31 August 2010

Love Takes Your Choices Away

"Everything that happened to [him] was my fault." . . .

"In all the years I've known him, there's always been exactly one place [he] wanted to be, and he's always fought like hell to make sure he got there and stayed there."

"Where's that?"

"Wherever you were. Remember when you fell out of that tree on the farm when you were ten, and broke your arm? Remember how he made them let him ride with you in the ambulance on the way to the hospital? He kicked and yelled till they gave in."

"You laughed, and my mom hit you in the shoulder."

"It was hard not to laugh. Determination like that in ten-year-old is something to see. He was like a pit bull."

"If pit bulls wore glasses and were allergic to ragweed."

"You can't put a price on that kind of loyalty."

"I know. Don't make me feel worse."

"I'm telling you he made his own decisions. What you're blaming yourself for is being what you are. And that's no one's fault and nothing you can change. You told him the truth and he made up his own mind what he wanted to do about that. Everyone has choices to make; no has the right to take those choices away from us. Not even out of love."

"But that's just it. When you love someone, you don't have a choice. Love takes your choices away."

"It's a lot better than the alternative."

- Dialog about a decision that a teenage boy made that turned his life upside down in "City of Ashes" (2009) by Cassandra Clare, at pages 210-211 (for generality, omissions made where indicated, narrative language omitted, and names omitted; emphasis in the original).

It was striking when I read it and reminds me of similar dialog from the movie Juno.

Who's Afraid Of Socialized Medicine?

[A]n elderly relative started complaining about "Obamacare" and how it would lead to "socialized medicine." Knowing the person had heart surgery courtesy of Medicare and was receiving ongoing monitoring and care, I said, "I didn't realize you were so unhappy with Medicare." To which I received the reply: "I'm not talking about Medicare, I'm talking about socialized medicine."

- full dialog available here.

Russian Love Songs

Stereotypically, Russian society is pretty bleak. Like most stereotypes, it doesn't come entirely out of nowhere.

Consider this first line of a popular Russian love song:

You didn’t need to fear my love, I don’t love you so awfully much.

Just the thing to get that romantic va-va-voom going. Americans, in contrast, are enthusiastic even when their loves turn sour. Consider Fall Out Boy's popular lyrical musings on love lost:

I don't care what you think,
As long as it's about me
The best of us can find happiness
In misery

Not convinced? Consider also that Russian culture is known culinarily for cold borscht (i.e. cabbage soup). Let's just say that it's not apple pie.

30 August 2010

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Detractors see "moralistic therapeutic deism" as a derogative description of one more way that American teens are slouching their way to Gomorrah. I'm inclined to be more positive and see it as an emerging ecumenical consensus that can unite a culturally divided society.

I also strongly dispute the claim of the author of the book that the linked story is based upon that "religious teenagers do better in school, have better relationships with their parents and engage in less high-risk behavior."

The author of "Almost Christian," says she "talks to the teens who are articulate about their faith. Most come from Mormon and evangelical churches, which tend to do a better job of instilling religious passion in teens[.]"

Yet, Evangelical Christians are disproportionately the kids who are dropping out of high school, not going to college or not earning college degrees. They are disproportionately the people who are getting pregnant young, not getting married when they have kids, and getting divorced. Strongly religious kids do worse in school by every measures from selective college admissions to SAT scores to law school GPAs. The incidence of domestic violence is higher among conservative Protestants than mainline Protestants, and higher among Protestants of all kinds than it is among the religiously non-affiliated. William Bradford Wilcox, "Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands" (2004) at 181-82. Violent crime rates are much higher, for blacks and whites alike, in places where the predominant religious faith is Evangelical Christianity.

Are kids really inarticulate, or are the adults simply asking the wrong questions?

Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can't talk coherently about their beliefs, the study found.

Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good -- what the study's researchers called "moralistic therapeutic deism."

Some critics told Dean that most teenagers can't talk coherently about any deep subject, but Dean says abundant research shows that's not true.

"They have a lot to say," Dean says. "They can talk about money, sex and their family relationships with nuance. Most people who work with teenagers know that they are not naturally inarticulate."

Seeing an inability to be articulate about religious faith as a problem is a category error. It doesn't matter if kids don't have a well constructed metaphysical or theological conception of the world. It does matter that kids have a nuanced understanding of the morality of sex and family relationships and what it means to feel good and do good.

My kids have asked me all sorts of questions about the world around them that make assume a world that doesn't make sense, at least if taken literally:

"Is iron stronger than water?"

"How heavy is four inches?"

"When will I be older than you?"

"How long does it take the Sun to go around the world?"

I suspect that some of the questions that the adults are asking the kids in "Almost Christian" are just as nonsensical to someone without a strong theological upbringing, so it is hardly surprising that their answers to those questions may often be inarticulate. But, unless your child is a future member of the clergy, an inability to be articulate about those concepts isn't any more important than your ability to be articulate about the distinctions between string theory and loop quantum gravity. One might long for the day when everyone was immersed in these domains of knowledge, but the cost of this short fall isn't that serious.

Are we helping the human condition by encouraging kids to obsess about the afterlife, and the relationship of sin to salvation that provoked centuries of European wars?

If your child isn't autistic or have Asperger's syndrome your child ought to have a lot of empathy and a very sophisticated understanding the social relationships of people in a group by the time that your child is in elementary school. But, some kinds of knowledge come only with training, and a society that is focusing on a sophisticated understanding of what it means to do good is better than one that is focusing on a sophisticated understanding of the hierarchy of angels or the classification of the covenants that God has mad with man in the Bible.

Not A Chamber Of Commerce Coup

The respective local Chambers of Commerce will probably not be bragging about the fact that their hometown is one of "America's Ten Dead Cities." The cities:

(1) Buffalo;
(2) Flint;
(3) Hartford;
(4) Cleveland;
(5) New Orleans;
(6) Detroit;
(7) Albany;
(8) Atlantic City;
(9) Allentown;
(10) Galveston.

I got married and started practicing law in Buffalo, have a shirt tail relative in Flint, got my undergraduate education just outside Cleveland, and went to law school just outside Detroit, so many of the cities on the list mean a lot to me.

29 August 2010

The Case For No Fault Divorce: Exhibit A

People like Beverly Willett are Exhibit A in the case for adopting No Fault Divorce.

She tells the story of how she spent five years of pitched court battles in New York, in the time period before it adopted no fault divorce, trying to prevent her scum bag husband who had left the family home after having an affair with someone else from divorcing her.

Her lengthy account make clear that conduct like hers is self-destructive, bad for her children, and shouldn't be permitted by the legal system. After reading it, I have not a shred of sympathy whatsoever for her decision.

Hat Tip to Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Nothing Is Proven To Work To Treat Alzheimer's

Great advances have been made in diagnosing and understanding Alzheimer's disease (a common type of progressive dementia experienced mostly by older people), including recent developments of PET scan and spinal tap diagnostic tests. but thirty years of intensive research have yielded no therapy that has been scientifically proven to be effective in treating it, according to a panel of "15 medical scientists with no vested interests in Alzheimer's research" appointed by the National Institutes of Health to study the issue.

This is particularly frustrating because the course of the disease is long and slow (it can be present at subclinical levels for decades), but even if we can know that it is present and advancing, we don't know what to do about it.

The studies included research on nearly everything proposed to prevent the disease: exercise, mental stimulation, healthy diet, social engagement, nutritional supplements, anti-inflammatory drugs or those that lower cholesterol or blood pressure, even the idea that people who marry or stay trim might be saved from dementia. And they included research on traits that might hasten Alzheimer’s onset, like not having much of an education or being a loner. . . .

“Currently,” the panel wrote, “no evidence of even moderate scientific quality exists to support the association of any modifiable factor (such as nutritional supplements, herbal preparations, dietary factors, prescription or nonprescription drugs, social or economic factors, medical conditions, toxins or environmental exposures) with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Lots of studies show that various treatment options could be promising, but “the quality of the evidence was typically low.”

The Alzheimer’s Association tells people to exercise, challenge themselves mentally, remain socially engaged and keep their hearts healthy.

The plus of these recommendations is that they are good for physical health and not harmful, even if they don't prevent Alzheimer's, and hence can't be a bad thing to do in the absence of any more specific evidence of effective treatments.

The best available evidence pertained to things that didn't work:

In the end, it said it was highly confident in the findings for just one thing, the herb ginkgo biloba. But in that case the evidence pointed in only one direction: it did not prevent Alzheimer’s.

Moderate evidence, not totally convincing but not worthless, applied to only four factors studied.

Two were factors that increased risk. They were a particular gene, ApoE4, which, moderate evidence showed, increased risk about threefold, and menopause therapy with a combination of estrogens and progestins, which doubled risk.

The other moderate evidence indicated that certain things that had been hoped to be protective were not. For instance, there was moderate evidence that vitamin E, found in nuts, vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals, had no effect on risk. There was also moderate evidence that cholinesterase inhibitors, drugs often used to treat Alzheimer’s symptoms, had no effect.

Other than that, evidence was poor.

The study also may provide some guidance as to how health dollars should be spent right now. It doesn't make sense right now to spend money trying to diagnose Alzheimer's for treatment purposes, although it may for other reasons, because a positive diagnosis doesn't tell you to take any action that wouldn't have been good advice anyway. Money is better spent looking for treatments that do work.

Low Profile Tax Reform

The President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, led by former Fed Chair Paul Volcker has offered up a treasure trove of proposals for tax simplification, increasing tax compliance, corporate taxation and international taxation, all of which are revenue neutral or tax reducing for families making less than $250,000 a year, in a new 128 page report.

These are (mostly) moderate, sensible proposals, many of them old chestnuts that no one has seriously disagreed with but that have lacked political umph, that have a real chance of becoming law is the President and Congressional leaders decide to back them.

The table of contents (formatting added and some details omitted) tells the story:


Option Group A: Simplification for Families
1: Consolidate Family Credits and Simplify Eligibility Rules
-1. Consolidate Family Benefits into a Work Credit and a Family Credit
-2. Combine the EITC, Child Tax Credit, and the Child Dependent Exemption
-3. Consolidate the Child Tax Credit and Dependent Exemption, and Repeal (or Reduce) Some Education Credits
2: Simplify and Consolidate Tax Incentives for Education
3: Simplify the “Kiddie Tax” (Taxation of Dependents)
4: Simplify Rules for Low-Income Credits, Filing Status, and Divorced Parents
-1. Harmonize the EITC and Additional Child Tax Credit
-2. Simplify Filing Status Determination
-3. Eliminate the “Household Maintenance Test” for “Estranged” Spouses
-4. Simplify the EITC for Childless Workers
-5. Clarify Child Waivers in the Event of Divorce or Separation

Option Group B: Simplifying Savings and Retirement Incentives
1: Consolidate Retirement Accounts and Harmonize Statutory Requirements
2: Integrate IRA and 401(k)-type Contribution Limits and Disallow Nondeductible Contributions
3: Consolidate and Segregate Non-Retirement Savings
4: Clarify and Improve Saving Incentives
-1. Make the Saver’s Credit a Match
-2. Expand Automatic Enrollment in Retirement Savings Plans
5: Reduce Retirement Account Leakage
6: Simplify Rules for Employers Sponsoring Plans
7: Simplify Disbursements
8: Simplify Taxation of Social Security Benefits

Option Group C: Simplify Taxation of Capital Gains
1: Harmonize Rules and Tax Rates for Long-Term Capital Gains
-1. Harmonize 25 and 28 Percent Rates on Capital Gains
-2. Simplify Capital Gains Taxes on Mutual Funds
-3. Small Business Stock
2: Simplify Capital Gains Tax Rate Structure
3: Limit or Repeal Section 1031 Like-Kind Exchanges
4: Capital Gains on Principal Residences

Option Group D: Simplifying Tax Filing
1: The Simple Return
2: Data Retrieval
3: Raise the Standard Deduction and Reduce the Benefit of Itemized Deductions

Option Group E: Simplification for Small Businesses

1: Expand Simplified Cash Accounting to More Businesses
2: Simplified Home Office Deduction
3: Simplify Recordkeeping for Cell Phones, PDAs, and Other Devices

Option Group F: The AMT
1: Eliminate the AMT
2: Modify and Simplify the AMT


1: Dedicate More Resources to Enforcement and Enhance Enforcement Tools
2: Increase Information Reporting and Source Withholding
3: Small Business Bank Account Reporting
4: Clarifying the Definition of a Contractor
5: Clarify and Harmonize Employment Tax Rules for Businesses and the Self-Employed (SECA Conformity)
6: Voluntary Disclosure Programs
7: Examine Multiple Tax Years During Certain Audits
8: Extend Holding Period for Capital Gains Exclusion on Primary Residences


Option Group A: Reducing Marginal Corporate Tax Rates
1: Reduce the Statutory Corporate Rate
2: Increase Incentives for New Investment/Direct Expensing

Option Group B: Broadening the Corporate Tax Base
1: Provide More Level Treatment of Debt and Equity Financing
2: Review the Boundary Between Corporate and Non-Corporate Taxation
3: Eliminate or Reduce Tax Expenditures
-1. Eliminating the Domestic Production Deduction
-2. Eliminate or Reduce Accelerated Depreciation
-3. Eliminate Other Tax Expenditures
--A. Special Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) Rules
--B. Exemption of Credit Union Income from Tax
--C. Low-Income Housing Credit


Economic Effects of the Current U.S. Approach
i. Effects on the Location of the Economic Activities of U.S. Multinationals
ii. Effects on the Costs of U.S. Companies and their Foreign and Domestic Competitors
iii. Erosion of the Business Tax Base through Transfer Pricing and Expense Location
iv. The Costs of Administering and Complying with the Current U.S. System

1: Move to a Territorial System
2: Move to a Worldwide System with a Lower Corporate Tax Rate
3: Limit or End Deferral with the Current Corporate Tax Rate
4: Retain the Current System but Lower the Corporate Tax Rate

Bar Journal Drops Classified Ads

"The Colorado Lawyer," which is the monthly journal of the Colorado Bar Association had a notice that marked the end of an era in its September issue:

The Colorado Lawyer has discontinued printing classified ads. Classified advertising is being accepted for online posting only on the Colorado Bar Association website, www.cobar.org.

When I started practicing law in Colorado, those print edition classified ads were the dominant means by which job posting for attorneys in the state were posted, and a leading method of advertising office share opportunities. Now, those ads have moved entirely online. The online postings remain the dominant way for lawyers to find jobs in the state, but they now work in real time, not on a neat monthly cycle.

This probably makes sense. Classified ads are ads that are narrowly targeted at people who already know what they want and actively seek them out. They are intentionally irrelevant to someone who receives a publication intended for a mass audience. They aren't trying to cause large numbers of people who don't have any plans to do business with for what they are offering them aware that they exist and have deals that are better than the reader might have expected. Everyone knows and expects a classified ad to be wasted on 99% of the audience and that makes it highly inefficient to provide it to every purchaser of the publication.

A large share of bar association members also get an edition that merely summarizes the advanced sheets of case decisions, rather than reprinting them in their entirety. The full texts are available on the Internet for all CBA members and can be cut and pasted or searched in that format as well.

Most types of printed classified ads have waned, undermining the economics of newspapers, for the same reason, as have features like daily stock price listings for almost every major publicly held company. A bar association journal, because it is funded mostly with dues and volunteer authors, rather than advertising, doesn't need to hang on so tightly to a declining revenue source as the newspapers that had relied on this revenue stream did.

The journal hasn't gone completely online yet, as an increasing share of academic journals are starting to, but bit by bit, of lot of the page filling grist of older editions is migrating to the Internet.

Manga Publishers Crack Down

Until this summer, there Manga scanlations were a cottage industry, large enough to have even spawned a few academic articles and books (see, e.g., here, here, here, here and here, as have the works themselves) . The idea behind a scanlation is that graphic novels written in Japanese or Korean, where comics are written in far more genre and for far more audiences than their American superhero comic counterparts, are scanned, translated and made available online by amateurs, without permission or licensing, to make them available to fans who can't enjoy the works that won't be translated until many years later, if at all.

Independent scanlation groups, many of whom have members who have never met face to face, with participants in a single group spread as far as China and Germany from each other, made their work available to the public a host sites like One Manga, MangaFox, an several others. The sites had some advertising, but that kind of advertising barely pays for the hosting costs of the bandwidth intensive sites. Some had several hundred titles.

The structure of the scanlation world parallels that of the manga industry itself, in which an author with a few less skilled apprentices pitch their titles to publishers whose editors work with a variety of manga writing groups in serialized anthology formats that often reprint into bound one author reprints.

This had been quitely tolerated by Manga publishers for more than a decade. When they weren't trying to market translations abroad, it didn't cut into their profits anyway, it generated a trickle of orders for print copies from abroad (some to do the scanlations from, and as a result of enthusiasm generated by the scanlations), and the scanlators made it an ethical standard in their obsession to be polite and respectful, to not claim rights in the material, to urge readers not to commercialize their products, and to respect the material with quality translations (often better quality, at least in the early days, than publisher provided versions).

Eventually, however, publishers started imprints like Viz Media, Tokoyo Pop, Vertical, Inc., and Yen Press, capitalized on the market the scanlation sites had proved existed and developed. They started to market translated versions of their titles in American comic book and book stores, and scanlations were now impacting their bottom line by offering for free what they were trying to sell in stores for hefty per volume prices.

This summer, that came to a head. The 36 publishers organized a coordinated cease and desist effort this summer. One Manga shut down all of its scanlation content, reducing it to a Manga discussion forum, at the end of the day on August 1, 2010. Other sites shut down as well:

Manga Traders shut down in mid-June. MangaHelpers announced their mid-June shut-down and their plans to create a new legal alternative OpenManga. Other reports have mentioned that Manga Toshokan is also winding down operations.

MangaFox, which is a China based, ad funded, for profit site, took down several hundred titles that were the subject of cease and desist requests, essentially all of the American marketed titles of the complaining publishers, but have kept many hundreds more titles that were not specifically identified, apparently titles that have not been big enough to be translated commercially. More coverage of the crackdown in the blogosphere can be found here.

As a user of these sites, it sucks, although it is hard to say that the publishers weren't within their legal rights. The legal issues were widely understood before the crack down took place. A translation is the prototypical derivative work covered by copyright law, and complete works were translated. Getting something for nothing too good to be true.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that the scanlation community has been extremely cooperating. Characterizing what they were doing as "piracy" is inapt. The fact of the matter is that the they did their work for years with the full knowledge of the industry, did it without complaint, did it without making meaningful personal gains, and promptly shut down their sites without requiring publishers to resort to litigation when publishers complained. This also wasn't simply a matter of a squeeze put on hosting sites (who may have had some Section 230 immunity from liability) forcing scanlation groups to cooperate. Scanlation groups that received cease and desist notices themselves promptly told their hosting groups to take their titles down.

It is hard to see non-profit activity that publishers knew about and didn't complain about as IP piracy, in the conventional sense of the world. Scanlation was done by a much more humble and straight laced crowd than movie and music file sharing by the Napster crowd (which, notably, was engaged in straight copying, not in the creation and marketing of derivative works involving new, fan created creative content).

Scanlation groups are like small scale marijuana dealers who grown their own weed. They aren't making huge profits. It takes a labor of love, and considerable personal time and expense, to make what they are offering. They long to be legitimate. They are willing to share their profits with legitimate authorities, follow rules and play fair. They don't believe that they are doing any harm and indeed are aware that they are providing a valuable service that the market has failed to provide. It just so happens that there has been no workable legal framework for them provide this service. They just want a deal that is fair for everyone that includes some kind of fair recognition for their work.

Every one of the hosting sites would be happy to enter into licensing arrangements. But, the barriers to getting those licensing agreements negotiated and agreed to have been insurmountable. The people with the monopoly power to enter into the contracts needed to legitimatize their products simply haven't been bothered to even try to discuss terms that would make available works for which there is a large demand that they haven't been filling.

The other point that is worth recognizing is that the pie that is out there to be split isn't as big as it seems. The law allows libraries to buy books one and systemically market them to as many readers as they can. People who buy manga and anime in the United States don't hoard they collections; they lend them to fellow fans, trade books they've already bought, and have parties often organized by fan clubs, to watch movies that aren't available on big screens together.

For every ten mass market best seller titles sold, perhaps five or six people actually read them. For every ten manga or anime titles sold in English, hundreds of people read them. Anime companies with a handful of notable exceptions, for whatever reason, have chosen a straight to video delivery system and often don't even distribute their titles through storefront video rental outlets, despite the fact that their movies produce huge box office returns in the manga heartland.

I have no doubt that most major metropolitan areas in the United States, Denver included, could support at least one movie theater that does nothing but show dubbed or subtitled anime movies and run an associate manga and anime bookstore on a for profit basis. If teens could see these titles as a "date night" event on a big screen, the market for the entire genre in the United States would explode.

This wouldn't be simply the art house crowd of high culture intellectuals that go to the Landmark Theater chain's foreign film offerings in Denver, either, nor would it be an audience of mostly first and 1.5 generation Japanese and Korean immigrant kids. These titled were crafted to have the mass appeal that summer blockbuster films do in the United States and would have similar appeal in the U.S.

Manga and anime have different story telling conventions, values, and assumptions than Hollywood, New York or Nashville do. But, those would be easily digested and a refreshing change of pace for most audiences. Honestly, the cultural milieu of manga is more familiar to me, an American white guy who grew up in a small college town, than the world Melissa Wyatt describes in her semi-autobiographical 2009 novel, "Funny How Things Change," a recent local color novel about a boy coming of age and deciding if he wants to stay in a rural West Virginia town, or the world hard core country western musicians croon about. Stock manga tropes like anxiety over exams, extra-curricular activities, office workers with bosses from hell, efforts to appease unhappy parents, and panic over loans that are hard to repay are more familiar facts of life for most young middle class Americans than repairing cars, hunting deer, getting arrested by a sheriff's deputy who is also your cousin, or being left with nothing but your dog when you come home on day to find a vengeful wife gone.

Scanlation thrived in part because it was a way that someone could make a little contribution to people without being too exceptional, a bit like the contribution that someone with a little knowledge of something obscure can make on wikipedia.

Somebody in the group does have to be able to have a working ability to translate from Korean or Japanese to English (the translations of Korean or more obscure titles, in particular, can often be pretty rough). But, lots of the jobs take nothing more than a good eye for copy edits, the ability to buy a book, run a scanner and upload files, good handwriting to letter translations in speech bubbles, or a sense of idiomatic English to smooth out rough spots in an initial translation of the short manga script into conversational contemporary English. It is work, but it takes more commitment than genius. There are more people with computer skills or a working bilingual fluency than there are people who are inspired story tellers and graphic artists, despite the fact that almost every school kid is require to at least try their hand at writing stories and drawing pictures in school and praised if they can do it well.

Scanlation was one of the last really blatant examples for full work copyright violations that had been thriving on the web. Publishers in other genres went after almost everything else first. The looming question is whether this initiative will go any further.

Manga publishers appear to have been relatively restrained in their initiative, so far. They didn't start out asking for huge damage awards against ordinary uncompensated users, and they didn't even send out cease and desist requests for large numbers of titles that aren't available in translation commercially. They would be within their rights to ask for more take downs, and there is a lot of non-commercial "fan fiction" that while not so directly constituting derivative works, could certainly be considered to be and probably would draw lawsuits if it was marketed commercially.

The publishers are also taking a risk in their approach. They have shut down a lot of timid, loyal fans who only did their work with tacit acceptance from those with the right to shut them down. It could be that in a few months, if a licensed alternative to the old, unlicensed scanlation regime isn't established, that a new generation of scanlators who make a greater effort to be hard to shut down and aren't so timid come onto the scene.

Probably the only reason that illegal online music downloading isn't a hundred times more pervasive than it is today is that low cost licensed alternatives like iTunes made songs available at a dollar per title in most cases. Unless manga publishers make available a reasonably affordable legal way to access their content online (perhaps along the line of the eBooks downloading services offered by libraries right now), a black market will spring up to replace the gray market that they have shut down.

27 August 2010

Military Realizes It Didn't Want What It Asked For

The United States Army has terminated its "Ground Combat Vehicle" competition (i.e. the program to build a next generation Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle) after in house Pentagon consultants looking at preliminary proposals for the vehicle realized that what the Army asked for in its "request for proposal" wasn't really what it wanted.

The vehicles defense contractors tried to come up with to meet the Army's requirements ended up looking like seventy ton Swiss Army knives, not because the contractors had poor designers, but because the Army had insisted that it do everything under the sun and have every imaginable feature without really understanding the consequences of making this kind of request.

The vehicles are supposed to enter service seven years after the contract is granted, which realistically means something more like a decade, and the Army's decision to change its requirements is expected to delay the program by about six months. So, realistically, the vehicles under the revised proposal will enter service sometime around the year 2021, by which time the designs submitted will be outdated anyway and the per vehicle cost will have soared beyond the initial contract price at rates far in excess of the inflation rate.

Overhauling the program now makes the Pentagon look stupid, but the decision to scale back the program will probably greatly reduce the odds that the program will later be canceled, reduce the extent to which the defense contractor that gets the program will deliver a vehicle behind schedule and reduce the magnitude of the inevitable price bloat that will take place. So, the decision to rethink the program now was a good one.

The perils of asking more than can be delivered, simply because the military wants a vehicle that can do everything, have been illustrated by the Marines' armored amphibious personnel carrier program Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, several program names removed, but no deployed vehicles subsequent to the original program. The program puts the Marines in a particular bind because the Corps has designed several ships and a military strategy around the vehicle without actually having something that works to fill that role. The Marines have plans to by 573 of the vehicles, but General Dynamics, which currently has the contract, still can't make a vehicle that works and are continuing to discover new problems (like vulnerability to IEDs) with the prototypes.

Unlike the Marines, the Army could simply buy an "Off The Shelf" design already in production to meet its needs with a more modern design than what it is using now. But, that would require it to use non-American defense contractors and to settle for a vehicle that they cannot claim even on day one is superior to the one used by any other military force in the world that has capabilities that weren't possible when the contract was begun using existing technology, both of which are standard Army expectations for any major military procurement program.

In a real pinch, the military can and will use off the shelf technology as it did in the MRAP program to obtain mine resistant vehicles for Iraq after it discerned that its own inventory wasn't up to the task, but it takes clear failure in an actively conducted war to force it to take that kind of step.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is having trouble deciding which of two competing Littoral Combat Ship designs it likes best after having bought two of each towards a total buy of 55 ships, so it has decided to postpone the date it had set to make the decision. Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics have been pushing their competing designs since 2004. The latest delay by the Navy is accompanied by some changes in what the Navy is asking for in its contract, although the exact nature of the new requirements for the ships isn't entirely clear.

The main reason that the Air Force is missing out on the procurement mayhem this time around is that it already revised its air tanker program months ago in a similar drama, and is already neck deep in its behind schedule, over budget F-35 program so it doesn't have any new warplane contracts that it can revise at the moment.

A big part of the problem is also that the American military is committed ideologically to trying to fit defense procurement into a free market business equipment model, even though its programs have just one buyer, just a few companies that can compete, involve custom designed products with unproven technologies, and are conducted on a money is no object basis. These are not the circumstances, however, where ordinary big business manufacturing capitalism approaches work.

A long term contact, competing contractor model just doesn't appear to working all that well for the military in a time of rapid technological change. It may be that the United States simply needs to nationalize a large chunk of the defense industry so that it can design new weapons programs in a more flexible manner without butting up against the restrictions involved in bidding out long term contracts to build cutting edge technologies, without fattening the pockets of defense industry executives through its missteps.

In particular, perhaps the R&D function ought to be nationalized, and defense contracts ought to be limited to competitions to manufacture designs that have already been designed and prototyped by a federal government owned military R&D company. There could be competing designs, but they would all be in house productions, so they could more freely share insights with each other, with a common outcome being a "best of both worlds" design that incorporates the best features of competing concept systems with each other and has ongoing interaction between the members of the military who will use the systems and the in house government owned company design team that its developing the system all the way through the prototyping stage.

This would shift power from lawyers and Pentagon contracting bureaucrats in favor of engineers and project managers. Once prototypes were built and blue prints for building new systems were in place, bids from defense contractors that would mass produce the new systems could be compared on a much more apples to apples basis than under the current system where the design function resides with the manufacturing companies.

The sheer coolness of working for the company that designs new state of the art major weapons systems for the United States military, as opposed to working for companies that merely build what it comes up with, might also make it possible for a publicly owned military R&D company to attract top talent at a reasonable price, in much the way that it attracts special forces soldiers, astronauts and spies to do amazing tasks for modest salaries.

If you were a brilliant engineer, which would you rather do: Design the next generation airplane for $150,000 a year, or design the assembly line the builds the next generation airplane from some other guy's design for $500,000 a year?

The loyalty to the military's objectives that a government owned company would have would also make it easier for Congress to refrain from micromanaging the R&D process and trust it to use its engineers and senior managers to strike the best balance between what is possible and the needs of the military with a limited budget. The omnipresent concern that the profit motives of defense contractors are at cross purposes with the nation's national defense needs would evaporate.

This isn't as big of a leap as it may seem.

DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) already does this to some extent, but is pretty much limited to pie in the sky, high risk, decades in the future ideas, rather than still cutting edge but larger scale and less speculative tasks like designing ships, tanks and airplanes.

Much of the nation's basic research is already conducted at publicly owned universities, and much of the rest of the nation's R&D is heavily subsidized with grants administered by government agencies on a non-market basis, with defense contract funding tailored to specific R&D programs, and with tax breaks. The literature of managing creative companies is vast. A major in house R&D project is how the most devastating military program ever conceived, the nuclear bomb, was invented. Europe's military planes are designed and built by a multi-government owned monopoly company.

Of course, no system would be flawless, and there would have to be some mechanism in place to encourage the R&D company to come up with designs that were feasible and affordable to mass produce. But, the current defense contracting mess seems to a great extent to be a case of excessive outsourcing to the point where there isn't enough in house engineering talent to even know how to ask for what the military really wants, because the process of making a request for proposal and the process of seeing what can be designed consistent with the laws of physics and economics turn out to be intimately intertwined with each other in practice.

Marriage Rate Surges In Colorado

There were 4.2% fewer births in the United States 2009 than there were at the 2007 peak. In Colorado, there were 3.2% fewer births.

The trends don't necessary closely track the impact of the financial crisis. Florida and Nevada, for example, were both very hard hit economically, but did not see big declines in births (Florida's increased, Nevada's stayed almost the same). But, births are, of course, a lagging indicator of economic conditions and this may simply reflect differences in when different states felt the impact of an economic downturn.

Colorado beat a national trend towards fewer marriages (there were about 7% fewer in 2009 than 2007 nationwide). There were 9.6% more marriages in Colorado in 2009 than there were in 2007. The number of divorces in Colorado, in contrast, rose only 0.1% from 2007 to 2009. So many states have ceased reporting divorce information to national statistical officials that national divorce rate figures are no longer meaningful.

The U.S. population grew about 1.5% from 2007 to 2009.

26 August 2010

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Virus Saga Continues

In a paper published today by "The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences", scientists found traces (in the form of gene sequences) of murine leukemia virus- (MLV) related viruses in 32 of 37 chronic fatigue syndrome patients; but in only 3 of 44 healthy blood donors. The researchers did not find XMRV. . . . A paper published by the CDC at that time found no XMRV or other MLV-related viruses in patients with the syndrome. . . .

MLV are known to cause cancer and neurological problems in mice, but it is not known whether they cause any diseases in human beings. XMRV is among several different members of the MLV family; and its conspicuous absence from the results in this study means that there remains no resolution as to the role XMRV may play in chronic fatigue syndrome.

It remains unclear why only two research teams have found evidence of these retroviruses. It is possible that different research teams are using significantly different methods of detection; and federal health officials are attempting to standardize the process. Of concern is the fact that the head of the federal tissue safety laboratory has been unable to isolate XMRV, whereas the group in Reno, Nevada claims to have done so.

From here.

This is very odd, because a previous study, late last year, "found that a retrovirus [XMRV] that originated in mice and attacks the human immune system is found in 68% of people diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, but only 4% of healthy control subjects."

By themselves, either of the two studies would seem to be powerful evidence that a particular mouse source virus was the primary cause of chronic fatigue syndrome.

So, different high powered research labs test people with and without chronic fatigue syndrome. One lab finds definitive evidence of a link to XMRV. One finds a definitive evidence of a link to different MLV virus but not XMRV. A third finds neither virus.

This is very odd. Most experimental outcomes that can't be replicated involve weak signals from the evidence that could be statistical flukes, not strong yet contradictory signals. Yet, the odds of either of the studies that showed a viral link to chronic fatigue syndrome being statistical flukes, even with small sample sizes, is vanishingly small because the strength of the effect is so great.

One possibility is that there are subtle, but critical, differences in methodology between the studies that are generating either false positives or false negatives at one or more of the labs. Another possibility is that the actual cause may a germ which often is transmitted with a mouse vector that was not detected in any of the studies, and that the XMRV or other MLV infections found were merely opportunistic co-morbid condition that vary from place to place depending on the kind of viruses circulating in the local mouse vector population.

I can't think of enough examples of anything like this happening in medical research to have much of a sense of which resolution is most likely. The fact that two independent labs are finding some kind of strong MLV link to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, suggests very strongly that even if MLV is not the cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that its presence is a powerful diagnostic sign of the disease in many cases, and that any other true cause is also implicated in the MLV infection.

It also seems to me that even if we don't have a definitive determination of the cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, that it would be entirely appropriate to begin treating patients with anti-viral regimes that could affect MLV type viruses, on the theory that MLV or another virus vulnerable to an anti-viral treatment regime is more likely to be a cause than any other known cause of a notoriously hard to diagnose and treat syndrome. If anti-viral therapies do work in a significant number of cases, in the end, it really doesn't matter that much how they work, or which particular gene is being shut down. The goal is to help people with illnesses get better, and in the absence of seriously side effects the possibility that a particular experimental treatment might not work for a particular patient is par for the course.

Proxy Rule Strenghtens Rights Of Big Shareholders

The SEC has released new proxy rules for publicly held companies.

The Proxy Rule Status Quo

Every year, every publicly held company sends out a proxy statement which is a Soviet style ballot to appoint or reappoint the members of its Board of Directors, who are nominated one person for each position, by a committee of the Board of Directors, a process that is generally controlled, directly or indirectly, by the CEO and other members of the senior management team.

The status quo, which has been criticized in academic circles for decades, has the effect of making almost all boards of publicly held companies self-perpetuating except in cases where a hostile third part acquires a majority of the company in takeover bid. A handful of proxy proposals are brought by shareholders under a highly cumbersome process each year, but they almost always fail.

The "Wall Street Rule" that has followed from this reality is that if you don't like how a company is being managed, that you sell its shares, rather than electing directors who can turn the company around, if you are a small player, or buy the entire company and reform it so that it can be made more profitable, if you can find major financial backing.

Currently, most proxy proposals brought under the current rules are aimed a broad based social reform or ideological points, as part of multi-corporation campaigns launched by activist groups that care more about generating public interest and news coverage than actually winning changes in corporate policies. Only a small minority of proxy fights under existing law are efforts of economically oriented long term shareholders to put in place someone on the team that supervises the CEO who will hold the CEO accountable and insist on better corporate performance, and these too usually fail. Sometimes a large share of people giving a Soviet style corporate ballot refuse to vote for a director nominee as a form of protest that sometimes gets a little attention in the Boardroom, but unless that number of voters withheld is massive these little non-binding protests are usually ignored.

A variety of rules require or prefer that key board of directors level issues be handled entirely, or mostly by "independent directors," but in the current corporate environment, where the CEO has de facto control over board nominations, and shareholders are given no alternatives to vote for on their proxy ballots, the term "independent" simply means "not an employee of the company." Thus, an "independent director" can be a likeminded friend hand picked by the CEO to agree with him on all matters of importance, rather than being a force on the Board that in some way checks the authority of the CEO.

The New Rules

The new SEC proxy rules provide that:

1. Any shareholder group with a 3% interest in the company that has been held for three years can put nominations for members of the board of directors on the same ballot that management places its nominations upon.

2. Shareholder nominations are limited to a quarter of the total number of board of directors seats.

3. The rule does not apply to small publicly held companies for the first three years.

4. "Borrowing" shares to get to the 3% ownership level is not permitted.

The analysis notes that this may not have much of an effect of larger capitalization companies, because the amount of investment necessary to acquire the 3% ownership interest necessary to make a proxy bid in a large company is in the tens of billions of dollars which is beyond the financial resources of most would be shareholder activists. But, the rules may spur a wave of efforts to replace directors at small firms that are perceived to be poorly governed, where an investment of tens of millions of dollars may be enough to earn the privilege to nominate directors.

The change was passed on a party line vote in the SEC, with majority Democrats favoring the reform, and minority Republicans voting against it.

My source is the hardcopy of today's Wall Street Journal.

What Do Corporate Directors Do?

Before and after the reforms the modern board of a publicly held corporation has just a few roles (beyond perpetuating itself:

1. Hire, supervise, fire and set the compensation for senior management, and in particular the CEO. Some Board also see themselves as supervisors of a handful of other "C" level members of the executive team, while others focus on supervising the CEO and leave management of other senior executives to the CEO.

2. Set policy on dividend payments, redemption of shares, and issuance of new shares on the advice of management and other outside consultants. One these policies are set initially, tradition plays a powerful, although not binding, part in future decisions on these matters.

3. Make a minimal effort to retain an honest and competent public accountant (almost always from one of the four dominant firms in the market) to audit the books of the company, determine that the public accountant is conducting its business in a workmanlike way (through meetings in which the public accountant almost invariability provides adequate evidence that the company is doing the right thing), and to discover material facts about the company or misconduct that has not been disclosed to the public (usually by passing on tips received from anonymous dissenters in the company to the appropriate internal authorities in the company). Provide feedback to the public accountant through an appropriate committee in the rare instances where there is a close call on an accounting issue and the accounting firm refused to provide any guidance on how it should be resolved, usually in close consultation with legal counsel and senior management.

4. Plan for and negotiate transactions that could result in a change of control of the company, a merger, a split up of the company into multiple divisions, the sale or purchase of one or more major divisions of the business, or a profound change in the financial structure of the company or the scope of its business.

5. Vet proposals to take the company bankrupt or otherwise engage in major debt restructuring arrangements in lieu of a bankruptcy.

6. Put on a good public face for the Company and provide senior management with constructive suggestions from one's own experience when appropriate.

7. Document and rubber stamp decisions made by others in the organization that it is their job to make.

Typically, today, about half of the members of the board are senior managers of the company, and the other half are academics and senior people at other companies with financial or business interests that are strategically important to the company. The can number from half a dozen to a couple dozen. The usually meet monthly or quarterly, depending upon the size of the company, but rarely much more than a couple times a month absent an emergency, and receive a healthy chunk of compensation, usually in the five figures, for showing up, and are treated lavishly during the meetings.

Boards have almost no staff, with a corporate secretary, the chairman of the board, and inside board members usually serving as their liasons with management. Board members start meetings with immense binders packed with information that tend to be discussed in long boring lectures and reviewed only on a cursory basis. Matters put to a vote are almost always approved unanimously, with little discussion.

Politics on corporate boards, to the extent that they happen in public meetings, tend to be very subtle. A board member may ask a long term questions which management is expected to scrupulously investigate and report back upon in a timely fashion. Or, a board member in the discussion of a minor issue may note tangentially some general concern about a long term course of action that this may reflect that will be considered by management and perhaps addressed in future proposals.

But, ultimately, corporate boards as they are now, are the corporate equivalent of a United States Vice President, or State Lieutenant Government, they are kept in the loop and expected to appoint a successor if necessary, and are given some very light and inconsequential decisions to consider and act upon, but they aren't expected to actually take an active role in the management of the company.

The most important dispute in corporate law today is whether this should change, and how, and this SEC proposal goes to the heart of that question, striking a compromise, but a compromise that appears generally to favor the faction that has long been pushing for greater shareholder rights.

Why Reform Proxy Rules?

The hope of reformers is that this reform will approve the accountability of management to ownership. The hope is that a shareholder nominated director of a publicly held company would be dispositionally inclined towards, beholden to, and loyal to the shareholder group that nominated the director, rather than to the CEO and his management group that effectively make all other appointments to the Board of Directors.

To be clear, this is no recipe for mass social justice or micromanagement of publicly held companies by their boards of directors. One would expect to see as a result of the reform in the way that some of these key functions are carried out:

1. Senior executive pay that is less generous, particularly in cases where the company isn't performing well, since they must bargain with true shareholder representatives at arms length.

2. Directors attempting to develop incentives that cause senior management to adequately consider downside risks that could harm shareholders to a much greater extent than they do executives with stock options.

3. More dismissals of poorly performing senior managers.

4. Negotiations in merger discussions and hostile takeover defense strategies that shift more compensation to shareholders and less to management buyouts.

5. More directors willing to act as whistleblowers when corporate wrongdoing is discovered or contemplated.

6. More conflict on boards as pro-management and pro-shareholder factions develop over selected issues like executive compensation and dismissal of executives.

At best, this proposal could revolutionize the way that publicly held businesses in the United States operate by more swiftly replacing mediocre executives, ending self-dealing in executive compensation, giving public corporations a better balance in acceptance of risk between potential upside gains and downside losses that make the macroeconomy more robust, give shareholders a bigger share of takeover deal proceeds, and reduce corruption in big business.

At worst, it could fill boardrooms of publicly held companies across the nation with nasty arguments while not doing much to change anything of substance.

Time will tell how it plays out in practice.

George Washington and the Early Republic

George Washington, the individual, had a profound influence on the shape of the American political system. This is to be expected from the first top executive in any organization, but I hadn't realized until lately just how exceptional he was and how important that may have been to preventing the United States from becoming a monarchy.

He was closer to being a life long dictator than may people realize. He was Commander-in-Chief, the highest ranking official in the United States government, from June 1775, when he was appointed to that post before the Declaration of Independence was even adopted, while he was a delegate at the first Continental Congress, until December 1783 when he resigned his office when the Revolutionary War was over, but then returned to preside over the Constitutional Convention and lead the nation again in 1787.

He then served out the first two terms as President of the United States, from 1789 until March 1797, and after a year a half out of Government service, he was the U.S. Army Senior Officer, a respectable senior public office (subordinate to the President and Secretary of War, but superior to all other military officers) until his death in December of 1799 at age 67. This post left George Washington in the position to easily carry out a military coup if the civilian leadership had not conducted itself with some semblance of propriety.

He started his military service as a general in the Virginia state militia, and remained a senior military officer for the rest of his pre-revolutionary military career. He married into money and spent much of his pre-revolutionary adulthood in Virginia politics, in addition to being a plantation owner. His independent wealth that he didn't have to earn gave him a pseudo-aristocratic status.

A Man Of Few Heirs

Most remarkably, he was survived by few close relatives. He never had children of his own. He had no stepchildren who survived him. His stepdaughter died before having children. His stepson had three daughters (the oldest of whom was twenty-three at George Washington's death, and another of whom who was twenty years old when George Washington died married George Washington's nephew, Lawrence Lewis (April 4, 1767 – November 20, 1839), who was thirty-two years old at George Washington's death and was George Washington's personal secretary after he retired from the Presidency and the executor of George Washington's estate), and one son, George Washington Parke Custis (who was eighteen at George Washington's death). George Washington has two older half-siblings who predeceased him and had no living descendants at the time George Washington died. George Washington's all five of George Washington's full siblings predeceased him, as did many of his nieces and nephews.

By the standards of royal succession familiar to Americans in the Revolutionary War era, at his death, George Washington's successor might have been George Steptoe Washington (1773–1808), the fourth son (by the third wife) of his oldest younger brother to have a son (George Steptoe's three older brothers predeceased George Washington), although there would have been room for dispute about which descendant was next in line. George Steptoe Washington was twenty-six years old when George Washington died, and had there been a monarchy, he would in turn have been succeeded by his son Samuel Walter Washington (1799-1831) who was just nine years old when his father died.

Lawrence Lewis, George Washington's nephew, would have also been a likely successor had there been a monarchy, particularly in light of the fact that he and his wife received the largest part of George Washington's estate. He had eight children, but only four lived past infancy, and one daughter died at age fifteen. Lawrence Lewis was survived by two daughters and a son, Lorenzo Lewis (1803-1847), who was eight years old when his father died. The son of Lorenzo Lewis, in turn, Edward Parke Custis Lewis (February 7, 1837 – September 3, 1892), who was ten years old at the time of his father's death went on to become a Confederate Army colonel, lawyer, New Jersey legislator, and U.S. diplomat.

Thus, either of the most plausible lines of succession from George Washington, had he been an monarch, would have swiftly led to an extended regency early in the history of the United States at a time when its government was quite fragile.

Given how little time George Washington spent as anything other than the most senior official in the United States government, and how remotely related and young his successor would have been had he become a monarch, George Washington's altruism in stepping down voluntarily from the Presidency is easier to understand.

American Politics Under the Articles of Confederation

The United States had no chief executive officer at all under the Articles of Confederation from then until 1787 when George Washington was appointed to preside over the Constitutional Convention, making him a de facto leader of the nation's then meager national government.

There were ten Presidents in the seven years that the Articles of Confederation was the governing document of the United States (it was proposed in 1777, but was not ratified by the required thirteen states until 1781), but this person was merely the presiding officer of the part-time Congress of the Confederation in which each of the thirteen states had a single vote and was represented by a state legislature appointed delegation of between two and seven members, none of whom were permitted to serve more than three out of any six years. The Congress struggled to achieve a quorum. The President was also the chair of the Committee of the States, with had one representative from each state that presided over the federal government such as it was between Congresses, but in practice was ineffectual. There was no judiciary and the President was a chief parliamentarian, rather than a true executive branch official. Five men served six terms as Presidents of the Continental Congress prior to ratification of the Articles of Confederation era, as did the first President under the Articles of Confederation. Neither of the first two men to hold the office (during the first three terms) served more than two months at a time. No one served in either post longer than John Hancock who served for 29 months as President for much of the Second Continental Congress.

Two men served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation (Robert Livingston from October 20, 1781 – June 4, 1783 and John Jay from May 7, 1784 – March 4, 1789). John Jay would go on to become the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Several of the Founding Fathers serves as diplomats at this time.

Benjamin Lincoln (1781-1785) and later Henry Knox (1785-1789) served as Secretary of War under the Articles of Confederation, although during George Washington's term of service as Commander-in-Chief this didn't amount to much. The top military officer who seceded George Washington (Henry Knox) served for just six months during which he presided over the decommissioning of the Army, but in 1785 became Secretary of War, the civilian to whom the top military officer reported. His successor, John Doughty, led the Army for two months at a time when it has just 80 soldiers. Brigadier General Josiah Harmar served as the most senior officer in the Army from August 1784 until after George Washington become President and Commander-in-Chief. The United States did not have a naval force at all from the time George Washington stepped down from his post as Commander in Chief until after he was appointed to preside over the Constitutional Convention. No subordinate of the chief military officer would have had more subordinates than a modern Army Captain, and some state militia officers in almost every state would have had more soldiers under their command than any federal military officer during the period when George Washington was not Commander-in-Chief.

The Congress of the Confederation, in addition to handling military affairs and ratifying treaties (negotiated with a handful of ambassadors under the Secretary for Foreign Affairs), set standards for weights and measures, issued currency and mediated interstate disputes sitting in a quasi-judicial role, although there was no separate judiciary.

Charles Thomson was the sole Secretary of the Continental Congress before and after the Articles of Confederation, in which capacity he served as a minute taking secretary for the Congress from 1774 to 1789, the only official to hold his post for the entire period, and carried out some executive branch type duties. He apparently had a role in the conduct of the early Republic's foreign affairs in addition to his more mundane duties.

Small Fish

The notion of someone as a Founding Father conjures up images of grandeur, but really, the jobs that many of these men carried out, while historically important, weren't as grand as we recall them to be.

Many of these men would have no clue how to run a modern election campaign with appeals to tens of thousands, or even millions, of voters from all walks of life. They were appointed by members of state governments with populations closer to that of large counties today. The electorate was limited to white male property owners over the age of twenty-one. The secret ballot had not yet been invented. Not many people were interested in running for these offices in the first place.

The governmental institutions they presided over were tiny. The Congress was small and its proceedings were rather irregular. The titles involved were frequently more grand than the actual responsibilities and authority involved. There were few functioning committees.

The bulk of governmental activity and the central of political life in the Revolutionary War era, even in the sphere of military affairs, was in state government, not in the federal government. Outside the realm of military affairs, government would remain largely at the state level, and federal offices would be unimportant, until the Civil War.

Their political structure was a dismal failure for a long time before a plan that finally worked was devised. The Continental Congress defaulted on its pension debt to its soldiers. Twenty years had passed after the Declaration of Independence before it was really clear that the United States would become a country, rather than a second rate international organization and temporary military alliance.

The federal government was a decidedly amateur operation for much of its early history.

25 August 2010

The Tea Party and the Angry White Male

Dan Maes, the Republican nominee in the Colorado Governor's race, named a running mate as credible as most. Tom Tancredo, in contrast, has named Pat Miller, who served only a single term as a state representative a couple of decades ago and has run some second rate anti-abortion groups in the meantime. Her views are probably further to the right than any other candidate who will appear on the ballot this fall and her track record marks her as someone who is not credible.

People like Tom Tancredo and Dan Maes live in an America where the only language spoken is crazy talk. Tancredo, by adding Pat Miller to his ticket, is apparently trying to out crazy Dan Maes and perhaps come in second place with support from radicalized conservatives in a race he has handed to Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper.

Maureen Dowd has it about right when she despairs that:

The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown, with the right spreading fear and disinformation that is amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment.

She is likewise on point when she notes that:

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

The weird mass nervous breakdown that our country is experiencing is largely confined to conservative Republicans. There are a handful of exceptions, but Democrats and independents remain, as they were before the 2008 election, overwhelmingly reality based. When opinion polls are broken out by political identity, Democrats and independents don't look much different than they did before the election, while the weirdness pollsters are hearing from Republicans starts to look like a pervasive hysteria.

Republicans are the ones seeing U.N. bicycle conspiracies, ignoring science on climate change, insisting on equal time for creationism in our classrooms, claiming that President Obama is a Muslim or was not born in the United States, seeking to repeal the 14th and 17th Amendments of the United States Constitution (birth right citizenship and direct election of Senators), acting on absurd rumors that pro-Second Amendment President Obama would take away their guns, longing to secede from the United States, claiming that tax cuts increase government revenues, urging the nation to bomb Mecca, insisting that health care reform and Social Security are unconstitutional, trying to drown government in a bathtub, passing laws that purport to overrule federal law in their states, and arguing (on the floor of the Colorado General Assembly no less) that stoning people for adultery is a good idea.

What happened?

Once upon a time, a few election cycles ago, the Republican party was supposed to be the party of successful business people, who favored facts learned from experience over ideological theories, and supported Christian values. Then, sometime in the last few years, it reached a tipping point. A critical mass of sane people from the establishment wing of the party disavowed it, and the balance of power shifted to the GOP's paranoid, delusional, angry wing. The grown ups left the smoke filled rooms, leaving the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

Even more remarkably, pluralities of college educated, middle class suburban men with serious jobs and small businesses to run, who mow their lawns every week, pay their mortgages, go to church every Sunday, and send their kids to poverty free suburban public schools have decided that they prefer to vote for the paranoid, delusional, angry politicians of the Tea Party rather rational, reality based, problem solvers. At first glance, this seems absurdly out of character.

The upstanding citizens of Colorado Springs (the largest share of whom are government employees or work for government contractors) have decided that street lights and police helicopters and suicide prevention hot lines and municipal parks are big government and can't be tolerated. The people of suburban Aurora collectively decided that libraries are a bad idea and permanent closed half of them - selling the books in the fire sale.

Cranks like Doug Bruce and Rush Limbaugh have become the de facto public faces of the conservatives.

The Republican Party has nominated W.R. Stapleton to be state treasurer, despite the fact that he failed to show up for a large share of scheduled campaign appearances, and Ryan Frazier to run as their nominee in Colorado's 7th Congressional District, despite the fact that he has missed about as many city council meetings in his current post as an Aurora City Councilman as the rest of the City Council combined (a point made emphatically by old guard Republican Bob Beauprez in the primary campaign).

It takes a certain amount of gall to complain about teacher tenure when you support candidates who would be swiftly fired if held to the attendance standards of tenured teachers, professors and civil servants. Even the Detroit Public Schools has decided to make clear that routinely not showing up for work is grounds for losing your job.

Admittedly, Colorado Republicans did have a brief moment of lucidity when they realized should not support the nomination of Scott McInnis, who was caught red handed plagiarizing essays that he was paid $300,000 to write about Colorado water law, and had previously used campaign funds to pay his wife to be his campaign manager after he decided he wasn't running for office. Shocking revelations that come just as you are about to cast your vote can jolt you back to reality, if only for a moment.

But, how can a political base that tend beautiful front lawn gardens of columbines and tulips, who ground their kids for weeks if a teacher reports that they copied a classmate's homework, who routinely fire subordinates for showing up late to work or failing to meet sales targets, and who pay extra at the car wash to get an extra coating of wax that will keep their SUVs shiny a week longer, support such a flawed slate of candidates to be their political leaders?

The answer, I think, lies in the invisible struggle hiding behind the serene Desperate Housewives facade of suburban America.

Colorado Republicans, collectively, have been through the psychological trauma of seeing their political party lose both houses of Congress, most of the seats it held in the state Congressional delegation, the Presidency including your own state's electoral votes, the Governorship, the state house, the state senate, several statewide offices, the dishonor of seeing the national economy fall to pieces while the President they supported was in office, the chagrin of learning that a war that the President they voted for was fought to stop weapons of mass destruction that weren't there, and the confusion of seeing the fiscal conservatives they supported bring the national deficit to record levels.

Even more importantly, the recent setbacks have been personal as well as political for the class of people from whom the Tea Party has drawn support.

Politicians may lie, but your quarterly mutual fund and 401(k) statements don't sugar coat your declining net worth. It is hard to ignore the "bank owned" message atop the "for sale" sign down the street. People who mow their lawns and tend their gardens are acutely aware that their home equity has eroded and houses in their neighborhood are taking longer to sell. The layoffs happening in the office down the hall to people you knew personally are real. Even for families whose daily lives haven't actually changed at all, their perceived wealth and financial security has plummeted.

Of course, for many families in the Republican base, their daily lives have changed. Small business people have to explain over the dinner table every week to their spouses why their incomes aren't enough to pay for everything in their budget again this month. It hurts the pride of an upper middle class professional who gets most of his compensation from bonuses to have to send "jingle mail" to the bank that owns the mortgage on his vacation home, or to have to sell the boat he bought a couple of years ago at a deep loss. Once successful realtors and high end salespeople have to forget about taking the exotic vacations they used to get as perks for meeting sales goals. Life goes on after you pull your kids out of an expensive private school and enroll them in a local public school district, despite the fact that you keep doing your job as well as you always have and have played by the rules, but it leaves you with a cauldron of negative emotional energy that you'd love to blame on anyone but yourself.

When you have built your identity around your job, your business and your financial success, and you have attributed your financial well being to your personal virtue, stoic acknowledgment that economic success and failure often has nothing to do with your personal professional merit is a hard pill to swallow. In the world that the Republican establishment lives in, the first rule of life on the job is that you must be optimistic and upbeat no matter what, because nobody like a whiner; so you need to find another outlet for you intense angry, frustrated and bitter feelings.

When a political party that you opposed controls all the levers of political power, you can vent viciously in the political world without betraying the people you supported. When you know that the extremist candidates that you voted for don't have a prayer of winning anyway, you can even vote for them without feeling guilty about the harm that they would do if they were actually elected and allowed to govern.

Voting for a demagogue is the functional equivalent of watching porn that depicts acts you would never engage in yourself, or a fantasy about quitting your job with a dramatic "fuck you" to your boss. There is a reason that a certain Jet Blue flight attendant exit out the airplanes exit ramp made him a national hero, and that a hoax You Tube video about an administrative assistant telling off her boss in a series of statements written on a white board became viral hit. A vote for someone who is spouting angry political profanity allows you the catharsis of fantasies, that you know are wrong to play out in real life, vicariously, without having to suffer the consequences.

When reality is full of defeat and disillusionment, fantasy starts looking pretty attractive and cognitive dissonance no doubt reaches surreal levels. Sometimes the truth gets so ugly that it is easier to put its picture in a desk drawer where you don't have to look at it. Selling hard truths to the electorate has rarely been a tactic that leads to political success. The Tea Party has provided in the political world the kind of outlet for the darker feelings of the Republican establishment that football and hockey provide for the violent tendencies of the middle class.

In support of the "vote for wacko candidates as political fantasy" theory, I would suggest that it is not coincidental that one the least loony major insurgent candidates in Colorado on the Republican ticket, Cory Gardner, is running in the 4th Congressional District, rather than for some other office. The 4th CD has a strong Republican voter registration edge, but is now served by conservative Democrat Betsy Markey, after the previous Republican incumbent, Marilyn Musgrave, imploded by obsessing about hot button social issues to the exclusion of everything else. The fact that Gardner was chosen by Republicans to represent them in the race where the Republican party has the best shot at picking up an important elected office this year in Colorado, suggests that Republican voters are willing to be pragmatic when it matters.

Sure, the financial crisis has brought prolonged unemployment to millions of working Americans. But, most of them didn't have deeply felt expectations of uninterrupted prosperity and have learned since the 1970s that for them, employment insecurity is a fact of life. Their balance sheets have had nothing to lose, and they've long ago decided psychologically and emotionally, that their periodic economic setbacks are often not their fault. They have suffered hardship, but not dramatically upset personal expectations and the rising political fortunes of the people that they have supported give them some reason for hope and more reason not to vent their frustrations at the ballot box.

The economic losses of the middle class, in contrast, have been stark. In a recession where a minority people have most of the wealth, they have the most to lose when the foundations of the nation's economy start to crack. They may still have jobs to a much greater extent than the working class, and they may still manage to preserve a standard of living better than most, but those who benefit most from the economy's bounty when it thrives are also the ones who lose the most when it flounders. The figures most often reported in the newspapers don't always reveal this fact, but housing markets in the Republican dominated suburbs, at least in Colorado, have been suffering much more seriously than those in Democratic party strongholds in major central cities.

If history has taught us anything about politics, it has taught us that economic failure drives political extremism and scapegoating. Those who have lost the most relative to their expectations are prone to go the farthest off the deep end. And, in these economic times, in Colorado at least, that means the Republican base. So, perhaps the fact that a base made up of seemingly serious people is supporting candidates who aren't, isn't really so surprising after all.

24 August 2010

So Much For The Central Denver Rec Center

Denver Direct notes that the City of Denver first appears to have overpaid for a property adjacent to East High School that was to be used to build a Central Denver Recreation Center (which was a great idea, the Rec Center, not the overpaying part), and then ran out of money to build and operate it in the near future, forcing it to make the $6.5 million dollar property assessed at $1 million in value into a dog park and urban garden instead. Westword has also picked up the story.

In fairness to the City, I think that some of the purchase price discrepancy may have come from a change in use. Immediately before the sale, the property was being used as a church (before my time, it was a Safeway grocery store), which poses unique property assessment challenges that aren't important to be accurate about because churches aren't subject to property taxes anyway. In a real transaction, in contrast, the property has to be valued at a true fair market value that reflects development value beyond the current use.

The story of this parcel of land also says a lot about an urban neighborhood in transition. The grocery store's closing contributed significant to a "food desert" in what was one of the lowest income, most crime ridden neighborhoods in the city at the time. It was called "North Capital Hill" then, although now it is pitching the moniker "Uptown."

The plan for the recreation center did not come about when the need for one from low income city kids was greatest, although there are still plenty of kids in the neighborhood who could benefit and the City's parks and recreation department runs a vibrant track and field program that draws participants from all over the city at the adjacent East High School track. I spent what seemed like most of my summer in and around the parcel while my kids had track practice and I polished off an extra hour or so of work in the car or adjacent coffee shops three time a week.

Instead, it came about after intense gentrification and revitalization of the area, with the Tatter Cover-Twist and Shout complex moving in, the Post Properties (formerly Saint Luke's Hospital) development, a new high rise across from City Park, gentrifying development along 17th Avenue in Uptown, the gentrification and redevelopment of much of the Five Points neighborhood, and a major refurbishing of City Park.

Still, a Central Denver Rec Center would have provided a focal point to a development mini-downtown near East High, helped advance the somewhat counter-factual concept of East High as Denver's Main Street (Denver's real main street neighborhood is the Cherry Creek Mall neighborhood), and would have shown that the city was willing to make investments to revitalized its neighborhoods, which was the point of the bond issue that funded the purchase of the parcel.

East High School is also the most racially integrated, reasonably academically healthy high school in the city, in addition to claiming to be the direct successor to Denver's oldest high school. This development public-commercial complex is ground zero in the effort to accommodate Denver's several, still ethnically segregated communities, although these communities are increasingly integrating without formal public mandates as people start to value living close to the central city more and dislike commuting long distances to a greater degree. (As an aside, a remarkably large share of college bound African-American graduates of East High School are choosing to go to college at Mesa State College in Grand Junction for some reason.)

A dog park and community garden are superior to a vacant lot or a parking lot in that location, which is struggling to cross the line from its formerly blighted status to that of a healthy neighborhood. The church that owned the old structure on the site couldn't afford to maintain it in good repair and was not vibrant enough to provide a positive anchor in the neighborhood. In its off hours, it had become a place for families with kids to try to avoid and favorite resting spot for drunks, the homeless, and teens looking to escalate every encounter into a fight.

Still, it is sad to see this opportunity to build a stronger neighborhood postponed with the delay in the construction, if indeed it is ever built, of a Central Denver Recreation Center. The choice is understandable as budget pressed Denver is struggling to pawn off existing recreation centers that it is having trouble finding funds to operate on local non-profits since it can't afford to keep all of them open in these hard economic times. But, this still has to be reckoned as a good plan compromised.

23 August 2010

Embattled Denver Safety Manager Resigns

Newly appointed Denver Manager of Safety Ron Perea has resigned effective August 31 after his slap on the wrist sanctions for police officers who lied in reports about police brutality received media attention and public protests.

Perea, an outside hire from a Secret Service appointment, never understood how important reining in police misconduct was in Denver, or how deeply he was damaging hard fought gains from the previous administration on that front. Community relations is not, of course, the first priority of the Secret Service which is primarily in the business of preventing Presidential assassinations in service of the federal government. His inability to be honest with the public was revealed in his gross mishandling of a meeting held last week to allow public input on the disciplinary decision made about a videotaped case of police brutality about which an officer and his partner lied.

His decision to resign has eased the horrible political anchor he has placed on his boss, Mayor and Gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper, and limited the harm that his lack of leadership was doing to the good discipline of the police force and the faith of the public in its police force.

Simply put, Ron Perea had quickly proved himself too clueless to do his job well.

Deputy Manager of Safety Mary Malatesta will take over as interim Manager of Safety. Perhaps, duly chastened by her predecessor's failure, she can do a better job of protecting the people of Denver from bad cops, who while surely a minority of the force are capable of doing immense harm to the public in any number.

No Fault Divorce Comes To New York State

On August 15, 2010, New York State adopted a law allowing for divorce without proof that the other partner to the marriage was at fault. All of the other states in the United States had already adopted "no fault" divorce.

The law took as long as it did to be adopted mostly because some supporters of it believed that it gave wives more bargaining power on substantive issues in a divorce. The downside of fault based divorce is that it required couples to engage in the well poisoning business of fighting over past acts that damaged the relationship. A part of the process that does long term harm to the parties without itself providing much benefit ultimately needs to change.

The late revision also illustrates the fact that just because New York State law is often chosen in choice of law clauses, mostly for the convenience of lawyers based there (hey, I'm admitted in New York and really shouldn't complain), that doesn't mean that there is anything particularly good about its substantive law. Indeed, more often than not, New York State is a less desirable, rather than a more desirable forum from a substantive law perspective.

Philadelphia: Bloggers Must Pay $50/Year Tax

The city fathers of Philadelphia have decided that blogging, even if the blog isn't profitable, or produces only nominal hobby income ($11 in two years), must pay a $300 once or $50 per year business privilege tax, on top of city, state and federal income taxes. Needless to say, Philadelphia's interpretation of its tax laws are at least contrary to all common sense, and at worst, unconstitutional. Flat business privilege taxes aren't unheard of, but generally, they limit themselves to businesses that are operated as a form of employment and make more than nominal income.

Stoning As Punishment

The New York Times via the Sentencing Law and Policy blog discussed the criminal punishment, usually for adultery, of stoning.

Some Muslims complain that stoning — along with other traditional penalties like whipping and the amputation of hands — is too often sensationalized in the West to smear the reputation of Islam generally. Most of these severe punishments are carried out by the Taliban and other radicals who, many Islamic scholars say, have little real knowledge of Islamic law. Stoning is a legal punishment in only a handful of Muslim countries — in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria, but it is very rarely put to use.

Stoning is not prescribed by the Koran. The punishment is rooted in Islamic legal traditions, known as hadiths, that designate it as the penalty for adultery. While the penalty may seem savage to Western eyes, scholars say it is consistent with the values of Arabian society at the time of Muhammad, Islam’s founding prophet. . . .

But Islamic law requires very strict conditions for a stoning sentence: four male eyewitnesses must attest to having seen the sexual act and their accounts must match in all details, or else they can be subject to criminal penalties, said Aron Zysow, a specialist on Islamic law at Princeton University. Some scholars even argue that the stoning penalty is meant more as a symbolic warning against misbehavior than as a punishment to be taken literally.

The New York Times article also notes that stoning is not an exclusively religious practice, finding mention in many other ancient religious faiths.

Iranian lawyers who have been involved in such cases say that as many as 100 stonings have been carried out since the [1979] revolution, but that the practice was becoming less common.

Between 2006 and 2008 at least six stonings took place, all of them in secret, said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

The opposite trends seem to be present in Taliban controlled parts of Afghanistan for stonings and other harsh punishments for trivial offenses are becoming common in cases such as the recent stoning of an eloping couple.

I don't think that it is inappropriate to condemn the fact that harsh corporal punishments are carried out under the banner of Islamic law.

I also think that many Islamic leaders in the places where these practices are carried out don't understand how far these practices put then beyond the "Moral Event Horizon" in the mass media narrative that guides Western democratic politics. The natural response to an account of this kind of punishment is to assume that everyone complicit in it is evil and deserves to be exterminated. This isn't the right response, but it takes extraordinary effort and a commitment to a particular set of values to overcome this instinct.

Republicans Opposed To Religious Freedom

"Whether or not you think the Islamic cultural centre and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, do you think that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque there?"

From Steam Powered Opinions via Mother Jones via the Economist.

Mother Jones appropriately notes that the question isn't posed in a way that precisely captures the true constitutional issue, but the partisan attitude towards freedom of religion is in any case clear. Democrats and independents favor freedom of religion. Republicans deny that it exists for non-Christians.