30 September 2005

Asset Protection and Fraud

As an estate planning attorney and professor, I am familiar with how one can protect one's assets from creditors. Some approaches are state sanctioned, like using a homestead exemption to protect equity in a residence, or saving for retirement. Other approaches are tolerated because they appear to flow from general principles in the law, even though they have less direct justification. For example, it is standard practice to place assets which are unlikely to lead to legal liability, like mutual funds or real estate, in one entity, and assets which are likely to generate legal liabilities, like an operating business which may lease or borrow those very "cold assets" for use in the business, in another.

One of the main tools used to prevent abuse efforts to hide one's assets from creditor's claims is the fradulent transfers act. It provides that creditors may ignore transfers made with an actual intent to hinder or defraud creditors, often with no statute of limitations on the date of the actual transfer.

Promoters of asset protection tools like self-settled domestic and foreign asset protection trusts argue that you can't have an intent to hinder or defraud creditors, if you are solvent immediately after a trust is funded. This is simply wrong. The marketing of the trusts, both to clients and to attorneys, makes clear that the primary purpose of such trusts is to hinder the efforts of future, as yet unknown, creditors to collect their claims. Just about the only other purpose of entities in jurisdictions known to be asset protection friendly is to evade taxes, although much as that side of the business is illegal and not handled by legitimate attorneys. Most asset protection trusts for individuals have few, if any, legitimate tax benefits.

Why do governments in the United States not take a strong stand against this form of subtle fraud? It is certainly not for lack of an ability to do so, as I'll outline in a moment. It is primarily due to lack of political will. Asset protection trusts are tools used primarily by the wealthy, who can also fund political campaigns. The laws are also carefully drafted so that the victims are faceless at the time the frauds are committed, which makes developing an organized opposition more difficult. But, it would certainly be possible to take a stronger stance. For example:

* Anyone who is a beneficiary of a trust could be denied the right to have their debts discharged in bankruptcy.
* Anyone with a self-settled asset protection trust, domestic or foreign, could be imprisoned in contempt of court at any time they have a judgment outstanding, until their debts were paid, with asset protection trust assets conclusively presumed to be available to the settlor, with a failure to provide verifiable information regarding the assets of an asset protection trust which is proved to exist deemed rebuttable proof of the funds available in the trust.
* Any asset held in the United States by an asset protection trust, or an entity which holds assets for one or more asset protection trusts, could be made available for seizure by any creditor of a person with assets in that country. Currently, asset protection trusts and similar devices hold trillions of dollars of U.S. assets.
* A national law could be enacted declaring any self-settled trust, or any trust created by a debtor for the benefit of a member of settlors family for whom the debtor has a duty of support, to be null and void.
* A tax of say 10% of principal per annum could be imposed on any assets of a U.S. citizen held in a self-settled foreign trust outside the reach of the U.S. courts.
* Asset protection and tax havens could be threatened with military force if they failed to comply, a threat that could be backed up with a relatively trivial show of military force, since most are small islands with little other economic base.
* Tax laws concerning U.S. controlled foreign assets could be tightened.

If we are going to have a civil law system that enable people to use the courts to vindicate their rights, we ought to have the courage of our convictions to make those judgments enforcable against people who do, or could have but for efforts to hinder and defraud creditors, have an ability to pay their creditors. The bankruptcy law enacted last year went part way, increasing the statute of limitations for fraudulent transfer claims against asset protection trusts in bankrutpcy, but it didn't go far enough.

Programming Note.

I'll be away from the computer today, teaching an all day class. Take a look at the achives and check the blogroll. There's good stuff in there. I particularly recommend Talk Left, which will probably be abuzz with the big corruption and Supreme Court news today, if there is any. Also, Talk Left put this humble site on their blog roll and for that I am very grateful. One rating service thinks that it is one of the 100 most popular blogs in the nation. Go TL!

29 September 2005

The Neighborhood Association.

Denver has these creatures called neighborhood associations. Most neighborhoods in the city have one. Unlike homeowner's associations in the suburbs (also usually a bad thing, in my opinion), they cannot compel anyone to pay dues and have a voluntary membership. Basically, the only privilege that they receive that differs from any other non-profit organization is that they receive notice of pending activity in the neighborhood from the city planning department, and due to their regular participation in the community input process of various city agencies tend to develop some respect with the staffs there.

My local neighborhood association is the West Washington Park Neighborhood Association. I am not a member. I don't pay dues. In point of fact, I can't think of a single occasion where I have ever agreed with a stance it has taken with the city, although I'm sure that there have been one or two. The WWPNA is fundamentally a conservative organization, not in the sense of Republican Party conservativism, but in the sense of being opposed to just about any change in the neighborhood.

They made a tremendous fuss over a neighborhood coffee shop that moved in to replace some other decepit business in an existing building, and wanted to use a patio to serve customers. They are seeking historic district status for the neighborhood, although it is such an amalgam of different architectural styles over such a broad span of time (including the present), that I'd be hard pressed to characterize its historic character. They are anti-pop top. They are anti-scrape. And, they absolutely abhor the notion that the neighborhood might get any more liquor licenses (hyperbole, yes, but not far from the truth). They are terrified that our neighborhood might end up looking like the Cherry Creek neighborhood -- where hundreds of acres as somewhat nasty, small postwar single family homes were scraped, lot by lot, to replace them with high end townhouses and duplexes. They are the sort of people who are convinced that they have a legitimate interest in meddling in their neighbors' business because it might affect their property values.

My attitude towards the issues they address is quite different. I see developments like pop tops (i.e. added another floor to an existing home) and scrapes (i.e. removing an existing building to replace it with another) as a natural part of the life of a growing city. I had a scrape take place immediately next door to me. The construction was noisy. There was a boundary dispute that had to be resolved. It has reduced the access to light I have in my own windows. But, fundamentally, I don't have a problem with that. The duplex that was put there has allowed to families to live in large residences, where one family could live in a smallish residence before the scrape. It took place on property that didn't belong to me. This is where we should be putting more people, in neighborhoods that have seen a decline in school aged children, in neighborhoods that already have infrastructure in place to support residents, in neighborhoods close to workplaces with good access to clean, safe bus lines. It is better to have infill development in my urban neighborhood, than to cause sprawl to extend even further into the area surrounding the city. If some of the change can include commercial uses or multi-family uses, so much the better. Yes, businesses should provide their own parking where most of their customers and employees are likely to come by car, and yes, buildings should be built in accordance with sound building codes. But, ultimately, I think that zoning regulations (except to the extent that they directly address and are narrowly tailored to specific externalities caused by a property) are a bad idea. I also don't fear having a few more establishments that serve alcohol in the neighborhood. I fear the mediocracy that comes from giving people who minimal interests in a project a potential veto over it and stifles bold ideas, far more than I fear the risk that an occasional bold idea, taken by someone who bears the financial risk involved in implementing that idea, might go bust.

If I thought I could make a difference in the WWPNA, I might show up to meetings, run for an office on its board, and try to change it from within. But, realistically, given the self-perpetuating reputation it has taken on for itself, it would take a large movement of people working together to achieve that, and I don't have the inclination to make that kind of effort, and don't want to help an organization that works against polices that I favor in the meantime. So, instead, I am not a member, and would be happy if the organization simply folded. But, I simply make public comment from time to time on isolated issues where I feel I can make a difference and I care. Given the opportunity, however, I'd like to see the zoning codes changed to reduce the influence that groups like the WWPNA have in the infill, renovation and development process.

The Soccer Generation

Far more children and young adults play soccer than American football in the United States. Soccer in the United States has for almost a decade had a fairly thoughtfully designed league known as Major League Soccer. The Colorado Rapids is the local franchise and dates to 1996. Until now, it had played at the 76,125 seat Invesco Field at Mile High (and its predecessor Mile High Stadium), which while large enough for all the fans, hurt the franchise's morale as games were almost always played to mostly empty bleachers (except for the annual 4th of July game). Average attendance at home games is 16,262. Now, the team has broken ground on a new stadium in Commerce City (as yet unnnamed) which will have an 18,000 seat capacity. This should allow the team to come into its own in a change that reflects the changing culture of the nation. All we need now are soccer hooligans. :)

Perhaps in a decade or two, the Denver Broncos and the Colorado Rapids can simply trade stadiums as their attendance numbers reverse. Hey, I can dream, can't I?.

Robert Confirmed As Chief Justice.

John Roberts, Jr. was confirmed as the 17th Chief Justice of the United States by a vote of 78-22. He was a bad choice. My thanks to the 22 Democrats with enough principles to vote against this nomination. They are:

Akaka (D-HI)
Bayh (D-IN)
Biden (D-DE)
Boxer (D-CA)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Clinton (D-NY)
Corzine (D-NJ)
Dayton (D-MN)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Obama (D-IL)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Sarbanes (D-MD)
Schumer (D-NY) and
Stabenow (D-MI).


Bush issued 14 new pardons this week. All involved people who already had been convicted and served their time, often decades ago. As usual, the President didn't even attempt to provide any meaningful justification for his actions.

Only a handful of people in his Presidency have actually had their sentences commuted.

We would be better off if every one with a clean slate for ten or twenty years received a clean slate, than relying on the seemingly random pardon process to rehabilitate people who have already served their time.

It is also notable that:

Perhaps most significant for your audience, there is no indication that this president plans to use his pardon power in any systematic fashion to cut short prison sentences: the beneficiaries of his only two commutations were both old and sick and within six months of release in the ordinary course.

For a "Compassionate Conservative", our President doesn't seem to understand mercy very well.

Being Reality Based.

The term "reality based" has become a battle cry for progressives ever since an exchange between a White House lackey and a reporter, in which the White House fellow tried to make the point that they shaped their own reality, instead of responding to the one in the outside world like reporters do, came to light.

It sums up everything that is right about liberals. We do care about the evidence. We do care about the facts. It isn't just politics. We listen to scientists opinions, rather than ignoring them. We look at social statistics. We would argue that it is no coincidence that the people who make their living gather facts about social issues, academics and reporters, tend to be liberals. We want policies that work, not policies supported by the Bible or any other myth.

Being "reality based" provides a direction for resolving disputes. Disagreements over the facts can be resolved by presenting evidence. If you are reality based, it is your obligation to concede to someone who disagees with you when the facts show that the other fellow is right, and you are wrong. It also implies that you reject the idea that the press or science or academia has some mass conspiracy to lie to the world.

Of course, not all disputes can be resolved strictly with the facts. Facts can be relevant to what you think about, for example, the abortion issue, but they don't ultimately resolve the definitional question of when life begins for moral purposes. Instead, they inform, without deciding, the process of going about choosing a definition that makes moral sense. For example, choosing a "life begins at conception" definition of life can have different moral desirability if 99% of conceived eggs produce live births in the absence of a decision to abort for reasons unrelated to the viability of the fetus, than it does if only 50% of conceived eggs produce life births in the absence of that intervention. Definitions should have some connection to the reason you need to define a word or concept, but ultimately, they are matters of preference and not matters of fact.

One of the frustrating things about this administration is that facts no longer matter, at least, they don't seem to matter. For example, one administration proposed Endangered Species Act rule (whose fate may be tied up in a vote on the act taking place in Congress today), would call for classification decisions to be made on 1970s science, ignoring everything that has been learned since then. How idiotic!

The other frustrating thing about the political scene in this country, is that it is increasingly no longer sufficient to reach agreement on the facts to reach a decision, but the moral landscape of conservatives has changed so profoundly in the past several decades (far more than that of liberals). Once upon a time, Americans agreed that our nation should protect human rights and civil liberties. Now, you will increasingly hear conservatives say things like: "Even if we are torturing people or sending them to be tortured, what is so bad about that?", or "We don't care if the guy can prove himself innocent of enemy combatant charges, we're so afraid that we are willing to give the President power even if he can absue it." Civil political debate is basically about persuading people about the facts so that common ground can be reached. But, when there is no common moral ground, and that is increasingly where we stand today, debate inevitably disintegrates and dissolves into name calling, vitrol, and hard ball political tactics.

How Does Imprisonment Affect Crime?

Thirty two year lows in violent crime have been accompanied by a six fold increase in prison populations. The obvious question is, to what extent did the increase in imprisonment drive the decrease in crime? This question, indeed even minor nuances in the answer to this question, is far more important, from a practical perspective, than the debate over the death penalty in general, and far, far more important in my mind, at least, than nuances of the death penalty debate like the manner in which the death penalty is carried out.

Driven largely by increased prison sentences enacted as part of the "war on drugs" (there has been an eleven fold increase in the number of people imprisoned in drug cases since 1980) incarceration rates are far higher than they were a deacde ago. In 2005, there are 20,228 adults in prison in Colorado. In 1992, that number was 8,474. The prison population in Colorado has gone up 7% per year on average since 1992. Colorado is typical of the national trend.

No country in the world imprisons people at the rate that the United States does. Our incarceration rates are 5-8 times those of Canada and Western Europe, and much of the difference is due to much harsher prison sentences for drug crimes and property crimes. Those nations have frequently taken the stance that keeping people connnected to their communities and punishing them outside of prison is more effective than the benefical effects of short prison sentences that disrupt offenders lives without really being long enough to change the person, producing recidivism.

The trend towards long prison sentences is particularly pronounced for black men. One in eight black men aged 25-29 are currently in jail or prison. Nationally, about 29% of black men will do time at some point in their lives, and in Washington D.C., like most inner city neighborhoods, the rates are far higher: 75% of black men will eventually spend some time incarcerated.

Overall U.S. property crime rates are neither particularly high or particularly low, although the U.S. murder rate is very high, it violent crime rates are high, and according to the 2005 World Almanac (at page 164) almost 10% of people in prison are serving life sentences, many for murder. There are 35 people serving life sentences for each one on death row in the United States.

One of the better studies (cited at page 6 in the linked document) in the field finds that 12% of the increase in prison populations is due to an increase in the number of crimes committed (partially a product of increased population), 51% comes from felons who would previously not have gone to prison at all serving prison sentences, and 37% is due to longer sentences.

More to the point, about 25% of the drop in crime (see the references at page 12) has been attributed to increased incaceration, while the remainder has been attributed to a healthy economy, reduced crack use, and better policing and youth attitudes. Moreover, it isn't clear that all incarceration has been equally valuable. Which sentences do and do not prevent future crimes?

A Florida Study ranked the relative importance of different factors in the likelihood that a released offender will commit another crime. Not surprisingly, a poor disciplinary record while in prison, serving prison time in a high security facility, and a history of prior recidivism are connected with future criminal acts. People who commit economicly motivated crimes (burglary, property offenses and drug offenses) are also more likely to commit crimes again, than violent criminals and sex offenders. Crimes are more likely to be committed again by released prisoners who are young, have served shorter sentences, and are less educated. Blacks are more likely to reoffend, Hispanics are less likely to reoffend. Close post-release supervision also lowers the reoffense rate.

Boil it all down and you see basically two forces at work. First, someone is more likely to reoffend is crime was a way of life for them, rather than an isolated incident (often driven by economic factors and often illustrated by a history of offending), and second, crime is predominantly something done by men of a certain age who tend to cease to reoffend once they age and mellow.

The high recidivism rate for people who commit non-violent crimes is discouraging for proponents of sentencing reform, although not insurmountable. Many sentencing reformers would like to thin prison ranks by toning down sentences for drug offenders and property crimes, while they see the long sentences for violent criminals as an appropriate way to keep dangerous people locked up. But, if anything, the recidivism rates would point in the opposite direction.

A violent individual who commited a crime in a fit of passion, but was never economically dependent on crime as an occupation, who is released after having served a fairly long term, is likely to have mellowed in prison and unlikely to reoffend. There may be relatively little risk in releasing a violent offender who has already served 15 years in prison from another ten or twenty years of his sentence.

In contrast, a young high school dropout, who made a living through crime before going to prison, is unlikely to have reformed after serving a relatively short prison term and will often reoffend as a result of a lack of better options. Far more effort ought to be devoted to prevent the twenty-two year old car thief or burglar who is a high school dropout from reoffending after having served a two or three year sentence.

A few examples of the relative importance of the factors is instructive. Two more years in prison, both because of the prison time itself and because it make the offender older at the time of release, has enough beneficial effect to match the negative effect of a prior recidivism incident. The difference between being in a low security v. high security prison is roughly equivalent to a effect of a prior recidivism incident. The effect of a prison disciplinary incident is about as significant as the reduction in reoffense rates due to two more months in prison. A burglar of a given age and prison term is as likely to reoffend as a similarly situated murderer with two prior incidents of recidivism. One year of education reduces recidivism about as much as a three months longer prison sentence. Close post-release supervision is as effective at preventing recidivism as twenty more months of incarceration.

Violent crimes scare us more, but are less likely to be a way of life. Most crime is fundamentally economic in nature, and until the poverty that drives people to commit crimes for economic reasons is addressed, criminals have little choice but to persist in commiting crimes. Likewise, in the case of people who deal drugs primarily to support their own substance abuse habit, they are going to reoffend unless they have broken their habit. But, simply having someone keep a close eye on you in the critical period after you are released has an effect as well. Close post-relief supervision, on average, is cost effective on average, even if its costs $50,000 per prisoner, compared to longer sentences.

This conclusion is supported by data from other sources. One study reports that: 12.2% of non-sexual violent offenders reoffend, 13.4% of sex offenders reoffend, and 36.9% of other offenders reoffend. This doesn't mean that more care with serious offenses isn't in order. A repeat sex offense or aggrevated assault is far worse for society than a repeat burglary or car theft. But, it does confirm the Florida statistics and the trend in national statistics. Texas statistics show a less marked distinction between different offenses, but similar trends except with regard to sex offenses, for which it found high recidivism rates.

Indeed, one trend which is consistent with current sentencing trends that focus on long sentences for repeat offenders, is that people who have committed serious crimes in the past are far, far more likely to commit crimes in the future than members of the general public, and people who have multiple prior crimes are particularly likely to reoffend.

This still doesn't necessarily mean that putting those individuals in prison and throwing away the key makes sense. Indeed, recidivism statistics for people who have served prison sentences don't even go to the crux of the European argument. Are the recidivism rates of people who have served short terms for non-violent crimes higher than the recidivism rates of people who were punished in a manner other than a prison sentence (such as a German style "day fine" where the fine amount is linked to how much the offender could have earned during the time period of the otherwise applicable prison sentence)? If the recidivism rate is the same for someone in the community who is paying fines that cover the cost of his supervision, provide full restitution to the victim, and result in a penalty over and above that, as it is for someone who is incarcerated at a $30,000 a year public expense that results in no restitution to the victim, isn't the fine a better way to go?

But, the numbers do show that putting people who commit serious offenses in prison for a few years and then tossing them out into the outside world with little guidance, supervision or support, is practically an invitation to future criminal activity. The revolving door approach to criminal punishment doesn't work. Put another way, if a burglar is going to end up spending nine years in prison in any case, wouldn't it be better for that time to be served all at once, instead of in three or four separate sentences broken up by a dozen cases of burglary (most never resulting in court convictions) in between those sentences?

This post doesn't offer a final answer to this big issue, but it does, at least, look at the facts and begin to grapple with their implications.

Denver's Jail and the Big Picture.

Denver voters last year passed a proposal to expand Denver's jails. It was not a moment too soon. Currently it has "2,583 inmates in facilities designed for 1,672." A downtown "justice center" for pre-trial detainees at the site of the Rocky Mountain News building is to be completed four years from now, in 2009. It will hold 1,500 inmates. An upgrade of the Smith Road facility, which will now house people who have been convicted of crimes, will house 1,000 inmates in 2010 with a design that could be expanded to 1,384 inmates if necessary. Fire up the addition. Denver is already 83 inmates over its design capacity for 2010, although alternative sentencing plans could reduce the number of inmates slights, and some of the recent surge in inmate roles, which has Denver far beyond planned levels, is due to one time changes in how jail sentences are calculated. Jail headcounts are up by 17%, but, most of that is due to longer sentences (in part due to the rule changes) rather than a lot more prisoners. Jail officials say that "For each day added to the average sentence . . . 123 more inmates are in the jail system."

Notably, at the same time that the jail is already bursting, arrests have actually dropped dramatically. Denver arrests are down 35% since 1998, despite an increasing population and increasing crime (crime is up 28% in Denver since 1998 according to FBI crime statistics). Traffic tickets are also down, 31%. DUI arrests are down 50%. Rape arrests (which tend to fluxuate randomly more from year to year because the base number is far smaller) are down 63%. The City's response so far, has been a plan to hire 87 more cops and implement the jail expansion.

Crime reports are up in the city in 2005, particularly in Denver's wealthier neighborhoods and for assaults (although Denver has had half as many murders as last year). But, crimes reported to the police are not an ideal measure.

"I would be in shock if I was the southeast district commander," said City Councilman Doug Linkhart.

That commander, Patrick Flynn, said property crime increased significantly in District 3 during the first half of 2005, particularly in the Washington Park, Cherry Creek and Congress Park neighborhoods.

Since then, he said, his detectives have made a series of key arrests that have tamped down the numbers.

Flynn also noted that his district has just five detectives - fewer than half the number it used to have. Last year, he said, only 26 percent of reported property crimes were even assigned to a detective for investigation.

As someone who has had his car broken into in front of his house twice this summer I can tell you that it is true. It is the policy of the Denver Police to not even investigate break ins like that. They simply do not have the resources to do so.

Charlie Brown is the City Councilman who represents the East side of Washington Park and parts of the City beyond it. Here's what he's doing:

City Councilman Charlie Brown, whose district includes part of District 3, said it is not news to him that crime is up.

Crime is "the No. 1 issue in my district," he said. He added that he is holding monthly meetings at District 3 headquarters with concerned residents.

The last one attracted about 60 people, he said.

Now, to put this all in perspective, Denver, indeed, even the worst parts of Denver, is not really all that crime ridden by national standards. The most crime ridden neighborhoods in Denver, like Sun Valley and Five Points, have not hit bottom to the extent of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore, the District of Columbia, Detroit, Buffalo, or Los Angeles. Women in my neighborhood feel safe walking their dogs alone after dark. Downtown Denver is vibrant day and night, it is a place where feelings of fun predominant over fear. The crime levels in the neighborhoods that are seeing big percentage increases in crimes reported to police are also the ones where the crime level remains very low. And, some of the drop in DUI and rape arrests is due to a genuine decline in DUI offenses and rapes in the City. No, not 50% and 63% respectively, but that is part of the decline. Some of this is a matter of growing pains. Not many central cities are growing at the rate that Denver is these days. More people means more crime, and it takes time for the City to catch up.

But, there is cause for concern. The Denver economy may not be running on all cylinders, but unemployment for August in the metro area was down to 4.9%, which is fairly healthy. Housing prices are stumbling at the moment (single family house prices fell slightly in September for the first time in a long time), rents fell some months ago, and foreclosures in the area are high, but Denver also hasn't seen a true housing crash. In short, nothing in Denver is so horrible that crime should be getting out of control.

If Denver is straining at a time when crime is at record lows nationally, how will it manage when the economy takes a turn for the worse? What if crime doubled over the course of a decade (an increase on average of just 7% per year)? What if arrests and convictions increased in lock step with that? Our planned jail and police forces are sufficient to stuggle with the existing problems, but there is no room for growth (not to blame political leaders in Denver for that, they probably couldn't have gotten the people to vote in the funding if they hadn't cut the project down to current levels).

I'll save an even bigger picture, the rise of incarceration and overall crime rate trends, for another post.

28 September 2005

Homeland Security Gone Nuts.

The Department of Homeland Security stopped a nun, for months, repeatedly, every time she tried to fly. The person whose name was flagging her was a man. Her attempts to get off the list were an abject failure for many months, until a Cardinal personally appealed to Karl Rove on her behalf.

If the Department of Homeland Security can't get people off the list, and can't tell the difference between a man and a woman, the list can't be very effective at keeping people who shouldn't be on airlines off them either. Also, why does it take three hours to figure she's safe to fly? A full body search takes maybe ten minutes. She's obviously not an Amazon warrior. If there's a warrant out for her arrest then can catch her when she lands.

The results, however, are predictable in an administration that cares only about people who have political connections.

A Military Blogging Meta-Musing.

I am not a veteran. I signed up for the Selective Service like every other law abiding male in the country who isn't a conscientious objector, updated my address as required by law (even though most people don't), and breathed a sigh of relief when, after about eight years, I was no longer obligated to register. As a lifelong civilian, I am in the majority of men my age. I don't even own a gun, never have, and don't plan to own one. I've fired one once or twice, at a target in a grandfather's backyard, and I've heard a couple of stories from the military experiences of my father, who was drafted for a couple of years during peacetime in the early days of the Cold War. I am just barely young enough that I could, in theory, sign up now, but I've been a third rate athlete all my life and a decade of sedentary employment preceeded by relatively sedentary college and graduate school days has not improved my physical prowess. I don't believe in the wars we are fighting now. As a result, I feel no moral duty to sign up to fight them.

There are plenty of people out there who would say that I have no credibilty to blog or opine at all about military matters. If someone like myself was a conservative blogger, I'd be called a "chickenhawk" or a member of the "101st keyboarders", by liberal bloggers. I've always felt that those terms are somewhat unfair, but have never actively taken a stand against using them either.

Never the less, I intend to continue military blogging and I think that I do have something worthwhile to say. This country needs some sort of military defense. We are too big to go the way of Costa Rica and simply dispense with having a military force. Indeed, on occassion, it is legitimate for the United States to intervene abroad militarily.

Military blogging, like the military officer corps, is dominanted by hard core conservatives. It is not healthy, in a democracy, for the people to cede military policy to a single political party or ideology. If progressives are serious about leading this country, they need to, collectively, at least, invest the time and effort needed to understand military issues and develop an affirmative agenda to address those issues, rather than merely responding in the negative to anything that conservatives suggest. Some military issues are non-partisan and technical in nature. Others, however, are blatantly political and military bloggers and policy makers can be horribly wrongminded about some of these issues. The guys at the Strategy Page do a great job of looking at less partisan staffing issues in the military and procurement issues, but they also have very frightening stances in areas like what they call "lawfare". Murdoc Online, another conservative military blog (run by a non-veteran like myself), also can have some pretty disturbing ideas about politics and civil liberties, even though he has enough worthwhile to say about military specific issues that I find it worthwhile to read his blog on a regular basis.

Fair enough, but shouldn't I then defer to military veterans on less partisan issues? I think that the answer there is again, no. As much as many of them would like to claim otherwise, almost every military veteran has relatively narrow personal experience. Almost all have spent their entire military careers (often for just four years or so) in one or two specialties in a single military service. Almost all know most of what they know about Pentagon level issues from their own personal research, or from classroom type instruction within the military itself that isn't any better. I'm perfectly willing to defer to someone whose driven a tank about how a better tank ought to be designed, or to a Marine about what does and does not work in terms of close fire support from ships. But, the tank driver isn't any better situated than I am to evaluate how many tanks the U.S. military needs, and the Marine is no better situated than I to evaluate how many F-22s the Air Force should buy.

In our American democracy, the military is subordinate to civilian authority. They report ultimately to federal elected officials and their appointees. In other words, our system of government makes soldiers subordinate to politicians. My goal in military blogging is not to tell an Army Captain how to run his company. My goal is to develop well researched opinions about the kind of decisions that the politicians to whom the soldiers report need to ultimately take responsibility for making. I've never been a general, but I have spent a fair amount of time in close proximity to the politicans who make those decisions. Indeed, I had a front row seat as a Congressional intern when Congress voted on whether or not to commence the First Gulf War. (My representative voted against that war and I continue to believe that he made the right call in that case.) And, while I may not be more knowledgeable about the military than a significant number of military strategists in the Pentagon, I most certainly am more knowledgeable about the issues than the vast majority of politicians in Congress and their staff members. There are a select few in the halls of Congress who are more knowledgeable than I, but not many, and it is the case that fewer progressives than conservatives have taken the time and effort to inform themselves about military affairs. Somebody with his heart in the right place needs to fill that knowledge gap in the public debate, and this is one area where I have chosen to devote my political interests and blogging time. Ultimately, war is foreign policy and politics by other means.

I do not share the fundamental tenant of identity politics that the messenger is the message, something that is particularly true on the Internet where even a cat is judged by what he has to say, instead of who he is. I always welcome comment from those who feel that they are better informed than I, or who have rational criticisms of a point of view that I have, and if you changed my mind, it wouldn't be the first time I'd changed my views on a military issue after having become more informed. But, I also have no patience for fools who have nothing more than ad hominem attacks with which to respond to otherwise sound analysis.

Should Every Sailor and Airman Be A Rifleman?

One of the mottos of the Marines is that every Marine is a rifleman first, and any other specialty second. Until the early 1970s (hmm . . . can anyone recall a historical event involving the Department of Defense around that time?), every sailor in the Navy received infantry combat training. The Air Force, of course, didn't exist apart from the Army until after World War II, so pilots also received combat training. Now, the only pilots or aircrew who receive infantry training are those in the Marines.

One of the side effects of this development is that the United States military acts like a union shop with strict job classifications. With a handful of narrow exceptions, the Navy (the military service, not the Department), and the Air Force, don't do infantry combat and simply aren't available for ground war functions of any kind. They operate their very expensive armed vehicles and let someone else take most of the casualties. This is a good thing if you happen to be a crew member tooling around the seven seas with no one to fight, or a fighter pilot who can walk the streets of Italy and have a nice cup of expresso on his (or her) day off. It is not such a good thing if you are the Secretary of Defense trying to find soldiers to fight a couple of wars with, you can't resort to a draft, you've tapped out your supplies of Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops, your recruiting numbers aren't looking good, your allies are deserting you left and right, and 50% of your active duty force is off limits for anything you need to do. Donald Rumsfield has done a lot of things wrong in his tenure, and to a great extent he got himself into the mess that he is now in, but I can sympathize with the challenge he faces.

There is a part of me that is inclined to take a Grover Norquist starve the beast attitude to the problem. If you can't raise an Army to fight a pointless war, maybe you shouldn't be fighting it. But, I have to be honest with myself and recognize that part of that attitude is a product of my faith in this particular war, which was fought for no good reason, and with very little planning for how events after "major combat operations" would be handled. It is still irksome that despite the fact that the Department of State had drawn up contigency plans for just such an event, that those plans were ignored. I'm also well aware that one of the reasons that the United States is so pressed for troops, is because we have so little support from allies, and we have so little support from allies, because the war in Iraq is not a particularly worthy cause. Wars are more often won or lost based on who chooses to ally themselves with each side, than because of the valliant efforts of a country's own soldiers alone.

Still, if the current wars were being fought for a worthy cause (and I am not such a pacifist that I can't imagine one), and the United States was, as it is now, hard pressed for troops, and I were the Secretary of Defense, I would be infuriated to no end by the fact that we had half a million active duty military service members continuing their business as if there wasn't a war on. Every single one of those service members has already received the initiation into military culture that makes up much of basic training. Every single one of those service members is in acceptable physical condition. They are already on the payroll and sworn to act on their commander's lawful orders. And, their commander has more or less ordered them to twiddle their thumbs, and seems too hide bound by the bureacracy to do much else. Would it really be so unthinkable to send a couple of additional aircraft carrier groups to port, and give another dozen attack submarines some downtime, so that the military could redeploy those service members to a combat zone (or, at least, relieve Army soldiers who are tied up in less critical roles)? And, if it is unthinkable now, should that remain the status quo? Should every sailor and airman be a rifleman first, and a member of his or her particular service second?

There are real reasons for the current situation. We don't live in the world of Andrew Jackson where just about anyone was qualified to do just about any government job. The federal government, both military and civilian, is an organization made up of highly trained specialists and must be in order to function. It may not make sense for the organization as a whole to put pilots that it took millions of dollars to train in harm's way driving a truck in a convoy down a lonely Iraqi road. And, there are far more specialities than pilots that are hard to replace.

There are also issues of expectations and motivations. The Army, which is facing the worst recruiting woes, is facing the biggest shortages not in its frontline combat specialties, but in the ranks of its support troops. An infantryman signed up for the Army to get into firefights. A married electronic equipment repair specialist with three children may have been more motivated by the prospects of an afforable college education, extra pay for extra kids, and paid skills training. The electronics specialist signed up recognizing that he or she might be doing work in dangerous situations and might have to use a gun in self-defense. The electronics specialist may not have come on board with the expectation that he or she would be spending months manning a .50 caliber machine gun on the back of a Humvee patrolling a city where everyone speaks another language. An every soldier is a rifleman attitude, like the one that pervades the Marines, who have not have serious recruiting problems, solves that problem. But, it creates another. The supply of people qualified to learn how to fix electronic equipment is finite. Not everyone qualified to march and fire a rifle can do it. If you adjust the expectations of every soldier, you might find that specialty skills across the entire military grow scarce as a consequence of a policy that heaps effort into developing combat skills that many technical specialists will never have an occassion to use. Those are the calls we pay the military brass and civilian chiefs at the Pentagon to make. But, if you watch the politics surrounding the military for any length of time, it becomes pretty clear that autopilot, rather than reasoned decision making, is the order of the day.

It certainly seems clear that the U.S. military needs to have more flexibility to shift resources from service to service than it does now. It also seems clear that it almost never makes sense to transfer everyone from a service indiscriminately to another service, wasteing their skills entirely. This may simply be a case where the RIP principle ("rank has its privileges") works. Maybe every sailor and airman of rank E-4 and below ought to be available for reployment to another service on demand in times of military need, on the theory that they are likely to be the least skilled members of their respective services, and that they are also likely to be the youngest service members who are least set in their ways. This could free up tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of service members in times of need. It would be a bit like having a Marine reserve within the Navy and an Army reserve within the Air Force.

I'd welcome input explaining to me why this just can't work, but apparently, military planners had similar ideas until the Vietnam War came along.

Focus On T. Rex's Guide To Life.

Vesta Vespa pointed me in the direction of T. Rex's Guide to Life (a blog, not a highway construction project). Two points hit nerves and bear mention.

First: Americans are going to places like India, Thailand and Singapore to avoid long delays (like 6 months) and high prices ($35,000+) for high quality, quick surgery. The post has more. Historically, this has been a niche filled by American providers like Mayo Clinic. To see Americans leave the U.S. for this kind of care goes to one of the core arguments that has been advanced against universal health care.

Second: T-Rex notes that the recent chimp-human genome comparison did not just show that we have 96% of our genes in common. It also made some numerical predictions based on existing theories of mutation and saw them confirmed. When is the last time you saw any numerical predictions come out of Intelligent Design theory?

Vesta Vespa, meanwhile, has some worthwhile things to say about Greek drunkenness at CU over at SoapBlox.

It's Not Exactly Modern Physics, But . . .

Pit of Babel does have a nice post, with well rendered equations, deriving the speed of light from Maxwell's Equations (which are definitely good T-shirt candidates -- even if you can't understand vector calculus, you should take a moment to wonder at how profoundly simple and beautiful the rules that govern much of electromagnetism are). This isn't anything new or revolutionary. It has been known for about a century. But, it does elegantly illustrate a few critical points.

One: Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity was already embedded into the structure of classical physics, although few people realized the full profundity of this fact initially.

Two: Classical Electomagnetic Theory requires a Minkowski background, not a Euclidian one (which is to say that time-space must have a geometry that accomodates special relativity wherein the speed of light is contant, while length and time may be distorted for observers moving relative to each other and the word "simultaneous" has only local meaning). It therefore follows that QED (quantum electrodynamics which is the quantum eletromagentic theory) must have a Minkowski background because QED must reduce to classical electromagentism at non-quantum scales.

Three: To the extent that Maxwell's equations are true at super-quantum scales, and we have no reason to doubt that they are based on voluminous experimental evidence, the speed of light can be measured indirectly with great precision by determining other more easily measured constants in Maxwell's Equations.

Again, none of this is revolutionary, but many people have trouble getting a comfort level with the idea that modern physics is real, and not just some crazy theory that may or may not be anywhere close to being true. Connecting mundane, classical physics like Maxwell's Equations, which you use to derive circuit equations, which electricians use every day in mundane applications, to modern physics concepts, can help provide that comfort level.

27 September 2005

Coloradan Church Attendance.

When it rains (and delightfully, it is raining now, literally), it pours. One more religion story for today.

In Colorado, 38% of people surveyed never attend church, while 30% do so regularly.

The Red Diamond.

The organization based in Switzerland which is the international headquarters of the Red Cross/Red Crescent organization has proposed a new religiously neutral symbol which could bring Israel's branch of the organization into the fold: The Red Diamond. Perhaps some day it will be the predominant symbol of the organization worldwide.

An Awkward Colorado Funeral

A Denver blogger relates the story of the funeral of a passing friend which was more about Jesus than the fellow who had died. I post it here because I relate. Hat tip to Coyote Gulch.

Religion Not Beneficial.

Prayer doesn't help heart patients.

More generally, religion is correlated with poor performance on a variety of social health indicators at the national level.

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. . . .Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise socially comparable secular developing democracies. In other cases, the correlations are strongly graded, sometimes outstandingly so.


Correlation is not causation. But, you can't have causation without correlation. So, the claims that religion is generally a cause of societal health on any of the measures above simply cannot be squared with the facts. And, correlation is certainly a valid reason to consider the possibility that there are causal links involved.

What Coalition?

The United Kingdom will begin withdrawing troops from Iraq starting in May. Major coalition partners, like Italy and Spain, have already left or are on their way out. Many smaller members of the coalition are already gone. But, as the #2 source of troops in Iraq, the U.K.'s planned withdrawal has a far more significant impact.

Add to that the pressure of unmet recruiting targets for the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserves, and the nearly exhausted ability of the President to tap national guard and reserve resources without further Congressional authorization, and a situation that seems to be heating up in the British supervised South of the nation, and you have a real bind for the administration in Iraq on the horizon. The administration has no exit strategy. Increasingly, Bush is looking like the last guy left at a restaurant, when all his friends have already left, stuck with the bill.

The fact that parliamentary elections have been held in Afghanistan and that the President of Afghanistan, Hamed Karzi is starting to make discontented noises about the U.S. presence in the country resulting in dead Afghani civilians, while al-Queda training bases in Pakistan are ignored, may allow the administration to shift some troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, as may efforts to draw down troops in Germany and South Korea, and to reorganize the Army to shift soldiers to specialties in greater demand. But, the President does not have the political clout he needs to call for a draft, or to break existing limitations on Guard and Reserve deployments. Thus, it is only a matter of time, and we are talking around the time of the 2006 elections here, before a draw down of U.S. forces, regardless of the consequences, becomes administration policy. This will happen not because the administration favors withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but because it has no other choice. With an impending British withdrawal, this may happen sooner rather than later.

Referrendums C and D status.

Mile High Delphi posted some stale polls last Thursday, from August and July respectively, both showing Referrendum C with a slight, within the margin of error lead (48-44 in August with a four point MOE; 43-42 in July). The July numbers also show that D (bonds, mostly for transportation) is less popular than C (TABOR spending limit relief). Other posts over there claim that the GOP rank and file is divided about 3-1 against C and D.

This is all cautiously good news for C & D supporters. As recently as last week, someone in my office, who I am certain will vote for C in the end, was reluctant to take sides because he wasn't sure what to make of a proposal favored by Owens but opposed by Holtzman. And, typically, in partisan races, GOP defection from the "party line" are less than 10%. On C & D, the Democrats are nearly unanimous in supporting the measure (as evidenced by the profusion of pro-C and pro-D signs in my Democratic stronghold neighborhood), while the Republicans, while predominant anti-C and D leaning, are more divided than usual. This has the effect of removing the benefits of a modest voter registration edge which Republicans normally have in Colorado, and placing the decision on C and D squarely in the hands of independent voters.

Admittedly, independent voters in Colorado tend to be strongly anti-tax. But, many are also aware of the accute fiscal crisis that the state is in (something that the more than 7,000 community groups that back C and D will inform them of, if they don't know already), and Republican sourced attacks on the main proponent of C & D, the Independence Institute, should further mitigate the effectiveness of anti-C free media.

Add in the fact that most observers believe that the pro-C & D campaign has been gaining ground, rather than losing it, and I think it is likely that September and October polls on C & D could actually show a beyond the margin of error lead for C & D which breaks the critical 50% mark (the ranks of undecided voters on this issue is already remarkably small). The referrenda are not headed for a landslide win, by any means, and anti-tax votes usually have an edge in off year elections, but there is no sign that C will experience the continual decline in support leading up to election day that so many initiatives and referrenda do. Indeed, it seems quite likely that C could pass, while D fails.

C & D is the only statewide issue on the ballot this November, so I expect that we'll be hearing a lot more in the month to come.

Local Government and the Third World.

The most striking differences between the undeveloped world (i.e the Third World), or the developing world on one hand, and the developed world, on the other hand, are matters which, in the United States, are the responsibility of local governments and public utilities.

For example, take clean drinking water. Almost every country in the undeveloped and developing world, from Mali to Mexico, does a poor job of supplying its people with clean running drinking water. This is something that state and federal governments in the United States play only a miniscule role in, and that role is almost entirely regulatory -- setting standards for water quality and monitoring compliance with those standards. Water supply systems and water treatment plants are almost universally constructed and operated by local governments, or small, highly regulated utilities.

There are other examples. Most countries outside the developed world have inadequate sewage systems. African cities are famous for having streets with no meaningful traffic law enforcement. Electricity service is unreliable in places from Baghdad to much of Latin America. Emergency medical and fire services are often poor or absent. Elementary and secondary education is often abysmal and widely underenrolled. Pot holes in roads quickly become ponds. Political parties like Hamas have made themselves dominant political players in part by providing such basics as neighborhood libraries and soccer leagues.

Look at Iraq. The complaints about a lack of reliable electrical service, about non-political street crime, about patchy garbage collection, and about water systems that two and a half years after the U.S. invasion are still not up and running rival concerns about suicide bombers.

By comparison, most countries in the developing and undeveloped world do a fairly credible job of providing many services associated with national governments. In most of the Third World, postal service is more reliable than electrical service. Almost every country has a somewhat functional military. West Africa and Central Africa, for all of their other problems, have managed to find a way to provide their citizens with a stable and functional currency (the CFA Franc). In many countries the higher educational institutions are one of the few little islands within the country where things generally seem to work. Tax collections are usually poor and the social safety net is usually weak, but part of this is a consequence of widespread poverty that has a lot to do with an underlying chaos at the local level that flows from a lack of well organized local governments.

Compared to many other functions of government, the services provided by local governments are not terribly expensive. The average American spends far more money on federal and state government functions like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, national defense, interest on the federal debt, unemployment insurance, interstate highway maintenance, higher education, state prisons, and the like, than on the basics of local government.

While these functions can be provided locally, however, no amount of entrepreneurship can make them happen without governmental sponsorship and regulation. Almost no place in the entire developed world has a for profit, unregulated system for providing tap water, electricity, local streets, traffic patrols, elementary and secondary education, or sewage services. Notwithstanding myths about the powers of the market in a laissez faire economic system, every successful market economy rests on the foundation of a governmentally provided basic infrastructure. It was true way back in the days of the Roman Empire, and it remains true today.

Historically, foreign aid has been directed primarily at national governments and big projects. But, recognition of the fact that much of what is absent from these political economies is missing at the local government level does provide a window of hope. It is possible to put in place working local governments one city or village at a time, at a reasonable cost. And, a smattering of functional local governments can serve as models for whole countries and regions. Sure, you can encourage foreign direct investment with tax breaks and loan guarantees, but simply having cities where the water from the tap is safe to drink, the toilets work, the power doesn't go out several days a month, the garbage is collected on time, people pay attention to traffic signs, local libraries are well stocked with books, and the elementary schools are fully enrolled and have adequately trained teachers, would promote growth far better. Singapore and Hong Kong owe as much of their development success to having functional local government administrations as they do to laissez faire economic policies.

When you live in a developed country it is easy to get fixated on the relatively lower priority "advanced" economic issues that dominate your own country's political scenes, while ignoring the basics that have become non-partisan, uncontroversial and mostly ignored foundations for the rest of private and public sector activities. There is nothing exciting about a mosquito control district, unless you live in a place that doesn't have one and needs one. Problems like cholera and mosquito borne fevers, which were dire problems in places like New Orleans in the early 1800s until public health and sanitation measures swept the nation, are problems we have forgotten how to solve because we no longer have them. But, when hurricanes rumble in and disrupt those local government services for a few weeks or months, often requiring the entire local infrastructure to be rebuilt from scratch, we are reminded of how little stands between the modern and comfortable lifestyle we enjoy in the developed world, and the privation and suffering that much of the rest of the world endures. If we can rebuild from scratch in Mississippi and Louisiana in a matter of months, why shouldn't we able to do the same thing in the developing and undeveloped world in selected cities in just a few years?

26 September 2005

Atrios On T-Rex.

Blogger Atrios asks today if the transit part of T-Rex can really make it possible for people to have one less car outside the central city. The answer is yes. There is a historical precedent, nationally and in Denver. It was called the "street car suburb." Cinderella City, in Englewood, is a contemporary example of the same concept.

The other benefit, which he doesn't address, but which is likely to be even more of an impact, is that transit can reduce how much you drive with the cars that you do have. Most people who take transit to work do what I did when I lived in Washington D.C., drive a mile or two to a local rail station, and take the rest of the trip via rail instead of a car. Park and ride, and the related kiss and ride concept (your loved one drops you off with a kiss at the station), rather than walk and ride, is where most of the driving miles avoided come from in an intracity rail system.

In addition to providing a way for suburbanites to get into the city, the T-Rex line will also provide a way for city residents to get to the Denver Tech Center and the Park Meadows mall in the suburbs. Good rail systems need not just sources, but destinations.

Soj Offers Up GBCW

Someone decided to link Soj, the author of Flogging the Simian, a blog linked on this page and discussed previously at this site, to her real world self. In reaction, she has offered a GBCW diary (Goodbye Cruel World) as a benediction to her blogging run:

The truth is that someone decided to ruin all the fun for all of us and butt their nose into my private business. I've always had my two lives separated - my offline world and my online one. That's the way I wanted it and that's the way I set it up and I've got my own reasons for it. And someone decided to ruin all the fun and be a smug ass about it and go to incredibly great lengths to find out where I "live" online. And they managed to do it, and now they're all snide about it.

This happened on Tuesday I think, and I've been sitting here all week trying to figure out what to do about it. I love writing, I really do - it's not even about the money or the "job" of it, it's part of who I am. But I can't do it if I can't write in peace. Everyone else in my offline world knows this and respects this. But it just takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel I guess, right?

So what does this mean? It means it's over. It means it's finished. Kaput. FTS and everything I've worked on for the past two years is gone. I've spent all week trying to figure out a way I can do keep this place but I don't see how I can do it.

As someone who left a blog after he no longer felt comfortable in the space it provided, I can relate, although Soj is a far more impressive blog personality, and the compromise of her space was far more personal. Online or not, Soj is a smart cookie, and we're sure she will find a good direction for her creative and investigative talents. We wish her the best in her endeavors.

Kansas, Demons and Rapists.

One of the ten men Kansas used to use to determine whether people convicted of sex crimes will reoffend, who said that would far more often than his predecessors did, is also a demonologist. Fortunately, fear of backlash from jurors who don't share the crackpot demon possession theory of mental health has forced him out of the post. Why can't this stuff be left for the movies? Life has definitely begun to imitate art.

Violent Crime At A Thirty Two Year Low

The details:

Though no significant declines were observed between 2003 and 2004, the average annual violent crime rates for the period 2003- 2004 were lower than crime rates for the previous period 2001- 2002.

The rate of every major violent and property crime measured by the survey (rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft) fell significantly between 1993 and 2004. Victimization rates for every major type of crime measured were unchanged from 2003 to 2004.

-- From 1993 through 2004, the violent crime rate fell 57 percent and the property crime rate declined by 50 percent.

-- The number of violent crimes decreased from an estimated 11 million in 1993 to 5.2 million in 2004.

-- Since 1993, a decline in violent crime victimization has occurred across every racial and ethnic group, and income level measured.

-- Preliminary murder estimates for 2004 from the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports indicate the number of murders decreased 3.6 percent from 2003. This is about the same per capita rate as that of the mid-1960s.

Teaching Stupidity.

I'm not sure which is worse: The child abusing parents who send their children on tours designed to promote science illiteracy, or the religious nutcases who offer them? Yes, this is real. I know people who've encounted the tours in Denver. Religion can have some virtues. This is not one of them.

Musgrave Weak.

Marilyn Musgrave, the Republican Congresswoman from the 4th Congressional District of Colorado, has done remarkably poorly in what was a safe Republican District, encompassing most of the rural Front Range, when she took office. Her signature issue is anti-gay hate, in much the same way that Tom Tancredo is Mr. Anti-Immigration in Congress. Colorado Luis does a good job of pointing out many of the reasons she is a weakened candidate as a result of her single minded obsession. But, he leaves out another important one. She is one of the thirteen most corrupt politicans in Congress.

(This diary at Daily Kos ties the 4th CD experience to the large depopulation of the rural Great Plains.)

Democrats on the Roberts Nomination.

The word that best describes the Democratic response to the nomination of John Roberts, Jr. to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is clusterf***. It involves large numbers of people on our side scr**ing each other.

Alas, Ken Salazar, our new Democratic Senator from Colorado, is among the Democratic Senators who are voting for a man who has made a career of being a political hack for the Republicans, whose most notable vote in his brief term as a judge was to side with an opinion that considers the Geneva Conventions worthless pieces of paper in the United States, who is at least as conservative as arch-conservative William Rehnquist, who just left the bench. In classic Salazar style, he listened to what Roberts said (very little) at his hearing and in an interview with Salazar, instead of his actions, which speak far louder than his words.

Until Democrats wake up and realize that giving in once makes you weaker the next time, and not stronger, they will continue to be ineffectual. Political will is not a scarce commodity to be expended. It is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. By conceding easily on Roberts, the Democrats have insured that the next nominee, the one who will replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, will be far more conservative than Roberts, which insures that the Court will lurch far to the right.

There aren't more than one or two Democrats in the Senate who actually agree with the direction that Roberts wants to take the Court, but many Senators, in the name of comity, are engaged in the masochistic act of voting for a man who will do just that. Trust me. The Republicans will not return the favor when the shoe is on the other foot. By voting for Roberts, Democrats are denying themselves the option of even running against the conservative judges picked by the likes of George W. Bush in the next election. Roberts, as a Rehnquist clone, doesn't actually change the balance of power in the U.S. Supreme Court. But, this appointment does set the stage for a Kennedy Court, or worse, when O'Connor is replaced. And, since all judges are equal, it makes no sense to fight differently for one vacancy than for another.

Yes, it is better to have more Democrats in the Senate, and yes, Salazar does vote with Democrats more often than he does with Republicans (he is the 39th most liberal Senator in a chamber where there are 55 Republicans). But, it is hard to provide an enthusiastic endorsement to someone who doesn't provide even symbolic support to the Democratic base on core issues like judicial appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court.

25 September 2005

A High Profile Divorce.

Rene Zellweger made the cover of at least four different supermarket magazines this week, at least a couple of which claimed that they had the "exclusive" story, after ending a four month old marriage. Is this healthy? She, of course, had asked the media not to shine its glare to harshly on the stories, which, of course, produced the most intense and salicious coverage possible. (One laggard still had Britney Spears a few days before she gave birth to a son).

Why do people care so much? Hollywood star gets divorced. That's news? Sure, it helps that she was a relatively big star, and it was a very short marriage, even by Hollywood standards, but is there nothing else to report on in this nation? Is this really what the large majority of the grocery buying public (which includes just about every household in America the last time I checked) needs to know? Apparently so.

Same Story, Other Side of Town.

I would like to say that the story of Seho Park was unusual. But, it isn't. People leave a bar, this time the Mexico Lindo Nightclub, a hang out popular with many people not born in his country, which is a little North of Northwest Denver. It is right around closing time. A fight breaks out. Shots are fired. A man ends up dead. This time there is no name for us to attach to the crime. But, no one doubts that he had friends, parents, and others in life, that he had done something in his life worth mention. Again, the patrons probably have a good idea who committed the crime. Again, it is no sure thing that this crime will be solved. Stories like this will repeat indefinitely until we find the will to find ways to stop them from happening.

23 September 2005

Not Just A Few Bad Apples.

If you ever had any doubt that brutal prisoner abuse by the U.S. military for sport was due to more than just "a few bad apples", you should read this article in Time Magazine.

It shames me that my country commits war crimes. It makes me angry that the President and his men put into motion the forces that caused these war crimes to happen. How can the people who did this sleep at night? Do they really believe that this kind of brutality helps our cause? If they do, they are fools and just as guilty.

Who Gets A Trial?

Saddam Hussein gets a trial. Jose Padilla doesn't.

Shouldn't we treat a U.S. citizen arrested unarmed in the Chicago O'Hare airport by civilian authorities and placed under the jurisdiction of a civilian court before he was placed in military custody, who stands accused of plotting to set apartment buildings on fire, better than a foreign dictator captured in a hiding hole on the Iraqi battlefield?

Katrina/Rita Death Toll and Status Report.

The Katrina Death Toll was at 1078 when efforts to recover the dead were suspended today. New Orleans has now flooded again from the effects of Hurricane Rita. The levee is breached in three places.

Hurricane Rita is bearing down on the Gulf Coast and will hit late tonight around Port Arthur, Texas. The evacation is chaotic and not functioning well, with residents who have not already fled Houston advised to return to their homes to weather the storm. At least 24 people have died in the course of the evacuation in advance of Hurricane Rita. The greatest concerns related to Hurricane Rita are the prospects of people left unsheltered on the roads trying to evacuate when Rita hits, and massive distruption of the oil and gas industry which one radio commentator this morning suggested could bring gas prices to a record $4 a gallon. Property damage from Rita is expected to be massive, with the entire town of Port Arthur expected to be flooded.

Naval Power Overkill

From the Strategy Page (September 22, 2005 entry):

Today, the USN enjoys a "17 Navy standard"; that is, the total tonnage of Uncle Sam’s fleet is equal to the combined total tonnage of the next 17 smaller navies. Even combining the two biggest potential naval competitors (the Chinese and the Russians), the USN still outclasses them by over 3:1 in tonnage, and it has substantially more combat power. Of the world’s 34 aviation power projection platforms (i.e., vessels capable of operating combat aircraft), the US owns 24 (71-percent), eight times more than the second leading navy, the decidedly friendly Royal Navy, which has with three V/STOL carriers. In addition, the US surface fleet carries four times as many VLS (vertical missile launchers) cells as the rest of the world navies combined. The US submarine fleet enjoys better force ratios against the next two most numerous underwater fleets than it did against the Soviets during the Cold War.

The post goes on to note planned expansions in the number of U.S. ships, most notably, a large planned buy of small "littoral combat ships."

The Navy is probably the biggest source of fat in the current Defense Department budget. I'm not opposed to all war or the military in general, although we have made some poor choices regarding which wars we should choose to fight. But, every military has to set priorities, and there are more urgent needs within the U.S. military than maintaining this large a fleet of billion dollar warships.

Saudi Arabian Slaves.

The United States acts like Saudi Arabia is its ally. We sell them lots of very high tech military equipment. We do a lot of business with them.

It is worth remembering a few things about this country from time to time, however. Saudi Arabia is the world leader in the number of executions it carries out relative to is population and its standards of due process are almost as bad as Texas (unlike Texas, however, it does listen to pleas for mercy from the parents of murder victims). It is the only major Islamic country in the world that doesn't allow women to drive. It is an absolute monarchy. It does not have freedom of religion. It tortures people (indeed, the United States under President George W. Bush has sent Americans there for the purpose of being tortured). It was the home of 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11. It produced Osama bin Laden (who has also been a CIA asset), and some of the 9-11 hijackers got money from the Saudi Arabian royal family in the United States. It financed the madrasas that gave rise to the Taliban who we had to go to war with in Afghanistan and was a major financer of the Taliban. Most of the suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudi Arabians.

Oh yeah, and they have this little problem, one familiar to American history. They keep slaves and our State Department knows it. Despite this fact:

President Bush decided Wednesday to waive any financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Washington's closest Arab ally in the war on terrorism, for failing to do enough to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers.

Kuwait, another slaveholding monarchy that owes its very existing to U.S. led military intervention under the administration of George W. Bush's father, was also given a pass.

The United States needs to stop prostituting its national security and its integrity with respect to human rights and democracy to its thirst for oil. Our nation is too great to be an oil whore.

Christian Hate in California

A fourteen year old girl was expelled from the Ontario Christian School because her parents who had been together for 22 years and also have a 9 year old and 19 year old daughter, are lesbians.

"Your family does not meet the policies of admission," Superintendent Leonard Stob wrote to Tina Clark, the girl's biological mother.

Stob wrote that school policy requires that at least one parent may not engage in practices "immoral or inconsistent with a positive Christian life style, such as cohabitating without marriage or in a homosexual relationship," The Los Angeles Times reported in Friday's edition.

I'm waiting to hear American Christian leaders, and politicians who claim to be Christian, condemn this action. I haven't heard a word yet. By their silence, they seem to be signaling their agreement.

(I inaccurately placed Ontario Christian School in Canada in a prior version of this post. It is, in fact, in Southern California. Somehow, this is less surprising.)

22 September 2005

Country Music.

After nine years living in the West, I have finally reached the point where I can listen to country music on the radio without immediately changing the channel. Growing up in Ohio, there was a cultural divide. City kids listened to rock. Rednecks listened to country. The divide, like the cultural divide that splits our country, ran deep. I grew up as a city kid. But, just because I can stand to listen to it now, doesn't mean that I understand it. I don't.

Everyone has their ups and downs. There are optimistic days, and days when the future seems dark. How dark is hard to quantify. Rating emotions on a scale of one to ten is horribly subjective. The English language doesn't have very quantitative measures either. At times, I've tried to track my own emotions, but I've wanted to do it in a manner that I could communicate to someone else if I ever wanted to do so. So, I formulated what I call the "Despair Index". The notion behind the Depair Index is to compare the extent to which negative feelings are impairing your judgment and ability to function, to the extent to which consuming a comparable number of beers in a single setting would. If you score four or five beers on the Depair Index, you are probably not safe to drive, even if you are stone cold sober. A bad day at the office might rate two or three beers. When you start hitting the double digits on anything like a regular basis, you need professional help.

Anyway, the point of this diversion is that the Depair Index provides a means to compare different genres of music. Most of rock music (with some notable but not very common exceptions), is safely in the one to three beer zone, if not stone cold sober and actually happy. Country music is different. Can you even make it onto the radio if you haven't, at least, hit the six or seven beer level on the Depair Index? Are there protaganists in country music songs who haven't been abandoned by wives, lovers, children and dogs? Even the "happy" songs come across as such a squalid existence that you get the impression that everyone involved has passed the "just don't care" threshold long ago. County music DJs absorb more misery in a day than most psychiatrists see in a year. Is that an occupational hazard or something? What do you have to have going on in your life to feel the need to listen to this stuff all day long? No wonder rural people and Southerners are prematurely cynical, vote for Republicans and can stomach the cruel cynicism of talk radio. No one with compassion and empathy circuits still in tact could bear to listen to it for more than a couple of hours a month.

A friend of mine lost the use of her taste buds and as a result kept trying to make her cooking more and more spicy, until she served a meal that made everyone else at the table almost keel over and diagnosed the real problem. Maybe country music is going for a similar effect, trying to find something that will break through otherwise numbed emotions.

I'm sure that there must be more to the genre. I don't claim to get it. But, in the mean time I will have to limit my consumption of country music to those rare moments when I'm already at the six or seven beer level on the Depair Index. You can't be too careful.


Today is the fall equinox, the first day of autumn. There are a few leaves turning in the trees and it was a relatively cool day, but autumn in Denver is not as dramatic as it is in the East.

If the story I heard on the radio this week about global warming's effect on Colorado is correct, our weather could start to look more like New Mexico's soon. (Full report here with thanks to Coyote Gulch for providing the link). Temperature increases of 1-4 degrees in average temperature could dramatically shrink the skiing season, reduce the reliability of water supplies for front range cities, and have major negative effects on horticulture in the state. Cactus farming just isn't as commercially viable as growing peaches.

Unfortunately, until policy makers and the general public make the connection between global warming and things like rising sea levels and increased storm activity that the rest of the world has seen the Katrina/Rita duo as an iconic example of, it is hard to see how we are going to make any progress on this front. And, since few nations (even the E.U. and China) are really in a good position to pressure the U.S. to act, the result is likely to be that the U.S. will not act.


The picture above, of Houston residents fleeing Hurricane Rita provokes an immediate and obvious reaction. Has the world gone mad? Why aren't they letting people who are fleeing the city drive on the wrong side of the highway? Later in the day, they did just that. Too late, in my opinion, but credit where credit is due for finally waking up to reality. Allowing people to drive on the wrong side of the highway is called "contraflow" in traffic engineering circles.

The big question in my mind is not why it took so long to do it in Houston (see the section in my post on Conspiracy Theories about how people are frequently incompetent). The big question in my mind is why every major city in America doesn't routinely use contraflow approaches on a daily basis.

Traffic flows on interstate highways in major metropolitan areas are exceedingly predictable. Every weekday morning there is a rush going into the central city. Every weekday afternoon there is a rush going out of the central city. Indeed, this isn't the only place you see highly predictable traffic patterns on interstate highways. The road going to Vail is jammed every Friday evening and Saturday morning during ski season. The road leaving Vail is jammed every Sunday evening during ski season. This isn't rocket science.

I used to have a job in the suburbs at a time when I lived in my beloved central Denver Washington Park neighborhood. Every morning I zipped along Route 6 to the suburbs at 55 mph directing a smirk at the poor souls stuck in bumper to bumper 5 mph traffic going the other direction. On the occassional evenings when I got to go home as early as rush hour, I did the same thing in the evening. I know of no major city in the United States where this pattern does not hold true for at least some major highways.

Highways cost money. Lots of money. Adding a couple of lanes to I-25 between my downtown home and the Denver Tech Center, a project called T-Rex which will be finished at the end of 2006, cost $1.67 billion dollars to improve 17 miles of highway. For those of you who are math challenged, that means that adding lanes to interstate highways in the middle of urban areas costs about $100 million a mile.

Wasting billion dollar resources is bad. Very bad. It would be like Wal-Mart keeping three years of inventory in their warehouses at all times. They'd go broke. Yet, every major city in America does exactly this. They waste a couple of lanes of a six lane highway, every single workday, all through both rush hours.

It is not hard to build convertable central lanes in highways. Concrete dividers, road paint and traffic signs are far less expensive than building new lanes. While I'm going out on a limb here with a guess, I'd be willing to guess that they definitely cost less than $10 million a mile, and that's if you decide to hire Halliburton to do the work. Denver has a similar system with a couple of reversable central lanes on I-25 from downtown to Highway 36 to Boulder that are designated as HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes. But, the HOV component really doesn't matter. Chicago calls similar limited access lanes express lanes and lets anyone use them. The important thing is that if you can reverse central lanes you can add capacity at a fraction of the price of new lanes on the sides of the highway.

I'd be happy to see someone tell me that there is a good reason for not doing this routinely now. But, I sure don't see it. And, the picture at the top of this post could provide the extra boost necessary to get this idea implemented. A simple system for setting up contraflows helps when interstate highways are called upon to help evacuate cities, which was the official justification for creating them in the first place.

Christianity on Three Continents.

Christianity's prospect in Africa and in Europe couldn't be more different.

"There's nothing really to compare with the growth of Christianity in Africa. As far as we know it's a fairly unique phenomenon," says Jonathan Bonk, editor of the US-based International Bulletin of Missionary Research.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but IBMR estimates there were 8.7m Christians in Africa in 1900, rising to 117m by 1970 and 389m today. The most recent phenomenon is a rising wave of evangelism, driven by Africans and westerners - mainly Americans - that is sweeping across the continent.

Source (subscription required for full text).

There are now Africans coming to the United States to do missionary work, instead of the other way around. Most notably, the conservative faction breaking away from the Episcopal Church in the United States is sponsored by an African wing of the Anglican Church. Africa has also become a conservative stronghold within the Catholic Church. I have an Aunt and Uncle who spent years as African lay missionaries for the relatively staid Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the intensity of African involvement in and commitment to their local Christian churches is almost unthinkable for an American in a mainline American denomination.

In Europe, in contrast, secularism is the uniform trend. Weekly church attendance in Ireland, one of the most devout countries in Europe is down almost 30% in thirty years. In the Netherlands, France and Sweden church attendance has fallen below 10% (the United States by comparison has roughly 40% church attendance on a weekly basis).

In 1900, almost everyone in Europe was Christian. Now, three out of four people identify themselves as adherents to Christianity. At the same time, the percentage of Europeans who say they are non-religious has soared from less than 1% of the population to 15%. Another 3% say they don't believe in God at all, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

In 12 major European countries, 38% of people say they never or practically never attend church, according to the World Values Survey in 2000. France's 60% non-attendance rate is the highest in that group. In the USA, only 16% say they rarely go to church.

Neither the African, nor the European trend, have ends in sight. They will continue for, at least, another generation. The only full places of worship in London are immigrant churches and mosques, and unlike other churches in Europe, in these places of worship a large share of the members are young.

The United States is not decisively a part of either trend and shows strong regional variations. According to the Catholic sponsored study (one of the two most comprehensive in existence) called Glenmary:

Utah (74%) and North Dakota (73%) have the largest percent of people claimed by [religious denominations]. The District of Columbia is also at 73%. Oregon (31%) and Washington (33%) are at the bottom of the list.

States differ not just in nature of religious preferences, as well as the extent of religious participation:

Catholics have the largest number of adherents in 37 states and the District of Columbia. The Southern Baptist Convention has the largest number of adherents in 10 states, all in the South. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has the most adherents in Idaho and Utah, and the United Methodists have the most adherents in West Virginia.

Catholics are one of the four largest groups in every state of the union as well as in the District of Columbia. United Methodists are one of the top four groups in 38 states, and Southern Baptists make the top four in 28 states and the District of Columbia. The Latter-Day Saints and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are both among the top four in 13 states, and the Jewish adherents are in the top four in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Twelve other groups make the top four in anywhere from one to eight states.

Much of the American Midwest and Northwest is dominanted by Lutheran and Catholic churches with their origins in Europe. Both of these churches are scarce in most of the South, were Baptists and other evangelicals dominate the religious scene. The Mormons are a leading church (behind Catholics) in much of the West, not just Utah and Idaho.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, the other major national study of religious preferences in the United States, modest declines in overall religious participation in the United States are accompanied by significant shifts from one part of the religious landscape to others. Most mainline denominations are stuggling, as is Judaism. They are losing members both to evangelical trends and to secularism. White Catholicism tends to mirror mainline denominational trends (and political trends), while church growth among Hispanic Catholics hides the mixed trends facing the Catholic church. Evangelical denominations are at least holding steady and many of the most charismatic are growing. Non-denominational but evangelical leaning independent churches, and every manner of non-Christian faith other than Judaism (including the ranks of the non-religious), are growing quickly.

The shifting trends in the religious preferences of Americans and Europeans, at least, has important influences on the political and social trends there (in Africa political chaos and a lack of democracy in many countries makes it hard to tell). In Scandinavia, unmarried parenthood has become the norm, and fewer people are having children. But, despite claims the Christianity has been replaced by Materialism in Europe, Europe remains far more committed to less material concerns like the security of a social safety net and leisure, than the far more religious United States. The "culture wars" in American politics do match up to the religious map of the United States. The religious right that drives the Republican party is a minority religious preference in the nation as a whole. But, in many states it is virtually synomous with the regional culture and, of course, "all politics are local."

There is one general rule that helps explain, a little, at least, these trends. Churches thrive when they preserve a threatened culture and wilt when the culture they are embedded in is not at risk.

Why is church participation six times as great in Ireland as it is in Sweden, yet falling? Because the Catholic Church in Ireland spend half a millennium protecting Irish culture from British imperialism, a culture which is now more secure than ever as Ireland has gained independence and the religious conflicts in Northern Ireland have grown subdued. In contrast, the Swedish Lutheran Church was the established church for half a millennium (it was disestablished in 2000) and thus never needed to protect the local culture. The fact that the vast majority of European Christians are members of established churches which almost by definition do not involve threatened cultures again explains their declines.

In the United States, mainstream American culture is the culture of New York and Los Angeles, and more generally the North. This is not a new development. The North has been beating the South in the culture wars since, at least, the Civil War. Broadcasters speak in the accents of Ohio, not Georgia. The application of the Bill of Rights by the U.S. Supreme Court to the states that has taken place for the past several decades has been one loss after another for the South. Most Southerners don't believe in the fundamental idea behind the establishment clause of the First Amendment. They have grave doubts about many kinds of free speech from obsensity to political dissent that they see as aiding our nation's enemies. They are incensed by the protections it affords to criminal defendants. Their notions of what is cruel and unusual are considerably less merciful than those of the rest of the nation or the world at large. Nashville and Memphis, the cultural centers of Country-Western culture, live in the shadow of their coastal Northern counterparts. The dominant national attitudes towards gender and race, many of which are enshrined in law in the Civil Rights era, were enacted over the fierce opposition of the South. The gay rights movement adds insults to those injuries from its perspective.

Why does all of this matter? Because, Southern culture is threatened, and its religious fervency, to a great extent, can be explained by the fact that churches, especially its evangelical ones, are the caretakers of that culture. Failing to support Southern Churches, in the face of a sustained assault from national institutions governmental and private alike, is to sound the death knell of that culture. The African American community faces very different threats to its culture, but the threats are definitely there and likewise drive the vitality of black churches. In contrast, mainline Christian churches preach a creed shared by the dominant Christian culture. The Lutheran Church is not the dike that is holding back national threats to the way of life of the typical resident of Seattle.

This general rule also explains lots of other mini-trends. Why are immigrant churches so vibrant? Because they preserve the culture of the home country. Where are atheist groups most well organized in Colorado? In Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family and capital of the Christian Right.

Why are we seeing a wave of Islamic fundamentalism? Because Western modernity is dramatically overhauling the culture of every predominantly Islamic region in the world, dragging hundreds of millions of people through what Europe experienced as centuries of incremental cultural change in a couple of generations.

I don't have textured enough information to really know what is going on in African Christianity, but I suspect that the same principle turns out to be at work.