Showing posts with label Election 2012. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Election 2012. Show all posts

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Further Reading.

Regarding Monday's post, three articles caught my eye in the past few days touching on some of the particular points made in that post.  The first is from the Economist, the second from Time Magazine, and the third from the New York Times.

Angela Ahrendts

image available at
Starting with the Economist, this will be among the few times this blog ever mentions Burberry.  Angela Ahrendts, its CEO, has quit to run Apple's retail operations. In six paragraphs, the Economist's editors managed to miss (or chose to ignore) the significance of the fact that Ms. Ahrendts is a woman. Apple's executive suite is composed of CEO Tim Cook and eight male senior vice presidents. Ahrendts will be Apple's ninth SVP, and first female SVP since 1992.

Why should Ahrendts quit as a CEO to play second fiddle to Tim Cook?  There's a lot of things that Tim Cook's been responsible for, but amongst his biggest achievements was the move from PowerPC to Intel chips for the Mac line; that's an engineering, not a design function.  The Economist correctly notes that Ahrendts is very effective at fusing design and technology, but I have a strong suspicion that Ahrendts is willing to make the jump because she has confidence she has a shot to run Apple if she's successful, and that she's risen as far as she practically can in the UK, although perhaps not in California ...

The second article, from Time Magazine, notes that the end of the government shutdown was, in many ways, attributable to a group of female senators.  The U.S. Senate has been called the ultimate men's club, with, "unspoken rules, hidden alliances, off-hours socializing and an ethic based at least as much on personal relationships as merit to get things done."  But the article instead drew attention to the success that the group of female senators, regardless of party, have managed to achieve:
image available at

"Most of the Senators say they feel they speak not just for the voters in their states but for women across America. Over the years they have pushed through legislation that has vastly expanded funding of women’s- and children’s-health research, testing and treatment. They’ve passed the Lilly ­Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and other anti­discrimination laws. And they’ve won federally mandated maternity and family medical leave. While most of these efforts were driven by Democrats, the women are strongest when they unite on legislation like the Homemakers IRA, which allows tax-deductible contributions to retirement plans by stay-at-home parents."
image available at
The final piece, from the New York Times, concerns California's government. Noting that the State has long been "the national symbol of partisan paralysis and government dysfunction," the article points out that a sunny assessment of changes in the State have been voiced by people inside and outside the government:
"... [T]he new atmosphere in Sacramento also offers the first evidence that three major changes in California’s governance system intended to leach some of the partisanship out of politics — championed by reform advocates — may also be having their desired effect in a state that has long offered itself as the legislative laboratory for the nation." 
"Lawmakers came into office this year representing districts whose lines were drawn by a nonpartisan commission, rather than under the more calculating eye of political leaders. This is the first Legislature chosen under an election system where the top two finishers in a nonpartisan primary run against each other, regardless of party affiliations, an effort to prod candidates to appeal to a wider ideological swath of the electorate."
"The turnaround from just 10 years ago — striking in tone, productivity and, at least on fiscal issues, moderation — is certainly a lesson in the power of one-party rule. Democrats hold an overwhelming majority in the Assembly and Senate and the governor, Jerry Brown, is a Democrat. The Republican Party, which just three years ago held the governor’s seat and a feisty minority in both houses, has diminished to the point of near irrelevance."

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Streets Should Fit the Trees.

I was visiting family in Houston last week. Driving around, I couldn't help noticing signs like the one on the left. The Houston Independent School District  went to their voters in the last election with a pretty big ask - just short of $2 billion. I had suspected the bond election had failed -- the generally accepted wisdom regarding education in Texas is that it's underfunded and lacks support. But I was wrong -- Houston came out 2-1 in favor.

$2 billion is a lot of money, but it's good to keep it in perspective.  HISD has over 200,000 students, while my little town, Sonoma, has about 4,600 in its school district.  So for Sonoma, that'd be around a $40 million bond measure.  Interestingly, Sonoma had a bond measure of about that size in 2010 -- Measure H -- and it received almost exactly the same support as the Houston bond.

OK John, so what?

Texas' unemployment rate at the time of the Houston bond measure was 6.1%. California's at the time of Measure H was 12.2%.

6% unemployment is right about what (monetarist) economists generally think is the (suspected) value of the NAIRU, or the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment. This is basically the level of unemployment that keeps a lid on inflation.  In the most simple terms, monetarists argue that some unemployment is a result of people doing things like switching jobs, and not because the economy is underperforming, and that if unemployment's at 6%, the economy's probably operating fairly normally.  Thus, there aren't a lot of politicians that get terribly excited (worried?) about 6% unemployment.

12.2% is entirely different.  12.2% is considered disastrous.  American Conservatives (well, at least the Wall Street Journal) argue, for example, that the French economy is in a severe crisis, with stagnant growth, steadily rising per unit labor costs, and chronically high unemployment.  However, France's unemployment rate has never been over 11.5% -- at the time the Wall Street Journal wrote those words, it was 10.1%.  You can imagine what those editorial writers think of California's economy.

Most people reading this will see where I'm going, but it never hurts to spell it out: Sonoma's voters approved their bond measure in the middle of an economic collapse. What would the voters support if the California economy was turning in a performance like that enjoyed by the Houston voters?

This segues into a broader issue, though.  While economics and education generally aren't linked in discussions in California, improving schools and reaching out to students can only help so much when the child's parents are out of work. In 2009, Ann Huff Stevens and Jessamyn Schaller of UC Davis published a study that examined the relationship between parental job loss and children’s academic achievement. In 2011, the Washington Post's Suzy Khimm drew attention to the story.  The research  carefully controlled for distorting effects, and after doing so, determined that parental job loss increased a child's chances of being held back a grade by 15%.  After properly excluding any other possible causal factor, the study determined that the effect completely disappeared if the parent had simply been able to get a new job. While the study's metric was solely students who failed a grade, I think it is safe to conclude that the decrease in academic performance is probably far broader.

I can hear Captain Obvious in the audience, thinking to himself "John just proved that a parent losing their job can screw up their kid's life!" So what's the point?

"Jobs Since the Recession"
Cal Facts 2013
California Legislative Analyst
A lot of people sense that the economy has problems, but they're unclear on the specifics. Why does the economy have problems?

In aggregate, the problems faced by California are really linked to a couple of sectors. Since 2007, California has lost nearly 900,000 jobs in construction, manufacturing, and transportation. Perhaps 100,000 of those jobs have come back since 2010 -- but none have been in construction or manufacturing.

Manufacturing's losses are significant but I think they're not as directly relevant to a place like Sonoma as they are to, say, Los Angeles. Los Angeles (surprisingly to many) is home to lots of manufacturers --  in everything from  clothing to aerospace to jewelry.  

LA's problem is not Sonoma Valley's problem. Sonoma Valley's problem is construction.

The easy rejoinder there is "well, there's been a collapse in real estate values, what do you expect? Nobody wants to build houses."

That argument might work for the State at large, but Sonoma Valley's home prices have done better than average, and there are substantial efforts to engage in new construction, particularly concerning facilities that cater to tourism (leisure & hospitality), professional services, health services, and agriculture.  There's even some home construction (especially remodeling) going on.  Businessmen and women are trying to get things done.

Instead, in nearly every single instance, the same set of issues are coming up over and over again. As a practicing attorney, I can tell you that each project that someone comes to talk to me about has (or, invariably, will have) the same basic problem, which causes intelligent and hard-working businesspeople to throw up their hands and oftentimes abandon the entire effort.

That issue is California's thicket of minor legislation.  The problem is not a new one. In 2004, The Economist newspaper (magazine) wrote an article on the condition of California's economy, after the dot-com collapse but before the housing implosion.  To summarize their conclusions, unlike some other states in the U.S., there are different layers of overlapping government in California, and often those governments work at cross-purposes. The survey noted that places like Texas offer businesses one-stop shops, but that California presents more of an obstacle course. The authors pointed out that while costs are a problem, the bigger problem is generally unpredictability, with the sudden imposition of new rules (and charges) causing projects to slow down or to stop altogether -- the destructive consequence of the thicket of minor legislation.

I see this going on nearly every day.  From urban infill to brownfield redevelopment to simple remodel projects ... even habitat restoration efforts run into a near-impentrable maze of agencies and authorities, whether local, county, state or federal in nature.  Guiding projects through this effort is, of course, what lawyers do, but from experience, I know that business depends on understandable rules, and our government generally fails us -- that we fail ourselves -- in that department.

No one wants to make Thneedville's mistake in Sonoma Valley, or indeed anywhere in California. Our natural endowment is why many of us are here in the first place.  That's not the issue. Reducing the impact of the thicket of minor legislation when we seek to maintain existing structures or reuse already-developed sites would substantially benefit our local economy, and start strengthening the economic base that can provide increased financial support for our schools.  I can tell you that the Economist is on to something when they point to the thicket of minor legislation as the problem holding back the State -- and ultimately, holding back our efforts to improve education.

Which really brings me to my final point.  In 2009, my City decided that nearly every single tree on my street should be cut down -- no joke! If there's one issue that can really get my (and my wife's) attention, it's someone who wants to chop down trees without a (very good) reason.  After looking at the plans the City put forward, I pointed out at the City's public meeting on the issue that the City was trying to make the trees fit the street, when what the City really should have been doing was making the street fit the trees.

The problem that both my Valley and my State have encountered is that the economy and education, like the streets and the trees, need to fit one another.  We should not forget that one is more important than the other -- but we also have to pay attention to both if we want to be able to take care of either.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Society Can Be Judged By Entering Its Prisons.

California Governor Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown has my attention today.  He declared that the emergency conditions in California's prisons have ended. Brown credited realignment, which has basically meant shifting state prison inmates to the county jails, with reducing the scope of the problem. I've blogged about it previously, noting that the remaining portion of California's budget deficit can largely be explained by the requirement that 10,900 prisoners will be housed in out-of-state prisons in 2013, in order to deal with the overcrowding emergency. From a budget perspective, if Jerry Brown can get the federal courts to agree that the prison capacity crisis has ended, and allow the Governor to move those prisoners back into the State's prisons, he will have balanced the California budget this year. 

"Crime Rate at Historic Low"
Cal Facts 2013
California Legislative Analyst
The problem Jerry Brown's discussing, while it is unlikely to be solved by the judges going along with his proposal, is one that it appears will be resolved as a result of other factors in the next few years.  The recent changes to three strikes, combined with realignment, have helped.  But the graph on the right is really what's driving the situation.  California, like the rest of America, faces continued declining rates of crime. As Richard A. Oppel, Jr. of the New York Times pointed out two years ago, no-one really knows why this is the case.  If anything, most experts had expected crime to pick up during the recent economic crisis, but the opposite actually occurred. I don't have any particular insight to why this has happened, aside from noting that whatever's causing it, the same phenomenon is occurring next door in Canada.

Brown's quotes are specifically interesting, though, because Jerry Brown almost certainly knows he's telling a whopping lie by saying California has "one of the finest prison systems in the United States." Brown is navigating through the last portion of what was a near-meltdown of California's government.  To paraphrase Viscount Snowden, truth is the first casualty in a crisis, and Dostoyevsky's observation that "a society can be judged by entering its prisons" is as true as it ever was.  California's prisons are institutions that, like the State, are stepping back from the precipice of an economic collapse. Things have gotten better, yes, but calling California's prisons the nation's finest is, rhetorically, almost certainly a bridge too far.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Dan Walters and Education Funding.

Dan Walters.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.  While he's not exactly eye-candy to look at, his columns are a great resource for understanding what's taking place in Sacramento.  He's a bit iconoclastic and isn't beholden to any particular interest group, so I read him to get an idea where California's going politically in the next 12-24 months.

He's behind the curve right now, simply because the story has changed so much in the past two months.  But he's catching up.  His column today notes that the California budget situation has gotten much better (this after the Legislative Analyst reported the same two months ago), and that the new issues in the new year are, amazingly, going to revolve around how to spend revenue, rather than how to impose cuts.

"Significant Budget Shortfalls Since 2001"
Cal Facts 2013
California Legislative Analyst
This will not be a small fight, particularly because, as he's noted over the past week, there are also serious and substantial efforts to revise Prop. 13.  Further, at the same time, Jerry Brown is attempting to change the funding formula for the educational system.  This would involve, crucially, increasing funding for ESL programs, which would be significant change for, at a minimum, schools facing a changing demographic profile. Dan points out these changes are possible because of the Democratic supermajority in the legislature (something that may not last long).

I bring it up to note that, for many Californians, the story regarding education has generally been nothing but cuts for a decade, perhaps longer.  This has led to fatigue -- the constant crisis has frustrated many, leading to a certain sense of defeatism concerning the ability of the State, ever, to provide adequately for K-12 education.

I sympathize with anyone that thinks that -- California politics have been anything but functional for thirty years and there's a sense that's crept in that the State will always be this way, and that serious change (let alone reform) is beyond the political's system's reach.  However, this time, it really does look like it's going to be different.

Finally, Dan's good at pointing to useful reference resources for people who are interested in governmental issues.  The graph at the right is one example of that, from the Legislative Analyst's "Cal Facts" publication.  For anyone who wants to get a foundational feel for these problems, the pamphlet is a good place to start, even if only for its explanation of the major propositions that affect (hamstring?) California's government ...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New York Times: Law Blocks ATF's Use of Big Data.

"Legal Curbs Said to Hamper A.T.F."
Goode, Stolberg et al., New York Times, Dec. 26, 2012
available at
The New York Times, like other news sources, is picking up on the fact that the Obama administration is preparing to overhaul how the Federal government learns about the potential for gun violence.

The description of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)'s ability to track gun purchases is positively ridiculous, when one thinks about how easy these things are for department stores like Target.  If they're really still using printouts and paper, that's a travesty.

The worst part, of course, is that the law is written so that the government agency is less effective.  After Newtown, the administration is (presumably) getting ready to propose extensively changing the law, which makes sense.

While I can imagine that there are a series of careful provisions that may be put in place, I think the government should make clear that not just ATF, but also state-level social service organizations, should always be given access, at the very least, to the same kind of information that is already possessed by the likes of Wal-Mart and Amazon.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Obama: It's Time To Use Big Data To Protect Our Children.

President Obama interrupted the awesome 49ers-Patriots game last night for a speech.  I didn't have time to go over it until this morning, when I started putting the pieces together to figure out what the heck he was talking about.  Plus, I needed to read it, rather than hear it, to process the substance.  

The criticism I heard this morning was that the word "gun" was never mentioned in the speech.  How can the President be talking about protecting children and not mention gun control?  After thinking about it, I don't think it was an accident.  While control of guns may be his goal, I think he's planning on getting there through something on an entirely different level from mere background checks. 


"Government seeks to shut down NSA wiretapping lawsuit"
Joe Mullin, Ars Technica, Dec. 14, 2012
available at
President Obama has amazing tools at his disposal to protect America from threats around the world.  He gets daily reports on what terrorists around the world are up to, with fairly accurate predictions concerning what they'll do next.  He can do so because of the power of the NSA's computers, and because of the careful use of statistics.

Anyone who wants to get really specific on the cutting edge of the technology can read about the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) litigation over Room 641A at AT&T's building at 611 Folsom Street, San Francisco. While the lawsuit talks about a lot of computer hardware, like the Narus STA 6400, what the program is really about is the NSA collecting essentially everyone's electronic communications, and analyzing them probabilistically, to anticipate and prevent attacks. 

I strongly suspect those tools are not used by domestic law enforcement, and as near as I can be certain about anything, I believe those tools are never made available to mental health professionals and social workers. 

However, these kinds of tools are no longer just available to the Federal Government. The last ten years have seen these tools proliferate throughout American industry and academia. Charles Duhigg of the New York Times wrote a superb article on the subject this past February, detailing specifically how Target, for example, uses such information -- entirely legally -- to market to pregnant mothers in their first trimester:
"About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation."

“'My daughter got this in the mail!' he said. 'She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?'”
"The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again."
"On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. 'I had a talk with my daughter,' he said. 'It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.'"
Corporate America knows some of our deepest secrets, without us explicitly telling anyone. The importance of that can easily be overlooked -- the computer system at your local Target has access to incredibly personal information about you that we would never have dreamed of providing to your average social worker or school psychologist.


To understand the President's speech, though, I think you have to understand how difficult it was to explain the situation in Newtown, Conn. to my daughter.

When she asked me why the flags were at half-staff on Saturday, I started by explaining to her that, just like her stomach might feel bad, or her leg hurt, sometimes our heads get sick, too.

She wanted to know why the person wouldn't just go to the doctor if that happened.

I told her that sometimes part of the sickness is that the person thinks they can't ask for help. And that we all depend on one another to ask each other for help when we can't handle something, to keep us all safe.

I then told her that we are all sad because someone got sick like that on Friday.  And that the person decided that the only way they could get better was by hurting themselves, and a whole lot of other people, people who are just like her Mom, her Dad, and her, in a small town just like ours. And that we lowered the flags because we are all so sad.

It was still on my mind that evening, when I sat down with a good friend who's in education.  We were talking about when we can take action based on information we receive -- I explained the oath lawyers take in California, and he talked to me about what it means to be a mandated reporter.  We both reflected on how our options are limited if someone won't ask for (let alone accept) help.

But of course, with modern technology, we don't have to sit around waiting for someone to ask for help.  Your local Target has all the information needed to predict when you're pregnant, and the same types of databases probably light off like a Christmas tree when someone's thinking about taking the kind of action Adam Lanza took.  I suspect it's routinely possible to use the same computer systems to alert local school and social workers when something like Newtown's about to happen -- perhaps far earlier than any of us suspect.


If you think of government using such databases in as ominous terms as Room 641A is described in the EFF litigation, the whole situation probably freaks you out. It's not hard to see why.

Think for a moment -- if the government can just go buy the same information about you as your local Target can -- about who's pregnant -- imagine the use of such information in, oh, say, the abortion context.  Now, there's no invasion of a woman's right to private communications with her doctor -- the government can know a woman's thinking about getting an abortion long before the event occurs, without invading that relationship at all.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle are aware of how politically explosive that technology's use by government could prove. The consequences of tearing down the anonymity veil are, at the very least, unpredictable.  No-one has wanted to walk down that road.

Until now.
"[E]very parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm."

"This is our first task -- caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged."
"And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children -- all of them -- safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?"

"I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change."

"Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America -- victims whose -- much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society."

"But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that -- then surely we have an obligation to try."
"In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens -- from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"
The President knows we are not powerless -- we are anything but.  He knows the computer system at the Target located at 7 Stony Hill Road, Bethel, Connecticut, 8.5 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary, had a better idea of what was about to happen than any social worker or educator in the State of Connecticut. And he's had enough of tying the government's hands. 


This could make anyone afraid -- how will such information be used?  Is this Orwell's 1984? The concern must be about how such information will be used, and our fear is that it will be misused.  

I submit to you, though, that we as Americans can create a solution to this problem -- for managing such incredibly difficult problems is what we do.  

I was struck this morning, after watching Disney's Prep & Landing over the weekend (if you haven't seen it, you should, it's hilarious) about how our artists reimagine Santa Claus in the 21st Century.  

Rather than magic, Santa's operation is run by a charming, elven-staffed combination of NASA, the CIA, FedEx, and SOCOM, all rolled into one. And why?  For the kids, of course. These elves coming down the chimney with night vision goggles and sparkle ornaments are hardly fear inducing -- after all, we lay out cookies and milk for them, and carrots for the reindeer. 

So that brings this back to the subject matter of this post. What's behind the door to Room 641A? It's the real world's version of the technology and organization from Prep & Landing. The power of that technology may be misused.  But we as Americans specialize in organizing ourselves to wield that kind of power.  When we think of the power of Santa, our artists imagine the bureaucracy it would take to get something like that done the right way -- because that's what we as Americans happen to be pretty good at. If there isn't a set of agencies, experts, lawyers and officials designed to oversee the application of this technology, of this information, and the use of the probabilities it calculates, there soon will be.  And it will probably work pretty darn well.

It's not that Adam Lanza couldn't get help from anyone. It is that we as a nation refused to examine the data. America will, no doubt, be a much different place when your town advertises, via postcard, about free counseling clinics, and the postcard is sent to only one home. Our President's point, however, is that our freedom does not depend on our government ignoring the very information driving the core of American business.  Innocent lives depend upon us paying attention, and protecting the vulnerable must be our starting point, no matter how serious the consequences will be politically. 

The President, not being specific?  Hardly.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

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.