San Francisco Defanged

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The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, one of San Francisco’s shrinking number of reminders of the city’s contributions to the defense of the United States.

The Navy has all but abandoned the San Francisco Bay area. Two naval shipyards, a naval base, two naval air stations, and a weapons station are all gone.

The sea service follows the Army, which closed the Presidio, Fort Mason, and Oakland Army Depot, and the Air Force, which closed Hamilton Air Force Base. San Francisco is BRAC* Central.

It’s a pity all around.

I am sure the armed forces would have been happy to stay, the Navy in particular, but the exigencies of BRAC and a local populace that is all but hostile to the military made their continued position in the region untenable.

In fact, California, which ended the Second World War at the heart of the nation’s ability to project power overseas, has been largely demilitarized, even as our need to project power overseas – especially to Asia and the Pacific – has grown. There are exceptions to the trend, like San Diego, Pendleton, Lemoore, Vandenberg, and Travis, but arguably the California Frontier is less defended now than it has been at any time since the end of the Civil War.

Many would suggest that this is a good thing, pointing to the money saved, and to a state of 40 million souls increasingly desperate for affordable living and working space. Others would argue that in this day and age, our frontiers no longer need be defended by a network of expensive physical installations.

Yet I cannot shake a vague foreboding, a feeling that we have somehow been too quick to disarm the Golden State. History teaches us that all too often, so-called “peace dividends” are false profits. As nauseated as I am by the effort to use the spectre of a China Rampant to justify gold-plated weapons programs, I do not believe that we are somehow on the cusp of an era free of conflict, nor do I believe that our oceanic moats offer the same level of protection that they did a century ago.

Prudence should dictate our defense, not hope, ideology, or an excess of fiscal over caution, and my fellow Californians (I am a Californian, albeit one living in China) should remember that to be effective a shield must sometimes be visible. And in a day where the threat gets closer to home than ever, the concentration of defenders in the fewest possible locations has become an outdated approach.

For their own sakes, San Franciscans had best be praying that America’s approach to defense – engage far from our shores – remains consistent and successful. Otherwise the day will come when they will regret their well-meaning but shortsighted ejection of those charged with their security.

* Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the Congressional entity formed at the end of the Cold War to shrink to the greatest extent possible the physical footprint of the U.S. Armed Forces.

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Fixing L.A.’s Schools

Westwood School in Westwood section of Los Ang...
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If you note a growing interest in California in this blog, it is no coincidence. I am a long-term resident of Beijing and China and I feel at home here, but I am under no illusions: at some point I will start dividing my time more or less evenly with my native home and my adopted one. It would be nice to have a home state to come back to.

One of my worries is California’s schools. In the midst of the state’s debt crisis, California’s parents must contend not only with evaporating school budgets, but also in the case of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the problem of teacher competence, as discussed in this article in The Economist.

The problem, though, is not the teachers, but the teacher’s unions, who are fighting a reactionary rear-guard action against the measurement of teacher performance. While granting that test scores are an imperfect measure, The Economist notes:

Is it [test scores] a perfect form of evaluation? Certainly not. Mr Duffy is right to argue that test scores alone are not adequate for judging teacher performance. (We don’t want teachers teaching to the test, after all.) And it should be noted that California’s education system, in particular, is troubled by budget cuts and political infighting that make it difficult to manage and evaluate. But Mr Duffy’s reaction fits with a broader resistance to more formal evaluation methods by teachers unions across the country. And that has coincided with extensive union efforts to defend teachers who are obviously failing our students. If the education-reform debate has come to seem like an attack on teachers, it is in large part because of the unions’ misdirected passion and priorities.

There is no perfect measure of performance for any job. But there is no scope for incompetence, either. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (and the National Education Association) have painted themselves into the uncomfortable corner of defending teachers who cannot teach, and as such do a disservice not only to the children, but to their members who are competent, if not outstanding.

Wake up, unions. Covering for the incompetent is destroying your credibility and your ability to defend your stronger members. Start being an advocate for education, not mediocrity.

Time to Rethink Conservatism

Interesting quote from Mark Morford on The San Francisco Chronicle’s website made me think about the sorry state of conservative thought in America.

The GOP, on the other hand, sucks hard from the teat of ignorant extremism, splashes gleefully in the shallow mud puddles of Sarah Palin’s battered grammar, draws much of its power from the worst the human spectacle has to offer. Simply put, the modern Republican Party would not exist without its army of high school dropouts drunk on Rush Limbaugh and sexual dread. It’s not difficult to imagine “Burn a Quran Day” becoming a new Texas state holiday.

Yes, it’s progressive demagoguery at its finest, but the meta-message for those of us disaffected conservatives should ring true. The GOP has gone from being what I would consider thoughtfully conservative (in the wilderness years of the late 1970s) to populist reactionary.

The only way to stop the polarization of the nation is for conservatives to begin taking the high ground again. That does not mean defending ideas that belong in the same historical dustbin as racial segregation, isolationism, and laissez-faire, nor does it mean defining a political movement by what one does not believe.

It does mean laying out a fabric of ideas that provoke thought, debate, and careful consideration that offer a way forward in the 21st Century, but that do not divorce themselves from the values laid forth in the founding documents.

There are many flavors of progress. The progressive side of the political spectrum has had a chance to advance theirs (although, I have to say in all fairness, they probably didn’t get a full chance, given that their agenda has been hijacked by a self-interested party apparatus.) It is now time for some more flowers to bloom, for a new school of thought to contend with the progressive vision.

And may the best vision win. But that can only happen when there is a didactic in the nation that rises above naked populism and political opportunism.

The New Fiscal Conservatism

The new fiscal conservatism is matching every dollar spent with a dollar of revenue, and the wise, careful, and effective expenditure of the public treasure.

Independent Fiscal Conservatism does not mean being opposed to taxes. Outright opposition to taxes qua taxes is appropriate only for an anarchist. A patriot understands that nothing worthwhile is cheap…or free.

But spending public funds for the private good or allowing money raised from the people to be wasted for lack of appropriate care, however, is unacceptable. Waste, inefficiency, and entitlement are what we should fight.

No, Government is Not a Business

Government wastes money. Some of that is unavoidable. A degree of wastage is implicit in every human endeavor. Efficiency is essential, but it cannot become an obsession in any human enterprise whose goal is the betterment of society.

So much to the chagrin of businesspeople like me, you cannot run a government like a business.

That does not mean, however, that you cannot or should not hold individuals and institutions to account. Every dollar spent in the public interest needs to be assessed as to its benefit and its opportunity cost.

The Reality of Fiscal Conservatism

Fiscally conservative is a code word in the popular American mind for cautious spending on social programs and regulatory enforcement, but utter profligacy with tax cuts and a silent enablement of shockingly bad defense procurement spending.

True fiscal conservatism is program- neutral. It insists in a dollar or more of revenue for every dollar spent.

Libertarians

My problem with Libertarians is that greater liberty is not the answer to every political and social conundrum. A careful reading of our history suggests that the consensual surrender of some human freedoms builds a bulwark against chaos.

There is, naturally, a fine line. But a dogmatic devotion to as much liberty as possible is as dangerous as a dogmatic devotion to security, to stability, and to the pursuit of happiness.