Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Virginia man faces zoning board over tree house

If there is anything that shows the absurdity of zoning laws, when carried as far as they are, consider the case of Fairfax County VA resident (in the Falls Church area) Mark Grapin, who now faces the zoning board after an “anonymous” complaint about a tree house on his property, built manually for his sons when he came back from Iraq.  The tree house is in the front yard on Marc Drive, near a corner (not too far from Falls Church High School) but it's hard to see how it could create any kind of problem at all.
Here's the story on station WJLA, ABC affiliate in Washington DC.

This "toy building"  non-commercial and would be a very minor fixture on a property in the amount of space taken. I’ve never heard of zoning fights over tree-houses before.   Would a model railroad outdoors on a property (with trains that run) create a problem?  Maybe some kinds of Christmas or Halloween decorations would be banned, too.

Where zoning fights could start to really matter is in cases of home-based businesses, which generally don’t cause controversy unless they result in additional construction, traffic, or parking.   A few years ago there was controversy in Arlington as to whether additional real estate tax could be assessed on “commercial use” of residences.

Back in the 1950s, we set up "softball fields" in large backyards, and I even built a small brick "building" near the woodshed in the corner of the back yard once as a boy -- it impressed the babysitter.  Would these be "zoning violations" today? 

Update: Dec. 29

I revisited the site and the tree house is still up, with Christmas decorations.  Good show!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What about a "progressive consumption" tax?

Steven Pearlstein Sunday, in the Washington Post, revisited a suggestion that I think still deserves airing: a “progressive consumption tax”.   He mentions Cornell University economist Robert Frank’s book “The Darwin Economy”, which I should look into; maybe it should be called “The Spencer Economy”, though. 

Investment income would be taxed only when it is consumed.  This is a “principled” kind of Buffet tax:  maybe the rich pay lower rates than their secretaries, but once they live better, they pay. 

Is that so different from a VAT, with vouchers for the poor?  Or from special taxes on travelers (hotel and car rental taxes levied by most municipalities and states – after all, travelers don’t vote in their areas).  

Here’s his link.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Insurance companies still have their secrets; big effect on Obamacare debate?

MSN has an interesting article this weekend, “Insurers’ 10 dirty little secrets”, by Ed Leefeldt of “”,  link here

One of these secrets is another score for car insurance companies, the ISO, which consumers never see.  Worse, there is a supplementary FICO risk score which consumers don’t see.  Could it be affected by “online reputation”?   (Ask Michael Fertik.)

Insurance companies pay attention to the reputation of your attorney (the Mike Slocum Law Firm (link) ads). 

The issue of percentage deductibles (for earthquake and flood policies) is well known, I thought. 

But the dirtiest trick seems to be that of some Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans of making smaller insurers pay providers more.  I’ve worked for the Blues twice in my career (including a stint in Texas), and never heard that mentioned.  That sounds like a violation of anti-trust law to me.  Big competitors, like United Health Care, aren’t affected, of course.

I’ve been approached  at least twice in recent years to become an insurance agent, and I can’t see making a life out of manipulating customers and hiding things from them, or stilting the truth.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Aggressive panhandling occurs near Occupy DC site

Last night, as I got out of McPherson Square (where a lot of homeless sleep, right in the Metro station), I walked up past Georgia Browns, and took one picture of Occupy DC across 15th St.   The only obvious sign this time was one about not gutting Social Security. As I reached K Street and turned the corner, on foot, to walk left, an African American started chasing me and saying that he had spoken to me and demanded to be answered.  He finally stopped after I reached 16th St.  He did rant about my “fear” and presumed cowardice and the possible wrath of God that would come to me for not stopping to “help” him on demand.

DC and Metro Transit Police call this “aggressive panhandling”, which is illegal.   Merely to approach someone one is not illegal. 

Is it “rude” to photograph the protests and not participate?  Is it rude to gawk like an alien anthropologist, keeping personal physical risk and involvement at a distance?

In Dallas, when I visited downtown Monday, it appeared that the Occupy movement had cleared out.

There has also been a movement in Austin.

I could say that reporting about Occupy would seem to foster the political impact of their causes.  But it does seem as though most of the protest seems to be demanding handouts, and repudiation of debts and overthrow of the system, with little in the way of constructive proposals. 

But, of course, there’s a another way to look at this:  Wall Street stole the money (the derivatives, the credit default swaps, even Madoff) and still took its bailouts and severance bonuses. (That seems true.)  The victims (especially those who deceptively structured adjustable subprime mortgages) are presented as personally responsible for “falling for it”.  That’s hyperindividualism taken to its extreme. 

However the game is structured, it’s always possible to blame the people who “lose” for their own personal failings. It’s easy to forget that we don’t start in the same place in line. Remember how student deferments for the draft in the 60s worked?  Those without the school grades went to the front lines.  

In the mean time, the GOP is still “blaming” the failure of the Supercommittee on Dems who insist on same raising of taxes.  And the GOP goes after the individual mandate for health insurance.  They’re ideology seems to be, government is not responsible for welfare, only families are.  So, in social conservative thought, everyone is tethered to his family, and the mores of sexual morality (marriage) keep everyone from taking undue advantage of things.  But it doesn’t work that way.

Update: Dec. 4

The Washington Post reports on a clash with Park Police arresting people trying to occupy a wooden building constructed "illegally" in McPherson Square Park, link  (video available, no embed provided).

CNN has a report (Dec 4 6 PM) here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

MSN reports on new H3N2 influenza from pigs, in Iowa; so far, very mild illness

Here we go again on pandemics.  MSNBC is reporting on a case where three children in Iowa came down with a swine-associated H3N2 influenza virus thought spread only among pigs has raised new concerns. The symptoms were mild and not any more prolonged or acute than usual.  The story is by Jonel  Aleccia, link here 
The panic originating in Mexico in 2009 had concerned H1N1. 

The biggest threat (related perhaps to the movie “Contagion”) could come from H5N1 (“bird flu”, a bit of a misnomer as all influenza probably has infected birds), and there are not many major reports on progress toward a vaccine.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Flash mob incident at 7-11 in Maryland caught on YouTube

As someone who lives in the Washington DC area, the Virginia burbs, I’m outraged at reports of flash mob incidents, even across the river, in Silver Spring, MD (at a 7-11 store), even when I’m playing on the road myself, returning from Texas.  The incident occurred Saturday night, Nov. 19.

Here is the police video; the Huffington Post carried it, but so do local TV stations.

If you recognize any perpetrators, call Montgomery County Police (link) at  240-773-TIPS OR 240-773-8477 or text at 274673.

Some reports say that many participants had been to a birthday party at a nearby townhome.

This is certainly an example of misuse of social media. 
Montgomery County is considering a teen curfew, but some adults were involved in the mass flash shoplift.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Supercommittee set to announce failure to reach debt deal; a "Thanksgiving Massacre?"

Well, the Supercommittee’s super breast, as of now, is that it won’t reach an agreement. Failure is to be announced some time Monday.

John Kerry was on CNN Monday morning saying that the GOP wouldn’t back off Bush tax cuts for the very rich.  The GOP seems to have it old rhetoric that the Donkey isn’t serious about cutting spending.
Here’s Ezra Klein’s take on it right now.  Is this a matter of the GOP's worship of Grover Norquist (whom some people say rules the world right now).

What happens?  Yawn. The automatic cuts ($1.2 trillion) don’t start until 2013.  Of course, extended unemployment benefits, Medicare provider rates, defense jobs, programs for the poor, all are on the block. So would assistance to city transit systems.  Look at the trouble in the Washington DC area over keeping the Metro running on weekends (especially late).  Could existing Social Security benefits be at risk?  Legally, probably not, but some of the old scenarios could come back.

It’s “taxes vs. entitlements”  (to quote Will Cain, moderately conservative CNN commentator, who is cute.) Cain said that the AARP should stay out of the debate, it won’t affect them; it will affect people at his age, young enough to look good when Lady Gaga music plays.

Given our incompetent  Congress, it seems as though we need to replace our partisan system with a "parlor timocracy".  Or, at least, let Mark Zuckerberg rule the world.  Maybe he already does.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Domestic oil industry seems to boom again, alongside windmill farms; what happened to the "Pickens Plan"?

Yes, we do need to keep producing domestic oil.  In west Texas these days, most rigs are operating, more than when I was living in Dallas and visiting the area in the late 80s.  And the US is indeed a “Persian Gulf” of natural gas (and coal).  I haven’t heard as much in public lately about the Pickens Plan. 

But in the Texas prairie there have been set  up some of the largest windmill farms in the nation. Most of the largest farms are along the escarpment between the “high planes” and the rolling prairie a few hundred feet below;  along I-20, the pieces of tableland looking like small mountain ranges extend out past Big Spring to Abilene and half way to Fort Worth (even “Ranger Hill” which sounds a bit like Laurel Hill or Sideling Hill in Pennsylvania). 
 A short film:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Budget cuts from Supercommittee could actually help middle class

Major media reported on vague attempts in NYC of the Occupy movement to disrupt subway service and the stock exchange, but none of that happened, after the tent city in lower Manhattan was broken up early Wednesday.

In the meantime, speculation on the "turkey breast" to be carved by the Supercommittee suggests a minimal 1.2 trillion of targeted federal budget cuts.

Nevertheless, Wall Street is poised to boom back if the cuts could be much larger.  This would actually be good for many middle class families, especially with retirees having any pension or savings investments, whose value would rise, making eldercare easier to manage.

The key is to have any savings at all the the capacity to be in the markets at all.  It seems to me that the "class struggle" isn't between the top 1% and the rest, its within the middle class itself, and between old (who are more likely to have accumulated some savings) and young, who are likely to be in debt.  But this sort of animosity was around even during the early 70s when I dabbled around with the People's Party. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Texas wildfires in rural areas show growing threat of climate change, over-development

This summer, brush and forest fires occurred in the southern plains, especially in Texas, as well as California, where they have gotten more publicity (with one of the largest back in 1978).  Wildfires have gotten to be as big a threat to homes in many areas as earthquakes and hurricanes or or tornadoes.

In December of 2007 (as I recall) Texas an Oklahoma also had a lot of brush fires that consumed some homes, but the problem was particularly severe late this summer in Texas, when residents were evacuated from some areas of central Texas and could not find out what had happened to their homes. 

A personal visit to the Bastrop area, 25 miles east of Austin, showed huge areas with most ground and lower level brush burned, east of Bastrop.  Many homes in this wilderness setting were consumed and only now were contractors at work rebuilding them.  Home is more conventionally developed suburbs did not seem to be affected.  Most of the affected homes appeared to be in rural pine forest areas that offer rural country living that many people like.  The terrain in the area is hillier and more “southwestern” than “deep southern”, which is surprising for an area not too far from Houston.  Some areas in the Hill Country 60 or so miles west of Austin also appeared affected.

However, pine forests in the Southeast (northern Florida) have presented similar risks to rural homes during droughts. 

Climate change is causing longer and drier summers in many areas, and sometimes unusually warm, windy and dry weather into the late fall, resulting in more risk to residents in forested or brushy areas than in the past.  Also, the expansion of home building in rural areas, often at the high end, has increased the risk to many homeowners compared to times in the past.  While most of us support the righ tof Americans to the lifestyles they want and have earned, we should think twice about overbuilding in areas (particularly in western states) in areas prone to wildfires as part of the natural ecology (in nature, in many mountainous areas, forests regenerate very quickly after being burned) just as we don't build on flood plains.
Note, also, after a cold front, if you fly above the Missouri, Ohio or Mississippi rivers, you see lots of natural flood plains from the air; they really stand out; and no one lives in most of them.
Nov. 18, the Weather Channel reported on a major forest fire damaging homes near Reno, NV.

Millionaires to Congress: raise our taxes

A group calling itself "Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength" has asked Congress to raise taxes on high incomes.  Its site is here .  It would be a good question as to whether to look at high net assets, and what its position would be for means testing on Social Security and Medicare.

The story broke on Reuters today. It could feed into the deliberations of the Supercommittee, with "turkey" report due Nov. 23.

There is a petition letter on the site.

Leading economists like Robert Reich are saying that the economy is not a zero-sum game.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Supreme Court will hear case on Obamacare and individual mandate in March 2012

The Supreme Court will take up Obama’s health care reform, particularly the individual mandate, probably in March 2012, with a ruling by June, not long before the conventions for the 2012 presidential race. 
The Boston Globe has a typical story by Sarah Schweitzer here .

The Court will probably focus on whether Congress overreached the extent of the Commerce Clause (by requiring a form of trade with a privately owned health care market), but the Obama administration will argue that almost everyone uses health care at some time in his life, and that it is something like national security, a public good. 

The Court could give guidelines and suggest narrower ways to encourage people to buy health insurance. 

The 11th Circuit in Atlanta had struck down the individual mandate in August. 

Earlier, the 6th Circuit had upheld constitutionality of the mandate.

Monday, November 14, 2011

ABC station in DC asks whether teaching applicants should be polygraphed

In Washington, ABC affiliate WJLA ran a story this evening (Nov. 14) about suggestions that new teachers should be required to take lie detector or polygraph tests. The idea comes not so much from the recent Penn State mess, as from a pattern of increasing arrests since about 2005. But this pattern may have occurred because of the Internet: not does it only provoke some crimes (as in Chris Hansen’s Dateline series that aired then) it also leads to much more public awareness and demands for action from law enforcement.
But if polygraphs are not admissible in court in criminal trials, should they be used in employment screening? But you can ask this question about their use in high level security clearances. 

So instead, the application process could use voice-stress analysis, a true-false personality test, or even new technologies like “no lie MRI”. 

School districts say they are lukewarm on the idea, because of cost.

New teachers, included subs (to be hired for daily jobs from lists), do undergo fingerprint checks, but these generally only find actual past convictions. 

And in the past, some school districts have hired troubled teachers because of the practice of “passing the trash”. 

Lie detection technology might focus on applicants with “fantasy” issues but no actual misconduct – just a “propensity” – a kind of “pre-crime” detection as in the movie “Minority Report”.  It might focus on those who seem to lack “adult” relationships already. 

The story headline focuses just on testing “accused” teachers, but the discussion would make the testing apply to everyone.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

GOP on board to stop gratuitous entitlements to the rich (Politico)

Today, I picked up a stray copy of Politico on the Metro and saw a story by Marin Cogan and Manu Raju, “GOP tests message: Ridiculous benefits for the wealthy could go”, link here.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) want to pass legislation stopping the wealth or people with enough disposable income from receiving unemployment benefits.  It’s not clear if this is limited just to income, or would look at assets (the way Medicaid does). 

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) is said to be looking for a sponsor for a bill that would reduce by half Social Security benefits for seniors with incomes over certain levels.  It is not clear whether seniors would be targeted based on assets, which in the cases of trusts, could get complicated.  And it’s not clear if it could affect current beneficiaries. There will be more written about this later. 

Lankford said, "The obvious place to start is not to treat every single person the same across America".

My concern is that we need to separate redistribution of wealth from contributions or insurance premiums intended to apply to the individuals who made them. 

It's not clear yet whether the Supercommittee has made any such proposals.
Stay tuned, particularly on the Retirement Blog.(Posting on Chaffetz proposal posted there Sunday Nov. 13.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Americans don't want the jobs of immigrants (illegal or not); a story for "Labor Day" on Veterans Day?

MSN has reprinted a Bloomberg-Businessweek article on the fact that, with immigration laws being more strictly enforced (after implementation) in Alabama, Arizona, and elsewhere, some dirty jobs requiring hard manual labor go unfilled.  This is particularly true of farm work (picking food) or food processing plants – which can be frankly dangerous.

The whole spin contradicts the idea, harbored by many Americans, that immigrants (legal or not) take away good jobs. 

Here is the MSN link

Americans don’t want these jobs for a variety of reasons – sometimes very low pay (piecework) but sometimes because of physical inability. This gets to be translated into ideas that the work is beneath one’s dignity.  Yet President Nixon once tried to defuse this idea back around 1973 when he said that a janitor’s toil was as worthy as his (and then came Watergate).

My father, when I was growing up, particularly in the junior high years (ages 12-14, from about 1955 to 1958) used to lecture me on “learning to work” and the virtues of manual labor.  If you can’t do it, it becomes a source of humiliation.

And “they” have said that about working in fast food restaurants: they’re a test as to whether you can work or not.   That is, can you accept physical regimentation, almost military style.

In the 1960s, the Maoist Cultural Revolution in Red China was based partly on the idea that intellectuals must “pay their dues” by sharing the perils of physical toil as peasants.

After my IT layoff at the end of 2001, I gradually learned more about the "interim jobs" world, such as taxicab driver, and mail carrier, which I was told was a very physical job. Nevertheless, I very nearly got a job as a USPS letter carrier in Nov. 2004.  

And today Americans and Europeans depend on imported products made by very low-wage, tedious labor overseas (including China) by workers who live in dormitories and send money to relatives in the countryside.
All of this sounds like more fodder for the Occupy movement.  But you don’t see Michael Moore picking fruit (no pun).  Remember that scene in “Gone with the Wind”: “Quittin’ time”.

There's also a good question about how we will get all the caregiving done for an aging population, given these ideas about work. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

"Street Sense" lays it on the line about "Occupy"

Today, returning from a premier of "J. Edgar" in Georgetown in Washington DC, I picked up a copy of "Street Sense" for $1 from a street vendor near Foggy Bottom Metro near GWU.  I think this used to be called "The Street News" (back around 1989, then the first George Bush talked about "a thousand points of light" and "compassionate conservatism"). I guess "Street Sense" (link) could also be called "Street Smarts" as opposed to "Book Smarts" as in Donald Trump's "The Apprentice."

On p. 11 (Nov. 9), there is an article, "The New Left: Left Out", by vendor Jeffrey McNeil which says "Many people I talked to in the D.C. occupations feel that the game is rigged against them, both on Wall Street and on K. Street. They feel like we live in an upside down system where those who steal get rewarded and those who have been robbed are punished."

Monday, November 07, 2011

Occupy DC protest sign demands repudiation of all debt

I was in the McPherson Square area this evening, and visited the Occupy DC camp again, finding a sign demanding cancellation or repudiation of all debts:  mortgages, student loans, and utility bills.  Come on, it seems like we shouldn’t have fiat money at all. We should just have a communal (maybe Luddite) lifestyle. 

Of course, Michele Bachmann acted like she was willing to repudiate Social Security obligations this summer. 

I didn’t see any remnants of the protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Lafayette Park. But I did see an interesting sign on the Metro warning of mercury pollution from coal-fired utilities, put up by the Sierra Club, with which I used to hike when I lived in Dallas. 
Coal miners have a restaurant in the Laurel Mts on US 30 in PA (picture taken Oct. 26, personal visit). 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Protesters filled Lafayette Square Park in Washington DC Sunday to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline; does US still need a lot of oil for foreseeable future?

Protesters filled Lafayette Square Park in Washington DC Sunday to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, that would carry oil from the tar sands in Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Stacy Anderson has the Associated Press story here

Robert Redford his joined the protest, according to his YouTube video:

The pressure group is called Tar Sands Action, here.

The United States Department of State has its own fact sheet for the project here

TransCanada has a map of the pipeline here.

States affected would include Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri.

The argument that the pipeline helps reduce dependency on foreign oil is facile. Protestors seem to have no specific agenda in place.

Here’s a London Financial Times article “tar sand storms” on the energy required to produce the oil, link.

Wikipedia attribution link for tar sands map. 

Other pictures:  SD Sioux reservation, Pentagon shortly after 9/11.  I did not get to the protest today to personally report on it and will depend on other sources.  I do try to visit many protests and film them since I live in the DCarea.