Saturday, October 29, 2005

Getting a Mask On

Monday night Andrew will dress up once again for Halloween and head out with his friends collecting candy door to door. It will probably be the last time he experiences the whole thing unselfconsciously as a "kid."

Adults seem to need good reasons to put on goofy costumes and make fools of ourselves. Well, I guess that's not exactly true. Making fools of ourselves comes pretty naturally, but the dressing up part sometimes requires a little extra motivation.

I just ran across a piece by Garrison Keillor on Halloween that made me laugh. If you need a reason to get a mask on with the kiddies on Monday, Keillor's your man. Here's a section of the essay addressed to his daughter:

....Everybody is misunderstood most of the time. Back in my bohemian days, I liked to put on a flowery shirt and fringed vest, as if I were a true individualist, and now I wear a suit and white shirt and tie and try to impersonate a businessman. Either way, strangers take one look at you and with great confidence come to conclusions about you that are dead wrong. This happens to us all every day.

And so we should all celebrate Halloween.... We make our choices in life based on lousy information, and get stuck being who we are. You: attractive, impetuous,... with a savage wit. Me: rumpled, preoccupied, shambling, dropping things. And do we regret this? No, not really. A person only needs to be truly understood by two or three people. Everyone else is audience.

So, on the Eve of All Hallows, let us paint our faces and put feathers in our hair and venture off along the curve of the Earth and be somebody else. I will go as a Special Prosecutor in a shiny suit, carrying a black briefcase, who after 7 p.m., turns into Raffaello, King of the Tango, with pointy shoes, trailing a cloud of lilac cologne. I will be a figure of stark terror and also a font of erotic energy, a scourge of miscreants and a friend of adventurous women. And when the candy is gone, I'll turn into your father again and send you home....

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Referendums C and D: Mile High Fight

Two straight Colorado posts. After moving here a couple of years ago I guess I'm getting more at home in the nosebleed seats.

I don't normally do specifically political posts either, but we've got a debate here that's fascinating.

TABOR and Tax Revolt

In the early 90's Colorado voters approved the Tax Payers Bill of Rights (TABOR)which changed the state constitution. Tabor put strict spending limits on state government. Without going into all the details, TABOR limited state government from increasing its spending more than a formula keyed to inflation and recent tax revenues. Any tax revenues beyond the formula had to be returned to the tax payers.

It was part of a Colorado "tax revolt" and a conservative surge in politics here. The whole thing was a grandchild of Proposition 13 in California back in the 70's. Tax revolts are as American as the Boston Tea Party, so there was nothing particularly cutting edge about it except that it helped pioneer a new concept of 'constitutional' limits on spending. Previous attempts to limit spending tended to freeze property taxes (like Prop 13)or some other source of government revenues.

Personally, I think there's a lot to be said for restraining government spending and making sure the money goes to appropriate priorities. That's one of the best correctives the conservative movement brought to the table back in the 60's and 70's when those ideas were particularly innovative and progressive.

As a Coloradan I enjoy one of the lowest state tax rates in the United States. I also live in a state that ranks at the bottom of the country in social spending and 48th in spending on education.

When you solve one problem you create another. It's a universal law. So political and economic decision-making is all about what you value, in my mind. You can't have it all and choices have to be made.

As a result of all this Colorado has become a prototype for the current conservative dream of "shrinking government till it's small enough to drown in the bathtub" and relying on the private business community and private charity to run things effectively. We've been an ideological example for the nation with the very fiscally conservative Republican governor Bill Owens leading the way.

Unfortunately--at least from a conservative perspective--ideological paradise turned out to be pretty short lived.

Colorado hit a severe recession along with the rest of the nation in 2001 but didn't recover until this year. The past 4 years have been the biggest economic downturn in Colorado since the 1950's. We moved here right in the middle of it. My timing has always been impeccable.

The recession plus TABOR severely cut into state resources and Governor Owens--who originally led the way in passing TABOR--has been slashing spending in every way possible to try to make ends meet and comply with TABOR. Because of complicated quirks in TABOR along with mandated spending based on state initiatives and federal mandates, Colorado has been forced to cut very large amounts of its budget out of higher education and infrastructure and health care for the uninsured poor, among many other important priorities.

Governor Owens and pretty much every responsible fiscal authority in the state recognized that TABOR was badly conceived because the drafters didn't think through how to respond to a severe economic downturn. The idea of restricting spending was good, but the scheme ended up crippling spending on things that most reasonable people consider essential.

So Owens and the Legislature drafted Referendums C and D as a corrective. Without getting into all the details, the two refs allow for a 5 year "time out" from TABOR and give the state authority to invest in the community college and university system, health care for the uninsured poor, highways and roads and many other priorities. Without that time out, Colorado would have to slash spending to levels that would likely leave the future basic infrastructure of the state crumbling and negatively effect future business investment and economic growth. The conservative Rocky Mountain News (one of the two main Denver papers)did an excellent 5 part series recently demonstrating in detail the severity of the potential cuts and damage.

It might sound at this point like a no brainer and that C and D would enjoy overwhelming support. But not so. The campaign over these two referendums has polarized the state and is drawing interest from all over the country.

Facts, Self-Interest and Ideology

The supporters of Referendums C and D include:

Conservative Republican Governor Bill Owens and an 80% bipartisan vote in the legislature. The Republican and Democratic mayors and city councils of virtually every major city in Colorado. Virtually every major newspaper in Colorado. Every major Chamber of Commerce in Colorado. Every major school district and institution of higher education. The vast majority of the major corporations in Colorado. Fireman and police unions. And on and on. The list is remarkable in its length and diversity.

The opponents include:

Grass roots anti-government conservatives all over the state (financed by out of state anti-tax and government groups)

The latest polls: Too close to call

If you have any sense of the dramatic, this whole election is pretty cool. I don't know if I've run across something like this before. It's not about personalities like most national or California politics. It's really a contest between an overwhelming bi-partisan institutional consensus based on sober fiscal calculation and self-interest on the one hand against an ideological anti-government and anti-tax grass roots movement on the other. But it's possible the ideologues may win. I can't immediately think of another comparable example.

The Tone of the Campaign

The pro C and D folks have run a consistently positive campaign. They believe they have no need to sling mud because they think their bi-partisan case is so strong that any reasonable person would vote for the propositions if they understand the issues. That may turn out to be a naive assumption.

The anti C and D folks have run a remarkably vicious campaign. I lived in the midst of the hardball world of California politics for over 40 years so I don't make that comment lightly. Owens--once considered a possible presidential successor to George W. Bush--has been ripped up one side and down the other. The language is strangely religious for a political campaign. Owens has--in their view--"gone over to the dark side" and "left the fold." Ads attack politicians as "pigs" and "parasites" who will "say and do anything to spend your money." The basic image of public government in these ads seems to be that of a Mafia conspiracy in which Don Vito Owens--remember, one of the most fiscally conservative governors in the United States--wants to make you an offer you can't refuseand will send Guido and Rocko to drill your knee caps if you don't ante up.

Takes From Around the Country

The supporters of C and D have opened their books to public scrutiny. Almost all the support for the two propositions is coming from within Colorado. The opponents have refused to open their books, though it's obvious to everyone on both sides of the debate that most of the major funding for the anti-C and D campaign is coming from out of state through national conservative anti-government and anti-tax groups. These groups view the battle over C and D as a potential turning point in their drive to enact measures similar to TABOR in other states.

George Will, the dean of American conservative popular thinking, recently wrote an article in Newsweek about C and D. He wondered if the conservative movement in Colorado has become the victim of a kind of "fetishistic" anti-government and anti-tax ideology. That's just another way of asking whether anti-tax and anti-government ideologies have become irrational pseudo-religious committments or forms of magical thinking for many conservatives. Good question George. I'm not sure I'd limit the concern to Colorado, though.

University of Colorado at Boulder

Some Thoughts

This campaign raises a lot of interesting issues.

•Ideology can be a great tool for positive change. It can also keep people from taking experience seriously and solving real challenges. I wonder if certain aspects of conservative thought—and progressive thought too—have become forms of pseudo-religious magical thinking? Or in Christian prophetic terminology, idolatries? In the case of some forms of current conservativism, has healthy scepticism about public government become irrational and destructive hostility?

•I mentioned that when you solve one problem you just create another and that the whole trick of political and economic democracy is deciding on values and priorities which are reflected partly in the moral documents called budgets and tax codes. Proposition 13 kept property taxes low in California and probably kept a lot of productive people in the state who might have left and therefore likely increased economic growth, at least in the short run. That helped a lot of people, including poor people, in various ways. It also devastated the public school system (it went from the best in the US before Prop 13 to one of the worst) by strangling its primary funding source at a time when California was growing very rapidly and dealing with a huge influx of poor immigrants, something that may do severe long term damage to California by creating an “educational apartheid state” and wasting huge amounts of human resources. That has done—and may continue to do—a lot of damage to a lot of folks, especially poor people who are trapped in those schools.

Seems like Colorado may be facing a similar situation with different particulars on a smaller scale. Do you favor sticking with TABOR and tax rebates even if it means crumbling infrastructure and dramatically increased tuition at the University of Colorado? Do you want a smaller government even if that means minimal health care for the poorest 10%? In any case, political and economic choices are rarely simple in spite of what the true believers in any particular campaign say. It does come down to what you value most, but that's not always easy to decide.

•I wonder if a serious anti-government and anti-tax ideology can ever serve as a sustainable “governing” platform. I’ve always deeply appreciated the conservative challenge to bloated and wasteful governments that may patronize and damage the poor. But on the other hand I wonder if you can actually govern a state over time if you want to destroy it or starve it of the funds necessary to take care of important priorities that business and private charity cannot.

Certainly, the two clearest examples of recent conservative Republican administrations—the Reagan and current Bush presidencies—encouraged the largest growth in federal government size and spending in the past 50 years, far more than the Democratic and liberal administrations during that same period. So the ideology that elected those administrations certainly didn't translate into reality.

That makes me wonder if Bush and Bill Owens should really be judged as fiscal “apostates” by conservatives, or whether conservatives should drop the apocalyptic and religious emotions and terminology and put less emphasis on ideological purity and more on flexibly responding to experience with their ideas as an important "guide." At the very least, that approach might reduce the kind of high blood pressure that can come from fretting over prodigal conservative politicians who wander off the reservation.

As a ruling ideology current conservatism seems to produce a kind of tension and even schizophrenia because it’s ideologically hostile to the state but then has to deal with the actual concrete demands of ruling when it achieves power. So I wonder if current forms of conservatism won’t always inevitably lead to the terrible "disappointment" of a Bill Owens who violates ideological purity in favor of actually governing effectively for the benefit of most people. Maybe aspects of current conservative ideology--which is important and potentially useful in the right doses at the right time--work better as a prophetic and oppositional “rebel yell” than as a way to actually govern states and nations.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Raising Colorado

Uncle Bill and the ATV

Raising kids can be kinda like a Coen Brothers' movie. Especially with boys. Lots of action and the unexpected in an always entertaining, 45 degree angle through-the-cake sort of way.

My 12 year old son Andrew is a joy and a handful and I'm glad for both.

My brother-in-law Bill recently sent me the picture above. He's cutting his ATV out of a barbed wire fence.

Bill and his wife Jo live on a 40 acre (and no mule) property in Peyton, Colorado. Their place sits on the western-most edge of the Great Plains just east of Colorado Springs.

Bill loves the country life and hated living in Denver for many years. Jo likes the city life and wishes she was back on Broadway (the street in downtown Denver, not New York). A little like the plot of Green Acres, though an honest person would describe it as Brown Acres since the land is mostly tawny and dry.

Andrew likes to go fast. Uncle Bill has an ATV and doesn't mind 12 year old drivers. I don't either. So Andrew took advantage and got behind the wheel by himself.

Bill put a governor on the ATV that would keep it from going more than 10 mph. Or at least that was the plan. Turns out the governor didn't work as advertised. Funny how often that happens in real life.

Andrew took off in the ATV and immediately tried to punch it as fast as possible. He was driving down a well worn path directly alongside the barbed wire fence that encloses their property.

He got it up to over 20 mph within a couple of minutes and was loving life. No surprise there.

Afterwards he told me he spent about half his time looking at the path in front of him and about half of it looking at the speedometer to check out just how fast he could get the thing to go.

Before too long he hit a deep rut to his right along the fence line. As the right front wheel dug into the depression it pulled the ATV into the barbed wire fence.

Andrew is athletic and has pretty good presence of mind. When he saw what was happening he jumped off the vehicle just as it was hitting the fence. He sliced his hand but otherwise got out of it no worse for wear.

Andrew was stunned after hitting the ground, but once he'd gathered himself he called Janet immmediately on his cell phone. For a person pushing 50, that's gotta be the strangest part of the whole story. Little boys in the dirt shouldn't have cell phones--it's against the order of things and possibly even God's 4 Spiritual Laws.

She got his call back at Bill and Jo's house. Andrew told her breathlessly he'd crashed the ATV and his hand was hurt.

Janet heard head rather than hand.

Mom instinctively seized the moment and directed traffic. Family members rushed out of the house on the quick and scattered over the 40 acres trying to find the probably brain damaged boy. Scenes just like it have been repeated for millenia since people with lots of bad hair days began to walk upright.

Andrew, of course, was just fine. After finding him, everbody else spent the rest of the day getting back on an even keel.

It took a while for Bill to cut the ATV out the next day. When it hit the fence the barbed wire cut into the tires and wrapped tightly around the right wheels. That's what caused it to flip on its side.

If my own past is any guide, 12 year old boys don't learn too many lessons from experiences like this. Maybe paying more attention to the road and less to the speedometer. Or more likely, wishing there weren't any barbed wire fences to get in the way in the first place.

At least for a brief time in everybody's lives during childhood, that's just fine. And as far as some of us are concerned, there's something to be said for more than a little of that take after childhood too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Blogging: Democratic Dialogue, Fundamentalist Monologues, and Self-Expression

Early Adopter

I'm new to blogging so take anything I say about it with a grain of salt. I defer to the more experienced and technically sophisticated.

I started reading blogs a couple of years ago and started writing my own posts last winter. While I've learned quite a bit I still feel like an outsider.

Here's my "day trip" take so far on the blogosphere.

From what I've seen I'd divide blogs into at least three categories.

There are blogs that specialize in what I'd call democratic dialogue. That's democratic with a small "d" by the way. These blogs are rare. They're written in a way that encourages real dialogue and disagreement. I'd guess they make up 5% of the blogs I've read.

Fundamentalist monologues seem to take up 20% of the blogging market. This is the realm of the true believers in various religious and political and cultural ideologies. They occasionally throw a bone to those that disagree but it's mostly an uninterrupted monologue. The comments on these blogs look like they come pretty much from fellow believers, acolytes and wannabees.

Three quarters of blogs seem to be pure self-expression. They're probably created for the fun of it or for the enjoyment of friends or as a kind of digital attempt to connect to people beyond their friendship circles who might be "soul mates."

Blogging idiom and manners are pretty interesting too. The premium seems to be on haiku/proverb length posts that show 'emotional authenticity' and 'wit.' As I've mentioned before, grammar and conventional structure often take a beating too, though to be fair, folks usually do get complete thoughts out there if not complete sentences or paragraphs. It can be the reading equivalent of hearing a phone conversation over a bad connection--you can make out the meaning even if there are a chunks of the convo missing in the static. Much of this is obviously intentional and not a sign of laziness or ignorance, so I'm guessing it's supposed to be a kind of "insiders" language for bloggers and text messagers that distinguishes them from the clueless and "late adopters."

Fundamentalist and self-expression bloggers tend to be territorial about their blogs. Only supportive comments are usually welcome. The former don't like disagreement and the latter don't think it's appropriate. Only the democratic dialogue types regularly welcome real discussion and disagreement.

Sometimes, though, bloggers really do invite discussion but for some reason readers won't engage. I've been lucky with this blog that lots of folks have jumped in, but I've read really good blogs that try to be democratic dialogues but end up as self-expression blogs because folks won't "talk back." That whole phenomenon is curious to me. I'm not sure why people often seem so reticent to contribute.

I've read Hugh Hewitt's Blog: Understanding the Information Revolution. It's a pretty good take on the potential importance of blogging.

The gist of the book is a tribute to Hewitt's good sense but unfortunately in his worst moments he exposes his inner fundamentalist. One of his other book titles is If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It That should give you some idea of the downside of his otherwise thoughtful and helpful book.

Hewitt's really important point (made in his more positive Dr. Jeckle mode) is that the blogosphere has the potential to be an ultra-democratic phenomenon. I agree.

But real democracy always has a hard time making headway in any situation, from ancient Athens to cyberspace.

Fundamentalist monologues have their place in the scheme of things. When they pretend to be discussions, though, I have a hard time respecting them or taking them seriously. I prefer my fundamentalisms straightup and honest. I'd appreciate some of the blogs I read more if they would simply be honest about their lack of hospitality to differing views or perspectives.

I'm very supportive of self-expression, but I'd feel more comfortable if it didn't dominate blogging the way it does.

Democratic dialogue, unedited and uncontrolled by authorities, may be the best thing blogging offers. The opportunity is there. The only question is if bloggers will take advantage of it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Marrakech Express

Sultans of Spice

Just got back from Morocco. Great trip all the way around. I'll be posting an Around the World on the trip at Hieronymus soon and a book review of Cornel West's Democracy Matters, a wonderful book I read while on
the plane. I'll let you know when those are ready to go.

One quick snapshot from the road. I flew back to the states through Frankfurt and was pretty impressed with Teutonic consumer protection laws. The straight talking Germans don't mess around.

All the cigarette cartons in the duty free shops at the airport carried warnings in huge block letters that covered up most of the brand name. A few of the subtle messages:

Smoking Kills!


Smoking Destroys You and Those Around You!

and finally, my favorite that didn't quite make it cleanly into English

Smoking Damages the Sperm!

Achtung baby!