27 May 2010

School Out And More

* In the Denver Public Schools another school year ended today for kids (teachers work tomorrow as well, and yes, I know that there are exceptions in the district where kids are on a different calendar).

* In recent news that I noticed, but didn't blog, crime is down for a third year in a row, more or less across the board nationally, despite the recession, and car theft is again down dramatically.

* Recidivism in Colorado has been up for several years, something that new bills signed into law are designed to change. A little more than half of convicted felons ultimately commit a crime again, but each year of release without reoffending greatly reduces the likelihood that an offender will reoffend.

In the first year out of prison for the most recent year for which statistics are available, about 33% released prisoners reoffend. Those who don't reoffend have a roughly 20% chance of committing a crime in the second year after their release. Those who don't reoffend in the first two years have a roughly 10% chance of reoffending in their third year after release. Those who haven't reoffended in the first three years have roughly a 6% chance of reoffending in their fourth year after release. Those who haven't reoffended in the first four years after their release have roughly a 4% chance of reoffending in the fifth year after their release. They don't keep statistics on those who don't reoffend for five years, but it is a safe bet that those who do not reoffend in the first five years have less than a 4% chance of reoffending in subsequent years.

* From the testimony of U.S. Attorney Sally Yates to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in its hearings on mandatory minimum sentences:

The federal prison population, which was about 25,000 when the Sentencing Reform Act was enacted into law, is now over 210,000. And it continues to grow. Much of that growth is the result of long mandatory sentences for drug trafficking offenders. While these and other mandatory sentences have been important factors in bringing down crime rates, we also believe there are real and significant excesses in terms of the imprisonment meted out for some offenders under existing mandatory sentencing laws, especially for some non-violent offenders. Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is now significantly overcapacity, which has real and detrimental consequences for the safety of prisoners and guards, effective prisoner reentry, and ultimately, public safety.

The administration wants to keep mandatory minimums, with some reforms (particularly those related to cocaine), particularly because the Sentencing Guidelines are no longer mandatory, is considering other reforms and wants to make re-entry reforms. The basic tone in incremental to the point to being almost impotent despite a clear recognition that the current system is flawed.

* Harvard Law School alum Hope Yen, writing for the Associated Press, wrote a virtually innumerate and ambiguously written article with quotes from a so called expert that don't make sense given the facts, on the fairly interesting subject of the latest census data on interracial marriage. In fairness some of the flaws in the short article may be an editor's fault, but since I suspect from apparently contradictory language in the article that there is at least one incorrect factual statement in it, and I can't find the source in a quick look online, I'm not going to quote it. Interracial marriage is significantly more common than it was a decade ago. Most of the increase in the rate is due to more Hispanic-white marriages and black-white marriages. More Asian-Americans and Hispanics Americans are marrying foreign born people. Black-white marriages are much less common that Asian-white and Hispanic white marriages which are similar in frequency.

* The Denver Post reported this week on the latest round of statistics showing huge variations in the percentage of graduates who go to college from each of the public high schools in Denver, and the much smaller percentage of graduates who go to college without needing any remedial work (e.g. 1% of graduates from West High School). This year's article didn't merge this data with the differences in graduation rates between Denver's high schools which further exacerbate the trend. The basic story is the same as it was when I blogged it last year.

* They finally stopped oil from seeping out of the ground in the big Gulf of Mexico oil rig spill, but it still the biggest oil spill ever.

* West Denver lost water pressure yesterday and has to boil its water due to a water main break.

* Scott McInnis (who is one of two Republican candidates for Governor in Colorado) is very annoyed that people are saying he sold out Colorado Springs during the waning days of his term in Congress on a water issue because he wanted to curry favor with future employer Hogan and Hartson which was lobbying on the opposite side of the issue. He has flip flopped on the water diversion proposal issue.

* Jane Norton is going to make it onto the Republican primary ballot for U.S. Senate via petition despite not winning much support in the Republican caucus process which she chose not to participate in. Her opponent Ken Buck, got 77% support at the Republican convention. The Republican state convention also produced a host of weird votes on policy positions that are seemingly contradictory and deeply out of the mainstream of Colorado politics.

* In a May 26 article, it was reported that granny flats are popular in Seattle and are an important part of that city's affordable housing scene.

* A law cutting maximum rates on payday loans in Colorado is expected to close about half of the payday loan jobs in the state, about 800 jobs. Good riddance.

* Various people in various parts of the world are being murdered in low grade civil wars in numbers big enough to make world news, just like last week.

* There are also nasty disasters taking place in the world like a bad earthquake in the Pacific near Vanuatu, and this year is likely to have a worse than usual hurricane season.

* North Korea is being bellicose again for no particularly good reason.

* Heroin purity in the U.S. has dramatically increased causing more overdose deaths.

* "Don't ask, don't tell" repeal is making progress in Congress.

* The Biblical Philistines were recent Greek refugees resettled in the general area of the Gaza Strip by the Egyptians.

* From a website set up by House Republicans to solicit policy ideas:

"A 'teacher' told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish! . . . And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story."

Grass root efforts are underway, meanwhile to undermine science teaching in Grand Junction, Colorado regarding global warming.

Texas conservatives particularly doesn't like science or any other legitimate academic research and control the board that says what should be in Texas school books. California is making a counterstrike by insisting that its schools not use nutty Texas textbooks. Honestly.

* Denver's Chamber of Commerce hates Doug Bruce's three anti-tax proposals that will be on the ballot this fall.

* I'll be away from the Internet for the next few days.

26 May 2010

Pinnacol CEO Still Stupid

Pinnacol, a government chartered company that is the leading provider of worker's compensation coverage in Colorado and spent much of the 2009 legislative arguing that it isn't overcompensating executives and deserved more independence, just shot itself in the foot with a Pebble Beach golf trip for its board.

The trip was captured by hidden cameras belonging to TV channel 7News, prompting bipartisan legislative calls for the board members involved to resign, in addition to a call for their resignation from Governor Ritter, who appointed them.

"I'm very disappointed that the Pinnacol board chose to behave like they did, particularly coming off the heels of the legislative session we have just been through," said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

Steadman said he was also surprised that [CEO Ken] Ross would be so upset about cameras capturing his golf outing when Pinnacol private investigators use hidden cameras to try to track people on worker's compensation when Pinnacol believes are faking injuries. He pointed out Pinnacol opposed a bill that would have limited their use of tracking workers with cameras.

CEO Ken Ross threatened "to physically assault [7NEWS reporter] Kovaleski several times, having to be restrained by assistants and ultimately led away from the scene. He threatened to break Kovaleski's finger on camera."

The public has had enough of waste by big business executives, and it is far less tolerable when their bosses are governmental entities because they are government chartered entities (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example), or have lost control of their companies due to government bailouts.

Also, any big business CEO who loses his temper and gets violent on camera doesn't deserve to keep his job. The CEO is the public face of a company, and any CEO worth his salt knows that losing your cool on camera is never the right choice. Competent CEOs behave like adults, not like spoiled, angry teenagers.

7News also deserves credit for going beyond the police blotter to uncover a story the shows corporate wrongdoing, a rarity in local TV journalism. Perhaps the void created by half hearted monopoly newspaper reporting has emboldened them.

Commerce City Gets Hail, Wash Park Doesn't

Commerce City (just to the North of Denver proper) got six to twelve inches of hail, some of it baseball sized, early this afternoon. Meanwhile, here in beautiful Washington Park, we got a splatter of rain and some mild wind, and enjoyed an end of school year picnic utterly oblivious to the mayhem in progress to our immediate north. I learned of the storm via Ohio. Go figure.

25 May 2010

Misrepresentation In Bankruptcy Cases Common

A 2009 fiscal year audit of 2,355 bankruptcy cases, 1,260 selected at random and 1,095 selected on the basis of numbers outside expected ranges in bankruptcy filings found a material misrepresentation in 16% of random audits and 28% of exception audits. Random audits are of a fixed percentage of all bankruptcy cases and so they should largely reflect the breakdown of individual Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases nationally.

Past reports are available here. In Fiscal Year 2008, material misrepresentations were found in 18% of random audits and 28% of exception audits. In Fiscal Year 2007, material misrepresentations were found in 27% of random audits and 38% of exception audits.

Audits of individual Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases were mandated by the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. In audited cases, the petitioner's underlying documentation was compared to the petitioner's bankruptcy filings and there was also a check against public and commercial asset databases.

The linked report does not identify the amount of the discrepencies discovered, describe any patterns in those misrepresentations, distinguish between misrepresentation rates for represented and unrepresented parties, or distinguish between misrepresentation rates in Chapter 7 and in Chapter 13 cases. The materiality criteria are not disclosed.

So, for example, it is impossible to determine how much monetary impact misrepresentation in individual bankruptcy cases have on creditors, or whether the requirement that bankruptcy counsel confirm that there is a basis for information in the petition has any meaningful effect.

The data are broken down by judicial district, but in most cases the samples are too small to be statistically significant.

Denver's Had A Weak Real Estate Bust

Denver housing prices have remained closer to their peak price than those of eighteen out of nineteen other major housing markets. Only Dallas, Texas has experienced less of a housing bust. As of March 2010, Denver housing prices are down 7.9% from their peak.

In Las Vegas, Nevada, in contrast, housing prices are down 56% from their peak.

Genes For Bullying Victimization and LDs

Recent studies have identified genetic roots for learning disabilities in language, and with resilience in the face of bullying (and other stresses). Both involve common variants of single, ordinary, autosomal, Mendelian inheritance pattern genes.

The Language Learning Disability Gene

First, results reported in an April 2010 conference paper regarding a language learning disability gene (phrase structure and bullet order reorganized in bullet result section for clarity):

[Morten Christiansen] studied 159 8th graders. . . 100 were normal language learners; 59 of them had language impairment, although their non-verbal IQs were similar to those of the other group.

DNA tests looked at one part of the FoxP2 gene. A typical gene has a molecule symbolized by T; atypical genes can be symbolized by C. As each person’s genome gets a gene from each parent, the genotypes can be classed as TT, TC, or CC. The DNA tests found that:

•70% of TT students had normal language, 30% were language impaired;
•51% of TC students had normal language; 49% were language impaired.
•30% of CC students were normal; 70% had impaired language;

This data is pretty clear. Language impairment does not come only from an abornormality in FoxP2, but much of it does.

Christiansen also conducted a sequential learning study with the students and found that the CC students had a much tougher time learning the task than the TT or CT. Thus, the FoxP2 gene that is associated with language learning problems is also associated with difficulties in a non-verbal, sequential learning task.

The impact of this gene is even greater when the heritability of verbal test ability, without regard to any specific cause of that heritability, is only about 0.60. If 0.40 of the variation in performance on verbal tests (and hence, presumably language ability) is not genetic, then this single gene may be accounting for a very large share of all genetic impacts on language ability given the numbers in this study.

The Bullying Impact Gene

Then there is the case of the gene associated with vulnerability to emotional harm from bullying:

[B]ullied kids who happen to have inherited one form of a stress-related gene develop the most emotional problems.

Symptoms of anxiety, depression and social withdrawal appeared most often in regularly bullied kids who possessed two copies of a short version of the 5-HTT gene . . . . One-third of bullied children who had two shorter copies of the gene displayed emotional problems severe enough to merit mental health treatment. . . That figure fell to 29 percent for regularly bullied kids carrying one short copy of the gene and 15 percent for those with two long copies. . . . In cases where each twin carried two short copies of the 5-HTT gene but only one got repeatedly bullied, emotional difficulties were observed only in the bullied twin[.]

Citations (re bullying gene):

* Sen, S., et al. 2010. A Prospective Cohort Study Investigating Factors Associated With Depression During Medical Internship. published online April 5, Arch. Gen. Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2010.41.

* Sugden, K., et al. 2010. Serotonin Transporter Gene Moderates the Development of Emotional Problems Among Children Following Bullying Victimization. published online May 14, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2010.01.024.

* Benjet, C., et al. 2010. 5-HTTLPR moderates the effect of relational peer victimization on depressive symptoms in adolescent girls. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51 (2):173. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02149.


It is really rather stunning that such simple, easily tested for genetic factors can have such a profound influence in people's lives that we haven't normally classified as hereditary or medical issues (the "bad husband gene" is another one of this stripe).

The good news is that these studies make diagnosising risk factors for these, and no doubt other socially important traits, is no longer pie-in-sky science fiction. Once you've found a particular gene that you want to type, tests for it can be mass produced and made very cheap. It is even possible to cheaply mass produce devices that can test for multiple genes.

A pediatrician appointment in 2020 may routinely include putting a few drops of blood into a handheld device you can hold in your hand that costs under $200 and learning the risks that a child faces on half a dozen of these factors. For good or for ill, genetic testing before marriage may take on a whole new development as these genes are discovered.

The bad news is that knowing someone is at risk doesn't necessarily mean that there is much that can be done to treat the challenges caused by particular genes. It is impossible to avoid using language in our society. Responding badly to stress is the mental health equivalent of an immune system disorder with no known treatment. An inability to form lasting couple relationships in your personal life is a pretty awful curse to grow up knowing about.

Indeed, knowing that someone has a genetic predisposition to a problem may discourage efforts to address it. Yet about 30% of students with a genetic predisposition to having language related learning disabilities don't appear to suffer from them, and extra help in school helps many kids overcome them. Knowing a child's genes may lead to a culture of low expectations in their educators.

One also suspects that traits so common in the population can't be exclusively negative. A large part of the natural selection process in people today takes place in the process of finding someone with whom to have children, and has had this character for many generations. If these traits were too harmful and had no upsides, they would be rare, not commonplace.

Then again, it may be that these traits are recently obsolete and will soon become much more rare. They are more serious impairments now than they used to be not so many generations ago. Our society is rapidly becoming one that is universally literate, has a higher population density, allows prospective spouses rather than parents to arrange marriages, and permits women control their fertility, in and out of marriage, to a much greater extent than in prior era. These changes in our society may lead to rapid selection against traits that impair functionality in this new society.

Early Native Americans Caused Climate Change

Native Americans may have produced climate change when they killed the American megafauna in the Mesolithic era:

Felisa Smith and colleagues [argue in]: "Methane emissions from extinct megafauna." . . . that the extinction of the mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, steppe bison and other big herbivores may have helped trigger the Younger Dryas:

"Our calculations suggest that the late Pleistocene extinction resulted in a decreased annual methane flux of ~9.6 teragrams (Tg) (range 2.3 to 25.5 Tg; Supplementary Tables T1 and T2). Interestingly, ice-core records of methane concentration reveal an abrupt drop of >180 ppbv at the onset of the Younger Dryas cold event, about 12,800 years ago (Fig. 1). The drop seems to be synchronous with the extinction of New World megafauna."

Plant and animal domestication in the Fertile Cresent and the associated earliest agricultural societies immediately followed the Younger Dryas. So, the Neolithic Revolution may have been caused in part by the North American megafauna extinction.

24 May 2010

Challenge To Parsonage Tax Break Moves Forward

A challenge to the exclusion from income for housing provided to clergy under Section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code on establishment clause grounds has survived a motion to dismiss in a federal court in California.

The order is in the case Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Geithner, No. 09-2894 (E.D. CA May 21, 2010).

The trial court has held that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has standing to challenge the federal tax code provision on establishment clause grounds, and that the Freedom of Religion Foundation's sets forth a valid legal basis for challenging the law. Section 107 is one of the very few provision of the tax code that expressly provide an economic benefit to religious organizations in particular, rather than to non-profit organizations in general.

Normally, surviving a motion to dismiss is a minor part of a lawsuit, and the main disputes are over whether the violation of the law alleged in the complaint actually happened. But, civil rights test cases like this one, the main obstacles to someone bringing a lawsuit are standing, governmental immunity and whether the person bringing the suit has set forth what could be a violation of the law if it is true.

The facts to be proved at trial are a relatively minor part of the trial court proceedings in a case like this one, because everyone agrees on the language of the statute which is being challenged as facially unconstitutional. A trial or motion for summary judgment ruling can provide context for any balancing tests that apply under the law, but the court, in its ruling, is letting the parties know the legal standard that it believes applies to this particular, overwhelmingly legal rather than factual issue.

The 9th Circuit is the most favorable appellate forum for the case, and since legal issues are reviewed without deferring to the trial court's legal reasoning, and any ruling of the trial court, favorable or unfavorable, is almost certain to be appealled by the federal government, this is a key strategic aspect of the case.

If the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rules in favor of the Freedom of Religion Foundation on appeal, the case will almost certainly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and this is the sort of case that the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to accept and consider.

The fundamental issue in the case is whether a tax preference specifically targeted at religious individuals and specifically excluding non-religious individuals, violates the establishment clause. A secondary issue is what remedy is appropriate.

One remedy would be to declare that Section 107 is invalid and unavailable, subjecting clergy to tax on housing allowances. The other would be to generalize the exemption in some way, either to all housing allowances, or to all housing allowances for professional non-profit employees, so that it was neutral with respect to religion.

21 May 2010

Vegas Is The New Florida

Land prices are down by 80.6% in Las Vegas from the fourth quarter of 2007 peak of $939,400 per acre for land not on the Strip (i.e. to about $182,244 per non-strip acre now).

This would be profoundly troubling if it weren't for the fact that this represents only the appreciation that took place from 2003 to 2007 in land prices, during a period when inflation has been very low, and everyone was aware at the time that those prices went up that the prices were being driven by land speculators. It has taken two and a quarter years of bust so far to undo a little less than four years of bubble.

New subdivision lots are frequently sold for $20,000 each in non-bubble zones, so Las Vegas land prices are simply returning to some semblence of reality, which is probably far too high for vacant land, since Las Vegas already has a gross excess of developed property driven by the housing bubble that it experienced.

Does Test Prep Drive LSAT scores?

It’s been well-documented that the LSAT is a great indication of past performance, a solid indicator of law school performance, and a very poor judge of future legal success.

So what is the LSAT really testing anyway? We all know really smart people who didn’t do too well on the LSAT, and we all know incredibly dumb people who got a high score.

On the Huffington Post, Noah Baron argues that the LSAT is really testing one thing: whether or not you are wealthy enough to spend the time it takes to prepare for the exam.

From Above the Law.

The correlation between good test scores on standardized tests on one hand, and high socio-economic class on the other, is well established, and I won't repeat it.

Short test preparation classes don't work

The beneficial effect of test preparation courses, however, is dramatically oversold:

[T]he National Association for College Admission Counseling reported that test preparation courses have minimal effect on improving SAT scores, showing boosts of only about 10-20 points on average in mathematics and 5-10 points in critical reading. . . retaking the test in hopes of score improvement might not be the answer either. Kathleen Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the College Board, says students who take the SAT test a second time, on average, only "increase their scores by about 30 points."

The SAT is scored on a 200-800 scale, and the LSAT for law school admissions is very similar in what it measures and its design principles, although it is designed so that it is less discriminating at the low end of the range than the SAT as the success in several years of college of test takers and their aspirations to obtain three more years after higher education after their earn their B.A.'s that weeds out most of the low scoring part of the SAT test taking pool. Neither the SAT nor the LSAT measure much of the specific academic content taught in high school and college.

LSATs, SATs, IQ tests and other measures of academic success heavily overlap

One doesn't have to be a hard core adherent of Murray's controversial book, "The Bell Curve" that suggests that intelligence levels are purely genetic and strongly linked to race (the 19th century IQ theory that Above the Law snubs), to reach the much weaker conclusion that the SAT and LSAT measure very much the same thing that an IQ test does, and that the SAT, LSAT and IQ tests are all good measures of proficiency at the kind of academic tasks found in higher educational courses.

One also doesn't have to reach deep conclusions on the causes of differences in IQ test performance to acknowledge the overwhelming data that show that the children of the affluent generally score better on IQ, SAT and LSAT type tests than those of the less affluent, and that they before better on almost any measure of academic achievement.

Regardless of the "why" of the matter, the fact that the differences exist is uncontroversial.

Social class impacts on academic achievement are early and sustained

It is much harder to pin down precisely where these differences arise, but Noah Baron is simply wrong when he attributes the differences mostly to pricey test preparation courses.

Class based gaps in academic achievement and IQ type test performance are already immense by the third grade. The tendency of children to perform academically and on IQ type tests at levels similar to their parents and siblings actually gets stronger, rather than weaker, as one approaches the age at which the LSAT is taken.

There are many, repeatedly replicated studies that show a very significant hereditary component of IQ, which can safely be defined with a weak definition of tendency to perform well on traditional academic tasks, rather than broader and more nebulous measures.

Despite the evience for a strong hereditary (and probably genetic) component to IQ and because it measures the same thing, LSAT scores, I don't discount the benefits that class privileges may provide to those who are better off.

At the low end, affluence may mean the difference between being exposed to lead paint which clearly reduces IQ and not being so exposed. Similarly, an NPR report this month cited a study that showed that differences in day care quality were significantly corrolated to the disciplinary records of the children that experienced it when they were fifteen years old, a decade later. Breast feeding duration and exposure to pesticides during critical growth periods in life have also been linked to later childhood and adult mental functionality. In our economic system opportunties to reach the beneficial early childhood environments are linked to social class.

There is reason to think that our school system may impact the IQs at LSAT taking age of our youth along class lines. Our highly de facto segregated K-12 education system overwhelmingly breaks kids into schools with mostly poor kids, mostly middle kids and mostly affluent kids, in part via segregation by neighborhood, exacerbated by further segregation via school choice and private school options, and even in schools that are integrated at the school level, through segregation into different programs within schools (e.g. at Denver's East High School) notwithstanding good faith efforts to break down those barriers and to educate children from different socio-economic backgrounds together where practicable.

The lack of advanced academic content on the SAT and LSAT also systemically benefits those who had early privilege in life and then slacked off later in their educations.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book "Outliers" (2008) (particularly in Chapters Eight and Nine) makes one of the strongest arguments in the literature that the income linked "achievement gap" in academic progress (which we observe after kids enter school almost always and almost everywhere in educational testing) is almost entirely attributable to that academic progress that high income kids make, but low and middle income kids do not, during summer vacations (see particularly page 257). He also makes the related case that academic success in Asian school systems and of children in programs like KIPP is almost entirely attributable to the fact that these kids spend more days and more hours in school than typical American kids do.

The example of Denver's acclaimed School of Science and Technology is an example that proves the rule. Unlike all other incoming middle schoolers in Denver, those doing to the Denver School of Science and Technology (a school that isn't attracting kids who hate school or has a high record of severe academic failure in elementary school) have a few weeks of summer school that they must attend.

The long and short of it is that while class privilege may very well lead to class based disparities in LSAT scores, that it has little or nothing to do with test preparation classes immediately before taking those tests. Instead, it flows from some combination of genetic edges in IQ at birth, and a lifetime of academic advantage over the two decades that follow.

Does The Mean The LSAT scores should be given a lot of weight?

The fact that the link between social class and LSAT performance (or any other statistically valid measure of academic achievement you'd like to devise) is well established does not imply that it is right to use highly correlated undergraduate grades and LSAT scores, both of which measure academic ability, to determine who should be admitted to law school.

While undergraduate college grades and LSAT scores are good at predicting academic performance in law school, and can even distinguish quite well between students who are likely to graduate from law school and pass the bar exam somewhere, and those who likely to drop out of law school or never successfully pass the bar exam, they are not terribly good predictors of success in the actual practice of law.

Academic ability is a talent with diminishing marginal returns in the practice of law. A certain amount of it is absolutely necessary to become a lawyer. More is helpful to success in the practice of law, particularly in more intellectually oriented specialties. But, a large share of the factors that predict success within a large law firm, and that predict economic success generally in the practice of law, have little or nothing to do with relative academic ability.

Moreover, as one reaches more elite academic institutions, where the floor for minimum academic ability is higher, the usefulness of academic ability as a predictor of post-graduation success in the practice of law becomes increasingly marginal. Graduate of Harvard or Michigan or Yale who are near the bottom of their law school classes academically do not do much worse in their careers than those who graduate which much higher class ranks, given the chance to do so. Law school graduates who had no hope of gaining admission to a "top ten" law school, but who manage to be hired by a big law firm anyway, tend to be more, rather than less successful than their better academically endowed peers.

The factors that distinguish those graduates of reasonably selective law schools who prosper in their subsequent careers (at least within big law firms) from those who do not, are not unknown, although they aren't widely known either. Studies have been done by management consulting firms, and those studies have shown, among other things, that people who have backgrounds of success as team players in non-academic aspects of their liives also perform better in the team player oriented context of large law firms.

Thus, there is a strong empirical basis to argue for a reform of the law school admissions process away from a very heavy emphasis on undergraduate grades and LSAT scores, which should be used instead to set a floor for admission and as a moderate plus factor beyond that floor. But, above a floor for admission sufficient to safely high enough ensure graduation from law school barring personal emergency and admission to the practice of law, most of the rest of the law school admission process should focus on those attributes distinct from academic ability which have been empirically shown to have the greatest impact on success in the practice of law, whatever those factors may be.

Would reform change the class bias in law school admissions?

Reform in the admissions process of selective law schools away from a numbers driven process that exclusively measures academic ability would change the mix of students at the most selective law schools, although these reforms would probably not change the mix of students who graduate from law school and are admitted to the practice of law very much at all.

The law schools with the least selective admissions standards already admit significant numbers of students with only dim chances of passing the bar exam. Students who previously were admitted to very selective, numbers oriented law schools who are denied admission under a new system that takes into account non-academic "X factors" that have been shown to be empirically valid in predicting practice of law success are still going to be academically strong enough to be admitted to law school somewhere. If the process isn't announced publicly enough, some of these students may overestimate their chance of admission and not apply to a wide enough array of schools, but most of them will wise up the second time around applying to law school and be admitted somewhere then.

In other words, academically ability will continue to be, and should be, especially important at the least selective law schools, where academic ability has the most marginal utility, but should be increasingly less important at the most selective law schools, where additional academic ability has the least marginal utility.

So there first answer to the question, "would reform change the class bias in law school admissions?", is no. Reform in the law school admissions process alone is unlikely the change the overall class composition of people who become lawyers or attend law school.

Also, while reform is very likely to change the composition of the students who attend highly selective law schools in a way that is not indifferent to social class, my intuition is that it would tend to increase rather than decrease the social class bias of the current system. The non-academic factors associated with success in the practice of law can be largely boiled down to work ethic and social grace.

Work ethic tends to favor social class climbers. Their level of comfort in life will come almost exclusively from their own professional success and they are the most aware of the downsides of not having money. In contrast, this disfavors academically able bohemians who may be independently wealthy. Research from studies popularized in books like "The Millionaire Next Door" make a strong case that people who have received (or anticipate receiving) "economic life support" from their parents or grandparents have poor work ethics. Thus, a revised admissions process would hurt the class of people whom we used to call "gentlemen" or "playboys" until the Ivy League admissions reforms of the 1960s made admissions to elite institutions of higher education more meritocratic and damped (without eliminating, of course) the formal and direct relevance of social class in the admissions process at the undergraduate level.

Social graces, on the other hand, is a factor that tends to favor those to whom the accepted conventions of upper middle class and upper class social interactions come naturally, rather than having to be acquired. Children learn the social graces that give them an edge in the real world from parents who have those social graces. But, those social graces aren't restricted to the social elites. The non-academic social talents associated with professional success in the practice of law are those associated with leadership and being a team player. Under a reformed system, quarterbacks and fraternity presidents and communmity organizers and people who had a first career as preachers are going to do better, while nerds and geeks are going to do worse. Leadership and team player social traits do track social class (those who lack them completely fail, often profoundly) but less monotonically and precisely than academic ability.

My suspicion is that law school admission reforms designed to favor leadership and teamwork will end up mostly favoring the children of the middle and upper classes, to the detriment of children of working class or upper middle class families.

Working class children whose hard work and natural ability permits them to achieve levels of academic success more often seen in children with much more affluent backgrounds will often have had to spend so much time on academics to catch up, that they will have had fewer spare time opportunities in which to show leadership or demonstrate teamwork. Their scarce financial resources will also often rule out these activities for them, as a result of an inability to pay for the sometimes high costs of team sports and the large scale activities that provide an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. In college, many of these young adults will have to spend so much time working to pay their way through college that again, opportunities to show teamwork and leadership will be lost.

Middle class students, in contrast, will come from families where the opportunity to participate in teamwork and leadership demonstrating activities was much greater, and together with working class students have the most to gain from a decreased emphasis on straight academics, where they and their working class peers are at a disadvantage visa-a-vis their more affluent peers. And, middle class students far outnumber working class students in the pool of people who are academically solid enough to graduate from law school and gain admission to the practice of law.

Many upper middle class students will have parents who rose to their economic place largely on the strength of their own academic ability, without being particularly socially graceful, and thus, may not be in as good a position to transmit those social skills to their children as their socio-economic betters. Also, since the marginal benefits of affluence in securing greater academic performance decline among the best performers, members of the true upper class will tend to have less of an academic edge over upper middle class students, than members of either class have academically over middle class and working class students on average.

To put this analysis together in a whole, one would expect law school admissions reform to increase the share of highly selective law school student bodies who are working or middle class, and who are "non-spoiled" members of the upper class, at the expense of members of the upper middle class and "spoiled" members of the upper class. But, those students who gain entrance to highly selective law schools will be mostly drawn from those who otherwise would have been admitted to less selective law schools, and those who are displaced from elite law schools will still mostly gain admission to less selective law schools. At the less selective end of law school admissions, and in the profession as a whole, reform to de-emphasize undergraduate grades and LSATs in favor of other factors would have little impact.

Another effect that this reform would have would be to significantly increase the numerical dominance of elite law school graduates (which is already immense) in elite law firms, because law schools would be more precisely selecting students for what the law firms desire. These reforms would also probably tend to reduce the rate at which elite law firms high graduates of elite law schools who swiftly wash out and leave those firms rather than advancing to partnership, and this reduced failure rate of new associates might also strengthen the williness of firms to be loyal to associate attorneys and visa versa.

Is there a way to reduce social class bias in higher education?

There is a way to reduce social class bias in higher education, but it has nothing to do with reducing the importance of the SATs or the LSATs.

The dominant reason that academically talented but less affluent students do not go to college, or go to college but do not continue to law school or other graduate studies, is financial pressure. Sometimes this financial pressure is direct and obvious. Less affluent students often simply cannot afford to go to college. Due to the structure of the financial aid system, the way this plays out is a little odd. Truly poor students have a relatively easy time getting a free ride or something close to it, and their families have little to lose financially by encouraging their pursuit of higher education since they have few financial assets in the first place and can safely assume that their children will provide for them better if they prosper.

The average college student and law school student is upper middle class or upper class, and often has saved for decades for higher education, so their college attendance is rarely seriously impeded by financial barriers.

The students most often discouraged from attending college or law school under the current system are those who are working class or middle class. More often than not, they qualify for some financial aid. But, their financial aid typically carries work requirements that impair students who are often not the very most academically talented students and often do not have the very best work habits, to perform well and stand out in college. And, the parents of working class and middle class students are expected to make significant financial sacrifices in order to help pay for the costs of their children's educations, which prospective students often unselfishly consider when making decisions regarding whether they should attend. Less affluent students are also often more accutely aware of the risk that they may attend college or law school and then struggle afterwards to pay off the student loans for which they are responsible.

And, since potentially college bound working class and middle class students are the cream of the crop of their social class peers academically, they often have better options than their peers in the market for entry level positions in the job market. So, they may not see themselves as having nothing to lose by going to college and possibly not completing it (a particularly common fate for working and middle class students for whom college completition rates are lower than for more affluent students).

Addressing this barrier to class mobility in the higher educational process doesn't have to be particularly expensive. The status quo is that a large share of students in colleges and universities pursuing four year degrees are quite affluent. The median family income of students at many public colleges that offer four year degrees is in the low six figures. At private colleges, family incomes tend to be higher. Not all students seeking four year degrees are affluent, but a large share are affluent enough that they will attend college even with little financial assistance, and a fairly price insensitive to tuition levels.

Also, most of those students who attend four year colleges who are less affluent already do receive some financial assistance.

To break down barriers to social class advancement in the higher education system, what is necessary to it reduce the expected family contributions and loan proportions in financial add packages for working class and middle class families, and to buffer these students from tuition increases.

The cost of doing this, and the atmosphere of doubt about the likelihood that a less affluent student will succeed in college, can be addressed by setting academic standards for students who will obtain this more generous financial aid package that are more rigorous and thus, are a better match to what is realistically necessary to have the academic ability to complete a four year college degree.

Thus, scholarships should be more generous, but should also require more strict merit standards for eligibility. Students who solid grades, no need for remedial classwork and decent test scores, should routinely receive the benefits of need blind admissions and generous scholarships that require only modest family contributions relative to their means.

Students with marginal grades, who need remedial classwork, and have marginal test scores shouldn't be denied access to higher educational opportunities all together, but should be given strong financial aid incentives to prove their ability to do college level work in a far less expensive to provide community college setting, rather than in a much more expensive setting where four year academic degrees are available, and shouldn't receive limitless financial assistance to pursue an educational course unlikely to benefit them or anyone else if they fail academically in that setting, as a stunning high percentage of community college students already do.

While actual admissions standards may be lower for students who are paying their own way with family support, the public interest in financing the education of students who are academically marginal at the time that they apply is not great, and limited public funds would be better spent to provide more generous packages for students with a proven greater likelihood of success.

Another way to pay for more generous financial aid packages for academically solid working class and middle class students, is to eliminate or reduce the completely non-need based, non-merit based tuition breaks given to in state students at public colleges. While equity may dictate that every in state student gets enough assistance to allow that student to attend a community college at a modest cost, there is no good reason to provide a larger price break in absolute dollars per student terms to in state students at other public institutions of higher education, without regard to financial need or academic merit, and financial need, rather than academic merit beyond that necessary to be comfortable that the student is very likely to graduate, should be the primary concern.

If states want to fund basic research at public institutions by college professors, that is good and well, but doing this via tuition breaks for in state students matched offset by institutional support for higher educational institutions isn't an optimal way to achieve this end. The part of the state's higher educational financial assistance package that truly benefits students needs to be better aimed at those who most need that assistance.

Cuts in financial aid to students at four year colleges who are academically marginal in order to encourage them to attend less expensive to provide community colleges, and reductions in the magnitude of in-state tuition breaks for affluent students at public colleges could go a long way towards freeing up funds for more generous financial aid programs that have smaller work and loan components by and large for those families who are already eligible for some form of financial aid. Some additional public funding might be necessary to get really adequate financial aid for working class and middle class students, but this would be only a fraction of the funding shifted to those students more in need of it.

Simply by lowering financial barriers to college attendance for academically solid students from working class and middle class backgrounds, the pool of college graduates from working class and middle class backgrounds who are in a position to consider attending law school will be much greater, which will significantly change the class makeup of future lawyers. And, if even some grant based financial aid is also provided to students academically solid enough to be likely to complete law school and pass the bar is provided at the law school level to student from less affluent families (the status quo is that almost all law school financial aid is in the form of student loans), the likelihood of social class slippage from college to law school will be reduced.

Put more simply, the best way to deal with lack of affluence as a barrier to law school admissions is to deal directly with it by providing financial support, not to overhaul what constitutes academic merit. There may be good reason to rethink what constitutes academic merit in law school admissions, but that class dimensions of that rethink are modest.

Housing Affordable and Related Ponderings

Nationally, housing affordability at near its highest point in nineteen years, wehn an index created by the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo was created. The index measures the percentage of houses that a family with the median income can afford to buy, and nationally, "72.2 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the first quarter of 2010 were affordable to families earning the national median income of $63,800."

The most affordable major housing markets were: Indianapolis-Carmel and Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Pa., each of which had 95% affordability. Runners up on the affordability list were Syracuse, N.Y.; Dayton, Ohio; and Grand Rapids-Wyoming, Mich.

Small housing markets that were even more affordable than these were: Bay City, Mich. (98.7%), Kokomo, Ind.; Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, Iowa-Ill.; Sandusky, Ohio; and Elkhart-Goshen, Ind.

At the other extreme, the least affordable housing market was: New York-White Plains-Wayne, N.Y.-N.J., . . . where slightly less than 21 percent of all homes sold during the quarter were affordable to those earning the New York area’s median income of $65,600. Runners up on the unaffordable list were San Francisco; Honolulu; Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine, Calif.; and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Redwood City, Calif.

The least affordable smaller markets were: San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, Calif.; Ocean City, N.J; Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Calif.; Napa, Calif.; and Flagstaff, Ariz.

Affordability in Colorado

Many of Colorado's main housing markets are more affordable than the national average. They are from most to least affordable: Pueblo (86.7%), Colorado Springs (78.9%), Fort Collins-Loveland (76.3%), and Denver-Broomfield-Aurora (73.8%). Colorado markets that are less affordable than the national average are Greeley (67.4%) and Boulder (65.2%).

The unaffordability ranking for Greeley is mostly a statistical fluke in a model that assumes that people who work in a housing market also live there, when in fact, Greeley is increasingly an I-25 corridor bedroom community whose residents mostly work in other metropolitan areas, but has a low wage, agricultural center based local economy.

Denver reached its least affordable point on the index in the history of the index in 2000 when it was 49.9% in its lowest quarter (and yes, it just happens that I bought my home in 2000). Denver homes reached there most affordable level (79.0%) since the first quarter of 1994 in the first quarter of 2009. Since then, Denver housing prices have recovered somewhat (from a brief low of $178,000 in the first quarter of 2009), while the median income in Denver has remained constant.

Writ large (and going beyoond the index's numbers), Denver's real estate market can be described a long recover from a bottom around 1983 in the wake of the 1982 oil shale bust at a time when Denver's economy was largely oil industry driven through 2000 when it had jumped onto the tech boom that was sweeping the country. The tech bust of 2001 took some of the luster off the Denver real estate market, which was followed by a period of stablity, rather than a major boom or a major bust. The most recent financial crisis was a bump in the market for Denver real estate, but that impact peaked about a year ago, and Denver real estate is now about a year into a recovery phase, although still not back to its peak levels.

In terms of raw housing prices, not adjusted for local incomes, Boulder is the most expensive major housing market (median price $281,000) not located on or very near the Atlantic or Pacific Coasts. Inland runners up are Flagstaff, Arizona ($249,000), Sante Fe, New Mexico ($248,000), Fort Collins-Loveland ($208,000), Provo-Orem, Utah ($207,000), Denver-Aurora-Broomfield ($205,000), and Salt Lake City, Utah ($203,000).


The bottom line is that the Rust Belt is affordable, while greater New York City and California are not. The housing bust finally broke California's long trend of being more unaffordable than New York City which was also impacted, but less severely.

Some of the Rust Belt's apparent affordability may be a function of median income statistics not keeping pace with recent trends or not factoring in high unemployment rates.

The California still unaffordable figures suggest that the housing bust there has not yet run its course, perhaps as a result of a cautious approach being taken by the state's banks who have often refrained from foreclosing when they have the right to do so.

Ohio is home to many of the places with the least expensive houses (which is what matters to people who are retired or otherwise do not have incomes tied to the local economy) including the following markets shown with their median home sales prices: Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio-Penn. ($69,000), Wheeling, West Virginia-Ohio ($74,000), Canton-Massillon, Ohio ($75,000), Lima, Ohio ($75,000), Mansfield, Ohio ($77,000), Springfield, Ohio ($78,000), Toledo, Ohio ($81,000), Dayton, Ohio ($88,000), and Sandusky, Ohio ($90,000).

One surprise from the point of straight economics is that Ohio, and other Rust Belt cities have not attracted the influx retirees who jumped in as bargain hunters in Grand Junction, Colorado when houses suddenly became cheap there following the oil shale bust.

Chilly weather, hot humid summers, and a lack of a sense of safety (supported by crime statistics) in former Rust Belt centers probably go a long way towards explaining these factors. A sustained, slow economic decline is a lot uglier than a sudden economic collapse that makes it clear to those laid off that their only economic hope is to move immediately. Part of what allowed Grand Junction to transition relatively seemlessly from an oil based economy to a non-oil based economy is that oil workers, many of whom had not had much time to set down roots in the area during the oil shale boom, promptly gave up hope.

In the right circumstances hope can be a powerful force for recovery. But, in the face of inevitable economic decline, hope can be counterproductive because it gets in the way of abandoning a failing paradigm for what a city is about, and replacing it with a new orientation.

Perhaps letting Chrysler fail, rather than reorganize, would have actually done more economic good in the long term than the what was down in bailing it out and reorganizing it after its bankruptcy, because that might have caused more people in the Rust Belt to give up hope in the automobile industry and refocus their efforts on other enterprises with more of a future.

The same principal helps explain why some of the countries most successfully transition to Western style economies in the wake of the break up of the Soviet Union like the Czech Republic, are small, while those having a harder time adapting, like Romania and the Ukraine, are big. It also explains why conversion to capitalist economies in East Asia has been led by small "Asian tigers" like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, rather than by bigger countries. Smaller political economies have less inertia.

Bankruptcy Rate Rises In Mountain West

Bankruptcies are up more than 10% for January to April 2010 compared to the same period in 2009 for most of the Mountain West, the states around Lake Michigan, most of the urban Northeast, and greater Miami, Florida. Bankruptcy rates were declining, in contrast, in most of the South. Generally speaking, more urbanized areas were pinched more than more rural areas.

There are multiple ways to interpret the data.

One is as an artifact of the 2005 bankruptcy reform which ties the availablity of Chapter 7 relief and three year repayment plans under Chapter 13 (wage earner reorganizations) to the state median income. Everyone else has to seek onerous five year Chapter 13 repayment plans or forego bankruptcy relief entirely. So, part of the difference could stem from more stringent thresholds for bankruptcy relief in states with lower median incomes.

Another way to look at the data would be to partition the nation into four kinds of economies: (1) agriculture, forestry and fishing (2) mineral, (3) automotive manfacturing, (4) non-automotive manufacturing, and (5) post-industrial. In this division, the automotive manfacturing, mineral and post-industrial economies are suffering and producing high rates of bankruptcy, while agricultural, forestry and fishing, and non-automotive manufacturing economies are healthy or recovering.

A recovery in the non-automotive, but not the automotive sector of the manufacturing industry could explain why the bankruptcy is not high in places like the "New Rust Belt" in the South, and in the Pacific Northwest, both of which suffered significant unemployment earlier in the financial crisis as manufacturers laid off workers, but seem to be under less pressure now.

Surprisingly, the housing bust is a less accurate trace of the bankruptcy patterns than one might expect. Nevada is not at the top of the pile in terms of bankruptcy rate growth, despite the fact hat it has the worst housing situation in the nation. Yet, areas like Eastern Washington State, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Nebraska, which did not experience particular bad housing busts do have high bankruptcy rates.

No one theory is perfect, however. Alaska and Texas both have significant mineral extraction oriented economies, but have few bankruptcies, and the automobile oriented Northern Indiana and Ohio also seem to have little bankruptcy growth.

It may be easier to explain the pattern of rising bankruptcies as those areas hit hardest by the housing bust or automobile industry collapse, with Nevada, Northern Ohio and Northern Indiana's relatively low levels explained by outmigration from those areas of the people who would otherwise have filed for bankruptcy there, and with the Mountain West parts of the trend attributable to slumps in coal and hard metal mining.

20 May 2010

Consumer Credit Policy and Savings Rates

Inflation at what the Wall Street Journal this morning called a 44 year low. The consumer price index is -0.1% and the core inflation rate according to the consumer price index is 0.0%.

Mortgage interest rates are low, tracking low ten year Treasury bond rates, in part as a consequence of low inflation rates (expected low future inflation rates lower nominal Treasury bond rates).

Low interest rates are theoretically, a signal to consumers to spend, rather than save. But, of course, that isn't what is happening. Savings rates are high after a prolonged period of near zero and negative savings rates during the boom.

Why aren't savings rates responding as expected to interest rates? What is consumer debt falling instead of rising? Why aren't credit card companies offering more credit, rather than tightening its availability?

Part of the problem with our intuition is that savings, which are measured by the difference between consumer income and consumer spending, misses important "off the books" activity that normal people think of as gains and declines in income. During the real estate boom, lots of people felt like their income was greater than savings rate statistics did because the were experiencing unrealized gains in home values which they borrowed against to spend. The housing bust, in turn, while off the books of savings rate statistics, looked like a huge decline in income to home owners, discouraging them from spending.

But, housing prices aren't necessarily the whole story. Another important policy change has been a great reduction in the amortization periods of consumer loans.

Credit cards companies also, with Federal government encouragement, greatly increased minimum payments as a percentage of the outstanding balance (from 2% to 2.5% before to 4%-5% now), in mid-2009. For example, major credit card issuer Chase increased its minimum payment from 2% to 5% of the outstanding balance last summer. This reduces the amount of consumer debt that can be serviced someone with a constant amount of funds available to make minimum payments by 60%. Almost every major credit card company implemented similar reforms.

Given that a typical credit card interest rate is 1.5% of the outstanding balance per month, the minimum principal payment effectively increased from 0.5% of the outstanding balance per month to 3.5% of the outstanding balance per month, a sevenfold increase for a typical Chase credit card holder.

With the old minimum payment, a $10,000 starting balance, and a minimum monthly payment of $25 in any case, it would take just under 100 years to pay off the balance in full with no additional purchases. The new minimum payment reduces the payoff period to just under 12 years. Thus, the amortization period for credit cards at Chase was reduced by roughly 88%.

In the long run, restraining consumer credit may be good policy. But, in the short run, the change in policy was dramatic. The change in credit card minimum payments was equivalent, for example, to going form a regime where 30 year mortgages are the norm, to one in which four year mortgages are the norm (a term that was actually quite common a century and a half ago). A 30 year mortgage on a $300,000 home purchased with a 20% down payment at current mortgage interest rates is about $1,250 a month of principal and interest; a 4 year mortgage that is otherwise identical is about $5,500 of principal and interest a month.

The impact of larger minimum payments was re-emphasized by a reduction in unused credit limits for a large swath of credit card holders.

Interest only mortgages, negative amortization mortgages, and mortgages with longer than thirty year amortization periods (i.e. periods in which the loan will be paid off in full) have gone from common to rare with the demise of the shadow banking system that powered the housing boom and died in the financial crisis. A shorter amortization period and a bigger monthly payment for the same amount of debt are the same thing if the interest rate is otherwise identical.

Increased minimum payment percentages and shorter amortization rates dramatically reduce the amount of consumer debt that a consumer can keep outstanding without defaulting, which at the aggregate levels means more principal payments (which are equivalent to savings in the savings rate) and a dramatic reduction in the availability of consumer debt.

The economic impact of increased minimum payments on credit cards has probably had a much larger effect on consumer spending than any possible change in interest rate policy, and unlike interest rates, which change gradually, the increase in minimum payments hit almost everyone in the nation who was making monthly credit card payments less than 4-5% of the outstanding balance (about 40% of credit card holders at any one time are making minimum payments) all at once, and did so retroactivity, applying the new minimum payments to spending decisions madeby consumers who had no inkling that the increased payments would be required.

The people affected by the change (i.e. those people carrying balances on credit cards who would otherwise pay less than 4%-5% of the balance each month), of course, are the very people least able to afford to make the payments.

While consumers were used to the fact that interest rates could and would be changed without notice on crediit cards to reflect interest rates in the large economy, last year was the first and only time in the lives of most credit card users who don't pay their balances in full that minimum payments could be increased on existing balances.

The amazing thing is not that the bankruptcy rate has increased, but that it hasn't increased by more than it has, given that so many people are paying two to two and a half times as much as they bargained for when they borrowed money on credit cards, given the fact that unemployment remains very high, and given the fact that a large share of mortgage holders have no equity to loose by surrending their homes.

This change in credit card terms, in addition to driving up the savings rate, is very likely an important factor in driving default rates on consumer loans to record levels and is probably slowing economic growth in what is usually a consumer spending driven economy, particularly for the kinds of goods usually purchased with credit cards.

A less clumsy approach to this change, for example, applying the new credit card terms only to new balances or only on a deferred basis, could conceivably have greatly reduced consumer loan defaults and could have produced a less tepid economic recovery.

The reform in credit card minimum balances, because it was retroactive and unexpected by those most impacted by it, may have been the policy response to the financial crisis which has produced the most harm to the economy and the most pain for average Americans. If this reform had been introduced during a strong economic boom, it might have helped to restrain irrational exuberance in the economy. But, implementing this reform during a bust has undermined millions of families for whom credit card debt served as a de facto welfare/unemployment system, with debt funded spending that could have served as an automatic stablizer for the economy if government policy had not closed this door.

Major 2010 Colorado Criminal Justice Reforms

My earlier summary of major criminal justice legislation in the 2010 session missed some important ones which the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition noticed. I reprint their press release (in part) belows:

2010 Legislative Summary . . .

HB 1023: Concerning Clarifying Civil Liability Regarding Negligent Hiring Practices for an Employer That Hires a Person with a Criminal Record
Sponsors: Representative Waller (R) and Senator Hudak (D); co-sponsors include Representatives Gagliardi (D), Kagan (D), Kefalas (D), Summers (R) and Senators Boyd (D), Sandoval (D), Scheffel (R), and White (R)
Status: HB 1023 passed unanimously out of the House of Representatives and the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Ritter on March 25, 2010.

Description: HB 1023 was based on a recommendation from the Economic Opportunity and Poverty Reduction Task Force, an interim legislative task force that CCJRC actively participated in. This law limits the admissibility of evidence of an employee’s criminal history in a civil action against an employer where: (1) the criminal history did not have a direct relationship to the underlying cause of action in the civil case, (2) the criminal record was sealed prior to the acts underlying the cause of action, (3) the criminal history consists of an arrest that did not lead to a criminal conviction, (4) the conviction received a pardon, or (5) the defendant successfully completed a deferred judgment.

HB 1112: Concerning the “Correctional Education Program Act of 1990”
Sponsors: Representative Miklosi (D) and Senator Newell (D)
Status: This bill was passed by the House of Representatives on a 50-13 vote and passed by the Senate on a 31-4 vote. It was signed into law by Governor Ritter on March 31, 2010.

Description: Representative Miklosi was inspired to sponsor this legislation after reading a report issued by CCJRC in August 2009 that revealed a number of deficiencies in vocational programming offered in DOC. This law sets performance objectives for vocational programs in the Department of Corrections to include that vocational programming be more market-relevant, that participation in programs be considered prior to an inmate’s transfer to another facility, and that DOC include information about vocational programs in its annual report to include vocational programs offered, program enrollment, and completion rates.

HB 1352: Drug Sentencing Reform
Sponsors: Representative Waller (R) and Senators Steadman (D) and Mitchell (R)
Co-sponsors: Representatives Pace (D), Court (D), Gardner, B. (R), Gerou (R), Kagan (D), King S. (R), Levy (D), Looper (R), Massey (R), May (R), McCann (D), Miklosi (D), Nikkel (R), Roberts (R), Ryden (D) and Stephens (R) and Senators Carroll, M.(D), Hudak (D), Morse (D), Newell (D), Penry (R), and White (R)
Status: Passed the House (58-5) and the Senate (30-5) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: This bill is based on recommendations approved by the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. CCJRC participate in the Commission’s drug policy task force that developed these recommendations. It reduces penalties for the crime of drug use or possession and redirects cost savings in corrections to substance abuse and mental health treatment. The bill also creates enhanced penalties for adults convicted of selling drugs to a minor. The bill also makes two changes to the special drug offender statute (which has an increased sentence range) to exclude “simple possession” from the crime of drug importation and requires a closer nexus to prove that a weapon was used during a drug offense. The bill appropriated the anticipated first year cost savings in averted incarceration costs (approximately $1.5 million) to expand funding for substance abuse treatment for people in the criminal justice system.

HB 1360: Reducing Revocations for Technical Violations
Sponsors: Representative Pace (D) and Senator Steadman (D)
Status: Passed the House (54-9) and Senate (24-11) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: CCJRC worked in close collaboration with the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, the state Public Defender, and the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council on this bill. The bill requires the parole board to consider the treatment needs (substance abuse and/or mental health) prior to revoking parole for a technical violation. If the parolee is amenable to treatment and if it is consistent with public safety, the parole board may modify the conditions of parole (in lieu of revocation) and require participation in a residential or outpatient treatment program. The bill reduces the maximum time a revoked parolee can be re-incarcerated in prison for a technical parole violation to 90 days (from the current statutory cap of 180 days) if the parolee was assessed as lower than high risk using a research-based risk assessment instrument and the parolee’s underlying conviction was not for a crime of violence, menacing, or stalking. The current 180-day statutory limit on the period of re-incarceration will be retained when the parolee is assessed as high risk or is revoked to a community return to custody facility or community corrections facility. The bill also expands eligibility for placement in a community return to custody facility for a parolee revoked for a technical violation if the underlying conviction was for a class 4 felony, excluding crimes of violence and stalking. First year cost savings from this bill in averted incarceration costs (approximately $4.5 million) was allocated for re-entry support and treatment services for parolees as part of the 2010-11 state budget.

HB 1374: Changes to Parole
Sponsors: Representative Ferrandino (D) and Senator Penry (R)
Status: Passed the House (63-0) and Senate (35-0) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: This bill is based on recommendations from the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice that: (1) changes the statutory parole guidelines and requires the parole board to use structured decision-making in both release and revocation hearings; (2) requires the parole board to make an annual presentation before the House and Senate judiciary committees; (4) clarifies eligibility for the enhanced earned time that was created last year in HB 09-1351; and (5) repeals some archaic language in statute that mandates the arrest of a parolee under certain circumstances (e.g., if the parolee is in a county where there is a correctional facility without permission of the parole officer).

SB 06: Concerning Reductions in Barriers to Obtaining Identity-Related Documents
Sponsors: Senator Boyd (D) and Representative Summers (R); co-sponsors include Senators Hudak (D), Sandoval (D), White (R) and Representatives Gagliardi (D), Kefalas (D), and Waller (R)
Status: Passed the House (48-16) and Senate (22-12) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: SB 06 was based on a recommendation from the Economic Opportunity and Poverty Reduction Task Force, an interim legislative task force that CCJRC actively participated in. Among other things, SB 6 waives the payment of the fee to obtain an identification card for those referred by a county department of social services or those referred by a county jail, the Department of Corrections, or the Division of Youth Corrections. The bill also restores the authority of a district court to allow a person with a criminal record to legally change their name if such name change is necessary to obtain an identification card. Prior to ordering the name change, the petitioner must meet multiple requirements and interested parties must be notified.

SB 159: Concerning Defendant Statements at a Community Corrections Hearing
Sponsors: Senator Foster (D) and Representative Miklosi (D)
Status: Passed the House (65-0) and Senate (33-0) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: SB 159 makes it mandatory that a community corrections board accept a written statement from an inmate if it is timely submitted by the inmate to the DOC case manager so that it can be included in the initial electronic referral made by DOC to a community corrections board. Community corrections boards will have the discretion whether to accept a written or oral statement by a third party on behalf of an inmate. Community corrections boards will be required to develop written policies that are publicly accessible regarding written statements or oral presentations by victims or inmate representatives regarding an inmate’s transitional referral to community corrections.

SB 179: Changes in voting requirements
Sponsors: Senator Steadman (D) and Representative Weissmann (D)
Status: This bill passed the Senate (20-15) but failed on second reading in the House after the Governor informed the House sponsor that he would veto the bill. CCJRC was very frustrated with this outcome and will continue to advocate for the enfranchisement of people on parole.

Description: This bill would have restored voting eligibility for people on parole, would have clarified that people in community corrections as diversion clients are eligible to vote, and would have required criminal justice supervision agencies (jails, DYC, community corrections, probation, and parole) to have information available to clients regarding voter eligibility, voter registration, and voting.
Bills CCJRC Supported
. . .

HB 1090: Concerning the Punishment for a Person Who Is Convicted of Driving a Motor Vehicle with Knowledge That His or Her Driver’s License Is Under Restraint
Sponsors: Representative Waller (R) and Senator Morse (D)
Status: This bill was passed by the House of Representatives on a 57-6 vote and passed in the Senate on a 35-0 vote. It was signed into law by Governor Ritter on March 29, 2010.

Description: This bill was spearheaded by the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the state Public Defender. This bill eliminates the mandatory 5-day jail sentence for a person who is convicted of driving a motor vehicle or off-highway vehicle upon any highway of the state with knowledge that his license or privilege to drive is under restraint for any reason other than conviction of driving under the influence (DUI), driving while ability impaired (DWAI), or underage drinking and driving.

HB 1201: Concerning Duties Related to Peace Officer Contacts
Sponsors: Representative Middleton (D), T. Carroll (D), Ferrandino (D), McFadyen (D), Miklosi (D), Pace (D), Vigil (D), and Weissman (D) and Senator Steadman (D)
Status: The bill passed the House (37-28) and Senate (35-0) and was signed into law by Governor Ritter on April 29, 2010.

Description: HB 1201 was developed by the Colorado Progressive Coalition which also organized a broad coalition that supported the bill through a complicated legislative process. This new law requires that, prior to conducting a consensual search of a person, personal effects, or vehicle, a peace officer shall first advise the person that they are being asked to voluntarily give consent to search and may refuse the request. After such advisement, a peace office may only conduct the search if the person subject to the search gives either oral or written consent. This new law does not apply to a valid search incident to a lawful arrest or to a search for which there is a legal basis which includes, but is not limited to, searches in correctional facilities, jails, community corrections facilities, mental health facilities or searches of a person on probation or parole by a probation or parole officer when such searches are a condition of supervision.

HB 1338: Concerning the Eligibility for Probation of a Person Who Has Two or More Prior Convictions
Sponsors: Representative McCann (D) and Senator Steadman (D)
Status: Passed the House (54-7) and Senate (24-11) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: This legislation is based on a recommendation approved by the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. It changes the two-prior felony statute that makes a defendant with two prior felonies ineligible for probation without the district attorney’s consent. This bill requires district attorney consent only if the current charge or one (or more) of the prior convictions was for a specific offense including: first or second degree murder, manslaughter, first or second degree assault, first or second degree kidnapping, sexual offense, first degree arson, first or second degree burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or a felony offense against a child.

HB 1373: Sentencing Changes For Escape Crime
Sponsors: Representative T. Carroll (D) and Senator Hudak (D)
Status: Passed the House (58-7) and Senate (19-16) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: This bill is based on a recommendation approved by the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. Under current law, a broad range of scenarios can be considered escape which requires the court to impose a mandatory consecutive sentence. HB 1373 excludes diversion clients in community corrections and parolees on intensive supervision from the mandatory consecutive sentencing requirement if convicted of escape, although judges retain the authority to impose a consecutive sentence in any given case. People on “inmate status” will still face the mandatory consecutive sentence, which includes people in secured correctional facilities, work release, and transition clients in community corrections.

HB 1413: Concerning Juveniles Who Are Tried as Adults, and Making an Appropriation in Connection Therewith.
Sponsors: Representatives Levy (D) and May (R) and Senators Newell (D) and Lundberg (R)
Status: Passed the House (55-8) and Senate (27-8) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: This bill was spearheaded by the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, the Pendulum Foundation, the state Public Defender, and other organizations. For purposes of direct file, the bill increases the minimum age of the defendant from 14 to 16 years, except in those cases where the defendant is charged with first degree murder, second degree murder or a sex offense. At least 14 days prior to filing the charges in district court, the district attorney must file the charges in juvenile court with a notice of decision on direct file. The bill lists the criteria that the district attorney must consider in determining whether to file charges in adult court against a juvenile. The district attorney must submit a written statement listing the criteria relied upon in deciding to direct file. The bill also permits a juvenile convicted in district court of a class 2 felony (non sex offense) to be eligible for sentencing to the youthful offender system.

SB 189: Concerning Authorization for Government Agencies to Approve Clean Syringe Exchange Programs to Reduce the Spread of Blood-Borne Disease
Sponsors: Senator Steadman (D) and Representative Weissmann (D)
Status: Passed the House (57-6) and Senate (24-10) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: This bill was an amazing effort by a broad coalition of advocates, health workers, doctors, and law enforcement. The Harm Reduction Project played a major coordinating role along with the IDU Community Collaborative, Denver Drug Strategy Commission, and the Public Health Directors of Colorado. The bill gives authority to a county board of health or district board of heath to approve a clean syringe program proposed by county or district public health agency provided that certain procedures are followed and community stakeholders are consulted. One or more counties represented on a district board of health may at any time opt out of a proposed or approved program. An employee or volunteer of such program will be exempt from drug paraphernalia laws.

SB 193: Concerning the Safe Treatment of Pregnant Persons in Custody
Sponsors: Senator Hudak (D) and Representative Levy (D)
Status: Passed the House (62-1) and Senate (34-0) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: This bill was initiated by the insistence and determination of Pamela White, the current editor of the Boulder Weekly and supported by a broad coalition including COLOR (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity & Reproductive Rights), Colorado Association of Midwifes, The Haven, the ACLU, and the Colorado Bar Association-civil rights task force. The bill limits the use of restraints on pregnant women in custody or confined in prisons, city/county jails, juvenile detention, or department of human services facilities. Corrections staff will not be permitted to use restraints of any kind on a pregnant woman during labor and delivery unless exceptional circumstances exist. Correctional staff is required to use the least restrictive measures of restraint during postpartum recovery and transport to/from the medical facility.
Other criminal justice reform bills

HB 1065: Concerning a Prohibition Against Counting Any Time a Juvenile Spends on Escape Status Toward Completion of the Juvenile’s Commitment
Sponsors: Representative McCann (D) and Senator Tochtrop (D)
Status: Passed by the House on a vote of 63-0 and passed the Senate on a vote of 33-0. The bill was signed into law by Governor Ritter on March 18, 2010.

Description: If a juvenile committed to the Department of Human Services escapes from a facility, the time the juvenile is on escape status will not be counted toward service of the term of the commitment.

HB 1081: Concerning Money Laundering
Sponsors: Representative Priola (R) and Senator Steadman (D)
Status: Passsed the House (62-1) and Senate (34-0) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: HB 1081 is based on a recommendation approved by the Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. Under current law, the crime of money laundering is limited to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill relocates the money laundering statute from the Controlled Substance Act to the fraud statute and includes money laundering in the definition of racketeering activity for purposes of prosecution under the Colorado Organized Crime Act.

HB 1089: Concerning Placement After a Parole Revocation of a Parolee Who Is A Sexually Violent Predator
Sponsors: Representative Waller (R) and Senator Newell (D)
Status: HB 1089 was passed by the House of Representatives on a 64-0 vote and passed by the Senate on a vote of 34-0. The bill was signed into law by Governor Ritter on March 31, 2010.

Description: Under current law, a parolee who is revoked from parole for a technical violation and who is under sentence for a conviction of a nonviolent class 5 or class 6 felony must be placed in a community return to custody facility (CRCF), which are DOC contract beds in community corrections facilities. This law authorizes the parole board to send an otherwise CRCF eligible parole violator to prison for a technical parole violation if s/he was designated a sexually violent predator.

HB 1104: Veterans’ Treatment Court
Sponsors: Representative Looper (R) and Senator Williams (D)
Status: HB 1104 was approved by the House on a vote of 64-0 and approved by the Senate on a vote of 34-0. The bill was signed into law by Governor Ritter on April 16, 2010.

Description: The bill authorizes the state court administrator to apply for federal grant funds on behalf of the state for the establishment, maintenance or expansion of veterans’ treatment courts. The bill also authorizes the chief judge in the judicial district to establish a program for the treatment of veterans and members of the military.

HB 1109: Concerning the Availability of Workers’ Compensation to Jail Inmates Who Are Working For a Program That Has Been Certified By the Federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program
Sponsors: Representative McCann (D) and Senator Mitchell (R)
Status: HB 1109 was approved by the House on a vote of 46-18 and approved by the Senate on a vote of 35-0. The bill was signed into law by Governor Ritter on May 3, 2010.

Description: Federal law requires that in order to participate in the federal prison industry enhancement certification program (PIECP), inmates in the program must have workers’ compensation benefits available to them. HB 1109 complies with this federal law by requiring PIECP to carry workers’ compensation insurance and defining a jail or department of corrections inmate participating in a PIECP as an employee of that program for purposes of workers’ compensation eligibility. Public entities are permitted to select more than one method of workers’ compensation insurance.

HB 1215: Concerning the Use of Cash Bond Deposits After the Discharge of the Bond To Satisfy Outstanding Court-Ordered Debts
Sponsors: Representative Waller (R) and Senator Scheffel (R)
Status: HB 1215 was approved by the House on a vote of 63-1 and approved by the Senate on a vote of 34-0. The bill was signed into law by Governor Ritter on April 15, 2010.

Description: When a defendant deposits funds with the court for purposes of making bond, HB 1215 allows a court to apply these funds toward the payment of fines, fees, costs, and surcharges assessed against the defendant. If the depositor is someone other than the defendant, the law would allow the court to apply the funds toward payment of court-ordered debt with written consent of the depositor. If the amount of the deposit is greater than the amount owed, any balance will be returned to the depositor.

HB 1277: Concerning An Extension of the Prohibition Against Sexual Conduct in Correctional Institutions
Sponsors: Representative DelGrosso (R) and Senator Steadman (D)
Status: Passed the House (63-0) and Senate (34-0) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: Current law prohibits and makes it a crime for an employee or volunteer of a correctional facility to have sexual activity with an inmate. HB 1277 extends that prohibition to any detention facility, commitment facility, or community corrections program housing juveniles.

HB 1347: Concerning Misdemeanor Penalties for Persons Who Are Convicted of Multiple Traffic Offenses Involving Alcohol or Drugs
Sponsors: Representative Levy (D) and Senator Morse (D)
Status: Passed the House (64-0) and Senate (33-1) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: HB 1347 is based on recommendations approved by the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice. It adjusts the penalties for a second offense of DUI, DWAI, and driving as a habitual user of a controlled substance and creates a new set of penalties for a third or subsequent offense. On a second offense, the minimum jail term is set at 10 consecutive days (up to 1 year). If the second offense is within five years of the first offense, the defendant is not eligible for home detention in service of the 10-day mandatory jail term but is eligible for work release or treatment release if he or she was already employed or engaged in treatment prior to incarceration and if the jail allows work/treatment release. For a third or subsequent conviction (in lifetime), the minimum jail term is set at 60 consecutive days (up to 1 year). Home detention is not a sentencing option. All repeat DUI offenders must complete at least two years of probation and as a condition the court must impose a suspended one-year jail sentence, all or part of which may be imposed if the offender violates a condition of probation. Increases the persistent drunk driver surcharge from $50 to $100- half of the revenues will be deposited into the persistent drunk driver fund and the other half into the newly created court-ordered alcohol treatment fund. A first-time DUI offender with a blood-alcohol level of .20 or higher will also be subject to the mandatory 10-day sentence.

SB 54: Concerning the Provision of Educational Services For Juveniles Against Whom Charges Have Been Filed in District Court
Sponsors: Senator Hudak (D) and Representative Levy (D)
Status: Passed the House (52-13) and Senate (18-15) and is awaiting action by Governor Ritter.

Description: The bill requires a school district to provide educational services during the school year to a juvenile being held, pending charges as an adult, in a jail within the school district. The school district is also required to comply with the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” if the juvenile has a disability. There are a number of exceptions to this requirement.

19 May 2010

New CP Violation Physics Probably Necessary

One of the odd little bits of particle physics is that there is a symmetry, called "charge-parity" (CP for short) that is almost always observed in quantum physics events, except for a handful of odd little exceptions like the decay of the B meson (a meson is a particle made of two quarks, rather than the three found in a proton or neutron). If CP symmetry were observed, this decay would produce identical quantities of matter and anti-matter. But, the decays don't do that. Instead, they produce 1% more matter than anti-matter. (Study pre-print here).

This is "50 times larger than the asymmetry between matter and antimatter predicted for B meson decays by the standard model of particle physics."

[S]pokesperson Stefan Söldner-Rembold of the University of Manchester in England [said] “We were very excited because it means there’s some new physics beyond the standard model that has to be within our reach for the asymmetry to be so large.”

The odds that this is just random chance are one in a thousand based on this experiment alone, and is really more rare, because the experiment was set up to replicate an earlier less statistically significant result.

What possibilities are being considered:

Theories that might account for the DZero observations include supersymmetry, which assumes that each elementary particle in the standard model of particle physics has an as-yet-undiscovered heavier superpartner, notes theorist Marcela Carena of Fermilab, who is not a member of the discovery team. Other possible theories, she notes, include a model in which gravity and other forces operate in extra, hidden dimensions, and the notion that there’s an additional, fourth family of quarks beyond the three generations (up and down, strange and charm, and top and bottom) that serve as the building blocks of atomic nuclei and some other particles.

In models with a fourth quark family, the presence of new, heavy quarks and their interaction with the three known families could lead to a larger imbalance between matter and antimatter than found in the standard model, Carena notes. In supersymmetry theory, heavy superpartners would play a role similar to that of the heavy quark in creating interactions that might slightly favor the production of matter over antimatter, she adds.

And in theories with extra dimensions, new “messenger” particles — carriers of previously unknown forces — would move in hidden dimensions. These carriers could alter the charge and another property, called flavor, of elementary particles, causing the additional imbalance between matter and antimatter.

“Still, it is difficult to find a theory that can generate this asymmetry without contradicting other experimental results,” Carena adds.

Of the theories offered, a fourth generation quark seems most plausible, but it is surprising that we would see evidence of a fourth generation quark before seeing evidence as a presumably much lighter (and hence easier to produce experimentally) fourth generation electron.

Background here about an earlier B meson decay experiment.

The B meson has a mass of about 5.279 giga-electron volts (an electron volt is a unit of mass based upon Einstein's E=mc^2 relationship commonly used for fundamental physical particles). The experimental results point to a particle that would be somewhat heavier than a B meson. Particles that heavy are also always very short lived, lasting only a tiny fraction of a second before decaying. . . .

By comparison, the heaviest weight quarks (top and bottom) have masses of 171.2 GeV and 4.2 GeV respectively, the heaviest neutrino weighs less than 15.5 MeV, the heaviest version of the electron (the Tau) weighs 1.777 GeV, the W particle weighs 80.4 GeV, and the Z particle weighs 91.2 GeV. Gluons and photons are massless.

Another interesting (just stupid me) idea that popped into my head comes from some of the last post I did on this subject. The top quark mass is much bigger than bottom quark mass. Due to its very high mass and hence very rapid decay, the top quark should theoretically have almost no impact on B meson decay. But, we don't know much about the top quark with new breakthrough research from the same lab on its basic properties being published as recently as last year, and it was first definitively observed in 1995 around the same time as B meson decay. Its decay rate has been inferred from the standard model to be very short, but has not been experimentally confirmed independently.

One possibility that would be quite modest in terms of new physics, is that the top quark is simply a lot more stable than the standard model would predict, perhaps due to something similar in some way to the island of stability phenomena seen in the periodic table. A longer lived top quark would increase the amount of CP violation we'd expect to see in B meson decay, while still remaining too short to observe directly, and it would be calculate, and then it would be possible to test this possibility by some other means. The results observed might also be the result of an exotic mode of top quark decay, predicted by the standard model but not observed.

Skeptical blog coverage here. Motls thinks the significance value is for practical purposes lower than it seems due to publication bias. I'm less skeptical.