Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Suggestion #18: Time to do something about gerrymandering

Posting two-a day in order to finish by the end of New Years' day. Please check in case you've missed any entries in this series!
Amid all the attention given to the presidential election, something politically earth shaking went almost unnoticed, in California, where Proposition 11 imposed neutral redistricting upon the state.  Since this change will be much to the detriment of the majority Democratic party, it amounted to a stunning act of civic minded fairness on the part of a largely Democratic electorate.  One almost certain result will be the loss of Democratic seats in Congress and the state legislature, in 2010.

This clearly moves gerrymandering up to the front burner of American politics. Indeed, few other issues merit greater urgency than solving a desperate injustice, one that has contributed greatly to America’s political and social jeopardy.

(Part of a 12/08 series of unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)

From the Weekly Standard:”The practice of drawing less than honest legislative boundaries is as old as the republic itself. It got its name in 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who went on to become Madison's vice president, signed a redistricting bill that positioned his Jeffersonian Democrats in the legislature to take seats from the Federalists by concentrating their supporters in a minimum number of districts. The Boston Gazette ran a cartoon depicting the new district as a contorted animal and proclaiming the "Gerry-mander, a new species of monster."

Since then, the monster has thrived and been used by successive major parties. New mapping software has made gerrymandering easier and more precise in eliminating competition to incumbents. Incoming Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, opined: "Every redistricting is a partisan political exercise, but this is going to put it at a level we have never seen. That's the gift that the Supreme Court and Tom DeLay have given us.”

 Effects are blatant.  For example, despite this being a "landslide" year for Democrats, safe districting ensured that they would gain only 18 net seats (out of 435) in the House of Representatives. This malignant sickness is also responsible for some of the radicalization of most Republican -- and many Democratic -- officeholders, who need only cater to their districts’ rabid base and can safely ignore the clear desire of most Americans for pragmatic moderation.

What the California bombshell suggests is that the Democratic Party will NOT enjoy the fruits of further gerrymandering. It may even suffer, if more blue states follow this course.
 This puts the democratic officeholders in a bind.  As individuals, they love their gerried districts.  As legislators, statesmen, party members and Americans, they should loathe and take up arms against this horrid practice. See a detailed series, analyzing gerrymandering from top to bottom.

One solution might be for President Obama -- or several governors -- to call a meeting of all states, encouraging them to negotiate among themselves a uniform method (as they did with the Uniform Business Code) for ending a modern travesty. Recalcitrant states can be pressured with both lawsuits and a persistent information campaign. Doing this in an evenhanded manner could use the standard method -- independent redistricting commissions.

Or, a far more clever approach would simply require minimal overlap between state assembly, state senate and Congressional districts.  This solution would instantly transform politics for all of us, in all our neighborhoods and eliminate the evils of gerrymnandering at a stroke, while minimizing interference in the authority of legislatures.   It may be hard, at first, to visualize, but let it sink in.

As I said in a much longer essay on this topic, I hold out little hope for gerrymandering to be eliminated by politicians, without intense outside pressure. At one level, there is all the difference in the world between good and bad politicians, and we have reason to hope that good ones are now entering power.

But, at another level, they are all members of a political caste that has been complicit in the gerrymandering scam. If President Obama really wants to prove he is above this kind of thing, he could start in no better place.

==Continue to Suggestion 19: Consider a few Crackpot Items

==Return to the beginning of the series: Unusual suggestions for American and the Obama administration 

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


These suggestions have, more often than not, steered toward pragmatic problem solving and away (mostly) from partisan matters. Frankly, I dislike having to line up with a particular party on all issues and very often seek themes that cut away at unusual angles. (I even once keynoted a Libertarian Party National Conference!)

And yet... can there be any doubt who has to win, in the near-term, if the treason called “culture war” is to be cured and sensible negotiation resume in America? Until decent conservatives gather the courage to perform their own “Miracle of 1947” and reclaim their movement from the loonies who hijacked it, we really have no choice (alas) but to offer help, advice and passionate support to the Democrats... and to hope that this will be one of their better (less flaky) eras.

And so, to politics!  Let’s start with some ideas I posted back in December 2006 -- Suggestions to The New Democratic Congress. 

Alas, the first term of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House featured almost no accomplishments at all. Sure, it is convenient to blame Senate GOP filibusters and presidential vetoes, but we have to insist that the 2008 Congress will show more guts, verve, imagination and hard work.

Here’s a brief remise of some of those 2006 ideas (with others set aside for my “crackpot suggestions” segment, at the very end.):

* Adjust house rules to limit "pork" -- the earmarking of tax dollars that benefit special interests or specific districts. Wasn’t this a favorite issue of Jophn McCain?  Terrific!  Then steal this issue out from under Republican noses. (I’ll have more to say about this, next time.) Some ways to do this:

- reduce pork allocations from 15,000 down to 1,000 (the number allocated last time Democrats ran Congress)... or even a symbolically redolent limit of one earmark per member, per year.

- require that all future earmarks come from a single pool, no larger than one tenth of a percent of the discretionary budget.

- insist they be placed in clearly-marked and severable portions of a bill, weeks before it’s voted on.

* Spread the power of subpoena -- and include the minority party.

Here’s a note to Congressional Democrats; remember, a day will come when you’ll be back on the outs. Now is the time to set permanent precedents, that ensure you’ll still have a little power to poke after truth, when that happens. Establish processes NOW so that even a congressional minority can hold some future Bush-like administration at least somewhat accountable!

One way would be to give today’s GOP minority what they never had the maturity to give you -- the general power to summon witnesses and demand some answers, even when a party is out of power.

There is no way that Speaker Pelosi and the leadership will want to do this, now that the GOP is reduced to an irksome nuisance.  Still, please think about it.  Just giving them the right to grill a few people won’t let them do much mischief to an open and honest and competent Obama Administration.  Meanwhile, such a precedent could guarantee we’ll never again have an era as dark as the Bush years, without the other side getting to light some candles.

Here’s an idea. Allow any three representatives to jointly issue one subpoena per year, beyond those voted by committees -- and provide a venue with some staff support. One for every three members -- that's 140 member-chosen testimonies... maybe sixty a year from the minority party. A large enough number to make sure that pokes-at-truth will keep going on, even during eras when a single party machine dominates every branch of government. And yet, it's small enough not to disrupt House business too much.  See details.

* Do something ruthless about K Street.   For about fifty reasons.  And you know them all.  Above all, to make sure the old “revolving door” turns into ashes in their mouths. Enough said.

* Take a sensible next step toward public financing of elections. Of course, it has to be in stages.  But respected scholar Lawrence Lessig makes a strong case for a method that would free all Congressmen and Congresswomen from the hundreds of hours of fundraising they must do, every year, making their lives more livable and allowing them to go back to deliberation, instead of relentless sucking-up.  Lessig’s proposal seems plausible and within reach.  Indeed, something like it may be necessary, if a gerrymandering reform takes place (See next time.)

* Reduce secrecy. Say it.  Do it.  Stand by it.

* The Henchman's Act has a provocative name, but the aim is simple. A permanent office might be created, outside the justice or intelligence communities, that will confidentially and securely advise any person, in America or around the world, who may be thinking about revealing information about bad activities, including those that are illegal or harmful to the people, or that impair the effective operation of justice, democracy, or fair markets. According to each individual's needs, the informant may be steered toward intelligence or law-enforcement services, or toward open source networks, or even toward mass media.  Judiciously, some varying types of protection and/or rewards would be made available to brave whistleblowers. Yes, this one will confuse some people.  But I hope it will percolate in the minds of some.

* An Elections Reform Act will ensure that the nation's voting take splace in a manner that citizens can trust and verify. Political interference in elections will be a federal crime. Strong auditing procedures and transparency will be augmented by a requirement that all voting machines and associated software belong to the People and shall be subjected to relentless open-source testing. States will be encouraged to try a variety of incentives to encourage greater (and more secure) voter registration and participation in elections.  Negotiate a compromise with decent conservatives, so that their fears over voter fraud are addressed, too.

* Now, while gas prices are low, take an advantage of an opportunity to switch from a cents-per-gallon tax to a percentage tax!  This can be revenue neutral at the time it is enacted!  But when gas prices rise, so would revenues.

Another option, do a tradeoff of higher gas tax vs lowered FICA, since both mostly affect the middle class.

* Start thinking about how to end the catastrophic Drug War.  Start a series of nationwide open town halls to explore whether it is politically possible to do something about this endless quagmire. Make it a matter of medicine and science.  Start building quiet consensus, so that, if Obama succeeds at his first wave of endeavors, this can be addressed in the next wave.  Consider the possibility of state-by-state experiments.

* Reinstate something like the Fairness Doctrine of the airwaves.  It doesn’t have to be the old one.  But something!

My reason is deadly serious and has nothing to do with party politics. Today, you can drive across many parts of the country -- and it is no coincidence that these sections are “red” -- without hearing any breadth of opinion, news, fact or commentary.  Radio, in these regions, feautures only the most bile-drenched and horrific hate fests.

We need to remember what happened in the years that led up to the first American Civil War.
Before the breakout of hostilities in 1861, there was a similar absolute uniformity of rabble-roused opinion, all across the South, where even a slight effort to widen the debate led to the mob-torching of newspapers and the smashing ot their presses.  (In contrast, there were “copperhead” or Democratic Party newspapers and broadsheets available in most Northern areas.)  Remember, also, that Timothy McVeigh lived immersed in such uniformity.  If we want to end this phase of the Civil War, instead of seeing it burst into conflagration, the best tool is to encourage diversity of input and a spirit of peaceful argument.

Continue to Suggestion #18: Time to do something about Gerrymandering...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Truth & Reconciliation Addendum: How radical might it all get?

Following up on the last two unconventional suggestions, with a little deep perspective.  All this talk about dealing with recent crimes and “truth commissions” has got me thinking about the Big Picture Context -- where all this may fit in the epic of human history.  So let’s take a little time to play thought experiment.

Suppose we discover the worst, to our blinking, unbelieving dismay, is worse than we ever imagined. What if the coming wave of revelations really rocks us back in stunned dismay.

Thomas Jefferson said that each generation must hammer together a new and revolutionary set of methods to use, in vigorously defending freedom.  One reason for this is that technologies and other social factors change, requiring new and innovative solutions.  Also, the “solutions” of a previous generation often get spoiled or suborned by new waves of parasites, who learn how to twist them to their advantage.

Take the way agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and the Bell System all started with the intent of overcoming monopolistic abuses, but wound up being “captured” by the industries they were supposed to regulate.  Hence a little known historical fact -- that it was the Democratic Party, particularly under Jimmy Carter, who performed the biggest and most effective deregulations in U.S. history, by breaking up all three of these calcified entities and several others, restoring healthy competition to railroads, trucking, airlines, telecommunications and many other fields.

(In contrast, GOP-led ‘deregulations’ in S&Ls, banking, securities and mortgage lending all led directly to locust-swarms of loophole-using vampirism. The clear lesson of history: if you want decent de-regulation, that both reduces government meddling and fosters open, honest competition, ask Dems to do it.)

Or witness what happened to the supposedly “progressive” income tax. An innovation that appreciably limited aristocratic power for a while, but now seems fine-tuned to serve the interests of a newer aristocratic clade—one that grew up knowing every twist in the creaky and arcane and outdated law.

Why do I raise this now?  Because we do not yet know how deep the rot goes, how far parasitic tentacles have penetrated, during the last decade.  Suppose Special Prosecutors or a “truth commission” were to reveal something truly pervasive and nasty?  Might our leaders try to hide this information from us, for our own good? (See #16.)  Or, if it’s revealed, might people be so radicalized they demand draconian, even revolutionary measures?

This is the ultimate, illogical foolishness of insatiable/rapacious, top-level parasitism.  Aristocrats who think they are mutant-smart (instead of merely lucky) tend to assume they are immune to history.  That cyclical patterns can never apply to them, or that sheep don’t look up. Or that tumbrels can never again roll through the streets.

Time for a historical factoid. At around the time of the 1775 uprising that sparked the American Revolution, vast sections (up to half) of the colonies of Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were owned by individual families under charters granted by the British crown. The great landlords were mostly royal cronies - personal friends of the king - who never even visited their vast new fiefs. (Such cronyism was cited by Adam Smith as the great destroyer of free markets, rather than socialism, which he considered a much less worrisme threat.)

How did that earlier generation of Founders solve the problem? Certainly seizure of some Tory assets had a great deal to do with the breakup of those grossly unfair, unearned estates -- and such things might happen again, if the People must rise up against a new feudalism. Still, mass confiscation is a bludgeon, at-best unreliable. Often, it only leads to a new class of meddling masters, even worse than those who came before.

Fortunately the main rebalancing technique that was used, just after the revolution was far gentler and less socialistic. Across the 1780s and 1790s, many states passed laws against “primogeniture"... the automatic inheritance of all real property and titles by the eldest son.

That was it.  Simple.  But it sufficed.

Recall that primogeniture had been a strong tradition, that let aristocratic wealth and power remain concentrated in a few families.  Hence, for a generation, American society (through consensus political action) stepped in to severely limit a landowner's right to decide which of his children would receive what. Instead, for a while, the law demanded equal distribution among all offspring.

It sounds meddlesome and anathema to libertarian principles. Yet, without such innovations, America would have started as a true feudal-oligarchy. But thanks to anti-primogeniture laws, within two generations all the remaining giant estates had broken down to fair economic units, without much actual confiscation, by simple division of inheritance among large families.

The result: a win-win situation. Profit motive was retained and wealth continued to be a draw for innovators, yet aristocracy was forestalled. Moreover, having done its job, the solution was then allowed to wither away! Today, by phrasing a will correctly, a man or woman can bequeath to whichever child he or she likes best.

Why do I raise this now?  Making this posting so long that hardly anybody will have reached this point anyway?

Because we were blessed, since the era of George Marshall, with an era that featured the flattest social structure in human history, a period without major class conflict, dominated by a highly mobile and empowered middle class.  One in which by far a majority of American millionaires were “self-made” through having delivered competitive goods or services or innovations. A time when billionaires left far more to their foundations than to hyper-privileged offspring.

But we need to prepare against the very real possibility that we’re re-entering a more “normal” period of history.  One riven by steep cliffs of disparity of and inherited privilege -- tendencies that appear to be rooted in human nature and our genes. The very same trends that ruined free markets and democracy in hundreds of other nations and eras. Precisely the trends that the Enlightenment was invented to resist.

 This could be our generation’s time of testing.

Just suppose that it is so, then we have a duty.  We must emulate our pragmatic reformer ancestors and avoid the excesses seen in France, Germany, Russia and China and so many other places, where anti-artistocracy uprisings went too fgar.  Where they radicalized and then turned monstrous, in their own right. Resisting the tempting allure of class hatred and simplistic ideology, we should recall that nothing good ever came of the hoary and stupid and utterly destructive/insane so-called “left-right political axis.” It has nothing to tell us. Toss it out! (After all, isn’t it... French?)

No. If we find our nation slipping into an age-old human failure mode -- if some fraction of the monied elites... if disloyal capitalists and kleptocratic thieves... are doing the same-old, tiresomely predictable human thing that over-privileged fools have done in most eras -- trying to turn their advantages permanent, into something like feudalism -- that doesn’t automatically make the answer socialism!

Indeed, I doubt very many Democrats -- and certainly not the pragmatists currently running the party -- lean that way, even slightly.  After all, Adam Smith would be a Democrat, today.

No, if we do find ourselves in such a crisis, forced to reconsider the fate of class and nation on a basic level, well, there are many details of capitalism that might be revised. But we are Americans. No one ever benefited more from the positive side of markets  We can and must do as our ancestors did, when they faced similar problems.  Fine-tuning in ways punish the wicked and prevent feudalism while still incentivizing the creative and dynamically inventive!  Ways that serve to stimulate new and brighter and better and more competitive/creative markets.

We need to save and care for the baby, even if the bathwater stinks.

Every generation of Americans has had to strike the balance in new ways.  We need to gird ourselves with courage, imagination, goodwill, pragmatism, dedication and plenty of good old common sense

--Continue to Suggestion #17: Political matters

Suggestion 16: More Truth and Reconciliation - Will President Obama soft pedal bringing some crooks to justice?

Last time, we talked about the need to bring light to the festering skullduggeries that were rife, during the last eight years -- either through official malfeasance or private turpitude that was fostered and enabled by a general atmostmere of lawlessness. Many people are frothing for a time of comeuppance. For a fierce and ferociously determined version of this drive, see -- Justice after Bush:Prosecuting an outlaw administration, by Scott Horton, in Harpers.  Nice to see folks out there who make me seem mild and moderate. forgiving.

Of course, much of the tone will be set by President Barack Obama.  I have no private window to the President-Elect’s inner thoughts.  Having discussed, last time, the curing benefits of light, let me admit that he might choose a different tack -- to quash some scandalous revelations about Bush era travesties.

One can picture the lowest of reasons -- in order to gain leverage with many of the top players in the New Aristocracy.  Yes, BHO seems to have the smallest list of IOUs of anyone ever elected to the presidency.  Still, he’s human and that means keeping a corner of our minds skeptical.

Or, perhaps, some members of his circle have already been suborned, either by direct corruption or by the kind of blackmail trap that I caution against in another place.  (If I could grab the lapel of every single young idealist, now heading for Washington, and force them to read one thing, it would be this desperately urgent warning!)

Or else -- more likely -- Barack Obama may go to the opposite extreme, and justify downplaying the full extent of recent crimes, with the highminded purpose expressed by Frederick March, when he played President Lyman in Seven Days in May... preferring that the American people never learn how terribly they were betrayed, in order to maintain the beneficial illusion that we truly are a blessed nation, somehow above the dismal and fetid cesspools of corruption that spoiled Rome and so many other empires.

(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.)”

Indeed, we already have some evidence that this kind of thinking is at work.  Certainly much more went on than the public ever knew, a couple of years ago, when a large number of generals and admirals must have staged some kind of work action or warning that forced George Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, as Secretary of Defense, prying immature fingers off the tiller of national survival.

Anybody else -- any other group -- would have blabbed or bragged afterward, but not the flag officers.  Their subsequent stony silence over what happened may represent their loyal effort to preserve a sacred image... that of total and perpetual subservience to civilian authority.  A supremely honorable, if frustratingly mysterious event, for which (if it really happened) we owe the officer corps, a lot.  (See#9)

President Obama may decide to not to pursue Bush-era dirt, for some reason like that.  And, if so, I suppose I can understand...

...but no.  I am author of The Transparent Society. So which side of all of this do you expect me to come down on, in the end? 

Judge Louis Brandeis said that “light is the best disinfectant.”  It is also the one great advantage of an open society.   People find it all too easy to come up with rationalizations not to step under the glare.  It is a trap of human nature, and even decent leaders are tempted by secrecy. But there comes a point when sunshine becomes our only hope

Steady progress toward light is what makes us healthier, when all other forms of government shrivel under the naked sun.

--Continue to Truth and Reconciliation Addendum: How radical might it all get?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Suggestion 15: “Truth and Reconciliation?”

It’s time to explore one of many political minefields that lie in front of President Barack Obama, and some of the hardest tradeoffs he must face.

Yes, American national governance may finally be back in the hands of grownups, who (by all appearances, so far) consider power something to be used in a pragmatic search for the common good, rather than as an ultimate goal, in itself. Yet, Mr. Obama and the Democrats cannot ignore some facts of life:

1) Amid an atmosphere of rancorous culture war, we cannot expect the core rulers of the GOP to negotiate in good faith, as a loyal opposition. They can read the election results and demographic trends -- e.g. the surge in young and latino and other minority voters, who seem poised to give strong generational loyalty to the Democratic Party.  There is also a rising education effect -- the higher the fraction of Americans who get a college degree and beyond, the more devastating things look for a party that deliberately paints itself as biliously anti intellectual.

Given also that the Republican “big tent coalition” is in danger of shredding under the strain of internal contradictions (e.g. libertarians vs bedroom police, budget balancers vs supply-side wastrels, and freemarketers vs kleptocrats) the party would seem to have only one hope -- a catastrophic failure of the Obama Presidency.

(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)

It is either that or try to revitalize conservatism, back into a constructive force in American life -- a strenuous and painful task.  One that I fervently believe possible! (See elsewhere my article about “The Miracle of 1947”.)   Rather than dangerously leaving all asseriveness in democratic hands, a rejuvenated “adult conservatism” could have a great deal to contribute to our national negotiations.  Still, who would be so naive as to bet thatRupert Murdoch won’t order his boys at Fox to go for the Obama Failure Option -- even if America suffers, as a result?

2) President Obama could not have hoped for a better “before” picture to enter office with. Despite contortions floated by Coulter and Limbaugh, it’s clear that blame for our current mess will fall on the Bush era and the GOP’s swing down Loony Lane.  Indeed, the public may give Obama extra time to dig us out of this hole, perhaps avoiding the usual electoral setback for the presidential party, in 2010.  Hence,almost any “after” picture ought to look good, by comparison.

Of course, there are wild cards.  For example, how many scandals await public revelation, once eight thousand Bush appointees no longer obstruct the FBI and other civil servants from doing their jobs?  (See suggestions #6&7.)  What if these disclosures come as rapidly as they have in November and December, when we successively learned that CitiBank concealed billions in off-book assets, that Bernard Madoff was sheltered, in his Ponzi scheme, by a complicit SEC, and that federal regulators actively helped IndyMac engage in outrageously illegal, secret practices?  How much of the iceberg is yet to be discovered... and how much more damage to our Titanic?

A lot may depend on what George Bush does with his power to pardon.  Elsewhere I talk about how Democrats ought to do some hurried contingency planning, in case Bush unleashes a “tsunami” of get-out-of-jail-free cards for cronies and potential stool pigeons.  If this happens... and especially if it doesn’t... The Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress face a critical decision:

3) ”Shall we vigorously pursue the truth about the full range of dark activities that went on, under he dark tenure of George W. Bush?

There are serious concerns to balance.  On the one hand, yanking malfeasance and betrayal-of-trust into the spotlight can have a cleansing effect.

* It would punish the wicked and serve as a warning against anyone ever again so horrifically abusing power -- treating the U.S. people and government as an enemy fiefdom, to be ravished and raided at will.

* There might also be a chance to recover substantial amounts of restitution... ill gotten gains that rightfully belong to American citizens. Especially if “emergency” contracts awarded during the Iraq War can be proved to be sweetheart deals. (See #12)

* It could help galvanize decent conservatives in their coming effort to purge their movement of the immature (at best) elements that hijacked it, for so many years.  No single event might benefit the United States more.

* And, of course, proof of systematic criminality on the part of Bush backers could help reinforce the Democrats’ image as the cleaner, preferable party.

But there is also danger in that very advantage. One of Barack Obama’s chief goals -- and a top priority for anyone who genuinely loves America -- must be to end Culture War and return our nation to its tradition of practical negotiation among citizens and groups, bridging our ideological gulfs with genuine goodwill.   In effect, emulating Abraham Lincoln and -- with malice toward none -- ending phase three of America’s Civil War.

This great project of national healing could be made more difficult, if “red” America perceives wave after wave of Republicans plunged into indictment or prison -- whether or not there is copious proof against them.  Oh, but the irony!  Especially since a real witch hunt, extending across fourteen years, costing upwards toward a billion dollars, diverting public resources and involving Vesuvius-spews of bile from talk-radio hosts across the land, never resulted in a single Clinton era official ever being imprisoned or even indicted for actual crimes having to do with malfeasance in the performance of their official duties.  Not one, ever.

 To a scientist, this would come as close to “disproof by failure to find supporting evidence” as one could get.  (Absence of evidence can be evidence of absence, when the search for evidence was so relentless and thorough.) Indeed, the implication -- galling to all of my Republican friends -- is that the Clintonites were not only the most honest governing clade in US history, but in the history of government on Earth.

(Disagree?  Then come up with another explanation that comes anywhere near as close to satisfying Occam’s Razor!)

Ironic, also -- any flood of revelations about Bush era corruption should unfold as a natural consequence of FBI agents and civil servants no longer being impeded in their normal duties.  Or as a result of attention drawn to pardoned individuals.  Or because whistleblowers will feel safe, at last.  Even so, it would spur howls of an Obama-instigated inquisition.

The crux?  President Obama and the Congressional Democrats should divide any push for investigations aside from both the White House and the Congressional leadership, while ensuring that truth-finding and revelation moves ahead, in ways that strike at least a large majority of Americans as fair and above-board.

One method? Try the independent Inspector General of the United States approach I recommended earlier (see#7).  Or consider the “truth and reconciliation commissions” that have worked overseas e.g. South Africa, with a credibly bipartisan look and feel.  Especially if there are a lot of last-minute Bush pardons.

In fact, some potential pardon recipients may think twice about taking up one of those safety-from-jail cards.  Because, once they have been pardoned-in-advance, they can no longer claim the Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination, if subpoenaed to testify, either before Congress or an empaneled truth commission.  Any evasion of full disclosure can be cited as contempt of Congress.  And there will be no possibility at all - having accepted such a pre-pardon -- of appealing to the court of public opinion.

Indeed, I recommended that Congress consider a bill that could hem in (without trying to eliminate) Bush’s pardoning power, by defining any pardon as only applying to actions that the pardonee freely avows, admits and describes in detail.  See elsewhere for details.  This trick -- an ironically appropriate reversal of Bush’s “signing statement” tactic -- could both hew to the Constitution and allow the investigators of wrongdoing to get to the bottom of things.  It might also allow maximum possibilities for civil and financial restitution.

Next time... Suggestion #16: More Truth and Reconciliation: Why President Obama might instead choose to soft-pedal bringing some crooks to justice.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Suggestion #14: Insure the kids.

These are “unusual suggestions” and everybody else is already talking about health care.  So why would I weigh in?  Three words. Start with kids.

The greatest mistake Hillary Clinton made, way back in 1993 -- the calamitous opening she gave the neocons, who then came roaring into power -- was to try fixing the health mess all at once, in a sweeping act of policy-wonkdom.  It only gave her foes an opening to ridicule the complexity and centralized, federal hubris of her plan.

Moreover, it ignored some basics of American psychology. Our inherited frontier ethos idolizes a type of individualist self-reliance that -- even when it is mostly illusory -- we often cling to at all costs.  One result: an attitude that adults ought to find their own way, sink or swim.  Or, at least, enough Americans felt that way to reject any thought of an overall federal system.

(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)

But Americans are a lot less callous, and effectively more socialistic, when it comes to kids!  An overwhelming majority support public education and (more narrowly) backed affirmative action in schools.  Because it is far easier to persuade us that all young people should be helped to the same starting line than it is to suggest fixing the final results of the race.

Let’s chew on that distinction, for a moment.  “All men are created equal.”  That isn’t the same as ensuring equality of outcomes.  (Bill O’Reilly’s relentless false accusation is that liberals aim at leveling outcomes -- an out-and-out, bald-faced lie that is supremely laughable, especially since a capitalism and competitive markets always do better under Democrats.)

Nevertheless,  “All men are created equal” does suggest that... well... no child should be crippled before the starting gun is fired.

Face it.  If Hillary in 1993 had said: “Let’s just concentrate now on taking care of all the kids,” she would have won, easily.  Newt never would have had his killer issue.  And by now, after 14 years, the Child Health Care system would have had enough kinks ironed out and would be covering the elderly, too.

And the grownups who were left with private insurance? They would be pushing theit policy companies against a wall, demanding they improve or face their bitter end.

Key point:  President Obama has plenty on his plate already and very little spending money.  Yet, people expect something to be done about health care.  Hence, I suggest that he at least consider this option of starting with the kids.

This approach has several advantages:

1) It can be done swiftly.  No complicated insurance company illusions.  Simply go to Canadian-style single payer just for those under 18.  Perhaps bill all parents on their income tax for a basic, FICA-like premium.  We’ll all love it, especially if the cost is lower than the kid-premiums in our present policies.

2) Conservatives wouldn’t dare say no.  They’ll scream about “slippery slopes.”  But the American psyche would be on Obama’s side this time.  So would a hundred million worried parents.

3)  It will terrify the insurance companies into cooperating on some next step.

4)  All kids would get uniform preventive care, at relatively low cost, attacking the crisis at its most basic level. Moreover, there would not be an issue of European style age-based care rationing, since children get maximum care, no matter what.  That quagmire can be put off for a while.

All right, that’s my unusual suggestion about health care.  I don’t expect either side to like it at all!

But that’s what I do.

--Continue to Suggestion #15: Truth and reconciliation...

THIS IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES: Suggestions to the new administration

Part 1: Unusual Suggestions for an American Undergoing Change
Part 2: The Horn of Africa
Part 3: Radical Transparency
Part 4: Watch out for a supra-national Aristocracy
Part 5: Avoid a crisis caused by "just-in-time"
Part 6: Repair the U.S. Civil Service
Part 7: Free the Inspectors General!
Part 8: Micro-Suggestions about the Economic Crisis
Part 9: Restore the Army, the Reserves and the National Guard
Part 10: Enhance our nation's (and civilization's) overall resilience
Part 11: Control the borders
Part 12: Investigate Wartime Contracts
Part 13: Restore Independent Advisory Agencies for Science and Technology
Part 14: Insure the kids
Part 15: Truth and Reconciliation 
Part 16: More Truth and Reconciliation: bring crooks to justice
   Part 16b: Truth and Reconciliation Addendum
Part 17: Political Matters
Part 18: Time to do something about Gerrymandering

David Brin
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Friday, December 26, 2008

Suggestion 13: Restore independent advisory agencies for science, technology and other areas of skilled analysis

(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)

(Note! I am posting sometimes two a day, in oder to clear these away before new years!)

I’m proud to have lent some modest help to the ScienceDebate2008
 effort, which got both the Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns to answer questions on science and technology policy.  Before making my own science-related recommendations, let me clip a recent statement from the folks at Science Debate 2008:

We want to congratulate President-elect Obama on continuing to assemble an outstanding science team, starting with Nobel Laureate and experienced scientific administrator Steven Chu as Energy Secretary. Two more outstanding appointments are:

a.  John Holdren as President Obama's Science Advisor.  John has an excellent knowledge of science policy, and a deep understanding of how the public needs the government to engage on science policy issues.  He is a recent past president of the AAAS and an early and ardent Science Debate 2008 supporter.

b. Jane Lubchenco, we're told, will head up President Obama's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admninistration (NOAA).  She is an outstanding choice with a deep background in marine biology.  Jane is also a past AAAS president, and also an early supporter of Science Debate 2008.

What other evidence is there, that we may have reversed directions veering away from the know-nothing cliff? During the recent election campaign, Barack Obama received endorsement from 61 of the country’s Nobel laureates in physics, medicine and chemistry — scientific heavyweights who used the occasion to both call for a scientific renewal in America and critique the state of American science at the end of the Bush era.
Nothing could better indicate the turn in our national fortunes than to see science no longer dismissed as a realm of pointy-headed boffins, but viewed as part and parcel of our nation’s future.  Now, let me go farther with some added proposals:

1)  Rebuild OTA and other science advisory agencies in Congress

Yes, we look back at Newt Gingrich as having been mild and reasonable - ahem, well, relatively - compared to the horrific troglodytes who followed.  Still, among the truly loathsome crimes that occurred on his watch was the dismantling -- with malice and absolutely open-eyes toward the likely disastrous consequences -- of the in-house scientific and technical advisory apparatus that used to help senators and representatives base their deliberations on fact, rather that arm-waving dogma.  One of the greatest disappointments of the 2006 Congress that elevated Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, was its timidity about reversing this crime against the Republic.

The idea of bringing back the Office of  (Science and) Technology Assessment has never been dormant. In the 13 years since the OTA closed, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) have championed several attempts to reopen its doors. Other efforts are mounting. Yet, as noted science journalist Chris Mooney wrote in a Science Progress column earlier this year, “the quest to restore dedicated science advice for Congress through a reborn Office of Technology Assessment has proven more difficult than one might have supposed.”

This situation must be rectified, as soon as possible.  Moreover, steps should be taken -- perhaps backed up by an Inspector General of the United States (see #7) -- to ensure that in future, technical reports may not be rewritten by politicians, changing their meaning at the last minute.  (See also my remarks about the Civil Service -- and rooting out the “burrowers” who started as fanatical Bush political appointees and wrangled civil service slots as permanent endowments from which to keep spreading idiocy.)

2) Try to get more scientific-minded people into high office, especially Congress.

Advisors are one thing.  It will be quite another thing for some of the worst, troglodyte Congresscritters to know that several of their congressional peers sitting nearby know -- and can rise to point out -- how foolish they sound.  In other words, why should there not be a few Congressfolk who actually know something about the world and how it works?

Let’s reduce this to fundamentals - is there any inherent reason why our policy-making legislative and executive apparatus should be dominated almost entirely by lawyers?  That is almost as unwise as it was to fill upper management in commerce and industry with solely MBA business majors, who never built a product or delivered a single palpable service.

Specifically, the governors who are appointing replacements for Senators jave resigned in order to enter the Obama Administration should be encouraged to go outside the political caste and go directly to the kinds of people who are so sorely lacking in Congress.  Instead of scions of famous political dynasties, why not prove you really are “above politics” by appointing somebody prestigious and brilliant from a field the public actually respects?  A couple of politically savvy scientist-senators might change the entire tenor of deliberation, on the floor of that august body.

Well. Naive hope springs, eternal.

3) Yes, re-emphasize science and technology education, the way we did after Sputnik.  But go farther!  Let’s make this renewed emphasis sharp enough for even the obstinate to notice.

Investment maven David A. Rosenberg recently commented: “We have 1.2 million unemployed construction workers. We have 123,000 unemployed architects and engineers. We have 83,000 unemployed machinery workers. We have 145,000 unemployed transportation-related workers. So that brings us to barely more than 1.5 million of a labor pool the government can tap into for all the new building activity. But the bulk of the joblessness is in financials (up to half a million), retail/wholesale (1.2 million), leisure/hospitality (1.3 million) and health/education (1.2 million). And if investment bankers, shopkeepers, bell captains and medical chart technicians have anything in common it is that they don't have much experience in shovel-ready activities.”

To which I must reply -- so what?  Barack Obama talks about how we must return to being a technologically adept and innovative society.  But all the scholarships and propaganda in the world will not do as much to change minds about that as the sight of thousands of MBAs and business school graduates -- who drove our nation into the ground while preening and posing as geniuses and grabbing loot hand-over fist -- frantically learning to do something that is actually useful, making a product or delivering a service. Or else honorably driving bulldozers, developing sun tans and new muscles, helping to build infrastructure that will make America strong again.

Watch.  Just watch how quickly some of those “financial geniuses” discover the value of practical knowledge, or math, or facts, or any of the other things that boffins and wage slaves -- both the scientists and the practical workers -- knew all along.  That money serves us all best when it plays the role of helper, and not tyrant.

4) Get grassroots science advisory systems going in every community.

Again, the theme of citizen-level resilience that I have raised elsewhere.  There are so many ways to do this.  For example, get inexpensive chemical sensors into public hands -- even into some cell phones  -- and watch how quickly they pour data both into public agency databases and ad hoc citizen networks.  Communities will be able to monitor their own waste streams, or zero in to help everyone spot and fix energy hemorrhages.  There are a million other ideas, awaiting only the right environment of can-do encouragement.

Yes, we need federal action.  But I am sure President Obama will grasp what George Bush never could -- even though it is supposedly” conservative” wisdom -- that the best solutions are often local ones.

Try a “crackpot idea” or two...

All right, this one really belongs in Suggestion #19: “Crackpot Ideas.”  But thematically it has a home here.  I suggest the creation of a Shadow Congress that will be an outer, advisory commission, consisting of one eminent scientist or other professional, appointed by each member of Congress. Ideally, these 535 luminaries (serving pro-bono) would be the “best” technically savvy people in each congress-person’s district, who is also basically compatible with his or her viewpoint.

Each delegate would receive all congressional technical reports and have the right to post, online, their own appraisals and discussions, with the aim of thrashing out matters of FACT... just as the Senators and representatives are charged with deliberating matters of POLICY.  At minimum, the resulting online deliberations should be interesting and involve a higher level of scientific discourse than those in Congress itself. But advantages go further.

1) This could staunch propaganda about the main Congressional advisory panels being biased, since the shadow commission would keep a wary eye.

2) If this outer commission reaches consensus to accept (or revise) a particular proposal, then it would provide political cover for the Senator or Congressperson to do the same.  A valuable escape clause for any representative worried about offending the fanatics back home.

3) And, yes, this body would bridge the world of science and politics, because many members would be appointed by representatives who have their own burning agendas.   So?  This commission will put the congressional fanatics into a terrible bind. If they choose somebody eminent, with genuine credentials and peer respect, they risk getting unwelcome news from their own appointee. If they pick a “scientist” of the flaky, fifth tier -- based on some dogma-driven agenda like climate change denial or creationism -- then the appointment will be open for glaring scrutiny... and politically-damaging hilarity. 

In what way would this not be a win-win for the pro-science and pro-future majority in the new Congress?

6) Above all, speak up often about the future...

...about how it will be different.  It cannot help but be.  But Americans have always done best when we dealt with change in a way that no other people did -- with a spirit of excitement and confidence and hope.

After all.  This year, change is exactly what we asked for.dvantages go further.

--Continue to Suggestion #14: Insure the kids...

Suggestion 12: Investigate wartime contracts that were allocated under “emergency” over-rides to bypass competitive bidding rules.

All right, this one is sure to sound even more boring than talking about just in-time industrial practices!  But it is an important way that the Obama Administration might recoup many billions of dollars.  It would also be an ideal topic for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (See below)

Earlier, I spoke of how, under normal conditions, the federal government is supposed to offer contracts in ways that maximize opportunities for competition among a wide range of manufacturers or service providers.  Moreover, another goal is to ensure that the field is left with at least several players who can bid for future contracts.  These policies aim at preventing crony-favoritism and spurring creative efficiency.  It is also in keeping with fundamental premise of capitalism.   That competition is the best way to avoid corruption and to get the most out of every tax dollar.

But these same rules allow a president to make exceptions for cases of “national emergency.” As we’ve already mentioned several times, exceptional “emergency” bypasses during the last eight years have amounted to tens of billions, all the way to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”

Of course, some of these executive decisions were legitimate, under a perceived dire threat after the 9/11 attacks, or when our troops needed rapid deliveries of protective vests and up-armored vehicles, to safeguard them from new types of urban warfare.

In other cases - e.g. huge field-services contracts to support semi permanent bases in Iraq - were granted directly to Bush-Cheney friends and business partners.  Vice President Dick Cheney’s old firm, Halliburton, benefited so prodigiously that it recently moved its corporate headquarters to Dubai.

However they were first justified, these arrangements should have been converted to normal competitive bidding after the first year or so. Extending “emergency” contracting for six or seven years, far beyond any rational need, created an aroma of cronyism and waste that - at minimum - should be subjected to close scrutiny.

Note to the Obama Administration - watch out for this failure mode, when awarding “emergency recovery” contracts in the coming economic stimulus programs!  When the government offers to pay for grand infrastructure projects, in order to get unemployed men and women working, there is a serious danger  of (1) rushing to accept uncompetitive bids, and (2) having urgency contracts extend far into the future, when the terms won’t seem to be such a good deal, anymore.

One idea is to limit the hurry-contracts to just one year, in order to hire workers and get them started at tasks that don’t need extensive planning (or implementing already existing plans).  It should be required that the one-year contractor cooperate thereupon fully with all possible competitors, eliminating any advantage when it comes to the followup work. (One method: insist that the government own the work site and all equipment bought during the hurry-year, and that employee contracts be easily transferable.  In that case, the first-year contractor would have little long term advantage.)

Is there a general way to ensure that "emergency" clauses are never again abused as a way to reap outrageous profit under some trumped-up pretext? Well, By the very logic of the word "crisis," any company that seeks such a contract ought to be patriotic! Hence, they should be proud to accept terms severely limiting war-time profit -- the way big corporations did during World War II -- to a maximum of 5%, with no bonuses and with executives receiving no more than 10x the lowest paid employee. Not only is this patriotic, but it would ensure there is no lucrative incentive to bend the definition of "emergency" for improper purposes.

But lets get back to the wartime “emergency” contracts set up under the Bush Administration.  However legally binding these deals might appear, on the surface, there ought to be plenty of ways to apply leverage.

These companies might be pressed into renegotiation, rebidding, cancellation and even fee-recovery, if this practice of abusing emergency overrides can be shown to have a stench of collusion.  The possibility of recovering tens of billions of dollars in graft or overcharges should not be overlooked.  Moreover, offers of safety and rewards for whistleblowers may put the US government in an unfamiliar position of actually holding the high cards.

For a change.

Continue to Suggestion #13: Restore independent advisory agencies for science & technology...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What our Eyes and souls can see: reflections on Christmas at the Moon

We'll take a pause, in honor of the holiday, to offer something a little more poetical -- commemorating one of humanity's great moments, th Christmas Day sojourn of Apollo 8 in orbit around the moon, in 1968. The following is a book review I wrote -- it appears in my new collection of nonfiction insights and essays Through Stranger Eyes.

Art, Technology and Modernity

RIVER OF SHADOWS: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, by Rebecca Solnit. Reviewed by David Brin

Despite our human bent for defining things, the most-subjective mental realm -- art -- stays elusive. Still, for the sake of discussion, suppose we call effective visual art any human-created work that changes people who view it, challenging perceptions or assumptions, transforming hearts and minds nonverbally.

A painting, photo or sculpture may tug empathy, revulsion, longing, regret, determination or re-evaluation, without ever resorting to argument or verbal suasion. By this way of reckoning, the 20th century featured two outstandingly potent works of effective visual art -- images that inarguably penetrated millions through their eyes and optic nerves, transforming many of us forever.

The first of these --the terrifying image of the atom bomb -- warned that it was time to put down our little-boy romantic attachment to glorious war. Faced with an awesome new power to destroy nearly everything, defense became the business of serious adults. Even among soldiers, combat is generally seen as evidence of failure - an urgent, risky measure arising out of inadequate diplomacy, preparation or deterrence. True, this transition remains incomplete, yet it seems remarkable in contrast to attitudes widely held just a few generations back. Moreover, the lesson came largely unspoken. Words were unneeded. For multitudes, that awful mushroom cloud sufficed.

The second great image of the Twentieth Century arrived as coda to the most difficult year many of us can remember - 1968 - one that brought Americans to the brink of exhaustion and despair. Week after week of assassinations, riots, warfare, brutality, brinkmanship and numbing loss culminated with a final token -- like a gleam of hope shining at the bottom of Pandora’s Box -- when Apollo 8 astronauts brought home that first perfect image of Planet Earth, rising over the airless Moon. A floating blue marble in space. That picture moved all but the most cynical hearts, helped spur environmentalism and changed forever our outlook toward this fragile oasis-world.

These images -- one of them searing us with dread, the other with resolution -- are seldom called “art.” They did not flow from the stereotypical studio of some romantic genius, solitary and contemptuously solipsistic. Rather, they came about as side effects from vast technological undertakings. The same agents -- physicists and engineers -- who were producing pell mell progress, also delivered the requisite sermon: use these powers well.

Other influential images surely rank just below those two. They range from snapshots of faraway planets to documentary footage of concentration camps. From war’s brutality to moments of sublime poignancy. The greatest untold story of art -- a story that romantics strive to repress -- is how much of it seems to arise out of nerdy inventiveness, or gritty journalism, or ingenuous amateurism, or even (shudder) team efforts. Images that impress, persuade and become part of our ongoing conversation about how to save the world.

Moreover, the medium that decisively empowered this role for art was itself a technological breakthrough -- photography.

In RIVER OF SHADOWS: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, author Rebecca Solnit documents a crucial phase of photography’s transformation from a static adjunct of portraiture to something far more dynamic, cogent and liberating. In Muybridge -- who famously captured the multiple movements of a running horse -- she found an icon for everything disreputable and admirable about a time of rapid change. Inventor, explorer, businessman, huckster, murderer, photo-journalist and innovator, Muybridge was among the most colorful figures of mid-19th Century San Francisco, possibly the most colorful place humans ever lived. As a passionate photographer, Muybridge helped propel his era and his art.

An art in rapid transition. Until fast emulsions became available, exposure times were agonizingly long. People took on stiff poses. Any riffle of wind would make nature seem a-blur. Most outdoor shots were taken mid-day, when direct sunshine seems to flatten everything -- till Muybridge captured clouds and waterfalls in a fraction of a heartbeat. Natural wonders like Yosemite burst into three dimensions, caught in slanting dawn light.

But a horse named Occident gave Muybridge his biggest challenge and success. Devising dozens of new techniques, he arranged for a series of cameras to trip in rapid sequence, reproducing motion in a series of still images. “Photography arose out of the desire to fix the two-dimensional image that the camera obscura created from the visible world,” Solnit writes. From the 1830s through the 1860s, artisans such as Daguerre and Brady pioneered techniques for capturing a sliced moment, preserving memory of a particular person or place, in a narrow slice of time. But Muybridge’s horse broke out of that slice. Occident moved. Each frame had past, a future, and thus movement. Even ambition.

Meanwhile, time itself was under assault. Railroads and industry demanded both precision and repeatability. Workers who formerly knew only day, night, mealtimes and seasons now had to regulate their rhythms in tempo with uncompromising clocks, consoling themselves with the cornucopia of goods that industry provided. Not everyone liked this bargain, as Solnit writes -- “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grimly comic short story of 1846, ‘the Celestial Railroad,’ sent a group of pilgrims by rail across the landscape of the great spiritual allegory The Pilgrim’s progress. The harsh terrain that John Bunyan’s Pilgrim had trod on foot sped by pleasantly, but the train ended up in hell rather than paradise. The old world, Hawthorne seems to argue, was arduous, but it knew where it was going.”

In following Muybridge’s own pilgrimage west, Solnit describes a San Francisco that surely seemed hell-bent -- or at least blithely accepting of tumult. A place without so-called eternal verities, where men -- and many dynamic women -- felt free to re-invent themselves at will, as Muybridge repeatedly changed his own name. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, portrayed the frontier as the fundamental wellspring of American development and character, and it was here that the spirit of unrestrained opportunity reached its zenith, as mere shopkeepers like Leland Stanford mixed chicanery with pioneering acumen, launching themselves into the Olympic stratosphere of nouveau wealth and self-made power. As patron to Muybridge’s time-and-motion studies, Stanford would contribute not only to the study of horses, but to the advance of rapid photography and all that ensued.

Solnit portrays technical innovations, like faster photographic emulsions and ingenious quick-shutters, with the drama of a gold strike or a lynching -- and the latter almost did happen to Muybridge one day, shortly after he gunned down his wife’s lover in one of the most infamous scandals of the old west. Set free by a jury on grounds of “defending honor”, Muybridge went on to perform his most famous experiments, capturing details in the motion of horses, runners, dancers and even birds. While pioneering the art of rapidly sequenced images, he met Thomas Edison and provided many key elements that led to motion pictures, cinema and later video.

“This is the paradox of Muybridge’s work. He was using his state-of-the-art equipment to feed that ravenous appetite for place, for time, for bodies. He had turned his back on the slow world of his grandfather’s barges and pigeons to embrace the new railroad and photographic technology, and with electricity and chemistry he made the latter faster than ever.” And yet -- “His inventive technology was depicting ... bodies that seemed ever more alienated by technological change.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in Muybridge’s journalistic pictures of the Modoc War, documenting one of the most eerie conflicts between the United States and a native people. Viewing them now, we see a core truth. Ours is not the first era to be riven by change. Technology can disrupt. It eases some old pains while amplifying others. And if that were the whole story, romantics might be right to call the cost too high.

But technology is also a mother of art. New kinds of art that shine light into old shadows, art that nags the conscience, that shows the cost. And therein lies our hope. As we gain power over space and time and even life itself, art reminds us. Use these powers well.