30 November 2006

Slate on Al-Marri

The Al-Marri case is IMHO, one of the most important constitutional cases pending today. Slate explains why. Particularly telling is former attorney-general Ashcroft's revealilng statement about the case (emphasis added):

former Attorney General John Ashcroft describes the arrest five years ago of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri at his home in Peoria, Ill. Al-Marri was picked up as a material witness in the 9/11 investigation and charged with credit-card fraud and making false statements to the FBI. His case was a month away from trial in federal court. And then it wasn't. Al-Marri "rejected numerous offers to improve his lot by cooperating with the FBI investigators and providing information," Ashcroft writes, and "consequently," President Bush declared him an enemy combatant.

Hearsay is admissable in combatant status tribunals. Perhaps the appellate courts ought to take judicial notice of Ashcroft's hearsay statement as well, in making its decision.

Baker Commission: Draw Down Troops

The Baker Commission, a blue ribbon group put together to find a plan to deal with Iraq, is recommending a gradual reduction in U.S. troop levels in Iraq by around 60,000+ troops, possibly to nearby bases rather than home. There would be no fixed time table, but it would happen with some urgency. Many of the troops that remain would have assisting in the process of building an Iraqi Army as their primary mission. There would also be a rapid reaction force.

This contradicts earlier pre-release rumors that the Commission would recommend deploying more troops to stablize the situations before setting in motion of slow U.S. exit.

The commission also urges bringing Syria and Iran into the discussion diplomatically, and recommends that broader Middle Eastern issues be placed on the table.

The commission report is advisory only, but it is seen as a last best chance for Bush to change course while saving face.

Meanwhile, U.S. military leaders are already making what appears to be course correction by consolidating a larger share of U.S. troops in the Baghdad area.

California Dreaming

Rumor has it that our dear friend Arnold in California, will be proposing a major new health care initiative in his State of State address, based on ideas put together by a team of policy leaders in the field. Stay tuned.

Front Range Light Rail?

New Mexico Governor and potential Democratic party political candidate Bill Richardson, has publicly floated the idea of a high speed rail corridor from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Casper in Wyoming, generally parallel to I-25. Now a non-profit group called Front Range Commuter Rail wants to do a $4.4 million study of the possibility with contributions from the impacted states.

Backers claim that it could be done at a "total cost much cheaper than the proposed Super Slab concrete roadway", a toll road which would run parallel to I-25 on the rural Eastern plains of Colorado, because it could be built on existing railroad rights-of-way. Superslab would also have rail and possibly pipeline components and take a massive swath of land to accomodate all of its components. The Superslab project hit a bump in the road in the 2006 legislative session when Colorado law was changed to require it to obtain state approval before beginning construction.

Currently, Amtrak, which has a monopoly on intercity passenger rail in the United States, provides rail service to Colorado only on the I-70 corridor (California Zephyr) and a small corner of the Southeast part of the state (Southwest Chief) with stops at Lamar, La Junta, and Trinidad. It also provides bus service, generally along I-25, between the two lines, and North to Cheyenne, and to Vail.

Thus, there is no passenger rail service connecting Colorado's major front range population centers (Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Longmont, Greeley and Fort Collins).

This slow speed rail service takes two times or more as long as a comparable trip in a car, and tends to be roughly comparable in travel time to travel by bus.  It costs a little bit more than a comparable bus ticket. Sometimes, rail is even slower than a bus.

For example, an Amtrak trip from Denver to Grand Junction, Colorado takes 7 hours and 52 minutes. Taking a Greyhound bus would take 4 hours and 20 minutes. The price for a one way trip with no special discounts is identical for Amtrak and Greyhound. Driving a car that 245 miles from rail station to rail station would take 3 hours and 55 minutes, according to Map Quest.

The only high speed intercity passenger rail system in the United States right now, is Amtrak's Acela Express service from Washington D.C. to Boston, along the Northeast corridor (the only part of Amtrak that makes an operating profit) on rail lines dedicated to passenger service. Outside the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak shares rail lines with the freight rail system which owns and maintains the lines.

A trip for the entire length of the Acela line takes six and a half hours (an average of 69 miles an hour with peak speeds of 150 miles per hour) and serves sixteen stops. The roughly 450 mile trip would take about 7 hours, 50 minutes to traverse by car (an average of about 58 miles an hour mostly on urban interstates).

The proposed 737 mile Front Range Commuter Rail corridor takes about 10 hours, 32 minutes to traverse by car. A high speed rail line comparable to the Acela (which is at the slow end of high speed rail systems) would take about the same length of time, although straighter right of ways and a different choice of rail equipment could make for a speedier rail trip in Colorado than in the Northeast Corridor.

Intercity high speed rail is far more common and has a far larger share of the intercity passanger traffic market in Japan and Western Europe, which, like the Northeast Corridor of the United States, have high population densities.

A number of new high speed rail lines are being considered across the United States.  Plans to build lines connecting major Texas cities and to connect California cities from San Diego to San Francisco, are among the most serious proposals now being considered. The high density of population centers along the front range make it one of the most attractive places to build a high speed rail line in the non-coastal United States, although the fact that interstate highway traffic is faster in the West than it is on the urban highways of the Northeast Corridor.

Estimates of the cost of building a California high speed rail proposal are on the order of $13 million a mile, and the cost of a front range rail line would be unlikely to be much higher, so the construction cost would likely be on the order of $9.6 billion, and possibly less.

Whether the full proposal can successfully be sold to Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico officials is another story. The bulk of the population served by a front range rail system would live in the 174 miles from Pueblo to Fort Collins, yet this portion of a high speed rail system would account for only about a quarter of the cost.

Cross Posted at Colorado Confidential.

T-Rex North?

Colorado's Department of Transportation in its waning days under the Owen's administration, has priced out the cost of expanding T-Rex expansions of I-25 from Broadway to 6th Avenue (i.e. in central Denver), and on the adjacent few blocks of 6th Avenue from I-25 to Federal Boulevard, called the Valley Highway Project. An extra lane in each direct and some redone bridge and intersection work would cost $294 million, of which only $107 million is in the budget for the next 24 years. The plan would displace up to 51 businesses and 9 residences, and could have some impact more than 100 parcels of land.

This is a high price to pay for roughly five miles of road construction, admittedly, in a high traffic area. A public hearing on the final environmental impact statement is scheduled to take place today, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at 375 S. Zuni Street, just a little West of I-25 and just South of West Alameda Street.

Light rail service in the corridor is not a factor, because there is already light rail service in place.

County Line Light Rail Station Update

Closing a loose end in Denver's new addition to its light rail system, the Park Meadows Mall and RTD have agreed on a stop gap measure to solve the lack of mall access at the County Line stop on the Southeast Light Rail Line in metropolitan Denver.

A shuttle every fifteen minutes between the stop and the mall will be established, at least for the next six weeks, with the mall footing some of the bill. It will start at 9 a.m. and run until 11 p.m (10 pm. on Sundays). Service begins tomorrow.

A pedestrian bridge at the stop is scheduled to be completed in March 2008.

28 November 2006

Science Speculations

Safe Turkey Internal Temperatures

First, some too late breaking news on food safety, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has backed off of its traditional stance that turkey needs to have an internal temperature of 180 degrees to be safe to eat:

In its report to USDA, the expert panel noted, "This temperature [165°F] will destroy Salmonella, the most heat resistant pathogen of public health concern in raw poultry." However, at that point of doneness, turkey flesh may still be pink and its texture a bit rubbery, the report notes. On those grounds, it said, "higher final temperatures may be needed for consumer acceptability and palatability"—probably around 170°F for breast meat and 180°F for thigh meat.

This is encouraging, as I had personally long doubted that it really needed to be so hot to be safe.

Superconducting Computers In Space

Second, they've discovered a silicon based superconductor (it is doped with boron atoms). The downside, it only works at 0.35 degrees K. A subscription only Science News story reporting the advance notes that "making silicon so profoundly cold would be commercially impractical. . . ."

But, while it may be commercially impractical to cool silicon to 0.35 degrees Kelvin in a room that is 293 degrees Kelvin (about room temperature), it would be much more commercially practical if your device were located in deep space, where the temperature is about 3-4 degrees Kelvin, and it would, at least, be cheaper at locations like Earth orbit or the dark side of the moon, requiring you to cool your sample from not more than 80 degrees Kelvin.

Why not put a superconducting computer in space and then radio instructions to it, and have results radioed back? This wouldn't make sense for routine applications like word processing, where the second or so it would take light to get to the computer and back would be material, but might make lots of sense for processor intense applications like weather prediction models.

Margaret Mead Validated

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

-- Margaret Mead

A small committed thoughtful group that knows where they're doing can achieve change even in the animal kingdom. Here's an abstract of the article in Nature Physics (Hat Tip to Science News; citations omitted):

For animals that forage or travel in groups, making movement decisions often depends on social interactions among group members. However, in many cases, few individuals have pertinent information, such as knowledge about the location of a food source or of a migration route. Using a simple model we show how information can be transferred within groups both without signalling and when group members do not know which individuals, if any, have information. We reveal that the larger the group the smaller the proportion of informed individuals needed to guide the group, and that only a very small proportion of informed individuals is required to achieve great accuracy. We also demonstrate how groups can make consensus decisions, even though informed individuals do not know whether they are in a majority or minority, how the quality of their information compares with that of others, or even whether there are any other informed individuals.

Basically, the groups of animals wander randomly without information, influenced only by the location of their neighbors. These random impulses tend to cancel out. But, if someone with knowledge splits the difference between staying with the group and going where he knows the objective is, his purposeful movements will overwhelm the random ones.

Four or five ants that know where they are going is enough to lead a group of 30 to 200 ants, even without anyone knowing who actually knows where they are going, and without any communication other than an awareness of the location of each ant's immediate neighbors.

Is it such a stretch to suggest that similar mechanisms are at work in politics and markets? Asimov would be proud that we are finally starting to get a grip on these concepts.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

The kid's five day Thanksgiving weekend (I took four and a half days) is over. The pilgrimage to and from the ancestral homestead is complete. Here are some left over stray thoughts in its wake.

1. The airline magazine makes a strong case that Apple OS X based computers are more stable, more secure and easier to use. They can also use Window's based data filed. The main drawback now is that Windows software is much cheaper and often a sunk cost, and the Apple hardware (especially accessories) are expensive. Maybe this chasm could be ended by having Microsoft simply selling OS X under license as Windows 2007. I can dream? Can't I?

2. A recent issue of the Economist reports that one place you would expect to be the heart of the anti-nuclear movement, Ukraine, home to the worst nuclear disaster of all time, is buying more nuclear reactors as part of a global trend driven by global warming concerns. Politically other nations are warming to nukes as well.

3. The Economist also claims that Milton Friedman actually has far less of an influence on Chile than is commonly assumed.

4. The liquid and gels on planes ban is stupid and implemented poorly. Instead of discarding such things, they could offer to gate check them. Worse yet, the Transportation Security administration flier on security rules incorrectly implies that the ban applies to checked luggage, even though it doesn't, and also gets other things wrong.

Of course, also nuts is the TSA color coding threat system. We've had no days on green, blue or red, lots of yellow days and a few orange days that haven't demonstrably improved security.

The TSA also don't trust its own systems -- the deeply paranoid keep your bags with you every moment rule is very intrusive despite the fact that it makes little sense if only ticketed passengers whose bags have been scanned are allowed in the airport after the security gates.

5. Alcohol regulation is another heart of darkness. Colorado, for example, allows you to get booze in a restaurant, but not a liquor store on Sunday. And, why does it make sense to allow sales of 3.2 beer, but not other alcohol in grocery stores, except four that have special licenses (most notably the Target Store in Glendale, Colorado's own Las Vegas). Regulatory distinctions between different kinds of alcohol consumption are fundamentally irrational. And why in the world is it illegal to buy a car on Sunday? Massachusetts had a ballot issue on the subject this fall (I don't recall if it passed or failed).

6. One of the first warning signs of domestic violence on the horizon is loud, angry fighting. Neighbors hear it. (Insert "My Name Is Luca" lyrics here.) It is unpleasant. It is frightening. As long as nobody hits anybody, and the sound isn't louder than a raucous college party, no laws are broken and law enforcement can't intervene. And, this is probably largely good policy. Inserting police into a volatile relationship is a recipe for escalation and permanently broken relationships, that might otherwise heal.

On the other hand, doing nothing when the community is aware of crisis brewing isn't great either. Perhaps the best kind of person to intervene would be someone with almost no power. Not like the social services worker who can take your children away. Not like the policeman who can put you in jail. Just someone to say, "yes, the world has noticed", who can offer voluntary, constructive options.

Ban Trucks on I-70?

Ed Quillen, once again, has an out of the box idea for I-70 that makes a world of sense.

The first step is to ban all semi-truck traffic through the Eisenhower Tunnel. . . . Semis would also be banned over Loveland Pass. The basic idea is to eliminate the through traffic of heavy trucks. They take up lots of space on the road. They crawl uphill and they go even slower downhill. They need to slow for curves that don't bother passenger vehicles. They jack-knife and block traffic for hours, or they can lose their brakes and threaten other motorists until they reach a runaway truck ramp.

But what of the cargo carried by these trucks? . . . .

The cross-country stuff can go on Interstate 80 across Wyoming or Interstate 40 across New Mexico. . . . the initial plans for Interstate 70 half a century ago put its western terminus in Denver. . . . There is no national transportation need for I-70 west of Denver.

So some re-routing would handle much of the cargo now crossing the mountains on I-70. The stuff moving between Denver and Grand Junction, or Denver and Salt Lake City, could go by rail - within recent memory, the old Denver & Rio Grande Western offered overnight piggy-back service for semi trailers between Denver and Salt Lake.

What of deliveries to Vail and environs, though? . . . There's Minturn, just a few miles from Vail. And from Minturn, there's a railroad track to Pueblo. Most of the line is out of service, but only a decade ago, it handled 20 trains a day, and it shouldn't take a lot of work - cleaning culverts, removing small rockslides, replacing bad ties, etc. - to restore the tracks to service.

Piggy-backs or containers would go on the train at Pueblo, and about six hours later, the freight would come off the train at Minturn for truck delivery to the Vail area and even Summit County, since Vail Pass usually isn't all that congested. Further, some wholesale and supply trade now based in Denver would move to Pueblo - which would provide an economic boost to a city that's always looking for one. . . . Removing the semis from I-70 would increase highway capacity just as effectively as adding lanes, and it wouldn't require years of planning and construction, or any exotic and unproven technology.

There's no practical reason it couldn't be done by next fall[.]

The one barrier to the plan is that it would take federal legislation. But, the time could be ripe for this idea.

I-70 corridor has gone from being a place to pass through to a destination (in significant part because of I-70). Removing truck traffic would make it a more desirable tourist spot.

For reasons of withering long term supplies, national energy independence and the environment, interest in reducing petroleum consumption is at an all time high. The most painless way to do that is to shift freight traffic from long haul trucks to rail, which is far more fuel efficient, for the bulk of long haul trips.

Major projects like an expansion of I-70 also aren't cheap, and one of the issues that got Democrats elected in 2006 was moderate voter disgust at the GOP's failure to control spending.

27 November 2006

NYT on K-12 Education

Paul Tough, writing for the New York Times Magazine (November 26, 2006, starting at page 44) has a thoughtful summary of the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) Act, the sources of economic and racial gaps in performance, and what works to deal with the performance gaps. Some key conclusions:

There is an income/race based education results gap that NCLB Can't Solve

* The 2002 NCLB is not having a material positive effect on American education. For example: In eight graded reading black students have gone from 13% proficient to 12% proficient in 2005, while for whites it went from 41% to 39%. The number of poor students who were proficient in reading went from 17% to 15%. The gap closed, but only due to everyone doing worse.

Math was better in 2000 poor students were at 8% proficient and black students were at 8% in the fourth grade. In 2005, it was 19% for poor students, 13% for black students, and 47% for white students (an improvement for all groups, but far from 100%).

* The 100% proficiency goals of the NCLB are hopelessly unrealistic given what it tries to do to achieve it. The goals cannot be achieved in ordinary public schools with the amount of instructional time that is now the norm.

* States are avoiding the NCLB requirements by making state tests easier. Mississippi declared 89% of fourth-grade students to be proficient readers on its own test, despite being second worst in the nation on a national test which showed the state with only an 18% proficient rating for fourth grade reading.

Parenting Style Matters

* IQ and vocabulary are closely corollated. By age 3, the children of professionals have 1,100 word vocabularies and IQs of 117 on average; the children of parents who are on welfare have 525 word vocabularies and IQs of 79 on average by that age.

* The article implicitly rejects the notion that IQ and other measures of academic success are overwhelmingly hereditary and that no amount of schooling can make a difference, based on the success of a few schools and on the importance of self-discipline. Instead, it concludes that education can matter, but only with overwhelming effort due to the difficulties inherent in growing up in a family that is poor, not by chance, but due to a lack of skills including parenting schools, that puts those parents in that position.

* Professionals talk to their kids more than twice as much as welfare parents, and are six times as likely to encourage their kids as to discourage them, while welfare parents are almost three times as likely to discourage their kids as to encourage them.

* There are other key parenting differences between the rich and the poor:

Children from more well-off homes tend to experience parental attitudes that are more sensitive, more encouraging, less intrusive and less detached. . . . while wealth does matter, child-rearing style matters more. . . . [Affluent families] engaged their children in conversations as equals, treating them like apprentice adults and encouraging them to ask questions, challenge assumptions and negotiate rules. They planned and scheduled countless activities to enhance their children's development -- piano lessons, soccer games, trips to the museum. The working-class and poor families . . . allowed their children much more freedom to fill in their afternoons and wekends as they chose -- playing outside with coussins, inventing games, riding bikes with friends -- but much less freedom to talk back, question authority or hagle over rules and consequences. . . . Kids from poor families might be nicer, they might be happier, they might be more polite -- but in countless ways, the manner in which they are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society.

* A measure of self-disicpline is a more accurate predictor of GPA than IQ by a factor of two. Factors like self-control, adaptability, patience and openness which kids in middle class families pick up unconsciously matter.

Few Schools Close The Gap, But Some Do

* While a conservative Washington think tank called the "Education Trust" identified in December of 2001 a total of 1,320 schools that were both high poverty and high minority but scored in the top third on at least one standardized test, in one subject, in one year, of those only 23 of those schools had scores in top third, in two subjects, in two different grades, in two different years. Most "high flying schools" are really flukes -- schools where one or two teachers, or one batch of children does exceptionally well. Only about 2% of them have a total system that seems to work consistently to help poor children achieve.

A public school that enrolls mostly well-off white kids has a 1 in 4 chance of earning consistently high test scores . . . ; a school with mostly poor minority kids has a 1 in 300 chance.

* Charter schools, in general, do not do better than ordinary public schools academically.

* A handful of charter school franchise concepts do better. Those highlighted were KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) founded in the South Bronx, Achieve First (founded in New Haven, Connecticut), and Uncommon Schools. They talk to each other, use for the most part of a common formula, and operate collectively perhaps about 68 schools, teaching perhaps 15,000 overwhelming poor, minority kids. These schools achieve test scores above state averages and worlds away from those of other schools in similar neighborhoods -- doing perhaps single digit to 12 percentage points better than state averages in percentage of children proficient, and up to 70 percentage points better than area schools.

* These schools require about 50% more time in the classroom a year than traditional schools, they have clear curricular standards that are outcome oriented, the principals ride the teachers hard expecting much and dealing out swift discipline, and that have a strong focus on character and conduct as well as academics, such as KIPP's Slant method (sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the speaker with your eyes) of paying attention to what is going on in class. There is some influence of having parents who are engaged enough to put their kids in a school choice lottery on the success, but only some.

It Takes Massive Resources To Close The Gap

* As a founder of one of these schools states:

We want to change the conversation from "You can't educate these kids" to "You can only educate these kids if . . .

According to the founder (as paraphrased):

If poor students are going to catch up, they will require not the same education that middle-class children receive but one that is considerably better; they need more time in class than middle-class students, better trained teachers and a curriculum that prepares them psychologically and emotionally, as well as intellectually[.]

* One study of teachers ranked by "quality" in Illinois showed that in majority-white schools "just 11 percent of the teachers are in the lowest quartile. But in schools with practically no white students, 88 percent of the teachers are in the worst quartile. . . . At schools where more than 90 percent of the students are poor . . . just 1 percent of teachers are in the highest quartile."

* Federal spending on education helps kids in well funded districts more than those in ill funded districts because Title 1 aid for poor children is tied to state funding.

* "The evidence is now overwhelming that if you take an average low-income child and put him into an average American public school, he wil almost certainly come out poorly educated." The article concludes by nothing that only massive commitment of resources to high quality programs like KIPP, and quality pre-school education is capable of changing that.

Thinking Local

* The article did not address findings like those of a program in East High School, that mixing students in different tracks leaves students in both tracks better off academically. Another broader study of Denver schools came to the same conclusion at the school-wide level -- mixed income schools don't hurt well off students and significantly help poor students. Most students in America of all races attend de facto segregated schools, years of desegregation efforts to fight this notwithstanding.

* Denver is doing better than most cities on these scores. It is investing in pre-school education (due to recently passed Referendm 1A), and does some things in its K-12 system like better teacher incentives, a focused curriculum, and innovative schools calendars and programs, than most, but the bottom line is that it is only doing marginally better than par for the course.

25 November 2006

Who Killed American Labor Unions?

One of the defining political and economic facts of the first decade of the 21st century in the United States is that the percentage of private sector employees who are in private sector unions is at a record low. The percentage hasn't been this low since the 1920s, before good government statistics on labor union membership were kept and before federal law protected labor unions.

There are two main schools of thought regarding the reason that we've seen this decline. I will offer a third contributing cause.

Probably the most popular theory for the decline of American unions has been to blame a legal environment put into place by Ronald Reagan, symbolized by the firing of America's air traffic controllers in his administration, and linked to a number of specific changes in labor law, most notably the establishment of an employer's right to permanently replace employees that strike. Obviously, this dates from the 1980s and beyond, and this time period has also seen a marked decline in major strikes. But, the union movement was already on the wane when this happened, and why should new laws, which still provide partial protection for unions leave labor worse off than it was when there were no effective laws protecting unions in most states, and actively anti-union laws in many states?

The second most popular theory for the decline of the American union has been to blame the deindustrialization of the American economy in the wake of international trade. Cheap foreign labor in combination with free trade in goods, but not services, and a lax foreign regulatory environment governing both the treatment of workers and pollution controls, it is argued, has made the outsourcing of American manufacturing almost inevitable. Automation of factories has gutted the manufacturing jobs that outsourcing didn't shift. Unions have always dominanted big business in America, because employees have with a couple of notable exceptions, organized individual employers, rather than industries. So, unions have fallen with the industry that they hung their star upon.

Less charitable versions of the second story go further. They blame the pace of outsourcing, in part, on artificially high union wages and inflexible attitudes that hurt the quality and productivity of the American work force. No one disputes that union wages are higher than non-union wages, but foreign wages are lower still. The union movement has persausive statistics to show that productivity is higher in union shops, and identifying who is responsible for poor quality is always difficult.

The second theory has the virtue of going back further, to the 1970s, and of coinciding closely with the three and a half decades in which the bottom 80%-90% of the income distribution has seen stagnant wage growth, while the top 10%-20% (and particularly the very top 1%) has seen stunning improvements in income.

But, this second theory has warts as well. While manufacturing has been in a nearly never ending free fall in the rust belt, manufacturers like Toyota, Honda and General Motor's Saturn division have built new factories in rural areas in the South and in places like Ohio away from urban centers. These new factories have generally speaking, had higher quality than existing U.S. automaker's factories, have not been locked into high rust belt union wage scales, and have even where unions have been established not been marked by the same highly antagonistic union-management relations. In much of the South, only about 5% of private sector workforce is in a union. Unions aren't a natural part of the socio-economic environment, even when they are created for show.

There is another possibility, and it can take us back all the way to the mid-1950s, when the private sector labor movement peaked and started to fall. This is that meritocratic policies, like the G.I. Bill, increased support for state colleges, anti-discrimination laws, and affirmative action, stripped unions of potential organizers or leaders. These policies are all designed to allow bright people who were minorities or who were working or middle class, obtain college educations and managerial or professional jobs. They succeeded. The percentage of people graduating from college has tripled in the last forty years. The percentage of women among those graduates has gone from 40% to 58%, and has increased even more dramatically in professions like law, where only about 5% or less of graduates were women as recently as 1970. The black middle class is much larger than it once was, and laws banning discrimination in real estate, have in due course separated the black middle class from the ghettos.

A 1950s study I read found that the average union leader at that time was on a par with college graduates in vocabulary, a proxy for general socio-economic success about as strong as IQ. I also recall stories of pre-Jim Crow America that describe how the thin ranks of black professionals prior to the Civil Rights movement had to return to their segregated neighborhoods each day, providing positive role models for the neighborhood, and how segregated neighborhoods helped foster some black owned businesses to serve these communities.

Anecdotes side, no one disputes that pre-G.I. bill America denied people who couldn't afford to go to college, or who weren't permitted to go to college, opportunities to advance up the economic ladder in a way unthinkable now. There were a few scholarships for the most brilliant young minds, but they were the exception. Social advancement though young women marrying up was probably more common than social advancement secured with a college education.

This development shunted many men and some women who would have found jobs in factories and become union leaders and organizers into the managerial and professional class, co-opting them and undermining potential spokespesons for class struggle. Running a union is very different stuff from working on the factory floor, and without leadership, a union will wither. The rise of service unions, likewise, can be seen, in part of the return of an American underclass with little chance of advancement in its lifetime, as immigrants, legal and illegal alike, fill low wage jobs to which poor English skills relegate them (as well as the fact that service jobs are harder to outsource).

There is no definitive answer to the question "Who Killed American Labor Unions?", and I certainly don't favor a return to a deliberate policy of keeping down talented working class and minority kids so that they can run unions. But, if you don't consider all possible causes of a problem, and your solution doesn't address the real cause, your solution won't work.

21 November 2006

How much did the Southeast Rail Line Cost?

The Denver Post reports that:

After five years of construction, the $880 million, 19-mile southeast train started hauling commuters Monday between metro Denver's two major employment centers - downtown and the Denver Tech Center.

Thus, it cost about $46.3 million per mile.

The lane expansion part of T-Rex, over a similar number of miles cost $795 million, about $42 million per mile.

The per mile costs of both parts of the T-Rex project were high (although both parts of the project were on time and under budget). This isn't too surprising, as the expansion was through a densely populated urban area, while maintaining traffic flows, rather than virgin territory.

The E-470 toll road cost $1,200 million and runs for 47 miles, a cost of about $25.5 million per mile, without the constraints associated with T-Rex.

The Northwest Parkway toll road is 11 miles long. The Daily Camera reported that it was a $190 million construction effort, but the 2004 annual report of the Northwest Parkway's governing body indicates that $413 million in bonds had to be issued for the project, which is $37.5 million per mile. I suspect that the construction costs cited by the Daily Camera exclude design, engineering and land acquisition costs. It carries traffic of 11,428 cars a day as of October 2006.

The Southwest Light Rail line has traffic of about 18,000 trips per day. Southeast light rail will probably add more traffic than the Southwest light rail line did.

Bottom Line: Light rail ain't cheap. But, on a per trip basis, it is comparable to, or a better deal than, toll roads, and on toll roads, people also have to buy their own vehicles to use the system.


The most widely used (althougn not necessarily most accurate) measures of inflation are the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) and the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). Prices almost always increase over time. But, both indexes fell in October. The CPI-U fell 0.5% to 201.8, the CPI-W fell 0.7% to 197.0.

This could be a one month wonder, but is notable enough in and of itself. A most stable measure, which compares the CPI in October of this year, to October a year ago, shows the CPI-U up a modest 1.3%, and the CPI-W up 0.9%.

It is hard to remember that our more recent experience, of interest rates hovering at or near the inflation rate, are the exception and not the norm. Now, you can save money in a certificate of deposit at about 5% interest, and inflation is about 1%, so there is a positive rate of return even after taxes and inflation.

Denver's Southeast Light Rail and More

Yesterday was the first business day that Denver's new Southeast light rail line is in service, something of a moment of truth, as the line was designed to be a commuter line and coincides with a major rethink of bus service to the Southeast Metro Denver area.

This is it for seven years

It is also one of the last notable changes Denver denizens will notice in their transportation system for the next seven years, when FasTracks rail lines start to open.

The Highland Bridge across I-25 extending the 16th Street pedestrian mall downtown to Northwest Denver will open in a matter of weeks.

The C-470/E-470 loop is now complete except for the portion planned for South of U.S. 36 (which links Denver to Boulder) and North of I-70, and is still in the discussion stages. It isn't even guaranteed to happen. The E-470 Tollway (the portion of 470 East of I-25), and the Northwest Parkway (from I-25 to U.S. 36) have been less financially successful than projected (a story covered well by Unbossed).

T-Rex improvements to I-25 in Southeast Denver are basically over now. The I-25/U.S. 36 high occupancy vehicle lanes have been converted to a mix of high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes.

Unfinished southeast light rail business

There are a few pieces of unfinished business in the Southeast rail line.

The Dry Creek station pedestrian bridge over I-25 is a bridge to nowhere until someone finished the bridge exit on the West side of I-25. It will be done soon enough. No project ever finishes everything on time. I’m sure that there is a story involved in the delay, probably involving disputes with the owner of the property in the area or the assigned subcontractor. But, I don’t know that story.

There is a light rail stop at County Line road, which divides Arapahoe County and Douglas County, and is home to the Park Meadows Mall. But, because the previous owner of the Park Meadows Mall was an asshole who insisted on staying out of the Regional Transportation District, there only way to get to the Park Meadows mall is to either stop at the previous light rail stop at Dry Creek, or to walk over I-25 on the pedestrian bridge, and in either case, to transfer to a bus line to get to the mall. It will be another year before the pedestrian link directly from the stop to the mall, agreed to by a new owner, is completed.

Buffalo, New York has a similar situation near one of its malls in the mid-1990s. The mall owner had refused to allow a bus stop at the mall, so workers and customers arriving at the nearest bus stop crossed busy traffic (not always at crosswalks as they were supposed to) to reach the mall. A kid died on one of those crossings and the mall did an about face. It is almost inevitable that some reckless young men and women will try to do the same thing and hop the fence and cross a busy frontage road at the County Line station. When it does, the blood will be on the hands of the previous owner.

While these two loose ends will soon be tied up, it could be a decade or longer, if ever, before the last big loose end in the Southeast rail line is completed. The Southeast light rail line ends at Lincoln Avenue. But, the biggest draw in the neighborhood, the Sky Ridge Medical Center, a major new South suburban hospital, which is the mirror opposite of Denver Health, central Denver's Level I trauma center. Denver Health gets the metro area's indigent gunshot victims delivered to its front door. Sky Ridge gets stock brokers who have had coronaries at work.

Sky Ridge is a major employer, a major destination for patients all over the metro area, some of whom are mobility impaired, and the only hospital in the metro area which could easily be placed right on the light rail line so the someone facing a medical emergency who was near a light rail line wouldn't have to drive. But, to get to Sky Ridge, you have to transfer to the infrequent Highlands Ranch bus service, a stubborn monument to suburban distrust of public transportation that could bring the wrong people to their turf.

A Good Move For Denver

For all its failings, Southeast Light Rail is a good thing.

It is a key piece of infrastructure that will keep Denver a functional city even if gasoline prices go through the roof, either due to waning overall supplies, or temporary disruptions like wars in oil rich countries, Hurricanes and maintenance problems with the Alaska pipeline, all of which we have experienced in the United States in the last year. Denver now has the 16th biggest system in the nation, and the Southeast rail line will like improve the city’s ranking, helping it to surpass Houston, and probably St. Louis as well. When FasTracks is done, Denver will have one of the nation’s premier light rail systems. It is already the best intra-city passenger rail system between Chicago and San Francisco. Relative to its population, FasTracks will leave Denver with light rail use rivaled only by New York City, Washington D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia (in that order). Until FasTracks is complete, Atlanta and Portland, Oregon and San Diego will also have more light rail use relative to the city’s population.

Light rail is returning the city to its street car roots, and will encourage infill development instead of sprawl.

The electricity that powers the Southeast Light Rail is currently powered by dirty coal fired power plants, but the cars run so full and unburdened by traffic, that emissions per passenger trip remain low, and RTD and Xcel Energy, which generates the electricity, can convert to cleaner fuels seamlessly, so far as riders are concerned. The system is almost completely non-polluting at the point of use. Expect RTD to sign up for 100% Wind Source Power (even though in real life, electricity in fungible), in the near future, if it hasn’t already, for the light rail lines, in an effort to lure environmentally puritanical passengers. The surcharges associated with this choice will fall as the state’s renewable energy mandates kick in increasing the available amount of wind power in the Colorado electricity grid. Newly elected Governor Bill Ritter’s strong focus on renewable energy sources for the state may speed this up even further.

Transit Oriented Development and Community Impact

The sidewalks of the sprawling Denver Tech Center office park, which is home to almost as many employees as downtown Denver, will no longer be empty. The sidewalks were built simply because government regulations required them, but aside from a rare lunchtime jogger went empty, because the area wasn't built to human scale and was too far from anywhere anyone lived to make walking a possibility. Now, people from central Denver will leave their light rail stations and walk or bike the rest of the way to work.

They will be joined by a growing number of Tech Center residents who have snapped up condominiums and apartments near their workplaces so that they can escape the lengthy commute everyone else who works there must endure. This was particularly a problem for lower end employees as the nearby subdivisions in Highlands Ranch, Lone Tree and Parker are some of the most expensive suburbs in the metro area. The numerous pedestrian bridges built over I-25 will also make it less dangerous to walk or bike to work at an office over the interstate from your home.

Transit oriented developments are popping up all along the new light rail line, and one of the largest, the redevelopment of the former Gates Rubber plant into a mixed use development will be right at the I-25 and Broadway transfer station, bringing residents easy access to the Southwest, Southeast and downtown light rail lines, as well as good bus service on Broadway from downtown to Highland's Ranch, right between the two Southern light rail lines.


RTD is also making a big bet on Call-n-Ride service today. Regularly scheduled service in Southeast Denver around the tech center has historically been little used and expensive on a per passenger basis. Now, RTD has essentially given up on the regularly scheduled service model in residential areas in the Southeast Metro Area, replacing it with a quasi-taxi service in which you call for a ride at least an hour ahead of when you anticipate needing it.

Local service (i.e. buses that stop frequently) have been reduced to three East-West lines in the area, and service on either side of I-25 in the Tech Center. An additional limited route (i.e. a bus with less frequent stops) connects the ends of the Southeast and Southwest lines through Highland’s Ranch. Additional bus lines connect Parker to the rest of the system to the North and to the West of the city.

The reality is that the Southern suburbs don’t want and don’t need regularly scheduled bus service right now. You can’t survive in the suburbs without a car, and the population density is too low to make regularly scheduled bus traffic very efficient even if people wanted to ride the bus. The suburban public transit demand is for park and ride service for commuters and entertainment events. This demand is driven by the inconvenience of rush hour traffic and the difficulty of finding parking at the destination point, as much as it is by reduced gasoline expenses or reduced wear on the family SUV.

Call-n-Ride replaces a service that very few people want with a lifeline service for the few people who need it, for example, because their license was revoked or their declining vision makes it hard for them to drive any longer.

Next Steps For Colorado

While metro Denver’s transportation infrastructure won’t see notable changes until FasTracks finally builds itself out, there are interesting things going on in the transportation arena in Colorado.

Governor Richardson of New Mexico has brought passenger rail connections to his major cities, and has openly mused about the prospects of a passenger rail connection from Albuquerque to Wyoming along the Front Range. The corridor from Pueblo to Fort Collins, at least, probably has the population density necessary for this kind of move to make sense. If Richardson runs for President in 2008 and wins, this vision will probably be realized.

More modestly, the Front Range Express system (FREX) has established comfortable, WiFi accessible bus service for commuters from Colorado Springs to downtown Denver on I-25 and city streets. I saw it drop some passengers outside Scooter Joe’s from which I am blogging now, this morning, as I do most days. This modest volume, highly fuel efficient (due to a large number of passengers) and relatively fast (due to a modest number of stops) service, provides an alternative to passenger rail service on the highest density corridors of the Front Range until the state or nation are ready to make a much bigger investment in intercity transit infrastructure.

Another huge project is the set of proposals to deal with gridlock on I-70 in the mountains to the West of Denver, especially from Golden to Vail. The Colorado Department of Transportation in Governor Owen’s administration has favored proposals that simply widen the road at selected locations. But, it looks like this decision will not be finalized before the end of the year, and if it is not, Governor Ritter’s administration will likely take a close look at alternative that include features like HOV lanes that shift the number of lanes in each direction during ski season rush traffic, and expanding the quality of transit offerings from DIA and the Denver metropolitan area to Vail.

The third and final major question looming with regard to the state’s transportation infrastructure is Superslab, a proposed major toll road and rail and pipeline corridor running parallel to I-25 to the East, avoiding urban traffic.

There is also a separate proposal, which would likely be abandoned if Superslab went through, to simply build a new freight rail line in Colorado’s plains to divert freight trains that now passing through Denver on North-South trips, mostly trains carrying coal from Wyoming strip mines to Texas power plants, bringing the city noise, slowing other freight, and bringing trains into contact with street traffic.

The power of a private company to unilaterally build the project without government consent was eliminated in the 2006 legislative session, but the door was left open for a plan to be approved with the cooperation of the Colorado Department of Transportation, which a developer has been actively pursuing. If Bob Beauprez had won the 2006 Governor’s race, this plan might have had a prayer, as Republicans have shown a strong affinity for toll roads, despite massive public opposition to the plan. But, unless a deal is inked with CDOT before the end of the year, Superslab is likely to die on the vine, although the less ambitious freight rail diversion might have some hope after the commotion associated with Superslab settles down.

20 November 2006

Reducing Drunk Driving Fatalities

If it works to stop a tragedy, it is worth doing. This works. It also has the virtue of being about prevention, rather than punishment, so it won't cost taxpayers more for jails that don't work that well.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, backed by a national association of state highway officials and car manufacturers, will announce here on Monday a campaign to change drunken driving laws in 49 states to require that even first offenders install a device that tests drivers and shuts down the car if it detects alcohol.

Many states already require the devices, known as ignition interlocks, for people who have been convicted several times. Last year New Mexico became the first to make them mandatory after a first offense. With that tactic and others, the state saw an 11.3 percent drop in alcohol-related fatalities last year.

Via NewMexiKen (emphasis added).

Of Airships and Mini-Nuclear Power Plants

A number of new technologies of converged to make a pipe dream of mine, I call it "Eternal, Alaska" possible.

The idea is that it is possible to create a low impact community, I name the village "Eternal, Alaska" that isn't connected to the rest of the world by any road.


One key technology is the airship. Airships are returning to viability after being shelved for the better part of a century in the wake in the Hindenberg disaster, and then being made irrelevant by interstate highways and jet airplanes for transcontinental and transoceanic travel. An airship, a lighter than air vehicle like a blimp. They go about the same speed as a car on a highway, which is exceedingly slow for air travel, but much faster than traveling by sea, or overland by any means off roads. They can also carry as much cargo as a small ship. And, they need infrastructure only at the point of depature and the destination, not in between.

A community hundreds of miles from the nearest road could be supplied periodically by airship, which would be much more affordable than the current means of serving rural Alaska, which is by small general aviation aircraft landing on field airstrips and lakes. This would also have far less environmental impact and infrastructure costs for a new isolated village than building hundreds of miles of roads through virgin forests and mountains to get there.

Airships have some serious downsides in military applications where they have been considered and recently rejected. Most importantly they are big, impossible to hide from an enemy, and impossible to armor. These concerns don't matter in a domestic setting.

A small airship fleet, either privately owned or owned by a cooperative, could support a whole string of villages with regular freight and scenic passenger service.

Small Scale Nuclear Power

A second key technology is the small nuclear power plan, something about to be tried in an Alaskan village. This can provide electricity for decades without any need for constant resupplies of oil, natural gas pipelines, or the like.

If the community is small enough, the vehicles used to tool around the community's small confines (perhaps a couple of square miles) can be electrically powered as well. In military operations almost half of the logistics requirement is fossil fuels. A similar percentage applies to freight traffic. Eliminating the need to move all the fuel makes it much easier for the village to endure if it is cut off from the outside world for a sustained period due to financial hiccups, weather, or labor actions.

This also means that the community will produce little or no air pollution. Nuclear waste from the reactor could be shipped out in a single trip when it came time to refuel the reactor. There would have to be a small supply of jet fuel for general aviation service (ideally via float plane, so no airstrip would have to be built), and a small supply for fuel for ATVs for trips into the surrounding wilderness when necessary, and perhaps some off the shelf contruction vehicles, but the supplies could be very small relative to the size of the communites.

Advanced Manufactured Housing

A third key technology is the advancing state of manufactured housing. It is now possible to build homes sturdier and more quickly than stick built homes, with 40 pieces instead of 40,000, and far less on site waste, by building large subassemblies, like large sections of wall pre-plumbed and wired, in factories. Early manufactured housing (still widely used in parts of Alaska) is shoddy and hard to transport by air because the pieces are so big and hard to move. But, moving full construction crews, rough lumber, and hardware stores full of parts to a roadless wilderness to build a village during the very short construction season is a deal breaking problem.

Also, some technologies, like new nail designs that make a house more resistant to wind and earthquake damage, but which are harder to remove if a mistake is made on site, are perfect for houses where components are largely preassembled in carefully controlled factory conditions.

These buildings could be built with features like triple pane windows argon filled windows, and extra insulation that make sense in the frigid North, but have been unpopular because energy is cheaper in the continental U.S., the winters aren't so cold, and they are harder to install. Extreme insulation would be desirable because heating would be electrical, in order to avoid the need to ship in heating oil or run a natural gas pipeline to the community.

Advanced Wireless Telecommunications

Satellites make it possible to get phone service, varied television offerings and varied radio offerings, at a modest cost, anywhere in the world, without building your wired connection to the outside world. The community could have a communal WiFi network and a collection of cell phone towers big enough to cover the entire community, and in the process would avoid the need to have telephone wiring or TV cables in the community. Physical mail service would be much less important with these kind of connections.

The community could be set up with electronic fund transfer infrastructure based on a village identity card, similar to the system used on many college campuses, to eliminate the need to ship significant quantities of cash to and from the community.

This would also be an ideal place to set up a hospital equipped with telemedicine facilities so patients could consult with specialists in Anchorage, or even the continental United States.

The goal would be to provide the comforts of a more conventional community while minimizing the amount of infrastructure that has to be built locally.

What's left?

Some infrastructure would be needed. If the community was placed next to a pristine lake, a fairly bare bones water treatment and sewerage treatment system (with underground plumbing connnecting all buildings) would be possible. These systems could be designed to minimize maintenance requirements. Buried electrical lines would provide a low maintenance way to provide power and heat to all community buildings, even during intense Alaskan storms.

Some roads would be necessary within the community itself, tailored to the electric vehicles chosen for the community, and a handful of off the shelf conventional vehicles. EVs are perfect for clean, short range, stop and go transportation. Enclosed passageways connecting at least some groups of buildings for easy access in incliment weather, like those at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, or Mayo Clinic in Rochester, might also make sense.

It would need a local school district at the Pre-K thorugh 12 level, and possibly beyond, and a library to compliment it.

The community would need a hospital and/or clinic, and probably would need its own HMO to finance them. It would need a place for float planes/ski planes to land and resupply and a landing area of airships. It would need warehouses for food and other supplies.

It would need a local court to handle community disputes and unruliness, and a small local jail. But, there would probably be very little of the stuff of lifeblood of most local courts like traffic fines and automobile accident cases, because the community would be walkable and have little vehicle traffic.

Ideally, it would have a complex of greenhouses so that the community could provide some fresh vegetables locally, and an insulated barn full of cows to provide fresh milk. It would need a small landfill. But, a composting facility in connection with the greenhouses, and a small recycling facility, could minimize the landfill needs of the community.

It would probably make more sense to import clothing than to try to produce it locally on a small scale. The same concept would apply to many goods that might be cheaper to produce elsewhere and bring in, than to produce locally.

And, it would need some sort of industry. A college campus could be one piece of the puzzle, and there could be other low impact revenue streams to support it. It might be a good place for a language institute for the U.S. military, because trainees could be isolated and forced to immerse themselves in the new language. It might, for example, be designed to minimize light pollution and serve as a home to a first rate astronomical observatory. It could also serve as a resort and retreat.

Less idealistically, these concepts could eventually be used for low impact exploitation of ANWAR for oil in which the only impact outside the drilling area would be a pipeline designed to to impair wildlife migration. Eliminating roads from a design could make the idea more pallatable to environmentalists concerned about protecting ANWAR habitat.

Plan B FAQ

I've explained the ins and outs of emergency contraceptive Plan B over at Colorado Confidential. If you're interested go read it and a related story on where it is available in Colorado.

17 November 2006

Another Shameful Texas Legal Mess

State taxpayers paid $25,000 for the Acker writ — $22,270 for Toby Wilkinson, the Greenville lawyer who prepared the document [a habeas corpus writ in a death penalty case] in 2003, and the rest to a private investigator and medical expert.

What did the lawyer do for his money? He copied a letter from his inmate client verbatim.

Rather than setting forth facts and a legal argument, the

writ, however, relied prominently on a series of first-person rants in which Acker decried the "trumped up bogus case" against him.

One memorable passage stated: "I'm just about out of carbon paper. As soon as I get some more typing supplies I have about thirty more errors I want . . . in my appeal."

The Court did give the case a harder than usual look:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Acker's writ application in a two-page order. The nine-member court conducted its own review of Wilkinson's allegations and compared them to the trial record before issuing its denial, the order said.

The court typically rules on writs within six months. Acker's writ was pending for 3 1/2 years before Wednesday's decision.

But, this doesn't cut it. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals isn't an appropriate advocate for a man facing a death penalty. By law, it must be neutral, by reputation, it is a hanging court that routinely twists the law to secure punishments in the face of procedural missteps at trial. When an appellate court gets a pleading like this, their reaction should be to do what a Nevada judge did when a lawyer in a serious felony case turned up drunk with hooker hours late for court -- immediately drum the lawyer out of the case and appoint effective replacement counsel.

As for Toby Wilkinson? He deserves not only to be disbarred immediately, sua sponte, but also to face the maximum punitive sanction in terms of fines and jail time for contempt of court, and an order to refund the full $25,000 he was paid to the state. Filing this kind of document in a death penalty case effectively spits in the fact of the dignity of the court. I'm not sure that I could bear to go on living after doing something so shameful.

And, a system that allows someone like this to be appointed to a case like this is again, a sign that the state has abjectly failed to establish a system that protects a defendant's right to counsel, yet again.

Texas is bannana republic. It's courts, at least in criminal cases, have a long standing history of utter disregard for due process. Maybe its time to federalize the national guard and have them run Texas. They couldn't do much worse.

Footnote: Was Toby Wilkinson crazy like a fox? He did get his client three more years of life through the increased time it took the court to process the case. And, he created a solid issue for the defendant on habeas corpus review. And, he surely knew that no matter how solid his arguments were, that they wouldn't be accepted at this stage of the proceeding by an unfair appellate court.

If so, it only shows, again, that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals doesn't get it. If they really want to support law and order, they have to make the process work. By trying to puzzle out a brief that, within the meaning of the plain error standard, shows ineffective assistance of counsel, they screwed up. The only way to make the case stick is to get this man a real lawyer. Even they shouldn't have to put up with the kind of shit that Wilkinson pulled, and he needs to take the punishment he deserves for it like a man. Not only is the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals malicious, it is incompetent as well.

Hat Tip to How Appealing.

Religious People Give More

Arthur C. Brooks mays quite a persausive case in this article, an early version of a book he is about to release, that shows that controlling for all other factors (even when one excludes religious charities from the mix), that religious people give more of their time and money to charity.

I'll save analysis of this for another day, when I have more time to look at it.

Hat Tip to Creative Destruction.

Trials in Colorado 2006

How many trials are there in courts in Colorado and how many are jury trials?

The latest annual report of the Colorado judicial system for fiscal year 2006 is out, and it contains numbers of all sorts of empirical matters of interest to policymakers. One is data on how many court and jury trials are conducted in the state each year. Federal court information for the same year is also available. The breakdown is as follows:

Criminal and Quasi-Criminal Cases
Infraction Final Hearings 8764

Traffic Trial To Court 187 (33%)
Misdemeanor Trial To Court 298 (31%)
Juvenile Trial To Court 281 (Delinquency and Parental Rights Terminations) (89%)
District Court Criminal Trial To Court 28 (Mostly Felonies) (3%)
Federal District Court Criminal Trial To Court 15* (41%)
Subtotal: 809 (excludes infractions) (29%)

Traffic Jury Trial 386
Misdemeanor Jury Trial 651
Juvenile Jury Trial 35 (Parental Rights Terminations)
District Court Criminal Jury Trial 857 (Mostly Felonies)
Federal District Court Criminal Jury Trial 22
Subtotal: 1,951

Criminal and quasi-criminal jury trials make up about 85% of all jury trials in Colorado.

Felonies have a minimum presumptive sentence of one year in state prison and must be tried in District Court. Misdemeanors under Colorado law have a maximum sentence of two years in a county jail and are generally tried in county court unless accompanied by felony charges. Infractions are cases punishable only by fines in which there is no constitutional right to either a public defender or a jury trial. Across the board, cases that go to trial tend disproportionately to be the more serious cases.

Juvenile cases are tried in District Court outside of Denver and in Juvenile Court in Denver. Juvenile delinquents do not have a right to a jury trial, while adults facing a termination of parental rights for abuse or neglect do have a right to a jury trial. Both are classified as juvenile cases and both are quasi-criminal in that they are prosecuted by government officials for specific misdeeds in the public interest.

Only county court traffic cases are shown (the traffic trials arise out of 273,001 cases filed), no data is available on municipal court cases outside of Denver. There were 13 non-traffic and 5 traffic appeals from municipal courts not of record in the past year in county courts, which are handled by trials de novo in county court.

Federal court tries all federal crimes, both felonies and misdemeanors, most federal court criminal cases are immigration, drug, white collar or Indian Reservation cases.

Civil Cases
Small Claims Trial To Court 3,485 (100%)
County Court Civil Trial To Court 1,236 (99%)
District Court Civil Trial To Court 280 (50%)
Evidentiary Federal Magistrate Civil Hearings 9 (100%)
Evidentiary Federal Magistrate Prisoner's Case Hearings 7 (100%)
Federal District Court Civil Trial To Court 36* (46%)
Subtotal: 5,053 (94%)

County Court Civil Jury Trial 17
District Court Civil Jury Trial 277
Federal District Court Civil Jury Trial 43
Subtotal: 337

Civil jury trials make up about 15% of all jury trials in Colorado.

In national statistics, about three-quarters of general jurisdiction state trial court jury trials are in personal injury cases. The available data makes it impossible to determine if this is true in Colorado, although there is no reason to think that Colorado is atypical in this regard.

If Colorado is typical, about 95% of jury trials in Colorado are for criminal, quasi-criminal or personal injury cases, while all other cases account for about 5% of jury trials.

* Excludes 30 pre-trial evidentiary hearings and 7 evidentiary sentencing hearings.
** Excludes 36 evidentiary hearings in preliminary matters and motions, etc.

Colorado Trial Courts in A Nutshell

The jurisdictional limit of small claims in Colorado is $7,500, essentially all claims that don't default must be handled in trials to the court (i.e. by a judge rather than jury), and lawyers are not permitted in most cases. Repeat filings in small claims court (e.g. by businesses for routine collections) are prohibited. Only money damages may be awarded in small claims court. Small claims are usually neighborhood or consumer complaints.

The jurisdictional limit of county court in Colorado is $15,000 in civil cases and may not involve title to real estate (but evictions where ownership of the property is not in dispute are allowed). County court also have only highly circumscribed authority to issue injuunctions. County court civil cases are dominanted by debt collection cases brought by businesses, evictions, and repossessions of personal property. County court also handles most temporary restaining orders.

In the most recent year 148 county court civil cases were transferred to district court because of a counterclaim in excess of the $15,000 jurisdictional threshold, and 645 cases were appealed from a county court in a civil or criminal matter, or from a municipal court of record, to district court. The appeal rate is something on the order of 10% of cases that go to trial in county court.

District courts have general civil jurisdiction over all cases except cases subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction (i.e. almost all cases but certain intellectual property cases). District court civil cases consist mostly of breach of contract cases for amounts in excess of $15,000, personal injury cases, domestic cases and real estate disputes. The number of appeals from district court greatly exceeds the number of trials held in district court, mostly as a result of appeals of cases resolved on motions without trials and appeals of sentences imposed pursuant to plea bargains.

Federal district court civil jurisdiction is largely limited to cases where the person bringing the suit is from a different state than the person who is sue and the amount in controvesy exceeds $75,000, cases brought under federal law, and cases where the United States is a party (e.g. many student loan collections). Employment discrimination and civil rights cases make up a significant share of the federal docket. There were 444 appeals in civil cases and 121 appeals in criminal cases in the most recent year arising out of the U.S. District Court in Colorado. This exceeded the number of trials because many appeals are of cases resolved on motions without trials and appeals of sentences imposed pursuant to plea bargains.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Colorado has 1,017 "adversary proceedings" which are basically contested cases. There are no numbers on how many are resolved by evidentiary hearings, as opposed to motion practice and/or settlement.

Municipal ordinance violations outside of Denver (mostly traffic offenses) are tried in municipal courts. There is no centralized reporting of statistical information for municipal courts, and many do not even have websites.

How long are federal trials in Colorado?

1-3 days - 24
4-9 days - 10
10-19 days - 1
20+ days - 2

1-3 days - 42
4-9 days - 31
10-19 days - 4
20+ days - 0

Judicial Partisanship Is Modest

It is easy in the throes of partisan battles of the most extremist judicial nominations to forget that a lot of consensus middle ground actually exists. While the courts are not immune to politics, the notion that judges are little more than political actors is overrated.

Limited Partisanship

Judges, particularly appellate judges, do have significant power to make decisions on a partisan basis. This does happen. The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (which includes California), for example, consistently rules more liberally than the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit (which includes Texas).

But, it is worth remembering that there are real limits to this tendency (and yes, I'm basically citing myself from dkospedia in this link, although the entry does have links backing this up):

[R]oughly 84% of [U.S.] Court of Appeal decisions (a sample year) are unanimous. This is consistent with a finding that 71% of U.S. Supreme Court decisions were unanimous from 1889 to 1959, that in a recent sample year 87% of California intermediate court of appeals decisions were unanimous, and that in the Missouri Supreme Court unanimous decisions are reached 98.5% of the time. Thus, while partisanship matters and influences results even in non-unanimous decisions, there is wide consensus on many legal issues.

About 91% of cases in the Colorado Court of Appeals are resolved with unpublished opinions or dismissals, which are generally unanimous. In addition, a large share of the 9% of Colorado Court of Appeals cases that are decided with published opinions are unanimous. Good statistics on the exact number of non-unanimouos published opinions are unavailable, but it is safe to say that the number probably less than a third of all cases. In other words, less than 3% of cases appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals are decided on a non-unanimous basis.

Somewhere between 65%-75% of Colorado Supreme Court decisions are unanimous (it is hard to provide an exact percentage with certainty, as the only statistics that are easily available on the total number of dissenting opinions and some cases have more than one dissenting opinion), which is not too surprising because the state supreme court handles only the hardest cases.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, which is fairly evenly divided on a partisan basis with a swing vote, however, the way cases resolved in the Colorado Supreme Court rarely unpredictable on a partisan basis, because the vast majority of dissents involve the same couple of judges (Coates and Eids, the more conservative judges on the Court, usually). You can count in the fingers of one hand number of non-unanimous cases in the Colorado Supreme Court each year, in which both Coates and Eids are in the majority.

Colorado Statistics cited in this post are found here.

The Last Word

It is also worth noting, given the natural tendency to focus on the U.S. Supreme Court and state supreme courts, just how powerful intermediate appellate courts are, while we are at it. The normal three judge panel that considers a federal appeal is almost always the last word on the matter (bracketed material and emphasis added below, plus one change in a percentage figure).

Appealling parties may ask the entire Court of Appeals in a circuit to second guess the decision of an individual panel (or in the 9th Circuit, a much larger panel of the court rather than the entire court). This is called an "en banc" review of a decision. Thus, a case can be appealled from a trial court to a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals, and then receive "en banc" review, and then go to the U.S. Supreme Court. [The en banc review step is optional.] En banc review, like U.S. Supreme Court review of a Court of Appeals decision, is discretionary and rarely granted. . . .

In 2002 in the 9th Circuit, for example, 801 published opinions were issued out of the thousands of cases that came before the court, of which about 40 were considered for en banc review, and 18 received en banc review (which in the 9th Circuit is actually a large panel of the court rather than the entire court). This was just 2% of cases heard on the merits.

En banc review is less frequent in absolute numbers, since the overall caseload is smaller, in other circuits. In 1999, a fairly typical year, only 94 cases in the entire federal system receive en banc review, which makes this level of review similar in frequency to, if not less common than, U.S. Supreme Court review. The vast majority of Court of Appeals cases decided on the merits (probably about 95% nationwide) are never even considered for en banc review.

Less than one case in a thousand filed in a U.S. Court of Appeals is reversed in en banc review or in review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Colorado Appellate Courts often get the last word, as well. In the most recent fiscal year for which figures are available (2005-2006) there were 2622 appeals concluded in the Colorado Court of Appeals. In that same year 868 petitions in certioriari (i.e. appeals from Colorado Court of Appeals cases) where made to the Colorado Supreme Court, and 78 cases were decided on the merits with written opinions (a few of which would be in original proceedings direct from trial courts, such as water law cases).

A small number of cases may have been decided on the merits without a written opinion, and in a small number of cases, more than one petition for certiorari was resolved in a single opinion. Of course, some Colorado Supreme court cases affirm Court of Appeals rulings.

Thus, about a third of Colorado Court of Appeals cases are appealled to the Colorado Supreme Court, but the Colorado Supreme Court actually considers on the merits only about 3% of Colorado Court of Appeals cases, and probably reverses no more than 2% of those decisions.

The percentage of Colorado Supreme Court cases considered on the merits by the U.S. Supreme Court is on the order of 1%. Fewer than one in five thousand cases filed in the Colorado Court of Appeals will ultimately be reversed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Defense of the Late Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman has died. Many on the left don't like him. While I don't agree with everything he did, or proposed, I think that his ideas have brought insight to both right and left wing political discourse, and had many positive impacts.

Some of his accomplishments I'll steal liberally from a heated Daily Kos discussion of his life work (a couple of the quoted comments are mine, the rest come from others).

Milton Friedman was one of the stanchest critics of the so-called "war on drugs." He once commented that the whole thing amounted to a government subsidy for organized crime, which is what drug laws have essentially become.

He favored an all volunteer Army.

He forwarded the idea of the negative income tax to help the working poor. This is what we now call the "Earned Income Tax Credit." He pushed the idea as a way to replace the old welfare system that incentivized not working. When the EITC came to vote, he opposed it because it did not replace the old system but instead supplanted it.

I agree both that the negative income tax is a good concept, and that the EITC is a poor implementation of the concept that makes it harder for the working poor to break out of poverty and is unduly complex.

He had sensible ideas on the mechanics of collecting taxes.

[H]e created the income tax withholding while he was an economist at the Treasury Department during WWII.

He improved our understanding of inflation.

Friedman posited what's now known as monetarism, which is basically that the larger the supply of money circulating, the less each dollar in that supply is worth in purchasing power. That's what he got the Nobel Prize for, and it's now more or less standard economics, although some (including Friedman, in his latter years) think the true situation is more complex.

He favored vouchers for the right reasons.

Friedman didn't argue for ending government funding of education, he argued that giving that funding to families might be more empowering than the political process for poor families. He argued that poor parents weren't too dumb to choose good schools for their children.

One thing he's been criticized for is his role in advising Chile's murderous dictator on economic policy. Not all of his proposals worked as planned, something a later Socialist government corrected to some extent, but I believe that he did play a major part in the state of Chile's economy today. And, Chile's economy today is in good shape.

There is ever reason to credit Friedman for helping to develop the civil society and middle class that removed Pinochet from power and left Chile with a pretty healthy economy. Friedman didn't torture and kidnap anyone. He went to economic ministry committee meetings and tried to sell Chile on the notion that it could be something more than an authoritarian hell hole.

Was it a perfect success? No. But, Chile is more economically propserous now than Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belize, Boliva, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Georgia, Guatamala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Jamaica, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Panama, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezula, Vietnam, and every country in sub-Saharan Africa but South Africa (behind which it lags only slightly). The only countries in Latin America with healthier economies are Argentia and Uruguay, neither of which are too far ahead of Chile.

Moreover, Chile's reasonably strong economy persists without the undue reliance on natural resources that provides a temporary boost to economies in places like the OPEC countries, South Africa, Niger and Nigeria, or tourism, like many Caaribbean and Pacific Island countries and European microstates, or serving as off shore banking centers building their economies on protecting tax dodgers and criminal wealth.

Chile also continues to experience healthy economic growth 5.8% in 2004), and low inflation (1.05% in 2004).

Life expectency in Chile is roughly one year lower than that in the U.S., exceptionally high for a developing country, and literacy rates are high. It doesn't have exploding population growth. Chile gets more of its energy from clean, renewable sources (mostly hydropower) than the U.S. does.

Civilian government was restored in 1989, Pinochet's immunity from prosecution from stripped from him (albeit too late to make much of a difference for the old man).

I imagine Friedman was pretty proud of how Chile turned out, even if there were real disappointments.

Friedman was basically a theorist. A bit stronger attention to empirical evidence on issues like the minimum wage, which he opposed, would have improved his insights. But, his theories were powerful and need to be considered seriously by policymakers so that when they choose to differ from them, they have good reasons for doing so.

Internet Explorer 7.0

I upgraded to Internet Explorer 7.0 yesterday, because it was free and my computer prompted me to do it, and eventually, not updating your software leads to incompatability problems and unfixed security glitches. It is not obvious to me that it provides any benefits over its predecessor that matter to me.

Request For Proposal: Blog Migration

Some of the people who read this blog are really smart and understand computers better than I do. I've done a bit of looking around, and have come to the conclusion that wordpress is a much better free blogging platform than blogger.

I am currently accepted bids for what you would charge me to migrate this blog (and its companion blog, Wash Park Poet), with all its existing posts and bookmarks, to wordpress, and to turn this domain into a redirect site (or if that is not possible, a bare bones site with a check out my new address line).

If this is simply not possible, I would appreciate learning that as well.

This would be a one time job. I could maintain the new site just fine, and I do not need any custom template work, other than migrating the photo of the Washington Park formal gardens into the new template.

My budget is not unlimited, but I would be willing to pay a reasonable amount, although a little love for a fellow blogger paying for this out of his own pocket and doing this as a public service, when coming to the "reasonable" part, would be appreciated. If it is simply too expensive an undertaking, I won't do it.

16 November 2006

The Takings Clause And Criminal Justice

The final clause of the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution state "nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."

The principal application of this clause has been to compel government to pay a fair price for property taken by eminent domain to build public works like highways. But, there is a fair reading of the clause which could have broad application in the criminal justice context by protecting the rights of the innocent.

The status quo is that if the police and prosecutors and courts follow the proper procedure and have probable cause to believe that you committed a crime, that the government has no responsibility to compensate you in any way for your troubles, even if you have not, in fact, committed any crime. A handful of states, Florida prominently among them, but only a handful, reimburse you for your attorneys' fees if you retain a private attorney and are acquitted at trial. Most states provides a pittance of compensation for people who are convicted of a crime and imprisoned for years, only to latter have the conviction be set aside on the basis of actual innocent (e.g. DNA evidence). I'm not aware of any state that compensates people who are arrested or subjected to a search conducted in a "reasonable" manner based on probable cause, even if the arrest turns out to be a the wrong person, or the search proves fruitless. Federal law does not require someone who is accidentally harmed by the police when acting in good faith to be compensated -- civil rights claims require proof of an intent to violate a constitutional right and may be asserted only against the person who actually did so unless a right was violated pursuant to a governmental policy.

If the definition of private property is read broadly, however, to include your right to sell your services to others or use your time for leisure, then the resolution of all of the above cases would be different. Even if due process is provided, just compensation must be provided for those who are innocent. Every acquitted individual would have a right to compensation for their attorneys' fees and for any time spent incarcerated pending trial. Every innocent person convicted of a crime, even with all procedural regularity, would have a constitutional right to just compensation. Every person arrested but not guilty, and every person subjected to a fruitless search, likewise, would be entitled to some compensation for the modest inconvenience -- perhaps a couple of days in jail or time spend enduring the search. Every person justifiably killed by a policeman who in good faith believed you were pointing a gun at him, when that person was really just holding a can of soda, would be entitled to compensation for the death, regardless of the policeman's good intentions.

Likewise, innocent citizens compelled to serve their government through jury duty or a military draft, would have a more compelling claim to just compensation, rather than merely the amount that the state deems fit to make available without regard to any constitutional limitation. Certainly, requiring jurors to serve for less than the minimum wage, a common practice now, would be unconstitutional.

The Third Amendment takes a similar approach to the Fifth Amendment takings clause, suggesting that this a broad reading of the takings clause in criminal justice settings would not do great injury to the Founder's intent in this area.

A takings clause approach to compensating the innocent would also, as is the case in eminent domain cases, place liability on the governmental entity on whose behalf the offending act was taken, rather than the often judgment proof individual who actually did it, who may also be difficult or impossible to identify by name (hence the common practice of policemen putting black tape over their names on their badges to make them harder to sue). Individual offenders would still be liable for intentional violations of constitutional rights, but this would generally be in addition to, rather than instead of, a takings clause remedy.

The existence of a no fault compensatory remedy from a solvent entity for innocent people harmed by the criminal justice system would go a long way towards defusing the fierce tensions between citizens and law enforcement common in much of the United States, particularly across race lines. The no fault nature of the remedy would save face for law enforcement and discourage dishonesty by police trying to concoct probable cause justifications after the fact.

A strong takings remedy might also open the door to reconsidering a legal stance that police hate, the 4th Amendment exclusionary rule, or at least, modifying it in application. For example, if there was a strong civil takings remedy, it might make more sense to eliminate the exclusionary rule for physical evidence obtained in a search, limiting the remedy for a 4th Amendment violation to a civil suit claiming a taking (if the search was fruitless) and to a civil rights suit (whether the search was fruitful or not). Moreover, in the civil rights suit, in a case where the search did produce contraband or evidence, there might be a presumption that would have to be overcome, perhaps even by clear and convincing evidence, that probable cause for the search did exist. This kind of presumption makes sense because many police with "hunches" that don't count as probable cause that make searches that produce evidence are simply inarticulate when it comes to explaining why they had probable cause, rather than actually lacking in probable cause.

This kind of takings clause jurisprudence would be a stark departure from existing law, but it would hardly be radical, and would create a strong incentive to exercise caution towards people who are likely to be innocent. A takings clause approach would restore a focus on the importance of actual guilt or innocence that our elaborate habeas corpus and 4th and 5th and 6th Amendment jurisprudence has diverted attention from in the criminal justice system. Many observers have noted the undue importance the American system of criminal justice places on process over the merits, to the point where it isn't even entirely clear that actual innocence is a valid ground to collaterally attack a procedurally sound order to execute someone.

Exclusionary rule reform and this takings jurisdiction, as a package, would make justice more certain for people we know are factually guilty, while more directly addressing the rights of the innocent that the exclusionary rule is supposed to condition law enforcement officers to respect. As it is, a law enforcement officer who can articulate probable cause, even if he doesn't actually believe it, can harass the innocent with impunity, a serious flaw in existing law that breeds distrust between police and citizens.

This also doesn't have to bankrupt the government as it tries to enforce the law.

Acquittals are rare, making up only a couple of few percent of all criminal cases prosecuted, and most acquittals come in cases where there was very little pre-trial detention that must be compensated, since the defendant was released on bond, and where the defense has already been paid for because the defendant had a public defender.

The number of convictions overturned on any reason is a tiny percentage of the total, and often even when convictions are overturned, this happens before a sentence on other convictions which are not overturned is complete.

The number of people who die in custody (other than from old age) or at the hands of police for any reason is on the order of one per three million people each year. A large percentage of those deaths are justifiable homicides of guilty people committing crimes, not mistakes.

There are lots of fruitless searches conducted each year, and there are lots of arrests that don't produce criminal charges each year. But, fair compensation for these kinds of events wouldn't have to be huge -- perhaps $20 an hour (about the median hourly wage), with a minimum compensation of $10, in an ordinary case. Most fruitless searches would put the police out $10-$20 if nothing was damaged in the process. A wrongful arrest, such as one involving a mistaken identity, might usually call for compensation under $1,000, depending on how long it took to resolve.

It would cost something, there is no doubt, but the incentive this scheme would create to engage in targetted policing might be worth the trouble. And, many people impacted by the criminal justice system might choose to forego bringing a civil rights suit when they could far more easily prove a taking and secure compensatory damages, so it might actually reduce the cost to governments of civil rights suits, effectively shifting money from paying lawyers to paying citizens who have been inconvenienced.

Law Review Article Citations

The top 0.5% of articles get 18% of all citations; the top 5.2% of articles get 50% of all citations; and the top 17% of articles get 79% of all citations. . . . 40% of articles are never cited at all.

From here.

Most law review articles (those ranked 1001 to 3501 and beyond for downloads from SSRN anyway) have fewer than 140 internet based readers. And you thought blogs were irrelevant.

Phone Polls Work As Claimed

Telephone polls taken shortly before an election are as accurate as they claim to be, and robocalling is slightly more accurate than human querying. Internet polls from Zogby Interactive suck (something I've addressed before in one of their deeply flawed Colorado polls). Averaging multiple phone polls from multiple sources produces the most accurate results.

In short, there are no serious methodological flaws in the polling methods used by any of the major phone pollsters, and averaging polls, both because this increases sample size and because it produces a more robust measure that mutes any particular pollster's minor methodology biases, is particularly accurate.

Pollsters worry a lot about the impact of increasing cell phone use and increasing non-response rates on their accuracy. But, the proof is in the pudding. These worries don't translate into systemic biases or accuracy significantly below the theoretical maximum accuracy of any poll that flows from random sampling error alone.