Sunday, July 26, 2015

So if we can't talk about race productively, can we talk about culture?

Before reading this, I must give a disclaimer and ask an indulgence.  The disclaimer is that these thoughts are not fully baked, and already while writing it I ended-up somewhere I didn't quite expect.  The indulgence I ask is to be gentle in your comments, but not uncritical.  Challenge them all you want, offer your own interpretations, point-out mistakes, mischaracterizations, etc.  Don't hesitate criticizing the ideas, but in criticizing the author.  There's no small amount of risk involved for someone without national prominence or celebrity proposing a different approach to our conversation on race relations without being accused of being a racist, bigot, or white supremacist.
There's a lot of talk about talking about race and we hear it on radio and TV--a lot.  But none of it seems productive because it's impossible to have an honest conversation about race, especially without it being recorded, where the participants won't be accused of racism.

So let's instead have a conversation about culture.  I should think we're all more comfortable with being called culturalists.

Let's start with the premise that not all cultures are equal.  Depending on how we measure them, some cultures are more successful than others.  There are some that offend our sense of morality (female circumcision) and our sense of fairness (woman not being allowed to drive or own businesses) or our sense of liberty (caste-based societies or theocracies).

But how do we measure cultures and avoid the subjectivity of morality?  How can we make the conversation more objective?

Before we get to measurements, let's examine the premise we started with: not all cultures are equal.  It's easier to start with what should be obvious, cultures are different.  Cultures have different origins, different evolutions, and have been influenced by their language, geography, natural resources, and clashes with other cultures either through war, or radio, television and the cinema.

Cultures have expectations of their members as much as their members' expectations are shaped by their culture. What a young woman may aspire to in Troy, MI is different from what another may aspire to in Sangalkam, Senegal.  Young men's expectations are similarly different between themselves even as they are different from young women--more so in some cultures than others.

I think it's a fallacy to assume all cultures are equal simply because they co-exist, as some biologists might argue all species are equally evolved simply by their present (as in right-now) existence.  While extinct species might be said to have lost the evolutionary race and are therefor inferior to those that survived to present, we commit the "naturalistic fallacy" in comparing human cultures to nature in this respect and assuming that simply "existing" is sufficient to measuring equality.

It's worth reconsidering, for a moment, the relationship between cultures and their habitat.  For example, the Aborigines of Australia are well-suited to the Australian bush, but less well-suited to the cement jungle (the fictional adventures of Crocodile Dundee excepted).

But there is where we'll begin.  If we begin with the co-dependency of cultures on their environment we can begin to measure the suitability of different cultures in different environments, and observe what happens when cultures get separated from their geography and relocated to another unlike where they came from.

When in the bush, do as the bushmen.

Before considering different cultures (which are complex and difficult to define), let's start with something smaller and easier to imagine.

If you only spoke Dutch and it became necessary to move to France--would you learn French?  Whether you would or not isn't as important as whether you think your prospects would improve if you learned French.  Would they improve faster or slower if all the French learned Dutch?  Which is more productive, your learning French or everyone else learning Dutch?  If you're dress was much different than the French, would you be better off dressing in your native costume or dressing as the French do?

Or how about this scenario, if the French found your foreign tongue and style of dress a delightful curiosity and took measures to protect your culture for their own sense of accomplishment of having "preserved" the exotic, would you be anymore free to succeed than a similar exotic curiosity at a museum or zoo  (both of which are not coincidentally the providence of government)?  Or is patronization a mechanism to keep members of the new culture from succeeding in a geography dominated by another?  Even if suppressing the minority's prospects isn't the goal of the majority culture, the majority's paternalism seems to have the same effect for its goals of self-gratification at the preservation (as though they'd discovered a new biological specimen in Loch Ness) or entertainment.  Either motivation leads to the same ends.

Is "culture" worth preserving even at the expense of its members?  If its members have become the near permanent wards of another, what purpose does it service?  If preserving a culture handicaps its members with language, dress, or skills incompatible with its geography, and with its survival dependent on the welfare of more successful cultures (as the Pilgrims may have been rescued by native Americans so many years ago), whose purpose does preserving it serve?

Unless the purpose of a culture is to preserve itself at the expense of its members, a culture must adapt to its environment, or its members must, if they endeavor to their own success over their culture's success.  If it were the case that through adaptation a culture were to change so completely as to be unrecognizable, or be lost to or within the dominant culture, but its members' posterity prosper, what real loss was the loss of that culture?

But those cultures are rarely lost, as their descendants keep them alive at festivals, churches, community centers, and neighborhoods--bringing them out on weekends, holidays, weddings, and other occasions with significance to the community.  In these examples, the members of the community keep their traditions alive as the members deem fit and at their own expense and with their own exertions, than as specimens for "outsiders" to maintain (even when they are invited to Oktoberfest).

So, is America's race problem really a race problem, or is it a culture problem?  Does America have examples of culture clash successes and failures from which it can find ideas for resolving its current clash?  Or is it doomed to an un-ending battle between black and white, between its past and present, because it can't describe the problem in terms it can work with?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nowhere to go but up for downtown Ferndale

Downtown Ferndale has nowhere to go but up--literally.  The downtown is land-locked by residences on all sides with virtually no undeveloped land on which to build or pave.  The only way to add more square footage for new businesses, retail, residential, or anything else worth attracting is vertically with taller buildings and dare we admit, taller parking.

Being land-locked, our downtown has only three options; build up, demolish the homes that constrain its growth, or stay the way it is.

Downtown Ferndale is exactly what it is.  A commercial area surrounding the intersection of Woodward and Nine Mile roads, with a mix of bars, restaurants, retail, services, and a few multi-unit, multi-floor condominiums.  With the present restrictions on space, the downtown can only change its face by replacing or reusing existing buildings and parking lots.

The 3-60 Project, which proposes multi-use, multi-story, parking-included developments on both the north and south sides of Nine Mile Road west of Woodward (the green-glass-looking buildings in the picture) proposes a disruptive change to the character of our downtown.  The rub is in speculating whether that change is good for the community or bad for the community.

There are two ways to increase our population.  Increasing the birth rate and subsequently the ratio of persons-per-dwelling, and increasing the number of residential units.  City council and the zoning boards can do little about the former except to have babies themselves.  But government can do something about the latter, increasing the number of residential units, provided they have a partner in the private sector willing to invest in building new residential units--either single or multi-unit.

Office space increases the city's population during business hours, with a little spill-over outside business hours as workers stop for a beer, a yoga class, do a little shopping, or a have their hair done before going home.

But one question that needs to be answered before proceeding with 3-60 (or any other similar development) is what is our downtown's capacity?  And by that I mean, how many people can all our downtown businesses accommodate at one time?  Let's pretend the 3-60 project increases both our city's population and its downtown daytime population--how many seats are available in restaurants?  How many people can shop in its retail?  How many people can fit in a kick-boxing class?  Will our downtown's capacity be overwhelmed?  Are there enough parking spaces for all the new visitors along with the old?

Lastly, it must be admitted that if the 3-60 project proceeds the downtown area will temporarily lose parking spaces it can ill-afford and some businesses may not survive.  Those that do may experience some loss of income.  That's regrettable but unavoidable with any plan.  The potential upside for businesses that do survive, and for new business that replace the old, will be more profitable and durable businesses.

So in the end, city council must decide if they want a new downtown with a new look, but at the expense of some of its existing businesses and its current character.  To protect itself and the community, the 3-60 developers will have to enter some kind of covenant with the city that guarantees the job will be complete.

Before voting one way or another, the council should negotiate that contract and expose it to public comment.

And of course, voters will have the final say on whether they agree with council's decision or not, and will have to live with the consequences either way.

Whatever happens in the short term, this project will finally provide some interesting fodder for this year's council elections.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

When it comes to taxes, treat the internet as its own state

The senate is inching its way closer and closer to an internet sales tax.  The problem is fairly obvious.  Michigan (and other states') residents aren't paying use tax on items they purchase over the internet and many online sellers aren't charging sales tax.

Washington Post

What if the internet was treated as it's own state for sales-tax-purposes?  How easy would it be for a flat 4% to be added to all internet transactions, which sellers would remit either directly to the buyer's state or to the federal government for disbursement to the states?

How hard is it to collect sales tax anyway?  Well, it turns out it's pretty hard.  There are over 10,000 sales tax authorities in the US.  States, counties, cities, and special shopping districts are all authorized to require sellers collect sales taxes.  It's little wonder that only large retailers like Amazon seem able to afford the staff of tax accountants and software necessary to keep it all straight--and they don't even do all 10,000+.

Of course, there's still the problem of remitting it.  Some states require monthly payments, some quarterly.  If the internet were treated separately then perhaps quarterly would do fine for all internet retail sales.

Whatever flat percentage is chosen, it will be lower than it should be for some and higher for others.  The question would be, would states and other taxing districts send the money back if they don't have a sales tax, or would states with higher percentages complain if they start getting revenue they never received before--even if it was lower than they require brick-and-mortar stores to collect?

If nothing is collected today, and if states are understandably reluctant to audit all their citizens for use taxes, then an easily collected and remitted internet flat tax makes sense.  The entire bill would be only a few pages, and not overly favor large retailers at the expense of work-at-homes.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chernow's "George Washington" on gun control

Ron Chernow's biography on our first president, George Washington : A Life, may not visit the topic of gun control specifically, but in at least two chapters Chernow does (perhaps inadvertently) give readers a glimpse of how Washington thought about the constitution, the bill of rights, and the rights all are "endowed by their creator" with.

In Chapter 45, Mounting the Seat, Chernow writes:
As a stalwart realist, [Washington] thought it dangerous to demand perfection from any human production and questioned the propriety of preventing men from doing good because their is a possibility of their doing evil.
In the author's opinion, Washington might have thought it beyond the scope of government to pass laws restricting a right to carry guns into a church or school by peaceful, law-abiding citizens because of the fear of what one lunatic may do.  In other words, the government has neither the omniscience or the ability to pass laws restricting the freedoms of the many out of paranoia of what the few may do.

Or put in another context, should the state hasten to remove children from their parents merely by circumstance of their births into poverty, or must we restrain ourselves from premature actions based merely on probabilities and deny each family to make of their lives what they will regardless their circumstances?

A common misunderstanding of the Bill of Rights is that it alone protects citizens' rights to bear arms.  Imagine that the first ten amendments didn't exist, would citizens still have a right to free speech, assembly, petition and redress, self defense, due process, etc.?

At the time of the convention and even knowing what the Bill of Rights would contain, Washing still thought the amendments unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

In chapter 49 Chernow writes,
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Washington deemed a bill of rights superfluous on the grounds that American citizens would retain all rights that they did not expressly renounce in the document.  During the ratifying conventions, he worried that opponents would seek to subvert the new political system by attempting premature amendments.  One surviving fragment of the undelivered [inauguration] speech says: "I will barely suggest whether it would not be the part of prudent men to observe [the Constitution] fully in movement before they undertook to make such alterations as might prevent a fair experiment of its effects."
One of the words in that paragraph that stands out is superfluous.  In Washington's (and the 9th amendment's) opinion, what became known as the Bill of Rights did not grant new rights to citizens because the people already possessed these rights inherently.  Furthermore, delegates to the constitutional convention believed government did not (or should not) have the power to revoke rights given citizens by their creator.

He didn't object to their content or words, but the premise that they were needed at all, or that some may misconstrue them as grants of rights rather than simply redundancies.

Given that background, one can imagine that Washington himself may have had some input on the 9th Amendment, and perhaps he did.  Credit is given, however, to his close political confident James Madison who proposed what later became the 9th Amendment.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Over 200 years ago, at a time of with fewer luxuries, a higher mortality rate, a frontier beset with conflicts between settlers and Indians, and on the heels of both the French and Indian war and the Revolutionary war, Washington was more prepared to trust in the decency and civility of Americans than we are today.

Has America really become less decent and civil, or have its citizens merely become more timid and fearful?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Are we the problem?

Last December a man is pushed onto subway tracks and dies trying to escape while none of the bystanders tried to help--but a photographer is lucky to get off some shots.

Closer to home, a grandmother is attacked on a bus with riders she knows, and after being hit on the head looks around asks, "Is no one going to help me?"

The struggle continues outside the bus. As the robber is escaping with her purse she fires 11 shots with her 9mm. The suspect escapes (unlike the subway victim) and her purse is later recovered with the wallet missing.

According to the Channel 4 reporter, the grandmother was "tired of being a victim."

The immediate utility of a gun may not be the same in Rochester, Ferndale, and Mt. Clemens as it is in Detroit, but who of us wants to disarm grandmothers and tell them 10 rounds of ammunition is enough. Which of us would have come to her defense?

On that bus, chivalry and compassion are dead. And outside the bus, people want to disarm their fellow citizens or limit the number of rounds they may defend themselves with.

In these two examples at least, we've lost a lot more than respect for each other.  I'm not sure what it's been replaced with, but whatever it is, it neither stands up for victims or their rights.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bigotry and Gun Control

It takes a person of peculiar constitution and firm commitment to encourage their fellow citizens to exercise all their rights, and not just those they favor.

Many people will bully or ridicule others to exercise their “right to vote,” but how many will goad their friends and neighbors to carry a concealed weapon?

Ultimately, it is a measure of our times and the ingratitude or complacency for all our rights that we encourage and protect only those rights we are not prejudiced against. Just as we may be bigots toward those that look different than ourselves or share different sexual preferences, so too are many bigoted against any that would exercise their right to own handguns or desire to carry them open or concealed.

It is only after overcoming my own apprehension about these minorities by talking with them, reading, and thinking long and hard about the efficacy and responsibility that attends carrying a handgun have I come to understand, celebrate, and become willing to advocate for their right to keep and bear arms.

Like any other right or minority, they are under attack from an ignorant and biased majority and politicians anxious to exploit a national mood to further erode the free exercise of a right they are born with, as surely as they have a right not be enslaved, to marry whom they wish, be free from police harassment, and not required to sacrifice their health in exchange for a job.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Does the Second Amendment grant a right to bear arms?

The Second Amendment may be the only place in the U.S. Constitution that uses the words "people" and "arms" in the same sentence, but it may actually be the weakest protection for an individual right to keep and bear arms compared to other Constitutional protections to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Since the Newtown Massacre of 20 children and seven adults in December 2012, gun control has become a popular topic to opine about.  Though most discussions drip with irrational statements by both those that would disarm Americans and others that fear disarmament, most seem to believe the right to bear arms is given by the second amendment:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Rather than debate whether that amendment gives or protects the right for individuals to bear arms, or simply own them and keep them in a locker, or whether that right is expressly for the purpose of arming a well regulated militia, let's read another of the original ten--the Ninth Amendment:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
After reading the ninth, does the second have a different meaning, or for the purposes of an individual's right to own or even carry firearms on their person, does the second have less meaning?

But which rights might not have been enumerated?  In addition to those described in Miranda, Gideon, and Roe, they would include natural rights, including those enjoyed by 18th century Americans (that included carrying weapons) and others referenced in the preamble to The Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Some may argue the Declaration isn't law, and they would be both right and wrong.  Though it isn't the letter of the law, as our constitution is, it is included by congress at the beginning of the US Code (of laws) under the heading, "The Organic Laws of the United States of America."

From TheFreeDictionary:
"Despite its secondary authority, many later reform movements have quoted the Declaration in support of their cause, including movements for universal suffrage, Abolition of Slavery, women's rights, and Civil Rights for African Americans. Many have argued that this document influenced the passage and wording of such important developments in U.S. law and government as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which banned slavery and sought to make African Americans equal citizens."
In the years after the Civil War, former slaves (freedmen) were easy targets by many that still thought blacks inferior and responsible for the South's loss.  In many states, blacks weren't allowed to own guns, which made them easy victims for the Ku Klux Klan and other less-organized gangs.

When the NRA was formed after the civil war by ex-Union officers, the saying used to be, "When guns are outlawed, only Klansman will have guns."

A 2011 article in The Atlantic picks-up the story from there.
IN RESPONSE TO the Black Codes and the mounting atrocities against blacks in the former Confederacy, the North sought to reaffirm the freedmen’s constitutional rights, including their right to possess guns. General Daniel E. Sickles ... ordered in January 1866 that “the constitutional rights of all loyal and well-disposed inhabitants to bear arms will not be infringed.” When South Carolinians ignored Sickles’s order and others like it, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of July 1866, which assured ex-slaves the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty … including the constitutional right to bear arms.” 
One prosecutor in [President Andrew Johnson's] impeachment trial, Representative John Bingham of Ohio, thought that the only way to protect the freedmen’s rights was to amend the Constitution. In December of 1865, Bingham had proposed what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Among its provisions was a guarantee that all citizens would be secure in their fundamental rights: 
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Given this background, the impact of the Second Amendment becomes less important regarding the right of American citizens to bear arms than the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.  In fact, after a little bit of reading the decisions in Heller and Moore supporting individual's rights to carry seem more obvious conclusions in retrospect than they were even in argument as both decisions spent more of their time debating the meaning of the Second Amendment than either the Ninth and Fourteenth.