Cantor’s Loss Shows Why We Don’t Need Campaign Finance Regulation

Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, just suffered a humiliating loss in the Virginia primary. Overnight, he goes from being one of the most powerful people in Washington to just another K Street insider.

I don’t feel sorry for him, and even will indulge in a little Schadenfreude at the idea of a politician being humbled – even if the guy who beat him has even more reprehensible politics than the soul-less Cantor.

But his loss helps bring into focus one of the key points I’ve been trying to make to those apoplectic about the Supreme Court’s perceived loosening of campaign finance regulation in the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions: money just isn’t as important as it used to be when it comes to campaigns.

But first, I need to point out a couple of key points that many of those in favor of campaign finance regulation gloss over:

  1. Political speech of all stripes is at the core of the First Amendment; and
  2. The government carries a very high burden to show that regulation of speech that is otherwise protected by the First Amendment is both necessary and narrowly focused at a particular harm.

This is why quid pro quo, direct campaign contributions are an easy case, and why broad restrictions of the sort at play in Citizens United and McCutcheon were doomed to fail.  It’s hard to regulate speech – you’ve got to have a very real harm and a very targeted, effective means of addressing that harm.  And this is how it should be; it’s no place for “feel good” legislation.

But for those frustrated that the First Amendment prohibits the sort of government speech control they’d like to see, the Cantor result should be seen as a panacea.  Perhaps they don’t need to wail about the injustice of it all, propose ridiculous constitutional amendments, and engage in spin (“Corporations Aren’t People! “Money isn’t Speech!”) worthy of the most hackneyed campaign. For Cantor’s loss – which follows the poor ROI of campaign spending in the 2012 and 2014 national campaigns – demonstrates that it’s getting harder for money to “buy” elections.  For grass roots groups, it’s never been cheaper and easier to organize and get the word out.  If you’ve got a message that resonates, social media provides the sort of publishing platform that only the most plutocratic of plutocrats could afford a generation ago.

In Virginia tonight, a challenger with less than a quarter million in campaign funds knocked off the second-highest ranking member of the House, an incumbent with millions of dollars at his disposal.  This should be seen as very good news to those who want the “corrupting power of money” out of the process – even as it provides further evidence that attempting to regulate campaign speech may be as unnecessary as it is unconstitutional.


Cycling Columbus

My travel schedule has been nutty of late, so even fewer posts than usual. But here’s one: about my trip last week to Columbus, Ohio, a city I visited for the first time.

I was impressed with Columbus.  What I’d pictured as a rust belt city was in fact a thriving town that seems to be rapidly reinventing itself.  The “Short North” neighborhood between downtown and Ohio State University campus is a rapidly-gentrifying area full of bars and restaurants, most of which look like they’ve just opened in the last five years (not unlike Market Street in Ballard, in that respect).  There’s all sorts of construction along the river, with a newly built esplanade along the downtown bank.  And to top it off, Columbus has some of my favorite transportation options: Uber, Car2Go, and a bike share system – “COGo,” which I used to see all that I could around town.  

I’ve lauded bike share here before, and I try to use it whenever I come across a new system.  Because of the vagaries of getting between Seattle and Columbus, I had more time than I usually do when traveling on business this time.  Instead of using the bike share to make a single trip or two to meet people, I was able to use it for an afternoon to play tourist.  And it’s the best way, hands-down, to see a town.  It helps, too, that Columbus is very flat, and has wide, empty sidewalks (the streets are highly suboptimal for riding, I learned). It may be a different story when the weather gets oppressive, but on a 62 degree day it was darn near ideal.

The flatness also encourages a lot of single-speed and fixed gear riding; I saw these bikes everywhere.

Purple single speed in the Short North, near one of the arches from which Columbus draws its “Arch City” nickname.

Seattle Bike Share Nears

With Seattle (finally) getting a bike share system later this year, the Puget Sound Bike Share program has put together an interactive site showing proposed bike share station locations.  You can vote up the stations you like, and propose other locations.

I expect the system will be fairly limited at first, but could expand rapidly if bike share proves popular.  The problem, of course, is Seattle’s helmet law, which our City Counsel hasn’t seen fit to eliminate (preferring to spend time on priorities like protecting the taxicab monopoly and running experiments on the continued viability of Seattle small businesses).  As a result, every station is going to need these god-forsaken “helmet vending machines,” which will add further friction to anyone’s decision to take a spin on one of the yet-to-be-named system bikes.

Of course, I will plunk down my annual membership to support the system.  Having used bike share in other cities, I love the idea of having this option here.  But I’m not optimistic about the success of the system as long it has to labor under nanny-state restrictions. 

Dropbox – No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

As someone who pays more attention than most to website terms of use (TOU), I’m amused by the kerfuffle over the Dropbox announcement this week that it is adding an arbitration provision to its TOU.

Reading the comments on the Dropbox blog, you would think this was the most devious, anti-consumer thing the company could have done.  But while these arguments have facial appeal (“THEY’RE CUTTING OFF MY CHANCE TO BE HEARD IN COURT!!”), they don’t acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Consider: the vast majority of consumer Dropbox users don’t pay Dropbox ANYTHING.  They’re using a free service.  And the rest of them aren’t paying much; maybe a few hundred dollars a year, at most.

Why is this important?  Because it means that most consumers will have little-to-no damages in any suit against Dropbox.  Like, little enough that it wouldn’t justify paying the filing fee in small claims court (typically $100-$200), let alone dealing with the time and expense of a full-blown case.

Dropbox is offering a free, expedited means of getting such claims resolved.  While many argue that the arbitrators will be biased toward Dropbox as the company is paying the bills, in my (20+ years) experience this is not a real concern.  Or at most it’s an edge case, a minimal risk compared to the crap shoot you’ll get in small claims court.  But more importantly, it’s a very minor concern compared to the fact that the Dropbox arbitration procedure removes the cost and friction that would leave most small, legitimate claims stillborn.

And another point on that friction:  Dropbox allows users to bring the arbitration in whatever county the user lives or works.  The typical website TOU – which you almost never hear objections about – will contain a forum selection clause requiring that all claims against the company be brought wherever the company is headquartered.  Such provisions are routinely upheld (and make a world of sense from the company perspective).

Dropbox COULD have said, “fine – you got a claim?  You can have your day in court.  In San Francisco.”  Instead, they’ve set up a process that makes it far easier for the vast majority of consumers to have claims addressed.

Yet predictably, they’re getting abused for it.

Reasons I Didn’t Ride, 2013 Edition

I tried Strava in 2013, but the novelty of it wore off – and it’s no substitute for tracking data in excel (probably safer, too, as I’m no longer competing against my top time for the “12th Avenue Bump” when riding home).

In any event, here’s how 2013 shaped up:

  • Days Ridden: 176.  That’s actually slightly better than last year, but still well below my goal of 200 days ridden.
  • Business Travel: 36.  The biggest category cutting into my bike commutes – the 50,000 or so miles I flew this year had to exact a toll somewhere.
  • Family: 17.  Not so bad, considering kids starting high school, football games, family events out, etc.
  • Vacation: 13.  Wow, I can’t believe I only took 13 days of vacation.  Sad.
  • Social: 4.  Or should we call that “anti-social?”  Although in my defense I was much better this year about riding my bike to happy hour and other get-togethers.

I missed one day due to a poorly-scheduled dental appointment, and one day to weather (an inch of snow during the morning commute earlier this month).  All in all, a good year.  I’m convinced the stress-busting benefits of riding (particularly the single-speed uphill ride at the end of each day) is what’s keeping me from missing any rides – or days of work – due to illness.

Here’s looking at 200 days ridden in 2014!

Cold Weather Cycling

It’s been cold the last week or so in Seattle.  Temperatures in the teens and 20s, which is much colder than usual for this time of year.  To be sure, it’s not Duluth or Buffalo cold, but cold in a way we’re not really set up for in Seattle.  Many older homes here, including mine, have no insulation to speak of.  And we go more in for water- and wind-proof jackets than fur-lined parkas.

If we’d had rain or snow along with the cold, I wouldn’t have kept riding to work.  Our hills, narrow streets and inexperienced drivers make it far too dangerous to take the bike out when there’s ice on the pavement.  But – as is typical when it gets this cold here – the frigid air was accompanied by crisp, clear skies (until yesterday morning, when an overnight dew made it scary-slick on the way in).

People often look askance at me for riding in this weather, but honestly, it just takes a few gear adjustments.  And riding on a dazzling clear morning beats hell out of sidling up against crowds of sniveling sickies on the bus, or idling in a car, stuck in downtown holiday shopping traffic.  Here’s how I manage it:

Hands:  I’ve tried a number of different gloves over the years, and I’m convinced there aren’t any cold weather bike gloves that perform below 40 degrees.  As I don’t really need all of the specialty padding for my 3.5 mile commute, I just throw on my ski gloves.  So much better than even my warmest pair of bike gloves.

Head:  I like my simple, thin balaclava.  Decent enough protection for the ears and neck, and can be pulled over the chin and mouth if it’s really cold and windy.  Of course, wearing a balaclava = guaranteed bad hair day. Makes mine all stand straight up.

Neck:  It sucks to hoover up cold air through the neck of your jacket while riding downhill.  Zip-up sweater, balaclava or even a scarf – they all work.  Unfortunately, I forget about my neck half the time when heading out the door.  Brr.

Body:  My ride is short.  A sweater and windproof jacket work fine.  A little cold, but fine.

Legs:  For some reason, the cold doesn’t bother my legs.  I’m in knickers year-round.

Ride: I really appreciate my fixed-gear when the weather drops below freezing.  The connected ride, all the feedback I get with each pedal stroke, makes me far more confident when riding on potentially-frozen streets.

Like someone once said, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.  And it doesn’t take too much gear to make cold-weather riding work – at least here in Seattle.  Anyone else have any crappy-weather tips and tricks that work to keep them riding?

Seattle’s Unclean Streets

Here’s another gripe about Seattle’s lack of bike infrastructure – or really, its lack of attention to the basic blocking and tackling of running a city.

In a city of foliage-blocked stop signs, roads laced with seams, cracks and a shameful number of potholes, and a nod to cyclists in the form of paint splashed on the road, we can add this: a near-total lack of attention to street cleaning.

When I lived in San Francisco, even the residential neighborhoods had once-weekly street cleaning – a four-hour window where parking was forbidden, on pain of being towed.

And the city meant it, as I found out more than once when I forgot to move my car.

Here?  While it’s big news that we’re getting a fancy cycle track cleaner for Broadway, it’s more telling that it never occurred to the city that they’d need the thing.  And in Seattle’s leafier neighborhoods?  Forget about it.  Those leaves fall, and absent conscientious property owners cleaning the streets in front of their places, those leaves remain to moulder and create giant slick patches all along our residential streets.

I get that there are city budget priorities, and tax dollars only go so far.  But I bet we could cover a fair bit of the cost with all of the impound fees.

And until then?  Yet another reason to just take the lane.

Cyclist Obey!

Bike Snob (of course) nails it far better than I could in addressing the “you cyclists should just follow the rules and send the right message” crowd:

It’s impossible, and in fact downright stupid, to “obey the letter of the law” on your bicycle when you find yourself in a situation where the streets and the laws are designed specifically for cars, which describes most of the United States.  Moreover, it’s gone way, way past the point where cyclists should need to prove to the very people who are fucking us (that’s drivers and police officers) that we “deserve respect.”  We deserve respect for being human, and it ends there.  Yet we’re supposed to be good little boy scouts and girl scouts–even when it’s more dangerous for us to do so–to prove we’re deserving of not being killed?  That’s just stupid and insulting.

Seriously, read the whole thing.  Hilarious, and right on.

Sign on the Line that is Dotted?

So the other day I was at work, reviewing a contract. It was no big deal; a standard form agreement for a venue were renting to host an event in. I wouldn’t ordinarily spend more than a few minutes on such a thing – it’s a one-off deal, less than $20k in value, etc. Not worthy of anything more than a cursory legal review.

But it had a quirky clause that basically said that if anything happened to prevent our event from happening (including things in the venue’s control, or due to their systems, labor relations, etc) our only recourse was to reschedule. That doesn’t work very well you’re setting up an event with out-of-town visitors that must happen on a specific date.

No biggie; I sent the venue an email telling them to cross it out and replace it with a few sentences I quickly ginned up that gave us the right to find alternate arrangements if they couldn’t come through.

OK, they said.  But we need a legal addendum.

Fine, I said – just attach my email to the contract.  Done.

Oh, no, read the indigent email I got back.  We need a LEGAL DOCUMENT.

So I put my email into a document titled “Contract Addendum” and sent it back to them.

What a freaking waste of time and effort.

Because here’s the dirty little lawyerly secret (and in fact it’s so secret many lawyers don’t get it): almost anything can be a “legal document.” Outside of a handful of areas where written documentation is required by law (chiefly real estate transactions and estate planning documents), the relative levels of “legalese” and formality that go into a contract are driven entirely by evidentiary concerns, inertia and ass-covering.

Here’s what I mean: for most transactions, you could rely on a verbal agreement – the quintessential”handshake” deal. Why? Because many deals are simple and straightforward, and most of the time both parties will do what they said they were going to do.

The problem, of course, is that if any question arises about the terms of the deal, you haven’t got anything written down.

So you write it down. This is a critical step. In fact, I’d say that 80-90% of the value of a written contract is obtained by the simple step of writing down the basic terms of the deal. It could be on a cocktail napkin, in an email exchange, or via a simple document. Just having the basic terms on paper, clearly laid out, so anyone can refer to them if they have questions about the parameters of the deal.

Beyond this point is where the legal surplussage starts to kick in. Terms to address incredibly remote contingencies. Ritualistic signature requirements. All things to button up problems that could arise – but doing so in advance extracts a cost.

Like the inanity of asking for “wet” signatures. Requiring a signature at all is simply a method of creating evidence (which will most likely never be used) to prove that your counterparties actually agreed to the terms of the deal.  The bigger or more complex the deal (or the less you trust the other side), the more you want actual signatures.  But do you really need 4 original signatures?  Will a copied version not suffice?

If you don’t have a good answer to this question – and indeed, to the need for any provision in your contracts that may create friction, slow things down, or prevent a deal from being done – you need to ask whether that provision can be excised from the contract.

Too much legal process around routine deals is a bad business practice. Yes, having that belt and those suspenders may buy you some clarity in the once-in-a-blue-moon case where someone claims they didn’t agree to your deal, or where your double-secret indemnity provision comes into play. But this contingent benefit is bought, every time, at a very real cost: it erodes trust with your business partners.  It can crater deals.  And it can make it harder to win follow-on business.

Because after all, the relationship and the deal are what’s most important. And sometimes – hell, most times – a cocktail napkin approach is really all you need.


Bikes, Business & Barratry