Friday, May 29, 2009

Unity in Diversity: Ideas on Steps to Building a Vibrant and Multi-Cultural Society

For those who are familiar with some of my ideas on planning and community development, you know that my ultimate social goal is unity in diversity. This requires us to prepare and consciously seeks to create diverse and varied communities, a goal that runs counter not only to previous decades and centuries of urban planning, but also to the natural tendency of humanity to either segregate others or auto-segregate. While it is fair to argue that we live in a more integrated society than ever before, I see the gap of understanding growing more intense in many ways than before, as increasingly cries of "reverse discrimination" and "racism" come from the right-wing talk show circuit filled with hooligans like Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, or Lou Dobbs. I have already discussed our social tendency to try and create a world where we are capable of personalizing and customizing our surroundings and those with whom we have contact, which is expressed in a trend for not only people of differing ethnicities to live separately, but people of differing political viewpoints or sexual orientation. Simultaneously as the trend toward self-segregation grows stronger, helped along by new technologies and the traditional urban and community planning methods, we see a breakdown in many of our often abortive attempts to encourage diversity and create a more integrated society.

Affirmative action, busing, and other programs have come under scrutiny lately, and some have been eliminated by idealogical conservative judges like Chief Justice John Roberts, who views any criteria meant to recognize or expand the diversity of a body to be illicit (as opposed to someone like me who views diversity as inherently valuable and important to maintain social cohesion and provide life experiences to young people who need to operate in an increasingly globalized world).

In my view, the entire debate on diversity has been hijacked by individuals refusing to recognize that different perspectives arise from different experiences and that these perspectives lead people to make decisions differently. This group has become more mainstream over time to the point where it is often believed that racism and discrimination no longer exist and that a person starting off, regardless of circumstances but endowed with talent, can have an equal shot at success no matter that person's ethnicity or race. New flash here: discrimination is not only prevalent, it is dominant in markets for services such as loans (unfair lending practices targeting African-Americans and Latinos are being investigated by the FDIC) and evident through the way we test and give promotions. Lately there has been a debate relating to not only the appointment of a new Justice to the Supreme Court, but also related to decisions she made regarding a test that was deemed discriminatory because of the pass-fail rates among different groups. When Roberts and Co. overturn the decision in a couple of weeks (anyone interested in the Supreme Court Stakes?), they will be saying once more that people experience the same things, think the same, act the same, have the same opportunities, and are completely unaffected by the fact that they have a different appearance and history. The world does not work this way, and it will get worse if we fail to implement policies and planning practices meant to encourage diversity and interconnectedness because the more different the life experiences and opportunities between groups, the harder it will be to compare them fairly. Basically, I view de facto segregation of today as just as impossible to achieve separate but equal as the de jure segregation of the past.

My main goal of unity in diversity is centered around another principle, that of equality of opportunity. There is evidence that many of the policies of the past that enforced integration by itself without encouraging it through the development of mixed-use neighborhoods that attracted a more diverse population have caused a number of serious problems, not least among them a sense of being thought "only good enough because of the government" on one side and "disadvantaged unfairly by the promotion of others using a false credential" on the other. The reality runs counter to claims of "equality" however, and therefore we still require a significant effort to right the wrongs of the past and work toward true equality. In this past election, and now for the Supreme Court, a chief concern among voters hesitant about Obama (I gleaned this from hearing countless interviews from varied sources) was that Obama would bring the spoils of politics to the black population since he was black. There are arguments now about picking someone based on ethnicity for the Supreme Court, even though this woman has an excellent record and, in my view, sees the court as it ACTUALLY is, a body whose views on the constitution change with those on it, and that those people are products of their environments and experiences. Why so much panic seems to arise whenever we discuss creating diverse environments, I fail to truly understand since many of the arguments against affirmative action, etc, are absurd. The reality of today is that the playing field is far from level STARTING OFF and that whites stand a better chance of success simply because of their race: tests favor us, mortgage loan terms favor us, society's views on ethnicity favor us. These are huge benefits from which we daily reap rewards and we must recognize them if we are to work toward the final goal of Unity In Diversity and Equality of Opportunity combined.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Moving City Bus Stops Without Asking

I found out two days ago that they were moving my bus stop and effectively removing my transportation. This comes as another step in the goal of Metro King County to reduce the ridership on the buses to zero ahead of a small, ineffective light rail system through an overcrowded, broke city that will not be functional until 2020. I now have to walk 15 minutes in the rain, cold, dark, etc, to get to the University of Washington campus.

My problem with the removal of the bus stop is because they are doing it for a terrible reason. They are building a park there. Now, I love parks, I believe green space is imperitive for the development of children and for the maintenance of mental and physical health. I do, however, believe that small parks are made valuable not by their existence alone, but by how they are used. Parks, as I wrote in a previous post, are best in areas where they will receive continuous use, varied use by diverse people, and where they can be easily kept safe. The new park will be located behind a Target next to a bunch of apartments. This initially sounds ok; however, all the apartments point away from the park and the people who use the space currently do so in order to catch the bus. We are all busy people, we do not, except maybe occasionally on weekends, go out and just sit in a park. Parks are best suited for areas where there are many children without other places to go, and where it is easy for people to be safe. In this location, people come near to go to Target (not to a park) and to ride the bus. There are no other stores, businesses, or anything, and the park is surrounded on three sides by nothing but roads. In short, people only go there now to catch a bus, and the only reason they will go there in the future is to go to the park.

So why not build one if people like parks? I do not believe that the park will ever be fully or properly utilized and policed. This small park, like many of the other small parks in Seattle, will become a homeless campground or a drug-addict zone. I am rooting for the homeless since they are usually nice and not dangerous. I brought up my concern about losing my transportation, while creating a underused, potentially dangerous area right by my house to my pastor, and he told me that he like the idea of a park, and would probably never use the place as a Park and Ride. While there is no reason for him to use it for taking the bus (he has a car, lives nearer to other locations), his comment about liking the idea of the park struck me as interesting. I asked him how often he would use it (he lives in a neighborhood with beautiful, quiet streets and a very nice park location, complete with bathrooms and everything), and he said he "could not quantify" how often he would use it. Could not quantify? I can. Almost never. Small, general parks are inherently local areas dependent on local people for patronage. This means that if all the people in your area are residents who do not get out much other than for work, then your park will not be well used. Also, the fact that people "like the idea" of something is a huge cause of budget deficits and the tendency of people to vote for relatively abstract (in practice) ideas like a light rail system (I say abstract because the actual construction is extremely costly and it is difficult to build and expand large enough to be useful). I am sick and tired of people who like the idea of something dictating my rights to reasonable public transportation. The people who should decide local things should be local people who use the service, not simply those who "like the idea." This offers a perfect segway into my next point.

Local democracy seems to be skewed not only to city-based things, but to areas where legislatures, not individuals, should be making decisions, like how to build a freeway or whether or offer incentives to certain businesses. Things like small parks should not be added (at least if something important like a park&ride is being taken away). I am not complaining here because they are simply removing one stop, they are removing many, and effectively eliminating the ease at which we were able to move around. What is more, they sprung this on us over a weekend, without any public comment that I knew about, and I ride the buses very frequently. Why could we not have a say in the location of a park? While I believe that we should, I am not convinced that we would have won even then. The dangers of local democracy would have then raised their ugly heads to let some local, less busy, better off people who never take the bus and "like the idea" of parks decide on our fate. Be it the elderly people across the road or someone living elsewhere in our artificial neighborhood that does not function as a unit but is treated as one, but the results may well have been the same. Now that we are losing our stop, however, we have made a spirited showing to harrass the poor bus drivers on our route, leading them to refer to me as "one of many" or "not a lone horseman" among other things. Clearly people care, at least those of us who ride the bus. There are many who do, and taking away our transportation is not right or reasonable, especially without providing any number of other possible options to continue service and build the park (such as a turn-around for buses right near the park. The problem here is that they are taking a space that is widely used for a specific purpose, eliminating that purpose, and still expect it to be widely used. People come to parks on special occasions when they are out of the way like this one will be, they use them frequently when they are part of every-day life. This park, I believe, will fail to thrive, and in so doing, will create a patch of uselessness out of a well-used and important space in the area.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Supreme Court Stakes

The US Supreme Court has done a lot of good and evil in its time, often ruling one way, such as in favor of segregation, and then righting itself later on. It swings, as we all know, with the Presidency, and the issues around who will become a justice is extremely important to a myriad of groups. I believe that the focus and importance placed on the Supreme Court placements by activist groups has made it a wholly unreliable, untrustworthy, and extremely undemocratic institution.

The Supreme Court Stakes is a betting game, by which you can bet how the Court will rule on an issue. Lately, I can pretty much get it dead on. Gun Control 5-4 Conservative, Diversity in Education (Affirmative Action, Bussing, etc) 5-4 Conservative, the list goes on. Several years ago, conservative groups were whining about how liberals nominated "activist judges" to the Bench. What they meant was "activist in a way I do not like." The so-called law and the interpretation of the constitution are somewhat like different ministers interpreting the Bible, they see what they want to see. For this reason, it is possible to predict rulings on issues based solely on the political affiliations of who is on the Bench, rather having to really understand the law. The Constitution offers no comment on Gay marriage, sanctioned slavery at one time, does not mention anything about abortion, along with many other things. The reality is that the Justices use whatever personal political views they hold to make judgements, more or less finding a way to interpret the Constitution in their favor.

My evidence for every judge being activist is largely based on how much time and money activist groups put into each Supreme Court fight. By mixing these groups in, we ensure that there is no such thing as an apolitical, non-activist judge. I do not know how to fix the Supreme Court and make it a force for the law instead of a force for whatever party put them in power.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

California Proves My Point-The Pitfalls of Direct Democracy

The New York Times had an article today about the latest round of California referendums. Here is a link to the article:

California is possibly the third-worst run state in the country, after Texas and Mississippi. They have the largest population in the US, the 8th largest economy in the world, and the a budget deficit that puts other overspending places to shame. I have already talked about my issues with referendums, so I will keep this first part short. My primary reason for disliking referendums is that they slow the legislative process in important areas often at times that make the least sense, such as now in a time of crisis. When things are bad, the government needs to be nimble and cannot be if there is a mass of people voting on everything. Californians and Washingtonians are especially bad about this, where they vote for the project they most like the idea of, regardless of its feasibility or cost. This may mean that the public will vote for a project one year and then vote it down another. This lack of constancy is wasteful. My second reason to dislike referendums is that they have usually very low voter turn-out, meaning that the voice of interest groups carries much more weight. This pertains especially to local politics, but is exhibited in state and national politics as well. My third reason is that I view referendums as redundant. We elect politicians to help make and pass laws. They need to be able to do so without people who are ignorant of the larger picture stepping in the way. If you do not like your legislature, vote against them. Finally, I do not like referendums because they are costly.

California, as the article states, is already burdened by arcane budgetary laws. People are able to vote on referendums about anything, and when the governor brought a set of budgetary cut and revenue increasing packages to the voters. They voted all but one, and that was largely a symbolic thing, down. Their reason according to interviews and the news media? They were angry. How absurd is this? Your state is in crisis, you are going to lose your education, health care, roads, security, everything, and you vote it down to express your anger? The only good I can see coming out of this is if California amends its constitution to make their budgetary processes less cumbersome. In today's day and age, flexibility is required, and their policies have stopped this. Basically, people have to make sacrifices for ONCE in that state. We act like going without expensive cable or a really nice car is a sacrifice, it is not. Neither is paying your fair share of taxes or recognizing that sometimes government spending needs to be cut. I applauded the governor when he was willing to offer both spending cuts and tax increases, I see this as the only way out. Apparently, however, Californians would rather see their state collapse before they accept the inevitable.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Building an Interesting City

I have recently started reading a book called "Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs. This book was written in the 1950's, and yet is probably at least as relevant today as it was then. The advice offered by the book was largely ignored, so we can see the outcome of failing to follow it today.

In the first sections, I have already found tons of information that is benefitting my understanding and even backing up my ideas on social relations in a modern society. Urban planning in the 1950s and beyond was based on the idea of a Garden City where things would be spaced, homogenous (i.e. commercial in some places, residential in others, ect), and clean. Instead of helping, these processes led to greater inequalities, greater crime, degredation of some areas, and generally failed to accomplish their stated goals. The reasons behind this are actually extremely simple.

First, by removing the mixture of housing and businesses from neighborhoods, the areas not only became less interesting to live in, but also less safe since traffic on the streets reduced drastically. The old so-called "slums" were actually remarkably safe and cohesive. By moving in, eliminating the businesses, clearing the streets, and building larger project housing, what actually occurred was a breaking up of the community and inter-community relations, a removal of street traffic leading to more danger thanks to their being fewer "eyes" to stop crime. A neighborhood culture is based on a complex web of interactions, and these interactions are not so much between close friends as they are witha myriad of acquaintences. These people provided the society that kept people safe and happy in their space. As people had fewer reasons to spend time outside with neighbors or shopping with people, talking with people, and all in all sharing in each other's lives, people started leaving the streets. As danger increased, people drove more, also leaving the streets empty. In place of the poor, but vibrant, streets was basically a grey, increasingly crime-ridden neighborhood with few people taking pride in it, just as you would not take pride in any boring place you have to live because there is no where else.

The worst affected were the poor areas which were moved into projects, breaking up social relations. I keep going back to the social relations issues because we are seeing another attempt to destroy the few contacts we actually have with people beyond our social group. We engineered through our planning practices that segregated the place you sleep from the place you live, a fragmented, segregated society. If we succeed in further reducing contact with those who are responsibile for calling the police when we are in trouble, for helping us with our car when it is broken, for watching our kids while we are gone, etc, we will damage further the social interconnections on which society is based and on which cohesiveness and interest in the greater processes of urban planning and development needed for democratic development are based.

We made our places of living less interesting and less diverse. We worked to ruin the neighborhood while trying to make it nicer. The focus on reorganization and beautification came at the expense of actual lifestyle. I argue that we should make neighborhoods places that we want to live, with commercial and public transportation near by, with no deserted streets (at least in the middle of the city) even if they are quiet. Rebuild the community businesses that were destroyed as we introduced big-box stores, these stores are imperitive for the social mixing to create a cohesive and safe community. Everything depends on people being invested form schools to roads to safety. We have to create places to live our LIVES not merely sleep, to meet people, not avoid them, and to promote the types of places, businesses, etc, that we would like to know.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fair Value, Fair Costs-Tha Failure of Capitalism to Properly Price Social, Environmental, and Long-Term Goods.

In trying to understand processes of environmental degredation, concentration of dangerous industries in low-income areas, and the prevalence of low-cost, high impact products in modern society, I look again to the relationship between short-term costs and long-term impacts on society and the environment. Capitalism as an economic system excels in assigning costs based on the cost of production and the demand for the good. These costs are based on short-term calculus, and are liable to change relatively rapidly to respond to changes in the labor market, the demand, and raw material prices. What it does not consider are the long-term social and environmental costs that go along with the product.

The average plastic toy from China or McDonald's Happy Meal trinket is almost costless in the short term; however, I believe that a very different picture on the cost of such items would appear if additional liabilities arising from the future cost of environmental clean-up were factored in. Similarly, the social cost in addition to the environmental cost from locating polluting industries, or even building these industries, in low-income areas is based on a short-term calculation of how much resistence would be faced in one location over another. Right now at my work, I am helping to route a major transmission line across a state, and several rich, powerful people are able to get it moved, while other's with less influence just have to suffer. In these previous examples, the decision on where to locate or how to price are based on a calculation of cost versus profit. If the true burden to the social and environmental system was calculated, the picture would likely appear different.

I believe it should be a major role of regulatory agencies to examine products with high externalities in order to understand the longer-term social and environmental costs and adjust through taxation the costs of their actions. Failing to address these problems is like taking out a high interest loan, where short-term gratification becomes replaced by impossible debt in the future. The costs of cleaning up or rebuilding areas broken by pollution or other externalities from economic growth will far outweigh the short-term value we derive because we will pay "interest" in the form of higher environmental, health, and other costs in the future.

I mention the social and environmental costs, I also believe that a role exists in helping to moderate and determine value. The recent foreclosure crisis comes on the back of the internet bubble, before which was the savings and loan bubble, stretching back to when margin-purchased stocks helped tip the Great Depression. Regulation after the 1930s helped to prevent crisis like the one we are in now by moderating the boom tendencies of the market through preventing opaque business practices and impossibly large and complex companies (like AIG, which could not have done what it did had regulation on derivatives not been removed). I have been forced much to my dismay to listen repeatedly to people arguing how more financial regulation will increase credit costs for consumers. Good, I say. We have made borrowing too easy and too cheap, overestimating the value of short-term consumption and underestimating the long-term cost of high debt. Our focus on short-term policies, short-term credit, short-term prices are I believe central to our inability to understand value and to fairly price products and services, and will lead inevitably to greater, more damaging costs as time passes.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Fall of Free Internet

Last summer while looking in an airport bookstore, I found a book about how the world was entering a new age of "free" stuff, where we could get things for free, enlist help from people remotely to solve complex problems, and generally improve our ability to get things done and done cheaply. While the idea of improved interconnectivity may well assist in finding solutions to complex problems-there are a number of examples of this that I will not go into,-nothing is or ever will be free. My question then is who will pay?

It has been thought for qutie some time that internet content would be fueled and funded by advertisements. The problems with this are that there is significant content that may lack the popularity to gain advertising revenue, but, even more importantly, we are so over-saturated with ads that their value is decreasing and increasingly becoming dependent on their effectiveness (i.e. number of clicks on an ad) instead of just a flat rate for a banner. While ads will likely always be important for funding the growth of web services, I see another, perhaps more important source that will, in effect, make the internet just like any other service.

This new source of funding comes from...wait for it...US! Of course it does. Increasingly I have noticed a trend away from everything being free and toward a pay-for-use service. I believe this is how it should be. Recently, some markets have been experimenting with micro-payments. I support this innovation because to me, there is great value in things like AP news stories that we will not be able to afford if we do not pay for them. I had thought just a few months ago that the age of news may have been at an end, now I recognize that I was sorely mistaken. Instead of being at an end, we are experiencing an uprecedented opportunity to select subjects of interest for us and actually suppport quality reporting/service at the same time by paying a few cents for a story or to watch baseball online, etc. I am happy about this change because it means that my greatest fears may not have been realized after all.

When people argue that everything will be free, they are demonstrating their lack of understanding to market processes. Nothing is free, it is always a question of who pays for it. Who pays for it determines its content, quality, and continuity, and is therefore extremely important. As websites have gone from being pay-for-use to free and now are moving back to pay for use (albeit in a form of a free demo version with payments creating the opportunity for improved service).

While paying for use will ensure the services continue to grow and improve, they also pose a challenge to the casual web surfer since now great amounts of truly valuable information will be hidden with only small amounts exposed. This poses a challenge to those who are unable or unwilling to pay (how many times have you as students not read something because it cost a few bucks to get it online? I know I have). Nevertheless, even with the falling "basic" service quality (interestingly, cable television is identical to this in the falling quality of the basic service while vastly improved pay-for-use service), we can look to this pay for use model as the way to ensure quality in a world where accountability is disappearing, and a way to maintain some control over the services because we are paying for them rather than relying on someone else.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Spend More Get Less-The Formula for the American Health Care System

I just had to listen to part of a commercial from Conservatives for Health Care Choice (or something like that) about how "Americans know best when it comes to health care" and that we wanted to preserve choice of doctor, choice of treatment, up-front costs. I have been holding back from writing this post for awhile since I was not sure if I had anything to add, but listening to that group pandering to American's tendency to want choice over any other feature.

To make it absolutely clear, I am pro universal health care, and I think that the benefits of a private system-much less a "hybrid" system have been greatly overstated. The primary lines of attack against a public system are two: lack of choice and quality of care/health care cues. Both of these issues, especially the former, provide a distraction from the real issue at the bottom of the debate. Health care costs nearly twice as much in the US as it does in the next highest country (either France or Germany). US life expectancy and other important health indicators such as infant and maternal mortality are higher in the US than in Europe, in spite of our much higher spending. While I am not advocating accepting wholesale the European system, I do believe that it has some advantages that should be examined. For disadvantages, a public health system is usually said to be inefficient with long waiting periods. This is true for a couple of reasons: first, there is more demand due to everyone having health care. This means that everyone, no matter income levels or anything else, can get care. One reason our system is so costly is because our care has huge disparities between rich and poor/middle class, leading to many people using the emergency room for basic care, to hospitals having to eat the costs, to our poor health-care indicators (we have infant mortality rates among some minority populations that equal that of the developing world). This bias is, I believe, a fundamental injustice when the resources exist to expand coverage, just not the will. The other point that is cited, lack of choice, I believe to be a complete red herring. Our current system does not leave us with significant choice. We are already controlled by our health plan's favoring of some doctors over others up to the extremely restrictive HMO. "Choosing" treatment also only really applies to those capable of paying the huge sums necessary or those who have excellent insurance that covers basically everything. In other words, being rich in the US system means great care, for most people, it is not nearly as good. The US health care system is a hybrid system in which somewhere around 50% of health care is covered by the government (medicare, medicaid, veterans benefits, etc). This system is the least efficient out there because it allows insurance companies to cherry pick the least risky while leaving the poor and the sick to the government. When John McCain proposed a health plan of government insurance for those who could not get coverage, I was stupified because this basically amounted to an increase in the subsidy (us providing insurance to the uninsured through medicare, medicaid) to insurance companies by allowing them to get off not paying. Beyond these problems, there are several other issues. One is that insurance encourages doctors to be greedy and charge extra amounts. This is in part to pay for the lack of coverage in some, but also because they can charge it. Another problem is the cost of insurance to doctors, and another is the huge debts that medical school leaves with doctors. These challenges would have to be met during health reform but they MUST not be resolved without it since the provide leverage to get things done.

My second point is rather simple: health care is an uproductive addition to GDP. While we add health care "production" into GDP, I feel that it is inherantly flawed to do so. Health care does not, unlike machines or education, increase capital-human or otherwise, it merely prevents it degredation. At a time when health-care expenditures amount to nearly 1/5 of GDP, we have to think seriously if our growing health care industry based on overconsumption and growing at effectively a detriment to other productive growth is worth while. I say at a detriment because health care costs are a huge burden to the middle class and put hundreds of thousands to millions of people every year. Recognizing the inherent flaws in using health care as a valuable part of the economy will help us to make the tough choices when it comes to reorienting our economy away from the health sector and toward other sectors. This will be tough because the entire industry is the fastest growing in the country (even now in this recession). While I do not favor eliminating most of it, I feel that the insurance industry and medical services industries need to be reformed by whatever means are necessary.

One of our chief problems with health care costs is our dependence on our employers to provide it. This, not taxes or environmental, or labor regulations is the chief cause of our lack of competitiveness in the US. If we fail to remake our system, it is our employers that suffer the most. Today, fewer and fewer employers are able to provide comprehensive coverage, while those that still do, such as the auto companies, are making as deep of cuts as possible. Changing the place from which we get health coverage should be a number one priority for the health of the economy as well as of our actual health.

The ads on TV and radio right now that attempt to dupe Americans into fighting universal health care are really to me nothing more than disguised attempts to allow the continued accrual of huge profits by an industry that has forgotten its primary duty is to people, not cash. As I mentioned above, the argument of choice is flawed because our current system does not preserve choice, we are just controlled by insurance company officials instead of government officials. Also, the fact that we spend so much and get so little from our system should be a cause of concern. Instead, we are happy to rail against government health services and then, after we have failed to save enough for a major operation, or after we lose our insurance through some injury or medical history, we depend on the government or public hospitals to provide us care. The hyprocrisy, while typical of us who demand services and refuse to pay for them, is something about which we need a national dialogue.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Freedom Isn't Free

I have been told this a million times by people I would argue with about the Iraq War, or any number of other things. My dad pointed out something once awhile back that made me realize all those Republicans were absolutely right, but in ways they did not expect.

While we were down fishing in South Texas, we came out of a restaurant and there was a women with a Freedom Isn't Free t-shirt and she was getting into a Hummer. My dad looked at her and said "of course it isn't free when you act like that." What he meant was that her lifestyle, her freedom to live that lifestyle, required immense amounts of sacrifice and energy on the part of the people of this country and the world and that for her to live as she pleased it cost someone else their freedom.

He was absolutely right. Our tendency in the US is to conduct our foreign policy with a mixture of American Exceptionalism (the idea that not only are we different and great but that everyone else thinks we are too), isolationism, and expansionism. The last two points, while seeming contradictory, actually present the real meat of the argument. We are isolationist in our complete disregard for international opinion and our commitment to unilateral action, while the average citizen does not take active interests in foreign affairs. We are expansionist in that our isolationist attitudes combined with our high level of consumption requires our government to go on a never-ending search for materials.

This search that gives us a massive share of the world's resources, is what makes our freedom not free-the cost is in the lives and freedom of others. Our complete failure to recognize the cost of our resource-gathering and international exploitation has made us rich but has made us insecure today. Think of us as the money-lender who is surrounded by people he defrauded. I am not using this to say that we have never done great things for the world, but that, regardless of those great things, we have done them with strings attached.

Now back to that women with the "Freedom Isn't Free" shirt. She was representative of our society that has turned a blind eye to a world's sufferings while continuing to use its resources. Freedom is not free because our freedom comes at a great cost to others. Our freedom to consume without restraint, to pollute, to exploit, to use up other's share so that we can continue to live in our borrowed prosperity is costing us, although we have treated it the same as everything else we do: put it on our credit cards.

So those so-called conservatives were right. Freedom isn't free, yet it is so costly because the preservation of our way of life comes at a great cost to others.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Principles of Land Use Planning and the California Fire Phenomenon

Every year for the past several years, we have been listening to constant news reports about large brush fires destroying houses in Southern California near Santa Barbara, San Diego, etc. This constant bombardment was not always the norm. People used to live in cities away from yearly fires, but unsustainable development practice, subsidization through infrastructure construction, and pure greed for the value of California homes have changed that.

Then again neither was living in low-concentration sub-divisions the middle of an extremely dry desert or thick brush-filled area without access to proper water resources. The real tragedy of the housing boom has been our environment, where we have seen hugely unsustainable growth as people move toward the southern US-first to California, then to Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. In my hometown near Austin and San Antonio, I have had to watch over the years each time I visit home, more of the beautiful Texas Hill Country be consumed by housing development that then adopt names like "Falcon Wood" or something else completely absurd. These places are building in an area without the transportation infrastructure to maintain them, where new commercial buildings in strip-mall form are constructed because the stores are not close enough and because 70% of our economy is consumption, and where there simply is not enough water to support continued development. And yet we build on, practically subsidizing unsustainable growth through huge investments in water infrastructure and transportation that continues to fuel the consumption of our natural resources. We have known for a long time not to do this. John Nolan, a legendary planner from a century or so ago said that the four principles of development should be:

Conform to the topography
Use places for what they are naturally most fit
Conserve, utilize and develop all natural resources, aesthetic as well as commercial
Aim to secure beauty through organic arrangements rather than through mere embellishments.

The point is this: cutting off a mountain side to build a subdivision and create false topography in the already-beautiful Hill Country is right out.

So is the covering of Las Vegas, NV and Phoenix, AZ with grass. I have promised myself that I will never visit Phoenix if at all possible because that place disgusts me. It is truly profligate sprawl, at the end of which is desert-clearly visible from an airplane or satellite photo. The river that gives it, LA and Las Vegas life is unable to reach the sea, requiring us to pump water into it in order to meet treaty requirements with Mexico for water use. This absurd growth has been spurred on consciously but without morals or the alertness to realize their time is fleeting. The South West of the US is going to be become even more dessicated due to global climate change whether they like it or not so, in other words, they are all screwed.

But so are we. We created the situation where their development was permitted and encouraged, and the government failed in its duty to serve as a guide to prevent what has happened from happening. While those Arizonans get to live there now, unsustainably, we the people are going to pay the cost in the long run as we continue to try to make their lives there possible. We do the same in LA and Las Vegas. We never recognized consciously the danger of promising the water of the Colorado to everyone, and so they never attempted to conserve or moderate their lifestyles. In the word's of a Rodney Crowell song "LA hits my windshield like some Armageddon Sprawl, planting palm trees in the desert makes no sense to me at all." He spoke the truth.

Our disregard for the environment is catching up to us but I believe that it is already too late. As the environmental refugees from projected global warming, we will see people from the Maldives, Bangladesh, Southern Louisiana and Florida...and Arizona.

Now back to California. The unmitigated urban sprawl in Southern California is represented in the houses that are now destroyed by fires, at great expense to tax payers, every year. This is going to be from now on the norm unless we work harder to subdue the environment by creating massive, empty, unvegitated firebreaks. Do we really want to go there? We have separated ourselves from the environment in every other way including by violating its laws, so why not?

Another area where we have failed to recognize our relationship with the environment and what is sustainable is with coastal flooding. Finding it impossible for people to get insurance in coastal cities, the US Government insures people's houses. This likely includes the houses recently damaged on the Texas coast by the hurricanes that hit EVERY FOUR YEARS OR SO. These people came from Dallas, built a house next to the beach and now have the gall to claim that they should be compensated for property lost due to erosion. How about this. DO NOT LIVE IN THE FLOODPLAIN! So, we not only subsidize sprawl by building the infrastructure that promotes it, we subsidize floodplain dwelling by insuring those who live there and cannot get private home-owners or flood insurance for a good reason. These are examples of policy contradictory to the overall well-being of society. The fact is that it took years to engineer the Mississippi, the Columbia, and other rivers, and they still flood. We cannot really engineer the coastal places that are hurricane prone. Our best option would be to stop insuring people who build there. Let them know of the risks, the lack of insurance (or cost of it if it is available), and then let them on their own. If Dallas-ites want to complain that they lost property due to natural erosion when a hurricane hit, tough.

I have taken the time to write a long post on this because it is indicative of a wider problem. The cost to society of not being able to build on the coast is lower than the cost to it from the damage those buildings incur (as evident by the need for a government subsidy). Similarly, the cost to society of fighting global warming now by cutting emissions is going to be much less than resettling half of Florida or accepting Haitian environmental refugees. Government policy should immediately be reviewed to view its externalities, to properly value the cost to society of cities like Phoenix and the wealthy vacation homes on the Texas coast, and of carbon emissions. In sum, stop building infrastructure for desert sprawl, stop subsidizing houses in the flood plain, charge polluters the real cost of their pollution.

The Digital Divide

The Digital Divide refers to the growing gap between those with access to globalization technologies (such as the internet, telecommunications, etc) and those without. As a future community development planner, I am interested in figuring out how to increase the access of the under served to the benefits of globalization and its technologies. Increased access is part of my goal to level the playing field; I believe that since we all are impacted by globalization, as much as possible we should try to have a say in it.

Globalization, although giving some tokens of progress to the vast majority in the world, largely benefits the top, most interconnected, individuals. This is for the simple reason that those with capital to invest and access to new markets, ideas, education, technology, and people are better able to take advantage of new opportunities. This causes a massive increase in inequality in a similar way to what Reaganomics did to economies like Indonesia, a small improvement through the "trickle down" and a massive increase in inequality. Inequality is destabilizing, which is why I worry about it. Also, the bit that does trickle-down often is just enough to increase the capability to mobilize of the most disadvantaged while not greatly improving their socio-economic position (what good is the internet if you cannot sell anything or gain some economic opportunity, what good is knowing the price of grain at market if it is not going to improve much and you have no choice but to sell?). But I am, as usual, getting away from a major point I wanted to discuss here: overestimation of the current impact of globalization technologies.

I am often frustrated while listening to the tech society people who live online. These people are modeled similarly as Thomas Friedman, the author of "The World is Flat" and the "Lexus and the Olive Tree." Dispite what the flat-world people say, it is not flat and it is going to get less so before it becomes more so unless we make some major attempts to equalize access to the benefits of globalization currently reserved for the super-connected. At this point, most people do not use the internet for very much-including huge numbers of Americans-and vast numbers remain unconnected throughout the world. The new "Global North" is made up of nodes within countries throughout the world that, for reasons of geography and chance, have become connected. Bangalore, for us, represents India even though Calcutta is likely much more represented. What I mean by this is that still most people are poor, under-educated, and do not use the internet. The rise of the "Digital Supermen" will not occur as long as most of the world is still unconnected. We tend to overstate the advances of interconnection, and this is a serious mistake. We should not cheapen the advances that have been made, just temper our adulation until we reach a point where more of the world is benefiting and participating in the process of interconnection.

Civil Society and the Over-Sexualization of Activism

I try to keep myself from sounding "old-fashioned" here, but my most recent experience with the use of sex as a selling point for a social movement has gone too far. Today, at a booth for Relay for Life, an event meant to raise money to combat cancer, I saw a number of t-shirts reading "Save Second Base" and "Copping a Feel Never Felt So Good." They were referring specifically to breast cancer, as was obvious by the slogans and by the material at the booth.

Since when do we need to use sex and not-so-subtle references to intimate activity to support a social movement designed to help save women's lives? Now, apparently. I had already argued against the t-shirts used by my College Democrats at GW while I was a student "In the House, On the Floor, In Any Position: Democrats Do It Better!" but I could ignore it. This new manifestation I feel goes too far. I am not here for a moralistic rant, but to simply ask is it really necessary for sexual references to pervade EVERY domain? Do we have to sell a social movement to save women's lives as though the most important aspect is to save their breasts?

In addition to my personal moral and ethical issues with this practice, my opposition is also practical. Civil Society should be as inclusive as possible in issues that affect all of us, like cancer. By turning an issue related to cancer into a sexual issue, we are excluding a large proportion of society that feels uncomfortable with this characterization. Additionally, I feel that this particular campaign's focus cheapens the entire concept and movement. Instead of the discussion being focused on what breast cancer does to families, what it costs our society, or how to support sufferers, we go and make it about how women's bodies are less physically satisfying for their partners if they get breast cancer. Civil Society movements need to be inclusive and focused, not on sex but on the issues they are attempting to resolve.

Discrimination by the Will of the People

People should never be able to vote on the rights of others.

This has recently come to renewed importance in the wake of California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage in a predominately liberal state. Marriage in the United States is a legal definition, more than a religious one, because being married in a church alone is not sufficient to be considered "married" by the federal government since you still must submit documentation proving and ratifying your marriage. Therefore, this debate which ostensibly appears to be a separation of Church and State issue is to me instead a Constitutional issue: should society as a whole be able to decide for which rights someone is eligible?

My answer is no. By opening up the discussion of a right to the voting public, the state has sanctioned a tyranny of the majority. Instead of discussing the nature of marriage in the United States in a voting body to determine WHAT it actually meant, we put the issue before voters who were asked to choose whether others would have rights based upon personal prejudices. I need to remind you that, if this were the method of solving issues relating to the struggle for Civil Rights in the African-American communities, they would have achieved equal status under the law much later, if at all, in many places. the founding fathers discussed regularly tyranny of the majority, and it was clear it was a major concern as the US began to shape itself into a new republic. By this point in time, one may have thought that we would have come to understand that issues of rights are never to be decided by the voters, as all people are guaranteed them FUNDAMENTALLY by the Constitution. California's Prop. 8 should therefore serve as a wake-up call, regardless of your opinions on the nature of what is marriage because in that very liberal state, the electoral process was used to deprive people of rights already given them by the courts, the apparent watchdogs of constitutionality.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Television Dramas and the Making of a Shut-In Society

It has been argued that people's perception of danger in society is directly affected by the crime coverage on the nightly news, which far and away overstates the actual danger to any given individual or family. Stories on the news have increasingly led to a society where families attempt to shelter their members from the outside world, preventing any possible access to violence, including stopping children from going outside, or playing in parks. While I believe that these reports of the over representation of violence on the news are true, I believe it fails to address a major source of fear and possibly even crime.

Sociological studies have shown that violence in today's television drama's inures us to it while actually leading to increased violence. This is especially pronounced among people who "game" as they regularly commit acts of violence virtually, blurring the boundary between thoughts and actions of violence. Other more recent studies have demonstrated that teens who watch Sex in the City and related, heavily sexual, shows are much more likely to be sexually active and become pregnant at an early age outside of marriage. This is not surprising since behaviors are regularly copied in society as a whole when its most influential members practice them. This is true whether it be suicide, pregnancy, violence, drugs, etc. For more on this, see M. Gladwell's "The Tipping Point;" not a very good book overall, but it has some interesting and valuable parts.

And now to my point. Violence and underage pregnancy are effected by television dramas, and I believe that fear is as well. Rather than simply stories on the news, dramas are more creative, contain more suspense, and attempt to incite particular emotions. These emotions carry over into day-to-day life, leading people to distrust one another more and avoid contact with other people or places with which they are not familiar. Dramas are more effective than simple TV news because of the emotions and detail with which they cover murders, rapes, etc, leading people to become ever more creative in imagining a society that is much more violent than it is in reality.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Somali Pirates, Fishing, Waste Dumping, and the Failure of International Law

Look closely at any issue and you will find that it is likely more complex than initially thought. Rarely is it possible to find an easy solution or an explanation for any problem. For me, I try to understand issues by viewing them in context-how they are related to everything else. This method is based on the belief that the world is best viewed through the system of interactions and causal interrelations that make-up our day-to-day experiences and help determine our behavior.

Whenever I first heard about the Somali pirate situation, my wife turned to me and said that things like this just don't happen, there has to be a reason. "It is for money," I said.

Well I was right, but she was even more so. Since the last Somali government was overthrown in the 1980s or so, and after the UN went in to relieve the humanitarian situation in the early 1990s, there has been no effective government of that piece of land that covers the coast of the horn of Africa. Granted, we view it in too simplistic of a fashion, not recognizing that there are multiple authorities there (relatively stable Somaliland, Puntland, and the least stable and most violent Somalia that we hear about-the one with Mogadishu in it). Because there was no government to defend Somalia, other countries began to take advantage of the anarchy for their own profit, going to Somali coastal waters to fish without restrictions, to dump toxic waste, and to traffic people. These problems, though well documented by Western and local media, were not discussed before this incident, and are only now coming in tidbits from NPR and the BBC. These practices destroyed the livelihoods of fishermen and in so doing also the economies of the towns that depended on them. The lobster trade, for example, which was a very lucrative practice of fishing in Somalia and selling the lobsters to the states on the Arabian Peninsula, has been completely destroyed. The destruction of Africa is nothing new even though European countries no longer control territory on the continent. The waters off the coast of Africa have been drastically over fished by vessels from all over the world and have done so with impunity. Usually they do this by bribing officials for cheap fishing rights, but in Somalia, with no government, the infractions were even worse.

Enter the fisherman, already with boats. They are angry over the toxic waste dumping, over fishing, destruction of important lobster-baring reefs, and they began to take over foreign factory ships in protest. This practice awakens them to the possibility of huge profits through piracy so, with their livelihoods destroyed by these same vessels, they began to capture and ransom as many ships as possible. As they got better and richer, the sizes of the boats went up until today when they can hijack tankers.

My point here is not that the pirates are 100% justified in their actions, and not justified against international shipping (factory fishing ships are more ambiguous), though I believe that people have the right to defend their territory from exploitation when they do not have a government. This is a dangerous assertion I know, and it comes with many qualifiers. This argument could be used for the Minutemen in the border areas of the US and Mexico; however, I feel they qualify effectively as a hate group since their actions are motivated by xenophobia (and in some cases racism). Also, their livelihoods are not demonstrably in danger and they have arguably effective government representation. But I digress (again). My point comes down to this: the international community has a responsibility to respond when unrepresented people are threatened by exploitation. I personally look on this as proof (again) of corporations and countries generally being focused on their own self interest and that without proper regulation on an international scale, abuses will always be prevalent. These abuses occur with little uproar, but when the natural response to them occurs, the international community freaks out.

This case with piracy should be a wake-up call to the international community about the need to regulate and protect unprotected areas and people. Piracy is one response to injustice, terrorism-which in Somalia is funded by piracy-often arises as another. Like the drug trade destroying the fabric of society in places like Colombia, piracy does the same in Somalia and the initial struggle is soon lost to be replaced by a lust for profit. This does not mean we should not analyze the initial causes to try and remove those as part of a process to combat lawlessness.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Local is Not Always More Democratic

If my parents were to read this, they would be upset: The local is not always more democratic. This is an extension of my earlier argument about the failure of democratic development to take into account the needs and demands of those who are not represented in the political process.

By making development local, the goal is to create policies that are more responsive to local needs. The challenge faced by these processes is that they are closely controlled by the local political establishment. One international example is the failure of development efforts in Botswana to reach the minority tribes who are considered to be inferior by the majority's traditional feudal system. I discuss this in detail in my thesis "Ethnicity and Inequality in the Age of Globalization: Implications for Development." In an example more close to home (but also more circumstantial), the Voting Rights Act requires communities with past histories of voter discrimination to receive permission from the Federal Government before changing their voting regulations and practices. This Law exists out of recognition that local politics can be the least democratic with minorities dominated without recourse by local politicians, other groups, law enforcement, etc.

This said, it is often not the answer to go with national programs over local ones. Even with the increased ability of people to act at different scales (by this I mean, for example, a village with environmental concerns taking their problems to international environmental groups) from globalization, people are still unable to empathize with leaders operating at scales higher (or lower). This helps to explain why congressmen are more radical than senators and why the IMF could not understand that Indonesia needed to keep subsidizing food for the poor during the Asian Financial Crisis (incidentally, when they stopped, thousands of people were killed in anti-Chinese violence. Recently the IMF encouraged countries to not cut social spending to deal with budget problems. Coincidence?).

In sum, when approaching an issue of development, the ideal is to mix local priorities with state and national oversight in order to prevent the pitfalls caused by a lack of local democracy.

God did not Give Man Aids-A post from a reader

I received this email from a reader and thought I would post it since I feel it makes some good points.

I was walking to lunch today and I overheard a girl talking to a guy in a black suit with a white collar.

She said "If I loved this world filled with people, I would not have created AIDS, I would not have created the black plague..."

This is something that I often found myself grappling with. If God truly loves us, then why did he create all of the horrible things? Why was there AIDS and the black plague. Then I realized that God wouldn't create those things because God did not create those things. Man created them and perpetuated them.

God did not randomly give 10,000 people AIDS. AIDS spreads because of the choices that people make. If you go back to the conversation that started this thought journey, the girl said that God gave us the black plague. However, if you think about it, many fewer Jewish people died from the plague because of their kosher laws. By following God's commandments, they were able to save themselves from the disease. Similarly, if people followed God's commandments about abstinent, and keeping your body pure, then many fewer people would die from AIDS. If EVERYONE, not just women, had only one sexual partner, and if people did not use IV drugs, then it would stop much of the spread of AIDS. If wealthy countries tried to help countries with fewer resources, instead of holding fast to medical patents, then this would also help stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic.

I do not believe that God gave people AIDS as a punishment. I believe that this is a cruel belief which fundamentally misrepresents God*(see note). Instead, I believe that God gave us commandments so that we would be protected from the natural order of things. I have heard, but have not confirmed that AIDS actually has existed for a while, but has been relatively benign until recently. Its transformation to a super virus probably had no malevolent or judgmental purpose. It was probably just the virus transforming, evolving as all things do. God gave us commandments, not because he enjoys spoiling our fun, but because he loves us and wants to protect us from making bad decisions since, in spite of all of our science and knowledge, we do not know that much about how the world works.

It reminds me of my childhood. My father had a really cool pair of nun chucks that he would swing around. I thought that they we so cool. When I was two, I asked it I could try. My dad wasn't so sure, but I begged and begged. So he gave them to me. I swung them around and hit myself on the head. I did not hurt myself because I did not have the strength to swing them with enough force, but I started to cry and ran out of the room sobbing, "Daddy hit me with the nun chucks."

As a society, we are not much different than two year old me. We build our towns by oceans and gulfs, we cut corners and don't protect the poor, we don't enforce the levies, when the levies break we say that it is God punishing the homosexuals. God is not punishing anyone because God played no part in any of the decisions. The bible never said that it was okay to leave people in a town without water or electricity. God did not command that you should keep refugees in a broken city so that they will not overwhelm yours. People made those decisions.

As a society, we make decisions, but do not want to live with them. We want God to create a rule free world with sawed off edges so that we can run around with scissors, but are not hurt when we fall. We want to pollute as much as we want, but have God somehow bend his own rules so that we do not have to deal with asthma, or global warming created by the pollution. However, every parent knows that you cannot protect your child from his mistakes forever. If you do, the child will never grow.

As children of God, we have to listen. I am not advocating blind following, because I believe that many times that also misses the point. Just like it is a bad idea to not introduce yourself to your new teacher and classmates on the first day of school, because your mommy told you to never talk to strangers, it is bad to strictly enforce some of God's commandments over others because it is expedient, especially when we ignore the context in which those commandment were given. (Gay marriage comes to mind. And don't get me started on how "servants obey your masters" is perverted.)Instead we have to use the knowledge that we so badly wanted in the garden to follow God wisely, remembering the letter, but more importantly, the spirit of his commandments. If we remember that the commandments were not given from some arbitrary dictator, but from a parent who loves us and knows MORE than we do, we might jus avoid putting our hand on the stove.

{* I know that if people showed more concern for others. If religious and political officials concerned themselves more with saving lives than perpetuating their own views, then we might have more effective AIDS responses which did not focus on abstinence alone, or prevented people from getting condoms because someone feels that condoms are wrong.}

Mortgage Crisis: The Crisis of American Capitalism

I have been frustrated lately by both the extreme lack of understanding and the ideological rantings of people over this current crisis. The idea that personal responsibility and corporate accountability as hallmarks of capitalism still exist is untrue. We have entered into a time of share-holder capitalism and consumer capitalism.

Share-holder capitalism is the running of corporations for the short-term profits of the investors by individuals who work for the investors rather than the company. These people cut back on what makes their companies strong--R&D investment, careful risk analysis, etc, and replace it with concerns on generating high share value. It is a complete disregard for the long-term health of the companies they run that make so many businesses vulnerable at this time of recession even after they survived in many cases for over 100 years. What happened this time was greed and selfishness at its most profligate. People claimed they did not know the crisis was coming but I remember that, when in highschool, I heard about the low credit and expanding home ownership and said "give it a few years, it will all crash." People knew this was coming, they just got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Additionally, much of the money the people who did escape unscathed made was made through the unproductive buying and selling of houses under the mistaken belief that housing values would continue to rise indefinitely. These individuals to me represent the hallmark of disgusting arrogance and amorality: they broke people and got away with it. The same is true of the presidents of companies who took their venerable firms down doomed paths for personal and share-holder profit. This goes beyond the banking and other financial industry into other sectors as well.

The consumer capitalism is based on consumption to drive economic growth, regardless of the real cost of that consumption and without providing a long-term vision of A) what value the consumer gets from that consumption, and B) the effects of that consumption on the US economy. This has led to the modern situation of dependence on China and other creditor countries for both the cheap goods that finance our consumption and the money with which to buy those goods. This type of capitalism was reinforced when, after September 11, President Bush said that in order to support our country we had to go out and spend. Our supposed "service" to our country through unnecessary, conspicuous consumption is saddening when viewed in relation to the sacrifices that others are making in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

In order to finance our consumption, we took out loans of Chinese money using the so-called "equity" in our houses. No financial advisor would EVER recommend this, and yet we did it out of a "buy now, pay later" view that we could continue to finance a way of life that is no longer sustainable. LISTEN: the vast majority of Americans have not seen a real increase in their wages since the 1970s. WE CANNOT CONTINUE TO LIVE LIKE WE MAKE MORE MONEY TODAY! So yeah, it is our fault as consumers, but it is also our fault as bankers and corporate leaders who should have known better.

During the boom years, deregulation was the mantra of both the right and the center (including Bill Clinton). We cut the controls put on banks and the financial industry from 1929, 1988, and all the other market crash years where our greed and dependence on credit caught up to us. Congress failed to do their job, and we, as ignorant consumers hungry for cheap credit, supported them. My question is this: would you rather have the massive swings we have seen over the past 20 years, or the steady growth (relatively) of a properly regulated market? Things like credit default swaps that helped to fuel this past boom and hurt the most in the bust used to be banned.

And yes, it was the Republicans who removed that ban.

At this point, I acknowledge our faults and that we should be punished for our actions. But how can we when our economy would literally collapse if we were to face the full brunt of the consequinces of our actions? The reason we have to keep our banks bailed out and all that is simply because, if we do not, then small businesses and others who use credit to finance operations would be destroyed along with the 70% or so they represent. What is needed now is actually what I think, and hope, just may be happening. A major reevaluation of what has become a culture where sacrifice and patience are dirty words.

Monday, May 4, 2009

That Road Comes from Somewhere

Seattle makes me centrist (well, nearly). When I was at home in Texas, I could never understand local Republicans who would tell me how they were responsible for their own successes, and how they felt the government should get out of the lives of ordinary citizens. They fail to realize, of course, that their roads come from somewhere. Similarly, I am repeatedly amazed at the willingness of Seattle liberals to approve huge spending on stuff like light rail when their state and county are bankrupt and are barely able to pay for what they already have. Most recently there have been protests over tuition at the University of Washington which is set at about 6,000 dollars per year (though is set to rise about 30% over the next two years). They fail to realize, that road comes from somewhere.

The point I am making here is simple. Conservatives fail to recognize that they need government and depend upon it constantly everyday. Liberals, on the other hand, seem incapable of realizing that everything has a cost. I always laugh when people refer to "tax and spend" liberals, who rarely tax, just spend, and "fiscal conservatives" who cut taxes and then try and eliminate necessary programs to fund their cuts. Neither side is sustainable, and it is time for us to stop answering to the low tax/improved services gimmicks that come our way and recognize that everything has a cost.

I happen to support government influence in a number of areas where I find it to be more efficient then the private sector; where the government is needed as a referee. I do, however, believe that recognizing the cost to value ratio of every service or good provided is imperative to developing a clear view of the world and a level head in government.

The Role of Government in American Society

This is probably not the last post that I will write on the role of government in American society, but with it I hope to cover a couple of major issues. Despite what people claim, the Constitution of the United States is not all that clear when it comes to the role of government in the daily lives of citizens.

A few undeniable truths include that the government has control over defense, security, justice, certain taxes, international affairs, currency, and other related areas. Less clear is the role of government in day-to-day life.

I believe that the US government has the responsibility to ensure what it enshrines in the preamble to the Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence, most specifically, to ensur to all citizens not just Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but for all citizens to have equal opportunity to achieve Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. As it stands now, this is not the case. The circumstances of one's birth still dominate the chance that you will become successful. Being well off to begin with places you much closer to prosperity than being nearer to the bottom. Being born to the majority group, gives you advantages over minorities. Despite the claims that these biases no longer exist, the evidence suggests otherwise. The FDIC and NAACP both recently began investigating, and in the case of the NAACP suing banks and mortgage lenders over giving sub prime loans to black and Latino families while giving white families with IDENTICAL credit better rates and better deals. When even the financial system, supposedly "just numbers," is biased, it is difficult to claim that more serious discrimination does not exist. Another example of this discrimination is a study that gave two groups of employers identical resumes, one with traditional names (Jim, Steve, Sally, Pamela, etc) and one with non-traditional names traditionally associated with African-Americans. The resumes with traditional names were significantly better received than the alternative resumes with non-traditional names. On top of studies, there is ample evidence showing that women and minorities are paid less for the same work, plain and simple.

This kind of discrimination is most severely compounded, in my opinion, by income. The circumstances of your birth, as mentioned above, do dictate the probability of your success. Despite the examples that inevitably arise when I say that the US does not treat all people as though they are created equal, it is still clear that one has to be exceptional to succeed from the bottom, and much less prodigious to succeed if you start half-way up the mountain with success as the top. At this point we have to ask ourselves whether we value equal access to success and to the fruits of one's labor, whether we consider it a tragedy that some never strive for success because the position into which they are born not only makes it unlikely but teaches them it is unlikely. Even with all the evidence pointing toward the necessity of combating discrimination and lack of equal opportunity, the Supreme Court is currently hearing a challenge to the Voting Rights Act. This act was recently renewed with a unanimous approval from the Senate, and near unanimous from the House because evidence was presented that demonstrated its continued necessity (basically it has a number of provisions designed to prevent unfair or deceptive practices on an institutional scale, such as changing the dates of voting without telling everyone, etc). In other words, Republicans and Democrats saw that it was still important to guarantee the fundamental right of voting to all people and the Supreme Court is hearing a challenge. This case serves to highlight not only our continued disparities, but our willingness to ignore and exacerbate them.

The way I see it is this: as long as people do not have equal access to credit because of their race, equal access to education because of their income, equal access to voting rights (for both of those reasons), then you have effectively abridged the government's duty to ensure for ourselves the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. We need to face up to the continuing inequality of opportunity which has plagued us for so long and continues to determine the chance of success of an individual based on the circumstances of his/her birth alone.

One of the hallmarks of the New Left as I hope it will become is an emphasis on both equality and personal responsibility simultaneously. Basically, you guarantee that everyone regardless of the circumstances of their birth has as close to an equal shot at success as anyone else, and I will grant you that personal responsibility is the most fair way to judge individuals. Until that time, however, programs designed to level the playing field (not penalize success, just provide the tools and recognition that people should be judged by their potential rather than their current situation) are a necessity. I personally advocate affirmative action based on income (as a stand-in variable for opportunity). A policy of affirmative action, contrary to many conservative arguments, is not racial favoritism, but a policy that encourages and assists qualified underrepresented applicants in achieving admission to universities, jobs, etc. The basic principles of the policy are that A) Diversity is valuable and important in and of itself and B) that not providing equal access to opportunity is the same thing as discrimination and racial favoritism (for the dominant group).

Ensuring equality of opportunity that I believe to be, along with defense, the most important role of the US Government is sorely lacking in our society in spite of the supposed gains we have made since the 1960s in terms of legal protections for minorities and women. When Chief Justice John Roberts decries the use of race for making any decisions, what he is failing to recognize is that race and income daily are used by others to make decisions and can be a major predictor of the liklihood of your success.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Democratic Development

I am now living in Seattle, Washington, one of the most democratic places (in terms of politics and its urban planning process) that exists, and a hallmark of why Democratic Development often fails.

As some of you may know, democratic development, the process by which the citizens decide upon the future path of their city or state, is something I have studied extensively. Lately, I have come to believe that, without some major changes, democratic development is in face one of the least fair and least efficient options available.

The lack of participation is the most serious problem. For the process to work, a large, approximately representative cross-section of the community would have to vote; however, this is not what usually happens. Perhaps 20%-30% of voters may turn out in a special election, and those that do are often either directly affected (say, to vote against a bridge being built beside their house) or are the activist voters. This body also is often not fully aware of the total costs of the project, which can lead them to choose a project on principle rather than based on whaty is feasible. They also fail to account for the opportunity cost of such actions, such as higher taxes or lower funding for other services.

The lack of participation overall obscures another serious issue, the bias against poor and minority citizens whose rates of participation in special elections are even lower. This bias can lead the government to institute plans that fail to provide the maximum utility overall, favoring instead the actual participants who, as I mentioned above, are a very select, specific group. Such failures to account for needs of all people across the board can lead to higher inequality and disenchantment with local government.

Another issue I have with the process of democratic development, most specifically referendums, is they are redundant. We elect leaders based on their platforms so that they can make decisions on projects in a way that accounts for the needs of each of their districts. Voting on a referendum wastes time and money since we already elect people to make the same decisions.

In cities like Seattle, the process of building or improving infrastructure, for example, can take years. Several years ago there was a vote on two options for a project and both were voted down. In the end, the project chosen was the most expensive, and was effectively decided upon by "voters" who actually were largely made up of those who benefitted the most from the most expensive option. Another example is the tendency for cities to favor rail projects (which benefit suburban, wealthier people) over inner-city or bus transportation projects (which favor the poor) when these options are presented to voters because, simply put, the rich vote more.

Unless participation is significantly expanded, democratic development will continue to poorly allocate scarce resources to projects. Expanded participation campaigns and voter education campaigns should both be undertaken in earnest in order to improve the process to the point where it is viable. In the absence of such participation, largely independent, scientific commissions charged with properly accounting for the advantages, disadvantages, and alternatives for projects would be preferable.

Political Third Rails

The problem of Political Third Rails is more severe now than ever before as we face a crisis of governance. Not only are we having to redesign our military, but the time has come to update and/or cut many social programs that have been the hallmark of our social system for decades. A few years ago, Social Security was called the political "third rail." This was somewhat true, but not as much as a reform of the healthcare system or the military is. Each policy or practice has a vast number of adherents who will defend it, a problem that has prevented us from improving social programs like welfare or being willing to cut military bases when they become no longer useful. At a time when the government is being called upon for a growing social role, I believe it is more important than ever to establish a strong regulatory and government oversight agency to prevent us from falling into the problem of third-rails. The new liberal agenda of better, expanded education, health care, and the like has great potential to solve a number of severe problems, ranging from our failing schools to our huge population of uninsured to the burden that healthcare places on our companies, but only if we are willing to constantly reevaluate, update, and expand or eliminate programs as necessary.

By the way, defense has also gotten a pass for too long. It needs to be reevaluated. Just as a point, if you give the military less money, they just might get rid of some obsolete weapons systems and waste less money.

Fragmented Christianity

It is time for to take a moment to discuss something that has been bothering me for some time with my Faith, Christianity-polarization. Who is surprised that I am once again talking about the exact same subject that is dominating my other posts right now? I am a bit hesitant to write this knowing that many people who might read this are not Christians, nor interested in what I have to say here, but regardless, our Faith plays a role in everyone's life because (politically) we are still more powerful.

Christianity in the United States has become as polarized as everything else. Where the Church may have once been a place of dialogue, it is not divided between Conservative "morality focused" Christians and liberal "society focused" ones. I have some news. The Bible is clear on the much of the morality stuff about no excesses, no sex before marriage, etc (I will NOT be touching marriage issues here, I believe that what the Bible bans most explicitly is fornication, and I do not believe that marriage is that sacred of an institution after having read enough history to know that it was used for political means more often than not and even if it is sacred in the Church, to become officially married one needs a legal document rather than a religious one making it an issue of separation of Church and State. I believe in the separation of Church and State AND State and Church). Anyway, to get back to my point, conservatives win the moral argument, I am not, not matter how much I want, supposed to have sex before marriage. The other side of this is what I AM supposed to do. The liberal side of Christianity is at least just as heavily stressed in the Bible. We are supposed to heal the sick, support the poor, love our neighbors as ourselves, not kill, etc. This translates into social programs, no death penalty, and a responsibility to fight against injustices. This is pretty liberal stuff that has been shunned by the Conservative wing of the church too focused on banning gays and attacking abortion. It was the conservative wing that has called Katrina a punishment by God against us (funny that God only seems to punish the poor, right?) for our evil ways. Let's get it straight. The relativistic moral behavior among liberal Christians is wrong, but so is the complete lack of regard for the well-being of others present among so many conservative denominations and groups. We have taken our disagreements and split our churches to the point where we are disappearing because we refuse to get along. The church I grew up in in Blanco, TX divided over same-sex marriage! How does this have ANYTHING to do with our responsibilities dictated to us by God? We destroy ourselves by splitting apart and have rendered impotent our attempts to address the myriad of social issues still present in society.

I, as many of you know, am inclined toward the more liberal branch of Christianity. I have, however, had to come to terms with the moralistic side. For that reason, I exhort fellow Christians to please recognize that our split into liberals and conservatives has weakened both of us to the point where we are not following our calling as people of Faith.

Media Fragmentation-Polarization at its Worst

I cut my previous post short because it is very general and I will need to go into depth on some of the central challenges of social fragmentation, social exclusion, and self-segregation. For the most serious problems of political polarization, I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the US media which IS biased toward the conservatives, liberals, populists, libertarians, atheists, christians, Palestinians, get the picture.

The manner in which we as a society hire commentators has, of late, come to interest me very much. We have moved from a society with a few major networks being responsible for delivering somewhat unbiased (or at least biased in favor of American opinions) news. We have moved because one characteristic of humans is that we like to have our views confirmed. Consequently, we demanded, and got, news sources that pander rather than inform. Let me lay it out in the most basic terms. Fox is unabashedly conservative, MSNBC unapologetically liberal, CNN absurdly populist, etc. On these programs we have hired people to analyze news and create viewpoints that fit with our prevailing attitudes. I say WE hired them because we basically demand something, the networks satisfy it. We have control.

Over time, the amount of work required to analyze news has increased leading us to demand news that is not only broken down into soundbytes, but is already provided in a neat package with plenty of analysis that fits our view of the world. This process worries me because it has polarized us to the point where it is difficult to get two people who listen to two different news sources to agree on what is TRUE in a story. This happens at a time when more places than ever are attempting to open wide all the dark places where truth has been hidden. When two people cannot agree on the FACTS of a case because they approach it having watched, let's say, Fox and CNN, they end up being unable to even discuss their differences of opinion. Polarization, lack of compromise, 1-party government or immobile government results.

The final question is this: does truth exist anymore? Have we truly degenerated into complete relativism? In future pieces, I hope to write about Twitter and other blogging sites and their role in spreading rumors (the radical views always seem to float to the top). What is imperative is that we can find a way to stop reading opinion and accepting it as our own. I am exhausted from talking with party-line Democrats and Republicans who believe what they do because some pamphlet or talking-head told them to rather than because analysis has shown them that the Democrats are clearly always right (joke). It is time for us to get the facts and recognize that Rush, O' Reilly, Olbermann, Hannity, Franken, and Dobbs are probably less reliable sources of opinion than Stephane Colbert.

We are Living in the Age of Globalization

After the first few posts, I figured it was about time to go into more detail about the Age of Globalization and what I believe can be identified as its characteristics. These are listed as follows:

Globalization has resulted in increased social fragmentation on a large scale, while simultaneously seeing increased cohesion among homogenous, small groups. This results from increasing interconnectedness among people who share characteristics ranging from similar beliefs to similar experiences of oppression. Globalization allows more expression of difference; however, this expression seems to largely have been used as a means for finding more like-minded people. From the fragmentation and regrouping around identities, religions, or ideals, a more polarized society has arisen. This is visible in the United States as in other places.

In my senior thesis "Ethnicity and Inequality in the Age of Globalization: Implications for Development," I basically worked out what I am attempting to summarize here. Rather than resulting in one huge homogenous mass of people, resistence identities (such as ethnic groups fighting for cultural rights) have become commonplace. The expanded networks of communication, trade, and migration have allowed groups unprecedented freedom of action. This invariably leads to more mobilization and (potentially) a destabilization of society. The real challenge here is twofold. First, the challenge of how to deal with social fragmentation and the lack of cohesion-I discussed this previously in my post on Technologies of Social Exclusion. In this case, it should be social policy to encourage diversity and consider a diversity an important aspect of education and modern social life. Second, the problem of social mobilization can cause instability. Realistically, the only way for a government to combat this is through the creation of meaningful, moderate paths of communication through which activists can express their views. Challenges to the status quo can be considered commonplace from now on, and it is important to adapt to the new diversity of opinions being expressed; this is especially true since ostensibly these opinions have always existed but had previously been overwhelmed by the dominant groups.

While the second of these two challenges remains the most critical in the short term, I believe that in the future it is the first that will pose the greatest challenge. Maintaining social cohesion, avoiding polarization, and promoting diversity should be considered extremely important goals of any and all policy makers.

Pay for Use: The Problems with Government Services and Taxes

Lately I have been bombarded by a constant stream of ideologically charged banter going on about how A) We pay too high of taxes and the government should give more tax cuts/the government is bad at providing services and B) The government should not cut the budget because it needs to provide valuable social services, yet it also should not increase taxes since that damages the economy. Neither of these arguments, though especially the former, makes very much sense.

The constant debate over the size of government and over wasteful spending, etc, has completely failed to get at the central issue of taxes versus spending that faces our country. Conservative arguments focusing on "wasteful government spending" have appeared to focus almost entirely on social programs and (even more so) earmarks which make up comparatively small portions of the US budget, dominated by defense (that includes "pork" as well such as the F-15 fighter which is obsolete). Also, some programs like social security are pay-as-you-go and are funded by a separate tax--I also fight the term "entitlement" that applies to these programs since we all pay into our social security account as basically an emergency retirement fund in case everything gets screwed up; can you believe what would have happened if the Republicans had been successful in privatizing social security a couple of years ago before this stock market crash? But I digress. The real crux of the issue is that we demand a wide array of government services and we fail to pay the actual cost for them, hence we have a massive budget deficit. In any other industry, prices would rise. Similarly, it is time for us to come to terms with our demands and recognize that we cannot have a government that serves all the areas we demand and still pay absurdly low taxes. Taxes need to be treated as any other household expense is--as payment for a good or service.

Opportunistic politicians have repeatedly capitalized on the deficit to call for cuts to spending when out of power and then just cut taxes (and not real spending) when in power. This started in earnest with Reagan who began to destroy a fair tax code and replace it with one that causes us to become dependent on China and debt. This is his real legacy. My point is this: taxes are important, they pay for roads, schools, defense, scientific research, international relations, trade agreements, public safety services, and yes, social services like health care. No person is going to be happy with all spending in a government, but it all contributes to providing us a stable and prosperous society where enterprise is even possible. Taxes are way too low for us to pay the costs that we ask our government to take on. We need to reevaluate how much we pay and recognize that we have to both temper our demand and accept high "prices" for government services.

This tax code should be based on a progressive tax system that fairly values each tax cohort's receipt of government services. In other words, the wealthiest pay the most. My argument for this is shown in the example of the negotiation of NAFTA, which had a deleterious effect on a large number of blue-collar workers while benefiting those who were able to take advantage of the opportunities for enterprise across the border, in other words, the wealthy. The wealthy benefit more from the negotiation of trade agreements, our government opening overseas markets, the use of public lands, etc, the list continues. Therefore they should pay more, plain and simple. At this point, many wealthy people pay lower effective tax rates thanks to the large proportion of income they receive from stocks, which are taxed at a lower capital gains rate. An argument that is commonly presented to me at this point is that people should be able to keep what they earn, THEIR hard earned money. I counter that nearly no person (besides him who faces real discrimination) is a self-made man. We all depend on our government and society to provide for us the opportunity, stability, security, patent law, educated workers, etc, to give us the chance to achieve prosperity. Beyond being just a payment for services rendered, taxes are a payment to the society in order to keep it functioning. Too often people have claimed to me that THEY worked hard, THEY made the money, and I reply that THEY DID NOT do it alone, despite what they say. God and Country gave them their chance, and while their success is in part a product of their own work, much of what the vast majority of prosperous people achieve is done because of the opportunities society provides to them.

To sum it all up, we have to recognize what taxes are, payment for services, and to recognize the extent to which we depend on society for success. This does not mean that we should enter into profligate spending-we should definitely constantly reevaluate government programs and nothing should ever be a "political third rail (I will write more on this subject later)"-but that we should recognize where we need government and pay for the value we receive.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Principle 1: Technologies of Social Exclusion

In a rapidly globalizing world, technologies of social exclusion are becoming not only a central part of the lives of average people, but a major challenge to planners and policy makers. Technologies of social exclusion refer to technology that allows individuals to customize to an extent never before imagined their social environment and, importantly, prevent unwanted people from entering it. A variety of technologies and services that many of us use on a regular basis, from iPods to specialized news websites, qualify as agents of social exclusion because they encourage several key human tendencies: the tendency to self-segregate, the desire to have personal views reciprocated, and the aversion to difference.

I am opposed to the widespread growth in technologies of social exclusion because society depends on a close web of interconnections and interrelationships to maintain cohesion. In diverse societies like ours in the US, this is even more important. For decades government and educational institution policy has been to encourage integration in order to increase contact among different groups; however, the little success that these efforts have seen is in danger of dissipating as people are increasingly in control over who they have in their lives.

As an example, I have often seen people put iPods on as soon as a bus or subway becomes crowded in order to discourage others from speaking with them. This not only makes it virtually impossible to interact with them in any meaningful way, but it also allows them to ignore all events around them. Another example comes with the fragmentation of the media market (to be discussed in a later post) which has seen people choose to subscribe to websites and television stations that express their views. I believe that this has contributed fundamentally to the polarization of our society.

In the world of planning and policy-making, technologies of social exclusion have contributed to the growing difficulty in enlisting public interest and participation on community development policy decisions. Basically, it is hard to get someone to participate in this life if they are too busy in their "2nd" one. Technology has made people attempt to become virtually self-sufficient within their tightly regulated and carefully defined social circles, which reduces their interest in the world of policy, even though that world is still vastly more important. As I plan to enter planning, and I am interested in community development and democratic development, I am concerned as to how I will enlist a community that is increasingly disinterested in finding workable solutions to important policy decisions. This occurs even though these same technologies give people more power than ever before to effectively participate!

While at this time I do not know of any reasonable policy way to reduce the problems arising from self-segregation and technologies of social exclusion, I do believe that we should all seriously consider the impact of our using iPods to cut out the world around us, the cost of our spending hours in virtual worlds, and our tendency to search for news that confirms our views. We must work to participate actively in our community and society since we depend heavily on its cohesion for our prosperity (to be discussed further later as well).