Monday, June 27, 2005


Eminent Domain Decision

The Supreme Court has decided that New London, Connecticut can use eminent domain to take the property of private land owners to create a zone of businesses and high-rent condominiums for the purpose of improving the economic condition of the city. It's a controversial decision. Many cities are strapped for cash. Mayors and city councils look desperately for ways of increasing tax revenue. Especially in a city with a large fraction of its residents unemployed or underemployed, there is a need for such city services as additional police, homeless shelters, make-work jobs, extra funding for hospital emergency services (where poor or unemployed and uninsured people obtain health care), and others.

The purpose of the eminent domain procedure in New London was to take property from owners who pay low taxes and give it to owners who will pay high taxes. How can we blame a city for such action? Cities and other local government agencies are limited in the ways in which they can raise money. This limit was made more severe after the famous "tax revolt" of the 1980's that reduced the revenue a city could obtain from property taxes. The taking of property in New London is a consequence of the restrictions that we, the people, have placed on the ability of cities to raise revenue through taxation.

We may not like the implications of the New London decision. Our homes are subject to being taken to be used for a more lucrative purpose. But, this is something we have brought on ourselves.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Fixing Facts to Fit the Policy

We know that Bush and Company adjusted the intelligence estimates (fixed the facts) to justify the War against Iraq. They’re also fixing the facts to justify the goal of eliminating Social Security.

The conservatives’ goal is to eliminate Social Security as a government guaranteed benefit. Their belief is that people should take care of themselves and not depend on government to support them in retirement.

Facts: The payroll tax provides more income than what is needed to pay current benefits. The extra money is invested in government bonds. The Social Security Administration holds the bonds. The Treasury puts the money into the general fund. Those bonds are an obligation for the government, at some time in the future, to buy them back. At some date, probably in the year 2017, the payroll tax will just pay benefits. After that the Social Security Administration will start cashing in the bonds to provide the extra money. Eventually, the bonds will be all gone, probably some time around 2040.

Fixing the Facts: The year 2040 is too far in the future to qualify as a source of a crisis that needs to be dealt with during Bush’s term of office. Therefore, the Social Security System must be made to run out of money sooner, much sooner.

Action to Fix the Facts: One plan, newly proposed, is to use the surplus (i.e., the bonds in the Social Security Trust Fund) to pay for individual retirement accounts. In that way, the system will run out of sufficient funds to pay all benefits in 2017, not 2040. That’s soon enough to create a crisis that must be dealt with now.

Dealing with the Crisis: Several things may happen. The happiest outcome for workers who depend on Social Security is that the present scheme of guaranteed benefits continues in effect with no decrease in benefits. In addition, workers are given individual retirement accounts to use to supplement the guaranteed benefits. That will not happen as long as the present Conservative Republican coalition controls both Congress and the White House. What is more likely is that the guaranteed benefit part of Social Security will be allowed to expire and be replaced by savings accounts. This result will please the conservative ideologues who believe that each person should take responsibility for his or her own retirement and not depend on government.

Friday, June 24, 2005


House Votes to Restore Funding for CPB

I have had a worrisome week. A House of Representatives committee voted to remove one hundred million dollars in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Fortunately a whole lot of people wrote, phoned, faxed, and e-mailed their Representatives to demand that the funding be restored. It was. But, because of “budget constraints,” the hundred million will be take out of other programs. None will come out of the Defense Budget, of course.

I heard the term “budget constraint” and wanted to scream. The budget constraint is a completely artificial thing, introduced by George Bush in the form of tax cuts for wealthy taxpayers. If the tax rates were put back to what they were just before Bush took office, there would be no “budget constraint.”

We were warned years ago that if Republicans ever got their way, they would try to starve government so that it wouldn’t have money to pay for Social Security, Medicare, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and other programs that don’t benefit the wealthy supporters of the GOP. Smaller Government is the slogan. The policy would be applied also to local governments. A big step in that direction was the “tax revolt” of the the 1980’s. Californians passed Proposition 13 that drastically reduced property taxes and consequently the revenue available to local governments to provide good schools, adequate policing, adequate fire protection, adequate hospitals, and other useful services. The chief proponent of Proposition 13, Howard Jarvis, argued that government shouldn’t provide free libraries for the public.

We’ve put the Republicans in charge of the federal government and we’re getting what we deserve.

Friday, June 17, 2005


Who are more stoical, Men or Women?

This question occurred to me recently when I thought about an elderly woman I know slightly. She suffers from arthritis, has some dementia, and has very few teeth left. A few months ago I learned that her children, worried about the effect her poor teeth might have on her if they caused her jaw to become infected, had all the remaining teeth in her lower jaw removed. The plan was then to have her fitted with a partial, or "lower plate," as we used to call them.

However, the plan came to naught. She refused to wear a partial. She said that dentists had made partials for her before and none of them felt comfortable enough to use for chewing. So, no lower plate.

She lives with one of her children. I know this person, a middle-aged woman, fairly well. We meet regularly in a political club that we both belong to. She tells me that her mother can't chew any solid food any more. She used to like spare ribs, barbecued ribs, beef steak, and several kinds of fish. All she can do now is take the piece of meat into her mouth, gum it for a while to enjoy the taste and texture, then spit it out. She gets her nourishment from food that she doesn't have to chew, like milk shakes and bottles of Ensure, or things that she can mush up in her mouth with her tongue, like sofu and scrambled egg and oatmeal.

My friend tells me that her mother never complains. My friend feels a bit guilty about having agreed to have her mother's lower teeth removed, although I try to convince her she doesn't need to. She hadn't known before about her mother's attitude toward wearing partial plates. I tell her to let her mother enjoy as much as she can, continuing to enjoy the taste and texture of her favorite foods even though she can't injest them.

I keep wondering. What if it were an aged father, not a mother, who had lost the ability to chew favorite foods? The mother does not complain about her situation but remains optimistic. Aside from her chewing problem, she enjoys good health. I suspect the aged father would be likely to complain about how his children had robbed him of his ability to chew. Unfortunately, this essay is deficient. I don't have in mind an example of a man in such a situation, and so I am unable to make a judgment as to whether men or women are more stoical and more inclined to enjoy what few pleasures they still have and not complain about their losses.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Two Visions for California

We have a problem in California. The State has a structural deficit. There is a mismatch between income (from taxes) and outgo (services to the people). Republicans and Democrats have different ideas or visions for correcting the problem.

Our governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a Republican. His vision is the Republican vision. The State spends more money than it takes in. Therefore, the spending must be reduced.

We Democrats have a different vision. The State doesn’t take in enough money to provide all the services that the people expect. Schools are being short-changed. County health care systems are being short-changed. We believe that the State’s income should be increased.

There, you have it. We Democrats regard Republicans as stingy Scrooges or Grinches who are more willing to starve public schools and hospitals than increase the taxes on their wealthy supporters. Republicans regard us Democrats as reckless spenders, who want to extract money from frugal folks to reward greedy unions and other special interest groups that vote Democratic.

If these two visions could be presented in an unbiased way to the public to choose between them, I believe that, since we Democrats outnumber Republicans in the State, the Democratic vision would prevail. However, during the years since I moved to California (in 1955), several changes have been made in the way that California operates. These changes make it almost impossible to present these two views fairly to the California voters.

A measure that made a big change was Proposition 13. It required the State Legislature to pass budgets and taxes by a 2/3 vote rather than a simple majority. It also required local governments to pass most taxes by a 2/3 vote of the people, rather than a simple majority. This 2/3 vote requirement gives the stingy Scrooges and Grinches an edge in determining State policy. Even though they are in the minority, Republicans are able to impose their vision on the State. Proposition 13 was supported by voters who feared that the rapid rise in real estate prices and the accompanying rapid rise in the ad valorem property tax would force them out of their homes. It was promoted by a group whose first allegiance was to landlords and businesses who were also bothered by the rapid increase in the tax on real estate.

Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected by voters who were tired of the seeming gridlock in State government. They were tired of a government that resorted to selling bonds to pay expenses rather than increase taxes. The Republicans in the Legislature were able to block any move to increase the income tax, which would increase the taxes paid by their wealthy supporters. The annual tax or fee for obtaining license plates for cars had been reduced a few years earlier with the provision that it could be restored if State revenues fell. The Governor at the time had restored this tax. Mr. Schwarzenegger attracted some voters by his promise to rescind the restoration. He won and did so.

I for one am very sorry and also very angry that Mr. Schwarzenegger has not chosen to use his influence as a celebrity to persuade Californians to vote for measures that would cure some of the more serious problems in California’s governance and finance. Instead of relaxing the constraints that hobble the legislature, he proposes simply to give more power to the governor and to enact legislation by initiative. Instead of accepting the fact that California’s schools and hospitals are under funded, he proposes a constitutional limit on how much money for all purposes the legislature can appropriate.

Shortly after he was elected, there was an election in which several important propositions were put to the voters. One of them would have rolled back the Proposition 13 requirement of a 2/3 vote in the Legislature to a 55 percent or 11/20 majority for passing budgets and taxes. The new Governor opposed it. He wasn’t interested in freeing the Legislature of a serious restriction on its ability to work efficiently. As it turns out, he was interested in making the Legislature an even weaker body. He advocated a return to the part-time Legislature that the State had at one time.

What would Mr. Schwarzenegger have done if the Republicans had majorities in the State Senate and Assembly? What if it was a minority of Democrats that were using the 2/3 vote requirement to stymie his proposals? I suspect he would have eagerly supported the change from 2/3 to something close to a majority for passing budgets and taxes.

So much for the fond notion that a celebrity without previous political experience will provide fair, balanced, and non-partisan leadership for the State. Phooey!

Tuesday, June 07, 2005



Arnold Schwarzenegger bugs me. He became Governor of California full of promise to be not just like the politicians who had been running the State, but to get things done and get the State out of the financial hole it’s been digging itself into for several years. The promise to be “not just another politician” now seems very hollow. He sounds more and more every day like just another Republican politician whose vision for the State is to reduce taxes and State spending, get rid of regulations that bother business people, trash labor unions, get rid of guaranteed pensions for retired State employees, and, as “governator,” increase his own power and reduce that of the legislature. He’s Pete Wilson with a happy face.

So, why should I care? I am retired with a comfortable retirement income. Mr. Schwarzenegger is much younger than I and will probably outlive me. Why should I let him bug me?

I take cold comfort in an old saying, that the people get the government they deserve, not the government they want. I might add to that, in the case of California at least, the people don’t get the government they need. And here’s what really bugs me about Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has fame, celebrity, charisma, and a personal fortune. He can live well without the governor’s generous salary. He has a chance to tell the people of California what they need to hear and make some useful changes in the way the State is run. The people don’t need to hear that taxes are too high. They need to hear that if they expect good and adequate services from their State and local governments they should accept the taxes that are needed to provide them. They don’t need to hear that they have a dysfunctional legislature. They need to hear what has to be done to enable the legislature to function well. They need to hear that the 2/3 majority required for the legislature to pass a budget or enact a tax should be changed to bring California in line with most of the other fifty States.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has the ability and the chance to tell the people of California what they should hear, even though they don’t like it. It bugs me that he won’t do it. Instead, he simply tries to impose an unpopular Republican economic and social reform on the State.

So be it. California’s people are getting what they deserve. They elected him.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


The Uncertainty Principle in Human Affairs

Most of you have heard about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which relates to very small physical systems, such as the cloud of electrons that surround an atom. According to the Principal, one can not simultaneously measure the position and the velocity (or momentum) of an electron, or of any other particle, such as a proton, neutron, or meson. There is some uncertainty in how accurately we can measure either parameter, and the product of the uncertainties is always at least as great as Planck's Constant (h).

There is an uncertainty in many human endeavors. I have thought of a few examples:

(A) Not long ago my telephone went dead. There was no dial tone. I could not call anyone, and noone could call me. I had to go to a neighbor to phone the telephone company and try to have the problem corrected. I was phone-less for about three days. Eventually I received a phone call from a telephone technician. He had found the problem in a junction box a few blocks from my house. Contacts had corroded and opened up. One other person and myself were affected. He had replaced the contacts and was phoning me to let me know that I again was connected to the world by telephone.

The telephone company operates according to principles taught in courses on business management in our universities. One principle is that cost must be minimized as much as possible, consistent with reliability sufficient to keep the whole system in operation. Telephone service must be as cheap as possible, just as long as the outages are not too frequent or too long to cause too many customers to leave the service and find other means of communication.

Let’s express my idea in simple algebra. Let C denote the cost of operating the system and F the failure rate. In quantitative terms, C denotes the cost of providing a unit of service and F the probability that the service will not be delivered because of a failure, such as an eroded contact in a junction box. The management has two groups of humans to satisfy: the customers (like me) and the investors or stockholders. In order to satisfy me, the failure rate F must be as low as possible (preferably zero). To satisfy the investors and pay them big dividends, the cost C must be as low as possible. However, a part of the cost of running the system is the money paid to the technicians who find the corroded contacts and broken wires and keep the system running. The management must find a balance between C and F. If F is too large, customers will turn to other means of communication, such as telephoning through internet cable connections. If C is too large, investors will sell their stock and depress its price. This balance can be expressed in algebra as follows:

C x F >= H

where H is a constant analogous to Planck's Constant in Physics.

(B) Another example occurred during one of the debates between candidate George H. W. Bush and candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. Both men were campaigning for the Presidency. Dukakis was known to be opposed to capital punishment. Mr. Bush posed to him this question: If your wife or daughter were brutally murdered, would you want the murderer put to death?

I’ve thought about how I now wish Mr. Dukakis had answered that question, or how I might answer it myself. Like Mr. Dukakis, I also am opposed to capital punishment.

The question and its answer have no logical relation to that public policy should be regarding capital punishment for murderers. Mr. Bush asked the question simply to try to embarrass Mr. Dukakis and to illustrate to the voters his unfitness to be President. If Mr. Dukakis answered, “I’d like to strangle the bastard with my bare hands,” he would have made points with some voters, while others would have been turned off by his insincerity regarding capital punishment. If he answered, “I would let the police and the justice system take care of him,” the public would have been convinced that Mr. Dukakis was an uncaring wimp, who wouldn’t even express an honest feeling of outrage and grief at the loss of his wife or daughter.

Either answer would lose Mr. Dukakis support.

In this case we would say that C is the cost to Mr. Dukakis for a wimpish-sounding answer to Mr. Bush's question of votes among enthusiastic supporters of the death penalty. F would represent the cost among opponents of the death penalty if Mr. Dukakis seemed insincere in his opposition to the death penalty.

There are many other examples of human behavior in which there is an uncertainty principle. Many decisions involve balancing one set of drawbacks with another.

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