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.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

On Bush's Last Day

Never Again

It is a fact of human nature that people can’t stand prosperity. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism that enabled homo sapiens to last all these many millions of years. When times are good, we go out of our way to create adversity. Maybe it keeps the human race from getting too soft and decrepit, so that when natural disasters strike, we have the resiliency to keep going.

If so, it might also be one of those evolutionary traits that has outlived its usefulness.

People who are securely rich tend to do risky things, whether it be climbing treacherous mountains, sailing the seas in undersized craft or indulging in large amounts of horse tranquilzer. Entire nations are the same way. The declines of ancient Greece and Rome have been well documented, but you don’t need to go back that far in history. For example, just eight years ago, the United States was an immensely prosperous country and its government boasted a $127 billion surplus. Then Americans went voted for George W. Bush because he was the kind of guy they would most likely want to have a beer with.

Fat and relatively happy, voters made decisions in 2000 based on trivia, personality quirks and other irrational factors. Bush appealed to their narrow self interest. The better off people are, the more selfish they become. It’s only when times are tough do people see the value of supporting the common good. At least that’s the way it plays in the U.S. Europeans tend to have a more enlightened, longer perspective, but then their cultures and societies have been around a lot longer; they are more mature.

I wonder if under Barack Obama, America can start growing up. The odds aren’t good, given our collective civic illiteracy. Obama and his team may work miracles and get our economy moving again, and then in four or eight years turn the reins of government over to another right-wing moron with a simplistic, too-good-to-be-true message.

Can we all work to make sure that won’t happen? Can we say, “Never again?” Here’s some things that must be done:

  1. Investigate and prosecute criminal wrongdoing in the Bush Administration. You know the litany: the deception that led to the Iraq war, the torture, the invasion of privacy, the firing of the federal prosecutors for political reasons, etc., etc., etc. One that I found particularly galling and underreported is the case of Richard Foster, the chief actuary for Medicare. Foster’s supervisor, Thomas Scully, a Bush appointee, threatened to fire Foster if he gave Congress accurate projections on the cost of the Medicare drug plan, which were 50 percent higher than the Bushies were stating—or about $200 billion more. Given that it apparently required bribery to pass this bill, those numbers surely would have scuttled it and saved us from a huge giveaway to private drug and insurance companies. Scully never got charged and today works as a lobbyist for the health care industry. The petty crooks riddling the federal agencies need to be outed and stand trial--and that goes all the way to the top, to Dick Cheney, as well. The investigations should be thorough and the prosecutions should be harsh, to deter future officeholders from the temptation to skirt the Constitution or willfully break the law.
  2. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine. Until 1985, broadcasters of political opinions were required to offer air time to those with opposing points of view. It was repealed by a Federal Communications Commission largely appointed by Ronald Reagan. The death of the Fairness Doctrine corresponds to the rise of right wing talk radio. On the vast majority of these radio shows, there is no debate, merely propaganda. This explains why an astonishing 27 percent of the American people still believe Bush did a good job as president.
  3. Start teaching civics in school. Yeah, students need to become proficient in math and functionally literate, but there needs to be a high standard of civic literacy. Surveys show that large pluralities of voters—and often majorities--do not know how their various levels of government function. They also have erroneous ideas about where their tax dollars are spent. For example, far too many people think our state budget can be balanced by cutting “frivolous” spending, when in fact, over 90 percent of the discretionary budget goes to education, health services and prisons.

I’m sure there are other ways to reduce the risk of America taking another big gamble on an incompetent president. Let me know yours.

When I was growing up, the kind of ideologues that currently constitute the Republican party were considered way out on the fringe. They should be shoved back to the fringe of American politics. The conventional wisdom is that American is a “center-right” nation. It does elect its share of right wing politicians, but mainly because they have more money (until 2008) and thus can control the media. We’re really a center-left democracy. That’s proven by polls that show Americans favor liberal solutions to almost all problems, from health care to education to the environment. The serious debate in this country should not be between conservatives and liberals, but between the moderates as exemplified by the Clintons and probably also by Obama, and the progressives such as Russ Feingold, Peter DeFazio and maybe Ralph Nader. That, however, is the subject for another post.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Wasted Land

De-constructing the burbs

"The idea of dismantling elements of human society and reusing and recycling them, while our oil is running out, is making me think that the "Mad Max" and "Road Warrior" movies might have shown us a reality that's a lot closer than we think....”

That’s a comment left on Allison Arieff’s latest By Design blog for the New York Times. Arieff is the former editor of Dwell magazine and currently editor-at-large for Sunset. A woman after my own heart, she also owns an Airstream trailer and has written a book about these land yachts.

In this blog, however, she takes on the notion of recycling the suburbs and exurbs, the McMansions and big box stores, when high oil prices render such auto-dependent developments obsolete.

Actually, oil prices are not the only factor. Like the cars Detroit produced in the fifties and sixties, there is a planned obsolescence built into the suburban structure. The housing stock deteriorates at a faster rate, and architecturally, it’s not worth saving anyway. Even the fanciest of homes is constructed with cheaper materials than used in the simple bungalows built in Portland a century ago. Wal-Mart and other big box retailers routinely abandon their stores for new, larger locations, leaving an empty eyesore for a city to deal with.

Oregon’s land use structure has spared us some of the excesses of development that elsewhere have resulted in subdivision ghost towns, eerie places where a maze of streets leads nowhere, where the houses are all empty shells and there are no lawns to mow. In her blog, Arieff speculates on turning McMansions into condos or retirement centers, but the design aspects are difficult. Read the entire blog here. Don’t skip the comments, which offer a number of unconventional ideas.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Old habits need not die

Techy bar to beat the ban

The sight of all those smokers huddled in little packs outside of bars, their frosty exhalations of carcinogens forming a fog around them, has to elicit sympathy from even the most hardened anti-nicotine zealot. The poor devils are not only addicted to a substance that will drastically shorten their lives, but they also have to suffer in the cold to get their fix.

As a former cigarette addict, I know that the pleasure of drinking and smoking is greatly diminished if the two activities are separated. Until January 1, when Oregon’s new smoking ban went into effect, one could sit at many a bar inhaling harsh cigarette smoke and washing it down with a sip of beer. Now it’s outside, at least ten feet away from any door and in most places, the drink can’t come with you.

This tragedy--along with the fact that come summer, I will want to be outside too without having to endure such pockets of pollution—leads me to a solution. The main argument for banning smoking inside bars and other establishments is that the second-hand smoke harms the health of the employees (never mind that a large percentage of bartenders smoke themselves).

The answer is quite obvious: open a bar without employees.

The technology is already in place in many other venues, from cleanrooms to supermarket checkouts, though it certainly can be improved and modified to accommodate the needs of a bar.

Take a tour of such a bar:

You enter through a sliding door similar to the kind you see in any science fiction movie involving space ships. There’s an air lock chamber of a few feet and then another sliding door. While in the chamber, you show your driver’s license to an optical recognition device that can read your birthdate and also match your face with your photo on the license. If you are a regular, you will only need to show your face, whose image will be in the device’s memory.

Upon entering the main part of the lounge, you will go to a touch screen display to order your drink. This will be similar to those you see at Fred Meyer when you go through the automated checkout, and equally as difficult to operate. After all, with no bartender to determine your sobriety, you will need to prove it yourself. After passing a random sobriety test, you place your order and pay, just as you do at Fred’s (though with a credit card, you will have the option of leaving your tab open).

You are then directed to a window which slides open, revealing your drink. You also will be able to order food in the same way. Again, you’ve seen this many times on old space opera movies.

Once you’ve been served, you can choose from a multitude of electronic entertainment options, from video poker to sports on big flat panel screens. Or there may be disco music to dance to.

The d├ęcor turns out to be as techy as the service. Lots of gleaming titanium as well as very high-tech polymers. The floor, walls, chairs, stools and other things you come in contact with are made of a kind of plastic that is soft enough to keep you from cracking your head open should you flop against it, but smooth enough to easily clean. Sensors on the floor, or perhaps surveillance cameras, will detect anyone who tricked the sobriety test and then passed out. If there is a person down, the floor starts rippling and gently rolls the body to the side of the room, where a conveyor belt whisks the innebriate to a comfort station outside the bar while a call is made to Hooper Detox.

All glasses are made of unbreakable material. There are ashtrays everywhere and they look like the retro ones from the 1950s that have a trap door, only with these, the butts are funneled through the trap door and down a chute to an incinerator. Fans in the ceiling also suck up the smoke, not so much for the health of the patrons but to make sure the machinery doesn't get gummed up. All the furniture is attached to the floor, so people can't walk out with it.

Say you come in and enjoy yourself immensely at this bar, so much so that you are there at closing time. You go to get another drink at 2 a.m. and find the touch screen is blank and the dispensers are shut down, except for one serving coffee.

At 2:25 a.m., the ventilation fans are turned to gale force and all the liquid in the remaining glasses is squooshed up through them, and there is nothing left to drink.

A minute later, the sound system starts playing Creed's “My Sacrifice” repeatedly until the last person is out of the bar.

Then jets of water shoot out through high pressure valves in the walls, washing down everything. At the same time, the floor tilts and all the water and other debris in the bar flows down a drain and into a series of giant sieves where the stuff is sorted out. Within minutes, the bar is cleaned, restocked and ready to go for the next day.

That's Autobar version 1.0. I suspect that in later upgrades, there will be robot bartenders programmed to talk to you about sports, movies and politics, and, of course, light your cigarette.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Fuel for Thought

Costlier Gas or Cheaper Hybrids?

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is at it again, beseeching President-elect Obama to escalate the gas tax, with the goal of keeping gas prices in the neighborhood of $4 a gallon.

His reasoning is powerful. The only way Americans will switch to more fuel efficient cars is if gas prices are permanently high. If they go up and down, people will go back to buying automotive mastadons when gas prices drop, while hybrids will languish. This further weakens the U.S. position in relation to the Mideast, Russia and other oil-rich despots, while keeping fewer dollars in America. All the while spewing more greenhouse gases.

The only problem with Friedman’s idea is that Congress will never pass it. To betray the name of this blog and spout conventional wisdom, there are too many senators from states with too much wide open space. These senators will never vote for a tax that makes it more expensive to drive long distances. It’s doubtful that even senators or representatives from the smaller, more urban states would go along with this tax.

After all, it’s just downright un-American for the government to make driving more expensive. Never mind that the oil companies, both foreign and domestic, do it all the time.

Friedman writes, “I’ve wracked my brain trying to think of ways to retool America around clean-power technologies without a price signal — i.e., a tax — and there are no effective ones.”

Huh? Well I have one worth a try, especially since the federal government lately has no trouble giving away hundreds of billions of dollars: bigger tax credits for fuel efficient cars, with the credit pegged to the average price of gas as well as the mileage rating for each model.

The decision of most people to switch to hybrids is based on a desire to save money. When gas prices rise, it becomes more economical, and more rational, to buy a gas sipper. But hybrids are not inexpensive and neither are all-electric cars. And for the latter, you need to own another car if you have to travel between cities, such as from Portland to Eugene.

In recent years, you could receive up to a $3,400 tax credit for purchasing a new hybrid. These credits were phased out, however, as sales of each hybrid model passed 60,000. I'm not sure what the government's reasoning was on ending the credits after the early adopters bought in—after all, the price of these cars didn't go down appreciably.

Coming this year and next, there are new tax credits available for plug-in hybrids—up to $7,500 for the Chevy Volt. That credit is expected to bring the cost of this little car down to $32,500, which is still at least ten grand more than a new Honda Civic. The Prius plug-in will be eligible for at least a $4,000 tax credit.

Even with such generous credits, these cars are idle inventory on most car lots with gas at today's price. Short term—most Americans only think short term—it makes more sense to buy a comparable conventional car that gets around 20 to 25 miles per gallon and costs half as much.

The way to goose up sales when gas prices are low is to increase the tax credit, or offer some other kind of subsidy to buyers. Give each buyer of a Chevy Volt a $15,000 tax credit if the price of gas is $1.75 a gallon, as is the current average in Portland. But if gas goes up to $3 a gallon, drop the credit to that $7,500 level. At $4, maybe down to $1,000. At $4.50 or $5 per gallon, zip. At the $5 level, there's no need for a subsidy.

This should accomplish the same goals as Friedman's proposal to artificially prop up the price of gas, with the exception of raising a lot of money for the federal government. The feds could make up the lost tax revenue by fashioning a surtax on vehicles whose mileage ratings exceed a certain standard. Again, peg that surtax to the price of gas and also to the rate of guzzling.

Oh, sure, when gas prices are below two bucks and your car gets 70 mpg, you are going to drive more. There's a limit to how much more driving a person can do, however. Relatively few people will move further away from their jobs just because gas is cheap. Time still isn't cheap. I suppose the combination of cheap gas and highly efficient cars could bring back the teenage rituals of cruising Broadway and drag racing on 122nd.

Gas, however, won't remain cheap. We all know that. We just want to make sure that we can cope when it does. Me, I don't really care because I ride a bike most of the time.

Meanwhile, there's another take on cheap gas by the always unconventional Mark Morford, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, who thinks it's time to hit the road.