Archive for Seattle

Reaching out, vs. introspection

ISO ways to talk about people traditionally excluded from institutions and systems that do not lump people together based solely on a characteristic of identity–even though they strongly identify with that characteristic. For example, predominantly white, middle-income, college educated community groups look for ways to “reach out” to “the Vietnamese.” Here’s another example: we talk of “the homeless,” as if we wear our homes or are our homes*. Some of us certainly identify strongly with our homes, but no one would describe me as “homed,” so why would I place as a predominant characteristic on a person the status of their housing? An example, I could say “there are many homeless people in Seattle,” vs “many Seattleites have inadequate or uncertain housing.” They are residents of Seattle. Full stop. People who have first hand knowledge of dire housing conditions have a particular stake in the outcome and a great deal of crucial experience that can inform discussions. If we focus on the fact of housing crises, we can focus on the issues and facts and not the personalities. Needful to say, I should not raise the issue of the status of one’s housing when that issue is not under discussion.

Back to the example of community groups wanting to do outreach…it seems to me that we are asking the wrong question. The question isn’t how to reach populations, but why aren’t we attracting different voices? That’s an inward examination.

Added: elsewhere someone mentioned the idea that “people are people,” which is true and can help with conversation, but that misses the point that the characteristic they share–skin, religion, gender–do put them at risk or form a barrier to systems, institutions, and services.


*Those homes are assumed to not be tents or RVs. Unless, of course, one is retired, and, typically white, middle-income, etc.


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Seattle city gov: Doubling food stamp value if used at farmer’s market…

I was underwhelmed when I ran across this announcement in my FaceBook feed. Here is the response I posted with the reasons that immediately sprang to mind why it is is more feel-meh, then feel-good.

Food stamp dollars would need to be doubled, or quadrupled, to buy fresh food at farmer’s markets. I feel this is silly in that people who need food stamps, many mothers with small children,

  1. Can’t afford to go shopping to several different places to get their groceries;
  2. Farmer’s markets aren’t co-located with the people who use food stamps. Heck, we can’t even get a grocery store. “We won’t put a farmer’s market in Delridge because there aren’t enough people there who will pay 2 dollars for a peach.”
  3. Why does it matter where a person buys their fresh veggies? Yes, I get the “eat local” mantra, but who knows, really, how far away the farmer’s market vendors are.

One of the things that drives me a little nuts about Seattle, love it though I do, is that frequently our initiatives are more about us looking like we’re doing something that will make us (largely the middle- and upper-class, and white) feel like we’re doing something wonderful. I can well imagine the conversation going something like “surely the Somali woman with six kids, little English, often no car would love to shop at the farmers market. The only thing keeping her from it is that she can’t get 10 more dollars worth of produce at the farmer’s market.”

Maybe I’m wrong, and the people depending on food stamps were consulted on this. Please. Someone. Anyone. Prove to me I’m wrong, that the users were involved in this initiative.

Seattle City Council News Release: Council expands access to healthy food for food stamp enrollees.

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My beautiful new rubbers…

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Demonizing the opponent, ignore the argument

I’m evil. Okay, that’s not news. I’m just evil again. Why? It’s the Seattle bag fee thing again. Since I’m opposed to the bag fee I’ve learned I’m lazy, selfish, and in league with the Chemical Companies, which we all know are evil.

Well, I am lazy. And…I have moments of being selfish. I also believe in better living through chemistry, but none of that has anything to do with the Seattle bag fee.

One sign of a bad or weak argument is whether the position or the character of the person presenting the facts are being attacked. A recent, egregious example of this is the Swift Boat attack on John Kerry.

Let’s look at the spin in the Georgetown blog that the Chemical Companies are “behind this.” Note that there isn’t anything in the “outing”of the chemical companies that actually gets at the substance of opposing the fee. Many mysterious and dastardly motives are being insinuated, which is awfully sneaky. As sneaky as Chemical Company backers are supposed to be, ain’t it?

The other big flaw in this, at least as far as I see it, is that it is the makers of the bags (the evil chemical companies) who’ve made the bags ever lighter while keeping the same strength over the past 20 years. IOW, they’ve been actively working to decrease the space plastic grocery bags take up in landfill while the rest of us were happily gorging ourselves on materialism.

The flip side of “yeah, but just look at who is on the other side!” is another sign of a weak argument. That is laying claim to being a Good Guy…or better yet, a Mom. Even good people can have crappy ideas. Being wrong, but nice, is still being wrong.

The moms and Georgetown (both entities I like a whole lot as a rule) may not even be wrong here…there’s room for reasonable people to disagree, but what interests me is this. For all the time proponents have put into sniping, bullying, and insulting opponents, they don’t seem to have any time left over to read any citations or discuss any of the facts in opposition to the cited goals.

The impetus behind the bag fee is that it will be a step towards zero waste. Fair enough. That’s the proposition (it’s why I liked the idea at first). Now I’d like to see some facts to back that up. So far all of them I’ve seen have been refuted (which is why I had to change my mind).

There’s plenty of ranting on the part of opponents, but the burden is on the group that has managed to institute a fee on all of us that will do little if anything to help the city towards zero-waste.

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Seattle bag fee: case-study in bad logic, bad reasoning

Isn’t it about time I give it up? The fee has been passed, and it’s a doozy of an apple-pie-and-motherhood topic. No, I’m afraid I’m fascinated by the *cough* discussions going on at the WSB over the Seattle Bag Tax Fee.

I’m not as passionate about the fee so much as what the fee represents (bad law, IMO) and how the discussions have gone. The subject has brought out some classic examples of tremendously bad reasoning (on both sides). Links to a few discussion threads are here and here.

The bad logic and poor reasoning is important. More so, I  would argue, than working so hard to eliminate some plastic bags from the landfill.  Why? Because without the ability to think critically we won’t be able to put our resources to effective use. Here is a link to an economic analysis of the fee.

So, I want to write more about logic and reason and talk about real examples. Other people do it elsewhere, and better, but I doubt we’re threatened by too much discussion of logic.

The bag fee exchanges comes at the same time I’m reading (listening to) A Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin about Abraham Lincoln, and his rivals for the presidency, the men who Lincoln would ultimately have on his Cabinet.

The contrast couldn’t be sharper between the mid-19th c and now.  The US had a much smaller population, had limited access to media, and less public education. It faced a most serious issue that had been simmering since before the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights were written, that influenced those documents–slavery, and, specifically, whether or not new territories would be free or slave.

The most striking note of the past few days of reading? A friend asked if I Twittered, and said that since I don’t, that is why I don’t know he’s written article about why Twitter is the NBT. I guess it’s my tough luck since he didn’t offer a link (WH, I’m talkin’ to you, d00d).

That night I read TofR that nearly everyone, well, except for Negroes, read newspapers compulsively. People who couldn’t read heard the news from others in taverns, inns, and so on because everyone talked about the news constantly. European visitors were struck by it, so it must not have been as common in Europe.

Even out West (Illinois at the time!) without Internet, radio, TV, people knew what was being said on the Senate floor. It was C-Span w/o the “C”.

The other striking point? The men (yes, all men, all White, too) took weeks to prepare their speeches. They prepared by reading statute books, philosophy, and history to develop their reasoning. Speakers were judged by not only how interesting they were, but by the power of their logic. Even when people disagreed with one another, they were able to see logic in another person’s argument, because they valued it and because they demanded it in themselves. And, those guys would go on for three, five hours at a stretch. Opinions were reasoned, not tossed off-cuff, or off-the-keyboard without much thought. One can’t help but feel it resulted in sounder decisions, but perhaps not.

I don’t believe people were better then, nor that we’re better than they were, either. So, I imagine there were people who didn’t give a damn, who were boring, who were illogical or just plain stupid. But the Nation was young enough, the stakes high enough, that people thought hard about their ideas and about the ideas of others.

We don’t seem to value the exchange of opinion. It’s difficult for us to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with us. We put our backs up, dig in our heels like stubborn 2-year-olds, and hold fast, no matter what the facts turn out to be. Even about silly, minor issues like the Seattle Bag Fee.

If we can’t learn to have a reasonable, lively, and challenging discussion over something as unimportant as a Bag Fee [1], then what hope is there for the future? It is certain there is no hope of coming to terms with religious or economic differences.

Are we doomed?

[1] I mean by unimportant that it does not immediately threaten our lives or the lives of our family. Not today. As in, compared to the issues facing a Palestininan, and Israeli, an Iraqi, a Georgian.

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Broken window theory

I was sorry to see a reference to the broken window theory of crime prevention in an email news update I received today from one my Seattle City Council members. Councilman Burgess is a fine man, and I’m looking forward to doing what I can to support his safer streets initiatives here in Seattle. So, this isn’t a criticism of him or his proposal in general. (Wikipedia summarizes the theory lists references for and against here.)

The broken window theory is easy. It seems like common sense, right? It’s easy to summarize, heck, you don’t even need to say more than “broken window theory.” Unfortunately, that’s probably the first warning sign of a mistaken idea — if it’s easy to grasp and seems like common sense it’s probably wrong. Or so watered down as to be as good wrong.

The broken window theory is just not supported as a crime prevention strategy. At best, it probably just barely impacts crime in a neighborhood. Even its positive affect may be more a matter of people being out, on the street, doing things around the house, and therefore aware of the doings in their vicinity. Also, people will be more likely to meet neighbors, which also aides safe streets.

That’s not to say it’s a bad idea. I think it’s great, but not for preventing crime. Let me cast it this way and perhaps you’ll see what I mean. If we “…consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.” I agree less litter is good. But, would a criminal decide to rob a restaurant because the street outside is littered? I’m skeptical. Crime does happen in good neighborhoods, and I seriously doubt a criminal gives a damn about litter, or peeling paint, or broken windows.

Why raise this if I respect Councilmember Burgess and support his goals? The problem I have is that by featuring a discredited theory, Councilmember Burgess has undermined my confidence in the rest of his proposal. I’ll be more wary and skeptical of everything proposed.

If there was one thing I can get across to kids I tutor it would be this: question what you think and why you think it. We collect many random “facts” that gain the force of obvious truth only because we neither examine the source or the facts. I, too, accepted the broken theory for years as common sense until a  neighbor mentioned it a year ago or so. I got to wondering why I so sure that was a sound theory, and so investigated it a bit.

By the way, you don’t need to drink eight glasses of water a day, either.

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What’s in YOUR reusuable shopping bag?

No, I don’t mean the local, organically grown veggies and free range lamb chops. I mean the bag itself.

The controversy about the Seattle plastic bag tax is growing, and increasingly it’s being pitched in terms of Evil Industry vs. Moms. I challenge the proponents of the bag tax fee to tell me you’ve considered these questions:

Updated 2008.08.17: Thanks to the WSB reader who corrected my misreading of the Seattle bag fee law. The fee does apply to paper sacks, also. (My terminology was also corrected…it’s not a tax, but a fee.) I’m still opposed but keep those facts comin’, folks. 😀

1. Why won’t shoppers just switch to paper, which are now used only 1/4 as much as plastic, but take 4 times the landfill space and energy to produce?

2. The reusable bags offered by the stores that middle to low income people shop are most likely produced in China. Is that a problem for you? You know, political prisoner labor and all.

3. What is the bag made out of? Organic cotton, grown within 100 miles? Recycled materials? What percentage? What materials? What will be going into the landfill when the reusable bag is tossed out?

4. Is your bag biodegradable? Good for you, except remember that NOTHING biodegrades in modern landfills. Perhaps it would be more useful, tho’ far more difficult, to consider how landfills could be redesigned?

4. The bag WILL eventually end up in the landfill. When it does, how many plastic bags will it have replaced, and what is the net gain? Or loss. Will it have really been worth the effort?

I’m not an evil empire. I work for myself, from home, drive fewer than 5K miles a year, in a small Toyota car. My product is a service, so involves no bagging. I don’t have any relatives in the grocery biz. I like moms, apple pie, and kids just fine. Some more than others, but still. Oh, and I’m so liberal that I actually expect to have to pay taxes to have things like roads, schools, libraries, police, fire protection, and so on.

And, yet, I think the bag tax is a good case of Right Problem, Wrong Solution.

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