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Listen: John Uebersax of Morro Bay discusses his run for Congress

John Uebersax

Randol White: This is Issues and Ideas on KCBX Central Coast public radio. I'm Randol White. From the moment Central Coast Congresswoman Lois Capps announced her plans to retire at the end of this term, candidates looking to fill her spot began to announce intentions to run. KCBX is inviting each registered candidate onto Issues and Ideas in order to share their visions for the 24th Congressional District, which includes all of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties, as well as a portion of Ventura County in the Los Padres National Forest. Morro Bay resident, independent John Uebersax is among the most recent entries into the race. He describes himself as a philosopher, social scientist, and biostatistician. John Uebersax joins us today in studio to discuss his vision for serving the 24th District should he be elected to the seat in November 2016. Welcome to Issues and Ideas. 

John Uebersax: Thank you, Randol. It's a pleasure to be here.

RW: Now you have three campaign principles posted on your website. They include peace, solidarity, and vision. Can you explain what you mean by those, and then how you would work to implement those principles in Congress — and we can go ahead and start with peace.

JU: Okay, sure. I'd be happy to. I talk to people here in Morro Bay and in San Luis Obispo, and in the Central Coast, and I know a lot of people believe in peace; we all believe in peace. But we've been at war now for 15 years, and we've been, with one major — well, with two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan; and we've had numerous interventions. We seem to be on this path of war, our country. And people feel that they would like to have peace. We're not happy. People are kind of getting frazzled and almost losing hope that we'll straighten all of this out. And in addition to that, I think people feel frustrated that they can't impact the political system. That these wars are basically being created by a government run amok. And this dovetails with the issue of our elections, because when it comes to war, both the Democrat and the Republican establishments are pursuing the course of war. We had a Republican president for 8 years, and we hoped that the wars would end. And then now we've had a Democrat president for eight years, and the wars have continued. And now we're poised on the verge of potentially getting involved in Syria, which would be the greatest war of them all. Well, the reason I'm running on a peace platform is I want to give people the ability to do something about it. And by running as primarily a peace candidate — I've got these two related issues, but there's no secret, my main issue is peace — then by being on the ballot I turn it into a sort of referendum for peace. Now, the voters here are not simply going to have to rubber-stamp another Republican or Democrat to go ... and nothing will change. By voting for me, then, a public record is made of one more person who's standing up and saying, "I believe in peace. I believe peace is possible. I'd like my elected representative to work for peace." And so, say I get 1,000 votes. That's a thousand people's opinions being heard. I don't have to win the election. I win if I get a single vote for peace. People might say, "well okay, but I've got to vote against the Republican, or vote against the Democrat, because the Republicans, if they win majorities will take away health care, so I have to go for the lesser evil." I think that thinking shouldn't be there. People can actually vote for the greatest good, and have an effect. The next election, both parties are going to say, "Wow, it was a close election. We could really use those 1,000 peace votes. We're going to have to win back the peace voters."

RW: And so then let's move on to solidarity. How does solidarity come into play?

JU: It comes into play because I think the war ... — there's a vicious cycle going on between us getting caught up in war and being at war with ourselves. The war makes us more angry and belligerent and accustoms us to divisiveness and aggression. And at the same time, by being divided, we're powerless to put up a unified front against wars. So if we got the anti-war right and the anti-war left talking to each other, we could combine ... make common cause and stop war. I do want to be sure I've time to read this wonderful quote from George Washington. I was preparing for this talk with some other talks, and I stumbled upon it, and it was almost as if George was saying, "John, I want you to read this to the people in San Luis Obispo." This comes from his Farewell Address. He first warned about the party spirit, which historically has always existed and is the bane of democracies. Let's look at his prescription. "The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is the main foundation of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; your safety, prosperity, and liberty. But it is easy to see that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;" (aside: that we're all one). "Since this is the point in your political fortress against which internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which link together the various parts."

RW: How would you summarize that in your words?

JU: Democrats, and Republicans: we have to love each other. We all say the Pledge of Allegiance at our meetings. We have the same love of country. We're far more alike than we realize. Our differences of opinion make us strong — as long as we put ahead of those differences our recognition that we have a spiritual connection as part of this vast and noble experiment. And I think in peoples' hearts they know that.

RW: Are there specific steps you would take in Congress to make sure that you're bringing the Republicans and the Democrats together, to help reduce the amount of partisan bickering that's going on?

JU: Absolutely. I would at a personal level see it as my duty to lead by example, and to look upon all charitably. I would of course work to end war, following the great tradition of the Democrat, Dennis Kucinich and the Republican, Ron Paul — who did have an effect. I would try to introduce legislation and raise topics of mutual interest. And, you see, the more people are united in a common cause, the less interest they have in the causes that divide them. If you try to argue about arguing, it's not as good as getting people to reawaken to the fact that there are all these things we have in common.

RW: Alright, let's round out your campaign principles with vision.

JU: Vision is an interesting thing. I think that we're responding now as our economics get tight as we're all living under the gun and just reflexively responding to crises. And I believe it's our peculiar role as human beings on this planet to utilize our faculties of vision, and imagine what it is we want. That.... Good doesn't happen by itself. And in particular, peace.

RW: Your resume includes positions at the RAND Corporation, Duke and Wake Forest Universities, and you told me before the interview that you also taught courses at Cal Poly, several biotech companies, including Amgen, GlaxoSmithKline, and Roche Molecular Diagnostics. How has your experience with these large pharmaceutical companies shaped your views on prescription drugs being such a big and expensive part of the US healthcare system.

JU: Well, most definitely the prices are too high. It's an interesting question, because I think the strongest impression I have is that the people who work in these fields are not greedy. These are people who are doing what they are made, endowed by nature to do. We're doing miraculous things with the genome; we can now sequence a person's DNA for $1000. It's almost divine, it's miraculous, and we're at this stage in history. But this is all sitting on the back of our capitalist, Wall Street, greedy financial system. So the problem I see that's going on is that we're not having doctors and scientists design our medicines. What's happening is that it's all being subsidized by venture capitalists who want to maximize their profit, and have no ... and even anonymously ... people own a mutual fund — they have no idea where the mutual fund is investing the fund. They're not waking up in the morning saying, "Boy, I sure hope we can cure cancer." They're looking at their profits. It's not even ... so we have to eliminate... we have to do something about the profit potential of these ... the reason, the driving force of our medical research needs to be humanism, and not money. But it's not the pharmaceutical companies; it's really that we have this other tier of venture capitalists — Wall Street — steering all our health care in the direction of making money, money, money.

RW: What are your views on oil exploration and extraction along the Central Coast, and then the delivery of that oil by pipeline, trucks, or trains.

JU: Well, I think that we ... I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be going solar. It seems to me that we were talking about this in the '70s, and we're just barely there now. So I'm very skeptical of anyone saying we need to, you know, drill for gas in Alaska. I'm just very skeptical of that. It's bad to do. If it were the only way to live, I suppose we'd have to consider it. But global warming is a reality. As were talking now, we're experiencing record heat, and the shortest winter we can ever remember. So global warming is a reality. Now I'm very concerned about this shale oil that they're transporting by train...

RW: The tar sands.

JU: The tar sands. And, as you may know, that they're trying to schedule 100-car-long trains to come through San Luis Obispo right over the overpass on Higuera street. And there's been half a dozen, at least, derailments, an explosion that's wiped out half of the downtown of a Canadian city. And the only thing we have to assure us that these things are safe are what the oil companies are telling us, and they're not exactly a credible source. So I think I'm not alarmist. I'm not a classical 'tree-hugger.' I realize that industry does good things for us. But we can't hock our future for short-term profits and easy convenience.

RW: Would you prefer that pipelines are brought up to standards and those used instead?

JU: I think we need to just ride our bicycles and find out ways to use less energy. I mean, it's that simple. We need a reason to do that. And this this goes along with vision, again. We need to think about what kind of society we want. Here in San Luis Obispo we've got a lot of people who are interested in sustainable living. Well lets get serious about this. Let's start working with the County Supervisors to zone vast areas which are designed as planned communities that have a low energy footprint.

RW: There's a division as to whether nuclear energy is considered sustainable or not. PG&E, as you probably know, is currently asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to renew its operating permits for the two reactors at Diablo Canyon. How do you feel about that?

JU: Well I'm very ... — I don't want to sound mean-spirited or that we don't need electricity.... In other words I've got confidence, I basically think the people at PG&E are working hard, and I trust them, here. I'm not sure people at every reactor ... I trust them more. Yet the reality is that the engineers at Fukushima were pretty good, too. And there's always the uncertainty. Just as a statistician I became interested in the risk calculation of nuclear reactors failing. And people are under the impression here, in San Luis Obispo — we're within 20 miles — that there's [only] a chance in a million that there will be a meltdown. But it's not that. Those estimates come from computer simulations. And I spoke with a statistician at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about this. These simulations are not really designed to deliver risk estimates. They're only used to compare risks. So it's kind of like it's a metric that has no absolute meaning; it only has a comparative meaning. So, the chance of a fire may be greater or less than the chance of a meltdown. Or human error may have a greater or lower chance of causing a meltdown than an earthquake. But you don't know the actual value of either of those. So what are we left with? We're left with the fact that there have been about 500 operating nuclear [power] reactors. And there've been about five serious radiation releases. So you do that simple math, and you've got about five out of 500 chances, one in 100, of any given reactor having a serious accident. And that estimate is just as good... it's a little high, but it's actually more valid than this one chance in a million.

RW: Finally, Citizens United and super PACS. Campaign finance. I know that as an independent candidate you will not have a big organization behind your campaign. What do you think about the situation right now in the United States when it comes to campaign finance?

JU: I think it's absolutely horrible. And the super PACS — I don't see how these things can be legal. Every time you accept money you're farming out your loyalties. You're beholden to people whose money you've accepted.

RW: Can someone who doesn't accept money win?

JU: Yes. This is another thing. I'd really encourage people, even if peace isn't your burning issue, think of it this way. I'm running self-funded. I'm not accepting campaign contributions. And the sooner we get someone who can win a primary or win an election like that, that sends a signal to the rest of the country. "Hey, look at this guy in the progressive San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara area. He won a primary or passed a primary without accepting campaign contributions, because he accepts the principle of an electronic democracy. He put his website up. He used social media, he stumped, he just talked to people." And that's what democracy's all about, and we can still make it happen. So people ought to consider voting for me for that reason alone.

RW: Would you like to see federally or state-funded campaigns?

JU: I don't see any problem with that — I think it would be better than the present system. But to be honest, I'd rather see us not use money at all. Let's go to an electronic democracy. Let's have it be, if anybody is serious about voting, and everyone's got access to the web, and if not ... go to the... build dedicated terminals at the library. You take the initiative. Each candidate has a website, or a section at the California Secretary of State's Office online that lists their platforms. And you look at their issues. So we could do it for free, basically, or cap it at $5000.

RW: Morro Bay's independent candidate for the 24th District, John Uebersax. Thank you so much for joining us here at Issues and Ideas.

JU: Thank you, the pleasure is mine.

RW: And this is Issues and Ideas here on Central Coast public radio. I'm Randol White.