Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Column 146 - Bloviation

According to Matier and Ross in Sunday's SF
Chronicle, California State Senator Abel Maldonado got a lot of press when he criticized CA Controller John Chiang for spending nearly $1 million on new office furniture while the state was going through a budget crisis. As a result of Maldonado's attacks the money was not spent. It turns out, however, that the new furniture was to go into new, cheaper offices the Controller had leased; now Chiang can't cancel the lease and can't move in without furniture, so the Controller's office is stuck in their current, more expensive office and the state may be on the hook for $4.8 million in higher rent and other expenses over the next six years. Also, according to M&R, the 20-year-old furniture in the controller's office doesn't meet requirements under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, a situation which will require correction – presumably the purchase of new furniture anyhow.


If this were an isolated incident, it would be a one more stupid political move, but so what? Unfortunately it's not isolated at all. It has become common for politicians to make political points by isolating one piece of a larger picture and ignoring the impact beyond their own political fortunes, and for interest groups to dwell on the impact of cutting or not increasing funding to their area while ignoring the impact of what they are advocating on the budget as a whole.


This phenomenon crosses party and ideological lines and it's not confined to legislative politics. Industries do it, advocacy groups do it, it seems like everyone is doing it.


When you combine this with the tendency of a lot of well-meaning folks to confuse what they're sure about with the facts, it gets deadly. For example, Rush Limbaugh, when the stimulus package was being debated, announced to a nationwide audience that the Administration had purposely put it into PDF format because in that format it could not be searched, so to find out anything specific about the thousand-page proposal would be next to impossible in the time before it was to be voted on. Just one problem – PDF format is easily searchable. In other words his bloviation, while I guess he must have been sure about it, was flat-out wrong!


Perennial candidate Alan Keyes, (who was defeated by President Obama in the 2004 US Senate race in Illinois) declared publicly that the President is a "radical Communist" and that his US citizenship is in doubt , asserting that the Obama campaign never produced one shred of evidence that the President was not born in Kenya as Keyes claimed. This claim was repeated by a sitting Senator, Richard Shelby (R-Ala) as well. If Keyes and Shelby are not simply the biggest liars since Baron Munchausen, then we have another case of using a national platform to state strongly held view as if they were facts. (Fact: The President has never said or done anything remotely radical or communistic. Fact: the Obama campaign posted online a verified Hawai'i birth certificate in June, which was then also attested to by a right-wing website, World Net Daily)


So we have two converging trends: the tendency to advance one's own agenda without regard to the effects of doing so on the common good and the tendency to do this by stating what we can charitably call opinions as if they were facts. Put these together and those who, wherever they are on the political spectrum, are trying to do some good have their work made more difficult for them by orders of magnitude.


So what can we do? I urge a twofold effort: First, when you are advocating any political, economic, social, or military move, as much as possible consider the big picture. Don't advocate saving $1 million if it's going to cost $4.8 million annually with no remedy in sight. Second, it's fine to have opinions, but as Bernard Baruch said, Every man has a right to his opinions, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts. As was famously said, you're either part of the solution or part of the problem – hopefully these two moves will increase the chances of being part of the solution.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Where is the Bi-Partisanship? (Posted on AllVoices, 2/12/09

From the campaign on, President Obama has made it clear that he is committed to working with Republicans to accomplish the urgent business that is confronting him in the first days of his administration. He has appointed Republicans to his cabinet, he has held out olive branch after olive branch to Senators McCain, Lieberman, and others, and when his intended appointment of Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary cratered, he appointed Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a Republican, going so far as to agree to a deal that would have required the governor of New Hampshire to appoint a Republican to the vacated seat.

Now let's look at the Republican side: After the President went to Capitol Hill to meet with Republicans about the stimulus plan, Senator Graham (R-NC) declared him "AWOL" on the discussion. Even before that meeting, House Minority Leader Boehner instructed GOP Representatives to vote against the bill no matter what the President said, and they did.

Now Senator Gregg has withdrawn the bid that he initiated to be Commerce Secretary, citing "irreconcilable differences" with the President he asked to serve. Put this together with Rush Limbaugh's wish that the President fail and Republicans' constant sniping at the President's efforts on the economy, and it's hard to escape the suspicion that the GOP leadership is out to sabotage this Administration.

Where's the bi-partisanship? All on the White House's side, it seems. Maybe it's time for the President to just move on.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Column 145 – Invasive Species

TRPA, according to its website "is charged with protecting this national treasure for the benefit of current and future generations. Our vision is to have a lake and environment that is clean, healthy and sustainable for the community and future generations." This job made more difficult, as I discussed in my last column by the "Tragedy of the Commons" phenomenon, whereby people who share a common resource tend, unless they are careful, to treat that resource as if it were theirs to do with as they wish. A case in point is the problem of invasive species.

During the last 130 years numerous non-native fish, invertebrate, and plant species have been introduced intentionally and unintentionally to Lake Tahoe. Each of these non-native species have had an effect on the environment of the lake. Those that were introduced by game and fish managers – trout, for example, have done well. Those introduced by what the professionals call "bucket biologists" – notably bass, bluegill, and other warm water species, have decimated certain native populations. It's the species introduced unintentionally or unintelligently that cause the problems. Eurasian water milfoil and Curly leaf pondweed took hold in Tahoe Keys and continue to proliferate there and in other areas such as Emerald Bay and need to be cut back. Currently Quagga and Zebra mussels pose a threat, and Asian Clams are established in the lake. The latter, while not as harmful as the mussels, provide a source of calcium which the mussels need to thrive and have been linked to algae blooms, etc. for example in Marla Bay.

Like the invasive plant species, the mussels are brought to the lake from other bodies of water. Lake Mead and Lake Havasu, for example, already host them. The only way they can get into Lake Tahoe is to be brought in by people – on powerboats, sailboats, jet skis, kayaks, canoes, etc., that have been in water where the mussels live. These species are famous for their ability to latch onto anything in the water, and they are then carried dormant for long periods – weeks in cold weather - unless they are taken off.

TRPA has launched a major effort in this regard. All the boat launching sites around the lake have inspectors and no craft can launch without being inspected and, if necessary, cleaned. But these inspections only cover boats that launch from trailers or are put into the water at marinas. What about the rest – the kayaks, canoes, and other craft that can launch from any lake access?

The key to all this, of course, is an educated public. Consideration has been given to creating education/inspection stations at the seven entrances to the Basin, but neither TRPA nor the conservation districts have the power to require cars to stop, so instead the agencies will work with the Forest Service to distribute literature and educate people at the launch sites, by material at the kiosks and information stations, etc. Ultimately, though, it will depend on people acting in the long-term interests of all rather than their own short-term convenience.

I mentioned in my last column one boater who went to several launch sites hoping to evade inspection. Why would someone do that? All the inspection does is protect the lake, and if they had to clean mussels from his boat, it would have taken less time and gas than going from launch site to launch site cost him. But nobody was going to make him submit to inspection! He had, in his mind, a right to use this shared resource, even if his use was to the detriment of the resource.

Last year only one boat was found to be contaminated with adult mussels at the inspection sites and one at the Ag station in Meyers. Twenty-five vessels that may have carried mussels were decontaminated as well. So far as we know, TRPA and other organizations have been successful in keeping the mussels out of the lake, but that won't continue as long as we who use the lake treat this like someone else's problem. Get the word out, support the education efforts, if you have visitors who bring kayaks or canoes have them check them carefully, and remember, the lake you save may be your own.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Highest Bar (posted to Allvoices.com February 4, 2009

In his press briefing on February 4, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs asserted that President Obama has set the bar higher for integrity in his administration higher than it has ever been set in the history of the Presidency.

Let's assume for a minute that that is true and ask what it will mean for this already historic administration? First of all, as has already been demonstrated in the cases of Daschle, Geithner, and others, it means he will fail. If your standard is perfection or near-perfection, you can bet that you will fail and fail often. But it means something else as well, that is more important than failure.

Imagine you have a sink full of dirty dishes - what happens when you add one more dirty dish? It disappears - just one more of many. But if the sink is clean and empty, every dish put into it stands out and screams to be cleaned. By setting a very high standard for integrity, President Obama ensures that every flaw will show up to be dealt with. Most commentators have argued that Tom Daschle, a former Senate Majority Leader, would have been confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services despite his tax issues and even despite the fact that he was, after leaving the Senate, a lobbyist for a health care company. It has even been argued that the end would justify the means. Health care reform is a top priority for the Obama Administration, and Daschle was arguably the best available architect for the program and the best person to get it through Congress. But apparently, for this President, pragmatism doesn't trump integrity.

It is that last principle that is the best evidence for Gibbs' assertion. Bismarck said "politics is the art of the possible," and this adage has been the rationale for countless sacrifices of integrity for the sake of getting something done. Two things seem to suggest that this will not be the case for the Obama Administration - first, that otherwise stellar nominees such as Daschle and Richardson have, presumably on their own, popped out of the confirmation process, recognizing that they could not clear the bar. Second is that the President himself, in an interview on February 3rd, took full personal responsibility for the bar not being cleared. He didn't blame Daschle or the Senate or the Media - he said, in words to clear to be mistakable, "I screwed up." It's been a long time since we've heard those words from the occupant of the Oval Office.