Monday, December 27, 2010

Correcting mistakes of Prop. 13 - by Judge Jim Gray

This column has already discussed the "sacred cow" issue of Social Security, and I have not (yet) been run out of town, so summoning up all of my courage, I will now turn my attention to a discussion about correcting the mistakes of Proposition 13.
Proposition 13 was passed with more than 84% of votes in June 1978 by California voters who were (appropriately) angry about the never-ending raising of their property taxes. The ballot measure, which was opposed by most legislators and virtually every city and county government in the state, put a ceiling on property tax assessments at 1% of the assessed value, and also placed a limit of 2% on how high property taxes could be raised in any one year. And those assessments and formulas could not be changed unless and until the real property was sold.
Unfortunately, over time there surfaced at least three substantial inequities with this ballot measure, which, to this day, people are afraid even to discuss, much less rectify:
First, large corporations, which seldom sell their real property, have been the gigantic beneficiaries of these reduced taxes. Thus every year since the early 1980s, businesses like Southern California Edison and oil companies have paid substantially lower taxes on their real property than other more transient businesses. This was almost certainly not intended by the voters.
Second, Proposition 13 has resulted in a huge discrimination against more recent buyers of real property. This includes most of our grown children who are trying to enter the real property marketplace for the first time. The higher adjusted tax base has also retarded new home construction, and that is even before considering the additional expenses of Mello Roos. In addition, it has further resulted in numerous people being forced to make decisions about whether to buy or sell real property for tax reasons, instead of personal, family or business reasons.
And third, Proposition 13 has resulted in people who are living next to each other in virtually identical properties having widely disparate property tax bills. In my own case, I am still annoyed that when I moved into a house in North Santa Ana, my neighbor, who had a house and lot half as large as mine but who had owned his property before the Proposition 13 era, paid less than half the property taxes than I did. I felt then and still feel now that this was fundamentally inappropriate.
Thus, as people are beginning seriously to look at government and its financing, it is time to make our property tax system more fair, and, yes, it is also time to provide some more money to our deficit-ridden governments and school districts, by correcting the proposition's mistakes. But before doing that, we must ensure that the activity that generated the legitimate voter anger cannot be repeated, and that the homes of those people on a fixed income are not put into jeopardy.
Part of the outrage in the 1960s and '70s was that there were numerous uncovered scandals in which local tax assessors had been rewarding friends and allies with artificially low tax assessments. But, fortunately, today there are more protections, transparency and scrutiny in those assessments. Nevertheless, those safeguards should be reinforced.
Of course, it is much easier to point out the problems with a system than it is to make viable recommendations about how to make it better. Nevertheless, I will try. My suggestion is to go back to having all real property assessed every two years, regardless of when it was bought or sold, but the owners would be required to pay somewhere between a half or two-thirds of a percent of the assessed value each year in property taxes instead of the present 1%. And for those people who are over a set age limit, such as 60, and only if they so choose, all property tax increases could be deferred until the eventual sale of the house, with interest on the balance being paid to the government.
Probably by this time some of my Libertarian friends are having a coronary just thinking that their colleague is discussing the possible raising of property taxes in some instances. But this is a real problem, and the inequities and harmful disincentives should be addressed, and this approach would both be more equitable for more recent buyers, and also raise more revenue overall because those are who now paying artificially reduced rates would be placed on an equal assessment scale.
So please think about this proposal, and give me your thoughts. How else can we reduce inequitable tax disparities, stop unnecessarily punishing our children as they are trying to enter the financial world, not put people on a fixed income more at risk, and also provide some needed revenues to our schools and other institutions that are being forced to cut expenses beyond productive limits?
The "I've got my protections and I don't care about you" state of mind is not the way a government or the tax laws should be run. Yes, taxpayers truly need protections from politicians, but overall fairness to as many people as possible should also be a part of the equation. This suggestion may not be perfect, but your "homework assignment" as we enter the new year is either to refine and promote this suggestion, or to come up with something better. The status quo is not acceptable.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "Wearing the Robe: the Art and Responsibility of Judging in Today's Courts" (Square One Publishers, 2010), Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, A Voter's Handbook, Effective Solutions To America's Problems and can be reached at or Judge Jim Gray is also currently offering his 25 years of experience on the bench to ADR Services in Orange County for Arbitration and Mediation services.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

When it comes to kids, teach and love them - by Judge Jim Gray

I never even held an infant until my son Bill was born. It wasn't that I was averse to small children, it's just that I was never really exposed to them, or given any training about how effectively to raise them as they grew up. So with the understanding that there must be many other people out there just like me, my Christmas gift is to pass along to you various tips and suggestions I have learned over the years about raising children. If you find them to be helpful, pass them on, along with your own comments and recommendations, to young parents as they are doing the most difficult but also the most important thing a human being can do, which is to raise children. Everyone deserves a happy childhood to look back upon. That is certainly not completely possible in the real world, but at least we can get closer to that goal.

To start at the beginning, understand that babies cry. Sometimes, of course, it is for a good reason, and that reason should be addressed. But once they have been fed, burped, changed and put to bed, leave them there. It's almost as if babies are human, because if you reward them by holding and petting them each time they cry, that's what they will learn to do. So let them cry if they must.

Also develop the team approach that if one parent gets too frazzled by the baby's crying, or bad behavior, that is the automatic time for the other parent quickly to take over. Obviously it's hard to raise young children, and sometimes we can lose our tempers when we are stressed or tired. So team parenting is the answer. Actually along these lines, when I was in the Navy, it was well-publicized that if one parent was away and the remaining parent was overwhelmed by their small children, all they had to do was come to the Naval Hospital for a two-day respite. I think this was a sophisticated and healthy approach. Of course grandparents can also fulfill that function, for the benefit of everybody!

After they begin to talk, young children should also be taught to use words instead of whining, even when having a temper tantrum. If they are not able to use words, it means that they are too sleepy to behave, so it is time for bed.

On another matter, never make idle or false promises to your children. So, for example, if you say that your children will be put to bed if they continue to whine, you simply must follow through!

Providing boundaries is also one of the most important things that can happen for their positive development, because that will leave them in a position to thrive inside those boundaries. And equally important for their development into well-adjusted young adults, they also need to know that if they stray outside the boundaries there will be adverse consequences.

One of the greatest and most rewarding things a person can do with children is to teach them the joys of reading. Not only is it genuine fun, the rewards in later test scores will be substantial.

Then do yourself, your children and society a big favor — turn off the television and eat as many meals together as a family as you can. If you develop the habit of talking to each other about what happened to them that day, it will put each of you more in tune with each other, help you lead a closer and fuller family life, and create genuine and lasting positive bonds.

Similarly, if you or your spouse speaks a foreign language, try to use it as often as possible in your household. Children can learn languages without even trying, and if you teach them a second language you will be giving them a truly important and lasting gift.

Of course, children really are like sponges in virtually every other manner as well. They not only will mimic what you do and say (for example, if you hear your young child using a swear word, you will not have to look far to see where it came from), they will also follow your ethics.

Allow your children to take on more responsibility. One way is to give them a reasonable amount of money each week as an allowance, but then have them pay for things like their own haircuts, movie tickets, ice cream cones and, when they are much older, gasoline and oil changes. And have them get a job — any job — first around the house and then with some business. That more than anything will teach them the value of money, which is a necessary ingredient of responsible living.

My final five random thoughts are, first, to love your children openly and fully, and tell them so frequently both with words and hugs. Second, there is a great deal of truth in the comment that the most effective mother is one who is firm beneath her gentleness, and the most effective father is one who is gentle beneath his firmness. Third, just as it is the duty of parents to teach their children responsibility, it is also the duty of grandparents to spoil their grandchildren!

Fourth, the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. And fifth, slow down and enjoy your children every step of the way. My baby girl just had her 35th birthday last week, which is to say that children grow up quickly. You will never regret spending time with your children while they are young. In fact, that joy will probably be one of the greatest experiences of your life!

JAMES. P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the Chapman University fight song "Second to None," and can be contacted at or

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are TSA procedures really making us safer? - by Judge Jim Gray

Last year, thousands and thousands of Americans at the airport lost at least 30 minutes of their lifetimes by standing in longer lines and complying with all of the TSA's increasingly laborious, invasive and time-consuming restrictions.

Has anyone ever done a cost-benefit analysis on these security checkpoint programs? TSA has about 60,000 employees, and today there are about 350 full-body scanners in operation in about 70 of our nation's airports, with about 1,000 expected to be operational by the end of 2011 All of this costs more that $10 per passenger per screening. That also means that those of us who pose no danger will be forced into enhanced scannings at the airports that have them, but the terrorists will simply choose to begin their flights at airports that do not yet have those procedures, like ours here in Orange County.

How much safer are we because of the loss of time and added costs? If anyone really knows, they aren't telling. Why is that? For that answer, one must understand governmental bureaucracies, which are driven by politics.

First, it doesn't matter how much time and money are spent or wasted, or how many millions of passengers are inconvenienced, forced to be humiliated or unnecessarily exposed to radiation, if even one person is injured or loses his life to a terrorist, the TSA will be in political trouble. Thus, the TSA has every incentive to avoid every conceivable risk — regardless of the probabilities, privacy intrusions or expenses involved.

Second, politicians thrive when they are seen as fighting against enemies of the state. So now it is the "terrorists" who furnish the excuse for our government to deprive us of our liberties, take more of our money, and, along the way, keep the very politicians behind this "movement" firmly in power. Over time other groups have also been used to justify such actions, such as Muslims, communists, Jews, atheists and more. Of course, many dictators in other countries around the world have clung to power in a similar fashion by citing the United States as their common enemy.

Thus we need to have some responsible party intercede in the process, do a cost-benefit analysis, and give us recommendations about how to go forward. But in this we also must be realistic and understand that there is no way that our safety can actually be guaranteed in today's world. As a practical matter, all a suicide bomber has to do to terrorize our country would be to detonate a bomb in the line of people at airports waiting to be screened, or do the same thing at any theater, train station, athletic stadium or highway bridge or tunnel in our country. How could we possibly protect all of those places? Furthermore, terrorists don't even have to be successful, because simply attempting their various plots seems to be keeping us terrorized enough.

So how can we defeat the terrorists? Simply by taking reasonable and logical precautions, relying upon the most effective counter-terrorism device we can use, which is good and timely intelligence, and then simply refusing to be terrorized. That will render the terrorists ineffective.

In the meantime, we passengers are now faced with the choice of going through a full-body X-ray scanner, being subjected to a highly intrusive full-body pat down, or simply choosing not to fly on airplanes. The body-scanner X-ray machines are euphemistically called "naked scanners" because they provide graphic images of our bodies, including genitalia, breasts and other personal effects like urine bags, sanitary napkins and padded clothing. And regardless of their training, it is irresistible for TSA employees, just like any other human beings, to gawk at what they are seeing. In fact, so far several reports have cited situations in which the scanners have been used by TSA employees to humiliate some of their fellow workers who were going through the procedure.

The government says that the amount of radiation put out by the scanners is not dangerous. But, unlike the X-ray machines in your doctors' offices, once they are in operation, the airport scanners are mostly not required to be calibrated any further, so no one really knows how much radiation they are emitting. And even with limited exposure, the radiation is directed at the passenger's entire body, and no one knows the effect it will have upon the corneas of the eyes, which are the most sensitive areas for radiation damage.

The government also says that no visual records are kept of the screenings, but there is much information to the contrary. That information says that individual screenings can be maintained and even transferred to prosecutors, if necessary, for evidentiary purposes. If that is true, then the TSA has the largest library of child pornography in the world.

If passengers "opt out" of the full-body X-ray scanners, they will be subjected to an enhanced, genital-groping body pat-down, which would be classified as a sexual assault in any other context. In fact, newspapers have been full of truly concerning stories about these pat-downs. My own wife tells of having been completely "felt up," as she was recently going through the screening process at LAX. In some respects, I'm glad I wasn't there, because I would probably have had difficulty controlling my anger!

What would be a better approach? The answer is to privatize security screening and allow each airline to choose the most appropriate procedure. The private sector is much better equipped to adopt a cost-benefit analysis that will balance the issues of safety, intrusion and cost. Then probably most airlines would adopt the approach that is used by Israel's El-Al Airlines, which is simply to take people aside and talk to them.

Analyzing people's behavior through observations, conversation and the use of databases, plus focusing upon those "red flag passengers" who paid in cash, are only traveling one-way or don't have much luggage will go a long way in exposing realistic criminal threats. We spend much too much time, energy and money in the name of political correctness searching harmless travelers, and too little focusing upon legitimate potential threats. That must change.

James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical revue "Americans All" (Heuer Publishers), and can be contacted at or through his website at

Monday, December 6, 2010

Gratitude for 'Cups of Tea' author - by Judge Jim Gray

Editor's note: Instead of his regular column, James P. Gray this week has decided to share a letter he sent to "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson.

Mr. Greg Mortenson

Central Asia Institute

P.O. Box 7209

Bozeman, Montana 59771

Dear Greg,

In your travels, and carrying out your many obligations in helping to establish schools for boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you meet many people. As such, you will probably not recall me, but I was the last person for whom you signed a copy of your latest book, "Stones into Schools," after you gave your presentation at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas in January.

During our short time together, I tried to communicate to you my pride in what you are doing for Pakistan, Afghanistan, our great country and the world in helping to educate so many people — especially girls. This is certainly not easy in Central Asia! Now that I have finished reading your new book, I am even more in awe of your accomplishments.

Not only has your Central Asia Institute been successful in building schools and educating people, you have put into reality the lesson we tried to learn in the Peace Corps, which is that a project is only really successful if it can get along without you as the founder. This you demonstrated by CAI's assistance, but without your personal involvement, in the building of its most distant school — almost literally on the roof of the world — in Bozai Gumbaz in Northern Afghanistan. Congratulations!

From my perspective, you are actually doing what other people and even governments only really dream of doing. For only modest amounts of money you are building institutions of literacy, self-confidence, self-sufficiency and global good will. In other words, like the sub-heading of your book says, you are promoting peace with books not bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To further that wonderful effort, please accept not only this enclosed financial contribution, but also my fervent thanks and best wishes. And also please receive my strong hope that you will take extra precautions for your safety in the future while you travel in these dangerous and remote areas in these difficult times!

But this letter also comes with a request. During our brief discussion, I mentioned to you my deeply felt belief that our nation's policy of drug prohibition is literally causing almost unimaginable problems here and all around the world. Yes, many of these drugs can be harmful, but it really is the drug money that is causing the greatest harm. So I particularly noted the comments in your book about the damage inflicted by the Taliban due to the growing of the poppy flower to make opium and heroin, and the resultant problems with addictions and smuggling that come from these acts.

So my request is that you use your future presentations in part to tell people the truth as you have seen it on this subject, wherever it is. My own understanding of that truth is synthesized by a quote from Winston Churchill, who said that "If you destroy a free market, you create a black market." From your perspective, and using your insights, please tell the world what this black market has done in Afghanistan and surrounding area, and the results you have seen.

From the deepest part of my heart, thank you again for what you have done and for what you continue to do. I know that CAI is not faith or religious-based, but nevertheless you are truly doing God's work.

Of course, so much remains to be done. Like you say at the end of your book, today there are over 120 million school-age children on this planet who remain illiterate and are deprived of education — two-thirds of them being girls — due to gender discrimination, poverty, exploitation, religious extremism and corrupt governments.

You further tell us from your own observations that educating girls leads to increased income not only for the girls, but also for their families and nation. At the same time educating girls generally increases nutrition and sanitation and reduces the birthrate, and infant and maternal mortality. Plus, educated women are more likely to insist upon the education of their own and neighboring children — especially the daughters. And in addition, educated girls and women are more likely to stand up for themselves, resist violence, and take part in government, which, in turn, reduces violence and corruption in government.

In our military actions in the regions you serve, our government is also trying to achieve the same goals as you are, but with fewer positive results, and a great deal greater human and financial cost. Why has the Taliban not attacked the schools your organization has established? Because the elders and other leaders of those communities requested the schools to be built in the first place, and actually provided the land, labor and some of the materials for the construction. Thus, attacks on those schools are seen as an attack upon the communities themselves, and the Taliban does not want to alienate those communities. In fact, in some cases the communities have persuaded the Taliban that an attack upon the schools would be seen as an insult to Islam itself!

Greg, you have been responsible for effective and lasting positive change in one of the most difficult regions of the world. I have met you, and even with all of your success, you are truly a humble man. But in reality you are a gift to us all. So thank you again for what you are doing for the world. Bless you, and go with God!

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions to America's Problems" (The Forum Press, 2010), and can be contacted at or through his website at

Friday, December 3, 2010

'Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies' - by Judge Jim Gray

This Thanksgiving weekend I celebrate our national parks and other gems administered for us by the U.S. National Park Service. One thing that I want to do before my life ends is visit all the national parks. So far, I have visited 26 of those 58 parks These parks have been especially set aside for a reason, and each one I have visited makes that reason unequivocally clear. And if you are at least 62 years old, like I am, and have purchased a Senior Pass, that could be the financial deal of your life!

But let me ask a question that probably only a few of you will be able to answer. Which national park is closest to us here in Orange County? No, it is not Death Valley, Yosemite, Sequoia, or Kings Canyon. It is the Channel Islands National Park. This is a wonderful place to explore on a sea kayak, with lots of sea caves and a few tunnels, and a place where bird and sea life are in abundance. Commercial boats can take you there from both Oxnard and Ventura harbors, and I strongly recommend a visit.

As you probably know, the first of our country's national parks was Yellowstone. It was founded by an act of Congress in 1872, and the park was officially set aside as a "pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people in order to protect for all time this outstanding natural area."

If you get the chance, stay at the Old Faithful Inn, which was completed in 1904 and is probably the world's largest log cabin. When you take a tour of the Inn, be sure to see the room where Teddy Roosevelt stayed on one of his visits. It is one of the few rooms where you can view the eruption of Old Faithful from one of the inn's windows.

The National Park Service today administers 393 individual locations covering more than 83 million acres in the United States, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These include national parks, battlefields, historical parks, cemeteries, monuments, heritage areas, preserves, sites, trails, parkways, seashores, and recreational areas. Information about each site can be found online in the 131-page 2009-2011 National Parks Index.

The park service also administers one international historic site, at Saint Croix Island in Maine. This was the first stopping point for French settlers in the New World, and the place where 35 of the 79 men who stayed there in 1605 did not survive the winter. The following spring, the survivors moved on to found the first permanent French site in the Western Hemisphere at Point Royal in Nova Scotia.

As of 2008, the top ten most visited national parks, in order, were the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina; Grand Canyon in Arizona; Yosemite here in California; Olympic in Washington; Yellowstone in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio; Rocky Mountains in Colorado; Zion in Utah; Grand Tetons in Wyoming; and Acadia in Maine.

California and Alaska have the largest number of national parks with eight apiece, followed by Utah with five, and Colorado with four. The largest of the parks is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska, which covers 13.2 million acres, and the smallest place administered by the service is Ford's Theater National Historic Site in Washington D.C., where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. (If you have the opportunity, try to attend any show at the Ford Theater. The experience of sitting there with the omnipresent flag-draped presidential box presiding over the theater is not to be forgotten.)

Yosemite Valley is God's gift to mankind. Actually I believe that if I were to find people who did not believe in God, all I would have to do is take them to Yosemite Valley and that in itself would change their minds. And, although it is much too expensive, one of the great things a person can do in Yosemite is to attend a Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel during the Christmas season. We did it once, which was enough, but we were lucky that it also happened to snow that evening. The next morning with the fresh snowfall all over the cliffs, trees, and grounds, Yosemite Valley was the most beautiful site I had ever seen.

But don't just stay in the valley. If you get lucky in the annual lottery, go to the camps in the high country of Yosemite. There are about five semi-permanent camps up in the mountains with tents on cement slabs, cots with feather comforters, and wood-burning stoves. In addition, the staff greets you with fresh lemonade when you arrive, prepares nice hot dinners and breakfasts for you while you are there, and also sells picnic lunches that you can take with you as you hike or horseback ride the nine to 12 miles to the next camp.

Another of my favorite trips was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Voyageurs National Park, which are between the Minnesota and Canadian border. In the canoe area you can only use non-mechanized transportation, and, yes, you do have to sleep on the ground, but what a remarkable place! It has not changed at all from the days of the French-Canadian fur-trading Voyageurs of the 18th Century.

Acadia National Park on the Atlantic coast is also a real gem. But the whole time I was there I kept thinking that, yes, this is wonderful territory, but it really does not have the rugged beauty of Big Sur in Central California. Why Big Sur is not a national park I really don't have a clue.

But aren't we fortunate that people like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and other advanced thinkers acted to set aside these natural pieces of heaven? We have many things for which to be thankful on this Thanksgiving weekend, but one of the big ones is the purple mountains' majesty and other places of nature and history that have been set aside for us all. God has indeed shed His grace upon our America, and has crowned our country with that grace from sea to shining sea. Let us all remember to appreciate what we have – and give thanks!

James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical revue "Americans All" (Heuer Publishers), and can be contacted at or through his website at