31 January 2011

One in seven marriages is mixed race.

One in seven (14.6%) of new marriages in 2008 and 2009 is mixed race (in a method that counts a Hispanic-Anglo marriage as mixed race), according to a recent New York Times article reporting on a Pew Research Center study from June of last year. In 1960, the figure was 2.4%.

Among all newlyweds in 2008, 9% of whites, 16% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics and 31% of Asians married someone whose race or ethnicity was different from their own.

Gender patterns in intermarriage vary widely. Some 22% of all black male newlyweds in 2008 married outside their race [in 1960 the percentage was 1.3%], compared with just 9% of black female newlyweds [in 1960 the percentage was 0.9%]. Among Asians, the gender pattern runs the other way. Some 40% of Asian female newlyweds married outside their race in 2008, compared with just 20% of Asian male newlyweds. Among whites and Hispanics, by contrast, there are no gender differences in intermarriage rates.

Rates of intermarriages among newlyweds in the U.S. more than doubled between 1980 (6.7%) and 2008 (14.6%). However, different groups experienced different trends. Rates more than doubled among whites and nearly tripled among blacks. But for both Hispanics and Asians, rates were nearly identical in 2008 and 1980. . . . ["High levels of Hispanic and Asian immigration over the past several decades helped drive both seemingly contradictory trends."] . . .

Native-born Hispanics are more than three times as likely as the foreign born to marry a non-Hispanic. . . native-born Asian-Americans are nearly twice as likely as those who are foreign born to marry a non-Asian. . . Among Asian men, the native born are nearly four times as likely as the foreign born to marry out. Among Asian women, the native born are only about 50% more likely than the foreign born to marry a non-Asian.

For U.S. born people, outmarriage rates were 41.7% for Asian men, 41.3% for Hispanic men, 37.4% for Hispanic women, and 50.3% for Asian women. For foreign born people, outmarriage rates were 11.7% for Asian men, 11.3% for Hispanic men, 12.2% for Hispanic women, and 36.8% for Asian women.

Mixed race marriage is much more common among the young than the old.

There are strong regional trends. The outmarriage rate for African-Americans in the West is 38% compared to 15.5% nationally and 11.9% in the South. Whites are most likely to outmarry in the West at 15.5%, compared to 8.9% nationally and 5.5% in the Midwest. Hispanics are most likely to outmarry in the Midwest (41.0% v. 25.7% nationally), although Colorado at 35% has a higher outmarriage rate among states with statistically significant numbers of Hispanic outmarriages than any other single state. Asians are most likely to outmarry in the South (36.8% v. 30.8% nationally). Outmarriage for whites is 20% or more in Nevada, New Mexico and California. Black outmarriage rates are 36% in California, the higher percentage in single states with a statistically significant number of black outmarriages, in contrast the lowest percentage of black outmarriages where numbers are statistically significant is found in North Carolina where the percentage is 9%.

These regional trends seem to be driven by a combination of outmarriage being more common when there are more other race and fewer same race options available, and by Hispanics and Asians being more likely to be U.S. born in areas with higher outmarriage rates. Differences in regional attitudes surely do have an effect, but a less intense one than one might expect.

The more education you have, the more likely you are to outmarry.

About 41% of mixed race marriages are Hispanic-white, about 16% are both non-white, about 15% are Asian-white, about 11% of Black-white, and 17% are "other" (which includes Native American, mixed race and "some other race").

In terms of expressed views, far more religious people are uncomfortable with having a child marry an atheist than are uncomfortable with having a child marry something of another race. Whites in 2009 were considerably less likely to have a problem with a child marrying someone of another race than they were in 2001, while blacks were more concerned in 2009 than in 2001 (although still more accepting of mixed race marriages in all time periods with all other races).


This observation comes with caveats:

[S]ome sociologists say that grouping all multiracial people together glosses over differences in circumstances between someone who is, say, black and Latino, and someone who is Asian and white. (Among interracial couples, white-Asian pairings tend to be better educated and have higher incomes, according to Reynolds Farley, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.)

Along those lines, it is telling that the rates of intermarriage are lowest between blacks and whites, indicative of the enduring economic and social distance between them.

Any study of marriage rates also has to be conscious of the increasing number of parents and intimate couples were are not married. For African-American women, for example, most mothers are not married. The higher rate of interracial marriage for African-American men than for African-American women, for example, could reflect non-African-American women in serious relationships with African-American women placing a greater importance on recognizing that relationship through marriage than African-American women in serious relationships with non-African-American men do.


This is a little less than half of what one would see if marriage were entirely random relative to race and ethnicity, although a significant share of the divide between truly random and what is seen is due to neighbor effects (i.e. mixed race marriages tend only happen to the extent that there is someone of another race geographically nearby), rather than actual race or ethnicity based selection of a spouse.

Intermarriage rates are higher for the college educated, despite the fact that the ethnic diversity of college campuses is considerably lower than the ethnic diversity of society as a whole. The gap between the intermarriage percentage that you would expect by random chance if people married others with the same level of education, and what is actually observed, is quite modest among college graduates, but its quite high for high school dropouts.

Asian and Latino intermarriage seems to fit the general profile of immigrant assimilation. Second and later generation immigrants assimilate very fully into their communities linguistically and otherwise, and often outmarry. The future of Asian and Latino marriage patterns may follow that of the "Southern European" identity, which ceased to be very ethnically distinct in the United States in a way that drives marriage patterns. Yet, the WASP v. non-WASP divide, which distinguished people from Catholic and Jewish immigrant populations, from Ireland and Southern Europe in the case of most of the Catholics, and from Eastern Europe in the case of most of the Jews, from non-immigrant American whites, has faded greatly from our ethnic consciousness.

My intuition is that interracial marriage rates for African immigrant populations (e.g. recent immigrants from Ethiopia and Kenya), are probably more similar to Latino and Asian immigrant populations than to African-American populations. For example, immigrant Africans in Denver's public housing projects are much more likely to be married than African-Americans in Denver's public housing projects, and there is probably less discrimination against African immigrants than there is against African-Americans in economic and social contexts.

Razib notes that "The article ignores the elephant in the room: that Americans do not treat African ancestry like they treat Asian (or Amerindian) ancestry. Someone with a black American parent may identify as mixed race, but there is a great deal of social pressure and expectation, such that they are de facto viewed as black." But, I am not so pessimistic.

While African-American outmarriage rates are lower than for U.S. born Hispanics and Asians (a little more than half as much for African-American men, and a quarter as much for African-American women), this has changed dramatically in the last fifty years when it was almost zero, and outmarriage rates have continued to surge in the last twenty years.

Anecdotal evidence that I have encountered, at least, suggests that "one drop" rule notwithstanding, that mixed race children with a black parent and a white parent are indeed a major bridge between the two groups in social settings. A many fold increase in the number of children of black and non-black parents, probably under reported by statistics that only measure actual marriages, means that the bonds between these two ethnic communities in the United States are probably much stronger than they were a generation or two and getting stronger all the time.

Social Class Implications

This elephant in the room is also shrinking as social class divides based on race and ethnicity fades.

The increase in rates of African-American outmarriage closely mirror the growing ranks of the black middle class in the same time period against a background of very low social class mobility in the United States generally..

Despite the fact that almost every statistic you may see on African-American socio-economic success is discouraging, in the big picture in the medium to long term, the story has been one of remarkable socio-economic progress.

Indeed, the rise of the black middle class made possible by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and social gains of second generation immigrants, particularly Hispanic immigrants, who have been able to advance further socio-economically than parents who were not native English language speakers and were not assimilated into American culture, explains a great deal of all of the social mobility in the United States in the last forty years. The flip side of this optimistic fact, is that social class mobility is probably considerably lower in the United States for Anglos than the overall figures suggest.

On the other hand, some of the apparently high social class mobility seen in many European nations may be a product of immigrant assimilation patterns seen in the United States, as most of the developed countries of Europe has experienced considerable immigration in recent times. Immigration in the United States in recent years has been typical of the developed world generally.

The seeming immutability of social class boundaries among American whites is remarkable given how fiercely we deny that social class divides exist in American culture (something that our obsession with race has helped make possible), and how irrelevant the distinctions between white ethnics have become in our society.

Perhaps we truly are developing a meritocratic society and perhaps social class divisions based for a couple of generations on real merit are more stable than divisions based on proxies for merit. But, it may also be the case that the weak social welfare system in the United States makes where you start more outcome determinative than it is elsewhere.

New Tribes

Professor Rainier Spencer, who is quoted in the article notes: “The mixed-race identity is not a transcendence of race, it’s a new tribe. A new Balkanization of race.” This may be the case. Definitions of race evolve and have changed in almost every census. The Latin American experience, the French colonial era experience in North America, and the experience in places like Jamaica and South Africa during colonial eras, has been to conceptualize mixed race identities as a "new tribe" or as "new tribes."

If you run mathematical models in which some people in each ethic category have strongly endogenous attitudes and others do not, in a surprisingly small number of generations, almost everyone but those with strongly endogenous tendencies ends up as mixed race, although the smaller a group is, that more quickly this happens.

The fact that more than half of U.S. born children of immigrants still do in marry, and that anecdotal evidence suggests that preferences are similar for third and later generation individuals to those of second generation individuals, suggests that some version of this kind of model makes sense.

My sense in reading political and identity politics rhetoric has been to see a tendency to conceptualize a large "brown" category that includes Hispanics, mixed race people of all types, North Africans, South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Arabs, that has been gaining traction relative to the "People of Color" conception that includes all non-Anglos. The latter is probably easy to measure with linguistic databases like Google's new toy, but the former, because "brown" is used in so many senses, would be harder to measure.

In the same vein, I find it quite interesting that white Southerners in the United States increasingly identify as "American" in ethnicity, while whites outside the South tend to see a connection to some ancestral place of origin in Europe. This is more than a question of style. It has some authentic base in reality and history.

For example, most whites outside the American South practice a religion that has clear historical roots in Europe. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Catholics, for example, all practice religions with direct European sources and often have religious denominations that remain in communication with parent denominational authorities in West Eurasia. In contrast, the Evangelical Christians of the American South have far more cryptic ties to their European forebears. Colonial era European Baptists, for example, were closer theologically and in liturgical practice to American Quakers and Anabaptists than to the Southern Baptists whose denomination is the predominant white Baptist denomination in the United States. Evangelicals in Latin America, Africa and Asia trace their roots to the United States, not the other way around.

There are multiple narratives of people from the American South touring Europe and discovering just how non-European they are culturally, despite the fact that they look similar physically. An Evangelical Christian white Southerner is more distant culturally and in values from the European norm than a Bostonian Anglican, a Lutheran from Saint Paul, or a white Catholic in Buffalo. The 18th century Scotch-Irish society that those white Southerners who do not identify as "American" identify with barely exists any more outside United Kingdom's territory of Northern Ireland, as the herding and marginal farming economy that sustained that culture has faded away. Politically, the federal election Republicans of the American South (who are overwhelmingly white and whose politics are the overwhelmingly dominant ones of white Southerners) have few parallels in Europe apart from the far right neo-fascist parties.

The American South from the 1700s to the mid-1800s is really one of the better cases in recent history of ethnogenesis. In religion, culture, politics and dialect this cauldron created an ethnicity so distinct from its antecedents that its sources aren't easily traced to a single source anywhere. Few other places in the United States have been more of a melting pot and less of a mixing bowl.

Indeed, the fusion of this new culture and worldview has been so intense that ethnically identified non-Evangelical Christians have been increasingly pressured in reaction to abandon their more specific ethnic ties in favor of a united Pan-American mainline, liturgical Christianity. First, ethnic divisions within major denominational distinctions within Christianity by fusions of ethnically divided denominations of Reformed Christians, Lutherans and Orthodox Christianity, respectively, as these ethic divisions faded in favor of purely denominational ones going back to pre-ethnic division roots. Increasingly, institutions like the National Council of Churches and ecumenical efforts between particular mainline denominations are erasing even that level of division.

Ethnically and culturally, the descendants of Northern, Midwestern and Western white ethnics have been dissolved into an ethnicity that outsiders have described a "Yankee," as inapt as that may be to describing their real roots. How long will it be before whites outside the South start to identify their ancestry as "European" rather than Italian or German or Danish or French or English, in contradistinction to the "American" of Southerners?

Will people who have roots in both Europe and Asia start to identify themselves as "Eurasians," in ancestry, as distinct from Africans or those who self-identify as "Americans"?

I also think that it is possible that we may increasingly start to see a divide in self-identification between African-Americans from the South, and those who are from outside it.

I do think that racial categorization at a social level is basically inescapable. No matter how much the educational establishment and social elite urge us to leave in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s truly color-blind society, I seriously doubt that it will happen, at least not in my lifetime or even that of my grandchildren. But, I do think that the racial and ethnic divisions of the United States will grow increasingly balkanized replacing many categories with the stark black-white dichotomy, and that as we reach a point where there is no majority race or ethnicity in the United States, that those distinctions will become less pernicious.

28 January 2011

Now Jordan

Mass street protests against autocratic regimes have spread from Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen to Jordan, something that is notable because Jordan's monarchy is one of the most moderate in the region and is a monarchy rather than a dicatorship or one party state. Politically, Jordan vests executive power greater than that of an American President in the King, while having a parliament that still has some genuine power. The arrangement is rather comparable to that of Great Britain in 18th century, and provides more genuine democracy than many other nations in the region.

Protesters want the prime minister and department heads to be appointed by parliament rather than the king, and they want to resignation of the current government that is view as corrupt: "opposition activists from Jordan's main Islamist opposition group, trade unions and leftist organisations gathered in the capital, waving colourful banners reading: 'Send the corrupt guys to court.'"

They protesters do not appear to be calling for an end to the monarchy, simply to a diminution in his active role in the executive branch.

French v. U.S. GDP Per Capita

French GDP per capita is lower than U.S. GDP per capita almost entirely because the French has chosen to have more leisure and make less money as a result.

[H]ere are some ratios of France to the United States:

GDP per capita: 0.731
GDP per hour worked: 0.988
Employment as a share of population: 0.837
Hours per worker: 0.884

So French workers are roughly as productive as US workers. But fewer Frenchmen and women are working, and when they work, they work fewer hours.

Why are fewer Frenchmen working? . . . [D]uring prime working years they’re as likely to work as Americans. But fewer young people work (in part because of more generous college aid); and, mainly, the French retire earlier. . . it’s not a problem of weak productivity or mass unemployment.

And why do the French work shorter hours? Probably for the most part because of government policies mandating vacation time.

The bottom line is that France is a society with the same level of technology and productivity as the US, but one that has made different choices about retirement and leisure.

Per Krugman.

Egypt and Yemen on Fire

Inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, masses of protesters are filling the streets to try to unsettle the regimes of Egypt and Yemen.

Egypt has an authoritarian dominant party system in which President Hosni Mubarak has been President for thirty years and has hinted at installing his son as a successor, although Egypt has remained engaged with the world and had some semblance of a normal economy, rather than withdrawing from the world as Albania and North Korea did.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdallah Saleh, is "a strongman who has ruled this fractured country for more than 30 years . . . His current term expires in two years, but proposed constitutional changes could allow him to hold onto power for longer." Despite Saleh's authoritarian policies, however, a substantial part of Yemen is beyond the government's control.

Police responses have been violent in Egypt, but the response has not yet escalated to that level in Yemen.

It is hard to tell if we are replaying something like Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or for those with a longer run view, Europe's revolutions of 1848, or instead are seeing something like 1989 when the Soviet system fell apart.

Indeed, assuming that Tunsia's revolution is now irreversible, the fear may be that Egypt or Yemen may be to Tunsia what Tiananmen Square was to the fall of the Soviet Union, a disasterous crackdown spawned by success elsewhere.

On the other hand, if revolutionaries succeed in Egypt and Yemen as they appear to have prevailed in Tunisia, this could mark the end of an epoch of strongmen in a wide spawth of the world. Iraq, of course, already lost its long time strongman by very different means, and Sudan, while not actually shedding its twenty year old strongman's authoritarian regime is in the process of ceding much of its territory in South Sudan. Serbia hardline regime, likewise, lost Kosovo.

It isn't clear if there is any likelihood that this wave of revolutions will spread to similar regimes in Libya (whose strongman has been in place for four decades), Syrai (where dictatorship is in a second generation), Sudan, other African regimes, or to the monarchies of Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, or Oman.

Algeria's regime, with doubtful democratic credentials between years of violent insurgencies by popular Islamists against a secular military linked regime, truces to resolve the struggle, and popular uprisings has probably doesn't have the same level of pent up frustration that its neighbors share.

Turkey, Albania, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, while all having flawed, troubled, intermittent or untested democracies, have also established the precedent that political systems in which civilian officials chosen in genuinely contested elections are possible in predominantly Muslim countries. None of these nations have really achieved "mature democracy" status, but Islamist factions have as often been a force for democratization as they have been barrier to democracy in these nations. This undermines the long standing argument in foreign policy circles that Islam, or at least Islamists movements were incompatible with democratic government.

It is a time to hope for the best and fear for the worst. In the meantime, understandably, oil prices are surging, which means that these events half the world away, will have a direct effect on ordinary Americans.

Should Parents Get A Vote For Their Children?

I'm regularly observe that many of the problems of capitalism arise from it doing its job too well. Capitalism tends to reward those who produce in proportion to the value of what they produce, and denies rewards to those who do not. The trouble is that lots of people in our society don't produce enough to live a decent life, often through no fault of their own, and some other system not designed to maximize productivity needs to be in place to address this issue.

Our political system is much the same. If you look at who is suffering and who is thriving in the American political system, you see a pattern. Groups of people who vote reliably do well. Groups of people who vote rarely or not at all do poorly. Our political system does a quite decent job of translating the preferences of people who vote into policies that favor them. But, just as capitalism ruthlessly ignores the wants and needs of those who do not produce, our political system ruthlessly ignores the wants and needs of those who do not vote.

For example, the United States has one of the weakest welfare states in the developed world. Its unemployment system is a pathetically stingy. Everyone else in the developed world had universal health care decades ago, and we will be lucky to get some reasonable approximation of it by 2014 when the health care reform takes effect. We have proportionately more people who are poor, and are less generous towards the poor than other developed nations. The portion of the cost of getting a higher education paid by the student (which makes higher education unavailable to many poor students) in the United States is greater than almost any other developed country in the world. Few countries in the world have less social class mobility.

This is not a coincidence. For seniors, who vote extremely reliably, we have had universal single payer health care and a minimum income system that keeps almost everyone out of poverty for many decades. But, for young adults, who vote least reliably, and for children, who are prohibited by law from voting, our social safety net is very weak. While government fiat means that we have very few poor seniors (who, if they are poor at that point arguably are themselves to blame for their situation to a great extent), the poverty rate for children in the United States is far in excess of the poverty rate for the nation as a whole, despite the fact that almost everyone agrees that children, who after all cannot choose their parents, have done nothing to deserve their lot in life.

Pedatricians are among the worst paid physicians in our medical system, and pedatric physician specialties face chronic shortfalls. Foster care conditions (and the conditions in the orphanages that were common place before foster care almost completely replaced it) are routinely dismal, with victimization rate of those within them rivaling those of prisons (which are populated by another class of people who cannot vote).

It is probably not coincidental that the low participation rate in American elections, one of the lowest in the world of any democracy, whether or not it is in a developed country, with non-participation disproportionately found among the less well off and less well educated and the young, has elected officials who have produced one of the world's weakest social safety nets.

For this reason, I have long been inclined to think that systemic efforts to improve voter turnout are the key to progressive change in American public policy. There is no reason that the United States shouldn't be able to secure the kind of voter turnout among eligible voters that is found in Australia or France.

But, even improved turnout among eligible voters would not solve the problem that American public policy systemically neglects children, although it might improve it somewhat because parents with minor children are disproportionately non-voters.

Now, of course, while one could low the voting age, there are certainly limits to the extent to which that can work. Two year olds simply aren't equipped to evaluate political candidates.

But, there is an easy alternative. Parents while children who can't vote could be given the right to vote on their behalf. There a few ways that this could be handled, mostly relating to which parent should have that right. But, they are hardly insurmountable. For example, each parent could get an additional half a vote per child not eligible to vote.

This would be the last frontier in truly universal sufferage, and many lower income parents might find it worth their while to vote simply because they got a greater say, solving the turnout problem in part as well.

Would it work? I'm not aware of any place that has tried. But, there is certainly a strong argument to be made that notwithstanding the flaws of the political campaign process, lobbying, and so forth, that almost all democracies do a reasonably good rough justice job of representing the people who vote, and that improving voter turnout and expanding the franchise to appropriately give weigh to the interests of children would shift the public policies that those democracies produce accordingly.

Friday Fragments

A few scattered half ideas for a beautiful Friday morning:

* It is highly annoying that perfectly good cell phones can't be switched from one mobile carrier to another, even though both carriers offer the essentially the same phone made by the same manufacturer to customers. Cell phone portability would be a great cause for the Fair Trade Commission, which is charged with regulating anti-competitive conduct by businesses, or the FCC, which regulates telecommunications.

* It would also be interesting to have consumer finance regulations that required cell phone, cable TV and satellite TV contracts that include phones or equipment to break out the service provision, telephone purchase, and finance charge components separately, to require that the finance charge component comply with generally applicable consumer finance laws, and for the FCC or FTC to then limit cancellation fees to the unpaid principal balance for the telephone purchase plus some statutorily limited amount for cancellation of the service contract. Landline phone companies and casualty insurance companies somehow manage in a regime where cancellation charges aren't permitted at all - surely phone companies could do something similar - indeed, loyalty discounts for long term customers at cell phone providers that don't have long term contracts and casualty insurance companies achieve a similar objective.

* Some area convenience stores have petitions in favor of allowing them to sell beer stronger than 3.2 beer. I'm all for it.

* Walker Stapleton's moonlighting job pays more than his job as state treasurer, although it doesn't appear to pose nearly as much of a conflict of interest. I'd personally favor a bill to prohibit all compensated moonlighting for "full time" state and local elected officials in the state accompanied by a substantial increase in pay for those officials. We shouldn't have to worry about any public officials being influenced by an outside source of income.

* I'd also favor a bill to make the Colorado General Assembly officially full time, to have it in session all year rather than 120 days, and provide each state legislator with 3 FTE of staff, while prohibiting all compensated moonlighting for them. Term limits play a much larger role in keeping the Colorado General Assembly a "citizen legislature" than its "part-time" status, and practically speaking, it is a full time job during the legislative session and at least a half time job outside the legislative session anyway due to interim committees, constituent service, and time spent crafting bills for the next session. The compressed session seriously compromises the ability of the general public to monitor what the state legislature is doing, to comment on bills, and to participate in legislative hearings. The lack of legislative staff is one of the main factors that gives lobbyists more power. The low pay for the legislature makes almost every state legislator beholden to a private employer or private clients for their livelihood while addressing the state's business and makes legislators more succeptible to influence from petty niceties from lobbyists that aren't prohibited by the state's gift ban.

* House Republicans want to end the Presidential public campaign financing law that costs about $600 million a year and is authorized by tax return checkoffs that are down about 75% from their peak. I have to agree. While I think that public financing is a much better way to deal with corruption in campaign finance than the existing regulatory regime, this particular version of campaign finance is delivering very little value and isn't so essential that it can't be cut. The decline in tax return checkoffs also show that it is has lost public support.

* RTD is considering asking for a 0.2 percent sales tax hike to help pay for overbudget FasTracks, a move that would bridge the gap but still require delays in finishing the project. Area majors have pushed for a 0.3 to 0.4 percent sales tax hike instead to get the project done sooner. Some of the hike would be compensated for by the expiration of an existing sales tax hike for other purposes (the stadium, I think). I believe that RTD has the better argument, as I don't think that voters have the stomach for a larger tax increase. Area mayors would be better off using their local government budgets to speed up construction in their areas than increasing sales taxes even more.

* It would be interesting to look at which countries have the best land use results and then to see what kind of land use regulation approaches they use.

A new democracy barometer from the University of Zurich and the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) shows the development of the thirty best democracies in the world. Denmark, Finland and Belgium have the highest quality of democracy, whereas Great Britain, France, Poland, South Africa and Costa Rica the lowest.

Hello! What are these people smoking? Belgium is on the verge of disintegrating into two nations because its regions are utterly incapable of finding common cause. Deep distrust and lack of communications between the regions has reached the point where fake news stories about the other regions are taken seriously. It went months without a government because Walloons and Flemish parties couldn't agree on a governing coalition. Belgium is a basket case of democracy that is at the top of the list of countries where democracy is not working well

Right behind Belgium on the list, in fourth place, was Iceland whose national government just went bankrupt. Again, what were they thinking?

At the middle of the list, are Ireland at #15 and Spain at #17. Both have wildly unpopular regimes that are eliciting mass street protests and are fiscal basket cases that are en route to imposing unpopular austerity programs and are effectively as beholden to the bond markets as they are to their own people.

Great Britain, in contrast, ranked near the bottom of the list at #26, while it has its problems, seems to be getting along tolerably well and does not deserve such a low rating. It just successfully found a solution to a situation where no one party could command a majority in parliament with a palatable compromise. It is in the process of proposing electoral reforms to be more fair to third parties. It is tightening its fiscal belt in a manner far more sensible than either the austerity plans proposed by nations like Greece and Ireland that have been shoved down their throats by bondholders, or the ideologically driven cuts proposed by Tea Party Republicans in the United States. It has had its share of public discontent (particularly over increases in higher education charges) but has far less public discontent than many of the other countries on the list.

In short, the democracy index is profoundly and fundamentally flawed. Whatever it is measuring, it certainly isn't a sensible measure of democracy.

The press release from the source in German also provides link to a more detailed report. This explains that the index has three components: Freedom (individual liberty, rule of law, public sphere), Control (Competition, Mutual Constraints, Govern. Capability), and Equality (Transparency, Participation, Representation).

The basic problem is that it lets arbitrarily weighted components of democratic virtues overweigh things that are obvioius in the big picture, and focuses too much on process and too little on results.

27 January 2011

Colorado's Top High School Aged Scientist

Tanya Nicole Petach

Colorado had one semi-finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search for 2010 (whose finalists were announced yesterday).

Sixteen year old Tanya Nicole Petach who is junior at Fairview High School, a public high school in the Boulder Valley School District known for its International Baccalaureate® program, completed a project titled: "Colorado River Salinity: Correlation to Geostrata and Mitigation with Carbon Fiber Capacitors." What did this involve?

Fairview High School student Tanya Petach‟s experiment centered on measuring salinity in the Colorado River at various points in a series of raft trips through the Grand Canyon. She then extended the analysis to include an estimate for the most efficient way to remove excess salts, computing the cubic volume of various filters necessary to mitigate the run-off. What was most surprising about the results? She commented, “I had expected that human contributions to the run-off from the South Rim to be the largest source of excess salinity. In fact, the geologic strata had the largest impact in each tributary.”

Tanya is the most outstanding high school scientist in the entire state of Colorado this year, and was one of just 11 sixteen year olds out of 300 semi-finalists (the remainder being 17 or 18 years old), in the entire nation, so she has another shot at a semifinalist or finalist finish in this year's competition, if she chooses to participate, as she did in her freshman, sophmore and junior years, and as her sister did before her for at least two years. NASA, which has a partnership with Fairview, did a profile of our hometown hero last fall, and the Daily Camera profiled her last winter.

As a semi-finalist, she will receive a $1,000 award for her outstanding research, and Fairview High School will receive an award of $1,000 to further excellence in science, math and engineering education at Fairview, each from Intel, although for both her and for Fairview, the reputational benefits of winning far outweigh the money. She also won a first prize worth $1,500 from the Association of Women Geoscientists, a third place award from the American Geological Institute (worth $250) for her project, a $1,500 award for the second best project in the Earth and Planetary Sciences category which brough in an additional $1,000 for Fairview as well.

In her sophmore year, at age fifteen, Tanya won an $8,000 tuition scholarship from the Office of Naval Research in the Department of the Navy for her project: "Mitigation of Soil Liquefaction with Magnetic Fields." and a Shell Oil Planetary and Earth Sciences Fourth Place Award garnered another $500 prize for the project. She was interviewed about the project here.

As a freshman at Fairview, Tanya and her older sister, Anika Rose Petach (two years older than Tanya), did a team project entitled "Pine Beetle Outbreaks: Spatial Analysis and Pheromone Population Control" which shared a fourth place prize for team projects (worth $500). The project was a Grand Award Winner in the 2008 Colorado State Science Fair.

These kind of successes are a "when it rains, it pours" situation, and no doubt there are other awards in connection with these projects that I have omitted.

Past Semi-Finalists From Colorado

In 2010, Colorado had two semi-finalists in the competition, both from Colorado Springs, Caleb Lloyd Kruse (17) who was home schooled and had a project entitled "Addressing Coral Tissue Regeneration, Bleaching, and Calcification Using Ascorbic Acid Supplementation" and Aarthi Shankar (17) of Rampart High School whose project was "Proteomic Characterization of Extracellular Matrix (ECM) to Identify Tumor Associated Biomolecules."

In 2009, Colorado also had two semi-finalists in the competition. One was Tanya's older sister, Anika Rose Petach, and the other semi-finalist was David Junzi (17) of Cherry Creek High School whose project was entitled "Charcoal and Methanol Synthesis by the Destructive Distillation of Cellulosic Waste—Chemical Processing and Environmental Implications."

A Talented Family

The Petach family has no shortage of talent. Tanya's older sister, Anika Rose Petach at age 17 in 2009, was a semi-finalist in the competition, with a project titled "Pine Beetle Outbreaks: Remote Sensing Analysis and Symbiotic Fungus Control," one of two from Colorado. Anika went on the Harvard University. She was profiled by the Daily Camera in 2009.

Their mom, Helen Petach, who earned her PhD at Cornell in chemistry, has co-authored several scholarly articles in the biotechnology field, is the founder of Abelian Energy, Inc., a Boulder Fuel Cell company, is the principal of single employee computer company Petach Technologies, Inc. and teaches physics at Fairview High School.

Their father, Marty Petach, has a Master's degree from Cornell in Soil Physics and is a GIS analyst.

Tanya and Anika's older brother, Trevor Petach, is also no slouch. He earned his bachelor's degree in Physics, Earth and Planetary Science last spring from Harvard University, and is spending a gap year teaching mathematics at Fairview High School this year. His successes were summarized when he won a $16,500 Micron Technology scholarhip:

Trevor Petach is an outstanding student with a perfect SAT Math score of 800. Petach has been involved in the Colorado State University Math Day Competitions, and as captain lead his team to a state championship while personally placing in the top 10 in the state of Colorado. He also participated in Math Club/Math League, Science Bowl, math and science tutoring, and is an International Baccalaureate student. Outside of school, Petach is an avid outdoorsman and athlete participating in cross country, Nordic racing, Boys Scouts (Eagle Scout), and the Colorado Mountain Club.

All three of the Petach siblings are notable athletes in cross country and Nordic skiing, as well as being talented scientists. And, it certainly wouldn't be surprising if Tanya followed the path of her two older siblings to Cambridge. Surely, her parents would quite proud, although two Harvard educations with another expensive college tuition bill around the corner can't be cheap.

Intel Science Talent Search Picks Finalists

The Intel Science Talent Search is the science fair on steroids. The 40 finalists are routinely doing work of graduate student caliber. The high school kids that reach that point, regardless of the final prize award, can go to any college they want, have a feather in their cap that will look good even in graduate school applications in the sciences, and are basically designated geniuses.

The 40 students selected were winnowed from 300 semifinalists, who were chosen from a pool of 1,744 entrants. . . . Physicist and Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow was a finalist in 1950; in 1980 Harvard University string theorist Lisa Randall was selected. Actress Natalie Portman was a semi-finalist in 1999.

Scientists and a science fiction actress. Pretty similar jobs, I guess.

What prestigious awards have they won?

7 Finalists have won the Nobel Prize.

2 have earned the Fields Medal.

4 have been awarded National Medals of Science.

2 have been awarded National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

11 have won MacArthur Foundation Fellowships.

2 have been awarded Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

5 have been elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

30 have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

56 have been named Sloan Research Fellows.

This year's finalists hail from 15 states (Colorado was not among them, alas). Who were they?

2011 Intel STS Finalists (listed by state, name, hometown and high school)

ARIZONA Scott Boisvert, Chandler, Basha High School

CALIFORNIA Amol Aggarwal, Saratoga, Saratoga High School; Xiaoyu Cao, San Diego, Torrey Pines High School; Bonnie Lei, Walnut, Walnut High School; Jonathan Li, Laguna Niguel, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School; Selena Li, Fair Oaks, Mira Loma High School; Andrew Liu, Palo Alto, Henry M. Gunn Senior High School; Rohan Mahajan, Cupertino, The Harker School; Evan O’Dorney, Danville,Venture School; Nikhil Parthasarathy, Mountain View, The Harker School; David Tang-Quan, Rancho Palos Verdes, Palos Verdes Peninsula High School; Chelsea Voss, Santa Clara, Cupertino High School

CONNECTICUT Jenny Liu, Orange, Amity Regional High School; Shubhro Saha, Avon, Choate Rosemary Hall

FLORIDA Eta Atolia, Tallahassee, Rickards High School; Elaine Zhou, Winter Park, Lake Highland Preparatory School

ILLINOIS Krystle Leung, Naperville, Naperville Central High School

MASSACHUSETTS Sung Won Cho, Lexington, Groton School

MICHIGAN Shubhangi Arora, Novi, Novi High School

MINNESOTA Prithwis Mukhopadhyay, Woodbury, Woodbury High School

NORTH CAROLINA Si-Yi Lee, Charlotte, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics; Matthew Miller, Elon, Western Alamance High School

NEBRASKA Emily Chen, Omaha, Brownell-Talbot School

NEW JERSEY Alison Bick, Short Hills, Millburn High School; Joshua Bocarsly, Plainsboro, The Lawrenceville School; Wenyu Cao, Belle Mead, Phillips Academy

NEW YORK Jonathan Aaron Goldman, Plainview, Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School; Jan Gong, Garden City, Garden City High School; Michelle Hackman, Great Neck, John L. Miller Great Neck North High School; Bryan He, Williamsville, Williamsville East High School; Matthew Lam, Old Westbury, Jericho High School; Grace Phillips, Larchmont, Mamaroneck High School; Alydaar Rangwala, Loudonville, The Albany Academies

OREGON Laurie Rumker, Portland, Oregon Episcopal School; Yushi Wang, Portland, Sunset High School

PENNSYLVANIA Benjamin Clark, Lancaster, Penn Manor High School; Keenan Monks, Hazleton, Hazleton Area High School

TEXAS Madeleine Ball, Dallas, Ursuline Academy of Dallas; Rounok Joardar, Plano, Plano West Senior High School; Sunil Pai, Houston, The Kinkaid School

The list is also a measure of the immense benefits our nation receives in the long run from encouraging immigration, and of the impressive extent to which private eductation continues to capture much of the nation's top talent.

26 January 2011


No, this post is not about natural philosophy. It is about a few meta observations about the field of physics as opposed to its substantive discoveries about the world.

The physics blog R├ęsonaances concludes that based on the author's downward trend in posting that:

As you can read from the plot of my posting activity versus time, the end is expected in late 2012. The end of the blog, or the of the world, don't know which.

Another post at the same blog concludes that the shutdown of Tevatron (the main particle accelerator in the United States, which may be close to discovering a Higgs boson also being pursued by Europe's Large Hadron Collider) is a natural consequence of Pauli's other exclusion principle:

Fermions are discovered in the US, whereas bosons are discovered in Europe. . . . This law has been tested in multiple instances, and has been established beyond all doubt.

This result is particularly unfortunate for Asian physicists, but perhaps they can still get dibs on discovering extra-dimensions, or tachyons, or properties of the vacuum, and it isn't entirely clear how the rule would apply to superpartners if SUSY and String theory pan out. ;)

Also, congratulations are in order for Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong physics blog, which just made post 1000 (+0/-1).

SOTU Praises DPS

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school's transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said "Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing that we are smart and we can make it."

- President Obama in yesterday's State of the Union Address

25 January 2011

Population Density And Political Identity

The median Republican Congressional district now has a population density 11 times smaller than the median Democratic district[.]

From here.

Chart from here, which goes on to explain:

As shown in the chart above (in Log scale), there was a relatively strong positive correlation between density of congressional districts and the vote share of the Democratic candidate in the 2010 elections. Of densest quartile of districts with a race between a Democrat and a Republican — 105 of them, with a density of 1,935 people per square miles or more — the Democratic candidate won 89. Of the quartile of districts with the lowest densities — 98 people per square mile and below — Democratic candidates only won 23 races.

This is a pretty intense urban-rural divide. Shifts like those in Colorado which transferred rural Congressional Districts 3 and 4 from Blue Dog Democrats to Republicans no doubt made it more intense.

If you wanted to be more fine grained in your analysis, I also have no doubt that intraparty liberal-conservative divides would also show a meaningful connection to population density: moderate Republicans probably tend to be from more urban districts, while conservative Democrats probably tend to be from more rural districts.

I also suspect that further analysis would show that if you were took take more fine grained data, for example, census tracts, that average population density in a district would match the partisan split even more strongly. In other words, it is possible to have a large Congressional district in which most of the voters live in a densely populated central city or two, and a minority of voters live in outlying areas around the cities that house most of the people in the district. My expectation is that geographically large Congressional Districts in which most voters are crammed into central cities but there are large, barely populated outlying areas are more liberal than geographically large Congressional Districts with a steady low level of population densities (e.g. districts that have only small towns, rural areas and exurbs).

There is a credible argument that population density is indeed one of the prime drivers of partisan identity - that living in an urban area causes Democratic policies to make more sense, while living in a rural area causes Republican policies to make more sense.

One way to test that would be to look at changes in political ideology upon moving from an area that has high population density to one that has low population density and visa versa. If an individual's politics get more conservative when he or she moves to the country, and more liberal when he or she moves to the city, then the case for population density causing political identity would be supported (although one could also argue for neighborhood effects that are independent of population density in that scenario).

It is possible to argue for causes other than population density for this divide. For example, one could argue that it is farming, rather than population density that drives it. But, this would fail to explain why exurbanites are more conservative than outer ring suburbanites who in turn are more conservative than inner ring suburbanites who are in turn more conservative than central city residents, none of whom are involved in the farm economy. A population density explanation can also explain why cities like Columbus, Ohio, which have a large land area for their population, are more conservative politically than more densely populated cities like Denver.

One important caveat is that I am not at all sure that this relationship holds in all U.S. regions. In the South, partisan divides based on race and religion may swamp most population density effects, while in the North, I suspect that racial and religious divides merely reinforce the population density effects. There are many rural blacks in the South and few in the North.

Hungry Kids Not Fair Game, Who Knew?

Hungry Colorado Kids Make Poor Political Targets

Republican State Representatives Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, two of the three Republicans in the Colorado General Assembly's Joint Budget Committee, have thought better of their decision to follow the mean spirited lead of Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who really does think that hungry poor kids should be denied free school breakfasts.

Apparently, Gerou and Becker lacked the common sense on their own to know that picking on hungry little children who benefit from the free breakfast program should not suffer because an anonymous state bureaucrat made an accounting error that left the program overbudget. But, they did have the political sense to realize that almost everyone else in the State of Colorado, even in conservative strongholds like Grand Junction, Colorado did realize this point and retreated from their hardline stance.

The Gessler Drama

Newly sworn in Secretary of State Scott Gessler, meanwhile, who outrageously announced last week that he is can't survive on the pay of the office he campaigned to win and secured, and wants to work part-time at his old election law firm, despite the obvious conflicts of interest and appearance of impropriety this creates, hasn't backed down, despite strong editorials from both the Denver Post's right wing editorial board and its token liberal commentator today, explaining just how off base he is for trying to do so. The fact that he can't see why this is a problem is itself troubling.

Equally amusing is his fall back position. He has know made clear that he will look to the Attorney General's office for ethical guidance on the issue. And, who in the Attorney General's office has been appointed to handle that task? Bernie Buescher, the Democrat whom he defeated for the Secretary of State post this past November. It has been a long time since Bernie Buescher actively practiced law, but his four years of experience as Colorado's Secretary of State, many years representing a conservative Grand Junction district as a Democrat in the State House, and abundant common sense, make him well qualified for the task.

Equally disturbing, Gessler claims to have raise the part-time job issue during the campaign, even though no one anywhere can be produced to say that he actually did. Making shit up is a standard part of the Republcan play book, but this blantant instance of it by Gessler is particularly galling, because everyone who is listening knows that it isn't true.

The Denver Post, to give it credit, endorsed Buescher, who was clearly the better man, and to anyone familiar with the two candidates, the choice was clear. But, of course, most people know little about candidates for the Secretary of State's post, which only involves real power when close call election issues come up, and voted based on party labels rather than individual qualifications in a year when Red rather than Blue was the hot political color.

What Next?

It took less than two weeks for the new Republican majority in the state house, and the new Republican Secretary of State to thoroughly embarass themselves by taking stances that even died in wool conservatives can't stomach. Walker Stapleton, our new Republican State Treasurer, hasn't made a miscue yet, but still has plenty of time to allow voters to regret their choices last November.

24 January 2011

Republicans and Math Still Don't Mix

Republican Senator Pat Toomey writes in the Wall Street Journal defending the irresponsible stance of Republicans to oppose an increase in the national debt limit: "With roughly 10 times more income than needed to honor our debt obligations, why would we ever default?”


Total National Debt: $14.0 trillion
Annual Principal Payment: $2.5 trillion
Annual Interest Payment: $360 billion
Ten Times Annual Interest Payment: $3.6 trillion
Annual Federal Tax Revenues: $2.5 trillion

The annual cost of running the government is about $3.75 trillion.

As Maule explains, if the debt ceiling isn't increased, people stop loaning the United States money:

The entirety of all federal receipts would be required to pay off the investors holding the obligations that have come due. I’m not sure where the government would find $360 billion to pay interest.

Not only would nothing be put into the social security and Medicare trust funds, those funds would not be able to make any payments, because their “assets” are tied up in Treasury debt which would not be convertible into cash because the Treasury would not have the resources to redeem that debt. There would be no money to finance the military, to staff and operate Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA, the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration. Taxes would be paid, but all federal government services would stop. Perhaps the Federal Reserve could churn out dollar bills, but the resulting inflation would dwarf that of the late 1970s and inject hyperinflation into the economy.

Realistically, someone would let us refinance our maturing national debt, but at a higher interest rate that would greatly increase the cost of the national debt. Even if investors think that there is only a one in twenty-five chance of default in the next year, this would cost American taxpayers $520 billion a year, plus $140 billion a year per percentage point of anticipated inflation, all of which would have to come out of spending since we couldn't borrow any more money.

Self-Control Accounts For Much Of "W"

There is no real doubt that it is possible to measure a quantity, commonly called "IQ" whose platonic ideal in the psychological literature is called "g" that is closely linked to academic success and more generally linked to success in a whole host of other things in life.

But, it has also become increasingly clear, as I have previously noted, that people vary in persistent, systemic ways that arise early in life and that are uncorrelated with "g" which Steve Hsu likes to call "W."

In his oversimplified equation: "Grades = ability + work ethic = IQ + W"

Work ethic, however, is really a place filler for one or more unknown traits that influence performance after controlling for IQ in academics and a variety of other pursuits. One such W factor was found in dopamine gene variants. A study looking at lawyer practice performance after controlling for grades and LSAT scores has homed in on what seem to me to be several factors, with organization and self-discipline making up one large component, and effectiveness in interpersonal communication and practical judgment, which seem congruent to the idea of emotional intelligence, as another.

Some studies of childhood self-control v. impulsivity seem to buttress the dopamine gene and organization/self-discipline component of W findings.

Children with lower scores (poorer self-control) had poorer health at the age of 32. Their lungs didn’t perform as well. They were more likely to have gum disease, be overweight, or depend on drugs like tobacco, alcohol or cannabis. Among those with the highest levels of self-control, 11% had multiple health problems, compared to 27% of those with the lowest levels.

Those with poorer self-control were also more likely to run into financial or social problems. As teenagers, they were more likely to start smoking, leave school with no qualifications, or have unplanned pregnancies. As adults, they had more credit problems and troubles with money, and fewer tangible assets like a home, savings or a pension. They were more likely to have been convicted of a crime, and their own children were more likely to be raised in a single-parent household. And in fact, their childhood self-control was a better predictor of these financial worries than either their IQs or social backgrounds. . . . the more self-control people had as children, the better their futures, even for those at the high end of the scale. They also found that children who developed better self-control as they grew up fared better than those who stayed at the same level.

The differences observed in this study were pronounced by age three! But "7 percent of youngsters in the long-term study developed notably better self-control as they got older. Members of this group displayed better health, made more money and had fewer criminal run-ins as adults than would have been predicted by their self-control levels as young children."

The study largely replicates with a different testing methodolgy, the famous marshmallow test of Walter Mischel at Stanford University that demonstrated that a young child's ability to postpone eating a marshmallow in exchange for a reward later predicted a wide variety of lifetime success measures later in life.

W because it is less well defined and may have multiple components, is less well studied than IQ. But, it seems to be something "real" that can influence crime, poverty, health, social class and success in life at all levels. So, it deserves at least as much attention as IQ. For example, we know far less about how strongly W is hereditary than we do about how much IQ is hereditary.

My own sense is that there are probably multiple, independent components to "W" and that an impulsivity/self-control dimension is probably one of the most important components of it. Another big component may be "emotional intelligence" or "empathy" or "interpersonal skills" or something along that line. There are probably one or two other significant components as well - perhaps creativity, perhaps some other traits.

The impulsivity/self-control component of "W" seems to have some similarity to traits in the Five Factor Personality Model, particularly conscientiousness as:

A considerable amount of research indicates that conscientiousness is one of the best predictors of performance in the workplace, and indeed that after general mental ability is taken into account, the other four of the Big Five personality traits do not aid in predicting career success.

- per this study.

My sense is that the impulsivity/self-control dimension has a fairly strong hereditary element which may be possible to link to a fairly modest number of gene variations, although there is probably a significant gene x environment component to this as well. Efforts to teach self-control have shown measurable success. I have less intuition regarding the extent to which other components of "W" are hereditary or learned, although a guess of 50% hereditary, in line with the heritability of a great many psychological and personality traits, might be a good starting point for a guess on those.

There is, of course, a considerable literature, on ADHD (which has both a hyperactive-impulsive and an inattention component separately measured and used to determine subtypes of the condition), impulsivity (possibly with three or more distinct subcomponents), a variety of "impulse control disorders," the personality trait of novelty seeking, and a cluster of similar traits in the mental health and psychology literature. There is no doubt overlap between these concepts and the Big Five personality trait conscientiousness.

Senate Considers Shrinking Plum Book

The Plum Book is the compliation of politically appointed posts in the United States Government, all of which, in the executive branch, require a nomination by the President or someone appointed by the President. It is a long publication. Indeed, an entirely too long publication.

The U.S. Senate is now considering the long term, bipartisan effort to thin that list.

Senior senators are negotiating to reduce the 1,400 presidential appointments subject to time-consuming Senate confirmation, hoping to streamline a system that has frustrated administrations of both parties. . . . 100 posts or more could be dropped from the list if discussions between Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), result in an agreement that gains the support of the rank and file in both parties. Judicial appointments would not be affected, nor would the most senior positions at Cabinet departments or independent agencies. . . . The talks between Schumer and Alexander were set in motion by agreement between Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). . . . the number of core policy positions has risen from 295 in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan took office to 422 when President Obama arrived at the White House.

After selection by the president, each appointee for a post requiring confirmation generally submits paperwork to a Senate committee that will handle the review and then makes a series of courtesy calls on individual lawmakers, who sometimes use the opportunity to extract promises in exchange for speedy approval.

Nominees generally testify and answer question at a public hearing, the committee acts and then, in a final step, the entire Senate votes. The process can move speedily - or take months, even if there is no apparent opposition. The sheer volume can slow the pace.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has jurisdiction over 303 posts, including 185 ambassadors. The Senate Judiciary Committee oversees 252, including 92 U.S. attorneys and 92 U.S. marshals. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has control over 101, and the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee over 83.

The biggest problem is that getting the U.S. Senate to do anything can take a long time, and getting it to handle 1,400 appointments can take a very long time, even if many are not controversial. The level of positions the negotiations would remove are deputy assistant undersecretaries and the like, not high level posts, and all of the positions removed would report to someone more senior. The filibuster's growing use and secret holds have effectively given a heckler's veto to every Senator concerning every such nomination.

Greeley-Evans School Board Member A Menace

We knew Brett Reese was a bad example when the Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education member (elected in November 2009 with a fourth place finish out of five candidates with 9,648 votes to a four year term) used his low power radio station to run an anti-Martin Luther King, Jr. letter with heavy conspiracy theory overtones.

His decision to bring a concealed weapon to school board meetings heightened our concern and was circumvented by the rest of the board by scheduling school board meetings in school and having a policeman on hand to address his fears for his personal safety.

But, he crossed a line when he told a fellow radio station owner that he would get in a "shoot out" with him in a voice mail (a recording of which is available at the link) which was interpreted as a threat, and a Judge agreed with a the fellow radio station owner that this interpretation of Reese's statement was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances (including Reese's recent oddball behavior and the assassination attempt on a Democratic Congresswoman in Tuscon), despite Reese's claim that the statement wasn't intended as a threat.

As a result the temporary restraining order obtained against Reese was made permanent by the judge in his case. He has been ordered to forever "stay at least 100 yards away from his business competitor KFKA 1310 AM radio general manager Justin Sasso's home, business and body, and permanently revokes a concealed weapon permit that Reese has had for more than two years.

Restraining orders are civil, rather than criminal (although a failure to comply with one is both a civil and criminal wrong), so the burden of proof to have one imposed is lower than in a criminal case and there is no right to a jury trial on one (as injunctions fall within the "equitable" part of a court's jurisdiction). While it is called a "permanent restraining order," it can be modified or lifted with court permission in a motion brought as often as once every four years. "Threatened bodily harm" is a ground for issuance of a civil protection order (the proper legal name for one in Colorado). A temporary order must allege an "imminent danger" arising from the threat, but a permanent one issued after an evidentiary adversary hearing on the matter need not show that the danger is imminent. Instead, it is merely necessary to show that "the defendant has committed acts constituting grounds for issuance of a civil protection order and that unless restrained will continue to commit such acts."

The judge found that Reese did make a threat and that he would continue to make threats if not restrained.

One could legitimately argue as a lawyer to interpret Reese's statements as a threat, or a mere metaphor, but I can't say that the judge was clearly wrong in finding that this was a threat. Reese's multiple recent controversies show him to be a volatile individual with bad judgment, and nobody forced him to call up his competition and say what he did at a time when his willingness to use a gun was all over the papers.

If there is an appeal of the ruling, the question before the appellate court will not be whether or not they agree with the decision made by a trial court judge considering the question "de novo," but whether his interpretation of the facts and law was so off base that it must be reversed on appeal (there are several standards of review that apply in this kind of situation with similar meanings, such a determination that there was an "abuse of discretion," a determination that "no reasonable finder of fact," could reach the same conclusion, or a holding that a finding of fact was "clearly erroneous", and I am not going to exhaustively research which one is correct for this post). Since the decision was made by a county court judge, the first appeal from the decision would be to a single district court judge in Weld County, and the next appeal would be to the Colorado Supreme Court.

None of this, of course, forces Brett Reece to resign from his office as a school board member, although the example he is setting for the students in the district is growing increasingly bad. He can be removed upon resignation, loss of residency, conviction of a felony, a court finding that he is "insane or otherwise mentally incompetent" to "such a degree that the person is incapable of serving as a school director," death, or unexcused failure to attend three or more consecutive school board meetings. But, all of this makes ample fodder for a recall effort, should strongly encourage Reece to resign his post, and certainly hurts his shot at getting re-elected. A recall petition requires signatures of 40% of the voters who voted in the last school board election, which is a little hard to determine directly from the outcome of the election, since voters were allowed to vote for up to four candidates, but some, no doubt, did not vote for a full slate of four candidates, but would require approximately 4,900 signatures in the sixty days after the approval of the petition form.

He claims to have received death threats and to have lost advertisers at his radio station as a result of the controversy.

If there is a recall, at least the clerk and recorder will know what to do, having just conducted a school board recall election this past December.

Fortunately, since school boards have multiple members, all of whom seem to be united against him on the issues he has identified as key to him, in part because he is apparently a difficult when it comes to carrying out his board duties in addition to being known for close to the line rhetoric (“That's how you make a successful business. You don't reinvent the wheel. You go steal it.”), and in part because he is world's apart in policy attitudes from the other board members (he strongly opposed the most recently property tax increase for the district and home schools his own three children); so he probably isn't capable of doing much harm even if he serves out his full term of office.

He far right conservatism, by the way, isn't limited to guns and Martin Luther King, Jr. Consider this question he poses at a GLBT forum:

How is it that sexual deviance, such as homosexuality and bisexuality, are different and OK when incest among consenting adults, polygamy and group marriage is considered in our society not OK and a means of sexual deviancy?

Suffice it to say that his comments on this issue, and on MLK, Jr. would not be helpful to the district if it faced an employment discrimination lawsuit.

Graffiti Wash Park Style

Every neighborhood has some graffiti. My own Washington Park is no exception. My city councilman, many of his colleagues, and many neighborhood associations in Denver have made it a priority to control it.

But, while in many neighborhoods, graffiti involves simple tagging, or perhaps marking of gang territory the concerns of our graffiti artists are decidedly more middle class. Hence, on my way to work this morning along Alameda Boulevard, our local midnight spray paint artist has proclaimed:


He didn't even deign to give his demand an explanation point! We're mild mannered as well.

Are We There Yet?

NPR noted today that the administration is about to start up military commission trials in Guantanamo Bay again.

Congress has essentially barred the administration from conducting civilian criminal trials in the United States and has made it harder for the administration to transfer detainees to third countries. Conservatives now scream bloody murder every time a terrorism suspect is read Miranda rights, because they so strongly favor a military justice approach.

Even those experts who think that military commissions are just as fair to defendants on the merits as civilian criminal trials admit that politically they damage the U.S. reputation for fairness. There are also a host of unresolved legal issues surrounding a process that has been designed and redesigned after the detainees were put in custody.

But, the evidence that the civilian criminal justice system in the United States has an inappropriately low conviction rate (i.e. that it is acquitting guilty people with any frequency), or that the criminal sentences metted out in state and federal courts is too mild, is pretty much non-existent.

The argument that military commissions are faster is also counterfactual. The simple truth is that if everyone in Guantanamo Bay had been treated as a criminal defendant and promptly processed by the criminal justice system, every one of them would have been tried long ago, almost all of them, if not all, would have been convicted, the appeals would have run their course by now, deportation for those low level figures who completed their sentences would have been routine, and the high level figures would have been serving long sentences that while not indefinite, would still be very long. Meanwhile, the U.S. reputation for fairness would have been in tact.

Whatever benefits the U.S. sought to gain from a military as opposed to a civilian criminal justice approach in the Guantanamo detainee process has not materialized. But, the downsides to the military approach have become clear.

21 January 2011

Too Funny

The You Tube parody Provo, Utah Girls is a riot. Via a Salon.com story on why twenty-something atheist feminists read Mormon home maker blogs.

AOL Subscribers Are Idiots

In 2002, AOL had 35 million subscribers. Now, it has 4 million subscribers who generate $244 million in revenues.

80% of the company's profits STILL come from AOL's subscription business.

What's troubling about AOL's subscription business is who the subscribers are and why they may be sticking around . . . "older people who have cable or DSL service but don't realize that they need not pay an additional $25 a month to get online and check their email."

A former AOL exec explains that this is AOL's "dirty little secret" – "that 75% of the people who subscribe to AOL's dial-up service don't need it."

A Cocaine Vaccine?

Suppose you could get some shots that dramatically reduce the potency of cocaine in your system through an immune system response to it? It is the sort of thing that might make it much easier for a cocaine addict to quit.

In mouse models, such a "cocaine vaccine" seems to be effective. Vaccinated mice have a far less pronounced response to comparable doses of cocaine than unvaccinated mice.

Methadone is a drug sometimes used to ween addicts off their drug addictions, but the need for fairly precise timing and dosing of a methadone therapy have been one of the important factors in a dramatic increase in accidental drug overdose deaths over the last decade or two. A vaccine treatment doesn't pose those kinds of risks.

Also, once someone received a cocaine vaccination, it would be unnecessary to monitor this part of the drug treatment program in an intensive way.

Research into similar treatments for heroin addicts and meth addicts is also underway.

Of course, there are all sorts of questions about how a mouse model translates into a human therapy. For example, the same vaccine that mutes cocaine response might actually be broader and also mute responses to medicinally useful painkillers or stimulants. Or, it might not be long lasting enough, or potent enough to deal with a heavy addiction. In the mouse model, the treatment effectively reduced drug doses by 60%. But, a human might simply increase the dose proportionately and continue the addiction.

Also, the mice were vaccinated before any exposure to cocaine, but this kind of treatment makes no sense for the general population even if the side effects and risks are pretty modest. It is hard to tell if the effect would be the same once the epigenetic changes that drug addiction causes were already in place.

Still, the prospect of a simple drug that once administered would cure people of drug addictions without long painful withdrawal and therapy, probably with relapses in most cases, at least temporarily, is a tempting possibility. And, given the negative health consequences and life consequences of being a drug addict to cocaine, heroin or meth, even significant negative side effects from the treatment would be an improvement if the vaccine is effective for people who have already become addicted. Indeed, it might even make since, pre-emptively, in people who have a strong family history of addiction and live in an environment that put them at high risk of becoming addicts themselves.

Quotes of the Day

I have the lowest regard for intelligent people who are clearly using their intelligence to forward weak arguments through clever and adroit use of rhetoric. In my book that’s immoral, at least if you don’t have a professional interest in the obfuscation.

- Razib Khan

[T]his year's Legislative Ebenezer Scrooge Award will go to the Republican members of the Joint Budget Committee for refusing to spend already designated state funds to provide school breakfast for poor children.

"As a family guy myself with children and grandchildren, I take a very strong responsibility to earn money to feed my own family," Lambert, one of the three naysaying Republicans, told the Post.

Lambert earns money the old fashioned way: from your tax dollars. He was a lifetime member of the military, now on pension, and he now collects tax dollars as a state lawmaker.

- Dave Perry of the Aurora Sentinel

Ecological Models of Neurodiversity.

Ephiphenom has a nice discussion of how evolution could favor diversity in personality as a result of an ecology of different personalities in a community, rather than a single optimal personality, having the most fitness for the community as a whole. This discussion, in turn, is supported by a nice scholarly journal article from 2007 on the topic (Penke, L, Denisson, J, & Miller, GF (2007). The Evolutionary Genetics of Personality European Journal of Personality, 21, 549-587).

The biggest downer conclusion of the journal article analysis is that: "genetic variation maintained by environmental heterogeneity implies that there are always some individuals for whom an optimal niche does not currently exist." This is the moral equivalent of structural unemployment in the domain of human neurodiversity.

But, the journal article also reaches some quite interesting conclusions about the likely genetic architecture of personality traits, based on the theory that IQ and psychopathologies are generally "good" or generally "bad" for fitness and hence, would be expected to follow a "mutation-selection" model, while one would expect a balancing selection that produces a stable mix of variation in personality traits to generate the diversity in proportions that are optimal for the community:

[W]hile personality traits will be influenced by a limited set of high-prevalence alleles (plus maybe several rare ones, see Kopp & Hermisson, 2006), general intelligence and psychopathologies like schizophrenia will be influenced by rare, recessive, mildly harmful mutations that vary between samples, since they are equally likely to occur at thousands of different, otherwise monomorphic loci, and are removed fairly quickly by selection once they arise. (Note that this goes beyond Kovas & Plomin’s (2006) concept of ‘generalist genes’, which proposes that the same large set of weak-effect polymorphisms underlies cognitive functioning in every individual.)

In other words, it is probably going to be difficult or impossible to find a predominant IQ gene, or single primary genes for just about any mental health condition strongly correlated with advanced parental age (a sign that incidence is driven strongly by novel mutations and that many different kind of mutations can impact the trait). These conditions include autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

But, it may be easier than we might expect to find a pretty simple set of genes that explain most of our personalities within the normal range, and even to find simple, but rare genes associated with unusual personality traits. One can imagine receiving shortly after a child is born, a short "genotypic personality profile" along with a blood type based on a mass produced "lab in a chip" that costs $50 or less and looks only at a handful of alleles for a few dozen gene locations that tells you what to expect your child will turn out like personality-wise over the decades to come.

Falling Behind In Answering The Mail

The notion that private enterprises are efficient and well run is a persistent but profoundly inaccurate myth.

Falling Behind In Answering The Mail

Delta Airlines is about a month behind in opening and dealing with mail from its customers according to a customer service representative in its frequent flier mile department. Imagine what would happen to a typical law practice, or a typical household, if you were routinely opening mail received and dealing with it a month late. But, this seems to be business as usual at the moment at Delta.

Loan modification application processing by mortgage lenders and mortgage services is just as much of a morass. Papers sent to lenders are routinely lost. It is hard for borrowers to find out what more information or action is expected of them. And, completed files languish for months until the information in them becomes outdated.

Private Industry Not Precisely Fiscally Responsible Either

While large financial institutions, as well as companies and governments that issue bonds are considered to be at the brink of collapse if they make scheduled payments even a day or two late, it can be stunning how far behind on their accounts payable small and medium sized businesses and trade credit payments by large "real economy" firms can get on a fairly routine basis. Back in the days when I did defense work for casualty insurance companies, it was routine to have bills paid several months after they were submitted to these large, publicly held companies.

Few industries have escaped having entities that collapsed financially due to major missteps in their business plans. Among the major companies that have gone bankrupt, failed, or needed a bailout to survive (or to that didn't survive) in the last decade or so are: General Motors, Chrysler, Blockbuster, Enron, Circuit City, Adam Aircraft, Bennigans, eToys, Frontier Airlines, Crabtree & Evelyn, The Walking Company, Daphne's Greek Cafe, Old Country Buffet, Village Inn, Mrs. Fields Famous Brands, Ponderosa, Ritz Camera, Sportsman's Warehouse, Big 10 Tire Stores, Inc., Z Gallerie, Filene's Basement, Eddie Bauer, Dunkin' Donuts, Samsonite, Max & Erma's, Unos Pizza, Schlotzsky's, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Baltimore Sun, The Morning Call, ForSaleByOwner.com, South Park, the Chicago Cubs, WGN 720 AM, KWGN, the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, the Tucson Citizen, the Baltimore Examiner, the Cincinnati Post, the Albuquerque Tribune, the Honolulu Advertiser, Los Angeles Daily News, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Brush News-Tribune, the Fort Morgan Times, the Lamar Daily News of Lamar, the Sterling Colorado Journal Advocate, the Oakland Tribune, KTVA in Anchorage, The Augusta Chronicle, the Savannah Morning News, the Juneau Empire, AIG, Lehman Brothers, the Shane Company, the Mexicana Airline, Movie Gallery, Japan Airlines, Skybus, Northwest Airlines, Aloha Airlines, Delta Airlines, Mervyns, MCI, Montgomery Ward, MGM (movie studio), U.S. Airways, Air Canada, United Airlines, TWA, Washington Mutual, any subprime mortgage finance company, Six Flags Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Indy Mac Bank, the Bank of New England, the Arena Football League, Goldman Sachs, or any of a host of other major American businesses.

The Abyss Of Health Care Administration

Oh, and don't get me started about the arcane and mysterious world of health care billing and health insurance claims processing. It isn't uncommon for even the most routine preventative care visit to become mired in billing mistakes, and any medical condition of consequence is almost sure to require phone calls and correspondence that takes much longer than the medical care itself did to resolve. While these mistakes made by medical office administrative staff and insurance companies are worked out, often over a period of many months, medical office billing personnel (often outsourced) make dire threats to patients explaining that the patient will be held responsible and treated as a bad debtor if the insurance company fails to live up to its promises to the patient.

And, of course, the number of medical appointments that frequently take just a few minutes themselves, are often delayed beyond their scheduled times make the ontime rates of major airlines look absolutely stellar by comparison. An hour delay at a doctor's office for a three minute visit is routine.

There is little wonder that it is complex, because the distinctions made often make no sense at the patient level. For example, a specialist doctor's office that is independent of any hospital, and one that has some sort of hospital affiliation look identical from a patient's point of view in all respects. The waiting room, the interaction with the office staff, the treatment room, and what takes place in the visit with the doctor are the same. The hospital affiliation is rarely proclaimed loudly, there are no benefits in patient service that result, and the specialist doctor's office is often in a separate building from the hospital. But, the patient's share of the cost under an insurance contract is often much lower in a specialist doctor's office that is independent of any hospital than it is from one with a hospital affiliation.

Moreover, it isn't uncommon for a visit to a hospital affiliated specialist doctor's office to produce three or more separate invoices - once for the doctor, one for the hospital and one for laboratory tests. Actual inpatient stays at hospitals are even worse. It isn't unusual for a single brief inpatient stay to produce invoices from half a dozen different providers, each processed in a vacuum by the health insurance company and each with its own outsourced billing firm. Even huge law firms that keep track in itemized invoices of dozens of different kinds of costs and service providers over the course of work for a single client usually manage to consolidate their charges into one or two invoices (sometimes an expert witness or local counsel providing services at a separate geographic location sends separate invoices).

Needless to say, medical providers (with the sometimes exception of dentists) almost never make public their schedule of fees or even tell patients what their visits will cost in advance. And, medical providers routine charge wildly differing amounts to different people for the same service based on their insurance company and/or ability to negotiate a price based on a cash up front payment and/or ability to pay. Like the prices of hotel rooms that are publicly posted, almost nobody pays the "regular price" for health care services except those who are uninsured and can't pay in cash -- most of the "regular price" for health care services is really a hidden finance charge.

Health insurance companies provide more information, but since some of their charges depend upon what providers charge, and since rates negotiated with providers are not generally disclosed to patients until after services are provided, and since the distinctions health insurance companies make often make no sense to patients, even post-health insurance prices of health care are hard to predict. Frequently in hospitals and hospital affiliated situations, the patient doesn't even know who the providers managed by their physician or the hospital were until after the bill is received.

Don't forget that everybody, not just administratively competent college graduates, needs health care services, that health care needs are frequently urgent in ways that make comparison shopping for price (even if prices were available, which they aren't) impossible, and that many patients dealing with health care billing messes are sick themselves.

Is it any wonder that market based capitalism doesn't work well in these circumstances?

Health care reform, if House Republicans in Congress don't manage to derail it, will at least finally bring the United States much closer to a universal ability to pay for health care and will control some medical costs, but even this juggernaut of allegedly dramatic reform doesn't seriously deal with the absolute disaster that is medical billing in this country.

Government Bureaucracy Snafus

This isn't to say that large government bureaucracies are good examples either. Bill Johnson discusses in his Denver Post column the troubling delays that Colorado is experiencing in processing food stamp recertification. Colorado's unemployment office is almost as backed up as Delta is in dealing with claims. Mostly, these problems are due to ongoing problems with profoundly flawed execution of contracts to upgrade the state's computers made by very expensive private contractors who failed to deliver the services promised in prior gubernatorial administrations.

The IRS isn't even going to start processing certain kinds of tax returns until Valentine's Day because it's computers need to be reprogrammed to handle last minute changes in the tax laws (mostly due to the failure of Congress to pass tax laws for 2011 until the lame duck session in December). It is a rare day indeed that a major Department of Defense contract is performed on time and on budget. I've had the Patent and Trademark Office lose materials that I've properly submitted to them several times in a single application.

At a smaller scale, the Douglas County Schools in Colorado, as of this point in January already, have still provided no meaningful budget planning guidance to its employees for the coming year. Voucher debates and strategic planning have pushed the day to day business of running their district off the school board's agenda.