31 July 2005

Your virtue won't save the planet.

David Wann's opinion piece in this Sunday's Denver Post is typical of the genre. It correctly points out that Peak Oil will have a profound economic impact when it hits in earnest, that water supplies are finite, that our way of life is, in short, unsustainable. But, his solutions are the typical appeals to personal virtue. 

People are buying "large homes, hot tubs, computers, large-screen TVs and a fleet of must-have appliances." Your hamburger is put forth as the culprit that is costing half a year of showers in water consumption and enough gas to drive twenty miles. They consume too much fuel because "many of their friends live across the city, and it costs two or three gallons of gas to go see them." and because "they jump in the car to do a single errand, and a large percentage of their household budget is spent for the latest media gadgets and luxury vacations." Our heros are urged to "create a community garden and compost pile" out of their oversized back yard, to hold "a community picnic", and to consider "carpooling, planting trees to reduce air conditioning, and forming a cooperative team to make each house as efficient as possible." They should form "a discussion group, book club, a few carpools and a food co-op", and start putting "we" in front of "me". He "envisions cottage industries to create jobs that are a two-minute walk away" and "a micro-turbine to supply electricity to some of the houses in the neighborhood." He urges "a jointly held bank account" or a plan to "purchase the next house that's up for sale, to create a community center with shared office equipment, a library, and a guest room." 

Wann is also a co-author of "Affluenza" and modern day sumptuary law proponents like him are typical among environmentalists. I consider myself an environmentalist too, but I don't think that the problem is that people are individually too selfish and wasteful. 

Our nation's environmental survival does not depend on backyards converted to gardens, community cooperatives, or fewer home electronics purchases. The truth is, that trying to make a dent in the national demand for energy, or in national pollution production, by having people run fewer one trip errands or trying to make friends next door instead of across town doesn't work. Our standard of living depends for it very existence on not having cottage industries or subsistence farming, and nothing has changed to cause these economic approaches to make sense. Big factories and corporate farms have replaced cottage industries and subsistence farming precisely because they are more efficient and less resource intensive. The process of making our economy more environmentally sound is not a touchy feely grass roots process. 

If you want cleaner air, you need to change emissions performance for motor vehicles in a handful of major manufacturing companies, change the fuels you use to produce electricity in big corporate utilities, and make freight rail faster so wholesalers and retailers use it in preference to more polluting and fuel hungry trucks. If you want fish with less mercury pollution, you need to find substitutes for products made with mercury at the manufacturing level - by banning production of mercury thermometers, for example. If big backyards waste water, you have to convince developers to build neighborhoods with small yards and big parks, because once the neighborhood is built, it is hard for an individual home owner to make a difference. If homes consume too much energy, it has more to do with poor insulation than having too many square feet. If you want people to be able to access office equipment or keep friends in guest rooms in their own neighborhoods and not make car trips for single errands, you need to loosen up zoning codes to permit people to open neighborhood businesses like Kinkos, convenience stores and bed and breakfasts, not form community cooperatives. And, there is nothing inherently more environmentally sound about a food co-op than there is about a corporate natural foods store like Vitamin Cottage, Wild Oats, Whole Foods or Sunflower. If it is expensive for people to commute or to visit friends across town, then maybe we need more electronic gadgets so people can keep in touch without actually getting in a car. If too many people are moving into the exurbs, maybe we need to look into eliminating hidden governmental subsidies that favor rural living over urban living, such as flaws in school funding formulas. 

Environmentalism does require people to put "we" over "me" at the policy making level, so that we do not suffer a tragedy of the commons, with shared resources like air quality, water quality, and a healthy ozone layer. But, the model of a regulated economy full of large enterprises is going to get the job done better than a model of a grass roots co-operative based economy in which people voluntarily consume less for the good of the community.

27 July 2005


All militaries are accused of preparing to fight the last war. Occassionally, however, the military tries to fight wars from a long, long time ago.

Right now, the United States military is coming up with specifications for its next generation assault rifle that will replace the ubiquitous M-16 and its smaller cousin the M-4 Carbine. While it was it was it at, the military decided to throw in a new light machine gun (LMG) as well. The military has Q and A sessions with its contractors about its requirements so that everyone can stay on the same page. One of those questions, and the Defense Department answer in italics, caught my attention (thanks to Murdoc Online for the heads up):

>>Please explain why it is necessary for the LMG to mount a bayonet.

It is a requirement of the family that all variants except the Special Compact mount a bayonet.

For those of you who aren't military geeks, a bayonet is a spear point that you stick at the end of a gun barrel which is supposed to be used for hand to hand combat when your gun doesn't work anymore.

I guess that the widespread distrust the troops have for the standard issue sidearms that are supposed to serve as a backup weapon for soldiers when a machine gun or assault rifle is no longer available, have reached new lows.

26 July 2005

High School Graduation Rates

Over the next few months I want to look at our education system. Let's begin with some statistics.

Let's compare the top ten and bottom ten states (including the District of Columbia) in the United States by U.S. public high school graduation rates for 2001-2002, followed by pupil per teacher ratios and expenditures per pupil in 2002, % black and % Hispanic in 2002) (per the World Almanac 2005).

1. New Jersey 89.8% (12.8; $11,793; 15.5%; 14.2%)
2. North Dakota 83.7% (12.9; $6,709; 0.8%; 1.3%)
3. Iowa 82.9% (13.9; $7,338; 2.2%; 3.1%)
4. Utah 82.5% (21.8; $4,899; 0.9%; 9.7%)
5. Minnesota 82.3% (16.0; $7,736; 3.8%; 3.2%)
6. Nebraska 80.0% (13.6; $7,741; 4.2%; 6.0%)
7. Wyoming 72.7% (13.0; $8,645; 0.9%; 6.7%)
8. Vermont 78.6% (11.7; $9,806; 0.6%; 0.9%)
9. South Dakota 77.8% (13.8; $6,424; 0.8%; 1.5%)
10. Montana 77.3% (14.5; $7,062; 0.4%; 2.1%)
31. Colorado 70.0% (16.6; $6,941; 4.1%; 18.2%)

United States 68.5% (15.9; $7,731; 12.7%; 13.4%)
42. New Mexico 61.5% (15.1; $6,882; 2.2%; 42.9%)
43. Alaska 60.7% (16.6; $9,565; 3.7%; 4.4%)
44. North Carolina 60.6% (15.2; $6,501; 21.8%; 5.3%)
45. Louisiana 59.2% (14.6; $6,567, 32.9%; 2.6%)
46. Mississippi 59.1% (15.6; $5,354; 36.8%; 1.5%)
47. Alabama 57.2% (15.7; $6,029; 26.3%; 1.9%)
48. Tennessee 56.7% (15.8; $5,959; 16.6%; 2.4%)
49. Florida 55.7% (18.4; $6,213; 15.8%; 18.1%)
50. Georgia 53.6% (15.6; $7,380; 28.8%; 6.0%)
51. South Carolina 49.2% (14.9; $7,017; 29.9%; 2.7%)

The spread from best to worst is huge, forty percentage points. Put another way, South Carolina has five times as many high school dropouts per capita as New Jersey.

Geography seems to yield patterns more easily than numbers.

Diverse New Jersey has the highest graduation rate in the nation. Homogeneous Alaska is near the bottom. Graduation rates in the crowded schools of Utah are high. Graduation rates in the relatively uncrowded schools of Louisiana are low. Still class sizes in states with high graduation rates are signficiantly lower than those with low graduation rates in most cases.

In contrast, it is quite obvious that every single state below the Mason-Dixon line and East of the Mississippi River (as well as Louisiana, which is just on the other side of the Mississippi River and contiguous) is among the bottom eight states in high school graduation rates. Likewise, eight of the top ten states form a geographic block in the North central United States. Still, one of the best, Utah, and one of the worst, New Mexico, actually border each other. Likewise, the very best, New Jersey, is not far along the Eastern seaboard from the worst, South Carolina.

The regional demographics are hard explain significantly by race either. Nationally (according to the Census Bureau), 83.8% of whites age 25-29 are high school graduates, 78.7% of blacks age 25-29 are high school graduates, and 57.0% of Hispanics age 25-29 are high school graduates -- although there are certainly many examples of huge disparities in graduation rates and high school performance at some high schools.

Demographics and geography aren't destiny when it comes to graduation rates. Arkansas comes in at an unexpectedly high 17th in graduation rates. The District of Columbia, which is essentially all urban inner city, comes in a respectable 29th place for high school graduation rates. Delaware, which is in many respects similar to New Jersey, and New York State, come in at 41st and 40th respectively.

It is also worth questioning whether attending high school is really the be and end all that it is made out to be. About 87% of Americans have some high school education, second in the world only to the Czech Republic, which has an 88% some high school attendance rate. Rates are far lower in many countries which we would consider advanced industrialized countries:

* Spain 41%
* Italy 44%
* Luxembourg 57%
* Iceland 59%
* Ireland 60%
* Australia 61%
* Belgium 61%
* United Kingdom 64%
* France 65%
* Netherlands 66%
* South Korea 71%
* Sweden 82%
* Germany 83%
* Canada 83%
* Japan 84%

Are graduation rate differences matters of academic performance, or do they simply reflect a greater or lesser emphasis on obtaining educational credentials? Within the context of the American political-economy (i.e. between states), it is hard to doubt that differing high school graduation rates mean something, but international comparisons seem to show that outside of the context of a particular nation's political economy, it doesn't have to mean much.

25 July 2005

Taiwan II

I discussed before on this blog just how expensive it is for the U.S. to have a military commitment to protect Taiwan from China. In fact, it costs us $3,000 per person who lives in Taiwan per year, or so, to protect it.

This said, this expenditure will have the desired effect as long as it remains in place. China simply has too much to lose. If China attack Taiwan, U.S. trade with China stops instantly. All merchant ships en route are rerouted to Japan. All accounts not settled are not paid. U.S. Treasury bonds owned by China are cancelled as punishment and all Chinese assets in the U.S. or in the possession of its allies are frozen. Even if Taiwan is taken, it is after a pitched and bloody battle including U.S. strikes on Chines missile bases, ports, ships and airfields. Chinese trade with any other nation by sea, including Japan and S. Korea, becomes impossible. Oil and gas pipelines into China are bombed. China must either let U.S. nationals leave, which they (and most foreign nationals) will, or there will be an epic hostage crisis. If there is a hostage crisis, China can kiss all foreign investment for the next decade or two goodbye. If the U.S. or its military bases were directly attacked, one can imagine a U.S. stance towards China being even more punitive. In short, China has little to gain and would see its entire economy crumble for decades as a result. Ergo, China will not invade Taiwan, despite its bluster to the contrary, unless it feels that it can make a threat of nuclear attack on the U.S. viable enough to prevent U.S. intervention (unlikely).

The more likely scenario might be instead for the Chinese Navy to, after warning ships off, blockade Taiwan's ports. If a Chinese submarine sunk a Liberian flagged merchant ship off the coast of Taiwan, a full fledge military response from the United States would be much less likely. The U.S. Navy might move in with anti-submarine warfare ships to aid Taiwan, and trade sanctions might be imposed. But, this kind of situation might not escalate quite as far. As a result, this kind of incident is actually more probable.

How a blockade situation would play out militarily is hard to predict. One of the main "lessons learned" from the Falkland's War between the United Kingdom and Argentina, is that it is extremely hard to find and destroy a submarine will a skilled crew. Some modern diesel submarines are far quieter than the noisy Russian nuclear submarines that our attack submarine fleet was designed to catch, and there were a number of incidents during the Cold War when foreign submarines got close enough to U.S. Navy surface ships to sink them. China's submarine fleet is second only to those of Russia and the United States, and is growing rapidly in both number and sophistication. Also, even if China were to refrain from attacking ships bound for Taiwan with military escorts, the increased cost and risk associated with shipping goods to Taiwan (which as a small island is heavily dependent upon seaborne imports) would be crushing. On the other hand, the U.S. could easily counterblockade China. Whether such a standoff would result in one side or the other backing down, or would escalate might easily depend upon the personalities involved on each side.

Corporate Stupidity

One of the core values of the Republican party is that private businesses make better decisions than governments do. The premise, of course, is dubious. But, aside from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, Democrats don't always do a good job of reminding Americans of that fact.

As political animals we get wrapped up in fixing what we know best, government. How many times a week does someone propose a constitutional amendment on this site? But, wouldn't we be better served politically by focusing our attention on corporate stupidty and by association, the reforms that corporate America needs to make our country a better place to live?

The Darwinian Answer For Small Business

At the small business level, the incentives of a market economy can work pretty well. Well run businesses survive. Poorly run businesses rapidly join the 50% that don't last 5 years statistic (notably with the predominant reason for failure being bad management). Poorly run small businesses often don't get very big, so the harm to the overall economy of this trial and error approach is pretty modest.

At the big business level, a Darwinian approach has real problems.

Industry Level Collective Stupidity

First of all, problems at the big business level are often industry wide systemic problems. You don't lose one steel company, you lose a whole industry. You don't see one tech start up collapse, you see a tech bust. An entire S&L industry collpases until it becomes a national crisis. You don't see one flailing airline or car maker. All the domestics in the industry simultaneously see everything start to come apart. You don't see one big accounting firm allow deceptive statements out the door and promote questionable tax shelters, they all do it.

Oligopolistic industries are prone to group think, and if the conventional wisdom among couple dozen key decision makers in a particular industry is wrong, everyone in the industry suffers and no one company gains a competitive advantage over anyone else in that same industry.

Collective corporate stupidity, of course, does immense harm to the usually completely innocent people who work for and do business with these corporations. Inevitably, there are mass layoffs, and all too often, there are broken retirement promises as well. Often, the lost jobs leave the economy for good. The manufacturing sector in the United States is the most recent example, but surely will not be the only one.

The Cost of High Stakes Failures

Second, when the stakes are high, simply letting corporations be free to be stupid and fail is bad policy. When you child makes a low stakes decision that is a bad one that the child will regret later -- say buying snacks now, even though you know that she will regret it when it comes time to go to the mall next weak for a bigger purchase -- you may give a warning but leave your child free to screw up, because failure teaches lessons in a more memorable way.

But, there are some high stakes decisions we don't give people the freedom to screw up. One of the distinctions between liberals and conservatives is that liberals don't believe that freedom always trumps making a good decision. You don't give a child the freedom to run out into a busy street and learn that hard way that this is a bad idea, even if that means physically restaining the child from doing so.

Much of the debate over consumer fraud laws involves whether we should prohibit people from making bad decisions like entering into payday loans at 300% interest. Democrats tend to say that some transactions are almost always ones that the consumer will ultimately regret. Republicans typically are willing to let the poor suffer from their own mistakes and ignore the culpability of someone who offered them the clearly bad deal.

But, the issue of giving private parties the freedom to make bad decisions isn't limited to those in poverty or near poverty. It also applies to big businesses. Should we let big businesses run themselves into the ground through clearly bad decisions at the cost of huge numbers of jobs, or should we as a nation find ways to intervene before they get out of hand?

The Fall of Anti-Corporate Stupidity Laws

In recent times, we have erred on the side of freedom. The repeal of the Glass-Seagal act has permitted commercial banks to play the stock market again. Energy deregulation permitted Enron to happen. Airline deregulation has contributed to the utter mess that is the current airline fare system which is on the verge of sending numerous airnes into bankruptcy.

Now, obviously, regulating corporate stupidity is not an easy thing. But, to say it is difficult, is not to say that it can't be done successfully.

Economic Regulation Success Stories

There are notable successes. The regulation accompanying FDIC deposit insurance has virtually ended the threat of industrywide bank collapses. More quietly, diligent state regulation has made the collapse of insurance companies a very rare event. Historically, strict underwriting standards have prevented mass defaults on FHA and VA loans -- although these standards have recently fallen and we have yet to see if this will produce a housing bubble. Regulation of public utilities has keep rates understandable and kept reliability reasonably high. Regulation of the quasi-public postal service has given the United States the cheapest postage in the world, without significant subsidies, in one of the largest countries in the world both geographically and population-wise. Public ownership of utiliities in the TVA region, has produced cheaper power than private industry would have been able to achieve.

Health and Safety Regulation Success Stories

Good regulation can dramatically improve health and safety as well. Intense safety regulation in the mining industries has greatly reduced injuries to miners while maintaining profitable industries (it is hard to outsource a mine). The end of leaded gasoline and lead paint has ended the vast majority of lead exposures for the average person. Strict air traffic controls and intensive government investigation of every single aircraft accident has made commercial aircraft the safest means of transporation in existence. Strict national construction standards for interstate highways has made them the safest roads per mile travelled in the nation. For all its flaws, the FDA's drug approval process has kept countless dangerous drugs off the market.

Bottom Line

Until the American people reflexively understand how regulation has strengthened our economy, and how systemic corporate stupidity is often the norm, both concepts well within the grasp of the average person, the oversimplified mantra of government bad, private business good will continue, Republican policies (regardless of the actual party labels of the proponents) will continue to be adopted, and our economy and the people in it will suffer.

22 July 2005

"The Creative Class" Considered: Part I

Richard Florida, a Pittsburg sociologist, published a book a year or two ago called "The Rise of the Creative Class", which I'm reading now. The book isn't terribly slick in its presentation, and there are significant methodological criticisms to be leveled at the way the book makes its argument. I'll get to those later, but in my opinion, none of them get in the way of the really revoluntionary ideas of the book or the idea. To focus on the negative is to miss the point. There are plenty of academic treatises written each year that are clumsy, but few have at their core a different worldview for approaching a wide variety of issues with explosive implications for policy makers. Florida's book does that, which is why I'm reading it, and which is why every liberal should.

Allow me to sum up the big picture points:

(1) Economic growth does not happen uniformly throughout the economy, instead there are centers of rapid growth and centers of stagnation.
(2) Centers of rapid growth have certain distinguishing features that distinguish them from centers of stagnation. Many of these important distinguishing features illustrate an area's values and culture, as opposed to its economic characteristics.
(3) Economic growth in today's economy is driven by talented people, not wealth. Wealth to finance projects migrates to talented people from historic financial centers. Russia inherited the factories, the United States got the scientists, and history tells us which was more important for economic growth.
(4) Non-economic features of centers of growth are important because they permit those centers to attract talented people and create environments in which talented people can thrive. Talented people actively seek out certain kinds of environments and avoid others.
(5) Talented people thrive in environments that are tolerant and embrace diversity and are culturally rich. In contrast, the socially cohesive communities which Professor Putnam bemoans the demise of in "Bowling Alone" have great amounts of "social capital", but "social capital" turn out to demand conformity which squelches economic growth by preventing talented people from thriving.
(6) Rapid economic growth closely accompanies growing income inequality. While the "Creative Class" flourishes, the sectors of the economy that provide personal services to members of this class, often a low skill, low reward sector of the economy (restaurants and house keeping, for example) also grows. Meanwhile agriculture and traditional goods producing mainstays of the economy are declining in economic importance for their own reasons.
(7) Feeding into the kinds of environments that attract the new "Creative Class", is a strong desire by its members to focus on non-economic goals in life like autonomy, challenge, security and individuality.

Why are these ideas a radical change (not all of which are necessarily expressed in just these terms by Florida himself)?

The tax code, many state and local governments trying to create economic growth in their areas, and policy makers generally, often try to promote economic growth primarily by favoring capital investment in things like plant and equipment. Counties try to lure factories with tax breaks and subsidies. The federal government uses tax breaks like accellerated depreciation and low rates of taxation on capital gains to encourage more savings and investment, particularly in plant and equipment and other capital assets.

The Creative Class premise is that this is fundamentally the wrong way to go about building economic growth. Cities with a rich cultural life and diverse vibrant population with a high concentration of creative class people don't have to offer tax breaks to attract businesses. Instead, busineses come to them because they provide a good place for Creative Class members who drive economic growth to live and provide a good place to find top notch employees, and networks that understand how to help emerging business ideas. Cities that thrive pass gay rights ordinances and build cultural centers, rather than offering tax breaks to industrial corporations looking to build new factories.

Likewise, the places we should be investing money to promote economic growth is in education, not in plant and equipment.

And, immigration of talented people (especially members of the "Creative Class") is a major driver of economic growth which should be encouraged vigorously, instead of being feared. Rather than carefully limiting H1-B visas, a Creative Class approach to economic growth argues, we should offer an unlimited supply of lawful permanent residency admissions to anyone who could possibly qualify for an H1-B visa under the current regime and to their families. The more skilled professionals the nation has (even if there are actually already people in the U.S. who could do the job) the better.

In short, if Richard Florida is basically right, and conventional macroeconomic theories of growth oriented around capital investment that drive most economic growth policies in this country are basically wrong, then the Democratic party agenda, and not the Republican one, is by far superior at making our economy grow, and policy should be revised to reflect the facts about what makes growth happen.

This isn't the whole story, and is neither a comprehensive review, nor a careful critque (some of that will come in later parts of this series), but this is the place to start the discussion.

20 July 2005

Google and Self-Worth

Not all coins in the land are made at the mint.

There is going on, at any time in this country, and more broadly, in the world, what I call "The Great Discussion." The Great Discussion is where ideas about politics, policy, public affairs, science and art are discussed in a way that develops conventional wisdom and guides how people think and what they do. The glorious part of the internet is that it provides a means for people who can't spend time physically at the Salons and academies of old to take part in this discussion.

The dark side of this access is that it is easy for your voice to go unheard. Few things are more frustrating than crying out in the wilderness and not being heard by anyone. Sometimes what you have to say doesn't matter; no one cares.

But, as a result of this constant need to be heard, the validation that comes from knowing that you are heard, that you are in fact a leading voice in some part of the Great Discussion is a gratifying one.

Google searches of the internet can provide that kind of validation. When your page is at the top of the heap of a search related to your topic with hundred or thousands of matches, you have the pride of knowing that your voice is being heard in the Great Discussion and that can fuel intense feelings of self-worth. It hasn't happened to me very often, but it has happened often enough that I crave it. And, in this, I am sure that I am not alone.

Hottest Day Ever.

I knew it was hot today, as I drove around town getting my car fixed. What I didn't know until now, is that today was Denver's hottest day in history, with a high of 105 degrees, tied once before in August in 1878. Fortunately, air conditioning and swamp coolers are a lot more common now than they were 127 years ago. If I hadn't read it in the paper, I'd have assumed that it was another ordinary hot day in the city.


The United States is currently Taiwan's strongest ally in the world. It is fair to say that without U.S. sponsorship, Taiwan would have succumbed to Chinese military ambitions long ago. China has devoted vast military resources to the mission of attacking and retaking Taiwan as its own.

Taiwan is a worthy ally. While it has not always been Democratic, it is now. It has a vibrant free market economy as well. It leaders have been circumspect about their independence wishes, but in my view this has more to do with not tempting fate than it does with the reality that Taiwan has been defacto independent for half a century.

The vast majority of our nation's naval capabilities, and a good share of our Air Force and Army have, as their primary military objectives, protecting Taiwan, Japan and South Korea from attack by Taiwan and China, and of the three, Taiwan is by far the most vulnerable. Probably 20-25% of the defense budget is devoted to being capable of taking on this mission, on the order of $80 billion a year, year after year, for the foreseeable future and going back for decades.

Our decision to defend Taiwan militarily has been an extremely expensive choice. It is not one I think we could in good faith abandon now, although we could shift more military equipment and responsibility to Taiwan itself. But, this is the single greatest area where the rewards of an amicable solution would have huge economic dividends for the United States.

17 July 2005


Alpine ecologies are famous for their microenvironments. Valleys just a few miles apart sport their own species of wildflowers and their own, largely independent ecologies. The difference between being on the shady side of a mountain and being on its Southern exposure, or being in the face of prevailing winds from the West or sheltered from them, or the number of below freezing days that occur at one point on a mountain and another 2,000 feet higher, can create profound differences in the traits needed for life to survive there. A little ridge may be all that is necessary to isolate the ecosystem from cross pollination and allow speciation. This makes weather forecasting in the mountains hard, but creates an extraordinary degree of biodiversity.

The urban ecology of the Mile High City, like most urban areas, is also a panopoly of intensely different microenvironments that permit extraordinary human diversity. For example, my children go to the Denver Public Schools. By absolute measures of academic performance, it is single worst school district in the state. By value added or poverty adjusted measures, it is still hardly the most outstanding district in the state. So, why do I permit my children to attend this school district? Because the only thing that matters is the microenvironment. Until the 5th grade, my children will attend a neighborhood elementary school a few blocks from my house. This particular elementary school, which is one of the most desired in the district's school choice system, is a good learning environment. So, despite attending school in a district that overall, performed poorly on standardized tests, my family has found a good niche within it that serves our needs.

Schools aren't the only aspect of the urban microenvironment. The Washington Park Recreation Center, which my family uses, is heavily used by people using it for its intended purpose. In nearby Baker, about two miles away within the city, there is another recreation center, La Familia, with similar resources that abutes another park. My family uses it sometimes when our local recreation centers is closed for renovations. But, La Familia gets a lot less traffic, and is also a gathering place for groups of teens and young adults who dress and act like their looking for trouble. I won't pretend to call it gang activity. I'm not enough of an insider to really understand whose doing what why in that context. But, when you go to La Familia in the evening, you have to be more aware of your surroundings if you want to be safe. An encounter with five teenage boys with ripped t-shirts and chains hanging out of their pockets who are arguing in loud voices has more potential for trouble than an encounter with a gray haired couple in khakis and birkenstocks walking their poodles.

I don't live in a crime free neighborhood. My car was broken into last week in a failed attempt to steal the stereo. Many of my neighbors have experienced this, or thefts from porches, or even burglaries committed while they were away from the house. But, travel three miles to the Northwest within Denver, and you're in Sun Valley, the highest crime neighborhood in the city (it is home to dense high rise, low income apartments). Where I live, crime is a quality of life nuisance. In Sun Valley, it is an everlooming menace.

Addressing urban microenvironments when making policy in a way that is both fair and acknowledges the reality, isn't an easy thing to do. Denver is a highly segregated city. School test scores, precinct voting patterns, crime rates, and even measures as seemingly benign as the number of trees per block in a neighborhood all closely track the city's racial and ethnic fault lines. Four decades of fair housing laws have done little to change those fault lines.

The school desegregation story in Denver is a case in point. Denver recently ended decades of school busing to achieve racial and ethnic diversity within its schools, which has returned Denver to a neighborhood school system modified by a school choice system. The desegregation plan was not an unqualified success. It did integrate those students who remained in the school district. It also caused large numbers of middle class, mostly white, mostly non-Hispanic parents in the school district to move to the suburbs or enroll their children in private schools. The effects remain today. Despite an increasing population, Denver has fewer students in its public schools than it did before school desegregation. DPS is about two-thirds minority, and Denver as a whole is far more white.

The post-desegregation order school choice plan was intended to allow poor minority children in "failing" schools to find better options, mitigating the resegregating effects of a return to the neighborhood school system. It hasn't worked out that way. It turns out that out of 84 or so elementary schools in the district, about half a dozen receive the vast majority of children who "choice in". All but a couple of them are majority white schools whose choice students tend to be white or middle class children who are choiced out of attendance areas with schools with lower test scores and predominantly minority populations. The other couple of popular choice in schools are predominantly black schools with reasonable good test scores which are chosen primarily by middle class black parents who live in predominantly white or Hispanic neighborhoods for their children. Thus, school choice is actually a segregating, rather than a desegregating force in the Denver Public Schools. Moreover, parents in poor Hispanics familes in the so called "failing" schools in DPS, by and large, are generally fairly happy with their local schools, contrary to what outsiders would think was rational action on the part of the parents. Those parents could be misguided, but those parents also might know something that the "experts" don't.

It isn't just Denver either. While Brown v. Board of Education did produce significant desegregation in the small town and rural South, where small school districts left few alternatives, in big cities outside the South the likelihood that children will end up in highly segregated schools is at least as great, if not greater than it was before Brown. Fair housing laws have had an impact on new housing developments -- neighboring Aurora and Denver's Gateway subdivision come to mind, they have done little to upset the status quo in older neighborhoods. Instead, neighborhoods have remained segregated, although the groups that live in particular neighborhoods have shifted over time. For example, in Five Points and other neighborhoods North of Denver's central business district, which is near the invisible boundary between Denver's heavily Latino West Side, and mostly black North Denver, Latino populations are moving in, while black populations are moving out.

Latinos, blacks and whites aren't the only players in the microenvironment game in Denver. East Colfax which is the nexus between Denver and Old Town Aurora, is home to many immigrant Koreans and Ethiopians in the city, as well as street walking prostitutes. On a drive through Hilltop, or 14th Street near Sherman in Denver on the sabbath, you are likely to see many Orthodox Jews walking to synagogues. The Federal and Alameda area is home to much of the City's Southeast Asian immigrant population. Many Middle Eastern businesses congregate on Colorado Boulevard between I-25 and Yale. The central business district's Sakura Square remains the symbolic center of Denver's Japanese American community, even though not all that many Japanese Americans live there any more. "Queen Soopers" at 9th and Downing and Cheeseman Park are epicenters of gay and lesbian life in Denver (and a Metropolitan Community church, which is gay centered, is just a couple of blocks away). The far Southwest dogleg of the city called Bear Creek is the home of choice to a large number of police and fire personnel who need to live in Denver to meet residency requirements but prefer a surburban style setting -- call it Denver's copville. The Seventh Day Adventists have staked out a large area with hospitals, churches and regional headquarters for their operations South of Evans Street on Downing. Denver's Greek Community is bifocal, with Greektown, near East High School and the giant gold dome of the Orthodox Church between Alameda and Leetsdale, providing twin foci. The Parkway complex at 11th and Speer, a mix of upscale apartments, condominiums and townhomes downtown, is a stark contrast with the surrounding predominantly Latino Lincoln Park neighborhood which is home to a lot of small homes, often rented, housing working class families, and one of the city's largest housing projects, which ironically surrounds one of Denver's most upscale restaurants, the Buckhorn Exchange, at the Osage Stop on the light rail line.

And, it isn't just Denver proper either. For example, once you've lived here and read the papers on a regular basis, it becomes pretty clear that Westminster is home to several of the metro area's Asian street gangs.

Understanding cities isn't just about grand theories. Much of it is descriptive, and much of the descriptive detail involves the abundant microenvironments a city will have. In contrast, the State of Wyoming, for example, has fewer people than the City of Denver, and has an incredibly larger geographic expanse, but actually has a far more homogeneous social environment than Denver does.

And then they came for the Unitarians?

A conservative Christian convention in Denver (the International Christian Retail Show perhaps?) arranged to picket the Unitarian Universalist churches in Denver this morning. Their beef? Basically, support for gay rights. First, abortion clinics, then UU churches, are mosques next? Right now, these people don't have power, so picket is about all they can do. Their actions now, however, are a clear illustration of whose at risk if they ever do get real power.

Rock Salt

When I was in junior high school, my best friend's mother had a fantasy involving rock salt that I now share. She dreamed that her car had a rock salt gun which would horribly damage the car of anyone who engaged in egregious acts of offensive driving, without actually hurting anyone.

Today, I was passed and nearly run off the road (while driving at slightly more than the speed limit) on a no passing, two lane part of Alameda Avenue in Denver (an arterial city steet) today by a shiny new red full cab monster pickup, whose driver flipped me off after I honked furiously and stopped my car as a result. The dream is still alive.


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15 July 2005

Health Care Costs

This news isn't a surprise to me. But, it does provide good evidence to support something I've argued for a long time. Health care costs are high in the United States primarily because providers get paid more here, not primarily because of factors like medical malpractice claims or high health insurance company profits.

In a report on U.S. health spending in the journal Health Affairs, Gerald F. Anderson and colleagues, all affiliated with the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, compared U.S. spending with that of nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The authors said neither supply issues such as waiting lists for services in other countries nor the cost of malpractice explain higher health care costs in the U.S.

Rather, they said, Americans pay more because health care workers, doctors, nurses and technicians, are paid more here than in other nations and the price tag on health services from hospital beds to prescription drugs is significantly higher here.


The difference is significant. Americans pay $5,267 per capita for health care, while the runner up, the Swiss, pay $3,455 per capita, and the average industrialize country resident pays even less. Yet, American outcomes from its health system are not better, and in some cases are worse. Only about 3% of American health care costs can be attributed to fewer waiting lists for procedures, defensive medicine and malpractice cases (with medical malpractice case accounting for only about 0.46% of the total).

It also bears mentioning that almost every other industrialized country in the world provides universal health care to its citizens, while the United States, which pays 53% more per capita, still leaves 14% of its citizens uncovered.

We pay doctors, pharmacutical companies and other health care providers too much, because our fragmented system for paying providers bargains with them ineffectively. For example, Medicare, which provides a large share of all health care services in the United States and essentially all of the highly expensive end of life care for elderly persons, is basically forbidden from bargaining over price with providers. Until we fix the problems with the United States health care system, we will continue to have the worst health care system in the industrialized world, despite having some of the best paid professionals in the system and some of the highest technology equipment.

Commercial Air Travel and Security

The commercial air travel market in the United States is a kludge. It gets millions of people from point A to point B on medium to long range trips faster than driving. It has a remarkable safety record. It is still possible for middle class families to afford to travel by air. It achieves this without and at times, in spite of, sensible planning.

Airline Economics

It has been said that the commercial airline industry as a whole has not made a profit, in the aggregate, since it came into being in the 1960s. Certainly, many airlines have gone bankrupt along the way, and no industry in the United States is currently more fragile. Almost all of the "legacy airlines", United, Delta, Northwest, U.S. Air, and American have either gone bankrupt or are in serious financial trouble. A few "discount airlines", Frontier, Southwest, and JetBlue, for example, seem to be holding their own with a different business model. But, the industry's future is uncertain.

It appears the a big part of the problem is in the pricing structure of the legacy airlines, which have fed overly high operating costs. Legacy airlines have relied on monopoly pricing at airports they control and ridiculously high fares for business travelers who must travel during the week and often on short notice, rather than on more budget conscious, pre-planed vacation trips. Another part of the problem may be that airlines generally are growing less competitive vis alternatives, like teleconferencing and driving, as prices have remained high, while the effective speed of the trip, in terms of miles per hour from point of origination to destination, has declined.

Another issue is whether the old hub and spoke system continues to make sense. Direct flights are considerably faster than a hub and spoke flight. Yet, in a market with dozens of airlines, we need a hub and spoke system so that each airline can aggregate enough passengers to make a flight worthwhile. But, with the advent of regional jets, and if airlines were permitted to coordinate so that only a single airline served routes that could support direct flights with regional jets if consolidated, but not if divided amongst many airlines (with accompanying price regulation to prevent abuse of monopolies on routes), many more cities could be connected by direct flights, greatly reducing travel time for many passengers.

For example, on a flight from Denver to Northwest Airlines hub Minneapolis that I was on recently, there were enough passengers heading to both Washington DC and to Milwaukee to support separate direct flights. But, in all likelihood because of the need to keep the flight to the hub full, which it would not be full if direct flights to those destinations existed, about half the people on the plane had to endure time consuming transfers and a significant deteur from their ultimate destinations.

And, if their were limits on monopoly pricing, I would have taken an existing direct route to my destination, rather than an indirect route to a more distant airport at half the price.

Travel Times

One of the ironies of commercial air travel is that the flying part has become a relatively small part of the process. On my most recent trip back from my father's house, I spent eleven hours in transit, only four of which were actually in flight. The experience is not atypical. (If I had taken a direct flight at twice the price, the time in the air would have been only about two and a half hours, but non-flying time would have been cut by only about an hour).

If I want to fly somewhere, it takes me about 45 minutes to drive to the airport (from central Denver), longer during rush hour, and I need to add an extra half hour if I want to use cheaper shuttle parking at the airport at $5 a day, rather than the $7 a day parking immediately adjacent to the airport (which is sometimes full). The current norm, particularly if you are travelling with children, is to arrive at the airport itself about two hours in advance, to allow you to get your boarding passes, check your baggage, make it through a security check point (check point delays are discussed here), take a light rail shuttle to my terminal and arrive their at least a half an hour prior to your flight for boarding.

Delays for mechanical problems, weather, and who knows what else, are not uncommon. If the flight is not a direct flight, a layover can last anywhere from half an hour to several hours, and there is a good chance that your luggage won't make it if the gap is short.

Upon arrival, it typically takes at least half an hour to collect your baggage from the baggage claim (not infrequently damaged), another half an hour to get ground transportation (be it picking up your car upon your return home or arranging for a rental car), and another half hour to an hour and a half to get to your final destination on the ground.

Thus, a typical flight takes about five hours in addition to any time spent actually flying, if all the stars are aligned in your favor. The actual time spent in the air within the continental United States ranges from one to five hours for a typical flight. A flight with a connnection (typically as part of an airline's hub system) will typically almost double the time spent from the first takeoff to the final landing. In other words, trimming a couple of hours off boarding and departing times saves as much total trip time as running the Concorde at supersonic speeds on every route.

By comparison, when my I was in law school, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my wife lived in Chicago and we frequently took Amtrak to visit each other. Amtrak is hardly the model of efficiency either. It almost always takes longer than travelling by car (outside essentially one route in the Northeast Corridor, which not coincidentally is also almost the only route in the system that breaks even economically vis operating costs), and while it sometime is faster than a Greyhound bus, it is often slower (albeit, more comfortable), in part because the train travels slowly and in part because it makes so many stops. But, the collateral time involved in an Amtrack trip in absolutely trivial by comparison to a flight (which is why rail proponents emphasize the potential of high speed rail for medium length trips). The station at each end of our trips was about fifteen minutes from the point of origin and the final destination, respectively. You need to arrive at the station about ten or fifteen minutes before your secured departure, and your baggage is unloaded in about ten minutes -- and our baggage was never damaged on any of our frequent trips. The total time spent off the train at both ends of the trip combined was less than an hour. There are no security checkpoints. The baggage handling system is the equivalent of what is know in the airline industry as a "gate check". The fact that passenger trains are quieter than airplanes and involve less infrastructure allowed stations to be located closer to population centers.

Security and Risk Analysis

Amtrak probably has insufficient security. Certainly, a London Underground or Madrid style bombing could happen on Amtrak (or just about any commercial bus or passenger train, intra or intercity) in essentially the same way, while an event of that kind would be much more difficult to orchestrate on an commercial flight. Whether it makes sense to devote the effort to airline style security, however, is another issue. The other way to bedevil a commercial train is to cause it to derail at any point along the hundreds of miles of track it must follow. The example of a Los Angeles man who left his car on the tracks in what was probably an aborted suicide attempt, causing dozens of deaths in a derailment, shows just how easy it would be to cause an accident like that intentionally. Why add half an hour of delay or more per trip to avoid one fairly sophisticated problem (a passenger based bombing of a train), when there is no practical way to address the greater threat of a non-suicide bomber with far less sophisticated means interfering with train tracks to cause a deadly derailment? Also, on Amtrak, checked baggage is on a different railroad car than passengers, so a heavy explosive device in checked baggage would probably do far less damage than it would on a plane -- so, even if Amtrak instituted searches of carry on baggage, it isn't clear that searches of checked baggage would be that valuable.

But, the security surrounding air travel is probably overkill in many important areas (while remaining insufficient in others). Are we really meaningfully safer because we now prevent non-airline passengers who have gone through a security checkpoint from escorting passengers to and from the gates where passengers board and deplane? Are we really better off because we have zero tolerance for small pocket knives? Does it make sense to treat unattended carry on baggage as a menace when all carry on baggage has already passed through a security check point?

Not every abandoned security measure reduces safety. How many people think we are really less safe because we no longer ask passengers when checking in if the are carrying a bomb?

The biggest hole in the current regime design to prevent hijackings and bombings of planes is that not all checked baggage is searched or otherwise scanned for threats. Checked baggage can be larger than carry on baggage, which is uniformly searched, and a cell phone or even a key fob designed to remotely unlock a car would be perfectly capable as functioning as a trigger in the hands of a suicide bomber.

Yet, according to yesterday's U.S.A Today, the government is seriously considering spending $1 million on each of the 6,800 commercial U.S. planes to mount an anti-heat seeking missile laser turret to repeal shoulder mounted missiels, a total cost of $6 billion or more, to deal with a threat that has never manifested itself in the United States, although backers claim that such missiles have been used against civilian planes 35 times in history, killing about 500 people.

How do you weigh a risk like that? On one hand, $6 billion seems like a good deal compared to the several hundred billion dollars a year we spend on "national defense." It is far more likely that a shoulder fired heat seeking missile will be used against a U.S. commercial aircraft than it is that the U.S. will find it prudent to launch an all out nuclear missile attack on Russia, a fool's errand to which we have devoted far more of our nation's tax dollars.

Indeed, the risk may even compare favorably to the expense we devote to preparing every commercial aircraft for water landings. It appears that commercial airplanes have "ditched" in water just three times in recorded history. Once in the time period from 1957-1979. In the second:

an Ethiopian Airline Boeing 767 had to ditch off the coast of the Comoros Island in Eastern Africa when it was hijacked and it consequently ran out of fuel. The ditching sequence was probably not well executed, possibly because of interference by the hijackers. It cart wheeled and broke into a few sections. Despite this blotched up ditching, 48 out of the 175 passengers survived. The life vests they were wearing certainly saved their lives.

In the third:

On the 16th of January 2002, a Boeing 737-300 belonging to an Indonesian Airline had both its engines flamed out - a term to describe that the jet engines had failed. It happened as it commenced its descend to 9000 feet through thunderous clouds that were filled with rain.

The crew then tried to relight the engines but it failed to revive. . . . When the engine failed, the Captain maneuvered the airplane so that it could glide at an optimum speed of around 240 knots. This would cause the airplane to lose height rapidly at about 3000 feet per minute. He then attempted to make a forced landing, but preferred to ditch into water if only he could locate the sea. As the sea was out of reach, he decided to ditch on a river instead.

During the forced landing process, the Captain tried to decelerate from 240 to 150 knots by use of the flaps, but the hydraulics were not available to power the action. . . . Luckily, the ditching was very well executed and the Boeing 737 came to a stop, floating near the side of the river. . . . In this accident, 23 people were injured in the plane carrying 54 passengers and a crew of 6. One stewardess died when she was drowned in the river.

Note that in the Ethiopian Airline incident, doors that prevent entry to the pilot's compartment (implimented in the U.S. fleet after 9-11) might have been equally effective. In the Indonesian Airline incident, some form of crash landing on land (admittedly possibly causing more injuries) might have been possible.

But, consider the huge amount of effort (elaborate warnings at the start of every commercial flight), and expense (fitting every seat with floatation devices and most doors on commercial planes with life rafts) that has gone into preventing this remote risk. Would the money have been better spent on better instruments at airports for bad weather and night landings, or short distance radars to prevent planes from colliding on runways in fog and darkness? Would we be better off developing a plane sized parachute for commercial airliners (something which already exists for at least one model of general aviation plane) than anti-missile lasers or water landing gear?

The Baggage Problem

The biggest problem overall with the commercial air travel process is how it handles baggage. Baggage accounts for a large part of the delay in air travel.

Checking in baggage, and retrieving baggage accounts for a large part of the pre-flight and post-flight delay in a typical air trip, which is why business travelers typically do all that they can to take only carry on luggage (in addition to their desire to protect their luggage from the vageries of baggage handling processes resulting in lost or damaged luggage on a regular basis). Checked bags, as previously noted, are also a security risk, because it is hard to adequately screen them all.

Carry on baggage poses its own problems. It accounts for much of the time required to get passengers boarded and deplaned. It accounts for much of the delay in getting people through security check points (compare the delay at an airport security check point to that at a court house where people must pass through metal detectors but are less likely to carry lots of large parcels). It leaves passengers with baggage under their seats cramped and uncomfortable. Baggage falling from overhead compartments cause a significant number of work related injuries for flight crews and passenger injuries, although most are minor. And, security efforts notwithstanding, weapons and other dangerous articles do manage to slip through the screening process and get onto planes from time to time (as audit checks of security measures prove on a regular basis).

In contrast, getting people onto planes is a relatively easy process. Walking someone through a metal detector can be fairly quick. Boarding passes can be dispensed by kiosks or printed out at home on a computer. Matching photo IDs to boarding passes once at a security checkpoint takes just a moment. As aircraft evacuation tests have shown, people can get on and off a plane quite quickly if they don't take their baggage with them.

The Baggage Solution

To solve both the security and delay problems associated with baggage, it may be necessary to fundamentally rethink the whole idea of luggage in air travel.

One approach would be to "gate check" all luggage. Instead of limiting carry on luggage, everyone would take their luggage all the way to the gate, which is the way many small airports operate. But, it isn't clear that this would scale well.

Another approach would be to remove most luggage from the security appartus all together.

For example, suppose that every commercial flight had two planes, one with just a pilot and co-pilot to carry the baggage (or perhaps even just a single pilot and a remote operating system for emergencies), and another to carry only the passengers, who would not be permitted to carry large carry on items. The baggage plane might leave fifteen or twenty minutes ahead of the passenger plane, so that the baggage could be waiting for passengers at the gate when the passenger plane arrived. Baggage going on the baggage plane would not require any security screening. Parachutes and/or ejections seats for the two crew members on the baggage plane would be cheaper than an elaborate screening process for every bag, and destroying a plane full of clothing has far less terror causing appeal than blowing up a plane full of passengers.

Baggage planes could be adapted to minimize baggage handling. Now, luggage is (1) accepted and in some cases security screened, (2) sorted, (3) put on carts, (4) rolled in the carts to the plane, (5) put in a luggage hold under the passenger compartment, (6) unloaded from the plane onto carts and then (7) unloaded from carts onto a carosel at the baggage claim area. Instead, with specialized planes, passengers luggage could be (1) put onto carts at check in, (2) rolled cart and all onto the baggage plane, and (3) rolled off the baggage plane into a baggage claim area where arriving passengers would pick up their baggage directly from the cart. Baggage going on connnecting flights could be placed on different carts than baggage going only from point to point. The luggage would be handled less often, so there would be less risk of damage or loss. Now, there is waiting time for the baggage to be unloaded, then the baggage would be unloaded when the passenger plane arrives. Now, each piece of luggage would need to be screeened, but under this plan, none of it would be (which would also faciliate courier service and a decentalized luggage pickup system where some passengers would drop off luggage, for example, at a rail station to the airport, rather than at the airport itself). The need to match bags to passengers, which makes the baggage process far more complex, would also end.

The fuel requirements of the two plane might not be that different from that of the single larger plane that carried both passengers and baggage. The savings on the security and delay end of the operation might make up for the cost of two more crew per trip. One would have to run the numbers, but that kind of rethinking, could make us both safer and make the whole air travel process much faster on a point to point basis.

One could also imagine redesigned passenger only planes, and new airport gates to accompany them, being designed to routinely board from more than one door, to improve turnaround time at the gate. If the boarding process could be cut from say, 35 minutes to 15 minutes per flight, due to a reduced volume of carry on luggage and the use of more than one door to enter the plane, this would add up. If the new system saved passengers an hour and a half in the airport per trip, and the savings from the security system paid for the increased costs of operating two planes per flight, the effect would be equivalent to increasing the speed of the average flight from about 500 mph to Mach 3.

12 July 2005

North Dakota

Many of North Dakota's counties are losing population to the point that they are returning to "frontier" population density. The Air Force base in Minot, one of the state's major employers, is scheduled to be closed in the latest round of base closings, costing the state one of its largest employers.

There are also some signs that farm subsidies crucial to the state's economy will be scaled back. Federal grain subsidies account for about half of all gross farm income. The subsidy for tobacco is already in the process of being dismantled, and the worst of the remaining subsidies, the cotton payments, is about to be dismantled under pressure from the World Trade Organization. Were subsidies for corn, wheat and soybeans follow that trend, the state's farm sector would have to be radically overhauled.

As it is, North Dakota is full is hamlets that exist for no reason other than that they have been around for a hundred years.

What is to be done? Should the state try to lure in replacement industries, or should it simply be content with a smaller economy and a smaller population base? North Dakotans, of all people, know that being big isn't everything. The state has always been a small state at the fringe of the national economy. There is nothing inherently wrong with having an economy based on a quite small number of very geographically large farming operations, so called corporate farms. Maybe this is an opportunity for the nation to reinstate a fairly decent chunk of the open range that was there before homesteading for horticulture became the norm.

On the other hand, in an era where a state's skill base is more important than its geography, North Dakota is a fairly well educated health community. This could also support all manner of industries. It is stymied in this, however, in part because it is small. Managerial professional couples want places to live where both members of the couples can have jobs, which are scarce in North Dakota, and often want cultural amenities -- art theaters, opera, shopping, and more that it simply can't offer. The very traditional orientation that keeps the state cohesive and low in crime, also discourages the kind of innovation that creates growth.

While North Dakota likely has factions in favor of both approaches, I think it is likely that the status quo of downsizing the state is likely to be the course followed. The Minot base closure will likely make North Dakota the only state in 2010 with a significant decline in population, as base residents and the many who support those residents in the community are forced to move on and don't find replacement jobs within the state in large numbers.

When it does so, it will lead a trend, of rural reorganization and downsizing, just as significant percentagewise, as the decline in the manufacturing sector, but less noticed because the impact on the total economy has been much smaller.

11 July 2005

For Another Time

My mother died of breast cancer this past week, and the past few days have been immersed in the funeral and all that comes before and after it. There will be a time and place for insights to flow from this experience. But, the time and place is not now.

06 July 2005

Communitarian Thinking

Communitarian approaches to problems are not communist. They don't reject private property, and don't necessarily even reject class divisions. What they do require, in essence, is looking at the big picture. A solution that creates as many problems as it solves is not a good solution. Communitarian thinking is the opposite of NIMBY thinking. The issue is not keeping a bad use out of your backyard, but recognizing that there are a certain spectrum of uses that must end up somewhere and trying to choose intelligently where they should go.

Atlanta's current public housing initiative is a good example of the difference between narrow problem solving and a broader communitarian approach. Public housing officials there want to evict single mothers than their children from public housing if they don't get a job or start an education program. This affects about half of the people in public housing. This is a powerful incentive that, if implimented will no doubt encourage a great many people to seek work or start education programs. It is also horrible public policy. This is a population of people who are bureacratically certified to be (1) unable to afford housing at a market rent, and (2) currently unemployed. They are people who, by definition, have no place to go and will instantly become homeless. Once they are homeless, finding a job will become that much harder. The solution is worse than the problem it is trying to address. Fortunately, the city council stepped in and delayed the program by six months, but it is a fundamentally flawed plan that flows from failing to see the forest for the trees.

This problem is by no means confined to the South. Our criminal justice system in the United States, everywhere, has a similar problem: Rampant recidivism. The vast majority of people who go to jail or prison will get out within a few years. The number of those people who go on to commit serious crimes again is huge. "More than 70 percent of offenders sentenced to at least 360 days are expected to commit other crimes" according to a recent study of the Denver jail system. Yet, we provide no treatment for offenders underlying motivations for crime such as substance abuse and mental deficiencies, nor do we provide preparation for release or post release supervision for people who commit misdemeanors which result only in jail sentences. Recidivism at the state prison level is a similarly high 40-50%.

Crime can't be predicted exactly, but it isn't hard to identify groups of people, like prior offenders (juvenile and adult), and unemployed high school dropouts, who are at very likely to commit crimes compared to the general population. We know this, and yet, we do very little to prevent these extremely high risk individuals from committing more crimes.

Health insurance is another case of narrow minded thinking. Individually, it is in the interest of insurers to make policies for single member groups more expensive, because those who are most sick are most likely to seek them out. But, in the aggregate, it is cheaper for the health system as a whole to have everyone insured, so that providers aren't overwhelmed with bad debt from emergency cases and so that people get cheap preventative care from low cost providers like an office based medical practice, rather than getting expensive care from emergency rooms once problems are accute.

Wholistic problem solving, problem solving that aims to reduce aggregate consequences, rather than isolated ones, is difficult. It is much easier to adjudicate individual contract disputes, for example, when the parties are all solvent, than it is when a party is bankrupt, so that any compensation paid to one creditor harms another by depleting a pool of resources insufficient to meet everyone's needs. But, at this stage in the development of the United States, problems that require wholistic problem solving predominate, because simpler problems have by and large already been solved satisfactorily.

05 July 2005

Referrendums C and D

Largely thanks to the work of Washington Park state representative and State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, TABOR reform will be on the November 2005 ballot, and will have the endorsement of Republican Governor Bill Owens, as well as the Democratic leadership, in the form of Referrendums C and D. Technicalities related to the initative process will keep all other finance related issues off the ballot and there will be no major candidate races in that election either. Since TABOR is doing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to higher education in Colorado, and threatens all other financial initiatives, this was the crowing achievement of the session. But, I wasn't familiar with the details of the plan until they appeared in the July 2005 issue of the Colorado Lawyer, where Michael Valdez has a nice bullet point summary of the issues.

Referendum C:
* Allows state government to keep and spend all revenues collected from existing state taxes for the next five years.
* Sets a new revenue cap at the highest level of state tax revenue reached between now and 2011
* . . . adjusts the limit upward for population growth and inflation from that year on
* Requires extra revenues kept under the new cap to b e spent for the following: health care; public schools and state colleges and universities; and transportation projects
Referrendum D . . . It would do the following:
* Authorize the state to spend up to $2.07 billion in new multi-year bonds to speed up funding statewide for:
1) roads, bridges, and other stategic transportation projects: up to $1.7 billion;
2) pension funds for firefighters and police officers: up to $175 million;
3) crucial repairs and maintenance in public school buidlings, meeting the state's obligation in the settlement of a lawsuit: up to $147 million; and
4) repairs at state university, college and community college buildings: up to $50 million
* . . . cover the bond payments by adding an extra $100 million a year to the new state revenue limit
* Take effect only if Colorado voters also approve Referrendum C

Referrendum C is a no brainer for Democrats (and while it purports to limit what the increased revenue can be spent on, the list includes every big ticket line item in the state budget but the corrections budget). This state does not need a repeat of the Republican's budgets that threw elderly people with no other means of support and frail physical conditions out of nursing homes and eroded that economic driver that is the states high education system.

But, I hadn't realized until now that Referrendum C can pass even if Referrendum D does not. This is good, because Referrendum D is a much closer call. While school repairs and pension funds for law enforcement are a good idea, plowing 85% of the additional money into roads and bridges is too much in my opinion, even if it is understandable as this was the political price that Democrats had to pay to make the plan work. But, this is good politics in November, as Pro-road Republicans have to choose between voting against both and supporting both, improving Referrendum C's chances at the polls greatly.

04 July 2005

229 Years

The certificate that shows that I was admitted to the practice of law in New York, peculiarly notes that year of my admission in number of years since the United States was founded in 1776 in the course of an event accurately known as the "American Revolution".

This nation came to being by force of arms used contrary to the law prevailing at the time, not by United Nations resolution or the consent of the British King. While the founding fathers of our nation were not necessarily terrorists, they were most definitely insurgents and probably would have come within the gambit of Bush's "enemy combatant" doctrine.

In 1789, the Article of Confederation, which had served the early Republic, were discarded in favor of our current constitution, because they created too weak of a central government that required unanimous consent to do almost anything and relied on state governments for its funding. Two years later, in 1791, the Bill of Rights was added to the document.

The Bill of Rights is the defining feature of the United States Constitution. There have been forays into the power of Congress vis the states and the President, and visa versa. But, the vast majority of what law students spend at least two full semesters, in Constitutional Law and Criminal Procedure, and a significant chunk of time in their evidence and civil procedure classes, is devoted to the provisions of the constitution that protect individual rights and restrain government power vis the individual.

The underlying theme of the Bill of Rights is that it undercuts government powers that the insurgents found onerous. The right to protest (freedom of speech and of the press), the right to bear arms, the right to not be forced to quarter soldiers without compensation, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to a grand jury and trial by jury, the right to due process and to compensation for govenrmental takings, limitations on coerced confessions, the right to counsel in criminal proceedings, and a guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. This is familiar terrority.

Juxtapose these rights against the number that is the title of this post: 229 years. The constitution has not proven itself to be a suicide pact. There has been only a few genuine armed insurgencies in the history of the United States, and the constitution did not seriously encourage or prevent the extermination of any of them.

President Washington did not need the onerous methods that had been practiced by the colonial British to put down Shay's Rebellion, an early anti-tax revolt.

From the point of view of formal legal proceedings, the succession of the Southern States in the U.S. Civil War was on more firm legal grounds than the American revolution itself. Each state succeeded based on a legislative vote, popular referrendum, state political convention, or some combination of the above, and in many cases by safe majorities. Moreover, nothing in the 1789 Constitution expressely prohibited succession, the Declaration of Independence can be read as an endorsement of the right of states to unilaterally succeed from a political union, and the possibility had been part of the popular political consciousness for decades, even if it was an option of controversial legality. At any rate, the policy making that led to the Civil War was conducted in the public view by elected officials, not in the secret settings by prominent unelected individuals, that the Constitution makes possible for insurgents, and while there were certainly civil liberties fights in that war (the government lost some of the important ones after the war was over), historians look to the big battles between massed armies and the relative industrial and rail capacities of the combatants, rather than the conduct of the "secret side" of the Civil War as the most decisive component of the eventual outcome.

The nearly century long insurgency mounted by Native Americans called the "Indian Wars" by the department of Veterans Affairs, was ultimately brought to a close as much by the development of the machine gun and health trends that had depleted Native American populations as a lack of will to fight.

The always half hearted Puerto Rican insurgency, which has probably been one of the largest source of attempted and successful political assassinations in U.S. history, has been wiped out largely by a grant of U.S. citizenship and repeated referrendums showing independence a small minority position compared to the status quo, which voters have preferred to statehood.

The real question to ask is not "why did 9-11 happen?", but why have there been so few incidents of terrorism on U.S. soil? We are a nation of tens of millions of military veterans, many of whom have participated in genuine wars. We are a nation in which half of households have a gun. We are the most college educated country in the world, with millions of people who know enough chemistry to make their own explosive or biological/chemical WMDs and tens of thousands who know enough to design nuclear weapons. There are hundreds of thousands of engineers in this country who would with a very modest application of force do immense damage to our nation's infrastructure. I could elaborate on the ways, but I won't. Suffice it to say that a dozen or two committed and knowledgable people could wreck havoc on this nation of about 300,000,000 people, if they chose to do so.

To hear conservatives talk, the U.S. Constitution so binds the hands of law enforcement that it is suicidally difficult for this nation to protect itself from those kinds of people. But, the conservatives are wrong. Sure, the Constitution does require more effort to go after would be insurgents than would exist in a totalitarian states. Terrorism is far more common in relatively open and democratic societies than it is in countries where a dictator rules with an iron hand, little respect for individual rights, and armies of secret police trying to ferret out any possible insurgency.

But, terrorism and insurgencies are not random affairs. People don't undertake them for just any policy objective. No elected official has ever been assassinated based upon his stand on provisions in the tax code or the national budget. There are no terrorist groups in place in this country trying to keep Social Security in place by force, despite the tens of billions of dollars at stake in the debate.

So why do terrorism and insurgencies take place? (1) Because some groups feels that some other regime than the current one, some secular and some religious, is more legitimately the sovereign over some or all of the nation's territory than the existing internationally recognized sovereign, and (2) Because mounting a political campaign is cheaper and easier and more likely to endure if successful, than mounting an insurgency.

In the United States, there have been relatively few instances of disputes over the legitimacy of the existing government to rule its terroritory, summed up above, those have been largely settled for more than a century, and the political process is relatively cost effective compared to trying to mount an armed insurgency. Often one doesn't even need to have your candidate win elected office. A few tens of thousands dollars of campaign contributions may be all that is necessary. A war chest like that will buy you a dozen assault rifles, and pits you against one of the largest and most technologically advanced military forces in the world operating on its home turf.

The Iraqis are not fighting an insurgency because they "hate our freedom". They are fighting an insurgency because the current government has deep roots in a pre-emptive war brought without broad based international support, by another sovereign country. This is not in the playbook of ways to get the population to internalize the legitimacy of the current regime. Afghanistan's comparative tranquility, despite its similar population and more tretcherous terrain, is a product of a greater buy-in from the general population of the political process, particularly the use of the historically sanctioned "Loyola Jerga" process, than the Iraq approach, where we have deliberately ignored the expressed wishes of the most powerful man in the country, Sistani, on how the process should be handled. Al-Queda's attacks on the U.S. have as much to do with concerns over Saudi Arabian politics and with a more general process whereby young men in oil rich countries are unemployed, educated in religious philosophy, and are affraid of the corrupting influences of U.S. norms on their own worldview.

Rather than being an impediment to stopping terrorism, the individual and political rights secured to citizens by the U.S. constitution is the main reason that the U.S. has seen few insurgencies at home. Our open system makes using the process easier, allowing people to express their views and use the political process to achieve their ends, rather than making war, a costly waste that humanity can never seem to learn to not participate in.

03 July 2005

Planet Earth: Prison and Paradise.

I'm an avid science fiction reader, but the premise of much of the genre, faster than light interstellar space travel, simply isn't going to happen. Not now, not next year, not a thousand or ten thousand years from now. We aren't even going to have a substantial percentage of the human population outside of Earth orbit 10,000 years from now.

Ironically, one of the most fundamental laws of nature is a speed limit. Nothing can go faster than the speed of light (about 186,000 miles per second). Interstellar distances are frequently measured in units of the time it takes light to go one year. The nearest star to Earth is about three light years away. The Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light years across. The countless other galaxies of the universe are all far more distant.

Most of the outs from this, such as the highly curved universe with shortcuts from one part to another in another dimension described in "A Wrinkle In Time", don't work, because there is considerable evidence to indicate that the topology of the real universe is very close to spatially flat. Likewise, even if black holes are ways out of our universe, the tidal effects of the intense gravity of these objects would kill anyone who tried to enter one.

Quantum effects that suggest higher than speed of light possibilities apply on a probablistic basis a single particle at a time. Even if it might be possible to get a single electron to go faster than the speed of light for a few inches or feet, it would be impossible to move a large object a great distance in the same manner. There are some indicatation that information may be able to travel faster than the speed of light through a phenomena inaccurately known as "quantum teleportation", but there are some good reasons to believe that this effect could never even be used to send faster than light messages. While not a true rule of physics, there is a "folk theorem" that holds that communication of ideas at a speed faster than light is impossible.

It isn't just a matter of a speed limit either. The amount of energy needed to get from 20% of the speed of light to 30% of the speed of light is considerably greater than the amount of energy needed to get from 10% of the speed of light to 20% of the speed of light. The best approaches to get to the speed would be hard pressed to get more than a small payload (perhaps a handful of people in statsis or a robotic probate) to even 10% of the speed of light. Even at this speed, you are talking about a 30 year one way trip to the nearest star. Yet, a seed population needs to be considerably larger to create a permanent human presence. Current scientific estimates put the size of the group of people that colonized the Americas at about two hundred. A population large enough to keep medical specialties like neurology functioning at a level sufficient to be medically useful needs to be closer to 100,000. Moving a payload like that on a journal of many light years is a far more daunting challenge.

The solar system presents a different kind of question. It is certainly technologically possible to move reasonable sized payloads to any planet in the solar system on a human time scale. We also know that elements essential to human survival, like water, can be found in many places in the solar system. But, there real question there is whether there will ever be a sufficient motive to move large numbers of people out of Earth and more notably, outside of Earth orbit. My answer is no. Barring an event that makes Earth uninhabitable and puts the very survival of the species in question, or the needs of small groups, perhaps of religious dissenters, to be outside the control of Earth governments and populations, I don't see any reason for more than token scientific and industrial and recreational outposts beyond Earth.

The most common naiive basis for people to colonize the other planets in the solar system is that the Earth becomes overpopulated. But, the Earth is tremendously far from this happening. Earth's population is stablizing (current estimates suggest a speak population in the vicinity of about 10 billion people), as people see that they don't need more than a couple of children in a developed nation where you can count on your children living to adulthood. And, there are vast swaths of the Earth's surface which are virtually uninhabited, yet would be far more favorable for human habitation than any other planet. Siberia, the Australian Outback, North Dakota, the Amazon and Congo Rain forests, the Sahara Desert, the Northwest Territories of Canada, Greenland, Antarctica and the surface of the Oceans all feature a 1 atmosphere air pressure, breathable air, a 24 hour day on average, standard gravitational effects, liquid water than can be obtained more easily than water on say, Mars, and temperatures that, while somewhat extreme, are closer to habitable than on other planet or moon in the solar system. The time it takes to get to any of these locations and the costs of transportation are also far less daunting. In short, even in its current, environmentally degraded state, Earth is a paradise compared to any other place in the solar system.

Earth's population would have to be something like 1,000 billion or more (it is now about 5 billion) before solar system colonization would make any sense, and there is no indication that current population trends are headed there in the next tens of thousands of years. In short, while the prison walls that restrain us are more economic than technological, Earth is also our prison.

The world has gotten smaller and there is no longer a frontier anywhere in the world. What distinguishes our era from one the imperialists of the 16th to early 20th centuries faced, is that the realm of human endeavor now looks far more like a closed system and a finite playing field. When we finally realize this, we are going to have to start being more introspective and more communitarian in our outlook. We can't export our problems anymore. There is one global system for humanity and we have to work within it if we are going to find a path to the good life.

In Defense of $3 Coffee

Every fundraising drive promoter and financial planner urging his or her clients to save more money has your $3 cup of expresso in his sights. Drop this expensive habit and you can move mountains you are told.

But, the reality is that Starbucks is one of the fastest growing franchises in America, adding almost 1000 new locations each year, despite the fact that it is already pervasive. There are probably eight places within a one mile radius of my house where you can buy Starbucks coffee, and another half dozen places, like this one, where you can buy similar products at a similar price in a similar atmosphere.

Businesses that don't maintain their cash flows die swift deaths. These businesses are thriving for the very simple reason that tens of millions of people, if not hundreds of millions of people, are ignoring their financial planners and the fundraising gurus. While tens of millions of people are often wrong (nearly a third of the people in the United States claims to be Young Earth Creationists, and most people who voted for President Bush thought that Iraq was behind the 9-11 attacks), people tend to be astute at making decisions about their daily lives based on their personal experiences, even if they are not wise at making decisions in matters that have only a slight impact on them and are outside the realm of their personal experiences.

The error that financial planners make, I think, is in failing to appreciate why people buy $3 coffees, something that I've done on an occassional basis since I started drinking coffee in law school.

Buying a $3 coffee is a bit like having fresh flowers in your house, or getting leather seats or an XM radio in your new car. It is a marker of whether you are living a life of "quiet desperation", in the words of Thoreau, or a life of quiet contentment. It is a quality of life issue. Expresso is better coffee than the Folgers and Maxwell House crap that my parents spent their lives drinking. A cappachino (frothed milk), latte (warmed milk), or mocha (chocolate and milk), which are the usual orders, add even more depth to the concoction. And, while you can brew good coffee at home, frothing milk at home is beyond the abilities of most of us.

Also, in the real coffee house experience, you aren't just paying for coffee. You are paying to enjoy a moment of peace, in an intellectually stimulating atmosphere (rather than the chaos of your own breakfast table) full of similarly prosperous people who value their quality of life, on the installment plan. A coffee house is the middle class answer to the country club, or the British style parlor clubs that at least one group in Denver tried and failed to replicate. You are paying rent for a small portion of a nice space, not just paying for a raw commodity. In the same way, people routinely pay two or three times the price of renting a movie to experience it in a proper movie theater shortly after it is released, rather than on your television set several months later. A $3 cup of coffee is an experience, not just a good.

The wealthy pay $10,000 a year or more to be part of a country club, plus healthy initiation fees. Joining the "expresso club" costs a mere $1,000 a year with no initiation fees for a full membership, and you can be an irregular two times a week member for a mere $300 a year. Yet, this modest price is sufficient to generate a much more pleasant environment than your local Burger King or Dunkin Donuts, both of which offer considerably nastier ordinary coffee and a rather depressing place to drink it in for about a dollar.

The Kennedy Court

The current U.S. Supreme Court, while by tradition called the "Rehnquist Court" after its ailing chief justice, is really the "O'Connor Court", because Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced her resignation Friday, effective upon the appointment of a successor, is the pivotal vote on the nine member body. For more than a decade, the constitutional law of the United States has been dictated, overwhelmingly by Justice O'Connor's views.

More often than not, she is the deciding vote in a split between the court's four "liberals", Stevens, Souter, Ginsberg and Breyer, and the court's four "conservatives", Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy. A more nuanced analysis can be found at SCOTUS Blog.

There is plenty of debate raging right now over who will be nominated to replace Justice O'Connor. Whoever it is, however, will be appointed by George W. Bush, and it is almost a certainty that whoever is nominated will be to the political right of not just Justice O'Connor, but also Justice Kennedy, who is the second most common swing vote. Likewise, when conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist retires or dies, and it is almost certain that this will happen before the end of George W. Bush's term, given Rehnquist's thyroid cancer, he will also, almost certainly, be replaced by a Justice to the right to Justices O'Connor and Kennedy.

The mixed performance of Democrats in fighting nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals, resulting in the confirmation of hard core conservatives to these important posts, says to me that while there may be some limits on Bush's ability to get any nominee of his choice through the Senate, that there are certainly plenty of judges to the right of both Kennedy and O'Connor who can and will be confirmed.

In a nine member body that make decisions by majority vote, the only vote that really matters is the median vote. O'Connor's resignation makes it almost a certainty that this vote will be Justice Kennedy's vote. So, until Justice Stevens retires, you can count on the nation's jurisprudence looking a whole lot like that of Justice Kennedy. This will be a more conservative stance on a great many issues, although key decisions like Miranda and Roe will likely remain in tact during his watch.

Welcome to Wash Park Prophet

Sometimes endings are also new beginnings. I left the Political State Report blog yesterday, where I had been the Colorado contributor. It has posted an entry that constituted a personal attack on me and most of the bloggers there, and then only slowly and grudgingly removed it. The fact that it was removed, and that there was some sort of apology is a good thing, but I don't need that kind of brain damage in my own blog. Of course, blogging is an addictive habit, not so easily cast aside. I've also been a regular diarist at Daily Kos, and expect to continue to be one. But, its purely political focus is limiting in another way.

This blog will be broader. It will address both state and national politics. It will discuss legal issues and the tax code. It will talk about developments in modern physics. It will consider technological developments, both military and civilian. It will take on cultural trends and religious issues. It will look at the prospects of Denver, Colorado, including my own neighborhood, Washington Park. The common theme is a focus on the future.

People care about the news, not because they want to know what happened in the past, but because they care about where the world is heading. This blog presents my informed opinion on where the world is heading and where it needs to go. I'm an atheist, but this little adventure in futurism does merit the the title of prophecy, for foreseeing the future is art and not science, is rooted in intuition as well as reason, and holds the same mix of ambiguity and a captivating need to know what is coming as religious prophecy.