For Barack Obama

Posted in Politics at 10:50 am by ducky

Andrew Sullivan wrote an endorsement of Barack Obama that made me cry.  It wasn’t that his prose was so poetic that I got a form of Stendhal Syndrome.  It wasn’t that he inspired me.  It was that he reminded me, in clear and vivid detail, just how badly Bush messed up the country.  He brought up all of my grief and dismay about — and all of my shame for — my government’s actions.  He reminds me why I left my beautiful country.

One of my best friends is Lebanese.  In about 1996, I asked him why he never talked about Lebanese politics.  Had he just written it all off?  No, he said that it was too painful to talk about.  At the time, I didn’t understand.  Now I do.

My productivity in the past few weeks has gone way down as I continually hunt for more stories about the election.  It’s a destructive, addictive, action.   It’s not like me reading the stories are going to change the outcome of the election. ( I voted several weeks ago, so it’s not like the stories are going to change my vote.) I know that it is pointless to read about the election, but I can’t help it, I must read — because every story that I read about Obama leading gives me a tiny flicker of hope.

I left.  I turned my back and walked away.  So why does it still matter?  The best analogy I can think of is of being in love with an absolutely wonderful man who two or three times per year beats the crap out of me.  I’ve metaphorically walked away and found another — one who is incredibly sweet and nice, but who isn’t as good a fit as my ex.  There is nothing wrong with my new beau, and I admit to a little bit of excitement at something novel.  But the fit isn’t quite right: he puts the toilet paper on backwards, he really likes foods I can’t stand, and he just doesn’t have the same shared context that I do with my ex.  I have to keep explaining things to him that my ex understood right away.  My new beau is certainly a fine and wonderful person, and I could be very content with him for the rest of my life, but there isn’t that same level of passion.  Really I want a reformed version of my ex, one who fits but who doesn’t beat me.

I want Obama to win.  Very much.  I then want him to get my beautiful country out of this mess.  (Er, these messes.)  I want that very, very much.  I’d like to think that someday I might have the option of coming home.


Legacy of Proposition 13

Posted in Politics at 2:45 pm by ducky

I went looking today for my blog posting about Prop 13, and was stunned that I couldn’t find it.  I was sure I had written one, but I guess I hadn’t.

This is a story of unintended consequences of lowering taxes.  As a result of Prop 13, it costs cities more to provide services to residents than it can get from the residents in property taxes. They only make money from business (in sales taxes).   Cities thus work really hard to avoid zoning for residential — especially high-density residential! — and do everything they can to attract businesses  The result is that the cost of housing close to jobs has gone way, way up.

Meanwhile, there is a loophole that lets cities get some money from residents: developers’ fees.  If a big developer wants to put in a subdivision, cities are allowed to charge the developer fees for that.  (I think the fees can be arbitrarily high, but don’t know for sure.)  Some cities can use the fees that developers pay now for future housing to allow them to cover the costs of services to the current residents.  It’s a Ponzi scheme, however: you have to keep building in order for this to work.  Thus this only works for cities that have a lot of land, i.e., ones way out in the exurbs.

This means that the housing is waaay far away from the jobs.  Note that the long-haul roads are paid for with either state money or federal money, so neither the city with the jobs nor the city with the housing cares how much the road costs.  Massive sprawl has ensued.

This means that housing is expensive in general, and even higher in cities close to jobs.  Meanwhile, cities’ revenues increase at a little bit more than 1% per year, but inflation — which influences how much they have to pay — has gone up way faster than that.  In particular, the salaries they need to pay are influenced by the cost of housing, which has skyrocketed.

Meanwhile the state has no money.  It got hammered by the difference between what they took in and what they had to pay out, just like the cities.  Furthermore, in the 1980s, the federal government either took money from the states or stopped giving as much (I forget which) as part of the Reagan Revolution.  Thus the state just took money from the cities.  Just took it.  And because it was bigger, it could.  This contributed to cities’ difficulties.

Because of the sprawl, building public transportation is expensive.  Because the state has no money, it can’t afford to build public transportation.  This means that people have to spend a looooong time in their cars.  This is expensive in time, and more recently, in money.

Because the state has no money, the public education system has gone into the toilet.  California ranks 36th from the top in per-pupil public school expenditures (just below Missouri) and 35th from the top in SAT scores (just below Virginia).  There are only two states that spend less when you adjust for the cost of living.  Because the public school system is so bad, many people send their kids to private schools, which decreases their desire to pay taxes for the public school system.

Because of Prop 13, the citizens of California pay significantly extra housing, schooling, and transportation for the privilege of spending more time in their car.

How do you fix it?  Well, you can’t really raise taxes because the citizens are already getting squeezed — they aren’t going to want to raise taxes.  Furthermore, the ones that already own houses have a strong disincentive to make housing in general more affordable.  They get rewarded if the price of their house goes up.  The only thing I way I can see to fix it is to amend Prop 13 so that over a long period of time, the amount that property taxes can rise loosened — perhaps capped by inflation. I left California because, in part,  I am very pessimistic about the chances of this structural weakness in the California economy changing.

Where did all the money go?  It went to people like my husband: people who bought a house, held it for long enough for it to appreciate, and sold it for a huge profit, and then left the state.  It went to people who owned land and sold it to developers.


Californians: please vote NO on Prop 8

Posted in Gay rights, Married life, Politics at 9:37 am by ducky


Please vote NO on Proposition 8 on Tuesday.  It is a bad law that would hurt people.  People I care about.

The backers of Prop 8 like to say that they are trying to “protect traditional marriage”.  That’s a dogwhistle.  What the Prop 8 supporters are really saying is that marriage equality is a threat to traditional gender roles, as I discussed before.

My heterosexual marriage is stronger because of exposure to a particular loving, committed gay couple, Rich and Chris.  They were my housemates and landlords for four years total.  I first lived with them  immediately after they bought their house together — which for gay couples at the time was the event that was about as close to marriage as you could get.  They had some rocky spots, would have arguments and stomp around the house mad for a few days, but they would work through it.  They would negotiate in good faith and strive for win-win resolutions.  They grew to understandings, made adjustments, and released preconceived notions. This was not always smooth, especially in the first year, but they ended up with a truly harmonious relationship, in a house full of laughter and love.

Their good example not only gave me courage to get married, it showed me how to get through my own transition.  When my husband and I fought, I remembered both their example of “fighting fair” and that there was a huge eventual reward for working through the arguments.

It was grossly unfair that this couple, my role models, were unable to get married when we did, despite being together for 11 years already.  It was a wondrous thing when they finally were able to get married this summer.  It would be a grotesque miscarriage of justice if their marriage were rent asunder by Proposition 8.

If you can, please give money to the campaign — NOW.  Our opponents have raised a huge amount of money, it’s been a scramble to try to match them, and the last possible media buy is happening tomorrow (31 October 2008) at noon.

And please please please remember to go to the polls and remember to vote NO.  Leave the law the way it is, leave equality in place, leave Rich and Chris’ marriage intact.


Sarah Palin, shared context, and code-switching

Posted in Politics at 2:00 pm by ducky

Anil Dash has a posting where he takes Sarah Palin to task for her use of language (and rightly so, IMHO).

He also talks about the phenomenon of code-switching, the practice of switching languages or dialects:

[O]ne of the most interesting traits about [code-switching] is not merely how easy it is for people to switch language on the fly, but rather how the choice of language actually informs the meaning and the nuance of the words being said.

I read a fascinating paper on formality and language which pretty convincingly showed that informality in language is an indicator of shared context, and as such a indication of intimacy. You use formal language with the CEO of your company or the Queen because to use informal language would be uppity — it would say that you thought you had a lot in common. Conversely, if you started speaking very formally to your spouse, he/she would wonder what was wrong.

I see this in myself. Because my home dialect is very close to “newsroom English” — educated upper Midwestern — I don’t really have a home dialect to switch into. Thus sometimes in the US when I want to demonstrate intimacy, I will switch into AAVE even if both I and the other person are white! Most Americans are at least partially versed in AAVE, so that is a way of demonstrating shared context. However, I would never use AAVE with a Canadian, as that would emphasize our difference, exposing context that we did not share.

So what is Sarah Palin’s use of dialect doing? She is showing, “I am like you.” And, since she is using a white dialect, she is implicitly saying, “I am white like you.” I completely agree with Anil that Palin is trying paint Obama as Other and McCain as Not-Other, and think that her choice of a very white dialect is part of that.


open letter to Senator Obama: please keep the volunteers

Posted in Politics at 11:33 pm by ducky

Senator Obama —

I am writing to plead with you to keep your volunteer organization in place after the election.

The articles that I have read about the ground operation (e.g. here and here) sound like your volunteer organization in the US has been just amazing. I’ve witnessed this to a lesser extent myself while volunteering for different (specialized) volunteer work I’ve done for you from my home in Canada.

Please keep the volunteer effort alive after the election. This organization is a hugely valuable resource to the country, to the Democratic Party, to you, and also to the volunteers themselves. It would be a real shame to let it dissipate into the wind.

There are many valuable activities that volunteers could do after election day:

  • The volunteers could organize to do charitable work, much as my friend and your staffer Eric Loeb attempted to do with the Good Works PAC. They could paint schools and homeless shelters, and could also organize for disaster response.
  • There is an enormous amount of data in the world that is not yet on the Web. In addition to doing even more voter database cleansing and analysis, volunteers could work on e.g. transcribing the mountains of historical data living in paper books in federal depository libraries. (Or better, spend their time double-checking OCR scans of the books.)
  • There is a great deal of technological infrastructure that would serve the public good, especially if coupled with large data-collecting operations. Two examples (I have more, just ask!):
    • I had the fortune to get a seminar in “Government 101” from Joe Simitian ten years ago where I was amazed to discover just how many governmental or quasi-governmental bodies I was part of. Ever since, I have wanted a Web site where I could click on a map and get links to all of the legislative, educational, utility, and emergency services districts for that geographical point.
    • You have talked about “Google for Government”. I suggest that something like a “Wikipedia for Government” would also be useful — a place for analysis of bills, legislative history of those bills, reports on how the voting went, legislators voting records, information about campaign contributions, and some data mining to show correlations between campaign contributions and voting records. This would need some software infrastructure to run well.

There would be many parties that could benefit:

  • You. I presume that you will be running in 2012, hopefully as an incumbent, but possibly as a challenger. You would benefit from having a well-developed organization in place before the election. The volunteers also potentially could provide you with feedback “from the ground”, in case you get concerned that you’re living in an echo chamber. You could potentially do polls of the volunteers quickly and easily.
  • Whoever brands the Web sites that the volunteers develop. Every time a random person goes to one of the sites, they could see the logo of the volunteer organization. (I think it would be better for America if it were branded something like “Liberals for America” instead of “Obama for America”. Partially I think it would help the long-term viability of the organization, but partly I worry about the appearance of demagoguery.)
  • The beneficiaries of the good works and disaster responses.
  • Us, the consumers of information that the volunteers create.
  • Us, the volunteers. This can give us purpose and community. This is not a small thing, but this is not the place to make that argument.
  • Potentially the rest of the world. Especially if the “Wikipedia for Government” system is effective, it could be adopted by people in other countries to shine a light on their systems.

To keep the volunteer organization going, I think you need three things;

  • Some money. I’m not sure how much you need, but you need a small number of people to nurture the organization. This might be as small as one, but more likely it’s on the order of ten paid staff. That might be all you need; you might be able to run the rest on love.
  • Some direction and leadership. Someone needs to give the organization some direction so the organization doesn’t succumb to centrifugal forces. It’s probably okay — perhaps even desirable — to have ten different projects, but not ten thousand.
  • Cheering. There are lots of things that people can do individually, but getting some recognition for it — no matter how small — is a powerful motivator. You can move a lot of the cheering downstream if you are careful, but you need to be careful about it.
    • You could build positive reinforcement into the tools: when someone gets done with a data entry session, have it say something like, “Thanks for your hard work! You did X amount of work today, which brings us to Y% done! It’s volunteers like you who are making this good thing happen!” (It’s cheesy, but works.)
    • I suggest that, whenever possible, the online tools have a chat session built-in, so that people could see who else from their neighborhood was working on it, and so they could ask questions of the community and provide assistance.

You have a chance to change the face of politics forever by keeping around a volunteer organization. Please don’t skip the opportunity.



Posted in Politics at 12:30 pm by ducky

After the Troopergate came out, Sarah Palin says she feels vindicated to be cleared of wrongdoing?  Excuse me?  The report said clearly that she violated Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act, which states,

“… each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust.”

Palin is living in some strange alternate reality universe, where interacting lightly with one person who had been violent 30 years earlier is bad but marrying a separatist is okay, where reports that say she violated the law say that she didn’t, where being governor of a small state gives you foreign policy experience…. WTF?

I have picked on Palin a lot on my blog because I feel like she is one of the major issues of the campaign.  Picking Palin was a terribly irresponsible thing for McCain to do. If McCain were 30 and in great health, it wouldn’t bother me so much, but the dude is old and has had cancer four times.  I don’t want to have someone suddenly be president who is so

  • inexperienced at national and foreign policy issues
  • incurious
  • willing to bend the ethical rules when it suits her
  • basically lie about her opponent to trigger extreme emotional reactions in her followers
  • unwilling to face reporters.

I think the press has been incredibly kind to her under the circumstances.


Who is palling around with un-Americans?

Posted in Politics at 10:08 am by ducky

So.  Sarah Palin is accusing Obama of (basically) being un-American because he “palled around” with “a terrorist”.

Um.  She’s referring to William Ayers, who was part of a violent activist group which targeted buildings and not people.  That’s not really what I call terrorism, but okay, fine.  It was also a long time ago — in the 1970s — and Obama isn’t exactly pals.  They worked together very briefly.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin married someone who belonged to the Alaskan Independence Party — a separatist group — as recently as 2002.   Um, isn’t seceeding from the US kind of sort of a little bit anti-American?  And isn’t marrying someone rather a bit more intimate than working on a foundation board together??

VP debates

Posted in Politics at 8:46 am by ducky

I have been a little surprised, after the body-language analysis of the McCain-Obama debate, that nobody has mentioned the camera work on the VP debates.

Both cameras kept the top of the candidate’s head and the top of the lectern at about the same position.  Because Palin is so much shorter than Biden, the camera was zoomed in quite a bit more on her than on Biden.  This meant that she looked closer — and warmer.  Biden looked farther away — and emotionally more distant.  This reinforced her warm body/facial language.

I will watch for this in the next presidential debate as well.  McCain is much shorter than Obama, so perhaps that also will make Obama look “distant”.


Greed — good or bad?

Posted in Politics at 3:44 pm by ducky

Scott Rosenberg today clearly points out the hypocrisy of a Republican saying that the problem with the financial markets’ meltdown was greed.

Wow, three posts in a row where I basically just link to other sites; three posts in a row about politics.  Must be getting close to November…

Morality: Liberals vs. Conservatives

Posted in Politics at 10:18 am by ducky

A while back, I posted a link to a NYT article on morality that reported on work by Jonathan Haight.  This article by Jonathan Haidt himself is also very good, and addresses the liberal/conservative divide a bit more bluntly.

It is interesting for me to reread my post on liberals/conservatives talking past each other in the light of Haidt’s research.

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