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How to fix the Minnesota Presidential Caucus

by gregladen on March 3, 2016 · 4 comments

Minnesota_Caucus_SystemThere are two kinds of people in this world. Those who want to eliminate the DFL Caucus system because they don’t know how it really works and fail to recognize its value, and those who want to eliminate the DFL Caucus system because they’ve been doing it to long and have been driven insane.


OK, three kinds of people, because there are those who like the system. OK, four kinds because there are those who don’t dare. But think you get my point.


There is an ongoing discussion about the failings of the caucus system with respect to the national presidential primary race. I have been fairly disappointed with what seems to be a lack of imagination in this discussion, until I realized why. Fetish.


You may be thinking of a fetish as having to do with feet, or vinyl, or hot tubs full of fruit Jello, but in anthropology the concept is actually more interesting. (Well, maybe not more interesting than a hot tub full of fruit Jello …. but I digress.) We anthropologists see a fetish as a thing one does or thinks automatically, though perhaps with apparent conviction, or something hard to not do because of a strong habit or personal expectation, that in fact has no justifiable logical underpinning. Often, this is about how we define things, or about our expectations for behavior, or definition of norms. I’ll give you an example from the caucus since that is what we are talking about here. No matter how bone-headed you think a resolution read at your precinct caucus is, when it comes time to say “nay” you keep your mouth shut. This is a local cultural fetish. Make no sense, is actually very undemocratic, but you do it and regard it as proper, and anyone who does say “nay” gets a stern look.


The fetish that stands in our way of fixing the presidential preference ballot at the caucus is that we only accept two ways of doing this sort of thing, a primary and a caucus, and our DFL primary is set for mid summer, after the national convention. We have fetishized this system in a way that we can not change it effectively. I’m not talking about change as in we move the primary, because we can’t move the primary for a number of reasons. I’m talking about our inability to look at the system, parse it, pick it apart, figure out what is really wrong with it, acknowledge what we really want, and then do something. We are frozen like deer in the headlights, we DFLers with our fetishized caucus system.



Columbia Heights School Board: Hala Asamarai

by gregladen on November 24, 2015 · 0 comments

2355690Full disclosure. I don’t know Dr. Hala Asamarai, but my wife knows her very well. They taught together at Columbia Heights when Hala was just starting out as a student teacher. They worked together for quite some time and have remained friends and colleagues since. Amanda has a very high opinion of Hala, and that’s a very good starting point.
Hala Asamarai is running for the Columbia Heights School Board in a special election that will be held on December 1st, and I’m asking you to support her.
You will recall that a while back a Columbia Heights school board member made inappropriate remarks about Muslims. The board voted on his removal, but that vote has to be unanimous. One of the offending member’s buddies did not vote in favor of his removal, so the board continued with status quo. Later, under increasing pressure, both of these members resigned.
Let me tell you a little story that I should probably not relate publicly, but screw it. Years ago I was at an event in Columbia Heights. The event happened to be attended by a very large proportion of people who were not, shall we say, the typical white resident that Columbia Heights, as a city, formerly consisted primarily of. There were people who had immigrated from countries all around the world to find their way, eventually, to Columbia Heights.
A man at the gathering was talking to another guy, and I happened to overhear. He made mention of the presence of all these people from outside, and noted that, “I suppose we have to get used to this.”
That was actually a fairly positive remark. It was better than, say, white supremacists showing up in North Minneapolis and shooting a bunch of Blacks Lives Matters protestors and supporters. It was better than making a straight on anti-Muslim remark. Could have been worse. On the other hand, the remark, in context, indicated resignation over something undesirable. It was not welcoming. At best, it was less than unwelcoming as it could have been.


What YOU can do about gun violence

by gregladen on October 9, 2015 · 0 comments

Why you have to do something about guns


This message is primarily for those living in the United States. In the US, we have an outdated Constitutional amendment that has been interpreted by many, including the courts, in a way that hampers effective legislation to address what is clearly a major problem with the proliferation and use of firearms in inappropriate ways. We are frequently reminded of this by the regular occurrence of mass killings such as the recent event in Oregon. But really, that is a small part of the problem, numerically. I lay out some of the numbers below, and address some of the arguments that regulation of guns should be absent or minimal. We have another problem as well, one that is paralleled in many other areas of policy. Special interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, through pressure and campaign financing, control much of the Congress.


Other countries have addressed their gun violence problem effectively. We can too. But in order for that to happen, this has to happen:


1) The specious arguments against gun regulation have to be called out for what they are, and ultimately, ignored.


2) Citizen pressure on our elected representatives has to be increased significantly.


3) Organized efforts against the gun industry and the gun lobby have to be supported.


Your role as a citizen is critical. There are three steps you can take. Here, I’m asking you to take one of them, the one that requires the least effort and would likely have the largest impact. First, the other two. You can learn more about the gun problem, by reading this post to the end, and reading other material. After that, don’t let the gun supporters off easy when they pull out their arguments. Tell them they are wrong, and why. I understand and respect the fact that most of you are not going to do this, but some of you may be inclined to do so, and I thank you for that. Another idea is to check your investments (like your 401k) to see if you are supporting the gun industry. If so, see if you can fix that. You can find information about that here.


The easy step you can take, and likely the most effective, is to send a note right now to your representative in Congress. I’m told (see this) that a written letter delivered by the US Post Office has a significantly larger impact when it arrives on the desk of your Congressperson than an email (or tweet or a signature on a petition), so do please spend the stamp and do that if you can. But an email is good too, and if that is all you have time for, please do it.


Write your own note, but here are a few suggestions.




by gregladen on August 29, 2015 · 1 comment

FrankenTrump-590x369The Republican Party and its handlers, including the right wing talk radio jocks such as Rush Limbaugh, and the bought-and-paid-for media such as FOX news, did not create the Tea Party. Michele Bachmann and a few others did that.* But once the Tea Party got going, mainstream conservative Republicans, including and especially leaders in Congress, went right to bed with it. The Tea Party gave Republican strategists an easy way to garner votes and support. This was especially easy to do because America decided to elect an African American president. Make no mistake. The Tea Party is pro-white, anti-everybody-else, and having an African American Democrat as president made defining issues and shaping rhetoric trivially easy.
It is a mistake to think that the Tea Party comes with a set of positions on various issues. It does not. Yes, the Tea Party tends to be libertarian, conservative, and so on and so forth, but really, it is philosophically inconstant and mostly reactionary. This has been demonstrated over and over again, as President Obama embraced various issues that were previously held by prominent Republicans, and those policies were immediately opposed. Because they were the policies of the Black President. The merit of a policy had nothing to do with opposition against it. They were President Obama’s issues, therefore the Tea Party was against them. And since the Republican Party was so rapt with the Tea Party, the GOP was against them.
This worked well. It gave the Republicans massive victories in a gerrymandered Congress. It meant that absurd excuses for leaders won elections, or if they did not, lost by only a few percentage points, when they should have been largely ignored by the populace.

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Osama bin Laden 1; Railroads 0

by gregladen on August 25, 2015 · 0 comments

train-derailment-bakken-west-virginia-aerial-view_us-coast-guardThe terrorists have defeated the railroads, and by extension, the people. Well, not totally defeated, but they won a small but important battle.
We have a problem with the wholesale removal of petroleum from the Bakken oil fields, and the shipping of that relatively dangerous liquid mainly to the east coast on trains, with hundreds of tanker cars rolling down a small selection of tracks every day. I see them all the time as they go through my neighborhood. These trains derail now and then, and sometimes those derailments are pretty messy, life threatening, and even fatal.
There has been some effort in Minnesota to get the train companies to upgrade their disaster plans, which is important because about 300,000 Minnesotans live in the larger (one half mile) disaster zone that flanks these track. A smaller number, but not insignificant, live in the blast zone, the place where if a couple of train cars actually exploded you would be within the blast area. For the last couple of years, my son was at a daycare right in that blast zone. I quickly add that the chance of being blasted by an oil train is very small, because the tracks are in total thousands of miles long, derailments are rare(ish), and the affected areas can be measured in city blocks. So a blast from a Bakken oil train may be thought of as roughly like a large air liner crash, or may be two or three times larger than that, in terms of damage on the ground.
But yes, the trains derail at a seemingly large rate.
Now, here is where the terrorists come in. And by terrorists I specifically mean Osama bin (no relation) Laden, or his ghost, and that gang of crazies that took down the world trade center in New York. When that happened, we became afraid of terrorism, and everyone who could use that fear for personal gain has since exploited it. I’m pretty sure that the rise of the police state in America has been because of, facilitated by, and hastened due to this event. For years the American people let the security forces and related government agencies do pretty much whatever they wanted. The Patriot Act, you may or may not know, is a version of a law that conservatives have been pushing in the US for decades, a draconian law that gives great power to investigative and police agencies. That law never got very far in Congress until 9/11. Then, thanks to Osama bin Laden, it seemed like everyone wanted it. Only now, years later, are we seriously considering rolling it back (and to some extent acting on that consideration).
So now, the railroads have been forced to come up with a disaster plan related to the oil shipments. And they did. But for the most part they won’t let anyone see it. Why? Because, according to one railroad official, “… to put it out in the public domain is like giving terrorists a road map on how to do something bad.”
What does he mean exactly? As far as I can tell, the disaster plan pinpoints specific scenarios that would be especially bad. These scenarios, if they fell into the hands of terrorists, would allow said terrorists to terrorize more effectively.
I’m sure this is true. But I’m also sure this is not a reason to keep the plans secret. There are three reasons, in my view, that the plans should be totally available for public review.
1) If you want to know what the worst case scenarios for a rail tanker disaster are, don’t read this report. It is easier to get out a map, maybe use some GIS software if you have it, and correlate localities where the train tracks cross over bridges, cross major water sources, and go through dense population areas. A high bridge through an urban area over an important river, for instance. This is not hard. Indeed, I call on all social studies teachers with an attitude (and most of the good ones have an attitude) to make this a regular project in one of your classes. Have the students try to think like terrorists and identify the best way to terrorize using oil trains. The reason to do this is to point out how dumb the railroads are being.
2) Secret plans are plans that can be exploited or misused by those who make them. We will see security measures taken that, for example, limit public access to information unrelated to oil trains, with the terroristic threat used as an excuse. I’m sure this has already happened. It will continue to happen. It is how the police state works.
3) The plans can be better. How do I know this? Because all plans can be better. That’s how plans work. How can you make the plans better? Scrutiny. How do you get scrutiny? Don’t make the plans secret.
MPR news has a pretty good writeup on this situation here. MPR is fairly annoyed at the secrecy, as they should be, but frankly I’d like to see this and other news agencies, as well as the state legislators involved, and everyone else, more fired up. We should all be working harder against the police state.
I want to end with this: I like trains, and you should too. Trains are among the most efficient ways to move stuff across the landscape. Those of us concerned with things like climate change should be all for trains. Ultimately, I think we can increase the use of trains to move goods and people, and at the same time take the trains off fossil carbon. They are already mostly electric, using liquid fuel to run generators. That liquid fuel could be made, largely, from renewable biodiesel and a bit of grown biodiesel, and more of the trains can probably go all electric. But this secrecy thing is not OK.



Can GMOs solve the coming food crisis?

by gregladen on April 13, 2015 · 1 comment

Our own local expert on this topic, Emily Cassidy (she’s now in DC but hails from the Twin Cities and UMN) has written an important report on this topic for the Environmental Working Group. I wrote it up on my blog but I thought MPP readers would like to see it, so here it is:

According to the best available research, we are going to have to double the production of food, globally, by 2050. Think about that for a moment. Children born today will be in their 40s at a time that we need to have already doubled food production, yet during the last 20 years we have seen only a 20 percent increase in food supply. Assuming a steady rate of increase in production (which might be optimistic) we should expect to fall far short of demand over the next few decades. This is a problem. The problem is expected to most severely affect poorer people, people in less developed nations, and poor farmers, but if the entire world is double digit percentage points short of food, almost no one is going to get by unscathed. And, at some point, when nearly everyone is seeing some sort of food shortage or extraordinarily high prices, the totally unscathed are going to start looking pretty tasty to the rest of us.


Also, agricultural production, whether for food or biofuel, has a fairly large Carbon footprint, both by reducing natural Carbon sinks and by using fossil fuels at a fairly high rate. Doubling production of food would presumably involve increasing these effects, unless alternative approaches are developed. So even if we solve the problem of production, we might exacerbate the problem of human caused climate change. Let us not even speak of sea level rise; Over the coming century we expect sea levels to rise sufficiently to flood, either regularly or permanently, some of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, which would seriously dampen efforts to increase productivity.


And water. This will all require more water, when we are facing increasing shortages of water.


How do we address this problem? Will Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) save the day? Are there other approaches to quickly increase agricultural output? Can we eat different foods that are less difficult or costly to produce?


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Harry Potter and the 2014 Election

by gregladen on November 5, 2014 · 2 comments

Separated at birth? Maybe not. But still ...

Separated at birth? Maybe not. But still …

Harry Potter and the 2014 Election

The Potter Metaphor


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone is the first in a series of books that are metaphorical of the central theme of politics and society in the Western world. Voldemort represents purity of race and racism, the good Witches and Wizards of Hogwarts represent the struggle of self aware consensus around the idea of fairness. The key protagonists — Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, together with a few others — succeed because of the diversity in ability they collectively represent.


One of the key moments in J. K. Rowling’s book is the solution of the potions challenge on the way to the hidden room containing the Sorcerer’s stone. There are several challenges and problems, and each one is met by a different protagonist. Harry has the ability to make Hagrid reveal his poorly kept secrets, so among other things the three students find out how to control Fuffy, the giant three-headed hound. He is also a skilled Seeker, and can thus grab the flying key. Hermione is the one that notices the trap door. Ron for all his failings is a master at Wizard Chess. The theme here is obvious. The three students often fail to understand each other and often do not see eye to eye, but by combining their different strengths and working together, they accomplish what no individual Witch or Wizard could do. The part about the potions challenge is a notably extreme case of this.


Voldemort and his death eaters, and the Slytherin such as Draco Malfoy and his father, as well as Snape, resent the half breeds and muggle-born. They wish to see those who are not pure removed from their society, by any means. The historical fact that Voldemort himself is a halfbreed, a thinly veiled reference to Hitler’s Jewish connections, is beside the point. But it is the muggle-born Hermione who solves the potions puzzle using a Muggle capacity rarely found in Wizards. Wizards, we are told by Rowling, have magical minds, not logical minds. Among the Muggles we find those like Hermione, who probably spent hours with brain teaser books as an eight year old, who are capable of solving complex logical problems, problems that seem impossible but in fact have only one solution. When Hermione and Harry reach the potions challenge, where drinking all of the liquids but one will cause a horrible outcome, but that one potion will open the next door, her Muggle mind comes into play. Harry does not understand how Hermione has solved the problem, but he trusts her with his life.


It is very unfortunate that this scene was left out of the movie version of the story, even though it is alluded to after the fact. As far as I can tell, the scene was never shot (correct me if I am wrong). To me, this is a key message in Rowling’s book. The fact that it was not transferred into the movie version, and that commentary on the book vs. movie differences tend note it but do not lament it, is a bit disappointing.



rebeccapointing-lgI’ve spoken to a lot of Minnesota DFLer’s (that’s what we call Democrats ’round these parts) about today’s Primary, especially in relation to the auditor’s race. Rebecca Otto, who, full disclosure, I don’t know at all but who’s husband is a friend and colleague, is the incumbent. Rebecca has really put a shine on the Auditor’s office. I understand that the previous auditor, a Republican, pretty much sucked, so that might have made looking good a bit easier for Rebecca, but it can’t be true that all of the other auditors across the country also suck, and the various professional associations that deal with this sort of thing have awarded Rebecca with top level official accolades over and over. So, she is clearly about the best Auditor in the country, and in Minnesota, the best one to come along in a while.
Now, it turns out, that two or three of our Governors were formerly Auditors. I don’t know why Auditor would be a stepping stone to Governor, or even, if it really is. That might just be a fluke, like every president elected in a year that ends in zero getting killed or almost killed. The point is, it has become local political folklore that Auditor is a good jumping off point for Governor.
So, there’s this guy named Matt Entenza who has run for Governor before. He used to be in the State Legislature. Mostly though, his political career consists of spending huge piles of family money on running races that he loses. I’m pretty sure Matt wants to be be Governor, and he wants it so badly that he is virtually delusional about the prospects. Or, perhaps, he simply has a deep and unabiding disdain for Minnesota voters. He thought he could just spend a lot of his family money on a campaign and unseat a well liked and widely respected incumbent.
In Minnesota, we use the Native American system of choosing our candidates by party to run in the general election. No one fully understand the process but it involves a lot of standing around in a special room that you need permission to be in. People join in groups and hold up symbols of their political beliefs and the candidates they support, then move between groups, sometimes combining groups. A Caucus Chief occasionally tells all the people in this or that group that they must disband, and those individuals then join other groups. If a group gets big enough and they are fast enough they can form two groups. The exact number of groups that are formed and their exact configuration can determine who ultimately is chosen by the Caucus. At various points the Caucus is frozen, and tough looking guys working for the Caucus Chief make sure no one crosses certain lines that are sometimes marked on the floor with Duct Tape. It might be unfrozen and refrozen a couple of times, but eventually the Caucus Chief calls an end to it and each of the clusters of people elect a certain number of representatives who are supposed to vote a certain way on the first ballot at a district convention. But no one knows who these people are because the Caucus Chief works for a secret society that maintains all the rules of the caucus system, and runs it, but does not provide any information from it, so the supporters of the various candidates have to rush to one end of the room where those elected by the Caucus groups are required to go to state their name and how they will vote to a group of very old people who can’t hear a thing. The friends of the candidates try to glean the names of the elected ones, and the elected ones often try to interfere with this process, which seems ridiculous because the first thing you get if you are elected is the candidate buys you a cup of coffee later in the week at Caribou or Starbucks.
Amazingly, this system works rather well, and eventually produces a set of “endorsed” candidates. Rebecca Otto, who is a successful well liked and widely respected incumbent, was endorsed by the party. Then moments before a special deadline, after the endorsement, this guy Matt Entenza, who really wants to be Governor, filed to run. So there was a primary challenge within the party.
Entenza lied and lied and lied. He lied about himself, he lied about Rebecca, he lied about what the Auditor’s job is, he lied about what he would do if elected (we know he lied because he’s not an idiot and he made claims that he would do things that the Auditor simply does not do).
So the Primary was today. They are still counting votes as I write this. And, as I said, I have spoken, especially today, to a lot of DFLer’s (Minnesota Democrats.)
Most of them strongly support Rebecca Otto and are annoyed at Entenza. I spoke today to one person who said he’d vote for Entenza, and I think maybe his wife was to. I spoke to an Entenza staffer — a paid employee of Matt Entenza’s campaign — who quit a couple of weeks ago “… because Entenza lied to me, he lied to us, we all told him to go to hell …” who is voting for Rebecca.
Last time I looked 17% of the vote was counted and Otto was ahead by over 80%. I’m calling it for Otto.



The 2000 election was probably won by Al Gore. But George Bush was put into office anyway. Imagine what this world would be like had Gore been ensconced in the white house? The Tea Party would probably have emerged sooner and madder, but less organized; global climate change would have become a widely accepted issue to do something about within a couple of years, instead of much later (cuz, you know, that hasn’t even happened yet). We probably wouldn’t have had this war in Iraq. If Gore had continued Clinton’s policy dealing with Al Qaida and Osama Bin Laden (no relation) there probably wouldn’t have been a 9/11. I’m sure we’d have other problems, but none of those problems.


As you know, national elections are actually handled by states, and states are charmingly diverse in how they do that. For instance, the technology of elections, and what you have to do to prove you are eligible to vote at the polling place, vary across states. But after the 2000 election there was some movement to make the system work better, to implement chad-free technologies, and to update the procedure for determining eligibility.


Eventually, of course, the changes got politicized. Everyone knew that Democratic voters and Republican voters are different, not just in their politics or who they vote for, but in how they vote. The Lockstep Party, Republican, is more homogeneous and generally privileged. You want to vote, you stop in at the voting place on the way home from work and vote. You know where it is because it is the church you go to, you have a car so transport and weather are not issues, you have access to information which is all in English and that is your native language, so you know things like when election day is and so on and so forth: Democrats have that too, but being a big tent Democrats also have other folks. Recent immigrants who don’t understand the system, older folks who don’t have a car and have a hard time getting across town, people who don’t happen to go to the well established local church so they don’t even know where it is. Also, among Democrats are people with overt labels as to how they are likely to vote. You can’t wear a button on your shirt declaring your support for a candidate, but you can, say, be black, and therefore visibly less likely to vote for the Republican. This last bit allows people who control the polls to harass or turn away certain voters.


At some point in recent history, Republicans got aggressive with strategies that would make it hard for that diverse subset of Democrats to vote. Some of those strategies are just downright dirty and illegal. When I was working on Get Out the Vote for some Democratic Candidates a few years ago I found recent African immigrants, likely Democratic voters, who had been told by Republican operatives that “Republicans vote Tuesday, Democrats vote Wednesday. So go vote Wednesday.” Seriously.



Matt Entenza Is Not An Out Stater

by gregladen on July 22, 2014 · 2 comments


This is a followup on my earlier post (see “How do you say “Surprise” in Norwegian? The word is “Entenza.” I am not making that up” also reposted here) on Matt Entenza’s bid for the DFL (Democratic Party) Primary candidacy for Minnesota State Auditor.


[Updated: Letter to the Editor, Worthington Daily Globe.]

Entenza claims he is from Greater Minnesota, and thus, would do a better job representing the interests of Greater Minnesotans. This implies that highly acclaimed sitting State Auditor and candidate for re-election Rebecca Otto is not doing well in this area. In fact, she is doing very well. She is recognized for her fair and non-partisan treatment of people and local governments across the state. The previous State Auditor used the position in a more political way, implying bias, and voters rejected that approach by the largest upset of an incumbent in 112 years when Otto was first elected. It is now well-understood, here and nationally, that Otto is doing it right.


This is similar to the misleading language Entenza is using on pensions and social security. "Too often these days, we hear stories about how folks who worked hard and played by the rules their whole lives have their retirement at risk by poorly managed pension funds and Wall Street middle-men that charge exorbitant fees. Privatization of pensions is unacceptable. Minnesotans’ pensions should not be privatized and that Wall-Street middle men have no business near our pension plans.” This, again, implies that Otto has somehow been involved in privatizing pensions. She has not. In fact, a review of Otto’s website shows that she has been leading the charge against the move to privatize public pensions, and that the Public Employee Retirement Association is stronger than ever on her watch.


A similar thing happened in a recent news article about Otto leading a national conference of State Auditors, bringing the State Auditors from around the country to Saint Paul. A few accounting firms that work with local governments were some of the conference sponsors. Entenza said of this, via his campaign mouthpiece, that "The people being regulated should not be paying for lavish events for those doing the regulating. Attending parties and events thrown by firms the auditor is supposed to be watchdogging is not how Matt Entenza will run the office.” Again, this is a blatant attempt to mislead voters. The State Auditor does not watchdog or regulate private CPA firms in any way, and there were no lavish events at the conference. In fact, the conference was part of required continuing education classes that help auditors keep up with the latest laws, regulations and trends. So here, Entenza would have readers believe that all State Auditors from around the country are somehow having a conflict of interest. Really? He says he wouldn’t attend such conferences if elected. How then, one wonders, would his staff be able to do their jobs?