Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The end justifies the means

From the Daily Kos, a left wing blog, comes another escalation in partisan divide.

Liberals have (rightly) complained about the Senate's unwillingness to consider President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. We should not leave the Court short handed for close to a year for purely partisan purposes.

Now the Daily Kos takes partisan, by any means necessary, poliltics to a new level. A petition on their site suggests that on January 3 there will technically only be 66 senators (until the newly elected or re-elected senators are sworn in) and that the Democrats have a 34-30 majority. Therefore, Joe Biden, acting as President of the Senate, could allow a motion to vote on Judge Garland and confirm him before the new senators are sworn in.

Let's hear it for "victory by any means, fair or foul." Rather than an honest vote as implied by the Constitution (advice and consent of the Senate) they would use a technicality to get their way. A technicality which would surely be contested. Does a Senate term start on January 3 or only after being sworn in? Can the Senate conduct business before members are sworn in? Could Biden refuse to swear in the new Senators for longer, allowing other business Democrats favor and Republicans oppose? The Garland nomination would likely be further tied up in court battles for months longer.

This "by any means necessary" could also backfire if Republicans decide go further playing fast and loose with the rules. Suppose the Republican majority in the Senate contrives to meet (not telling the Democrats), declare the Senate in session, and then proceeds to pass bills which the Democrats object to (and would have filibustered). Would this be legal? Probably. Would it encourage bipartisan cooperation? Not at all. Neither would executing Senate business at a time when new Senators are supposed to be sworn in.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Applying the Trump double standard again

Donald Trump has been in the news for convincing Carrier and Ford to keep some jobs in the United States. Yet rather than celebrate this achievement, the Washington Post instead warns that we are going the way of Russia.

It's really a rather humorous article. Where was this article when President Obama took over GM and Chrysler? Where is the Post when thousands of state and local officials offer "incentives" to companies to stay put or move to their region?

We should all keep the following paragraph handy to reply to the Post as they celebrate interference with the free market by those whose politics are compatible with the Post's:

What makes capitalism strong are the forces of the market left to work their own magic. No free market is ever totally free, but the basics matter a lot: Decisions are made on the basis of things like supply and demand, knowing that information is open and rule of law secure.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Election recounts -- every (Democratic) vote counts

Jill Stein is pushing for Presidential election recounts in three states. The publicly stated reason for the recounts is to make sure "every vote is counted," with claims of hacked voting machines.

However, the goal here is obviously not to make sure all votes are counted. To truly do that all 50 states should be recounted. The goal here is simply to overturn the election and prevent Donald Trump from becoming President.

Notice that the three recount states are just enough electoral college votes to bring Mr. Trump under 270 electoral votes (assuming the recounts switch the result in both states). Also note there are no demands for a recount in New Hampshire, which Mrs. Clinton won by 0.4%. If it's really "every vote counts," recount demands should be based on how close the result is in a state regardless of who won.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Political Extremes

Donald Trump's first cabinet nominations have been announced and the criticism is starting. While some might be justified, to some degree it appears to be criticism just because Donald Trump made the nomination.

Several years ago after watching conservatives attack Barack Obama's proposals, including some which were originally Republican proposals, it seemed they were criticizing everything the President was doing. My thought at the time was if Barack Obama were to propose the Republican Party platform verbatim, the Republicans would actively fight it.

Today after listening to some of the criticism it occurred to me that Donald Trump could really mess with the Democrats by proposing to nominate Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to cabinet posts. One can imagine the furor over such nominations, with one camp trying to decide Trump's secret plan, and the other camp trying to destroy the reputations of Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders since they must secretly favor Mr. Trump's policies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

And the press goes crazy

One of the big news stories the past day is that Donald Trump had the audacity to go out to dinner without telling the press.

Apparently the press feels it has a first amendment right to know the President-elect's every action and follow him wherever he goes.

They also complain that he isn't giving them a "readout" of his calls with foreign leaders. I've read a number of "readouts" issued by the State Department or the White House. They're uniformly boring and provide little useful information. But apparently the press expects such things.

By odd coincidence, four years ago President-elect Barack Obama did the same thing. He visited Sea Life Park in Hawaii with his daughters after telling the press pool that "there would be no further events" that day. Yet the press didn't seem to feel this was a major threat to their ability to do their job.

While the travelling press pool claims it is a "vital service in a functioning democracy," insisting that the President-elect telegraph his every movement and action seems excessive.

Friday, November 11, 2016

What to do with Hillary?

Now that the election is over, what happens with Hillary Clinton. During the campaign Donald Trump promised to prosecute her for her email server. There are accusations of influence pedaling and other abuses of power.

It appears clear that Mrs. Clinton broke the law. Several ordinary people have been prosecuted and jailed for lesser violations of classified document rules. By this standard, she ought to be prosecuted.

However, I think any attempt by a new Trump administration to prosecute Mrs. Clinton would be a mistake. The email scandal was driven by political considerations. Opinions on whether to prosecute, and even whether there was any misuse of power, were driven by politics -- the left feels she's innocent, the right she's guilty. Any prosecution of Mrs. Clinton next year will look more like a vendetta than a quest for justice.

So what to do? Mr. Trump should not push any prosecution of Mrs. Clinton. At most he should publicly state that he is leaving the prosecution to career FBI and Justice Department personnel and stay out of it. However, there's no way he could do that without claims he's secretly driving the prosecution behind the scenes. So Mr. Trump should stop any prosecution of Mrs. Clinton unless some new revelations demand it. Perhaps state that she'll be prosecuted when Democratic leadership in Congress demands it (implying a truly bipartisan outrage).

There is another option open to Mr. Trump which I thought of this morning. It will avoid discord over Mrs. Clinton's alleged crimes (whether conservatives wanting to "lock her up" or liberals decrying a political vendetta) and allow the country to move on. Donald Trump could instead take a page from the Watergate scandal and pardon Mrs. Clinton for any past crimes. This avoids any future complaints about political vendettas while leaving the country with the message "she's guilty".

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sore losers

The reaction against the election of Donald Trump has been fast and occasionally violent. Many cannot conceive of Mr. Trump as president for any number of reasons.

Now somebody is pushing a last ditch attempt to defeat Mr. Trump. A petition has been started at MoveOn.org. Note this is an individual who started the petition, MoveOn is not supporting it (at least not officially).

This petition asks the electoral college not to vote for Donald Trump (and by implication to vote for Hillary Clinton). It gives two reasons. One might be considered valid, Mrs Clinton won the popular vote by a small margin and the petition argues that she should become president. The second argument is that Mr. Trump is an "authoritarian" figure and a "threat to democracy", so doesn't deserve to take office. This second argument, of course, is strictly political. Liberals will recite how George W. Bush abused the presidency, and conservatives how Barack Obama did the same. Without having exercised any presidential power we're told Donald Trump is authoritarian and will run roughshod over the Constitution (again, there are conservatives who would claim the same of Hillary Clinton).

Yet what happens if the Electoral College actually followed this petition? Suppose 50 odd members voted for Hillary Clinton against Mr. Trump (so she got the majority). Would this be our system at work or would it spark one of the biggest constitutional crises in the history of the nation? It could actually create the third Obama term conservatives claim he wants by tying the election up in the courts for the next four years.

Another option would be for a number of Electoral College votes to go to some other candidate (e.g. Gary Johnson or Jill Stein). There is precedent for this, the odd vote has gone to a third party candidate in the past though it hasn't affected the result of the election. If enough votes go to a third party the election would be thrown in to the House of Representatives. Again, a constitutional crisis. While elections have gone to the House in the past, it's never been because electors vote against the voters of their state.

Regardless, this petition, as with the protests, is a case of sore losers. People can't accept the fact that Donald Trump has been elected. There has been so much anti-Trump rhetoric (some true, much false or exaggerated) that there are people who can't imagine living under a Trump presidency. However, the election is over and the results are in. Asking Electoral College members to ignore the wishes of their state's voters seems a "threat to democracy" in a different sense.

It's time for people to accept the results of the election and let Mr. Trump get on with the presidential transition. If Mr. Trump acts in an authoritarian manner after he's in office then he should be impeached. This follows both the Constitution and the traditions of the nation. Of course, "authoritarian" is a matter of opinion, but if Mr. Trump is really that bad the Republicans ought to be happy to give us President Pence instead.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Citizenship and parental sex

The Supreme Court heard a case today about a man with a citizen father, non-citizen mother, born outside the United States in 1962. Apparently the law at the time would give him automatic citizenship if his mother were the citizen, but not when his father is the citizen.

I find this interesting remembering back to the "birther" arguments against President Obama's citizenship. One of the theories promoted was the Mr. Obama was actually born in Kenya, and he wouldn't be a citizen because his mother was married to a non-citizen. I remember arguments that a citizen father married to a non-citizen would confer more rights to his child, the opposite of the case today.

Reading further down the linked post, it appears that my memory was faulty, a citizen of either sex married to a non-citizen had a limited ability to confer citizenship on a child born overseas. This brings up an interesting unintended consequence of the old law. If a woman became pregnant while overseas and couldn't get back to the United States for the birth, it would be better to have the child out of wedlock (giving citizenship) than to be married (citizenship not given).

Looking further at a preview of this case we see the can of worms resulting from the citizenship question. The person in question has been a legal US resident for 40 years. Due to a criminal record the government now wants to deport him and he (wanting to stay in the United States) argues he should be a citizen.

What to conclude from this case? First, obviously, is don't commit crimes. Second, apply to be a citizen. In particular, being a permanent resident of the United States is not the same as citizenship. A permanent resident is still a guest in the country and is open to deportation if residency is abused.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Stealing elections

There is a lot of media attention to Donald Trump's statement he wouldn't unconditionally accept the result of the election. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump didn't think to answer the question by referring to the example of Al Gore in 2000.

It should be clear by now that election fraud exists. There are a few criminal convictions and many more anecdotal accounts. Yet in any election involving 120 million votes there will be some degree of fraud, error, or mistakes.

A recent news report brought up the 1960 election when Kennedy beat Nixon. Andrea Mitchell, presumably a liberal (since she's on MSNBC) stated that the election was stolen from Nixon. This prompted me to again look at the 1960 election results. While it's widely admitted that the Illinois result was fraudulent and Nixon likely won, it's less clear the full election was stolen from Nixon.

Assuming that the Wikipedia election numbers are accurate, the Illinois result was very close, just .19%. Other results were closer (Hawaii at .06%, a mere 115 vote margin). However, Nixon could not have won the election with Illinois alone, Kennedy would still have 274 electoral votes, above the 270 required. Nixon needed at least one more state to throw the election into the House of Representatives, or he needed a large state to win. Texas is normally mentioned since there is a widespread belief that Lyndon Johnson had long manipulated Texas elections. Yet Nixon lost Texas by a full two percent. This is harder to ascribe to fraud. One could more easily ascribe Nixon winning California to fraud the other way (he won by .5%, a quarter of the Texas margin).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Some comments on Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

J. D. Vance grew up in a working class area of the "rustbelt" (Middletown, Ohio). His family comes from rural western Kentucky and he declares himself a hillbilly (one of his ancestors is Hatfield of the Hatfields and McCoys). Mr Vance recently published a memoir and commentary on "his people", Hillbilly Elegy.

The book has been getting a lot of press as it is supposed to explain the strong white working class support for Donald Trump. I highly recommend the book as an explanation of a culture which many never see. It also explains the actions and mindset of many of the poor (I'll explain more below).

I'm not going to do a regular review of the book but rather comment on a few things which struck me while reading the book.

First, Mr. Vance brings up an unintended consequence of today's political rhetoric. One of the traditional complaints made by conservatives about the expansion of the government and welfare state since the Great Society is that rather than encouraging poor people to work hard to better themselves, the government came in and said "it's not your fault, it's discrimination, sexism, residual effects of slavery," or something similar." The complaint is that it tells people that the government will fix their problems so they don't have to work hard.

Mr. Vance notices a related effect of today's politics, but it's that poor people have gotten a message from anti-government conservatives: "it's not your fault you're poor or unemployed, it's the [welfare state] government's fault." Political criticism of government has translated into somebody to blame. And the political criticism too often leaves the message that it's not worth trying.

Some of those critical of Mr. Vance's book have said that he could have been writing about any disadvantaged group (blacks, Native Americans, etc). Mr. Vance makes this connection at one point in the book, comparing a book about black migration to cities in the North to his experience, saying the book could have been written about his relations. It should be clear that in many ways the book is not about Hillbillies but instead about America's underclass, the poor and (underemployed) working class.

I ran into similar views on poverty several years ago when I attended a seminar about a program Bridges out of Poverty. This program says many of the same things Mr. Vance says in his book about his "hillbilly" family. The Bridges out of Poverty seminar I attended didn't define poverty in terms of income. Rather, it defines poverty in terms of lifestyle. It describes people who won't save, don't plan ahead, and are constantly broke because of some unexpected expense. Their lifestyle is often chaotic, stressful, and unstable. Their children don't grow up in stable homes, often repeating the process generation after generation.

These are the people J. D. Vance is writing about. In good times they often do well. With stable, reasonably well paying employment and benefits things go well. As society changes and life isn't always stable these societies decay and we have today's rust belt economy.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The State of the Canadian Judiciary?

Recent news stories have documented a Canadian judge asking a rape victim why she could't "just keep [her] knees together." While the judge has been excoriated and investigated for the remark, apparently missing from the headlines is the judge's statement that his knowledge of Canadian law was "non-existent." What does this say about the Canadian government and judiciary? Apparently knowledge of the law is not needed to become a judge. And apparently at least one judge doesn't even have the sense to take a few minutes to read up on the law before trying a case.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Do as we say, not as we do

Medical insurance is one of the most highly regulated products sold on the market today, even before Obamacare added a host of new rules. One of the rules for private medical insurance (to the best of my knowledge) is that all plans have an annual out of pocket limit. This means if your medical costs are very high there is still a limit to how much you pay for medical costs. This out of pocket limit varies from about $6000 to $14000 depending on single, married, dependents, and the type of policy. But regardless of the type of policy, they all have an out of pocket limit.

So if you are working and your employer provides health insurance, there is a limit to the amount of money you can pay for medical and prescription costs. Most people don't hit this limit (or come close), but it's there.

However, guess what happens when you hit 65 and switch to Medicare? Medicare Part B pays 80% of charges after a fairly low deductible. However, Medicare Part B (non-hospital medical care) has no out of pocket limit. Medicare Part D (prescriptions) switches you to "catastrophic coverage" once your drug costs are over the "coverage gap" (or donut hole). But apparently there's no out of pocket limit, Medicare's web site says you pay a "small" copayment or coinsurance amount.

So the government tells private insurers that they cannot require customers to pay more than a certain amount out of pocket each year, but the government's own insurance plan has no maximum.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Limits of cyber security

A couple months ago I received an email from Social Security stating that they were enhancing online security. In the future in addition to logging in with a user name and password a one time code sent by text message would be required.

I thought at the time this was going to be a problem. It requires that anybody with an online Social Security account also have a cell phone and know how to receive a text message. This for an agency which primarily deals with older Americans who are less likely to be proficient in multiple new technologies.

Sure enough, I received a new email the other day. There were too many problems with the new text message requirement so Social Security is backing it out. The text message authentication now an option which they encourage users to enable.

As it is, Social Security's online rules don't make sense. Most people don't need to frequently log into Social Security. Those younger than retirement age should log in once a year to check their earnings record. Those who have retired still don't need to log in often. Social Security payments are paid by direct deposit and the related tax statement is sent by postal mail.

So given that most people should lot into Social Security once a year, what has been the Social Security policy for at least the last 5 years or so? Passwords expire every 6 months. If one logs in once a year, one must change the Social Security password every login.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The reality of police work and interpretation of the law.

A recent news story shows the reality of how the law is applied.

A school bus driver crashed her bus, which rolled on its side. She failed a sobriety test, said she was on a number of prescription drugs, so was charged with DUI. However, a later review disagreed with the sobriety test result, so the blood test which was also done (and presumably showed impairment) was inadmissible. So the DUI charge goes away.

The driver was also charged with vehicular assault. Vehicular assault basically means that somebody is injured due to a person's poor driving, so just about any accident with a resulting injury could be vehicular assault.

Finally, the driver was charged with child abuse. My first reaction was "what?". We normally think of child abuse in terms of malnourishment, imprisonment, beating, etc. Here an accident results in a child abuse charge. But looking up the law, it's correct. If any child is injured due to an action taken by another person, that's child abuse. It's interesting there are no restriction on the abuser -- if one child hits another, that's child abuse. In Little League if the pitcher unintentionally hits a batter or a player is hit by a batted ball, technically that could result in a child abuse charge.

As a rule, nobody is going to charge a little league player with child abuse (though it wouldn't surprise me if it's happened someplace, sometime). Why such a broadly written law? After a little thought it seems that the law is written on the assumption that the police and prosecutors will use discretion. Writing a narrowly defined law makes it easier for an abuser to get off by finding a loophole. Colorado's very broad law does not depend on intent, relationship of abused and abuser, or other rules. Writing a narrowly defined law would, especially if loopholes were found, easily turn the law into a very long list of what is and is not abuse. Instead, define the law broadly and depend on authorities to recognize what injuries constitute abuse.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Misleading headlines and "negotiating funding"

Britain's National Health Service is in the news again. An article in The Telegraph is headlined "Obese patients and smokers banned from routine surgery  in 'most severe ever' rationing in the NHS."

Yet reading the article, while it talks about limiting surgery for smokers and the obese, the text speaks of the future -- "will be", "are going to", etc.

What's really happening? Note that, while waiting lists are routine in Britain, these draconian changes apparently haven't gone into effect. Instead, this looks like part of the ongoing game of chicken between the government (which wants to spend less) and medical providers (who want more money).

It looks very much like reports I see late every autumn in the United States as insurers, pharmacies, and medical providers negotiate rates for the next year. This sometimes involves a letter from the insurer or the hospital which basically says the other side is unreasonable and hopes patients will call and complain.

So the NHS may reduce the medical care provided to smokers and obese patients, or the government might find more money. Or the threat may not actually happen because it was just a negotiating ploy.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Violating political stereotypes

I just saw a report on political donations in Colorado this year. The largest donor is giving to the Democrats (most to a group supporting Hillary Clinton). Another doner is giving to conservative PACs, but one third as much.

Contrary to stereotype, the big money is going to the Democrats.

In addition, the donor to the Democrats is from Fort Collins, which is generally conservative politically. And the conservative donor is from Boulder, normally ultra left wing.

So much for geographical stereotypes.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Government regulation of volunteer help in flooded Louisiana

I recently saw a blog post complaining that the government and official relief agencies (specifically the Red Cross) are refusing or throwing away donations to help with flooding in Louisiana. This includes requiring the full permit process to perform repairs on houses (and likely refusing to allow repairs to older houses which no longer meet code) and wanting to register the "Cajun Navy" volunteers helping rescue stranded people. It all sounds like another example of government overreach and control of our lives.

Then I find a report of an illegal immigrant driving (and crashing) a bus full of volunteers. Maybe some control of volunteers isn't such a bad idea. This report is from a right wing site which would normally be in the forefront opposing government interference in volunteer efforts (and they don't mention that in the report), but the site is also very anti-illegal immigrant, explaining why it showed up there.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and China's 9 dash line

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument has been in the news recently as President Obama expanded the size of the protected area. This National Monument extends northwest from Hawaii along a string of small islands.

So what do islands near Hawaii have to do with China? China and other nations in the area have been arguing over the ownership of several groups of small islands and reefs. Much of the debate is over the exact nature of the islands since this determiens the amount of territory around the islands which can be claimed by the country as territorial waters or an exclusive economic zone.

In reading news stories it appears that whether islands are inhabited, whether they are above water all the time (or only at high tide) and similar factors are involved. Truly territorial waters are best enforced for inhabited islands.

Now look at the National Monument near Hawaii. As far as I can tell few of the islands are inhabited yet by declaring a National Monument the US is expressing an exclusive economic zone out 200 miles from these islands (a map shows the monument to be roughly a 400 mile wide by 1000 mile long region).

While there are no nearby nations to dispute the US ownership of these islands, I can imagine the controversy if some nation tried to fish in the region and disputed the US claim to this wide an area. Claiming this much territory around uninhabited islands could provide a precedent for China or another nation making claims to islands off their own coasts.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to 55? Unintended consequences

The US wants to force lower speeds on truck and bus drivers. The linked article explains that the government has proposed capping the maximum speed of large trucks and buses. This will be done by an engine limitation so that the driver cannot drive faster even if desired (or the safer course of action).

 The reason is a reduction in fatal crashes -- the government estimates the reduction in fatalities if trucks were limited to a lower speed. They also promote the savings in fuel costs.

Of course, this is the government's side. Any fuel cost saved by driving slower will be offset (or perhaps exceeded) by extra wages to the driver. Or for independent drivers by lower incomes as they are paid the same amount but take longer to get to their destination. Assuming, of course, the driver doesn't drive extra time to make up for the lower speed (illegal but easier to get around than an engine limiter).

As pointed out briefly in the article, but apparently not part of the government's reasoning, is the increased accidents as trucks drive slower than cars. Many highway accidents are a result not of the absolute speed involved but in differences in speed between vehicles. Trucks limited to 60mph (one proposal) will have to watch out for cars driving a legal 75mph weaving in and out of lanes.

To those of us old enough to remember the 1970s and 1980s the lower speeds are nothing new. The government imposed a nationwide 55mph speed limit, ostensibly to save fuel and money. If truck speeds are going to be limited and there follows an increase in accidents due to slow trucks and fast cars, how long until speed limits are reduced? Auto makers could then be ordered to limit the car's maximum speed to help enforce the speed limit. Maybe Sammy Hagar's classic song "I can't drive 55" will top the charts again.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Kudos to the University of Chicago

The University of Chicago has been in the news for a letter it sent to entering freshmen. In the letter the University rejects the recent move toward "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces". It also affirmed the University's commitment to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and diversity of opinion.

Three cheers to the University.

The reaction to the letter is predictable. Many students and faculty praised it, but there was also criticism. The criticism shows the nature of today's "political correctness" or "social justice" movement.

One criticism is that the University already sponsors "safe spaces." A quick web search finds the the LGBTQ office has a Safe Space program. There are probably others. Perhaps these "safe spaces" are times or locations where like minded people can get together. Or perhaps they are the room with teddy bears and coloring books of some news reports. One hopes the former.

On the subject of safe spaces, I found an interesting quote in an explanation of safe spaces:
"For me as a black woman, it's really nice to just go out with other black women sometimes," said Sabrina Stevens, an activist and progressive strategist. "I have to do so much less translation. When you're black around white people, you have to explain every little thing, even with people who are perfectly nice and well-meaning."
I can see the reason for a group with membership limited to a particular race, sex, nationality, etc. However, the courts have ruled this to be illegal. At least, if the race and sex are white and male. See male only clubs must admit women.

So there is a double standard. Any group which can claim to be in some way "disadvantaged" is ok. Any group consisting of the "oppressors" (whites or males) is not.

This is even recognized by the U.S. Congress. The Congressional Black Caucus excludes non-blacks. The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues consists only of female members of Congress.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Islamic State a good thing? So says one Israeli expert

In a recent paper the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies argues that we should not destroy Islamic State (ISIS). It seems a weak but continuing ISIS will make a good magnet for would be terrorists and keep Syria, Iran, and other states weak.

Here we see why Middle East peace won't happen. The author of this paper looks more at keeping Israel's traditional enemies weak (by having ISIS continue to destabilize the region) than at building any sort of lasting stability in the region.

50 years ago in the 1960s the PLO engaged in a political revolt. It had Muslim and Christian groups within its umbrella. While anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, it was largely a secular organization. Today instead of a group wanting to destroy the State of Israel, the Middle East has moved to the point where groups wanting to destroy all non-Muslims (and many insufficiently pure Muslims) are gaining political power and followers around the world.

Do we really want ISIS, with its proven propaganda abilities, to remain even in a weakened state? Will keeping Syria and Iraq perpetually unstable really improve Western security?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The trials of writing regulations

The Agriculture Department (USDA) has recently proposed new rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps). The reaction to these rules shows the inherent problems of government regulations.

It begins with a laudible cause -- providing healthier foods for SNAP recipients. Many convenience stores accept SNAP benefits. I once worked at a convenience store when they were Food Stamps. People would send their kids to buy a candy bar with a food stamp dollar. Part of this is giving the kid a treat. The other part is that change under a dollar for food stamps was given in coins, so a dollar food stamp used to buy an 18 cent candy bar (the price at the time) yielded about 80 cents of cash which could be spent on cigarettes (57 cents a pack) or other non-food items.

So it appears that Congress included changes in the 2014 Farm Bill (note this was under a Republican Congress). These changes mean retailers must "offer(s) for sale, on a continuous basis, a variety of at least 7 foods in each of the 4 categories of staple foods specified", these staples being meat/poultry/fish, dairy, bread/cereals, and vegetables/fruit.

So USDA proposed new rules. I haven't found the actual rules (just the response to comments linked above) but it appears the rules might have required that, for instance, 7 types of "meats, poultry, or fish" meant 7 different species (e.g. beef, pork, chicken, turkey, cod, salmon, and tuna). Complaints were apparently made that stores would have to carry lamb and duck. As the USDA response says, what did Congress mean when they said 7 types? Could canned chicken, canned tuna, beef jerky, and turkey jerky count as four items? How processed or fresh must food be to count as a "staple" food? Can ground beef and steaks count as two types of perishable meats or do they count as one because both are from cows?

Similar questions about vegetables lead to the claim stores will have to sell kale.

As a sometime shopper at convenience stores, the typical convenience store will not meet the new law unless they are very broadly interpreted (e.g. meat sticks, jerky, etc. counting as different types of meat). On the other hand, some of the stores in question in poor areas are not snacks only convenience stores but small grocery stores which have a limited selection. They may include some fresh foods (e.g. apples and bananas) but not enough variety to meet the new law.

So now the blame game begins. The new rules are in the law, meaning Congress mandated them. Yet close to half of Congress is demanding that USDA not implement the new regulations. The obvious solution is for Congress to amend the law to remove the new provisions if they are that onerous. Yet passing such a law leaves members of Congress vulnerable to the claim they are anti-nutrition or anti-health.

So the political process continues. Congress passes a feel good law. An agency attempts to implement that law. Interest groups complain and are joined by members of Congress, demanding that the agency not made these harmful changes. The agency argues it is just following the law.

It would be nice if fresh, healthy foods were available to all. To some extent they are but poor people don't buy them. There are any number of reasons and any number of solutions given. Food Stamps (or their modern equivalent) will continue to be used for junk food and sugary kids cereals. But it's clear from the USDA's current exercise that there's no simple solution to the problem.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The DEA's reasons for banning marijuana. Or tobacco?

The DEA recently denied two requests that marijuana be removed from Schedule I, meaning it has no legitimate medical or other uses. See DEA.gov / Headquarters News Releases, 08/11/16.

I've taken the DEA's list of reasons to keep marijuana under Schedule I control and applied them to tobacco:

(1) Tobacco has a high potential for abuse.

(2) Tobacco has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.

(3) Tobacco lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

The DEA's response runs to about 150 pages, but replacing marijuana with tobacco still applies to most of the detailed response. Yet banning tobacco obviously wouldn't work, just as banning alcohol didn't work in the 1920s. Perhaps its time to follow the lead of Colorado and Oregon (neither of which have experienced a drug addict apocalypse) and recognize that marijuana prohibition doesn't work. It might even put a few criminals out of business.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A common experience?

I am currently reading two book by ex-CIA employees. One is "From the Shadows" by Robert M. Gates (former CIA director and Secretary of Defense). The other is "The Master of Disguise" by Antonio J. Mendez. I find that both books contain almost the same story about maintaining a cover in Washington of working someplace other than the CIA.

From the Shadows:
At a cocktail party, a man came up and asked where I worked. I mumbled vaguely something about working for the government (a dead giveaway in Washington that you work for the CIA). He pressed me on what department and I replied "Defense." His face brightened and he said he did as well. Where did I work? I replied, "The Naval Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue." He said, "So do I -- where aer you?" I gave him my legend office number. He paused, then frowned and said, "They tore that wing down about two months ago." With an ease and suaveness Sean Connery would have envied, I -- totally undone -- muttered that "I don't get into the office much" and simply fled the conversation.
The Master of Disguise:
My cover legend was tested during my first year in the CIA at a party thrown by a neighbor to celebrate his promotion to air force lieutenant colonel. “So where do you work?” another guy from the block asked me. “For the government,” I replied. Unfortunately, that answer was always a dead give-away to the amateur spook hunters thriving in Washington. “What department?” he pressed. I responded with my nominal government agency, but he claimed to have friends there and asked me for the exact location of my office. Frustrated, I provided the floor and room of my cover job but a sly, grin spread across his face. “That’s the mail room,” he proclaimed. “I service the Xerox copy machines in that building.” He lowered his voice. “You work for the Company.” All that was missing from the encounter was a conspiratorial wink. After the James Bond craze, it seemed that everybody wanted to be a spy.
Leaves me wonder whether this is a common story / myth in the CIA that both authors thought would be a good anecdote for the book. Or perhaps they each had the same experience.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Sky Is Falling

The media tirade against Donald Trump has reached a new high. A few days ago news stories came out that Mr. Trump will drop out, he's being asked to drop out, or that Republicans are planning in case he drops out.

Reading a few of these stories it's clear that they are largely wishful thinking. The New York Times story is based on the fact that prediction markets (British bookies in this case) give the Republican party a slightly larger chance of gaining the Presidency than Donald Trump. No indication from the Times whether the chance Hillary will be elected is different from the chance the Democrats will take the Presidency. The difference in percentage is small (24.1 vs 25.8) and the volume of betting on Republicans is much lower than on Mr. Trump (so probably has a higher margin of error, though I don't have any real idea how to interpret the numbers at betfair.com). So this different is likely not statistically significant but, because Republicans get a slightly higher percentage than Donald Trump, is enough for the New York Times to argue that bettors think Donald Trump will drop out.

Other news stories are similarly thin on facts and big on speculation and innuendo. The Economist has dedicated a large part of its United States section on why Mr. Trump is a disaster (as they have done every week for months).

The media is running scared.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Political consistency and funding

I'm on a number of email lists on both sides of the political spectrum. MoveOn.Org just sent me an email (MoveOn is hiring organizers to stop Trump) to hire organizers to "stop Trump." Looking at the email, I see two things of interest:

First, MoveOn is practicing what they preach. Conservatives have gleefully reported past occasions where Democratic members of Congress don't pay their interns or pay less than the current definition of a "living wage". The magazine The Nation had a similar "scandal" about unpaid interns. According to this email, while MoveOn doesn't specify a specific salary, these 3 month temporary jobs are advertised as coming with full benefits -- medical, dental, vision, and life insurance. They also come with vacation (presumably paid) at a rate of 4 weeks a year and sick leave at a rate of 2 weeks a year. This is perfectly consistent with MoveOn's progressive politics. So kudos to MoveOn for practicing what they preach.

Second is the fact that MoveOn can pay these benefits, which easily translate into the equivalent of $8.50 per hour above and beyond the "competitive salary". They are hiring multiple people in each of 10 states, meaning they have a significant source of money. While it is possible there are a lot of people making small contributions to MoveOn, I don't notice MoveOn making much of a fundraising effort. This leads me to the conclusion that MoveOn has major, deep pockets sources of funding rather than being "grass roots" funded.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The spread of technology

A further sign of the spread of technology in the United States, and in particular assumptions about technology.

The Social Security system has provided online access for several years. Online access is now needed to check your Social Security earnings statement (they are no longer mailed each year). It can also be used to apply for benefits, get tax statements, and find other information about your Social Security account.

Likely in a (probably misguided) response to recent government computer hacking, President Obama issued an executive order that agencies provide more secure authentication for online services. The Social Security Administration has responded with a new requirement. Those logging into the Social Security web site must provide a text message enabled cell phone and request a one time code by text message each time they log into Social Security.

So it now appears that Social Security recipients who might have computer access are also assumed to have a cell phone and know how to receive text messages.

Social Security's web site has already been annoying. Those still working need to log into the web site once a year to check their earnings statement. So what did Social Security do? Set a password expiration of 6 months. So every time you log into their site once a year you need to pick a new password.

Unfortunately, the added text message requirement is probably going to result in many elderly having more trouble managing their Social Security account (or more telephone support, which isn't necessarily very secure). Meanwhile, most cyber attacks are executed not by breaking into a consumer's account, but by phishing (convincing some low level employee to email big data files out) or by some semi-official access to the internal network of a company or agency. We can only hope they are figuring out how to improve this security.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Is it really about climate change?

An initiative on the Washington state ballot this fall shows some of the realities of politics. On the surface, the ballot measure is designed to fight climate change by imposing a tax on carbon emissions. What could be wrong with that? It seems to be exactly what any number of environmental and advocacy groups have been calling for. Yet the Washington ballot proposal is opposed by almost all of the groups calling for climate change legislation. Looking at this opposition shows the reality of the politics of climate change.

So why do environmental groups oppose a carbon tax? There appear to be two primary reasons:

First, the tax is revenue neutral. Rather than providing the government with money for new programs, the proposal uses the carbon tax to reduce other taxes and provide tax relief for low income individuals. These opponents appear to be more concerned with getting more money for new programs than in reducing carbon emissions. They want money used for programs ranging from environmental protection to helping "communities of color."

This insistence on using the tax for new programs also shows one of the long term problems of a carbon tax. If a carbon tax is implemented, a reduction in carbon emissions will result in a reduction in tax revenues. This gives the government and those benefiting from government money an incentive to (behind the scenes) promote carbon emissions. Traditional sin taxes (e.g. cigarette taxes) result in the same conflict -- eliminating tobacco use will result in a budget shortfall.

The second reason the ballot initiative is being opposed is a statement by the founder of the initiative. He said that liberals were more concerned with bigger government and race / class politics than simply dealing with climate change. He suggested that the Republican Party might be the better vehicle for carbon reduction.

That's all it took. It conflicts with the accepted narrative that Republicans are evil and took away a supply of, when all is said and done, patronage money which can be used for political allies.

This is an example of "bootlegger and baptist" regulation. Advocating a carbon tax is the "baptist" cause here, while the "bootleggers" are trying to get money for pet programs (or for that matter, the proposed tax cuts). One organization, the state Audubon Society, is brave enough to go against bigger government interests and support this measure as a way to do something about carbon emissions. They are a brave lone voice in what is likely to be a quite hypocritical campaign.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Indy publishing as practice

I was talking with an author last night and realized a change in the nature of published books the last few years. This author has published three books. These are self published books (now called independently published). Indie books are the fastest growing segment in publishing, made possible by Amazon and the rise of ebooks. In the past a new author had to sell a book to one of the large publishing houses. The alternative was to pay to have a "vanity press" print the books. Self published books were (often justifiably) assumed to be bad since publishers are supposed to pay authors, not the other way around. So prospective authors would often write a number of books before one was finally bought by a publisher.

Today authors can go the traditional route or they can go the new route of publishing electronically on Amazon. Alternatives exist but Amazon is the largest eBook platform around. Publishing a book on Amazon costs nothing, just sign up for an account, say where to deposit the royalties, and upload the book.

So back to the author I was talking with. He wants to write for one of the big publishers but doesn't think he's good enough. So he's writing multiple books a year in the hope he'll be good enough in the future for the big publishers.

After hearing this I realized that in the past an author's first, generally bad, work was discarded until the author is good to be published. Today authors are publishing these initial attempts, sometimes regardless of quality. If an author becomes a bestseller, people want to read everything the author has written. In the past the early work is mercifully unknown, or the author can rewrite it with the hindsight of experience. Today that early bad work is out there for everybody to see. I expect to see some number of  embarrassed authors in the future.

This is not to say indie books are bad. Big publishing houses are known to publish bad authors, and a bestselling author may have to put out a "contractional obligation" book he never wanted to write. There are also a lot of very good indie authors. Some don't want to go with a large publisher. Others have a style or genre of book big publishers aren't interested in at the moment. Established authors sell their older work as ebooks since the big publishers don't keep books in print more than a couple years anymore. So there's a lot good stuff out there but also a number of practice books.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Classified Hillary

While the FBI will not charge Hillary Clinton for putting classified material on her private email server, Congressional Republicans are responding. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has apparently asked that Mrs Clinton not receive any classified information during the campaign. And Senators (presumably all Republican) have introduced a bill to prohibit any Federal officer or employee who has been reless with classified material from keeping a security clearance. Obviously targeted at Hillary Clinton, it would be interesting if they passed the law and it denied her a security clearance as President.

However, Congress should take care, members of Congress have actively disclosed classified material in the past, more serious than just being reless. Many in the intelligence community would welcome revoking Congressional security clearances.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The cost of presidential elections

I've been reading Big Money by Kenneth P. Vogel. The book talks about the rise of Super PACs and big money in politics.

I'll start by saying big money has always been around in politics, and it doesn't always help. I was in Minnesota in 1982 when Mark Dayton ran for US Senate, spending $7 million of his own money (a record for any senate campaign at the time) and losing.

What struck me is thinking about the cost per vote of an election. A total of $7 billion was spent by he candidates, parties, and other grups in the 2012 presidential election. So what is the cost per vote?

About 127 million votes were cast. This means a over $50.00 was spent per vote cast, quite a sum. However, since most votes are pre-determined before the election (a large number of voters automatically vote for their party of choice and aren't going to cross party lines) so the real cost per vote must consider the number of votes which might be swayed. This also includes the number of people are convinced to go vote who wouldn't otherwise vote, along with the number who are convinced not to vote who might otherwise vote (this being money spent by the other side to "inhibit" a vote).

My guess is that, barring a candidate with extreme charisma (e.g. Ronald Reagan getting working class democratic votes) at most 10% of voters are subject to persuasion. So this implies that roughly 10-12 million voters are the target of all the political advertising, recorded phone calls, etc.

Given this smaller number, for a major party candidate, the actual cost per vote of a presidential election is more on the order of $500.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Theranos promise of finger prick blood tests -- fact or fiction?

The New York Times reports: Elizabeth Holmes, Founder of Theranos, Falls From Highest Perch Off Forbes List.

I've been seeing articles on Ms Holmes for the last year or so. She claims to have technology which allows blood tests using a finger prick of blood rather than multiple vials. She dropped out of college to start a company to develop her new technology. The company is one of the "unicorns" often talked about -- private startup companies valued at over a billion dollars.

For the last 6 months the company has come under criticism and has had a lot of bad press. There are claims that the company's tests are inaccurate and that they are using conventional blood testing machinery for many of the tests. On the business side the company board of directors apparently doesn't include medical experts.

So is Theranos a scam? A new technology which didn't pan out? The company hasn't provided peer reviewed data on its technology, and the reports so far indicate that at the very least they are having trouble getting the product to market, not unexpected for a new technology.

Yet there is another aspect to this story. There are several very large players (existing labs, existing producers of blood testing equipment) who stand to lose a lot if Theranos' technology pans out. All of medicine is also highly regulated. Regulatory agencies are not known for their flexibility or acceptance of anything new. So the question arises -- how big is the real problem at Theranos and how much of the problem is the inability of regulatory agencies to deal with change?

Time will tell. My feeling right now is that Elizabeth Holmes really did have a new technology but that it's hit some snags (or doesn't work well enough). Investors have put $700 million into the company and they'll probably have a hard time raising more money, especially with the bad press. Hopefully we won't lose a promising new technology to bureaucratic incompetence or lack of funding to deal with unexpected problems.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Cellphone Radiation Linked to Cancer in Major Rat Study - maybe

Cellphone Radiation Linked to Cancer in Major Rat Study - IEEE Spectrum

A new, major study is showing a slight link between cell phone radiation and cancer. Yet the results of the study appear to show even more so the problem with studies. As with many cancer studies, rats were used, and exposed to much higher doses of radiation than provided by a cell phone, wireless, or other RF sources. As one commentor of this article said, a 50 lb rock hitting your head is very bad for your health, 50 lbs worth of marshmallows hitting your head over a period of time aren't a problem.

Complicating the study is the fact that the rats exposed to radiation, while showing a slight increase in cancers, apparently lived longer overall than the control rats. Should we worry about cell phone radiation? I'm not convinced.

However, maybe the tinfoil hat brigade has been right all along.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Sanders, Trump debate?

So if this presidential season isn't strange enough, it appears Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders might stage a debate, even though Mr. Sanders has little chance of getting the nomination at this point.

While many would say Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, I wonder if a debate might end up being fairly friendly.

Start with the fact that both candidates will want to take shots at Hillary Clinton, providing one common platform.

Add the fact that both oppose free trade and both argue that the rich aren't paying enough in taxes and you have the potential for a fairly friendly discussion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Mission Impossible Effect

A couple years ago I remember reading about something called the "CSI effect" or "CSI syndome". Prosecutors in criminal cases have trouble with juries which have watched TV shows like CSI and believe that the show accurately reflects police forensic practice. Juries have questioned the lack of DNA or other detailed forensic evidence which police departments often do not gather. This is partly because real police departments have limited budgets (probably smaller than the TV show's budget) and partly because TV shows routinely stretch the truth -- sorry, the police can't run compuerized facial recognition on a witness drawing and get a unique hit on a suspect.

I just started reading the book Among the Truthers by Jonathan Kay. The book is a description of consipiracy theorists in the United States including 9/11 Truthers, Obama Birthers, and others. A couple of the 9/11 Truthers he talks about in the first chapter talk about the US government planning and executing, or at least orchestrating, the 9/11 attacks.

It occurs to me that the assumption that the US government (or some group of officials) can pull off such a complex operation without anything leaking needs a name. I suggest "The Mission Impossible Effect", referring to the 1960s TV series (not the recent movies). In each show they create a complex plan involving half a dozen people and precise timing, getting it to come off successfully each time. It seems too many people assume that the US government can really pull off such complex operations with perfect secrecy.

In reality, it takes little research to show instead that government agencies are populated by real human beings, political and bureaucratic infighting, bumbling, and incompetence. The CIA had a hand in a few foreign coups, but couldn't kill Castro. The US government apparently orchestrated 9/11 to take control of Mideast oil but left the followup takeover (the apparent purpose of the Iraq war) to inexperienced political appointees.

I can't say for certain that the US government didn't orchestrate 9/11, but given its track record I find it hard to believe that something which would have taken a lot of people to pull off (from planting explosives in the Twin Towers to the missile it's claimed hit the Pentagon rather than an airplane) could have been executed without anything going wrong. But read enough political thrillers or watch enough Mission Impossbile and it's easy to believe that organizations can plan and execute complex operations without a hitch.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Attacking Trump

One thing abundantly clear during this presidential campaign is the media doesn't like Donald Trump. The Economist magazine has had at least one anti-Trump article each week for the last 2-3 months, including May 7th's cover predicting doom for America:

But with Mr. Trump's nomination pretty much a formality, it's time to find a scandal. The New York Times recently added its contribution with a piece about Mr. Trump's poor treatment of women. Unfortunately, shortly after publication the primary "poorly treated woman" came out and said she was misquoted and she has no complaints about Donald Trump.

So Donald Trump's ability to avoid or ignore scandal continues. He continues to say and do things which would have caused any other candidate to backpedal, apologize profusely, then quit the race. The media attempts to paint Trump supporters as male, poor, and uneducated, but has to backpedal on that when it turns out Mr. Trump's New York support doesn't match that stereotype (see http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/19/us/elections/new-york-primary-republican-exit-polls.html).

So we wait to see what happens in the general election. It looks like Trump and Clinton unless something goes really wrong with one of the campaigns. No spoiler third party candidate is announced and it only becomes harder for third party candidates to get on the ballot as time goes on. I doubt there will be any major scandal to change the lineup -- the Republicans have been trying for years to find a scandal which will take down Hillary Clinton, and if the New York Times article is the worst they can come up with about Donald Trump, the election will come down to which one can get the most votes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Equality of the sexes?

Harvard recently took action against single sex organizations -- there have long been complaints about social organizations for men only. So Harvard put major restrictions on members of these organizations. But Harvard set the rule for members of any single sex organization, not just those for men only. The reaction was quick -- women protesting against the action, claiming they need their women only organizations and that they need their "safe spaces":  Harvard women protest school's crackdown on single-sex groups.

This reaction does show the reality of portions (not all) of the feminist / women's rights movement. There is a desire to break down men only institutions, claiming that they discriminate against women. But women only institutions appear to be perfectly fine. This occurs in other parts of society. Gyms and fitness centers for men only are no longer acceptable, but "Curves Women's Gym" seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Another example where "equal rights" really means "special privileges".

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

More automation means more work

I was thinking a little about claims that artificial intelligence (AI) is taking over more and more decision making and that this time, technology really is going to permanently eliminate a significant percentage of jobs. I then thought a bit about how technology has changed the way we perform certain common tasks -- are AI and automation really taking over?

Let's look at retail sales. If you go back 200 odd years, retail stores looked quite different from today. Merchandise was often behind a counter and the clerk had to gather merchandise at the request of the customer. Of course, some of this was required since most products weren't packaged in nice boxes or bags which a customer could select from a shelf.

Then retailing changed. Instead of the clerk collecting items on request, the customer collected items off of shelves and took them to a counter to be listed and paid for. Note that on the one hand the customer has a bit more flexibility when shopping, but on the other hand the customer has now been made to do part of the work previously done by a clerk.

Similar changes continue to happen. Discount grocery stores experiment with customers bagging their own groceries. Most recently, self checkout lanes have become common. On the one hand, it reduces the number of people the store has to pay, but this is at the expense of the customer doing the work of checking out (and generally takes longer, self checkout scanners are slower because each item must be bagged before the next can be scanned).

Banks took the same route with ATM machines, reducing the number of tellers in banks but also speeding up customer transactions, I haven't stood in line for 10 minutes for an ATM, I routinely did in banks before ATMs. Yet the customer must also do more of the work involved in the transaction.

With the push for a $15.00 minimum wage there are reports that fast food restaurants are moving toward automated ordering stations. Of course, fast food restaurants have already made people pour their own drinks (which on the one hand saves labor, on the other hand customers seem to prefer getting their own drink). Again, automated ordering means that the restaurant can save money, but the customer has to do the work of ordering.

So on the one hand we see the advance of automation and a reduction in retail employment. This has resulted in lower prices as stores don't have to pay as many people, yet at the added cost that the customer must do part of the work previously done by employees of the store.