Driving Into Regulations; The NTSB’s Push To Ban Electronic Device Usage

               In the midst of the occupy movement, a crumbling infrastructure, a lopsided
income tax system, and a crippled educational system, be prepared for a fight
that comes much closer to home, an initiative bent on taking one of our most
basic and necessary rights away from us: the ability to talk and drive. I do it.
You do it. But now, the National Transportation Safety Board has called for a
nation-wide ban on the use of personal electronic devices while driving,
including cell phones, and this push is finding support amongst law enforcement
and insurance companies.

               I’m no libertarian, for the most part, and I’m all in favor of government
regulations. Where would we be without the FDA? Hell, I even find some redeeming
factors in there being a National Transportation Safety Board, but this is too
much. The government, funded but not regulated by US citizens, is a referee, not
our overbearing parent. Not too long ago, California passed a law that forced
Californians to switch to hands free devices or risk being fined. More recently,
texting and driving bans began to sweep the country. Now, we face an all out ban
on making and receiving calls in the one place where we really don’t have
anything better to do., especially if you’ve ever been stuck in LA traffic.

               NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman asserted that  “No call, no text, no update is
worth a human life.” The same could be said about a doughnut or cigarette break,
but the bottom line is that it isn’t hers to decide for us. Inevitably, the
conversation then becomes:

“Well Michael, is your life worth a text or call?” 

“Probably not (Deborah), but it’s a risk I’m willing to
take to keep you from hovering over my personal freedom like a hungry bird
eyeing a tasty, vulnerable worm.” 

“Perhaps you won’t be getting yourself into a
fatal talking-and-driving accident, but what about another, more distractable
driver who crashes into your car while on the phone with his parents or
girlfriend? Is that worth your ability to use your phone while you drive?” 

“For the sake of this conversation, yes, absolutely.”

               First of all, anyone who is so distracted by talking into an earpiece that he or
she crashes into my car doesn’t have a problem with talking and driving, they
have a problem with driving. Seriously, if your ability to operate a car is so
critically hindered by using a hands-free device, that would indicate that your
capacity to safely operate a vehicle is already on the verge of deficiency.
Additionally, if you are genuinely concerned for drivers’ safety, then I would
deeply question how forcing them to refuse to pick up calls from their mothers
or significant others is not further endangering their lives. Therein, the
problem is not cell phones (they are considerably easier to operate than a motor
vehicle), it is the questionable standards under which people are granted
driver’s licenses. I, and you also, I’m sure, know or been driven by various
people who should not, absolutely, under any circumstances, be allowed to have a
driver’s license. And yet, they do. Talking and driving does not cause people to
pummel through a farmer’s market, pushing the gas instead of the break, an easy
mistake to make (if you’re senile), people who are granted the ability to drive
by DMV test administrators who base their approvals on how good of a day they
are having do.

               In what world is banning the use of electronic devices safer? Technology has
made cars safer, that’s been a one way road. If the exchange for airbags and
safety standards is talking on a earpiece then it seems like safety still comes
out on top. Is Deborah Hersman suggesting that operating a power window is
somehow less distracting than cranking one open? Is tuning a digital radio less
distracting than trying to operate a record player? Is talking to an earpiece
less distracting than having a passenger in your car? Academic studies suggest
that upwards of 70% of communication is nonverbal, so how can we be less
distracted by having 70% less to look at while we’re having a conversation?

Last I checked, the DMV falls under the category of Transportation Safety. Why
not address the problem at it’s heart? I understand, responsible, effective
change is a bureaucratic nightmare, but is it that hard to give DMV instructors
the ability to deny applicants the right to drive and text based on their
capacity as drivers. DMV Instructor: “So listen [16 year old new driver or
easily distractable senior], your ability to drive a car is proficient at best,
and since you only missed the maximum number of allotted points on your test, I
am going to give you a driver’s license. However, I fear that even the teensiest
distraction will cause you to become a danger to yourself and others, so I am
putting a stamp on your license that restricts you from talking and driving. Try
again next year.”

               So let’s face the real problem, Deborah Hersman. Let’s admit that putting a
band-aid on our civil rights is easier than retraining DMV employees or updating
driver’s license requirements. Once you do that, we can have a whole different
conversation, but until then, keep your band-aids to yourself.

The Double-Edged Sword of American Politics

Michael Vincent, money in politics, congressIt’s almost ironic how often republicans who adhere themselves to the strict language of the Constitution take the liberty to assert that when our founding fathers said “free speech,” what they really meant to say was “paid speech.” It is this unique take on democracy that has gradually, in small stabs and more recently, with the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, in leaps, chipped away at the principle and practice of democratic representation in America.

The idea that corporations that possess a vastly disproportionate amount of resources and wealth while retaining protection of personal assets under the benefits of incorporation offends common sense and begs the question as to how corporations can be people when for every inch of rights and power that corporations gain, people lose an inch of theirs. This raises the issue not of when special interests’ freedom of expression begins and where individuals’ end, but when the rights of individuals are so suffocated that our First Amendment has become a tool used to defeat the populace it was meant to empower. The question now is how to even the playing field. The first step is aggressive campaign finance reform.

One of the biggest obstacles preventing the institutionalization of the kind of campaign reform we need right now is, as Matthew Yglesias, a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund notes, “it’s extraordinarily difficult to get money out of politics in a manner consistent with freedom of association and expression.” In essence, the First Amendment has become the double edged sword of American politics. In its absence, nations like Great Britain have regulations in place to prevent the abuse of association and expression. British campaign finance laws acknowledge that while it is nearly impossible to take money out of politics, it is much simpler to limit how much comes out by placing caps not on campaign donations, but instead on campaign spending. In the US, this type of reform would ensure that while corporations and the wealth of the 1% are able to buy candidates, so are the people themselves.

The problem with implementing this kind of regulation, however, is that it would require some very skillful legal tiptoeing around the First Amendment, but still far less skillful than convincing the Supreme Court that a business with no personal liability is a person. However, all paid speech is still not free speech, and current regulations on paid speech could be expanded to help compensate for the lack of much needed campaign finance reform.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) holds the power to impose fines and regulations on broadcasting companies that use public airwaves, such as requiring networks to air the State of the Union, limiting how much airtime can be used for advertisements during certain times and/or programming hours, or imposing fines for the use of profane words during specific programs.

The same guidelines could be used to limit how much air time can be dedicated to political advertisement, perhaps even by limiting the amount of money broadcasting networks are able to accept from political campaigns, effectively limiting a candidate’s ability to monopolize access to voters’ attention based on his donor’s monetary assets. It may not be a perfect solution, but in the long run, it will help curve the damage and corruption to our political and economic infrastructure if only a little more than disputing whether to fine CBS half a million dollars for Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Superbowl half-time show.

Without aggressive reform, as Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig discusses in his recent book about campaign finance reform, Republic, Lost, Washington will continue to be dominated by a dangerous system of influence that leaves our representatives financially dependent on money from special interest and lobbying groups. Lessig proposes an amendment that would limit how much individuals can donate to candidates for federal office and where the candidates can accept money from. The problems with limiting input is that input can come from anywhere in any number of forms.

Even the most rigorous reforms on campaign donations would be unable to verify every donation and financial source of a candidate’s campaign. However, by placing spending limits on the campaign, the tedious work of affirming individual donations would become irrelevant, and instead, campaigns would be placed on a more even keel that would prevent one from overwhelming the other based solely on monetary resources. This would not prevent individuals from hosting fund-raising dinners any more than it would hamper special interest groups from financing television commercials, but it would force them to do it, in large part, themselves, and not through the campaign. This way, the group or special interest supporting the candidate would be forced to present their support openly to the public, affording a transparency that will allow voters to observe the special interest behind a candidate firsthand, be it a major pharmaceutical company, National Right to Life, or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

In June of 2011, the Justice Policy Institute reported that private prison industries contributed more than $6 million to state politicians in an effort to influence and advance legislation that would put more people in jail. They succeeded with Arizona’s SA 1070, where 30 of the 36 legislators that co-sponsored the controversial immigration law that would increase incarceration rates accepted campaign contributions from private prison companies or lobbyists. Thereafter, the same private prison lobby became involved in efforts to push through legislation in Florida that would effectively privatize all of the prisons in South Florida.

In 2003, lobbying by pharmaceutical companies helped push through the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act, which not only prevents the government from negotiating the price of prescription drugs covered by Medicare with drug companies, but also put a new spin on the word “improvement” and made “modernization” a significantly more daunting term than it was in 2002. As a result, over 60% of government spending on Medicare prescription drugs results in direct profit for pharmaceutical companies, funneling public funds into private hands. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the total political contributions from drug companies, biotech companies, and their trade associates totaled more than $110 million in just the first half of 2009. That adds up to more than $600,000 a day.

In the end, we, as a people and our government, must recognize and differentiate between “free” and “paid” speech. I do not profess to be nearly as well versed in constitutional law as a Supreme Court justice. However, aided only by a dictionary and my personal experience exchanging money for commercial goods and services, it seems flagrantly clear that “free” and “paid” are much closer to being diametric opposed concepts than they are to being synonymous.

I believe in the Constitution, not because it is perfect, perhaps not even because it can be, but because it is designed to be interpreted and applied to help us move forward and build a more perfect union, not a less perfect one. The Constitution represents more than its weight in paper, it is the law of a land built on a passion and righteousness that verged on boyish idealism. But it is perhaps, this same idealism, practical or not, that reminds us of what can happen when we lose sight of our rights and duties as citizens of the United States, to protect our democracy from within as well as from without.

Los Angeles Chinese History Museum, 2011 Exhibits

The halls of the Chinese History Museum are filled with exhibits that tell the story of Chinese immigrants who struggled and sacrificed for the American dream, or more specifically, American citizenship. Within this modest museum lies a great part of a much greater narrative, one about what it means to be an outsider looking in on America and how difficult it is to define and become an American  

.Los Angeles Chinese History Museum, 2011 Exhibits

The museum’s current exhibit is Dreams Deferred, where plaques and paper notes along a wall illustrate a timeline of immigration legislation in the US. Dreams Deferred deals with the less flattering moments in our history by bringing them front and center. A plaque on the wall cites the McCreary Amendment to the Geary Act of 1892, which mandated that all Chinese immigrants carry legal documentation or face deportation or even hard labor, a harsh reminder of the history behind such laws as Arizona’s more recent and controversial Senate Bill 1070.

In the Remembering Angel Island exhibit, we add personal stories to the history, turning discrimination into those who were and are discriminated against in a frank discussion centered around the west coast’s first immigration station, Angel Island, where nearly one million Asian immigrants were processed upon entering the US, some of them held for years at a time. A passport is displayed here, one belonging to Florence See, a nine year old Chinese girl who was detained and interrogated on Angel Island. The passport is provided by Florence’s great aunt, who is an American citizen and author.

Ronald Takaki, an academic and historian whose work focuses on perceptions of Asian Americans, retells in A Different Mirror how a taxi driver once asked him, based on nothing but his complexion, how long he had been in America and then complemented him on his English. Takaki was born in America, he was American and had spoken English his entire life. Takaki discusses how different ethnic groups have all contributed to American society and industry and how non-white minorities are now represented in powerful numbers, especially in Los Angeles.

The pattern of exclusionary practices and views toward immigrants is part of a greater and limited perspective held by American society at large, one that holds historically that whiteness is American-ness, and that only those who are American can define what an American is, maintaining, as Cornel West, civil rights activist and member of Democratic Socialists of America notes, a system wherein discrimination and exclusion through a societal possessive investment in whiteness become not only a historic theme, but a self sustaining system that needs to be broken by expanding the ways in which we view American-ness and begin to decrease our societal moral investment in what it means to be white and non-white.

Even in colonial America, those who were formerly British and newly Americans attempted to exclude Germans and other white Europeans. The meaning of American changed with time and when faced with other ethnicities’ emigration to the US, American became more about race and less about national origin. Now, the meaning of what it is to be American is shifting once more, but, as the exhibitions starkly displayed over the walls of the Chinese History Museum make painfully clear, the shift in how American-ness is viewed is often two steps behind who and what an American is.