Sunday, November 24, 2013

Political Discourse: Labels Are Convenient but Dangerous

Recent discussions on our radio show have reminded me (1) of the importance of saying why I disagree with someone, without rejecting the speaker; (2) that labels are counterproductive; and (3) that economic arguments based on pure capitalism or pure socialism are unrealistic.

One can strongly disagree with someone’s ideas yet feel warmth and friendship toward that person. Two lawyers opposing each other vigorously in court can fly home on the same plane chatting in a collegial way. I always competed vigorously in sports, diving on the floor to retrieve a basketball or banging into walls on the squash court, then shared a joke or a serious conversation with an opponent the moment the whistle blew or the game ended.

Labels – Democrat, Republican, progressive, reactionary, Tea Partier, socialist – are as convenient but dangerous as fast foods. They hinder serious discussion. By labeling, we place someone in a box that might not quite fit, and duck out on a serious conversation in which we examine the experiences and assumptions that have created our unique views. Meanwhile, extreme views called “left” and “right” often find themselves allied: NAFTA: some current education issues; and marijuana legalization have created that sort of alliance.

I'm also struck by the frequency with which people's arguments begin and end with a statement about the superiority of capitalism and free enterprise to socialism or communism – or vice versa.

Fact is, neither exists in anything like its pure form.

Socialism or Communism is in many ways a fine concept: share as equally as possible, minimize private property and economic inequities, and work for the common good. Problem is, it doesn't seem to work. Never has, for any length of time, except maybe in the Indian province of Kerala. Either informal non-Communist black marketeers and corrupt officials take over; or the Communist society recognizes, as China has done at times, that it needs to stir a little more free enterprise into the mix while retaining focus on the common good.

Capitalism is in some ways an ugly concept. Followed strictly, it makes of all our neighbors tools we can use to improve our economic position. We seek to maximize profit, and don't much care if that ultimately destroys our workers, our customers, our suppliers, or our water, land, and air. The single real obligation of those running a big corporation is to maximize shareholders' profits.

Capitalism too doesn't work in the real world. Pretty much all capitalist countries find it prudent and to develop systems to keep retired folks alive and healthy, feed the poor, limit anti-competitive mergers and price-fixing, regulate companies to keep some vestige of purity in our food and drugs, and regulate them some more to protect our environment. We can argue about how to do that, and how much to do it; but you can't name a purely capitalist country. Not even this one.

So let's abandon those labels too.

There's a lot wrong in our country and our world; but brandishing labels like weapons doesn't help identify the problems, let alone help us solve them.

I should add that I share some of the anger I hear in the voices of Tea Party members I talk to. It just seems aimed in the wrong direction.

All politicians are dishonest. The only difference is that for some dishonesty has become a way of life, while others still try to perform their jobs and follow their oaths of office as much as possible. Tea Partiers and I share that view, although we might differ if we started trying to name the politicians who are relatively honest.

But the real enemies are our lust for extreme wealth and the international corporations. Unlike the government – which has some inefficient departments and some corrupt and/or lazy office-holders – corporations’ avowed purpose is to maximize profit, and to free themselves from regulations that could limit profits. Sure, some regulations are stupid; but others form a web of protection we depend on.

The small government ideal would be great if we were still a small, mostly agrarian society with a huge empty frontier. If I traded the eggs my chickens laid for the boots you made, either of us would know whom to confront if the eggs were bad or the shoes fell apart in a month. Each of us could take effective measures against the other if necessary.

Not so when your meat passes through dozens of hands, and the growers, butchers, transporters, grocers, and others are seeking to maximize profit. Some cut corners. Who's to protect us from anticompetitive activities, drugs that are ineffective or even dangerous, impure food, and the like – and who but the federal government can protect our environment? Yeah, government's big; but much of what is does is stuff we need done. By someone working for us, not for a corporation’s profit.

[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, 24 NovemberThe radio show is "Speak Up, Las Cruces," which Keith Whelpley and I have been co-hosting at 8-10 a.m. weekdays on KOBE-AM 1450 for nearly three full months.  It's been interesting.  It's a rare chance to try to get community dialogue going on all sorts of issues, and to talk more directly than usual with people who hold widely-varied points of view.  That naturally focuses our minds on how to articulate our views, how to listen to others, and how to identify patches of common ground here and there.]


Sunday, November 10, 2013

City Voters and County Commissioners Made Some Key Decisions This Week

It's been an interesting week.

Just this week, voters (though too damned few of 'em!) selected half the City Council and County Commissioners selected a new city manager.

We made the better choice in two of the three districts: incumbents Gill Sorg and Olga Pedroza are heads and shoulders above Dave Roewe (too irascible and somewhat dismissive of the water crisis) and Bev Courtney (sweet-natured but admittedly clueless about water and in need of a lot of cramming on other issues). The water crisis is potentially devastating, and people seeking to help deal with it had better know more about it than Dave, Bev, or I.

In District 6, Mark Cobb had a stronger financial background, a more sophisticated knowledge of business, and more middle-of-the road views than Ceil Levatino.

I think Ms. Levatino was not entirely candid about all her views – or perhaps just not very responsive. (She seems smart, but too likely a rubber-stamp for developers and realtors. We'll see.)

She won for several reasons: reapportionment helped; the recent GRT increase isn't too popular, and she hammered on that issue, particularly in extensive last-minute advertising. We don't yet know who paid for that, but the ads were reasonably well-done but pretty misleading.

One ad included the reproachful phrase “Without a vote of the people” as if the City Council had denied the people a vote. I think some councilors would have preferred a popular vote; but the State had forbade it. Thus the ad, while literally true, clearly implied something that wasn't. Another spoke of the recent County vote on several tax issues, then switched to the GRT as if the votes were on the same subject. They weren't. The county vote involved several issues, and I think the voters actually approved one; but the city did not impose a tax the county voters had rejected.

Further, it appears that her ads ”misspoke” (perhaps grossly so) regarding the amount of money the city would net through the GRT hike.

It'll be interesting to see who paid for all the ads; but Ms. Levatino won, and we should all wish her well – and be grateful to Mr. Cobb for his efforts.

My instinct (helped out by some sources) is that the County's choice of attorney Julia Brown was sensible: she's an outsider whom employees and others in the know won't associate with some of the bad conduct that's gone on at 845 North Motel Boulevard; and as an attorney she can independently assess what she gets told by the County's in-house counsel. It appears that the County Attorney has had too much say in running the county, and has not always conducted himself as he ought to have done. To varying degrees, commissioners know that; but the county manager was their only direct-report employee. Because they aren't lawyers, they had to give a lot of deference to their lawyers, even when they had reason to doubt they were getting the best and most disinterested advice.

I don't know Ms. Brown, but I hope we just turned a corner in the right direction. Sadly, though, we're financially crippled by the Slevin judgment. I still think that case could have and should have been settled, but I wasn't in position to make the decision, so I hesitate to be too critical on that score.

I can speak more freely about the Granados case. It's one of a half-dozen in which former employes allege, generally, discrimination, wrongful termination, and/or retaliation. It could have been settled fairly cheaply at various points. The result (a jury verdict wholly against the County – by jurors who'd probably have voted to put Sue Padilla in the stocks if they could have, judging from my post-trial conversations with a view of them) was reasonably foreseeable. It should not have been as big a surprise as it seemed to be to some on the county's side. But it wasn't settled, perhaps because it would embarrass Ms. Padilla, as it has now done. County could have paid a modest settlement, and not gotten hit with a quarter-million dollar judgment and six-figure attorney fees for Plaintiff's attorneys. I know a fair amount about that case, though not confidential information, and I thought and said before trial that it should be settled. Now it's on appeal – which seems most likely to inflate two sets of attorneys' fees and end with the County paying those, plus the judgment. But we'll see – unless, perhaps, Ms. Brown takes a close and sensible look at the thing and the County, not its insurers, gets to decide. I do know this: of the several cases related to the Granados case, the Granados case was not the most promising – and I'm doubting that even now, having been slapped up the side of their heads by the jurors, the County and insurers see the other cases clearly.

                                                - 30 -
[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 10 November in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

[Further notes? 
Worry about Ceil Levatino eventually trying to pull here what rabid anti-abortion folks did in Albuquerque, wasting a bunch of time, turmoil, and eventually money trying to forbid or restrict abortion here.  Doubt voters here would approve such a move, but if we get a few more councilors who feel as she does (though she seemed to kind of soft-pedal her more controversial views during the election, we could see some effort of that sort.
Wonder about whether the facts regarding Sue Padilla's "resignation" will surface publically -- but, with radio shows to do and lawsuits to fight, doubt I'm likely to investigate further.]  

By the way, if you live in Las Cruces, in the unlikely event that you're listening to radio Monday morning, we're replaying two of our favorite shows from the two months so far of "Speak Up, Las Cruces!" on KOBE-AM 1450.  At 8 a.m., we're replaying the discussion we had with Bob Garza of growing up in Las Cruces, returning here to work for the City of Las Cruces, and eventually becoming City Manager.  At 9 a.m. we're replaying our conversation with Lou Henson, who took both the NMSU Aggies and the University of Illinois to the Final Four.
The high point of the Garza interview for me was an anecdote about a tree.  (If you plan to listen, don't read this paragraph.)  He was a kid when they closed Main Street and put in the Downtown Mall.  Soon afterward, as kids do, he felt mischievous and was batting the leaves on one of the little trees they'd put in.  A shopkeeper came out and gave him a dressing-down he wouldn't soon forget. Many years later, when they were on the point of re-opening Main Street they had to destroy a full-grown and very beautiful Arizona Ash.  They tried everything they could to avoid doing so, but couldn't find a viable alternative.  It was, of course, the same tree.  He says he had a last moment with his tree before they took it down.
A high point of the Henson talk was, of course, just seeing him again.  I knew him slightly forty years ago, but not well enough to recognize the joy in him.  For listeners, a high point should be not his highly-publicized later success at NMSU and Illinois, but his job interview at Hardin-Simmons, in Abilene Texas.  It was 1962, I think.  He was 30, and had coached six years at Las Cruces High.  He was good, but unknown.   The President or Athletic Director at Hardin-Simmons said they wanted to hire him.  He replied that he'd like to coach there, but only if they integrated the team and the school.  A day or so later, they said they would.   That, plus his account of recruiting blacks in Mississippi during a sometimes violent period in the Civil Rights Movement, might be of particular interest to listeners.  Of course, we also discussed a lot of NMSU players from the old days.