Friday, February 26, 2016

Required Reading

Matt Taibbi on Donald Trump.

It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Ithaca Plan

I've known plenty of white junkies. Back in the '80s, they were ubiquitous in my East Village neighborhood. A good friend ended up in rehab and turned it around. A co-worker I hired died of gangrene from a dirty needle. I once walked to work past a woman with suit and briefcase on the nod on the front stoop of her fashionable village brownstone. So I don't pretend that heroin is a scourge of poor urban African-Americans. But most people have pretended that, and the media has, for lo these many years—the result being that throughout the 20th century, heroin was a law enforcement problem, not a social or public health one.

Come the millennium, and suddenly heroin is the drug of choice for soccer moms with bad backs whose prescriptions for oxycodone have run out. When heroin is a major problem in New Hampshire, you know we've turned some kind of corner. Indeed, the media is suddenly extremely excited about heroin; local and national news magazines have cover articles decrying heroin's move to the suburbs, or Wall Street, or the children of middle class families. Yet, for the most part, it is still treated as a law enforcement problem.

Enter the Ithaca Plan, now trending on social media. Ithaca's mayor, whose father was an addict, looked around Ithaca, which is certainly not immune to drug problems, and set up a task force, which produced a plan. Taking a page from programs in Europe and Canada, the plan places law enforcement as one of four pillars, the others being prevention, treatment, and harm reduction. The piece of the plan that's getting the most attention is the supervised injection facility, meant to eradicate overdoses by providing a safe place to shoot up, with medical staff in attendance. It's sort of like when I get antibiotics—I always have to sit around with nurses nearby for 40 minutes until they know I'm not going into anaphylaxis.

But of course it's more controversial than that, and it's currently illegal, and our local police force has vowed to arrest anyone found there. So it's safe to say that the kinks have to be worked out. Ithaca will need assistance from the state and federal governments to make this happen.

Meanwhile, it's very exciting to see something proposed that is radical and different, as opposed to the same old stuff that hasn't ever worked. Our district attorney, who for a while has said that heroin is the most important local issue not being talked about, is on the front page of the Huffington Post today explaining why she favors the plan, for which she was an integral contributor.

There's plenty of resistance; people are already predicting that junkies around the world will move to Ithaca to set up shop. But this seems to be a well-thought-out plan based on plenty of existing data, and I'm interested to see how far Ithaca gets toward a saner, safer means of handling the heroin epidemic.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Political Fallout

The 11 Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee believe that they can ignore a nominee for the Supreme Court from the black president whom they don't really recognize without any danger of political fallout. Sadly, only two of them are up for re-election in 2016 (one, David Vitter-LA, is retiring). However, if you want to send a message, write to the two as follows:

Dear {Senator Grassley/Senator Lee}:

I believe that your refusal to consider a nominee for the Supreme Court from the president our nation elected twice is the last straw from a do-nothing Congress. I am sick and tired of paying your salary. Please know that I am sending a donation to your Democratic opponent, {Tom Fiegen/Jon Swinton}, and that I will do all in my power to see that you are not returned to office.

Sincerely, etc.

Grassley is actually opposed by four Democrats who will run in a primary, but I chose the one who has publicly endorsed Bernie Sanders, because why not.

Here is the contact information.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Be Careful What You Wish For: You May Not Want My Vote

I have always treated primaries as a means of gently guiding the Party in the direction I prefer. On a hunch, I just checked my track record, and as I had suspected, since I started voting in presidential primaries 40 years ago, my choice has NEVER WON. Even in those cases (just Mondale in '84, I think) where my primary choice was the Party's choice, he didn't make it to the finish line. In every other race, my candidate was gone by June.

So be careful what you wish for, all those who are strong arming me for my vote.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Telling the Story

The day after the Iowa caucus, Simon wrote, "I liked yesterday's 50-50 totally mixed up Iowa Democratic caucus results. Today, however, seems to be the day of people trying way too hard to tell that story any different direction they can to help their team. I don't like that."

"Narrative imperialism" is a phrase coined by literary scholar James Phelan to describe the reduction of strings of narratives to a single story, an objection to if not a rejection of the notion of narrative identity—the idea that, as Oliver Sacks wrote, "Each of us is a singular narrative." I believe both things are true: We construct ourselves as a narrative to make sense of our lives (narrative identity), and we impose a narrative grid on things we can't explain (narrative imperialism). The reaction of different acolytes to the caucus is a perfect example of the latter.

Even Trump has now created his own story around his second-place loss. His story has become: I did not lose; my win was stolen from me. It's a perfect example of narrative imperialism, at least as I understand Phelan's construct. Trump's narrative identity is: I am a winner. The Iowa loss doesn't fit. Therefore, I cannot have lost, a villain must exist who stole the election. Luckily for Trump, Cruz makes an excellent villain.

Elections are competitions, or struggles, between opposing forces. The way we humans construct stories, if you're not the protagonist, or hero, and you are in opposition to the hero, as in an election campaign, you must be the antagonist, or villain. This is a ridiculously simplistic way to look at a complex contest, but it's drilled into us from childhood and passed down from the ancient past. It explains why certain people scoff at the notion of supporting whomever emerges victorious from the Democratic primaries. How could we ever support the villain of our tale?

We hire pollsters because we want to be able to predict the plots of our stories. We rely on the media to shape complicated contests into simple tales.

The results of the Iowa caucus were confounding enough to send story-lovers scrambling for a story grid to impose upon the outcome. It is unacceptable for a hero and villain to be as evenly matched as the two Democratic candidates were. The Hillary narrative became: She won handily. The Bernie narrative became: The results are debatable. Plot points abounded: Coin tosses! Blizzards! Bad polling!

What we miss in all this—all the media prognostication, all the polling, all the endless speculation in front of the TV—is that the rest of humanity doesn't know our narrative and thus is unlikely to fall in line. Voters are predictable only to a point. Anyone may change his or her mind at the last minute. Talking heads are paid to fit today's story into a mold from four or eight or sixteen years ago. Life is a lot more fluid, and people a lot more changeable, than the pundits would have you believe. We wanted Iowans to be the flat characters of folk tales—the farmer and his wife, the evangelical preacher, the first-time voter. It doesn't work that way. Our narrative identity is our own; it is influenced by but not written by others. And as much as Hillary and Bernie supporters want to make the primaries into an apocalyptic struggle between sexist pigs and corporate shills, between unrealistic dreamers and stick-in-the-mud pragmatists, between real and faux progressives, they are so much more complicated and interesting than those facile, tedious stories would have you believe.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

School Report, 2016

The good news is that the state has a surplus and can afford to restore aid to schools. The bad news is that the state isn't ready to do that.

New Yorkers will hear a lot in the next month or two about how much support the governor's budget is giving to schools and how much more the legislature hopes to supply but just somehow can't. At the Community Forum in Auburn last night, board members and educators learned once again how we on the sidelines will be affected by these internecine budget battles.

First, a short history. In 2007, the legislature created a system of Foundation Aid in response to the state's loss of the court case that sought to fund schools more fairly. That Foundation Aid was meant to grow incrementally over the next 10 years to a point where the courts had determined that fairness lay. Then came the crash of 2008. Foundation Aid was frozen for the budget of 2009, and although it's thawed slightly over the past couple of years, it's nowhere near the 10-year "fairness" point that was originally planned.

After the crash, the state found itself with a gap between revenues and outlays. It chose to nab that missing money from the money promised to schools, creating the prettily named Gap Elimination Adjustment. Over the years since 2010, Central New York Schools have lost over $600 million in promised funds, with each district giving up dollars to plug the state's gap.

Then came the tax cap, sometimes incorrectly termed "the 2% cap." This cap meant that schools could not make up the difference between their original spending plans and the plans decimated by the GEA by raising taxes willy-nilly on the citizens of their districts.

Put it all together, and as Dr. Timbs told Central New York School Board Association members last night, "We have lost a generation of kids waiting for the state to comply with the court order."

But now the state has a surplus and could set things to rights again. However, the governor's proposal adds just $266 million, or 1.7%, to Foundation Aid, and puts back only $189 million out of the $434 million in GEA the state owes to schools. And to add insult to injury, this year's tax cap for schools is as close to zero as you can get. Not 2%. Not 1%. This year it averages 0.12%, which for all intents and purposes might as well be zero. (The original definition of the state's tax cap was as follows: "With some exceptions, the State’s Property Tax Cap limits the amount local governments and most school districts can increase property taxes to the lower of two percent; or the rate of inflation." The CPI, used as the measure of inflation, is 0.12% this year. The formula is complex, and some districts will have a cap higher and some lower—but I don't think anyone will be close to 2% this year.)

The poorest local schools will have 100% of their GEA restored this year. Candor's and Newfield's will be at $0, bringing them back to 2010 levels. Other local schools will get anywhere from 34% to 45% of their GEAs restored. But all of our local districts will face the ongoing deficit in court-promised Foundation Aid, and they will not be able to make it up with an increase in the tax levy. Keep in mind that a rollover budget includes contractual salary increases, health insurance (about 7% locally), workers' comp, debt service... This year, Dryden is managing to roll over retirement, utilities, and equipment/supplies with no increase to any of those—but that's not going to be true of all districts.

The upshot is this: CNYSBA is calling for elimination of the entire GEA in this year's budget. The money is there; there's no point to the GEA's existence except to manipulate spreadsheets to make NYS's situation look better than it is. CNYSBA is calling for $880 million in improved Foundation Aid, distributed fairly so that the districts that need it most get most. Legislators may point out that poor districts get the most aid now, which is true, but as I've quoted Timbs before, on average, poor districts in NYS get around 8 times more state aid than wealthy districts do. However, our wealthy districts are overall 14 times richer than poor districts. And this year, NYS's wealthiest districts, those with the largest tax bases, won't be able to raise the millions they usually easily raise through property taxes, so they will be competing fiercely for the same aid our needier districts require.

It takes 60% voter approval to override a school tax cap. I don't think you will see many schools trying; such votes rarely succeed. What you will see are more districts entering that netherworld of "fiscally stressed" schools, a world where inequity reigns, and the poor stay poor.