Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Your Life In Weeks

That's the title of this Huffington Post article, which does a remarkable job of making you think about the time you spend by representing it graphically.

One Thing About The Internet I Like Very, Very Much

It's killing big-box stores.

"Locatecture" Versus "Starchitects"

Confused?  If you care about whether or not your city looks like Everycity, you owe it to yourself to read this discussion.

How Do You Respond When A Gun Owner Wants To "Flaunt It"?

You walk out.  And make the business pay.

Colonial Borders That Still Bedevil Us

There is no better example of this than the post-World War I division of the Ottoman Empire by the British and the French.  This explains it all.

Immigration: Where Conservatives Collide

And, as a result, liberals and libertarians meet up.  Take a look.

Why The Export-Import Bank Is NOT "Corporate Welfare"

First of all, you're probably wondering:  the what Bank?  Well, just because you may never have heard of it, that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter to a lot of people.  Angry Republicans on Capitol Hill, for starters.  And every one else as well.

The Ex-Im Bank (for short), as described here,  provides guarantees for loans that help American companies sell goods abroad.  That's all it does.  And, amazingly, it makes a profit while doing it.  In other words, it not only costs the taxpayers absolutely nothing, it actually helps to reduce the deficit.  And, for those reasons alone, it differs tremendously from most forms of "corporate welfare."

For the most part, "corporate welfare" consists of actually handing money over to private companies, without any strings attached, either in the form of direct subsides or preferential tax treatment.  Not surprisingly, this is always rationalized as being in the "public interest" in some sort of specious way.  And, in some cases, there may have been at one time some justification for that label, if the industry in question has long-term potential for public good and needs a short-term boost to realize its potential.  Thus, the oil industry may have actually required subsidies at one time.  But anyone familiar with the profits from oil knows that the need for that short-term boost expired decades ago.  I believe that solar power needed and deserved to benefit from public subsidies but, now that it's taking off as a private industry, there is clearly an argument for re-directing those subsidies.

That's the beauty of the Ex-Im Bank.  It does not enable long-term spending of public money for any one industry, or segment of the private sector.  It primarily serves as a guarantor of risk, one that has actually created tax revenue rather than re-directing it.  As the Slate article to which the link above is connected, the basic concept behind the bank has been duplicated and expanded in application around the world, and as close to home as Canada.  The article mentions President Obama's proposed "infrastructure bank" as an example of how the Ex-Im Bank model could be expanded to create a whole new range of private-public partnerships that could meet public needs in ways that expand the private sector as well--but without the inherent cronyism of "corporate welfare."

But that brings us back to Republican determination to kill the bank.  Why?  Not because they object to using government in ways that help the private sector.  For them, helping the private sector is the only reason that government exists.  And the Ex-Im Bank does much more than help Wall Street; it also helps Main Street, in the form of jobs that frequently are union jobs.  Even worse, the Ex-Im bank was a New Deal creation.  Unions!  F.D.R!  No wonder they can't wait to kill it.  Today's modern Republican Party isn't about serving everyone through compromise; it's about serving its contributors through fascism.

The Ex-Im Bank could actually serve as a beacon toward America's future.  Instead, it seems destined to become a victim of the insatiable conservative appetite for power.  As will we all, unless we wake up.

The Emptying Pot Of Casino Gold

A little bit of full disclosure (as well as self-promotion) at the outside: in my life as an actor, I am currently working on a Web series about life in Atlantic City.  It's written, produced and directed by a professor at Rutgers University who is also a native of the city, and has watched first hand the rise, and now fall, of the Casino Age in his home town.  Without giving away any of the plot points in the season we're currently working on, I can tell you that, right now, we're wondering whether art is imitating life, or vice versa.

Because Atlantic City, which rose and fell once in the early part of the last century, and rose again in the 1970's with the advent of legalized casino gambling, is falling again.  Not a little bit, but spectacularly.  You can get an overview of what's happening here.

Are you surprised?  If so, you shouldn't be.  This is the most foreseeable trend many, including me, have had the lack of pleasure in foreseeing.  We've been foreseeing it, in fact, ever since states neighboring New Jersey--New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and my home state of Maryland--looked at Atlantic City's success and thought they could duplicate it.  In each state, the political leadership started to look at casino gambling as a unlimited pot of revenue gold, one that would spare them the unpleasant task of raising taxes, cutting services, or doing both.

The problem, of course, is that casino gambling isn't unlimited in any sense.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  Gambling in any form is just another form of entertainment.  And when hard times come for most people, entertainment dollars are the first thing to be cut.  Unless you're the kind of compulsive gambler who will literally sell his birthday suit for another shot at the tables, you can find far cheaper ways of being entertained than sitting on a casino floor, handing over your money to the house one quarter or C-note at a time, and promising yourself that you're going to be rich if you just let yourself get suckered one more time.  Read a book.  Surf the Web.  Have a nice, home-cooked meal with your family.  In fact, almost anything.

As an industry in America, historically, casino gambling has only looked lucrative for a long time because, for a long time, only one state legalized it--Nevada.  It's easy to get a big crowd if you're running the only pizza parlor in town but, as soon as everybody sees how much people like pizza, they're going to start opening other parlors, and test the limits of the market.  Soon, the market gets more parlors than it needs, and some of them start to go out of business.  Maybe a lot of them, if there's a really big number.

In fact, for a time, Atlantic City actually cut into Vegas' business, forcing Vegas to re-invent itself as a more family-friendly destination.  Now, local competition is going to force Atlantic City to make the same hard choices.  Will it go in the direction of Vegas?  Or will it bet on other forms of vice (pun intended)? Only time will tell.

But what is clear is that the free ride for politicians is over.  They will have to go back to growing spines, making choices, winning or losing elections in the process, and helping all of us to discover what we should always have know:  there's no such thing as a free lunch.  Not in Atlantic City, and not anywhere else.

Monday, September 29, 2014

From Your Mouth To God's Ears--Or, At Least, To The Moon

Thanks, Phil Plait.  We're a species of explorers, and it's time to start acting like it again.

Will The Democrats Be Saved By Southern Black Votes?

Let's hope that this author is right.

Why Redistricting Reform Matters More Than Campaign Finance Reform

I'm all for both, but this makes a compelling case for the primacy of the former.

Sweden Makes The Case Against School Choice

Take a look.

Tax The Shareholders, Not The Corporation?

This argument has come into vogue lately, and this article hints at why.

Proof That Immigration Works--From A Suprising Source

Germany.  Given its checkered (to put it politely) history with multiculturalism, one would not expect to see it serve as an example of how immigration makes a country better.  But here's the proof.

No. 2 Never Acted Like No. 1

And that's why, despite being an Orioles and Mets fan, I am willing to admit that I will miss Derek Jeter.

In some ways, Jeter was the perfect New York athlete.  On the field, one of the best shortstops to play the game.  With a multicultural background, he was a natural fit in the Big Apple's melting pot.  But, with rare exceptions, being a New York athlete has traditionally come with some unattractive personal bagging.  Self-aggrandizing comments in the media.  Controversial behavior on and off the field.  And a tendency, not always justified, to put personal goals ahead of the team.

Happily for all of us, Jeter never carried any of this baggage.  He always made the media happy by having something to say without patting himself on the back in the process.  He never courted controversy, and his reliability gave the Yankee teams on which he played a sense of stability even when some of his teammates seemed to turn into controversy magnets.  (Yes, Alex Rodriguez, I'm talking about you.  And good luck coming back next year and replacing even half of what Jeter brought to each and every game, without the assistance of science.)

Most of all, Derek Jeter did not play for himself.  He put up numbers, but the numbers he was proudest of were the ones associated with Yankee victories and, even more importantly to Yankee fans, World Championships.  There was never anything selfish about his play.  He let the situation and the moment dictate how his talent and experience would respond to it.  His last at-bat in Yankee Stadium, which led to a walk-off win against the Orioles, was a perfect example.  It may not have been a particularly spectacular hit, but it was enough to win the game.  His last one at home.  His last game at shortstop.  It's not surprising that the Oriole players joined everyone else in applauding him after the game.  That says something about the Orioles, but it says even more about Jeter.

Like another retired shortshop, one that played for the Orioles (hint:  his uniform number was Jeter's plus six), Jeter made the game better for everyone by being the kind of player he was.  Someone who not only embraced the moment, but also the larger truth that the game, like the country, is bigger and better than any one of us.  The game, like the country, is better when we work together, when there is more than one star, when the team, the game and the fans together are the ultimate star.

Enjoy your retirement, No. 2.  And find a way to stick around the game.  Here's hoping that more of you rubs off on the rest of us.

The Case Against A GOP Majority In The Senate Can Be Summed Up In Two Words

Susan Collins.

The senior senator from Maine is, technically, all that is left of the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party.  I say, technically, because her vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act defies anything that Nelson Rockefeller and other moderate-to-liberal Republicans would have stood for, once upon a time.  And yet, this will not stop her from being touted by what Paul Krugman calls the Very Serious People that "common ground" can be found between the two parties, thanks to "moderates" like Collins.

There is absolutely nothing moderate about her vote against the PFA.  The bill is, well was (and maybe someday still will be) designed to close loopholes in existing laws that allow employers to pay women less than their male counterparts.  It proposes no new rights.  It stands for something every American should support, namely, equal pay for everyone.  Its enactment would be a real step toward promoting not only fairness, but prosperity, by adding consumer dollars to the economy.  And, despite all of this, every female member of the Senate Republican caucus voted against it.  I repeat:  every one.

Some of the women, like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Deb Fisher of Nebraska, are pure ideologues.  They traffic in belief, not knowledge, so their stupid, harmful votes are understandable, if not forgivable.  But that's not Collins' profile.  Along with her erstwhile Maine colleague, Olympia Snowe, Collins was supposed to the the very model of the reach-across-the-aisle politician we're always told we need to get our problems solved and get America going again.  She was supposed to be someone who saw the value of compromise, and the need for engaging in it without fear of "losing face." 

Her vote against the PFA, on the other hand, makes her look scared to death of losing face--or, just being two-faced.  And it's not like she needs to worry about re-election.  This year, she fended off a Tea Party primary challenge easily, and is currently leading her Democratic opponent in the general election by a 2-to-1 margin.

Susan Collins the person probably hasn't changed.  Deep down, I suspect she still believes that we should all find ways to get along.  But Susan Collins the politician is a very clear sign of how a Mitch McConnell-led Senate would function.  No dissent, and 100% support for the 1%.  It's a shame that she appears to value her career over her principles.  Perhaps she is nursing the faint hope that our politics, somehow, can once again become more reasonable.  I hope she's right, but I doubt it.

In the meantime, she's just more evidence that a stay-at-home progressive on Election Day is a vote for an All-Tea Party Congress.  We can't afford to let that happen.  If you care about moderation in politics, then vote for a party that still has ideological wings, a party that isn't afraid of debate, a party that isn't afraid to compromise, a party that desperately wants to get America moving again.

I'll give you a hint:  it's not the party Susan Collins belongs to.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The First Stepping Stone To Living In Space Will Not Be Mars

It is far more likely to be our Moon.  Here's why, as well as how.

Tax Hikes Are "Welfare Reform" For The Rich

Promoting that message has been the fundamental purpose of this blog from its inception.  And no one has done a more effective job of justifying that message than has been done here.  Read it.  And post it everywhere.

Before You Think One More Thought About The Israel-Palestine Conflict ...

... take a look at this, if you haven't already.  And then see how it changes your thoughts.

Is It Still A "Hoax" When Yellowstone's Melting?

I think not.  But, then again, I'm not sure of how many skeptics can be won over by facts.

The Border Crisis Does NOT Justify A Delay In Immigration Reform

Instead, it justifies an urgent need to proceed with it as quickly as possible.  Even a leading Republican can see that.

A Small Step In The Right Direction

For Tennessee, for Volkswagen, for unions and the workers they represent.  But mainly, for America.  Let this small step be the first of many more.

Funding Third Parties--Divide and Conquer, or Dilute The Bullies?

I've been thinking for a while about third parties and independent candidates, and the impact they have on a political system that sometimes looks more like a duopoly than it really is.  In fact, I had intended on writing about it for the past few weeks, and other topics kept getting in the way (necessarily).  But the recent turmoil in the Kansas race for the Senate seat currently held by Pat Roberts provides a way, and an excellent opportunity,  of illustrating graphically how third-indy candidacies could be of benefit to progressives, and even to the Democrats as a party.

Kansas, in fact, currently provides the most compelling illustration of this point.  Here is a case where the Democratic candidate has formally, publicly, dropped out of the race--and the net result is that progressives have a real shot at picking up a Senate seat in one of the country's reddest states.  Why?  Because the Democratic candidate's support is going to an independent candidate who has publicly supported progressive causes, but shed the institutional baggage of the national Democratic party.  Doubt it?  The national Republican Party isn't doubting it.  They sent in one of their own to try flogging Robert's chances back to life, while hiding behind the partisan decision of the Republican Kansas Secretary of State to leave the Democrat on the ballot.

This latter action serves to underscore how much Republican success depends on maintaining the us-against-them dialogue that currently "serves" (poorly) as our national political discourse.  At the same time, the collapse of Republican Governor Sam Brownback's supply-side policies and, along with it, his own re-election chances, illustrate what happens when bad ideas are given a chance to flourish.  Not surprising, they amply illustrate their badness.  Put together, the Brownback disaster and the rise of an independent progressive candidate help to illustrate an important practical point about politics:  when the focus is off of institutions (i.e., parties) and on ideas, good ideas win.  And that means that progressive ideas win.

As much as progressives hate Bill Clinton (sometimes with reason, like the repeal of Glass-Steagall), the fact of his presidency illustrates what can happen when a campaign gets beyond the institutional duopoly and into issues and ideas.  The end of the Cold War and the rise of the federal deficit created an opportunity for a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, to address the deficit issue in a non-partisan way, and raised the discussion about the issue to a then-unprecedented level.  Clinton's contribution was to recognize what Perot had done and fold the issue into his own campaigning.  The long-run result--the Clinton surplus--was an achievement Democrats continue to brag about.  But it wouldn't have happened without Perot.

If it ends up being the case (and it may very well be the case) that the Kansas race decides control of the Senate in favor of the Democrats, and if I were a major fundraising player on the progressive side, I'd start to take a hard look at how third-indy candidates could help to break up the political duopoly in states where there is, for all practical purposes, a red monopoly.  If doing so can help to get progressive ideas past the bullies and into the hearts and minds of the people, and those people elect candidates willing to coalition with Democrats, who wins?  Right, progressives.  And progressive ideas.

And, ultimately, all of us.

No, Lois Weiss, The City Council Lease Proposal Will NOT Hurt Landlords And The City

I make it a habit NOT to read the New York Post.  Rupert Murdoch already has more loyal followers than he needs.  Or deserves, for that matter.  But I confess that I do go so far as to regularly visit the Post's Real Estate section (on the paper's Web site, only, where I'm giving them nothing but clicks).  It's a good way of tracking the transformation of my beloved 18th and 19th century Gotham into a poor copy of 21st century Dubai.

But, of course, this is the Post.  So it's impossible for idiocy not to seep into something even so seemingly straightforward as reports on leasing, buying, demolishing and building.  Which brings me to the subject of a recent column by Lois Weiss.

Ms. Weiss, as a rule, limits her written ramblings to recent leasing transactions.  On this particular occasion, however, she ventures into Op-Ed territory with her opposition to a bill, currently under consideration--I repeat, only under consideration--by the New York City Council, intended to address the wholesale and abrupt eviction of long-standing city businesses by developers chasing the next luxury bubble.

According to Ms. Weiss, these evictions simply aren't a problem.  They are the natural, indeed inevitable, clearing out of "inefficient" small businesses, so that luxe developers can build luxe buildings with luxe tenants that, invariably, pay more taxes and benefit us all--including, theoretically, the recently dispossessed (and now unemployed) owners of the former tenants.  Never mind that these tenants provided affordable goods and services to a broad spectrum of city residents and tourists.  Never mind that these tenants are often city landmarks, the kind of places that attract tourists (i.e., half of New York's population on any given day) on a steady basis over decades.  And, speaking of decades, never mind the fact that they provided the city and state with a stable source of tax revenue during New York's leanest years, as hundreds of corporations left for the theoretically greener pastures of Connecticut and the Sunbelt (only to then die in a series of mergers and acquisitions).

To Ms. Weiss, these concerns simply aren't relevant, if (in her mind) they exist at all.  Indeed, any attempt to address those concerns, to put even a little speed bump into the current casino-style pace of city development is nothing less--and I'm quoting her now--as "tortious interference with real estate business decisions."  Oh, and did I mention that she's insecure enough about her argument to employ the C-word, Communism, in the sentence that follows her foray into legalspeak?  And to do so with apparent pride at this verbal act of "bravery"?

Ms. Weiss' column is ultimately little more than another puerile exercise in verbal bullying against anything that even looks like it might stop business interests from getting 100% of what they want.  I would have thought that recent nearly-tragic events (think 2008) would have us all on the same page when it comes to thinking that no one (even this blogger) should ever get 100% of what they want.  Nope.  Not Ms. Weiss.  She knows better.

Except that she doesn't.  The painful, disturbing truth is this:  there simply aren't enough luxe buyers and luxe tenants for all of those new, shiny, look-alike skinny glass towers with pointed tops.  That's especially the case when it comes to retail, and especially in an Internet economy.  When it comes to retail space, and the street vitality they create (economically and culturally), we need tenants at all levels of rent.

Don't believe, me, Ms. Weiss?  You don't have to.  Just take a look at what your Post colleague, Steve Cuozzo, has to say about the current leasing market, untrammeled by your vision of the City Council's Red Menace.  Maybe some of that space will be marked down to a level at which the dispossessed could pay for it.  Maybe "the magic of the marketplace" will make that happen, even after the 1% have effectively closed the marketplace to everyone but themselves.

And, in that case, Ms. Weiss, maybe, just maybe, there's a nearby bridge I could sell you.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Recycling The Past To Build The Theater Of Tomorrow

On Howard Street in Baltimore.  May there be many more projects like this one in Charm City's future.

Building A Mars Colony With 3-D Printers

We may yet live to see it.  Take a look.

The Environment: Smart Vs. Stupid

Helping the poor to harness the sun versus "rolling coal."

Whose side are you on?

Can "Going Green" Help Others To Make Green?

It will require the right combination of public and private initiatives, as Tom Hayden argues.  Perhaps this could be one example.

One Reason North Carolina May Be Turning Blue

It's discovering global warming isn't a hoax.

This Goes All The Way Back To Independence Day ...

... but it's still worth pondering 13 facts that show how America is NOT a "conservative" nation.  One for each of the original colonies.  How appropriate.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Message To Immigration Advocates: Get Angry, But Then Get Active

It's been clear for the past several weeks that President Obama was giving consideration to the idea of walking back his earlier, self-imposed deadline of early fall to enact administrative relief for immigrants and our over-burdened immigration system.  Today, however, consideration gave way to action--or inaction, if you will. The response from immigration advocates was, for the most part, as understandable as it was unsurprising:  outrage and a sense of betrayal, culminating in threats to make Obama and congressional Democrats pay at the polls.

But what would that accomplish?  Democrats and their allies have stayed home before, and all that does is elect more Republicans to Congress (or the White House, for that matter).  And, in turn, all that does is set back the interests of progressives and their allies even further, sometimes for decades.  Remember 2010, when folks sat at home over getting something less than the public option in health care reform?  That election gave us the current Tea Party tyranny.  For that matter, remember 1994, when folks sat at home over not getting any health care reform at all?  That give us the Age of Newt, and set the politics of reform back for almost a generation.

One of Barack Obama's most real strengths is looking at the bigger picture.  He is the son of an immigrant, as well as the child of a biracial marriage.  No one--and I mean absolutely no one--should have any reason to doubt that the issue of immigration is as real and as personal to him as health reform is.  But he would be betraying his commitment to immigrants if he made any move that did not reflect the complexity of the issue and its position in American life.  After all, immigration advocates (including myself) argue again and again that the need for a comprehensive approach to the issue is based in no small part on that complexity.

It is perfectly clear from the President's own words that he is worried about taking a burning political issue and pouring Napalm on it with his own actions, at the start of a hotly contested political season.  And too, the issue here is timing.  By waiting until after the election, regardless of whether or not Democrats hold the Senate, he will be in a better position to act.  There will no longer be a chance by his opponents to use the issue as a referendum on him.  If the Democrats hold the Senate, Obama will have more political leverage to finally enact a legislative solution, something we all want.  On the other hand, if the Republicans control Congress, he can then legitimately say that he needs to act on his own--and I believe that he will.

And it is utterly foolish, in any case, to expect any President not to heed political concerns expressed during an election season by members of his own party.  Presidents are party as well as governmental officials:  without support from within his own party, a President is doomed to failure.  Just ask Jimmy Carter, the last President we had who acted on what he believed, come hell or high water.  I supported Carter with my vote twice, but even he will admit that he was undermined by the lack of support from within his own party--especially Tip O'Neill, who (as we all know) preferred knocking a few back with Reagan.

But none of this should discourage or dissuade immigration advocates from anger.  It should only serve to guide them into channeling their anger into productive channels.  What do I mean?  Simply this.  Contact the White House.  Contact Democrats in Congress.  Tell the President that you'll wait two months, but, after that, you expect him to go as big as possible.  Hold nothing back.  Even if that means giving temporary protective status to nearly all of the 12 million undocumented among us, do it.  And tell his congressional allies (yes, even the ones in red states) that you'll only continue to support them in future elections if they get back on the stick and push comprehensive immigration reform across the finish line once and for all.

We can't sit this out, especially the lawyers amongst us.  Our clients need us.  Immigrants need us.  American needs us, whether it realizes it yet or not.  Nothing worth doing is easy.  Nothing is more worth sacrifice than going the extra mile to end the human rights crisis in our midst.  Give the President the extra time he wants.  But don't give up telling him that, ultimately, the wait should be well worth it.

ISIS And Putin: What History Can Teach Us (Provided That We Can Still Learn)

Toughness.  When it comes to a conflict between American interests and those of one or more opponents of those interests, it's the easy, slightly sexy, all-purpose answer.  It plays well in the media.  It's easy to sell in the court of public opinion.  And it always works, regardless of the nature of the conflict or the opponent.  Right?

Well, to borrow a phrase, two out of three ain't bad.  It does play well in the media, and it will probably always be easy to sell in the court of public opinion.  But, if we're willing to be taught by history, we know that all problems and conflicts are not created equal.  If we learned nothing from Iraq, we should have learned that toughness means very little when the conflict is one between ideologies, rather than nation-states.  Of course, a perusal of history would have kept our military out of Iraq in the first place.  Because Iraq was never more than a collection of conflicting ideologies masquerading (for the sake of its British creators) as a nation-state.  Our misguided attempt at imposing "democracy" on these ideologies only pulled the cork out of the fragile nation-state bottle--and created ISIS, a terrorist group dedicated to replacing civil law with religious law.

As a consequence, we now have voices in the media like this one, urging a hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-us approach to ISIS that involved more of the same misguided military intervention that got us to this point.  The irony in Roger Cohen's piece is that he concedes a basic truth:  that ISIS is as much an idea as it is anything else.  Once again, if history teaches us anything, it's that you can't kill an idea with bullets.  You can only kill it with better ideas.

Contrary to what you may have learned about the Cold War, that's how we won it.  We demonstrated that democracy worked better than Communism.  And that was enough because, apart from the mutual assurance of nuclear destruction, the war was explicitly based on a competition between two political philosophies--and the better one won.  That is why we need to deal with ISIS in the same way that we fought the Cold War, by deploying soft power ranging in form from propaganda to espionage.  Military power may have a role to play at some points, but it has to be used very selectively.  Again, if history teaches us anything, the worst thing we can do to members of a movement seeking martyrdom is to give them martyrs.

One the other hand, hard power is essential, when the opponent is a nation-state looking to gobble up other nation states.  That's why I find myself nodding my head when I read this piece from Slate, urging us to prepare to meet Vladimir Putin on the battlefield he has chosen to confront the U.S. and its NATO allies:  Ukraine.  Putin is a very different kind of threat from ISIS.  If he has any ideology at all, it is strictly himself.  He is an international bully whose power comes entirely out of the barrels of guns.  We have no alternative but to show that we are ready to meet him on the battlefield, and we have already started to take steps to do that.

Different crises, different solutions.  Those are some of the lessons that history can teach us, provided that we are still willing to learn.  I can only hope that we are still willing.  Our children and grandchildren are counting on it.