Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Giant Step Closer to Senator Franken

The Minnesota three-judge Election court has ruled that 400 ballots will be counted. Unless Norm Coleman gets 313 of them to 87, Franken will win (78% Coleman). But among these ballots are many that actually cannot be opened at all. The court needs to see more information on some of the 400 to see if they were legally cast. The Court stressed it would not necessarily count all 400. So Coleman is looking at getting upwards of 80% of a mostly-randomly-selected pool of voters. The Minnesota Supreme Court, which engineeered this special electoral process, is unlikely to overturn it on appeal. Nor do I think the US Supreme Court will wish to get involved, since this was a detailed and transparent recount process unlike Florida's. (And, after all, the Constitution says that the Senate shall be the judge of its own elections).

I predict Senator Franken will take the oath of office before this month is out.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

On the Fall of Empires

I am watching the classic movie Ben Hur (1959) tonight.  In it, there is a scene were Judah Ben Hur confronts his Roman friend, Messala, about the Roman Empire.  He says, "Rome is an affront to God!  It is strangling my people, my country and the whole Earth.  But not forever and I tell you the day Rome falls, there will be a shout of freedom such as the world has never heard before!"  

There are many around the world, who for a wide variety of often contradictory reasons, would agree with replacing "Rome" with "America" in that statement.  Muslim fundamentalists, secular nationalists of various stripes and from various countries (outside the US of course where the nationalists would never say such a thing about America), many varieties of secular leftists from Marxists to environmentalist radicals to anarchists have invoked this kind of statement about the United States.  

This all raises two obvious questions.  First, is the United States declining as a super power/world hegemon?  Second, what happens when hegemons lose their position?

As for the first question, I think the evidence is mixed.  Certainly the US cannot impose its will on other countries without limits.  But then it never really could so pointing to that as evidence of decline isn't really fair.  It is also true that there are other countries in the world increasing in global influence both economically and militarily.  I'm thinking of countries like China, India and the EU (at least in the economic sphere).  But is power necessarily zero sum?  Does the rise in capabilities of some countries necessarily mean the decline of others?  I think that's a question that is very much open to debate and the answer depends on how you define power - a concept that is notoriously slippery.  If power is the ability to do x y or z, it is not necessarily zero sum so long as no other country can prevent their doing it.  Nuclear weapons place limits on what countries can do but also on what countries be prevented from doing.  The US can't invade a country that has nukes but because the US also has nukes, even a great power like China or Russia can't reasonably expect to prevent the US from invading Iraq for example short of their willingness to threaten nuclear war over the matter.  

As for what happens when hegemons decline, there are a variety of possibilities.  When Rome collapsed, there was no great shout of freedom.  Instead there was widespread suffering followed by hundreds of years ignorance, poverty, war and disease.  Indeed, the Roman empire, for all its flaws, was almost certainly preferable to the petty tyrannies that rose from its ashes.  The world would be far worse off if a hypothetical American decline took the form of the Roman collapse.  

The decline of the British and French Empires of the 19th century provide another example.  The British Empire in particular didn't so much collapse as fade away.  For hundreds of years after the fall of the western Roman Empire, the city of Rome decayed and was little more than a ruin with a big church and village built in its midsts. But for Britain and France the loss of their empires led to a relative brief and moderate decline in prosperity lasting no more than a couple of decades.  British hegemony was replaced by American hegemony with little loss to Britain.  

Why did the British lose their empire without losing their shirts (or houses)?  A big part of the answer is that the US governments pursued very similar policies to the British.  Trade and freedom of the sea lanes along with the expansion of stability and the rule of law were priorities of the British governments at the turn of the 20th century just as they are of the US governments at the turn of the 21st.  A big reason for that is that the rise of American power was in large part due to its taking advantage of the global system set up by the British (and to some extent the French).  

So assuming the US is in decline (an assumption with which I do not necessarily agree), there still remains the question of how it will lose its position?  Will it lose its position like Rome did - with an ugly collapse followed by global despair?  Or will it pass the torch to a like-minded rising power that owes its improving position to same global system that American power sustained?  

Anyway, I think these are interesting questions.  I'd especially like to hear from our old friend Dr. Von Brawn about this - come on, Dude, I know you're check in from time to time.  Chime in.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Republican "budget"

Have you seen the Republicans' "budget"? Because it's pretty pitiful. Ezra Klein's reaction is the best mainstream one, with lines like

Bush, famously, described his first budget by saying, "It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it." Indeed it was, and did. This isn't. There are no numbers. Let me repeat that: The Republican budget proposal does not say how much money they would raise, or spend.
but for my money, the best reaction on the internet comes from
the thread at Maybe the best line:
... instead of a budget they have a crayon drawing of a bald eagle high-fiving jesus.
And then there's the mockery of the worst flowchart in history (no, honestly, it's really in the budget):

We get such highlights from the FARK thread as:


captioned as : this was in their rough draft

Highly recommended reading if you need a laugh. Both the original PDF and the FARK thread.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Poor, Poor Jack

If you haven't seen it, read Jake DeSantis' resignation letter from AGI published in the New York Times.

I somehow I don't feel moved by his whiny ass, self-aggrandizing arguments.

First he claims that he wasn't responsible for what these other guys did, nor did he get compensated from credit default swaps, so he shouldn't have to give up his money. OK,well THIS guy obviously never played team sports. When the team loses, everyone looses be they a bench sitter or a full on participant.

Then he argues that contracts made between him and AIG are being broken. OK. I'll cede that point to him. I fess up to a double standard. If labor has a contract and management fails to abide by it, then I say it's wrong. I should apply the same standard here. AIG should have renegotiated its contracts with its employees like the automakers have done and are currently doing. However, AIG is something of a special case. You take billions from the US government, consider your contract renegotiated. You agree to take a $1 a year salary, consider your contract renegotiated. Oh, but I see, that was OK because he was going to get a bonus. So it wasn't the loss of the bottle that makes him cry, it's the removal of his pacifier. What does that tell you about Wall Street?

How does he think workers feel when they are told they can keep their jobs, but the have to take wage and hourly cuts? They don't have any bonuses to make up the difference.

Then he claims that he stayed with AIG rather than take another position out of loyalty to the company and . . . and this one makes me barf in my mouth . . . "civic duty". Spare me. Civic duty would have required that he pay all his taxes, served on jury duty when called, and maybe even volunteered at a community event. I could be wrong, but I doubt he did any of those things. Civic duty is taking less money to work in government, serving in the armed forces, or go teaching in a poor school. There is no civic duty involved in keeping a multimillion dollar a year job for a large Wall Street firm. Besides, if he is so great, someone will hire him. Then again, publishing this in the NYT probably means retirement is the best option.

Finally, he doesn't understand how work and skill should be valued. He seems to think he is entitled to huge sums of money because he worked so much. Well, I work hard and I am dedicated. That doesn't entitle me to anything. My boyfriend works 12 hours days and over weekends and he doesn't get million dollar bonuses. He doesn't even take OT for any of it. So do a lot of very skilled people who are a lot less well paid and much more critical to society –medical personnel, utility workers, soldiers, social workers, lawyers, teachers, and firemen all come to mind. People who are working 3 jobs to support families don't get paid $700+K bonuses after taxes. So what the guy is really saying is that it "I did it for the money.", which isn't the same thing as saying I did it out of loyality and civic duty.

So do I feel sorry for Mr. DeSantis? Not in the least. Since he likes to work so hard, let him go work in an inner city school for awhile. Then maybe he'll quit his whining.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

China Proposes an Alternative to the Dollar

Some time ago, the question was raised on this blog, "What happens if there is a sudden shift the current balance of demand for US treasury notes...? What if central banks decided that they no longer required as many US dollars for their international reserve?" Certain contributors (not I) were pooh-poohed for merely suggesting such a thing. Well, now it appears there is renewed reason for concern.

China's central bank, which now holds about $1 trillion in US government debt, has just called for the creation of a new international reserve currency. Citing the current crisis as clear evidence of systemic risk to the international monetary system, the People's Bank of China has proposed creating a "super-sovereign" currency for international trade and finance, regulated by the International Monetary Fund, that would represent a "basket" of other currencies. Without mentioning the US dollar by name, they say,

When a national currency is used in pricing primary commodities, trade settlements and is adopted as a reserve currency globally, efforts of the monetary authority issuing such a currency to address its economic imbalances by adjusting exchange rate would be made in vain, as its currency serves as a benchmark for many other currencies... The frequency and increasing intensity of financial crises following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system suggests the costs of such a system to the world may have exceeded its benefits. The price is becoming increasingly higher, not only for the users, but also for the issuers of the reserve currencies.

The essay was released in English as well as Chinese, which is part of what makes it noteworthy. If nothing else, at least now the G-20 finance ministers will have something else to discuss over lunch next week.


Friday, March 20, 2009


If you don't know Matt Taibbi, you should get acquainted with him. Everything he writes is great (I especially enjoyed his recent takedown of Tom Friedman) but you should really read his new piece in Rolling Stone on the financial crisis. Remember recently when LTG said the following right here on this blog?

I choked a bit on my latte. Are you shi*ting me? When did bankers become alpha males? Bankers were always in popular lore buttoned-down milquetoast types who wouldn't loan you five bucks for a sandwich unless you proved you already had a ten in your pocket. The kind who would give you a $20 savings bond for your 10th birthday, or weigh bananas at the store before buying them. But of course, alpha male is what happened to the banking industry. A friend in NYC (a lawyer) reported that he used to listen to 25 year olds deriding him for doing "women's work" (preparing the legal paper for their deals). In my world, that talk would get you fired, not get you a bonus.

These same "alpha male" attitudes probably explain the big bonuses we are seeing being paid to wall street folks even as they take taxpayer money to cover for their massive collective screwups.
Well, Taibbi feels the same way:
The best way to understand the financial crisis is to understand the meltdown at AIG. AIG is what happens when short, bald managers of otherwise boring financial bureaucracies start seeing Brad Pitt in the mirror.
Excerpting doesn't do it justice -- go read the whole thing.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What is Behind the AIG Backlash

I think what's really happening with the AIG bonuses is not so much about whether AIG got taxpayer money or not. I think the real issue is that most Americans have been quite deluded for some time about the state of the economy, and had no idea of the kind of insane inequities in wealth distribution we have in this country. Most people are shocked to learn that there is a class of corporate executives and financial sector employees for whom $1 million bonuses are part of life. How are we going to keep good people if we don't pay $1m bonuses? - AIG's Liddy asks. The average American is just stunned by the news. Yes, we really do live in a country where high-level executives can destroy the largest insurance company on earth, get paid millions in bonuses nonetheless, while literally hundreds of thousands of middle class employees lose their jobs. Yes, we really live in a country where CEOs get paid not just $1m or $10m but $30-$100m even while their companies slide down the sh*tter on their watch and they have to lay of tens of thousands of people.

The essential political bargain of the mid-late 20th century American capitalism has been that massive inequality in wealth would be tolerated so long as they paid their fair share of taxes and the ordinary people could have a decent life and some measure of job security and could achieve some semblance of the "American dream" - a nice house in which to build up equity to pass on to the next generation, two cars in the garage, 9-5 workday, a small vacation now and again, health insurance and reasonable education for the kids. And so long as some of the spots at the very top were open to the truly ambitious of the middle class.

Ronald Reagan began the process of destroying this bargain. He argued that if business were "set free," a rising tide would lift all boats. He dramatically lowered the tax burden on the wealthiest and placed it on the middle class. As has been said, a rising tide lifted all yachts. Government, he said, was not the solution, but the problem. The result? We lost the 9-5 workday, vacations, health insurance, a lot of good public education, and a lot of social mobility. In so many places, it seemsthat you send your children to private school or face far inferior public schools. 50 million Americans lack health insurance, and tens of millions more have HMO coverage so bad they might as well not have health insurance. We work longer hours. Now the housing too is blowing up. This is a warning, the essential political bargain is finally falling apart. People are beginning to doubt that what's good for GE is really good for America.

President Obama ran for office, more or less, on a promise of undoing Reaganism, although he won't take him on by name. We all know that's what this is about - unwinding the Gordon Gecko path we set upon in the 1980s. President Obama also realizes that this social bargain was created, in part, by progressive government action (GI bill, public spending on universities, federal and state student grants, home mortgage deduction, federal support for first-time homebuyers, medicare and social security for the elderly) and strong labor unions who helped set the standard for working conditions across the country.

To my mind, this is what fundamentally divides Democrats from Republicans, by the way.

There's a reason the GOP - the party that represents that business class - is trying to ride this all very carefully.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

AIG Bonus Outrage

I am still struck by AIG paying bonuses of $165m to high-level employees, including its financial traders, despite heavy losses. I work in an industry (law) that routinely awards bonuses to people, but they would never be given out if the company was in dire financial straits. Bonuses are structured as bonuses - rather than salary - precisely so that they can be adjusted at the will of the employer. There are exceptions. Some firms pay bonuses based mechanically on the number of hours a lawyer bills. Even in those cases, the bonuses remain inherently discretionary. At worst, the company could enact salary cuts after the bonus to recapture the bonus amount if the employee refuses to forego the bonus. AIG had a lot of options. It decided to pay the bonuses believing that it would lose "the best and the brightest" unless it did so. First of all, in this economy, where are they going? Second of all, they ain't the best and the brightest if AIG is hundreds of billions in the hole as a result of their poor investments. In any sane world, they would be laid off. AIG in fact laid off thousands of lower-level employees. They didn't get bonuses.

For those who don't know, AIG is in trouble not just because it bought mortgage-backed securities, but because it insured them against losses for firms like Goldman, Sachs. AIG grossly - I would say negligently or even fraudulently - undervalued the risk.

President Obama is right. The real problem is that the leaders of AIG lack fundamental values. They just don't understand that they screwed up badly and that it is fundamentally unfair to take any special reward, never mind their fellow citizens' money. Instead, the same greed that got them into this situation propels them to - let's not mince words - steal money from the rest of us.

This raises for me a larger question. Is this sort of thing an inevitable side effect of government intervention? Perhaps the best solution would have been either for (1) AIG to file for bankruptcy or (2) nationalization. Some GOP leaders insist the former (bankruptcy) was the best option, and they reject nationalization on ideological grounds. If you believe the case was made that an AIG failure would have serious and severe ripple effects - i.e., that it was really too big to fail - then perhaps the best answer would have been a government takeover rather than infusions of cash. What we see in AIG now is the result of separating control from ownership. The government - the real stakeholder - is cut out of decisionmaking, and the decisionmakers do not have their own money at stake. We saw similar bad things happen with the Savings and Loans in the 1980s. I think we can blame both the Bush administration's half-assed "bailout" approach and the Democrats weakness in failing to demand real control.


Friday, March 13, 2009

A Question I've Been Pondering

I've been thinking about abortion lately, and I thought I'd ask the The Citizens (and our friends) for their opinions on some delicate matters. It has always bothered me, somewhere in the back of my mind, that many of the pro-choice arguments we hear revolve around a woman's right to control her own body. I support that, of course, but I wonder if we are talking about the heart of the matter here.

So here is the question: suppose (and this may well happen within our lifetimes) medical science advances to the point where a human egg is viable from conception, meaning there is some form of artificial womb available, perhaps cheaply. How would the existence of such a non-invasive alternative to pregnancy alter the equation? Along those same lines, it would be possible for "pro-life" activists right now to offer to be surrogate mothers, bringing "unwanted" fetus to term within their own wombs. (Have any pro-life groups ever have contemplated such a "womb bank"?) If the dominant issue is the risks and problems associated with pregnancy, would a woman unwilling to accept those risks and problems have any moral obligation to avail herself of alternative to her own pregnancy, if they were available?

I guess my point is that eventually we will have to push past the issue of unwanted pregnancies to the deeper issue of unwanted parenthood. So my final question is, to what extent can a mother (or a father, for that matter!) choose to terminate an "accidentally" created embryo in order not to become a parent? At what stage of its development does a fetus start to acquire some measure of a right to come into existence?


128 Days Later

Attorneys for Norm Coleman and Al Franken have now rested their cases in Minnesota State Court. Sometime in the next few days or weeks, the special three-judge panel will rule which additional absentee ballots will opened and counted. The results may lead to someone finally being certified as the winner... Or perhaps not. Already Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has gone on record to urge Coleman to appeal to Federal Court.


Michael Steele and GOP Fun

So in an interview with GQ, GOP leader Michael Steele said that abortion is an individual choice and that being gay is something you're born with - that you can't stop being gay any more than he can stop being black. These are perfectly rational positions, probably held by most Americans, but they are anathema to the right-wing Republican party majority. The vast majority of Republicans believe that abortion is murder and should be illegal, and that being gay is a 'lifestyle choice' that we should not endorse. The official platform has urged outlawing abortion for 30 years. Sarah Palin flubbed this one too - she said she would "counsel" a person to choose life. Choosing life means you have a choice. Being pro-life is not about choosing life, but about banning any other choice. Steele is also too dumb to know this. Perhaps he and Palin both represent many middle class Republicans who like the idea of being morally opposed to abortion and confuse that with being pro-life. The party base knows, though. They're going to lynch him (okay, they will call it something different, since he's black). They've already made him kiss Rush Limbaugh's drug-addict ass.

Either way, we get the spectacle of a man saying perfectly reasonable things being drummed out of the GOP by the far right. It's a reminder: the GOP has become too small and too small-minded to matter.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Universal Chapter 11 Reorganization

As I was driving home listening to yet another depressing hour of NPR, it dawned on me that we might be able to see the "financial crisis" - so called - in a new way. The only large entities that are not effectively insolvent are governments with the ability to print money in currencies that have not yet lost public trust. Insolvency is defined in our law many ways, but among them are "not generally able to pay debts when they come due." That pretty much describes every major institution: GE, Citigroup, California, Ireland, etc. The reason is pretty simple at heart: the nominal value of the debt instruments created and purchased in the past few years exceeds worldwide economic production by dizzying amounts, but their actual value is cascading to zero. The Bank of England yesterday began simply printing money and pumping into the economy (the marvelous name for this is "quantitative easing" - it sounds so soft and gentle). Worldwide stimulus plans are in the trillions of dollars, and the US government is looking at deficits in excess of $1 trillion.

If the developed world were a single firm, it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy - a process by which old debts are extinguished, equity redistributed to creditors on a pennies-on-the-dollar basis, contracts are torn up left and right like so much wrapping paper on Christmas morning, and a new institution emerges with enough backing to begin borrowing and spending again. Isn't that really what we're doing? Rebooting capitalism?


Bernie Madoff Goes to Jail

I am getting a little tired of seeing people (usually in their late 50s or early 60s) going on television and saying that they lost all their money investing with Madoff. Really? They gave all their money to an uninsured fund with no decent financials to look at, based on the say-so of some friend or something? I mean, they were swindled to be sure, but it is tempting to ask if this is not just a case of "a fool and his money are soon parted." I know this will start a firestorm here, but I just felt I had to blog about it. I am reduced to platitudes. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't risk what you can't afford to lose. If it's too good to be true, it probably is. I am sorry these investors lost a great deal of money, but those who lost all their savings and retirement really have to blame themselves also.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Life Goes On

Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston are not getting married after all. Mr. Johnston told the Associated Press today that the two of them had decided to end their relationship "a while ago" (exactly when was not stated) and it is now over. Their son Tripp was born December 27, 2008. Bristol has custody.


Authorization and Profiling Systems

I have been thinking a lot lately about identity theft, driver licenses, voter registration, passports, ATM cards, etc., and so I wanted to try to build a framework for discussing these issues. Sometimes discussions of specific solutions marginalize the larger discussion of the underlying purpose of such systems, and I have been as guilty as anyone in that regard. I see two distinct purposes for identification systems.

The first purpose is authorization: Various public and private authorities would like to be able permit some people to do some things but not others. (For example, I should be authorized to cancel my own cell phone service, and perhaps also that of my husband, but not that of my neighbor.) But authorization is not quite the same as identification. Assigning permissions to identity profiles and associating those identity profiles with individuals is merely one way to implement an authorization system. For an authorization system to function it is not necessary to know who you are, only that you are authorized (or not) to do whatever it is you are trying to do. Even imprisoning someone technically requires only the knowledge that the person has been convicted and sentenced.

The second purpose is profiling: Various public and private authorities want to know our ages, where we live, what we purchase, etc. This is the aspect of identification most people worry about, because we rightly fear our loss of privacy. Nevertheless there are some purposes for which most would concede some level of profiling is acceptable, such as the census, or perhaps the income tax. But again, profiling is not quite the same thing as identification either. Profiling is about gathering statistics and correlating data. For example, the census may wish to know that exactly one person lives at a certain address, and that the person living at this address is African-American, but that person need not be identified in any other way--they need not even be named.

The foregoing discussion leads me to wonder: is it possible to separate the authorization and profiling systems somehow? Might it even be possible to implement some of these functions without resorting to a classic "identification" system at all? The classic authorization system, which requires no identification whatsoever, is of course the humble key. Anyone can use it, and ownership implies authorization. We do not need to "log in" to enter our homes or use our cars--we need not prove who we are. Perhaps some series of public/private keys (in the figurative sense) could be used to accomplish some of the authorization functions without storing information in an identity profile?

Anyway, I have no answers, but I thought I would share my musings. I just thought it was interesting that we often focus the debate immediately on "identity" whereas the underlying goals are authorization and profiling, which are not quite the same thing.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Employee Free Choice Act

The Employee Free Choice Act was formally introduced (once again) in Congress today. There are many excellent provisions in this act, including mandatory injunctions to attempt to prevent rampant unfair labor practices. Although these other parts are probably more important, the most controversial section is the majority sign-up provision.

As I understand it, under current law if 30% of the employees in a given "bargaining unit" sign valid authorization cards to designate a particular union as their collective bargaining agent, the National Labor Relations Board will call an election to certify that union. The Employee Free Choice Act would automatically certify the union without an election if more than 50% of the employees sign such authorization cards. (Currently employers may accept a union chosen by a majority sign-up, but they can always demand an election.)

I was hoping someone could explain why the majority sign-up procedure is the right way to go. Other than the obvious inconvenience of having to hold an election, the only concern I can see with the election process is that it gives the employer time to fire and intimidate workers prior to the election. While such employer actions are of course illegal, they certainly do occur--sometimes on a massive scale--and such allegations are difficult to prove. On the other hand, the majority sign-up procedure is also fraught with opportunities for abuse which, while also illegal, are similarly difficult to prove. (I happen to have witnessed such abuses firsthand.)

So I wonder, am I missing something big here? If not, is there not some other option that could safeguard workers prior to an election? A snap election, held in a matter of days? Perhaps a rule such that, if any such intimidation is proven, the union can then proceed by majority sign-up without any election?


The Recount of the Great Minnesota Recount, Recounted

A week after the November election, I wrote that the razor-close Senatorial contest in Minnesota between Coleman and Franken would now become, "The most important test of the integrity of the Federal elections process since Florida 2000." A few weeks after that, as the initial recount neared completion, I noted that much had been learned from Florida and this time, "Everything is being done out in the open, and standards are uniform and clear. This may be the best-managed recount in US history."

But it has now been more than four months since election day, and no one has been certified as the winner. It took two months for the canvassing board to complete its work, and of course immediately the result was challenged in court. The current hearings are expected to last another two weeks, and regardless of the outcome there will very likely be an appeal to the Minnesota State Supreme Court and probably to the U.S. Supreme Court as well. Thus while the recount was managed fairly well on a technical level, in the larger sense the Minnesota election has failed to achieve the primary purpose of all democratic elections: to make a choice, in a manner deemed fair (albeit grudgingly) by most of the people.

I assume I am not alone in my conviction that more reforms are needed. This time, the problem is not with the regular ballots. No doubt there could be some improvements with the regular balloting process--determining voter intent is not the cleanest standard that could have been applied--but with the exception of about 30 misplaced ballots in one Minnesota precinct (which would not have been dispositive) there were no major challenges to the integrity of that process, and the result of the initial recount was essentially the same as the original election result. This time the fault lies with the mail-in absentee ballot system.

There are on the order of 10,000 absentee ballots that were irregular to some degree in terms of the identifying information provided on the outside of the envelope. This is the most serious area of contention. In some cases, the voter name and address did not match those in county records. In other cases, the voter signature did not match or was omitted. Pretty much every possible thing that could go wrong with the mail-in process happened with hundreds of ballots, whether through fault of voter or registrar or both. From a purely engineering point of view, the problem is that the process of registration and voting is not sufficiently standardized and has too many points of failure.

But no system is immune from these problems, of course, and so once again the real issue is how to handle the disputes when they arise. In my opinion the Minnesota Supreme Court made a very stupid ruling regarding counting absentee ballots. Rather than devising a set of clear standards for the entire state, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered each irregular absentee ballot to be decided on a case-by-case basis: each individual ballot would be counted only if the county in question and both campaigns agreed. The court's preoccupation with being Minnesota Nice has produced a hodgepodge of non-uniform non-standards which has now become the underlying basis for the seemingly endless legal appeal.

From this I draw three lessons. First, we really need to fix voter registration rolls in this country. This business of separate records for the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Social Security Office, the Registrar of Elections, etc. (not to mention the differing systems between states) has got to go. It is high time for strong, secure national ID cards. (You may commence the tossing of rotten eggs at me now.) Second, we need uniform federal standards for all federal elections. Senate business has been slowed down by the absence of Minnesota's Senator, and the peculiarities of Minnesota's process will likely make this a federal issue anyway before it is through. Finally, state elections officials need more money to hire more staff and have faster recounts when necessary.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Cramdown Legislation Clears the House

Terrific news just in: the House of Representatives has just passed the Helping Families Save their Homes Act of 2009 which provides for, among other things, Bankruptcy Judges to have the power to modify mortgages in bankruptcy. Currently, bankruptcy judges have that power with respect to almost all other loans, whether they be for cars or yachts, or residential properties other than a primary residence. This is a great tool for homeowners. The threat of bankruptcy will do more to persuade lenders to modify mortgages than any other government program could. This is not going to deprive banks of their property interests in the collateral; they will retain the secured interest, but may be deprived of the unsecured portion of the loan if the house is underwater (i.e., treated like other unsecured creditors), and may be required to accept modified repayment terms. However, it may allow avoidance of second and third mortgages that are effectively unsecured by the declining house value. It should.

Even better news! Just before this vote, the House took a vote to congratulate the USC Trojans on winning the Rose Bowl. A few brave souls (15) voted no and 4 voted "present." I suspect, therefore, that there are 19 Bruins in the house. We few, we happy few, we band of Bruins...


Yucca Mountain Project Dies

Today, Energy Secretary Chu said in a Senate hearing that Yucca Mountain was no longer an option for storing the nation's nuclear waste. This means that they will be going back the drawing board on nuclear waste storage. I can only presume this is for Harry Reid's benefit.


Prop 8 Goes Before the Court

The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning regarding the legality of Proposition 8 and the status of the 18,000 same-sex marriages now in question. The arguments apparently went mostly as expected, which means there is some good news and some bad news.

If the LA Times' summary of today's oral arguments regarding Proposition 8 is any guide, it appears the court is inclined to uphold the 18,000 existing marriages already registered. For example, Justice Carol Corrigan, who voted against giving gay marriage rights originally, nevertheless asked pointedly why gay couples should not be, "entitled, if nothing else as a matter of equity, to rely on the law as it existed at the time they married?"

However it also appears likely that the court will not overturn the proposition. For example, Justice George, who wrote the original opinion recognizing the right to gay marriage, said that the court was acting today under a, "different constitution," and he asked whether the real problem was not simply that the California State Constitution was too easy to amend--something he implied was out of his hands. We shall see. They have 90 days to issue their ruling.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Rush Gush

By the way, has everyone else noted the Republicans falling all over themselves to pay homage to Rush Limbaugh this week.  Bell Curve first noted the start of this and it has only increased since he posted.  



So LA folks,

Tell us about the recent reelection of Mayor Villaraigosa.  Did you vote for him?  Who was running against him?  Were they viable?  What were the issues?


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Alternative Approaches to Feeding the World

We've going around and around on this whole ag subsidies thing.  I thought it would useful to break it down into more manageable pieces.  Part one is "how do we feed the world."  Part two is "how do we ensure a decent living for people in rural America (or France or Australia etc)."  Part three is "how do we manage our environmental resources."

So, part one....As I understand it LTG and I both want to feed the world (aren't we a couple of nice guys!?).  We have two radically different approaches though.  LTG wants to help the poor get food by subsidizing supply thereby reducing prices.  I argue that we should give money to the poor to buy their own food - in effect, I want to subsidize demand.  Both involve injecting government money from rich countries into the world market.  Leaving aside the relative prices of these two approaches for the moment, what are the different consequences of subsidizing supply versus subsidizing demand?  

If we subsidize demand we allow the market to determine who buys what from whom.  We also allow the market to determine who ultimately will profit from the government money being injected into the market.  If poor people in India want to buy from their neighbors they will and Indian farmers will profit.  If poor people in India prefer to buy imported food from California they will and American ag companies will benefit.  Price will play a key role in might quality differences.  If they chose to buy food from 3rd world sources this will have the additional benefit of increasing economic growth in countries that desperately need it.

If we subsidized supply we would not only be increasing supply we would be determining WHERE that increased supply comes from.  And since only the rich countries can afford to subsidize, it will be ag companies in the wealthy "North" that get all the new profits.  

So even if we assume that we can feed the world by both approaches and if we assume that both are more or less equally costly and efficient, there are profound differences in the distributive consequences of the two approaches.  So let's talk about this for a while before we move on to part 2: ensuring a decent living for rural Americans.


Sunday, March 01, 2009

Climate Change Protocol (Kyoto)

So the NYTimes has a fascinating chart about which countries are meeting the Kyoto goals and which are not... and what those goals are. For example, we had a little thing on this blog about a year ago as to whether Liechtenstein was meeting its Kyoto goals. Yes, we get into minutia here on the blog. Turns out their goal is not to reduce emissions at all, but to restrain growth to 118% of 1990 levels. Most of the reductions seem to be in Eastern Europe where they are due to falloffs in reported industrial activity since 1990, which is really the closing of Soviet-era factories and such. Only two western countries, Britain and France, haave met their goals and actually made reductions, although Germany and Belgium have come close. It is interesting to see the countries where Kyoto only required restricting growth of emissions, not actually reducing emissions: Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Portugal, Australia, Greece. None has succeeded in that restraint. The USA would have been targeted for a 7% reduction had it joined. I can't find information on US emissions levels right now - presumably a significant increase.

The purpose of the NYTimes chart is to give some context to the fact that the Obama administration is likely to commit the USA to some efforts on climate change. Whether it is meeting Kyoto, I don't know.