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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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Creating the Federal Government

            Article VIII of the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to our Constitution, is the only piece of that document that deals with taxes, and it’s worth quoting verbatim:
            All charges of war and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defence or general welfare, and allowed by the united states in congress assembled, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury, which shall be supplied by the several states, in proportion to the value of all land within each state, granted to or surveyed for any Person, as such land and the buildings and improvements thereon shall be estimated according to such mode as the united states in congress assembled, shall from time to time direct and appoint. The taxes for paying that proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the several states within the time agreed upon by the united states in congress assembled.
            You don’t have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to see that this approach was rife with problems and horrific ambiguities. Who, for instance, estimates the value of the land, and what, if any, are the options for challenging that estimate? But the central problem lies in the last sentence, which leaves tax collection entirely up to the states, with no means provided of compelling them to pay. If a state legislature doesn’t agree with congress’ determination of its fair share, or if it can’t agree on what form of tax should be used to raise the necessary monies, nothing much is going to happen, revenue-wise.
            And that, in a nutshell, is why Washington’s Continental Army froze and starved in the midst of plenty at Valley Forge, unable to pay for food and clothing. It’s also why America borrowed most of the money it needed to fight the War of Independence; then, as now, it was deemed easier to borrow than to tax.
            We learned in school that the Articles of Confederation were too weak and ineffective to allow for a functioning government, which is how we ended up with the Constitution. In contrast to the mealy-mouthed language of its predecessor, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution is absolutely explicit about the government’s taxing power. Its first paragraph reads,
            The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Posts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.
            Then, after further enumerating the powers of Congress that section of the Constitution concludes by granting Congress the power:
            To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
            Say what you will about the Founding Fathers, but they learned from their mistakes. The Constitution they wrote was vehemently attacked in its time as being a springboard to tyranny. It hasn’t delivered tyranny (at least not yet), but it has allowed for some semblance of governance, without which no nation can progress or prosper.
            Those today who profess to love the Constitution often forget that it was written for the purpose of creating the Federal Government. Its tone in the sections above is bold and assertive, compared to the passivity of the Articles. Even the capitalization speaks volumes; the Articles refer to a lower-case united states in congress assembled, while the Constitution speaks of the United States and the Government of the United States. In this case, the capitals don’t lie.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Simple Pleasures of Recuperation

            Probably the best medical decision I’ve ever made was to schedule a hernia surgery on the first Friday in January. If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing that “procedure,” which results in some “discomfort,” allow me to explain.
            A hernia surgery — if non-laparoscopic, as mine was that January of 2007 — involves making an incision a few inches long in the lower abdomen to fix the problem. The post-surgical effect is that you learn how much you use those muscles without consciously realizing it. In other words: It hurts when you stand up; it hurts when you sit down; it hurts when you bend over; it hurts when you laugh; it hurts when you cry; it hurts when you cough; it hurts when you sneeze. And if, while making some seemingly nonchalant and innocuous motion, you strain the incision, you can achieve a level of excruciating pain that is truly transcendent.
            By the way, the medical profession refers to this as minor surgery. That means it’s done on an outpatient basis, after which you’re sent home with your painkillers to remain as immobile as possible for a few days while the wound heals itself.
            If you believe, as I do, that a positive attitude is beneficial to medical recovery, prolonged immobility and boredom are the enemies of wellness. That’s why it was a great decision to have the surgery done the first Friday of January, because we all know what that means: Seven hours of football playoffs on Saturday and seven more on Sunday.
            The weekend after that surgery, it was just what the doctor ordered. I kicked back in front of the TV and watched all four Wild Card games all the way through. There was no rooting interest in any of them, so it was fine to doze off from time to time. I was pleasantly occupied and interested without having to exert myself and was already feeling a lot better by the time Monday rolled around.
            Having been through several operations in this life, I appreciate and remember the various diversions that have helped me through those first tough days afterward.
            In one instance I had to stay in the hospital overnight and came out of the anesthesia about 7 p.m., getting progressively more awake as the night wore on. I started channel surfing and came across a five-hour Law & Order marathon on TNT. Business was slow at the hospital that day, and I had a double room to myself, so I watched all five hours all the way to midnight and still associate Law & Order with helping me get through those nasty few hours right after the operation.
            Extended convalescence after a surgery is also a great time to read a long book you’ve been holding back on for lack of time. It was in such a period that I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which became one of my favorite novels. With its fully imagined and realized world, vivid characters, and just happy enough ending, it was a great tonic. If there’s no football after the next surgery (and at my age, there’s likely to be a next one), I’ll be looking for another long-postponed book to read — just not Dostoyevsky.
            (The Wild Card football games the first weekend of January 2007 turned out as follows: Indianapolis 23, Kansas City 8; Seattle 21, Dallas 20; New England 37, New York Jets 16; and Philadelphia 23, New York Giants 20. I didn’t remember any of them and had to look up the scores.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Curse of Max Rafferty

            At the beginning of 1968 the California Democratic Party had all but given up on winning the U.S. Senate seat up for election that year. It had been in Republican hands since Richard Nixon defeated Helen Gahaghan Douglas in 1950; when Nixon became Vice President in 1953, liberal Republican Thomas Kuchel (pronounced KEE-kul) was appointed in his stead and was re-elected twice with significant bipartisan support. The same was expected the third time around.
            But a funny thing happened on the way to the general election. Emboldened by the election of Ronald Reagan as governor two years earlier, conservative Republicans supported a primary challenge to Kuchel by Max Rafferty, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Rafferty was a right-wing ideologue and not a terribly pleasant person. He was Superintendent at a time when public education had relatively few problems, so he mostly used the job to try, without much success, to make ideological points. Few people (including Kuchel, to his everlasting regret) took him seriously. Rafferty pulled off a narrow victory in the June Republican primary.
            That gave new wings to the Democratic candidate, Alan Cranston. As the low-key, competent, buttoned-down State Controller, he had amassed a decent record in elective office. He wasn’t charismatic, but he wasn’t over the top, like Rafferty, and he won a narrow victory in a year when Richard Nixon carried the country and California.
            Having gotten to know Rafferty better during his Senate campaign, the voters tossed him out as Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1970, and a short time afterward he moved to Alabama to take an educational job there. William Coblentz, who served with Rafferty on the University of California Board of Regents, commented that it was a move that raised the average level of intelligence in both states.
            Like Marley’s ghost returning at Christmas, Rafferty’s spectre seemed to come back every six years to haunt the Republicans when that seat was up for election. Cranston was a beatable incumbent, but Republicans kept giving him the gift of weak opponents. Two were ultra-conservative ideologues, and one was a moderate who might have had a chance if only he’d been possessed of any sense of politics or campaign tactics. Cranston finally stepped down in 1992 after serving 24 years in the Senate.
            That year the seat was wide open for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, and the Democrats nominated Congresswoman Barbara Boxer. I like Boxer, and if you’ve ever seen her in person, her presence and energy fill the room. Still, she is more liberal than the electorate (though not as much so as Republicans like to claim) and can come across as strident on TV.
            Conventional wisdom would say that there is no way she could get elected to the U.S. Senate four times, and conventional wisdom would be wrong. With enemies like the California Republican Party, who needs friends? Every time Boxer has had to face the voters, the Republicans have graced her with an opponent who was either an ideologue, a terrible campaigner, or both. In 2010, an overwhelmingly Republican year, Boxer handily defeated former HP executive Carly Fiorina to win her fourth term.
            Outside of the post-Reconstruction South, it has been almost unheard of for one political party to hold a U.S. Senate seat for 50 years, but if Boxer, or some other Democrat, takes that seat in 2016, it will have happened in California. And if it does, I’m guessing that the ghost of Max Rafferty will have a lot to do with it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dreaming of a Simple Tax System

            My son, Nick, is 21 years old. He lives at home, works about 35 hours a week at a local bakery and is taking two classes at the community college this semester. This week he got his W-2 form from the bakery and took it to H&R Block to have his taxes done.
            That says something about our tax system, but I’m going to try to avoid easy posturing about its being too complicated. It probably is, but skewering it for that is a simplistic cheap shot. It’s not at all clear that a far simpler alternative would really be any better.
            Taxes, governmental regulations, lawyers and accountants are all unpopular outgrowths of a complex industrialized society. At some level we all want to close a deal with a handshake, rather than a 30-page contract, and most of us would probably love to have a one-page tax form that could be filled out in 10 minutes after dinner on April 14.
            For a variety of reasons, that’s not likely to happen. In the past 40 years, nearly every presidential primary season has generated at least one candidate (usually a Republican) with a highly touted plan to simplify the tax code, generally with some variation of a flat tax. I call these people GANH candidates, because they’re invariably Gone After New Hampshire.
            Whenever a GANH candidate begins to pick up traction in the polls, as Herman Cain did last year and Steve Forbes did a while back, a funny thing always happens. People who know a thing or two about economics begin to take a hard look at their tax plans, and they never stand up to any serious intellectual scrutiny. Simplifying the tax code apparently is not as easy as most people think.
            In most cases, the simplification isn’t even that simple. Bruce Bartlett, who served as an economic adviser to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, wrote recently in the Times that if you create a flat tax with deductions — even for such popular items as mortgage interest and charitable contributions — you defeat the simplification rationale of the flat tax. And if a tax is truly flat, the benefits invariably skew to the high earners.
            Consider the point of charitable contributions. If someone makes a million dollars in a year and gives half of it to charity, should she pay taxes on the million or on the $500K that’s left after the charitable giving? The latter alternative, to me, is fairer than the first.
            Some of the complexities of the tax code are nothing more than special-interest perks, but most of them derive from an attempt to factor in the reality of a large and complicated country. When I first went into business for myself, I was overwhelmed by all the rules on deductions, but most, once you get to know them better, are actually fairly sensible. My son has some education and training expenses that may be deductible, and if it takes an accountant or tax advisor to point them out, so be it. And I’m happy he sought out some informed opinion. Realizing when you’re in over your head is an indication that you’re getting older and wiser.
            If the tax code is too complex, it’s in large measure because society is too complex. Our inner Jeffersonian might yearn for a simpler society, but the horses have long since departed through that particular barn door. The only way we’re going to get back to a simple society is if a nuclear war or environmental catastrophe turns the survivors into roving gangs of bandits. I’d rather take my chances with the IRS.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Everybody Complains About Traffic

            At one point in my stellar public relations career, I was working with The Home Depot, which was trying to get county approval for a store that would have been the first in the area. Opposition to the store from neighbors and others was vocal and vehement. They raised more objections than you could shake a stick at, but in the end it came down to one critical issue: traffic.
            The proposed location of the store was at the intersection of two of the county’s major roads on several parcels of land that had on them decrepit housing, auto repair shops and an unofficial junkyard. There was a lumber yard across the street, along with a paint store, and catercorner to the site was a shopping center that contained a Safeway and a Kmart.
            Aside from traffic, one of the objections raised by a number of people, always with a perfectly straight face, was that it would destroy the rural character of the area.
            In any event, owing to the two busy streets and the uses already in place along them, traffic was a legitimate issue. The Home Depot spent a ton of money on traffic consultants, and the architects did everything they could to address the issue. I found myself, as I was driving through the area where the store would go, paying close attention to the traffic, and after doing that a number of times, I was saying there must be something wrong. Simply put, the traffic didn’t seem bad at all.
            So I decided to test it out. Figuring that the traffic impact of that store would be felt for a couple of miles in either direction, I started about a mile and a quarter from the store during the evening rush hour and drove past the store site to about the same distance on the other side — a total of two and a half to two and three quarters miles.
            There were 11 traffic lights and stop signs on that stretch of road, but even with all those impediments, after driving it 100 times in each direction at peak evening rush hour, the average time to navigate that stretch of road was six and a half to eight minutes. It took more than nine minutes several times, and once it took twelve minutes.
            Armed with that knowledge, I began to ask people, when I spoke at community groups, how long they thought it took to drive that stretch of road during evening rush hour. The answers were illuminating. Without exception, people said it took 20 to 30 minutes, and most said 25 to 30. In other words, the perception was that it took three times as long as it really did to drive that road. When I tried to say otherwise, they laughed at me, and after a while I stopped trying.
            About the only way I can explain this is to say that Americans (probably everybody else, too) believe they should be able to get in their car, go wherever they want, and encounter no impediment along the way. And because of that attitude, they tend to take the worst experience they ever had on a stretch of road, multiply it by two, and view that as the irritating norm.
            The Home Depot never got a store at that location; the multiple property deals they had going for it collapsed. Several years later, Kmart abandoned their store a few hundred yards away and The Home Depot is there today. A new Honda dealership was built on much of the proposed Home Depot site and almost no one objected. I guess it was a rural enough car dealership that it didn’t destroy the character of the area.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Getting Out of Touch With Facebook

            Facebook lured me into its clutches about this time last year, and for a while it was fun.
            At the beginning I made a decision to ask a handful of close friends to be my friend; after that, I concluded, I would accept new friends as they approached me but wouldn’t reach out to anyone else. It was decidedly ego-gratifying  in the first couple of months to check in every day and see who from my past might friend me.
            Even in those early days there were some ominous signs. I quickly ran up a respectable list of friends from people I went to college with, people I knew in Rotary, people I knew in business, and even a couple of actual friends. In several cases there were regrets in short order.
            Some people, it quickly became apparent, have no ability to self-edit. The folks in this group became so intoxicated by their online presence that they literally put up everything that was happening in their lives, or so it seemed. About the only restraint they showed was not putting up a post when they went to the bathroom.
            Pretty quickly the same three to five people began to dominate the daily news feed. They were like the crashing bore at a party who grabs you by the arm, starts ranting about some obsession, and won’t let go as you frantically try to formulate an exit strategy. The saving grace of Facebook is that it at least provides you with a way out: Just keep scrolling.
            I had the opposite problem. I rarely wanted to put anything up on Facebook because I kept thinking, “Who cares about this?” (And to answer the obvious question, I have that feeling about this column, too, from time to time. The difference is that the column requires at least some small degree of effort, imagination, reflection and research, so in the end I’m willing to put it out — some days more confidently than others.)
            After a while it wasn’t just the usual suspects who were beginning to wear thin — it was almost everybody. Nearly every time I checked Facebook, I found myself going through all the posts without finding even one that grabbed my interest. That’s not much of a return for the effort; even a crappy newspaper has three or four articles a day you want to read.
            On Christmas Day I got an e-mail from Judy, an old college friend of ours who isn’t a friend on Facebook. She lives a thousand miles away, but mentioned that she would be in the Bay Area between Christmas and New Year’s. We quickly arranged a meeting.
            One morning Linda and Nick and I met with Judy at the Silver Spur cafĂ© near Santa Cruz for breakfast. For an hour and a half we caught up, talked about some of the common issues we’re facing, and Judy, who’s a pilot, talked to Nick, who’s taking flying lessons, about planes and aviation. In other words, we really connected.
            Facebook is here to stay and it has its uses, but to me it’s largely dissatisfying. I suspect that a lot of the people who really love it are the same people who love large parties with lots of people, where you can flit from group to group and person to person picking up snippets and making casual comments of your own, but never really getting into anything in real depth. For myself, I’d rather sit across a table from a friend or two or three and just talk for a long time, with the phone and computer turned off.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Throw the Bums Out — Or Not

            There are times when I fear for the future of our Republic, and it is probably no coincidence that those times often occur after I’ve been reading the letters to the editor in one newspaper or another. It could be worse. If I paid any attention to the anonymous comments posted to online news stories, I’d probably feel that way all the time.
            A couple of examples. I’ve seen a few letters in recent weeks suggesting that voters ought to simply vote out every single incumbent in Congress, a sentiment that probably owes much to the failure of the special committee on the budget to reach any agreement. It’s a deliciously visceral fantasy, kind of like taking out a gun and shooting someone who insulted you in a bar. The difference is that shooting the guy in the bar is more prudent and sensible.
            To begin with, one of the big reasons for political gridlock is a serious and honest difference of opinion. If you replace a Democrat with a Republican, you’re rolling the dice on saying goodbye to Social Security and Medicare. If you replace a Republican with a Democrat, who knows what you’re risking? As Will Rogers once said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”
            So assuming the voters could be prevailed upon to throw everybody out, what would we have after the 2012 election? A heavily Democratic House of Representatives and a heavily Republican Senate. In other words, more gridlock.
            But, you say, the problem is the politicians themselves, who have become so venal, so committed to pork, so committed to feathering their nests that we have to bring in new blood. I concede the accuracy of the depiction of the incumbents, but since they would be replaced by other politicians, themselves beholden to campaign contributions from lobbyists and special interests, how much better would it be? Already we’ve seen that some of the Tea Party candidates elected in 2010 are among the quickest in Congress to line up for federal projects for their districts. The wise voter ought to assess candidates by following the lead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who once said of a banana republic dictator (dictators are politicians, too), “He may be a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.”
            Enough on that. Another letter that left me scratching my head recently came from a man criticizing Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots. Some fair game there, to be sure, but this person said that it’s foolish to try to do something about income inequality because that’s what Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao stood for and they created horrific regimes and death machines.
            That’s turning the slippery slope into a sheer vertical drop. No less an authority than Thomas Jefferson believed that large concentrations of wealth in a few hands were incompatible with democracy. That’s why he wanted us to be a nation of self-sufficient farmers, if not in perpetuity, for as long as possible.
            The three dictators mentioned, in fact, arose in opposition to other dictators who were unwilling to provide a safety valve to relieve the pressures of economic inequality. There are, however, plenty of examples of democratic governments that did provide such a safety valve — all of Western Europe, Japan, Canada, and even the United States, especially between about 1933 and 1981. Those societies work pretty well, if not perfectly, and have remained solidly democratic, with a lower-case D, for a long time now.  Can anybody show me a similar example of a democratic society that is utterly supportive of wild economic disparity and that works as a society? I’m waiting.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Friend With a Lot of History

            This week we said goodbye to an old friend who had been a big part of our lives for the past 13 years. Just this past May we learned through it that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
            The old friend was our television set, a 32-inch non-HD model with a nearly square screen from Panasonic. It was huge and heavy — a mastodon compared to today’s flat-screen gazelles — but it worked great. We set it up in August 1998 and never worried about it afterward. No repairs, no problems, nothing. When we needed it, it was there.
            And the history it’s seen! We watched the 2000 Presidential election returns and subsequent controversy on it, turning it off at night when the networks gave Florida to Al Gore and turning it on again the next morning to find that perhaps they had been premature.
            On 9/11 we were glued to the set, watching the horror unfold and feeling shocked and frightened just like everyone else in America. With something like that, watching the story develop and new information come in is a big part of how we now assimilate what happened and come to terms with the fact it has.
            There were happier moments as well. We watched on that television as Barack Obama accepted the results of the 2008 presidential election in Grant Park in Chicago. Hope was in the air, and the partisan rancor that followed was yet to come, its ferocity almost impossible to imagine that night.
            Through that television, we also experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It showed us the San Francisco 49ers incredible comeback from a 38-14 deficit in the third quarter to a 39-38 victory over the New York Giants in the 2003 Playoffs; Tom Brady’s Super Bowl winning drive in the 2002 Super Bowl; and Brian Wilson’s final pitch when the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series.
            But most of the time the memories were more prosaic. Many of the hours we spetnt in front of that set, we were simply recharging our batteries while watching Mad Men, The Closer, Law & Order, NCIS and other shows, not to mention the hundreds of movies we rented and saw on that TV screen.
            Other television sets have appeared in my life, and a few have associations with specific memories. The first set our family ever owned was a 19-inch black and white Hoffman, which my father bought for my grandfather when he was made an invalid by the stroke that eventually killed him. He and grandma lived in a small apartment behind our house, and as a six-year-old, I used to go over to watch old cowboy movies on that set. Then there was the big, standing-furniture set in the student lounge at UC-Santa Cruz, where a handful of us sat up all night to get the outcome of the 1968 presidential election. California and the election finally went for Nixon just before breakfast.
            No other television, though, has been in my life as long as that Panasonic. The average American family buys a new set every 7.5 years, and this one lasted nearly twice as long. For the past few years, we’ve known it was time to switch, and the prices have come down so much that Best Buy was practically paying us to buy a new one. For the foreseeable future, we will be watching history being made on a sleek Samsung flat-screen HD that cost half what the Panasonic did 13 years ago. And that’s the way it is.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

'We Have to Get It Started'

            The passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 was proof of the adage that laws and sausages are best when you don’t think too much about what goes into them.
            I was reminded of that recently while reading Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment. Most of the book focuses on the first hundred days of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Alter devoted an afterword chapter to Social Security, which became law in 1935, the third year of FDR’s first term.
            A number of things in the fight for Social Security call to mind the battle over President Obama’s health-care legislation. To start at the beginning, FDR decided early on to go with a more conservative proposal sponsored by two conservative Southern Democrats, rather than with a more liberal bill introduced by two New Dealers. This infuriated many of his liberal supporters, much as many on the left were incensed at Obama’s decision not to seek a single-payer universal plan.
            (Actually, to start before the beginning, the American attempt to create a Social Security program was about half a century behind what the Europeans had already done, beginning with Germany in 1883. We got health care about the same amount of time behind most of Europe. Some things about the way our government operates don’t seem to change that much.)
            Social Security, like national health care, was called socialism by its detractors, and both laws were passed during a time of economic distress, even in the knowledge that, in the short run, they might dampen the economy. As FDR was quoted as saying in Alter’s book, “We can’t help that. We have to get it started or it will never start.”
            With both laws there was considerable time and cost needed to get them under way. Social Security was signed into law in August of 1935, and the first check didn’t go out until 1940. Getting 26 million Americans signed up for the system was a more massive bureaucratic effort than organizing the draft for World War I. The appropriation to implement it was filibustered by Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, but Roosevelt had a fallback plan. The National Recovery Act had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but its federal employees were still on the budget, and were switched over to organizing the Social Security system.
            Finally, both laws were passed only after numerous compromises that left nearly everyone unhappy about the outcome. Domestic and agricultural employees, mostly African-American, were originally exempted from Social Security to placate Southerners in Congress.
            Even so, the bill narrowly got out of committee, and although the final vote was one-sidedly in favor, that occurred only after some tough fighting over details. As Alter put it, “Had the original Social Security been a touch more liberal, Republicans and conservative Democrats would have halted it. Were any more benefits withdrawn, New Deal liberals would have pulled the plug.”
            Watered-down as it was, Roosevelt considered the law the “cornerstone” of his administration, and over the years it was improved and expanded. Any politician who tries to tamper with it today is in political peril.
            The similarities between the battles over Social Security and health care don’t guarantee that the latter will turn out as well as the former, though I think it will if an activist Supreme Court doesn’t kill it at birth. What the fight over Social Security should remind us of is that laws are never perfect at first, painful compromises have to be made, and it’s more important to establish the general principle than it is to get every detail exactly right.