A Letter to Governor Dean

Finally, to your warning about the eventual overreaction, to everyone’s detriment, to the creeping problem of general, portable access to health-care: I concur, and have for a long time. I have described this as the revolt of the officially voiceless: people with reasonable, legitimate, but inconvenient concerns — over access to health care, or over welfare, or over affirmative action, or over discrimination, or over campaign financing, or over free speech, or over taxes, or over regulation, or over some other issue — are told by the politicians, by the press, by academics, by the arbiters of social norms that they are heartless, or bigoted, or ignorant, or unreasonable, or unrealistic, or hateful; they are told that their concerns do not really exist, or are parochial, or are irrelevant, or must be borne with stoicism on behalf of some greater good; they are told they are unworthy of attention and respect; they are told, in effect, to shut up. And they do shut up — while their problems fester and swell, with animosity added to inconvenience — until they are, in the over-used phrase, “Mad as hell, and not going to take it any more.” And then, we all suffer as the sledge-hammer solutions born of this groundswell of frustration create new problems and new animosities.

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Domestic Partners Benefits

In the beginning of 1997 the government of San Francisco initiated a new policy: henceforth, all organizations which have any contractual relationship with the city must offer the same benefits to ‘domestic partners’ as they do to spouses. For the uninitiated, a ‘domestic partner’ is someone with whom you have a long-term, committed, live-in (but not legally-binding) relationship; in San Francisco this typically (but not necessarily) means a gay relationship for which a formal marriage is simply not available.

The policy is a noble attempt to reward loving, committed, stable relationships, whether or not they fit the traditional mold. It is also an act of hubris, perhaps even rising to the level of cultural imperialism: the law seeks to extend this policy beyond San Francisco to wherever any city contractor operates, from San Mateo, CA, to Atlanta, GA, to every major airport in the world (United Airlines, which has a major hub in San Francisco, is thereby considered to have a city contract, and was notified it must comply across the board), and even to the Vatican (the catholic church, which ducked the issue by offering benefits to “any member of an employee’s household”, operates much of the city’s social safety net). Imagine the citizens of Little Rock or Des Moines trying to enforce a ban on benefits for domestic partners in San Francisco…

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Mathematical Illiteracy

Adair Lara is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. In January of 1997 she wrote a piece about math, in which she implied that the study of math was a tortuous, pointless exercise. The column was lighthearted, and left room for a dissenting view, but for me it dredged up ugly high-school memories of the self-righteous pomposity with which the ‘liberal arts’ clique derogated the ‘math rocks’ and ‘science rocks’ as some inferior type of creature. There is a general attitude in our culture that to be mathematically illiterate is not only acceptable, but perhaps a source of pride — proof that you are a broad and open-minded thinker, not constrained to the ‘linear’ and ‘mechanical’ modes of thought required for mathematical rigor. As you might surmise, I disagree.

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Right Of Way

It seems to me the most important thing we can teach our children, future drivers, riders, and walkers — and future employers and employees and leaders and teachers and neighbors, and future voters and politicians — is courtesy. We must all share the roads. We must all share in society. Your duty in driving, and in life, should be to minimize the chaos and disruption in your wake as you strive toward your destination. Your guiding principle should be: always assume the other guy is going to do something careless or stupid. If that means sometimes ceding your right-of-way — what have you lost but a bit of pride?

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Making Your Voice Heard

This essay — minus the two paragraphs in the middle that refer to this project — was one of the first essays submitted for publication to the San Jose Mercury News. It was not published.

Note that, when this was written, the entire concept of blogging — and its potential for bringing other voices to the public debate — did not exist. Clearly, blogging has had an effect on the way news is reported; I consider its potential to affect public policy still indeterminate. This is one experiment to test that potential.

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Reform of the Franking Privilege

In the fall of 1996 a friend of mine ran for congress as a Republican in a predominantly Democratic district. In addition to having to overcome the demographics, he was also fighting an entrenched incumbent and the disaster of Bob Dole’s lackluster presidential campaign. Predictably, he lost the election.

While working occasionally on the campaign I began to pay attention to some of the biases built into our electoral system. This essay describes one such bias, the franking privilege, and proposes an alternative.

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White Man

The general state of race-relations in America has recently been highlighted nationally by President Clinton’s “Dialogue on Race”, and in California by ballot propositions like 187 (limiting government benefits to illegal immigrants) and 209 (eliminating state-sponsored affirmative-action). The desire for an unemotional and realistic conversation on race — where we stand, where we are headed, and where we want to be — is noble and desirable. It seems, however, that our initial attempts have been thwarted as much by the terms of the conversation as by the subject itself: just as the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of historical discrimination were largely defined by its beneficiaries (to whom ‘race-relations’ were a closed issue), the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of the fight against discrimination — and, more generally, of our discussions about race — have been largely defined by those to whom ‘race-relations’ have historically meant ‘race-based oppression’ — to whom ‘race-relations’ were very much an open issue and a dominant factor of their lives. While this is understandable, and perhaps even just, it almost ensures that racial difference is viewed and debated as a chasm to be crossed — or into which to fall — rather than as a boundary to be transcended.

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The Good Fight

Why is LSI fighting so hard against this school when the risks, according to the environmental impact study, seem so small and the support so strong? Certainly there are better ways to spend what little public regard remains for corporate America than in opposing a popular and socially beneficial neighbor.

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Analysis of Complex Social and Political Policies

Create a panel of “real-world actors”, people who are/will be directly involved in the implementation of the laws — for instance, in the case of proposition 211, a panel of tort lawyers who file securities cases and of judges who sit on securities fraud cases — and let them describe what they would do in these hypothetical scenarios under existing and proposed law. Would they file a suit? Would they allow a case to go to trial? At what cost? Would they bring back a judgement for or against a particular party? Who would they hold liable and to what extent? How big a judgment would they award? Under what circumstances would they declare a case “frivolous”? What punishments would they impose, either for a finding of fraud or for a finding of frivolity?

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