Thursday, August 28, 2014

Biddah, biddah, biddah

I’m a terrible gambler…in the traditional sense. When it comes to entrepreneurship, I’m a total risk taker. But when it comes to lotteries, slots, etc., it’s never been my thing. For years I had a client in Las Vegas and I’d spend 2 or 3 days a week there. It took me nearly 18 months to play a slot – and then it was the penny slot for about 5 minutes or less than a dollar. When the mega-lotteries hit the $100 million jackpots, then I’ll play. On eBay I’m more apt to “buy it now” than to bid. Auctions are a staple of the fundraising circuit, just as bad food and long speeches are. Television has popularized the auction process with Storage Wars and its various clones. Having people compete to buy something, or to donate is relatively harmless and many find it entertaining. Providing a cash prize for voting? That just seems like a bad idea, but it’s exactly what Los Angeles is considering. 

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission recommended that the City Council consider a cash-prize drawing as an incentive to vote. Less than 20% of registered voters show up for municipal elections, so some fresh thinking is in order. There’s another 30 to 35% of the population that is eligible to vote, but isn’t even registered, which would bring the participation rate in LA to below 15%. Winners are then determined by just 8% of the population they’re serving.

I love Los Angeles – its sprawl, its opportunities, its diversity, and, yes, even its traffic. (MUCH preferable over Boston traffic which just stops.) Mayor Richard Riordan did a lot of extraordinary things for the city, getting it back on track after the Earthquake and Bush (41) Recession. One of the worst things he had to compromise on was allowing the creation of Neighborhood Councils in the City Charter revision that was approved and took hold in 2000.

Los Angeles – the city not the county – is home to 4 million people. That is larger than 27 other states in population.  It is governed by a Mayor and 15 City Council members who each have a district they represent. The 2000 City Charter clarified the roles of the legislative and executive branches – a wholesale improvement over the prior system which had a very weak governing system. But to pass the changes, the Charter also introduced the concept of Neighborhood Councils. According to the city: “The goal of the Neighborhoods Councils is to promote public participation in City governance and decision-making process to create a government more responsive to local needs.”

There are 95 Neighborhood Councils. Can you imagine Kentucky, Connecticut or Nevada (all states with smaller populations than LA) having to deal with 95 councils participating in the decision-making process with their legislatures? They each have their own budget, their own elections, their own agendas. There’s even an organizing alliance with staff to support them. It’s not chaos – it’s just ineffective. Much of the work that they do replicates what a City Council office should do – working directly with constituents. Moving anything legislatively takes eons as it has to go through this labyrinth of connectivity with the neighborhood councils.

The idea is nice – people would participate with local government if it was local and part of their neighborhood. The more people participate, then the more engaged they are. The more engaged and the higher likelihood that come election time, more people will exercise their civic responsibility. The reality after nearly 15 years is that it hasn’t increased participation. Many of these neighborhood councils are dormant, scrambling to fill positions or having people keep their roles for years and year. The participation rate of elections is so low that the Ethics Committee thought a lottery would be the ideal way to boost the engagement that having micro-localized government was intended to do. With that thinking, we might as well put up elections to the highest bidder. Oh, wait...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Life and Death

A few weeks back I visited a Parish for the first time. A lovely New England Church epitomizing church going in August: doors were open, fans were positioned just so, and there were a smattering of people. The few kids were wriggling every which way. The pews filled to about 30 (in a place that holds 15 times that). The Rector was on a month-long holiday, and a long retired priest navigated the service with the help of lots of bits of paper. As the organist banged out the hymns, I seemed to be a soloist as there was no choir and the other folks didn't even open the book. At the time for the sermon, the substitute priest came to the center of the sanctuary – quasi-Oprah style - and didn't take the pulpit. Oh Jeez, I thought, a wanderer! Despite my initial judgments, that homily has stuck with me. Weeks later the question that he posed has so resonated with me that it must be shared.

Why must we kill each other? That’s the question.  What is the point of life? That existential question has kept philosophers, priests, rabbi’s and many others occupied for millennia. But it’s not the question that we can do much about. This question about why we kill each other is one we should be able to address.

In international affairs today we can look to Israeli’s and Palestinians lobbing missiles  at each other, with a death toll in the thousands. Syria’s been killing its own people for years – with 700 tribal members being slaughtered this week (8/17/14). Many African countries have been locked in civil wars and strife for generations. In the Congo the bloodiest part of the war hasn’t abated much. In Ukraine dozens were killed this week (8/19/14) in the shelling of a Russian convoy of humanitarian supplies. Iraqi’s various religious factions are solving their differences violently – and the U.S. is helping with bombs and personnel. In Afghanistan fighting is stronger than ever. Then of course there’s President Obama’s kill list, which continues to expand.

For the past two weeks in the U.S. Ferguson, MO has been the focal point as the city erupted in violence over the killing of a young black man by a white police officer. Chicago had 82 shootings and 14 fatalities this past July 4th. Schools have become battlefields – so much so that this week the Compton Schools in California have authorized assault rifles for school police.

This litany of examples is depressing, largely from the past 6 weeks – July to mid-August 2014. A longer look would yield so many more examples, it’d be hard to comprehend. Conflict is not going to go away. There will be groups wanting power and control that others have – and will use force to change it. This has been happening since the caveman. Killing is a very effective method of achieving the result. I'm not so naiive to think that will change wholesale, but the underlying philosophy does deserve to be challenged, because somehow it has become acceptable to kill each other to get our way.

What if we as a people, as a species, decided that killing wasn’t right. That life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were more than words declaring independence. What if we solved our conflicts in another way? What if we just decided not to kill each other?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hi Ho Hi Ho, it's off to war we go

I’m a middle child. Popular psychology enthusiasts have come up with a variety of characteristics that are common to people who are first born, last born, and everything in between. According to “Middle children are peacekeepers by default. They are the mediators.” There’s truth in that description for me, though I’m not totally convinced my traits are due to birth order. Even during the dozen plus years that I was away from the Church, I’ve objected to war and preferred peaceful solutions. As a person of faith the Church provides a natural framework to oppose war. That doesn’t mean all religious people are pacifists. In fact, most aren’t. Many of the wars throughout the ages have been over issues of God.

Differences in Christianity have been used as a reason to go to war, so much so that much of Europe’s map exists because of the various wars over the centuries. In the Middle East the Palestinians and the Israelis have been fighting for what seems like the beginning of time. An Islamic jihad is now wielded as justification for attacks by some countries and groups against others. There’s liturgical support for such actions in each denomination., whether it be the Bible, the Torah or the Quran. There’s also liturgical support opposing such violence as well. How to choose whether to address conflict with bombs or other methods is the challenge that faces political leaders.

The United States came into being with explorers and founders who didn’t want to see the country devolve into factions over religion. They fled Europe in part to avoid religious battles. The result is that the very first Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that the Government will not make any law respecting the establishment of or impeding the free exercise of religion. Over time the pendulum of how courts have interpreted this has swung in various directions. More recent decisions seem to weigh closer towards having religion be a core part of public life. Certainly the leaders have.

George W. Bush said that the invasion of Iraq was “willed by God.” The 43rd President throughout his tenure often used Bible quotes as justification for many things – but especially in matters of war. In contrast Barack Obama won the Presidency thanks in part to a passionate opposition to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, one of his Administration’s successes has been fulfilling Obama’s pledge to remove American troops from Iraq. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation of those actions. It’s been a short lived victory.

On August 7, 2014 the President authorized airstrikes in Iraq. “We do whatever is necessary to protect our people. We support our allies when they're in danger," Obama said. According to UPI: “The announcement comes as religious minorities in Iraq, including Christians, fled Sunni Muslim militants operating under the name the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.”

For six years the Obama Administration worked to get Americans out of the country. Having succeeded in that, there shouldn't be any of “our people” there to "protect." As to supporting “our allies?” Syria rebels and many African conflicts are quick examples where the same justification could be used, but hasn’t been.

Pundits, spin-masters and various other talking heads wrap themselves into a pretzel-like contortion in explaining how putting American military personnel and dropping bombs isn’t war. The dictionary definition of war is: “a conflict carried on by force of arms.” In less than a week nearly 1,000 U.S. military personnel have been deployed to Iraq. U.S. bombs are being used to kill people. It may be justified as humanitarian, but it’s war nonetheless.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution states “The Congress shall have Power To declare War.” World War II was the last time the Congress officially declared war. This Congress, which can’t seem to agree on anything, isn’t likely to break the decades long pattern of allowing the Executive Branch to usurp this responsibility. That’s particularly ironic given the lawsuit filed against the Administration for not following the law. I digress. I guess bombing Iraq means that Barack Obama isn’t a middle child?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Truth isn’t stranger than fiction

I just finished the recent Tom Clancy novel “Support and Defend.” Like his other books there is plenty of action, intrigue, conspiracy and patriotism at play. And, to be clear, it’s a Tom Clancey novel in that it’s in his style. The man’s been dead for nearly a year. It’s the second book his collaborator Mark Greaney has published under Clancey’s aegis. No matter, the page-turning (in my case screen swiping) taught storytelling with explosions and intrigue is an amusing escape. As I clicked through to the last page I then checked a news site to discover that after months of vehement and outraged statements to the contrary, the CIA admitted to spying on the U.S. Senate.

Mediaite reports: “CIA Director John Brennan admitted that the agency had hacked into Senate computers, as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was looking into the CIA over Bush-era torture tactics. That was in stark contrast with the defiant tone Brennan struck months ago when he adamantly denied those claims.”

President Obama the next day expressed “full support” for the Director. According to the Huffington Post the President said: “Keep in mind that John Brennan was the person who called for the [inspector general] report.” 

According to a CIA Inspector General’s Office report, agency employees in 2009 hacked Senate computers being used to compile a report on the agency’s infamous detention and interrogation program -- a move that critics have characterized as a significant breach of the separation of powers.”

As mortifying as this incident is, it occurs inside of an even more important issue. The U.S. Senate, more than a dozen years after 9/11 issued a report on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. As Senate staffers were working on that report the CIA hacked into their computers to see what they were working on.

The President’s succinctly summarized the findings: “We tortured some folks.” Once in office Obama banned the practices, but despite this he justified the torture: “It is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.”

The point of living in a society with rules and laws and structure was that no matter how difficult a situation may be there is a code of conduct to participate in the world. A dozen years later after trillions of dollars have been spent and thousands of people have died one of the most political and insular organizations (the U.S. Senate) still found a way to get to the truth. That's how egregious the actions were. The least we can do as citizens is to hold those who breach our trust accountable, even if our leaders show those same people “support.”

The CIA broke the law. And then the broke the law again when the investigation was underway. They did so not to forward some romanticized notion of democracy, but rather to peep into what their investigators were finding out about them. The CIA chief lied repeatedly and vociferously to the Senate under oath about the breaches. There's no consequence: the President fully supports the Director. This is America? This is our ethics? This is why we go to war?  Tom Clancey the novelist would be proud. Tom Clancey the American is rolling over in his grave at this injustice for the country he loved and wrote so patriotically about.