I agree with Peter

Those who know me, and there aren’t that many, might be taken aback by my headline. I am referring to Peter Newland, with whom I strongly disagreed when we were both at the Snohomish County Public Utility District—he as a commissioner; I as a policy aide within the office. But that was a long time ago, and we’ve both moved on, though I didn’t go very far. I now occupy his previous seat on the board. He continues with his private businesses.

Newland offered his opinions on what to do with the site formerly occupied by Kimberly-Clark. The paper products company shut down the mill, which had been around for decades, then demolished the empty buildings. When I drove by the other day, there was nothing but rubble. What emerges will largely define what kind of place Everett will be for generations to come. (Photo from the Herald.)

Herald rubble

The closure sent hundreds of employees to the streets. They were making family wages with good benefits. Sympathy for their plight and legacy may have induced the city council to designate a “water-dependent” usage. Newland believes that this is a mistake. He has an alternative in mind.

[The council’s decision] tries to preserve the status quo even though that ship has already left the dock. If Everett’s downtown core is ever to be vital again, we need to rethink our goals like successful, forward-looking cities and towns across America have done for as long as I can remember.

I share this sentiment. Everett does have an opportunity for a “fresh start” on the waterfront. In his vision, the site would be transformed into a mixed-use development in the manner of Baltimore, Maryland.

In the 1970s, Baltimore’s leaders realized the city would be in dire financial straits if they allowed their waterfront to languish. They decided to redevelop the city’s ramshackle inner harbor. Their years of work and millions of dollars of public and private investment have added residential and commercial space to an empty harbor and made Baltimore’s renewal an overall success.

Revitalization is hard. I tried for years in Marysville, Wash., a suburb of Everett. To make it happen requires bold leadership from both the public and private sectors, people willing to collaborate on a shared vision. I was not that catalyst for change. It appears no one else was either. So Marysville languishes still, with no conversation about what to do.

Newland wants such a conversation to begin in Everett, while there is still a chance. His goal is a lofty one:

If we put our minds to it we can make Everett the most livable city on the I-5 corridor.

Good for you, Peter. Let’s talk.

A philosopher hedges

I was raised a Catholic, though “raised” hardly describes the experience. My parents were Democrats and unionists, to be sure, but obsessed with the Church, its commandments, and doctrines. Mortal sin was a big one in our household, which none of us committed, of course. It’s the venials that would get you.

As I grew older faith morphed into tradition then eventually neither term applied. I left the Church. Or perhaps I should say that the Church left me.

Yet, I must confess that I have much sympathy for those who started in life as I did, within the Catholic fold, and still remain, despite the gradual evaporation of the Vatican II spirit. I’m also endlessly intrigued by the fact that people far smarter than I stick with the Church.

Gary Gutting is one of those. He attended Catholic schools over his entire educational career and now teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. In his Easter Sunday essay he attempts to explain how reason and Catholicism can co-exist. He writes:

My Catholic education has left me with three deep convictions. First, it is utterly important to know, to the extent that we can, the fundamental truth about human life: where it came from, what (if anything) it is meant for, how it should be lived.  Second, this truth can in principle be supported and defended by human reason.  Third, the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition is a fruitful context for pursuing fundamental truth, but only if it is combined with the best available secular thought.

One of the lingering problems I had as a Catholic, and it would have been an obstacle in any religion, is rather simple: I don’t believe in God. Now I know that the question whether or not God (or whatever) exists is ultimately an empirical one. To be intellectually honest, I should probably describe myself as open to the possibility of proof or disproof. How does Gutting treat this? This may be the hedging part.

As to the theistic metaphysics, I’m agnostic about it taken literally, but see it as a superb intellectual construction that provides a fruitful context for understanding how our religious and moral experiences are tied to the ethics of love.  The historical stories, I maintain, are best taken as parables illustrating moral and metaphysical teachings.

Hmmm. While I share the agnosticism and the appeal to narratives, I suspect that a fundamental requirement of belonging to the Church is that one believe in God. That’s from the hierarchy’s perspective, the folks in the Vatican and below who like to wear robes and say things in Latin.

But Gutting, we discover, has his own Catholic problems. He’s not all that fond of the hierarchy, who, he believes threaten the Church itself.

[The Church’s] greatest present danger is precisely the loss of the members whom the hierarchy and the rest of the conservative core want to marginalize.  I’m not willing to abandon the Church to them.

Good luck with that.

Speaking of legacies…

Via a Frank Deford piece on NPR the other day I was introduced to a Brittney Griner, who plays center for Baylor’s women’s basketball team. Deford said that she was the best female player in history. I then saw a couple of YouTube clips to see why. She dunks with ease, clearly dominating the game. In one of those clips arriving at the arena were none other than George and Laura Bush. They were cheered.

But why?

Matthew Yglesias comments on work done by Linda Bilmes of Harvard University. She estimates the combined costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to be between four and six trillion dollars, making them “the most expensive wars in US history.” (Yglesias includes a link to Bilmes’s paper.) Oh, and most of those costs have yet to be paid.

Love all this conservative fiscal discipline. It’s all bullshit, of course.

California Browns

California is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Ironically it’s happening under a Brown, the son of Pat, who, I would argue, ranks among the top governors of the Golden State. The father helped establish the world’s greatest public education system, employed tens of thousands on massive public works projects, and generally presided over the state’s best years, a period marked by rapid economic growth that enriched millions of lives. I know this because I was there, having attended the schools through Berkeley and worked on the California Aqueduct Project that brought water from the Sierra Nevada to the agricultural fields of the Central Valley and millions of Los Angeles-area residents.

It’s 1992. The scene: Madison Square Garden. The event: the Democratic National Convention. On stage was my 16-year-old daughter seconding the nomination of Jerry Brown for president. Our family sat in the seats beaming, of course. During his acceptance speech, Brown grew suddenly misty, trying to control his emotions as he spoke fondly of his dad, Pat, who lay at home ill. Jerry had big ideas, too, including a Youth Conservation Corps that never got off the ground, though my daughter publicly committed to be part of it should it eventuate.

After two terms as governor himself, Jerry Brown then wandered into a political wilderness, returning as mayor of Oakland then as the state’s attorney general. He’s now in his third term as governor giving effect to more big ideas.

The Pacific Northwest’s Timothy Egan, writing for the New York Times:

The Great Recession cost the state 1.3 million jobs — a huge blow. And when Gov. Jerry Brown was sworn in for a long-interrupted third term in 2011, he inherited a budget hole of $25 billion. He cut spending, while convincing people to raise taxes. “Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions,” he said, “but the basis for realizing them.”

And the same time, voters elected a Democratic super-majority in the Assembly, assuring that the Party of No would be irrelevant. Brown can crow — for the moment. “Against those who take pleasure singing our demise, California did the impossible.”

Brown is a seasoned visionary, becoming less prickly with age. In a memorable state of the state speech earlier this year, he tied the discovery of gold and the founding of Google to California’s “special destiny.”

The centerpiece of his vision is high-speed rail (also approved by the voters) and re-engineering the water system of the Central Valley to ensure that nature, agriculture and residential growth all have a future, no matter what climate change brings.

I wish the governor well, as well as his father. The state desperately needs Browns at the helm.

The leadership void

I got around to watching a PBS Frontline episode on the Obama administration. It begins with the 2008 campaign, showing us footage of various Obama speeches, and ends with his second inaugural address. If you embrace frustration, watch the program.

A recurring theme of the piece is Obama’s waffling on political strategy. As a candidate he promised bipartisanship, an end to red-vs.-blue America. So he tries it out as president, only to be thoroughly rebuked by the disloyal opposition, intent on just saying no. Obama at first reacts angrily, as if he’s not about to be fooled twice. But evidently he doesn’t like to personally confront or chastise or even mildly criticize either his political opponents or Wall Street bastards. He capitulates—again and again. As his progressive critics have asked, with this pattern of huffing and puffing followed by cowardly retreat, why should anyone take him seriously?

Frontline spent some time on a meeting at the White House called by Obama. He had invited, shall we say, the heads of the country’s largest financial institutions, those who had nearly destroyed the global economy and, but for the massive bailouts, would be in a pauper’s prison. The narrator described the men (no women) as nervous and anxious. In remarks leading up to the meeting, Obama had revealed his outrage over these CEOs who were once again drawing millions of dollars each in annual compensation while the Rest of Us were still struggling with the effects of the financial meltdown. But instead of taking bold action against the banks, such as nationalizing several, he not only let the executives off the hook; he offered them his political support! He had let Timothy Geithner’s cautionary advice trump the counsel of his other economic advisors, including Larry Summers—all of whom had advocated strong measures against the offending financiers. A few months later, Obama paid a visit to Wall Street wherein he pushed reform of its institutions. Conspicuously absent from the speech were the very same bankers. The emperor has no clothes—or teeth.

On major issue after major issue the pattern repeats. As a result, Obama has achieved little of his domestic agenda, settling for either nothing or a mere fraction of his intended objectives.

David Atkins, writing for Hullabaloo, has had enough. On the eve of yet another White House dinner between Obama and his Republican foes, this one to address the federal budget, he sighs:

We could go round the merry-go-round on this one again, but what’s the point? Senate Republicans aren’t about to give ground on anything resembling a reasonable budget that actually addresses the nation’s problems instead of slashing earned benefits to appease the nonexistent Bond Lords. So the President is either hopelessly naive in attempting to woo them or is actually aligned with their anti-entitlements position. There’s plenty of evidence, highlighted on this blog time and again, that the latter is the case.

I share the sentiment, though I hate to say that I’m disappointed. To feel the latter, I had to first believe that Obama was who he said he was. I was taken in by his rhetoric, and shame on me. After all, I’ve read enough Chomsky and Izzy Stone to know better. Lying is what presidents do. Yet, how cheap come our loyalties. A nice speech here and there and we’re hooked. But snookered is more apt.

Alas, the only solace is that Obama is neither Bush nor Romney. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, things could be much worse.

Educational apartheid

My wife has taught public school children for over a generation. In that period she has witnessed a steady and dramatic decline in educational quality, the result of unending cutbacks in funding and a backwards slide in the socioeconomic levels of her students. More recently she has expressed a strong sense of dread that public schools will eventually house only the least-advantaged children; those with means will have gone elsewhere.

We know that conservatives, especially, have long championed school vouchers, which, they believe, will accomplish two objectives: increase competition among schools and districts, thereby letting “the market” boost educational performance; and give parents and guardians the “freedom” to choose on behalf of their children. We also know, that despite Democrats receiving a plurality of the votes cast nationwide, the political landscape at the state level is much different, with Republicans controlling many legislatures and governors’ mansions. It is in the states that the conservative ideology manifests itself, from draconian restrictions on abortion to school vouchers.

The New York Times reports on the latter phenomenon.

Proponents say tax-credit and voucher programs offer families a way to escape failing public schools. But critics warn that by drawing money away from public schools, such programs weaken a system left vulnerable after years of crippling state budget cuts — while showing little evidence that students actually benefit.

If we’ve learned anything over these last few years it is that ideology trumps facts. Paradoxically, at least from my perspective, the more inconvenient the fact, the more tightly held the shibboleths. I would add that the conservative viewpoint admits little sympathy for those denied economic well-being. Indeed, it’s their own damn fault.

“This movement is doing more than threaten the core of our traditional public school system,” said Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. “It’s pushing a national policy agenda embraced by conservatives across states that are receptive to conservative ideas.”

The trend is clear should conservatives hold sway. Shrink state budgets because governments “are the problem” and must be starved. One intended consequence is less money for public education. As teachers and principals struggle mightily to meet conservative-based “standards” with fewer and fewer dollars, the schools spiral downward. Along the way conservatives point out the obvious: schools are failing. Well, duh.

But the conservative solution is not to restore adequate funding. Rather, the goal is to create educational apartheid, with only the poor and troubled students remaining in the money-starved public system.

The rich have always sent their children to private institutions. Those occupying socioeconomic rungs just below will feel increasing pressure to similarly situate their children. Voilà: a growing constituency for vouchers and a furtherance of the conservative agenda.

Meanwhile in Finland


More dystopia

Depressing articles are not hard to find. Here’s one in today’s New York Times about the difficulties facing the so-called “millennials,” also known as Generation Y. Despite being more educated than previous generations, they don’t have as much money. Worse, their prospects for obtaining meaningful employment—a job that pays a decent wage, good benefits, and some security and stability—are few and far between. As a result, they can’t buy homes and many eschew cars, which helps explain why so many of this generation live in urban apartments, often with others; or they stay with their parents.

…Now that the economy has entered a steady but slow recovery, younger millennials wonder if they can make up that gap. Lisa Kahn, a labor economist at the Yale School of Management, studied the earnings of men who left college and joined the work force during the deep recession of the early 1980s. Unsurprisingly, she found that the higher the unemployment rate upon graduation, the less graduates earned right out of school. But those workers never really caught up. “The effects were still present 15 or 20 years later,” she said. “They never made that money back.”

Kahn worries that the same pattern is repeating itself.

And so it goes…