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.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Reflections of a Reluctant Juror

            Serving on a jury, as I recently did, is one of those things that prods you into thinking about larger issues of how our social, legal and governmental systems work. Having been made a part of that process, whether you wanted to be or not, you see it in a more real and tangible way.
            By dint of circumstance, one element of the jury experience hit me between the eyes. Here in California your exposure is limited to a week. You call in the night before to see if you have to go in the next day, and if you haven’t been called for five days, you’re off the hook.
            As chance would have it, I was called in on Monday morning, which exposed me to being seated on the jury for a six-day civil trial. Had I been called in any other day of the week, I would have been exposed to a three-month murder trial. Six days is a manageable inconvenience; three months is a business or job-destroyer. I cheerfully did the six days.
            When the concept of trial by jury was first introduced a few centuries ago, they didn’t have forensic specialists, psychiatric experts or most of the other things that add greatly to the time of a trial. Practically every case was heard in a few days, and just about anyone could afford to put the plow down that long.
            They also didn’t spend a lot of time picking the jury. The idea was that it was supposed to be 12 people who knew the defendant well enough to know whether he was probably lying or not. Now the idea is to come up with people who know nothing and have qualities that make them likely to be sympathetic to your side.
            During our little trial we would step out into the courthouse foyer during recesses and see dozens of prospective jurors for the three-month trial filling out a questionnaire that looked to be about 10 double-sided pages long. I hate that sort of thing. Most of the time the questions aren’t very good and force you to give an oversimplified and un-nuanced answer. For a nuance guy like me, that’s painful.
            The jury process itself is more than a bit humbling. A big part of that is that as a juror you have to make a decision that means a great deal to the people involved, but you have to do so based on incomplete knowledge derived from incomplete evidence presented to you. When our jury was in deliberation, I asked at one point, “Is it just me, or does anybody else feel like the evidence presented to us doesn’t adequately explain what the heck happened here?” There was a chorus of “yeas” and nodding heads.
            We moved forward and decided on the basis of the evidence we had that there wasn’t enough of it to prove the case and ruled in favor of the defendant. In casting my vote, I did so realizing that if I knew what God did, I might have voted the other way.
             Deliberations, in our case, brought out the best in most people. Another humbling thing about jury service is the realization that not everybody else looks at the evidence and sees it as you do. Tolerance and courtesy nonetheless prevailed for the most part, and we were eventually able to talk ourselves into agreement. For a fleeting moment I wondered how things would be if legislatures behaved like juries, but that’s not what they’re elected to do. Nice fantasy, anyway.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mavericks and Fanatics I Have Known

            Early in my newspaper career I attended lots of public meetings. I covered school boards, water boards, fire boards, harbor boards, city councils and county planning commissions and boards of supervisors. It’s something every citizen should do, and I was lucky enough to get paid $3.26 an hour for doing it straight out of college.
            Every one of those boards, I recall, had a time in the meeting set aside for anyone in the audience to address the elected officials on any subject they wished. It was fairly common for such people to introduce themselves as “Joe Smith, Taxpayer.” When that happened, I, and the other reporters present if any, would set down our pens and take a break.
            We did that because, after getting excited about the utterances of such citizens a few times, we came to realize that, as H.L. Mencken once put it, “What ails them primarily is the ignorant and uncritical monomania that afflicts every sort of fanatic at all times and everywhere.” Invariably if you followed up on their claims, you’d find out that the thing they were complaining about was state or federal law or part of a contract, and that it was there for a reason that was at least arguable.
            That’s not to say the elected officials and their hired help were always right — far from it. Some of them may have been getting away with worse than what the “taxpayer” alleged, but when they were tripped up, it was usually because someone who knew about it took solid evidence to the Grand Jury or the District Attorney. Going to somebody who can actually do something about it makes a lot more sense than getting on a soap box and addressing the perps.
            Every once in a while, one of these complainers would run for office and actually get elected, which made him or her a maverick instead of a fanatic. Instead of derailing a public meeting for five minutes, they could derail the entire meeting. At such times it was good to be paid by the hour, but I earned it.
            During those years I also spent a lot of time on the phone. Anybody can call a small town newspaper office and get right through to a reporter or editor, and you wouldn’t believe some of the people who did.
There were chirpy eccentrics like Cosmic Ladye. As soon as you said hello, she would launch into a goofy, breathless free-association monologue that lasted for three minutes before she ended with a benediction and hung up.
Some callers were seriously disturbed, like the woman who accused a prominent politician of murdering her son and hiding the body. And there were the cheerful obsessives, like the guy who claimed to have scientifically calculated exactly where the state of California would split in half at the next big earthquake. It didn’t.
Then there were the repeat callers, like Mountain Lion Lady, as we knew her. Any time we ran a story about a mountain lion poaching someone’s goat, cat or dog, she would call to say the story couldn’t possibly be true because mountain lions were non-violent persecuted creatures who wouldn’t harm a flea.
A couple of years after I left the paper, a mountain lion killed a hiker in Northern California. I never asked if she had called the newspaper to complain, but I have no doubt what her spin on the story would have been: The mountain lion was framed.   


Friday, July 22, 2011

The Boys of Summer in 1959

            The Dodgers baseball team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, and I became a fan in 1959. Talk about catching a wave.
            That first year in Southern California the Dodgers finished in seventh place, but had about the best attendance in the Major Leagues. Baseball experts didn’t expect much from them in 1959. Baseball experts were wrong.
            It was a curious team they fielded that year. Three of the Boys of Summer (Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo) were in the twilight of their careers. There was some up-and-coming talent, including a couple of pitchers named Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. Three of those players (Snider, Drysdale and Koufax) are now in the Hall of Fame and a fourth (Hodges) should be. The manager, Walter Alston, is also in.
            You always remember your first one, and mine was June 21, Father’s Day. My dad and I went to see the Dodgers host the Cincinnati Redlegs, as they were then called, at the Coliseum. Cincinnati won 17-3, and I was so disappointed that it took years to realize how lucky I was to have seen future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson hit a booming home run for the visitors.
            By the time August rolled around, the Dodgers were in a three-way pennant race against the San Francisco Giants, who had Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and a sensational rookie named Willie McCovey; and the Milwaukee Braves, who had Warren Spahn, Lew Burdette and Henry Aaron.
            Koufax was still an erratic young pitcher that year, but at the end of August, in a clutch game against the Giants, he showed a glimpse of what was to come. He struck out 18, including the last six batters he faced, to set a new National League record. It happened way past my bedtime, but I was listening with a radio under the blanket.
            At the end of the season the Dodgers and Braves were in a tie for first place and had a best-of-three series to determine who went to the World Series. Los Angeles won the first game in Milwaukee. When the second game was played in Los Angeles (during the day, of course), I raced home from school, hoping to catch the end of the game.
            Down three runs in the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers tied the score, then won in extra innings on a throwing error off a routine grounder to short. I still remember Vin Scully’s call: “Hodges around third … heading for the plate … We go to Chicago!”
            After losing game one of the World Series to the White Sox, 11-0, the Dodgers rallied to win it in six games. Furillo capped his career with a pinch-hit single to drive in the winning run in game three, and a pitcher named Larry Sherry, called up from the minor leagues in midseason, won two and saved two to become series MVP.
            Being nine years old, I assumed it would always be like that. The next three years taught me how to accept disappointment.
            It’s been two decades since I followed the Dodgers on any regular basis, and what got me to thinking about this was the news that the team filed for bankruptcy last month. The owners, the McCourts, are in a bitter divorce, and have reportedly been using their equity in the team to finance their high living while the team languishes below .500. When the owners make more news than the players, something is wrong.
            Oh, by the way, there’s a fifth Dodger from 1959 in the Hall of Fame: The owner, Walter O’Malley. Aside from moving to California, he rarely made news.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Virtues of Debt

            For something that has done so much for so many for so long, debt has certainly been getting a bad name lately.
            In the history of this great nation, debt has funded the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the building of the Interstate Highway System, among other things. Alexander Hamilton, right as usual, wrote that the national debt is part of the nation’s capital.
            If you are a typical American, debt may have enabled you to get a college education, buy a house and own a car. For businesses, debt has provided a means of raising start-up money, financing expansions and getting through a rough spot.
            Yet from Polonius to Ben Franklin to nearly all the present-day commentariat, debt has been described to us as a bad thing. (Franklin’s strictures against debt in Poor Richard’s Almanac take on a level of high irony when you consider that perhaps the greatest service old Ben ever did for his country was sweet-talking France into lending us the money for the War of Independence at a time when that loan looked more like a flutter at the roulette table than a wise investment.)
            Debt, like alcohol, is a problem when people can’t handle it or can’t stop. And it’s more of a problem for people than it is for governments because you and I don’t have the options for dealing with it that a properly run government does.
            The last two times the federal budget deficit got really high were at the end of World War II and at the end of the 1980s. In the first case the federal government kept taxes at a significantly higher rate than today, continued to invest in programs that helped people (the GI Bill, housing programs), and benefited from a sustained period of economic growth with an underlying basis of broad prosperity. In the second case, Bill Clinton got a tax increase through Congress (by one vote in the House), which, coupled with an economic recovery, sharply reduced the deficit within a few years.
            I’m not an economist, so I try to look at what’s worked before and figure that when in doubt, let’s try that again. I can’t come up with an example where cutting taxes and government spending led to a stronger economy. The prosperity of the Reagan years was fueled in part by a government stimulus program that made President Obama’s look like a dime-store plan. The difference is that instead of calling it an “economic stimulus plan,” Reagan called it “defense spending,” so the right didn’t object.
            Another consideration in looking at public debt is that some countries have more options than others. People point to Greece and worry that we’re headed in that direction. Maybe we are, but I have doubts.
            America has enough rich farm land and productive capacity to feed itself and a fair chunk of the rest of the world as well. We have Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood. All those things generate an enormous amount of money worldwide and provide a vast tax base that can generate revenue to pay down deficits. On top of all that, we have our own currency and can decide how much money to print.
            For years governments and churches tried to ban usury, until it became such a business necessity they had to stop. For years, governments threw people in jail for not paying debts, assuming that they had been profligate, rather than unfortunate. Those attitudes are gone, but we still seem to cling to an idea that public debt is inherently evil. It’s not an evil; it’s a tool, and good policy would recognize that and focus on using it prudently and effectively.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Smaller Televisions and Good Roads

            When we took an extended vacation in England a while back, there were two things about the country that really struck me: the televisions and the roads.
            Everywhere we stayed — probably 8 or 9 places in a little over two weeks — the television sets were noticeably smaller than the ones you got in American hotel and motel rooms at the time.
            The roads, on the other hand, were smooth and well maintained. Where I live in California, the voters had twice rejected modest tax increases to pay for road repairs following a 100-year storm. I was so used to driving on crappy roads at that point that the good ones in England took as much getting used to as the steering wheel on the right side of the car.
            And there is probably a connection between the good roads and small TV sets.
            Not to put too fine a point on it, the English have a different view of government than we do. It’s not a nasty word in most quarters, and there is an expectation of good public services. Republicans in America run against President Obama’s national health care plan; in England, the Tories campaigned, in the most recent election, as the party of the National Health Service.
            Bruce Bartlett, an economic advisor to George W. Bush, recently blogged about tax rates in Britain during the Thatcher administration. For all her pugnacious conservatism and free-market sloganeering, the Iron Lady barely made a dent in them. Throughout her time in office, taxes as a percentage of the country’s GDP ranged in the mid 30s, which is about where they are now.
            Last week’s issue of The Economist carried a graph showing tax rates and federal government spending in the United States as a percentage of GDP. Government spending was at 24 percent and taxes were at 15 percent, less than half what the Brits pay, and the lowest level for this country in years. That certainly explains the deficit, but it doesn’t explain the dogmatic resistance to any tax increases, which paralyzes the American political system right now.
            Going back to the earlier point about televisions and roads, the British pay more taxes than we do and get more in the way of public service. They have health care for everyone; their roads and infrastructure are in better shape than ours, and they aren’t laying off police officers. As a consequence of the higher taxes, there is less discretionary income. Fewer families have two cars, people opt for smaller TV sets and so forth. We skew the other way.
            Here’s the rub. Both countries are stable, prosperous democracies that attract immigrants from all over the world. People want to live in America and England because those countries offer safe, democratic societies and an opportunity to get ahead, to live a better life.
            All of which raises the question of what constitutes a good life. Is it one where you have low taxes, two or three cars, and a plasma-screen TV set in every room? Or is it one where you make do with a little less in the way of personal possessions in exchange for good roads, universal health coverage and top-drawer police services?
            It’s a question of what you value, and everyone has to make a personal decision. Me, I think we have more to learn from Britain than she does from us.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Prosecutorial Mind at Work

            Early in my newspaper career I learned something about public prosecutors that I’ve never forgotten. The exact details of the case have slipped away with time, but it wasn’t a matter of life and death. The general outline was that a few people who had already embarked on criminal careers had been caught at something more serious than usual and were looking at some state prison time — at least until the judge ruled in favor of a defense motion to suppress evidence, without which the prosecution’s case evaporated.
            When I went to interview the prosecutor, he was outraged in a way that went beyond displeasure with the ruling. It was personal. The defendants were guilty and a menace to society; the ruling was horrible and incomprehensible, and so forth. His hyper-emotional reaction stood in marked contrast to the matter-of-fact way the judge and defense attorney had discussed the case, which focused on what the law was and what the evidence showed. I gave the prosecutor a break and reported only a smidgen of what he had said in the heat of the moment.
            Over the years I’ve known a lot of prosecutors, and have liked most of them. But even the best have been capable of a certain form of self-righteous moral indignation that can, and ought to be, a bit unnerving to the rest of us. They are, after all, in a facts-and-evidence business, and getting too carried away about the moral failings of the defendant can interfere with interpretation of the facts and evidence, sometimes with disastrous results.
            Defense attorneys, in my experience, are less subject to that form of moral indignation. Part of it is probably due to the nature of their business. They have to take the cases that come their way, and in the vast majority of those cases their client is guilty as hell. If they get their client a fair hearing and any kind of a break, they’ve done a good job.
            Or, as a longtime practitioner once told my Rotary Club, “When you’re a defense attorney, a win doesn’t mean getting your client an acquittal. It means getting him life without parole, instead of the death sentence.”
            Prosecutors, on the other hand, start out by seeing themselves as the good guys out to get the bad guys. They don’t have to move forward with a case unless they believe in it, and it can be all too easy to start believing in it too much, ignoring certain inconvenient facts. (I’ve known a number of prosecutors who went on to be defense attorneys and judges, and most lost their high moral dudgeon when they did. That would support the conclusion that the tendency is job-related.)
            Facts are stubborn things, and the absence of facts can be a particularly critical problem when you’re sure you’re right.  When Law and Order was in its heyday, there would often be a scene in which chief prosecutor Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) presented his case to District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill). If there was something wrong with it, Schiff would pounce.
            “Hung jury,” he’d growl without missing a beat. “Find a witness who can put him at the scene of the crime or plead it out.”
            Not every prosecutor, unfortunately, has a boss who will point out the problems with a case, and that’s why we have juries. They fail, too, and can be susceptible to prejudices of their own, but they remain the ultimate safeguard in the system. When there’s no case, or a seriously weak one, those twelve ordinary citizens are sometimes the only people capable of sending that message to the powers that be.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Where are the Mothers Against Texting?

            In the early 1960s a district attorney in Northern California resigned after losing six consecutive drunk driving jury trials. The accused were all guilty, the evidence was strong, but a form of jury nullification occurred.
            It’s hard to believe today, but back then drunk driving was seen as no big deal. Those were the Mad Men days of endless cocktail parties, and the reaction against Prohibition still lingered in many minds. On any jury there were apt to be at least a couple of people who would look at the wretch in the dock and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” They could often get the other jurors to show “mercy” and acquit or hold out and hang the jury.
            Changing that mindset was one of the great public relations triumphs of the Twentieth Century. Mothers Against Drunk Driving shone the spotlight on their children, spouses and relatives who had been killed or maimed by drunk drivers. In the span of a decade, public perception turned 180 degrees and the law followed shortly thereafter. In terms of social standing today, most people would rather be arrested for robbing a bank than for drunk driving.
            Not long ago I was at a red light with two cars ahead of me. The light turned green, and the first car remained in place for 10-15 seconds before starting out. We came to another red light, and the same thing happened. At the next light the first car went into the left turn lane and I pulled alongside it. The young woman behind the wheel was looking down at a cell phone in her hand and hitting it repeatedly with her thumbs. The light turned green for both of us, and I moved forward. Five seconds later I checked my rear-view mirror and she was still sitting at the green light.
            Society today is facing a problem with cell phones and driving that is much like what it faced with drinking and driving 40 years ago, but with one disturbing difference. The law has recognized the problem and begun to deal with it, but public perception is far behind and civil disobedience is rampant.
            I suspect part of the reason for differing attitudes toward drinking and calling (or texting) while driving has to do with Puritanism, which remains a virulent force in the American public mind. The notion that alcohol is a sinful substance has credence even with many drinkers, and that makes it easier to sell drunk driving as a bad thing.
            Using the telephone, on the other hand, is associated in many minds with work and efficiency, both Puritan virtues. One of the arguments made against the calling-and-driving laws is that they interfere with people who have to use the phone on the road for work purposes, as if that somehow makes the ensuing endangerment all right. And, as with drunk driving, there is a cohort of young people who haven’t figured out the problem yet.
            Nearly a century ago, when Henry Ford realized his mass-produced automobiles were going to be a big hit with the public, he predicted that the automobile would lead to Prohibition. It was inconceivable, he said, that society would allow people to drink and use such a heavy, dangerous machine at the same time. We got Prohibition for other reasons, and it didn’t work, but a change in public attitudes and perceptions has worked on drunk driving to a significant degree. What will it take to get people to see the cell phone as the moral equivalent of the bottle for anyone behind the wheel?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Discovering Who You Really Are

            If asked to name the most profound movie ever made in Hollywood, my choice wouldn’t be any of the socially important message movies. It wouldn’t be one of the undisputed dramatic classics, like Citizen Kane or Bonnie and Clyde. It would be a modest comedy from 1941, Sullivan’s Travels, directed by Preston Sturges.
            Sturges is little known to the general public, but he’s an iconic figure to people who know and appreciate the history of the American movie. This is largely owing to his comic genius coupled with an off-center view of life that demolishes all convention. Four of his movies, including Sullivan’s Travels, are on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American comedies.
            The hero of his first film, The Great McGinty, played by Brian Donlevy, is an unemployed and homeless man who finds out that the local political machine is paying people $2 to vote for the mayor. He catches the eye of the local ward boss by voting 33 times, and is brought into politics where he rapidly becomes alderman, mayor and governor. He’s utterly crooked throughout, but even as he takes bribes, he gets things done and provides jobs for working people.
            When he’s elected governor, his wife, a woman he married for political convenience, talks him into going straight. Instead of emerging triumphant, his life is ruined. His former cronies get him arrested for the crimes he committed, and with no hope of beating the rap, he flees the country. At the end of the movie he’s tending bar in a banana republic. The moral, or perhaps immoral, of the story is that he and the people he served were better off when he was dishonest.
            In Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrea stars in the title role as a successful Hollywood musical comedy director. Fresh from the success of his most recent picture, Ants in Your Pants of 1939, he yearns to make a serious message movie about real people who have been ground under the heel of the economic system.
            Toward this end, he slips away from his entourage and hits the road as a hobo to see how the other half lives. It doesn’t go well. Knocked unconscious and robbed, he awakens to find himself framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Unable to prove who he is and get help, he’s sentenced to work on a chain gang.
            That’s where he has his epiphany. One night the prisoners are taken to a nearby church to see a movie. There’s a Disney cartoon beforehand, and as it plays out, the church is filled with the laughter of men in a desperate situation with no hope. Sullivan realizes the ability to give that gift of laughter is something special. Eventually he is freed and decides to go back to making musical comedies.
            In six decades of observing this world, I’ve concluded that much of its unhappiness — at least in places where the basic necessities are provided — is caused by people yearning to be something they’re not and failing to appreciate the good they do by being themselves and simply doing what they do well. The happiest people, by contrast, find what they do well and are able to take enough satisfaction from it to become at peace with life. We are all Sullivan, but not all of us are lucky enough to get the revelation he did.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Nothing Good Lasts Forever

            Seeing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris recently got me to thinking about what it is that makes a place, a time, an organization or an institution special and memorable. I was born too late for Paris in the 1920s — which Hemingway called a moveable feast that stays with you for the rest of your life — but two things in my experience qualify as moveable feasts in their own right.
            One was being at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the early days. The place was a miracle, nothing less. Somehow the regents of the largest public university system in the country got talked into starting an experimental campus based on individual colleges, like Oxford, with an emphasis on a rounded liberal-arts education, undergraduate teaching, and pass-fail grading. When the Santa Cruz campus opened in 1965, it was a soul mate for its time. That probably was its undoing.
            Santa Cruz was many things in those days, and one of them was a place where you could reinvent yourself, or, better yet, be yourself for the first time. It attracted a lot of students who had felt like outcasts before and suddenly found themselves in their element. Dean McHenry, the founding chancellor, recruited an outstanding faculty (Page Smith, Kenneth Thimann, Norman O. Brown, among others) who came there late-career in part to reconnect with students and teaching.
            Those of us who were there at the time were intoxicated with the sense of possibility (and, at times, other substances), and years later, we still reconnect quickly and intuitively. But the taxpayers have little tolerance for experimentation on their dime, and when times changed in the mid 1970s, the Santa Cruz experiment was dismantled. In short order, the colleges were rendered meaningless, graduate and professional schools were emphasized at the expense of undergraduate teaching, and grades were reinstituted. The buildings are still there, and so are the students, but it’s not the place I went to at all. Aside from the redwoods and the ocean view, it’s a public university campus, much like any other.
            After graduating from Santa Cruz by the skin of my teeth, I went to work for the Register-Pajaronian, the daily newspaper in nearby Watsonville. There were some amazing stories (mass murders, farm labor strikes) in those early years, and I learned to cover them from the best in the business.
            Frank F. Orr, the editor, a tall, bespectacled man whose gravelly voice was toasted to perfection by years of chain-smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, had led the paper to a Pulitzer Prize for exposing a corrupt district attorney in 1956. Ward Bushee, the managing editor, was the most demanding boss a young reporter could have. If you turned in a story with one question left unanswered, he was certain to demand the answer. After a while, you learned to stop trying and began asking the questions yourself. Sam Vestal, the chief photographer, knew everybody in town and was a better reporter than most of the reporters. They, along with a few other people (Bud O’Brien, Bill Akers, Bob Levy) were my mentors. All gone now.
            A couple of ownership changes and the internet wiped out the daily newspaper I knew, loved and worked for. It now publishes three times a week, heroically covering the news with a third the staff we had when I left. Special times and places don’t last, but they should be savored while they do and remembered for as long as possible. Rather than bemoaning the losses, I choose to celebrate the memories. Lucky me.