Measure A in Sonoma County

Election DayWe here in Sonoma County are voting on Measure A, Sonoma County General Sales Tax, tomorrow. Here is the text of the measure:

Shall the people of Sonoma County enact a one-quarter percent sales tax for general governmental purposes such as public safety, local roads and pothole repair, senior, student and veterans transit and other essential services within the nine cities and unincorporated area for 5 years with annual audits made available to the public showing how all revenue was spent the previous year?

I have to admit to not being totally thrilled with the measure because of the “public safety” funding. Is this going to go for more overtime pay for our local police to stand around doing DUI checkpoints? The interesting things about our DUI checkpoints is that they almost never catch any drunk drivers; instead, they catch people driving on expired registrations. We’re supposed to feel good about this.

Much more important, however, I don’t like sales tax increases. They are a regressive way of paying for services. But it is a good way to make up for the constantly lowering gas taxes — another regressive tax. So I’m reluctantly voting for Measure A. But the world is on notice: I am very annoyed by the continuing process of cutting taxes on the rich and piling on less obvious tax burdens to the poor.

Donald Rumsfeld’s Incoherent Unknown Unknowns

Donald RumsfeldOver the weekend, I saw the well known clip of Donald Rumsfeld saying, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” I’ve always dismissed the quote because it is such an ostentatious way of saying the obvious, “There are things we don’t know.” But as I listened to it this time, I was struck by the fact that the statement is incoherent. It contradicts itself.

If there are things that we don’t know that we don’t know, that must mean that some of the “known knowns” are, in fact, unknown unknowns. There isn’t anywhere else they can come from. There can’t be a category of “unknowns we take no opinion on.” The collection of facts must be divided into the knowns and the unknowns. We can divide the knowns into those things we know we know and those we things we don’t think we know. But the same can’t be done with the unknowns. An unknown is either unknown or mistakenly thought to be known.

I think that is what makes Rumsfeld’s quote so weaselly. He doesn’t want to come right out and say that there are things we think we know but which ain’t so. What would be a good example of that? Oh, I know: thinking that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Although, as everyone should know by now, that was just the pretense for war, not the reason. But still, I don’t doubt that they did think Iraq had WMDs. It’s like the old joke, “We know Saddam Hussein had WMDs; we still have the receipts.”

But if you wanted to, I guess you could stretch and trying to make an argument in favor of Rumsfeld. It would have to be that there are facts out in the world that we are just unaware of. That would be that they are unknown not in the sense that we don’t know the truth but rather in that we don’t even know that the facts exist. The problem with this is in doing so, Rumsfeld would have created two kinds of unknowns. Because clearly you couldn’t have these kinds of unknowns known — they would instead be “known unknowns.” For example, the first kind of unknown might be WMDs: we didn’t know if Iraq had them at that time. The second kind of unknown might be Al-Qaeda in Iraq: the administration didn’t (seemingly) even consider the possibility of the rise of such groups.

Regardless of how you look at it, Rumsfeld’s idea of “unknown unknowns” was always meant to obfuscate. I remember Rumsfeld going around quoting Laozi, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” The implication was, “Because I won’t tell you anything, you should trust me.” And just look at him in the video above: he’s so self-impressed. It reminds me of something I read from Matt Bruenig a while back. He was talking about libertarians and how almost all of them seem to think that they are the smartest people in any room. That sums up Rumsfeld. What he “knows” that isn’t actually true is that he’s very smart. He’s just smart enough to be really dangerous.

You Are a Federal Criminal

Alex KozinskiIt is impossible to know how many Americans are federal criminals. There are thousands of federal crimes and hundreds of thousands of federal regulations that can be criminally enforced. Some criminals are murderers, rapists, gangsters, and other profoundly immoral people. These fit easily into [American legal scholar Henry M] Hart’s understanding that criminals are people who have committed acts deserving of community’s serious moral condemnation and punishment. However, these antisocial individuals are a minuscule fraction of America’s criminal class. In fact, most Americans are criminals and don’t know it, or suspect they are but believe they’ll never get prosecuted.

Alex Kozinski and Misha Tseytlin
“You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal” in In the Name of Justice

US War and the “Strength” Delusion

Christian AppyThe Real News Network released a great interview with Christian Appy, Vietnam Blood Bath to Prove America Had “Balls.” It is in support of his new book, American Reckoning: the Vietnam War and Our National Identity. But this interview is specifically about a little discussed aspect of our war making: the need to appear “strong.” We see this clearly today. After the Iraq War started to go south and the stated rationale for it was exposed as a lie, the primary justification for staying was that we couldn’t “cut and run.” It was all framed in terms of “strength” and the immorality of “cowardice.”

The irony of this approach to war is that these appeals to strength show the terror of the proponents. A strong person isn’t worried about what people think of her. It is the weak person who is concerned that others will see her as weak. By continuing an irrational policy in the name of appearing weak shows that you are, in fact, weak. This is a problem that plagues both conservatives and liberals in modern America. There is a strong tendency to mistake bluster for strength. That’s why Marco Rubio thinks he is projecting strength by quoting action movies.

Appy’s focus is on Vietnam, and so thus on presidents Kennedy and Johnson. It was, of course, Kennedy’s bluster that caused the Cuban Missile Crisis. Appy noted, “Kennedy even went so far as to suggest that Adlai Stevenson, who was representing us at the United Nations, had wanted to sell us out…” This supposed sellout was the suggestion that the USSR remove its missiles from Cuba in exchange for our removing missiles from Turkey. That was, after all, the primary reason that the Soviet Union put the missiles in Cuba in the first first place. And Stevenson’s proposal was the deal that ended the crisis. But Kennedy didn’t want this known. But to show just how pathetic this is: the only ones who were fooled were the American people; internationally, people knew what really happened. So this isn’t even about the US looking “strong,” but just Kennedy looking “strong” here at home.

Similarly, Johnson was once in a private meeting with journalists. He was pressed about why he continued pushing forward with the Vietnam war. Eventually, Johnson pulled his penis out of pants and said, “This is why.” The fact that our leaders are about as mature as 13-year-old boys should concern us greatly. But it shouldn’t surprise us. Regardless, if we weren’t so inclined toward the sunk costs fallacy, presidents wouldn’t be able to channel their inner adolescent.

The follow quote from Appy’s book provides a good condensation of the wider process:

By 1966, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton concluded that avoiding humiliation had moved from 70% of America’s goal in Vietnam to 100%. “The reasons why we went into Vietnam to the present depth are varied, but they are now largely academic. Why we have not withdrawn is by all odds one reason: to preserve our reputation. We have not hung on to save a friend or to deny the communists the added acres and heads.”

There is no doubt that the people, at least, start off with some “good” reason for supporting wars. These are very often humanitarian. Remember how the gassing of the Kurds was used to justify the Iraq War? But after a short time, it becomes nothing more than saving face. We’ve made a terrible mistake, but if we just keep fighting, maybe we can turn it into a win. It’s total fantasy.


Check out the excellent documentary, War Made Easy:

The Two Candidate Democratic Primary

Bernie SandersI was over at Real Clear Politics looking at their 2016 Democratic Presidential Nomination page. It provides their best guesses of where the various candidates — real and imagined — are in the polls. And it is interesting. In first place, of course, is Hillary Clinton with almost 64%. And at the back is the newest man in the race, Martin O’Malley, with less than one percent. I’m sure now that he’s announced, O’Malley will probably come up in the polls. But I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that he is destined for small things in 2016.

In The Onion Candidate Profile: Martin O’Malley, it notes his major name recognition with the campaign slogan, “A vote for me is a vote for Martin O’Malley.” And his goal is, “To defeat Bernie Sanders.” All I can say is, “You dream big governor!” On Friday, Brian Beutler wrote about this, Martin O’Malley Shouldn’t Be Mad at Bernie Sanders — and Shouldn’t Attack Clinton, Either. It is partly about rumors that O’Malley is angry that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is flocking to Sanders as they say, “Martin who?” But mostly, it is just Beutler wondering what the hell O’Malley thinks he’s running for. Vice-president? I think Hillary already has Maryland covered.

But the overall polling is quite interesting. Other than Clinton, the top two candidates are not running — one of them has said she will not run:

  • 63.6% Clinton
  • 12.5% Warren
  • 9.5% Biden
  • 8.8% Sanders
  • 2.6% Webb
  • 1.8% Chafee
  • 0.8% O’Malley

Jim Webb has three times the support that O’Malley does, and he is still exploring just how much he will lose to Hillary Clinton. But like I said: O’Malley will go up in the polls. They all will likely go up in the polls after the debates start and everyone finally comes to terms with the fact that Warren and Biden are not going to run.

But I wonder about this list. It seems to me that it is largely just a reflection of most people being in favor of Clinton and the rest being in favor of someone who is not Clinton. Certainly, most of the people who now support Warren will go on to support Sanders. I really see this campaign being a two way race between Clinton and Sanders. Of course, Clinton is going to dominate. And even if she implodes, I think Sanders has a 25% ceiling for support. The “socialist” label scares Democrats — not because we have a problem with it, but because we are afraid that it will be a problem in the general election.

As for O’Malley, Chafee, and Webb (if he runs)? I don’t see them getting traction. For those who think that Clinton is too conservative and cozy with Wall Street, Sanders is the obvious choice. For those fine with Clinton, what would be the point of voting for someone who is just a little more to your liking when Clinton is (1) good enough and (2) going to win anyway? But I think it’s great that O’Malley’s in the race. I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say. And by the time this article is up, Chafee will probably be in the race. It’s all good. At least all the potential Democrats are plausible candidates and none of them are embarrassing.

Update (1 June 2015 11:33 pm)

Brian Beutler wrote an article I was kind of waiting for, Let’s Put Bernie Sanders’s “Momentum” in Perspective. He shows data that highlight what I’m talking about: Sanders is consolidating the “not Clinton” vote. He isn’t hurting Clinton at all. And in the end, he may peak early and not come to anything. But I think there are a lot of people out there like me who look forward to voting for Sanders in the primary and Clinton in the general. Will someone be able to steal his thunder? Maybe. But I kind of doubt it.

Morning Music: Irena Grafenauer

Irena GrafenauerThree years ago, I wrote, Jean Ferrandis Slums in Santa Rosa. It was about going to a “Discovery Open Rehearsal” of the Santa Rosa Symphony. The featured performer was flutist Jean Ferrandis. And the high point of the performance was Jacques Ibert’s Flute Concerto. I have a great love of the work of Les Six and other French composers of the early part of the 20th century. So that was no surprise.

Since I was reminded of it over the weekend, I thought I would share it with you. I found this wonderful version of the piece by Slovenian flutist Irena Grafenauer. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the performance. I assume this is from a tour she did of Japan. And she looks like she is in her thirties here (but I’m really bad at judging — feel free to correct me), so it must be 15 to 20 years ago. Regardless, it is a beautiful performance of a wonderful piece. So enjoy:

Anniversary Post: the Martyrdom of Mary Dyer

Mary Dyer - Howard PyleOn this day in 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was in the days before the good Puritans were afraid of witches. (Just kidding! They were hanging witches then too.) Dyer was hanged because the Puritans were afraid of Quakers. I always find this fascinating, because in modern America, different sects of Christians hardly know what separates them. Of course, maybe that was true of the Puritans and the Quakers in 17th century Massachusetts. Maybe then as now, it was just “us” versus “them.” Of course, we can look to Pennsylvania Colony for a much more ecumenical approach to governance. But it wasn’t founded for over two decades after Dyer was put to death.

The other side of the issue is that Mary Dyer really did want to die. The Puritans just wanted to get rid of her. It had taken years for them to get to the point of killing her. In fact, in 1659, Dyer literally had the noose around her neck when her sentence was commuted. But again: she refused to leave. She wasn’t just being difficult. She was trying to get the colony to change its laws regarding Quakers. The day before her execution, she said, “I came in obedience to the will of God the last General Court, desiring you to repeal your unrighteous laws of banishment on pain of death; and that same is my work now, and earnest request, although I told you that if you refused to repeal them, the Lord would send others of his servants to witness against them.” And in a sense, she and the other Boston martyrs succeeded, because in 1661, King Charles II put a stop to the executions. Still, the Puritans would — like all good Christians — continue to oppress the Quakers and anyone else who didn’t completely agree with their interpretation of the Bible.

Still, I’m sure that Dyer went to death happy — knowing that the Kingdom of God was coming. From my perspective, she was right to die happy. She lived a noble life — one of purpose and commitment. “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Christianity can be a beautiful thing if you view it metaphorically. I’m sure Mary Dyer did not do that. But she might as well have.

Happy anniversary for the martyrdom of Mary Dyer!