glee-son.” No one knows why, exactly, though many believe this pronunciation emerged after World War II when a James Gleason was a prominent politician in Portland.

The right way to do it would be to keep it Glisan St. on the west side of the Willamette, because the streets go in alphabetical order in Northwest Portland. (The one that starts with “C” is Couch, named after the famous naval captain who owned much of that part of town—and whose daughter Glisan married). But on the east side of the river, name it Chavez. It’s certainly not unusual for streets to vanish at the banks of the river. For example, from the west, you approach the Morrison Bridge on Alder St., but come off it on Belmont St., which is only on the east side.

No matter which street is renamed, people are going to protest it. Businesses particularly get upset with street renaming, citing the cost of changing stationary, business cards and advertising. That’s small change compared to the gain businesses could see were their street to become Chavez Boulevard.

With the economy scraping bottom, businesses need to take advantage of every opportunity. The Latino community in Portland is growing—and also growing more affluent. For the most part, this is a culture with strong family values that also aspires to own all the trappings of the American middle class. It’s a market that is ignored only by the smug and foolish.

Savvy merchants, restaurateurs and barkeeps should lobby for the name change, and then post banners and signs saying “We are proud to be part of the street honoring Cesar Chavez.”

And then make sure they can speak Spanish.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fauna Chauvinism

The Fly

There was a rumor buzzing around the Internet for a few days that Jeff Goldblum had died, joining Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon. Fortunately for all us Goldblum geeks, it wasn’t true. Hope still abounds that he will live on to make films as great as The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eight Dimension and Earth Girls Are Easy.

The preceding week, President Obama committed the most famous assassination of a common house fly since The Karate Kid. The swift and sudden hand clap executed by Obama was quite impressive. Yeah, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

So along comes PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) complaining that instead of killing the fly, Obama should have gently caught it and released it later—all the meanwhile carrying on an interview about foreign policy. PETA’s protest generated the usual guffaws among the late night talk show comics, yet the true nature of this insidious organization still needs to be exposed.

While asserting the sanctity of all life, PETA neglects to protect at least half of it. Do you ever hear PETA screaming about the hellacious juggernaut of agricultural machinery mowing down defenseless little soybeans so that you may have your tofu? Does PETA ever protest the plucking and slicing of tomatoes? Or condemn uprooting the heads of onions from their cozy refuge in the earth? Of course not. It looks the other way when fruits and vegetables are slaughtered mercilessly. In fact, PETA encourages such carnage.

PETA is a fauna chauvinist front. As such, it has no moral authority. Is a fly more important than, say, an apple tree? I think not.

Therefore, I really don’t get too upset when people kill flies. All I ask is that first, they look to make sure that Jeff Goldblum’s tiny head is not affixed to the fly’s body.

Monday, May 4, 2009

While I was out

For just $1 a day...

My long hiatus from this blog doesn’t signal its (or my) death—just taxes. As usual, I waited until the last few days and then furiously scoured my records for deductions. I used to think it was a national myth that people who file their taxes on the last day are the least likely to get audited, but evidently it’s true. So that’s what I do.

Then I had to take another few days to catch up on all the things I put off while doing taxes. And then the NBA playoffs started and who can ignore that insane scene now that Blazermania has uprisen from the dead? (Does anyone else think the current Blazer ad slogan is as awkward as a pimpled teenage boy asking a girl to the prom?) So the Blazers lost, but the Celtics won a thrilling seven-game series and L.A. is always there to root against.

In the past few weeks since my last post, our world has encountered the likes of Susan Boyle, a new swine flu, a new Arlen Specter, a new-old venue for baseball in Portland, a smashing start of the baseball season for ex-Mariner Raul Ibanez, the resurrection of Wall Street executive pay and the continued decimation of state budgets, particularly those funding education. Not to mention the ongoing sagas of the bridge to oblivion, the dual bush-league stadia and the convention center hovel, er, hotel..

What follows, then, is not my usual wonky and erudite analysis (aka, "rant") of a specific issue, but quick takes on some actually relevant issues:

Education funding: Portland is still haunted by the Doonesbury lampoon of several years ago about being so woefully short of funds that school had to end over a month early. The prospects for the coming year make that scenario look rosy. And yet most of what I see from Salem concerns sharpening the axe and chopping off a chunk of what's left of our education system.

The state is a billion dollars short of what it takes to almost adequately fund public education. According to the Portland Public Schools web site, PPS is $57 million short, though others think these projections are too optimistic. Whatever the case, it's just stupid to cut education budgets. Really, there's enough wealth in this state and city to put that money back into the budget.

Let's put it in the terms used by public broadcasting appeals: $1 billion is just $1 per day every day for every adult in Oregon. And $57 million is a measly 35 cents a day for every adult living in Portland. Sure, for the 12.5% of Oregonians who are unemployed, that $1 a day may be crucial to their own lives—and to be realistic, it's very likely at least 20% of the population isn't employed. On the other hand, the other day on the MAX, I saw one grizzled homeless guy round up $5 and give it to an obviously newly-homeless family. If the homeless can come up with spare change to help each other out, I'm sure we all can chip in.

The legislature should implement a temporary surtax—for just this biennium—that hits each taxpayer's gross income with a percentage charge sufficient to recoup that $1 billion, or however much is needed.

Wall Street Salaries: Yup, the top dawgs on the Street were down for a few months, but then they manipulated their banks' earning statements for the first quarter and as a result, their compensation is as high as ever.

Conservatives like to point out that the wealthiest five percent pay more than half of U.S. income taxes. There's a simple reason for this: they have all the money. (And actually, when you factor in FICA, state and local property taxes and sales taxes, the fat cats don't pay nearly that high a percentage.

Income inequality is at its highest level since the 1920s, perhaps, according to some studies, the highest ever. Either pay scales need to level out or the tax code should be set back to Eisenhower era levels. Under that Republican president, the top rate on incomes over $400,000 was 91 percent. High time to bring those rates back. If Congress won't do it, the Oregon legislature should. After all, the top tax rate in Oregon is 9 percent, which is paid by anyone who earns over $6,500 a year. That's ridiculous. Bump up the tax rate for wealthier people and put the money into education.

Arlen Specter: Sure, he weaseled out of the Republican Party to rescue his sorry butt from defeat at the polls next year, but Specter's defection just shows how irrelevant the GOP has become. Everybody knows that except the lunatics still running the Republican asylum. After all, just 20 percent of all voters are registered in the party.

As Bobby Kennedy once said, “Twenty percent of the people are against everything.” So that percentage is about as low as you can go.

The intriguing question here is how American politics will realign. For the past three decades, since the Age of Reagan, America has only had a far right party (the Republicans) and a centrist party (the Democrats). Liberals have been out of power since the early 1970s. Both presidents Carter and Clinton were centrists, neither of them any more liberal than Richard Nixon.

Obama has succeeded in appealing to liberals, moderates and even some conservatives. The political pendulum swung so far to the right during the Bush era that virtually every thinking person has joined Obama in bringing things back to normal. The cultists in the Republican Party have labeled him a socialist when all he is doing is returning to economic policies that were mainstream under Eisenhower.

Eventually, once these corrections are made, there's going to be discord. It may be delayed until after Obama leaves office, or it may emerge sooner. The Democrats tent has ballooned to include a lot of people who don't necessarily get along with one another. Already, the administration's kid gloves approach to Wall Street has drawn jeers from liberal economists and labor union chiefs.

It makes sense that political parties stand for something, and it's not enough to just stand for sanity and responsibility in government, just because the Republicans seemed to oppose these values. I therefore expect a party shakeout. There will emerge an enlightened pro-business faction that embraces free market approaches while admitting the need for basic government oversight, and a more welfare state faction that demands heavier regulation and government intervention. One of these factions may get to be called Democrats and the other will be named something else. Either that, or as in Europe. there will be splinter parties, such as Labor Democrats, Christian Democrats or just a Liberal party. Or maybe all of the above.

Blazers: On the sports blogs, there's lots of talk about trades and doing things to strengthen the team and take it to the next level. My gut feeling is the less messing around, the better. This is a team that won 54 games and kicked the Lakers' butts this season. The NBA is all about match ups and the Blazers had a hard time matching up with Houston this season. If they had been seeded against Utah, Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans or Denver, they would still be playing. They might even have had better luck against L.A.

Fans want to dump Steve Blake and find a better point guard. Newsflash: that guy is not going to come from the Blazers' current roster, unless you switch Roy to point guard. And let's take a look at the league's premier point guards: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Tony Parker are all on vacation as of now, too. Meanwhile Derek Fisher of the Lakers is still playing, and he's no better than Blake at this point in his career. Neither, really, is Jason Kidd.

So let's keep Blake and then pick either Sergio Rodriguez or Jered Bayless as the back up and develop him. We all know that Rudy Fernandez is a rising star who can play in big games. Nicholas Batum also has the potential to be another Tayshaun Prince and should be all the Blazers need at small forward. Oden, if he stays healthy, will emerge as a strong, though probably not dominant, center. For next year, I'd still give Joel Przybilla the bulk of the minutes—the 'Zilla earned them by become one of the most reliable defensive forces in the league this year.

So it comes down to this: trade Travis Outlaw, who despite being a relatively good streak shooter can't learn his defensive assignments and doesn't rebound well for his size. He's a nice kid, but he gets way too many minutes as it is. I'd give up on Martell Webster, too—he's not as good as Batum. My ideal move for the off-year is to sign Grant Hill to a two-year deal. Hill has been physically sound the past two years and played marvelously for Phoenix last year. He is a solid citizen and a great team player and he could tutor Batum in the nuances of the game. He signed a two-year contract with the Suns in 2007 and that means he should be a free agent now. The big problem is that he will command a salary higher than what the Blazers can afford under the cap this year.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

White elephant in the room

A beautiful day for a protest

I wanted to work in my yard on this glorious spring day—get some flowers planted along the front walk, weed and till the raised beds, maybe even spread out some compost. Really, I did. Instead, I went for a bike ride down to Waterfront Park. It was my civic duty.

There was a rally down there at noon to stop the $4 billion white elephant known as the Columbia River Crossing (CRC). This is the proposal for a new I-5 bridge of 12 lanes, plus bike lanes and a light rail line. Something for everybody, but mostly, a lot of new capacity for cars and trucks to fill up—or not.

I commented on the CRC several months ago. No information has surfaced since then to change my mind. If anything, it’s even more crucial to stop this bridge and use that $4 billion for something else, given the state of our economy.

Most of the speakers cited global warming and other environmental and health hazards as a key reason why the bridge should not be built. Roadway expansion generally is a function of Parkinson’s Law—stuff expands to fill the space allotted for it. It certainly has been true for freeways; building them only increases traffic and thus never mitigates congestion.

My own take on this project, however, is that by the time it gets built nine years from now (if it does get built) traffic volume will have dropped due to rising gas prices. In addition, the tolls necessary for covering half the cost of the bridge—around $2 billion—will also reduce demand. So we will have spent $4 billion (and likely a lot more than that) for something that isn’t needed.

By the way, the current I-5 bridges are in no danger of falling down, according to recent engineer’s studies. The Marquam Bridge over the Willamette River is in worse shape, as is the poor stepchild of government discord, the Sellwood Bridge.

All of the speakers referred to the historic public uprising against the Mt. Hood freeway that was proposed to run through Southeast Portland in the 1970s. Waterfront Park was a handy venue for the rally, as the speakers could point towards the end of the Marquam Bridge where there is a span that was supposed to link to that freeway. That ill-conceived mega-highway got shot down by tremendous grass roots movement. A good thing, too, as it would have run right through my favorite coffee house on Southeast 26th Ave. and Clinton St.

But the repeated references to the successful anti-freeway campaign of the 70s reveals a bit of desperation in this current movement. There were maybe 300 people at the rally, the vast majority of whom arrived by bike and, like me, were mixing politics with pleasure. Perhaps we live in different times, or that the circumstances are different. The Mt. Hood freeway provoked extreme outrage, since it threatened to destroy many fine Portland neighborhoods.

The CRC, on the other hand, replaces an existing bridge and adds freeway lanes and ramps in that sort of empty area south of the river. Not so much to get worked up about.

But we should. It’s an enormous expense. At the rally, I talked with a representative from the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. He told me that for a measly $100 million, all of the track between Portland and Seattle could be upgraded to allow Amtrak’s Talgo trains to maintain their top speed of 125 mph, which would cut train travel between the cities to less than two hours. Right now, Horizon Air has planes leaving PDX for SEATAC every half hour. If we had trains leaving every half hour—or even every hour—they would offer a faster and greener way to go. If we also switched more freight from trucks to trains, there would be considerably less congestion on I-5.

Shouldn’t we get some of Obama’s stimulus money for this? I know Amtrak improvements are slated for the Eastern seaboard, but not out here. So start writing and calling your representatives, local as well as congressional. Especially those of you who didn’t attend the rally and got your garden in ahead of me.

Go to the Council for a Livable Future for ways that you can help stop the bridge.

City Councilor Amanda Fritz speaks at rally.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Greening the Urban Jungle

The future was 42 years ago

Michelle Obama is getting a vegetable garden going in what was once part of the White House lawn. Good for her. I hope her example has a profound effect on the 49 other states and the District of Columbia.

In Oregon, of course, we don’t need that encouragement. To be a true Oregonian, you have to get your fingernails dirty. You have to dig in the dirt , starting right about now (See Ketzel Levine over in the left column). Sure you can wear work gloves, but it’s just not the same. Wearing work gloves for gardening is like using an umbrella when it rains. It’s for wusses—aka, transplants.

I usually wait until the middle of May to plant my veggie garden, because we all know the sun won’t shine and make crops grow until probably July. I do get the flowers going and plant some seeds in pots and mess around with the compost. Last year, I dug up all the lawn in the front yard and converted it to vegetable garden, though I left the strip between the sidewalk and the street. This year, that's going, too. My back yard is really small and too shaded by neighboring trees, but it provides plenty of ranging room for my hens.

At least I have a yard. A lot of people don't. I suppose the folks who purchased condos in the Pearl made a conscious choice to live without a yard (and thus, without yard work). Thousands of others, however, live in apartment complexes where the only things growing are the ficus trees in the lobby and the intermittent shrubs amidst yards of barkdust on the berm between the parking lot and the street.

Portland's propensity for density has left some parts of the city barren of arable land. This became a sore subject over at BlueOregon a while back, with the usual anti-planning stalwarts citing the lack of garden space as another reason why there should be no urban growth boundary, so that vast suburban tracts of single family homes can spring up across the countryside and let a million gardens bloom. Some people just hate the idea of real cities and they will use any straw man argument that comes along to dispute the notion of growing a city up rather than out, never mind that growing out means replacing honest agriculture on our best soils with faux agriculture, aka well-manicured lawns.

Hate to say it, but they do have a point. With today's urban design, it's awfully hard to grow your own tomatoes in a high rise apartment complex. Some apartment dwellers are lucky enough to have space in a community garden, and they are going to cling to those little plots like a New Yorker with a rent-controlled tenement.

So let's redesign the way apartments are built. A number of small measure can be implemented and some already have. For example, the city has financial incentives for developers to install “eco-roofs” on their buildings. The primary reason for this is to reduce rain runoff and thus not overload the sewer system, but these green roofs could also support high rise tenant or community gardens. Unfortunately, most of them look as if someone threw a few bags of wildflower seeds around and walked away.

I'm not sure the city should mandate greener green roofs, but the incentives ought to go further and encourage the growing of food. The city also should mandate proper balconies on all new apartment buildings, and not those fenced in ledges like you see on the Belmont Dairy.

Useless landscaping and excessive parking can also be transformed into garden space. Recently, a very ordinary suburban-style apartment complex was turned into an “ecovillage” by Ole and Maitri Ersson The Kailash Ecovillage boasts a huge garden space in what formerly was part of the parking lot, Formerly the low-rent, often troubled Cabana apartments, the Kailash is now appreciated by its tenants and neighbors.

But even the Kailash is small potatoes compared to what could be designed from the ground up. For one thing, people with families usually prefer to live in their own houses and have their own yards. And yet, single family homes are at a premium in most parts of Portland, even in this down economy. It's a little easier to find an affordable house now than a year ago, but not necessarily in the vicinity of a good elementary school or easy access to mass transportation.

Creating houses with yards, however, will take up too much of our precious space, won't it? Maybe not. The answer may come from a 42-year-old development in Montreal, known as Habitat 67.

Picture McCormick Pier on steroids. It's a condo development with the difference that one person's roof is another person's back yard, and so on. Designed for the Montreal Expo in 1967 by the architect Moshe Safdie, Habitat aspires to be a hill town built on a flat surface.

"Safdie's dwelling complex 'Habitat' was designed to give 'privacy, fresh air, sunlight and suburban amenities in an urban location.' It was designed as a permanent settlement and consists of 158 dwellings, although originally it was intended to provide 1,000 units. The resulting ziggurat was made up of independent prefabricated boxes with fifteen different plan types."

  • Dennis Sharp. Twentieth Century Architecture: a Visual History.

Not all of the units in Habitat have gardens, though many do and some actually have trees growing on those roof/balconies. I don't know if anyone planted a lawn but there definitely are vegetable gardens there.

Safdie envisioned Habitat as a way of building low cost housing for families. Ironically, the uniqueness of this concept has made the units highly desirable and they now are among the highest priced real estate in Montreal. Neither he nor anyone else has built anything like it since. A big reason why Habitat never reached the 900 units that were originally planned is that it cost far more to build this structure than he thought.

Yet now, with land prices being a major cost of development, one would think someone would try to improve on Safdie's design. Certainly, there must have been improvements in building materials that would lower costs, and the way the thing is so strangely configured could be loosened up a bit by departing from the cube-only scheme. For my money, the places could be built so that there's more yard in one place, perhaps by stacking just enough of each unit on the top of the other and supporting the rest of it in another manner.

So anyway, what's the deal? Does anyone have an answer as to why this concept has never been tried again?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Won't you help?

Don't let the AIG bigshots fail

I know the recession is pinching every pocketbook, but please take time to consider the plight of the poor, besieged AIG executive. Not only are these lost souls being maligned in ever corner of America, from the halls of Congress to the local barbershop, but it appears they are going to lose their hard-earned bonuses. Either they will have to give them back, or else their bonus booty will be taxed right out of their Cayman Island bank accounts. Even Oregon is getting in on the action.

How would you feel if you were the target of an entire nation's wrath over our economic meltdown? Pretty depressed, I'd bet. These execs were, after all, just doing their job. In fact, they did their job too well. If they hadn't put in all those 80-hour weeks swapping credit defaults and diddling with derivatives, if they had slacked for the past several years, they might not have found themselves in the middle of this mess.

And so what is their reward for all this hard work and making money out of thin air? They stand to lose their bonuses—er, retention pay. What is going to motivate them? What will make them want to stay on the job? That is other than the fact that probably no one else will ever want to hire them?

They stand to lose their second or third house, or at least that nice condo in St. Lucia. They may have to sell off their Bugatti Veyron and downsize to a totally inadequate BMW Z8. And after cultivating a taste for well-aged scotch, can you expect them to live on Dewar's?

Won't you help? Won't you please help?

For a donation of just $100,000—that's a mere 20 cents per minute—you can keep one broker in Talisker 30-year single malt scotch for one year. (Assuming a fifth a day is enough.)

Please act today to end their pain and humiliation. Send your blank check or credit card (yes, the card itself) to:

Too Big To Fail Foundation

P.O. Box 31337

Georgetown, Grand Cayman Island

KY1 -1209

Your donation is not tax deductible. But then, unlike the poor AIG wretch, you probably won't make enough money this year to need to pay taxes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Feeling S.A.D.?

The Oregon Blue Sky Law

I did a fat lot of nothing today. The sun was shining bright, so I took the day off, as is my right under the Oregon blue sky law.

Most states have blue sky laws that regulate the sale of securities to protect the public from fraud. The term comes from the earliest efforts to pass such a law, in Kansas of all places:

The name that is given to the law indicates the evil at which it is aimed, that is, to use the language of a cited case, "speculative schemes which have no more basis than so many feet of 'blue sky'"; or, as stated by counsel in another case, "to stop the sale of stock in fly-by-night concerns, visionary oil wells, distant gold mines and other like fraudulent exploitations."

As you can see from the likes of Bernie Madoff and others, these laws have loopholes big enough to let a python slither through unscathed.

The Oregon blue sky law addresses a more serious subject, however—Seasonal Affective Disorder. It states: “On any day between the first day of November and the last day of April in the following year, when the sky is entirely blue over a community in Oregon, employees in that community may cease their work with impunity.” Meaning, the sun is out, go out and play.

Exceptions are made for those who work in public safety and emergency services, those who work outdoors anyway, and political pundits and bloggers, who could become severely disoriented if they ever saw the light of day.

Tomorrow is supposed to be another sunny, beautiful day (followed by more rain the next few days), so make sure you take off work for at least awhile and get outside. Don’t worry, the law is on your side. You could look it up.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Buses AND Beer

One more for the road

The other night an empty bar stool was a precious commodity at a favorite neighborhood tavern. This is a friendly little joint owned by some people who escaped to Portland several years ago from Cleveland. It's said that taverns are one business that does well in a recession. If that's true, we're in one hell of a recession, because this tavern was hopping, and it wasn't a weekend.

Shortly after I finally claimed a stool at the bar, I saw a TriMet bus rumble down the street in front of the tavern. The man to my right saluted it with his beer mug and said, “Say farewell to the old Number 41.”

Actually, I didn't say anything, but he went on to explain that this particular bus line is headed for extinction due to TriMet's budget shortfall. The transit agency has to cut expenses by 5% and is doing that by totally axing some lines and reducing service on others, even as ridership has increased on many lines. Overall, riders only pay for 20% of TriMet's operating costs. Most of the remainder comes from payroll taxes and when unemployment increases, payrolls plummet. Of course, the general consensus of the sages gathered around their beers was that TriMet is totally incompetent.

That may be true, but it's possibly no more incompetent than any other large bureaucracy. And like most bureaucracies, TriMet's larger problem is that it's unimaginative.

Or maybe its managers don't get out to bars very often, because sitting there in that pub, I came up with a solution to TriMet's budget crisis in less time than it takes to quaff three beers. And this is it:

Buses with beer.

People don’t like riding the bus and only do it as a last resort. Oh, there’s usually one person on every bus who is having a thoroughly good time. That person sits right across from the bus driver and talks incessantly. Many of the rest of the passengers either do not own a functioning automobile or are not allowed to drive one. And at certain hours, commuters crowd the buses--unperky commuters who do not have the perk of their own parking space at work.

Buses are not only slow and inconvenient, but boring. There needs to be something to do other than twitch to the sounds of your I-Pod or stare blankly at the pages of a Steven King novel. Though often crowded, buses are not social places--except for the gaggle of women who sit in the back discussing the relative merits of their lovers’ prison sentences. Because buses are seen only as conveyances, they are nothing more than horizontal elevators.

Now envision what they could be. First, take out all the bench seats and put in those swivel chairs like you find in RVs. And between them put in little cocktail tables. Put a mini bar at one end, like the ones on Amtrak club cars. Serve coffee and scones in the morning, beer and wine for the commute home. The after work drink is a common ritual among may high-stress occupations--think about how much safer it will be if these commuters did their drinking on the bus home rather than before they get into their cars.

There could be market segmentation as well. Instead of mass transit, it will be class transit. On buses going to Lake Oswego, Dunthorpe or East Moreland, one might be able to order an aged malt scotch. Those running up Mississippi or down Belmont might serve absinthe and PBR. The rigs headed to the working class areas of the east side could have sawdust on the floor and a pool table in the back. You could have sports bar buses, piano bar buses, maybe even leather bar buses.

Obviously, a lot of people wouldn’t want to board a perambulatory pub, or wouldn’t be old enough. But the possibilities are endless. There could be rolling boutiques, motorized music stores, double decker discos bringing back the bump and hustle. A lot of people like to work out either before or after work, so line up sets of rowing machines and stair steppers on a bus and tie them into the drive drain, reducing fuel costs

All these buses, of course, would have Wifi.

The best thing about this idea is that rather than increasing fares every year, TriMet could actually reduce fares. Maybe even make the whole system fareless so long as one purchased a beverage upon boarding.

Jeez, Tri-Met could actually make money. Wouldn't that be a novel idea?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

California Dreamin"

As the economy goes to pot

In the post below, I advocate taxing television to save Oregon's public schools during the recession. But Oregon is sitting in high clover compared to California, which faces a $40 billion budget shortfall. Forty billion bucks--that's a lot of money. Why, it's almost as much as we are still spending in Iraq every three months.

The chronically clever Mark Morford, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has a different solution.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A school funding solution

Tax your television

TV D-Day was supposed to go down on Tuesday, but the digital revolution won’t be televised for a few more months. Those of you who use frail metal rods to conjure television programming out of the ether have a reprieve. I used to be a member in good standing of the Analog and Aerial Society, but about a year ago I figured I was spending way more money in taverns watching the Blazers and Mariners than it costs for the necessary Comcast package.

Being a cheapskate, I finally subscribed to cable. That’s as far as I’m going, though. The 20-year-old set I inherited from my parents still works fine in my opinion. My eyes don’t have crystal clear vision, so there’s no need for my television to be any better.

The digital switchover, however, has gotten me to thinking about another issue that never goes away and only seems to get worse from time to time: education funding. With the state budget shriveling, it appears school children are once again headed for any early vacation this spring. Yesterday, Gov. Kulongoski asked teachers to work several days this year without pay. (Being the big man he is, Kulo announced he also would cut his own pay by five percent--from $93,600 per year.)

Public schools in Oregon are funded through an equalization formula based on local property taxes and to a greater extent general fund revenue from Salem. Portland, being the wealthiest part of the state, sends roughly half a billion dollars to poorer districts in more rural areas. On top of this, so much Portland property is tied up in “blighted” urban renewal districts (like the Pearl) that the tax base is inadequate.

A new source of revenue is needed and the coming digitizing of television offers an obvious solution: tax television.

We tax cigarettes and give the money to health programs. Although an increase in the tobacco tax was defeated last year, each pack of cigarettes carries a $1.18 tax that is sent to the Oregon Health Plan, other state health care agencies and smoking prevention programs. Cigarette smokers can squeal all they want about the tax being unfair, but sooner or later most of them get cancer, emphysema, heart disease, a stroke or an ulcer and the financial burden of these consequences far exceeds the puny amount of revenue collected by the coffin nail tax.

So if we tax cigarettes because they make people sick, we should tax television because it makes people stupid. This is particularly true for children. The more kids watch television, typically the lower their academic achievement. There also is evidence that children who watch television for several hours a day run a higher risk of suffering from attention deficit disorders. Dealing with these kinds of problems costs schools a lot of money.

By the way, no exemptions allowed for “educational television.” You can watch OPB only and still not involve the higher brain area as much as you would by reading Danielle Steele, a graphic novel or the ingredient list on a box of cereal.

Surely by now you are thinking taxing television is a downright commie pinko un-American idea, just like providing universal health care to U.S. citizens. Exactly. And just like universal health care, every other developed nation in the world has a television tax. Most follow the British model that requires citizens to pay for an annual license for each television they own—139 (approximately $200) for a color set and 47 for a black and white one. The money raised from this fee supports the BBC. In many other countries, the tax also funds public broadcasting, though in some it goes into the general fund.

The British employ a fleet of vans equipped with sensors capable of detecting a working television and these vans cruise the streets scanning homes and apartments for unlicensed TVs. With the coming digital switch, such old-fashioned Orwellian tactics won't be necessary. Your television ownership and usage can easily be monitored from the headquarters of your cable or satellite service. Okay, that's even more Orwellian, and it's probably happening to you right now (just as it is with your broadband Internet connection). Might as well put it to good use.

Let's do some paper napkin type of calculations: there are 1.6 million households in Oregon and just to make things simple, assume there is one TV per household. Sure, many homes have no TV, but many others have more than one. If Oregon levied a tax comparable to the British fee--$200--that would generate $320 million per year for education. Add on at least $10 million more from the sets in sports bars and hotel lobbies. That's not quite enough to fill the projected $850 million budget hole the state is in for this fiscal year, but it would certainly hold harmless the education part of it.

Taxing the TV, however, seems shortsighted. What really should be taxed is the amount of time it is on. In the average American household, the TV is on eight hours a day—or 2,920 hours a year. Surely, there exists the technology for cable and satellite television companies to track the amount of time each household has its television on. And if that is feasible, it should also be possible to track the viewing of television programming on one's computer via high speed connections.

If a dime tax were levied on each hour of television viewing—or, as in many cases, of sleeping in the La-Z-Boy with the TV on—that would generate almost half a billion in revenue for education. Maybe allow for a full school year and still pay our teachers.

Bump it up to a quarter, you've got over a billion dollars coming in. Sure, that would be $730 a year for every Oregon household, or $320 per person. But each of us has other options, such as turning off the tube off and maybe reading a book.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fallen Angels

Two cupids idled by the St. Valentine's Inc. mass layoff ponder better times.

Cupid Downsizing Derails Valentine's Day

Love became the latest victim of the economic recession Thursday when it was learned that several thousand cupids have been laid off in a cost-cutting measure.

“We regret any inconvenience that the public might suffer from these necessary budget measures,” said St. Valentine Corp. CEO Sodding Malarkey. “But we can no longer afford employees who work only one day a year, if you can call it work.”

When asked how people will now fall in love with all cupids quivering their arrows just two days prior to the annual Valentine's celebration, Malarkey responded, “What's love got to do with it?”

Flocks of despondent cupids have been sighted clustered on the tops of tall buildings, while others have taken to drink or drugs. “Yeah, it sucks,” lamented Rudy Putti, one unemployed cupid. “You practice all year for this one day, honing your archery skills, and then you get canned.

“Oh, people will still fall in love,” he went on, “it just won't be the true love that only we can bring. I mean, you'll still see idiots stampeding into places I wouldn't set foot in.”

St. Valentine's Corp., a successful operation for centuries, was acquired in a hostile takeover in 2001 by Haliburton Advanced Defense and Entertainment Systems. HADES sought to train the winged cherubs for military purposes, such as surveillance and a flying special forces team. The experiments failed as it appeared the cupids were only capable of shooting small arrows that could do no harm. Shortly after HADES gave up on the project, St. Valentine's stock plummeted.

“We need some of the stimulus money,” Putti said. “Sure, people say we need bridges and highways and new schools and all that other stuff. But really, all you need is love."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A political soccer ball

If you build it. . .

I have a great old car, nearly a classic. At one time, it was a shabby rustbucket, but a few years ago I spent some money on it—new paint job, transmission, audio system—and made it into a real head turner. The problem is, these days, I really want a boat. So I’m thinking of converting this vintage automobile into a motorboat. Yeah, a project like this will take some money, and I’m still paying off the credit cards on the paint job, but I really want a boat.

Naturally, once I change my car into a boat, I will need a new car.

And you are thinking, “This guy’s elevator is stuck between floors.”

You’re pointing out it would be cheaper and better to leave the car alone and buy a boat. But that’s not the Portland way.

For example, here’s Randy Leonard, the City Commissioner who boasts that he represents the little guys on the east side of town. He wants to bring major league soccer to Portland. He wants to make sure his friend Merritt Paulson (son of Hank) gets a stadium that will pack in the crowds of soccer fans. Paulson owns the Portland Beavers minor league baseball team and is vowing to put up $40 million to secure a major league soccer franchise.

Both Paulson and Leonard (and most of the rest of the city council) propose to convert PGE Park (formerly Civic Stadium) into a soccer stadium and then build another venue for minor league baseball somewhere else. This will cost at least $75 million ($45 million for the renovations and $30 million for the new park). These projects will be financed by bonds to be repaid by taxes on the ticket sales.

Never mind the merits of the financing scheme (such as whether the ticket tax revenue will pencil out in the next millennium.) Never mind that major league soccer hasn’t been a big draw in most other cities.

Doesn’t transmuting a baseball park into a soccer field seem like changing a car into a boat? Why not leave PGE Park alone (we still owe $28 million on the last facelift) and build a soccer stadium somewhere else?

Here’s the irony. Leonard wants to build the baseball park in Lents—right at Southeast 92nd and Holgate. Go over there on a weekend, or a nice spring evening, and you’ll see all sorts of people playing guess what? Yup, soccer.

Lents is the crossroads of immigrant life in Portland. There are Latinos to the east and south, Russians and other Slavs to the west along Foster, and Asians to the north along 82nd. These immigrant and second-generation folks are into soccer big time. If a major league soccer stadium is to be built using public money, it should be situated where the biggest soccer public lives.

Getting Washington's ear

Any economists out there?

I have no idea who Gerald Scoones is or what else he believes in, but his letter to The Oregonian a couple of days ago is worth republishing:

Cure economic death spiral
Foreclosures are at the root of falling property values that underpin the financial future of every American and the economy as a whole. Banks must race to sell homes from under their owners as long as their collateral's value keeps plummeting. As more foreclosures speed the decline, banks desperately need intervention to end their death spiral. Here's a solution I support:

Require that banks hold foreclosed homes for two years. Banks will then work to keep owners in their homes. Homes not able to be rescued will become two-year rentals, exempt from capital ratios. These can be lease-optioned to worthy prior owners or turned over to property managers.

The downward cycle is broken and home values stabilize. Banks resume lending for construction as well as other industries. Stimulus programs now have a defined framework to work within. A powerful turnaround begins across the entire economy

Better than any stimulus plan, it attacks the source, not the symptoms, of our growing economic crisis. Moreover, it is "shovel-ready," has no pork, and won't pass a big bill on to future generations. Sadly, I can't get Washington's ear. (Any economists listening?)


There are probably a lot of devils in the details, but it certainly is an idea that nobody else has floated. What the federal government is doing now is like spackling over seismic cracks.

The idea of letting the “owners” rent their former homes is appealing. One thing that has been galling during this issue is about all those poor folks losing their homes and/or investments when they put down less than what it takes to get into a house as a renter. Consider that a three-bedroom house in decent shape will rent for $1,500 a month. First and last month’s rent plus a security deposit, pet deposit, cleaning fee, etc., can run at least $5,000. So anyone who got a house with a no-money down loan, or a very small down payment, isn’t losing anything if they have to give it up.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A mere $128,000

It’s not just that former Sen. Tom Daschle failed to pay $128,000 in income taxes, it’s that he made enough money to owe at least $128,000 in income taxes.

After all, Daschle has been appointed to head the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the government agency most concerned with the needs of poor and working class people.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if Obama appointed somebody who thought $128,000 was a lot of money?

“If you want to see what God thinks of money, just look at all the people He gave it to.”—Dorothy Parker

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Missouri Senator Suggests

Let's Pass a Maximum Wage

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) Friday called Wall Street executives “idiots” for using taxpayer money to pay out $18 billion in bonuses, then proposed that compensation for the employees of all bailout recipients be capped at $400,000 per year.

A columnist for The Washington Independent, Daphne Eviatar, thinks McCaskill didn’t go far enough. Eviatar proposes that $400,000 be the maximum salary for all executives. After all, it’s still more than our president makes a year. You can read her logic here.

Most people think it’s greed that has driven salaries and compensation packages of corporate honchos into the billions. It’s not greed so much as ego. They are reaping more money than they can ever spend, but money can’t buy them love.

They figure, however, if they make more than the next CEO, it can get them respect.

Their behavior is about as mature as spoiled sports personalities like Manny Ramirez or Terrell Owens. Performance statistics are no longer the measurements by which athletes compare themselves. It’s now all about salary. Every year, some baseball team owner is dumb enough to pay a journeyman pitcher with a 14-12 won-lost record and a 4.25 ERA upwards of $12 million a year over four years. And then every pitcher who has a better record will demand a bigger salary. It keeps escalating. Superstars aren’t super unless they are signing super-sized contracts.

The same applies to corporate superstars. Even when they have an off year, they still get bonuses. They need top dollar not to stick around with the company that hired them, but to make them feel as if they are leaders of the pack of the alpha dogs that have been ripping apart the flesh of Western capitalism.

People that insecure really shouldn’t be running big companies. There are some large companies in the U.S that limit executive compensation to a reasonable amount, such as Whole Foods, whose top execs cannot make more than fourteen times the wages of the lowest paid workers. (According to the AFL-CIO, the average CEO earns 360 times the wages of the average employee in the same company. European CEOs make roughly half of their American counterparts, and Japanese CEOs just ten percent. Somehow the companies based in Japan, Germany, Sweden and other enlightened nations compete very well with U.S.)

And it turns out, the more an executive gets paid, the worse his or her performance.

Like power, money corrupts. Or as the Bard of Hibbing sang, “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Another senseless shooting

Fighting firepower with firepower

These killing sprees are just getting old. The names change, the story remains the same. A lot of news really should be labeled olds. Somewhere in Africa, one ethnic group commits genocide against another. Somewhere in the Middle East, a suicide bomber walks into a public place and the ensuing explosion kills children. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, children are sold into sexual slavery.

And somewhere in the United States, a mentally deranged individual with a gun randomly kills and injures a bunch of people.

After Saturday night’s latest bloodbath, there surely will be calls for stricter gun control. These pleadings will be heard by politicians. The politicians will sympathize, but there won’t be enough of them to enact any meaningful reform of our gun laws. The politicians don’t dare tangle with the National Rifle Association, which purports to be a grassroots movement but really is just another powerful business lobby. The NRA vehemently protects the right of its members to sell guns to just about anybody.

Sensible people who advocate for gun control are pretty glum these days. Random shootings no longer provoke outrage, just despair. This mood has even affected our police chief: "This seems at first blush to be a random act of violence of the kind that makes you despair for America," Rosie Sizer said a day after the shootings.

I can offer no solutions to the other world problems, and I’m not suggesting one for American gun violence, but let me throw out some “what ifs.” At the very least, they might bring out some outrage.

So, what if gun control advocates decided that if you can’t beat them, join them? What if they fought firepower with firepower?

What if, for example, they acquired guns and got very good at shooting them? Pistols, rifles, semiautomatic weapons.

Then what if they selected a few key targets? What if someone took an AK-47 and stitched the letters “NRA” on the side of the car owned by the chief lobbyist for the NRA? Probably would just piss him off. But what if a sharpshooter nailed his dog? While he was petting it? Might make him think twice about his job.

What if a marksman shot out the tires on the van carrying a pro-gun legislator’s daughter to soccer practice (while stopped, of course)? He’d get mad, but he’d be scared, too.

I’m not going to escalate this wondering any further than that. One could hope that the gun control warriors could be creative without becoming lethal to humans. Regardless, they would be labeled “terrorists,” just as extreme environmentalists were so tainted when they destroyed the machinery used to mow down our forests. The real terror, of course, comes when some one starts shooting a gun at a crowd of people without warning or provocation.

Again, I’m not advocating any of this. I just want to note that the people who have been victims of gun violence (see James Brady) tend to be more likely to support gun control. From that logic, one might be led to acts of unpredictable folly.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Breedlove Affair

Desire and Delusion

Philosophy Talk, an educational and entertaining program aired on National Public Radio (8 p.m. Thursdays on OPB) will be taping two shows in Portland this Friday and Saturday. The first program will be on the subject of “desire” and the second will explore “shams, lies and delusions.”

Whether Mayor Sam Adams will appear on either show is not known at this time. Evidently the topics were picked well in advance of the Breedlove Affair revelations. It’s very possible, if audience members get to ask questions, that the scandal will come up.

Political sex scandals are nothing new and these sideshows will always be a part of politics as long as we keep electing guys like Adams. And we will, because politics attracts that kind of hard-charging, surprisingly charming, smarter-than-everyone-else alpha male. Most such men (they almost always are men) go into private enterprise and rise up the corporate ladder; their private lives never become public. But some develop a strong idealism and enter politics to change the world.

These men carry big egos and big libidos. Hence, you get Neil Goldschmidt, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and now Adams, to name just a few. These four men were political rock stars and thus had throngs of fans. Instead of prancing around a stage with an electric guitar, they put their energy and intellect into solving society’s problems. Their passion for change inspired their constituents, particularly the younger ones.

When you are quantum leaps ahead of most everyone else, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that rules binding ordinary people don’t apply to you. You think that your can handle this particular situation because your heart is in the right place and, besides, you have better judgment than most.

Basically, you start using all your persuasive abilities on yourself. And when it comes to sex, it doesn’t take much to talk yourself into a foolish and potentially destructive affair. It can be tragic. The Goldschmidt case certainly was grist for a Shakespearian tragedy. His statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl and the subsequent cover up corrupted his life. I watched him decay over the decades from the golden boy of liberal politics during his terms as Portland’s mayor in the 1970s to sellout corporate fixer of the 1990s.

Thus it’s a good thing for Adams and the rest of us that his bad judgment came to light early on. I didn’t vote for Adams because I saw a lot of Goldschmidt in him. I was sure he’d get his way with the City Council on almost all of his legacy projects—and there are several, with a total price tag that our citizens can’t afford. The man behind the aerial tram fiasco also wants to spend gazillions on a convention center hotel, the nonsensical Burnside couplet, hundreds of miles of more streetcar track, a new minor league baseball park in Lents, and such crazy notions as installing the old Sauvie Island bridge across the 405 freeway as a bike bridge (as a bike commuter, I generally support improvements to bicycle infrastructure, but that last plan was truly a bridge to nowhere).

If Adams stays in office, the revelations will put a governor on his high-octane engine, slowing down his extravagant ambitions and possibly keeping Portland affordable for the average working class family. Maybe he will have learned something. It’s instructive to once again bring up the words of wisdom of former Sen. Bob Packwood, himself a victim of his own libido: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”

There likely will be a messy recall election hanging over his head. The law states he has to be in office for six months before a recall can be initiated. I suggest he pre-empt the recall by resigning as mayor, which would prompt a special election to replace him, and then run in that election. This would be similar to what frequently happens in parliamentary systems, wherein the party in power seeks a vote of confidence. It may seem to be an odd way to go about resolving the issue, but if Adams wants to get on with the city’s business, and if he thinks Portland’s citizens will forgive him, then he should put the matter up for a vote as soon as possible.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Audacity of Swope

No. 44

So Barack Obama is now our President. Number 44. That was Hank Aaron’s number. Another good, calm, steady man, Aaron did some terrific things with a baseball bat, including break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. Let's all hope Obama has as good a run for the next eight years.

I had a dream—not a momentous dream, but a silly one—that Obama took the oath of office and then pulled a Putney Swope. For those of you who have never seen this movie (Putney Swope, The Truth and Soul Movie.), a black man is accidentally elected chairman of a major Madison Avenue ad agency. There’s a black humor opening, where the former chairman dies of a heart attack in the middle of a speech. With the corpse still sprawled on the table, the members of the agency’s executive committee cast their votes on who will succeed him. They all want the job, of course, but they are prevented from voting for themselves. So they all vote for the guy they figure is least likely to receive votes, the one token black on the committee, Putney Swope.

Dressed about as conservatively as possible, the Uncle Tomish Swope takes his place at the head of the table and says, “Gentlemen, I don’t want to rock the boat…” The camera pans to the table surrounded by white faces, then cuts back to Swope, who is now wearing a dashiki and has an Afro. He continues, “I want to sink the boat!” The camera pans back to the table, where the faces are all black except for one token white guy.

Maybe it was the cover from The New Yorker with Barack and Michelle dapping that led to this dream. Maybe it’s also the aggressive marketing of Obama merchandise and souvenirs and all those countless e-mails I continue to receive from groups associated with Obama, all asking for more money, that led to the ad agency connection.

Of course, Obama said nothing radical in his inaugural address and no one expected it. If anything, many people on the left have been fearing a reverse-Swope, wherein this young black man changes into a conservative Republican. After all, his transition has drawn more praise from people like David Brooks and George Will than from people like Paul Krugman. He kept Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and has appointed some other conservatives in national security posts. He also appointed Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two guys who helped create the economic mess we are in today.

Nevertheless, Obama’s address got him off to a good start. It was blunt rather than eloquent and that’s just what we needed. Arianna Huffington nailed it in her recap (Obama’s Somber Sermon on the Steps). She wrote:

For me, the most compelling moment of the speech came when he quoted the Bible. While we remain a young nation, he said, “the time has come to set aside childish things.”

There was something very powerful about watching this relatively young man, one of the youngest to ever hold the highest office in the land, telling the American people to grow up.

Like about three-quarters of the American public, according to the polls, I am just relieved that the dark era of Bush/Cheney is over and we now have a rational, intelligent president who can talk in full sentences using real words and who believes in science. As for the rest of his program, a lot of it is fuzzy. It’s going to be up to all of us, as he has repeatedly declared, to help him bring clarity to his vision.