Monday, June 27, 2016


This decision won't get as much attention as other rulings that came out today, but it's worth noting.  Especially for those following the story of former Oregon Governor Kitzhaber.
The supreme court without dissent vacated the conviction of the former governor of Virginia on corruption charges, because the construction of bribery used in the case was overly broad.
I think the heart of the ruling is here:
Section 201 prohibits quid pro quo corruption—the exchange of a thing of value for an 'official act.'  In the Government’s view, nearly anything a public official accepts—from a campaign contribution to lunch—counts as a quid; and nearly anything a public official does—from arranging a meeting to inviting a guest to an event—counts as a quo...

But conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. The basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns
That is, the conduct potentially subject to criminal sanction is the root of democracy. You like candidate X, you work for their re-election. There is a quid. They in turn pursue policies you like. There is a quo. Is that corruption?

Separate but related is the arbitrariness of a broad definition, and how that's incompatible with due process, emphasis mine:

...under  the  Government’s  interpretation,  the  term  “official  act”  is  not  defined  “with sufficient  definiteness  that  ordinary  people  can  understand  what  conduct  is  prohibited,”  or  “in  a  manner  that does  not  encourage  arbitrary  and  discriminatory  enforcement.” Skilling, 561 U. S., at 402–403 (internal quotation marks  omitted).   Under  the  “‘standardless  sweep’”  of  the  Government’s reading, Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U. S. 352, 358 (1983), public officials could be subject to prosecution, without  fair  notice,  for  the  most  prosaic  interactions.  “Invoking so shapeless a provision to condemn someone to prison”  for  up  to  15  years  raises  the  serious  concern  that the  provision  “does  not  comport  with  the Constitution’s guarantee  of  due  process."
I think what these concerns have in common is a fear of separating politics from the people.  If we want self government, we need to allow for political leaders like us.  It's unreasonable to expect politicians to sequester themselves like monks, interacting with the public only through formal public hearings or sessions.  And we probably wouldn't like it if they did.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Does having a school with high foundation contributions encourage residents to vote against tax increases?

In discussions about Portland Public School foundations I sometimes see this assertion.  Often it's part of a broader critique of foundations and their impact on equity.  The claim is that foundations don't just increase inequity, but actively harm students in other neighborhoods because parents in "semi-privatized" communities don't support public taxes.

For kicks, I got shape files and a vote abstract from Multnomah County and charted it.  Below is a heat chart for 2011's measure 26-122.  This is a property tax levy specific to Portland Public Schools, it passed with 58% of the vote.  The red indicates low support and green indicates high.  The labeling is based on decimals, 0.5 = 50% to 60%, 0.4 = 40% to 50%, etc.

I've marked with red dots the rough location of the top 4 elementary schools and K-8's based on fundraising.  What do I see?

I see 3 of the 4 schools are located in precincts where the levy passed, and are surrounded by precincts with similar support.  I also see a vivid geographic pattern: the inner city neighborhoods supported the levy more than outer neighborhoods.  This pattern dominates the story of which precincts supported the levy and which did not, I don't see any correlation with the location of a high-foundation school.

Below is the same chart for 2010's measure 66, a statewide tax increase.  Same thing:
I don't think the presence or absence of a high-foundation school has any effect on voter support of taxes.  Saving this for the next time I see that claim pop up.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Presidential Leadership and how I assess it

A response to Brett about how I evaluate presidential candidates, which turned into something too long for facebook.

Before assessing candidates I filter for likely supreme court picks and electability.  These are pass/fail tests, and only Clinton and Sanders pass them.  They're the ones I'll evaluate as leaders.

I think of leadership geographically.  A good leader's task depends on understanding:
  • Where we are (the real)
  • An intended destination, a place they want to lead us to (the ideal)
  • A route, a plan of action to go from where we are to where we should be.  That route is grounded in the real,  but looks forward to the ideal.
    • Implicit in the route is an understanding of time, and some reasonable expectation of whether the route they're following takes one year, 4 years, or 20 years.
    • Also implicit is an understanding that they're *leading* us down the path, not directing us.  That requires consent and confidence, and an ability to rally support even when (especially when) it feels like everyone is turning on you.
 I'll start with the ideal.  I think both Sanders and Clinton want to move us to a better place.  I think Sanders' ideal is in many ways preferable, we'd be better off with stronger social insurance and investments in education.  But I think Clinton's ideal isn't bad either, particularly on foreign policy.  I think Sanders ideal their is a United States that stays home, while Clinton's ideal is a strong global leader capable of effectively confronting global challenges.  Those challenges include climate change and trade relations as much as they do military conflicts.

Next let's look at their grasp of the real.  Here Clinton is overwhelmingly better.  I think Sanders reduces everything to a Manichean dichotomy of good guys and bad guys.  Why is the health care system the way it is?  Bad guys did it!  Why is there massive economic inequality?  Bad guys did it!  Why have Republicans dominated Congress for most of the last 20 years, and control most state governments?  Bad guys did it!  I think what Sanders dismisses as mere moderation is a view of the world which recognizes that truth may be complicated.  

I think Clinton has a much better grasp of why things are the way they are because she's more conscious of history, and how things change with time.  Women's rights are an obvious example, women today have far greater opportunities than they did when she was young.  In addition, she played a direct role in shaping history in some pretty important ways.  Health care reform isn't an abstraction to her, she knows what it's like to try developing and passing a national program and she knows how hard it is to push the status quo.

Now we get to route, and Sanders' biggest deficit against Clinton.  As far as I can tell, his plan for every issue consists of:
  • Everyone will share my values, and therefore
  • Everyone will do exactly what I want, and
  • Anyone who does otherwise is a bad guy and will be politically neutralized by my blindingly obvious rightness and goodness.  (not only does Sanders reduce the world to good guys and bad guys, he doesn't put much thought into why the bad guys win so often)
For Clinton, I'd guess her domestic policy would be focused on stopping the Republican Congress from doing harm and helping Democrats win votes next time around, with her most important action being good picks for the courts (and getting them approved).  I think we'd see a stronger foreign policy, particularly on climate change, because that's where there's more leeway.  Those are modest steps, but they're oriented towards a better place than where we are now, they're achievable, and they're progress.   

I have no idea what a President Sanders would do, because I don't think any of his ideas work.  What do you expect of someone who promises to build a ladder to the moon?  Pretty much anything but a ladder to the moon.  That said, go back to what I said at the beginning about filtering and electability.  There's a lot I dislike about Sanders, but I'd vote for him (happily) if he were the Democratic nominee.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

2015 Wrap Up (Books)

Facebook suggests revisiting the past year through pictures, I prefer books.

2015 began with something I'd bought myself for Christmas, Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  I was following up a reference to it as a source on homeowners associations and how they were a tool for enforcing racial segregation.  MCL didn't have a copy and it was the holidays, so I figured what the hell and shelled out the bucks.

This turned out to be a great read and it changed how I think about segregation.  Sugrue hammers the point that the ghetto wasn't just a function of racism.  It was also a function of economic restructuring, both geographically (jobs moving from cities to suburbs) and vertically (money moving away from low skilled/low education to high skilled/high education).  Per Sugrue,
Detroit's postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American History:  that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the burden of that inequality.
What homeowners associations did at the neighborhood level, suburbs did at the municipal level.  That lead me to Kenneth Jackson's, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of America, and Clay McShane's Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City.  McShane describes how the automobile made suburbs accessible to both manufacturing and the middle class, while Jackson describes how that access was limited to whites.  I like McShane's focus on how social goals drive the bus.  He's talking about cars, but I think it applies just as much to segregation:
Besides these narrowly economic functions, the automobile seemed to promise a way for turn-of-the-century Americans to get some of their most cherished social goals.  In a sense, there was a "social demand" for the automobile, along with the economic one.  The new middle class wanted other status objects in addition to suburban homes.  The automobile, like the street railway before it, promised to ease suburban flight.  Suburban historian Robert Fishman has pointed out the continuity: "The automobile has been essentially a tool in the attainment of a deeper goal which pre-dates the automobile era: the suburban ideal."
The flipside to that was the ghetto.  Going back to Sugrue,
The "ghetto" was not simply a physical construct; it was also an ideological construct.  Urban space became a metaphor for perceived racial difference.  Whites created a cognitive map of the city based on racial classifications and made their decisions about residence and their community action in accordance with their vision of the racial geography of the city.  They established "invisible stone walls of prejudice," and through defensive activity ensured that despite their invisibility those walls were well known to black and white Detroiters.  In the very act of defining the boundaries of the "ghetto," whites also continually defined and reinforced the boundaries of race.
The last thing I'll mention is Beryl Satter's Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America.  She provides an excellent breakdown of how the ghetto wasn't just a function of exclusion, it was about how the real estate industry (and courts which refused to enforce basic consumer protections) handled African Americans.  When blacks could find housing open to them, they had to pay extortionate prices several times the "white" price.  Through land contracts, unscrupulous sellers retained title to properties but left black "owners" on the hook for building repairs and code violations.  For old, dilapidated housing, especially in a city with a corrupt inspection system <cough>Chicago</cough>, those costs could be extreme.

And now for why.

Portland has a housing shortage, and more generally we're struggling with managing growth.  20th century suburbanization provides a clear path to resolving those problems:  Cater to status, even if that means tacit racial segregation.  Cater to class, even if that means making lower income people disappear.  And let everyone who doesn't fit a neighborhood's mold go to hell.

I want to understand how this happened in the past to better try avoiding it now.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Mandatory Insurance for Gun Owners

The mass murder committed at Umpqua Community College is a terrible reminder of the risk we accept by allowing widespread ownership of the means to easily and speedily commit mass murder.  We need a better way to manage that risk.

A rough toll of costs at UCC includes lost earnings, ongoing medical, disability, loss of companionship, and loss of use.  Those damages likely add up to tens of millions of dollars.  Some of that will be paid by insurance coverages such as workers comp or medical, some of it will be paid by charity, and some of it will be left for victims and their families to eat.  Virtually none of it will be paid by those most responsible, the shooter and those who gave him access to firearms.  Why should that be?  Why should the public bear the cost of private, risky decisions that inflict catastrophe on us?

There is an alternative, one that balances respect for gun rights with a recognition of the costs they impose on society.  Require anyone possessing a gun to also hold high-limit liability insurance.  Require anyone transferring a firearm or ammunition to verify the recipient's insurance coverage, with failure to perform that duty constituting negligence should the recipient use them to harm people.

Such insurance would not be a simple flat tax on gun owners.  Insurers are good at classifying risks and determining what factors are connected with high costs.  An older rural hunter who uses a gun safe probably wouldn't pay much, an unemployed young male who collects pistols when he isn't smoking pot might have to pay a lot.  Why shouldn't he?  Why wouldn’t we want him to?

A benefit of using private insurance to manage gun ownership is that it takes the task away from the government.  Insurers would compete for business using whatever plans and assumptions they wanted.  Neither the state nor any single insurer would decide who could or couldn’t own a gun, instead the market would determine the cost of ownership based on an individual’s risk.  For those who believe that private gun ownership constitutes a check on government, insurance creates a kind of regulatory buffer.  The state’s only role would be to ensure that those who had guns could make good on the damages that result.

Mandatory insurance provides a central means of recovery for victims of gun violence, funded by those most responsible for the violence.  It provides market pricing, recognizing that gun owners are a diverse group posing diverse risks.  It minimizes the role of the state, respecting the intent of the second amendment.  And it sends a much needed message to gun owners every time they buy a gun or a bullet: that their private decisions have public consequences, and they will be made to pay for them.

Gun rights advocates routinely dismiss the risk that widespread ownership of firearms poses to the public.  We should demand they put their money where their mouth is.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The difference between health care and housing policy, and why I'm inflexible on the latter

This was written in response to a friend's comment on facebook.  Published here because I hate reading long comments on facebook.

I think there are two big differences between our discourse on housing policy and that with health care.

First, the external context for the latter was much more objectively defined.  Health care had been the topic of extended national debate.  There was tremendous literature on health care reform, from academics to journalists and everyone in between.  Many of those people were self-consciously working to inform public debate, people like Aaron Carroll and Uwe Reinhardt put a lot of work into translating research results and policy discussion into layman's terms.  You and I could draw on that, it wasn't just "I think…".  Finally, when we began discussions the ACA was law, we never dealt with mutually exclusive choices where doing one thing necessarily implied not doing something else.  We also never confronted value choices like universal coverage vs. affordable care for the very sick, the ACA set the table.

None of that is the case with housing policy.  I find the literature sparse and of limited scope, and the only people promoting it in public discourse are advocates of one policy or another.  There's nothing objective to connect with.  And with that material we confront a vaster problem, the gulf between "what is" and "what should be" is bigger with housing.  For example, even before health care reform we had  backstops, anyone could walk into an ER and receive life sustaining care.  We didn't have bodies in the street.  That's clearly not the case with housing.  A bigger problem means bigger solutions, and more variability in preferred courses of action.

The second difference is that with health care, I thought both the state and the country were going in the right direction.  Political debate was focused on how best to expand access to care, there was no voice of significance arguing that we needed less access to care, or that some people should get care and others should not.  I'd liken health care discourse to a river that, while it had rocks and other hidden dangers that could turn over the unwary, would sooner or later get everyone to the right place.  In contrast, I think the housing discourse in Portland is headed to a terrible place. 

Two groups have dominated that discourse in recent years.  One is a large chunk of people interested in nothing other than preserving the economic exclusivity of their neighborhoods.  The other is a smaller chunk of people who think the problem isn't that there's not enough housing, but that the wrong people get it.  They want to take housing away from some people and give it to others.  Those two groups define political discourse in Portland, every code or policy proposal related to housing since Sam Adams left office served one group or the other.  Needless to say, I think both groups are wrong.  To go with the flow, to not contest the bogus assumptions (less housing means lower prices!  people can't live without cars!) and questionable values (I should be able to dictate the economic class of my neighbors!) they rely on, is to accept a more racially and economically exclusive Portland.  I don't want that.

At the bottom, I suspect we have fundamentally different ideas on what a community should do to define itself. I'd call one way a negative approach, to exclude those who don't conform.  How do you maintain a neighborhood of Amish people?  You refuse to allow residency to anyone who isn't Amish.  That negative approach is conservative and reactive, at best it preserves what is.  It relies on authority rather than consent.  It is sterile, incapable of building anew.

As you might guess, I think the negative approach is intensely undesirable, I'd go so far as to say it's a recipe for community self-destruction.  Such a community lasts only so long as it attracts sufficient members, and as soon as its authority or self-definition is violated it becomes meaningless.  White city neighborhoods that spilled blood resisting integration only to crumble away into suburban flight are an example.

The alternative is a positive approach, to promote public community institutions and traditions that are open to all.  Things like parks, schools, and community groups can include residents regardless of demographics.  They can demonstrate to residents what they can do, and why they should care.  That approach creates a two-way conversation, it continually challenges groups to show their relevancy and adapt as necessary.  It doesn't just maintain but increases the public good by bringing an interest to people who wouldn't otherwise be exposed to it, and in turn by being exposed to new ideas and challenges that exclusion wouldn't allow.

I think the positive approach, building more good, is what Portland desperately needs.  I think that's how Portland should respond to growth.  Not by putting up walls, but by embracing people and showing them who we are.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Aristocracy of Everyone

I finished reading Benjamin Barber's An Aristocracy of Everyone.  It was published in 1992, the same year I headed to college.  The context in which it was written- the emergence of multiculturalism, and reactionary criticism of "political correctness", brings back memories.

Barber tries to carve out a middle ground between radical and reactionary, and he does it in an interesting way.  He starts from the equation that Liberty = Education, and that a primary purpose of getting educated is to understand liberty and support it.  Barber is worried that we've lost our sense of "positive" liberty, the obligations we must accept to make self-government possible.  We're too infatuated with "negative" liberty, the right to do as we please without interference.  The latter without the former is impossible because we interact with each other too much, generally speaking we aren't hermits.

To the left Barber says that majority rule by itself isn't enough for good governance, that uneducated voters are no more than a mob waiting for their demagogue.  To the right Barber says that liberty for the masses is both possible and desirable, and implicitly they are flim-flam artists for wanting otherwise.

It's heady stuff and there's a lot of quotable material.  But it comes up short in in its prescription:  How do we educate people in liberty?  Barber's suggestion is to add a service component to undergraduate degree requirements.  This is inadequate on multiple levels.

First, as Barber ably demonstrates the problem of uneducated citizens isn't primarily a problem of youth.  The dominant systems students interact with- education, economy, culture- are largely controlled by elders.  The world outside of college is much, much bigger than the world inside of college.  Adding a service requirement won't change those systems or the incentives they create.

Second, what work does Barber envision students doing?  He means for work to be a component of education in democracy and its obligations, something more than charity.  What would he have students do?  Invert the question and ask how much does your company need a bunch of pre-interns who explicitly aren't actually working for you, but are instead guided by a goal of understanding democracy and its obligations?  Who, outside of non-profits, would even let them in the door?  I think the service requirement runs into a hard reality that most of our economy is private, it has nothing to do with democracy.

The answer to Barber's challenge has to focus on people who aren't students, on civic organizations that bring people together to pursue common interests.  Those interests might be political, such as with a political party, they might be local, as with a neighborhood association or PTA, or they might be issue oriented such as with advocating a cause.  What they have in common is
    • people coming together, working in concert and learning that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,
    • coming together on a public matter, not limited by class or education, and
    • doing it in their free time, as in not subject to anyone's direction but their own.  When people are at work they aren't free, they're guided by bosses or business requirements.  Liberty exists when we aren't a Teacher or a Welder or an Accountant, but when we act on our own as citizens. 

Learning about liberty means learning that what we do "on our own" in public matters, those actions define what is public.