Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"May God save the country, for it is evident that the people will not." -- Millard Fillmore
In recent months we've seen stories of persons who, when accused of civil violations, solicit money for their defense through crowdfunding, including most notably a website called GoFundMe.com. GoFundMe turned down the effort of the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky after she was briefly jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses, but has accepted efforts to fund the defense of Second Amendment cases, marijuana cases, and deputy sheriffs.
It's all very well to raise money to get people out of legal trouble, but these efforts point out the need for a similar crowdfunding source to get wealthy miscreants into legal trouble -- or, more exactly, to provide a way for the general public to express their view of the malefactors' crimes. Hence the Laquedem Crowdfining Plan: GoFineMe, to provide a measure of the public wrath against those who steal and cheat on a grand scale. It works like this: if a judge or jury convicts a defendant of (say) securities fraud or some other massive financial crime that has identifiable victims, the court will open a GoFineMe account for a specified period of time, into which the public can donate funds to be used as restitution for the victims. The GoFineMe wrinkle is that the judge will also sentence the malefactor to pay a fine equal to X times the GoFineMe fund. A piker at the swindling game might be fined an amount equal to somewhere between half and twice the GoFineMe fund. A master of the art, if convicted, might be fined 10 or 20 times the GoFineMe amount. The fine would be used as restitution to the victims. It would work like a matching gift to charity, and it's far more gentle on the offender than setting up the stocks in the town square next to a supply of rotten tomatoes.
It's time to remedy the disrespect that President Obama showed to the memory of William McKinley when he restored the name of Denali to Mount McKinley in Alaska. The President has taken some flak from Ohioans and Republican candidates, including Donald Trump, who has vowed that if elected he will change the mountain's name back to McKinley.
William McKinley never visited Alaska, but he was a staunch supporter of American business, and it would be appropriate to commemorate him by attaching his name to something of commercial significance. How about renaming this building the McKinley Tower?
As the Republican party attempts to formulate a respectable position on immigration, several of its presidential candidates are responding to Jeb Bush's use of the term "anchor babies" in an interview a few days ago to describe the children of non-citizens who enter the country while pregnant and then give birth here. The children are citizens of the United States, even though the parents aren't, and (in Governor Bush's view) give their parents a leg up on obtaining legal immigrant status. Donald Trump has defended using the term.
Donald Trump was born in the United States, but two of his three wives were born abroad and became citizens only after marrying Mr. Trump. I await with great interest the day when Governor Bush or another GOP candidate will tag Mr. Trump as a two-time anchor husband.
Senators that support the United States government giving multi-million dollars subsidies -- welfare money, really -- to Archer Daniels Midland to grow food crops and turn corn into car fuel should be in favor of Obamacare, which is a subsidy to maintain the health of the Americans who buy the food and use the car fuel. In fact, higher subsidies to the consumers would lead to higher consumer spending, much of which would pass into the hands of large corporate America, thus enriching business. We might call it trickle-up economics.
Tokyo is so dense a city that commercial spaces are even squeezed into the arches that support commuter trains. As I read yet another story about how Portland's pro-density policy encourages property owners to tear down older houses (often rentals) and replace them with newer (owner-occupied) townhouses, I pondered what the city and TriMet will do with the space underneath the new rail/bike bridge that connects the South Waterfront to OMSI. At that point Anatole France's famous line came to mind: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread." (That last bit is not often enforced against people who run hedge funds.)
Hence the Laquedem Plan to honor Anatole France. It occurs to me that the Tillikum Crossing project gives us a striking opportunity to achieve several goals at once, if we construct affordable housing underneath -- not next to, but underneath -- its western approach. We can meet a need with housing that is convenient to transit and walking distance from downtown and the inner east side. We can give that part of the city a more international flavor. We can provide an opportunity for the city and the South Waterfront developers to keep their broken promises to provide affordable, working-class housing in the area. The land is cheap -- free, really -- and services are all available. A wag with Isaac's sense of humor might name the housing project "Anatolia." The literary among us could take that as a reference to the Anatole France quotation about living under bridges. The commercially minded might take the name to refer to an area that is part of a larger turkey.
One lesson of the recent meltdown in Salem is that it's all too possible for the governor -- or for that matter the executive of any large organization who must govern through a small circle of assistants -- to have his or her access to information and to public thinking cut off by those assistants, or by one or two of them. Dr. Kitzhaber is not the first to suffer the consequences of this malady: recall the final years of the Nixon White House as one example of this common phenomenon.
The phenomenon is unfortunate but understandable. A governor (or president, or general, or chief executive officer, or other Pooh-Bah) of an organization that employs tens of thousands of people and that must respond to public opinion can't talk with everyone who wants a few minutes of the Pooh-Bah's time. Nor can the person at the apex answer every letter or every e-mail - staff must handle most of the requests or let them go unanswered, and from the point of view of the person who wants the boss's attention, unnoticed.
It's also understandable because the cadre around the boss owe their jobs to the boss's favor, and can sometimes score perquisites for themselves from others who see them as access points to the boss. The result is that members of the cadre don't want to bring bad news to the boss, or disagree, or mention unpleasant facts even when a crisis develops, preferring to flatter the boss by praising his or her judgment, brilliance, and management skills. What the executive needs is someone who has access to the executive and whose job doesn't depend on the exec's good humor -- someone who can tell the truth without repercussions.
I'm reminded of the Roman civil servant (possibly a slave) who, as the conquering general was given a parade and a hero's welcome, and then a crown of laurels, would whisper in the general's ear, "Remember thou art mortal." (Mel Brooks does a fine rendition of this tradition in "History of the World, Part I.")
It occurred to me that Pooh-Bahs of many sorts, including our future governors, would benefit by having on staff a person, hired for a fixed term or protected by civil service, whose function would be to follow the governor around, listen to the governor's speeches and meetings, and then once or twice a week tell the governor privately whether the governor was being statesmanlike or foolish. This person might also spend one day a week reading the mail that the governor receives from ordinary citizens and then summarizing it to the governor, without fear or favor. It would not be necessary to remind the governor of his or her mortality -- we have the ballot box and the newspapers for that -- but simply, by expressing an unbiased opinion and passing public sentiment through to the governor, perhaps staving off crises such as the one our state is going through now.
This morning as I wrote orders to the Laquedem Bank to send money to two credit card issuers, I noticed that both issuers ask me to write my account number on my check. One of them, a Big Bank, helpfully prints my account number on my invoice. The other, American Express, prints only the last six digits of my account number, leaving me to either guess at the rest, locate my credit card, or write only the last six digits on my check and hope that Amex credits my check to my account.
Amex prints only the last six digits of my account number on its invoice to protect me from identity theft and credit card fraud - someone who comes across my account statement won't have my full account number and won't be able to charge to my account. (As the account number is actually encoded at the bottom of the statement, I think Amex is fooling itself, but that's another story.)
It occurred to me that the banks could accomplish the same result a lot more easily, simply by giving each cardholder two account numbers. The first number would appear on the credit card; it would be the actual account number. The second number would be just for writing on the payment checks. So my invoice might say "This statement is for your account ending in 7-89012 (the last six digits of the credit card number)". Please write the number 1234-5678-9012-3456 (the remittance identification number) on your check." Both numbers would be unique to me, but the number printed on my bill would be useful only for paying my bill and not for charging anything new. It's such a simple device that I have to think that some intelligent bank is doing this already, but I haven't heard of one.
Uber started operating in Portland Friday evening at 5:00. Welcomed by riders, Uber faced frowns from the City, which filed suit against Uber on Monday in state court. Today Uber removed the suit to federal court (a routine step) and the battle lines are being drawn.
A few days ago I advanced the idea that Uber could comply with part of the City's car-for-hire code by recruiting its drivers from among the hundreds of persons whom the City's licensed to drive taxicabs, and then to bypass the strict limit on taxicabs by prohibiting the passengers from specifying which route the drivers will take to the passengers' destinations. (This would make the Uber vehicles not be taxicabs, thanks to a quirk of the City's code.)
A well-connected member of the Laquedemimonde passes along the tantalizing tidbit that despite this loophole being wide open for Uber to transit (so to speak), Uber won't do business with licensed cabdrivers. Why this should be, I do not know.
One unlikely possibility is that Uber hasn't figured out this loophole. I call this unlikely because Uber's lawyers have undoubtedly already parsed the City's code with attention usually reserved for the Talmud or the utterances of the chair of the Federal Reserve. Another more likely reason is that Uber believes that licensed cabdrivers must then charge riders the rates that the City has fixed for taxicabs, without the discounts that Uber usually offers or the surge pricing that it commands in peak times -- or, even worse for Uber and its passengers, that Uber must charge the 35% premium over taxi rates if it is a limousine or executive sedan service
When I read the City's complaint (the filed suit is here), I noticed that the City asserts that Uber's cars violate either the taxicab or the limited passenger transportation (LPT) vehicle rules, meaning that the City doesn't know whether Uber's cars are taxis or not. (The LPT rules are a catchall for anything that doesn't meet the definition of a taxicab.) Whether they are taxicabs depends on whether the drivers let the passengers pick the routes, something the City doesn't know. It should be a jolly bit of litigation.
Uber has an even simpler answer to getting into Portland legally than I'd thought of this morning, which is to get the roster of licensed vehicle operators from the City (the City must sell the roster to Uber if Uber asks; it's a public record) and then to solicit those operators to use their own cars to provide Uber service. Because Uber doesn't need to be licensed if it doesn't operate taxicabs, and because the cars aren't required to be licensed as taxicabs if the passengers can choose the destination but not the route, and because the drivers will be licensed as operators (thus properly tested and insured), Uber's Portland operation will comply with the city code. Presto! Legal Uber!