Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bonanza Column 191 – Not just Independence – Human Rights

The Auto-Summarize tool on Microsoft Word is pretty good at getting the gist of a document and distilling it down. Just for fun, I asked it to summarize the Declaration of Independence in 100 words or less, and this is what it gave back:


That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


Pretty interesting – asked for 100 words, it came back with 20. Asked for 500 words or less, it included the above and the rest was related to declaring "that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES: that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."


When we think of the Declaration we tend to think of the declaration of human equality – "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These are the rights referred to in the first summary, and given that the writers of the Declaration held "these truths to be self-evident" they didn't devote a great deal of discussion to the rights themselves, but to the role of government in securing these rights and the failures of the British Crown to have done so.


It was to that model of government that the signers pledged "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, and for which many of them did indeed pay with their lives and their fortunes – their honor remained intact.


We forget that while the American Revolution was basically about the rights, it was really about the duty of government to secure these rights. The signers recognized that, while the rights might be a self-evident endowment, people living in society needed assistance in securing them. Today we recognize that the reasons for this need are rooted in both our physical and social evolution over hundreds of thousands of years – the signers knew from their study of history and human nature that while the rights may be inalienable, the strong, the rich, and the privileged could and would use force to alienate others from those rights unless there were agencies to hold them in check. Hence government.


There are those today who, while claiming the mantle of the Founding Fathers would have us believe that the best government is no government at all. Not only does this go counter to the exact reasons the country was founded, it goes against the wisdom of the Founders whose legacy they are trying to usurp.


It's crucial that we remember that Independence Day is more than a celebration of an historic event, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That document was an unprecedented historical event. Prior to its publication, conventional wisdom held that kings had rights, nobles had rights (though fewer than kings), popes had rights, priests had rights (ditto for popes) but "all men are created equal?" Unheard of! Serfs and vassals had no rights. Commoners had few if any, and merchants' rights were in proportion to their wealth, but universal rights were unknown. It is that statement that is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence – the Independence part followed naturally from the connection between inalienable rights and the proper function of government – these made a break with England necessary and set the stage for the formation of the world's first democratic republic with the adoption of the Constitution in 1789.


From a 2010 perspective, it may be that the event of independence, the Revolutionary War, Continental Congress, etc. are secondary to the creation of a new possibility – the possibility of human rights. The United States more than any other country in the world has spent the past 234 years making that possibility into a reality – in 1776 the ideal of universal rights did not include non-whites such as Native Americans and African-Americans, it did not include women, and did not include even white males who did not own property. Over the next two-plus centuries we have kept living into the ideal and running up against those who would redefine "all [people] are created equal] as "but some are more equal than others. The good news is we keep defeating them. So it has been, so may it ever be. Have a great Independence Day.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bonanza Column 190 – TRPA and the Gulf

What does the Gulf oil disaster mean to us here at Lake Tahoe? In a sense that may seem somewhat abstract, it affects everyone in the world – the destruction of human, animal, and plant life and the prospect of a long recovery with concomitant economic effects will reach to everyone in the US, and really in the world. It also once again brings home the disastrous consequences of our national addiction to oil and fossil fuels, and that will affect us here as well.

But I want to consider it in a less abstract sense. On the one hand, we don't drill for oil in the lake, so the likelihood of a sudden destruction of the lake and the shoreline is negligible. On the other hand, there may be lessons to be learned from the Gulf that are very relevant to the Tahoe Basin.

We know that the Lake is losing clarity. Contributors to this include runoff of various materials from the land as well as non-native vegetable and animal species that have found their way into the Lake by various means. It is extremely unlikely that, once these species are in the water, we will ever get them out – the best we can do is manage them so that they don't get worse. We can do and are doing something about runoff, and there is evidence that the rate of decline of the Lake's clarity is decreasing.

Still, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we will fail – that the Lake will lose its clarity and the non-native species will spread and take over and the character of the Lake will change dramatically if not in our lifetime, then in our children's lifetimes, and that the impact of such a decline would not be much less impactful than the disaster in the Gulf.

The one thing we have that the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico don't have is an interstate compact that established an agency to be accountable for the clarity of the Lake and the scenic beauty of the Basin. That agency is, of course, TRPA.

In the famous old saw, a camel is what you would get if a horse were designed by a committee, and for much of its 40-year history, TRPA has functioned like that metaphorical camel. Overseen by a Board of Governors many of whom do not live anywhere near the Basin, and many of whom have seemed to see their job as to protect the interest of their state against the other state, sometimes at the expense of their mission, the Agency has seemed at times (to use another old metaphor) like a librarian who thinks his job is to keep books on the shelves.

Others, including commercial interests, environmental organizations, and self-styled protectors of the Lake, have opposed TRPA, some saying the Agency doesn't do enough, some that it does too much, and all informed by agendas that have less to do with balancing nature's needs with human interests than with what would benefit them. A combination of PR from these narrow interests and the Agency's history of often ensnarling projects in red tape has given residents of the Basin a view of TRPA that is jaundiced at best.

Beginning with John Singlaub's appointment as Executive Director in 2004, and continuing or even accelerating with Joanne Marchetta's succeeding John last year, TRPA has been working hard not just to change its image, but to be more effective in its mission of balancing the "triple bottom line" – people, environment, and business. It's said that a reputation takes years to be established and can be destroyed in a minute. I think it's equally true that a bad reputation can be established in a minute and can take years to be changed. Because of this it's too easy for those individuals and groups who are reflexively opposed to TRPA in pursuit of their own agenda to rally public support for their views, even when those views are wrong or are supported by inaccurate data. TRPA is too often "guilty until proven innocent."

If Florida, Louisiana, et al., had had an agency like TRPA it's possible that the current disaster could have been averted. Maybe it's time we appreciated what we have in TRPA and gave the Agency's new direction a chance.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bonanza Column 189 – The November Elections

Well, the primaries are over and the threat of no seaplane landings on the lake has been repelled, so now we can get down to the serious business of summer, which may have, however tentatively, arrived. Schools are out, the tourists are arriving, and Independence Day is on the horizon.

Still, though, it is an election year, one that is shaping up in an interesting way. The media wisdom about anti-incumbent rage mostly did not pan out in the primaries, though we won't have Jim Gibbons to kick around anymore. Who we will have is, of course, still up for grabs between Brian. Sandoval, and Rory Reid who is, at least for us in Northern Nevada, not exactly a household name. While I am constitutionally inclined to support Reid, I've been impressed with Sandoval when he was Attorney General and that he gave up a lifetime appointment to the Federal Bench to run for Governor is a strong statement, though what that statement is remains to be seen.

More interesting to me is the race for the U.S. Senate. I've said it before and I will continue to say it, Nevada would have to be crazy to trade the most senior position in the Senate for electing what will be one of the most junior Senators in that body. Wherever you stand on Harry Reid's national leadership, there is not denying the facts that he has brought jobs to the state, been proactive on behalf of our senior population, and held Yucca Mountain at bay. If you don't like Reid, put your dislike on hold for as long as it takes to review his actual accomplishments, then see if you want to give up that level of influence for our state.

Then look who you'd be giving it up to get. I can't imagine the Reid campaign would have been unhappy had Sue (chickens for doctors) Lowden had won the primary, but they've got to be ecstatic about Sharron Angle. While she is the darling of the tea party crowd, even if you are a tea partier again set that aside for a few minutes and look at what (besides cutting taxes, which she'll hardly be in a position to do) Ms Angle has publicly advocated – from making alcohol illegal to cutting Social Security, to less (yes, less!) regulation for the banks and oil companies that have been running rampant over the economy and the environment.

Finally, I agree with Jim Clark that it's time for a change in the Washoe County District Attorney's office, though at the end of the day we will probably disagree about who to replace him with, DA Gammick seems to think his job is to stall and obfuscate rather than to execute on the court's decisions in the matter if Incline's tax overpayments. It strikes me as very strange that the chief legal officer of the County seems to think it is his job to use legal chicanery to subvert what the courts, through due process, have found to be the appropriate legal action.

Lord Acton famously said "power corrupts," and for the most part we think of this as moral corruption. Officials of the Minerals Management Service cavorting with oil company executives comes to mind as an example. But there is another, more pernicious form of corruption that occurs when highly placed officials forget who they work for. When corporate executives put profits ahead of the public good (think BP) or when an elected official like Gammick thinks it is his job to protect the county's coffers rather than execute the office to which he was elected, it seems to me that that is as corrupt as any of the other actions.

The question to be asked of the candidates for DA in November election is "do you intend to execute the courts' orders with regard to refunding tax overpayments from IV/CB?"If you are not satisfied with Gammick's response, I recommend to your attention Roger Whomes – he has stated that he is on our side, so let's give him a chance to prove it;

Monday, June 07, 2010

Bonanza Column 188 – Trotsky Was Killed with an Ice Axe

I knew a guy who, back in the '60's used to sell encyclopedias door to door (remember door to door salespeople?). All the salesmen would get together about once a week to play poker, and among them was a guy named Fred, who was a Communist, and not just a Communist, but a Trotskyite, and Trotskyite Communism was about all Fred talked about. Consequently, particularly during poker games, Fred was pretty quiet, because while he knew a lot about his favorite subject, it's pretty hard to work into the conversation at a poker game.

Well, at one of these poker games, the talk turned to people's upcoming vacations, and one of the fellows mentioned he was going camping. As will happen in idle conversation, there ensued a kind of free association, that brought the talk around to winter camping, and from there to the equipment you need for winter camping, and one of the guys mentioned that the most important thing to bring for winter camping was an ice axe. At which point, Fred joined in the conversation, saying "and Trotsky was killed with an ice axe!"
My point is that when you have a particular point of view, you can find a way to use almost anything to bring it up. For example, on the Bonanza's web site this week, the crime log is headlined "Latest Incline crime log includes man cited for stealing a salad." Now anyone who's read this newspaper for any amount of time knows that the Crime Log includes a heavy dose of whimsy – for years now, rather than just listing the crime report, the paper has included some humor – not at the expense of reporting serious crimes, but as a way of lightening it up a bit with what I would call some small-town flavor.

So in this week's report, at the very bottom, after some straightforward reports of some serious incidents, there was the eponymous story of a fellow who had stolen a salad from a convenience store. This is where some of our local "Freds" come in. One commenter on the Bonanza's site cited this headline as proof that the Bonanza doesn't know what journalism is about. Another, in a stretch worthy of Plastic Man (remember Plastic Man?) tied this to the Bonanza's supposed endorsement of IB (though there has been no such endorsement).

Well, it just goes to show you that no attempt at a good deed goes unpunished. The Bonanza tries to retain a "local" flavor and to represent all sides of living here in what Joe Tahoe used to call Tilted Village. Jean Eick does a yeoman's (yeoperson's? yeowoman's?) job of reporting on the community-minded activities and social life of the village, Mac Avoy Layne, the ghost of Mark Twain contributes his unique take on events, Jim Clark and I try to present some aspects of political life here, and the news reporters focus on local events of moment. The Crime Log is kind of like the listing of births at the local hospital that my home-town paper ran every day – just a way of keeping people up on what's happening.

C'mon, Fred(s), lighten up. Serious crime and incidents get covered in the news – arrests, indictments, convictions, ranging from assault to murder, from embezzlement to fraud. You don't have to like it, and I don't know anyone who likes 100% of it, and lest you consider this self-serving, I write a volunteer column here – I have nothing to do with the rest of the paper except to read it as you do, but I think that overall, given the economic and political realities in which they have to work, the folks at the Bonanza do a pretty fair job, including giving the "Freds" among us ample opportunity to swing their particular hammer at anything vaguely resembling what they consider a nail.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Bonanza Column 187 (rev.) – The Technicality Generation

Dear Readers: It turns out that my original Bonanza column posted 5/31, violated the Paper's policy of not publishing direct attacks on candidates within a couple weeks of the election, so I've had to write a new one. I'll re-post my column on Dick Gammick after the primary, assuming he is voted the GOP candidate for Washoe County DA. So you get a bonus column this week. Thanks for reading.



In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator from South Dakota, made a convincing case for the idea that people around his and my age, who were draft-eligible during the Vietnam War, created what he called "The Technicality Generation." In the article, he explained that, for many of us, we avoided being called up using technicalities in the law (student deferments, faked physical or psychiatric disabilities, etc.) while cloaking our aversion to serving in a pretense of idealism – being morally against that war or all wars. He contrasts this with people who (like himself) opposed the war but served when called and others who opposed the war and either left the country or maintained Conscientious Objector status.

Pressler's point is not really about what anyone did or didn't do then – it's actually more important than that. Psychologists have long been aware of the phenomenon called cognitive dissonance – the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas. Studies of this phenomenon since the 1950's have concluded that people are driven to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, so that the two ideas come into harmony with each other (think Aesop's fable of the fox and the "sour grapes"). In the Vietnam Draft case, if a person holds himself to be a moral human being and at the same time knows he used the law to avoid serving (and as a result someone who was less equipped to use the law served in his stead), he will have to find a way to justify or rationalize his behavior. Pressler says, and I agree, that many people used the "letter of the law" as this justification. Technically
they did nothing wrong, so their view of themselves as moral is undisturbed.

As Pressler points out, many of these people, who evaded service while falsely claiming idealism are now leaders in government and elite institutions, and, he goes on, "the concept of using legal technicalities to evade responsibility has been carried over to playing with derivatives, or to short-changing shareholders. Once my generation got in the habit of saying one thing and believing another, it couldn't stop."

As an aside, I want to be clear that neither Pressler nor I are painting all those who did not serve as hypocrites, but in his experience as in mine, there were plenty of our classmates who espoused idealism in public but who, in private, would unself-consciously admit that they did not want to take the time from their academic or career development or just plain did not want to go in harm's way. Eventually they began to believe their own hypocrisy and many came to believe that their "idealism" made them superior to those who did serve, and it is that resolution that is what Pressler refers to as "a deeply insidious thing" that too many in our generation did and got away with.

So we have the current spectacle of BP, Halliburton, et al. hiding behind the letter of the law and evading responsibility, and locally we have Washoe County manipulating the legal system to avoid refunding what court after court have ruled were over-collections of taxes here in Incline, environmental groups trying to block legitimate improvement projects, and on and on.

It's time to put a stop to the antics of "the technicality generation." The Western tradition of the rule of law has always made clear the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law, going back to King Solomon's demonstration ("cut the baby in half") of the difference and before. Laws and regulations are a means to an end, not an end in themselves – they are there to ensure equality and "liberty and justice for all." Einstein said that "all means are but a blunt instrument unless they are infused with a living spirit." The letter of the law taken by itself is indeed blunt and, one might add, cold. When the law is infused with the living spirit of compassion, justice, and equality –t he values we will celebrate on Independence Day when we celebrate the founding of this great experiment in democracy, it can prevent the kind of disasters we have seen over the past ten years of so. If we continue to be "technically correct" without being morally centered as well, I can't help but recall with dread the old proverb: If we don't change our direction, we're liable to get where we're headed.