25 November 2005

Showing Your ID on the Bus.

Facts: A woman whose final destination is not a federal facility is riding an RTD bus in Lakewood, that happens to make a stop in the federal center in Lakewood. She is not seeking to leave the bus. She is ordered to show ID without any particularlized suspicion and arrested for not doing so. Has she committed a crime?

The story was picked up on Daily Kos, and she is being represented by the ACLU in the case. A usual, I agree with the FBI. Riding a city bus to a non-federal destination does not justify a suspicionless demand for ID.

Drunk Driving Still Kills.

You know that drunk driving kills. Occassionally, however, a dose of graphic detail serves as a good reminder. This time, a drunk driver heading into the mountains near Red Rocks killed a grandmother, and left another in the hospital for a long time.

Have a designated driver who really doesn't drink. Take your friend's keys. Do what I have done once, and rudely stay overnight without warning at the party you promised to drive home from, because you are too drunk to drive safely home. Call a cab, it is a lot cheaper than a DUI ticket. Remember that the legal limit is 0.08 BAC, not 0.10 BAC as it was a few years ago. If you don't know how many drinks it takes for someone of your weight to get to 0.08, you shouldn't be driving. For most women, anything more than two drinks is too much. For most men, anything more than four drinks is too much. If you are small, generally speaking, that means one drink for women and two or three for men. Coffee plus booze does not equal safe to drive.

Have a happy, but safe, holiday.

Thank Yous To Google and Blogger and Others

This site would not be possible without Blogger, which makes its computer resources available for free to host it (while still retaining for profit status, I might add). It also provides a significant share of the traffic through its random next blog function. Google is the other single biggest source of traffic at this site, providing 12.7% of the traffic on this site and viewers who are typically actually interested in what they find here. This site was also today, ranked first in the world for the search term "religion rant". So, that deserves its own thank you.

I also thank the couple of dozen blogs and websites that have linked to this site (you know who you are), and my hearty core group of regularly readers (I know who many of you are) and regular commenters (even the conservative one from the left coast).

I thank my dad for providing the laptop from which most of the posts on this blog are made as an early birthday present this year, particularly considering that he isn't nearly as big of a Democratic party donor as Jared Polis, who provided Talk Left with her laptop. And my wife, for starting to learn to tolerate my blogging habit.

And, finally, I thank the blogs, nonprofits and mainstream media sources to whom I link, without which this site would not be possible (as well as the fair use privilege in the copyright laws, which is central to the existence of this site).

Charitable Deduction Revisited.

I've mentioned growing doubts about the charitable deduction before at this site. If you want facts and figures, the Tax Profs Blog has a digest of a report from the Tax Foundation summing up the concerns. The summary for those who don't have time to read it:

From the perspective of economic efficiency, it turns out it's hard to justify the current size and scope of the federal charitable deduction. Most 501(c)(3) public charities now benefiting from the deduction are neither charitable, in the sense of relying mostly on altruistic gifts, nor are providers of what economists call "public goods." . . . . the charitable deduction's benefits are highly regressive [and] most 501(c)(3)s actually rely mostly on program revenues—e.g., tuition from college students or admission fees at art galleries—and government grants for funding, casting doubt on the notion that they wouldn't be privately provided in the absence of a federal tax subsidy for them[.]

Robert Ingersoll On Thanksgiving.

Julie O. at They Get Letters have some appropriate thankful thoughts from Robert Ingersoll. Go read them.

I've Heard It All Before.

The musical "Shenandoah" opened in January of 1975 (it was based on the 1965 Jimmy Stewart movie), more than thirty years ago. The subject was the Civil War. The lyrics from one of its songs, sung by the widowed West Virginia patriarch who is the protagonist of the musical, entitled "I've Heard It All Before", are below:

Stand and show your colors. Let's all go to war. Lord will surely bless us. I've heard it all before. I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

They always got a holy cause to march you off to war. Tyranny or justice, anarchy or law. We must defend our honor. I've heard it all before. I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

They always got a holy cause that's worth the dyin' for. Someone writes a slogan, raises up a flag. Someone finds an enemy to blame. The trumpet sounds the call to arms to leave the cities and the farms. And always, the ending is the same, the same, the same, the same.

The dream has turned to ashes, the wheat has turned to straw. And someone asks the question: "What's the dyin' for?" The living can't remember, the dead no longer care. But next time it won't happen. Upon my soul I swear. I've heard it all a hundred times. I've heard it all before.

Don't tell me "It's different now." I've heard it all, I've hard it all, I've heard it all before.

Alito and CAP.

One more reason to oppose Judge Alito, who is George W. Bush's nominee to replace Justice O'Connor on the United States Supreme Court is that he was a member of Concerned Alumni of Princeton (formed the year he graduated in 1972) and bragged about it in an 1985 resume. What kind of organization was this?

In a 1973 article in Prospect, a magazine CAP published, Shelby Cullom Davis, one of its founders, harked back to the days when a gathering of Princeton alumni consisted of "a body of men, relatively homogeneous in interests and backgrounds." Lamented Cullom Davis: "I cannot envisage a similar happening in the future with an undergraduate student population of approximately 40% women and minorities, such as the Administration has proposed." Another article published that same year bemoaned the fact that "the makeup of the Princeton student body has changed drastically for the worse" in recent years--Princeton had begun admitting women in 1969--and wondered aloud what might happen if the university adopted a "sex-blind" policy "removing limits on the number of women." In an unsuccessful effort to forestall this frightening development, the executive committee of CAP published a statement in December 1973 that affirmed unequivocally, "Concerned Alumni of Princeton opposes adoption of a sex-blind admission policy."

Judge Alito is an immoral man who does not belong on the United States Supreme Court.

Hat tip to T. Rex's Guide to Life (who also notes on the continuing topic of the sea change in politics in the United States right now that "Democrats now have a ten-seat advantage over Republicans for state legislative seats nationally controlling 3,662 state legislative seats to 3,652 for Republicans.").

Giving Thanks.

I would have written this post yesterday but, I fell asleep in a "food coma" yesterday afternoon and didn't wake up until the next late the next morning. Our delicious family feast at home featured a fresh young turkey (cooked by me, the rest, except for the potatoes, was prepared by my wife), a ham (a la crockpot), mashed potatoes (one of the less inspired efforts in my cooking career), a rice stuffing, acorn squash, green beans, a fancy fresh cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and a sweet apple and pear stew, complimented by glasses of Beaujolais (we had planned on a Riesling, but needed the Beaujolais to cook the sides and having two bottles of wine and a bottle of port all open on the same day offends our neo-depression sensibilities). Needless to say, it was more than enough for a family of four. I killed one of our household appliances in the process, but that is the price one must pay for great rewards, I suppose. (Less charitably, one could view it as a stupidity tax, not unlike the lottery). Delightful sequels, like poached pears, await in the coming days, as we couldn't fit all of our best options into one day. (Incidentally, if you are into TV and movie sequels, you'll like this site).

I'm going to take this space not actually to review those things for which I am thankful, although there are many, but to look at the concept of giving thanks itself.

Giving thanks is a concept that doesn't translate easily from the religious world to the secular one, and even when you use the same word, you often are not really saying the same thing.

In a religious worldview, the idea of Thanksgiving flows naturally. You owe everything you have, all of your good fortunes to God or to gods. Your well being is ultimately at the grace (another word that doesn't translate well to the secular world) of God. When someone in this world does something that benefits you, it is as an agent of God, not really in their own right. Since your well being depends not upon what you have earned, but upon God's goodwill, it behooves you, and it is your moral obligation, to offer your thanks to God for what you have received. Prayers of thanksgiving, which link your own well being to God's providence and great power, are close cousins of prayers of worship and praise, which acknowledge God's providence and power in general without any linkage to the personal benefit that you and yours have received. One offer a God worship and praise in a more general acknowledgement of your loyalty to God. Even the Christian's Jesus, who was not very obsessive about Old Testament law, recognized that this basic pledge of loyalty to God was equal to the obligation to love one's neighbor as oneself, the part of the New Testament creed which secular people tend to emphasize. Prayers of thanksgiving, likewise, are also the natural counterpart of petitioning prayers, in which one asks for God's assistance in one's own endeavors ("please God, let me make it through this") or for others ("please God, help my neighbor Eunice get better" or "God Bless America"). When God answers your prayers, it would be rude not to say thank you.

Secular notions of thanksgiving exist, but they don't fit into this worldview.

Some are more prosaic and direct than those of religious people. They are thanks to those who actually made what you have possible. When your neighbor Eunice gets better, someone with a religious worldview is likely to thank God for answering their prayers, while someone with a secular worldview is more likely to be thankful that her doctor was paying attention, that researchers developed the drugs that treated her, and that her small business employer made the hard call to provide health insurance for its employees.

In a secular worldview, the "count your blessings" routine associated with the Thanksgiving holiday, that for a religious person are prayers of thanks to God for the providence he has provided you, aren't really a form of giving thanks at all. They are moments of taking stock. They are opportunities to "collect" (a religious term, especially among higher church Episcopalians, that actually translates quite well into a secular world view), and assess where you are, where you are going and how you got there. They are wards against depression, because life could be worse. They are opportunities to remind yourself of what you value, and what you value less, as you decide where you should direct your efforts going forward. What in your life have you worked hard for that, at the end of the day, ranks at the bottom of the list of what you have now and value? Maybe that effort should be abandoned. And, what in your life is very important to you, to which you have devoted few efforts? Maybe you need to refocus yourself on holding on to those things.

These different notions of thanks go a long way towards explaining who is and is not religious. While one important piece of the puzzle, which I've discussed before, is that religion thrives when it protects a threatened culture, another important piece of the puzzle is that people tend to turn to the supernatural when important parts of their life are beyond their control.

Farmers tend to be religious people. And, it makes some superficial sense. While there is plenty of work that a farmer must do, sowing crops, controlling weeds, and harvesting the crops, so much of a farmer's life is beyond his control. A drought or hail storm or plague of vermin can destroy a year's work. Prices vary due to forces that a farmer has no hope of influencing -- all too often tending high when a farmer is most likely to have little or nothing to sell, and tending low when the crop is bountiful. Catastrophic injuries are more common in farming than almost any other injury, and unlike miners or factory workers, a farmer often has little in the way of an organizational safety net to support him when he is a victim of them. Good luck, as well as industry, is a big part of success in farming, and when you can't control your success, devoting time to prayers that might skew the odds of that uncontrollable part of your enterprise is sensible.

In the city, some of the most superstitious people, actors and people who sell big ticket items, turn to supernatural, although less often a traditional "God" for the same reasons. Somebody will get the lead part in the next big play, or sell the cement truck that a construction company in town has finally decided that it needs. But, whether it is you or someone else that ends up getting the deal is often decided by factors as capricious as they are rational. An actor can diligently show up at auditions and network, a salesman can work his contacts, but if the lead in the next play needs to be a sober tall thin man, and you are jolly short heavy woman, you won't get it no matter how hard you try. And, if you are a salesman for one company, and your customers decide that the engineering on your competitor's comparable product is better, there is only so much that you can do to convince them.

One of defining features of modern capitalism is that, outside of government contracting, there is nothing in the system designed specifically to be fair or just in making economic decisions. The capitalist system doesn't care if you work hard or not. You get the same reward for getting a contract because you happen to be a golfing buddy of a customer's CEO as you do if you get a contract because you spend hours making cold calls and honing your sales presentation. You get the same profit for having been the realtor whose business card was the last one to enter a customer's mailbox before he decided to sell his house, as you do if you were chosen by a deliberative process that compared realtors in the city based on the percentage of appraised values they received in sales negotiations.

It is very hard to give up the notion that randomness which is beyond your control isn't being directed by some intelligent force. This notion is what makes intelligent design so attractive to some people. But, wishing something was true doesn't make it so. Prayer and trying not to break mirrors won't win you any auditions or sales calls, even though networking with people in a church might.

Roast Coffee House

West Washington Park has another new coffee house! Hurray! Here's what I posted in a comment over at Mile High Buzz:

Roast Coffee House, at 712 1/2 S. Pearl, is one of the narrowest and newest coffee houses on the Denver scene. There was a coffee house at this location across from Lincoln Elementary in West Washington Park for a while, but it closed and was vacant until a week ago.

The new proprietor, a fellow who was a New York photographer for seven years, now does photography in Denver and plans to exhibit his works from the walls of the shop which a tall man could span his arms across.

The croissants on sale were good (although eating a warm one while driving if you have clean pants on is not recommended), and his motto is that everything must be "Bonafide". Parents from the local elementary school and local business owners are currently the main customers.

In the spring and summer, a private patio in rear will be opened to customers, adding another twist to an already unique space.

The competition for the West Wash Park coffee dollar is fierce. For now, we will hope that most of them continue to stay in business (which should pick up once the Northbound exits from I-25 open up and commuters return to the neighborhood).

23 November 2005

Gender and Spatial Relations.

This is another Science News story, derived from the November issue of Psychological Science. The study in question looked at 547 second graders in Chicago from 15 difference schools. It tested the children's abilities in two kinds of spatial relations tests and a sentence comprehension test, and gathered information about gender and income level.

Boys from upper- and working-class families consistently outperfomred their female counterparts on both spatial relations tasks . . . No sex difference in spatial scores appeared among kids from poor families, and both boys and girls scored lower than their counteparts in he other two groups did. As the investigators expected, no sex difference emerged in sentence comprehension in any of the groups . . .in each economic group, especially high score on spatial relations task were usually boys . . . Similarly, earlier studies have found that more boys than girls achieve extremely high scores in mathematics.

This is explosive stuff that won a President of Harvard University a heap of oppumbrium. Many studies have shown gender differences on spatial relations test, but this is the first to link those differences to family income, suggesting some role for nuture in this difference. Many people would like to believe that differences in spatial relations test performance and math performance between men and women is simply a product of discriminatory child rearing. I don't believe it. Why?

1. School likely doesn't play a strong part in these results. We are talking about second graders, not high school students.

2. The only place where we don't see boys having an edge over girls is among poor boys and girls who don't score extremely high on spatial relations tasks. The theory suggested by the researchers, which seems plausible, is that boys are naturally more likely to have strong spatial relations abilities, but that the deprivation of poverty (including in many cases poor access to toys and few opportunties to explore their neighborhoods) stunts that potential in both boys and girls.

3. There is no good reason to believe that poor families are markedly less gender biased in the way that they raise their children than working class or wealtheir families. Indeed, our intuition would be that higher income parents would deliberately avoid gender stereotypes, while poor families wouldn't care. Of course, on the other hand, one could look at the data and note that poor families are much more likely to be headed by a single mother than more affluent families, and that seeing a mother in a head of household role and not having a father in the family could impact gender biases in child rearing.

4. While my own experience is anecdotal, as a father of a girl and a boy, I was stunned at just how early boys and girls start demonstrating very gender stereotyped behavior, without an conscious effort on the part of either my wife or myself, to establish those stereotypes. At ages 6 and 4, there are already immense gender typical differences between my son and daughter, and those differences started to manifest at least as early as one year of age, when they first started to talk. My daughter, at that age, was facinated by animals. My son, at that age, hardly noticed animals was already obsessed with machines (cars, trains, trucks, construction equipment). The list for each is lengthy, but, while it is only a single case, it does have persausive power.

5. I am aware of, although I can't easily locate a citation to, studies that seem to indicate that spatial relations ability is something that we inherit from our mothers, which is a dominant gene in boys, but far less likely to express itself (perhaps a recessive gene, perhaps something else) in girls.

6. I have also seen studies (again, these are from my pre-internet days) which indicate that spatial relations ability along with musical ability, tend to be some of the earliest maturing aptitudes, with adult levels of aptitude typically reached prior to the first grade, which would indicate a very limited time period in which nuture as opposed to nature could play a role. (In contrast, the same studies show that reasoning ability has usually reached adult levels in women at about puberty, and in men by the time they graduate from college).

7. The mathematics performance of boys and girls starts to see the great disparities around the time they enter high school. This also happens to be around the time that mathematics goes from being far more abstract, to being far more spatial relations oriented (in subjects like geometry, trig and calculus).

8. I am aware of another interesting spatial relations study that looked at sense of direction in men and women, and in particular tracked women's menstrual cycles at the same time. The study found that during their menstruation, men and women performed equally well on sense of direction tasks, while men greatly out performed women who were at peak fertility near ovulation at those same tasks.

Science News this week reports, based on the November 1, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, another similar study that found that even women with no apparent symptoms of PMS had more negative reactions to words presented to them in a study on the eve of their periods, than they did at other parts of the menstrual cycle. Likewise, studies have shown "nearly 80 percent of epileptic women have more seizures than usual during the phase of the menstrual cycle when their blood concentration of progesterone declines and that of estrogen increases. Other studies showed that women with a condition called premenstrual dysphoric disorder experience severe anxiety and depression during the same phase." So, the study on sense of direction may not be a freak study.

This kind of phenomena would dramatically impede learning many spatial relations oriented subjects because subjects like mathematics and physics and chemistry are all highly sequential, and a tendency to stumble in those fields for a few days a month, when the subjects are usually taught over an extended period like a semester or year, makes that pace problematic for girls.

9. The fall out from the passage of laws banning gender discrimination in both educational institutions and almost all types employment is suggestive. For example, the percentage of law students who are women has gone from about 2% to a majority since the 1970s, producing a similarly dramatic shift in the gender make up of younger lawyers. In constrast, the change in the percentage of women who are engineers or physicists has been far more modest.

10. Given the scientific literature that precedes this study, and its design (incorporating both spatial and non-spatial measures), it is hard to argue either that the girls received inferior upbringing overall, or that

This doesn't mean that there aren't any women who have a knack for spatial relations. Boys outnumber girls among high performers on those tests, but they aren't absent from the group of high performers entirely. One of the most talented math majors at Oberlin College while I was there was a woman. There are certainly great women in science. But, probability and individual possibility are different things.

Global Warming 2050

According to Science News (digesting the November 17th Nature), the consensus results of the best available computer models looking at the impact of global warming on precipitation by 2050 are in:

Most of these models agree that average water flow will decrease in the western United States, the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and southern Africa. Flow increases appear likely in East Africa, central and Southeast Asia, and the northern latitudes of Eurasia and North America, including the eastern United States. . . . "Areas that are already wet are likely to get wetter . . .Areas that are already water stressed are likely to feel it more in the future."

An accompanying map shows the most intense drying centered around Colorado-Nevada-Utah, the Southern tip of South America, Northern Iraq-Eastern Turkey-Northern Iran, and the shores of the Mediterranean. Areas that rely on water from snowmelt are also likely to be particularly hard hit by drying trends. The most intense moistening is centered around Paraguay-Uraguay, Kenya-Tanzania-Rwanda-Burundi, India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and Southern Siberia.

Much of Colorado is already marginal for agriculture. As my cousin in Akron, Colorado who is a dryland farmer explained, you grow different crops in different areas based on moisture, and the crops that are grown in Eastern Colorado are the crops that grow in the very last band on cultivation before it is impossible to farm at all. Even a modest drying trend would make horticulture in Eastern Colorado impossible.

My earlier, more Colorado centric post, based on the same study, is found here.

Iraq's New Navy and Air Force

Iraq has both a Navy and an Air Force, although they are both puny.

The Air Force, will 200 people in it, has "three C-130 transports, 14 small recon aircraft and 21 helicopters", but at least six recon aircraft and 11 helicopters are grounded for maintenance problems. Some of the helicopters that do operate, moreover, are used only for training.

The Navy (including the Marines) has 700 people in it with "five Predator class patrol boats, 24 aluminum speedboats (dual outboard engines) and ten rigid hull inflatable boats. Three al Faw Patrol Boats are to be delivered by the end of the year, and three more next year." These craft also have maintenance problems. While Iraq doesn't have much of a coast, the key point is that this is little more than a police department not capable of responding to any meaningful military threats.

Approval Ratings

Not All Terrorists Are Islamists

Not all terrorists are Islamists. At least one is a white Denver firefighter who likes to go to gun shows and make automatic weapons. The domestic terrorism organization with which he was linked was not identified, but dimes to dollars, it is not one of the environmental organizations, like the Earth Liberation Front, whom the Department of Homeland Security has put at the top of its list of domestic terrorism threats (a list that suspiciously excludes anti-abortionists, militia groups and other conservative domestic terrorist movements).

Rank Has Its Privileges

When an ordinary home in Denver is burglarized, they have you fill out a police report, perhaps make a cursory glance at the scene, and that is about it. But, when the chief of police's home is burglarized, the crime lab dusts for prints, the prints are compared to records, addresses are followed up on, possible directions of flight are discovered and arrest warrants are issued.

Peter Lewis, the 20 year old man named, very likely is a burglar who made the mistake of robbing the wrong house. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with carefully investigating a routine burglary and tracking down the person who did it. Indeed, the success of the police in this case makes a strong argument for beefing up the investigative resources of the police (which must devote most of its resources to things like traffic enforcement and routine patrols and responses to 911 calls) and investigating a much larger proportion of crimes.

The death penalty or any other harsh sentence for crimes, does little to deter crime, since people who commit crimes don't expect to be caught and most of the time, they're right. But, increasing the chance that a criminal will be caught could have a very significant deterrent effect.

22 November 2005

The Acting White Effect

What does a good study design and a 90,000 student sample size tell you about popularity v. grades among students in grades seven to twelve?

Fryer showed that "acting white" seems to be a real problem, but not one affecting all minority students. Good students at private schools aren't any less popular than minority students with lower grades. Nor do students at predominantly black public schools pay a social price for higher grades. That result, Fryer says, shows there isn't a pervasive bias among blacks against achievement, or an "oppositional culture" created in response to white racism.

But at integrated public schools, minority students face a special problem, according to Fryer's study. Unlike their white classmates, whose popularity steadily increases as their grades go up, minority students with higher grades end up with fewer friends.

For blacks, this effect is noticeable among B-plus and A students.

For Hispanic students, the drop in popularity is even more pronounced, affecting students who average at least C-plus grades
. . . .

As a result, Fryer says, minority students face a cruel choice at precisely the kinds of suburban schools that are supposed to be eliminating their disadvantages. "When blacks are forced to pay a social price for getting good grades," he said, "there are going to be some black students who won't achieve their full potential."

Culture matters, often a lot. But, the data above don't point to any easy solutions. They also don't answer another key question, which is whether public schools that try to act like private schools, the Denver School of the Arts, or charter schools, for example, see less, more or about the same amount of "Acting White Effect" as other public schools, a fine distinction, but one that turns out to be quite important from a policy making perspective.

Who Says The Catholic Church is Pro-Life?

When a Catholic school in New York State fires an unmarried woman who got pregnant and decided not to have an abortion, it encourages abortion. Actions speak louder than words. Abortion should be safe, legal and rare. This means we should encourage contraception and provide pregnant women and women with children with the support necessary to prevent economic pressure from forcing their hand. This school failed on that point.

Jose Padilla Indicted

In an act of gamesmanship, Jose Padilla has been indicted and will be transferred from military to criminal custody after being held for three years as an enemy combatant. The decision seeks to leave standing a ruling favorable to the governments ability to, on the President's whim, hold U.S. citizens captured in the United States as enemy combatants, which was being appealled to the United States Supreme Court, by rendering the issue moot.

The charges also represent, at least, a fourth interation of U.S. claims about what Padilla did wrong. Initially, the military claimed that he planned to explode a dirty bomb in this country, then they claimed that he planned to burn a U.S. apartment building. Then, the government claimed that he wanted to return to the battlefied. Now, he is charged with conspiracy to carry out terrorism attacks overseas.

"The indictment alleges that Padilla traveled overseas to train as a terrorist with the intention of fighting a violent jihad," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said at a news conference. . . .

Padilla faces life in prison if convicted on the three charges - one count each of conspiracy to murder, maim and kidnap people overseas, providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy. . . .

The charges against him and four others allege they were part of a North American support cell that sent money, assets and recruits overseas "for the purpose of fighting violent jihad." The others indicted are: Adham Amin Hassoun a Lebanese-born Palestinian who lived in Broward County, Fla.;, Mohammed Hesham Youssef, an Egyptian who lived in Broward County; Kifah Wael Jayyousi, a Jordanian national and U.S. citizen who lived in San Diego; and Kassem Daher, a Lebanese citizen with Canadian residency status.

Hassoun also was indicted on eight additional charges, including perjury, obstruction of justice and illegal firearm possession.

Hassoun, a Palestinian computer programmer who moved to Florida in 1989, was arrested in June 2002 for allegedly overstaying his student visa. Prosecutors previously described him as a former associate of Padilla.

Of course, the governments conduct thusfar in the case raises a whole host of procedural questions. For example: Is Padilla entitled to credit for time served? Should speedy trial calculations be made from the date he was arrested in Chicago? Is the case in any way "fruit of the poisonous tree" by involving evidence gathered as a result of interrogation of Padilla while in custody without the presence of an attorney? Is the habeas corpus petition really moot, or should it be considered as a recurring issue relevant to future proceedings and likely to escape review (much like abortion cases) if the administration pursues its current litigaiton tactics? Can or should Padilla file a civil rights suits for his treatment thusfar? What is the timeline and is a statute of limitations implicated? What kind of bail is appropriate to set in the case?

From the government's point of view, even if their case falls apart, obtaining a United States Court of Appeals ruling in their favor, and preventing it from being overruled, if they succeed in that goal, may be victory of enough.

Talk Left has links to the original documents in the case.

Internal Revenue Code Section 199

Recently enacted Internal Revenue Code Section 199, which provides a tax break for the part of an entity's income related goods producing activities is one of the most complex, ill conceived sections of the tax code ever created. Here's how RIA, one of the professional tax publishers, opens up its description of the section in a marketing newsletter directed at tax professionals:

The Code Sec. 199 domestic production activities deduction was enacted to help offset the repeal of the extraterritorial income exclusion, "reduce the tax burden on domestic manufacturers, and make investments in domestic manufacturing facilities more attractive." (Committee Reports to the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-357, 10/22/2004)). It certainly will yield tax breaks for the many businesses, large and small, that "manufacture, produce, extract or grow" a host of tangible products entirely or in significant part within the U.S. It also will be a boon for domestic film-makers, those in the construction business in the U.S., and engineering and architectural firms providing services for U.S. construction products. . . . The Code Sec. 199 deduction, which is effective for tax years beginning after 2004, poses a formidable challenge for tax professionals and their clients. It creates a new vocabulary of detailed and difficult tax concepts, rules, conditions, exceptions, exceptions to the exceptions, de minimis rules, and safe harbors. It also requires many businesses to put new accounting systems in place to distinguish between qualifying and nonqualifying activities and the deductions relating to each. What is more, the rules governing the Code Sec. 199 deduction are still a work in progress. Early in 2005, IRS's initial interpretation of the sparse statutory language and Committee Reports' description was issued in Notice 2005-14, a 100-page document that generated a flood of questions, suggestions, and criticisms. In late-Oct., 2005, IRS followed up with 136 pages of proposed reliance regs and an 88-page preamble that significantly altered some of the rules in Notice 2005-14 and expanded and elaborated on other rules. . . . In an effort to make it easier to understand the Code Sec. 199 rules, [RIA's] Tax Planning & Practice Guide avoids the use of confusing acronyms carried in IRS's official guidance, and adopts a simplified approach to the complex terminology of Code Sec. 199.

This, of course, comes from an administration and Republican controlled Congress that purports to want to simplify the tax code. It sounds like their strategy is to make the Code so impossibly complex that there will be support for reform. Call me naiive, but I don't think that trying to make the system better by making it worse is the best strategy.

Vagrants in Denver

Denver has a homelessness problem. Most cities do. In fact, Denver really has multiple homelessness problems, with different solutions.

The fact and figures and debate are confused by terms that have shifting meanings. Just as the literacy debate has waivered between a narrow definition of illiteracy meaning people who can't read, and a broader definition "functional illiteracy", which means people who can't read at the 9th grade level and who can't read well enough to handle the more sophisticated aspects of daily life, homelessness has multiple definitions as well. Most people who think about the homelessness issue in the general public think about the narrow definition, vagrants who sleep outdoors or in shelters out of necessity. But, there is also a broader definition that includes people in transitional housing, people staying with friends without a home of their own, and people staying in low rent motels or RVs until they can find a permanent place to live.

My focus today is on vagrants. It is an almost archaic term, but has a pretty well defined meaning. Vagrancy is an issue I can't help but think about almost every day. My office is near a church based homeless shelter or outreach program. To be honest, I couldn't tell you exactly what services they provide. But, I do know that a lot of vagrant men congregate in the area where I work on a daily basis at certain times of the day to receive services.

Let's not mince words. Encountering vagrant men is scary.

One recent morning I was walking towards my office and let loose with an "Oh shit!" when I realized that I had forgotten to put on my tie that morning and didn't yet have a backup stowed at work. Only then did I notice a man sudden peak out from under a blanket in an out of the way corner who I hadn't even noticed, wondering if I was talking about him. At 8 a.m. on a chilly morning when the guy is half asleep, I wasn't exactly fearing for my life at that moment, but his look was exactly the stereotype you have of someone mugging you as you walk down a dark alley after working late, and needless to say, I'm careful with locks at work and I am very aware of my surroundings when I leave the office, especially in the evenings.

On another afternoon this week, I walked to a nearby post office to mail some legal papers that had to go out in the mail that day, and on the way back to the office encountered a somewhat heavy middle aged man, who was flapping his arms, trying to sing a Tom Petty song and moving well into that ill defined region we call our personal space. Did he make a verbal threat or display a weapon or anything like that? No. He didn't even ask for money. But, encountering an apparently mentally ill man who suddenly, without any apparent reason, takes a direct personal interest in you and tried to engage you is uncomfortable, to say the least. It violates basic, unwritten social norms about how you interact with people in public that normally provide a comfort zone in public settings.

When you routinely see vagrants in your neighborhood, whether it is the place where you work, or the place where you live, you worry about them breaking into your car to steal things, you worry about being mugged, you worry about your building being broken into, and you worry about anything left outside being stolen. Concerns like these are a big factor that drives many employers to office parks, like the one in Greenwood Village where I last worked. These offices are in unwalkable neighborhoods far from residences or commercial areas, in places where no one who doesn't work or visit the office has no business being there and in considered trespassing. They are isolated and boring, but they are also very safe. Suburban housing tracts, and in particular, the kinds of gated communities you find in places like Greenwood Village and Cherry Hills, in metropolitan Denver are in part motivated by the same kinds of fears.

The fear is not unjustified. These men are scary because they are able bodied men with nothing to lose and enough physical harm you if they choose to do so. They aren't that different from a Jean Valjean stealing bread in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, or for those of you with fewer literary aspirations, the Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins who steals to support himself after having rejecting his fortune and leaving for Asia. These are men who don't have the very basics of what they need and these are also men for whom a jail term is a definite improvement.

Jail offers a bed, heat, regular meals, showers, television, serviceable clothing and provides better protection from violent assaults than sleeping on the street. A well timed misdemeanors conviction that puts a vagrant man in jail for several months during the coldest months of the year is a material step up in life for them, rarely aggravated future sentences, and puts them in jail, where the fellow inmates tend not to be as bad as those in state prisons. For that matter, even Third World jails generally have better material conditions than the life of a vagrant in a major American city in the North where it gets cold at night in the winter. If someone has to be a victim in order for a vagrant man to get into jail, well, those are the breaks.

In contrast, if you are a vagrant man in Denver this winter and the usual shelters are full, your best option is to go to a "collection site downtown" on a night where the temperature is expected to drop below 28 degrees Fahrenheit or significant precipitation is expects (making staying outdoors unsafe), where you are bused with groups of about 40 homeless men to shelters where you are required to stay inside until 5 a.m., at which point you are bused back downtown at 5 a.m. for a hot morning meal. You sleep on the floor, typically in a large public room, with sheets and blankets as available, and perhaps some coffee or hot chocolate provided by volunteers. If the night is warmer than that and clear (and all but about 20 nights are year in Denver fit that profile), you look for a spot under a bridge, behind some bushes, or otherwise out of the way to lie down, perhaps under a borrowed or stolen blanket to sleep, if you can't find a spot in a shelter (and there are regular shelter spots for, at most, half the vagrants in Denver). Food is at shelters on a supply available basis or at fast food places purchased with money received from begging.

Needless to say, it is hard to get a job, find medical care, deal with a mental illness, or wean yourself from alcoholism or a drug addition, living that kind of life. The main welfare program, TANF (Temporary Aid To Needy Families, formerly known as AFDC for Aid To Families With Dependent Children) doesn't cover single "able bodied" men. The waiting time to get public housing or a Section 8 housing voucher, even if you qualify, is typically months or years. Qualifying for disability payments under Social Security and the SSI program when your difficulties primarily involve mental rather than physical health (and not always standard clinical mental illnesses like schitzophrenia) is time consuming and not always possible. Most vagrant men qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, but many have trouble managing to fill out the requisite forms. Unemployment insurance last only about six months, pays only a modest percentage of your prior income, usually isn't available when you quit a job or are fired for good cause, and isn't available if your prior job was irregular contract work. Some states have a welfare program that provides very limited cash assistance to vagrant men, often under the rubric of "general assistance", but I'm not aware of such a program in Colorado. Denver used to have flophouses that provided an inferior small place to sleep cheap, but these places, now rechristened "single occupancy hotels", have been largely shuttered and torn down to the point where they Mayor has had to embark on a ten year program to build more.

The incentives in the current American system, where you get treated better if you commit a crime than if you don't, are screwed up. And, the solution is not to treat crimimals and people accused of crimes worse. Jail is far more expensive than providing the basics of life to someone Incarcerating someone costs on the order of $20,000-$30,000 per year, depending on the facility. Pairing people up as room mates in studio apartments and providing them with funds sufficient for basic groceries, local phone service and other necessities can cost less than $6,000, per person, per year. And, if someone has no employment and are able bodied, they are capable of doing work in exchange, even if they are often the dregs of the work force in terms of on the job behavior and skills. We can't expect vagrants to be good at long term budgeting, but a college student/company town model could work well.

We should, at least, be able to say with confidence that every able bodied man always has an opportunity to leave a law abiding life. We could, if we could guarantee vagrant men 25 hours a week of work at minimum wage, sign them up for Medicaid, provide a place to stay in a studio apartment with a roommate (the going rent for a studio apartment in Denver is about $450 a month), a mail slot, local only phone service, heat and electricity (paid for with $270 a month taken out of their pay checks), another chunk of money (perhaps $200 a month, maybe less with food stamps paying part of the cost) taken out of their pay checks in exchange for a cafeteria meal card (that buys food in bulk and hires program members to do the grunt work for minimum wage), and frequent pay periods to help them budget the rest of their money (perhaps $2-3 a day of walking around money). If jails and prisons required 40 hours a work from convicted prisoners, this would even be a situation better than jail and much cheaper for society (even if the make work jobs in the program cost somewhat more in payroll than they generated in revenues). But, we can't even say that. That is a shame.

Equally important, the status quo is bad for the city. A vagrant is a desperate man with idle hands. He scares people and that keeps people out of the city. A guy with a regular part-time job and an apartment who isn't hungry, who has a secure place to keep his meager possession during the day, and has some access to medical care doesn't present the same kind of threat, even if he is still living, perhaps by choice or perhaps because he can't handle anything else, a marginal life. Even if the government can only find work for a former vagrant with marginal skills and abilities that generates $2.50 an hour in revenue and has to pay $5.15 an hour, paying $3,000 a year per person on the streets to give them an incentive to get off the street and stay out of jail is a price worth paying.

21 November 2005

Biggest Layoff Ever?

General Motors today announced plans to lay off 30,000 U.S. workers, about 27% of its hourly work force, by 2008. This adds 5,000 workers to layoff announcements made in June. It started this year with 111,000 hourly workers in the U.S. Non-hourly U.S. staff will be cut 7%. It is doing so because it is losing money hand over fist.

When I first started following General Motors as a company, it has more than 800,000 workers total, most of them hourly. With the spinoff of Delphi and round after round of layoffs, it has become a shadow of that company. Offshoring has played a part, as has technology, but the biggest factor appears to be a declining market share.

Disinformation v. Information Gathering.

Intelligence for the business carried about by our intelligencies agencies, is, like the title "Defense" for the business carried out by our military, a frame shaping deception. Yes, the CIA and the like engage in information gathering, sometimes by means which would be illegal if carried out by you and I, but that isn't the reason that people fear the CIA.

The reason to fear the CIA and related agencies is that they are tasked with engaging in "covert operations" with very little political branch supervision. This covers things like kidnappings, assassinations and disinformation campaigns.

Indeed, these covert operations are also one of the main reasons that the agency must have so much secrecy. While information gathering can be compromised to some extent if one's methods for doing so are known, there is no reason for the products of the information gathering to be as closely held as they are, which means that we spend tens of billions of dollars a year for information that doesn't reach everyone who needs to know it. The exposure of a covert operations, in contrast, is politically explosive, and worrisome, because it involves the carrying out of policies that haven't been subject to the public debate usually a part of the policy process in a democracy.

The linkage between human intelligence and covert operations (both houses in the same division of the CIA to a great extent) has also resulting in funding for human intelligence, which is quite useful, at times, being undermined by liberal critics of covert operations.

Maybe we'd all be better off if the two functions were more effectively seperated. The CIA could become a little more open (if major media organizations can manage to protect its sources will widely disseminating their information, so can the CIA to a much greater extent). And, if covert operations were not buried in a much larger bureacratic infrastructure, they would be easier for public officials to supervise (while giving the true intelligence officials more latitude to act) and it would be easier for them to keep secrets because they fewer people who are in the loop, the easier it is to keep a secret.

Of course, there is bound to be mischief. What category does kidnapping someone and questioning them fall under (and should we be in that business at all)? Perhaps it isn't possible. But, it would seem to me that there is, at least, some room for a rethinking of the issue.

Mandatory Minimums Alert.

The Booker case in the United State Supreme Court through out the much hated sentencing guidelines in the federal courts (well, reduced them to mere advisory status anyway), because they had judges rather than juries deciding facts that fixed maximum sentences. Now, according to the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, there is a great deal of talk about a bill, probably a laundry list of mandatory minimum sentences, being introduced to replace the sentencing guidelines.

Mandatory minimum have been a great failure in the federal sentencing system, and certainly hope that Congress will no go down this road. Among the options being considered is:

The substance of the Booker fix in section 12 of H.R. 1528 is anything but subtle. The bill essentially forbids consideration of three dozen potentially mitigating factors as a basis for sentencing below the applicable guideline range, and it imposes significant procedural restrictions on any possible remaining grounds for downward departure (except based on a prosecutor's motion for substantial assistance or for fast-track treatment).

A related idea is the "Bowman Proposal":

The essence of the proposal is a legislative fix to essentially take the top off the existing guideline ranges -- i.e. "amend the sentencing ranges on the Chapter 5 Sentencing Table to increase the top of each guideline range to the statutory maximum of the offense(s) of conviction." The idea is that then guideline calculations technically become adjustments to only minimums and have no impact on applicable maximums. The current buzz is that this fix is the leading candidate for congressional action in response to Blakely. . . . "the version now receiving most consideration would (a) be sunsetted, and (b) include a right of appellate review on an abuse of discretion standard for any sentence above the guideline minimum, and that one consideration in the abuse of discretion determination would be whether the sentence was 6 months or 25% greater than the minimum."

Given that mandatory minimums were always the main problem with the sentencing guidelines, rather than caps on maximum sentences, this is not a good development either.

Troop Draw Down Revisited.

On November 7, 2005, I reported to you, dear readers, that the U.S. was planning to draw down troop levels in 2006 from 138,000 to 92,0000, based upon main stream media stories to that effect.

Military blogger Murdoc disagrees and I'm inclined to think that he is right. His most powerful argument:

The problem with the 92,000 number is that it's nothing more than the total size of a partial list. For instance, it contains zero US Marines.

So, we'll see what really happens. Iraq doesn't seem to be getting much more docile, elections notwithstanding, so I don't have high hopes for a withdrawal in the absence of strong, bipartisan Congressional pressure.

I Believe

Magician and author Penn Jillette on NPR this morning offers a nice summary of why he believes that "There is No God." While his arguments are not original, they are well stated and deserve repeating. An "I Believe" statement is something in the nature of a press release, and so I'm going to reprint it here in full.

I believe that there is no God. I'm beyond Atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy -- you can't prove a negative, so there's no work to do. You can't prove that there isn't an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word "elephant" includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power. All the people I write e-mails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The Atheism part is easy.

But, this "This I Believe" thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life's big picture, some rules to live by. So, I'm saying, "This I believe: I believe there is no God."

Having taken that step, it informs every moment of my life. I'm not greedy. I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it's everything in the world and everything in the world is plenty for me. It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.

Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

Believing there's no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I'm wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. I don't travel in circles where people say, "I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, "How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do." So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that's always fun. It means I'm learning something.

Believing there is no God means the suffering I've seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn't caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn't bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-o and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

Live today, and every day, to its fullest.

20 November 2005

Is the Prius Worth It?

OmniNerd tries to look at the economics of buying a new Prius and fails.

His biggest problem:

(1) He looks at differences in car payments for a Prius v. alternatives, rather than at fuel consumption for the life of the vehicle. A typical car loan is for 3-10 years. Cars often last longer. The easier way to measure fuel cost savings is to look at savings over say 135,000 miles, the useful life of the car. The fuels savings is about 2,500 gallons of gas over the life of the car. At $2.50 a gallon, this is a $6,250 savings, and realistically, over the life of the car, gas prices are more likely to go up than down.

(2) He compares cars of different sizes. A Prius is a bigger car than most economy cars. It is comparable, so owners say, to a Camry or Accord, not a Civic or Corolla or VW New Beetle. The price difference between a conventional vehicle and a Prius is less than $4,000, and the Prius retains its value substantially better.

(3) He compares buying a new car to keeping an old car with no payments. But, the realistic time to look at a Prius is when you are deciding whether to buy, e.g. a Prius v. a new Honda Accord.

In short, even with current economics, a Prius is worth it.

Transport Bombers.

The Air Force has long discussed the idea of using transport planes as bombers to fill the role of the current B-52, which has long range, but has no stealth features and is a huge sitting duck in a dog fight. The C-17 long range transport has now been tapped by the Air Force for the role. In the planned bomber configuration, it might carry drones that could drop bombs in the target area for as much as twenty-four hours.

Guy Fawkes Day.

The fireworks in the comics of the English based Fred Basset comic strip this week reminded me that I had forgotten to observe Guy Fawkes Day (November 5), which is a truly odd holiday celeberated with fireworks. It commemorates the discovery of a conspiracy in 1605 to blow up the House of Lords (with the King and the rest of parliament in it) as part of an English Catholic uprising that failed and produced an anti-Catholic backlash. Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators who was caught in the act and executed.

My morals of the story:

(1) There is nothing new about religious based terrorism.
(2) Terror plots are best stopped as his was, with some sense of duty to report the evil deed from someone who is privy to the conspiracy.

Life Wasn't Always So Good.

In reading a biography of Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who was most famous for inventing a mechanical precursor to the computer, one sentence in particular struck me.

The year 1827 was a year of tragedy for Babbage; his father, his wife and two of his children all died that year. He own health gave way and he was advised to travel on the Continent.

Please recognize that Baggage was no pauper. He attended private schools at his parents' expense and had a tutor from Oxford to prepare him for college. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and he was appointed in 1827 to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, yet never taught a course as his research was so valued. He was a published member of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He helped to found and was an officer of the Royal Astronomical Society and also helped to found the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

When a man like this can loose his entire family in a single year, you know that the world is a pretty squalid place. Today, such a thing would be virtually unthinkable for all but the very worst off. Modern medicine, while not equal in sharing its benefits, has been democratic.

How To Form A Third Party, If You Must.

I've argued for a long time that third parties are not built with grass roots movements with far left or far right politics from the bottom up, working from school boards and city councils to higher office. You do it from the top down by having establishment figures stake out a realigned part of the middle.

Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon is putting this theory to the test, by breaking away from his Likud party, along with 10-14 parliament members including senior members of his cabinet to form a new political party.

We should see how this plays out in March or April of 2006.

GOP Fiscal Irresponsibility

If the GOP really cared about the public purse and economic reality, they would at least try to sell public lands for a fair market price. But, they don't. In a mad rush to develop oil and gas they want to sell off prime park lands for peanuts.

Narnia, Lord of the Rings and Christianity.

The Denver Post has a nice story summing up the religious undercurrents of the upcoming Chronicles of Narnia movie. I read and enjoyed all the books in elementary school and was completely oblivious to the religious allegory in them (despite having a Christian upbringing). Narnia is not the Veggie Tales (a children's series which is quite transparently comprised of Chrisitian allegory).

I also read the Lord of the Rings books (well, actually, I stalled part way through the Two Towers and then watched the movies when they came out), which are considerably darker than the Narnia series and aimed at an older audience. Their links to Christianity are far more ephemeral.

The lives of the authors is well documented. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, was a Christian apologist whose work is still regularly read by Chrisitans in Denver today (I know a couple that met in a C.S. Lewis book group and went on to marry), and is still regularly cited in sermons. The non-Narnia part of the world draws very directly from his experiences in World War II (when he took in children fleeing the London blitz at his country estate).

Tolkien's work probably owes more to World Wars I and II, than to any Biblical epic, and also shows a striking familiarity with the scourge that is addition to drugs or alcohol, although I'm not familiar with any biographical data discussing Tolkien's familiarity with the later theme in his personal life. The two authors certainly knew and influenced each other.

Perhaps, we'd be better if we had Narnia but not the Bible. The Narnia books have worthwhile messages, but they don't pretend to be anything but fiction. As a result they tend to do more good than harm. The other literary collection called the Bible doesn't have such a good track record for doing the same.

Buffalo Hunting.

Legal buffalo hunting is back (actually, Maine has had it since 1980, and Montana's hunt this year joins Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, South Dakota and Alaska). I'm ambivalent about the development.

It isn't that I'm against killing animals, or buffalo in particular, for meat. As a matter of fact, I have two pounds of buffalo meat that I picked up at my local supermarket today in my refrigerator right now, and my family probably eats at least 50 pounds of buffalo meat a year, mostly ground, but not always. And, I am pleased to see the American bison's numbers restored after nearing extinction due to overhunting about a century ago.

I want to hope that the hunting will be better regulated to maintain and expand buffalo populations, although the prospect of another hunting induced near extinction worries me a great deal. Still, it is hard to think that 49 hunting deaths a year in a population of 4,900 can have that great an effect.

My intuition is that while animal meat is, generally speaking, a less efficient source of food than vegetables, that in marginal arid Colorado and much of the Great Plains that bison might be one of the more efficient means of turning land into food, especially as the fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation needed to maintain non-native cash crops in the West become harder to maintain in the face of rising oil prices and an increasingly strapped water supply. Maybe I'm wrong.

They are certainly massive, majestic animals, so I can understand the simple pyschology that makes them attractive to hunters. Bigger is better.

The Welfare State At Its Best

One of the perennial American political debates is whether the United States should copy European models, something liberals tend to argue, or shun then, which conservatives tend to argue. The success of the Nordic states in Europe argues that one should copy them.

There's no doubt that parts of Europe indeed have sunk into stagnancy. But the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland are thriving, despite having even more generous government benefits and higher taxes than their European peers. . . . The Nordic states, with a combined population of 24 million, top almost every global measure of quality of life - and also, surprisingly, of economic competitiveness.

In last year's United Nations Human Development Index of "most livable countries," Norway ranked first and Sweden second, and the United States eighth. And the World Economic Forum this year ranked the top three most competitive economies as Finland, the United States and Sweden, in that order.

Even the 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, published by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, ranked Denmark and Iceland ahead of, and Sweden and Finland just behind, the United States. . . . despite the widely held notion that the United States is the world's greatest opportunity society, studies show that parental wealth is a greater precursor to financial success in the United States than in Scandinavia. . . . A recent Harris poll asked people whether their lives had improved in the last five years. Only 26 percent of Germans thought so, compared with 60 percent of Swedes and 55 percent of Finns (and 56 percent of Americans).

This is not to say that the Nordic systems are problem-free. Sweden, for example, is grappling with massive abuse of its generous sick-leave policy. Sweden in recent years also has admitted large populations of poor, uneducated immigrants, many of whom are failing to assimilate and living on public aid.

Like the rest of Europe, most of the Nordic countries have fallen behind America over the last decade in economic output, largely because Americans work more hours.

But the Nordic states have grown faster, with lower unemployment and better-quality jobs, than the big continental European economies. . . .

While France, Italy and Germany are hamstrung by job-for-life cultures that erect myriad legal barriers to firing workers, the Nordic countries make it easier for companies to downsize. That in turn paves the way for new industries and new jobs.

The Nordic governments offer generous unemployment benefits and extensive government-funded retraining. But while Germans, French and Italians tend to linger on unemployment benefits for years, the Nordic states force people to take other jobs that come along.

Though their people take as much vacation as their European counterparts - two to three times as much as Americans do - the Nordic societies work more, because there is less early retirement and more women in their workforces.

Sweden and Finland also lead the world in research and development spending. The Swedes spent 4.3 percent of their gross domestic product on research last year, compared with about 2.6 percent for the United States and less than 2 percent for the European Union as a whole.

Another key factor: The Nordic states are widely perceived to have the world's least corrupt, most efficient governments and court systems. Foreign investors can count on fair and evenhanded treatment from regulators. . . . Nearly 80 percent of Swedes are in a union, for example, compared with 12.5 percent of Americans. . . . Women are the main beneficiaries of family leave and child-care benefits, experts say, and therefore it's no accident that Sweden has the highest percentage of working mothers. . . . Sweden even did something that has eluded President Bush: It converted its pay-as-you-go government retirement program over to a system of private accounts, to stave off a pension crisis. . . .Conservative economist Johan Norberg likes to point out that Sweden has slipped from the world's fourth-richest country in 1960 to the 26th richest. If Sweden were a U.S. state, it would the fourth poorest, measured in output per person.

I'm skeptical of purely monetary comparisons of countries which are different in a variety of ways. Life is a lot better in Sweden than it is in New Mexico, the fourth poorest U.S. state. Yes, per capita GDP may be similar, but that doesn't take into account things like leisure time, what like looks like for the less well off (as opposed to the "average" person), and the vageries of comparing economies using fickle exchange rates.

One can also consider cherry picking effects. Comparing five small countries to either Europe as a whole or the United States as a whole doesn't necessarily lead to a fair comparison. The five states with the highest per capita GDP in the United States (as of 2001) are Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland, and you could add the District of Columbia, which would be number two if it was a state. These 43 million people or so in six jurisdictions, are more comparable to the Nordic subset of the European Union. The policies of these Atlantic Coast states and their social statistics look a lot different than the United States as a whole, and so do their politics, which are well to the left of the United States as a whole.

Notably, all but one of the ten less affluents states in the United States, is a red state. They are from 41 to 50, South Carolina, Alabama, Idaho, Utah, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, Arkansas, West Virginia and Mississippi.

The per capita GDP of Connecticut is almost twice that of Mississippi.

Does prosperity lead to liberalism, or does liberalism lead to prosperity? Corollation is not causation, but that doesn't mean that corrolation isn't worth noticing.

Limits To Growth: Water Law

While impact fees to pay for new school construction are often inadequate, the same cannot be said for tap fees to add new homes to the water supply system, although the differences from locality to locality have far more to do with the intricacies of water deal making than they do with fundamentals of available water supplies.

Across the United States, many cities charge less than $1,000 for a new residential water hookup. In Colorado, the fees range much higher.

Denver, which bought its water rights long ago, charges $4,795 for a home with an average lot. Boulder charges $7,345 for a typical single-family home with two bathrooms. Some cities charge $10,000 or more for water service, and tap fees in fast-growing Denver suburbs have rocketed as high as $20,000.

In Broomfield, the fee has nearly tripled to $24,424 since it hired Harrison [a water broker] - and is projected to rise to $36,000 in the next 30 years.

The water market in Colorado lacks transparency.

Though the water courts treat water rights like real property, they do not require owners to document their holdings in public records such as those required of land transfers.

Counties keep no index of water sales. State officials know where water rights exist but not who actually owns them today. When the legislature instructed the state Division of Water Resources in 2003 to impose a new fee on water rights owners, its efforts to find and bill them proved disastrous. The fee was repealed.

As a result, cities that pay huge sums to water brokers don't even know how much went to the middle man and how much went to the people from whom the water was bought. Like any market with poor information, it makes poor decisions. Generally speaking, this lack of information tends to favor status quo owners, mostly farmers, who enjoy very cheap and abundant water supplies, while harming would be buyers, like growing municipalities, that pay much higher prices for water.

In short, Colorado's water market is a classic example of the Coase Theorem, developed by Ronald Coase in 1960 which provides that "in the absence of transaction costs, all government allocations of property are equally efficient, because interested parties will bargain privately to correct any externality. As a corollary, the theorem also implies that in the presence of transaction costs, government may minimize inefficiency by allocating property initially to the party assigning it the greatest utility."

Here, Colorado's water law has done the opposite. The state's lack of a transparent and/or low cost system of conducting water transactions (for example, Broomfield's water broker "estimates he incurred more than $2.3 million in legal, title, office and other expenses" over six years to arrange transfers of water rights to Broomfield a single source), keep transaction costs exceptionally high. And, the historical reality of Colorado's water law, which may have been optimal at the time under the Coase Theorem, has had the effect of putting water rights in the status quo in the hands of very low utility agricultural uses, with marginal returns on this valuable resource, rather than in the hands of high utility municipal and recreational users. Thus, the negative effects of these high transaction costs are maximized.

This poorly crafted system could ultimately prove to be a significant barrier to growth in Colorado. Colorado has enough water to support something on the order of 40 million municipal users, more with reasonably straightforward conservation efforts like mandatory xeriscaping and limits on golf course construction. But, even the far more modest growth that is realistically possible requires a major shift of water resources from marginal farmers to municipalities. Reality has a long way to go in Colorado before it catches up with the economic theory ideal.

Hat Tip to Coyote Gulch.

Elementary School Fundraising

Our local elementary school in Denver has no shortages of fundraisers. There is gift wrap and coffee to be sold, bake sales on election day, and in one of the fundraising highlights of the year, the school auction, which my wife and I attended yesterday.

Despite the grumbling about raising money for something that the government has undertaken to pay for, we all basically agree that the school needs the money and that the benefits are worth it. The lead organizer opened the evening with a speech in which he stated that one of the goals of the fundraiser was to make our school equal to any private school in the city. Later, over wine and hors d'oeuvres, one parent observed that our school was fortunate to be in an affluent neighborhood where fundraisers could make a difference, noting that some elementary schools make due without and as a consequence have virtually no school supplies and ancient textbooks.

At a fundraiser for an elementary school in the Denver Public Schools, talk like that isn't just idle conversation. It is a recognition that the line between a school that functions and one that is dyfunctional within the district is very thin. Yes, the school district makes payroll for enough teachers to maintain a tolerable student-teacher ratio and provides a building, but that it about it. As public school parents we rely on that foundation, but would like more for our children.

Fundraising for the school as if it were a private school isn't the only piece of the puzzle. Most classrooms have a little squadron of parents organized to pay for extras for the class, volunteer to chaperone field trips, buy thank you gifts for the teacher and just help out in the classroom. While you might think that an urban elementary school would be a little fortress to protect the children, in fact, ours is very much the opposite. The school is very open to parents (and the various guardians, nannies and grandparents who fill in for parents), because they need all the help that they can get.

On top of all of this, the school actually has quite a few tuition based elements. Full day kindergarten, early childhood education, before school language lessons, before school day care, and after school day care programs are all provided for a price not that different from the private market prices, although prices are generally on a fairly generous sliding scale that provides discounts far beyond the point at which students qualify for free and reduced price school lunches.

In short, yes, we have public schools, but in the full picture, it is more a matter of degree than absolutes. Perhaps the government provides 80-90% of the funding, but there is a meaningful private contribution to the enterprise that is our local elementary school.

18 November 2005

602 Posts

I wasn't paying attention this morning and missed the usual 100 post update, but better late than never. As you can probably tell, I'm back at the more than full time job of being a private practice attorney and thus am posting less often.

It is remarkable how many procedures even a tiny law office can develop. How do you run the coffee machines? There are dozens of things to do when shutting down the office in the evening that you never even think about once you've learned how to do them. The list goes on.

But, the good part of this is that it provides a constant stream of real world fresh input. Most writing is basically a garbage in, garbage out function. You think about what you are exposed to, your every day experiences are a powerful muse. Sitting in an office reactly pretty much exclusively to the internet itself has limits. So, we'll see where we end up in another 98 posts.

Cult Alert.

The Gentle Wind Project is a cult.

Why Have Crime Rates Fallen?

Crime rates are down. Incarceration is up. Conservatives argue that this is not a mystery, making the common sense argument that crime rates are down because more criminals are incarcerated. The Sentencing Project has released a report providing evidence that contradicts this simple heuristic.

So what do they argue:

* Key elements leading to the decline in crime include the economy, changes in drug market patterns, strategic policing initiatives, and community engagement in public safety efforts.

* Incarceration exhibits diminishing returns on crime rates as a larger proportion of prison space is occupied by persons convicted of non-violent and low-level offenses.

* There is no correlation between increasing rates of incarceration and reduced crime rates; during the 1990s Texas increased incarceration levels by 144% while New York's rate only grew by 24%, yet both experienced similar reductions in crime.

* Record incarceration rates have a corrosive impact on families and communities by destabilizing personal and professional bonds and increasing the risk of recidivism.

Hat tip to The Sentencing Law and Policy Blog which has a link to the source document.

At Least He's Not Your Prosecutor.

Actually, he is, if you live in Mesa County, home to Grand Junction, Palisade, Clifton and Fruita. It seems that a prosecutor acting under the direction of District Attorney Pete Hautzinger (now a Republican, who previously ran as a Democrat for the state legislature in a campaign I worked on personally) prosecuted a man 24 year old man for possession a prescription drug pursuant to a lawful prescription. The man was left to rot in jail for nearly a year. The problem. It isn't illegal to possess a prescription drug pursuant to a lawful prescription and it isn't a controlled substance in any case. His pathetic public defender also didn't catch this rather big problem with the case. The rest of the story can be found at Left Off Colfax.

You know what is even worse? In all likelihood, the victim of the wrongful arrest probably doesn't have a valid civil rights claim. Why? It isn't enough that officials violate a clearly established constitutional right (and a right to not be arrested for offenses that don't exist is probably clearly established). You also have to show that the violation of the right was intentional, and in the case of the prosecutor and defense attorney it seems pretty clear that it was not.

Furthermore, prosecutors and judges have something very close to absolute immunity from civil liability. Perhaps, the public defender could be sued for professional malpractice, but, even that claim would have to clear hurdles associated with the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, and would be subject to severe limitations on the damages that could be awarded (which would, in any case, be strictly compensatory).

I'll write at length on the topic in another post, but this case is a good illustration of why I believe that the law of wrongful conviction, wrongful arrest and use of force against innocent people should primarily be based upon takings law (the government may not take property without fair compensation), rather than primarily upon intent and process oriented civil rights laws. If, in fact, you were imprisoned for a length of time, and this imprisonment is not ultimately credited towards time you have to serve pursuant to a conviction for a crime, you should be entitled to just compensation from the government, not because they did something improper, but because they took your liberty without just compensation.

17 November 2005

OK, I'm A Sucker For Polls.

This one, I discovered via Evil Mommy. Diagnosis (not terribly accurate in detail, at least, by the way):


Excuse us, could you just put down that hammer for a minute and listen. You’re so busy getting things done you rarely take any time out just to relax. In fact, you’ve probably forgotten how to relax. That’s because you’re so anxious to prove that it’s possible to lead a good and moral life without religion that you have built a strict and forbidding creed all of your own.

You keep a compost heap, cycle to the bottle bank, invest in ethical schemes only and the list of countries you won’t buy from is longer than the washing line for your baby’s towelling nappies. You admire uncompromising self–sacrificers like Aung San Suu Kyi and Che Guevara, and would have liked the chance to be incarcerated for your principles like Diderot or Nelson Mandela.

You would never cheat on your partner, drink and drive, accept bribes or touch drugs. You never waste money though you give lots to charity. Living a good life? You’re a model to us all. But it wouldn’t hurt you to try a little happiness once in a while. Loosen up.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

Does Bill Gates' Computer Crash?

Does Bill Gates' computer crash? I presume that it must. Surely, the CEO of Microsoft corporation has a computer that uses Windows rather than Linux or the Macintosh OS. Presumably, there is not a better version of Windows out there which is made available only to Microsoft executives while the general public suffers. And, I have never observed a Windows machine that does not crash. I have worked for publicly held corporations, for small law firms, I have run all manner of computers at home, and I simply have never seen a Windows machine that doesn't routinely crash.

We are not talking about uses that are unexpected here. I use my computer for word processing, an occassional Xcel spreadsheet, and internet browsing. I don't do high end graphics applications, don't play computer games and don't do sophisticated mathematical calculations. Yet, invariably, something goes wrong. Error messages pop up, programs shut down for no apparent reason, and occassionally the whole system just locks up.

The crashes happen even when you have a machine that uses nothing but Microsoft software in the most recent versions, and a couple of industry standards like the Adobe Acrobat reader. Even when there is no sign of Netscape, Firefox, Open Office, or Wordperfect anywhere to be seen. The processers are typical the Intel products for which the programs were designed.

Is it really so hard for one of the biggest corporations in the world with thousands of employees to produce less buggy software? Linux and the Mac OS generally do not crash. Neither effort was developed with anything approaching the resources that Microsoft has available to it.

Surely, Microsoft knows that the problems exist. Surely, those thousands of top flight computer programmers have a better idea about what causes those problems than I do. Why don't they care?

Reforming the Denver Public Schools.

Michael Bennet, the new superintendent of the Denver Public Schools (formerly a senior member of Mayor Hickenlooper's administration) has unveiled an 83 page plan for significant reforms in the Denver Public Schools, which we will seek to have the Board of Education for the district approve after a couple of months of public comment. According to the Denver Post, the highlights include:

Strengthen principal and assistant-principal roles in the classroom. Principals will attend a principal leadership development program next summer to hone instructional skills.

Close high schools' campuses at lunch starting in the 2006- 07 school year. Schools that submit approved truancy-reduction plans may allow 11th- and 12th-graders out for lunch.

Conduct ninth-grade summer academies to ease the transition from middle to high school.

Have "extended-day offerings" for students who struggle with reading, writing or math.

Make Spanish the primary foreign language taught in middle and high schools; allow for other languages in some schools.

Reward principals financially for creative leadership methods and boosting student achievement.

It will take time to digest the entire report, but my first impression is that it is nice to have a superintendent who recognizes that there is a crisis in the Denver Public Schools and who is willing to use his honeymoon period to take some relatively bold steps to deal with it.

Tax Bill Follies.

Ironically, in the current Congress, the House is the chamber controlled by the wealthy elite, while the Senate is comparatively populist. The differences between the Senate's tax bill and the House tax bill illustrate the differences starkly.

The House bill has as its centerpiece a two year extention of extraordinarily low tax rates on dividends and capital gains (which expire in 2008). The Senate bill mitigates the effect of the alternative minimum tax, which is poised to affect tens of millions of upper middle class families who never paid it before, provides tax relief to Hurricane victims, and makes a technical change in the way profits from oil sales are calculated in times of rising prices that has the effect of increasing taxes on oil companies who profited immensely from recent oil price increases, by about $5 billion.

Republican moderates rebelled at the idea of cutting taxes for investors at the same time they were voting on spending cuts for food stamps, Medicaid and programs to enforce payment of child support.

Ultimately, this disarray also has a long term source. When the Bush tax cuts were enacted in the President's first term, the cost of the cuts was artificially depressed by making them temporary rather than permanent tax cuts, and by not reducing the alternative minimum tax, effectively taking away with the AMT much of what was given with the tax cuts. They were counting on having more support for their goals now, after people had become accustomed to those tax cuts. But, blinded by the myth that these tax cuts would increase government revenues instead of leading to deficits, and hampered by the President's unpopularity on almost every issue, which has dragged down the Republican Congress as well, creating an every member for him or herself situation going into the 2006 elections, their gamble didn't pan out.

By creating a status quo in which all of the tax cuts go away, the Republicans have given Democrats, particularly in the Senate where legislation is much easier to block than to pass, a real chance to influence tax policy. We'll see how well the Democrats use that gift. Today, the prospects look encouraging.

Charity and Taxes (Background)

The Senate version of the 2005 tax bill now being considered in Congress includes significant reforms to the way the tax code governs charities. This is a big deal for the non-profit community because the tax code is the principal way that non-profits are regulated. Most states give the state attorney general the right to shut down charities that don’t actually live up to their charters, but hat almost never happens and is complaint driven. The tax provisions targeted at charities, in contrast, are relatively vigorously enforced by the Internal Revenue Service.

None of these reforms make sense in a larger policy context, however, without some background. Today, I'll start today by looking at the biggest questions at all, which are what non-profits status gives a charity and why there are increasing doubts about whether this scheme is a good one.

There are a variety of kind of charities, but the most well known is the domestic 501(c)(3), typically, in the form of a non-profit corporation incorporated under a state law specific to non-profits. While these charities are often called “tax exempt” which means that they don’t owe corporate income taxes on their profits, this benefit turns out to be the least important of the benefits of 501(c)(3) status. The reality is that most tax exempt 501(c)(3) organizations spend virtually all of the money they receive each year on purposes which would be tax deductions if the organizations were taxable.

Moreover, 501(c)(3)s aren’t really truly tax exempt either. They still have to pay FICA and FUTA payroll taxes for their employees, and still have to withhold income taxes at the state and federal level from wages paid to their employees. And, if a non-profit engages in an active business activity unrelated to its charitable purpose, e.g. a church that also ran a chain of ordinary gas stations, the profits from the unrelated business activities is taxable as if the business was a for profit corporation and if the activities are substantial and continuing, the charity’s entire non-profit status could be lost. Investment income, on the other hand (even dividends from a for profit corporation owned entirely by a non-profit corporation, or rents actively managed rental real estate), is tax free.

Most states do permit non-profits to escape paying sales taxes on their purchases (although typically only medium and large non-profits figure out how to do this and even in those organizations, small purchases are often made without exercising this privilege). Most states also permit non-profits to escape paying property taxes on real estate which they own, although this generally only impacts the fairly small cross-section of non-profits (largely hospitals, schools and churches) which own real estate.

The real big financial advantage to non-profit status, however, comes from the charitable deduction from income taxes (Internal Revenue Code 170), the charitable deduction from estate taxes (Internal Revenue Code 2055, and similar provisions for gift and generation skipping transfer taxes), and eligibility to receive grants reserved for non-profits, such as distributions from a kind of charity known as a private foundation.

The income tax charitable deduction is one of the biggest “tax expenditures” in the tax code. It costs the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars a year, is generally speaking, regressive in terms of how it impacts tax bills relative to income (non-itemizers, who tend to be lower income, can’t take it at all, and wealthier people can generally afford to give away a larger percentage of their incomes), and is one of the biggest sources of complexity in the tax code for the average taxpayer because the number of transactions which an individual must keep records regarding and summarize for a tax return once a year to claim the charitable deduction far exceeds that of other common itemized deductions like the mortgage interest deduction and state and local taxes deduction.

The charitable deduction also is the source of a great deal of governmental interference in the affairs of non-profit organizations. Organizations that claim this lucrative financial benefit are forbidden from engaging in substantially lobbying and can not endorse political candidates – in effect, they up the freedom to engage in political speech, despite the fact that political action may be a local way to further the organization’s non-profit purposes (more subtle political influence through education and advocacy on certain political issues is permitted). They must file tax returns on a regular basis if they are large operations, even though generally nothing will be owed, and must register with tax authorities to obtain an identifying employer identification number. They also put the IRS in the position of deciding whether or not the organization is really engaging in charitable activities.

Progressives have, never the less, historically supported the charitable deduction. This is because the non-profits that benefit from the charitable deduction have historically been an important progressive force in our society. Charitable organizations heal the poor, educate people, provide human services, and further arts and science which often promote progressive messages. Until relatively recently, religious organizations, which backed the civil rights movement, the abolition of slavery, improved treatment of working women and children, peace, opposition to the death penalty, and the narrowing or abolition of the death penalty, was also seen as a generally progressive force in society.

More recently, considerable skepticism has developed regarding the degree to which charities are really selfless gifts that governments should subsidize with tax breaks, or whether they are more like personal expenditures. Going to the movies or buying a CD advances the arts, but we don’t give you a charitable deduction for those. Hospitals do provide charity care, but it is rarely more than 3% of revenues, and is usually far less. Churches similarly spend a far greater proportion of their revenues on operating expenses like rent and furnishings and a pastor and secretary’s salary, in most cases, than they do on human services targeted at the poor. Secular private schools and colleges typically primarily serve the upper middle class who pay a healthy price for the privilege, and while many do provide financial aid to needy students, donations don’t have to be limited to that purpose to obtain tax breaks. A donation to establish a cushy lounge at an elite law school where the average student will make $90,000 a year upon graduation gets just as much of a tax break as a scholarship fund for first time college students. Yet, a personal gift to help a particular needy student whom the donor knows attend college, without a formal scholarship process, doesn’t qualify for a charitable deduction at all. Art museums, operas, and theater companies are routinely classified as non-profit and entitled to charitable deductions, despite the fact that these institutions often charge healthy admissions charges to see their artistic offerings and cater to a decidedly middle to upper middle class audience, while professional sports teams, which provide entertainment to a much more plebian audience, often made available to the public for free through broadcast television subsidized with advertisements, are routinely operated as for profit ventures. National Public Radio, and Public Television, which routinely note in an effort to generate advertisements called “underwriting” that they have audiences with a socially and economically elite demographic. Credit unions, which receive a tax exemption, increasingly look very much like their for profit cousins, but with better deals made possible, in part, by a lack of a need to pay dividends to shareholders or to pay taxes on profits.

In short, the rough justice understanding that the tax benefit that the rich receive from making charitable donations is matched by the public benefit that accrues from those donations is an assumption which is increasingly being challenged.

(The skepticism is less stark in the case of the gift and estate tax charitable deductions. While these taxes are structured as taxes on donors, the policy justification for these taxes is as a tax in lieu of an income tax on inheritors and gift recipients. These taxes are felt primarily by the Paris Hilton's of the world. Rather than tax the amounts received to the recipient, as we do with lottery winners whom inheritors of great wealth resemble, it is more practicable to tax the individual who has the funds and gives them away. But, when a gift is made to a charity, which wouldn't pay income taxes on what it received in any case, this justification for the gift and estate taxes breaks down.)