Category Archives: Essays

Businesses and state government relationships have become dysfunctional

(This post originally appeared in various Messenger-Post Newspapers publications – but the formatting on their site is terrible, so I’ve re-posted it here)

A funny thing happened in Buffalo last week.  Maybe you heard about it.  Governor Cuomo, asked if there was ever a point at which the government could stop giving large incentives to private enterprise (like, say, $750 million for a Solar City technology park), said “No.”

No, because “every state is competing for every business.  We have governors come and meet with our businesses and make them offers to move … they will walk into an existing business and they’ll say we’ll give you $10 million dollars to move your business. ‘We’ll give you a site, we’ll give you a factory’ so it’s this constant competition among the states.”

One can argue with Cuomo, of course, but instead of doing that I’d like to ask:  what if he’s right?  What are the implications of the idea that such funding isn’t so much targeted investment in a crucial sector but the way business gets done now across the board?

If it’s true, doesn’t that mean the free market no longer works past a certain point in America?

Continue reading Businesses and state government relationships have become dysfunctional

In Praise of Chris Daly’s Hypocrisy

(This article first appeared on SF Weekly)

Chris Daly (with beard)Those of us who don’t fancy ourselves to be Che Guevara have had a lot of fun this past week attacking Chris Daly for being a hypocrite. Those of us who believe that someday we will lead the revolution have praised Daly by saying he remains ideologically pure.

Both sides have got it all wrong. Chris Daly’s hypocrisy is real — yet praiseworthy.

That’s because, in a situation like his, the alternatives to hypocrisy are all so much worse. There’s a word for someone who will sacrifice the welfare of other human beings to stay politically pure. It’s not “hypocrite,” it’s “fanatic.” What we saw last week was a man stepping back from that precipice.

Daly is right to do what he thinks is best for his family, end of story. That shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Bevan Dufty’s daughter aside, children are not political props to be used to illustrate a point. That’s what PowerPoint (and church) is for.


Continue reading In Praise of Chris Daly’s Hypocrisy

“Government” Isn’t a Technology and Can’t be Developed Like One

It’s been a bad week for government and technology.

It was revealed this week that the medical records of over 300,000 Californians sat on unsecured servers … leaving everything from insurance claims to social security numbers available to anyone who wanted to Google it.

On the other side of the spectrum, Florida Governor Rick Scott admitted that months key emails from his transition team were deleted  … in violation of open records laws.

These are some pretty big “oopses,” although arguable no bigger than many of the technology glitches most of us encounter day-in and day-out.  In fact, a credible case can be made that government crashes a lot less than computers.

Still, would it help if government were run more like a technology company?

In a column called “What geeks can teach government,” William Eggers says yes.  The global director of public research at Deloitte, says that there would be significant advantages to a government that was willing to learn from software R&D.  He argues that government could be: Continue reading “Government” Isn’t a Technology and Can’t be Developed Like One

No Shortcuts to Social Justice

Photo courtesy of Cawi2001Are you old enough to remember when “the Internet” was just getting big?  Do you remember what people thought it was going to be?

It was going to revolutionize democracy and do away with racism (because we’re all one color behind the screen);  it was going to level the playing field between rich and poor because we’d all have access to the same information superhighway.

Now that we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, and the Huffington Post, how’s the future working out?

Not as predicted, except perhaps by the cynics.  According to a recent survey by UC Berkeley professor Jen Schradie, less than 10 percent of the population is participating in most “online production activities,” and as a result the internet has become a playground for the upper classes, representing their concerns and fixations and ignoring the issues of those on society’s bottom rungs.

“Conventional wisdom tells us that the Internet is leveling the playing field and broadening the diversity of voices being heard,” Schradie said. “But my findings show the Internet is actually reinforcing the socio-economic divisions that already exist, and may even heighten them, which has all sorts of implications as more of civic and economic life moves online.”

Effectively that makes the internet a propaganda machine for the upper classes. Continue reading No Shortcuts to Social Justice

The Common Good is Irrational

Why don’t we work together for the common good?

It’s a question that plagues every good intention, and every activist group. We know that corporate America is paying its executives outlandishly and its workers poorly – and that if we just banded together, we could do something about that.

But we don’t.

We know that the global environment needs our stewardship:  that it’s crucial we find renewable power and resources, and organize our cities around sustainable growth policies.  And if we just banded together, we could make that happen.

But we don’t.

Time after time, cause after cause, getting people to devote their time to causes that benefit them in the long run seems next to impossible.

Why is that?  Why don’t we come together for the common good?  After all, we want a sustainable environment … we want a healthier economy.  So what’s stopping us?

An often overlooked classic of economics holds the answer.  It’s because we’re rational. Continue reading The Common Good is Irrational

Hey Budget Cutters: Keep Your Hands Off High Culture

PianoThe knives are out, ready to slit vocal chords, sever Achilles tendons, gouge out eyes and lop off ears.

In the last few weeks several major media outlets in town (plus a few) have run columns, editorials, letters or articles calling on the city to help fix its budget deficit by slashing the high arts: cut the symphony, cut the ballet, cut the opera, cut funding to the visual arts (at least those that are “classic” rather than “contemporary”) and under absolutely no circumstances help bail out jazz clubs. My own publication is in on it, and SFist has forever earned my enmity by calling jazz a “dead” art form that can be replaced by “club nights.”

In a time of fiscal crisis, everything should be looked at for savings – and I don’t begrudge anyone the idea of making the arts part of across the board cuts.

But there’s also something perverse about it, since the city’s agencies of high culture are some of the only non-profits that manage to keep their promises to the taxpayers.

They are charged with creating world class artistic productions, and they produce world class artistic productions, winning rave reviews around the world and raising the bar for everyone. They are charged with raising San Francisco’s tourism profile, and they do so brilliantly;  they are charged with giving city residents greater opportunity to access the very best in the Western artistic traditions, and they do it.

Other non-profits that the city funds promise to end homelessness, reduce violence, empower kids, increase our housing stock… hey, how’s any of that going?  Those goals being met?

If efficiency matters in a budgeting process (and it should be one of the cornerstones) then San Francisco’s institutions of High Culture have earned their taxpayer subsidies in a way most other city non-profits haven’t.  If we want to reward efficiency, cuts to the high arts shouldn’t be on the table.

Read more at SF Weekly

How to Find Spirituality in a Nightclub

I didn’t invent the connection between spirituality and nightlife. The Sufi poet Rumi beat me to it by over 800 years, comparing a mystical union with God to drinking wine and dancing with his beloved.

COVER.Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City (cover)
Read more in the author’s recent book.

But that connection is something we recognize in theory. In practice, I get shocked looks when I say I found dancing with prostitutes in a Russian nightclub to be as spiritual an experience as singing Latin plainchant in a Swiss cathedral; partying at a tequila bar just outside Jerusalem’s Old City to be as religious as kissing the Wailing Wall; and running away from the Verona police with two Dutch girls and a Croatian woman to be as holy as living in a Buddhist monastery in India.

The surprise is understandable — but these experiences were all part and parcel of a single tapestry to me, because I entered them all in a state of pilgrimage.

Read more at On Faith

Why Can’t Radicals Protest JUST ONE THING At a Time?

(This article first appeared in SF Weekly)

ur_protesters_thumb_400x275To those of us who live in the Bay Area, it’s old hat by now – but to my family and friends in the Midwest, it’s still baffling.

“Wait, so, these people went to protest the local transit cops shooting somebody, and ended up chanting about Palestine?”

Yep. And it’s only getting worse. After last night, even some of us here are asking “What does GREECE have to do with it?”

It’s a good question, and it strikes at the heart of modern liberalism: Why the hell can’t radicals protest JUST ONE THING at a time?

The inability causes real damage to their issues (all of them): The anti-war movement never took off in much of the country precisely because many Americans (myself included), who would have been happy to march against the war per se, were not interested in marching about the war/Israel/racism/school reform/death penalty/free trade/Free Mumia!

We stayed home, and didn’t try to hold our own rallies because we knew that those people would show up and accuse us of not being anti-war enough because we eat meat.


Continue reading Why Can’t Radicals Protest JUST ONE THING At a Time?