31 December 2007

Reforming the Presidential Primary Process

The formal process of selecting the next President of the United States will begin in a few days. More than a hundred million people are constitutionally eligible to run for the office. There is a roughly 99% chance, however, that the winner will be one of a dozen people who have made a serious bid to receive a major party nomination and raised significant funds to do so. There are only three Democrats in serious contention for the Democratic nomination. The Republican field is wider and has shown far more movement over the past few months, but still small.

In a month and a half, a majority of the delegates to the respective national conventions of the Democratic and the Republican parties will have been committed and it is unlikely that there will be more than four candidates in contention, before unaffiliated voters have any say in the matter. Many of those delegates, if not most, will have been selected based upon party caucuses with far lower attendance from registered members of the respective parties than primary elections.

General election voters in November will have just two real choices in the Presidential race. This will give them a real impact on the future of this country, but, as always, it will be a choice of evils at that point, or indeed, even for the very first voters in the process, those who attend the Iowa caucuses this week.

The political party nomination system is broken. This year, Democrats will disenfranchise voters in Michigan and Florida because they bucked the rules privileging Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. A compressed primary system also makes it nearly impossible for a candidate to move to national prominence based upon "retail politics" in early primary states, because there is no time to fund raise based upon early victories. And, a compressed primary increases the likelihood of a brokered convention where smoke filled rooms in Denver or Minneapolis, rather than voter preferences decide the outcome. This is so because there is little time for early wins to generate momentum in later primaries.

The nation does benefit from a lengthy nomination process, because millions of politically aware people need time to get to know the candidates. But, we can do better, particularly in light of the fact that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit reform and that federal law could secure standardization.

I would favor a process something like this:

In the first stage, in January, Presidential candidates would be required to formally declare their candidacy with the national committee of their political party and pay a significant candidacy declaration fee (perhaps $30,000) to help defray caucus publicity costs and to discourage non-viable candidates. Each party would devote its resources to sharing information about declared candidates with potential caucus goers, to caucus sites, and to the press, and would host Presidential debates. I suspect that no more than ten or twenty people in each party would run in most years.

In the second stage, there would be a single, national caucus for each party, in March, open to all registered voters affliated with that political party. Every caucus goer attending in person, after discussing candidates in their caucus, would vote a standardized pre-printed paper ballot listing all declared candidates for President in that party. Any candidate receiving at least 15% of the delegates available nationally in that round would make it into the second round, except that the top two candidates would make it to the next round if no one, or only one candidate, cleared the 15% threshold and the leading candidate did not receive majority support in the caucuses. A majority winner with no runner up receiving at least 15% of the caucus vote would simply become that party's nominee (something likely to happen routinely when there is an incumbent or other clear heir apparent). Each party would devote resources to sharing information about candidates who survived the caucuses with potential primary voters and the press and would host more Presidential debates inculding the remaining candidates in the party.

In the third stage, if necessary in a political party, in mid-May, there would be a national primary among the survivors of the first round (in theory, as many as six, but rarely that many in practice). If a candidate received a majority of the vote in the national primary, that candidate would become the party nominee. If not, all candidates receiving at least 15% support in the primary (or the top two, if only one candidate received 15% of the primary vote, and that person did not receive a majority) would advance to the national convention.

At the fourth stage, if necessary, in August, the national convention, including super-delegates as well as delegates selected in the May national primary election, would selecte a nominee for each political party. If a nominee was selected at an earlier state, this result would simply be ratified at the national convention without input from the superdelegates, and the national convention would focus instead on internal party business and preparing for the general election.

Every national political party nominee would appear on the ballot in every state automatically.

Candidates not affiliated with any party in the year prior to the election would appear on the ballot in every state if that candidate would submit a petition signed by 1% of eligible voters not affiliated with any political party to the Secretary of State in states with combined electoral votes sufficient to constitute a majority of the nation's electoral votes.

Candidates would have to be registered to vote and affiliated with a political party a year prior to election day to be considered in a party's nomination process, and no one affiliated with a political party in the year prior to election day would be permitted to run as an unaffiliated candidate (i.e. there would be a "sore loser" rule).

Non-Compete Agreements Bad For Economy

Colorado allows non-competition agreements, but significantly restricts their availability. Like most states, Colorado requires the duration, geographic scope and competitive market definition's scope be reasonable. Furthermore, in Colorado, unlike many states, non-competition agreements are allowed only in business sales, to protect trade secrets, to cover the cost of training an employee in the first two years, and for certain managers and "employees who constitute professional staff to" management (a term largely left to juries for definition) pursuant to Section 8-2-113 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

These restrictions on non-competition clauses may have helped Colorado's high technology economy significantly. Techdirt (via Eric Goldman's blog) notes that on a macroeconomic level non-competition clauses "do more harm than good."

My interest in the specifics of noncompetes was kicked off by a small part of David Levine and Michele Boldrin's book Against Intellectual Monopoly, where they discuss how the lack of noncompetes helped Silicon Valley grow. . . .

Much of this discussion kicked off with AnnaLee Saxenian's 1994 book Regional Advantage that tries to understand why Silicon Valley developed into the high tech hub it is today, while Boston's Route 128 failed to follow the same path -- even though both were considered at about the same level in the 1970s. Saxenian finds that the single biggest difference in the two regions was the ability of employees to move from firm to firm in Silicon Valley. That factor, ahead of many others, caused Silicon Valley to take off, while the lack of mobility in Boston caused its tech companies to stagnate and make them unable to compete against more nimble Silicon Valley firms. . . .

Ronald Gilson . . . followed it up with his own research suggesting that that it had much less to do with cultural reasons and much more to do with the legal differences between the two places, specifically: California does not enforce noncompetes, while Massachusetts does. . . .

[S]ome researchers from the Federal Reserve and the National Bureau of Economic Research . . . showed that, indeed, there was much greater mobility in Silicon Valley than elsewhere. . . . [S]ome researchers from Harvard Business School put out some research earlier this year that not only compared the situation in Silicon Valley to Boston, but added a third natural experiment in Michigan. You see, Michigan used to not enforce noncompetes, but in 1985, Michigan inadvertently began allowing noncompetes to be enforced again. The research showed that immediately following the change, mobility of inventors in Michigan decreased noticeably, slowing the spread of certain ideas. Their research found that "The networks of small companies so crucial to Silicon Valley's growth would be less likely to develop in regions that enforce noncompetes."

He then expands upon the issue of why digital rights management involves analogous issues and concludes that:

While it may seem easier to "protect" your ideas and your people, what you really end up doing is blocking off your own access to many of the ideas that you need to continue to innovate. You limit the vital mix of ideas to build not just decent products, but great products. . . . noncompetes destroy businesses when competing against more nimble, more open technology clusters.

My brother's status as a Bostonian computer professional who has stayed with the same company for a very long time also perks my interest in the topic. If he had landed in Silcon Valley, instead of Boston, he likely would have moved though several jobs by now.

Also notable is that both medical professionals and lawyers are subject to ethical rules that prohibit agreement to non-competition agreements in most cases, although in the case of lawyers, this is mitigated by elaborate conflict of interest rules that serve as de facto non-competition agreements that protect trade secrets. Few would argue that this has seriously hurt the economic returns associated with the practice of medicine or the practice of law.

Laws invalidating non-competition agreements have close precedents in the area of physical property and intellectual property. In the case of physical property, certain restraints on the alienation of the property are void as a matter of public policy. In the case of intellectual property, the first sale doctrine places real limits on the ability of copyright holders to use a mere copyright to prevent the resale of their intellectual property (although the evolving law of licensing is eroding that doctrine).

One also wonders if severe restaints in the United States justified by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, on defamation law and the extent to which the fair use defense to copyright violations can be limited haven't had a similar economically beneficial effect.

Lassiez-faire economies are prone to developing private arrangements that have effects comparable to those of government regulation if government does not ban those arrangements.

30 December 2007

Projected Congressional Winners and Losers

Election Data Services is predicting the impact of the 2010 census on Congressional Redistricting, as summarized here. A few results are close and depend on hard to predict 2008-2010 population trend nuances.


Texas +4
Arizona +2
Florida +1 to +2
Georgia +1
Nevada +1
Oregon +1
Utah +1
North Carolina 0 to +1
South Carolina 0 to +1


New York -2
Ohio -2
Illinois -1
Iowa -1
Louisiana -1
Massachusetts -1
Michigan -1
Missouri -1
New Jersey -1
Pennsylvania -1
Minnesota 0 to -1
California 0 to -1

In short, bad news for blue states and good news for red states, in the Presidential race. Impact on Congressional races depends upon how redistricting plays out. The gains in red states are often in the more liberal parts of those states.

Colorado will neither gain or lose seats as a result of the 2010 census, but redistricting may still change the balance of power in the state towards areas that are gaining in population and away from those that are losing population.

Gains in the conservative Southern suburbs of Denver will help Republicans. Losses in rural farm country will hurt them.

Homeopathy Still Doesn't Work

Except that homeopathy, like many non-scientific medical treatments, does have a placebo effect. Hell's Handmaiden links to various relevant sources, and offers cogent criticism of the methodology of a World Health Organization report that is more optimistic.

28 December 2007


Mass media can be weird. Yesterday, I looked at the front page of CNN and learned that 16 inches of snow had fallen in my front yard at home, and that the airline that I was returning home from vacation from was canceling flights. It was like getting a call from the FBI advising you that you'd left the lights on in your car.

Congratulations Dad!

My father is an Oxford Press Man of the Years in 2007, a well deserved recognition.

21 December 2007

The Submarine Threat

Today several navies are operating AIP [air independent propulsion] submarines, with the U.S. Navy having "borrowed" the Swedish AIP submarine Gotland in 2005-2007 to serve as an anti-submarine target for U.S. carrier task forces. The Gotland, according to Swedish officers, could not be located by U.S. naval forces in exercises until the submarine "wanted to be found."

From here (the larger article talks about an experimental diesel-nuclear hybrid submarine that the Russians are developing).

AIP submarines are David and Goliath weapons where the U.S. Navy is Goliath and not David. A country with a population on the order of Colorado can afford to take on a dreadfully expensive U.S. carrier battle group with one and win, despite the fact that the submarine costs something on the order of 0.5% of the cost of the carrier group.

20 December 2007

New Jersey Is Much Better Than Texas

Texas is the execution capital of the United States. New Jersey abolished capital punishment and commuted the sentences of everyone on its death row earlier this month.

Texas has a rampant problem with children who don't have health insurance. As of January 1, 2008, the State of New Jersey is making health insurance available to every child. The details?

[T]he new program will allow parents, regardless of income, to enroll their children in the state's FamilyCare health insurance plan, which is currently limited to low- and moderate-income families. Parents who earn more than the FamilyCare income threshold will be able to "buy in" to the program, paying a relatively low fee for children's coverage. . . . Between 50,000 and 60,000 uninsured children whose families earn too much for FamilyCare would become eligible for coverage . . . . FamilyCare offers coverage for children in families earning up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level, or $72,275 for a family of four. . . . Children up to age 18 could be enrolled in the buy-in program . . . [which] will help parents who currently have health insurance of their own but cannot afford the roughly $400 a month cost to cover their children.

Families who "buy in" to FamilyCare will pay $137 per month per child, up to a maximum of $411 per month . . . the new program will not increase the state's costs. . . . New Jersey is home to nearly 275,000 uninsured children . . . FamilyCare's income threshold is the highest in the nation for state-subsidized health care, opening it up to more children and some parents. Families earning 200 percent of the poverty level or more pay premiums or co-pays.

As of the end of November, 113,054 children were enrolled in FamilyCare, plus another 84,478 adults, according to the Department of Human Services.

Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania have similar programs.

19 December 2007

Beginnings and Endings

Sometimes, New Year's Day is just another year, but this year, the changes will be a bit more significant in my household.

While I rarely talk about my professional life on this blog, now is as good a time as any to announce that my law firm is re-organizing to become the law firm of McGihon & Oh-Willeke, LLC, effective with the coming of the new year. Anne L. McGihon and I will be practicing as full law partners, after a couple of years getting acquainted in which I have been Of Counsel to the firm of McGihon & Associates, LLC.

McGihon & Oh-Willeke, LLC has a general civil practice with a focus on commercial litigation, transactional business and real estate work, tax law, estate planning, and election law. We also get dogs off death row and take other work on a case by case basis. We do not generally handle criminal cases, although we do provide emergency advice to established clients in the area until counsel with a criminal law specialty can be obtained. We aren't cheap and expect retainers as security for reasonably expected future payment in most cases, but we also are hardly the most expensive firm in town and hold ourselves to large firm standards of competence in fields of law that demand high levels of technical skill. Our office is at 837 Sherman Street, a restored early Denver mansion, conveniently near the state capital and the offices of the Democratic Party of Denver.

Anne L. McGihon who is my state representative where, among other responsibilities, she serves as chair of the State House Health and Human Services Committee. She is admitted to practice in Florida and Colorado and also has a background as a social worker. She has practiced about a decade longer than I have, and practiced at Holland & Hart doing, among other things, litigation in connection with the S&L crisis and bond work before establishing her own small firm. I am admitted to practice in New York State and Colorado, and have practiced law for twelve years, although this was only a part time practice when I was an associate professor of estate planning at the College for Financial Planning, a sister institution of the University of Phoenix that established the Certified Financial Planner profession. I am also active in Democratic Party politics, of course, serving as the treasurer of the Democratic Party of Denver in addition to some less impressive responsibilities such as serving as precinct committee person for my West Washington Park precinct. Both of us have significant trial experience.

This spring I will be part of the faculty for a continuing legal education class on the subject of asset protection, something state representative Joel Judd, who is familiar with my passion for rooting out illegitimate means of accomplishing jokingly jabbed me about when he learned this news. My presentation will concern exemptions from creditors expressly established by state and federal laws, something made vastly more complicated in the latest round of bankruptcy law amendments. Considering and managing liability risks is, of course, an integral part of almost all well done estate planning and business planning.

After a good run of a year and a half as an inaugural semi-professional blogger journalist for the Center for Independent Media sponsored online magazine Colorado Confidential, I will step down from my role as regular columnist, and limit my contributions to the publication to the occasional guest column, news tip and comment to stories. In my first six months as a fellow, I was writing about six stories a week. In the last ten months or so, I have reduced that to six to eight stories a month. The publication is narrowing its focus to more expressly political things, while remain more of a general interest policy wonk, something reflected in my stories. But, the notion that partners in law firms have more time available for leisure than those lower down the totem pole is, alas, completely false, so I will have no trouble making use of the found time.

While her life is not mine to discuss in detail on the Internet, a significant change in my wife's daily schedule in January will also mean a big change in the daily rhythm of my life.

As regular readers will know, I've also recently trading in my beloved Honda Accord, which served me well for nine years but was starting to show its age, for a small SUV, as I have been advised that we have a social obligation to give rides to friends and sports team mates of my two elementary school aged children that will remain a key demand on our vehicle for the rest of the vehicle's useful life. As financially prudent people, we have, of course, been saving in our "car fund" for sometime, although it is always a bit frightening to make a major purchase like this one because our "car fund" was also a healthy supplement to our "emergency fund".

As a result of all of this, and the annual change that my professional life undergoes as we shift from out of legislative session mode, to in legislative session mode each January, the New Year in 2008 really will involve big changes for me this time around.

The character of this blog will no doubt change as well starting in the New Year, but it definitely will continue to operate and I have not yet decided what changes I will make to it.

18 December 2007

Denominational Demographics

Why are mainline churches shrinking but conservative Christian denominations growing?

The conventional wisdom is that this is a function of ideology. Conservatives say that the public is disgusted with liberal theology and marshal convincing statistics to support that claim. A variant on that description is the candle burning at both ends theory, that says that mainline churches are losing members both to conservatives on the right, and to secularism on the left.

But, a recent study from an Episcopal demographer begs to differ with this assessment. In this view, it mostly comes down to differences in birth rates.

The membership of the Episcopal Church has been predominantly white. And the birthrate among whites has declined substantially since the fifties. Hathaway finds (p. 13) “the association between [white birthrate and mainline membership growth] is so strong that it produces a correlation of .94 (0 being no relationship and 1.0 begin a perfect relationship). In statistical terms, 88% of the year to year variation in mainline membership can be explained by the birth rate.” (He finds the correlation .89 between white birthrate growth and member growth in the Episcopal Church.) Further (p. 16),

"As noted earlier, all denominations—mainline and conservative—were affected adversely by social changes occurring in the 1960s and 1970s. However, mainline denominations were hit hardest by the changes because declines in the birth rate were much more severe among the more highly educated white population. (Among conservative Protestants and Mormons the birth rate remained much higher than for the mainline, insulating these groups from the full effect of declines in fertility)."

and (p. 17)

"The Episcopal Church has the highest proportion of members among mainline denominations who are college graduates and in households earning $75,000 or more. As a result, the birth rate among Episcopalians is much lower than the national average—and even lower than the population of non-Hispanic whites. A reasonable estimate, based on education and race, is approximately 1.5 children per woman (compared to the replacement level of 2.1) for Episcopalians."

The evidence for the demographic view is convincing, and also explains why one would see in a single Roman Catholic Church with a single ideology, a decline in Anglo membership matched by an increase in Hispanic membership, to produce little net change.

The Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed page noted data that support a mixed demographic and political view a year and a half ago, implying that the demographic differences between denominations that fall upon political lines are no coincidences:

According to the 2004 General Social Survey, if you picked 100 unrelated politically liberal adults at random, you would find that they had, between them, 147 children. If you picked 100 conservatives, you would find 208 kids. That's a "fertility gap" of 41%. Given that about 80% of people with an identifiable party preference grow up to vote the same way as their parents, this gap translates into lots more little Republicans than little Democrats to vote in future elections. Over the past 30 years this gap has not been below 20%[.] . . .

The fertility gap doesn't budge when we correct for factors like age, income, education, sex, race--or even religion. Indeed, if a conservative and a liberal are identical in all these ways, the liberal will still be 19 percentage points more likely to be childless than the conservative. Some believe the gap reflects an authentic cultural difference between left and right in America today. As one liberal columnist in a major paper graphically put it, "Maybe the scales are tipping to the neoconservative, homogenous right in our culture simply because they tend not to give much of a damn for the ramifications of wanton breeding and environmental destruction and pious sanctimony, whereas those on the left actually seem to give a whit for the health of the planet and the dire effects of overpopulation."

The Episcopal demographic study doesn't directly measure either inflows through conversion to mainline denominations, or outflows by people who leave religion entirely or join a different religious denomination. But, looking at the birth rate data and bottom line numbers, the implication of the demographic study is that conversions into and out of denominations are largely a wash.

A Baptist source (cited by an Episcopalian and probably reporting on a study also reported here) puts the relative contributions of birth rate and conversion at 70% birth rate and 30% conversion, while a labor source cited in the same place acknowledges but down plays the denominational impact on birth rates.

Christian Century magazine has a 2004 report that is more nuanced.

Membership statistics have nuances that support a variety of conclusions. If Unitarians, a liberal denomination, grew by 80 percent between 1963 and 1976, if liberal Protestants and Jews have low birth rates while conservative Protestants have high birth rates, if church attendance across denominations has been relatively constant in the 20th century, then the received notion of liberal or mainline "decline" since the 1960s needs some complicating footnotes. In any event, denominational religion's twists and turns provide grist for the historian's mill, enhancing an overall understanding of the evolution of the American religious scene that includes a shift toward nondenominational religious expression.

One place where this doesn't add up is the growing ranks of the not religious. Non-religious people are now a much larger share of the population than they used to be, but are demographically closer to the mainline Christian denominations than to the conservative Protestant and significantly non-Anglo denominations. This can't be explained with birth rates.

The Subtle Sport of Gift Giving

Giving gifts, like all sports, involves certain rules. If you aren't playing by these rules you are playing some other sport and this post may not apply to you.

The basic rules of gift giving are as follows:

1. You are obligated by your family, social and professional relationships to other people to give them gifts at agreed upon times which are a function of the identity of of giver and receiver of the gifts. These occasions for people with a Christian heritage in the United States typically include birthdays and Christmas.

2. The value of a gift given should be commensurate to the magnitude of the occasion, your relative social positions, and your affluence. More important events call for bigger gifts, closer relationships call for bigger gifts, gifts values should reciprocate and calibrate past histories of gift giving between you, in unequal relationships the superior person is expected to give a larger gift than the inferior person, gifts should not be beyond the means of the giver, and gifts should attempt to make less affluent recipients materially better off but not even attempt this task for more affluent recipients.

3. The more a recipient likes a gift received, the better.

4. Gifts of money are strongly discouraged except from relatives who don't interact daily with the children who receive them (e.g. out of town grandparents to grandchildren), and from recipients of services to providers of services (e.g. household service providers and newspaper deliverers). Gift cards are superior to money, but still in the same class of gifts as money.

5. Potential recipients of gifts are allowed to hint, ideally as subtly as possible, about possible gifts or material desires, but are strongly discouraged from asking for a particular gift (unless they are young children), or participating in the selection of their own gifts.

6. Lower quality and less costly gifts that reflect the personal efforts of the gift giver are comparable in value to more perfect, more valueable gifts purchased from a store. Intermediate between these two extreme are gifts purchased from a source that is not readily available to the general public -- a quirky botique, for example, rather than a brand name product from a national department store chain.

7. It is improper to publicly admit that someone has given a bad gift, but is entirely proper to note this fact with discretion in private. The disappointment of the recipient and the private discussion of the giver's poor gift giving skills are the only penalties for failing to give good gifts, but over time the cumulative effects of these penalties can be significant and reflect on the gift giver's character.

These rules only make sense when you realize that the heart of the sport of gift giving is not really about transferring wealth. Gift giving is more anthropology than economics. It is a form of symbolic communication. Its purpose is to test the gift givers awareness of his or her social obligations, of the nature of his or her relationships to others, and of his or her empathetic understanding of the wants and desires of people who are part of his or her life.

Giving appropriate and appreciated gifts is a way to indicate that you understand the people around you personally, and also understand the cultural context in which all of you are embedded. It is proof of high emotional and social intelligence.

In contrast, a failure to give socially expected gifts, giving gifts when they are not called for socially, giving gifts that are either too high or too low in value for the recipient from the gift giver, or giving gifts that the recipient does not value demonstrate that the person giving the gift is socially inept, and thus reflects poorly on that person's character, unless there is a good reason for that person to be socially inept.

The routine process of gift giving also identifies for the recipient and those who observe the gift giving taking place, social miscues that are taking place so that miscommunication can be clarified. For example, if a woman receives diamond jewelry from a man from whom she had expected to receive a cute coffee mug, she knows that the man sees their relationship differently than she does.

The sport of gift giving is, by design, notoriously difficult to execute properly on a consistent basis, despite the relatively straight forward rules. As is the case of a batter in a game of baseball, outright failure and near misses are normal and expected, while home runs are rare for all but the truly excellent. This is important to the sport because its purpose, much like an IQ test, is to evaluate the relative social graces of the participants in the sport. If it were too easy, the sport could not adequately distinguish between the many fine gradations from profoundly graceful to socially inept. This ranking in addition to exposing miscommunication, also serves to identify who is and is not capable of engaging in delicate social tasks in the future. Inept gift givers are poor candidates for preparing seating charts for a wedding, for example.

The Death Of A Billion Dollar Idea

Aviation Technology Group, a Colorado based aircraft manufacturer, is on the brink. It has just ten employees out of a hundred at its peak left, and if it can't find financing it will die, according to the Denver Post.

It has been developing a two-seat, $3 million aircraft that is targeted at wealthy pilots but has not yet received Federal Aviation Administration. The plane can also be configured for military use.

I am hardly surprised that ATG is floundering in the general aviation area, although it does have 100 order with $25,000 deposits. If an expensive toy for wealthy adrenaline freaks doesn't get built, so be it.

The Rocky Mountain West aircraft manufacturing industry also seems secure. The Denver Post also reported that Adam Aircraft, another start up general aviation aircraft company, also headquartered at the metropolitan Denver Centennial Airport, is expanding its production facilities in Utah and has manufacturing operations in Pueblo.

But, what ATG has that is in the nation interest is a billion dollar idea; not an idea that would make ATG a billion dollars in profits, but an idea that would save U.S. taxpayers several billion dollars.

The idea is its "Homeland Defense Interceptor" version of its planes. You see, right now, in the continental United States if we have another 9-11 type event where non-military aircraft are co-opted for hostile purpose, we have to scramble F-15s or F-16s to contain them, and if necessary, shoot them out of the sky. There are scores of jet fighters in the United States Air Force, Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard inventory that are tasked with this interceptor mission, including squadrons tasked to major cities like Washington D.C. and New York City.

The F-22 is replacing the F-15, and the F-35A is replacing the F-16. The average cost of an F-22 is in excess of $300 million and the marginal cost in well in excess of $100 million. The F-35A, originally expected to be a steal at $35 million a plane is now expected to cost more than $110 million a plane. These planes are also very expensive to operate.

The genius of the Homeland Defense Interceptor concept is to recognize that a lot of very expensive features of the F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35A are necessary in a plane whose mission is to guard the skies of major U.S. cities. There are essentially no military aircraft in private ownership that pose any threat to any U.S. target anywhere in North America, or for that matter, almost anywhere in the world. Any invading military aircraft would be detected on radar long before entering U.S. airspace, from across the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean or Caribbean Sea. No one seriously worries about a military aircraft strike on the United States from Canada or Mexico or Greenland.

A plane securing the skies over the United States doesn't need stealth technology, it doesn't need to be able to cruise at supersonic speeds. It doesn't need phenomena thrust to weight ratios to allow it to out maneuver top of the line Russian jet fighters. It doesn't need to have any bomb dropping capability. It doesn't need a big payload of air to air missiles. And, so on. Even without those bells and whistles, you can build a jet fighter that is devastatingly superior to even the most canny pilot in any plane one would ever encounter in U.S. airspace.

The result is that a homeland defense interceptor could be build for something on the order of 10% of the price of an F-35A, and replaced scores of F-35As that will be tasked to that mission, and it will also have far lower operating costs. One could buy 100 Homeland Defense Interceptors in lieu of F-35As for the price of 10 F-35As. This would generate perhaps $1 billion of sales and perhaps $200 million of profits for ATG. But, it would save U.S. taxpayers perhaps $9 billion.

This wouldn't at all replace either the F-22 or the F-35A. But it would save U.S. taxpayers several billion dollars by lowering the number of the more capable planes that the combined U.S. military would require. It could also be designed, because it has fewer capabilities, to be easier to operate, which would be helpful if this mission were assigned to Air National Guard pilots with a less intense training regime. And, in my view, the Air National Guard is where this mission should be placed, because these pilots, many of whom are pilots at their day jobs as well, are best equipped to understand the context situations they face from experience, before they have to make a critical life and death decision about whether to shoot down a civilian aircraft or not. Someone who has spent years flying a 737 is more likely to be able to distinguish between a true threat and a confused pilot than someone who has never flown from anything but a military aircraft.

More prosaically, ATG's plane was also a serious contender for a next generation training aircraft for U.S. pilots.

In the same vein, while this is not ATG's product, the U.S. could save even more billions of dollars by developing less expensive planes for air to ground missions and close air support generally, when U.S. and U.S. allied forces have attained air superiority. The planes are inexpensive primarily because the features desirable for air to air combat, such as stealth and supersonic flight capability, aren't particularly helpful in the close air support role. Indeed, there is the additional concern that close air support planes need better protection from small arms fire because they often lack the luxury of other aircraft to drop bombs from altitudes out of range of small arms. The A-10 Warthog fills this role now, but it is getting old, despite the fact that the A-10 fleet is being upgraded with modern avionics to an A-10C configuration.

This is particularly applicable when U.S. forces are engaged in the counterinsurgency missions that the military swore off after Vietnam, but U.S. Presidents continued to show an interest in participating in.

Again, this isn't to say that there isn't a role for a versatile, multi-purpose fighter like the F-35A in the U.S. military. Most of the time, most military aircraft are needed someplace with far more threats than the continental United States. Important air force missions call for bombing runs to be conducted before air superiority can be secured. But, the all your eggs in one basket concept that the F-35 is the embodiment of, in the interest of reducing development costs associated with multiple classes of military aircraft, and reducing the variety of parts that are needed in the supply chain to maintain aircraft, has turned out to have produced a higher unit costs due to mission bloat than was anticipated by planners when this joint program was conceived.

Also, given the fact that the United States has one of the two or three largest Air Force fleets in the world, concerns about economies of scale are less important to the United States than to most military forces in the world.

The trouble is that the lobby to save taxpayers billions of dollars by making less expensive purchases, isn't nearly as loud as the lobby to have U.S. taxpayers spend large sums on money on huge programs like super-expensive, super-capable planes.

The military brass, likewise, isn't attuned to the notion that a maximally capable weapons platform isn't always best. Money saved by buying only what is necessary for homeland defense or close air support missions frees up money that can be devoted to other resource scarce priorities.

17 December 2007

U.S. Carbine Jams Too Often

The firearm intermediate in size between a pistol and an assault rifle in the United States Army is the M4 carbine. It is commonly used by vehicle drivers and other non-infantry soldiers for self-defense when out and about in Iraq. Unfortunately, it hasn't been seriously updated in a generation, and competing weapons are much more reliable in the dusty environment of desert warfare.

Ten of each weapon; 6,000 rounds per weapon; 120 rounds fired per "dust cycle" (and when they say dust, they mean DUST...testers had to wear respirators and Tyvec suits); wiped and light lube every 600 rounds, fully cleaned and lubed every 1,200 rounds.

XM8: 127 Class I, II and III stoppages.
Mk16 (5.56 SCAR): 226 Class I, II and III stoppages.
HK 416: 233 Class I, II, and III stoppages.
M4: 882 Class I, II and III stoppages.

Thus, in this extreme dust environment, XM8 firearms failed 2% of the time, while the current weapon of the U.S. military, the M4 failed about 14% of the time.

The Army could care less, despite the fact that it conducted the tests.

I have never pretended to be an expert on small arms. But, it is hardly surprising that it is possible with 21st century technology to make a small arm that is better than a Vietnam War era firearm.

Small arms cost a pittance, compared to other major military systems, and small arms are far more important to the U.S. military effort on a day to day basis than many other expensive major weapons systems that the military is currently in the process of procuring.

14 December 2007

Worse Than Renting

51 million U.S. households have mortgages. By the end of this year, 11% of them (5.6 million) will have no or negative equity.

From here.

Six bad lawyers.

Professor Maule lists six notorious cases of malfeasance by lawyers.

13 December 2007

Rivers Of Blood

Iraq is a bloodbath. Juan Cole describes the latest particularly bad day in Iraq, the worst of which appears to involve fighting between religiously united but politically divided Shi'ite factions. But, there are so many atrocities there that they all fade one into another. It is hard to tell if you are reading the latest bad news, or bad news from any news cycle in the last four years, because it all sounds the same. More bombs and random attacks, more dead, more wounded in some city big or small in Iraq.

Europe is littered with memorials to little devastating battles that never made the history books in World War II, World War I and countless wars far more ancient. Will Iraq be like that in a few decades or so, when the current civil war is long over? Or, will Iraqis try to let the sands of history wash it all away so that they can collectively recover from the trauma?

Short of an actively prosecuted genocide by an authoritarian leader (something Saddam was not likely to do in the near future when we invaded) it is hard to imagine any fate worse. More civilians are dying in political/military violence each year in Iraq than in the rest of the world combined.

Cole bemoans the fate of Iraqi refugee children in Syria who are growing up illiterate and uneducated. I'm inclined to think that they're the lucky ones in all of this mayhem. Pity instead the children who see bridal parties, community leaders, market goers, and school mates obliterated on a daily basis, who know about the unidentified dead bodies that show up naked in the streets each morning and the friends and neighbors and family members who go missing never to be seen again.

If this was happening after U.S. troops left, every Republican in the nation would be casting blame for these events down on the heads of the politicians who voted for American troops to leave. But, this is happening despite, or perhaps because, of the presence of about 200,000 foreign soldiers, almost all of them Americans.

Iraq seems like a soap bubble. It is ready to fully implode at the slightest provocation, but it can't seem to figure out which direction to collapse in yet, so it persists despite its inherent instability. The most likely outcome seems to be what Cole calls "soft partition" starting around the spring or summer of 2008. But, today's violence in a securely Shi'ite province casts doubt upon whether even the greater consensus existing within partitioned regions will be enough to form a basis for peaceful self-government. The new regions may end up looking like a Northern Ireland where the factions are equally divided and violent, but attend the same places of worship as members of the same religious sect.

Almost everyone who is affluent enough to leave and educated enough to have prospects elsewhere has left. Those insane enough to stay end up like the head of a Baghdad mental hospital did in the last day or two, assassinated. The human capital that made Baghdad one of the greatest centers of the Middle East's non-oil wealth is gone. Reasonable people acted reasonably and saw that there was no hope in their homeland. In the long run, this may be a real boon to Syria and Jordan, who have absorbed the refugees, despite the short term pain. But, this may resign Iraq to economic and cultural irrelevance forever.

I don't know if any meaningful semblance of democracy is even possible in a political community that has been stripped of its middle class, its moderates, and it technocrats. If all of the factions had united in a resistance against the American occupation, there might be hope for Iraq, as grim as that outcome might have been for the American troops. But, U.S. troops seem to have become mere bystanders, intervening inconstantly in complex internecine struggles. We caused the problem, but we don't seem to be enemy number one of the warring parties. The conflict seems to have moved beyond the point where people perceived as collaborating with the occupying force are the main target of the violence.


This fellow has created more insanely great politically humorous YouTube clips than you can shake a stick at.

Romney and Europe on Religion

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is working hard to disavow any benefit of the doubt that secular liberals like myself might have allowed him.

Europe’s cathedrals are indeed “so inspired, so grand, so empty,” as Mitt Romney, a Mormon, put it last week in charting his vision of a faith-based presidency. . . . Romney . . . was dismissive of European societies “too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer.” He thereby pointed to what has become the principal transatlantic cultural divide. . . .

George W. Bush’s presidency has been fed by his allusions to divine guidance — “the hand of a just and faithful God” in shaping events, or his trust in “the ways of Providence.” . . . But Bush is no transient phenomenon; he is the expression of a new American religiosity. Romney’s speech and the rapid emergence of the anti-Darwin Baptist minister Mike Huckabee as a rival suggest how estranged the American zeitgeist is from the European.

At a time when growing numbers of Americans identify themselves as born-again evangelicals, and creationism is no joke, Romney’s essentially pitted the faithful against the faithless while attempting to merge Mormonism in mainstream Christianity. Where Kennedy said he believed in a “president whose religious views are his own private affair,” Romney pledged not to “separate us from our religious heritage.” . . . Romney allows no place in the United States for atheists. He opines that, “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Yet secular Sweden is free while religious Iran is not. . . . Romney rejects the “religion of secularism,” of which Europe tends to be proud.

From Roger Cohen at The New York Times.

Cohen speculates that "the devastating European experience of religious war" was critical in the move by Europeans and the Founders from religious devotion. But a more plausible theory is the common place observation that religiosity has died in Europe precisely because the state embraced the religious heritage of its people with an established church. The protection afforded the church by the state in Europe eliminated the need of the people to organize to sustain their religion.

Religious activity is an ironic little beast that thrives most when the culture that it is part and parcel of is threatened. More than irony drives the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to which Romney belongs simultaneously has a history of being one of the most fervently suppressed of any religious denomination in the United States, and is one of the most rapidly growing and institutionally healthy religious bodies in the country.

Cohen is also wrong is describing the phenomena he is observing as symptomatic of "the American zeitgeist." There are many deeply religious Americans. But, the phenomena is geographically and culturally discrete. In the American South, in Colorado Springs, in farm country, and in the remaining black neighborhoods that have not been wholly abandoned by the black middle class, the spirit of the age is guided by an evangelical faith. All but one of these geo-cultural regions is firmly a part of the Republican camp to which a candidate seeking that party's nomination must appeal.

In the other party in this country, the one that is not fighting for its political life right now, the "non-Christian left" is a core constituency. The ranks of the non-religious have belatedly grown more in the last few decades than at any other time in our history since the immediate aftermath of the American revolution. Even among those who identify with a religion, growing numbers are not Christians. Atheists are increasingly coming out and embracing their beliefs publicly. Even those who aren't necessarily non-believers themselves fear what conservative Christians in power would do to them. Fear of theocrats is a major reason that much of the Democratic base invests their time, money and talents in the party.

Of course, many Democrats are faithful Christians and some Democrats, particularly the party's immigrant, black and Hispanic constituencies are frequently enthusiastically religious and often have an evangelical bent.

Immigrant communities have always had, and probably always will have, vibrant churches, which serve as one of only a few authentic and powerful ties to the old country.

The Christianity of most blacks in America is very different in practice and its social gospel from the Christianity practiced by Southern whites. Those differences deeply influence the political attitudes of those who attend those churches. But, the two similar expressions of faith have common origins, and both differ profoundly from the liturgical religious traditions of whites in the North who belong to mainline churches more directly descended from the European establishment churches.

Obama, incidentally, is one of the few African-Americans in the United States who is a member of a mainline predominantly white Christian church, the United Church of Christ, after having had a largely secular childhood. The religious heritages of Hillary Clinton and Edwards are probably closer to those of the typical black American than those of Obama. I personally have more in common with Obama culturally than almost any other candidate of either party, despite the fact that our skin colors differ.

While Latin America is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, evangelical Christianity is growing like wild fire there and immigrants to the United States from Latin America as disproportionately evangelicals. And, even Hispanic immigrants who are Catholic share the universal fervor of immigrant communities for the ties the church provides to their heritage abroad. This is why the Roman Catholic church in the United States is seeing stable to slightly growing membership numbers, despite serious declines in their Anglo ranks.

But, those Democrats who aren't afraid to live in an officially evangelical Christian country, still fear that they would be disadvantaged in a nation run by people who share the animus towards their particular group often associated with the culture out of which conservative Christianity sprouts. White evangelical Christians are the direct and recent cultural descendants of the segregationists. The rhetoric of Republican concerns about immigration is deeply intertwined with only thinly veiled racism. Minority fears of Republican rule are well founded.

While Romney's rhetoric about the threat of secularism closely echoes that of the current Roman Catholic Pope, almost certainly not accidentally, given that Romney hails from heavily Catholic Massachusetts, other evangelicals are open and nasty in their contempt for the Catholic church. These criticisms have grown so intense and the association between evangelicals and the descriptor "Christian" has grown so strong, that many teen aged Catholics, confused by this situation, are uncomfortable describing themselves as "Christians" because it could lead an uninformed outsider to think that they are something that they are not.

Many Democrats I know are afraid of Romney because he is a Mormon. They shouldn't be. They should be afraid of Romney because he is a theocrat at heart.

Blawging Boundaries

While I have sometimes felt like the frustrated attorney whose blog is at issue in an attorney regulation proceeding in Florida, I make it a policy not to blog frankly and broadly about litigation in which I have personally been involved.

I personally don't think that this lawyer's case is one that justifies any sanction more serious than a public reprimand. He made some derogatory statements of opinion and some quite possibly true statement of fact that provide a basis for him having that opinion. Nothing was hurt but the judge's feelings. This was clearly not a civil way to present an opinion about a judge, but arguably the First Amendment even protects the questioned posts of this attorney. The First Amendment would clearly protect such a statement from a member of the general public not involved in the cases in question (assuming that the factual statements were true). But, the role of a lawyer as an officer of the court with duties to his client and the tribunal may constrain this right. More importantly, one of a lawyer's jobs coincident to getting good results for current and future clients is to not piss off the judge, as this almost never helps a client.

The trouble, of course, is that information about the judicial temperament of judges is one of great public concern. But, it is often a matter which only attorneys who practice before those judges are in a good position to evaluate. Not all judges perform their jobs in an model manner, and the public needs to known this because voters have a role in electing or retaining those judges in almost every state. Removing intemperate or unfair judges is the public's business. Getting this message to the public often takes bold words.

The alternative is for lawyers who don't practice before a judge, or the educated lay press, to observe the events in question and report upon them, possibly with the assistance of confidential lawyer sources. But, these steps only address the continuing and modern concern about not hurting a client. These steps do not address the archaic standard for comment about the judiciary by lawyers that is rooted in British sensibilities about respect for the court, and civility, that aren't consistent with modern American ideas about freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

F-22 Economics

The F-22 reached "full operational capability" yesterday, which essentially means that it is ready for prime time, and no longer in any way in an experimental or preliminary program stage.

[A]s of 2007, F-22 Raptors are being procured at the rate of 20 per year.

In a ceremony on 29 August 2007, Lockheed Martin reached its "100th F-22 Raptor" milestone. . . . The United States Air Force originally planned to order 750 . . . By 2006, the Pentagon said it will buy 183 aircraft, which would save $15 billion but raise the cost of each aircraft, and this plan has been de facto approved by Congress in the form of a multi-year procurement plan, which still holds open the possibility for new orders past that point. The total cost of the program by 2006 was $62 billion.

In April 2006, the cost of the F-22A was assessed by the Government Accountability Office to be $361 million per aircraft. This cost reflects the F-22A total program cost, divided by the number of fighters the Air Force is programmed to buy; and which has so far invested $28 billion in the Raptor's research, development and testing. That money, referred to as a "sunk cost", is already spent and is separate from money used for future decision-making, including procuring a copy of the jet.

By the time all 183 fighters have been purchased, $34 billion will have been spent on actual procurement, resulting in a total program cost of $62 billion or about $339 million per aircraft. The incremental cost for one additional F-22 is around $137 million; decreasing with larger volumes. If the Air Force were to buy 100 more F-22s today, the cost of each one would be less than $117 million and would continue to drop with additional aircraft purchases. . . . On 31 July 2007, Lockheed Martin received a multiyear contract for 60 F-22s worth a total of US$7.3 billion. The contract brings the number of F-22s on order to 183 and extends production through 2011.

From Wikipedia.

The F-22 is the dream plane of the Air Force and its wants more than the budgeted six dozen more that are awaiting production. It wouldn't be too surprising if the Air Force gets its wish, at least in part.

The F-22 is intended to be a more capable air superiority fighter than the F-35A, which is the next fighter planned to enter the Air Force's fleet. The F-22 is the successor to the currently ailing F-15C in the air superiority role. Consistent with that role, it has a very small bomb carrying capacity (few planes more closely match the motto "not a pound for air to ground") reducing its usefulness in air to ground operations, and is reputedly more stealthy. It does have a first strike role, to use its stealth to destroy critical ground targets in the early stage of a conflict when U.S. forces do not yet have air superiority. But, it isn't optimized for tank hunting, supporting ground troops, or dropping large volumes of ordinance later in a conflict.

The F-35A is intended to be a multi-purpose fighter with greater air to ground bombing capacity, replacing the multi-purpose F-16. The F-35 was intended to be much cheaper than the F-22 (15%-50% of the per unit price). Price creep in the F-35 program has severely reduced the expected price advantage of the F-35 over the F-22 to the point where it isn't out of the realm of possibility that the expected marginal cost of the F-35 may actually be more than the marginal current marginal cost of the F-22, despite the fact that a far larger F-35 buy is anticipated. While as a general rule in the military aircraft area, newer is better, the fact that the F-35 is mired in uncertainties associated with the testing phase of the program (hurdles that full operational capability indicates that the F-22 has overcome) has amazingly made the not cheap technological marvel that is the F-22 start to look affordable and technologically unambitious by comparison.

This all sounds good for the F-22 program. The trouble is that this doesn't necessarily mean that a larger buy of F-22s makes sense. The F-22 program was cut to 183 planes for the very good reason that it isn't clear that the nation will need more than 183 of the highly specialized planes in future wars. It is a plane that mostly makes sense in the first few months of an air war involving a sophisticated opponent (e.g. Russia or China or Saudi Arabia). Once air superiority is attained the job that it is optimized to carry out is done, and these resources are free to be devoted to some other conflict. The plane's much hyped effectiveness also implies that the capabilities of the current F-15 fleet can be matched with a smaller fleet of F-22s. And, it isn't at all clear that the current size of the F-15 fleet has any connection to reality in a post-Cold War world. If we have enough F-22s to meet our nation's needs in the context of our larger pool of Air Force resources in all plausible conflicts in the next few decades, then more F-22s don't make sense at any price.

There certainly isn't anything magical about the 183 plane number (the original 750 plane buy was premised essentially on a 1-1 replacement of current F-15s). But, the trouble is that estimating how many planes the U.S. military does need is more art than science.

There have been a number of major real life military air deployments in recent history. The Gulf War, Kosovo, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War have all commenced with a similar massive air attack that has become the signature feature of American military strategy. Some of these attacks have made all time records in their scale. Most have required capabilities that the F-22 offers in the early days of the conflict. All of these conflicts have resulted in overwhelming U.S. victories in the air phase of the war before ground troops moved in, in the wake of the initial assaults.

There have also been far more instances of air to air combat in modern history than there have of naval combat. But, the total number of air to air combat engagements resulting in downed planes in modern history (i.e. post-World War II) can be numbered in the low hundreds, and the bulk of those have been isolated engagements with just a few planes on each side. Both the F-15 and the F-16 have performed extremely well in the conflicts in which they have been involved, in part due to technical superiority and in part due to better training of their pilots.

The current military inventories of nations potentially hostile to the United States suggest that this will continue to be the case. There are very few nations with meaningfully effective blue sea navies. There are many with credible air forces -- increasingly with older generation aircraft upgrades with the latest high tech sensors, weapons and targeting devices.

None of the historical evidence of the last six decades is very useful in determining how many units of an improved plane are necessary in a conflict where two sophisticated parties engage in a conflict with large numbers of planes on each side in a non-lopsided conflict. The best resources available are wargames informed by modern experience, but with a host of unproven critical assumptions. We have an airplane optimized for just this scenario, but don't have a great handle on what realistic worst case scenarios require at a macro-level, and figuring out what scenarios are even within the realm of plausibility is also a murky act of prophecy. The Air Force, naturally enough, wants to err on the side of caution. But, this is an area where a large margin of safety for a quite unlikely event is very, very costly.

The Bush Tax Cuts And Income Inequality

A dramatic increase in income inequality began when the Bush tax cuts were implemented. The number that falls as it goes to the right is the income share of the bottom four income quintiles of Americans. The number that rises as it goes to the right is the income share of the top American income quintile.

From here.

12 December 2007

The Dark Side of Prescription Drugs

There is evidence that improved mental health care can reduce the incidence of suicide. But, widespread misuse of prescrition drugs appears to be driving a dramatic increase in poisoning deaths among those in the prime of their lives.

In 1980, there were 4,331 accidental poisoning deaths in the United States. In 1990, there were 5,803. In 1995, there were 9,072. In 1998, there were 10,801. Due mostly to a change in the way deaths were categorized, in 1999, this increased to 12,186. In 2005, that had grown to 20,900 deaths from accidental poisoning. There has been a more than 50% increase in accidental poisoning deaths in the last six years. The number has quadrupled since 1980.

By comparison, 17,357 people died from homicides in 2004.

Meanwhile accidental deaths from motor vehicles, drowning, fires and firearms have all decreased significantly since 1980. Deaths from falls have increased significantly, but the increase is almost all attributable to geriatric falls as a result of an aging population many of which could equally accurately be attributable to aged related frailty and loss of coordination. Accidental deaths from other causes (particularly suffocation) have also risen greatly, but these deaths are also largely a product of an aging population. About half involve people age 75 or older, and a good share of the rest involve those who are 65 years of age or older, or under 5 years of age.

In contrast poisoning deaths are heavily concentrated in people age 15 to 64 -- far more so, for example, than accidental deaths involving automobile accidents, drownings, or fires. Just 0.7% of accidental poisoning deaths involve people under the age of 15. Just 4.5% involve people aged 65 or older.

What's happening?

Unintentional deaths due to drug poisoning -- primarily with prescription drugs -- increased by 68 percent between 1999 and 2004 . . . investigators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. . . in the CDC's publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report [February 9, 2007].

The annual poisoning-death rate increased from 4.4 per 100,000 population in 1999 to 7.1 per 100,000 in 2004.

Of all sex, racial, and ethnic groups, the greatest increase was among non-Hispanic white females. The age group most affected was persons aged 15 to 24 years. . . . The drugs most responsible were psychotherapeutic drugs, narcotics and hallucinogens, and unspecified drugs.

In an editorial note, the CDC researchers write: "Effective response to increasing fatal drug overdoses requires strengthening regulatory measures to reduce unsafe use of drugs, increasing physician awareness regarding appropriate pharmacologic treatment of pain and psychiatric problems, supporting best practices for treating drug dependence, and potentially modifying prescription drugs to reduce their potential for abuse."

They advise that state agencies use prescription-monitoring programs to proactively identify patients who fill several prescriptions from different doctors, as well as physicians whose prescribing practices are outside the standards of appropriate medical care.

Another source based on the same report states (emphasis added, references omitted):

The increase in poisoning mortality occurred almost exclusively among persons whose deaths were coded as unintentional drug poisoning, for which the rate increased 68.3%. The rate for poisoning deaths attributed to other substances increased 1.3%. By 2004, drug poisoning accounted for 19,838 deaths, 94.7% of all unintentional poisoning deaths. Among types of drug poisoning, the greatest increases were in the "other and unspecified" drug, psychotherapeutic drug, and "narcotic and hallucinogen" drug categories. . . .

Unintentional drug poisoning mortality rates increased substantially in the United States during 1999--2004. Previous studies, using multiple cause-of-death data, have indicated that the trend described in this report can be attributed primarily to increasing numbers of deaths associated with prescription opioid analgesics (e.g., oxycodone) and secondarily to increasing numbers of overdoses of cocaine and prescription psychotherapeutic drugs (e.g., sedatives), and cannot be attributed to heroin, methamphetamines, or other illegal drugs . . . .

The findings in this report are subject to at least three limitations. First, mortality coding assigns the underlying cause of death to broad drug categories rather than to specific drugs. Second, death certificates do not reveal the circumstances of drug use. Third, determining the intent of a person who took a drug is often difficult for a coroner or medical examiner and might result in misclassification; some of these deaths might have been suicides, although not classified as such, and some deaths categorized as suicides or of undetermined intent might have been unintentional and therefore not analyzed in this study. The extent of this error is not known.

Part of the problem is people who self-medicate with illegal drugs, part of the problem is misuse of prescription drugs. Anti-depressants are the single most prescribed type of prescription drug in the United States today.

But, illegal drug use has been relatively stable. The percentage of people over the age of twelve who used an illegal drug in the last month was unchanged from 2002 to 2006 at 8.3%. The percentage of those people who had used an illegal drug other than marijuana in the last month only slightly increased in the same time period from 3.7% to 3.9%.

Three out of four people who used illegal drugs other than marijuana used prescription drugs for a non-prescribed purpose, mostly pain killers and tranquilizers. Cocaine was the most common illegal drug other than prescription drugs and cocaine overdoses accounting for 31% of ER visits involving drug misuse in 2005, while alcohol in combination with other illegal drugs accounted for another 14% of these ER visits.

This takes place against a backdrop that would suggest that opposite. Cigarette use in the last month has fallen from 38.7% of people age 12 and over in 1985, to 25.0% in 2006. Among teenagers, it has fallen almost two-thirds from about 29% to 10%.

The percentage of high school seniors who used alcohol in the last month has fallen from 72% in 1980 to 45% in 2006, and the percentage who had five or more drinks at once in the last two weeks has fallen from 41% in 1980 to 25% in 2006. Marijuana use among high school seniors has fallen from 60% in 1980 to 42% in 2006. Similar significant declines have been seen in use of inhalants, nitrates, hallucinogens, cocaine, amphetamines (including methamphetamines) and tranquilizers by high school seniors. Only opiates other than heroin have seen increased use and that has been overwhelmed by declines in other kinds of drug use. Incidentally, teen pregnancy is also at or very near an all time low.

Thus, if any of the increase in accidental poisoning deaths comes from non-prescription illegal drug use, it appears that it involves a shrinking group of hard core users who have grown more reckless.

It is possible that some suicides are misinterpreted as accidental drug overdoses. But, the evidence isn't terribly compelling. Suicides have not fallen dramatically in lockstep with increased accidental poisonings as one would expect is that hypothesis were correct. The suicide rate has overall been stable from 1980 to 2004.

11 December 2007

Crack Sentencing Reform in Full Swing

The national tragedy of unjust crack sentences is nearing its end.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to allow some 19,500 federal prison inmates, most of them black, to seek reductions in their crack cocaine sentences.

The commission, which sets guidelines for federal prison sentences, decided to make retroactive its recent easing of recommended sentences for crack offenses.

Most of those eligible could receive no more than a two-year cut in their prison terms, but roughly 3,800 inmates could be released from prison within a year after the March 3 effective date of Tuesday's decision. Federal judges will have the final say whether to reduce sentences. . . . The sentencing commission recently changed the guidelines to reduce the disparity in prison time for the two crimes. The new guidelines took effect Nov. 1. . . . Even after the change, prison terms for crack cocaine still are two to five times longer on average than sentences for powder cocaine, the result of a 20-year-old decision by Congress to treat crack more harshly. The commission first said in 1995 that there was no evidence to support such disparate treatment. . . . Several bills have been introduced to further reduce or eliminate the disparity. The Senate is expected to hold hearings on the legislation next year.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey restated the administration's opposition to retroactivity before the commission voted. . . .

Tuesday's vote follows two Supreme Court rulings Monday that upheld judges who rejected federal sentencing guidelines as too harsh and imposed more lenient prison terms, including one for crack offenses.

In the crack case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion said Derrick Kimbrough's 15-year sentence was acceptable, although guidelines called for 19 to 22 years. "In making that determination, the judge may consider the disparity between the guidelines' treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses," Ginsburg said. . . . 86 percent of the inmates who might see their prison terms for crack offenses reduced after the commission approved retroactive easing. By contrast, just over a quarter of those convicted of powder cocaine crimes last year were black.

Congress wrote the harsher treatment for crack into a law that sets a mandatory minimum of five years in prison for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine or 100 times as much powder cocaine.

Judges do not have the authority to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum or grant reductions below the minimum sentences written into the law.

Between 36,000 and 37,000 federal prison inmates, out of a population of 200,000, are serving time for crack crimes. The prisoners who are not eligible for shorter terms either already are serving the minimum sentence, were sentenced for possession of massive quantities of crack or are serving time under laws that apply to "career criminals."

In previous years, the sentencing commission reduced penalties for crimes involving marijuana, LSD and OxyContin, which are primarily committed by whites, and made those decisions retroactive.

From here.

The Kimbrough case and its companion case Gall also seem likely to end a regime in which deviations from the sentencing guidelines to be more harsh are almost always affirmed on appeal, while leniency relative to the sentencing guidelines is frequently reversed on appeal. Under the two cases, almost all reasoned sentencing decisions by trial courts should be affirmed.

The Tax Fraud Lobby

Who would favor laws that facilitate tax fraud? Lots of people, it turns out.

[T]he National Federation of Independent Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Council, and numerous other groups have created the Coalition for Fairness in Tax Compliance, which plans to block proposals . . . to close the [tax] gap . . . [with] a major expansion of reporting requirements for third party “middlemen.” For instance, stock brokers would be required to report not only what a customer sold his stock for but also what he paid for it, i.e., his or her taxable income, and auction sites such as eBay would have to report sellers who conduct more than 100 transactions per year. Finally, one of the proposals most vehemently opposed by the Coalition is a proposal that would require businesses that pay other businesses more than $600 a year to report the payment on a 1099, thus adding to the already current requirement that businesses report payments of more than $600 a year to unincorporated sole proprietors.

A large share of the $345 billion of taxes owed and not paid involve income not subject to third party reporting requirements, and the biggest offenders are small business people. About half of that comes from unreported business income and self-employment income.

Small business tax fraud is epidemic and largely attributable to a lack of third party reporting.

“Where taxable payments are reported to the IRS by third parties, the IRS generally collects well over 90 percent of the tax due. Where taxable payments are not reported to the IRS by third parties, compliance drops precipitously to a range from about 20 percent to about 68 percent, depending on the type of transaction.” In particular, the noncompliance rate ranges from 1 percent for wages, salaries and tips to 57 percent for small business income and 72 percent for farm income.

Most small businesses, and almost three out of four farmers, cheat on their tax returns.

While big business often engages in complex schemes that try to twist the tax laws on the books to legally reduce tax burdens, big businesses rarely outright lie about how much they received in revenues. The need of these businesses to maintain internal controls overwhelms their ability to do so.

Previous initiatives to improve reporting verification, such as the requirement to include social security numbers of dependents and the creation of the 1099 and the W-2 information reporting returns have dramatically increased tax collections with relatively modest compliance costs.

No well run business should have any difficulty running a Quickbooks report of the vendors to whom they have paid more than $600 in a year. The costs associated with this initiative are modest.

Cops Lie.

A teenage suspect who secretly recorded his interrogation on an MP3 player has landed a veteran detective in the middle of perjury charges, authorities said Thursday.

From here.

What most people don't know is that while district attorneys are never allowed to lie, and cops aren't allowed to lie on the witness stand, cops are actually constitutionally permitted to lie when interrogating a suspect, and do so as a matter of course. I personally think that this rule leads naturally to lying on the witness stand as well, in addition to undermining faith in the system.

Caymans of the Rockies? No.

In 1999, Colorado passed the foreign capital depository act, which was designed to facilitate Cayman Islands style anonymity, creditor protection and tax evasion by non-U.S. citizens in Colorado. Getting into the legalized money laundering business was a bad idea that didn't pan out.

Backers tried to establish three institutions under the law.

One, Liberte International Corp. received a preliminary charter in 2001, but failed to raise its initial capital, and had its charter was revoked in December 2002.

American International Depository & Trust was established in 2003, but it was ordered liquidated last month because it was insolvent.

Tuus Financial was founded in 2005, and voluntarily shut its doors two months ago. It "has been dormant since August 2006, however, and garnered no deposits or funds. Its capital, provided by Geronimo, will be returned to the parent company."

Montana passed and then repealed a similar law.

Neither state secured any of the state revenue streams promised by backers. This isn't surprising.

No resident of the United States is eligible to be a customer, so there is no domestic customer benefit.

Money invested in this kind of institution (even in places like the Cayman Islands) gets invested on Wall Street in New York, not 17th Street in Denver. These kinds of institutions avoid investing in local businesses or real estate because they could be subject to state and federal taxes. In contrast, intangible assets held by non-residents are not subject to federal or Colorado income taxes. As a result, the local financial industry has no reason to support foreign capital depository institutions. Indeed, the local independent bankers association thinks that the law should be repealed.

A foreign capital depository run by a U.S. state is also unattractive to likely foreign customers. United States money laundering and anti-terrorism laws cast doubt on the legality of the entire enterprise of holding foreign assets in a manner designed to be secret and evade legitimate creditors. Since 9-11 stringent "know your customer" laws have been adopted that apply to both traditional financial institutions and less traditional ones (such as lawyers who hold client funds in trust accounts). The people who would be attracted to this kind of venture are people such as foreign organized criminals and foreign officials who sponsor terrorism, so know your customer laws make them nervous. Customers of an institution like this one are presumptively not protected by the same 4th Amendment protections that apply to U.S. citizens and residents, so they can be surveiled by U.S. intelligence agencies with secret national security letters under the Patriot Act.

Also, no state can grant any institution immunity from federal court subpoenas or the U.S. full faith and credit clause that requires recognition of domestic money judgements from sister states.

In any case, Colorado judges and citizens simply don't have the values that make similar tax havens abroad work. Legal protections from legitimate creditors, investigators and tax obligations only work if the people charged with carrying out those legal protection believe that some higher principle justifies protecting these wrongdoers. Judges can be very creative in circumventing laws that don't make sense. In tax havens, cynicism about the fair workings of the legal system, and the tremendous importance of the tax haven business to the local economy (along with a weak tradition of jury rights) encourages judges to go along with the unfairness present in particular cases. In Colorado, that level of cynicism is absent and the public benefit is negligible in a state with a vibrant diversified economy.

Even for financial advisers and attorneys who specialize in asset protection, there is little percentage in having foreign capital depositories in Colorado. The legal work can be done in Colorado (and often is by a handful of firms with that kind of practice) even if the assets to be hidden are invested in a traditional tax haven country. Also, an inability to serve domestic clients makes marketing a chore. People who want to hide their assets are also often ill equipped to get visas to come to Colorado to discuss their affairs. And, self-employed professionals in the business of helping people evade legitimate tax and creditor liabilities aren't always the most compliant in voluntarily disclosing and paying everything they owe to state and federal revenue officials. Even if the follow the letter of the law at home, they are likely to do everything they can do to minimize their liability.

These services also don't have a fat client base worldwide. A large share of the world's multimillionaires are Americans. The costs and risks involved in setting up these structures (and there are risks, some people who have done it have spent decades in prison for contempt of court) limit the number of clients in the world for whom they are attractive. Mere millionaires and members of the upper middle class can protect themselves quite adequately with liability insurance, and far less draconian domestic asset protection tools. These tools include conducting business through multiple corporations or limited liability companies, having clients and independent contractors sign liability waivers, entering into pre-nuptial agreements, and investing in creditor and tax protected vehicles like retirement accounts.

10 December 2007

Who Killed the Missionaries?

Two Christian missionaries in training were killed and two more were injured this weekend, in Arvada. Two sisters were killed and their father and two other church members were injured seventy miles away the same day at a megachurch in Colorado Springs, before a church security guard killed the man. The man who did it was twenty four year old Matthew Murray.

The headline screamed that he "hated Christians" based upon an anoymous statement from a law enforcement official. But, if true, this was no typical hate crime by an ignorant outsider. Certainly, he grew up seeped in a particular kind of Christianity:

Matthew Murray lived [at his parents' home in Englewood] along with a brother, Christopher, 21, a student at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma

A neighbor, Cody Askeland, 19, said the brothers were home-schooled, describing the whole family as "very, very religious."

Christopher studied for a semester at Colorado Christian University before transferring to Oral Roberts, said Ronald Rex, dean of admissions and marketing at Colorado Christian. He said Matthew Murray had been in contact with school officials this summer about attending the school but decided he wasn't interested because he thought the school was too expensive.

The Denver Post adds:

In court papers filed Monday, police said the gunman had been thrown out of the missionary school about three years ago and had been sending hate mail to the program. . . . In 1990, Murray was registered as a home-schooled child with the Cherry Creek School District, said district spokeswoman Tustin Amole. He later took the Iowa test, a standard test given to third-graders nationwide at the time, said Amole. That is the last record that the district has on him.

Murray's later school history indicates a young man adrift. He attended Arapahoe Community College for a while, then quit. Last year he enrolled for a class at Colorado Christian University but dropped out immediately after enrolling.

The missionary program had an office at New Life Church, which is a possible connection between the two shootings.

Missing The Point

People can't hear things that they can't imagine.

My [story] . . . comes from a friend who was a speech therapist at a school district in New York State. The principal (in his first year at the school) was complaining to the school secretary and the speech therapist about a couple who had not responded to a letter asking them to authorize summer school for their special-education child. The exchange went something like this:

"I don't think either of them can read," the school secretary told the principal.

"But we sent them a letter," the principal said. "They have to respond to the letter. Send them another copy."

"I don't think they can read," the secretary repeated. "They don't have a phone, either, so you'll need to go out there to talk to them."

"Usually someone from the staff goes out and talks to the parents," the speech therapist said.

"Send them another copy of the letter," the principal said. "They're supposed to read to the letter."

From here.

06 December 2007

U.S. Military Aircraft Development News

* The U.S. Air Force is having technical problems getting the F-35 aka the Joint Strike Fighter, to work.

Electrical problems forced an emergency landing and many month delay in the program in May 2007.

There are software problems too, such that:

flying in 2012 with the JSF may be safe and the JSF can be used as a plane to fly around. But, the several software modules for weapons system integration will not be ready. Ground attack capability is the priority, so early-build F-35s will primarily be "bomb trucks" until the additional software modules can be tested and loaded. Air superiority capabilities will be restricted, and completed only after 2015. This means that full multi-role capability is possible by 2016 at the earliest, if and only if no major problems occur in development and testing of the weapon systems software.

There is also a problem with the F-35C (carrier based) version's engine:

The F-35C naval variant's Hamilton Sundstrand power generator was mistakenly designed to only 65% of the required electric output. To accommodate the required increase, it will also be necessary to redesign the gearbox for the standard Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, which will be fitted into the conventional F-35A version as well as the naval F-35C. The contract announced by the US Department of Defense in August 2007 says that this engine update won't be ready for use until the end of 2009, which is almost the beginning of low-rate initial production. . . . Although it seemed probable that last October the JSF would fly again, a new problem arose. During a test run of the F135 engine, part of the engine was blown up by overheating. On November 14, 2007, an eyewitness took pictures of the transportation of a new F135 engine. The date for test flight number 20 (of the scheduled 5,000 test flights) is still unknown.

Obviously, these problems have put the program behind schedule and over budget:

In an article that Bloomberg News publishes on August 31, 2007, it is announced that Lockheed Martin is exceeding the budget on the first phase of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The manufacturer warns that the reserves will be spent by the end of 2008, unless cuts are made. Lockheed Martin . . . wants to build 2 fewer prototypes, and skip 800 of the 5,000 planned test flights. This after only 18 successful and 1 almost fatal testflight in half a year's time.

Because, obviously, if you don't run test flights, the test flights can't fail and therefore the plane must be safe.

Notably, these problems do not involve the technologically amibitious parts of the F-35 program, such as stealth technology and verticle takeoff and landing for the F-35B version that is to replace the AV-8B Harrier jump jet currently in service with the United States Marines. The problems are with nuts and bolts issues that are part and parcel of all of our existing fighter aircraft.

* Air Force wonks are starting to make lukewarm concessions that maybe a new counter-insurgency oriented plane might make sense for the Air Force. The last was the A-10 Warthog, designed in the 1970s. The A-10s are being upgraded to the A-10C model which will give it sensor capability comparable to other U.S. fighters. But, there is no replacement on the drawing boards. Originally, the F-35A was supposed to fill that role, despite the fact that the multi-purpose plane isn't well optimized for that role and the fact that most U.S. Air Force combat missions are suitable for counterinsurgency planes.

Congress may have already decided the issue with an earmark found in the 2008 US defense appropriations bill.

Senator Sam Brownback, of Kansas, has earmarked $3 million in research and development funds for the AT-6B, the Wichita-based Hawker Beechcraft product that is often marketed as a COIN aircraft. The funds have been allocated to the Air National Guard.

Other would-be competitors are the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano and the US Aircraft A-67 Dragon.

The AT-6B Texan

The EMB-314 Super Tucano

The A-67 Dragon

* The Air Force is working on developing a new manned nuclear weapon carrying stealth bomber, similar in concept to the existing B-2 bomber.

One defense analyst suggests the nuclear requirement can add as much as 50% to a program's price because nuclear delivery systems require a high level of redundancy in communications, command and control, and hardening against various electromagnetic pulses.

The next-generation bomber is expected to be fielded in 2018. To meet that deadline, the Air Force plans to begin a competition for a final design in Fiscal 2009. Although the B-2 remains a highly stealthy aircraft, war planners worry that the proliferation of advanced, integrated air defense systems will limit its ability to penetrate into potentially troublesome regions, such as China or Iran. The new system will incorporate stealth technologies refined after designing the F-22 and F-35, making it the stealthiest aircraft ever fielded, says Maj. Gen. David Clary, vice chief of Air Combat Command. . . .

Going nuclear also indicates that a pilot will be on board for at least the first variant of the future system, USAF Secretary Michael Wynne acknowledges. . . . Wynne made his comments during a Nov. 28 speech at a conference here hosted by Credit Suisse and Aviation Week.

This squelches the hopes of unmanned vehicle advocates, who had expected the bomber to be remotely piloted at the outset. But this doesn't rule out an unmanned variant of the bomber, according to Wynne.

He says the entire bomber fleet will likely include the hardening necessary for the nuclear mission. A later variant that would be remotely piloted could handle a separate mission. This option is attractive to Air Force planners because it offers the ability to cycle through multiple pilots at remote bases, extending mission endurance two- or threefold.

One of the missions envisioned for the future bomber is to loiter without detection behind enemy lines and pick off targets or collect intelligence as needed. This, however, would require endurance and a high degree of stealth at all angles.

Is this really an urgent priority?

An Optimistic View of Detainee SCOTUS Prospects

Dahlia Lithwick at Salon.com says everything I could have said about Supreme Court oral arguments in the latest round of detainee cases, but better. The government looks likely to lose, but the detainees don't necessarily look likely to win (in the sense that they aren't likely to be released swiftly).

As she explains, under the Military Commission Act:

[T]he so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunals (PDF), mostly give prisoners the "right" to be tried by a judge who answers to the military; the "right" to be tried with evidence obtained by torture; the "right" to be presumed a terrorist from the outset; the "right" to be tried without a lawyer present; and the "right" to be tried with evidence that's sloppy, inaccurate, and classified.

Particularly notable was this exchange:

Breyer pushes and pushes at [current solicitor general] Clement on whether a detainee can currently make the simple argument: "I'm from Bosnia. I've been here six years. The Constitution of the United States does not give anyone the right to hold me six years in Guantanamo without either charging me or releasing me." The MCA provides for federal court review on the limited question of whether the CSRTs followed their own made-up procedures, and not on the big important matters of, er, you have the wrong guy.

"I'm not sure he can make that argument," Clement answers. "Exactly!" crows Breyer. "If he cannot make that argument, how does this become an equivalent to habeas?

Disturbingly, both U.S. Senator Ken Salazar and U.S. Representative John Salazar, both Democrats from Colorado, voted in favor of establishing these kangaroo courts, despite knowing that they were fundamentally unjust.

Her colleague explains that the Bush Administration and a few court conservatives are simply clinging to false history, call it a "big lie" in support of their claims, there there is no precedent for judicial review in these cases. For example, she notes that:

a group of constitutional law professors point out in one amicus brief, courts have allowed "detained enemy aliens" to use habeas to challenge their detention for various reasons since the War of 1812. In the 19th century, British subjects used habeas to argue that their detentions were at odds with a Pennsylvania statute. In the 1940s, German enemy aliens used the writ to argue that they shouldn't be sent off to Germany without the chance to leave on their own for another country. Crucially, other aliens throughout U.S. history were able to use habeas to challenge "the determination of their enemy alien status."

Similarly, she notes (emphasis added) that:

In the government's view, the answer is "extraordinarily limited" and "highly circumscribed." The courts don't get to look at guilt vs. innocence, or the strength of the evidence. But again, there's a bunch of experts, this time legal historians, who disagree that habeas review has only been about technicalities, like jurisdiction. It's true that courts reviewing habeas petitions don't normally look at the facts of the underlying case, but that's in the context of a criminal habeas proceeding, where a defendant has already gotten two chances to air his claims—a trial and an appeal. In cases of executive detention, on the other hand, the courts of the past "commonly exercised independent review over the factual assertions of prisoners."

The government shouldn't be afraid of using real legal procedures, if it actually has a reason to keep the 305 people it still holds at Guantanamo Bay, in many case having done so for six years without any judicial review. It isn't saving any money by conducting endless litigation in the appellate courts over preliminary matters. If the Bush Administration is telling the truth, then in almost every case, a hearing on the merits in front of a federal district court judge would resolve the case in their favor. The trouble is that the Bush Administration's fear of this kind of review leads to the opposite conclusion.