Friday, August 24, 2007

Still breathing

Hey all! I'm still here, but as noted in an earlier post, I've been really busy getting ready for the start of a new school year, planning some end-of-summer vacation and running a fantasy-football draft.

Speaking of which, my team for this year looks like this:

QB: Carson Palmer
RBs: Steven Jackson, Brandon Jacobs, DeAngelo Williams and a bunch of backups
WRs: Reggie Wayne, Hines Ward, Calvin Johnson
TE: Antonio Gates
K: Matt Stover
DEF: Denver Broncos

It's a 10-team league (really sort of a 9-teamer, since one of our owners went nuts and drafted all Patriots this year). But I like my chances.

In addition, this week a whole bunch of daycares were on break, so we had a neighborhood full of kids at our house -- on the days we weren't looking after sick daughters.

And on top of all that, my wife just quit her job to go into business for herself. So we've been scrambling to work through all the steps to set up an S corporation and get her going.

Phew! Tomorrow we leave for the aforementioned vacation, a weeklong camping trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Four adults and four kids in a 12-passenger van.... we'll see how that works out.

Anyway, I'll be back and posting after Labor Day. See you then!


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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Verdict reached in Padilla case

Latest story is here.

The verdict will be announced in about an hour. I'm home with a sick child, but I'll try to update after the announcement.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Misleading with statistics

The headline on the AP story is breathless. "Army suicides highest in 26 years!"

That basic fact is true; Army suicides are up sharply, just like they spiked during the first Gulf War. The 2006 rate was 17.3 suicides per 100,000, a near doubling of the low of 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001.

But a closer look at the numbers is in order before we start jumping to conclusions.

The 17.3 rate translates into 99 suicides out of a population of about 500,000 soldiers. So it's hardly an epidemic.

And if you compare it to civilian suicide rates, it's even less of an issue. A pair of pdfs here produce the following table:

2004 CIVILIAN SUICIDE RATES (per 100,000 population)
Overall: 11.1
Ages 15-24: 10.4
Males: 17.7

Wait a second, you say. Other than that "males" category, the military suicide rate is clearly much higher than the civilian rates.

But look what happens when we break down the "age" category even further and combine it with gender:

Males, age 15-19: 12.65
Males, age 20-24: 20.84

You can see where I'm going here. Soldiers are mostly males in their early 20s. So a proper comparison of apples to apples shows that the military suicide rate, despite being at a 26-year high, is still lower than the comparable civilian rate. All that in spite of combat stress, the stress of being part of a "stretched" military, and access to all sorts of military-grade weaponry.

People are right to be concerned. The rate has doubled, after all. It's clearly a symptom of strain and each one is a personal tragedy besides. The military should do what it can to reduce those numbers.

But let's not overreact. The problem is small, and soldiers are still less likely to kill themselves than civilians are. This is more an example of shallow and innumerate reporting than it is a sign of serious problems in the military.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Spitzer hearing reveals little

The New York state Senate hearing into what is being dubbed "Troopergate" or "Choppergate" (there seems to be a war of coinage going on) was apparently riveting political theater, but didn't turn up much in the end.

The most notable bit of information to emerge was details of two investigations, one conducted by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and the other by Inspector General Kristine Harmann. The former was hampered by the AG's inability to subpoena two key aides in the scandal, Richard Baum and Darren Dopp, because Harmann was investigating and never formally turned over control of the probe to Cuomo. But Harmann's probe was halted after it led to Baum, to whom the IG reports. Instead, the IG's information was folded into the AG's report, which relied on voluntary statements from the pair.

That's inadequate. While Cuomo was comfortable drawing a conclusion that no criminality was involved (and an aide testified that subpoenas would not have changed the verdict), it's important in a case like this to avoid even the appearance of a coverup or a whitewash. Any investigation should be full, complete and public.

It's probably not necessary to have Cuomo or Harmann reinvestigate, however, given that there are currently two other probes in the works: one by the local DA, the other by the state Commission on Investigation, which handles inquiries into corruption, fraud and the conduct of government officials. Both probes will have subpoena power. Assuming they are conducted properly, they should provide the answers the first two investigations have not.

Meanwhile, we wait. And so should senate Republicans.

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Dog days of summer

BTW, I'd like to apologize for the slow pace of posting this week. Besides preparing for some upcoming camping trips and the start of a new school year, I'm currently in the midst of running a fantasy football draft. Time and brainpower usually spent blogging have been diverted to deciding whether Reggie Wayne is worth a high third-round pick (answer: yes).

It might be slow next week, too. And in three weeks I'm going on vacation to South Dakota and won't be posting at all for a week. So bear with me until a regular posting pace resumes in September.


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Where the candidates stand

I'm mostly sitting out the early rounds of the presidential campaign on principle, refusing to pay close attention until we're quite a bit closer to the 2008 elections and the number of candidates has dropped a bit.

It's not just laziness: I can't think of a better way to guarantee that victory goes to the deepest pocket than to have a two-year campaign. Indeed, I've been doing some thinking about campaign financing and will have an extensive post on the subject a little later.

For now, though, I've come across a handy chart that helps makes sense of the current battalion of hopefuls. It cross-references the candidates by their position on 25 issues.

As with all such issues, most don't break down neatly into "yes/no" answers. But it's a starting place to get a sense of the candidates.

A good way to approach it is to decide what your "make or break" issues are: those where a candidate's position is enough to decide whether you could ever vote for him, regardless of his stand on other issues. Then go through that reduced list to see who agrees with you the most, or who has personality or career traits that you find attractive.

For instance, my make/break issues, from those available, are:

1. Guantanamo/torture/wiretapping;
2. Iraq war (overall, not the details of the surge, which I support, or withdrawal, my support for which depends on how the surge works out).

Those are the only issues where the chart provides a meaningful answer to issues that are key to me, although it's imperfect even at that. For instance, I don't mind legal wiretapping, but oppose warrantless wiretapping of domestic targets. It's thus unclear what the entry under "wiretapping" means.

That said, a quick sort using those criteria indicates that I could support any of the following candidates: Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Gravel, Kucinich and Richardson.

Looks pretty Democratic for me this time around, unless Chuck Hagel runs.

Having eliminated those candidates I can't vote for, I can now turn my attention to sorting the remaining candidates based on their personal traits, as well as issues that I have an opinion on but don't put so much weight on.

Gay marriage, for instance: I support it (or civil unions), but I won't vote against a candidate simply because they oppose it. All other choices being equal, though, I'll back the candidate who supports it over the candidate that opposes it. That's enough to throw out Dodd, whose "leave it up to the states" nonanswer ignores the substantive federal benefits attached to marriage.

I can throw out Gravel and Kucinich because they oppose any strong measures against Iran, even sanctions.

That leaves Biden, Clinton, Edwards and Richardson. And there's not much substantive difference in their remaining positions. They all agree on abortion, the death penalty, ANWR drilling, Kyoto, universal health care, etc.

The main exceptions: Biden and Richardson oppose No Child Left Behind; Richardson opposes an assault-weapons ban; and Richardson opposes a border fence. None of those is enough to sway me one way or the other.

So I've got it down to four. The next step would be to examine their policy positions in more detail, as well as weigh the intangibles: experience, judgment, personality, whether I trust them, education, intelligence, and so on. Which is what the final months of the campaign are for: to get to know the candidates as much as possible.

For that, I'll see you in January.



Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Spitzer hearing tomorrow

The Republican-controlled New York state Senate will hold a hearing on Spitzergate tomorrow -- while the Albany district attorney has launched an inquiry to see if he should begin a criminal investigation of Spitzer's aides.

In an op-ed piece last week, the victim in the scandal -- state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno -- called for a special counsel to investigate the matter. The article was full of non sequiturs, and a good half of it was simply a list of Bruno's political grievances against Spitzer. In the end, the best argument he could come up with for a special counsel was that the case called into question Spitzer's "temperament" -- hardly a compelling case.

Nonetheless, the hearings may be the first step toward such an eventuality. Spitzer deserves a certain amount of raking over the coals, but it'll be interesting to see what happens tomorrow. If they don't uncover something that goes beyond what Spitzer has already copped to, it'll be hard to justify further investigation.

At which point one of two things will happen: they'll wait for the DA's inquiry to wrap up, or they'll point to "serious unanswered questions" as justification for continuing to flog the case. The question will be whether those questions are truly "serious" or not. We shall see.

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Judge who sued dry cleaner moves closer to losing job

We knew this would happen, but for the record:

The D.C. judge who sued his dry cleaners for $54 million over a pair of pants may want to begin looking for a new job.

A city commission has voted to formally notify Administrative Law Judge Roy Pearson that he may not be reappointed to the bench, according to a government source.

Pearson has 15 days to file a rebuttal, and can argue his case in person come September. His timing couldn't have been worse: his introductory two-year term expires this year, and he has been lobbying for appointment to a full 10-year term.

Oh, well. I'll save my sympathy for those who deserve it, like the dry cleaners he tormented for two years.

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Eavesdropping sound and fury

Dahlia's mad.

This past Sunday, a heap of Democrats voted to rush through changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that governs electronic surveillance of anyone in this country. The new law expands the authority of the attorney general to approve the monitoring of phone calls and e-mails to suspected overseas terrorists from unknowing American citizens. Make no mistake about it. The vote to update FISA rewarded the AG for years of missteps and misstatements by giving him expanded authority to enforce the president's alarming constitutional vision. Sans oversight. Sans judicial approval.

Strong stuff. But it seems highly misdirected to me. All in all I'm unpersuaded by all the sound-and-fury about the revised eavesdropping bill.

I consider myself a civil liberties fanatic, and have been harshly critical of aspects of the NSA program. I'm all for listening in on bad guys, but a warrant should be required when "U.S. persons" (U.S. citizens or resident aliens on American soil) are the target or can reasonably be expected to be overheard -- in short, the existing FISA standard. This basically boils down to a simple rule: people overseas can be monitored freely, without warrants. People located on American soil can only be monitored after obtaining a warrant (with certain exceptions designed to allow warrantless monitoring of foreign spies).

(Being a practical sort of civil libertarian, I'm actually willing to go one step beyond FISA, and not care if a U.S. person is overheard during an eavesdropping effort aimed at an overseas target. If an Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan takes a call from someone in Detroit, there's no good reason to ignore that call -- though if the government wants to target the Detroit end, it needs to get a warrant.)

So why do I not share Dahlia's outrage? Because the bill in question was a narrowly focused and badly needed update of the FISA law. The facts at issue are these: A large percentage of foreign communications pass through data switches in the United States. Technically that meant the government needed to get a warrant to listen in on those calls, even if both ends of the conversation were in foreign countries, because the tapping was taking place on American soil.

While consistent with the letter of the FISA law, this interpretation clearly violated the spirit of it, to no good purpose. Which is why hardly anybody disagrees with the fundamental point: the law needed to be updated to clarify that such purely foreign communications can be monitored without warrants.

All the huffing and puffing is over reporting requirements and the standards for review of wiretapping decisions. While legitimate issues, they hardly constitute the total Democratic capitulation -- or for that matter, hypocritical about-face -- that Dahlia describes. The bill is still narrowly focused to address a legitimate problem, and still contains specific prohibitions against domestic spying. It lacks "judicial approval" for a very simple reason: monitoring foreign communications has never required judicial approval.

I haven't read the bill in full yet, so there might well be other technical flaws in it. But the broad outline is pretty solid. This is the sort of common-sense legislation one would hope for in such an instance: one that takes civil liberties seriously, but doesn't needlessly hamper the data collection that is so useful to our security.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Legality vs. decency

(Editor's note: This is the post I made over at Stubborn Facts yesterday, edited slightly to remove confusing references to SF).

I'd like to examine two situations that explore the boundary between "decent and fair" and "legally actionable."

The first will be a familiar one to most of you: the legal rights denied to gay couples by virtue of their inability to marry. The specific case comes to us from Indiana, via Holly over at the Moderate Voice.

Brett Conrad spent more than half his life as Patrick Atkins' partner. For 25 years, the men shared bank accounts, apartments and eventually a home in Fishers.

But when Atkins, 47, fell seriously ill in 2005, Conrad faced what many gay Hoosiers consider a travesty: no law guaranteeing them the same rights as married couples to participate in care decisions for their ill partners.

Conrad, 47, spent much of the past two years trying to win guardianship of Atkins from Atkins' parents, Thomas and Jeanne of Carmel. Jeanne Atkins is quoted in court documents as saying she believes homosexuality is a sin and that she disapproves of the men's relationship. The parents have barred Conrad from visiting their now-disabled son in their home where he lives.

Had they been able to marry, of course, there would have been no question about Conrad's rights to visitation, inheritance and ability to make medical decisions for his partner.

On the other hand, as the story points out, the men could have established those same rights by (for instance) granting each other power of attorney or naming each other their health-care representative.

The main difference is that the rights that accompany marriage are automatic, free and generally legally unassailable. The legal equivalents for nonmarried couples can be costly and subject to challenge in court -- and the rules can differ state by state, making travel a somewhat more fraught experience, as another couple relates later in the story:

For Kim Allman and Leisa Waggoner, disapproving families aren't the only threat to the layers of contracts in place to protect their assets, health and two children.

Waggoner, who adopted Allman's children, is painfully aware that when the family travels to Oklahoma to visit Allman's brother, state law there explicitly forbids her adoptive status.

"That would mean that if something happened to Kim (in Oklahoma), I could lose the kids," Waggoner said. "I'm scared."

Such cases are sympathetic, and a big reason why I think gay marriage -- or at least its legal equivalent, bestowed in a similarly automatic, free and unassailable manner -- should be legalized as a matter of simple human fairness.

But -- and this is the key point as far as this post goes -- in large measure that legalization has not yet happened. So however much I might sympathize with such couples, they do not yet have a legal case. If they sue in such situations they will likely lose, because the law has not established a foundation on which they can act. Their cases may prompt the creation of such a foundation, but that foundation doesn't yet exist.

Keep that in mind as I describe the second situation, outlined in a New York Times Magazine piece from a couple of weeks ago: the rising tide of workplace litigation over workers who want to take more time to care for their families without losing their jobs. It's well worth going behind the NYT firewall to read.

Some cases are relatively simple, like that of Kevin Knussman, a Maryland state trooper who sought leave during his wife's difficult pregnancy and again after the baby was born -- in both cases, leave that was explicitly allowed under the law. He was denied, he sued, and he won, because the legal foundation had been established.

But then there's the case of Lucia Kanter, who sought a reduced work schedule or a leave of absence in order to help care for her autistic son. She was turned down, and then she was fired -- in part, it seems, because of concerns that she couldn't handle the workload because of her son's problems.

She's a sympathetic figure: a mother trying to take care of her child. And it's easy to view her firing as the act of a callous and uncaring employer.

But there's a difference between "fair" and "legally actionable." Being a jerk is not a crime, and the employer has some legitimate concerns of its own. We all might agree, for instance, that the decent thing would have been for the employer to cut Kanter some slack and accommodate her needs. But should the employer be forced to do so through the law? Accommodation, after all, is not without cost to the employer. How much responsibility does a business bear for the personal travails of its employees?

To quote from one critic of the trend, Zachary Fasman (a partner in a New York law firm):

"I’m not against work-life balance — who is? But the organization of the work force has always been left, to a large extent, to the discretion of the employer. So long as it doesn’t discriminate, where a business draws the line on these things depends on the nature of the business. You can’t rewrite the rules of the American workplace unless Congress does it."

Fasman notes that an overemphasis on the right to accomodation could rob businesses of such basic practices as the right to require overtime or set work schedules, which could make it difficult or even impossible to properly operate the business.

He's a bit hyperbolic, of course, but his main point is correct. There are a lot of things that would be nice to do; but we should be careful about what people and businesses are legally required to do.

The last line of his quote, by the way, gets at the root of the problem. The increasing lawsuits are a symptom, indicating that workplace law and practice are out of step with the realities of modern living -- realities that have changed what people consider discrimination.

The market provides part of the solution, as enlightened employers change their practices in order to lure and keep employees. But not all employers are enlightened.

The legal system provides another partial remedy, applying updated interpretations to existing law. But such "fixes" tend to be patchwork and often increase murkiness rather than clarity.

The real fix is for Congress to establish clear, updated rules that spell out what sort of accommodation is required and what is not. That's a political process in which both employers and workers can have their say, not a legal process in which a sympathetic plaintiff can produce a result with unintendedly broad consequences.

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Making online pay

Rumor has it that the New York Times is abandoning its pay-only Times Select experiment. Let's hope so.

The New York Times is poised to stop charging readers for online access to its Op-Ed columnists and other content, The Post has learned.

After much internal debate, Times executives - including publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. - made the decision to end the subscription-only TimesSelect service but have yet to make an official announcement, according to a source briefed on the matter.

The timing of when TimesSelect will shut down hinges on resolving software issues associated with making the switch to a free service, the source said.

Personally this wasn't a huge deal, because we subscribe to the Sunday Times and get TimesSelect access thrown in as part of the deal.

But as a blogger it was very annoying, since nobody likes being linked to content they can't read. That led to three options: annoy my readers, don't blog about Select stories and columns, or quote so much of the story that it defeated the purpose of the firewall (and left me open to charges of copyright violation). It was especially annoying when I would read something in the dead-tree version that I wanted to write about, only to discover that the online version was in SelectLand.

Because I had access, I referred to TimesSelect articles when necessary. But I'm sure many, many people simply learned to live without the content -- and their lives were not noticeably poorer because of it.

The Wall Street Journal has the same problem with its Online Journal service. It's good content, but not so good that I can't live without it. The result is that WSJ content gets a lot less consideration in my blogging than it would otherwise.

I fully sympathize with both the Times and the Journal and all online publications, who are still trying to find ways to get people to pay for high-quality content. As bloggers, we're in the same boat -- and the lack of paying customers is why most of us do this as a hobby rather than a profession. The $30 or so I've earned on this blog in the last year doesn't exactly pay the bills.

Of course, there are other considerations. For instance, I like writing, which is one reason I blog. But even with that excuse blogging is a poor investment. Last year I earned $474 from selling a short story. If I was making rational decisions about my writing time, I'd ditch blogging and spend those hours writing fiction instead. Even if I only sold one story every 10 years, I'd be ahead of the game.

In the end I blog because I enjoy it, it makes me feel engaged in the political process, and I'm full of ideas and opinions that I want to share. But it sure would be nice if the market rewarded those efforts, instead of reserving its love for the sites that can draw a gajillion hits -- enough to make decent money despite the paltry online ad rates.

That's a long-winded way of saying that I'm all for coming up with ways to make money on quality content. But requiring registration seems to be a losing proposition. A lot of people -- myself included -- hate having to register at sites in order to view content, even when doing so is free. If people are resistant to registering when it's free, they're even more resistant to registering when it costs money.

Requiring registration also hamstrings the great strength of the Web -- the ability to surf multiple sites, gathering information from disparate sources. Registration encourages people to concentrate into segregated communities, an overall ill in a diverse democracy.

Admittedly, the problem is more one of reader perception than an actual legitimate gripe. People have no problem paying to subscribe to the Times, but balk at registering to read it online; that makes no logical sense. Why are we willing to pay for information in one form, but not in another, more convenient form?

Nonetheless, it's the reality. And it may remain that way until content starts to disappear because there's not enough money to support it.

But I think companies will find a middle way -- indeed, they've already begun. Notice how the online ads are getting more and more annoying? I especially hate the ones that expand to cover the article you're trying to read until you click on it to make it go away.

But that's the point. If the ads are really annoying, you'd probably be more willing to register in order to make them go away. And if registering brought other perks as well -- expanded comment options, access to sortable databases instead of static articles, expanded photo galleries, discussion boards -- suddenly registering might start to have value. For the best sites, people might even be willing to pay a reasonable fee. And publications could charge a premium for those non-annoying ads that they show to subscribers.

The basic idea -- free-but-annoying content to nonsubscribers, a much more rewarding experience for subscribers -- would preserve the publicity (and public influence) value of free content while providing a way for the creators to make money.

Even better would be if sites banded together to form a registration cooperative. That way, instead of having to register at dozens of different sites, you could register once and gain access to them all. Most of my objection to registering at multiple sites is the hassle of keeping track of them all.

Establishing a system of micropayments would help, too. If we all had something like a Paypal account, and accessing an article cost a penny, and payment was automated, most people would gladly pay without thinking about it. Reading 30 articles a day would cost you less than $10 a month. But for a blogger like me who gets about 3,000 hits a month, that would translate into $30 a month -- not a lot, but an order of magnitude more than I get now.

A site that got 1,000 hits a day would earn $3,600 a year -- not enough to live on, but not total chump change, either.

A site that got 10,000 hits a day would earn enough ($36,000) for the blogger to live on.

A site like Captain's Quarters, which gets 30,000 hits a day, would earn enough ($110,000) to be quite comfortable.

Any such micropayment system would be a huge target for fraud, as it would be very tempting to steal a penny or two from millions of people and end up with some serious cash. The safeguards would have to be robust. But again the general principle applies: people will start paying for content when the price is right and the mechanism is extremely convenient.

Now that the Times has abandoned its initiative, maybe it will throw its weight behind a push for such developments -- developments that are needed if the Internet is to mature into a true communications node, where great content -- provided by fairly compensated producers -- is just a click away.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Guest blogging at Stubborn Facts

I've been invited to guest blog over at Stubborn Facts for a couple of weeks while they're off getting their toes manicured. Or something like that....

My first post -- on the difference between "what's fair" and "what's legal" -- is up now. I'll post the full thing here at Midtopia tomorrow, and will probably cross-post simultaneously from here on out.

Thanks to Pat, Simon and Tully for the opportunity!


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Bridge update

Some interesting political reactions to the 35W bridge collapse.

In Washington, the House quickly approved $250 million to rebuild it. That's rational, and unsurprising.

Here in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is suddenly willing to sign the gas-tax increase he vetoed in two previous sessions. He is expected to call a special session devoted exclusively to addressing years of deferred maintenance on highway infrastructure.

And state DFLers (Democrats to you out-of-state readers), to their credit, have been avoiding the blame game, focusing instead on what the policy reaction should be.

Of course, some things don't change. Lt. Gov. (and MNDOT Commissioner) Carol Molnau, whose political priorities have been opposing transit projects and the gas tax, crabbed about the change.

On a gas tax, she said, "we do need to look for resources we can count on long term." But in order to solve the problem, she said, "we would have to raise gas taxes 34 or 35 cents a gallon. I don't think the motoring public can sustain that."

First, let's just note that Molnau is scaremongering a bit: the gas tax is not the sole source of revenue for transportation spending.

But let's take her at face value. The gas tax is currently 20 cents a gallon, and has not been raised since 1988. You'd have to raise it 15 cents a gallon simply to account for inflation. Another 15 cents a gallon on top of that to deal with the backlog simply isn't that onerous -- and it's called being responsible.

Especially because, as I've argued before, the real problem is that gas isn't expensive enough. Not to mention the other benefits of forcing people make rational choices about energy use.

Important as it is to address the backlog of maintenance work, however, we should try to avoid overreacting to the problem. We're not going to suddenly have a rash of bridge collapses, and we shouldn't overspend on a frenzy of needless, emergency repair work. A crash maintenance program would:

1. Drive up the cost of the projects in the short term, thanks to scarcity of materials and labor;

2. Play havoc with travel times;

3. Lead to a repeat of #1 a few decades down the road, as all those freshly repaired bridges and roads start to wear out at the same time.

4. Make the whole thing less doable politically.

So it will be good if this disaster leads us to confront the consequences of deferred maintenance. But the response should take a medium view. Increase spending and move up repair timetables, but do it in such a way that the work (and cost) is spread out over a reasonable length of time, say 10 or 20 years.

Further, the cost of maintenance should be incorporated into our long-term planning, to ensure we're only building as much infrastructure as we're willing and able to maintain. Other considerations aside, there may be times when a light rail line or bus rapid transit will be the way to go because doing so saves on maintenance costs compared to a freeway of similar capacity.

I'm not at all confident that the response will be so measured. Instead, I expect to see a combination of two extremes: "spend a lot of money now" and "talk about it, but after the dust dies down continue doing little or nothing." With luck I will be pleasantly surprised, especially here in Minnesota.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Coulter update

We have news in the on-again, off-again Ann Coulter voting-fraud scandal.

When last we left our intrepid she-male, an FBI agent (rumored to be her ex-boyfriend) had made an unsolicited phone call to sheriff's office investigators claiming Coulter was a stalking victim -- a claim that dissolved under minor scrutiny. Whether related or not, the investigator subsequently closed the investigation after interviewing one person -- the poll worker who originally reported Coulter's misplaced vote.

Case closed, right? Not quite.

While most expected the conservative pundit to be off the hook for good when the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office punted a voting fraud probe in April, the Florida Elections Commission now is investigating....

Sadly, there could be far less here than meets the eye. The FEC investigation was prompted by a complaint -- a complaint filed by Democratic campaign consultant Richard Giorgio. So the mere fact that the FEC is investigating doesn't say much about the evidence against Coulter.

The only penalty the FEC can impose is a $2,000 fine. But fear not! They also can refer the case to various state legal offices for criminal prosecution.

Remember the Coulter Credo: "Hope for the jail term."

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Illegal raids, should-be-legal spying

A couple of interesting court rulings on the extent of government power.

A federal appeals court has ruled that the FBI's raid on the legislative office of Rep. William Jefferson violated the Constitution, by allowing the executive branch to interfere with legislative business -- apparently because legislative documents were among those confiscated. It ordered the FBI to return those documents -- but not other, nonlegislative records.

That leaves unclear whether the FBI can use the remaining records in its case against Jefferson, or whether the appeals court has carved out a zone of criminal immunity inside the Capitol. Apparently that decision will be left up to the trial judge -- subject to appeal, of course.

At the time I thought that the FBI raid was legal, despite bipartisan Congressional objections, because the raid was narrowly focused and based around a properly grounded search warrant. And it seemed silly to establish a legal situation where a Congressman could safeguard incriminating documents simply by keeping them in his legislative office.

But that might be exactly what the court has established. While I recognize that Congress needs to be protected from executive-branch coercion, surely the Founders didn't envision an application that was so transparently stupid on a practical level. Nobody is above the law, not even Congressmen hiding out on Capitol Hill. This ruling gives Congress legal protections that not even the President has.

Update: The ever-dependable crew over at Stubborn Facts is assembling a legally informed view of the ruling. Here's the full text (pdf) of the ruling itself.

Update II: Pat at SF has now read the ruling, and I'm pleased to see that his opinion matches mine.

The Washington Post is reporting that earlier this year a FISA court judge ruled that the NSA cannot snoop on communications routing stations in the United States, even when both the sender and recipient are overseas.

This is a pretty big deal. FISA allows warrantless eavesdropping on foreign communications, but pretty much prevents it domestically. But thanks to the nature of the global telecommunications system -- and the evolution of the Internet -- a sizable chunk of foreign traffic is routed through servers in the United States. The FISA ruling placed a sizable chunk of that traffic off limits on a technicality.

While the ruling might have been technically correct -- I don't know -- it certainly violates the spirit of the original FISA law, as well as common sense. If it's legal to spy on the communications between two people, it shouldn't matter if that communication happens to be routed through American soil. The criteria should be based on the people being targeted, not the technical details of how they're communicating.

So Democrats are -- and should be -- scrambling to update the law so that such eavesdropping is legal again. And while in earlier years -- and a Republican majority -- Bush simply ignored laws he didn't like, now he is going about things the proper way, pushing Congress to make specific revisions to the law -- revisions that are much narrower than the sweeping, retroactive approval he sought from the previous Congress.

Of such small steps is respect for the rule of law made.

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Ethics bill awaits Bush's signature

The Senate passed the ethics bill 83-14 last night, sending it to President Bush's desk for his signature, completing the end run around Sen. Jim DeMint.

Bush has indicated he might veto it. This makes little sense for two reasons. First, the bills passed with overwhelming majorities (the House vote was 411-8), so a veto would be symbolic, not substantive. Second, even if Bush thinks the bill is worthless, it only affects Congress and candidates (well, and executive branch officials who want to become lobbyists but don't want to have to wait two years to do so). So why does he care?

Never mind that his specific comments echo the "perfect or nothing" attitude of other critics, who attack the bill because it is weaker than the initial Senate version passed in January. Yes, it is; but it is also an improvement over the current rules. Should we throw out those improvements simply because they do not go far enough? Or should we instead view this bill as one step on a longer road?

But the funniest quote is from Mitch McConnell:

"This bill isn't nearly as tough as it would have been on earmarks if Republicans had been involved in writing it," McConnell said.

Uh-huh. Except that when Republicans were in power, they passed nothing. And while one might be tempted to blame Democrats for blocking those efforts, the fact is that Republican opposition was very, very steep as well. And Democratic actions aside, the proposed bill (HR 4975 of the 109th Congress) was weaker than the current bill.

For instance:

1. The ethics rules would only apply to the 11 big spending bills, and they would have sunsetted at the end of the year.

2. Instead of banning gifts from lobbyists, it simply required that such gifts be reported.

3. It didn't increase the wait time before members could become lobbyists.

4. It allowed members to accept privately funded travel.

5. Earmarks needed only be identified, including the sponsoring Congressmember. It didn't include, for instance, the requirement that the list be available 48 hours before the bill is voted on, or that members certify they have no financial interest in the earmark.

So claiming Republicans would have done it better rings just a little hollow.

McConnell does, however, get it right in the end:

"But weighing the good and the bad, many provisions are stronger than current law."


There are plenty of legitimate veto targets out there, notably the bloated water bill -- which, indeed, Bush has promised to veto. But the ethics bill isn't one of them.

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I tried to go over and see the downed bridge yesterday, but the police have blocked off access to all the obvious observation points. Which seems a bit misguided, given the hundreds of thousands of people who have some personal connection to the bridge, if only from driving over it thousands of times.

Meanwhile, Just to keep things in perspective, consider this: A bridge collapses in Minneapolis, killing at least five people and (it was thought at one time) as many as 30. It gets intense international media coverage, including television coverage from as far away as Japan.

Then yesterday, a train derailed in Congo, killing 100 people.

It merited a 10-line brief in my paper's world roundup.

For local media, it makes sense to focus on local events. And given that the bridge collapse occurred here, it makes sense that my paper would obsess over it. But I'm pretty sure the treatment would have been the same regardless. And I'm sure other papers had extensive coverage of the bridge collapse and the same short brief on the Congo crash -- if they mentioned it at all.

Again, for national media, it makes sense to pay more attention to homegrown events than things happening overseas. And for everyone, it's easier to get interested in stories where there is plenty of riveting video.

So this isn't an attempt to bash the media. But at the end of the day, 10 or 20 times as many people died in what must have been a horrific crash in Congo. Our local tragedy doesn't even begin to compare.

Count your blessings.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Close calls

Frankly, I'm not in much of a mood for blogging today, as the Twin Cities absorbs the loss of the 35W bridge and the deaths of at least four and probably a couple of dozen people.

Traffic moved pretty well this morning, thanks to the state essentially turning an alternate highway into a freeway by turning off the traffic lights and blocking access from side streets. A new bridge will probably take two years to build, so they're also looking at longer-term fixes like turning road shoulders into extra lanes and things like that.

It seems like the bridge just got old and fatigued, and frequent inspections, while noting some issues, failed to spot the problems. Which may simply be a comment on how hard it can be to spot a weakening bridge.

One of my best friends from college normally is on that bridge around that time, commuting home. After the bridge fell, his wife spent a frantic hour or so trying to locate him, but the cellphone network was overloaded and she couldn't get through. Finally she sent her brother over to his office to look for his car. They found it; he had gotten stuck in a conference call. The bridge collapse and Twins game letting out meant he didn't get home until late into the night, but that was far better than the alternative.

Over at Centrisity, a friend of Flash's was on the centerspan that fell into the river. She's fine, but flip on over for a picture showing her car.

I work just a few blocks from the river. Later tonight I'm going to walk over and take a look.

Update: Added links to some of the information above. Meanwhile, the fingerpointing has already begun.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Highway bridge collapses in Minneapolis

The Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed tonight, right at the end of rush hour.

So far, fatalities and injuries seem miraculously light, but that may just be a function of lack of information. It seems unlikely that there wouldn't be a substantial number of fatalities.

I don't use that bridge in my commute, although my wife drove across it twice earlier today. But we're all okay as are everybody we know.

Hope for the best.

Update: This is a major traffic artery. Tomorrow's commute is going to be a mess. And since it could take a year or more to rebuild the span, the Twin Cities are going to be a traffic mess for a long time.

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