May 29, 2009

E-Money As Revenue Enhancer

The day is coming when there will be no need for the IRS. There will be less ability for terrorists and criminals to generate money through illicit transactions and then to launder their money. Actually, that day could be today, if we are bold enough as a society to make it happen.

First, we need to have a national sales tax replace the income tax. Sales taxes generate government revenue from consumption, not income. Regressive, you say? Taxes the poor for their purchases of food? Fine, we exempt things from sales tax all the time here in California for exactly that purpose; there's no reason that can't be done nationally.

Second, we need to embrace e-money, a society without currency. Debit cards and credit cards are convenient ways for consumers to spend money without carrying around large amounts of cash. They also leave electronic records of transactions and can be set up to automatically deduct taxes on all eligible transactions, so the government always gets its share.

Tax cheating will become difficult. I won't say impossible, but more difficult than it is now.

Drug dealers and their ilk will need to find some medium of exchange for their illicit transactions other than money. I'm not saying they wouldn't figure out a way to do it, but again, it would be much more difficult than it is now.

The money launderer fears leaving a paper trail of his activities. But e-money is, inherently, an electronic paper trail; it does not exist without a record of where it comes from or where it goes.

The IRS would be replaced by a national sales tax collection agency. There would not need to be an army of auditors, reviewers, examiners, and tax judges. There would need to be people who enforced the sales tax, and judges and prosecutors to handle tax matters. But it would be a lot less burdensome than it is now. (By the way, I've only ever had professional, friendly, and courteous interaction with people who have worked at the IRS.)

Some may say that a cashless society is one without money. Nonsense. I bought nearly $200 worth of gas and groceries this evening and didn't handle any currency while doing it. I paid my mortgage today without handling a pen or paper. No one doubts that checks -- which are not currency -- nevertheless represent money.

Others may argue that without the option of engaging in cash transactions, their privacy rights will be curtailed. This is a more substantial argument than it might seem on its face -- it's not only drug dealers and their customers who have a desire to shield their transactions from governmental scrutiny. People sometimes buy embarrassing things (medications, sex toys, and so on) and they would surely prefer to not have to explain them later. Query if one has a legitimate privacy interest in being able to lie about donating to the church's collection plate, however.

But on the whole, this seems an inevitable outcome to me. The income tax system is cumbersome and cash transactions create the ability to profitably engage in crime. A cashless, consumption-tax based economy would be substantially more efficient, and if done right could generate substantially more revenue, than where we're at. And if done correctly, the vast bulk of people who work legitimate jobs and engage in legitimate transactions, they would not notice a net drop in their income.

Big Plus To Laptops

I have an ongoing disagreement with another lawyer at work. He believes that desktop computers are simply superior to laptops and doesn't want another laptop again. He's right in the sense that a desktop has a larger body and therefore can handle a stronger processor, more memory, and generally more hardware. So dollar for dollar, the desktop can do more, and do it faster.

But what you can't do with a desktop is take it out to your back yard on a beautiful, mild, windless night, and watch the sun set while you write. For that, you need a laptop. And yes, I'm going to continue to call them "laptops" instead of "notebooks" or "tablets" or whatever. I'm getting old enough that I'm becoming set in my nomenclature.

May 28, 2009

A Problem At The Ice Rink

This may be a digitally altered video. I didn't think ice rinks were that deep.

Just A Numbers Game

It doesn't matter that Judge Sotomayor said something that may or may not have suggested a belief that Latina judges are smarter than white male judges. It's doesn't matter because the Democrats are going to have sixty votes in the Senate.

It's pretty simple, really. The Democrats won. Getting to pick and force through Justices to the Supreme Court of your liking is part of the spoils of victory when you win a commanding political majority in both houses of Congress and the White House.

Hey, Republicans! If you want to get more Justices like Sam Alito and Antonin Scalia and John Roberts and Clarence Thomas on the bench of the highest court in the land, I'll tell you how to do it. Get a Republican elected President. Get a majority of Republicans elected to the Senate. When you had control of the government, you could run guys like Alito through and you could tell the Democrats to suck it. Now, you lost, and these are the consequences of losing.

Fact is, there is no principled reason for any Senator not to confirm Judge Sotomayor, at least not based on what we know about her now. I've read a few of her opinions and they're intellectually solid, well-researched, and do not use any wild or even particularly sketchy reasoning. I don't agree with all of them but that's not really the point -- the point is that in terms of ability to handle the kinds of cases the Supreme Court will address in the future, she's got the scholarly and intellectual chops needed to get the job done.

Not that anyone in the Senate has to be principled about their vote. "She's just too liberal" or "My party said vote 'no'" are reasons to vote against her confirmation which are permitted by the Constitution. The only check on a Senator's vote is fear of political reprisal should his or her constituents wish a contrary vote, and I'm pretty sure that you don't get to the U.S. Senate without having some ability to sense how a majority of voters in your state are going to feel about big issues like this.

Now, my undergraduate thesis was about the Supreme Court nomination process and I think I remember a thing or two from that research even today. The most remarkable thing about the confirmation process is the degree to which politicians obfuscate their true meanings by using code words. Both Democrats and Republicans use some code words in their propaganda, and I'll translate them into plain English for you here. If some of these words and phrases sound familiar, you probably remember them from other confirmation hearings such as Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas, and most of all, Robert Bork.
Code Words
Democratic TranslationRepublican Translation
"Respect for Constitutional Balance of Powers"
Congress can do anything it wants
President can do anything he wants
"Strict Construction"
Vote to reverse Roe v. Wade
"Living Constitution Theory"
Vote to uphold Roe v. Wade
Vote against big corporations and law enforcement
Vote in favor of terrorists, illegal immigrants, and homeless
"Judicial Activist"
Like Scalia, except liberal
Vote to uphold Roe v. Wade
"Judicial Restraint"Phrase not understood by Democrats
Vote to reverse Roe v. Wade
"Respect for Precedent"Vote to uphold Roe v. Wade
Vote to reverse Roe v. Wade
"Appropriate Respect for Individual Rights"
Vote against big corporations and law enforcement
Vote in favor of terrorists, illegal immigrants, and homeless
"Appreciates Importance of Religion and/or Moral Values"
Vote against big corporations and law enforcement
Will disregard concept of separation of church and state
"Commerce Clause"
Federal government can do anything it wants
Obstruct necessary social welfare laws
Will vote to reverse Roe v. Wade
"Affirmative Action"
Cement Latino votes for Democrats
Not intellectualy qualified
"National Security"
Deference to the President
"Unitary Executive"
President can do anything he wants
Deference to the President; see also "Judicial Restraint" and "Strict Construction"
"Create New Rights"
1) Will vote to uphold Roe v. Wade; 2) gay marriage (recent addition)
"Judicial Demeanor"
Acting like an asshole on the bench
Deference to the President
"Intellectual Qualifications"Vote to uphold Roe v. Wade
Vote to reverse Roe v. Wade
"Personal Background" described as "Rich," "Diverse," or "Remarkable"Vote against big corporations and law enforcement
"Well-Established Precedent"Vote to uphold Roe v. Wade
Vote to reverse Roe v. Wade
Yeah, she's kind of a bully. But conservatives deserve a "taste of Scalia" after all these years.
We got nothing
And the nominee will also be frustrating and unlikely to speak clearly and directly, either. Every time she is asked a hard question, she will respond as follows:
"Senator, the canons of judicial ethics restrict me from pre-judging any cases that might possibly come before me, either in my current role on the Court of Appeals or which might come before me if I am confirmed to the Supreme Court. Therefore, I cannot answer your question. Perhaps if you addressed a broader issue of my judicial philosophy rather than the sort of issue that I might be asked to rule upon, I could provide you with an answer that would assist you and your colleagues on the Judiciary Committee."
This also has a plain-English translation:
"Senator, we both know that you've already decided how you think I'm going to vote on the next big abortion case, and chances are, you're exactly right. But you're in the minority party, so your opinion on that issue isn't all that important. So why don't you go and suck it?"
The President may weigh in from time to time:
"Sonia Sotomayor is a uniquely well-qualified candidate who belongs on the Supreme Court. I urge the Senate to complete its hearings and schedule an up-or-down vote at the earliest possible date. I'm confident that when they do, Judge Sotomayor will be confirmed."
Which translates as follows:
"Toe the party line, bitches. Now."
So there you have it. That's how the nomination process goes. What it comes down to is this -- the Republicans have 40 members of the Senate. At least 5 of them cannot fall back on "party line" as an excuse to not vote to confirm Judge Sotomayor. The Democrats have 59 votes now and are likely to have their 60th before the vote takes place. Unless a major scandal erupts during her personal background investigation, not a single one of those 60 Democrats will be able to find any political cover should they fail to vote to confirm her.

So unless it turns out she killed a guy back in law school or something like that, she's as good as on the Court already.

Frustrating Debate

There are several problems I have with this so-called "debate."

First, it becomes obvious pretty early on that Hitchens and Blackwell are talking about two totally different things. Hitchens' point, which is 100% correct, is that the First Amendment, among a variety of other legal and historical documents and other traditions, prohibit the establishment of religion, even a generalized religion like Christianity or "Judeo-Christianity."* Blackwell, however, is talking about a more generalized social background, and he is more correct than not within the boundaries of his claim -- a claim that the Christian religion has informed and continues to inform the morals of a very large number of Americans -- including those Americans who, while not sharing the spiritual faith of Christianity, nevertheless look to Christian teachings as a source of moral guidance (which, with some exceptions, are generally a pretty good source of morals). Why is the moderator too dim to realize this and interject some, you know, moderation into the discussion to prevent them from unproductively talking past one another?

Second, Blackwell's debating style strikes me as unfair. He begins, almost right off the bat, by chastising Hitchens for interrupting him and not allowing him to make his point. So Hitchens backs off and gives Blackwell some time to finish his point. And then Blackwell proceeds to run off the mouth for nearly six solid minutes -- having established the rule that no one can interrupt anyone else (and enforcing that rule to his own advantage again) he proceeds to monopolize the conversation. It's not really a debate if you're the only one talking. Again, the moderator did nothing to control this.

Finally, Hitchens was obviously stone-cold sober. He didn't use the word "fuck" even one time. This is totally out of character for him and denies the viewing audience a taste of his real personality.

* The phrase "Judeo-Christian" irritates me today. Judaism and Christianity are different religions. Judaism is not "Christianity without the Messiah"; they are simply not the same thing. In the two thousand years since Christianity broke away from Judaism both religions have evolved and changed and gone through powerful and divergent experiences. Christianity became the official doctrine of multiple global hegemons, and Judaism became the cultural scapegoat of Europe. And, any attempt to amalgamate the two as coming from the same historical, cultural, and spiritual tradition requires including Islam as well, since all three religions trace back to the teachings and traditions of the patriarch Abraham. I don't notice any "Christian Nation" advocates making any attempt whatsoever to include Muslims in this tradition which they esteem so highly.

Cable Guy Fail

May 27, 2009

Houston Sightseeing

Tomorrow or Friday I'll post some pictures from Houston. The point of the trip was to visit and spend time with my parents, and that was great. They have a very nice house and seem to be nicely on the way to building a good life for themselves there. We played cards, cooked for one another, and had a barbeque on Memorial Day.

They say that Houston is the city most like Los Angeles in all of the United States. That seems to hold up to analysis. There is a lot of driving involved in Houston and people seem to live everywhere, spread out over a lot of terrain geographically. If you include Galveston in the Houston metropolitan area, it could take two hours, even without traffic, to get from one end of the broader urban area to another.

We visited Galveston; it seems like a charming place although it's depressing to see so many places still not rebuilt after the hurricane. There's plenty of lawyer billboards up and down I-45 soliciting business dealing with insurance companies on hurricane claims, so I'm guessing that's still big business for lawyers down there.

We also visited the Johnson Space Center; the tour center is pretty much just for kids but the tour itself is interesting. The workers all seemed to be in casual dress; I guess you don't need to be in a suit and tie to launch a rocket, although that seems to be what all the engineers wore back in the 60's and 70's. The Saturn V rocket is very big.

Minute Maid Park is an interesting baseball stadium. The seats my dad got from his company are pretty high up, so that's a little bit intimidating, and the architect only built one set of escalators going from street level to the upper decks, which is not so great from a crowd flow perspective. Once you're in those seats, a bit of vertigo is all but inevitable, although you get used to the angle pretty quickly. The field is beautiful and the open wall on left field is next to a small tower with (I think) offices; a small crowd gathers on the roof to watch the game for free. Looked like a nice party. Unlike a lot of other ballparks, they only sing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" through one verse in the seventh-inning stretch. That's because instead, they sing "Deep In The Heart Of Texas," which is a lot of fun. Not fun are the food vendors -- you have to stand in a different line for each thing you want to buy, so I missed a good part of an inning despite starting to buy food for our party well before the game started.

We went to what we were told was the hippest, coolest bar in Houston, Pubfiction, which would have been a lot more fun for single young people cruising for disposable companionship. Still a decent bar, even if they didn't know how to make an Aviation Martini.

One thing that really made me smile was a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see a traveling exhibit of the terracotta warriors of Emperor Qin. The exhibit itself was very crowded and that made the trip to the museum unpleasant -- until I recalled that what's worse than a crowded museum is an empty one, and what's worse than that is no museum at all. Houston has a thriving center of many museums, and all of them seemed to be accomodating healthy crowds. The demand to see the terracotta warriors, and also see dinosaur reconstructions, rare earth minerals, an impressive display of ocean life, and learn about the geologic conditions that made Houston wealthy, was very high. There is a tremendous hunger and interest in knowledge, in history and science, out there, and that's something that is sometimes easy to forget until you go to one of these cathedrals of knowledge. After I remembered that, I was happier despite the inconvenience of dealing with the crowd.

Mexican food in Houston is very good. Everywhere we went, from a mid-level restaraunt to an unassuming taqueria, took great pride in their salsa, some of them bringing out more than one to try. Unlike Southern California, where you get pretty much the same pico de gallo everywhere you go, with varying amounts of cilantro and heat added for variety, there were all kinds of salsa available around Houston. The best stuff I can recall was a creamy advocado salsa -- very hot and very smooth. That it came with tacos de tingya -- shredded beef stewed in savory, spicy chipotle -- was an added bonus. You could probably spend a year having lunch at all the taquerias around Houston and never have the same salsa twice.

Real estate there appears to be very affordable and there seems to be some degree of economic opportunity, at least for those with marketable skills. The oil industry has seen better days, but it's seen worse days, too -- and there is a substantial amount of manufacturing (especially aerospace and housing products) and service industry work there, too. Not that I'm interested in moving there; the last time my wife and I moved across the country it didn't work out so good and we're getting nicely established here. But if you were looking for a place to start out in life (or re-start), you could do worse than Houston. I also found the climate agreeable, at least while we were there -- certainly it was warm and humid, but I don't mind that so much. The winters are supposed to be mild, and my allergies were almost completely inactive. I enjoyed the wildlife in the area, too -- we saw lots of box turtles, a wide variety of bird life, an alligator, and people were fishing everywhere we went.

So maybe we exhausted all of the cool touristy things to do in Houston. But it was a fine visit and I enjoyed the trip immensely.

What Makes Sense And What Doesn't

Upholding Proposition 8 was the right thing for the Supreme Court to do. When the people act directly, that is the fundamental and most legitimate exercise of power imaginable in a democracy. I don't like what they did but they did it and preserving the right of the people to govern themselves is obviously important on a different and more powerful level than any individual step they take to engage in that self-government. Besides, on this individual issue, the voters can fairly easily change their minds and it's looking more likely that they'll be given an opportunity to do so during the gubernatorial election in 2010.

What doesn't make sense to me is the non-retroactivity. Yes, I understand that presumptively a law is not retroactive unless there is clear language to indicate an intent to be retroactive. But Prop. 8 speaks in terms of "validity." For instance, a racially-restrictive covenant on a property deed is invalid, and therefore it is not presently enforceable, even if it was enforceable back when it was written. Prop. 8 on its face renders any same-sex marriage invalid, regardless of when the license was issued or what governmental body issued it. That was clearly the intent of Prop. 8's authors and of the voters who voted for it.

Besides, about 18,000 same-sex couples in California have marriage licenses that are valid despite Prop. 8 -- licenses that cannot be issued to new same-sex couples who apply for them now. So there are now 36,000 people who hold marriage licenses that they could not get today, and which remain "grandfathered" in place. How is that equal treatment before the law? And how is that showing appropriate deference to the will of the people as expressed through democracy?

Look, I'm going to vote to repeal Prop. 8, and I will argue with great intensity why it should be repealed when that issue comes before the voters. But until then, Prop. 8 is part of the Constitution and I have to protect and defend it whether I like it or not (which I don't) because that's my oath. I don't think the Supremes made the right call in interpreting and applying it. Either strike it down altogether or uphold it altogether. Don't split babies on fundamental rights and basic concepts about government.

Pennsylvania Avenue Story



The best nominee in all the land:
Sonia, Sonia, Sonia, Sonia…
Of all the many judges, the gavel looks best in her hand,
Sonia, Sonia, Sonia, Sonia, Sonia!

I've just met a judge named Sonia,
And suddenly the Supreme Court,
Will get the opposite of Bob Bork,
Thanks to me.

I've just nominated a judge named Sonia,
She saved baseball back when things got really bad,
And the Republicans are all hopping mad,
They know they’ve been had!


She’s Latina and appeals to all my political bases,
She’s not written many opinions on political cases.

Oh, I was always going to nominate Sonia!

She’ll be on the court until at least the twenty-thirties!
Sonia Sotomayor!

Could This Be The Most Awesomest Movie Ever?

May 26, 2009

Big Law News Day

Today, President Obama will announce his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the California Supreme Court will announce its final decision in the Prop. 8 review case. When these things happen, I will be either in or departing from George Bush Intergalactic Airport in Houston, returning from a short trip to visit my Parental Units. Enjoy the legal coverage.

May 20, 2009

Depublished Cases

I hate it when I do a Westlaw search for authority to tell a judge that he has the authority to do what both he and I know perfectly well he has the authority to do -- I get twenty-six depublished cases. Obviously what I'm talking about has been handled by at least twenty-six other courts before this case, yet the appellate courts seem to not want me to be able to refer to something that's a reasonably common practice.

Courts should act in the open and what they do should be public record. If the appellate court is following the rules, then there is no reason to hide that fact. If they are deviating from the rules, that is the foundation for making common law, for judicially crafting exceptions to or modifications of the rules.

Depublished cases represent a threat that the courts will apply laws in one case differently than they do in another. And they are very annoying to counsel who need to refer back to how courts have handled particular situations in the past, and then cannot do so because of the Orwellian depublication rule.

Angry About Atheist Ads

First of all, read this editorial from a thirteen-year-old girl from a villiage about twenty miles from Ottawa. She's articulate, appropriate with her emotion, and demonstrates enough maturity of understanding that others have and are entitled to a point of view different than herself. In that sense, she's already light years ahead of a lot of adults, so good for her.

What motivated this bright young lady to write her local newspaper was the shock of seeing an advertisement on the municipal bus saying "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life." As a Protestant Christian, she felt offended by this:

I certainly would not like it if anyone insults my religion, telling me that my beliefs were wasting my time, and tried to convince me that they were right and I was wrong.

The majority of the people in the world belong to a religion of some sort, and many, like myself, would be greatly offended by ads like this one. What would be the purpose of displaying ads on the public transit system? Are atheists so insecure as to try and gain approval from others, just to assure themselves that what they say is true?

I would greatly prefer if atheists, like any other belief system, would keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves, and leave the buses free for advertisements that would not offend so many people.

While this opinion is articulated by a very young lady, I suspect that it is shared by a large number of religious people (not just Christians although in this case she happens to be one) when they see nonbelievers publicly state that they reject religion.

Clearly, she fails to understand that religious people do exactly what she's complaining about, all the time. They call it "evangelizing." Atheists are supposed to tolerate evangelists, we're supposed to support their right to evangelize and respect their beliefs, no matter how much we disagree with them.

Living in a society where there is a right of free speech means that from time to time, you're going to encounter opinions and statements with which you disagree; your sole remedy is your own ability to articulate a different point of view.

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. It means freedom from the government punishing you for what you say. (This fact appears lost on some fans of Carrie Prejean.) So too with freedom of religion -- if you worship a tortilla chip, chances are good that someone is going to tell you that your theology is misguided. More to the point, you do not have a right to stop them from saying that worshiping a tortilla chip is silly, even if you are offended by that statement.

My big question is, how do you get someone like this to undertstand that "free speech for me, but not for thee," is the opposite of what freedom of speech is really about?

Hat tip to Hemant Mehta.

TL Is Kind Of A Big Deal

I had the great misfortune earlier of seeing a photograph of myself from a few weeks ago taken at a near-profile. Egad.

My girth looked greater than that of Henry VIII at the height of his gouty excesses.

I looked like a human globe topped by a tiny little head with a bad haircut. My size in the picture was positively scary in its roly-polyness. I knew I was heavier than I ought to be but holy crap, why didn't anyone tell me it was that profound? I guess it's an awkward thing to talk about.

When my wife is standing next to me, we must look like Jabba the Hut and Princess Leia.

Okay, maybe not that bad. But it was a pretty significant blow to my ego.

Well, I'm going on a short trip for the next few days so it's kind of useless to try and start any sort of weight loss program right before that. When I get back, though, I need to rededicate myself to an exercise and diet regimen. And maybe look into liposuction.

May 19, 2009

Time To Get Out Some Red Pens

Now, most people, at least in Southern California, were well aware that the Los Angeles Lakers were in the first game of the conference finals, managing a two-point win after a bunch of hard calls. (Whiners will complain that the end-of-game calls went LA's way, and will forget, for instance, the mugging that Derek Fisher took in the third quarter that drew no responses at all from the refs. Or all those missed free throws. But that's another story.)

But a lot of them will be very surprised to learn that we actually had a statewide election today. A series of linked propositions intended to reform the budget process and solve our twenty-one billion dollar deficit. Now, a casual glance at the content of what was going on would have revealed that indeed, the propositions were almost all smoke and mirrors, borrowing from the future and taking away funding locks previously instituted by the voters. Only one proposition -- restricting the ability of Legislators and their staff to receive pay raises in years when the budget is in deficit -- passed.

The margins are convincing in every way.
This, finally, is an issue that "transcends" partisanship -- the voters are saying loud and clear that smoke and mirrors isn't going to cut it. We sent these clowns to Sacramento so they would make the hard choices needed to keep the state running.

They need to start doing that. Because they are now out of increase-the-inputs options. Selling the Cow Palace isn't going to get the job done. They've already raised our taxes to the point that Californians are now the most-taxed people in America. Californians are not under-taxed.

We need to cut our state government down to size. Yes, it's going to suck. But people in the private sector have been taking job cuts, hour reductions, and enduring layoffs for more than a year now, while the state government has continued to grow. It's time for some brass tacks budget cutting. Did I mention it's going to suck? But like putting GM through a Chapter 11 or seizing an over-leveraged bank, it's got to be done.

May 18, 2009

Epic Failure

This company has been advertising on the Yahoo! Sports pages for a couple of weeks now. The advertisements are no more or no less annoying than any others and generally I disregard them because I'm not in the market for a hot young mistress to make all my money evaporate and ruin my marriage. Besides, my wife is pretty hot, so a hot girlfriend on the side would be superfluous.

But, of course, there are men who seem to want that exact sort of thing. And this company claims offer that sort of a connection. So while it's a little bit unseemly, there's apparently money to be made making that sort of thing happen -- all it takes is a lack of shame about what you do for a living.

So I'm reading a story about the Milwaukee Brewers' pitching staff today when the "Seductive Search" advertisement shows up featuring a bit of eye candy, an attractive young woman who -- waitaminute, what the hell is wrong with her lip?

I see two possibilities here. First, maybe she has something like a cleft lip. Now, people who have physical abnormalities like cleft lips should have as much of a shot at getting love and/or sex as anyone else. If the model does in fact have a cleft lip, I wish her well in her pursuit of those things. I'm not criticizing her, I'm criticizing the advertisement. Indeed, the company should not hesitate to include this woman as a potential match for a customer who indicates a willingness to meet her.

My apologies those Readers who have or know people who have cleft lips, but advertisements sell fantasies. A shallow rich dude looking for a pretty young thing is not also looking to stretch his definition of "sexy;" he wants to have his fantasy of a sexually satisfying woman made real via the introduction he's paying the service a pretty penny for. In exchange for that money, he wants someone who he can show off to his male friends and get their instant approval. Unfortunately for people who have cleft lips, means adherence to a particular model of female beauty, of which facial symmetry is a very significant component.

With all that said, I don't think this young lady has a cleft lip. So the second possibility, much more likely in my mind, is that she's biting her lip because someone told her it's winsome and sexy when girls do that -- that it indicates a pensive longing that only the man responding to the advertisement can satisfy. She doesn't look like a pretty girl in a sexy pose to me -- she looks like a pretty girl making a dorky face.

And here's the amazing part: not only the model, but also the photographer, and also the graphic artist who put the ad together, and also the ad seller, all thought that picture was what they were looking for. Out of the surely hundreds of photographs of the model available, this was the one they all chose.

If that's the case, I'm calling this an epic failure.

Book Work

No blog writing yesterday because I decided to spend my computer time on the book project instead. Blogging is fun but the book feels productive, and I settled on a working title, Strict Separation.

I'm trying to avoid the title-followed-by-subtitle format because I think that's been done. If there has be a further description on the cover of the book, that's fine, but for now I prefer a clean, short, snappy title to something like Strict Separation: Four Hundred Years Of Historical And Legal Precedents Relevant To The Separation Of Church And State In The United States of America. I bet a graphic artist can come up with cover art that gets the same idea across while leaving only the title and my name.

May 16, 2009

A Challenge To Intelligent Design Advocates

Congress Wins Big

Elections were held in India yesterday, and the incumbent Congress Party not only remained in power but, somewhat surprisingly, convincingly beat back a challenge by a Hindu nationalist party. The margin of victory is such that Prime Minister Singh has less need of looking to leftist parties for support and will plow ahead with his current policies.

This is nothing but good for India, so far as I can tell. A reversion to ethnic or religious nationalism would be a big step back. Singh's secular, pro-business policies have worked very well; India is rising in every demographic and economic index imaginable.

For the rest of the world, it is a mixed but still generally good result. Singh pulled India out of the non-proliferation treaty to develop nuclear weapons, but seems to have reached something like a cold war with Pakistan, so while the presence of nukes on both sides of a border in Kashmir over which bullets and artillery shells do occasionally fly is disturbing, well, there hasn't been any use of nukes there yet. Which is to say, Singh is sane.

But mainly, a rich, prosperous, and growing India is generally good for the rest of the world because -- as a general rule with lots of exceptions -- a country that is busy making money is generally going to be a force for peace and harmony rather than war and discord, because it is interested in finding good trading partners.

Congratulations to India for making a good choice.

Yglesias Loses All Credibility

Sorry, Matt -- Oprah Winfrey would not make a good Supreme Court Justice. Sure, she has compassion, and yes, she'd be a reliable pro-choice vote. Having a background in the entertainment industry, she may have some understanding of copyright and trademark law. But for all her business acumen, she is ill-prepared to handle the subtleties of admiralty disputes, exclusionary rule challenges, patent claims, and transational jurisdictional issues like forum selection and choice-of-law clauses?

My read of Ms. Winfrey's biography suggests that she has two years of college at Tennessee State University but does not mention any formal education past that. Which is not to say she's unintelligent; quite to the contrary, I'm convinced that she's quite intelligent and if she didn't complete her degree, well, 2.8 billion dollars and a huge media empire later has proven that maybe you don't need to do that in every case. Ms. Winfrey's intelligence is not the issue here. Mr. Yglesias' apparent decision to set his own intelligence aside, and offer this deeply silly suggestion, is the issue.

We're talking about a lifetime appointment to the highest court of the nation here. Let's at least get a lawyer.

Hat tip to David Schraub at Debate Link for the lead to this truly daffy idea.

Kinder, Gentler Military Tribunals

I've never been convinced that military tribunals were the best way to handle terrorists. On the other hand, I've never been convinced that they're not. I am pretty sure that a military tribunal can provide all of the essential elements of due process to a defendant, if it is structured and run properly. I am also pretty sure that no one is going to be satisfied with the President's decision to revert to using military tribunals to provide trials to prisoners suspected of terrorism.

For one thing, it represents a broken campaign promise:
[President Obama] will reject the Military Commissions Act, which allowed the U.S. to circumvent Geneva Conventions in the handling of detainees. He will develop a fair and thorough process based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice to distinguish between those prisoners who should be prosecuted for their crimes, those who can’t be prosecuted but who can be held in a manner consistent with the laws of war, and those who should be released or transferred to their home countries. (Appears on page six of the linked campaign document.)
More importantly, it represents a reversion to a controversial policy of the Bush Administration. The fundamental security-versus-due-process problem remains, whether the President is a Republican or a Democrat.

The fundamental problem deals with due process and the evidence. On the one hand, the information needed to convict some of the bad guys is very sensitive and classified, and cannot be allowed to be made public. But on the other hand, due process requires that all of the evidence relevant to the case be disclosed to the defendant. It also requires that the defendant get his choice of counsel to assist him with that evidence and the procedures. The result is that a lawyer, not of the government's choosing, is going to have to be given access to sensitive, restricted information. That lawyer then becomes a security risk, whatever the results of the tribunal.

According to the WaPo, "The Obama administration’s proposed changes would limit the use of hearsay evidence against detainees, ban evidence gained from cruel treatment and give defendants more latitude to pick their own lawyers." To me, this seems like the worst of both worlds. If we have evidence, and we're giong to have military tribunals to evaluate that evidence, then we should use it. Evidence gained from "cruel treatment" or "harsh interrogation techniques," in my mind, is weaker evidence than that gained in other ways, and a defense attorney can certainly point that out to the finder of fact. Query as to how much of that evidence there is, query as to whether application fo the exclusionary rule will be useful from either a justice or a prosecutorial perspective. Tinkering with the hearsay rule doesn't seem that significant to me one way or another, in the abstract.

What's wrong with the Federal Rules of Evidence, anyway? There are a ton of holes poked in the hearsay rule under the FRE and there is already a procedure in place in Article III courts to deal with motions to exclude evidence under the exclusionary rule. Unfortunately, none of the research I've done has disclosed the nuts-and-bolts differences between these military tribunals and a standard U.S. District Court so it's a little bit difficult for me to opine on how, exactly, the wheel is being reinvented here. I'm sure that I can find out if I dig deeper but I've not done that this morning.

Any lawyer who represents a defendant in one of these things should be able to independently qualify for a security clearance. I was not aware that there were other restrictions on the choice of defense counsel than that, and there should not be any more (or less) restrictions than that.

I'm not perturbed by Obama's decision to break this campaign promise. If I had been an Obama supporter, though, I would be. It's a partial vindication of President Bush. But what I haven't heard, from anyone, is why these kinder and gentler military courts are the way to get us both security and justice.

Beijing Jon Huntsman

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Utah's Governor, Jon Huntsman, came up on the national radar as a potential rival to Barack Obama's eventual re-election bid in 2012. Huntsman is young, competent, articulate, and appears to be able to position himself as acceptable to both social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Sort of.

Obama, in turn, might be looking around to wonder whether he can hold on to his office under these crushing economic circumstances. If he can't turn the economy around, he'll have to absorb the blame. So he would want to make sure that the Republicans don't send someone against him who can take away the perception that he brings more competence and good economic policy to the White House than the Republicans can offer. So he might feel good reason to fear Huntsman. And he found a solution to that problem. Sort of.

President Obama appointed Gov. Huntsman to be his ambassador to China, and Huntsman has accepted. Now, this will give him familiarity with working with Democrats, and the ambassadorship to China would give him huge experience dealing with the most significant set of challenges facing America in the long term. So in terms of making him a good choice to be President, it only helps Huntsman. But of course Republicans will need to be given a very good reason to trust Huntsman ever again after this. He has taken himself out of the running for the 2012 nomination and possibly out of Presidential politics forever.

A clever move by the President, if Huntsman's prowess as a candidate was what the early hype was suggesting. And if that's really the case, I have to wonder why Huntsman would have accepted the appointment. If I were in politics, I'd rather finish out my resume by being President than by being Ambassador to China. Maybe he's counting on the political landscape looking very different in 2016 than it does today -- very different as in a radical restructuring or outright collapse of the Republican Party.

May 15, 2009

Uighur Madness

Stumbling around the net tonight, I came across this bit of propaganda from Newt Gingrich -- he is objecting to the domestic release of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, ethnic Uighurs who would otherwise be returned to the People's Republic of China. His concern is that these guys -- fanatical Muslims, trained as terrorists, and dudes prone to throw televisions across jail cells when they see images of women with bared arms -- are going to be put in suburban homes in Fairfax, Virginia, where they will apparently be expected to get jobs at Kinko's Copies.

Methinks Newt may be exaggerating just a tad here. But he does nevertheless touch on the problem of what to do with the Guantanamo Guys. Because these are by definition, Very Bad Dudes. We wouldn't have taken them to Guantanamo if they were mild-mannered semiotics professors.

So what do we do with them?

In the case of the Uighurs, we can't send them back to the PRC. That's because we know perfectly well that the PRC will collect these guys from us, sign the prisoner transfer papers, assure us with a straight face that no harm will become of them, immediately turn around and harvest their vital organs for spare parts and hard cash, and then tell the U.N. human rights investigators later that records of their incarceration have been "lost." Since we know that, we can't give them up to die, that would be the same thing as executing them ourselves, which we're not going to do because they haven't ever committed any violations of our criminal laws -- they just had atrocious taste in friends.

No one else is going to take them.

And we can't let them simply go free, as Gingrich correctly points out.

It's a bit like having a booger on the finger in public. It's not supposed to be there in the first place. But given that somehow you got a booger on your finger, what do you do with it? There's no kleenex handy. You can't wipe it on your clothes, because then you've got a booger smeared all over your clothes. You can't wipe it on the wall or the chair in front of you, that's just rude and gross. And it's going to take time and trouble, which you may not have, to get rid of the disgusting thing.

The British had a problem like this with Napoleon. Their solution was to put him up in a house on St. Helena, one of the remotest spots on earth, with a Royal Navy ship on constant patrol to prevent unauthorized landings, and supplies dropped off every couple of months or so. He got to bring along his drinking buddies and some girlfriends; he wrote his memoirs; he squabbled with his British minders about riding his horse and took up gardening while French exiles in Texas considered building a primitive submarine to rescue him and try to get him to set up an empire in Argentina. (Seriously, that's what happened to him after Waterloo.)

So I'm thinking, "Alaska." There are surely lots of places up there where they can hunt and fish and find what they need to survive, well out of the way of the civilian population, well out of the ability of their old buddies to come and get them without us knowing what's up, well out of the way of anyplace where they might have to endure the blasphemous sight of women with bare arms. We can set up a Quonset hut for them, fly in or paradrop supplies and survival equipment for them every six months or so, paint an arrow on the ground that points towards Mecca so they can pray, and otherwise leave them to their own devices. Lots of wilderness. Lots of islands. People live up there all year round and survive -- they can, too. Really, what could go wrong in Alaska?

Now, if this were something we were doing as punishment for a crime, I'd say standing them out in the wilderness in Alaska may very well be cruel and unusual punishment. But we're releasing them because they're not criminals, in the technical sense of the word. Just really dangerous dudes that we can reasonably predict will become criminals if given a chance. So the Eighth Amendment doesn't apply; and if they decide they'd rather be latter-day Grizzly Adamses than residents at the Hotel Guantanamo, well, I might make the same deal if I were in their shoes.

I've Had It

The word, people, is "probably."

P - R - O - B - A - B - L - Y

It means "favored by the laws of probability," or in simpler terms, "more likely than not."

The word has two "B"s in it. And only one "L."

It is neither spelled nor pronounced "prolly." Please never say this word out loud.


Someone's Just Plain Lying

Sometimes when I serve as a small claims judge, I get opposing parties telling me things that are simply contradictory. I try to give both of them the benefit of the doubt, understanding that different people sometimes view the same thing in different lights, that people can remember the same event differently and colored by their self-interest, and that conflict can cause people who want to act in good faith to nevertheless distort their own memories.

But when the CIA says "We told Nancy Pelosi in 2003 that we were waterboarding Abu Zubaydah, and she didn't object," and Speaker Pelosi says, "No, the CIA told me that waterboarding was not being used," that's diametrically opposite. At least one of these two parties are just plain lying to the public.

The CIA lacks moral high ground here. They were, after all, torturing a guy. On the other hand, they're coming clean about it now that the information has been declassified. When someone says something against their own self-interest, that tends to be particularly credible testimony.

Speaker Pelosi, however, has effectively stammered about the issue since the news of the briefing came to light. Stammering is a powerful signal that one's questioner has scored a direct hit with the proposition that evoked the stammer. Her denial is self-serving and self-serving statements are the ones that deserve higher degrees of critical examination.

Hard Work Commences With Chrysler (UPDATED)

Chrysler bit the bullet and filed Chapter 11. Now, it has used the power of the Bankruptcy Court to cut through the Gordian knot of myriad state franchise laws protecting and effectively making permanent its ongoing commercial relationships with local dealers. Seven hundred and eighty-nine Chrysler dealerships have had their contracts with Chrysler non-renewed, effectively putting them out of business.

This is a very painful move. That's more than a quarter of all Chrysler dealers around the country. And the dealers are showing their pain by appealing to President Obama to make it stop.

But I hope Obama does not take the bait. The pain involved in the move does not mean that it is not necessary. More than half of these dealers sold less than a hundred cars a year. It costs Chrysler money and opportunity to maintain those franchise relationships. If President Obama is serious about making the American auto industry healthy again, he will let the Bankruptcy Court do its work.

And if he's really serious, he'll prod General Motors into Chapter 11 also. But the bankruptcy-that-isn't-a-bankruptcy GM is going through now is disgraceful, costly to the government, a leech on the public fisc, and to my eyes, not reasonably calculated to get GM moving down a road towards solvency and profitability:
To remake itself outside of court, GM must persuade its bondholders to swap $27 billion in debt for 10 percent of its risky stock. In addition, it must work out deals with its union, announce factory closures, cut or sell brands and shutter dealers. Swapping its bond debt for equity may be its most difficult task. The company is trying to get 90 percent of its bondholders on board for the so-called debt-for-equity swap. A committee representing the bondholders has rejected the swap, saying it unfairly favors the government and the United Auto Workers union. They have counteroffered seeking a 58 percent ownership stake, which the automaker in turn rejected.
Quit pussyfooting around, GM, and bit the bullet. You're not going to get that much of your debt swapped to equity without the hammer. And this represents a 147% dilution of the stock -- if you own $100 worth of GM stock today, and both those deals go though, that stock would then be worth $32 after the debt conversion and putting the union on the board of directors.

I remain skeptical that giving the union a majority stake in this company -- any company -- is a generally poor idea. (That's not to say that employee-owned companies cannot work, but employee-owned is different than union-owned.) Unions work best when they are not in bed with management. When unions capture management, the company gets run into the ground, which is part of the problem that GM is dealing with today and part of how it got to be that the stock is trading at $1.15 a share today.

Don't mistake this for me wanting to see GM be bankrupt. This is me wanting to see GM not be bankrupt anymore. It already is bankrupt and is using its political leverage to deal with that in a way that doesn't involve resort to the rules of bankruptcy. But there are rules to the game, the rules work, and the point of the process is not to be broke but rather to get to a point where profit can be made again and shareholders can regain the value which they've lost so precipitously over the past several years. Chrysler is taking a big step towards getting to that goal. And the longer GM waits to begin the process, the longer it will be until it gets out of it.

UPDATE: GM announced today that it will not renew franchises with about 1,100 dealers -- 18% of its network, responsible for 7% of its sales. Between the GM and Chrysler announcements, that's almost 2,000 auto dealerships, representing something like 150,000 jobs gone. Like I said this morning, painful. But no doubt necessary. My question remains, though -- why does Chrysler have to do this in a Chapter 11 scenario while GM gets to do it without judicial supervision?

Unintentional Irony

From a blog comment about workplace proselytization:
Over Christmas one of my coworkers took a kitsch Santa hat with “Santa is Coming” embroidered on it and taped “Jesus” over the “Santa”.
The irony no doubt went right over her head.

May 14, 2009

Kid Chooses Prom Over Graduation

Seventeen-year-old Tyler Frost went to a Baptist high school in Findlay, Ohio. He has a girlfriend who goes to the local public high school. Tyler wanted to go to his girlfriend's prom, but the religious types who run the school said that would be a violation of the school's moral code which forbids dancing and rock music. They weren't going to withhold Tyler's diploma, which he'd already earned, but decided that if he went to the dance, he wouldn't be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony.

Tyler made the right choice. He went to prom with his girlfriend. Good for him.

I've seen the story floating around the Intertubes all week, but I finally found a story with what appears to be a picture of the young lovers, which makes it a little bit more interesting.

Fifty Seven States

I wrote earlier today–facetiously–about California solving its budget problems by abdicating its statehood and reverting to territorial status, thereby punting the whole budget mess out to Washington. A very silly idea.


If that happened, I rather doubt that California would return to statehood in its current form. The state is extremely large but would lack political power during its territorial period. It would be up to the representatives of the other forty-nine (or fifty-four, see below) states to decide what to do with California. And it’s pretty clear to me that those people would rather see California not be such a big state, concentrate so much political and economic power in one container, and oh by the way, prove itself so utterly unable to govern itself that it had to revert to territorial status.

So there would be no second Organic Act for California. California, in its current form, would cease to exist, and instead would likely be spun off into new states. There are no rules to guide how Congress would do this, only its own political judgment. I posit that under these circumstances, California would be broken up into three states. There is no rule to say the states must be equal in population, geographic size, or anything else. The most important consideration in setting up the new borders for the new states would be the political advantage of those drawing the lines. Which means Democrats, since they have a decisive majority in Congress (a little less so without California's delegation but still more than enough to have their way).

Now, the goal to gerrymandering is to identify geographic areas and how they'll vote so as to produce a lot of districts that favor your party by comfortable but not overwhelming margins. You do that by isolating very strong majorities of the other party in just a few areas.

So let's say for simplicity's sake that you had a state that had 1,000,000 Democrats and 1,000,000 Republicans. And you have to divide up the whole state into ten districts. If you were going to play fair, you'd draw the lines so that each district had 100,000 Democrats and 100,000 Republicans. But, you can guarantee a huge majority for your side (we'll stick with Democrats drawing the lines in this example) if you can draw the district lines and get a result like this:

in District
in District

Voila! Ten districts, of 200,000 voters each. But despite exactly equal partisan distribution across the whole state, we would expect that barring very unusual circumstances, this setup will reliably produce a delegation of 8 Democrats and 2 Republicans. The Republicans will appear to be hugely popular with their districts, and the Democrats will tend to be elected with an average of 60% of the vote. But no one cares about the margins when all you need is 50% plus one to win.

The trick is to figure out how to draw the geographic lines which will produce something approximating the above result. Now, it's a challenge if you've got roughly equal partisan distribution. It gets much easier when there are actually more Democrats than there are Republicans in the state, as in:

in District
in District

This is mixed up a little bit more, but overall it represents an 8% advantage for the Democrats, which isn't very much. California Democrats currently enjoy a 13.38% registration advantage over California Republicans. But even in this 8% advantage scenario, we'll get the same result -- 8 Democrats and 2 Republicans. It might be possible to eke out a 9-1 advantage, although that runs the risk of creating a 7-3 outcome.

Almost as importantly, the presence of a registration cushion will likely enable the gerrymanderer to create boundaries that look a little more "natural" on a map -- the various districts can have some semblance of geographic cohesiveness. The rule is that the districts have to be contiguous, but that doesn't mean they have to make a ton of sense geographically. (Consider, for instance, Arizona's 2nd Congressional District, or Illinois' 4th Congressional District.) But putting together a distrist that makes sense geographically is important if you want to appear to be fair even while you're busy effectively disenfranchising the voters by eliminating the possibility of competitive elections with meaningful choices between candidates.

So if I were carving up California into three states, with the explicit goal in mind of benefit ting Democrats in this fashion -- and I had the added flexibility of not having to produce three new states of equal population, how would I do it?

Basically, the broad rule of thumb in California goes that Democrats are strong in urban areas and near the coasts. In times past, San Diego and Orange County were unassailable Republican strongholds but demographic and economic shift has rendered those areas competitive. Republicans in California are generally strong in the inland areas, but again, demographic shift and a consciousness of the importance of government in supplying water has allowed Democrats to make inroads in the vast San Joaquin Valley. So, a clever Democrat would want to make sure that a major urban area was in each state (and to site the capital in that city), and that there is enough coastal or urban population to keep the state as a whole in play during every election.

If you look at county maps, you’ll see a nearly straight east-west line made up of the northern borders of San Luis Obispo, Kern, and San Bernardino counties. That's a pretty convenient starting point -- let's say that everything below that would one of the new California Spinoff States, which for discussion purposes I’ll call California del Sur. Then, let's split up the rest of the state along the ridge of the Coastal Range, separating the coastal and Bay regions (which I'll call “Alta California” for now) from the Central Valley and Sierra regions. Let's call that third state “Sierra California” or maybe just “Sierra” with the idea that it would colloquialize as “Sierra State” much the same way Washington is called “Washington State” from time to time.

Now, from that basic skeleton, what political results would play out, and therefore how do you tweak the scenario for the favored political party's short- and medium-term advantage? The goal is increasing the Democrats' majority in the Senate and having as many governors be Democrats as possible, so as to groom good Presidential candidates and, um, you know, control stuff.

The capital of California del Sur would be Los Angeles. California del Sur would be dominated politically by Democrats in the Los Angeles area, supported by other urbanized areas in San Bernardino/Riverside and divided urban-suburban areas like San Diego and Orange County. Democrats would have a healthy but not overpowering electoral advantage in California del Sur, which would likely elect a Democratic Governor and two Democratic Senators.

What I’m calling Alta California would be a hugely Democratic state. Its capital would be San Francisco, and it would be a very bad place to be a Republican. That much concentrated Democratic voting power in one of the three blocs would seem to be a mistake, until you remember that Democrats would be more than competitive in California del Sur.

Which leaves Sierra. Sierra’s capital would be Sacramento, I expect, although plausible cases could be made for Stockton or Fresno. (Not Bakersfield, I've deliberately gerrymandered very Republican Kern County into California del Sur where its Republican votes will be swamped by Los Angeles' more Democratic votes.) But, if I were doing this to maximize Democratic advantage, I’d be concerned about Republicans in Sierra becoming too strong and actually electing officials in numbers of consequence, so I’d push a few more Democrat-friendly areas into that state – mainly, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties, and probably I’d throw in Trinity County too, to make it easy. This would leave Sierra State as something of a swing state. It might split its Senate seats between a Democrat and a Republican, but would probably produce a Democratic governor, at least the first time out in 2012 or 2014.

Now, sure, there would be lots of interesting questions that would need to get worked out. Water-sharing, for instance. But these are things that would get worked out. Or we could move Inyo and Mono Counties into California del Sur, so the state with the most population would also have the eastern Sierra watershed; it would leave the much more productive western Sierra watershed in Sierra State for agriculture.

You know, if I were a master Democrat doing this, I'd probably be willing to send those mostly-Republican areas to California del Sur since they aren't populous enough to swing the state to the Republicans under currently-foreseeable political conditions.

And of course, there's no particular reason to respect county lines in the first place; it's just that existing county lines provide a convenient way to subdivide the territory. The big-time policy wonks have these things mapped out down to the precinct level on their computers.

Anyway, that's my initial take on how Democrats would carve California into three new states, if they were to be given the opportunity to do so.

Now, as long as we’re looking at breaking up states, let’s look deep in the heart of Texas. Actually, we don’t have to because Nate Silver already did this a few weeks ago. Now, I don’t like the names he picked for the new states; I’d have called the New Spinoff Texas States “Rio Grande,” “Houston,” and “Dallas” (although I kind of like his triple-entendre name of “Trinity” for that state) and I'd suggest calling the other two “East Texas” and “West Texas.”

Oh, that's not very original, you say? Well, there's lots of pride invested in the name Texas, so I doubt most Texans would part with it gladly even as they exercised their unique right to voluntarily subdivide their state. And names like "Tornado Alley South" or "The Badlands" probably wouldn't be too popular with the residents of what I'm calling "West Texas."

In Silver's scenario, East Texas would be a swing state, West Texas, Dallas, and Houston would be reliably Republican, and Rio Grande would be reliably Democratic. Again, current political circumstances being what they are, swing states are reasonably good for Democrats now. I don’t see any way to carve up Texas into five states that produces a net benefit for Democrats. Let’s call it four Democratic and six Republican Senators, and three Republican and two Democratic governors emerging from this. Republicans in Texas have been agitating in this vein for several months now, I guess because they think this would result in an advantage for them.

Within the admittedly silly boundaries of this thought experiment, Silver's scenario is not unrealistic because Texas is controlled by Republicans and they wouldn't agree to break up the state unless they could get some political advantage to themselves out of the deal.

And, since we’re redrawing the map to the Democrats’ advantage, let’s just go ahead and make the District of Columbia a full-fledged State. The Constitution does not require that the seat of government be in a district outside of a state and in fact the seat of government was in Philadelphia and New York until the late 1790’s, so we know we can have the seat of government in a state if we want it there. Obviously, the new state of Columbia would be the most densely Democratic state in the Union.

What’s the net result? Where now we have two states and one territory with two Republican governors, and evenly-split senate representation, we’d wind up with nine states, with six of those nine Governors being Democrats, and the Senate balance of power shifting from 60-40 now to 69-45. It's only a half a percentage point of increased control, but still a net gain for the Democrats. More importantly, it makes it easier for Democrats to elect Presidents, because that's how votes in the Electoral College are allocated. And the greater number of Democratic governors increases the talent pool from which those Presidential candidates can be recruited.

Notice that in this thought experiment I have not considered 1) whether better policy and government would emerge from the new, smaller states, or 2) what Republicans would have to say about any of this. Those matters are simply irrelevant to the political calculus.

If I were seriously considering a good way to subdivide California along lines that made sense geographically and economically, or to favor Republicans or even just be fair to both parties, I'd draw the lines differently than this. And while this has sure been fun, it doesn't mean I think it's a good idea at all. I like having California be such a big state -- I just wish our Legislature weren't so captured by iron triangles of corruption.

But it would make President Obama’s campaign pledge to appeal to all 57 states for political support become possible!

Marriage Update From New Hampshire

New Hampshire is on the verge of becoming the sixth state to adopt same-sex marriage. The Governor has indicated a pass-or-veto message and is apparently returning the bill to the Legislature. I'm not sure if that state's Constitution gives him the power to do what he's doing, but I'll assume that it does. His message on the bill is that he believe he has to balance the religious liberties of people who object to same-sex marriage with the civil liberties of those who wish to get married to their same-sex partners.

So he's splitting the baby. In essence, he will sign the same-sex marriage bill into law if the Legislature adds on language that exempts churches, facilities owned or controlled by churches, or facilities owned or controlled by "fraternal organizations" like the VFW or the Lion's Club to exclude same-sex ceremonies if they choose to do so. If the Legislature does not do so, he will veto the bill.

I'm not hugely fond of the idea of carving out exceptions to anti-discrimination laws just because the discrimination at issue is cloaked in religion. But I'm also not hugely fond of the idea of the state telling a religious group what rituals it can, cannot, or must perform. Religion should be voluntary and the state should not participate in it.

I were going to be married and a particular church or organization made plain that it did not approve of my marriage, I wouldn't want my marriage to have anything to do with that organization anyway. I know -- I was not married in a Catholic church and had no desire to be. Part of the reason for that was that I knew that the Church wouldn't have blessed my marriage because of its prohibition against divorce. If it would have, I might have tried to have the wedding in an RCC church to please some members of my family who would have liked that. But it wasn't going to happen, so it wasn't ever an issue for me.

But then again, I'm not religious, so maybe that's easy for me to say. So I have to imagine what it would be like, not only to be gay but also to be religious. And as best I can imagine, if I were gay and I was religious and my fiance was religious too, I imagine we would have found a gay-friendly church that would have voluntarily married us by the time we were able to legally tie the knot so this proposed exception to the state antidiscrimination laws would not be in play.

So on balance, the amendment seems benign. And it appears that the Legislature will indeed take up the Governor on his offer to amend the bill and extend marriage equality to all adults in New Hampshire. Should that happen, there will be six states with full-fledged marriage rights for same-sex couples, representing about 5.3% of all American citizens. Those marriage licenses are also valid in New York and D.C., expanding the right to cover about 12% of all Americans. If you include states with civil unions and domestic partnerships, the number increases to just shy of a third of us moving towards equal rights in this area.

The ball is rolling. In twenty years, people are going to look back on this debate and wonder why it was a debate at all.

Prison Sales, Welfare Scams, and Territorial Reversion

Apparently, the Governator will today propose selling San Quentin State Prison. And the Los Angeles Colosseum, and the Cow Palace, and a few other choice properties owned by the state. All in the hopes of generating up to a billion dollars of bonus revenue.

I wrote ten months ago that this is a bad idea. I still think it is. Seems to me that the state is simply not being creative enough with those properties to generate revenue from them. Granted, using property to incarcerate and kill criminals is about the worst kind of way to make money with it, so a repurposing of the famous prison might be in order.

But other sports arenas and concert venues and convention centers are run profitably. There is no reason the Cal Expo in Sacramento cannot be. There is no reason that the Agnews Developmental Center, 81 acres of prime space in San Jose, could not be converted into condominiums, for instance, and even preserving the historic look of the place, although if anyone had spent any time there, chances their memories of it are likely unpleasant. Or a shopping center and farmer's market (back in the 1920's there was a farmer's market run out of what was then called the Angews Insane Asylum).

These are properties that could -- and in private hands will -- generate a positive income stream if exploited correctly. In July, I thought that the amount of money that the state would get in exchange for parting with these unique and valuable pieces of real estate would be insufficient to solve our budget problems and represent a loss of unique opportunities to generate revenue. Given that a) the economic storm appears to be lightening a little bit, and b) the state's budget crisis is half again as bad as it was a year ago, I don't see any reason why I should change my mind.

We're twenty one and a half billion dollars short, folks. The state's credit rating is as low as it can get. The budget-reshuffling propositions next Tuesday are going to fail. And we've already raised state taxes beyond a comfortable or even justifiable level. That leaves us with two options.

One is to make painful budget cuts and have less government, which I suggested we do last year.

The other would be to forfeit statehood and allow California to revert to being Federal territory, to make the whole thing Washington's problem. Of course, we'd lose our delegation to Congress in the process and therefore be at the mercy of representatives of other states in solving these financial problems.

Lest Readers mistake what they read here for serious policy proposals: I'm not serious about giving up statehood; that was a facetious remark. I'm not sure that such a thing is even possible.
If you wanted to talk about really bad ideas, that's a whopper. Makes selling the Del Mar Fairgrounds look like a wrong answer in a trivia game by comparison. No, my serious proposal is that we make budget cuts.

The only area where that can conceivably be done is in the sphere of social welfare programs. Our roads are already falling apart. Our prisons are already overcrowded.* Our schools are already stretched to their limit. So that means that, for instance, we need to take a very serious look at the "home health care workers" paid by the state to be caretakers for disabled people.

Now, if you don't know about this racket, chances are good you'll be outraged. Let's take a hypothetical state of the USA other than California and call it, I don't know, "Tennessee" for discussion purposes. If you live in Tennessee and your parents or grandparents become ill or disabled or just plain old and unable to move around and take care of themselves as well as they cold back when they were in their forties and healthy, you can do any of a number of things with them. For instance, you might find an assisted-living facility for them where they can have nursing care on call and professional staff to help them with things that they can't do. Or, if you can't afford that, or can't find such a facility that is acceptable, you could take them into your own home and care for them yourself. It's a strain and a sacrifice, but it's also giving back to a parent you love who raised you, and you probably would consider that sort of thing to be your responsibility as part of a family.

In California, if you couldn't afford to pay for assisted living for your invalid relative, you'd do the same thing -- take them into your own home and care for them yourself. Only here, it's not something you'd do gratuitously, as part of your sense of responsibility to your family. No, here, you'd become a state employee first. California will pay you at least two and a half times the minimum wage as a full-time employee to do something that you already had a responsibility to do on your own. And the state will make you join the Service Employees International Union to do it, too, withholding part of the money from your state paycheck for your union dues. Which the SEIU will turn around and use to make political contributions to the Obama for President campaign.

So when it comes time to talk about budget cuts in California, SEIU will pull its strings in the White House and make damn sure that you, a protected, unionized employee of the State of California being paid to do something that you'd do for free in Tennessee because it's your responsibility to do it, will not have to give up a "job" that costs the taxpayers more than forty thousand dollars a year for people who do it, or even endure the indignity of a pay cut.

Now, this isn't "welfare" in the classic sense of general relief payments or unemployment insurance benefits. This is state employment. I shared a client with another lawyer many years ago, and our guy was in this system. "His job is getting paid to wiping his mama's butt," is how my colleague described it. I'm pretty sure that the dude supplemented this income with, shall we say, unlicensed but highly entrepreneurial retail activities, but that's another story.

If you're not outraged by this, you haven't been paying attention. Go back and read the previous four paragraphs of this post again. Read the linked article from the Fish Wrapper. Then you'll have a sense of why it is that Governator Schwarzenegger would rather sell off the Orange County Fairgrounds than make a budget cut -- this is how entrenched the special interests have become in Sacramento.

It's the same thing with a whole bunch of other places, too -- compare how much a prison guard makes in California to Tennessee. Even adjusting for the cost of living differential, you'll be shocked. And then you'll be despondent to realize just how impotent Sacramento has made itself to do anything about it.

The teacher's union has huge power, too. The Fish Wrapper did a series of stories recently about how difficult it is to fire a teacher at a public school. It's become cheaper to pay bad teachers to sit in empty rooms doing crossword puzzles until they get 100% benefits on retirement than it is to try and fire them.

That's why I'm talking about budget cuts as "painful." But it has to be done because we are out of other options. When we've reached the point that we'd rather sell off a billion dollars' worth of unique and potentially income-generating assets to make up 4% of our budget shortfall than make these kinds of cuts, it's gone too far. I'm on the verge of saying "burn it all down and start over from scratch."

* We could relieve some of that pressure by decriminalizing drugs. But I wrote about that earlier this morning already.

Curveballs, Demonstrated

Physicists, armed with high-speed cameras and lasers and stuff, say, "It looks like a curve ball, but the ball's trajectory is, actually straight."

Pitchers and batters both insist, "No way, the damn thing curves."

Here's a demonstration of why the scientists are right -- which doesn't change the fact that the Dodgers are 2-4 without Manny the Roid.

Decriminalization Data

Decriminalizing hard drugs -- not legalizing them but simply declining to prosecute users and retail-level sellers -- has produced a decline in the amount of drug use and a fantastic easing of financial, ethical, and legal pressures on the Portuguese criminal justice system.

You can't plot a curve from one point but the example is very instructive. We need to have a serious policy discussion in this country about decriminalization of drugs.

God WIll Provide And He Has A Plan

Tinyfrog gives an example of how callous and uncaring nature really is. There are crater lakes in Africa which, by accident of their altitude, geographic situs in calderas, and the geology below them, trap immense amounts of pure gaseous carbon dioxide, which periodically burst to the surface of the lake and release tens of thousands of tons of this gas into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is heavier than the nitrogen-oxygen-other stuff mix we call "air" and therefore flows along the ground until it disperses. Since most animals, including humans, cannot breathe oxygen, they find themselves blanketed by a flood of carbon dioxide.

This has to be an absolutely horrible way to die. Carbon dioxide is colorless and odorless. You're just walking along outside, enjoying a beautiful day, when suddenly the air around you no longer nourishes your lungs. Instead, it suffocates you. The more you gasp, the more poison you're forcing into your body, until you pass out and asphyxiate to death. Drowning while above ground. And then it passes, and when people come by later, they see you're dead but without advanced forensics, there's no way to figure out how it happened.

Holy crap, no wonder people in that area beileve in evil spirits and demons.

The answer, though, is not religion. It is not prayers to appease the evil spirits and demons. It is not faith in a sky god. The answer is science. Drill holes and plant pipes to the bottom of the lake, to vent the carbon dioxide. No bubbles of the gas builds up, then, because it's always being vented in small, effectively harmless amounts. Once again, education and science provide the approach that provides an effective solution to a problem and saves lives; religion would obscure the truth, permit the problem to persist, at a cost of unknowable amounts of death.

May 13, 2009

I Must Be Missing Something About Shaving

The Wife likes it when I'm clean-shaven. I kind of enjoyed having a mustache and goatee, but she's the one who has to kiss me so I scrape off the facial hair and almost every day. It grows in pretty good during the day; I can notice the stubble emerging fom my cheeks about ten hours after a morning shave.

Now, some men get really particular about their shave. Perhaps none more so than Vodkapundit, who -- despite being only a few years older than me -- has apparently used a substantial fraction of his life experimenting with a variety of products, blades, and techniques to get the shave he likes. He starts with a steam, then a pre-shave oil, then Taylor's cream soap lather made in a small bowl spread on the beard with a badger-hair brush, and then either a straight razor or a Merkur brand double-edged razor manufactured in Solignen, Germany used slowly to slice the hairs, followed by a careful face-washing after the shave is done.

Me, when I'm not in a hurry, I do use a brush and bowl to generate lather. Trader Joe's makes a perfectly fine liquid shave soap. My Gillette Fusion five-blade cartridge head lasts me about two weeks; I'm not particularly loyal to that brand, I just like a razor blade with a swivelling head.

And when I was in a hurry yesterday morning so I gave myself a dry shave before my morning shower. Didn't notice any significant difference in the result. No hot water? That sucks, but it doesn't make that much of a difference to me, in terms of discomfort or result.

This leaves me thinking that Vodkapundit, despite being an incisive and well-connected blog writer, is something of a wimp when it comes to chin-cleaning.

But then I remembered two things. First, maybe my whiskers are just plain not as thick or stubborn as Vodkapundit's, and second, other men seem to be shaving wimps too. One of my buddies out here complains that if he uses an electric razor, his face is red and bumpy for days and the pain of using the device is almost more than he can bear. Whenever I've used an electric on a day's worth of growth, I've barely noticed any sensation at all; my complaint is generally that the stubble starts growing in only a few hours later. But there's no pain in the act of rubbing the device all over my face.

So is my friend, like Vodkapundit, just a shaving wimp? Or do I just have an extraordinary tolerance for razor burn on my face? I doubt it; I've not noticed that my pain tolerance is particularly high in other arenas of life. Do I have unusually slender whiskers? Shaving seems pretty easy and painless to me without that big elaborate ritual.

And a cursory survey of the Intertubes reveals that I seem to be in the distinct minority here. So fellahs, tell me what I'm missing here -- why is this shaving thing such a big deal to you all?

(Images shamelessly hotlinked from Free the Gnomes. I've no idea where he got them.)