Sunday, April 30, 2023

Addressing Homelessness in Sonoma Valley.

"Sonoma Valley."
© 2020 TJM97.
My friend Fred Allebach shared a public comment today for the upcoming Sonoma City Council meeting on May 3rd, discussing their three-year action plan to end homelessness. The plan aims to address homelessness and housing as interconnected issues. He argued that the plan should focus on housing first as a preventive measure, rather than prioritizing symptom management. The current process has encouraged collaboration among various organizations, but Allebach pointed out that the fragmented nature of local homeless services could be more effectively organized.

Allebach suggested three considerations for decision-makers in Sonoma and the County: First, focus on providing affordable housing and food through a unified effort. Second, establish a solid equity focus within the City to balance its investment in economic and environmental issues. Lastly, shift the focus from addressing homelessness to promoting prevention and healthy, inclusive, and equitable housing.

Fred highlighted the importance of following the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing ("AFFH") policy and the Housing Element ("HE") in order to promote equity. He encouraged council members to study the plans and hold the City accountable for implementing them. He called on the City to partner with affordable housing advocacy groups to advance local housing solutions and consider renter protection policies.

Finally, Allebach suggested several measures to improve housing production in Sonoma Valley, such as creating a joint housing planning area with the County, focusing on shared services initiatives, and engaging wealthy donors to invest in affordable housing projects.

A key challenge in the Sonoma Valley is the lack of a valley-wide authority that can effectively take action, which Fred noted. The City's annexing the Springs had been proposed before but failed to gain political support from existing stakeholders in the City and the Valley. I think it's important to remember that Sonoma Valley's split between City and Springs reflects actual political power, which is correlated with economic clout.

Reform can only succeed if policy is backed up by organization. In considering this, I reflected on the work of Takashi Negishi, whose social welfare weights have been (controversially) applied in a series of contexts. Integrated assessment modeling ("IAM") would probably suggest that there first needs to be economic and political equality before action becomes possible. There are efforts to do precisely that, but in addressing the (sometimes quite awful) facts on the ground, the lack of alignment between elites in the City and in the Valley is probably the most significant hurdle to reform.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

McCarthy's Struggle to Unite Republicans.

"Magnolias bloom on the Capitol Grounds."
© 2020 sdkb. 

The New York Times' Annie Karni writes this morning about Kevin McCarthy, who became the Speaker of the House in January, and has since faced his first significant test: lifting the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts and policy changes. With a slim Republican majority, the proposal's passage is far from guaranteed. Democrats, led by Senator Chuck Schumer and President Biden, have criticized the proposal as recklessly austere and fiscally misguided, arguing that Republicans are precipitating a debt crisis by tying unreasonable conditions to any vote to lift the debt ceiling.

As McCarthy struggles to garner the votes needed to push through the proposal, critics point out that the Republican Party has been crippled by misinformation, deception, and conspiracy theories. This has caused polarization within the party, a lack of accountability for individual Republican congressmen, and undermined trust in the political system itself and the Republican Party.

This high-stakes political battle highlights the divisions within the Republican Party and raises questions about McCarthy's leadership abilities. The party recognizes that it must address the controversial debt ceiling proposal, as the statutory borrowing limit is expected to be reached this summer. This all worsens a serious internal conflict that continues to exacerbate the fractures within the party, making it more difficult for them to present a united front on almost any critical policy issue.

As the situation continues to unfold, it remains to be seen whether McCarthy can navigate the challenging period in his tenure as Speaker of the House. However, it is clear that the Republican Party must address the root causes of its division and dysfunction in order to move forward effectively.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

AI Transforming Self-Perception.

Sigmund Freud, c. 1921.
By Max Halberstadt.
Public Domain.
via Wikimedia Commons.
The Economist's essay this week discusses the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), particularly large language models (LLMs) like GPT-4. The rise of LLMs has sparked an entrepreneurial explosion, altering how people use computers and creating new business models. However, this development also presents risks, such as spreading disinformation and creating deep fakes.

The essay draws comparisons between LLMs and pivotal moments in history, such as the introduction of the web browser, the printing press, and psychoanalysis, each of which significantly altered how people access knowledge and perceive themselves. As LLMs evolve, they could fundamentally shift the way we engage with information and each other. Some researchers even envision AI entities developing unique personalities, becoming externalized versions of users' inner voices or emulating the personalities of deceased individuals.

The true nature of AI models remains a contentious issue among researchers. Some argue that these models have no real understanding and merely parrot patterns from training data ("pseudocognition"), while others believe the models possess abilities that cannot be distinguished from genuine understanding. This debate echoes Freud's concept of the uncanny, and may influence how people perceive themselves, potentially reinforcing the idea that humans are not masters of their own existence.

There are further drawbacks to the rise of LLMs. They are capable of generating plausible but false information, a phenomenon known as "hallucination" or "confabulation," raising concerns about the potential for spreading disinformation, deep fakes, and fabricated content. This challenges the integrity of public debate and highlights the need to address the negative implications of AI-generated content while leveraging its potential benefits.

To address the implications of LLMs, the article emphasizes the importance of considering AI ethics, including unconscious biases in training, the responsibilities of AI creators, and the regulation of AI upbringing. It calls for a thorough examination of human desires and motivations in relation to LLM development and the potential societal impact. As AI continues to evolve, society must prepare for both the positive and negative consequences.

Monday, April 24, 2023

The Tucker Carlson Saga: A Shocking Departure and a Controversial Career.

Tucker Carlson, 2022.
© 2022 Gage Skidmore
In a surprising move, Fox News has parted ways with Tucker Carlson, its most popular prime time host, resulting in a major shift in the cable news landscape and sending shockwaves through the conservative movement. This announcement comes less than a week after the network agreed to pay $787.5 million in a defamation lawsuit, where Carlson's show played a significant role in spreading misinformation following the 2020 election.

The New York Times has previously reported on Tucker Carlson's multifaceted career, beginning with a challenging early life marked by his mother's abandonment of the family. As a journalist and television personality, he initially held more libertarian views, being critical of anti-immigration groups. However, his perspectives changed over time, particularly after the September 11th attacks, as he adopted increasingly anti-immigration and anti-diversity stances.

Carlson's rise as a key figure in the populist movement around Donald Trump was facilitated by his adoption of white nationalist rhetoric. This development coincided with Fox News' shift in programming strategy to cater to its core audience of older white conservatives, amplifying white fear and resentment.

The conservative commentator's career also included the founding of The Daily Caller, a right-leaning digital tabloid. While the publication achieved success, it attracted controversy due to connections between some writers and white nationalist groups. Despite early setbacks in his television career, Carlson's support for Donald Trump and controversial views eventually led to his own Fox News show.

With Tucker Carlson's departure from Fox News, the future of the cable news landscape remains uncertain. As an influential figure in both television and politics, his impact on the conservative movement will undoubtedly continue to be felt for years to come.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Questions from the Press, Friday, April 21, 2023.

Siena Kelly.
Per past practice, questions from the Sonoma Index-Tribune I received about last night's Sonoma Valley Unified meeting, and the answers, are below. The questions concerned the school resource officer (SRO), Dunbar Elementary, school consolidation and configuration, and the naming of Midgley Field. The picture is of my daughter Siena, who was recently named the MVP of the JV soccer team at Sonoma Valley High, (well done Siena!). 


1. What was your impression of the discussion about possibly bringing back a school resource officer? Are any additional steps planned?

The School Resource Officer (SRO) program began as a partnership between the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and the Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD) in 2004. From 2013 to 2020, the City of Sonoma joined the collaboration, forming a financial partnership among the Sheriff's Office, SVUSD, and the City. With an approximate cost of $240,000, the expense was shared by the three agencies. The SRO, a Sheriff's Office employee, served SVUSD with an office at Sonoma Valley High School and devoted their full time to various campuses within the School District.

In 2020, the City's budget saw significant reductions in the Police Services contract, including the elimination of three positions. Although the City's share of SRO program costs was included in the 2020 budget, the program was put on hold at the beginning of the fiscal year due to uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, organizational budget impacts, and the shift to virtual learning. Despite SVUSD approving a contract to continue the SRO program into 2021, it was discontinued when the Sonoma City Council voted against the proposal on December 14, 2020. At that time, a request was made by SVUSD to maintain the funding, if not for an SRO, then for mental health services. The City cut it anyway.

Now, the City of Sonoma has included school services in its contract with the Sheriff's Department for 2022-23 using one-time funding. However, the City faces the same funding challenges as it did in 2020. The City of Sonoma's budget continues to be under pressure and relies on one-time funds for recurring expenses. The question remains: where is the stable funding mechanism that would allow the City to pursue an SRO contract, and why hasn't the City sought an agreement about that funding with SVUSD? If a future city council decides to reduce funding again, SVUSD would have to cover the shortfall, potentially facing long-term expenses to maintain the program.

In the context of School Resource Officers (SROs), it is helpful to understand the current presence of SROs in various high schools in the region. There is unconfirmed information about a temporary SRO at Montgomery High School, while Petaluma High, Casa Grande High, and the rest of the Santa Rosa High Schools are reported not to have SROs. It appears that Analy High School's SRO position may have lapsed. The Windsor Police Department states that they provide SRO services at Windsor High; however, it remains uncertain whether the high school has a dedicated SRO. Rohnert Park employs SRO Debbie Lamaison, who is believed to be on campus at Rancho Cotate. There is no available information about an SRO at Healdsburg High, but a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) exists between Cloverdale and their high school concerning the provision of an SRO.

It is important for elected officials to address these concerns and offer more information on the current status of SROs in the area. It appears that in many of these cases, cities may bear much of the expense for SROs. If the SRO contract from 2020 had been adopted by the City Council and the SRO program continued through today, the situation would be different. However, the fundamental funding questions remain unresolved, and consequently, no action can be taken at this time. My notes reflect that the direction to staff was to discuss funding with the incoming city manager, continue outreach and assessment with students and staff regarding the provision of mental health services, and otherwise seek to continue to collaborate with the Sheriff’s Department during that work.

2. What are your thoughts regarding the discussion and decision (if one was made) on regular agenda item No. 2, to suspend student enrollment at Dunbar Elementary School beginning in the 2023-24 school year?

The Dunbar students will, by and large, attend El Verano Elementary. That is the school located in the trustee area I serve. I know that the El Verano community will welcome the Dunbar students with open arms. El Verano is our healthiest, most community-oriented school, and with the outstanding new facilities at that location, the Dunbar students will be well served.

The relocation of those students from Dunbar, as difficult as it will be, allows the community to move forward. I strongly doubt the trustees will as a consequence be willing to disturb the new equilibrium that will be established at El Verano. We will not make these students, teachers, and staff move again.

For all practical purposes, the consequence of this decision is that El Verano will be off-limits to further changes. I think that is the right outcome. El Verano is our one walkable community school for our working-class families. Its unique combination of community services and social support is probably the future of our District. I hear from my constituents around El Verano that that is what they want. I am glad that looks like it will be the future they will receive.

Cojoined with that news was the letter from Woodland Star Charter School's board that they are interested in utilizing the Dunbar campus as soon as this August. This will result in an additional approximate savings for the District of $500,000. It further frees up capacity at Altimira Middle School, where Woodland Star had previously been located. Altimira Middle School is our one site that is large enough, as is, with the Woodland Star buildings, to serve all of our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders as a middle school. As a practical matter, the cooperative and collaborative approach of the Woodland Star community is helping the District be in a position to achieve a 3-1-1+1 configuration (three elementary, one middle, one high school, and one continuation high school) in the near future.

3. What are your thoughts regarding the discussion and decision (if one was made) on regular agenda item No. 3, to consider approval of the school configuration and consolidation plan?

The presentation was far different from the materials included in the packet. This was largely due to updated guidance from the California Attorney General to school districts on laws governing school closures and best practices for implementation. This guidance, issued on April 11, 2023, was and is consistent with our current plans outlined in the school reconfiguration presentation. However, and importantly, the guidance highlights steps to address racial equity, which we will ensure is integrated into our school configuration and consolidation process. I am very supportive of implementing the guidelines from the Attorney General with fidelity, as our District has in the past made a series of decisions that impact resources for schools primarily serving students of color. Sonoma Valley Unified must ensure equal educational opportunities for all students, even when resources come from external organizations like PTOs.

Based on the new information, the superintendent amended her recommendation during the meeting to establish a School Consolidation and Configuration ("SCC") Committee. This committee will recommend campuses for consolidation, develop a plan, and prioritize middle school consolidation before elementary school planning. The board agreed that the SCC committee will be charged with reviewing a 3-1-1 proposal, and the composition will include a parent of a special needs student, and a native Spanish speaker. I had wanted specific deadlines for the SCC Committee to present its work, specifically November of 2023 for the middle schools, and April of 2024 for the elementary schools, but the board, after discussion, chose to keep that flexible rather than set specific dates for the delivery of those reports. The committee will collaborate with the staff to create a plan that incorporates equity analyses, addressing past and current district decisions that impact resources for schools primarily serving students of color, and again ensuring equal educational opportunities for all students.

The District aims to link consolidation planning to the "Portrait of a Graduate" work and strategic planning. Ideally, this will establish baseline expectations for elementary, middle, and high school programming as the consolidation process proceeds. 

4. What was your impression of the discussion regarding the naming of the Sonoma Valley High School field, and the decision (if any) that was reached?

The Board decided to name the Sonoma Valley High School Athletic Field the Robert "Bob" Dale Midgley Jr. Field, to be known as "Midgley Field." Bob Midgley taught at Sonoma Valley High for 25 years before passing away on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. Bob passed just weeks after doctors discovered cancer, which had already spread throughout his body. Coach Midgley had attended Prestwood Elementary, Altimira Middle School and was a member of the class of 1984 at Sonoma Valley High School, before attending SRJC (where he played football) and Chico State. He earned his teaching credential at Sonoma State, where he played for the Seawolves (then Cossacks) football team as well. Bob had been a P.E. teacher at Altimira and Sonoma Valley High, as well as the head football coach and athletic director.

There were a number of meritorious individuals who were also suggested to have the field named after them. However, the loss of Coach Midgley so suddenly reminded me of how many families have been touched by cancer in our Valley. For so many years, Relay for Life has taken place at our high school track, and I closely associate (and I think many in our community do as well) the field and track at the high school with our community's efforts to grapple with the terrible impacts of that deadly disease. Naming the field after a coach we lost too soon to cancer somehow seems fitting, and recognizes that we will continue to all mourn the loss of our loved ones taken from us before their time.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Fox News' Settlement and Future Defamation Suits.

Justice William J. Brennan, 1972. 
(Author of opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan.)
Library of Congress, Public Domain.

The Economist today reports on the recently settled defamation lawsuit between Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems for $787.5m over Fox's coverage of the 2020 US election. Dominion accused the network of knowingly spreading lies about its voting machines, resulting in Joe Biden's victory. The lawsuit revealed the extent to which Fox's coverage is shaped by a desire to tell its audience what it wants to hear and by its competition. The case also shed light on the network's tumultuous relationship with former President Donald Trump.

Fox's audience declined after the 2020 election, as Trump urged his supporters to switch to other networks. The network then sought to appease Trump's supporters, giving credibility to false claims made by his lawyers. Fox tried to shift its audience's focus to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but viewers ultimately did not follow this lead. The network continued to defend Trump during various legal troubles, as its influence on viewers appeared limited.

Despite the significant financial settlement, the lawsuit's impact on Fox News is, in the opinion of the Economist, negligible. The network can afford the payout, which is about a quarter of its estimated revenue last year, and it will not have to air retractions or corrections. As the lawsuit did not receive extensive coverage on Fox, viewers who learned about it elsewhere were likely to take the network's side. Another voting technology company, Smartmatic, is suing Fox for $2.7bn over its 2020 election coverage, which may draw more attention to the problem.

I think the article misses an important potential consequence of this case. The article highlights the network's influence on the American right, but fails to address the broader implications for libel law jurisprudence. Despite Fox News' potentially defensible behavior under  New York Times v. Sullivan, which protects news organizations from defamation suits unless they knowingly published false information or exhibited "reckless disregard" for the truth, the article does not discuss how the case could affect future defamation suits.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have questioned the basis of New York Times v. Sullivan, and the Fox News case may impact the Supreme Court's willingness to maintain such a powerful shield for the press. The network's repeated dissemination of misinformation, deception, and conspiracy theories could prompt the Court to reevaluate the limits of defamation protections for news organizations.

Overall, the article provides a detailed account of the Dominion lawsuit, Fox News' influence on conservative politics, and the network's relationship with former President Donald Trump. However, it would have been valuable for the piece to discuss the potential consequences of the case for future libel law jurisprudence and the role of the Supreme Court in shaping these outcomes.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Fox News' $787.5M Settlement with Dominion: A Wake-Up Call for Media Accountability and the Future of Democracy.

"Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News."
© 2008 Xrmap.

Jim Rutenberg and Katie Robertson of the New York report today that Fox News has reached a $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, avoiding a lengthy trial that would have seen its top executives and personalities face intense questioning over their role in spreading false claims about the 2020 election. The settlement, one of the largest defamation settlements in history, includes a rare admission by Fox News acknowledging that certain false claims about Dominion were aired on their network. However, the agreement did not require Fox to apologize for any wrongdoing in its programming, a point Dominion had been pushing for.

The settlement follows several pretrial findings by the presiding judge, Eric M. Davis, which cast Fox's programming in a negative light, significantly limiting its ability to argue that it was acting as a news network pursuing newsmaker claims. Dominion had collected substantial internal documentation from Fox, showing that many within the company knew the conspiracy theory about Dominion's election involvement was baseless. The settlement raises the question of whether Fox News will change its approach to handling defamatory conspiracy content in the future.

When I began writing online (blogging?) in 2012, the first significant post I made concerned the sale of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, The North Bay Business Journal, and the Petaluma Argus-Courier. While the sales price at the time was not disclosed, the value of the Press Democrat had dropped and related enterprises had, on the evidence, declined by over 90% since the purchase of the papers by the New York Times in 1985. That was consistent with the decline of the newspaper industry overall in recent times. I speculated then about the consequences of the collapse of the economics supporting newspapers and the possible impacts of the same. 

The experience since 2012 in America, and the decline of its papers, has been bigger news than I might have imagined. The end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 allowed conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh to dominate talk radio, as broadcasters no longer needed to present balanced viewpoints. The culture that developed in that context has since spread into newspapers and cable TV news. This change contributed to the polarization of political discourse in the United States and helped shape the nation's political landscape. 

Rather than merely be conservative, the Dominion case suggests that, over time, the lack of balance has led to Richard Hofstadter's "Paranoid Style" of American politics rising to the fore. A political culture founded on falsehoods, deceit, or misinformation can undermine trust in democratic institutions, erode the credibility of political leaders, and ultimately sap the stability and effectiveness of the political system as a whole. This has severe consequences for the functioning of a democratic society, leading to increased polarization, ineffective decision-making, and weakened accountability.

The decline in the economics supporting newspapers, the end of the Fairness Doctrine, and the subsequent rise of polarizing voices have significantly impacted the American political landscape. The Fox News settlement with Dominion Voting Systems highlights how unbalanced reporting and conspiracy theories have permeated mainstream media, eroding trust in democratic institutions and increasing political polarization. As we move forward, it is essential to address the challenges posed by this shifting media environment and work towards fostering a political culture that values accuracy, integrity, and balanced perspectives, to ensure the continued stability and effectiveness of our democratic system.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Beyond Market Mantras, and the Benefit-Cost Conundrum in Policy.

Takashi Negishi, 2014

In a brief post today, Brad DeLong, an economist and historian at Berkeley, shared his thoughts on the importance of benefit-cost analysis in policy-making, largely agreeing with Henry Farrell's views. Farrell's argument in question is that the long-held belief that the market knows best has left government policymakers ill-equipped to intervene in the economy effectively. The focus on neoclassical economics in elite US policy schools has resulted in a lack of understanding about how markets actually work. Farrell believes that the price signal cannot convey as much information as previously thought, and some goods are not efficiently provided by market arrangements. He suggests that the assumption that government actors lack the knowledge to intervene has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To address this issue, Farrell proposes rethinking public policy education to include not only traditional economic reasoning but also new approaches.

DeLong emphasizes that benefit-cost analysis, or "economistic reasoning," is more than just beneficial; it is essential. This approach requires policymakers to count and compare the benefits and costs of a proposed policy, helping them decide what should be done. DeLong also highlights the value of comprehensive benefit-cost analysis, which takes into account all externalities in a system. By driving shadow and real prices towards social-welfare maximizing values, this framework helps conceptualize policy goals. DeLong believes that checking whether these goals have been achieved is the only way to determine a policy's success. However, he acknowledges that benefit-cost analysis has its limitations, particularly in addressing wealth and inequality.

Despite its shortcomings, DeLong argues that considering wealth distribution and its correlation with political power is essential for effective policy-making. Ignoring this aspect could result in policies that threaten the existing distribution of power, which would make it impossible to implement any meaningful changes. In other words, technocracy can only succeed with the support of raw political power. In explaining this, DeLong turns to the work of Takashi Negishi, whose social welfare weights have been controversialy applied in a series of contexts, including the Kyoto Protocol. I had intuitivelly understood Negishi weights for a long time, but this was the first instance where the articulation of it in terms of his scholarship registered with me. I make this note todady as a marker for the future, and a recognition of a nascent idea in an earlier post

Economics and the Mona Lisa Smile.

"Mona Lisa."
Leonardo da Vinci.

The Economist this morning observes that economic forecasting has become increasingly unpredictable, with analysts struggling to accurately forecast many key international measures. Contributing to the confusion are challenges in data collection and interpretation due to Covid-19 disruptions and declining response rates to official surveys. The pandemic caused significant fluctuations in growth, complicating seasonal adjustments in economic numbers. Also, reduced response rates to surveys may have led to increased data volatility and potential bias, as non-respondents tend to be less prosperous, which could distort income statistics. The article uses the ambiguous "smile" of Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci via the sfumato technique, as a metaphor for the difficulty of discerning the true state of the economic environment given this unpredictable data. 

One source of confusion arises from the discrepancy between "hard" and "soft" data—objective indicators such as unemployment rates, and subjective variables like individuals' future expectations. Typically, these two classifications of data are congruent. However, at present, they exhibit a stark contrast. "Soft" measures indicate a recessionary trend, while "hard" measures suggest a reasonable economic expansion. This divergence may be attributed to the public's discontent with inflation. In affluent nations, prices continue to escalate at an annual rate of 9%.

Economic measures really matter for government budgeting, as California's Legislative Analyst's office (LAO) relies upon that data in planning future budgets. Necessarily, many of the points the Economist makes about uncertainty get resolved by the LAO in the "negative" (that is, they accept the more dire forecast). As the LAO (accurately) writes in their 23-24 budget analysis, the U.S. economy experienced rapid expansion from summer 2020 through 2021 due to pandemic-related federal stimulus. However, this growth was (as far as the LAO is concerned, and many others) unsustainable, leading to record low unemployment and supply chain challenges, causing consumer prices to rise 8% year-on-year. To combat inflation, the LAO points out that the Federal Reserve has enacted large interest rate increases throughout 2022. The LAO interprets the hard data it sees, that California is experiencing decreased home and car sales and falling stock prices, as well as weaker state tax collections, and concludes there is a slowdown in the economy. 

The LAO, though, is looking at some of the same data as the writers of the Economist, and thus notes that while overly optimistic projections could result in future shortfalls, an excessively pessimistic projection could lead to premature cuts to public services. Further, despite all the foregoing, the LAO points out that "the state can afford to maintain its existing school and community college programs and provide a cost-of-living adjustment of up to 8.38 percent in 2023-24," which would essentially meet the rate of inflation for educational funding in California. Despite the economy's sfumato, at least that is clear. 

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Questions from the Press, April 15, 2023.

Today, Sonoma Valley Unified's board held a meeting to discuss its Superintendent search. Because I generally get questions shortly after meetings from the Sonoma Index-Tribune and the Sonoma Valley Sun, I took the time during the session to write down what I thought happpened, and my meeting notes are below. Also, the photograph included is of my daughter Siena, a lacrosse player for Sonoma Valley High School, of whom I am very proud. 


The public portion of the meeting concerned the findings in the Leadership Profile Assessment conducted by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (HYA) for the Superintendent position. The data was collected from virtual interviews, focus groups, and an online survey involving various stakeholder groups, conducted between March 10, 2023, and April 7, 2023. The purpose of this assessment was to assist the Board in determining the desired characteristics in the new superintendent, as well as to identify the district's strengths and upcoming challenges.

Participation in the data gathering process included a diverse range of stakeholders, with 621 respondents to the online survey, which was offered in both English and Spanish. Parents and support staff were well represented, with 325 individual responses. Sonoma Valley Unified School District's strengths include community partnerships, a value for diversity and inclusion, and talented, dedicated staff. Challenges and concerns facing the district include a pervasive sense of mistrust towards the district, a high rate of superintendent turnover, a need for improved governance practices, and addressing student mental health needs.

The focus group meetings allowed participants to build upon each other's comments and respond to questions regarding stakeholder values, current and future challenges, and desired characteristics in a new superintendent. The search team thanked all the participants and the SVUSD staff for their assistance, and particularly Kyra Sherman for organizing the stakeholder scheduling.

The data presented summarizes the participation of various stakeholder groups in personal interviews, focus groups, and an online survey conducted for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent search. The key insights from this data were:

1. A total of 95 stakeholders participated in personal interviews or focus groups, while 621 stakeholders responded to the online survey.

2. The online survey had broad participation from different stakeholder groups, with the highest participation from parents (269), followed by support staff (56), students (22), and community partners (10).

3. Among the interviewed stakeholders, site level administrators had the highest participation (20), followed by teachers (103), and central office administrators (5).

This data indicates that there was considerable engagement from various stakeholder groups, particularly parents, support staff, and site level administrators, during the data gathering process for the Superintendent search.

The profile was essentially that SVUSD is seeking a Superintendent who: 

• Is Visionary and has a student-centered approach, emphasizing instructional focus, special education, and balancing district strategies with classroom innovation;

• Fosters trust, respect, and a positive climate among stakeholders, with an emphasis on relationship-building and engaging with the Latino community;

• Collaborates with the Board, supports teachers and staff, and seeks input from educational specialists in decision-making;

• Involves all stakeholders in strategic planning and implementation, maintaining a track record of positive working relationships and approachability across the community;

• Demonstrates experience in managing enrollment, reconfiguring schools, strong financial acumen, and commitment to biliteracy and biculturalism.

The trustees, before entering closed session, reviewed the analysis of the survey data from HYA. The data revealed a significant disparity between the opinions of administrators and community members, with no clustering observed on the State of the District. In contrast, more clustering was found in the weighted Leadership profile. Interestingly, "understanding and being sensitive to the needs of a diverse student population" ranked within the top concerns for both community members and students. Indeed, the two highest priorities of students were that the superintendent be visible throughout the district while actively engaging in community life, and understanding and catering to the needs of a diverse student population.

The trustees then entered closed session. The closed session adjourned at 12:20, with no action reported.

Santa Rosa's Caritas Homes: Addressing the Housing Crisis Amid Fairness Concerns.

 Mural by Christopher Statton and Megan Wilson, 2015
© Ponderosa Templeton 2017
via Wikimedia Commons.
Sarah Edwards of the Press Democrat writes today about new housing in Santa Rosa. Tenants will soon be selected to fill 33 affordable apartments in downtown Santa Rosa, as part of Burbank Housing's two-phase Caritas Homes development. The project aims to provide 126 units in total to address the housing shortage in North Bay. The first building of the Caritas Homes development is set to be completed by July 1, with half of the first phase's residents being chosen through an April 21 lottery and the remaining units allocated for those experiencing homelessness. The development will be located at 340 and 360 Seventh St., catering to households earning between 40% and 60% of the area median income or those with a Sonoma County Housing Choice Voucher or Section 8 voucher.

Caritas Homes will consist of two identical buildings, each with 63 units, offering studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. The first 30 units in each building will be reserved for people experiencing homelessness. The development will also feature a secured parking garage, indoor community room, outdoor gathering space, and indoor bicycle storage. The first building cost $44 million to build, while the second will require $47 million due to inflation and rising construction costs.

Sonoma County behavioral health services and Catholic Charities will be available to support tenants who were previously homeless. The project, which provides around 90 units per acre, is different from the existing construction in downtown Santa Rosa. The development was initiated in response to the chronic housing shortage, which was further exacerbated by the 2017 Tubbs Fire, destroying 5,000 housing units in Sonoma County.

Two items struck me about this article. Firstly, the development doesn't look like 90 units per acre at all; instead, it looks attractive and friendly, with a mix of two, three, and four-storey elevations. The architects should be commended for that. Secondly, a more challenging and emotional point is that housing allocation is being determined here by a lottery system. Deciding where someone lives is a very high-stakes matter to decide on chance. The article mentions that around 10,000 people are on waiting lists for housing in the county, and nearly 3,000 are homeless. In a society that emphasizes distributive justice, resources should be allocated unequally only to the extent that it benefits the least advantaged members of the community. Instead of a lottery system, a  better way would involve assessing needs and prioritizing those in the most vulnerable situations. Only then will our shared sense of fairness be addressed, one of the crucial requirements of any effort to address our housing crisis.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Red States, Blue Cities, Dynamic America.

"President Barack Obama and Cabinet."
White House East Room, September 10, 2009.
via Wikimedia Commons.

In today's New York Times, David Brooks discusses the trend of people migrating from blue states to red states in the US. Between 2010 and 2020, the fastest-growing states were mostly red, such as Texas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina. This growth is attributed to lower taxes, fewer restrictions on home construction, lower housing prices, and more pro-business policies. However, the growth in red states is concentrated in metro areas, often blue cities in red states. The dynamic success stories are a result of a red-blue policy mix where Republicans provide a business-friendly climate and Democrats influence education, social services, and civic atmosphere. The column argues that no political party is currently embracing this policy blend, which has proven effective in creating a dynamic and cosmopolitan society. The author suggests that the Democratic Party's growing strength in Southwestern states could potentially give rise to a new kind of Democrat that promotes this policy mix.

David Brook's career began as a police reporter in Chicago, and he recognizes the significant impact it had on his perspectives. His experiences on the crime beat shifted his views from a more liberal standpoint to a more conservative one. Brooks seems to be highly conscious of the concept of black-and-white morality, which leads him to seek a balanced approach where both sides of an argument have valid points. In essence, Brooks proposes that a third option, which incorporates ideas from both sides, is often attainable.

Here, I think Brooks misses some of the essential characteristics of how cabinet-style dynamics function, which I generally accept as a starting point for analysis of most government decisionmaking. In "The English Constitution," Walter Bagehot highlights the significance of blending old and new minds in the British parliamentary cabinet system for effective governance, emphasizing the importance of secrecy and trust in maintaining unity and functionality. By combining experienced ministers' continuity and institutional knowledge with new ministers' fresh ideas and energy, the cabinet can adapt to changing circumstances and address contemporary issues. Secrecy ensures confidential cabinet discussions and disagreements, fostering open dialogue and consensus-based decisions. Trust among cabinet members is essential for upholding collective responsibility and loyalty, even when personal disagreements occur. Ultimately, Bagehot argues that the balance of experience and innovation, combined with secrecy and trust, contributes to the effective functioning of the government.

Bagehot argues that the most dangerous person to a cabinet government is the disloyal insider. A disloyal insider can undermine the collective responsibility principle, where all ministers must publicly support cabinet decisions, even if they personally disagreed during internal discussions. By breaking this trust and revealing confidential information or dissenting opinions, the disloyal insider can weaken the solidarity and unity of the cabinet, disrupt its decision-making process, and potentially harm the government's credibility and stability. Thus, Bagehot emphasizes that disloyal insiders pose a significant threat to the cabinet government's effectiveness and overall political structure.

Bagehot's central argument highlights the importance of consensus in a government composed of both cautious old minds and and fresh energetic ones. Brooks fails to consider that a political party's drive to act stems from their shared values and the aspiration to advance them. Brooks appears to suggest that experienced and fresh minds together would embrace a logical compromise on the very shared values that unite them. However, it is more probable that both groups would view this approach as flawed and dismiss those promoting it.

Brooks doesn't offer realistic solutions for a feasible third way, and his argument appears at odds with the realities of media influence and political communication. Rather than individuals blending positions, a stronger argument would recognize that blue cities in red states play a vital role in holding their governments accountable, encouraging debate, and preventing complacency in the ruling red-state governments. By remaining committed to the nation and their democratic values, these blue cities enhance the political system's stability and effectiveness while pushing the red-state governments to improve and refine their policies. Ultimately a stronger America emerges from that dynamism, as has been noted in the Economist recently. 

Thursday, April 13, 2023

A Salty Solution to Lithium Woes?

"Containerized Vanadium Flow Battery"
UniEnergy Technologies
via Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times' Keith Bradsher writes today about the development in China of batteries that use sodium instead of lithium, a far cheaper and more abundant material. Sodium batteries have the advantage of keeping almost all of their charge when temperatures fall far below freezing, which is an issue for lithium batteries. Recent breakthroughs mean that sodium batteries can now be recharged daily for years, which has been a key advantage of lithium batteries.

Sodium batteries are being developed at Central South University in Changsha. Chinese companies are leading the way in commercializing the technology, and they have figured out in the past year how to make sodium battery cells so similar to lithium ones that they can be made with the same equipment.

A significant challenge, however, is where to get the sodium. While salt is abundant, the United States accounts for over 90 percent of the world’s readily mined reserves for soda ash, the main industrial source of sodium (Chinese ventures generally use expensive synthetic soda ash). Another question hanging over sodium is whether lithium will remain costly. Lithium prices quadrupled from 2017 to last November, but have since dropped by two-thirds.

As Bradsher notes, utility companies could benefit from using sodium batteries, but they face unique challenges due to the regulated nature of their operations. These companies have to plan well in advance because they need regulatory approval to recover costs and adjust prices. Furthermore, utility assets like power plants and transmission lines can last for decades. Many of the facts that need to be ascertainable for utilities to implement sodium batteries are still question marks, as there's no prior history or long-term operational record.

Batteries are an increasingly important technology and the investment is definitely news. It's a tough area for a reporter to work in because a pair of the subjects (Technology, China) have familiar tropes that can get in the way. The national security implications of battery technology, though, do appear to be ones that the United States is taking seriously, as NPR's All Things Considered reported in August of 2022 in the case of vanadium redox flow batteries. Batteries are a component of green energy, and expecting foreign direct product rules to come into effect concerning the same may be a mere matter of time.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Nature of the Firm and the limits of Economics.

Ronald Coase
University of Chicago Law School
via Wikimedia Commons
This week's Economist includes an article by their Free Exchange columnist, regarding the "The Nature of the Firm," Ronald Coase's classic 1937 work. Despite the belief in the 1990s that economics could command a unified science of business, three decades later, it has not progressed in understanding the inner workings of firms. Neoclassical economic theory primarily focuses on markets and the allocation of scarce resources, but it does not account for the fact that much of the allocation of resources in economies occurs within firms, where employees are directed by administrative fiat rather than price signals. The theory that firms are profit-maximizers is also challenged by the reality of "bounded rationality," as no business could process all the information needed to extract maximum profit.

Economists have made strides in understanding firms through concepts such as team production, incomplete contracts, and the principal-agent problem. However, these theories still fall short of providing practical advice on corporate strategy. Economics often fails to capture the importance of corporate culture, shared values, and pride in the workplace, which are essential to a flourishing business. Moreover, economics is limited in its ability to address the specificity of business problems, as they require detailed knowledge of various fields outside the discipline. While economic ideas can offer some insights, the study of business remains an outpost that economics is unlikely to conquer fully.

It was beyond the scope of the article, but a government agency (or, as a shorthand, an "agency") can also be viewed as a firm responsible for providing public goods or services and implementing policies. Like traditional firms, government agencies coordinate resources and make decisions under the principle of "bounded rationality." The major difference is that these agencies differ in their objectives, as they aim to maximize social welfare and address market failures, rather than seeking profit maximization, but which I would note, makes the insights of the Free Exchange column even more trenchant. Further, because government agencies also face unique challenges in terms of bureaucracy, political influences, and accountability, their efficiency and decision-making processes are even less susceptible to an economics-based analysis. 

While apocryphally attributed to Twain, William S. Burroughs' advice to "write about what you know" leads me to look at my home in light of this. I note, over and over, that the critical issues my community encounters are almost always decided in an interchange and an interplay between firms and agencies. If anything, economics is something of a base meridian used to calibrate during the continuing conversations with multiple actors that are directed by fiat using bounded rationality to either pursue profit or improve social welfare, a problem only marginally susceptible to economics-based analysis. 

Almost all of the important questions instead require detailed knowledge of various fields outside of economics. Indeed, to the extent that economics is used after the point-of-reference stage, it is of limited utility by itself. The dozen other factors noted above, including but not limited to corporate culture, shared values, pride in a workplace, bounded rationality, team production, incomplete contracts, the principal-agent problem, political influence, bureaucracy, accountability, market failure, and social welfare, are generally the factors to address in any analysis of the (for lack of a better phrase) political economy of most local decision-making that I have encountered -- a nice checklist for future reference. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Carriage Court in Santa Rosa.

"A mobile home park in West Miami, Florida"
By Dr Zak
In Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 

Carriage Court, a mobile home park for seniors in Santa Rosa, it is reported today by the Press Democrat's Marisa Endicott, is being converted to an all-ages park by new management company Harmony Communities. The company claims that the change is necessary for the park to stay afloat and make a profit. However, residents are concerned about potential displacement and culture shift, as many of them rely on fixed incomes and have limited options if costs increase. The change comes in response to Santa Rosa's new mobile home rent control ordinance, which limits how much park owners can raise rent, according to Nick Ubaldi, regional manager for Harmony Communities. 

Residents are also worried about Harmony Communities' track record of litigation over evictions and rent increases. The company is involved in multiple lawsuits across the state and has a reputation for strict rule enforcement and eviction attempts. The Golden State Manufactured-home Owners League has noted that Harmony's "reputation is terrible." The director of communications for Harmony Communities identifies as a crude epithet, Heywood Jablóm, a false name and a classic sign of a bad actor. Indeed, Mariah Thompson, a staff attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, noted that Harmony Communities will "often just see what they can get away with[.]” 

Mobile home parks, especially in American culture, are stereotypically viewed as lower-income housing for occupants living at or below the poverty line who have low social status. As Wikipedia notes, despite the advances in trailer home technology, the image survives. Residents, especially the elderly, can be targets for unscrupulous business practices. 

Here, Ubaldi is contending that an updated rent control ordinance, designed to protect senior citizens, is in fact the source of senior citizens' distress. This is an obvious attempt to reverse victim and offender, which is harmful to the democratic process, beyond the specific harm it inflicts on the residents of Carriage Court. Sowing confusion and undermining accountability only weakens the norms we all rely upon to effectively address our housing crisis, which is bad and getting worse. Ideas, like housing, are more of a public good, like a forest, than a commercial context, like a marketplace.  We all must recognize that public discourse is vulnerable to the same damage that can be suffered by the woods should the balance between individual advantage and long-term sustainability be violated callously.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Attendance, Housing, and Basic Aid.

 Sonoma County's 40 public school districts continue to see attendance declines. The lack of housing and a steadily declining birth rate are among the factors contributing to the decline. Sonoma County is predicted to experience a 16.9% enrollment drop by 2031, the fourth worst in California, as reported by the Press Democrat. In the past five years, Sonoma Valley has already experienced an 18.9% decrease in attendance, and as a trustee, I am familiar with the very profound changes that can cause. 

The article elides past some distinctions that are worth noting. First, school funding in California is based on attendance (the so-called "ADA," or average daily attendance), not enrollment (ADA is usually about 90% of enrollment, although there is a lot of variation).  Paying attention to the attendance figure will be the more reliable indicator of the state of school finance going forward in Sonoma County. 

Second, and related to the first point, is that as of November 2022, 16 of the 40 school districts in Sonoma County were "basic aid" districts, whose revenues do not change with either attendance or enrollment. In 2021‑22, the state had 118 basic aid school districts (about 13 percent of all districts).  As attendance continues to drop, more and more Sonoma County districts will become basic aid. Basic aid will increasingly be the default rule in Sonoma County. These districts (like Sonoma Valley) will ironically end up with more money per student given declining attendance, which is why many of these districts may very well not be interested in district consolidation intended to cut costs, as such consolidation would in fact reduce per-student funding.  There are a number of these districts in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin counties, those counties having had many of the same housing issues as Sonoma County for a longer period of time, and the trend in those counties has generally been against consolidation of districts.   

A final point, which comes up here from time to time. "Affordable Housing" is a term of art in many respects, and while there is a shortage of housing that can be afforded in Sonoma County by most people, that is different from "Affordable Housing." Sonoma County just lacks housing, period. Narrowing the issue using the term of art is probably not the most helpful, because it obscures the fact that the response to the crisis needs to be comprehensive.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Green Checkmate.

Today Fred Allebach, a member of the Sonoma Valley Collaborative and a friend, shared his thoughts on affordable housing and the challenges faced in Sonoma Valley and beyond with me via email. He provides a historical context of the 2020 Sonoma Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) issue, and how it continues to impact affordable housing projects. Allebach identifies the "Green Checkmate," a dynamic that hinders progress in the development of affordable housing by preserving low-density zoning and maintaining property value advantages for existing homeowners.

Fred also discusses the tension between environmental justice and social justice, pointing out that environmentalists (and those aligned with) tend to use green arguments to justify preserving a low-density, high-property-value status quo. He explains how affordable housing development is caught in a series of impossible arguments, resulting in the de facto segregated status quo.

Allebach advocates for a more inclusive approach to housing development that balances sustainability and social equity. He suggests supporting lower-income housing projects in unincorporated urban service areas and strategic affordable housing projects in non-urban service areas, especially where there are substantial job opportunities nearby. He also recommends considering the establishment of a City of Sonoma Valley to better address the collective housing needs of the region's population.

I have long appreciated Fred's work and his keen attention to and expertise regarding housing. Over time, Fred, and a group of like-minded, pragmatic reformers, with their continued focus on this difficult problem, are building the necessary muscles in the community to allow change to occur in the face of what can only be described as obstructive hostility. Fred's work shows how, rather than inspiration or enlightenment, it is grit that is the essential element in pursuit of justice.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

The Mandela Rules.

Nelson Mandela. (1994, Oct. 4).

© John Mathew Smith 2001

Use by Permission, Wikipedia.

Approximately 90 inmates at the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility (the county jail, sometimes abbreviated "MADF") recently participated in a 10-day hunger strike (Press Democrats, paywalled) to demand more time out of their cells, improved visitation hours, and lower commissary costs. The strike was initiated by the G module on March 23, whose out-of-cell time is limited, sometimes to an hour or less each day, which family members and friends say is insufficient for them to shower, make calls, or prepare meals from commissary items. Visitation and communication have also been impacted, with limited hours and staff shortages affecting both visitation and out-of-cell time. 

The jail has faced previous criticism for its management of inmate communication. A June 2021 civil grand jury investigation revealed high phone call costs and commissary markups. It also noted that there had been a diversion of funds intended for jail programming to staff salaries and other purposes.

As Nelson Mandela observed, "[n]o one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." Sonoma County should strive to meet the standards set by the Nelson Mandela rules. The grand jury investigation and the hunger strike have brought attention to at least six separate rules (22-23, 42-43, 58, 103) that appear to have been violated in this area. 

Addressing these issues benefits the whole County, as maintaining a fair and just society requires the even-handed administration of the jail. This is widely recognized -- The California Democratic Platform, for example, acknowledges that family support is a key factor in determining the success of a person once they are released from prison. By investing in programs that facilitate visitation, communication, and re-entry planning, we can help improve the overall well-being of those affected by incarceration. This approach not only benefits the individuals and families directly involved but also contributes to a stronger and more resilient community.

Ultimately, the legitimacy of all our institutions hinges on their ability to treat everyone fairly, regardless of their social standing. Ensuring that Sonoma County adheres to the Nelson Mandela rules is a step toward fostering a more compassionate and just society. By addressing the grievances highlighted in the grand jury investigation and hunger strike, we can work together to create a future where every Californian's rights are respected and upheld. This will only serve to strengthen our communities and promote the values of fairness, equality, and justice.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Housing, a Public Good.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 15).
Public housing.
In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Retrieved April 5, 2023

Yesterday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors held a first reading of a proposed "camping" law, which seeks to ban unhoused individuals from sleeping in specific public areas, such as the Joe Rodota Trail. Sonoma County has a huge challenge on its hands, with a 2022 countywide census finding 2,800 homeless people, of which only 800 were living in shelters. More shelters, transitional housing, and affordable housing are needed, along with social services such as mental health care and substance abuse treatment. 

But I think the core of the problem is different. I think we need to see housing as a public good, and not as a market. Vienna (60%), Singapore (80%), Sweden, Hong Kong (50%), Finland (20%), and the Netherlands (30%) have all managed to house very significant parts of their population by recognizing that housing is a public good and should be the object of concerted action. 

Sonoma County should prioritize the provision of more housing to effectively address homelessness. By repurposing sites, our County could become a "net zero" employer itself, setting a powerful example. As the county's largest employer, this initiative would have a significant impact on the housing crisis and substantially benefit working and middle-class families.

Encouraging government and employers to adopt a "net zero" position in how their operations impact the local housing ecosystem would be a good start. By taking responsibility for the housing needs of their employees and community, government and employers can play an active role in addressing homelessness and providing equitable access to housing for all. We need to focus on creating long-term solutions, not just temporary fixes.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Grayer Angels.

Kim, Richard. (2012, June 22). The Nation. 
In a recent Press Democrat article, Phil Barber discusses Braver Angels, an organization run and co-founded by David Blankenhorn, who was a proponent of Proposition 8, which was designed to ban same-sex marriage. Notwithstanding that, the article seeks to present Braver Angels in a positive light, discussing a recent meeting held in Petaluma. But Barber fails to address Blankenhorn's past actions, which may contribute to the very polarization the organization seeks to remedy.

Some background on Blankenhorn's work illuminates the issue. As Richard Kim noted in his piece in the Nation, Blankenhorn's Institute for American Values "has attacked single mothers, championed federal marriage promotion as welfare policy, railed against cohabitation and no-fault divorce, and opposed access to new reproductive technologies. One of his institute’s latest crusades has been against anonymous sperm donors (because they lead to “fatherless” children, an abiding preoccupation of his)." This amounts to a comprehensive assault on some of the most powerless groups in our society, with little evidence to support the positions themselves.

The article takes a one-sided approach to highlighting Braver Angels' stated mission to bridge the political divide through dialogue, empathy, and understanding. With 92 chapters and events in all 50 states, the organization seems to target an older demographic, as evidenced by its appeal to the rapidly growing gray population in America. However, this approach has obvious limitations with younger generations, who face unique challenges and navigate their social and political lives through social media and identity-driven communities.

Young people today grapple with unprecedented economic hurdles and may feel alienated by Braver Angels' workshops, which cater to an older generation that enjoyed greater economic stability. Participating in these workshops could very well exacerbate young people's feelings of financial insecurity and anxiety. Furthermore, young people often engage with political discussions through the lens of their identity, which they defend and support in online communities. Braver Angels' approach, then, might feel more like (and might indeed be) an attempt to dismantle a protective shield rather than extend a hand of understanding. There are some members of the local community, such as Mary Munat, who are involved in the organization, who are trusted, and who I think mean well. But given the group's president's past and continuing actions, and the fact that nearly 10% of the money raised by the organization goes directly to Blankenhorn, it is tough to see how such concerns can be mitigated. 

Acknowledging the unique challenges faced by younger generations, such as economic insecurities and the importance of identity, is critical in seeking to create a more inclusive and resonant political discussion. Only then can we genuinely bridge the troublesome divide that so many have come to recognize is our central challenge to furthering public trust, without which all efforts in government come to naught.