Thursday, July 26, 2012

Must read: How I Ended My Lifelong Love Affair With Guns

Again from The Atlantic, Chauncey Hollingsworth describes the evolution of his thinking about guns and how changes in social attitudes are increasing the risk of our endemic gun culture. I think this line of thinking is essential to the gun-violence debate, and not much considered in the media.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Editorial: Screw the voters

Today the unnamed editor sticks up for Secretary of State Ken Bennett in trying to kick the sales-tax initiative off the ballot. After clearly stating his opposition to the measure, he declares adherence to the fine points of procedure more important than the will of the voters.

If this stickling for the letter of the law were his real motivation, why does he feel compelled to go on about how he doesn't like the idea of a new sales-tax extension? To me this screams of an argument rigged to reach a preset conclusion.

Along the way, the editor mischaracterizes the proposed tax as "only an extension of a current tax." In point of fact the new proposal is better designed to focus the funds on education and keep them out of the hands of the Legislature, which has misappropriated them over the past three years.

He also holds back some important information in saying that Bennett "believes that the group's submitted paperwork does not match the verbiage on the circulated petitions." The backstory is that the group did indeed file two versions with the SoS's office, one in hard copy and a slightly longer one in electronic form that it wound up using for its petitions. Bennett's staff never looked at the version on CD to make sure the two versions were reconciled, and rather than do the sensible thing and paste the CD version into the website, they accepted the paper version as the only one and retyped the hard copy. This doesn't sound like smart management to me.

For the record, I won't support another sales-tax extension either. I think our retailers and less-well-off consumers have taken it in the shorts for the Legislature's incompetence long enough.

But liking or disliking the tax is beside the point. More than 290,000 voters signed petitions asking for the vote, and the mistake by Mr Bennett's office in putting the wrong version on his website cannot invalidate the intentions of the voters who signed on to the actual petition language.

If we truly care about the the headline's "integrity of the process," we have to go with the voters, not the legal dodge that best suits the outcome we want, and the court agrees.  If we hope to live up to our ideals and encourage more people to participate in public life, our electoral and initiative processes have to be inclusive. We have to do our best to give ideas and people a chance to prove themselves whenever we can. Using niggly procedures and arbitrary obstacles to keep people out only confirms the idea that the game is rigged.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Must read: The Geography of Gun Violence

Writing in The Atlantic, Richard Florida presents some illuminating facts about gun violence in this country . Hint: the most common ideas in the culture are myths, and mythic thinking is a factor.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The "Overtaxed Middle Class" myth

The head of Harvard's Economics Department, Greg Mankiw, crunches some numbers and finds, surprisingly, that middle-class Americans are now receiving slightly more from the government than they pay in. The blog post is non-technical and a good, brief primer on the tax/transfer balance.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Stealth voters

The AZ Capitol Times (sub req)  is reporting that the shift in voter registrations to the "other" columns continues, favoring Republicans against Democrats in some key races this fall. The article leaves independents out of the vote calculus, so its conclusion has a pretty high bogosity ratio, but the chart is interesting:

This clearly shows that the shift to independent status is almost entirely from the Democratic voter rolls, and from it I'd like to speculate that lots of Dems are waking up to the idea that voting in the Republican primary is where the action is. 

If you're registered as a Dem and you'd like to have something to say about who's representing us in our area, it makes a lot of sense to reregister as independent and pull the R ballot in primary. You've got till the end of July. Check into it. 

A license to print money

In a blog post yesterday, Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman calls the lie that the US economy is headed for some sort of Greek-style meltdown, based in part on this chart, showing that US bond rates have reached their lowest point since the war:

The logic here relies on the intelligence of the market: if investors were concerned about the US ability to fulfill its debt obligations, bond rates would be trending higher. The opposite is clearly the case. 

There's another important takeaway from this that Krugman doesn't mention. As the cost of borrowing (a bond is essentially a fixed-rate, fixed-term loan from an investor) goes down, investment based on bond capitalization (infrastructure, education, jobs programs, energy retrenchment, etc.) makes more sense economically, as the returns on the investment improve. New lower-rate bonds can also be used to pay off older higher-rate bonds, a standard move that's a lot like refinancing your home, but with much lower associated cost.

Obviously an unusual  flood of new bonds  on the market alters their value overall, but within sensible limits these low values support larger borrowing for economic stimulus. Handled cannily, this can actually reduce projected debt service even as it raises short-term deficits. 

This puts the US in the best position since the 1950s to leverage prosperity from debt, making massive debt-based stimulus more practical than at any time in generations. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Senator Kyl eats your brain

In which the retiring Arizona senator characterizes our recovering economy as half-dead and proposes that we should turn it back over to the Republicans, who will finish it off with a bullet to the head.

He starts with the monthly employment report, that is the unexamined bottom-line number of 80,000 jobs gained (like, new jobs for everyone in the quad-city area in a month), characterizing it as  "disappointing." This presumably opposed to the end of the Bush administration, where we started losing twice that many a month.

I get it, if we want to put the zoom back in the economy and make more money for the rich white guys that might trickle down to us peons, we want to see bigger employment numbers, sure.

But let's bust out some figures to get a little clearer idea of what's actually going on.

The number of people employed in the private sector has broken through its level at the beginning of the Obama administration and is steadily clocking upward:

Surprised? I was. That's right, private-sector employment has fully recovered and is gaining strength, with about 3 million people hired the past year.

So why is our unemployment number still high? Take a look at state and local public-sector jobs — cops, firemen, teachers, administrators, builders, maintenance workers, etc:

Check that scale above. Since '09 700,000 people have been pushed out of the public sector and the trend is still downward.

It gets worse. The chart below counts federal employees. (The spike was census hiring.)

That's another 200,000 jobs lost, and trending down again.

So our overall employment problem is clearly in the public sector, where states, municipalities, school districts and federal agencies have been laying off droves of people.

These charts are from a 24-chart presentation on Business Insider that gives a very solid, graphic perspective on these cross-currents in our economy. Worth a look.

Eating our brains since '87.
Now, class, who's responsible for this public-sector collapse in employment and investment? Right, it's the critters in Congress who've demanded their pound of flesh in the form of shrinking government — critters not at all unlike our own Senator Kyl — as well as Republican governors, legislators, county officials and city councillors who have insisted on cutting jobs willy-nilly rather than do anything to shore up revenues and maintain the vital services that public employees provide.

The result is a national malaise and a more or less stagnant situation for Main Street while Wall Street and International Street rake in hyperbolically increasing profits.

It's a zombie economy, maybe, and we're doing something wrong, absolutely. But I think it's listening to ideological zombies like Mr Kyl. Can we please stop now?

Editorial: Quantum effect of lying

In today's column the unnamed editor reviews his fact-check fail in the case of last month's puff piece on William Few, who apparently made some claims about his military record that were untrue. The editor seems unhappy about this, but generally deflects the paper's responsibility for reinforcing the story back on its subject, while refusing to call his lies anything worse than "unacceptable."

Fictionalized personal war stories are somewhat ickier than fish stories, I'll grant. But as the Supreme Court ruled last week, there's nothing illegal about it. That comes as a relief to anyone who's ever padded a resume.

The editor, on the other hand, sees specific harm in the practice. He says, "Misrepresenting one's military service is much more serious, though. In doing so, a person seeks to elevate his or her own perceived value while diminishing that rightfully belonging to someone who really did the work, faced the dangers and accomplished the missions," (emphasis mine).

This is an Evel Knievel  leap in logic, describing a world that contains a fixed amount of respect for military service that can be stolen, borrowed and presumably bought, sold and donated. In this world a lie on one side of an opaque screen magically makes a non-liar on the other side less believable, a sort of quantum credibility effect.

One man's excessive bragging does not affect the perception of someone else's deeds, editor, that's just ridiculous. This is why it's not illegal. When one tells lies to do harm to another, we call it fraud, and it's prosecutable. Finding out that someone lied to you is a bummer, but you can't sue for a bummer, sorry. 

A little more critical thinking is in order here, and some reflection on our culture's recent penchant for elevating soldiers to demigod status. What's next, prosecuting a guy for overstating his minor-league baseball experience?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cantlon: Another Great Recession is on horizon

I was a little startled to see how my friend Tom, whose style is normally quite carefully measured and his arguments stolid and calm, breaks out in today's column to a new level of alarm and apparent deep anger at the craven gamblers who hold our economy hostage to profit at any cost.

He's been reading Matt Taibbi, who's always inspiring in showing how to combine solid reporting with a strong point of view and emotional clarity. Taibbi takes no prisoners, and is often ahead of the pack in getting to the root of a complex problem.

The house always wins.
But I gather Tom's just reached his boiling point on the greed-is-good culture, which ought to soundly piss off everyone who cares more than a gnat's eyelash about social stability and economic security. It truly amazes me that Americans continue to tolerate the crazy casino that has accumulated on the foundations of what was once a perfectly sensible trade in equities as the basis for capital concentration to accomplish positive objectives. As we've seen over the past few years, everything we care about is at risk every day to the greedy whims of rank sociopaths.

The obvious question that Tom raises is how to go about containing the threat. Miles and miles of ink have been spent discussing how we could monkey around on the fringes and maybe do a little good. A tax on equity trades is one example of trying to rig incentives to make investors act more sensibly. I'm afraid it's too late for this kind of small thinking, though. Already the sociopaths have gathered  too much wealth to themselves to care much about fingernail parings from their profit margins, so this sort of reform would do little more than hurt people and companies who are already investing sensibly to serve real needs.

What makes sense to me is finding a way to legally define and strictly limit purely speculative and short-term investment, for example by requiring hard settlements and transfers, pricing equities according to investment term (like bank CDs, with penalties for early resale accruing to the invested company), and outright bans worldwide on computer-triggered trading. If we can slow the system down, we can hope that traders will think more carefully about what they're doing, and if we rig the system to favor longer-term investment, we'll see better reflection of real values.

Considering that even brief discussion of this area of public policy causes immediate eye-glazing in most people, I have to wonder what, with his call to the streets, Tom is hoping they will write on their protest signs. Perhaps he'll expand on this next week.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Tapped Out

Pop Rocket, July 2012

The annual monsoon is upon us, or it should be. Late immigrants to our area will be forgiven for scoffing at the idea that significant amounts of water fall from the sky this month, as the weather trend has been progressively drier in recent years. June and the anticipation of July always remind me of our dire situation with water and our glacially slow progress in doing anything about it.
     Contrary to appearances, we're not completely paralyzed. I recently spoke with Prescott Valley Water Resources Manager John Munderloh about a pilot project he's working on with the Upper Verde Watershed Protection Coalition (which in documents goes by the mind-numbing acronym UVWPC) to study various engineering schemes to keep rainwater from evaporating and get it into our aquifers instead.
     It's called macro rainwater harvesting, and the plan is to take five half-acre plots donated by Chino Valley, treat them in different ways that promote concentration and penetration of water, and study and compare the results to come up with engineering cost-benefit analyses.
     This small pilot project has been in development for four years and will run for three, maybe five years before it offers conclusions. The five governments involved, including the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe, have put up $130,000 for it. If everything goes well, construction could begin late this summer.
     Obviously no one's planning to bulldoze vast areas of the county and do landforming and soil amendments to catch rain. But on a scale of a few acres here and there in spots most conducive to recharging the aquifers, it could do some good. Says Munderloh, "The days of large single-source water projects may be waning. Those things have already been developed. There's probably not going to be another canal from the Colorado River for us. So we need to look at all the possible solutions. This may not be the panacea, but it may fill in a number of gaps."
     See, it's all about small percentages. Currently only about 2% of rain makes it into groundwater supplies. About the same amount runs off to sprinkle golf courses in Maricopa County. The rest evaporates after it hits the ground or transpires from plants. Encouraging another 1% to sink in could make our area far more sustainable long-term.
     It'll cost us, of course. Munderloh: "We have to let water supplies go by that would be cheap for us to appropriate, but because there's a senior appropriator downstream, we have to let the cheap water go, and we go after the more expensive stuff."
     This really brings home to me how we have to put a much higher priority on securing water resources. Other than some pretty tight individual conservation on a large scale, which no one in officialdom thinks we're ready to even contemplate, no option is easy. (Did I just mention that conservation is easy?)
     The UVWPC is moving ahead with this in a perfectly rational way, carefully looking at options, building consensus and doing long-term studies to get an idea of what sort of initiative will be most effective. On top of the physical challenges, we'll also have to satisfy a recently constituted committee in the state Legislature that nothing we're contemplating will have any effect on the big cities downstream.
     Given the already huge groundwater deficits we run every year to quench the thirst of a population too large for the ecosystem to carry, compounded by a decades-long drought with no end in sight and accelerating climate change promising worse, all this careful incrementalism sets my hair on fire. We're moving slower than grass growing, and there's no grass.
     Rick Shroads, president of Civiltec Engineering and the contractor handling the project, tells me there are other ideas on the table: "We have a menu of pilot projects that we'd like to do, but of course funding is our stumbling block." The coalition picked this project to fit its budget, essentially. The designs that it'll be testing for five years are already working elsewhere in the world, presumably racking up hard results daily. I try to imagine why we're not plugging those numbers into our spreadsheets and moving to the next phase, and all I can think is that Americans simply won't take anything seriously that's not invented here.
     This is not a problem we can put off for decades, and there's no silver bullet. We're already using a lot more water than we have coming in, and every sensible scientific projection shows progressively less coming in for the foreseeable future. All around us, the ghost towns show us what happened when the mines tapped out. Imagine how much more decisively a lack of water will wither our economy.
     We need a very serious concentration of human and monetary resources working this problem with old-school wartime priority if we're to hope to solve it. We're all going to have to kick in, and there's no getting around paying much more for water. (Think I mean "a lot more"? Double it.) That will come sooner or later, and the sooner it comes, the more time we have to build and balance a sustainable system. But bear in mind that anything we do with engineering will still depend on rain, and there will be less of that all the time. Use less. Now use less than that.

Courier confirms god is a fact

Front page top: "'Help from above' saved church camp." Oh, please.

The headline is in half quotes, yes, but the same idea is in the body of the piece without them. Obviously there was no miraculous event in the story. Humans started the fire, humans put it out.

Religionists talk like this all the time, sure, and there's nothing against putting such blather in news stories with attribution and quotes. The offensive sloppiness here comes from the editor's blind spot around religion. Some self-examination and professional review is in order. But to that I'll add an apology to the firefighters for cheapening their work in favor of the sky-pilot myth.

Update, Wednesday: It's fascinating how quickly and uniformly the Xtians rise up, recast criticism of the editor's mistake as an attack on the faith, and bemoan their persecution in the comments. The persecution mythos, inherited from Judaism, is one of the dangerous angles of this particular faith — if you believe someone's out to get you, it justifies all sorts of aggression.