Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." -- Touchstone
As long as the House of Representatives doesn't want the government to work because a majority of the House members believe the government is too large, I'd like to revive my suggestion of two years ago that Congress reduce the size of the House by a meaningful percentage, let's say by a quarter, so that the House would have 325 members instead of the present 435. Each of the remaining members would represent about 1 million constituents and could boast about becoming 33% more productive. The savings in cost would be modest -- Congress isn't a big part of the federal budget -- but it would be a good symbolic move. The savings would allow the government to reopen the Panda Cam and several of our national parks, good places for the newly retired Congresspeople to go and chill out.
The post-Newtown debate over gun control and the Second Amendment has pitted advocates of gun control against believers in the Second Amendment. Proponents of gun control (generally the same group as opponents of mass killings) can't see the sporting purpose in allowing people to possess and use 25- and 50-round ammunition clips. Opponents of gun control strongly object to federal and state governments limiting their ability to buy and own any sort of weaponry.
Some government restrictions on private armories apparently withstand a Second Amendment attack: for example, we can't own machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and tactical nuclear weaponry. If the Second Amendment protects individual rights as broadly as its backers say it does, then the government can't prohibit us from owning these useful items of destruction.
How, then, can the Supreme Court make a principled interpretation of the Second Amendment that protects the private right to own guns without opening the door to my homeowners' association acquiring first-strike capability? It occurred to me that the doctrine of original intent, favored by Justices Thomas and Scalia, offers an answer.
The doctrine of original intent states that the Supreme Court should interpret the constitution in accordance with the intent of the Framers -- that is, the original intent of the document -- rather than to accommodate changes in politics and society. Not every justice agrees with this, but it is a useful starting point.
The Second Amendment states that as a well-regulated militia is necessary for defense, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be abridged. Most people who talk about the Framers' intent focus on what is meant by a well-regulated militia, and argue that the right to bear arms should be limited to the right to bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia. I suggest that we should look instead at the Framers' intent in using the words "defense" and "arms."
"Defense" has a plain and simple meaning. It means defending territory that one already possesses, rather than attacking territory that one does not possess. People can defend their homes. ("A man's home is his ammunition cache," as the saying might be revised to read.) People can as part of a militia defend their counties and states from invasion and insurrection. It's consistent with that reading to say that people can't take guns to schools and shopping centers.
Similarly, the term "arms" meant to the Framers single-shot rifles and pistols, swords, bayonets, catapults, and cannons. "Arms" didn't include automatic and semi-automatic guns, tanks, rocket launchers, and nuclear bombs. A creative legislature might adopt, and an alert judge might uphold, a gun control measure that protected the right of the people to keep flintlocks at home to protect themselves against intruders, and prohibited people from carrying weaponry on the street. I think the judge could even quote from opinions of several conservative members of the Supreme Court to show that the prohibition is consistent with the original intent of the writers of the Constitution. It would be an amusing and possibly worthwhile exercise.
I had thought that one or another of my solutions to the Columbia River Crossing problem might save us a couple of billion dollars despite the best efforts of our local govenrments, and then last week's news that the Coast Guard will not let Oregon's and Washington's highway departments replace the Interstate Bridges with a fixed span that is 30 feet too low to accommodate existing river traffic sent me back into contemplation. Any solution to the problem must, as I see it, take three factors into account. First is that the City of Portland opposes replacing the bridge unless it includes light rail to Vancouver. Second is that although the bridge is being advertised as a solution to the traffic jams on Interstate 5, the new bridge won't add any actual car capacity: the real bottlenecks are in the cluster of on-ramps at the north end and the vanishing third lane about two miles south of the south end. The jams would likely vanish if traffic were reduced by about 20%. Third is that many of the bridge lifts are required because the high spans on the Interstate Bridges don't line up with the lift span on the railroad bridge 4000 feet downstream, and this forces some barge traffic to go through the Interstate Bridges' lift spans so that they can pass through the swing span on the railroad bridge.
If you start with those three principles, then a solution becomes easy to imagine. Here is how Isaac reconciles those three principles.
First, forget about replacing the Interstate Bridges. Leave them in place, and charge passenger cars a toll of $5 to cross. Exempt trucks and buses from the toll, and exempt any vehicle that is carrying at least four passengers. The only glitch is that this would require the approval of the Oregon legislature to charge a toll.
Second, build two two-track tunnels, one for light rail and one for the Burlington Northern, so that the railroad swing bridge can be taken down. This means that the Port won't have rail service to West Hayden Island. Too bad.
The first measure will reduce bridge traffic and thus congestion by discouraging single-passenger cars from crossing and encouraging carpooling and bus riding. (It will become cheaper for many cross-border workers to take the bus to work instead of driving.) The revenue from tolls can also pay part of the cost of building the rail tunnels. It will also reduce traffic on Interstate 5 to and from the bridge, which will reduce the aggravating traffic jams that clog the freeway for four to six hours a day.
The second measure will reduce the number of bridge lifts by removing the rail bridge as an obstacle to river traffic. Barges can pass under the high fixed span of the Interstate Bridges without having to make a tight turn to go throught the rail bridge's swing span.
Each rail tunnel should cost about $500 million. The tolling booths, equipment, and cameras should cost about $50 million. Designing a cute logo for the automatic toll-pass system should cost about $5 million. (Just kidding about that last one.) So for about $1 billion -- one-fourth the current cost of the project -- we satisfy all of its goals.
The Susan G. Komen For The Cure Foundation (I think that's its current legal name) took a beating today in the court of public opinion after it told its local affiliates that it would prohibit its local affiliates from issuing grants to Planned Parenthood to conduct breast cancer screenings. The stated reason is that the national organization has adopted a policy under which neither it nor its local affiliates may give money to any organization that is under federal, state, or local investigation.
I noted earlier today, not too explicitly, that in 2009-2010 the Komen Foundation gave substantial sums to other organizations that are under federal, state, or local investigation. It occurred to me that the trustees of the Komen Foundation may need a helping hand to be sure that they don't inadvertently fund an organization that's being investigated by the authorities; they fund so many groups, and there are so many law enforcement authorities, that the trustees may be funding targets without realizing it.
Won't you help them out and play the Laquedem Get What's Komen To You Game? It's easy. Here's what you do. First, pull up the Komen Foundation's latest Form 990. That's the tax return that the Komen Foundation, and other tax-exempt organizations, have to file every year. In it they list their grants of $5,000 or more. Here's a link to the return for the year ending March 31, 2011. Go to pages 47 to 59, labeled "Schedule I." These pages list the organizations to whom the Komen Foundation gave $5,000 or more. Pick three of them, and Google them (or Bing them, if you're Microsoft-inclined) together with the words "federal investigation" or "state investigation." See if anyone's investigating the three organizations you picked.
Did you get lucky and find three that are all under investigation? Congratulations! You're a winner. Even if you found only two, you've done well.
Now the next step: Let the Komen Foundation know that it's promised to cut off funds to those groups until the authorities clear them of wrongdoing, and give them the names of the organizations that their new policy now prohibits them from supporting. Here's the contact page.
Sorry, Yale University; no funds this year from the Komen Foundation, not until the feds finish their investigation. Even Komen's hometown university, the University of Texas, may be off the grant list; the IRS was investigating the salaries it paid to some of its top officials.
Play now! It's fun! It's easy! And it's for a good cause. Help the Komen Foundation keep its grantees honest.
Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, credited the blogosphere with the idea of requiring our elected representatives to wear the names and logos of their largest corporate contributors, rather like the logos on the suits and cars of NASCAR drivers.
I can't imagine that I was the first to think of that particular campaign reform, but it did occur to me back in 2005, and I wrote about it here on February 9 of that long-past year. So I'm delighted to see the idea appear in the Times six-and-a-half years later. That's faster than it usually takes ideas to get from Portland to New York, but slower than it takes news to make the return trip.
Last year, in the Citizens Unitedcase, the United States Supreme Court struck down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act that limited what corporations could spend to support or oppose political candidates independently of the candidates' campaigns. The court reasoned that corporations are "persons" protected by the Constitution and have free speech rights on matters of public importance.
I'm delighted that the court recognizes corporations to be artificial persons with rights that the Constitution protects, because its decision makes possible the Laquedem Equal Protection for Corporations Tax and Budget Plan.
One quirk of United States tax law is that citizens of the United States pay income tax not just on their United States income, but on their worldwide income. Only a handful of other countries tax their citizens on their worldwide income; most tak only income earned within their borders. United States corporations also pay American income tax on their worldwide income, but with one loophole not available to natural persons (whom we used to call "people"). United States corporations can defer paying tax on their foreign income while they keep the profits offshore. Real people can't.
So, if American corporations have the same constitutional rights I do, then they and I have the right to the equal protection of the laws, including the right to be taxed under the same general principles. To require one class of persons (e.g., you and me) to pay tax on their worldwide income while allowing another class of persons (e.g., General Electric) to avoid the tax indefinitely deprives you and me of our right to the equal protection of the laws . . . or it may deprive General Electric of its right to support the United States government on the same terms on which its employees get to support it.
Justice Kennedy, in the majority opinion, and Justice Scalia, in his concurring opinion, have shown the way to close this loophole. Let's take them up on their offer.
Here's how the IRS explains the loophole to its staff:
188.8.131.52 (05-01-2006) Controlled Foreign Corporations (CFC) Subpart F
The taxation of foreign income earned by U.S. controlled foreign corporation drastically changed with the introduction of Subpart F into the Internal Revenue Code in 1962. Subpart F deals with the U.S. taxation of amounts earned by controlled foreign corporations (CFCs). It provides that certain types of income of CFCs, though undistributed, must be included in the gross income of the U.S. shareholder in the year the income is earned by the CFC.
It is important to note that the Subpart F sections of the Code take precedence over the foreign personal holding company sections. Further, the rules contained in Subpart Fare to be applied after the income of the CFC has been adjusted to conform to U.S. income tax concepts.
Under certain circumstances, current earnings of a CFC may be deferred from U.S. tax if not actually distributed to the U.S. shareholder. Since domestic entities are currently taxed, it is essential that the relationships between CFCs and domestic entities be at arm’s length. Any allocations of income and deductions between the CFC and its related organizations under IRC section 482 take precedence over the application of the provisions of Subpart F.
The provisions of Subpart F contain many general rules, special rules, definitions, exceptions, exclusions, and limitations that require careful consideration.
One consequence of David Wu resigning from Congress is that voters in Oregon's 1st District will get to vote in two special elections to fill his seat. The first will be a primary, open only to registered Democrats and Republicans, and the second will be a special election between the two primary winners. (I read Oregon's election laws to bar minor parties from fielding candidates in elections to fill house vacancies; see note at end.) The winner of the special election will fill the rest of Congressman Wu's term -- that is, will serve in Congress until December 31, 2012 -- and will be succeeded by the winner of the general election of 2012.
Congress has not distinguished itself this session, the game-playing over the debt ceiling being only one of several reasons for the public to lose confidence in that venerable institution. It struck me that the 1st District voters of both parties have an unusual opportunity to show their displeasure with Congress without compromising their party loyalty.
Here's why. By the time the special election can be held, only about a year of Congressman Wu's term will remain. When the winner goes to the District of Columbia, the regular Oregon primary will be less than 6 months away -- not enough time for the power of incumbency to work its magic. Serious candidates will enter both elections. Voters can cast "message" votes in the special election and still have qualified candidates from whom to choose in the regular primary.
I propose that voters in the 1st District show their unhappiness at the antics of Congress by writing in Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich on their special primary ballot. He's served before (albeit without much distinction), he wants to serve again (though he's not sure from which state), and he might even move here, or to our neighbor to the north, just to be able to serve. A write-in vote for Congressman Kucinich, coming from Oregon's 1st District, can't be taken for anything but a protest vote.
Write in Kucinich, and tell both parties to grow up.
Note: ORS 188.120 governs how Oregon fills vacancies in the United States House. It provides for the major parties to nominate candidates, but does not allow minor parties to nominate candidates. It reads:
188.120 Filling vacancy in election or office of U.S. Representative or Senator. (1) If a vacancy in election or office of Representative in Congress or United States Senator occurs before the 61st day before the general election, the Governor shall call a special election to fill that vacancy. If a vacancy in election or office of United States Senator occurs after the 62nd day before the general election but on or before the general election, and if the term of that office is not regularly filled at that election, the Governor shall call a special election to fill the vacancy as soon as practicable after the general election.
(2) If a special election to fill the vacancy in election or office of Representative in Congress or United States Senator is called before the 80th day after the vacancy occurs, each major political party shall select its nominee for the office and certify the name of the nominee to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State shall place the name of the nominee on the ballot.
(3) If a special election to fill the vacancy in election or office of Representative in Congress or United States Senator is called after the 79th day after the vacancy occurs, a special primary election shall be conducted by the Secretary of State for the purpose of nominating a candidate of each major political party. A declaration of candidacy or nominating petition may be filed not later than the 10th day following the issuance of the writ of election. [Formerly 249.654; 1985 c.586 §1; 1995 c.607 §60]
I"ll have a more serious thought on the national debt ceiling in a while, but it struck me yesterday that as our nation's elected senators and representatives like to spend beyond their means (Republicans as well as Democrats, but with different priorities) even as they decry our deficit, they could join in the commitment to reduce the deficit by making a small symbolic sacrifice. The constitution does not mandate any particular size for the House of Representatives -- Congress fixes its size by law. There's no magic in the current number of 435 representatives,a nd Congress could pass a law to reduce the House of Representatives by, say, 20%, down to 338 members. The savings is small relative to the size of the budget, but it would be a tangible sign that they believe in the smaller government for which they have long been advocates.
For some time concerned citizens have been lamenting the decline of the nation's newspapers. The root cause of the decline is simple: advertisers are finding other ways to reach their customers, and are buying fewer newspaper ad pages. Newspapers balance their budgets by cutting their editorial and reporting staff and printing fewer news pages. Subscribers find less of interest in the shrunken publications and cancel their subscriptions (or, in the case of younger readers, never start). The newspaper now reaches fewer readers and is even less desirable to the remaining advertisers, who consequently advertise less, and the circle goes around again.
Then came the Willamette Weekstory on the $7 million that eight local governments spend each year on public relations staff (often former reporters) to get their messages out to the public, employing 94 people at an average salary of $74,000/year for this task. That's a lot of people engaged in getting out what is basically public information anyway, and it's harder for them to get their stories into the Oregonian, because the Oregonian isn't printing as many news pages as it used to.
On top of this, our recent college graduates can't find jobs in the state, partly because of our own economic troubles and partly because, like college graduates everywhere, they don't have any work experience.
Out of this combination of ideas comes the Laquedem Government-Journalism fellowship program. Instead of the fleet of flackery on which these eight agencies spend their $7 million, they will each hire one supervisor at, let's say, $125,000/year. That's $1 million. With the remaining $6 million they hire 200 graduates of Oregon's public colleges at $30,000/year each, to be government-journalism fellows. Each one will spend 4 days a week working on the agency's communications and advertising, and one day a week working on reporting for the Oregonian, the Tribune, the Skanner, the Examiner, WIllamette Week, the Daily Journal of Commerce, or any other local newspaper that would like their services. Each would be expected to contribute one article a week to their assigned newspaper that did not relate to their government employer. To reduce the possibility that their day job would influence their reporting, the fellowships would last for fixed three-year terms, and they could be fired only if their government employer and their newspaper agreed.
The benefits: a ready employment market appears for graduates of Oregon colleges. The local newspapers get an added staff to bolster their news reporting and attract their subscribers and advertisers back. The agencies get about the same amount of work without any extra cost. The interns become more politically aware as a result of their government work and their investigative reporting, and they get real-world work experience and a modest salary. Our colleges have a selling point to attract students. And our local governments wouldn't be any worse for knowing that two hundred of our brightest twentysomethings were looking over their collective shoulders.
One of Oregon's standards for redistricting is that communities of interest not be split. Another is that they share transportation links. A third is that existing political boundaries, such as county lines, should be followed where practicable. With that in mind, it occurred to me to wonder if it's possible to make a Highway 101 district: that is, a district that includes the entire Oregon coast.
Here's how the state can be divided into five congressional districts, none of which vary by more than 900 from the population target. (The actual population range is only 1387 from highest to lowest.) All of the coast is in a single district, and only three counties (Josephine, Clackamas, and Multnomah) are split by district lines. This should make the county clerks happy.
Grants Pass, in Josephine County, has to be added to the 2d district (green) to bring it up to quota, Multnomah County is divided between the 1st district on the west side and the 3d district on the east side, with neither district crossing the river, and Clackamas County is used to balance the 1st, 3d, and 5th districts.
This is getting to be fun! Does any other government want some help redistricting?