Sunday, November 30, 2008

Out to Get You? Sure...

They're Out Ta Get Me / They Won't Catch Me / I'm F---ing Innocent."

--Axl Rose, "Out Ta Get Me," Appetite for Destruction

I've been trying to keep up with the back-and-forth concerning State Sen. Wilkerson and Boston City Councilman Turner's candid camera moments (For you out-of-staters, both were caught on tape pocketing bribes).

The big response from a lot of their supporters seems to be less "it was a misunderstanding" and more about how the conspiratorial idea that "they" were "out to get" Wilkerson and/or Turner should somehow mitigate the action.

Obviously, there's a racial implication that could come with that, but it's worth noting that defenders of such notables as Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Ted Stevens, and Bill Clinton used the same "defense," so it's clear that it can cut across several lines.

My response to all of this?

Well, duh.

As I started to write about in the last entry, anyone in any type of public or prominent position should operate under the assumption that virtually anything they do outside of their home can and will be recorded for posterity. That was always more or less true, but in the days where anyone with a web connection can report (gotta love blogs), anyone with a phone can record, and where YouTube means the anonymous millions can experience the schadenfraude that comes with your downfall, that becomes especially true.

For partisan elective officeholders, that's especially true -- besides the general idea that watchdogs like the FBI (or, say, undercover police assigned to monitor a particularly notorious men's room at the Minneapolis airport) might be monitoring you for a sudden integrity check, you also have to remember that you will always have folks from the other side of the political aisle nipping at your heels every two or four years.

So yes, it's fair to say that they really are "out to get you."** (That is, even though there's NO evidence that partisan conspiracies inspired any of the above...unless you believe a 9-0 Supreme Court decision to proceed with the Paula Jones harassment case against the sitting President was a 'partisan conspiracy').

So just behave with integrity and it really shouldn't be a problem.

Or, better yet, just retire to private life and spare me the pain of your self-righteous indignation.

** With due props, of course, to Nick for pointing this out in his comment following the Spitzer resignation.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Was This Guy Thinking?

William Diamond is this week's hands-down recipient of the ex-Senator Marzilli award for allegedly engaging in lewd behavior that would lead anyone to naturally wonder, "Just what in the heck was this guy thinking?"

LOWELL -- Members of the Lynnfield High School cheerleading team had to ride home with their parents from a competition at Lowell High School on Sunday after their 56-year-old bus driver was charged with accosting girls from the Leominster team.

Police said William Diamond, 56, of Danvers, will be summonsed to Lowell District Court to face charges that he offered teenage Leominster cheerleaders $40 to lift their shirts.

Several girls witnessed the offer and told adults, who notified a detail officer working at the scene about 2:30 p.m., police said.

This was bad enough, but in the everyone-has-a-cell-phone-camera-with-recorder-and-access-to-the-Internet era, this whole thing could've been MUCH worse for all involved (not least of whom would've been the cheerleaders) had his offer been taken up. Even though it wasn't technology that brought this guy down, I'm amazed that more people aren't aware that virtually anything that they do these days could easily be audio- or video-recorded (sort of like State Senators or Boston City Councilors taking bribes from undercovers!)

Ex-State Senator Marzilli, by the way, is the gentleman who engaged in a downtown Lowell "groping spree" that ended in a foot chase by police to the Roy Garage (which just so happens to be right next to my house, though I swear that's just a huge coincidence).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Underwater, Maybe. Drowning? No.

The Sun had a piece today on so-called "underwater" or "negative equity" mortgages in the area -- in case you're wondering, roughly 1 in 5 recently-purchased Lowell homes falls in this category (I suspect mine is included in the 20%).

For the record, I don't care.

I bought the place with very little down, have put very little into the principal (as you know, those first many payments are heavily skewed to the interest side), and the market hasn't exactly zoomed. So yes, I'm technically "underwater."

All of that means absolutely nothing to me.

I'll get a massive tax break this year for all that interest (plus, the first-time homebuyer benefit), I get all the personal, intangible benefits of ownership (could be fodder for an entry or two sometime), and I don't plan on selling anytime soon. While my stocks tank by the day, I'm slowly but surely building real equity and net worth in the form of my condo.

The article was fair -- far from being alarmist, it even mentioned that the "underwater" status is only bad for those looking to sell, struggling to make payments, or both.

Just an important thing to remember every time you see news headlines about this -- to some, it's a crisis, but to anyone who bought a home using the I-plan-to-stay-here-for-several-years-and-that's-why-I'm-not-renting rule of thumb, it really isn't worth crying about.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Car Dealer's Answer..

I ran into a Navy Lieutenant today whose family runs a string of car dealerships in northern Virginia. As soon as he mentioned this, I asked him something I'd been dying to ask for a few weeks and now finally had the chance:

"When gas prices were shooting through the roof, and analysts were predicting that crude would fly through the $200 marker, there were constant reports of people dumping their SUVs for anything they could, and stories about how dealers couldn't get rid of now that gasoline has fallen by more than a dollar and a half per gallon, and analysts are making equally wild and irresponsible prognostications about how low the price of a barrel will soon go, are people now clamoring to buy SUVs?"

I could tell from his immediate reaction that a) he knew exactly where I was going with the question before I even finished asking, and b) it wasn't the first time he'd heard it.

"Absolutely," he replied. "We're selling SUVs at just as fast a rate as we ever have. In fact, if you look at some of the markdowns and the deals that have carried over, we've had some of our most brisk SUV sales ever in the past couple weeks."

Wow. I bought my car in 2004 (a 2001 model) and plan to hang onto it for several more years...literally, until it won't *go* any more. Can I be the only one who thinks that way?

What are all these new SUV owners going to do the next time gas spikes up to $4/gallon?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Not So Common

One of my least-favorite expressions is "that's common sense," because people throw it around when talking about something with which they're familiar and use it to put down others who lack knowledge of same.

Knowing how to operate ANY piece of machinery, for instance, can't be common sense because it requires some type of knowledge that a person who grew up without the technology wouldn't have. Same could be said for fixing said machinery -- things like changing your oil, replacing your headlight, and even pumping your own gas are only commonsensical when you've done it, or seen it done.

That having been said, there are times that the 'common sense' label ought to apply. I saw two such examples today, and feel inspired to write about them because a) not only was common sense violated, but b) the violator -- rather than offer an excuse or apology -- didn't seem to realize what had happened:

(1) In a room with three or more people in it, a speaker should address the person for which something is intended before saying it.

I think we've all seen this applied, or mis-applied. If you work in an office with eight people, there are always going to be two-way conversations, multi-way conversations, sidebars, phone calls, drop-ins, etc. Lots of talking is going on. Unless you signal the person you're addressing with "Hey, [insert name]" and wait for a "Yeah...?" before speaking, the recipient has no reliable indicator that he is being addressed in the first place. So you may go on with some ten-minute explanation of what needs to happen that day, or a diatribe about why a procedure is messed up, or whatever it is you're prattling on about, but all the "recipient" is hearing is broadband white noise. The same type of thing could happen in a crowded car, a lunch table, or anywhere else. The key thing here is that the burden should fall on the speaker. Because that could cut across any divide of culture, technology, and time (unlike, say, how to connect your laptop to your modem) I think it could fairly be put under the 'common sense' umbrella). Bottom Line: If you're addressing someone and he or she doesn't know it, the fault is yours for not 'signaling' first.

(2) Before entering an elevator, people should wait for those who need to get off to do so first.

I think this one pretty much speaks for itself, so there's really no need to belabor it. It's not an arbitrary thing to say off-loaders first, then on-loaders; from a practicality standpoint, it wins, hands-down. Of course, the same could be said for buses, trains, etc. The funny thing is, I'm staying at a hotel in Arlington right now (conference in DC this week), and I just saw this violated twice in a row. The second time, the woman who barged into the elevator as I was trying to exit in the lobby harrumphed me with a drawn-out "Excuuuse me," and I turned to her and calmly replied, "Yes, excuse you."

If you don't know the clutch from the gas from the brake, you're okay. Jared Diamond even has your back -- he wrote an entire chapter on the way people use relative knowledge to (wrongly) make the leap towards cultural superiority in Guns, Germs, and Steel. If someone accuses you of lacking common sense, just coolly reply with an inquiry about whether the person feels that any Maori tribseman (assume none has ever driven a standard) has common sense either.

But if you don't signal out the recipients of your speech in a multi-party environment, or if you barge into elevators without letting off-loaders move first and don't see the problem, I'm a little more inclined to worry.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Will the Real Sarah Palin Quote Please Stand Out?

Whatever your opinion of Sarah Palin, anonymous McCainiac staffer leaks, or the 2008 election in general, the quote below really stands out on its own:

"My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars...Never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don’t know about this issue.”

Does anyone remember the quote from Billy Madison, after his portion of the debate thing with the evil guy? Well, here it is:

"Mr. Madison, what you just said is the most insanely idiotic thing I have ever heard. At no point in you incoherent rambling response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. We are all now dumber for having had listened to it. I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul!"

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mea Culpa, Sarah Palin

Sometimes you're right when others think you're wrong (whether the 'Bradley Effect' might be a factor in the 2008 election), sometimes you think you're right, someone else thinks you're wrong, but no one can be sure (just ask the guy I work with whether my calling back to *check in on things* while I was on leave was appropriate), and sometimes you're just wrong.

Seeing the retractions to the stories about Sarah Palin's confusion regarding whether Africa was a continent ( I have to admit that it was something I repeated to friends and even made a reference to (albeit a quick one) on this blog...without ever having seen any documentation that she had ever said it (unlike, say, her answers to the Bush Doctrine question, the bank bailout, whether she reads any periodicals, and her own rebuttal to the Africa thing, which are all widely available on YouTube for your viewing enjoyment, or fear).

But when you're wrong, you're just wrong, and there's not much more you can say.

I know I wouldn't want people mis-attributing quotes to me, much less repeating said quotes, so the same respect should be due Gov. Palin.

The Small City Advantage, Family Perspective

One of the first entries I ever did on this blog concerned the benefits of small-city living, seen from the perspective of an individual looking to establish some social capital. The basic idea behind it was that a city is going to offer a lot more than a small town or village, and it's a small city (100,000 or so residents) that's going to be just small enough to where you can actually *be* someone and not just get lost in the shuffle of a New York, Boston, LA, or Chicago.

Spending the better part of the past week on leave with the extended clan has shown me another small city benefit -- public transportation. When kids are in the age range where they're busy with activities but too young to drive and/or own a car (say, 12-17 years old) it's VERY easy for me to see how the title "parent" can just become synonymous with "chauffeur." But, while they're at that age, that also means they ought to be self-sufficient enough to use a bus or light-rail system when it's available. When you've got that in place, and you live somewhere dense enough where walking is usually a viable option, you make it a lot easier for kids to get around without turning their parents into full-time chauffeurs (which is obviously impossible if they already both work full-time jobs).

Having grown up in a community that had no public transportation system whatsoever, it made getting around a constant challenge, especially when both parents work. And while suburbia's green lawns and bigger houses may be great for the ego/privacy/net worth of the homeowners, I would say that when it greatly restricts anything that kids might be able to do outside the house, it's a very debatable point to say that it's necessarily *better* for kids.

I guess the ideal scenario for large families might be a nice neighborhood with some space that's not too far from downtown (i.e. reasonably walkable) but still within city limits and thereby accessible by public transportation.

Unless, of course, you don't mind chauffeuring.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Uncorking the 'Mystery'

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine traveled to San Francisco on a work-related sojourn. While there, he was in the company of a fellow employee who happened to be a) beautiful and b) female. Although the two of them were only platonic friends, or platonic colleagues, he couldn't help but notice the reactions she kept getting and the lameness that seemed to surround it.

Was his feeling jealousy-inspired?

Not really.

He didn't mind the fact that she was getting attention, but what made it all the more strange was the fact that so many would-be "Pickup Artists" were basing their entire "script" off of a VH-1 reality show that the whole thing began to seem totally unbelievable.

He would see groups of two or three guys come and approach, usually him first, with an off-the-wall question, i.e. Hey, is there a concert going on here? (When there obviously was not).

Then, they would quickly turn to his female companion and deliver a quick insult: "Hey, your nose is kind of crooked."

So, after having "opened the set," "disarmed the resistance" and offered "the neg" they moved in for their number close, which never worked. The entire thing was way too forced, way too transparent, and way too, well, dumb.

In fact, the very widespread popularity/awareness of the "Mystery Method" is its own undoing, as way too many people are familiar with the standard checkboxes involved in the process to enable the proverbial wool to be pulled over their eyes.

I may not be the best advice-giver on this stuff, since I've spent most of my adulthood squarely in the "single" category. But then again, sometimes the best descriptions of what's going on inside a fishbowl would come from someone looking from the outside in, and not from a fish swimming around inside. [Think about it -- who would you rather listen to talk about money management: Someone who was once poor but since became rich; or someone who inherited wealth and was always rich?]

Well, here's my profound conclusion: People date who they know. I know, I know, I win the obvious award for this one, much like my groundbreaking observation that people win political elections because they run.

But this time I know I have statistics on my side. Something like 80% of marriages and long-term relationships form in one of three ways -- work, school, and friends-of-friends. Sometimes it might even be two, or even three, of the three working in concert.

But just look around you -- that's really how it happens. I know if I start thinking about all the friends I have who are married, engaged, or quasi-engaged, roughly 4 in 5 couples met one of those ways -- not so much for elevators, bars, or grocery markets where men won womens' hearts by telling them how crooked their nose was, or how annoying their laugh sounds.

So if you're single, and you're not in school anymore, and you telecommute (or work is somehow off-limits for dating) you need to get to know more people. Join things. Volunteer. Get to know your local baristas and bartenders. The whole time, just remember you might not be meeting your partner directly, but you may be meeting his/her brother, sister, cousin, roommate, best friend, or some variation of the above. Be friendly to everyone, and let the ripple effect happen on its own.

As Chris Matthews titled the first chapter of Hardball, "It's not who you know, it's who you get to know."

Good things will happen.

You can save the hocus-pocus, the set-openers, the negs, and the parlor tricks for your local follies presentation.

In the past few years, I've definitely met a few guys with lots of highly elaborate "theories" about how to meet women (The Seven Threads of Conversation, the drawers full of books and tapes on the subject, the endless war stories about their exploits in number-closing, etc.)

You know what ONE thing they all had in common?

They were all choice.

But the choice, mind you, was not theirs.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What the Media Doesn't Want You to Know..

During the darkest days of the Iraq conflict (mid 2004-late 2006), the Army really did suffer some recruiting shortfalls (For the record, the Marines, Navy, and Air Force remained at or above goal consistently during this time).

You already knew that, though, because major mainstream news outlets like CNN and the New York Times reported on it.


So now that the Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve have been consistently at or above targets for their Fiscal Year 2008 benchmarks (and, so far, Fiscal Year 2009), you would expect those very same news outlets to basically report that story in reverse, right?

Yeah, right.

The dirty secrets revealed in the link above include such shockers as the fact that all services have lately been at or above goals, that the average new military recruit is better educated than the average person in his age group, is more intelligent (as measured by ASVAB score), and comes from a wealthier neighborhood.

I must admit that the media did a great job with its Veterans' Day coverage, and I believe they really mean the things that they say about the men and women who wore (or wear) the cloth.

But to talk about the modern military recruit as anything other than 'victim' is to run against the grain of a common limousine liberal sort of shibboleth that seems impervious to awkward things like, well, actual facts.

Far better than a bumper sticker or yellow ribbon, a good way to support our troops might be to ask a veteran for his/her feelings about recently-completed overseas service, and be willing to let the answer you get guide your feelings about or foreign policy, rather than try to cram it in to the narrative of a pre-fabricated opinion.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Old Grey Lady Smiles on Lowell, Redux

Remember last summer when the New York Times declared Lowell to be the 3rd best getaway in New England?

The Times has come back around to spotlight Lowell with this article, titled "City on the Mend, With Kerouac's Help."

It's probably not going to tell you anything about Lowell that you didn't already know, but it's always neat to see your city spotlighted in a national forum like this.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama Whiplash, Explained

A lot is being written about right now on what's being called the "Obama Whiplash" effect.

If you're not already familiar with it, it's the supposedly incongruous phenomenon whereby people who did not avidly support Mr. Obama, or even vote for him last Tuesday, are now reveling in the win and saying great things about their hopes for our new President-elect and what his victory means for the nation and the world.

Many conservative commentators are being called out by name for it, with the implication that they're effectively fair-weather fans, that they just want to be on the winning team, or on the right side of history, etc.

I don't find anything hypocritical or incongruous about it.

1. Not everyone supported then-Senator Obama's policy stances.

2. Therefore, they supported another candidate.

3. Senator Obama's victory ends the fact that there was a partisan election. He's now the President-Elect, so there's no point in maintaining a pre-November 4 mindset. That's like having a March 18, 2003 mindset concerning Iraq when you ought to have an [insert present date] mindset.

4. There's a lot to be excited about regarding the way the world -- and much of America -- sees his victory. Plus, there's the usual excitement of anything new -- i.e. the fact that for the first time in many of our lives, there's no one named Bush or Clinton in the White House.

To me, the so-called "Obama Whiplash" effect is a great thing, and it just shows how this country understands when to be partisan (before an election), and when not to be (afterwards). Plus, it shows that people understand all the ancillary benefits of President-Elect Obama's win, all policy positions aside.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

McCain, Palin, Obama, and Biden -- Real Common Ground

Last night, before rolling out to the UML-BU game (a great game that was almost a major upset until BU rallied for three late goals to finish with a 6-4 win), some neighbors and I were talking about the recent elections.

Even though we were a mix of Obama, McCain, and Ron Paul supporters, we definitely had to poke some good-natured fun at some of the revelations that have come out of the McCain camp about Mrs. Palin (so is South Africa, like, a region of Africa?) since the ticket's defeat on Tuesday night.

One that I hadn't heard before, though was this: "And she's not even from Alaska." I followed the campaign fairly closely (mostly with the 24/7 cable news as my background white noise at work) but wasn't familiar with this. A quick wiki search indeed revealed that she was born in Idaho (though she moved to Alaska as an infant), came back to Idaho for some schooling, but resettled permanently in Alaska in the eighties.

Then I thought about Vice President-Elect Biden. He definitely likes to play up his humble roots in Scranton, so he's not *really* from Delaware, and he makes no bones about it (he moved to Delaware when he was 10).

Then I thought, why stop there -- President-Elect Obama isn't *really* from Illinois -- he just moved there after completing his schooling in his twenties.

And, just to round things out, Senator John McCain isn't *really* from Arizona. Not even close, in fact -- he didn't move there until he was a 45 year-old retired Navy Captain.

Again, going to back to 2004, none of the four big-ticket headliners was *really* from the state they represented (actually, Cheney had the best case of the four but was still technically not born in Wyoming).

We would have to go back to 2000 just to find Joe Lieberman, who could meet even the most hardcore nativist's definition of a *real* Connectican.

What's my point in all this? First, it says a lot about the openness and fluidity in this country. We're a nation of movers, where someone can grow up in Texas, go to school in Michigan, and then go to New York for a first job without getting a single funny glance (try doing the equivalent of that in, say, Spain to see the difference).

If, as Oscar Wilde says, patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, nativism can't be too far behind. Someone's control over their place of birth is about equal to their *choice* of skin color, eye color, or any other physical feature that the chattering classes would *know better* than to criticize openly.

And the most curious aspect of nativism?

It never seems to come from the *real* natives.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Congratulations, Brent

"Who sweats, wins."
"Who dares, wins."
"Who plans, wins."

-- British Special Air Service (SAS) Motto

Two nights ago, a lot was spoken, written, and pontificated about concerning the major national and state elections that took place across the country.

One election you probably didn't hear about, however, was that of Brent Barton (D) of Oregon, who defeated State Rep. Linda Flores (R) for the Oregon House of Representatives seat in District 51.

I only followed it because Brent is a personal friend of mine who has long planned to run for political office.

You know what makes him different from every other idealistic twenty-, thirty-, forty-, or any-something who has ever thought about running?

Hint: It's not money, last name, passion for a single cause, race, gender, war hero status, fame, stature, community reputation, or any of the other things you might think are held in common by those who hold political office. It helped that he was a Democrat running in 2008, but that's not where I'm going with this.

Give up?

It's because he ran.

If that sounded so simple as to seem insulting, please think about it again:

It's because he ran.

That single fact alone -- having the chutzpah to go around and collect enough signatures on a petition to get his name on the primary ballot, to ask for donations and volunteer support, and then to knock on (literally, almost) every door in the district to explain himself and his policy stances is largely what separates him from the other 300 million or so of us who don't hold public office. Most people just wouldn't go through with it. When you actually break down the statistical chances of winning for those who do, they're really not that bad (I'm speaking only of local elections and term-limited things like governorships, not about U.S. House and Senate Seats with a less-than-10% turnover ratio...those are near-impossible for challengers).

To go back to one of my favorite all-time quotes, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

The same could be said for political success.

As you already know, I'm fascinated with the world around me, and by natural extension, with politics. I'm not quite sure what my eventual role will be, whether it's journalist, kingmaker, campaign manager (or maybe just blogger!) but I've definitely entertained the idea a time or two (or three) of running for office as an Independent Centrist.

I'm not entirely sure at what level I may try to get involved, or when (I know it won't be in the next several years, or at least I return back from one full Guard deployment, whenever that comes, as that's when I'll be most certain about my upcoming long-range calendar).

Historically, third-party candidates are seen as single-issue advocates just trying to raise awareness (and eventual inclusion in a mainstream party platform) or just complete gadfly nutjobs. I think that's changing, however, because more and more voters are not registering as either "Republicans" or "Democrats." Minnesota, Connecticut, and Maine have all elected Independent governors in recent years, too (though all were already household names).

Also, third-party candidates are always going to have trouble raising money because they lack the support infrastructure/backbone that the major parties have. I fully acknowledge that problem, but in a local election a lot of that is mitigated. State elections would be tougher, yes, but just look at Freakonomics for some empirical evidence that in politics, it really ain't always about who can raise more money. And the real monumental sea change in recent elections, of course, is the Internet, which allows anyone to disseminate information on the cheap via several user-friendly formats. That's going to just have a stronger and stronger effect at all levels in the future.

Two major advantages to a centrist (i.e. not some extreme far-left, far-right, Libertarian or single-issue gadfly) third-party candidate would be these: avoidance of primaries and higher interest level in something unusual.

To the first point, look at something like a Massachusetts Gubernatorial primary. While a dozen or so Dems duke it out for several months and beat each other up (while the Republicans hold their state convention inside a phone booth), an independent could be quietly spending that time building a support base and talking to actual November voters, not just the party faithful. There would be no issue kowtowing. That's great because if I look at my death penalty stance (always against, no matter what) it virtually guarantees I could never win a Republican primary. I'm sure there's some conservative stance that would make me equally unpalatable in parts of Northampton or Cambridge.

To the second point, things like third-party candidacies which do offer something truly different (and just look at 2008 for evidence of how 'new' and 'different' can work to a candidate's advantage) can generate a lot of serious media and political junkie attention in a way that more traditional Republican and Democratic candidacies might not. Especially when that voice is coming from the center and not a fringe.

Here's a final point: I should also add that I think the actual process of running might be a total blast. So, let's say in twenty years I really go through with this and run for something. And let's say I get some pockets of support but only pick up 5-10% of the vote.

That still might be an amazing experience.

And maybe the candidate that actually wins will hire me as a speechwriter, which would be a pretty cool job that I never would've gotten otherwise.

In other words, losing could actually be a lot of fun, and might even be serendipitous.

Winning could be pretty great, too.

There's only one way to find out.

Tokin' Support..

Yes, I wrestled with the title here.

Reeferendum? Weed the People? Vox Potuli? Each is progressively more of a stretch, and I'll stick with what's in orange here. Anyway, I want to talk about why I think the Massachusetts ballot initiative to decriminalize the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is so interesting from a Civics 101 perspective -- the way that popular initiatives have the power to change laws in the way that the normal "How a Bill Becomes a Law" type of stuff sometimes can't.

When you draw it out on a very large scale (like, say, the entire Bay State electorate) something like the decriminalization of marijuana passes by a 2-to-1 margin because by and large, people feel that it makes sense -- from an economic, practical, or moral perspective. And every single one of the "Yes" votes is done anonymously with a black marker inside a private polling place.

For any single politician to align himself or herself to the cause of decriminalizing marijuana would be a tremendous risk to that individual's political career.


Because being "Pro-Drug" is probably as good a recipe for electoral success as being "Anti-Environment" or "Pro-Crime."

Just as it's easy for people to demonize marijuana using the it-must-be-bad-if-it's-illegal argument, the specious "gateway drug" argument (that's like saying that seventh grade is a "gateway" to a Ph.D. program), or the my-older-brother-is-a-stoner-who-sleeps-on-the-couch-downstairs-and-he's-29 argument (that confuses correlation with causation), it would be very easy for people to demonize, and rally against, a candidate who openly aligned himself with a "soft on drugs" policy, unless he or she were in a VERY safe seat or had no ambitions for higher office.

See my point?

Even if politicians feel that decriminalization is the right thing to do, to publicly say so is to open yourself up to charges of wanting to give kids access to dope (unlike, say, booze, which is fully legal but of course no minor ever touches...), being an apologist for drug users, criminals, and whatever else people might come up with.

Then, you'd have to weigh that against the people who saw it as a courageous stance and felt passionately about it. But what big voting electorate is going to organize and rally around the "righteousness" of decriminalized weed the way they might around something like abortion, the death penalty, or gun control?

So to look at any individual politician's perceived incentive structure, there's a huge potential downside to advocating this with only a small potential upside.

That all changes when you ask each individual voter in an anonymous setting.

Each voter can individually weigh the pros and cons, and then decide for himself, based solely on what he believes as a citizen and taxpayer, and not based on how it will look to the proverbial 55 year-old homemaker in Dubuque (or, in our case, let's call it Acton).

So, the pretty neat result is that you get, almost literally overnight, a major policy change without having to rely on politicians.

I'm sure if we sat down for a few minutes at a diner together we could come up with similar policy challenges. One I'll throw one out here now -- fixing Social Security. That could very easily be done in a flash by just adjusting the benefits collection age to better reflect changes in lifespan and health care since the time of FDR.

But why can't that happen?

Because, again, no individual politician can stand by that. Millions of regular folks could do it in a national referendum, but no single Congressman or Senator could do it.

Assuming, of course, he ever wants to be re-elected.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Why I Can't Stop Beaming

This morning, during my pre-dawn drive from Lowell back down to New London, I caught myself grinning ear to ear a few times, and even have to admit to a couple fist pumps that would've elicited some strange looks from fellow motorists (had there been any).


Not because I went three-for-three on Massachusetts ballot initiatives (the marijuana initiative will be my next entry's subject), but because of words I kept hearing over and over on NPR:

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

No one in America is more qualified to say that right now than is President-elect Obama.

It means a lot to me personally, because I love this country, and -- as anyone who has read this blog or spoken to me in the past several months knows -- I cringed every time I heard someone say Obama would not win because either a) "they" wouldn't allow it, or b) the country isn't ready yet. Every time I heard one of those comments, I took it personally, in the way anyone would when they feel they've been judged wrongly by someone who didn't really understand their character, but was impugning it. One comment assumes a conspiratorial elite standing in the way of real progress for many, while the other mis-attributes the feelings of a very small few to a great many (while exempting the speaker, of course)

Even though I never actually went on to become a *real* teacher after the year I spent in Ed School, my time there definitely made an indelible impression on me. It led me to switch my voter registration from "Democrat" to "Independent" and it woke me up to some painful truths about the Far Left in America. It made me fearful for the future to hear supposedly *progressive* people say, in not so many words, that the kids from Newton and Brookline are responsible for their actions and expected to perform at high levels, while the kids from Mattapan and East Boston are not. Essentially, their message was this: because the latter are victims of a system run by a small coterie of white males conspiring to keep them from achieving anything meaningful, they might as well just not try. The irony, of course, is that by propagating that mentality, they were ensuring that their own kids will inherit the material and educational success they've achieved, while ensuring that the *others* don't threaten to take their piece of the pie. I could rattle off a ton of examples of actual quotes that I jotted down while there, but I'll spare you the pain -- suffice to say, I honestly believe that the Far Left in this country is just as divisive, intolerant, and hateful as the more-often villified Far Right.

The election of President-elect Obama sends a stronger message to hate-mongers from the Far Left and the Far Right than any speech, documentary, essay, or book ever could. It should force schoolkids to do a double- or triple-take before swallowing any of the propaganda from the Educracy about why a test that asks you to solve for x is a systemized tool of oppression (and that, by implication they should just give up).*

This country is far from perfect, but it's a wide-open place that's growing increasingly diverse and accepting by the day. As I've certainly noted before in these entries, no other nation has the same history of providing refuge and welcoming those who have left other lands to find something better (just ask the Governor of our most-populous state, or any of the 25,000 residents of our city whose family members escaped one of the 20th century's worst genocides in the late 1970s).

If you don't *get* that, well, then, you don't get it.

* As evidence, check out the work that Pscyhologist Claude Steele did concerning "stereotype threat" and the way students under-perform after being told of biases written into tests.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Rest in Peace, Trevor

Whoa. I just read about this in Navy Times today, and it definitely personalizes the conventional wisdom about Afghanistan becoming increasingly dangerous for coalition servicemembers.

Trevor Yurista was the Regimental S-2A (that's the assistant intelligence officer for the regiment, which oversees several battalions) for Regimental Combat Team 5, based at Camp Fallujah, for all of 2006. He had the entire AO (Area of Operations) mapped out like the back of his hand after putting in a year's worth of 18-hour days working on a Major's staff...and was fighting like mad to get sent back to Anbar to work on a MITT (Military Interim Transition Team) just a few month's after re-deploying.

I hadn't spoken to him since early 2007 when RCT-5 and RCT-6 turned over, and had no idea he was even in Afghanistan until I saw the picture and short blurb in print today. From the article, I learned that he volunteered to head over to OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) to be with some of the intel guys he had trained back in the schoolhouse in Dam Neck, VA.

I wasn't surprised to read that.

This country is lucky to have people like Lt. Yurista.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Why Life Sometimes Needs a Rulebook..

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be." -- Polonius, to Laertes, Hamlet

Three months ago, a co-worker dropped a thick, 600-page hardcover book about foreign policy on my desk with a Post-It note on the top saying, "This is a great book, you'd like it." I saw him later that day, sincerely thanked him for thinking of me, and put it in a corner on my desk where it hasn't moved since.

It's not out of spite or any other negative (or even calculated) emotion that I haven't read it, it's just that (1) We're talking about a book that would require an investment of dozens of hours, and (2) I usually have, at best, a couple hours' free time at any given pop -- weekday or weekend, and (3) I don't always have the best track record at maintaining things -- particularly books -- in the condition that I got them in. So I never took the book away from work with me, never brought it up to Lowell, or anywhere else, and basically just never read it. In fact, I never even opened it. But the good news, from the lender's perspective, should be the fact that it's in the exact same condition in which it was given.

However, the other day, I thought back to the book when I saw the guy (he had just returned from what I'll call a 'mini-deployment' aboard a submersible vessel) and said, "Hey, that book you lent me is on my desk, can I give it back to you?"

Hoping for a quick 'yes' and a conclusion to the story, I was rebuffed.

"Well did you read it?"


Obviously not happy with this answer, he responded, "Well, the reason I gave it to you was so that you could read it, so just give it back to me when you're done," and abruptly ended the conversation.

So the book remains in its original position on the desk. Again, on the bright side, it hasn't been dog-eared, underlined, highlighted, ketchup- or soy sauce-stained, and the dust jacket is still pristine.

But it also hasn't been read by yours truly. For the record, it won't be -- but, I would posit, that's not justification for the ire of the lender.

So back to the way I titled this entry. There's no Rulebook sitting on a shelf somewhere that guides the way friends, acquaintances, and co-workers handle these sorts of things, but oftentimes I wish there was (maybe I need to write it). But if there were, I would hope it said something like, "If you give someone something that they never asked for in the first place, even with the best of intentions on your part, don't assume this means they incur some multi-hour obligation to try it/taste it/read it/watch it/use it. Just be glad to get it back in its original condition, and move on.

And the corollary would be that when you do offer up something of yours to a friend/neighbor/colleague, etc. try to do a quick check ahead of time to verify the items are desired on the recipient's part, and not just some unsolicited burden.

When I borrow, I'll always prefer to do it from a nameless, faceless institution. The terms are clearly spelled out -- literally, with a signed contract in the case of my Pollard Memorial Library Card or my Bank of America Credit Card -- and I know that if I somehow screw up my end of the deal, there will be clear consequences that may hurt my pocketbook (say, if I lost or ruined the great book the Rand Corporation I just got from the local library) but wouldn't ruin friendships or business relationships that are more fragile and subjectively based.

Believe me, I'm not writing to say that I'm in any way against borrowing or lending among friends. Please don't read this entry that way. However, I've seen the movie enough times to know that it doesn't always end well. Borrowing definitely has its place, but it needs to be kept there, and it never needs to be forced on someone -- in business-ese, the *demand signal* should come from the borrower vice the lender.

The Bradley What?

Reader "Nick" just sent me this link:
which has the transcript of a great discusssion including pollsters and campaign staffers who are actually familiar with the 1982 California Gubernatorial election (unlike 99% of those who talk about 'The Bradley Effect'). Definitely worth the read if you have a few minutes..