Thursday, July 31, 2008

Better Traffic

Where in the world did all those jokes about women drivers come from? I suspect that they’re holdovers from the days when automobiles were few and were considered a strictly male domain. At any rate, the criticism of women drivers is a misnomer today.

In his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), author Tom Vanderbilt reveals that “testosterone causes twice as many deaths (per 100 million miles driven) as female driving does.” He also shows that males tend to drive better when a female is riding beside them than when another male is riding beside them.

I am told that this is even reflected in insurance rates, although, I don’t know that for certain. I have only sons driving at present and it will be some time before my daughter needs car insurance.

In his review of Vanderbilt’s book, James Q. Wilson cites Vanderbilt’s support for congestion pricing. Experience shows that congestion is relieved when charges are imposed “for driving into crowded areas.” I discussed this in this post.

The criticism of congestion pricing is that it is patently unfair because those that cannot afford to pay the fees get short shrift on the deal. Not so fast, says Vanderbilt. While those that pony up the bucks get preferential treatment, overall congestion is reduced for everyone, including those that don’t pay for or receive the premium deal.

Not only has this worked in cities around the world, Vanderbilt notes that it works every day in Disney’s theme parks. Nine years ago Disney figured out that it could mitigate long lines by using a system they call FastPass. You get a FastPass from the machine near the attraction in which you are interested. The pass shows a time window during which you may return and walk right onto the ride, bypassing the waiting line. The timing of your pass is dependent on line traffic patterns. Instead of waiting in a long line, you go off and enjoy other attractions until the time printed on your pass. The result has been shorter lines for everyone, including those that don’t bother to get a FastPass. We have benefited from this system on two visits to Disney theme parks.

Vanderbilt also advocates what could be called humanly engaged driving. Instead of regulating by signs, lights, and speed bumps, some cities have created experimental zones where cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists share the entire expanse of road/sidewalk area. Rather than chaos, the result has been slower speeds, more courtesy, fewer accidents, and smoother traffic flow. Wilson doubts this would work in places like Cairo, Beijing, or New York, because culture is also an important factor.

On his blog, Vanderbilt drops bits of knowledge about traffic that have come to his attention since writing his book.

Wilson faults Vanderbilt for failing to adequately explore the “remarkable story” of the reduction in US highway fatalities from 5.98 per 100 million miles driven in 1957 to 1.41 in 2006. Wilson thinks Vanderbilt’s explanations are inadequate. He goes so far as to say that improvements in vehicle safety may not have had much effect. He cites research showing “that greater car safety (e.g., using seat belts) makes people drive more aggressively and cause more accidents.” Wilson writes:
“Maybe the answer is Smeed's Law. R.J. Smeed, a traffic expert, found that highway fatalities, at first, increased as the number of cars on the road increased, but then the rate started to fall as more and more people got cars. Smeed suggested that people finally learned how to manage heavy traffic and that congestion itself reduced accidents. China has seen an explosion in car ownership, and driving there is a terrifying experience, but with more cars has come a reduction in the highway fatality rate.”
One of the thrusts of Vanderbilt’s book is the concept of traffic psychology. It seems to me that this is strongly intertwined with culture. I’m not sure that the two can be satisfactorily separated, since the culture of the area in which you are driving impacts psychological factors involved and vice versa. The question then would be how to encourage a culture that values safer driving.

While cultural shift is outside of the purview of traffic managers, there are some interesting things in Vanderbilt’s book that could be applied to our road systems to improve safety, reduce congestion, and maybe even save fuel.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Conservatism Going Forward

Well over two decades ago I was at an event where I heard Og Mandino speak. I had read his short book The Greatest Salesman in the World and had admired some of his wit and wisdom.

During his speech Mandino dropped the old corny joke: Q- How do you know when a politician is lying? A- When his lips are moving. This is such a worn gag that the crowd’s response was muted. Then Mandino added, “But I always vote for conservative politicians because I like conservative lies more than I like liberal lies.” The crowd laughed, but I thought at the time it was a pretty cynical remark.

Yesterday I read about Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) being indicted “on charges he hid hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from one of his state's largest corporations.” As an appropriator, Stevens has steered loads of federal taxpayer dollars to his friends and his state. He is famous for sponsoring the bridge to nowhere that became the symbol of earmarking corruption. Stevens’ problems have been known for some time. What surprised me most is that it took this long for some kind of official action to occur.

As I read the breaking news yesterday, I thought, “There’s one more episode in the GOP’s congressional scandal-a-thon.” This could be turned into a seemingly never ending serial. Lest you think I’m bagging on the GOP alone, you’d have to be ignorant or myopically partisan not to understand that corruption is truly the most significant bipartisan element of Congress.

Still, there’s no denying that most of the recent congressional ethics problems have been squarely in the GOP court. In June ProPublica reported that 21 legislators from the last congress are under investigation for corruption. Of those, only four are Democrats. That list doesn’t even include Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) because his ethics case has been completed.

Of course, Washington is a partisan place. It was fully expected when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress last year that they would ambitiously go after any Republican ethics issues while being less thorough on similar Democratic problems. But even allowing for this kind of skew, the GOP is clearly winning the corruption campaign in Washington right now — not in a good way — with some 7% of their members in congress being officially impacted. No telling how many are involved in run-of-the-mill business-as-usual corruption that sees no official action.

As I drove to work this morning, I was shocked to realize that I have slowly come to adopt Mandino’s cynical comment. I find it difficult to trust anything any politician says. But I tend to vote conservative because I at least somewhat like the conservative rhetoric.

The Sutherland Institute’s Paul Mero says that we should be careful not to equate the GOP with conservatism. The conservative movement struggled within the Republican Party for years until it wrested control of the party leadership with the Reagan revolution. A second wave came with the 1994 Republican revolution.

This movement soon peaked, however. To maintain control of Congress, the GOP increasingly turned to the spending and influence peddling practices for which they had for decades criticized their Democratic opponents. Many Republicans called themselves conservative while acting otherwise (and many still do). This, along with the unpopularity of the Iraq War, unsurprisingly resulted in the GOP losing both houses of Congress in 2006.

Looking at how things have turned out, conservatives need to face the stark reality that the conservative movement isn’t sufficiently strong to hold the GOP, let alone the nation. There is no question that majorities of Americans agree with many conservative principles — in principle, if not in practice.

Conservatives also need to look at their ranks and realize that they are really a group of diverse factions. There are actually only a very few defining issues upon which most people in the coalition can agree. Yet many conservatives talk like there is broad agreement on various issues outside of this narrow realm.

This interview with conservative activist Grover Norquist might help explain just how much diversity exists among the conservative coalition. It also gives some insight as to how such a coalition should act to be effective.

All these things should be pondered as conservatives honestly consider the future of the movement. Perhaps it would then be clear to them why they weren’t able to come up with a feasible presidential candidate this time around. Sitting around pining for the Reagan glory days (while forgetting the challenges of those days) is hardly a positive way forward.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Neighbors In Need

A few days ago as my wife was taking a stroll around the block with our daughter, she saw several police cars parked at or near one of the homes in our neighborhood. She could not tell what was going on. There was no ambulance or fire agency vehicle there.

Not knowing what else to do, my wife continued on her way. Another police car rounded the corner. The driver appeared to be searching for an address, so my wife pointed the way, and that vehicle soon joined the others. Sometime later we noted that the cars were no longer there.

Unlike most of the families in our neighborhood, we do not know this family well. They moved in last year and have been rather reclusive. They have only one child at home — a foster child whom they have been trying to adopt. This child has emotional issues that require medication and other interventions. It is admirable that these people have undertaken such a heavy responsibility.

A neighbor that has a closer relationship with this family later explained that “someone pulled a knife on somebody and someone got hit with a frying pan.” This was not unlike other instances to which police have responded. That’s all I know about it.

The family’s reclusiveness is perhaps understandable. You feel that the neighborhood has no business sticking their noses into your family’s issues. It’s embarrassing, and you likely know from past experience that well meaning people can sometimes inadvertently cause more pain.

Neighbors’ unwillingness to intrude is also understandable. They do not understand the intricacies of the issues and dynamics involved. And, quite frankly, many of them are somewhat scared of the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the violence. Who wants their calm status quo upset?

It does seem a little disappointing that offers that would promote more community involvement have been rebuffed. It seems that such involvement would allow the burden to be spread so that it wouldn’t have to be borne alone. From the family’s perspective, however, such offers probably seem like the imposition of more burdens when their plate is already full to overflowing.

I wish this family all the best. I know they have a difficult task. I hope that I can be open to ways that I could be of assistance without being too intrusive.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The New Democratic Party

The American political landscape is continually changing. Even the most casual observer can see how the current trend favors the Democratic Party.

Joel Kotkin, an “internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends” writes here about the ascendancy of the Democratic Party. He only mentions in passing that the Republican Party is far weaker than it was in the 1990s. He says this is partially “a reaction to the Bush years,” but asserts that a bigger reason is a societal shift that began in the 1960s.

Today’s Democratic Party is no longer the party of the “middle class, of shopkeepers, skilled industrial workers, and small farmers.” The groups that brought the presidency to Bill Clinton twice have declined to the point that they were no longer sufficient to do the same for Sen. Hillary Clinton this year.

The “reformulated Democratic Party” of 2008, says Kotekin, “has four critical constituencies: the post-industrial new class, African-Americans, young “net-roots” activists, and, finally, the elites of the information age.”

In case you’re wondering, “the post-industrial new class” consists of affluent professionals that are mostly college educated. This group has grown substantially as the working class has declined.

To explain “elites of the information age,” think Silicone Valley. Think Microsoft and Google. And think Wall Street. Yes, Wall Street has significantly shifted from being a GOP stronghold to being Democratic. These new wealth elites “are as likely to dress in blue jeans as expensive blue suits, belong to the Sierra Club instead of the country club, or believe in holistic medicine more than the Holy Gospels.”

I’m not sure why Kotekin does not include Hispanics as one of the party’s significant constituencies. It is no secret that outside of Cuban ex-pat enclaves, Hispanics are now squarely in the Democrat’s corner. And this group is growing faster than any other demographic.

Please note that the need for the party to appeal to middle class America is gone — at least on the national level. There are definitely some regions where this is still necessary to win congressional and local races.

It would seem from what Kotkin says and from the results of recent WSJ polling, that the only reason Sen. John McCain can even be considered somewhat viable as a presidential contender at this point is because he is a “lone-wolf” Republican that has issues with toeing the party line.

While the Democrats are ascendant at present, Kotkin warns that they and Sen. Barack Obama could be undone by the excesses of the party’s core constituencies, becoming “the mirror image of Rove’s Republicans.” He opines, “Republicans are often far too willing to repress individual rights for security reasons but generally have proved less eager in reality to tell people how to live on a day-to-day basis.”

Kotkin worries that — as is currently happening in California — Democrats in complete control of national government will cheerfully employ public policy and law in “telling people where to live, what kind of house to buy, which store to patronize, and who should be preferred for a job” much more than is done today.

Democrats should “follow a broad winning strategy based on traditional middle class-oriented policies” rather than “adopt[ing] the ideological and economic predilections of [the party’s] core base,” per Kotkin’s prescription. What are the chances that anyone will follow this advice?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Government for Free

How do you cut taxes for people that pay no taxes? Never fear, I’m sure that the politicians will find a way to do that. There is more than one way to buy votes.

Never mind what the actual tax rates are. Let’s focus on what people actually pay in taxes. Half of this nation’s ‘taxpayers’ pay almost nothing in federal income taxes. In 2006 the bottom 50% of American taxpayers contributed only 2.9% of federal income tax revenues.

As noted by the WSJ Editors, Washington is getting set to raise taxes on “the rich” big time next year while “cut[ting] taxes for those at the bottom.” But when those at the bottom already pay almost nothing, what’s left to cut? It’s difficult to see how the top 50% can afford to pay much more than they are already paying. Apparently politicians think that there is no limit to how much can be extracted from these people. They are assumed to be like the rich uncle that has bottomless pockets.

The common refrain is that “the rich can afford to pay more.” It turns out that, thanks to the 2003 Bush “tax cuts,” they already do. In 2006 the top 1% of American earners earned 22% of total income but paid 40% of federal income taxes. The next 4% of earners paid 20%. The next 20% paid 26%. The next25% paid 11%. As stated above, the sum of those that earned less than the median paid less than 3%. For nearly half of Americans government is seemingly free of cost to them.

While the Bush tax cuts spurred economic growth, they also shifted a greater burden of taxes to top earners than at any other time in American history. In fact, the rich paid a much smaller share back in the days when the tax rates were far more progressive. WSJ Editors say that this is “[b]ecause they either worked less, earned less, or they found ways to shelter income from taxes so it was never reported to the IRS as income.”

It’s no longer a theory. The way to effectively extract more taxes from the rich is with lower tax rates.

Another common refrain is that “the rich” should pay a greater portion of their income in taxes because they consume a greater portion of government services. It’s difficult to see how this can be said with a straight face. Even if this could be proven, the benefit differential would not be 11-to-0 or 40-to-0.

We have become a country where half of the people “pay to support the other half.” But this creates a problem. Those that pay little or nothing for government services have little incentive to seek to hold the line on the growth of the same. Indeed, they have an incentive to seek ever increasing levels of such services.

Somehow this is rarely seen by the beneficiaries and their promoters as voting themselves benefits from others’ pocketbooks. Even when this is recognized, the assumption is that “the rich” should pay for these services because they are undeserving of their wealth. The line is that they earned it immorally on the backs of the poor.

Those that actually pay federal income taxes may be more disposed to oppose government expansion. But their ability to do so decreases as their number decreases. While slightly more than 50% of American earners pay taxes today, what will happen when only 40% pay — when 60% rely on the minority to fund the government benefits they enjoy?

What makes us think that our wealthier neighbors are going to continue to be disposed to pay for continually increasing benefits for the rest of us? Would they acquiesce simply because they are outnumbered? How is this different from mob rule?

Oliver Wendell Holmes is said to have stated, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” A commenter on this post countered that taxes “are the price we pay to otherwise go about the business of civilization, our ability to do so being directly proportionate to how much is stolen from us.” In this view, the rich that increasingly bear the cost of federal programs would do so only because it would be less costly than what would happen to them should they refuse this burden. But that does not make it morally proper.

Few people gleefully pay taxes. Most people try their best to minimize their tax burden when preparing their tax forms. Some do so legally. Some, not so much. But if we ultimately pay no federal taxes, why should we have any say in how great the tax burden should be or how tax revenues collected should be spent?

I appreciate the fact that the Bush tax cuts spurred economic growth, even if other policies eventually ruined that run. But I believe that the resulting ultra progressive income tax payment system is unhealthy. Everyone should help bear the burden of the government that is of, by, and for them. They would then have more incentive to be vigilant in preventing government sprawl, overspending, and corruption.

In reality, those that directly pay no federal taxes indirectly pay them through increased prices and stifled innovation. We all pay for the cost of government. But when we pay indirectly the costs are disguised and hidden. Some sage once said, “There ain’t no free lunch.” Full transparency in government funding would be painful, but worthwhile.

Most people I talk with about taxes almost immediately agree with the concept of a flat tax. But when I start throwing out some of the issues involved, their views quickly become more nuanced. In reality, almost all of them favor some kind of progressive rate, even if it’s only a mildly progressive rate. Regardless of the rate methodology, we would all be better served if everyone paid something to help fund government.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Great Eagle Scout Courts of Honor

Last night I had the privilege of attending an Eagle Scout court of honor for the son of one of my former Scouts. As such events go it was pretty good, with some exceptions.

I have attended hundreds of Eagle Scout courts of honor. I have run and participated in many, including my own years ago and those of my two oldest sons more recently. I think I have a pretty good handle on what makes for a good one. Here are a few of my observations about how to make an Eagle court of honor great.

Arrange the event well in advance. Make sure you’ve got the venue. Make sure the setup is complete well before any guests arrive. Make sure the refreshments are taken care of and that they’re not the kind that make for messes that are difficult to clean up. Now let’s get to the actual program.

Focus on the boy and his accomplishment. This is the boy’s moment to stand in the spotlight and be recognized for working hard to reach an important goal. You can’t do this if you’re handing out a dozen Eagle awards in one court of honor. I’ve seen it work OK for two or three boys, particularly for boys that are close friends or relatives. You get too many recipients and it starts to feel for the boys like they’re just one of the crowd. It’s not exceptional any more.

It is OK to hold an Eagle court of honor as part of a regular court of honor, as long as the Eagle portion is set apart as something special AFTER the regular court of honor. Some units turn down the house lights and have the Eagle sit in the spotlight on the stand to transition to the Eagle court portion. But that’s just one idea.

Have the recipient talk about and show pictures of his Eagle Scout project. But don’t go overboard. A couple of minutes of this is enough. Make sure the boy practices giving this short speech so he doesn’t sound like a dork in front of the audience. He should know how to do this, having earned the Communications merit badge.

It is also vitally important to feature the importance and value of the rank of Eagle Scout. Everyone present should gain an understanding the culture and ethos of the rank. This doesn’t have to take too long. I have seen it done in many different ways, including short films, speeches by noteworthy Eagle Scouts, Native American dance programs (usually by the Order of the Arrow), short readings, using lighting effects to tell the story of each rank, etc. Go ahead and be creative, but don’t get crazy.

Whatever you do, DO NOT over program. In their desire to make the court of honor meaningful, people violate this rule more than any other. You want the youth in attendance to remain engaged. You want the other boys to think, “I want this experience for myself.” You cram too much stuff in and it starts to look gaudy, like somebody wearing too much jewelry.

So here’s the harsh reality. Don’t exceed 60 minutes. Fit everything, from opening flag ceremony to closing flag ceremony into 45-60 minutes. Adults have no problem lasting longer, but kids lose interest after that time no matter how good you think the content is.

This means you have to be choosy about what to include. It’s OK to have the guy from the VFW speak. It’s OK to have the live eagle presentation. (A friend calls this Chief Pooping Eagle, because it never fails that the bird defecates during the presentation. For the kids, that’s the most entertaining part of the event.) It’s OK to have the Order of the Arrow do a presentation. It’s OK to show a brief film or slide presentation (with BRIEF being the key here). It’s OK to have a notable political or business leader that is an Eagle Scout speak. But do ONE of these things. Two is pushing it unless you can guarantee that they’re both short. I’ve been to way too many courts where they try to fit in four or five of these things.

Special presentations are also nice. It’s common around here to have somebody representing the LDS stake leadership make a presentation. Last night they had a guy from the Mormon Battalion do a presentation. I’ve seen various military presentations, grandparent presentations, and presentations by mayors and other politicians. I’ve seen the organization that benefited from the Eagle project do a presentation. But honestly, every one of these people feel the need to say something. One special honor is enough. The more of these you do the less meaning each has. Less is more.

An appropriate Eagle court of honor needs to be marked by some solemnity. But it also needs an element of fun. People often get the solemnity thing down but forget that one of the major ingredients of the Scouting program is fun. By carefully planning the event, you can insert something fun that will not detract from the solemn portions of the event. Once again, be creative but don’t get carried away.

So here are my rules for a great Eagle Scout court of honor in a nutshell. Plan in advance. Set up in advance. Focus on the boy and his accomplishment. Focus on the award. Keep it short. Make it simple. Make it solemn. Make it fun. Have refreshments. Get everyone to help clean up. That’s it.

If you need more detailed instructions, you can see a variety of possible court of honor programs at and at Or just Google for Eagle court of honor and you’ll find plenty of info.

If you’re a BSA leader that has something to do with Eagle courts of honor, give my suggestions a try. If you’re a parent or relative of a boy that will be receiving his Eagle rank, share this information with his Scouting leaders. It might make the difference between a great court of honor and another dry, boring adult-oriented meeting.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Lack of Exceptions Hurt the Conservative Movement

William Voegeli of the conservative Claremont Institute puts it rather bluntly in this WSJ article. American conservatives were on the wrong side of the civil rights issue.

Bruce Bartlett notes in this WSJ op-ed that since the founding of the Republican Party, it has the best record of the two major parties on civil rights. But let’s be honest. During that past 154 years the faces of the two parties and of the conservative movement have changed. The GOP has not been consistently chiefly conservative, nor have conservatives always been chiefly Republicans. Today’s GOP taking credit for the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is a stretch into ancient history.

Voegeli uses the writings and utterings of Bill Buckley — the founder of the modern conservative movement — to prove his case. Buckley and his fellow conservatives constantly championed the causes of federalism and limited government. They even used these principles to denounce the evils of employing federal overreach to resolve the problems of legally institutionalized segregation and racism, particularly in the South.

Please note that federalism as currently used in conservative circles means the devolution of government power to the states, getting back to the federal government exercising only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Some detractors refer to this as “states rights;” a phrase that was used throughout the conflict over slavery as a euphemism for supporting slavery.

While Buckley and other conservatives asserted that they had no problem with ending institutionalized white preference, they stood on principle, boldly affirming that the only way this could be accomplished without trampling on the Constitution was to allow it to occur through natural societal evolution. Segregation would eventually end on its own, they assured.

Voegeli writes, “To the urgent insistence that ending segregation justified the government in doing whatever it had to do, conservatives responded by calling for the indefinite reliance on other people's patience.” Besides, conservatives listed a whole list of problems that would most assuredly arise if institutionalized segregation were ended by government fiat.

Conservatives were wrong. While we like to think of ourselves as far more enlightened than our progenitors, there is little evidence that segregation would be much better today than in 1960 had federal action not occurred. The forecast social upheaval as the result of federal action also didn’t last. Most conservatives today not only admit that federal action was required, but view this action with pride.

But if conservatives were wrong about using federal intervention to end segregation and its immediate ramifications, they were also right about where it would lead. When it came to civil rights, conservatives “had no starting point”, but liberals “had no stopping point.” Buckley saw early on where these excesses would lead. Indeed, some of these excesses have been liberalism’s greatest gift to the conservative movement.

Having captured the moral high ground by employing federal power to quash segregation, liberals have assumed that this can be translated to just about any issue. There is no logical limit to what can and should be accomplished by centralized political power. Moreover, the morality of civil rights is borrowed as justification for this.

Conservatives are left having to look like the dour faced accountant wearing a green eye shade, trying to remind Americans that there is a cost to every brick of the socialist program. It’s a message that Americans that are used to having what they want when they want it find hard to listen to. Still, it would mean a lot more to voters if the GOP, which has been the bastion of conservatism since the 70s, hadn’t spent recent years working against the its own cherished ideals of federalism and limited government.

The tale Voegeli weaves presents two conclusions. 1) There are occasions when problems can only reasonably be solved by employing federal power. 2) There are pretty strict limitations to what the federal government can and should do.

Each side likes one of these concepts but hates the other. Actually, for many that brand themselves as conservatives, point #2 simply boils down to a disagreement with liberals over which facets of life the federal government should control. They have no problem employing the force of government to abridge liberty, as long as their policies are favored.

So perhaps a bigger problem for the conservative movement is that few Americans today seem to buy off on the idea of limited government. Buckley and other conservatives once drew the line of limited government so firmly that there was no room for necessary exceptions. Now that this has proven to be too limited, liberals believe the principle is void while conservatives can’t tell the difference between the rule and the exception.

Thus, today’s GOP looks like Democrat-lite. And the party old bulls are fighting like made to keep it that way (see Kimberley Strassel article). Some of the same people that once worked to bring about a permanent GOP majority are working hard to maintain a permanent GOP minority.

This begs the question: does anybody out there really know what it means to be conservative anymore? Does anyone really care?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

More Older Motorcyclists Makes for More Accidents

Years ago before we had any kids, my lovely wife and I took a quick trip to Yellowstone National Park. We followed a couple riding a large Harley-Davidson motorcycle for some distance before arriving at the west entrance of the park.

The man driving the motorcycle sported long dark-ish hair, a black leather jacket, jeans, and biker boots. The long bleach blonde hair of his female passenger streamed behind her. Black leather pants and a trim black leather jacket stretched tightly across her shapely frame. Matching leather boots completed the ensemble.

We were baffled by the soda can the woman held in one hand. She occasionally brought it to her mouth but she didn’t appear to be drinking from it.

When we arrived at the park entrance, the woman dismounted while the man paid the entrance fee. When she turned, it was clear that her distant rear-view beauty had been deceptive. She had a stony face that belied years of hard living. She walked to the side of the road and spit a wad of chewing tobacco into the gravel. The soda can had been her spittoon. My wife nearly threw up.

Motorcycle ownership has trended steadily upward for years. The rate of motorcycle accidents and fatalities (as a percentage of ownership) has also trended upward since 1997 (see web Bike World report). Fatalities per mile and per 100,000 registered bikes have shot up. The rate of older bikers getting into accidents has increased significantly.

You’re not alone if you think you’ve seen an increase in the number of aging Baby Boomers riding motor cycles. The age groups with the largest increase of motorcycle ownership are the 40-49 and 50+ demographics. In 1990 these groups owned 16.3 and 10.1 percent respectively of motorcycles in the US. By 2003 those percentages jumped to 27.9 and 25.1, as the total number of registered bikes rose from 3 million to 5.4 million. Trends since then have continued.

Boomers have always been far more used to recreation and leisure than were their parents. Now that Boomers are empty nesters and retirees they have more time and more disposable income at their current age demographic than any previous generation. It is now possible for them to nostalgically relive the glory days of their youth, but in far higher style.

A bottom-line new Harley will cost you over $17K, but you can spend more than $35K on a nicer model. You can save some money by getting a used bike. Or you can rent one for a trip. Of course, not all Boomer bikers go for Harleys, although, older bikers buy Harleys more than any other brand. Many enjoy taking on the whole faux Hell’s Angels persona for weekend rides.

The sub-40 crowd can’t afford this expensive hobby. They went from owning 71.6 percent of all US motorcycles in 1990 to owning only 41.4 percent in 2003. The total number of motorcycles owned by this crowd remained flat from 1990 through 2003. So did the total number of accidents for this group during that period. This means that pretty much all ownership and accident rate growth has been among the older age groups.

My family owned motorcycles from the time I was 12 until I was in my mid-20s. Although I don’t currently own a motorcycle, I am still licensed to drive motorcycles and I have occasionally enjoyed riding other people’s bikes throughout the years. There have been times when I have nearly been hit by inattentive automobile drivers. Although I’m not planning on it, the day may come when I own a motorcycle again.

But I can’t see myself ever doing the whole weekend geezer biker gang thing. I simply can’t comprehend the value in that kind of activity. Wearing black T-shirts and head bandannas featuring skulls and bones when you’re getting increasingly closer to being a pile of skeletal remains yourself seems pretty strange to me. If others want to pretend to be ancient Sundowners, that’s fine with me. Older bikers need to be aware that they’re going to pay higher insurance rates.

I do suggest that anyone that rides a motorcycle should attend a rider education class. In the class you learn some surprisingly simple things that could save your life that are unknown to most riders. It’s not like they’re secrets, but few riders seem to know anything about them. If you’re going to ride, the time and money for the classes are worthwhile investments. It might help you avoid contributing to the statistical accident trend.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Let the Persecution Prosecution Begin

I’m not quite sure what to make of Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) push to have a congressional hearing about “alleged crimes involving the Fundamentalist LDS Church” (see D-News article, SL-Trib article).

Reid alleges “pervasive criminal activity” by the FLDS. Specifically mentioned are “sexual abuse, bigamy and sexual conduct with minors.” All of these are state rather than federal matters, unless a child is transported across state lines for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts. Also cited is the violation of child labor laws, which can involve both state and federal statutes.

More to the point, the SL-Trib article notes:
“Reid contends that the FLDS are an organized crime syndicate that has engaged in bribery, extortion, fraud, embezzlement, witness tampering and labor violations. He wants the Justice Department to launch a federal racketeering investigation.”
As with child labor issues, some of these could be both state and federal matters.

It seems problematic that the only people that are invited to testify at next week’s hearing are “politicians, [anti-polygamy] activists and ex-FLDS members.” That starts to look like a witch hunt. FLDS spokesmen have questioned the credibility of such testimonies and have called for testimony from the FLDS as well. It seems that even when a hearing has been held about mob racketeering, the mob has been able to present its side. Why not the FLDS? Is Sen. Reid afraid of something?

Sen. Reid’s allegations and approach seem all too similar to the federal persecutions that were heaped on the good senator’s own church in the 1860s through 1880s. If you look hard enough, you can probably find some federal statute that can be used to charge any strange group of people you happen to dislike.

Of course, “the women and kids” are cited as the victims that must be saved from the horrors of a polygamous church. Never mind the fact that far more children suffer much graver depredations in our inner cities and other parts of our society. We tolerate far more bizarre family configurations than the FLDS have. We may not like the way the FLDS organize themselves and their families, but they have been found by judges to have loving home and family environments.

If the FLDS are involved in real crimes they should be investigated and prosecuted. But they should get their day in court. If we are merely fishing for an excuse to charge them with something so that we can destroy their church, we should take a step back and realize that even people with whom we disagree have liberty to live and worship as they wish.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Tragic Road of Addiction

Two days ago a man with a history of domestic violence shot and killed two prostitutes in downtown Ogden because “he was having fantasies, wondering what it would be like (to kill someone),” reports the Standard Examiner. Only time will tell whether this man pays a debt to justice or is ruled incompetent to stand trial.

The St-Ex also reports that both of the murder victims were homeless drug addicts that sold sex to support their drug habits. A ‘street woman’ who was a friend to one of the victims describes the 42-year-old woman as “one of the most desperate hookers in the city.” She worked her trade “24/7” to support her addiction to crack cocaine, which is one of the most expensive drugs on the street. She leaves behind four children that reside with her ex-husband in Evanston, Wyoming.

The other victim, a 25-year-old woman, didn’t have to turn as many tricks because her addiction to crystal meth was cheaper to support. She apparently has borne at least one child.

It seems from the articles that many of Ogden’s ‘street women’ have spent time in jail. It is considered a courtesy among them to remember each others’ release dates.

Unlike the standard Hollywood stereotype and tales of politicians buying high-class one-night-stands to the tune of $10K, there is nothing glamorous or attractive about the lives of these women. Equally depraved are the lives of the men that purchase their wares.

The ugly trails of these women’s shattered lives lead through wretched living conditions, self loathing, debasing behavior, and the numerous broken hearts of their children, partners, parents, siblings, and other family members. Each of these women was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s mother, somebody’s cousin, etc.

Some libertarians will say that the dreadful lives of women like this demonstrate the utter failure of the American war on drugs. But it’s difficult to see how legalizing crack cocaine and crystal meth would have made the lives of these women much better.

Perhaps the price would be a little lower if addicts were able to walk into their local Utah State Liquor Store and Head Shop to buy their dope. But making nasty drugs more easily accessible wouldn’t help these people bring their lives under control. Indeed, reducing the barriers to obtaining addictive drugs would arguably result in much higher rates of addiction and more shattered lives.

Some of the liberal stripe will whine that we need to spend more money on programs to help addicts. While many do benefit from addiction help programs, for whatever reason, some do not. All of the street women in Ogden have been afforded many opportunities (sometimes at the requirement of the law) to take advantage of these programs, but many still have the same problems. Simply spending more money on government programs isn’t going to help much.

One Utah radio show host this morning said that it is horrid that Ogden has a downtown area where prostitution is carried on pretty much in the open. He suggested that city officials get busy making downtown Ogden less friendly to this trade. In other words, take measures to transfer the trade somewhere else, since no extended society in recorded history has successfully eradicated the trade.

That sounds all nice and dandy. Maybe Ogden officials can get around to that issue right after they get rid of gang violence, stop drug abuse, stop domestic violence, and raise the economic status of all downtown residents to above poverty level.

Ogden Mayor Matthew Godfrey is in his third term of working to turn “a blighted old railroad town into an outdoor adventure mecca” (see 11-18-2007 D-News article). Not everyone is happy about this. Some would prefer to keep their nostalgic blight. Others would like to see improvements go in another direction. And others just have serious questions about the propriety of spending taxpayer dollars on costly entertainment venues.

If Godfrey is eventually successful, Ogden’s downtown district will slowly transform into an area that is more welcoming to middle (and upper) class people with some cash to spend. The nearby residential areas will transform as the market works to satisfy demand for classier living space. This will naturally push out the less savory residents and activities. But they will not go away. They will simply move elsewhere.

The murders of these street women were horrific events. The lives that they led and that others like them still lead are tragic. Legalizing recreational drugs isn’t going to improve their lot. Nor can they be forced to benefit from programs that are designed to help people in their situation. As unfortunate as some people’s choices are, their ability to make those choices can often be only temporarily abridged during jail terms. Unless they choose to change for the better, they have a ghastly road ahead of them.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Why Gasoline Taxes Are Charged Per Gallon

The reliably pro-tax Standard Examiner Editorial Board is at it again. Yesterday they whined about Utah’s gasoline tax revenues coming in 1.4 percent below the estimates of central planners. Revenues have increased only 3 percent instead of 4.4 percent. That 1.4 percent difference comes out to a shortfall of about $11 million.

Here’s how it works. Unlike standard sales taxes, gasoline taxes are levied per gallon rather than as a percentage of price. When gas prices go up, people tend to use less gas. With fewer gallons sold — or in this case, more gallons sold, but fewer than government analysts expected — less tax revenue comes in.

To the St-Ex Editors, this seems to be a crisis. The only options, they moan, are to make up the difference from somewhere else in the budget, “cut back on … road building and repairing,” or “raise fuel taxes.”

Welcome to a tiny taste of the real world of revenue volatility that private businesses live in every day. When costs increase, businesses must either increase prices, try to charge the same price for less product/service (like marketing ice cream in 1.75- instead of half-gallon containers), find ways to cut costs, or accept reduced profits. Unlike most taxpayers, the customers of these businesses are free to walk away from any deal they don’t like.

The St-Ex Editors are usually in favor of whatever tax scheme sticks it to the taxpayers the most. But overall, these writers not very good at understanding economics or finances. There is a reason that gas taxes are levied per gallon rather than by price.

Gasoline taxes are like a use tax for roads. In general, the more gas you use, the more wear and tear you exact upon the roads. So it makes sense to charge by volume. When the cost of road building and maintenance increases, politicians are left having to cut back on projects or else increase taxes to make up for it. This gets debated as a public policy issue rather than simply slipped in secretly.

While oil (and gasoline) prices are currently at an all-time high (and increasing with no end in sight), boom and bust cycles are a basic characteristic of the industry. Let’s look at what it would be like if gasoline taxes were charged as a percentage of sales price.

For starters, the whole process would become more political. Can you imagine the hue and cry from the taxpaying public and consumer advocates about the government gouging and rolling in record gas tax revenues at a time when consumers are hurting the most? We’d already have had a special legislative session to grant relief. Utah would have something like its own summertime gas tax holiday.

But the real problem is that the volatility of gasoline prices would make gas tax revenues far less predictable than they are at present. Road projects can’t just be started and stopped willy-nilly, except for emergency maintenance. It takes time and planning. Road projects are planned and scheduled over years, not days or weeks.

Last year when gas went from $3.15/gallon to $2.25/gallon over the space of a few weeks, gasoline sales increased by less than five percent. That would hardly have compensated for what would have amounted to a 29 percent per-gallon tax revenue decrease. I wonder what kind of inflammatory lines the St-Ex Editors would have been dropping in that case. This example makes our current 1.4 percent revenue difference look pretty benign.

To be sure, politicians and state planners have a problematic issue on their hands. People don’t want to live with poorly maintained and inadequate roads. But advocating a tax increase in an election year when voters are hurting from record gasoline inflation would prove unpopular, to say the least.

Of course, the legislative session occurs after the election during the months when gasoline is at its traditional seasonal low price, so increased gas taxes could be a possibility in 2009. I wonder if any politician will seriously consider alternatives such as targeted private initiatives or congestion pricing.

The St-Ex Editors did not come right out and say that gas taxes should be tied to price instead of volume, but that position is consistent with other statements they have made. I believe it’s clear that such a policy would work poorly in reality.

What the St-Ex Editors did say in this piece is that voters should ask politicians running for state level offices in Utah to explain how they plan to address the issue of road funding. Unlike some of these editors’ past suggestions on public finances, that is good advice.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The People's Democratic Republic of Wikipedia

The idea behind Wiki is to generate superior stores of information via the combined wisdom of the masses. This is done by “encourag[ing] democratic use of the Web and promot[ing] content composition by nontechnical users.” In theory, anyone has an equal opportunity to create and edit content.

Alas, reality falls short of this utopian ideal when it comes to Wikipedia, the world’s largest and most influential Wiki.

The democratic nature of Wikipedia works remarkably well in many instances. The online encyclopedia includes almost 2.5 million articles in English (more than any other encyclopedic reference), and all of these articles are available for free to anyone with Internet access. Thus, people are freed from annoying encyclopedia salesmen and the need to store shelves of increasingly antiquated tomes. Many Wikipedia articles include more information and are better researched than the average fare you find in traditional encyclopedias.

With anyone being able to contribute and edit, Wikimedia realized early on that it would have to create a mechanism for resolving disputes that would inevitably arise. They have rules and they have ways of dealing with people that break those rules (see here). However, it seems that some are immune from disciplinary action.

Lawrence Solomon notes that when it comes to articles about issues on which the Left holds strong positions, ideological purity trumps Wikipedia’s free speech and edit war rules. Check out entries on global warming, Roe v. Wade, and Intelligent Design, for example.

Administrators and editors that are a little more equal than the rest of us monitor recent changes and rapidly purge any entries that dissent from the Left’s view on pertinent issues. Documentation doesn’t matter to these folks. If it doesn’t comport to their world view it goes away as well. Go ahead and try it. See what happens.

If Wikimedia tolerates this type of thought policing on issues important to the Left, what does that say about how much trust should be placed in any other Wikipedia article? I wouldn’t be any happier about this if the ideological slant benefited the Right. Wrong is wrong.

I have always known that anything on Wikipedia should be regarded with a grain of salt, but I have very much appreciated using Wikipedia as a reference resource and I will likely continue to do so. Just realize that everything you read on Wikipedia should be regarded with suspicion as long as they permit (promote?) their thought police to squelch dissent.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Jumping for Freedom

We are among those awful parents that abuse their kids by having a trampoline in the backyard. At least it’s abuse according to the safety Nazis that are professionals at wagging their fingers, saying, “Tsk, tsk,” and generally sticking their noses into everyone else’s business — all for the good of “the children,” mind you.

Children have become the perpetual tool for broadly restricting freedoms. Any limitation that can be conceived in the name of child safety is purveyed as a necessary public good. The basic idea is that children are de facto wards of the state and that families have steadily decreasing ability to determine their own destinies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is a fine example of well-meaning organizations that go overboard for safety in the name of the children. The AAP asks its members to support a total ban on trampolines, as do other safety Nazis.

We made the decision to purchase a trampoline nearly a decade ago. It’s not that we were blind to the potential for injury. But there were many trampolines in our neighborhood and their owners had a variety of safety rules ranging from quite strict to none at all.

Kids will be kids. Regardless of how much we might instruct our kids to stay off neighbors’ trampolines, their desire to join their friends overcame these warnings. While we might have been stricter disciplinarians, neither my wife nor I were completely convinced that the risk was unacceptable. Both of us had used trampolines as children without significant injury.

Ultimately we determined that it would be better to have our own trampoline. At least the children would be close to home in the event of an injury. Also, it is a more controlled environment. Our backyard is surrounded by a six-foot fence, so additional jumpers generally come by invitation only.

Things to think about when considering a trampoline
My wife did the research and insisted that we get a higher quality model rather than a standard discount store cheapie. Sundance Trampolines claims that rectangular models are safest due to bounce distribution. Octagonal models are also relatively safe. Square models are less so. Round models are the least safe because they work like a funnel, channeling everything to the center.

While net trampoline enclosures have become popular, there is some question as to how much they improve trampoline safety. Most trampoline injuries result from collisions rather than by falling off. Net enclosures on round trampolines tend to enhance the funnel effect. Falling between the springs or impact with the frame causes more injuries than falling off. You get more safety improvement from having good quality pads than you do from having a net enclosure.

Safety experts advise allowing only one jumper at a time. But we have found that using the trampoline is frequently a social event for our children. Therefore, I suggest that it is better to get a trampoline that more safely serves that purpose.

One of my family’s worst trampoline injuries occurred at my brother’s home when my nephew was sitting calmly on the edge of the trampoline and lost his balance. He landed on his arm at a bad angle and sustained a serious fracture. He wasn’t even jumping. My brother subsequently had his trampoline put in a pit so that the surface is at ground level.

Over the years we have had the garden variety of minor injuries from trampoline use at our home. We have had only two somewhat serious injuries. One son broke his arm eight years ago when his brother leaped from the swing set (yes, we also have one of those evil devices, along with a variety of bikes, scooters, skates, skateboards, etc) onto the trampoline. That activity was subsequently prohibited at our home. A teenage son miscalculated a back flip (a trick he had successfully completed thousands of times previously) and hit his shin very hard on the frame last year. That resulted in a serious edema and some physical therapy.

The orthopedist that set my son’s broken arm said that it is important to provide children with constructive and controlled ways for them to take risks, experience adventure, and explore their physical limitations. He warned that they will otherwise find other less safe methods to satisfy these inner needs.

Despite the occasional injury, our overall trampoline experience has been quite positive. Our kids have had endless hours of outdoor exercise that they otherwise might not have had. This is important to us, especially with the increased rates of childhood obesity and inactivity that plague our society. The trampoline is one of the few recreational items that the kids never seem to outgrow. I also occasionally use the trampoline for a varied cardio workout.

One benefit of getting a higher quality trampoline is that the frame is still sound after years of regular use, while many neighbors’ cheaper models have long since met their demise. The frame is also rather heavy, which is sometimes problematic when it needs to be moved for lawn mowing purposes. We leave our trampoline up all year long. When it snows, we clear the snow from the mat with a broom. This makes for extra work, but our kids enjoy jumping on the trampoline even in the winter.

The trampoline pads fatigue with exposure. We have replaced them twice and will probably have to replace them again next year. Many people leave the pads off rather than replace them. To me this represents an unacceptable risk. It costs nearly as much to replace good pads as it costs to buy a cheap circular trampoline at a discount store, but I feel the cost is well worth it.

Trampoline mats also fatigue. They eventually rip out. We have replaced ours once and will likely need to replace it again in one to two years. Again, this isn’t cheap, but I think the cost of a high quality mat is worth it.

Lobbying to control your life
I frankly resent the anti-risk we-know-better-than-you safety advocates that try to tell me that it is bad for me to provide my kids with a trampoline. I believe that my wife and I are intelligent enough to weigh the risks and make that determination for ourselves and for our family. Our decision to obtain a trampoline was well informed and our years of experience have validated that decision.

That’s not good enough for the safety Nazis. You see, it isn’t sufficient for them to simply provide information to empower people to make better decisions on their own. To generate more revenue from donations, professional memberships, etc, activists have to show that they are ‘getting something done.’ That something often comes in the form of getting rule makers to adopt restrictive policies.

In other words, your donations and professional membership fees to these organizations not only help their executives buy nice cars and houses, they are spent on lobbying your government officials as well. I wish that rule makers and the public at large would see through the chimera of activists’ supposed pure intentions and regard each peddler of reducing freedoms for what they truly are.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Weight In the Air II

As a follow-up to my Weight In the Air post a few days back, I found these comments from Philippe Reines, a senior adviser to Sen. Clinton (D-NY). After logging more than 150 commercial flights during Sen. Clinton’s presidential campaign, Reines has some thoughts about how airlines can get passengers to willingly give up more money to fly.

You’ll smile at some of his ideas, such as charging “an extra $1.99 for the option of boarding the plane from the middle or back doors, rather than parading coach passengers through first class, only to be sneered at by people sipping Mimosas.” But my favorite suggestion was:
“C'mon. My BlackBerry is not going to bring the plane down. I don't know of a single documented case of a consumer electronic device interfering with a plane's avionics. If they did, al Qaeda would just fly around with iPods. Since we don't fear an iBomber, why not just let me use my BlackBerry as much as I want, whenever I want. (I do anyway.) This one would be free, because it would be offset by negating the need for the flight attendant to expend energy cruising the aisle before takeoff searching for perps, like a prison guard working the tiers of Sing Sing.”
I don’t have a Blackberry, but I do think the badgering about consumer electronics on every flight is more than a little tedious.

The gist of Reines’ commentary is that airlines could find creative ways to improve the air travel experience while simultaneously improving revenues. But such a business model can prove problematic. People don’t like being nickeled and dimed to death — particularly when they find themselves paying extra for something they think ought to be included in the first place. Also, sales could drop if people saw the extra cost as an effective rate increase.

I don’t fly frequently, but I have relatives that do. Airlines could probably learn a thing or two about how to improve their services and make more money by searching out and paying attention to the insights of such frequent flyers.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

God Bless America

Toward the end of World War I, a 30-year-old Jewish immigrant songwriter from Belarus named Irving Berlin joined the Army. While serving, he put together a musical review that people at his camp would perform. For the review, he wrote a patriotic song called God Bless America (also see here and here). He felt that the song was inspired from a higher source, but somehow it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the program, so he shelved it.

20 years later, the world seemed to be spinning out of control. Europe appeared to be heading toward another major war and anti-Semitism was on the rise. What this would mean for the USA was anybody’s guess. On Oct. 31, 1938, Berlin dusted off the song and started to rework it as a peace song.

Precisely at that time, Berlin was approached by singing superstar Kate Smith, who was looking for a song that she could sing for her Armistice Day radio broadcast. Smith asked Berlin for a song that would “convince America that America's going to be okay,” even if war or invasion by Hitler were in the offing.

Berlin told Smith about God Bless America, but said that he was uncomfortable with it. Some of the wording seemed out of step with the times. Moreover, it was voiced as a prayer. Atheism had become fashionable in elite circles. The song might seem presumptuous.

When Kate Smith sight-read the song, she told Berlin that it was perfect. He said, “It's boastful. It assumes that America is blessed and that God continues to bless it.” Kate Smith looked at him and said, “Irving, it is, he does, I'm singing it.” So, Berlin finalized the song on Nov. 2, 1938 and Smith performed it on Nov. 11, broadcasting from the New York World’s Fair.

But Irving Berlin felt that he could accept no payment for the song. Kate Smith predicted that the song would be a big hit that would generate plenty of royalties. Faced with this, Berlin donated his royalties from the song in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts of America. Smith donated her royalties to the Girl Scouts of America.

Kate Smith was right. God Bless America was an immediate blockbuster hit. It was particularly popular during WWII. It has remained popular for seven decades. Thanks to the generosity of an immigrant and a singer that both loved America, every time you hear a commercial performance of the song, the coffers of the BSA and GSA — organizations dedicated to building character in young Americans — get a little boost.

Today we still sing God Bless America to reassure ourselves that whatever happens, America will be OK.
God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.
Have a happy Independence Day holiday.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Demanding Dependency

I used to sort of like U.S. News & World Report when I was younger. My Dad has subscribed to it for at least three decades. Like all weekly news magazines, it was filled with lots of crap, but it also had some interesting articles. I eventually stopped my occasional reading of the magazine with the advent of the Internet and the ability to gather information from a broad variety of sources.

Yesterday Mom sent me home with her most recently received edition of U.S. News because she has little interest in reading it. I thought I’d flip through the pages before tossing it into the recycling bin. I came upon this whiny article about Gen-Xers being unable to maintain their parents’ standard of living.

In the article, Author Kimberly Palmer interviews Nan Mooney, the author of the book (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents. The book’s subtitle is “The Decline of the Professional Middle Class.” Mooney makes some important observations about Americans’ financial habits. Increasing tuition costs means that it takes longer to recoup the cost of college (if it is ever recouped) and that people spend more years repaying their student loans. But the real problem is where our money is going. Palmer writes:
“The share of family income devoted to fixed expenses like rent, [Mooney] notes, has increased from 53 to 75 percent in the past two decades. Housing prices in most major metropolitan areas have risen six times faster than household incomes, and household debt has ballooned to over 130 percent of disposable income.”
Mooney whines, “I certainly thought I'd be in a financial position to consider having children. Instead, at 36, I was living with a roommate in New York, barely able to cover even the basics.” She has been forced to move back in with her parents in Seattle to make ends meet. Later in the interview Mooney slides in the fact that she is a single mother.

It is very hard to be a single parent. I would not wish this condition on anyone. Statistics show that this is more of a sure path to poverty than almost any other single factor. We are not privy to the reasons Mooney ended up being a single parent or why (or whether) her child’s father contributes materially.

On average, housing costs per family have increased substantially over the past two decades. But Mooney’s focus on metropolitan areas skews the facts. Housing costs far more in densely populated areas than anywhere else due to demand and due to stifling regulations that try to impose rent fairness via bureaucracy. Mooney should not whine about the cost of her decision to live and work in downtown New York — one of the most expensive spots on earth. Other options are available.

In terms of constant dollars, housing generally costs about as much per square foot as it did three decades ago. But Americans have significantly increased the number of square feet of dwelling space per person. We all seem to want to live in much larger houses than our parents did. But another major contributing factor is the increase in rates of divorce and single parent households. The average houshold consists of far fewer occupants than a generation ago. The upshot is that we spend a greater portion of our income on housing than our parents did.

Mooney contends that “Consumer spending hasn't risen since the 1970s,” but that fixed expenses have risen dramatically. But not all of those fixed expenses go to housing and medical costs. Mooney completely ignores the substantial rise over the past two decades in the percentage of household income that goes to taxes (at all levels). Mooney also hammers on the myth of stagnant incomes, which U.S. News itself has debunked.

We are not told what kind of degree Mooney has. But it would not be unreasonable to assume that it is an English Lit degree. Over the span of a career, the average English Lit grad barely garners enough income over that of the average high school grad to cover the cost of college. It seems more than likely that Mooney’s economic situation stems chiefly from her own choices about education, career, marriage, child bearing, and location.

Fortunately, Mooney offers some good advice that all of us should follow. “Understand your financial obligations, from mortgages to credit card payments. Opt for the simplest financing options. Take steps to [make] your children financially literate.” Too many kids hit the age where they begin receiving credit card offers without having any clear understanding of how to manage their personal finances.

Mooney also suggests that we separate ourselves from materialism. “Most important, don't buy into the "you are what you make" value system.” Unfortunately, for Mooney this does not appear to mean working to become more self-reliant, but rather, sponging off of others.

The final solutions Mooney offers show that she was educated as a writer, not as an economist. “As intelligent, articulate members of the political system, we are in a position to demand more federal support for education, housing, child care, healthcare, and retirement.” Implementing these suggestions would exacerbate rather than reduce the problems she discusses. Increased taxes would further increase fixed expenses.

With all of the poor professionals that Mooney writes about, who does she think is going to foot the bill for all of the federal largesse that she says we should demand? The people that didn’t attend college? Oh, of course not. Mooney must be talking about “the rich,” which likely includes people like her parents and anyone that has more than $20K in their 401k plan.

So, let’s reword that last sentence I quoted from Mooney to say what she really means. “As people with political power, we are in a position to forcibly take money from other Americans that we classify as rich to pay for our education, housing, child care, healthcare, and retirement.” Mooney seems to truly believe that we can tax ourselves into prosperity and that stealing from others to pay for our wants is completely justifiable. Indeed she calls it “a moral issue about the shifting values of a country where a staggering number of people cannot manage to get by.”

Cannot? Cannot get by doing what? Spending more than they make? Expecting a far more opulent lifestyle than their incomes warrant? There are plenty of ways to live providently and frugally. Even the fixed expenses Mooney discusses are far more flexible than she implies. It just requires a goodly portion of self discipline — something that seems in short supply in our society.

Ms. Mooney seems to be pretty sour about her lot in life. Apparently she totally discounts her own choices with respect to her current fate. She offers some good advice about personal finances, although, it would appear that she hasn’t followed much of it. But her contention that we can achieve happiness by taking from others and increasing dependency is more than farcical; it’s diabolical.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Weight In the Air

This morning on the radio I heard a report about airlines charging more for overweight luggage. Or maybe they were reducing the weight limit on luggage, because charging for overweight luggage is nothing new. I came in after the report had begun and I can’t seem to find any correlating story online to fill in the blanks.

Airlines have long employed a size limit to luggage, but each increased pound an aircraft must carry decreases its fuel efficiency. This wasn’t such a big deal when fuel was cheaper, but airlines are struggling to figure out how to cover their soaring fuel expenses. Size restrictions help ensure that there will be sufficient cargo space for all of the passenger baggage on a flight, but weight restrictions directly limit fuel costs, which is one of the expenses airlines find most difficult to control.

One disgruntled passenger suggested that if airlines are going to charge per pound of baggage, it would make sense for them to charge per pound of passenger. That started me thinking. What would happen if airlines decided to charge each passenger by weight?

That might prove impractical. Airlines would likely just charge for passenger pounds in excess of an established weight limit as they now do with luggage. What would happen if airlines announced such a plan?

First off, you’d have activists coming out of the woodwork freaking out about it. I mean, nobody can be faulted for being born with a given genetic makeup. What if your genetic makeup lends more easily to obesity? Airlines would be charged with discriminating against heavier people and creating a new elite status for the petite. It’s a lot easier to change the weight of your luggage than to change the weight of your body.

I doubt any such plan would ever be seriously considered because even airline executives must realize what a bad public relations move it would be. But what if that was not an insurmountable problem? What then?

I suspect that many airline passengers would suddenly get very serious about controlling their weight. Some might opt for rail or bus travel rather than be subjected to the indignity of being officially labeled as overweight. Our national obsession with thinness (while trying to live as decadently as possible) would be further enhanced. Maybe restaurants with a larger traveling clientele would offer more options for the weight conscious.

Airlines have substantial fixed costs, significant costs over which they have little control, and relatively few costs over which they have great control. They also have limited ability to pass increased costs on to customers. US-based airlines have yet to develop a successful model for turning a profit while meeting customer demands.

Ricardo Semler, the Brazilian promoter of industrial democracy, in 2004 said of the airline industry:

“I think that is the only industry so far that has managed to make all of the
stakeholders lose. The shareholders don't make any money. The executives don't
last. The planes don't get better. The air-traffic controllers have the worst
job in the world. The crew is never happy. The pilots are on strike. The food is
just awful. There's not a good thing you can say about the business of flying.”
He forgot to mention the bizarre security rituals through which we all dutifully pass before being permitted to fly. But at least we don’t appear to be doing racial profiling, eh?

The WSJ’s Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. suggests that airlines follow the successful path of another industry with nearly the same types of challenges. Most of us are blissfully unaware that the ocean shipping industry has heavily engaged in price fixing for over a century. The reason we don’t care is because “customers actually benefited, because it made the reliable service they sought economically viable.”

Americans would never settle for airline pricing that punished passengers for being overweight. But they might settle for cartel-style price fixing if the results are better than what we have today.