20 May 2006

Another One Bites the Dust

Deb Andolino and her son Gary always wanted to open a bookstore. Deb's the mystery fanatic, Gary's into science fiction. Last year they opened Aliens & Alibis in Columbia, South Carolina. I had a book event at their store last June. I was one of the first authors they hosted. They couldn't have been more welcoming.

The store was small, but well-lit, nicely laid out, comfortable and Deb and Gary are smart, funny and very nice to spend time with. Which is a good thing since only one person showed up for my event. It was one of those events that if I ever become a well known author, I'll tell young authors about to encourage them: "I can remember when I didn't have lines out the door of people waiting to have me sign my books, and my signature was still legible." Currently, it's a tale I trot out when talking with my other author friends and we're swapping horror stories.

At the time of the event, I worried about the ability of Aliens & Alibis to survive. It was located in a far corner of the sort of shopping center that begged the question: "is the mall half-empty or is it half-full?" Looking around, it was hard to imagine it was half-full.

Well, now the mall is even emptier. Aliens & Alibis is going out of business. I don't know if it was brave or foolish for Deb and Gary to open their store in a time when independent bookstores are dropping like flies, but I admire them for having tried. And I thank them for having hosted me on my first ever book tour. There's a new Barnes and Noble about five miles from their store. I don't know how much that has to do with their going out of business or not, but I suspect it isn't nearly so convivial place to hang out.

Elections and Bureaucrats

Here in California we are about to have an election and I'm having an even harder than usual time giving a damn. Two uninspired and uninspiring Democrats are running for the right to battle the Governator in the Fall. I don't know much about either of them. I've got the sense that they're both dull hacks with the sort of modestly corrupt political backgrounds that seem impossible to avoid these days, who will make little or no real difference if they're eventually elected.

One of the reasons they are unlikely to make any real difference is that the state government of California has its hands firmly tied behind its back by years of initiatives and referendums (that seemed like good ideas at the time) that have mandated both spending and tax relief. Every year there are even more deceptively written initiatives and referendums that in the long term do little other than further inhibit the ability of California's government to get anything done - for good or bad. This time around I'm thinking about voting No on all of them. Except that I'm going to have to be careful, because all too often they are written in a way that a No vote means you're supporting the idiotic thing they're in favor of. In which case you have to vote Yes to vote No. Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhh!

As for governor, I will most likely vote for whoever runs against Arnold in November. So the only criteria I'm interested in is which of the two Democratic Party Bozos has the best chance of beating him. Somehow democracy seemed to make a lot more sense when I studied it in school.

But, the other day I took heart in the fact that dim witted bureaucrats are not merely an American phenomenon. A friend of mine works for CARE in Indonesia, mostly on reconstruction projects in the areas that were wiped out by the tsunami. He has to deal with a lot of bureaucrats from all over the world. He recently received an email from a European Commission program officer that included the following:

“Please consider however then [sic] considering changes in project activities that an amendement [sic] to the contract is to be considered an exception, to be justified on the basis that a non-amendment of the action would result in the non attainement [sic] of project objectives.”

My friend Tim describes that as: "one of the loftiest achievements of bureaucratese I have encountered." And he's encountered more than his fair share.

17 May 2006

My Two Cents on Immigration

Immigration, and the diversity that comes with it, is the single most important factor in what has made the United States a global superpower. Relatively free immigration from all over the world is what sets this country apart from and, historically at least, above nearly every other nation on Earth. Simply put, if the U.S. wasn't a mish-mash of races, ethnicities and cultures, it would be a second rate country.

The fresh ideas and hard work of immigrants has been the driving force behind this country's success at every level. The reason that people all over the world - no matter how much they hate us lately - watch our movies and TV, listen to our music, read our books and magazines, click onto our websites, want our products and inventions; and why so many of them still, in spite of everything that's gone on in the past few years, want to come here; is our diversity. There is no other country that even comes close to the diverse makeup of population that we enjoy here in the U.S.

Immigration makes us strong. Unfortunately, illegal immigration also helps make us strong. If everyone who works in, or for America got paid a fair, living wage, we'd all be paying a lot more for the relatively cheap products we buy. We get mad about outsourcing t-shirt manufacture to China and Bangladesh, but we're still happy to go to Wal-Mart and buy cheap t-shirts. We get incensed about illegal immigrants picking our crops and working on construction sites; but we already complain about the high price of construction and if we had to pay twice as much for a head of lettuce at the market, we'd be ready to take up arms.

The ugly truth is that all of us benefit from the exploitation of labor, whether it's in China, Mexico or on California's and Texas' farms. It gets complicated by the fact that some of us are also hurt by it. How do you strike a balance between the loss of jobs when you shut down a shoe factory in South Carolina that makes shoes that sell for a hundred bucks a pair that not many people can afford; and importing the same shoes from China at forty five bucks a pair that a lot more people can buy? Sure, farmers could probably find plenty of legal workers to pick their crops at ten bucks an hour. The only problem is, how much are Americans willing to pay for a tomato?

This being an election year, illegal immigrants are being exploited in more than the usual variety of ways. What the politicians, business people and even most consumers really want is to quietly maintain the status quo. Most people benefit from it. But every election year it becomes necessary for the politicians to pander to the noisy people, the true believers, the activists; the people who can raise money for your campaign or make it tougher to raise money for your campaign, the people who are actually willing to go door to door on your behalf or against you.

It's an easy, if really dumb, rallying cry: "They're breaking the law, they're taking our jobs, protect our borders!" Most of the politicians carrying on about it don't really give a shit. They just have to sound like they do in an election year.

There is one, and only one, reason why we have illegal immigration: we're a rich country with available jobs. The reason most of our illegal immigrants come from Mexico is that it is a poor country that is next door. (Mexico gets its own share of illegals from Guatemala - an even poorer country next door to it.) We don't get much, if any, illegal immigration from Canada. When a person can get a decent job at a decent wage at home, they rarely want to go somewhere else to find work.

So, what's to be done? Let's pretend for a little that politicians and business people and American consumers really do want to do something about illegal immigration. Which they don't, but let's pretend.

Sealing the border isn't realistic. It's too long, it's too underdeveloped and people will find a way around it anyhow. (We do get illegal immigration from places like China. What are the chances of shutting out our determined neighbors?)

Opening the border and just allowing everybody and anybody to come in isn't realistic either. (There are actually people who advocate this. I think they must believe in Santa Claus too.) Then we really would be swamped and all the countries that started losing most of their educated elites and huge numbers of their labor force would not be happy. (If we wanted to start another war with Mexico - it has been over 150 years after all - this might be a good way to do it.)

Amnesty for current illegals sounds humane, but what next? If it becomes an ongoing policy we might as well just throw open the border.

A guest worker program sounds okay until you start looking at other countries, like Germany, that have one. It creates a permanent, authorized underclass. It doesn't really do much to stop the exploitation of workers.

The only real solution is long term and needs to happen in Mexico, not in the U.S. Our neighbor to the south needs to economically develop. It needs to become a first world nation that can offer plenty of good jobs to its own people. It needs our help to accomplish this. If we could stop our idiotic and expensive overseas adventures, such as in Iraq, we could easily afford the modern day equivalent of a Marshall Plan (the rebuilding of Europe after the Second World War) for Mexico.

The U.S. would benefit tremendously from assisting the economic development of Mexico. U.S. companies would get a lot of contracts to build everything from infrastructure to factories to shopping centers to housing. There would also be a lot of new jobs created in Mexico, so there would be a lot of people staying home to work, rather than illegally immigrating.

And, once Mexico achieved developed world status, we would benefit even more. Compare Mexico with Canada and you can see the possibilities. Despite having a population smaller than California, Canada is our largest trading partner. Mexico has more than three times the population of Canada and it is already our number two trading partner. Provide better and better paying jobs at home for Mexicans, and just imagine the potential Mexico has as an easily accessible market for U.S. products and services.

Okay, you might say, that's the long term, what do we do in the meantime?

If the U.S. were to announce a big, economic development assistance program for Mexico, it would immediately boost investment in that country. As the program got underway it would create a lot of jobs and very quickly fewer Mexicans would need to leave home to find work.

But, there would still be illegals in the U.S., so what to do about them?

Unfortunately, my solution is to, with a few changes, maintain the status quo for the time being. (After all, despite all the political posturing, it really is working reasonably well for most of the people involved.) The few changes I propose will hurt some businesses, but if they're going to hire illegals, that's a risk they will have to take.

Apply the federal minimum wage and health and safety laws to all workers, regardless of their visa status. If illegal workers are found in a factory or on a farm, treat them the way we have been treating them - send them back home. They took that risk when they came here illegally. But, also fine their employer and if they were being paid less than minimum wage or there were violations of health and safety laws, fine their employer more - a lot more. The money from the fines can be thrown into the Develop Mexico program.

Require employers to pay the appropriate taxes and fees - workers comp, etc. - for every worker they employ - illegal or not. If they don't pay, collect the back taxes and fine them some extra when they're caught.

Retain the law that grants citizenship to anyone born within our borders, but change it to exclude people who show up here only for that purpose. If, for instance, a woman has a child while she is here working - whether legally or not - her child should be eligible for citizenship. On the other hand, if she shows up in her last trimester of pregnancy just to wait it out and give birth; toss her and the kid out.

What we don't want to do is greatly tighten up our immigration laws and policies. A liberal, open, mostly welcoming attitude toward immigrants is one of the greatest strengths of our country. It is what has created the strong, powerful, affluent and creative nation we live in. And it will continue to do so if we let it.

08 May 2006

Some Not So Random Musings: Book, War, Drugs & Barry Bonds

I don't have any particular bones to pick at the moment, but when you've got a blog you need to update it every so often, so I'll just fill this one with a bit of blather about a variety of things.

Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann is one of, perhaps THE, most remarkable, fascinating, thought-provoking, difficult books I've ever read. It is about what is probably the most important single philosophical question there is: when, if ever, is violence justified? It is a remarkable achievement that mixes up history, politics, philosophy, literature and just about everything else you can think of. It is fantastically researched and beautifully written. It is self-indulgent, but so important, and so astounding in its scope and range, that it's worthy of the self-indulgence.

I'm about 50 pages into volume three. There are seven volumes. It will probably take me a year or two to finish reading it. I keep it by the side of my bed and pick it up for 20 to 50 pages at a time between my reading of other things - currently Walter Mosley's latest: Fortunate Son.

So far, volume three deals with justifications for war. The book attempts to come up with a "moral calculus" to determine when violence is justifiable, or to what extent it is. In the case of war, the first consideration, of several, in the calculation is: "Military violence should be employed only by and against participants." In other words, the more civilians you kill, the harder it is to justify your side in a war. Vollmann points out that: "At the close of the nineteenth century, ten to fifteen percent of all war casualties were inflicted on civilians. At the close of the twentieth, that figure had risen to seventy-five percent." I guess wars are getting harder to justify than ever. I wish our politicians understood that.

Regarding another type of war, the "war on drugs," Mexico has legalized drugs. Well, sort of, not really, only a little. But I wish they would. (I wish everyone would legalize drugs.) There are all kinds of good reasons to legalize drugs and hardly any reasonable ones to prohibit them.

From a legal point of view - the richest, most powerful, most violent, most corrupting criminal enterprises anywhere on Earth are financed by the illegal trade in drugs. Like it or not, enough people want to take heroin, cocaine, pot, X, you name it, that other people are always going to make a ton of money selling them. Making those drugs illegal means giving a monopoly on one of the world's largest and most profitable businesses to bad guys. Legalizing drugs would almost instantly put the current crop of drug lords and terrorists who finance their operations with illegal drug dealing, out of business. It would also, as Mexico's law is intended (although only in a very minor way), allow governments to redirect limited law enforcement resources to other, more serious, violent crimes. Violent crime itself would be reduced as prices came down and addicts no longer needed to commit crimes to get the money to satisfy their addiction. Courts would be a lot less clogged than they are now, allowing them to do a better job. And, it would instantly put an end to the massive amounts of drug-related political corruption that is a worldwide problem.

Economically there would also be a number of benefits. The illegal trade in drugs creates a huge, untaxed, underground economy. In some countries it has actually destabilized the legitimate economy. The new source of tax revenue, even at the reduced prices that would be the result of legalization, would be a tremendous help to the economies of poor nations such as Afghanistan, Laos, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico. Taxing the sale of drugs would add plenty to the coffers of the government here in the U.S. And not having to futilely spend billions of dollars a year trying to stop the unstoppable trade in illegal drugs, and to incarcerate people arrested and convicted of possession and dealing, would save the U.S. enormous amounts of money at every governmental level.

But, people say, won't more people use drugs if they're legal? Maybe. But whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If even half the money the government saved on enforcement and interdiction would be used for education, healthcare and rehabilitation, it would do a great deal more to solve the problem than anything else governments have tried so far. From a healthcare point of view; legal, regulated drugs would have fewer impurities and more accurate dosing. That would greatly cut down on overdoses and other ill-effects from drugs. Easy, cheap access to drug paraphernalia would cut down on the transmission of diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis B.

There's also a civil liberties issue at play here. Why should it be the government's business what you do to yourself in the privacy of your own home? Why should taking drugs be legally any different than, say, masturbating? Sure, take drugs and go out driving - the police ought to bring you down just as they would any drunk driver. Give or sell drugs to a minor - also a police matter. Shoot some heroin, snort some coke, smoke some pot, pop an X with some friends or by yourself at home or in the privacy of a club or bar or whatever place that offers that sort of thing - well, that ought to be your own business.

The "war on drugs" certainly isn't working. It has only succeeded in making criminals richer, more powerful and more ruthless; politics more corrupt; and drug users (and there are millions of them) less safe and more desperate. Mexico isn't going far enough.

Speaking of drugs, Barry Bonds is about to pass Babe Ruth on the lifetime homerun total list. While not yet proven, there is enough evidence that he has done so by taking steroids, that I, and most baseball lovers, accept it as fact. And, there seems to be plenty of evidence that taking steroids does actually give someone an unfair athletic advantage over someone who doesn't take them. (I'm not personally convinced that all that acne and impotence is worth it, but then no one's offered me tens of millions of dollars to hit a ball with a bat.)

While I am not thrilled to see the juiced Barry bypass the also juiced (although with performance decreasing alcohol) Babe, I'm not agonizing too much over it either. Babe Ruth probably had the the most individual impact on any sport ever. No matter how many of his records are broken, there is a strong argument to be made that he is, and probably always will be, the greatest.

Barry Bonds is a great player too. There is no denying that. Even if he hadn't hit 73 dubious homeruns in a season, even if he wasn't about to beat the Babe's total, he would still have been one of the best ever. Last night Bonds hit his fifth homerun of the season - and it's still early May. A monster 450 foot blast to right field. It seems unlikely that he's on steroids this year. He can't be that nuts - can he? He's been hitting his homeruns this year while playing on a terrible pair of knees, at the age of 41, suffering enormous amounts of abuse and pressure from fans and the press. Sure he's a schmuck, and possibly a cheat. But he's a damn good one.

And, I hate to say it since I'm a lifelong baseball lover, baseball is just a game. It's not curing malaria. It's not bringing peace to the Middle East. And it's a game in which a lot of fans - I am not among them - like to see big huge guys hit big huge homeruns with regularity. (I prefer teams that squeeze out runs with a lot of smart, small ball, and defend their meager leads with great pitching.) The ridiculous emphasis on power is at least partly responsible for the use of steroids. It's like any sort of drug - like heroin or coke - if there wasn't a market for this stuff, no one would be dealing it.

There's an equation in all of this. (This is where I tie together Vollmann's "moral calculus" and my legalize drugs notion):

Fans like seeing homeruns. 1
Barry Bonds hits alot of homeruns. + 2
Steroids make it easier for him to hit homeruns. + 3
Baseball is just a game, an entertainment, not really so important in the worldwide scheme of things. + 4

What does that add up to? You tell me.

02 May 2006

I Still Say: Tear It Down!

I just got back, with a miraculous lack of traffic for 3:30-4pm on a Tuesday, from an Angels game in Anaheim. Before I embark on making some comparisons between today's experience and going to a game at Dodger Stadium, I want to state my qualifications, as such, for commenting on these weighty matters. (The people who have lambasted me for my previous blog entry should know that I am no neophyte.)

I have attended ballgames in 19 different major league stadiums and a couple dozen minor league stadiums. I have been a Dodger fan since going to my first games, at the age of six, in 1958 - the year the Dodgers first played in Los Angeles. I average somewhere around 15 games a season, not just at Dodger Stadium, but in a variety of places. At Dodger Stadium I have sat in nearly every single section of the ballpark at one time or another. I usually sit in the reserve section, as close to directly behind homeplate as I can get - $20 seats.

Today, at the Angels game I sat in the view section - that stadium's equivalent of the reserve section at Dodger Stadium. The tickets were $24. I went with a friend who often goes to Dodger games with me. We both agreed that today's seats kicked butt over our usual seats at Dodger Stadium, for the reason that the stands at the Angels ballpark are much steeper. We felt a great deal closer to the action during today's game than we did when we went a couple of weeks ago and sat in the loge section ($50 per ticket) at Dodger Stadium. The upper stands at Dodger Stadium are just too far back from the playing field. It lacks any sense of intimacy - which is something that I appreciate when at a ballgame.

We also both commented on how we liked the non-symmetrical outfield, with different distances to and a couple of odd turns in the fences. That's just personal preference. I like quirky outfields. The rock jumble and ejaculating waterfall are pretty awful. Not to mention - now it's my turn to anger Angels fans - what's with the Rally Monkey? Doesn't anyone realize that when a monkey bares its teeth like that and jumps up and down it's a sign of fear and/or aggression?

One of my critics mentioned the view of the mountains from the stands at Dodger Stadium. Huh? I go to baseball games to watch baseball. I'm interested in the view of the playing field. Sure, the view of the freeway and ugly building from our seats today was hideous, but I didn't spend much time looking at it.

As for food, what we sampled at the Angels stadium was no better than what I've eaten at Dodger Stadium; which is to say it was pretty lousy. The only difference being that at the Angels stadium every single thing we ate and drank was about a dollar to a dollar-and-a-half cheaper. And there were more choices and more choices as to the size: both a $2.50 and a $4.00 bag of peanuts, for example, rather than Dodger Stadium's one giant, $5.00 bag.

Parking, at eight bucks, was two dollars cheaper than at Dodger Stadium. And, while it was not a hugely attended mid-week day game, I did get the distinct impression that even when it is crowded it is easier to get out of the parking lot than at Dodger Stadium.

In all, I preferred Angel Stadium to Dodger Stadium, at least with regard to seating and concession pricing. (I prefer National League games to American League games though.) Both stadiums are rather more sterile than I like. While Dodger Stadium may be representative of a distinct style and era of architecture, it's not a particularly distinguished style and era. Frankly, I think they're both pretty ugly. Perhaps Dodger Stadium is a little bit more attractive from outside the stadium or from the air or something. Both stadiums sit in the midst of a huge parking lot. I find it hard to believe that anyone is very fond of that site feature.

In my experience, the best, most fun stadiums are the ones that are within neighborhoods, rather than sitting out on their own divorced from any surrounding community. When I go with friends to ballgames in Boston, Chicago, New York (Yankee Stadium, not Shea), St. Louis, San Francisco, even Phoenix, part of the joy of the experience is after the game when we walk to some nearby bar or restaurant and sit around to talk about the game. At Dodger Stadium, and Angel Stadium for that matter, you can sit in your car for a long while trying not to get clobbered by someone in their car while you talk it over between close calls. Is there anyone out there reading this who actually prefers that? If there is: you're nuts!

Okay, so don't try to recreate Brooklyn at Chavez Ravine. I just meant that as a "for instance" in any event. Make it a Los Angeles-style neighborhood (whatever you decide that is), surrounding some sort of West Coast Moderne Architectural Gem of a ballpark. You could do worse than to base the design on the old semi-art deco Gilmore Stadium where the Hollywood Stars used to play. For those of you who for some strange reason would rather look at the mountain view than the ballgame, there's no reason why a new stadium can't be designed with that in mind.

Tearing down Dodger Stadium and re-developing Chavez Ravine is one of the best things that could happen to the Dodgers, Dodger fans and the city of Los Angeles.