Thursday, January 03, 2019

Open Letter To A Great Public Servant

Dear Vice President Biden,

I'll get right to the point: Your time is now.  Because you are the best, most qualified person for the job, I ask that you please end the speculation and declare your intent to run for President of the United States as soon as possible.  The trauma of the past three years has left our country needing a collective reset; and emerging from the decades-long shadow of the Clintons has left the Democratic Party needing a collective purpose.   Your good-natured optimism and historical perspective on the role of government can provide both.

Why You

Whether it's your working-class roots in Scranton; your dedication to the people of Delaware in the United States Senate; the example you set as the grieving father of an American war hero; or your loyalty to President Obama and work in his administration, the choice to live a life of public service has earned you a particular kind of credibility with Americans from many different backgrounds.

Unique among the field of Democratic candidates, your campaign could demonstrate to young Americans that there is nothing wrong with the process of earning the support of voters across the political spectrum and turning them out on a district-by-district basis; that motivating people to action is a skill set necessary for a President of the United States to be effective at his or her job; and that Donald Trump has failed to do any of those things.

Unique among the field of Democratic candidates, you have decades of experience guiding bills through the United States Senate and into law.  When the Majority Leader uses parliamentary tricks and political pressure to prevent the passage of legislation to improve the lives of our fellow Americans, you will know best how to use the "bully pulpit" power of the presidency to counter the cowardice of Senator McConnell.

Unique among the field of Democratic candidates, you've witnessed firsthand how the GOP has devolved – from Reaganism's pragmatic, flexible approach to funding our government and expanding America's workforce; to Trumpism's perpetual trillion-dollar annual deficits and short-sighted ignorance, bigotry, and irrational hatred of immigrants.

Unique among the field of Democratic candidates, you understand the role that our Department of Defense plays in securing and maintaining peace and stability around the world.  Without America's leadership, authoritarian regimes are currently free to kill at will.  But with the eldest son of Joseph Robinette Biden as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, wannabe despots like Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and Mohammed bin Salman al Saud will know those days are over.

Why Now

I recognize that campaigning can be a real drag, and that you have nothing to prove to anyone.  At this point in your life, it would be understandable for you to view the self-aggrandizement and self-promotion as unseemly – especially in a primary where you'd be put in a position to have to speak ill of people you like and want to see succeed.  Candidly, your fellow Democrats shouldn't make you go through that; and I believe it can be avoided entirely if everyone knows you don’t intend to seek re-election.  This voluntary term-limit has the added benefit of providing a five-year window to allow other aspirants to the office to fill in any gaps in their resumes, much the same way that former First Lady Hillary Clinton served as the junior Senator from New York and Secretary of State before seeking the nomination.  It will also help restore some much-needed seriousness to the office of the President of the United States, now occupied by a guy whose previous job was fake-firing washed-up celebrities on a reality TV show.

Of course, you don't need me to tell you that experience and readiness to serve are critical qualities to consider when choosing a President – or that it took the endorsements of people like yourself and the late Senator Kennedy to help allay those concerns about then-Senator Obama.   I mention experience and readiness only because those questions about Barack Obama were well-founded; and the same can be said about any candidate who doesn’t have a presence on the world stage, or has never served in the Executive Branch.  Unfortunately, it appears as though the takeaway for a number of ambitious or neophyte Democrats is to view the Obama '08 campaign as some sort of template demonstrating that, for the right candidate, experience really doesn't matter.  This may be true, but to paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 debate with Vice President Dan Quayle: You know Barack Obama.  Barack Obama is a friend of yours.  Among this group of candidates, there is no Barack Obama.

What’s Next

The critical first step for your 2020 campaign will be to get the Obamas on-board.  There are quite simply no better surrogates than the former First Family, and no better recruiters to convince people like Senators Warren, Klobuchar, Brown, Booker, and Harris to take a look at where they might serve in a Biden Administration, and how that might help them prepare their own presidential campaigns.  That will also help you to identify potential White House staff, Cabinet Members, a Council of Economic Advisors, and a Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  And once you have those boxes checked, your fellow Democrats will be compelled to preface any comments about their own aspirations by saying they’d be happy to serve in a Biden administration if asked, and that they will only seek the nomination if you don't.  They will defer to you out of respect, Mr. Vice President, which you most certainly have earned.  Because the bottom line is that among this large and growing cluster of candidates, you are objectively most qualified, subjectively most deserving, and the clear best matchup against the GOP nominee.  And given the Democratic Party’s history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, any Democrat who can't find a way to get behind your candidacy lacks the good judgement required to serve in the office.

By coming out early, with the support of the Obamas, and with the basic structure of your administration in place, you can unite the Democratic Party around a candidate, a vision, and a legislative agenda.  You can (mercifully) eliminate the "horse race" aspect of the primaries while shifting the coverage away from petty partisanship, and toward public policy and the impact it has on people.  This broadening of the political conversation is vital because in our current two-party system, so many topics – from reproductive freedom, to climate science, to the definition of family, to gun ownership – seem to be off-limits.  The parties themselves have become caricatures; with the GOP seen as gun-toting, Bible-thumping tax cheats who don't care about women, black and brown people, or the LGBT+ community; and the Democrats are seen as a collection of minority groups trying to grab their unearned piece of the pie – free stuff that comes at the expense of the majority.  But with a voluntarily-term-limited President Biden in the White House and a planning-for-transition Speaker Pelosi leading the most diverse House of Representatives ever seated, those perceptions could change over the course of a single Session of Congress.

For your party, this approach would have the added benefit of turning the upcoming Democratic primary campaign (which begins in just six months) into an extended preview of the 2020 general election. It would also force the GOP and the Trump administration to have to respond right away with more appealing policies and better organization, something they have never demonstrated any ability to do.  The net effect could be a five-year period of collective reflection about what kind of country we want to leave for the next generation, followed in 2024 by the largest and most consequential election in American history.

In Conclusion

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, our country is in a state of undeclared civil war. The institutions designed to preserve and protect our way of life are in peril. Our legislature, courts, military, law enforcement agencies, intelligence community, and our free press have all given way to the pressure of partisanship. On the streets of cities like San Diego, Charlottesville, Orlando, Charleston, and Bloomington, our fellow Americans are already killing each other over their political differences. In the halls of Congress, there are still some who would sacrifice other people's blood and treasure in order to better secure their own families' futures. And in the Oval Office, there sits a traitor to our cherished American ideals: We the people, domestic tranquility, and a more perfect union.

Your beloved Senate is under the control of a coward, the presidency is in the hands of a morally corrupt tyrant, and our great nation is on the verge of chaos. In the America you and I aspire to, that can no longer be tolerable. This is your moment, sir, and you could be our republic's Cicero. I call on you to step up and be the brave and excellent man America needs at this critical time in our history.


Kenny Mack
Brooklyn, New York

Sunday, November 06, 2016

E Pluribus Unum Is Working

Despite this shitshow of an election cycle, I still love being American and I still love our country.

I love being American because the United States of America is, and always will be, a noble enterprise. A bunch of guys got together in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 seeking to improve on the Roman model of city-states overseen by a central government. They made the unforgivable mistake of allowing some people to be considered property; but they also introduced lofty concepts – we the people, a more perfect union, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare – previously unheard of in statecraft. The document they drafted calls on each of us to sacrifice our own self-interest for the collective good; and in exchange, we can count on our fellow Americans to rally in support whenever our communities are in danger. Through their brilliance, the men who wrote the United States Constitution created a country based on an idea, and not an identity. That idea is the American citizen.

In a little over two hundred years, we have evolved from an experimental concept into the world’s indispensable nation. We have the largest economy, our money is the world’s reserve currency, and our sovereign debt is the standard by which global financial risk is measured. There have been three dozen consecutive bloodless transitions of power since the Civil War, and there is no reason to believe the American ship of state won’t continue to sail on smoothly for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the almost incomprehensible size, sophistication, and reach of the U.S. Armed Forces, no country on earth could ever exert its will over us or stop us from exerting our will over them. The government of the United States, four-and-a-half million professionals who get up every day and go to work providing some kind of service for the rest of us, is the largest and most complicated organization in the history of human endeavor. It is our social and political contracts made manifest; and it is how the United States of America has become first among equals in the global community.

No one is looking for the Queen of England when a crisis happens. The world asks, “Where are the Americans?” I’m proud of that.

As much as I love being American, I love being part of Generation X even more. We were too young to have become jaded by America’s misguided attempts at imperialism, and just old enough to have seen the Chernobyl disaster explode the myth of an all-powerful Soviet Union that could kill us all in our sleep. Unlike previous generations, we lived most of our lives without an enemy abroad, and under the protection of laws ensuring equal rights all people here at home. Our generation pioneered the concept – and the incredibly profitable business model – of institutional improvement through complete disruption. We created, invented, or developed so many of the things that make modern life worth living that I don’t even want to think of what it might have been like without us. We’ve been re-making the world in our image since we were old enough to challenge authority, and now the time has come for our generation to move into positions of leadership throughout the public and private sectors. But before we take over (and no matter what happens on Election Day) we have to have a conversation about what to do with the Baby Boomers, and what to do about the Republican Party.

The Baby Boom Generation
The problem with the Baby Boom generation is they won’t go away. Unlike those of us who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s, the Boomers were born into a hopeful, optimistic, “Mad Men” kind of country. They have the good fortune of being the last generation of Americans to be able to graduate high school or college, get a good job, spend a career at one company, and retire at 65 with a nice pension.  They received all the benefits of the American century; but in an unprecedented betrayal of intergenerational trust, the Baby Boomers never saw fit to upgrade, improve, or even maintain the country’s critical public health, education, housing, or transportation infrastructure. 

It should be noted that all Baby Boomers are not created equal. Conservative Boomers are much more responsible for their generation’s failings than the liberals. I say that because a clear dividing line arose between the two groups just as the Boomers were entering their twenties. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson completed the work begun by President Kennedy and passed the Civil Rights Act, making it against the law to discriminate against someone based on their race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. In the years that followed, Congress and the President passed a group of bills known as the “Great Society” laws to enable the most vulnerable Americans access competitive markets for things like food, housing, education, job training, and health care. And since this is a country where ideas become institutions, it wasn’t long before Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps, the Higher Education Act, the Child Nutrition Act, and the Housing & Urban Development Act were helping poor and working class Americans live with the dignity that is every person’s birthright. And so progressive Boomers deserve credit for making sure – despite constant accusations of paying off their core constituencies in exchange for votes – that subsidies for food, clothing, rent, and health care were woven into our social safety net.

This is a real accomplishment given the fact that a small but influential minority of the Baby Boom generation is ideologically incapable of sacrificing self-interest for the good of everyone. Enabled by a large, complacent majority of the rest of us, they have chosen to hoard their staggering collective wealth rather than be the kind of citizens the framers of the Constitution envisioned. These are people who have gotten so rich, fat, and happy that they have no problem abandoning their friends, classmates, and fellow Americans to misery and poverty in a way never seen before in American life. The lessons they learned from the 1960’s were very different. They didn’t agree with President Eisenhower about guarding against the influence of the military-industrial complex, and they didn’t much like President Johnson’s definition of a great society. They believe in projecting military power to protect America’s interests overseas; and they tend to believe in law-and-order, state’s rights, and no restrictions on gun ownership here at home. They also really like open markets, deregulation, lower taxes, and smaller government. To Republican Boomers and their devotees, the programs-turned-institutions of the Great Society represent the creation of an uncontrollable welfare state designed to transfer wealth from the makers to the takers (creating more takers in the process), so they want nothing to do with it. And they have no interest in fighting a war on poverty.

To this day, we see McCain-Romney-Trump Baby Boom-era Republicans holding on to their power and positions, dismissing their refusal to exit the stage with lines like, “To retire is to expire.” Of course, hanging on forever with no plan for succession wasn’t the deal that they – or anyone who came before them – made with society; but as a generation, the Baby Boomers are simply too rich to care.  They have accumulated so much purchasing power over the course of their working lives that if they were their own country, the Boomer economy – in which they consume $5 trillion worth of goods and services every year – would be the third-largest in the world behind the U.S. and China.

But the Baby Boomers have not lived up to the ideals and the standards set by generations of Americans before them who, in spite of conflicts and crises at home and abroad, still worked and fought and died for a “more perfect union.” They are leaving behind a country and a world in which the Clintonian “It’s just politics,” and the Trumpian “It’s just business,” have been used to rationalize otherwise unjustifiable behavior by American government agencies and companies all over the globe. 

And while some of them have achieved remarkable financial success, the rest of us are facing a global economy in which a larger and larger gap is growing between fewer and fewer very rich people and an increasing number of unbelievably desperately poor people.  A society that is less just and less secure, with a climate that is more volatile and much less predictable. As thirty years of Republican tax policies have enabled a smaller and smaller percentage of people and companies to concentrate mind-boggling amounts of wealth and income among themselves, public infrastructure is crumbling, public housing is disappearing, public education is struggling, public health is declining, poverty is rising, and budgets to deal with these problems have been shrinking. As stewards of the American ship of state, the Baby Boom generation is failing.

The New Grand Old Party
Philosophically, Republican Party doesn't want government to work well. From their coordinated opposition to President Obama beginning on Inauguration Day in 2009, to “this (Supreme Court) vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President” in 2016, the Republicans have demonstrated that they do not care about what’s good for our government as much as they care about what’s good for their candidates. They have spent fifty years building educational, legal, political, and legislative institutions that have allowed them to gerrymander, filibuster, and “Citizens United” their way to having the power to shut down the Congress as well as the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for them, their ideological opposition hasn't prevented the rest of us from requiring federal agencies and employees to be in position to respond to issues like war, immigration, natural disasters, economic crises, and terrorism anywhere in the world. That takes planning as well as lots and lots of money; and levying tax is basically the only tool the government has to pay for the things we have collectively decided it should do. The GOP does not understand the fiscal math involved in that proposition, and the rest of us don't have time to pretend they ever will.

They still see the government as a ravenous beast with an appetite so insatiable that it has to be starved into submission. Since the "Reagan Revolution," Republican orthodoxy has been that the federal budget can never grow under any circumstances and must be reduced at all costs. They believe Americans are over-taxed, and that the federal government should be able to do more with less money. The party is so unified behind this principle that for thirty years, Republicans in Congress were forced to sign a pledge indicating they would never vote to increase taxes in any way before they could even think about running for office. For most of us, budget cuts make it more difficult to receive the kinds of services we expect from our local, state, and federal government. But for a small group of Republican ideologues, cutting the budget leads to a perversely virtuous cycle: A lack of funding leaves government agencies under-staffed, which leaves people being under-served and complaining about government ineffectiveness, which justifies reduced funding.

The debate became a schism between the two political parties over the role and size of the federal government, transforming the activist government of the Kennedy-Johnson Great Society into a government that tried to stay out of the way of the Reagan-Bush Opportunity Society. From “government is the problem” in the 80's, to the government shutdown that forced the end welfare as we knew it in the 90’s, to the last hurrah of the neoconservatives in the “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” 2000’s, to the current Boehner-McConnell-Ryan triumvirate of obstruction, the modern Republican Party has repeatedly proven that power concedes nothing when it comes to the United States Treasury.

But if the tax code (or the way Congress determines where our government's money comes from) is an expression of what we value as a nation, then taxing income earned by inheriting or investing at a lower rate than income earned via salary or wages says we value ancestry or wealth more than we value work. And if we're supposed to have a progressive tax code with lower tax rates for low income earners and higher tax rates for high income earners, then an income of five hundred thousand dollars should not be taxed at the same rate as an income of five million dollars; which should not be taxed at the same rate as in income of fifty million dollars; which should not be taxed at the same rate as five hundred million dollars. In an economy where as much as 70% of the income earned by taxpayers making $10m or more per year comes from capital gains, we are allowing America's investor class to get away with not paying their fair share of the national tax bill - and in an economy which produces more than 3.5 million households with earnings at or above $1 million each year, we are leaving money on the table by setting the top nominal income tax bracket (as it is currently) at $450,000.

The most sensible solution would be to throw out the old brackets and create new, increasingly higher rates of capital gains, inheritance, and income taxes for taxpayers and households earning $1m, $2m, $5m, $10m, $20m, $50m, and up. Since it would affect less than one-half of one percent of all Americans, the proposal should be uncontroversial.  After all, annual income is a measurement of the benefit derived from society in a given year; and a tax bill is simply the debt owed for the privilege.  The more benefit derived, the higher the debt owed – that's basic progressive taxation in a modern nutshell. The time has come to require the .1% of us who are lucky enough to earn more than one million dollars per year to pony up.

As a society, we have evolved from a belief that any person’s misfortunes were of his or her own making, to a consensus that macroeconomic crises require policy solutions. Whether it’s mother’s pensions in the 1910’s; or the New Deal in the 1930’s; or the War on Poverty in the 1960’s; or the Savings & Loan crisis in the 1980’s; or the Long Term Capital Management bailout in the 1990’s; or the 2008 rescue of the auto, banking, and housing sectors that saved the global economy, the U.S. government has consistently stepped up as the provider of last resort for all kinds of Americans in financial crisis. For our government to continue to be the world's first responder, while also providing ladders of opportunity our fellow Americans can climb and an economic floor through which they cannot fall, it will need more money. Republicans may not like it or want to accept it, but the fact is each month, the United States Treasury cuts more checks for more money to more people in more places than any organization ever. And the next month, they do it again. The GOP's working theory of government (that it should be able to do more with less) is simply incompatible with America's role in the world.

It's Up To Us
I'm glad this election has been a shitshow because it allowed us all to see just how ridiculous Baby Boomer partisanship has become, as well as how much work Generations X and Millennial have to do. The framers of the Constitution expected us to be informed, engaged, and prepared to challenge our elected representatives on their rhetoric and their record. But the Baby Boomers running our country are still trying to have an argument about the role of government when we the people have already agreed that in times of need, Americans should be able to rely on a government which preserves and protects our basic standard of living. We have also agreed that the government does have a role to play in ensuring public health, preventing discrimination, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, mandating workplace safety, and setting standards for product safety, but does not have a role to play in a woman’s decision to choose motherhood. And if conservative Baby Boomers can't or won't put partisanship aside and accept these basic facts of American life, the rest of us have to be ready to move ahead without them.

The late, great Dr. Maya Angelou once said, "When a person shows you who they are, believe them." For thirty years, Republicans have shown us who they are, what they will do with power, and where they stand on the fundamental issues of our time. Rather than deal with the environmental damage from fossil fuel extraction, they will deny. Instead of changing the tax code so it doesn't incentivize investing over working, they will distract. Rather than protect the Constitutional right to privacy that generations of women have grown up with, they will dilute. And when it comes to passing reasonable restrictions on gun use and ownership, they will debate, and debate, and debate. That's who they are...but is it who we are? Do the rest of us deny climate science? Do we want a tax code which is less favorable to workers than investors? Do we believe women who become pregnant must also become mothers? And do we think one person's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever makes them happy is less important than another person's right to bear arms? I believe the answer to all of these questions is "No." We know climate events are becoming more frequent and more destructive. We know the economic gains of the last thirty years have gone to a tiny percentage of Americans. We know not all pregnancies are viable. And we know that sensible restrictions on gun ownership and use save lives.

So this is what thirty years of identity politics has given us: A Republican Party that's a throwback to the 1850's "Know-Nothings", and the Democratic Party of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz & Donna Brazile. Clearly, Debbie's and Donna's Dems leave a lot to be desired; but at least they're not ideologically opposed to acknowledging reality. The last two cycles have shown the Republicans are happy to ignore polls, population data, and even basic math – all in pursuit of their goal of the “smaller government” that most Americans don't even want (people don't think in terms of more government or less government; they just want a government that works for them). And whether it’s reproductive freedom, civil rights, or the environmental, occupational, and consumer protections that Americans take for granted, the Grand Old Party has consistently been on the wrong side of history. Even in this election cycle, their disgrace of a candidate is running a joke of a campaign embracing the last deplorable holdouts of the party's dark past; promising to “make America great again” at a time when we’ve never been better, and never had a country of which we could be more proud.

Our government is the noblest enterprise ever undertaken by the human race – a legacy our ancestors left to us, and that we will leave to future generations. We expect it to be there whenever events beyond anyone’s control threaten our way of life, just as the framers of the Constitution intended. As the basis of our social and political contract since 1787, this expectation transcends ideology or partisanship. When you compare our first couple of centuries to the crusty aristocracies and failed colonial exploits of the ruling royals of Europe, you’d have to say it has worked out pretty well. And when you consider the size of the American economy, you’d have to say the idea that we, as a nation, can’t afford any kind of government we want is basically absurd.

Ours is the most educated, organized, and interconnected generation in American history; and we're the first generation of Americans not even promised a job, never mind a career at one company and a comfortable retirement. We are the least attached to the current system, and best qualified to engage in clear-eyed analysis of what the Boomers got right, what they got wrong, and what we should do differently. There are no historical precedents for this kind of work, but there has never been an American generation like ours. We were the first to have our childhood monetized and sold to corporations. We were the first to ride in cars with anti-lock brakes and airbags. We were the first to watch a television network other than ABC, NBC, or CBS. We were the first to watch a music video. We were the first to play a computer game. We created punk, hip-hop, the world wide web, the smartphone, and the self-driving car. Unlike previous generations who were forced to rely on the conventional wisdom of the day, we have Big Data to help guide us through this process. So it makes sense that we be the ones to review America's post-Baby Boomer social and political contracts.

And that's why I love being us right now. In American life, we typically have one generation retiring, one in middle age, one in early adulthood, and then the children. That would be the Baby Boomers, Generation X, The Millennials, and the young people I call "Generation Woke." If the Boomers were going to fix the problems we face, we would see more signs of progress. We don't, so now they and their irrelevant ideological arguments and clichéd culture wars of the past can fade from the scene. As society's middle-aged group, we in Gen X are now poised to provide vision and direction for the organizations we lead, and act as role models for the generations following behind us – all while instilling a work ethic and a system of values in our own kids. Not the city fleeing, private schooling, tax avoiding, I-got-mine values left over from the Reagan-Bush era we grew up in; more like the summer of 1787, my neighbor's keeper, e pluribus unum, pay-it-forward kind of values the framers of the Constitution assumed we would stand for. We are first generation to hit our cultural zenith in an America that is the world's undisputed superpower. No matter who wins on Tuesday, we are great, this is our time, and everything is possible.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

If It's Not Race, Then What Is It?

After Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich have gotten back in the clown car driven into the sunset. After eight months of Mitt Romney and his ten-thousand-dollar bets, his glee at being able to fire people, his phantom tax returns, and his binders full of women. And after the Citizens United decision put the election up for sale to the highest bidders, who went out and spent six billion dollars, the next President of the United States will be chosen for the rest of us by two very small, and very specific groups of people. They are non-Hispanic white men over thirty with high school diplomas living in Toledo, Ohio and non-Hispanic white men over thirty with high school diplomas and/or college degrees living in Cincinnati, Ohio. No matter what they tell themselves, or what they say in polite company, or whatever answers they’re giving pollsters to keep the race as close as it’s been, the only thing that could be preventing these white guys from re-electing our current President is the fact that Barack Obama is black.

People may not like it, but the simple fact is the Electoral College makes Ohio the most important state in the country. And because the Ohio electorate has been polled, dissected, and focus grouped ad nauseam, we know that the direction America takes over the next four years will be determined by about 2% of the 60,000 white guys in Toledo and about 2% of the 60,000 white guys in Cincinnati who are still “undecided” as to which candidate they’re going to support. If they’re being honest, these 2,500 guys have to admit that no matter what area of public policy means the most to them, literally everything is better now than it was in November of 2008. The economy is growing, more people are working, the unemployment rate is down, the housing market is coming back, the stock market is way up from its bottom, and corporations are sitting on record amounts of cash. After successfully decapitating Al Qaeda, we’re out of Iraq and will soon be out of Afghanistan. We’ve got more control of the country’s banks and bankers, we’re producing more energy domestically, we’re improving our schools, and we’ve joined the rest of the civilized world in making sure our people won’t get sick and die for lack of health insurance coverage.

All of this happened because of the leadership of President Barack Obama, a Democrat who believes that the role of government is to make sure American families have what they need to survive, to thrive, and to move our country forward. By comparison, the Republican Party and its nominees for President and Vice President believe that the role of government is to cut deficits by spending less money, and to stay out of the way of the private sector.

That Republican approach to governing couldn’t be more wrong for working class and middle class white guys living in Toledo and Cincinnati. First of all, if not for government spending on the Miami & Erie Canal in the early 19th century, there wouldn’t even be a Toledo, Ohio. Government spending on major projects like the Toledo Zoo and the Toledo Museum of Art saved the city during the Great Depression. Thanks to President Obama making an unpopular bet on the American worker, government spending to bail out the automobile industry saved the city during the Great Recession. Keep in mind that Toledo, about an hour’s drive from Detroit, is where the Chrysler Corporation builds the Jeep Wrangler and the Jeep Liberty. I’m willing to bet that most of the undecided working class white guys living in that city either rely on the kind of blue collar jobs that government spending provides, or have a father or grandfather who did. Maybe it’s me, but residents of a city that owes its very existence to reliable government largesse voting for candidates who promise to cut spending doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

For those working class or middle class white guys living in Cincinnati, the choice in this election is more concrete – and is perfectly represented by the Brent Spence Bridge. Whenever these guys or their families fly into our out of town, they have to use the Brent Spence to get to Cincinnati’s airport, which is located in northern Kentucky. Their cars and trucks are among the 150,000+ vehicles that cross this functionally obsolete bridge every day, and they know the traffic gets so bad that companies pay extra money to avoid it. Over a year ago, President Obama stood on the Ohio side of the bridge and gave a speech calling on Congress to pass the American Jobs Act, which would have helped to create jobs repairing the bridge as well as supplying or supporting the companies doing the work. The economic growth around the bridge project (especially once completed) would have benefited the entire region. But because the Speaker of the House and the Minority Leader in the Senate – whose districts are actually connected by the Brent Spence – weren’t willing to discuss increasing taxes on “job creators” to help pay for it, the American Jobs Act was a non-starter. To the Republican Party, making Cincinnati’s working class and middle class white guys suffer with a dilapidated Brent Spence Bridge is better than hiring many of those same guys to upgrade it.

The task of repairing the bridge – located on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America – has now been “sent back to the states and to the private sector,” as Mitt Romney likes to say. The result is that the Governors of Ohio and Kentucky are said to be close to signing a memorandum of understanding to develop a plan to finance the repairs so that work might be able to begin sometime before the end of 2015. How that helps anyone, including Cincinnati’s 60,000 working class and middle class white guys, is beyond me.

So let’s take a look at what the Republican Party and its nominees are actually offering the white guys of Toledo and Cincinnati. The Romney campaign has partnered with Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS Super PAC to pump boatloads of outside money into ads that don’t even pretend to be truthful or honest. It got so bad in Toledo that workers at Jeep plants had to call in to see if their jobs were actually being sent to China as the Romney campaign claimed (FYI – their jobs are safe). Romney himself wanted the Detroit-based American auto industry to die so that he and his vulture capitalist friends could pick at the corporate carcass (Romney still turned a tidy profit off of the auto bailout). To show his love for Cincinnati, local boy John Boehner and the Senator from across the river have done a treasonous two-step in Congress over the past four years; obstructing our President’s plans and delaying the inevitable economic recovery so that Obama and his Democratic allies in Washington couldn’t campaign on it. And they got our nation’s credit rating lowered in the process. To reward these people with the political power they covet so badly is to turn a blind eye to their ineptitude and their treachery. The white guys I know from Cincinnati and Lexington wouldn’t go out like that.

The bottom line is when you take away those GOP voters who are basically unreachable because they want to go to war with Iran or because they want to grant Constitutional rights to unborn babies, you’re left with the fiscal conservatives and the Libertarians. But anyone who actually cares about economic growth or creating jobs or getting the federal budget back on the road to being balanced can’t honestly support Mitt Romney’s plan because the numbers just don’t add up – it’s as mathematically simple as that. And anyone who actually cares about personal freedom can’t support a party that would deny marriage rights to people because of their gender, or a party who would involve the government in private consultations between an individual woman and her doctor. So for any non-ideological conservative, it’s simply not possible to vote Republican in this cycle and claim to be using anything resembling logic, reason, or even math.

Putting aside the fact that he’s up against someone with no experience, no credible plan, a pattern of misleading voters about his intentions, and a history of enriching himself and his partners by putting working class and middle class people out of work, the foundation question that every voter has to answer: Should President Obama be re-elected?

Well, he has met or exceeded every expectation, he executed his job extremely well under uniquely awful circumstances, he’s established a track record of providing care for the must vulnerable Americans, and he has obviously outperformed his predecessor. He’s got the job now, he wants to continue doing the job for another term, and there is nothing stopping any of us from voting for him because he’s on the ballot in all fifty states. More importantly, there is no conceivable way he could have done his job any better, especially when considering the fact that the 111th Congress of 2009-10 was the most productive session since the Great Society of 1955-56 – with no help at all from the Republicans.

So it seems to me that Toledo’s and Cincinnati’s working class and middle class white guys can either stand with public school teachers, first responders, veterans, women, the labor movement, and a bona fide American hero like former Secretary of State Colin Powell and re-elect President Obama – or they can stand with the ONLY group of people whose support for our President has dropped significantly since 2008. It’s a crowd known for its hysterical, irrational opposition to the social and economic advancement of black people: White men with high school diplomas and no college degrees, age 30 to 65+, living in the South. These old boys are POW’s in the public policy war for racial equality, they weren’t too happy about the fact that a black President was elected in the first place, and they’re certainly not going to be inclined to give him a second chance. The way I see it, the only way President Obama doesn’t get re-elected is if Buckeyes choose to vote like Crackers and Klansmen – if white guys in Toledo and Cincinnati choose ignorance over introspection, and racism over reason.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Innocence Of Republicans - Worshipping At The Altar Of Wealth

The United States of America is the model for the world because we're a nation built on an idea and not an identity. From Day One, the system of government we built was democratic, all of our citizens were equal at birth, and they were all entitled to the equal protection of laws which are continually updated. No other country can say that. After we showed the ruling royals of Europe that we weren’t going to be anyone’s colonies, we set out to improve on the Roman model of city-states overseen by a central government. And over the course of almost two-and-a-half centuries, fifty distinctly different states remained united for the fundamental purpose of creating a more perfect union between their people. Not only do we have an unbroken string of seamless, bloodless transitions of power (except the Civil War), we succeeded in creating a better quality of life for all of our citizens (except Native Peoples) than the world had ever seen. At least, that’s American history as I learned it.

In this election, the Republican Party wants us to look at America a little differently. Modern Republicans worship at the altar of wealth and couldn't care less about a more perfect union. They believe that the highest American virtue is the attainment of assets. They want us to think we’re the model for the world because in America you’re free to earn and keep as much money as you can – provided you don’t get caught breaking the law – and if you’re successful enough at earning and keeping money, the quality of your life will be better here than anywhere else. In today’s Grand Old Party (where womanizers, pedophiles, and fools are welcome, but tax heretics will not be tolerated), the “E Pluribus” is gone from American citizenship and it’s all about the “Unum.” Republicans have become so myopically focused on getting into the private economy of the One Percent, a magical place called “Richistan,” they have no frame of reference for people who are happy to just raise their kids, do their jobs, and live their lives in a clean, safe, part of town. They simply take it for granted that all Americans aspire to be wealth hoarders. And they assume we’ll support their candidates out of self-interest because nothing matters more to modern Republicans than preventing the money Americans earn from going into the United States Treasury.

Going back to the 1980’s, the Republican Party has won elections by bringing a coalition of disparate groups together around two basic concepts: Economic freedom and shared moral values. In terms of policy, that meant cutting taxes and restricting access to the abortion procedure. In terms of party politics, it’s always been a two-for-one deal; and Republican candidates had to be able to support both causes. So the issues have typically been framed as a choice between evil Democrats who want to raise taxes to pay for abortion on-demand, and the righteous Republicans who will simultaneously protect your accumulated wealth and your unborn children. And though they’ve never come close to outlawing abortions and amending the Constitution to give equal protection to the unborn, the Republican Party has been able to get its “values voters” to ignore their economic interests for thirty years by putting a plank in the platform promising to do it next time. These people are fundamentalist partisans who conflate religion with politics; and as Mitt Romney says, they will vote for him no matter what. Though their issue is literally life-and-death, they are a lower priority for their party than the so-called “fiscal conservatives” because the most important thing to modern Republicans isn't the sanctity of life, it's preventing the money Americans earn from going into the United States Treasury.

It's difficult to see how anyone who isn't suffering from Alzheimer's or amnesia could take Republican Party seriously on fiscal policy. This is the party of George W. Bush; who was the first President to cut taxes while waging war, and who ran the country’s first trillion-dollar annual deficit – all enabled by Republicans in Congress. Looking at the current standard-bearer’s budget plan, you wouldn’t know that the nominee for Vice President served in the House of Representatives during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. For all its hype, the Romney/Ryan budget doesn’t even try to get into balance; it doesn’t cut spending, and it increases the defense budget by trillions of dollars. In addition, they want to lower tax rates for wealthy individuals and corporations by trillions more in the hope that their military build-up and the new Giant Pool of Money created by their tax cuts will combine to equal job creation and economic growth. The Republican ticket is out there selling the same old supply-side snake oil that didn’t work during the Bush years, and the Republican Caucus is ready to write it into law. They want us to believe that despite the GOP-generated gridlock we've seen over the last three-and-a-half years, they now have the magic formula to get Congress to work together to balance the federal budget. They want us to believe that they can turn Medicare into VoucherCare without it negatively affecting the quality of life for our parents and grandparents. And these two trust fund babies will finance trillions in tax cuts with borrowed money from overseas while requiring poor American seniors to absorb their healthcare cost increases. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have no problem requiring people with more to pay less, and people with less to pay more. Why? Because modern Republicans don't care about preserving the Social Safety Net as much as they care about preventing the money Americans earn from going into the United States Treasury.

The last time we had a Presidential election, our nation was in the beginning stages of a downward economic spiral that threatened the global financial system. It was exactly the kind of crisis that our system of fifty united state governments and one federal government was created to deal with. Once the new administration was in place, President Obama, Congress, Governors, and state legislatures crafted some policies to prevent problems from getting worse, and some policies to help the economy recover. The work they did together was critical, it was monumental, and it was historic. But one group in Washington chose not to participate in what became the most important legislative process in almost a century. At a time of potentially unprecedented suffering in every state of the union from coast-to-coast, only three of the 249 Republicans elected to serve in Congress could bring themselves to get behind a bill to help the American economy get back on its feet. Ninety-nine percent of Congressional Republicans didn’t support the Recovery Act for one pitifully partisan and unpatriotic reason: They wanted to prevent the money Americans earn from going into the United States Treasury.

Electing a Republican to represent you in Washington – whether it’s the huckster duo of Myth Romney & Paul Lyin’ or any other (R) on the ballot – means you support this “starve the beast” approach to running our federal government. It means you don’t care about we the people, our more perfect union, domestic tranquility, or the general welfare as written in the Constitution. It means you’ve forgotten about your obligation to all of those people who struggled, fought, and died in defense of your way of life. It means you never learned the lessons of the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, the hijackings of September 11, 2001, or Hurricane Katrina. It means you feel no sense of responsibility or obligation toward your fellow Americans. Most importantly, it means you agree with the Republican Party in Washington, and you want to ensure that our President and your state’s Congressional delegation do everything they possibly can to prevent the money you earn from going into the United States Treasury.

It means you worship at the altar of wealth - and you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Mitt Romney Thinks We're Stupid

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney thinks a majority of American voters are going to be stupid enough to elect him to serve as the 45th President of the United States. He knows the people who will be voting to re-elect President Obama in November are too smart to buy what he’s selling; but there are only about sixty-nine million of them, and they’re as invisible to Mitt as workers at a company taken over by Bain Capital.

Romney also knows the fifty-eight million people who voted for the McCain/Palin ticket aren't yet convinced of his “severely conservative” credentials. So he and his lovely wife, Ann, will be summering on the campaign trail; feeding the folks a fetid feast of Frank Luntz’s focus-grouped factoids, fastidiously formulated to fan the fires of their feelings and their faith. Then, in the fall, they’ll be out there again trying to reassure fifteen million swing voters that Mitt is what he’s always been: A corporate raider, swimming in money, who spent four years running a state that is so blue even the Republicans describe themselves as “moderate" with "progressive" views. It’s a tough row to hoe; and Mitt Romney’s weak brand of political fertilizer isn’t potent enough to make it bear fruit.

His biggest problem is that as a person and as a politician, he’s completely incongruent. In addition to having a personality that doesn’t fit his bio, Mitt Romney is backing policy proposals that don’t fit the times. Like a good, capital gains earning, jobless Trust Fund Baby, Romney was eager to jump on board Paul Ryan’s falsely labeled “Path to Prosperity” – which makes the Bush tax cuts permanent AND cuts the top rate by ten percent. Rep. Ryan’s budget pays for those enormous tax cuts with a giant “F___ You!” to any American who counts on the government for food, medical care, education, or a home loan – a constituency of millions of working people and their families who are invisible to Mitt Romney – while giving the Pentagon everything it asks for. The Ryan plan also repeals the Affordable Care Act (“You like coverage for preventative care? F___ you!”) and mysteriously, the Dodd-Frank Act. In Mitt Romney’s America, things will look a lot like they did toward the tail end of George W. Bush’s America.

For a man who portrays himself as a C.E.O., Mitt Romney signing onto someone else’s budget doesn’t exactly demonstrate leadership or a personal vision for the future. What it does is show he’s willing to co-sign a plan that cements income inequality, creates a structural deficit in the federal budget, and trades real reform for disproved supply-side economic theories. Of course, the Romneys can afford to vacation in a bungalow on Paul Ryan’s Financial Fantasy Island. While most people are worried about getting or keeping a job, getting or keeping a pay raise, and getting into or staying in the American middle class, Mitt and Ann are using some of the $22 million that their giant, $250 million pile of money threw off last year to install a car elevator at their beach house in La Jolla – after paying 14% in taxes…you know, their fair share.

Mitt Romney’s raison d’etre and the basis of his presidential campaign is his competence as a capitalist. According to him, the United States government should be run like a business; and since he is the only candidate who has earned a Scrooge McDuck-sized fortune in business, he should be in charge. But the President is more than America’s Chairman of the Board. Holding the office means yours is the face and the voice of the people of these United States; you and the First Lady are our ambassadors to the world, and anything you do or say is immediately scrutinized all over the globe. The idea of what the British press would do with footage of Mitt Romney greeting a group of brown children in a third world country is terrifying. Because ever since he began campaigning for office in 1994, Mitt Romney has proven he can’t be in an unscripted social situation for more than about three minutes without revealing himself to be a bumbling fool. That kind of thing might be charming when you’re the owner of the company or the rich kid who always picks up the dinner check on your mission to France, but it’s a bad look for the President of the United States.

On one hand we have President Obama: The most powerful man in the world doing the most stressful job in the world for the past three-and-a-half years; handling an unprecedented list of global challenges better than anyone could reasonably have expected while dealing with a Congress that only worked for half of his term – and even then only half the time. On the other we have Governor Romney: A vulture capitalist with no foreign policy experience who made a fortune buying and selling companies before serving one term as Governor of Massachusetts – and who refuses to run on his signature accomplishment in public life. The only way Mitt Romney could possibly win in November is if somehow the Republican base gives him a pass for what he’s going to say during the general election AND swing voters ignore what he’s already said during the primary campaign (because there's no question he will be saying at least two different things).

But it’s not magic, it’s math – and the numbers don’t look good for the Romney campaign. They’ll need fifty-five million people who are so stupid they’ll vote for any name next to the “R” on the ballot; then they’ll have to find another ten million people in nine swing states who are so stupid they think Mitt Romney actually believes what comes out of his mouth. Unfortunately for Mitt and Ann Romney (who thinks it’s “our turn”) President Barack Obama has already convinced some sixty-five million smart people that he’s earned a second term – and there just isn't a sufficient number of swing voters out there who are stupid enough to want to downgrade from the coolest President in modern history to the stiffest President in modern history.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

This "Occupy" Joke Is Getting Dangerously Serious

With all due respect to the people on the front lines, the “Occupy Movement” is not only a joke, it’s also an insult to the traditions of American democracy and to our ancestors who fought and died to preserve them. That isn’t to say this “Occupy” thing won’t become serious or that more our fellow Americans won’t be hurt in the process, but there is no way to deny that it started as a goof.

Back in July, a Vancouver-based counter-culture magazine called “AdBusters” and its Media Foundation (which describes itself as a “global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age” and whose goal is to “topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century”) thought it might be interesting to apply the “Arab Spring” model to a problem and a public space in the U.S.

The way they put it, “A worldwide shift in revolutionary tactics is underway right now that bodes well for the future…The beauty of this new formula, and what makes this novel tactic exciting, is its pragmatic simplicity: we talk to each other in various physical gatherings and virtual people's assemblies, we zero in on what our one demand will be…and then we go out and seize a square of singular symbolic significance and put our asses on the line to make it happen. The time has come to deploy this emerging stratagem against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America. On September 17, we want to see 20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices.”

Putting aside the sheer, Underpants Gnomes ridiculousness of it and the fact that they got maybe 1,000 people to camp out, there is one obvious problem with the plan: A “global network” can’t lay claim to anything in these United States, whether it’s “our democracy” or “a square of singular symbolic significance.” Only pranksters take to the streets in protest “for a few months,” and as any American campaign worker knows, people who truly believe in making lasting change don’t book round-trip tickets.

When they set out to get Americans fired up about economic inequality, the clowns at AdBusters didn’t understand the sleeping giant they aimed to awaken. America is the only country in the world founded on an idea, not an identity – and a big part of that idea is that everyone gets a fair shake. Those Canadian pranksters and their global network of promoters couldn’t know that three decades of policy-enabled wealth hoarding and the psychotic search for the “four-and-a-half-cent nickel” has left a generation of young people questioning the very idea of America. These foreign hipsters didn’t understand how dangerous their little stunt was because their detachment from the economic problems our nation faces affords them the luxurious perspective of students conducting a sociological experiment on our streets.

After Scott Olsen, a man sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, was shot in the face by a man sworn to protect and serve the people of the city of Oakland, California, we should all understand how dangerous this “Occupy” thing truly is – and that it’s not funny any more. Because none of them have any idea why they’re doing it, it’s time for the “occupiers” to go home.

In many ways, the “Occupy Wall Street” protest experiment is like the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama – which is to say that it can be whatever you want it to be, but it will disappoint you if you refuse to see it for what it actually is. The closest to the truth is the way it will be seen in New York City; which is as a story about a bunch of people who camped out in the park until the free food ran out, their parents made them come home for Thanksgiving, the NYPD moved them out, or the wind off the Hudson River drove them indoors. It was entertaining to watch, but we can’t have mobs of people roaming the streets – and life goes on (New Yorkers never kid themselves). What makes it important is the way in which it perfectly demonstrates the failure of Baby Boomers and the so-called “Greatest Generation” to speak the truth to the generations that followed them.

Anyone who has tried it knows that direct democracy doesn’t work, can’t work, and isn’t necessary in a representative democracy. To allow these committed young people to believe otherwise is cynical and exploitative. The protesters don’t need the patronizing support of former hippies any more than they need the pornographers of the professional left using them as a backdrop to proselytize for their cause-of-the-week or phony, newly discovered populism. What they need is for someone to fill in the elusive Stage Two that neither the Underpants Gnomes nor the AdBusters people could put their proverbial fingers on; the thing they called “a demand that awakens the imagination and, if achieved, would propel us toward the radical democracy of the future.”

I’ve got you covered, merry little pranksters, so pay attention:

It is disgraceful that the next generation of young Americans to vote in every election from the age of eighteen will be the first generation of young Americans to vote in every election from the age of eighteen. The most radical thing that can happen to American democracy is to introduce the energy and ideas of tens of millions of new voters to a system primarily designed to accommodate and serve them. The “First Generation Project” would seek to register 17-year-olds to vote while they’re still seniors in high school, and encourage them to vote in elections at every level of government. The participation of The First Generation would fundamentally change the focus and direction of public policy and federal spending – and there is no organization in the world that can move markets and advance ideas on the same scale of the United States government. With the cooperation of Generation X, Generation Y, and the Millenials, the First Generation will, literally, change the world.

In terms of a policy agenda to get behind (because any lasting change comes through public policy), it makes no sense for Election Day to be a workday or for it to be held on a Tuesday. A federal law should be passed moving Election Day to Monday, and making it a federal holiday. This would dramatically increase turnout as well as early voting, and would give poll workers a big head start in counting ballots. It would provide participation in our democracy with at least as much media coverage as an event like Final Four or the Super Bowl, and it would have all the added economic benefits of a four-day weekend – which could be particularly good for tourism in Washington, D.C.

Of course, none of these ideas are as important as the fact that there are riots in American streets because of a prank dreamed up by some phony, foreign counter-culture wannabe revolutionaries – and we need to get our young people home where they’re safe.

The time has come to end the “Occupy” movement as it has existed for the past month-and-a-half and move into its next phase. In Act Two, the protesters return – but they have mercy on their overburdened local first responders and re-locate to the public space our federal government provides for just this kind of thing, the National Mall (conveniently located on the front steps of Congress). Unlike the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street, which at last check was working on a statement that rejects government, the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party as “bought,” the Occupy Congress protesters are smart enough to work within our centuries-old system of government by building alliances to pass a law making Election Day a federal holiday and a Monday. Then, unlike the Occupy Wall Street protesters who didn’t stop until people got hurt, they’ll know when to go home – and they’ll have work to do (registering high school seniors for the First Generation Project) when they get there.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All's Well That Ends Well - Saying Goodbye to the Daily Press

For four years, I've been a citizen journalist covering politics and pop culture in Santa Monica as a transplanted Bostonian. My artistic approach was to find space between Ralph Wiley and Charles Bukowski; and my philosophical approach was to try to capture Art Buchwald's longevity. Since you're reading the final installment of "Word In Edgewise," I've failed on that second one. But I know my body of work will compare well against the greats whose legacy I sought to honor — 900 carefully chosen words at a time.

I would have been kicked out of journalism school, if I'd ever attended, because I would have called my professors frauds every time they advised me to move on to a different question whenever a subject is jerking me around. Only jerks get jerked around, and I'm nobody's jerk. I have an Adlai Stevenson-esque level of commitment to the truth, so I'm prepared to wait for my answers until hell freezes over. At times, that makes me difficult to defend and impossible to support — a perceived character flaw I've learned to accept.

While the opinions of its columnists don't necessarily reflect the views of any publication, the columnist has an obligation to represent that publication well. I haven't always lived up to that responsibility in my private life and for that, I owe an apology to all the people on the Daily Press team who have sweated and toiled and smiled and dialed to keep me in paper and ink since 2006. I'm sorry, everybody.

That said, I am most proud of my work exposing the negligence of our City Council and its decades-long abdication of the responsibility to enforce the city ordinance that is the Development Agreement with the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, covering one of the Sisters' 15 hospitals: Saint John's Health Center. And I won't apologize for breaking the story about the corruption in the political party that put most of those council members in place. My readers deserve to know the truth about their politics and their politicians.

The truth is that representatives from Saint John's have been lying to me since I attended my first community outreach meeting last August. I wrote then that my BS antennae had been activated, and it's been working overtime ever since; though now its more of a BS divining rod that keeps pulling me past the offices of Harding, Larmore, Kutcher, & Kozal, past the desks of Brad Misner and Eileen Fogarty in the Planning Department and straight into City Council chambers — where seven chairs are occupied by individuals who are probably guilty of one count of gross negligence for every 12-month period which has passed without a written review of, and determination of good faith compliance with, the Saint John's development agreement.

There is no dispute about the facts on which these charges are based. State law and Municipal Code require the council to review annually, thus be intimately familiar with, any and all development agreements with the city — not just Saint Johns' — and both require an annual determination of good faith compliance. Thanks to great reporting in this newspaper, we know that no such review had ever taken place before this year (for proof that your City Council has no knowledge of the agreement at all, ask about the Parking Operations Plan for the North Subterranean Parking Garage and watch for seven blank stares). Also reported in this newspaper, no such determination of good faith compliance has ever been made. In preparing the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), Planning Director Fogarty and her department had conducted what they called a thorough review and produced a big, beautiful, three-ring binder that claimed all development agreements were up to date and in compliance as of last November. She's singing a different tune now.

When I found out this column wouldn't be running any more, the front page headline in Santa Monica's newspaper of record read, "Several developers still out of compliance," and the editorial page said, "Time to get tough on DAs." The way I see it, if I had been wrong about anything I have reported, the record would have been corrected by now. The fact that it hasn't means we're on to something. This story has gotten the people's attention and I know I had something to do with that — as well as the recent re-review that revealed the truth to Ms. Fogarty and directly contradicted what was in her magic binder. Now the time has come for me to move on so that wherever this story goes, I can give it the respect it deserves in the form of a book-length exposé.

It's been a privilege and a pleasure to have this one-sided conversation with you. If I've done my job as an artist, I've made you care about something you didn't care about before through the stories I chose to cover in this column and the words I used in the process — and maybe even showed you something unexpected along the way. It's up to you now. You will only get the journalism and politics that you insist on, in Santa Monica and beyond, and I hope I've inspired you to demand more from your government and your journalists. Even though it seems scary, never forget that some things are more important than being afraid.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time for City Council to hold developers accountable - Sister Sue Miller and her phantom parking garage

It's no secret that real estate developers and the local land use attorneys who enable them are chomping at the bit to find ways to extract revenue from our humble, 8-square-mile beachfront urban utopia. City Hall's plan to manage growth (read: keep the barbarians at the gate) for the next few decades, the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), casts our City Council in the role of protector of our quality of life and defender of the most vulnerable Santa Monicans — mainly through the negotiation and enforcement of development agreements.

A compliance review of the controversial Saint John's Health Center development agreement was on the council agenda last night. The outcome of the discussion was not known by the time this column went to print, but it's safe to say that Sister Sue Miller and the order of gangster nuns from Leavenworth, Kan. who are actually in charge at Saint John's, have not acted in good faith and complied with the terms of their agreement as they are trying to weasel out of building hundreds of much-needed parking spaces in Mid-City.

If the council doesn't put a stop to that request, they will have sent the message to all real estate developers that our elected representatives are weak and that our city is available to be exploited.

If you ask anyone who knows, he or she will tell you that real estate developers don't mess around when it comes to development agreements; so when a review is required, they're typically pretty run of the mill. Since there is so much to lose, no experienced developer would risk even the appearance of non-compliance. Needless to say, Sister Sue is not an experienced developer.

Part of the development agreement that she and her local attorneys, Harding, Larmore, Kutcher, and Kozal, negotiated with our city included the construction of a 422-space North Subterranean Parking Garage (NSPG), which was supposed to mitigate the negative effect of the estimated 29,000 new daily car trips associated with Saint John's. Absent that additional parking capacity, everyone understood the stress of those trips would fall squarely on the hospital's neighbors — and nobody wanted that.

Sister Sue's agreement required her to produce three specific documents relating to the NSPG: the parking structure design analysis, the parking lot layout and specifications, and the parking operations plan. In other words, she was supposed to have designed the garage, analyzed that design, laid out that design, and come up with a plan for how this 400-plus-space garage was going to operate underneath the new Saint John's — and she was supposed to have given all of that information to City Hall. Most importantly, after submitting the design, layout, and specs for the NSPG, the specific operations plan was supposed to have been submitted to and approved by the planning director before construction could begin on the inpatient suites. Those suites became the Keck Center, now completed, despite the fact that none of the three parking garage-related documents have ever been provided to City Hall — and the planning director has not approved the parking operations plan as required.

If you're wondering how it could be possible for Sister Sue to get away with this for almost 15 years, you're in good company. I wondered the same thing. So I looked up the state and local laws dealing with development agreements, and what I discovered blew my mind.

It turns out that California law focuses on the consumer's and the public's need for effective, low-cost utilization of resources more than the developer's desire for personal enrichment. Along those lines, the state requires both our Planning Department and our City Council to go out of their way to keep us informed. For example, in 2007 when Sister Sue applied for permission to screw us over and not build the garage as promised, both the Planning Department and the City Council were supposed to have held public hearings on the application. They were also supposed to have advertised those hearings in a newspaper and mailed notice of the hearings to people who own property near the hospital. I have found no record of any of that taking place.

There is also no record of our City Council conducting an annual review of the Saint John's development agreement, as required by California law and the Santa Monica Municipal Code. It seems as though the council has been content to let the Planning Department deal with Sister Sue and her local lawyers; and the private sector guys have been kicking our public sector workers in the pants. Fast-forward a few years, and Sister Sue has built a brand-spanking-new hospital where her underground parking garage is supposed to be and nobody in city government saw it happening.

On May 11, it was determined that City Hall was "working to" bring Saint John's into compliance with its development agreement, and it was determined that Saint John's was "in substantial compliance." The combination of the two statements clearly indicates that as of the time this column went to print, the hospital is not in compliance with its development agreement. If after all of this time our City Council isn't willing to stand up and make this developer comply, then these individuals can't be counted on to stand up to any developer under circumstances ever, and Sister Sue wins.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Primetime racial divide still exists - Black actors on the new fall TV schedule

Twenty-four years ago this month, the American TV landscape was changed forever when "The Cosby Show" debuted on NBC. Like most sitcoms, it was a story about a couch and the people who sit on it; but this couch was in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone owned by a black obstetrician married to a black attorney and raising five black children. Sure, the premise was far-fetched; but we all wanted to believe in the myth of a thriving, educated, middle-class black family, so we bought it. Literally. There was a time when a minute of ad time on "Cosby" was more expensive than a minute of ad time during the Super Bowl.

For guys who fit my demographic profile (black, male, urban, born in the 1970s), the show provided us with our first glimpse of ourselves on television in a character who would become a cultural archetype, Theo Huxtable.

Fast-forward a few decades to the new 2010 fall season, and Theo is back on network TV, he's all grown up, and he is doing his thing.

Not on CBS, though. The "Corpses," "Big Bang," and "Survivor" network has very little use for black actors who aren't former hip-hoppers (LL Cool J in "NCIS: Los Angeles," Flex Alexander in "Blue Bloods"), so Theo gets no love. Rather than attempt to reach out to black and brown audiences, CBS has decided that a heaping helping of vanilla is the right recipe for the fall schedule. Its new shows are led by has-been actors like Tom Selleck and Jim Belushi, never-were actors like Jerry O'Connell and Scott Caan, and never-will-be actors like Billy Gardell. On the plus side, CBS did put the great William Shatner back on TV in something other than a Priceline ad — and they deserve some credit for that.

At the other end of the diversity-is-a-fact-of-American-life-and-should-be-portrayed-on-American-television spectrum is ABC; with six new shows featuring some pretty good black actors. In his role as a medical examiner in "Body of Proof," Wendell Middlebrooks gets a chance to atone for the cartoonish beer truck driver he's been playing in commercials. Jason George plays another doctor in "Off the Map," while Damon Wayans, Jr. continues the family tradition in "Happy Endings," and Mehcad Brooks (Eggs Benedict of "True Blood" fame) gets a chance to show what he can do in "My Generation." The new ABC shows I'm most excited to TiVo are "No Ordinary Family," starring Judd Apatow's favorite black actor, Romany Malco, "Mr. Sunshine" starring James Lesure (who was incredible in "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip" and is good enough to carry Matthew Perry, which he'll have to do), and "Detroit 1-8-7" starring James McDaniel and Jon Michael Hill.

Theo Huxtable's original home, NBC, falls somewhere in between the others. The network doesn't pretend as though black people are invisible like CBS does, and it hasn't flooded its schedule with black actors as ABC has; rather, it's going with a strange hybrid of heterogeneousness this fall season. They've got their basic all-white casts on "Law & Order" and "Chuck" and "Parenthood." For their Thursday night ensemble comedies they're sticking with the "Friends" model (one ethnic character, maybe two), but they've added a clichéd fish-out-of-water show about a young, square-jawed white guy managing a call center full of what I'm sure will be whacky brown people in India. I can already hear the canned laugh track over the "I'm not rogan joshing you" jokes.

At the same time, NBC is spending some pretty serious money on prime time television shows that are led by talented, attractive black men. They've got J.J. Abrams, the creator of "Alias" and co-creator of "Lost," executive producing and directing the pilot of "Undercovers," a show about a spy couple running their own restaurant as a retirement career who find themselves back in the game. It airs on Wednesdays, stars the versatile Boris Kodjoe, and will probably be the best new show of the fall. NBC also has Blair Underwood starring as the president of the United States in "The Event," a serialized, "Lost" meets "24" drama that will air on Monday nights. When you add Jimmy Smits' ridiculous new Friday show about a conservative Supreme Court Justice who sees the liberal light and becomes an ACLU-style crusader, you've got 60 percent of NBC's primetime schedule featuring non-white actors. Since it took until the last season of "Friends" for the first black character to show up, I call that progress.

Primetime television is important for our society because no matter how hard these actors work to tell fictional stories about people from different backgrounds coming together, at 11:01 p.m. our local news is going to feature stories about black and brown men threatening the health and safety of innocent white people. So I hope that one of these days, CBS finds a compelling story to tell about a black man who isn't a police officer, that ABC can find a black actor good enough to lead a primetime TV show, and NBC and "Saturday Night Live" will finally cast a black actor and a black actress to play the thriving, educated, middle-class black couple living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Fourth Estate needs to differentiate - The press and the 2010 mid-terms

It's hard to believe it's only been four years since the last mid-term elections. In 2006, the major difference between the parties was that Democrats were united in their desire for our troops to come home from Iraq (since our military had done all it could), and Republicans were committed to staying there to referee the ongoing Iraqi civil war and to fight al-Qaeda forever. It was an easy choice for voters to make, so it was an easy election for the Washington press corps to cover.

The same was true for most of the 2007 primary campaigns and the 2008 elections; until September when the fundamentals of our economy were not strong all of a sudden, and stories from the business section turned into front-page news. But this year, for the first time since 2004, a national election isn't going to be a binary choice between "to stay in Iraq or to leave Iraq." This mid-term election campaign will not only be a referendum on what the Democrats have done while in power and what the Republicans have done while out of power; it will also show if there are any credible reporters left covering politics in Washington, or if the notorious 24-hour news cycle has completely taken over.

The D.C. press corps has gotten lazy over the past six years, though the inactivity between 2004 and 2008 wasn't completely their fault. The Bushies didn't have much use for the press unless the White House was controlling the story (Judy Miller at the New York Times, Matt Cooper at Time magazine), distributing propaganda (radio talk show host Armstrong Williams), or planting questions in the briefing room (Jeff Gannon of Talon News). The openness of the early days of the new Obama administration must have been a little off-putting for reporters in Washington, who responded with a barrage of stories about the new swing set and the search for a new first pet.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, a new Democratic majority was being sworn in with a sweeping legislative agenda and a mandate from 60 million-plus voters. There was finally going to be real news to cover because there was finally going to be real policy to write. The first major task was to craft a response to the Great Recession that had our nation's economy in a tailspin. The Democrats came up with the Recovery Act: $250 billion in tax cuts (one of the largest in history), $250 billion in aid to states to keep teachers and firefighters and police on the job, and another $250 billion in new spending that included investments in health information technology, a smart grid for electricity, and expanded broadband access. That bill saved and/or created millions of jobs, led to sustained economic growth, and is credited with preventing a second Great Depression.

The Democrats also passed badly-needed Wall Street reform and a historic health care reform bill that will lower our nation's deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next 20 years — in addition to hundreds of measures (including an energy bill) passed by the House that died in the Senate. By anyone's standards, the Democratic majority in the 111th Congress has crafted effective legislation to deal with our country's problems and Democratic members of Congress elected in 2008 have kept their campaign promises.

Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, have done everything they could to stop the Democrats' agenda where it could be stopped, and slow it to a glacial pace where it couldn't. At a time when our nation was on the brink of economic disaster, only three of 249 Republicans in Congress could bring themselves to vote for the Recovery Act. In the Senate, the Republican minority has consistently abused one of the courtesies of the chamber — each Senator's privilege to filibuster, or speak without time limits — to prevent bills from ever coming to the floor for debate. Before this Congress, bills were typically brought to the floor by unanimous consent; but Sen. McConnell, who wishes he'd "been able to obstruct more," decided that literally every bill proposed by the Democrats was so bad that none of them should even be considered by the United States Senate. That's not divided government, that's misguided government.

If it was reporting the facts of the 111th Congress, the Washington press would be talking about a Democratic majority being historically productive and (or in spite of) a Republican minority that chose to make it more, not less, difficult for Congress to do its work. But Disney, Universal, News Corp., and CBS care more about profit than facts; so this political off-season between elections, we've gotten stories about death panels, armed tea parties, and whatever was on whatever passes for Glenn Beck's and Sarah Palin's minds.

For the last six months, the Washington press corps has been telling us that when the economy is bad, voters blame the party in power. But at this point, most voters don't care about assigning blame, we just want jobs and recovery. For the next six weeks, they should just do their jobs and explain the difference between the two parties so that voters can do our jobs and choose the best candidates.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sisters you don't want in your family - Worst Catholic ministry ever

Even though there are a lot of good people at Saint John's Health Center doing their best to provide outstanding care to patients, the decisions made by management and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System undermine that good work. As its sewage repeatedly pollutes our air, water, and beaches — and it remains indifferent to the traffic choking our streets — the hospital proves itself to be Santa Monica's worst neighbor. As they offend their own core values of respect and stewardship, Sister Sue Miller and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas, have proven themselves to be the worst Catholic ministry ever.

First of all, they lie. The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System entered into a development agreement with the city of Santa Monica laying out the exact terms and conditions of the reconstruction of Saint John's after the Northridge earthquake. Because of the pressure the estimated 29,000 daily new car trips to the hospital would put on the surrounding community, the Sisters agreed to build a 422-space underground parking garage. Construction of the new campus is just about finished, but there is no additional parking capacity. And the fact that they've applied for an amendment to their development agreement relieving them of their obligation to build the garage means there probably never will be any additional parking capacity.

Sister Sue and her enabling local land use attorneys/lobbyists will argue that steps are being taken through a Transportation Demand Management Plan to make up for the un-built garage. But the fact that there are no signs that the Sisters ever planned for or designed that garage, as required by the development agreement, means they haven't operated in good faith, as required by California law. You'd think good faith is something that would come naturally to an order of nuns.

They also cheat. In an effort to keep its registered nurses from exercising their right to form, join, or assist the California Nurses Association, Saint John's management committed six different violations of federal labor law. They illegally barred off-duty RN's from organizing in the hospital, illegally threatened off-duty employees with arrest, and illegally created the impression that employees were being followed and/or watched. Also, when RN's wore white ribbons as "an expression of union solidarity, as well as a concern about the hospital's non-compliance with a staffing law dealing with nurse-patient ratios," management illegally prohibited wearing the ribbons and illegally threatened discipline against RN's who didn't comply. That kind of behavior toward people who work tirelessly on behalf of Saint John's patients is hard to condone when your core values require you to "recognize the sacred worth and dignity of each person."

In addition to their established lying and cheating, we've just discovered that they steal. Last week, the Civil Fraud Section of the United States Attorney's Office and the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that they had reached a settlement with Saint John's over allegations that the hospital had overcharged for "outlier payments" designed to re-pay hospitals for ridiculously expensive care. Without admitting any wrongdoing, the hospital agreed to pay $5.25 million in fines for "turbocharging" or "jacking up already outrageous bills" for seven years between 1996 and 2003.

Who was the victim of this crime spree? Who were the Sisters robbing blind for almost a decade? It was the single payer for seniors' health care, the taxpayer-funded social safety net known as Medicare. They were violating the sacred trust between generations.

At this point, nothing shocks me when it comes to Saint John's, The SCLHS, or Sister Sue. I was a little surprised when spokeswoman Tish Starbuck said the development agreement didn't "require" the construction of the parking garage, rather "gave permission to build it" because she was inadvertently breaking news. But to me, the fact that Sister Sue and her giant hospital corporation masquerading as a Catholic ministry have been screwing over the U.S. Treasury seems par for the course. I like the fact that the Justice Department is making her cut a respectable seven-figure check, but that just makes our City Council look weak and ineffectual by comparison.

The Sisters were obligated to submit their (nonexistent to date) plans for both the building and the operations of the North Subterranean Parking Garage before they could start on the Chan Soon-Shiong Center, now fully constructed. Given that fact, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if the council had, as required by Santa Monica Municipal Code Sec. 9.48.190, reviewed the Saint John's development agreement "at least every 12 months from the date the development agreement is entered into." If the council had conducted the required annual review even once over the past decade (and counting), the Sisters wouldn't be able to get out of building that garage by saying, "Sorry, we put a hospital on top of it."