Category Archives: Politics

The 2 percent

Over the last thirty years I’ve kept in my mind the fact that there are about 3,500 counties in the U.S.  I learned this when we developed a CD-ROM streamflow database and needed to code in the county in which each stream gauge was located.

But, my recollection was off a bit–there are 3,144 counties and “county equivalents” in the U.S.  I learned this a few days ago from the Los Angeles Times, along with a more disturbing fact–two percent of those counties account for more than half the executions in the U.S.

From The 2% Death Penalty

I’ve long opposed the death penalty, but that opposition was hard to maintain in the face of some of the cruel crimes people commit.  Some people just need killing, is how a not-liberal friend put it, crudely.  Even after I’d come to my opposition, I would find myself throwing horrible crimes up in front of my more dogmatic friends to try to shake their certainty, and perhaps mine.   The death penalty, war and abortion are not easy things to be thoughtful about–it’s much easier to be dogmatic.

What initially brought me to opposition to the death penalty was the certainty that it would be, that it had been, applied in error.  By error I mean the clear case where the accused was not even involved in the crime.  Many people have been exonerated from death row, proving that convictions have been made in error.  I’ve heard people argue that there is no proof that the wrong person has ever been executed, but that notion is laughable.  I  am certain that by now someone has established error in execution “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Later I came to understand the bigger problem with the death penalty: when you did do the crime, your likelihood of receiving the death penalty depended on your race, the race of your victim, your wealth and where you lived.  Some argue that the relatively small chance of erroneously executing someone is the price we pay for safety or deterrence or accountability or whatever.  But, the effect of jurisdiction, at least, is huge and systematic–those two percent of counties contain only about 16% of the U.S. population, but commit 52% of the executions.  At a finer scale, the differences can be even greater:

[T]he probability that a notification to seek death will
be filed in Baltimore County is over 13 times higher than in
Baltimore City, even after taking into account important
case characteristics. The probability of being death
notified if a case is in Baltimore County is over five
times greater than if it occurred in Montgomery
County and three times greater than if it occurred in
Anne Arundel County.

R. Paternoster et al., “An Empirical
Analysis Of Maryland’s Death Sentencing System With Respect To The Influence Of Race And Legal Jurisdiction” (2003) (most easily available in The 2% Death Penalty (pdf))

As long as we allow any discretion in the application of the death penalty these differences will remain.   It’s human nature.   I now believe that having to forgo revenge is a relatively small price to pay to maintain our morality.

With respect to the veracity of eyewitness identification, read Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo.  This is a story that demonstrates the cruelty, the failings and the beauty of human beings.


Vegan Warriors

The IDF is also issuing leather-free combat boots and wool-free berets to soldiers who register as vegan, so they can march into battle knowing that no living creature has been harmed in their provisioning. (What happens during battle is, of course, harder to control.)

That is the only hint of irony to be found in Vegan Warriors in the December, 2015 issue of the Atlantic.

You simply have to read this and draw your own conclusions.

Self deportation

One prominent bit of news today is the report by the Pew Research Center that more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than are entering the country.

Press coverage makes the obligatory reference to Donald Trump and the Wall that the Mexican government (in his fabulation) will pay for.   It will be an interesting construction management challenge, with Mexicans working on the Mexican side and Amirkins working on the U.S. side.

It occurs to me that Trump’s Wall might have some effect.   The Pew study shows that family reunification is the primary force that is driving the “self-deportation” of Mexicans, but economic forces are also important, so by creating good jobs on the Mexican side of the border, Trump’s wall might increase out-migration.

Seriously, I think Mexico will create a lot of good jobs in the coming decades.  Anyone who has traveled in Mexico and Central America (or paid attention to the lives of immigrants here) knows that the stereotype of the lazy latin is the self-serving propaganda of lucky Americans.  Mexicans (and Guatemalans), in my personal experience traveling there, work much, much harder than Americans.  Most Americans would collapse in tears and self-pity after an hour trying to work as hard as a Mexican, here or there.  I expect that work ethic to pay off and bring Mexico closer to parity with the Yanquis.   When that day comes, I’m pretty confident that the set-upon estate class in America will figure out some way to be able to avoid paying a decent wage for their landscaping.

He sat up and wrapped his feet and pulled the boots on and stood and started up the last stretch of canyon to the rim. Where he crested out the country lay dead flat, stretching away to the south and to the east. Red dirt and creosote. Mountains in the far and middle distance. Nothing out there.  Heatshimmer. He stuck the pistol in his belt and looked down at the river one more time and then set out east. Langtry Texas was thirty miles as the crow flies. Maybe less. Ten hours. Twelve. His feet were already hurting. His leg hurt. His chest. His arm. The river dropped away behind him. He hadnt even taken a drink.No Country for Old Men, Cormack McCarthy.

Back to Trump’s wall.  He has obviously not traveled much of the border–the topography from Lajitas to Langtry will demand that some significant parts of Texas be walled off.   Here’s what the Rio Grande Canyon looks like below La Linda.

Ray Bridge on the Rio Grande in Reagan Canyon below La Linda. 1974.

OK, I forget that the Donald will get Mexico to pay for his Wall, so, he also probably plans to force them to build it on their side of the river.

It’s true that the border has not been closed.  Here’s an undocumented alien crossing the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon above La Linda.


Here’s the Rio Grande crossing at La Linda in 1999 (Mexico is on the right).   The bridge served the potash mine on the Mexican side, which shows up framed by the bridge.   It was operating when I took the photo of Ray, above, in 1974, but had been abandoned by the time this photo was taken.

Approaching the La Linda bridge on the Rio Grande, November, 1999.

The structure on top of the bridge is a big fence with a super-fortified gate.  It is all stainless steel, including the razor wire–probably built to some DOD spec.   No one would try to cross there.  The river takes a left turn just past the bridge, with a gravel beach on the left and a sharp, steep bluff on the right.  There is a cut with a track through the bluff.   Here’s what it looks like below the bridge, looking upstream.


The guy who picked us up told me that he’s seen eighteen-wheelers come through there.

Enough is enough

We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror.  Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after the Paris attack of November 13, 2015.

The best revenge is to outlive the bastards.
Edward Abbey, paraphrased.

I haven’t been a fan of Merkel’s handling of the European economic difficulties, but  she seems to be reacting thoughtfully to the agonizing situation arising from the Syrian refugees.   And when I read her words above, following the Paris attacks, I wished she had been President of the United States on September 11, 2001.

Enough is enough.
Roger Cohen writing in the New York Times about the ISIS attacks on Paris.

Cohen cites the North Atlantic Treaty as requiring a response from all signatories–an attack on one is an attack on all.  OK, some response is needed.  Merkel says Europe must fight, and Hollande has begun air attacks.  It’s hard to believe that the U.S. and even the newly liberalized Canadians won’t respond.  The question is what that response should be.

What Cohen contemplates is the complete destruction of ISIS:

“…the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq.” 

I think this is not possible–ISIS is not the Empire of Japan or Germany, countries that could be reduced to rubble and starved–and to try to do so would be foolish.   And, even if you succeeded, then what would you do with what remains (A Marshall Plan for Syria, anyone?), and what else might pop up to take its place?  Who should know this better than a Bush, but Jeb Bush is ready to declare war.  Other Republicans are calling for “boots on the ground” and the destruction of ISIS.  Tough talk, but those boots would be worn by someone else.

Our last two big wars, the longest and third-longest in our history, have been fought by what are essentially mercenaries paid on credit.  Besides those soldiers, no one in the U.S., except the families of the dead and wounded, has been forced to bear any cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, except for the cost of little magnetic-ribbon tokens of support put on the very cars for which we gladly pay ransom to one of the primary ideological and financial sponsors of terrorism .

So, to prove we are really, really serious this time, let’s get a declaration of war from Congress that includes these two provisions:

  1. Re-instate the draft.   Everyone must have some skin in the game.  This time it must be for both sexes, and there must be no deferments, with alternative service only for conscientious objectors (whether or not religious).  Look, I’m sixty-seven years old, and would be a hazard in combat, but I can serve somehow, and so can you.  And,
  2. A War Surtax, calculated and applied each quarter to cover the cost of the war.   I would make this tax strongly progressive based on wealth.  Those with the most to protect should pay more.  Heck, let’s gross that up thirty percent or so to pay off the cost of the last two.



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.


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.