Hope for our political future

For the first time in a long time, I’m a bit hopeful about our country’s political future.

This is the last election where it might be possible to cobble together a majority out of just angry, conservative, white voters. With the non-white fraction of the population growing, and with people in those groups becoming more politically active, by four years from now I don’t think there’s any chance of a candidate winning without a strong showing in at least some minority groups.

But it looks like the tea party doesn’t get this. They really think that getting even more angry, even more conservative, and even more white will seal the deal. And a failure to understand that means that the next election will also go to the Democrats.

In fact, we could even see the Republican party fracture over this, with the sane Republicans splitting off from the crazies.

A sane Republican party—a party that thinks the government ought to keep out of both your bedroom and your wallet—could draw a lot of Democrats into the fold. It also ought to draw a lot of tea partiers, since that’s basically what they’re calling for. But so many of them are so angry and bitter, they just can’t get past their anger and bitterness to compromise. The result has been the “can’t take yes for an answer” that we see in Congress—leading to the debt ceiling showdown, the fiscal cliff, and all the other dysfunctions that we’re suffering under now.

If the Republicans fail to win this year—and especially if they think that the lesson is that they need to be more rigid and ideologically pure, rather than more flexible and inclusive—we may have Democratic administrations as far as they eye can see.

In a world where the Democrats have already moved so far to the right that they’re solidly in the middle of where a sane Republican party would end up, I find that pretty hopeful.

What do voter ID laws gain us?

The problem solved by checking IDs at the polling place—malefactors impersonating voters—very nearly does not exist at all. The “solution,” however, creates three new problems. Specifically it creates the problems of blocking voters from casting their ballots in three instances:

  1. If their papers are not in order.
  2. If a poll judge evaluates their papers incompetently, and erroneously declares them to be not in order.
  3. If a corrupt poll judge competently evaluates their papers, but in an act of criminal malfeasance falsely declares them to be not in order.

The result in each case is a voter being disenfranchised.

Citizens of the United States are not required to keep their papers in order. (Citizens of the United States are not required even to have papers, although it’s enough of a convenience that most people do.)

To the extent that the state has a legitimate interest in making sure that voters meet the qualifications—age, citizenship, residence, and so—those checks should be made at registration time. Doing so neatly avoids all three problems. If additional documentation is required to prove they are qualified to vote, there is time to procure that documentation. And in the case of an incompetent or corrupt poll judge, there is time to appeal to higher authority and have the error corrected.

Checks of this sort should not be made at the polling place, because it creates unnecessary time pressure—any little glitch leads to the voter being disenfranchised. To my mind, disenfranchising a voter is as un-American as insisting that citizens keep their papers in order. Perhaps more so—it strikes at the very heart of democracy.

Half-measures aimed at reducing the problem, such as provisional votes, are unsatisfactory. Voters have the right to cast votes, not provisional votes.

Voter impersonation can be almost entirely prevented simply by checking the signature of the voter against the signature in the registration rolls—a check that can be done without reference to ID cards. This also largely minimizes the threat of corrupt poll judges, because the signature specimen exists, and the judge knows that a false claim that it doesn’t match will be discovered. (Unlike a voter ID scheme, which lends itself to corrupt or incompetent poll judges arguing later about whether this or that ID was presented, or whether it met the criteria spelled out in the law.)

This post was prompted by a discussion I’ve been having on Facebook with a guy who’s worried about an article with this headline: Group says it found 30,000 dead North Carolinians registered to vote.

I responded, pointing out that everyone who’s ever registered is probably still registered, because there’s no central reporting mechanism for working back from death certificates to every address where the deceased might once have registered to vote.

This guy’s response was that all those registrations of people who are dead could be used by malefactors to vote multiple times.

I rather liked my response (the opportunity to quote it here is the main reason I wrote this post):

Sure—but that would be a crime. You could also show up at the polling place with automatic weapons and make everyone stand against the wall while you stuffed in 1000 ballots marked for your preferred candidates.

It’s a pretty easy crime to detect, too—just get a list of death certificates and compare that list to the list of people who voted. And people have gone through that exercise, and discovered that criminals impersonating dead people to cast additional votes is a crime that’s about as common as people showing up with automatic weapons and stuffing the ballot box.

All voter ID laws gain anyone is an opportunity to disenfranchise voters, a terribly un-American goal.

Jury duty and democracy

I’ve got a quandary. It’s in the area of civics.

I was on jury duty last month, and was in the pool of potential jurors for a cocaine possession case. Several of the candidate jurors mentioned that they had issues with drug prohibition, and were excused from serving on the jury—whether or not they said they could set their personal feelings aside and follow the law. (I wasn’t taking notes, but my recollection is that the ones who said they didn’t think they could follow the law were excused by the judge while the ones who merely expressed personal reservations about drug prohibition as a matter of public policy had to be peremptorily challenged by the prosecutor.)

I too think that drug prohibition is terrible public policy. It’s harmful to society at every level. It corrupts the police and the judicial system. It clogs the courts and the prisons. It drains money that could be better spent on useful things (or left in the hands of the people who earn it). It adds yet another layer of harm onto drug users—people who are already suffering—making it harder, riskier, and more expensive for them to either go on using drugs or seek help to quit.

Most especially, criminalizing commerce in drugs means that makers and sellers of drugs have no recourse to the police or the courts when they’re robbed or defrauded. That produces another whole layer of violence—one that only occasionally touches people who aren’t buying or selling (or stealing) drugs, but that would be completely absent if drugs were legal.

Despite all that, as I imagined my answers to the questions they were asking, I found that I was inclined to say that I could give both sides a fair trial—meaning that I thought, if the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was in possession of some amount of cocaine, I could vote to find him guilty.

I thought about why, and eventually decided it was because I think democracy is important.

I’ve got no doubt that drug prohibition is a dumb idea, but I’ve also got no doubt that the right way to fix it is by changing the law. I’m pretty sure that screwing around on the edges of the law, such as by acquitting people who are technically guilty, is the wrong way to solve the problem. And yet, each time someone like me applies the law, another person who already has more than his or her measure of problems gets another few—a felony conviction,  loss of access to things like public housing and school loans, and most likely a prison sentence.

And so my quandary. Is democracy worth that much? It’s worth a lot, but is it worth wreaking that much harm on someone who was merely self-medicating because they hadn’t found a better way to deal with life?

I find I’m not sure.

Guns versus cars

I’m one of those annoying people who always responds to any suggestion that we “do something” about gun violence or terrorism by pointing out that we allow 40,000 motor vehicle deaths per year, and that maybe we should do something about that problem first.

I don’t do this for tactical reasons. (I recognize that, as a tactic, this argument is a dead loser.)

I do it because I really, really care about motor vehicle deaths—given my lifestyle, I figure they’re the most likely cause of my own premature death.

I walk a lot, and a lot of my walking is along roadways. I also bicycle a lot, and a lot of my bicycling is along roadways. (I walk and bicycle for transportation, not merely for fitness. If you’re walking or bicycling to get somewhere, you’re going to end up going on the roads that lead from where you are to where you need to go.)

The number of people who die of gunshot wounds in the US is high, but very few of those deaths are random. A majority are suicides. The overwhelming majority of the remainder are criminal-on-criminal homicides.

It’s easy to reduce your risk of being shot to a level so low as to be statistically insignificant, and the steps you need to take are all perfectly sensible things that everyone should do anyway:

  • Seek treatment if you’re suffering from depression
  • Don’t commit crimes
  • Don’t do business with violent criminals
  • Don’t hang out with violent criminals

Do those things and your risk of being shot drops to the level of other risks that you largely ignore, like the risk of being struck by lightning or the risk of being gored by a bull.

There is no similar set of things you can do to similarly reduce your risk of being killed or injured by a motor vehicle. (If anyone can provide one, I’d be delighted to hear it.)

Besides the fact that I (apparently perversely) view motor vehicle deaths as the larger problem, I also don’t see any good, simple way to reduce firearm deaths. (Except, you know, the way I just mentioned which is highly effective at reducing them on an individual basis.)

I think a lot of people would be glad to see guns disappear (as has largely happened in Australia) or at least be very strictly limited (like in the UK or in Canada)—but that’s not going to happen. In a democracy such major changes require not just a majority vote but a broad consensus in society.

At a minimum, a lot of people suggest, if we’re going to allow people to own firearms, there should at least be some “reasonable regulation,” like there is with cars. I object to such schemes, on the grounds that there’s no way to enforce them without using police-state tactics.

It is not, I wish to emphasize, just about firearms that I feel this way. I object to any scheme where citizens are required to keep their papers in order, or are required to show their papers when demanded by some official. The immigration debate raises the same issues, and I feel the same way in that case as well.

Such objections may seem like a weird fantasy of an America that never was, but that’s not the case. Until quite recently, it was entirely possible to get along in the United States without any sort of government-issued ID. Even now it’s possible, although it requires giving up things that are tough to get along without.  (It’s tough to open a bank account or to get a job without ID.) But that’s a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to go on adding to the list of things that require papers.

I don’t just complain about this stuff. I’m active locally in the community of people advocating for better bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. I work to improve the laws to make things safer for bicyclists, and I work to educate both bicyclists and drivers on safe riding and driving.

I would encourage you to do so as well. Even if you’re not a bicyclist you know some, and everyone’s a pedestrian.

If you do—if you’re one of the many people who’s making significant and ongoing contributions to bicycling and pedestrian safety—I promise to listen thoughtfully and give serious consideration to anything you’ve got to say about reducing gun violence.

What do taxing districts do?

The town of Savoy, just south of Champaign, makes a point of having lower taxes. They do so by not providing many of the amenities that Champaign and Urbana provide—no bus service, no public library, etc. Residents, since they can be free riders on Champaign and Urbana services, like the situation just fine.

A few years back, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District was looking to expand its service area into Savoy. Property owners in Savoy didn’t like that idea.

There are rules allowing taxing districts to annex adjacent areas and begin providing services—and assessing the tax. The rules make it pretty tough for an area to opt out; just about the only way is to already be in the taxing district of another service provider. With that in mind, Savoy created its own mass transit district a few years ago (the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District). The idea was that it wouldn’t provide any mass transit service and wouldn’t levy any tax.

All very sad, of course, for anyone like me who uses the bus service, along with anyone who thinks that public services are a good idea. Which meant there was a bit of schadenfreude when, as anyone with any sense had foreseen, Savoy’s transit district promptly levied a small tax (to pay the legal cost of fighting CUMTD’s attempt to annex areas within the district anyway). Taxing districts levy taxes. It’s what they do.

Now we’re getting a bit more schadenfreude: People within Savoy’s transit district (the new YMCA and an apartment complex) are asking the district to provide transit services.

It’s funny, but it’s also kind of sad. I mean, the people who built the apartment complex and the YMCA surely knew that they were building in a place where there was no transit service. I’m sure they picked those locations because the land was cheap. Didn’t they stop to think that the reason the land was cheap was because of the lack of services?

On the one hand, I’m glad to see the Savoy transit district getting pressured to provide transit services. Providing transit services are what transit districts are supposed to do. And I have no sympathy for the residents who created the district in the hopes of dodging a tax—only a moron creates a taxing district while expecting not to be taxed.

But I’m still kind of sad. If transit service to the YMCA is important (and the YMCA says the lack of it is their visitor’s number one complaint), wouldn’t it have made more sense to build the new YMCA within the CUMTD service area? Instead, they build where they know there’s no service, and then complain about it: More sprawl and more bickering.

Of course, those are just more reasons why the Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District was a bad idea. I mean, really! Who’s so stupid as to create a taxing district hoping not to be taxed?

How voting helps

Plaque commemorating a lecture by Susan B. AnthonyI’ve long been peeved by how little credit people give to the power of their vote.

So many people seem to think that a vote isn’t effective unless it holds the balance of power, as if their vote only counted when the other voters were equally split, so that their vote would sway the election one way or the other.

This isn’t true for individuals, and it most especially is not true for groups.

Back in the run-up to the 2008 election, I heard a  story on NPR that provided a good counterexample. An Indian tribe in (I think) New Mexico was getting attention from state and national candidates of both parties, because they had started voting. Pretty much all of a sudden, after their voting turnout had shot up, their issues became important to politicians at all levels. And their issues weren’t just important when there was a close election and their votes might make the difference: Because they voted in every election, every politician needed to pay attention to their issues all the time.

If you’re a member of a group that votes, your group’s issues will be taken seriously. You don’t need to be a majority. You don’t even need to vote as a block. (In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t: You want politicians thinking that each individual vote is up for grabs, if they institute the right policies.)

The image at the top of this post is of a plaque in downtown Champaign, commemorating a lecture on “Work, Wages, and the Ballot,” that Susan B. Anthony gave here back in 1870. I’ve seen the plaque many times, but couple of days ago, I thought to take a picture of the plaque, and that prompted me to do a proper search, which yielded some results.

This Project Gutenberg Book Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian, by Alma Lutz is pretty good:

She had at hand a perfect example in the unsuccessful strike of Kate Mullaney’s strong, well-organized union of 500 collar laundry workers in Troy, New York. Aware that Kate blamed their defeat on the ruthless newspaper campaign, inspired and paid for by employers, Susan asked her, “If you had been 500 carpenters or 500 masons, do you not think you would have succeeded?”

“Certainly,” Kate Mullaney replied, adding that the striking bricklayers had won everything they demanded. Susan then reminded her that because the bricklayers were voters, newspapers respected them and would hesitate to arouse their displeasure, realizing that in the next election they would need the votes of all union men for their candidates. “If you collar women had been voters,” she told them, “you too would have held the balance of political power in that little city of Troy.”

I turned 18 shortly after the voting age in the US had been lowered to 18. The drinking age had been lowered along with it, so it was legal for me to drink. But a big jump in drunk driving accidents prompted many states to raise their drinking age.

In Michigan it turned out to be an oddly complex process. A state law was passed, raising the drinking age to 19, but grandfathering in people who were already old enough to have started drinking before the law went into effect. After that law was passed, but before it went into effect, a state constitutional amendment was put on the ballot, that would raise the drinking age to 21, without any grandfathering. That would create a whole cohort of people who’d been able to buy alcohol for a year or more, who would lose that right. And all of them could vote.

I voted against it, of course. But nobody else I knew who was going to be in the affected group bothered to vote. They didn’t much care about the issue—it was as easy for under-age drinkers to buy booze then as now—and they didn’t think their vote would count for much. And, as it turned out, they were right. But only because their peers didn’t vote. Not only could a solid voting block of 18-to-20 year olds have affected the outcome, I rather doubt if the issue would have even gone on the ballot, if 18-to-20 year olds voted at the rates that senior citizens do.

The way voting helps is not by winning individual elections (although that does happen and it’s nice when it does). The way voting helps is that if you’re a voter, politicians take your interests into account all the time.

Funding the capital costs of household solar power

I was reminded yesterday that I wanted to mention Property Assessed Clean Energy, which came up in the course I’m taking on electric power. (What reminded me was Tobias Buckell’s post about how the real issue for photovoltaics is the capital cost of installing the capacity, which he mentioned in reference to a rather interesting article on issues with solar feed-in tariffs.)

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) is a clever idea for funding homeowner investment in solar power. The way it works is this: The municipality raises money with a bond issue, then lends it to homeowners to invest in solar (or potentially wind) power generating capacity. That investment is then paid back to the municipality over 15 or 20 years via an assessment on the property tax bill. The money is easy for the homeowner to pay back, because the debt repayment is funded by savings on the power bill.

The property tax assessment stays with the house if it is sold, which is reasonable because the photovoltaic system or wind turbine stays with the house as well. This means that the capital is available quite cheaply, because the money is very likely to be paid back.

The really big win of PACE is that it greatly reduces the biggest financial risk that a homeowner takes when making an investment in solar power—the risk that he or she will end up having to move before the rather long payback period, and end up being on the hook to pay the loan back, without enjoying the benefits of the lower power bills.

The problem is, even though about half the states have laws authorizing some form of PACE, the whole scheme has been blocked by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which instructed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac not to underwrite mortgages on properties with a PACE assessment.

As I understand it, the issue is that the property tax assessment (like property taxes in general) are senior to the mortgage in the event of a default. But if this regulation is legitimate, the federal mortgage authorities can regulate all municipal activity. They could ban mortgages on houses where the municipality is funding public art through a property tax assessment (or on houses where the municipality isn’t funding public art). If this principle stands, municipal governments will have to do whatever the mortgage authorities demand, or else only people rich enough to pay cash would be able to buy a house in town.

There’s a group called PACENow that’s working various paths to get the prohibition reversed.

The politics of providing services

In many places with repressive governments, nascent political parties (unable to achieve political power via the ballot box, because elections are rigged or the group is banned from participating) provide public services as an organizing tactic. They provide food for children, health care, mediation services, neighborhood watch, financial aid to victims of government actions, and so on.

This tactic has proven to be effective, so I’ve always been a little surprised that we don’t see more of it in the US. So, I was interested to see a post about the Black Panther’s free breakfast program, and the FBI’s concerns about it.

Upon reflection, I figure that the main reason we see little of this in the US is that in the US we really do have public services. There are government programs to feed hungry children, provide medical care to the sick and injured, police the streets, adjudicate conflicts, and so on. They’re flawed and limited, but they do exist. They’re good enough, that it would take a lot of money to compete—and if you have that much money, there are better ways to seek power, especially since our political system is reasonably open.

But this is becoming less true. With constant pressure on public services, holes are opening up that can be—and are being—filled by private organizations. So far, those organizations are mostly charitable non-profits, but there’s no reason that a political party couldn’t join in.

I think we’ll see it pretty soon, especially at the local level. People who have felt disenfranchised will be very willing to support political parties that directly provide what the government won’t and ask nothing in return except that you consider voting for their candidates.

The Unconstitional Enemy Expatriation Act

There’s a bill, the Enemy Expatriation Act, that aims to strip US citizens of their citizenship if they are accused of “engaging in, or purposefully and materially supporting, hostilities against the United States.” (The term “hostilities” is defined to mean any conflict subject to the laws of war.)

This is almost certainly unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court held some years ago that it was impossible for a US citizen to unintentionally give up his citizenship. In particular, formally renouncing your citizenship in front of a foreign official was not enough to actually lose your citizenship, because maybe you intended to retain your citizenship (and were just going through the motions of renouncing it as part of obtaining citizenship of some other country).

Now, the Supreme Court has become pretty unreliable on this sort of thing of late, but it seems to me that if formally renouncing your citizenship is ineffective, just in case you didn’t really mean it, then a whole lot of things that fall under the general heading of “supporting” (such as donating money to a charity that is later found to have been diverting some of that money to groups that are in some way connected with other groups that are accused of) hostility certainly don’t qualify as intentional renunciation.

Clarion at home: Summation

This is part 6—the final post—of a series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion. I’ve talked about my thoughts on how you can capture part of the magic of Clarion—even if you can’t attend. This post is on my big misconception of Clarion, on some of the things that you can’t get from blog posts, and on applying these lessons.

What about getting critiques?

Before I went to Clarion, I assumed that the most important thing would be the critiques of my stories. I was wrong.

It’s actually a good thing that I was wrong. After all, the goal of Clarion isn’t to send you home with six critiqued stories that you can polish up and get published. The goal is to make you a better writer. You can only get so much better in six weeks, but six weeks is enough time to give you the tools you need to continue improving your own writing through practice.

A critique (better, several critiques) can help you improve a story. A good critique can help you find the good stuff in your story (so you don’t accidentally lose it when revising). A good critique can tell you that a story has problems.

It’s pretty rare for even a great critique to tell you how to fix a story that’s broken. But when several critiques all have complaints, there’s probably a problem somewhere, and the details of the complaints will often provide a clue as to where that is.

More important—and probably the biggest thing you’re missing out on by doing Clarion at home (aside from some of the fun) is that getting critiques can help you develop your skills in critiquing your own work.

Critiquing your own work is much harder than critiquing other people’s. If there’s some trick to doing it well, I haven’t learned it yet. In particular, getting critiques helps you learn about your blind spots. When critiquers point out flaws in your own work that you should have seen—and especially when they point out the same kinds of flaws in the next story, and the one after that—it can begin to sink in. That may be a quicker way to learn not to make the same mistakes, but the important part is to learn to see the mistakes. Then you can fix them, even if you can’t avoid making them.

Other stuff

Of course, there was a lot of other stuff at Clarion:

  1. A little dorm room with a little bed and a little desk.
  2. A weekly BBQ with that week’s departing teacher.
  3. A session with an editor on the difference between a perfectly good story and a story that sells.
  4. Several different perspectives on the career arc of a speculative fiction writer.
  5. Learning to play Mafia—and being there when John Gonzales invented his varient The Thing.
  6. Practice for doing public readings of our work in front of a small, friendly audience. (I’m still grateful to Rick Polney for organizing these.)
  7. Late evenings on the Owen balcony drinking beer and doing impersonations of the teachers. (You should have been there. It was hilarious.)
  8. Some very specific advice on what to do after Clarion. (That page also has a look at the life cycle of a story.)

All those things (and many others) were great fun; some have been really helpful in various ways. But what helped my writing was the stuff I’ve talked about here.

Once you develop enough skill at critiquing that you can evaluate your own work, you’re in a position to improve it through practice. Then it’s just a matter of putting in the time writing—and monitoring, evaluating, and trying to do it better.

Clarion is great fun, but you can improve your writing even if you can’t go.

See the Clarion at home page for links to all the posts in this series.