Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Energy, history, and Houston...

Went to Houston this past weekend for the American Society for Environmental History's annual meeting. With it was a gathering of "energy historians," and since I've done some work on energy in California, I was interested in where that tiny little subfield is going. Sad to say, it hasn't moved much since I first became interested in it in the 1970s. Folks are still talking mostly about petroleum and coal (you'd think those two resources were energy), as well as energy transitions and wishing that solar would find solid ground. I've always thought it ought to be one of the paramount topics for historians to understand, but I'm clearly in a minority. The Organization of American Historians meets in San Jose next week, and you can be sure there's not a panel discussing energy history. But I digress...

Houston, infamous for Enron and home to scores petrochemical firms corporations, is particularly notable as the largest city in the United States without zoning laws. The result is unfortunate. Its industries make it richer than Midas, but much of the city looks like hodgepodge tacked together with boulevards and freeways fronted by endless run-down, tacky strip malls worse than I believe I've ever seen in other American cities. And the community of poor African-Americans living in wood shacks in the midst of Texas City's refineries is a testament to presence of environmental racism in America.

For all our faults in northern California, I'm surely glad I don't live in Texas.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Tyranny of the minority...

Nine of 17 San Francisco Bay Area school district parcel tax measures were defeated in yesterday’s local elections. It took only 35.9 percent of the voters to defeated the tax in Sonoma County’s Twin Hills Union School District. Only 34.8 percent defeated Old Adobe Union’s measure. Forestville Union’s tax went down because 37.6 percent of the voters opposed it, and West Sonoma County Union’s was defeated by 35.2 percent of the voters. The percentage defeating the other five school tax measures in Gravenstein Union, Harmony Union, Oak Grove Union, Piner Union, and Milpitas Unified was 42.1, 38.4, 39.6, 43.5, and 40.2.

And you thought that democracy had something to do with “majority rule.” Funny that.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Pacific coast demagoguery...

Arnold Schwarzenegger is proud that he’s the best at anything he tries. I wonder if he realizes he is among the best demagogues in California’s political history. From the start of his political “career,” he has sought power by championing the popular prejudices of the electorate. Lately, wearing the mantle of governor as one of a great warrior-leader, he’s been trotting out a long list of measures that attack public servants as the source of the great scourge of the electorate: taxes.

Arnold, of course, calls these public servants “special interests.” But I dare say nurses, teachers, and state workers from highway patrol officers to university professors, Caltrans workers, and state park rangers are not quite what the popular electorate thinks of as evil special interests that hold sway over democracy. Perhaps one could make rational arguments that we have too many nurses staffing hospitals, that public employees should not have good pensions, and that merit not experience should be the basis of salary schedules. But Arnold’s attacks on these “special interests” stem only from his party’s unwavering unwillingness to raise taxes to cover needed government spending.

For the moment, ideology trumps all. And, since Arnold can’t work with the legislature, because that takes compromise (something repugnant to demagogues and ideologues alike), he wants to call a special fall election (which will cost at least $50 million in tax dollars) to put his agenda before the people.

This is what we get in a society that puts self-interest before all other things. We can only hope that popular prejudice shifts and topples Arnold from his pedestal of demagoguery and ideological narrowness. If not, if he wins, we Californians are going to lose lots of public servants who traded high salaries for a solid defined benefit pension plan, we're going to have shaky health care in our hospitals, and there won't be much incentive for teachers to stay in teaching for a full career.

Sailing, good jazz, and a bit of blogging...that's my escape from the political conundrums of the day. What's yours?