Thursday, June 29, 2006


FEMA Cleaning Up Trailer Free Riders

There is confusion in Mississippi about who should be kicked out of their flipping trailers or non flipping mobile homes. It is all about that distinction between long term shelter as opposed to short term emergency housing, which has looser eligibility requirements. See the discussion in the post of April 27. Suffice here to note that is sort of related to need and how the paperwork was completed.

In Mississippi some 40,000 families live in FEMA trailers or mobile homes. Some are the long kind and some the short. Eligibility, that is, not the trailers. Now FEMA needs to clean up by evicting the short and moving the trailers/mobile homes to storage at airfield or equivalent. FEMA got off the first 500 eviction notices (of 3,000 planned) but there was a fuss. An official said the difference between long and short had not been explained because in the agency’s experience storm victims could not comprehend such distinctions.

Anyway, in what is not a policy change but rather just a delay to dot i’s and cross t’s, FEMA is now trying to locate the 500 evicted to tell them they can stay for a while. Problem is they don’t know where they went. Hopefully a notice mailed to the last known address will suffice. And hopefully the dotting and crossing can get done soon, as you can’t have people living in those 240 square foot trailers if they don’t need to, i.e. just for the fun of it or whatever.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Correction: Third Crucial Government Function Recognized

There has been a flood of complaints regarding the previous post, which stated: “Government has two functions, to fund external economies and to redistribute income.” Apparently most readers consider “deciding what is good” is a very important third function, and not just a subset of the external economy function. It can certainly be the most challenging. Everyone agrees that other people’s money should be shifted to the more deserving or entitled, or used to build things for the betterment of humanity, such as the Punxsutawney Phil weather museum, but “good” often entails a fight.

Our post of June 2 detailed the valiant struggle in the California legislature over the state wine. They rightly didn’t give a fig if the scientists thought chickpea 20/20 was a more “historic” wine. The New York lawmakers have been struggling with similar issues. Horrified to find that the state insect, the nine-spotted ladybug, was extinct in their state, they had to break from their other two functions, involving health care spending and property taxes, to switch their flag to the pink spotted ladybug. The bill’s sponsor, assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, noted “Why do we want to get something like this wrong? It would be like having a dinosaur as our state reptile.” Assemblyman Jeffery Dinowitz (no relation) sponsored the bill naming the snapping turtle the state reptile, just in case. He noted that since the state already had a state muffin, a turtle certainly made sense. And preempts the dinosaur risk. There was no change in the designation of the stripped bass (official saltwater fish), which, while pretty well fished out, was clearly not extinct.

All of this went down pretty easily compared to Fluffgate, the battle in the Massachusetts senate. State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios discovered his son’s elementary school was serving Fluffernutters. That is a sandwich made with Marshmallow Fluff and peanut butter (not to be confused with smores). When the senator moved to amend a school nutrition bill to limit the number of times per week a school could serve the sandwich, defenders filed a bill to designate the Fluffernutter the state sandwich. The fight consumed the legislature for a week, after which an uneasy truce allowed a return to considering the state budget.

On a related issue, the U.S. Senate fell one vote short yesterday on sending the flag burning Constitutional amendment to the states for ratification. Hence the revised Federalist Papers will not circulate at this time. It’s a bill of rights issue anyway.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006


FEMA Unfairly Criticized- Mobile Homes Safe

There they are, safe and sound. In all the discussion of the 200,000 flipping travel trailers, you may have been wondering what happened to all those “not in my neighborhood” mobile homes FEMA bought at $34,500 a throw. Turned out it was not near so bad as the critics contend. About half, the 10,000 stored at an airfield in Hope, Arkansas, are not, repeat, not sinking into the mud. Plus, they have been cleverly stacked so tightly, a la Pearl Harbor (remember storing our planes close together in the center of the air field so nobody could get to them?) that they are impossible to vandalize. Where would you stand?

The NYT, which is always exposing and criticizing our secret government efforts to do things, today reported that Katrina produced "one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history“ that cost taxpayers $2 billion or so. You wonder what they expect from an ill wind. That unfair assessment not only overlooks a lot of far more expensive bungles (you up on current affairs at all?) but completely misses the point of government. Government has two functions, to fund external economies and to redistribute income. External economies are those investments that benefit the public at large, or some politician, that would not be made if left to the private sector. For example, Grand Coulee Dam, IRAQ, or those two bridges in Alaska.

As for the redistribution of income, not much of it was stolen by the rich, so the $2 billion went mostly to people who could really use the money. It is all just an application of the trickle down theory. We are just not used to seeing it go directly to the quick witted poor.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Condom Condoned Confusion Causes Cardinal Contradiction

The Roman Catholic Church has never condoned the use of condoms, and is the Pope Catholic? There was that riff from Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, who commented that condoms could be a “lesser evil” when used in context of marriage to prevent HIV. Then Javier Lozano Cardinal Barragan, who heads a Vatican health committee, blurted that his committed was working on a report that would “reconsider” the church’s stance.

No way, Jose. Barragan had to do a quick Galileo. He said it was just an internal study, and it hadn’t moved. Not that the Pope doesn’t see the problem. He suggested chastity. See this discussion of whether the act, when without procreative or unitive significance, is intrinsically evil or merely suboptimal.


New Orleans To Get 5,000 Garden Apartments

That was quick. Federal housing officials announced yesterday that more than 5,000 public housing apartments in New Orleans will be bulldozed to make way for those nicer “garden” developments for people with a wider range of incomes. You remember the arithmetic from yesterday’s post. Pre-Katrina there were about 8,000 public housing apartments, although an unknown number were uninhabitable. About 1,000 units have been reopened, and the officials promise to release another 1,000 in the next 60 days. So the housing stock in the city will only decrease by 1,000, less what was already uninhabitable. You might argue that you should also reduce availability by the number of units shifted to higher income people, but remember, those people have to be living somewhere now, perhaps in those FEMA trailers. It was not clear how many, if any, of the new garden units will be set aside for the previous residents of the projects, but the trailers have already attracted a nicer mix of incomes and races, so it will all work out.

Previous posts have noted that the FEMA trailers roll over in the wind, but this should not be a problem if they are packed together in the density preferred by the previous project residents.

Federal officials recognize that there is a severe housing shortage now, which has caused rents to increase, but they are meeting that with a 35% increase in the value of the rent vouchers for people who want to rent apartments at market rates. As a side note, you can see how this is a lot smarter than the practice in New York City, where rent controls keep rents well below market, “market” being the rate at which supply will equal demand. In New Orleans, where landlords are in effect renting to the federal government, the supply will come when it can be built, presumably after those 5,000 new garden units are finished.

Advocates for the poor are predictably refusing to take the long view, arguing that people need some place to stay now. It does make you wonder what happened to all those 100,000 FEMA trailers, not to mention the additional ones on order. There haven’t been any high winds yet, so we don’t have to look in Kansas, Dorothy.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


New Orleans Housing Projects Strive For Wobtroid

It is very difficult to anticipate all of the problems you can run into when you start subsidizing things. They say that what you subsidize you get more of, but it is hard to see how that could apply to public housing. If you give people things, you clearly make them less poor, and at the borderline you should move some out of the poor category altogether, meaning less poor folks. But let’s get to the New Orleans situation.

Like many places, rent subsidies have been provided in New Orleans for people of limited legal income. For some yet unknown reason, poor people tend to shy away from the thinly populated areas of town, and to concentrate in select districts. The market often doesn’t provide enough rental properties in these areas to subsidize, so you have to build these large apartment buildings, known colloquially as “the projects” (apparently because they are government projects). And, of course, you want to build them where your prospective tenants prefer to live. Moreover, since you don’t want to give public money to the well-to-do unless there is a hurricane, you set the rents at a nominal full market rate, and then forgive some or all of it for the needy. That way those that move in that can afford it, the rich and the well off middle class, pay the full rent.

In New Orleans there was a totally unexpected result. Perhaps the nominal “full” rents were set too high, or perhaps there was a parking problem, but for some reason only poor people moved into the projects. The projects didn’t get a good balance of income levels, or even a good racial balance. As demonstrated in the June 7 post re webtroids, racial balance is highly desired by government, but tricky. As hizzoner famously explained, you have to add milk (honkies) to get chocolate milk. Even more surprising, the area around the projects developed a high crime and drug use rate. This doesn’t make sense unless you consider the absence of adequate subsidized public transportation. It seems that the wealthier type crimes are committed in offices, or at least away from home, while the poor are stuck within walking distance.

Katrina changed all that. It seems that the poor preferred areas at the lower altitudes. When all the people in the project areas were shifted to Houston, and elsewhere, the crime and drug problems were drastically reduced. Critics claimed that the crime rate in those other places went up, but in fact, the percentage increase was far less than the percentage drop in New Orleans. Even better, the cost of rent subsidies was shifted from the state and local sources to FEMA. As put by Representative Richard H. Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it. But God did."

But there is a new challenge. The various FEMA rent subsidy programs around the country are coming to an end, and people naturally want to return to the reasonable rents at their former project homes. The New Orleans officials are trying to figure out what went wrong with the original projects, and what changes need to be made to get a nice income and racial balance. “We don't need to recreate pockets of poverty," the president of the City Council, Oliver M. Thomas Jr., said. "They don't work. We want more mixed-income, working communities." So far officials have reopened less than 1,000 of the 8,000 public housing units, even though a lot of them have minimal or no damage. Unfortunately, the previous tenants are climbing the razor wire fences officials have erected to obtain time for study, and moving back in. Since this is against the law, right off you have a crime problem that you didn’t even have before.

If the officials can maintain the status quo, that is, the current status quo, not the status quo ante, the answer seems to be to upgrade the projects so the well to do will move in, keeping the percentage of prior folks to maybe 15 or 20 percent. According to the NYT, the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took control of the bankrupt local housing authority years ago, says it is continuing to assess the storm damage to the buildings. "I wish I could say everything's great, come on home," an assistant secretary, Orlando J. Cabrera, said in an interview. "But it's not great. We've got entire parts of the city that have very few services, that have questionable ability in terms of infrastructure. We have to ask the hard question: 'What would these folks do? Can we put people in there?” Mr. Cabrera said considerable federal money was available to allow private builders to redevelop public housing in such situations. The Housing Authority has begun to apply for those funds.

There has been some success. The St. Thomas Project, redeveloped and renamed “River Garden” has a much nicer balance, clearly attaining a racial and income wobtroid. “We find it has worked out, and we’re looking into doing it at a lot of the other sites” said Adonis Expose, a spokesman for the Housing Authority. To reach this new balance a few of the former tenants were invited back to a really improved situation.

Now if they can just get some time to redevelop the rest of the properties. You know what the razor wire people say: "Good fences make good neighbors."

Friday, June 09, 2006


Bush Opts For Gay Marriage

You have to hand it to President Bush on this gay marriage thing. This is one of the most difficult political calculations to come down the pike. The upcoming election looks tough, and the Dems are all going to be talking about Iraq, as if there weren’t any important moral issues in the world. So what amendment to the Constitution do you go with? Gay marriage or flag burning? And when?

Contrary to popular belief, it really isn’t too likely that your base is going to roll over and vote for Kennedy or other lib symps. What you have to worry about is how the issue will play with the great unwashed. And nobody really knows at this point. If the issue is a goody, you would want to trot it out closer to the election, but if it is a loser, best now so there is plenty of time for people to forget it and to shift to your flag burning issue. It is weaker, sure, due to the shortage of hippies, but safer than global warming, with all those polar bear huggers out there.

So, smart play, a ban on gay marriage has been trotted to the Senate first to vote on, conserving the House for later. Well, if you want to be persnickety, the Senate actually voted to shut off debate, well, actually the vote fell short of that required to shut off debate, but the expression of opinion effectively killed the issue for the year. Now it goes to the polls and focus groups to see what they think of Bush's valiant effort to save marriage. If it plays in Peoria, and if it can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere. If not, the House goes on the flag burning issue.

Hey, you say, “there is a lot more to this gay marriage thing than political calculation, what about all guys walking around holding hands?” You really need to think this through. You see all those young heterosexual couples walking around holding hands? You think any of them are married? Let’s get logical. If what you really object to is gay sex, and prefer not to mind your own business, you really ought to be in favor of gay marriage.

Well, you say, “what about all those guys that will get the spouse benefits from companies where the other guy works.” Try to keep up! Corporations are well along in phasing out most spousal benefits anyway. About the only thing supporting it is the fact that most CEO’s wives don’t work and therefore need the coverage. But if they have to they can afford to reach in their own pocket, so this is not absolute. A whole bunch of same sex sign-ups would provide a good cover for eliminating spouse benefits altogether. This is another non-issue. So what is your problem?

OK, you say, “but what about the threat to the sanctity of marriage? And to my marriage? You have to pass laws to protect the institution. Look at bigamy? We go after those Mormons who marry a bunch of people. You can’t just let people do as they please.” Again, really not an issue. You think that if you just left the Mormons alone all of a sudden all the non-Mormons would be adding a bunch of wives? How many mothers-in-law do you want? How many different places can you go on Christmas? That probably explains why the Mormons often marry sisters. But you think the supply is unlimited?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to trying things out in focus groups or polls. I just think the flag burning is a better issue, hippies or no.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


The Wobtroid Imperative – Our Country’s Deepest Constitutional Conundrum

Nearly everyone has at least an instinctive grasp of the centroid and its social derivative, the wobtroid, but since art history majors tend to confuse it with the vanishing point, please bear with me while I go over it again.

The centroid, nicknamed “the center of a planar lamina”, is simply that point on which a two dimensional object balances. Or you could say the center of mass. While you can find the centroid of any polygon mathematically, most of us don’t feel like looking for a pencil when we run into this in everyday life, so we just wiggle the object around until it pretty much balances. “Pretty much” is the key concept here, since unless you accidentally hit on the exact centroid, it is going to wobble some. When you reach the set of points where the wobble is tolerable, you have reached the “wobtroid”. Examples abound. Anyone who has ever hung a ceiling fan knows you cannot get it perfect. You go for the wobtroid, which is the point where your wife says “oh the hell with it”. If you shorten the string hanging down from the switch, you won’t notice it goes in little circles.

Have you noticed the little lead weights they always put on the rims when you get new tires? That is because no tire is perfectly uniform. Since you cannot find the center of mass, you change the mass. But you can only slam so many of those on, and you only have three sizes, so you have to satisfy yourself with the wobtroid, which is the point at which people won’t point and shout at the customer that his tire is wobbling. When you are dealing with social issues, no one can even agree on what the centroid is, so you have to content yourself with a wobtroid that is politically attainable, and which you can get by the courts.

As you know, for certain purposes you can’t discriminate on the basis of color, sex, age, or a couple of other things. For other purposes, of course, you can (even though most don’t at closing time). Somehow it has worked around that it is improper discrimination if you don’t have “balance”, such as in the race of children at a school. Now you see how important the wobtroid is. The issue becomes how you attain or maintain a wobtroid, thereby not discriminating, without discriminating. That is, just how do you wiggle things around? Thank goodness the Supreme Court is now going to tackle that issue. They just agreed to review the Federal appeals courts’ approval of two school district plans, one from Louisville, Kentucky and one from Seattle. Both plans offer the student a choice of schools, but take race into account in deciding whether to allow a request.

We are going to get into some detail here, but in case you are in a hurry, here is the executive summary. You can choose to transfer from your school to a different one, but if the move would worsen the racial imbalance at either school, you can’t go. If you are a black wanting to transfer to a white school you are probably OK, unless of course you are the only black in your present school, and the other school already has one. If you are a white wanting to transfer into a predominately black school, you are OK, well, legally, that is. Other permutations, however, are likely to make that string swing wildly.

Let’s add two other pieces of background. Just three years ago the Supreme Court, Justice Day writing, approved a racially conscious admission plan at the University of Michigan Law School. She said that discrimination for that purpose might be necessary for another 25 years. Maybe so, Sandy, but you needed to stay on the court for those years. Also, just 6 months ago, the Court refused to review the a plan of Lynn, Massachusetts which is essentially identical to that of Seattle and Louisville.

The “not so fast, Snow White” Louisville plan, called “managed choice” says that if a district is at least 1/3 non-white, the school must seek black enrollment of at least 15% but no more than 50%. This kindergarten white kid was refused because the target school was short blacks. The Seattle plan, called “open choice”, just uses some “tiebreakers” in deciding whether the open choice is yours or theirs. One is race. Any school that deviates more than 15% from the present balance, which for the 10 schools covered is 60% black, must consider the applicant’s race so as not to deviate further. Reread the next to the last paragraph for the translation.

You might be asking yourself, “self, why do they even have these transfer plans? Didn’t have them when I was a kid.” The idea was to help kids, presumably black, who were stuck in segregated schools in poor areas, transfer to better schools, presumably not segregated (read “more whites”). You could hardly say that only black kids could transfer, not directly anyway, not P.C. you know. Besides, that would be discriminating. There was no way to anticipate that white kids would try to take advantage in one way or another. But don’t worry, the Supreme Court will say whether or not you can discriminate in order to avoid discriminating.

'Would you tell me, please,' said Alice, 'what that means?' 'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.' 'That's a great deal to make one word mean,' Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

Friday, June 02, 2006


Days of Wine and Poses

You know how things always seem to start in California and just spread everywhere. Rainy days and Mondays, hippies, flowers in the hair, political correctness, homosexuality, stuff like that. Well, there is more trouble coming, if their legislature can have an end. Can you imagine how paralyzed governments will be across the country if we all have to pick a state wine? That is what they are trying to do now.

State Senator Carol Migden, D. San Francisco (what else?) proposed designating zinfandel the official state wine, saying it was “quintessential California”. This of course was crushed by proponents of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, thunderbird, et al. It even knocked short dogs of MD 20/20 right out of the park. Finally a compromise passed the Senate, giving zinfandel the less auspicious title “The Historic Wine”. Opponents are now fighting in the Assembly to water that down to “A Historic Wine”. "The" is just too imposing. You know, "The Donald", "The Arnold". Advocates complain that this dilutes the dispute down to something meaningless.

So what is more important, history, the Judgment of Paris, or sales? Zinfandel buffs claim it was there first, clear back in the early days. The cabernet and chardonnay buffs point to the 1976 blind taste test Paris showdown between California and France, won by their grapes, putting California on the map. And of course the Pharisees back merlot, for which sales has edged out cabernet and are overtaking zinfandel. Individual history, of course, backs Thunderbird, which most of us grew up on at $1 a short dog. OK, and a nod to you snooty Night Train aficionados. You were willing to sport an extra $.35 to put on the dog. As if money could buy class.

Let’s just hope the scientists don’t get into this. Look what they have done to the state crop of Iraq. There has been a long running dispute about the historical primacy of grain and legumes versus figs as the earliest cultivated crop at the dawn of agriculture. The conventional wisdom favored chickpeas, but the fig folks point to what Adam and Eve threw on as proof that the fig tree grew wild in Eden, now suburban Ur. You will remember that they were allowed to eat almost everything in the garden, but had to avoid anything that might alert them to the fact that they were naked. This regulation was probably intended to protect the fig tree. Anyway, there the mater rested, until now.

Now the analysis of some old burned figs has shown they were grown over 11,000 years ago, and were cultivated, not wild. They know that because comparing the current wild fig with the domesticated fig showed that the ancient fig had sweet fruit but no fertile seeds. It is not known whether grabbing the leaves off had anything to do with this mutation. It turns out that while this sweet fig couldn’t reproduce by itself, humans could grow new trees by sticking a piece of stem in the ground. You can see why that is a lot easier than plowing for chickpeas, and led to doing the fig first. Only when you get very tired of fig newtons are you going to switch. If your alternative was chickpeas, it could take a while.

So you see, the scientists get into it, and all sides are wrong. Who knows what the result in California might be? Suppose they dig up an old bottle of chickpea 20/20? That could knock zinfandel right off its pedestal.

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