Thursday, November 29, 2012

Conversations with History: Elizabeth Warren.

For anyone interested in what happens next in American politics, watching this video makes an awful lot of sense. Elizabeth Warren's path through life has been anything but conventional, and was pretty much the last thing I'd ever expect for a law professor from Harvard. The interview is long (an hour) but the first ten minutes are probably the most important.

Elizabeth Warren is already a prominent figure at this point in her career, but isn't as overtly political as she perhaps is today.  The talk is very candid, and she goes into her experiences growing up, her somewhat roundabout education, her early days as a solo law practitioner, and how she began her research into bankruptcy law. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this interview is that it was conducted before the start of the Lesser Depression, and how prescient her views are given what's taken place since.

Regarding the interviewer, the Institute for International Studies at Berkeley has been conducting this series for more than 25 years, and Harry Kreisler does a great job of moderating the interviews.  I've watched a set, and they're quite something.  All are available on YouTube, from Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im to Howard Zinn.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

iPhone backup, iCloud and local, at the same time.

Very handy tip from GigaOM.
available at
If you're like me, backing up your iPhone is a big deal. I do it regularly, because I use "Missing Sync for iPhone" for its call log feature, which links up (after some scripting) very nicely with Timeslips (a common legal billing program), and which depends on a local backup to obtain the call data.

Since the advent of iCloud, I've started backing up using the service.  It's great -- I don't have to plug my phone in to my Mac to make sure I have daily backups.

However, I still need that local backup for call logs, and further, while iCloud is very useful for backups, restoring from it can be slow, and it only keeps one backup.  But using Time Machine on my Mac means that there are a lot of snapshots of the condition of my phone, which is good for rollbacks if necessary.

So, this advice today, on backing up to both iCloud and locally, is pretty useful.  Just right click on the iPhone icon in iTunes, and the option's right there. Nice! Thanks GigaOM!

Secession is a bad idea, full stop.

The Battle of Gettysburg, Pa. July 3d., 1863, by Currier and Ives.
The Economist talks about secession today.  This is not an issue that I think that anyone, let alone the President, should take seriously. However, if anyone thinks the case against secession need be made, I think a helpful place to start is the Wikipedia article about the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, and in particular, what occurred at the Bloody Angle, which was probably the most fierce and horrible battle of the entire war.  I don't think anyone wants to unleash anything like this ever again:
"'The combat they had endured for almost 24 hours was characterized by an intensity of firepower never previously seen in Civil War battles, as the entire landscape was flattened, all the foliage destroyed. An example of this can be found in the Smithsonian Museum of American History: a 22-inch stump of an oak tree at the Bloody Angle that was completely severed by rifle fire. There was a frenzy to the carnage on both sides. Fighting back and forth over the same corpse-strewn trenches for hours on end, using single shot muskets, the contending troops were periodically reduced to hand-to-hand combat reminiscent of battles fought during ancient times. Surviving participants attempted to describe in letters, diaries, and memoirs the hellish intensity of that day, many noting that it was beyond words. Or, as one put it: 'Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage, blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, and the grisly horror of the melee.'"

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Prof. Shaun Martin & 5th St W.

Shaun Martin -- great job, good education, probably 
a nice family. At least he's balding.  
Shaun Martin's a nice guy. I don't know him personally, but I do have evidence to support that fact. Shaun teaches law at the University of San Diego, which should make anyone dislike him as a threshold matter due to pure jealousy.  However, Shaun drags himself nearly daily away from his splendidly magnificent career choice to maintain a blog where he reviews the latest (when I say latest, I mean "last few hours") decisions from the California Courts of Appeal, and the 9th Circuit.  He usually picks out one case, links to the opinion, and explains (very briefly) an interesting or useful point the case illustrates.  Sometimes it's a technical civil procedure point, sometimes it's a nuance of criminal law, and sometimes it's an example of lawyers behaving (very) badly.  It is consistently interesting and very useful as a legal research tool.

Back around Halloween, Shaun picked up on a case from the California Court of Appeal entitled Tuolomne Jobs & Small Business Alliance v. Superior Ct. (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 30, 2012). The case concerns projects that are approved by the voters in a voter-sponsored initiative, which are exempt from having to prepare an environmental impact report.  So far, so good.  As some California political types are doubtless aware, that procedure's been used by business (Wal-Mart is an example) to an increasing degree in California, where paid signature gatherers get fifteen percent of the voters sign a petition supporting their construction project.  City Councils, instead of putting the measure on the ballot, then adopt the initiative as a statute in lieu of an election.  Question -- do you still get out of the environmental impact report then? The Tuolomne Jobs court says "No."  Shaun thinks the California State Supreme Court will take this one up (and he's probably right, because this is a big deal), and will probably adopt the Tuolomne Jobs opinion, which will diminish (but I doubt stop) the business-oriented use of the local initiative process.

No appeal has yet been filed, but I suspect it will be coming in the next thirty days. Nice catch, Mr. Martin.

The availability of an initiative, from a Sonoma perspective, came to my mind because of what's taking place at 5th St W at Studley.  The Sonoma Index-Tribune did an outstanding writeup on the City Council's meeting, which included a statement from the (outgoing) Public Works director stating that the City of Sonoma "believes existing conditions are safe” and expressed the belief that no structural changes “can make them safer," but at the same time stating that there is reasonable cause to evaluate the intersection further through a new traffic study. The Council did not commission a new traffic study (yet) despite the statement from the Public Works Director that such a new study is reasonable. It may very well be that the City Council is waiting until its newly elected members are seated in December before tackling this issue -- but this is not something that should go very far beyond then, and it's nice to know that something like the initiative process is available in a worst-case scenario if the City persistently fails to act.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Sonoma County vs. Welwyn Garden City.

Levittown, Pennsylvania, 1959
available at
Sonoma County is relatively proud of its planning heritage; Rohnert Park, south of Santa Rosa, was founded at the same time as the Levittowns, and was marketed as a new middle-class city.  Occasionally, local cheerleaders will refer to it as the first planned city in the United States, which flies in the face of history but which locals generally regard as a mostly harmless bit of boosterism. I say "mostly harmless" because Sonoma County's self-imagined role as a trailblazer means it tends to miss the fact that its problems are predictable ones that have occurred elsewhere.   

For a time when I was in the 4th grade, I went to the Templewood School, in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, England. For someone from Sonoma County, California, this was an interesting experience, for a host of reasons. One reason, though, that I didn't realize until much later, is that Sonoma County's general plan (consciously or not) has been, is, and will be modeled on the garden city movement, and Welwyn Garden City is one of the movement's best examples.
"Do we all dream of life in a garden city?"
The Telegraph, November 22, 2012
available at

The Garden City movement was really inspired by a single novel -- Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward.  The details aren't germane to this post, but Looking Backward describes what today would be called a socialist utopia. Sir Ebenezer Howard took those ideas and ran with them, and decided that creating the world Edward Bellamy described meant that planned, self-contained communities, surrounded by greenbelts, should be created.  These cities would have approximately 30,000 residents, and would contain proportionate areas for residences, industry and agriculture. Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city of 50,000 people, linked by road and rail.

Garden City Diagram
As socialist utopias, the garden cities were something of a failure; property values tended to rise, and blue collar workers were forced out in favor of middle class families.  Industry and agriculture would thus suffer due to higher labor costs, and they moved out, too.  The garden city ended up becoming a garden suburb, built around transport (roads, and importantly railroads) that connected it to a nearby city where its residents work during the day -- which ultimately made the garden suburb economically dependent, undermining the whole point of the movement.

Sherradspark Wood
available at
Sir Howard's first such city, Letchworth Garden City, was thus a modest economic success, if not much of an immediate political one.  It was followed by Welwyn Garden City.  Howard's disciples sought to make Welwyn even more beautiful than Letchworth, and as a former resident, I can tell you, they succeeded to an amazing degree. As a fourth grader, I remember walking through small wooded areas, and then through winding, calm, pleasant neighborhoods on my way to Templewood. The school itself backs up on to Sherradspark Wood, which is something right out of the Lord of the Rings.  Those rare times I rode in a car, the enormous, green open spaces left an indelible memory -- I still remember the view along the city's Parkway, which I (much later) learned is considered one of the finest urban vistas in the world.

Parkway, looking south, Welwyn Garden City
 available at
The unintentional economic success of the garden cities was not missed by the denizens of Whitehall.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, they embarked on a program of creating new towns, which, for an American audience, is something like the English version of Levittown.  Of course, Levittowns are not socialist utopias.  But the irony is that cities designed to be socialist utopias ended up being exactly what the U.K. middle class was looking for (Welywn Garden City itself was "back designated" as one of the new towns).  The garden cities' successors, whether new towns or Levittowns, reflect the same design aesthetic that made Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City popular -- which brings us back to places like Rohnert Park, California.

The basic problem of the garden city movement didn't go away just because American developers began using it.  American planned communities, due to their amenities, landscaping, and design proved very attractive to the middle class--the working class rarely even got a foothold.  Those new middle class residents commuted, and thus the planned community became ever more economically dependent on transport links. In Welwyn Garden City, this was no problem -- the city's rail station, on the East Coast Main Line connecting London to Edinburgh, heads straight into King's Cross (20 miles away), where it's (from a Sonoma County resident's perspective) easy to get anywhere in London in short order.

Sonoma County isn't on the U.S. equivalent of the East Coast Main Line.  It's on the Northwestern Pacific, which, by way of contrast, was shut down by the U.S. Federal Government in 1999.  Sonoma County has nothing like Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay Area uses to emulate the success of Welwyn Garden City's access to the East Coast Main Line. Sonoma County's main roadway, US-101, had, by the mid 1990's, become chronically jammed by traffic. Economically, the structural weakness this created was concealed (to a degree) by the consequences of rampant real estate speculation and asset price inflation.  When the housing market crashed, the economic prerequisite necessary for the success of a garden suburb, excellent transportation links, wasn't there, and Sonoma County's unemployment went from 2% to 11%.  Other parts of the Bay Area, with high quality transportation, weathered the storm better.

SMART Line under Construction
Press Democrat, August 30, 2012.
available at
 Due to the lack of rail transport, Sonoma County has become nearly entirely dependent on roadways and cars. The roads are now in the worst condition of any in the San Francisco Bay Area, and inter-county travel by cars is one our most significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Sonoma County is backing into the railroad solution; it has begun construction on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) line. The surprise, perhaps, though, is that the solution is fifty years "after the fact," so to speak.

There are other interesting questions that spin off of the initial premise that Sir Howard had in founding Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities.  The unintended consequences of applying an urban design model built upon the premise of utopian socialism has broader effects than merely kicking Sonoma County in the teeth economically over the last ten years -- but those are other posts for other days.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nate Silver on the House of Representatives ...

So, Nate Silver has picked up on the House of Representatives result, arguing the Democrats underperformed.

Democrats Unlikely to Regain House in 2014
"Nate Silver's Political Calculus," Nov. 16, 2012
available at
This contrasts with Paul Krugman's "The Democrats are the party of government" argument.  Nate Silver seems to catch on that, in an equally split vote, the Republicans will tend to control the House.  This seems to support the Republicans as the party of government, but that's really a minor argument compared to the bigger issue, which is the fact that it is unlikely the Democratic Party will recapture control of the House until 2022 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post continues to analyze the House of Representatives result (they are all over the issue, running their first article on Nov. 9), and their rough results indicate that the Democratic vote for House Members will exceed the Republicans, despite the Republicans maintaining control.

Aaron Blake, "The Fix"
Washington Post, November 9, 2012
available at
There are some oddities that are affecting the final result.  For instance, in a number of House districts in California the election was between members of the same party (six D v. D, two R v. R), and thus all votes cast in those races were either for the Democrats or Republicans.  When adjusting for those anomalies, it appears the Democrats will still maintain their overall popular vote majority in House elections.

The question I have is, what would the likely national popular vote have to be for the Democrats to emerge with a similar majority to what the Republicans now enjoy?  This is hardly scientific, but in 2006, they did have a similar majority in the House, but the popular vote for House was 42,082,311-35,674,808. Just doing an extrapolation from those results indicates that the Republicans can expect to get substantial majorities by merely battling to a draw, while the Democrats need to outpoll the Republicans by 8% to get a similar majority in the House.

Friday, November 16, 2012

25,982 Reasons Why Pedestrian Deaths On 5th St W Are "Statistically Significant."

"Searching for Answers on Fifth Street," Sonoma Index-Tribune
November 16, 2012
available at
Two people have been killed at the same intersection near my home in the last seven years. My city government believes that two deaths in that time period at the same intersection are not statistically significant.  My local paper instinctively senses they're something amiss despite the city's assertion. Guess what, Sonoma Index-Tribune? I think you're right, and pro bono publico, here's what I think the problem is with the city's argument.
"Busy" Intersections in Sonoma.

To set the scene for non-local readers, I live in a relatively small town, Sonoma, California, with about 10,000 people (10,741, according to Google). Per the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, there are approximately 1.73 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population in the United States per year.  21.2% of these deaths happen at intersections.  I've looked over a map of Sonoma, and there are a lot of intersections; but I've tried to count only the substantial ones -- I think there are 29 (the list is on the right).  Please note that if I were more conservative, and counted each intersection, it would only make the chances of a second fatality at the same intersection less likely.

Thus, I think the chance of a pedestrian fatality at any given intersection, if the intersections are roughly equally dangerous, in any given year, to be a relatively straightforward application of the multiplication rule -- it's (1.73/100000) * 10,741 * 212/1000 * 1/29, or 1 in 736.  Long odds - you'd have a better chance of drawing a full house in a single draw of the cards at poker.

OK, but what are the chances of getting another pedestrian fatality at the same intersection within seven years? My old statistics book from Berkeley came in handy here -- it's an application of the binomial formula.  The formula is on the right; the binomial function from Excel made calculation pretty straightforward.  The chances of another pedestrian accident happening at the same intersection, if the intersections are equally dangerouswithin seven years, is 1 in 18,518 25,982.  It's not quite as hard as drawing a straight flush, but it's pretty close.
Freedman, Pisani, Purves & Adhikari
"Statistics, Second Edition," p.241.

It's unlikely that Sonoma was so unlucky. Instead, it's more probable that the intersection in question is vastly more dangerous than normal. Indeed, 1 in 25,982 is somewhere between a 4σ and 5σ event; mere "statistical significance" usually requires only 2σ (95%), and anything beyond 3σ is typically "highly significant."

But of course, I am no statistician, and this is all the work of an amateur. The problem is that the City staff aren't either, and I suspect they're even worse at it than me. The City shouldn't be saying something is statistically insignificant without talking to someone who has the education and experience necessary to determine that fact. This isn't a $30,000 study, it's something a grad student from UCB can handle in an afternoon. The City needs to do the work to prove this is merely bad luck, and judging by the staff report, they simply haven't.

Spreadsheet with formulas.
The I-T knows there's an issue here--for instance, they have been raising hue and cry about installing sidewalks in the Boyes Hot Springs area, based on the argument that pedestrians aren't safe (and they're right).  The hard question, though, is whether the I-T, given the economic vise the newspaper industry has been placed in, still has the resources to challenge arguments like those advanced by the City, that in incidents of these types that "the pedestrian or bicyclist was the party most at fault."  Personally, I think the I-T is on the right track, and I say, please keep pushing, because the voters are depending on you to do so, to keep us informed.  And public safety depends upon you making sure our government isn't just hand-waving in response to citizen concerns -- our officials need to do the math to prove their points, and need to show us the results.

Updated 4:55 PM Saturday, November 17:  The odds of two deaths in the same intersection in 7 years were updated to reflect the 21.2% NHTSA figure, rather than 25%.  Further, John Capone, the writer for the Index-Tribune, pointed out in his article that Beatriz Villanueva was killed in the same intersection in 1996.  The chances of three pedestrian fatalities in 17 years occurring at random at the same intersection under the assumptions detailed above is 1 in 597,956. By way of comparison, the chance of drawing a royal flush in a single hand of poker is 1 in 649,739.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

California Legislative Analyst: Yep, the Budget's Getting Better.

They're a couple of days late, but its nice to see California's Legislative Analyst basically agrees that the budget situation has changed dramatically.
"2013-2014 Budget: California's Fiscal Outlook"
California Legislative Analyst's Office, November 14, 2012.
available at

The ability of the State to deal with the problem of prison overcrowding and Judge Henderson's order is addressed, and the LAO assumes that the State will be required to house 10,900 inmates in out–of–state contracted beds in order meet the court–ordered prison population limit, which is a part of the projected $1.9 billion deficit for 2013. 

The language used displays a bit of either optimism or naïveté, though, because just complying with the 137.5% deadline is the starting point for dealing with the situation, not the end point. 

The report also acknowledges the very substantial increases in Medi-Cal reimbursement that are expected through 2018. 

However, I don't think anyone can disagree that the budget situation has changed dramatically for California since perhaps June (when the ACA was upheld), and even since last week.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Democrats Are The Natural Party Of Government?

Paul Krugman gets me thinking once again.  This time, he's thinking that the Democrats are now the natural party of government, because they've won the popular vote at every presidential election since 1988 save one, and that was a wartime election.
Paul Krugman, "Death by Epistemology"
New York Times, Nov. 12, 2012

Well, he sort of makes his point, and he sort of doesn't.  The Presidency, as far as elections are concerned, is disconnected from the national popular vote by the presence of the electoral college, which encourages tactical behavior in vote seeking by the candidates.  So, it's a poor proxy for determining who the "party of government" is, as far as the U.S. is concerned.  

I've seen people turn to governorships, to try to figure out which party is closer to the heartbeat of the nation, but that has similar problems (we're weighting California and Texas the same as Rhode Island and Delaware?). 

It seems to me that the very idea of the "party of government" is a Parliamentary one, specifically, the party controlling the lower house, the Commons.  If we really want to apply the concept and try and see which American party would correspond, it makes more sense to look to the House of Representatives, to our lower house of the legislature, and try and get a sense of which "party" the American "popular vote" goes for by aggregating the votes for the representatives of the different parties. 

In the old days, that would be hard.  But the Clerk of the House has thoughtfully put PDF results up with exactly those totals, dating back to 1920.  I took at look at the totals from 1988 to the present; I've inferred the 2012 vote totals by taking the popular vote and subtracting 5 million -- that's about the percentage of votes that go to third parties in House elections; the final tally of seats is not complete yet (four elections yet to be called) but they're close enough to done for these purposes.

The Republicans, of course, win control of the "American Commons" much more frequently, starting in 1994. But 1994 isn't an outlier -- 1992 is.  The turnout in 1992 was enormous; it wasn't decisively exceeded until 2004.  The Democrats held a big majority going in to the election (270 seats) and came out with 258; no party has had as big a majority in the House since.

Then the 1994 "Republican Revolution" took place, and the Republicans picked up 54 seats, and they've been in control of the House constantly, with the exception of 2006-2010, since.  There's one odd situation in there, 1996, where the Republicans lose the "popular vote" for the House, but still ended up in control, and 1998 and 2000 were whisker-close. Nevertheless, I think that, if you wanted to pick the "party of government," at least in the English sense, I think you would still go with the Republicans.

But the data supports some other conclusions,  too.  No House of Representatives has had more support in the country in absolute terms than the Democrats of 2008; the number of votes they received went up  by nearly 50% over 2006.  It seems like ~15 million more people show up, for both sides, in a Presidential year, but not 2008; that year 22 million more people showed up for the Democrats, but only 16 million for the Republicans. I don't think anyone is surprised to learn Obama had pretty big coattails in 2008.

The other thing that's interesting is how many votes the Republican Congress will have received, in 2012, when the final tally is done.  The Republican majority of 2004 was the first Congressional majority to receive more than 50 million votes nationally; the Democratic majority of 2008 was the first to receive more than 60 million.  One would think that this election, from a Congressional perspective, may very well be more like 1996 than 2008, with a very close vote despite the Republicans continuing to control the House.

So is Krugman wrong? No -- I think he's identifying something that's real, but is drawing the wrong conclusion.  His column is full of references to how the Democrats are now better organized than the Republicans.  I think he's missing the fact that the Democrats have become the party of the Executive branch; of the last six presidencies, four have been Democratic.  Parties that control the Executive branch tend to be better organized--after all, they have a leader.

However, It's hard to control both the Executive and the Legislature--for instance, Republican candidates in different regions can argue divergent positions, but both can point to the President as a counterexample.  They are not saddled with the positions of the leader of their party. All this is probably little consolation to Mitt Romney, but by the same token, Democratic presidents are probably going to have to get used to a series of Republican Houses for the near future.

Monday, November 12, 2012

So What, Exactly, Is California's Budget Situation?

"Proposition 30 win no guarantee of fiscal safety for California"
Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2012
One thing that I've been thinking about the past few days is, what, exactly, will California's budget look like, in, say, 2014. California's budget is anything but simple, but people generally discuss the General Fund when they're talking about "the budget."  It's around $91 billion.  The estimated shortfall is $16 billion. Here's an example of an LA Times article that demonstrates the practice of referring to the General Fund as "the budget."

If you ask the California Department of Finance the same question, though, they'll tell you the budget is about $225 billion.

The difference between $91 billion and $225 billion is kind of a lot of money.

"Historical Data / Budget Expenditures"
California Department of Finance,
The most significant item ignored in California's budget discussion are the federal funds spent by the State.  That number has increased by about $50 billion in the last ten years, to where it now nearly equals the entire General Fund. That's a massive change; between 2004-2008, the Federal Funds were about half of the size of the General Fund.

To be sure, the massive increase in Federal Funds reflects a very unusual economy, including things like unemployment payments when the State's been dealing with 12% unemployment.  But the economic problem is immediate for California; the long term problem is health care.

The Department of Finance's web site is great for throwing light on these kinds of questions. I've pulled up the line item for Health and Human Services, and then the specific line item for Medi-Cal.  The fact that Medi-Cal is a single line item on the spreadsheet must make staffers at DoF laugh on an annual basis -- there's a thousand lines that are minnows, and then there's this whale trying to hide in the middle.
"Comparative Statement of Expenditures"
California Department of Finance, 
available at

"Comparative Statement of Expenditures"
(the Medi-Cal Line Item)
California Department of Finance,

There are a couple of points to take away from this.  First, California actually cut spending on Medi-Cal in 2012, by about 3%, even when Federal Money is included.  That may not sound like much, but it is unprecedented in recent history.  The "good news" is expected to end in 2013, when spending is anticipated to return to its trend line, and California will spend $56.6 billion on health care.  The General Fund's share of that is expected to be the same (about $15 billion) but $6 billion in Special Funds were expected to show up -- which, they duly have, due to the passage of Proposition 30.

Of course, the idea that there is a State program getting larger is amazing in and of itself, because every other program has been facing budget cuts.

"California to Lose Big if Supreme Court Scraps U.S Health Care Law"
Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2012
But the interesting number is the one that's not on this spreadsheet - the numbers that are expected for 2014.  While Federal Funds are already a larger part of the Medi-Cal line item than the entire State expenditure, it appears that the Federal Funds are about to increase by approximately $15 billion, due to the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare" -- an amount equal to the entire "budget" contribution to Medi-Cal, and an amount that's also roughly equal to the shortfall that's caused so much consternation in the last year.

It's impossible to say what consequences of ACA ("Obamacare") funding will be for the General Fund, because facts on the ground are now changing quite fast.  I think it's reasonable to expect a very significant amount will be heading to education, due to the effects of Prop 98 and its progeny.

Michael Montgomery, "California Prisons Are Still Overcrowded"
East Bay Express, November 7, 2012
I think the hope is that the Democratic supermajority, coupled with defeat of staunch labor champions at the ballot box (Michael Allen, you fought the good fight but it's probably time to concede defeat ...), means that, while the actions by the legislature in response are unpredictable, they will at least be different than those taken by the legislature between 1999-2001.

The wild card, though, I think, is the State's prison overcrowding situation.  While the State's realignment (basically, shifting state prison inmates to the county jails) has made some progress towards complying with U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson's order, I don't think there's really room for dispute that the State continues to fail to meet its obligations.

One wonders how much patience Judge Henderson will (or should) have for the State and its claims that it cannot afford to comply completely, if the State undertakes new high-speed rail spending or begins aqueduct construction projects. The functioning of the justice system requires a proper prison system, which is an issue that, one suspects, could engender bipartisan support, even if it is not immediately politically rewarding.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Brooks and Krugman.

David Brooks and Paul Krugman both publish columns in the New York Times on Friday.  I usually read Brooks first, due to habit and nostalgia; Brooks' columns remind me of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page between 1991 and 1997, and while his ideas don't always resonate any more, they're familiar. 

Reading Krugman's column, on the other hand, reminds me of the fourth opera in Der Ring des NibelungenGötterdämmerung. Today, his argument is that Obama should "[j]ust say no, and go over the [fiscal] cliff if necessary."

As a negotiating strategy, I can see where Krugman's coming from.  The party with the more stubborn constituency tends to obtain the better results in a negotiation, and Krugman is definitely considered a voice for the Democratic intelligentsia, if not the party as a whole. Thus, his demand for no compromise is likely to be taken seriously, at a minimum, by media observers, if not Republicans.

The problem, though, is that Krugman's argument is that Obama's BATNA is a world where the country will fall off the fiscal cliff, and that the fall won't be that bad.  This is untrue and I think Krugman knows it.  Krugman all but concedes that another recession would be the result, but somehow he (Krugman) thinks the damage that would be inflicted is worth it.

Allowing a recession to occur flies in the face of nearly everything Krugman's been arguing for over the last four years.  He and Brad DeLong have essentially said that the damage to people's lives from the current Lesser Depression could have been avoided by more comprehensive government action. For Krugman to now advocate shutting down the government is not just unbelievable, it's frankly not believable at all.  At best, Krugman's trolling.

Obama, since the earliest days of his presidency, has been willing to reach out and forge compromises. The voters know that (I think), and I think Obama's victory is in part due to his ability to strike deals.  To start pushing the President to abandon that strategy now is a recipe for turning Obama into a lame duck in the first 90 days of his second term (another thing I think Krugman knows).

The Republicans' BATNA is hardly better than Obama's. When the alternatives to a deal are dire for both parties, deals get done, no matter how angry the supporters may be. I wouldn't expect this situation to be any different.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Should we stick fuel cells in our fireplaces?

Sonoma's a bit smoky today. Gianna and I ran into a significant cloud of it on East MacArthur around noon, as we were driving back from school with the girls.  One house had two wood stoves running, and the cloud of particulate made the street look like a bomb had gone off.

Sonenshine, Ron.
"Wood-Stove Fad Going Up in Smoke."
San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 6, 1992.   
Gianna and I engaged in a bit of good natured grousing about self-righteous "back to nature" types and the negative consquences of well-intentioned environmental concerns run amok.  The problems posed by residential wood stoves have been known for some time (at least 1992, judging by the SF Chronicle, which notes that up to 25% of the Bay Area's air pollution is due to these stoves). But they're still installed, twenty years later, causing problems.

However, as we talked about it a bit more, we (well, I) recognized that the people who installed wood stoves were probably making a mistake in the right direction.  One significant environmental problem California faces is the transmission of power, not the generation of it.  One advantage of solar is that it can be installed where's it's needed, reducing if not eliminating transmission costs.  Wood stoves are somewhat similar--the particulate is disconcerting but at least the power's being generated where it's being used.

Halstead, Richard.
"Kent Woodlands resident becomes first in county to power home using fuel cell"
Marin Independent Journal, Feb. 18, 2011.
available at
The problem, though, is that once a "technology" like the wood burning stove gets in place, it's hard to dislodge -- there's a cultural path dependence. Reducing the impact of wood stoves encounters significant political resistance, and the people resisting are quite convinced they're morally right.  And the irony is, they're partially right.  Generating power close to its point of use can be a good idea environmentally and economically.  It doesn't just have to merely be via installing solar (which is not that useful during the wood stove time-of-year), but could, instead, theoretically be accomplished by a home fuel cell. Not many have done this yet -- Bruce Raabe of Kent Woodlands in Marin County is one of the first, as the Marin Independent Journal reported last year.  It's pure speculation on my part, but I wonder whether fuel cell technology would see broader adoption were public policy to more directly encourage it (the programs designed to encourage solar, of course, being quite well known at this point).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

So what was the Press Democrat's sale price?

North Bay Business Journal, Nov. 1, 2012
available at
Sonoma Media Investments, LLC, controlled, essentially, by Doug Bosco and Darius Anderson, has purchased the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, The North Bay Business Journal, and the Petaluma Argus-Courier from Halifax Media Group, which had acquired these papers less than a year ago from the New York Times.  These newspapers are a critical source of information for Sonoma County, and their editorial judgment has been generally respected by the community. Puzzlingly, though, the sales price was not disclosed.

Cynthia Gorney, "Battle of the Bay"
in Leaving Readers Behind:
The Age of Corporate Newspapering
, p. 355.
I looked into the matter a bit, trying to find out, at least, what the New York Times had paid for the papers in 1985.  The sales price wasn't disclosed then, either.  I did manage to track down some apocryphal information, suggesting the price had been high indeed; Evert Person (misspelled "Everett" in the source), the publisher in 1985, is reported to have said “I got this offer, I just couldn’t believe how high it was, I accepted it.” I don’t doubt there are Sonoma County residents who know how high it was, but none of them are talking, so I decided to consult the numbers.

The New York Times Company
1985 Annual Reportp. 12.

Figuring the New York Times Company is publicly traded, I took a look at their 1985 Annual Report (UC Berkeley allows the public free access to the Historical Annual Reports database on ProQuest).  The report was deliberately vague; it noted that $389 million was spent by the Times in 1985 on acquisitions, specifically to acquire five newspapers and two radio stations.  The report didn’t break the numbers down any further.

Scratching my head a bit, I decided to poke further and see if the purchase price for the other papers acquired by the Times in 1985 was available.  It was—the papers had been owned by a nonprofit, and the sales price was eventually disclosed on their Form 990.  It was $156 million. In 1985 dollars, that was about $1,426 for each paper circulated daily; in 2012 dollars, $4,001 per paper circulated.

Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Jan. 28, 1990, p.10
Did the  New York Times make a similar offer for the Press Democrat in 1985? If so, at $1,426 per daily circulated, the offer Evert Person “couldn’t believe” would have been $107 million (or $299 million in 2012 dollars).

By way of contrast, Halifax Media Group paid $143 million for the Press Democrat and 15 other papers last year, and on a per-unit of circulation price, the Press Democrat would have been worth a mere $18 million in that deal. In effect, the Press Democrat’s value collapsed by over 90% in the intervening 25 years.

"Reflections of a Newsosaur," Mar. 29, 2010
available at
A 90% collapse in value for the Press Democrat is, disturbingly, consistent with the state of the rest of the newspaper industry.  The Daytona News-Journal, for instance, whose circulation has fallen roughly in line with that of the Press Democrat, was valued at $300 million in 2006; by 2010, its reasonable value was estimated in legal proceedings to be a mere $20 million (a 93% decline in value in the four year period).

The Sonoma Index-Tribune (also owned by Sonoma Media Investments, LLC) has tipped its hand to a degree regarding the purchase price.  Its article noted that the agreement included the Press Democrat’s Rohnert Park printing plant, built for an estimated $30 million in 1986.  A $30 million valuation for the Press Democrat without real estate seems high, but including the facility, it is not wildly unreasonable; a building of the size of the Rohnert Park plant (even if it is 25 years old) certainly seems like it might reasonably be worth $12 million.
Sonoma Index-Tribune, Nov 1, 2012
available at

Of course, it is also possible that the value of the Press Democrat was set at zero -- the New York Times has had serious labor problems relating to pensions for several years, and there have been extensive cutbacks at the Press Democrat over the last half-decade.  Perhaps there was also some assumption of debt or other liabilities by Sonoma Media Investments, LLC, or a measure of “seller financing” by Halifax Media Group to make the entire deal go.

However, the main point stands – there has been a complete collapse in the value of the Press Democrat in the last seven years.  However, I think the implications for the community are actually more serious than merely being one of the largest business failures in the County’s living memory. But those are other posts, for other days.

Is Nate Silver a Witch?

Probably. At least, according to "Is Nate Silver a" His last predictions on the 538 Blog appear to have been spot on.

Warm Ups.

Manchester United should be doing better than 0-1 to Braga.