Tuesday, November 18, 2008

If you're still tempted to vote for 77... (Speak Out CA, 2005)

[Prop 77 was a redistricting proposal, similar to Prop 11 2008, which passed. This post was a response to progressive support or ambivalence to this measure at the time.]

...please, read this entire post (from dailykos) very carefully. It's the compactness criteria that would really cause the problems; this thing is a power grab, plain and simple. It's every bit as bad as what Rep. Tom DeLay did in Texas, it's just much more carefully dressed up to look reasonable.

There's an interesting intersection with land use policies here. One of the most remarkable aspects of the 2004 election was just how incredibly blue the cities were and just how red everywhere else was, which was best illustrated by this map...

Not much has been written about why this is, but one theory is the almost complete elimination of interaction with the public realm in the suburbs. It's possible to walk into the garage, hop in the car, drop the kids off at school, go to work, and then repeat this process in reverse at night without ever having any kind of interaction with the public sphere that you're aware of. (of course the roads and the schools wouldn't exist without the government, but it's easy to not think about this) Alternatively, most city dwellers interact with the public sphere from the moment they set foot out the door. This may be part of what gives rise to these two very distinct worldviews.

So if California were to suddenly start building walkable and transit-friendly new urbanist type neighborhoods - instead of sprawl - this might not matter as much. Pockets of this are happening locally, but since there's been no statewide initiative, it's certainly not widespread. We will get there, but since this is really nothing less than a realignment of the American dream, it's going to take a few years. In the meantime, the sly gerrymandering they're trying to make happen here will further cement their majority in congress.

However, it is possible that the when the true hideousness of Republican economic principles starts to settle in, the results are going to turn out to be so incredibly bad for so very many people that it won't matter whether you take the bus to work in the morning or hop in the SUV. This is already happening, and the SF Chronicle has another excellent story on it in today's paper. The political ramifications of this middle class squeeze could end being very far reaching. The authors only touch on it, but the fact is that the Republicans don't have a single answer for this problem. Shoveling more money at rich people really isn't cutting the mustard, and people are starting to wake up to that.

In an act of perhaps intentional editorial irony, the Chron also chose to run this incredibly frustrating and lengthy interview with Bush apologist and economist Michael Boskin. Like most right wing economists, this guy comes off like a complete tool. He sounds so out of touch that he must've conducted this interview from mars. He's certainly missing the story that the Chron ran on the front page of the same edition he's in the business section of.

The only thread that ties all of the initiatives together is Governor Schwarzenegger and the Republican-coporate machine's overall objective, which is to consolidate his freak victory of 2003, structurally realign politics in this state and flip it permanently to the right - regardless of how many more lefties there are and where they live. 77 is part of that. Nix the first six - and that includes a big old NO on 77.

Seriousness (Speak Out CA, 2007)

In Sunday's SF Chron, clever seeming anti-urbanist critic Joel Kotkin tells an increasingly familiar story about the tarnished reputation of the Golden State:

Our magnificent state may still be the home to Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the nation's largest port complex and the world's richest agricultural valleys, but by many critical measurements the state is slipping.

What are the problems, and how can we move forward through them? Is Mr Kotkin or anyone else in the state proposing serious solutions?

The list of troubles he runs through is sort of a narrative version of the Corporation for Economic Development's Development Report Card project's report card for California. (hat tip to the champs at the Progressive States Network for putting this in my inbox). This is a deeply considered and superbly executed project that basically looks at all of the factors that go into high road economic development. Shocking as this might be to conservatives and their tax cuts solve all problems approach, there is of course a whole lot more to this than just that.

The report cards starts out with a fundamental truth that often gets forgotten: "California has consistently been an outstanding place to conduct business." We lead in unsurprising categories like numbers of PhDs, venture capital investments, average annual pay, per capita energy consumption (topic of a terrific recent Paul Krugman article, behind the TimesSelect paywall), patents issued, etc etc.

But we have big problems, too. This is a smattering of the state's weaknesses and where in the ranking of all 50 states we come in:

41 Working Poor
41 Uninsured Low-Income Children
43 Employer-Provided Health Insurance
45 Income Distribution
46 K-12 Education Expenditures
49 Homeownership Rate
49 Voting Rate
50 Change in High School Attainment
50 Affordable Urban Housing

One of the reasons this project is so helpful is that list, an unusually handy version of what elected leaders, activists and citizens who are serious about moving this state forward should be putting forward.

Back to Mr Kotkin, who, in the finest New America Foundation, pox on both their houses tradition, assures us that "neither political party seems to have a clue about any of this." He accuses Republicans of bashing immigrants and obsessive focus on Prop 13 protection. True enough. But besides calling Democrats names, he repeats a disproven assertion about businesses leaving the state, and ominously yet vaguely accuses the Dems of shadowy "redistribution" and "regulatory excess." He doesn't mention what exactly the Democrats have gotten themselves into that's so awful. Progressive taxation? Support for labor? Support for the environmental protections favored by huge percentages of voters here?

If Mr Kotkin's political analysis is flawed, his "solutions" are worse: deregulate housing, and give up on creating opportunity for more kids to go to four year colleges. The only thing he gets right is investment in infrastructure, although he doesn't mention the difficulty of making the case for the tax increases that this investment would require. (The Governor's solution so far - slap it all on the credit card - makes a certain brutal political sense but isn't a genuine, sustainable solution) Mr Kotkin also somewhat bizarrely suggests that we're in danger of losing our port trade volume to Houston and Norfolk, Virgina, both of which are currently still located entirely on the other side of the continent.

To take one example that doesn't involve a detour around Cape Horn, what of Mr Kotkin's proposal to deregulate housing. The state is dead last in affordable urban housing, so perhaps this would help. In fact, it would do nothing of the kind. San Francisco is becoming a classic example of deregulation gone horribly wrong. A lot of housing is getting built here, but it is almost to the last unit entirely the wrong stuff: all "luxury," with 1BR apartments starting at about half a million dollars. The only remotely viable solution is fixing the inclusionary housing ordinance, something the money interests backing Mayor Newsom probably won't let him do. The untenability of this situation (far more than his personal problems, which at the end of the day most San Franciscans could hardly care less about) has the potential to spark a loss for the Mayor this November.

For more nonsolutions, consider conservative ideologue Senator Tom McClintock's new project. In the kickoff speech for the organization, he proposes a strategy around (if you're familiar with his record you'll never guess what's coming here) more and louder whining about taxes. Now look again at the biggest problems in the state, according to either Mr Kotkin or CFED. Not a single one of those problems will be fixed by the agenda that either the Senator or Mr Kotkin are pushing.

The pragmatic progressive, high road agenda is truly the only serious, organized effort around to actually fix these problems. Economic democracy through progressive taxation and support for labor and employee ownership. Covering basic needs via a responsive, efficient public sector. Regulating where it's needed. Building the green economy. Creating opportunity by innovating and by investing in kids and basic research. And the progressive organizations in this state are the only ones working on increasing civic engagement to budge us off our rock bottom 49th in voting.

As Einstein put it, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." This is the essence of progressivism: taking the intellectuals, public servants, activists and citizens that are serious about solving these problems, hooking them together and making change happen. Conservativism may not have started out this way, but it has become alternately about the denial of these real problems, and the putting forward of programs that will in no way address them. Articles and projects like Mr Kotkin's and Sen McClintock's are signposts that the conservative historical arc is indeed drawing to a close, and that it will be dead - dead like Communism is dead - in a future that is by no means certain but could be coming very soon.

Update: Steven Johnson puts an artistically thorough smackdown on another gibbering anti-urbanist, David Brooks. And don't forget the deliberate political ramifications of anti-urbanism.

Posted by Dan Ancona, February 26, 2007

Monday, November 10, 2008

If you can't organize your data...

"When Carson hired field organizers for the campaign, he said that he looked for people with unusual backgrounds—“I try to throw out all the political-science majors when I do hiring.” During a lull in the primary season, he set up a three-week “data camp” in Oregon for Obama staffers. “We had the best data operation of any campaign,” he said. “You can have the most inspirational candidate, you can have the best organizing philosophy in the world, but if you can’t organize your data to take advantage of it and get lists in front of the canvassers and take these volunteers and use it in a smart way and figure out who it is we’re going to talk to—I mean, the rest of it is all pointless.”"

-OFA Field Director Jon Carson

Monday, November 3, 2008

"Election Day is Usually Boring"

This morning, one of the most highly regarded progressive bloggers on the planet had this throwaway line in his morning-haul post:

"Election day is usually really boring, with lots of poll-watching and sign holding and waiting around until vote counting starts."

For a great very many progressive organizers, election day isn't boring at all: it consists of repeated trips to the polling place, checking off who has voted against a list of targets, and then going into the neighborhood to try and convince those folks to get out and vote. This process is known variously as "election day get out the vote," (aka "e-day GOTV") "poll watching" or (my favorite description), "knocking and dragging." (note: while you do knock, no actual dragging is involved.)

Here's are five reasons why this is worth doing:

1. It really does help. To understand the math of why e-day GOTV is actually helpful, consider this: the unit political element in most states is a precinct, a small political district comprised of (usually) 500 to 1000 voters. In cities, a precinct is usually a couple blocks on a side. In most cases there is one polling place per precinct.

Take the example of precinct 3832, right in the heart of the supposedly super-voting city of San Francisco. This is a turnout map of 2004 (large-ish .pdf), and if you look at that you can see that turnout even in our fairly engaged precinct could best be described as "eh." In 2004 it was 82%.

If you peer into the voter file for this precinct, the party breakdown as of about a month ago was 522 Democrats, 186 Decline to States (or "DTS") and 33 Republicans. Most counties publish lists of everyone who has already voted early or by mail, so we also can figure that as of Friday, there are 429 Dems and 161 DTS left to try and turn out.

Now, I know this precinct reasonably well, and I know those Decline to States have overwhelmingly declined to state their party because they're somewhere to its left. They have a long-standing disgust with the Democratic Party and its inability to stand up and clearly articulate an alternative to the conservative movement (this disgust has softened quite a bit in the past few cycles, and quite a bit more this year). But if there's progressive stuff on the ballot, odds are turning those Decline to States out is going to be as helpful as turning out the Dems (if not more so).

That gives us a stack of voters (or in the parlance of organizers & consultants, a "universe") of 708 folks. If 83% turn out again this year, that means 592 voters will show up. If it goes up to 90%, that means 637 votes. So even if there's historic-record turnout of 90%, there's still 71 voters spread out over a couple blocks that might just need that one last nudge that we're going to go out there and give them.

2. The message it sends definitely helps. Someone once put it this way to me: the ability to vote is what separates us from slavery. I always find myself coming back to that. One of the most inspiring parts of Obama's message is that for the first time really in my life, a candidate at the top of the ticket is saying yes, we the people do have a say over our economic system. It's not working for us. We can change it. We do not have to be left to whatever the market decides for us. We do not have to be trickled down on. Every person in the field on e-day is a walking, knocking reminder of this fact.

Campaigns and movements run on perceptions, and actions really do speak louder than words. All campaigns say every vote counts, but far too few actually behave that way. If you've ever heard grizzled organizers complaining about election night parties that are scheduled to start even a minute before the polls close, this is why they feel that way.

3. People really do get confused. One of the recurring themes you hear from the chattering class around this part of the cycle is "how could anyone possibly be undecided?" This betrays a real lack of understanding of where most folks are at. For great numbers of people (even in San Francisco), they've only started thinking about Obama vs. McCain in the past few weeks - let alone the onslaught of propositions or other state and local races. Combine that with questions about absentee voting (no, you can't mail your ballot at this point, but you can drop it off at a polling place, yadda yadda), and you're going to find plenty of ways to make yourself useful.

4. Election day GOTV is solidarity made visible. Like many forms of collective action, knocking n' dragging would be utterly boneheaded for a lone person to do it. If I'm only able to persuade one person in my precinct to go who wouldn't have, that's one vote. But there are a little over 33k precincts in California. If we managed to cover all of them and get 2-3 extra votes per precinct, that could be more than 50k votes. In a race like No on 8, where as near as anyone can tell the polling is basically exactly tied, that effort could easily be the ballgame.

5. It beats reloading web pages. Really: what else are you going to do? If you care at all about this stuff there's no way you can concentrate anyway. (yet another reason why it's ridiculous that it's not a holiday; hopefully it will be soon.) You might as well get out, enjoy the fresh air, get a chance to interact with your neighbors a bit, and give yourself a somewhat mind-numbing task to take your mind off hitting that reload button.

To get started, all you have to do is call the local party or campaign office of your choice. Even if you can only chip in a few hours in the evening, that's entirely helpful. And one last benefit: the results party really is a lot more fun if you've been out doing this stuff all day. If you haven't had that feeling of doing your last poll check at 7:58 and calling in your last set of numbers, you really should try it.

Good luck everyone and get on out there tomorrow!

Friday, October 24, 2008

I Double Dog Dare You

Dear Conservative Friends,

I have a bet for you. $1000, donated to a charity of your choice, four years from now. The bet is that on the macroeconomic indicator or indicators of your choice - job creation per capita, major stock market index, GDP growth, average family income, poverty rate, whatever you want - should Obama win, his administration's average yearly economic performance in four years will exceed that of Bush's over eight. In fact I'll even spot Bush 10%, even given the fact that we're apparently headed into at least a recession if not a depression.

Ye who are yammering on about what a socialist Barack is, about how the markets are ruined in anticipation of his economy-crushing policies, about how the guy with Warren Buffet advising him is such an unholy pinko: time to put it up or shut it up. Drop me an email and we can sort out the details.

Incidentally, no, we can't afford to put $1000 towards charity right now. The fact that I think in four years we'll be able to is part of the bet.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe the Plumber's Customer Base

Dear Joe,

Senator Obama did explain this, but I think it's worth exploring a little more: it's not just your taxes that matter. Think about it, Joe. Maybe you're going to make $250k, $280k this year, and that's great. But Obama's going to cut the taxes of your entire customer base. You can see how this would be good for your business, right?

Joe, I don't know what kind of plumber you are. Yes, people are always going to need the plumber when the shower gets so stopped up that the goo you get from the hardware store doesn't fix it, or when the toilet runs all the time unless you jiggle the handle just right. But it sounds like you have big goals, it sounds like you probably want to expand beyond just being a toilet fixer and sink unclogger. If lots of people get a real tax cut, instead of just a few very rich folks: presto, you've got hundreds more prospective customers. That's how bottom-up economics work.

Now the argument in favor of giving that tax cut to the rich is that they'll invest it. Maybe in a small business like yours, even. But the simple fact is that if you need to borrow money, you're going to be able to. There's no supply-side crisis. You can get investment if you know how to spend it. In this country the challenge to small businesses isn't obtaining capital: it's finding customers that have money and want to spend it on what you do, and doing what you do well. A huge tax cut to the five richest folks in town is not going to do anything to affect that.

The opposite of spreading wealth is hoarding wealth. That's what conservative activists like you have been arguing for since the mid-sixties, that's what we've been trying for the past thirty years on and off and the past eight years in particular. It hasn't worked. It hasn't even worked out well for the wealthy and it sure hasn't worked out for everyone else. If we spread the wealth around instead of hoarding it, everyone wins.

And as for this being socialism? Come on, Joe. Did Barack say he was going to nationalize your business? Was he saying that the Great State of Ohio should seize your means of production? Was he proposing your business be forced to join the People's Plumbing Collective and serve at the pleasure of the Federal Plumbing Czar? Of course not. That's a ridiculous, baseless argument.

I just went on over to taxcut.barackobama.com and plugged in some numbers for you. I'm guessing you've got a kid or two and still owe some money on your house. And I run a small business too, so I know sometimes you don't make quite as much as you think you're going to make your first year out. If you make just under $250k it looks like you're going to get a nice tax cut, too. If you do get above $250k, well, maybe you can feel good about not just the fact that you had a good year, but that you're doing your part to help support our effort in Iraq and keeping our roads and schools from falling completely apart as well.

So give it some thought, Joe. Would you rather have five customers who can afford a fancy new bathroom, or those same five customers who can go fancy plus hundreds more who can afford modest improvements? That's the choice we're making in this election. I hope you'll think it through.

Best Regards,

Saturday, October 11, 2008

First post

Ah, that fresh new weblog smell.