Tuesday, January 26, 2010
An argument in favor of the property tax
Nowadays we have a lot of new taxes: sales tax, income tax, inheritance tax, excise taxes, various taxes on businesses and professions, and so on. Most of these taxes are more popular than the property tax. That is, people hate them less than the annual levy on the land occupied by their homes or businesses. In fact, the property tax is so unpopular that in most places in California the income from the property tax does not pay for all the services that a city or county has to provide to property. Such services include police and fire protection, establishment and enforcement of building codes in earthquake zones (pretty much all of California), establishing and maintaining systems to provide water and power to property sites, drainage and sewer systems, and others. We pay separate taxes or fees for the power and water provided and for the sewage drained away, but these are not intended to pay for the initial building and installation of water pipes, sewer pipes, electric utility lines, and the like.
Many years ago Howard Jarvis and others took advantage of the fear produced by the rapid increase in housing prices and the associated increase in the real estate tax to persuade or frighten the public into adopting Proposition 13, which froze the real estate tax at the value it had on a certain year, regardless of the increase in the value of the property. The tax could be increased by no more than two percent each year. The basis of the tax would not change until the property was sold. The new owner would then pay a property tax based on the purchase price of the property just bought, but the tax would then be frozen against any further increase in the value of the property.
The public regarded Proposition 13 as the salvation of people living in retirement in their homes. They would not be in danger of losing their homes through non-payment of taxes. However, the real beneficiaries of Proposition 13 were people who owned business property, such as landlords who owned an interest in apartment buildings. These business properties never change owners; they are owned by corporations and the landlords merely buy and sell shares in the corporations or lease portions of the apartment complexes for rerental to residents. Most businesses do not own the land where their offices and factories are located. They lease the land.
The effect of Proposition 13 has been to distort the tax system of the state. Cities and counties could no longer depend on the property tax to fund their services. The state had a surplus at the time Proposition 13 passed and offered this surplus to the local governments to replace the reduced property tax revenue. The result is that, since the state no longer has a surplus, cities and counties can not plan far in advance because they do not know what revenue is going to be available from the state. Many cities have adopted increases in the sales tax to obtain the needed revenue. However, the sales tax suffers from the same disadvantage to budget planners as income and business taxes. The income rises and falls according to the economic activity in the state.
Howard Jarvis's intentions are not known to me. It may be that he was simply trying to create a cushy deal for his friends and clients in the home rental business. It may be that he was a sincere believer in small, weak governments and low taxes. His successors argue today that the problem with the state and local governments is not that they have insufficient revenue to provide services. Rather, these people argue that governments try to do too much. For example, libraries could be sold and operated by private entrepreneurs. The same could be done for public hospitals and clinics. In the good old days (think of Daniel Boone) government didn't do squat for sick people, old people, etc. In fact, government didn't put out fires. Perhaps we should try this conservative, small government approach for a while. Eliminate the fire department; sell the libraries and hospitals; default on pension agreements. All of these changes should greatly reduce the cost of government. The public would then have time to decide whether this was the kind of government that we want. If not, we would have to agree to changes in the tax structure to provide funding for the kind of government we do want.
There remains the problem of old Dad or old Mom living in the family house on a limited income. How do we avoid putting such persons out of their homes because of the taxes? There is an alternative to freezing the tax rates. The retiree on fixed or limited income would arrange something similar to a reverse mortgage with the state. If the retiree couldn't pay the property tax, the state would pay. Eventually the retiree would die or move to a retirement home and the property would be sold. The state would recover the taxes from the sale of the property. Any money left over would remain with the retiree or the heirs.
I remember in the election campaign for President in 1936. Republican opponents of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal were talking about "rugged individualism." One wag noted that perhaps the President should give these complainers six months or so to "get rugged."
Monday, January 25, 2010
Some Thoughts about Energy
It would be ideal if we could replace all the carbon power stations with power plants that use these other sources. Aside from the engineering work needed to design and build efficient and safe power plants, some of the non-carbon power sources have characteristic problems.
First, we are used to having power available at all times of the day or night. We want light, we flick a switch. If we're cold, automatic equipment in the house starts using more carbon (methane or ethane gas) and more electrical energy, also powered by burning carbon. Solar power requires only a simple, automatic plant. However, the plant doesn't produce any power at night. If we were to depend on solar power for all or nearly all our requirements we would have to develop and build eqipment for storing energy so that we could have television, warmth, and other comforts at night as well as in the daytime. Wind power poses a similar problem. A natural location for windmills is a place with wind nearly all the time. The catch is "nearly." There are few places that boast perpetual wind. Again we would need a means of storing energy for use during calm air. Geothermal power is constant. Potassium and other radioactive elements in the earth's core maintain a steady source of heat, waiting for our exploitation.
Water power seems like a nice alternative to the uncertainties of sunlight and wind and the extreme engineering difficulties of exploiting the heat of the earth's core. However, we have already put in use nearly all the water power available. We are also learning that water power is reduced during times of drought and water power plants (i.e., dams) interfere with the migration of important food fish, such as salmon.
We are left with two options. First, we can develop an efficient and cost-effective way of storing the excess energy of a solar or wind plant. Second, we can use existing technology to build and use nuclear fission plants. I have some thoughts on both subjects.
I know of two means of storing electrical energy: batteries and electrolysis. The size of the battery needed to store the energy of a large solar plant or a large windmill plant is great enough that there may not be enough batteries in the world to satisfy the need. In such a case, some of the power of the plant could be used to electroyze water into its constituent gases, hydrogen and oxygen. These gases would be stored in high-pressure tanks. They could be used to fill containers for transportation to other plants. They could also be used at the site of the windmills or solar panels to power an auxiliary power system that would operate when the wind had died down or the sun was not available to operate the solar cells.
I also know of some improvements in the design of nuclear reactors to make them safer to operate or more efficient in their use of available fissile metals. One improvement was suggested more than 60 years ago by Edward Teller. What is needed is a kind of fuse for a power reactor that will operate automatically and completely reliably to shut it down in case of an uncontrolled power excursion. When I worked at Atomics International an engineer and I worked on the design of a fuse for a power reactor. We never got as far as testing and demonstrating the concept in an actual reactor. We did conduct some experiments with a prototype to verify the mechanical features of the design. We obtained a joint patent on the device. About that time I left Atomics International and my partner in the enterprise (I can't remember his name) was assigned to another program. Atomics International was getting out of the reactor business and had no interest in pursuing additional work on the fuse.
I do not claim any originality for these ideas. I think they are good ideas and it would be a good thing to start some young, energetic engineers working on them
Thursday, January 21, 2010
The Supreme Court: Time for a Change
The decision is wrong. It's just as wrong as the famous Dred Scott decision in 1857. We all know that the reason a corporation wants to spend big bucks on an election campaign is not to advertise its own point of view. Rather, the money is to be used to drown out all other points of view. Even though a large corporation, such as General Electric, contributes a sizeable fraction of our gross national product, it does not represent anywhere near a comparable fraction of the public. If a majority of the public wants a certain thing but General Electric doesn't and is willing to spend an unlimited amount of money to flood the news media with arguments for its view, guess who is likely to win the election?
In spite of past decisions by the Court, a corporation is not a person. As one judge mused, "it doesn't have a soul to be damned nor an ass to be kicked." A corporation as an entity can be sued for actions directed by its directors. The guilty directors as well as the mostly innocent stockholders are immune from prosecution. The corporation is a "person" only in the sense that it can be sued.
The "opinions" of a corporation are really the opinions of its board of directors, a body of usually not greater than two dozen wealthy men and women. Why should the views of this small body be given the same deference in our political lsystem as the views of ten million concerned citizens?
This decision puts us one step closer to a plutocracy and a long step away from democracy and representative government.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
The Senate: Due for a Change
The result of this election points up the unrepresentative nature of the federal legislature. In particular, Senators are elected from "rotten boroughs," so called because the districts represented (whole states) vary greatly in population. The most populous state, California, has more than ten percent of the population of the country but elects only two senators. The least populous state, Wyoming, has less than 0.2 percent of the population and also elects two senators. The least populous 25 states have about one-sixth of the total population and elect half the Senators.
The federal system of representation is not fair because representatives of one-sixth of the population can dictate what reforms they will permit the other representatives to enact. This unfairness was not a big problem in the early days of the republic. To the ordinary citizen, the federal government was far away and had very little effect on life. There was no FBI to catch bank robbers; there was no Social Security and no Medicare to take care of the elderly in their declining years; there were no environmental regulations; no federal income tax; no restrictions on the buying and selling of human slaves. Individuals were affected by various local governments, particularly governments of towns or townships and counties. Even states were rather far away and had little influence on daily life.
The consequences of the election in Massachusetts shows that today the unfair allocation of senators has great consequences to all of us. It is long past time for a change in the way senators are allocated among the states.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
More about Me
Resident of the San Fernando Valley since November 15, 1955. Resided in Canoga Park until May, 1968. Since then in Area 4 of Woodland Hills, next to El Camino High School. Married until November 2007. Two daughters; one graduated from Canoga Park HS, the other from El Camino HS. Both graduated from UCLA.
Married from June 1950 until November 2007. Before moving to California, wife and I lived in New York 4 years and in Fayetteville, Arkansas one year.
Born in Michigan near Grand Rapids. BS from Michigan State 1944; Ph.D. U. Illinois 1951; major in Physics.
Employed one year at University of Arkansas as an assistant professor of physics.
Employed four years at Hudson Laboratories in Dobbs Ferry, NY as a Research Scientist; measured ambient noise in various parts of the Atlantic Ocean.
Employed from November, 1955 until January 1968 at North American Aviation, in the Atomics International and Rocketdyne divisions. At AI, worked on applications of radioactive materials and on reactor safety devices. Have a joint patent on a power reactor safety device.
Employed at the AiResearch Manufacturing Division in Los Angeles and Torrance from March, 1968 until retirement in 1989 as an instrumentation engineer.
Other activities include membership in several Democratic political clubs.
Enjoyments and hobbies: music, wood working, writing, reading, computer, walking, traveling.
Well, that's more than the 150 words the city clerk allows in the election statement. I will add more background later.
I don't know what issues will come to the neighborhood council that I hope to be elected to. At present a hot issue is the location of marijuana stores or cooperatives. Another neighborhood council is concerned about advertising trailers that are parked on main streets, quite often under signs that forbid parking trailers there.
I think an interesting and controversial issue is the location of day laborers who are seeking jobs. In Woodland Hills there is a group of them that wait near the Bank of America, near the corner of Fallbrook and Ventura. Nothing is done about them, as nearly as I can observe. No one complains; the area is not residential and the men who congregate there do not interfere with either bank customers or customers of the 7-11 Mini-mart next to the bank. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Provide a space where these men can meet and wait that will protect them from the weather, provide toilets, benches, and chairs, and staffed with volunteers who will keep a record of who is present each day and whether he or she obtains employment and with whom. This approach has been tried in a small town somewhere in Southern California.
(2) Have the police or sheriff pick up the men and take them to a place of temporary detention. Those who are in the country illegally are then turned over to the INS for prompt deportation. This approach is followed in at least one county in Arizona.
(3) Do nothing. Leave things as they are.
Of the three, my choice is (1). I think of the waiting place as like a union hiring hall, except that the contractors would choose the workers and not take the next worker on a waiting list.
So that interested persons can find out more about me, I will post other little articles about myself and what I would advocate if I were a member of the Woodland Hills Neighborhood Council.
Note: After publishing this post it occurred to me that if we adopted approach #1, the first shelter would be flooded with day workers and contractors from a large area. There would have to be a plan to build several shelters at the same time. An objection to that is that there would be no chance to try the approach on a small scale to see whether it works.
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Vote for Me
I am trying to think of a short essay in which I state several reasons people should vote for me and not for someone else. It wouldn't be fair to the others to dwell on my good looks or my sweet disposition. It also wouldn't be fair to brag about my education (Ph.D. in Physics, University of Illinois, 1951). None of these good qualities has any bearing on whether I am the best person to be a member of a neighborhood council.
Neighborhood councils were established in Los Angeles a few years ago. Unlike many American cities, our elected council members represent large districts. There are only 15 council seats for a city of at least four million. Each council person represents about 300,000 residents. That's much too large for a representative district. Rather than increase the size of the council, the people of Los Angeles chose instead to create another level of representation. Neighborhood councils have public meetings at least once a month. In addition, they have committees that meet at least monthly to consider specific problems or projects. The function of these bodies is to determine (and perhaps lead) public opinion on various matters, study and try to reach sensible conclusions about the issues and policies, and advise the members of the City Council of their findings and conclusions. A resident who favors or opposes some program may find it difficult to attend meetings of the City Council where the program is considered. The same resident can more easily attend a meeting of the Neighborhood Council for his or her area and speak to the council members about the matter.
Although they have no power, Neighborhood Councils have exerted some significant influence on some policy matters. A year or two ago the city fathers and the local Democratic machine wanted to have the public vote for a ballot proposition that dealt with mounting solar panels on the roofs of buildings within the city. Local activists objected to a detail in the proposed law. The measure specified that the work of installing the solar panels would be done exclusively by the members of a certain labor union. The union had the reputation of gaining very high salaries for its members. Other unions, whose members were capable of doing the same work, would be frozen out. There were other objections to the measure as well. Neighborhood Councils objected that they had not been consulted when the details of the measure were being drawn up. (According to the law that established neighborhood councils, the councils should have been consulted and allowed to express their approval or opposition.) Members of the Neighborhood Councils were able to publicize their objections to the measure. As a result, the measure lost. It was a set-back for the Mayor, the Democratic County Committee, and the union.
I have some issues that I would like to persuade a Neighborhood Council to support. One is to provide specified places for day laborers to congregate while waiting for jobs. The spaces should provide shelter from the hot sun in most of the year, from rain, from cold winds, and other uncomfortable aspects of our weather. I would go so far as to maintain a list of workers, so that they could be chosen in rotation, much like workers in a union hiring hall. The spaces - actually, small buildings - would also provide clean toilets, clean drinking water, and other amenities. I have been told that the Neighborhood Council to which I aspire to be a member has a completely different attitude regarding day laborers. They want them to go away - far away. If I am elected and choose to advance this issue, I may run into some very noisy and probably rude opposition from the other members. I'll wait and see. Of course, I may not be elected.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
Two Cheers for the Health Care Bill
Nowadays there are several kinds of Democrat. There are blue dog Democrats, yellow dog Democrats, conservative Democrats, progressive Democrats, liberal Democrats, etc., etc., etc. As Willl Rogers once noted, we are not an organized party. I have been a member of a Democratic club ever since my wife and I moved to California in 1955. It hasn't been the same club all the time. The first one I joined died after the reelection of Nixon in 1972. The one that I joined more than ten years ago has recently stopped functioning because no one wanted to be an officer. I will, of course, join another club soon.
I know of at least two Democratic clubs in my area that pride themselves on being "Progressive." It's taken me a while to figure out what that means. I'm not sure I know yet, but they seem to subscribe to a national group called "Progressive Democrats of America," or PDA for short. One of my friends is enthusiastic about being a member of a "Progressive" Democratic club. I haven't made a practice of visiting other clubs often, but as far as I can tell there isn't any difference in the attitude of the members toward important issues and candidates between clubs that say they are "Progressive" and clubs that don't.
All of this introduction is preparation for my own ideological identification. I consider myself a Social Democrat. That is, I favor certain aspects of socialism, such as Social Security and Medicare. I also favor a health care reform based on the single-payer system, in which medical services are paid for by either the government itself or by a non-profit insurance plan subsidized in part by government. I also recognize that the current health care system in this country has two important failings: First, not everyone has access to needed medical services and thousands of people die each year because of this. Second, our health care system is the most expensive in the world, even for people who have access to the best care available.
The current legislation in Congress, with different versions in the Senate and House, does not do anything effective to guarantee health care access to everyone. All it does is require that everyone purchase health insurance and provide subsidies for people whose incomes are low and who can't afford the premiums. It does attack the problem of the high cost. I've read several articles published in the New Yorker magazine by Dr. Atul Gawande. He writes about the high cost of American medical practice. In his latest article he points out that the government can not by law mandate a scheme for the practice and delivery of medical care that is sure to reduce the cost while maintaining high quality. He praises the two versions of the bill for providing for experimentation. That is, many pilot programs are proposed to find out what method of providing and paying for health care will produce the desired result: less cost with best quality. Although the two bills amount to big give-aways to the health insurance industry and almost certainly won't provide anywhere near the goal of universal health care, they do promise to do something about the cost. As a Social Democrat, I am used to not getting my way. I am happy to accept the pending legislation as half a loaf, and half a loaf is better than no bread, according to a noted 18th century monarch. If this puts me at odds with the PDA people, so be it.
Friday, January 01, 2010
An Old Debate
I like to look at history. Before a certain moment in human history, there was no dichotomy between religion and science. It was all one subject. Call it religion, spiritualism, belief in the unknowable, or what you will, the purpose was to explain things that seemed to defy explanation. Why do earthquakes occur? Why do floods occur? Why to solar eclipses occur? Why do we get sick? People wondered about these and other questions.
Some events can be explained by careful observation and experiment. A dry stick thrown into a fire will catch fire and burn. Water in a pot placed over the fire will get hot and boil. Meat and other food thrown into the boiling water will cook and produce nourishing, tasty soup. Many simple things like that can be understood by observing carefully. But there is no simple explanation for an earthquake. Until very recently, there was no means of predicting even the probability of an earthquake. These unexplainable events were ascribed to the action of a powerful god or spirit. The god had his or her own reasons for the earthquake, flood, great storm, epidemic, drought, or other disaster.
Such inventions as the telescope and microscope and their use in studying the sky above us and the microscopic beings in the earth beneath us represented a step away from ascribing to a god all of the mysterious problems that beset us humans. The telescope eventually provided evidence that the earth is not the center of everything but only a small planet in an immense universe of stars and planets and comets and all of that. The microscope eventually gave evidence for the germ theory of disease. That meant that a god was no longer needed to explain eclipses of the sun and moon and many diseases and infections.
Scientific knowledge and philosophy expanded. More and more phenomena were shown to be the result of natural and knowable causes. God was less and less needed to explain things that happened. There grew up a distinction between knowledge gained from experience and logic on one hand and knowledge contained in ancient, holy writings on the other. Often these different "knowledges" contradicted each other. And that's where we are today.
Even in ancient times, long before the scientific revolution started by Copernicus, Galileo, Huyghens, Newton, and others, wise people recognized that there were two aspects of religion. One aspect was the explanation of floods, earthqakes, eclipses, and other natural disasters. The other was the establishment of a system of morality and ethics to enable large populations to live together in cities in peace. This system was based on the simple rules of behavior within a small, closed family: respect the elders, share, treat others as you would be treated, take care of the very young and helpless, don't waste precious food, keep yourself clean, don't lie about your brother or sister, etc.
Today religion is important in clarifying and explaining many complex moral and ethical issues that arise between us humans as we compete for our fortunes and our places in society. Here is an example of a difficult issue: violence in support of freedom from oppression by foreign occupyers. It has been argued that an oppressed people must use violence to free themselves from domination by a colonial power. The violence cleanses the feeling of oppression and worthlessness imposed by the colonial power and enables the newly freed people to feel unashamed about themselves. Another argument is that violence often does not lead to liberation but only to more oppression and that non-violent, peaceful demonstrations can be more effective against the colonial power than violent confrontation. That is, Ghandi was more successful in liberating India than Yasser Arafat was in liberating Palestine. I don't know the answer to this question even though my example tilts strongly in favor of non-violent demonstration. There are other situations in which violent confrontation won the day while peaceful demonstrations amounted to nothing. I think this is a proper question for religion.
I think that questions about earthquakes, the origin and proliferation of species, and a physical description of the origin of the universe should be assigned to science. Religion really can't tell us how things began. Religion can speculate and perhaps provide answers as to why it began. "How" suggests a mechanism that can be simulated in laboratory experiments. "Why" is a question that can not be investigated by any experiment that I can imagine.