Musings of a teacher

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tax Day - How we were sucker punched

(Re-posted from Flashreport:

Standing in the long line at the post office this morning, I had that feeling I get every April 15 like I’ve been severely had. This time the feeling was particularly strong. Partly to blame was the added humiliation of needing to pay for certified mail because of the IRS’s diminishing ability to keep track of its mail (and its imperious habit of blaming the mailer). And of course it didn’t help that every time I turn on the news I learn about some new way the piggy bank we call the U.S. government is opening its riches to graft and greed of all kinds, with foxes guarding the henhouse.

But most importantly this year I’m upset by the knowledge I gained about the history of American taxes, particularly the federal income tax, from a concise and powerful essay by Harvard historian Jill Lepore , “Tax Time: Why we pay,” in the Nov. 26, 2012 New Yorker Magazine. Lepore makes it clear, in a way you never hear from our prominent anti-tax voices, that the income tax was foisted on America through a con job as deceitful as any on the street.

Lepore is non-partisan, in the real sense (not in the “crossing the aisle” sense). Her skill is in stating facts that do all the debating themselves, leaving aside whether they come from the right or left. She writes: “Since the 70’s all the political talk has been about cuts, surprising because more than 90% of Americans receive social or economic security benefits from the federal government.” Much of the article deals with the practice, originating ironically with New Deal and Great Society liberals, of identifying government support like Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid as types of insurance, while Aid to Dependent Families and Food Stamps are “welfare.”

Seen in Lepore’s light the current conservative assault on taxation is based on a false premise, that the people protesting "welfare" are not themselves receiving government assistance. Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, does not seem to recognize the distinction, as he exhorts his followers to theoretically cut their own incomes.

Lepore puts our present political stalemate in historical perspective, starting with this rather obvious thought from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” That’s easy to forget these days. From the moment you get up in the morning you are supported by things paid for with your taxes, whether it’s the safety of your neighborhood and your drinking water, or the road you drive on. It’s hard to argue that taxation itself is a bad thing in some absolute sense.

But we were not always taxed so much.

Before the Civil War, Congress raised revenue almost exclusively through tariffs- duties on imports. Lepore relates that this made sense to Jefferson, because, as he explained, “…it (a tariff) falls exclusively on the rich.” This is the beginning of a long history in which taxation has been presented to the American public as a tool aimed primarily at the wealthy.

In 1862, after noting that the British funded the Crimean War with an income tax, Lincoln established the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which, per Lepore, was “charged with administering a graduated tax that taxed incomes of more than $600- at 3%- at the time, the average income was about $300- and incomes of over $10,000 at 5%. The Confederacy’s lack of political will to do the same cost it revenue and is thought to be a contributing factor in its defeat.”

After the war, the federal income tax was allowed to expire, over the protests of John Sherman (of the Sherman Antitrust Act), a Republican from Ohio, who, Lepore says, ”…argued that tariffs were a burden on the poor and that only an income tax could properly tax the rich.”

By the 1860’s most states taxed property, largely to pay for the Civil War, but there was still much sentiment that taxes should be levied on the rich.

In the 1880’s, Lepore recounts, “Populists advocated an income tax…believing that it was essential to the survival of a democracy undermined by economic inequality. In the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, the Populists prevailed. By then, income taxes had become commonplace in Europe.”

Yes, you read that right: Populists advocated the income tax, because it was conceived as asking mostly from the rich, and less or nothing from the middle class and poor.

In 1894, a 2% federal income tax passed that applied only to Americans earning more than $4,000. But, per Lepore, “the next year…the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that the tax was a direct tax [on income, not goods and services], and unconstitutional. Dissenting, Justice John Harlan said the ruling had turned provisions ‘originally designed to protect the slave property’ into ‘privileges and immunities never contemplated by the founders,’” references to the Constitutional debate over whether slaves were taxable property or people. The Southern view, per Lepore, is the origin of the American anti-tax movement.

Lepore continues: “In 1896, the Democratic Party [prevalent then in the South], for the first time endorsed an income tax, ‘so that the burdens of taxations may be equally and impartially laid, to the end that wealth may bear its due proportion of the expenses of Government.’”

Lepore gives great significance to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which, she explains, “…caused the financial panic of 1907, leading to the 16th amendment, in 1913, which granted Congress the right to levy an income tax, and to establishment of a central banking system, the Federal Reserve.”

The panic of 1907 and the recession and widespread unemployment that followed produced a giant boost for populism, and thus for the prospects of an income tax. Lepore writes: “A purpose of a federal income tax was to undergird the Treasury with a stable source of revenue. But it had another purpose, too. The richest 1% of households, which had held about a quarter of the nation’s wealth in 1890, now held more than a third. The tax was intended to answer populist rage at the growing divide between the rich and the poor. In the election of 1908, both parties favored an income tax (Democrats hoping to close that gap, Republicans hoping to quiet that rage).”

Republicans won and William Howard Taft supported the 16th Amendment. It passed easily in 42 of 48 states, 6 more than required, and took effect on Feb. 25, 1913. The House voted on an income-tax bill in May, and Woodrow Wilson signed it in October. Its highest rate was 7%. The next year the Bureau of Internal Revenue printed its first form 1040.

Lepore writes: “The Revenue Act of 1916, anticipating the US entry into the war in Europe, raised taxes....Rates on the wealthiest Americans began to skyrocket, from 7% to 77%, but most people paid no tax at all.”
She quotes W. Elliot Brownlee’s “Federal Taxation in America: A Short History": “By 1918 only about 15% of American families had to pay personal income taxes, and the tax payments of the wealthiest 1% of American families accounted for about 80% of the revenues.”

What happened to the once common view that the income tax was to be levied specifically on the wealthy? Lepore recounts how the shift happened: “Business interests fought back. Wilson’s tax policies were one reason that his party lost Congress in 1918, and the Presidency in 1920. In 1921,Wilson’s successor appointed Andrew W. Mellon, industrialist and philanthropist, as Secretary of Treasury. He served under three Republican presidents. The American Bankers League became the American Taxpayers League, and paid the expenses of state ‘tax clubs’ whose members testified before Congress, urging tax cuts. Under Mellon, [whose family supported tax clubs] and at his recommendation, the excess-profits tax was abolished, the estate tax was cut, capital gains were exempted from income, and the top tax rate was capped at 25%. “

Mellon wrote that high taxes kill “the spirit of business adventure,” and claimed that lowering taxes would raise the standard of living. He set the ideology of the current anti-tax movement, using the exact opposite of the populist reasoning employed to talk the middle class and poor into the income tax.

Lepore explains the origin of our current distinction between Social Security, Medicare et al as insurance, and “Welfare” as a hand-out: “The crafters of the New Deal were squeamish about taxes, so they decided to fund Social Security with an indirect tax, on payroll, so they could caste the taxes as insurance premiums.” Great Society liberals continued the usage with Medicare and Medicaid. Thus today, the 59 million Americans who benefit from Social Security do not consider themselves on welfare- a conservative view supported with liberal terminology.

Lepore details a number of attempts from wealthy interests to annul the 16th Amendment, and she writes that “in this period, the 30’s, the business lobby succeeded in redefining American citizens as ‘taxpayers,’ a practice that politicians have followed ever since.” Interesting how susceptible our vocabulary is to manipulation. It is common now for politicians to refer to citizens as “taxpayers.” Who knew this was purposely introduced to convince people that paying income tax is a duty of the citizen?

Lepore continues her history into the World War II years: “The Revenue Act of 1942, which included a steeply progressive income tax, broadened the tax base: before long, 85% of American families were filing a return. Tax hikes were sold to the public as emergency measures, ‘taxes to beat the Axis.’”

But, Lepore observes dryly, “The wartime tax regime survived into peacetime.”

I’d like to take a moment to reiterate that Lepore is non-partisan in the real sense. Here again she teaches something that argues across all the current left-right divides: The American people were lied to when they accepted the income tax. They were sold a bill of goods- believing that the income tax was an equalizer aimed at the rich. It is a powerful and overwhelming fact, stated without any call to the emotional currents of partisanship.

Moving into the post-war years, Lepore writes, “Eisenhower’s Cabinet included the former president of General Motors. With Eisenhower’s pro-business Administration , Adlai Stevenson said, New Dealers made way for car dealers."

The Cold War kept the gravy train rolling. And the rest is history.

A fascinating history, for sure, but I’m feeling scant consolation today, April 15, 2014. Knowledge is supposedly power, but only if anyone recognizes the knowledge. Our mouthpieces in the current anti-tax crusade, whose voices dominate everyone else’s, seem intent on an amalgam of fact and expedient fiction, garbled now to the point where I doubt anyone knows exactly where in our two party system they belong. So much for power.

Meanwhile I keep reading the news and learning how the money my wife and I and our kids work for and give up to the IRS is flying out of wide open doors to any scam artist with the proper grease, in what appears a truly bipartisan effort. I’ll keep paying my taxes, sure- as they say, you can't fight city hall. But if we can’t have a rational public discourse on taxes, can we at least close a few of those wide open doors?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

CRP Chairman Brulte’s formula for GOP success should extend to the cities

A recent Los Angeles Times article about California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte’s formula for GOP electoral success in California (“CA Republicans see a way back to relevance in Legislature," 5/23/14, describes the successful senate races of two California Republicans last year in largely Democratic rural districts: Andy Vidak and Anthony Cannella, and reports that Chairman Brulte supported both candidates’ departures, in their campaigns, from official GOP positions stated in the party platform.

Vidak, a cherry farmer in the San Joaquin Valley, won in the largely Latino 16th Senate District by focusing on water issues and opposition to the bullet train- both in conformance with the party platform- but he also took positions in direct contradiction to the platform position that “allowing illegal immigrants to remain in California undermines respect for the law,” and its further call for “…termination of all state benefits, except emergency medical care, to people in California illegally.” Vidak supports a path to citizenship, and was one of only two GOP Senators voting to grant driver’s licenses to illegals. The other Senator was Cannella, who won in a Central Valley district where Democrats predominate.

Brulte’s rationale for acceptance of divergence from the party platform in these districts is cogent and, obviously, successful. Per the Times, “Brulte is rebuilding the party ‘from the ground up,’ asking candidates to craft the message that best fits their constituents rather than adopt positions handed down from on high. “ Says Brulte, “The candidate that most looks like and sounds like and has the most shared values and shared experience of the majority of voters wins.”

I applaud Chairman Brulte’s approach, but to achieve statewide success the party needs to extend his formula beyond rural areas like the Central Valley and Inland Empire to major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. In these cities, four areas of the party platform are obstructing GOP victories: gay marriage, gun control, abortion and federal drug policy.

Regarding gay marriage, the Public Policy Institute of California ( finds that support for same-sex marriage "...has increased 15 points among mainline Protestants since May [2013] (55 percent to 70 percent), and this support '...comes from a majority of those age 55 and older (55 percent) [who] are also in favor for the first time.'" But the CRP platform (: states that, “We support the two-parent family as the best environment for raising children, and therefore believe that it is important to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. We believe public policy and education should not be exploited to present or teach homosexuality as an acceptable ‘alternative’ lifestyle. We oppose same-sex partner benefits, child custody, and adoption.”

This does not play well in the cities, where homosexuals tend to live, because it is hard to demonize people whom you live near and work with. There is no evidence whatsoever that gay partners do a substandard job of raising children, and references to ambiguous statements in the Bible are no basis for law outside the theocracies of Muslim countries. Chairman Brulte’s approach should be applied to positions on gay marriage for GOP candidates in urban areas.

Regarding gun control, under “The Right to Bear Arms,” the platform states: “California's gun control laws only serve to disarm law-abiding citizens, not criminals. We oppose any further gun control legislation and support the right of all California citizens to own and bear guns and ammunition for any lawful purpose,” and goes on to call for allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons and for the “elimination of waiting periods to purchase firearms.” This approach plays better in rural areas, where guns have served a historic role in culture, but in our crowded cities, where any criminal or deranged person is able to procure with ease an automatic weapon for use against society, it does not play well at all. Urban GOP candidates should receive Chairman Brulte’s blessing to stray from the party platform on gun control.

Regarding abortion, the Public Policy Institute finds that, "Large majorities (70 percent adults, 79 percent likely voters) say the government should not interfere with a woman's access to abortion. This view is held by majorities across parties, regions and demographic groups," but the state GOP platform proclaims that the GOP “…is the party that protects innocent life because we believe life begins at conception and ends at natural death. We support laws that protect unborn children from partial birth, sex selection, and tax-payer funded abortions, and abortions performed as a form of birth control or on minor girls without their parent's notification and consent,” and goes on to call for the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Again, this may play well in rural areas, where religious concepts about the human soul often override a scientific perspective. Most people in the cities do not believe that a fertilized egg has a soul, or at least they believe the jury is out on the question. What urbanites do see is congestion, poverty, children born without parents and without hope. The platform admirably calls for adoption as the preferred option for unwanted pregnancy, and who wouldn’t agree with that? But there are nowhere near enough adoptive parents, and there is no viable program coming from either party to remedy that. Urban candidates who call for a thoughtful, responsible approach to abortion should also receive the benefits of Chairman Brulte’s formula.

Finally, regarding re-designation of marijuana et al to Schedule II, the platform takes no specific positions regarding illegal drugs (other than to support current law that applies to illegal drugs, such as "Three strikes and you're out"). According to the Public Policy Institute report , "A...majority of likely voters (60 percent) favor legalization [of marijuana]. Democrats (64 percent), independents (60 percent), and men (57 percent) are more likely than Republicans (45 percent) and women (47 percent) to favor legalization.” The party should not go against the 55% of Republicans who have reservations about legalization, but if it really intends to compete with Democrats, it should make an attempt to collect some of the 60% of independents- many of them the younger voters the party needs- who support legalization. This could be accomplished by supporting Schedule II re-designation (see more at:

At the recent state GOP convention, all of the candidates for governor spelled out issues important to rural areas, and gave short shrift to urban issues, as if the party’s viability will be determined entirely by rural, agricultural interests. Such an approach might advance the careers of rural candidates, but it will leave the cities to the Democrats, and that means leaving the state to the Democrats, since 90% of California voters live in the cities ( If the state GOP really wants to rebuild itself, Chairman Brulte’s formula for success should be applied to the cities too.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Report on the California GOP convention, March 14-16, 2014

Re-posted from Flashreport:

The convention at the San Francisco airport Hyatt Regency was convivial and remarkably well run, considering the consensus among virtually all participating groups that the party is facing a battle for survival.

The awareness of this struggle has inspired each group to argue the key role it should play to “rebuild, renew and reclaim” the party (the convention theme). The forces jockeying for party dominance can be divided roughly into two groups: the far right and the middle (I saw no signs of a left and certainly no far left).

The far right’s views were expressed abundantly in the Tea Party California Caucus and the Conservative Republican meetings. I was frequently in agreement with the “far right” views, and I would argue to the middle and the left that a view is not in error simply by virtue of being far right. Candidates and speakers, self-identified either as conservative or Tea Party, spoke eloquently for positions that should be adopted by the entire party. These include opposition to NSA access to the private lives of Americans, which violates the 4th amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and opposition to Obama’s Common Core Standards, which, by putting publishing interests in charge of school curriculum, violates the 10th amendment right of states to govern education. These issues resonate far beyond the right. Are there any Californians, of either party, who want their children’s location monitored by a government agency every time they play Angry Birds? How many California parents want Pearson Publishing’s bottom line to determine school curriculum, as Governor Brown ordained when he allocated $2 billion in tax revenue (via Prop. 30) to buy new standards we didn’t need? There was also much opposition to AB 1266, a bill signed by Brown that gives California’s transgender students the “right” to use the locker or rest room of their choice. This is intrusive government on a grand scale, and opposition stretches far beyond traditional Republican voters (as a high school debate coach, I can report that my students are puzzled and troubled by AB 1266). The party will throw away millions of potential votes if it ignores these crucial issues

On the other hand, the Tea Party and many conservatives are still focused on their own narrow agenda at the expense of winning elections. Unyielding opposition to gun control, abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and the concept of separation of church and state will ensure defeat of any Republican candidate for statewide or national office. That does not appear to be a concern to the Tea Party, which apparently believes it has God on its side (that is, in some other sense than winning elections). This was brought home in the Conservative meeting, where numerous activists and candidates spoke about returning governance to the “church.” The word “church,” of course, refers only to Christian houses of worship, not to synagogues, temples or mosques. “No biggie,” some readers may be thinking to themselves. Think again: it’s a biggie. I am Jewish, as are many thousands of Republicans. Imagine how I felt when the closing prayer at the Conservative meeting ended with “Lord, bless us with victory, in Jesus’ name.” For those who live far from the cities, where people of all kinds live in close proximity, here’s a lesson: This is a country where the majority are Christian, but it is not a “Christian country” in the sense that the government is officially Christian. We have many religions in America. The founders abhorred theocracy, and they were largely freethinkers. Jefferson was a Deist who put in writing his skepticism that Jesus was divine. The view that the founders never intended separation of church and state is ignorant in the extreme and will doom any statewide or national candidate who expresses it, as well it should.

And while we’re on the subject, whose idea was it to make pork the only choice for the Saturday luncheon? My wife and I were stunned; it was quite insulting. How hard could it be for the party to know a little about its own constituents?

Speaking of the luncheon, the speaker was former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. We were very impressed by her poise and intelligence, though her comments had little bearing on the current crises facing the party. They were mostly foreign policy ideas, like the importance of U.S. involvement in the Ukrainian conflict (a dubious proposition, in my view, and one that would likely garner few votes). She received sustained applause for endorsing the Keystone pipeline and American energy independence. She mentioned the importance of protecting the “private space” of Americans, but did not mention the NSA.

Rice's loudest cheer came when she endorsed “school choice”- code for charter school vouchers- which she referred to as “the biggest civil rights issue of our time.” People felt the need to give that a standing ovation. My wife and I did not stand. As a 30 year public school teacher, I marvel that my profession has become so vilified. There are some awful teachers, sure, and the union overly-protects them, but Satan does not stalk the halls of my high school, which serves a mix of every socio-economic level, ethnicity and test scoring ability in Los Angeles, and our parents are not upset. My wife, a public elementary school principal, wonders how charter schools ended up with their saintly reputation, when the one she shared her last campus with did its best not to accept low-scoring students (its founders are currently in jail for embezzlement). The GOP would be better served by attacking Obama's Common Core Standards than attacking public school itself.

The most interesting focus of the convention was the selection of candidates to run against Brown for governor. Breaking with protocol, the four announced candidates spoke after the general session on Sunday (admirably chaired by CRP Chair Jim Brulte). Each spoke for ten minutes. Here is the gist of each speech:

1. Andrew Blount, mayor of Laguna Hills, opened with a rambling account of his move from Colorado to California, which included a story about his sitting in his underwear in a laundromat while his clothes dried, and a story about how his wife fried the electrical in his house. He ended with, “Politicians should trust people, not the reverse, ” a good thought, but Blount is not expected by anyone to be the candidate, and did not seem to expect it himself.

2. Glen Champ, a highway engineer, told the story of how his brother, a devout Christian, pulled a gun on an IRS agent during an audit, and Champ suggested that this was a righteous act. He described himself as a “Christian soldier, stomping on the devil’s head.” I wasn’t sure if Champ thought he had a chance to be the candidate, but he doesn’t.

3. Tim Donnelly is a more serious contender. He is a forceful and engaging speaker, with the most well-staffed and enthusiastic organization at the convention, ready at all times to waive signs and cheer. He told of his struggle as a small businessman to pull himself out of childhood poverty, and made excellent points about the harms of California’s over-taxation and regulation. As it happens, though, Donnelly has no chance of being governor because of his extreme opposition to gun control, abortion and gay marriage, views held by no more than 30-35% of the electorate, and intensely opposed by everyone else. It doesn’t matter how many people waved signs and cheered for him at the convention; the broader electorate will not vote for him.

4. Neel Kashkari is the surprise of the season. He is a man few had heard of until recently, who made a quick name for himself as a candidate for governor with his acceptance of gay marriage. This was the most practical view I’d heard from a Republican in a while, so I was interested in what else he had to say. As it happened, that was not much. His bio was censored- he mentioned starting his career as a NASA engineer at TRW, but left out his time at Goldman-Sachs and his leadership of the TARP program. He referred to himself as a Bush appointee, but failed to mention that he was also an Obama appointee and that he voted for Obama in the last election. He also made no mention of gay marriage. The omissions were perhaps understandable given his audience, but there is no way, should he be the GOP candidate, that he will be able to avoid these subjects in a lengthy campaign. His prospects cannot be gauged until he addresses them. I had wanted to approach him and chat in the hospitality suite, but that proved difficult given the four or five "handlers" who surrounded him at all times.

Still, the only one of the four candidates with any hope of winning is Kashkari, because he supports gay marriage and does not talk about stomping on the devil’s head, but if the election were held today Kashkari would lose to Brown in a landslide, and not just because only 2% of the electorate has heard of him [L.A. Times,,0,3137477.column#axzz2xCgSVQFz). Kashkari's message, regardless of how many people hear it, has to be much more forceful than what he has shown so far. The most productive scenario would be for Kashkari, or some authoritative voice of the party, to proclaim that the Tea Party’s extreme positions are off the table- no more demonizing of homosexuality, abortion or gun control. In addition, Kashkari should seize the opportunity afforded by Brown when he split with his party at the state Democratic convention last week and opposed legalizing marijuana. Most Republicans do not favor legalization, but Kashkari could support redesignating marijuana from Schedule I (meaning there is no medicinal use) to Schedule II (which would allow research on the drug). In this way he could actually compete on a cutting edge issue, something a Republican has not done in a while.

The healthiest thing for the party and its candidate for governor would be an open break with Tea Party elements that hold unpopular views so fervently that they are ready to wreck the party. The Democrats discovered during the Reagan years that they had to openly break with their extreme left wing, which they did through the Democratic Leadership Council, and they engaged in public disputes with the far left, most notably with Jesse Jackson. It cost them some liberal votes, but ensured Clinton’s ascendancy and now Obama’s. This may be bitter medicine for the GOP, but I think it’s clear what the alternative to that medicine is.

The next convention will be September 19-21 in Los Angeles. By then we will know who the GOP candidate for governor is. If it’s Donnelly, you can kiss the governorship goodbye. If it’s Kashkari, there is some hope, but that hope rides on a performance we have not yet seen.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


My grandfather left you after you cut his father down
What do you want now,
why have you come around?

He came to New York then Bismarck and sold liquor.
The Indians came to buy in World War II
but World War II was quicker.
My dad quit the town- the city slicker!
And then I came, I saw, I begged to differ.
Los Angeles!

What a haven from Ukraine you’ve been,
You let everybody float, we think we win!
Oh Ukraine, they even let us sin!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lasken pieces on other sites

"Drug research and a viable candidate for CA GOP Governor,
"The merry-go-round in San Francisco,
"CA GOP needs pro-gay marriage candidate for governor," Flashreport,
"Can the GOP learn from Democrats' history," Flashreport,
"Leggo my ideology,"
Interviewed by Dr. Cheryl Lubin, host of "In Our Times," on internet radio, click on, go to Jan. 3 show.
"Bad Words,"
"Memory mandala,

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

President Obama: Hawk, dove, or chameleon?

Below are two foreign policy statements from President Obama, separated by two months.

The first was delivered in a televised address to the nation three weeks after a Syrian chemical attack August 21 on the population of a Damascus suburb:

"After careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”

The second statement, delivered Thanksgiving week to a group of movie stars and Democratic leaders in Beverly Hills, refers to the administration's recently announced agreement with Iran over curbing its nuclear program:

“We cannot close the door on diplomacy…tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing for our security.” Ironically, the President had just learned, after his Syrian gambit, that “tough talk and bluster“ is not necessarily the easy thing to do. In fact, it did not work out for him at all.

The problem with the Syria strike was public opinion. The president and his advisors were apparently not aware of the nation's sentiment towards gratuitous U.S. military intervention since the Bush years, because in Obama’s September 10 address to the nation, after an account of his personal revulsion at images of gassed Syrian children, accompanied by a historical review suggesting that, since World War I, the entire world except for Syria’s Assad regime has agreed not to use chemical weapons (not quite accurate, since the U.S. helped Saddam Hussein gas Iranians:
the president announced his plan for a military strike on Syria. One presumes the President and his advisors expected the address to inspire a groundswell of patriotic fervor and support for the strike. If they did expect that, then it’s clear the administration has abandoned focus-groups or any kind of attempt to gauge public opinion before launching its initiatives, because instead of the hoped-for support for a strike (or even a least-bad outcome: the level of dispersed resistance Bush found easy to overcome in invading Iraq) the administration and Congress faced a torrent of public, bipartisan opposition the likes of which W. never encountered over the Iraq invasion. After years of watching the tragic, costly and largely pointless messes we've left behind in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans can project for themselves the probable outcome in the Middle East of a unilateral U.S. attack on Syria, a country that (A) has not attacked us, and (B) is ground zero for a vicious region-wide civil war. [Update: Writing in the London Review of Books (Dec.,2013, Seymore Hirsch reveals that the Obama administration was aware that the Assad regime was not the only party in Syria to possess sarin gas, the agent suspected in the attack; they knew that al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliated anti-regime group, also had access to sarin. Says Hirsch: "When the (August 21) attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad"].

In spite of an intense lobbying effort in Congress for the Syrian strike, in which the administration was reported to have spoken to 93 Senators and 350 House members (where was that effort when the President’s post-Sandy Hook gun control measures collapsed?), Congress could not go along with the strike in the face of overwhelming public opposition.

Putting the situation in stark terms, a CNN International poll on a strike against Syria ( found that “69% of respondents opposed congressional authorization of military action, while 72% said American strikes would achieve no significant goals.” Most telling: “By CNN’s best estimate, the sample of poll respondents- 37% Democrats, 20% Republicans and 43% Independents- was about seven percentage points more Democratic than the general public.”

Those last figures were enough to put a chill in Obama’s Syria campaign, though it took a week or so for the initiative to die out completely. In the days immediately after Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to broker a deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical stockpile, and the Syrians agreed to go along, the administration kept up its drumbeat. As The Nation magazine put it (Sept. 16,, “Despite all that [the Russian deal], the Obama administration insists-in every forum where its officials, the secretary of state and the president speak- that it is determined to hold the threat of force over the heads of everyone involved. If the talks break down…the U.S. will once again be prepared to bomb Syria, say the president and Secretary of State John Kerry.”

As Kerry put it: “Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”

But when it became clear that bipartisan public opposition had made it impossible for Congress to approve a Syrian strike, driving home the strength of that opposition, the administration closed its mouth on the subject for good. It's been months since any member of the administration has made any reference to military action against Syria. Whether it’s the President, Secretary Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, or White House Press Secretary Jay Carney- no one is threatening a strike on Syria should the Russian-brokered talks falter.

The President might well now proclaim- regarding Iran- that, “We cannot close the door on diplomacy,” since closing that door on Syria backfired so badly on him in September. It seems likely that Obama, burned by his non-focus-grouped Syria gambit, is seeking cover in his new persona as Great Peacemaker, so that when he gets hawkish again he can have a dovish moment as prologue.

And he will get hawkish again. There is nothing peace-like in this president, who is reported to personally supervise drone “kill-lists.” It’s important to recall that Obama has no record of insistence that those kill-lists target militants only. On the day of his first inaugural address, the American media reported that a U.S. drone strike had killed 40 members of a wedding party in northern Pakistan, including the bride, the groom and most of their families. Investigations confirmed that there were no militants among the dead. The President said not a word about the strike, that day or after. [Update, 12/14/13: L.A. Times, "Drone Kills 17 in Yemen" (,0,4137970.story#axzz2nSkXIsKo)which relates: "The Death toll reached 17 overnight, hospital officials in Bayda province said Friday. Five of those killed were suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda, but the remainder were unconnected with the insurgency, Yemeni security officials said." The report added that "...most of those killed...were civilians in a wedding party." The Obama White House response: "We have no information that corroborates these reports," which is likely to be its last word on the subject]. How does this represent us overseas? How does Obama's unconcern over civilian deaths in target areas affect the “war on terror”? Does it help our cause, or bolster support for the militants? How ironic it would be if World War III were started by Obama, a Democratic liberal icon. Note to liberals: wake up and smell your complicity.

Is there a lesson in Obama’s missteps for the beleaguered GOP, which has found it difficult to gain political capital no matter what opportunities Obama provides? Well, if there is a lesson it’s already moot because Congress members playing hawk to create a foil for the newborn dovish Obama include leading Republicans, such as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell, who in September stated he would vote against any strike on Syria, now says, “We ought to be actually ratcheting up the sanctions against Iran.”

Nothing like principles to inspire the nation. In another world, we might have had a bold Republican pointing out Obama’s sudden switch from neo-con to peacenik. In this world, the parties connive to cover their joint incompetence.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why I quit politics

Of course you have to do something before you can quit it. I was a novice politician for almost a year in 1993, the year I ran for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board. I walked door to door, badgered people on the street, debated my opponent at public forums and on T.V. I talked to the newspapers, gave them statements, bios, photos. My opponent was the incumbent, well connected in Democratic circles through his political family, fast with facts and figures, thinner and younger than I.

From the start I had dumb luck. Most importantly, the teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, declined to make an endorsement in our race, although they had supported the incumbent in his first campaign. I would have been dead in the water against them.

I also had luck in packaging. I was a classroom teacher, and this turned out to be a greatly saleable ballot label against my opponent's "Board member" (Political operatives have learned about this, and will scrounge deeply to find any past connection between the classroom and their candidates).

I stumbled into a lucky situation with a political sign company. The first company I approached, a major one in L.A., had been stiffed by a series of candidates and was reluctant to commit to me. My father had loaned me two thousand dollars for my campaign, and I blurted out that I would pay this up front in the form of a cashier's check. Within two days hundreds of signs saying "Keep Askin' for Lasken" were all over the turf in contention (so called Region 5, the western edge of the city running north from Westchester to Chatsworth). Compounding this beginner's luck was what I found to be a striking naivety in seemingly sophisticated people. For instance, a school administrator, a follower of news and an activist in neighborhood politics, said in reference to the signs that she had no idea I had so much "support."

My timing with the issues was lucky. The opinion in the San Fernando Valley was almost entirely for breaking up the giant L.A. school district (second largest in the country after New York's), and the west San Fernando Valley, the part in Region 5, was the most intensely pro-breakup. The incumbent was not in a position to support breakup, and I had supported it for years.

The issue of bilingual education worked in my favor. Though I supported California's efforts to help non-English speaking children with native language support, I was opposed to the withholding of English language instruction until higher grades. This played well with voters, anticipating the landslide passage five years later of Proposition 227, which mandated English language instruction in addition to native language support. Newspaper editors, including the Times', liked the topic, and I was able to publish a series of articles on bilingual education; several appeared during the campaign.

One week before the election I got a call from a pro-choice organization. They had been planning to send thousands of mailers in support of the incumbent because he had paid them a sizable fee and, of course, was pro-choice. I had only evinced the latter virtue. It happened that someone in the incumbent's campaign had angered them, and they had decided to support me in the mailer for free.

Topping off my luck, I won a raffle that placed my name first among the seven candidates. The effect of " 1. Doug Lasken-Teacher" was hard to beat as product placement.

The result of my luck: I received 36,000 votes, coming in second behind the incumbent's 50,000 ( turnout was large in this election because of the Riordan-Wu race). Had I taken 1% more of his vote, we would have been in a run-off. The day after the election the L.A. Times referred to "...newcomer Doug Lasken's surprising showing."

I remember standing at a newsstand off Hollywood Boulevard at 6:00a.m. reading, with trembling hands, the Times' hopeful obituary of me. Something sank inside me. The Doors '"This is the End" comes to mind. I knew I would not "capitalize" on my dumb luck, but I did not know why. I did not know why I had, at that moment, quit politics.

Well, perhaps what I didn't know was how to say it. I'm going to try to say it now: Politicians can't say "I don't know."

Politicians, in fact, can't say much at all of what they think. Well "Duh",you say. Yes, but when you're in a political situation where you're setting yourself up as the person who knows what's best, who has an answer to complex problems, there's a certain poignancy that comes with the knowledge that you're constructing a facade, a veil of words that sounds right, while the much vaunted human cortex watches as from the end of a long tunnel.

The above mental state was produced by certain types of questions, such as, "How would you increase test scores?" There is familiar boilerplate to deal with such questions: "Every student must receive quality instruction...We must have accountability and standards... Education must be our number one priority...", etc. Not that there is anything incorrect in such sentiments, but if they contained any important policy ideas we would be experiencing a much larger number of high scoring children. I did my best to sling a few slogans, and I used the English language instruction and breakup issues with some effect, but my brain was uncomfortable, my speech somewhat hesitant, and this perhaps cost me the 1% and the runoff.

Delving deeper into my uncooperative mind, I found something truly scary. It's not just that I wasn't in a position to say what I really thought about raising test scores. My hands hover now above the keyboard, waiting for a sign. No sign comes. Some muse has got me this far, but at the crucial moment she stands silent.

What the hell, here goes. Well you see, the thing is... I didn't really know how to raise test scores. I did believe that breaking up the district might improve efficiency, and that teaching English would improve English skills, but I wasn't completely sure test scores would go up significantly as a result. After all, when we talk about raising test scores we're not just talking about a few numbers going up; we're talking about real improvement in children's intellectual abilities. How do you get fifth graders in large numbers to know their times-tables, and remember them into secondary school? How do you get secondary students in large numbers to read books, really read them, from beginning to end? Why would a few corrective policy changes produce such profound educational outcomes?

Hindsight has justified the hesitation I felt during my campaign. Proposition 227 reinstated English instruction. A well funded "Standards" movement took hold in California and in much of the rest of the country, accompanied by millions of dollars in new textbooks and teacher training. There has been math reform, with renewed emphasis on basics. These reforms have helped a lot of kids, but they have not "raised test scores" in the real sense. In other words, although there have been small jumps in scores, there is no systemic, widespread change in our students. If you walk into a California classroom at random you are unlikely to find kids who can read well, or want to read, or who do math with the facility you find in Asia. Nor will you find this two years from now, or four years from now. It's not happening and it's not going to happen.

Why not? Because the discussion is political, and therefore incomplete. Standards are important, and logical instruction is important. But those are the easy parts.

Back to the reporter asking me how I would raise test scores. Let's say a cosmic force had ordered me to tell the truth. What would I have said? I might have stammered, "Well... I'm not sure." The reporter's brain would then have closed my file, stamping "loser" on it. If he was polite, though, there would be a pause, and then I would begin to think. This in itself, the sight of a politician lost in thought while the world waits, is anathema to a successful image. But if the cosmic force could get everyone to wait a bit, I could have given a decent answer. The discussion might have gone something like this:

Me: Well, we have a fundamental disconnect between our media based culture and the school setting. Virtually every kid is taught by the media to gaze at colored images which ridicule schools and teachers. We have nothing effective to counter this. We have not figured out a modern motivation for students. The one of the few countries in the world that has ruled out physical pain as an educational tool (Singapore, much admired by math reformers, achieves the highest secondary math scores in the world partly by beating underachievers with bamboo canes). We do rely on the psychological pain implicit in the report card grade, but because of grade inflation, rampant from kindergarten through graduate school, and the glorification in the media of school failure, grades alone have become a weak motivator for all but a few students.

Reporter: So you advocate beating our students?

Me: Of course not.

Reporter: Then what do you advocate?

Me: We've forgotten economic incentive.

Reporter: For teenagers?

Me: Yes. Our surplus based society has extended childhood, resulting in dependence on parents at later ages, but teenagers are in their physical and intellectual prime, and will remain so into their twenties. They are designed to create and work, but the automation that gave us our surplus has resulted in a more seriously underemployed society than we like to admit. There are over 100,000 gang members in L.A., but there are not 100,000 jobs for them, not even menial ones. The standard curriculum in high school does not relate directly to visible jobs. Perhaps shop and computer classes do, but the thousands of jobs it would take to rationalize that curriculum do not exist. Honors students, the handful of clever kids who know how they will work the system, put up with non job-related curricula because they see a path to employment based on grades and general literacy, but they too have to wait. It is arguable that one of the purposes of secondary school is to serve as a holding facility to keep teenagers out of the job market. The first several years of college may serve the same purpose.

Reporter: would propose.....?

Me: Well, somehow we need to have an economy that can absorb many more teenagers and people in their early twenties, and a school system that clearly feeds into this economy. But our technology, automation, may have made this impossible.

Reporter: How do you propose to remedy this?

Me ( after very long pause): I don't know.

End of dialogue, and career. Even an answer like, " We will have to replace our world economy, built up in haphazard form over two hundred years of industrial revolution, with a completely new, rationally organized economy", impractical as it might be as a campaign position, would be better than "I don't know." Anything is better than "I don't know."

It might seem strange to an extraterrestrial visitor from an advanced civilization that we have no place in our public discourse for "I don't know", since we so often, clearly, don't know, but it's basic human psychology at work. Management theorists have shown that leaders get approval for making decisions, for being decisive, regardless of the results (advice routinely followed by politicians). This is understandable given the human condition. We really don't know what we are supposed to do on this earth, or even if we are supposed to do something. If our leaders admitted this in public, society at large might collapse in terror. Still though, it can be something of a hindrance to problem solving to maintain at all times that soothing platitudes are solutions.

So after a refreshing brush with the fast lane, I returned, sober but wiser, to the classroom, where I find I can say "I don't know" a lot,to students, to parents, to my colleagues, and they don't seem to mind. Hey wait a minute, these people vote, or will vote...Hmmm.