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."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Redistricting Redux

I found an intriguing paper on redistricting by Zeph Landau, a mathematician at UC Berkeley. In it he proposes a novel method of redistricting (for two major parties only) which I think The Citizens might appreciate. I do my best to summarize it here.

The essence of the method is to divide the state in two and let the Republicans draw all the boundaries for one part while the Democrats draw all the boundaries for the other. The paper largely deals with the critical issue of how to divide the state initially. It would be elegant if we could do it in the classic way in which two children can divide a slice cake--one cuts and the other chooses--but unfortunately party preferences are not that simple and it is possible for one party to partition the state such that it will be to their advantage no matter which region they end up with.

Fortunately, there is a more robust variant of this method. Start with the most unequal partition possible (the smaller portion containing only enough people to elect a single representative) and then grow the smaller region in mincing steps until the inequality has been completely reversed. At each step along the way, ask the parties to indicate which region they would prefer to redistrict. If at any time the parties prefer opposite regions, then agreement has been reached--but otherwise just wait for that critical juncture when both parties "jump" from preferring region A to preferring the region B--then choose randomly between the proposed partitions from the steps immediately before and after the jump. One can make the method even more robust by running through the entire exercise several times and choosing the final outcome deemed least objectionable by both parties.

This proposed redistricting process has several nice features. First, it avoids the whole "non-partisan" issue. Second, the paper demonstrates that this method can be relied upon to produce an outcome that neither party will find particularly disadvantageous, even when their preferences are based on completely different principles. (For example, one may seek to maximize the size of its delegation while the other seeks to protect its incumbents.) Finally, despite the lengthy description here, this method is actually more practical than most such programs because only a single "cut" needs to be decided upon: after that the individual parties do all the rest of the work.

Anyway, I thought it was pretty interesting. It just goes to show that we can harness the adversarial process in more clever ways than we usually do.

(One technical note: Since party preferences are not necessarily linear, there may be several "jumps" from which one would have to randomly draw.)


Bob McDonnell, Pat Robertson and Fake Education

The liberal blogsphere is all a-buzz about a controversial MA thesis by Republican candidate for the governorship of Virginia, Bob McDonnell in 1989 while he was in the join MA/JD program at what was then called "Christian Broadcasting Network University" and has since been renamed Regent University. The title is "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade." Now most of the buzz is about some of the more controversial statements within the thesis itself. From the title, you can imagine some of the highlights: women in the workplace is bad, contraception for unmarried couples is bad, the Roe v Wade ruling is referred to as "the 'legalization' of abortion" (note the sarcasm quotation marks), divorce is bad, divorce and teen pregnancy are "closely related," and a 15 point "action plan" for conservatives. There are also a few choice ideological outbursts like "The family as a God ordained government has an area of sovereignty within which it is free to carry out the duties it owes to God, society, and other family members under the covenant" (page 13).

Now, while I find the world view McDonnell expresses in this "thesis" (note the sarcasm quotations) distasteful and disagreeable, I will not focus on them further in this posting. What I am bothered by most is what passes for an MA Thesis at this "university" (note the sarcasm quotations). I gave the thesis a good skimming and I would want to read more thoroughly to comment on it or grade it if he were my student. But I can say that it is 100% polemic. There is no scholarly content whatsoever. Most of the citations are to other works of polemic or unverifiable public statements at conferences or the like. The entire thing is an expression of Mr. McDonnell's personal political views, passed off as policy analysis. It is the pre-blogger equivalent of an extensive blog entry. I can assure you that it would not be tolerated in any quality political science or public policy department at any level and certainly not as partial satisfaction of the requirements for an advanced graduate degree. If he were my student, I wouldn't even let him get the point of writing a draft before I would head him off and get him to focus on less normative and more positivist aspects of his interests.

I do not contest Mr. McDonnell's right to have these views. Nor do I wish to stop him expressing them or punish him for having expressed them. I do wish to hold up for ridicule anyone who would attach their signatures - and professional reputations - to a document asserting that in expressing these views, Mr. McDonnell has engaged in scholarly research.

There are fields where this kind of pure polemic is accepted. Various fill-in-the-blank studies fields are plagued by this kind of stuff, especially on the left. I don't have much respect for this kind of stuff either. I think these fields give social science and academia in general a really bad name. So please don't try to call me out by saying I'm only upset about conservatives.

This is more than simple academic snobbery (although, I openly confess that is a part of my reaction). Regent University is the alma mater of many of the Bush appointees to the Justice Department (I'll leave it to LTG to elaborate again on that little scandal). One of the hallmarks of a professional bureaucracy is that its members will exhibit appropriate qualifications to perform their tasks. When organizations like Regent University ape real universities in form and style, they allow unqualified people to displace qualified people more easily. They provide cover for politically motivated hacks to claim that one degree is the same as another and so on.



Sunday, August 30, 2009

Massive Political Earthquake in Japan

For nearly all of Japan's post-WWII history, it has been governed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Despite what Americans may guess based on it's name, it is not a left wing party. It is more like the statist parties on the French center-right. It has established in a Japan a system of subsidies and protectionist policies designed to favor a handful of huge conglomerates like Mitsubishi, Honda, Sony, Toyota, and the like. Once, in 1993, the LDP briefly lost power to a coalition of center-left parties. But early reports on the recent election in Japan are predicting that the center-left Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will win a majority of the seats in the lower house, enabling it to set up the first single party government in Japan other than the LDP.

The DPJ is a merger of the old center-left coalition of parties that had been contesting the LDP for years without much success.

The DPJ has a plurality but not a majority of the seats in the upper house. But this will give a single, center-left party control over the political agenda in Japan for the first time in its history. I don't know how this will effect Japanese policy with regard to regulations and trade. Frankly, I suspect that the DPJ will continue much of the state support for Japanese industry that the LDP has established. This will likely have much bigger impact on the Japanese administrative services. I think we can expect significant house cleaning in the senior reaches of the civil service and judiciary. After all, the LDP has controlled appointments and promotions throughout the executive and judicial branches for more than half a century.


Cash for Clunkers?

The Supreme Court is revisiting and expected by many to restrict some earlier rulings that had previously bolstered the power of the government to regulate campaign finance--specifically the use of corporate money. After some narrow escapes a few years ago, the McCain-Feingold Act may finally be cornered by the new conservative Bush appointees.

Yet this old-style type of campaign finance reform may be increasingly irrelevant. The aim has always been to limit the influence of big money, but for the first time since the advent of the modern Presidential campaign, the big corporations and big donors did not dominate the political landscape in 2008. They were swamped by a flood of small contributions provided via the internet. Was the little guy able to out-finance the big guy because the corporations were hampered by restrictive legislation? Or has the internet become such a powerful fundraising tool that those restrictions were simply not relevant?

Another interesting aspect to all this is that big donors and small donors appear to have opposite psychologies. Big donors donate in order to purchase political influence, and therefore they are more inclined to support perceived winners. Little donors, on the other hand, contribute out of passion and conviction, and thus they are most inspired to pitch in when they feel their cause is on the ropes. And so in 2008, contrary to all prior conventional wisdom, Obama and Hillary did their best fundraising immediately following their most bruising defeats.

The old dynamic encouraged positive feedback; the new dynamic adds some interesting negative feedback that may tend to draw out the process. It also widens the field in general. We are no longer limited to those candidates deemed to be "serious" by the corporate elite. Ron Paul drew in millions because he was a radical, outside of the mainstream. The equalizing and aggregating effect of the internet not only gives dedicated voters a greater chance to participate in politics--it also draws some of the disaffected back into the democratic process.

So the Supreme Court can go ahead and loosen some of the restrictions on corporate donations... They no longer buy the influence they used to, which was the whole justification for restricting them in the first place. Just don't let them mess with net neutrality.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Time to Fix the Senate

Until 1913, governors did not fill Senatorial vacancies. The reason is simple: senators were appointed by state legislatures. If one died or resigned, the state legislature of the appropriate state just appointed another. When the direct election of senators was enacted by the 17th amendment, they added a clause to call for special elections in the event of a vacancy. But it was worded thus, "When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of each State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct."

When there is a vacancy in the House of Representatives, the seat is simply vacant until a special election is held, usually filling the seat in three to six months. It seems almost certain that the drafters of the 17th amendment wanted to have the same model, except that Article V presents a problem. Article V contains an "unamendable" provision stating that no amendment shall deprive any state of its "equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent." So the Constitution could not be altered to leave a state vacant for any period of time without the state's affirmative consent. Thus they added a clause that a state legislature could (but did not have to) authorize the governor to make temporary appointments pending the special election. It was surely not anticipated that most states would adopt a rule providing for the governor to make temporary appointments to last for up to two years so that the special election would coincide with the regular biennial election of representatives. Yet that is what happened. The point of this commentary is to make it clear that the expectation that vacant senate seats will be filled by governor's appointments was not part of the plan of the orginal framers nor of the framers of the 17th amendment. It just happened, in the same way so many things in our constitutional system have just happened (e.g., the committee hearings on Supreme Court and cabinet nominations, the filibuster, the fact that presidents do not consult with the Senate beforehand in making treaties despite the constitutional provision that the Senate give "advice" on treaties as well as "consent", the ascension of the Vice President to the office of President before the 25th amendment was adopted in 1967, the "sovereign immunity" of states under the 11th amendment, and there are more). When there are clear ill effects to these non-constitutional traditions, it is time to change them. Plainly, there is a democratic deficit that emerges when - for example, today - there are going to be 5 appointed Senators and 5 who were appointed and won election as an "incumbent." Not to mention the Blagojevich-Burris fiasco in Illinois.

It is also very disturbing to see states monkey with the rules for partisan advantage. When Senator Frank Murkowski became governor of Alaska, the Republican legislature arranged for him to be able to appoint his replacement to his then-vacant seat. They did this to circumvent having the then-Democratic governor Knowles from making the appointment. The one-time-only rule was that the seat had to be vacant for 5 days before making an appointment, which was all the time necessary for Murkowski to ascend and appoint his daughter, who still serves. Similarly, in 2004, the Massachusetts legislature adopted its current rule, preventing temporary appointments at all while awaiting a special election, because Mitt Romney (R) was then governor, and the Masachusetts Democrats wanted to prevent him from seating someone to replace Senator Kerry if he won the presidency. Now they want to change the rules again for Kennedy's seat. Were it not also a much more sensible rule to have some temporary appointment (given that every other state makes temporary appointments), it would be incredibly crass to change the rules again. As it is, it just kind of crass.

Wyoming has a more sensible rule that the party of the deceased or resigned senator nominates three names to the governor, who then chooses one. Another possibility for reform is for each state to adopt rules similar to that which Massachusetts may be set to adopt: providing for a special election within 180 days, and for temporary appointments by the governor during that 180 day period. Another possibility, advanced by Senator Feingold (D-WI) is to pass a new constitutional amendment requiring special elections (with or without temporary appointments as states choose) within 180 days.

I think Feingold is on the right track. We need to have special elections in this country for Senatorial vacancies. It undermines the very purpose of the 17th amendment - to have senators directly responsible to the people rather than to state officials - for us to continue as we have been doing. At least the Wyoming rule prevents the worst scenario: a change in parties due to the death of a senator totally undoing the people's choice.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rest in Peace

United States Senator Edward M. Kennedy (b. February 22, 1932 - d. August 25, 2009)


Congratulations, President Obama

Today on the economic roundtable discussion on the News Hour, every speaker referred to "the recovery" without remarking that it was here already. Yes, we have turned the corner. It will be some time before the economic recovery benefits all people, but it seems the stimulus package has worked. Now we have to use the economic news positively. Obama must remind the American people that the Republican "plan" was to do nothing - or worse, as Republican majority leader Boeher wanted, to cut spending - and allow the "free market" to recover on its own. A Christian Scientist approach to economic healing. Time to reward Specter, Snowe, and Collins publicly for having the political bravery to side with the President.


Behold: Your Government

So Dick Cheney kept saying that if only certain CIA reports were released, it would confirm how important the use of torture (excuse me, "enhanced interrogation techniques") is. They have now been released in terribly redacted form. They are the reason why AG Holder has done his duty and appointed a prosecutor. Just take a look. This is our government? The government of a free people? Go to about page 44 where they discuss the waterboarding and use of a power drill. The next dozen pages are totally blacked out. But you can guess how much worse it must be. The redactions, as usual, must be assumed to protect embarrassing information, not just sensitive information. These are crimes. Indeed, they are high crimes and misdemeanors, but those perpretrators have since left office.

Each time new documents are released I assume that I won't be shocked. Haven't I seen it all? No, you haven't. You really haven't. There is a report about a CIA officer who smoked cigars to cover up the "stench" of the interrogation room. You can guess why it might stink after endless hours of interrogation and no bathroom breaks.

And of course, these are the sanitized documents prepared by the CIA. They are unlikely, after all, to be the whole truth. You can safely assume that the information they claim to have gleaned is overstated and the level of abuse is understated, perhaps severely so in both cases.


Monday, August 24, 2009

Interesting TV Report

So I watch this show called, "European Journal" from time to time. It's the English language version of Deutche Welle. Mostly, it is filled with cheer-leading for the EU. It has interesting human interest stories from various member states. The spin is almost always positive with regard to the EU etc. This time, it was a story about the "pan European picnic" on the Hungarian-Austrian border in 1989. This was the event that evolved into the mass exodus of East Germans to the West that in turn lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Warsaw Pact and East European communism. Part of the story was an interview with a retired Hungarian Lt. Colonel who was in charge of the border post where the Germans crossed into Austria.

He said that he had six men with him and was confronted with a large crowd of Germans who just came on and crossed the border. (He spoke fluent German so I suspect he was from the border region himself). He also said that the Hungarian border patrol was so underfunded at the time that they had to buy the spare parts for their fence and observation equipment from France - at high prices. The Soviets had long since stopped making the stuff they needed. At the same time, relations with Austria had long been improving. So this Lt. Colonel simply told his men to stand down and let the Germans go. Hungary has since given him a medal for that.

I don't know what my point is with post about this story. It's just an interesting story. I suppose I think its funny that with all the fear mongering about the Soviets and Reagan posturing about "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" etc. it had already fallen down in large sections. The Iron Curtain had rusted away. East Germany couldn't easily restrict travel from E. Germany to Hungary. But Hungary had largely given up on maintaining its section of the Iron Curtain. I just find the whole thing interesting.


Delaware Fails to Beat the Spread

A US Appellate Court ruled today that Delaware may not allow gambling on individual sports games the way it is done in Nevada. For reasons that are hard to fathom, a 1992 law banned sports betting but gave exemptions to states that applied before a certain date. Delaware is one of the four states that won an exemption - the other three are Nevada, Montana, and Oregon (although little is done in Montana or Oregon with the permission). For some reason that we haven't yet seen in writing, the court has decided that Delaware's exemption doesn't cover what it would have appeared to cover. I'm sure this makes some sort of sense, although it smacks of result-oriented judging to me. Frankly, the whole legislative scheme seems bizarre and unconstitutional. But nevermind.

All of this makes me want to ask the Citizens as we get into the College Football season: should gambling be permitted on individual games? If not, how does the loophole for Las Vegas affect the arguments for and against? Clearly, the law is designed to prevent pressure - both legal and illegal pressure - on players to "throw" a game, or on referees. It is an anti-corruption measure. It is also designed to restrict organized crime which, of course, is the the persistent companion of gambling.

I confess that I enjoy going to Las Vegas and making small bets on sporting events. I run a college basketball pool every year also. At my level, it is hard to argue that any harm is done. Similarly, although illegal, pools of various kinds for sporting events (plus plain old private wagers) are common nationwide. Enforcement for small bets not connected to organized crime is not seen to be valuable: the amount of money at stake is unlikely to be large or concentrated enough to cause the ill effects that the law is designed to prevent. If gambling is to be legal at all, why not gambling on sports? Does it matter if it is professional or college sports? What about the Olympics?


Friday, August 21, 2009

We Told You So

Remember back in 2004? Homeland Security Secretary under the Bush Administration, Tom Ridge, comes clean and admits that the color coded terrorist threat level was manipulated for political reasons during the 2004 Presidential Election. I remember we all thought that was going on. Now we have some evidence in support of that perception.

Tom Ridge should be deeply deeply ashamed of himself for not coming forward when it actually mattered. Shame on you Tom Ridge!


Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9

It is a science fiction movie about aliens living on Earth--and it is definitely not for children--and that is all you should know about District 9 before you see it. Do not read online plot synopses; do not read the reviews yet. Those would only spoil the experience. To that end, I will forgo posting my thoughts on the film for now. But do not make me wait too long, my friends!

Go see District 9!



I just heard Glenn Beck on the radio doing an ad for Coventry Health Insurance. Glenn Beck is taking money from a health insurance company to do ads for them. Please keep this in mind whenever he says anything at all about health insurance reform - it has to color anything he says, right?

A quick search of the internet shows nothing about this. Has anyone else heard it? I wish I were recording this so that I could post it on YouTube.


Trying To Protect Home Buyers is a Flop

Ok, so here's the deal. I have been trying since March to purchase a home. I gave up in the local area because they are manipulating the market so badly, that it is pointless to continue here. (See previous posts and comments).

So I went back to my hometown, found a lovely home for sale by owner rather than bank, have had a great experience working with the seller, and have had a smooth process until . . . 1 week before closing.

Suddenly the lender required me to obtain a second appraisal on the property. The second appraiser worked for a large appraisal firm, lived 40 miles away from the property location and thus knows little to nothing about the area, didn't go into the home preferring to just do a drive by, and used that minimal knowledge and my first appraisal report to re-appraise my future home at $80K below the agreed upon price. Then they charged me $220 for the shoddy work. And my broker isn't allowed direct access to this appraiser to disucss the appraisal and the lender isn't interested in the rebuttal we submitted to his report.

Now that may sound well and good, except that appraised price is too low to be fair to the seller and it means that I may not be able to close, or that I will have to start the whole financing process over with a new lender (provided the seller or I don't give up on the deal), pay for yet another appraisal from another Big Firm appraiser.

And who do I have to thank for this? New York Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo. Thanks to him, we now have the brand spanking new, Home Valuation Code of Conduct. The intention behind this was good. It was meant to protect consumers from appraisal fraud. But it seems to me that it has replaced one form of fraud with another and increased trouble and costs to a buyer and seller. And I wonder if it hasn't targeted the wrong culprit. Rather than regualte banks the right way, we are attaching the appraisers. Isn't that sort of like going for the street dealer rather than the cartel?

I think government regulation is a good thing when done correctly. The problem is so often good intentions result in bad legislation. And that gives conservatives more ammunition to shoot down absolutely needed reforms like health care. They can point to things like this HVCC and say, "See what happens with you let government regulate."

As for me, I may or may not be able to close this deal. So anyone who says, "It's a great time to buy a home!" hasn't tried to buy a home.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Health Insurance Reform Matters

While I was commenting tonight on some other post on this blog regarding health care, it turns out my husband was learning for the first time that a close relative has cancer. Her doctors have scheduled an appointment for her with a specialist later this week, and they are also sending her for a full MRI to determine the extent to which it may have spread. All this person knows so far is that she will have to undergo chemotherapy and some form of surgery. Apparently she is "freaking out" about it.

I only mention this because, although this person has known about all this for a couple of weeks now, she has not once worried about how she is going to pay for it. That huge source of fear and anguish is not even on the radar screen for her. All her thoughts and energy are instead focused on the disease and the course of treatment, as they should be. This is because she lives in Canada.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The reason why this post has no content.

It is wrong to speak ill of the dead.

Nothing good to say, though. Requiescat in pace.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Be Careful in Interpreting Experiments

This is from today's NYTimes: "Three recent experiments show that even the youngest children have sophisticated and powerful learning abilities. Last year, Fei Xu and Vashti Garcia at the University of British Columbia proved that babies could understand probabilities. Eight-month-old babies were shown a box full of mixed-up Ping-Pong balls: mostly white but with some red ones mixed in. The babies were more surprised, and looked longer and more intently at the experimenter when four red balls and one white ball were taken out of the box — a possible, yet improbable outcome — than when four white balls and a red one were produced. "

I find this a weird explanation. If I reached into a pile of mostly white balls and pulled out three red ones, my toddler would be pretty interested, but not because she understood this to be an improbable event - rather, because it would seem like magic. The experimenters assume that the child noticed the ratio of red/white in the box and compared it to the sample. Is that a fair assumption? My child notices red balls more than white ones, period. I also am not sure how this study can be double-blind: doesn't the experimenter who is inviting the baby's gaze know what she is doing, and isn't she looking for a reaction?

I wanted to blog about this because it's the kind of crappy science reporting I see in newspapers all the time. Either the study was much better than the reporter makes it out to be, or the reporter should have been more skeptical of the study, or (likely) both.


Interesting OP-ED Piece on Comparative Health Care

This Op-ed piece by Paul Krugman in the New York Times explains several varieties of approaches to health care provision and concludes that the proposals by the Democrats are closest not to the UK or Canada or France (all of which have more popular and more successful approaches than the US) but to Switzerland (which also is more popular and successful than the current US approach).

I have to admit that I had forgotten about the Swiss system (although I had heard about it). This is probably a good fit for the US. Like the US, Switzerland has a somewhat more conservative population than many industrialized countries. Like the US, Switzerland has a strong commitment to a free market political-economy. And like the US, Switzerland's political institutions are diffused and allow a wide range interest groups to block political changes - often resulting in policy approaches based on compromises between disparate ideological blocs.

In conclusion I believe that, if the Democrats can pull together and get this passed, they'll find the results safely popular.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Boycott Whole Foods? Meh.

So you've probably seen by now that Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has publicly come out against health care reform. This does not seem to be an exceptionally bright move for a company with a liberal customer base, and we're starting to see a backlash. In fact, people are using Whole Foods' own web forums to call for a boycott! Is this really a reason to boycott a company, though? I would say no. The company overall seems to be somewhat sympathetic to liberal causes, and certainly treats its employees well (though, like Wal-Mart, they are vehemently anti-union). One guy spouting off isn't enough to make me want to participate in a boycott. If you're going to stop shopping at Whole Foods, do it for the right reason: because it's too damned expensive.


California Needs a New Beginning

As we were being bussed from our airplane halfway around LAX to customs and immigration, I overheard someone who had recently sojourned in Club Med carp about the poor facilities. He complained that the airport was overcrowded and dilapidated. Shaking his head, he said he did not understand why they did not just build a brand new airport somewhere out in the desert.

I wanted to tell him the simple reason: because he would never vote for it. (I did not. I was still on vacation.) I wanted to explain that it is not a question of whether "they" will build it, but whether "we" will build it. And to the extent that race, age, wealth, and general demeanor are indicators, I would have bet money that the man was a conservative with one overriding political position: no more taxes.

But in a way, I cannot blame him too much. The conservatives concerns about big government in California are not exactly baseless. In just five years, from 1996-97 to 2001-02, the California state budget rose from $60 billion to $100 billion--a staggering 66% increase. Meanwhile California's GDP during the same period rose from $1.0 trillion to $1.3 trillion--an impressive yet lesser 30% increase. (By comparison, the GDP for the rest of the US rose from about $7.3 to $9 trillion, or about 23%.)

At the same time, the resident California state population rose from 32.0 to 34.5 million--a comparatively paltry 8%. So Californians did very well during this boom period, especially the rich, upon whom the state budget largely depends, and they grumbled only a little as state spending increased from about 6% to 7.5% of the state GDP. The coffers were flush and Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis kept the good times rolling.

Thus when the power crisis, the accounting scandals, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and 9/11 all came down in 2001, it was like a series of sledgehammer blows to the state government. Federal dollars for California had also reached an all-time high in 2001, so the comparative coldness of the Bush administration to California's needs compared to the Clinton administration was yet another blow. This cumulative catastrophe exposed the horrendous failure of stewardship on the part of politicians in Sacramento, of all stripes during the boom years. In the 1990s the state government developed expensive tastes yet did not invest in the infrastructure which, in the 1950s and 1960s, had laid the foundation for this phenomenal growth. Instead they blew the money on bloated promises and bloated prisons.

It is little wonder that many are so fed up with Sacramento that they do not want to send them another dime. We have discussed California's woes at length, and we all agree that there are at least three major structural problems: the out-of-control initiative system that mandated much of the rapid growth of spending during the 1990s, the term limits that led to a state legislature dominated by amateurs and extremists, and the 2/3 requirement to pass the state budget that made it nearly impossible for the polarized legislature to cope with the multiple sledgehammer blows. Even Arnold failed to do anything but pile on more debt.

Kevin Starr's wonderful history of California (see the previous post) shows that California has faced such crises before and managed to work through them. Californians answered the explosion of the Gold Rush with its first convention, and answered the financial panics and economic depression of the 1870s with its second convention. We need a third convention now. If our leaders in Sacramento will not call one, the counties and municipal governments should make and end run around them and organize a convention of their own.

I think only a new beginning can possibly give people like that complaining traveler any trust in their government again. We need more than a new airport--we need a new beginning. Incrementalism is not a solution anymore. California's unique history--from its vast rearrangement of water resources to its astonishing public university system--shows that the state government here can really make a difference. As Californians like to say, we are in many ways a nation-state. It is time now for a little revolution.


California: A History

While on vacation last week, as I lounged under the palapas at a small seaside village near Zihuatanejo, Mexico, I read an amazing book, California: A History by Kevin Starr. It is an abridged version of his authoritative eight-volume (and growing!) history of California through 2005, covering nearly all aspects of society. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to think about where America may be headed in the 21st century. It is beautifully written and will only leave you wanting more.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Military Women Rock!

I just wanted to post this call out to the NYT for a great article on the increased role women are playing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

New barriers are being broken by these brave women. They are showing the boys that they can play as hard and tough as any man and they are gaining the respect of their male colleagues.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Rising Fears of Political Violence On Right Update

I just thought I would post a link to this story I saw on The secret service is growing alarmed at the rise of direct threats to President Obama from protestors at these anti-health care demonstrations.


Tort Reform - Another Bad Idea

As this article shows, so-called tort reform (a move to shield businesses from consumer lawsuits or doctors for being held liable for medical mistakes) was always about reducing exposure, not about the law. The head of a major tort reform organization just brought a pretty baseless class action out of pique over a towed car. He even sued under Section 17200 of the California Bus & Prof code, which was the subject of a major reform effort he led (Prop 64) to take away a consumer's right to sue when companies break consumer protection laws. This is just typical. My lawsuit is about justice, yours is frivolous. My incumbent should be re-elected, yours should be termed out. I could go on and on. It's not just about hypocrisy, although that is real enough. I am reminded of the line from Lawrence of Arabia where the French ambassador says that "a man who lies to others has merely misplaced the truth; a man who lies to himself has forgotten where he put it."


The Demographics of the Right

So LTG started a string of threads about the right, anger, and their demographic characteristics. I think it will be interesting to revisit the 2008 exit polls and look at the demographics of voters for Obama and McCain.

Some highlights:

57% of white men and 53% of white women voted for McCain. White men make up 36% of the electorate and white women make up 39% of the electorate. So, to the extent that voting for McCain is correlated with the tea party/health care town hall crowd, US West is right to point out that this right wing populist anger is not just coming from men.

McCain only won majorities of the votes in age groups over 50. McCain tied in the 40-49 age group. So, again assuming a correlation between voting for McCain and the tea bag/health care demonstrations people, there is a clear generational divide that cuts somewhere around the age of 45. That's pretty much the boundary between Gen X and the youngest Baby Boomers (born in 1964 by the US Census definition). The interesting thing here is that the stereotype of Baby Boomers as hippies etc is not reflected in their voting patterns. The reality is that as a group, they are demonstrably more conservative than younger voters. I even saw an interview on CNN yesterday that Arlo Guthrie (Woody Guthrie's son for Christ's Sake!) is a registered Republican (he wouldn't say straight out but I gather he is a Ron Paul fan but he also talks about family values stuff and he said he liked Sarah Palin).

Income is much more complicated. Obama clearly had an advantage among the lowest income groups but he also did well among the highest group (people making more than $200,000). The middle income ranges were split about even.

Education and race interact interestingly. McCain did best among white non-college graduates, 58% of whom voted for McCain. 39% of the electorate are white non-college graduates. Exactly the demographic that had done the best in the Post WWII era and have seen the greatest decline in lifestyles since 1980 or so. 39% is very close to the numbers for strong opposition to health care reform and favorable attitudes towards demonstrators at health care town hall meetings.

McCain won a majority of the votes only in communities with populations of less than 50,000. He barely lost in the suburbs. So there is a rural/small town component to this angry group.

Here is the kicker! 24% of respondents said they would be "scared" if Barack Obama won the election. Of that group, 95% voted for McCain. I think that pretty much provides us with the link between the numbers discussed here and the tea party/health care demonstrator crowd.

A word of warning for Democrats who think they can get their entire wish list though. Only 22% of respondents self-identified as "liberal." That's compared to 34% who self-identified as "conservative." Again, notice that number in the mid 30s.


Culture and Intelligence

We have had a long running debate on this blog about the chicken-egg effect of culture on a society’s policy choices. Without revisiting that long treaded discussion, I was very interested in an interview I heard on NPR yesterday with Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn , head of NATO forces in Afghanistan. He said that rather than focusing on operations, they needed to focus more on the “population”. So they are now bringing in anthropologists, archeologists, and social scientists to help them understand the people of Afghanistan better. He acknowledged that the “culture” changes from region to region, so it is very hard to understand what motivates each group and how to address these groups effectively. I know from my work that more emphasis is being placed on cultrual knowledge, with pay incentives for those who demonstrate having it.

OK, what General Flynn and I mean by “culture” is not so much the art and music, but the traditions and attitudes that regulate or govern a given society. I have always said that there is a nature/nurture relationship between culture and policy. I am not sure what came first, and I don’t really care. The bottom line is that each affects the other and drives a society’s motivations and choices. It is a very dynamic relationship. Sometimes the logic of policy is the bigger driver, other times it is culture (as defined above). The balance changes depending on the issue. And of course, culture changes based on trade, interaction with others, generational turn over, etc. People adapt to the situations they are in. And those situations are often the results of economic and political policies which are made internally, or in the case of a war torn place like Afghanistan, externally.

I am pleased that the military has taken a more enlightened approach to intelligence gathering. It is part of Sec. Gates push to deal with counter-insurgency and terrorism that I think will take time, but pay off in the end. It is about time that Americans see the value in understanding other people and communicating with them. This is why I value foreign language teaching. This is why, when I am fed up with my job, I keep on because at the end of the day, we are giving young men and women the opportunity to learn a foreign language (and in some instances two of them) who might not have bothered otherwise. It changes their lives. And with language comes cultural knowledge and understanding.

That is a change for the better.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Growing Anger and Violence On the Right

The Republican party is using anger and violent tendencies to boost their image with their base. This started back in campaign last fall and its continuing now. Race plays a big part in this. It should not be surprising that racism and the far right are common seen together around the world. What is alarming is that the Republican party is using these dangerous elements to whip up its base in the face of recent electoral defeats. I have said before on this blog that the Republican Party - as currently constituted and managed - is one of if not the biggest threat to democracy in this country and this is the kind of thing I mean.

Here are some examples:

Last year in the campaign there were numerous clips of racist or violent reactions by McCain/Palin supporters at their rallies. Here is a short clip of a man with a monkey doll which he calls "Little Hussein [Obama]." Here is another of an Obama supporter having his/her sign ripped away by Republicans at a rally in California. The person with the sign moves out of sight (possibly to go get their sign back) and the empty spot in the crowd is quickly and smoothly filled in with a Republican wearing a red hat (seemed to be the uniform of the day). Here is a clip about a violent outburst at Palin rally in New Hampshire where two young Obama supporters claim (with some credibility) to have been beaten by a mob of angry old ladies.

Moving on to the current health care rallies and town halls, here is a clip and story of an African-American woman having her poster of Rosa Parks taken and ripped up by an older White male. When she goes to get the sign back, several cops swoop in and man-handler her out of the building. The man who attacked her was hustled away too (by only one cop) and is now being charged with misdemeanor assault. Then there is the guy who showed up to an Obama town hall meeting in New Hampshire with a pistol on his hip and a sign alluding to a quotation by Jefferson about refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

But what effect is all this having? Is it turning people off? Is it convincing people? Gallup has a poll out on this. The results seem to show that it is intensifying views but not really shifting them. Take a look at the first numbers on the page and at item 4. Compare them to the numbers I posted in an earlier thread on the health care polling. About the same number of people who strongly oppose health care reform also say that these demonstrations make them more sympathetic to the anti-health care demonstrators' views. Item 4 on the Gallup link shows that reaction is heavily partisan. Democrats and Republicans look at these demonstrations and come to diametrically opposed conclusions. There is some potentially worrying movement among independents but I suspect that very few independents are paying very close attention to the demonstrations. My experience with independents is that they are turned off by such angry political confrontation.*

In any case, I think these numbers most likely suggest that the demonstrations are polarizing rather than convincing in their effect. This is in line with the Karl Rove approach to politics. You win by getting your based more whipped up than the other guy's base. If your people are frothing at the mouth that's good. The assumption is that your base is roughly the same size or bigger than other guy's base.

The danger is that this will create an atmosphere where political violence seems to be legitimized by the Republican leadership. Recent assassination of a doctor who performs abortions or the shooting at the Holocaust museum in Washington may be early symptoms. The guy at the Obama rally with a gun may be the canary in the coal mine. This guy may not have had any intention of shooting anyone. But what about the next guy who hears about taking guns to rallies and decides to go a little further?

*It's also worth noting that with so many conservatives of the non-religious variety leaving the Republican party, the "independent" group has probably shifted to the right on economic issues in the last 3 to 4 years.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fail Goes Worldwide

Bell Curve's attention to the idiotic comment in the Investor's Business Daily that Stephen Hawking would not survive in the UK under NHS has now gone viral, worldwide. I doubt we started it, but we helped! Professor Stephen Hawking has now responded, praising the NHS for saving his life. Hawking is in Washington today receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, which is both nice and weird (I mean, do you bother to make space in your Nobel cabinet for it?). The Investor's Business Daily has removed the remark from its article.

The Investor's Business Daily has yet to apologize, however, for its stupidity or its use of scare tactics. Shame on the Investor's Business Daily for not printing a fullretraction both their false statements about Professor Hawking and of the phony and obviously false argument that NHS (or anything in the current health insurance reform efforts in Congress) would doom the disabled.


Amateur Hour in the Rainbow Crusade

Amateurs! Today, the major gay rights groups in California divided over when to place a proposition on the ballot to legalize gay marriage (again). Equality California has said it will do it in 2012. Courage Campaign and others in 2010. What the f*** is wrong with these people? I mean, what kind of amateurs hold a press conference to announce that they are dividing the movement, then preen about it? What is with this posturing and showboating? What's with this "I'm right, and any compromise is morally wrong!" Total crap. Time out everyone. You get your asses in a room, negotiate, and all go into this together with ONE DATE and ONE MEASURE. You have to make compromises sometimes - just being right isn't enough. That's how amateurs do politics, and it's why amateurs lose. You sure as hell don't negotiate with one another through the press like this.

By the way, I think Equality California's reasoning for picking 2012 is idiotic, whatever the real merits of their position might be. I just listened to someone from EQC discussing that they need a 38-month "education" campaign across California. Great, that's how you win over voters, you try to "educate" them. How condescending. The premise - that voters are ignorant and need education - is insulting whether or not it is true. Again, it's amateur hour! It may take 38 months to build an organizational apparatus, although I doubt it. For voters, however, the idea is to build a movement that "peaks" on election day. Voters don't maintain interest for more than a few weeks. And they sure as heck won't stand to be "educated" for months on end.

Nobody in the marriage equality movement gets another dime from me until they straighten this crap out.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tea Parties, Part Two

Where is all this rage coming from? Where was this anger when it came to wiretapping American citizens without warrants? Where was it in response to torture? It wasn't there.

No, the rage has some sociological (and, likely, psychological) causes. When you look at these people, what you see is that the vast majority are white men in late middle age. In other words, they were born in the 1950s when white men were very privileged. They probably missed Vietnam, and didn't tune into politics until Reagan started selling the fantasy of restoring America to the fictive golden age before the 1960s - an age golden only for white males and not for women or minorities, the bulk of the population. Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama embody the loss of privilege.

Psychologically, they also embody the emasculation that age has wrought on them. The late middle-aged man and the middle-age crisis is all about adolescent fantasies that went unfulfilled. A party of women, minorities, and gays only makes them feel weaker and angrier. (This is why they love Sarah Palin - she represents what they wish they could have had, a spunky, pretty, but subordinate woman who shares their anger and looks up at McCain with those dreamy eyes. A true helpmate.)

Listen to what they are saying and how they are saying it. They are projecting onto Obama their fear and rage that something is being taken from them. They don't know what it is, of course, because it's a projection. They make it up as they go along, using catchphrases of hate ("you're going to make us like Russia") from a cold war childhood. That rage is not about health care or anything else. It's about blaming the government for their own loss of power in their lives (something that would more plausibly be directed at the banks and companies that have, in fact, rendered them so impotent in their daily lives).

Is it any wonder that the popular image is the tea party? Tea is regarded as effeminate in American culture, a "tea party" is more so. But in this sense, the tea party is about a band of young men dressing up as figures of independence and violence with outsider status (the Indian in popular culture) and committing raucous petty vandalism: a masculine and adolescent play on the feminine "tea party."


Eunice Kennedy Shriver Dies

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. Following the tragic experiences her family went through with her sister, Rosemary, Eunice Kennedy Shriver helped to found the Special Olympics. Her daughter, Maria Shriver, is the first lady of California (and aside from having horrible taste in husbands) is an accomplished woman in her own right.

Often overshadowed by her husband (who helped found the Peace Corps) and brothers Jack, Bobby and Teddy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a remarkable public servant. Her good works have positively influenced people not just in the United States but around the world.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Responding to Senator Tom Coburn

The following responds to Senator Tom Coburn's piece in the National Review about health care reform called "10 Questions Politicians Won't Answer." His questions are in italics, response below. [somebody please truncate]

1. Why do we need to increase spending on health care by at least $1.6 trillion and steal prosperity from our children and grandchildren when we spend nearly twice per person what other industrialized nations spend on health care?

• We need to cover all Americans. Nearly 50 million Americans are now uninsured (about 1 in 6) and a great deal of the remainder have wholly inadequate private insurance that will not really cover them in the event of serious or prolonged illness, and that does not sufficiently cover preventative measures, mental health, or other important care issues.
• For 14 years, the Republicans had majorities in both houses and never introduced a single reform effort of any kind. Why the outrage now?
• What a comparison to make! Other industrialized nations have single-payer systems, which Senator Coburn opposes.
• The only workable solution is to spend more up front to cover everyone, then work to reduce the growth of spending over the long term which will narrow the gap with other industrialized countries. Even a single-payer system - which Senator Coburn unwittingly touts as cost effective - would cost more in the short term to implement.

2. What programs will you cut and whose taxes will you raise to pay for health-care reform?

• All of the proposed cuts and taxes are being discussed openly. It is dishonest to aver otherwise.
• The cuts being proposed are to the Medicare Advantage programs, that basically turn insurance companies into Medicare middlemen and run up administrative costs for no better care and. Taxes under discussion are surcharges on incomes over $ 350,000, on cigarettes, and on private health insurance plans that are at the very top end.
• Mr. Coburn wishes to focus on these rather than on his opposition to covering the uninsured, because everything looks worse if you focus on the costs rather than the benefits.

3. What earmarks or pet projects that you have sponsored will you sacrifice to help finance the cost of health-care reform?

• Earmarks comprise less than half of one percent of the budget. This is not a serious question.

4. Will you vote for a public option that requires taxpayer-funded abortion?

• Ah, abortion: Wedge issues and politics as usual.
• No proposal for a public option specifically deals with abortion – that is going to be left to the regulatory process along with the coverage for all other medical procedures.

5. If the public option is so wonderful, will you lead by example and vote for a plan to enroll you and your family in the public option? I offered an amendment in committee to force members of Congress to enroll in the public option. Nine out of eleven Democrats on the health committee who back the public option refused.

• The public option is just that, an option. Nobody should be forced to enroll in it.
• A public option will likely provide equivalent or better care than private insurance companies at a lower price because (1) the participants will have due process rights to challenge claim denials through neutral arbiters, something no private insurance company offers and (2) public option administrators will not be incentivized to deny care in order to raise profits.
• If the public option is as awful as Senator Coburn thinks, nobody will choose it. Let the market decide.

6. Will you vote for a plan that will allow a board of politicians and bureaucrats to override decisions made by you and your doctor? Both the Senate and House bills set up a government-run “comparative effectiveness” board that will make final decisions about treatment and care. In committee, I gave senators several opportunities to accept language that would forbid this board from denying care. All of my amendments were rejected, which suggests that the intent is to set up a board that will ration care, as is done in the United Kingdom.

• Every private insurance plan already has a veto over decisions made by you and your doctor. This would be nothing new.
• A public option will differ from private options in that the decisions about coverage are more likely to be made honestly because (1) they must be made openly and (2) the profit motive will not push denials of care for their own sake.
• What is under discussion is how to limit the scope of coverage in the public option. All plans limit the scope of coverage.
• Use of the phrase "ration care" in this context is a scare tactic.
• Care is not rationed in the United Kingdom. There is not a set number of hip replacements for the nation or some such nonsense. Nobody is proposing that here, either. In Britain, however, free medical procedures is prioritized: elective surgeries such as hip replacements may not be performed ahead of life-saving surgeries. We prioritize too, but we do it by money, not by medical necessity. Which is better?
• Senator Coburn must not know that private health care thrives in Britain. Anyone can pay for any treatment they want there from some of the best private doctors in the world. That will always be true here too. For too many Americans today, this is the only option, and they cannot afford it.

7. If you support a “comparative effectiveness” board, what qualifies you, as a politician, to practice medicine? Have you delivered health care to a single person, much less entire classes of people you claim to represent, such as the poor, the uninsured, or children?

• Right now, private insurance companies are allowed to deny care and set limits without any input from medical professionals at all.
• A public board will be at least as well chosen as the private insurance company boards. In a public board, however, the decisions must be made openly and will not be subordinated to the profit motive.
• The board will be composed of medical professionals, not politicians. Politicians should not practice medicine. For more on this issue, see Terri Schiavo.

8. How will a government-run public option perform better than other failing government programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Indian Health Care?

• Does Senator Coburn also oppose Medicare, Medicaid or Indian Health Care? If not, what is the argument?

9. If increasing spending on health care was the solution, why hasn’t it worked yet?

• Nobody is proposing just increasing spending. This is not a serious question.

10. Are you more committed to doing reform right or quickly? Would you consider backing a thoughtful alternative to the public option? If so, which one?

• Let's be honest. Senator Coburn is opposed to all reform. For him, nothing will ever be "right."
• Republicans defeated reform in 1994 and kept if off the table for 15 years. Nothing about this is quick.
• Nearly fifty million Americans lack health care and most of us are only a paycheck away from losing our health insurance. People regularly die from lack of adequate health care in this country. Millions suffer from grossly inadequate treatment because they cannot afford proper medical care, or because their insurance plans are too restrictive to cover their needs. Millions cannot afford the medicines they are prescribed even when they can get to see a doctor. Most Americans' access to health insurance, even if they have insurance, is severely limited by inadquate funds or HMO and PPO networks. Health care costs are the number one cause of bankruptcy in America today. There is no more time to waste.


So Much Fail, So Little Time

Via TPM and the AJC, this:

People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
This is Homer Simpson-level stupid. "It's just like David and Goliath, only this time, David won!" or "Give me the number for 911!" That kind of thing.

Unfortunately, our current health care discourse is being driven by this kind of reasoning.


Republican Lies and What's Really Going on in Washington

You've now heard it a hundred times. Various tea-party nuts, egged on by their Southern GOP senators, demanding to "just say no!" to Government-run health care. These people are so out of touch with the health care debate that it is hard to take them seriously, and I suspect that they are not being taken very seriously by anyone in Washington. Everyone in Washington knows that "government-run health care" was taken off the table at the outset by President Obama (to the chagrin of many on the left who wanted a single-payer system). This is the ultimate straw man.

All that is on the table now is a system to achieve universal *private* health insurance with an option of a not-for-profit government plan being made available (with subsidies) to those who cannot afford private health insurance. Republicans are trying to use this issue to fire up their rock-hard loony base, and are doing a good job of it, largely because it's not all that hard to dangle red meat in front of rabid dogs and get a reaction. Seriously, it's the equivalent of showing torture photos at the DNC (sadly, those photos don't get the same reaction from these Republicans).

But do they take it seriously in DC? No. The serious work is being done in committees now. In fact, the expectation that some bill will pass explains why there is so much spotlight on the committees. Rahm Emanuel will make sure that something goes through on a reconciliation vote (only 51 votes needed) at least, to claim a victory and deny the Republicans their "Waterloo" moment. In fact, the outlines of the plan are pretty well known, even if not well known to the public because of the Republican lies (and I use the word "lie" without reservation, since that's what's going on - and because the press is an easy target for lies because it lost the ability to call bullshit on anyone during Iran-Contra).

  1. An individual mandate where each person is required to obtain health insurance of one kind or another
  2. Subsidies for people earning less than about 300% of the poverty line
  3. An employer mandate for most businesses over a certain size to provide the insurance
  4. A generous exemption for small businesses from this requirement
  5. An option to avoid having to do business with private insurance companies whether in the form of some "insurance exchange" or a public option that is more or less the ability to buy into medicare
  6. Funding for the subsidies will come from some form of taxation on very high income groups or very expensive private insurance plans
  7. Reform of private insurance to require something like "guaranteed issue" - meaning you have to cover all applicants regardless of medical history and cannot rescind coverage for sick people based on technical defects later found in applications.
My guess is that it is the taxation on the very rich is what really has the Republicans exercised, no matter what they say is really bothering them.

What Democrats need to do, since the foregoing is to complicated to explain to Teabaggers, but since Teabaggers get the handed mike too easily by CNN looking for a story, is the following:
  1. Call "bullshit" and "liar" every time someone uses the phrase "government-run health care" to describe this bill. Do so angrily and provocatively. Make McConnell and Kyl squirm. Call McCain a liar to his face and make him go redfaced. Tell him he has no honor if he keeps spreading lies. Take the gloves off.
  2. Make the moral case in stark terms that every child needs to be able to see a doctor, and that voting "no" on this plan is immoral. There is a great moral imperative behind providing health care to the uninsured. Talk about every family that has become uninsured and can't pay for needed health care. Talk about bankruptcy and the fear of losing your job. Say that we can put an end to this. that we need to. This is a moral issue.
  3. Stop talking so much about how to pay for the plan. Every time some interviewer asks for that, interrupt them and say "The important thing is to make sure everyone gets health insurance. The payment issue is a smokescreen raised by Republicans who are trying to avoid having to take a moral stand on this."
  4. Make sure the everyone knows this is about YOU versus YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY (funding the Republican party).
In other words, let Rahm be Rahm...


Friday, August 07, 2009

Good News From Pakistan

The continued pressure on the Pakistani branch of the Taliban is continuing to show progress. The leader of the Pakistani Taliban was apparently killed in a CIA drone attack. I think it would be a mistake to think that the Taliban will collapse because of this. It would be more accurate to see this as a symptom of the positive swing in the broader war between the Taliban the democratically elected government of Pakistan.

Right now there are simultaneous offensives being carried out on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border. The Pakistani military successes and popular support for the government and opposition to the Taliban have all been increasing for the last year or so. Meanwhile on the Afghan side of the border, NATO forces have been building up since Obama took office and are now mounting a major offensive against the Taliban/Al Qaeda forces in Helmand province.

Since 2001, Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been able to use the border as a shield. When pressure rose on one side or the other, they'd simply jump the border for a while. For the first time, they are being pressured from both sides and the results are starting to tally. It's frustrating to me to see how quickly we are getting good results with Obama's change in strategy and focus. If only the Bush administration had done this from the start instead of bleeding off our military strength (and allies' support) in Iraq. Arg!!


Interesting Polling on Health Care

Check out these polling numbers on health care reform.

"From everything you have heard or read so far, do you favor or oppose Barack Obama's plan to reform health care?" If favor or oppose: "Do you favor/oppose that plan strongly or only moderately?"



7/31 - 8/3/09


Look at that! Only 12% "oppose moderately" but 33% oppose strongly. That's where these angry mobs are coming from. That one third on the far right is number you see on a variety of issues that reflects the hard core of the Republican party by the way. Obama's approval ratings reflect a similar number. 34% are have unfavorable opinions of him.

These people are angry about a lot of things. Health care reform is just what gets them fired up this summer. These are the same people who are absolutely convinced that Obama wasn't born in the United States but that John McCain was.

The angry mobs are hoping that if they yell loud enough at enough public political events, their local representatives will get scared and oppose health care reform. I just hope that the representatives in question do their own polling to confirm what the level and intensity of opposition really is.

UPDATE: To compare the nature of this opposition to health care reform look at these numbers on Sarah Palin. About 32% have a positive opinion of her. Dick Cheney's numbers are similar. So are the numbers about expelling illegal immigrants. Of course, I'm cherry picking here. But I don't think this is a complete coincidence. There is a hard core of about 25-35% of voters who are on the political right of every dimension they are confronted with. These people are the true conservative "movementarians."


Economic News

So the latest economic news is encouraging - sort of. The unemployment rate announced today was 9.4%. The number of jobs lost in the previous month was the fewest jobs lost since August 2008. This is also good because a lot of pundits and economists were predicting that it would be over 10% by now. A friend of my family's is a labor economist at a major research university who told us at a Christmas party that she expected unemployment to hit 15% before all was said and done with this recession. That was before the stimulus bill though.

But don't celebrate the end of the recession just yet. There are still more jobs being lost than being created. But the unemployment rate is measured in the US in a way that doesn't count people who have been unemployed for a long time. So this is good news but the slight drop in unemployment rate is probably being driven by people dropping out of the denominator rather than better numbers in the numerator.

Here is a chart comparing the unemployment rates related to other post-WWII recessions. If we are in a 1973 pattern, then this could be the bottom. That would be good news. But you can see that there have been "double dip" patterns before and even recessions (like the 1969 recession) in which unemployment got bad and stayed bad for a long time.


It's No Fun Being In the Minority

Another Republican Senator, Mel Martinez (R-FL) is resigning. He claims that he is in good health and is only resigning to get on with the rest of his life. He also claims to have no plans to run for higher office. He will resign as soon as Governor Crist (R) appoints a replacement. Charlie Crist is considerably more moderate than Martinez. It is possible that Crist will appoint a moderate Republican replacement (if one can be found). Crist is also running for the other Senate seat for Florida. This puts Crist in a position to potentially appoint his own colleague.

Crist is facing a fairly weak primary challenge for the Republican nomination for the senate in that 2010 election. Right now, Crist is way ahead of the main challenger, Rubio, but he may feel pressure to appoint a real wing nut.

This is a lot like what Palin did. Crist had previously announced that he would not seek reelection to a second term (he was first elected in 2004). Now he is saying he'll resign as soon as a replacement can be found. He's not even serving his complete first term. The difference is that Martinez seems to be serious about quitting politics. Of course, given the recent track record of conservative Republicans, one would be forgiven for speculating that a new scandal is about to break.

When the Democrats got creamed in the Congressional elections in 1994, there was a similar wave of retirements, resignations and party switchings among Democrats. It's just no fun to be in the minority.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

And Then Shane Came Back...

So all through the Bush II years, I would look at Bill Clinton and think to myself of the final scene in the classic western "Shane" where the little boy is calling after the hero as he rides off into the sunset, "Shane! Come back!" But of course the hero doesn't come back. He just rides off into the mountains dangling his wounded arm. I was, of course, dreaming of having a competent President willing and capable of negotiating with our allies and enemies alike and get concessions from both. Now we have one in President Obama and I'm happy on the whole with his performance.

And then Bill Clinton travelled to North Korea and effectively rescued two journalists who have been imprisoned by the local whacko-in-chief. Way to go Mr. President!

Shane came back!!


Its Official

Justice Sotomayor has been confirmed in the US Senate by a vote of 68-31 with Kennedy (D-Mass) absent due to illness. Nine Republicans, including Senator Graham of South Carolina voted to confirm her.

Here are the Republicans who voted to confirm:

Voinovich (R-OH)
Collins (R-ME)
Snowe (R-ME)
Greeg (R-NH)
Lugar (R-IN)
Bond (R-MO)
Graham (R-SC)
Alexander (R-TN)
Mel Martinez (R-FL)

The CNN story linked above notes that none of them are seeking reelection in 2010. One might also note that only three of the nine are from Southern states and one of them is a Hispanic from Florida. Three of them are from New England where Republicans are an endangered species. Two are from the "swing states" of Ohio and Missouri and the final Senator in the group is the "mavricky" Richard Lugar of Indiana (a traditionally Republican state that recently looked to be trending in a swing state direction).

Interestingly, Indiana, South Carolina and Tennessee all have many counties where the growth in the Hispanic population between 2000 and 2007 is over 40%. I don't intend to make any causal claims - not enough evidence for that. I just did a quick search and found some interesting data points.

UPDATE: Mel Martinez (R-Fl) just announced he is resigning from the Senate as soon as a replacement can be named by the governor - Charlie Crist.


Iqbal and Specter

No, this is not the latest crime-fighting duo. Iqbal is a case decided this term by the US Supreme Court requiring heightened pleading standards in all federal cases, and Arlen Specter is the Senator from Pennsylvania who wants to overturn it. Specter is right.

A little background. Under the old common law before Blackstone, pleading was very formalized. Pleading is the act of putting in an official request for the court to take action - the papers that accompany a lawsuit. In the post-Henry-II period, there were a set of "writs" that worked like chemical formulas. If you could plead X, Y, and Z, then you could get a specific kind of relief from the court. (btw, Writs remain today with limited uses: e.g., certiorari, supersedeas, mandamus, coram nobis/vobis, habeas corpus - all that Latin mumbo jumbo). Gradually a single form of civil action was created as we know today, but it remained necessary to plead the specific facts that gave rise to what is called a "cause of action."

Here's the issue with pleading: how specific do you have to be? For example, imagine you are pleading fraud. This requires that someone made a false statement with the intention that you rely on it to your detriment, and that you did reasonably rely on that false statement, and that you suffer damages. How do you plead it? You are not allowed to merely say, as a conclusory statement, "Dan defrauded me." The rule developed that you had to plead the elements listed above. But how do you show intention? You can't say "At 12:56pm Dan decided he would make a false statement" becasue you don't know that. There has been no "discovery" yet (no interrogatories, depositions, etc.). So you plead enough facts to give rise to an inference of each element of the cause of action. This is called "fact pleading."

In the 1930s, the federal courts adopted a new standard called "notice pleading" that was intended to move entirely away from any "gotcha!" rules of the fact pleading world. Rule 8 of the Federal Rules requires a "short and plain statement" of the facts entitling a person to relief. It is meant to put you on notice of the claim against you, not require artful pleading techniques. Then there is very liberal discovery designed to put all the facts on the table quickly and efficiently. Federal courts require massive turnover of information at the outset of a case without even beign asked. The plus side is that they prevent abuse: there is a 7-hour limit on depositions (in many states they can run for days, even weeks). Most states followed these reforms. Some states, like California, continue to require fact pleading, but adopted the standard that all pleadings be construed liberally to do justice. Game-playing with pleading is out.

Iqbal is a giant step back for federal civil procedure. It has the potential to require fact pleading again in the federal courts. The problem is worse, though, because the law has evolved in such a way that fact pleading is very hard. The old causes of action that form most of state law (fraud, contract violations) are cases where each party knows the facts pretty well. But this is a huge problem when it comes to the federal areas of law for antitrust, securities law, discrimination law, and product defect litigation, where the plaintiff knows she has been injured, but the detailed facts of defendants' actions will not be known until after the lawsuit and discovery is commenced. Requiring more specific fact pleading can simply cut you out of court. Take a discrimination case. You black, get fired, and suspect that it is on the basis of race, since you are pretty sure that people with similar employee reviews are not fired if they are white. So you bring a claim alleging this. But you don't have the employer records yet, and you can't plead the number of wrongful claimants to prove what you suspect, that in the past few years African Americans have been treated differently than white employees with the same personnel files are not. After Iqbal, these cases become very hard to bring into court even if you are, in fact, right, because all the evidence is with the defendants and you will need to plead facts you can't get without that evidence.

Similarly with antitrust cases, you cannot plead details of a conspiracy in restraint of trade that you strongly suspect until you get the defendants to cough up the information. Iqbal is particularly damaging to these cases. The result is that cases are thrown out at the pleading stage on procedural grounds, by a judge, rather than on the merits, i.e., where the evidence is reviewed, by a jury. This, Senator Specter asserts, denies due process. That may be too strong, but I agree it is inimical to the principle that cases be decided on the merits, not through pleading games. I support his "Notice Pleading Restoration Act" to overturn Iqbal. Unfortunately, no other senator has signed onto it yet. It will probably die. The result will not be that there are many fewer lawsuits, only that to bring them you need fancier and more expensive lawyers who can artfully plead around the absence of evidence to create the necessary legal inferences to withstand pleading challenges.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Life's Rough When You're a Scoundrel

It's Far From Over reads today's headline from the Economist. Many dignitaries failed to attend Ahmadinejad's inauguration today. And the Ayatollah pulled his had away from a kiss, causing Ahmadinejad to kiss his shoulder instead. D'oh!

(for other great movie poster spoofs with Ahmadinejad, see The Aliwood Photostream. They're pretty good.)

My guess, as I have previously stated, is that the Ayatollah was forced to accept Ahmadinejad to appease the military and the secret service. Street protests flared again today which is also the 40th day after then killing of Neda, the final day of Iranian funeral rites.

My suspiction of the Ayatollah's subjugation was further bolstered by a recent story on This American Life where Iranian journalist, Omid Memarian described is interrogation and "confession". After he was released, he met with the Ayatollah and his men and the seemed genuinely surprised by how he was treated. The suggestion was that the Bashi, the foreign terrorists that are paid to do Iran's dirty work inside Iran, are really running the show, which is very frightening.

Obama is doing the right thing to be courteous with Iran. If things continue as they are, the country may collapse in on itself. And as the Economist points out, the internal conflict may weaken Iran's taste for meddling in foreign lands, like say Iraq and Aghanistan.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Primer on Housing

I mentioned in my previous comments that the housing incentives aren't working as well as the auto incentives. It's an apples to oranges comparison.

The auto incentives are instantaneous and direct to the customer. You roll into the dealer and roll out with the $4500 already received and applied to the cost of your car. Buying a house, as we all know, doesn't work quiet so easily. It takes a lot longer and you have to wait until tax time to get the credits. It's a much more litigious and corrupted process. And the money has to be filtered through banks, which have little incentive to help.

There are several big problems in the housing market and the problem you focus on depends on where you are in the business. A good resource to follow the market is He also links to articles on Health Care, general economics, and the like. So here is a little primer.

Buyer beware
What is a fair value for this house? If I offer the list price, shouldn't that be enough? No.
Banks and realtors are fabricating bidding wars. Banks will direct the realtor to list low, get multiple offers (sometimes as many as 5-10) and award to the highest bidder or the bidder with the most cash. So as a buyer, you never know if you are player or a patsy. It is a classic Prisoner's Dilemma. Its supposed to be a buyers market, but the seller holds a lot of the cards. The seller is the bank. And they will set the price and then offer the loan. They know what the other bids are on the property. So their agent can tell you all sorts of things (there are multiple offers, some are higher than yours, etc) that will encourage you to offer more and more on a property to "win" it. There is a lack of transparency.
1) buyers bid up prices and screw themselves in the end.
2) buyers make honest offers and never hear back
3) buyers make offers only to see the bank yank the house off the market and then re-list it 2 months later at a higher prices.

Banks in Chaos
What did I loan on this house, and what can I recoup?
1) The banks don't really want to mark down losses. With the houses on their books, they can still list them as assets. Once they sell at a loss, they have to take a hit to their bottom line. This will reveal the depths of their greed and irresponsible lending habits. They hope that if they can hold out long enough, the "market" will bounce back. Delusion is a powerful thing.
2) Banks don't even know what assets they are holding. They have foreclosed on so many houses, they can't keep up. They hand these things to agents to sell. They have little time or manpower to track what the agents are doing with the properties other than selling them or not. The relationship is between the asset manager and the realtor. The rest of the bank is somewhat in the dark.
3) The banks do not have efficient processes in place to deal with the volume of foreclosures and short sales. This tells you how inefficent our banks really are! Th eboom hid these inefficiencies. They had no emergency plans.
4) Old habits die hard and the banks are greedy. Short sales are not supposed to result in bidding wars. Basically, a bank will list a short sale for the outstanding principle on the mortgage. The buyer is basically paying off old debt in exchange for a house. But even these are being treated to the "fabricated bidding war" mentioned above.

Realtors Unite
The number of real estate agents has ballooned. This started in the boom. Take a 2 week course, and you are certified. So there are many charlatans out there who have no a history or background in the business and who care less for ethics. That said, realtors have to put out a lot of effort without a guarantee of payment. They don't get paid until a house sells, so it's a risk.

If a realtor represents bank-owned properties, and the realtor doesn't sell them quickly enough, the bank will relist with a different realtor. This makes ethics in real-estate harder to come by than usual.

Homeowners Renegotiate
If you own your home, are underwater, but still able to make your payments, good luck renegotiating your mortgage payments. What incentive is there for a bank to agree to a lower interest rate when you perform for them? Why give up on a high rate performing loan?

If you are a homeowner in distress, meaning you risk missing your payments, good luck getting someone at your bank or broker to pick up the phone. They will bump you around from one manager to the next, loose your paper work, tell you they never goy your paperwork, ask you to start all over. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. So one person at the bank will say everything is fine, another will tell you the opposite.
1) the bank often does not know who currently owns your mortgage.
2) the banks do not have the infrastructure to deal with the volume
3) the banks are stalling
4) the state of CA is helping them stall by putting an additional 90 moratorium (started in June) on foreclosure. The idea is that this will give banks time to work with lenders. But that is not happening and the pain is being prolonged.
5) even if the bank renegotiates the mortaguage, many of these owners will default in 3 months again. Many have lost their jobs. So why put out all the effort if it won't change the outcome?

Investors paradise

Investors, Investors . The flipping is still going on. Investors will purchase homes in bulk at auction at deep discounts. And then flip them after they have bought them. Those not sold at auction go to the customers who will fight in the mud for them.

On guy I know is buying up properties cheap, adding new carpet and paint and then renting them. The idea is that when the market turns, he will sell them at a profit. I hope it works for him.

The best stimulus programs are those that are simple, direct, and instant. The rest is a 50/50 chance at best of working. The more interests involved, the more convoluted the process, the less effective.


Monday, August 03, 2009

The SUV Controversy - What's in a vehicle category?

So in the previous thread we've had a rather vigorous argument break out about whether or not SUVs are fairly or unfairly criticized as being bad vehicles that wreck the environment. I don't mean to usurp the thread but I thought it would be useful to have a lot of links to the EPA ratings of the top selling vehicles in this class and my computer skills are not up to pasting these links into a comment (sorry). I couldn't get the EPA website to give me perma-links for each car so you'll have to settle for this search page link. The numbers below are for the best available gasoline versions of each vehicle (so no hybrid, ethanol or mixed fuel conversion packages are compared).

The top ten selling SUVs in the United States for 2008 were (vehicles with an EPA "smart way" designation are indicated with *):

10) The Saturn Vue. Composite mpg: 22, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 6. *
9) Lexus RX 350. Composite mpg: 20, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 6. *
8) Jeep Wrangler. Composite mpg: 18, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 5.
7) Chevy Tahoe. Composite mpg: 16, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 4.
6) Chevy HHR. Composite mpg: 22, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 7.*
5) Honda Pilot. Composite mpg: 19, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 5.
4) Toyota Highlander. Composite mpg: 20, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 5.
3) Toyota RAV 4. Composite mpg: 22, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 7.*
2) Ford Escape. Composite mpg: 22, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 7.*
(if you get the 4WD package though the numbers drop to 21, 7 and 5)
1) Honda CRV. Composite mpg: 23, Air pollution score: 7, Green house gas score: 6.*

What does this tell us...

First, I have to admit that these numbers are better than I thought they would be. So LTG has some traction on the "SUVs are unfairly maligned" argument. However, if you compare these numbers with the top 10 selling sedans, you'll see that AS A GROUP, the SUVs do not perform as well. Sure, the best in the SUV class overlap with the range of performance in the sedan class but the sedans (even if you leave out the hybrid models) are generally better performers on these dimensions. All of the top 10 selling sedans qualify as "smart way" vehicles according to the EPA but only 6 out of 10 top selling SUVs do. So I have a point about SUVs as a group having objective characteristics that justify disliking them (not just annoyance at their drivers out of "prejudice"). So we both are being reasonable and neither of us is being prejudiced or unfair about this.

Second, the most notorious SUVs, the Escalades, Navigators, Silverados, Hummers, Yukons, Aspens, Explorers and almost anything made by Jeep are not among the top 10 sellers (the Jeep Wagoner is a top seller). These are the really big monsters on the road that stand out like sore thumbs. They are the stereotypical SUVs and among the worst smog producers on the road. While, model for model, they aren't in the top ten, together they add up to a huge number of vehicles - which is why SUVs as a class get such a bad rap I suspect. These are the SUVs that are essentially converted truck chassis. The trucks on which these designs were based were originally supposed to be work or even military vehicles (and I'm not annoyed when they are used as such). These are the ones mocked by the Simpsons with the fake ad "Canyonero!" (On a side note. What right wing maniac is in charge of naming the cars at Jeep? Liberty, Commander, Compass, Patriot etc? Give me a break.)

Third, the top selling SUVs that are the worst performers, like the Tahoe or Wrangler, are really really bad (far worse than the worst performing top selling sedan, the Chevy Impala: 22, 9.5, 6*).

Finally, US car makers aren't the only offenders. Honda and Toyota make top selling, gas guzzling smog monsters. Saturn makes a fairly green little SUV. And the Ford Escape isn't bad so long as you avoid the 4WD option.