Dang, Why Didn’t I Think of the iPhone?

rotary-phone.jpgHow many times have I talked on the telephone in my life?  At least 100,000, starting back in the 1950s.  Not to mention the hours I spent staring at the telephone, waiting for it to ring. 

Every place I’ve ever lived, I’ve had to consider the telephone.  Where should it go?  Major furniture placement decisions rested on the location of a phone plug.  At work, my desk might be covered with piles of paper, but there was always space cleared for the phone.

In all those years, why didn’t I ever look at my telephone and envision its real possibilities, like Steve Jobs did?  Why didn’t I meditate on this humble piece of technology and say, even once, “Hey the phone would be a great place to watch TV, store my record collection, get my mail, read the news, do research and go shopping?”

iphone-and-jobs.jpgIn retrospect, the iPhone makes so much sense.  But I didn’t have the vision to see it.  I’m such a loser. 

If I’d thought of the iPhone first, I’d be so rich, I could afford to buy one.

Campaign Finance Reform’s Descent into Farce

I’ve been a total skeptic of campaign finance reform for years, and I think history bears me out.  The original premise of reform was to permit a candidate to gain access to public attention strictly on the merits of their candidacy, and for elected officials to enter office owing nothing to any special interests.  Freed of those obligations, the theory goes, elected officials will be free to vote their conscience and in keeping with the wishes of their constituents, rather than the fat cats.

Now into the third decade of campaign finance reform lawmaking, with endless revisions designed to address the unintended consequences of previous iterations, the concept has finally reached its nadir in the City of New York, whose city council has just decided to pass a campaign finance reform law that nakedly tilts the game in favor of the most powerful special interest in that city’s politics.  From the New York Times:

The new law would crack down on donations from lobbyists, strictly limit contributions from contractors who do business with the city, and allow developers to give only a fraction of what they once could.

But there is one group that would be untouched by the major overhaul of the campaign finance law approved by the City Council yesterday: the city’s powerful labor unions.

The unions, which have given millions to city candidates and provide critical backing in Council races, were excluded from the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by the mayor. The bill would go into effect over staggered periods as the city builds the needed databases to track people doing business with the city.

The changes have received broad support from government watchdog groups, who say the new campaign finance law will be among the most stringent in the country, sharply limiting influence and the appearance of influence of special-interest money on government policy.

Excluding labor groups from the restrictions illustrates the considerable strength unions retain in New York City politics, at a time when union power is waning elsewhere in the country. The new restrictions, political analysts say, will only magnify their power.

I’m curious.  Who are these “government watchdog groups” who think this law is fair? (None of them are named in the story.)  Aren’t they a little embarassed?  No matter how you feel about the relative merits of unions, business, city contractors or developers, you can’t call it “fair” to restrict only some of these interests. 

City residents, the constituents whose interests are supposedly at issue here, can be affected negatively by “pay to play” contracting, over-development, or special interest pro-business legislation.  While the principle of campaign finance reform may be defective, it is not irrational to want to control those interests.  But the public can also be affected negatively by overly generous pay and benefit packages to the city’s huge corps of employees, and by restrictive hiring and firing rules that keep incompetent people in vital positions. 

Cities all over America have faced bankruptcy owing to excessive pension and pay obligations.  Those contracts are not agreed to in a vacuum; they are a direct result of labor’s political power.  Just ask Roy Romer, or anyone else who has been forced to run the LA Unified School District, where labor is given license to insert itself into every important decision.

Here is the City Council’s rationalization:

The City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, the daughter of a retired union electrician who was first elected in 1999, has received a total of nearly $70,000 in union contributions. One of her top aides, Maura Keaney, is the former political director for Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers.

Ms. Quinn has repeatedly drawn a distinction between a union negotiating with the city for better pay and benefits, and developers and corporations vying for lucrative land deals or government contracts.

“The situation here is to require that everyone gets treated the same way,” she said yesterday. “A union or a PAC can give one contribution, whatever the maximum is for the office in question. Someone who did business with the City of New York prior to this could have every person in the business give a contribution of the maximum level allowed to that office. So I think this in fact much more levels the playing field.”

Well, it’s a sound bite anyway.  Coming to a city hall near you!

Silent Ethics in City Hall

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s various breaches of the public trust prompted an amusing blog post by City Ethics Commissioner Bill Boyarsky, who was the best reporter and editor the LA Times ever had covering City Hall.

He writes about the “gag rule” that prevents him from saying anything about Delgadillo’s use of staff as go-fers and babysitters, his protracted violation of state law that requires all drivers to have car insurance, his lack of honesty regarding how his city-issued vehicle was damaged, which allowed him initially to charge taxpayers to get it fixed.

It’s apparent Boyarsky the retired journalist is chomping at the bit to say what he thinks about the city attorney’s overweening sense of entitlement. But the gag rule is more than just an inconvenience for a bigmouth. The way Boyarsky describes it, the gag rule is like a contract among insiders not to acknowledge the obvious:

I interpret it this way: Suppose a city official drove a city car to a Sunday baseball game, got drunk and smashed into an MTA bus. More than 250 people witnessed the crash, including 50 on the bus and it was a huge story on TV and in the papers. Then suppose I was asked if I thought the official violated ethics rules governing the use of city cars. Under the rule, I could not comment, no matter how many people saw the crash, no matter how big a story it was. I could not say a thing, even if I had been on the bus, and a reporter tracked me down to the hospital where I was being treated for my injuries.

Who is served by this? Not the public. Not the victims of any alleged violations. No, this system, purportedly designed to enforce unethical behavior by high city officials in fact facilitates it by almost immediately muting public outrage, redirecting it into an airless dark realm, where deals get cut far from public view.

More Boyarsky:

The gag rule is not only stupid, but it’s against the public interest. The chance of a commissioner being disqualified by a comment is remote. Most ethics violations reach us for a vote after attorneys for the accused and the ethics commission staff have settled them behind closed doors. We commissioners are presented with a settlement agreement that has few details. We generally approve the settlement. Usually, discussion is limited.

The gag rule is a big reason why many people consider the ethics commission irrelevant. When allegations of ethical violations are splashed on the news and are being discussed from the harbor to the Valley, ethics commissioners should be able to say more than “no comment.”

So true. In about six months, there will be announcement: The City Attorney and the Ethics Commission have agreed on a settlement. He’s going to pay a fine! Your invitation to the fundraiser to defray the cost of the fine is in the mail. The usual arm-twisting of city contractors and the city’s legal community will then ensue.

In the meantime, none of Delgadillo’s colleagues will have to say anything in response to the public. “It’s in the hands of the ethics commission. Until they act, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment,” will be the refrain.

Look…I’m the last guy who would want to see anyone railroaded. It’s good to have a process that permits a dispassionate look at the facts. But Boyarsky describes a process that frustrates any attempt to hold high city officials accountable to the public’s standards of common sense. People are irate about what Delgadillo has already admitted to. Why does he deserve protection from the public’s wrath?

More to Boyarsky’s point: He was nominated to the Ethics Commission because of his experience with the byways of Los Angeles’ government. What is the point of bringing him into the process of policing City Hall ethics, and then putting a muzzle on him?

(In the same post, Boyarsky is funny in describing his battle of wits with a couple of Times reporters who used techniques Boyarsky should have recognized to get him to say more than he should have. Read the whole thing.)

Summer Begins on a Friday in Baltimore

I’ve never been to Baltimore before, other than its airport. But I was there yesterday, with an afternoon free in between my morning meeting and my evening flight. The less said about the flight the better. But the afternoon was lovely. I felt light as a feather. Good way to see in a new summer.

Old buildings, some of them empty, downtown, with window ornamentation that casts great shadows…

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And great reflections…

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Musicians come out to entertain the lunch crowd…

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A few blocks away, the pride of Baltimore’s developers and planners, the waterfront, a haven of brand name “anchor tenants.” But on a day this pretty, even they look inviting.

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But your attention keeps going back to these weird old buildings, tucked away in corners of the city…

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A Free Man in Ronkonkoma

The call came in while I was having a beer at the Brickhouse in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., a restaurant attached to the Holiday Inn near the Long Island-Islip airport. A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled I can stay out on bail while my 2006 conviction is appealed.

When I woke up this morning, I saw this item on LA Observed. Then I knew for sure it wasn’t just a jet lag dream. As Kevin puts it, my co-defendant and I can “stay home.”

As I’ve learned over the past few months, getting bail was by no means a certainty. The burden of proof was on me to demonstrate that my appeal had merit. But the appellate panel found that my appeal

raises a ‘substantial question’ of law or fact that is likely to result in reversal, an order for a new trial, or a sentence that does not include a term of imprisonment, on all counts on which imprisonment has been imposed.

I’m here in Long Island on business.  It hasn’t really sunk in. This is my first really good legal news since I wandered into this labyrinth nearly three years ago. After a period like that, you start to doubt your grasp of reality. It was exquisite to be able to tell my wife, my son, and my parents what had happened. The waiting has been driving all of us bats. (Except my son, who has been steadfast in his belief that I will eventually win this case. He kept promising me he is psychic, that he knew. Score one for Vinny.)

When I get back to California, I’ll have a lot of celebrating to do.

Obviously, this is not the end of anything. There is still an appeal to win, and despite the extremely encouraging language of the panel’s decision, it does not guarantee the outcome. The appeal process will continue for a year, maybe two. The prosecutors and FBI worked hard on this…accomplishment?…I’m sure that’s what they’d call it…so they’re not about to give up. They’ll fight very hard to protect what they won in district court last year. They fought hard to make sure I would serve all of my sentence before the appeal was decided, which would have rendered the practical effect of a successful appeal moot. (Think about that.)

Okay, time to go to work. A nice normal day awaits. A long meeting here, then a flight to Baltimore; dinner tonight and meetings there tomorrow; a little afternoon time exploring that city, which I’ve never seen; then a long flight home. Where I get to stay, at least for awhile, and according to my allegedly psychic son, a long while. Ah, freedom.

McCarthyism and the Kennedy Assassination

Did the 1963 murder of John F. Kennedy validate the all-consuming paranoia about Communism that swept the U.S. a decade earlier?  Having lived through that period, I never would have thought so.  

However, according to conservative historian James Piereson, liberalism began to disintegrate as a governing force in this country as a result of JFK’s assassination.   Why?  Because Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist.  This fact was so unacceptable, it sent liberally-inclined Americans in a search for more abstract root causes, which in turn imbued the once-idealistic liberal movement with a pessimistic, conspiratorial view of America and Americans.  Habits of mind, Piereson says in a new book, liberals still can’t shake. 

Here’s his theory, explained in an interview on National Review Online:

(Interviewer) JOHN J. MILLER: You write of JFK’s assassination that “no other event in the postwar era, not even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has cast such a long shadow over our national life.” How did JFK’s murder change American politics and culture?

JAMES PIERESON: Kennedy’s assassination, happening the way it did, compromised the central assumptions of American liberalism that had been the governing philosophy of the nation since the time of the New Deal. It did this in two decisive ways: first, by compromising the faith of liberals in the future; second, by undermining their confidence in the nation. Kennedy’s assassination suggested that history is not in fact a benign process of progress and advancement, but perhaps something quite different. The thought that the nation itself was responsible for Kennedy’s death suggested that the United States, far from being a “city on a hill” and an example for mankind, as Kennedy had described it (quoting John Winthrop), was in fact something darker and more sinister in its deepest nature.

MILLER: How did this play out politically in the 1960s and beyond?

PIERESON: The conspiracy theories that developed afterwards reflected this thought. The Camelot legend further suggested that that the Kennedy years represented something unique that was now forever lost. Liberalism was thereafter overtaken by a sense of pessimism about the future, cynicism about the United States, and nostalgia for the Kennedy years. This was something entirely new in the United States. It was evident in the culture during the 1960s. George Wallace tried to confront it in the electoral arena in 1968, as did Richard Nixon — though it was somewhat difficult to do so because neither Lyndon Johnson nor Hubert Humphrey represented this new orientation. It was not until this mood of pessimism was brought into the government during the Carter administration that it could be directly confronted in the political arena, which is what Ronald Reagan in fact did.

(snip)

MILLER: Would liberalism have unraveled even if JFK had lived?

PIERESON: It is hard to say what would have happened if Kennedy had lived. He may have lost his popularity in a second term. He may have avoided the dead end in Vietnam. It’s hard to say. Kennedy was in the process of renewing liberalism when he was killed, expanding it into cultural areas beyond issues of economic security and national security. I am certain that liberalism would not have unraveled when it did and in the way that it did if Kennedy had lived. The assassination shattered its core assumptions.

MILLER: Lee Harvey Oswald was a Communist. Have liberals been reluctant to accept this fact? And is their reluctance at the heart of all the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination?

PIERESON: Liberals who were rational and realistic accepted the fact that Oswald killed JFK but at the same time they were unable to ascribe a motive for his actions. They tended to look for sociological explanations for the event and found one in the idea that JFK was brought down by a “climate of hate” that had overtaken the nation. Thus they placed Kennedy’s assassination within a context of violence against civil rights activists. They had great difficulty accepting the fact that Kennedy’s death was linked to the Cold War, not to civil rights. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., in his 1,000-page history of the Kennedy administration, published in 1965, could not bring himself to mention Oswald’s name in connection with Kennedy’s death, though he spent several paragraphs describing the hate-filled atmosphere of Dallas at the time — suggesting thereby that Kennedy was a victim of the far right. The inability to come to grips with the facts of Kennedy’s death pointed to a deeper fault in American liberalism which was connected to its decline.

What’s ironic is that JFK was a “Cold War liberal,” which at the time meant he was more of an anti-Communist than he was an anti-anti-Communist.  With Joe McCarthy’s disgrace and death, combined with the revelations of Soviet espionage and betrayal after Stalin’s death in the mid-50s, many liberals became more willing to acknowledge that Soviet expansionism and the Communist ideology posed a threat. JFK was a leader of that group. 

Kennedy’s “ask not…” inaugural speech has a less-quoted passage of Cold War vigilance:

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it.

Piereson would argue that Kennedy was a martyr to this responsibility.  But surviving liberals’ unwillingness to identify properly the cause for which he was martyred has continuing repercussions today.