Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Living in the Selfie Society

Within just a few years, the smartphone and its incipient selfie stick have created a billion amateur photographers vying for the perfect shot. They will travel the world for the perfect picture to post on the Internet, on Instagram or Facebook. They seek special moments once found only in wild dreams.
They consist of generations (Millennials and Gen Z) who chooses to spend money on travel and technology, instead of squirreling away savings for down-payment on a house, a car, or retirement. They fly low-cost airlines and stay in Air BnBs. Instead of retail therapy, try travel therapy: Washington Dulles Airport advertises flights to London as a cure for the “Quarter Life Crisis”.

The opportunity for a commoner to travel far from home is a recent phenomenon. Even in the 1980’s, The Preppy Handbook quipped about “The Tour”, typically a young American’s first transoceanic sojourn, with de rigeur visits to London, Paris and Rome. These were carried out by privileged college students of means, while their middle-class co-eds were busy working for tuition money. Childhood stays in Europe and the Far East were reserved for children of diplomats and military “brats”, a dated term in the post 9-11, continuous-contingency world. Just a decade ago, my community paper, DC’s Northwest Current, would publish columns on residents who went to “interesting” destinations, often on government business. How have times changed.

In Amsterdam, locals lament touristic behaviors such as drunk and disorderly conduct, and interference at the farmer’s market. The small Dutch city hosted 20 million visitors last year. In the search for “authenticity”, to include Air BnB homeshares, it appears that inconvenience is imposed on locals and their residential neighborhoods. Washington, DC’s Metrorail lampooned “Escalefters”, people, usually tourists, who stand on the left side of the escalator, impeding the flow of rush-hour commuters. Despite the neighborly complaints, one must acknowledge that cities were built to handle the masses.

The ecological call to “tread lightly” in sensitive destinations is too often forgotten in the pursuit of personal glory. One article in the New York Times recalls the incredible amount of gear left on the climb to Mount Everest, and of the lines and congestion which detract from what ought to be a spiritual moment. More recklessly, vainglorious adventurers attempt the climb with insufficient preparation, and Sherpa guides feel pressure to head out in sub-optimal conditions.
One way to view the travel-selfie phenomenon is the concept of self-assertion in an economically uncertain era. The 1930’s had movies on the “silver screen” to provide an outlet of escapism. Today, “getting away” for a moment (from student debt or stultifying employment) requires little more than an airplane ticket.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Hot Dogs and Handguns

Hot Dogs are sold in packs of six, and buns in packs of eight. I’m neither a hot dog nor a gun enthusiast, but I know the math doesn’t add up on a proposed 12-round limit for firearm magazines in Virginia. 12 rounds is an important number in a military-heavy jurisdiction, as it is the number of bullets needed to complete the Navy Pistol Marksmanship Test. Some legislator had their heart in the right place, but failed to ask an expert: the military’s preferred handguns use a magazine of 15 rounds, which would become illegal under proposed laws. This is the default magazine of Beretta’s M9, and the smallest NATO stock number, off-the-shelf magazine to complete the Marksmanship Test.  

The average sailor, who carries a firearm on duty, qualifies with live ammunition once per year on the Navy’s budget. Firearm instructors, however, recommend monthly practice to maintain marksmanship skills. Sailors fill this gap by going to the range after-hours with their personal handgun; this is an ingrained part of Virginia culture.

Then what about true high-capacity magazines? That question is answered. Virginia has long banned firearm magazines over 20 rounds: It applies in Virginia’s major cities and populous suburbs, when in public; and has been law since 1991*. This law is not worded in heavy-handed language used in the Northeastern states, but it nevertheless gives law enforcement the authority to stop a violent crime before it happens. If this ill-advised 12-round limit becomes law, lawful gun owners would be required to purchase slightly smaller magazines that won’t suit a legitimate and government-sanctioned sporting purpose. We will know that the legislature has placed virtue signaling over practicality and military readiness. 

* See: § 18.2-287.4. Carrying loaded firearms in public areas prohibited; penalty.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Right to Work: Debate Then and Now

Press rooms in heavily-unionized New York and California have a narrative about right-to-work laws. They say these laws were passed by Southern states in the Jim Crow era to ensure a supply of low-wage African-American labor. Union leaders join in, calling Right-to-Work a right to work for less (SIU).

What the argument comes down to is a debate on whether the Closed Shop should be allowed. In a Closed Shop, employers are bound by union contract to only hire members. In contrast, in an Open Shop, employers may control the hiring process. A Right-to-Work state prohibits the Closed Shop.
Right-to-Work laws emerged shortly after World War Two, from Texas to Virginia. These laws would later be passed in the Mountain West. In the North, union loyalty remained strong among blue-collar Whites. African-Americans fought to join unions, which controlled hiring on lucrative, blue-collar middle-class jobs. Many of these involved contracts for immense public-works projects of the era. 

However, until the 1960’s, the Federal government tended to view labor unions as private associations exempt from due process. This held true even if the union held Closed Shop privileges. In some cases, racial discrimination was written into union by-laws; in others, nepotism ensured that sons and nephews of members filled the entry ranks.    Immense pressure by African-American groups upon City Halls, with sympathy from upscale Whites, wedged a token opening for minorities to join labor unions as equals. Furthermore, the Eisenhower administration considered using proposed national Right-to-Work legislation to right a civil wrong. In the South, unionization of railroad employers often led to a loss of skilled jobs for African-Americans, according to then-contemporary Herbert Hill.

Right-to-Work need not be the death sentence of labor unions. Unions which provide value to members, and to employers, will always be in demand. At OSG, a major ship-owning company (pre-2013), Licensed Deck Officers voted to disband its collective bargaining agreement. This was a move discouraged by the company, as the union representing the company’s mates provided surge labor, training, medical services, and a retirement plan. The company couldn’t imagine life without its labor unions. For disclosure, I am a proud, dues-paying union member.

Note: Janus vs. AFSCME concerns a different issue. This decision has been criticized as one enabling “freeloaders” to collect the benefits of membership without paying dues.

“Labor Unions and the Negro”, Herbert Hill. Circa July 1959. Found on commentarymagazine.com
“Why Are Anti-Union Laws Called “Right To Work”?, Brian Palmer, Slate. 12/12/2012.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Party Before People

A young man from Westchester sails the seas, slowly but determinate in rising the deck officer ranks. His high school classmate is a news-garnering Congresswoman representing Queens, New York.

If there was a congressional district that resembled the neglect of “plantation politics”, the 14th district of New York, located in the borough of Queens, is a sure bet. Much attention is paid to the competitive congressional races in the suburbs of Long Island and Staten Island. Names of White-Ethnic pols like Max Rose, Dan Donovan, Anthony Wiener, Peter King, and Lee Zeldin permeate the national airwaves. But politically speaking, vast swaths of low-rise, diverse urban neighborhoods go unheard. This is flyover country in New York; elevated subway lines and commuter trains from the economic behemoth of Lower Manhattan squeak brake dust as they speed through the street life of immigrant and low-income Queens, en-route to the suburbs.

It was here that Joe Crowley, a Queens Democratic Machine insider, was elected every two years to Congress without facing a serious primary challenge. In this district and many other inner cities, the general election is a “mole hill”, to quote the 2014 words of failed Maryland gubernatorial candidate Lt Gov. Anthony Brown. That “mole hill” is surmounting nominal Republican and independent challengers in the November elections.

Crowley, a politically run-of-the-mill Democrat without clear convictions, harvested votes that afforded him and his family a comfortable life in Northern Virginia. He and his family rarely spend time in the New York neighborhoods which he was elected to represent.

His district was low-hanging fruit ready for disruption. A young women with a Twitter account ended Western Queens’ political malaise. Her name is Alexandra Occasio-Cortez, or AOC for short, raised in the high-expectations suburbs of Westchester. According to my shipmate, Westchester was a cauldron of high performers, who’d use their talents and guts to forge a path in the world. He became a merchant ship’s officer, she moved to inner-city Queens to become a waitress. 

Though politically immature, AOC was able to see opportunity. Parts of the 14th district had become gentrified by upwardly mobile, mostly White newcomers. It was in this economically privileged (though student-debt-laden) sphere that hyper-progressive AOC secured her majority in the 2018 democratic primary.

Under New York law, Crowley’s name still appeared on the general election ballot under the Working People Party line. He had cruised for decades under the precept that disengaged voters would instinctively “vote for the democrat”. Running on the Democratic line, Joe Crowley regularly secured 40-point victories against the opposition parties. But Joe Crowley had no brand; and this was not nearby Connecticut where Senator Joe Lieberman avenged a primary loss by running, and being elected as, an independent. Joe Crowley decided not to campaign, and on election night, he garnered a mere 7% of the vote, despite his decades in office and his name still appearing on the ballot. This was not a story of progressive versus moderate, but a question of passion and attention to the voters.

“My crazy classmate”, utters our merchant ship officer from the helm.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Go Ahead, Virginia, Ratify the ERA

Virginia is on track to be the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution, which would constitutionally guarantee equality of rights on account of sex.  Virginia’s approval would meet the requirement for ¾ of states to ratify before a Constitutional Amendment is added. Once this step is complete, there will be issues to resolve.

First, Congressional authorization on the proposed Amendment expired in 1979. It will have to be renewed by a super-majority of Congress.

Second, several conservative states rescinded ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. It is unclear if a ratification can be rescinded.    

Two of the most common criticism of the ERA, first elucidated by Phyllis Schlafly, are that it will constitutionally guarantee a right to abortion, and same-sex marriage. In family law, there is a fear that ERA will allow lousy, incompetent men easier access to child custody. In Maryland and Hawaii, gender equality laws were used in the courts to procure recognition of same-sex unions. However, these proved to be exceptional cases. Many states, in fact, have Equal Rights Amendments in their State Constitutions; and a number of these have not legalized same-sex marriage or late-term abortion at the state level. Sympathetic moderate and conservative groups should emphasize this unspoken point.

So far, the US Constitution has not been amended during my lifetime. The 27th Amendment, concerning Congressional pay, was ratified in May 1992.  

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ringing in the New Year

DC Sports

What a run in Washington, DC sports.  The Washington Nationals played each deciding, make-or-break, baseball game down to the wire: winning Game 6 to pull ahead of the Houston Astros in what could have been sudden-death; and winning Game 7 on October 30th to cinch the championship.

This follows on the Washington Capitals'  hockey finesse, which in 2018 brought home the Stanley Cup. Washington, DC's insufferable football team, the Redskins, have yet to win a Super Bowl in my lifetime. Outside of the South and Midwest, football seems to have lost its luster, falling from its decades-long pinnacle in the American psyche on account of growing scandals over concussions and other debilitating injuries caused by the sport.

Woke Journalism at the Top 25 Universities

I picked up a copy of the Georgetown Voice, which is Georgetown University's longtime independent student paper. One featured article, "Problems at Home Don't Stay at Home", by Cheyenne Martin, stuck out from editorials on current affairs, and a shame piece on those rent-by-the-minute scooters.
It is a narrative of a student who worries about her loved one in a poorly-managed Tennessee prison.

This voice differs from elite student journalism of just a decade ago; when I first started reading the Georgetown Voice and its establishment cousin, The Hoya. Class, race and gender were not discussed; and if so, at an arm's length detachment. Good journalism back then stuck to the "5 W's", a patient and disinterested observer to world events. A generation of recent college graduates whose early careers have been characterized by socioeconomic struggle, I believe, have forced a reckoning in news rooms.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Flash: N.C. Man Sentenced in Radioactive Hit Man Plot

Bryan Budi, 28, a North Carolina man, was sentenced on December 13th, 2019 to serve 78 months in prison for attempted possession of radioactive material, with the intent of killing a personal enemy.

From April 22, 2018, to June 1, 2018, Budi attempted to possess radioactive material, and did so with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to another person. Court documents show that Budi contacted an FBI online covert employee via the internet to purchase a lethal dose of a radioactive substance.  In his communications with the covert employee, Budi expressed his intent to use the radioactive substance to kill an unnamed individual.  Separately, Budi also hired an undecover agent to murder a specified victim.

Digest of Press Release issued by US DOJ.