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Posts published in “First Take”

First take/SOTU

It was an unusual State of the Union speech President Barack Obama delivered on Tuesday night. It held off until the very end, for example, in saying the state was "strong" (the preferred descriptor by most recent presidents).

But there were much more significant elements. A lot of the attention went, as probably it should, to the last major segment, about American politics but more broadly about how Americans see this project of self-government. One of the most disquieting poll results in a long time was the recent report that many younger people don't think it's important to live in a democracy. They should give some thought to what living in another kind of system would be like. And I would say the same to many of their elders who seem so hell-bent on destroying any semblance of a civil society in their orgy of fear and hatred.

Obama offered something else last night, though, in the way he structured his speech. He organized it around four questions:

First, how do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?
Second, how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?
Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?
And finally, how can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

These, it seems to me, are an excellent set of questions we should consider, and that we demand our candidates respond to, in this election year. They are as good a short summary of the matters that ought to be on our front burner as any I have seen anywhere. - rs

First take/SOS

State of the State speeches in Idaho or elsewhere usually are broad-based, washing over a lot of topics and never burrowing very deeply on any one. Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter's SOS Monday was an exception.

He spent the bulk of the speech on education, and sometimes on unfamiliar aspects of it. He talked at some length about reading proficiency, and said "My budget includes $10.7 million to pay for intervention support for students in kindergarten through third grade who are not yet proficient on the state reading indicator. That will improve the chances for more Idaho students to succeed through high school and beyond."

He talked about other education initiatives as well and, more to the point, backed it up with a substantial increase for public schools, 7.9 percent overall. That won't fully fill back the losses from the recession years, or make up for the absence of progress since, but it's a start.

There was also this: "I had the chance last month to experience a little of what innovative, mastery-focused learning looks like in our classrooms. I participated in an “Hour of Code” exercise with fifth-graders at Boise’s Garfield Elementary. Immersing myself in that environment and watching students do the same, I saw firsthand the difference that individualized learning can make in comprehension, application and ultimately mastery."

Individualized learning likely a way of the future in education, and its mention here was noteworthy. - rs

First take/lands

In this time of so much discussion and protest (notably around Burns, Oregon) about the public lands - operated by the federal government - a headline from Idaho ought to be getting more attention than it has.

The Lewiston Tribune reports that two Texas billionaire brothers, the Wilks, have bought 38,000 acres of land around the Joseph territory in Idaho County. (Previously, they had bought around 300,000 acres in Montana.)

The land had consisted of privately-held ranches in the area, and there's nothing legally wrong about the transaction. However, the Tribune also reported this:

"During a recent Idaho County Commission meeting, comments were made that residents believe public access to the Joseph Plains area for hunting and recreation, which has been granted in the past by the previous landowners, has been closed off since the Wilkses took over. The comments took place in a conversation about the proposed Lochsa Land Exchange."

Private means private. Public means you either might have outright access to it, or at least a shot at it.

The massive public lands around Burns are public lands, which have been open for a wide range of uses by members of the public, including ranchers. Turn it private, and some people in Idaho County could tell you what some of the possibilities are. - rs

First take/Natural born

The new birtherism is biting Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate well-liked by many of the people doing the biting.

The old birtherism - the attempt to show President Barack Obama was born somewhere other than the United States, despite the birth certificate and contemporary newspaper listings saying otherwise - was always bunk. The new is different: There is no question about the facts, only about interpretation of law. The catch is, there's no official interpretation of law.

The constitution says that president of the United States must be a "natural born citizen." It does not define the term, and in all the years since the document was written no court - which is where the term would be defined - ever has defined it. My understanding long has been that it means you have to have been born in the land area of the United States, either its states or its territories. That would include people like Barry Goldwater, born in the territory or Arizona, or John McCain, born in the Panama Canal Zone, which was at the time a United States possession. A lot of people have defined the term the same way. But there's never been an "official" definition.

Cruz was born in Edmonton, Canada; his mother was a U.S. citizen. That's not in dispute, and never has been. Cruz has released his birth records, and in 2013 formally a Canadian citizenship he long held on account of his birth location. The facts are clear; but how does that match with the "natural born citizen" requirement in the Constitution?

The senator, of course, maintains that he clearly is qualified, and maybe he is. In looking for a senator of what "naturalized" meant in constitutional terms, a court could seize onto the 1790 passed (shortly after the Constitution went into effect) of the Naturalization Act, which meant to clarify that people born outside the United States to citizens were also considered citizens. And Cruz' United States citizenship never has been in serious dispute.

The reality is, no one knows. When rival Donald Trump calls on Cruz to seek a court declaration one way or other on the matter, he's running some clever (and somewhat exploitative) politics, but the counsel may actually be the right thing for Cruz to do. Trump points out that if the legal question isn't resolved now, Democrats surely will make it a much bigger issue in the general election should Cruz become the Republican nominee, and that is correct. Some of Cruz' own backers are signing on to that line of thought.

None of this is something Cruz would want in the air just as he's trying to lock down a win in the Iowa caucuses. But it may be something that he has to deal with sometime soon. - rs

First take/gun tax

Interesting Daily Beast article today on Seattle's new gun tax - a tax on gun and ammo sales, effective just about a week ago after it survived not long before a court challenge.

Many types of gun-related legislation on a local level runs into a buzz saw of legal problems, in Washington (and many other states) notably the state law (pushed through by the NRA) that local governments cannot regulate guns in any way. Taxes are a different matter, not subject to that kind of rule.

The taxes are not so large as to be intended to curtail gun or ammo purchases. They amount to $25 on each gun sold, two cents per round of .22 caliber ammo, five cents per round for other rounds.

They would provide money for research on gun violence, something Seattle has done on its own hook in the past but hasn't been followed up.

In some ways this isn't a huge deal. But as part of a series of national indicators that policy on guns actually may be amenable to some significant change, maybe it is. - rs (photo/Michael Saechang)

First take/Hammonds

While the sit-in crew at the Malheur refuge near Burns has been accomplishing little but generating a rich vein of humor, the underlying case of the Hammonds is another matter, and shouldn't be forgotten in the barely-associated video-friendly events of Harney County.

Scan back through the history of the Hammonds and the Bureau of Land Management, with which they have dealt for decades as land users (for ranching and related purposes), and mostly you see a fairly ordinary run of debates and disputes. They are far from the only people with disagreements over the management of BLM lands and private use of them, and differed mainly in their setting of fires on those lands - to block invasive plant species say the Hammonds, or to cover up for deer poaching say the feds.

Two other things make this case unusual and a cause for wider concern.

One is the use of mandatory minimum sentences, which put a five-year floor on prison time for the Hammonds. The Oregon federal judge who presided over the case and then sentenced them ordered less time, saying five years "shocked the conscience" for the offenses involved; the 9th Circuit didn't particularly argue with that, but said the law is the law and five years is the minimum. This is a good case example of why mandatory minimums are bad policy.

The second - which was what led to the first - is the use of harsh terrorism laws in the Hammonds' case. Those laws, many not well thought through and passed in a panic after 9-11, have been used since in many cases far from their original intent, and whatever the level of the Hammonds' guilt in fire-setting, they certainly are no terrorists.

These cases ought to a basis for revisiting some of these laws. And the Oregonian probably is right too in calling on President Obama to reduce the Hammonds' sentences to something more in line with what they actually did. - rs

First take/YallQaeda

The indicators are running strong that the sit-it at the very remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will not come to much.

One of the first real indicators of failure is the way the Bundy-aligned group has been mocked - the name Yall Quaeda has clearly entered the popular vocabulary. That wasn't the case with the protesters generally who showed up in Burns last weekend, paraded in the streets and held a rally. Those things were legal, and they involved interactive conversation with the locals (who generally seemed unimpressed).

But it is the case with the people occupying the wildlife center and begging for snacks. (Really thorough planning on the part of these guys.) Yes, you can see the cartoons being scrawled even as you read.

This particular group might not care for the thought, but they might have done well here to consider Saul Alinsky's rules for radicals, which may have been identified with the sixties left but are applicable to any radical group trying an outside-the-system action. People on the right can and have used them as well as people on the left.

How well do the Malheur bunch match up to these ideas?

“Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.”
“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”
“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”
“Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.”
“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
“A good tactic is one your people enjoy.”
“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”
“Keep the pressure on. Never let up.”
“The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.”
"The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition."
“If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.”
“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.”
“Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

Every one of these rules might have afforded useful ideas for these protesters. Instead, one by one they suggest the ways of their near-term undoing. - rs (photo/Oregon Department of Transportation)

First take/Outpost

The occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Burns, acting ostensibly in protest of the imprisonment of members of the area's Hammond family, are protesting as well in a more general sense the federal activity and management of many of the lands in the area.

A quick review of how the refuge center, which they're now occupying, came to be, might be in order.

The push for a wildlife refuge in the area began in earnest around 1918 after so-far unsuccessful attempts to rebuild key elements of a bird population that had been mostly killed off around the turn of the century. With the purchase of more than 60,000 acres of ranch land in 1935, the effort got more serious. But improvements and needed infrastructure came with the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which in the later 30s built not only that but also much of the other infrastructure in the remote area southeast of Bend.

From the refuge's history:

The three CCC camps on Malheur Refuge left behind an incredible legacy that remains today. Initial projects undertaken by the camps included fencing over 200 miles of the Refuge boundary; some of this fence is still in use today. Cattle guards were installed at all access points to the Refuge to prevent trespass by adjacent cattle. At refuge headquarters, work began on construction of four stone buildings (two residences, an office and a barn) to better manage the Refuge. The CCC also extended the telephone lines from the Narrows to refuge headquarters, and then on to the communities of Diamond and Frenchglen.

The telephone lines followed improved or new roads. Major portions of Highway 205 south of the Narrows were surveyed and constructed by enrollees from all three camps. This not only improved access to the camps and made transportation of materials more efficient, but enhanced the transportation network used by refuge neighbors. The enrollees also improved access to the community of Diamond as bridges were constructed across the Donner und Blitzen River. Along portions of the river channelized by the Eastern Oregon Land and Livestock Company in the early part of the century, enrollees used dozers to sculpt the dredge piles into a network of roads that would traverse the center of the valley. Over 35 miles of road would provide access to the center of the refuge for better management of the newly acquired lands. Seven bridges were constructed by the CCC along this newly created Center Patrol Road.

As work progressed over the next seven years the CCC enrollees would construct five concrete diversion dams on the Donner und Blitzen River. Several of these dams replaced existing smaller wood structures left over from the ranching days. All five dams improved diversion of irrigation water along hundreds of miles of new or revamped irrigation ditches. Major diversion ditches, including the Buena Vista Canal, the East and West Canals, Ram Ditch and the Stubblefield Canal, increased the amount of water that could be diverted over a greater distance in the Blitzen Valley. Much of this water was directed to new ponds (the Buena Vista Ponds, Wrights Pond, the Knox Ponds, and Boca Lake) that were crafted from the valley floor.

As transportation improved across the refuge, the CCC also made significant improvements elsewhere on the Refuge. Two large shop buildings and a residence were constructed at Buena Vista Station to facilitate management of the north end of the valley. At the south end of the valley major renovations were made to Pete French’s White House to improve living conditions for new Refuge employees. Existing ranch buildings at the P Ranch were modified for new Refuge uses. An addition was also added to back of the Frenchglen Hotel, which became part of the Refuge with the purchase of the Blitzen Valley.

Not a lot of "improvements" have been added to the area since.

The occupiers might reflect on that, too, as they wait through the winter days and nights at the refuge headquarters. - rs (photo/Malheur Wildlife Refuge)

First take/’bye ’15

As we tick away the hours left in 2015, maybe a reflection or two on this year when some new things happened.

Nationally, it was a time for insurgents to take center stage in politics. It was most obvious on the Republican side, where the backers of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and to a point Ted Cruz were backing people at war with the establishment. People like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and even Rand Paul (running as, maybe, a kinder, gentler libertarian?), who at year's beginning seemed to be lapping the field, were being ground down near the end. Well, maybe not Rubio, if the other establishment guys all quit the race first. But the race, for most of 2015 and now as 2016 begins, is with Trump types. A month from now, when the actual voting begins, that may change, but for now that's the status.

Less dramatically there's some of this on the Democratic side too. the tone and feel and substance of the Bernie Sanders campaign is a lot different from Trump's, but it has the same sense of insurgency and lack of identification with the establishment. Sanders for now seems to be hitting his head against a too-low ceiling, and Hillary Clinton has the odds, but Sanders' campaign still generates the excitement.

Oregon was most notable this year for two big news stories: A new governor (Kate Brown) and legal pot. Both were bigger stories before than after the fact. The governor change happened after a stunning cascade of very personal scandal on the part of John Kitzhaber, who should have known better, didn't, and wound up having to resign. Brown has not been so major a newsmaker in the nearly year she's been in office, which is just as well, but she has gotten (with one major recent exception relating to public records) good marks, and is well positioned for election next year. In the case of marijuana, the big headlines were mostly in the runup to legalization. Without arguing that there's been a pot utopia since, it's been remarkable how few headlines it has generated in the months since legalization, how few serious problems have arisen or been noted. What's the downside to the decision? See if, in another year, we find any then.

Idaho was a more subtle case, but there too a new office holder made for something of a sea change. Under the former superintendent of public instruction, Idaho public schools were an ideological battleground, with lots of ugly messes over money, contracts and - a year ago at this time - a serious problem concerning broadband in the schools. The new superintendent, Sheri Ybarra, who came in with no serious administrative or political experience and might have been expected to make a bad situation worse, instead listened to the people on the ground, got the broadband problem resolved (through local solutions) and turned the battleground into productive turf again. That may have been the most remarkable change of the year in Idaho, the less noted maybe because it involved a reduction rather than an increase of political battling. But note also the arrival of Idaho's new wilderness area, the climax of a long-running battle, the sort of political achievement that many people have come to expect is no longer possible. Representative Mike Simpson showed that it is. - rs

First take/swat

Nauseating.

Take a look at the Washington Post article - this is just the latest of many this year - on how a local SWAT team terrorized a family, on "suspicion" that a marijuana grow might be happening there. Never mind that this was a well-established middle class family with children, both of whose adults were retired CIA employees. And that the sole reason for suspicion, all they had, was that the mother likes to the drink tea, and the father took one of the kids on a trip to a gardening store.

This is the kind of stuff that people worried about government really ought to be worried about, because it's not fantasy - it really does happen all over the country. We have funded and supplied SWAT corps that, most of the time, have too little to do. So they find something to do: Terrorizing us.

Over at Facebook, I made the point that this is another example of why marijuana ought to be legalized, just because the "war" on it has become far more dangerous to all of us than the substance ever was to anyone. And the legal morass around criminalizing pot is the biggest single reason it should be legalized nationally. But these SWAT teams are another issue beyond that. They were created for a reason, and occasions happen - like the mass shootings, which themselves are getting too frequent - when it's a good thing we have them available. But simply having them around, with pressure on (as it always will be) for regular demonstrated reports about how busy they are, means that these kinds of nightmares will go on and on, on whatever pretext. This militarization has to be reversed and scaled back.

Read this piece in the Post, put yourself in the place of this family, and try to come up with an argument for how this could be right . . . - rs

First take/Bing

Here's an unlikely bright spot for Microsoft: Bing, the search engine that seemed not many years ago like almost an ego toy for the execs at Redmond, something to wave at Google while never really threatening it.

There's a little more threat now.

The analyst company comScore says that while Google is still way out ahead with about 64% of the overall search market, Bing is growing, to 21% - enough that a substantial number of people are becoming familiar with it. (Over here, I lean toward Google but give Bing a try here and there, and find it delivers about as well.)

The increase, says the Puget Sound Business Journal, is "a significant step forward for Microsoft’s search engine, which back in 2011 bled more than $1 billion per quarter. Bing was such a pariah among investors that only a few years ago some were suggesting Microsoft sell off or kill the business."

The most recent quarter was Bing's first as a profit-making venture. It likely won't be the last.

The generally favorable response, and movement generally into the marketplace of Windows 10, may be a significant part of the reason.

That may somewhat over-represent Bing's place in the market, since some mobile and other devices still show it as maintaining only a very low level of activity.

But it does seem to be picking up. Google may be getting some competition, and that's not a bad thing. -rs (image/Ivan Walsh)