Category: Political

On RT: Russia Today

(I wrote this in 2018.)

Last year, we learned that during the 2016 election campaign, millions of Americans were exposed to social media posts sponsored by Russians operating out of the “Internet Research Agency.” The Russians pushed hot buttons in domestic politics from gun rights to gay rights to “blacktivism” and anger at police abuses. The campaign was designed to foam up division on both ends of our political spectrum. The Russians were so sloppy in covering their tracks, sometimes they paid for their ads in rubles.

Recent indictments of Russian individuals have revealed exactly how the Russian government also hacked into domestic political outfits such as the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. The ties between “DC Leaks” and “Guccifer 2.0” and Russia’s state and Wikileaks are laid out in black and white and, I hope, will soon be proved in court. It is already the assessment of all U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russians interfered in our elections. As President Trump’s current lawyer said on Twitter, “The Russians are nailed.” (Julian Assange appears on the verge of finally being thrown out of the Ecuadorean embassy in London, as well.)

Today’s news development is that Facebook announced it had uncovered evidence of a new and ongoing false influence campaign, aimed at promoting both the “Unite the Right” and “Abolish ICE” movements–two fringe elements, one on each side of our political spectrum. Facebook says it doesn’t know who was behind these, but it’s straight out of the 2016 Russia propaganda playbook, and some of the fake accounts followed Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” (propaganda) accounts. So it’s not a stretch at all to believe this is the Russian state’s work again.

One entity which does not hide from its ties to the Russian state is RT: Russia Today television. After years of insisting it was editorially independent, Russia Today was forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and it finally admitted it serves the Moscow regime within the United States.

RT’s longtime editor-in-chief is Margarita Simonyan. In 2012, she openly admitted the purpose of RT is to provide an outlet for the Russian state’s views:

It is important to have a channel that people get used to, and then, when needed, you show them what you need to show. In some sense, not having our own foreign broadcasting is the same as not having a ministry of defense. When there is no war, it looks like we don’t need it. However, when there is a war, it is critical.

Just as the Internet Research Agency’s propaganda campaigns were focused on American social ills, RT also frequently runs stories on our domestic problems, such as racism, drug abuse, police abuses, education woes, budget problems, government dysfunction, and so on. The problems are real, but the coverage is wall-to-wall. If there is a scab in the U.S. body politic, RT is frequently moved to pick at it. This is entirely in line with Russia’s strategy of sowing discord here in our country as well as in other nations abroad. For example, RT gives a whole show to the divisive Alex Salmond, who was behind the Scottish National Party’s losing 2014 campaign that would have torn the U.K. in half by taking Scotland out of it.

RT also, of course, uses its domestic platform in the U.S. to advance a Russian slant on events. In its version of today’s Facebook story, RT highlights that Facebook did not accuse Russia specifically. RT also covered the farcical “re-election campaign” of Putin in complete earnestness. And it runs the mirror image of the scab-picking stories whenever it talks about Russia. “Most Russians approve of Putin,” RT notes today. This straightforward coverage of Putin as a democrat or ordinary candidate is designed to make him something other than what he is: a murderous autocrat who’s ordered the deaths of multiple journalists within his borders.

Let there be no doubt: RT is not just built to tell news tales. It’s meant to change the very values of other societies. Here is a screen capture from a speech Simonyan made in China last year:

Yes: media like hers “changes the entire value system of societies,” and that’s RT’s explicit aim when it comes to the U.S. Here she is with another chilling passage:

(Whenever Russian figures complain of “international terrorism,” they are usually cynically referring to acts committed in opposition to Russian positions. So, freedom fighters in Syria opposing ISIS and opposing the murderous Assad regime become “international terrorists.” Orwell knew the power of the word.) But here she is offering to work with Chinese media to oppose “media terrorism,” which she basically defines as free western media that expose Russian crimes.

China’s media are no freer than Russia’s. And that tableau, of Simonyan, President Xi, and President Putin, on the same dais and singing in harmony terrifies me. It should make crystal clear that Putin sees RT as his long claw into the U.S. marketplace of ideas, and it was an invitation by Putin to Xi to join him in spreading their anti-American views on a global scale.

Neither nation is our friend. Russia–Putin–has ordered the poisoning of multiple people on British soil; it has interfered in our election and the elections of other nations; it has pushed to shatter the European Union and raged against NATO; it has threatened and intimidated our smaller allies in Europe who need us, such as when it hacked Estonia and threatened Montenegro for joining NATO; it has invaded the Ukraine and annexed Crimea by force and then through a sham “referendum”; it has lied about its involvement in the shooting down of a passenger plane, MH17, with a Russian-made missile; it has hacked into our power grid and tested the ability to shut it down; and God knows what it has on Trump. China has its own litany of sins that include bullying its smaller neighbors, the construction of illegal islands in the South China Sea, aggression against Japan, coddling of North Korea, and a creepy system of domestic repression of its own people up to and including mass executions.

Our country is divided and that is getting worse. So at the least, Americans must learn to see the links back to Russia, and see foreign meddling for what it is. We no longer can assume that we can have an honest political debate here without a hidden foreign voice trying to shout it down. Russia’s offensive campaigns have been designed to aggravate the rawest nerves in politics, so to spread fear, dissent, and make us weak through chaos. We must not forget that Russia’s tentacles extend deep.

But united we stand, divided we fall.

The inheritance tax

We have entered 2017, the year of the Republican takeover. I for one am excited to see what’s coming! (What alternative do I have? My law licenses aren’t any good in Canada or Europe or Britain. So tally ho, Trump!)

One of the many legislative turds we’ll be seeing this year probably will be the final strangling of the federal estate tax, which is already almost completely extinct. I ran across a great and commonsense explanation from the scholar David Mitchell as to why the estate tax is a good thing. And with credit to the Guardian, I’m reprinting it here:

A lot of people don’t like inheritance tax. It feels like stealing from the dead. It isn’t, but it feels like it. The reasoning goes: I worked hard for my money, I paid tax on it when I earned it . . . , so why shouldn’t I be able to leave it all to my children? Why should the taxman get any?

The answer is that, in order to pay for public services, the government should take money out of the economy where it’ll be least missed, where its absence is least likely to plunge people into poverty or reduce consumer spending. The money of the dead is therefore ripe for taxation: the owner no longer needs it, and his or her heirs have been doing OK without it up to now. Inheritance tax doesn’t discourage earning, it discourages dying, which I think we can all get behind.

Our own estate tax is on the way out. Repealing it probably won’t do anything to the fabric of society, other than to lay on a few extra billion in debt. Senator Proxmire’s observation about the value of money rings eternal.

Chinese news

I’ve been really sick the last four days, and probably spending more time on the Internet than usual.  Nothing is more discouraging than a few minutes at the China Daily website, the English-language “news” site which has become increasingly more professional over the years, and thusly, more dangerous.

The lead story on the BBC News webpage is about severe protests and demonstrations against Chinese rule in Tibet.  There, you can read that activists have released graphic photos of dead bodies showing bullet wounds, and that the police have finally admitted to firing shots at some protesters.  You’ll also read that riot police raided a monastery, causing 300 monks to run for their lives as police committed acts of “gratuitous violence” and kicked monks in the stomach while they lay on the ground.  The phone service had mysteriously been cut.  And the BBC’s own reporters noted that there had been severe limitations on their travel and ability to report.

Cruise over to China Daily.  The lead story is on the Olympic flame.  Click on “China” to get national news stories.  The lead story there is “China’s new cabinet maps out working rules.”  You have to dig for a story about the crisis, and I found one.  105 Lhasa rioters surrender to police.  There, you’ll read that “rioters” killed innocent civilians.  There’s no mention of China’s military actions.  But, there is a link to a story couple of days old titled, We fired no gunshots — Tibetan government chairman.  I wasn’t able to find any article admitting that the government in fact had shot anyone.  Rather, I found a humorous and pathetic grab-all story recounting that local religious authorities were decrying the Dalai Lama (who’s won the Nobel Peace Prize), that Tibet’s 1957 military invasion was “peaceful,” and for good measure, that “mobs” stoned a Han Chinese girl’s head without provocation.  (The Han are eastern China’s ethnic majority.)

Although China Daily never likes airing China’s own dirty laundry, it always enjoys having a good laugh at the United States — a country where protests against the government usually do not result in death.  Some people actually take pride in the fact that this is a country where protesting is legal: a point that seems lost on the site’s editors.  Thus, photos of Iraq war protesters are often prominently displayed on the front page, including today.  This is pretty typical for the website, but what I found truly bizarre is that the CD has created a special slideshow about Eliot Spitzer.  For fans of the absurd, this is not to be missed.  What sounds like plaintive Chinese pop music starts up soon into the slides.  As the captions peter out, it appears that the editors are simply running out the clock so that they can finish the song.  I have asked for a translation.

Also good for a laugh is the commentary, Property boom is here to stay.  After the ritualistic paean to Beijing’s “beaming vitality” and the amusingly gushing reference to “millions of skyscrapers being erected” (do the math — even in China, it can’t be millions), the author gets down to business.  “Are these sprouting buildings constructed on speculated ground, as property prices have been surging at a pace faster than the average growth in incomes?”  The answer is, of course not.  Do I even need to spell out the irony here?  And tragically, the author has failed to learn his microecon 101, confusingly calling the government to impose “price controls to make housing affordable for everyone” (but China must not “resort to administrative means to rein in housing prices”) while at the same time “subsidizing buyers with cash reimbursement” and cutting deals with developers to cap initial sale prices.  Huh?  Even Paul Krugman could not get behind this weird a plan, but “the authorities seem to have acknowledged this approach.”  And despite the opening reference to China’s glittering array of wealth, the column contains the rare admission that it is “a society where the majority of people cannot afford housing.”

As the Olympics near, we are going to hear more and more about how China is doing for itself.  The record continues to be one of shame.  And I remind people that it was just 2001 that China’s military captured and interrogated several U.S. airmen after one of their inept pilots caused a mid-air collision.  They are not our friends.  In the 1980’s, America was obsessed with the prospect of having to surrender our economy to the Japanese, and that was a country we actually got along with.  It is a long road from the China of 2008 to the Japan of 1980.

The embarrassment of state-run gambling

It’s not often that I get to say this, but I was right and I have proof.

If you have been reading my site forever, you’ll remember that I wrote about Jack Whittaker, the man who won a $314.9 million Christmas Powerball jackpot, back on December 29, 2002.  In that posting, I argued that the lottery was bad for the people of West Virginia, who are among the poorest in the nation, because it lures them into wasting money on a prize they have no realistic hope of winning.  I still believe that huge jackpots like Whittaker’s are dangerous, because they give hope to those susceptible to playing the lottery, and the lottery almost never pays off.

Unfortunately, what happened to Whittaker shows that the payoff isn’t always something you’d want.  Whittaker himself has suffered greatly from the burden of winning all that money, according to a recent AP news story and other reports.

According to the Lincoln Journal Star, July 27, 2007, “his granddaughter died of a drug overdose; he was sued for bouncing checks at Atlantic City, N.J., casinos; he was ordered to undergo rehab after being arrested on drunken driving charges; … and he settled a lawsuit filed by the father of an 18-year-old boy, a friend of his granddaughter’s, who was found dead of an overdose in Whittaker’s house.”  The New York Times reported in 2003 that “[m]ore than $500,000 was stolen from a sport utility vehicle that [Whittaker] parked at a strip club,” although the money was recovered.  But Whittaker didn’t learn his lesson, according to another Times report in 2004, because his truck was robbed again of $100,000.

A lengthy September 2007 AP story, part of which appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, tells the most human part of the tragedy.  “His wife left him and his drug-addicted granddaughter — his protege and heir — died.  He endured constant requests for money.  Almost five years later, Whittaker is left with things money can’t cure: His daughter’s cancer, a long list of indiscretions documented in newspapers and court records, and an inability to trust others.”  He still works, starting the day at 5am, but the story reports on Whittaker’s struggles with “drinking, gambling and philandering,” and by his own account, he has been “involved in 460 legal actions since winning” (some baseless, brought by people who figured he could afford to pay out).  The saddest part has to be that he had hoped his granddaughter would inherit his businesses and fortune, and had structured everything to go to her when she turned 21.  But a year after Whittaker won the lottery, the 15-year-old granddaughter was in Oxycontin rehab, and she died just 17 years old with cocaine and methadone in her system and a syringe and pills in her bra.  According to the article, “Her body was found two weeks later wrapped in a sheet and plastic tarp, hidden in a yard by a boyfriend who panicked when he found her dead.”

Come on, people. Lotteries are bad news.  They hurt those who can afford to waste money the least.  (Interestingly, by all accounts Whittaker was a millionare when he won, owning his own pipeline construction company, so he should have been better suited than most to handle the sudden wealth.)  Most people lose every dollar they bet, or win only token amounts.  No one should play lotteries, and no democratic state should be in the business of profiting off these gambling rackets.  Whittaker’s sad story is just one example why.

Some of my favorite things: debauchery, sterility, and Utahns

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed riling up my friends on the left, Marcus Banks and Venezuelan Army Maj. Marty Stroodler, over the issue of D.C. voting rights.  To Justme, I would retort that holding a sign reading “Will Make Political Commentary for Money,” and actually eating because of it, is a wonderful dream.

Washington, D.C., which the Supreme Court relegated to mere and literal footnote status last week, is clearly a banana republic that should be squelched until it learns its lesson.

Well, I’m kidding somewhat.  In all this debate, I have been disappointed that no one took up for Washington as a normal American city.  When I criticized the city for having no industry to speak of, I was sure I would hear “XM Radio!”  (In truth, I just tried to think of another employer to include here that wasn’t 1) out on I-66 or I-270, 2) government, 3) quasi-government, 4) education, or 5) food, and I couldn’t do it.  Sorry, Lady Columbia.)  The city does have parks, rivers, boats, schools, etc.  It deserves dignity as a regular place to grow up in, that just happens to have the capital.  Tragically, its transient residential status caused the thousands of readers and commenters of our web logs collectively to bypass this aspect of Washington life.

Retrocession,” or as I call it, “digestion by Maryland,” would degrade this unique character.  I oppose it.  Those who say it would free Washington of certain burdens, such as having to run a DMV, miss the point.  This would strip Washington of its dignity as a special city.  Further, it is impossible.  The point of creating a “non-residential ‘federal quarter’” is to solve the voting problem by putting its population into a jurisdiction that has Congressional votes (Maryland) while leaving the part of the city that belongs to all America under federal control.  The problem is that such a zone, at the minimum, would have to be a triangle containing the Jefferson Memorial, the White House, and the Supreme Court, and there are a lot of people living within that triangle.  Either there would have to be forced evacuations for the purpose of creating a sterile zone, or those people would have to be left out of the plan to give voting rights to all citizens.  Moreover, a sterile non-residential zone goes against principles of good city planning (Jacobs) and further debauches a grand old lady.

It seems unlikely that Washington will ever have the population to support two representatives.  The city is atrophying and has lost about 40% of its population in the last fifty years; at the same time, the number of people supporting a single House seat grows ever higher.  In 2010, the number of people needed for a State to claim two seats will exceed one million — five hundred thousand more than Washington has.  Washington’s House delegation, if awarded proportionally to the other States, would never exceed one.

Senate representation is a great question.  Logically, if the basis for granting a House seat is that people deserve an equal voice in Congress, then there is no reason not to grant a “full” two seats’ Senate representation.  Otherwise, we’ll still have the “second-class status” argument hanging out there.  (It was amusing to see Stroodler willing to bargain down to a single seat.  Washington been down so long, it don’t know what up is.)  But while the great constitutional compromise between the large and small States was to create two bodies, the House for the people and the Senate for the States, it does not justify granting Washington two Senate seats for the simple reason that Washington is not a State.  (And we all agreed to leave at least part of Washington a “local government” rather than a State.)

I also find it interesting that in all this, nobody advanced the legal argument that the “District Clause” of the Constitution, art. I, cl. 17 (go here and search for “District”; also read interesting annotations), which provides that the Congress has broad powers to control affairs relating to the District, gives Congress the power to add a seat without a constitutional amendment.  But I think this is a bad argument; it’s clear that the clause provides the power to control land use, building restrictions, police authority, and those kinds of things; it doesn’t let Congress restructure the Congress by changing its membership.  I think it’s sad that some, including the Utahns colluding with the Democrats to add the seat, want to justify the change on this weak ground, rather than embarking on the lengthy moral crusade of amendment.  By granting D.C. electoral votes, the American people have already demonstrated that if the cause is just, they will amend the Constitution even at the expense of their own interests.  That is the surest route to solving this problem, whatever the solution may be.

The unbearable unnaturalness of being

The organization DC Vote has put up a documentary movie on its web site called “Un-Natural State.”  It’s worth the eight minutes.  (You can also get a teacher’s worksheet because the video apparently complies with Washington ninth grade history and government class standards.)

If you watch this video, you’re going to learn two shocking things.

First, that DC Vote thinks we should rewrite our Constitution so our government can be more like Venezuela’s.

Secondly, that there is a guy who is the United States Senator for the District.  I think it is so cute that Washington has a Senator!  And, he’s a white former New Yorker!

If you do watch it, let me know what you think.  The best part is when 35 seconds in, the narrator asks, “Are things really as they seem?”  It’s quite ominous; the shot of birds flying over the head is pure Hitchcock.

Congressional skullduggery

I’ve been watching the battle over giving Washington, D.C. representation in the United States House of Representatives with some amusement.  If you don’t know about this, and you like political arcana, catch up.

As you might know, D.C. license plates proclaim it’s the land of “Taxation Without Representation.”  (That’s a great automotive statement easily surpassing New York City’s “Don’t Even Think of Parking Here” signs.)  People in Washington think they’re being cheated out of having a Congressman and two Senators, even though they’re free to move to a real State at any time.  They do have a non-voting representative, whose sole job seems to be House jester.

People in Utah also feel cheated out of a House seat, too, and they’ve been feeling that way ever since the 2000 census.  Why?  Because Utah, which has only three representatives, missed the cutoff for a fourth seat by about eight hundred people.  They claimed that the Census failed to count Mormon missionaries who were out of the country at the time; they also took issue with a statistical method the Census uses.  This bothered them enough to take their case to the Supreme Court, where they lost.  (North Carolina has the seat Utah wanted.)  This part of the story seems to be missing from the current coverage, and it explains why the Beehive State’s so into this idea.

Fast forward to today.  Somebody in Washington (or maybe it was Utah — I’m not sure) got the admittedly savvy idea that if we added one seat for D.C., which would probably go Democrat, we could add one seat for Utah, which would probably go Republican, and keep the balance we have.  Everybody wins — Utah’s pacified and Washington’s seat is still as worthless as it is today since it’ll always get canceled out!  What a great compromise.  (Never mind that it is unconstitutional to add seats for D.C. — more on that later.)

I read in the Post, however, that yesterday House Republicans attached an amendment to this bill.  Now, if the bill passes, the amendment repeals D.C.’s very strict gun laws.  This is an even more savvy political move than the original idea, in my view.  If liberal Democrats vote for it, hoping to give D.C. its representation, they repeal its gun control laws.  Some liberals will now vote against the bill because they’d rather keep the gun control.  Realizing this, the Democratic leadership stalled the bill.  Now Republicans can say they refused to support the constitutional right to arms.

All this manuevering puts me in the mind of my law review article (which I certainly hope can be described as “forthcoming” someday).  I wrote on legislative silliness, and one case in point was LBJ’s 1956 manuevering to get senators from the Pacific Northwest to support an amendment that weakened the civil rights bill so that the South would accept the bill.  In exchange for that support, he promised the Northwest his support for a series of federal dams — which actually passed the Senate.  The cunning part of this plan was, Johnson’s dam support was worthless because the House never passed the dam bill.  The President would probably have vetoed it anyway.  It cost nothing to keep his end of the deal, and in exchange, the Northwest gave LBJ his greatest legislative victory.

Republicans have the opportunity to pull the same trick here.  Suppose the combined D.C. voting and gun-rights actually passes.  It will immediately be challenged by some Republican somewhere, and one of two things will happen.  One possibility is the courts will strike down the part of the bill giving D.C. the vote, because D.C.’s not a State and the Constitution gives representation only to States; Utah, however, will probably keep its representative because Congress can change the number of seats at any time.  The other possibility is the whole voting part of the bill will go out the window, leaving the gun control repeal on the books.  Either way, Republicans win.

I can’t believe Democrats are falling into this trap, except that they are giddy with the intoxication of their big November wins.

The most interesting part of this is why it’s such a big deal for Utah right now.  There is another census coming up in three years.  At that point, the whole Congressional deck is reshuffled.  It would be impossible to predict at this time which State will be in Utah’s position — being the very next in line for a seat, if only the House had room for one more.  The thing is, though, there will always be that one State that just didn’t make it.  And because of the way the math works, it’s essentially random (but it is always most likely to be California).  All this work now, just to get a short-term gain that Utah, with its high growth rate, will almost certainly have outright after 2010 anyway, seems a little late.  Where was this idea in 2000?

…and who NOT to vote for!

Every year, it falls to me to grouse and complain about the abuse of the public trust practiced by certain local candidates who seem to think they own the whole damn road.  I’m not talking about the driving, I’m talking about their signs in the public right-of-way.

This year on May 23rd, I wrote to City Attorney Richard Pfeiffer to complain about violations of the Columbus City Code.  The relevant section of code is 902.02 (a).

902.02 Obstructing sidewalks or streets.
(a) No person, regardless of intent, shall place, deposit, maintain, or use, or cause or permit to be placed, deposited, maintained, or used upon any street, alley, sidewalk, highway, or right-of-way any materials, containers, vending equipment, structures, appliances, furniture, merchandise, bench, stand, sign, or advertising of any kind, or any other similar device or obstruction except as authorized by the transportation administrator, as required by Chapter 903 of the Columbus City Code.

I did get a very nice and considerate voice mail, along with a suggestion to forward my letter to Public Safety Directory Henry Guzman, but neither of these guys has completely solved the problem.

I don’t drive very often, but I did happen to drive down Olentangy to dinner tonight and in a half-mile stretch, I saw signs from five different candidates!  The offenders cluttering the public landscape were:

  • Phill Harmon, unendorsed Republican
  • Mary Jo Hudson, endorsed Democrat
  • Jay Perez, endorsed Democrat
  • Mike Rankin, endorsed Democrat
  • Amy Salerno, endorsed Republican (Ms. Salerno is the winner of this tacky contest, having staked out seven signs on every corner of the intersection of Goodale and Olentangy River Road)

These signs collect all month, blowing all over the street, and then no one takes them down after the election.  Public land belongs to everyone, and is not to be used to one candidate’s personal benefit.  And may I remind my readers of the irony here, three of the above candidates openly violating city law and the public trust are running for judge?

Party and qualifications be damned.  If you put up a sign on public property, you lose my vote.  Let’s have a little dignity and respect for the process.

Why you should vote YES…

Reading the editorial page of the Columbus Dispatch is like being in an abusive relationship.  Just when you think you’re safe, you wake up, and out of nowhere you get brained.  Unfortunately, unlike a battered wife, I really have to admit that it’s all my fault and I don’t know why I keep going back to him.

This Sunday the Dispatch opposed Reform Ohio Now’s issues 2 through 5.  With all the thoughtful writing they’ve done on local city issues and on abuses of power, plus with the series of articles we’ve seen on Ohio’s lopsidedly gerrymandered legislative districts, I was sure they would back at least some of the issues.  Unfortunately, I’ll have to be lying to my friends that “I fell down the stairs,” because this hurt and I sure didn’t see it coming.

I was not whole-heartedly behind each issue.  In very brief, the issues are:

  • 2: absentee voting in advance
  • 3: campaign contribution limits
  • 4: end party-based gerrymandering of districts
  • 5: pass statewide control of elections to a board rather than the Secretary of State

I have been leaning toward opposing 2 and 3 and supporting 4 and 5.

Issue 2 allows people to vote up to 35 days before the date of the actual election.  I think this is a terrible idea.  While the idea of absentee voting seems nice, a lot can happen in the five weeks before an election.  As we allow voting farther and farther ahead, people are more likely to miss defining events on the campaign trail, and once your vote is cast, it can’t be changed.  Consider what happened last year in the 26th District where I lived: the Democratic primary was won by Mike Mitchell, who defeated his opponent by only 173 votes.  But (according to the paper on March 9, 2004) Mitchell had gotten a DUI citation just two days before the election.  He was also charged with going 70 in a 55 and driving on a suspended license.  (Unfortunately, this didn’t hit the news until it was too late.)  If people had known about this before they voted, I think he would have lost the election.  Early voting costs you the chance to make important last-minute decisions.

Issue 3 is campaign contribution limits; I honestly don’t have a strong position here and I don’t want to talk about it.  I think they are a mistake.

Issue 4, however, is the real jewel of this year’s reform package.  Under issue 4, anyone could submit a plan for the state’s legislative districts, and that plan would be scored for its political competitiveness.  The formula — which is insanely complicated (go read it) — gives higher points if a district is more evenly balanced between the two parties.  The highest overall point-getting plan generally wins and is chosen by an impartial board.  It’s more complicated than that, but it would end the system where last year Democrats won their Ohio House seats by an average of some 60 percent and Republicans by some 40 percent.  Gerrymandering used to be more of an art, but in the last go-round, computer mapping technology had advanced so much that these crazy unwinnable districts have been much easier to draw.  (I know, because I write mapping software.)

The gerrymandering in our state is really costing us, because the people who get elected just have to win their party primary, not appeal to a broad electorate.  In the case of the 26th District, by the way, Mike Mitchell went on to run unopposed in the general election, and he won.  (The Dispatch said that the “solution would be worse than the problem” and that “Democrats’ weak challenges to GOP officeholders have played a role in this problem.”  But it cuts both ways when Republicans don’t field any candidate at all.)

Issue 5 would take election oversight duties away from the Secretary of State and give them to a board of election officials.  Although a board might be less responsive, I think it would be a worthwhile step.  In Ohio in 2004, as in Florida in 2000, the Secretary of State was at the center of a heated, disputatious election, and the Secretary of State was also the chairman of the Bush campaign.  It presented a ridiculous conflict of interest.  I understand Florida has already stripped their SOS of election duties, by the way.

I think the Dispatch does have a good point to make about the complexity and specificity of the laws, saying that “they seek to write highly detailed, prescriptive language and untested policy into the Ohio Constitution.  Once there, fixing any deficiencies would require another statewide vote.”  While this is true, I am not exactly holding my breath for either party to voluntarily level the playing field.  Also, while issues 2 and 3 generally deal with regulation of elections and are probably better suited to being acts of the legislature, issues 4 and 5 are structural in nature and therefore do belong in our state’s constitution.  As an alternative, the broad outlines of issue 4’s formula might have been put into the constitution, along with the requirement of a more detailed enabling act to be passed by the legislature, so that the variables could be tinkered with, but I’m not comfortable with anything coming out of the Statehouse these days.

Our electoral system is fundamental to our functioning democracy.  Vote yes on issues 4 and 5!

Look out

The pain from the recent spate of court-related killings won’t be able to heal until some gun nut informs the country that if everyone could carry a firearm inside a courthouse, we wouldn’t have as many crazed defendants grabbing guns and shooting judges.  I do hope this brave truth-teller speaks out soon, because it is high time for there to be more loaded weapons around criminals.  After all, if guns were illegal, then only criminals would be able to shoot innocent court reporters in cold blood.

Recent events and COTA observations

In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been over the last several months, I’m still here.  Moving downtown has had the effect of joining the witness protection program.  Add to that the fact that I now have a new Rival brand Crock-Pot Slow Cooker and I couldn’t be more home-bound.  So here’s an update from Bill.

I got a parking ticket last week from the good folks at the City of Columbus Parking Violations Bureau. I realize I’m ruining any future political aspirations by admitting this in such a public forum, but I have to explain how it happened.  The short version of this story is, the meters on the new 670 cap are enforced from 7am until 10pm on Saturdays, except for the fact that they’re not enforced from 4pm to 6pm.  (Logical for a day that doesn’t have a rush hour, isn’t it?) Anyway, I tried to get out of it because I didn’t bother to read the sticker carefully and because the meters just a hundred feet away shut off at six, but it didn’t work and they sent me a nice all-caps letter telling me to pay up.  Oh well — it was my mistake.  Anyway, gentle reader, be careful parking on that bridge.

I have to give a shout out to the good people at the Mozilla Organization.  I got their new Firefox browser and it is really good.  In fact, it is the first web browser since Netscape 2.0 I’ve liked better than Internet Explorer.  It’s based on the old Netscape code, in fact, so it’s nice to come full circle.  They’re pitching it as a good alternative to the security nightmare that is Internet Explorer.  Even if you don’t worry about that, though, it’s really fast, and it has tabbed browsing, great keyboard shortcuts, and this wicked cool orange fire logo.  Best of all, Windows SP2 makes it pretty seamless to replace IE with Firefox.  So, click this button, and if you like it, then, all right.
Get Firefox!

I feel compelled to discuss the recent dust-up in the papers about COTA and its last-ditch attempt to save its light rail dreams.  This week, MORPC agreed to help COTA borrow $4 million for an environmental study on the line.  At the same time, the Federal Transit Administration reminded us that its support for the COTA rail plan came with an expiration date, and the support ends soon because COTA never came up with the local matching funds to build the line.

COTA is therefore taking one step forward and one step back.  Some of my friends, and some letter writers in the Dispatch, have suggested that we need to get this sales tax moving so that we can regain federal approval.  Faithful friends and readers of mine will know nobody likes the idea of urban rail transport — or anything that supplements the highway in our cities — more than I do.  But as I’ve been saying for years, COTA’s been so mismanaged that I just can’t support a tax increase until it cleans up its act.  Firing the censured manager Ron Barnes was a great first step, but the agency has a lot more to do to rebuild the public confidence.  How about starting with firing drivers who run red lights?  And fixing the signs that still don’t make sense?  How about a web site that works?  When COTA takes basic steps such as these and improves its existing operations, I’ll be able to push for the tax increase.  Until then, I vote no.

And finally, on a related issue, I believe it’s a mistake for COTA to depend on the sales tax to raise its revenues.  Because a light rail system is a fixed, physical infrastructure improvement, and it does primarily benefit those landowners in the region of the corridor, the economically optimal funding source would be a property tax — say on those landowners within two miles of the route plus all of Downtown.  This undercuts some of the legitimate argument of those who say they would never use the system and shouldn’t have to pay for it.  (However, any decreases in air pollution would benefit the region as a whole, so there should be some way to recover that benefit through a more broad-based tax.)  The other main argument I have with a sales tax is that it is regressive, which means the poor spend the largest share of their income meeting the burden of the tax, and the irony of that is that better transit service benefits the poor more than anyone else.  The sales tax giveth away and taketh back.

The last COTA levy, which was countywide, predictably had its greatest support along the North High Street corridor and lowest support in the low-density south.  The tax increase could have passed comfortably in certain quarters of the city.  COTA should explore a funding mechanism, some kind of special district, that would put the cost on those who would use the service and who demonstrably wanted it the most.

Election night update 2

Chris Matthews: Congressman Bob Barr, let’s talk about Republicans in these toss-up races, how is it that Republicans are picking up these seats so well these days?

Bob Barr (R-GA): Well, I think the big news is Republicans are starting to pay attention to the local politics in the area and I want to say something that Tip O’Neill once said, and he didn’t say it as a Democrat, he said it as a political leader and that is all politics is local and the Republicans are learning to pay attention to what is going on locally.

Matthews: Congressman, let’s try it with one word.

Barr: Local.

Election night update

You just missed it on CNN: George McGovern telling Alan Simpson that since Mondale and Lautenberg are back, maybe THEY should also run for office again.  And Simpson goes, “Hey, we’re tanned and toned, ready to go!”

Independence Day

July 4th has come and gone. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. As always, different people celebrate it in different ways: my brother celebrated it with foreigners in a basement club in Sydney, my friend Amy near the wildfire zones of Colorado anguished that there would be no fireworks, and the rest of my family, of course, did absolutely nothing. (At least, if they did, I wasn’t invited.)

For my part, I spent July 3rd (the traditional fireworks date in Columbus) right where I want to be, sitting on the curb on Broad Street by Veteran’s Memorial. As I explained to my odd band of co-celebrators, the lights twinkle and reflect in the glass of the Huntington building across the river. In years past, the police strung up sawhorses and depended on the good order of citizens not to go onto the bridge, since it could be dangerous to stand there. This year, there were chain link fences holding us back and a rumor that the bomb squad would have to sweep the bridge before we could cross it.

So, times have changed, and I find myself uncomfortably in a sober minority of people who take our new reality very seriously. In the last year, I’ve heard many people make tasteless jokes about terrorism, which I just can’t laugh at — because it’s real. I guess, as at funerals and in war, people have to break the tension in one way or another, but some things hit too close to home to say. I call for dignity.

I hope you enjoyed your holiday. The rest of the weekend stretches out ahead…