Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

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Loyal readers—all six of you:

I have moved my blogging self over to the Huffington Post. Catch up with me here.

This archive of my True/Slant blog, and the few since July 2010, will remain here indefinitely (in case you’re feeling wistful).

And you can always follow me on Twitter.

Written by ptullis

November 11, 2010 at 7:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Being Clichéd Journalism

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My gut feeling is that I should just chill out right now and put this on the back burner, but at the end of the day I’m so cutting edge, such a hipster, that, in the final analysis, I need to speak from the heart and demonstrate my very unique, in-depth and encyclopedic knowledge of nondescript terms.

That’s the game plan, anyway. In the foreseeable future, or at least in the near future, such a hands-on, real time effort as this particular labor of love won’t be necessary, but at this point in time, the bottom line is that a state of the art essayist such as myself needs to tell it like it is and write something that is, in essence, just wall-to-wall clichés.

If anyone can suggest a viable alternative, I’m pretty laid back about suggestions, as long as they’re presented in a reasonable time frame; I know that, often, it takes a village to accomplish a task such as this. (Hopefully, I won’t be so spaced out that I fall down the slippery slope into Spanglish!) However, I should say up front that although I’m no rocket scientist, and essay writing isn’t brain surgery, nor am I your typical writer: I rarely succumb to the I-don’t-have-the-right-adjective-so-I’ll-just-string-something-together-with-dashes adjective.

Reflecting back, I realize that I usually manage to find the right word, even if I have to cut into family time to come up with one that really says it all. So this whole exercise runs contrary to my lifestyle. But the name of the game is to empower people with the knowledge that clichés often sneak into their writing, so even if it’s not pleasant, I want this to be the latest breakthrough in essay writing, a real must-have, not something people will read and say, “Been there, done that.”

Now that I’m in a meaningful relationship I can see that it will really affect people’s quality of life—even if you’re a legendary Hollywood star with a three-picture deal, or one that doesn’t speak with a heavy accent, anyway, more of an all-American type—to see the disconnect between good writing and stuff that’s over-the-top. Besides which, it’s the American Dream to produce timeless writing, and anyone can tell that this is gourmet essay writing.

And now that I’ve shown that I think I’m ready for my close-up.

Written by ptullis

October 21, 2010 at 1:49 pm

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Coming soon…

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Greetings. This site migrated from the website for “entrepreneurial journalism,” True/Slant. Check back soon as I will begin again to blog regularly.

Written by ptullis

July 29, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Propositions 16 and 17: Welcome to the corpocracy

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On June 8, Californians will vote on a couple of exceptional propositions that are the first attempts in decades by corporations to use the ballot initiative process to change the law in their favor.

California’s ballot initiative system was implemented during the Progressive era to enable citizens to amend the state constitution without going through the legislature (though the legislature can also put initiatives on the ballot). The idea was to provide citizens with a method of protecting themselves from well-funded special interests lobbying the legislature by giving them their own direct avenue to lawmaking.

It’s ironic, therefore, that the system should become a means by which well-funded special interests circumvent the legislature—because they know that a well-informed professional lawmaker would never buy what’s now being propagated in an ad campaign paid for by the state’s largest private utility, PG&E.

Prop 16, the “Taxpayers’ Right to Vote Act,” would require a 2/3 majority in a voter referendum to create or expand any municipally-owned utility, which in most of the state would mean competing with Pacific Gas & Electric or shutting it out of a potential market. PG&E is the measure’s sole sponsor, and has spent $44 million pressing for passage. (The company told shareholders to expect a short-term decline in share price as a result of the expenditure, originally budgeted at $35 million.)

Nearly every city, town, county, consumer group, environmental group, and newspaper in the state opposes the measure, along with AARP, the League of Women Voters and even another large private utility, San Diego’s Metropolitan Water District.

“This is a for-profit corporation trying to kill off its not-for-profit rivals,” said San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the SF Chronicle. “Prop. 16 is a colossal fraud perpetrated on the people of California.”

PG&E wants to hike rates because it spent a lot of money on dirty-energy infrastructure just before California passed its Renewable Portfolio Standard, requiring the state to get 20% of its energy from fossil-fuel-free sources by the end of this year. Success of Prop 17 would put the kibbosh on efforts to quash the rate hike.

The company’s ad dollars have shouted down proposals to create public utilities in the past—and those only needed a bare majority to pass. Experts say the 2/3 requirement, which is a major factor in the annual disaster in California known as the state budget, would effectively doom any future proposal—and with it efforts to accelerate the transition to green energy.

Prop. 17 got on the June 8 ballot through a $3.5 million signature-gathering campaign by Mercury Insurance Co. The company has been accused of illegally discriminating against some applicants, but Prop. 17 would make such behavior OK, and roll back other consumer protections. California’s Insurance Commissioner (yes, since 1991 California has had a statewide elected official with this title), a Republican, has written of Mercury’s “lengthy history of serious misconduct [and] contempt toward and/or abuse of its customers.”

Nothing like these initiatives has been tried since 1988, when the law which Prop 17 is attempting to overturn was enacted. That November, there were four competing insurance-related initiatives on the ballot, one of which was backed by an insurance company that spent over 90% of the money in support of it. Until then, insurers could deny coverage on the basis of race, religion, sexual preference, choice of boxers over briefs—literally anything. Because there were competing initiatives, and it was a November Congressional election with relatively high turnout, the propositions got a ton of press coverage and a consumer-friendly one that Ralph Nader supported won the day. It limits the factors that an insurer can take into account when deciding whether to offer coverage, and at what price, to factors that actually have a statistical bearing on one’s likelihood of getting into an accident.

Ever since ’88, I was told by Eric McGhee, an expert on voter initiatives at the Public Policy Institute of California, companies have been discouraged by the experience from pursuing their agendas through the ballot-intitiative process and have instead mainly spent their political-influence money on lobbying. McGhee says they largely prefer lobbying to campaign contributions because it’s more likely to get them the specific break in the law that they’re seeking.

This isn’t to say corporations have stayed out of initiative campaigns, but it’s usually been on the No side, to stop a proposition placed on the ballot by citizens or the legislature that goes against their interests. With 16 and 17, the companies are pro-actively seeking to change the law in their favor in a way that’s exceptional.

One longtime academic observer of California politics told me the measures will fail if voters pay close enough attention and the “No”‘s can raise enough money.

But that’s a big if. PG&E is outspending the No’s by more than 1000:1 (yes, one thousand to one.) As for the former question, we’ll just have to wait and see on June 8. The companies have been hitting the airwaves to pump the notion that they’re looking out for Californians’ best interest, but if that were so it could put PG&E afoul of the law: SEC regulations require the publicly-traded company to place shareholder value above other concerns, so either its $44 million investment is in its own best interest, not Californians’, or it risks legal action. PG&E’s lawyers and executives may be greedy, craven and cynical, but I doubt they’re stupid.

The failure in ’88 discouraged companies from using ballot initiatives to push their agendas for a generation. But someone at one of the groups opposing the measures told me that the PG&E attempt is “the most brazen attempt” he’s ever seen.

If PG&E &/or Mercury are successful, it could have as strong an influence as ’88 did, but in the opposite direction, unleashing corporate money into the initiative arena like never before—and showing the rest of the country what life post-Citizens United might look like.

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No free lunch: Why Republican policies always end up biting you in the ass

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The Wall Street Journal today editorializes that the Cape Wind clean energy project that recently won the approval of the Interior Dept. is a “lousy deal” because it may, if the pricing scheme proposed by the company operating the wind farm is approved by regulators, produce energy at double the price consumers in the area now pay.

Here’s what’s also going to be expensive, if we don’t move aggressively toward a clean energy future:
•Rebuilding after hurricanes, which will be stronger and more frequent with a warmer Atlantic Ocean. Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, cost $41.5b in 2010 dollars.
•Cleaning up after oil spills, such as is now being played out along the Gulf Coast. Current costs are estimated at $350m and rising.
•The price of food, as fertile soil is lost to heat and drought.

I could go on, but you get the point: Conservatives don’t want to pay now, but we’ll all end up paying later. The difference is that the costs now are knowable, and so easier to plan for.

The Journal says that Cape Wind will result in “$443 million in new energy costs.” It doesn’t say among how many people these costs will be spread out, or over how long a period of time; if it’s 5 million people who might get power from Cape Wind, over 40 years (which seems like a reasonable amount of time for it to function), then we’re talking about a whopping $2.21 per person per year.

Disinvestment—the inevitable result of their tax-cuts-to-solve-everything approach to governing (if you can call it that)—also ends up costing more in the long term. Case in point: In 1978 Californians voted to cap their property taxes. This was hailed as a great moment, the people taking power away from big scary mean government, and launched an anti-tax movement that can be said to be the roots of the “Tea Party” (which boasts among its membership people who are on Medicaid yet rail against “people looking for handouts” and “the whole welfare mentality”). But since public schools get the bulk of their funding from this pool, the state’s schools went from tops in the nation to down around Mississippi’s somewhere. Obviously this would not have been the sole factor (conservatives will probably blame unions and immigrants), but it cannot be said that the way to improve outcomes in education is to reduce its funding.

Now you’ve got companies saying the students we’re graduating are too dumb for them to hire (I can point you to the surveys if you’re interested). So we get a lot of unemployed people. But Republicans don’t want to pay unemployment benefits. Some of these people turn to crime—and Republicans are always happy to lock people away. Here’s the problem: It costs about $25000 a year to incarcerate someone.

California spends about 1/3 that figure per pupil on public education. So would you rather educate people now, or get car-jacked by them later?

This would be funny except the pattern gets played out again and again. Look at the news today: It’s conventional wisdom on the conservative blogs (and leaking into the mainstream press) that the reason Greece and Spain are so screwed (if they are indeed screwed; the $18b per year bailout compares favorably with the $144b a year we’re spending in Iraq) is because of their overly generous welfare states. The implication is that there but for the grace of God go I, i.e., the US will be headed down this road if we don’t cut back on entitlements (somehow the Pentagon’s budget, which has nearly tripled in the last 20 years, is always left out of these discussions).

Now consider Republican policies: They want every company to be free to move their operations to wherever labor is cheapest. They don’t want to pay to retrain the workers left behind for the service jobs that are all our economy creates anymore. They don’t want to give them unemployment insurance over the long term. They don’t want to pay to educate their kids, so that the kids don’t grow up into the same predicament as their unemployed parents.

So what are they supposed to do? Live off the fat of the land? Become bond traders? Whoops, that won’t work—their education is shit. Work retail? Great—but who’s going to buy the stuff they’re selling?

Is there something I’m missing here?

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Greece's debt = 1/2 Google's revenue

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Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

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Stock markets reeled last week—even leaving aside the mysterious 13-minute swing on Thursday which investigators are still trying to figure out—partly on the chance that Greece will be unable to meet its loan payments. Germany came to the rescue yesterday, but we’re not entirely out of the woods.

For all the stress and fear of contagion and plunging markets and blah blah blah, I think it’s worth putting this “crisis” into perspective:

On May 19, Greece will need about $12 billion.

Google’s profit—its PROFIT—in 2009 was $6.5 billion, on revenue of $23.6 billion.

I don’t point this out to say that Google is too big or too profitable. But for heaven’s sake: For half of what Google pulls in in a year, Greece can meet its first big debt payment?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but when two guys in their 30’s can solve a problem by whipping out their checkbooks, it doesn’t strike me as a situation that’s going to cause a global financial meltdown.

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Written by ptullis

May 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Why AZ's immigration law is bad for conservatives

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There’s a genius column by Byron York, who works for The National Review, in today’s Washington Examiner.

York, who once defended to me George W. Bush’s inaction after receiving a Presidential Daily Briefing on August 6,2001 stating that “Al-Qa’ida members–including some who are US citizens–have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks,” has the gall to say that a law which allows law enforcement to use race or ethnicity as a determining factor in deciding whether to question someone’s immigration status is “reasonable.”

The heart of the law is this provision: “For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or a law enforcement agency…where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person…”

York and supporters of the measure make a big hullaballoo over the fact that race or ethnicity may not be the “sole” factor in deciding whether to demand proof of citizenship. Law enforcement may still use race as a factor, just not as the “sole” factor.

Yet when race is one factor among others, as it is here, that a college admissions committee uses to admit applicants, Republicans call this unconstitutional.

Funny how it’s OK to use race as a factor to throw people they don’t like out of the country, but not when it’s used redress 391 years of systematic oppression under force of law, as with affirmative action.

One of my favorite things about Republican rhetoric is that it is so often against what they proclaim to be their own interests. York–whom I’m willing to bet dinner at the Capitol Grill has never exchanged more than 12 words at a time with an illegal immigrant, and whom I’m also willing to bet has either his home lawn-mowing, childcare, or janitorial services at his office done by Latino immigrants–does not even realize that the bill will undermine law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes.

That is because anyone with dark skin is going to avoid any possible interaction with law enforcement, including providing information that may lead law enforcement to the solving of a crime.

Say you are Latino, and you witness a hit-and-run. You’re on the way home from the playground with your kids, and you didn’t bring your wallet so you don’t have your driver’s license on you. Are you going to offer yourself as a witness to the aggrieved party, and be interviewed by the cops, so that one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s over-aggressive deputies can haul you downtown, resulting in considerable inconvenience, embarrassment in front of your kids, and expense to prove that you are here legally?

No, you are going to hot-foot it out of there, and the drunk driver who did the hit and run is going to get away.

Encouraging law enforcement to get involved in immigration matters always results in less interaction between immigrant communities and law enforcement. If the Republicans who argue in favor of this measure weren’t so closed-off in their gated communities and their private schools, and actually bothered to interact once in a while with Americans who do not look like them, they might understand this.

The Arizona anti-immigrant measure is bad for law enforcement, bad for immigrant communities, and bad for everyone else because more crooks will go free. So much for law and order.

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Written by ptullis

April 26, 2010 at 10:28 pm