This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lessons From the Reagan Presidency

            In December 1987, following a three-day summit in Washington, D.C., Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed on a set of nuclear arms reductions. Conservative columnist George Will wrote, “December 8 will be remembered as the day the Cold War was lost.” Other commentators of similar persuasion were equally harsh or more so.
            Less than two years later, the Berlin Wall came down. Some loss.
            This is not to ridicule Will. Anybody who writes opinion for a living is going to be spectacularly wrong more than once. The questions of interest today are the mentality of the true believer and the difficulty of understanding, at any given moment, what’s really happening behind the headlines.
            I’m thinking about that having just finished Richard Reeves’ excellent book, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. Reeves attempts, and largely succeeds at telling the story of Reagan’s presidency the way it looked as it was happening. Knowing what we know now, it’s a bit jarring.
            The episode just cited, for instance, is a cautionary reminder that a true believer may be wrong not only in what he believes, but also in understanding what may or may not be advancing the cause. A critical difference between Reagan and many on the anti-Communist right is that they feared the Soviet Union and feared that it would win the Cold War. Reagan never doubted that they were losing and would lose, and in that, he was right.
            Historians give us the gift of seeing the whole picture in a much more compressed fashion, hence more clearly. Walking with Reeves through Reagan’s eight years, you see connections and repetitions that you didn’t see when you were living through it one day at a time, following the news but also trying to live the rest of your life. You also see how things that seemed incredibly important at the time ended up being not so important after all.
            When Korean Airlines Flight 007 was shot down by the Soviet Union after it strayed into Siberian airspace in 1983, many people saw it as a sign of communist perfidy that would irreversibly damage relations between the Soviets and Americans. Reagan had the good sense to talk tough but do nothing rash, and the whole thing blew over. Seen from today’s perspective, that incident was a footnote in the history of the Cold War.
            (Even more forgotten was a parallel incident, in which a U.S. warship shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, killing 290 utterly innocent passengers and crew members. Yet another history lesson: Any country can make that sort of tragic mistake.)
            Reading Reeves’ book, one is also struck by how much of any president’s time is spent reacting to unexpected circumstances. During his eight years in office, Reagan had to deal with four different Soviet leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev), the crisis in Lebanon, numerous hostage situations, problems with mercurial staff members (anybody remember Secretary of State Alexander Haig?), Grenada, and the British invasion of the Falkland Islands. In those eight years, Reagan was hospitalized three times (once after being nearly killed by an assassin), and his wife, Nancy, was treated for breast cancer.
            Twenty two years after Reagan left office, the people who attacked him for losing the Cold War are praising him for winning it (he didn’t do either, really) and he has become a saint to the American right. Reeves ends his book with a quote from Steven Weisman, a Times White House correspondent, reacting to the eulogies when Reagan died. “God, this is impressive,” he said, “but the man they’re talking about is not the President I covered every day.”
            Or, as another newspaperman said in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Friday, May 27, 2011

When Good Friends Wind up in Court

            This is a story about some people who were neighbors — more than that, really — for 16 years. They had dinner at each other’s homes, went on vacations together, and put on a huge spring party together every year. About ten years ago they became joint owners of a single piece of land on which they both had houses. They probably expected to be Best Friends Forever and live happily ever after. Instead they wound up on opposite sides of a courtroom in front of a jury.
            It’s also a story of the housing crash of 2008, which infected that friendship like a virus sucking the life out of a computer’s hard drive. I was on the jury, and this is the broad outline of the facts as they were presented to us.
            The Contractor, a youthful looking man in late middle age, had been living on the property in an illegal outbuilding for 20 years when the owners sold it to him in the early 1990s. It was a beautiful piece of land on the North Coast of Santa Cruz, CA — a secluded three quarters of an acre on a creek, with two modest size houses and a guest cottage.
            The Couple rented one of the houses a few years later, became great friends with the Contractor, and at the dawn of the new millennium proposed to buy a half-interest in the land and buildings from him. They quickly struck a deal, and he carried 93 percent of their purchase price in the form of an 8 percent note.
            Fast-forward to late 2007. The Couple had agreed to refinance the loan at this time, and they were looking to get additional money toward an office they wanted to buy and to do some home improvements. Given the sharp increase in their equity, Washington Mutual — which at that time was throwing money around indiscriminately — agreed to loan them more than twice as much as they had initially paid for their half of the property. The contractor was happy to co-sign the loan, which closed in early 2008; there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his friends.
            Six months later, the real estate market went into the toilet.
            At first there was no practical impact, but in late 2009, the Contractor decided to tap into his equity on the property. The appraisal found that the value of the property had dropped by a third, which meant that the Couple’s refinanced loan accounted for nearly 70 percent of the total , and banks were only loaning on 60 percent.
            The Couple and the Contractor tried to figure out a way of refinancing the property to allow him to get back some equity, but a succession of misunderstandings and miscommunications led to growing bewilderment and suspicion. One night the Contractor went over to the Couple’s house to talk to the wife, who was there by herself. The conversation occurred in parallel dimensions. She came away from it claiming she feared for her safety, if not for her life. He came away claiming he had been agitated, upset, and frustrated and had raised his voice slightly, but no more.
            On the following day the Contractor left on a two-week vacation. By the time he returned, the Couple had moved out altogether and instructed their attorney to notify the Contractor that all future communications from him to them should go through the attorney.
            A few months later they agreed to a mediation to attempt to work out a plan for the Contractor to buy out the Couple’s interest in the property. The mediator came up with a one-page handwritten “settlement agreement” for that, but when the Couple’s attorney attempted to develop that into a more complete document, further misunderstanding and suspicion occurred and the Contractor backed out of the deal. The Couple sued him for Breach of Contract, Ouster, and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.
            That was the case we tried, and in the end we ruled in favor of the Contractor on the narrow grounds that the Couple hadn’t adequately proved their claim. In the privacy of the jury room, a number of us admitted that we really didn’t understand what had happened and were saddened by the whole proceeding.
            One of the jurors said, “The way their friendship was described, I was envious. I’ve never had that kind of friendship, and I felt bad that it broke up over all this.” I agree with the sentiment. The loss of a good friendship is one of life’s greatest damages, and no legal system or jury can ever provide adequate compensation for that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Public Employee Pension Elephant

            Since the beginning of the year it would appear, if you follow the news and the polls, that public employees are catching up with lawyers, politicians and puppy-killers as the least popular groups of people in America. Increasingly we seem to begrudge them their jobs, their salaries, their benefits, and particularly their pensions.
            That last item is the big one. By any reckoning the public-employee pension funds in California, where I live, are underfunded with respect to the payouts they will have to make. As the economy and the markets improve, so will that situation to some degree, but there remains a systemic problem (opinions differ on how great) that must be addressed.
            In virtually all discussion about public employee costs to the taxpayer, there is a missing element that I suspect is little understood by the public at large: When we talk about public employee costs and pensions, we are in large measure talking about the cost of police, firefighters and other public safety employees.
            Our county’s daily newspaper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, has been doing an in-depth series on local public pensions, and it makes that point very clear. For example, six of the top ten pensioners in the City of Santa Cruz are retired police or fire officials, and their annual pensions range from $134,460 to $175,129.
            In Watsonville, the second-largest city in the county, seven of the top ten pensioners are retired police and fire officials, with annual pensions ranging from $105,856 to $187,438.
            Both cities contribute dramatically more money to police and fire pensions than they do to the pensions of other employees. In the current fiscal year, the city of Santa Cruz is contributing 36 percent of a police employee salary toward pensions; 41 percent of fire employee salary; and 13 percent of salary for other employees. (Employees also contribute varying lesser amounts.)
            Watsonville’s comparable figures are 27 percent for police employees; 20 percent for fire employees; and 13 percent of salary for other employees.
            And on top of the pension costs is the fact that these departments eat up a lion’s share of the total budget. According to the Sentinel article, 56 percent of the City of Santa Cruz general-fund budget is police and firefighter salaries (I assume that includes benefits). That pretty much means that you can’t talk about the cost of cutting city government without cutting police and firefighters. Already those men and women are agreeing to contribute more to their pensions and modify the system so future retirees will receive less.
            If you look at other towns around the country, I suspect the figures would be similar. Does that mean that we’re paying too much for our public safety employees? I can’t answer that one. These are people who suit up for work every day knowing that they could be shot at or that the may have to run into a burning building, where the stability of the roof is doubtful. Also, the higher pension numbers cited apply to the lucky. Many police officers and firefighters don’t last long enough to collect a full pension because on-the-job injuries require them to give up their uniforms at a relatively young age.
            A concluding note: I can pass on this information because Sunday’s newspaper carried eight articles on local pensions, written by seven different reporters. Knowing what it takes to get this sort of information, I doubt it was obtained with a quick phone call or a few keystrokes on the computer. How many bloggers would have the time or know-how to run this all down? To ask that question is to answer another: Do we still need newspapers?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Jury I Never Got to Serve on

            I’ve been on a jury this week, and that’s all the judge allows us to say for the moment. I’m not complaining, though. After what happened the last time I was called to jury duty, I was more than due.
            It was a number of years ago. We all gathered in the waiting room, then were taken to a courtroom, where the judge announced that we would be hearing a case of a man charged with drunk driving and resisting arrest.
            Twelve jurors and six alternates were drawn from the list and seated. The judge asked them a series of questions, including whether they were related to anyone in law enforcement or knew anyone who had been arrested for drunk driving.
            One of the twelve jurors was a man in his sixties who looked like he was dressing to be dismissed. He had a five-day growth of beard and was wearing a frayed pair of khaki trousers liberally doused with paint stains and an untucked plaid flannel shirt that looked to be about two decades old. When the judge finished asking the questions, this juror suddenly piped up:
            “You forgot something, your honor.”
            The judge was clearly taken aback, but in an attempt to be people-friendly, he said, “Oh. And what did I forget?”
            The juror replied, “You forgot to ask if any of us have ever been charged with drunk driving and resisting arrest. Because I have.”
            Laughter erupted in the courtroom, and even the judge smiled. He thanked the juror for his honesty and continued. After the attorneys asked a few questions, they began dismissing jurors. Six of the original twelve were excused and replaced by alternates, and six more alternate jurors were chosen. I was number six.
            We were run through the questions, and then the attorneys again began dismissing jurors. The five alternate jurors ahead of me were placed on the jury, and the guy with the paint-stained pants and drunk driving arrest was still on. At that point I was resigned to serving.
            It was the defense attorney’s turn to exercise a challenge, and he stood up and said, “The defense is satisfied with the jury, your honor.”
            Then the prosecutor stood up and said, “The people are satisfied with the jury, your honor.”
            And I thought, “You ------- idiot! I mean, thank you for letting me off the hook, but what were you thinking when you decided to leave that guy on the jury?”
            Because the trial was expected to last only a couple of days, they decided they didn’t need alternate jurors, so I was excused along with the others who hadn’t yet been called, and my service was done. The next few times I got a jury summons, I never had to go in.
            I did wonder about how the case turned out, and since I worked for the newspaper at the time, it was easy to find out. The following week, I asked the reporter who covered the courts if he could look it up. A few hours later, he called back.
            “Interesting you asked me about that one,” he said. “The whole courthouse is talking about it. Apparently it was as open-and-shut a case of drunk driving and resisting arrest as you could ask for, but there was one guy who, for some reason, wouldn’t vote to convict. They ended up with a hung jury.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Small Government, No Lawyers, and Unicorns

            When Bill Clinton declared in 1995 that “The era of big government is over,” he was acting in the great political tradition of telling people what they wanted to hear — even if it was a lie.
            It was a shrewd lie, because it went to the heart of a deep-seated American belief in the myth of small government, an entity as imaginary and elusive as the unicorn. Clinton was far too smart to believe that this country could be effectively ruled by a small government, and he was no doubt using the sweeping statement to give himself some political cover as he acted to protect essential government services from a determined opposition.
            Thomas Jefferson was the leading exponent of small government among our founding fathers, and at the time he had a plausible, if ultimately wrong case. He realized, though, that it depended on America remaining a largely rural nation of small communities rooted in agriculture. Had his view prevailed, we would be more like Portugal today than the superpower we are.
            (In fairness to Jefferson, once he became president, he had the sense to veer from his small-government philosophy when circumstances warranted. His defining act as president was the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the nation and drove it farther into debt. It was worth every penny.)
            A century after Jefferson’s presidency the country had physically grown to its present size and become industrialized. In the first two decades of the Twentieth Century the federal government was breaking up industrial trusts, creating the Federal Reserve System and establishing an income tax to fund its larger scope of activities.
            These were all steps in the necessary direction, but it wasn’t until the New Deal that the social contract was rewritten to reflect the new American reality. As the historian Sean Wilentz wrote, interpreting the work of the great Richard Hofstadter:
            “The Populists, he argued, were gripped by both sentimental Jeffersonian rural mythology and provincial conspiracy mongering, whereas the New Dealers were consummate realists and experimenters who had adapted to the urban industrial age … The New Dealers … although similar in some ways to the progressives, understood the limitations of the old individualism in a modern corporate society, and were more interested in curbing capitalism’s ills than in achieving moral and political purity.”
            Although the New Deal was highly popular in its time, it generated a strain of fierce and deeply emotional opposition, remnants of which persist to this day. I think those feelings stem from the sorts of things Wilentz was talking about. A part of us, even when we know better, wants to believe in the fondly (if inaccurately) remembered small-town America, where people took care of each other and men of honor conducted business with a handshake and no lawyers.
            Elements of that American ideal persist today, and they’re good as far as they go. Whenever I read a news story about friends and neighbors raising money to pay for a family’s medical expenses, my first reaction is how wonderful it is that so many people care. My second reaction is how appalling it is that they had to do it because we lack universal health care in this country. You don’t see stories like that in English or French newspapers.
            Try to imagine the needs covered by Social Security and Medicare being provided on a neighborly basis, which would be the first step toward having small government. It wouldn’t be very long before bureaucracy started looking mighty attractive.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Riddle of the Tenth Problem

                  Calvin Coolidge, a president known less for genuine understanding than for rhetorical banalities such as “The business of America is business,” had at least one profound insight.
                  Silent Cal once observed that if you see ten problems coming down the road in your direction, there’s no need to panic. Nine of those problems, he said, will run off the road and into a ditch before they ever get to you.
                   Anyone who takes a long view of things, or who’s just been around and observant for a while, would have to admit there’s considerable wisdom in that point of view. Remember the Missile Gap?
                  Back in 1960, John Kennedy campaigned for president by attacking the Eisenhower administration for allowing the U.S. to fall behind the Soviet Union in missiles, jeopardizing our national security. Years later it turned out there never was such a gap. In fact, it turned out the Soviet Union was rotting from within and was never the threat we feared it to be for decades. Just another problem that ran into the ditch.
                  In both those cases a perceived problem was blown out of proportion because of bad information. Either we didn’t know, or what we knew for a fact turned out not to be so. See also Hussein, Saddam, and Weapons of Mass Destruction, another scary problem that would have run off the road and into a ditch had we but let it.
                  Remember Ross Perot and his flip charts in the 1992 Presidential Election? He had half the voters and nearly all the pundits believing that America was going over the cliff because of our enormous federal deficits. Bill Clinton won the election, got one tax increase through Congress, the economy took off, and six years later, the deficit was no problem.
                  That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has a memory or who has studied U.S. history in the most cursory manner. America has had serious debt on a number of occasions and been able to use its resources and can-do character to get out of the hole.
                  None of this should be taken as an argument for complacency and evasion. The prospect of nuclear war never became the ultimate Tenth Problem, because for four decades, under eight presidents (four Republicans and four Democrats), the Cold War was wisely managed through a policy of containment and engagement. The deficit scare before this one was resolved much more quickly than it might have been thanks to one tax increase. And it’s hard to believe that the housing bubble (combined with the witches’ brew of financial instruments that kept it going) would have become a Tenth Problem if there had been even modestly better legislation and regulation.
                  Most of the things that worry us can be kept from reaching the Tenth Problem stage through due diligence, reasonable policy and the occasional shrewd action, coupled with a bit of luck and unforeseen circumstance. The larger problem is that in a political climate where both sides try to gin up public apprehension for political benefit, it’s hard to pinpoint the one thing we should really be afraid of at the moment.
                  So of all the scary things out there now, which is the Tenth Problem? Nukes in Iran or North Korea? Global warming? The federal deficit? China’s Financial growth?  Problems with the public schools? We don’t know, and all we can hope is that some good people will apply their talents toward making all of the above run into the ditch. A little luck wouldn’t hurt, either.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Memoirs of a Little League Coach

            The other evening I took a walk around the perimeter of one of our local parks and passed a Little League game in progress. There was a steady stream of adult chatter going on, directed at the players, and it reminded me again of what a thinking game baseball is.
            A decade ago my son put in two seasons in Little League, and both years I was an assistant coach working with the manager. The part of the experience I remember most is how hard it was for the kids to learn the game. It’s not surprising because in every situation there are a lot of options and a good player needs to instantaneously and automatically act out the right one.
            Suppose you’re playing second base with runners on first and second and the batter hits a ground ball. If the ball’s hit to your left, you need to field it cleanly and get the out at first base. If the ball’s hit right at you or to your right, you go to second base for the forceout. If it’s a slow grounder that you have to charge, you make the play at first if you can, but if not, you pull up and hold the ball to make sure the runners don’t advance more than a base. If the ball’s hit to the left side of the infield, you have to cover second base for a force play.
            That’s the way we taught it, anyway. Major league players can do much more than that, but we wanted to keep it simple and make sure they got an out somewhere if at all possible. If your team’s on the field in Little League, an out, any out anywhere, is your best friend.
            In Little League, as in war, things rarely go the way you plan them. The manager and coaches were always yelling directions to the players, and even when the directions were consistent (which, I regret to say, was not always the case), they were rarely followed.
            Take the scenario described three paragraphs earlier. No matter how many times we shouted from the dugout, “Easiest and closest out,” the players generally had a different idea. If the ball was hit to the second baseman’s left, at least half the time he would ignore the easy out at first and instead throw to third base, where the runner had already arrived before the throw was in the air. I don’t recall seeing any such throw that arrived at the vicinity of third base lower than ten feet over the third baseman’s glove — if, indeed the third baseman was in position, which was no sure thing. If the ball came down enough to ricochet off the fence behind third base, it would angle into left field. That gave the left fielder, who rarely got much business, something to do — assuming, of course, that he was following the game and not counting dandelions.
            It was enough to give a coach heartburn, and it was cold comfort that most of the other teams played that way, too.
            Still, the teams did improve a bit as the season wore on and they practiced more. And I suspect it was the kids’ first real exposure to the idea that every situation has options that are right or wrong (or better or worse), and that you have to know what you’re doing. If they took that lesson away from the field at the end of the season, it was a more valuable one than knowing which base to throw to. Just don’t get me started on base runners who forget how many outs there are.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

If You Can't Beat the Logic, Look for Bias

            Proponents of Proposition 8 — the 2008 ballot measure that overturned a California Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage — have become the orphans of the legal system. Aside from the newspaper industry, it’s hard to imagine a group that’s had a rougher time of things the past few years.
            When the constitutionality of Proposition 8 was challenged in federal court, both the Republican Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Democratic Attorney General, Jerry Brown, pronounced it a losing cause and declined to involve the state in its defense.
            Federal Judge Vaughn Walker, appointed by President Bush the First, presided over the trial last year, and in June 2010 issued a ruling overturning Proposition 8 in no uncertain terms. As the case winds its way through appeals, polls continue to show a growing support for gay marriage among Americans. Many leading Republicans now see the issue as a loser and are trying to change the subject.
            Last week the Proposition 8 legal team announced that it would file a motion to vacate Judge Walker’s ruling because they were shocked, shocked to discover that he’s gay (which, by the way, was rumored at the time of the trial) and, in their eyes at least, has a conflict of interest that biased his decision.
            Most legal experts quoted in the press seemed to think the motion was a legal non-starter, though one of the things that makes the law such a fascinating spectacle is that there’s no telling what a judge or jury might do. As a common-sense matter, Judge Walker’s sexual orientation, whatever it may be, puts him in a large enough class that he gains no particular individual benefit from his ruling, which is the essence of any conflict of interest claim.
            But that begs the larger question, at least for those of us who care about truth and basic justice: Is there anything in the ruling itself that suggests an evidence of bias?
            After the ruling came out last June, I went online and read all 150-plus pages of it from beginning to end. I came to it from the point of view that gay marriage is a just cause, but with some skepticism as to whether it could claim the status of a legal civil right.
 Judge Walker’s ruling, by the pellucid exposition of its meticulous legal argument and by the relentless and impeccable logic of its reasoning dispelled the skepticism. My reaction on finishing it was that it was so soundly, carefully and conservatively crafted that there was no way it could reasonably be reversed. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read the opinion yourself.
            (It should be noted in passing that the Proposition 8 legal team didn’t do much to help any appeals court that might hear the case. From all news accounts, they were given ample opportunity during the trial to present evidence as to why there is a compelling societal interest in forbidding or restricting gay marriage. They played it worse than the Chicago White Sox played the 1919 World Series and gave the next round of judges nothing to hang a reversal on.)
            It is possible, of course, that some higher court will perform some appallingly clumsy legal gymnastics to justify overturning Judge Walker. That sort of thing has happened before (see Bush v. Gore) and will certainly happen again. In that event it won’t be necessary to look into the personal lives of the justices who so ruled in order to ascertain their bias. The bias will be in the decision itself and there for all to see.