Jun 4 2016

Senate!

Wow, it’s been a long time since I last posted here. What a difference a few years make.

Biggest news for me is that for the last few months I have been running for the Oregon Senate. (I never thought a few years ago that I would ever be writing that!)

The very short version of the story is that after working for the last several years on improvements to our democratic systems (eg: redistricting reform, money in politics, different election methods) and ways to educate/engage voters (eg: League of Women Voters Voter Forums, Hack Oregon, “Who Represents You”, Voters Guide work) I realized that what we really need is people inside the Capitol working to make these issues a reality. Although I have had the opportunity to work with some great people in Salem (on both sides of the aisle), far too often elected officials claim that fixing democracy is just “not a priority” at the moment.

Well, for me it is a priority and it has to be on a very short list of top priorities if we’re going to be able to make meaningful progress on all of the other issues we face as a society.

My campaign website is: http://ofsink.today.

Ofsink for Senate 2016!


Jan 17 2011

Drummajor Instinct

Today I took to heart the concept of “a day on” instead of “a day off” and volunteered my time on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Portland-area universities coordinated a day of service with more than forty projects going on throughout the region. Stasia and I helped paint, clean and decorate a school for very high needs children. It was a fulfilling day and hopefully sets the tone (for myself and the other 1200 participants) not just for a single day of service, but for a year of service, and then a lifetime of service.

There’s a lot of good energy around the holidays and then on MLK day for volunteering to help others, but the risk with playing it up so much as an event is that it deemphasizes the important work that always exists. For people in the Portland area who are interested in service, check out Hands on Portland which is a searchable database to connect volunteers with opportunities to help in the Portland area. You can search by schedule, location, or type of opportunity. It’s a very nice tool for connecting up distinct community needs with people’s skills, resources or labor.

The best part of the opening session was one of Martin Luther King Junior’s speeches that I had never heard before, called the Drummajor Instinct. They played a recording of Dr. King delivering the following (the end of the sermon) and it set exactly the right tone for the day:

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to live his life serving others.

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.

The full sermon text can be found here along with an audio recording of Dr. King delivering this sermon on February 4, 1968 just two months before his death. The excerpt above is from the very end of the piece (starting at 35:07 on the audio recording).

I agree with Dr. King, that a better thing could not be said about any of us than that we lived a life committed to serving others. I’m sure working on it.

Now off to the Portland Plan workshop for a different kind of engagement (far less direct, but hopefully not less meaningful).


Dec 13 2010

Inside Job Part 3: Regulation

The previous two posts have been abstracted from the actual content of the film and have instead focused on its impact on me and its methods. But wait! I also had thoughts on the actual content of the film!

Many aspects of The Inside Job were compelling, especially to the layperson such as myself who has only a cursory knowledge of the events precipitating the recent worldwide financial troubles. Beyond its interest as a history lesson however, the film sharply advocates for greater regulation of the financial services industry (in a variety of capacities (kinds of derivatives allowed, conflict of interests, executive pay, etc.)).

It’s also a topic that is moderately interesting to me as I often find myself thinking about regulation prompted by the near constant stream of examples of businesses’ inability to self regulate.

On some level it’s difficult for me to understand what people are envisioning when they advocate for complete deregulation. Without wanting to pose a straw man, I think the basic argument is that the market can sort out any troubles (or questionable practices) that may arise in industry.

There are many things that aren’t clear to me about this position. I just don’t see how in a completely deregulated system we would avoid monopolies, worker exploitation, and environmental exploitation to name just a few things that we all agree are negative. If the answer on how these are avoided is that ‘consumers of the end-good will decide to buy something different,’ I think that the laissez-faire viewpoint is extremely naive about the modern consumer world.

In order for this kind of choice to occur there are several important prerequisites:

  1. Consumers must be informed. Especially as the production chain lengthens, it seems like it’s increasingly difficult for consumers to know what companies (and business practices) have gone into the making of a particular product. When I look at labels of pre-packaged food I’m often even unsure what all the ‘ingredients’ are, since I don’t have extensive knowledge of the chemistry that goes into modern food production and preservation. (Although, I’m extremely happy that thanks to regulation I can count on there being a list of ingredients and that they have been tested for negative health impacts on humans.) So if I don’t understand even for one package of teriyaki tofu, what all is going into it, I’m not sure how the free market camp expects that I will know enough about the tens of thousands of parts that go into a computer to make an informed decision. Especially if the manufacturer is not required to tell me what the parts are, where they came from, who made them and under what circumstances (thanks again Regulation!). In order for consumers to determine the kinds of things that we tend to regulate, using only their purchase decision, consumers would need to have access to the necessary information, which in my experience manufacturers are reticent to provide unless legally compelled.

    (On a small tangent, it seems like using the purchasing decision as the mechanism to approve or disapprove of company practices is a very blunt tool.

    Ok, so this person bought our competitor’s product instead of ours, what was it that they didn’t like about our product? Was it the size? Shape? Cost? Aspects of our worker compensation plan? Did they not like our environmental practices?

    This is similar to the line I investigated in my post on Winner Take All Politics a few weeks ago. Broadly taken, I believe that for preferences, a yes/no method of communication will rarely yield very accurate representation of the preference.)

  2. Commensurate options must exist for purchase. If the consumer choices are to be the only thing that drives company policy, that presupposes that there will be a variety of companies (with varying internal policies) who all produce a similar product. As a consumer, I can then purchase the item from the company I most support (theoretically communicating to competitors that they should change their policies if they want me to buy their option in the future). This does not match with the world that I observe currently. Maybe I’m a hapless casualty of ‘product differentiation,’ but when I’m in a store, I think that I rarely see two exactly equal products. Undoubtedly the world would look very different under a completely free market system, but I can’t imagine even in an idealized market that for every product there would be a bunch of vendors with the same basic item who I could then select between based on my moral compass. (I’m asserting here that regulation generally represents a society’s collective moral will (eg, “we don’t want child laborers,” “we do want a minimum wage for all workers,” “we don’t want toxic chemicals spewed into our public spaces for private gain,” etc.)) That also makes me wonder about what the truly free market advocate has to say about intellectual property rights at all. Isn’t copyright enforcement by the government a form of regulation on an industry?

I’m sure there are many other prerequisites to a perfectly functioning free market that are lacking in our current society, but those are the two that jump out at me most immediately.

So in my mind, regulation seems to a necessary aspect of modern commerce. We cannot expect that every consumer will be informed about the morally-relevant aspects of every company, nor can we assume that without regulation there will always exist an option for each product that concurs with our collective ethic.

I do think that in modern day America, there are plenty of bad regulations. Ones that serve to protect a special interest at the expense of the general tax payer, or regulations that are simply outdated/obsolete. But for me, these are cases to have better regulation, not remove all of it.

As I alluded to above, I conceive of contemporary commerce as being immensely complex; a delicate balance of hundreds of companies in dozens of countries with thousands of workers conspiring to bring a computer to my local store. This complexity creates increased opportunities for people (and institutions) to skirt regulations (and thus defy our collective moral will) and also leads to a so-called “revolving door” between regulators and industry members. This phenomena in the financial services sector is highlighted throughout the film and is sickening to watch. (Who better to regulate the banks than one of their biggest CEO’s?)

After the film, I started to think about a broader definition of “conflict of interest” where it’s not individuals that benefit, but targeted groups more broadly. I have a sketch of what I’m thinking about, but it’s not fully fleshed out yet.

Class-conflict of interest
Imagine a society where a small minority has a belief (ala Ayn Rand) that the best thing for everyone is for them (as a group, not necessarily as individuals) to have all of the society’s wealth. Now imagine that for historical reasons, Group A is actually the minority that is in charge of that society’s public policies.* This seems like a conflict of interest to me. Even though a particular individual policy maker may not be enriched directly by a decision that s/he participates in, by virtue of her philosophy and her membership in the group that she believes should be enriched it seems that this would be an unideal situation for a just society.

The situation described above is basically the picture that is painted in the film of top-level economists and economic advisers (even in academia). Where suggestions are made and policies are advocated for that serve to continue the Reaganomics idea of trickle down wealth (make the wealthy as absolutely rich as possible, and (the theory goes), the worst off will have their income raised as well). Maybe trickle-down economics works, and maybe it doesn’t, but regardless, do we really want to have a cadre of the wealthy as the principle advisers on the issue? As the category of people who will benefit most directly from the decision, it seems like we should be more suspect of their advice to adopt policies that will enrich them disproportionately but are described as being “for the good of society.”

Well, that’s probably enough for now on regulation, though I’m sure I’ll return to it in the future. These were originally designed as a trifecta of posts regarding The Inside Job with decreasingly removed levels of connection to the content. So now I’m done with that. Next on to something else!

*There an interesting series called The Trap (link is to the first of three parts) by filmmaker Adam Curtis, which has an intriguing thread about the shift in government attitude in the UK under Margaret Thatcher when civil servants started to be characterized as evil/selfish actors who were (and should be) only out for their own self-interest. The response is then to limit the extent of government, completely ignoring the idea that civil servants may actually have been altruistic from the beginning. I’m vastly oversimplifying even this one small aspect of Curtis’ film, but it’s worth the one hour investment if you’re interested…


Feb 1 2010

Citizens United v. FEC decision

I’ve been really fired up for the last week or so regarding the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in which 5 out of 9 supreme court justices held that corporations have the same first amendment rights as individuals (in fact more with respect to the issue at hand) with respect to political speech. I’m not a lawyer and won’t do justice to all the nuances in the case, but it seems that the supreme court has severely departed from its previous precedent as well as overturned decades old legislation.

I hope to write a more complete response once I’ve had time to work through the decision, which will require some close reading as well as a legal dictionary. I started reading the dissenting opinion a few days ago after a friend recommended it.

Thus far, the dissent seems to be a pretty damning condemnation of the majority opinion. I’m not sure about what the normal tone of these is, but I was surprised to see:

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.

-Justice Stevens from dissenting opinion (page 177)

and

Unlike our colleagues, [the framers of the Constitution] had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individ­ual Americans that they had in mind.

-Justice Stevens from dissenting opinion (page 124)

I also contacted all of my elected representatives regarding the issue, as well as the larger issue of corporate involvement in the political process. Lastly, I’ve started looking into ways to get involved in remedying the situation, but it seems like the way that the decision is written requires a constitutional amendment in order to overrule it.

Which is not to say that I’m opposed to that avenue, or really any avenue which shifts the balance of power away from larger corporations and back to individuals, I’m just not sure that this issue has the popular appeal necessary to inspire the political force that would be required to do that. The last time an original amendment to the constitution was proposed was 1971! (Although the 27th Amendement was passed in 1992, it was originally submitted in 1789.)

Given the political lethargy of the last several decades (generations?), I’m skeptical to say that this issue would be able to galvanize the necessary support to carry through to an actual amendment. Instead, I predict there will be some band-aid legislation that addresses campaign finance in minor form (eg Save Our Democracy) while failing to address the underlying issues. In light of this, I’m still figuring out where my efforts should best be spent on this issue. Email me if you have a suggestion.


Nov 12 2009

Prison reform

Had an interesting conversation with my friend John Broxton today regarding Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s sobering look at the criminal justice system in America.

There’s a good article by Glenn Greenwald (http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/03/28/webb/print.html) which summarizes many of the issues at play. The basic idea of it is that we are failing in the way that we handle crime in America. Here are some excerpts from Webb’s speech on his commission’s findings:

We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice…

The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%… and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues…

In many cases these issues involve people’s ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison

Pretty unbelievable.

The whole ‘war on drugs’ is a strange idea to me. It seems very poorly defined, so I’m not sure how anyone would know if we won the ‘war on drugs’ (but then maybe that’s the point). It also seems like the ‘war’ isn’t really fighting the right thing. If we’re so moralistically deadset on destroying recreational drugs in our country (unless it’s alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, prozac, etc), then it seems like it might be strategically advisable to work on combating the causes and not the symptoms. If 14% of people want to use drugs, then it seems like there are always going to be drug dealers out there, and if it’s extremely lucrative in a time of immense wealth inequality, then there’s going to be lots of competition and likely violence involved as well.

I’m not into recreational drugs for myself, but I have no problems with other people using them if that’s what they want to do. I do think it’s unfortunate that because of the way our society idolizes rule-breaking coupled with a somewhat nonsensical division of which drugs are ok and which ones aren’t, that people (especially adolescents) are pressured into using drugs. I also want people to be using drugs safely, because I don’t think that their choices about their recreation should endanger others. Of course, any discussion of how drug usage endangers people quickly comes back to the use and abuse of alcohol in our society. From the well researched Drug War Facts:

Leading annual causes of death in the United States
435,000 Tobacco
365,000 Poor Diet and Physical Inactivity
85,000 Alcohol
75,000 Microbial Agents
55,000 Toxic Agents
26,347 Motor Vehicle Crashes
32,000 Adverse Reactions to Prescription Drugs
30,622 Suicide
29,000 Incidents Involving Firearms
20,308 Homicide
20,000 Sexual Behaviors
17,000 All Illicit Drug Use, Direct and Indirect
7,600 Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs Such As Aspirin
0 Marijuana

As I was reading up on the issue of alcohol vs marijuana usage, I thought that this article was interesting from the former police chief of Seattle. So, yeah, I’m a little unconvinced regarding our society’s statements that marijuana use is definitely wrong and should be illegal, but that alcohol is a cherished part of our heritage.

I look forward to seeing what Senator Webb’s commission comes up with, and hope that we can begin to reform our broken penal system.