28 November 2015


Following the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, the French and U.S. presidents, as well as the U.S. secretary of state, attributed the attack to "Daesh" instead of Islamic State.

The terror group hasn't changed its name, but Western politicians are finally using the term our Middle Eastern allies have always used and prefer we do as well.

We should stop using "Islamic State," "ISIS," and "ISIL" and call them Daesh. For several reasons.

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the terror group's self-declared banner — "al-Dowla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham." That translates in English to "the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant." The Levant refers to countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean. Those under their occupation in places like Mosul and Ramadi are severely punished and permanently maimed if they don't use the full title. The terrorists consider it an affront and insult to be referred to as Daesh. That's reason enough to use the term.

This summer I was sternly corrected during a conversation about the situation in Iraq. I was speaking Arabic but thinking like an American, and used the term "al-Dowla al-Islamiya." My friend Emad, a former Iraqi army major who fought side-by-side with U.S. forces and who is now a U.S. citizen, said, "Mitch, you must never, ever use the terms 'Islamic' or 'state' to describe them. You just gave them legitimacy by saying those words. They are assassins and mercenaries. They are neither Islamic nor are they a state. They are far worse than anything you or I fought against when we were there."
From here.

Language Log has audio clips of the pronunciation of Daesh and the term is discussed in the comments here.  More in depth analysis and commentary here.

The thing that makes "Daesh" a particularly odd bird linguistically is that unlike Indo-European languages where acronyms are commonplace, Arabic apparently rarely uses the device of forming acronyms which are then used as words.

I'm also ambivalent about the virtues of using an English acronym as opposed to an Arabic acronym that refer to the same words in the respective languages.  And, while their opponents may not wish to grant ISIS legitimacy to a group they see as assassin's and mercenaries, I'm not sure that using an Arabic acronym that contains the words "Islamic State" really conveys that more clearly than an English acronym that contains the same words.

Also, the reality on the ground is that ISIS is an organized group of people who control a large swath of contiguous territory and rule over people in that territory to the exclusion of any other sovereign, which pretty much satisfies the definition of "state" no matter what you choose to call it.  I'm generally against propaganda that crosses over the line of being counterfactual.

And, while ISIS may be beyond manners, deliberately choosing an identifier for someone or something because the person or thing identified really dislikes that choice of language is juvenile and can complicate future diplomacy which will probably be necessary in some form or another.

Domestic Terrorist Strikes Planned Parenthood In Colorado Springs

A police officer and at least two more civilians were killed by a domestic terrorist at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Nine others, including some members of law enforcement, were hospitalized with gunshot wounds. He surrendered after a five hour standoff late Friday afternoon.  More coverage here.

News reports state that the shooter was Robert Lewis Dear, 57, of South Carolina, although other reports state that he was from North Carolina.
[He] lived part of the time in a cabin with no electricity or running water in the North Carolina mountains.

His neighbors in Black Mountain said Robert Lewis Dear kept mostly to himself. But James Russell said when Dear did talk, it was a rambling combination of a number of topics that didn't make sense together and he tended to avoid eye contact.

Two topics Russell said he never heard Dear talk about were religion or abortion.

Dear's cabin was a half-mile up a curvy dirt road about 15 miles west of Asheville. A cross made of twigs was nailed to the wall of the pale yellow shack on Saturday.

Dear also spent time in a house in the nearby town of Swannanoa.
He carried a rifle and brought bombs as well, which were successfully removed without incident.

26 November 2015


The Denver Broncos have an 8-2 win-loss record this year, tied with some other teams for third, but probably the best of that lot according to other statistics.  My brother's team, the New England Patriots, which has defeated the Broncos in two recent Superbowls, is 10-0.  So is the Carolinas team. (I have never gotten around to learning the names of all of the league expansion teams).

So, it looks like history has a decent chance of repeating itself in a Patriots-Broncos Superbowl number 50 (the convention of using Roman Numerals has collapsed since lots of people wouldn't know what Superbowl L meant), in which the Patriots prevail.


Evolution Acceptance Rising In U.S., Especially Among The Young

John Hawks examines some surveys in the last few years that show acceptance of evolution finally attaining majority support among younger Americans (age 18-29). Here is the money chart from the a Pew study he discusses:

The United States has been slow to emerge from it demon haunted world, mostly due to the strength of Evangelical Christianity in parts of the United States.  But, there does seem to be reason to hope that there will eventually be some progress.

UPDATE: A fair amount of the anti-atheist sentiment in the United States is traceable Cold War anti-communist sentiment, as the communist movement was officially atheistic, much of it propagated during the Eisenhower administration during which "under God" entered the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" showed up on U.S. currency, and Ten Commandments statutes appeared in public places across small town America.  This encouraged fundamentalist Christians with adherence to its tenants viewed as an anti-communist political act.

In the era of today's young people, in contrast, the national specter has largely been religious terrorists.  Perhaps, some of the resurgence in pro-science litmus test statements reflects a political identity formed in opposition to religious terrorism.  This could also help explain the rise in the number of people identifying as "not religious".

21 November 2015

Secular Kids Are More Altruistic, Less Judgmental And Less Punitive

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

The study also found that “religiosity affects children’s punitive tendencies”. Children from religious households “frequently appear to be more judgmental of others’ actions”, it said.
From The Guardian via Fully Myelinated.

The underlying research is in an article published in the Journal Current Biology, which contains the following summary:
Prosocial behaviors are ubiquitous across societies. They emerge early in ontogeny and are shaped by interactions between genes and culture. Over the course of middle childhood, sharing approaches equality in distribution. Since 5.8 billion humans, representing 84% of the worldwide population, identify as religious, religion is arguably one prevalent facet of culture that influences the development and expression of prosociality. While it is generally accepted that religion contours people’s moral judgments and prosocial behavior, the relation between religiosity and morality is a contentious one. Here, we assessed altruism and third-party evaluation of scenarios depicting interpersonal harm in 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa), the religiousness of their household, and parent-reported child empathy and sensitivity to justice. Across all countries, parents in religious households reported that their children expressed more empathy and sensitivity for justice in everyday life than non-religious parents. However, religiousness was inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies. Together these results reveal the similarity across countries in how religion negatively influences children’s altruism, challenging the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior.
Of course, correlation is not causation and one could easily argue for all sorts of confounding alternative causes of the correlations observed in this cross-cultural global study with a modest sample size in just six countries.

Tangentially related: I am a big fan of the highly ironic and verging on wacky political theater tactics used by the Satanic Temple organization to address violations of the establishment clause by demanding that they too be included despite the poor reputation of Satanism as a religion.  They are proof of how creative commitment to cause can make a positive difference in the world.  Of course, we shouldn't forget the contributions of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the adherents of the Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU) either.

Lockheed To Introduce Cargo Airships In Three Years

Lockheed Martin says it will introduce heavier than air civilian hybrid airships that use helium for most of its lift and engines and a wing shaped design for the remainder of its lift by 2018. Apparently prototypes are already in the air and have received FAA approval.

The airships will be capable of carrying twenty tons of cargo (about the same payload as a military C-130 aircraft), it can make direct trips without transfers from ship to train or truck, and it can operate in roadless areas.  It was originally designed for military use.

I've been an advocate of the idea for many years and have even written near future science fiction sketches featuring the idea, but until now, no one had made the concept a reality.

In my own research on the topic, airships have had fuel efficiencies, speeds, and costs roughly comparable to shipping cargo by truck.  Shipping cargo by train or by ship is much cheaper, but is slower in practice.  Shipping cargo by airplane is much more expensive, but much faster.

I've also advocated these kinds of airships for ecotourism, and to facilitate life in colleges or villages or oil drilling sites in isolated roadless areas.

I've also suggested using them in coordination with amphibious ships carrying Marines.  In this combination, the ship would provide a mobile, over the horizon base for military units just off a coastline.  The ship itself would travel, mostly empty (and perhaps more fuel efficiently and more quickly) to its destination, and then the soldiers and most of their gear would be delivered via airship across oceans where the opposition force had no forces positioned.

A Fascinating Case Of Multiple Personality Disorder

Normally, when someone is blind, there is something wrong with their eyes.  But, sometimes someone is blind because there is something wrong with the part of the brain the processes visual input, such as a brain tumor or damage to that area of the brain from a traumatic brain injury or stroke.

It is also the case that the brain is "plastic" which is to say that sometimes, if the part of the brain that normally handles some function is broken, the brain can rewire that part of the brain to do something else.

For example, in almost all mammals that can see in a full range of colors, the part of the brain that processes color was repurposed from the part of the brain that handled the sense of smell before the mutation that allowed for additional cones in the eyes to improve color vision.  Indeed, in some species, the color vision mutation has not reached fixation, so some individuals in the population can see in color, while others cannot.  In those species, one can see the repurposing of areas of brain function originally allocated from the sense of smell to handling color vision on an individual level within the population.

So, the seeds of possibility are there for a recently documented case of a woman who developed blindness in connection with a traumatic brain injury, and also (it isn't entirely clear if  this happened before or after the traumatic brain injury) developed multiple personality disorder (currently known formally as dissociative personality disorder or "DID" for short).

This women displayed the classic symptoms of DID, switching in all sorts of mannerisms on a dime from one "alter" to another.  But, a funny thing happened.  While most of the alters were cognitively blind, some of her "alters" could see perfectly well.  EEG measurements of her brain confirmed that indeed the blind alters were not processing visual information, while the seeing alters were processing visual information, corroborating the patient's account.

Civil Forfeiture Becoming Much More Common

In 2014, U.S. attorneys seized more in civil forfeiture proceedings ($4.5 billion) than the value of all of the property stolen by burglaries ($3.9 billion) in that year.

As a lawyer who has represented clients in civil forfeiture proceedings, I can attest to how unfair that process is to legitimate property owners.  It also creates poisonous incentives for law enforcement which generally shares in the proceeds seized.  The U.S. Supreme Court has toyed with taking on cases analyzing civil forfeitures for cases like failing to declare cash on a customs form under the Excessive Fines clause of the United States Constitution. (Civil forfeiture of property that is by definition contraband, like illegal drugs, is far less controversial.)

Language And Thought

Today's episode of "This American Life" on NPR discussed the experienced of language-less people (generally speaking, people born deaf who are not part of a community with a sign language), including the experience of Nicaragua where the formation of a special education school that united fifty language-less deaf people for the first time led to the formation of a new sign language from scratch which has developed over forty years.  It is arguably the only instance known in which a new language has been observed coming into being from scratch on a grass roots, natural basis, as opposed to as a "constructed language" (a.k.a. a "conlang").

The big take away from the episode was that it convincingly demonstrated that it is very hard to think about ideas, especially intangible ideas like what someone else is thinking, without having words to describe them.  At a quite fundamental level, it is not possible to engage in many kinds of thought without language to describe things.

Moreover, learning words to describe new concepts, even at middle age, can open up your ability to think about things that you never in your life until you learned those words could think about, and learning those words can open up that world to you in a matter of a couple of years or less.

In the case of the deaf Nicaraguans who created there own sign language which became much more polished, stylized, hand oriented and was extended to describe intangible things over the course of about 30 years, starting out with just two thought words ("know" and "don't know") in the first generation, and expanding that to about ten more words for thoughts over the next thirty years, made an immense difference in the ability of speakers of this sign language to solve real world problems calling for empathy about what someone else was thinking.  And, as younger speakers in a cohort that had added these words to the language created by the original cohort of fifty kids began to interact with their older peers, in a matter of a couple of years of this informal interaction, the older peers learned these words and were able to think about these things successfully and apply them to real world situations in ways that they had not been able to do so before.

There is also an implication that these insights might have application well beyond the world of people who lack language.  People who for whatever reason were not exposed to words for key concepts might find that their intellectual functioning by learning these words.  And, similarly, if we devise or popularize new words for new key concepts that are not present in an ordinary educated person's vocabulary, we might improve the ability of already functional people to function in new domains that where people previously were bad at thinking about things.

In other words, one powerful form of cognitive-behavioral therapy could simply involve teaching new words and concepts to people, which would open their horizons and make them able to think in these new ways whether they wanted to be able to do so or not.

20 November 2015

The Latest Immigration and Employment News

Unemployment Down

The unemployment rate in Colorado in October (3.8%) was the lowest since August 2007. The national unemployment rate has also declined significantly to 5.0%.

The Denver metropolitan area has long tended to have a lower unemployment rate than the state as a whole, and its unemployment rate is approaching the theoretical floor that economists call "full employment" at which almost all unemployment involves brief periods of transition between jobs.

Mexicans Leaving The U.S.

More Mexican immigrants left the United States than entered the United States in 2014.
The Pew Research Center found that slightly more than 1 million Mexicans and their families, including American-born children, left the U.S. for Mexico from 2009 to 2014. During the same five years, 870,000 Mexicans came to the U.S., resulting in a net flow to Mexico of 140,000. . . . Pew said there were 11.7 million Mexicans living in the U.S. last year, down from a peak of 12.8 million in 2007. That includes 5.6 million living in the U.S. illegally, down from 6.9 million in 2007. In another first, the Border Patrol arrested more non-Mexicans than Mexicans in the 2014 fiscal year, as more Central Americans came to the U.S., mostly through South Texas, and many of them turned themselves in to authorities.

The authors analyzed U.S. and Mexican census data and a 2014 survey by Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography. The Mexican questionnaire asked about residential history, and found that 61 percent of those who reported living in the U.S. in 2009 but were back in Mexico last year had returned to join or start a family. An additional 14 percent had been deported, and 6 percent said they returned for jobs in Mexico.
The number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States is down by 1.3 million since 2007 (about 20%), while the number of Mexicans living in the United States in compliance with immigration laws has increased by about 200,000 over that time period (about 3.3%).  A majority (albeit a narrow one) of Mexicans living in the United States have a legal immigration status.

The collapse of the housing market in the financial crisis, NAFTA fueled manufacturing jobs in Mexico, and an aging population in Mexico that has reduced the number of people young enough to consider migrating while reducing competition for jobs there have been tagged as possible causes of the shift. The 2007 peak followed a steady increase in the Mexican population of the United States from 1965 until then.

The fact that back migration to Mexico has continued in earnest despite a recovering U.S. economy, a resurgent construction market, and continuing drug wars with cartels that have given some Mexican states the highest murder rates in the world, is particularly notable.

While the conventional economic explanations can tell part of this story, the fact that all of the net outmigration of Mexicans in the United States is attributable to undocumented immigrants and the fact that this is continuing even as the economy recovers, suggests that measures targeted at employers of undocumented immigrants may be having a big effect as well.

The Politics of Immigration

President Obama has been canned by critics as soft on immigration, for example, for adopting regulatory policies that intentionally ignore the immigration status of Generation 1.5 "Dreamers" (who were born in Mexico but grew up in the U.S.) and otherwise law abiding individuals with long standing ties to the U.S., for trying to allow more refugees to come to the U.S., and for adopting policies that have arguably encouraged unaccompanied Central American minors to come to the U.S. as refugees.

But, this is not the whole story.  President Obama has deported more people for immigration violations than any of his predecessors, has prosecuted immigration violations criminally at high rates, has presided over a major decline in the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S., and has let remarkably few refugees from hot spots like Syria into the country.

The Obama administration has been particularly diligent, compared to its predecessors, at deporting legal and illegal immigrants convicted of non-immigration crimes, thereby transferring recidivism risks posed by those criminals when they are released to the country of origin of those immigrants.

It may be that despite harsh rhetoric from GOP immigration critics, that ultimately the power brokers in the Republican party really favor a system that is symbolically harsh, but still allows the business interests that they are beholden to to benefit from the undocumented labor force, for example, by not enforcing immigration laws targeted at employers very effectively.  Ultimately, the GOP is the party that doesn't believe in government and as a result, Republicans aren't good at or interested in making government work, while Democrats, who believe in government, are better at managing it well.

Also, for Republicans, immigration is an issue upon which their party is divided.

The conservative Southern and blue collar white Republican base is opposed to almost all immigration, legal and illegal alike.  This is based mostly on some plausible assumptions about the impact of immigration, even though many of these are incorrect.

* They are particularly wary of less skilled Latin American immigrants because they feel that those immigrants are taking jobs from white blue collar men whose employment prospects (i.e. wages and unemployment rates) have been stagnant or gotten worse in a period of time that overlaps pretty neatly with the rise in Mexican immigration and when white and pink collar America whose industries haven't faced nearly as much immigration pressure has prospered.

There are holes in this story.  The natural experiment of the mass migration of Cubans to Florida had almost no negative employment impacts on the local economy.  Other empirical studies have likewise been hard pressed to see the Econ 101 expectation of negative impacts on blue collar men materialize to the extent expected.  My intuition is that the studies still understate the economic impact on this demographic which has been gradual rather than punctuated.  But, it isn't as if native born Americans are eagerly snapping up the often very low skill jobs as migrant farm workers, unskilled construction workers, maids and short order cooks.

Off shoring, automation, and the demise of private sector unionization are also important factors in blue collar wage stagnation.

* They are worried about an immigrant drain on public funds even though this is demonstrably false.

* They are worried about the cultural impact that immigrants have on what they perceive as their own threatened culture.  There is genuine merit to this claim.

* They are worried about crime by immigrants which is also demonstrably false even though it is plausible that lots of low income people moving in who have broken the law to do so would commit crimes at high rates.

19 November 2015

World Toilet Day

Today is World Toilet Day.  While it can seem stupid in the developed world, this issue is actually absolutely critical to economic development and to public health.  The desirability of toilets is a principle that ought to receive bipartisan support.

Do Higher Education Tax Credits Work?

A new study argues that higher education tax credits, despite being quite expensive, do almost nothing to increase access to higher education and don't do a good job of targeting the most needy for financial assistance either. It states that:
In 2014, the federal government spent about $23 billion on three programs offering tax credits to households paying for higher education. In The Returns to the Federal Tax Credits for Higher Education (NBER Working Paper No. 20833), George B. Bulman [UC-Santa Cruz] and Caroline M. Hoxby [Stanford] find that the credits have little or no effect on college-going in the U.S. The credits do not affect whether students enroll at all, whether they attend four-year colleges, how expensive their colleges are, or the scholarships and grants they receive. The authors conclude that the tax credits are primarily "a transfer from some individuals to others." ... The credits are often justified as "paying for themselves" under the notion that they raise educational attainment and consequent earnings. The evidence does not support this justification.
FWIW, I've long felt that the best way to finance higher education is with scholarships that require a showing of both academic merit and financial need. Powerful evidence shows that equally academically able students from less affluent families are much less likely to attend college, to the great detriment of our economy and to their personal detriment.

But, a large share of aid provided by state governments who are the primary source of tuition reduction for students attending public colleges and universities is basically wasted because a surprisingly large share of it goes to affluent families who could comfortably afford to pay an unsubsidized price for attendance at a public college, and because another large share of it goes to students who are not academically ready to go to college and drop out while receiving few benefits for having attended (and sometime facing the harm of incurring student loans without getting the educational credentials that they need to pay for it). It appears that the tax credits also share the first problem to a significant extent.

If we withdrew public financial support for students that aren't academically ready for college (or at least limited it to the most cost effective form of higher education at non-residential public community colleges) and withdrew public financial support for tuition of those who can comfortably afford to send their kids to colleges and universities, the money saved could be redirected towards scholarships requiring both merit and need that could dramatically increase college attendance and completion by academically able less affluent students.

Few public expenditures would generate greater long term economic returns per dollar spent than this policy. And, few policies would do more to advance meritocracy while reducing government aggravated income inequality.

16 November 2015


A blizzard warning is in force for Denver and all points to the Northeast in Colorado.

Most of my professional colleagues, office mates, and apparently the Denver Public Schools folks who make decision on school closures and delays, don't seem to understand the difference between a serious winter storm with heavy snowfall, which Denver gets several times a year, and a genuine blizzard, which we haven't had in Denver once since I moved here in the spring of 1999.

The real danger of a blizzard is not that it is slippery, although it is.  Blizzards are dangerous because they can completely wipe out your visibility with the speed of a gust of wind filling the air with blinding snow.

Shortly after I moved to Oxford, Ohio as a child, in 1977, there was a blizzard.  Several college students died in it, trying to make the short several block trip from their fraternity houses to the liquor store (back when you didn't have to be twenty-one to buy 3.2 beer).  They got lost and froze to death right on High Street which runs through downtown Oxford, such as it is.

I've driven in near blizzard conditions, but it isn't something I would repeat if I could help it.  The only accidents that I've had that have involved both vehicles in motion (I've nicked parked cars a couple of times, and have been fit once while I was stopped at a stoplight on a clear day), took place is snowy, near blizzard conditions.

They are not to be messed with and I've postponed a deposition tomorrow that was supposed to start at the projected worst time for blizzard activity until the precipitation is projected to have ended in Denver (the blizzard warning ends at 2 p.m. but the weather is projected to abate from West to East).

Maybe this blizzard warning will turn out to be a false alarm.  But, I'm not about to be forewarned and rush into the situation like a fool anyway, when I don't absolutely have to do so for some reason that will seem important enough to have justified it if I or someone else is in a serious car accident as a result.

If you must drive in blizzard or near blizzard conditions, 9 News has some useful hints that you should heed which match my previous experiences driving in these conditions.

The Friday The Thirteenth Massacre In Paris And Its Root Causes

A few thoughts on the multiple terrorist attacks on Friday evening in Paris.


* Some news reports state that it took three hours for police to enter the scene at the rock concert hall where terrorists with assault rifles killed and wounded a majority of the victims of this attack.  Law enforcement learned that the rules are different in hostage situations where there is an active shooter sometime around the time of the Columbine shooting in Colorado.  The French need to learn that lesson now.  This is the one respect in which the official response in France can be seriously faulted.

* It is striking that most of the attacks last Friday and back in January, were concentrated in just one or two Parisian neighborhoods, presumably due to their symbolic power.

* It is too early for police gathered evidence to reliably confirm that this attack was actually conducted by ISIS, but since ISIS claimed responsibility after the fact, it is legitimate to strike back against ISIS whether its claim of responsibility was true or not.

* The French military's experience fighting Islamist insurgents in Algeria, insurgents in Mali, and Boko Haram in the African Sahel, should serve it well should it choose to go beyond its bombing raid on the ISIS capitol on Sunday to some sort of ground campaign against ISIS.

* Some analysts are arguing that the strikes in Paris may be a response to military defeats in Iraq.  It is an interesting theory, but I'm not convinced.  There have also been hints, for all intents and purposes no more credible than rumors yet, that the train terrorist attack thwarted by off duty U.S. servicemen may have been planned by the same person or group that conducted the latest round of terrorist attacks, and perhaps also the earlier round of attacks in January.

* The terrorists in the latest massacre have spurred France to action and made it afraid in a way that it hadn't been until now.  But, ultimately, this massacre was a bee sting to a nation that is still secure and powerful and has integrated much of its Muslim population into its society.  One of the "good guy" martyrs in the January attacks was a French Muslim cop.  Yes, at least one attacker this time was a Syrian refugee and others had been foreign fighters in Syria.  Others were French citizens, but only a small number of insurgents lurk among a million or more loyal French Muslim citizens of recent immigrant heritage.

* The risk of mistakes from rash action here to France are greater than the risk of taking only more thoughtful action.  France has suffered a horrible tragedy, but even including the deaths and injuries it has suffered from terrorism in its crime statistics, it has still experienced much less homicide and violence than gun drenched Americans suffer in every ordinary year.  This is true despite the fact that its politics of general strikes, and extreme union tactics, are much more extreme and violent than American politics (or perhaps, the certainty that violence won't cross critical thresholds makes other street political action possible).

* France can't predict and stop every terrorist incident.  But, snatches of intelligence released in the news suggest that it isn't totally oblivious to the real risks either.  It has room to improve its anti-terrorist efforts while maintaining a human and democratic free society, even if it can never be perfectly successful.  But, it isn't starting from nothing either.  France needs to remember the importance of preserving its soft power, which the U.S. has too often forgotten to do in its long running war on terrorism.

The Middle East and Its Neighbors

* Neither Syria nor Iraq have capable without outside assistance of asserting de facto control over large swaths of their own territories, despite the inferior military equipment of ISIS.  They haven't even managed to do so with a coalition of powers led by the U.S. providing airstrikes and recent Russian intervention on behalf of the Baathist regime on the ground and from the air.

* Half of the population of Syria has been displaced, and many millions are refugees - some nearby in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, others making their way to Europe and beyond.  Thousands of refugees have died on the way, with losses particular high among those trying to travel by boat across the Mediterranean.

* Also, keep in mind that before its civil war, Syria had been home to millions of Sunni Arab refugees, mostly from predominantly Shiite areas of Iraq.  Many of them are now twice displaced.

* Who can fault the refugees for fleeing this horrible situation? On one side they have ISIS.  On the other they have an undemocratically selected rump Baathist regime that has used chemical weapons on its people, indiscriminately bombed its own cities and towns with airplanes, and dumped crude "barrel bombs" from helicopters on marketplaces full of its own people.  Only a reign of terror has allowed the regime to hold onto what it continues to control.  Food supplies are scarce.

* In part, the economies of Jordan and Lebanon may in the end be helped as much as hurt by the influx of newcomers.  Human capital matters more than physical capital.

* A significant share of Syria's territory is held by neither the rump Baathist regime nor ISIS.  The varied rebel forces holding this territory are not as bad as ISIS, but some of them are only a little better.

* The most optimistic development in the situation has been the development of grass roots civil society organizations doing their best to meet local needs in the face of insurmountable armed opposition from multiple sides.  Purported governments in exile formed from leaders of early rebel movements seem largely irrelevant at this point, however.

* The first of the Arab Spring revolutions, in Tunisia, seems to have resulted in a fragile but improved democratic government.

Libya's regime was deposed with our help in a campaign of bombing orchestrated by Hillary Clinton, but the nation is divided between competing successor regimes and order has not been fully restored.
Egypt had a revolution and a brief elected government, but an Army coup, fearful of the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood backed winning coalition has put itself and its puppet back in charge.  It increasingly looks like a Russian aircraft crash leaving Egypt was bombed by ISIS.

To some extent our actions, particularly in Libya, led on Syrians to revolt too, although Russian opposition to outside intervention played a major part as well.

* Yemen's ugly and mostly ignored civil war had little to do with Arab Spring and it was a fragile democracy for a while, but its civil war is ongoing and all of the sides hate the U.S.  In hindsight, unifying North Yemen and South Yemen was a horrible idea that sowed the seeds of the current horrible civil war there.

* Saudi Arabia and the other Arabian oil monarchies are officially anti-ISIS.  But, there is good reason to suspect that non-regime factions in these affluent societies are fueling ISIS and other Islamic radical movements worldwide from the 9-11 attackers, to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to foreign fighters and funds that keep ISIS and other affiliates of it worldwide afloat.  Saudi Arabian involvement in Yemen's civil war has perpetrated indiscriminate attacks that have killed many civilians there and its motives in that conflict should be questioned.

* Iran has played the turmoil well.  The U.S. has neutered its Afghan neighbor to the East and its Iraqi neighbor to the West.  It has secured eased sanctions with a deal on its nuclear program.  U.S. actions segregated Iraq religiously leaving most of the Iraqi territory on the Iranian border firmly in the hand of provinces which have much smaller non-Shiite minorities and rump Iraq controlled by a civilian government that is a good friend of Iran.  Rise of ISIS is not unrelated to the religious and ethnic segregation that occurred as a result of U.S. occupation of Iraq following the Iraq War which fanned extremism and ethnic nationalism there, and ISIS has shifted focus away from Iran's wrongdoings.  Iran's homegrown political system has also emerged from years of international sanctions as a resilient Islamic democracy, which while not up to Western standards of human rights and electoral fairness, is still a state where elections do matter, rather than a dictatorship or one party state.  Its theocratic leadership has filled the role of a transitional constitutional monarch, with real power and a final say over key issues, but delegating considerable power to elected civilian leaders.

Iran has also quietly backed the Baathist regime in Syria, by encouraging fights among other factions there, and continued to back its anti-Israeli militias in Lebanon.

* Turkey hasn't necessarily improved its situation, but has managed to maintain domestic order and avoid mistakes that could have left it worse off.  On the whole it is managing the situation as well as could be expected.

* If there are any "good guys" in the conflict who can fairly be said to share of goals for the most part for the region, it is the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds and the Yazidi people whose genocide our intervention prevented with Kurdish assistance.  Despite Turkish discomfort with their Kurdish minority, and rump Iraq and rump Syria's insistence on preserving the pre-conflict status quo, the Kurds are long overdue for payback for their efforts and have among the most functional civilian self-governments in the region, as well as being one of the most "liberal" Islamic ethnic groups in the region by Western standards.  Why should U.S. diplomats insist that the Kurds remain subjected to the ineffectual, openly Shiite biased, and Iran-aligned rump Iraqi government whose military prowess has been pathetic as well, as opposed to being a sovereign states which is how they are acting in fact?

A Kurdish national homeland in the region would be a bastion of stability, democracy and tolerance compared to its neighbors (apart from Turkey).  And, unlike most of the other factions in the Middle East, the Kurds aren't obsessed with anti-Israeli or anti-American fervor.

* Israeli-Palestinian conflicts have gone on as usual, with periods of more and less intense conflict and no end in sight, despite all of the static in the region.

* Afghanistan is still at war with the Taliban, fourteen years after the U.S. intervened decisively in the Afghan civil war that it has almost won against it.  The related insurgency in Pakistan's frontier provinces is also still ongoing.  The U.S. installed regime in Afghanistan seems capable of holding onto control, but it has a fragile grip and is still fighting a low level civil war than flares up occasionally in parts of the country.  Those areas where the regime remains in control aren't always much to write home about, but the Taliban controlled area and the places where the fighting remains hot seem to be much worse.


* The refugee situation has made the Syrian civil war "Europe's problem" whether it likes it or not.

* In some ways Europe is well equipped to receive Muslim immigrants.  As a result of the Holocaust, most of Europe's Jews were either killed or fled to Israel or the U.S.  Most countries in Europe are secular leaning but historically Christian with significant Muslim minorities already.  In Germany, Muslim minorities are heavily Turkish.  In France, there are many Algerian Muslims.  In the U.K., there are many Pakistani Muslims.  Spain and Italy already had significant numbers of North Africans.  Even Scandinavia has taken in a significant minority of Muslim immigrants.  Integrating a large new wave of Muslim immigrants into their societies is not an entirely new problem for them.

* Countries like the U.K. and Germany are spending on the order of $1,000 per month per refugee per year to meet their needs, and there have been serious discussions of ways to shift the burden that nations closest to the border are facing.  Winter is coming and the need may increase.  European countries have mostly stepped up to the moral challenge of making a serious effort to treat refugees humanely, despite the growing unpopularity of this stance.

* Europe is also much more dependent upon Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. is, especially now that Russian intervention in the Ukraine has caused the rest of Europe to rule out reliance of Russian resources.

The Big Historical Arc

* Arab Spring has increasingly looked more like Europe in 1848, a round of European revolutions against monarchs that failed.  All of the Middle Eastern and North African monarchies remain secure with dissent there promptly crushed, even Jordan which is burdened with something like half a million refugees.  The only revolution that has tentatively left its people better off was the first in Tunisia.  Egypt has gone sidewise.  Libya has as much bad news as good and is neither a win nor a loss.  Syria was a disaster.

* The post-World War I settlement that defined the boundaries of the modern Middle Eastern nation states, as modified by the post-World War II creation of Israel, is in a state of piecemeal, but seemingly inevitable collapse.

* It is time for the U.S. to abandon the increasingly untenable dream of maintaining that settlement and time instead to imagine a new, more robust and stable alternative that can secure the backing of the people of the Middle East as they are today.

* The West has the military and economic might to obliterate ISIS, Boko Haram, and many other Islamist radical groups around the world, and to force Syria's war criminal led Baathist regime to capitulate and step down.  It has not yet decided that it is worth the cost in blood and treasure and a long term, locally resented colonial commitment to do so.  But, it is important to recognize that lack of fortitude, focused commitment to the cause, and ruthlessness is central to the reason that these groups can be effective enough to survive.  The costs may not be worth the benefits of doing so, because ultimately, no situation will be stable until it is accepted as legitimate by the local citizens.

At Least He's Not Your Town Board Member

In the front range hamlet of Pierce, Colorado (population 900), one of the town board members, D.J. Meyer, was the leader of a small biker gang that regularly beat people up and stole prescription drugs.

Last September, the town board member and the four members of his gang murdered a woman who had been a house guest of the board member, dumped her body in Wyoming, and dumped her dog twenty miles away. On October 29, the town board member and four gang members were arrested for murder based upon multiple confessions, another woman related to the gang was been arrested on lesser charges.  The dog has been recovered, and they are still looking for the body.

More than two weeks later, it ends up in the Denver Post.

The gang leader had run unopposed for the town board position, because it is hard to find anyway willing to serve as elected officials in small town government.  This time, they truly did end up picking from the bottom of the barrel, although apparently local town officials and law enforcement were not aware of the gang or its leader's criminal activities.

Newsflash: Governors Still Have No Say In Immigration Policy

Several U.S. governors have stated that their states will not accept Syrian refugees. But, under our system of federalism, they have absolutely no say in the matter because immigration is an exclusively federal function of government. The CNN news report's failure to mention this little detail reflects poorly on its credibility. The governors are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

13 November 2015

Arrow's Impossibility Theorem Strikes 3rd Circuit Appellate Ruling

A three way split in a 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals anti-trust case has caused Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, which states that some mixes of individual preferences leave the group's voting preference ill defined, (or some close cousin of it) has reared its ugly head, making it hard to figure out who should win and lose under the circumstances.
This case presents what academic literature terms a “voting paradox.” On the one hand, two judges (Judge Greenberg and I) believe that the outcome should be that Hanover’s suit not proceed, though we do so for different reasons. However, one majority of this Court (Judges Fuentes and Greenberg) believes that Hanover has antitrust standing (I do not because I do not discern antitrust injury), while another majority (Judge Fuentes and I) believes that Hanover should survive Village’s motion to dismiss (assuming it has antitrust standing). The paradox is that, if I vote on the judgment of this case (affirm or reverse) based on my individual views, a majority of the Court will have ruled against the prevailing party on each relevant issue, meaning that our Court’s reasoning would not support its judgment. However, if I follow, despite my dissent, Judge Fuentes and Greenberg on the antitrust standing issue, my individual vote would be inconsistent with my view of who should win were I alone ruling.
He chooses to vote by issue rather than by outcome. The full decision is here.

12 November 2015

The Disappointing Case For Soviet Style Democracy

I find it very hard to understand why it is at all legitimate to have a system of electing members of the board of directors of publicly held corporations in which the only candidates on the ballots are those persons nominated by the incumbent board of directors.  In other words, on ballots like those used by the Soviet Union and pre-Iraq War Iraq. Yet, there are law professors who do just that.  Basically, they argue that it would be a disaster to have a board of directors where all the votes weren't always unanimous and people sometimes offered dissenting opinions in discussions of corporate policy.

If you are going to favor the status quo, the only sensible choice, it seems to me, is to make it official and strip shareholders of any right whatsoever to vote in person or by proxy for members of the board of directors which would instead be officially self-perpetuating.   Then again, that proposal also has academic support.  This undermines even the possibility of a change in control by someone who has acquired a majority of the company's shares in the marketplace.

It is one thing to say that the sole say that shareholders should have in the management of corporations is to have a say indirectly through directors that the shareholders elect, and ending the ballot initiative process on micromanaged corporate policies.

It is quite another to say that shareholders should have no meaningful right whatsoever to control who serves on the board of directors and thereby controls the corporation, particularly in light of the minimal legal obligations that members of the Board of Directors are typically held to in litigation.

The self-perpetuating directorship concept fundamentally upends the nature of what a corporation is, particularly without the heightened prohibitions against self-dealing enforced by taxing authorities and state attorney generals that protects beneficiaries of non-profit organizations and business trusts.

Seriously, you would think that this was a case where there are barbarians at the gate, and not a case of institutional investors with multi-million dollar investments entirely run by 1%ers seeking a little bit of voice, because their huge portfolio limits as a practical matter their ability to vote with their feet.  They have so much money that they have to buy shares in pretty much every company that they are permitted by their fund charters to invest in.

10 November 2015

Cowardly Chicken Little Colorado Sheriffs

I have pretty much no respect whatsoever for the 41 Colorado Sheriff's who have written a letter to President Obama explaining that they are terrified that Guantanamo Bay inmates held in a maximum security prison in Colorado would "significantly - and unnecessarily - endanger our citizens."

This simply does not pass any reasonable reality check and makes this prisoners out to be comic book supervillains, rather than the bunch of mostly low level, mostly Yemeni al-Queda functionaries who haven't even committed any war crimes, that most of them are in fact.

The notion that some dangerous al-Queda fifth columnists would try to spring these detainees from a Colorado prison is simply laughable.  They would stand out like a sore thumb and have a very long way to go to a safe haven, unlike the current site in Cuba, where the Cuban government would likely embrace with open arms any escaped detainee and could do so with impunity.

The letter says much more about how cowardly and detached from reality most of these local government elected officials in Colorado are, than it does about the realities of the policy issues involved.

This is simply partisan demagoguery at its worst.  The politicians, including a few Democrats, who have given any credibility to this argument, deserve similar scorn.

09 November 2015

Independence Movement Heats Up In Catalonia

With a clear majority of 72 vs 63, the Catalan Parliament has approved this morning the nine points of the declaration that I advanced on Friday, which proclaims the beginning of a process for the formation of a sovereign and independent Catalan Republic, allowing for 30 days to initiate the corresponding key laws (constituent process, social security and public treasury) and declares insubordination towards Spanish institutions such as the Constitutional Court, explicitly mentioned.
More at From what we are . . . they will be.

The Catalan government seek a basically socialist leaning reorganization of their independent or autonomous region.

Will there be war? How will the constitutional crisis in Spain be resolved?


I'm not the only one who finds the relationships between parasites and their hosts in nature to be some of the most compelling and fascinating stories out there in the natural world.  Science fiction author Charlie Stross crowd sources some interesting aspects of these stories at his blog.

Building Codes Are Still A Barrier To Affordable Housing

Denver's building codes arbitrarily disallow many "tiny-houses" which could otherwise alleviate affordable housing.  Building and zoning codes in Denver also place unduly restrictive limitations on accessory dwelling units and single occupancy hotels and hostels.

Eliminating code created barriers to affordable housing would do more to help households that find rents in Denver to be too high than current programs that require developers in large developments to create a certain number of units of affordable housing which have produced almost no results in practice so far.

The basic political reality is that those restrictions have remained in place because of NIMBY concerns of neighborhood associations afraid of higher densities and an influx of undesirable people into their neighborhoods.

A policy of making loans to developers of a handful of rent controlled apartment complexes, which is one of the main ways that Denver promotes affordable housing is not an effective solution to the problem.

05 November 2015

Conservatives For Darth Vader

Apparently, the hot new thing to do to win props in conservative political and policy circles is to take a bold stand in favor of Darth Vader and the Galactic Empire.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Professor Bainbridge, who is a tireless advocate for the anti-shareholder democracy faction in corporate law, is also an apologist for Darth Vader and the genocidal destruction of the planet Alderaan.

One of the Republican Presidential candidates, Marco Rubio, also recently made a point of making a pro-Vader speech, which just goes to show you which political party represents the Dark Side.

04 November 2015

Metro Denver School Board Election Recap

In Denver, three incumbent school board members were all re-elected in the face of teacher's union sponsored challenges emphasizing "neighborhood schools" as opposed to charter schools and magnet programs.  But, Board President Happy Haynes won by only about 800 votes out of well over 100,000 votes cast, just enough to avoid an automatic recount.

In first ring western suburb Jefferson County, in a race that captured national attention, all five far right conservative members of the school board were ousted in one decisive fell sweep - three in recall elections and two to challengers in the ordinary general election.

In exurban Douglas County, there was no recall election, but all three of the seven school board members facing regular election challenges were replaced.  Ideological conservatives sponsored by the Republican party controlled all seven seats on the school board prior to the election (whose energies among other things supported a religious school voucher program held to violate the state constitution and state education funding statutes).  Now, the ideological Republicans have a 4-3 majority on the board.

02 November 2015

Violent Islamic Intolerance

While not all societies with significant numbers of Muslims have significant percentages of the population who favor death to people who leave Islam, the percentages actually vary greatly, a great many predominantly Muslim societies have lots of people who do feel this way.

For example, more than 30% of the population of Bangladesh feels this way, and as a result a number of prominent atheist bloggers and publishers have been killed by Islamists there in the last couple of years.

While not all Islamic societies share this norm, a great many do, and that norm is incompatible with a modern, pluralistic society.

Sometimes Things Work

* Sometimes Congress actually does pass a budget before the government is shut down.

* Sometimes the cops catch the robbers.

* Sometimes a city government admits it was wrong in enforcing an unconstitutional ordinance without having to be sued to get it to fix its mistake.

* Sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court does the right thing.

It doesn't happen all the time.  But, it happens often enough that I haven't entirely lost faith in "the system."

Mac Trackpad Infinitely More Subtle

Back in the day, there were three things you could do with a Mac mouse.  You could click, you could double click, and you could drag by holding down the mouse as you moved it.

Now, there are sixteen different "gestures" you can make with a Mac trackpad (including "force click").

How can something so seemingly simple, actually be so complex.  It is elegant in its way, and I may eventually learn to like it.  But, there is definitely a learning curve.

Open Carry Law Delayed Response In Colorado Springs Shooting

Witnesses watched in horror as Harpham picked his victims off. One of them, the bicyclist, pleaded for his life before being killed.

"I heard the (young man) say, 'Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!' " Naomi Bettis, a neighbor who witnessed the killing, said Monday.

Bettis said she recognized the gunman as her neighbor — whom she didn't know by name — and that before the initial slaying she saw him roaming outside with a rifle. She called 911 to report the man, but a dispatcher explained that Colorado has an open carry law that allows public handling of firearms.

"He did have a distraught look on his face," Bettis said. "It looked like he had a rough couple days or so."

After Harpham shot the bicyclist, Bettis said she watched him walk toward Platte Avenue. She then heard more gunfire.
From here.

Consumer Arbitration Really Is Unfair

The New York Times is running a series on the problems with arbitration, particularly consumer arbitration clauses in take it or leave it contracts of adhesion.

Part I

Part II

Part III

I'll fill out this post at a later date with some of the details of why its indictment of consumer arbitration is correct.  Previous posts at this blog on the subject can be located via the Arbitration tag. The CFPB, a new federal agency, is considering regulations banning or restricting the practice.  A number of major providers of consumer arbitration ceased to provide the service within the past few years.

The stories are effective because mandatory pre-dispute arbitration fundamentally conflicts with a variety of widespread norms held by participants in the community subject to arbitration over their rights in the transactions they enter into and their reasonable expectations of fairness.

There are isolated contexts where it can make sense, such as in business to business transactions where privacy and a swift resolution are imperative, and in business to business transactions in which large numbers of cases, none precedent setting, between entities are likely (e.g. resolution of fee disputes between realtors who are part of the National Association of Realtors over who gets what share of a real estate commission).

But, routine disputes between credit card companies, cable companies, cell phone companies, and the like, over systemic mistreatment of large numbers of similarly situated consumers are not benign and encourage dishonest business practices by large companies.

UPDATE November 5, 2015: Law professor Stephen Carter writing an opinion piece for Bloomberg offers a rather unpersuasive rebuttal to the New York Times account of consumer arbitration clauses discussed above.

As someone who actually represents parties on a fairly regular basis in cases that involve, or could involve, commercial arbitration, and who drafts contracts and evaluates contracts for clients, I should also put on my "to do" list comparison of most material differences between a court forum and an arbitration forum.

For example, privacy, rules of evidence, discovery, speed of litigation, limitations on injunctive relief, and the availability of appeals.  The particulars of these differences are often different for major arbitration forums, for example, the American Arbitration Association and the Judicial Arbiter Group, and a significant minority of arbitration clauses call for arbitration of very narrow issues without specifying any widely adopted set of arbitration rules.  Also, even within AAA arbitration rules, for example, there are actually several different sets of rules for different kinds of disputes.

There are some respects in which arbitration can be a superior forum for certain kinds of disputes, and in other respects arbitration can be profoundly inferior for many kinds of disputes.

In general, for example, the looser rules of evidence that apply in arbitration causes under AAA commercial arbitration rules, tend to be a positive difference between an arbitration forum for commercial cases, and a court forum for commercial cases using evidence rules largely designed in the first instance for criminal cases and applied more generally to all civil cases even though the justifications for them in commercial cases tried to a judge are far less compelling.

On the other hand, it is rare indeed that the near universal absence of appellate relief for a bad decision made in an arbitration forum is a good one, except in very simple, small stakes cases between repeat players with comparable power in the institutions that conduct the arbitrations. In those cases, the law of averages mitigates the harm caused by individual erroneous decisions on any given litigant over time, and the benefits of rapid dispute resolution and reduced costs that flow from a lack of appellate review outweigh the harms caused by a lack of appellate review in any individual wrongfully decided cases within a pool of cases. There may be a place for a lack of meaningful appellate review, for example, in fee disputes between Realtors involved in the same real estate transaction, or between banks resolving disputes over check payment snafus.

But, a lack of meaningful appellate relief is almost never fair to a litigant in a high stakes dispute who is a one time player or will only litigate in that forum a very small number of times.  The lack of meaningful appellate review of arbitration awards in these circumstances fundamentally undermines the rule of law.

In a significant class of disputes for which arbitration is often appropriate, privacy and freedom from government involvement in dispute resolution, are important motives for choosing this forum.  For example, arbitration is frequently a desirable forum for trade secret disputes.  But, bifurcation that allows some relief to be sought in the courts while limiting other relief to arbitration forums can undermine the argument for arbitration in these cases, as can the important harm caused by removing precedents that would have been valuable to litigants in future disputes from the public domain.

Filing fees in arbitration cases are universally much higher than the filing fees in comparable cases in the Court system.  These fees buy, in part, a significantly faster time from filing to resolution in most arbitration cases.  This is partially a procedural issue, and partially a product of an intense scarcity of judges in the vast majority of U.S. courts with jurisdiction over civil actions. But, generally speaking, the amount of attorneys' fees involved in litigating a dispute through arbitration is not materially lower than the attorneys' fees that would have been incurred litigating the same case in the ordinary court system.

Empirical evidence also tends to show rather powerfully, that arbitration forums in which a repeat player (typically a big business) imposes an arbitration forum on an infrequently litigant such as a consumer or employee, show a pronounced bias, relative to the Court system, in favor of the repeat litigant who had the economic power to chose the arbitration forum.

As another example, the arbitration forum is often chosen primarily to defeat the possibility of obtaining vindication through class action litigation, or to deny a litigant substantive remedies (e.g., exemplary damages may not be awarded in arbitration forums in Colorado).  In these circumstances, the appropriateness of using an arbitration clause to secure these benefits is almost always deeply problematic.

Ultimately, however, the ninety year old Federal Arbitration Act tips the balance far too strongly in favor of arbitration and does the nation a deep disservice in the process.  The scope of circumstances in which arbitration is appropriate (and a respectable share of cases that I handle in arbitration are of that type), is, however, far greater than the scope of circumstances where the FAA mandates an extremely strong policy in favor of binding pre-dispute arbitration clauses,

Devil's Night Curtailed In Detroit

DETROIT (13abc, Action News) - . . . City officials said Saturday that only 28 fires had been reported over the first two days compared to 66 at the same time in 2014. More than 3,500 people volunteered to help patrol Detroit streets this year. The campaign is a long-running response to what used to be known as Devil's Night, the day before Halloween. In 1984, Detroit had more than 800 fires during the period.
From here.