Wednesday, April 29, 2009

About that torture thing...

Remember when President George W. Bush told the nation (repeatedly) "We do not torture"? Well, not quite. Because we certainly did.

While I was away in Scotland, the Obama administration released several memos detailing the Bush administration's approval of torture techniques when dealing with certain suspects in the war on terror.

The memos even detailed the dubious nature of the claims and speculated that, given standing tradition and extant treaties, a judiciary might very well find the legal advice faulty and the techniques illegal. (I guess there goes the "But we thought it was legal" defense.)

What's most galling, appaling, gut-wrenching, (insert your own word of utmost disgust here), about the whole thing, though, is those who are apologizing — even lionizing — these actions. Becasue, now they say, the torture worked.

Forget that there's ample evidence to dispute these claims in general and in specific instances. Any defense on a "but it worked" basis completely misses the point that torture, under U.S. and international law, is illegal. Period.

It also reveals the integrity, or lack thereof, of those who would defend torture.

These people evidently believe that our fear following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is reason enough to justify torturing prisoners. In contrast to these "paper patriots," I'd say that sacrificing your and your country's bedrock ideals because you're afraid really doesn't allow you to claim courage.

Strong people and nations stick to their principles when the chips are down. If you're willing to torture when the chips are down, then you're willing to torture all the same.

(Or, as a friend of mine said, if you'd have sex for $1 million, you're a whore, and now we're just haggling over the price.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sifting through the inbox

Being gone for a week, there was plenty of stuff sitting in my e-mail inbox. A couple of the more noteworthy subjects:

FEMA institutes a deadline for buying flood insurance. This doesn't affect many in Tracy, as the agency's flood maps include virtually none of the city. However, plenty of our San Joaquin County neighbors who live in a FEMA-designated floodplain and have outstanding federally backed mortgages will be forced to buy flood insurance to cover the government's investment in the mortgage. Note please, that this is not to protect homeowners.

• Homebuilders ask San Joaquin County officials for a reduction in building fees. OK, so building fees in California and San Joaquin County are relatively high and the construction industry could use a boost. But reducing these fees to stimulate the building of new houses seems a bit out of touch when one considers the vast surplus of houses still on the market and the problems we've run into by encouraging the rampant expansion of single-family home subdivisions. Or am I missing something?

• The state's water fight continues. Although few in the fray consider that, even if water storage and conveyance is improved, eventually that supply will also be exhausted if California continues to grow and regard water as it has in the past.

Maybe the most interesting subject of all, however, is not local. It is regarding torture, and this country's dabbling in its use. We'll get into this in the next day or two.

Until then, it's good to be back.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Leaving the office

Everyone needs to get out of the office. This guy is no exception.

I'm off for a week and will be back on Monday, April 27. There's a remote chance I might put up a blog or two while away, but the emphasis there is on remote.

Have a good week, everybody.

Oh, by the way, here's a link that'll tell you where I'm going.

Welcome to a wider I-205

Caltrans officials, according to another local paper, say that Interstate 205's new lanes will be fully open by the end of April if the weather cooperates.

Three cheers for the completion of the long-overdue improvement.

However, it's likely the new six-lane I-205 will be just as obsolete as the old four-lane version.

Which makes the news that our local rail agency is trying to find $150 million to improve the Altamont Commuter Express corridor all the more exciting.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Gathered together

It's not very busy in downtown Tracy today.

That's because a good number of the people who don't make a daily commute for work — and many who ususally do — are at West High School to publicly mourn the death of Sandra Cantu.

Even at 10:30 a.m. — a good 2½ hours before the service began — people were gathering.

Services began about 15 minutes ago. I might be in the office today, but my thoughts and the thoughts of everyone here are at the high school.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Forget the flat tax, how 'bout a fair one

April 15 is the day Americans love to hate.

It's the final day for we law-abiding citizens to send in their tax forms to make sure Uncle Sam gets his legal share of our take-home pay. Not for the first time, people are making this year's Tax Day an opportunity to protest what they see as overly burdensome taxes.

It seems that people are often very patriotic and supportive of their country until money is involved. Declare war? We're right behind you Uncle Sam. Take my greenbacks? Back off, buddy.

That aside, at the heart of the "TEA bag protests" that have popped up across the country today — and yes, even in Tracy — is the issue of fairness. Everyone, it seems, thinks that the tax code is unfair. Specifically to them.

Buried at the core of almost every tax-system philosophy is the desire for justice — basically that everyone pay their fair share and that no one gets screwed. It's the definition of "fair share" and "screwed" that often proves the sticking point.

So, what is fair? It's tough to say.

Is it more fair if everyone, regardless of income, pays the same percentage of that income to the government? Or is it more fair if those with a higher income — which means they can easily afford the necessities of life, not to mention luxiries and investments — pay a greater percentage of their income than those not so well-off?

And if we ever get to the point where we decide one of those two (or even some other formulation) is fair, then we're stuck haggling over exactly what percentage of income the government is going to take.

Unfortunately, what passes for a definition of "fair" when it comes to talking taxes is far too often "Whatever way ensures I pay as little as possible."

"Taxes," it's been famously said by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., "are the price we pay to live in a civil society." They're also the price we pay to live with a military, education, roads, utilities, parks, clean water, clean air, safe working conditions, safe food, border security and a host of other amenities.

It's easy to get angry at taxes when we see government wasting taxpayer money — spending it in ways that don't benefit the country as a whole. You won't see me disagree with that type of populist rage.

But it's hard to remember that without taxes, we wouldn't have an Army, an Interstate system or electricity in vast swaths of the country.

Consider that remembrance a little balm for tax time.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Are we safe in Tracy?

It seems a fair question to ask, seeing as how in the past four months, Tracy has witnessed:

• The Sandra Cantu case, in which an 8-year-old girl disappeared from her neighborhood and was found dead 10 days later in a suitcase.
• The Peter Chi case, in which an ear/nose/throat doctor who also did plastic surgery faces more than 60 counts of sexual abuse and rape.
• The Jessie Llorente III case, in which a substitute teacher, according to police, admitted to becoming aroused when touching his students and posessing child porn.
• The Kyle captivity case, in which a teenager was allegedly held captive in Tracy and tortured by a quartet of adults.

Problem is, assessing safety through anecdotes, especially high-profile ones, isn't always accurate.

Tracy might certainly feel less safe, but that doesn't mean Tracy is less safe.

We've seen that in several Tracy communities, Neighborhood Watch and similar programs have effectively tamped down crime rates. And when compared to other cities in Northern California, the state and the country, Tracy is toward the top in terms of crime statistics.

Of course, numbers are dispassionate. While they tell us Tracy is no Detroit or Oakland, they don't account for how certain crimes make us feel, and how we perceive our community.

The Sandra Cantu kidnapping/killing — and other crimes visited upon children — evokes a visceral, emotional response that goes far beyond statistics. There's no metric to measure the fear of a parent or the concern of a neighbor dealing with a drug house.

So even if numbers say Tracy is safe, the standard gut reaction might not match for a long time.

And as far as the liveability of a city is concerned, that perception might matter more than reality.

Friday, April 10, 2009

And you thought it would end where?

When President Bush tried to extend executive power into realms previously unknown, one of the things many of Bush's critics warned his supporters about is that such a pattern would be difficult to reverse, and a president of even an opposing party or political philosophy would be unlikely to truly change course.

Thought we were kidding? President Obama hasn't exactly dismantled the apparatus of executive over-reach.

A headline to be afraid of

We're all concerned about the case of Sandra Cantu and what it means for other families in Tracy, but the San Francisco Chronicle's proclamation that "Fear grips Tracy as cops search for girl's killer," might be a bit overblown.

Or a lot overblown.

We're not so much scared as angry. Angry that someone would kill a young girl, destroy a family and put a community through so much grief for reasons that — I'm willing to wager — no sane person could truly understand.

Yes, we'll keep an extra close watch on our kids, but Sandra Cantu's apparent kidnapping and murder is the rarest of rare occurences. Tragic? Yes. Wrenching? Yes. Mindbending? Yes. Commonplace? No.

We're shocked, surprised, stunned. But in the throes of all-consuming fear? To say this sad story has our whole "rural" community gripped in fear is to not truly understand it.

Please, correct me if I'm wrong.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

New Web site and other snafus

Over the weekend, increased traffic to crashed the servers, and the new Web site -- that soon will indeed be improved over its predecessor -- for now lacks several components of the old one.

Including the links to this blog.

There will still be new posts and fresh content on the Second Thoughts blog, but things won't quite return to normal around here until the Press Web site is fully functional.

But if you haven't noticed, there were no posts Monday and Tuesday. That slack is for one simple reason:

I have staples in my head. Twelve of them.

The Rustbucket died in a quite-spectacular crash on Santa Cruz County's Highway 17 that ended with it upside down on the roadway. Luckily, my E-ticket ride ended with only a head laceration, and no one else was involved. Sadly, the car didn't make it out nearly as well as I did.

But no fear! Expect the Second Thoughts column for this week to publish as normal on Saturday and for the blog to be updated periodically.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

It's not the fish, stupid

This probably isn't news, but there's an effort to suspend the Endangered Species Act and get more water flowing through the pumps near Tracy and into the Delta-Mendota Canal and California Aqueduct.

The problem began because the population of a fish called the Delta smelt is dropping like a rock. Many environmental scientists and advocates believe those pumps — and the amount of water they export out of the fish's home — are a major factor in the decline. So under the ESA, water shipments to Parts Previously Unwatered were severely curtailed.

Those calling for an ESA repeal say protecting the "tiny" (see: insignificant) Delta smelt is "putting fish before people." Not without merit, they have argued that farmers are bearing a disproportionate chunk of the burden of the water cutbacks.

But they also miss the mark. In this debate, the Delta smelt is a red herring, and heaping scorn on the icthyoid does the issue an injustice.

The smelt is a stand-in for the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which isn't doing too well in terms of overall health. In fact, calling to mind the water exports and dammed rivers and rampant pollution and invasive species, you might consider the entire ecosystem endangered. Problem is, under the ESA you need an animal in order to protect the ecosystem.

Enter the Delta smelt.

So if we're going to talk about the merits of increasing the amount of water we pump out of the Delta, fine. Let's do that.

But let's not make this debate about the fish.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A denser Central Valley

It might not sound like much, but a recent vote by the San Joaquin Valley Policy Council is a victory for smart growth in the valley.

The council, made of two elected officials of eight San Joaquin Valley counties, decided to ratchet up the overall density of the area, from 4.3 dwelling units per acre to 6.8 dwelling units per acre. (The targets for specific locales will vary, with cities obviously being denser and rural areas being more sparsely populated.)

It's part of the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, an effort to try and get valley communities to coordinate growth and set a standard for future expansion.

At the project's heart is more condensed, sprawl-adverse growth. Planners are finally acknowledging that continuing with the status quo will lead to a Central Valley that's replaced its agriculture and open space with choking, Los Angeles-style suburbs.

Any effort to prevent that kind of dystopian future gets my thumbs up.