Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 144 – TRPA and the Tragedy of the Commons

John Singlaub has resigned as Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) after five years in that position. In his letter of resignation to Chairman Allen Biaggi, he included that the position is "relentlessly grinding on the individual who sits at the helm of TRPA, both mentally and physically." That statement, made in the face of John's also saying that this was his "'dream job,' and working with the …TRPA staff…has been rewarding," got me wondering – why should that be so?

While I doubt I'd get unanimous agreement for this, I contend that John has done a good, maybe excellent job at TRPA. To compare him to his predecessors, particularly his immediate predecessor, would be to damn him with faint praise, but in the early days of his tenure the change was remarkable. John took the contentious agency in the direction of transparency, responsiveness, customer service, and efficiency to a level that was beyond anything in its history. Sure there were mistakes (remember the guard rails on Route 267) and things didn't move as quickly or decisively as we might have liked in some instances (see "shorezone"), but in general the improvement over the past five years has been significant.

So this guy has arguably been effective in dealing with some really difficult constituencies – the Governing Board, two state governments, two county governments, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Club, boaters, hikers, anglers, IVGID, PUDs, the list goes on and on, and would be incomplete without mentioning the TRPA staff who, under John's leadership, went from being known as internally focused bureaucrats to being customer-centric and responsive. And now, after honorably fulfilling his commitment to serve for five years, is ground down and sees resigning as the only way to take care of himself. Why?

In almost 14 years living at the Lake, I've watched as public officials, both elected and appointed, as well as those who aspired to public service have been subjected to attacks, abuse, political undermining, and relentless criticism, all in the name of passionate commitment. Don't get me wrong, I am all for scrutiny and even criticism of public officials, but as I've said many times I think that criticism needs to be informed, rational, and above all not personal. In dealing with those many constituencies of TRPA (and the above list is only partial), no one could have pleased everyone.

At its essence, a job like John's has to be about making decisions for the common good. In 1968, Garrett Hardin published an essay in the journal Science called "The Tragedy of the Commons. This article has had an enormous influence in a variety of areas of science that study human cooperation. The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals acting independently and in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen. Hardin used a metaphor of residents of a village grazing their cattle a shared piece of land (the commons). While it is in each residents interest to graze as many cattle as possible on the land, if they do so, the commons will be destroyed. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and everyone suffers.

True story: a boater who come to the Lake did everything he could to avoid having his craft inspected for invasive species, apparently for no other reason than that he didn't like the idea of anyone telling him what they can and can't do. Faced with that kind of attitude, anyone in John's position (or Bill Horn's, or Katy Simon's or Ted Fuller's…) had better be ready to have his actions scrutinized, criticized, and even attacked. That's fair game and comes with the territory.

But I contend that it's not the scrutiny, not the criticism, not even the attacks on decisions that wears people in these jobs down. Certainly it's not people's passionate commitment to the environment. Rather I think it's two things: first it's the ad hominem nature of the attacks –what is attacked is the person, not the decision – and second I think it's the obstreperous nature of the criticism – too often the criticism is like the guy with the boat – it's about how I want it done, about my ox that's being gored, and to hell with the common good.

And that's what grinds our public servants down.

Sidebar for MLK Day

When I was about 10 years old I traveled to Florida with my mother to visit relatives and encountered the realities of racism and segregation for the first time. This was the mid-fifties, when schools and buses were segregated, there were white-only drinking fountains, and even "separate but equal" was an idea whose time had not yet come. It's not an overstatement to say I was shaken by the experience. I came home and wrote an essay on it for school, and the memory of those things was a large part of what I took away from the trip.

When I went to college, the Civil Rights movement was just starting in the South and on campuses – this was the era of sit-ins, church bombings, police in schoolhouse doors, fire hoses and dogs, and Freedom Riders, and of a young, electrifying preacher from Atlanta called Martin Luther King, Jr. The year I graduated, 1964, two things happened: a fellow Cornellian, Mickey Schwerner, was killed along with Andrew Cheney and James Goodman in Mississippi and Dr. King called for a march on Washington and a rally at the Lincoln Memorial. I was working in a hotel in the Catskills at the time, and was desperate to go to on the march, but could not. I watched and listened as Dr. King spoke of his dream – of an America where people would be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, Dr. King's dream will become a reality. Whatever your race, whether your people came over on the Mayflower, in the hold of a slaver, across the Rio Grande, or through Ellis Island, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, whether you think Barack Obama is the answer to a prayer or the second best of two candidates, Tuesday, January 20, 2009, is a day when everyone in America can be proud, a day that history will mark as an inflection point – a point after which nothing will ever be the same – we've had a few of those – July 4, 1776, January 1, 1863, October 29, 1929, December 7, 1941, September 11, 2001, to name a few – and 1/20/09 is one we can be proud to add to that list. Dr. King's dream is fulfilled.

Column 143 – The ROI of Failure

I don't know about you, but for me the month of January always has a wistful quality to it. The holidays are over, New Years Eve has been its usual anti-climax – an arbitrary ending that doesn't change anything but the calendar, the college football season has come to a close without resolving the earth-shaking question of "who's number 1?," and somehow we always seem to spend January waiting to see if this winter we'll have enough snow for a good ski season.

I spent part of last week working at the New York Stock Exchange with a group of managers in a specialized function there. I stayed at a hotel opposite the site of the World Trade Center with my room overlooking what is still basically a hole in the ground, and I'm sure that contributed to my sense of melancholy, but so did my experience of being in the heart of Wall Street. I was in New York not long after September 11, 2001, and the feel of the place was much the same – a bit slower than I'm used to in New York, a bit more subdued, a subtle sense of everyone being in the same (sinking) boat together.

One of the things I worked with my clients at the NYSE about was the issue of failure. As you might expect (and hope), these people, who are responsible for oversight of the processes by which investments move in the markets, are very careful and have a healthy respect for the consequences of mistakes they might make or goal they might fail to achieve. They are also conscious of the fact that too much caution can be as dangerous as too much risk, so they were very interested in how to walk that particular tightrope. We spent a good part of the two days looking at what was to them a novel concept – that judicious failure can be a good thing.

An excess of caution, the attempt to avoid any risk at all, makes for a sterile, unimaginative life that few of us could tolerate. On the other hand skating on thin ice, playing on the skinny branches, is too stressful for most, so what's the middle ground? In that middle ground, some failure is inevitable – if we live even a little ways beyond absolute safety, we will, from time to time fail. The movers and shakers of the economy have been living way out on the skinny branches for some time, and through our naïve trust and greed in varying degrees, we followed them out there, so when they failed, we failed as well, so the question isn't a theoretical one. For me, and I believe for all of us, the value of the difficulties and privations of this down economy worthwhile will lie in finding something that gives a return on the investment of our money, hopes, dreams, and egos in what is one of the most colossal failures since the Great Depression.

A friend of mine, years ago, lost his business and most of his net worth when a trusted associate embezzled most of the value of his business. He was understandably upset and chagrined and spent a lot of time on the traditional questions – "why me?", "how could they do this to me?", "how could I have been so blind?" you know the lot. Finally a close friend took him to task and said "if you lost $3.8 million in this failure, for whatever reason, you'd better get more than $3,8 million in learning out the experience, or it was a total waste."

What returns the investment in a failure is getting a lot smarter as a result of it. Learning enough to make the next venture (and the next failure) better and more valuable than the last one. According to Winston Churchill, "success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm, but that is only true if we learn from each failure; if we don't, then we go through the same failure over and over again, and enthusiasm is hard to maintain in the face of that.

So as I listen to economists, business leaders, and government officials talk about how to deal with the economic crisis, and particularly as I listen to those who will take the helm of the ship of state next Tuesday, what I'm listening for is learning – are they focused on learning, have they learned, and are they applying what they have learned, so that the next time we fail it's because of different mistakes and we fail at a much higher level. I hope so.

Column 142 – Incline’s Historical Exhibit

Americans have been accused, rightly or wrongly, of lacking a sense of history. I don't know if this is true or not – I grew up in the "leatherstocking country" of upstate New York, surrounded by the history of the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, in a town that had preserved a "stop" on the underground railway of the Civil War era, so it never seemed so to me, nor did I have that sense when I lived in the Boston area, but the Northeast is a hotbed of historical sites.

When I moved to California, I still found history around me – the missions, the gold rush, the San Francisco earthquake were all part of what I learned about as a new "left coaster." Still, I guess a case can be made that we don't carry the reverence for history that I've seen in Rome or Athens or Paris or London.

In Nevada, and particularly here in Incline Village\Crystal Bay we have a much shorter history (if you don't count the first nations who were here long before Europeans came). We have the Donner Party story nearby, and we have Squaw Valley and the Olympics, but the real history of IV\CB starts with logging in the 19th Century, and really kicks off with the formation of the Crystal Bay Development Company in the 1960's and the sale by the CBDC of the development to Boise Cascade in 1968, a scant 40 years ago – yesterday by European standards. That 40 years of history isn't much, but it's ours, and a diminishing number of residents have been here for all of it. Some of those pioneers and other present and former residents have been trying for some years to preserve and document that history.

Around 2007 a community project was formed to do just that and to find a permanent location for an exhibit of the history of Incline Village and Crystal Bay. A lot of people have worked on that project including Chuck Greene (son of Bonanza's Lorne Greene), Joe Bourdeau, Andria Daley, Michelle Schmitter and long-time residents Manny Sylvester and Georgia McGregor. In 2008 a site was secured in the upper part of the Village Center, adjacent to McGregor's Century 21 Real Estate offices (full disclosure: my wife, Emy, is a real estate agent in Georgia's office), and in August, 2008 the exhibit opened. Appropriately enough, the space where the exhibit is located is the original office of the Crystal Bay Development Company and later the Boise Cascade developers. In fact, one part of the exhibit, behind a Plexiglas barrier, was the vault in that office. The exhibits include photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, the original dinner table from the Bonanza TV series, and a wonderful model train-type recreation of the original Incline flume and logging operation.

Now, given the vagaries of Incline real estate and particularly office rentals, we are in danger of losing this wonderful and unique exhibit. Unless something happens, and soon, the exhibit will lose its space and, right now, there is nowhere for it to go. I don't know what the plans are for the space, or even if there are any, but I do know that unless help comes from somewhere it will no longer be available for the exhibit, and the exhibit will need to find other space or be mothballed. I don't know about you, but I believe that would be a real loss to the community. It costs us nothing, it is educational, and it preserves our community's history. I don't know what you can do to help, but I'll bet you do. Art Hoff, the owner of the Village Center is a business man – I don't fault him for making a business decision, whatever its basis. I do hope that it might be possible to work out an arrangement to have the exhibit stay in this perfect space – donations toward rent would surely help. Failing that, maybe you know a space that could be used for it or you can help in some other way.

I may regret saying this, but I really don't think there are two sides to this one – there is only the good that will come from keeping and developing the historical exhibit and the loss that will come from its demise. See if you can help.

Column 141 – The “Good Name” of Red, White, and Tahoe Blue

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls:

Who steals my purse, steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;

'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed.

Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Scene iii


If you have not been involved in a public way in community activities here in Incline Village/Crystal Bay, you may not know this, but it is a sure way to have "the immediate jewel of your soul" called into question, if not downright stolen. In my thirteen-plus years in our community I have been something of an activist – I've been involved in Independent Incline, the erstwhile Incline Ice Foundation, Citizens Advocating Responsible Driving (CARD), the Santa Claus Foundation, Adventure Risk Challenge (ARC), and We the People, as well as running for the IVGID Board. I give you that long list all that so that you know that what I'm talking about isn't confined to one issue or area.


In almost all of these endeavors I, and others involved, have been subject to personal attacks on our motives, our characters, and our integrity. In no case that I can remember have any of these attacks been based on facts, and in most cases they have been vague and unspecific. Those of us who have been working on Independent Incline, for example, were accused (anonymously) of being a "special interest" group. When I called an elected official to account for what seemed to me to be ethics violations (the State Ethics Board found insufficient grounds, but the complaint had enough basis for them to consider it) I was accused of being a "sore loser" in the election, though I had nothing to gain in that (or any) regard by filing the complaint.


Now Red, White, and Tahoe Blue, an organization of people who have raised thousands of dollars for local charities and provided matchless entertainment for the Independence Day holiday for the past two years, and its Chair, Bill Horn, have come in for our share of the attacks. (Full disclosure: I am a founding member of the RWTB Board and its Secretary and Entertainment Co-Chair).


If you've ever been around children, you know that, to a four-year old with a hammer there is nothing that doesn't look like it needs pounding. Similarly, to the small group of Crystal Bay residents who are intent on gaining beach access, there is no community activity that doesn't look like an attempt to exclude them. As near as I've been able to tell, this group consists of maybe as few as three individuals who delight in posturing and pronouncing, ostensibly on behalf of the 400 or so residents of Crystal Bay, though I know quite a few who disclaim their efforts. Nonetheless, these individuals seem to be determined, if they can't get beach access, to destroy the value of this asset for those who do have it. They claim it's a civil rights issue, but judging by their actions, I'm very glad they weren't involved in the Civil Rights Movement or instead of desegregation and equal rights, we'd all be being discriminated against equally.


Whether you like Bill Horn or not, whether you think he's a good IVGID General Manager or not, whether you agree with his judgment or not, if you know the man at all you know that his integrity and ethics are second to no one. Bill has volunteered his time to the Parasol Foundation CARD, RWTB, and other organizations in the community over and above his job at IVGID and is scrupulous about not doing volunteer activities on IVGID's nickel unless the Board directs him to. To question his chairmanship of RWTB is an egregious slur on a good man.


Similarly, the Board of RWTB are all volunteers who gain nothing but satisfaction and an opportunity to serve our community from their participation. Last year Board members, at their own expense and initiative, provided beach passes for RWTB events so that no one was excluded or, as our CB friends would have it, "discriminated against." RWTB is struggling this year as are all our local non-profits. Donations are slow and scarce, and the Board is striving to provide a celebration, even if it is not up to the level of the past two years. To call Bill and the Board discriminatory or anything but generous and community-minded is outrageous and apologies are owed, though not likely to be given.


And don't bother writing in to call this column self-serving because I'm on the RWTB Board. I'm among the smallest contributors of my time and energy and am writing because I stand in awe of what Bill Horn, Tom Bruno, Tom Masterson, Greg McKay, Kathie Maxwell, Terrie Drago, Bea Epstein, Gerry Eick, Allen Ferris, Jim Smith, and Stu Yount do for this community.

Column 140 – Constitution

Two of the most fundamental pillars of our system of government seem to be falling into disuse or, worse, misuse. These are the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and the principle of separation of powers and its sister principle, checks and balances – the distribution and balancing of power among the branches of the government so that no one branch is able to dominate the others.

The First Amendment to the Constitution leads with a seemingly simple but remarkably pregnant statement: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In 1791, when the First Amendment was adopted, this was a remarkable thing to say. No country in the Western world at that time (and relatively few today) was without an established religion (sometimes called State Religion). Even today only 34 countries officially decline to establish any religion, and the US is one of them. This means that US citizens are free to practice any religion they choose or to practice no religion if they so choose, and it means that no one can impose their religious beliefs through law on anyone else and that a person's religious choice cannot be used as a qualifier for public office. This principle has evolved into the much-misunderstood "separation of church and state," but the principle is still there and still important.

In setting up government, the Founders sought to ensure that the will of the people was represented in the Legislative Branch, the execution of that will in the Executive Branch, and the primacy of the Constitution in the Judicial Branch. The functioning of each of these branches was designed to limit the others with the result that the principles in the Constitution could only be changed by the intentionally difficult process of amendment. The Founders' thinking was that, on the one hand, the Constitution was the armature on which the country would be built, and on the other hand, it was not perfect and would need to be changed with the times, though not lightly or frivolously. This system has worked pretty well for over 200 years.

When the Constitution was written, slavery was legal and widely accepted; when slavery was no longer accepted, the Constitution was amended to reflect that change in the public will and consciousness. Similarly for voting rights, taxation, and other issues. Where the public will proved to be misguided (i.e. prohibition), the process of amendment set it right. Works pretty well, don't you think?

Notwithstanding that, we are seeing some serious attempts to subvert these two Constitutional fundamentals. The so-called Religious Right believes that its moral values should stand above the Constitution and that these values, though manifestly religious in nature, should be the law of the land, First Amendment be damned. They would impose their values on all of us, most recently their values around the institution of marriage. Marriage is a funny thing in a country without an established church. Fundamentally it's a civil contract between two people. Period. In a country that, besides having no established church also has the free expression of religion, marriage may also be a religious sacrament. In this country, for the sake of convenience, the civil power has been delegated, though not exclusively, to clergy so that people don't have to have two ceremonies. The ultimate power, though, resides with the civil authority, as witness Nevada's requiring a State license for anyone, including clergy to perform marriages. Civilly, there is no basis for saying that the contract must be between persons of opposite gender any more than, a hundred years ago, there was a basis for saying the persons must be of the same race.

The Religious Right have a Constitutionally guaranteed right to their beliefs; they even have the Constitutionally guaranteed right to refuse the sacrament of marriage to anyone they choose for any reason they choose. They do not have the right to impose their values on the Constitution, and yet they try – as they are trying with abortion, stem cell research, and as they will try with other things. They can try – the Constitution guarantees them that right also – but they can't do it, and whatever your religious or moral beliefs about these issues are, you can't afford to let them.

The latest attack is on the California Supreme Court's likely review of Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban. The election results (Legislative Branch) are being invoked as holy writ – the "will of the people," with the argument that the Supremes can't overturn the ban because of the vote. Actually, they can. In fact, if they find the ban unconstitutional (and it is, in my view) they must. That's what checks and balances are all about. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. You may not agree with that supremacy – in countries with an established church, God's law, as interpreted by that particular church, is the supreme law – but in this country, until and unless we change the whole nature of the United States of America, it is, and I'm free to say thank God for that.

Column 139 – Decency

Because of deadlines and all that semi-cool newspaper stuff, I'm writing this before the election, but it will come out the day after. I've made no secret of where I stand on the Presidential race, and hope that I'm happy reading this Wednesday morning. In any case, as I've said all along, I'll only relax about this one after the Electoral College results have been ratified.

But whoever wins the Presidency, I find that, at the end of the election season, I'm dismayed and discouraged by the direction I've seen in campaigns at every level down to the local. American politics has always had a strain of the personal – character attacks, whether warranted or not, have been a part of every campaign save, maybe, Washington's. Still, they have been a relatively minor part and usually have been a sign of desperation on the part of a losing effort. Similarly race, religion, and gender have been used as issues, but were not accepted as really right to use – JFK was able to neutralize the issue of his religion with, essentially, one speech.

Since the 1950's, though, rumor, slander, and innuendo have increasingly become the norm rather than the exception, and truth, integrity, and decency have been casualties. In 1952 Richard Nixon ran a red-scare smear campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas in a California race for US Senate and won, earning in the process the sobriquet "tricky Dick." In the 1960's General Motors tried to discredit Ralph Nader and was forced to apologize to him.

More recently, the "swift-boating" of John Kerry in 2004 tried to discredit Kerry's military service and even Max Cleland, who lost his legs in the Vietnam War was the victim of a smear campaign. To the candidates' credit, the level of ad hominem attacks in the current campaign was much less than in 2004, but smears were still present including the notorious "Obama is a Muslim" internet campaign and the "pals around with terrorists" gem as well.

More ominously, religious belief has returned as a vehicle for smearing candidates in a way that we never imagined in 1960. The rise of fundamentalists as the Republican Party's putative base has made a candidate's religious beliefs and practices part of the campaign, and has attempted to bring intensely personal and sometimes painful decisions into the public domain. People who oppose government involvement in almost any other area seem to want the government to decide who can marry whom and what women should do when they are pregnant.

Finally, on the local level, we have seen races that are, by law, non-partisan argued on a partisan basis and terms like "liberal" and "conservative" used as insults rather than descriptions. When I ran for IVGID Board of Trustees two years ago, the experience was so unpleasant in so many ways that I decided I would never run for office again. When Independent Incline, a group that has been trying to find a way to empower our community for many years now, finally found a way to take a step in that direction and got it on the ballot, we were attacked as "special interests," though no one has said what those interests might be or given even flimsy evidence to back up the accusation. While Independent Incline was open about our membership and public support, we were attacked in a full-page, anonymous ad just before the election, an ad that cited lies, half-truths, and things said in jest as evidence of our supposed hidden agenda.

I don't know what to do about this – once the Pandora's box of slime and slander has been opened, I doubt it's possible to close it, but maybe, just maybe, our children and grandchildren will be sickened enough by it to bring decency back into politics. As I said, I don't know as of this writing who was elected to office or the outcome of the various ballot questions, so if my side lost, don't hear this as sour grapes – I will feel exactly the same way if we win. In the words of the convict-philosopher Rodney King, can't we all just get along?

Column 138 – Town (again)

The late Tip O'Neill famously said that "all politics is local." Here in Incline Village/Crystal Bay we could broaden that to "all politics is personal."

The campaign to change IV/CB from a GID to a Town seemed innocuous enough when we started. The Independent Incline group has studied the issue of how to gain a greater degree of local control and how to retain more of our county tax dollars for years – I've lived here 13 years and been part of it that long, and it was already going on when I got here. Some really smart people have put in hours of study and analysis and it's generally agreed (by those folks at least) that (a) becoming a county is the only real way to gain autonomy and (b) becoming a county is not politically feasible. We studied the option of incorporating as a city and found that it was not economically feasible, and so settled on the town possibility as a decent compromise. Not ideal, but better than what we have. The argument is simple – a GID is a limited form of government and IVGID has for years been straining at those limits. A Town is a general purpose government – it can do everything a GID can do, can choose to do more, e.g. planning, but is not required to do more the way a City is. Seems like an improvement to me.

This being IV/CB we knew there would be opposition – there are people here who will oppose any change at all – what we didn't foresee was the degree to which that opposition would have little or nothing to do with the facts of the situation or what was good for the town. Rather, there has been a strain of opposition that has attempted to use the town question to further their own political and personal agendas. To wit:

The conversion to a Town, according to a variety of legal opinions, is very unlikely to affect the beach access issue one way or the other, but those for whom that issue is a hot button have jumped all over it as a platform from which to mount arguments that, while they are relevant to the beach issue, have nothing to do with the Town issue.

From the beginning those of us behind the town effort have made it clear – in those areas that are working well, mentioning specifically the Sheriff's Department, the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, and the County Highway Department, we had no intention or desire to bring these under the town, and the final formation of the town was contingent on changing the wording of the 1881 town statute to ensure that we did not have to do this. Nonetheless the town issue became a (phony) issue in a turf war between the Fire Board and IVGID.

One of the advantages we see to local control of planning, nuisance abatement, etc., is the ability to affect how our community looks. The Orbit station has been considered an eyesore completely independent of the town effort, but when we used pictures of less-than-attractive commercial buildings and lots in a presentation, the owner of one of those establishments took umbrage and has used an organization that was formed and funded for a completely different public purpose to attack us. Why? Because here in IV/CB politics isn't just local, it's personal.

You should have received your sample ballot this week. Take a look on page 40 (English) or 87 (Spanish): This question is advisory only – Esta pregunta es únicamente consultiva. What it will allow us to do is get the law changed, get all the ducks in a row, and, if it all works as we expect it to, then convert to a town on June 30, 2009. How about it – care to give it a chance? By the way, there is not likely to be a second chance. Term limits will leave us without the legislators who are supporting the changes we need, county reimbursement will almost certainly go down with budget cuts, etc. For those concerned about the current law making the Fire District vulnerable to takeover, if the advisory is voted down, there is no reason for the legislature to take up changing that law. It's now or never.

Column 137 – Economy

Something went unnoticed this week as Congress wrangled over what was ineptly termed the "bailout." That is that on the last day of September, the national debt hit $10 trillion plus. President Bush signed legislation in July that raised the debt ceiling to $10.615 trillion. Meanwhile, the financial bailout legislation passed by the Senate last night would raise the debt ceiling further to $11.315 trillion. The gross national debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product has, under the Bush Administration, hit a 50-year high.

There has been an enormous amount of [barnyard epithet] circulated to push this bailout. Yes, banks have tightened credit. Yes, we are in a recession. But the problem is not that the banking system has frozen up. The problem is the collapse of the $8 trillion "housing bubble" (really a "dubious credit bubble"), about which many so-called experts continue to be in denial. The decline in housing prices to date has already cost the economy $4 trillion to $5 trillion in housing equity. Homeowners have been consuming based on their home equity, much of which has now disappeared. Given that, we would expect that consumption would fall and that banks would be reluctant to lend to people who no longer have as much collateral. It has been estimated that we will see a decline in annual consumption on the order of $160 billion to $300 billion.

That is the long and short of the downturn, and the bailout does almost nothing to counter this drop in demand. At best, it will make capital available to some marginal borrowers who would not otherwise receive loans. We should demand more for $700 billion.

The last downturn of these proportions was, of course, the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt was president – the scion of a wealthy family, he was considered a traitor to his class by the big money (read Republican) interests of his time, but he stood up to the opposition of big business and, in the New Deal, created a remarkable and rapid turnaround of the economy. Central to the recovery was the Reconstruction Finance Administration (RFA). FDR took this failing Hoover-era agency and increased its funding, streamlined the bureaucracy, and used it to help restore business prosperity, especially in banking and railroads, and provided for work relief, which Roosevelt used to pump money into the states by extending loans to businesses and local government projects.

An RFA-type solution including the government refinancing mortgages directly would do more to turn the economy around than the $700 billion band-aid the Congress applied last week. I can hear my conservative Republican friends (and foes) crying "socialism" at this idea. Well, how is the government taking over banks, bailing out insurance companies with loans, and generally intervening in the economy any less "socialistic?"

I think it's time we put the "socialism" bogeyman to rest once and for all. I would propose that the current economic crash is the other shoe dropping for extreme economic theories – in 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union was gleefully celebrated by the advocates of Free Market Capitalism – hurray! Communism doesn't work! And they were right – as an extreme system that distorted socialism into an oppressive political system it fell under the weight of its unworkability. It took another seventeen years for Free Market Capitalism, which distorted capitalism into an dictatorship of the wealthy to fall, but fall it has. We now know that, in economics as in so many other areas of life extremes fail, and Free Market Capitalism is an extreme.

Communism is based on myths, chiefly that the "proletariat" will rule wisely and fairly; Free Market Capitalism is based on myths of its own, chiefly that the market will cause wealth to "trickle down" from those at the top to those at the bottom. Try watering your lawn by applying water only to the blades of grass and see how well this works. Just as grass takes in water by its roots and the water "trickles up" to feed the blades, an economy must take care of those who are producing its wealth and the wealth will then trickle up. Neither Socialism nor Capitalism, which were products of the Industrial Age, will do this –in today's world we need an economic system that combines the best of both, with a government that regulates the economy so that wealth is created and basic human needs are guaranteed to all. This bailout is more of the same and will not work.

Column 136 –Town (3)

I attended the Bonanza Election Forum the other night to hear the candidates for the Fire Board and the County Commission. We have really done a Keystone Kops job of getting the information out in a way that is understandable and relevant., and I was struck by how uninformed and misinformed all the candidates were about the town issue.; I have to lay the responsibility for that lack of correct information at the feet of the members of the Independent Incline Committee, of which I am one. and we are committed to correcting that situation between now and November 4th.


I think Jim Clark has done a yeoman's job in his columns of trying to put his finger in the dike against the flood of misinformation, but it hasn't been enough. One good thing is that we now have a much better read on what people are concerned/worried about than we had two months ago, so keep those cards and letters coming. Over the next month and a half we will run four major advertising pieces on the front of that annoying wrap-around section of the Bonanza. In each of these we will try to be as clear, accurate, and informative as possible – we continue to believe that, when the facts are known, you will support this effort, so we are concentrating mostly on information rather than advocacy. We're also going to continue to speak at local clubs and anywhere we can, and there will be another Bonanza Election Forum on the town question on October 14. This will be a pro-con debate with questions moderated to be sure that the discussion stays on point, so we hope to have ample opportunity to get the accurate word out and hope that you will keep an open mind until you hear all the facts.


I do want to use this column to clear up a couple of the most popular misconceptions up front. Here they are in brief, and we'll address them more fully as we go:


A Town Will Add Another Layer of Government to the Village. To the contrary – the government of the Town will be exactly the same as the government of the GID – in fact the first five-member Town Board that is seated on July 1, 2009 will be the same people who were on the last IVGID Board on June 30. What the town does is move more of the governmental functions that already exist closer to the people who are affected by them.


I Don't Care What They Say, I'm Sure This Will Add More Taxes. Well, it will or it won't. The Town Board will have the exact same taxing authority as the IVGID Board, and will pass more taxes or not – in other words, our taxes will be determined by our elected officials exactly as they are now. We can't promise no new taxes if we go to the Town, and our opponents can't promise no new taxes if we don't.


It's Not Really Revenue-Neutral. You've got us on that one – we miscommunicated by focusing on only one part of the story. Here is an accurate picture: Washoe County has agreed to transfer annually to the Town of Incline Village an Animal Control position ($116,037), a Community Development position ($122,617), and 75% of local gaming license revenues ($128,000) per Nevada Law (NRS463.323) for a total of $366,654 coming to the Town.


IVGID does not currently have those positions, but if we use salary figures supplied by the American Planning Association and the Humane Society, the Town could pay wages and benefits (based on IVGID's benefit percentage, not the County's) to a Senior Planner at $91,000 and to an Animal Control Officer at $54,000. Add in an additional Administrative Assistant ($54,000) and additional office space, supplies, and equipment ($42,500) and the total cost to the Town would be $241,500, or a surplus of $125,154. Even allowing for possible underestimates, that beats revenue neutral. This should more than cover turnover expenses to the GID and to the Town for staff work, new stationery, etc. Not exactly revenue neutral, but close - the actual expenditure will be about 1% of IVGID/the Town's annual revenue.


What About the Sheriff and the Fire District? Absolutely, unequivocally no change – none has ever been contemplated, and an MOU with the Fire District to this effect is in the works. This, for us, is a clear case of "it ain't broke, and so it doesn't need fixing." Same for the highways.


Since We Need Action From The Legislature, We Should Wait. We do need some legislative changes, and are assured we'll get them in this session. In fact, some key people in the Legislature will term out if we don't do it this time. But the fact is, if we don't get what we need passed, the IVGID Board can simply not pull the trigger on the Town even if everything else up to that point is positive.


More to come. Feel free to contact Jim or me or others on the committee if you have questions.

Column 135 - Election

The first US President I remember is Harry Truman – I was five years old when Truman beat Dewey in that famous election, and remember being thrilled that, like my father, the new president had been a haberdasher.


The first presidential election I remember clearly was Eisenhower's in 1952. I kind of liked Adlai Stevenson – he seemed intelligent and relatively genial, but in those years so soon after World War II, we all "liked Ike." He had won the war, he seemed friendly, and anyhow, who could be against a war hero in those more innocent days?


By the time Eisenhower left office I was of voting age and could understand more about politics. Ike warned against the dangers of the "military-industrial complex," but in those pre-Halliburton times that warning seemed as abstract and hard to figure out as Washington's warning against foreign entanglements. More importantly, there was the rising figure of a young Senator from Massachusetts – himself a war hero, with a beautiful, elegant wife, a fetching family, and a boatload of charisma. Coming out of the relatively nondescript Eisenhower '50's, he looked exciting and new – the youngest President ever, and me and my friends voting for the first time. What could be better?


Fast forward 48 years to the present. Somehow Washington's and Eisenhower's valedictory warnings seem more real now. We're not only entangled foreignly, we're enmired in a world in which the US has lost respect, lost leadership, and lost ourselves.


From the steely resolve of Truman, the solid leadership of Eisenhower, the charisma and willingness to stare Khurschev down of Kennedy we descended into the implacability of Johnson, the sleaziness of Nixon, the fecklessness of Ford, Carter, and Reagan. We had a semi-respite with the senior Bush who at least knew moderation and some good economic days under Clinton. All that was undone by eight years of what, I am convinced, will go down in history as the most disastrous Presidency in the first 230 years of the United States.


During the Kennedy and Johnson years, as an undergraduate and graduate student and then into the Nixon years as a young professional, I was active in a number of social causes, chief among these being the Civil Rights Movement of the '60's and '70's. I watched as the country changed from the overt racism I had seen as a child to more covert forms of discrimination and then to genuine opportunity. I watched as Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a very junior African-American Representative, put the nail in Nixon's coffin in an early morning speech that is still revered as one of the great moments in Congress. I had friends beaten and killed in the South and marched in the North, but for all the progress we've seen, really never expected to see a Black man run against a woman for the presidential nomination of a major party.


In my view we have a very clear choice in November. We can elect one more version of what the Republicans have been offering us since 1960 – a steady descent into government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations, a steady eroding (save, perhaps the Reagan years) of America's standing in the world, wars that are dictated by politics rather than by necessity, and most of all hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of a party that claims that government has no place in people's lives and then wants to regulate women's reproductive choices and who people can and can't marry, the hypocrisy of a party that promotes democracy, even as it refuses to set a timeline to leave a country whose democratically elected government has asked us to do so, the hypocrisy of a party that espouses freedom from our "addiction to oil" while insisting what will cure that addiction is more oil.


The nomination of Sarah Palin was a cynical insult to the intelligence of American women and the American electorate. We can expect Rovian attacks on Obama and Biden in that same spirit of cynicism and condescension to the electorate. I believe the average American voter is intelligent enough to look behind the curtain of a "great and powerful" candidate whose idea of intelligent debate is "noun, verb, prisoner of war" and see that who is back there is someone who may be a good man, but who is a very, very, bad wizard. It's going to take more than three clicks of the ruby slippers to get us back home from this one. It's going to take a candidate of real, substantive, change. Thank heavens we have one.

Column 134 – Veterans

I am an avid Olympics watcher – from the opening ceremonies to the closing, I watch everything I can – absent anything else, on Saturday I watched synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. What attracts me to the quadrennial games is not the champions – I love watching them, for sure, but what really inspires me is the 97 or 98% of the athletes who show up knowing that their Olympics will be over in one heat or two at most, for whom medals are not more than a dream, and who come for the pride of representing their country and their love of their sport.


In that they remind me of soldiers, sailors, and marines – I suppose some choose to serve in hopes of heroism or a distinguished military career, but most of those in our armed forces serve for love of country, esprit de corps, or a sense of duty, of giving back. Few will be or want to be heroes or generals. Most want to serve and to survive, not necessarily in that order.


I'm struck by another similarity between athletics and the military, and that's how they are treated after their service is over. Jim Thorpe, the Sauk Indian who was considered one of the most versatile athletes in modern sports, he won Olympic gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, played college and pro football and professional baseball and basketball. He was stripped of his medals (later restored) on trumped-up charges of professionalism, and died a penniless alcoholic.


Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian who was a decorated Marine and one of the flag-raisers on Iwo Jima. After being feted (much to his discomfort) as a hero, he was left to fend for himself and died, like Thorpe, penniless and alcoholic.


We seem to treat some of our heroes well; others, we cast aside. This is the more tragic when the heroes have gone to war on our behalf.


Today there are veterans of wars as far back as World War II and Korea, but mostly Vietnam Era, and from the Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq conflicts, who are as lost as Thorpe and Hayes. In Reno alone, there are 1200 veterans registered as homeless and many others in in-patient and out-patient treatment at the VA Hospital. Many more are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving the service and needing to make their way in a difficult economy.


I had the privilege a few weeks ago of attending a meeting of the Incline/Crystal Bay veterans' group sponsored by the Senior Program at IVGID. Vets attending covered the entire range of recent history, including one who landed in France on D-Day and fought his way across Europe – stories like that were the rule, not the exception. This group, under the leadership of Jim Peterson and others and facilitated by Sheila Leijon of IVGID, is trying to do what they can for the veterans in Reno, and they need your help. Theresa DiMaggio at SNC has taken on a project of collecting business-type clothing in good shape for returning veterans to use for job interviews and starting work. Peterson and others are collecting clothes and money, particularly for the homeless vets. If you want to help, here's some information:


The VA hospital accepts packaged new clothing - underwear, sweats, socks etc. The VA hospital and the Washoe County Social services give Veterans a voucher to go to the Good Shepherd Clothes Closet in Reno, but there is NO place just for veterans – one is planned for next year, but for now, Good Shepherd is the only place for used clothing, and there is no guarantee that what you give will go to veterans. St. Vincent DePaul Society in Reno serves 600 -700 meals a day to the homeless - about 25% of those served are vets. They have an urgent need for the anything non perishable and they will take anything you have to donate.


We are all used to donating to Project Mana and others around the Fall and Winter holidays, and we should keep doing that. But if you're like me you have business clothes you don't use or need, canned goods you might someday use, maybe, and maybe even some spare cash. Give it in memory of Ira Hayes and in honor of those who go in harm's way so we don't have to.

Column 132 – Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is composed of only 54 words, but could not be more clear in its meaning and intent:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment was ratified on December 15, 1791, so it's understandable that the Founders did not say "papers and effects," rather than "computers, flash drives, external hard drives, cell phones, and PDAs," but I don't think it's a stretch to consider that in the modern age, those would count as "effects."

The current Republican administration, however, doesn't seem to agree with this common-sense interpretation. For about six years now, with very little publicity or public notice, federal border agents have been confiscating travelers' electronic gear to be searched. According to a recent survey by the Association of Corporate Travelers cited in an editorial in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, seven percent of business travelers report having their laptop searched by federal officials. That same editorial reports that travelers have been prosecuted for crimes based on what has been found in these blatantly illegal searches.

So imagine this – federal officials show up at your office without a warrant and confiscate all your business's records – customer files, employee files, financial files – and go through them at their leisure. If they find something they feel is prosecutable, you then have to defend yourself. "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation."

Since 9/11/2001, the Bush administration and, until 2006, it's majority in Congress has operated from the position that the threat of terrorism allows them to ride roughshod over Constitutional guarantees of rights, particularly where non-citizens were concerned. This argument has been so broadly applied and is so hypnotic, supported as it is by the specious equation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the "war on terror," that even the usually liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (what neocons call the "Ninth Circus Court") in San Francisco has upheld the government's right to do this.

Well, the Court's incomprehensible action notwithstanding, there is no such right. On the contrary, it does not require a constitutional lawyer to see that the Fourth Amendment states just the opposite in black and white terms. The only possibly gray area in the Fourth Amendment is in the phrase "the right of the people." Who are the people? Historically, except where the Constitution specifically says otherwise, the protections of the Bill of Rights (remember the Bill of Rights?) have been considered to extend to anyone who found themselves under the jurisdiction and protection of the United States Government, including non-citizens, and recently including even those who have come here illegally, but we don't have to argue that one here – the people whose laptops have been seized and kept by the government for periods up to several months, are, by definition entering the country legally – they present themselves to the border agents, present their passports and visas, and have every expectation (and every right to expect) that they will be quizzed about how long they will be staying, the purpose of their visit, inspected by Customs for any declarable goods, and sent about their business. Certainly that has been my expectation in visiting everywhere from the UK to Angola, and I have never been disappointed.

Senator Russ Feingold has introduced a bill in Congress to rectify this situation, and the Bush White House and the Department of Homeland Security do not feel the need to explain themselves to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Consitution, or even to send a witness when asked. So much for Constitutional checks and balances under this administration. As the Chronicle editorial said, "It's clear that the federal government needs to be reminded that all travelers, whether US citizens or not, do not surrender every shred of their rights at the border. Nor should they be required to surrender every shred of their personal belongings without…a reason to do so."

Column 131 – Town (2)

Jim Clark is doing a good job of stating the case for the Town of Incline that will now be on the November ballot. While Jim and I often disagree on National, State, and sometimes even Local issues, we are of one mind on this one and I don't feel the need to repeat, much less rebut his points.


It seems that one of the hardest things for people to come to grips with about this idea is that there is apparently no downside to it. I was raised, as I'm sure you were, on the maxim "if something looks too good to be true, it probably is," and so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Something has got to be lurking in the woodwork waiting to come out and bite us about this, but it just plain doesn't seem like there is.


One thing I've heard is that this is "bigger government," in that the Town Board, which will replace the IVGID Board of Trustees, will have a wider scope of powers. Well, that's true – a GID is a limited purpose government – it is restricted by Nevada law to water, sewers, recreation, and garbage. A town is a general purpose government – it can take on whatever services it wishes, but is not required to take on any. Sounds like bigger government, doesn't it? Until you realize that the services in question are now being provided by either IVGID or by Washoe County – they're government services and all we're doing in the case of those we take over from the County is relocating them closer to the people they serve. The Incline Town Board gets a wider scope of services and Washoe County's scope gets smaller. Net change to the "size" of governance – zero. Net benefit to Incline – greater accountability and transparency in the administration of the services that affect us most.


Cost? Nevada law is clear – any such establishment of a town must be revenue neutral – money being spent is taken from the County and given to the Town. Net change – zero. Net benefit to Incline – control over how the money is spent.


A couple of statements keep cropping up – I won't call them arguments, more like aphorisms. Here's one: "If the County is for it, it must be bad for us." When I've heard that from people I've asked them what has them say that, and they really can't cite very much. By and large, Washoe County is a pretty benign presence here – they (meaning Dick Mento) do a good job on the roads, and the WC Sheriff's Department is first-rate. The library is terrific, and we get some support for senior services. On other fronts, the County has been pretty easy to get along with, seeming content to take our tax dollars and leave us alone to work most things out for ourselves. The exception is the Assessor's Office, and the Incline Tax Revolt has done a good job of bearding that lion in its den. The Town proposal will allow us to keep all the things that work – no change to road, Sheriff, or Library, for example, and move other things like planning, nuisance abatement, etc. closer to home. Net change in what we like – zero. Net benefit to Incline – government that's closer to the governed.


A letter in last week's paper brought up two things that I can't quite see how the writer got to – one was the idea of a "town center," which he seemed to equate to the proposal to be a town, and the other was TRPA. The "town center" idea has been floated quite a few times, particularly in the Incline Vision and Place-Based Planning processes. A "town center" would be a geographic location of indeterminate nature, the intent of which is to give the community a focus and a gathering place. Other than the coincidence of the use of the word "town," this concept has no relationship to the Town of Incline Village proposal, which affects only the form of local government. We could have a "center" as a GID or not have one as a Town. They're irrelevant to each other.


And as for TRPA, love 'em or hate 'em, they're a fact of life for everyone in the Basin, whether they're a city, a village, or just out in the country. Nothing will change with regard to TRPA except that, having demonstrated that (at least) a majority of the people in IV/CB value local government and self-determination, they may listen more respectfully to what the Town of Incline Village has to say.


So that's it – if you are out there harboring a serious objection to the Town proposal, we'd like to hear from you – really. If there is something we aren't seeing that is more substantial than "If the County is for it, it must be bad for us," we want to know about it – go to www.townofinclinevillage.com, or to the blogs at www.tahoebonanza.com, or come to the Bonanza Election Forum on August 20, or volunteer to write the "against" argument for the ballot – so far no one has stepped forward to do that. And don't forget to vote.

Column 130 – Hire Locals

Every once in a while (actually more often than that in my case), I become aware of something that has been in front of my face for a long time and see it in a whole new light. It won't surprise regular readers of this column that people often engage me in political discussions at what would otherwise be social occasions. The other night at a dinner party one of the guests was discussing the immigration issue (quite intelligently, I might add) and brought up an interesting question – why do Raley's, the Hyatt, IVGID, and others import young people from around the world to work in customer-facing positions when we have young (and for that matter older) people who live here who would jump at the chance for good jobs like these?


McCain supporter, former Senator Phil Gramm says we're not in a recession – we just think we are (guy sees a friend in the street, says "how's Phil?" Friend says "he's very sick." Guy says "Oh, Phil's a hypochondriac – he's not sick, he just thinks he's sick." Couple of weeks later, guy sees same friend: "How's Phil?" Friend: "Now he thinks he's dead." Badump-bump). Well, there are a lot of people in this area who think they need jobs or better jobs, so why are we importing workers from Rumania, Croatia, Russia, Australia, and points east?


It can't be language – many of the young people I encounter don't speak English very well at all – not nearly as well as most of those I meet from the local community we put under the umbrella label of "Hispanic" or "Latino." It can't be cheaper – most of these businesses pay the same wages to everyone in a given job. So what is it?


One hesitates in this day and age to raise the R word, but is it, in fact a matter of subtle or not so subtle racism? One explanation I've heard is that Hispanics, particularly women, are shy and retiring, and so not well-suited to customer-facing positions. Really? I don't think so – I've met lots of young women with Hispanic surnames, for example in Milt Hyams' We the People program at IHS, who are outgoing and assertive. It can't be that Europeans and Australians are more attractive – I've seen about the same range of attractiveness in our local kids as in those that are hired from abroad, so what is it? Maybe it's my '60s background, but I can't find an explanation other than racism, either conscious (which I'd like to think is unlikely) or unconscious – an unexamined preference for PLU (people like us) that influences where these employers look for staff.


Leaving the politics of immigration aside – if you think employers should not hire the undocumented, then fine – make a rule that you only hire citizens or aliens with green cards – shouldn't our "local" employers hire locally first, and not just to make beds, clean toilets, and stock shelves but as cashiers, dealers, bartenders, lift operators and the like? Why send US Dollars overseas when these folks' visas are up when we could keep them here in Incline? And, in the simplest terms, why not do the right thing by our neighbors?


Nothing against Tatiana, Luka, Bruce, and Sheila – they are almost uniformly nice, attractive kids; they're pleasant, affable, and nice to deal with. But so are the Hispanic kids who do work in these places and whom I see around town. I'm not against immigration, but I am against what I'll call on-shore outsourcing. When I go to do work in Canada or Brazil or Angola I have to get past lots of barriers to get a work visa – these barriers are intended to protect locals who could do the work I'm being hired to do – if the employer can find local talent, their government says they should use them first. Shouldn't we afford our neighbors the same consideration?

Column 129 – Independence Day 2008

Since this column will come out on the second of July, at the start of the Red, White, and Tahoe Blue observances culminating in Independence Day, it seems to me that a look at the state of what the Founders left us is in order.


A column I read recently said that a key job of the next President, be it Obama or McCain, will be to "reintroduce America to the world." I think that's an interesting and very apt choice of words. To introduce means, among other things, to bring into play, to make known by a formal act, to bring to a knowledge of something. The writer's choice of reintroduce indicates that the US was once in play in the world, once known by its formal acts, and known by the world. My travels over the past couple of years have taken me around the world a couple of times – to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and South America, and the thing I hear most often from people in all those parts of the world is a sense of bewilderment. To paraphrase and summarize, what I hear is "we thought we knew who the US was, and we loved or respected who that was. Now we don't know who you are any more, and we fear or disrespect you."


In the Eighteenth Century, the Founders had a strong sense of identity and independence, but they also had a healthy respect for what was then the rest of the world. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence, the signing of which we celebrate this week, begins with the proposition that "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the Earth, …separate and equal station,…a decent respect to the opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."(emphasis added). The new nation sent its very best – Franklin, Jefferson, Adams – to be ambassadors to key European countries, out of respect for the importance of introducing America to the world. For over 200 years after that the US was not always loved, but was always respected and where necessary feared, but the world was never in doubt about who we were or what we stood for. We would negotiate readily but, in Kennedy's words we would never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate out of fear, and as we showed in the two World Wars, you woke the sleeping giant that was America at your own grave peril.


In eight short years we have gone from world power to being seen as a nation in serious decline. We've seen government dishonesty on a scale not seen since 1789, international boasts, blunders, and bullying that makes the most ludicrous banana republics of the 20th Century look intelligent, and we've gone from caring stewards of ethical values on the international scale to being seen as uncaring bulls in the environmental china shop.


I don't know about you, but for me this Independence Day is time for us to reintroduce America to the world, We've made a good start. No matter who you favor for President, I think you will agree that for us to have gone from the Civil War of the mid-19th Century and the Suffrage wars of that same time into the early 20th to having an African-American and a woman squaring off as serious contenders to be President is a powerful statement, no matter who moves into the White House on January 20th. That's a start. We must reintroduce our leadership in environmental stewardship by reducing what the President termed our "addiction to oil" (right before he recommended drilling more oil as the cure for that addiction!). We must stand for our commitment to freedom and democracy by setting the example and demonstrating to the world the value of our way of life rather than by attempting oxymoronically to force freedom and democracy down the throats of people who have not asked for it. We must demonstrate our commitment to the Judaeo-Christian ethic by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and lifting up the downtrodden rather than by trying to decide who can marry whom and how people should handle their reproductive life.


Yes, we must reintroduce America to the world, including the world within America – the people who, like every one of our ancestors, are coming here to the "land of opportunity." We would all do well on this Independence Day to re-read the whole of the Declaration of Independence (or come to the Green today at noon to hear McAvoy Layne read it as only he - that is, Mark Twain - can). And also re-read the inscription on the statue in New York Harbor (Liberté eclairant le monde – Liberty lightening the world):


Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Column 128 – Town

Jim Clark did a good job on Sunday of recounting the history of efforts to bring more home rule to Incline and to stem the one-way flow of our tax money down the hill to other parts of Washoe County. It's well-documented that we send more over the mountain in taxes than we get back in services.


Jim and I take a certain amount of ribbing about being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and on many issues we certainly are, but on this one we have stood shoulder to shoulder for years and continue to do so.


Becoming a town won't cure all our ills. Only becoming a county would do that, and experience has shown that that ain't gonna happen in the foreseeable future. When I ran for the IVGID Board of Trustees two years ago, I made no secret of my view that we should be a county. Since then, convinced that a county, while ideal, is not possible, I've worked with the steering committee of Independent Incline to study what becoming a town would mean. Simply put, it would mean more home rule and more control over where (some of) our tax money goes.


Nevada state law as regards towns is pretty interesting. It allows counties to form towns, but if they do, the county must assign to the new town all the money that the county spends on any service the town takes over, and must do so forever. The town, on the other hand, gets to pick and choose what they take over from the county. In the interlocal agreement being worked out with Washoe County there is a provision that the new town can, at any time, take over more services from the county, and the county must assign the money for these services at that time.


It's a pretty good tenet that if something sounds like it doesn't have a down side, you should probably look more closely. Along with the rest of the committee we've looked as closely at this as I think it's possible, and so far I can't find a down side to it. By law, the formation of a town must be revenue-neutral – it can't cost us or the county money. No IVGID employee will lose their job, and we may add a few jobs using the money the county will transfer to us. I've heard it said that it will "add a layer of government," but that's just not so – IVGID, our current town government and infrastructure will be replaced by the Town and the infrastructure will transfer over. We can, and in my view should, add in our own development and zoning review process and maybe a nuisance review process. All of these will ultimately remain under the County's aegis, but if we look to the example of Minden, which did the same thing, we find that the County has overruled the local board in a minuscule percentage of cases and always due to something the local board missed. Yes we will have to present plans twice, but they're the same plans – no added work for the homeowner or developer, and we, as residents, have people representing us who actually live here.


Jim did, however, say one thing that will be a red flag to some people, so I'd like to comment on it. He referred to "a governmental structure nearly unlimited in its scope of authority as opposed to a GID which can only engage in 20 specific services." I can tell already that those 23 words out of the 645 in the article are all some people will remember. IVGID has been straining against the limitations of those "20 specific services" for as long as I can remember, but a GID is a "limited purpose government." A town is a "general purpose government," and so the residents can control their own destiny. As Jim said, we have more assets and a bigger budget than most Nevada cities. Shouldn't we be in charge of our own community?

Column 127 – Homeless Veterans

Over Memorial Day weekend we took the opportunity to honor veterans and serving military. The Biltmore did a great job of hosting the honors, and the Red, White, and Tahoe Blue celebrations around Independence Day will continue to salute those who have served and are serving. Even those of us who opposed some of the wars in which they fought and are fighting are careful not to confuse opposing the war with opposing the warriors and join in the salute.


Sheila Leijon of IVGID, the Parasol Foundation, Jim Peterson, Roger Leach, and others have done a great job of locating local veterans and making sure they have the opportunity to participate in these events. If you are a veteran and have not been contacted you should make sure to be in touch with them.


That's the several hundred veterans here in Incline Village/Crystal Bay. But there is another group of vets that need our concern. By the best accounts, there are about 1200 homeless veterans in Reno. That's right, one thousand two hundred men and women who served and are now down and out. Since the Vietnam War, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been steadily increasing and PTSD rates from the Iraq Conflict are at an all-time high. PTSD is not new – after World War I it was called "shell shock" and was well known. There was no name that I recall after World War II, but it was recognized that those who were in combat had seen things no one should have to see and done things that left them permanently scarred. We cared for those folks and helped them deal with their return to civilian life.


Unfortunately the end of the Vietnam War coincided with a number of political and economic events, notably beginning with Prop 13 in California, that had the effect of reducing social services and closing down many psychiatric facilities. As a result, and also as a result of widespread revulsion at some of the things that happened in Vietnam (and a tragic failure to remember that it was the war, not the warriors we were against), Vietnam-era vets didn't get the care or the acceptance that World War vets got, and many became homeless and marginalized. That trend has continued for veterans of Desert Storm and Iraq, and as a result, we have 1200 vets from all these conflicts living in the streets of Reno.


Those working to organize the veterans here in Incline have undertaken to help their comrades in arms in Reno – they are putting together kits of toiletries, clean clothes, etc. and distributing them. That's a start. A better start would be for the Federal Government to rebuild the crumbling Veterans Administration and refurbish its hospitals so that these people can get the care they need. We just spent a huge amount of money to put a lander on Mars. That project will tell is if there is microscopic life on Mars. This will increase the store of human knowledge, and I'm all for that. But the millions (it's surprisingly hard to find out what this mission cost) that were spent to answer this question will not, in the end, bring much real benefit to people here on Earth. At this moment we have people suffering from the effects of a typhoon, an earthquake, wildfires, rampant disease, and still recovering from Katrina and from the Indian Ocean tsunami. Closer to home here we have 1200 people who put themselves in harm's way for us living in the street. How will we honor them this July 4th?

Column 126 – Angola

I've just returned from a week in Luanda, the capital of Angola in West Africa. In fact, I'm in London as I write this, between planes on what will, if all goes well, be a 27 hour trip home.


Prosaic as it sounds, the trip was a wake-up call for me, an insight into how much of the world outside North America and Europe lives, and the consequences of their living that way.


Luanda is about as unworkable a place as I've ever seen. Only the main streets are paved, and badly at that; the side streets, even some pretty major ones, are packed red dirt and I may have seen five traffic lights and one stop sign the whole time I was there. Traffic is ranges from jammed to hopelessly jammed – in the early morning it took about 15 minutes to go from where I was staying to where I was working. At 5:30 in the evening it took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a quarter. The best way to describe Angola traffic is as a game of "chicken" played by 4 million people, about half of them in cars.


Most of the people live in what I could generously call slums, and as it is in places like Bangkok, life is lived mainly in the streets, in the dust and fumes. A large segment of the population seems to make what living they make selling things in the streets. Women with large plastic tubs on their heads offer fruit, shoes, beer, and in one case eggs. Young men pass among the jammed cars holding mops, towels, automobile parts, shower heads, you name it.


As you would expect, crime is rampant. The company I was there working for devoted hours before and during the trip to safety briefings and had a 24/7 fleet of cars that would come and get us and take us anywhere we wanted to go. The instructions were clear – only go by car and in the car do not open the windows.


Pretty grim, huh? Well the surprise is that it isn't, really, for the people who live there. They accept as a fact of life that the power will go out unpredictably and mostly they don't bat an eye when it happens. Expats accept that if they walk, even from their car to their home or office, they will be robbed from time to time and carry a small amount of money which they give up to the robbers. One fellow, who is actually a native Angolan, was held up, remonstrated angrily with the robber and refused to give him anything. The next day he saw the would-be robber coming toward him and thought he was in real trouble, but the fellow apologized for trying to rob him – he didn't realize my friend lived in the neighborhood, and if he had he would have left him alone.


Luanda is a mix of people of African descent, those of Portuguese descent (it was a Portuguese colony until the '70's), others who live and work there and expats, mainly working for the oil companies. Portuguese is the official language, and you will also hear a variety of native languages, but if, like me, you don't speak any of these, you will find the people are very patient and try to understand. There is no tipping and wages are pretty meager, but they go out of their way to be helpful and to serve.


So what does that have to do with us here in Incline? We are a wealthy community, with pockets of the less wealthy in our midst. We worry about immigration instead of appreciating what new groups bring to our culture. Many of us think that everyone who lives here should speak English, and we are sometimes impatient with those who don't speak it well or speak it at all. Maybe the "backward" folk of Angola have something to teach us.

Column 125 – Facts and Opinions

I've often commented in these pages about the readiness of some IV/CB residents to jump to conclusions about public matters, conclusions that they consider to be absolute truth, even when they are based on the scantiest of factual information. I have a friend, a man not noted for his innate humility, who reminds himself and his listeners that his opinions are not facts by prefacing statements with "now God doesn't whisper in my ear, but I think…" Around here, though, many people do seem to think that they do have the privilege of divine communication.


Two cases in point from the past week are responses I've heard to the stories in the Bonanza about the proposal by Independent Incline to explore taking our community's legal structure from a GID to a town and the report in Friday's paper of the IVGID Board's adoption of Policy and Procedure Number 136 "Policy concerning access to district property and the use of district facilities for expression."


When I see something that seems not to make sense my first move is to check on the facts. My second, and I think this is a good policy, is to find out what I can about the thinking behind what was said or done. From there I think one can form an intelligent and reasoned position.


For example, there was a letter in the paper a couple of weeks ago taking the Red, White, and Tahoe Blue project to task for holding the parade on the second rather than the fourth of July. Had the writer asked, she would have learned that law enforcement authorities would not permit the parade on the Fourth because of what it would do to traffic.


In the case of Independent Incline, an enormous amount of work, thought, research, and consultation has gone into the group's recommendation (full disclosure: I am a member of the Independent Incline Board and helped prepare the presentation to the Trustees). I'm not saying there are no arguments against the Town proposal, just that many of the arguments that have come across my desktop since Wednesday's vote have been long on opinion and misconception and short on accurate facts and understanding of what a town is and what it would and would not accomplish.


And finally, the "free speech" access to IVGID facilities, which many people seem to have already drawn a lot of conclusions about. After several conversations and downloading the text of the proposal I must admit I don't fully grasp all the implications of this action. On the one hand, the only substantive change in P and P 136 is that people will have access to the beach parking lots, grassy areas, and walkways to "exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. What doesn't change is that only card-carrying District residents will be allowed onto the sand and water area (i.e., the beach) that is not covered by the change. It's my understanding that First Amendment rights are part of the beach lawsuits, and this would seem to weaken if not eliminate that argument. What more there may or may not be seems to me to remain to be seen.


The point is, with complex and important issues, it behooves us to (a) get our facts straight and (b) keep clear the difference between our opinions and the facts. They aren't the same thing unless the Deity is whispering in your ear.

Column 124 – Complex Issues

There are a lot of important issues confronting all of us as we approach election season 08. Unfortunately most of these issues are complex and don't admit of simple solutions. We have a government that has lost the confidence of the governed and linked to that a war that has even less popular support than Vietnam. The economy is in the tank, and the dollar weaker against foreign currencies that anyone can remember, and much of the US financial industry has shown itself to be more venal and cynical even than Enron.


As I said, these are difficult problems, and none of them will be solved simply or by a dose of unthinking optimism a la George W. Bush. That means that for many people confronting these problems causes headaches and a strong desire to find something easier to deal with.


We saw a demonstration of that by the national media in the Pennsylvania Democratic debate last week when two journalists who should have known better spent almost an hour of a two-hour debate on such momentous questions as why Obama doesn't wear a flag pin and why Hillary exaggerated the danger she was in in Bosnia as well as other non-issues. That's a lot easier than trying to compare the candidates' health care plans or how they would deal with Iraq.


Back here at home we're seeing some of the same phenomenon – we have a number of complex issues to deal with – the beach law suit has a high potential for disastrous results, the purchase of the Incline Lake property is closing in, the Diamond Peak lodge is due for renovation, the Boulder Bay project is and the long-standing Independent Incline study is ready to recommend that the question of changing from a GID to a town be put before the voters to see where public sentiment lies.


All of these are complex issues, but many residents seem to prefer either to deal with the Incline equivalent of Obama's lapel pin or to insist on simplistic, knee-jerk solutions to the complex issues. To wit:


There has been a regulation in the fire code forever saying that barbecue grills may not be used in multiple occupancy dwellings except under certain conditions; the rationale is safety, pure and simple. Being reminded of that regulation was met by many as if the Fire District was proposing to abrogate the Constitution.


The Diamond Peak renovation is long overdue – the lodge is small, inadequate, and outdated. Diamond Peak is an asset that benefits skiers and non-skiers alike by generating revenue for the District but in this as in so many IVGID expenditures the response is along "whose ox is being gored" lines – everyone agrees that our recreational facilities make living here attractive and enhance the value of our properties, but for many any increase in the rec fee that does not directly benefit their recreation is met with howls of outrage.


There is an long-standing principle in Western law called "the greatest good for the greatest number." There are times and situations where this principle must be abridged – inherent individual rights such as life and liberty, for example, trump the utilitarian principle. In most cases of regulating life in a community, particularly a small community like ours, that principle should hold more often than not. While I don't oppose Crystal Bay residents having access to the beaches, I do think the lawsuit that is pending is a danger to all of us, Incline and Crystal Bay alike, and therefore violates the principle.


I realize that what I'm suggesting is not simple. I am advocating that we, as a community, take a genuinely thoughtful approach to complex issues and that we be guided by "the greatest good for the greatest number." Not everyone will (or should) be happy with every resolution, but if we follow that principle, everyone will be happy with most of the decisions most of the time. If we insist on guarding our narrow self-interest and reject compromise out of hand, I fear that no one will be happy in the long term. As Benjamin Franklin said, "in this time, we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately."

Column 123 – Wide-stance Republicans

As the Bush regime has spiraled downhill and public support for the administration and its ill-conceived foreign policies has dwindled, the Republican penchant for spin has been cranking up and getting more and more desperate, and Jim Clark's column last Friday is a great example of that. Jim seems to think that somehow the recent flap over Barack Obama's minister and Gov. Eliot Spitzer's disgraceful conduct somehow balance the scales against the multitude of things the GOP has done.


Wishful thinking, born of desperation. Let's examine the facts. Barack Obama has a minister; John McCain has solicited the endorsement of Rev. John Hagee. Shall we compare the two and the relationship between the candidates and these clergymen? Obama has been a congregant at Pastor Wright's church since he was young; Wright helped Obama discover his faith and was a mentor to Obama. Pastor Wright is an elderly African-American man who has lived through the worst and best of race relations in this country and who comes from a pastoral tradition where fiery, hyperbolic sermons are accepted and applauded.


Contrary to Jim's assertion, Obama was not "forced into" making a speech – he made a speech that has been widely hailed as a watershed in communications, particularly political communications, about race. It was a reasoned, measured speech in which he did not endorse racist expressions by anyone while showing admirable sensitivity to the conditions and conditioning that give rise to such statements.


John McCain does not attend Rev. Hagee's church, but he went out of his way to solicit Pastor Hagee's endorsement. Pastor Hagee, while a darling of some for his "support" of Israel, is a far-right evangelical minister who publicly stated that he considered Hurricane Katrina punishment for New Orleans' sins, particularly homosexuality. He has made statements that are anti-Catholic, calling Catholicism a "religion of hate" and linking it to the rise of Nazism in Germany. He has also written that the Holocaust was God's punishment on the Jews for their "disobedience."


The GOP loves to point out the mote in Democrats' eyes while ignoring the beam in their own. John McCain was a brave soldier and commander in Viet Nam, but he also showed last week that he doesn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites, and he demonstrated the GOP commitment to spin when, after walking around the Green Zone of Baghdad with an armed escort and a flak vest, he pronounced it safe as a walk in the park.


The Republicans see the writing on the wall – the same writing that Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar – "You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting." Their response to this is, characteristically, to try to put a favorable spin on the message – but "spin" is too nice – too gentle. I prefer to think of it, in deference to the distinguished congressman from Idaho, as "wide stance" thinking. When Rep. Craig was caught making advances in a men's room, that was his defense – "I have a wide stance." I don't consider Gov. Spitzer's activity any less reprehensible than Craig's, but at least he had the honesty to admit it and not mount any justifications, particularly any as ludicrous as the "wide stance" justification. Maybe the GOP needs to narrow its stance and start to wake up to the fact that they have thoroughly betrayed and disappointed the American people no matter how you spin it.


So I guess we can look forward to the same distortions, spinning, and swift-boating (i.e. lying) we saw from the GOP in the last two elections – this is, after all, a party that can lose the popular vote, have the Presidency awarded by the Supreme Court, and then spin that as a mandate, headed by a President who can, to this day, insist that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were somehow connected. The difference this year is that the American people, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, are wise to their game and in November will send them to consider the error of their ways.

Column 122 – Eco-Terrorism

There was quite a furor last week over a headline in this fine village tri-weekly that indicated that open flames might be banned in cases where they posed a danger of, I don't know, burning down a multiple dwelling. The philosophy seems to be that if you own your own home and want to take your chances on your barbecue grill, that's up to you, but you can't endanger others who don't get the opportunity to try the brisket. Go figure.


At the same time there was an incident up in a suburb of Seattle wherein several luxury homes under construction were burned down under the signature of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an eco-terrorist group. Whether it was ELF or not, the incident was clearly an act of eco-terrorism. Eco-terrorism is defined by the FBI's Domestic Terror Section as "the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature." That last part is kind of problematic, I think – there is nothing symbolic about burning down buildings – at least not to the owners of the buildings or to their insurance companies. It has been estimated that the damage caused by environmentalist sabotage from 1980 to 1999 amounted to $42.8 million. Since 2003 the FBI has credited "eco-terrorists" with $200 million dollars in property damage. Pretty big symbols, even with the dollar at a long-time low in value.


Back in the '70's, people who were opposed to that decade's war had a saying that, translated for a family newspaper, went something like "fighting for peace is like (having carnal relations) for chastity." That analogy would seem to apply here. As one who cares about the environment, I can't imagine better ammunition for those we oppose than acts of wanton, meaningless, and hypocritical destruction.


The question for me is what these supposed environmentalists are attempting to accomplish. I consider myself an environmentalist – I've consulted to the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations and I would match my credentials in this area with almost anyone. Within that, different people have different environmental concerns – global warming, fossil fuels, recycling, air pollution, water pollution, etc. What all of us have in common, though, is a respect, even reverence for the environment and for nature and a real commitment to finding a way for human technology to interact with the natural world in a way that includes what is important to both. These eco-terrorists, on the other hand, seem, to think that we should abandon all technology and go back to living in the forest. What I don't understand is how they rationalize their actions. For example, by burning down those houses under construction, they assured that twice as much lumber (as in "from trees") would be used, they added smoke and particulates to the air, and in general acted in a manner that was about as environmentally responsible as driving a Hummer.


According to sources in the Washoe County Sheriff's Office, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies consider eco-terrorism to be a far greater threat to us here at Lake Tahoe than international or other forms of political terrorism. Given what we've seen in Seattle last week and at Northstar a couple of years ago, it behooves each of us to be vigilant. In post-9/11 New York there are signs in the subway, on buses, on trains and in the street that say "if you see something, say something." The non-emergency number for the Incline Substation is 832-4110. The Sheriff's office and the Fire District would rather respond to ten calls that turn out to be nothing than to miss one that is the real deal, so if you see something, say something.