Monthly Archives: April 2018

Initial Thoughts on Tonight’s Attack on Syria

So…we’re bombing Syria *right* *now*.

Some very initial observations:

1) Of course Assad is a monster, and has been for his entire reign. He’s also used chemical weapons (by my rough estimate) at least a half-dozen times in recent years. And the US has spent the last decade in the region fighting Assad’s primary enemy (ISIS), and thus helping to keep him in power. And other parties in the conflict have also allegedly used chemical weapons at times.

2) After reporting last week that Trump told his military leaders he wanted all US troops out of Syria, we have today. Now the reports have Trump having wanted a more expansive response than his military leaders advised. This is a deeply incoherent response, in a war zone with multiple parties whose complexity on the ground has stymied even policymakers who knew what they were doing.

3) Trump, of course, has no idea what he’s doing, and that’s even less likely during a week when he has by all accounts been melting down over the raids on Michael Cohen, James Comey’s new book, and all manner of other Russia investigation developments.Trump’s past MO is to trot out a massive distraction when the news isn’t going his way. That would be the worst possible reason for this attack.

4) Initial reports are of explosions in Damascus (the capitol and second-largest city in Syria). It’s not clear what the targets are, or whether they include civilian areas. Based on past US actions, that seems likely.

5) It took John Bolton exactly nine days to get one of his two favored wars. North Korea is the other, and Kim Jong-un is set to meet with South Korean President Moon two weeks from today. Just sayin’.

6) Trump, in his speech tonight, emphasized that this would not be an indefinite engagement. Past announcements of such US attacks ALWAYS include this reassurance. Sometimes it’s even true.

7) Trump also called out “tyranny everywhere,” which is laughable given his bromance not just with Putin, but Turkish President Erdogan (whose military recently launched an offensive in northern Syria against the Kurds, who are our only actual non-Israeli ally in the conflict) and neo-fascists from the Philippines to Poland and Latin America.

8) Trump called out Russian support for Assad, which marks, so far as I’m aware, the first time he’s personally criticized the Putin regime in three years. That includes when Russia used a chemical weapon on British soil. Putin is not going to ignore this.

Earlier today McClatchy reported that Robert Mueller’s team has evidence supporting one of the last major unproven allegations in the Steele Dossier, the charge that Cohen met with Russian contacts in Prague as a go-between between the Putin government and Trump’s campaign in 2016. If Russia has a pee tape, I hope we’ll see it soon.

Better that than a fresh world war.

UPDATE: James Mattis just announced that the initial bombing operation is over, and any further response depends on Assad’s response. Fingers crossed.

Congestive Failure

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s announcement that she wants the city to come up with a plan for “congestion pricing,” to toll surface streets in downtown and South Lake Union, is only the latest in a growing tradition of city policies that are meant to sound and feel good, but that are deeply delusional and throw Seattle’s working poor under the bus – in this case, literally.

As with many of these policies, the general goal of Durkan’s edict sounds laudable – to get more people out of their cars and using public transit, thereby reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. As Durkan notes, the last four mayors have been trying to reduce Seattle’s carbon output, but it has remained basically stable over that time. That doesn’t mean past efforts have failed – on a per capita basis, they’ve had impressive success. But explosive population growth, both in the city and in our region, has offset the per capita reductions. Durkan wants more.

Okay – but at what cost, and to what benefit? Seattle’s contribution to national carbon emissions, let alone global ones, is miniscule. In absolute terms, reducing it by ten percent – which would be a lot, given that Seattle’s population growth isn’t expected to slow any time soon – just doesn’t matter much. It does allow Seattleites to feel smug about ourselves, and it would help to shame a somnambulant federal government, if Republicans were capable of shame. But by itself, it won’t do much to actually slow down climate change.

Seattle is even unlikely to influence other American cities, several of whom have already considered and rejected congestion pricing. Most famously, New York City has had several such proposals to toll access to Manhattan in the last decade. No US city has actually enacted such a plan. The best-known examples of congestion pricing are European: Stockholm, Milan, and especially London, the first major city to implement it.

But as we should have learned with bicycles, homelessness, and any number of other issues, Seattle is not Europe. Our geography (especially the sprawl) is different. Our levels of poverty and our social safety net programs (such as they are) are different. Even our hills are something that regularly cited bike-friendly models like Copenhagen and Amsterdam don’t have.

In this case, cities like London can use congestion pricing to reduce car usage because they have a well-established public transportation system that people can and do use instead – especially rail, which takes people off the streets entirely and is more carbon-friendly than buses.

For example, Greater London, with 14 million people, has not only a robust passenger rail network, but its subway system – The London Underground, or The Tube – has 11 lines, 270 stations, 250 miles of track, and 1.3 billion passengers annually. Metropolitan Seattle, including Pierce and Snohomish Counties, has a quarter of London’s population – but Link Light Rail has only one Seattle line, with 16 stations, 20 miles of track, and 23 million passengers annually. That’s less than two percent of London’s ridership, or eight percent of its per capita ridership. And, of course, Link light rail’s one line doesn’t even serve most King County neighborhoods, with the next expansion – the relatively modest four mile extension from UW to Northgate – not due to open until 2021, the same year Durkan wants congestion pricing to start. Assuming no delays, the first stations on a second, Eastside line will open in 2023.

Metro buses are also a problematic option to replace car usage. Every year recently has seen record ridership, but for years Metro funding hasn’t kept up with demand. Voters approved a record $930 million transportation levy in 2015, but the city is quietly getting ready to announce reductions in the projects that levy was meant to fund, due both to escalating costs and the predictable loss of federal funding under the Trump Administration. Some projects will be hit harder than others – particularly the projects, like the proposed seven new Rapid Ride lines, that were expecting to rely heavily on federal funding. Without those new lines, bus options won’t be much better in 2021 than they are now, with central city routes already frequently at capacity during precisely the same hours as the vehicle gridlock that congestion pricing will supposedly address.

At this point, congestion pricing resembles nothing so much as Seattle’s current approach to homelessness, which is to dismantle most emergency shelters and social support services in favor of funneling the homeless into permanent affordable housing that does not exist, at least not in anywhere near the amount needed to meet the demand. A similar dynamic awaits those who decide to turn to public transportation rather than paying to drive downtown. After decades of political leaders using transportation money to fund vanity projects and real estate development schemes, Seattle doesn’t have the public transit infrastructure a city our size should have – let alone one that can accommodate our projected future growth, let alone our ambition to, uniquely among US cities, get people out of their cars.

And beyond all of that, congestion pricing, like so many of Seattle’s other revenue sources, is extremely regressive. Someone who can afford a downtown condo or rental won’t even notice downtown tolling – but someone who works downtown but has been forced out to Kent, Lake City, or some other outpost in search of slightly less outrageous housing costs faces a light rail system that’s irrelevant and a bus system that’s frequently packed in rush hours but doesn’t even serve many areas well on nights or weekends. What are they supposed to do? If they’re driving because, like in most American cities but unlike the rest of the world, there are no practical alternatives, it doesn’t make sense to force them out of their cars until those alternatives are in place. Having to choose between increased driving costs and, say, rent or food seems pointlessly cruel – but people in that situation are precisely the ones who will be impacted by most variations on the type of plan Durkan wants.

But, as with the homeless waiting in vain for alternatives, the city’s policies doesn’t really much care about the working poor. Instead, Seattle simply hopes they’ll go away, in this case in service of a largely symbolic goal. It hasn’t worked with the homeless, and it won’t with this, either. It will simply place more burdens and misery on the lives of people far removed from the eco-friendly confines of City Hall. Most good Seattle liberals would be mortified by the comparison, but there’s something positively Trumpian about city leaders that make policy decisions based on the city they imagine, rather than the one that actually exists.

The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, and Retractable

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., first used the quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” in 1958. The quote itself dates back to 19th Century abolitionists. Now, in the 21st Century, it is once again in doubt.

This week’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inevitably is provoking a fair amount of “How Far Have We Come?” and “How Far We Have Come!” commentary. But more disturbing, for our nation and the world, is where the most prominent facets of Dr. King’s moral universe – racial and economic justice and Gandhian nonviolence – are going. Many of the signs are not good.

In commemorating the anniversary, the New York Times today included a front-page photo of the Lorraine Motel, the inner city motel where King was shot and killed. What the Times article didn’t mention was what has happened to the Lorraine itself and the area around it. City leaders used the Lorraine to site a new National Civil Rights Museum, which in turn has been used, despite community protests, to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood and drive out its historically poor, black residents.

In other words, a city seeking to turn an awful historical event into tourist dollars – and that only this decade, after years of community pressure, took down its Confederate statues – is monetizing Dr. King’s death for real estate developers. It’s s grim twist to the sort of economic displacement going on in central city areas across the US, leading to chronic shortages in affordable housing – and record levels of homelessness – among the people Dr. King championed most.

This is not an isolated development. On issue after issue, a half-century after a white supremacist shot and killed Dr. King (probably, as a Memphis jury later decided, as part of a broader conspiracy), King’s greatest achievements are being rolled back, from voting rights to economic opportunity to basic economic and public health indices.

The process began the same year Dr. King died, when Richard Nixon used his now-infamous “Southern Strategy” to win the presidency. The white supremacism Nixon appealed to has since steadily grown in power, to the point where it is now the unifying ideology of a political party that controls not only all three branches of the federal government, but 31 of 50 state governments and the vast majority of our country’s non-urban counties. Democrats have the upper hand in only four states not on the Western or Eastern seaboards – Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico, all of which have large urban centers that control their states. Everywhere else, the corrosive influence of white supremacism has given the lie to the belief that King’s legacy is secure.

To be sure, there have been periods of pushback, most recently in Barack Obama’s election and the explosive growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it’s a measure of how much we’ve lost that the #BLM movement – a movement launched during Obama’s presidency – explicitly branded itself around black peoples’ right even to exist.

The triumph of Obama’s election led directly to the presidency of Donald Trump, a living embodiment of the rejection of Dr. King’s legacy who first rose to political prominence with the explicitly racist birther conspiracy. Control of federal law enforcement now rests with the neo-confederate Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose federal judicial nomination was rejected – one of only two such rejections in US history – because his overt racism was, in the Reagan era, too much even for the Republicans of the day. Now such racism is Republican orthodoxy, voter suppression and racist gerrymandering are the norm in Republican states, and the Voting Rights Act is dead.

The good news is that while Republicans have seized power, a majority of our country’s people, and the majority of its wealth, are in its cities, which generally reject that Republican orthodoxy. But even as Democrats are poised to make major gains in this year’s elections, it’s essential that they campaign not just against the general train wreck of the Trump Presidency, but explicitly against the hatred, fear, and bigotry that propelled it to power. Dr. King’s other legacy was his championing of Gandhian nonviolence – an ethos diametrically opposed to the bitterness and hatred that now dominates all facets of American politics across the ideological spectrum.

Democrats need to be explicitly rejecting not just racism and the policies it has spawned as a cornerstone of their campaign efforts. They also need to make clear that they care about all Americans, including poor and middle class whites being ripped off by Trump’s oligarchy. Otherwise, the politics of division will simply be America’s politics – the final rejection of King’s moral universe. And the groundwork for more white supremacist gains in the future will be securely in place.

That ethic of universal dignity and love is what made Dr. King a figure of global inspiration. It is now also in retreat in much of the world, a victim of predatory global capitalism, the rise in influence of anti-democratic kleptocracies like China and Russia, and the battle for resources made scarcer by population growth and climate change.

In the end, King’s vision is not only morally just, but may be the key to our survival as a species. That arc, his legacy, and human survival are by no means guaranteed.