Gary Wesley American Hero

Gary Wesley - Artist's RenderingToo few people understand that citizenship is not just about rights; it is also about responsibilities. That’s why I think everyone should vote at a minimum, although I do think as a country we make it harder than it ought to be—especially for the working poor. But if a democracy is not constantly tended to, it turns inexorably into an oligarchy which I believe I have been seeing my whole life. When it comes to one thing that everyone cares about—the economy—there really isn’t much choice among the parties. “Liberalism” has come to mean “social liberalism” and “conservatism” has come to mean “social conservatism” because both parties now agree on what I call “economic conservatism.” And the worst kind of economic conservatism. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you really should read Dean Baker’s excellent The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, which is available in electronic form for free from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.)

Well, as I was making my final preparations for tomorrow’s vote, I decided to dive into the propositions. They aren’t terribly exciting. There’s a bond measure for veterans’ housing and a curious little measure—Proposition 42—about who ought to pay for the cost of providing access to meetings and documents as dictated by the 1968 California Public Records Act and later laws. It seems that local governments are circumventing these rights by pleading poverty. Proposition 42 says that local governments have to provide access, eat the cost, and shut up. The issue is clear as far as this is concerned: the rights must be paid for, so we do need to sort this out. I’m fine with requiring the local governments to do so, but I would also be fine with the state government paying (although I can see that providing some bad incentives). Regardless, local funding is on the ballot and so I’m for that.

Old Man Yells at CloudBut while going over it all, I noticed that there was only one person arguing against both these measures: Gary Wesley. I don’t know how I managed to not know about Wesley until this time, but it has only been recently that I’ve been following politics while in California. Still, it is a major oversight because Wesley is a legend. Back in 1986, The Los Angeles Times wrote, Self-Appointed Rebuttal Writer: He Can’t Resist Saying ‘No’ to Ballot Measures. At that time, they described him as a “33-year-old San Jose attorney.” If I had to guess, I’d bet he is now a 61-year-old San Jose attorney. (I’m more sure of the age and occupation than the location.) And he’s been doing this since 1978—36 years!

Don’t get the wrong idea about Wesley, though. He isn’t some crank like, “Old man yells at cloud!” He seems to do this as a public service—as a civic duty. You see, if a proposition gets on the ballot, it must have supporters. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be on the ballot; it isn’t magic. But often, a proposition just isn’t controversial. Take for example, Proposition 41: there aren’t a lot of people who are interesting in blocking funding to help homeless veterans. So Gary Wesley steps in and provides a counter argument. The Times articled quoted him as saying, “I don’t feel that strongly about it. I would submit an opposing argument to almost anything.”

I don’t know anything about Gary Wesley other than that he does this one thing. But he is a hero. I almost want to vote against these propositions just to show how strongly I feel. But I’m certain that would go exactly counter to what he is doing. This is about democracy and citizenship. We need a whole lot more Gary Wesleys in this country.

Poe, Death, and Sarah Jarosz

Sarah JaroszI’ve been vaguely aware of Sarah Jarosz for a few years. She is the kind of musician that I think of when I say that this is a great time for music. Of course, I say that as a lament, because as popular as she is, she’s not one of the many American Idol shriekers and autotuned adolescent cuties that America apparently just can’t get enough of. And I know: I’m part of the problem. I’m still more likely to listen to French music from the 50s and 60s or American blues from the 1930s. But Jarosz is a huge talent, and she’s only 23—an age at which I was walking around with a puppet on a stick. (In my defense, walking around with a puppet on a stick is a far more creative and idiosyncratic thing than most people ever do—made especially so given that it seemed entirely normal to me at the time.)

My colleague over at The Reaction, Richard Barry, has started a new blog, Cultur-olio. It’s actually kind of cool, although personally I wish he would focus a bit more on music, because he is very knowledgeable. I find I learn things from him or at least get new perspectives. And I need more politics like I need yet another hole in my head. Although I’m like Ado Annie in Oklahoma! “I Can’t Say No.” Moving on…

So recently, Richard brought my attention to this great version of Sarah Jarosz’s “Annabelle [sic] Lee.” She takes great liberty with Poe’s words, but she perfectly captures the effect of the poem. The essence of the poem is the repetition of “Annabel Lee.” As a poem, I don’t actually think that much of it. Of all of his poetry, it is the thing that seems most intended to be set to music, because it is casual in its structure, and (frankly) is immature in its content. Anyway, I think Poe would approve. This is a more stylized version of the single from her Album, Follow Me Down.

I await her version of “Eulalie.”

Suicides and The Bridge

The BridgeI’m very fond of the Janis Ian song, “The Bridge.” The first line of the song is, “The bridge that spans the gap between our souls…”

That is the obvious symbolism of a bridge: something that brings people and places together — that fills in the missing bits of our communal soul. I live very close to one of the most famous bridges in the world: the Golden Gate Bridge. And although I cross over it quite often, I still get a thrill out of it. It is magnificent and it spans the void that separates the Left Coast from its Capital, which is San Francisco.[1]

For me, it is a symbol of the connection that all we Left Coasters share.

Symbol of Hope, Symbol of Death

But sadly, the Golden Gate Bridge is also a symbol of loneliness, despair, and death. On average, every two weeks someone kills themselves by jumping from the bridge. And because so many people have killed themselves with the Golden Gate Bridge, it has become something of a destination for people who see their best way forward as death.

I’ve long been fascinated by a quote from jump survivor Ken Baldwin, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped.” Those words have haunted me, because their meaning is clear: for most people, suicide is the result of a weak moment. Most people who are stopped or survive never try again. It’s like the old saying, “Wisdom comes to some suddenly.”

CHP Sgt Kevin Briggs is known as “Guardian of the Golden Gate.” Over the last two decades, he has stopped over 200 people from jumping from the bridge.A great deal of effort is spent watching for people on the bridge who look like they might be jumpers. But it is surprisingly hard to tell.

The Documentary The Bridge

Last week, I watched Eric Steel’s 2006 documentary, The Bridge. He put together a crew of 12 people who spent a year filming the bridge, every day. The results are amazing.

“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped.” –Ken Baldwin

The film starts with various shots of the bridge and the bay and most of all of the people walking across the bridge and looking over the railing.

And then there is an older man looking over the edge. He looks like a tourist. He climbs over the rail and jumps. Many, perhaps most, people regret their decisions as they fall as Baldwin did. But this man doesn’t seem to have any regrets. He doesn’t try to reorient himself. He just falls to his death. It was shocking to watch. And it is not the only jump that was filmed. During the filming, 24 people killed themselves from the bridge, and the filmmakers got footage of 23 of them.

The Filmmakers Are Trying to Save Lives

Before you get the idea that the filmmakers were some kind of ghouls, let me be clear: they did not approach this as nature photographers, just capturing whatever happens without getting involved. When they could help someone, they did. And during the year, they prevented six suicides themselves.

One is in the film where a young woman climbs over the railing. The cameraman talks about it afterward. There is a tendency for people who do this kind of work to become detached from the reality that they are filming. But finally, it hit him, “She going to jump.” So he leaned far over the railing, grabbed her by her jacket and flung her back onto the sidewalk. They fought for about three minutes before authorities showed up and took her to the hospital. One hopes that she is now glad things turned out that way.

We Live for Others

In what was probably most compelling to me, the filmmakers captured an attempted suicide that is prevented by some CHP officers. They talk the guy down. The filmmakers found the guy and interviewed him later. He told his story about being in a very unhealthy marriage with lots of drugs and infidelity.

So he kissed his young son goodbye and went to the bridge. He was very candid about how the officers got him to stop, “They used my son against me.” But he seemed glad that they did.

Not a Fun Film — But Important

Overall, the film is kind of a downer. But it does have a hopeful message. If people can be stopped, or even slowed down, there is hope.

A lot of people have mental problems that are treatable. I hope that wider access to healthcare (especially here in California) will help matters. But the movie is worth checking out.

Since it was made, the bridge authority has been in the process of installing a “plastic-covered stainless-steel net below the bridge as a suicide deterrent.” Of course, nothing will stop everyone. But every bit the process is made harder saves lives.

See The Bridge — It’s Edifying

The whole film is on YouTube as I write this, but it will be taken down. You should buy it or rent it, of course. Here is the trailer:

[1] For the record, the Bay Bridge is my favorite with its double span. And by Left Coast, I mean the nation defined in American Nations, which includes Oregon and Washington, but not (Thank God!) Southern California.

Scalia: Public Unions’ New Friend?

Union Yes!Last week, Michael Hiltzik alerted us, How Justice Scalia Could Become the Savior of Public Employee Unions. So in the coming days and weeks, don’t be surprised if the liberal press gets all excited that Scalia was on the right side of a case for a change. This happens from time to time. Scalia sees himself as an iconoclast, and he likes to occasionally come down with a liberal opinion just to prove to himself that he isn’t just a partisan hack (even though he mostly is). But there is a long history on this one.

The case at hand is Harris v Quinn. It has to do with home healthcare workers who Illinois has decided are public employees, and so were represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Now the workers don’t have to join the union if they don’t want to, but they still have to pay what’s called an “agency fee” to cover the cost of the fact that the SEIU negotiates for them and gets them higher wages and benefits than they normally would. Well, supported by the anti-union (and wonderfully Orwellian named) National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (RWF), some home healthcare workers took the issue to court where it made its way to the Supreme Court in January.

The RWF is arguing that most of what the union does is politics, so forcing the workers to pay even the agency fee is violating their First Amendment rights. Jack Goldsmith at On Labor, wrote, Oral Argument in Harris v Quinn: Justice Scalia Siding with the Union? And it really does look like it. Scalia seems to think that it is nonsense to say that pay negotiations are a political matter. This all goes back to a 1977 case, Abood v Detroit Board of Education. In a unanimous decision:

The court affirmed that the union shop which is legal in the private sector is also legal in the public sector. They found that non-members may be assessed dues for “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes” while insisting that objectors to union membership or policy may not have their dues used for other ideological or political purposes.

The RWF attorney William L Messenger was arguing that the salaries of a public employee are a public concern, thus it is political, thus the law should be overturned. But Scalia countered, “It seems to me it’s always a matter of public concern, whether you’re going to raise the salaries of policemen, whether it’s an individual policeman asking for that or a combination of policemen or a union. It’s a always a matter of public concern, isn’t it?”

This caused Messenger to back himself into a corner. Scalia put forth a hypothetical situation: there’s a police officer who thinks he’s underpaid, so he goes to the chief and asks for a raise. He does it again and again and the chief is getting tired of it. So the chief tells his secretary, “Don’t let him in. I don’t want to talk to him. He’s wasting my time. There is no raise at this time!” Scalia then asked if that meant that the officer’s First Amendment rights were being violated. Messenger said no, of course not. So Scalia pressed. What if it was a pair of officers? Or a dozen? At what point does what they are doing move from being just about officers wanting a raise and it being a political matter?

Messenger did not really have a good answer. As Scalia noted, “But it’s the same grievance if the union had presented it. The grievance is the salaries for policemen are not high enough.” As a legal matter, that does seem to settle it, but you can never tell how Scalia is going to go on these things. He is the loosest of the loose cannons.

To me, this is just a matter of fairness. If the workers do not pay the agency fee, they are free riders. They are getting higher salaries at the expense of other workers. Of course, the whole point of the “right to work” industry is to destroy unions. If free riding is acceptable, eventually everyone becomes a free rider and there is no union. I do hope that Scalia votes to uphold the law. But even if he does, it is almost certain that at least three judges will vote to overturn. And that shows you just how radical the court has become since 1977, when it had that liberal firebrand William Rehnquist on it.

Pure Math Distorting Political Debate

Debraj RayAbout a week ago, Debraj Ray wrote a critical article on Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Centery, Nit-Piketty. The basis of Piketty’s argument is the inequality: r>g. What that means is that the rate of growth of return on capital is greater than the growth of the economy as a whole. As a result, more and more wealth will be concentrated with the owners of capital. Ray cries foul, saying that this doesn’t actually mean anything to inequality. And like the good theoretician that he is, Ray’s point is both true and meaningless.

Branko Milanovic then wrote a critical article about Ray’s article. He characterizes Ray’s argument as follows. Imagine you have a rich man who makes $100K per year from work and another $100K per year from his capital investments. And then imagine you have a poor man who makes $10K per year from work and another $10K per year from his capital investments. If r>g for a year, at the end of the year, the rich man and poor man will be in exactly the same place as far as inequality goes. Before and after, there will be a 10:1 ratio of incomes.

This is where many economists—especially the conservative ones (although I really don’t know anything about Ray specifically)—go wrong. They make their assumptions and then think that anything that follows from those assumptions must be true. That’s fine as long as the assumptions are true. But in this case, the (unstated) assumption is preposterous: poor people make as large a percentage of their income from capital investments as rich people.

The way it works in the real world is much more as follows. The rich man makes $200K per year from his capital investments. The poor man makes $20K per year from his work. Thus, if we assume that the rate of return on capital is 5% and the return on work (because the economy grows) is 3%, then after a year, the rich man is making $210K per year, and the poor man is making $20.6K per year. So before, there was a 10:1 ratio of rich man income to poor man income. After a year, there is a 10.2:1 ratio of rich man income to poor man income. And that compounds so it gets worse faster ever year.

Now I have something to add that neither of these economists discussed. The more inequality there is, the more the rich can manipulate the political and thus the economic system. As we have seen for almost four decades now, economic growth does not translate into higher wages. And that is particularly true of low wage earners. So at the end of the first year, the poor man would not be making $20.6K per year, but something less—maybe even exactly what he was making at the start of the year: $20K. In that case, the ratio would have changed to 10.5:1.

I don’t doubt that Debraj Ray is a very smart guy. And looking at the titles of some of his papers, he does the kind of pure mathematical research that I find really stimulating. But the great thing about people who do pure mathematics is that they don’t care about the practical world. When Ray starts making such theoretical complaints about Piketty’s incredibly practical econometric work, he is acting (hopefully unintentionally) as an apologist for the status quo. I suppose it is important for economics students to understand his point but for the general reader, all he is saying is, “You don’t need to worry about what Piketty is saying, because in a totally unrealistic mathematical model, inequality isn’t just not increasing it cannot increase.” And from a policy perspective, that’s just rubbish.

Given that there are a bunch of really rich and powerful people who are looking for any reason to ignore our unjust system, Ray’s work is counterproductive.


See Paul Krugman’s column today, On Inequality Denial.

The Harsh Realism of Thomas Hardy

Thomas HardyOn this day in 1840, the great novelist Thomas Hardy was born. I can’t help but compare all 19th century novelists to Herman Melville. I love Melville for the perversity of his interests. But the clarity of his writing is terrible. I have him pegged as an introvert. He had a hard time seeing his stories the way that others saw them. Hardy had no such problem, and maybe that is because he was at base a poet. He only wrote novels to pay the bills, and after he had made his money, he stopped writing novels and only wrote poetry. The irony, of course, is that no one is particularly interested in reading his poetry. But the novels live on because of their power and moral decency.

Hardy’s last novel was Jude the Obscure, written a full 33 years before his death. It is typical of his fiction in that it tells the story of admirable people who are torn down by the society. He is very much like Dickens, but without the sentimentality. Jude is one of the greatest characters ever created in literature. It raises a very important question that I think most Americans today refuse to consider. As a young man, Jude studied very hard and was determined to make it to the academy. But he fell in love with a fairly unlovable girl and married her, and his life spun out of control from there. There are two points about this. One is that poor people are never allowed to make a mistake. The other is even if Jude had continued on with his studies (he had taught himself Latin and Greek), it is made clear in the book that he would have needed some kind of Horatio Alger luck to have ever been allowed in the academy.

Our society today is hardly more open or forgiving. But we’ve created this myth that anyone can succeed and as proof we hold up people who are both extraordinary and lucky. The American version of Jude the Obscure is the movie Breaking Away. There is a great scene where Dave tells his father than he did well on his tests and that he has been accepted to the college. His father tells him about working as a stone cutter to help build the college, but how he never felt comfortable on the campus. He tells Dave that he doesn’t want his son to be like him, and that he must take this opportunity. It’s very America. And the sad thing is that the film was made in 1979, basically at the inflection point when our society turned from that kind of post-war period of a thriving middle class to our current one that is much like Hardy’s novel. Now you may go to college, but it doesn’t mean what it used to, you end up owing huge amounts of money, and in the end, you don’t get a better life. If Breaking Away were made today, Dave would take over his father’s used car lot.

In a fundamental sense, I don’t like Hardy’s novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. I find them crushing. They are harshly realistic. But they are important. And it is edifying to spend periods of time with such fine characters who eventually lose. Because that’s how I see the world. It is no great triumph to be noble when you succeed. Compare Jude who battles his whole tragic life with very little complaint to the hugely successful John Galt of Atlas Shrugged who whines that the people don’t appreciate him enough. Who would you rather spend a dozen hour with?

Happy birthday Thomas Hardy!