Help With Your Property Assessment Appeal

January 29th, 2016 by Phil 2 comments »

Property owners in Jefferson Township can appeal their assessments to the Cook County Board of Review, but only until February 2. Local aldermen have sent out information about how to appeal and a lot of my neighbors have likely received something in the mail. But even with a lot of publicity, the whole thing is still very daunting, and my observation is that most people don’t even consider doing it.

We appealed in 2015. And we won. I would estimate that as a direct result we saved $400-$500 in property taxes for Tax Year 2014. I spent time preparing the appeal, and I did request a hearing, but I did it myself. And for most people, their best available argument is something which requires no hearing. The entire appeal can be done online, and can be done in less than 15 minutes.

But I am taking it a step farther, and making it more realistic for more people to be able to file the simplest kind of appeal. I’m going to explain exactly what this “simple” appeal is, and for many of my most immediate neighbors, I will also provide the information that can help them make such an appeal.

Jefferson Township, for those unaware, includes these community areas: Jefferson Park, Avondale, Logan Square, Hermosa, Forest Glen, Dunning, Albany Park, Portage Park, Irving Park, Montclare, and Belmont-Cragin. That’s a whole lot of you!

Before I go any further, I want to be clear on a couple of points. First, I am not an attorney, and I have no background in real estate, assessment, or anything related. Any and all advice provided here is lay advice only and should not be interpreted as formal legal advice. Second, I am not going to try and explain all of the various reasons why an appeal might be made. I am going to specifically talk about only two, because they are the two which worked for me last year.

The reason I am doing this is because I think a lot of property around me is significantly over-assessed, and I believe that systemic over-assessment of property is a mechanism by which taxing authorities squeeze property owners. If more of my neighbors start filing appeals, I believe that the result will be a slight overall lessening of assessments in the area, which will be good for the collective neighborhood. Assessment and appraisal are not the same thing. In my opinion, it can hurt more than it can help if your property is over-assessed, because that over-assessment may make it less attractive than a comparable property, as it means prospective buyers would have to expect to more in taxes. This is a point on which I think reasonable people can disagree, and for people who disagree with me, I respect where you are coming from. But given that every elected official under the sun encourages people to file appeals, it clearly is not seen as a bad thing by government generally that people will appeal. And the bottom line is, it’s simply being a good neighbor to help people who may not understand how easy it can really be to file.

And one final thing: FILING AN APPEAL IS FREE so long as you file it yourself. There is no filing fee! So it is a no-risk situation.


Appeal Rationale #1: Recent Purchase

This rationale can only be used if you purchased your house since the beginning of 2012, though, so it won’t work for most people. But it is very simple.

If you bought your house for $200,000, and it is now assessed for $230,000, then you are most likely over-assessed, and the Board of Review will agree, and lower your assessment.

When I appealed last year, I requested a hearing, and prepared a lot of documentation. Notably, I had to make a copy of the Bill of Sale on the house, which showed the purchase price and the date. I am not going to go into a lot of detail on that here as I have not gone back and re-researched what documentation needs to be pulled together. What I will say is, the documentation requirements are such that this is not the “simplest” way to appeal. But it is the simplest of arguments, which is why it is such an important one to pursue.

As I go on further below and talk about actually using the Board of Review website, keep in mind there may be additional things you will need to do involving submission of supplementary documentation. As I said above, I’m not a lawyer. I’m not telling you absolutely everything about how to do this. I am just trying to provide more concrete information so that you can be more successful if you choose to do it yourself.


Appeal Rationale #2: Comparable Properties aka Lack of Uniformity

We live on a street that is all Single Family Homes (SFHs) and almost all of a very comparable size (slightly over 1,000 square feet). They’re almost all technically bungalows, but not the classic brick ones; what we have here are a lot of basic A-frame houses dating from the 1920s.

Our house does not have a finished attic or a finished basement. We have central air, but I suspect everyone on the block does, or nearly everyone. Long story short, our house is eminently comparable with the rest of the block, and boasts nothing exceptional that might cause it to sell for substantially more than another house. Therefore, it should be assessed pretty much in line with the rest of the block, or even on the low end, as I know several of the houses do have their attics and/or basements finished, or a deck in the backyard, or other things.

In 2015, I was able to find 6 comparably-sized houses on my block alone which had lower assessments than ours. These included both adjoining houses. So in my appeal, I identified these houses by their PINs (PIN is short for Property Identification Number).

The appeal based on comparable properties, as it so happens, is the easiest type of appeal to file. It requires no additional paperwork and no additional narrative. The argument is based solely on data which the Board of Review has at their fingertips anyway – the assessed values of the other properties. All you have to do is identify relevant properties and submit their PINs.

Here is where I can provide the most help, especially for those of you who live closest to us.

Again, I am not an expert on these matters. I am strictly a layman and my advice should be regarded not as expert advice but rather as common sense advice.

Very generally, there are five things that can make properties especially comparable. First, they are in the same neighborhood, maybe even the same block. Second, they are about the same size, as measured in primary square footage. Third, they are in about the same shape maintenance wise. Fourth, they are about the same age. Fifth, they have about the same amenities, especially things like a garage, a deck, a finished basement, a finished attic, a similar number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc. None of these things should come as a surprise. If your property is sufficiently comparable to another, and the other property is assessed lower, the determination can be made that a “Lack of Uniformity” has been found, and upon that basis, your assessment can be lowered.

I was able to gather all of the information I needed from the Cook County Assessor’s Website. Choose “Property Address Search”. For House Number, enter your hundred block, say 1000. For House Range, enter the last possible number of your hundred block, say 1099. The rest is pretty straight-forward. You don’t need to select a Property Class and you may be better off not selecting one and instead seeing absolutely everything, for reasons I’ll get into below.

Now, you can also enter a range that spans multiple blocks, say from 1000 to 1499. Or you can choose some other street. In any case, if you use valid search criteria, you will get a list of properties with their PINs, Addresses, Property Classes, and Assessed Values. Remember, Assessed Value needs to be multiplied by 10 to get Fair Market Value. So if you see an Assessed Value of $24,000, it really means that the Assessor’s Office guesses your property is worth $240,000.

Each PIN is also a hyperlink. Click through and you’ll see a picture of the property with a lot more details about it. Now, you know your immediate neighborhood better than I do (hopefully!) You may not even need this deeper information. If you live on a row of little brick bungalows and you know the houses are all reasonably comparable, then, well, you already know it.

What you would be looking for here is to find multiple nearby properties which are superficially comparable to yours, and which have lower assessments. By “superficially comparable” what I mean is that even without deep digging, you know that they’re close, of a similar size, most likely of a similar age (since most houses on most streets tend to be of a similar age anyway), and even most likely in similar shape with similar amenities. If there was a house on your block which had been gutted by a fire in the last couple of years, you’d know it (again, hopefully!) and would understand to exclude that one.

It may be that you need to look beyond your immediate block. This is where the whole process can get very tedious, and this is where I can be of particular help.

This link sends you to an Excel file. That Excel file includes a listing of 4,171 distinct properties in Jefferson Park and Portage Park, all of which are within or nearly within the street from the primary attendance footprint of Prussing Elementary School, which looks like this:

Instead of having to conduct a bunch of different searches on the Assessor’s website, you can just take the spreadsheet and slap some filters and sorts on it. It may be easiest to sort by Street Name, then Street Number; and to simultaneously filter for the two most similar property types. Or filter by Street Name (select a couple of relevant ones) and also Property Class, and then sort by Assessed Value.

I want to stress here that I have not “captured” any bad or illegal or improper information. All of this was readily available on the Assessor’s website. It took me a total of maybe 90-120 minutes of work to compile all of the data in this manner. Anyone who has read on this far must be serious enough about wanting to appeal their assessments that they would have been likely to find the exact same information themselves. But here it is easier to sort, easier to make sense of. This is the piece which I think can take it over the top and make it so that a person on the fence about whether it would be too difficult to do all of this can actually just do it for themselves.

It was much too difficult to try and grab more than I grabbed. The Prussing footprint made a lot of sense to me, though, because a) all of the properties feed into the same school, which makes them very comparable in that respect; and b) this is where I live and the people I hope will be best able to take advantage of this information will be my closest neighbors!

It is not a bad idea, if you have identified 10 or so properties which you feel may satisfy the comparability parameters, to go back to the Assessor’s website and enter the PIN numbers directly and make sure there’s not something weird about them. For example, I have noticed in looking through the list several situations where a single house actually lies on two lots, and although it has only one address, it somehow has two PINs. That’s not going to be comparable for most people. You also need to make sure the Property Class is the same or at least very similar.

One other word on Property Class. Our house is a 2-03 meaning a SFH between 1,001 and 1,800 square feet. But it’s way at the low end of that. A 2-02 house with 950 square feet is more comparable than a 2-03 house with 1,100 square feet. That said, it’s super unlikely that a house much larger than ours could possibly be assessed for less than ours. It’s people with houses in the 950 sq ft range who might find nearby houses in the 1050 sq ft range which have lower assessments.

And also another word about the spreadsheet. I included ALL properties, not just SFHs, so a lot of condos, and some retail, and some other weird stuff wound up in there. Don’t make the mistake of comparing your SFH against a condo, or a parking lot, or anything weird like that!


Filing Your Appeal Online

There may be very good reasons to NOT completely file your appeal online so just because I am going to explain how easy such filing is doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to do it. With that said, if the extent of what you’re trying is the Comparable Properties rationale, filing online could very well be all you need, and the whole filing process might be super fast.

The body that takes appeals right now is called the Cook County Board of Review. This is all they do: review assessments.

The Board of Review offers Filing Procedures online. If you want to be really thorough, read what’s on these pages. I did last year, and so I wound up taking pictures of the other comparable properties. That’s a more impressive approach, one that they’ll pay more attention to. You don’t absolutely have to do all of that, but especially if you’re going to prepare a more thorough argument, do it by their book.

Note that February 2 is the deadline for filing a complaint. It is not the final deadline for submitting all evidence. If however you are only going to submit a list of comparable properties and just want to do the whole thing online up front, then it is my understanding that you should do that at the time of filing the complaint.

In terms of the very basics, start with the Appeals Page. You can create an account or you can file as a guest. Then click on Submit Appeal. Enter your PIN and mark your appeal type as “Property Over-Assessed” – an easy choice since it’s the only one available.

As you go through the steps, you will wind up at a Notes Page. On this page you can enter the PINs of Comparable Properties. The language there says simply “List comparable property index numbers (PIN’s) below, or provide additional comments regarding your submission.” So you are not expected at this stage to provide any more detailed information about those properties, as the Filing Procedures information might appear to suggest.

I went ahead and filed my complaint online on Thursday night. I provided a list of 6 comparable properties – though because I already won an appeal from the Assessor’s Office, it turns out that we’re already on the low end of assessments of comparable properties in the area.

But I also checked the box to say I would be filing additional documents. One nice thing about the online process is that you can submit documents online without having to mail them in or go in for a hearing. What I’ll be submitting – and this is admittedly unusual and not what most people would be able to do right now – is a scan of an appraisal done on house in mid-2015. You can also file other documents online if you have them – this could include paperwork related to your house purchase if it’s within the last 4 years.

In 2015 I requested a hearing. My hearing lasted about 2 minutes. After waiting in line for a while, when I got up to the counter, my hearing was with an employee of the Board of Review, and basically consisted of me handing over paperwork, providing a synopsis of what was in the paperwork, and answering a couple of perfunctory questions about the appeal (i.e. was my house bought in the last four years, such that an appeal based on the price of sale would make sense.) The employee did no evaluation at that time, except to say that if all I was telling him was true, I would likely be getting my assessment lowered. And he was right. But having gone through one in-person hearing, I am disinclined to go through another, not because it was difficult or tedious, but because the hearing itself was so insubstantial that I personally feel comfortable just filing my documentation online. Now, it might well be that you’re better off for having an in-person hearing. I can’t tell you for sure. I can only say that I feel comfortable this year without one.


More on My Thinking

It may seem like this was a lot of writing and a lot of effort to just explain something esoteric to people. I want to here expand on a couple of my thoughts above and explain more about my motivation to try and help people with all of this.

Based on my past bills and the knowledge that property tax rates are going up, I conservatively estimate that for every additional $10,000 of assessed value, a homeowner carrying the homestead exemption will pay an additional $200 in annual property taxes. (As an aside – if you own the home you live in and you do NOT have the homestead exemption – MAKE SURE YOU ADDRESS THIS! Look it up! It will save you a lot of money because there is a significant tax break for people who own the home they live in. A lot of people overlook this.)

I mention above that my own appeal this year is based largely on a recent appraisal. Even though I was successful in getting the Assessor’s Office to lower our assessment already, I still feel our assessment is too high, and I feel the appraisal bears this out. Our house was appraised for $210,000. Our current (reduced) assessment is just about $220,000. That’s a difference of $10,000, which I think will translate into about $200 a year in taxes.

Here’s the thing. The assessment is conceptually supposed to be pegged to the Fair Market Value (FMV) of the house. It is super unrealistic for the Assessor’s Office to go around and evaluate every house individually for its FMV. So what they do is they take the old assessment, and if it’s a year in which your township is being reassessed, they come up with some formula by which to raise the assessments of a lot of comparable properties.

I did some investigating and found that on my block, the Assessor’s Office simply raised everybody’s assessment by 8%. Now, it might very well be the case that the FMV of houses on my block has legitimately increased 8% in the last three years. But what if the block had been overassessed in the first place?

See, we bought our house in 2011 for $195,000. That was near the bottom of the market, so it makes sense that it has appreciated since. Indeed, our appraisal was for $210,000. That’s an increase of 7.7% – pretty much in line with the multiplier the Assessor’s Office used.

But our house was clearly overassessed as of the time we bought it, because we paid less for it than the assessed value. This makes sense, of course, since it was near the bottom of the market at the time. Assessments are very inexact are only done every 3 years. A neighborhood can get very hot very quickly. It can also get very cold, if the local school collapses, or there’s a rash of crime, or something like that.

My feeling, though, is that my entire block is overassessed. Now, real estate isn’t my gig. I don’t closely follow local purchase prices. But I did notice that the very next block over wasn’t subject to the same 8% increase as my block. And the homes on that block are worth more – they tend to be brick, slightly newer, etc. And the Assessor’s Office frankly agrees with me; after all, they did lower our assessment from what they had originally come up with, which strongly suggests that some of my neighbors on my block could at least get a similar reduction.

If I thought every house on this block could definitely fetch in sale what it’s assessed at, I would just say okay, it’s all good. And believe me, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong. The real estate site Trulia, using whatever bizarre metrics it uses, estimates the value of our house at $250,000 – way more than any other number I’ve seen. If I could legitimately get $250,000 for the house by selling it tomorrow, then I would accept paying taxes appropriate to such a valuation today. (I won’t say happily pay, because all of our property taxes should be slashed in favor of a state income tax increase – but that’s an argument for another time and day!)

I have heard the argument that if all of the assessments were lowered that it would also in the process sink the price people could get for their homes. I don’t know enough about the real estate market to completely refute this, so my argument should be regarded in that light. But I can say that we did not consider the assessment when we bought our house. We considered the purchase price (because we were operating within a budget) and we considered the appraisal. My feeling is that the market itself will correct for most incorrect assessments, and only if given assessments are very wildly off would there be an issue.

Consider this: What if we spent $20,000 this year and got our basement completely refinished and did some other work besides? For the sake of argument, let’s say that such improvements would make the house worth $20,000 more on the open market. But would it actually impact our assessment? In the short term, certainly not, because the house won’t be reassessed again for another three years. Even then, it’s not like anyone from the Assessor’s Office is going to come take a look at our basement. It’s very clear to me that many properties do not have up to date amenities on file with the Assessor and it’s unrealistic to expect that they would. Is the Assessor’s Office’s failure to take account of our substantial interior improvements likely to hurt our Fair Market Value when it comes time to sell the house? I can’t remotely imagine a real estate agent trying to sell our property telling us we can’t sell it for more because we haven’t been adequately reassessed lately.

The point is that the assessment process is necessarily just a bunch of guessing. Maybe that 8% increase in property valuation isn’t totally unrealistic, but maybe the starting point simply wasn’t right, and they can’t account for things like the higher demand for certain amenities that we don’t have (like a finished basement or finished attic?)

It’s not that I think we and our neighbors should be able to shirk on taxes relative to the next block or neighborhood or whatever. Rather, I feel that the taxation system we operate under is so arbitrary – and maybe so necessarily arbitrary – that it is not only appropriate but indeed desirable to have a neighborhood or especially a block fighting together for fairer taxation. It’s not going to hurt our neighborhood school, the money for which comes from a much larger pool. And it’s not going to hurt our ultimate selling prices, for those of us who do eventually sell.

Again, I freely admit, I might be wrong about some of this. But I would submit that many elected officials strongly encourage homeowners to appeal their assessments. That’s a tacit acknowledgment of the arbitrary nature of the whole model, isn’t it?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone on my block could save just a little bit – maybe as little as $50 a year – and then turn around and apply those savings to something like having a really awesome block party every year? That kind of thing would enhance the value of our neighborhood, and not just in a monetary way. As the neighborhood gets stronger, it will have a carryover effect in making our elementary school stronger as well. Yes, the eventual outcome of all this would be that our properties would actually be worth more, and we’d wind up more highly assessed as a result. But that would all be because this had become an even better place to live. Surely that’s a goal worth striving for.

I hope this long-winded explanation of the appeals process can be of use to people, especially people close to me. Maybe even in a small way, it can be a catalyst for a stronger neighborhood. At the very least, if it helps to empower just one family to pursue an appeal, and they ultimately win, this has all been worth it. Chicago is a great place to live in a lot of respects, but it is often a terribly disempowering place. Democracy, schools, neighborhoods, blocks – all of these things are better served when people are more empowered.

 

Borgen and Government and Being Green

January 22nd, 2016 by Phil No comments »

Over the past weekend I finished watching the final season of Borgen. For those of you unfamiliar, Borgen is the Danish word for Government, and the show is three seasons long focusing on how Danish government – and media – function. It might sound like a snoozer from the description, but it’s among the best shows I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it. (Yes, you have to deal with subtitles. The show is in Danish!)

Denmark has repeatedly been at or near the top of the list of places where people are happiest. It’s also a destination country for migrants who don’t look particularly Danish. The show dealt with that, with Denmark’s role in a broader global climate, and so forth. But it mostly dealt with how a fairly healthy multi-party democracy can function.

It’s hard to get into it in too much detail without spoiling big chunks of it, but it’s a non-spoiler to say that the central character is a Prime Minister from the Moderate Party, which in the context of imagined Danish politics is a “centrist” party, centrist in Denmark meaning something profoundly to the left of the Democrats in the U.S.

The parties represented in the government are, sort of from right to left: Freedom, New Right, Liberal, Moderate, Labor, Greens, Solidarity. It’s not really a precise right-to-left lineup, but it’s presented in a highly coherent way to a U.S. audience, and if you just understand that the main party of the right are the Liberals, whose policies are very similar to the Democrats in the U.S., then the alignments should fairly readily make sense.

If you get beyond the mutli-party dimensions and so forth, though, and compare it to our system – and of course recognizing this is all a fictionalized account – the main thing that stands out in terms of what’s presented is that government is supposed to be a place where people pursue policies, then build support around those policies, and then go get them passed if they can. There’s a process involved that is suspiciously like how one might expect representative democracy to have been conceptually intended to function.

Our own governments at most levels function nothing like that. Legislation is typically generated by fiat, money dictates the particulars of the language that gets pushed, and there is little to no working across party lines.

Even the “extreme” parties presented – the Freedom Party (which is sort of analogous to the Tea Party) and Solidarity (which I suppose is sort of analogous to some sort of Socialist formation) – are still involved in working across party lines and from time to time forming unusual alliances.

The “opposition” – which as the show opens up are the right-wing parties, as the Moderates lead a center-left coalition – are not presented as mere oppositionalists. They are involved in dialogue, often via the media. Nobody is so far at the edge that they’re reduced to pure oppositionalist screaming from the sidelines. It’s a mostly proportional system, therefore if you have enough support, you’ll get at least one MP.

Having watched the whole thing has given me a lot of reason to pause and consider what I have been doing over time and what might be possible given the structural problems with the system in the U.S. If we had a proportional system, the Greens might very well have been placing people in government over the last decade. But because we don’t have a proportional system, the Green Party is both formally marginalized (since it is not in government at all) and indirectly marginalized (people won’t get involved because it’s not in government) and then internally marginalized (because of its outsider status, outsiderism and oppositionalism become badges of honor, things to be cherished, which effectively precludes working with anyone in government ever, only reinforcing how marginal everything is.)

It is that oppositionalism – by which I mean a de facto policy of simply being opposed to the system because it is the system – and the way that it has manifested itself which I think explains a great deal of the long decline of the Green Party in the U.S. At one point I think more people involved were genuinely serious about being in government and working within government. But now I see that many people who have been involved in the party over time never really wanted to do anything like this. It’s much like some of the socialist formations in the U.S., perhaps most notably the ISO, in just being opposed to everything that’s actually happening. This in turn explains why there’s a lot of internal purity tests and so forth. And it also sort of demonstrates that a Green elected to an especially high government position would have a very hard time functioning, because he or she would be under attack from other Greens for ever trying to get anything done with anyone else.

I don’t consider what the Green Party has become to be tenable. The concept of the Green Party is still mostly right to me, but so much has gone wrong, and the denial is so thick, that it is extremely unlikely to be a formation which will actually meaningfully challenge the status quo. It’s not enough to me to stand on principle outside of everything which is going on. The planet does not get saved by people who choose to be on the sidelines.

I grant that what I’m saying sounds suspiciously like what people have said to me before, about how if you want to see policy change, you need to actually get somewhere where you can impact it, etc. That’s not lost on me. When I talk about “choosing to be on the sidelines” though, the distinction I’m drawing is between the party I’ve spent so long trying to build up into an actual player, and what I feel it is now, an entity where people no longer make serious attempts to recruit candidates – and worse, where nobody seems to be very bothered by the fact that there are almost no candidates. We haven’t had a single candidate for state legislature on the ballot in Illinois since 2010, and I feel like this is an extreme embarrassment, but most people who I would consider to be Green leaders just don’t see it that way.

My preference would be to see the party wake up and evolve and find a new coherent path which involves trying to function within the context of a highly dysfunctional government. The government badly needs more people involved who are sincere about trying to get positive things done, and I don’t just mean as elected officials. I’m also talking about “community leaders” here, people who actually interface with their aldermen and legislators and so forth. Unfortunately, my preference doesn’t seem to be shared by a sufficient number of people. We’re at the point now where I think on the whole people are more concerned with the Green Party being some kind of personal political safe place where they can feel good about standing for the right things, implicitly suggesting that they know they have no access to power, and – most importantly – through such an implicit suggestion, essentially conceding that they are in a certain sense okay with it all. I’m not saying that, ultimately, they really are okay with it all. But once you reach a place of helplessness, I suppose it means something to at least be able to hold on to the idea of being right.

Well, I’m not okay with it all. And so I have been trying to think through a different path. I don’t really like the idea that there are Democrats and then there are “Progressive Democrats” or “Independent Democrats” because I’ve seen too many times how people in one of those self-defining categories just serve to reinforce the dominant status quo through much of what they do. I also don’t much care for the concept of being an Independent, because it literally means not self-identifying with anything in particular.

There is also the old idea that there needs to be a Democratic equivalent of the Tea Party – not in terms of policy, but in terms of role relative to the party. I understand the thinking and I don’t think it should be totally dismissed. But the success of the Tea Party (which of course isn’t a party at all) has too much to do with money and how Tea Party types have been exploited along the way. I don’t think that’s the right model, although something which superficially looks similar might work. (I know some people would say, well, how about the Working Families Party? To that I say, what we need here is not a quasi front group.)

Without dwelling on it too much, there is a concept called “fusion” in some states, most notably New York, where a candidate can run on multiple ballot lines. This isn’t going to happen in the rest of the country, though. And it’s worth pointing out that the Green Party in New York has long been adamantly opposed to fusion.

One state that offers a variant on fusion, though, is Vermont. Vermont has a coherent, functional, state-level third party – the Progressive Party – which actually boasts several elected state legislators, and with which a certain U.S. Senator is closely aligned. Now, I already said that fusion isn’t arriving anywhere else. And Vermont is maybe not the very best place to look for a political model which can be used across the country. And yet…

When I was at the Left Politics forum in Chicago several months ago, which for me was mostly dispiriting, one thing which stood out was when one of the people from the Vermont Progressive Party talked about how the mechanics of how Bernie Sanders has run for office. I don’t fully understand the relevant Vermont laws here, but the concept as I understand it is that Bernie essentially runs in the Democratic primary, wins the Democratic nomination, but then declines it, and uses a separate mechanism to get on the ballot as an Independent. In this manner, he appears on the ballot as an Independent; there is technically no Democratic candidate; and there is technically no Progressive candidate. It’s a method that is simply not available in most states, but as the VPP representative explained it, the peculiarities of Vermont law allowed for a situation where Bernie could actually function as a nominal Independent, even while de facto being the Democratic candidate as well.

In turn, the reality is that Bernie Sanders has at least some kind of legitimate chance of winning the Democratic nomination for President, even though he is still regarded as a nominal Independent in Vermont. He had to do something to become a technical Democrat (though I’m not sure precisely what that action was), but as I’ve previously written about, there was no other real mechanism for someone like him to run for President anyway. And even if he ultimately fails – and the odds are still strongly against him, just no longer staggeringly so – I think he’s gotten far enough to prove that this was the right thing to do and the right way to do it, at least generally speaking. It is the aftermath of his campaign which will really tell how “right” this all has really been – if absolutely nothing comes of the campaign then what? – but I think to pre-conclude that his losing will consign the legacy of the campaign to the kind of irrelevance with which we now regard the likes of Dennis Kucinich is at this point somewhere between spiteful and ignorant.

Some of my erstwhile Green colleagues may be loathe to admit it, but circumstances have changed. There are sitting aldermen in Chicago today who we should be happy to stand with. There are candidates running as Democrats against Machine types here in Chicago who are eminently worthy of support. And to suggest that we should not be voting for them because they’re Democrats, when Greens are literally not running anyone at all for any such offices… I don’t see how such a position can be defended anymore. I am mindful here of Peter Camejo’s strident imploration to NEVER VOTE FOR THESE PEOPLE EVER AGAIN. But “these people” were different in 2004. Today, while I think the vast majority of elected officials who call themselves Democrats are somewhere on the spectrum from lousy to horrific, the reality is that a decent and maybe even a growing number are not. The electorate is evolving, even though it’s happening at a time where there is not a strong third party for the evolving electorate to identify with. Some people may deny that, but, as I’ve painfully found in recent years, Greens are especially good at denial.

I’ve fought and fought and fought over time to put the Green Party on the course I thought it should be on. Anyone who would try to belittle what I’m saying now by claiming I’m not pitching in or not working for the change I want to see is choosing to ignore what I’m saying and choosing to ignore my body of work over time. The Green Party I tried to build is clearly not possible at this time, and continuing to fight for it in the same old ways is the kind of repetition-as-stupidity that we have long tried to pillory Democratic voters for. Instead of perpetuating the fight, instead of continuing to put myself through the agony of horrible meetings, I will attempt to blaze a new path and lead by example.

It is time to accept that Greens will not be running a lot of candidates – and in so doing, to also accept that there may be people running as Democrats who are worthy of support. And, beyond that, to actually support them.

It is time to accept that a person can put themselves out as a Green and still work with people from other parties. We have to deal with legislators and aldermen and others. We have to deal with them as reasonable people, not grit our teeth through the process. We have to actually do things community leaders should be doing, like rallying people to contact those elected officials about important legislation, instead of blowing off such political work on the grounds that no Democrat (or Republican) would listen anyway. These people aren’t automatons. They will be responsive to their constituents about things that you might not otherwise expect. Let’s embrace that instead of dismissing that.

And beyond all that, I think the party itself should embrace these positions as well. For a very long time I have adamantly maintained that the Green Party should not be endorsing candidates in other party’s primaries. Well, I’ve changed my mind. If the Green Party has no intention of fielding a candidate for a given office, and if there is a particularly vital primary for that office which everyone knows is the de facto real election, then the truly appropriate thing to do is take a position. The best example at hand is the Cook County State’s Attorney’s race. Kim Foxx may or may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we all know what Anita Alvarez is, and if the party is willing to take the position that Alvarez should resign, then it should be willing to take the position that people who are going to vote in the Democratic primary anyway should be voting for Foxx. That doesn’t mean that this should necessarily happen. Maybe closer examination of Foxx’s questionnaires reveals someone who isn’t truly worthy of an endorsement. My point is, narrowly, that the party should be willing to consider such an endorsement. Maybe this doesn’t sound like so much of a stretch to some, but from me, it’s a huge break, and reflects a very different vantage point about the party.

In short, I no longer think it makes sense to talk about the Green Party in terms that it could or should be another major party. Maybe such a goal is realistic at some much later date. This may seem like a strange analogy, but I think one which kind of works is one involving the English Football Association. There are 20 Premier League teams, and then 20 teams in the Championship League, and then there is a League One, and then there is a League Two. It is very difficult to imagine most teams which are currently in League Two winding up in the Premier League at any point – they have nowhere near the financial resources, they play to much smaller crowds, the best players will always go sign somewhere else. But sometimes a squad can actually get promoted in a hurry. Bournemouth was almost relegated completely out of the Football League in 2009. Then in 2010 they were promoted from League Two to League One. Two years later, they were promoted from League One to the Championship League. Two years after that, they won the Championship League, and are now in the Premier League for the first time. A dynamic coach, a dynamic bunch of young players coming together, maybe some lucky breaks here and there… this sort of stuff can happen. But it can’t happen to an entity like the Green Party which is hardly doing anything at all. Resetting expectations does not mean resetting permanent expectations. But refusing to change anything means permanent irrelevance.

Still, it’s not an internal argument I’m likely to win. So as I said above, my choice is to lead by example instead. If there are candidates running as Democrats who are sincerely worthy of support, then they will have my support. I’m thinking here of people like Jac Charlier, running for 15th State Representative against an ultimate Machine Democrat in John D’Amico.

I’m sure all of this feels a long way afoot from my having started writing about a Danish television program. But inspiration can come in a lot of different ways. For me, the vital takeaway from Borgen is that things change when people get involved in processes which can lead to change. It may not always be clear which processes those are, but when it becomes obvious that what you’re doing is not affecting any change, then you need to evaluate what your principles actually are. If your desire is to a principled oppositionalist, then you and I simply don’t have that much in common. My desire is to be affect change in a principled way, and I refuse to accept that there is no way to do so.

I am a proud member of the Green Party, but I will no longer engage in internal actions which have no hope of accomplishing anything. One of the Ten Key Values is Personal and Global Responsibility, and I find nothing responsible about bashing one’s head endlessly into a wall. Those of us who are serious about affecting change, and who very well understand that societal change requires governmental change, and who further understand that the Green Party is not currently equipped to lead the way in affecting such governmental change, should join together to find a different path that exults the Ten Key Values. The Green Party can still play an important role, and may one day be again poised to play an even more important role. But we came together in the name of lofty ideals like Social Justice, Non-Violence, Ecological Wisdom, and Grassroots Democracy, not in the name of doing the same thing endlessly and hoping it would turn out different. To respect what the Green Party stands for requires that even if the party itself will not evolve, those of who self-identify Green will evolve nevertheless.

Yes, Rahm Can Still Be Recalled

January 5th, 2016 by Phil No comments »

Today’s big news was that Governor Rauner came out in favor of LaShawn Ford’s recall bill. But the way the press picked up on it… let’s just say that some of them whiffed.

Let’s take the Sun-Times article first. Rauner said he hasn’t studied HB4356, but based on what he knows about, he’d sign it. Then he is quoted as saying that he would be “broadly supportive of the recall concept in general for all elected officials in the state.”

Two and a half weeks ago, this is what I said:

Rauner might even find it politically expedient to champion broader recall provisions, including ones that could ultimately make even himself subject to recall.

Now, I forgot at that point that gubernatorial recall actually had been snuck in to the Illinois Constitution in the aftermath of the Blagojevich mess. Bad on me there. But I got it right that Rauner would support recall, and I wasn’t just stabbing in the dark with that.

Now, Greg Hinz has his own theories about Rauner’s motivations. I’d say he’s got it mostly right. Importantly, Hinz nails the nuance in Rauner’s remark about the applicability of the law, and it’s something people really ought to pay closer attention to.

Back to the Sun-Times article first. Mark Brown wrote there: “Rauner said he has been advised any such legislation could not apply to current elected officials. That might tamp down the implication that he was taking a swipe at Emanuel, but you know that Emanuel doesn’t want the Legislature to pass such a bill.”

Then there’s the AP article which Crain’s picked up on. It just blandly states, off the top, that Rauner “says the law wouldn’t apply to Rahm Emanuel.”

But Hinz sees through it. He knows that it’s an open legal question as to whether the recall provision could apply to Emanuel. If the bill passes as is, and recall proceedings actually take off, then the whole mess will wind up in court. For a long time. And that will be terrible for Emanuel. Not as bad, you might argue, as being recalled. But it would involve an extremely expensive, extremely ugly, neverending public spectacle. It would cripple Emanuel’s ability to get much of anything of substance done. And that may very well be Rauner’s point… just like Hinz suggests.

Meanwhile, HB4356 has picked up three more sponsors… all of them suburban Republicans. Pat Quinn came out in favor of recall. More importantly, so did Lisa Madigan. And the General Assembly overplayed its hand when it put forward the constitutional amendment which allows for recalling the Governor without mentioning anyone else. Ford’s bill practically copies the language from the gubernatorial recall provision verbatim. This means that the General Assembly thinks recall is fine conceptually, right?

So this bill is not going to be killed off any time soon. It faces a more difficult road in the Senate, because John Cullerton is a much closer ally of Emanuel, but what’s being set up right now is a coalition of Republicans who want to please Rauner, Chicago Democrats who want to flaunt their independence, and… it won’t take a whole lot of other people. And while the reasons people might rally around recall might be to pursue their own agendas, in the end, recall should always be a fundamental democratic right.

In the wake of Rauner’s statement, look for more Republican co-sponsors, and look for more Chicago Democrats as well. Often bills like this would get assigned to Rules and buried there, but if that happens now, it will be blatant case of Michael Madigan protecting Emanuel. His best bet may be to let it squeak out of the House and then die in the Senate, if he and Cullerton are pretty sure that can happen. But can they really be sure?

This isn’t going away.

On Being Healthier, Losing Weight, Numbers, etc.

January 2nd, 2016 by Phil 1 comment »

In August 2014, I weighed about 184 pounds. Today, 16 months later, I weigh 159.

My one resolution for 2015 was to run a 5K. I did this, in late September, running it in 30:24. Then in mid-November I ran a second 5K, and my time went down to 24:54.

I’ve learned a lot over this time that I think could be helpful, inspirational, and/or cautionary to others. Now, I won’t claim to be an expert on being healthy. I’m not writing this from the “here’s what you need to know” perspective. Rather, I’m writing from the “here’s what I think you might be interested to know” perspective. Nominal experts might disagree with some of what I write. And you might too. And that’s okay by me.

Before I get into the specifics, I want to note three things. First, weight is not some sort of end-all be-all number, and I’m not going to claim it is. Rather, it is a very simple benchmark, a figure which allows for some sort of imperfect quantification of “how much healthier” a person has become. It’s been very useful to me, but as I’ll explain below, there are some very real potential problems with it.

Second, I didn’t do anything exotic. This is a story primarily about fairly ordinarily diet and exercise, or at least I think it is. It’s because of the “regularness” of the story that I think it’s worth sharing.

Third, I want to note a bit about my methodology. I will weigh myself in the morning before I eat or take a shower, as doing so gives me the best apples-to-apples comparison (i.e., no fluxuations in terms of how much my clothes weigh, or time of day, or how much I’ve eaten on a given day, etc.) I also think less in terms of how much I weigh on a given morning and more in terms of what my average weight has been for the last couple of mornings. My weight can potentially be +/- 5 pounds over the course of a given week. Eat a lot one day, eat little a different day, it makes a difference. Thinking in terms of a moving average levels that out, and keeps a person from freaking out too much about being +/- 3 pounds on a given day.

Officially, I’m 6′ tall, though I’d probably need my winter boots on to pull that off. Over perhaps the last 5 years, my average weight has probably been somewhere around 180. My peak weight of 209 came about 17 years ago when I was in grad school. I definitely weigh less today than at any time since high school.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 12 years. I’ve never been a smoker. I’ve never been a heavy alcohol drinker. Those are all kind of baseline things to know.

I know I was about 184 in August 2014 because that’s when I came up with a half-conceived plan for steady weight loss. I wasn’t huge and I wasn’t thinking “Oh crap, I have to get healthy.” But I was thinking, well, I’ve got an infant at home, and I’m in my later 30s, and I simply have to get in shape if I’m going to be chasing him around.

That initial plan kind of went nowhere. I tried to start running a little that August / September. There was one particular day in October where I ran outside and thought I’d done pretty well. Then the next day my body kind of fell apart. I had crazy joint pain, was very weak. Whatever exactly that was at that point, it degraded into a sinus infection. I wound up having numerous sinus infections over the course of the winter and into the spring of 2015. All of this could have demoralizing to the point of not getting anywhere, but two things kept me driven throughout this. First, that 5K resolution was intended to be a very tangible goal, not to be sloughed off. Second, I was adamant about being in shape for Dylan.

At some point in the spring, I finally got to where the sinus infections were less frequent, and the weather was more forgiving, and I slowly got into a running habit. We live about three-quarters of a mile from four different parks, three of which have loops through the inside of the park. What I settled into was putting earbuds in and listening to music while running to a park, running through/around the park, and then running home; or, I would just run around the blocks of our immediate residential neighborhood, which is very easy to do.

As the summer came on, and I got a little more focused, I also downloaded a couple of running apps to my phone. The one I’ve settled into using is MapMyRun, and for me, it’s legitimately made a big difference. It’s given me the ability to better understanding pacing myself; to think in terms of how often I’m running and how far those runs are; and even to kind of challenge myself by trying to run better times on a couple of “courses” which coincide with loops through or around local parks.

I also lucked my way into being able to play 16 inch softball this summer with the Gapers Block team. I’m not going to claim that playing 8-10 softball games over the course of 2-3 months made a huge difference in terms of fitness, but it did make a difference in terms of my measuring myself. By the end of the year, my stamina was higher, I was hitting the ball better, and I went from being kind of just an extra guy out there to holding my own (or at least so I’d like to think!)

In mid-September I changed jobs. I went from working in the Loop and taking the El downtown everyday to working from home. As of this point I had gotten myself down to about 170.

Working from home presented a couple of challenges. First, most days I had been doing a lot of walking just to get to and from train stops, perhaps 2 1/2 miles of walking on a typical weekday. Second, working from home means taking all meals at home, with a full refrigerator immediately available.

The first challenge was fairly easy to address. Although I was no longer walking as much, I had won back about 2 hours a day which had previously been spent in transit. It made it far easier to find time to run or use my exercise bike. But it’s the second challenge where I think the second part of the overall story kicks in.

When I was going into work downtown, it was very common that I would have coffee and something like soy yogurt or a smoothie before I left, and then I’d stop and get a latte and a pastry before I got into the office. I tried to have something like peanut butter and jelly on hand at the office, but I’d still often wind up having to get something like Subway for lunch. If I was hungry for anything else that I didn’t have immediately on hand, my first option was usually the weird convenience store on the ground level, run by someone we simply new as Snack Guy, which probably says a lot about what kind of fare was available.

I made a conscious decision to keep extra junk out of the house. As a result, what I essentially did was cut out the latte/pastry combination, in favor of more basic coffee, plus a lighter snack like an apple or a piece of cinnamon toast or some cheese. That whole change in and of itself pretty much slashed 300-500 calories from the day, most of those in sugars. Lunch has wound up being very redundant – it’s peanut butter and jelly the vast majority of the time – but one other thing I did was I simply stopped bringing sugary soda into the house. Almost all of the time now, the only soda in the house is one or another kind of Zevia, which is sweetened by stevia; and when I have coffee, my sweetener there is also stevia. In addition to excising a sugary soda from lunch, it also meant I haven’t been having one for dinner either; and what else has happened along the way is that I’ve simply stopped drinking beer at home. It’s not that I was ever drinking to excess, but if my drink with dinner is now Zevia or water instead of Dr Pepper or beer, that’s another 150 calories slashed.

My daily existence, then, involved getting up a little earlier (since I start work for the day at 8); exercising more often (because the recovered travel time has made it easier to find exercise time); and also cutting down significantly not just on calories but on really shitty calories (pastries, sodas, beers) – perhaps 700 calories a day. On top of all that, I’ve saved money. (Lattes are expensive!)

And so about 4-6 weeks in to working from home, I went down from about 170 pounds to the low 160s. And in December, it’s slipped slightly below 160. The goal I had set in 2014 had been solely to get down to 170. I didn’t expect to keep falling from there, and I never anticipated eventually getting down under 160.

I can be very obsessive about numbers. I keep logs of every time I get gas, so I can try and see if the car’s performance is badly slipping. So as I saw that weight very steadily slipping down over time, it was almost like a game at times. It was a strange kind of game, admittedly. It’s not like I ever went to any extremes out of some need to see the number keep dropping. But the thinking about it is always there, and I know that it’s led to a lot of decisions about what and when to eat and not eat.

At 6′-ish, with slightly broad shoulders and slightly long arms for my height, I arguably shouldn’t be below 160. As I’ve lost this weight, the fat from a lot of parts of my body has just kind of gone away. My arms are really skinny now, for a good example. My exercise regimen hasn’t been solely about running, but it also hasn’t been super-balanced. Even though I feel stronger, and I’m definitely in much better shape, I arguably ought to bulk back up a little. But I still look in the mirror and wish what’s left of my gut would tighten up too. It’s kind of a weird mental place to be in.

I think what makes it weirdest, though, is that really, I’ve moved beyond “needing to get in shape” and “hoping to lose weight”, and I’ve really moved into that place where I “simply” need to maintain. I have to put “simply” in quotes because while maintaining really just means doing more of the same, it’s hardly an easy thing, and I find it’s an especially difficult thing to mentally wrap my mind around, if for no other reason than because there are no obvious targets available. I guess I could lose more weight, but I’m kind of at the point where I think it might be counterproductive to do so. I could set new physical / athletic challenges – for example, this year I intend to run a 10K, maybe working myself up to a half-marathon after another year or so – but in terms of that being a target that helps push me to real fitness, that’s beginning to feel kind of esoteric.

Now, one thing I could do is make an even bigger point of improving my diet. We’ve talked about this at home – every few months we read or watch something which reconvinces us of the need to cut out even more processed foods. But here too it’s so hard for this to turn into anything measurable.

I think maintenance is going to prove more difficult than having gotten to this point. I think, somehow, I’m going to have to find some way to turn basic diet and exercise into something else measurable, just because that’s how it works for me. It’s kind of a way of harnessing my OCD tendencies. But it’s also kind of a way of giving in to them, when they might just drive the people around me a little batty. That’s a hard balance to strike.

With all that said: I think that the having been able to measure both “health” using the proxy of weight and “fitness” using running frequency and distance – and, importantly, measuring them in tandem as the weeks have gone on – has made a huge difference. Having sort of instituted “house rules” which I follow mostly strictly has been very important as well.

I know for a lot of people it’s very hard to break habits, or to set new habits, or anything like that. And I know most people aren’t as OCD or as number-obsessed as I am. But I hope there’s something in here that can help other people who are trying to figure out how to get on a healthier and fitter track. And I also hope by sharing some of this it can spur some conversation which will in turn benefit me as well.

Fitness has simply never been a top personal priority until recently. It might have gotten lip service as such, but honestly, it was always pretty far down the list. Even at times when I was going to the gym 3-4 times a week, I feel like it wasn’t because I’d made a huge priority of fitness, but more so that I’d kind of made a priority of putting a fitness show on, if that makes sense.

I’ll be 40 this year, though, and damn it, I’m going to be in good shape throughout my 40s and throughout my 50s. I’ll be in my mid-50s when Dylan graduates high school, and when that day comes, I’m going to be fit and I’m going to be regularly exercising. I’m going to be a good example for him, and I have to be, because this kid is going to run us ragged, and we better be in shape enough to keep up with him for a long time.

Statement to Chicago Board of Education

November 20th, 2015 by Phil 1 comment »

The following is my pre-prepared statement made in front of the Chicago Board of Education on November 18, 2015. As I read it, it was edited slightly given what others present had already said.


Members of the Board. My name is Phil Huckelberry and I am on the Local School Council for Prussing Elementary. As you know, on October 30 our school experienced a major carbon monoxide incident.

In front of you are Relevant City of Chicago Ordinances Pertaining to Boiler Operation. You may not have been previously aware of these specific ordinances. We believe, however, that your administrators have been very much aware, have knowingly been in violation for some time, and that because of high-level conversations, City of Chicago inspectors have been instructed not to enforce the ordinances.

We believe that this reality, in conjunction with the history of issues with the boiler system at Prussing as partially outlined on the reverse of the document, combine to demonstrate a pattern of negligence, for which this Board must hold senior CPS officials accountable.

The Prussing community demands the following actions be taken:

First, we demand a comprehensive systems upgrade, including replacement of the school boilers, heating controls, and any other elements previously identified as being so needy.

Second, we demand the permanent reinstatement of a full-time building engineer at Prussing, and at all relevant CPS schools, so as to ensure compliance with city ordinance, and to help ensure safety in all schools.

Third, we demand the issuance of thorough CPS protocols governing the installation and inspection of carbon monoxide detectors. Adding 5,000 detectors is great, but not if most of them stop working.

Fourth, we demand a thorough internal investigation into the history of the boiler situation at Prussing, the results of which will be made readily available to the school community.

Fifth, we demand the immediate reinstatement of our building engineer, Patrick Kelly, pending an actual fair process. He has clearly been made a scapegoat to cover for the systemic wrongdoings of CPS, and if he is terminated today as CPS administrators are seeking, it will only further infuriate our community.

See, ladies and gentlemen: Either you sincerely care about the health and safety of our students and staff, or you don’t. If you don’t care, well, then, you don’t care.

If, however, you do care, then it is about damn time you showed it. This experience has convinced parents that neither the Board nor your administration truly care about their kids, and they desperately want you to prove otherwise, and move to rebuild their trust.

Thank you for your time.

Remembering Michael Dahlquist

July 14th, 2015 by Phil 1 comment »

Ten years ago today, we lost Michael Dahlquist. He was, in my opinion, the greatest rock drummer on the planet. He was also just a goddamn nice guy.

Michael was the drummer for Silkworm. If you know me then you know how I feel: Silkworm was the single greatest American rock band of all time. I consider only the Beatles to be greater.

Upon his passing, I remember an article in which Tim was asked if Silkworm would continue. The answer was: “He’s irreplaceable.” It is a testament to what kind of guys they are that rather than continuing the band, Tim and Andy formed a different band together and retired all of the Silkworm songs. Michael didn’t write most of those songs. They didn’t have to do that.

I saw Silkworm 9 times. This is even though, as of the time I first saw them in 1997, they were no longer a persistently touring band. They’d all moved to Chicago by 2005, but I hadn’t. Every single time I saw them it took at least two hours to get there.

Michael seemed like a very tall man. I don’t think he was actually all that tall, but he was thin, lanky. He’d usually take his shirt off while playing since he’d get so sweaty. And he played with gardening gloves on. There was no blatantly intended comedy in any of this, and yet here was a power trio, co-fronted by two straight-laced, serious rock guitarists, and the guy behind the kit was wearing just shorts and sneakers and a beard and gardening gloves, and he was tearing the shit out of it all.

Look. I’m not an expert on drumming. Don’t take my word for it. Read the tribute written 10 years ago by Steve Albini. Here, I’ll provide the link. But don’t click it yet. Let me finish up first.

Silkworm never sold a ton of records. They were not rock stars. And it’s been 10 years now, so it’s that much less likely that people are familiar with their discography.

If you give a good goddamn about rock and roll, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted, not only with the extensive back catalog, but also what Tim and Andy are still doing today.

Start with these:

“Bourbon Beard” from Italian Platinum, one of the few songs Michael sings on:

“Nerves” from Firewater, the opening track from the band’s first album as a trio:

“Dremate” from In The West, back when they were a four piece:

The Night I Saw B.B. King

May 15th, 2015 by Phil No comments »

I can’t say anything more profound than what scores of better-equipped people have already said about the passing of B.B. King. Flags should be at half-staff and this should be the lead story everywhere. But the eulogizing is best left to others.

Instead, I will tell the story of the night I saw B.B. King. In retrospect, having seen hundreds of concerts over the course of my life, it might just be that seeing B.B. was the absolute weirdest one of them all.

It was a Friday night in Beloit, Wisconsin in June 1993.

I had spent the week at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, attending something called the World Affairs Seminar. It was nominally a bunch of people like me, high school students entering their senior year, gathering to learn about, you know, world affairs. Among other things the week consisted of:

  • A Mexican trade representative extolling the virtues of a then-current proposal called NAFTA.
  • A walk to the only known record store in the city – Wal-Mart – at which time I bought a copy of Dream Police. On cassette.
  • Hanging out in a laundry room with a cute girl who lived in Mount Morris!
  • Watching the Bulls-Suns NBA Finals in a large dorm lounge with many people but most prominently a self-identified Mavericks fan from New Hampshire who was the only person in the room rooting for the Suns.
  • The burning of a Canadian flag.

In other words, it was a completely normal week.

That Friday afternoon, my dad picked me up from the campus and we drove down to Beloit. We were going to Riverfest, or whatever exactly the fest on the river is/was called. We were going to see B.B. King. And also Blue Öyster Cult. Because that’s what would logically happen in Beloit in 1993.

And so okay, we got to Beloit, and I really don’t remember anything of what happened between Whitewater and when B.B. took the stage. I sort of doubt anything too notable happened. If I forgot any kind of highly important life message imparted to me during that drive, Dad, I apologize.

B.B. took the stage. We didn’t know going in, but it turned out that he was touring with his boogie band, not his strict blues band. There were a lot of Hawaiian shirts being worn on stage.

I specifically remember that the bassist was a very uncool looking white guy playing a square bass. And every time anybody else would do a little solo, B.B. would put his hand to his ear and peer over at the soloist. His hands were immense. When he would put his hands to his ears it looked unreal. In retrospect, the word that comes to mind is Ferengi.

Now, I was 16 at the time. I didn’t totally understand the distinction between him hauling out his boogie band as opposed to his blues band, even though I tended to listen to the blues show on WXRX (the X!) every weekend, and even though I’d seen other blues luminaries previously. I mean, I did understand the distinction. Just not totally. It was all kind of weird to me.

And then somewhere along the way it started raining. And then raining kind of heavily. It wasn’t cold out per se, but after a while, wow, it was cold. And it being a Friday in late June, nobody had any jackets.

Now at one point, B.B. went to take his pick and throw it out into the audience. Okay, fair enough. It landed somewhere in what was becoming a soft mud lawn and a couple of people lunged for it.

But then somebody on stage and went up to B.B. and handed him many picks. In my mind it was a total crapload of picks. He flung them all. And some people went crazy. In particular I remember a couple of women near me freaking out and diving for picks and bumping into people and since we were all wet and cold it made me even more cold and it was ridiculous.

I’ve been to other shows in the rain – though I don’t remember that much rain. I’ve stood in the mud – though I don’t remember anybody diving through the mud. I’ve seen other outright legends – though I don’t remember them wearing Hawaiian shirts.

Eventually the set ended. And, absurd as this seems in retrospect, we were like, well, is Blue Öyster Cult going to play now?

We walked to the other stage and nothing much was happening. Chants erupted:

“BEE OHH CEE! BEE OHH CEE!”

“Blue Öyster Cult! Blue Öyster Cult!”

And my favorite:

“Fuck the rain! Fuck the rain!”

It was all to no avail. The stage was too wet. Blue Öyster Cult would not appear.

It was okay, though. I managed to see them a few months later at the MetroCentre with Nazareth, Uriah Heep, and Wishbone Ash. Andrew and I went. We saw our Spanish teacher there. The next day, Señor commented about how odd it was that Nazareth tried to get the crowd to sing along with “My White Bicycle”. He was right.

Anyway, since Blue Öyster Cult did not come out on stage that night, my dad and I got in the car and went back home to Winnebago.

I think that I was intentionally in Beloit once since that night. I’ve had to drive around it and maybe stopped there for gas. But I do remember winding up at of all things a ska show in Beloit some time during my senior year. MU330! Buck-O-Nine! Gangster Fun! But I have not been back since. I mean… it’s Beloit.

And I never got a chance to see B.B. again in a less absurd setting. I can sort of make a throw-off comment that I regret that, but really, wasn’t it fabulous to see an icon in the rain in the armpit of Wisconsin? Why would I want an experience like that to be diluted in my memory?

As for other things, I talked on the phone a couple of times with the cute girl from Mount Morris, but for some reason we never actually hooked up, probably because I was 16 and had no idea what the hell I was doing. The Bulls beat the Suns in 6 games. I specifically remember listening to “Gonna Raise Hell” right before getting out of the bus in Oglesby before the regional math tournament. Also, NAFTA passed.

All of this is a long way of saying: Rest in peace, B.B. King. Thank you for the rain and the picks and the boogie. But mostly, thank you for the blues.

An Open Letter to Greens Across the United States

July 24th, 2014 by Phil No comments »

I’ve been involved with the Green Party for 14 years. I’ve been co-chair of the Green National Committee, long-time chair of my state party, and a multi-time candidate for public office. I’m now an elected member of my Local School Council.

I’ve put a lot of time in. I won’t dwell on what all has been involved, but it’s been a lot. I’ve done it because I’ve believed in the Green Party as the apparatus for the kind of change I think our communities, our states, our country, and our planet need.

I’m a father now. There are a lot more demands on my time. So it would be easy for people to dismiss what I’m saying here as fatigue, or burnout, or whatever else.

The bottom line is, I don’t want to do it anymore.

I’m tired of losing, but that’s not really the issue. I’m sick of the constant struggle just to be a recognized legal entity, but that’s not really it either.

I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m sick and tired of the party itself. The complacency, the disrespect, the utter refusal to change: I simply don’t believe that the Green Party, as currently constituted, can be the apparatus for change I’ve long maintained it will be.

I do believe the party can change. I believe the concept is solid and I believe there are a lot of other alienated people at the edges, people who would welcome an opportunity to reinvest themselves if the party presented a space where things could actually be accomplished, and where work was treated with respect.

But as time has gone on, it seems the party has moved further away. And I can’t keep dealing with it. It’s been too stressful for too long with far too little to show for it. Losing is no fun. But it’s even worse when we keep undermining ourselves. For all of the hard work that so many of us have put in, it’s clearer than ever that we can’t continue the way we’ve been going and ever expect success.

The Green Party has a choice right now: evolve or dissolve.

I know that sounds over-the-top, but hear me out:

If the best we can hope to be is an anti-corporate version of the Libertarians, then to continue would be an act of delusion. Is our goal to save the planet, or is our goal to feel good about ourselves because we’re participating in something which is ostensibly about saving the planet? It’s not that feeling good is a bad thing. But if what we’re doing is largely for show, and we’re more interested in maintaining a club, then let’s be honest about it.

I’ve struggled in recent weeks trying to write this. On the one hand, if I write too much, people won’t read it. But if I write too little, then there’s not enough substance and it’s easier to brush it aside. If I use examples of behavior and actions I’ve seen in the party, the discussion will focus on what I’m saying about other people, and it’ll be easy to dismiss everything as my having an axe to grind. But if I don’t use examples, then it’s going to be hard for a lot of people to understand what I’m talking about.

In the end, I’ve decided to make it a little long, but not as long as it could be, and to not talk about any specific people. If the potential is there for things to change, then I need to approach it in terms that a former national party co-chair who presumably has built up respect over the last 14 years will be listened to without having to point fingers.

Here are several of what I feel are our gravest problems:

The Meeting Culture. Meetings are the places where people should come together to talk about the work they have been doing, and what work should be done next. Attending a meeting is not the same thing as doing work. But we as a party glorify the meeting, and disdain the actual work. Democracy takes work. Democracy is not simply the act of making decisions – that is only one component. Some aspects of process are very loose, while others are very strict, and it all comes off as very arbitrary – and highly alienating to new people. We make a huge deal out of trying to get new people to show up, and then make them sit through highly tedious things, like crafting the perfect sentence in a bylaws change. It is not somehow egalitarian or democratic to include everyone in everything and in the process make them sit through everything. It is alienating, and it drives people away. That can’t be what we mean by Grassroots Democracy!

The Way We Treat Members. Our members are gold. But we treat them like crap. When people don’t show up for meetings, it’s like that’s somehow a black mark against them. Here in Illinois, for years, when people would donate money, they wouldn’t even so much as get an email of acknowledgement back. No, we’re not going to have thousands of Green Party members show up and participate in every petition drive. We need to make it a lot easier for them to participate a little, though. We have to stop making them sit through painful meetings just to be part of what’s happening. We have to stop treating people who say they’re willing to help a little like potential super-volunteers who within a month of first showing up for a meeting will wind up nominated for some ill-defined party office.

Responsibility and Accountability. One of our Ten Key Values is “Personal and Global Responsibility”. To me, one of the aspects of “personal responsibility” is that when you say you’re going to do something, you at least make some effort to do it. I’ve seen innumerable situations where people have signed on to be party officers or candidates or whatever else and have simply not done anything. And the party coddles this behavior! How many times have we heard the old chestnut that “Well, everybody’s just a volunteer….” It sends a terrible message to the people who are actually doing the work, and to officers who are really trying, when there is absolutely no culture of accountability. Worse, for years I have seen truly disruptive people be endlessly coddled for one reason or another, and I’ve seen a lot of people driven away because of it. A lot of it has to do with the party being incredibly conflict-averse, but I also think a lot of it has to do with a thorough misunderstanding of what Respect for Diversity means. Respect for Diversity does not mean that we are supposed to tolerate abusive behavior.

We Keep Getting Older. I know a lot of people don’t want to read this and will get upset, but this is something which absolutely has to be confronted. We have done a terrible job of attracting young people to the party, and when they come in, they are often made to feel very unwelcome. Now, I think we make almost all new people feel unwelcome. But for 14 years, I’ve particularly seen how younger people are disregarded, blown off, even insulted. I’m 37, and it’s inexcusable that I’m still one of the youngest people in the room when a meeting is held. The majority of the people in the room should be younger than me. I have been talking about this problem for a long time, and it never gets addressed, and I think one of the big reasons why is that young people threaten the Meeting Culture I talk about above. We’re also too white, too male, and too middle-class, and the Meeting Culture and other things I’m saying here speak to all that as well.

Too Few Candidates – Especially for Small Offices. The general public won’t take the party seriously so long as we run so few candidates. When we do run candidates, we disproportionately run for offices we can’t yet win, like Congress or statewide office. I’m not saying we shouldn’t run for Congress. But I am saying that when it’s the only thing we’re running for, it’s foolish. Here in Illinois, in 2014, we have zero candidates for County Board anywhere in the state, for the first time since we started running candidates. What this signals to voters, media, even our own members, is that when we run, we’re running for show, not running to win. You can’t hold interest that way. And small offices matter – if we had 10 times as many Greens elected to small municipal, school board, park board, library board, and similar offices – never mind if they’re nonpartisan – then our communities would be in better shape for it! Isn’t that why we’re doing this?

Territorialism. Rarely will I see people drive 10 miles over to the next town to help the only Green candidate running for office anywhere near them. At the same time, people have treated local chapters like fiefdoms, driving away other people in the area so that a small group can maintain “local control” over some swath of geography. This is all anathema to what the Green Party is supposed to be about. And yet I’ve often seen this behavior coddled as well. Tremendous deference is paid to people who have been around for a long time, whether they’re actively building the party or not. This ties in to both the Meeting Culture and our inability to attract and keep young people.

Obsession with Identity. This manifests itself in a lot of ways, but the main one is what I might call Beacon Syndrome. The idea is that the party is a shining beacon of light which will naturally attract people – and by corollary, if people aren’t coming, there must be something wrong with the platform, or the bylaws, or something else like that, so we spend countless hours and involve dozens if not hundreds of people to tweak some sentence or another. All of this is especially bad at the national level, where for many years we’ve had more committees focusing on internal affairs than on things like candidate support or external work.

Listservs. I’ve used listservs – majordomos, mailing lists, Yahoo! groups, whatever else you want to call them – for 20 years. I think they’re a terrific tool. But most Green Party listservs are horrible, absolutely repellant to most people who make the mistake of getting on them. A person can write a long, thoughtful message about an issue, and get a quick nasty response that complains about a single sentence, and then the discussion is magically over. The worst part is, this is our primary means of communication.

Bureaucracy. For a party which trumpets Grassroots Democracy as one of its four pillars, it’s sad to see that when this is put into practice, it’s often in the form of a flattened bureaucracy whereby if a single person expresses misgivings, a decision won’t be made. The party gives incredible negative power to people who don’t do work but are happy to show up for meetings and shoot down everyone else’s ideas, and then somehow calls the whole thing “democracy”. Bureaucracy is in particular the foe of competent administration. Minor decisions wind up being subject to “committee review” and so basic administrative things like maintaining membership lists don’t happen. This is closely related to a long-standing reticence to actually empowering individuals over a supposed fear that a person might become too powerful. One of the reasons people sign up for positions and don’t do anything is because they find themselves quickly hamstrung, unable to do anything because they have to conduct “business” on a listserv with 27 people “monitoring” but not actually helping!

Amateurism. In the past I’ve tried to emphasize the need to be professional, and what I’ve found is that the word has such a negative connotation to so many people that they just won’t listen. So I’ll approach it from the other direction: We have to stop acting like we don’t know what we’re doing. Voters want to vote for people who they think can actually handle the position. But we have a bad tendency to field candidates who will do things like not return phone calls or questionnaires. This hurts us way more than it would hurt one of the corporate parties, because they can just disown a particularly poor candidate. Another issue is that a lot of our websites look like they were made 10 years ago (they were) and were last updated six years ago (they were). It makes us look really bad.

And this is me being brief! This only scratches the surface of the problems I’ve seen over the last 14 years.

The point is that there are many, many problems, and there has been very little willingness to deal with any of this. For all of the work that so many people have put in over time, we institutionally have little to show. Our national party’s budget is less than that of a decently-run neighborhood organization in Chicago, most state parties don’t even have budgets, and most local chapters don’t even maintain treasuries. We’ve gotten some good people elected, like Gayle McLaughlin in Richmond, California, but almost all of our successes have been in nonpartisan elections and our officeholder number has been fairly flat for years.

I could say “Things can’t continue like this!!” but the reality is that they absolutely can. Just look at the Libertarian Party. It is absolutely possible to maintain as a marginal entity which every so often generates a little bit of excitement in a couple of states. But is that really what we’re here for?

I can imagine a lot of pot/kettle arguments in response right now. I’m not going to claim that I haven’t been part of many of these problems. We all have been, to some extent or another. It is in large part because I have been around for so long and have come to recognize many of my own shortcomings that I have the vantage point from which to articulate all of this.

Here is a very short list of improvements which could happen immediately:

* Stop holding so many annual business meetings. Conduct most “major party business” (like bylaws changes and internal elections) by email or web.

* Hold more informal gatherings – small events that will include people rather than alienate them. We need to build relationships with each other!

* Make a concerted national effort to help build campus organizations.

* Any party official who does not actually do anything: You need to resign. Today. Please.

* Start treating rank and file members like cherished assets.

* Make a national priority of running candidates for small offices – especially school boards.

My hope is that as people read this, if they agree with 90% of it, they’ll focus on the 90% they agree with and not the 10% they disagree with (which is another common problem in the party – focusing on our disagreements and not coming together on everything we do agree with.) I hope that I hear back from people around the country who agree that things need to change, and that many of them will take action within their state parties and local groups.

What we have been working for has been too important for it to either burn out or fade away. But if it has to be one or the other, then let it burn out, and let’s rebuild from the ashes. If we refuse to evolve, then we should just dissolve.

Evolution can mean a lot of different things. I don’t really want to try and lay out a comprehensive blueprint and say it all has to be the way I say – that’s never going to fly. The thing is, I don’t think the list of improvements I offer above are likely to stir controversy. I think almost everyone will agree with almost all of them. (I can offer a lot of other suggestions as well – ones which wouldn’t be so universally accepted! But I want to focus here on changes which I think will unite the vast majority of Greens, and quickly.)

If the Green Party can truly be a vehicle for change, then we have to be the change we want to see. We have to be effective, respectful, and hard-working. If we can’t be those things, then there are a great many positive things that we can go out and do in and for the world, and it’ll be time to move on to something else.

Personally, if I’m going to talk the talk, I’m going to walk the walk. If we have not begun to address our cultural issues by the end of the year, then I will move on. I am willing to try new approaches, but I am not willing to just keep hacking through the same problems to such little effect. I don’t see how people can take what I’m writing here seriously unless I’m serious about being willing to leave.

And I think other people need to speak up and say so as well. I think we need an outpouring of sentiment from across the country that we must evolve, and if we don’t, a lot of us are prepared to move on.

Let’s be blunt here: The planet is under attack, and will continue to be under attack. Whether it’s through war or privatization or deprivation of services or whatever other instrument, people’s lives and livelihoods are under constant threat. I have maintained for years that the Green Party can, and must, be a primary vehicle for change. But I need to see a lot happen to continue to believe it, and I know I’m far from alone.

So I’m asking that you contact me. You can email me at phil.huckelberry – at – gmail.com. Or find me on Facebook. I would like to hear from up and down Illinois and from all across the country. In turn I’d like for us to collectively take that outpouring of sentiment and use it to make things happen.

The tired, spent, long-time party activist in me absolutely needs to see things change. The eternal optimist in me, though, is the one who wrote all of this, believing that there are enough people out there who agree that we can see this evolution through. Prove me right, friends!

Life as a series of unread periodicals

May 4th, 2014 by Phil No comments »

There are 4 periodicals larger than newsletter size which I read on a consistent basis:

Chicago Reader.  Publication frequency:  Weekly.  If you’re in Chicago, this needs no explanation.  If you’re not in Chicago, it probably still needs no explanation.  It’s the city’s main weekly paper.  I read most of it.  I don’t tend to read the theater reviews or things having to do with visual art or dance, and I don’t read Dan Savage’s column.  I tend to read pretty much everything else.

MAGNET.  Publication frequency:  Monthly.  This is a music magazine.  It published either quarterly or bimonthly from the mid-late 90s until about 2009 or 2010.  Then it stopped.  Then, inexplicably, it returned a couple of years ago, and suddenly publishing monthly.  It is basically an indie-rock magazine.  There are short articles on about a dozen bands each month, a mid-sized feature, a long feature, a couple of regular columns, and a boatload of album reviews.  I read it almost word for word.

Preservation.  Publication frequency:  Bimonthly.  This is the official publication of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Ostensibly the writing is mostly about American historical treasures which have been saved or which are in danger of being demolished.  It’s very well done.  A large chunk is devoted to place-specific advertising; I don’t read that.  I read everything else.

Journal of Illinois History.  Publication frequency:  Quarterly.  A typical volume of JIH has 3 pieces about 25-30 pages long and then about 8-10 book reviews.  At least 2 of the book reviews are always for books about Lincoln.  This is the last vestige of scholarly interaction I have with my once-chosen field.  I read everything.

At any given point in time, I can assess “how far behind” I am relative to “the world” or “whatever” by counting the stack of unread periodicals.  Now, since the Reader is weekly, it’s a bit preposterous to declare the current week unread as of 7:00 on a Wednesday night.  But if I get to the weekend – yeah, then it’s unread.

Right this very minute, I have no backlog of unread periodicals.  It is liberating!

This is a stupid way to approach existence, of course.

Here is the thing:  I simply have a hard time reading books anymore.  Five years ago, I kept track, and I read something like 50-60 books that year.  Four years ago I was at maybe 40.  Last year I maybe read 4?

There are a lot of factors that play into this.  I used to read primarily on the train, and I used to have a longer overall train ride.  I spend a lot more of that train time jacking around on my phone.  And the periodicals always seem to get in the way of books.

But the main thing is that I can’t just sit down and absorb a book.  My attention span is shot.  The phone is definitely part of that, but the phone is symptomatic at least as much as it could be considered causal.

I especially can’t read at home.  I used to read before bed.  I can’t do that anymore.  I can mess around on the computer for a long time but it’s incredibly difficult to stay focused on a book for a long time.  If it’s a book of essays or short stories – especially if it’s sort of light, something like David Sedaris or Chuck Klosterman – then it’s all potentially a little easier.  But I still just can’t seem to sit down and read.

In my mind, it would even be hard to go to a movie anymore.  That would require sitting there for 2 hours.  That’s not how we watch movies at home.  Hell, we don’t even watch movies at home!  It’s too involved most of the time.  We watch TV on DVD or Roku but those are all like 45 minute episodes.  We’ll watch a documentary, but most documentaries are in the 60-75 minute realm, and even then, we’ll probably get up at least 2-3 times each.  And we were doing that before there was a baby involved in the process.

And so in the context of all this, the periodicals take on a weird, strangely heightened importance.  They become actual tasks.  Sometimes I really have to buckle down and focus to finish an issue of MAGNET.  It’s not that I don’t like what I’m reading – it’s just that even the feature-length articles can sometimes seem too involved to sit down and read at once.  They’re like 6 pages!

I have seriously been thinking about the idea of hauling this tiny family off to some place for 4-5 days of reading and not much else.

Part of the problem, and this is a long-standing problem, is that if I do read something, there’s no followup, nobody to talk to about it.  I’ll read a Nelson Algren novel, and it’ll be amazing, and there’s so much in it to talk about, and it’s all about Chicago, and I’m, you know, in Chicago, and there are thousands of people somewhere around me who have read Algren and have things to say about it, and I know like 1 of those people and I don’t know that guy well at all and how can this possibly make any sense?  A few years ago I blitzed through 3 of Fitzgerald’s novels back to back and somehow had nobody to talk to it about any of them.  This isn’t some random schmuck writing some weird YA fiction that might vaguely involve wicca.  This is F. Scott Fucking Fitzgerald, and I can’t actually talk to anyone about this?

We’re a very fragmented culture.  I don’t mean that entirely in a bad way.  I think it’s fascinating and interesting that everybody seems to be interested in very different music or books.  Now, yeah, it seems like everyone is interested in the same television shows.  But there’s really a rich diversity of thought and taste when it comes to so many things and I think in a lot of ways this makes for a stronger society and it is indicative of how much better a world this is than it was for my parents.  And yet, there is something really bizarre about feeling culturally isolated when I’m reading books straight out of the decades-old established canon.

The culprit, and the savior, is the Internet.  The Internet has been this amazing engine of allowing people to pursue their own tastes.  It brings ideas together in unquantifiable ways.  But it also boils so many of those ideas out to tiny nuggets, often hyper-disposable.  People become united in weird ways, pushing into greater abstraction.  It’s like a Big Bang of Culture – the universe keeps expanding and things are flying all over the place and it’s all terribly exciting but it’s so chaotic.  In the midst of the chaos we seem to be able to be transfixed by things like major sports and political stories but there’s precious little depth there.  The Internet holds us together, but in the loosest possible way.  We’re so fractured now that if not for Facebook we’d be lost.

And so the impending arrival of another issue of MAGNET provides cohesion and regularity.  The two primary touchstones of the week are Monday morning when we go back to work, and Thursday morning (or Wednesday evening if lucky) when the Reader magically appears.

The rumours of print being dead?  Don’t believe the hype.  Someone, somewhere, is going to keep printing something on a periodic basis, and it’s going to provide an important serving of mental fiber for our bizarrely constipated existence.  They – in some form – will never stop arriving, and so life will truck along, perpetually a series of unread periodicals.

Now, if I could just find somebody to talk about that article from JIH about horror movies being broadcast on Quad Cities television in the late ’70s, I’d be all set.

the long Obama vs POTUS evaluation

November 15th, 2012 by Phil 8 comments »

This isn’t exactly what I was asked, but in essence, I’ve been asked to justify my persistent argument that Barack Obama is one of the worst Presidents in American history. I think it’s a fair thing to be asked, and it deserves some real thought, and some self-challenging.

To that end, what I’m offering here is basically a comparison between Obama and every U.S. president of the 20th and 21st centuries, where my evaluation will be that Obama is a better president, an equal president, or a worse president than his predecessors. I need to preface all this with some basic notes about how I’m approaching this and where some of my up front biases are.

Before I do that though… some of the pieces of this were written kind of fast, in a hotel in Cleveland or something, or maybe on an airplane. I could say a lot more about a great many things but haven’t. One thing I notice is that my explanations for my final judgments get a lot better the closer to the present day I get. It’s just a lot harder to compare eras than it might seem.

I’m choosing to start at McKinley (POTUS 25) for a couple of useful reasons. First, starting at the very beginning would make this too arduous for all but about four of you to read. Choosing McKinley means evaluating a total of 20 people, which is a nice round number. Second, I think 1898 is what we can really point to as the time that the United States became a recognized world power; and I think that there were so many lifeless presidencies in the years between Lincoln and McKinley that this is just a good fit generally.

In evaluating a President, I want to stress a couple of things. I do think it is relevant to compare someone against his peers (and, since we’re talking U.S. Presidents, we’re only talking men, which I’m going to note here and then move on from.) If I think anyone else in a person’s shoes would have made the same (bad) decision, I don’t knock that person so much. It’s when I think a President made decisions that someone else would not have made that my ire is particularly raised. Some of you will have a hunch where this is going.

I also, in evaluating the long haul, am simply not going to be that harsh on some war-related decisions. It’s a gross oversimplification, but World War II was contextually unavoidable, whereas Vietnam was utterly avoidable. Some of the judgments I make here may not please some hardcore peace activists, but, contrary to what some might think, I am a relativist and a pragmatist in a lot of ways, and that’s one of the reasons why I think this exercise is useful.

And just to kind of wrap up these disclaimers and such, for me, the biggest presidential crime of all is selling the general public out to the corporations and the warhawks, and in particular doing so in a way that profoundly moved the country toward a corporate state. If it was a weak executive and this stuff just sort of happened around him, then that’s not as bad as if he took major steps toward making such things happen himself. This probably also gives you a hunch where this is going.

Finally, as ever, I reserve the right to change my mind on a lot of this, but I’m not all that likely to.

POTUS 25 – William McKinley (1897-1901) – McKinley was largely a hack. He was deeply in the pocket of moneyed interests of his time. Unlike certain later Presidents, though, I don’t feel McKinley was very instrumental in moving the discourse one way or another. He was a soft puppet. The Spanish-American War would have happened with just about anyone in power, and the subsequent Filipino-American War was something I perceive McKinley to have rolled with more so than instigating. Judgment: Better president than Obama, but barely.

POTUS 26 – Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) – Men aren’t saints, and Presidents certainly aren’t saints. There are a lot of negative things that could be said about TR. But he was the first President to intervene on behalf of organized labor, he founded the National Park Service, he pushed the Pure Food and Drug Act through, and in my mind, he’s probably one of the five greatest Presidents. Judgment: Definitely better than Obama.

POTUS 27 – William Howard Taft (1909-1913) – Taft’s presidency was mostly a flop, but it’s hard to say that a lot went wrong. Taft should have pursued the TR agenda with vigor, but he didn’t. And yet I don’t think he was anti-progressive either. I just think he was a poor fit for the office. Not a lot to be said here. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 28 – Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) – Wilson is one of the more contradictory men here, and one of the hardest to evaluate. He was an extreme racist, and his handling of international affairs in non-white parts of the world was especially awful. But his championing of the League of Nations was correct. He didn’t do a damn thing to help women gain the suffrage, and yet the 19th Amendment passed during his administration… as did the 16th Amendment (Income Tax) for which he deserves some credit, the 17th Amendment (Direct Election of Senators) for which he deserves some credit, and the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) for which he deserves a great deal of scorn. In so many respects he is the opposite of Taft, who did nothing and therefore you can’t say much about him. We got the Fed under Wilson. But we also got the income tax. How do you evaluate this? Judgment: Better president than Obama, but barely.

POTUS 29 – Warren Harding (1921-1923) – Well, this one’s easy. Harding is widely considered one of the worst chief executives. He let his cronies get away with all kinds of shit, and it was under his administration that a lot of the seeds of the Great Depression were planted. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

POTUS 30 – Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) – A surprisingly difficult call. Look: Coolidge was fucking terrible. He was Reagan’s favorite President! But there’s a critical distinction here between Coolidge and Reagan, and this distinction will better help some people understand where my inherent biases are and what I value and don’t value. Reagan was an extremely active President, who brought in people who did some really awful things. Coolidge was a do-nothing President, but unlike some do-nothing predecessors, he very much saw his role as doing nothing. He’s the inspiration for what Tea Party people claim their movement is about, but Coolidge was actually quite sincere about simply getting the hell out of the way. Regulations weren’t particularly enforced and the bubble grew under Coolidge, but Coolidge was a man of intentional inaction. Contrast this with later Presidents who made the problems much worse because of the extent of the regulation they scaled back. We also have to evaluate whether someone else in Coolidge’s shoes would have made much of a difference, and I think the answer is No. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to simply pin the Depression on Coolidge because the Depression was global and involved factors well beyond what anyone in Washington was prepared to control. In all of these respects Coolidge is perhaps the hardest President to compare with Obama because the circumstances are maybe the most fundamentally different available. Judgment: Just as bad a president as Obama, but for very different reasons.

POTUS 31 – Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) – Hoover was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The stock market crashed six months into Hoover’s term. Many of the policies that FDR subsequently enacted were developed during Hoover’s administration but inadequately implemented because, let’s be realistic, American government had never done so much, and had never been expected to do so much. I think this is an example of a situation where you have to compare the man within the prevailing context, and I think pretty much anyone would have been doomed. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 32 – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1993-1945) – Not a lot of need to dwell on this one. The stuff about men not being saints definitely applies here. But FDR was the greatest politician of the last 150 years, and if you’re going to give anybody positive marks on the whole, of course it would be FDR. Judgment: Much better president than Obama.

POTUS 33 – Harry Truman (1945-1953) – The Nagasaki bomb was absolutely inexcusable, a decision Truman should long be rightly condemned for… except that I sincerely believe that anyone else in his shoes likely would have made the same horrific decision. We might say the same thing about Korea, which was an extremely stupid situation to have gotten into, but if you look at the Red Scare of the time, who short of Henry Wallace would have kept us out? Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley, desegregated the military, and in general, I think mostly positive things about him. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 34 – Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) – Eisenhower had similarities to Coolidge, but sending troops into Little Rock in 1957 demonstrated the limit of those similarities, and Eisenhower’s farewell address on the military-industrial complex demonstrated the intellect of a man who understood that limited government pointedly meant limited government interference with people’s daily lives. The Vietnam mess did start under him, but it was so limited at that point, and containment theory was so dominant, I’m not sure how harshly he can be judged for that. Guatemala is another story, but I think Guatemala really brings into sharp focus how fucked up American foreign policy and economic might had gotten by 1953, and I question whether anyone would have made much of a difference there. In the end, I like Ike. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 35 – John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) – Bay of Pigs, no real motion on civil rights, significant expansion of involvement in Vietnam with no coherent plan. The Cuban Missile Crisis was handled well, but it should never have happened in the first place. But would Nixon have been better in 1961? Johnson? I don’t know. The counterfactuals are difficult here. In the end my assessment is pretty harsh though. Judgment: Better president than Obama… maybe.

POTUS 36 – Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) – The ultimate dichotomy, part one. This is the man who bears the lion’s share of responsibility for Vietnam. This is also the man who rolled out The Great Society, and who got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. Medicare came into being under Johnson. On domestic policy he could potentially have been our greatest President! And in the end, that matters, a lot. When you stack LBJ up against his peers, his share of the debt for Vietnam is immense, but the good he did amounted to more good than almost all of the rest. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 37 – Richard Nixon (1969-1974) – The ultimate dichotomy, part two. Here we first need to take pains to separate Nixon the man from Nixon the President, and by this I mean two things. Nixon was a total asshole, okay? I think we can all be clear on this. And Nixon was a total asshole as a President too. Nixon was responsible for things like HUAC… but that was before he became President. His administration needs to be regarded straight up. On foreign policy, he and Henry Kissinger were responsible for the “incursion” into Cambodia, and for the overthrow of Allende in Chile and all of the ramifications thereof. But he was also responsible for detente, and for finally actually acknowledging that the world’s largest country actually existed. So even on foreign policy, Nixon was a mixed bag. On domestic policy… well, Nixon is the man who signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The EPA came into being under Nixon. Nixon actually spoke in favor of what he called a “guaranteed minimum income”. Was he a racist shithead? It’s a little hard to say, because he was a shithead so generally. I actually believe that Nixon cared greatly about America, and not just his conceptualization of it. He was, ultimately, a lot like Johnson. He also brought great shame to the office, which I do think matters (and this is going to come up again – twice. Guess where?) Ultimately it’s a difficult argument to say that Nixon was one of our better Presidents. But he wasn’t one of the worst either. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 38 – Gerald Ford (1974-1977) – Look: Ford inherited an impossible situation, one where he had little power. He was saddled with Kissinger and the legacy of Watergate. He was more or less an honorable man, I suppose, whose presidency was essentially impossible. As such he wasn’t a particularly negative force, and by now I think it should be clear how much that matters in my evaluations. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 39 – Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) – Carter was the best President of my lifetime, for whatever that’s worth. He had his missteps, including jacking around in Nicaragua, but his foreign policy was predicated on the primacy of human rights, and shit, what other President can we say that about? The economy didn’t go so well but was that really Jimmy Carter’s fault? He was a good man, in a position ill-suited for him, and he did what he could, and it wasn’t a great time, and Iran took all those hostages, and… sigh. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 40 – Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) – Let’s begin with an anecdote. I took a class in college on recent U.S. history – basically 1945 to the then-present – and so unlike a lot of history classes, we actually got all the way up to the original Iraq war (which, then, was only about six years in the past.) As a class exercise there was going to be a debate, four people pro and four people con on whether Reagan was a good president, more or less. Keep in mind that I went to a college with kind of a heavy frat / business conservative slant. The pro side was well prepared. The con side… the best argument they had was The War on Drugs. That was their BEST argument. Rampant unemployment? Unprecedented peacetime deficits? A foreign policy based on maximum supply of arms to what were essentially terrorist states? Dismantling of the regulatory state? Trickle-down economics? In terms of a break from what came before, and in terms of fundamentally altering the political direction of the country for the worse, it’s hard to find anyone who can compare. Even the people who were the worst at being President didn’t have this track record to show for it. Franklin Pierce? Andrew Johnson? We’re so far in the dregs here it’s hard to make sense of any of it. While I try not to evaluate Presidents based on prevailing circumstances which they were simply part of, if the prevailing circumstances are your cabinet and your government and you’re simply checked out of what they’re doing but it’s all happening in your name, well, that’s still on you. These were my formative years, and I surely didn’t see it or understand it then, but in retrospect, it’s not just that Reagan was the worst President of my lifetime. He was arguably the worst President of all time. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

POTUS 41 – George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) – Now dig this big crux: The expansion of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act came under Bush 41. Some of the more extreme foolishness of the Reagan years were quietly shown the door. Yes, some of the more extreme foolishness was elevated in rank. But remember that for me, a major thing I look at is, did a President dramatically move the country increasingly into being a corporate state? GHWB is in a series of corporatists, but he was far from the biggest, and arguably did the least to actually move the country in that direction. He was definitely more moderate than Reagan on most of these measures. Ultimately, and sadly, for the majority of you actually reading this, this man was the best President of your lifetime. Judgment: Better president than Obama.

POTUS 42 – Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – These were the last true American boom years and I think that it could be argued that Clinton was a very good manager of the good times. But there’s a difference between managing the good times and being responsible for the good times, and I’ve never seen any real evidence that Clinton deserved much credit for that. So let’s give the credit where the credit is due: The repeal of Glass-Steagall. NAFTA and WTO. So-called welfare reform. The littering of depleted uranium in Serbia. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, a repulsive piece of legislation which remains very poorly known but which basically opened the door for extreme consolidation and corporatization of media, which in turn has been like a deth knell for democracy. And lest any of you forget, his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, said that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children were “worth it” – those are children who died under Clinton-era sanctions. The inimitable Carroll Cox once described Bill Clinton as “a fucking mass murderer” and that pretty much sums it up. Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

POTUS 43 – George W. Bush (2001-2009) – I don’t think much needs to be said about these pathetic years, but I will say this: Many of the most extreme and stupid things that happened under GWB were linear continuations of things which started before him. He’s too much of a lightning rod, because in the process, it lets some of his predecessors off the hook. Without Reagan and Clinton, the disasters of this presidency wouldn’t have been possible. Unfortunately, too many of those disasters are still with us, especially when it comes to foreign policy and the erosion of civil liberties. If you’re going to dump on Bush, then you’ve got to ask questions like… When Obama had Democratic majorities in both houses, why wasn’t Glass-Steagall reinstated? Why wasn’t Taft-Hartley repealed? Why wasn’t the Patriot Act repealed? The answer is that the Democrats were complicit in all of these travesties. While I can’t really argue that most things have gotten worse in the last four years, I do have to ask, when the Republicans eventually win back the White House – after all, the longest the Democrats have gone in power is 20 years, and that was with FDR winning four terms – isn’t Obama having failed to full back on so many of the excesses of the administrations before him just going to lead to worse things happening down the line? Isn’t Obama equally complicit at this point? Or at least, wouldn’t he be, if his second administration does nothing to arrest these things? Still… Judgment: Worse president than Obama.

Final tally:

Just as bad: Coolidge
Worse: Harding, Reagan, Clinton

This means that of the last 20 chief executives, I’m putting Obama at a tie for #17. Maybe after having a rambling conversation about McKinley and Wilson and Coolidge at some point I might make some reassessments, but I don’t really see it. For the most part, we’re talking about men who had some redeeming qualities but almost all of whom I feel like I have more bad to say about than good. If that doesn’t show here, it’s because with many of them, I’ve felt like I’ve needed to put more time into explaining what those redeeming qualities are, because the shit qualities tend to be better known.

I think Obama, so far, has been a terrible President as regards foreign policy, financial policy, energy policy, civil liberties, and health care… to name a few. Because I believe different Presidents need to be evaluated in terms of different eras, I think that the moderate social gains so far need to be put in context, so Obama saying he supports gay marriage, while clearly an overall positive, still has to be regarded in the context of his having instructed the Justice Department to fight to maintain the Defense of Marriage Act and his couching his support for gay marriage in bullshit states rights language. He’s mostly following on this, and yet this is the only thing where it feels like he’s been a leader at all. I hear the argument that Obamacare brings us closer to where we should be, but I’m damned if I can see that. The good aspects of it – and there are indeed good aspects of it – are countermanded by the manner in which it is a complete sell out to health insurance companies, and by how it’s doing so little to throw any checks up against the actual cost of health care. At best, it’s a gamble on a future where the Republicans never again regain power, which is historically absurd. And the National Defense Authorization Act – I mean, he’s gone above and beyond the Patriot Act in terms of curtailing civil liberties. Why are people okay with this? The only other Presidents who have been behind anything as blatantly unconstitutional along the lines of NDAA were GWB, Wilson (First Red Scare, Sedition Act, etc.), Lincoln (under very, very different circumstances which I’m not going to debate here), and… well, we get back to what, the Alien and Sedition Acts? On top of all this, Obama is the one who is truly leading the way with massive attempts to privatize basic social services, notably public education. He installed Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and Race to the Top is largely about excessive standardized testing and establishing charter schools, which means rerouting of public dollars to less accountable private hands. Again, why is this defensible? And who before him, besides Bush, was doing stuff like this?

So. I’ve written a lot and I’m going to piss some people off with it, but at least here I’m laying it all out. I know some people will be beside themselves with some of the Presidents I identified as better than Obama (I can imagine the complaints about the likes of Hoover and Nixon) but if you’re going to argue with a lot of what I’m saying, you’ve really got to take on my core reasoning, which is that Presidents who are directly responsible for moving the country to being more of a corporatist and/or militarist state are the ones who have done the most wrong to the country.

Let the arguments begin.