My Dragon Fruit at 39 Days

Sunday, October 31, 2010

If we can pull away from the California elections, long enough to focus on more important things, the most profound question of the moment is whether my Chinese Dragon Fruit is at its peak of ripeness. I reported September 22nd about the first blossom I've ever had on my several-year-old vine, and about hand pollinating it. I'd read that these fruit ripened at 30 days, but this one didn't start showing color until about five days ago. Now the big question: When will it be at perfection?

Okay, back to my election endorsements.

(P.S., the delectable continuation of this saga can be found here.)

Election 2010: Beware the Gerrymanderati, Props 20 and 27

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Few things in legislative craft are as easy to dislike or as difficult to eradicate as the gerrymandered district. A basic tenant of the American democratic ideal is that the last safe seat should have been the one held by the Kings George, First, Second, and Third.

It is not so in practice: safe seats—oftentimes gerrymandered—are the norm, at least in California. In California elections since the last redistricting (2002), there have been 692 races for state senate or assembly or federal congressperson. An astounding 687 (99.3%) resulted in a return of the same party to the seat. Although term limits denied reelection to some individual officeholders, one party was able to wrest a seat away from the other party only 5 times.

This was never supposed to happen. When the founding fathers designed our system of government, the legislature was supposed to be so close to the people that it would shift with their every mood, even if turbulent or Tea Party-esque. Alexander Hamilton feared this and wanted senators appointed for life (he also wanted a king), but was overruled by the majority.

A few years ago I attended a Visalia forum for candidates who hoped to represent California’s 34th Assembly district. One candidate came from Lone Pine. As the crow flies that is only about 80 miles, but no respectable crow would fly it and no road braves it, for it requires going over the backbone of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with its passes between here and Lone Pine up at about 12,000 feet. The candidate from Lone Pine had to drive some 235 miles and travel through two other assembly districts to get here.

When I study the outlines of my district, its geographic center seems to be in empty desert, about 20 miles north east of Calico Ghost Town, roughly 220 miles from my home, or four hours by car. I believe
half that distance would take me to the center of four or maybe five other assembly districts. I am disenfranchised because my assemblyperson must drive for seven hours to get from one end of her district to the other, while some of her peers can do the same in 45 minutes. This means that my representative is left with less time to devote to representing me, simply because of the gerrymander.

But worse, if 99.3% of elections serve to maintain the status quo, every voter is disenfranchised, because every legislator is allowed to get comfortable, unless they so anger voters from their own party as to bring on a contested primary.

Voters thought they had changed this for state races with Prop 11, in 2008. Many voters hoped this year’s Prop 20 would extend the correction to congressional districts. The gerrymanderati countered with Prop 27, which would undo Prop 11 and save the safe seats.

Any reader who has come this far knows where my sympathies lie on these two propositions. However, in poking around on the Web, I first got swept away by websites devoted to the weird shapes of gerrymandered districts, and then by a couple of names that jolted me back to some foreboding memories from my youth.

In 1971, I took a part-time job as a custodian for a rundown strip-mall in Van Nuys. It was the perfect set-up for a UCLA student, $200-a-month for odds and ends I could fit around my class schedule. The downside was the creepiness of the people I was working for. I never passed by my boss’s office without wondering if I was working for Mafia dons. I never saw the boss and his brother together without the feeling they were plotting to take over the world. I stuck out the year, graduated, and quit.

It turns out I was half right. They were not Mafia dons. They
were plotting to take over the world. And they have been remarkably successful at doing so. Before I had ever even seen a computer, Michael Berman understood that it could be used to assemble mailing lists of niche interest groups that would allow politicians to target a large collection of small audiences with sometimes contradictory promises. Then, computers could facilitate the otherwise tedious process of drawing gerrymandered districts. His methodology became the fountainhead of Democratic successes from Willie Brown to Nancy Pelosi, and propelled his brother Howard to chairmanship of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. As one article explains, by following the money, it becomes evident that Prop 27 is largely inspired for protecting Howard Berman’s funny-shaped (my Rorschach results: Frankenstein on skis) district, to the larger end—through his chairmanship—of protecting Israel. (Full disclosure: like many Evangelicals, I am highly favorable toward American support of Israel, though I would like to see it accomplished by way of honest elections.)

I do not get to vote in Mr. Berman’s district (though my assembly district nearly curves around to the other side of it). But I do get to vote against this kind of districting. In an earlier endorsement, I said I would support Prop 25 (to pass the budget by simple legislative majority) only if it came as a package with Prop. 20. As it stands now, the two-thirds majority is necessary because 99.3% of our elections serve to protect safe seats.

I will watch the polls until the last minute. If Prop 20 looks like it will win, and Prop 27 looks like it will lose, then and only then will I vote for Prop 25.

Note: Connie Conway is the assemblyperson in my safe-seat Republican district. I’ve followed Connie since she succeeded her father as county supervisor. I am happy with her and would probably vote for her even if she had a serious challenge.

*These numbers come from a Visalia Times-Delta editorial that gave no further source.

Map of Howard Berman's district

Try this for fun.

When the morning commute looks like this . . .

Thursday, October 28, 2010

. . . it must be getting close to the end of Daylight Savings (I think we have nine more days).

A quick word from our Sponsor: "My mercies are new every morning."

Election 2010: Marijuana turns me into a Marxist

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

By my title, I don’t mean that smoking it (never have, never will) sends me scurrying for my Mao cap and Ché t-shirt. Rather, in puzzling out how government should treat marijuana, I am very sensitive to social class differences. The Haves with whom I attended UCLA could close their dorm rooms Friday evenings, toke up, and still graduate and go on for their MBA’s. But among the heavily Have-not population where I teach, hop-heads have neither such security nor such safety net. They often fail to graduate from junior high. They become parents while attending a few years of continuation high school. By young adulthood, too many are on to harder substances, in prison, or dead.

Thus, as I come to a study of California Prop 19, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, which seeks to relax marijuana laws, I need to make it clear that my sentiments are middle class and my sympathies are for kids growing up in poverty. Rich kids will hire lawyers and avoid jail time. The rich and upper middle can afford to indulge in the so-called “victimless crimes,” while those same behaviors create victims to the third and fourth generation among the poor.

Secondly, I need to point out the sorry history of Nullification. Pennsylvania farmers announced they would not pay the whiskey tax, and Washington and Hamilton stomped them. Jefferson and Madison toyed with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, and lost. Calhoun said South Carolina would not collect the federal tariff, and got swept aside. The Civil War should have settled this question for all time, but for good measure, Orval Faubus stood in the school-house door to block federal integration, and Eisenhower sent the US Army to escort the incoming students to their classrooms. Drug policy, like that for immigration or marriage, needs to be set on a national scale. A single state may set more stringent rules (for example, California’s laws on greenhouse emissions), but can never set the bar lower than the federal laws. Federal policy should never be set by an initiative in California, the legislature in Arizona, or the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. Passage of this proposition on Nov. 2, will open many years of litigation on Nov. 3. Californians would be setting themselves up to forfeit untold federal dollars by drawing a marijuana Mason-Dixon Line at the Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona borders.

The practical purpose of this proposition then must be seen as leverage: California, a state with 53 congressmen, goes on record in opposition to the federal law. California, owner of a 10.2% share in the Electoral College, will now have the right to ask any visiting presidential candidate what he or she plans to do to remedy the situation. Maybe we would start a bandwagon effect. Maybe down the road we would see change in the federal law. There may or may not be merit in this argument. California voters have twice passed defense-of-marriage initiatives, with the total number of states that have passed traditional marriage constitutional amendments topping 30. Thus far, however, I see no congressional momentum for national legislation. This would seem to undermine the argument in favor of leverage. Any readers who have come this far looking only for my recommendation on Prop 19 may stop here. Proposition 19 is rejected as out of order.

Nevertheless, the subject having come up, I have a few additional thoughts over a full, federal legalization of marijuana. The best reasons have very little to do with California, at all.

Personal experience #1 – I walk into a restroom and the twelve-year-old is quick enough to flick his joint into the toilet tank, but a little too tipsy to correctly manipulate the handle. The ten year old is blurry-eyed and can only stammer bad answers to my questions.

Personal experience #2 – I discuss Prop 19 with five classes of 7th and 8th graders, and ask midway through each what it probably costs in our area for a kilo of marijuana. Five consecutive classes each settle quickly in the $450 ballpark. I have no way of knowing if they were correct, but the agreement was startling, and every class knew whom to turn to as the in-house expert.

Personal experience #3 – Juan, teacher in a thatched-roof jungle school house and a friend from my days in Colombia, is pulled from his classroom by drug-financed revolutionaries, taken to the village square, and shot, only because he serves in a government school.

From the first two experiences, I learn that whatever we’re currently doing has only limited success among the 12 or 14-year-olds I care about and can put faces to. The truth is, most of my students are clean. And for the minority who are using, the marijuana is probably a symptom—not the origin—of their pathologies (though it may serve as an accelerator). Even, though, at some $450/kilo, and
when we know it will be a curse on their lives, we are currently incapable of keeping it out of their hands.

But I have experience at both ends of the pipeline. As Haves, our buying power has the ability to destabilize any number of Have-not nations to the south of us. I can remember life in Colombia during a couple of years when drug cartels assassinated a judge, on average, every other week. Over the last decade and a half, Colombia has reestablished a fair degree of order, but the price has been a government willing to overlook thousands of extrajudicial killings of mostly Have-not peasants by mostly Have “self-defense” forces. For two decades, the US has been funding one side of the civil war with military aide and the other side of the war with our appetite for “victimless” recreational highs.

Proponents of Prop 19 argue that decriminalizing marijuana will save us enormous sums of money, redirect police attention toward violent crime, and provide a windfall in taxes. I believe all three claims rest on doubtful assumptions, but we have been suckered by such promises before. The state lottery, we were told when we voted for it, would dry-up illegal gambling and insure great wealth for our schools. Instead, it has saddled
Have-nots with a massive regressive tax, trained up a clientele for a vibrant-but-untaxable underground gambling industry, fostered a get-rich-quick mentality that helped fuel the housing bubble, and left us with schools that are starved for basic necessities.

However—and I offer this very tentatively—a reevaluation of our entire national drug policy (not a substance-by-substance approach) might make sense as an act of neighborly concern. Our Have drug appetite today is financing war in Have-not Mexico between over-funded thugs and an under-funded government. Legalizing marijuana (and thus reducing its price [and then you would also have to consider the likes of cocaine]) might take the lifeblood away from a criminal element that has become a force unto itself inside our closest neighbor.

I know, I’m talking like a Marxist.

Election 2010: Why this Republican will vote for Jerry Brown

Saturday, October 09, 2010

It has been some thirty years since I last voted for a Democrat. I’d just about concluded I might never do it again. After all these years, my memory is a little foggy, but I’m inclined to think I voted to elect a young Jerry Brown for governor of California in 1974 (over Houston Flournoy), and maybe again in 1978 (over Evelle Younger). I know I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and liked him even as I grew more disgusted with his party. I know my last vote for a Democrat was in 1980, when I supported Rose Ann Vuich, my local state senator. She had given me almost two hours for an in-depth newspaper interview on California issues, and I came away so impressed that I could not vote against her, even if she was a Democrat.

But I have now gone 30 years without being seriously tempted to do it again. I told myself to watch for and support Pro-Life Democrats, but I saw a pattern develop. The Democratic Party took Pro-Life individuals like Ted Kennedy, Jessie Jackson, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore, and subverted them to the Pro-Abortion mold. I watched them marginalize Pro-Life voices like Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey, Sr., and Bob Casey, Jr. The party is inextricably captive to Big Abortion
America's most unregulated industry—necrotrophic and eugenicidal, extending its corruption into our national fabric in countless hidden ways. Yet it has only to clap a “Choice” riff with its forceps and scissors and the Democratic Party leaps to form a conga line.

Even so, this year I found myself inching closer to voting Democratic again. Inching until I could no longer ignore where I stood.

I will not vote for Barbara Boxer. Every once in a while during Dianne Feinstein’s 18 years in the Senate, I’ve opened the newspaper to read some statement she has made, and had to admit, “Yeah, much as I dislike like her, she is probably right on that one.” But during the same years, I have never had to make a similar comment about Boxer. She is the politician I would most like to send into retirement this year. I may still harbor some reservations about Carly Fiorina, but if I had a thousand votes, she would get them all.

I am thinking instead about Jerry Brown. I am free to do that because no matter who we vote for, the next governor of California will be Pro-Abortion. (Note: I realize the self-referential term for this is “Pro-Choice,” but I find that disingenuous.)
The Pro-Life contenders all fell away during the primary. I have looked at all the third party candidates. None has a chance to win, and none deserves one. I am left to choose between Brown and Meg Whitman.

I go way back with Brown. I attended L.A. Pierce College while he cut his political teeth serving on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees. Later, while attending UCLA, I discovered him standing at a little podium on the Free Speech Lawn. I joined six or eight other students to listen until my next class. He was thoughtful and engaging.

Brown served four years as secretary of state and eight as governor. He earned the moniker “Governor Moonbeam” for a certain zen goofiness, but the nuttiness in Brown’s administration was hope in the jojoba bean, or roller-skating with Ronstadt under the rotunda (full disclosure: one of my all-time favorite albums is Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre). We chuckled over his personal frugality. Brown paid more to mothball the extravagant Reagan-built governor’s mansion than he spent to rent an apartment and sleep on a tatami mat. But his penny-pinching carried over to government finance. When California passed Prop 13, Brown carefully cut the state budget to what we could live on. He earned the endorsement of Howard Jarvis. (Yeah, wrap your head around that one.)

An ex-governor at age 45, Brown became something of a Harold Stassen, running three times for president and once for senator. But in an age when ex-presidential candidates golf, peddle their memoirs, or do talk-shows for FOX (okay, bad image, for Brown it would be NPR), Brown ran for mayor of Oakland. This is akin to ex-president Jimmy Carter nailing shingles for Habitat for Humanity, or ex-president Theodore Roosevelt serving in Liberia with the Peace Corps (I may have that one wrong, but I know he was doing something in Africa). Mayors of Palm Springs do photo ops with starlets. Mayors of Oakland do middle-of-the-night triage. And by all accounts, he did it well.

Then Brown moved on to become California’s attorney general. During these three years, what I notice is Brown’s commitment to carrying out the law as it is written, even when it may disagree with his personal inclination. I happen to agree with Brown on Capital Punishment: the death penalty is wrong, but needs to be enforced until the voters prohibit it.

Meanwhile, Meg Whitman was acquiring her personal billion-some dollars and finding it too inconvenient to get over to her precinct voting booth to perform the most basic duty of citizenship. (She was, however, free with her checkbook: apparently paupers vote while billionaires buy. She is on record donating and even campaigning for, um . . . Barbara Boxer.)

When Whitman decided to enter politics herself, she quickly hired as adviser the best ex-governor money could buy, Pete Wilson. By coincidence, it is Pete Wilson I hold personally responsible for the current sad condition of the Republican Party in California. AWOL where Republican instincts are best (Life), Wilson had to demagogue where they are worst (immigration xenophobia, deregulation of historically dangerous businesses and industries, and guns). In the process he permanently alienated the ever-growing Hispanic community, ripe with its Family Values voters. For short-term political gain, Wilson was willing to sacrifice the future of both my state and my party. Yet now, every pirouette in Whitman’s dance bears Wilson’s choreography.

However, the greatest difference between Whitman and Brown may come in the fine print of their position statements. For starters, Whitman doesn’t have much. Her pronouncements skim along the surface with well-vetted platitudes. In contrast, Brown’s come loaded with the kinds of minutia gleaned over a lifetime of trying to solve the Gordian knots of public policy.

Take one area that matters to me: Education. As a teacher married to a teacher, I’d come to the conclusion that testing corporations do not so much serve the teachers, students, or parents of our state as hold them for ransom. California pays these corporations enormous sums of money and then submits itself to the corporations’ convenience. Rather than have the summer to digest test information and make reasoned decisions about how to improve a program, the corporations deliver scores for April tests in mid August, after most schools have spent June and July designing course offerings and student schedules. It is an annual ritual in my home for my math-department-chairperson wife to start the first day of school exhausted from a series of all-nighters reworking the program after the last-minute delivery of four-month-old data. With that in mind, let me quote just one short section of Brown’s education proposal, as a representative sample that demonstrates the quality of the whole:

Our current State testing program costs over $100 million, is more than 10 years old, and is not as helpful as it could be to parents and educators. It is time to make some basic changes to improve our testing system.

Typically, tests are given in the spring over a 3-day period and results come back in August. Final school accountability scores aren’t ready for almost a year.

  • These tests should be reduced in scope and testing time, and results need to be provided to educators and parents far more quickly.
  • These year-end tests should be supplemented by very short assessments during the school year. The assessment goal should be to help the teachers, students and their families know where they stand and what specific improvements are needed.
  • Tests should not measure factoids as much as understanding.
  • Finally, state tests should be linked to college preparation and career readiness, but current tests were not designed to do this.
(Full text here)
(Um, Meg, this is it?)

Do I resent the way Meg Whitman has used her money to buy my party’s nomination, water down or erode its core values, and stifle intelligent political discussion?


Is that the main reason I will be voting for Jerry Brown?


Much as I disagree with Jerry Brown over the issue that has most animated my political decisions over the last 30 years, when the abortion issue is neutralized, Jerry Brown really is a fine candidate for governor.

Election 2010, My Endorsements

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

With the November 2 election day just three weeks away, it is time to pull out my sample ballot and make some decisions. It is also time to celebrate political freedoms that allow every citizen to speak out and let their opinions be heard. Today I’ve been looking at California’s Prop 25.

Officially described as, “Changes Legislative Vote Requirement to Pass a Budget from Two-Thirds to a Simple Majority. Retains Two-Thirds Vote Requirement for Taxes. Initiative Constitutional Amendment,” Proposition 25 is an attempt to change a system that habitually fails to deliver a state budget when it is due (June 15). It has only been on time once in 24 years. In 2008, California went without a budget until September 16. In 2009 it was later. Today, 93 days into the 2010 budget year, the governor and legislative leaders have a plan they have mutually slapped backs over, but it won’t have legislative approval for at least two more days. In the meantime we maintain skeleton services by rotating one-size-fits-all unpaid days off for state workers. Clearly the system is broken.

Even so, until today, I was hesitant to support Prop 25. What changed today was a California Supreme Court unanimous decision that our governor does, indeed, have a line item veto. Hypothetically, the duties of a governor should be, in this order: 1) administer legislation passed by the legislature, including the spending of money allocated in the budget, 2) supply information and direction to the legislature on necessary course-changes, and 3) veto legislative nonsense. California’s recent history, however, has necessitated a reverse in that order. First, the nonsense has been preponderant, spending us into a hole from which we cannot climb out. Second, when there is no money, its administration is impossible. For all practical purposes, however, it has been left up to the legislature’s minority party to supply the necessary veto. Today’s ruling returns the veto to its proper place with the governor.

Prop 25 also penalizes all members of the legislature by eliminating their pay during any period the state is without a budget. This is good, but I hope later changes will go even further. Producing a budget is the number one job of the legislature, yet even during these 93 days without a budget, the legislature has divided its attention along a wide variety of rabbit trails. First, I would like to suggest that one week before the deadline, if preliminary versions have not passed each house separately, all work on other legislation be suspended, unless the governor declares an emergency. Then, once the state enters the budget year without a budget, no non-budgetary vote by either house would be valid, unless declared emergency by the governor. Second, I would suggest that if the budget becomes one month overdue, no member of the current legislature would be eligible for re-election. I would even balance this last suggestion with a partial relaxation of term limits. No one can argue that California has better government today than we had before term limits. We have only asked lots of freshmen legislators to try and outfox lots of veteran lobbyists. Third, we should pass Prop 20 so that no party in legislative power can so gerrymander the districts that a minority party has unfair difficulty maintaining a reasonable presence in the capital.

Today I received a scare-mail saying Prop 25 would end Prop 13 and raise the taxes on my house to 1.14% of Fair Market Value. However, I find the following in the text of the bill (section 3: Purpose and intent, paragraph 2) "This measure will not change Proposition 13's property tax limitations in any way. This measure will not change the two thirds vote requirement for the legislature to raise taxes." If I am reading that wrong, or somehow missing some insidious fine print, I will reconsider. But otherwise, I am going to vote for both Prop 25 and Prop 20.