Your money, your choice

(Apologies to the Republican National Committee for the title.)

Writing in the New York Times today, Linda Greenhouse reports that religious non-profits have filed seven cases with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging language in Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act) that allowed religious non-profit employers to opt out of a requirement that they provide contraception as part of a health care plan.

When an organization opts out of this requirement, coverage is provided by the organization’s insurance company, without the organization’s involvement, so the employee may still obtain contraception.  In the Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, the Supreme Court required accommodation for for-profit companies whose owners held religious objections to birth control.

The cases filed before the Supreme Court argue that even requesting to opt out of the requirement made the organizations complicit in the employee’s use of birth control.   An eighth case goes further, arguing that whether or not the organizations are right about the law, just holding a strong belief that the accommodation is wrong is sufficient cause to be entirely relieved of any action that might facilitate their employees obtaining birth control.

Greenhouse goes on to look at these cases in light of statutory and case law, paying particular attention to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.  Her article is worth reading.

But, what has been lost in all of the discussions about this issue is  that the religious organizations are essentially telling their  employees how to spend their own money.   Employer-paid health insurance is part of an employee’s compensation.  It’s been that way since the practice began as a way to get around wage controls during World War II, and it is that way now.   Twenty five years of helping start and run a small engineering consulting firm demonstrated to me that health insurance (like vacation and other benefits) is compensation.

As a small firm we were at a disadvantage when courting potential employees for just this reason.  We could offer comparable or better pay, vacation and retirement benefits, but we could not compete directly with the much broader and less expensive health insurance coverage that large firms could offer.  Our business manager would   sit down with candidates, tote up the dollar value of salary and each benefit, including health insurance, and show them that our package was equal to or better than the other firm’s offer.

Obamacare is a baby step toward getting employers entirely out of the health insurance business.   When we reach that point, religious organizations of all types will no longer be able even to argue complicity in their employees’ own decisions.    Another benefit will be that small businesses will be able to compete for talent on a more equal footing with large businesses (and will be able to do something productive with the time they used to spend negotiating with insurance companies.)

Ship’s Log, October 27, 1915


On this day, one hundred years ago, the 28-man crew of Endurance, members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Earnest Shackleton, abandoned the ship, onto the ice of the Weddell Sea, off the coast of west Antarctica.

On January 9, 1909, along with Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, Shackleton had completed the longest advance south over the Antarctic continent in history, setting a new farthest-south mark at 88°23’S, only 112 statute miles from the South Pole and more than 400 statute miles farther than the previous record.   For this and other accomplishments, Shackleton was knighted by King Edward III.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition intended to conduct a march across the continent from Vahsel Bay, on the Weddell Sea, to  McMurdo sound (near the location of the current McMurdo Station.)   Endurance had departed the the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia on December 5, 1914 and sailed south.  The ship was beset in ice on January 18, 1915.   Shackleton wrote in South of his thoughts on February 14, 1915:

“I had not abandoned hope of getting clear, but was counting now on the possibility of having to spend a winter in the inhospitable arms of the pack. The sun, which had been above the horizon for two months, set at midnight on the 17th, and, although it would not disappear until April, its slanting rays warned us of the approach of winter. Pools and leads appeared occasionally, but they froze over very quickly.”

On October 24, 1915, the ice floes of the Weddell Sea finally overcame the Endurance, and its hull began to give way.

“Then on Sunday, October 24, there came what for the ‘Endurance’ was the beginning of the end. The position was lat. 69° 11´ S., long. 51° 5´ W. We had now twenty-two and a half hours of daylight, and throughout the day we watched the threatening advance of the floes. At 6.45 p.m. the ship sustained heavy pressure in a dangerous position…The onslaught was all but irresistible. The ‘Endurance’ groaned and quivered as her starboard quarter was forced against the floe, twisting the sternpost and starting the heads and ends of planking. The ice had lateral as well as forward movement, and the ship was twisted and actually bent by the stresses. She began to leak dangerously at once.”

Endurance in the ice of the Weddell Sea.
Endurance in the ice of the Weddell Sea.

Cruelly, on the 20th, just four days earlier, hopes had been high that the ship might escape the ice.

“A strong south-westerly wind was blowing on October 20 and the pack was working. The ‘Endurance’ was imprisoned securely in the pool, but our chance might come at any time. Watches were set so as to be ready for working ship… At 11 a.m. we gave the engines a gentle trial turn astern.  Everything worked well after eight months of frozen inactivity, except that the bilge-pump and the discharge proved to be frozen up; they were cleared with some little difficulty.”

On October 27, there was nothing to do but survive.

“Then came a fateful day–Wednesday, October 27. The position was lat. 69° 5´ S., long. 51° 30´ W. The temperature was -8.5° Fahr., a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky.

‘After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, the end of the ‘Endurance’ has come. But though we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition. It is hard to write what I feel. To a sailor his ship is more than a floating home, and in the ‘Endurance’ I had centred ambitions, hopes, and desires. Now, straining and groaning, her timbers cracking and her wounds gaping, she is slowly giving up her sentient life at the very outset of her career.'”


When Senator John McCain said he would hold committee hearings if Bowe Bergdahl was not punished as a deserter, Bergdahl’s lawyer objected.   McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee that, it turns out, will review any future command assignments or promotions for General Robert B. Abrams, who will decide the sergeant’s fate.   The lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, said that Senator McCain’s statement could influence General Abrams.

I don’t think McCain’s statement changes anything; Abrams surely understood both McCain’s views on Bergdahl and the Senator’s power over the general’s future in the military.  What McCain’s statement, and the resulting publicity, has done is make apparent to the broad public another of the shortcomings of the military justice system.  It may also have raised the stakes for Abrams because a decision to punish Bergdahl will always have an asterisk.

But, you who live in states that elect judges should not feel self-righteous.   At the very best, judges in those states have one eye on public opinion, and that’s just at the very best.  Elected judges may also be influenced by the views of supporters or contributors, whose fate or whose friends’ fates they may be deciding.  Colorado voters saw the light in 1966, I’m happy to say.

Right-sizing a parking lot

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.  H. G. Wells.

It is no small irony that McGuckin Hardware announced yesterday that it will start giving employees $240/year toward the purchase of a commuter bike.  This, and provision of EcoPasses (RTD transit passes) to employees is hoped to reduce the number of parking spaces used by employees and thereby increase the convenience of parking for customers.  (On any given day, McGuckin employees use about 50-80 of the 890 spaces available at the shopping center.)

I won’t presume that McGuckin opposed the Right-Sizing of Folsom, but the store was frequently cited by opponents as one whose business was being reduced by the three-lane configuration.   That’s why this announcement made me chuckle–McGuckin employees will still face the most important impediment to transportation cycling: concerns about safety while riding in traffic, something, the primary thing, that the Right-Sizing was intended to address.

(Bus service to McGuckin, from most parts of town, is anything but direct.)

It is also worth noting that anyone who approaches McGuckin from the north on Folsom will have to make a left turn to get to the store, either at Canyon, or in the block south of there.  The three-lane configuration makes a left turn much easier.  Take it from me–I’ve made thousands of left turns, in a car and on a bike, off of the three-lane segment of northbound Broadway.   Right-sizing is good for business.

Muggers, at last!

If you get this title, you are way behind the times.   It’s probably culturally opaque to anyone who is less than about 65.

Before we go further, this post is about guns.   If that is going to make you mad, stop reading here.  Unless, that is, you like getting mad.   If so, then, be prepared for my one-strike policy on comments.

I’m going to write more about guns, from an intensely personal perspective, and that will provide more context, but events drive me to write this now.

The title is a line from The President’s Analyst (1967).  The film was a commercial failure then, but I liked it, and I think it is almost timeless in several ways.

“Muggers, at last!” was spoken by Jeff Quantrill (Joan Darling), the mother of a family of gun-toting, martial-arts-trained liberals with whom Dr. Sidney Schaefer (George Coburn), the President’s analyst, has fallen in while evading operatives from the CIA, the FBI, Russia, China, and The Phone Company.

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: These guns. Karate. Why?

Husband Wynn Quantrill: The right wing extremists. Disarm them and us liberals will disarm.

When the operatives finally find Schaefer, going out to get Chinese with the Quantrills, Jeff and Wynn (William Daniels) are beside themselves with joy to be able to use their weaponry and skills.  While Wynn blasts away with a huge handgun, Jeff expertly dispatches several intelligence operatives with the Karate.  Schaefer could not be in better hands.

I think of this line and the scene often when reading comments about “Good Guys with Guns”.  (By now, that term may be trademarked by the NRA.)  In the wee hours Friday, Steven Jones got hit in the face during a fistfight with some fraternity boys near the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.   I think we can be certain that alcohol was involved.  During the altercation, a group came out of the fraternity house and chased Jones, who ran to his car and retrieved his handgun (equipped with a cool flashlight).

By this time two of the eventual victims had stopped following him, but they turned around when Jones yelled that he had a gun.    Jones said that he then shot them both.  Two others were also shot.  One witness, a friend of Jones, said that one of the victims asked Jones why he had brought a gun before Jones shot him multiple times.  One young man was killed and three were wounded.

Jones said that he then provided first aid to the dying and wounded.

Jones sounds like a “Good Guy with a Gun”.  He apparently has no psychopathy, at least in the formal sense.   I’m sure he will plead self defense, and that may be effective.

What I have related comes from news reports.  If I were on a jury, I would give Jones the benefit of the doubt.  But, I’m not, and I won’t, because I think his behavior is typical of an attitude that is unfortunately very common among Gun Nuts.

Can anyone really doubt that Steven Jones was looking for trouble?  That he was looking for glory, looking to be a hero, almost desperate for the “righteous shoot”?   Why else the call that he had a gun?   In this sense, Steven Jones is no different than Chris Harper-Mercer, who a few days ago killed nine fellow students and wounded nine more in a quest to become “somebody”, to become famous.   And, neither of them was motivated any differently than a two-bit gang banger.

The bottom line here is that if Steven Jones had not had a gun, no one would be dead, unless Jones was man enough to beat them to death with his fists, or maybe a stick.  Somehow, I think that if he had not had a gun in his car he would have kept running.

Will the NRA and the Gun Nuts style this as a righteous shoot, and Jones as a “Good Guy with a Gun”?

How many people die each year because a “Good Guy with a Gun” goes looking for trouble?

Does Boulder have too many jobs?

Does Boulder have too many jobs? If you are out of work, then Boulder needs at least one more job. If you are a commercial developer then Boulder needs as many jobs as you can convince the planning department to let you squeeze onto your particular piece of land. If you are a real estate investor, including all of us who own homes, or if you are a newspaper, or a car dealer or a lifestyle publication (“Inspired by community”), then Boulder can never have too many jobs.

But, if you commute to work here and would like to live here, or if you just care about having a real community where nurses, teachers, firefighter and mechanics might hope to live, then the answer is yes, Boulder has too many jobs. According to materials produced by the City’s Department of Planning, Housing and Sustainability as part of the revision of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan, Boulder now has 2.2 jobs per household. By itself, that number may not mean much, but let’s put it in context. In previous draft documents, the planning department provided estimates that Boulder has twice the number of jobs per household as the Denver metropolitan area as a whole. OK, maybe that helps explain some of the reason that housing is more expensive here, but is a two-to-one ratio really that far out of whack? What about other areas?

Data about this are hard to find for the average person (like me), but a 2008 study by the University of California provides some information. Boulder has more jobs per household than any of the 15 California communities with the highest ratio of jobs to households. I guess, if I understand the report correctly, Boulder is already off the charts. The California areas that are closest to Boulder in this respect are Orange County and San Francisco, but those areas only have about 1.5 jobs per household. So, Boulder has one-third more families chasing the available housing stock than does San Francisco. And, San Francisco has the BART. Orange County, by the way, does not have oranges any more, except in museums.

What does the future hold? Will the market fix this? Will increasing density fix this? Can we build our way out? Again, the planning department provides some data. When Boulder builds its last office building and its last residential property under its current zoning “capacity”, what is called “build-out”, the City will have nearly three jobs for every household. This is twice the ratio for the most job-rich California communities.

More than fifty years ago Boulder set out to become a compact and, most important, a finite community, one that rejected the bigger-is-always better model. This idea was opposed at the beginning, and has been opposed ever after by those who profit from growth, but also by people who feel that a community must grow to remain vibrant. That view holds that a town is either growing or it is decaying—a community and an economy cannot thrive without growth. Among the arguments against controlling growth is that limiting growth in an attractive place like Boulder will inevitably result in a wealthy enclave. If not rectified, the jobs/pop imbalance in Boulder will lead to that outcome, which will discourage other communities from trying to control growth. Much of the value of Boulder’s leadership in community planning will be lost or discounted. Lost as well will be the vitality of our community.

The “jobs/pop” issue is not new and it is not a surprise.  People have recognized this problem since at least the 1980’s. Several attempts have been made to re-zone land to provide a balance, or to impose other processes that would lead to a better balance between jobs and dwellings. All have failed. Although I don’t believe the real-estate investment sector had a hand in the origin of the jobs/pop imbalance, it has consistently, energetically, and effectively opposed fixing it. That opposition has been effective in creating a current sense of inevitability fatigue about the jobs/pop issue.

I’m tired, too, but the stakes are high. Even at this relatively late date it is possible to fix this, but it will be hard and it won’t happen without the kind of foresight and gumption that once moved Boulder to do other hard things. Certainly, a form-based code, as pleasant as that sounds, will make no difference. Those who advocate increasing density in order to moderate the price of housing in Boulder need to recognize that the population of Boulder would nearly have to double at build-out in order to bring us just to the same relative demand for housing as San Francisco.  That would require 19 more Boulder Junctions.

2015-10-09 14.35.02
Boulder Junction

Leonard May has proposed a few sensible things we can do to preserve affordable housing, but there is more that we can accomplish by working on the demand side of the housing supply-demand equation. I suggest that we re-focus our primary community-shaping efforts, and money, from Open Space, which has been very successful in creating a compact community, to an Urban Space program that would implement some of May’s ideas but would also put resources to a long-term program of converting commercially-zoned land (and even existing commercial developments) to multi-family housing. This will lead to a higher build-out population for Boulder, but in my view that will be well worth the value of recovering a vibrant community. While we are at it, we would have the perfect opportunity to build “15-minute” neighborhoods that will have many benefits.

Given the self-interest of current home owners (I am one) and that of the real estate, retail and publishing sectors, I can’t be too optimistic that Boulder will find a way to fix this. Maybe in 50 years Pearl will be as notorious as Rodeo Drive, and Boulder will have Maserati and Ferrari dealerships (“It’s the lifestyle”). If this future concerns you, if you have a shred of optimism, and if you want to at least try to move Boulder in the right direction, cast your votes to discourage development of new jobs and to encourage development of new housing. For me, that means voting for 301. As for candidates for City Council, I suggest first Leonard May, who has been most specific in his proposals, Tim Plass who has suggested rezoning commercial land to residential and Suzanne Jones who also recognizes the problem, which is the first step to a solution. Beyond them, I have no idea.

When I first wrote this, I suggested voting against 300.  I’ve now reconsidered and I will vote for this measure.   While I’m concerned that neighborhood referenda could block sensible ideas that would increase affordable housing (everyone will have to give a bit), I think the power 300 gives neighborhoods would be balanced by a new awareness of city-wide issues and (at least I hope so) a new responsibility and motivation to help find solutions to our most fundamental challenge.  That power could also be a positive force in overcoming opposition to those solutions from the development sector.

Middle Fork, 1973

Sometime in about 1972, Jeanne Hemphill introduced me to Bill Hamann, a fellow civil engineer, and still a serious hard-man hiker, climber, runner and skier.   (Bill grew up in North Dakota, and it must have been tough up there, as he never complained.)  Bill got me a job at William B. McDowell and Associates (continuing in business some 40 years on as Scott, Cox & Associates, with at least one old McDowell hand still around.)  Not coincidentally, Bill McDowell was the boss there.   Bill M. was a crusty, command-and-control sort of boss, whose politics were diametric to mine, but he was a skier, hiker and river runner.

Bill Hamann and I still laugh whenever we hear the term “galvanizing”.   One project we worked on was the design of a wastewater treatment plant for the Winter Park Ski Area.  (Bill M. had made a good business of ski area engineering, including designing some lifts.)   The plant would provide additional treatment to the effluent from an existing aerated pond.  The first step was to design a process, and to test our design we build a pilot scale plant in an old house trailer that was hauled to the site.  I visited that plant frequently to take samples and adjust it.

The central part of the plant was a settling system, essentially a big steel tank with specially oriented baffles.  Bill H. and I had designed it and had it fabricated by a steel company in Denver.  Bill M. had told us to galvanize the tank, but Bill H. and I had figured out that it would be much less costly to have it painted with epoxy paint.  We brought our information to Bill, who turned us down.  Being young, and confident in our judgment, we thought that perhaps we had just not been clear enough, since using the paint would save a fair amount of money, and the thing was only going to be used for a period of months.   So, after a little discussion among ourselves, we went back and made our pitch one more time.  I have a clear recollection of standing in front of Bill M.’s desk, explaining, and realizing that he was getting tenser and tenser.  Finally, he could take no more of this and he stood up, slammed his fist down on the desk and yelled “Galvanize it, goddammit!”   Bill H. and I still provoke each other with this sentence.

(By the way, I’ll save you the need to visit a galvanizing plant–it really does remind one of those hot, vaporous, corrosive images of Hell.)

But, besides getting some good experience, and a great private joke line, I owe Bill M. for introducing me to river trips.   I had been learning to kayak for a few years.  It was a slow process, that started with building a boat, then slowly gaining some semblance of skill.  Only a semblance, at first.  I had thought of kayaking as something like skiing–a kinetic experience and nothing else.  But, that changed when sometime in the winter or spring of 1973, Bill M. invited Bill H. and I to go to the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

The catch was that Bill H. and I would need a raft.  In those days you could hardly buy a raft, much less rent one.  Bill M. used old military surplus “10-man” assault rafts.  These were heavy neoprene coated canvas, and came equipped with laced flaps to attache a light machine gun on the bow, and a pocket with tapered, circumferentially grooved wooden plugs to seal bullet holes.  But, a 10-man raft would cost a couple of hundred dollars, and Bill H. and I didn’t have that kind of money.  So,we went to Gart Brothers Sporting Goods and bought a cheap, yellow raft, not much more than a toy, for probably $39.95.  It was about ten feet long.  We built a wooden frame for it, and got nice ash Smoker oars, in which we took great pride.  The entire rig, though it was assembled neatly and with craftsmanship, was probably the subject of much laughing and joking by the parties we passed.

This trip is where a lifetime of river running started.  I’ve gotten much joy from exploring rivers around the world.  Thanks Bill.

This uses NexGen gallery (free).   The photos at full res can be found here.



Wherever the law is, crime can be found.  Aleksander Solzenitsyn

I feel a little awkward featuring this quote, because I was introduced to it by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his article on incarceration and the Black family.   But, it is entirely relevant to the topic, and perhaps the contrast between his use and my use will emphasize that most of us face only first-world problems here in Boulder.

It’s also worth remembering that just before the initiation of Right-Sizing on Folsom Boulder Police shot and killed a young CU math student who was evidently under the influence of “bad LSD.”  Samuel Forgy was naked and armed with a hammer.  He was 22.   Only a couple of anguished people wrote “wait a minute, folks” letters about Forgy’s death.   They were drowned in a sea of anger about a minute or two delay on whatever errand, and about government overreach and arrogance.  The irony of that last thought in the face of Forgy’s death leaves an acid taste.

But, back to the first world (or, perhaps the zeroth world, in Boulder).    One thing we got out of the Right-Sizing project is a little data, and one of the things we learned was that 15% of drivers exceed the 30 mph speed limit on Folsom north of Bluff by at least six or seven mph.  The average speed there exceeds the speed limit by two or three mph.  These speeds are a couple of mph lower than before the Right-Sizing, which is one of the objectives of the approach.

Boulder Mayor Matt Applebaum reportedly asked City transportation staff why, instead of installing the three-lane configuration, they didn’t just lower the speed limit.  I don’t know how the staff answered him, but I hope they told him that reducing speed limits has very little effect on speed, because that is true.  Raising speed limits has more effect, but less than you might imagine.

It turns out that road conditions, traffic conditions and the road configuration determine how fast people drive.   Hence the logic of the three-lane configuration.

The one thing that raising the speed limit does do is reduce the frequency of noncompliance.   Right now approximately half the drivers on this stretch are violating the speed limit.  If we raised the speed limit to 36 mph only about fifteen percent would be in violation.

This most recent spasm of anti-bike rage in the local paper is different from those that periodically preceded it only in the intensity of the anger expressed.  I think that intensity is more a function of the time than anything else, and has little to do with actual attitudes toward cyclists.  One thing that was the same-old-thing, though, was the complaint that bicyclists wantonly run stop signs and commit other infractions, and should be called to account.  This is often a prelude to calling for visible license plates and taxation of these freeloading miscreants.

Whenever I read these letters I think, “What’s the big deal, lots of motorists breaks the speed limit.”  Now we have the data.

So, I suggest we give bicycles the same latitude taken by motorists.  On Folsom that’s 36 mph versus a speed limit of 30.   At a stop sign that translates into 6 mph versus a speed limit of zero.  Take a deep breath, and chill.