28 Jun

Is that the government in your pocket, or are you just glad to see the Constitution?

At the start of the 20th Century, the Supreme Court wrestled with the question of whether the “Constitution follows the flag” – whether it applied to foreign parts such as the Philippines that the United States had just taken over.

At the start of the 21st Century, the justices are pursuing the Constitution into even more alien territory: the digital dimension. This week, the court unanimously ruled that police needed a specific warrant to explore the cellphone in the possession of a person of interest.

Police can still ask someone they’ve stopped to turn out his pockets; they just can’t ask him to turn on his smartphone. A cellphone, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the court, “collects in one place many distinct types of information — an address, a note, a prescription, a bank statement, a video — that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record.”

In other words, looking through your cellphone is less a pat-down than a cellular colonoscopy.

Your digital presence is you; you are what you tweet.

And in a world where, as Roberts noted, people average 33 apps on their phone, your phone can say as much about you as you can. It only makes sense to let your phone take the Fifth.

Going through your cellphone – with its messages, its files, its photos, its iTunes, its calendar, its speed dials – is like rummaging through your house, and we do have a constitutional doctrine that covers that.

As the Supreme Court has rightly reminded us, your cellphone is your castle.

Additional charges may apply.

27 Jun

Thirty years later, it’s like an entirely new ERA

Last week, the Oregon secretary of state’s office verified that a petition to put an Equal Rights Amendment into the Oregon Constitution had turned in enough signatures to qualify for the ballot this November.

This means this fall’s ballot has already gotten more interesting; you can’t count on the marijuana measure to do all the work of driving voter turnout.

The Oregon ERA, declaring that “State/political subdivision shall not deny or abridge equality of rights on account of sex,” reached the ballot by the efforts of lawyer-lobbyist John DiLorenzo and his wife Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo. Yuxing Zheng of The Oregonian reported that the two supplied about 88 percent of the costs of the effort, or around $403,476 – about the budget of a contested state House race.

Back in the time of the original ERA, the 1970s of eight-track tapes, gas lines and lapels wider than a milk carton, you could pick up a good Oregon legislative seat for maybe $10,000. But that difference isn’t nearly as much as the change in the ERA debate since then.

In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – endorsed by the last two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, later joined by Gerald Ford – was passed by the U.S. Senate, 84-8, and the House of Representatives, 354-24.

The amendment was rapidly ratified by 30 state legislatures – Oregon was in the second wave, in 1973, because its legislature didn’t meet in 1972 – and got to 35 states, of the required 38 (three-quarters), before stopping; in fact, stopping dead.

Opponents, led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, warned that the amendment would lead to same-sex marriage, women in combat and unisex bathrooms. Since the ratification deadline, extended once, expired in 1982, equal rights amendments have been largely a state issue; Oregon would join 21 other states that now have one.

As Oregon contemplates its initiative, it’s striking to note how much the conversation has changed since the time of the original debate, when the strongest female presence on television was “Charlie’s Angels.”

As Schlafly warned in her book “Feminist Fantasies,” in what emerged as the most prominent argument against the amendment, “Eminent authorities have stated that ERA would legalize the granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and generally implement the gay and lesbian agenda.”

Now, that’s pretty much happening without the ERA. Judges, legislators and even some voters are instituting same-sex marriage state-by-state, and even the politicians who drove state constitutional bans a decade ago are abandoning the fight.

It was a dramatic triumph for Schlafly when she led a wave of supporters into the Illinois state capitol and the legislature voted down ratification. Last year, the Illinois lawmakers became one of the first state legislatures to adopt same-sex marriage.

On the other main anti-ERA argument, Schlafly warned,
“The very idea of women serving in military combat is so unnatural that it almost sounds like a death wish for our species.”

But last year, in a policy-changing statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared the Pentagon was “committed to removing all gender barriers wherever possible and meeting our missions with the best qualified and most capable personnel. I remain confident that we will retain the trust and confidence of the American people by opening positions to women, while ensuring that all members entering these newly opened positions can meet the standards required to maintain our warfighting capability.”

The expanded policy reflects a military with more than 200,000 women on active duty, with numbers of them in Iraq and Afghanistan serving on gun crews and air crews. The warning that the ERA might change the role of women in the military would sound different in a Congress that includes Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who lost both legs when the helicopter she was piloting was shot down in Iraq.

But if the issues look different from the first time the country debated an Equal Rights Amendment, so do attitudes. An ERA, a statement of opposition to discrimination based on sex, would not be adopted by the current House of Representatives 354-24.

In fact, it wouldn’t be adopted by the current House of Representatives at all.

Which is one reason that it has become a state initiative.

As a state Equal Rights Amendment goes before Oregon voters this November, with same-sex marriage and women in combat vanishing as political issues, opponents can still hold the line against unisex bathrooms.

But they’d better stay away from some of the cooler Portland restaurants.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, June 25, 2014.

25 Jun

To SOU graduates: Congratulations, despite everything

My Southern Oregon University commencement speech, June 14, 2014:

My favorite commencement speech was given 20 years ago by another newspaper columnist, Art Buchwald of The Washington Post, who looked out over the graduates and said, “We, the older generation, have given you a perfect world. Don’t screw it up.”

Possibly some of his listeners didn’t quite believe him, and maybe some of you would find it hard to believe, too. As we both know, you’re coming out of here with the burden of paying for both your student loans and my Social Security.

And it’s hard to say that the state of Oregon has been as helpful to you as it might have been. Those of you who came up in the Oregon public school system, starting your educational careers in the 1990s, have seen cuts and tightenings in just about all of your school years. It may be hard to believe, but there are schools in this country that don’t feature overflow seating on the classroom radiator, and that don’t charge students a user fee for using the multiplication table.

And I don’t need to tell you about how Oregon supports, or rather doesn’t support, its higher education system. Oregon is 47th in the country in support of higher education, and if there were more states, Oregon would be lower. In particular, nobody has to tell graduates of Southern Oregon University about the state’s curious policy of investing less and expecting more.

Then there was the national inspiration, over the past two decades, of a great new idea for dealing with the exploding costs of higher education: We’ll charge the students for it, and they can just borrow to pay their tuition. Not only was this strategy an abandonment of a centuries-long tradition of generational responsibility – previously, each generation took on the obligation of educating the next one, back to when educating the next generation meant demonstrating just how to hunt a mastodon – but it’s left us with a trillion-dollar dead hand of student debt lying on the back of our economy.

Economic projections say that current college graduates will be able to buy a house just about the time they will no longer need one, because their kids will be leaving for college.

But despite all that, here you are, college graduates. And despite all that, it’s still a promising and hopeful place to be.

People talk about the benefits of countries having the advantages of petroleum, or diamonds, or access to the sea – although any time now, global warming could give the sea access to a lot more countries. But the only real enduring resource, the only thing that can change the world and reinvent how people live, is the creativity, imagination and drive of a rising generation.

If you don’t believe me, you can look it up on your smart phones.

The Stone Age didn’t end because humanity ran out of stones. The great asset of Silicon Valley is not silicon. The key element is always people. The world is always changed by people too young to know how hard it is to change the world.

We know we got out of the Stone Age due to young people, because back then people didn’t live to be old. We know that Silicon Valley is driven by people barely old enough to sign their billion-dollar contracts, because we’ve seen the movie.

Not all that long ago, when you folks began your educational careers, people would send important documents to each other by fax; now I think any remaining fax machines are used as toasters. Back then, you couldn’t even get vodka in marshmallow flavor, although hopefully as elementary school students you didn’t try.

And at that point, gay people could not get married in any state in the Union. That is changing – that has changed – not because huge numbers of 60-year-olds changed their minds, but because society felt the approach of a vast demographic wave of a younger generation who thought that treating gay people as less than people was wrong and stupid.

Not too long ago, change happened over decades. In your time, in the time you’re coming into, change happens in a blink, creating constant new possibilities. If you’ve learned anything from going to college 15 miles from California, you should have learned that.

Personally, I come from the other side of the state, across the river from Washington, where on a clear day you can see Microsoft. I bring you greetings from Portlandia, where, allegedly, young people go to retire. Smart people in their twenties come to Portland whether they have a job or not, giving us the world’s best-educated bicycle messengers and baristas. We pride ourselves on our farmers’ markets, where at virtually any time of the year, you can buy an artichoke grown by a liberal arts major.

Yes, there is a joke here. But in the long run, the joke will not be on Portland. Those young people are Portland’s secret weapon for the 21st century, especially if they’ve been careful about their tattoos.

I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do, or what you’re going to do. I didn’t foresee the iPad or the caramel Frappuccino or the career of Lady Gaga either, but they were all acts of imagination that changed things and created vast new possibilities.

I didn’t even foresee my own career. I went to college planning to become a lawyer; I left college on track to become a college professor. (My mother didn’t speak to me that entire summer.) After three years as a professor, I left to become a writer, with the strong encouragement of the college where I had been teaching. It took a while, but it turned out all right. As a writer named C.P. Snow once said, what you end up with is the best indication of what you wanted all along.

I do have to warn you that whatever happens in the Oregon elections this November, there won’t be room in the marijuana business for all of you.

Even the largest demographic cloud in your sky, all of us baby boomers, will clear up fairly soon. Thomas Jefferson once said about the Federalist judges named by his predecessor, “Few die and none resign.” I suspect that some of you, and the generation before you, have the same feeling about Baby Boomers. But honest, we won’t be around forever, as much as we like to delude ourselves that we will. Eventually, our Beatles records will wear out, and our 1960s jeans will cut off our circulation.

And even if we do plan to hang around for a long and expensive physical deterioration, Boomers will soon no longer be the people making things happen in this society. Millennials like you, who soon will be running the place, will be a smaller proportion of the population than we baby boomers were, making each one of you more valuable.

I understand the difficulty of coming out of college into this economy. I have a basement that was occupied for years by my college graduate sons.

Don’t worry; they did move out.

I say that to reassure you graduates, but even more to reassure you parents.

As you may have noticed, you’re not coming out of college into the easiest situation. We still don’t have the strongest economy, and many of you are coming out of here with debt burdens suggesting that you have secretly purchased a Mercedes.

Investment in you by our state and society has been unfairly low, and the immediate demands and expectations of you are unfairly high. But you are the only real resource for any society, and the demand for you will be even bigger than the demands on you.

That may be part of why recent surveys have found that despite all of young Americans’ burdens and discouragements, you are the most optimistic generation out there.

By the time you come back here for your twentieth reunion – and whatever you may be thinking these days, Southern Oregon University will still be here – the world will have been reinvented several times, and you will be the people to reinvent it.

As you may have noticed, you’re not being given a perfect world. But you are getting one that can turn on a dime, that’s endlessly improvable, and one that only you can improve – and that might actually improve you.

And I’m absolutely certain you will astonish us.


24 Jun

College graduates owe a debt — literally


We’ve just completed graduation weekend for Oregon’s state universities, producing lots of parties, a boom in robe rentals and one powerful meaning for the state’s economy:

Thousands more Oregonians are now beginning to have their student loans come due.

We’re giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “college credit.”

Student debt in America now tops $1.2 trillion, more than credit card debt or car loans, an amount that hangs around graduates’ necks like the hoods showing what they studied. The trillion-plus is an anchor weighing down the entire country, at a time when we’re counting on recent graduates to buy cars and houses and otherwise inject life into the economy. For that reason, it’s dangerous for the debt level to continue to swell, but it’s growing a lot faster than the investment in Pell Grants, the federal scholarship grant program.

Last week, President Obama increased the (limited) percentage of Americans owing student loans who qualify for a program that caps their payments at 10 percent of discretionary income, and forgives whatever’s left after 20 years – or just about when the student debtors may have to start worrying about sending their kids to college. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Thomas Petri has a proposal for student loan debtors to pay 3 percent of their income, something like Oregon’s “Pay it Forward” proposal, except this being Congress nobody is expecting anything to go anywhere – except for Petri himself, who’s leaving at the end of this year.

Oregon has a particular interest in something happening. According to the Project on Student Debt, among Oregonians graduating in 2012 – the most recent numbers available – 60 percent carried a graduation present of student debt, an average of $26,639, or 22ndin the country.

At least we’re above average in one higher education statistic.

Coming out of last year’s legislative session, state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, brought a mandate to try to make a dent in Oregon’s debt pile by slowing how fast it piles up – by covering the tuition cost of two years of community college.

“It’s what originally drove me,” said Hass about the debt problem. If students can postpone accumulating big college debt for two years, the total landing on the shoulders of graduation robes could be a lot lighter.

Besides,“You can’t do much with just a high school degree.”

Already, some players are trying to help navigate the narrow straits between diploma and debt. High schools emphasize dual credits that also count for college, and a handful of them, reports Hass, allow students to stay for five years – picking up college credits while the district still draws the state’s K-12 student payments for them.

If you think the role of high schools is to help students succeed in life, it makes some sense.

But Hass has another strategy. The core of it is to draw more Pell Grant money for Oregon students, which he’s certain can be done: “We’re leaving federal money on the table.”

But, according to University of Wisconsin professor of educational policy and sociology Sara Goldrick-Rab, who’s been consulting with several states on the idea, the plan would also involve moving some federal scholarship money around. The state would seek a waiver to redirect money to community college students who otherwise might not be going to college at all.

“You’re going to do triage, like you’re in an emergency room,” argues Goldrick-Rab.

The proposal would likely stir resistance from private colleges and universities, as well as Oregon’s public universities, these days overwhelmingly funded by tuition revenue. Like every other idea for strengthening both the quality and the number of graduates produced by Oregon colleges, it would likely require some significant state reinvestment in the Oregon higher education system.

But what Hass and Goldrick-Rab – and pretty much everyone else who’s looked at the situation – agree on is that Oregonians who don’t acquire any post-secondary education are likely to cost the state money in the long run. The state pays for high school on the grounds that its students require it to function; that reality may now have extended from 12 to at least 14 years of education.

And the benefits could extend to graduates of the universities as well. With two years of subsidized community college, points out Goldrick-Rab, “The transfers won’t be racking up the same amount of debt they are now.”

As last weekend demonstrated yet again, something has to make that happen.
Graduation weekends would be a lot more celebratory if it didn’t feel like graduates were moving from university to debtor’s prison.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, Wed., June 18, 2014.

24 Jun

American gridlock is literal


There are so many things to look forward to in summer: Going off on family vacations, lazy drives in the country, rolling over cooling rivers on structurally sound bridges.

And this summer, we can look forward to the National Highway Trust Fund running out, which could do more to keep Americans motionless than the mosquito.

For years, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio has been working to devise a new federal transportation bill, legislation that Congress used to pass regularly every six years, with roads and bridges for all. As a very senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, DeFazio could have a significant voice in shaping the bill; last time, he was able to adjust the funding formula to Oregon’s benefit.

But what’s the point in being a transportation honcho in a Congress that’s going nowhere?

“America’s falling apart,” DeFazio said in a recent interview. “There’s not even enough money to maintain what we built in the last century, let alone any new major projects. At all levels, it’s pathetic.”

The National Highway Trust Fund, which covers most federal transportation efforts, is funded by the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since 1993. What has increased sharply is average gas mileage, not to mention hybrid and electric cars, meaning that the feds are collecting steadily less per mile travelled, although it certainly doesn’t cost less to maintain a mile of road.

And this summer, we’re heading down a particularly steep off-ramp. The multiyear transportation act runs out Sept. 30, but before we even get to that point, the highway trust fund runs out of money sometime in August. We’re approaching the toll booth, and grubbing under our seats for coins.

Without some kind of deal — and Congress goes on its July 4 recess on Friday, to be followed shortly by its August recess, and the House has just 30 workdays left before the Sept. 30 deadline — projects dry up swiftly. In Oregon, Oregon Department of Transportation director Matthew Garrett warned DeFazio, federal transportation funding would drop by 40 percent, and “If Congress has not resolved funding for all of 2015 by early this fall, we will have to delay sending some projects to bid and contract.”

If we’re depending on Congress to act effectively, of course, we might as well immediately adjust our shock absorbers to Pothole – and be careful about crossing any bridges.

House Republicans devised a plan to temporarily cover the shortfall by ending Saturday mail delivery, which DeFazio noted would “maintain our very anemic and inadequate funding for six months by sacrificing the Postal Service.”

Although as he noted Thursday, referring to the House majority leader recently decapitated in a Virginia primary, “Eric Cantor was the one who was pushing the idea of taking money from the Postal Service. We haven’t heard much about that lately.”

And as Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx pointed out, “I would point out that on its best day, the proposal that’s being offered on this postal service is a one-year proposal, and so it doesn’t meet the demands of a long-term investment.”

Of course, the administration’s own proposal calls for funding by corporate tax reform, which would be passed by this Congress just about the time personal flying devices make a transportation package unnecessary.

Last week, DeFazio introduced a bill for a barrel tax on oil destined for transportation. Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., proposed a gradual 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase. Neither plan has yet attracted a crowd.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said last week that he wanted his committee to devise a short-term six-month fix followed by a long-term solution, although he didn’t know what it might look like. Wyden spokesman Kevin Chu said Thursday that Wyden would look at all possibilities, and wanted to get a short-term fix through the Finance Committee before Congress left this Friday.

That’s as encouraging as things get for 50 state transportation directors, including Oregon’s Matthew Garrett. A federal role in transportation that goes back to the interstate highway system set up in the 1950s – not to say the intercontinental railroad system of the 1860s – seems on the edge of rolling into a roadside ditch.

For seven years, we thought the motionless traffic of the Interstate Bridge at rush hour was on its way into the past. Now it seems likely to spread through then future.

It’s not enough that Congress has paralyzed itself in gridlock.

It’s now extending that benefit to the rest of us.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, June 22, 2014.