Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Arlington County Board votes its right for future commercial tax increase; heated debate at County Board Meeting

The Arlington County Board meeting last night (Nov 27) ran until after 12:30 AM to get to this item, but the visitor can watch it on the web. It's about fifteen minutes of pretty interesting viewing, and would make a good "DC Short" for a film festival. The link is this. Click on Consent Item 39 (it is underlined with an obvious hyperlink) and the 15 minute video of the discussion and vote will start.

The Board did approve this item, 5-0. But several interesting and somewhat disturbing points came out. The first speaker, a male (I did not get the name) raised the most disturbing questions. He asked "where are the boundaries" and asked if (1) non-profits leasing space in commercial buildings would be affected (there are many associations in Arlington), and (2) could residents of homes or apartments, if they telecommute or run their own home-based businesses in a manner otherwise legal under the Arlington zoning codes (which are generally pretty reasonable) cause the property to be classified as "commercial" and lead to an escalation of tax. It's easy to imagine that this could be a sensitive matter of a renter caused an increase this way, although it's also hard for me (personally) to imagine a law being applied this way. The speaker noted that the county wants to encourage telecommuting as a way of "going green"; it's also possible that there could be speculative political problems involving self-owned businesses v. working for someone else.

In fact, however, if you go to the PDF document (link here) you find the wording "The tax would involve only commercial properties and excludes residential properties such as single-family homes, townhouses and multi-family properties." That, to me, would appear to answer that speaker's concerns, but I hope that visitors who disagree will comment here. Because the Board placed this document online recently and it seems clear, I found it unnecessary to go to the meeting, wait for many hours and speak.

Admittedly, some of this speaker's concerns might be semantic in nature. The proposed ordinance 20-6 (on the file above) mentions "all commercial and industrial real property in Arlington County declared by the General Assembly to be a separate class of real property for local taxation pursuant to Virginia Code..." as if that class were externally defined somewhere in a potentially ambiguous manner. The board member (below) seemed to address this possibility.

A second "general public" speaker was Brian Gordon, who represented commercial and apartment property owners. There was some indication that a like rate could be just a ten cent increase, however Alexandria (a city) and Prince William County have elected not to use the tax, and Fairfax County has elected to use it. A Mr. Kevistsky (I did not see the spelling) also spoke. There is concern that the tax would be passed on to commercial tenants in the form of higher rents, and that after a Homestead Exemption is considered in another year, even more tax could be levied on commercial properties.

A Board member noted that local governments pressured the Virginia General Assembly to write the residential property exemption in the law; the original bill might well have included apartment buildings and rental properties if this "liberal Democrat" pressure had not been present in the legislature from some northern Virginia jurisdictions. It appears that be board member means that the definition of "commercial and industrial real property" (phrase referred to above) is still restricted to its ordinary meaning in real estate zoning administrative law.

Philosophically, one can imagine an issue for bloggers or Internet businesses operated from home (within zoning parameters) that gain an "advantage" over larger businesses with lower taxes. This kind of argument actually came up a couple years ago in the debate about blogging and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform issue. However, to create the problem, the county (or any jurisdiction in Virginia that perceived an issue like this) would have to also change its zoning rules or add other language to tax legislation that what appears here, as far as I can tell. One would simply have to stay tuned.

The County Board has not set the tax rate (or even said that there will definitely be an increase at all), and as of yet I don't know when the meeting to debate it is scheduled, or when it could take effect. I will check into this soon and update here. Visitors who know should comment.

(This item was previously discussed on this blog Nov. 13, 2007; see archives)

Update: Nov. 30, 2007

A Washington Post story today by Sandhya Somashekhar "The Immigration Debate: Full Coverage: Sterling Areas Targeted for Stiffer Zoning Enforcement" gives a good picture of issues that come up more frequently in zoning issues; the link is here.

Update: Dec. 14, 2007

I spoke to a board employee by phone today after looking at the agendas for the Dec 15 and 18 Board meetings. The commercial tax increase is not scheduled on the agenda and no action has been taken yet. It does not appear that the issue can be addressed before January 2008.

Update: Dec. 28, 2007

Although the ordinance allowing the commercial property levy was adopted Nov. 27, there seems to be no evidence from Dec. 15 and Dec 18 board meetings that a specific additional assessment has yet been adopted for 2008 (starting Jan 1). There was an unrelated small sewer tax (Item 31) and a transportation plan and local corridor issue (Item 17) but no actual additional tax levy mentioned.

Here is a link for the ordinance as adopted Nov. 27.

Update: Jan. 1, 2008

Kirstin Downey has a story on p B1 Metro of The Washington Post, "Alexandria Weighs Tax Hike, Legacy of Va. Transportation Bill," here. She says small businesses are very concerned about adverse impact of the tax compared to large businesses, that can pass on costs because of economies of scale. "In Fairfax and Arlington counties, officials are proceeding with plans for the new tax, but in the face of widespread opposition from business groups, officials in Prince William County have decided not to enact it."

This topic is continued on Jan. 19 2008 on this blog.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Plenty of news articles abound on how to avoid foreclosure

I always wonder who keeps the money in these Coen Brothers-like scenarios of real estate meltdowns. I guess the developers, who got the lenders to pay inflated prices (artificially inflated by too-low or subprime interest rates, balloon arrangements, lack of credit check, etc) for the properties. I wonder why banks are so careless, just as I wonder about this with "mistaken identity" for credit cards. You know, somebody wants a little bit of money, to get something for nothing.

Indeed, it's not always clear who bears the risk. The conventional wisdom of these financial meltdowns is that "nobody can see it." Just take US History in high school and remember that test question on what caused the Great Depression. Memories need to be longer.

Newsweek has a constructive article by Daniel McGinn, Nov. 20, 2007, "Is Foreclosure for You? Deciding to walk away or struggle with mortgage payments," here. He talks about the short sale as a possible option, and this is not the same thing as selling short (or "shorting against the box") in the stock market.

In the past, a lot has been written about deficiency judgments. For example, right now there is an article by Dwan Bent-Twyford and Sharon Restrepo on CRE Online, "Do Homeowners Still Owe Money After a Foreclosure?" here. One point that is made is that the IRS may consider forgiven deficiencies as taxable income.

There was a book published in the early 1990s by James A. Wiedemer: A Homeowner's Guide to Foreclosure. Dearborn Financial Press, 1992, Amazon link here. It contained sobering discussions of deficiency judgments, at least after the regional real estate crash (centered in Texas) in the late 1980s. He writes that "foreclosure became as socially acceptable as divorce" but then lenders got aggressive after some legislation (the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and various obscure rules involving the FDIC and other federal guaranty organizations in the wake of the savings and loan scandal) and attorneys would specialize in serving "letter lawsuits" and getting quick judgments. Even people who sold on assumption could be at risk, but this was supposed to stop once lenders (starting with FHA) insisted that assumption buyers qualify for mortgages (which takes the seller out of the risk). I don't know what happens now in the subprime situation where credit checks and qualification rules were so ridiculously lax in some cases. States vary enormously on how easy it is to foreclose; many states (like Texas) allow non-judicial foreclosure (again with that Coen Brothers movie-like auction on the county courthouse steps and the sheriff coming to evict belongings to the street).

All of this makes it very hard to predict the bottom on the subprime mess. But one thing is clear: consumers thought they could get something for nothing, and banks let them think so. Wages and income simply don't match the home prices.

Now, The Donald and his Trump University have been going around the country offering seminars on how to get rich off of foreclosure. You can also look at "Rich Jerk Real Estate."

Picture: near the Waco 1993 Branch Davidian site.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bond credit rating agencies may downgrade guaranty companies -- but picture is confusing and somewhat contradictory (Fitch, FGIC, CIFG)

On Tuesday (Nov 22) The Washington Post carried a story about the upcoming review by Fitch Ratings and similar services of a number of bond insurance companies, with the significant possibility of a downgrade because of the subprime mess. I wrote about this on my International Issues blog last Tuesday because I first thought it was related to budget deficits and war as well as to mortgages. Maybe it is.

Today, Monday Nov. 26, USA Today, in the Money section, p 3B. has a story by Edward Iwata "Municipal bonds: downgrades could start investor exodus." The story mentions Fitch Ratings, Financial Guaranty, and CIFG Guaranty as major such insurance companies.

Since I have some Minneapolis city bonds and some Blackrock bond fund securities in my retirement portfolio, I gumshoed this quickly today. I went to Fitch and found an invitation to register. It let me register even though I am retired (I called myself "information technology"), and gave me a report dated Nov. 22, last Thursday (early Thanksgiving morning -- compared to the USA story four days later), that reaffirmed the stability of CIFG (including the Guaranty). You may need to register to see this report.

I went to Financial Guaranty and found a press release (pdf) dated Nov. 6 about the ratings evaluation. So this re-evaluation "threat" has been going on for some time, although the media only started to sensationalize it last week. Viewers will also want to look at this link that discusses the municipal bond business.

The USA Today story warns that individual investors, fearing rapid loss of principle face value, would try to sell off tax-free municipal bonds after a downgrading, and municipal bonds just aren't that liquid.

Generally guaranty companies will look for infusions to buttress their reserves to preserve their ratings.

Apparently, however, the losses from subprime failures, originally thought to be about $200 billion a couple weeks ago, have suddenly accumulated to about $300 billion or more, and banks and guaranty companies, amazingly, don't seem to have the information accumulated on their likely losses, even given all their systems. Part of the problem seems to be the actuarially unpredictable behavior of so many individual consumers and homeowners.

Even the most conservative investors and retirees can get caught by the wild risk-taking of others. But I don't recall these concerns about the muni market when Texas and other areas had a big real estate recession in the late 1980s.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Costco, Sams Club, etc. "Life Is Good"

Since I live close to a major city, I don't have a lot of reason to go into huge outlet malls and wholesale clubs. But today I wandered down to Potomac Mills, on the way to Fredericksburg VA from Washington on a choked I-95, and found that the main attractions were an Ikea and a several-block Costco. I had never been in a Costco. This was simply the largest "store" in square footage that I have ever been in, in 64 years of life.

Yes, almost everything is in there. Designer clothes, groceries, cooked meals, home improvements, electronics. I picked up some jeans and I didn't know you had to be a member to shop there. Of course, I should have known, but never paid a lot of attention to the TV ads for "warehouse clubs." That was a show-stopper, because I don't live close enough to one to make it worth it.

The prices were lower, even than those I usually see in Target. On the electronics, it looks like they are comparable to mail order. If I lived in the area, it would be worth it, definitely. The closest Wal-Mart is about fifteen miles of heavy traffic away, so I don't see it often. The last time I went into a Wal-Mart might have been in Indio, California, on a west coast rent car trip.

The warehouse club extends the "Wal-Mart issue". Wal-Mart's warehouse affiliate is Sam's Club, with it's "life is good" ad. But I can see how if you go to a community of 20000 or so, and build a super store like this that provides almost everything, yes, smaller retail businesses don't have much of a chance. That was a theme of a small indie film "Store Wars" in 2001, about Wal-Mart coming to Ashland, Va.

I see the membership information on the websites, and I presume that there are family memberships. The economies of scale for shopping at places like this favor large families that live in exurban areas. In Virginia, that ends to comprise evangelical Christians disproportionately.

But mail order (Amazon, etc.) gets more and more efficient, also crimping traditional retail, which now has to make shopping into a social experience. That's why now you theater chains and major restaurants and even comedy clubs or stage shows at smaller malls like Ballston.

All of this goes on while global warming and oil shortage moralists warn us that we need to cut back on globalization, and produce and buy more locally.

As for Costco, I should have known. You can peruse the websites for the smallest price differentials and make your membership worth it.

I do recall, when I lived in New York City in the 1970s, hearing about food coops to which at least one co-worker at NBC and his wife belonged, and put a lot of time into.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Litigation following Rhode Island 2003 fire ensares many parties; a case for tort reform?

The DC Examiner, in p 11 in its Weekend Nov. 24, 2007 issue, has an AP story “Plaintiffs cast blame for 2003 blaze: 90 businesses, people sued.” The story refers to the huge nightclub fire in the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, RI February 20, 2003 when pyrotechnics from the performance of the Great White band ignited the club, resulting over 100 deaths and many cases of severe burns. The original CNN story was here.

Club owners, and a Great White tour manager reached a plea deal for involuntary manslaughter in the criminal complaints. However, injured parties have gone after “deep pockets” (and some not so deep pockets) of entities less directly connected to the catastrophe. The defendants will include Annheuser Busch and Clear Channel Broadcasting, West Warwick town officials, and even a TV cameraman present.

While anyone wants to respect sympathy for the victims, allowing lawsuits against parties who had no real oversight of the show or ability to prevent the disaster and simply a routine connection to advertise or promote it commercially, sets a dangerous precedent and also argues for “loser pays” style tort reform. It could make it much more difficult for all kinds of new businesses. Could a blogger who was there be sued on the theory that he or she could have done more?

As a coincidence, I had actually just visited the Warwick area on January 1-2, 2003 on a film-related issue.

Night clubs have, in the past few years, become sensitive to the liability they could incur because of patron conduct. There have been a few catastrophic incidents in Washington DC (including a horrific assault on a bar manager at a NW DC bar recently) and sometimes these have led to loss of licenses. Bars typically require that patrons be 21; it is legal for persons 18-20 to be present if they don't drink but the bars get in trouble if they do. (Some discos will admit known celebrities under 21 when they agree not to drink; some reserve one night a week as "college night" and have color-coded wrist bands.) False ID cards, and rings that provide them, also present a problem. Sometimes, because of fear of litigation or law enforcement, security can be overzealous. I was asked to leave the Gay 90s in Minneapolis one time in October 2001 when I stumbled slightly coming down a staircase (I have lingering effects from a hip fracture) and the security guard thought I was impaired; I was not.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Media reminds travelers about Rule 240 on airlines

This year, in anticipation of a difficult Thanksgiving travel weekend, several television networks have reminded travelers that they may be able to invoke "Rule 240" and claim certain rights if their US domestic flight is more than two hours later because of factors under an airline's control. Often it means that the airline must place the passenger on a competitor's flight (if seat is available) at no extra charge.

Apparently this was mandatory only for airlines that exist before deregulation during the Carter Administration in 1978. It is "voluntary" for newer airlines and may be interpreted differently by different airlines.

It does not apply to weather delays.

The name of the rule sticks in my mind for a silly reason: US 240 was the major route between Washington DC and Frederick MD back in the 1950s, before I-270 was constructed.

Here are a couple of web references.

Arlene Fleming on air travel. Link.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Help the Homeless March help on National Mall (Saturday 11/17)

I didn’t quite “walk the walk” as I got there late, but yesterday, Nov. 17, 2007, the National Help the Homeless Walk (or "Walkthaton") was held on the Washington DC Mall (link). Registration was at daybreak, at 7 AM, and it stepped off at 9 AM fairly near the Smithsonian Metro stop. Adults were expected to make a $30 contribution (AIDSwalk in October expects $25).

This walk occurred one day before the New York Times carried a story describing how many renters are facing sudden eviction because of foreclosure on their landlords (I give the link in an addition to the Sept. 1 entry on this blog – see the archives).

But perhaps one interesting development was the passing out of the local “Street Sense” newspaper (link), which local contractors sell on the street for $1. This sounds a bit like the “Street News” that started in 1989. (I had once incorrectly thought that the people who sold them were "volunteers"; please see the comment.)

The paper discusses many interesting topics, such as an article on page 1, “Arlington County Tackles High Rates of the Working Poor”. The loss of affordable housing, to condo conversions or just teardowns and replacements, has been a big local issue (Sept. 10 blog entry).

There is also, on p 11, an interesting review by Robert Trautman of the book “The Persistence of Poverty: Why the Economics of the Well-Off Can’t Help the Poor,” by Charles Karelis, from Yale University Press. The reviewer notes that the book encourages incentivizing the poor to accept delayed gratification (education) and to save, and notes a basic dichotomy between “two competing and well-known concepts of economic justice. One is that people are entitled to whatever they can produce themselves or can get by trading. The other is that an allocation is just when it is proportionate to one’s needs.” I remember in the Army barracks back in 1969 that we would make fun of the Marx manifesto tome saying “From each according to his ability….” -- all of this in an era of the draft (although then deferments were ending and being replace by a lottery). The other big component of justice, according to conservatives, has a lot to do with the maintenance of the family as a source of personal identity for most people – and that definitely cuts both ways.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Fibbies raid organization challenging Federal Reserve (with "Ron Paul" coins)

New reports today discuss a raid on the operations of libertarian-leading Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Friday the FBI raided the Evansville Indiana headquarters for the “National Organization for the Repeal of the Federal Reserve and Internal Revenue Codes” (NORFED), which had been planning to sell private “liberty dollars,” supposedly backed up by gold and silver in Idaho. The group was planning to mail out a first batch of “Rob Paul” copper coins.

The Washington Post story is called “In Ron Paul Coins, Federal Agents Don’t Trust,” here.

Eliminating of the Federal Reserve came up as a topic in discussions at the Libertarian Parry of Minnesota when I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003 .

Alan Greenspan, however, as noted on my book blog (Oct. 19, “The Age of Turbulence”), has written a book with rather Libertarian and objectivist leanings.

The colloquial terms "goons" and "fibbies" come from John Grisham 's 1992 novel The Firm.

Update: Nov. 25, 2007

The Washington Post Outlook section has a major piece on libertarianism (starting with the Webster definitions of "") by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, with a lot of discussion of controversial Texas congressman Ron Paul, here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sharpton has rally against hate crimes at Freedom Plaza in Washington DC today

On Friday, Nov. 16, the Rep Al Sharpton held a rally at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington DC, to be followed by a four-block, eight-column "march" to the Justice Department in the 900 Block for what Sharpton believes is inadequate handling of hate crimes and civil rights issues, especially with respect to the situation in Jena, LA, where white students who hung nooses got suspensions and light sentences, and where African American students who assaulted them were prosecuted as felons.

The crowd was over 90% African American. It appeared to be several thousand. Sharpton talked about the apparent slide back into a doctrine of "states rights" and a behavior by the federal government that he compared to that of the Confederacy.

There is a review of the CNN specials on the Jena situation on my TV blog here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Arlington Board to take up commercial taxes Nov 27; Mass and Internet gambling

Is all politics local? No, not really, to a global person. But today it was, at least for me.

Commercial property taxes in Virginia

Tonight, I went to the Arlington County Board meeting, believing that there would be public comments on the proposed commercial property tax increase previously discussed in these blogs. That item will not be taken up until Nov. 27, as item 39, and I found that public comments, that start at 6:30, are based on items not yet listed as consent items.

There were about ten public comments, some lengthy, on a range of topics. Two citizens debated on whether Arlington government was sufficient committed to going green in its own county property (there was some humorous mention of fractal mathematics). A couple other speakers listed complaints against specific apartment landlords and one complained of having a 120 day notice to vacate without relocation assistance, and did not mention whether he had a lease (was this a condo conversion, a non-payment issue, or some sort of lease non-compliance issue, or a month-month issue?) The Board sounded willing to follow up on each specific comment. This was an interesting experience.

The link for Board meetings is here.

The Washington Post has a story dated Sept. 11, 2007 by Bill Turque for Fairfax County VA (adjacent to Arlington and much larger): "Board Takes Step to Raise Commercial Tax", link here.

Online Gambling in Massachusetts

There is a new controversy in Massachusetts about big government and online gambling, which Congress had already addressed with the the Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which had been connected to a homeland security ports security bill. It was singed in to law on Oct 13, 2006 and would prohibit all credit card transactions or electronic funds transfers or checks for online wagers for most gambling, effective immediately.

The reference is here.
“Massachusetts Governor Hedges Bet on Online Gambling” by Tom Barlow
Gov. Deval Patrick reportedly want to ban online gambling with jail terms, to drive gambling to three casinos to be built. You support your political contributors by prohibitionism. Andrew Sullivan can vouch for that.

(There is a followup on this item on this blog on Nov. 28 2007).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Oil Prices cut both ways: Trash talk on the market; watching XOM and its Mickelson teacher's academy

In addition to the subprime mess, the gloom and doom crowd is talking about $100 a barrel oil any time. Nevertheless, prices fell $2 this morning (Monday Nov 12) on stories that production might increase slightly, and Exxon-Mobil's claim that it was unharmed by an attack in Nigeria. The AP story from Yahoo! by Pablo Gorondi is here. There is a general impression that higher oil futures prices are related to a falling American dollar and Bush administration war-related budget deficits, rather than supply and demand fundamentals. But all of this goes on in the back ground of increasing insecurity about the Middle East (like the CNN story "We Were Warned" about oil shocks after another hurricane, recently aired).

All of this goes on while I, a retire, watch my Exxon-Mobil stock. I bought some in the 1970s during the oil shock, kept it, and it has proven to be a tremendous investment. In fact, as a retiree, the XOM stock price has a significant affect on daily changes in my net worth, more than I had realized. I don't know why it has been so volatile while oil prices are rising. News reports are unclear. Some talk about lower refinery margins, which are almost as important to the company's earnings as crude oil itself. Others wonder about the long term energy future, with a necessary switch to green; but the stock market behavior tends to relate mostly to short term expectations.

Personally, I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who make 150 mile a day commutes in SUV's and complain about gas prices. But of course the effects fan out everywhere: air fares, grocery prices, the ability of small businesses to operate, etc. Simon Kennedy and Joe Richter have an essay on Bloomberg, "$100 Oil May Mean Recession as U.S. Economy Hits `Danger Zone'", link here.

Exxon-Mobil, to its credit, has an essay on its website about increasing investment in science and math teachers and technology education. One basic link is this. There is a Mickelson ExxonMobil Teacher's Academy, which (perhaps surprisingly) reaches back as early as third to fifth grade, here. The emphasis here looks like it is on basic cognition, not on accelerated programs in higher grades.

ExxonMobil has an op-ed today "10 thousand teachers =10 million minds" here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Evangelical "End of Days"? For political partisanship, maybe

The October 28, 2007 New York Times Magazine has an interesting piece by David Kirkpatrick, p. 38, “The Evangelical Crackup.” The magazine cover has “End Times for Evangelicals,” and the article itself has a yellow banner page that effectively says that Evangelicals thought they had it made after the 2004 elections.

After the 2006 midterms, they were clearly in retreat, partly because of voter anger at some of their scandals (including Mark Foley, but also regarding Bush’s lack of credibility with his handling of Iraq, with the huge budget deficits built up over the war). Now, “dem Republicans” don’t have a strong evangelical candidate, and have to court Rudy Giuliani -- which is OK for voters who want someone who will be fiscally responsible but a relative liberal on matters of personal privacy and social values. Indeed, 2008 could become a subway world series kind of presidential election.

The link is here.

I can recall the rise of the televangelists after I moved to Texas at the beginning of 1979. The Moral Majority and pastors like James Robison and Pat Robertson became visible very quickly as Reagan won the 1980 election, although Reagan was hardly very religious himself. (I wonder the same thing about Bush.) That’s in spite of the fact that Reagan used to say that he could be stranded like “Cast Away” with Wilson and a Holy Bible. The idea that evangelical Christianity should get involved with politics was novel then, and the idea that it may become disengaged with partisanship seems novel but relentless now.

For the LGBT community, even before AIDS, the televangelists implied direct hostility. They seemed, on the surface, to be providing religious rationalizations for others to hate LGBT people. There remains, of course, the question, what do people who listen to their rhetoric really want? They have psychic and material needs that go unmet.

It’s easy to blame this attitude (“homophobia”) on “bigotry” or on fear of that which is different from the self. That may be some of it, but it goes deeper than that. Many people become socialized into the family, connecting sexuality, marriage, and commitment in such a way that they believe that getting married and having a family gives them a right to the absolute social and biological loyalty of their children and other family members. To them, that implies that people who do not have their own children should serve the interests of family members who do. In past generations, that wasn’t questioned; but it started to change in the 60s, and what seemed like a moral postulate (loyalty to blood) became weaker in comparison to other ideas (individual sovereignty) as to how it operated in the legal and economic system. People with heavy “voluntary” family responsibilities found themselves competing with people with much less “responsibility” and this played on the new power of women in the workplace (and outside the home). These changes did not sit well with people whose whole lives have been primed for a system built on patriarchal values.

The actual moral and legal values, now, are a subject deserving of serious public debate, but they seem to remain hidden. One point that seems interesting is that the evangelical obsession with Roe v. Wade and abortion as an affront to the value of human life seems, in their psychological mindset, underinclusive. It's as if they sincerely believe that openness to procreation is itself intrinsic to respect to human life (a Vatican belief), and from an ideological (though not practical) point of view, could try to overturn Griswold (let alone Lawrence v Texas). Hopefully those are not likely to happen.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Train drailment in Washington DC

A train with coal cars has derailed in Washington DC, crossing the Anacostia River, near RFK Stadium where the Nationals played baseball from 2005-2007. The train was moving slowly and this appears to be an accident related to aging of old track, bridges or equipment.

Media reports suggest that a CSW employee failed to set a brake properly and that the train cars rolled by gravity onto a supposedly closed bridge.

NBC4 in Washington has a number of pictures and videos from here. Police are not allowing civilians into the immediate area for pictures.

The obvious question is, what if the cargo had been truly hazardous (like chlorine or similar toxin). DC officials have been concerned about the transport of hazardous materials on rail lines through the City from Virginia going north (in tracks that run near the Mall and Union Station). Such materials could cause a "mega-disaster."

The closest I could get (Sunday morning) for pictures was at Anacostia Ave NE near Benning Rd. One can see it driving the Sousa Bridge on Pennsylvania Ave, but one cannot stop and park, and there are no side streets in the area (you get right on I-295). The river bed has a lot of ugly and dangerous waste everywhere, as one of the pictures shows.

On August 1, 2007 a major interstate highway bridge collapsed in Minneapolis.


On Saturday morning, Nov. 24, a freight train derailed in downtown Baltimore near the Ravens stadium. No leakages were reported. NBC4 story here. Expect the TV station to supply photos shortly.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

NY Times, Wired, CNN have more on "planet in peril"

Just a casual perusal of the media today (Nov. 8) leads to a lot of concerns. Jad Mouawad has an article “Rising Global Demand for Oil Provoking New Energy Crisis,” in The New York Times, Business Section, Nov. 9, 2007 here.
That has a lot to do with demands placed by China, and other countries (India) trying to get to a western standard of living relative to population, something that can create enormous political problems. As a recent Netflix film “A Crude Awakening” shows, there are concerns about peaking in our level of oil production.

And then, there is the idea that we have to get away from fossil fuels altogether. On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Matthew L. Wald put together an entire New York Times Business Section on “Business of Green: The Carbon Calculus: A proposal in Congress to put a charge on greenhouse gases could overturn the economics of energy.” Link is here.

It would sound that individual "carbon karma" could become part of the daily lives of individual citizens in some number of years.

But the October 2007 issue of Wired had a section by Evan Ratliff: “Switch: Forget Oil: This Plant Is the Future of Energy: Inside the New Science of Ethanol” and that refers to switchgrass, which potentially would be much more energy efficient and CO-2 efficient to provide a source of ethanol than is “King Corn” or even sugar cane in Brazil. There are chemical engineering problems to resolve. Here is a link.

On Nov. 9, CNN Anderson Cooper 360 continued the debate on his “Planet in Peril” series. Some speakers talked about the possibility of a much more rapid slide-off melt of the ice caps than previously expected, and proposed that use of coal or fossil fuels would have to be cut worldwide by 80% by 2050 to prevent Earth from turning into a different planet.

It’s our children that will deal with this, though not all of us have children.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Is working the election polls a kind of "national service"?

Today, I worked the polls in an Arlington, VA local election. It was smaller than the “mid term” congressional election last year that unseated “those Republicans.”

Still, there is a bit of a moral. We used the same stuff, the WinVote machines, that do not leave an audit trail of each vote. The polls are open for thirteen hours, and poll workers must work from about 5 AM until close to 9 PM on poll day, about sixteen hours, for $130. Workers may not leave the premises (there is a space for biological breaks) and must bring their own cold lunch and supper or go without. This time the site was a cold multi-purpose room, a universe that seems like a temporary purgatory. The military-like rules are strict in order to avoid the appearance of any possibility of voter fraud, as motivated by the Florida fiasco in 2000. When you include training time, the hourly wage amounts to less than $7 an hour (more for chiefs).

The county has tried having two eight-hour shifts and found that second shift workers apparently did not always show up on time.

Many workers are retired senior citizens. The poll worker issue reminds me of the national service issue. Working this way in somewhat substandard conditions for substandard pay for an important job for a democracy somewhat reminds one of the national service issue. It’s like a national service hitch for one very long day.

If we start pushing semi-mandatory national service for all ages (some people think we should) would working the polls be one way to do it? Should college students as well as seniors do it as a way to promote understanding of democracy? (Employees are officially called election officers in VA, so there would be a minimum age.)

One wonders why local governments cannot pay normal market wage rates to provide better working conditions for poll workers (usually mostly seniors). The work requires considerable attention to detail and handling problems with voting machines requires some technical training and experience. Voting systems sometimes goes down (power fluctuation issues) and have sophisticated self-recovery and awakening procedures that must work perfectly.

I have another discussion of this on my main blog from Nov. 7, 2006, here. also here .

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Bubble Economy and Conflict of Interest

The weekend shakeup at Citigroup over the mortgage mess (here) ) only seems to underscore the scare talk over the subprime mortgage mess and the threat of deflationary depression.

There is an article by Robert Kuttner, “The Bubble Economy,” in the Oct. 2007 American Prospect that reviews the current situation, and the possibility of a business cycle driven depression, with the consistency of a college economics course economics final exam essay. The link is here.

Kuttner views hedge funds, derivatives and subprime mortgages, and the “securitization” of mortgages, as a 1920s style middleman poaching on the productive parts of the economy, as a result of “re-deregulation.” He’s right that it’s pretty serious when there is more owed on things than they are worse, and that a depression is like a total economy margin call, something that sounds like total body radiation. Funny, some IT contractors around 1998 or 1999 thought of hedge funds as cool places to work. On a personal level, people can't resist getting something for nothing, especially when they think they need that something for "family". On personal financial responsibility, memories are short.

The analysis is, frankly, potentially more complicated because right now oil prices are an inflationary pressure, affecting real wealth, unless technology can replace the entire energy infrastructure with planet-friendly and terror-proof renewable energy, which would certainly precipitate enormous price changes again.

His argument could be summed up in one particular sentence: “The Roosevelt scheme of financial regulation was built around two principles – disclosure and outright prohibition of inherent conflicts of interest.”

Ultimately, the idea of conflict of interest affects personal behavior. In the 1990s, when I was working for a company that sold life insurance to the military and simultaneously becoming politically active with regard to gays in the military (to the point of publishing the 1997 book), I wondered if there could be a legal conflict of interest. Meetings with lawyers and HR followed, and in 1997 I applied for at quickly got a new job within the company at a new location (Minneapolis) a couple years after a merger (that in my case benefitted me) although there was never a clear legal opinion stated (although one pertinent point was that I did not have the power to make underwriting decisions about consumers). More recently, in 2005, I learned that new life insurance agents were not allowed to have “any other outside income” because of “conflict of interest” provisions in Sarbannes-Oxley (SOX). That any of these things really threaten financial stability seems very questionable, a deeper point is that economic and social stability really does depend on better understood standards of personal conduct.

The willingness of banks to issue subprime mortgages without normal creditworthiness requirements of borrowers is particularly glaring. Apartments are generally not willing to rent to tenants this way, partly because of security concerns as well as financial; sellers of condos and homes in urban and suburban areas ought to feel the same concerns.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Networked bloggers can affect prospects for "lesser" presidential candidates; teachers join in

Today, the Wall Street Journal, on p A1, carried an interesting about the Blue Hampshire blog. The title of the story, by Amy Schatz, suggests the tone: “Have a Laptop? You, Too Cam Swing New Hampshire Race. Self-Appointed Bloggers Get Candidate Face Time: On the Bus with Edwards.”

True, as the Democratic New Hampshire primary approaches in very early 2008, candidates other than absolute front runners find that bloggers, especially in a smaller but influential state, may indeed have a real impact on their chances. If Al Gore suddenly decides to retrace his steps (and follow the example of Schwarzenegger) and return from making movies to “public service,” all of this could quickly become moot point.

The story mentions high school Latin teacher Dean Barker. Now, usually Latin classes have mostly better and more mature students, and the expectation of academic freedom on campus (will it follow through for kids who later face campus speech codes?). The story, however, mentions how he casually goes from copying lesson plans in the teacher’s lounge to spending a half hour with Bill Richardson. If I were a math teacher, and took a half hour off to spend work time on COPA, I probably couldn’t keep my job.

Teacher free speech has long been controversial, and courts have protected if (especially off duty) until it poses some sort of danger to students or undermines the curriculum or educational program. In the Internet age, as we have noted, where kids could find their teachers so easily from home and where parents may, perhaps wrongfully, be offended by what they find, administrators worry a lot these days.

Of course, however, teachers have an absolute right to organize, and unions are usually partisan. It would seem reasonable, then, that the First Amendment would protect teachers who organize or participate in organized online partisan political advocacy offline. Indeed, a political party or partisan entity still has some social respectability and provides some containment to what subject matter might be covered.

When I see a story like this, I also recall that a couple years ago we were all very concerned about McCain-Feingold and how that might affect bloggers (I’ve written in my main blog about how a 2005 Washington Times editorial on this indirectly affected me when I was subbing). The FEC has apparently settled that down. In a general way, if partisan or labor sponsored speech by teachers is more protected than their own personal speech on controversial issues, the effect of the speech on public debate will not be as objective or balanced and will favor special interests. Indeed, the open participation by teachers in this partisan manner could stir the pot of bouillabaisse again.