Friday, December 20, 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Not "overexcited" about the budget

Yesterday the Senate voted 64-36 in favor of a budget bill. The House passed the bill last week by a vote of 332-94. What kinds of bills pass by these kinds of majorities? Only bills that are not controversial and not partisan. This means that the big news of the day is that--finally--passing the budget has moved into the category of legislation that is not controversial and not partisan. It's just the boring old budget. Sure there are a lot of programs in the budget that are controversial or only supported by one party or the other. But the way Congress is supposed to deal with those kinds of controversies is by horse trading or simply allowing the status quo to persist if they cannot agree on changes. And that is exactly what they did this time.

Press Secretary Jay Carney reported that the administration is not getting "overexcited" about the budget deal, and that in itself is also a sign of progress. When Congress passes a budget, that action should be greeted with "ho hum," instead of with cries of triumph.

I've written quite a few posts about budget battles during the Obama administration. (I count 17 posts with the label "budget" this year alone.) And that's not because I particularly care about the budget. I don't. What I care about is the political process that we use to pass the budget. And if I have to write about the budget process less frequently than in the past five years, I will be only too happy to write about more interesting subjects.

At the same time, I can't help feeling a little bit triumphant that one of the main promises of the Obama administration--that we will approach the operations of government in a more problem-solving and inclusive way--is finally being fulfilled. Finally Republicans seem resigned to the fact that they are in the minority. Finally they have decided that it is no longer a good political strategy for them to treat every single issue that comes before Congress as an opportunity for an epic battle. The opposition can accomplish more by being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Don't walk.

The LAPD is cracking down on jaywalking in downtown Los Angeles, ostensibly to educate the public about its dangers and to promote public safety. Granted that in a confrontation between a two ton steel vehicle and a pedestrian, the unprotected human crossing the street doesn't stand much of a chance, is the solution to put all the burden on pedestrians to stay out of the way of the unrelenting flow of traffic? Is strict enforcement of the "Don't Walk" signals the best way to make the streets safe for walking?

The real problem in downtown Los Angeles, and in most cities, is that we have given about 90% of all the public space to automobiles-- for free-- and we seem more concerned about maintaining the freedom of drivers to hurtle through the streets, than we care about the safety or comfort of pedestrians. Instead we need to re-design the downtown environment to make it more friendly to human beings.

Here's what we would do if we truly cared about pedestrians. We would eliminate all push buttons for crossing the street. Why should pedestrians have to wait through an entire light cycle if they forget or arrive too late at the intersection to push the button? We should create more crosswalks, and make sure the lights are timed to give adequate time to cross. We should refuse to allow sidewalks to be blocked for any reason. If construction requires blocking of sidewalks, we should take a lane of traffic away to make room for pedestrians. And that's just for starters. Next we should remove all the red curbs, and install metered parking everywhere. That provides a safety and sound buffer for pedestrians, not to mention finally collecting some revenue from drivers who think they have some God-given right to use a disproportionate share of scarce public space for free. We should return to two way traffic most everywhere downtown. No more six lane thoroughfares that drivers treat as freeways. We should create more public squares where people would want to sit or stroll.

The object should be to reduce and slow down traffic. The best way to do that is to reduce the amount of space allotted for cars, and return that space to pedestrians, bicycles, busways and streetcars. That will encourage more drivers to park their cars and use public transportation. That will make the city safer for pedestrians, and at the same time to reduce noise and pollution and make the city sidewalks and other spaces more liveable.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Budget progress

This week, by passing a bi-partisan budget bill through the House (still waiting on the Senate), Congress finally seems to be learning how to get back to business. To do that requires managing truly unresolveable conflicts, instead of allowing those conflicts to gum up the works completely.

Congress did it right this time, first by choosing representatives who command trust from each side. Conservative Paul Ryan and Liberal Patty Murray fit the bill perfectly. The negotiators also had to respect the other side's most important interests. That meant conceding to the Republicans that taxes would not be raised, and conceding to the Democrats that entitlement spending would not be cut. (Instead it's federal employees' pensions that will be taking a hit.) Within that framework, the parties found room to restore some discretionary spending that both sides wanted, and also include spending cuts and revenue increases that won't take effect for some time, thus allowing both sides to say they achieved some important interim goals, and that the short term deal is better than no deal.

Is there a lot of unhappiness with this agreement? Of course. The hard-line conservatives are bemoaning the spending increases, and complaining that the deal does not do enough to rein in social spending in the long term. Liberals remain frustrated with the spending levels to which the government has become constrained.

Many mediators would say that the test of a good settlement is that it leaves both sides feeling equally dissatisfied. Personally, I never like to tell parties in conflict that they should be unhappy with a negotiated outcome. If they achieved something better than the alternative that would come with the failure to reach agreement, they should view the agreement as a positive. (By alternative, I do not mean the best possible alternative outcome for each side, i.e., victory for their side, and surrender by the other side. I mean the most likely outcome, which in this case is continued conflict and paralysis.)

Still, one wishes that more could have been achieved by this negotiation process.  A truly transformational agreement would have required both sides to cross lines that they are currently unwilling to cross, because they have defined those lines as matters of principle. To do that would require both sides to recognize more legitimacy to the others' point of view than they are currently willing to entertain. As a result, a more comprehensive, transformative agreement remains, at least for the time being, out of reach.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013


Over 500 writers, many world-renowned, signed onto a statement protesting mass surveillance as a threat to democracy, and calling for the recognition of an international bill of digital rights.
In recent months, the extent of mass surveillance has become common knowledge. With a few clicks of the mouse the state can access your mobile device, your e-mail, your social networking and Internet searches. It can follow your political leanings and activities and, in partnership with Internet corporations, it collects and stores your data, and thus can predict your consumption and behaviour.
The basic pillar of democracy is the inviolable integrity of the individual. Human integrity extends beyond the physical body. In their thoughts and in their personal environments and communications, all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested.
This fundamental human right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes.
A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy. To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as in real space.
* Surveillance violates the private sphere and compromises freedom of thought and opinion.
* Mass surveillance treats every citizen as a potential suspect. It overturns one of our historical triumphs, the presumption of innocence.
* Surveillance makes the individual transparent, while the state and the corporation operate in secret. As we have seen, this power is being systemically abused.
* Surveillance is theft. This data is not public property: it belongs to us. When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else: the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty.
WE DEMAND THE RIGHT for all people, as democratic citizens, to determine to what extent their personal data may be collected, stored and processed, and by whom; to obtain information on where their data is stored and how it is being used; to obtain the deletion of their data if it has been illegally collected and stored.
WE CALL ON ALL CITIZENS to stand up and defend these rights.
WE CALL ON THE UNITED NATIONS to acknowledge the central importance of protecting civil rights in the digital age, and to create an International Bill of Digital Rights.
WE CALL ON GOVERNMENTS to sign and adhere to such a convention.
As a general matter, it's hard to disagree with the propositions that mass surveillance is a threat to freedom of thought, and that people should stand up to protect their right to privacy.
I find this statement disappointing on a couple of levels. Even though it might have been drafted by some of the best writers in the world, it suffers from verbosity. The statement uses a lot more words than would seem to be required to decry the threat posed by unrestricted mass surveillance. Contrast the numerous paragraphs of the writers' statement with these few elegant words:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
As a piece of writing, it's hard to imagine how the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution could be improved. It contains just the right tone of absolutism, proclaiming as the writers do, that people have an inviolable right to personal privacy, but limiting that right to protection only against "unreasonable" searches and seizures, thus providing room for interpretation according to contemporary standards. By trying to universalize basic human rights to freedom and privacy, and adapt them to the digital sphere, these renowned writers instead mangled this Constitutional precedent.

To understand the failure of the writers' statement to grapple with the real problem of surveillance, all you have to do is imagine the example of a couple of plotters working in secrecy to build a bomb, which they intend to set off in a public square. What happens when the police receive a tip about such a plot? Are they supposed to respond that they must respect the thoughts and personal environment of the plotters? Of course not. Nearly everyone would agree that surveillance is appropriate in those circumstances. In a few words enshrined in the Fourth Amendment, the Constitution manages to deal with this problem that the writers entirely avoid. The Fourth Amendment neatly balances the inviolable right to be protected against unreasonable searches, with the state's ability to conduct such searches based on probable cause.

I'm not quarreling with the proposition that the NSA may have gone too far in collecting data on citizens in the U.S. and around the world. That is a debate that we should and are having, and basic human rights should be respected in the process. All I'm saying is that 500 famous writers don't seem to have succeeded thus far in crafting a better statement of how to protect those rights than the one that is already embodied in law.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


During the 1980's, when South Africa was in the news all the time, when the divestment movement was in full swing on college campuses and countries around the world were imposing sanctions, when South Africa was being ripped apart by repression and terrible violence, I remember thinking that South Africa served in some ways as a microcosm of the whole world. In that country a small minority of European ancestry was imposing its will on the majority African population, consuming most of the wealth for itself, and adhering to the fiction that the majority population could be confined to a few artificial "homelands." It was an unsustainable system, but the leaders of South Africa seemed unwilling to yield.

I remember doubting during those times that South Africa would be able to resolve its terrible conflicts without prolonged and brutal civil war, which seemed almost inevitable, and that this country's likely fate did not portend well for the rest of the world's ability to resolve similar problems of discrimination and unequal resource allocation. On the other hand, if South Africa could somehow end the system of apartheid peacefully, maybe there was hope for the rest of us.

The fact that South Africa did manage to emerge from those dark days to find a more just system, and that it did not fall into civil war, was in large part due to the example of one man, Nelson Mandela. In saving South Africa, he also gave hope to the rest of the world. Perhaps the most inspiring leader of our time was taken from us today. President Obama gave him a fitting tribute, in the video above, and there will no doubt be a lot more to come.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Monday, December 2, 2013

Speeding kills.

I live on a side street off a busy boulevard in Los Angeles. The posted speed limit on the boulevard is 35 miles per hour, but most of the traffic routinely exceeds that, usually traveling between 40 and 50 miles per hour. It's hard enough to pull out onto the boulevard in the best of times (especially when I have to turn left), but when the traffic is speeding, as it usually is, the gaps in time between the cars are considerably narrowed. That means I am taking an unnecessary risk practically every time I need to leave my house by car.

I don't claim to be a perfect driver, and I've exceeded the speed limit myself on occasion and been guilty of other acts of dangerous driving. Nevertheless, whenever I am blocked for long minutes from exiting my own street, or have to take a chance to pull out into the infrequent gaps between the speeding cars on the boulevard, unsure of just how much in excess of the limit they might be traveling, I get annoyed at other drivers recklessly zooming through my neighborhood. They are endangering my life, as well as their own. Worse, they endanger my kids' lives. Watching my own kids learn to navigate this same busy intersection  has made me even more sensitive to the dangers posed by excessive speed on city streets. We could save a lot of lives, not to mention a lot of fuel, by drawing more attention to the problem of speeding.

When I read the news this weekend about the tragic death of Paul Walker, who was apparently a passenger in a souped-up Porsche that crashed into a pole in the town of Valencia north of Los Angeles, what amazed me was that hardly anybody commenting on this news was talking much about speeding. Aside from a few passing mentions that the police were looking into the possibility that speed was a factor in this single car collision, most of the commentary I was reading acted as  if Walker had been struck by lightning or taken from us in some other wholly unexpected way, instead of as a direct consequence of dangerous and illegal activities in which he frequently participated and which his movies have glorified. It now appears from early investigative reports that the car in which Walker was a passenger may been been traveling in excess of 100 miles an hour, on city streets, in a 45 MPH zone. Even the best race car driver cannot guarantee that at that speed, he would be able to avoid an unexpected pedestrian, or animal, or some other distraction. In this case, the driver was apparently unable to avoid a stationary light pole.

Like everyone else, I'm saddened by the senseless death long before his time of a talented performer, and especially by the loss suffered by his teenage daughter. But let's at least acknowledge the part that speed probably played in the tragedy. Speeding is not a fact of life we have to take for granted. It's a problem we could do something about.

I read that some of Walker's fans are burning rubber next to the spot where he met his end. If they really want to honor his memory, maybe they should just slow down instead.