Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Beautiful Use Of Land-Use Law

Every once in a while, even a paper as conservative as the New York Post can appreciate the impact that public policy can have on the private sector.  Like real estate, for example.

This article, which discusses the impact of New York's "setback law" on skyscrapers built in the early part of the last century, illustrates how laws that have an aesthetic aim as well as a quality-of-life aim can also lead to the creation of landmarks that can serve more than one purpose over the course of their lifetimes.  The "setback law," which was designed to prevent New York from becoming a metropolis of monoliths that shut out light, also let to the creation of beautiful office buildings in Lower Manhattan.  Now, those same buildings are becoming luxury residences, with the setback upper floors becoming popular penthouse conversions.

This is just one of many illustrations of how overrated an unregulated economy can be.  Good regulations that thoughtfully respond to the real needs of citizens can often have multiple benefits. And landmarks that are created as a result, and then protected, create a unique sense of destination, something that matters to a city like New York that depends so heavily on tourism and foreign investment.

Sometimes, I think we all need to be reminded that the American Revolution was not a revolution against government, but a revolution against government that didn't serve the needs of the people. The latter is the kind of government we need.  Hopefully, soon, we can begin to work together so that we can have that kind of government again, at all levels.

And THAT'S Why You Don't Throw Away A Billion Dollars

In federal transportation dollars, that is.

I have written previously about the foolishness of Maryland's current mistake for a governor, Larry Hogan, in halting the Red Line cross-town transit project for Baltimore, which had the potential to begin the process of building what Baltimore and Maryland desperately need:  a true metropolitan rail system that could link Charm City with the nation's capital and create, in the process, an economic powerhouse on the scale of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.  Foolishness, in fact, even by Republican standards:  his former mentor, former Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich, consistently stressed the need to capture every federal dollar available.  (I should know:  as a then-State employee, I was at Board of Public Works meetings and heard him say it.)

But somehow, good ol' Larry thought that he could then come back to Washington and request more than ONE-FOURTH of the money available to the ENTIRE NATION for two transportation projects, one of which just happens to benefit a cushy real estate development.  And what a surprise:  Uncle Sam said no.

And now, generations of Baltimoreans and Marylanders will have to pay the price for Hogan's opportunistic, short-sighted attempt to look like a big-budget cutter.  Why didn't he do with the Red Line what he did with the Purple Line:  ask Baltimore to assume a bigger share of the cost?  Or scale down the size of the project, to make it more affordable?

Nah.  That would have been way too reasonable.  Better to stick the budget knife into the urban corpse of Baltimore.  Folks there aren't going to vote for you in 2018.

Well, guess what?  No one else should, either.  Because we all lost something when you killed the Red Line, Larry.  People will figure that out in two years.  And then, we'll see if you're popularity still hovers at 70%.

And, Speaking Of Double Standards ...

... we have it's close cousin:  the false equivalency.

S.E. Cupp recently provided an example in a column in which she blamed both Democrats and Republicans for practicing the politics of division.  That might sound very fair-minded, especially coming from a commentator who generally leans to the right.  Only it isn't.

Republicans have been practicing the politics of division at least since the end of World War II, when they realized they didn't have to advance anything that benefited the American people, so long as they could get away with calling their opponents "Communists."  Democrats spent decades trying to talk over the GOP's ad hominem diversions and talk about issues instead.  But it got them nowhere. And it got the American people nowhere either:  the Republicans who got elected as a result of all this saddled the nation with war, debt, and scandal.

It has taken a new generation of Democrats to wise up and understand that, sometimes, you can only fight fire with fire.  Especially when Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama offer Republicans more than half a loaf (welfare reform, Obamacare), and the GOP sits back and demands the whole thing.

We didn't start the fire, S.E.. But we would welcome help from your side in putting it out.

Once Again, It's OK If You're A Republican (Justice)

Antonin Scalia may be gone, but his legacy lives on, in myriad and perverse ways.  For example, during his lifetime, it was not uncommon for him to comment, sometimes at length on political issues, thus exposing himself to the possibiliy of having to recuse himself from ruling on a case before the Supreme Court.  Not, mind you, that he would ever actually do that, even in a situation that all but demanded it.

But let Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak her mind about a man who's never going to be President of the United States (not if there's enough sanity left in this country), and she's all but forced to her knees by the not-so-liberal press.

And, of course, it really doesn't matter that Scalia is a conservative and Ginsberg is a liberal, right? Of course not.  Republicans love being held to high standards.  As long as it's double.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Dallas, And The Turning Of The Gun Worm

Like what I hope and pray are most people, I mourned the five slain police officers in Dallas, every bit as much as I mourned the two slain young African-American men in Minneapolis and New Orleans days earlier.  Every bit as much as I have mourned every victim of every senseless gun-violence tragedy that has occurred in the nearly eight years since the nation decided to elected its first African-American President.

There, I did it.  I acknowledged the 800-pound gorilla in the nation's living room.  Then again, how could I avoid it.  We now have conservatives openly blaming the violence on Barack Obama's Presidency.  In one sense, it's the most astonishing confession I've ever heard.  "He did it!  He should have known how much taking orders from an [N-word] would anger us!  If it hadn't been for that, we wouldn't have had to make it so easy to shoot his own kind!  And his supporters among our own kind!"  (See, e.g:  Giffords, Gabby.)

More about this in a moment.

So, while I mourned all of the victims (and I haven't named any only because there are simply too many to name, and it's overwhelming enough writing this post as it is), I'm not surprised about the news from Dallas.

Let me be very clear about what I am saying.  Blue lives = black lives = all lives.  None of these deaths are justifiable.  All of them are unjustified taking of precious lives.  All of them diminish our collective lives and our fundamental humanity.

But it is a fundamental lesson of human history that, if one segment of society has declared war on another, it is only a matter of time before the other segment becomes desperate enough to fight back. And that is all the more so if a member of the other segment has been trained by our government to kill and our government has done little or nothing to re-acclimate that member to civilian life.  (Memo to conservatives:  wars have consequences, even when they're over.)

That's not me fomenting violence.  That's me describing reality.

So that's why I, believe it or not, do not think the New York Post was out of line with this.  I'm sure they're ascribing blame to the wrong aggressor.  But they're otherwise right.  Extremely right, just like the NRA, which will defend to its last breath the rights of gun manufacturers to make profits. Just like Cleveland during the Republican National Convention, where toy guns will be banned but real guns will be just fine.  And just like this idiot, who loves gun rights more than he loved his son and the future his son might have had, but for his violent narcissism.

What is it about guns in America in the first place?  If this is really all about the Second Amendment, then maybe we need to understand its history, which is after all our history.  And that history does not say that  the Second Amendment was created to guarantee an individual right for everyone to bear arms at all times.  Nor does it give much cover to the idea that it was created to facilitate state militias.

What it does support is the view that it was created to keep slaves in line. That's right. Racism is embedded in our history of so-called gun rights.  It's always been about keeping them in line.  That explains the lack of objections from white America to gun violence.  Except when they're the victims. And, most of the time, they are not the victims.

Thank G-d that people are finally waking up to this.  The majority of us.  Our courts.  Even Newt Gingrich, for crying out loud.

I pray it's enough to prevent any more senseless victims.  White, black, blue or otherwise.

After Brexit: Great Britain Is Neither

Much has been written about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and much of what has been written has been to the effect that a great empire cannot fall from without until it has fallen from within.  Up until recently, Great Britain was a different example of imperial decline:  long after it lost its ring of colonies around the world, it nevertheless maintained its political, cultural and economic importance as a great power.  Britain was still great because, like its American cousins on the other side of the proverbial pond, it had learned how to preserve the essential aspects of its national character while adapting to the changing world surrounding it.  It welcomed its Commonwealth subjects as citizens, it listened to Elvis and gave us the Beatles, it sought new opportunities for investing its capital and found many such opportunities here in the U.S, and it joined its Continental neighbors in providing an expanded safety net for its citizens.

All of that lasted until the beginning of what we can now call the Thatcher-to-Cameron era.  And, if there's a useful way to sum up the feelings of Britain, now that it is over, it might be this:  Screw adaptation!  We want our white world back!

That's not the sort of tone I try to strike in this blog, but it's hard to talk civilly about Britain in the wake of Brexit.  Perhaps the closest I can come to being civil about it is to say this:  after Brexit, Great Britain is neither great nor is it really Britain anymore.

Let's begin with the fact that the pro-Brexit or Leave vote was an English-Welsh vote, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union.  The latter vote was so overwhelming that there is already talk of a second referendum on Scottish independence.  Even more amazingly, there is talk of Northern Ireland not only leaving Britain, but becoming part of a united Ireland.  To my surprise, there is already a legal framework for making such a union possible.  This ought to give anyone familiar with Irish history cause for pause.  If the Irish on both sides of the bloody religious divide value EU membership so much that they are willing to put centuries of Protestant-Catholic enmity aside for the sake of sharing EU benefits, what does that say about the British ideal?  And does anyone have any doubt about the outcome of a second Scottish referendum?

Even if a unified Ireland and an independent Scotland did emerge from the Brexit rubble, its hard to imagine that the core English voters, the ones who live outside the cosmopolitan island of London, would care very much.  Unlike their upper-class fellow Tories, they don't define being English in any institutional sense, whether the institutions in question are the House of Lords or the stock markets. They define it in the crudest way possible:  by the color of their skin.  They are not even bound by the traditional English appreciation for civility protected for centuries by unarmed bobbies.  They openly foment violence, even when they deny that they are doing so.  And they are unmoved by the possibility that their actions may lead to economic chaos.

If there is anything that could be said to link voters on the Remain and Leave sides of the Brexit vote, it may be an exhaustion and frustration with the fruits of laissez-faire economics, the hallmark of the Thatcher-to-Cameron era.  This, of course, is an exhaustion and frustration shared by Americans, who have had their own taste of this misery in the Reagan-to-Bushes era.  An economic policy that promised freedom and opportunity for all has been, over time and in both nations, to be a con game run by the investing class.  Anger at this is legitimate, but responding to it with bigotry is not.  All that does is pit one set of victims against another, with the one-percenters laughing as they count the money we continue to funnel to them.

That is what British and American conservatism now have in common:  each is a mix of wealthy cosmopolitans and poor bigots.  They are houses divide against themselves, and as such neither can stand any longer.  It may be unfair to criticize David Cameron too much for this:  like Nicholas II and Egon Krenz before him, it may simply his fate to have been the last man standing at the end of a historical charade.

Then again, perhaps the British themselves are weary of a national identity that seems no longer able to provide them with peace and prosperity, regardless of who is in charge of government. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of all of this is how few people really cared about a vote on an issue that clearly dictated the fate of the nation.  Many people voted with their feet, by staying home.  It may be the case that they just took Britain for granted, and only cared about the outcome once it was too late.

Or, it may simply be the case that they no longer cared if the majority of their fellow Britons no longer cared about anything other than being English and white.  In that case, perhaps the fate of the British Empire does mirror the fate of its Roman counterpart.  It did not fall apart from without; it fell apart from within.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

And, To End June For TRH On A Positive Note ...

... and, since I'm going to a conference on historic theaters, I'm happy to share this with all of you.

What an amazing place the Richard Rodgers Theater (formerly the 46th Street Theater) must be!  To have become the home of not one, but two hit musicals about American history!  In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, "1776" made its original Broadway run there.  Happily, not long after it closed, a film version of the musical was made with many members of the original Broadway cast, thus giving us a record of the show that has kept its greatness, and its insights into our history, alive and well many decades later.

Today, even as I write this, the now-Rodgers Theater is once again the home of a hit musical about our history, in a way that allows its story to overlap with the one told by "1776" about the Declaration of Independence.  As we all know by now, "Hamilton" tells the story, in rap-music form, of one of the most complicated and intriguing Framers of our Constitution--Alexander Hamilton. Perhaps even more so than "1776," it makes use of contemporary music, and even more contemporary casting, to take the past and bring it to life in the present.

And how lucky we are that two men, each essential to one of these two shows, got together on the stage of the same theater in which they both made history and helped it come alive at the same time, and talk about what it all meant to them!

There may be no greater argument for the value of historic theaters than this historic meeting.

I'll have more to say when I come back from Chicago.  Happy Fourth, everyone!

Can Markets Be Created To Serve Public Needs?

In the case of Feeding America, an organization that distributes food donations to food banks around the country, the answer is apparently yes--in a spectacular way.  Working with an economics professor, Feeding America was able to create a market for making and getting food donations that actually increased the overall supply of donated food.  You can read about this in greater detail here.

It's possible to look at this article approvingly from two different perspectives.  Conservatives will, with some real justification, see a practical demonstration here of the efficiency of markets versus the ineptitude and heavy-handedness of central planning.  But that's in part because contemporary conservatives see everything from an even-or, zero-sum perspective.  As the article shows, the market created for food bank donations and distributions was, in effect, a heavily regulated one, and one in which the regulation was done with a very clear goal of optimizing the outcomes for everyone.  This was not an case of putting faith either in social Darwinism or Big Brother.  It was a choice in favor of something in between.

And "something in between" is usually where the truth lies.  Would that we could get back to remembering that.

The Future Is In Space, Whether We Like It Or Not

Just ask tiny Luxembourg, which recently decided to use a very large chunk of its money--well into nine figures, in fact--to invest in the future of asteroid mining.

We do not have an infinite Earth, folks.  We are, far more quickly than we realize, not only reaching peak oil, but in fact peak everything.  Well, a lot of things, anyway.  And yet, many of the things we're running out of on this planet can be found elsewhere.  Specifically, beyond the planet.  In space.

For a long time, we have faced the future only through the medium of science fiction.  Perhaps that's because the present has become so frightening that the only vision of the future people can conjure is one that's even worse than the present.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  The best of what can be found in science fiction--which includes asteroid mining, by the way--has almost always made it into science fact.  Science fiction has, in fact, often served as a guidepost to some of the greatest developments in human history.

So don't bet against Luxembourg's bet on mining in space.  We will need to find new sources for natural resources soon.  If they are extraterrestrial sources, so be it.  And human ingenuity has thus far always found a way to get what it needs.

White Justice, Black Justice = No Justice

A tale of two young men in 21st-century America.

Both of them college athletes.  Both found guilty by the criminal justice system of raping unconscious women.  And both of them sentenced for their crimes.

But that's where the road diverges in two directions in the narrow woods of American justice. Because one of the young men is serving a mandatory sentence of 15 to 25 years in prison.  The other young man was only sentenced to six months, with the prospect of only having to serve perhaps half of that sentence.

One of these young men is white.  One of these young men is black.  Guess which one got the stiffer sentence?

Not much of a guess, is it?  Not in an America where a bigoted businessman can parlay his lack of experience, and his hatred, into a full-scale campaign for the Presidency of the United States, uncovering the rancid bigotry of a major American party in the process.

There will be no justice in America as long as there is racial disparity in sentencing.  None. At. All.

We all need to fight this.  For all of our sakes.

Steve Cuozzo's Prayers Are Answered

And so are mine.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post, who writes on New York real estate and is not anyone's idea of a preservationist, had written a column about the impending demolition of a former Presbyterian church in Manhattan, in favor of yet another high-rise hotel development.  The church had meaning to Cuozzo because, in an earlier stage of his career, he had worked there as an administrative aide when the church was being used as a performing arts center.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that even Cuozzo, who normally takes a 1-percenter's view of real estate development, could find room in his heart for being sentimental about a piece of old New York.  Which is why I'm happy to join him in reporting that the developer has decided to incorporate part of the church's facade into the new hotel.

Perhaps most impressively, as reported by Cuozzo, the developer is doing this out of recognition that preservation can add financial value to a project.  It's what preservationists such as myself have been saying for years.  Let's hope and pray that more and more developers recognize this--and soon.

And So The Heller Decision Begins To Crumble

I have written several times about the jurisprudential badness of the Supreme Court's District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the late Justice Antonin Scalia amputated the Second Amendment to find an individual constitutional right to bear arms, but then tacked on to the ending a lecture on the need to regulate guns that was unsupported by any legal rule or precedent.  A decision that much at odds with itself is not bound to be respected for very long.  And, in any event, Heller cannot be allowed to prevent a government from carrying out what is unarguably its most basic responsibility: the safety of the governed.

Which is why this is so important.  Although it respects the logic of Heller to the extent that such logic exists, it nevertheless enforces a view of the Second Amendment more consistent with what the Framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights intended:  the view that the right to bear arms is subordinate to the right to be safe, especially in public.  We have, sadly, allowed the need for gun companies to make money to get in the way of what was once patently obvious.  Let's hope that, with the help of courts like the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, it can become patently obvious again.

Which Is Worse? The Hypocrisy? Or The Danger?

Yes, folks, this actually happened.

And the rest of us are left to wonder, among other things, whose hypocrisy is greater.  The hypocrisy of a United States Senator, using Scripture to pray for the death of the sitting President?  Or the crowd of "conservative Christians," who laughed at the "joke."  Both violated the bounds of decency. And neither the Senator nor the crowd is in a position to identify with a man who suffered for the sins of many, having declared themselves willing to laugh for the sake of Christ at the thought of slaying the elected leader of their nation.  And too, in the Senator's case, there's his oath of office, which he violated in spirit, if not in fact.  Who knows what else he might violate?

On the other hand, the danger that may be foreshadowed by this incident may be even greater than hypocrisy.  We've already seen how, in Great Britain, a country formerly renowned for its civility, an M.P. can be shot to death for her political views, and the side on which the assailant was working won.  Who knows what political issue on that sceptered isle will next be resolved by a bullet?

And who knows how the example set by Jo Cox's murderer will be repeated here, accross the proverbial pond?

Kenneth Starr's Scarlet Letter

At least some of you, depending on the quality of your eduational system, may have read Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."  The letter in question is A, forced to be worn by Hester Prynne after being found guilty of adultery, but (spoiler alert) later on found to be on the chest of the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, her lover and the father of her daughter.  This theme, with its New Testament echoes (the parable of the splinter and the beam, for example), reoccures again and again in our culture:  the chief condemmnor of sinners is exposed as a sinner himself (or herself).

So, as it turns out, it is with Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton's chief legal tormentor in oppositon to the then-President's sexual proclivities.  The man who simply couldn't stand the thought of the President of the United States using the Oval Office for an affair with an intern turns out to have been, while president and chancellor of Baylor University, someone who turned a blind eye to incidents of sexual abuse.

And he got his comeuppance for it.  The arc of history is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice. Good riddance.

Whither Immigration Reform After A Split Supreme Court?

This past Thursday was, by any standard, an extraordinary news day.  It ended, of course, with the historic and misguided outcome in the British referendum on European Union membership, with the victory for the Leave side already inducing massive financial upheavals, as well as a massive amount of buyer's remorse by many who voted for Brexit.

I was inclined to write about Brexit, in fact, but I thought it over and decided that there's quite a bit to say about it, and maybe more than one post will be needed for me to get it done.  Plus, tomorrow is a getaway day for me.  I'm going to Chicago for a week to take part in the annual Conclave of the Theatre Historical Society of America, of which I am a board member and officer. So I won't have an opportunity to comment on Great Britain's self-manufactured crisis until after I get back, which will be just before the Fourth of July.  I can only imagine that, during that time, even more fodder for commentary will emerge.

With all of this in mind, I take this opportunity to talk about last Thursday's other major news story, which got somewhat buried by all of the Brexit hoopla:  the 4-4 split by the Supreme Court in their United States v. Texas ruling, which left in place a temporary injunction halting President Obama's expanded program of deferred prosecution for young undocumented immigrants and their parents.

As I said, the injunction is temporary and, as a consequence of the Court's decision, a trial on the merits of the case can now proceed.  Basically, this suit was brought by the Attorneys General of several states, alleging that the President's program was guilty of statutory overreach that would, in addition, burden their states with additional costs (e.g., the need to issue additional licenses). Maybe you like their logic, and maybe you don't.  Personally, I think it holds no water.  But, in any case, the trial can now go forward, the judge can once again rule for the plaintiffs, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals can once again uphold that ruling, and the case can come back before the Supreme Court--which, by then, may have a full compliment of nine Justices.  And we in turn, by then, may have a new president who may or may not pursue the program or any other action to help 11 million effectively stateless souls.

And so, on immigration, the American beat goes on, with immigrants and their advocates being the ones taking the pounding.  Is there any lemonade to be made out of all these lemons?

Well, some.  The 4-4 split sets no precedent.  On the other hand, imagine what a nine-member Court might have done with an opinion written by the late Antonin Scalia.  No doubt the ability of Obama and future presidents to offer administrative relief to immigrants would have been reduced to rubble, while the concept of state standing to sue the Feds would have been stretched to maximum capacity not only for immigration, but perhaps for every conceivable issue on which the states might sue.

And, in any case, a program such as the one Obama has proposed is purely administrative in nature, and could easily be undone by any successor.  This leaves those of us who advocate for immigrants back to what used to be the future:  the need for a statutory solution in the form of comprehensive immigration reform.

How do we finally get to this promised land?  By doing what LGBT advocates have been doing for the past decade:  changing the minds of the American people about immigrants by changing the culture's perception of them, and especially how they came her in the first place.  Go beyond Op-Ed pieces and blogs (yes, including this one), and tell the stories of immigrants in songs, in films, in TV and Web series, on talk shows and in town meetings, in PTA meetings and day care centers.  Fill the everyday lives of people with stories about the "illegals," and they'll soon conclude that no human being is or should be illegal.

And then remind the American people that these human beings are being used as political props to prevent us from discussing and resolving a whole host of social issues, including climate change burning up states where many of these human beings live.

And insist on a fully-staffed Supreme Court, functioning as a truly independent branch of government, and not as a plaything of Mitch McConnell's.

Enough is enough.  Let's stop dividing ourselves to death, and remember that, before it was changed to "In God We Trust," our national motto was "E Pluribus Unum"--out of many, one.  Let's come together to write that thought into our immigration laws, so that no President needs to be sued for doing the right thing.