Saturday, October 28, 2006
Some Thoughts about the election, democracy, etc.
I've been thinking about whether we can honestly claim that we have a democracy. In a democracy the will of the majority of the population prevails. I don't think the majority always prevails in our system. Consider the election of 2000 and the policies of the new Bush administration. Mr. Bush won that election by the narrowest of margins. He lost in the popular vote count and won in the electoral vote by just one vote. Actually, his margin of victory is said by some to have been five to four in the Supreme Court. That was the vote for the decision to stop the recount of votes in Florida so that the Florida Secretary of State could certify the original tally as the official vote. We may never know what would have happened if the recount had not been stopped.
One would think, in a "democracy," that an administration that came to office on such a slender margin would be cautious and deferential to its opponents. It would try to obtain broad bipartisan support for all its policies and for its legislation. That didn't happen. Instead, the House of Representatives adopted a rule under which only those measures supported by a majority of the Republicans could be brought to the floor for a vote. I don't recall the membership of the two parties after the election of 2000. At present, the Republicans have 225 members, the Democrats 209, and the Socialist 1. The Socialist votes with the Democrats. The majority of Republicans rule allows 113 members the privilege of deciding what measures can be voted on. Thus, there may be a measure that has the support of many Republicans and nearly all Democrats and clearly an impressive majority in favor. However, that measure can not be voted on.
This scheme of organizing the House of Representatives is a recipe for getting nothing done of consequence. It's also highly undemocratic. The recent impasse over immigration reform is a textbook example. The Senate, the President, and, I believe, a majority of Representatives favor a comprehensive reform that includes a guest worker program, some form of "amnesty" for persons who have lived "illegally" in the country for a while, and tightened control of the borders. However, the Republican majority of the majority would have nothing to do with it. The Republican majority wanted only a stiffened border control bill. Result: nothing but yelling and screaming.
This is not a good way to run the country.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
About the Election and Confirming of Judges
But enough of ancient history. Today as I look at my sample ballot I find that I am to vote on whether to retain in office a passel of judges. These are all State judges, on the State Supreme Court and on two divisions of the Appellate Court. I don't know squat about these individuals. I don't remember reading anything about them. I don't know what decisions they have made since they were appointed or elected or confirmed in office. Judges don't campaign for reelection. Well, not exactly. Some do. Some judges or candidates for judge in the county court make appearances at meetings of political clubs, hoping to obtain some favorable votes at the election. I don't know what else they do.
My point is, I can't decide what to do. Perhaps I should just leave the part of the ballot blank where the judges are listed. That would be the honest approach. Let those individuals who know something about a judge vote on whether to elect or confirm him or her.
But then it struck me. The people most likely to vote about a judge are those who have a grudge against him. The judge has made a decision that infuriates them. They will try to vote him out of office. Most of the rest of us, if we knew about the decision, might favor it and regard those who don't like it as soreheads or sore losers. I don't know how the ballots are counted. Is not voting at all for a judge the same as voting against confirming him? If there are five million votes cast, with five votes against a judge and no votes for him, is he then put out of office? Does it take a majority of total votes cast to unseat a judge or is it just a majority of votes cast for and against a particular judge? If I don't vote for these judges, they may be voted out of office by a few sore losers. And then, worse still, a newly reelected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will appoint replacements. I think I would rather keep the judges we have than take my chances on Arnold's replacements. I guess I will vote to confirm all the judges.
Any help out there?
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Connections and Gaps in Memory
A good example is the death of my sister and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Both events occurred in August of 1974, probably within a few days of each other. They probably did not occur on the same day. I remember the day that Nixon resigned. I remember the day that I learned, by telephone from my other sister, that E and her husband had been found, dead, at the bottom of a 300-foot cliff near Golden, British Columbia. A policeman had noticed their car parked for several days near the cliff and had investigated and found the bodies. As clearly as I recall the details of these events, my memory does not connect them as having occurred very close together in time.
A month earlier two events occurred that I do connect. Early in July I learned that my father had died. I was waiting in the airport at Los Angeles for my flight to Michigan when I learned, by reading a headline in a newspaper, that Earl Warren had also died. My father and Earl Warren had died at about the same time, perhaps even the same day. I imagined them ascending to heaven together and having a conversation about politics on the way.
I have no good explanation for why my memory works in this way. I do not remember the time sequence of two otherwise unrelated events unless, for some reason, the two events themselves are connected in my memory. Earl Warren and my father are forever connected because of the headline I read in the newspaper at Los Angeles Airport. I remember that the death of Wiley Post and Will Rogers occurred in the summer of 1935 while I was staying at the farm of my aunt and uncle near Mesick, Michigan. Everyone was distraught at the news. I remember that much of that day. I don't remember what I had to eat that day, or anything else that I did.
I have read or heard, and perhaps I have been misinformed, that autistic people have memories in which the time connection between simultaneous or nearly simultaneous events is not retained. In a TV episode, an autistic boy remembers the odometer reading of the car, the serial number of the murder gun, and a telephone number on a cell phone. He must have noted these three numbers in memory at the time his parents were murdered in the car in which he was riding. He has no memory of how these memories are related to each other or to the death of his parents. Of course, the writers of the story may have gone beyond what is known or unknown about memories in autistic persons, but my reaction was that perhaps I and many normal or nearly normal people have a touch of autism in the way we remember things.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
The Thirteen Propositions
For example, in this election we have 13 State Measures on the ballot. Los Angeles City has three more. For what it's worth, here are my own opinions about the thirteen state measures. These opinions are subject to change without notice and reflect only my opinions here and now (3:30 PM PDT, October 22, 2006).
1A: TRANSPORTATION FUNDING PROTECTION--This specifies that taxes on motor fuel (gasoline, diesel, etc.) are to be used only for highways and other transportation improvements.
MY OPINION--Lah dee dah! I think the law already specifies that such tax revenues are to be used for highways and other transportation needs. It can be overriden in a State fiscal emergency, so what's the point? I'll vote NO or ignore this one.
1B: HIGHWAY SAFETY, TRAFFIC REDUCTION, AIR QUALITY, AND PORT SECURITY BOND ACT OF 2006--This is a bond (borrowed money) for building and improving highways, local streets, providing seismic strengthening of bridges, improving port facilities, etc. I have nothing against it. I guess I'll vote YES.
1C: HOUSING AND EMERGENCY SHELTER TRUST FUND ACT OF 2006--Another bond issue, this one to provide shelters for battered women, clean and safe housing for low-income senior citizens, etc. I have nothing against this one either. YES.
1D: KINDERGARTEN-UNIVERSITY PUBLIC EDUCATION FACILITIES BOND ACT OF 2006--I'm all in favor of educational facilities. YES.
1E: DISASTER PREPAREDNESS AND FLOOD PREVENTION BOND ACT OF 2006--This one provides money for rebuilding and repairing levees along the Sacramento River, primarily. I have mixed feelings. I think it is a mistake to build levees to protect the homes of people who choose to live in flood plains. There are plenty of other places for them to live. My inclination right now is NO.
83: INCREASED PENALTIES FOR SEX OFFENDERS; RESTRICTIONS ON WHERE FORMER SEX OFFENDERS CAN LIVE; OTHER REQUIREMENTS--This is a matter that ought to be decided by the legislature. I don't think that increased penalties are required. It is reported that the experience in another State is that it tends to drive serious offenders underground to where they can not be tracked at all. My opinion: NO.
84: WATER QUALITY, SAFETY AND SUPPLY--I haven't studied the text of the two propositions in detail, but this one looks almost like 1E. However, since the emphasis seems to be on water quality rather than protecting homes in flood planes, my inclination is YES.
85: WAITING PERIOD AND PARENTAL NOTIFICATION BEFORE TERMINATION OF A MINOR'S PREGNANCY--This would amend the State Constitution to require a two-day delay and notification of parents before a doctor could perform an abortion on a girl under the age of 18 years. We voted this one down last year. Why does it come back again so soon? NO, NO, NO.
86: TAX ON CIGARETTES--I really and truly wish that the legislature could decide on this one rather than having it thrown to the voters. I have no objection personally to high taxes on cigarettes. I quit smoking about 16 years ago, so it doesn't affect me. Also, the initiative specifies what the money can be spent on. It is another example of how the initiative process has made budgeting next to impossible in California. I don't object to the tax itself. I object to not simply putting the money in the General Fund and letting the Governor and Legislature decide how to spend it. Instead of voting for this turkey, I would rather vote for a proposition that would repeal the 2/3 vote requirement in the legislature so that the legislature would have a better chance of making sensible taxation decision. My opinion: Reluctantly, NO.
87: ALTERNATIVE ENERGY--This is the one that Big Oil is spending oodles of money to defeat. I will vote for it just for the satisfaction of annoying the CEO's of Exxon-Mobile, Chevron, etc. YES, YES, YES
88: EDUCATIONAL FUNDING. REAL PROPERTY PARCEL TAX--This would apply an additional $50 a year on each real property parcel. The tax on my house would increase an infinitesimal $50 from 1500 to 1550 per year. Considering how seriously underfunded our schools in California are, this seems like much too little an increase. In addition, this is an initiative that specifies specifically where the money would be spent. I suspect that the legislature would simply reduce the normal appropriation for education by the amount of this tax, so the net effect would be nil. My opinion: It's a waste of effort. NO.
89: CAMPAIGN PUBLIC FINANCING, ETC.--I really like this one. In spite of the complexity (it not only provides public funding for individuals, it restricts donations by for-profit corporations to campaigns for or against initiatives) I will vote YES with enthusiasm. YES, YES, YES
90: GOVERNMENT ACQUISITION, REGULATION OF PRIVATE PROPERTY--This one's a sleeper. It is presented as protection of the poor home owner against a greedy government that wants to take his property by eminent domain and give it to a developer to build a hotel or golf course, or some such thing. The proposition goes much, much farther than that. This monster is a private property owner's dream of absolute freedom from any regulation dealing with environmental protection. My opinion: NO, NO, a thousand times NO!
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Selective Application of Market Principles
Another example is the existence of a growing class of retired workers who enjoy defined benefit pensions. These pensions are paid by taxing workers who haven’t yet retired. Because of advances in medical care and a declining birth rate, the ratio of retired pensioners to tax-paying workers is increasing. Eventually the tax burden on the workers will become politically impossible to maintain. The best thing to do about the problem, my L-C friends say, is to replace the tax-based defined benefit pension with a personal retirement account for each worker. The tax code should be adjusted to encourage a worker to put aside a portion of his earnings in a tax-free savings account. The money in the account would not be available until the worker retires or unless the worker experiences a medical emergency.
I’m sure you have heard these arguments. You probably agree with me that they are impractical and heartless, unworthy of our affluent and generous society.
One argument that I have not heard is to let market forces deal with the current real estate bubble in California. My house is a typical example. My wife and I bought our present house in 1968 at a price of $39,000. A few years later the housing boom was in full swing and the house was assessed at $50,000. The property tax had risen from about $800 a year to $1,000. The voters enacted the California property tax limitation law, Proposition 13, which froze the assessment at its value in the year 1975. If I sold my house the new owner would have an assessment based on the market price of the house at the time of the sale, but that assessment would also be frozen. Frozen assessments would be allowed to increase at a rate of no more than two percent a year.
My house is now worth something between $500,000 and $800,000. My property tax is only $1500 per year. That tax implies a frozen assessment of $75,000, approximately one-tenth of the market value of the house at last year’s prices. My situation is like that of many Californians who were fortunate enough to buy a house years ago when they were affordable. Persons in my situation who already own a house have another advantage provided by government. I can sell my house and buy another house in the same county and keep my Proposition 13 assessment. I am completely insulated from the economic consequences of the housing bubble.
A new buyer who buys my house would need to take out a mortgage for most of the sale price. Suppose I sell the house for $600,000. The new buyer has to pay, say, ten percent of the sale price and take out a mortgage for the remaining ninety percent. That is, he would have a mortgage of $540,000 to pay off in thirty or forty years. A rule of thumb is that the monthly mortgage payment is about one percent of the mortgage. This new buyer would have a monthly payment in excess of $5000. The annual taxes would be about $12,000 or an additional $1,000 a month. There is an old rule that the cost of housing should not exceed one-third of your income. The person who buys my house should have an income of more than $200,000 a year.
Proposition 13 was an example of government intervention in the housing market. If Proposition 13 did not exist, property taxes would have increased along with the market price of houses. Many people at or near retirement would have realized that they could not afford the taxes on their houses after retiring and would have sold them and moved to less expensive accommodations. Many more houses would be on the market. The effect would have been to keep prices much lower than they were. Libertarian and conservative enthusiasts would, or should, argue that the present housing bubble is partly a consequence of government interference with the operation of free markets; i.e., Proposition 13 is partly to blame for the housing bubble.
Am I crazy? Why is it left to me, a crypto-socialist, to make the libertarian argument against Proposition 13?
Monday, October 09, 2006
The Austrian Champion vs. the Greek Challenger
For those of you who didn't watch it, the debate format was supposed to consist of questions from the moderator which each man in turn would try to answer. His opponent would try to discredit or dispute the answer. There were to be no opening statements.
Wishful thinking! Instead of answering the first question, Mr. Schwarzenegger gave his opening statement. Mr. Angelides did the same. The rest of the hour went according to plan, with each man answering questions in turn. The other man would then challenge the answer. At one point in the "discussion," each man was allowed to ask his opponent a question.
I don't remember the discussion question by question and I didn't try to keep any kind of score. I know that the central question of the debate, and of the present election campaign here in California, is how to deal with the problem that State revenues fall short of State expenses by about three billion dollars a year. One way to phrase the question is, how should a governor act to remove this structural deficit? From what I could distil from the questions and answers, charges and counter-charges, the candidates had two different answers.
Mr. Schwarzenegger would not increase taxes. He would try to trim expenses and would try to promote a business boom. A boom would produce more tax revenue at the present rates. He was asked what he would do if, instead of a boom, there was a recession. His response to that question was that he wouldn't answer hypotheticals.
Mr. Angelides would also try to trim expenses. He said that, as State Treasurer, he had reduced the cost of the Treasurer's Department by nine percent. He didn't say in actual dollars how large was the reduction. (He could have reduced staff from eleven persons to ten to achieve a nine percent saving.) He didn't say he would urge a tax increase. He said that he would reduce taxes on middle income families (say, 75,000 dollars a year) and "ask" the wealthy Californians to help make up the deficit. I presume he meant an increase in the income tax on wealthy persons, although he might have meant that he would ask for voluntary contributions. I'm sure he meant a tax increase on the very richest individuals.
Talking about taxes (and especially about the need to increase the rates) has become a "third rail" of California politics. It's clear to me, as it was to Republican Governor Wilson fifteen years ago that the only realistic way to solve the deficit problem is to increase the tax rates. In particular, the top income tax bracket in California should be raised from its present value of 9 1/2 percent to 11 percent, or even more if necessary. Whoever is elected Governor next month will have to consider that option seriously. Neither candidate wants to talk about it candidly at present. Schwarzenegger denies the necessity for a tax increase; Angelides talks about increasing the contribution by wealthy taxpayers to the operation of the State.
I don't know how many minds the debate changed. It didn't change mine. I'll still vote for Phil, not Arnold.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Discarding Furniture and Remembering Pongo
I tried to give the sofa and chair away. The Salvation Army wouldn't take them. The St. Vincent de Paul Society wouldn't take them. I advertised them on Craig's List for ten dollars each. (I was convinced that I had to set a price.) Nobody wanted them. Finally, I phoned the city and was instructed to put them out on the parkway next to the curb and they would be picked up on the regular trash pick-up day.
And how does a sofa and a chair relate to Pongo? Pongo was a dog. He was part Dalmatian and had black spots on a white coat. One of the secretaries (Joyce was her name) at the company had puppies to give away and we took one. He was a friendly, lively little dog, about the size of a Jack Russell Terrier. However, he soon became a problem. My wife couldn't yard-train him. That is, she couldn't train him not to dig up plants that she had placed in our yard. Pongo had to go.
One day while our two children were at school, I took Pongo for a ride in our car. He liked to ride and I had no difficulty taking him to the city dog pound. I took him out of the car, removed his collar, and left him with the attendant. Pongo suddenly realized that I was abandoning him and he cried. I will never forget making that poor animal cry. I want to cry myself when I remember him.
I imagine that the sofa and the chair are crying because I have abandoned them, too.
Times Publisher Ousted
The Los Angeles Times is a profitable enterprise. It was reported that the paper generates a profit of 20 percent. The Tribune Company wants more.
The new publisher, David Hiller, has not decided "whether to follow through with job cuts." From my own experience in the aerospace industry, I suspect that the Times may already have lost some of its best reporters. Whenever there is a rumor of a possible lay-off, the most qualified workers are the ones who are first to apply for good jobs with other firms and often leave the firm before the lay-off is officially announced.
Fortunately, I do not have to depend solely on the Los Angeles Times for news about events that interest me. Radio is a good source. I've noticed, however, that many news stories that I hear on the radio have already been reported in that day's issue of the Times.
I learned to despise the Chicago Daily Tribune away back in the 1930's and 1940's because of the vicious, slanted stories that the paper ran on its front pages about my father's hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Tribune Company's treatment of the Los Angeles Times reinforces my feeling of contempt for the Tribune.