IT’S A GRAY AREA (7)
“WHY WE NEED THIRD PARTIES”
What’s the matter with our government today? Why has our political world descended into such ugly partisanship, and why don’t politicians more often address and act upon the real issues that affect us all? In many ways it is because the two main political parties have become more and more alike, and increasingly comfortable with the status quo.
But there is a way for us to get our political “leaders” again to confront real issues, and that is to allow third-party voices to be an accepted part of the political process. Comfortable main party candidates won’t take positions until they are forced to, and real competition is the only way for that to occur.
Historically, third parties have played a critical role in American politics in at least two different ways. On several occasions, a third party has actually risen to become a main party, although the last time that happened was when the Republicans took over from the Whig Party in the middle 1850s. However, many times over the years third parties have voiced new ideas that have resonated well with the voters, with the result that soon these ideas were assimilated into the mainstream of political thought. It is this new blood that has helped to keep the American political process vibrant and responsive.
But mostly today our entire system seems to be weighted against third-party voices. The gerrymandering of congressional districts by the two main parties has kept political races non-competitive. Political pollsters don’t include the names of third party candidates because their campaigns are not covered by the media, and therefore not known to the public. And the media do not cover the third-party campaigns because they do not get good polling numbers. So with this vicious circle, it is almost impossible for third-party candidates to break out of obscurity, unless they are able to be self-financed like the campaign of Ross Perot.
How can this cycle be broken? The best way is voter unrest, and that is beginning to be seen. However, a good intermediate step would be to allow every candidate that is on a statewide ballot in some fashion to be a part of every public debate. Obviously, if there were too many candidates, this format would be unwieldy, and the debate itself boring. But there are remedies for these practical problems.
One remedy would be to allow each candidate that is on enough ballots technically to win a particular statewide or national election to make at least a three-minute statement at the beginning of a debate? This would allow the voters to hear and consider each candidate’s most important issues first hand. In addition, every candidate with a serious campaign should be allowed to participate fully in every debate. Most of the time it would be fairly obvious which candidates were involved with serious campaigns. Do they have a formal headquarters, a paid staff, organized fundraising and a major commitment to spending the time necessary for the campaign? If so, the voters will be cheated if that candidate’s voice is not heard.
In the last California debate involving the U.S. Senate candidates from only the two main parties, there was little focus upon the issues because each candidate had staked out a “safe” position. As a result, there was no discussion about issues like the Patriot Act, possible drug policy reform, a possible amendment to the three strikes laws, viable health care programs, or the present war in Iraq. Had there been a third voice, it is quite likely that these issues would have been fully and interestingly explored.
Finally, the thing that would most breathe life into our democracy would be the adoption of the “instant runoff” voting procedure. This would allow all voters to vote for their first and also their second choices in each election. Then when the votes are counted, if it is determined that a particular voter’s first choice is not one of the top two contenders, by pressing a button on a computer, there could be an immediate “runoff” election of those top two candidates in which that voter’s second choice vote would then be counted. This procedure would address both the “don’t waste your vote” and the voting for the “lesser of two evils” syndromes, and would actually revitalize both our political campaigns and our elections.
There is an old saying that the cure for defects in a democracy is more democracy. Third parties have a major role to play in our democratic system. However, today they are being frozen out of the process. The result of this freeze is quite good for established politicians and for the two major parties, but it is harmful for everyone else. Third party candidates have much to add to the free-flow of ideas. If their voices are stifled, democracy loses.
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SYNOPSIS OF “AMERICANS ALL”
After the Overture, Act I, Scene I is set in the kitchen or family room of a male high school teacher’s house on the first day of school. Teacher and his wife discuss the upcoming day in which the teacher wants to help his students expand their horizons and live fuller lives. He explains by singing “How Can I Help Them to Be?”
Act I, Scene II in the high school classroom with all of the students present but before the arrival of teacher. The basketball jock talks with his classmates about how unimportant an education is because he is going to “make it” in basketball. He explains by singing the rap song “Who Cares?” and is joined by his classmates. But he is also joined in the number by “Smart Guy,” who is a nerdish student who loves to learn, and he recites the accomplishments of the U.S. presidents in chronological order.
Then teacher enters the classroom, and while talking sees a student drop some trash on the floor. This action is converted into the song “Pick It Up” by the teacher and the class, which not only discusses picking up the trash in one’s life, but also your spirits, your attitude and even your friends. After this a “lady’s man” or “man’s woman” tells the teacher that it is fine to “eschew mediocrity” and things like that, but what really gets the eye of the ladies or the men is how you walk and talk and how you strut your stuff, which turns into the song “You Gotta Have Style,” which is joined by the class and the teacher, who also shows the class that your style is inside, and that it is stylish to work, etc.
One other student then sings the song “Do You Know Their Names?” which addresses the numbers of people in our society who are custodians, wait on our tables or have mental disabilities, and who blend into the background and are ignored. Then, while the teacher is spreading his “pearls of wisdom,” two students drift to stage left and stage right and daydream about their future, singing the song “Every Day.” The female student dreams about her future and how she will be able to make her life “count,” but in the meantime feels all alone. The male student dreams about finding someone, because inside he is handsome and he is strong, but until he finds her he also feels all alone.
To end the first act, the teacher sings the lesson that “It Just Takes One” with regard to things like finding a college, finding a profession and finding a mate. And also it just takes one bad move to lose your life or critically injure yourself or others. Act I culminates with the song “The Dream Lives On,” and which reprises the song “Every Day,” in which the entire class sings that if you are a real friend, you are never really alone.
After the Overture, Act II opens once again in the teacher’s house, where the wife feels her husband is so wrapped up in his students that she is being ignored. Teacher is concerned and asks for a further explanation. So wife sings “Love Is Not Enough,” in which she says that it is not enough just to have your love, what I really need is you. This song gets teacher’s attention, and ends with them both singing about the importance of family, and then further evolves into teacher singing about his love for his wife in the song “It’s Been a Long Long Way to You.”
Act II, Scene 2 addresses the class’ project of “Project Pro-ject,” in which the class is required to demonstrate the concept that anything that is worth doing is worth doing well. It begins with one student reading about a history of a flush toilet in the stammering and boring way that most students read. Then the second student “pro-jects” by reading the same passage with enthusiasm and interest.
At this point, the class gets into an assignment to sing about the concept of peace in different countries and cultures around the world. First a student sings a song about things that take away from peace in a song entitled “Hate Spoils the Sauce.” Then students from a Mexican, then Jewish and then Arab heritages sing about the concept of peace in songs entitled “Viva El Trabajo y la Paz,” “Live, Love, Laugh, Shalom!” and “Salam,” and as the last of these songs is ending, all of these students join together in a folkdance, arm in arm.
At this point, Smart Guy gives a presentation about the importance of staying in school and getting an education. Among other things, people will pay themselves over the course of their lifetimes a minimum of $117 per hour for every hour spent in high school if they only stay in school long enough to graduate, and then that pay more than doubles if they get a college degree! At this point the class realizes that it is “Smart Guy’s” birthday, and join in singing their salutations to him/her in the song “Happy Happy Birthday.”
Project Pro-ject draws to a close as part of the class sets forth the type of life they want to live in a poem entitled “Cast A Glance Around You.” Then teacher steps forward and talks to the class about how so many people in our world have become “victims,” and accents that by having the class join him in the song “Playin’ the Blame Game.”
The class ends with all of the students singing a song that some of them have written about what it is to be an American in the song entitled “We Call Ourselves Americans.” That is followed by a curtain call, with the participants taking their bows while the cast sings a short passage from the songs that they sang, and then comes the Finale, as the entire ensemble sings the song “Americans All.”
IT’S A GRAY AREA (5) August 12, 2007
“CONGRESS SHOULD PASS SUNSET LAWS”
What is one of the best ways to reduce taxes and still maintain appropriate services from the federal government? The answer is for Congress to pass sunset laws.
What does that mean? It means that legislation should be passed requiring every federal agency to get an affirmative vote from Congress every seven years or so authorizing its continued existence. And along the way Congress could audit, assess and provide direction for all of the agencies that continue to function.
Regardless of what one thinks about FDR’s programs in the 1930s, are you aware that many of the agencies established by the “New Deal” are still in existence today, if only under a different name? Whether they are contributing to the common good or not, their employees are still drawing their paychecks and we are still paying their expensive overhead. In addition to engrained institutions like the FDIC, FHA, SEC, National Labor Relations Board and the Social Security Administration, these surviving agencies also include the Rural Electrification Administration, Farm Security Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Farmer’s Home Administration, National Resources Planning Board, Federal Trade Zones Board, and Joint Stock Land Banks.
Maybe after 70 years in existence they should be re-examined! No private business would allow this situation to continue, but our government not only allows it, it thrives upon it. And this is not to our benefit, because as President Reagan once said, “Government does not solve problems, it subsidizes them.”
As a practical matter, what would happen if this legislation were to be passed? Every seven years each federal agency would be required to come forward and show what it has accomplished in the last few years and what its goals and plans are for the future. Then, for example, if an agency sets forth five main functions, Congress could analyze each one and see if it will likely be productive. If Congress finds that two of the five are producing positive results, those could be perpetuated and re-funded. But if the other three functions were not giving us enough “bang for our buck,” Congress could pare back or restructure the programs so that they would function more efficiently. Or some of those functions or even the entire agency itself could be abolished entirely!
Two features of this legislation would be critical for its success. First, each agency would have to be addressed and voted upon individually, because if it were to be addressed collectively it could more easily avoid scrutiny. That would also reduce the likelihood that individual members of Congress would work out deals that “if you vote not to abolish my favorite agency, I will vote not to abolish yours.”
Second, the congressional analysis and vote for each agency should be held as publicly as possible, with the hearings and votes being televised on C-SPAN or a similar station with “gavel to gavel” coverage. That would also reduce the ability of the members of Congress to play politics with the outcomes.
Today to my knowledge there is no provision in the law actually to abolish a federal agency – lots of ways to create them, but no way to terminate them. This legislation not only would change that reality, but it would also put the burden upon each agency itself publicly to justify its existence.
The benefits of this plan would not only be practical, they would also be institutional. Conceptually, we must decide whether it is the federal government that will tell us how we are to be governed and regulated, or it is “We the People” that control the government. There is no doubt about what Thomas Jefferson’s position was in this matter. Jefferson once wrote that he believed our country would be well served by a revolution every generation to keep our government fresh and responsive to the People’s will.
What Jefferson said can be analogized to the “default” key on today’s computers. After re-arranging the paragraphs on a word processor, it is possible to press the default key and move everything back to the way it was before the changes were made. In many ways, this plan would allow us to press the “default” key and regain control over our own government. Some people have sometimes declared victory by slowing down the growth of government, but this plan actually might reverse that growth!
As an aside, there is currently a bill that has been co-sponsored by 25 members of the U.S. Senate that would create the Commission on the Accountability and Review of Federal Agencies (Senate Bill 1155). If passed, this legislation would establish a commission to review domestic spending programs and agencies. Then two years from now the commission would recommend some elimination or reform where waste, fraud and abuse were found. In my view, this would not accomplish the institutional changes that would occur with the proposed sunset legislation, but it should nevertheless be supported.
If you are interested in pursuing these or any other changes in government, the place to start is to send a letter to your own elected member of Congress recommending that particular legislation be pursued. Do not bother sending letters to representatives you cannot vote for – those letters will not be considered and are not worth the stamp you put on them. But if you can vote for the elected officer, your letter will carry significant weight and almost certainly receive a response. And if you are a member of a group of people within that member’s district and your group sends a letter, you will be amazed at the weight your voices will carry!
In fact, now that I think about it, maybe this approach would even be effective with our state and local governments as well. Or maybe I am getting carried away. . . .
James P. Gray is a Judge of the Superior Court in Orange County, California and the composer of the high school musical “Americans All.”
IT’S A GRAY AREA (4) August 5, 2007
“SEARCHING FOR VILLAINS”
A while ago when I was in New York City, I happened to see a play entitled “Shylock.” This is a one-man play written and performed by the British actor Gareth Armstrong. The play deals with the thoughts and comments of a minor character in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” named Tubal, who is the Jewish character Shylock’s friend and helper. I say minor character because Tubal has only eight spoken lines in Shakespeare’s great play.
But Armstrong did such a fine job of writing and acting in his play that it caused me to go back and re-read the “Merchant of Venice” just to see how Tubal fit in. Although the play was fully as brilliant as I remembered it, I had not recalled how heavily Shakespeare unloaded upon Jews. Using and even creating lots of stereotypes, he used Shylock as a foil in his plot, and he adopted Jews as the villains and scapegoats against whom his heroes acted and eventually prevailed.
Upon reflection, I know that this style has been employed by numbers of authors throughout history. For example, back in the 1930s Zane Grey used Mormons as the general villains in his book Riders of the Purple Sage. He set them up under numbers of stereotypes in effect as evil incarnate, and then had his heroes eventually prevail over them.
That started me thinking: was Shakespeare an anti-Semite? These were the only two Jewish characters to be found in any of his plays, so it is not enough for us to draw conclusions only from this. Was Zane Grey deeply prejudiced against Mormons? Or instead were Shakespeare and Zane Grey, and other authors like them throughout history, simply being lazy by taking a path of little resistance in using stereotypes as a crutch to set up and tell their story about villains against whom their “good guys” eventually triumphed?
In some ways, we are judging authors from the past by our current standards, similar to the ways that some people now excoriate Christopher Columbus for all of the evils that were subsequently perpetrated upon Native Americans, or Thomas Jefferson for his hypocrisy in having had sexual relations with one of his female slaves, all the while preaching about liberty and justice for all. But it is important to remember that in the times of Shakespeare, Columbus, Jefferson and Zane Grey, many of these ways of thinking and acting were simply and generally accepted without thought.
So are we any different today? Are we above the societal ignorance of yesteryear? Have we forgotten that more than half of the dialects of the languages of the world today still make no distinction between the word for “stranger” and the word for “enemy?” Are we now mindlessly thinking about some groups of people with today’s blinding stereotypes, and turning them into today’s villains as a foil for our “good guys?” Are we now thinking of Muslims in that way? Or the Chinese? Or drug addicts? The answer has to be yes, because we are human, with all of the frailties and failings that accompany that condition, and the blinders that find their way into every age, including our own.
So it doesn’t hurt to reflect now and then about how we accept our own common wisdom and/or stereotypes about other people. Turning people who are not like us into villains is the easy way, but how will subsequent generations look back at us and our actions? Maybe they too will shake their heads at our lack of sensitivity or even mistreatment of others, wondering how we could not have understood about our chosen foils that if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
James P. Gray has been a trial judge in Orange County since 1983, has written books entitled Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, and Wearing the Robe – The Art and Responsibility of Judging, and composed a musical for high school students entitled “Americans All.”
“IT’S A GRAY AREA” (2) July 22, 2007
“THE PROBLEM OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION”
I seldom get angry at illegal immigrants. They are simply doing what our system so strongly encourages them to do, and they almost always come to the United States to seek a better life for themselves and their families — just like our ancestors did. Few people come here to take advantage of us or our welfare system. They come here to work, and they mostly work hard.
Instead, I reserve my anger for the so-called immigration system. In this I am not alone, because virtually no one stands up for it. The irony is that it would not be at all difficult to install a program that would work, but neither the Republicans nor the Democrats want this to happen. Why not? The reason is money and power. One side mostly wants to take advantage of the cheap labor presented by “undocumented workers,” and the other side wants the votes that soon will come their way from the increased numbers of people that enter our country.
But in the meantime, many good people are truly suffering and being punished under the status quo. For example, it is quite dangerous and expensive to enter this country illegally, and many workers are exploited by unscrupulous employers once they get here. In addition, we have the unintended consequence that many illegal immigrants would actually go home after several months if only they felt that they could return later without so much danger and expense. So the present system actually keeps them here longer than they would otherwise stay. In addition, of course, our healthcare, educational and criminal justice systems have been deeply overburdened by the large numbers of poor, uneducated and unhealthy people that are here illegally.
Why do we perpetuate the present failed system? Because the federal government has virtually all of the power, makes all of the rules, and does whatever enforcement that takes place, which is not very much. But the federal government mostly does not have to pay for the costs of illegal immigrants. Most of those costs are paid by the state and local governments, and the school districts.
What is the resolution? It is fairly straightforward, but it is a three-step process. First, since this failed system will never be changed until the federal government has the incentive to change it, we must require the federal government to pay for the governmental costs of illegal immigrants. Second, we should decide how many people can enter our country to work, and for what period of time they can stay. Then we should create a worker’s program that allows foreign workers to have something like an “Orange Card,” which will allow them to work here legally during a specified period of time. This would be similar to our former “bracero” program, and would be in addition to our present resident alien and naturalization programs. The workers probably could not bring other members of their family with them, would pay reduced taxes on their income, and would receive reduced services for healthcare while they are here. But, since they would be here legally, these workers would be able to obtain driver’s licenses.
The third important component of this new program would be to utilize strict sanctions for all employers who in any way hire workers who are not documented. Workers who have valid identification could resume a normal life, and travel legally across the borders within the specified framework. Those who do not have proper identification would increasingly have trouble finding work, so soon they would probably go elsewhere.
Holding people who hire undocumented workers responsible for their illegal acts would be the key, but it can be done. With today’s computer chip technology, we should easily be able to create an identification card that cannot be forged. So there would be no excuse for hiring people who do not have it. And once we have a workable system for identification, we could also exclude permanently from admission to the country those immigrants who persist in violating our laws.
It is time to do away with our present failed system. Of course, there will still be problems. However these changes will allow us in large measure to regain control of our borders, reduce dangers and injustices for the foreign workers, seriously reduce the burden upon our taxpayers to support such large numbers of people who are here illegally, re-institute and reinforce the rule of law, and begin to return our life to normal. And then only after we have a system in place to control our borders should we address the difficult and emotional problem of who receives “amnesty” and who does not, and how to institute that in relationship to those people who have followed our laws and regulations and have requested to enter our great country through proper channels.
James P. Gray has been a trial judge in Orange County since 1983, has written books entitled Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, and Wearing the Robe – The Art and Responsibility of Judging, and composed a musical entitled “Americans All.”
IT’S A GRAY AREA (3) July 29, 2007
“TOO MUCH GOVERNMENT”
To state the obvious, bureaucracies are found at all levels of society, including businesses, churches, law firms, universities, hospitals, charitable organizations – and government. And it is virtually always the inclination of bureaucracies to continue to expand in size and power, and for bureaucrats to avoid responsibility for their actions and inactions. Not only are governments not an exception to these natural inclinations, most of the time they are the skilled leaders.
Today it is so unusual for someone in government to recommend that government be reduced in size or power that when it happens it results in headlines. Government size and power has gotten so extreme, that at this point the biggest thing that big government stands for is big government.
Think about it this way. If, for example, you live in the City of Anaheim and you want to replace an old water heater with a new one, you must obtain a permit at the cost of $50 in order to get the new one installed. Or if you live in the City of Garden Grove and must spend $20,000 to put a new roof on your house, you will have to obtain a permit from the city at the cost of an additional $400.
Of course safety is important. We do not want gas water heaters to explode or roofs to be unsafe or disfunctional. But why can’t the government simply set up a system that will reduce the risks of harm? Why does it have to oversee it and charge money for it? Government does virtually every job at greater cost than a competitive business would. Why is it involved? Because government took the idea of safety in the building and construction industry, and slowly over time expanded it into its own fiefdom. That is to say, it is doing what bureaucracies do best by increasing its size and power. Additional delay or expense caused by government involvement? You have nowhere else to go, so you have no alternative but to wait, comply and pay.
Government oversight in this area is not really necessary. Why not instead allow any licensed and bonded contractor to install the water heater or roof without government permits? If something goes wrong, the homeowner/customer could always sue the negligent contractor, and the bond would ensure that there would be money available if the suit was successful. As a practical matter, the bonding company would quickly set up its own criteria and programs of inspections before issuing a bond in order to reduce its overall exposure. But these private programs and costs would have to be competitive in order for the bonding company itself to stay in business.
We are all aware of the increasingly high cost of new houses, but are you aware that 30 percent of the cost of virtually every new house is spent in an attempt to comply with government regulations? If that could be reduced to 10 percent, the cost of new houses would be reduced accordingly.
If the system were changed, would contractors start building their houses on “foundations of sand,” or stop doing things like using reinforced concrete? No. First of all, the government could still establish standards, and secondly, if the quality of the houses dropped, the customers would not only stop purchasing houses from those builders, but they would also bring a lawsuit against them. In addition, like we already discussed, the bonding company would soon set up their own inspections and requirements in order to limit their exposure to lawsuits.
On a slightly different subject, why must a person get a license from the government and obtain mandated formal training in order to do things like braiding hair for a living? Or be a barber or a beautician? Government involvement and requirements reduce competition, drive up costs, and keep often quite qualified entrepreneurs out of business. Isn’t it clear that customers are almost always in a better position than the government to determine if their hair is being braided or cut satisfactorily? If the product is acceptable, customers will come back; if it is not, the entrepreneurs will either quickly start doing it better, or they will go out of business. Governments can still set up standards for safety and cleanliness, but leave the enforcement of those standards to the customers, the bonding companies and the justice system.
The same is true with childcare. Yes, it is critically important that our children be well protected and taught, but aren’t the parents in a far better position to oversee this than the government? Today the regulations are so strict and expensive, many qualified people are not in business because of the extra government-mandated costs and hassles. If your doorway is a few inches too small, or you only have one bathroom in your house instead of two, frequently you cannot get a permit to provide childcare without expensive modifications. That means in turn that the people who would have been your customers must either find another provider that is less satisfactory, farther away or more expensive, or do without.
The same analysis is found in other government bureaucracies as well, such as the Federal Food and Drug Administration. For example, if an inspector with the FDA approves ten new drugs to be sold to the public, and nine of them save lives and reduce disease and discomfort, but one of them brings a bad result, that inspector’s career is in true jeopardy. In a bureaucracy like this, no credit will be given for the successes, but the employee’s “head will roll” for any failure.
As a result, people who work in this bureaucracy have every incentive to delay decisions by requiring more study, research and/or testing, and by kicking the responsibility upstairs or downstairs. They allow new drugs on the market at their peril, and they know it. The fact that thousands of people may die or be in unnecessarily poor health because they are deprived of new beneficial medicines is outweighed by the possibility that many fewer other people may be harmed. In addition, it is estimated that this governmental approval process costs the pharmaceutical companies about $800 million for each drug that gets approved, and takes an extra 8 to 10 years to accomplish. This, of course, substantially increases the costs of our healthcare, and substantially deters the companies from pursuing the approval of drugs that have less of a chance to make big profits.
The better way would be to adopt the same approach as in the other examples we have already discussed. If a pharmaceutical company negligently makes a drug available on the market without adequate quality control, research and study, it and its insurance company would face a lawsuit from the person harmed. This would result in appropriate safeguards, but without the unnecessary delays and expenses imposed by the government bureaucracy.
In summary, our present system of government permits, oversights and approvals results in unnecessarily increased costs and delay to businesses and their customers, increased and unnecessary size and power to government bureaucracies, severely reduced ability of people to climb onto the first rung of the entrepreneurial ladder, lost opportunities for customers, and unnecessary deaths and suffering. In short, no one is winning with the present system except big government. So in this area, like in so many others, don’t look for the government bureaucracy to lead the way for change. If change is going to occur, it is up to us to get it done.
James P. Gray has been a trial judge in Orange County since 1983, has written books entitled Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, and Wearing the Robe – The Art and Responsibility of Judging, and composed a musical entitled “Americans All.”