How Can We Cure Our Chronic Illness of Police Murder?

The only thing new is our collective awareness of the problem. 

This week, two incidents of police violence are in the national spotlight.  The first, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, involved a man, Alton Sterling, selling CDs outside a gas station.  Two police officers threw the man violently against the hood of a car, forced him to the ground, pinned him in a prone position, and then shot him several times in the chest.  He died.

Across the country, in Minnesota, a man, Philando Castille, was pulled over for an allegedly busted tail light.  He had his girlfriend and a four-year-old in the car with him.  He told the officer that he had a (legal) firearm, but was going to retrieve his ID from his pocket.  The officer shot him several times in the arm and chest.  He died.

Both men were black.  All police involved were not.

This week’s tragedies are the latest installment in an ongoing narrative about police violence against black men.  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Dante Parker, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott. The list goes on.  Each time, there is outrage on social media, and the same tired choreography plays out in public: the authorities pledge to get to the bottom of things, usually in press conferences held by white leaders surrounding themselves with people of color.  Protesters chant and demand justice, remind us that black lives matter.  The right wing retorts that blue lives matter, or all lives matter.  There are investigations, sometimes charges are even brought, but more often they aren’t.  There are acquittals of those charged.  Rinse, repeat.

This parade of horribleness has been featured prominently in the culture these past few years, leading some- including me, at one time- to wonder: what’s changed?  Why is this happening now?

The sad truth is that nothing has changed.  This violence isn’t new.  What’s new is that we have become a society of camera-wielders.  We capture these deadly encounters.  Where a mere decade ago, Alton Sterling would be dismissed as another stupid criminal who pulled a gun on some cops and was killed, now we have evidence that directly, indisputably refutes the police account of his murder.  We have cell phone video from Minnesota, where we can see and hear the rabid, berserk police officer who had just killed Philando Castille, still inexplicably pointing his gun at the dying man and his girlfriend with a four year old child in the backseat.

The culture has changed.  People are aware, and with that awareness comes anger.  With that anger comes calls for accountability.  And as yet, there is no accountability.  Black teenagers are told that they must take great care not to provoke police, not to do anything that might be interpreted as threatening.  They get shot anyway.  Their very existence is perceived as a threat.  Police are not yet facing legal consequences.  Social consequences are ill-defined, trickier to employ.  George Zimmerman gained a following of idiots after shooting Trayvon Martin.  Society is sick.

I feel sick, watching this.  Sick, and helpless to make it right, or even to make it better.  Petitions and protests don’t seem to be working.  Spilled ink- or pixels, let’s update the metaphor- isn’t helping.  I’m a middle-class white male professional, full of privilege, and I can’t figure out how to leverage that privilege to stop this madness.  I want desperately to stand up and be counted as an ally, to affirm that black lives matter, but somehow my efforts seem at best futile, and at worst, appropriative of a movement and a mantle that isn’t mine to claim.

Thank you, Michael Heyliger, for your suggestion that would-be allies put pen to paper.  Expressing anger isn’t a solution, but it’s as good a first step as any.

-AG

Matt Santos Redux

Obama’s political team borrows a cliche, and ineffective, tactic from The West Wing.

For those of us who spent the earliest part of this century in disbelief at the election and re-election of George Bush, The West Wing was a refuge.  In Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasy, we could watch week-by-week as a brilliant president and his competent staff wrestled with political issues in an intelligent, thoughtful way, their decision based on public policy rather than monied interests and cynical political calculations.

Towards the end of the series, President Bartlet, portrayed by Martin Sheen, was termed out, and the show shifted its focus to the election battle between Republican candidate Arnold Vinick and Democratic candidate Matt Santos.  On election night, just as Santos was eking out a victory, his vice-presidential candidate, Leo McGarry (portrayed by the late John Spencer) died.  Typical Hollywood melodrama.

With his running mate dead, the president-elect had to select a new person to appoint.  Republicans threatened to make it a difficult confirmation process.  Santos decided to float the idea of nominating his former opponent, Arnold Vinick.  The two meet in the penultimate episode.

“I know your game,” Vinick says.  “Get me to say I’d consider it, then you have your people leak it to the press. You figure that’ll soften the Republicans and they’ll talk about a confirmation for Vinick.  Then you announce who you really want, which I assume is Baker. Then you put public pressure on the Senate to give the same speedy confirmation to Baker that they were gonna give to Vinick.”

This scene returned to my mind this week with the news that Obama is considering- just possibly- nominating Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to the Supreme Court.  Sandoval, a moderate Republican, is very popular in his state, and was seen as a rising star in the party before its sudden and precipitous lurch to the right.

Of course, no formal vetting has taken place, and the president has not said a word about Sandoval, but the mere rumors have already led the media to ask pointedly of Senate Republicans, what would you do if it was a member of your team nominated to the bench?

So far, the Republicans haven’t bought it.  I am not aware of a single member of the caucus who has softened their position based on a prospective Sandoval nomination.  It’s a good thing, too: I do not believe President Obama has any intention of nominating Brian Sandoval.  This leak, which is surely coming from his administration, is designed to put the Republicans in an even more ridiculous posture than they have put themselves, arguing that they will not give hearings or consideration to a nominee well before a nominee has been named.

Based on their bizarre and foolhardy opening salvos in the nomination fight, one might forgive Obama for assuming that the Matt Santos tactic would catch at least a handful of Senate Republicans with promises of consideration for the nominee.  However, they- and we- have not been so easily fooled.

In the end, Matt Santos nominated Vinick as Secretary of State, choosing a more preferred candidate for the vice-presidency.  Obama will likely nominate one of his preferred candidates- the smart money is on Sri Srinavasan but I’m personally hoping for Loretta Lynch- to the Supreme Court.

The Brian Sandoval name-floating is nothing more than a political gamble.  It appears to have failed.

-AG

Careful What I Wish For

Hell has cold days, too.

As I watched the returns from the New Hampshire primary this week, I sat by with a very distinct division of reactions.  The Democratic results felt like a body blow, while those of the Republicans elated me.

As you might surmise from those twin responses, I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton, the erstwhile front-runner for the Democratic nomination.  I never expected her to win New Hampshire, but was shocked by the margin of loss.  It was as though she never competed there at all.

On the other hand, the prospect of a Republican campaign with Donald Trump at the helm makes me almost giddy.  I can’t imagine a more flawed, hopeless candidate on a national level than The Donald.

I imagine this as a dramatic if not inevitable result of the Republican party’s shift towards radicalism in its primary process, a shift that causes their candidates to run far right in pursuit of the nomination.  The result has been, for several cycles, candidates who then need to lurch back towards the center (shake that Etch-a-Sketch, Mitt!) in an attempt to relate to the often-pursued, always-elusive moderate voter.

Now, perhaps, a Trump candidacy in the general election will be the one that breaks the system.  Trump has shown little appetite nor inclination to moderate his views based on the electorate, and some of his more extreme policy positions and comments will be extraordinarily hard to walk back.

It’s unlikely he can appeal to moderate voters.

Consequently, I have found myself rooting for Donald Trump, not because I support him- far from it!- but because I believe his nomination is the most favorable for the hopes of his eventual Democratic opponent.

It occurred to me, though, that my support for Trump is in actuality a yuge risk  (we both see what I did there, reader, let’s just agree to ignore it).  Thus far, Trump’s candidacy has been a master class in proving pundits and common sense prognosticators wrong.

He was never supposed to register on the national polls, nor be able to recover from speaking gaffes that would have sunk any other candidate, any other cycle.  He was never supposed to get near the front of the pack, nor sustain a lead.  He was never supposed to place near the top of the caucuses, nor win any states.  Common sense dictates that he will crash and burn before posing any real threat to the presidential election process.

He sure as hell wasn’t supposed to be the front-runner in mid-February.

So I, as a Democrat, sit comfortably back and watch the increasing panic in the Republican Party as their presidential hopes seem destined to settle on the absurdly-coiffed head of The Donald.  Of course, I assume, common sense dictates that once he is nominated, he will be overwhelmed by the Democratic candidate, who will likely provide coattails to other office-seekers, resulting in a Democratic landslide….

…and then it hit me.  I’m basing my own peace of mind on the same common sense set of political prognostications that Donald Trump has made a political career out of defying.  If he is nominated by the Republicans, there is a very real possibility that the rest of the GOP will hold their noses and support him, some enthusiastically.  The Republican Party is more adept than average at rationalizing political decisions that I find repellent.  It is also a very real possibility that the average voters- let’s not fall into the trap of idealizing the mostly-apathetic majority of voters in this country- will vote for him in unexpectedly high numbers.

It is possible that he will be elected President.

Once I recovered from that realization, and the dry-heaving that accompanied it, I took some time to seriously reconsider my opinions.  Here is what I have decided: I still don’t think he can win.  I still think a Trump nomination, or a Cruz nomination, to be fair, would absolutely devastate the Republican hopes of retaking the White House, and could help down-ticket.

I’m going to dial back the giddiness, however, until November 8th, circa 11pm Eastern Standard Time.

 

 

Published in: on February 12, 2016 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Money Screams

Is money in politics an intractable problem?

Courtesy of my Aunt Mikki, I read a fascinating article today about Lawrence Lessig’s Quixotic quest to bring about an “atomic” change to campaign finance law.  His approach is to help elect candidates pledging to support reform, but as even he concedes, any laws restricting spending are likely to be struck down as unconstitutional.

In my view, the Supreme Court has truly made this an intractable problem.  The issue is very real: in order to secure election, a candidate needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for every office.  Senate campaigns require millions.  Presidential races will soon be billion dollar enterprises.

This means, in practical terms, that our representatives are really only part-time public servants.  A large portion of their time must be spent courting donors and dialing for dollars.  This is an acknowledged problem, and a vast majority of us think it should be fixed.  A vast majority of us are also convinced that it won’t be.

Lessig is a great thinker; I most admire his effort to establish Creative Commons to address draconian copyright laws.  He is not a very savvy political operator, and from the narrative it appears the he reached too far, too fast.  Whether his efforts are ever met with success on the electoral front remains to be seen.

I want to address a more fundamental question: if we were able to reform campaign finance, what would the result look like?

After considering the problems and the extreme limitations on any effort at reform, I am most intrigued by a set of rules that would dramatically impair the right to use money on races outside one’s district or state of residence.  It would look something like this:

Only individuals (read: people, with flesh and blood, corporations and other entities excluded) can contribute to political campaigns.  There is no maximum limit on such contributions.  However, individuals can only contribute to races for seats that directly represent them in government, based on their actual residence.  All donations will be a matter of public record.  So-called “issue ads” are entirely permissible, but for nine months preceding an election, they may not use the name or likeness of a candidate.

Here is my reasoning: if we start from the premise that the Supreme Court treats monetary donations as a form of speech, we have to be very careful about restricting it.  Hence, no limit on individual expenditures.  The protections usually afforded by the option of anonymity in speech is in this case trumped by the compelling governmental interest in election transparency.

There is also legal precedent for restricting money-as-speech rights for outsiders.  We already restrict foreign citizens from contributing to our elections.  A restriction barring a Nevada resident from giving money to a Delaware senate race is a reasonable restriction to prevent Sheldon…ahem…said Nevada resident from exercising an undue amount of influence on an election for an office that does not represent him, er, them.

Similarly, these rules address the farcical distinction drawn by the Citizens United decision regarding “coordination” or “direct electoral appeals.”  First of all, I believe the constitutional concerns regarding association and speech are equally present in a rule forbidding “coordination,” if that rule has any real substance at all.  Isn’t engagement and association the backbone of democratic government?  Additionally, permitting ads saying “Senator Such and Such is a terrible human being, let him know!” while prohibiting ads saying “Vote against Senator Such and Such” makes little sense.  Both ads have comparable effects.

Prohibiting candidate names and likenesses while permitting issue ads means that only voters who actually know the issues on some level can be persuaded/manipulated by a high-dollar ad campaign.  The more aware a voter is, the less likely they are to be persuaded by crappy political advertisements.

There are, of course, several downsides to this approach. A billionaire activist could simply overwhelm his local house race under this rule, giving an unlimited amount of money directly to the campaign.  This concern is somewhat mitigated by the transparency rule.  Since the identity of the donor and the amount of the contributions are public, both the media and other concerned citizens could scrutinize these contributions and factor them in when casting their ballots.  “We all hate Mr. Moneybags, he has been a blight on our community, and he’s given a half million dollars to Senator Such and Such” would be an available line of attack, especially on a local level where the big contributors can be quickly identified and assessed.

In large statewide elections, the benefits are limited, and for the presidential election, they are virtually non-existent.  Electoral college reform merits its own full-length article, and would somewhat mitigate that problem.  The biggest impact would be felt in house races, which are already reaching monetary levels that seemed improbable even a decade ago.  This is crucial, because the House is designed to be a representative body for the people.

As I have previously discussed, our districts are too large, and should be made smaller and more responsive to constituent demands.  Fair and transparent elections, and our methods of funding and conducting them, are the foremost constituent demand.

Finally, prohibitions on corporate and entity-level contributions are currently held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but these donations are anathema to fair elections.  They permit an end-run around transparency laws, and allow the wealthy to funnel donations on a large and pervasive scale.  Simply put, this is a problem and needs to stop.  My hope is that the reforms described above, when considered as a whole, would pass constitutional muster.

I should probably conclude by cynically acknowledging that the likelihood of bringing this type of reform is almost zero.  The reason is that elected officials, with the powers and influence of incumbency, rely heavily on out-of-district and organizational/corporate donations to secure re-election. They are afraid to rely solely on the actual citizens they represent.

Which, when you consider it, is really the core of the problem.

-AG

Published in: on January 9, 2015 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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If My Thought-Dreams Could Be Seen

Discussing the guillotine lays bare some  uncomfortable truths about the death penalty.

Unlike most countries in the world, the United States sees capital punishment as a legitimate political choice.  32 of our 50 states have legalized the death penalty for some crimes, though some of those states seldom enforce it.

The death penalty has a long and troubling history in America. It has been with us since our founding, which is among the strongest arguments for its constitutionality.  However, squaring the practice with our founders’ intentions doesn’t resolve the fundamental question: is this an acceptable practice today?  There has also been a tremendous racial bias in its application, and black murderers are far more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts, even today.

I submit that the methods of carrying out the death penalty betray a real problem in public perception of capital punishment: we are accepting of state-sanctioned murder, as long as we are not required to face the reality of the sentence we are imposing on the condemned.  Our death penalty practices are more about protecting the sensitivities of the observers and the public, and less about effectuating the sentence in the most humane ways possible.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on the three most common methods of execution: lethal injection, electrocution, and asphyxiation (gas chamber).

Lethal injection is by far the most prevalent means of capital punishment in the United States.  It is also the most sterile to the observers.  In their view, the prisoner is simply put to sleep, like a terminally-ill pet.  Of course, the real function of the first drugs in the “cocktail” is to paralyze the muscles, so that even if the condemned is in excruciating pain when their heart is chemically stopped, they cannot physically express it.

This form of punishment has made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.  Other countries condemn the United States for what they term barbarism, and many have forbidden the sale of necessary chemicals to the United States for use in executions. The result has been new cocktails, some of which have been catastrophic failures, with inmates waking up and screaming during what was supposed to be a nice, quiet execution.

Electrocution, likewise, is designed to be sterile for the observer.  The prisoner has a hood placed over their head so that their agonized expression as they are exposed to lethal currents is hidden from the audience.  This form of punishment also focuses on stopping the heart, which anyone who has had a heart attack will tell you is an excruciatingly painful experience.  We hide the faces so that we don’t need to face the consequences of our political choices.

The gas chamber is similar in that it is not quick, it is not painless, but it is relatively mild from the perspective of the observer.  While this method has fallen into relative disuse, it is still the third most common form of execution in America, and once again, the black hood is employed to lessen the impact on the fragile viewing audience, who sees a hooded figure thrash a bit, and then slump forward.

Of course, one need not look far for a form of execution that is instant, painless, and effective.  The guillotine, infamous for its use during the reign of terror in France, operates by means of a large blade, and gravity.  The condemned has their head separated from their body in a fraction of a second, which causes instant death, some urban legends to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is absolutely no question this would be a more effective and less painful means of execution, a more humane way to perform the inherently inhumane act of murder.  So why is it completely ignored in America?

The answer lies in our real motivation for choosing methods of execution.  The goal is not to be humane, it is to be considerate of the public, and the observers.  True, the guillotine would be less ghastly than our currently-used methods of killing prisoners, but it would also be bloody, and graphic.  It would undeniably show that these are not people drifting gently off to sleep, they are being killed, by the state, on purpose.

For this reason, it will never be utilized.  There is zero chance that politicians would sign off on bringing back the guillotine for executions.  This fact should cause us to take a step back and consider, are we really behind this practice?  If we choose to countenance a death penalty, can we face the consequences of our actions?

Published in: on November 4, 2014 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Weather is Too Damn Cold

An open letter to New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio

Dear Mayor DeBlasio,

I am an attorney and resident of Flushing, and write to call your attention to a major climate issue in need of your prompt resolution.

As you are probably aware, this winter has been defined by extended cold, voluminous snow, and substantial wind chill.  As a result, we have experienced transit delays, dangerous road conditions, and difficulty enjoying the outdoor attractions of our fine city.

As our mayor, I urge you to act.  Cold temperatures of this magnitude are simply unacceptable for a major metropolitan city.  It  has slowed our business, and directly denigrated our quality of life.  If New York does not act immediately to improve our weather, we risk losing jobs and upwardly-mobile professionals to more successful climate programs in such places as San Diego and Miami.

In an age when global warming is being debated in Congress, it is incumbent upon you to ensure that some of the additional degrees are appropriated to New York.  This common-sense action will have an immediate and appreciable impact on each and every New Yorker, and would go a long way towards securing both your administration’s success, and your future re-election.

I understand that many of these issues were inherited from the previous administration, but I urge you to make weather improvement a top priority in the weeks and months ahead.

Respectfully,

~Andrew

 

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 3:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Thanks for Letting Me Choose

Thanking our veterans is more than a cliche or a perfunctory exercise in patriotism- it is sincere, and deserved

I have never served in the armed forces.  Frankly, I never wanted to- I didn’t grow up in a military family, and my interests and talents tilted in a different direction from a very early age.  I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a writer, or something academic or political; military service did not appeal to me.  Also, crucially, and never-to-be-taken-for-granted, I had a choice.  I did not have to serve.

That is precisely why I am so grateful for our veterans.  Because so many people volunteer, people like me can make a choice, and can choose not to serve if our interests and abilities lie elsewhere.  It hasn’t always been that way in America, and it isn’t that way in many other places in the world.  We have a choice, and we only have that choice because of our volunteers.

During the World Wars of the early to mid-twentieth century, military service was mandated for most able-bodied males.  My grandfather served, as did a great part of his generation.  They were never asked if they felt that military service would benefit their careers, or help them with college, or provide generous benefits.  They were simply told that they were needed, and off they went.

In my father’s generation, the Vietnam conflict-but-not-technically-a-War was much more contentious, and many people in America were against our involvement.  The politics were not as straightforward as in the European wars of a few decades before.  My own father- who shares a birthday with Bill Clinton- was only spared deployment because his “draft number” in the lottery was chosen quite low on the list.  Fate, luck, and family connections determined who was given a choice, and who was required to serve.

Today, our military is all-volunteer, and the prospect of a draft is virtually unthinkable.  I still have my selective service card- one is required for, among other things, student aid- but I keep it more as a memento than a “retrieve in case of emergency” item.

Part of the reason we have this choice is the evolution of warfare because of technology, but we still require trained, professional soldiers to fly our planes, man our bases, deploy our weapons, and maintain a vigilant defense.  Our limited successes in Iraq and Afghanistan were attributable to political missteps, not any failure on a part of our armed forces.  Our great victories, including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, showcase how powerful and effective our armed forces really are.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, America is still the “force majeur” in the world.  We project our military strength throughout every part of the globe, which both keeps us safe, and deters others from military mischief.  We do this with an army made up entirely of volunteers.

Too often, the debate about cutting military spending is reduced to an attack on our troops.  As one of the frequent advocates for reducing military spending, I can tell you that reduction is completely misplaced.  I support our troops unconditionally, and when I talk about reducing military spending, I have in mind budget-busting armaments, not pay cuts for personnel.

I often hear that some people choose military service because there are no other good options for employment, or education, or advancement, particularly among the less-affluent.  While I am sure the incentives to service play a role in some soldiers’ decisions to enlist, I reject any inference that this makes their service somehow less admirable or less commendable.  My ethos does not require that the decision to join up be made out of patriotism or service alone.  It’s much more simple than that:

I don’t have to serve, because they do.

So, soldiers past and present, you’re going to hear this a lot today, but it’s important, and while I tend towards wordiness I want to tell it to you straight:

Thank You.

~Andrew

Published in: on November 11, 2013 at 11:36 am  Comments (1)  
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Could Wyoming be the Answer?

Congressional districts are not performing as intended, and it is time for a change.  

When I first moved to New York, one of the first things I did was head over to house.gov to find out who would be my new representative.

I’m sure that isn’t exactly a list-topper on most people’s relocation  checklists, but I try to stay engaged in politics, and wanted to be sure I knew who purported to speak on my behalf on capitol hill.

Having identified my member, a Democrat named Grace Meng, I decided to take an additional step that I assumed- wrongly- would be fairly easy.

I wanted to meet her.  I wanted to meet my representative.

Now, I’m not talking about an hour-long meeting to advocate on my issues, debate policy, or lobby for a particular piece of legislation.  My goal was to get a quick handshake and perhaps a three minute conversation to introduce myself, express my support, and pay my respects.  My thinking was that I often write to my member about pending legislation, and my voice might be more effective if the member knows who the hell I am.

What I did not expect was the reaction from Congresswoman Meng’s office when I made this request; they were completely flummoxed.  They told me that she does not keep office hours to meet with constituents, and that if I wanted a meeting, I would have to be a member of a community or lobbying group.  Instead, they offered me a meeting with one of her aides.

I explained, per above, that my sole goal was to get a handshake and a few minutes of introduction.  They flatly told me this was not an option, but helpfully suggested that I could attend one of her town hall meetings, where she “sometimes” shakes hands at the rope line.

Now, one of the often-voiced criticisms of Congress is that lobbyists have too loud a voice, but I was certainly not expecting that unless I were a lobbyist, I could not even request a brief meeting with my member.    So, I did a little bit of research.

During the days of our country’s founding, when the whole legislative system was being designed, George Washington was known for being a peacemaker who seldom advocated for any particular outcome.  However, the one time he actually advocated a position during the Continental Congress, he argued that representative districts of 40,000 people were too large, and that 30,000 was a more appropriate number.  Consequently, the first congressional districts had approximately 30,000 people per member of Congress.

Today, there are on average over 700,000 people living in each district, with variations based on the population of the state.    This is over twenty times the original number, and has made constituent contact far more unwieldy.  How can a member of Congress adequately represent my issues if she doesn’t even have the time to meet with me, unless I belong to a lobby or group?

The rate of growth in Congress has not kept pace with other modern democracies.  We have picked a number of representatives- 435- and we stick with it no matter how large our population grows.  That number was established in 1912, when the population was only 92,000,000; today it has more than tripled.  As a consequence, our voices as voters are diluted in what is ostensibly the people’s house.

Among the competing proposals to fix this problem is what is known as the Wyoming plan.  Here’s how it works: every state is entitled to at least one representative, no matter how small.  Wyoming is currently the smallest state (population around 575,000).  That means your vote counts more in Wyoming than it does in a larger state, like California or New York.

The Wyoming plan would set the size of congressional districts at the population of the smallest state, as counted in the census. This would have the dual benefits of reducing the number of people per district, and making our individual votes more equal than they are today.  If the Wyoming system were currently in effect, there would be around 530 representatives, or 95 more than there are today.

In a healthy democracy, our voices are heard through our representatives.  The system is definitely broken when our representatives do not have time to meet with us, no matter how briefly.  Reducing the size of congressional districts will make the body more accessible, responsive, and responsible to the needs and demands of we, the people.

~Andrew

Published in: on November 7, 2013 at 11:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Where (not) to Park in New York

Car ownership in the city is an expensive, needlessly complicated enterprise. 

When my wife and I first decided to relocate to New  York, one of our first major decisions was to give up one of our two cars.  Even though we intended to live in the “boroughs” (which for you non-New Yorkers means any part of New York City that is not Manhattan), we reasoned that one car should be sufficient, especially given the prominence of public transportation.

This was not an easy decision, since for most of our adult lives, having a car represented a degree of independence. By relying on a single vehicle for two people, we were each becoming somewhat less self-sufficient.

After six months of living here, I’m not sure we made the right decision.  I think we might have been better off not having a car at all.

The reasons for this are three-fold: transportation realities, cost, and the nightmare of “New York car management.”

In our everyday lives, we seldom drive.  We both have unlimited passes for New  York’s public transit system, which is absolutely world-class.  At any time of day or night, we can move from one point in the city to another with relative ease.  Sure, public transit involves a certain amount of waiting, detours, and Encounters with Weird People, but overall the system is efficient, reliable, and accessible.  Also, it gives me time to read, which is a major plus in my book.

For the few times we actually use the car (we have filled up the tank a total of three times in the last six months), the costs of owning one are tremendous.  Even with my flawless driving record, and my wife’s almost-sterling record, the insurance costs are quite high.   Add to these a car payment, and the miscellaneous fees of registration, and the amount becomes quite significant.  Unfortunately, there is an additional layer of costs associated with having a car, and which fall under my broader heading of “New York car management.”

New York’s greatest shortcoming relates to the problem of having too many people in too little space.  Parking is not an exception.  For reasons I may never fully understand, the city does not have many parking garages, and most parking in Flushing is on surface streets.  For the vast majority of those streets, there is a one-and-a-half hour period each week where the street becomes “no parking” for street sweepers.  This means that even if you don’t intend on driving regularly, at least once per week a driver must move the car to a new spot, circling for many minutes to find one of the few available spaces.  If you are spatially challenged (i.e. can’t parallel park), this is even more difficult.  I’m looking at you, mirror.

Even when a spot is located, one must take great care to check, and double-check, that the spot is in fact legal.  Parking restrictions are not always well-marked or clear, and often the signs are contradictory.  The parking cops are everywhere, and they are fast to pounce.  I have received tickets when the “no parking” sign was facing the wrong spot, when my parking tag inadvertently flipped upside-down on my dashboard, and several times while waiting for registration documents.  The appeals process is heavily weighted against the driver, with a barely-rebuttable presumption of guilt.

Last week, after many minutes of circling, I found a spot that was clearly marked “no parking Fridays 10-11:30,” which is as close as New  York will give you to a “yes, it’s okay to park here” indication.  As it was Friday evening, I parked, patted myself on the back, and went about my life.  On Saturday, I happened past and discovered that my car was no longer there.

At this point, like any jaded New York driver, I looked around to ascertain where, exactly, I had screwed up.  It turns out that there was a construction awning, which has been a feature of this portion of road for months without any actual construction taking place.  Halfway up the scaffolding, all but invisible unless one crossed the street and looked back at it, was a dark sign that said “no standing anytime.”  They had busted me; I had been towed.

Retrieving a car from the self-styled “tow pound” is quite difficult, as they did not think to put said “pound” on any major lines of public transportation.  The facility is located in a neighborhood from which one might not return, particularly if you walk through it at night.  The cost of retrieving a vehicle is over $200, which includes “storage fees,” even for the days they are not open.  These are, of course, in addition to the ticket.

In my current position, having a car is a big plus; it allows me to quickly commute to Nassau county for court appearances, or to Queens if time precludes public transit.  However, the city seems to be doing everything in its power to make owning a car and obeying its parking rules difficult.  Our family includes two professionals, and we struggle with the costs.  I cannot imagine how out-of-reach it makes car ownership to people with smaller incomes.  Moreover, for those who are less fluent in English, the misleading, deceptive, and contradictory parking regulations must be a cash-cow for the city’s finances.

Perhaps that is the point, to make car ownership an unattractive option and encourage the more environmentally-friendly practice of public transit.  While I acknowledge the merit of that goal, the effect of New York’s parking regulations is to make car ownership an option only available to a small segment of its population, and not a very attractive option, at that.

~Andrew

 

Published in: on August 7, 2013 at 11:31 am  Comments (1)  
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A Time to Fight

Why is nobody talking about preemptive war in Korea?

I support peace, and generally oppose war.

Of course, it is highly popular to express after-the-fact opposition to the Iraq war, but I have some bona fides: I organized and led a class boycott at the University of Kentucky when we first invaded.  I even opposed the Afghanistan war, a position I later realized was an error, as we are better off for our decision to dismantle the Taliban.

I start with that bit of “about-the-author” background because it colors my views on the emergent conflict in the Koreas.  The Iraq conflict in particular provides us with an interesting context for evaluating Korea.

We were told, falsely, that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.  It was further posited that we could not allow a brutal, unstable tyrant to possess nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong Un, the young ruler of North Korea, comes from a line of tyrants.  However malleable the term “brutal, unstable tyrant” may be, suffice it to say he falls within most rational definitions.  He has nuclear weapons, and has defiantly tested them.

We were told, falsely, that Iraq posed a threat to its neighbors, and that it had ambitions to attack other nations in its region.

North Korea, by contrast, has threatened repeatedly to use its nuclear arsenal on its neighbors, Japan, and the United States.  It currently lacks the delivery mechanism to bring nuclear weapons to our shores, but it is working on them; it recently launched a satellite into orbit.

We were also told, accurately as it turns out, that Hussein’s regime was committing human rights abuses against its own people, and that moral considerations militated (no pun intended) for intervention.

The human rights abuses in North Korea make Hussein’s Iraq seem downright pleasant.  It is an entirely closed society, with pervasive censorship, authoritarianism, and a populace kept starving while the military ranks among the largest in the world.

Based on the now-discredited “case against Iraq” from the Bush years, it appears that North Korea checks all the boxes.  North Korea is everything we falsely claimed Iraq was prior to invading.

The recent escalation in both rhetoric and action is incredibly unnerving.  We are dealing with a brutal dictator, oppressing his people beyond the bounds of human rights, and openly threatening to attack America and its neighbors with both conventional weapons, and the nuclear weapons we are absolutely sure he possesses.

The response of America, and the world, to North Korea baffles me.  What outcome do we expect?  It is a matter of time before either the dictator is overthrown- unlikely given the imbalance of power and lack of communication with the outside world- or Kim Jong Un acquires the means to bring a nuclear attack to our shores.  Alternatively, he could sell his nuclear arsenal to “interested third parties,” such as Iran or international terrorist groups.

I believe it is time for a more robust debate about whether military intervention is appropriate in Korea, and if so, how to go about it in a way that will minimize casualties, and the risk of the regime using its nuclear arsenal.  I make that assertion reluctantly, but confidently.  For all the reasons intervention in Iraq was a mistake, intervention in Korea may be appropriate, and ultimately necessary, to prevent terrible consequences in the near future.

As far as I can tell, this debate is not yet taking place, on either side of the political aisle.

~Andrew

Published in: on April 1, 2013 at 6:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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