Category Archives: Government

Malgovernance

*Disclaimer – this piece is my opinion alone and does not reflect the beliefs of any other person or organization with which I’m affiliated.*

North Carolina’s legislature has made the national news again, and once again it seems to have been motivated by the misguided belief that theocratic governing is a good idea. You can read all about what the legislature did simply by Googling “North Carolina LGBT law“, so instead of talking about what they did I’d like to talk about how they did it.

The Atlantic Monthly has a piece about why North Carolina’s legislature was able to pass the bill while other states’ legislatures were not and in that piece we find a good description of how they pulled it off:

 

…the decision was only made public on Monday, two days before the session. (As a result, some members of the assembly were unable to travel to Raleigh in time.) The legislative language of the bill wasn’t released until minutes before the session actually began Wednesday morning. There was minimal time for public comment built into the session. And by 9 p.m., less than 12 hours after the session began, McCrory signed the bill into law…

In North Carolina, by contrast, there was little warning for opposition forces to rally against the preemption law, no time for them to try to meet with the governor, and little time for the business community to speak out. Dow Chemical, the medical company Biogen, and Raleigh-based software company Red Hat all publicly announced they opposed the law. But major corporations like Charlotte-based Bank of America—which has in the past outspokenly criticizedanti-gay-marriage laws and touted its record on LGBT rights—did not make a public statement. (I asked B of A for comment about the law but haven’t heard back yet.) There’s a strong grassroots-activist base in North Carolina too, centered around the “Moral Mondays” movement, but there was little time for that bloc to organize either…

The law’s framers may also have made a strategically wise decision in bundling several issues together. Laws barring discrimination against gay people are politically contentious. But there’s still much more public stigma against transgender people. For example, campaigners against an LGBT non-discrimination referendum in Houston last year focused heavily on the transgender-bathroom question to the exclusion of broader non-discrimination, and won a resounding victory…

Of course, the general assembly could have passed a narrowly scoped bill that only overturned the transgender accommodation, but legislators instead chose a broader approach. (The minimum-wage provision, meanwhile, was resurrected from a failed preemption effort in September.)

This perfectly describes the m.o. for the Republican-led legislature over the past half-dozen years: for any piece of legislation that might have even a hint of opposition, or might be considered controversial in any way, work on the language behind closed doors, bum-rush it through committee with limited time for serious study by members, get it to the floor for rushed/limited debate and then send it to the governor. Even if he disagrees with it he ends up not acting because he knows his veto is essentially worthless and so it becomes law without his signature.

Bundling multiple items into a contentious bill is nothing new, but hitching the minimum wage piece to a bill that’s got everyone all heated up due to potty rights is a good example of how the Republicans in this legislature have perfected the art.

Before you think I’m picking on the Republicans let me state right here that they are continuing in the tradition of the Democrats who ran the legislature immediately before them. Some of those clowns went to jail, so it’s safe to say that we citizens of North Carolina have been victims of bipartisan malgovernance (that’s not a word, but it feels like a good description).

So what’s wrong with this form of legislating? It short-circuits the inherent strength of an elected body by not allowing a full vetting of the bill in committee and by not allowing time for in-depth study of the bills particulars. By not providing a venue for an extended and honest debate, or for substantive feedback from the public, the majority is pushing through flawed and poorly constructed legislation. If the true goal is good governance then the House and Senate leadership would push for more transparency and debate, not less, and by using these legislative tricks what they are telling us is that the aim is not good governance but to score points with their political base.

Does that shock you? Probably not. Should it piss you off? Most definitely.

By the way, I totally understand if you support the results of the bill – if it fits your belief system then so be it. But please remember how this went down because at some point in the future you’re NOT going to like the resulting law and you’re going to feel truly screwed over when you learn that the powers-that-be snuck one by you. That, my friend, is called karma and it’s a bitch.

Camel City’s Own Version of Making a Murderer

The Netflix series Making a Murderer, a documentary ten years in the making about a case in Wisconsin that exhibited some seriously flawed police work and downright shameful behavior by prosecutors, has shed light on some of the flaws of our criminal justice system. Here in Winston-Salem we have the Silk Plant Forest case, which began with a terrible assault in the 90s and resulted in the conviction of a man that many consider innocent, as our own example of a flawed justice system.

The case has been covered extensively by the Winston-Salem Journal over the years, but it’s an article in the Raleigh News & Observer about how the NC State Bar handled a complaint filed against the prosecutors in the case that highlights just how flawed the system can be. From the article:

The path to Coleman’s complaint began in January 2008, 11 years after Smith’s conviction and as Smith’s lawyers were arguing for a hearing to examine evidence not heard at trial. Duke law professor Theresa Newman, who directs the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic along with Coleman, received an email from Arnita Miles, who identified herself as a former Winston-Salem police officer.

Miles said she was the first officer to interview Jill Marker at the store after the assault. According to Miles, Marker said her attacker was a black male. She also said Marker dictated a letter that night, as a last message to her husband, and asked Miles to give it to him. Miles said she passed it on that night to the lead detective…

Because of the push for a new hearing, the SBI assigned an agent to assist prosecutors. Following the emails between Newman and Hall, the agent interviewed Miles. The agent turned up problems which he shared in a report to the prosecutors.

Miles did file a report following the attack. In it, she wrote that she was not the first officer at the scene. She wrote that Marker was incoherent and did not describe her attacker. Miles told the SBI she could not explain the discrepancy between what she wrote in 1995 hours after the assault and her 2008 claims…

The Duke lawyers learned of the signed and sworn affidavit in June 2012, following a meeting between District Attorney Jim O’Neill and Swecker, the retired FBI agent with experience auditing criminal investigations, including a critical 2010 audit of the SBI crime lab.

Swecker came to the same conclusion as the Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee: The investigation was deeply flawed and incomplete. Swecker did not conclude that Smith was innocent, but said he deserved a new trial.

At the meeting with Swecker and in a followup email, O’Neill cited the Miles affidavit as proof that Marker had identified her attacker as a black male.

“I am holding in my hand a sworn affidavit by Arnita Miles, who was one of the first officers at the scene and the person who spoke with Jill while she lay on the floor of Silk Plant Forest,” O’Neill wrote. “Despite this evidence, the Duke Innocence Project continued to parade the name of Kenneth Lamoureaux as the person who likely committed this crime, knowing full well that Jill Marker said her attacker was a black man.”

Definitely read the full article and see what you think. Personally this reaffirms my belief that in this case the prosecutors are less interested in truth and justice, and more interested in not losing a case. It’s also reaffirmed my belief that I need to research our current District Attorney Jim O’Neill, who is running for Attorney General, before I consider voting for him.

Trust Us

If you walked down just about any street in America and randomly asked people their opinions of “government” they would almost certainly describe it as bloated, bureaucratic, incompetent, invasive, etc. You would likely be challenged to find someone with something good to say.

Some of these negative assessments are earned – many governments are bloated, bureaucratic and, at times, incompetent – but some of the sentiments are the result of a cacophony of anti-government or small-government advocates. Some of them believe in their heart of hearts that all services, with the exception of public safety, would be most effectively provided by the private sectors. Others believe government is inherently evil and hold an Orwellian world view that just about anything the government does is an assault on individual liberty.

On the flip side of the coin you have people who see the government as the best option for addressing many of society’s ills, but they might see the folks running the show as a lesser light or the systems in place as overly bureaucratic and inefficient.

What all sides have in common, though, is a healthy case of cynicism about the government. Most simply do not trust it, whether from negative personal experiences dealing with the government (DMV lines come to mind), or from stories they’ve heard repeatedly from friends and from the media.

Luckily, for the most part the lack of trust is fed by relatively harmless inconveniences like long lines, higher than expected water bills or slow permitting processes for home improvements. That gives us all some ammunition for running jokes, but since we’re relatively safe and secure in our daily lives it doesn’t give us much cause for doing much more than telling jokes.

That’s why the Flint, MI water story is so important. Multiple governments failed to protect the health and safety of Flint’s residents, and apparently even worked to cover up their failings. This wasn’t a normal hot button issue, like the police shootings and “Black Lives Matter” stories that we heard so much about. While those stories were important and people were hurt, not everyone could identify with them because not everyone has had interactions with the police or could empathize with what it’s like to be black in America.

The Flint water story is about the failure of government to provide a fundamental service that affects everyone, safe drinking water, and then trying to cover it up. EVERYONE can picture themselves in that situation, and they can empathize with the plight of the citizens of Flint. The government violated the public trust and by doing so it weakened the very foundation upon which a civil society is built.

Not to overstate it, because we still do live in an incredibly stable society relative to the rest of the world, but if we don’t start demanding responsible governance from our elected leaders then we are going to see more and more failures like this one. We get enough of those and our society won’t seem so stable anymore.

So, let’s stop with the “all government is bad” rhetoric, along with its “all taxes are bad” cousin, and start having intelligent discussions about how government can best serve our citizens’ needs and take it from there.

 

Water and Government

In the United States one of the things we take for granted the most is the easy access to clean water that we have. The vast majority of us live and work in places that we can walk into a room, turn on a tap and have as much clean water flow out of it as we need. And it’s cheap – of all the bills we pay the water bill isn’t usually the one we struggle to cover. The only time we don’t worry about it is when we experience a drought and then it jumps to the top of our list of things to worry about.

Last month I was in Las Vegas for a conference and one of the speakers there was a guy named Doc Hendley. He happens to live in Boone, NC which is just over an hour’s drive from my house and he founded a remarkable organization called Wine to Water. At this particular conference (the National Apartment Association’s annual education conference) he served as the keynote speaker for the awards ceremony, and every year that particular slot is reserved for a speaker with an inspirational story. Well his sure was, and I encourage you to hear it when you can, but what causes me to mention him here is that his organization does.

Wine to Water works overseas in some of the poorest and most dangerous areas of the world in an effort to give communities access to water. The most memorable part of Doc’s presentation, at least to me, was when he talked about shifting from just installing wells in communities and leaving, to teaching them how to install and maintain their own wells. He’d seen what happened when other agencies came in, put in a well and just left. Within months or years those wells were not functioning and no one in the community knew how to fix them. The folks at Wine to Water figured out how to build wells using materials that were readily available in the community so that the people who lived there could fix them when something went wrong. In other words they taught them how to fish rather than just giving them a one-time gift of a cooler full of fish.

So that’s what his organization is doing in places like the Sudan, but what happens here in the US when an area experiences an epic drought, private wells throughout a community go dry, and the folks who live there can’t afford to have new ones dug, and if they can afford it there’s a two year waiting list? Well, of course another charitable group pops up to help meet their needs (see the video below) but their efforts are definitely a band aid approach.

If one guy from NC can figure out how to help people half way around the world help themselves you would hope that we could figure out a way to help a bunch of Californians help themselves. If you watch the video you’ll hear the editor of the local paper say it’s a money issue – that it will take $30 million to get the residents without access to the city’s water system hooked up – and if that’s the case then it’s just a matter of making it a priority for the government at some level. Sounds simple, but we all know it’s not.

Here in Lewisville, NC many of us are hooked up to the city/county water system, but most of us don’t have sewer lines near us so we have private septic systems. Unfortunately much of the land here is high in clay content so it doesn’t perk well, and that means the septic fields in older housing developments are beginning to fail rather regularly. When they do the fix can be anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars up to $15-20,000 and many people on fixed incomes don’t have the money to do it. So they pay someone to come out and pump their tanks weekly – a band aid approach – and hope the health department doesn’t catch on. The town’s leaders are well aware of the issue, but running sewer lines is very expensive and they aren’t going to do it until they absolutely have to. Basically it comes down to money and priorities, and until either the right opportunity comes along to run new sewer lines (for instance the county building a new school which would require new lines run into that area) or it turns into a health crisis, there just won’t be enough political momentum to get it done.

That’s what’s going on in East Porterville, CA. Quite frankly those 900 households with dried up wells are caught in the middle of a much bigger problem. California’s drought is massive and is revealing long-term issues for the state that go well beyond drinking water for this one community, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering and that also doesn’t mean a solution shouldn’t be provided. That’s what good government is about and it will be interesting to see how this develops because we’re almost certain to see more situations like this in the future.

So back to the concept of teaching a community to fish. Here in the US we have something that many of the communities that Wine to Water serves do not: a functioning, stable government. That’s true at the local level, the state level and the national level. Yeah we all gripe about our government and joke about the ineptitude of our not-so-beloved bureaucrats and politicians, but in the grand scheme of things we have it great compared to the rest of the world. So maybe in this country, with our wealth and stability, the fishing is about how to effectively work with government to make sure that residents’ basic needs are met. Everyone I know, whether they’re staunch conservatives or liberals, do agree that government is necessary. They may not agree on how much government is necessary, but they do think we need it for the health and well being of our citizens. It would be hard to argue that access to clean drinking water is not part of the basic package that government should deliver.

Don’t agree with me on that last sentence? Well, think about it the next time you turn on the tap that’s likely less than 30 feet from where you sit reading this.

From Scarcity Thinking to Abundance Thinking

This Tedx New York talk will really get you thinking about things differently. The speaker presents two radical ideas: first, basic income guarantees for everyone to cover housing/food/health and the second is to allow bots to represent us. You might wonder what they have to do with each other, but the common thread is that we live in a time of technological abundance, not scarcity, and thanks to the coming wave of automation and the continuing impact this technology is having on our workforce we have to invert our thinking about public policy in response. Whether you agree or disagree I think the 17 minutes you spend with this will cause you think about how we think about things in our society:

Before you jump to any conclusions, one of which is most likely “Why in the hell should be pay people even if they aren’t working” you should stop and really think through what he’s saying and the opportunities that these ideas present. Once you allow yourself to move beyond the knee-jerk reaction of “I don’t want lazy lowlifes benefitting off my hard work” to really thinking this through I think that you’ll find that the premise leads to some interesting potential outcomes.

Some Things Shouldn’t Be Left to the Market

North Carolina’s freshman senator, Sen. Thom Tillis, is getting some pretty bad press today for saying that he has no problem with restaurants not being required to make their employees wash their hands after using the bathroom. Of course that’s the headline version that’s grabbing everyone’s attention, but when you see it in context it’s not quite that bad. Here’s what he said:

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience.

In that context the quote’s not nearly as bad as the headlines and social media posts would lead you to believe, but even so his stance is terrible public policy. First of all, just because you require a sign doesn’t mean it’s going to be seen. More importantly, how do you propose to deal with all the people who get sick or die before the word gets out that a restaurant is toxic?

I’m all for letting the market decide in many areas of our lives, but public health ain’t one of them.

Marriott Wants to Block Guests’ and Exhibitors’ MiFi

This article at Boing Boing about Marriott’s petition with the FCC to be able to block personal WiFi networks on its properties is also a very informative primer on how these networks work:

Marriott is fighting for its right to block personal or mobile Wi-Fi hotspots—and claims that it’s for our own good.

The hotel chain and some others have a petition before the FCC to amend or clarify the rules that cover interference for unlicensed spectrum bands. They hope to gain the right to use network-management tools to quash Wi-Fi networks on their premises that they don’t approve of. In its view, this is necessary to ensure customer security, and to protect children.

The petition, filed in August and strewn with technical mistakes, has received a number of formally filed comments from large organizations in recent weeks. If Marriott’s petition were to succeed, we’d likely see hotels that charge guests and convention centers that charge exhibitors flipping switches to shut down any Wi-Fi not operated by the venue…

The FCC reserves all rights to the regulation of wireless spectrum to itself. Even licensed owners of spectrum—such as cellular networks—aren’t allowed to employ techniques to jam other users. Rather, they pull in enforcement from the FCC, which tracks down, shuts down, fines, and even proffers criminal charges against violators.

Marriott is asking, therefore, for a unique right: the right to police spectrum privately based on property rights. As Cisco put it in its comment, “Wi-Fi operators may not ‘deputize’ themselves to police the Part 15 radio frequency environment.”…

So far, there’s no organization representing consumers, small businesses, trade-show exhibitors, or business travellers that has submitted a comment, though a couple dozen individuals have. The affected parties are these groups. The original complaint against Marriott came from a savvy business traveller who saw what was up. Should Marriott get what it wants, we’d all have to use hotel or convention Wi-Fi; portable hotspots would fail, and our cell phones’ Wi-Fi sharing would be disabled, though USB and Bluetooth tethering would continue to work.

There’s also no representation from businesses and people adjacent to hospitality operations. If a hotel is in a city, how can it possibly protect just its own network without disabling all the dozens of networks around it without whitelisting those networks—in effect, requiring neighbors to register with them.

I’ve been involved in managing and organizing trade shows and conferences for multiple organizations and I can tell you from personal experience that the hotels and convention centers charge incredibly high rates for often spotty internet connectivity for exhibitors and guests. I’ll be interested to see if one of the organizations I belong to, the ASAE, comes out against this. Its members are people who work for associations, many of which spend a significant amount of their time and budget on trade shows and whose own members would be subject of these “jamming” techniques.

San Francisco’s Poop Problem

In this day and age it’s not hard to find an argument about the proper role of government in American society. Almost everyone agrees that government should have a significant role in public safety and national security, but even with those gimmes there’s significant disagreement about what that looks like. Throw in topics like education, public welfare, transportation, etc. and you’re going to get heated debate in any room with more than one person in it.

Still, with all that disagreement you’d think that any municipality in the country would have a pretty easy time getting its citizens behind the concept of doing whatever is necessary to keep people from pooping in public. The folks in San Francisco seem to be intent on making a mountain out of a pile of poo:

As a Mission kid, I have experienced days, even weeks, in a row when I’ve had to pull my eager dog away from steaming pancakes of human shit, or I’ve had to step over a sad, sick turd-smeared man passed out among sculpture-like piles of his own doo-doo mere feet from my doorway.However San Francisco’s poop problem isn’t confined to the streets of the Mission. Other neighborhoods ­– particularly SOMA, Mid-Market, and the Tenderloin ­– have a similar human-excrement predicament. Let’s face­­ it: if you live in the city, regardless of location or class affiliation, you’ve probably had your own encounter with the aftermath of a public number-two.

We live in a beautiful city that’s praised for its progressive values and the deeply set urban intellect of its residents. Why, then, do I find myself, on a daily basis, stepping around errant piles of fecal matter? In simpler terms, what’s with all the shit?…

It’s there for one reason, and one reason only: people needed to use the loo, and none was there for the using. And for the most part, these people are San Francisco’s massive homeless population.

There are more than 10,000 people living on the streets at any given time in our fair City by the Bay. San Francisco must be scrambling hand over foot to provide at least some semblance of a plan for their very apparent human needs. Right? Wrong.

Nice, huh? It’s not that the fair people of San Francisco aren’t thinking about the issue, but they’re having a heckuva time coming to a consensus about what to do:

Of course, like everything else in San Francisco, it turns out that potties have long been lashed to political debates. In a city that’s constantly reimagining itself, a restroom isn’t just a place to pee, after all. It’s part of a larger dialogue about who owns the public space. It’s a piece of architecture that’s at once public and intimate, where the landed gentry have to squat right alongside the city’s poor. “I think as you see a more stratified city, obviously the restrooms are gonna become more politicized,” former Supervisor Chris Daly says, remembering years of public-restroom football in City Hall.

For at least a decade, bathrooms have stood in for the city’s anxieties about homelessness, public utilities, and the changing economy. They’ve created fault lines and frenemies, they’ve cost untold millions of dollars. (The tab for this year’s renovation of a particularly infamous Portsmouth Square lavatory comes to $1.13 million). They’ve become porcelain tea leaves through which we can analyze the city’s development, and proxies for all of its battles. Scoff or turn away at the door, but it’s undeniable: Toilets have been markers for civilization since long before even the venerable coffee bar, and understanding the city now is just a flush away.

The problem is so bad that someone’s created a map of poop incidents and it has a “Report Poop” function.

So a note to all of our fine citizens here in the Piedmont Triad who interact with our municipal governments, whether it’s through volunteering to serve on various boards, committees and councils or appearing before those boards on behalf of themselves or clients and are often frustrated with the process – no matter how bad it gets just think of the folks in San Francisco and remember that things could be worse. Much worse.

The Importance of Trust

If you want to know why it’s important that we have  strong, trustworthy government and media in our society then all you need to do is look at the developing ebola situation.

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last six months you’ve seen news about the growing ebola epidemic in Africa and the worldwide angst that has ensued as cased have popped up in Europe and the U.S. Here in America the government – the Center for Disease Control in particular – is under intense pressure and scrutiny after they bumbled in their initial response to the first U.S. case in Dallas. Unfortunately those early mistakes have created a scenario in which people who were already skeptical of the government’s competency will now disregard anything the authorities say about the disease. They’ll also be susceptible to overreacting to suppositions or improbable outcomes ginned up by media outlets desperate for their attention. Here’s an example from Fox & Friends:

http://video.foxnews.com/v/3840172448001/purdue-professor-says-ebola-primed-to-go-airborne/?playlist_id=930909787001#sp=show-clips

So while the story isn’t totally irresponsible in that the interviewee and the Fox on air talent repeatedly say that nothing currently indicates the disease can be transmitted through the air, they also say repeatedly that at some point the virus could mutate and become transmittable by air. While the interviewee couldn’t put a number on the probability he also couldn’t call it a zero probability.

You can guess what happens next. People who will look for any reason to discount the government because it’s led by their arch-nemesis President Obama, and that would be the vast majority of Fox’s audience, take to their social media accounts and start sharing the story and saying things like, “We knew that Obama/the CDC was lying about this to keep us from panicking” or “The CDC is so incompetent that they didn’t know that ebola could go airborne.” What makes it even worse is that the clip that Fox & Friends put on their Facebook page is a 22 second excerpt that includes only the pieces of the interview where the expert says it’s possible for the virus to go airborne. Here’s a link to it.

In my mind that’s just plain irresponsible. They have to know full and well that people will be sharing that clip, that it will spread quickly with their viewers, and it will play into their audience’s preconceived notions about the Obama administration and the federal government. That’s par for the course with just about any topic these days, but it’s especially bad when you’re talking about a public health situation.

Back to the government’s side of this equation. They admit they bungled the initial response to this situation. That’s good, because while people might be unhappy, critical, calling for someone’s head to roll, etc. they will at least be working under the assumption that the authorities are being straight with them. Unfortunately the government has not always been straight with the public (think Watergate or any of the other “gates” that have happened over the last 40 years) so there exists a baseline of distrust in the American public that the media outlets exploit to appeal to their audiences. In other words, no matter how transparent the CDC is on this they will have a very hard time getting anyone to trust them. Just take a look at Matt Lauer’s interview with the head of the Department of Health and Human Services to see how even morning TV shows are disinclined to accept the government’s word at face value:

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32545640

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The really tragic part about all of this is that the public trust has been exploited  to the point that when the American public is confronted by a true crisis they won’t know who to trust.  How will they be able to discern a legitimate threat from a minimal threat that’s been hyped by various media outlets to discredit their favorite target? Hopefully we’ll never have to find out.

Body-Mounted Cameras and the Police

An article in the Wall Street Journal focused on the impact that wearing body cameras can have on police forces:

Sometimes, like the moments leading up to when a police officer decides to shoot someone, transparency is an unalloyed good. And especially lately, technology has progressed to a point that it makes this kind of transparency not just possible, but routine.

So it is in Rialto, Calif., where an entire police force is wearing so-called body-mounted cameras, no bigger than pagers, that record everything that transpires between officers and citizens. In the first year after the cameras’ introduction, the use of force by officers declined 60%, and citizen complaints against police fell 88%…

What happens when police wear cameras isn’t simply that tamper-proof recording devices provide an objective record of an encounter—though some of the reduction in complaints is apparently because of citizens declining to contest video evidence of their behavior—but a modification of the psychology of everyone involved.

The article goes on to point out that there are some issues that need to be resolved with body camera technology – privacy concerns for victims and witnesses to name one – but with the cost of the technology plummeting some experts think it’s only a matter of time before most police departments will be using them.