31 December 2009

Two Words: Contagious Cancer

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States and in the world. But, except in rare cares like HPV (a virus usually transmitted sexually that causes cervical cancer for which there is now an immunization available), cancer is generally not contagious.

But, another species provides a glimpse at just how bad a contagious cancer could be if one arose. Twenty years ago, a single Tasmanian Devil experienced had a mutation that created a directly contagious cancer (no intervening virus is required). It is passed from one individual to another through bites. The cancer attacks the same part of the body as M.S. (sheathing around nerves). In the past twenty years:

About 70 percent of the Tasmanian devil population has disappeared as a result of the disease, and if the current rate of decline continues, devils could become extinct in the wild in 30 to 50 years[.]

This cancer is hitting the species more heavily than the black plague did humans in the middle ages, and almost as badly at smallpox did populations in the New World making first contact. At this point there is no cure.

One hopeful possibility is that this cancer can only be contagious because Tasmanian Devils are so deeply inbred.

Tasmanian devils are so genetically similar to one another that their immune systems don’t recognize infectious cancer cells from another individual as foreign[.]

Still, if you are short on bogeymen, contagious cancer will make a nice addition to your list of truly terrifying threats to humanity.

30 December 2009

Calling All Blackberry Gurus

Other than my laptop, the most critical piece of equipment in my law practice, is my Blackberry. It has an annoying quirk of late, that it didn't have previously and that is a daily annoyance.

I need some sort of password on it. Otherwise I end up making "pocket phone" calls to people and losing it is far more of a worry. But, an ideal Blackberry password is short (because you have to type it with an itty bity keyboard multiple times a day), and stays the same (so you don't forget it and shut yourself out).

I can figure out how to turn off the password entirely. But, if it is activated, it insists that I change it every week and have more than five characters in each password.

Once upon a time (i.e. before November), I managed with a single four letter password for years. Any suggestions out there?

29 December 2009

Which States Are Most Religious?

Colorado is near the bottom. Mississippi is at the top.

Pew ranks states based upon polling answers and involvement in religious activities.

Dayton Property Tax Collections Miserable

Dayton, Ohio has a struggling economy. A Dayton Daily News story on Sunday suggests that local governments (particularly schools) are paying for that with low property tax collections. About 13% of property taxes in Dayton proper were uncollected. The Dayton Public Schools are more than ten million dollars short on revenues as a result, even before accounting for a declining property tax base.

This is stunning because in Colorado, property tax revenue collection rates are extremely high (approaching perfect) even in bad times. This is because the right to receive unpaid taxes and the interest due on them are sold to private bidders who know that they have a nearly 100% chance of recovering their investment eventually because property taxes have a first priority lien on real estate, that generally can't be discharged in bankruptcy, and because the property that can be foreclosured upon in satisfaction of property tax liens is almost always worth more than the taxes due with interest. Investors eager to buy safe (if somewhat complicated) investments with an above market rate of return abound, and all the risks of non-collection quickly become private sector risks rather than burdens on property tax supported entities.

In contrast, predicting revenues from Colorado income and sales taxes is a dicey proposition requiring serious economic prognostication, because the tax base is less stable and the gap between taxes due and taxes collected is much greater and more variable.

While property values in Dayton are low, they aren't Detroit low. People in Dayton generally don't have houses worth less than their cars.

I don't know enough about the Dayton system to clearly discern why it can't collect its property taxes, but it seems like a problem that Ohio ought to be able to solve.

Census 2010's Predicted Winners and Losers

The U.S. Census is used to determine how many seats in the U.S. House of Representatives each state will receive. The 2010 census will probably leave Colorado unchanged, with seven seats in the U.S. House (although the way those seven districts are drawn will probably change significantly). But, many states will gain or lose seats:

[S]even states are all but certain to lose at least one seat: Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Another six states are all but certain to gain at least one seat: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Texas and Utah. . . . Texas could pick up as many as 4 congressional seats; New York and Ohio could lose 2 seats. California, for the first time since statehood, may not pick up any seats. . . . In the 1940s, the New York delegation was a 45-member congressional powerhouse while Florida was a puny 6-seat weakling. But between 1942 and 2002, Florida gained 19 seats while New York lost 16.

Ohio's slide is likewise long running. This decade's two seat lost comes on the heels of prior slips in representation.

Some of the change is due to births and deaths, and due to immigration from abroad, but a great deal of the change is due to migration to and from U.S. states. Moreover, births and immigration from abroad take decades to change the pool of eligible voters. Domestic migration's political impacts, in contrast, are effectively instantaneous. Indeed, they may be stronger initially, before movers acclimate to their new political environment, than they are with time. While the amount of domestic migration taking place in 2009 was low, the basic trend has been steady. The Northeast and Midwest are steadily seeing their residents move to the South, and to a much smaller extent, the West.

These numbers illustrate one of two powerful demographic trends that have opposite political implications. On one hand, population trends mean that Democratic party strongholds in the Northwest and Midwest are losing strength relative to Republican strongholds in the South and West. On the other hand, demographic groups like people other than non-Hispanic whites, non-Christian people, and urban voters who tend to vote Democratic, are growing rapidly, while non-Hispanic white Christians and rural voters are shrinking as a demographic.

How does this play out?

Florida has historically been a conservative Republican state, the last couple of generations of migration, domestic and international, into the state, have considerably changed its political makeup, to the point where it has been seen as a critical swing state in the last three Presidential elections (at least). Florida is gaining House seats and with them, electoral votes. But, it would take only a few percentage point push for its electorate to become safely Democratic party leaning.

Nevada is another example of a state that has seen huge population gains and moved politically from being a hard core conservative state to swing state status. Nevada's smaller population means that in absolute terms, a small change in the political leanings of Nevada voters in absolute number of voters in one or two counties, could turn this swing state into a liberal stronghold.

Texas often seems like a lost cause by liberals, but its conservative state legislature and Congressional delegation flow, in part, from gerrymandering that could be remedied in the wake of the 2010 census. No one is suggesting that Texas is the next Vermont on the political spectrum. But, a meaningful dilution in the power of conservative Republicans there could have national implications.

Colorado, of course, is the gold standard of a state that was safely Republican turning blue (or at least purple) as a result of dedicated party building efforts, together with demographic and cultural changes within the state (most Coloradans are not natives, and many are migrants from more liberal states).

The Democratic party has a bright future, but only if it can reinvigorate itself in the places where population growth is happening by activating natural allies who have historically often been infrequent voters. A key factor in Obama's 2008 victory was that the Democrats were more energized than their Republican counterparts.

The redistricting and reapportionment consequences of the 2010 Census may have intraparty consequences for Republicans and Democrats alike, as well. Even if changing demographics mean that Democrats are gaining in non-traditional areas enough to make up their losses in the Northeast and Midwest, the priorities of Democrats from different regions may differ.

Most notably, private sector unions are particularly prominent in the Democratic party coalitions of the Northeast and Midwest. Even within the states losing seats, population declines have been deepest in Rust Belt population centers. So, much of the census driven decline in Democratic party power, both through reapportionment and redistricting within states, will come at the expense of die hard pro-union Democrats. Democrats who win in newly created winnable seats, in contrast, are likely to be more concerned about social issues, civil rights, and economic justice secured through business regulation and government programs rather than union power.

In the Republican party, shrinking rural populations will make that party more suburban and less concerned about farm issues, while continued losses from Rockefeller Republicans in the Northeast, as old moderate Republicans retire, die or lose bids against Democrats vying for competitive seats, harden the conservative edge of the Republican party and its character as a primarily Southern regional party. Population growth in Republican strongholds like suburbs in Arizona, Texas, Utah and Georgia, likewise suggest that suburban anti-government, social conservatives will become increasingly influential in the Republican party.

As manufacturing moves from the old Rust Belt to the new Rust Belt in the South, it is only a matter of time before protectionism becomes a defining trade stance of Republicans rather than Democrats.

FOOTNOTE: Colorado Pols has a similar discussion that makes slightly different predictions, most notably, giving New York better odds of losing just one seat, and taking another seat from Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey and Minnesota (but not Missouri). South Carolina and Washington State are added to the ranks of seat winners. None of this alters the gist of the analysis above.

Tax Cuts Are Bad For GDP Growth

In modern U.S. history, Presidents who increase taxes produce more economic growth than Presidents who decrease taxes. One can make an argument that other factors are more important than tax policy. But, the evidence simply does not support the argument that low taxes produce economic growth.

The evidence from international comparisons likewise shows that high taxes are good for a high standard of living, while low taxes are associated with a low standard of living. The low taxes lead to economic growth theory that is an article of faith for Republicans and many conservative Democrats simply doesn't hold water empirically.

This isn't to say that reforms to make taxes less onerous can't have beneficial economic impacts. But, those reforms need to focus on removing bad microeconomic incentives and dead weight compliance costs from the tax code, rather than on reducing tax revenues.

Hat Tip: Angry Bear.

Congrats Law Prof Bloggers

All three of this year's Blawggie awards for law professor blogging, feature blogs found in my sidebar: the Tax Profs Blog in the top spot; Mauled Again and Eric Goldman's blog in the runner up slots.

28 December 2009


Congratulations to Carla Speed McNeil, whose long running webcomic Finder won the 2009 Eisner award for webcomics, the first year that the category has existed in these comic industry dominated awards where the big two comic publishers (Marvel and DC Comics) have squeezed out many independent authors.

Does Hollywood Have A Pantheist Agenda?

Ross Douthat writing for the New York Times op-ed page, a week ago, made the case that hit Sci-Fi epic "Avatar" is the latest example of Hollywood's generation old tendency to push pantheistic religious views, i.e. the notion that God is nature, rather than some superpowerful superbeing apart from it.

Pantheism has a lot in common with the deist ideas that were popular among the Founders and their political class when the American Republic was founded, and with the transcendentalist ideas about spirituality a couple of generations later.

There are glimmers of it in mainstream Christianity as well. John Wesley, whose followers went on to be known mostly as Methodists, believes that reason and experience, in addition to scripture and church tradition, could provide religious insight. Martin Luther whose followers went on to be known as Lutherans, and less directly was the first major leader of the Protestant Reformation, hedged the Roman Catholic doctrine of the bread and wine communion elements as the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, by arguing that God infuses all of creation.

Pantheism fudges the divide between atheists and secular humanists on one hand, and monotheists, on the other. Nature, in the pantheistic view, is not a neutral and utterly indifferent force as deist proponents of a "clockwork God" who created the world and its rules and left would be. Instead, pantheists embrace ideas like "Gaia" that the Earth and the Universe as systems act in ways that favor a certain order of things and have the power to punish those who deviate too much from that order, for example, by responding to air pollution with global warming. But, a pantheist divinity is also not involved in the intimate day to day struggles in the way that any conception of God that a Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Baha'i or traditional Chinese religionist who believes in the power of prayer in our every day lives must implicitly embrace. The pantheist conception of God will not help you pass your math test, help politicians lead the country auspiciously, or cure your father of cancer because he was a good man.

Douthat makes the fair points that life in a state of nature is more Hobbsian (i.e. nasty, brutish and short) than it is an Eden, and that religions early achievements can be summed up as separations from nature that make us more civilized, not less so.

But, the case that he makes for Hollywood dominance of these ideas is not particularly solid. And, it misses a larger perspective of convergence and syncretism in American religious life. While scripture and theological writings are quite specific in their views of God, the popular consciousness is exceedingly vague among all but the most devout. For most people, religion boils down to the idea that good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, prayers are sometimes answered, and that you should try to be good and defer to clergy in guiding you in doing so. Never mind that this contradicts many doctrines of the afterlife in many faiths that people who believe this are affiliated with.

Christianity co-exists with other ideas. The Santa Claus myth is more clear on justice and rewards than Christianity, and perhaps has more impact on our psyche's for its clarity. American Christians also believe in ghosts, retell myths of the Ground Hog and Easter Bunny, avoid walking under ladders and breaking mirrors, read horoscopes, have a feel for karma, and have expectations for relationships between men and women that are almost never met outside dime store romances.

Christmas has only had its modern form for about 180 years, and started out weaker in America than it was in England. Why did a disorganized, non-conspiratorial group of influential people glob on all at once to create the modern Christmas myth? I have no idea. But, they did. It was an atmosphere of massive invention in the metaphysical sphere. Perhaps it had someting to do with the realities of the industrial age. By comparison, it is easy to see where pantheistic inclinations could come from, without a lot of formal organization.

Yes, we are a people more concerned about preserving the environment than we used to be, and it doesn't take a lot of work to figure out why this might be the case. We have exhausted much of the world's oil in the last century. We have made a mass migration from farms and forests to cities and suburbs. We have polluted our water, our air and our land. We have been driving species, languages and cultures extinct with unprecedented speed.

We are in something of the position of my great-grandfather Matt Blomquist, who bought his first car before he was taught how to drive and discovered as he approached his home that nobody had told him how to stop the thing. He aimed it at his strongest fence post and never drove the car again. But, parting ways with technology entirely is hardly an option, even though we are taking a ride on technology before we've fully learned how it works and how to stop the harms we create. Concern about nature is instinctual when our modern culture has fallen so out of balance with it.

Christians aren't without increasing environmental emphasis as well. Sermons about stewardship no longer simply entail giving of ones time and talents to the church. Clergy now talk in earnest about our collective obligation as stewards of our natural world across the divides that otherwise split the faithful.

For most of humanity, we managed with a faith that probably looks something like what we know call animism or indigenous beliefs. With the Neolithic revolution (i.e. agriculture) perhaps spread by the proto-Indo-Europeans, perhaps by the Semites (not yet Jews), perhaps by other early civilizations, or perhaps created simultaneously in many places, polytheism that mirrored the crude specialization ad court politics of early monarchies court's emerged. As nations and empires emerged, monotheism came to the fore. And, perhaps, as we develop a global view of humanity, and a more scientific view of reality, we need a yet more abstract and more ecologically oriented spirituality to meet our new challenges.

I am not a pantheist. And, I doubt that pantheists have an organized grip on Hollywood either. But, there is a zeitgeist that people who make culture and succeed respond to, and if we are seeing pantheist trends in our movies, perhaps this is our collective soul telling us where we are headed theologically and most lean if we are to survive as a people.

27 December 2009

'Twas On Or About The Night Before Xmas

The legalese version of the famous tale is worth a read.

Subpoena Not A Profit Center

A Brooklyn judge chewed out J.P. Morgan Chase for gouging in its fees for responding to a third party subpoena, of about 50 cents a page (half for research at $25 per hour, and half for copying at about 25 cents a page), when the evidence suggested that its costs were closer to a six cents a page.

Colorado No Fan Of Higher Education

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the state had the third-lowest state and local tax support for public higher education in the nation between 2005 and 2008. Colorado spent $4,213 per student, and Wyoming led the nation with $15,151[.]

From Elevated Voices (5280 magazine's blog).

Vermont and New Hampshire are at the bottom.

The situation looks unlikely to improve in the years to come, as Colorado's budget process puts higher education in a vulnerable position when, as now, funds are scarce.

Hot Gimmick

Imagine a Japanese retelling of the Twilight series, set in a company apartment building, without the supernatural elements, and with two prominent suitors who, rather than willing to do anything to make life better for their heroine, bear intense malice towards her. You have imagined Aihara Miki's manga series Hot Gimmick, a boundary pushing, popular in Japan, edgy late teen romance. It isn't Hentai (cartoon porn), but only because it pulls its punches after coming perilously close. As the Wikipedia's entry on the series (linked above) explains: "it addresses several adult themes that are not entirely appropriate for younger readers; most pointedly, the normalization of an abusive relationship." The abusive relationship theme lurks, unspoken and alluded to in Meyer's Twilight, which features a heroine who frequently makes trips to the emergency room with concocted causes that are in fact related to her boyfriends.

Hot Gimmick is well told and drawn, although it can be uncomfortable reading (twelve volumes of manga worth).

I'm not sure that this story would be told in popular fiction in the United States. Part of the reason, I think, is the flaccid state of the American soap operas. Latin American telenovellas, and similar series in East Asia, end after a season or two, have reasonably tight plots and aren't quite as prone to absurdity and nods to convention as their American counterparts that run for decades with low production values and great indifference to plot holes. Many stories that belong in the genre are squeezed out of it by the floundering Titanic productions that dominate it, in America, but haven't found a home elsewhere. This is a pity, because complex, emotionally intense stories about relationships deserve a home.

24 December 2009

Grandpa's House

Grandpa's house is the house where I grew up.

Oxford, Ohio, where he lives, has changed a great deal in the meantime. There are a few relict businesses from my days there: the Princess Theater, Bruno's Pizza, Wildberry, SDS Pizza, the Miami Co-op. There is still a sign on a side door to Bill's Arts and Crafts marking the name it had when I spent all my money there, Creative Crafts. But, far more has changed. There are a few purveyors of expresso. Chipotle has made its way from Denver. An Indian take out is moving in. Wal-Mart has become the source of all things. My old junior high school (good riddance), was torn down to make way for a strip mall. Voters recently approved construction of a new high school, although its proposed location, along the most accident prone stretch of highway in the county, seems to ask for trouble. The town is awash with big yellow foreclosure signs, mostly on rentals, and also with new luxury student housing, many Uptown, on High Street. The local hospital is bigger.

The house has moved on too. When my mother died, my father remarried. They have made their home in my old house, but it has been reshaped to reflect its new occupants. The walls have fresh paint in new, bolder colors. Granite has replaced old countertops. Windows have been replaced. The yard has new landscaping. There is more art on the walls, and less paper on flat surfaces. The house is thick with Christian images, bibles, devotional literature and homespun aphorisms. There are more teddy bears, more collectibles, and more display worthy rocks. The study no longer looks like a newspaper stand exploded inside it (at least until you peer into the walk in closets there).

A new generation of children are playing games in the house. My children, my niece, and my stepnieces and stepnephew. My children are driven to investigate the woods in the back where I played as a child, seemingly with far less supervision. The creek that runs there, which was undivided when I played there, has split its course. Young college couples still roam the woods looking for perfect winter pictures and quality time together, although I hadn't noticed them as much when I played there. The deer have become more bold. Getting to know the new family is almost effortless. Everyone is more or less agreeable, is looking to like, and wants to focus on good family time.

The church I attended as a child has added a new worship area and converted the old one into a small chapel. The old one was an A frame. The new one is a big square box with chairs instead of pews. The schedule of weekly jobs for parishioners there now includes "Power Point" operator, who cues up text on big screens that used to be read from books.

My favorite radio station in high school has new migrated to an internet only format, where it holds its own in the alternative rock genre. The town's public radio station has been downgraded to being a repeater for another public radio station out of Cincinnati. New campus buildings continue to spring up in neo-colonial red brick, with painted white wood trim, although some modern architectural accents are slipping in, one by one. The college students are still better dressed than most, and the fraternities and sororities that town is famous for founding, still thrive. The synchronized skating team is winning awards.

I know most of the people on the street where my dad lives, although not all of them lived there when I was growing up. A house next door that had been home to a succession of large families, now holds a couple that is restoring it to a state of grandeur greater than it ever had. You still can't go to the grocery store without seeing someone you know. My old scoutmaster, an ornithologist famous for saying that "you're never more than ten feet from a twist tie," still lives in town. My school friends who joined the military when they graduated from high school are nearing military retirement age.

The people I grew up with have mostly spread to the four winds. It seems like more parents are leaving town to be with their kids, than there are kids coming back to the place where they grew up, although there are some of them too.

Perhaps because the house and the town have changed so much, it doesn't trigger so many memories. It is familiar, but not similar enough to summons up many ghosts, good, bad or indifferent. It is a place to go to sharpen the stone and spent time with family now. Perhaps, this is for the better.

23 December 2009

At Least It's Not Your Department Of Revenue

Ohio has decided that the secret to closing its state budget woes this year is to print its tax forms a month late. Yeah, that'll work.

22 December 2009

MS Word Is Contraband

It will be illegal for Microsoft to sell its Microsoft Word product starting in January under an appellate court's patent law ruling, unless a license deal is reached with a patent holder or the product is redesigned. The case also produced a $290 million judgment against Microsoft. (Hat Tip to How Appealing.)

Building Better Bed Bug Bufuddlers

[R]esearchers have come up with a new low-cost, homemade bed-bug detector.

To lure the bugs out of hiding, Wan-Tien Tsai of Rutgers University in New Brunswick put dry ice into an insulated, one-third-gallon jug, the kind available at sports or camping stores. Adding 2.5 pounds of dry ice pellets and not quite closing the pour hole allowed carbon dioxide to leak out at a bug-teasing rate for some 11 hours at room temperature, she said.

She stood the jug in a plastic cat food dish with a piece of paper taped on the outside of the dish as a ramp up to the rim. The bowl’s steep, slippery inside, with an added dusting of talcum powder, kept bugs from crawling out again.

In tests in real apartments, the homemade setup detected bed bugs as well, or better, than did two brands of professional exterminating equipment[.]

From here.

Wan-Tien Tsai is clearly the MacGyver of bed bugs.

21 December 2009

Why Encourage Carry On Luggage?

Airlines don't charge for carry on luggage, but most airlines do charge for checked luggage. While I understand the desire to raise more revenue, I don't understand why an airline would want to encourage carry on luggage, in preferrence to checks luggage. Planes are built to carry checked luggage, as long as someone checks luggage you still have to keep all the fixed costs associated with having checked luggage, and carry on luggage can reduce passenger satisfaction, reduce safety and slows down departures and arrivals. Carry on luggage also increases TSA burdens and security line lengths.

Why don't airlines increasing ticket prices and then offer discounts if you check luggage rather than the full allotment of carry on luggage, instead?

18 December 2009

GM To Discontinue Saab Division

General Motors had planned to sell its Saab division. The deal busted. As a result, General Motors is going to discontinue producing Saab branded cars.

Thumbs Down To Middle Aged Drama

Middle aged life is apparently "in," at least according to a round of previews I recently saw. "Men of a Certain Age" is launching as a dramedy TV series on TBS, and "It's Complicated," a romanace movie about a late middle aged woman who started having an affair with her married to a trophy wife ex-husband hits theaters on January 1, 2010. The trend is unfortunate, because, if the previews are any indication, both efforts are projectile vomit inducing horrible.

You release good movies at year end, to be fresh in the minds of Academy award nominators, and you release blockbusters in the summer. At the start of a new year, however, you apparently release your annual garbage offerings that will go swiftly to video where they will sit unleased until a clearance sale.

17 December 2009

The Physics of Fashion

Are the laws of physics universal? Maybe not.

When I go to the store to buy clothes, I have a certain size. If I get slacks with a 40 inch waist when I need a 38, I get slacks around my ankles. If I get slacks with a 36 inch waist when I need a 38, they never get above my thighs. If I get a large when I need an extra large sweatshirt, I virtually bust it. If I get a sweatshirt a size too big, I swim in it.

This makes perfect sense to me. A particular body size is appropriate for a particular piece of clothing. When I was a kid, back before the Internet was invented, we got the Sears Christmas catalog every year and it had a size chart. You measured different parts of your body with a tape measure, recorded them, consulted the chart, and you knew you size. Charts were available for boys, girls, men and women.

But, apparently, the laws of physics are now different for women. The same woman can go into one store a wear the same kind of clothing labeled extra small, small and medium. She can have an extended debate over whether she should wear the same dress from the same company in small or medium, discussing the intent of the manufacturer, her goals, and more, even after gathering empirical evidence in the fitting room by trying on both dresses, and still remain conflicted.

For men, length and size are objective. For women, they are subjective. They say that mystery is what makes women fascinate men. Maybe they're right.

16 December 2009

DU Cyber Rights Conference Recapped

The University of Denver's had a conference this past November on Cyber Civil Rights, mostly devoted to how to address various forms of online misconduct, mostly harassment. Professor Eric Goldman has a detailed recap of the conference at his Technology and Marketing blog. What was discussed?

Whether online based harassment is as serious as it was in schools and the workplace when legal remedies were created for sexual harassment in those contexts, and whether women are disproportionately harmed by this online harassment.

Are "cyber mobs," perhaps even if they lack central organization, the equivalent of the KKK?

Are there viable technical or legal ways to curb online harassment? In particular, given the strength of online anonymity, is it possible to identify and hold accountable online harassers with even minimal sophistication (or blind luck that makes them impossible to identify)?

What about the online context makes harassment there different from other types of harassment?

Is a non-monetary remedy (e.g. deletion or identification of the harasser) sufficient in many case, and if so, should the standard for relief be lower?

Should people who create contexts that facilitate harassment but aren't harassers themselves have some form of liability?


My personal sense is that interactive communities are routinely using technologies that make it possible to identify harassers and shut them down in their forums (and often a network of forums when the identification task is outsourced). So, self-policing may solve much of the problem.

I also don't think that this problem is easily succeptible to a one size fits all solution. Before one starts crafting a remedy, one needs a taxonomy of the different forms that online misconduct takes, because different forms of misconduct call for different remedies. Online misconduct can include from "outing" and "sexting," defamation, theats, taunts, carefully timed "button pushing" distractions, overwhelming someone with e-mail or website interest (possibly with denial of service or just annoyance as an intent), identity theft, and more. What makes sense for an online political forum does not necessarily make sense for e-mail harassment or an anonymous website devoted to attacks.

Also, isn't there a "words can never hurt me" element to most of these forms of harassment? In other words, is the harm usually reputational or emotional? If so, can social norms limit the harm? If women suffer more from harassment, is that something that can be solved by training women to use the coping methods that men apparently use with success, the way we started training women to take physical self-defense measures a generation ago? After all, most women aren't headed towards a harassment free or internet free society any time soon, and the Internet really is a more difficult place in which to hold people accountable than real world employment and school contexts.

The Case For A Frank Society

Reputation as an inescapable influence on our lives is relatively new to American law. Our record keeping has historically been fractured and incoherent. Moving further out into the frontier to escape the reputation you left behind has been possible for much of our history. But, we have now joined most of our peers in a world where reputation, pieced together through criminal records, court records, credit records, online search engines and other online tools to assemble dossiers, is increasingly inescapable. How will we respond as a society?

Will we take the path of Japan, where reputation is of paramount importance, and extortion centered around preserving reputation is commonplace. We already see it in the criminal justice system, where middle class people routinely waive rights and go to great lengths to secure deferred prosecutions and other resolutions of misconduct charges that avoid a criminal record and the collateral consequences (legal and socio-economic alike) of a criminal record. We also see it in disputes over small debts where they money at stake may matter less than the impact that the dispute has on a credit record, which creates a barrier to settlement. Already, we have reached the point were no defendant in a civil action feels comfortable settling, no matter how large the amount in controversy, without a mutual disavowal of any wrongdoing.

We could, however, take a different path, call it a "frank society," that acknowledges that ordinary people do not live the perfect lives that they are socially presumed to live, and set reputational expectations lower.

Maybe the porn shoot you did when you were twenty is really no big deal when you are medical resident at thirty (a real Denver case that resulted in the resident losing her job although she had done nothing wrong at work). Maybe it doesn't really matter if an employee privately watched porn or posted personal material on Facebook at work. Maybe a DUI, or an episode of academic probation, or a youthful vandalism conviction, or a treatable mental health condition, or marital stumble should be considered par for the course. Maybe it is o.k. to say that your sorry and that you made a mistake, rather than denying all wrong doing in a settlement. Maybe absolutely perfect credit shouldn't be that important. Maybe preserving a resume in which you have never been fired shouldn't be as big a deal as many people feel that it is now. Maybe the possibility of sealing a juvenile delinquency record isn't as important as the due process protections, public conduct lessons, and protection of those who deal with juveniles who have newly reached the age of majority after having serious juvenile records that flow from a public juvenile justice process.

Why should we care about a pro-golfer's sex life, hardly a position of public trust, when the French and Italians don't make big deal when it is widely known that their most senior political leaders are having affairs? Maybe we should try to put in a place a world where scandal is not a leading method of removing political opponents from office, because the electoral system seems incapable of removing bad politicians from office based on the political merits.

One of the strategic triumphs of the gay rights movement was to embrace the power of admitting who you are in public without shame. Others have emulated this idea. For example, rape survivors have embraced the concept that it is not shameful to have been raped. Divorce has likewise lost much of its reputational sting, as it has become both common and essentially impossible to hide from others for any prolonged period. Those who are divorced can acknowledge this fact shamelessly, or wallow, but they can't hide. And, when enough people are shameless, the reputational sting is muted.

The fight to preserve anonymity and privacy in our society may be a losing battle, even if it isn't a completely lost struggle online. Transparency seems to be prevailing over privacy. The average person today probably has less privacy than the average person who went thought a detailed background check a few decades ago.

There are real social costs to a society based on the false inference that the truth about people's lives is as flawless as it is usually presumed to be. The truth of the matter is that almost all of us have, at some point or other, done something embarassing or something that might harm or personal reputations. As it becomes increasingly difficult to cover up anything that anyone else is interested in discovering, and starting over is increasingly hard to do, we as a society need to develop more tolerance for imperfection.

The attitude can go beyond personal lives as well. Lots of what the government keeps secret is embarassing, but not operationally very valuable for very long. Maybe we'd be better off getting more of this dirty laundry aired out, rather than letting people guess at what it involves. There will always be a need for some secrets, at least in the short term, but secrecy encourages corruption and abuse.

Out Of South America

Humans have their origins in Africa. Fossil evidence suggests, however, that dinosaurs have their origins in South America.

[T]he progenitors of all three dinosaur lineages — theropods, sauropods and ornithischians (the group that includes Triceratops) — originated in the portion of the supercontinent Pangaea that is now South America some time before 230 million years ago. From there . . . dinosaurs diversified and spread to dominate terrestrial ecosystems for more than 165 million years.

Who Invests In Mortgages?

In mid-2004, about half of mortgages were privately owned; now, well under 10% of mortgages are privately owned. This is an 80% decline in market share.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have about the same market share as they did before the housing bubble, but Ginnie Mae, which issues federally backed debt, has seen its market share grow to pick up the slack created by a decline in bank owned and private investor owned mortgages.

Put another way, as anemic as the housing market is now, buying a home would be far harder without federal funding of mortgage lending. The private sector has all but abandoned mortgage lending without federal affiliated agency funding.

The market has decided that private investors, whose mortgage portfolios have very high default rates, are less effective monitors of the quality of the underlying mortgages than the federal agencies who have come to dominate the market.

15 December 2009

The Naboo Question

In Star Wars I to Star Wars III (the 4th to 6th Star Wars films released), Senator Palpatine forces a no confidence vote, manages to get himself elected Chancellor of the Republic's Senate, and then ultimately seizes imperial control of the empire, on the pre-text that the existing regime in the Republic's Senate is incapable of providing timely and decisive action to defend the Republic's member planet Naboo from the Trade Federation, a rival country.

He uses Queen Amidala, the recognized head of state of Naboo, as a dupe to achieve this end. She is a dupe because he is, in fact, the orchestrator of the Trade Federation's invasion of Naboo. If she knew of the plot, should surely would have taken decisive action against Palpatine. But, nothing indicates that she would have acted differently if she had merely known that her patron planned to use Naboo's plight to end the Republic and turn it into an empire. She may have even suspected as much. Queen Amidala's duty was to her people, who faced military occupation and slaughter at the hands of foreign country, not to the democratic ideals of the nation as a whole.

The byzantine procedural mess of the Senate's decision making process, Palpatine argues, leaves it incapable of doing what it needs to do to meet its basic obligations as a sovereign decision making power.

The parallels to Hitler's rise to power by indicting the effectiveness of the Weimar Republic's parliament are obvious, as are the parallels with storm troopers, mysticism at senior levels of government, and the genocide of a peaceful planet that opposes him in Episodes IV to VI (the first three movies released). But, the Naboo problem is more than just an analog to the Third Reich. The U.S. Supreme Court summed up the notion in its aphorism that the constitution is not a suicide pact.

It certainly isn't hard to imagine situations where are particular democractic regime makes it too hard to secure action and change the status quo to meet the needs of the nation, particularly when it reaches the point, as it has these days, when a supermajority in the U.S. Senate, which already undemocratically favors small states, is necessary to accomplish a departure from the status quo.

History has shown that deciding to go to war is actually not one of the things that ties the U.S. Senate in knots. When a President seeks military action, and presents a causi bellum, Congressional cooperation has consistently followed in short order. But, in the area of domestic policy, the U.S. Senate is consistently a force that delays and dilutes change, in effect requiring near consensus.

It isn't obvious that this near consensus requirement is a positive one for the governance of our country. There is something to be said for not sweeping away those reluctant to change, but at some point one has to ask why defending the status quo (which amounts simply to tradition) should overrule democracy. It limits our ability as a nation to react to the needs of the present, weakens Congress vis-a-vis courts and the executive that can manipulate the status quo, and gives dubious political arguments with weak public support more credit than they deserve which in turn encourages extremism. It is one thing to require that change be deliberative, and quite another to give minority factions the power to stop majorities on purely political questions with no constitutional dimensions to them.

Consensus requirements sunk the first effort of the independent United States to establish a workable constitution, and the Europeans are in the process of reducing the need for consensus in their supranational European Union arrangement.

14 December 2009

Fed Moves Into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Role

In normal times, the Federal Reserve owns lots of federal government debt (aka Treasuries), a little bit a short term bank debt, and some miscellaneous assets. But, these are not normal times.

A year ago, the Federal Reserve was providing large volumes of short term loans to big business, a line of business called commercial paper that is usually reserved for ordinary banks, because ordinary banks had grown terrified of lending even for these very safe loans, and it was also providing immense amounts of short term lending to other banks something that is also usually provided by other banks. Together, this lending by the Fed had reached the phenomenally high level of $1.7 trillion dollars. Now, this kind of lending is down to about 10% of those levels. This is still more than normal, in an institution that usually has a little less than $1 trillion of loans, well under $100 billion of which is short term lending to banks and none of which is short term lending to businesses, in ordinary times. But, it is no longer an amount that is grossly off the charts. These short term efforts, like the Fed's short term commitment to prevent a run on the money market fund industry, have largely come and gone after a brief period of panic.

The Federal Reserve also never buys mortgage backed securities in normal times, and a year ago it didn't own any meaningful amount of them. Buying mortgage backed securities is normally mostly the job of the federally chartered, but privately owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and by Ginnie Mae, a federal government agency. Now, the Fed owns $1.06 trillion of mortgage backed securities and plans to bring its holdings to $1.25 trillion over the next three months.

When the Fed is done, it will be owed about two and a half times as much as it was before the financial crisis, about half of that in mortgage backed securities. The agency backed mortgage backed securities portfolio alone is larger than the entire Fed portfolio, pre-financial crisis, and about 10% of the size of the entire national debt. The federal budget is about $3 trillion per year.

These mortgage backed securities aren't exactly issued by fly by night operations (or even investment banks or money center banks). They are "agency backed," by entities like Fannie, Freddie and Ginnie. In all, about $5 trillion of mortgage backed securities are agency backed and another $2.5 trillion are privately securitized. The Federal Reserve is buying about a quarter of all outstanding agency backed mortgage backed securities.

In Fannie and Freddie guarantee investors in their the mortgage backed securities that they issue will not default. In theory, those promises are backed only by the assets of Fannie and Freddie respectively, although many investors think that the government will bail out this too big to fail, government affiliated institutions, rather than let them go bankrupt, if they can't meet their obligations as a result of the current wave of mortgage defaults.

Ginnie makes the same promise, but that promise is backed by the Federal government, the same way that Treasury bonds are guaranteed. These investors have a right to be bailed out that they bargained for in advance.

It isn't entirely obvious why the Fed was given the job of buying agency backed mortgage backed securities. Like many things related to the Fed, it is obscure.

This may help clear the balance sheets of the agencies to give them the capacity to make more loans, now that private mortgage backed securities markets have contracted, but that could have been done simply by increasing the lending authority of the agencies.

This may be designed to shift losses from the agencies to the Fed, but it isn't obvious why an agency loss, perhaps bailed out with a federal government program, is worse than a Fed loss. For that matter, what does happen if the Fed takes a loss on these investments? Is this a loss that the shareholders in the member banks bear, or is this a loss that taxpayers suffer? Would it matter if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bailed out, but a large share of the bailout money went to the Fed rather than individual mortgage backed security investors?

Is the desire to have the Fed pick up these mortgage backed securities mostly a product of how they appear in federal government accounting reports, keeping them out of the national debt, perhaps, while Ginnie Mae debts might be reported differently?

Even if some federal government affiliated entity need to buy these securities for some reason, why should the Fed, which normally doesn't buy securities at all, let alone mortgage backed securities, be assigned this task? Fannie and Freddie have had some management problems. But, the Fed is not precisely a bastion of good management either. Recall that the Fed was the primary regulator of AIG, which was pretty much at the top of the finacial crisis pyramid. The Fed has no experience in this kind of transaction. Fannie and Freddie came out far better in the mortgage default driving financial crisis than investment banks and private mortgage investors carrying out essentially the same activity with a different pool of loans. The FDIC has far more experience handling porfolios of potentially troubled loans than the Fed does. Ginnie Mae could also be given authority to engage in this kind of transaction as a special class of its operations.

Is the theory that the job of the Fed is to make loans (which is what one is doing when one buys a mortgage backed security) that the market has irrationally failed to make until panic subsides?

I don't have the answers. If the agencies manage to keep their promises that these mortgage backed securities won't default, the public policy concerns are pretty modest. But, anytime you do something like putting real risk in an institution like the Fed that wasn't designed to make loans that carry real risk, one wonders if the job will be done right. And, this is a very, very big job, even for the Fed.

Curious Theater Loses Smoking Ban Case

The Colorado Supreme Court upheld that validity of a Colorado law that bans smoking even in the course of theatrical performances brought on First Amendment grounds in a 6-1 ruling. The Denver's Curious Theater company brought the challenge.

I personally believe that this part of the anti-smoking law was ill advised. This is certainly offensive to First Amendment values.

Will Colorado Voters Hate Growth?

A tiny story in one of the weekend editions of the Denver Post noted that an initiative had been placed on the ballot to ban debt financing of new government buildings in Colorado. Two earlier finance measures (one cutting a variety of taxes and user's fees, and the other apparently seeking to reduce property taxes) have already been approved.

Where does government build new buildings? In areas experiencing growth. And, it is close to impossible to build new buildings without some form of debt financing. Who wants new neighborhoods without government? Somolia's governmental model may look good to the Independence Institute, but the rest of us prefer convenient, quality government services. So, the measure's main impact appears to be to oppose growth in Colorado.

It is another case of obscure bad policy going to the voters.

One of the better summaries of pending ballot initiatives is here, although the format makes it hard to sort the live measures from the abandoned or rejected ones and has considerable redundancy since multiple versions of the same measure are treated as separate proposals. Proposals ten (tax cuts) and twelve (property taxes) from that list have made the cut. The debt proposal appears to be number twenty-one on that list. Proposal 22 (secret ballots, probably opposed to card check union recognition) and Proposal 25 (personhood, from conception) appear to have petitions that are currently circulating.

The state legislature can put issues on the ballot by a supermajority (typically state constitutional clean up, state constitutional amendments and taxation issues).

SSRIs: Personality 1st, Depression 2nd?

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (aka SSRIs) are widely prescribed as anti-depressants, and are also sometimes prescribed as a kind of anti-anxiety drugs. Since clinical depression and anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions, SSRIs (like Paxil and Prozac) are among the most important psychiatric drug treatments.

A new study suggests that SSRIs address depression by changing personality traits that are linked to serotonin levels.

As their name suggests we have a reasonably decent understanding of how these drugs work at the biochemical level. Serotonin is a key chemical in the brain (it also serves different roles in other parts of the body). Some parts of your brain put some of these key chemicals into your brain, and others suck them out so that your brain doesn't get flooded with them. The process of sucking excess brain chemicals out of your brain is called reuptake. By inhibiting reuptake of serotonin in your brain, SSRIs leave more of serotonin floating around in your brain doing whatever it is that it does.

It has long been known that SSRIs can end severe depression. It has also long been known that SSRIs impact "big five" personality traits; they substantially lower neuroticism and increase extraversion.

High neuroticism involves a tendency to experience negative emotions and emotional instability. Low extraversion refers to a lack of sociability, assertiveness and upbeat feelings. Both of these personality traits have been linked to the action of a chemical messenger in the brain called serotonin.

High neuroticism and low extraversion are risk factors of depression. The new small study, of 240 depression patients, found that:

Depressed patients taking Paxil reported much greater change in these traits, as assessed via scores on personality tests, than patients given placebo pills. The difference was notable even after accounting for the extent to which each treatment diminished standard measures of depression. . . . Patients who experienced especially pronounced personality change during four months of Paxil treatment displayed a particularly low depression relapse rate over the next year of treatment. . . . As in earlier studies, placebo patients reported much the same depression improvement as did patients receiving either Paxil or cognitive therapy. But on measures of personality traits, Paxil patients reported substantially lower neuroticism and higher extraversion after two months, compared with moderate personality changes for cognitive therapy patients and minimal changes for placebo patients. . . . Drops in neuroticism scores in patients undergoing cognitive therapy did not predict lower relapse rates. Personality changes during cognitive therapy may arise as a by-product of diminishing depression[.]

A large 2004 twin study suggests that "the genetic factors underlying [big five personality trait] neuroticism are nearly indistinguishable from those that influence liability to [the psychiatric diagnosis] generalized anxiety disorder. Similarly, a 1989 study concluded that "a very high proportion of' the reliable [i.e. non-measurement error derived] variation in anxiety and depression symptoms is due to the same common factor measured by the [Neuroticism] scale[.]" An analysis of the 1989 study and other studies in 1991 argued that:

Short-term changes apart--which contribute to specific environmental variation--virtually all the environmental variation in Neuroticism and scores on . . . Anxiety and Depression . . . has a general effect on all scales. Long-term environmental effects contribute to all traits simultaneously. That Neuroticism, Anxiety, and Depression are not completely correlated is probably due to short-term fluctuations rather than to an underlying difference in the genetic basis of the traits. . . . [N]euroticism . . . is highly heritable in both sexes. Anxiety and depression are far more influenced by environmental effects, some of which precipitate the expression of depressive symptoms without affecting anxiety.

The personality trait neuroticism and clinical psychiatic generalized anxiety, may be part of the same phenomena. And, the way that SSRIs work suggest that the genes that impact these conditions may have something to do with serotonin level regulation.

These studies suggest that SSRIs may actually be anti-anxiety drugs first, and anti-depressant drugs second, rather than the other way around. Understanding this mechanism could help clinical mental health providers distinguish between people who are likely to benefit from SSRIs and those for whom other kinds of treatment would be more effective.

This study also contributes to a growing literature that is helping us to link brain chemistry, the psychology of personality, and framework used to diagnosis psychiatric disorders into a coherent, evidence based whole. Given that an important part of the anti-psychiatry movement and more constructive criticism of the psychiatry field hinge of the taxonomy issues that go into diagnosing mental health conditions, these are important advances. One of the Holy Grails of the mental health field is to develop the equivalent of a periodic table of the elements that links mental health conditions to their causes in an organized way.

11 December 2009

Pending Federal Tax Legislation

The U.S. House has passed legislation to keep the gift and esate tax law status quo for the 2009 tax year (with some trivial tweaks) on the books indefinitely. This is a $3.5 million per person exemption of assets from estate tax at death, a $1 million of assets per lifetime exemption for large intervivos non-charitable gifts (which counts against the $3.5 million limit if used), a 45% of non-exempt taxable assets tax rate, and the long standing "step up in basis at death" rules (actually adjust basis to fair market value at death to be more technically correct) that have been in place for decades.

Similiar legislation has stalled in the U.S. Senate, because many Senators (all 40 Republicans and a small number of Senators who caucus with the Democrats) would prefer a $5 million exemption and 35% tax rate. A change in exemption amount has a quite modest impact on revenues collected, a reduction in tax rate has a big impact on revenues collected.

If no compromise is reached, the estate tax (but not the gift tax) will be abolished in 2010, but inherited assets will have the same carryover basis used for gifts during life (for capital gains tax purposes, and subject to certain exceptions). This is a huge boon for those who die rich in 2010, but has little impact on everyone else. This would be followed by a much stiffer than current law estate tax in 2011 (with a $1,000,000 exemption, a 55% tax rate and a 60% bubble rate).

Basically, the House and the Senate are playing chicken. If the Senate blinks, then there is a stable status quo that is reasonably generous compared to prior years, and a House majority will have to approve any change that upsets that status quo. If the House blinks, then the estate tax will collect much less revenue and that will be the status quo that Senate approval will be necessary to upset. If neither the House nor the Senate blinks, estate taxation will be very weird until they reach a deal. If no deal is reached this month or in 2010, the status quo advantage shifts to the House, assuming that there isn't an electoral tidal wave in 2010 that returns the Republican party to power in the U.S. House.

As a lawyer who does considerable trust and estate works with a tax component, this is all rather surreal to watch. The deadline has been looming for many years. Conventional wisdom had assumed that a deal would be struck by now, but we are less than three weeks from the deadline for a reasonable resolution of the estate tax issue.

The U.S. House has also passed the annual "extenders bill" which is mostly uncontroverisal apart from the fact that it includes a controversial provision to pay for the continuation of the tax break. The biggest revenue raiser would tax the "carried interest" performance based compensation part of private equity fund managers as ordinary income rather than the current law treatment which taxes this as a capital gain (with a much lower tax rate).

Goodbye 80203, Hello 80209

I have practiced law for a little more than four years at 837 Sherman Street, Denver, Colorado 80203 in Denver's capital hill. The charming, more than a century old, converted mansion had its virtues. But, my needs have changed. I don't need to be convenient to the state capital any more, and in an era where court documents are exchanged electronically and many minor hearings are conducted by telephone, I don't need to be convenient to the courts either. Equally important, I simply don't need so much space, but would like to have more free parking available for clients. If you would like capital hill office space, I hear that there is still some available there.

So, next week, I will start practicing law (as a sole practitioner) at a new office located at 3773 Cherry Creek North Drive, Suite 575, Denver, Colorado 80209. For those familiar with the area, the directions are simple. Go to DazBog. Get on the nearest elevator. Go up four floors. Follow the arrow on the sign with my name on it.

Also, I live in 80209 and actually bought my home, in part, to be convenient to an office building just down the street, where I worked at the time. So this makes sense personally for me.

This, alas, will mean less time at my beloved Avianos between 8th and 9th on Lincoln. But, sometimes life offers hard choices and it isn't as if I can't visit sometimes.

Note To Anonymous Bloggers: If you are an anonymous blogger, don't make posts like this one.

09 December 2009

What Travels By Rail?

A major new investment by Warren Buffet has turned attention to the freight rail industry. What travels by rail?

About 49% of rail freight is coal and another 2% is oil. About 10% consists of grain and grain products. Wood and paper account for 4%. About 10% of loads are non-petroleum chemicals. Stones, gravel, sand, clay and glass account for about 10% Most of the rest (13%) consists of other food products, metals and metal products, motor vehicles, waste and scrap materials. Many of these products aren't particularly time sensitive. Power plants, for example, stockpile huge amounts of coal at little cost. This allow them to be indifferent to modest delays in particular rail deliveries, so long as the average amount delivered over a period of months stays consistent.

Freight rail is very fuel efficient and cost efficient, and produces far fewer injuries that comparable freight trucking, but it is rather slow and isn't well integrated into the retail economy. For the most part, freight rail is moving raw materials that someone will turn into something else or be packaged later for retail sale.

Before we wax stary eyed about the possibilities of passenger rail, we should give serious consideration to how to improve freight rails as an alternative to long haul trucking. Simple innovations like more "passing lanes" for train cars, improved networks to facilitate intermodal transportation of shipping containers, better marketing by rail lines, and addressing the reputation rail has for not being on time would go a long way towards shifting freight from trucks to rail with minimal technological advances. This, in turn, could make a big dent in air pollution and our nation's reliance on oil.

Wider use of intermodal freight rail also paves the way for greater use of plug in electric commercial vehicles (which is a good thing to the extent we can find cleaner ways to generate electricity and multiple technologies to do that are maturing). The biggest weakness of plug in electric vehicles for long haul freight traffic is that limitations on battery technology limit the range of affordable vehicles, and the technology also requires a national network of compatible repowering stations. But, electric powered trucks designed to make short runs from freight rail cities to local warehouses and from local warehouses to local retail stores don't need much range and can repower from a single local facility designed to serve a fleet of vehicles. This kind of infrastructure can be built piecemeal, at a much lower cost, as the intermodal model proves that it can work. This approach also makes having consistent national standards for repowering vehicles unimportant. This approach makes it feasible even for different trucking firms in the same city to use incompatible technologies with no real ill effects.

Similarly, making intercity buses more attractive with existing technology is a more promising alternative to improving passenger transportation options than infrastructure intensive high speed rail lines, for the bulk of the United States that has fairly low population densities and good interstate highways already in place. Most of the barriers to widespread use of intercity buses are social and comfort driven, not technological. It is possible to make a bus pleasant and comfortable, but so far, most intercity bus service stalks the niche of truly marginal passengers who have no concern other than cost. Buses are far more fuel efficient and easier on road infrastructure and congestion than air travel or travel in personal vehicles, and are close to existing passenger rail in safety, speed and fuel efficiency (while being far cheaper to put in place and being far more flexible).

Freight rail and intercity buses aren't sexy. But, they are proven technologies that could significantly and fairly painlessly reduce U.S. oil dependency with minimal capital investments compare to the alternatives. Also, unlike a lot of other new energy technologies, they address the core energy and economic structure problem of the United States, which is petroleum dependence, rather than the only tenuously linked matter of overall energy efficiency.

Obviously, we should also be looking for less polluting ways of generating electricity (and of reducing electricity and natural gas consumption). The coal carried by rail, which is the dominant means of generating electricity and has almost no other use, poses far greater dangers to health and safety and the environment (including climate change) than most people realize. Also, we should obviously look for ways to make motor vehicles on roads more energy efficient. But, both of those changes require major infrastructure investments and less proven technology, so those changes will take longer to produce results than shifts to freight rail and interstate buses.

08 December 2009

The Stairway To Health Care Heaven

I have little doubt that sometime this month, or early in 2010, that the U.S. Congress will pass, and that the President will sign, a major reform of the U.S. health care system. The final act will be along the lines of the bill being considered now in the U.S. Senate, with a few variations from floor amendments, and perhaps with some conference committee adjustments in the direction of the U.S. House bill on collateral issues.

In the several years that follow its adoption, we will see a major reduction in the number of people who have no health care coverage and the uninsured population will be drawn much more heavily from the ranks of undocumented immigrants. The nation's undocumented immigrant population appears to have fallen in 2008 and 2009 and is likely to continue to fall in 2010. Immigration reform along the lines proposed by President Obama on the campaign trail, even if watered down, will probably further reduce the nation's undocumented immigrant population. We won't have universal health care, but we will have something close to it, which will make the gap filling systems we have, like free samples from drug companies and charity care, more effective at filling the gaps that remain.

Providers will see their bad debt and charity cases fall dramatically, and see the amount of work to be done rise. We can also expect to see reduced use of emergency rooms in major urban poverty centers, as a health care provider of last resort. Specialized health care systems, like worker's compensation and no fault automobile insurance will also likely see a major upheaval as their niches move to an environment where health insurance coverage is more common.

The new system will have flaws. Some of those are visible on day one. The new system will continue to be a bureaucratic nightmare and will continue to have insufficient means of controlling provider level costs.

But, increasingly, health care reform will not be a moral argument about whether people should have access to health care, or an argument about how large an appropriation of public funds is appropriate to spend on health care. Hot button issues like abortion will also be resolved indefinitely.

In four years or so, the health care debate will be about bureaucratic tangles, cost control, quality control and efficiency. At this point in the debate, everyone but health care providers and health insurance companies will be far more unified in purpose. It will be a wonkish debate about money and claim processing systems. Also, at this point in the debate, bills that solve the remaining problems piecemeal can work from a more functional foundation, allowing Congress to return to its normal pattern of incrementalism.

Parts of the system that no longer make sense in the wake of reform, that survived because there was not enough political muscle to change them in the current round of legislation, will lose political support as it becomes clear that they are anachronisms or irrelevancies.

Instead of arguing over whether every women should have health care coverage for maternity care, for example, the debate may turn to whether this narrow market segment might make more sense to provide through national single payer system, rather than the general system used for other health care, since maternity care is a particularly poor fit for the traditional insurance model of health care. Or, perhaps, the nation will be sick of processing mountains of paperwork and develop a system where people with health insurance pay their share of the bills only to their insurance company after the bills have been fully vetted and adjusted, and end direct provider billing of people with health insurance. Or, perhaps, the health insurance industry will agree on a standardized billing protocol, that makes it easier for everyone to deal with billing isues. Or, perhaps, providers will be required to have a single uniform charge for every service that they provide that is publicly available.

I've long argued, for example, that creating an unsubsidized public option, either at a state or federal level, once universal or near universal access to health care is in place, is politically much easier than creating one as part of a larger package of reforms. The lack of government subsidy is much more obvious in a narrow bill that deals only with a public option, a bill with no meaningful appropriation is easier to get thought the legislative process, and it is hard to lobby for not having competition, when that is the only issue left in the debate.

It may take many steps to get our nation's health care system to a point where it is something that we can be proud of as a nation. But, I am quite optimistic that the bill that will soon be passed will start our climb in the right direction. By the time my elementary school aged children are out on their own, and I am approaching my golden years, we may be close to having met this goal.

07 December 2009

Colo. Voters Face Starve The Beast Measures

Colorado voters will consider at least two anti-tax measures in the 2010 election.

One measure simply cuts taxes and user's fees by large amounts ($1 billion per year), at a time when the state budget is already experiencing deep cuts and is very close to be overconstrained (i.e. put in a situation where it is impossible to craft a budget in compliance with all applicable laws). The state's general fund budget is currently about $7 billion per year in round numbers. Where does the money go?

Over 95.0 percent of General Fund department appropriations is spent on the largest six departments (Education, Health Care Policy and Financing, Higher Education, Corrections, Human Services, and Judicial). Over 60.0 percent of spending is in two departments alone: K-12 Education accounts for over 40.0 percent of total State General Fund spending and the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing which operates Medicaid and Children’s Basic Health Plan accounts for over 20.0 percent.

The state constitution greatly limits spending cuts on K-12 education, so the revenue cuts implied by this measure would produce a roughly 25% across the board cut in other areas (or even deeper cuts in programs to make up for smaller cuts in others). Medicaid is about 50% federally funded and has federal mandates, so cuts there also reduce state revenues and deep cuts end Colorado's eligibility for any federal Medicaid dollars. Big cuts to the corrections budget in the short term are very difficult to attain without massive executive clemency to allow for early release of prisoners. Colorado is already has very low higher education funding compared to other states. Human services funding helps the poor, often the direly poor.

This ballot initiative is a classic manifestation of the "starve the beast" philosophy that holds that government spending is always bad so cutting taxes is always good. Ponies for everyone fiscal policy doesn't work.

The other measure appears to be designed to lower property taxes (implicitly, largely at the expense of public schools), but is so poorly drafted that Republican Josh Penry has mocked it, and few observers are sure what it would really mean if adopted. It also appears to reverse debrucing decisions made by local voters in a long series of individually considered and approved local measures. Reduced property tax revenues also implies increased state K-12 education funding obligations. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Despite their flaws, any ballot initiative approved by a majority of voters in a statewide vote will become law.

Both measures would have been dead on arrival in the state legislative process. The Colorado General Assembly has to have balanced budgets that meet all legal constraints imposed upon them, and the big tax cut measure because it doesn't offer spending cuts or make possible a balanced legal budget, wouldn't cut it. The Colorado General Assembly also had a staff of highly competent professional bill drafters whose products, when considered by legislators, are at least comprehensible.

Once again, both measures show the fundamental flaws in our my way or the highway approach to the ballot initiative process in Colorado. Presidentially negotiated treaties are the only kind of legislation that any legislative body in the U.S. is required to consider on an up or down basis in the form it is introduced in the U.S., and those require two-thirds support in the U.S. Senate.

There is something to be said for requiring voter approval of certain kinds of legislation. But, there is very little to be said for removing legislative proposals from the deliberative process as citizen initiatives do. Even very good ideas usually benefit from refinement from a group of informed people who represent our citizens before reaching final form.

Only a few ballot initiatives are approved, many of those face successful legal challenges, and some ballot initiatives are well drafted. But, it takes only a little very bad legislation, even well intentioned bad legislation, to do great harm to our state.

04 December 2009

Friday Comic: "A Girl and Her Fed" (Minor Spoilers)

A Girl and Her Fed, by K. B. Spangler, is on the surface a story about a conspiracy theory involving spies with computer chips implanted in their heads, the ghosts of long dead politicians, a talking supersmart koala, and the girl, a multi-millionaire judo master newspaper intern with a serious case of ADD. I avoided readed it at all for a long time because I assumed it would be too weird. But, like Josh Whedon's TV and movie efforts (Buffy, Angel, Firefly), the off the wall premise in not what makes "A Girl and Her Fed" one of the most popular and deservedly notable webcomics.

Despite the premise, this character driven melodrama is basically about a remarkably ordinary, budding, non-platonic relationship between a pretty decent boy and a selflessly loving girl, both of whom are in their twenties and lonely after many years without having significant others. He was engaged to be married until his work destroyed his imminent marriage five years earlier. She's had seven years of one night stands and superficial relationships in which she's gotten rich but drifted away from all of her friends and family. They've both spend years floundering without a sense of direction in life. The real core of the story shows how they resolve the mistakes they make along the way in how they treat each other, despite their generally good intentions.

The non-platonic part of the relationship is an important part of what makes it distinctive. This isn't a chaste courtly romance about love at first sight between virgins. They spend many weeks getting to know each other before they even like each other. It is more explicit than young adult and the more chaste part of the romance genre, but it isn't porn either. In webcomic land, they call the explicit scenes "fan service" which is on a par with lingere catalogs. What really distinguishes "A Girl and Her Fed" is the balance between the platonic and non-platonic elements of the relationship.

In real life, most of us eventually end up in long term non-platonic relationships that are also not all about sex. We tend to spend long parts of our adult lives in serious, monogamous sexual relationships embedded in a blend of love and friendship. Real relationships involve mistakes in how we treat each other that have to be reconciled, take a certain amount of good will to work because we all have our own idiosyncracies, and also involve lots of the "business" of living. Most us have have rather less odd "business" than this couple does, but would you make a comic about your life?

This is a comic about the kind of couple that is destined to become family. This is the kind of significant other you bring home for Thanksgiving. The girl's personal ghost (Benjamin Franklin) and the talking koala are more like her father and his brother respectively, than they are like business associates. And, this is a couple you can easily imagine growing old together.

For all the melodrama going on in the background, and sexy sizzle going on in the midground, this story is really a remarkably placid and joyful tale that provides four new squares of new material three times a week. It is a little anchor of cheer (how many stories put lines of "let them rest and be happy together" in the middle instead of the end) in an otherwise sometimes pretty scary world that offers reassurance that the kind of troubles that adults see in their personal lives can ultimately be worked out.

Go read it.

03 December 2009

4300 Posts

The flu, and then the backlog of must do work that piled up while I was sick, has kept my posting down for the last few weeks, but 4300 posts seemed like it was worth noting.

It also has kept me out of touch with the news. Emerging from the haze after a few weeks of near total media blackout for any reason (vacations can have the same result), always feels a little weird. Every once and a while a headline peeks through, but it seems disjointed and incomplete without a larger context. No wonder apolitical independents seem so disoriented when it comes time for them to participate in political process or opinion polls.

I remain mystified, with a handful of exceptions, when I try to find rhyme or reason for why some of my posts produce comments or links at other blogs, and others generate no feedback.

I am mildly alarmed that I can't seem to get Taylor Swift tunes out of my head, and have recently and on multiple occasions worn a cowboy hat (together with a leather jacket) for practical purposes, having misplaced my usual knit cap. As much I love living in Denver, I can't imagine that I have really culturally become a part of the cowboy west. It's probably just a fluke, as I feel absolutely no desire to buy a pickup, wear high boots, ride horses, drink whiskey, own a gun, line dance or get a dog.

01 December 2009

A Decade Without New Private Sector Jobs

The 2001 tech bust destroyed jobs equal in number to all the jobs created since 1999. The current recession has destroyed jobs equal in number to all the jobs created since the tech bust. Thus, there are about the same number of private sector jobs in the economy now as there were in 1999. In the same time period, about two million new public sector jobs have been created.

29 November 2009

Musings On Religion and Demography

One of the big blind spots in American demography is religion. We have excruciatingly detailed demographic statistics the slice and dice the American population based on race, Hispanic origins, sex and age, mostly from a variety of government sources. We have far less information on religion, pieced together from a mix of eclectic private sources.

Religion As An Ethnic Marker

One result of this is that non-Hispanic whites, the plurality ethnicity and Hispanics, another large census ethnic category, look monolithic. This also heightens stereotypes about immigrant populations.

Of course, broad categories like "non-Hispanic white" or "Hispanic" are social constructions. Many people who are part of today's "non-Hispanic white" plurality, would have been considered a non-WASP minority a century ago. A Pentecostal mestizo Hispanic family from Oaxaca, Mexico may look demographically very different from a white Catholic family from Buenos Ares, Argentina with distant ethnic roots in Germany, even though both are lumped into the category of Hispanic by census definitions, in much the same way that a third generation Japanese American family may look very different demographically than a first generation refugee family from Vietnam, even though both would be considered Asian for statistical purposes.

Immigrant populations, generally, differ significantly in religion from their home countries. Immigrants from places with predominantly non-Christian populations, such as the Arab world, are much more likely to be Christians than the general populations there, in part due to religious freedom driven immigration, and in part due to missionary facilitated ties to the United States. Latin American immigrants are much more likely to be non-Roman Catholics than the general population of their Latin American homelands. Immigrant populations also tend to be more religious, generally, than domestic populations, largely because religious institutions provide cultural havens.

The biggest political and cultural divide in the non-Hispanic white population of the United States is roughly mirrored religiously, with conservative Christians on one end of the spectrum, Roman Catholics in the middle, and mainline Christians, non-Christian, and secular whites on the other. While people don't stick as steadfastly to the religion of their births as they once did, religious affiliation provides useful way for a demographer to operationalize social class divisions among non-Hispanic whites. Statistical data on college entrants suggest that the link between social class and religion for non-Hispanic whites remains strong.

The Mormon Social Model

Religious demographics also provide a way to gauge the degree to which religion actually changes how people live. Mormons take the cake in this department. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints are more distinct demographically from the general non-Hispanic white population than almost any other large religious denomination in the nation. Few other religions come closer to offering an alternative total life script than the Mormons. In contrast, your typical Episcopalian is likely to live a life not very different from a typical non-religious American.

Part of this is a consequence of geography that makes it easier to measure the distinctions. Just about everything that is demographically distinct about Utah can be attributed to the impact of the LDS church, which counts 70% of Utah's population as adherents, but is much less common in the rest of the United States. But, the geographic concentration itself is to a great extent a historical legacy of an effort to create a distinct society. It combines social outcomes that policy makers tend to think of as impossible to have together in the mainstream social model, like young marriage ages and low divorce rates.

The Mormon model offers a lot that the rest of the nation would like to emulate. For example, stable marriages, high levels of education, low levels of child poverty, high levels of private charity, a strong civil society, low abortion rates, low levels of out of wedlock births, low levels of suicide, and low levels of the public health problems associated with alcohol and tobacco (are there any public health problems associated with caffeine consumption?).

There are, of course, other element of the model about which the nation is not favorably inclined or ambivalent. For example, large families, early marriages, high levels of intense (and heterodox) religious belief, and high bankruptcy rates.

Many of the demographic consequences of the Mormon social model are largely not severable from each other. Early marriage and low out of wedlock birth rates, for example, go hand in hand in the Mormon social model. Intense religious belief drives the willingness to break from the national social norms about alcohol, tobacco, marriage and childbearing. Large families create the economic interdependencies that help make marriages more stable, and can be a factor in making bankruptcy necessary in hard times.

A glance of the interdependencies of the Mormon social model makes it easy to understand how modernizing leaders in the Third World, like Ataturk, chose to keep not only functional parts of colonial culture, but also dysfunctional ones like Western fashion conventions. Culture is a package deal and the linkages between different parts of the package are often non-obvious. For example, while low alcohol consumption is a key to Mormon public health, high alcohol consumption is central to making the rich French diet less of a health problem for the French. According to Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, culture is key to explaining commercial aircraft accident rates and transitioning South Korean flight crews to English was the lynch pin necessary to reduce commercial aircraft accidents on Korea Air.

It is also worth noting that while the Mormon social model has always been distinct, different parts of it has been more notable at different times. For example, Mormon family patterns look a lot like those of typical American families in the Baby Boom. But, low levels of tobacco use among Mormons is now much less out of step with the general social norms of the United States than it was in the 1950s.

Are Mormon boys more likely to be gay?

One wonders absently if strong opposition to gay rights (Mormons were pivotal players in the fight over Proposition 8 regarding gay marriage in California and have been a major driving force in the anti-gay stances of the Boy Scouts of America) has anything to do with the hypothesis that boys with more older brothers are more likely to be gay, and that large families are much more likely to have boys with older brothers than other families. If the hypothesis is correct, gay men are disproportionately Mormon. Proponents of the hypothesis estimate that the fraternal birth order effect accounts for approximately one seventh of the prevalence of homosexuality in men. But, given the relatively small percentage of non-Mormon men who have multiple older brothers (particularly now that total fertility rates among native born Roman Catholics has fallen), a fraternal birth order effect would be excepted to account for a much larger share of the prevalence of homosexuality in Mormon men. Above average rates of of homosexuality could also help explain the attraction of polygamy in the early Mormon church (a doctrine abandoned in a bargain for Utah's statehood in the early Mormon church and later internalized into the doctrine of the largest (and dominant) Mormon denominations).

Likewise, this effect could help explain both the past importance of the celebate Roman Catholic clergy and the current shortage of clergy in the Roman Catholic Church as birthrates declined (i.e. the celebate clergy may have offered a particularly attractive life choice of young gay Roman Catholics who may have been more common when family sizes were large).

The fraternal birth order hypothesis is nowhere near definitively established. And, it isn't hard to imagine countervailing forces. For example, even if fraternal birth order matters, if genetics is another important factor in the likelihood that someone will be homosexual, and the Mormon church is not a gay friendly environment, gays may be much more likely to convert to the LDS faith (for which conversion is an important growth driver) and more likely to leave the faith if they are born into it. In a few generations (and Mormon generations are shorter than the national average), even a modest tendency in this direction could overshadow birth order effects if homosexuality has a strong genetic component. Maybe, someday, when we know a little more about the biology of human sexual orientation we may be able to answer these questions.

Disney's Grand Cultural Gambit

Disney is the behemoth of youth programing. Young children and tweens watch and talk about the programming on Disney's TV channel more than any other. Disney makes a large share of all movies available for this demographic, and captures a larger share of youth audiences. Disney's radio channel is even more dominant for tweens than their television programming. The Mouse has abundant commercial spinoffs.

Programming for kids operates on a vertically integrated, producer driven, studio system. Disney creates stars, and sometimes bands, and makes them big by putting them in its distribution outlets. Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers, the Cheetah Girls and High School Musical have all been engineered by Disney in a hands on way that the nation hasn't seen since the Osmonds and the Monkees. The inner circle of Disney stars are as tight as the Rat Pack were in their day.

Disney's top down, dominant player media model creates fans and decides at a producer level where kids programming is going to go, rather than simply following the masses as an increasingly fragmented, sales driven media model for adults does.

Disney is betting the farm on cultural fusion. You don't have to listen to the Disney's radio channel (1690 AM in Denver, for those of you who don't have tweens) for long to hear it. The notion that genres like R&B, country-western and bubblegum pop should be segregated into separate musical channels has been almost entirely abandoned by Disney. One follows after the other at random like an iPod shuffle (maybe that's the way they actually do their programming). The play list may not be long, but it is diverse.

Her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, made his path to superstardom by exemplifying his country-western genre. But, the latest hit single from Miley Cyrus, "Party in the U.S.A." has followed Disney's gambit on cultural fusion to its logical conclusion. The younger Cyrus brings country music vocal styles to a song heavy with R&B musical elements.

For adults, the unified national popular culture that emerged when we had three dominant television networks, small towns had only one or two movies playing at any given time, off Broadway productions stayed in New York, and Top 40 ruled the airwaves is all but gone.

Adult media programming has broken into minute niches fueled by the proliferation of cable TV channels, digital radio channels, Internet based niche marketing, the rise of the multiplex, the appearance of art house theaters beyond places like New York and San Francisco, legal limits on media concentration and prohibitions on payola. These niches are almost tribal. Disney's Selena Gomez movie, Another Cinderella Story mocks these dividing lines in a scene where a lost glass slipper is replaced by a lost MP3 player with a distinctive playlist that stereotypical teens in pursuit of the teen heart throb try to guess (the movie also consciously includes a diversity of dance styles from tango to ballet to break dancing to R&B).

Country crossover isn't unknown on the adult airwaves. Keith Urban's hit "You'll Think Of Me" (the defining chorus lyric is "Take Your Cat And Leave My Sweater") crossed the line recently, as have half a dozen other singles, often on stations with catchlines like "The Mix." But, it's rare for those crossovers to go further from country than mild adult contemporary rock. Country crossovers don't usually venture into the predominantly inner city black world of R&B which shares little cultural common ground with it. And, crossover songs are decidedly a fringe in the adult music world, not a concept that is driving the dominant media outlets in the market. Adult country crossover is aimed at the shrinking niche audience of people who have migrated from rural America to the suburbs, at a time when urban migration has almost run its course, not a broad national audience.

For whatever reason, however, Disney has managed to hold onto the older model for younger audiences, and is engaged in trying to build a genuine melting pot supergenre. This is not simply a case of the Beastie Boys or Eminem, where white singers have made in big in a predominant black genre, in the Beastie Boys' case as farce, and in the case of Eminem, as drama. Miley Cyrus isn't genre hopping; she's genre fusing.

Will Disney succeed in its ambition to create a genre fused national culture?

One suspects that this project began out of necessity, only tangentially considered as a cultural program. There wasn't enough new, "hot" material out there for kids in any one genre to support an entire media empire, particularly if Disney wanted to display the college guidebook diversity it was striving for to cement itself as a truly national media empire.

Disney's Mouse Pack may be doing what swing (e.g. Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller), bebop and cool jazz (e.g. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie), and Motown artists did; bringing music with very specific geographic and ethnic roots to the general public in an accessible way.

The massive money pot that Disney is riding is sure to attract new players to the youth media market, displacing its dominance sooner or later. But, Disney is riding high enough now that this will take time. The genres it has fused may fade into irrelevance for the modern Disney generation before that happens. Or, the Disney generation may hit puberty overwhelmed by the blandness of their media youth and rebel against it by harvesting the relict outposts of distinctive cultural expression that resisted assimilation. For most of recent history, the fine and performing arts have rewarded those who establish their own unique styles, not generalists.

On the other hand, the experiences of our nation's youth are far more homogeneous than it was at the dawn of the mass media age. There are niches, but in the Internet era, they increasingly aren't regional niches that are easily and naturally reinforcing. Country music and urban rock are merging in part because the artists who perform them share the same Los Angeles haunts, rather than being divided in separate citadels of media power in New York and Nashville. Kids in New York and Tennessee increasingly read the same books, attend similar schools with identical textbooks, watch the same TV and movies, and grow up with similar, largely vacuous, ideas about God. The diversified economies of Atlanta and Chicago have more in common than they once did and increasingly draw their top professionals from a homogenized national pool that was uprooted when they went to college or the military.

New country music increasingly sounds more like rock. The Sunday morning hour remains segregated, but what happens inside those churches is far less distinctive than it was when I was the age of today's Disney audience. Almost all of the Christian denominations look more like the historically black churches of my youth than they did a couple of decades ago. In the 1960s, growing up with never married parents was a predominantly black experience. Now, it is commonplace for working class kids of all ethnicities. The black middle class is far less isolated from the white middle class at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Invisible social lines and segregated neighborhoods still divide most black kids from most white kids in our schools, even when they are integrated, but there is a critical mass of mixed race kids who like Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, move almost effortlessly from one cultural sphere to the other. And, it takes only a small number of people who serve as a bridge between otherwise isolated social networks to dramatically reduce the number of degrees of separation between the people in them. Kids today are much more likely to have many friends of friends across racial lines than the first generation of kids in putatively desegregated schools.

The biggest advantage that Disney's bid at building a fused national culture has that its counterparts in the days of Motown and the Rat Pack didn't have is that a far larger share of the population is ideologically committed to the concept, whether or not they actually live their ideals. In the early 1960s, all but a couple of the casinos in Las Vegas and a good share of members of Congress were openly committed to racial segregation. Today, almost everyone believes earnestly in integration, except a few xenophobes driven by a fear for their jobs and the jobs of people they know, who are opposed to immigration, illegal or otherwise. We don't necessarily know how to make it happen, but for the most part, we are willing to let Disney make an attempt and overlook the fact that the world it displays often doesn't look too much like the more divided world where most of us actually live. We hope that, given a Disney script to use as a model, that a more grass roots level of integration might be an easier to achieve for our children.