Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Opposition to the "Noise" Ordinance

Good evening, Councilmembers Clarkson, Guidry, and Head,

My name is Patrick Armstrong, and I am a voter in District A. I am a full-time worker in New Orleans, and not only do I enjoy watching and dancing to the wide variety of music on display any day of the week in this town, but I play guitar and sing - sometimes on my porch, sometimes in a band with friends of mine. Having read the text of the proposed noise ordinance, having followed this issue closely for years (I first became interested when the NOPD began shooing brass bands from French Quarter streets), and having read the many articles and opinion posts of various stakeholders regarding the proposed ordinance, I have come to the informed conclusion that this proposed ordinance goes too far in restricting expressions of music and will not be good for the city. I know musicians who will suffer economically because of this ordinance, and I know people who will be restricted from enjoying the rich musical heritage that people all over the world find synonymous with New Orleans.
I am also concerned that the draft of this ordinance ignores the findings of David Woolworth, whose study was commissioned by the city for the very purpose of crafting an ordinance that could support the desires of many community stakeholders. Why pay for a two year study to find consensus solutions only to ignore the findings and propose an ordinance crafted by those who represent more narrow interests? Especially when those narrow interests claimed more support from neighborhood organizations than they actually had! Doing so only raises questions about the legitimacy of this process, and the ordinance as proposed. 

Finally, I moved to New Orleans in 2006 because this was a place where you can have a real job while still enjoying, dancing to, or playing music any day of the week. In this city, you don't have to choose one or the other. That is a special atmosphere that not many cities have, and it would be a terrible shame to legislate that richness of place away. If I wanted to live in a sleepy small town or a quiet Atlanta suburb where the only thing I had the option of hearing on a given evening is the sound of my own television, I wouldn't live in New Orleans. 

Please find something better to put on the books than the ordinance that was brought forward today. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Benghazi Talking Points

Credibility matters. Like the old story of the boy who cried wolf, I'm not going to listen to someone who consistently lies to me about things. Especially a variety of things. And once you've gone down a road of consistent lies and misrepresentations, it is going to take a long time before I believe you on anything again. I'm not going to give you the benefit of the doubt just because you might someday tell the truth about something important.

This is especially true about where I get my news. Because these days there is news and there is "news," which is entertainment masquerading as news or political opinion. "Just asking questions" and "some people say" is not news. It is conjecture. It is misrepresentation. Opinions and questions do not have the same weight as facts, and when someone attempts to tell me opinions and questions as if they were newsworthy facts, then I feel lied to.

That being said, there is a difference between lying and making a mistake. One key difference is that you can own up to making mistakes and make corrections. Someone can account for a mistake, and figure out why the mistakes were made, and how to fix what can be fixed about it or learn lessons that need to be learned. Related to this is the idea of reporting additional facts as they become available - nobody knows everything and I don't assume that anyone can give me a full account of news the instant that it is happening. There's always more to a story that you only find out later after someone's done some digging to get all the facts - or at least more of the facts than were previously known.

Thing is, if someone makes a mistake and owns up to it, or gets something wrong in the heat of the moment and later updates the story with additional facts that clarify what went on, that builds credibility. It adds accountability for what is being reported.

On the other hand, lying or intentionally misrepresenting something comes with zero accountability. Catch a liar telling lies, and they'll just reply with some horse manure about how they were "just asking questions," or that they were just repeating what "some people say."

Context also matters. Nothing happens in a vacuum. There's always a back story to an event, and sometimes finding out that back story takes some work. Very few events are actually "unprecedented," because if we look back even just a few years or months, we can see some similar event (or dozens of similar events). Hell, most of the time it is useful to look at context in terms of decades. Looking at more than one perspective on things gives us the context necessary to see the full scope of the story, and separate facts from opinions or lies.

Hindsight is a type of context, but only when used to see a clearer picture of what went on. Finding additional facts allow for a focus on the minute to minute events, but without tying that focus back in to a larger picture of the situation takes that out of context. Without a larger, clearer context, it is easy to make facts on the ground appear to support a completely different version of events; without context, you can make the facts say what you want them to say. That's why when someone attempts to tell me facts without the corresponding context, I feel lied to.

And that's why Americans are hearing two completely different versions of what happened in Benghazi. This is actually why most Americans are hearing two completely different versions of what happened about everything in this day and age (to put this post in context), but today's focus is the tragedy at an American consulate in Libya.

...

What we know is that the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked and burned to the ground by people armed with automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and mortars. A later rescue operation was also attacked by people armed with automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and mortars. In the action 4 Americans, including the US Ambassador and 3 security personnel, were killed. This paragraph effectively ends the consensus on what happened in Benghazi, as far as the American public is concerned.

Let's look at some context first: Egypt is one of the focal points of US strategic interests in the Middle East. That's why the US spent billions of dollars supporting autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak over the years. There are also a number of politically active organizations in Egypt that the US has on the terrorism watch list. Many of these organizations were involved in the Egyptian people deposing President Mubarak, which is why right-wing pundits in the United States accused the Obama administration of appeasing terrorists when the US withdrew support for Mubarak during the Arab Spring. Mubarak was on the way out anyway, but the US was able to get more leverage on the transition of power by being seen on the side of the Egyptian people.

This matters because, going further back in context, once upon a time Iran was a focal point of US strategic interests in the Middle East. That's why the US spent billions supporting the autocratic Iranian aristocracy. A number of politically active anti-Western and anti-US organizations that would later be placed on the terrorism watch list were involved in the Iranian people deposing the Shah. But because the US continued to support the Shah against the Iranian people, those organizations were able to hijack the Iranian revolution, which is why the Islamic Republic of Iran is considered a focal point of US Middle Eastern policy in an adversarial role. One of the main turning points in US-Iranian relations occurred when Iranian protesters stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took the Americans hostage.

But wait, what do Egypt and Iran have to do with Benghazi? Don't worry, we'll come back to that.

One further point of context is to think about the American involvement in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. This is the event (that inspired the Black Hawk Down book and movie) where US forces attempted to arrest and extract Somali warlords, were ambushed and pinned down by people with automatic weapons and rocket launchers. Subsequent rescue attempts were also met with resistance by people with automatic weapons and rocket launchers. This action ended with 18 American servicemen dead, many more wounded, and one taken hostage.

We'll come back to this, too.

...

Got that context? Good. Now, let's review the situation the US was facing on September 11, 2012:


The United States and NATO allies had intervened in the Libyan civil war to keep government forces from slaughtering the rebels and civilians while removing historical terrorism supporter Qadaffi from power (that first part being the most publicized, but that last thing being the most important). In the aftermath of the action, the country is a dangerous place. There are multiple well armed militias scattered about the country as the winning factions attempt to set up a civil government and disarm them. The United States, having supported the winning factions, has a diplomatic mission with ambassadors and security folks in the country in the interest of making sure whatever government Libya ends up with when the dust settles is democratic, respects human rights, and is friendly to the USA (the first of those being the most publicized but that last thing being the most important).

The diplomatic mission, understanding that Libya just went through a protracted civil war, realizes that there may be a high element of danger in the country. Additional security is requested. Through State Department bureaucracy, additional security is denied. There are general, bureaucratic reasons for the denial that look pretty bad in hindsight, but in context, host countries are usually responsible for the external security of diplomatic missions. But that responsibility is usually contingent on the host country having a viable government and a working system of state security.

In September 2012, American religious fundamentalists begin publicizing an anti-Islamic video meant to provoke a violent reaction from troubled parts of the Middle East still simmering with the results of the Arab Spring. The video succeeds in provoking protests and violence throughout a large part of the world, and diplomatic missions of many western nations - especially the USA - are the targets of these protests and violence. The State Department goes from monitoring political situations emerging in many countries where people are protesting their autocratic leaders or setting up new governments to monitoring potentially violent situations emerging in many countries where people are protesting at US and Western embassies. This went on for several weeks. One violent situation emerges at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, where protesters storm the facility.

(Here enters the context I was talking about: The State Department is watching Egyptian protesters, with some individuals affiliated with organizations the US has on the terrorism watch list - storming the US Embassy in Cairo; the US lost the Embassy in Tehran in a very similar way in 1979.)


...

We already know what ended up happening, but here is as close as I can get to the official Obama administration / Clinton State Department story of what happened:

Armed individuals also begin massing outside several buildings being rented and used as the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. This is not the US Embassy to Libya (that's in Tripoli - and why it is important for people to know where Benghazi is), but the US has a consulate in Benghazi because that city was one of the strongholds of the rebellion against Qadaffi. The US Ambassador to Libya was there at the time.

The Consulate was attacked, and two Americans are killed, including the US Ambassador to Libya. A rescue mission from additional US forces in the area was dispatched, also attacked, with 2 other Americans killed. (Remember Somalia.) There was a US Special Forces security team in Tripoli (where the US Embassy is), but they were only dispatched to assist with the Benghazi evacuation several hours later as significant reinforcements were stood up. Their ability to provide an effective rescue in the interim is disputed. American air power could have been dispatched, but was not, again with a citation of dubious effectiveness of air power to provide critical support to a confused situation in the middle of a densely civilian populated Libyan city.

In the aftermath, elements from several different offices at the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, and what constituted the Libyan government tried to piece together what happened in Benghazi. This was made more difficult based on the communication structures between those multiple offices, access and security to investigate the scene of the attack, and continuing situations of instability and ongoing protests at other US diplomatic missions around the world.

But the State Department and the administration contend that they reacted to the Benghazi events as effectively as the chain of command would allow, and released information about the attack as the investigation began to indicate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Benghazi attack was something much more than the kind of violent protest happening in Cairo and around the world.

...

Let us compare that story to the Newt Gingrich / Darrell Issa / Rush Limbaugh version of events (and keep in mind what I said at the beginning about credibility and context):

Obama should demonstrate some leadership and use military options to depose Qaddafi. If Obama uses military options to depose Qaddafi, it is unconstitutional.

Obama made embassy officials in Cairo apologize to Muslims over the First Amendment because Obama knew in advance there was going to be a terrorist attack on Benghazi.

Obama and Hillary Clinton watched surveillance drone video of the Benghazi terrorist attack in the situation room of the White House. Obama sent the order for Special Forces to stand down and not rescue Americans.

Obama didn't call the Benghazi attack terrorism, he called it an act of terror. There's a big difference and it proves the coverup exists.

Susan Rice was engaged in a coverup when she talked about the Benghazi attack being the result of a violent protest against an anti-Islamic video. Obama engaged in a coverup when he talked about violent protests against an anti-Islamic video. The Obama administration secretly produced the anti-Islamic video to give angry Muslims a reason to engage in terrorist attacks against the US in Benghazi, or planned the whole thing so the US Ambassador could be kidnapped and traded for the Blind Sheik. Or the Benghazi coverup is really covering up an illicit US arms trade Libyan arms to Syrian rebels through Turkey.

Obama apologized for the terrorist attack in Cairo Benghazi. The United States should invade all Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.

Republicans in the US House of Representatives have found a copy of an email where someone in the Obama administration is trying to cover up what happened. Republicans in the US House of Representatives are not getting any of the emails that they are asking for from the Obama administration. The White House released all the Benghazi emails again only because Republicans didn't read them the first time made them do it.

This is all Hillary Clinton's fault. She should not be President in 2016. No, these hearings are not politically motivated to keep Hillary Clinton from becoming President in 2016.

What happened in Benghazi never happens to American diplomatic missions overseas. Or when it does, it is because Democratic Presidents project weakness that embolden America's enemies.

...

So, folks. Based on my concepts of credibility and context, which one of these stories do you think is closer to what actually happened? Because until there is evidence the US Consulate in Benghazi was really a secret CIA installation that neither Democrats nor Republicans want you to know about, these are the only two stories we've got.

Hey, the news is just asking questions about what some people say.
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Monday, April 08, 2013

In the Mail

Dear Senator Landrieu:

I am writing to ask you to support The Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013 and to support whatever Senate legislation emerges that includes the strongest possible language requiring background checks on all firearms purchases.

While Louisiana has some of the most open firearms rules in the country, this state is one that leads the nation in violence committed by firearms. As a resident of New Orleans, violent crime is often on my mind and the minds of those closest to me. I find it shocking that up to 40% of the gun crimes in this area are committed by individuals who have been arrested previously for gun crimes. Additionally, when it comes to domestic violence in this state, it is difficult to keep guns out of the hands of repeat offenders, even in cases where authorities are aware that previous offenses or criminal records exist. Whatever is being done to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and domestic abusers is not working in Louisiana.

While there are several enthusiastic lobbying groups who insist that “criminals will always find a way to get guns,” this does not mean we need to roll out the red carpet for them as we do in Louisiana. Right now, private sellers and vendors at gun shows are not required to run background checks on gun purchasers. And while it is nominally illegal for a seller to knowingly complete a transaction with a purchaser who is ineligible for firearms ownership, without the requirement of background checks, there is simply no way the seller has to know. This means that, right now in Louisiana, it is harder to register to vote or apply for a driver’s license than it is to purchase a firearm.

This has to change. Even if violent crime has diminished nationwide, we are facing an epidemic of firearms violence in Louisiana, and especially in New Orleans. On this issue, I stand with individuals like Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, and your own brother, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, in taking this issue seriously and personally. Additionally, I stand with President Barack Obama on the majority of his proposals, and I hope you will join him with your support and your vote in the United States Senate.

I also know that it will be difficult for you, politically, to oppose those enthusiastic and well funded “gun-rights” lobbying groups in Louisiana. As a born and bred Southerner, I know the political power being wielded by those lobbying groups who would take advantage of our shared cultural heritage of hunting, sportsmanship, and family traditions of handing down firearms as heirlooms. Those lobbying groups – the NRA chief among them - do not speak for me and do not have my support. I find their arguments against the proposed firearms legislation hyperbolic, overwrought, and based more on fabrication and mischaracterization than any realistic estimation. During the latest national conversation, I have found the behavior of such groups to be disgusting and repugnant, worthy of little more than disdain.

My beliefs on that are formed because I have actually read the 2nd Amendment, current federal firearms laws, and related Supreme Court decisions. Chief among these is Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in the District of Columbia vs. Heller decision (emphasis added):

Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

Furthermore, any substantive reading of the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 satisfies any concerns I have that universal background check requirements might be used to create a national firearms registry (although I would personally support a national registry for owners of assault weapons, as an outright ban appears politically impossible).

As a law abiding citizen who has passed several background checks for both employment and volunteering efforts, I fully support universal background checks for all firearms purchases because I know the only individuals that will be inconvenienced are citizens who are ineligible for firearms ownership or unscrupulous firearms sellers who would easily provide them with a way around the law.

Again, I ask you to use your voice and your vote to stand with the President and with the City of New Orleans on firearms legislation, so our nation, state, and city can do more to keep guns out of the hands of those who would do the most damage with them.

Thank you for your support.

...

Similar letters sent to: President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Congressman Cedric Richmond

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The "G" Word

Alongside “hipster,” “carpetbagger,” and “urban planner,” it is a dirty word in New Orleans right now: gentrification. It is a complex term and it brings up myriad issues that relate to changes in local land use policy. But unfortunately, endless inarticulate complaints about the concept have rendered the word almost without meaning within our local vernacular. Nowadays, when I hear or read the g-word, it takes a moment not to dismiss the author wholesale the way I did when loud but inarticulate Tea Partiers spent years falling all over themselves in confusing the terms “fascist,” “communist,” and “socialist” to describe the President; or when loud but inarticulate gun nuts brandish the term “unconstitutional” in relation to firearms regulations because they refuse to read the Supreme Court’s Heller decision.

Words have actual meaning, and the g-word has one too. That is true no matter how many of our local self-styled progressive activists would like to define the term as “stuff we don’t like.” But if you’re one of those who use that definition of the word, all you’re doing is confusing the issue and promoting the false choices that are sure to undermine your own position. Because once you’ve successfully confused the g-word with the concept of “neighborhood revitalization,” you’re going to lose hearts, minds, and any chance you had to stop the things you don’t like from happening. If you aren’t careful, you end up talking yourself into a rhetorical corner in support of blighted properties and crack houses.

If you aren’t careful, you become one of these incoherent professional liberals who complain about how “white flight” eroded the property tax base in your city, contributed to economic decline, deteriorated your housing stock, and wrecked the schools; who then turns around to gripe about how bad it is for the children of suburbia to move back into the city, participate in the economy, renovate houses, and raise property values.

Moving away from such incoherence, gentrification is an actual thing that has actually been studied by actual people who have proposed actual solutions to the actual problems gentrification creates. What the term actually describes are the market dynamics that affect real estate and land use in an area where the value of property is increasing due to a localized demographic change caused by the ingress of a more affluent population (usually) coupled with the egress of the less affluent population that already lived in the area. The negative connotation of the term comes from the very real problems usually experienced by that less affluent population as the demographic change occurs.

Therein lies the rhetorical catch where complaining about “gentrification” is about as effective as complaining about “rain.” There are a variety of specific problems varying in scope and degree that may or may not come along with either when they happen in your neighborhood. Do you get too much “rain,” and the streets end up flooding? Or do you get too little “rain” and the plants are all dying? That distinction matters. If you aren’t specific about what type of “rain” you’re complaining about, or the specific problems and solutions associated with that rain, you may find yourself paying for improved drainage infrastructure you don’t need because you live in the middle of a desert.

People can’t read your mind. That’s why when you hear anyone ask “what about gentrification?” the most appropriate response is, in fact, “what ABOUT gentrification?” The time for generalizations has passed. We know we’re looking at gentrification in New Orleans, but we can’t win a “war on gentrification” any more than we can win a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror.” Things don’t work that way, no matter how many high-fives you get at the community meeting for “sticking it to the man.”

If you really want to address the actual problems caused by actual gentrification in your city, the first thing you do is identify the specific problems you’re looking to address. Then, you have to articulate those actual problems in a more accessible way than sweeping general statements. After that, you have to explore actual solutions to those problems based on conditions on the ground and the realities present where you live. Finally, you can begin to advocate for specific solutions to alleviate demonstrated and well-articulated problems facing your city. Because gentrification is real, it is taking place in New Orleans, and it is time the local conversation moved past simply complaining about it.

Some places to start:

Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Choices

Health Effects of Gentrification

In the Face of Gentrification: Case Studies of Local Efforts to Mitigate Displacement

Tired of looking at gentrification studies from San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.?

Perhaps there is another Southern port city with historic housing stock, traditional neighborhoods, and recent economic developments that might be a driving force behind gentrification at the local level? Maybe such a city has already started looking at just the issues facing New Orleans today? Maybe they've been doing it for some timeDo you think any place like that exists, or do you want to keep comparing New Orleans to Houston and Atlanta?

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Short-Term Thinking

Adding to New Orleans’ problems involving blighted property, sky-high rents because without enough properties in commerce, and multiple levels of gentrification concerns comes one more real estate issue to add onto the pile. Short-term rental properties.

This really came to a head during the run up to the Super Bowl, when the issue erupted all over NOLA’s internets and talk radios. When I found out that city ordinances prevented people from renting properties for less than 30 days citywide, and 60 days in the French Quarter, I reacted with something like jaw dropping incredulity.

I’m mentally filing this away with the equally lunatic city ordinances that prevent brass bands from playing music on French Quarter streets, shut down music venues because byzantine city zoning doesn’t appear to allow music in New Orleans, and heavily restrict the operation of food trucks in a town known for culinary culture.

And, yes, I know there are probably a whole lot of folks out there on the NOLA interwebs who have weighed in unfavorably on short term rentals. (I've actually seen some of them come out against short term rentals, and then turn around and lament the closing of a popular Uptown restaurant that's found itself on the wrong end of the neighborhood and city ordinances...)

To them, short term rentals are just another insult to the injury of people “not from here” showing up in town and changing “everything good about this place.” As if there are dozens of skinny jeaned hipsters from Williamsburg flocking to NOLA to flip properties so they can be used as short term rentals. While there are some very real critiques to be made about ordinances governing use of property consistent with neighborhood cohesion, this is starting to sound like complaining for complaining’s sake.

Like those folks braying about Koch-brothers food truck conspiracies on New Orleans’ streets, it is troubling to see a local-culture grassroots defense of corporate rent seeking. But that’s the way the political game is played in this town, and the major players wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t know how to divide and conquer. Here we have a city looking to solicit major developments from some very big hotel and condo developers (they’re even putting in new streetcar lines to do so), and at the same time, the local-first types are complaining about how the short-term rental ordinance should be strongly enforced so all these pesky visitors will have to spend their money with those big hotel and condo developers. Isn’t it nice the pro-development local media corporation set up an entire thread for folks to complain about this one thing?

Oh, that’s just the surface – that’s just when you only look at it in terms of “short-term rentals vs. staying in a hotel.” Heaven forfend anyone scratch the surface a little and find out how short-term rentals, blight, real estate speculation and corruption, and the whole issue of neighborhood gentrification intersect. Unlike the ebil armies of food truck hipsters unleashed on the town by Obama’s birth certificate or the Koch brothers’ plot for world domination or whatever, there IS a single tree from which grows much of this city’s poisoned real estate fruit: property tax assessments.

But that’s a more complex issue. A lot of NOLA.com commentators and counterculture magazine authors would rather spend their time complaining about things that don’t require actual thought or have actual political solutions. What better way to justify endless and useless complaining than by having an intractable, irredeemable problem to complain about? And if you get to use hot-button words like “hipster,” “carpetbagger,” and “gentrification” in your op-ed piece, that’s just some bonus-level street credit in your authenticity account.

Say it again: "property tax assessments." Even the phrase sounds unsexy to all but the most droll political wonks. And who wants to read about unsexy?

Instead, let's focus on this week's local political distraction "illegal short-term rentals." This is a ridiculous and nearly unenforceable ordinance in the first case, especially for a town that comes close to celebrating its own inability to enforce ladder ordinances at Mardi Gras parades because allowing people to act like horse's asses is apparently part of the "culture." I guess we could get code enforcement on the job, but a quick walk from my home to the Banks Street Bar is a pretty good indication that code enforcement isn't capable of identifying derelict automobiles, fallin' ass down fences, and houses with so much trash on the porch it looks like a varmint zoo. And heaven help us if we make the decision to have city enforcement folks troll Craigslist, Airbnb, and Vacation Rental By Owner with the intent to start sending out cease and desist letters to violators. You're more likely to find those folks getting their cases thrown out by commenting on NOLA.com. What does all that mean? There's simply no disincentive here that discourages short-term rentals from operating.

Second of all, why would this city WANT to discourage short-term rentals from operating? This is what I don't get behind all the whining. This is a festival destination and event city. Property owners in New Orleans can make some good money through short-term rentals. And before someone complains that these are out-of-town folks making the money, I dare ask who owns the big local hotels? I have to think that there's a higher percentage of local individuals arranging short-term rentals than local individuals who own big hotels on Poydras.

Other whining might focus on the type of short-term renter. Because "folks who aren't from around here" apparently make a lot of noise when they're in town for Mardi Gras and Jazzfest, and they might leave some litter around their short-term rental. Well, fetch the smelling salts, Scarlet, I know cats that ain't never lived outsize the 504 area code that get loud around the holidays. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but some place on St. Roch just got shut down because a neighbor complained about noise and litter. That place seemed to be a big favorite of the locals, if the opinions on my Facebook feed are any indication.

Let me keep on this track for one more thing, this city markets itself to rowdy out of towners. That's the bullshit mythology of New Orleans the city went all-in on some time ago. So, yeah, there may be some rowdy tourists that show up in the neighborhood once in a while. Here's the thing about short-term rentals - especially those in the neighborhoods - they're more convenient for FAMILIES on vacation. When you've got kids in tow, you're more likely to prefer a quiet neighborhood cottage to a big downtown hotel or a bed and breakfast. A short-term rental probably has a working kitchen while at the big hotel, you've got to drag the kids from one restaurant to another. The concentration of big hotels also has the added affect of keeping people downtown. While that might be the preferred model for the bachelorette party crowd, FAMILIES on vacation are more likely to patronize neighborhood establishments elsewhere and appreciate the neighborhood culture that is this city's greatest selling point. Going outside the family-on-vacation perspective, what about business people? Maybe giving travelers an option beyond "French Quarter Hotel + Bourbon Street" might change a few paradigms worth changing. Staying flexible on the type of accommodations offered in a town diversifies the type of people you have coming through town. Might it be time for New Orleans to begin developing as a destination for something other than poker weekends and bachelorette parties?

Third, some of the complaints about short term rentals I've been hearing have to do with upkeep of the property. You know what's good about a property owner looking to provide short-term rentals? They tend to keep the property up to encourage additional short-term renters. Unlike landlords who seem to be able to get away with whatever they want, short-term operators have two factors requiring constant maintenance and upkeep: they have to have a certain number of short-term renters to make it worthwhile from a financial standpoint, and they have robust competition in the form of hotels and bed & breakfasts. They have significant incentive to keep the place nice. And if the renters themselves are behaving badly, neighbors can do the same thing they do when regular renters behave badly: call the authorities and hope they do something about it.

Finally, there's the idea that given the chance, the whole city will become short-term rentals for out of town conventioneers. While this is something of a valid concern, the money angle doesn't support it. As previously mentioned, short-term operators have to have a certain number of short-term renters to make it worthwhile from a financial standpoint. With the Sugar Bowl, Mardi Gras, Jazzfest, etc., they have the opportunity to do so, but those are also limited opportunities. It is also a lot of work to keep up a short-term property, and many costs (cleaning, furnishing, maintenance) that eat into the margins. There is also significant competition for the event attendee's dollar, especially during the "off season" when hotels are quite inexpensive. For this reason, this city can only support a finite number of short-term rentals.

And if they ever become too numerous and start posing a real problem for the city, there's always that unsexy property tax assessment issue that can be visited (that we should probably get to anyway).

Until then, I wonder what jaw droppingly incredulous local political issue we'll deal with next week, when everyone forgets about this one and logs their outrage on a different NOLA.com thread.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Dumb Control Debate (Part 4)

So here's the conclusion of this. I'll start off by reaffirming my support of the 2nd Amendment, and the right to own firearms for self defense, to hunt, and for sporting purposes. Thing is, I also believe what Scalia writes in the Heller decision, that the 2nd amendment is not unlimited, and that the government has a great deal of leeway to regulate firearms through laws created under our representative government.

As I've already made clear, I don't think an armed citizenry will do much against tyranny, based on the historical trends on display in our own nation's armed citizenry doing little about tyranny for hundreds of years. You can be like some right wingers and pretend slaves or civil rights activists owning and using guns would have secured their liberties - but any cursory glance at our nation's actual history shows us exactly what happened to any minority population who tried to fight the power with non-violence, much less with firearms. Their actions were almost universally met with assassination, torture, lynching, bombing, rape, arson, terrorism, arrest, beatings, and other harassment at the hands of the armed and more numerous majority. If John Lewis had a gun at Selma, he wouldn't have been beaten - he and everyone with him would have been butchered by the authorities. But I digress. If you believe such nonsense, you likely wouldn't be reading this anyway. There's no convincing you anything different than the big bad government is coming in their black helicopters to take all of your guns away.

Which is a shame so many people believe something so dumb.

Because the regulations currently being proposed focus mostly on background checks that aren't going to make it illegal to own firearms - they're going to begin allowing law enforcement to more effectively enforce the laws of the land. That's something almost everyone I've ever heard talk about gun rights or gun control believes in. Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals is the most important job of any effective law enforcement structure, and law abiding citizens on every side of this issue overwhelmingly agree.

Would they have done anything about Newton or Aurora? Who can know? As difficult as it is to say this, I don't consider mass shooting events the main problem when it comes to gun violence in this country. Don't get me wrong, these are indescribable tragedies, but they are outliers. Our nation is simply limited in what we can do when a killer makes the determination to sow such destruction. There is no 100% safety anywhere, even for precious little children. We cannot prevent every tragedy.

But we can mitigate risk.

That's why these current proposals shouldn't be arbitrarily cast aside, even if they may not be able to prevent the worst events from happening. Again, as hard as it is to say this, the worst events are simply a drop in the bucket compared to the number of firearms deaths and crimes we are facing on a daily basis when tragedy doesn't make the national news. That's where I focus my attention. Because looking at that problem, we begin to see a pattern take shape. That pattern tells us that the majority of gun violence in this nation is perpetuated by violent individuals who should have been prevented from getting hold of a gun.  

Here's the hard, cold truth: when it comes to firearms laws, the right wing mythology tells us how our country should focus on "enforcing current gun laws" on one hand, and that "criminals will always have access to guns" on the other. Of course, what is never reconciled is that the political decisions made by the right wing make it impossible for law enforcement to enforce existing gun laws and make it easier for criminals to have access to those guns.

Why else would they holler so loudly about tyranny when the President declares he will be appointing a full time director to the law enforcement agency specifically tasked with investigating and prosecuting gun laws? Why does this agency not have a full time director? Because right-wingers have blocked the appointment for years.

Why else would they holler so loudly about losing their guns when the President declares the Centers for Disease Control can conduct public health studies relating to gun violence? Heaven help us if we gather some data about what is going on. It probably won't even matter, after seeing their reaction to climate change science.

And why would they go so berserk over background checks? Background checks are the most effective way to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals, because background checks tell people selling guns if they are selling guns to criminals!

I've had multiple background checks to teach school and serve as a volunteer. My driving record is scrutinized every time I update my address on my driver's license, every time I reapply for my vehicle's registration, and at random intervals by my private insurance company. My credit history is under constant surveillance by banks and billing agencies. You know what? I can still legally drive. I can still get financing. I've never been turned down for a volunteer gig. Why should I be frightened of a criminal history check curbing my right to own a gun? I have no criminal history, so I am confident I will never face unreasonable restriction.

And that's the way it is supposed to work. Because if you have violent felonies or a history of domestic disputes on your record, sorry Jack, but HELL NO I DON'T WANT YOU TO HAVE A GUN. You gave up the right to own such a powerful weapon when you got convicted of whatever it was you did.

Take this guy, for instance.

Shouldn't have been out of jail in the first place (a separate law enforcement issue in its own right), but the lack of regulations under our current firearms laws (especially in Louisiana) mean he can walk into a gun show and pick up whatever gun he wants, as much ammo as he wants, and NOBODY will know that he isn't legally allowed to purchase. And you can see what damage he was planning to do.

Now, it is true that even if we did close the gun show loophole, there's still a chance he could go out and illegally purchase an illegal weapon. But here's the rub: that's a whole lot harder to do.

First of all, it is a felony if he's caught (back to jail), and it is a felony for the seller (goes to jail and loses the right to own a firearm). That creates disincentive. That disincentive additionally limits the buyer's access to weapons, because the seller has to trust him not to be undercover law enforcement, or tell the authorities where he got the illegal weapon if he does follow through with his crime. The sale itself is determined by what illegal firearms the illegal seller has on hand (limiting the buyer's choice of weapons). Add to that the higher cost of high powered weapons on the black market (greater risk, limited supply), and that would also be a limiting economic factor. There's also a limit to how much ammunition an illegal seller can have at any given time. So while he could still get a hold of all of that, he's got to jump through a lot of hoops and marshal a lot of resources to do it. That process increases his chances of running into law enforcement again before he enacts his plan or simply falling prey to other criminal elements.

That's a lot harder than going to the latest local gun show and picking out anything and everything he needs.

And that's where I'm at on firearms laws - the right to bear arms is not unlimited, and with sensible regulations, our nation can do a lot to keep them out of the hands of violent criminals. To do that, we're going to have to get control over the gun shows (which we are Constitutionally allowed to do), develop a working background check system (which we are Constitutionally allowed to do), and begin letting law enforcement enforce our laws (which we are Constitutionally allowed to do).

Thanks for reading this group of posts.

-CP

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Dumb Control Debate (Part 3)

No, I'm not done.

Like I said, it takes time to go after the braying, willful ignorance and historical revisionism right wingers engage when talking about firearms regulations. The other day, we explored some of the plot holes in the fairy tale that Hitler somehow got to be a dictator through the confiscation of guns from the German people. Unfortunately, that little bit of the snake oil has been getting sold to right-wingers for so long, and the story is so entrenched, that people are going to have to call bullshit for a long, long while. But the Hitler thing was just the low hanging fruit. There are far more insidious narratives to discuss, and they hit far closer to home than than the right-wing's preferred mass murderers (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc).

You see, America isn't like all those other places. According to Tea Party legend, it was only in the United States where “freedom” was able to flourish, because our liberty birthing, patriotic founding fathers enshrined gun ownership in the national DNA through the 2nd Amendment. Part of the reason Washington, Jefferson, and the fellas did this was to make sure the US of A would never, ever succumb to the rise of someone like Hitler, because an armed and ready population would leave their suburban cul-de-sacs, rise up and put the brakes on any creeping government tyranny.

That sort of mythology flies in the face of America's real history. The 2nd Amendment has been very useful for individuals defending themselves, and was very useful early on when national defense was decentralized, but it didn't make a damn bit of difference when it came to the very real examples of American on American tyranny. What was really required to shut down tyranny here in America (and abroad, if you're still hung up on WWII examples) is big government intervention and non-violent activism. And that's the main reason you hear about Hitler and not about this nation's own Civil Rights Movement.

According to the right-winger's fantasy, Americans like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton - our revered, Founding Fathers - supported YOUR right to bear arms and defend yourself from bad people. If you listen to the legend, that's what made us different here in America - our country was more vigilant against tyranny and could defend ourselves with our guns.

That is, unless you were black.

I know, I know, people who don't like real history will stomp and stammer and say I'm playing the "race" card here. But if you want to flap your lips about the Constitution as sacrosanct, you're going to have to deal with that 3/5 of a person thing. If you want to deify the Founding Fathers instead of seeing them for the complicated, brilliant, and flawed human beings they actually were, you're going to have to come to terms with reality at some point. In Kindergarten, when kids learn about stuff like George Washington and the cherry tree, we don't usually draw the line for them between our first president and the human beings he owned, because that's complicated to explain to little kids. But the idea is they'll go over it sometime later, and as they go through the process of becoming educated and growing up, they'll synthesize the fact that our Founding Fathers did in fact put conditions on freedom, and several of them owned slaves.

And they didn't want those slaves owning guns. One can only imagine what a bunch of armed slaves would be able to do to the "peculiar institution," am I right? Even after the Reconstruction Amendments officially freed the slaves, it didn't stop. Along came the Jim Crow laws where states forbid black people doing things like voting and owning guns. I'd wager there were laws in some states that took the right to bear arms away from other racial and ethnic minorities, as well. It made their populations far easier to terrorize and control, you see.

Of course, by terrorize and control I mean that our nation's most significant historical terrorist threat - the Ku Klux Klan - often worked in collusion with state and local governments to disenfranchise blacks and other minorities of their civil rights.

So right here in America, we have significant experience with the government undermining civil rights. The state and national governments that got in on the game or looked the other way for so long are responsible for surrendering entire populations of the citizenry to tyranny. Legislative prohibition on those populations owning firearms was part of that enforcement of powerlessness. You would think our own American history serves as a far more poignant example of why the 2nd Amendment might have such value to civil liberties.

So why don't we hear more about that? While I will give credit to a few pundits on the right for addressing the subject every once in a while, it simply does not have the traction in the national conversation when it comes to the right to bear arms. Why?

For one, it fails to properly deify the Founding Fathers and the mythology of American freedom. Within a group where any criticism of America the Beautiful is met with the insightful response "if you don't like it here, leave," it doesn't do much good to bring up the long history of problems this country has actually had with civil rights, individual freedom, and the complex personal lives of national heroes. Reality is difficult to swallow for people who's entire political mindset is based on "good ole days" that never existed.

Next up, the history requires thought about how the Constitution and its interpretation has changed over the generations. This is difficult for a political "movement" that considers Constitutional construction as its main theory on the judiciary. You'd think a group of folks who walk around with pocket Constitution booklets would have a more in depth understanding of the actual history of the document, but instead these are usually the same people that equate every policy or law they don't like as "unconstitutional."  

Synthesizing those last two points: if the Constitution in general and the 2nd Amendment in particular was supposed to act as a safeguard against tyranny, what explains America's long and troubled history allowing some groups of people to act as tyrants over other groups of people? The Constitution has been around for a long, long time after all.

You can't remove the racial element. You would think that modern day gun-rights proponents would have posters of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X hanging in their offices. But they don't, and there are reasons why. From the panic inducing fear of slave revolt to the lynching of freed blacks who dared own a gun, one of the most frightening images in the national historical id is that of a black man holding a gun. When the Black Panthers preceded the Tea Party in carrying loaded assault rifles in public places, figures no less than (then) California governor Ronald Reagan questioned the need to own or do such things. Malcolm X is widely considered a racist because he believed that blacks had the right to arm themselves for self defense. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was sold as response to violent urban rioting but probably had something to do with the idea that minorities had recently ensured themselves basic civil liberties, including the right to bear arms. And lest we forget, the current NRA-endorsed popular understanding of gun rights in America is a recent thing, and the it only really takes off after the success of the Civil Rights Movement.  

That's important to note, because the unlike the Constitution and the 2nd Amendment, the Civil Rights Movement actually did provide a check on tyrannical behavior by governments in the USA, and it did so in great measure due to a dedication to non-violent civil disobedience and generations of legal challenges to the accepted understanding of the Constitution. Taking that a step further, these rights were only finally secured and protected by a responsive, interventionist Federal government with massive resources and the machinery of state behind them - not the individual right to bear arms.

And since non-violence and "big" government don't exactly fit in with the narrative today's extremist NRA want you to be thinking, you don't often hear about how Americans have historically dealt with homegrown American tyranny.

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