28 February 2014

Connect For Health Colorado Totally Fucked Up

We applied for an insurance policy with CIGNA through Connect For Health Colorado to start January 1, 2014, on the December 23,. 2013 deadline.  This was the culmination of an application process that started in October and took months to wend through the Medicaid rejection process that should have been obvious from the outset.  Five months later, we still don't have health insurance through Connect For Health.

On January 29, 2014, we finally received an invoice from CIGNA, due in late December for the health insurance that we hadn't received in January.  CIGNA also advised us that if we paid it, all of the health insurance payments to health care providers in January using our previous health insurer.  And, they couldn't adjust the start date themselves without getting Connect for Health involved again  We hadn't cancelled the policy since we needed health care and had received no response from CIGNA.  So, we immediately contacted Connect For Health to Change the start date from January 1, 2014 to March 1, 2014.

Today, February 28, 2014, about ten long conversations with Connect for Health later, we were advised that in every single previous communication with them, involving perhaps fifteen to twenty-five hours on the phone and contacts with several supervisors (at call centers in locations apparently located from Arizona to New York) who promised that they had processed the change (including one supervisor whom everyone else after that said had flat out lied to us about resolving our claim), had totally screw up our change and done absolutely nothing to change our CIGNA policy start date.  The most recent person we spoke to at Connect for Health promised to call us on Thursday, March 7, 2014 with an update.

Seriously, it should not take ten people and twenty hours and a five weeks to change a start date on a policy.  It has been frequently advertised as taking about twenty minutes. This is not rocket science.

But, the staff at Connect for Health Colorado is so utterly incompetent that is appears to be nearly impossible for them to process our quite plain vanilla effort to purchase health insurance through this exchange.

25 February 2014

Colorado High Speed Rail Cost Estimate Updated

Two studies from the Colorado Department of Transportation have estimated the cost of building high speed rail in Colorado.
With travel speeds of 90 to 180 mph, the system could save considerable time, said CDOT. A trip from C-470 and Interstate 70 in Golden to Breckenridge would take just more than a half hour; travel to Vail would take 50 minutes. Meanwhile, a trip from Fort Collins to DIA would take less than 40 minutes, and Colorado Springs to DIA would take less than an hour.

CDOT also forecasts such a rapid system could serve 18 million to 19 million passengers a year in 2035.

But preliminary capital costs are insurmountable, said Mark Imhoff, director of CDOT's division of transit and rail. A transit system linking DIA to Eagle would cost $16.5 billion, while Fort Collins to Pueblo comes in at $13.6 billion. A maximum of $1 billion to $3 billion could be obtained in private financing, leaving a considerable shortfall, Imhoff said.
This is consistent with a previous report from November of last year, which also noted that the Fort Collins to Colorado Springs portion would cost about $9.8 billion and carry 13 million passengers a year. Extending light rail from Colorado Springs to Pueblo would add $2.8 billion to construction costs and only modestly improve ridership.

The DIA to Eagle route would add about 4-5.5 million passengers (after considering an estimated allowance for Colorado Springs to Pueblo traffic out of the total), with an additional cost of $16.5 billion of infrastructure costs. Thus, the cost per rider in the mountains would be about four to five times as expensive per passenger as the Fort Collins to Colorado Springs route to build.

Assuming a 2.5% per annum interest rate (about the cost of government bond financing) and no principal payments, the infrastructure cost for the Fort Collins to Colorado Springs route would be about $18.85 per trip. On the same basis, the mountain route infrastructure cost would be $75.00 to $103.13 per trip.

Imhoff is right that the infrastructure costs are insurmountable with respect to the mountain route, and with respect to the Colorado Springs to Pueblo route. But, the infrastructure costs aren't nearly so insurmountable with respect to the proposed Fort Collins to DIA to Colorado Springs route.

Notably, neither study, however, evaluates the cost savings associated with reducing traffic and the need to expand I-25 and I-70. Major interstate highway construction projects routinely cost in the billions of dollars, and once rail provides a faster trip than driving, further leveraged by gridlock on old highways, rather than a slower one as it does now, the impact on ridership and road construction demand is non-linear and game changing.

23 February 2014

Texas Still Evil

The latest offense?

Even in Austin, the liberal bastion of the state, they arrest a woman out jogging for crossing the street and then not showing ID (which, of course, one often doesn't carry while jogging), employing four police to haul her into a police car.

I once had a headhunter try to lure me to a good paying job as an attorney in Texas and I am very glad that I didn't take it. I had been concerned about abuses like these (and there are legions of them, this is hardly an isolated incident).  Texas is a state that I am ashamed is part of our union.  Maybe we should return to the Reconstruction era regime and place it under direct federal government management again instead.

21 February 2014

Bad Religion: Heresy Or Just Obsolete?

"Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics" (2012) by Ross Douthat, a sophisticated, Catholic, Rockefeller Republican, is really two books under one cover.

Douthat argues that religion is in decline because it has strayed from the true Christian truth.  But, the more convincing argument is that the kind of Christian worldview he promotes has increasingly become incompatible with a modern scientific worldview and human decency to one's fellow human being.

The first is an exquisitely composed and elegant narrative history of the four main components of American Christianity (Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals and African-American Christianity) since World War II.  Generally speaking, in this part of the book, he gets his facts right, and acknowledges evidence that tends to argue against his thesis with grace that befits a regular columnist at the New York Times.  His richly detailed account is a barrage of deeds of public figures, religious intellectuals and Vatican intrigue.  Unlike the vast majority of conservative public intellectuals, Douthat has had the self-respect to tell this story reasonably accurately (critics note mistakes large and small, but few were material to the thesis), so it is familiar.

If you want to learn how to write non-fiction well, you ought to study Douthat's writing style.

After World War II, there is an across the board surge in organized, denominational religion of all stripes, built by charismatic ecumenically oriented religious public figures.  He attributes this to disillusionment with secular ideology in the wake of the horrors of World War II and in the Eisenhower era reaction to the secular Communist ideology of our emerging Cold War opponents.

He doesn't emphasize the role played by the desire of baby boom parents to have their children in church while they are young, or the role that extreme economic prosperity played in easing societal tensions that made it easier for the principle American religious factions to build an ecumenical consensus built around their shared doctrines at the core of orthodox Western Christian doctrine and a shared detente towards the Jews who had suffered so horribly in World War II as the notion of a Judeo-Christian society was constructed.  But, this is merely a matter of story telling emphasis.

Perhaps most notably, he makes a compelling point illustrated with statistics, surveys and anecdotes that this surge in American religious sentiment peaked in the time period from 1965 to 1968, after which Mainline Protestantism, white Catholicism, established religious institutions and orthodox Western Christian religious beliefs abruptly began a dramatic decline that has continued more or less unabated to the present.

He frames his story at this point as one of American liturgical Christianity as a candle burning at both ends.  As Mainline Protestants and eventually with Vatican II, Roman Catholicism take an "accommodationist" stance of making concessions to modern science and mores, the center loses many to secularism, and others to conservative Christian and Evangelical religious denominations that refused to follow liberalizing trends.  Overall, the nation became more secular, Catholicism appeared to hold steady only with massive Latino immigration, and Evangelicals moderately increased their market share making those people who remained Christians more conservative than they had been previously.

He documents the never ending failure of accommodationist strategies at least as far as theology and social values to prevent this collapse, the emergence of a highly partisan involvement of Evangelical Christians in politics in the 1980s, the common political cause found by conservative Christians and Evangelical Christians after a long history of Mainline Protestants and Catholics seeing themselves as allies against non-liturgical Christians, and way that charismatic Evangelical worship practices then began to influence Catholic worship practices.  He also recounts the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic church blaming both liberals within the church, for creating a climate where priests could do such things, and authoritarians within the church, for covering it up.  He also discusses how the authoritarians were driven in part by the collapse of the ranks of ordained Catholics in part due to economic pressure, in part as part of the overall decline in liturgical religion, and in part due to accomodationist trends.

He notes that eventually Evangelical Christianity morphs into para-church organizations and ephemeral mega-churches that may not be able to sustain it in the long run, the animosity the Evangelical Christianity has stirred up with its partisanship, and its lack of intellectual heavy weights outside of politics to rival great minds in other factions of American Christianity.  They growth from poaching Mainline Protestants and Catholics eventually stalled too.

This sets the scene for the second half of his book in which he condemns of heretical four trends in the substance of Christianity among those who are no longer secular:

* a liberal search for a "historical Jesus" and messier than orthodoxy would admit contest of Christian factions which is won by the proto-orthodox faction that becomes the Catholic Church.  He views these efforts as destabilizing theological work when scholars could have popularized theology in the tradition of men like C.S. Lewis instead, and as academically bankrupt.

He misses many of the key points historically, however.  For example, while the Biblical canon was assembled over time, the Council of Nicea in 325 CE was necessary because there were urgent and immediate ongoing schisms over what constituted orthodoxy in the Western Christian tradition that it finally resolved awkwardly with a powerful monarch's assistance.  Similarly, he fails to acknowledge that some our earliest records of Christianity from Paul's letters come from a man who calls himself an apostle but never met Jesus and that Paul was at odds with the leader of the Jewish Jesus movement that was the main legacy of the faith before Paul ministered to the Gentiles.  Also, he utterly refused to acknowledge that even if you have old, authentic writings from Paul, arguably the founder of Gentile Christianity per se, that it doesn't mean that the impossible things he is writing about someone he never met are actually true.

* the prosperity and self-help gospel that fails to challenge people.

* the embrace of relativism and individual personal religious exploration in lieu of the tradition and authority of the church.

* the jingoist Christian nationalism of people like Glen Beck.

He argues that the secularists and heretics' positions are inferior to the orthodox position, because they try to hard to oversimplify an understanding of God and Jesus that is inherently complex, mysterious and contradictory - a both/and rather than an either/or - again and again.   His apology rests on the notion that the orthodox position is a hard won center ground that our forebears had the good judgment to secure with repeated good choices.

He suggests that this might be accomplished by providing certainty at a time when there is a social vacuum of religious thought, considers the option of having the truly faithful retreat from the secular world to purify themselves and become strong as an institution, weighs the possibility that America will be reinvigorated with the vibrant Christianity of the Third World,   He argues that people should have lower expectations of their church rather than expecting it to solve all of their problems and that it should be political without being partisan.  He acknowledges at the outset that this may be lost cause.

His skill as an apologist is not nearly so great as his talent as a historian.  I am familiar with why Mainline Protestants felt the need to take accommodationist stances and with the historical-critical Biblical literature he criticizes so severely.  He sees the sexual revolution driven most powerfully by the development of oral contraceptives as the most important blow.  He sees an increasingly global perspective that reveals Christianity as a choice not made by whole continents with no ill effects leading to a surge in interest in Eastern religion as another factor intertwined also with post-colonial era guilt.  Finally, he sees rising affluence and social class pressure to abandon religion as factors.

The Missing Factor: The  Undeniable Scientific Worldview

Ultimately, however, Douthat's greatest fault is making a straw man out of his creed's most serious challenge and to a great extent ignoring it all together.  What Douthat short changes is arguably the most important factor in the enduring rise of secularism and of accommodationist trends within liturgical Christianity.

This is the intellectual force of an emerging scientific, empirically based, rational worldview.  This worldview merged with an increasingly humanist, tolerant, inclusive and feminist set of moral assumptions that flowed naturally from the Civil Rights movement, which he makes the case for American Christians playing an instrumental part in bringing about (even in the South where most white clergy refused to oppose the movement even though they did not affirmatively aid the movement).

Without squarely addressing the immense intellectual force of these ideas, one cannot explain why secularism has grown in market share like wildfire despite having had no institutional structure or clergy or well organized large groups or formal strategies with massive funding to guide it.  One cannot explain its power to grow despite opposition from dozens of well funded religious denominations and organizations with millions or tens of millions of members, with thousands of professional trained clergy charged with guiding and expanding the ranks of the faithful, with organized evangelism campaigns.

As Douthat recounts the religious world of the 1950s he focuses on popularizers and intellectuals like Protestant Reinhold Neibuhr, Evangelical Billy Graham, Catholic Fulton Sheen, and African American Christian Martin Luther King, Jr.   But, he fails to acknowledge the corresponding intellectual influence of secular humanist popularizer's of the scientific worldview like Carl Sagan who offered up a secular and scientifically validated account of our creation as mysterious and poetically diving as Genesis in his series "Cosmos", a remake of which is about to appear on the Fox network this year.

 The discovery of DNA, carbon dating of archaeological remains, and archaic hominin fossils helped to make mere Darwinism into irrefutable scientific reality, again undermining the narrative of Genesis.  A revolution in our increasingly sophisticated and irrefutable understanding of mental health and medicine discredited the credibility of the New Testament faith healings and exorcisms, the subsequent lives of Saints in the Catholic tradition that carries the faith healing and exorcism tradition on for another millenium of credulity straining tales, and the faith healings that re-emerge in America starting with the Second Great Awakening.  The space race, culminating with putting a man on the moon, and increasing recognition of how the nuclear arms race had transformed war forever, symbolically crowned the supremacy of the scientific worldview making it impossible for the average college educated person to deny.

The surge in secularism among members of the upper middle class coincides with an immense surge in the proportion of people who were college educated as the GI Bill, expansions of state college and university systems and a dramatic shift towards meritocratic college admissions all took hold as liturgical Christianity reached its turning point.  Vastly more people suddenly became aware of the historical process by which the Biblical canon was assembled, historical-critical approaches to Biblical interpretation that had existed for more than a century but not been widely known among less educated lay people before then, and centuries of intra-Christian strife (not infrequently violent) between the proto-orthodox faction and the heretical factions that would ultimately be wiped out with their tracts purged like contraband illegal drugs today.

Only in the 1960s did America finally have the leisure on a widespread basis to really absorb the progress made by the sciences and social sciences since the 1920s.  This kind of thinking had been put on hold while we endured the Great Depression, fought World War II, and spend a first decade after World War II returning America to post-war normal, dealing with postponed marries and college educations and careers, buying homes and appliance after fifteen years of pent up demand, and having lots of young children.  By the time Americans could finally pause to really think about religion and theology and philosophy again, the muddy, elite dominated, tentative, steam age worldview of the 1920s was finally confronted with the fully blossomed modern, scientific worldview and modern humanist, feminist, tolerant mores.

In the 1920s, at the time of the Scopes trial, a massive defeat for Evangelical fundamentalists and Biblical literalists, it was just beginning to appear that traditional views about Biblical interpretation and reality were irreconcilable.  By the mid-1960s, this fact was utterly undeniable to anyone who was not absolutely determined to hide his head in the sand, and the room for a God of the gaps has only steadily grown smaller with each passing year since then.

Many tens of millions of more educated Americans reached this point all at once.  When they did, it is this secular scientific and historically rooted world view that suddenly made huge swaths of both the Old and New Testaments that had previously been relatively unquestioned by ordinary laypeople in the pews, seem indefensible, utterly implausible, and doubtful when it came to their ethical messages at many points.

Accommodationist Mainline Protestants and Catholics as Douthat describes them, weren't driving people away from the church so much as they were frantically trying to save people from the ranks of doubters on the verge of leaving the church for good because its story had been rendered too implausible to believe.  These doubters were not people who could have been rehabilitated to orthodox version of the faith.  The intellectual leaders of accommodationist movements within these churches were those educated doubters struggling with their own faith, but committed by tradition and moral obligation to do the best that they could to salvage the religious institutions bequeathed to them by their ancestors rather than simply walking away.

I know what they were going through.  I went to the Chicago Folk Services that tried to accommodate the church culturally to modernity.  I ceased to believe for reasons like the ones discussed in this post shortly before I was confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a Mainline Protestant denomination) when I was in high school.  But, I still attended an Episcopal Church all through college (even teaching Sunday school), a Korean Presbyterian church for about a year while my wife was in graduate school and doing a community study involving the people at that church, and a Presbyterian Church (USA) for a year or two at my first job in Colorado.  In part, this was out of a desire to give orthodox, liturgical Christianity a chance to win me back in case I was quarreling with something specific to a denomination rather than Christianity itself (I could never stomach for even a moment Evangelical's stridently socially conservative and anti-science, anti-intellectual mindset as of the 1990s).

Ultimately, I became confident that it wasn't the denomination, but Christianity and theism itself that was the problem and left for good.  No amount of religious mystery or adherence to pre-modern social norms could have kept me in the pews and the same is true for many tens of millions more young, college educated people just like me, including most of my cousins and peers.

You can only pitch a faith based on divine intervention and miracles to people who are capable of believing in such things.  The scientific age and rising educational levels dramatically increased the ranks of those would could not.  Eventually, the views of these elites, in turn, trickled down to social classes below them and up to judges and legislators who drew more strict lines between church and state that protected the teaching of secular educational subjects that contradicted religious worldviews.

Belief isn't a choice.  You can chose to go to church.  You can choose to read a book or say a prayer.  But, many people can no more belief in Biblical miracles than they can belief that they are pregnant with puppies.

The accommodationist movement was and remains a valiant rear guard action to see if a Christianity which is the ancestral religious legacy of most educated Americans has anything left that can be salvaged and remain worthwhile if it is stripped of a requirement that one believe in the truth of patently impossible miracles and myths found in the Bible, leaving the genuine human history there in place.  If this can't be managed, then there is no point in an ethic identity like "secular Christian" in the sense that there are many "secular Jews."  Fifty years after the intellectual collapse of mainline Christianity, this effort increasingly looks like a failed one, so the holdouts increasingly are identifying as not religious, rather than as mainline Protestants or Catholics.

Heirs to the Christian tradition who do not want to engage in a war on science and are incapable of holding schizophrenic worldviews simultaneously, must as a matter of logical necessity, either radically reinvent their tradition, or relegate it to the status of a historical curiosity; ancestral myths of a dead God no more real than the Greek, Roman and Norse pagan pantheons whose myths we learn and discuss as literature without believing them to be true

18 February 2014

Questions Related To The Woman Arrested For Failing To Return A 9 Year Old Videotape

The basic, widely blogged story, is as follows (editorial comments based on this source):
Kayla Michelle Finley . . .  spent a night in jail last week for failing to return a video she rented [ed. within 72 hours] -- in 2005,  It was a VHS tape. Of a Jennifer Lopez movie.   
Finley, 27, was arrested Thursday in Pickens County, South Carolina, on a misdemeanor charge of failure to return the video[.] . . . The movie, "Monster-In-Law," starring Lopez and Jane Fonda as a feuding potential daughter- and mother-in-law, was rented from a video store, Dalton Videos, that is now out of business. . . .  
Finley was at the county sheriff's office on another matter when an active warrant for her arrest was discovered. Chief Deputy Creed Hashe told the station that the store's owner had asked a Pickens County judge for the warrant years ago when Finley didn't return her video.  Hashe said Finley had been sent several certified letters [ed. the last prior to the issuance of the warrant apparently in September 12, 2005] asking her to turn herself in. Finley spent the night in jail because her bond hearing couldn't be held until Friday morning. A judge released her on $2,000 bond. 
She said that after renting the movie she had to move out of state because of her husband's job and that she simply forgot about it. "I'm no criminal, but Pickens County Sheriff's office sure made me feel like I was," she wrote.  She said she never received any letters from the sheriff's office[.]
The police apparently claim that "warrants never expire."

A variety of legal and criminal justice policy questions flow from this story.  In no particularly order:

1. In civil cases, it is possible to comply with the statute of limitations by simply filing a civil action in court.  But, in criminal cases, there is usually a statute of limitations within which a person must be charged with a crime.

My impression as a non-expert in criminal procedure was that this usually happens only after a person is arrested, but I may be incorrect.  The U.S., unlike some other countries, doesn't trial people for criminal offenses in absentia, unless they flee in the middle of trial or escape for incarceration pending trial.  If my impression of this is wrong, should the triggering event for the statute of limitations be changed?

The statute of limitations for a misdemeanor offense, this typically isn't terribly long.  In Colorado, for example, it is 18 months, although it can be tolled for up to five years while the defendant is outside the state.  C.R.S. 16-5-401.  It appears that in this case, the woman didn't leave the state and that the case is nine months old.

If the statute of limitations on the underlying crime has expired, isn't the state violating a constitutional right by keeping arrest warrants for that crime in force?  In misdemeanors, which are constitutionally deemed insufficient to justify mandatory duties of states to extradite suspects based on out of state warrants, the public good case for never expiring warrants is particularly weak.

In other words, if the maximum statute of limitations is six and a half years for misdemeanors, for example, is it constitutional to have an arrest warrant system that keeps misdemeanor arrest warrants live for nine years?

Even if the constitution allows a rule that "arrest warrants never expire", is that a good rule of law as a policy consideration?  (Search warrants in Colorado generally expire two weeks after they are issued.)

The default rule in the 20th Judicial District in Colorado (Boulder County) is that all warrants automatically expire after eight years, unless the DA brings a timely action to have them extended, unless an earlier expiration date is stated on the face of the warrant.  There does not appear to be any statewide policy on this issue, although perhaps maybe there should be one, and I am not familiar with common practice in this area.

2. Generally speaking, criminal offenses require an intent to steal or intent to defraud, rather than imposing mere strict liability for a breach of a contract, which is ordinarily a civil matter.  Arguably, sending a certified letter when there is proof that it is actually received by the intended recipient might provide probable cause for issuance of an arrest warrant, but merely sending a certified letter without proof of receipt should not suffice for that purpose.  As this case illustrates, there are all sorts of reasons, moving being a common one, that certified mail is sent but not received and not returned.  Strict liability criminal statutes aren't unconstitutional, but they are rare outside of traffic laws and drug laws, and are strongly disfavored.  I doubt that South Carolina has such a statute.

So, the likelihood that this warrant was issued without probable cause is significant.  An arrest not supported by probable cause is a violation of the constitution as well, although it might be given deference if issued by a judge (as opposed to involving a warrantless arrest by a cop).

3. Large numbers of idiots in the South Carolina legislature appear to have enacted a statute to criminal failure to return rented videos, despite the fact that video rental stores have much more proportionate contractual remedies like charging customers the cost of the video if it is not returned and suing them for it or reporting it on their credit report.  Why use the very expensive criminal justice process to collect petty civil debts that do not involve harm to the general public?

4. Even if the law authorized prosecutions of people for not returning videos, why did local law enforcement and prosecutors decide that this was an appropriate use of resources back in 2005?

5.  Even if you are going to make this a crime, why make it a crime that provides a basis for an arrest and pre-trial incarceration and possibly post-trial incarceration, rather than assigning a mere fine to the office as is the case in the vast majority of strict liability offenses in the criminal justice system.

In terms of the civil liberties implications, note that every arrest followed by incarceration involves a strip search and cavity search.  The U.S. Supreme Court has had no qualms with arrests and everything that goes with them for trivial offenses, but just because it is constitutional doesn't mean that it makes sense as a matter of public policy to do so.  Colorado law has not since 1982, for example, permitted suspicionless strip searches of people arrested for traffic offenses and petty offenses (CRS 16-3-405), even though the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, does.

6. Is it really constitutionally reasonable to impose a $2,000 bond for theft of property that was worth $20 or less at the time, under circumstances such as the case being nine years old and involving a woman (with no mentioned prior criminal record) who is a resident of the local area, that make its validity suspect and the risk of flight low?

7. Suppose that this woman pleas guilty to get the case over with and is sentences to time served of a night in jail, and fined $2,000?  We know that the night in jail wouldn't constitute a cruel and unusual sentence under the 8th Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, but would a $2,000 fine constitute an excessive fine for a strict liability $20 offense committed by someone with no prior criminal record under the more strictly interpreted excessive fines clause?

8.  This case comes very close to unconstitutional incarceration for failure to pay debts, a widespread problem especially in the South.  For example, in Colorado, the adverse possession period for a rented videotape would be three years after the due date.  After that, there is a debt owed to the video store that might conceivably last longer, but not any stolen property that can be recovered and it becomes no more than imprisonment for failure to pay a debt.

9.  The cops may have inaccurately felt that they had a legal obligation to arrest everyone with an active warrant in the system without further inquiry.  But, why didn't the district attorney who showed up in court when the woman was charged not size up the case and immediately dismiss it?  Shouldn't the fact that the complaining witness is unlikely to be available encourage to DA to promptly dismiss the case without insisting on a plea bargain?  This seems like yet another of legions of examples of overzealous prosecutions of marginally criminal conduct in weak cases by bad lawyers who don't understand how to exercise good judgment.

10.  Suppose that this woman takes the case to trial and is acquitted, or has the case dismissed by a prosecutor or a judge prior to trial without receiving any concession in exchange.  Should this woman be entitled to any remedy from the State?

11. This is just the kind of case involving arbitrary punishment for having contact with the Sheriff's office that discourages people who distrust authorities already from cooperating with police.  The public safety cost of trying to enforce stale warrants for petty crimes far exceeds the benefits to public safety from doing so.

12. Is anyone the least surprised that this happened in the land of Dixie rather than in Yankee territory?

17 February 2014

Adventures in Automobile Repair

I had been doing everything a loving car owner should.  I've gotten oil changes done on time and even done the "optional" work that costs heaps extra.  All the recall work for my model had recently been done.  The front and back brakes had recently been serviced.  I'd replaced the tires not so long ago.  I'd even gotten some minor body work done when a side mirror was damages and fixed a broken vanity mirror.  My oil levels were full.  My coolant was topped up.  I had the gas tank half full with gasoline that had been 70 cents a gallon off a full tank due to grocery loyalty deals.  I'd vacuumed it in the last couple of weeks.

Despite all of this tender loving care, as I turned out onto Colorado Boulevard, with no warning and for no apparent reason, my car stalled out.  Worse yet, I had loaned my phone to my wife for the afternoon since mine had a better camera and forgotten to take hers as a trade for the day.

Honestly, this could have happened at worse times.  When the car stalled, I was able to roll into a turnoff lane out of traffic.  It was a clear day with temperatures in the unseasonably warm 50s.  I was within walking distance of a phone at the store where I had just been shopping and my AAA membership was current.  I used my AAA membership a lot when I first got it in 1996, just out of law school when I had an old Oldsmobile with lots of problems, but I've used it except to get free maps and guidebooks since I got my current car new.  (This is something I wouldn't have done if I'd known that the economy was on the verge of collapse and my income as a self-employed lawyer who was doing lots of transactional work at the time would be plummeting with it, but the car has met all my needs ever since, so I can't complain.)

The person who answered the phone at AAA knew exactly where I was since I was only about three blocks from the regional headquarters for dispatching AAA service calls, and she made my case a priority since it might block traffic.  I also managed to call my wife from the store, whom I was on the way to pick up from work.  Fortunately, she was near a light rail station and she could get home to Wash Park using transit.  She has a bus pass, so that was free and she not stuck in Five Points for the evening.  But, this meant that it took her an hour and a half instead of twenty minutes to get home.

Alas, it was also not the perfect time for my car to fail me.  My car died on Saturday afternoon.  Since my car is an all wheel drive, they needed a more scarce flat bed tow truck to get it.  The tow truck had trouble getting to me on time, because maintenance closures on 6th Avenue had clogged up traffic on all the alternative routes across town from tow truck place.  At that point, I had been seriously tempted to wander into one of the nearby car dealerships, buy a replacement and trade in my clunker.

By the time my car was loaded up and dropped off at the repair shop five blocks away, it was about five minutes after closing time.  Starting in March, this shop would have been open on Sunday.  But, it is February, so I had to wait until Monday (today) for them to look at it.  Fortunately, I didn't need to go anywhere out of the office today and could get a ride to work.  But, the trips I'd planned to make the rest of Saturday and Sunday (picking up my wife from work, dropping off my rent check, a violin lesson, a birthday party one of my kids was going to, a grocery run, and another errand or two) were off.

After the shop looked at it this morning and the mechanics diagnosed the problem, the good news was that they could fix it today [ed. it later turned out to be the following morning] and I didn't have the fuel pump problem I thought I had, which would probably have taken until the next day according to my weekend internet research since the fuel pump is buried inside a gas tank that is hard to access without taking apart lots of stuff to get at it.  The bad news was that what I did have was a problem with the computer system that tells that fuel pump what to do and a couple of other electrical bits, and the parts are two or three times as expensive as the fuel pump itself - overall the problem was twice as expensive as I had anticipated.  But, it still wasn't so bad that replacing the car instead would make more sense.  And, better that a problem happen now, with my daughter as a passenger, so that it didn't happen when the car is hers in a couple of year and so she could learn by example how to handle an automotive break down before having to deal with it on her own.

Also, this turns out to be very likely not a warranty issue but instead something that is vaguely my fault, as this apparently probably wouldn't have happened had I used premium gasoline for the last six years.  In the last six years I've used about 3,300 gallons of gas, so if each of those gallons had cost about 20 cents or more a gallon or so relative to the cheap stuff, that would have been an additional cost of about $660 so far, and would be maybe double that or more over the useful life of the car.  So, given the money I've saved on gas, the benefits of using premium and not having this problem (at least nearly as soon), are close to a wash, although your car breaking down is never fun and under other circumstance the break down could have been far more dangerous or inconvenient.

Nobody did me wrong.  The store owner where I had just shopped kindly let me use their phone.  The tow truck driver's delay was one I'd encountered myself earlier in the day so I knew it was legitimate, and he still arrived (barely) within the time promised by AAA.  The car repair shop recommended to me by AAA was the one I'd probably have taken it to anyway without a recommendation, and they got to it promptly as soon as they were open again.  My wife didn't get mad at me for failing to pick her up on time and having to take the train and bus home, even though I'd promised earnestly to be on the dot on time to pick her up.  My son and daughter didn't get mad at me for not being able to drive them to their events on Sunday.

If I'd done what my car manufacturer had told me to do, I wouldn't have had a problem.  And, without expensive computers to tell the fuel pump what to do, the car couldn't have fuel injectors, and without fuel injectors I would get fewer miles per gallon and inferior performance in my car.  Everything breaks sometimes, especially if not used exactly as it should be used.

But, that doesn't mean that having your car break down doesn't fall in the category of shit that happens.

On another good note, the Americans did quite well in Sochi on Sunday, with some events I probably wouldn't have seen if I hadn't been grounded.

16 February 2014

Frack That

Just saying.  I am so, so sick the pro-fracking astroturfing that had flooded every form of mass media advertising in the last few months.

They're oil people.  You know they are lying because their lips are moving.  I have yet to meet a real human being not being paid gobs by oil companies have such kind words for fracking.

Also, many of the lines their ads feed are terribly misleading even when not actually strictly false, like the "we've been fracking for sixty years" line.  Maybe someone fracked once sixty years ago, but its widespread use is entirely recent and the environmental harms associated with it are very real.

I'd like to think that most of us are cynical enough to see through it, although I have my doubts.

14 February 2014

Buses v. Rail In Colorado

FasTracks To Longmont

The Denver Post editorial board makes a convincing argument today that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from Union Station to Longmont makes more sense that the commuter rail services originally planned as a part of the FasTracks proposal. I quote it in full in order to present readers of this blog with their opinion on this political issue, mostly summarizing a study of the issue done by RTD:
Like many supporters of FasTracks, we argued for years that folks in the northwest suburbs deserved the commuter rail they were promised and pay taxes for. However, recent cost and ridership projections are another sobering call to reassess that stance.

Total daily ridership on bus and rail would increase by only 300 riders by 2035 if the $1.15 billion line were built to Longmont, according to a recent analysis by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project of RTD's Northwest Area Mobility Study. Not only that, travel time actually would be longer on the train than in rapid transit bus — 71 minutes on the rail from Longmont station to Union Station compared to 53 minutes by rapid bus.

Eighteen miles of U.S. 36 is already being rebuilt to handle bus rapid transit, or BRT, between Boulder and Union Station, a $219 million project expected to be completed by next year.

Meanwhile, last fall's mobility study projected significant improvements in ridership if BRT were expanded to include six main arterials in the northwest. The cost of building those routes would be an estimated $350 million, providing exclusive lanes where feasible, dedicated boarding areas and buses coming every 10 to 15 minutes. By contrast, rail would have to share the lines with BNSF Railway trains, meaning commuter trains would be spaced every 30 minutes. With BRT on the arterials, daily ridership is predicted to increase by as many as 18,900 people.

Those BRT routes would be along Colorado 119 from Longmont to Boulder; along U.S. 287 from Longmont to Broomfield; on 120th Avenue through Broomfield; on South Boulder Road from Boulder to Lafayette; on Colorado 7 from Boulder to Interstate 25; and Louisville to U.S. 36.

We understand northwest voters overwhelmingly supported FasTracks, but it's time to acknowledge the ridiculous costs for such little benefit and start looking at BRT as a workable solution.
The issue of bus v. rail is as much an issue of how culture interacts with transportation technology as it is one of the technology itself.

The stereotype (which is often true), is that city buses appear at infrequent intervals making it critical to know when it is supposed to stop, are often early or late, are slow because the take on and less off riders at stops that aren't very far from each other, and that bus systems are hard to understand.  Equally important, the stereotype s that city buses, in practice, are used predominantly by people so extremely poor that they can't afford a car, people so reckless that they have lost their driver's licenses, drunks, disabled people, and large groups of unruly high school students.  This ridership can make riding a bus, especially outside of rush hour, seem unsafe. City buses also have a reputation for being dirty, bad smelling, uncomfortable, ill maintained and short on privacy.

Rail service, in contrast, tends to appear at stops frequently (making it unimportant to know the exact time that it makes particular stops), tend to be faster because they are immune to road traffic and make fewer stops than ordinary city buses, have more acceptance from middle class riders, and tend to be cleaner, more comfortable and in better shape.  Rail still means a sacrifice in privacy, but public support for rail v. buses mostly flows from these often true stereotypes about how the service is provided.

There is an environmental issue.  Traditionally city buses run on smelly diesel fuel which is a scarce resource that will run out someday and which we import.  Meanwhile, urban rail systems are often electrically powered which is perfectly clean at the train's location and ultimately as clean as the sources of the power grid (which in Colorado is growing much more renewable and greener and doesn't rely to any meaningful extent on foreign fossil fuel imports).

The bus, however, gets a bad rap in this regard.  Buses can and do operate base on a variety of alternative fuels, and even when they are running on diesel, even a mostly empty bus uses less diesel per passenger mile traveled than any car or truck you can buy.  Running full, buses get better mileage per passenger mile traveled than the most fuel efficient cars ever made (well over 100 mpg for a single occupancy vehicle), and better even than the MPG equivalent of existing mass production plug in electric cars.

Bus rapid transit tries to address these issues with frequent service that makes learning the bus schedule irrelevant, having a few simple routes like a light rail system, having a nicer passenger space than an ordinary city bus, and having dedicated bus lanes and few stops that make the service much faster.  The up front infrastructure costs are much lower for BRT than rail, the operating costs aren't vastly higher for BRT than rail (although probably a little bit higher in the long run since BRT takes more drivers per passenger), and one hopes, for those reasons and perhaps due to a higher bus fare, would have a less seedy clientele than the stereotypical city bus.

The examples of working BRT systems are mostly from Latin America where it was developed and I'm not aware of great urban U.S. examples of these systems, although they may be out there.  But, it has the potential to be just as good or better at a lower cost and so it deserves a look.

Proposed State Funded Intercity Bus Service

[Note:  Some particulars of the post below regarding this program are inaccurate because I did not have access to the December 13, 2013 Power Point presentation in the first link below until after most of this was written and instead had to rely on secondary sources, but the general gist of the conclusions remain sound.  I will try to correct this post, but please click on the link before citing this post as authoritative.]

Meanwhile, the Colorado General Assembly is considering a bill to have the state operate six round trip express bus runs each weekday from Denver to Colorado Springs, five each weekday from Denver to Fort Collins, and one each weekday from Denver to Glenwood Springs (a total of about 6,240 one way trips per year).  This commuter service would be at least as fast as Amtrak in the mountains (at least when the roads are not closed or in gridlock), and would be faster than comparable Greyhound routes.  The CDOT proposal as of December 13, 2013 is here.  Fares would be $10 to Fort Collins, $12 to Colorado Springs, $17 to Vail and $28 to Glenwood Springs (with multi-ride subsidies available).

The proposed initial appropriation for this service would be $10 million over four years.  This would pay for the purchase of the buses and other capital expenditures, with fare revenue exceeding operating costs within four years.  This would be a temporary subsidy of about $8 per passenger trip.  This is about 25% of the subsidy for Amtrak service.  The per trip operating subsidy on regional bus routes within RTD is about $7.

Assuming that capacity and 60 passenger buses, the service would provide 318,240 one way passenger trips per year.  Assuming that the service was used mostly by people commuting between these cities, it would serve 306 regulars between Denver and Colorado Springs (about 68 miles), 255 regulars between Denver and Fort Collins (about 65 miles), and 51 regulars between Denver and Glenwood Springs (about 157 miles), for a total of 612 regular commuters.  Pueblo is 44 miles beyond Colorado Springs.

Predecessor Service

This would replace the FREX and FLEX bus systems that had ridership at 85% of capacity.   The central issue is money.  FREX was discontinued on August 31, 2012 due to a lack of funding support from the transit system that serves Colorado Springs.  FLEX is still in business, however, and goes from Fort Collins to Longmont and back.  The CDOT plan would provide substitute service with substitute funding.

Alternatives: Amtrak and Greyhound

Amtrak currently has one trip per day from Denver to Glenwood Springs on the Colorado Zephyr that takes 5 hours and 48 minutes (leaving a little after 8 a.m. and arriving a little before 2 p.m. in the unlikely event that the train is on time) with no intermediate stops, and there is a corresponding trip each day back to Denver at a cost of about $54 for a pre-reserved coach seat and $162 for a roomette.

As of 2012, 113,393 passengers used the California Zephyr service through Denver (down 20% from the 2011).  The marginal cost of simply running the California Zepher train without considering infrastructure or station and booking costs is $41.73 per train mile as of fiscal year 2013.  The California Zephyr line, as a whole, generates more losses than any other Amtrak line at about $30 million of operating cost losses per year (this source puts the figure at $62 million a year).  Approximately 55% of its operating expenses are paid for with federal subsidies (as of 2011) implying a subsidy of about $27 per passenger trip from Denver to Glenwood Springs.

Ending California Zephyr service would only impact a modest number of highly subsidized, very slow trips, and ownership of the rail right of ways, if it could be obtained (it might not as Amtrak shares rail lines with freight in the West) would be a valuable asset for future high speed rail projects in Colorado.

A Greyhound bus trip on the same route takes just under seven hours on a gridlocked Friday night, and has a standard fare of $54.  The proposed CDOT service might very well entirely kill Greyhound's business in this corridor (and possibly much of Amtrak's business as well).

High Speed Rail

These are the same lines that proposed high speed rail would serve in Colorado, but at a high cost of about $5.4 billion would be for the Fort Collins to Denver to Colorado Springs portion and about $13 billion from Denver to Eagle (which isn't all of the way to Glenwood Springs).

Even at a modest 2.5% long term interest rate with no repayment of principle, this is a $369,863 per day commitment of infrastructure cost for the Fort Collins to Colorado Springs portion.  Assuming that an infrastructure subsidy in the range of $10 to $100 per trip would be acceptable for this kind of service, a ridership of 3,700 to 37,000 trips per day would be required to make this a sensible investment.

On the same basis, this is an $325 million a year commitment of infrastructure cost for the Denver to Eagle rail portion (which doesn't even get you to Glenwood Springs), which would have a much more seasonal pattern of ridership and a much higher weekend than weekday ridership.  This would require ridership of 3.25 million to 32.5 million trips per year, with peak ski season weekend ridership of 50,000 to 600,000 or so trips per day.

A June 12, 2013 story in the Summit Daily Newspaper reports on current high speed rail ridership estimates that were lower than in an earlier study:
Officials close to an ongoing Interregional Connectivity Study (ICS) — commissioned to investigate the plausibility and cost of a rail servicing central Colorado — are realizing earlier expectations of the number of people who would use such a system were over estimated by more than 100 percent.

“We’re a little bit disappointed with the ridership numbers,” said Mike Riggs, a consultant on the ICS study, who gave a presentation on the progress of the project in Silverthorne Tuesday evening. “They’re not as big as we’d hoped.”

A study completed in 2010 by the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority (RMRA) indicated a high-speed train providing service along the Front Range and out to Eagle County could attract as many as 7 or 8 million passengers per year, whose fares would help fund the operation and management of the system. But using what Riggs called a more open, transparent and ultimately accurate model to gather data, officials conducting the ICS study are finding actual ridership will likely be closer to 3 million per year. . . . Models vary slightly based on the type of train — faster trains can cover a commute in less time and would attract more riders — but with a presumed fare of just under $24 per person, riders would generate . . . only enough money to cover roughly 85 percent of . . . . [what] it is expected to cost to run the system. The earlier RMRA study anticipated fares would cover 150 percent of operation and management costs, charging less than $20 per person for a train ticket.
With 3 million trips a year, the infrastructure subsidy only would exceed $100 per trip assuming a very modest 2.5% interest rate per annum and no repayment of principle for this very long term infrastructure item, in addition to any operating cost subsidy.  This is a very substantial government handout to benefit travelers who would presumably mostly be affluent skiers on vacation.

On the other hand, a presumed fare of $20-$24 per person sounds too low when people are currently willing to pay $54 to take much slower trips on Amtrak and Greyhound from Denver to Glenwood Springs.  High speed rail would make the trip from Golden to Eagle in an hour in a more comfortable and modern cabin, when it takes about 75 minutes to make the trip by car or shuttle on a day with almost no traffic, and two to three hours to make that trip when I-70 is clogged with ski traffic.  An hour is tough to match even if you fly.  So, I suspect that the market would still easily bear a high speed rail fare from Golden to Eagle of $60, which would easily cover all operating costs and make a dent in the infrastructure expense as well, without seriously reducing ridership.

Another recent study puts a 120 mile per hour mag lev high speed rail from Golden to Eagle (118 miles) at $13.5 billion, which is very similar to the previous study.  But, it also imagines that a comprehensive I-25 corridor 180 mile per hour high speed rail system from Fort Collins to Pueblo (177 miles) at $14 billion.  I'm skeptical that it would be that expensive to build a high speed rails system in the I-25 corridor, although ridership levels would probably be higher in that high population density corridor (at least up to Colorado Springs).

Interstate express bus service on I-25 and from Denver to Glenwood Springs is a baby step that is definitely worth a try, because it can be done now, involves only a modest financial commitment, and would provides a benchmark against which additional ridership and trip speed on high speed rail systems could be tested.

Footnote Re: The Ski Train

There is also a ski train from Denver to Winter Park during ski season that carries 30,000 passengers a year.  This is a separate service from the Amtrak California Zephyr service, is not part of the Amtrak system, and operates only seasonally.

13 February 2014

A Brief History of Democacy

Earlier today, I recapped the brief history of the economic system accurately described as communism, noting that this was an ephemeral phase in world history.  This follow up post, however, recalls the fact that democracy in its modern form or any approximation of it is also a very young form of government without a proven historical track record of stability.  So, it is not appropriate to assume that its current predominance means that we have reached the "end of history" so far as political arrangements go.

While communism is dead, and democratic capitalism is the predominant form of government in functioning, prosperous countries on Earth, it is too soon to declare that the end of history has arrived.  History offers many examples of long lived monarchies and few examples of long lived democracies.

Democracy has been very rare until very recently.

Prehistory and Legendary History

There is no evidence of the existence of any democracies at all in the Bronze Age or earlier than then for groups any larger than a tribe or band (a band is typically considered up to about 100 individuals, while a tribe might consist of dozens of bands and is a smaller social unit, for example, than the collective group of Jews in exile in the Biblical account or the barbarian tribes that brought about the collapse of the Western Roman empire, both of which would be called "chiefdoms" by anthropologists).

There are no descriptions of democratic self-government in Egyptian histories, Sumerian documents, Hittite documents, the Hebrew Bible, Chinese histories, Greek legendary histories or genuine Greek histories, the Rig Veda which is a legendary history and religious text of Northern South Asia, or the Avesta which is a legendary history and religious text of Iran.

Of course, it is worth noting that history itself and the first decent sized cites only date back to about 3500 BCE with multi-city sized kingdoms following soon afterwards, that prior to about 8000 BCE (Jericho) there were not even decent sized permanent villages except for a few places where villages based upon ocean coast fishing emerged.

Ancient and Medieval Democracies

The only notable and historically attested democracies that existed prior to 1200 CE in states of any size were: (1) a few democratic classical Greek city-states (e.g. Athens) which is also the only historically attested direct democracy of any consequence (from ca. 799 BCE to 356 BCE after which Alexander the Great and his successors ruled them until the Romans conquered Greece), (2) the Roman Republic (509 BCE to 27 BCE), (3) Iceland (930 CE-1262 CE), (4) at least a dozen Medieval self-governing cities called "communes" mostly in Germany and north-central Italy, and the (5) proto-legislative Medieval Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire and similar bodies in England and France.

These definitions of democracy are generous in each of these cases as the franchise was universally narrow rather than universal in the modern sense.  Women, children, slaves and other non-citizens were not entitled to vote, and frequently only property owners or even highly prosperous "plantation" sized property owners were entitled to vote.

There were at least a half a dozen small directly democratically governed Greek city-states and for a brief time they were united into "Leagues" with each city represented in a confederation and the individual city-states governed autonomously.

In the Roman case, which is notable as it was the only large state governed democratically, there were fewer than five hundred years in the history of the Roman Empire in which it was a "Republic", after which it reverted to its original state as a monarchy.  This is applying a generous definition of what constituted a Republic, as the traditional time span of the Roman Republic was interrupted by four dictatorships, one period of military rule, and multiple arguably extralegal successions, and as the processes involved weren't necessarily democratic by modern standards and involved a narrow franchise without a one man-one vote principle in most case.  Overall, the Roman Republic made up less than half of the history of a country that lasted, by tradition, from 753 BCE to 476 CE in the West, and several centuries longer in the East as the rump Byzantine Empire.

Iceland became a Scandinavian colony in 1262 CE and remained a colony until 1941, although the Althing met and had some political role during the colonial period as Iceland was a substantially self-governing colony.  As in the case of the Greek city-states, the number of people involved was modest.  Modern Iceland has a population of 315,000 people or so and its population during the Middle Ages would have been far, far smaller - no larger than a large Greek city-state.  Also, while the Icelandic people had a democratic assembly from 930 CE to 1262 CE, it did not have a full fledged state.  Rather than having an executive branch to, for example, arrest and punish law breakers, the assembly called the Althing simply authorized private individuals to take actions that would otherwise be unlawful as retaliation for violations of the law.

There were probably a dozen to a few dozen additional continental European "free cities" and independent monastic or academic communities from ca. 900 CE and into the modern era, such as the medieval communes of Germany and central-northern Italy.  It is this tradition from which democracy in self-governing Swiss cantons emerged.  As Wikipedia explains:
During the 11th century in northern Italy a new political and social structure emerged and the medieval communes developed to the form of city states. The civic culture which arose from these urbs was remarkable. In most places where communes arose (e.g. France, Britain and Flanders) they were absorbed by the monarchical state as it emerged.

Almost uniquely, they survived in northern and central Italy to become independent and powerful city-states. The breakaway from their feudal overlords by these communes occurred in the late 12th century and 13th century, during the Investiture Controversy between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor: Milan led the Lombard cities against the Holy Roman Emperors and defeated them, gaining independence (battles of Legnano, 1176, and Parma, 1248 - see Lombard League). Meanwhile the Republic of Venice, Pisa and Genoa were able to conquer their naval empires on the Mediterranean sea (in 1204 Venice conquered one-fourth of Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade). Cities such as Parma, Ferrara, Verona, Padua, Lucca, Mantua and others were able to create stable states at the expenses of their neighbors, some of which lasted until modern times.

In southern and insular Italy, autonomous communes were rarer, Sassari in Sardinia being one example.

In the Holy Roman Empire, the emperors always had to face struggles with other powerful players: the land princes on the one hand, but also the cities and communes on the other hand. The emperors thus invariably fought political (not always military) battles to strengthen their position and that of the imperial monarchy. In the Golden Bull of 1356, emperor Charles IV outlawed any conjurationesconfederationes, and conspirationes, meaning in particular the city alliances (Städtebünde), but also the rural communal leagues that had sprung up. Most Städtebünde were subsequently dissolved, sometimes forcibly, and where refounded, their political influence was much reduced. 
Nevertheless some of this communes (as Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Hamburg) were able to survive in Germany for centuries and became almost independent city-states vassals to the Holy Roman Emperors (see Free imperial city).
Germany as a whole had a population of about 5-6 million in the year 1100 CE, and only a small portion of that population lived in free cities.  If the populations of Switzerland, Italy and Germany now were roughly proportional to what they were then, the population of northern and central Italy around 1100 CE was probably about 2-3 million, and the population of all of modern Switzerland was probably around 500,000 to 600,000.

The Kingdom of Sicily founded in 1130 CE prevented independent city-states from arising in Southern Italy.

Oxford, England may have also been democratic and reasonably autonomous at some point in the Middle Ages, but it subsequently came under the control of British authorities.

The Holy Roman Empire that claimed much of central Europe was never very powerful relative to its dozens of local princes, secular and religious alike.  But, during the reign of Maximilian I (1493-1519 CE), an Imperial Diet (a.k.a. Reichstag) was convened (not for the first time) in an effort by the him to obtain widespread assent from a fairly broadly representative body to the imposition of new imperial taxes in exchange for whatever concessions he would agree to in exchange (in the end, the effort was a bust).  Similar, ad hoc consultative bodies for these limited purposes existed in the Middle Ages in France and England that would in each case ultimately presage true legislative bodies in full fledged constitutional monarchies in each of these countries.

Late 18th Century Democracies

Only a handful of independent countries had democratic regimes in the late 18th century:

England.  England was the first state larger than a tiny city-state, canton or small island like Iceland to have democratic government since the fall of the Roman Republic ca. 27 BCE.  Arguably, England was democratic since the Magna Carta of 1215, the English period of republican government (i.e. without a king) from 1649 to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, or the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 when the English Bill of Rights and certain perogatives of parliament were established, but more realistically, it was only a truly democratic when the first Prime Minister was appointed in 1721 as there was no democratically elected executive branch prior to that point, and parliament's sovereignty would not be established until the 19th century.  The franchise in the English democratic system was also quite narrow until well into the 19th century.

The United States.   The restive thirteen colonies declared independence in 1776, but for a much smaller territory than its current boundaries.  They had limited democratic rights in colonial legislatures on the model of their colonial master, England, starting in the 1600s, while the Puritans had a fairly fully democratic form of local government from the start in the 1600s of their own design and based upon democratic governance structures for Protestant churches.  While Martin Luther is seen as the first theological figure of the Reformation (which begins in 1517), but the Protestant Swiss theologian John Calvin's work in the mid-1500s, was seminal in the area of democratic church governance, which would later provide a model for secular democratic reformers.

Switzerland.  The Swiss Confederation of 1648 to 1798 when it collapsed had oligarchic rule at the canton level, but only ad hoc agreements on a case by case basis divided by religion and was generally disorganized; power was in councils established at the canton level.  Also, the pre-Swiss federation sovereign cantons were very small; there are 26 Swiss cantons in a country that currently has 8 million people and it had thirteen cantons and far fewer in the 17th-19th centuries.  Council members generally served for life and only aristocrats had any political say.  Per Wikipedia:
During the 17th century seats in the councils became increasingly hereditary. There were between 50 and 200 families that controlled all the key political, military and industrial positions in Switzerland. In Bern out of 360 burgher families only 69 still had any power and could be elected by the end of the 18th century. However, the aristocracy remained generally open and in some cities new families were accepted if they were successful and rich enough.
Switzerland was briefly united as a Helvetic Republic on the French model from 1798-1803 CE, when it was an autonomous dependent state of revolutionary France.  A confederation of independent cantons was restored from 1803 to 1848, at which point a federal constitution uniting Switzerland again and to the present was adopted.  The quality of democratic rule vis-a-vis ancien regime oligarchy improved greatly in Switzerland during the 19th century prior to federation, particularly in Protestant cantons.

France.  The French Revolution of 1789 briefly established a Republic, but by 1793 after a convoluted evolution of the regime, monarchy was restored until 1871.  The bloody, confusing and lawless character of this revolution set back the cause of democratic government by about eighty years in the rest of Europe by provide a bad example of what democratic government involved.

* European Free Cities.  At least some autonomous and democratically self-governing free cities, and academic and religious communities may have persisted into the 18th century from the Medieval era.  But, there were probably far fewer at this point because monarchs in this period had begun to assert more control over their territory and to consolidate more territory into coherent geographical entities that left fewer gaps outside the control of the more powerful monarchs.

By 1796, there were four city-state Republics left in the vicinity of Italy (although some controlled more territory than their immediate urban area). Genoa and Lucca were on the Northwestern coast of modern Italy and were fairly compact.  Venice filled the space between Switzerland and the Adriatic Sea and also extended along the Adriatic Sea's eastern coast that is now controlled by modern day Croatia.  At the far end of this part of Venice's territory was a small city-state called Ragusa that also bordered the Ottoman Empire.

Map via Wikipedia.

More Recent Democracies

Most current democratic capitalist regimes are very young and many have shown signs of non-democratic instability in the 20th century or later.

Democracies in Europe and North America.

France was briefly democratic at the end of the 19th century, but its revolution ended badly and lead to a new monarchy before democracy took hold more or less permanently in 1871, although the post-revolutionary monarchy in France from 1793 to 1871 included consultation with a democratically elected parliament supporting an Emperor who held exclusive executive and judicial power.

A substantial part of the United States attempted to secede from 1861-1865 (although the resulting government was democratic by long term historic standards although with a narrow franchise), so no one regime was present for that entire period.  Much of the Western United States was non-democratically ruled by France or Spain or Mexico or Russia or Britain or the King of Hawaii, or by territorial governors, until much later dates than 1776 CE.  For example, Alaska was a possession of imperial Russia for much of the history of the United States.

The Kingdom of Sardinia became a constitutional monarchy in 1848 in the wake of the anti-monarchical uprising of that year that mostly failed elsewhere.  This constitutional monarchy, which had democratic elections with a limited franchise and certain civil rights for its citizens, expanded to include almost all of modern northern and central Italy (much of which had been home to democratic city states since Medieval times which lost their autonomy as this point, but not the right to democratic participation) by 1861 when the Kingdom was rechristened the Kingdom of Italy.  The Kingdom of Sicily, which included the southern portion of the Italian peninsula was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, bringing limited democracy to all of Italy at that point.

There were dozens of smaller states in what is now Germany as recently as 1814, after the French under Napoleon conquered them he merged these states into a Confederation of the Rhine in 1806 that imposed French style constitutional monarchy upon the princes in this region.  In 1815 when French control ended, thirty nine states (35 monarchies ruled by "princes" and 4 free cities) more or less identical to those of the Confederation of the Rhine joined to form a loose association called German Confederation for mutual defense against the larger Prussian and Austrian Kingdoms.  An effort to draw up a democratic constitution for Germany at Frankfurt in 1848 was crushed by the King of Prussia.  Germany didn't exist as unified country in approximately its present form until the 1871 when it arose from territory annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia and proclaimed itself the German Empire, at which point the entire German Empire (including basically Austria, Prussia and the German Confederation) became a constitutional monarchy.

Almost every democratic capitalist country in continental Europe had to start over from scratch after World War II in 1945 after Nazi expansion had turned their states into authoritarian puppets of, or close allies of Hitler.

Greece had a coup in 1967.  Portugal had a coup in 1974.  There was coup in Cyprus in 1974.  A coup in Spain was narrowly averted by it constitutional monarch in 1981.  The successor regimes to the Soviet Union and its allies date to 1990 or later.  West and East Germany reunite in 1990.  The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia start to split up in 1991.  Czechoslovakia splits up in 1993 and in the same year Boris Yeltsin in a newly independent Russia defeats an attempted coup in Russia.  Montenegro and Kosovo broke off from Serbia even more recently.  For several years of the Chechen civil war, Russia was not effectively in control of that part of its territory.

Recent Democracies in Colonial Territories.

Almost every country outside the Americas that was at one time or another a colony of a European power (except India which gained self-governance in 1935, 79 years ago) gained independence sometime after 1945.  This was followed, first by a violent division of India into non-Muslim India and Muslim Pakistan, and in the 1970s by the further division of Pakistan as Bangladesh broke away from it in a civil war.  Pakistan and Bangladesh have had many coups since their formation.

The modal date at which these countries gained independence is 1960, just 54 years ago.  Most of these nations have had functioning democratic capitalist regimes for only a small fraction of the time that they have been independent nations.

Many nations in the Americas (including Canada) gained independence in 19th century, but all or almost all of the nations of Latin America have experienced many coups and long periods of non-democratic rule.

For example, Mexico was ruled by royally appointed Spanish governors starting around 1521 CE when the conquistador's destroyed the Aztec Empire and was briefly ruled by a local emperor who was a general involved in the independence movement before a Republic was declared in Mexico in 1823.  Democratic government was interrupted after 41 years, when King Maximilian I ruled from 1864-1867.  A decade after he was deposed, a dictatorship by Porfirio Dias was in place from 1877-1880 and 1884-1911 (all but four years of a 34 year period of time), followed by six years of war and rule by competing local warlords in a time of anarchy until a new constitution was adopted in 1917.  Multiparty politics persisted in Mexico under the new constitution for twelve years.  Then, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) became a dominant party from 1929 until 1997 when it lost a congressional majority for the first time since 1929; in the year 2000, the PRI lost the Presidency for the first time in more than 70 years.  Since 1997, Mexico has had just 17 years with a competitive in practice multiparty political system.  Other parties weren't banned from 1929 to 1997 but they had only a little more clout than third parties do in the American two party system during that time period.


Multiparty democratic systems have been the majority form of government in the world for only about half a generation.  There is no obvious alternative that seems poised to replace these systems, but until they have been widespread and stable for much longer in a much larger part of the world, it is too early to assume that this is the only possible viable and stable political system going forward.

Indeed, the evidence that democracy is stable over the very long term (in terms of multiple centuries) is not at all solid.  It is entirely possible that democracies are only metastable and have a strong tendency to devolve into monarchies or dictatorships or oligarchies, given sufficient time.  On the other hand, it is also possible that democracies are only unstable early on in the process of becoming established and then are at least as hard to dislodge as any given monarchical dynasty.

Switzerland Votes To Restrict Immigration

Swiss voters have narrowly backed a referendum that would restrict immigration (50.34% of the vote was "yes", the balance was "no"). A map showing how different parts of Switzerland votes is here.

Notably, "the Yes vote was higher in cantons with fewer immigrants."  This is also true of political support for anti-immigration measures in most of the United States and in other developed countries where immigration is a political issue.

Tyler Cohen discusses the results at Marginal Revolution in an analysis that is mostly wrong.  He suggests that there is some absolute threshold of foreign born percentage that triggers backlash.  But, as the fact that these kinds of measures are supported mostly strongly in places with relatively low immigrant percentages indicates, this theory almost surely misapprehends the social and political dynamics driving xenophobia.

The Brief Blip of Communism

Cultures and political-economic systems that pervasively influence those cultures are subject to selective pressure.  Many aspects of a society aren't strongly subject to selective pressure because those aspects of the society don't influence its ability to survive.  But, a significant shortcoming in any critical feature of a society, relative to its competitors, will make that kind of society short lived.

Sometimes, a society's flaws are obvious.  The Shaker movement's prohibition against having children doomed it at the outset.  At other times, for example in the case of communism, it may take a generation, or two, or three, for it to become clear that some fundamental premise of that society is so flawed that the society can't survive without compromising principles that go to its very core.

Communism is a good example.  On one hand, it has features that make it very attractive in the early days of regime trying to establish a stable, workable system of government.  The one party system helps revolutionaries consolidate power and mute potentially schismatic disputes over the movement's ideology, while providing many patronage positions with which to reward even minor supporters.  The ideology itself aligns itself with the numerous poor masses with the promise of more resources, while providing a justification for stripping power and property from the few of the elites who benefit from the current regime. For the communist, revolution is a premise and something that will inevitably happen sometime, rather than an affront to well established truths from the people's heritage.  The ideology also provides a way to defang threats from religious leaders.

But, in practice, it doesn't work.  Not a single communist system lasted a century before liberalizing so fully that its economics, at least, had become merely a mixed economy socialist system with private property and somewhat regulated marketplaces.  Only a few lasted a full half century.  Communism persists as a full fledged economic system only in two small countries: Cuba and North Korea.  Recent reforms in Cuba suggest that it too will leave that short list.

The last stalwart, more so even than the collapse of the Soviet Union, is the perfect controlled experiment that shows that at some point, a choice of economic systems and policies and political systems and policies, can matter profoundly.

In 1945, Korea was a unified, homogeneous nation and to the extent that one part of the country was more prosperous, it was probably the North.  But, since it was divided into North and South Korea in 1948, the two nations, each with a Cold War superpower patron, have taken radically different paths driven by their policy choices.

 In 2014, South Korea is a fully developed country with a finally fairly functional Western style parliamentary system and prosperous market economy with considerable individual freedoms that is a play in the international arena on an equal footing with its peers.

Meanwhile, in 2014, North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia, despite the fact that it does not have a third world birthrate, a legacy of costly recent wars, or political instability.  Satellite imagery of the Korean Peninsula at night shows South Korea aglow with electric lights and North Korea almost completely dark.  North Korea's regime is the most totalitarian in the world, and it is isolated internationally, in part as a consequence of the regime's desire to isolate it.  At times, North Korea has even refused foreign aid while its people starved in large numbers from a bad harvest.  Only a lunatic would argue in hindsight that North Korea chose the better system back in 1948 when its independence was restored to it after 35 years of Japanese occupation and 3 years of Allied forces occupation.

There are no clear signals that North Korea is actually on the verge of collapse.  It's system works well enough that it does not fear dissent from within, that its military discourages outsiders from trying to change its regime by force, and that it can continue its meager and grey existence year after year.  But, nobody free to choose a new political system in a newly independent state, or some other political vacuum would willingly choose to follow its path.  And, if someday the current pseudo-monarchy collapses, perhaps at the hands of the few insiders who are aware of how badly it is faring relative to the rest of the world, the need for change will be obvious.

Communism, one of the most profound social experiments of the 20th century, failed and failed profoundly and definitively in less than a century, and in most cases, in less than half a century.  Any new candidate to become a leading political and economic system and overall culture of whole peoples that falls short in some way critical to an important part of its functionality will meet a similar fate.

The Rise and Fall of Communism In Europe and North Asia.

Soviet style Communism existed in Russia (which had expanded across North Asia to the Pacific Coast in the imperial era) starting in 1917 (the Russian Revolution) and soon spread across Eastern Europe.  Soviet style Communism persist until about 1993, just seventy-six years.  Even the most extreme and isolated version of Soviet style communism, in Albania had adopted a more or less Western style market economy by 1993.  There are people who were born before the Russian Revolution who outlived all of the communist systems in Europe.

There were ongoing developments including a war in Bosnia that officially ended in 1995, later separations of Montenegro and Kosovo from Serbia including military activity in Kosovo, the Chechen wars in Russia, ongoing fights over the nature of successor states in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova.  But, in each of those cases all sides in the conflicts had abandoned Soviet style communism.  Even recalcitrant Belarus has been more inclined to focus on aligning itself with Russia than maintaining a communist economic system.  Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan continue to have regimes quite similar politically and economically to the late Soviet system, but Turkmenistan purported to end its one party regime in 2012 and Uzbekistan is still more of a market economy now than it was in the Soviet era despite its authoritarian political regime.

The regimes that followed the Soviet style systems in Russia and Eastern Europe are not models of modern capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.  But, all have converted to non-centrally planned economies to some extent and have committed, at least in principle, to democratic constitutions with more than one political party.


Mongolia is squeezed geographically between the Soviet Union and China, the only neighbors with which it shares boundaries, so it is little surprise that it adopted a Communist political system for a time.  But, historically, Mongolia system more closely followed the lead of the Soviets than of Maoist China.  Mongolia declared independence from China with Imperial Russian backing in 1911, and followed the lead of its 1917 Revolution to establish a Soviet style Communist regime in 1921.  In concert with other Communist nations in the Soviet sphere of influence, it disavowed its one party Communist system of government in 1990 like its East European peers and adopted a new multiparty parliamentary system under a new constitution in 1992.  Much like formerly Communist peers in Hungary and the Ukraine, Mongolia has had vigorous political fights between Communist leaning and reform minded candidates that have spilled over into riots and protests, but have done so within the framework of a Western style parliamentary political system.

The Rise and Fall of Communism in Asia


The People's Republic of China under Mao was declared in 1949, but to be generous, some parts of China were under Maoist Communist rule starting much earlier, sometime after 1937 when Japan invaded the Chinese mainland and chaos reigned.  But, the tide started to turn in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao as paramount leader of China.  By the mid-1980s, China has already started implementing market economy oriented reforms that have gradually expanded to the point where modern China cannot be fairly described as a Maoist Communist economic system, although it isn't quite a Western style capitalist or mixed economy style system either.

China had an economic system that could legitimately be called fully communist for only about half as long as the Soviet style communist states of Europe.

The evolution of China's political system has been more subtle.  China's communist party still has a monopoly over all significant political offices.  It continues to have a policies suppressing political autonomy and actively diluting regional ethnic identities in its historically non-Han Chinese interior provinces and regions, most famously including Tibet.  Essentially all legitimate major media outlets are censored with a heavy hand.  Religion is suppressed and personal freedoms are highly constrained in a wide variety of circumstances compared to the world's most democratic capitalist developed and developing countries.  Life as a dissenter from Communist party and government policies remains fraught with personal risk and all dissenting political and religious movements must operate on a covert basis.

But, China is gradually growing less totalitarian and more democratic.  China has free and fair democratic, non-partisan local elections in a large share of its territory.  The internal party processes by which the Communist party chooses which personalities who be chosen to be elected officials and leaders in Communist party positions and Communist party controlled elected offices in large municipalities and regional governments, while not necessarily "free and fair" by the standards of international political observers, are also not foregone conclusions and require candidates to marshal significant support from politically active individuals.  The "party line" within the Communist party has grown fuzzy enough that a wide array of policies can be advanced so long as this is done within the language and processes of the one party regime.  The prospect of revolutionary political reforms in response to the Tianamen Square protests in 1989 were put down and met with retrenchment rather than reform.  But, it is also true that even senior level Chinese political leaders are not indifferent to public opinion in modern China.

China's widespread use of politically driven executions for non-homicide crimes has been dramatically curtailed over the last decade or so.  It has become a practical impossible in such a vast, reasonably viable, mostly market driven economy to be as totalitarian as it could in the Maoist period from 1949 through the 1960s.  Rather than being impervious to outside ideas, China has developed a rich, demimond of bootleg Western entertainment, tech savvy young people who know how to circumvent official government censorship of the Internet, and skilled professionals who received higher education in the West.

Like the Soviet Union, a number of China's smaller neighbors followed its economic lead.  In particular, its Southeast Asian neighbors Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and its East Asian neighbor, North Korea, were all significantly influenced by China's political and economic model and adopted communist regimes.  But, as China eased away from a strict Maoist system, so did most of its neighbors.


North Vietnam adopted Communism after World War II.  Both North and South Vietnam first found common cause in defeating French efforts to reassert colonial rule, which they managed by 1954.   Then with Russian and Chinese support, a North Vietnamese communist state was formed, and this government promptly sought to gain control over capitalist, U.S. backed South Vietnam.  The North Vietnamese were successful and reunited the country under Communist rule at the end of the Vietnam War in 1976.

Like China, Vietnam continues to be a Communist state, but it began to liberalize its economy in 1987 and is far less totalitarian now than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s.  By 1995, trade and diplomatic relations with the United States (and the rest of the world) were restored.  Foreigners now regularly visit and conduct business in Vietnam.  Also, while Vietnam is a one party state, the Communist party has allowed a reasonable regular rotations of political leaders to take place.  Vietnam's current President took office in 2011 and its current prime minister took office in 2006.

Thus Vietnam's political and economic history, closely parallels that of China.  Vietnam too had a truly communist regime for only about half as long as European nations in Soviet sphere did.


The current situation is Laos is similar to that of Vietnam, but its hard core communist regime was shorter lived.  After World War II, Laos was a constitutional monarchy on a French model.  Armed conflict began in 1960 and eventually after diplomatic maneuvering and a long civil war a regime supported by the North Vietnamese government declared a Communist regime in 1975.

Laos opened its doors to foreign ties with countries other than Vietnam in 1988, normalized trade relations with the United States in 2004, and symbolically crowned its adoption of a market economy by opening a stock market in 2011.

Laos had a truly communist economic model for only about half of a generation.


Cambodia's story was bloodier.  King Norodom Sihanouk tried to maintain a neutral stance for Cambodia between the West and the Communists, but a civil war with the Communist Khmer Rouge broke out in 1970 seeking the overthrow of a pro-U.S. Premier, culminating with the Khmer Rouge forces taking control in 1975.  Four years of Khmer Rouge rule depopulated cities and left 1.7 million people dead, mostly for being bourgeois in social class, or being opposed to Khmer Rouge rule.  Vietnam stepped into the chaos and effectively occupied Cambodia as a colonial ruler molding local political institutions in its own image and putting down Khmer Rouge resistance from 1979 to 1989.

After 1989, a constitutional monarchy was restored, first under King Sihanouk and then his successor son, the Khmer Rouge insurgency was put down in just a few more years, and a multiparty electoral system was instituted in 1993.  Those elections were promptly undone in a 1997 coup by a co-prime minister who first took office in 1985 and has continued to rule since then with the mandate of subsequent flawed elections.

Like Laos, Cambodia was only under full fledged communist rule for about fifteen years.  It was just ten years, if one does not stretch the definition of a Communist regime to include the nominally Communist Khmer Rouge whose core policy for four years was to kill off their betters and return to the stone age.  While Cambodia's democratic institutions are flawed, unlike China, Vietnam and Laos, it has shed not just Communist economic policy, but also the single party, Communist political system that they have formally retained but have modestly liberalized.

North Korea

Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945.  When World War II ended the allies agreed that Russia would fill the political vacuum in the North and that the United States would do so in the South, until Korea could be granted its independence.  A Soviet style post-war regime was established in the North and a Western style democratic capitalist regime was established in the South, beginning in 1948.  The Korean War followed from 1950 to 1953, until it ended in a stalemate at the 38th parallel of latitude formalized in an armistice that was not even a full fledged peace treaty.

Today, of course, North Korea is the only country in the world with a full fledged Communist economic system and a one party political system as rigid and totalitarian as that of the early Stalinists and Maoists.  The vast majority of North Korean are more isolated from outside world than any other peoples in the world with the exception of isolated "tribal" peoples in the interior Papua New Guinea, the depths of the Amazon jungle, a handful of tribes in the Congo, and indigenous populations in the Andaman Islands.

While the rest of the world has moved on, the 24.7 million people of North Korea had experienced disciplined suffering for 69 years of a strict Soviet style Communist economic system and totalitarian political regime that seems frozen in 1953 apart from its subsequent acquisition of a few nuclear weapons and related ballistic missile technology.  Over time, however, isolated North Korea's one party system has mutated into a de facto monarchy, it was ruled from its formation by Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994.   Then, North Korea was ruled by his son Kim Jong Il, until his death in 2011.  Finally, Kim Jong Un took over the reigns of the country when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011.

North Korea has not undergone any of the economic or political liberalization that every communist country, except Soviet era Albania, experienced.

Communism In The Rest of The World

The Classic Political Economy Progression Of Newly Independent Countries

In the rest of Southeast Asia, West and Southwest Asia, Latin America and Africa, a monotonous pattern emerges.  This pattern is shared in its essentials by a number of European countries (e.g. Russia, Germany, Greece, Portugal).  Indeed, in some ways, Russia's political experience is a template for newly independent nations everywhere.

First, the country is either a political dependency, either of a European political power or the Ottoman Empire, or a decadent monarchy.

Then, the country is granted or declares its independence and adopts a Western style multiparty democratic constitution and a first election is held.

Within just a few months or years, the democratically elected regime elected under the new constitution is either ousted in a coup, or subverts the system from the inside. Generally, the successor justifies the power grab with claimed faults of the democratically elected civilians: the election that put them in place was unfair, they are incompetent, they are corrupt, they are ignoring the will of the people in the streets, they have violated human rights, or perhaps they are not committed to a democratic form of government and are in the process of establishing an authoritarian regime worse than the one that it replaced.

The people who depose the regime elected under the Western style constitution (which rarely lasts until a second election and almost never makes it to a third one) establish a non-democratic regimes that takes one of several similar forms.  The new regime may adopt a one party system, it may rule as a military dictatorship, it may be a theocracy, it may maintain the pretense of a multiparty democracy while vigorously suppressing dissent and rigging elections, in a few cases it may even be simply a legitimate "dominant party system" in which the mere power of incumbency and artful measures to co-opt dissenters is enough to keep one dominant party that played a critical role in the formative process of the current political culture is securely in control of all parts of the government for multiple generations without having to cheat in the electoral process.

This regime remains in place for at least a generation or two, sometimes interrupted by coups that simply put a new dictator in power, and sometimes briefly reinstating a Western style democracy similar to the kind present at the outset for a similarly brief period before reverting to a non-democratic mode under a new or old strongman.

In many cases, either in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, or the early period of the 21st century that we are in today, the existing autocrat either voluntarily liberalizes the political and economic system, or new elections are held in one of those brief interludes between dictatorial regimes and the democratically elected political leaders somehow managed to hold onto power.

A less common variant on this sequence involve independent countries that start as monarchies, rather than adopting Western style constitutions.  Some of these countries have maintained totalitarian monarchy regimes ever since then (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Morocco, and Cambodia).  Others have tried to liberalize into constitutional monarchies, often only to fall into the same pattern as nations that try to form Western style political systems at the outset.

Are Non-Democratic Governments That Nationalize Major Industries Really Communist?

Why is all of this relevant to considering the almost past era of communism?

Because, for the most part, authoritarian or dominant party systems have exerted more state control over the economy than developed Western style democratic capitalist states.  Natural resources and key industries where there are economies of scale are nationalized or controlled by a small oligarchy of cronies linked to the ruling regime.  Price controls and rationing, and politically motivated use of welfare state resources are typical.  International trade is often tightly controlled.

Popular peace is secured with state welfare distributions, a reasonably functional law enforcement regime to maintain domestic order (although not always uniformly, particularly if some local illegitimate figure can maintain control in a way that is subordinate to the ruling regime), and by taking draconian steps to put down dissent.

But, in the vast majority of cases, even those where formally, the state is declared to be a one party Communist regime in the image of Soviet or Maoist regimes, the ideological and practical commitment of the new regime to a communist form of economic management is very shallow.  References to Communist ideology are for them more window dressing than they are the driving motivations for the practical solutions that they feel are necessary to stay in power and manage their countries.  The famines that killed millions under Stalin and Mao's experiments with agricultural reforms and the mass slaughter of the Khmer Rouge, taught dictators following in their footsteps not to repeat those mistakes.

As a result, for the most part, authoritarian or dominant party regimes in places like Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, Indonesia, Venezuela, or Mexico are not fairly characterized as having ever been true communist economies.  They haven't been doctrinaire free market economies either, but are more accurately described as non-ideological state control leaning authoritarian socialist economies, than as expressly anti-market systems sincerely seeking to replicate Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideals on a comprehensive basis.

A few Latin American countries, and perhaps a few African and Southeast Asian countries did briefly cross the line into the realm of genuine ideological communism for brief periods in the 20th century, but for the most part with less of a pervasive societal impact than in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Soviet sphere.


The one exception to that rule is Cuba where Fidel Castro has quite consciously attempted to establish a state with a Communist political-economy in the Soviet sense, and that regime remains in place.  Interestingly, however, like North Korea, this regime also seems to be evolving into what amounts to a monarchy.

In 1959, Fidel Castro led a successful communist revolution against a Cuban dictator who had dispensed with democratic institutions in 1952.  He ruled for 46 years until 2006 when he turned over power to his 75 year old brother Raul Castro.  This small island country (it now has 11 million people) in the Caribbean adopted a quite complete Communist system and has maintained it since then, although starting in 2011, Raul Castro did institute significant market and private property oriented economic reforms that have arguably converted Cuba to a state leaning socialist mixed economy, and Cuba has become more open to outsiders in the last two decades or so with the end of the Cold War.

While the one party political system under Fidel Castro soon evolved into a somewhat benign dictatorship, Casto's regime was never as totalitarian as 1950s and 1960s China, as the Soviet Union in its early and middle years, or as regimes like the Khmer Rouge.  Certainly, Casto imprisoned people for political purposes and suppressed dissent, although it was less repressive than many of its peers.  But, Cuba always maintained active international dealings (particularly with the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc in Europe, and China, which helped support it when it needed international assistance of one kind or another), pretty much always honored its commitment to the economic well being of the common man, did not conduct indiscriminate executions, and wasn't nearly as corrupt as many faux communist regimes masking mere dictatorships.  The carrot that encouraged Cuba to take this approach was the fact that tourism and a favorable international image have always been important to its economic survival.  The other tool available to Cuba is that rather than imprisoning or executing dissenters, it could allow them to simply sail away into the Caribbean, providing it with a safety valve for dealing with serious dissent that did not create martyrs or heroes for dissenters to rally around.

Cuba's half century old experiment with communism is still probably more communist in its economic practice than any other communist regime in the world today except for North Korea.  But, its recent liberalization of its economic policies makes it unlikely that this will persist more than a decade or two more.