30 July 2006

Sentencing Guidelines Imperfect.

When the United States Sentencing Guidelines produced an 85 year sentence for a minor participant in a securities fraud conspiracy, New York Federal Judge Rakoff, gave reason and common sense a chance -- looking mostly a precedents from other more serious white collar cases where defendants got shorter sentences, producing a three and a half year sentence for the defendant in question.

As he explained, the case exposed:

the utter travesty of justice that sometimes results from the guidelines' fetish with abstract arithmetic, as well as the harm that guideline calculations can visit on human beings if not cabined by common sense. . . . where, as here, the calculations under the guidelines have run so amok that they are patently absurd on their face, a Court is forced to place greater reliance on the more general considerations . . . as carefully applied to the particular circumstances of the case and of the human being who will bear the consequences.

Rakoff has it right.

The Clocks That Saved Seattle?

In a recent post at Colorado Confiential, I noted that. Colorado scientists have invented a new kind of clock ten times as accurate as the atomic clock standard current used to define the second itself operationally. The implication of this development, I only touched upon in language from the National Institute of Standards and Technology press release which noted that:

[U]ltra-precise clocks can be used to improve synchronization in navigation and positioning systems, telecommunications networks, and wireless and deep-space communications.

The fact of the matter is the one of the most important applications of these clocks is for a national ballistic missile defense. Ballistic missile defense system use the global positioning system (GPS) as a key element at multiple stages of the process -- typically in missile defense systems, GPS is used both to locate the sensor that identifies a missile launch, which in turn is used to identify the direction and speed and location of the incoming missile, and GPS is also used as part of the navigation system for an anti-missile interceptor.

One of the largest sources of inaccuracy in GPS locations is clock accuracy. A raw GPS signal is accurate to about 15 meters, which is then refined with a variety of methods to improve accuracy, the most common of which supplement satellite signals with fairly short range signals that correct the error in the incoming signal based on its difference from a known local position. This brings accuracy to perhaps 1-3 meters of a target. But, in a scenario like a ship based launch detection system far from U.S. controlled territory, it may be difficult to set up that error correction system.

More accurate clocks might improve this level of accuracy by as much as an order of magnitude. And, when the target is a supersonic ballistic missile, the time piece of the calculation may be particularly important. The difference between a +/- 3 meter accuracy and a +/- 300mm accuracy, for example, could easily be the difference between a hit and a miss for a target of that size. And, if the target is a nuclear missile launched from North Korea, that could be the difference between life and death for the residents of some major city in its path, like Seattle, which is believed to be within range of the longest range missiles that North Korea has, if it could get those long range missiles to work (the last test didn't do that, but also provided data to fix its long range missiles for future launches).

Aircraft Carriers Illustrated

Murdoc Online has a recent post which does a nice job of presenting photos that show side by side American supercarriers, American amphibious assault ships, and European aircraft carriers (which are closer in scale ot the latter type of American ship). Check it out.

27 July 2006

Is Tax Compliance Is A Serious Problem?

Tax professor and blogger James Edward Maule thinks that the compliance burden of the tax code is a big deal. This, in turn, leads him to conclude that:

Is it me or does it seem obvious that taxpayer burden will not be alleviated until the tax law is simplified and fixed? Does Congress need a hearing to make this determination? What’s next, hearings on whether the earth is flat? Yes, I know about the Flat Earth Society and I know there are people who think the tax law is child’s play.

The numbers are big. But, viewed in context, I don't think that the number's that he's citing are the important ones.

For example, he notes that "in 2006, taxpayers will spend more than 6 and a half billion, yes, billion hours complying with the tax law." My question is, so what?

There are about 300 million people in the United States, before you even begin to consider about 30 million small businesses, several hundred thousand large C corporations, several million trusts and estates, and a not insubstantial number of non-resident taxpayers. Thus, the average American spends about 20 hours a year complying with federal tax laws, which works out to about three days a year, with generous lunch breaks. Better organized people can spend about an hour a month, plus one day of tax preparation work when your return is due. It isn't a perfect, but compliance costs are a quite small portion of the total economic burden of taxation in general on the average person.

For the 80% of people who are neither business owners, nor high income people with substantial investment income, compliance costs are usually trivial in proportion to either their total tax burdens including compliance costs, or their incomes. For the small number of big businesses that make up a huge proportion of all economic activity in the United States, compliance costs are high, but they have to be weighed against the immense overall tax burdens involved. Hiring a big tax accounting firm to do your tax work isn't so overwhelming when your bottom line is in the vicinity of ten billion dollars a quarter.

There is a tax compliance cost problem in the United States, but it isn't that average tax compliance burdens are high. The problem is that select subgroups, like low to moderate revenue small businesses, incur high compliance cost relative to their incomes (and often still muck it up, in part due to willful, self-serving neglect), even though others, like wage and salary earners and big businesses, incur quite moderate compliance costs relative to their revenues.

If you are a sole proprietor whose has $100,000 of revenues, mostly in small transactions, and $70,000 of expenses encompassing a full range of business expenses, including employees, you have tax compliance costs quite similar to a business ten or a hundred times as large, and far higher than someone who simply make a $30,000 salary. Of course, on the other hand, the odds are good that you will fail to report about $15,000 of your correct net income.

I'm also not terribly surprised that "three-fourths of the compliance burden imposed by the federal government is on account of taxation." Many federal programs, like national defense, making interest payments on the national debt, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, TANF, Food Stamps, and the national highway and commercial air travel systems cost quite a bit of money, but impose very few regulatory burdens on the average person. The compliance burden associated with taxation is to a great extent an irreducible burden associated with having a functioning government. The fact that other federal programs impose a very low compliance burden on most people is both proof that federalism works (a large share of compliance costs are state and local) and proof that the federal government is overall run in a quite citizen friendly manner.

Tax complexity, of course, can be a problem. But, I worry much more about the capacity of the tax code to distort economic decision making in negative ways on a widespread basis, than I am about the cost of filling out tax forms and collecting records to do so. For example, the potential downsides of our existing tax system's bias in favor of debt over equity funding for publicly held corporations makes our economy more prone to major business failures during economic downturns. It takes only a small number of unnecessary Chapter 11 bankruptcies to make tax compliance costs look like small potatoes.

Who Doesn't Pay Their Federal Taxes?

The latest information (from 2001) on the amount of taxes that are not paided in sufficient amounts, on time, called the tax gap, are out. They are federal figures, but since Colorado's individual and corporate income taxes track the federal income tax, the numbers should also reflect Colorado's tax gap.

About 44% of it ($148 billion a year) comes from income and self-employment taxes owed by closely held businesses. About 16% comes from understated non-business income (disproportionately from investment income not subject to information return requirements such as capital gains and rental income), and about 9% comes from overstated deductions, exemptions and credits. About 33% comes from other sources (mostly underreporting of corporate income taxes and employment taxes).

Non-compliance rates vary greatly by type of income. About 1.2% of potential wage and salary tax revenue are not collected. About 4.5% of potential dividend, interest, pension and taxable Social Security income tax revenue are not collected. About 8.6% of potential tax revenue alimony, partnerships, S-corporations, capital gains, and overstated deductions and exemptions are not collected. And, about 53.9% of potential tax revenues from farms, rents and royalties, and sole proprietorships are not collected. The biggest factor in tax law compliance is the degree to which income appears on information returns. Taxpayers whose income isn't reported by third parties are much more likely to cheat.

More than a third of returns with capital gains incorrectly report that amount of the gain. Indepenent contrators omit on average 17% of income not subject to information returns, but just 3% of income subject to information returns.

The I.R.S. is not funded at at level that maximizes compliance. It estimates that for every additional dollar spent on enforcement, it could collect about $14 of additional tax revenues.

While there are some issues for actually collecting taxes owed, 90% of tax revenue loss comes from returns that incorrectly state how much is due, rather than from non-payment of taxes that taxpayers admit that they owe.

A leading cause of audit for lower income taxpayers is the earned income tax credit. The earned income tax credit is so complex that "the likelihood that the IRS had obtained the right result the first time [it conducts an audit] is not much better than a coin toss [43%]."

In short, your average tax cheat looks a lot like your stereotypical Republican voter.

Worthless Partisan Journalism

Not all partisan journalism is worthless. Indeed, there is an upsurge in stories with a political motivation that add to the debate. If I didn't believe that I wouldn't write for Colorado Confidential or ready Daily Kos. But, some partisan journalism, even at big name traditional media outlets that should have better quality control, is worthless.

Case in point: Yesterday's article by Ramesh Ponnuru in the National Review. If you say that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the biggest case of the year is wrong on a key issue because of "simple factual mistakes," you had better get the story right. Ponnuru doesn't.

I would going to write a takedown of the story, but Emily Bazelon at Slate did an excellent job of doing just that, so I don't have to. One of the key points that Ponnuru just doesn't get is that:

They criticized the Hamdan lawyers for saying their colloquy wasn't live, asserting "the Congressional Record is presumed to reflect live debate except when the statements therein are followed by a bullet … or are underlined" [their italics]. As I wrote, this is entirely misleading. But Ponnuru omits Graham and Kyl's obfuscation. . . . Kyl and Graham . . . submitted a brief to the Supreme Court suggesting falsely that their testimony was live and implying that their views were public when they weren't.

It is one thing to insert written materials into the Congressional record, which everyone does routinely subject to full disclosures that it wasn't really live. It is quite another to doctor the record to make it appears live when it is not, and then claim in the U.S. Supreme Court brief that it was a live debate. That stance violates ethical standards for both Senators and for the attorneys who represented them in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alas, the corruption of the Republican controlled Congress knows no bounds. It both doctors the Congressional record, as it did here, and also ignores even basic constitutional provisions like the one that says that a bill won't become law until both houses of Congress pass identical versions of it.

There are plenty of issues upon which politicians can have legitimate policy disagreements. Resolving those is why we have a Congress in the first place. But, accurately representing what transpired in a bill's legislative history, and getting bills passed in identical versions by both houses of Congress are not subjects upon which anyone who believes in democracy or rule of law can accept as legitimate.

Incidentally, this isn't the first time that Ramesh Ponnuru has been full of shit.

26 July 2006

Ignore Your Horoscope.

Astrology doesn't work. The scientific studies of the topic referenced in the linked post are quite clever in their experimental designs.

The Blogger-Military Reform Complex

Brutus at Creative Destruction has kindly noted a couple of my posts on the impact of missile technology on modern warfare. The question he poses in that post is a reasonable one and deserves a little more attention. It is intimately related to the question of why I military blog, which as a civilian with no real deep understanding of the issues at all in this area until I started digging into it a couple of years ago, seems to come out of blue.

[W]ho’s minding the store to ensure that we adapt responsibly to current needs? . . . If some guy with a blog and some free time can assemble well-argued posts on the subject, I have to wonder who in government is paying attention to these issues and planning for the future? The Pentagon? Some government-sponsored think tank? No one? Waiting for an academic review, conducted from the perspective of hindsight, certainly can’t be the answer. That takes too long and, in the meantime, too many lives and opportunities are squandered.

It’s been argued for some time that traditional government, not unlike traditional warfare, no longer fulfills its mission, which itself is difficult to articulate. Significant evidence (omitted for brevity) of government failure, mismanagement, and corruption in the public sector is sometimes likened to market failure in the private sector. As with all mature systems, formalism sets in and renders long-established government bureaucracies incapable of responding to the changing face of both domestic and geopolitical issues. Considering that electoral politics dominates the political sphere (and the cult of personality, corrupt fundraising, and obvious profit taking that go with electoral politics), it’s a wonder that anything gets done at all. . . . [W]e entrust and empower our government to develop a cohesive and comprehensive view of providing for the public welfare. On even the slightest review, however, what we actually have for government looks more like a headless beast, all bloated body and tentacles operating without coordination. We can mostly likely respond to new threats and cataclysms as they occur, but it would sure be nice to be able to anticipate them, which I fear we can’t when no one is truly minding the store.

The first key point to understand that bloggers, like me, are not really the people with the great ideas. Almost all my ideas originate with real military experts, or are obvious corollaries of those ideas. I am an information maven, and not the only one. My goal in life when I military blog, is not to personally come up with solutions to the military's problems, so much as it is to make a wider audience aware of the points being raised by independent thinking reformers within the existing military establishment, who have conviced me that they have worthwhile arguments. The internet makes access to their ideas and the original documents that back them up, much easier to obtain.

The military is deeply frozen into a bureaucratically maintained status quo, which can only be overcome with intentional and intense effort by people in the position to take action. In other words, change can only come from the top military brass and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, the White House and the relevant committees in Congress. Either the existing leaders have to acknowledge the errors of their ways, or existing elected officials have to step in and take action, or new elected officials need to step into the fray to take action.

The vast majority of reform oriented military blogging takes place in the right wing blogosphere, and as studies have shown, the right wing blogosphere and the left wing blogosphere cross pollinate only very rarely. Military bloggers bear a fair share of the credit for preventing the Air Force from killing the A-10 Warthog attack aircraft, and for a Congressional decision to kill the DD(X) (now DDG-1000) program after a purchase of a mere two ships. They have also been instrumental in pressuring the military and Congress to armor Humvees and to go beyond that step to purchase purpose built armored patrol vehicles for counterinsurgency missions like the one in Iraq. And, it is fair to say that they have also been influential in the discussion over the purchase of a new assault rifle (the XM-8 program), although the ultimate outcome of that debate remains unresolved at the moment.

Military bloggers have had influence in these debates because right wing politicians can be influenced by the collective voice of the right wing blogosphere, which shapes conventional wisdom among Republican members of Congress and Republican political appointees. They are listened to, in part, because Republican politicians are more comfortable thinking about and discussing the nitty gritty of military policy than most Democratic politicians. Democratic politicians tend to be preoccupied with issues like the legality of war on terrorism techniques, military justice, the treatment of returning veterans and the desirability of fighting particular wars (or wars in general) at all. A few Democratic politicians go beyond these issues, rather than simply deferring to the executive branch on the details of military policy. But, a good share of those, like Lieberman, are so moderate politically, that they are DINOs, Democrats In Name Only.

I come to this area not from the military side, but from the political side. My background and contacts are primarily with politicians, not soldiers. And, much as they sometimes resent it, ultimately, it is the politicians, and not the soldiers, who make the key calls on military policy.

I believe that the nitty gritty of the kind of military we want to build at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, is an issue too important to leave to professionals operating in the context of a dsyfunctional bureaucracy. The issues are not necessarily inherently partisan. Hell, I've praised some of Donald Rumsfield's decisions on this score, even though others have been abysmally bad. But, as an opposition party, and as a potential party of government, the elected officials in the Democratic party are the only way that some of the more deep seated problems with our military can solved through significant reforms. Democrats aren't politically wedded to bad decisions already made on these issues, and the pressures of the military-industrial lobby to which many Republicans are beholden.

Significant reforms, however, will only happen is a significant number of Democratic party politicians take an interest making them happen. This means that Democratic party political players need to be educated about the issues, and that a consensus needs to develop within this group of educated Democratic party political players about certain big picture reforms that need to happen, where reformers backed by solid evidence have been thwarted by existing military institutions. It is in their interest to do so, because the kind of military you develop influences the kinds of wars you will fight, and those decisions should be guided by the values of the Democratic party.

When that consensus develops, a Democratic party military agenda can develop and can be campaigned upon, allowing Democrats to take a leadership role on national security issues that the party has ceded to Republicans since at least the Eisenhower administration. Then, when, sooner or later, the Republicans are ousted, that agenda can be implemented, the country can be made a safer place, and conventional wisdom on key military issues that the brass now has wrong, will change, because conventional wisdom usually follows the opinions of whoever is in charge.

The problem is that right now, Democratic party politicians are largely unaware even of what the issues are, and certainly don't understand them. They lack the confidence, the understanding and the consensus necessary to bring about real reform.

My mission, ambitious as it is, is to play one small part in developing understanding and consensus within the Democratic party about military issues so that this situation can change, and so that real, positive change that makes our country safer can happen.

25 July 2006

The Root Causes of Crime in Colorado

One of Colorado's fastest growing budget line items is the corrections budget. In the most recent fiscal year, 12.5% of the general fund state budget in Colorado went to corrections, up from 9.8% ten years ago.

This is driven largely by "war on drugs" era increases in the length of criminal sentences in the state. According to the Joint Budget Committee: "The growth in the inmate population is the primary factor driving the Department of Corrections' budget." Thus, far, Colorado has largely focused on finding places to put criminals rather than on reducing correction costs through efforts to address its root causes.

As a result, in the most recent year, state prisons were so strained that housing inmates was only possible due to the fact that 425 inmates at any given time who should have been in state prison were backlogged in local jails awaiting prison space, and another 4,954 were in private prisons. The total Colorado inmate population, including these inmates, was 23,159 in the 2006-2008 fiscal year. On top of that parole populations have grown at a "compound annual rate of 10.5%" in the past ten years.

Referendum C freed up money to address root causes of crime in the 2006 legislative session budget. But, the state underutilizes efforts to address the root causes of crime, which could shrink that budget and also benefit society by reducing crime. This is to a great extent of a produce of policy decisions made by Governor Owens. For example, in 2002, a bill, SB 39, to reduce drug sentences modestly and use the funds to pay for drug treatment, which passed the State Senate by a bipartisan 26-9 margin, and passed the State House by a 62-1 margin, was vetoed by the Governor.

Three important root causes of crime are substance abuse, mental illness and a lack of education. The vast majority of convicted felons are individuals with one or more serious problems that prevent them from functioning productively in society. I'll examine each of these issues in turn.

Substance Abuse

A sample of Denver arrestees in 2003 showed that the percentage who tested positive for use of illegal drugs far exceeded the percentage arrested for drug crimes. Of men arrested, 72.6% tested positive for illegal drugs, and 75.1% of women did (Table 317). Among the male arrestees, 42.3% tested positive for marijuana, 38.3% tested positive for cocaine, and 6.8% tested positive for opiates; among female arrestees, 34.3% tested positive for marijuana, 52.5% for cocaine, and 6.1% for opiates (the subfigure for meth is not available). Some of this involves arrests for drug crimes themselves, but certainly, a large percentage do not. And, these figures don't even begin to capture alcoholism as a factor in crime.

About 47.2% of people newly sent to prison each year in Colorado have a severe or moderately severe substance abuse problem. Another 35.1% have a moderate substance abuse problem. Only 9.4% have no substance abuse problem. Female inmates are even more likely to have a moderate or severe substance abuse problem than male inmates: 87.4% of them need treatment for this reason.

Substance abuse that treats this root cause of crime prevents those who receive treatment from offending again.

[P]rison-based substance abuse treatment is effective – if combined with aftercare – and leads to major reductions in recidivism. For example, his 1999 study involving 478 prisoners at a state prison near San Diego, California found that after three years, only 27 percent of the prisoners involved the prison’s drug treatment program with aftercare returned to prison, compared to a recidivism rate of 75 percent for those not involved in the treatment program.

Another example of a successful prison based substance abuse program is found in Delaware:

A University of Delaware study of the DOC's drug treatment continuum found: Of those completing the continuum, 76 percent remained drug-free and 71 percent remained arrest free after 18 months. In a control group that did not receive the continuum, only 19 percent remained drug-free and 30 percent arrest-free after 18 months.

In short, drug addicted and alcholic prisoners are an accident waiting to happen, who are extremely likely to commit more crimes if their problems aren't addressed. As a public service ad on the radio these days reminds us, people under the influence of drugs may have trouble making good decisions about obeying the law.

Mental Health

Furthermore 19.9% of incoming prison inmates in Colorado have moderate or severe mental health problems, a number that doesn't perfectly overlap with those who have substance abuse problems. Among incoming female inmates, 29.8% have moderate or several mental health problems. About 91% of Colorado prison inmates are men, and about 95% of those serving time for violent crimes are men.

Providing services to mentally ill prisoners isn't a panecea, but itworks to reduce recidivism:

[C]lear evidence shows that Medicaid coverage reduces recidivism rates for mentally ill convicted felons. A Washington State program targeting dangerous mentally ill offenders for special follow up after release significantly reduced recidivism according to a 2005 study of the program.

This follows naturally from the reality that:

The combination of medication noncompliance and alcohol or substance abuse problems was significantly associated with serious violent acts in the community, after sociodemographic and clinical characteristics were controlled.

It isn't that the mentally ill are more likely to commit crimes again that is relevant, it is that because a key factor behind serious crimes commited by the mentally ill is well understood, there are concrete steps that can be taken to prevent is misstep from happening.

Lack of Education

While Colorado specific information on the education levels of prison inmates is hard to come by, nationally we know that:

In 1997, state prison inmates' educational levels were:

14.2% had an 8th grade education or less;
28.9% had some high school education;
25.1% had a GED;
18.5% were high school graduates;
10.7% had some college education; and
2.7% were college graduates or had advanced degrees.

About 70% of the adults in Colorado overall are high school graduates.

There is no reason to think that Colorado is significantly atypical.

Educating prisoners in no panecea, but it has been proven to reduce recidivism in those who undertake it (citations in original omitted):

The Three State Recidivism Study found that re-arrest, reconviction, and re-incarceration rates were lower for the prison population who had participated in correctional education than for non-participants. The differences were significant in every category. The study found:

the re-arrest rate of correctional education participants was 48%, compared to 57% for the non-participants;
re-conviction rate was 27% for correctional educational participants, compared to 35% for non-participants; and
re-incarceration rate was 21%, compared to 31% for non-participants. . . .

A study of recidivism rates conducted by the Virginia Department of Correctional Education found that:

of those who had no educational programming (1,037 persons) while incarcerated, 49.1% were reincarcerated in the Virginia Department of Corrections;
of those who enrolled in an academic program (469 persons) but did not complete it, 38.2% were reincarcerated; and
of those who completed an academic program (451), 19.1% were reincarcerated.

As another example: "[I]n Ohio, while the overall recidivism rate was 40 percent, the recidivism rate for inmates enrolled in the college program was 18 percent."

According to an article in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Correctional Education by James S Vacca, there is widespread documented evidence in a large number of carefully done studies that prison education reduces recidivism.

This only makes sense. About 46% of people in prison in Colorado, and a far larger share of crimes committed and persons convicted of crimes but not sent to prison, are there for either property crimes or drug crimes. Both are economically motivated crimes, and an education makes alternative to this life of crime more workable.

Minor Property Crime.

The best way to stop minor property crimes is not to impose draconian sentences on the people you do catch, which is extraordinarily expensive and often disproportionate to the severity of the offense. Long sentences stop recidivism, for the duration of the sentence, but tend to encourage recidivism after release since ex-cons have a hard time finding gainful employment that would provide an alternative to beinig a career criminal. And, long sentences rarely discourage someone who doesn't think that they'll get caught. The better approach is to devote a greater share of criminal justice resources to investigating crimes like this one, where there is evidence that could lead to a conviction.

Triage principals force police departments to prioritize the most serious crimes, like murders, rapes, aggravated assault and armed robberies, for serious investigations. Less serious crimes, like burglaries and car thefts, often receive only cursory investigations (unless you are the police chief, in which case the CSI crew finds the fingerprints and DNA evidence necessary to identify the perp). Most white collar crimes, petty thefts, and other minor offenses pretty much result in convictions only when a case is handed to police tied up in a bow, or the police witness the criminals in the act.

In the short run, with resources fixed, this makes sense. Society can survive having car thieves on the loose more easily than it can serial rapists and murderers. It would take a massive investment of resources to do serious investigations of most felony property crimes. But, that investment would pay off, by making a life of crime a far more risky proposition than it is today.

24 July 2006

Wikipedia Rocks!

A million articles and 200 languages, on a shoestring:

The site has achieved this prominence largely without paid staff or revenue. It has five employees in addition to Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s thirty-nine-year-old founder, and it carries no advertising. In 2003, Wikipedia became a nonprofit organization; it meets most of its budget, of seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, with donations, the bulk of them contributions of twenty dollars or less. . . .

Wales’s most radical contribution may be not to have made information free but—in his own alma-matricidal way—to have invented a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old. . . .

Insofar as Wikipedia has a physical existence, it is in St. Petersburg, Florida, in an executive suite that serves as the headquarters of the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organization of Wikipedia and its lesser-known sister projects, among them Wikisource (a library of free texts), Wikinews (a current-events site) and Wikiquote (bye-bye Bartlett’s). Wales, who is married and has a five-year-old daughter, says that St. Petersburg’s attractive housing prices lured him from California. When I visited the offices in March, the walls were bare, the furniture battered. With the addition of a dead plant, the suite could pass for a graduate-student lounge. . . .

At any given time, a couple of hundred entries are semi-protected, which means that a user must register his I.P. address and wait several days before making changes. . . . Wales recently established an “oversight” function, by which some admins . . . can purge text from the system, so that even the history page bears no record of its ever having been there. Wales says that this measure is rarely used, and only in order to remove slanderous or private information, such as a telephone number. . . .

Last year, Nature published a survey comparing forty-two entries on scientific topics on Wikipedia with their counterparts in Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. According to the survey, Wikipedia had four errors for every three of Britannica’s, a result that, oddly, was hailed as a triumph for the upstart.

Wikipedia isn't perfect. But, it illustrates that almost universal unilateral control can be given to millions of people and produce good results, not unlike capitalism itself. There are rules, but, it turns out, the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, play nice and keep the faith, particularly when there is some semblence of a few slight rules. It's decentralized, free wheeling nature is also an example of why secret intelligence agencies, with almost the opposite philosophy, are always hard pressed to keep up with the public domain in the era of the Internet.

Another Heartless Immigration Judge

This Denver immigration judge managed to avoid mention by name, which is a shame. Judges whose decisions are reversed for abuse their discretion should be routinely outed. Even if they can't be removed for making bad decisions, attorneys practicing before them should be entitled to know what they are up against.

The immigration judge was presented with uncontested oral evidence and affidavits that a woman speaking fluently in the language of Ethiopia, where she claimed to have grown up, had mixed parentage, with one parent an Eritrean, and the other an Ethiopian. This, she claimed, resulted in violent and cruel government action against her on both sides of the border of the newly divided nation. Despite this evidence, (and the judge didn't question that she was persecuted) the judge ordered her returned to the country of her torment.

The Bureau of Immigration Appeals, as is its custom, summarily affirmed the judges description with essentially no analysis or discussion.

The judge said that it wasn't credible that she was an Ethiopian. Why? She had few official documents in hand to prove her citizenship. (I'd be more skeptical if a refugee did.) Her passport was torn up, although the important pages weren't missing. A relative's evidence was presented by affidavit, rather than in person.

Was it sloppy immigration attorney lawyering? Probably, yes. The appeal was handled by DU law students who got it right, however, although we don't know who handled the case at trial. Even when the attorney's aren't students, they are often volunteers with little or no experience in the field. But, there aren't exactly a lot of non-Ethiopians in Denver, speaking fluently in the language of Ethiopia, claiming asylum with affidavits in hand from relatives, under penalty of perjury, who claim to know that her parents are Ethiopians.

The 10th Circuit reverses the decision, basically finding that the immigration judge had no basis in the evidence presented to be unthinkably skeptical. The appellate court wasn't allowed to consider extensive documentation of her nationality presented after the hearing, although they chide the government attorney stating: "We are frankly surprised that the government persists in defending the BIA's decision, rather than acquiescing in remand in the interest of justice." (The appellate court also chides the government attorneys in footnote 1 for incompetence in their appellate brief, noting that they admit key facts in one part of their brief, which they deny in their analysis "making it difficult for the Court to determine what facts the government deems to be material and disputed."

But, that is, at heart, the problem. Government immigration lawyers don't give a shit about justice in the United States, certainly not in Denver, where assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth A. Weishaupl and U.S. Attorney William J. Leone argued to defend a mistaken determination by an immigration judge, that this woman wasn't an Ethiopian, that they clearly knew to be wrong as a matter of fact. The immigration judge went out of his way to make this woman suffer back in Ethiopia and possibly die, for no apparent good reason. It isn't as if the government offered any evidence at all to contradict the story or to show that the story provided was false. This immigration judge engaged in little more than torture by proxy.

The case comes in the context of a large number of badly decided immigration decisions, nationwide, and perfunctory appeallate review, overwhelmingly anti-refugee, due to John Ashcrofts gutting and biasing of the immigration courts in the early years of George W. Bush's regime. Alberto Gonzales, the current attorney general, has himself stated that he is deeply concerned by the current state of affairs.

If the immigration courts repeatedly prove to be stacked against immigrants who seek relief in them, even when those immigrants are in the right, is it any wonder that people are loathe to resort to the legal process?

Flood Prevention Republican Style in Colorado

The Cherry Creek Reservoir dam might not be able to stop a flood of central Denver according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Where is Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo on the issue? He cares more about protecting property in his own 6th Congressional District, that might be impacted by a higher dam and hence a larger reservoir, than the lives of Diana DeGette's constituents downstream in Denver.

[W]ork on the problem was suspended six years ago after the Corps suggested raising the dam to make it safer.

The potential impact on surrounding real estate caused such a public outcry that U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and others stopped funding for the Corps' work on the safety issue in 1999.

Cherry Creek runs from the Cherry Creek State Park (near Governor Owen's suburban home), to the South Platte River, a few hundred yards South of the Elitch Garden's Amusement Park in downtown Denver. A serious flood in the Creek could impact much of highly populated central Denver which lies in its flood plain. The risk is real according to an Army Corps of Engineers study.  According to the Rocky Mountain News:

Federal precipitation studies done in the 1980s and '90s indicated that the 1940s-era dam would not withstand a catastrophic flood.

Of particular concern are Denver's county hospital, Denver Health, which would likely face urgent needs to provide care for flood victims at the time, and the Cherry Creek Mall, which is often full of people who might be unaware of the coming wave of water. Both of these facilities are in the low lying part of the Cherry Creek flood plain in places with relatively little backup drainage beyond the immediate river basin.

Currently, the downstream areas of Cherry Creek are designed to handle a 100 year flood, only subject to the condition that the dam holds. Repeated deadly floods in Denver were one of the main justifications for both the Cherry Creek dam (which prevented a major flood in that river basin in 1965) and the Chatfield Reservoir dam. An August 3, 1933 flood, for example, sent a fifteen foot wall of water surging into low lying areas of Denver.

Cross Posted at Colorado Confidential.

HD 1: Hernandez v. Labuda

Voters will decide who wins the House District 1 primary race between Democrats Alfredo Hernandez and Jeanne Labuda between now and the August 8, 2006 primary election. Early voting starts July 29, 2006.

Despite the strong historical advantage of Democrats in the District, this may not be a cakewalk for the winner. Republicans have targetted the campaign, in part, because it is an open seat. Aimee Rathburn, a paralegal who is the President of the Bow Mar Heights Improvement Association running as a Republican for the seat in the general election, has raised more than $17,765 and has $11,472 in cash on hand. But, Fran Coleman won the seat comfortably in 2004 by a 13,132 to 8,534 vote margin (more than 60% of the vote).

House District 1 includes middle-class suburban areas of Southwest Denver, most or all of the City of Sheridan, a small, predominantly white working class first ring suburb  and the Northern part of the District, around Lincoln High School, which is a predominantly Hispanic working class neighborhood.  The seat is currently held by Fran Coleman who is now running for the Senate District 32 seat vacated by Dan Grossman.

I spoke with both candidates at a Democratic Party picnic at Ruby Hill Park in Denver on Sunday.  Labuda and Hernandez are both operating door to door level campaigns and agree that the key to the race will be getting out the vote. Labuda said that turnout will be key. Hernandez was concerned that regular primary voters, many of whom are in their 60s or older and are long time residents of the neighborhood, may have trouble finding their way to Denver's new vote centers which replace the precincts that most have been going to out of habit for years.

Labuda is mild-mannered and tuned into the sometimes tawdry politics of Sheridan, where she joked that many of the senior officials are sleeping with each other, because they're married. Hernandez exudes efficiency and action. He is in his element directing staffers about the next campaign task to be done and is focused on the tactical issues involved in getting elected, like getting older voters to the polls.

Margaret Attencio, a senior state Democratic party official, was an early candidate in the race, but failed to gather enough signatures to petition onto the ballot.

Both campaigns appear to have a credible amount of money to spend. Hernandez had $2,755 of cash on had as of July 17. He had raised $16,660 as of his last cumulative contribution report. His biggest donors are the United Food and Commercial Worker's Local #7 ($2,000), and the Colorado Education Association ($1,000).

Labuda's campaign finance reports are not properly indexed at the Secretary of State's website in her race (her committee is "Committee To Elect Jeanne Labuda" with  SOS Assigned ID:  20065601826). Her candidate committee has received $9,515 in contributions, and she has loaned herself $35,000. At last report Labuda had $5,831 of cash on hand.

Labuda, the top line candidate, based on the vote at the spring caucus, is a former Assistant Attorney General from the part of the Southwest Denver District sometimes known as Denver's "cop town", a suburban style neighborhood which caught on with police and firefighters looking for a suburban lifestyle but who were required by residency rules to live in the City and County of Denver (the rules have since been relaxed from the time when the neighborhood took on that character).

Her platform favors funding for transportation, education, and health care, making special note of her budget support for police and firefighters and their pensions. She also notes that she supports "comprehensive immigration reform." Specifically: "She thinks that every state should tell the federal government how many immigrant workers are needed in the hospitality, agricultural, manufacturing, construction and other sectors of the economy. Then the federal government should base its guest-worker program on those figures." (Of course, the real decision making power is in Washington, not the state capitol in Denver.) She also has background processing claims in the Social Security Administration, as a high school teacher, and on the Denver Planning Board. Her most notable endorsement is from Don Mares, a former City Auditor who swept the majority Hispanic areas in Denver's last Mayoral election, but ultimately lost to Mayor Hickenlooper. She is also endorsed by Denver School Board member Michelle Moss, and several elected officials, including one Republican, from the City of Sheridan.

Alfredo Hernandez is a deputy district attorney in Denver, and a generation younger than Labuda. He too is committed to improving schools, health care and transportation in Colorado.  He says his first bill will be to increase the minimum wage in Colorado.

Hernandez is endorsed by sitting District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, Denver Fire Chief Larry Trujillo, the police officer's union, the Colorado trial lawyers association, State Representatives Joel Judd, Jerry Frangas, Val Vigil and Debbie Benefield, Denver School Board member Jill Conrad and Denver City Council member Rick Garcia.

Coyote Gulch reported at Square State on the first debate in the race (held outside HD 1). Suffice it to say that the candidates differ only in the finest nuances on the issues. This is a race between experience in the person of Labuda, and enthusiasm in the person of Hernandez.

One more debate, with both the Republican and Democratic candidates, and a handpicked bipartisan audience, is planned before the primary.

Cross posted at Colorado Confidential.

1702 Posts

In case you haven't noticed, the Colorado Confidential project is up and running and impacting this site. I'm a little more focused on Colorado stories, which I often cross post, than I have been. And, since not every little story gets cross posted, this site is becoming a little more focused on everything else.

Traffic continues to surge.

Comments are welcome, here (on all things meta) and elsewhere (on the topics of the posts in question).

21 July 2006

Drug Research Financing and the Lottery

There is a big problem with how we finance drugs. We have private companies work to get patents who then sell drugs for whatever the market will bear.

The are a number of problems with this.

One is that at the foundation of the whole biotech industry is public funding for basic science research. Industry takes chemistry already brought just short of being ready for market in universities, and then does research and safety tests that take the final step, yet get all the profits.

Another is that very often, government is the primary consumer. With Medicare Part D (drug coverage) we are very close to a single payer system for all drugs directed at the elderly. Medicaid overwhelmingly, although not quite entirely, pays for health care for those with long term disabilities, like cystic fibrosis and Down's syndrome. Even when government doesn't pay for the drugs themselves, it often pays for the long term care made necessary by the lack of good drugs. About 70% of nursing home care is paid for by Medicaid.

Particularly in the case of drugs for geriatric illnesses, the government (which also does an excellent job of controlling senior executive pay in large organizations and doesn't make a profit) would be better off simply commissioning research on drugs, rather than waiting for private industry to do so and then paying a premium for government created patent based profits. Government should own the patents to many of these drugs in the first place.

Another aspect of drug research, the reason that drugs like those mentioned get invented at all, is health problems we must urgently want to fix, and health problems we know how to fix, often don't match up. Ritalin was developed as a diet drug, but the side effect turned out to be more valuable. The best bang for your buck heart drug today is asprin, again something it was not designed to cure. Drug research is glorified playing around with chemicals and finding out what they do to people, with a little targetting at the most promising prospects.

Insurance is designed to deal with differences in risks between patients. But, in the area of drug research, one of the better reasons for public funding, as opposed to private research, is that the real risk issue that needs to be spread out is over what conditions we end up finding cures.

Drugs like Remodulin® (a drug that costs $100,000 a year for life to treat a rare circulatory condition known as PAH) were the product of generalized research on circulatory system drugs. PAH sufferers got lucky. One of the things that R&D ended up being able to cure was PAH. It could have been the blood clots people get on long airplane flights. It could have been hemaphillia. It could have been strokes in people with high cholesterol. Everybody pays in, in the hope that somebody is going to win the lottery and have a disease that they suffer from cured. But, it is more a product of accounting rules than scientific fact that the R&D cost was allocated to PAH sufferers, instead of someone else. Making the pills themselves isn't all that expensive. The $100,000 a year drug prices are amortization concepts in action. But, sometimes, it would make better sense to finance drug R&D the same way we finance the lottery. All potential winners pay in a little on a regular basis. Now and then, somebody gets a big payoff. People who participate think the payoff is a good thing. So the game continues. And, unlike the lottery, coming out behind in the drug research game isn't a near statistical certainty.

* * * * *

There are also many people who think that the reason that drugs should not be handled by a pure market based approach is that they are necessities. I don't agree. That is an argument for making sure that people have health insurance, not for changing the way the drug market is organized.

Lots of real necessities, food, clothing and housing, for example, are provided perfectly well through a primarily market mechanism. Being necessary isn't what makes the market problematic for drugs. If people can't afford necessities, the solution is to give them more money, not to redesign the goods market.

(Likewise, the reason other necessities, like water, are provided by public enterprises for the most part, is not because they are necessities, but because of the economies of scale involved. It is a natural monopoly.)

The biggest reason that the market is doing a poor job with drugs has nothing to do with their necessity. It is a combination of the fact that most of the value of a drug is government created intellectual property value rather than ordinary good value, and the fact that government is already and inextribably deeply involved in the market.

Notably, nobody is complaining seriously about problems with the generic drug market. It is working just fine to provide quality products at a reasonable price to large numbers of people, largely free of political games, with only minimal government involvement mostly to insure safety standards, just like the markets for food, clothing and housing.

What the market is turning out to be doing a rather poor job of doing is financing drug research. It isn't that it doesn't finance drug research. Private enteprise spends loads of money on drug research. It's that the wrong people are paying for that research, that people are paying too much for that research, and that economic incentives to conduct that research don't match the health based needs very well.

Should the NAACP Worry About Estate Taxes?

President Bush, in his address to the NAACP said that "the death tax will prevent future African American entrepreneurs from being able to pass their assets from one generation to the next."

Is that concern justified? No. "[O]nly 59 African-Americans will be subject to the estate tax in 2006, and 33 in 2009."

The total number of American decedents subject to the estate tax in 2006 will be about 12,600, and about 7,100 in 2009. So, African-Americans will make up about 0.5% of people who owe estate taxes in 2006, and about the same percentage of people who owe estate taxes in 2009, even though 12.8% of Americans are African-American.

Put another way, about 290,000 African-Americans died in the United States in 2002 (Table 99). In 2006, just 1 African-American decedent in 4,915 will be subject to estate taxes. In 2009, just 1 African-American decedent in 8,789 will be subject to estate taxes.

While we're at it, we should also note how many farms and small businesses in the United States are affected by the estate tax. In 2006, just 123 farms and 135 small business will be subject to the estate tax at all. In 2009, the number will be 65 farms and 94 small businesses. Only about 2% of decedents subject to the estate tax have estates with farms or small businesses.

By comparison, there are 2,129,000 farms in the United States (Table 797) (about 90% are sole proprietorships or owned by a family, about 9% are other partneships, and about 0.4% are corporations (Table 795)). There are about 25 million non-farm small businesses in the United States (Table 726), defining small as receipts of under $1 million a year.

Thus, one in 2,000 farms each year is subject to the estate tax, and about one in 20,000 small businesses each year is subject to the estate tax in 2006.

Most estate with farms and small businesses in them also have ample liquid assets with which to pay estate taxes. For example, in 2009, just 13 farms estates, in the entire United States, will be subject to the estate tax and not have enough liquid assets to pay the estate tax in a single lump sum immediately. Even those that don't have those kinds of liquid assets are unlikely to have to sell land or a business. Farms and small businesses are allowed to pay estates taxes at an artifically low interest rate in payments over fourteen years.

If African-American estates are typical of those of similar size, then only one or two African-American owned farms or small businesses will be subject to the estate tax in either 2006 or 2009, and probably at most one from 2006-2009 combined will not have sufficient liquid assets on hand to pay the estate taxes due immediately.

President Bush and reality aren't friends.

On Evacuations

A lot of people were complaining today about how long it’s taking to evacuate Americans from Lebanon. Lebanon? Hey, we couldn’t even evacuate Americans from New Orleans.

— Jay Leno

Via NewMexiKen.

Tax Shelter Patents

Like a lot of people, I am skeptical of business method patents. The likelihood a granting someone a patent that they don't deserve ("there is nothing new under the sun") is greater than in the physical technology field. Simply put, most of them a junk. But, one particular class of business method patents is particularly disturbing.

Only in America would people think to patent a tax shelter. This means that even if someone else comes up with it independently, you can prevent them from using it. Yes, they exist (by the way, the linked report by the Joint Budget Committee is an excellent introduction to the topic. The staff at the JBC includes some of the smartest people in government.) Business method patents generally are category 705, and tax patents are subcategory 36T of business method patents. Indeed, arguably, they can be traced back at least as far as the infamous State Street Bank case, 149 F.3d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1998) which is credited with making the current rush to patent business methods generally, as that case involved "a data process system for a partnership structure of mutual funds that had advantangeous tax consequences."

It doesn't help that the PTO which grants patents, is full of engineers who have no clue about business management or tax planning.

What do they look like? Consider Patent No. 6,567,790, which covers using a grantor retained annuity trust funded with non-qualified stock options, as an estate planning method. (An infringement case involving this patent is currently pending in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut in Wealth Transfer Group v. Rowe, Case No. 2006CV24.)

While this is a case where the baby really should be thrown out the with the bathwater, by simply ending business method patents entirely, tax shelter patents are a particular concern, because they put a price on equal protection of the laws. Those licensed to use a tax shelter could pay less in taxes than those not licensed to use it. It is the opposite of transparency in government. And, because these are particular to tax laws that come and go, the public benefit normally associated with patent law, which is that new ideas eventually come into the public domain, isn't present. By the time a tax shelter patent comes into the public domain, the relevant tax law frequently will no longer exist.

Similarly, it also happens to be the case that there is no demonstrated shortage of innovation in the field of creating tax shelters under current law. Tax shelter patents do not solve a problem with lack of innovation, in large part because attorney-client privileges and accountant-client privileges, along with I.R.S. privacy laws make trade secret protection for tax shelters, as opposed to patent law protection, a viable alternative. Trade secret protections, from a public policy perspective, are preferrable to patents, because a trade secret owner can't exclude someone who comes up with the idea independently from using it. Indeed, the threat that tax shelter patent litigation discovery poses to the attorney-client privilege and accountant-client privilege is another reason why allowing people to patent tax shelters, as existing law does, is a bad idea.

Incidentally, while this is a tax issue, it isn't a serious revenue issue. If anything, tax shelter patents may actually increase revenues because some people might choose not to use a tax shelter that is the tax minimizing choice for them because they don't want to pay a license fee to the patent holder.

The House Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing on the subject on July 13, 2006. For an opinion contrary to mine, and believing that tax law patents could be a good thing, read this testimony.

20 July 2006

Divorce and Republicans

Red States and Blue States.

Divorce Rates.

Divorce and Republican voters seem to be strongly correlated. I wonder if it is because Republicans tend to be conservative Christians.

Bob Beauprez, Part Time Prophet.

While my site is called Wash Park Prophet, because it is focused on the future, I don't claims to have insider information on our fate, just sensible guesses based on facts. Honestly, I think my lack of reliance on infallible sources may even enhance this site's credibility. Bob Beauprez apparently doesn't agree. He thinks his legislative agenda is divinely inspired:

The Senate last month rejected -- emphatically -- a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to ban same-sex marriage, so there was zero chance the amendment could be approved this year. But members of the House were answering to a Higher Authority. . . .

Rep. Bob Beauprez (R- Colo.) . . . found "the very hand of God" at work. "We best not be messing with His plan."

Apparently God isn't into standard English grammar either.

Court Rejects State Secrets Claim

A United States trial court has rejected a federal government request to dismiss a case based on the "state secrets" privilege in an NSA wiretapping case. The full opinion is here. This has the potential to reign in illegal Bush Administration spying that has long been permitted to fester behind procedural barriers and claims that national security overrides the rule of law.

Making A Record.

A good factual presentation in a trial court can turn a difficult appeal into a clear cut case. The 10th Circuit's search and seizure case of United States v. Carrizales-Toledo is an excellent example of a prosecutor presenting testimony that overcomes any objections on appeal. By the time the recital of facts from the record is done on page seven of the opinion, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The facts brought out are the kind of facts that are present in most search and seizure cases, but few prosecutors are sharp enough, and pay enough attention to the details, to articulate them in a manner that turns a mere hunch into probable cause with a solid factual basis.

Details like the fact that the officer patrolled the area for four years (which in turn makes the fact that he doesn't recognize the vehicle stopped relevant), that a similar bust had been made a week earlier, like a conversation with a local resident about who they knew was behind them on the road, and an exceedingly detailed account of the step by step process by which the bust was carried out (with nuances like the officer smelling marijuana before the suspect said anything, and removing a gun from a holster, but not pointing it at the suspect), made the case easy.

Maybe the statements weren't true. They are almost too good to be true. But, getting that kind of direct examination into a trial transcript, in a way that sounds entirely plausible and even a little funny, is a fine art.

The law in question, concerning confessions obtained after a Miranda warning based on statements made before such a warning, is hopelessly muddy and presented a reviewing court with an opportunity to set aside the conviction. But, because the officer's direct exam was so convincing and was credited by the trial court, it didn't happen. The appellate court, somehow, found its way through the morass, even though it didn't agree with the trial judge's legal reasoning, and affirmed the trial court's decision not to suppress the defendant's incriminating statements.

Court Bans Union Coordination of Campaign Volunteers

The Colorado Court of Appeals held today that the Colorado Education Association and Poudre Education Association illegally contributed to the campaign of State Senate Candidate Bob Bacon in Senate District 14 by coordinating the efforts of union member volunteers to distribute his literature. An administrative hearing had exonorated the teacher's unions, based on an exemption for volunteer services in the campaign laws, but that decision was reversed in this appeal.

The ruling imposes unprecedented limitations on union political activity.

Colorado's campaign finance laws limit contributions of things of value from unions in a campaign coordinated with a candidate. It also provides an exception for volunteer services provided without compensation. Before this ruling, most union officials had interpreted the ban as limiting only monetary contributions to candidates (subject to specific exceptions in the statute), not volunteer efforts on behalf of candidates.

The facts in this case were largely undisputed. Bacon's campaign arranged to have volunteer union members, at sessions organized by the union, distribute literature provided by Bacon's campaign to homes in the district. Bob Bacon, a Larimer County Democrat, went on to win the election with about 56% of the vote, in a race against Republican Ray Martinez and Libertarian Mark Brophy.

While the Court discussed whether the activity was coordinated with the campaign, and discussed whether distributing literature was really something of value, the real issue was the scope of the volunteer services exception.

The Court of Appeals held, contrary to the expectations of many, including the unions, that Colorado's campaign finance law's exception for volunteer services applies only to services provided by individuals, and not to volunteer services coordinated by organizations.

The analysis of the Court of Appeals on this key issue did not reference any prior cases on the subject. It simply applied what it felt was the plain language of the volunteer services exception which does not count as a contribution: "services provided without compensation by individuals volunteering their time on behalf of a candidate. It held that union coordination of volunteer efforts went beyond the scope of this exemption.

While the penalties the unions face on remand are not great, they may choose to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court because of the great impact it has on the political power of all unions in the State of Colorado.

Cross Posted at Colorado Confidential.

For Carolyn, Willi and Fred

In August of 2001, Carolyn Wagner came to Cortez, Colorado to honor the life of slain Navajo gay Two-Spirit youth Fred C. Martinez, Jr., and to support her mother, Pauline Mitchell. Fred was killed by Shaun Murphy, who plead guilty to murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison three years ago. Carolyn had a reason for coming. The experience of her own son Willi. Then, this Spring, she became a victim herself.

Violent bigots in Arkansas, it is hard to agree that they are extremists in that state, attacked Willi and later his mom. I can't offer much to them. But, I join Daily Kos commentor Melvin in offering a flower of sympathy and concern.

One day Willie Wagner got beaten up during school lunchtime in Fayetteville. Again. Broken nose, bruised kidney, hematomas, lacerations. The three guys who did it said, "You're getting what you deserve, faggot."

On another day I met Willie's mom, Carolyn...

Carolyn drew people together, me included, to help with this issue. She told us Willi's story. [Willi has since changed the spelling of his name.] Willi had been harassed since junior high for being gay. It continued into high school. His teachers said that if he chose to be gay, he would have to expect such treatment. Everyone told Willie's parents to ignore such incidents and that there would be no punishment for those who had done the harassment.

After the bashing the school administration said that it wasn't a hate crime, that it wasn't a gay bashing, but maybe it was sexual harassment. So maybe they should write a policy about that. That's when the Task Force and PFLAG got involved. Change started.

Time passed but people in Arkansas didn't. Mom's experience echoed that of her son.

Sat May 13 05:47:15 CDT 2006

Carolyn Wagner, long time progressive activist, one time PFLAG National Vice President, and co-founder with me of Families United Against Hate, has become victim of a vicious hate crime. She has been stalked and harassed since January by a right wing extremist group who know of her work in gay rights. One of them attacked her at her home last month, and she has had major spinal and nerve damage as a result. She suffered some paralysis in her legs and is having emergency surgery tomorrow at St. Anthony's Medical Center, in North Little Rock, Arkansas.

She lived. But, no one should have to pay that price that Carolyn, Willi and Fred have paid in the case of Willi and Fred, for being born gay, and in Carolyn's case, for being a mother fighting to end the injustices that made her child suffer.

A Navy On Borrowed Time: Ours

I'm not the only one who thinks that it is only a matter of time before the U.S. Navy is ripped to shreds with missiles.

One event that shocked [Marine Lt. Gen. Paul] Van Riper occurred in 2002 when he was asked, as he had been before, to play the commander of an enemy Red Force in a huge $250 million three-week war game titled Millennium Challenge 2002. It was widely advertised as the best kind of such exercises -- a free-play unscripted test of some of the Pentagon's and Rumsfeld's fondest ideas and theories. . . .

In the computer-controlled game, a flotilla of Navy warships and Marine amphibious warfare ships steamed into the Persian Gulf for what Van Riper assumed would be a pre-emptive strike against the country he was defending.

Van Riper resolved to strike first and unconventionally using fast patrol boats and converted pleasure boats fitted with ship-to-ship missiles as well as first generation shore-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. He packed small boats and small propeller aircraft with explosives for one mass wave of suicide attacks against the Blue fleet. Last, the general shut down all radio traffic and sent commands by motorcycle messengers, beyond the reach of the code-breakers.

At the appointed hour he sent hundreds of missiles screaming into the fleet, and dozens of kamikaze boats and planes plunging into the Navy ships in a simultaneous sneak attack that overwhelmed the Navy's much-vaunted defenses based on its Aegis cruisers and their radar controlled Gatling guns.

When the figurative smoke cleared it was found that the Red Forces had sunk 16 Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier. Thousands of Marines and sailors were dead.

Do we need another Pearl Harbor class disaster to shake up military thinking? The point of virtual simulations is to identify vulnerabilities and change our force so that they don't recur. It isn't at all obvious that we've taken that step.

We have a Navy perfectly designed during the Reagan Administration to kick the butt of the World War II Japanese Imperial Navy. We've spent hundreds of billions of dollars to buy it. But, the big picture rethink of that massive expense hasn't happened. With the exception of the Littoral Combat Ship program and the catamaran based high speed logistics ships that the Army and the Navy are experimenting with, the Navy hasn't fundamentally rethought a strategy designed to deal with the War in the Pacific.

Hat Tip to Daily Kos diarist London Yank.

19 July 2006

Rockets, Bombers and National Boundaries

World War II changed everything. But, economics and the relative peace of the Cold War put many of those revelations on ice.

Prior to World War II, there were no effective long range weapons. If you wanted to attack your neighbor you had to march your Army into his territory. Sure, there was some fuzziness at the boundary itself. Artillery, ancient and modern, allowed aggressors to lob projectiles a little bit over the border, and defenders could lob projectiles back at the attackers. In the eras of seige warfare, this meant hurling rocks and burning tar a few dozen feet over a wall. In World War I, it meant delivering howitzer and mortar shells a few miles. In theory, artillery could have gone much further, but that technology never got widespread use in practice. To make progress in that conflict characterized by trench warfare, you had to breach the enemy line and swarm your troops over land to enemy positions. Aircraft were used in World War I, but mostly as spotters and sniper weapons, not as the main instruments by which major damage was inflicted.

The same principles applied in naval combat. Prior to World War II, the dominant paradigm was to build large armored ships, with massive artillery batteries, called naval guns, and fire them at the other guy's ships at distances within the over the horizon visual range of about thirty miles. It was a natural progression from the era of sailing ships with cannons, and all the major powers from Italy to France to Great Britain to Germany to Russia to the United States has battleships displacing tens of thousands of tons on the eve of World War II.

The development that changed that paradigm in World War II was the airplane. The Battle of Britain marked the first time in the history of the world that a sustained military attack was perpetrated deep in the enemy country's territory, entirely from bases outside that territory. In the Pacific phase of the war, far more battleships were destroyed by enemy aircraft, often carrier based and usually launched from beyond the ranch of battleship naval guns, than by naval gunfire. Some of the most lethal moments in World War II, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, were carried out with bombs delivered by aircraft.

Rockets were still in their infancy in World War II. They were used to some extent, but were inaccurate and unreliable and didn't materially impact the outcome. But, not long after World War II, partially aided by a space race that was in some ways a peaceful display of potential military prowess designed to intimate potential military opponents, rocket technologies, like missiles, came into their own. While not one was fired in anger during the entire Cold War, the characteristic weapon of that era was the ballistic missile tipped with a nuclear warhead, each of which carried the ability to level a distant city anywhere in the world from distant land and submarine based launching pads in a matter of minutes. For better or worse, the United States and Soviet Union, the two superpowers with large ballistic missile stockpiles (although several other countries had them) managed to intimidate each other into not going to war with threats of mutual assured destruction, until the political scene changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Cold War ended.

Naval warfare also learned important lessons from World War II, and the development of accurate missiles further changed the equation. The primary weapons of all of the major U.S. surface combatants (i.e. warships) are missiles, which have a range far greater than naval guns, although they have small residual naval guns. No ship in the world has a naval gun with a barrel wider than 6", while naval guns as large as 16" and an order of magnitude heavier ammunition, were common place in World War II.

Now, not a single country in the world has a battleship. Outside the U.S. Navy which has twenty-four, only two countries, Russia with six and the Ukraine with one, have cruisers. Even aircraft carriers, the darling of the war in the Pacific, are scarce. Outside the U.S. Navy which has twenty four (including both supercarriers and amphibious assault ships), Britain has three, while France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Thailand, India and Russia each have one. Only the Russian one rivals U.S. supercarriers in size. With the exceptions just noted, there isn't a single surface combatant in the world today over 10,000 tons, a stark reduction in ship size since World War II when many countries had battleships with more than 20,000 tons displacement and the largest reached 70,000 tons. Most countries in the world have frigate navies, if they have navies at all. This reconfiguration of world naval power is driven to a great extent by that fact that a surface combatant can be destroyed by modern anti-ship missiles from hundreds of miles away, and stealth technology for big ships is not currently viable, so large, slow, surface combatants, no matter how heavily armored, are basically sitting ducks in the face of a sophisticated opponent. In theory, sophisticated point defense measures limit this threat, but no one has put this theory to the test in real combat, and been proven right, since the missile threat arose.

During the Cold War, missile technology was contained by economic constraints. Only the bigger, more stable nation-states could afford to build or buy them. But, now the Cold War is over and everything about warfare is changing all over again.

This month has seen two developments that have brought the impact of the missile warfare era to the forefront. First, in early July, North Korea made a volley of ballistic missile tests. Then, a couple of weeks later, the Israeli-Lebanon war errupted.

North Korea

Without missiles, North Korea isn't much of a threat to its neighbors, and the threat that it does pose can be managed with conventional means.

The DMZ between North Korea and South Korea is the most heavily fortified land boundary in the world. And, while North Korea is the most militarized society in the world, few of its troops are quality soldiers, and much of its equipment is second rate. China, likewise, is more than a match of a North Korean land invasion. Also, unlike China, North Korea lacks the resources to transport its huge, if mostly second rate, Army to the shores of U.S. allies like Japan or Taiwan. It has no real amphibious assault or airlift capacity. It might be able to use submarines it has designed for that purpose to get a small number of commandos into territory it considers hostile, but that is it.

North Korea does have a couple of dozen small diesel attack submarines, most of 1950s vintage, which could profoundly muck up shipping in its vicinity for a few months until U.S., Japanese and South Korean anti-submarine warfare efforts took them out, one by one, in a painstaking process. Anti-submarine warfare is not easy work in the best of times, and North Korea has one of the largest submarine fleets in the world. In raw numbers, only the United States, China and Russia have more attack submarines. But, there is good reason to believe that North Korean training is subpar and that its submarines are not in top shape. Tracking down late model submarines is much easier than finding modern ones specifically designed to thwart modern technologies used to find them.

Compared to U.S. or Russian or Chinese or South Korean or Japanese air forces, the North Korean air force is a joke. I'd be suprised if the North Korean Air Force could stay in the air for a week in a conventional war. Its planes are mostly older, maintenance is an even more serious problem for aircraft, and its pilots lack adequate training.

Equally important, North Korea has no allies. Even China sees North Korea as much as a threat as it does as an ally. China recently closed its border with North Korea, not in a protest over ballistic missile tests or its nuclear program, but because North Korea refused to return a train that China had sent to North Korea delivering goods. There is no love lost between Russia and North Korea either.

North Korea seems destined, sooner or later, to see the sort of total collapse that took place in equally isolated Albania in the wake of the Cold War. While communist dictorship Cuba has continued to trade with the outside world, and has made addressing the needs of its people an urgent priority, for example, in a food shortage that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in developing a decent health care system, North Korea allowed millions of its residents to simply starve and die when it faced a famine and stood in the way of international efforts to provide relief.

Ballistic missiles, however, change the equation. This summer's missile tests mostly failed, but the whole point of testing is to find out what you are doing wrong so that you can fix it. The mistakes made this summer might not be repeated when missiles are fired in anger. Even if hitting Guam or Hawaii with a deadly missile might be a stretch for North Korea, wrecking havoc on Japan or China or South Korea, with a much shorter range ballistic missile, is not. Some of the short range missiles in that test worked. And, if it had even a handful of nuclear warheads, which most observers believes that it has, or could have in the near future, the damage could be unthinkably great. Millions or tens of millions of people could be killed before the news could make its way to CNN.

Essentially the only defense these nations have to such an attack is North Korean fear that there would be a counterattack. The United States doesn't have a workable missile defense system, and neither do its allies in the Pacific. But, the power of fear to stop a North Korean attack is hardly certain.

North Korea gets basically one shot. It doesn't have a Soviet sized nuclear arsenal. And, the rest of the world, knowing that once the trigger is pulled that the gun is empty, may not feel it is appropriate to kill millions of innocent every day North Koreans in retaliation for the mad outburst of a dictator who doesn't care much about his people either.

Also, a North Korean dictator may feel that it is in his own personal best interest to make such a brutal show of force, even though it is not in the best interests of his country. For example, he may feel that this kind of action is justified to fend off a brewing coup, or regime collapse at home. The threat of being ousted by foreign armies looses its sting when your going to be ousted, and possible executed, at home anyway. Gambling that the military brass and leadership group will rally around you in the face of a real threat of foreign invasion may be a personally rational decision, even though killing millions of innocent foreigners to hold onto your mismanaged regime isn't rational from the perspective of the nation as a whole.

In another scenario, if a North Korean leader was personally in poor health and near death, and knew that court politics were such that his chosen heir was unlikely to follow in his footsteps, creating a crisis to take control of those court politics might seem wise from the leader's perspective. His own life might be forfeit at that point.

The other down side of a dictatorship is that it is efficient. There is no opportunity for deliberation with competiting forces to slow down a hasty call for action that the dicator may later regret. Part of the message that North Korean missile tests sent was that the people in charge of implementing a North Korean missile strike are sufficiently loyal that orders will be followed.

The Israeli-Lebanon War

I'm not at all convinced that Israel has done the right thing in declaring all out war on Lebanon because it has failed to rein in the Hezbollah guerilla group on Israel's border, which has been lobbing rockets from Southern Lebanon into Northern Israel for years, just as some Palestinian groups have been doing with renewed vigor in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal, prompting major Israeli military strikes into Gaza earlier this summer.

Ironically, Israel is in the process of building a wall between itself and the Palestinian territories which, where it has been completed, has proven effective at preventing the suicide bomb attacks that have plagued Israel for decades.

But, walls don't stop rockets, and rockets, unlike mortars and artillery shells, can go far beyond the immediate border region. Evil Mommy recently linked to a map that makes this point abundantly clear. All of Northern Israel, from the Lebanese border to the suburbs of Tel Aviv are within the range of the lastest missiles that Hezbollah has obtained from Iran, which, for its part, officially regrets current Hezbollah attacks with those rockets. If similar rockets made their way to Gaza or the West Bank, all of Israel would be within their range.

Hezbollah has also gained access to Chinese anti-ship missiles that rival U.S. Harpoon missiles, the primary anti-ship weapon of every cruiser, destroyer and frigate in the U.S. Navy, and of many of its allies. One of those missiles, probably launched from a truck on the coast, killed four Israeli sailors on the Israeli corvette Hanit. Admittedly, it didn't sink the sub-frigate sized ship. That attack also defeated Israeli countermeasures, in part, because countermeasures hadn't been implemented because no one in Israel knew that Hezbollah had this kind of capability. But, it does have them, and if a terrorist group can get them, there is no telling how many Syria or Iran might be able to muster. While point defense countermeasures might work against a small number of missiles, defeating a large volley is another matter.

Notably, while Israel does have a missile defense system, it isn't working. Even if it did have a system that did work, it might be hard pressed to stop much of the onslaught due to a dramatic increase in the number of rockets Hezbollah is sending in each wave of attacks. Instead of 3 to 8 at a time, it is sending as many as 70 an hour. This is a lot of small, fast moving targets for a missile defense system to keep track of and destroy.

It is estimated that of the 13,000 or so rockets and missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal, 11,000 of them are of the Katyusha type. These rockets have a short range – maybe up to nine miles or so – and a small warhead of roughly 40 pounds. Based on vintage Soviet technology, these rockets can be rolled out of a hiding place, shot, and rolled back in before any detection can be made. Their flight is over in seconds, making tracking difficult, much less shooting anything down. A system would have to be in exactly the right place to detect the missile once it is launched, then the defensive system would have to make a nearly instantaneous decision to respond, after which the interceptor would have to get to the target quickly enough to destroy it. It is an exceedingly difficult proposition when the flight times are as short as those launched by Hezbollah.

If you fire enough rockets, some will get through and kill your citizens. The mere threat of this happening, moreover, leaves your citizens in a state of terror.


The lesson of both the North Korean ballistic missile threat and the Israeli-Lebanon war is that a nation can no longer keep its citizens safe by policing its borders, if enemies on the other side of those borders have missiles.

Versions of this reasoning were behind U.S. invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. While Afghanistan's Taliban regime itself was no threat to the U.S., it was unwilling or unable to shut down al Queda terrorists in its territory, so the U.S. felt justified in entering Afghanistan to take down that regime. The justification for the Israeli war on Lebanon is almost identifical to that of the U.S. war on Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

But, there is one important difference. The Taliban was the most horrifically awful regime in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea. No one mourned its fall. The regime that is under attack in Lebanon, in contrast, was a fragile democracy, which had ousted Syrian influence over the country to a great extent and showed promise of restoring Lebanon to its former glory as a modernizing, ethnically diverse, intellectual and commercial hub of the Middle East.

Lebanon's government, like most new civilian democratic regimes, was a little short on competence and had certainly not figured out how to shut down the deeply rooted Hezbollah presence in Southern Lebanon yet. But, rather than working diplomatically with this new regime to achieve this goal, Israel reached a breaking point and has lashed out, not specifically at the Hezbollah forces, but, like the U.S. did in Afghanistan, at the entire regime that has permitted these forces to continue to operate.

The U.S. in Afghanistan basically put its weight on the scales of the resistance in a civil war that the Taliban had all but finished off, leaving it a ready friendly replacement for the Taliban regime. But, Israel has no viable alternative to the Palestinians in the Gaza and West Bank on one hand, or the current regime in Lebanon on the other. Wiping out an existing regime that tolerates terrorists doesn't get you very far if you can't replace it with one that will not do so. And, if there is no effective replacement regime, the removal of the past regime has created the ideal situation for terrorist forces, the vacuum of anarchy that we currently see in places like Somolia which is home to known al Queda operations.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the limited international support it received in that venture, was largely based on the now discredited U.S. intelligence claims that Iraq could threaten its neighbors with weapons of mass destruction delivered by missiles similar to those recently tested by North Korea. We needed to strike first, it was argued, because an unpredictable Iraqi dictator might strike in a way that could do real harm that might not be dissauded by a threat of retaliation.

Replacing the regime that the U.S. thought was a threat in Iraq with a successor, however, has proved to be a more daunting task than the U.S. anticipated. It has been thrust into a nation building enterprise it is inept at, trying to create a more or less Western style democracy from the bare bones up, with mixed results, and is stuck providing security for most of the country in the meantime. The result, in the meantime, has been to create a power vacuum that has provided fertile ground for terrorists and factions in a developing civil war, who have killed, by some estimates, more than 6,000 civilians in Iraq so far this year alone.

In short, missiles have brought us to a point in global history when well guarded national boundaries are no longer sufficient to guard a nation's citizens against foreign military threats. Unless all neighbors within missile range of your nation can be trusted not to fire missiles at your nation, your people are at risk. This does lend credence to President Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive use of military force, one that the historical accident of the timing of affordable missile technology has handed to him, as much as anything about President Bush personally. National boundaries are less relevant than they used to be in earlier ages of military technology.

But, what both President Bush and Israel have failed to appreciate, and have learned the hard way (as did President Clinton before him), is that transitory strikes at specific targets don't solve the problem. Often the problem is not the actual malice of the reigime that is home to the threat itself, so much as its indifference to its neighbor's fate, and its ineffectiveness at shutting down terror groups aimed at a foreign regime rather than it. Unless you can replace the regime that is a problem with a genuinely effective and internationally responsible regime, you still have a problem.

(Substantial copy edits completed on July 26, 2006; substance unchanged)

18 July 2006

User's Fees For National Security

Maybe you've read economics textbooks talk about how national defense is a common good that we all pay taxes for in exchange for receiving the protection of the national government. Forget about it. The Bush Administration believes in user's fees:

While Europe has been chartering its citizens back home for days now, it was just today that this government got its shit together (to use our Evangelical president's thoughtful language), and began evacuating a few hundred out of the about 8,000 who can't wait to leave. But there's a catch, Americans have to sign an agreement stating that they will reimburse the government for the evacuation. Let me repeat that: Americans being evacuated by our government due to attacks that our government supports, have to sign an agreement, before boarding, stating that they will reimburse the government for the evacuation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quoted saying "A nation that can provide more than $300 billion for a war in Iraq can provide the money to get its people out of Lebanon."

I don't remember Congress passing a law authorizing the Defense Department to charge U.S. citizens to be evacuated from war zones, but maybe the President just thinks that this is part of his inherent authority.

UPDATE: Secretary of State Rice rethinks this really bad idea and abandons the user's fee idea.