29 April 2011

Big Law Shrinks Two Years In A Row

Nearly 2,900 fewer lawyers worked for the 250 top firms last year. That's in addition to the approximately 6,600 attorneys who departed in 2009. In the 34 years the NLJ has been surveying large firms to gather headcount numbers, there have never been multiyear declines of this magnitude.

From here

The combined two year cut represents a reduction in force at the 250 largest law firms of about 6%.

The largest law firm in the United States, Baker McKenzie, has 3,738 attorneys. Twenty law firms have 1,000 or more attorneys. The 250th largest law firm in the United States has 160 attorneys.

The largest law firms headquartered in Colorado are Holland & Hart with 389 attorneys, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck with 218 attorneys, Holme, Roberts & Owen with 192 attorneys, and Sherman and Howard with 187 attorneys (each of which have a Denver headquarters). No other Colorado headquartered firms are among the 250 largest in the United States, although some large firms with a headquarters in another state have large branch offices in Colorado.

Path To Possible Treatment For M.S. Identified

Scientists have identified in mouse models a "previously unknown kind of immune cell makes a protein that may be a pivotal player in multiple sclerosis."  The protein is called GM-CSF. 

This suggests that it might be possible to cure (or at least effectively treat) MS with a therapy based on neutralizing the GM-CSF protein.   These therapies were effective in the mouse model. 

M.S. is a degenerative auto-immune disease which is probably not genetic and usually strikes in the prime of life, but whose causes are not known.  It leads to decline in nerve function and mental health generally resulting in premature death, and while there are some drugs used to treat it, the treatments only partially control M.S. rather than definitively shutting it down the way an antibiotic, for example, does.

Federal Arbitration Act Strengthened

The U.S. Supreme Court,  in a 5-4 ruling along its "usual" liberal-conservative lines in the case of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, has held that the Federal Arbitration Act pre-empts state law in California that holds that waiving the right of access to a class action remedy in an arbitration clause in unconscionable and void when it included in certain kinds of consumer contracts.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling interprets only a federal statute, Congress could pass a law changing the result as it did, for example, in a recent case where Congress disagreed with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling interpreting the statute of limitations under a federal employment law.

The dissent in the case emphasized that the ruling effectively makes it economically impracticable to make all consumers who are harmed by low dollar misconduct in a consumer case to receive a remedy, and instead, effectively insures that the big business with the arbitration clause will profit from its misconduct in these consumer transaction because not all consumers will litigate.  Indeed, since the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not necessarily apply in arbitration cases, in principle, each consumer must separately litigate the merits of the underlying misconduct in full in every case, despite the fact that the harm to each consumer is only about $30.

On the other hand, while this ruling creates a situation where consumers cannot file a class action in this kind of case (either in court, from which they are barred, or in arbitration), the arbitration clause does not necessarily prevent a governmental regulatory body or attorney general from bringing suit against a business for a violation of a state or federal statute in connection with its conduct.  Indeed, this kind of litigation is fairly routine.  The total volume of regulatory actions in consumer cases rivals or exceeds the aggregate volume of consumer class action litigation, while avoiding sticky problems associated with selecting and compensating class counsel in a private class action case.  Generally, since the regulator or governmental agency is not a party to any contract with the business, it cannot be bound by an arbitration clause or other limitation on remedies reached with consumers in that contract.

Kate, Dutchess of Cambridge

William Prince of Wales and Kate Middleton were married earlier today.  Kate was given the title Dutchess of Cambridge.  Despite the fact that the Cambridge in question is clearly Cambridge, England, home of one of England's two most esteemed universities, I imagine that my brother who works in Cambridge, Massachusetts will see this as a positive omen, while my father, who lives in Oxford, Ohio may be less impressed. ;)

The U.S. Constitution has a fair amount to say about titles on nobility, none of it positive:

Article I, Section 9 provides, in the pertinent part, that "No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States, and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them shall, without the consent of congress, accept any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state."

Article I, Section 10 provides, in the pertinent part, that "No state shall . . . grant any title of nobility."

Article IV, Section 4 provides, in the pertinent part, that "The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government[.]"

Service Announcement

Yesterday, I filed my application to fill the vacancy in the Denver Probate Judge position created when Judge C. Jean Stewart tendered her resignation effective June 30, 2011.

My application will be evaluated along with the application of the other applicants who meet the requirements for consideration for the position on May 17, 2011 by the Second Judicial District Nominating Commission, a body with seven members: four Democrats, two Republicans, one unaffiliated Denver residents; three lawyers and four non-lawyers. The body is chaired by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr. The Commission generally recommends three of the candidates, on the basis of merit, for consideration by Governor Hickenlooper who must either select an appointee from that group, or defer the choice to the Colorado Supreme Court (which almost never happens). There is then a retention election after an initial two year term, and after each six year term thereafter. Judge Stewart was just overwhelming retained by Denver voters in the November 2010 election.

Judges are subject to the Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct, consisting of nine Canons that judges are to observe. Several apply to off the job conduct of judges:

Canon 1: A judge should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

Canon 2: A judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all the judge's activities.

Canon 4: A judge is encouraged to engage in quasi-judicial activities to improve the law, the legal system and the administration of justice.

Canon 5: A judge is encouraged to participate in extra-judicial activities.

Canon 7: A judge should refrain from political activity inappropriate to his or her judicial office.

(The other canons don't pertain to the non-financial extra-judicial activities of a Probate Judge except Canon 3 which provides in addition to other matters that "The judicial duties of a judge take precedence over all his or her other activities.")

By its terms, the Colorado Canons of Judicial Conduct do not apply to me at this point. But, in the interest of avoiding any appearance of impropriety, I will be adhering to these Canons during the course of the judicial selection process. Most directly relevant to this blog, I will be refraining from making posts for a political organization or candidate, will not be publicly endorsing any candidate for public office, will not be soliciting funds for or contributing to political organizations or campaigns, and will not be engaged in most kinds of political activity including political blogging.

I will also be refraining from discussing who I would rule on any case or issue that might come before a Denver Probate Judge.

There are many other blogs where you can get your fix of political rhetoric, gossip, analysis and advocacy, and I encourage you to go out and find them.

The Canons of Judicial Conduct do not require that a judge never had political involvement before taking office, and I won't be purging old posts from this blog as a result. I will, however, be removing certain partisan links or links that may create an appearance of impartiality or bias from the sidebar. Please do not consider the removal of your link to be a personal affront.

27 April 2011

Time-Slip Common In Autism

Neuroskeptic notes that a phenomena known as time-slip has been associated with autism spectrum disorders in Japan but not been discussed in the psychiatric literature elsewhere. The comments to his blog post suggest that the association is in fact widespread, despite the fact that it hasn't been discussed formally in the academic literature on autism.

The omission sheds light on a larger issue, which is the failure of mental health researchers to thoroughly characterize mental health conditions once a bare bones set of diagnostic criteria that are sufficient to but mental health conditions into boxes have been established. Once the box is in place, it is easy to let inertia take hold and accept it uncritically, so this concern may extend to a wide variety of formally recognized mental health conditions. The hope would be that identification of non-diagnostic traits associated with particular mental health condition, like time-slip in autism, might help us to better understand what is going on in those conditions.

"Your Type" In Marriage Isn't Genetic

A new twin study finds that while people tend to choose spouses who are similar to themselves, that mate choice doesn't seem to have any other hereditary component. Twins choose spouses who are no more or less similar to them than non-twins.

The myth that boys tend to choose spouses who are similar to their mothers, while girls tend to choose spouses who are similar to their fathers, also doesn't stand up to empirical scrutiny. People tend to choose spouses who are more similar to them than their opposite sex parent.

The study (from here citing Brendan P. Zietsch, Karin J. H. Verweij, Andrew C. Heath, Nicholas G. Martin. "Variation in Human Mate Choice: Simultaneously Investigating Heritability, Parental Influence, Sexual Imprinting, and Assortative Mating." The American Naturalist, 2011; 177 (5): 605 DOI: 10.1086/659629) involved more than 20,000 subjects and examined traits including height, body mass index, education, income, personality, social attitudes and religiosity.

The only trend discovered, other than a strong tendency of people who choose mates who are like themselves in the measured traits at the time they meet (convergence towards each other in traits over time was ruled out), was a tendency for a woman's family background to influence her choices in terms of age and income.

The tendency to choose someone similar to yourself as a spouse is strongest for age, social attitudes and religiosity, moderate for IQ, education and physical attractiveness, and less strong, but still statistically significant, for height, weight and personality traits.

Pheromone transmitted information about a potential mates MHC complex of genes (related to immunity) influences someone's attractiveness but has essentially no actual impact on who people actually end up in a long term relationship with in the end. The degree of MHC similarity or dissimilarity in married couples is no different that would be expected from random chance.

People also tend to deceive themselves about what kind of person they want in marriage. There is little connection between self-reported preferences in a potential mate and the person that people actually chose to marry.

The study did not attempt to measure which marriages worked and which did not, only what kind of people individuals actually choose to marry in the first place. Thus, the study doesn't rule out the possibility that the best person for someone to marry has traits different than the person an individual is most likely to marry.

In a somewhat related matter, sexual orientation is almost completely unrelated to shared family environment or prevailing societal attitudes. A large (n=7600) twin study in Sweden found that sexual orientation was explained 0%-17% by shared environment (including familial and societal attitudes), 18%-39% by genetics, and 61%-66% by unique environment, "for example, circumstances during pregnancy and childbirth, physical and psychological trauma (e.g., accidents, violence, and disease), peer groups, and sexual experiences." The study was Niklas Långström, Qazi Rahman, Eva Carlström, Paul Lichtenstein. "Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-sex Sexual Behaviour: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden." Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 7 June 2008 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-008-9386-1. At least in a large share of cases, there is a fair amount of evidence that sexual orientation tends to be congential and is related to some extent to genes and to some extent to hormone exposure in utero and possibly to other epigenetic or in utero enviromental factors.

Physiological Test Predicts Effectiveness of Talk Therapy For Depression

[A] quick, inexpensive, and easy to administer physiological measure, pupil dilation in response to emotional words, not only reflects activity in brain regions involved in depression and treatment response but can predict which patients are likely to respond to cognitive therapy[.]. . . activity in the brain's cortical emotion regulatory systems is strongly related to pupil size when people are viewing emotion-laden words . . . It is because of this relationship between eye and brain that pupil measurements predict the response to cognitive therapy."

Cognitive therapy is a type of psychotherapy designed to help individuals overcome difficulties by modifying negative or irrational thoughts and behavior, which, in turn, can improve mood and reduce stress. It is usually completed in weekly sessions, with 10-20 sessions being effective for most individuals who benefit.

From here, citing Greg J. Siegle, Stuart R. Steinhauer, Edward S. Friedman, Wesley S. Thompson, Michael E. Thase. "Remission Prognosis for Cognitive Therapy for Recurrent Depression Using the Pupil: Utility and Neural Correlates." Biological Psychiatry, 2011; 69 (8): 726 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.12.041.

The abstact of the paper provides more details:

Although up to 60% of people with major depressive disorder respond to cognitive therapy (CT) in controlled trials, clinicians do not routinely use standardized assessments to inform which patients should receive this treatment. Inexpensive, noninvasive prognostic indicators could aid in matching patients with appropriate treatments. Pupillary response to emotional information is an excellent candidate, reflecting limbic reactivity and executive control. This study examined 1) whether pretreatment assessment of pupillary responses to negative information were associated with remission in CT and 2) their associated brain mechanisms.

We examined whether pretreatment pupillary responses to emotional stimuli were prognostic for remission in an inception cohort of 32 unipolar depressed adults to 16 to 20 sessions of CT. Twenty patients were then assessed on the same task using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Pupillary responses were assessed in 51 never-depressed controls for reference.

Remission was associated with either low initial severity or the combination of higher initial severity and low sustained pupillary responses to negative words (87% correct classification of remitters and nonremitters, 93% sensitivity, 80% specificity; 88% correct classification of high-severity participants, p < .01, 90% sensitivity, 92% specificity). Increased pupillary responses were associated with increased activity in dorsolateral prefrontal regions associated with executive control and emotion regulation. For patients with higher severity, disruptions of executive control mechanisms responsible for initiating emotion regulation, which are indexed by low sustained pupil responses and targeted in therapy, may be key to remitting in this intervention. These mechanisms can be measured using inexpensive noninvasive psychophysiological assessments.

The small study obviously needs to be replicated in a larger sample before being used on a widespread basis, but the 88% rate at which this simple test determines if high severity depressed patients will respond to cognitive therapy, compared to a 60% response rate in the absence of screening, is a major improvement for a technique that requires no investment in drugs or equipment and only minimal additional training for mental health practitioners. This test could spare more than half of severely clinically depressed individuals time and misery trying cognitive therapy that is unlikely to be effective for them, allowing them to use alternative therapies like drug treatments that are likely to be more effective for them immediately, while allowing about half of severely clinically depressed individuals to receive cognitive therapy, knowing that it has a very high probability of being successful, and avoiding the need for them to undergo a psychiatric drug treatment regime that is unnecessary for their recovery. The fact that the benefit is statistically significant at the 99% level in this small study also makes a study calculated to replicate this result look like a promising good investment.

Given that clinical unipolar depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, and is by far the most common one that is not typically congenital, which makes it disproportionately likely to be a condition dealt with by a primary care physician as opposed to a specialist mental health care professional, this kind of advance has particularly great practical relevance. Also, since unipolar depression is so common, the cost savings to the health care system of a diagnostic tool for determining what kind of treatment will be most effective could be an evidence based medicine technique that could make a material dent in the overall cost of mental health care.

Since this is a diagnostic approach, rather than a drug or device, it also doesn't need a long and costly approval process from the Food and Drug Administration. Funding of a simple large scale replication of this study which could be completed in a year or two, would be enough to include this diagnostic technique as part of the standard by the book treatment regime for unipolar depression nationally. Of course, since this isn't an approach would have a biotech company backing it, this kind of study almost necessarily would need to be funded by the public sector, for example, through a National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM) grant.

The real value of treatment effectiveness prediction tools as a means to improve the quality of patient care while reducing health care costs, a field which is coming into its own as a subfield of psychiatry and psychology, also suggests another funding possibility. Health insurance companies have historically viewed themselves primarily as financial institutions and as institutions through which patients can collectively bargain for provider health care pricing. But, the health insurance industry might be well advised to develop and fund a non-profit research foundation to develop treatment effectiveness prediction tools that do not have drug companies or medical equipment makers to fund them, as a way to promote health enhancing quality control.

The benefits of this little study aren't just practical in an immediate sense either. This is some of the hardest empirical evidence yet that there are medically relevant subtypes of unipolar depression in existence, with some indication of what the underlying neurological basis of that subtyping might involve. One of the deep issues in psychiatric classification of mental health conditions, for which the DSM-IV is the current industry standard, is that diagnosis of psychiatric conditions is almost entirely based upon non-physiological symptoms. It is entirely possible that some common DSM-IV conditions are really a cluster of separate conditions with similar symptoms but different causes (and hence different courses of treatment that are likely to be effective), and that other common DSM-IV conditions currently viewed are in fact merely distinctive syndromes that arrives when separate co-morbid conditions are present.

For example, this study shows that there are at least two types of unipolar depression, one of which is talk therapy responsive and one of which is not. This very likely indicates that the causes of the two types of unipolar depression are different. If this insight in incorporated into prior research on the causes of unipolar depression, the sometimes muddy and contradictory theories about what causes unipolar depression and how it can best be addressed might be clarified. One leading theory regarding the cause of unipolar depression conceptualizes it as a situation where prolonged stress and anxiety cause the body's normal responses to stress to shut down and try the new strategy of becoming depressed to deal with the situation. This might be a primary causal mechanism in one but not the other of subtypes of unipolar depression. If so, somewhat muddy data linking this cause to depression might become much more definitive with regard to the relevant subtype of depression, while clearing the decks for a search for one or more alternative causal mechanisms for the other subtype of depression.

Another possibility is that the pupil dilation response to emotion laden words may be a congenital element of a person's personality that is present even in the absence of unipolar depression. If this is the case, this trait might be one of many that is routinely tested for in children or young adults along with traits like blood type. Children with the trait might be at higher risk for the cognitive therapy responsive subtype of depression. Similarly, medical records could indicate which children are at risk for non-responsiveness to cognitive therapy as a treatment for unipolar depression. Since the physiological test for this trait is quite objective and easy to administer on a mass basis, it might also be possible to see if this trait corrolates with other mental health conditions, particularly those which are often co-morbid with unipolar depression (a co-mordidity pattern that might be more stark when restricted to a particularly subtype of depression), and to determine if it has a hereditary component. Patterns of co-morbidities associated with a particular subtype of unipolar depression might shed insight into the causal mechanism of a variety of mental health conditions which in turn might shed light on the kind of treatment regimes that are likely to be effective for those co-morbid mental health conditions.

Indeed, it might even be possible to provide these children or young adults, on a prophylactic basis, the kind of cognitive training that people with unipolar depression receive after they are diagnosed to help these individuals deal with situations that could lead to clinical depression before they happen.

There is no obvious reason that the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy, which boils down to teaching people habits of thinking and mental tools for coping with certain kinds of problematic cognitive habits or tendencies, in general, can't be almost as effective when administered in advance as they are when administered as therapy after the fact. It might be possible to put together a set of empirically validated cognitive behavioral therapy regimes into a comprehensive set of coping skills that could be transmitted on a mass basis in a manner not unlike the model by which we instruct people in first aid, CPR, rescue breathing, the use of abdominal thrusts to respond to choking incidents, the proper way to respond to house fires, tornados and tsunamis, or suicide and bullying prevention programs. People who experience cognitive behavioral therapy responsive conditions anyway may benefit for refresher instruction and may be able to make more sense of what these therapies involve when they actually have the conditions that they are designed to alleviate, but it isn't unreasonable to think that this kind of public health preparedness model could materially reduce the overall incidence and impact of many common mental health conditions, some of which are subclinical or would otherwise never be diagnosed as such.

26 April 2011

Seeking the Yayoi

The conventional pre-history of Japan involves horseback riding soldiers called the Yayoi entering Japan around the area where it comes closest to Korea around sometime in the middle of the first millenium before the current era, where the indigeneous people, who had lived there for 30,000 years, called the Jomon, a fishing oriented pottery making people who were linguistic and ethnic close relatives of the modern Ainu minority of Northern Japan were assimilated into the Yayoi superstrate in a process of ethnogenesis that gave rise to the modern Japanese people.

Until around 1000 CE, the northern Honshū island was inhabited by the Emishi to whom we can be quite definitive in attaching an Ainu ethnicity and language affiliation, and Ainu related people also inhabited the region known as Ezo, consisting of the island of Hokkaidō; and were formerly spoken in southern and central Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands. So, for the first 1300 years, the Yayoi were pretty much confined to Southern Japan.

The Yayoi may have been some manner of Korean people, although which of the ancient Korean kingdoms they (and the modern Korean language) have the strongest affinity to is disputed.

As I noted in a wikipedia article on the origin of the Japanese language that is linked above: "Current estimates are that "wago" (i.e. words attributable to the original Yaoyi language) make up 33.8% of the Japanese lexicon, that "knago" (i.e. words with roots borrowed from Chinese since the 5th century CE) make up 49.1% of Japanese words (and in addition, the Chinese ideograms used in the Japanese written language), that foreign words called gairaigo make up 8.8% of Japanese words, and that 8.3% of Japanese words are konshugo that draw upon multiple languages. This account attributes only a small number of words in modern Japanese to Ainu roots." Almost all of the various characters used to write down Japanese are also borrowed from Chinese.

I'd instinctively favor an account that suggests that the Ainu linguistic contribution is undercounted, but because Ainu is a living language that is well attested, as is Chinese, and given that Japanese and Chinese have been a literary language for most of the time period in question, I suspect that an identification of wago words with the original Yayoi language is probably pretty accurate.

There are strongly suggestive indications that the Yayoi language was Altaic, a language family that also has as core members, the Turkic languages, the Mongolian languages, and the Tungusic languages of Manchuria. The geographic scope of the proposed Altaic language family members is considerable as this map from Wikipedia indicates:

But, historically, this spread was quite recent.

The Turkic languages reached Central Asia, Europe and Turkey within the last seventeen hundred years or so. Their ethnogenesis is associated with the arrival of the Bronze Age and horses in the Northeastern Asian region sometime in the vincinity of 1500 BCE to 700 BCE.

The traditional date for the Yayoi arrival in Japan is 2700 years ago, and most evidence to date suggest an actual arrival a few hundred years later. This would be consistent with the Yayoi as a cultural offshoot of the proto-Turkic peoples.

While the empire of Ghengis Khan was the largest on land known to man, in the late middle ages, until a eight or nine hundred years ago, it was confined to Mongolia, Northern China and perhaps Eastern Siberia where it is found today (the only linguistic legacy of its expansion is the Oirat language spoken by peoples on the Caspian plains of Russia. The Mongolians first entire recorded history in the 4th century CE in Manchuria and Mongolia as a nomadic people called the Khitan people.

The Tungusic languages have remains at all times largely confined to Manchuria.

Japanese and Korean are clearly not Tibet-Burmese languages, despite their heavy borrowing from Chinese, and the linguistic case of the an Altaic affiliation for Japanese and Korean (presumably via its Yayoi roots) is not trivial. The Altaic languages, Old Japanese and Korean all have a linguistic feature called vowel harmony that is rarely, if ever, found in other languages. Similarities have also been found in verb conjugation classes, and there has been some success in matching tonal aspects of Japanese to consonants found in other Altaic languages. Vovin has suggested that as many as 15 to 23 core Old Japanese words have Altaic proto-language counterparts, far more than chance would suggest, and almost all of the Altaic-Japanese correspondences are wago words. The Altaic languages, Japanese, and Korean are also notable for a lack of noun classes and lack of grammatic gender.

So far, so good. There is a problem, however. While Japanese population genetics do parse rather neatly into East Asian and Jomon components, the East Asian genetic component looks far more like the Chinese than it does like the Altaic populations of Northeastern Eurasia.

It isn't so hard to imagine how this could happen. In the same vein, Turkic peoples of Northeast Eurasia don't have a very strong genetic link to the Turkish language speaking people of Anatolia. One imagines that an ethnically Chinese population in and around Korea may have been a subject people of a Altaic language speaking elite leading to a language shift in the population (at least among the elites that would go on to conquer Japan as the Yayoi), with little Altaic genetic admiture from the ruling elite to the soldiers who went on to conquer Japan.

This pushes the genetic forebears of the Yayoi to the Southwest, and the linguistic and cultural forebears of the Yayoi to the North, probably North of Korea entirely.

Given that Japanese appears to have more lexical similarity to Proto-Turkic than to other Altaic language family languages, that Proto-Turkic was the first of the Alataic languages to experience an expansion out of Asia, and that Japanese lexical links to Altaic languages appear to be mediated through Proto-Turkic, one imagines the linguistic forebears of the Japanese to be Proto-Turkic peoples of Northeast Eurasia.

This would have been some time after the 4th millenium before the current era, when the horse appears to have been domesticated (probably reaching the Turks as a cultural transmission from Indo-European language speakers such as the Tocharians or their immediately predecessors in Central Asia), but no later than the 3rd millenium before the current era when the Yayoi arrive in Japan, which is strongly consistent with Proto-Turkic ethnogenesis.

The Proto-Turkic expansion would presumably start a little later than the Indo-European expansions, given the direction of horse domestication transmission and Bronze Age technology transmission across the Russian Steppe, and Finno-Urgic a.k.a. Uralic languages of that region appear to be older still than Indo-European languages. In addition, some of the region, prior to the expansions of Indo-European languages and Altaic languages with the horse would have spoken Paleo-Siberian languages such as Yenesian which has linguistic links to the Na-Dene languages of North America.

25 April 2011

Light Higgs Rumor

An internal paper at the ATLAS project set the world on fire on Friday when it showed signs at the four standard deviation of a possible Higgs-like particle with a mass of about 115 GeV, which is right where a lot of people think it ought to show up in the data. Previous studies have shown "bumps" of almost two standard deviations at the same mass but haven't been able to provide convincing proof that the data are more than a statistical fluke.

Skepticism abounds, however, because the magnitude of the effect in the diphoton channel observed is much larger than anyone had predicted. This could be a sign that something is wrong with the analysis in the as yet not peer reviewed paper, or could be evidence of not only a Higgs but also of at least a fourth generation of fundamental particles beyond the three known to exist (something that neutrino data has already hinted might be the case). For technical reasons, a prediction that there is at least a fourth generation of fundamental particle would still provide almost no information about its mass.

Alternately, there could be a 115 GeV mass particle that is not a Higgs. The properties that can be inferred from the data in this paper tend to favor a scalar particle, like a Higgs, but do not distinguish it from other possibilities.

For SUSY and string theory fans, a 115 GeV Higgs is great confirmation of what they expect, but a fourth or greater generation of fundamental particles could throw a serious wrench in their theories.

Undocumented Workers Still Not A Public Finance Burden

The latest reports the Colorado Law and Policy Foundation and the Bell Foundation confirms that in Colorado undocumented immigrants still pay more in taxes than they use in public services. If there is an argument against immigration, it is not an empirically valid public finance argument.

Planet GOP

What motivates people like 11 Colorado State Senators (almost the entire GOP caucus in the State Senate): Kent Lambert, Bill Cadman, Scott Renfroe, Mark Scheffel, Keith and Steve King, Nancy Spence, Kevin Grantham, Ted Harvey, Mike Kopp, and Kevin Lundberg, to sponsor "Birther" legislation? (In fairness, the legislation proposed, which is prospective, does not itself on its face question the legitimacy of President Obama's current tenure in office.)

What makes Republicans like Scott Gessler, our Secretary of State, convinced that there are massive numbers of illegal immigrants voting our elections, in the absence of evidence that this is happening (or does he really believe it)?

What drives Republicans like Retired General William Boykin to forward an agenda arguing that Islam is Satanic and shouldn't be included in the freedom of religion?

Why do so many Republicans support succession? Why do so many think contrary to the historical fact, that the Founders were evangelical Christians trying to create a Christian nation?

Why do so many Republicans think it is O.K. to pass laws that are clearly unconstitutional either because they violate the Supremacy clause and assert a state right to disregard binding federal law, or because they violate well established precedents like Roe v. Wade?

Why do so many Republicans claim that President Obama is a Muslim? If one wanted to sully the President's religious credentials, surely the claim that he was a closet atheist, given his adult conversion to Christianity after a secular youth would have been more plausible and atheists are almost as despised by Americans as Muslims in public opinion polls.

How did the Republican party manage to secure a lock on the crazy absurd positions and ideas so fervantly opposed to our constitutional traditions, while claiming a banner of greater patriotism?

Really, factually incredible claims simply don't have the same political currency in the Democratic party that some factually incredible claims do in Republican circles. Really, the Democratic party is far more comfortable with the framework established by mainstream constitutional law than Republicans. Even when Democrats disagree with authoritative interpretations of the constitution in areas such as corporate free speech rights in political debates, they generally don't argue that their view is the absolute law which other parts of the political system are free to ignore. Republicans, in contrast, seem to delight in proclaiming a fantasy constitution to be the real one.

Democrats live with a world view that is bounded by a sense of legal and factual reality; an important subset of Republicans seem entirely divorced from both.

It is hard to hope for politics based on a reasoned search for the truth when a significant share seem to be delusional in many cases. How does one build common political ground with people who don't seem to be playing by the same rules?

Not all Republicans, especially among the rank and file in professional and managerial ranks in America fit this stereotype. But, a surprisingly large number do seem to be a fit for it.

What is going on? Is this really a stable ideology, or a case where a small, tightly disciplined cadre of of extremists have taken hold? For how many are these beliefs sincere and heartfelt, and for how many is this calculated hypocricy and stagemanship?

I know some of the outlines of where some of these ideas have roots in intellectual history, their political roots, and the origins of the political identity of people who now identify as the conservative Republican right wing. But, that doesn't make it seem any less bizzare when I encounter it. How did ideas from Glen Beck recycled from a John Bircher political philosopher gain such much currency with so many people? Why was the intellectual environment so fertile for these ideas? How did right wing media and mainstream media (there scarcely is any truly left wing media) become so disconnected from each other? Why has the outcome of the Civil War been so hard for so many to accept a century and a half later?

Europeans aren't rushing to talk radio stations proclaiming that the monarchies deposed in the 1870s are still the legitimate governments of their countries today and winning majority support in polls of members of major political parties. Why are an important subset of Americans engaged in the same exercise?

Why are Tea Party members so angry at government's existence and operations? Does it make any sense for what is at its roots, as the name suggests, an anti-tax party, to be thriving at a point when taxes are already at sixty year lows?

Why is the public so succeptible to mass political hysteria? Is there something in the political process that is encouraging this kind of sentiment? Or, is this kind of sentiment inextricably intertwined with democracy itself? What does it take to make the masses see crazy talk for what it is?

Monarchies and Theocracies

There are only ten self-styled monarchies in the world that are national, hereditary, and have genuine political power. There are seventeen more monarchs who are national hereditary monarchs, who have an overwhelmingly symbolic role with real power vested in a democratic government. The Pope, the Supreme Leader of Iran, and one of the co-princes of Andorra arguably fit the model of theocracy. The only women in this group are Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

Many of the places with monarchies, with or without genuine power, and two of the three arguable theocracies, are mere city-states or postage stamp countries with little more territory that a decent sized U.S. county, small populations, and dependent relationships on nearby sovereign states.

All but one of the monarchies where the monarch has genuine political power, and Iran, the only significant sized theocracy, are Islamic. Most of these monarchies rely on oil wealth to maintain their supremacy. Swaziland is the only non-Islamic monarchy with genuine political power.

The shrinkage is notable, given the fact that less than two hundred years ago monarchs with genuine political power were the modal for of government in the world, and less than five hundred years ago you could count the number of democracies in the world on your fingers.

Yet, there is a case to be made that nations with constitutional monarchies have fared better than purely republican governments, by providing a unifying symbol and smoothing over moments of constitutional crisis. It is notable that none of the absolutist regimes to fall in North Africa and the Middle East in the last few months have been monarchies, which suggests that the legitimacy conferred by a monarchy may have practical value to a regime. Some of these monarchies, such as Jordan's King, have, however, taken steps to liberalize democratic components of their regimes. The West has pushed for decades, mostly to deaf ears, for the few remaining monarchies in which a monarch has genuine political power to cede more power to democratic forces via constitutional monarchy. There are other non-democratic governments in the world, of course, but most of pure dictators.

Hereditary Constitutional Monarchs

There are seventeen purely symbolic constitutional monarchs who a monarchs of thirty-two countries and their dependent territories, excluding the three countries discussed under theocracy in this post, and excluding some subnational constitutional monarchs of Africa and Asia (these exist or have existed in relatively recent times, in parts of Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa). There were also, in recent history, territorial leaders who amounted to monarchs in parts of Northwestern Pakistan who are not considered.

Queen Elizabeth II, whose second in line to the throne grandson William is scheduled to marry Kate Middleton this Friday is the constitutional monarch of sixteen different countries, some outside Europe, an almost entirely symbolic role. The nine other almost purely symbolic constitutional monarchs of Europe are King Albert II of Belgium, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein (population 34,761; 62 square miles), Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg (population 491,775; 998 square miles), Prince Albert II of Monaco (population 32,965; 1 square mile), Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (population 16,715,999; 16,033 square miles), King Harald of Norway, King Juan Carlos I of Spain (population 40,525,002; 194,897 square miles), and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

These monarchs have a presence in the Americas in Canada, Greenland, Belize, and a number of Caribbean island dependencies of European countries.

There are six Asian symbolic constitutional monarchs: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel of Bhutan, King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia, Emperor Akihito of Japan, King Mizan Zainal Abidin of Malyasia (elected for a limited term as premier king out of pool of regional hereditary monarchies of Malaysia), King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (population 65,905,410; 198,457 square miles) and King Siaosi Tupou V of Tonga (population 120,898; 289 square miles).

There is one African symbolic constitutional monarch, King Letsie III of Lesotho (population 2,130,819; 1,720 square miles), a small landlocked state surrounded entirely by South Africa.

In practice, all of the symbolic constitutional monarchies are republics with elected officials who hold real political power. In each of these, the elected government, if supported by a popular referendum, could in practice, become monarchies in a bloodless or near bloodless change of form of government.

Genuine Monarchs

There are ten monarchs in the world (excluding six subnational monarchs in these monarchies) with genuine political power, many of which rule only tiny states.

There are two African monarchs with genuine political power: King Mswati III of Swaziland (population 1,123,913; 6,704 square miles) carved out of South Africa on its border with Mozambique, and King Mohammed VI of Morocco (population 34,859,364; 172,414 square miles).

There is one East Asian monarch with genuine political power: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, a tiny nation that is basically a city-state (population 388,190; 2,228 square miles) on the island of Borneo that is entirely surround by Malaysia and also shares the island with Indonesia.

The remaining seven monarchs with genuine political power are found on the Arabian Pennisula: King Hamad ibn Isa of Bahrain (population 727,785; 257 square miles), King Abdullah II of Jordan (population 6,342,948; 35,637 square miles), Emir Sabah al-Ahmad of Kuwait (population 2,691,158; 6,880 square miles), Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman (population 3,418,085; 82,031 square miles), Emir Hamad bin Khalifa of Qatar (population 833,285; 4416 square miels), King Abdullah bin Abdul‘aziz of Saudi Arabia (population 28,686,633; area 830,000 square miles), and President Khalifa bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (population 4,798,491; 32,278 square miles). The United Arab Emirates also has six other subnational Emirs, but the post of leading Emir does not rotate as it does the premier kingship in Malaysia.

The territory ruled by these seven Arabian monarchs in contiguous. Saudi Arabia, is by far the largest geographically, has by far the largest population of this group, has the most powerful military of the group, has shown that at least one of the others (Bahrain) is dependent upon it by militarily propping it up earlier this year, has the most aggregate wealth, and is home to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Collectively, they control all of the Arabian Pennisula except Yemen. Sucession in Saudi Arabia is not strictly hereditary - a monarch is chosen by the royal family collectively from a group of men closely related to the King, rather than by automatic succession to a particular individual. This may be the case in some of the other monarchies of the region.

All of the monarchs with genuine political power are men.

In addition, North Korea, by virtue of an imminent second successive father to son transfer of power as an absolute dictatorship, comes close to being a monarchy where the monarch has genuine political power in practice, despite the fact that this has not been how the regime has chosen to characterize itself so far.


Vatican City (population 826, 0.17 square miles) under the rule of Pope Benedict XVI, and Iran under Shi'ite cleric and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are the only theocracies in the world, defined as states in which significant sovereign temporal power resides in a non-hereditary religious leadership. Both of them are men.

The Pope has absolute power when living although he is expected to stay within the boundaries of a nearly two thousand year old religious tradition and under a collective church leadership between the death of one Pope and the election of another by a college of Cardinals. The Pope's authority over Vatican City is a minor part of his overall responsibilities as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and Vatican City, in practice, exists only with the consent and cooperation of the government of the Italian Republic that surrounds it.

Iran has an elected unicameral legislature and an elected President and parliament, selected in elections that are not free and fair, and are subject to significant religious and political interference through limitations on those who are eligible to be candidates, restrictions on speech and debate, and tampering with election results. But, Iran's elections are also not those of an absolutely dictatorial state in which there is only a single choice that is a foregone conclusion for every political office. The Supreme Leader controls the military, the police, the judiciary, the state owned media, war and peace level foreign affairs, and half of a Council of Guardians that controls ballot access and acts of a constitutional court with a constitution that incorporates Islamic law. The Supreme Leader also appoints an Assembly of Experts made up of clerics who theoretically are a check on the Supreme Leaders authority with the power to remove him from office and direct his decisions, and in fact are little more than a Shi'ite College of Cardinals or a corporate board of directors. Arguably, Iran's Supreme Leader who has held power since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that deposed the Shah is simply a dictator or elective monarch in the mold of a President for Life who has devolved some political power. The Supreme Leader does not clearly seem to have a hereditary successor in mind.

There are other states with established religions that have significant power, but in all of the others there is a secular leadership with far more predominant power than in Vatican City and Iran.

Arguably Andorra (population 83,888; 181 square miles) which is ruled in name by Archbishop Joan Enric Vives Sicília and French President Nicolas Sarkozy as Co-Princes, neither hereditary and symbolically only, fits the bill of a theocracy as well, but it is really a unique arrangement, that is closest to a constitutional monarchy in practice.

Other Non-Democratically Ruled Areas

There are many dictators in the world, some of whom are relatives of the prior dictators, who do not claim monarch status and are not as close to a de facto monarchy as North Korea.

There are also many countries which formally have some form of Republic that are neither entirely democratic with free and fair elections and a secure rule of law, nor entirely dicatorial and authoritarian. These flawed democracies rule much of the world's territory and population. Some like China, are one party states where power is not totally concentrated in a supreme leader and there is non-hereditary succession, but there are strong restrictions on political activity. Others are democracies acting in the shadow of military authority that poses a genuine check and influence on the elected officials who formally rule, countries in the process of transitioning to new democratic regimes (e.g. South Sudan and Egypt), and countries organized on a republican basis with elections but not free and fair ones.

There are also many colonies and dependencies and territories of otherwise democratic regimes that lack democratic self-government or full democratic self-government.

Finally, there are a few pockets of the world, such as parts of Somolia today, and parts of Afghanistan prior to 2002, that are effectively stateless, because no governmental arrangement, other than illegitimate petty warlords, has authority in a particular area.

Denver Businesses and Real Estate Holes Come Back To Life

For any urban area, real estate development and utilization is central to a community's health. Denver's metropolitan area, which took a relatively light blow during the financial crisis and housing bubble collapse, seems to be bouncing back with new businesses and developments filling gaps left by businesses that the downtown purged.

* A major infill development from Alameda to the I-25 and Broadway light rail station which would include 3,000 new homes, a new school, and new office space is in the advanced planning stage. Currently it includes the Denver Design Center which is a suite of interior design oriented retail spaces, a Sam's Club, an Albertsons, two light rail station, a K-Mart, and some strip mall development.

* The Gates Rubber Plant to the south of the planned new development has been the major projects focus for the area at the fringe of Denver's West Washington Park neighborhood, some office space was restored on the east side of Broadway, and a new apartment complex went in at the southern tip of the project, but environmental concerns and a financial crisis spawned collapse of investment in major new real estate projects has put it on hold. But, if both the Gates Rubber Plant and the new transit oriented development planned between it and the Baker Neighborhood eventually take off, it will be a major transit oriented population expansion in Central Denver.

* Another small transit oriented development, with senior housing and retail is going in at the I-25 and Yale light rail stop.

* National Jewish Hospital has finally decided to buy the long vacant Gove Middle School at Colorado Boulevard and 14th Street, that is adjacent to its campus, allowing it to consolidate its expanding operations, and providing capital projects cash for a cash strapped Denver Public Schools.

* The former University Hospital on University Boulevard was to have been redeveloped by a developer who managed to rezone the property but gave up on the project. The new infill developer on the project has more modest ambitions, but looks likely to be able to put this major hole in the neighborhood back into productive use. A new apartment complex and new restaurants have kept that neighborhood surprisingly healthy considering the massive loss of employment that it has experienced.

* A shakeup is looming in the area of Saint Joseph's and Presbyterian/Saint Luke's Hospital in North Denver. P/SL has recently upgraded its ER and added a children's focused facility to fill the gap created by the departure of Children's Hospital to Fitzsimmons. Saint Joseph's signature tower has serious building code issues, so a somewhat complicated plan involving major new construction is underway to deal with it.

* A string of vacant store fronts along Alameda Avenue in West Washington Park created by the pull out of Twist and Shout Records, a closing Blockbuster store, a failed used book store, a closed laundromat, a long dead gas station, a floundering dinner assembly business, and several other faltering small businesses is almost entirely back to life. Two bars at Alameda and Downing have come under new management replacing the old ones. A hair salon has expanded to fill the space left vacant by the loss of a small neighborhood gym. A tailor and a new dry cleaner moved in, while a space once held by a travel agent struggling with declining commissions has been filled by a home nursing service. Pho Pasta took over the used book store space, Bittersweet have turned the old gas station into a beautiful new fine restaurant, Italian restaurant La Scalia filled the space previously occupied by a Dinner assembly business and the adjacent Chinese restaurant has taken the opportunity to give itself an upscale face life. A high end appliance store filled one gap. A Jimmy Johns, a hair salon, a new small gym, and a Larkburger have filled the gap created by the move of Twist and Shout records to Colfax near East High School. A new bar will fill the gap created by a closing Blockbuster. Further down the road, medical marijuana dispensaries have filled several street front locations zoned for retail.

* Also nearby the Wask Perk coffee shop at Emerson and Ohio in West Washington Park has expanded, both taking over the space of its retail neighbor which was most recent a struggling gift shop and starting to offer a mobile bicycle like station in Washington Park itself. The establishment seems to be thriving, after struggling through at least three successive rounds of owners, clashing with the local neighborhood association, and facing traffic declines due to road work. Nearby a new bare bones retro style barber shop has moved in, next to a pet grooming business.

* The new Central Denver Recreation Center that had been planned for a parcel near East High School that had once been a grocery store and then was a church, on land purchased for a pretty penny (arguably suspiciously high), has been put on hold in favor of what I call the million dollar dog park. The dog park meets the urban planning goal of turning what had once been a popular gathering place for vagrants and youths with nothing to do into a space securely held by middle class dog owners, but has not filled the hole in community services that exists in the neighborhood.

* One major question mark that may be resolved in the next few days or weeks is the fate of the old Byers School. It was the home of the Denver School of the Arts until that relocated to the former DU Music School near Stapleton, and has sat vacant since then. Its school yard was redeveloped into a complex of what I call cereal box houses. They are small, narrow houses that look like half duplexes but have space between them because the neighborhood association (WWPNA) insisted that they be single family dwellings rather than town houses or duplexes (a preference that still baffles me). Neighbors, myself included, are pushing to have the location serve as the home for a new campus of the Denver School of Science and Technology, the most successful of Denver's charter schools. Success would mean another major hole in the neighborhood filled, an attractive new educational option nearby, and relief for the Denver Public Schools from the fiscal strain of carrying valuable empty real estate without getting any benefit from it. Failure would probably lead to increased efforts to dispose of the property, but this wouldn't be easy as it has few alternative uses that wouldn't take lots of ambition and capital investments.

* Downtown, a space filled by the failed Niketown store on the 16th Street Mall is slated to become the new home of discount fashion department store H&M. Considerable rumor had gathered suggesting that it would replace the departing Saks Department store in the Cherry Creek mall, but that apparently, will not be happening. A new tenant there has not been announced.

* The Commons Park, South Platte, Highland area to the west of LoDo is thriving.

* West Colfax will soon lose Saint Anthony's Hospital to the suburbs, a major hole in a neighborhood that has not seen the redevelopment and infill activity of many other Denver neighborhoods.

* Construction seems to be picking up again in Stapleton. It also has a new beautiful church opening in a signature concrete arch building, a new modern architecture inspired new recreation center, and new schools. Much of this is development funded.

* The new, reasonably affordable, suburban style Gateway neighborhood on the road to DIA in Denver proper, just opened a new library and is also getting new schools.

* Aurora, in a urban planning department lead initiative, is looking for a way to open the doors to a major infill redevelopment of the area between Fitzsimmons and Stapleton, which is currently a working class residential neighborhood that has seen major upheaval as many black and moderate income Asian residents have moved to more suburban neighborhood's like Denver's Green Valley Ranch and the E-470 corridor, and many new Hispanic residents have moved in, given the "Old Town Aurora" neighborhood a new ethnic character. They would like to expand the middle to high income neighborhoods created by the redevelopments of Lowry and Stapleton and Fitzsimmons to link them all into a coherent larger scale zone of prosperity. But, it is unclear is the private sector interest to make it happen in present.

* A major new development that will bring thousands of new residents is planned for Douglas County near Chatfield Reservoir at densities within the levels allowed by current zoning, but the supposedly pro-growth, anti-government regulation Republicans of the area are balking at the new project.

* Meanwhile, facing renewed budget cuts, the Denver Public Library system is pushing to form its own property tax funded district, apart from the municipal government's general fund from which it is funded now, to stave off those cuts and provide it with greater budget security. Hickenlooper's administration managed to stave off deep cuts to the system, compared to many library systems such as the decimated Aurora Public Library system, but the fear that another recession could inflict deep permanent damage to the system lingers.

* Despite funding shortfalls that leave the prospects of a timely completion of Northern expansions of Denver's light rail and transit system in doubt, as it isn't clear what sort of sales tax increase voters would support to fund it, the FasTracks line from central Denver to the Jefferson County court house is coming ever closer to entering service and the Union Station redevelopment is moving along. Most of the new light rail bridges for the line are in place.

* Next in line for rail transit expansion will be the efforts already underway to connect downtown Denver and the Denver International Airport, a line that might also connect Stapleton to DIA via rail.

* The Greyhound bus station downtown is closing, and the very obvious optimal place for it to relocate would be Union Station, which is supposed to be a multi-modal transit hub for downtown. But, it isn't clear that this will happen.

22 April 2011

Misery suppresses suicide

The happiest countries and happiest U.S. states tend to have the highest suicide rates[.] . . . "This result is consistent with other research that shows that people judge their well-being in comparison to others around them. These types of comparison effects have also been shown with regards to income, unemployment, crime, and obesity."

From here.

The relationship is strong and statistically robust, but theories to explain it are merely guesswork.

Denver's Race For City Auditor

Three candidates are running in Denver's municipal election for which mail-in ballots have been sent out and must be received back by May 3, 2011. The auditor's job in Denver's City government is basically to be an independent voice charged with identifying fraud, waste, abuse, corruption and other opportunities to get better economic deals for the city than it currently has in place. The office has also historically been a launching ground for heavy weight contenders in municipal government including former Mayor Wellington E. Webb, and the man who can in second place to Mayor Hickenlooper when Hickenlooper was first elected as Mayor, Don Mares.

One candidate is incumbent Dennis Gallagher, who is a bit of a gadfly on the liberal political scene, has had a generally successful and scandal free term of office, and is most famous for getting a proposition that makes businesses pay property taxes at higher rates than residential property owners into Colorado's Constitution. Since 1970, he has spent four years as a state representative, 20 years as a state senator, eight years on Denver's city council and is now the incumbent auditor. He runs with the support of former Denver Mayors Hickenlooper and Webb. His office has identified multiple cases of significant questionable spending during his tenure, and he has certainly not fallen prey to group think or bureaucratic capture by the rest of city government. During Hickenlooper's tenure, the City Charter was amended, in part in deference to the way in which Gallagher was running the office, to remove some of the more routine financial auditing duties from the position and to place those duties instead in the set of responsibilities of a new senior Mayoral appointee. Some would interpret this removal of responsibilities from the office as a criticism, but Gallagher did not object and it is part of a larger trend in how fiscal responsibilities are allocated in state and local governments. Thus, like the federal GAO, the focus of the auditor's role has shifted from an accounting oriented one to a more general accountability oriented role.

A second is Marcus D. Richardson, a long time career employee of the Denver auditor's office under four successive auditors who also had experience as a career auditor before coming to Denver. He is clearly competent and knows where the bodies are buried in city government. He is African-American. The main difficulties he faces in this campaign are that (1) all of his accomplishments as an auditor are also those of his boss whom he is running against, (2) his campaign basically calls for a continuation of the status quo approach to how the office is run apart from increasing diversity in the office, (3) he has identified no compelling reason for the voters to vote against Gallagher as a referendum on his performance in office, and (4) Richardson, as a career civil servant, hasn't had much of an opportunity to develop the political clout and savvy needed to be influential in a position whose power derives as much from having a bully pulpit as it does from having technical expertise. Locating accountability issues is only part of the job; one also has to generate enough public outrage about those issues to have them corrected. Gallagher's independent and populist streak has been a generally good fit for that bully pulpit role, while Richardson is untested in this part of the job.

Note also that Richardson isn't necessarily foolish for having run what seems in hindsight to be a hopeless campaign. It isn't unusual for a candidate to drop out of a race for public office for some reason mid-term, or to have a candidacy derailed by a late breaking scandal, and you have to be in the running to take advantage of an opportunity like that if it arises. He also establishes himself as someone interested in a more prominent role on the political scene than he holds right now, and because he has run a very clean campaign, he hasn't necessarily made many enemies by doing so.

Finally, Bill Wells is running on a campaign to abolish elections for the position he is is running to fill, which makes his agenda for the office seem a bit contradictory, as does the fact that he thinks it is appropriate manages to slip an attack on President Obama's budget process into his answers to questions from the Denver Post about his position on the issues in the city auditor race. He worked in Denver city government in the 1970s and early 1980s, left Denver to run a family trucking company in Pennsylvania where he served in the local city government, and returned in 2002. He is currently a semi-retired TSA employee. While he is not obvious either incompetent (he has a relevant professional credential and is not too cranky on his website despite its sloppy appearance), he is hardly a serious contender to an incumbent who is a state political legend and is largely out of the loop about what has been going on in the inner workings of Denver City government for the last thirty years.

There is some merit, by the way, in having a non-elected auditor. Arguably, voters are ill equipped to evaluate the qualifications of someone running for the office in a low profile, non-partisan race that will always be second banana to the Mayoral and city council races. In state government, the auditor is appointed by the legislature to provide a legislative branch check on executive branch excess (in addition to the check provided by having a divided executive branch). But, Denver's experience with the position has by and large been quite good. A bad auditor is not in a good position to harm city government, while a good auditor can make a valuable contribution. Also, alternate means of appointing an auditor may be less likely to attract someone who can break free of the "group think" of the rest of City government in a context where the politicians, after long hours working together, can become blinded to possible areas of concern, and may be less likely to attract someone with the political moxy and presence necessary to be effective in the job.

Bernstein's Mass

The CU-Boulder Opera will be performing Bernstein's Mass on Tuesday at 7:30 at Denver's Performing Arts Complex. I was part of a chorus performing it when I was a high school student in New Zealand (although I missed the actual performance due to an illness after months of practicing), I listened to Oberlin College's recording of it many times during college, and it remains one of the gems of my small personal music collection.  Background on the piece is available here.

It is a bit of an odd piece: a theater piece based on the Roman Catholic Mass written by one of the nation's leading Jewish composers of classical music.  It was composed for the September 8, 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. and dedicated "To the beloved memory of John F. Kennedy" at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 

It was written at a time when the nation and the Roman Catholic church were in turmoil over its values and beliefs, before the religious currents of American life that have defined the last few decades had taken hold. Evangelical Christianity hadn't assumed national prominence in American politics. Gay rights was not yet on the radar screen. The use of jazz and rock musical genres in the work preceded its widespread use in mainline Christian and Catholic religious music.  It is roughly contemporary with the composition of the Chicago Folk Service and precedes the charismatic movement's penetration beyond Pentecostal and black churches.

It addresses important themes that got sidelined in latter debates in the United States about the role of religion in our life. Bernstein's Mass, at its heart, is about a crisis of faith and belief. It addressed most centrally the issue that had already started to become dominant in Europe, the erosion of faith by secularism.

The most famous lyric in the piece is a contribution from Paul Simon:

Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election
Half the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

It is also a profoundly personal, rather than political work, although its dona nobis pacem was political in the context of the brewing anti-Vietnam War movement afoot during the Nixon Presidency as it premiered. It talks about what faith means to real ordinary people in their daily lives. It talks about the conflicts of guilt over one's own sin and licentiousness fostered by the possibility of forgiveness. It acknowledges that even the clergy face struggles of belief. It strips away complex church doctrine to reveal a vision of faith as something simple, profound and natural, part of our humanity, with its central theme song:

Sing God a Simple Song . . . Make it up as you go along . . .  Sing like you like to sing, God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all.

As much with its musical choices as its libretto, it creates a cultural space in which someone can be both religiously faithful and deeply manly, so rare in the context of religious ideals that are either neutering (e.g. in the case of a celebate clergy) or a feminizing force that is at odds with a masculine archetype.

It conjures up a vision of faith that can be pious without being arrogant, that cares about the lives of the little people, that acknowledges a people adrift, that focuses on what is important in people's spiritual and emotional lives both melancholy and joyous, both fearful and glavanized to action.  It describes a faith that is about helping people to get on with their lives, rather than one focused on creating a City of God.  It is a last hurrah of a humanistic mainline way of looking at Christian faith that has greatly diminished in adherents and vitality in the decades that followed.  It offered up a vision of what believers could be that no one took up the flag to advance.

I don't know if I'll be able to attend, but the tickets aren't expensive and it is a remarkable work of music that makes you think in a way that transcends the boundaries of today's often stale and impersonal debate about the role of faith in our lives.

The Rationality Movement Manifesto

Less Wrong is a discussion forum that brands itself about promoting "Rationality" which takes a bit of defining, because this philosophy oriented discussion group with a larger agenda is using the term with a secondary meaning that capture what they are after. They are quite predisposed towards metaphysical naturalism, although this isn't necessarily one of their axiomatic beliefs, and towards a scientific, empirically driven approach to understanding the world. An excerpt from a recent post entitled, Epistle to the New York Less Wrongians" captures the sense of it:

Rationality isn't just about knowing about things like Bayes's Theorem. It's also about:

* Saying oops and changing your mind occasionally.

* Knowing that clever arguing isn't the same as looking for truth.

* Actually paying attention to what succeeds and what fails, instead of just being driven by your internal theories.

* Reserving your self-congratulations for the occasions when you actually change a policy or belief, because while not every change is an improvement, every improvement is a change.

* Self-awareness - a core rational skill, but at the same time, a caterpillar that spent all day obsessing about being a caterpillar would never become a butterfly. . . .

* Asking whether your most cherished beliefs to shout about actually control your anticipations, whether they mean anything, never mind whether their predictions are actually correct.

* Understanding that correspondence bias means that most of your enemies are not inherently evil mutants but rather people who live in a different perceived world than you do. (Albeit of course that some people are selfish bastards and a very few of them are psychopaths.)

* Being able to accept and consider advice from other people who think you're doing something stupid, without lashing out at them; and the more you show them this is true, and the more they can trust you not to be offended if they're frank with you, the better the advice you can get. (Yes, this has a failure mode where insulting other people becomes a status display. But you can also have too much politeness, and it is a traditional strength of rationalists that they sometimes tell each other the truth. Now and then I've told college students that they are emitting terrible body odors, and the reply I usually get is that they had no idea and I am the first person ever to suggest this to them.)

* Comprehending the nontechnical arguments for Aumann's Agreement Theorem well enough to realize that when two people have common knowledge of a persistent disagreement, something is wrong somewhere - not that you can necessarily do better by automatically agreeing with everyone who persistently disagrees with you; but still, knowing that ideal rational agents wouldn't just go around yelling at each other all the time.

* Knowing about scope insensitivity and diminishing marginal returns doesn't just mean that you donate charitable dollars to "existential risks that few other people are working on", instead of "The Society For Curing Rare Diseases In Cute Puppies". It means you know that eating half a chocolate brownie appears as essentially the same pleasurable memory in retrospect as eating a whole brownie, so long as the other half isn't in front of you and you don't have the unpleasant memory of exerting willpower not to eat it. (Seriously, I didn't emphasize all the practical applications of every cognitive bias in the Less Wrong sequences but there are a lot of things like that.)

* The ability to dissent from conformity; realizing the difficulty and importance of being the first to dissent.

* Knowing that to avoid pluralistic ignorance everyone should write down their opinion on a sheet of paper before hearing what everyone else thinks.

Boil it down and you get something pretty admirable. They are trying to gather people who believe that it is possible for sincerity and reality bounded civil discourse ot produce a better world, and also are committed to the notion that particating in this discourse and taking it seriously can help the participants live better lives.

The Less Wrongians are not ivory tower philosophers arguing over how many angels you can fit on a pinhead. They recognize the importance of insuring that discussions about important ideas are grounded, while also recognizing that fitting reality into a theoretical construct is an unavoidable and non-trivial exercise that needs to be done right for the rest to hold together with any rigor.

Following that methodology, another recent study notes that one important way to reduce prejudice against those who do not believe in God is for those who have that belief to come out of the closest, because the perception that many people do not believe in God reduces prejudice against them, perhaps through a "present company excluded" kind of social logic.

21 April 2011

Jobs Situation Still Bad And Other Bad News

There are currently 130.738 million payroll jobs in the U.S. (as of March 2011). There were 130.781 million payroll jobs in January 2000. So that is over eleven years with no increase in total payroll jobs.

And the median household income in constant dollars was $49,777 in 2009. That is barely above the $49,309 in 1997, and below the $51,100 in 1998. . . . The aughts were a lost decade for most Americans. . . .

There are currently 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs than before the recession started in 2007, with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed. Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force. Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

From here.

The availability of jobs and the real wages paid in jobs are the numbers that matter most to the vast majority of Americans. Housing values relative to mortgage debt, for which we also have a lost decade or worse, is one of the few other numbers that matters for the minority of Americans, but majority of middle class Americans, who own homes.

Beyond those numbers, investment and retirement and education account balances matter, but far less so, and those numbers didn't have a great decade either. And, after that we worry about how the real wages get spent. An increasing share of real wages is getting spent on health care and college tuitions, and that squeeze on family budgets in most cases more than offsets the fact that taxes are the lowest that they have been in sixty years (although they are certainly not the least complex to comply with in that time period) and that financial investments are starting to bounce back.

A longer term perspective on the last few decades is also in order.

The lot of the working class in America has been basically stagnant for the last four decades, even as the economy as a whole has seen substantial economic growth in that time period. Less educated workers have had regular periods of unemployment and stagnant real wages, their children have had less opportunity for socio-economic advancement than their parents did. Even socio-economic advancement through marriage has declined. And, the institution of marriage has suffered tremendously for working class Americans. Divorce rates have surged and marriage rates have dramatically declined for the working class without sufficiently compensating increased stability in non-marital intimate relationships. At first, the same thing seemed to happen for more educated couples, but the trend for them reversed they are now less likely to divorce and more likely to get married and have successful marriages than their parents.

In the last couple of decades, the stagnation that hit the working class first has worked its way up the social class ladder. Soon, low level white collar workers were as squeezed a blue collar workers. In last decade or so, even lower level managerial and professional workers, and college graduates with less elite credentials have failed to capture a significant share of the expanding economic pie whose fruits have grown more and more concentrated at the very, very top. Just before the financial crisis, this concentration of wealth and income reached levels not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. Despite initial optimism that the financial crisis would have a leveling effect that would counteract these excesses, later assessments have suggests that this hasn't happened to nearly the extent most people has expected.

The economic story of the last few decades had still been a story of great prosperity on average until late 2007, and remains a story of prosperity over time frames longer than a decade. But, it has not been a story of shared prosperity. As a whole, economic growth has continued to match trendlines, but broken down by social class, the vast majority of Americans our economy doesn't look like its thriving.

Worse yet, we don't really have any good economic theory to tell us why this is happening and how to fix it. Economists have been so fixated on macroeconomic productivity growth and political economy virtues or lack thereof of government involvement in the economy, that they have been content to simply throw changes in the distribution of wealth between social classes in the economy into a black box whose results are measured but mechanisms are ill understood.

Sociologists and some economists at the fringe of the profession have observed qualitatively that this seems to be related to the increased importance of knowledge or creativity in our economy, but most are a far cry from being able to tell a coherent story that explains why we don't build things anymore and what is making this knowledge and creativity important, and whether there is anything short of outright transfer payments that could lead to a better deal for those who are not part of an information elite.

The obvious hope would be to create a better trained workforce that can better meet our nation's needs. But, given our already highly educated by international standards workforce, and evidence trickling in that passing out more credentials isn't necessarily producing gains for those who receive them that are all that great in excess of sorting effects, it is hard to say that this extremely expensive strategy for leveling the playing field would actually work. It appears that one of the main reasons that our European competitors, at least, have a more level playing field is that they do have more generous tax and transfer payment methods for directly equalizing outcomes and forcing people to share their prosperity. Not all prosperous economies have deindustrialized to the extent that the United States has, but there isn't decisive evidence to indicate that manufacturing goods is a better strategy than providing services.

One of the narratives floating out there, called the "Great Stagnation" suggests that the problem is not temporary. Instead, it may be a new status quo, as technologically driven advancements in technology slow down because we know a greater share of everything that there is to know, and the people who can expand the pie with their knowlege has to be sweeter (and hence is harder to share with others) because the available pool of people who can make those kinds of contributions to the economy is shrinking.

We aren't a poor nation. We have a high per capita GDP. We have a highly educated work force that devotes intense effort to keeping our nation's economy productive. Sustained homelessness and health threatening hunger are still very rare by international standards. Crime is modest. We pay a public health price for failing to provide universal health care, but many people who are uninsured end up not needing health care that costs more than they can afford and can't secure with credit. Housing is more affordable right now than it has been in a long time, and an average person can afford a pretty impressive package of goods and services, particularly when you recognize that technology has been today's versions of what we used to buy better in many respects than it used to be. Unemployment is high, but doesn't seem to be continuing to surge out of control. Even if our level of material prosperity per capita didn't increase at all, we can afford a pretty decent life for all with only some pretty modest tweaking of the status quo. Part of the policy issue before us as a nation is how much we need to continue to focus on making an already large economic pie bigger and need to have never ending economic growth, and how much we need to accept that we are producing what we can and make better distributions of it from a social welfare perspective.

The lack of a real national agenda or plan for recovery would be terrifying in other countries, but, while it certainly doesn't help moral much, our political leaders have long ago given up almost entirely on attempting to craft one in favor of throwing themselves upon the mercies of the decentralized decision making methods of a market economy that nobody really understands as well as they would like to understand it.

20 April 2011

Suicide More Common In Rural Areas Than Cities

Suicides are more common in rural areas than cities, a result that is robust across multiple world cultures. Some of this appears to be due to increased access to effective means of killing oneself in rural areas like guns and pesticides. Some of this appears to be due to social factors like reduced tolerance of mental illness.

Policy Beliefs Can Change

When you get immersed in the toil of electoral politics, it is easy to get into the rut of assuming that politics is all about getting people who agree with you to the polls at a higher rate that the people who don't agree with you, and that people's opinions, to the extent that they are based on more than trivial amounts of information, almost never change.

But, in the longer run, that isn't true. While an individual, and even a whole geographic community's place on the political spectrum is very stable over time, in the case of communities, even over more than a century, the location of specific policy stances on that political spectrum can shift dramatically in a couple of a decades or less.

A poll from CNN this week is the latest to show a majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage, with 51 percent saying that marriages between gay and lesbian couples “should be recognized by the law as valid” and 47 percent opposed.

This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage. . . Prior to last year, there had been just one survey — a Washington Post poll conducted in April 2009 — to show support for gay marriage as the plurality position, and none had shown it with a majority. . . . opponents of gay marriage almost certainly no longer constitute a majority; just one of the last nine polls has shown opposition to gay marriage above 50 percent.

From here.

In New York State, likely voters polled earlier this year supported gay marriage by a 56-37 margin. In New York City suburbs support for legalizing gay marriage is 61-33. Roman Catholics are more likely to support gay marriage than members of the population at large, notwithstanding church doctrine to the contrary.

If you told me when I started high school in small town Ohio in the mid-1980s that a majority of Americans would support gay marriage two and a half decades later, I would have thought that you were crazy. When I graduated from high school, only about 11% of those polled thought gay marriage should be legal, while about 72% oppose it. Frankly, I'm surprised that support for gay marriage back then was that high, I would have guessed that it was in the single digits, and maybe in small town Ohio it was. It is also possibly that the single pre-1994 poll's number was high and was made public at all only because it was a statistical outlier on the high end.

The AIDS epidemic had started to make most people aware that there were actually people who had intimate relationships with members of the same sex voluntarily, but even the notion that someone could actually identify as "gay" or "lesbian" in real life, as opposed to merely as an insulting and inaccurate description of someone, wasn't real clear to me at the time. I had never met anyone who had come out. I hadn't even seen or heard of anyone who had come out on TV, in a movie, on the radio, or in anything that I'd read in print. There were no organizations for gays, lesbians, transgender individuals that I was aware of in my town, and the only one that I was aware of nationally was ACT-UP. I was aware of a couple of same sex adult couples who lived together as a household, one of which involved an extended family member, but it had never occurred to me that a household like that would be anything other than platonic, and nobody in those households ever said a thing that suggested that more legal rights were necessary for them.

Since then, the trendline has been more or less steady and shows no sign of reversing. Nate Silver notes in the linked article that "If support for gay marriage were to continue accelerating as fast as it has in the past two years, supporters would outnumber opponents roughly 56-40 in the general population by November 2012." Even if the growth in support reverts to the overall trend line, there will be a pretty safe majority that favors legalizing gay marriage by then, and some states will be ahead of that trend while others will be behind it.

Popular understanding of sexual orientation and gender identification has expanded dramatically in a quarter of a century. By the time I finished high school, I learned that there were at least a few people in my community who self-identified as gay or lesbian (I would not meet anyone who had a transgender identity until after I finished college). Oberlin, where I went to college, was a mecca for gay and lesbian students, who were often active in campus politics, were deeply involved in running one of the major social events of the year on campus (the drag ball), and made it a point to be out of the closet in daily life in class and around campus. A large share of our student body came from New York City and some students personally knew people who had participated in the Stonewall Riots.

But, while college changed my views, this took much longer for the rest of the nation. More than one book has recounted what happened in the years that followed, but my point is not to illustrate how this happened. My point is to note that it did.

Even a decade ago, even among liberal minded people and many people in the gay and lesbian community, some form of civil unions seemed possible and desirable, but gay marriage seemed like a remote possibility that might never happen anywhere in anything but the distant future (where author Kate Elliott, who I whose science fiction Jaran novels I was reading in the late 1990s had put a society that had gay marriage). It was a little hard to determine at that point what gay marriage would even mean at a practical level, because not a lot of attention had been given to the question by people in a position to know the answers.

Now, there are thousands of same sex legally marriage couples in the United States and more in Europe. Colorado doesn't legally recognize same sex marriage and doesn't even have a civil unions law (one was narrowly defeated in this year's session of the Colorado General Assembly). But, it does have a lot of same sex couples who view each other as spouses, who hold themselves out to the public as spouses, who live as a household and who raise children together. They are parents of children who go to school with my children. They are teachers. They are nurses. Their families are my neighbors. Those couples are my clients in large numbers.

It has become obvious to a large share of the population through countless examples that someone can be gay or lesbian as a matter of personal identity, and that a person's sexual orientation is a stable part of who someone is as a person that someone is generally aware of to some extent, even if they may not fully understand their feelings in some social contexts or may be confused at times, for most, if not all, of their lives. (And, who doesn't, at some point in life, find their potential romantic relationships to be confusing?)

It has become clear as well that gay marriage doesn't have negative externalities. It doesn't weaken the institution of marriage for opposite sex couples. It helps many children and harms none. It imparts dignity without taking it away from anyone.

There are still plenty of people in the world who still insist that same sex loves are sinful based on epistles written by John the Gospel writer a couple of thousand years ago, and stories and laws written by Jewish priests centuries before then. But, those scripturally motivated views don't last long in the face of encounters with real life friends, neighbors and colleagues. They don't have much credibility with young people, even those who are evangelical Christians who have grown up in a world that has allowed them to see gays and lesbians and transgender individuals living ordinary (and extraordinary) lives like anyone else.

Decisions from courts and politicians, like the recent Congressional repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in the military and the President's decision not to defend in court the part of the Defense of Marriage Act applicable to the federal government have provided the leadership that has changed the views of the majority, and willingness to hire a gay man as the White House social secretary. Once you abandon the sin theory of sexual orientation the rest flows pretty naturally, and the leadership that our nation's leaders have shown has pretty well discredited that understanding of sexual orientation.

The sin theory of sexual orientation is rapidly going the way of the equally scripturally supported and equally empirically inaccurate demon possession theory of mental illness. Despite the fact that the words in the Bible haven't changed, very few people walking the streets believe in an internalized way that mental illness is caused by demon possession, and likewise, the Biblically based defenses for the institutions of slavery are also now heart felt for only a tiny minority of American Christians.

Lots of people believe that faith healing (which the Gospels devote a great deal of time to) is possible, or at least once was possible, but very few people resort to a clergyman laying on hands as their sole means or even primary means for dealing with poor physical health.

The Pope's official position, reduced to writing ever since 1968 in "Humanae Vitae," is that using contraceptives is a sin. But:

A survey just one year later . . . found that 44% of Catholic women (who were regular churchgoers) were currently using artificial contraception. In 1974, 83% of Catholics said they disagreed with the Pope’s stance on birth control. By 1999, nearly 80 percent of Catholics believed that a person could be a good Catholic without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control. A 2005 nationwide poll by Harris Interactive showed that 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention 2002 National Survey of Family Growth revealed that 97% of American Catholic women over age 18 have used a banned form of contraception, which is the same percentage as the general population.

The sea change in public opinion on gay rights isn't the only recent example.

While he was living, Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation's pre-eminent hero was the civil rights movement, was wary of pressing to strike down miscegenation laws and emphasized civil rights in the public sphere of work and commerce instead. Yet, in the wake of Loving v. Virginia, even prominent segregationist politicians like Strom Thurmond eventually came around to the view (and I genuinely believe that at least that far it was sincere) that miscegenation laws were wrong and that there was nothing wrong with interracial marriage. Large percentages of white, usual Republican primary voters in Mississippi still haven't come around, and we are not a nation of color blind people. But, Jim Crow era laws to enforce segregation and discriminate on the basis of race have been utterly morally discredited for the vast majority of Americans today.

We haven't reached a comfortable answer that tells us how to balance work and family in a world where both men and women are part of almost all parts of the workforce. But, almost nobody wants to return to the status quo that was in place when I was born when the percentage of women in law school student bodies was in the single digits, and there were only a handful of jobs that were open to women, especially to married women. Likewise, almost nobody advocates a return to a legal regime in which women cannot own property, bring lawsuits or enter into contracts in their own name, as was the case when the Founders wrote the United States Constitution.

Similarly, nobody is advocating that the franchise be limited to white male property owners over the age of twenty-one as it was when the Founders wrote the United States constitution. Indeed, while non-whites can no longer constitutionally be denied the right to vote based on race, women can no longer constitutionally be denied the right to vote based on gender, and eighteen to twenty year olds can no longer constitutionally be denied the right to vote based on age, laws restricting the franchise to property owners would quite possibly not violate the federal constitution, although such laws would be politically impossible to pass at the moment.

Abortion remains controversial, but popular opinion today would never support the laws struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 that made it illegal to use "any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception."

Support for legalizing marijuana is at about the same point that support for legalizing gay marriage was two years ago. The year that I graduated from high school, about 74% opposed that and 24% supported it. Now, about 50% oppose legalizing it, while 46% support legalizing it, and support for legalization has grown more or less steadily for the last fifteen years. According to the executive director of NORML:

Thirteen states have decriminalized marijuana, and that covers 130 million Americans. We now have fifteen states and the District of Columbia that have legal protections for qualified medical-marijuana patients, and that covers 90 to 95 million Americans.

The President has taken the position of not using federal law to punish people who use marijuana in compliance with state medical marijuana laws, and has paid essentially no price (and perhaps gains support) for taking this position.

In aspects of life where people have real experience and are affected in their daily lives, religious texts and doctrines and even community traditions are all but irrelevant to people's opinions. The previous generation's unthinkable possibilities can become the current generation's moral norms.