Letter on Sonoma County Homeless Evictions to Supervisor Hopkins

Below is a letter to an allied supervisor in Sonoma County, and an administrator in charge of much of the count’s real estate. It was sent almost two weeks ago, when there was still over three weeks before the still-planned eviction of about 120 tent villagers in Roseland. Two dozen or so have been spoken for as having a shelter or other bed. I have not received a response in this request to address that 75% or so not getting a shelter bed or other bed. To my knowledge, none of us have received any insight into the government’s perspective on these remaining of their subjects since then.


Dear Supervisor Hopkins and Ms. Van Vliet,

We’ve provided you a list of problems that camp residents told us they have with using shelter services, edited only for clarity; some of their related complaints are at the bottom. The list gives a sense of the breadth of their perceived obstacles and problems, but also hints at places we might improve the process for some of the residents, and conversations we need to have.

Good Progress

At our meeting with the City’s nonprofit working to transition villagers, we all agreed to attempt to work together well, to see this effort through as best we can for the villagers. Jennielynn Holmes has agreed in principle that the HOST team will work more actively with Homeless Action! and the other support crew and activists, to ensure the best chance of cooperation with residents, and so we can get shelter capacity used as much as practicable. Seven of us who are experienced with village residents have volunteered to provide go-between or any other support we can; we’ve proposed pairing up with HOST team members to work together effectively, particularly within the village itself. Other volunteers have committed to helping with transportation, packing, and any other needs as residents are placed. CC and HA! will discuss and arrange our partnership in our weekly meeting.

An Illegal Presence

Surely all of us– government, activists, volunteers, residents and their families– are frustrated and sad that shelter and very temporary housing are all that are realistically available for 80-90% of village residents. It’s no doubt crazy-making for all of us that, even if we could convince many residents to go to the shelter, we only have beds for a minority. As usual, there isn’t enough money to go around for high-cost, permanent housing; our at-risk must again be passed over for more persuasive claims.

This was a bitter enough elixir for the villagers. It was especially hard for them when, at our status meeting on Monday, March 12, CDC and CC were once again anxious to gloss and spin those facts. The official response to the deep frustrations of the villagers was not believable plans in face of the hard realities. Right after articulating a hope of placing 10 or so of about 130 in permanent housing, we heard a familiar reiteration of how hard all work on their behalf; that a great deal of money is being spent; how the navigation center is pulling precious resources from elsewhere; how no stone is left unturned; and how every opportunity will be exploited.

I hope staff will soon realize how dissonant and surreal and maddening it feels, for villagers who have nothing to hear that roughly $2,000 per head will have been spent between late Feb and late April on their behalf. It was left to residents, after the familiar declamations, to highlight the truth: when temporary housing is gone in late April or May, it will again be illegal for our friends to stay anywhere more than an hour or two. It will be again be illegal to lay their head down to sleep. They will again need to find places during the day that they can hide every night. They will again carry all their belongings everywhere they go, or suffer them stolen or seized.

An Unprepared County

This sad chain of circumstance is why it was so upsetting when Ms. Van Vliet stated flatly that “the county” was “not prepared” to sanction villages. Supervisor Hopkins, we will all, activists and villagers, work unceasingly to “prepare” your Board to sanction our friends’ presence as lawful. This spring, we will demand, as creatively and loudly and uncomfortably as we can, that the Board gain the courage and sense to stop its cat-and-mouse machinations you described and decried in your recent open letter to Homeless Action! We demand that the Board face the county’s prima facie massive potential liability for personal losses and health costs incurred by our friends as a direct result of the Board’s careless, unconstitutional cruelty.

Well-run villages do not need to be perfect; they only need to be much better than other options, as they’ve proven to be in Portland and many other locales in the West. Sanctioned, modestly-funded villages will offer many significant improvements over the unplanned village in Roseland, and will dramatically reduce the county’s overall costs of homelessness:

lower public safety expenditures
fewer emergency service calls
far lower county liability/tort risk
consistent, high quality mental health services
highly efficient initiation, assessment and tracking by all service providers
far fewer assaults, thefts, and trespassing
far better insulation from gang activity and influence
far better job and volunteer pipeline management
far lower sanitation health risks
far lower environmental risks and costs

Most important, the synergistic benefits of living within supportive, organized communities like Last Chance Remembrance far outweigh the negatives of communal risks like STDs, skipped chores, and shouting matches. Sonoma county sanctioned villages will save lives, promote health, and allow a stable base for progress toward permanent homes and other needed, positive outcomes.

Supervisor Hopkins, Homeless Action! urges you, as the county’s champion of these destitute, to immediately publicly support the county’s first planned and funded set of small villages, where our friends can be free at last from a furtive, scattered, criminal existence. We stand ready to volunteer in hordes during workups, as organizers have done in Washington, Oregon, and in the bay area, and we will whole-heartedly support staff’s evaluation of prospective funding sources and uses, management protocols, and partners.

Kind regards,

J. Scott Wagner
Volunteer, Homeless Action!

Specialists in a Generalist World

This is a somewhat technical screed about the way the specialist AI and AGI fields ignore generalist-level philosophy and psychology as sources of necessary code. I hint a bit at the costs in mimicking intelligence. Intelligence is strongly associated with moral success, as well as many other positive outcomes. Elsewhere, I’ll make the point that moral and broader philosophic success aren’t necessarily antecedent to intelligence as people suppose, but is better thought of as often causing intelligence; that they must be built into any attempt at intelligence replication as a causal agent. I should also say that I have some acumen within general philosophy and psychology,  and some limited degree of acumen with neuroscience. I’ve been a CIO, large corporate software project manager, business analyst, database designer, and coder. I’m pretty worthless in scads of neural net technology, as well as related data structuring and most of the cool symbolic and misc rad and creative approaches. I do try to learn about it regularly; a fine nerd pudding.

Thomas Dietterich is a brilliant, prominent artificial intelligence (AI) researcher. He recently posted a super helpful delineation of potential approaches to achieving artificial general intelligence (AGI), which might be thought of as a combination of having common sense and being a sharp cookie.

He listed ‘the’ four techniques for chasing it. I have little to say of these methods; a quibble about his attitude about one, nothing more, as I’m not an AI expert. There’s a fifth approach he neglected that I am qualified to propose, though more of a required overlay to the others than its own method: finding the philosophical and psychological requirements for “minimal priors” of general intelligence. In other words, it’s finding what we have to teach a computer about human life and thinking well for it to run programs that will allow it to act and communicate like us.

Though “one should not cross disciplinary boundaries unescorted,” as Dr. Dietterich says in his post, almost everyone who works on AGI seems to me to think it’s fine to do so with these two fields, that arguably are forced to do the heavy lifting when it comes to our (most basic) priors. The two sciences are simply the best qualified to specify what general intelligence is, how it relates to language, the body, and a myriad of odd-sounding-yet-important subjects like epistemic justification. They’re the only fields positioned to deal acceptably with questions of context, prioritization, and many issues of purpose and meaning, their detection, expression, and dynamics. All of which seem quite firmly off the radar of cognitive and computer science folks.

(I’m slighting biology fields here by not dragging them in, by not talking about three sets of fields impinging on AI instead of two. I just can’t represent them and others like language and physics well without mucking things. I assume their arguments will be different, and perhaps not parallel. Anyway, there are many other fields that have significant claims on turf.)

Nerds may see what it’s like to try to solve a problem without having the priors you’d normally have in a situation, by playing this video game with the setting of no priors. I gave up instantly; it was like trying to win a debate with someone speaking Chinese, while being spun upside down. There are also game versions with just some of the priors taken away, so we can get a sense which assumptions we use in life are the most important.

At first, a person hearing that social scientists might help with AGI’s priors may think this is good news, that these less exotic, less technical teammates can come help with a few basics to constrain the real work nicely. Eek out a few definitions, and get out of the way. Unfortunately, it can’t work that way. When one wades in, one discovers that much of what a four-year-old brought with them genetically, added to what they’d learned since conception with that go-go sponge of a brain– is a monstrously large set of knowledge, schemas, and processes. It’s not going to make for elegant or compact code. There are also arguments about lots of it. It’s the opposite of a grand theory, because there are thousands of psychic details that dribbled out all over the neighborhood while we were building a real life based on general intelligence. Now we have to range all over our unconscious selves to pick up those pieces we dropped, and translate them for a machine. Except we can’t, because they’re almost all unconscious, much harder to observe. We have to depend on a bunch of careful psychologists to play Sherlock Holmes in thousands of ways to define who we are for the machine, using two-way mirrors, genius, luck, a statistical package, and lots of takeout.

The AI researchers don’t know this battle is ahead. They act as if somebody’ll hand them a data stick soon with the priors, and off we’ll all go to a future of robot friends and farmers and security guards that work for nothing. AGI, the attempt to replicate generalized human intelligence, is just one problem among many for them; they see no need to emphasize it above other problems, especially when everyone’s making such good cash now. That attitude by the AI community’s intellectual leaders is one reason why we’re waiting around, like lightning bugs, butt lights happily in sync, for AI geniuses who speak in tongues to deliver an efficient, elegant, minimal kernel of priors. So they can juggle, and eventually understand jokes. As Dr. Dietterich does here, there’s a tendency to vibe or emphasize that there are lots of other problems, too; that AGI can be dealt with like any other technical problem

Ironically, the parts of the task of AGI that might well be the hardest to create aren’t even thought of as necessary by the vast majority of the field. I’m embarrassed for us; embarrassed for science. There are whole reams of work to be referenced by Ruth Millikan (meaning/purpose/intention), Susanna Schellenberg (perception), Yves Citton and many others on attention, Bruce Russell (justification/uncertainty), biology philosophy (the unintuitive likely need for embodiment in AGI), veins of relatively unambitious moral psychology/philosophy, plus likely hundreds of related subjects. None of those can reasonably be left out of the priors, because they’re all jiggling around in that four-year-old. Those are just my touchpoints in the field where I see priors required, by the way; I don’t have any special insights into the pieces of priors needed. Part of the whole point is that no one has a good sense of the scope of the priors yet. 

Philosophy, which has a reputation for unfathomably “deconstructing” things, or being post-post-something or other, has in fact been building a picture of what constitutes the mostly-unconscious building blocks of language use, concept manipulation, and intelligent thought for decades. That work will need to continue to be argued over, mapped as pseudocode, and instantiated as limits and opportunities, all through the presumably heterogenous systems we end up with as AGI.

That work, which is often mind-bendingly complicated and occasionally mathy, mostly addresses our incredible unconscious capabilities, which are fundamental to the general intelligence at the core of who we are. For instance, to understand what’s involved when we look at footprints in the snow, you have to read, and then probably reread, about 50 pages of Ruth Millikan, delivering some of the most painful, inexorably accurate logic known to humanity. You’ve seen the footprints and had a couple of thoughts you barely noticed, that’s all; you haven’t even done anything, and yet you’re up to about 6 hours of the kind of reading that causes suicide in the weak to sum up what just happened. All to figure out the basics of what you paired up with that sight unconsciously; what you got to ignore, and why; what you compared the sight with unconsciously to figure out they were footprints; how you don’t go past the limits of what you know; linking the sight with various purposes and meaning; how your trust of the footprint to be a human’s is ‘statistical only’–– on and on and on with an avalanche of alien facts and concepts, revealing a scaffolding of meaning and purpose that goes below and above and around this glance, to give each act its place and time in the world.

This detail is surprising to most of us, but in a way, it shouldn’t be: a four-year-old can comfortably use a few languages fluently, with exposure, precisely because they’re capable at that age of learning so many priors so incredibly fast. Ruth Millikan can’t possibly keep up with three seconds of four-year-old life, even with 10,000 dense words, just like we can only fathom what happens in us when we glance at tracks in the snow by slowing the experience to a crawl, and turning it into language.

The many hard problems we already know about– defining/relating objects/concepts/purposes, nesting concepts, hierarchies of meanings (prioritization/attention), abstraction, analogy, the various challenges the psychologist-turned-AI-researcher Gary Marcus has elucidated as likely beyond today’s neural nets– any one of these cannot possibly be attended to adequately without a couple of social scientists standing next to the folks with scalpels at the operating table.

When I listen to Yann Lecun, I hear a fellow who seems annoyed at the focus of AGI ignoring all the cool stuff being done by the AI that’s right here, right now. I very much sympathize, and I think we all should, in the sense  that there are many immediate implications and actualities that we should be pondering and leveraging. The point is also that we will need to desperately unleverage some of them in the future, if we fail to instantiate the common sense that we so loosely and casually toss on the laundry in the corner.

[if you don't have a laundry corner in your room, good for you. Everybody has to get off your high horse for this last part.]

It’s not a coincidence that Mr. Marcus, originally a social scientist, feels obligated to squawk so awkwardly and continually on the depth and urgency of the notion of priors, to the annoyance of most in the field. Yes, one can ignore innateness and still work miracles with various neural nets, from medicine to McDonald’s. At the moment, CNN’s have matured and reign supreme in a variety of settings, with lots of sizzle being provided by seq2seq and a handful of other deep learning methods unearthed in the last few years, in the midst of this heyday in commercial AI we’re having now.

But study of innateness isn’t progressing. It’s not a problem that’ll sort itself, especially when we don’t even bothering to systematically recognize the nature of it and encourage the interdisciplinary acumen needed to solve it. We’re ignoring that the question “what are our priors?” is solely concerned with psychology, biology, and philosophy; we want to skip right to the ‘let’s code it up!’ part. The diffidence with which this subject is met by experts in the field, and the confidence with which the AI community unwittingly isolates itself, both concern me. I can’t tell if we’ll still be waiting in this nonsensical way in twenty years, or if the various projects on common sense at many universities and think tanks will begin to leverage adequate interdisciplinary cooperation. As with so many things in this business, we’ll see. 

Memento Mori (In Memory of the Police Brutality Dead)

A 90-second film I did on the costs of police brutality, from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, with a choir performing Christine Rossetti’s poem, “Remember” in the background.
The “Beyond Vietnam” speech excerpted here was given less than a year before Dr. King was killed, in Riverside Church, NYC. Here, Dr. King first broke with his advisors’ strong opposition, to publicly condemn the Vietnam War. It was a strike for “intersectionality”: Dr. King taught that Americans needed to join the struggle against the Vietnam War to make progress on civil rights.
Those two battles felt far apart to people then. In this speech, the world learned that two seemingly separate struggles intersected in powerful, important ways. Forcing poor men to kill foreigners, racism, and poverty all needed to be seen as a larger, shared struggle. Dr. King taught that the American leadership who engaged in police brutality and economic discrimination had not hesitated to draft the poor, nor to unleash their great military on a small nation. None of those wrongs could be fully righted without all of them being worked on together.

Democracy: such a shithole.

Two lovely articles; let’s pair them, despite their slight ideological kiltering. In this eloquent screed about the shenanigans used to pass the 2017 tax bill, we have a reminder of some basics about democracy, for those of us who are being cooked slowly, like frogs, into thinking it’s always been this bad. We like to talk about recipes, fashion, or spices; anything but the heat in the kitchen.

“Democracy doesn’t strangle the golden goose of free enterprise through redistributive taxation; it fattens the goose by releasing the talent, ingenuity and effort of otherwise abused and exploited people…At a time when America’s faith in democracy is flagging, the Republicans elected to treat the United States Senate, and the citizens it represents, with all the respect college guys accord public restrooms.” I’d add that it wasn’t just abuse of democracy, but in fact a violation of sound, transparent government, no matter the governance method.

The other is a takedown of capitalism, or, rather, a takedown of the specifically consumerist version of capitalism we’ve gotten to with this Ayn Rand version of libertarianism we’re enduring. I’m not a fan of bits and pieces of the article, but people ignore anti-capitalism articles because they seem so other-worldly, when they’re often brutally clear about some of its major downsides, almost uniquely so in this society.

Reagan is mentioned in both articles, a ghost we cannot tiptoe around in these conversations. He was an on-the-record Rand fan, and was a mixed morals human, like anyone else, but more so. Though he was bright, and he hired alert, capable men, he was  careless, and crudely employed a simplistic Rand-inspired “Objectivist” view. This perspective allows a great streamlining in one’s affairs when one is the most powerful person in the world (which choice gives the businessman more freedom? Well alrighty then.)

Reagan articulated libertarianism as the “heart” of capitalism. Most libertarians go tinny quickly for me, with their bang-on-a-can, half-notions of liberty; Rand’s followers are the worst that way. In the field of moral psychology, there are two primary types of freedom: the freedom to succeed, and the freedom to not be impeded unfairly from success. Guess which one encompasses all of the notion of freedom for Objectivist, and which one is either ignored or reviled as destructive. 

Pairing these two notions of our imperiled democracy and the toxic prominence of a certain brand of capitalism, we arrive at our present political leadership style. This is beyond inequality and leaning into autocracy, with the typical lawlessness, legalisms, abuse of due process, and vast consolidation of unchecked power at the top. Obama expanded the Executive overrreach that has been the hallmark of American politics for six decades, but there’s no “Obama did the same thing” when it comes to building toward autocracy via the mercantile domination of modern society.

Rand ignores the rapid and inexorable tendency toward autocracy implicit in her ideal society, so controlled by the business classes. The implications of unhealthy, extreme power consolidation, regulation distortions, and election corruption risks all scream at the actors from the wings, but she stays silent. Sometimes, she skitters over inequality by lauding it in general, as a solution to all kinds of problems; she thus assumes it to be an absolute good at any level, without a discussion of the perils of gross inequality ever being required. That’s Paul Ryan, too, a proud Rand follower, implicitly denying that gross inequality is any different beast than low or high inequalities in society. In fact, gross inequality has been shown to lead to violence and instability in a variety of historical societies, in predictable ways.

Rand assumed that the charity from the ultra-rich would always be great, creating a paradise on earth eventually through “maximizing value”. It’s strictly trickle-down, for hundreds of fiction and nonfiction pages, religiously following a standard system 1 type thinking, via a common form of faulty heuristic, egged on through simplistic notions of  freedom, and one very elegant idea: that selfishness in individuals creates the best overall society through the miracle of free markets. She never mentions how incredibly convenient this philosophy is for those with the skill and position of gaming the supposedly free markets, once the real game is afoot, once dominating the markets is the game. She rushes around early on to assure you that you can raise babies and still be selfish, still jump on grenades, etc.; what her philosophy really means, without her realizing it, is that 1) people who can afford it should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it’s legal, and 2) hopefully they’ll be good people, because business needs to be a strictly amoral affair. It purports to avoid a moral aspect, outside of freedom worship, while having morality written across its bones, and in the flesh of its victims. The market’s invisible hand is a fast train to extreme consolidation of power, through the neglect of the effects of selfishness to the system itself. It answers a fine question, while ignoring more important ones any cultural system should address.

Ryan and his fellows maintain this farce while claiming, against strong evidence, that they’re putting their arms around the whole science of international economics, one of the most complex (mathematically speaking) sciences we have. In philosophical terms, I see “Objectivism” as sophomoric utilitarianism, with loose bits of tripe joined to it uncertainly*, and a little Stoicism mixed in (that’s the part about how you get rich, for the better students; it’s the moral part, too.) I’d stop my dog from chewing on it, and my leaders are using it as their plan book, behind a President who will use any such permissive philosophy for his own purposes, as many powerful people do. 

One point they make is perfectly valid: democracy is a shithole, a gruel of genius, stupidity, ignorance, and unworkable ideas. Their solution is to avoid it whenever possible while stringing us along, like chickens at feeding time, with promises of riches, superiority, and great freedom. My solution– ours, hopefully– should be to shield and protect democracy, to fight this monstrosity with all we’re worth. We’ll worry about what a pain democracy is once we switch out management. 

* Rand hated utilitarianism, but didn’t see that she’d substituted an implied “for the greatest overall good” mandate via her own theory’s assertion of  free market proxy for the same thing. Autocracy substitutes elegantly for her much-feared “tyranny of the majority” in destroying the commons, or, as she’d have it, in destroying the free markets.

The 2017 Tax Law- Deconstructed (Lite Version)

Your personal stuff:
- Doubles standard deduction, but no more personal exemptions (that’s the simplify part that happened, that they promised. That was it.) Big families screwed, everyone else wins.
- Doubled child tax credit, which I like- but rich people get it now, because why not?!, there’s so much money now in Merica.
- Personal tax rates all go down slightly.
So- your taxes are likely going down this year. You’re sitting there, and America’s upcoming wealth is trickling down all over you. Because we can afford it in advance like crazy; Trump is that great.
The rest of the story:
- Corporations are awesome now! Instead of paying high individual rates, you pay 21% in a corp, then you can get at the profits in the corporation a bunch of ways. Congrats.
-max mortgage interest deduction goes from $1 million to 750k; much ado about nothing.
- property tax max deduction $10k.
- estate tax was already awesome for the rich- only .2% of estates had to worry about it. Now it’s just .1%.
-eligible folks reduce their taxable business income by 20%. There is no particular logic to who’s eligible. Doctors and artists, no; engineers and real estaters and architects, congrats. So: a doctor will be going into favored businesses, making eligible corps, charging their doctor biz crazy rents to move money over, etc. Games increase massively; they don’t decrease with this law.
- Trump broke repeated promises to stop the vile tax loophole for hedge fund profits.
- Abused the system to get around a filibuster by shoving the Alaskan pipeline into a budget-related bill. Sold as making us “the world’s energy leader”, as China and others zoom ahead with sustainable energy investment and leadership. Conservation groups are preparing lawsuits.
- Abused the system to get around a filibuster to eliminate the health care individual signup requirement. Appears a done deal legally.
- Businesses get to write off 100% of purchases right off, even when buying old stuff. Mike drop.
- Encourages people to be independent contractors (corporations) instead of employees, allowing bosses to avoid giving them benefits…everybody wins! This is the part where we just get so sick of winning, winning, winning..
- The law starts in about a week. The IRS has been cut about 23% in 7 years, because they were supposedly so evil to conservatives- but hey, they finally have something to do for a living this winter, instead of stealing money from “we built this” people. Figure it out, government jackasses…so: IRS is in the fetal position right now.
-remember how everyone leased stuff instead of owing things, to get writeoffs? Yeah, no, now, owning stuff is awesome for taxes! (complicated pass-through shite). Massive instant various random market implications on all kinds of companies, especially leasing companies. Disruption, baby, Merica needs it, ’cause it’s like growing.
- And 20 other breaks for businesses, with all kinds of new work for lawyers interpreting and gaming stuff.
- To game things so that the tax cut only created the max $1.5 trillion of new debt ($5,000 per American, excluding everyone voting illegally), all individual tax cuts expire in 8 years. But they say not to worry, they’ll totally redo them then, because otherwise, it’d be dishonest.
- A recent survey of CEO’s revealed that they plan to use an average of 14% of the massive corporate income increase from all the above to do all the investment that will carry us so far beyond our record stock prices and record unemployment that we’ll just get sick of all the winning. We’ll say please. Money will be saved, turn into dividends for stockholders, or used to buy back their own stock, all of which rewards capital not labor. It’ll be like the difference between an orgasm and multiple orgasms, for a man.

OK- My opinions, without any confusing sarcasm. Since I believe in an overall strategic overlay on tax policy, and that my personal highest concerns financially are reducing inequality and minimizing public debt, here are the good changes: 1) standard deduction up (helps the lower middle class the most, stops a lot of deduction/complexity rqmts); 2) no personal deductions (stops incenting having kids), 3) lower corporate rate (just not that low- was causing competition problems. Should’ve gone to about 30%, like Europoe’s average– and personal rates should’ve gone up to compensate); 4) lower deductions for property tax, mortgage interest, state and local taxes (less incentive for the rich to buy and raise the price of real estate, less incentive for the rich and upper middle class to consume unnecessarily, makes no difference to the poor). Bad changes: just about everything else, like pass-throughs, the very low corporate rate, a lot of international crap, picking random business type winners and losers– but mostly, just the general idea of a tax decrease at a time when we are more prosperous than ever and we are spending $2.3k/American more than we are earning, using fantasy excuses that amount to groupthink (use of the transparency assumption). Hoover pulled this shit with “a chicken in every pot” as a bribe for the poor, that was also a huge rich-guy benefit; we ended up with a boom/crash, which looks highly likely again.

Name the Evil, then Change It

In “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” the young, black writer argues that Coates assumes white power in America is all-powerful and unchangeable, that he panders to “woke” white liberals, and that he plays into the hands of racists with a poor-me picture that should be made more complicated, independent, and hopeful. This is an old center-left diversionary argument that goes something like ‘don’t ever paint a bleak picture of reality unless you:

1) make sure everyone says it’s way more complicated than the particular bleakness we’re addressing;

2) proclaim your problem not anywhere nearly as important as another big picture bleakness;

3) focus on solutions, on practicalities, you freaking whiners; and

4) sprinkle any testimony with anthemic hope. Or at least end on a note of it.

A witness names what is. I love being positive and feeling strong sometimes, but that’s not what witnessing means; not to Sinclair Lewis, Ella Baker, Studs Terkel, or James Baldwin. Coates’ great lesson to me is noticing, acknowledging and explaining the terrible costs of the hidden and powerful unconscious bias in our society.

Some things aren’t complicated. He doesn’t focus on future policy. He highlights the notion of “overcoming” in maybe the most important sense, to give me a sense,of what others must achieve to obtain my birthright. He notes progress, and makes warnings, and can bear an elegiac despair, as have many of his ancestors. His words can certainly sound to the unconvinced as if he fetishizes victimhood and rejects potential for improvement. But he’s just pointing out risk and pain where we don’t see it, now and in our history, explaining what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” the jumbled, sometimes irreconcilable sense of what it means to be American and black at the same time.

As to pandering to white liberals: I had been unaware of much of the history in his work, and was shocked at the grinding and consistent waves and creative manifestations of discrimination in recent history. It is not pandering to teach history– is it soliciting pandering for me to want be included in the conversation? What if I feel good after reading him– or bad– what might that mean?

That same sense of being acquainted with misery and cruelty also helps me. Poignant despair arising from unnecessary suffering isn’t part of me. Through witnesses, I can leap to a sense of what it means to have those losses, and to have them lurking in the future. Because I was inspired with insight into another person’s experience, I’m probably less likely to participate in this blind man’s bluff of bias that tends to enter the world through us. Thanks to his thoughts, I’m certainly better at identifying bias, in myself and others. 

The center-left should find and herald the clear witness. They shouldn’t expect him to also be their favorite philosopher, or worry how he looks in a suit. The center-left may certainly address the complexity, and solution set, and big pictures, and we many others can march right alongside, but witnesses give us a proper sense of history and scope. A witness speaks to what is.


Report of Alicia Roman’s Firing


Report Alicia Roman’s Firing 

as Chair of Sonoma County’s Citizen’s Advisory Council

 April 18, 2017

Ms. Alicia Roman was elected as chair of Sonoma County’s Citizen Advisory Council in 2016, serving the Sonoma County independent oversight effort over the Sheriff’s Office, or IOLERO, created as a result of the death of Andy Lopez. She was fired from that position on March 15, 2017 without warning by Mr. Jerry Threet, the head of the oversight office. There are many facts of grave concern to the community about the firing, especially how Mr. Threet executed it. Items 1-10 and 15 concern why and how Mr. Threet fired Ms. Roman; item 11 roughly represents the view of the Police Brutality Coalition and other local citizen groups advocating policing oversight; and items 12-14 concern the Sheriff’s negligence of the community’s oversight effort under Mr. Threet. The below has been reviewed and approved by Alicia Roman.

1. In early February, 2017, Ms. Roman told a community circle, when she was given the opportunity to speak, when a deputy in the circle had said to the immigrants in the circle that they ”had nothing to fear”, that that wasn’t entirely true. Originally, when he had said it, Ms. Roman shook her head in frustration, because she didn’t have the conch and couldn’t speak and didn’t want to interrupt the deputy while he was speaking.

Shaking her head as an officer spoke was given as a reason for Mr. Roman to be fired.

2. When a lady told a group in Ms. Roman’s citizen’s circle that she didn’t trust law enforcement, because she’d been involved in an incident with them, a deputy, who didn’t have the speaking conch and shouldn’t have spoken, began peppering the lady with questions about the event, “interrogating her.” When he did that, Ms. Roman rolled her eyes in frustration, but didn’t say anything because she didn’t have the conch.

Rolling her eyes while an officer spoke was given as a reason for Ms. Roman to be fired. In a investigatory interview of Mr. Threet after the firing by members of the Police Brutality Coalition, items 1 and 2 were clearly indicated by Mr. Threet as best revealing the flaws in Ms. Roman’s approach that led to her being fired.

3. No due process, advance notice, or warnings were given to Ms. Roman that she was being fired- she found out when she went to a meeting she thought would also be with her vice-chair and Mr. Threet on another subject, and the vice-chair wasn’t present. Ms. Roman believes Mr. Threet intended to fire her March 7, the day after the CAC meeting and after she sent an email to Jerry stating she wanted to allow questioning during public comment, but he waited another week in silence during scheduling difficulties.

4. Ms. Roman was selected by the original advisory council as their board chair on December 5, 2016, by an 8-2 majority. None of the council members had any idea that any problems that may exist with Ms. Roman’s approach were bad enough to even discuss, let along to cause her to be removed from the chair position and the council.

Per by-laws, Evelyn Cheatham, the vice-chair automatically became chair, and a vice-chair will need to be elected. At the first CAC meeting after the firing, Elizabeth Corzine was nominated for vice-chair, but rejected the nomination. The members voted 7-2 to delay a vice-chair election until a discussion and investigation into the firing of Ms. Roman was done over the next month. The whole council seemed upset during the CAC meeting after the firing, and the meeting agenda was radically adjusted at the beginning of the meeting to accommodate their need for initial expression of their frustration over being shut out, and to resolve how to proceed. His secretive, speedy, and assumptive action has delayed other important work, and placed his relationship with the community in peril.

Mr. Threet did not apologize to the council for firing their chair in secret. He has taken to repeating that she served at his pleasure, and that her attitude simply made her unfit for the role. The email record between the two provides more detail on his perception of Ms. Roman’s attitude problems.

5. Mr. Threet complained that Ms. Roman’s first, quite direct “Close to Home” article could be interpreted as CAC’s official stance, and contained her personal opinions. He insisted in an email that it was best that she withhold some of her opinions from the public while in that position. After the firing, many citizens took issue with this advice, providing examples of local board members and chairs expressing pointed, controversial opinion in public, and many deemed it highly desirable to juxtapose activism and voluntary official duty in that way.

In her next “Close to Home” article, Ms. Roman stated at the bottom that the article reflected personal opinion and not that of the CAC. However, Mr. Threet did not want Ms. Roman to mention the CAC.

6. Mr. Threet complained that Ms. Roman was being “antagonistic” when she went to the Board of Supervisors to see if the county could legally issue policy that the Sheriff would be required to comply with. Ms.Roman viewed it as a simple logical point that should be investigated, since, if it was possible, it might aid greatly in community goals.

After Ms. Roman was fired, she wrote to Mr. Threet, “I have felt constant pressure by you to among other things: stop asking questions that upset people, not “working within the government system”, or to stop stating my point of view.“

7. Mr. Threet disclosed orally on at least two independent occasions that there was “pressure” to fire Ms. Roman. He didn’t say where the pressure came from. This pressure may have come from either the Board of Supervisors (his employer), the Sonoma County legal or administrative departments, or the Sheriff, or from more than one of these.

It must be considered that this pressure, in and of itself, may well have influenced Mr. Threet greatly in his decision. There is no way to know whether the Sheriff or a County stakeholder actually caused the firing. It may have been done secretly merely because Mr. Threet was foolish, or the firing may have flowed from Mr. Threet’s stated desire to make better progress without Ms. Roman.

8. Mr. Threet disagreed with Ms. Roman on the Know Your Rights (KYR) slide-show presentation- about advising people that they should exercise their constitutional right to remain silent. But Know Your Rights isn’t a local but a national procedure, virtually universally accepted; as Ms. Roman says, his is an uninformed perspective, because KYR doesn’t exist without that statement; it is an incontrovertible part of the card handouts that are the key KYR tool of dissemination. He suggested instead a vague statement for a person to use one’s judgment, because it might go worse for an immigrant to not talk to the police. Mr. Threet later said that he had not declared the KYR procedure unacceptable, only that HE would not be telling immigrants that they should remain silent; however, Mr. Threet does not do KYR seminars himself.

9. Ms. Roman mentioned to citizens at an English Learner Advisory Committee meeting, in her greeting, that she had sued the Sheriff’s Office; she felt it simply gave citizens trust that she represented their interests. Mr. Threet felt that she was being divisive and prejudicial. In fact, Ms. Roman was merely stating what she did for a living– it’s unlikely in her field that she would not sue the Sheriff’s Office.

Telling immigrants that she sues the Sheriff’s Office as part of her work was given as a cause for her firing.

10. Mr. Threet is against allowing questions from the community to their volunteer advisory council members during public comment. This is a common tactic in Sonoma County, used by bureaucrats afraid of losing control at public meetings; it is an abuse of the Brown Act that badly needs to be challenged in court, and is utterly contrary to the principles of government transparency that are the foundation of the office Mr. Threet leads. We are, per my last investigation, the only county in California that interprets the Brown Act to forbid government representatives to answer direct questions from the public. It was a hard-fought reform act that mandates certain protections of public intercourse, including questions of the public being amiably answered by staff or member. Mr. Threet strongly dislikes the potential for unscheduled public comment time, and the risk of the public not accepting Sheriff Office answers, asking the question repeatedly, or getting exercised over an answer.

The only disagreement between the two that was weighed on by the council was centered around Ms. Roman’s strong desire for questions by citizens to be answered by IOLERO, CAC, or the Sheriff’s office members. Mr. Threet invited discussion on the point. Ms. Roman compromised by agreeing to allow questions to be submitted in writing, to be answered at the CAC’s discretion. Mr. Threet complained that her divisiveness in that situation was a reflection of her intractable nature, even though she compromised a strongly-held belief, as she had done many times during her tenure as Chair.

11. Ms. Roman was fired for being a strong, clear woman who addresses the many Sheriff’s Office delays, lies, and deceptions straightforwardly. Mr. Threet thinks that approach with the Sheriff’s office is inappropriate; we don’t know, of course, but it may be because it annoyed the Sheriff enough to insist that Mr. Threet fire Ms. Roman. Mr. Threet’s unconditional approach of courtesy and restraint (rapprochement)  toward the Sheriff is roughly similar to that of the Board of Supervisors’, historically; this approach has ensured that Mr. Threet’s office has been co-opted (ignored) by the Sheriff. Mr. Threet seems unaware that this has happened, despite the evidence from items 12-14 below. He is hopeful that this Sheriff will work in good faith with the public at some point, and believes that community leaders such as CAC members must be polite to the Sheriff and all his staff at all times, and not express in public certain long-held frustrations, based on experience, that are disagreed with by the Sheriff, or that embarrass him, or that the Sheriff got away with through collusion with the Board of Supervisors. As Mr. Threet said in an email after firing Ms. Roman from the council and chairmanship, “you may be more effective without the constraints inherent in a role as an IOLERO CAC member.” These “constraints,” which Mr. Threet assumes that he knows, needed to be discussed with the advisory council before the firing, and weren’t.

In defending his action, Mr. Threet stated that his office was “independent”, and made the case that he can’t stand consistently with the community in his job of Sheriff oversight; that he has a strong mandate to stand apart from the community to make decisions like the firing of Ms. Roman, in an attempt to be “independent” of the community, as he is independent of the Sheriff. This is a deep misreading of his mandate, and a twisting of the word “independent” in his office name, which was clearly and purely a reference to independence from the Sheriff’s Office when we created the office, so that the office could advocate for marginalized citizenry. This assertion of independence from everyone may make him feel justified in firing Ms. Roman in secret, but it is a fabrication of one mandate, and a denial of others related to good will, transparency, and the community’s desires.

12. In late 2016, the Sheriff was on the record as in the middle of adjusting his immigration policy, but he did not invite the CAC to review the adjustments or provide input. The Sheriff then displayed zero interest in the citizen council’s March, 2017 published recommendations on immigration, stating through a representative that he wouldn’t work on the policy suggestions until a related California State bill’s fate was decided (SB 54). The irritated advisory council called this “unacceptable” and not a response, explained how the bill didn’t address key aspects of the recommendations, and insisted on receiving the written response they had asked of the Sheriff. As of this date, no written response has been received by the CAC.

While CAC was working to make immigration policy change recommendations to a 2014 superseded Sheriff policy that was all they had, which they thought was the current policy, the Sheriff put out yet another new policy, also unannounced, on January 15, without the Sheriff’s Liaison informing CAC. The police liaison claims that was an early printing date only, not a release date, but his story didn’t make sense, because he was uninformed as to the chronology or versions involved. Even if that were true, it was a secret policy change, worked on without the CAC’s input, while the CAC was working on the same immigration policy using an out-of-date policy. The latest Sheriff’s immigration policy changed the procedure from 9 to 3.5 pages.

13. The Sheriff has not attended any of the five CAC meetings. The CAC was quite vocal during the fifth absence, questioning openly the Sheriff’s good will, and asking on the record if the Sheriff respects their efforts as volunteers and citizens.

Though Mr. Threet has assumedly conveyed the community invitations and frustration to the Sheriff, there has been no public criticism by Mr. Threet of the Sheriff’s absences. This is not “independence”, nor is such silence dictated by his fiduciary strictures; it is effectively colluding in the stonewalling that has become the norm for this Sheriff.

14. The Sheriff Liaison will no longer answer questions from the public during public comment at CAC meetings. Mr. Threet supported this change, against the strong wishes of Ms. Roman, because he was concerned that such questions can get repetitive, and citizens can get angry and irrational, creating a burden or time cost to the liaison and the council. Since the Sheriff doesn’t attend the meetings, this effectively means that the public has been officially shut out of any communication with the Sheriff.


15. Mr. Threet’s announcement to the CAC that he had fired their chair stated that the firing was a “mutual decision,” when it was nothing of the kind, as made plain in the email record. If the council had been fooled into thinking it was a mutual decision, Mr. Threet would have been able to adjust leadership without reviewing the management issues that were involved in the firing. The activist community, the CAC, and the public-at-large must now be torn between trying to support the important planned work of the CAC, and addressing appropriately the integrity and communication weaknesses of IOLERO.

The irony is that the conflicts between Mr. Threet and Ms. Roman desperately needed the spirit of community and of transparency to hold sway, to allow the kind of teaching, compromise, and apologies to occur that are the reason why the oversight office was created. After all, there are questions of balance and style and politics that bureaucrats must address. There are also communication and clarity and unity considerations for volunteers and leaders. Here was an opportunity for Mr. Threet to involve the council, and therefore the community, in a spirit of trust and openness, to create a conversation about how the council suggested approaching the differences between his and Ms. Roman’s views. This would’ve had many advantages, but a glaring one is that Mr. Threet would’ve been relieved of his several misperceptions of proper policy or protocol by an experienced public (items 1,2,6,8, and 9). He would’ve certainly seen better how Ms. Roman’s “antagonistic”, seemingly counter-productive approach to leadership was at least partially borne of expertise, deep familiarity with the challenges of the voiceless, and a style that addresses the Sheriff’s dissembling and citizen neglect directly. It is likely that such a discussion would’ve yielded productive adjustments on all sides, as transparency and working in good faith tends to do.The community would’ve likely taught Mr. Threet that Ms. Roman’s approach had advantages he should consider as complementary to his own of compromise and restraint. The council seems anxious to do that with him, but now there is a demonstrated lack of good will, and a lack of regret evident over the breach in trust.  

Mr. Threet has not apologized for stating the firing was a mutual decision.


Labor versus Capital

Our upcoming Labor Secretary and other fast-food execs are considering replacing humans with machines. “If you’re making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science.” I’d expect any businessman to react so, especially if others in the industries are doing it. I also think it should be illegal, so that the industry competition pressures that drive that move to machines are reduced dramatically.

Allow me to be an early advocate of legislation against automation that systematically destroys massive numbers of low-paying jobs, depended on so completely by the poor and the young. This is a terrible solution, really, but the problem it’s trying to address is much bigger than the market system that we depend on.

It’s a terrible situation because bureaucrats are forced to come in and select specific automations that aren’t ideal for society for elimination. That’s one of the slipperiest sentences I’ve ever written: “ideal for society”? Determined by who? How?

Yet, here we are, with many millions of jobs on the line, and, as usual, the jobs in question are those of the poor and the young. I’m not a fan of assumptive market manipulation, but machines and man will be doing a dance for the rest of our history, and narrow-minded libertarian ideas and invisible hands have a place at the table, but not at the head. Markets are blind: they serve their masters. Heretofore, its masters were arguably a large swath of the people, but it’s increasingly in the business of providing for the wealthy minority of Americans.

I don’t know where we draw the line on automation, which will be a nightmare- have no idea– but labor is on the run in the world, having largely lost the battle to capital. That’s what all this inequality really is: a grinding, worsening shift between the importance of labor and capital in the global economy.

Yet another policy front where the conservative shrug is wholly inadequate as a solution, and where the left is asleep. It’s really another face of the same pressures that have kept the minimum wage going down in real terms for decades, but this is the larger issue in the long run. Who gets to hold a job in America? How sacred is the current absolute right to automate away jobs whenever we like? When machines eliminate low-skill jobs, how will we ensure adequate economic health, training and education to avoid an America of haves and have-nots?

A bit of good news on election day

for you to wake up to.

I skipped politics completely all day and night yesterday. My work with ideology is quite removed from politics, in an odd way, because I focus on understanding these people as individuals– as our friends, lovers, parents, work associates and bosses. I was blessed to catch the news all at once this morning, the battle over. Like being led sleepily to a hole in the ice and being thrown in at 5 am. I kept circling back to thinking that I had to be in an unusually detailed dream; kept wondering how the news feed could look so real, for so long.

Life is funny– tricksy. When I look back on the most satisfying work of my life, it was done when I knew I was doing the right thing, but there were few beside me, or when I was forced to stand alone. Standing with you this time will be a similar privilege, a similar feeling of pride and joy mixed with frustration. Standing with great souls again, knowing that representing our causes now is much more urgent, because it will be less popular. People will lose their way, you see, and fade back into busy lives. Each of us left at the barricades has just become much more important, much more efficacious, even if it seems the opposite is true.

Now is the best kind of reminder, a stinging one, that life isn’t about the arrival, but the paths we take, the choices we take at the junctures like this one. We stand where we do as liberals because we must, if we’ve lived correctly. I’ve found it to be more than enough.

I’ll be talking to liberals and conservatives all week, continuing what I’ve been intermittently doing for the last few months, in between book and promotion stuff. I’m in North Carolina at the moment, moving through South Carolina on the way to Georgia. I think the vast majority of these winners aren’t thrilled– more like bemused, or surprised, or justified, or satisfied that America’s trying something– anything– that doesn’t look like regular politics.

Their reasons defy our usual instinct to complicate things. Almost every single one is incredibly frustrated with the lies of commission and omission, of hubris and realpolitik in the many shades possible which candidates trade in avidly as the lingua franca of their worlds. Few of the people I talked to are truly happy with Donald Trump. They’re frustrated people, many of whom have lost money or work from Bill Clinton’s NAFTA, or seen their health insurance premiums go up while their coverage became worse. They whisper among themselves about terrorism and immigration, which seem to them to stand silent around a near corner, awaiting their moment. The Republican leadership ground a lesson into their bones for two generations that the people were puppetry, while the left loudly celebrated every gain that seemed to pass the white people here in a slipstream. No one was speaking either to them, or for them.

They’re very proud of this people’s victory, even without the usual assurance and joy that I’m used to with political success. It’s hard for me to blame them. As I walk among them and talk to them, I can’t separate myself from them, from their lives and dreams and heartaches. My life has been a far country from theirs for many years, but I do this work about understanding them because I love them, because the research got far enough along to justify and clarify my deep appreciation to be based on characteristics I can sketch out for others. I spent much of my life among them; I know them as well as any liberal can. We are right to focus on their foibles and weaknesses when it comes to policy, but we shouldn’t discount the heart of these people, nor their goodwill and conscientious natures, notwithstanding all the populist stupidity and rancor flaying away on the harder edges of the conservative movement. These are people who mean well, who intend an America that’s strong and safe, that provides her people jobs. As they speak, it’s clear to me that they don’t realize how closely they hew in spirit to the broad-minded and generous spirit of conservative thinkers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Colin Powell of the right, who have shined with generous and insightful commentary the last few months, in brave opposition to authoritarianism and lies. They’re all, people and pundits alike, earnestly articulating the hope that we turn from corruption, inefficiency, and removed, insider politics, to solutions that work for a broader set of Americans. The left doesn’t know the language of those solutions yet, and neither does the right. There will be some brutal learning ahead, with some twists as surprising as the one last night.

We’re going to watch the right grow up a little, as the excessive parts of their loose coalition try once again to gain the confidence of the people. Trump will have to backpedal on promises like no one ever before; that should be fun. It will be fascinating to watch the conservatives who didn’t support Donald Trump be forced to truly take on the mantle of leadership, and speak more truth than they have, as they can’t just sit back anymore and take pot shots at the left, but make an earnest effort to abide by whatever their principles are to lead the nation through the many conflicts they have with their new chief executive. I’m quite hopeful, in medium-term way. Not that we’ll avoid populist excesses and bad legislation, which are inevitable. And we’ll continue our fantasy of permanently cheap oil and money, and harmless consumerism. But Americans on the right will learn to listen better to minorities, our allies, and their young as the old conservatives die off. They’ll renew their approach in unpredictable and sometimes sensible ways, as people of color take more and more of a voice in our country.

It’s an early winter’s dawn, this good news. Wan, bleak, perhaps even hard to see, but good news nonetheless. Yes, the left is now a sideshow in national politics, even if we’re quite alive and well in the states and our towns. The Supreme Court will be taking a turn to the right for a good chunk of this next generation. There will be filibusters and civil disobedience just for basic services and sanity– some of which won’t work. But one must take the long view. There is a great work afoot for each of us, if we want it. That’s one of the best things to have in life, it turns out. We can each be an island of hope and inspiration for how to live, and what to stand for. We can keep on the selfsame journey together, only with more urgency, and a little less known about the destination.

Americans are a remarkable people. We have a darkening coming for a little, and then a gradual lightening you and I will all participate in, as we learn the lessons we need to as a nation to move together into the heart of the 21st century. We’ve only been reminded more forcefully than usual that we are yolked together on our way to our children’s America. It will be a humbling and disorienting lesson, but we should turn it into a useful one, or we’ll not do as well as we can for each other.

Being liberal just became a much more vital, much more courageous thing to be. I’m so glad to have you with me! Let’s move the needle together, if only a little.



On Living in the Age of the Catchy Title

Dr. Jennifer Love wrote a very nice, simple, astute commentary about how necessary it is to be counterintuitive in the public marketplace of ideas. She’s complaining about an emphasis on titillation over substance. Her final paragraph:

“The counterintuitive has its place. But our love affair comes at a cost. It leaves little room in the public consciousness for social scientific work that is incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions—those fragile social and mental habitats upon which decisions turn. In other words, it leaves little room for most of social science.”

If she’s right, it’s a terrifically sad thing to say. I’m certain she is to some degree, but there are some offsets, some bright spots in the argument. Continue reading