Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tucson Ciy Council proposes double taxation of renters; 700 turn out to protest

Like the State of Arizona, the City of Tucson created new spending programs and padded old ones during the construction boom. Now that the boom has went bust, they're predictably trying to raise taxes to balance the budget, when they should instead be cutting programs. (Talk to an opponent of spending cuts sometime. It's amusing. If we can't eliminate programs without sliding into some sort of Third World conditions, why don't I remember it being so bad before they existed?)

Among the tax increase schemes under consideration is a 2% rent tax, as reported in the Tucson Citizen and Arizona Daily Star. Over 700 people turned out last night to protest this proposal, with well over 100 requesting to speak.

The issue was mostly framed as being whether or not renters are able to pay the increase. That's a silly way to discuss taxation, it would have nearly any small tax increase being OK. Harms come at the margin. The questions that should be asked are: should the additional money be the City's? Why? And is the tax fair?

Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, according to Daily Star commentator Josh Brodesky, has renters paying less than their fair share. As this is ridiculous, Uhlich should be voted out of office. Renters do not directly pay property taxes; their rent instead reflects the level of property tax that must be paid by their landlords. They pay rent, the landlord pays the property tax, thus they're already paying for city services just as homeowners and business property owners do. A rent tax would amount to double taxation of a particular class of people, a balancing of the budget at renters' expense to the benefit of homeowners and business property owners.

The rental tax is the brainchild of Uhlich (D-Ward 3), Regina Romero (D-Ward 1) and Rodney Glassman (D-Fraternity Row). When it comes time for a vote, I'll let readers know who was in favor and who was against. Those who voted in favor ought to be evicted from their offices when the time comes--both double taxation and taxation of peculiar classes ought be simply unacceptable. Tucsonans often give their officials a free pass. The presence of over 700 angry members of the Geritol Set at last night's meeting means that this may not be the case. Opponents of rent taxes are getting organized, having launched a (lowbrow) website. Word is that John Kromko, Mr. Ballot Initiative, is considering launching a referendum effort to repeal the rent tax if the Council approves it. Kromko's ability to get things done has waned in recent years, but here's hoping he has one more success in him.

A further hearing will be held on Tuesday, 5 May at 5:30 PM. I'll be able to attend this one, and will keep readers up to date on further developments.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

That's the way to do it!

A long post on checkpoints, reasonable suspicion, and probable cause has been in the works for over a week. Until it's up, take a lesson from two or three University of Arizona undergraduates. The Daily Wildcat reports:
The RA told police that while he was doing rounds, he smelt the odor of marijuana. He said he traced it to the men's room, so he called another RA up to the floor to see if she smelt it too. The other RA did smell marijuana, so he made contact with the people in the room. The RA said that there was another man who lived in the room with the student, but he left the scene after being asked to stay. When he returned, he began to yell at and harass the RA, saying that there was no marijuana in his room and that he was being wrongfully persecuted. The RA said the man would not allow him to speak because he constantly interrupted him and spoke over him.

Police had the man take them up to his room. While they were walking there, the officer noted that the man showed him a lot of attitude. The man was cursing and saying that the situation was "so unfair and unjustified" because there was nothing in his room and he does not smoke marijuana.

When they got to the man's room, the officer asked him if he had smoked any marijuana in there. The man said no.

While police were talking to the man, another resident from a neighboring room tried to interject, even when the RA told him to go back to his room. He continued to stay near the scene.

Police asked the man if they could search his room, but he refused saying that he would prefer not "because of principle." The man said that his roommate was in the room all night and was sleeping.

Police knocked on the door and the man's roommate answered. He seemed to be in a daze from waking up, and was asked if there was any marijuana in the room. The roommate said no. Police noticed that there was a strong odor of marijuana coming from the room as soon as the door was opened. They asked the roommate if they could search the room, and he too said no.
That's precisely what should be done. Never give your consent to a search.
Police noted that every time they tried to talk to the first man, he accused them of "bullying" him or "being mean" to him. He would not allow officers to speak and he refused to stop talking when asked to be quiet. Throughout the incident, the man continued to yell at the RA and told his roommate not to speak with officers.
"Bullying" sounds like childish hyperbole, but see what follows.
Police asked him if there was nothing in the room, why would he not allow them to search it.
"Well, officer, let me search your home, too. You have nothing to hide, right? And let's have a look at that hard drive. Do you have a license for that copy of Leisure Suit Larry--and what would the wife think?"
The man continued to say that it was on principle. Police told the men that they had the right to deny a search, but the more they cooperated the better it would be for them (Emphasis mine--BSK)
See, bullying. "Cooperate or else." Bullshit. Maybe not bullshit if la migra is involved and there are few to no witnesses--more on that later. But here, bullshit.
Both men said that they still did not want police to search the room. The man became so upset at one point he started crying and would not stop for several minutes.

The man was referred to the Dean of Students Office for disorderly conduct.
Note that he's not going to Pima County court. He's being referred to a university inquisition. And if he were smart, he'd retain a lawyer. Being a University student shouldn't mean being forfeit one's Fourth Amendment-protected rights. (It shouldn't mean being forfeit the right to keep and bear arms in self defense protected by the Arizona constitution, either, but that would seem to be a matter for another year.)

Update: Evan Lisull of The Desert Lamp beat me to it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Win-win" environmentally friendly home improvements for Arizonans (Earth Day post)

I don't know whether or not one can wish another "Happy Earth Day." It really isn't that sort of holiday. It's more like Patriots' Day (19 April), a time to reflect on ideas, facts, and responsibilities.

The Industrial Revolution yielded rapid and immense gains in human standard of living. In the rush to attain these gains, our legal institutions did not keep pace, did not adapt to take into account the spillover harms (negative externalities) associated with these novel activities. Man was surely more prosperous but was at the same time fouling his nest, to his immediate and long-term detriment.

Things have gotten quite a bit better since the first Earth Day. The U.S. and several other countries with acid rain problems have brought matters under control with cap-and-trade systems. Once-moribund waterways have come back to life. The U.S. passed a Clean Air Act and established an EPA--there is room for improvement of both, but they're a start. Common-law "Environmental Justice" continues to yield results in the courts. Ozone layer thinning and a southern-hemisphere "ozone hole" was found and we are well on our way to mitigation thanks to surprisingly effective international cooperation through the Montreal Protocol. I could go on.

But there is room for improvement. We have made no significant progress towards mitigation of two very serious global anthropogenic harms: warming and ocean acidification. (Readers who have genuine questions about either of these concerns, either due to denialist noise machine induced confusion or their own curiosity, who have sought out answers in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report should feel free to e-mail me their courteous queries. Your name, your city of residence, your query, and my response will be posted on a different 'blog.)

There's no sensible change Arizona, alone, could make to its policy to mitigate this harm. As was the case for ozone layer damage, Federal and international cooperation is necessary. There are small win-win improvements Arizonans can make, however, that can both lower home and business carbon footprints and save consumers money.

Arizona is rarely cloudy, and relatively close to the equator; solar irradiance is high. Solar water heating and solar electric generation can be cost-effective in many far cloudier places, but they make even more sense here. A properly installed system can pay for itself and more over its lifetime. Making the payoff even quicker are tax credits and incentives. An Arizona tax credit will pay for 25% of a residential solar hot water, heating, or photovoltaic system, up to $1000 per residence; the Federal tax credit, on which the cap was lifted, will pay for 30%.

Several of the state's electric companies also provide incentives. Tucson Electric Power provides up to $1,750 up front for residential solar hot water or space heating installations and $3 per watt up front for photovoltaics. The Salt River Project offers incentives for both, and a nifty web-based calculator of incentive levels and time to simple payback. Metro Phoenix's APS offers incentives at similar levels for solar hot water, solar space heating, and photovoltaics.

Other electric utilities elsewhere in the state might also provide incentives; check their websites. TEP and APS offer further incentives for geothermal and all are giving commercial incentives, as well. APS is now offering incentives for nonresidential installation of solar absorption cooling

Further governmental incentives are available for efficiency upgrades. See the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency for more information.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cannabis for Arizona

Evan Lisull of the Desert Lamp has already remarked on the nonsense of the ban on recreational use of Cannabis sativa. The ban on any plant which has any use whatsoever that doesn't threaten the public safety is absurd. Banning plants that are used safely is even crazier. Millions of South Americans use coca, daily, yet coca is banned in the USA. Thirty million Americans use marijuana regularly--nearly a tenth of the population!--yet it is banned. It's legal in most of India--look up "bhang" when you get the chance--and does Indians no serious social harm, yet it is banned here.

Not only is the ban absurd, its repeal could benefit Arizona. Cotton farming requires intensive fertilizer use, pesticide spraying, and irrigation. Cannabis requires less fertilizer, almost no pesticide, and less water than even Pima cotton. Less water on the cotton fields means more in the rivers. (Longtime readers will know that I support riparian restoration and a cap-and-trade system for water resources management.)

We could grow, here in Arizona, sight- or even lifesaving medicine, a nutritious seed, a fiber that can be spun and woven like linen or processed into plastic, and even make construction materials from the waste product. This is an environmental and economic opportunity just waiting to be exploited: hemp and "wacky tobaccy" to replace cotton as an Arizona cash crop. What's not to like?

Oh, right. Legal hemp would drive William Randolph Hearst out of the paper business. And we can't have our Captains of Industry taking losses, can we? And the next thing you know, too, the white women will be lusting after colored jazz musicians. The only worse imaginable thing would be the legalization of absinthe.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Proximity to Sonora is one of the great benefits of living in southern Arizona. It'd be better, of course, if the immigration situation were straightened out (just adopt a quotaless, shall-issue visa policy and let the market decide!) but we nevertheless have access to archaeological and ecological tourism, both "party" beaches and "getaway" beaches, inexpensive fruits and vegetables, amazingly cheap dental care, and the innumerable joys of cultural contact and exchange.

Cuisine and produce are the most trivial of these--buying menudo on Sunday to calm a battered stomach is no more experiencing Mexico than ordering a box of chow mein is experiencing China--but that doesn't make it meaningless to broaden one's culinary horizons. And as Alford and Duguid demonstrated in Beyond the Great Wall produce and recipes can be used as a starting point for cultural study and appreciation. Which brings me to the point of this post: If someone offers you bacanora, have a sip. Even if he explains it as "Mexican moonshine."

I'd heard a bit about this (until 1992, illegally) home-distilled spirit, and the rumors were mixed. It was either something to rival the best sipping liquors of the world, or harsh, foul-tasting firewater. The Sonora tourism website mentions that the name is now protected and boasts of it as a regional specialty, but as far as I can tell there are only two commercial brands, and I haven't seen either in area stores. The example I had today was certainly a homemade product, brought to a party by a Sonoran friend who took a liter across the border in a wine bottle (presumably legally, as he declared it as bacanora) and in turn put it into a flask for transport today.

And it was more "sipping liquor" than firewater: not as refined as top-shelf commercial brandy or whiskey--possibly merely due to lack of aging--but something clearly showing care and craftsmanship. As it's made from agave, I expected it to be like tequila. It's not. There's certainly an agave base note, but there's a profound smokiness, too, the result of the roasting of the maguey "piña" directly over hardwood coals. The difference is akin to that between Irish and Scotch whiskey.

Note to self: if the science career doesn't work, there's a business opportunity in this.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A drink with bread and jam: thousands turn out for tea parties.

I salute those who turned out for the over eighteen "tea parties" across the state. It isn't that I think very highly of demonstrations, but it pleases me to see people going out of their way for the limited-government cause. And, importantly, you caught the press's attention.

The Tucson Citizen reports over three thousand in attendance in Tucson; Phoenix's event starts in about twenty minutes.

Remember that raising one's voice is not political action. Follow this up with organization and with a push for change. Consider reviving Axe the Tax, and let's make sure we pass the next Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act.

Much shame on David Safier "AZ Blue Meanie" of Blog For Arizona for calling the protests "racist." "Socialist" isn't a substitute for "nigger". It's a term the less educated use for politicians who support redistribution of wealth, who stir up class envy, and who can't imagine a solution to problems like those we're facing in health care that involve getting a market working. It's technically inaccurate as a descriptor of policy--Obama at his worst is more of a Social Democrat or New Dealer--but it's accurate as a descriptor of values. Anyone who takes the time to try to understand his opponents would understand this. But not Safier "Blue Meanie", nor one "Jill Tubman" who he echoes.

Those laws of economics are still in effect.

Say no to Newton's Law of Gravity! It is a sexed equation, so unyielding in its symmetry between masses and in the geometric precision of the inverse square law. It codifies the false egalitarianism of right-wing reactionaries--it's crypto-fascist--by not taking into account either mass's individual circumstances or background, the authenticity of its struggle, or the possibility that one or both of the masses might feel on the inside as though its inertia really ought be different from its gravitational charge. That it is so unforgiving--ouch!--further belies its extreme right nature. Newton's Law is incompatible with progressive, enlightened values and the replacement of dog-eat-dog, rugged individualist capitalism with a more equitable, just, and sustainable society.

We can do this at the polls, right? After all, back in 2006 we succeeded in repealing the laws of economics. Price theory would no longer apply to wages. Raising the price of a service beyond the market equilibrium would not result in people buying less of the service. It will not result in an increase in price of other goods and services. It will not result in some services or goods provided or made using wage labor becoming unprofitable. And anyone who tells you post-hoc that the increase hurts the marginal worker--at first teenagers, people coming off of welfare, the retarded, the disabled--is spouting the propaganda of a special "right-wing" economics, and can't be trusted because of self-interest, anyway. Folk economics is right. There are victims and villains, have-nots and haves. The wage payer, a "have", who doesn't give his workers, "have-nots" a "living wage" is guilty of murder, after all, people need a "living wage" to live. And it's giving, not purchasing. Wage payers are responsible for the welfare of wage laborers just like chieftans are responsible for the young braves. It's the order of things.

Oh wait, it's not. Restaurant owners are being hurt by the minimum wage law which in turn results in less opportunity for those who would sell their services as waiters or busboys or dishwashers to restauranteurs. But they can't be, because we're hearing it from those greedy "haves". It must be special Right-Wing Economics and propaganda.

Does anyone else think that economics needs to be taught in schools at all levels? People who think in terms of zero-sum economics, of "haves" and "have-nots", vote, to our detriment and theirs.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Meet and confer, promulgate and rescind.

Until the National Labor Relations act is rescinded and common-law freedom of contract restored, your narrator is an opponent of unions and unionization. Unions as we know them, under the current legal regime, are oppressive and exploitative. Nevertheless, in the week or so since news of Jan Brewer's executive order repealing Janet Napolitano's eleventh hour establishment of a "meet and confer" unionization process for State employees, I've tried to make sense of Brewer's rationale, and have concluded that her case is somewhat weak.

It'd almost have been better if Brewer had said "we're repealing this because it was an eleventh-hour regulation." That sounds a bit childish at first, but it could be made respectable were Brewer to turn it into a governing principle, i.e. to say "and I expect my successor to rescind any executive orders I make in such a fashion." Instead, Brewer claims that Executive Order 2008-30 would expose the State to legal claims by unions for "fair share" expenses from non-dues-paying members. That's not prima fascie nonsense, but the Arizona Court of Appeals (Division 1) has found, in AFSCME Local 2384 v City of Phoenix and the City of Phoenix Employment Relations Board (CV 04-0766) that Article 25 of the Arizona Constitution prohibits such a claim. It's possible that one of the public sector employees' unions could bring the case again in a different appeals court division and take it all the way to the AZ Supreme Court, but is it likely? Read the court's opinion, and consider that U.S. state courts have invariably found "agency" or "fair share" fees incompatible with right-to-work laws. Moreover, in Napolitano's scheme, the unions aren't really representing the workers in contract negotiations, anyway, so even if unions in Arizona could claim agency fees, they can make no such claim based on participation in the "meet and confer" process alone.

The bombast in the rest of Brewer's order is equally silly. Meet and confer doesn't establish a "precedent for mandatory unionization", let alone send us down a slippery slope toward "deprivation of essential public services."

That having been said, there are a few good reasons to cheer the quick rescinsion of "meet and confer". While the representation process established by Janet Napolitano doesn't require that state workers be represented by outside membership organizations (unions) it seems designed that way. Napolitano's order is poorly crafted, calling an organization the workers' "duly elected representative", without any condition on what person actually meets with the director of an agency. Nothing precludes the workers from electing themselves to be represented by the "committee of the whole" and to simply send one of their number, selected by vote or lot, to the meeting, but it's rather obvious that this was designed to give labor unions--major Napolitano contributors--a place at the table without cost to the worker. Moreover, the "meet and confer" procedure established democratic elections, winner-take-all affairs, as legitimate means for worker representation. It'd have been better simply to require agency heads to hold quarterly open meetings to hear about morale, cost-efficiency, budget strategy, and employee safety from any workers who'd care to attend.

Friday, April 10, 2009

And for an example of a less impressive student commentator:

Read Taylor Kessinger in the Daily Wildcat kick a dead horse and slip in a few trite remarks about capitalism in the process.

"Original Intent" is a dead legal doctrine. Dead like Richard Nixon, Optimus Prime, socialism, George Mason, and Jesus. Dead. The mere idea that the U.S. Constitution had a singular original intent is nowadays considered ridiculous, and has been for some time. The Philadelphia Convention was a summer-long argument, and as soon as the fifty-five delegates left the room there were disputes over the nature of what they wrote. "Original intent" remains a trope on the far right, at its best shorthand for an aretaic vision for the U.S. based on a founding myth, but it's not taken seriously by legal scholars. S

So why write over five hundred words condemning it? Because it's an easy target? Hang around any college long enough and you'll hear heartfelt condemnations of fascism, which is also dead. But you'll have to strain to find the same invective directed against e.g. social democracy. Kessinger's a reasonably sharp guy, perhaps one who even understands that column-inches are valuable and wouldn't waste them on something he knows to be dead. So maybe he doesn't know that it's dead. But if he doesn't know that original intent is dead, why would he deign to write about legal theory in the first place.

It gets goofier.
So-called "originalists" like Antonin Scalia, as well as "paleoconservatives" like Ron Paul, are like Biblical literalists: They claim to be unbiased and to have a magical, direct conduit to the writers' intent, but they don't.
Not all originalists do the original intent thing. Most don't, because original intent jurisprudence is dead. Scalia certainly doesn't, and if Kessinger can point me to a counterexample, I'll buy him a pizza. Like Clarence Thomas, he's a textualist of the "original meaning" variety, which is a much different school of thought than original intent. And Ron Paul's reading of the Constitution is an unscholarly, self-serving, maybe-sincere sui generis mashup.

And starting again from the top, goofier still.
It's the legal discourse equivalent of Godwin's Law.
Except it's not, because it doesn't come up at all in serious legal discourse.
Take a look at the Second Amendment. From an objective point of view, the sentence simply is not very well-written; its meaning totally changes depending on whether or not the second clause ("the right of the people to keep and bear Arms … ") is meant to be dependent on the first ("a well-regulated Militia, being necessary … "), as well as whether the first comma is omitted or not.
This may be "an objective" point of view but it's also naïve; this has been dealt with decisively over the last few decades; Kessinger might find Larry Tribe's remark in the third edition of American Constitutional Law a palatable place to start. Worth noting is that the Second Amendment is one place where original intent jurisprudence can almost be done, and it gives quite a different answer than the textual originalism brought to bear in the Court's decision in Heller.
and that gun ownership is not usually an effective form of self-defense
Where? Perhaps Kessinger is technically right on this one, since merely owning a firearm isn't a form of self-defense at all, but if he intends that to be a claim that firearms are not effective tools for self-defense, it's so ridiculous that I doubt he could overcome the burden of proof. Kessinger's a small, skinny guy, too--I wonder what his take on self defense is. I'd recommend a semiautomatic pistol.
Similarly, if they knew what we know today about how badly capitalism fails at safeguarding the environment or ensuring universal access to health care
To say that "capitalism" fails at safeguarding the environment or ensuring universal access to health care is to say that there is no way to change the regulations defining a market system so as to safeguard the environment or to fix some failure of the health care market that has services underprovided to paying consumers. Ronald Coase would vehemently disagree on the first point. Peter Orszag, Robin Hanson, Uwe Reinhardt, John Cochrane, the people of Singapore, and did I mention Uwe Reinhardt? could set him straight on the latter.

One thing we're not teaching in the schools, or that the students aren't learning, is scholarly modesty. I'd be embarrassed to have my name in print associated with such wild claims. I wouldn't write about such disparate topics without being confident that I knew a little something about each, and then still I'd do so from a position of modesty. It's worth noting that what Kessinger does here by repeating trite hipsterisms about legal theory and half a dozen other topics, many free-marketeers--someone at the Goldwater Institute who'll go unnamed immediately comes to mind--do by repeating red-herring arguments about global warming.

Anyway, I don't even mean to pick on "the kids", but now that you have a basis for comparison, you can see why I had good things to say about the Desert Lamp guys the other day. Good commentary does not consist of repeating something some smart person said. Modesty and skepticism need to be brought to bear.

Being a classical-liberal in Arizona is like being a Chicago baseball fan.

"It's finally 'next year'" was the prevailing thought on this 'blog and among the free-minds-and-free-markets set for a few short weeks in January and February. But it's shaped up to be more like 1994.

Not 1994 in politics, but 1994 in baseball, and those who know what those first four words mean will know exactly what I'm talking about. I don't follow pro ball anymore, but was a zealous young (White) Sox fan in '94. After years of being second to the Oakland Athletics and a quick playoff loss the previous year to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Sox were the dominant team in the AL and it looked like they might go all the way to the World Series. And then the players' union declared a strike in early August. What does a kid with a lifesize Carlton Fisk poster (at the time, a slight anachronism) on his bedroom door and still young enough to be a "fan" of a pro team know or care about antitrust law and pension contributions? The team you'd been cheering for since you were first taken seven years prior--time immemorial to a kid, and way too young to understand half the game!--to fabulously decrepit, intimate Old Comiskey ("Kaminski" to the old folks, which makes perfect sense to a Chicagoan!) was finally ahead, and then the whole thing stops. No fair! Bummer.

And after seeing school choice legislation, campus concealed carry and other firearms liberalization legislation, and the like thwarted by use or threat of Janet Napolitano's erratic veto every year since I moved to Arizona, and the Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act thwarted in part because Napolitano allowed executive-branch leftists to campaign against it using "company" letterhead and on "company" time, I had hoped that, now that Napolitano has been replaced with Goldwater Republican Jan Brewer, this legislative session would bring progress. What I expected was for the legislative majority and the governor's office to move forward, rapidly, on consensus policies that neither thought would hurt their party's chances at the polls in 2010--for the legislature to act on the vision set forth in the Governor's inaugural address and also attempt some culture-war mischief to see what they can get away with.

Instead, it's been a one-topic session: how to balance the budget that the past few legislatures and Napolitano irresponsibly grew during the boom times in a sick cycle of appeasement.

The most exciting bill of the session, the HCR 2014 striker, is dead; HCR 2014 itself never received a first reading. I phoned Nancy Barto's office the day the striker caught my eye asking what citizens could do to aid its progress; her staffer remarked that any action on it this session would be unlikely.

But last Friday, to my surprise, I received a call back from Rep. Barto herself. (Paula Aboud, whose staffers never even return constituent calls, should take note.) I've only been watching the process for a few years, and I'm still learning the subtleties; Rep. Barto told me that it would be unusual for LRCAs to be acted on in the first session of the term. The goal was to get people talking about this so that we're ready if and when it makes the ballot in 2010. I remarked previously that the striker is far better written than the Freedom of Choice in Health Care Act; according to Barto, all stakeholders were invited to the table when the bill was drafted, to the point where we'd be able to say "why didn't you raise your concern earlier." And although the bill did not receive first reading in the House, there's a chance that an information session will be held in a few weeks when the Senate starts considering House bills.

I'll let readers know of any developments as soon as I hear them. We can establish constitutional protections against health care and health insurance mandates and rationing in Arizona. This bill leaves no room for mal fide misinterpretation, our new governor is unlikely to tolerate Anthony Rodgers-style campaigning using State letterhead, and perhaps more importantly, thanks largely to John Cochrane, the public is finally becoming aware that "single payer" socialized medicine isn't the best or only possible healthcare reform. As the baseball fans say in Chicago, "next year".

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Congratulations are in order.

University of Arizona undergrads Evan Lisull and Conor Medenhall, co-bloggers at The Desert Lamp, won the America's Future Foundation's 2009 College 'Blogger Contest, meaning that ten thousand dollars and a trip to DC for a panel discussion on higher education will come their way soon.

Given the high quality of their 'blog, I'm certain they'll be more than bystanders in that discussion. AFF seems to exist in part to maintain the "conservative and libertarian" meme decades past its expiration date, but don't hold it against Lisull and Medenhall; they've brought a good (classical-)liberal sensibility to bear on university affairs and even managed to make remarks of great substance about the banal popularity contest that is student government.

They've also become in short time the deans of the University of Arizona's emerging 'blogosphere, Under the Sun, encouraging 'bloggers and bringing new 'blogs with potential to the public's attention. That they've frequently linked to and remarked on Goldwater State content hasn't gone unnoticed or unappreciated, either; the traffic brought by The Desert Lamp and Ballotpedia is what has motivated me to more frequently update here, and to find people to take over posting when I finish this PhD and leave the state. (Interested? Send me an e-mail.)

Congratulations to the guys at the Desert Lamp: the honor is well deserved. Theirs is a student 'blog so good you wouldn't think it's a student 'blog.

One the Mike Hein firing.

Tucson's voters are ridiculously un-critical when it comes time to vote for local government. This is the city that elected antidistinguished citizen Rodney Glassman to its council; party labels matter more than character, reputation, or policy positions.

But I suspect that there's a threshold level of incompetence even Tucsonans won't tolerate. When firing a city manager, as the Tucson City Council fired Mike Hein on Tuesday, it's worth keeping the following in mind:
  1. It is difficult to say that gross, long-term failures of the manager do not also represent failures of oversight. Tucsonan voters can ask "Why did you just start worrying about the defecit now?"
  2. Managers do not set policy. If a manager is fired because of the failure of Council policy, it highlights the policy mistakes of the Council. Case in point: Rio Nuevo.
  3. A fired manager is usually at liberty to speak of a Council's failings. If the Council blames Hein for the City's defecit, and Hein in turn reminds them of their refusal to take his advice, the council--and even individual councilmen--is revealed to be at fault.

In short, barring gross, unexpected staff misconduct, it's impossible for a City Council to cleanly pass the buck. The Tucson Citizen editorial board isn't believing the excuses. Neither is Frank Antenori, which usually means neither do quite a few others who agree but don't have the guts to be Frank Antenori.

This isn't to say that Hein was doing a great job supervising and coordinating staff--there are far more subtle problems than the buddy punching to which he delievered a weak response--or as Executive Director of Rio Nuevo. And the retirement scheme he concocted, which, as I understand it, is not a reason for his firing, was a wrongheaded response to the deficit; getting rid of competent people and institutional memory is the opposite of streamlining. But the voters should consider that their elected officials, too, ought be fired. Most of Hein's failures are in many ways their failures.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Quotation of the moment:

Horowitz would have been more convincing had he argued that the Marxist professors of his youth were more fun and interesting to listen to than the postmodernist professors of today.

That's Justyn Dillingham, in today's Daily Wildcat.

If your only tool is a hammer, you might be David Horowitz.

In today's Daily Wildcat, Justyn Dillingham interviews White Black Panther turned crusader against left-wing academics David Horowitz lectures tonight at 7:30 in the Education building at the University of Arizona.

It appears that he hasn't evolved much in his thinking since his last visit. I took him to task in the Wildcat back in 2007 for fretting too much about the mere existence of theories of left-wing pedigree and not enough about the real nature of bias in academia, which is far more insidious, and for verging on calling for a false balance in every course syllabus. Longtime Horowitz bogeyperson V. Spike Peterson couldn't possibly teach her Gender and Politics course if she had to spend time on foundations of canonical gender theory and on the (many, good) arguments against them.

Every course at the university, beyond the survey level, comes with a set of assumptions. Those in a physics course are less controversial than those in Gender and Politics--unless the topic up for discussion is climatology, in which case the right-wingers "question" the validity both of radiative balance and of using digital, automatic computers (as opposed to the old-fashioned human kind) to do calculations--but they're there. Should each semester's physics course cover modern philosophy of science, disputes over foundations of e.g. statisical mechanics and quantum physics, and additionally the probably mal fide right-wing misgivings about digital computers?

Horowitz worries about students being indoctrinated with "infantile leftism"--and were that happening, it ought to be worrisome--but he misses his own infantilizing assumptions:

  1. Students cannot assume things that, strictly speaking, are not true, like the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the social construction of gender, for the sake of exploring an idea without coming to mistake these assumptions for truths.
  2. Without being told that an opinion is opinion, students will mistake it for fact.
  3. Students will not know that foundational issues, such as the social construction of gender, are in dispute unless they are explicitly told so in their classes and will not locate the opposing views unless these are presented by their professors.

Horowitz is an anti-intellectual gadfly, but one whose rhetoric is tuned to provoke legislative interference in the curriculum. We do need more policing of intellectual standards at our universities, and to say "no more" to studies departments which become havens for those whose approach to the liberal arts is ideological. But not by the legislature, and not for the reasons Horowitz emphasizes. To invoke Barzun, there ought to be no room for merely laying a sieve over a problem and reporting on what comes through. The trouble with Marxism, gender feminism, and the like is that they are mechanistic.

And that's the problem with Horowitz, too. He lays a sieve over a syllabus and sees what comes through. All too often, he reports artifacts of his methodology as though they were genuine phenomena. Two years ago, graduate student Sung Ohm emphasized dialectal and critical reading in his English 101 syllabus, but because the reading list was radical left, the course must have been, lack of evidence be damned, an attempt at indoctrination wherein students will be graded based on their demonstrated acceptance of the ideas presented in the course reading.

Evan Lisull of The Desert Lamp did some digging and reveals Horowitz's criticism of at least one other syllabus to miss the point. Horowitz cries "bias!"--as if it's a bad thing for professors to have opinions--and makes believe that students will be indoctrinated because a course includes an introduction to Marxism, when he should question whether Marx merits inclusion and why certain other thinkers are omitted. Marxism! Bad! Infantile leftism! Must...slander...professor!

Horowitz supports equal time, but he's not showing us academic types how that would work. I think it's safe to assume that the probability Horowitz will tonight present Kalafut's opposing view--that Horowitz's criticisms are misplaced and amount to anti-intellectual slander--is very close to zero.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Phoenician audience isn't quite as naïve as I thought.

Before tonight, my last trip up to Phoenix's Symphony Hall was for Ning Kam as featured soloist followed by the
orchestra's rendition of the Ravel orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. Not only is that a poor choice for an orchestra of that size, but the performance was extremely ragged for a full-time, professional orchestra. Yet the audience was on its feet at the end. I may have been the only one still in my seat. It was as though they were applauding Ravel the colorist or the grandiosity of Mussorgsky's final movement or even hearing such a familiar work live, in their own city. The performance itself wasn't worthy of a standing ovation, and the piece is so established in the Romantic canon that the one cannot or oughtn't applaud the composition.

Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances received top billing tonight, but the real reason to go--and certainly the reason I drove all the way from Tucson!--was Time for Three and the concerto "4-3" composed for them by Jennifer Higdon. I have a mixed opinion of Higdon as composer but this work--a bluegrass hallucination of sorts, with nonstandard technique and at times nearly absent development in the first movement followed by a thrilling blitz of fiddle and bass and almost playful exchanges with the orchestra in the second--is a standout, proof that modern art music can be simultaneously adventurous and fun. (Look for a full review of the performance on Associated Content soon.) And at the end, I was one of the first to stand and applaud. But maybe a third of the audience, including many of the older attendees, remained seated and some didn't applaud. No boos, but the disapproval could be felt. One man of about eighty turned to the person next to him, asked, "you liked that?", and gave a thumbs-down with a surprisingly nimble flourish.

Signs of consciousness in the audience! I disagree with their opinion, but am pleased to see that Phoenicians don't elevate everything to the status of greatness. Judgement, taste, and controversy are both signs of and contributors to the health of the fine arts. However, at the end, there was a near-unanimous standing ovation for the Rachmaninoff. The performance was far better than last November's poorly-xeroxed Pictures, but nothing special. I know now that the Symphony Hall attendees aren't zombies; their standards are a different matter.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

School Choice in AZ: Where to go from here.

By now, readers have heard that Arizona's two school-choice voucher programs, for foster children and the disabled, were struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court in their Cain v. Horne decision for violating Article 9, Section 10 of the Arizona Constitution. As I hinted in my previous mention of the matter, that the voucher program violated the plain language of the AZ Constitution is obvious and the decision, however harmful, was not an injustice.

Robert Robb covered much of what I would have wrote in a guest opinion on the matter, albeit with different emphasis; you thus won't see anything in the newspapers from me. But what I'd have put in a guest opinion and what I have to say about the matter are not coextensive sets.

Whatever immediate harm it brings to foster and disabled children, the defeat in Cain v. Horne could be turned into victory by further action, much as the defeat in Kelo v. New London brought about the passage in forty-two states of laws prohibiting use of eminent domain takings to transfer from one private party to another, and enabled us, in Arizona, to additionally enact Epstein's doctrine of partial takings into law through passage of 2006's Proposition 207. Here we have two programs that harmed nobody, that didn't even constitute a token violation of Establishment Clause civil liberties (as the SCOTUS has definitively ruled and the ACLU-AZ will learn again soon when Hibbs v Winn is decided on its merits), and that helped to get disabled children the education the one-size-fits-all legacy public schools couldn't give them, and give disadvantaged foster kids some stability. The decision was just in a legalistic sense, but it was the equivalent of taking candy from babies. If the public were to be made aware of this--"An obsolete and gratuitous clause of our State Constitution harmed schoolchildren, and disadvantaged schoolchildren at that!"--we could effect change for the better.

Three non-mutually-exclusive options present themselves:
  1. Amend the State Constitution. There are two ways to do this. The simplest in many respects is a legislatively referred constitutional amendment (LRCA), passed as a resolution by the legislature and sent to the voters for approval in the next general election. The other is by petition; in Arizona, constitutional amendments may be proposed as initiatives. This is expensive and somewhat difficult due to the high signature requirement.

    The fight we will have on our hands if we try this will be from opponents of private education, and the argument that they will make is that we are taking protections against public subsidy of religion out of the State Constitution. This is of dubious merit for reasons explained in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris: an accident of private choice doesn't constitute establishment or subsidy of religion. Dubious merit, however, doesn't mean much when the question is put in front of the voter. Only a naif would think that the majority of voters think things through, and as Bryan Caplan has remarked, the bozos don't cancel each other out, either.

    This could be mitigated somewhat if the amendment is kept conservative. Instead of striking all of Article 9, Section 10, merely strike "or private or sectarian school." This may be slightly problematic; I do not know if parochial schools are legally separate from the Church, and payments to churches would still be prohibited. If this is the case, then the parochial schools could legally separate from the Church. That's a nonideal situation, but if it helps the kids, it's probably worth it. Likewise a school could be a "public service corporation", but that schools were listed separately means it's likely that a court would find that they are not.

  2. Expand the education tax credit. That Arizona's tax credit program runs afoul of neither the State nor the Federal Constitution is settled law. ACLU-AZ's frivolous Hibbs v Winn (against which I bucked hard after the Zelman decision came out) is still out there, awaiting the ruling of the Ninth Circuit, but it has no peculiar twist that prevents the reasoning in Zelman from being applied in toto. The tax credit program, in brief, provides a capped dollar-for-dollar credit for individual donors to "School Tuition Organizations", specially privileged and regulated charities which must contribute at least ninety percent of what they take in to pay tuition fees for schoolchildren. It's better than nothing, but it does nothing to address the market failure at hand. A dollar-for-dollar tax credit to parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, or anyone else who pays all or part of the tuition fees of a particular child, capped per child at the state's per pupil expenditure on the legacy public schools, is in order. If it begins with a pilot program covering foster children and the disabled, that's a good start.

    Any tax relief, even this sort, which "pays for itself" will be a hard sell at the moment due to the State's current budget woes. Democrats are already targeting the existing ersatz tax credit. Their intentions aren't good, either. It's not as though they're out of other options; they're doing this because they oppose school choice for ideological reasons and because, being a relatively small and politically unorganized minority, private-school kids and their families are an easy mark.

  3. Foster and disabled children could be served by tuition organizations. School tuition organizations (to those of us who know what "tuition" really means, that's a horrible term) of the type for which donors can receive the tax credit could be set up specifically to serve the populations directly harmed by this ruling. A campaign could start--and I suppose it just began with me--encouraging taxpayers to make the maximum donation to these charities. We could teach the anti-choice public a lesson and beat them over the head with our magnanimity for years to come. "We support school choice because we want to do better for the kids, not for teachers' unions and obsolete institutions for which empty-headed types feel nostalgia. And we stood up and helped the kids you condemned to an inferior education." I'd get the ball rolling on this myself, were it not for this PhD thing in the way! Take my idea as inspiration and run with it--and let me be the first to know if you do so.

This will be a difficult fight. If editorial writers at the Tucson Citizen still don't understand the rationale for school choice, it's a sign that the average Tucson citizen and the average Arizonan doesn't understand it, either. There's no excuse for that at this late date--the idea is at least forty years old--but such is the nature of ignorance. And there'll be a backlash against this from public school parents. We're already seeing this on the ever-ugly newspaper comment boards. Union sleaze at Arizona chapter of the NEA call the total amount of money disbursed by school tuition organizations "Loss of Funding for Public Schools and parents don't see the slight of hand. The average person with the 100 IQ doesn't see the slight of hand. The AEA can't point to any loss of funding at all, but parents and much of the public believes that those charitable disbursements were taken from the public schools that their kids attend. And on top of this we have the "Idiocracy Factor", a combination of faux nostalgia for mediocre institutions and aversion to difference. "Why can't they go to regular school like normal people?" Listen hard enough to opponents of school choice, and you'll hear all of the tics and tropes of oppressors of out-group minorities.

And we can't rely on success of choice programs elsewhere to make the merits of change obvious. Every time concealed carry was proposed, we heard the same things over and over. It didn't matter that Washington didn't see "blood on the streets" and "people just 'running around' everywhere with guns" and shootouts over parking-lot disputes. It didn't matter that Florida didn't see them. It didn't matter in the forty-eighth state to adopt concealed carry that it was successful in forty-seven states. And last year when we were trying to get a campus concealed-carry bill passed it didn't matter that concealed carry has been legal and unproblematic in Arizona for years. We still heard the same stale arguments against it, and the press took these people, however ridiculous, seriously. It's a wonder that the press doesn't seek out supporters of the Divine Right of Kings every time there's an election, to "balance" their stories. Intellectual credibility is not the same as credibility with the public and thus not the same as credibility with politicians and the press. The evidence in our favor will help, but however definitive, a great many people, on seeing the real world clash with ideology, will decide ideology is right and the world is wrong.

The fight will thus be difficult, but I am confident that we, champions of markets, liberty, moral individualism, and the welfare of the individual child, are on the right side of history. This may not be our year, the moment may not be right, but education is too important for us to not fight over and too important to leave to anything but the market. Get to know each other, get organized, and get ready.

Vouchers hurt public school kids? Then so do prisons, roads, AHCCCS, and bureaucrats!

I wouldn't know how to set up such a study, but I'd love to see how ideas that are simple, catchy, and wrong fare in the meme pool relative to others of slightly more complexity but also of more merit. On occasion something tremendously stupid just seems to stick. Usually the best place to see this is in the faux "debate" over global warming, but of late we've been hearing something especially silly about school choice programs such as vouchers and tuition tax credits.

The claim is that vouchers and the like are harmful to kids stuck in the legacy public schools (my words, not theirs!) because they result in a de-funding of the public schools. That's total nonsense: the amount allocated to the public schools is set independently. No state, including Arizona, has a law saying "We start with X, and then subtract what is spent on vouchers or the revenue lost to directed tax credits." The programs are decoupled. Vouchers and tax credits mean the state can spend less on public schools because fewer pupils will attend. They do not mean that the state will underfund the public schools. They are merely another expenditure. One could say, of course, that this means that less is left in the budget to spend on the legacy institutions, but to be honest about this one must also rail against roads, prisons, AHCCCS, and every other state expenditure as resulting in the public school kids being short-changed.

School choice does, of course, have public choice implications. I'll leave details to real economists but will sketch an argument for you. When some critical portion of children are being educated by private for-profit and nonprofit institutions in the marketplace, their parents, grandparents, relatives, neighbors, and communities in general will start treating keeping the legacy public schools afloat as being of dubious merit, and will punish legislators at the polls accordingly. "Why are you spending on that old-fashioned horse-and-buggy stuff? What a waste! Send the kids to private school like everyone else!" But when that point is reached, it'll be because we replaced the legacy system with something superior: a market in education, a system of schools in place of a school system, and private choice in place of democracy.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Bob Barr to lecture in Arizona!

Also on Thursday at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at ASU, former Congressman and 2008 Libertarian Party standard-bearer Bob Barr will lecture, from 12:15-1:15 PM in 105 Armstrong Hall. The title of the talk: "We Can Fight Terrorism Without Sacrificing Civil Liberties".

Barr has at different times in his career been a CIA analyst, a US Attorney, and a consultant to the ACLU; there are few more qualified to give this talk. He's also an intellectual whirlwind who can keep up with scholars of the highest order, and someone with the rare good sense to publicly change his mind and admit fault, as evinced both by his slow drift toward the libertarian way of seeing things, his work toward drug legalization, and his apology for the Defense of Marriage Act.

Thursday afternoon teaching duties preclude my making the drive up from Tucson; I could only be on time under ideal conditions. Those who do make it, please, report back about it. (And I am still entertaining the idea of guest 'bloggers; I just haven't found anyone who will follow through!)