Gaming the system

Each of us are born into The System, a social organization of rules and conventions developed and deployed by our fore bearers. Having been progressively adopted in the past, The System is always obsolete and in need of tinkering; the assumptions upon which The System was developed never quite match currently existing conditions, and impel society relentlessly forward in an attempt to catch up.

Because human organizations always reflect political imperatives, the rules and conventions of The System tend to favor particular groups or interests over others. And in our particular American system of social organization, the influence of moneyed interests historically has dominated all others. Lobbying of lawmakers, both locally and nationally, combined with campaign finance assistance, manipulates legislative will to its intended goal.

To counter such manipulation, competing groups and interests seek to “Game The System.” In order to overcome disadvantages they suffer or fear to suffer, they hire experts and consultants, lawyers and technical experts, who ferret out hidden opportunities in the language of laws allowing them to circumvent and avoid the rules of The System. This is the strategy of the business world, the public at large and even government itself. In other words, The System is about gaming The System.

In simplest terms, we create laws and then spend our time figuring out how to get around them. This is true of tax laws, where an army of finance professionals is poised to take advantage of every tax loophole, ambiguity, and opportunity. This is also true of land-use laws, as an equally impressive army of environmental consultants, traffic and soil engineers, architects and attorneys are regularly arrayed to find ways not to comply with the rules as written. At its extreme, gaming The System relies on courts and judges to sort out disputes and to clarify to what extent The System may or may not be gamed.

We expect government to assert the welfare of the citizens, not its own self interest as an institution, but are often disappointed; money has corrupted the decision-making of government. The continuous growth of the cost of government inclines it towards decisions favorable to the production of revenue – taxes, fees, and assessments – often associated with increased business activity. In this way, the citizen’s interests are frequently subordinated by government to the interests of business. The controversy surrounding federal rules governing the local deployment of 5G high-wave-frequency technology is a good example.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was created to protect the public from foreseeable harm to the environment. Accordingly, a process exists to identify projects that should be evaluated through CEQA to determine any and all significant negative impacts. Courts have held that even a possibility of significant impacts should trigger environmental review, yet too often, government sides with project applicants in ways intended to avoid CEQA. Improper granting of exemptions, inadequate environmental studies, and poor selection of consultants are just some of the means government uses to game its own rules, to game The System. Such behavior makes even the cynical blush.

An additional element of gaming The System includes attempted intimidation of lawmakers through rumor, innuendo, hit pieces and social media, but that’s politics in the 21st century. Yet, good old-fashioned cronyism, naked appeals to sentimentality and nostalgia still own their place

A border crisis?

Given what’s going on in the world, to simply classify people trying to cross our border as “migrants” or “illegal immigrants” is inaccurate. The reality is that many people, often entire families, are more properly refugees, desperately seeking to escape depredations of crime — victimization, extortion, kidnapping — climate change, and tyranny. It’s not just warfare that generates refugees; as social structures collapse, the vulnerable have little choice but escape.

Is America facing a border crisis? At the moment, yes. More properly, it is a crisis of of our own making, however, and our on-going policy response is making matters worse. As the United States places economic and political pressure on the governments and people of countries such  as Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela, the number of refugees keeps growing. The U.S. has embarked on yet another episode of treating the poor people of Central and South America as mere pawns, ignoring their plight, poverty, and powerlessness. And now, to make matters worse, refugees from those blighted countries are being denied asylum and proper humanitarian assistance.

When the events of this period of history are examined, they will record blatant cruelty and heartlessness on the part of the American government. A policy of separating children from parents will produce generations of human trauma and emotional costs. Crowding people into under-staffed and poorly equipped internment camps for interminable periods of time creates a breeding ground for resentment and crime.

Patterns of refugee movement are a global phenomenon. As the climate warms and agriculture fails vast numbers of people must relocate or perish. Where constant flooding happens, people have no choice but to move to higher ground. Though we traditionally associate the concept of refugees with warfare, that association needs to broaden to include climate and social collapse. The reality of our globalized predicaments require globalized solutions. The border problem we face is humanitarian, and our response to it will dictate the judgement of history.

The United States is not immune to global forces and our current policies are exacerbating an already terrible situation. To provide relief — housing, food and proper health care — to refugees at our border will cost far less than billions for a wall or bloated military budgets. Even one-million refugees represent only three-one-thousandths of a percent of U.S. population increase. One wonders what is really at play here since it’s obvious neither money nor population are the problem. The unfortunate answer is our history and promulgation of racism and bigotry.

The refugees at our southern border are brown-skinned people who speak Spanish, a reality that fits neatly into America’s racist inclinations. Despite the words emblazoned on the base of the Statue of Liberty welcoming “tired and poor” reality reveals that being “white” is also a major qualification. One cannot help but notice that our northern border with Canada is not at issue, though I suspect if brown-skinned Inuit people were seeking asylum from the U.S. in great numbers the very same race-based issues would arise.

The irony is that the refugees at the Mexican border by-and-large are decent, hard-working people, just the sort of people American needs. They are looking for safety for themselves and their families, and ask little more. Their escape is a matter of life and death, not greed. Xenophobia clouds our vision and risks the legacy of yet another moral failing.

Perpetual elections

Is the 2020 presidential election coming too soon or not soon enough? Still in the midst of recovering and adjusting to the realities of Trump, we now find ourselves already in the throes of an active primary season filling with Democratic candidates and murmurings of GOP challengers. Politics is a peculiarly popular American form of entertainment, a big-money machine with no financial limits fed by media attracted to narratives of human ambition.

But voting, an act of citizenship at once so essential to democracy yet easily manipulated into the commission of dishonesty, best relies on sound judgement and accurate information. How are we, as voters, best able to discern the truth about those who’ve chosen to follow the path of political power? When politics is entertainment, can we distinguish between the glitter of egotistical charisma and honest urgings toward service?

That our presidential election cycle is now at minimum two years, and in some respects perpetual, makes the situation especially challenging. Trump has never stopped campaigning; in fact, it’s all he ever does. Whatever governance is taking place is left to his gang of underlings, themselves crooks, scoundrels and enablers. By this time we know that Trump himself gets his briefings and messaging from FOX News, hasn’t got the patience (or perhaps ability) to read, and has the emotional make-up of a two-year-old. But he still captures the daily news cycle, his greatest and perhaps only talent.

This leaves the growing field of Democratic challengers scrambling to compete with each other in vying for public attention. That scramble necessarily requires a media strategy, which today means a combination of broadcast, print and social media. Of the three, social media has risen to the top, the venue where personal “relationships” are bred and cultivated. Combined with live streaming video, social media is a technological culture replacing traditional political culture of party platforms, big-donor fund-raising and back-room deals.

Women are emerging as a decisive force in the Democratic Party, and deservingly so; largely denied access at the highest levels, if women across America vote in their interest, the Republican Party of white men is doomed. Yet, is voting for a woman reason enough to vote? It all depends upon character; as the last presidential election demonstrated, being a woman is not enough when issues of character are raised. The Democratic Party’s torpedoing of Bernie Sanders’ grassroots candidacy provides an example that relying on gender alone is not sufficient; even women can be venal when power-hungry.

Judging character, as noted, is terribly difficult. Although historical consistency, demonstrated performance and public statements provide some guidance, campaign consultants and strategists spend tens-of-millions in re-crafting candidates’ public images to suit the public’s taste and trends. Authenticity is hard to find when its buried under carefully crafted statements and orchestrated media events. Trump’s appeal to a segment of the population is undoubtedly tied to the constant public exposure of his authentically sociopathic personality, the actual qualities of his personality that can’t be faked.

Like many of my friends, I’m torn between either sticking my head in the sand for the next year or paying attention. The struggle for the Democratic nomination will be exhausting, and on top of this Trump and his minions will continue to destabilize the world and create anxiety. Elections in France are a six-week affair; there’s a message in that.

No, we can’t all get along

Rodney King, who was pulled from his car and beaten

Put people together and you’re sure to find trouble. Families, husbands and wives, siblings, cousins, politicians; no matter how you find them, people always have trouble getting along. Human society reflects just how terribly difficult it is; when large groups of people organize, it often leads to conflict and warfare with other large groups of people.

One history of the world, despite aspirations otherwise, is a history of human conflict. These conflicts range across every social strata, race, political persuasion, and geographical location. It should be added that such conflict is mostly promulgated and acted upon by men. This is not to say that women do not participate in matters of conflict; there are plenty of women who like to fight, but we must concede that the world’s history of violent conflict is male history.

It is for this reason–people can’t just get along–that America is a nation of laws and not simply customs. And not only is America a nation of laws, but a nation of written laws, beginning with a written Constitution and Bill of Rights. Unlike Britain, which has no written constitution, the United States is an experiment in democracy dependent upon the written word. In this sense, America has always been and continues to be rooted in “textualism,” enacting and imposing legislation governing behavior in the form of written laws using common language.

While far from perfect, and subject to interpretation about intent and meaning, using “rule-of-law” as the social framework for relating to each other is our solution to containing and resolving conflict. To be sure, the rule-of-law is no panacea; to the contrary, laws do not prevent all conflict and serve mostly to ascertain and assign responsibility. Thus conflict continues, it’s causes often unaddressed in favor of close attention to its effects.

The nature of human conflict is so diverse and ever-changing, the laws written to keep up with it are endless. Every cultural change, from the introduction of new technologies to trends in art and music, cultivates conflict. Those who imagine a world without conflict are doomed to disappointment; culture and society are in a state of continuous, dynamic flux. So too are the laws we invent to respond to cultural change.

Arguing over laws is our substitute for interpersonal conflict–sometimes violent conflict–with each other. In principle, laws are the great equalizer, law enforcement applied uniformly across social classes. In practice, unfortunately, this is often not the case. Differential power relationships deeply influence the ways in which laws are written and applied.

Applying the law is itself a matter of conflict, as we now witness the effects of polarized politics; the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court, rewriting of government regulations, and unlimited campaign contributions are all examples of lawful conflict. Inevitably, the laws written to manage and adjudicate human conflict are themselves manipulated and become a theatre of conflict.

Though we can imagine getting along, and when inclined are actually capable of doing so, our tendencies towards violence, greed and aggression prompt laws of all sort: religious, secular, criminal, civil, trade, commerce, marital and so forth. Thus, the unfortunate answer to the plaintive question posed by Rodney King (pictured above), the black motorist in Los Angeles severely beaten by police officers in 1991 — “Can we all get along?” — regrettably, remains “no.”

No land left for affordable housing? Hogwash!

There seems to be a persistent impression that the City of Sonoma has run out of land for new housing. If we’re talking about tens of acres of undeveloped land for tract housing, that’s correct, but Sonoma decades-ago rejected construction of large-scale tract-housing development on adjacent vacant land in favor of in-fill. It was this decision that fueled passage of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). That was eighteen years ago, and since then the city has built an average of 65 new housing units each year, precisely the number specified in its Growth Management Ordinance regulations (a one percent/year population increase) and in line with Association of Bay Area Government (ABAG) regional housing allocations.

When redevelopment agencies were eliminated after 2011, the State of California threw out the affordable housing baby with the Redevelopment Agency bath-water. What was a reliable source of millions (making city issuance of housing bonds possible) was never replaced, a terrible policy mistake. Sonoma’s inclusionary requirement (regulated affordable units must equal 20% of the units built when market-rate development over five units is approved) is now almost the only source of regulated affordable housing (regulated means by law the units must remain affordable to lower-income residents for 55 years).

Unless Sonoma wishes to abandon its identity as a small-scale rural town and adopt a profile more like that of Petaluma (now swollen to a population of over 60,000), the land we have inside the UGB for future housing is what we have to work with. The UGB has functioned exactly as was intended; open agricultural space is protected and denser, in-fill development within Sonoma is being built. Casual observers, however, think no housing opportunity sites remain.

I went to Westamerica Bank on a recent Friday; it’s the first time I’ve been inside for a while, and it was an eye-opener–virtually empty of both customers and employees. Only three employees were seated amid ten desks on the open floor, two teller windows in operation, and only three other employees visible behind the tellers. As for customers, I was alone. What I describe is true for banks in town overall: mostly empty buildings, vacant parking lots, abandoned desks, and a diminished number of customers walking into bank locations. Online technology has replaced most routine banking activities, and valuable real estate is underutilized.

A growing number of commercial properties (what we now call “brick and mortar” locations) within city limits are widely underutilized, creating a huge opportunity for them to be redeveloped with housing. In many cases, existing structures themselves provide spaces for conversion; in other cases, second story housing additions are viable. In yet other situations, underutilized commercial parcels (largely parking lots with crappy old structures) can be scraped clean and entirely new buildings built. Seven percent of the real estate in Sonoma is zoned “commercial” and much of it is, or will be, available for modification that includes new housing.

Continuing to consider only undeveloped parcels as housing sites is deeply mistaken. The UGB’s in-fill requirement forces developers to be increasingly creative in the use of under-utilized parcels, and the result is greater housing diversity, innovative designs, better planning–and all this without sprawl.

The city must fully commit to generating revenues to support regulated affordable housing; available land is the least of our problems.

Craving a dose of reality

I left the City Council candidate’s forum at Andrews Hall last week feeling uncomfortable. It’s not that the candidates did not conduct themselves well or acted inappropriately; to the contrary, as a group they were polite, friendly, good-natured, well-spoken and heartfelt. Yet, as I walked home, the entire event assumed an air of unreality; given what’s going on in the world and our community, it just did not feel real. The evening was very nice–too nice, perhaps. The questions were unsurprising and the sixty-second answers non-controversial. Taken at face value, one would assume all is well. Yet, all is not well.

This past week the United Nations released a report on climate change and global warming that indicates unless drastic measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by 2040 our planet will suffer suffocating heat and tidal disruption affecting hundreds of millions of people. In Washington, DC, Republicans are complicit in the egregious undermining of American democracy, led by a bullying President on the verge of inciting mob violence against his perceived enemies. Capitalism has run amok: wealth inequality at levels never seen before, basic safety net programs abandoned, essential drug prices and basic medical care costs soaring out of reach. And yet, our nice candidates’ forum did little to disturb romantic assumptions about the positive future of our semi-rural community, as if this place we inhabit is an island cut off from the world.

If there was a theme for the evening, it was “More.” “More” diversification of our local economy, “more” housing, “more” tax money, “more” parking, “more” tourists. All this “more” talk ignored that, if anything, our world needs to begin planning for “less.” Assuming life-as-we-know-it will continue ad infinitum into the future sounds nice, but it’s not the full story, and I crave honest conversation about the truth of our situation. We will not make things better by simply thinking in terms of “more.” To the contrary, our addiction to “more” is exactly what has gotten us and the world into this terrible mess.

When asked about environmental impact reduction, for example, the candidate response was to create more local affordable housing to reduce commuting. Some mentioned bicycles. Both of these ideas are sensible 20th century solutions still looking for acceptance. Increasing reliance on local, sustainable agriculture (home gardens, for example), was not mentioned. Neither was city-wide free internet service to bolster at-home work and reduce commuting. Ending subsidies for the tourist industry and putting that money into local-serving infrastructure like homeowner solar panels or financial incentives for switching from gas to electric vehicles was not offered. Overall, the idea of making do with “less” rather than thinking in terms of “more” seemed forgotten.

As long as this Valley continues to plan using “more”-based paradigms of the past we won’t succeed and we won’t have any lessons to offer others except the record of our mistakes. And globally, if we are not prepared to shift our thinking–and fast–the community and world we’ll leave to our children and grandchildren will be neither nice nor pretty.

If we choose to live in the land of make-believe, we’re in for a rude awakening. We live in perilous times, and such times call for serious planning by serious people and promptly implementing serious solutions.

Justice and mercy

Justice relies upon blame, and blame relies upon declaring effective cause. Effective cause is one of four types of causation, according to Plato, the others being material cause, formal cause and total cause. When to comes to matters of human affairs, effective cause is the type that draws a line between Point A and Point B. Our system of justice, accordingly, is fixated upon finding effective cause, declaring guilt, exacting justice and inflicting punishment.

Both direct and circumstantial evidence are used to affix blame and assign guilt. Direct evidence is that which requires no inference. For example, a video recording of an armed theft at an ATM machine is direct evidence. Circumstantial evidence of a theft might include a witness description of the event and the clothing worn by the assailant. If the victim’s wallet is later found in the apartment of the alleged thief, it would be considered more direct than circumstantial evidence, though exactly how it got into the thief’s apartment could be a matter of dispute; perhaps it was planted and is therefore circumstantial. Between direct and circumstantial evidence, a finding of guilt or innocence is made, and judgement declared.

Other than material cause, effective cause is the least complicated, seemingly. “An eye for an eye” sums up the workings of effective cause when it comes to justice; “let the punishment suit the crime.” But in a social system based upon justice, relying upon effective cause leaves little room for mercy. Mercy comes into play upon consideration of total cause.

Total cause encapsulates extenuating circumstances. Extenuating circumstances are always at play in any event, and represent the complexity of history and forces which contribute to our perception of the present moment. The present moment manifests the outcome of an unfathomably large sequence of happenings so complex as to be untraceable; it becomes more and more difficult to affix blame and guilt the deeper we explore total cause.

For example, a poor man’s young child is suffering from a terrible fever. The man has no money, and cannot afford to purchase even a bottle of children’s aspirin. He decides to break into a pharmacy and take a bottle of aspirin; his child then recovers, but the poor man is arrested. According to effective cause and the application of justice, he is guilty of theft. According to total cause, he remains guilty of theft, but the extenuating circumstances lean towards mercy.

A justice system based upon mercy would “punish” the poor man–not by putting him in prison with other poor men who have stolen–but by engaging him within a system including education,  restitution, financial and social support in order to bring him back into society in a healthy condition, able to work and to provide for his family. In other words, merciful justice means never giving up on anyone.

Is it better for society to envision justice as imprisonment or reintegration? They both require time, money and commitment, but prison hardens hearts and increases pain while mercy accomplishes the opposite. What we commonly call justice is actually revenge and little more; prison graduates criminals, not healthy citizens.

Our prisons have never been fuller, and our penchant to blame is surging. Life has never been fair, and for most not easy. The world appears to be getting more complicated every day. Now, more than ever, we need mercy–oceans and oceans of mercy.