30 November 2007

Unions In Colorado

The Big Picture Numbers

As of 2006, in Colorado, 5.0% of the private sector work force (92,589 workers), and 22.8% of the public sector work force (82,564 workers) was made up of union members. Another 10,948 private sector workers and 10,096 public sector workers were in union covered work places but were not union members themselves.

In contrast, in 1983 in Colorado, 11.2% of private sector workers (120,298 workers) and 24.1% of public sector workers (57,592 workers) were union members. In absolute terms, the number of union members in Colorado (public sector and private sector combined) has declined only about 4% from 1983 levels. But, rising public sector union membership in absolute numbers masks a significant decline in private sector union membership in absolute numbers. Falling private sector union membership rates continued from 2005 to 2006 in Colorado.

For many decades, Colorado has had less unionization than the nation as a whole. Nationally, 7.4% of the private sector labor force and 36.2% of the public sector labor force was in a union in 2006. In 1983, 16.5% of the private sector labor force and 36.7% of the public sector labor force in the nation was in a union. In 1973, 24.2% of the private sector labor force and 23.0% of the public sector labor force in the nation was in a union. At the 1950s peak, about a third of private sector employees in the United States were in unions. Current private sector union membership levels in the United States are at 1920s pre-National Labor Relations Act levels.

Declines in unions membership are matched, at least nationally, by a decline in the number of strikes in the United States. The strikes that do happen also tend to be shorter and involve fewer workers. While two of the big three automakers experienced strikes this year, for example, both were very short.

The Changing Character Of Colorado's Union Movement

The shift of the union movement, in Colorado and nationwide, from the private sector to the public sector, and from industrial and construction workers to service workers, has also changed the character of the labor movement itself.

Public sector workers tend to be more white collar, and also have different concerns and objectives. Unlike workers in traditionally heavily unionized sectors like mining, manufacturing and construction, public sector workers who more often work in offices are less concerned about job safety (obviously there are exceptions such as road workers, police and fire protection employees). Unlike many unionized private sector workers, public sector workers are largely immune to both offshoring and the direct economic impacts of immigration, although outsourcing to private sector contractors such as private prison and probation providers is still an issue. Public sector workers have job security through the civil service system, whether or not they organize, and have generally had state and local retirement system coverage that make concerns about solvency of social safety nets like Social Security largely irrelevant to them personally. Governments are generally law abiding and usually pay more than minimum wage, so sweat shop issues like getting paid as agreed for work performed is rarely an issue in the public sector, with the occasional exception of overtime disputes.

Finally, public sector labor relations are largely a matter of state law, while private sector labor relations are largely subject to federal law in a time period that has seen more anti-union Republican influence than pro-union Democratic influence over the last quarter of a century. Since public sector unions are asking for different things than private sector unions are from their employers, the employer aversion to unions in the public sector isn't nearly as strong as it is in the private sector. Many public sector unions in the United States don't even have a right to strike or to engage in collective bargaining. Private sector opposition to unionization is as much about a fear of loss of control as it is about a fear that union worker's share of the economic pie will increase. Public sector employers, in contrast, are already hidebound by a myriad of regulations and procedures, so they have less of a visceral stake in being able to run their organizations precisely as they wish. While employees have less to gain from unionizing in the public sector, public employers have less to lose from unionization. Equally critical, management pay in the public sector is rarely significantly impacted by management's ability to reduce worker pay, something that is almost always the case in the private sector.

In the construction industry, within the private sector in Colorado, 6.0% of workers were union members. In the manufacturing industry, within the private sector in Colorado, 8.8% of workers were union members. Thus, even in the private sector the union movement in Colorado does not fit the rust belt factory worker stereotype very well. One in ten private sector union members in Colorado works in construction, and another two in ten work in manufacturing.

The big gorilla in Colorado's private sector union movement is the SEIU, which represents service workers and recently split from the AFL-CIO (rifts are weaker in Colorado than in much of the rest of the nation, however). This is due in large part to the fact that it has been among the most effective of all of the private sector unions at growing its ranks by organizing additional employers in a sector of the U.S. economy which is growing as a counterpart to the high tech sector in an increasingly stratified economy. While immigration has an important impact on service industry workers, offshoring is not much of a concern for most of these jobs. It is impractical for hotels to send their laundry to India or China or Mexico, or for casinos to have cards dealt from the Philippines, for example.

Also, in Colorado, unlike some states with more private sector unionization, a significant number of union businesses find union status to be useful niche marketing tool and means of establishing credibility with their customers, as opposed to a hindrance. For example, this is true of Denver's new unionized hotel (the Hyatt), its small number of union printers, and its unionized performing artists. Some people and organizations feel a social responsibility and general desire to buy union when they are able to do so, and these businesses meet their demand.

Political Impact

Historically, unions have been a key constituency of the Democratic Party, so declining union membership in Colorado hurts Democrats. Unions play much the same role in the Democratic party that the Christian Right plays in the Republican party. They provide the legions of rank and file activists needed for the endless barrage of volunteers needed to keep the party functioning, while other party constituencies provide the bulk of the money needed to fund campaigns and party operations. In much of the same period, a significant number of union members became "Reagan Democrats" because of their more conservative opinions of social issues than the rest of the Democratic party. According to writers at the National Review these voters remain at the core of Republican efforts to widen their base.

Together, these forces have also reduced union clout in Democratic politics. For example, Colorado unions have been bitterly disappointed at Denver Congresswoman Diana DeGette's support for certain free trade pacts, and this union dissatisfaction, combined with a desire on the part of the large Hispanic community for greater representation, attempted unsuccessfully to back a primary challenge to DeGette on that basis a few years back.

This lack of clout on trade issues may in part be due to a less enthusiastic commitment in the base to the issues than in other states. In Colorado's union movement, a majority of unionized workers aren't personally impacted at work by offshoring, because they are in public sector or captive construction and service sector jobs, but are impacted in their pocket books by import prices. Solidarity may be enough to get Colorado union members to oppose trade pacts that hurt members in the goods producing industries anyway. But, solidarity alone isn't enough to get people to devote massive amounts of time and trouble to making a full court press on these issues.

In contrast, Colorado's unions have largely avoided potentially explosive intraparty and internecine fights over immigration with a strategy of embracing a policy of better treatment of less skilled and undocumented immigrant workers as a means of leveling the playing field, improving working conditions for all, and expanding their ranks in the process. This firm policy has contained fights between U.S. born workers who see their job security and pay compromised by immigration, and immigrant workers, who make up a particularly large share of Colorado's working class. In part, this stance of a product of the fact that it is harder for the larger (and often public sector) employers who are more frequently unionized to flaut immigration requirements, which already strongly discourage employment based less skilled immigration. In part, it is an ideology decision driven by a generally pro-minority, pro-working class, pro-outsider orientation that permiates the Democratic party. The civil rights movement of the 1960s established a set of widespread values that have muted personal self-interest in reducing immigration.

Of course, unions are still very much at the table and a player in Democratic party politics, and union money is still an important part of the funding base for Democratic politicians. While unions are hurting in terms of private sector membership, their superior organization to almost all other Democratic party constituencies (in union talk, solidarity), and the rising numbers of public sector union members who have brought new talents relevant to political action to the movement have kept unions powerful well beyond what their numbers might suggest. Also, the trend of the union movement towards the public sector and relative weakness of the union movement in the state, has limited the amount of intraparty conflict in Colorado between business oriented Democrats and labor oriented Democrats. The issues that unions care about in Colorado are often not the issues that worry most business oriented Democrats very much.

What Next?

The big unanswered question for Colorado unions is to what extent their decline has been fundamentally a product of the Democrats years in the wilderness, that have led to scores of anti-union rulings from the NLRB and little legislation to counteract that trend. If anti-union legislation is the main problem, unions have good reason to hope for growing clout in the years to come as Democratic power in Washington is waxing. This often gets summed up in a conclusion that management union busting efforts are behind the observed decline in union membership.

But, an alternative hypothesis or two are possible, and, of course, in reality, there isn't a yes or no answer. One is that union decline is a result of substantive legislative gains already made that render the average worker's need for a union less acute. When government officials enforce minimum wage, overtime, worker safety and others laws to protect you, you don't have to negotiate with your employer on those points.

Another hypothesis is that the changing structure of the United States economy, which has hurt industries where unions have historically been strong, and helped industries that lack a tradition of, or need for unionization, like professional dominated high technology firms were distinctions between management and labor are more muted, and small businesses, where collective action isn't materially helped or hurt by organization at the firm level -- the traditional pattern of union organization in the United States. Transitioning from a firm based pattern of unionization to an industry based pattern of unionization might help the labor movement, but it would also require a massive legislative effort that would face fierce business opposition and would disrupt the vested interests of many union officials in the status quo.

If these alternative causes of union membership decline are important, recovery will be much harder for private sector unions. And, of course, the weaker private sector unions get, the less clout they will have to reform laws that hurt them as well.

29 November 2007

The War In Afghanistan According To NATO

According to NATO, in the fall of 2006 the following was true:

NATO troops dead: 19 out of 20,000
Afghan soldiers and police dead: Over 100
Taliban dead: 1,000 out of 3,000-5,000
Civilians killed by NATO: 53
Civilians killed or kidnapped by Taliban: Several hundred
Civilians fleeing homes due to Taliban in last four months: 80,000

No one's statistics are really trustworthy in war. For example, if we had an accurate census of Taliban troops they'd all be dead now. But, I'm willing to give the numbers the benefit of the doubt for argument's stake, and even to overlook some of the not strictly comparable numbers, such as the lack of numbers regarding civilians killed by Afghan government forces, and the fact that "killed or kidnapped" is not exactly the same as killed.

We also don't know how many Taliban soldiers or how many friendly forces, were captured. From our perspective, a Taliban foot soldier in a prison camp is as good or better than a dead Taliban soldier. The goal is to reduce the numbers of their forces in the field. Are the bulk of the 14,000 people in secret CIA prisons Taliban, or are they civilians from around the world believed to be involved in terrorism, for instance?

What do the numbers show?

1. NATO and the Afghan government are much better at killing their enemies than their enemies are at killing them. The implication is that we kill eight of them, for every one of us that gets killed, and that their forces have taken heavy losses, while ours have taken light losses (one would guess that Afghanistan should have on the order of 75,000 soldiers and police or more, given its population, although we aren't given that number).

2. NATO and the Afghan government are more discriminating in their use of force than their enemies. The implication is that about 5% of our kills were civilians, while two-thirds or more of their kills were civilian, and that they killed civilians six times or more as often as we do. The further implication is that we kill civilians by accident, while they are doing so on purpose.

3. The numbers also show that there is still an active war in progress in Afghanistan in which law and order is not prevailing in large parts of the country.

The tricky part of a counterinsurgency operation is that the goal of the operation is not primarily to kill insurgents. Killing insurgents is a means to an end. The goal is to reduce the number and impact of insurgent attacks. In this respect, the mission is failing. Taliban military impact is increasing about five years later, rather than decreasing, and the opium trade is also flourishing. Some Republican big wigs have been quoted saying that there may need to be a political solution in Afghanistan that involves the Taliban in government. This isn't simply caving to terrorists, this is the reality of how insurgencies are ended and the Republicans shouldn't be chastized for being more aware of this fact in Afghanistan than they are in Iraq.

This doesn't mean that the war in Afghanistan hasn't been, on the whole, a success, or that it isn't worth continuing.

While the primary goal of the Afghan war, which was to destroy the leadership group behind the 9-11 attack, was not accomplished by the Afghan war, as this group fled to Pakistan, getting the Taliban out of power was not a bad thing. The Taliban regime was rightly despised worldwide, which is one of the main reasons that the U.S. was able to commence the war in Afghanistan without significant international opposition. The replacement, while hardly what a Western utopian vision would hope for, is better than the Taliban, came about more smoothly, is more widely accepted as legitimate than the current regime in Iraq.

This is being accomplished with a foreign force almost an order of magnitude smaller than the one in Iraq. The U.S. share of the total coalition is also a little smaller on a percentage basis, than the U.S. share of the coalition in Iraq. This is true despite the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan are similar in both population and geographic expanse, despite the fact that they are both Islamic countries with non-Islamic foreign military forces keeping peace, and despite the fact that in both cases, an existing regime which was the de facto government of the country was completely deposed.

Learning English

About 35% of foreign born Hispanics speak English pretty well or very well. For their U.S. born children the percentage is 91%. For their grandchildren, the percentage is 97%.

Of foreign-born Hispanics, those who have become naturalized citizens are more likely to speak English very well or pretty well than those who are not citizens (52% versus 25%). At the other extreme, nearly three-quarters (73%) of non-citizens say they speak just a little or no English compared with 46% of naturalized citizens.

Foreign born Hispanics are more likely to speak English if they have lived in the country longer and have more education. Education also accounts for much of the different in English proficiency between foreign born Hispanics from different countries. Age of immigration is also critical:

Adult immigrants who arrived as young children are more skilled at English than are those who crossed the border when they were older. Three-quarters (76%) of foreign-born Latino adults who arrived at ages 10 or younger report that they can carry on a conversation in English very well. That compares with 30% of those who arrived at ages 11 to 17; 16% of those who arrived at ages 18 to 25; and 11% of those who arrived at ages 26 or older.

Add those who speak English "pretty well" and you are approaching 80% English proficiency for those who immigrate at ages 10 or younger.

Source: Meta-analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center.

None of this is surprising. Indeed, it is entirely consistent with both the literature on immigrant language acquisition, family discussions of language acquisition by my immigrant ancestors, and my own personal experiences in multiple immigrant communities.

Indeed, the research shows that if you spent your infancy abroad in a place where a foreign language was spoken, then come to the United States, that you will lose your ability to speak your language of birth if it is not maintained. Language acquisition is basically hard wired. People automatically and almost effortlessly learn the languages spoken around them as children. The ability then wanes, eventually ending when we become adults.

The myth that Hispanics will assimilate into the United States less than prior waves of immigrants have is simply untrue. Foreign born adults are never going to have perfect English accents. But, the vast majority of foreign born persons who come to the United States as young children, and almost everyone born in the United States is linguistically and culturally an American.

If we want citizenship requirements to match some sort of defacto reality of assimilation into United States culture (a normative question which I don't necessarily agree with, but which is implicit in much of our naturalization law), then we should not only retain birthright citizenship, but should further extend it to anyone who has lived in the United States to adulthood or near adulthood, from the time they were young -- a cutoff that is no younger than age ten, and probably several years older. The scholarly literature (e.g. this study)shows that late youth shows a partial decline in average language acquisition ability which plateaus at a lower average level for adults.

Judge Removed For Abusing Power

Robert M. Restaino, a city court judge in New York State (whose jurisdiction if comparable to that of county court judges in Colorado) was removed from office for abusing his authority.

He ordered 46 defendants in a courtroom, who were on what amounts to probation for domestic violence offenses and were appearing a routine status hearings, jailed because someone in the courtroom (quite possibly a lawyer, staff person or spectator) let a cell phone go off and didn't confess. He reversed his order only many hours later when a reporter inquired.

New York State removes far more judges than most states, because it has a system of elected judges, many of whom are justices of the peace with little education who aren't up to the task they are charged with carrying out. This case was different, as it involved a more powerful, experienced, legally educated judge.

28 November 2007

Getting SCOTUS Attention

Do experienced Supreme Court advocates have a higher success rate at the certiorari stage? If so, why might that be?

They do. Roughly speaking they enjoy a 15 to 25 percent success rate and their petitions currently represent between 40 and 50 percent of the non-SG petitions before the Court, which is astoundingly high. I looked at the progression for several years since 1980, and it has steadily significantly increased from fewer than 6 percent in 1980 to approximately 44 percent in OT 06. So far this Term as of last Friday (11/23/07), they are responsible for 49.5 percent of the successful non-SG petitions. . . .

[T]he expert counsel know the kinds of things that will interest the Justices and they know how best to make their cases seem like they relate to those interests. This frequently requires dramatically recasting the legal arguments and policy implications raised by a case and abandoning wholesale arguments made below, sometimes aided by petitions for rehearing in the lower courts in an effort to place a new legal issue in the record. It also often requires creative characterizations of circuit conflicts by looking at a case from a variety of angles and several different degrees of generality. . . .

To persuade the Court that the legal issues presented are important, the expert Bar is especially effective at securing the filing of amicus briefs in support of review. . . . The experts know the filing of amicus briefs by certain kinds of entities (and counsel) are more likely to demonstrate to the Justices and the clerks that a case is important. And, no less important, the expert advocates have the professional connections and credibility necessary to get those briefs filed within the short time frames. My article both documents a dramatic increase in the number of such filings and confirms a previously-established statistical correlation between amicus filings and cert grants.

Another, related tactic often used by the better advocates is the prompt publication in national news media outlets of stories touting the importance of a case now pending on petition before the Court. Wall Street Journal op-eds are a favorite. . . . And these publications are timed to appear precisely when the Court is considering the petition.

Finally, although many clerks formally deny that the mere name of a well known Supreme Court advocate on a petition makes the clerk more likely to pay closer attention to the petition, many others in private interviews have confirmed the obvious that they do.

More at SCOTUS Blog.

Zogby Unethical; MSM Stupid

Zogby verges on the unethical in touting results from his wildly inaccurate "interactive" polls with unscientifically gathered survey samples to anyone. The media shows their stupidity by reporting on these non-event results. Daily Kos cites chapter and verse to explain the situation.

27 November 2007

Low Flow Toilets Are Evil

The Denver Post, cited by Coyote Gulch, claims that low flow toilets are better now. My own experiences with these beasts, mandated by Congress, has been decidedly more negative. Simply put, they do a very poor job of sending feces down the drain, which is a mission critical purpose of a toilet. Pulling out a toilet brush, or hogging the bathroom while the toilet recharges for another dubious weak flush, are activities few of us relish.

True, I could have simply encountered old and inferior models. But, I am certainly not yet convinced and won't be until I have seen these allegedly superior new models myself.

Also, low flow toilets are a classic example of poor regulatory judgment. Toilet choice has a widespread personal impact on large numbers of people where even modest differences in quality are notable. The difference for a consumer between an old fashioned toilet and a low flow toilet is much greater than the difference between, for example, a car with a six cylinder engine and a four cylinder engine, that people are willing to pay a great deal of money to enjoy, despite significantly reduced fuel efficiency and increased pollution. Yet, no one is mandating four cyclinder engines for all sedans.

High flow toilets are not all that significant a cause of wasted water. In most arid watersheds, 90% or more of water is used for marginal, inefficiently irrigated horticulture, despite the fact that fishing and boating are more important to the local economy than the entire economic product of horticulture. Half of residential water use is for landscaping. A golf course uses as much water as roughly 800 homes. Slight increases in irrigation efficiency by the 1% of so of the population that uses irrigated horticulture (something that would also benefit the farmers themselves by reducing their consumption) and wider use of xeriscaping could produce far less intrusive water savings than the campaign for low flow toilets.

There are better places to seek efficiency in residential water use, even within homes. Simply fixing leaking in aging infrastructure can save a great deal of water. Even better would be to revamp water law and the regulatory structure to provide for wider use of gray water for appropriate purposes like toilet flushing. As I understand it, strictly speaking, gray water systems are illegal under Colorado water law. This doesn't matter for a few renegade do it yourselfers, but it means that systemic efforts to install or mandate graywater systems for new subdivisions and new construction are legally impossible. Gray water systems are far more water conserving (a 100% reduction in the demand for fresh water for use in toilets), while working better because they are the same toilets we used to know and love, with a different pipe hooked up to them.

Most water misuse is simply a product of economic incentives. Tap water is very, very cheap in the quantities used by a typical household. For farmers who irrigate, tap water costs just a fraction of that price. When something is cheap, it is used in excess. If we really want to promote efficiency with minimum inconvenience, we should increase the cost of water (perhaps with a tax, or a more efficient market in water rights), rather than take heavy handed steps that are far less efficient at conserving the resource.

Also, if we are to impose disparate prices, why not penalize less essential landscaping use rather than more essential in-home municipal use which is the smallest part of the water consumption pie. Denver Water already has a system in place to segregate the portion of each bill attributable to each kind of use which it uses to bill people for sanitary sewers, based upon baseline winter water useage. This would fairly reflect the fact that the last gallons of water Denver water buys, when it must increase its supply, are generally the most expensive.

26 November 2007

Transportation, Energy and Peak Oil

Oil prices will go up. They are at almost an all time high of $100 a barrel as it stands. The fundamentals point in that direction. No significant quantities of new oil from mineral sources is being produced and the easiest to use big supplies have already been identified.

While we will get far more than current reserves in the long run with more technologically intensive methods, the technologies needed to do so will get more and more expenses, and so the availability of cheap oil will decline. Industrialization in places like China and India, will inevitably cause demand to surge. The result is increasing prices. The fancy name for this phenomena is Peak Oil.

The primary impact of these predicted rising oil prices is on the transportation sector. The dominant use of oil is in the transportation sector. Within the transportation sector, moreover, the overwhelming use of oil is as fuel and for engine lubrication for cars and trucks where there is the greatest impact.

It is also used in trains, boats and aircraft, and as components of other products, but those uses are a much smaller share of the total.

Freight Trains

Trains, particularly freight trains, are overwhelmingly diesel-electric hybrids (except for intracity electric passenger trains and some high speed rail passenger trains not found in the United States). Trains far more fuel efficient than cars and trucks, making them a desirable alternative to cars and trucks as oil prices rise, whenever the form a reasonable substitute. Also trains can be refitted to use different fuels like coal, electricity, or natural gas, simply by redesigning locomotives (not always all that dramatically, in many cases an existing chassis and electric transmission of power to the drive train could be retained with only the power plant replaced). So, the bulk of the rolling stock inventory doesn't have to be replaced.

The main problem with a shift to trains are that the system has been optimized for highly efficient, slow bulk transportation. Many freight rail systems are basically one way, one lane or two way, two lane highways, with few passing lanes, so one slow heavy bulk service train can prevent express deliveries from arriving on time.

Also, while all the technology for intermodal containerized shipping exists, in practice, the freight rail system is primarily set up to handle bulk shipments of commodities like coal and grain. There are freight rail stations all over the nation near key industrial centers, but many lack the ability to swiftly and efficiently transfer shipping containers to trucks for local delivery.

Still, the cost of upgrading our intercity freight transportation system so that medium speed trains with container cargo would carry freight most of the way, deferring to trucks only for local delivery from the nearest train station, would be fairly modest and technologically unambitious, while saving vast amounts of fuel, increasing road safety, reducing wear and tear on existing roads, and smoothing the way for a transition to electric vehicles which work best for short range trips.

Within a decade of the time that diesel hits $8 a gallon, I expect that the lion's share of intercity freight now carried by truck will instead be carried in shipping containers first by train and then by truck locally. Freight rail's market share will grow in a lagging lock step with oil prices.

Passenger Trains

A viable passenger rail system would probably have to be build using high speed rail on dedicate passenger rail lines which could also be used for small, time sensitive package delivery, on the model of the Northeast Corridor.

Existing Amtrak service is virtually useless outside the Northeast Corridor. It isn't time competitive with passenger vehicles, and struggles to keep pace with commercial intercity buses. It is also plagued with long delays, most of which are due to competition with slow moving freight traffic. Amtrak manages to stay price competitive with intercity buses only through massive federal subsidies of operating costs. And, the routes where this kind of high speed rail service makes sense often doesn't overlap with existing Amtrak lines (e.g. the I-25 corridor).

This new system would have to be developed more or less from scratch, with interim systems using "passing lanes" in the freight system designed to carry time sensitive container shipments. Thus, real passenger rail could lag a couple of decades behind freight rail innovations, leaving the United States economy hurting compared to better prepared European and Japanese economies with high speed rail systems already in place.

In a mature expensive oil economy high speed passenger rail would handles most medium distance trips. Local trips would still be by some form of motor vehicle, probably an electric or biofuel one, or an intracity transit system (bus and/or rail), due to incompatibility of high speed rail with frequent stops. Aircraft would still retain the edge for all but the most bargain basement long distance travel, because aircraft are so much faster, and because existing crippled passenger boarding systems would work better with a more elite smaller volume passenger load.

Cars, Trucks and Buses

During the transition from a cheap oil economy, where personal cars and trucks are the dominant means of transportation, to a mature expensive oil economy, when high speed rail was not on line, people would cope by making far greater use of bus service between cities. The fuel cost per passenger mile is much lower (particularly for families with pre-hybrid vehicles, if a hybrid electric bus is used), and as fuel prices rise this cost advantage would draw in middle class business and family passengers, who previously would have taken their own vehicles.

Cars and trucks won't go away. But, they will be used differently and many will have different fuels.

Electric vehicles with current technology are viable in all but range, particularly at modest speeds (e.g. up to 55 mph rather than 80 mph). This will make electric vehicles popular in compact urban areas as oil prices rise much faster than electricity prices. If you rarely drive more than 50 miles a day, and don't get onto interstate highways outside of rush hour, an electric vehicle is perfect. Electric vehicles are a good fit for commuting, routine grocery shopping and errands, and for local deliveries. Also, there is no reason that a big vehicle, like a minivan, commercial van or semi-tractor trailer can't be electric or hybrid electic. The technology scales up and down well.

As people transition to electric vehicles, the market to rent liquid fuel vehicles for occasional out of town trips should grow.

Rural personal motor vehicles will probably become ethanol-gasoline mix hybrid electric drives or diesel-electric hybrid drives. Buses and trucks that must serve intercity trips will probably convert to diesel-electric hybrids, probably with at least some biodiesel in the mix.

Hybrid electric vehicles are already commercially viable, even though the extra cost of a hybrid doesn't justify the reduced gasoline consumption at current gasoline prices. As oil prices rise and hybrids go into larger scale production and lose some of their novelty, they seem likely to become the dominant form of engine for cars and trucks.

If there are major improvements in battery technology, electric cars could simply entirely replace gasoline and diesel cars with very little adjustment to the overall transportation system, but the better battery has proved to be a tough nut to crack. This kind of development would also put great pressure on the electricity industry to increase production and improve conservation in current uses.

Natural gas is also an option, but requires lots of new infrastructure and will be growing more expensive a few steps behind corresponding increases in oil prices, even though it is almost as clean as electricity in generating pollution (probably cleaner overall if the source of the electricity is coal).


Boats are a fairly small part of the total and have a fair amount of flexibility to use alternative fuels. They could return to the coal age of the steamer. They could use modern more efficient sails. They could use biodiesels in amounts that wouldn't deplete the entire agricultural output of the nation. Boats are far more fuel efficient per mile traveled than cars and trucks in any case.


Aircraft demand has much greater ability to absorb increasing oil prices than other transportation modes, so the main effect on rising oil prices on the aircraft industry will be higher ticket prices. The truly cost conscious travelers like those grabbing discount tickets to the Caribbean, and families taking trips where rail is a possibility but a strain, would be the first to stop traveling by air. Business travel and affluent tourists are likely to continue to fly.

Coal Derivatives

Electricity and biofuels aren't the only alternatives to petroleum and natural gas based fuels. Another likely replacement in cars, trucks, trains, boats, homes and power plants are hydrocarbon gases and liquids derived from coal.

It has been done, and Montana is building plants to do it. There is likely some energy loss in the conversion process and the jury is still out on how clean the conversion process is likely to be.

At worst, it could generate all the pollution associated with a coal fired power plant at the time of conversion (on top of all the environmental and safety hazards associated with coal mining). The products would also be at least as polluting as the natural gas and/or gasoline or diesel they are replacing when used. Still, even then, it isn't a total waste, as it creates of gas or liquid fuel product that is more convenient to use than electricity in many instances, and the supply of coal is effectively limitless.

At best, the process could also much more effectively sequester the pollutants associated with burning coal and even sequester the CO2 produced in the process, producing environmental impacts significant less that using coal outright, and if the output were prodominantly a gas state fuel, rather than a liquid, the combustion of the fuel itself could be reasonable clean.

I suspect that a mix of electricity, biofuels, natural gas and synthetic coal based products will probably power the ground vehicles of 2040, as petroleum based gasoline and diesel become too expensive outside of particular niche markets.

Land Use and Lifestyle Changes

Any way you cut it, even with replacement technologies, the cost of transportation will almost certainly go up.

There could be some market response with increased teleconferencing, videoconferencing, and other forms of online collaboration.

This could also result in a pullback of large physical inventory from point of sale. Heavier items like vehicles, appliances and furniture might be reviewed in a display store and then special ordered in most cases to minimize the need to phyiscally move them. Even where demand was fairly predictable, for say, refrigerators in a large metropolitan area, there might be an increased tendency to have containers of finished goods stored at a warehouse at a railhead in the metropolitan area and then delivered from there to a customer within a day or two of purchase after a purchase was made at a display store.

Some physical items like reference books and professional journals and advertising will likely continue to move to electronic form from physical form in the face of rising transportation costs. Likewise e-communication will likely replace communication by letter more and more.

Locally grown food products would get a slight edge as transportation costs rise.

I suspect that the most noticable life style change, however, will be in land use. Simply put, it will be more expensive to live in the exurbs and more distant suburbs, and more and more affordable to live in central cities and inner ring suburbs. Cities like Castle Rock and Longmont, seemingly designed for couples who both have long commutes to different cities, could be hard hit indeed, as the pressure to localize increases.

The result may be higher density, more mixed use development, more transit oriented development, and a wealth inversion, as central cities become affluent, while suburbs become poorer. The sterotype of the poor families crowding onto a city bus could be replaced with that of double sized buses of working class people living in the suburbs making their way to central business districts, perhaps after having first taken a neighborhood shuttle or bicycle or motorcycle or microcar to the central bus stop.

Oil prices don't greatly impact many energy sectors.

Outside some recalcitrant holdovers in the Northeast (mostly homeowners) and Alaska, almost nobody uses heating oil for space heating. Outside Alaska, Hawaii and some rural generators, almost nobody uses oil to generate electricity any more. Some oil is used in other industries in products like fertilizers, plastics and non-transportation lubricants, but this is a small share of the total.

Peak oil will pressure farmers to shift from oil based fertilizers to organic ones. It will make plastic more expensive, curtailing its use in low budget disposable applications. It will encourage R&D departments to develop animal and vegetable oil based lubricants, a change which unlike a massive conversion to ethanol and biodiesel would not require the vast majority of the agricultural output of the nation to be converted to vegetable oil production.

23 November 2007

Estate Tax Repeal Dead

In their opening statements [at the Nov. 14 Senate Finance Committee's Estate Tax Hearing], both Sens. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) expressed their personal support for estate tax repeal, but Baucus went on to acknowledge repeal is not part of the discussion any more in the Senate. Most outside observers rule out estate tax repeal as well. Mark Bloomfield, president of the American Council for Capital Formation, who has lobbied for repeal, told Bloomberg News, "I don't think complete repeal has the votes, has not had the votes for a few years and won't have the votes in the future."

While no legislative action is expected on the estate tax for the rest of the year, Baucus said he plans to introduce a bill reforming the tax for markup sometime this spring. It will be interesting to see what Baucus proposes, if anything, in view of the deep divide within the Senate on the issue. In 2006, the Senate rejected GOP proposals to end the estate tax as well as an amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) to reduce the estate tax rate to 15%. At the same time, a Democratic proposal to bring the rate down to 30% was also rejected.

From here.

My prediction is that the estate tax will be frozen at 2009 levels (a 45% tax rate and $3,500,000 per person exclusion from taxation). The 2010 elimination of the estate tax, and the 2011 return of the estate tax with 55%+ top rates and a $1,000,000 exclusion are both unlikely to materialize.

In 2007 and 2008, we have a 45% tax rate and a $2,000,000 per person exclusion.

Lifeboats Work

The Explorer sinking (Chilean Government photograph).

On November 23, 2007 a ship called the Explorer full of passengers sank after hitting an iceberg. Unlike the Titanic, it had enough lifeboats. The roughly 100 passengers and crew on board all survived, despite the frigid waters, and no one was injured. They were picked up by Nordnorge, a Norwegian cruise ship.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Someone at Daily Kos wondered why someone like me wouldn't take a train to visit family that is just under 1,200 miles away for the holidays. Let me explain by showing the real life itineraries via car, train and plane.

Leave from home for DIA on Sunday at 4:45 p.m.
Leave from DIA to Dayton, Ohio on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Arrive in Dayton, Ohio on Sunday at 11:59 p.m.
Arrive at Grandpa's house from Dayton Airport at 1:35 a.m.

Leave from Grandpa's house for Dayton airport at 12:30 p.m.
Leave Dayton on Saturday at 3:35 p.m.
Arrive in Denver on Saturday at 4:35 p.m.
Arrive home on Saturday at 5:50 p.m.

Total Travel Time: 13 hours 10 minutes

Leave from home on Sunday at 6:00 a.m.
Drive to Grandpa's house with ETA of Sunday just before midnight (per mapquest).

Leave from Grandpa's on Saturday at 6:00 a.m.
Drive to home with ETA of Saturday just before midnight.

Total travel time: 36 hours (even with two or three additional hours for breaks each way, it is very competive with traveling by train).

Leave from home for Union Station in Denver on Sunday at 8:00 p.m.
Board Train in Denver on Sunday at 8:25 p.m.
Arrive in Chicago on Monday at 4:00 p.m.
Board Train in Chicago on Monday at 5:25 p.m.
Arrive in Cincinnati on Tuesday at 3:17 a.m.
Get in car to Grandpa's house on Tuesday at 3:21 a.m.
Arrive at Grandpa's house on Tuesday at 4:10 a.m.

Leave Grandpa's house on 12:06 a.m. on Saturday
Leave Cincinnati 1:10 a.m. on Saturday
Arrive in Chicago 10:35 a.m. on Saturday
Leave Chicago 2 p.m. on Saturday
Arrive in Denver at 7:15 a.m. on Sunday
Drive from Union Station in Denver to home on Sunday with ETA 7:30 p.m.

Total Travel Time: 62 hours 52 minutes

Flying costs about twice as much as driving or taking a train for a family of four.

Train tickets would cost about $840 for a family of four and there would be an additional parking cost (on the order of $84 for a week). Driving would cost about $400 for gasoline, about $24 for a pro-rata share of oil change costs, and about $500in car depreciation. So, the cost of traveling by train and by car for a family of four is roughly identical.

I didn't bother to consider some unrealistic alternatives such as taking a boat down the South Platte to the Mississippi, then up the Mississippi to the Ohio River and its tributaries to my destination. I also didn't consider biking, travel by foot, or travel by horse. There is no commercial blimp service between the destinations.

21 November 2007

Georgia Court Strikes Down Sex Offender Limits

Today, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously struck down part of a Georgia law:

which prohibits registered sex offenders from residing or loitering at a location that is within 1,000 feet of any child care facility, church, school or area where minors congregate (the "residency restriction") . . . or being employed by any business or entity located within 1,000 feet of any child care facility, church or school (the "work restriction").

The court noted that: "While this time it was a day care center, next time it could be a playground, a school bus stop, a skating rink or a church."

As the Georgia Supreme Court explained:

[The law] contains no "move-to-the-offender" exception to its provisions. . . . third parties may readily learn the location of a registered sex offender's residence. The possibility exists that such third parties may deliberately establish a child care facility or any of the numerous other facilities designated in [the law] within 1,000 feet of a registered sex offender's residence for the specific purpose of using [the law] to force the offender out of the community. . . . A registered sexual offender who knowingly fails to quit a residence that is located within 1,000 feet of any of the facilities or locations designated in the statute commits a felony punishable by imprisonment for not less than ten nor more than 30 years.

The statute was struck down not as a cruel or unusual punishment, or for lack of procedural due process, but under the takings clause, which prohibits government takings of property without just compensation.

As a result, the Georgia count found that "it is apparent that there is no place in Georgia where a registered sex offender can live without being continually at risk of being ejected."

It rejected the argument that the economic value of the residence could be retained by renting the house, arguing instead that the right to reside in a home purchased for the purpose of using as a private residence was a distinct property right.

The court kept in force the employment restriction on the grounds that it limited income from services, but not ownership interests in business, and hence did not deprive offenders of a property interest.

The case is remarkable because it strikes down a widely criticized type of law relating to sex offenders on a novel ground, the takings clause, which is almost never applied to criminal cases (although I have often argued that it should have broader application to the field of civil rights litigation generally).

As noted by the Associated Press:

The law had been targeted by civil rights groups who argued it would render vast residential areas off-limits to Georgia's roughly 11,000 registered sex offenders and could backfire by encouraging offenders to stop reporting their whereabouts to authorities.

State lawmakers adopted the law in 2006, calling it crucial to protecting the state's most vulnerable population: children.

Georgia's law, which took effect last year, prohibited them from living, working or loitering within 1,000 feet of just about anywhere children gather - schools, churches, parks, gyms, swimming pools or one of the state's 150,000 school bus stops. . . . Twenty-two states have distance restrictions varying from 500 feet to 2,000 feet, according to researchers. But most impose the offender-free zones only around schools, and several apply only to child molesters, not all sex offenders.

Colorado doesn't have such a law. Indeed, this appears to make the state safer according to data in a July 23, 2007 story from the Rocky Mountain News:

A number of studies, including one released last month by the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, conclude that restricting where offenders may live does not prevent repeat sex crimes.

Instead, the restrictions encourage sex offenders to "disappear," blending into communities where they live in the privacy essential to committing new sex crimes, the studies say. . . .

Colorado has more than 10,500 registered sex offenders. More than 3,000 live in the metro area. As of last week, Denver had 1,337 registered sex offenders.

Sex offenders generally have a high rate of recidivism - 18.9 percent for rapists and 12.7 percent for child molesters over a period of five years, the Colorado study reported. . . .

"Residency restrictions prevent us from having sex offenders living together . . . but 25 years of my experience and significant research all support that the more you can make them live together, the easier it is to control them. . . ."

The Colorado research, based on a 2004 survey of sex offenders, found that high-risk sex offenders living in shared living arrangements had significantly fewer probation and criminal violations than those living in other living arrangements. . . .

"Offenders hold each other accountable for their actions and responsibilities and notify the appropriate authorities when a roommate commits certain behavior, such as returning home late or having contact with children," the 2004 Colorado report said.

The study found that sex offenders living with their families re-offend or violate probation at twice the rate of high-risk sex offenders living with other offenders. . . . Colorado has no state laws restricting residency of sex offenders, though probation and parole officers must approve residency and keep sex offenders away from schools or other high-risk situations . . . The Colorado study concluded that a "tight web of supervision, treatment and surveillance" - like that offered by shared living arrangements - was more important in maintaining public safety than where a sex offender resides.

Colorado is one of the few states where shared living arrangements are used . . . It also is one of the few states that uses polygraphs to monitor sex offenders and requires lifetime supervision of some. . . none of the 15 new crimes committed by the 130-member study group involved sexual contact, and most were identified through polygraph examinations. Only one was detected by law enforcement. Two were reported by group members and one man reported himself. . . .

A 2007 Minnesota Department of Corrections study of new offenses committed by known sex offenders concluded that none would have been prevented by a boundary restriction.

Most of the 224 sex offender recidivists surveyed for the study found their victims through another adult, and none made contact with a child near a school, park or playground.

"It is unlikely that residency restrictions would have a deterrent effect because the types of offenses such a law is designed to prevent are exceptionally rare and, in the case of Minnesota, virtually nonexistent over the last 16 years," the report said.

Colorado has no state buffer zone law, though there have been several unsuccessful attempts to pass one. Some local governments, however, have adopted such measures.

These laws are ineffective because sex offenders most often prey on a victim they know . . . . "We keep passing public policy as if these are 'stranger' crimes, but most are not," she said.

Hat Tip to How Appealing.

20 November 2007

Feds Lie To Federal Judge

The Bush Adminstration does not deserve the benefit of the doubt, and should not be allowed to rely on secret pleadings and secret evidence.

At a post-trial hearing Tuesday for Ali al-Timimi, a Muslim cleric from Virginia sentenced to life in prison in 2004 for soliciting treason, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she can no longer trust the CIA and other government agencies on how they represent classified evidence in terror cases.

Attorneys for al-Timimi have been seeking access to documents. They also want to depose government witnesses to determine whether the government improperly failed to disclose the existence of certain evidence.

The prosecutors have asked her to dismiss the defense request. The government has denied the allegations but has done so in secret pleadings to the judge that defense lawyers are not allowed to see. Even the lead prosecutors in the al-Timimi case have not had access to the information; they have relied on the representations of other government lawyers.

After the hearing, the judge issued an order that said she would not rule on the prosecutors' motion until the government grants needed security clearances to al-Timimi's defense lawyer, Jonathan Turley, and the lead trial prosecutor so they can review the secret pleadings. . . .

In a letter made public Nov. 13, prosecutors in the [Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias] Moussaoui case admitted to Brinkema that the CIA had wrongly assured her that no videotapes or audiotapes existed of interrogations of certain high-profile terrorism detainees. In fact, two such videotapes and one audio tape existed.

Denver Election Worries

After hearing the latest news on how preparations for Denver's elections are going from the city's newly hired director of elections, I can't help but to be a little worried.

* Of the sixteen staff positions in the office, seven are vacant. It remains unclear if election judges will have to now be hired through the civil service authority.

* Denver plans to convert its voter registration data to a state database on December 10, 2007.

This is right in the midst of a very complicated dance involved in drawing up lists of voters for the 2008 party caucuses where Coloradoans will have a say in Presidential nominations. The cut off for being registered to vote and declaration a party affiliation is December 5, 2007. The cut off for confirming precinct assignments is January 5, 2008. The caucuses are February 5, 2008. A disaster, which seems almost automatic when there is any major computer system change, but wreck havoc on the caucus process by depriving political parties of accurate voter lists.

This was supposed to have been completed by the state two years ago. It is hard to imagine a worse time to try to catch up. If the transition were made on February 6, 2008 instead of December 10, 2007, the risks associated with problems would be immensely lower and far less pressured.

* There are no electronic voting machines certified by the Colorado Secretary of State. Certifications were due in July and are currently targeted for mid-December.

* We don't know what format the November 2008 elections will be conducted in right now. The current recommendation is for about 170 multiple precinct sites using paper ballots that will be counted at a central location.

This means that the guidance of historical precinct locations will be gone, and the flexibility of being able to vote anywhere with vote centers will be gone.

* Many election judges have been alienated after the 2007 election, where election judges simply walked out at 8:30 p.m. on election night. In part this was because these committed volunteers basically weren't even allowed any meaningful breaks and required to work overlength shifts. Massive recruitment of new election judges may now be necessary, and no firm plans are place to accomplish this task. The average age of an election judge in the United States is 72 years old.

* The elections division has all but conceded that election results will come very, very slowly in November 2008. The elections division lacks the capabilities to process 120,000 ballots of many pages each in a timely fashion. More planned space will help, but can't speed the counting of paper ballots that much, as only a certain number of pages of ballots can be fed through the counting machines each hour.

* The relatively simple 2007 election has a 5% voter marking error rate, but the November 2008 ballot will be more complex.

Paper ballots while they have their good points, make it far easier to overvote or undervote. A great deal of voter training will be necessary to make a return to paper ballots work.

* It isn't clear that there are plans in place to significantly improve the situation on a process/systems basis.

For example, lots of the time is spent in the vote counting process unfolding a ballot folded in five places, but it seems that there was no walk through of the process that would have allowed the division to reduce this barrier in advance by using a larger envelope.

Similarly, while the elections division has blamed the city's information technology department for a computer crash on election night, and as did the elections commission before the transition to an elected clerk and recorder, it isn't obvious that a solution is underway.

Some of this is constrained by state laws that micro-manage the elections process. But some is not.

* The vendor that provides the city's voter registration software, Sequoia is discontinuing support for the software at the end of this year, although it appears that it may be pursuaded to continue a bit longer.

* The city still doesn't have a precinct locator at its website, despite an anticipated all time high rush to attend precinct caucuses and despite a tenatively planned return to a precinct based voting location system.

* There was no representative from the Democratic Party of Denver, per se, on the committee charged with chosing a format for the 2008 election established by the newly elected clerk and recorder, despite the fact that it is the dominant political party in the City and County of Denver, and has a multiple legally defined formal roles in the process.

Three Notions About Modern Chemistry

One interesting development in physical chemistry, reported on in the December issue of Popular Science, is that some bloke searching for a cancer treatment appears to have come across a way to perform electrolysis with radio waves that is catalyzed by simple salt in water. Obviously, this doesn't generate energy. But, if it sounds like it could be rather efficient as electrolysis goes, if for no reason other than that radio waves generators wouldn't become tarnished and require replacement electrodes in the way that conventional electrolysis set ups do. While potable water is scarce, briny water is absurdly abundant, so the fact that salt water might actually be better than pure water for electrolysis is encouraging. While the hydrogen produced is really more of an energy battery than an energy source, at point of use hydrogen is a nearly ideal fuel, because the byproduct of its combustion is non-polluting steam. Purified oxygen is useful for medicinal and industrial purposes, and it also is something of an anti-pollutant if released into the atmosphere as a byproduct rather than saved.

My other two notions involve how we could used exotic short lived isotopes in chemistry, as opposed to simply making them for our own amusement in particle accelerators.

One possibility, particularly for longer lived synthetic isotopes, with half lives of hours or days or weeks or years, is in nanotechnology. This is the only area of chemistry, it seems to me, where the quantities of synthetic isotopes that could be practically produced could be large enough to be useful. It wouldn't even matter if the synthetic isotope had no special properties. This is because one of the perennial fears of nanotechnology is that the products will become dispersed in places where they don't belong. A short lived isotope would solve that problem by effectively placing a self-destruct sequence into each product.

A second possibility is what I think of as "ephemeral chemistry." This would also have to involve some kind of nanotechnology, but unlike the self-destruct applications described above, the special properties of synthetic isotopes would matter. The idea is that if you could generate a steady stream of a very short lived isotope, minutes or less of half life, for example, that these could serve as a catalyst or other intermediate product of a chain of chemical reactions that would make possible new kinds of chemical reactions. It would presumably be dreadfully expensive business. But, it might be useful for some niche applications. For example, perhaps an atom with a particularly large nucleus could coax organic chemicals into creating stable rings larger than the stereotypical carbon benzene ring, which would in turn have biochemical applications.

19 November 2007

Another Washington Park

The Village of Washington Park, in Illinois, has a rather different economy than the neighborhood in Denver where I reside.

The Village’s economy is dependent on adult entertainment. As our previous opinion, Joelner v. Village of Washington Park, 378 F.3d 613, 616 (7th Cir. 2004)(“Joelner I”), sets forth in more detail, the Village derives almost 100% of its income from the adult entertainment industry, a situation that the tiny Village has admitted it is doing little to remedy. See John McCormick, Cashstrapped Town Relies on Strip Clubs to Pay Bills, Chi. Trib., Apr. 29, 2003, at A1. As of June 2006, the Village licensed eight adult cabarets in its surrounding 2.5 mile span, including two cabarets under new construction.

It wasn't always so different, however. The neighborhood was incorporated as the City of South Denver prior to being amalgamated into the City and County of Denver, in order to restrain the predominant industry in the area, bawdy drinking establishments on South Broadway.

Kids Locked Up For Life

California currently has 227 inmates serving such sentences for crimes committed before they turned 18; Pennsylvania has 433.

The study, titled "Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison," also found that the United States has far more juveniles serving life terms than any other country — 2,387 at present — with Israel running a distant second at 7. Israel, the only other country that imprisons juveniles for life, according to the study, has not issued such a sentence since 2004.

In the United States, life terms have fallen disproportionately on youths of color, with black juveniles 10 times more likely than white juveniles to be given a life without parole sentence, the report found. In California, black juveniles are 20 times more likely to receive such sentences.

From the AP via the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog. Full report here.

The original report explains that the United States and Israel are the only countries in the world that have people current serving life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile crimes. Several African countries recently abandoned the practice. Several other countries have laws on the books that authorize that sentence but have imposed it upon no one currently serving a sentence. Israel sentences juveniles to life in prison without parole at about a third the rate of the United States.

Anne McGihon Podcasts!

Anne McGihon, by business colleague and a state legislator, has done a podcast on health care issues in Colorado.

Legal Notices Pointless

The New York Times joins the U.S. Supreme Court and Douglas Adams in observing that legal notices in newspapers are mostly pointless.

18 November 2007

Why buy an SUV?

Yesterday, I became an SUV owner, the hated nemesis of environmentalists everywhere. The SUV is the antithesis of the urban ideal of fuel efficient, easy to park vehicle. Why did I do this?

I really didn't start out looking for one. Indeed, I spent months quietly researching nice urban family sedans until I reached the point it which it was time to take the family out to dealerships for test drives and to sit in vehicles. In a family of four, no personal purchasing decision is truly a private one. I learned, to my chagrin, that a four or five passenger vehicle was not going to cut it.

It seems that children have friends, fellow soccer players, grandparents and all manner of other people for whom their parents are expected to provide transportation. When you have one vehicle and it expected to last a decade, it has to satisfy these requirements. This means that our requirements had to include a seven passenger capacity.

To my shock and amazement, there are, in fact, no seven passenger capacity station wagons, despite the fact that there has been something of a resurgence of high end station wagons, most notably Volvos and Subarus in the market. A seven passenger requirement leaves you just two options: a minivan or an SUV.

I considered getting one bigger cheap vehicle with a bigger capacity, and another small commuter car, but it didn't make sense. First, living a little more than two miles from work, I don't enough commute to justify a second vehicle. Second, I make a lot of mixed use trips. My trip to work in the morning, as often as not, starts with two kids and a gerbil as additional passengers. My trip home often involves picking up the rest of the family at the sidewalk and rushing off to the grocery store or an after school event. Third, I often make trips from work to court during the day with clients and seemingly endless boxes of files and exhibits for court or depositions. A subcompact is a poor fit for those trips. Of course, two vehicles are also quite a bit more expensive than one.

It turns out that the smallest SUVs that can carry seven passengers are competitive with or better than minivans in fuel efficiency. There is also only one new model of minivan of which I am aware, the Toyota Sienna, that offers an all wheel drive minivan, and that has gotten mixed reviews as a result of problems with the run flat tires that come with it. It also doesn't come cheap. While all wheel drive wasn't an absolute priority, after enduring several Colorado blizzard seasons, and blocking the road in front of my house because I spun out on a snowy day this past February and got my front tires stuck in an ice rut, all wheel drive was definitely an attractive option.

I'll admit that there were other considerations. A minivan is a concession to all things dumpy and domestic. An SUV comes with less psychological baggage.

And, so it was that I bought an SUV.

An SUV is still a horribly wasteful one passenger vehicle, and most SUVs, much of the time get use for that purpose. Mine will as well, often enough. I also still don't understand the idea behind a five passenger SUV, particularly a front wheel drive five passenger SUV. I'll leave that mystery to someone else. But, they do have a niche and when you drive them full, their fuel efficiency in terms of passenger-miles per gallon is quite competitive.

16 November 2007


For the vanity candidates in the race for the Democratic nomination to be President of the United States, Kos at Daily Kos has one word: Ugh.

While this dismissal received waves of disapproval in the comments from people who agree with the vanity candidates on matters of policy, I share his sentiment. Elections are for the purpose of selecting leaders. If you aren't in the race to win, or have no viable chance of winning, you have a moral obligation to get out of the race. You merely humiliate yourself and discredit your cause by staying in the race. It shows that you don't have a grip on reality, and it suggests that your other beliefs may be tainted by the same inability to face the facts. You are also doing a disservice to your party, in the primary stage, by diluting scarce resources available to inform voters of the best choice in the race on the merits.

The only time it is appropriate to run a campaign with a dim chance of winning is in a partisan race that would otherwise go uncontested, to force your political opponent to make his or her case to the voters and to be on hand to benefit from a political calamity should it arise at the last moment.

The op-ed pages, the blogosphere, the book trade and the lecture circuit are full of opportunities to get a political message out without running for higher office, something that Al Gore has proved in spades.

The Letter

Some days "the Letter" informs parents that there is a lice outbreak. This week, "the Letter" was similar to one that went out to parents at tony private Graland Country Day School, and a suburban Golden, Colorado public school earlier this week. It got right to the point:

I'm writing to let you know that a [Denver Public Schools elementary school] paraprofessional, was arrested on November 14, 2007 by Denver Police Department detectives for alleged sexual assaults on students.

The letter was appropriately frank without being salacious. It told those with a reason to be suspicious enough how to follow up in the following two paragraphs, it told those who might hear rumors enough to put them at ease, and it said sufficiently little to avoid infringing on the privacy of the accused or any alleged victims, who are either currently identified or might come forward. Given the distressing circumstances, I'll happily excuse an excess comma in an otherwise well crafted opening sentence.

The school has done the right thing in a difficult situation. There are times when public schools rely too much on police to solve problems. This is clearly not such a case, and Denver Police wouldn't have made an arrest if it was premature. The Denver Public Schools have not made the mistake that was made by the Roman Catholic Church and other large institutions of trying to cover up what happened to protect its reputation. The facts have been reported to authorities while the cases are presumably fresh, and reports have been taken seriously enough to determine the scope of the harm and properly investigate in a manner that puts no other child at risk. Publicity has so far been minimal, protecting the rights of the accused.

For someone who is involved in the daily life of the school, it isn't hard to connect the dots, to get a somewhat more full version of the story. And, like a responsible person with no first hand knowledge, or even detailed second hand reports, of what has happened, I remain agnostic on the case's ultimate outcome. While I could name names, that would be irresponsible. Neither the accused, nor the possible victims would benefit from naming names on the Internet.

There are about 72,000 students in the Denver Public Schools, about 4,000 teachers, and about 2,000 paraprofessionals. Every teacher and paraprofessional works with students every day, often unsupervised. Sooner or later, events like this will happen. The District secures fingerprint verified criminal record checks for every employee that works with students, taken at the administrative building a block and a half from my office. The District maintains detailed paperwork in HR files and student records that would make small business people cringe. There is only so much that a school district can do.

It may come out that warning signs were ignored. Perhaps by school officials, perhaps by family members of victims, perhaps by family members or friends of the alleged perpetrator, perhaps by bystanders. It may come out that there was no warning at all, perhaps out of fear of retribution.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, we don't punish people with jail terms and lashes for being raped, particularly when our courts find that they were telling the truth. But, this doesn't mean that reporting sexual assault is risk free. You can tell the truth and not be believed. You can be socially shunned. You can be dragged into the painful process of being a witness in open court. When gang members are involved, being a witness can give rise to private retribution.

Reporting a crime almost inevitably results in a burden for the person making the report. While the perpetrator is often punished, the victim often receives little or no personal benefit from doing so. Restitution is often minimal, and civil judgments are hard to enforce against someone who has no income because that person is in prison and has only modest assets also pursued by dependent family members and creditors of the perpetrator.

Justice can sometimes heal psychic wounds if the criminal justice process works, and it usually does to some extent (about 99% of prosecutions, not dismissed by prosecutors voluntarily, result in a conviction for something) but that is something that children may not appreciate for a decade. When they revisit their feelings as adults and see that a perpetrator did not act with impunity and that the system gave a damn about what happened to them they may then decide that it was all worthwhile. Often, the main benefits for a victim of reporting a crime are to end a continuing pattern of abuse and threat, if there is one, and to use the power of your knowledge to fulfill a civic duty to protect others similarly situated. Empowerment has its virtues, but it isn't all it is cracked up to be either.

Survivor may no longer be a badge of shame. But, it isn't a status one would wish upon anyone either. The ritual of seeking to punish the wrongdoer is one optional piece of that puzzle that protects the rest of us. But, we have little in place to heal the subtler harms of a crime. If you are lucky, you have health insurance that can pay for some counseling at your own expense, and you may perhaps even get restitution for your co-payments. If you aren't lucky, you cry, your life falls apart for a while, you are afraid of things that shouldn't make you afraid, and eventually, you rebuild and go on with your life somehow. If you are lucky, your childhood experiences won't lead you to run away or become a prostitute or have baggage in relationships when you are older.

Thank you to those of you who are sacrificing now to make other children safe.

15 November 2007

Colorado Government 101

Federal Elected Offices and Judges

Colorado has seven representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives elected from seven single member Congressional Districts to two year terms, and two Senators elected at large to six years terms (2004 and 2008 are Senatorial election years in Colorado). Colorado elects a slate of Presidential nine electors to the candidate receiving a plurality of the at large, statewide popular vote in each Presidential election year every four years (2008 is a Presidential election year). All of these races are partisan.

All Congressional Districts in Colorado include at least one full county, and at least parts of more than one county. Congressional districts are drawn by the state legislature subject to court review, and to court imposition of districts if the legislature cannot agree on a plan.

Colorado is home to the United Stated District Court for the District of Colorado, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado and is one of the states in the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit which conducts most of its business in Denver. 10th Circuit and District Court Judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. The District Court also has magistrates with most of the powers of a judge, appointed by the judicial branch.

State Offices and Appellate Courts

The Governor and Lieutenant Governor are elected on a single ticket statewide to four year terms. The Secretary of State, Attorney General, and State Treasurer are also elected statewide to four year terms. These partisan elections were last held in 2006.

The State Board of Education has seven members (one from each Congressional District) who are elected to staggered six year terms in partisan elections in even numbered years (the 1st and 3rd CD in 2008, the 5th and 6th in 2010, and the 2nd,
4th and 7th in 2012).

The University of Colorado Board of Regents has nine members (one from each Congressional District and two at large) who are elected to staggered six year terms in partisan elections in even numbered years (The 2nd, 6th and 7th in 2008, an at large, the 1st and the 4th in 2010, and an at large, the 3rd and the 5th in 2012).

There are 35 state senators who are elected from single member districts in partisan elections to four years terms, with elections staggered so that roughly half face election in each even numbered year.

There are 65 state representatives who are elected from single member districts in partisan elections in each even numbered year to two years terms.

State legislative districts are drawn by a blue ribbon commission, rather than by state legislators.

The state supreme court with seven non-partisan appointed judges, and the state court of appeals which also has non-partisan appointed judges, serve the entire state. They are subject to staggered "retain or do not retain" elections in even numbered years.

County and Judicial District Offices and Courts

There are 64 counties in Colorado, including the two consolidated city and county governments. A statutory structure governs 60 of the counties, providing for an elected board of county commissioners, clerk and recorder, treasurer, assessor, sheriff, surveyor and coroner although two (Arapahoe and El Paso) have five county commissioners instead of the usual three, and some counties dispense with an elected surveyor. Pitkin and Weld counties are home rule counties (each with five elected commissioners and an appointed county surveyor), and Denver and Broomfield have unique and different City and County governments. County officers have four year terms. Most, if not all, counties which are not also cities, elect members of the board of county commissioners at large.

There is a district court in each of the twenty-two judicial districts in the state (although operationally, litigants deal with district courts only in the part of the district court in and for a particular county), and each county is in exactly one judicial district (the judicial district that consists of Denver divides the jurisdiction of the district court between a district court, a probate court and a juvenile court). Each county also has its own county court. These judges are subject to staggered "retain or do not retain" elections in even numbered years.

There is a district attorney elected at large on a partisan basis to a four year term in each judicial district. The next election for district attorneys (they are not staggered) will be in 2008.

Regional Transporation District

The Regional Transportation District, which includes all or part of Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson and Weld counties has a fifteen member, non-partisan elected board of directors (whose districts are denoted by letters), who serve staggered four year terms and are elected in even numbered years. Eleven of the board districts include parts of more than one county.

Municipal Government

There are 270 active municipalities in Colorado. They come in several types, ranked below from most powerful to least powerful.

* Consolidated City and County Governments: 2 (Denver and Broomfield)
* Home Rule Municipalities: 87
* Territorial Charter Municipality: 1 (Georgetown)
* Statutory Cities: 13 (Brush, Centennial, Cripple Creek, Federal Heights, Florence, Idaho Springs, Las Animas, Leadville, Ouray, Rocky Ford, Salida, Victor, Walsenberg)
* Statutory Towns: 167

Generally, the cutoff for town status is that the municipality have fewer than 2,000 residents as of the last census.

Ten of the 87 active home rule municipalities are in two or more counties, including two Aurora (Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas) and Littleton (Arapahoe, Douglas and Jefferson), which are in three counties. They are: Arvada (Adams, Jefferson), Aurora, Brighton (Adams, Weld), Central City (Clear Creek, Gilpin), Littleton, Longmont (Boulder, Weld), Northglen (Adams, Weld), Thornton (Adams, Weld), Westminster (Adams, Jefferson), and Windsor (Larimer, Weld).

Ten of the 167 statutory towns are in two counties. They are Basalt (Eagle, Pitkin), Berthoud (Larimer, Weld), Bennett (Adams, Arapahoe), Bow Mar (Arapahoe, Jefferson), Center (Rio Grande, Saguache), Erie (Boulder, Weld), Green Mountain Falls (El Paso, Teller), Johnstown (Larimer, Weld), Lochbuie (Adams, Weld), and Superior (Boulder, Jefferson).

Italics above denote municipalities that are in the greater Denver-Boulder area.

The vast majority of municipalities have a municipal court (sometimes "of record" and sometimes "not of record"), although a few small and less active municipalities may lack of municipal court. Many municipal courts share judges with county courts and municipal courts, so there are fewer municipal court judges than there are municipal courts. Almost all municipal court judges outside Denver are part-time employees.

Municipalities with council members elected by districts or wards draw their own districts subject to legal requirements.

The default structure of a statutory city is to have a strong elected mayor, an elected clerk, and an elected city treasurer (all elected at large), and to elect two members of the city council per ward, all for two year terms. A council-manager form of statutory city is also authorized with a council member at large replacing the mayor, and executive power lodged in an appointed city manager, with a mayor as the chair of the city council elected internally by the council.

The default structure of a statutory town is to have a major and six trustees elected for two years terms at large. Terms can be changes to four year staggered terms (by ordiance), and the number of trustees can be reduced from six to four (and back again) by public vote, and towns may choose by ordinance to elect or appoint a town clerk, a treasurer and a town attorney. The Mayor is largely a first among equals. In practice, many towns elect a clerk, but other officers are usually appointed.

School Districts

There are 178 public school districts organized under state law that cover all of Colorado, each of which provide K-12 educational services. Each district run by a non-partisan elected five to seven member board of directors, elected to staggered four year terms in odd numbered years (except for a small number of districts that use six year terms). The default rule is for all directors to be elected at large, but some districts, including Denver, elect some or all of the directors from five to seven single member, equal population director districts, sometimes with no at large directors, and sometimes with one or two at large directors. School districts with director districts draw their own districuts subject to legal requirements.

Enrollments vary greatly. Two districts have more than 50,000 students. About 107 districts have less than 1,000 students (including 11 with fewer than 100 students). There are 73 with 1,000 to 49,999 students (the data overstates the total by four because it conflates four junior college districts separate from the state governmental Colorado Community College System with K-12 districts). Most, but not all, of the smaller districts are rural.

Some counties have just one school district. El Paso and Weld counties each have more than a dozen school districts. There are 59 multi-county school districts that are not within a single municipality (possibly including some of the four junior college districts).

Colorado engaged in immense consolidation of school districts from 1952, when it had 1,352 school districts, to 1962 when it had 312 school districts, to 1972 when it had 187 school districts. Since then the number of school districts went down by seven and then went up by two. A significant share of the declines post-1972 arose from community colleges joining the state system. So, the basic school district structure in the state has been stable for about 36 years.

Special Districts

There are a number of special district governments in Colorado with their own elected officials, generally non-partisan ones. All but a handful are in only one county or in only in municipality or both. There are 1,414 special districts in Colorado by the federal government's 2002 count (see also here), but that includes many governmental bodies with no elected officials. Special districts that can have elected officials that existed in the state in 2002 included:

* Ambulance Districts
* Conservation Districts (83)
* Drainage Districts (36) (# may include ground water management and irrigation)
* Fire Protection Districts (250)
* Ground Water Management Districts
* Health Services Districts
* Irrigation Districts
* Junior College Districts (4)
* Metropolitan Districts
* Park and Recreation Districts (65)
* Rural Transportation Authorities (e.g. Pikes Peak RTA and Baptist Road RTA both near Colorado Springs, and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority).
* Water Conservancy Districts
* Water and Sanitation Districts (111)

12 November 2007

Carriers As Targets

The notion that surface ships, including aircraft carrier groups, are vulnerable is more than theory.

American military chiefs have been left dumbstruck by an undetected Chinese submarine popping up at the heart of a recent Pacific exercise and close to the vast U.S.S. Kitty Hawk - a 1,000ft supercarrier with 4,500 personnel on board.

By the time it surfaced the 160ft Song Class diesel-electric attack submarine is understood to have sailed within viable range for launching torpedoes or missiles at the carrier. . . . The incident . . . took place in the ocean between southern Japan and Taiwan. . . . The lone Chinese vessel slipped past at least a dozen other American warships which were supposed to protect the carrier from hostile aircraft or submarines. And the rest of the costly defensive screen, which usually includes at least two U.S. submarines, was also apparently unable to detect it. . . [T]he encounter has forced a serious re-think of American and Nato naval strategy as commanders reconsider the level of threat from potentially hostile Chinese submarines.

This is one of multiple incidents that have shown the vulnerability of surface ships to hostile attacks, a threat that has been seriously discussed since the Falklands War, has resurfaced in multiple exercises, and has also come up in the recent conflicts between Israel and guerillas in Lebanon.

Navy advocates have time and again come back with the rejoinder that their anti-submarine screens and point defense systems keep the ships safe. But, this is becoming a dubious claim. Increasingly, the fact that there a very few nations in the blue seas interested in directing hostile fire at U.S. naval forces is becoming a more plausible explanation.

La Traviata

Opera Colorado is currently putting on Verdi's La Traviata at the Ellie, which is now in its second season as Denver's premier high art forum.

The acoustics are excellent, the sight lines are good from almost every seat (a few in the top balcony level aren't ideal), the seat back Figaro translation system is unobtrusive and workable, the leg room is better than many spaces (although the seats aren't luxurious), the bar code ticket checking system works well, and the soaring ceilings are uplifting. Alas, the Ellie's designers were not among the enlightened few who understand that women require far more restroom space than men to clear through in comparable times during an intermission. Opera wear, common even though not universal in Denver, accentuates this timing distinction to a degree even greater than other public gathering places.

While Giuseppe Verdi was reportedly "displeased with his cast, beginning with a zaftig soprano to portray his consumptive hero," in the Opera's 1853 premier, according to Peter Russell's liner notes, Opera Colorado made a similar choice for Violetta Valery, the fallen woman of the title, with Pamela Armstrong. Her strong voice and expressive acting compensated for the fact that she bore little resemblance to a courtesan with tuberculosis. And, after all, this is opera, where genre conventions are more important than verisimilitude. It's not over until . . .

The libretto, at least as translated into English, was actually more chaste than the synopsis supplied in the program, perhaps under pressure from 19th century Italian censors, and the choreography, staging and blocking in this performance, while strongly suggestive, was not explicit. While the best seats in the house were mostly a sea of gray hair, the show was entirely suitable for my eight year old daughter.

While apparently it was based on the true story of the affair of Alexandre Dumas with courtesan Marie Duplessis, first made into a novel, then a play and finally an opera, and was informed by the experiences of Verdi's (second) wife, herself a former courtesan, the story itself, to twenty-first century sensibilities, is barely comprehensible.

The notion that a dying woman should be considered noble for sacrificing the greatest love of her life, so that her lover's sister could marry into money, seems queer. The protocol that drives one man to challenge another to a duel over an offense to a woman is unfamiliar. The meaning of the fact that the man guilty of giving offense wins the duel is opaque. The days when the parties of the upper classes were lascivious instead of stuffy, and drunkenness was a virtue, seem remote. Perhaps the only familiar conventions in the story are that doctors still lie to desperately ill patients about their prospects of survival, and that middle aged men who claim to speak for God are usually in the business of making things worse.

The original story probably could be told in a way that resonated better with contemporary concerns and understandings, but century and a half old operas turn out to be harder to remake than twice as old Shakespeare. Opera is, at heart, about the music, and music is exquisitely a produce of a moment in history. Just as a few bars of melody definitively distinguish disco from grunge, no amount of window dressing will transform Verdi into Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or John Williams. And, while the wine of old stories can be poured into new skins, a distinguished old opera that tried to dress up like twenty-first century teenager would simply look embarrassing and silly.

On a more practical note, here are a couple of tips on parking. While the bridge linked convention center lot is fine for a small car and a pleasant fall day, if it is raining or snowing, leaving early to benefit from the atrium covered connection to the Denver Performing Arts Center is worth your while. And, the long, very tight, unforgiving cement spiral ramp down to the street from the new convention center lot is no place for a clumsy suburban driver with a large SUV or full sized sedan -- the entire way down is streaked with souvenirs of drivers who learned that lesson the hard way.

09 November 2007

Religion in Colorado

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, conducted in 2001 by The Graduate Center at the City University of New York, Colorado residents surveyed identified their religious identity as follows:

Christian Self-Identifications – 68%
*Roman Catholic – 23%
*Christian – 9%
*Baptist – 8%
*Methodist – 5%
*Lutheran – 5%
*Episcopalian – 3%
*Presbyterian – 3%
*Pentecostal – 2%
*Churches of Christ – 2%
*The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – 2%
*Protestant – 2%
*Jehovah's Witness – 1%
*Seventh-day Adventist – 1%
*Evangelical – 1%
*Non-denominational – 1%
Non-Religious/Atheist/Agnostic – 21%
Buddhist – 1%
Jewish – 1%
Other Religions – 3%
Refused To Answer – 6%

Notably, of the 68% who self-identified as some form of Christian, 23% identified as Roman Catholic, 18% identified with a historically mainline Christian identifier (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Protestant), and the remaining 27% identified with a historically conservative/evangelical Christian identifier (Christian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Churches of Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah's Witness, Seventh-day Adventist, Evangelical, Non-denominational).

There are more people who expressly identify as Non-Religous/Atheist/Agnostic in Colorado than there are people who identify as mainline Christians.

Mainline Christian and non-Christian self-identifications make up about 44% of survey respondents, while Roman Catholics and conservative/evangelical self-identifications make up about 50% of self-identifications. It is safe to guess that at least some non-respondents are Roman Catholic or conservative/evangelical self-identifiers, so that pairing makes up a majority of people in the state to the extent that the survey is accurate.