Thursday, January 22, 2015

Heading Home from Snowmass, Colorado

In late January, for the past 27 years, four of us have met at various ski resorts in the West. A few years back, we were lucky enough that one of these friends was able to purchase a house in Snowmass Village, Colorado.  Consequently, the third week of January now usually finds us here.

This year it didn't snow for two weeks before we arrived. It has been sunny and cold.  In most resorts the snow would deteriorate, and the slopes would become hard and slick.  But not here. At Snowmass they groom the slopes more than at any other place I've skied.  The slopes are uncrowded, the terrain is large, and the grooming means we can find freshly conditioned slopes every day.  Finally, just when there was a need, we were blessed with two inches of fresh snow, and then two more.  It's made for a great week.

I am a lucky guy!

Israeli Elections 5: A United Arab Slate is projected to receive 11 Knesset Seats

Ayman Odeh, leader of Hadash and head
of joint Arab party slate

On January 21, 2015 the four Arab parties (Hadash, Balad, Ta’al, and Ra’am) announced that they have formed a common slate. This may boost Arab Israeli participation in the elections.  A +972 magazine poll found that nearly 70% of Arab Israelis may vote for  joint slate, compared to 56% voter participation in 2013 when the Arab parties ran separately.

Here is a brief description of the four Arab parties in the joint list:

Hadash:  Hadash is a Hebrew acronym for The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. Hadash is a Jewish and Arab socialist grouping established in 1977. It had four seats in the 19th (current) Knesset. The party supports a two-state solution, increases in the minimum wage and benefits and ending privatisation of government companies. The party also promotes cooperation between Jews and Arabs and the rights of women, minorities, and workers.  The joint list will be headed by Hadash's Ayman Odeh, an Arab-Israeli lawyer from Haifa. 

Balad: Balad means nation in Arabic and is also an acronym in Hebrew for the National Democratic Assembly. Established in 1995, Balad is a leftist, anti-Zionist party that promotes Arab nationalism.  Balad had three seats in the 19th Knesset.  The party includes controversial MK Hanin Zoabi who stirred up controversy by joining activists on the Mavi Marmara when this ship attempted to break Israel's naval blockade on the Gaza Strip.  She has prominently participated in demonstrations against the Gaza war in the summer of 2014 (Israeli Operation Protective Edge) and she has called on Palestinians to continue fighting, to besiege Israel, and to refuse to negotiate. She was previously barred from running by the Israeli Central Elections Committee, but his was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.  More recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (head of Israel Bietenu party) along with the Minister for Security campaigned to oust both Zoabi and Balad from the Knesset. Thus far they have only been successful to impose sanctions on Zoabi--preventing her from addressing the Knesset for a period of six months--but not oust her. She remains on the list in the number 7 position, behind another woman, Aida Slouma-Timan from Hadash in fifth position.

Ta’al and Ra'am:  Ra'am, the united Arab list, and Ta'al (the Arab Movement for Renewal) already formed a joint list for the 2013 elections. They shared four MK's in the 19th Knesset.  

No Arab party has ever been part of a governing coalition in Israel.  Current polling projects these parties to maintain 11 Knesset seats in the upcoming election.  However, as a joint list, it is possible that the Arab parties will have a greater chance of becoming part of a governing coalition. 

Although Israel has a strictly proportional electoral system, with each party receiving representation in the Knesset in accordance with their percentage of the vote,  the combined Arab parties have significantly less representation than the Arab population of Israel -- approximately 20.7 percent--would indicate. Arab party representation in the 19th Knesset was a mere 9 percent (11 seats of 120 seats total). The reasons for this are unclear to me. 

In the upcoming elections, it will be interesting to observe both the voter participation rate of Arab citizens  as well as the success of this joint list. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watching the Israeli Elections 4: Eight Weeks Out it Looks Like Israel is Heading for More of the Same

Today Noam Sheizaf at +972 Magazine is looking at the scenario for a possible unity government. A unity government in Israel's parliamentary system comes about when no one party has sufficient coalition strength to form a government, and rival parties must combine in order to form a government. Sheizaf sees potential for a Labor-Likud led government for the 20th Knesset.

Here is the latest polling by Project 61, a non-partisan polling group:

Likud and Labor are currently expected to win 23-25 seats each, not enough to form a government by themselves, even if they team up.  Sheizaf believes both of these rivals will have a difficult time forming a government without the other.

What would it mean?  Sheizaf:
There are those who think that national unity is a good idea. That together the big parties can solve the existential challenges that face Israel: peace, security, inequality. But in reality, the opposite outcome is much more likely. National unity governments cannot bring about substantial reforms on any issue, since their common denominator – the glue that holds them together – is an agreement on the status quo
The most unlikely reform such a government will undertake has to do with the occupation, because Likud will simply not provide the necessary Knesset majority for any kind of agreement. Nearly every member of the party has vowed to oppose any kind of compromise, let alone the formation of a Palestinian state. While such a government may appear more moderate, and thus has a better chance of delaying some of the international measures being taken against the occupation (which are incredibly slow to take off in any case), the reality on the ground will stay the same – at best.
Two months out, it looks likely that no matter what combination of parties forms the next government, the likely outcome will be a continuation of the status quo.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Je Suis Tommy Caldwell; Je Suis Kevin Jorgensen:" Climbing the Dawn Wall

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen
on Yosemite's Dawn Wall

This looks crazy hard. And it is. 3,000 vertical feet of glacier polished granite, 19 days, 32 pitches (rope lengths), two of them rated 15.4d on climbing's scale of difficulty, which makes this "among the hardest (free climbing) sections of rock ever climbed in the world:" the Dawn Wall on Yosemite's Half Dome. They say Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen's were seven years in preparation, scoping the route, trying individual pitches, falling repeatedly, saved only by safety ropes and harnesses that did not fail.  

Granted, man has been out of Africa for 50,000 years, and who knows what crazy stunts we've tried over the millennia. Yet, it seems likely that Oetzi's adventures were more utilitarian.

Why do we admire this feat? Why are we fascinated by it? We are drawn to root for their success just as we are drawn to any activity that combines years of dedication, supreme skill, and uncommon performance. If this becomes repeated regularly, it will be as skillful, but it will no longer capture our imagination.

But for today, we are Tommy Caldwell, we are Kevin Jorgensen. They have climbed for us .... and they didn't kill or get killed in the process. That's something.

Israeli Elections 3: "Who Gets It?"

Last night I listened to former member of Knesset Einat Wilf speak about the upcoming Israeli elections (March 17) at the Kol Shofar synagogue in Marin County (San Francisco Area).  These elections are about "Who gets it?" she said. 

Wilf is an accomplished scholar and speaker, and she did not disappoint. She achieved the rank of lieutenant in the Israeli Intelligence Unit 8200, which attracts many of the best and brightest young Israelis. She also served as a foreign policy advisor to Shimon Peres. Today, she is an adjunct fellow at the pro-Israel think-tank Washington Center for Near East Policy.  Her talk was entitled: “Israel’s Future: An Insider’s Analysis of the Upcoming Israeli Elections."

Israeli elections are not really so frequent, she said.  The average duration between elections is 46 months.  In this case, it will have been less than 26 months since the last election.  This has not happened since 1963, she said, when Ben Gurion resigned in a contest with Levi Eshkol over the Levon affair. 

Here is Wilf's assessment of the upcoming elections. This is today, she cautioned, making no promises about how her opinion might change in this fast moving election: 

Netanyahu-Likud:  Netanyahu offers no plan. There is no solution he feels. But this tracks with what most Israelis think. “Reality is about the threat posed by Islamic terrorism and the fact that Israel lives in a ‘rough neighborhood,’" says Netanyahu.  Critics accuse him of trading in fear, that these are distractions, and that there are more pressing problems like the economy, corruption, and the lack of housing. But Netanyahu points to his past predictions to support his case that he "gets it."  Wilf says that she accompanied Netanyahu to Paris in 2011 to discuss the Arab Spring with prominent newspaper editors.  This was when euphoria and hope ran high. Netanyahu was very pessimistic. "The Arab Spring will collapse," he said. "It will bring to the fore Muslim extremists, it will result in a security crisis." The editors could not get him to say anything positive.  Four years later, Netanyahu says “See, I was right. I get it." 

Naftali Bennett—Jewish Home Party:  He’s the “man with the plan,” says Wilf. Bennet says “I get it, there cannot be a Palestinian state. It would be too dangerous. Israel will never support such a state." His solution is to Annex Area C (60% of the West Bank including the Jordan river valley), granting citizenship to the ~300,000 Palestinians (?) living there, and granting autonomous status to Areas A and B and the Palestinians living there, with Israel maintaining overall security control.

Avigdor Lieberman—Yisrael Beiteinu Party: He was in many ways the architect of this election, says Wilf. He blocked every path that might have avoided it.  Lieberman says he “gets it,” that what is needed is a regional peace plan. With Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states all very concerned about the threat of rising Islamic extremism there is an opportunity to work with them to achieve a common goal of regional stability, to make peace with them, and to jointly impose a solution on the Palestinians. He has positioned himself to the left of Likud and says he is prepared to make substantial concessions to achieve such a plan.  

Isaac Herzog/Tzipi Livni—Labor-Hatnua: They call themselves the “Zionist Camp." They have no plan. It's less than two months before the election and it’s not clear if they will campaign on domestic or foreign policy issues.  Their main message is they are not Netanyahu. They imply they “get it” that Netanyahu is not liked, Israel is being isolated internationally, and its legitimacy questioned, and that Netanyahu is part of the problem.  They claim that they would be viewed more favorably by the international community and the world would cut them more slack. More slack for what, one might ask.

Yair Lapid—Yesh Atid:  They are focused on economic domestic issues like the cost of living, housing, and the economy. 

Wilf did not mention any of the Arab parties, but the question was raised whether Jews and Arabs can coexist in the land of Israel?  

Israel's president Reuven Rivlin presents a vision of coexistence, says Wilf. He wants to embody it as a possibility, even something desirable.  The obstacles are partly psychological.  She shared what an Arab colleague told her: “Jews are a numerical majority in Israel, but in their minds they are a minority, still victims; Palestinian citizens of Israel, by contrast, are a minority, but in their minds they are a majority.”  It causes problems. Arab Israeli citizens, says Wilf, perceive their minority status as a humiliating experience, and they react in two ways. On the one hand there is the feeling that the situation is good enough, and Arab Israelis should focus on making the most of it, get a fair share, and integrate into the society--the Jewish state. On the other hand, Arab Israelis have the feeling that they can never truly integrate while the state is a Jewish state, with Jewish national and religious symbols, and Jewish immigration, and no Palestinian immigration, let alone equality and full respect. The Jewish majority reacts very negatively to these demands for equality that threaten Israel as a Jewish state, says Wilf.  "These demands are not negotiable."

She discussed the Nation State Bill:  “It’s no big deal. These things are like motherhood and apple pie. It’s banal. If you are for a Jewish State, then of course you are for all these things," she said. As I have described here, I believe she is profoundly mistaken about that.


Wilf vividly described some of the challenges to co-existence. Palestinians who found themselves citizens of this country they did not want must come to terms with it somehow.  That is true, but I'm not sure she "gets it."  Palestinians will never be able to come to terms with their Israeli citizenship as long as their status in Israel is that of second class citizens. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will never be able to come to terms with Israel as long as they are under military occupation and blockade.

Netanyahu says there is no solution. Bennet's solution is relegating Palestinian Israeli citizens to permanent second class status, and condemning Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to permanent military occupation. Herzog and Livni call themselves the "Zionist camp" and have no plan. Lieberman wants to cede majority Arab towns in northern Israel to a future Palestinian state, and offer Palestinian Israelis in Haifa and Jaffa economic incentives to give up their Israeli citizenship and move to the Palestinian state--where they can presumably look forward to living under permanent Israeli military rule. 

No one is talking about a commitment to equal rights for Palestinian citizens, no one is talking about ending the occupation, no one is talking about ending settlement expansion, no one is talking about how to form a Palestinian state, no one is talking about Gaza. It does not appear that anyone "gets it." 



Saturday, January 10, 2015

Can a Third Party be the Answer to the Republican Domination of Congress?

The Structural Problem Baked Into the Constitution

There is an imbalance in the United States Constitution that favors Republicans. Each state is represented by two senators. This means the least populous state (Wyoming, 493,782 in 2010 census) gets the same number of senators (2) as the most populous state (California, 33.8 million in 2010 census). In fact, the 35 million people who live in the 22 least populous states have 44 senators representing them in the Senate while just two senators represent the 34 million people living in California.  The political playing field in the Senate is tilted heavily in favor of the least populous states at a slope of 22:1.

The 35 million people in the 22 least populous states, represented by 44 senators, are predominantly Republican. The 125 million people in the seven most populous states, represented by just 14 senators, are predominantly Democratic.

This bias in favor of less populous states also infects the Electoral College for our presidential elections. All states receive Electoral College votes equal to their Congressional representation, including the two senators.  In other words, Wyoming's one half million inhabitants get two electoral college votes for its two senators; and California's 34 million inhabitants also get two electoral college votes for its senators. There are 538 Electoral College votes. The 35 million people living in the 22 least populous states receive 44 Electoral College votes on account of their senators while the 34 million people living in California receive 2. 

These are the two structural imbalances baked into our constitution.

The Demographic Imbalance

The House of Representatives is different. House seats are awarded proportionately in accordance with population, currently based on the 2010 census. So, considering Republicans only received 52% of the votes in House races in the last election, and considering Democrats have an advantage in party registration overall, what accounts for the current 56 Republican vote advantage in the House of Representatives: 188 (D): 244 (R)

Ronald Brownstein and Jamie Boschma have an intriguing article pointing to another structural problem rooted in demographics.  They report about a study in the National Review (h/t Peter Beinart) by Next America Foundation based on the most recent census data. Here's what they found: 
"Republicans are going to have a structural advantage [in the House of Representatives] because their votes are distributed more efficiently across more districts than Democratic voters are, even without gerrymandering," says political scientist Gary C. Jacobson, an expert on congressional politics at the University of California (San Diego). "For a long time, Democrats have been overrepresented in big cities, where there are minorities and liberals and college-educated people and gays, and underrepresented everywhere else. That's not going to change."
The study found that party success in House Districts is correlated to education and race. In districts where whites exceed their share of the national population, Republicans have a commanding edge, especially if that white population also holds fewer four year college degrees than the national average.  Undereducated whites (compared to national average) vote Republican.
The new analysis shows that whites exceed their share of the national population in 263 House districts—fully three-fifths of the total number of seats. And Republicans now hold a crushing 199 of those 263 white-leaning seats, putting them on the brink of a House majority before they even begin competing for more diverse seats. The Republican lead is nearly as great in the 245 districts where fewer than average whites hold a college degree.
By contrast, over-educated whites (compared to national average) and minorities tend to vote Democratic. And this demographic tends to live in the big metropolitan areas. It is reflected in the polarization we are experiencing in our country's politics:
The numbers underscore the extent to which the two parties now represent two Americas: While 81 percent of the House Republicans in the new Congress hold districts that are more white than the national average, 66 percent of House Democrats represent districts in which minorities exceed their national presence. And while 63 percent of House Democrats hold districts in which the share of college-educated whites exceeds the national average, 71 percent of House Republicans hold districts with a fewer than average proportion of such people. "It means the gulf between the political perspective of the Democratic and Republican caucus in the House is widening with every election," ... the challenge of forging bipartisan coalitions for any of our problems is becoming greater and greater.
The study suggests that as long as undereducated whites continue to be predominant among voters outside the large cities Republicans will have a demographic advantage in the House of Representatives. Gerrymandering resulting from Republican control of many governorships (currently 29/50) only makes the problem worse. It makes it hard for Democrats to compete in Red States.

Dilution of the Brand

The Red State bias that is baked into our constitution and found in the Red States' undereducated white demographic has caused the Democratic brand to be confused since the days when Southern Whites fought for slavery, fought Reconstruction, implemented Jim Crow, and fought the Civil Rights movement--all happily within the Democratic party. Today, of course, that Southern White constituency has migrated to the Republican Party, but because the Democrats are still competing for that constituency, their message continues to be compromised.

Brownstein and Boschma quote a longtime Republican pollster, Whit Ayres, who states that our politics, especially for federal offices, is becoming nationalized. By this he means I think that the message of candidates in local House races is the message of the national party. This presents a real challenge for Democrats. Because they have to compete on Republican turf with a unified national message, they are unable to rally around progressive and more liberal ideas that would be anathema in Red States.

As a result, some suggest that the Democrats should write off the deep Red States in order to focus on those races where they can win (and win bigger) with a more focused progressive agenda. It would allow Democrats to be sharper and smarter than they currently appear. The fear is that such clarity would narrow their path back to majority status as a party.

The Third Party Option

There's an intermediate strategy that would allow the big city blue-blue Democrats to sharpen their message, and that would still not diminish their chances to govern by ceding Red States to the Republicans. We should not think of this as Democrats not competing in Red States; we (the Blue people) should think of this as competing under a different brand in the Red States. Democrats in deep Red States should break off and compete as a newly formed centrist party that would not be forced to carry a "nationalized" message, but that would be free to fine tune a centrist message to compete with today's Republicans in Red States. Such a centrist party could work with Democrats in Congress, and, in the meantime, big city Democrats would be freer to focus on progressive solutions that are best for the big cities?

We big city Democrats should take our party back.  But let's not force our brothers and sisters in the middle of the country to carry our big city message; let's encourage them to form a more centrist and cooperative alternative to today's Republican party in those deep Red States. Introducing some regional differences would not be a bad thing.

Hell, all we need is a catchy name, some energetic leaders, a grass-roots organization, boatloads of money, and some votes.

A Centrist Party to Compete for These Votes?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Jury Duty 2015

In San Francisco we get summoned for jury duty once a year, like clockwork. It's almost never convenient. Last year I was first in the box on a six week asbestos trial and had to raise a ruckus to get off--because I legitimately had work conflicts.  Today I was on a large panel called up for a one week drunk driving case.

One week, the judge promised.  Just enough to potentially threaten my catching a plane to Aspen next Friday to go skiing with friends. Should I ask for a deferral if called.  It would be granted.  I could come back at the end of the month.  You just need to say so. But I was tempted to chance the schedule, to serve and pay the $100 change ticket fee if the trial dragged through next Friday.  Alas, I never got called in the box, so my resolve was not put to the test.

The video they show you in the jury room in San Francisco is inspiring:  about the jury system, the privilege, honor, duty, and importance of serving.  Mostly people pay attention. Only a few continue to work on their computers and phones.  It makes an impression.  We don't get confronted with our civic duties quite like this anywhere else. Not about voting, not about obeying stop signs on our bicycles, not about contributing to society with our taxes.  Jury duty is one of the few places where the state has our captive attention. It's important that they make the most of it, and by and large they do.

When it comes to voting I spend quite a bit of time studying the voter information, trying to understand the different positions and issues, and tell my friends about it.  But the state is not involved.  It's a passive relationship. The state spends money, and good people devote hours putting together those voter guides. But it's not face to face. The guide arrives in the mail and it may be read or not. We may vote, or not. In our last election 64 percent of eligible voters did not bother.

On jury duty they have us captive. We can't just not bother. We have to explain ourselves. I treasure that.

Many lie, make excuses, tell stories, exaggerate, say what they think will get them off.  Anything not to be stuck for a week listening to prosecution and defense of this fairly inconsequential matter.  What's such a big deal about a drunk driving conviction?

Well, it depends.  This defendant may have had a bunch to drink before he got behind the wheel. On the other hand, he is Latino. Maybe the cop was a racist SOB and took a dislike. We won't know unless we stick around to hear the story.

The glorious thing about our trial and jury system is that this defendant gets to tell his story, and the playing field in the courtroom is pretty even.  We have cops and the resources of the system on the one hand, but presumption of innocence and burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on the other side.  Two young attorneys represented the state and defendant today. The public defender had the upper hand--she is likable, well spoken, smooth. The prosecutor less so. The judge kept a close reign on the proceedings. The jury selection moved along without too much repetition or drag.  There was some gentle education by counsel and judge on burden of proof, difference between driving after a couple drinks and driving impaired, the difference between driving impaired and falling down drunk. The people who really don't want to be there and those with an apparent bias were weeded out. A jury was selected in an afternoon.  An efficient process.

Our criminal justice system is broken. There is not enough funding. Prosecutors have too much discretion in a determinative sentencing world. Defendants almost never have their day in court because the system is stacked in a way where even innocent people wind up pleading guilty.  But the jury remains one of the few checkpoints that we as citizens have on the abuses of the state. If we don't serve we collectively loose a lot.

Grand juries, like those in Ferguson and New York of recent infamy, matter. Jury duty matters.

In the end a just and equitable society depends on us. We should never forget it.