Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bonanza Column 204 – Let’s Get Smarter, not Dumber

There is an old adage that says "all of us is smarter than any of us," reflecting the view that people thinking together will come up with better solutions to a problem than individuals, however expert, thinking separately. James Surowiecki, among other things the Economics columnist for The New Yorker undertook a study to see if this adage held water, and if it did, under what conditions did it obtain? He published the results of his research in a 2003 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Overall, his conclsions were positive – under the right conditions, a group will, indeed, come up with smarter answers to a questions or solutions to a problem than would have been yielded by its smartest member(s) thinking alone.

It's the "right conditions" that are the sticking point. First of all, the group must be of sufficient size and at the same time not unwieldy in its size. Second, the group rules of engagement must maximize free, open, and honest interchange. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the group must embody sufficient diversity of thought. In fact, the "smartest" groups include people who know little or nothing about the subject at hand as well as experts – these na├»ve individuals bring a fresh point of view and ask questions that would not occur to the experts. As Surowiecki details, the results of groups of experts with no diversity of thought can be disastrous as in the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Challenger disaster, where "groupthink" let to calamitous results.

Unfortunately, the current political climate does not seem to be making anyone smarter. We are facing critical issues – the economy, jobs, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and the advise and train mission in Iraq, Iran and its wacko leader, the Middle East conflict, the continued discrimination against Gay and Lesbian Americans, anti-Muslim prejudice, the list goes on. These issues demand the best of our thinking and seem too often to get our worst. What is missing is, first and foremost, any real commitment to thinking together. We have stopped talking to each other, and more importantly we have stopped listening to each other. Conservatives have their favorite voices to listen to – whether it's Limbaugh and Beck or Krauthammer and Kristol, and Liberals have equally narrow pass-bands, limited to Olbermann and Maddow or Moore and Daily Kos. On both ends of the political spectrum we are engaged in something dangerously close to groupthink, and that does not bode well for solving our problems.

As importantly, this refusal to listen to views other than our own leaves both sides vulnerable to cynical manipulators whose agendas may have nothing to do with our best interests. I'm not privy to what the Florida "pastor" was trying to accomplish by his threat to burn copies of the Qu'ran, but what he did accomplish was to instantly polarize a national debate that was way out of proportion to anything he could actually accomplish, and to get people killed 8.000 miles away. Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's "marches," while satirical in intent, are likely to attract non-satirical arguments, and so it goes – debate rules and the opportunity for dialogue is lost.

Here in Incline we have pro-and anti-IB, along with the Reid-Angle and Reid-Sandoval and Whomes-Gammick forces arrayed against each other, and in the words of W.H. Auden, "each ear is listening to its own hearing, so none hears," and as in the national debate, this leaves us open to outsiders with their own agenda coming in to manipulate the situation. With two weeks before early voting begins, and about a month until the election season is over, it's not too late to start listening to each other and getting smarter about what is best for our community, not for people in New York or Washington who are looking out for other interests.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bonanza Column 203 – Washoe County’s a Circus and the DA is the Chief Clown

Ya gotta love Washoe County – for sheer entertainment value it's better than a three-ring circus. We have over 400 homeless veterans in the County, a mere fraction of the homeless population, we have the Tax Revolt's Supreme Court decisions that the County simply refuses to honor, we have Reno and Sparks in a "no you won't-yes I will" battle over consolidation (while the rest of us seem to be marginalized in the argument), and if all the other laughs fail, we have DA Dick Gammick.

First the non-Gammick entertainment: According to a story in Friday's Gazette-Journal, our County Commissioner, John Breternitz, has instituted an inquiry into why, if someone wants to volunteer to keep up County parks in the face of the budget cutbacks, that person has to fill out a five-page application and submit to a police background check. Breternitz, who generally brings a lot of common sense to the matter of governing, applies that common sense here and suggests that maybe if someone wants to weed a couple of days a month, the County could make it easier for them.


 

According to the RG-J report, "David Watts-Vial, Washoe assistant district attorney, explained that the county application, which includes several pages of information, is extensive because volunteers may come in contact with children. The county could be sued if it doesn't weed out volunteers with criminal histories who could present a danger to children, he said."


 

Now I don't know Mr. Watts-Vial. He may be a perfectly good lawyer and a good guy, but he reports to the aforementioned Mr. Gammick, so we can reasonably ask if there is more here than meets the eye. If you parse his statement carefully, it doesn't hold water. If protecting children were the priority, why would we make the bar high for volunteers when any registered sex offender can come into the park, sit on a bench, and do whatever? No, like so much of the DA's office's activities, it's about covering the County's legal butt. I realize that this is a legitimate function of the DA's office, but as Breternitz put it, in this case it's bureaucracy run amok. Gammick, it seems, puts the interests of the County bureaucracy ahead of its (and his) duty to its citizens.


 

Speaking of the DA, in a recent debate with his opponent, Roger Whomes, Gammick refused to say that he would serve out his term if elected, and said that if he did not, he would pass the office to his first assistant. He disingenuously said his health might go bad while at the same time saying his health is great (even though he had a 7 way bypass 10 years ago and his heart stopped 7 times about a year ago, and he has a pacemaker). Gammick is known to have been grooming Assistant DA Roger Helzer to succeed him – Helzer has never tried a case in 15 years in the DA's office.

Gammick also has recently stated that he will not allow an internal audit of his office's books because the person who the County wanted to do it "is not an attorney and would not understand what they do".  Mr. DA, in case you're not clear about it, audits aren't done by attorneys but by accountants, and they don't need to understand what you do – they understand accounting and its partner, accountability. Rumors are circulating about how the Victims of Crime Fund money is used (the Nye County DA was recently arrested for misuse of same) and Gammick admits he has funds within his control that he will not let anyone into. So much for being accountable to the people who elected him.

 Gammick's propensity to be a loose cannon is clear and on the record. He has made armed traffic stops which the DA has no legal right to do, he has run off at the mouth repeatedly about court cases and judges, and generally has an irresponsible relationship to the law, to accountable, and to the public.


 

Roger Whomes, who is running as a Democrat because that's the only way he can run, is a good guy with a clean record including five years in the Police. Don't let the fact that he's running on the D side of the ballot stop you – the DA's office should be a non-partisan race to begin with, so rather than looking at the label, look at the ingredients – Gammick is just too toxic for the County to afford.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bonanza Column 202 – Political Potpourri

A roundup of political items too short to get a column of their own. Early voting starts in a month – don't forget to register and vote and to attend the Bonanza Forums.

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While my column on Sharron Angle raised hackles among far-right correspondents to last week's Bonanza, it still confounds me that anyone who claims to have half an intellect can support her. Some of the criticism was, I think, over the top. For example if, as Don Kaplan says, having a strong preference for Democrats means that I would "vote for a terrorist if he ran as a Democrat," then presumably the same could be said for anyone who is a loyal Republican, and I doubt that's what my friend Don meant. Anyhow, Friday is Yom Kippur and I'll forgive him.

Mostly, though, it seems that the best argument anyone can muster for Angle is that she's not Harry Reid. I can appreciate that politically and philosophically one can be opposed to Senator Reid, but for a Nevadan to vote is an extremist nonentity just in order to defeat an arguably competent and experienced senator you don't agree with is a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Most of Angle's support is from out of state, and those folks could care less what happens to Nevada.

In her latest display of non-professionalism, Angle, on Jon Ralston's TV show, challenged Reid to a debate on this show. The challenge to debate, in Reno, on October 21st, was unambiguous – it's on video and you can watch it for yourself. Angle's Deputy Campaign Manager then confirmed the debate. All good, until Reid accepted and confirmed he would be there. Then, without explanation, Angle withdrew from the debate she requested. You figure it out – I can't.

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When he ran for the Assembly in 1994, Brian Sandoval told the Reno Gazette-Journal "I would oppose a voucher system to the extent it would allow taxpayer money to be diverted to private schools." Now, in his run for Governor, he is proposing a system of vouchers that would take more than $100 million from 96% of the children of Nevada – that's the percentage who attend public schools – to support the 4% who attend private schools.

The sad thing is that Assembly Candidate Sandoval had it right – a voucher system diverts taxpayer money to private schools and, in addition, offers an incentive for the best and brightest students to leave the public school system. I actually don't have much of a problem with politicians changing their positions when they get educated and take a better position, but flip-flopping from a good position to a bad one smacks of cynicism – in this case pandering to the Tea Party crowd.

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In case you missed it, NewsCorp, which owns Fox News, went public recently with its support of the Republican Party to the tune of $1 million. For years commentators on the Left have been saying that Fox was, for all intents and purposes, the publicity arm of the GOP and this confirms it. So that we're clear, Fox has advocated such back to the future moves as repeal of Medicare and Medicaid, repeal of the 16th and 17th Amendments (that would be the Income Tax and direct election of Senators), the ADA, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, elimination of nuclear arms control, labor unions, women's right to choose abortion, elimination of the Department of Education and unemployment insurance, the EPA, and progressive taxation. Hmm… sounds like Sharron Angle's platform.

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As of this writing on September 10th, the case of the Pastor (his congregation is 50 people – I have more followers than that on Twitter – in Florida who is threatening to burn copies of the Qu'ran for reasons that are unclear to me is unresolved. Despite appeals from Gen. Petraeus, other Christian clergy, non-Christian clergy, and others, he seems to think he can use his threat as a bargaining chip to get the non-mosque that is not at Ground Zero moved to be even more not at Ground Zero. Funny, though, when he started, he never mentioned the non-mosque. That started after Palin, Gingrich, and other wingnuts (surprised we haven't heard from Angle on this) started conflating the two issues – you gotta hand it to Pastor Jones – he has a knack for getting media attention.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Bonanza Column 201 – Labor (sic) Day 2010

In addition to the usual melancholy associated with the "official end of summer," this year's Labor Day observance brings with it, for me at least, a particularly poignant reminder of the current state of the economy in the US in general and in Nevada in particular.

Labor unions, once a major positive force advocating for the working class have fallen into disrepute. Some of this is their own fault, with too many instances of corruption and greed on the part of unscrupulous union leaders, and too many instances of "protecting" their members against job insecurity by ignoring intelligent practices of workers' being accountable for producing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. In too many instances unions have failed to advocate for all workers, regardless of race or gender, and this has contributed to their loss of the standing they had a century or so ago.

But it's not all the unions' fault. Management and business ownership have, from the beginning, resisted unions' legitimate efforts on behalf of their members where those efforts might increase their expenses and thus cut into profits. In recent years big companies have been particularly ready to demonize unions when the unions used their voices to object to US jobs going overseas and to the radical disjunction between executive ( particularly CEO) pay and what was being paid to labor.

During the major economic bubbles of the last 20 years – the dotcom bubble of the '90's and the housing bubble of the 20's, ordinary Americans, who have traditionally identified themselves with the middle class began to think like the upper classes – the CEOs and financiers. Maybe the euphoria of the bubbles along with the spate of paper millionaires of the dotcom era created the illusion that we could all become part of the wealthy class, but for whatever reason, we seem to have started to think that CEOs and Wall Street types are entitled to amass wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, and if they are entitled, then maybe we are also Thinking this way, a great many of the middle class oxymoronically tried to borrow their way into wealth – a way of thinking that built Las Vegas, but not one that will build an economy, as we've seen.

The unions are attempting a comeback – advocating for health care reform, retention and return of US jobs, and for the Employee Freedom of Choice Act which will afford the opportunity for workers to choose to join unions on their own, while still allowing employers to conduct their own canvasses to determine employee sentiment about joining – in other words the employers lose nothing while the workers gain a bit more freedom to initiate the process on their own, with the results binding on the employers if a majority choose to unionize. Under current law, employers are not required to take as determinative their workers' signed authorization forms designating a union as their representative and may insist that the workers use a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board to establish their union "even if 100% of the employees provide the NLRB with signed authorizations designating the union as their bargaining agent." The EFCA would allow workers to have their union certified as their bargaining agent by the NLRB if a majority of them have signed valid authorizations."

Naturally employers, particularly large companies that have made it their business to keep unions out, oppose this. Former Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus went so far as to predict the "demise of civilization" if this basically democratic process were to be instituted. More likely it would lead to a re-empowerment of labor in the face of corporate greed and the possibility of restoring sanity and balance to a system that stacks the deck in favor of the wealthy and powerful and leaves the majority of us (whatever our champagne wishes and caviar dreams) in the dust. The average Nevadan, and there are quite a lot of us, even here in Income Village, needs to realize that the Carly Fiorinas and Meg Whitmans and Bernie Marcuses of the world really don't have out best interests in mind, and that maybe "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" isn't a viable option for 95+% of us. The working class and the middle class are the backs on which the plutocrats stand, and maybe it's time we stood up.