Friday, April 29, 2011

Bonanza Column 234 - Leon Festinger, Obama's Birth Certificate, and Boulder Bay

In the 1950’s, Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger studied a doomsday cult that believed that the world was going to end (and that they would be rescued from the cataclysm by aliens) on a certain date. They sold their possessions, quit their jobs, etc. and gathered on a mountain top to be picked up by UFOs. When the world didn’t end and you would expect them to have changed their beliefs, they were unfazed – the world didn’t end not in spite of their beliefs, but because they believed and therefore the world was spared. Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe this phenomenon of people becoming more committed to their beliefs in the face of evidence to refute them, and it has since been validated many times.
The past week has given us two great examples of the cognitive dissonance mechanism at work. First, President Obama released the long form of his Hawai’i birth certificate with all the requisite signatures and seals, which should have put the whole “birther” nonsense to rest, right? Not so much. Some birthers questioned the authenticity of the certificate (where does that one end?), some accepted it, but said he must be hiding something, and others just changed “birth certificate” to “diploma” and suggested that this Summa cum Laude graduate of Harvard was faking his educational credentials.
Closer to home, we saw the long approval process for the Boulder Bay project culminate in a twelve-hour meeting of the TRPA Governing Board, at the end of which the project was overwhelmingly (12-2) approved along with the EIS and an amendment to the height restrictions. The public comment at that meeting took four hours, during which some 80 people spoke, with about 80% of the comments solidly in favor of the project. A couple of things struck me about the 10 or 15 comments that questioned or opposed the project. One was the theme of “I don’t really oppose it, but I want it to be smaller.” Given how much the Boulder Bay team has reduced the size over the past four years, one wonders if it could be small enough to satisfy them.
But the other thing that struck me and brought Festinger to mind was some of the opponents’ responses to the traffic studies. There were three studies and a fourth memo clarifying the studies. These studies were done by experts, engineering consultants whose reputation and livelihood rests on the scientific validity of their work. Granted, no forecast can be said to be “the truth” – all forecasting is, in the end, a guess, but these people’s job is to make guesses that are grounded in and can be defended by data, and so it would be reasonable to expect that if someone were to disagree with their conclusions, that disagreement would be based on data as well. Not here – the predominant theme of the objections to the traffic studies could be summarized as “it doesn’t make sense to me that this project won’t increase traffic, so the studies must be wrong.” A couple of the objectors had the credentials to make them worth listening to and challenged the baselines used in the studies, but again failed to give any coherent, data-based objection to the baselines – they just didn’t think they were right.
It would be nice to think we have heard the last of the controversy and that the Boulder Bay project could proceed on schedule – design work this summer and break ground next May – but given the cognitive dissonance mechanism I'm not holding out much hope. As Festinger said: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” As a result, the general expectation in the community as reflected in the online poll conducted during the Bonanza’s live coverage of the hearings, is that there will be lawsuits from one or more of the groups who have been intransigent in their opposition to the project. I'm referring here to the local version of the Sierra Club, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, and the North Tahoe Preservation Alliance.
Now this is America, where anyone can sue anyone over everything and we let the courts sort it out. Given the exhaustive work and hearings by TRPA over the past four years, I suggest that any suit brought at this point will be groundless and simply a tactic to delay and harass the Boulder Bay group and will be held as such by the courts. These groups, as Wednesday’s hearing showed, represent a very small minority of the community, if that. The NTPA has consistently inflated its membership figures -  many people who spoke Wednesday objected to being listed on NTPA’s rolls of those opposed when all they had done was ask for information – and the rest of us should not stand for their throwing sands into the gears of progress.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bonanza Column 233 – Tearing the Tattered Ensign Down

With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes:
Ay, tear tattered Ensign down!
Long has he waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
After several years of agony, denials, and disingenuous statements, Senator John Ensign has announced he will resign from the Senate on May 3. According to Jon Ralston, who follows Nevada politics for the Las Vegas Sun, the Senate Ethics Committee was about to launch a full-scale investigation into Ensign’s activities, which investigation will be forestalled by Ensign’s resignation.
As we’ve said before in this column, Ensign’s resignation is long overdue. He can insist that he’s violated no ethical standards until he’s blue in the face, but the facts speak for themselves – the married Senator had an affair with a staffer who was married to another staffer. When the affair came to light, he dismissed both of them and his parents gave the couple $96,000 dollars as a “gift,” after which the husband took a lobbying job that Ensign got him, ignoring the requirement that Congressional staffers cannot take a lobbying position for a year after leaving their post and cannot in any case lobby the person they worked for, both of which he did.
Ensign may be right that he broke no laws, but he did violate the trust of the Nevadans who voted him into office and all of Nevada which he was supposed to be representing. He is also arguably a hypocrite given his public statements on family values and his membership in the Family, an ostensibly Christian organization.
Oh, better that his shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
His thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be his grave;
Now the fun begins. In a game of Nevada GOP dominoes, Governor Sandoval will almost certainly appoint his friend and ally Rep. Dean Heller to Ensign’s seat. Heller has already announced for election to the seat in 2012, and being a sitting (albeit appointed) senator should give him a leg up on his only announced opponent, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas. A number of people including the perennial Sharron Angle have already announced they will run for Heller’s district (which includes Incline), and it will be up to the Governor to call a special election once he appoints Heller; naturally, whoever wins this special election will have an advantage in the race for that seat in 2012.
How far the dominoes will fall beyond that is hard to predict and depends on how many people who already hold office decide to enter the fray, but what is predictable is that there will be a circus to rival the 2010 Senate race and that we will see the national media struggling with the Nev-a-da/Nev-ah-da quandary. It will be interesting to see how much damage Angle did to herself in the 2010 race and how much of her supposed support in that race was really anti-Reid efforts that will not necessarily stick to her when she runs against other (rational) Republicans. For me as a Democrat, I’d love to see Angle run against almost anyone.
A lot depends on Secretary of State Ross Miller. The procedure for filling Heller’s seat is unclear and it will be up to Miller to decide how it will go. The most likely possibilities include either appointment of candidates by party caucuses or open primaries. If Heller is appointed and Miller decides that the primary is open, the large number of Republican candidates who have already announced bids to replace Heller could divide the party vote. Angle and former Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold have already launched campaigns. State Sen. Greg Brower told Jon Ralston Friday that he would enter a special election . State GOP Chairman Mark Amodei and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki are also mulling bids. It’s hard to imagine that a party caucus would nominate Angle – they would probably favor party insiders Amodei and Krolicki – but an open primary sounds like a lot of fun.
At any rate, this off-year just got considerably more interesting in Nevada.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bonanza Column 232 - Who's Carrying Whom?

As I’ve mentioned, my recent columns taking issue with economic policies advocated particularly by the right wing of the GOP have garnered a great deal of criticism from those on the other side of the political spectrum, which is to be expected. This criticism divides into two not particularly equal parts – the greater portion of the responses takes me to task, sometimes with great heat, for employing tactics that the Right has used for years – characterization, insults, and, according to them, presenting only one side of the picture. It may be that characterizing my detractors as troglodytes and favoring the rich is inelegant, but no more so than their characterizations of the Left as bleeding hearts, and profligate spenders – I'm not saying either is right, just that for them to take such umbrage when their own tactics are turned against them is disingenuous at best, and hypocritical would not, in my view, be too strong a term.
The minority of the responses, and the more thoughtful of them, take the case that, since those at the top of the economic ladder pay the most taxes and are, in effect, carrying those at the bottom, they (and most of the writers include themselves in this group) deserve extra breaks. I'm not sure of the merits of that argument, but I am sure the facts behind it are flawed.
A recent post on the New York Times Economix blog cites statistics from two reputable sources – a book published by Oxford University Press studying income and wage inequality in the US from 1913 to 2002 and an analysis of the Federal Reserve Board Survey of Consumer Finances and the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds that was prepared for the Economic Policy Institute.
The first study shows that as of 2008, about 21% of income in the US was received by just 1% of earners. The second looks at disparities in wealth (how much people have rather than how much they make) and shows that wealth distribution is even more skewed than income distribution. The top 1% of earners receive about a fifth of all US income, but the top 1% of Americans by net worth hold about a third of US wealth. Wealth-related inequality, the studies show, has been stable for decades, while income-related inequality has been growing since the 1970’s.
As income grows, however, so does wealth – the highest earners can save more of what they make, accumulating more wealth over time, and have more opportunities to pay less taxes, both because they can afford better tax advice and because the more money you have, the more you can put into vehicles that are taxed as capital gains rather than income. This means that while those in the working and middle classes pay more in taxes ass their income grows, those in the highest income bracket pay less, calling my correspondents’ argument into question. It’s possible that the very wealthy pay more in absolute amounts, but it’s been documented over and over that they pay a smaller proportion of their net worth toward taxes than do the lower 67%.
The Census Bureau reported in September that the poverty rate for 2009 was 14.3%, the highest since 1994, with the number of uninsured reaching a record high. So, as Charles Blow said in another Times blog, who “should be expected to sacrifice a bit for the benefit of the other and the overall health and prosperity of the nation…? The poor, of course. At least that seems to be the Republican answer.”
The GOP are proposing to make the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy permanent and to reduce their taxes even more, ostensibly to promote growth and job creation, despite the incontrovertible evidence that cutting taxes for the wealthy does not create economic growth. For example, the average tax rate for the top 1% of households dropped by 20% from 1979 to 2007 (the overall average dropped by only 8%) and the GDP has shown no correlation with the level of top tax rates. Currently the average tax rate ofr those with an average annual income of about $350 million is lower than the tax rate for average Americans.
And that’s just individuals – while many of the very wealthy manage to minimize their tax exposure, the richest Americans are corporations, which the Supreme Court in the Citizens United ruling says are, in effect, people –some of the richest corporations in America including GE last year pay no taxes at all.
So who’s carrying whom?

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Bonanza Column 231 – Pots and Kettles

I just bought a t-shirt that says “Annoy a Conservative: Use Facts and Logic,” and I seem to have been doing a pretty good job of that even without the shirt. There is a strong trend in Conservative responses to these columns and Conservative discourse in general to (a) accuse Progressives of ignoring or not having the facts of a given situation, (b) stating at most one fact and then (c) going on to state opinions and interpretations of the facts as if they were the truth and anyone who does not see it that way must be crazy, agenda-driven, or both. I.e., the pot calling the kettle black.

Case  in point: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) keeps pointing to a graph he made charting US debt as a percentage of GDP from 1940 to the present and extrapolated to 2080. The first 70 years of this chart are fact – they show that debt was as high as 100% of GDP during World War II, has hovered around 50% since 1990 or so and is now about 70% (you can find Ryan’s plan at http://paulryan.house.gov/). Ryan then goes on to extrapolate a “current path” leading to debt being 900% of GDP in 2080 – a classic “hockey stick” curve, and a “path to prosperity leading to zero in 2050. Both are pure guesswork, and neither can be said to be right or wrong, though extrapolating a very weak trend into a straight, high-slope curve is a statistical stretch.

Here’s the problem, though – in pushing his “path to prosperity, Ryan is only telling part of the facts. Under his plan (which is unlikely to be enacted), the cost of Medicare does follow a hockey stick curve while Social Security income continues at an almost flat rate of growth. Under the current system, that slow growth roughly matches the cost of living (or lags behind it), and includes Medicare; under Ryan’s plan, a greater and greater portion of retiree’s income would go to pay for health care, or they would go without. By 2030 or so, most older Americans will face a Hobson’s Choice of bankruptcy or no medical care.

Now I don’t know about you, but I was taught that there are three ways to lie: falsify the truth, omit relevant facts, or only tell part of the truth as if it were the whole. Ryan’s argument and that of the right wing of the GOP fits the last two criteria at least. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO),  under the GOP plan, people entering the program in 2030 can expect to pay $20,000 out of their own pockets for health care. At the current rate of adjustment, the average person on Social Security will receive about $21,000 that year. Those are facts. Good luck living on that other thousand, and heaven help you if you enter the program after 2030.

There’s more to the Ryan/GOP proposal than this, but none of it is any better. Conservatives seem to be banking on scare slogans like “Road to Ruin” to panic people into supporting proposals that benefit large corporations that have given millions to the GOP and to the Tea Party while leaving ordinary people in the dust. Call me na├»ve, but I don’t believe the average American is quite that stupid. Notwithstanding that, in the post-Citizens United world, the influence of the average American on his or her government is quickly diminishing and that of the likes of the Koch Brothers, the NRA, and lobbies for industries like health insurance is on the rise.

Both here in the Tahoe Basin and nationally, those who have amassed enough wealth that they don’t need to worry about Social Security and health care are all to ready to dismantle these and other programs in service of keeping their own coffers intact. It’s an “I’ve got mine, too bad about you” mentality reminiscent of the 19th Century robber barons, and even those rapacious individuals were socially conscious (or guilty) enough to endow various public institutions – what have the Koch Brothers done for you lately?

So our local version of the Tea Party (hmm… Tea Party=TP, We the People = WTP…I'm just sayin’) will come screaming back with name-calling and slogans and precious few facts while accusing those who oppose them of doing exactly what they themselves are doing – substituting opinion and agenda for facts and distorting the evidence. Don’t be fooled.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Bonanza Column 230 - We Can't Afford to Lose TRPA

There are certain things that, if they’re not examined too closely, seem to make people look smart. Go up to a stranger and say something like “I don’t know what it is, but I have a sense you are troubled about money” and you’ll be right better than 4 times out of 5. Around here, bashing TRPA will have the same result – everyone will have a good laugh, and you’ll be considered pretty smart, if no one thinks about it too much.
In better than 15 years that I’ve lived here, TRPA has been a consistent whipping boy. People who willingly sign agreements with their HOA that restrict everything from where they put their trash to what kind of fence they can have bristle when TRPA has the temerity to suggest that a bright red roof or a bright blue house might detract from the scenic quality of the area.
Don’t get me wrong – TRPA has, historically, done some really dumb things. I really don’t think the color of the guard rails on Route 267 over Brockway Summit have much impact on scenic quality, and there have been other bonehead moves. From time to time any agency can get a bit intoxicated with its own authority and have to be reined in, but the “I don’t want any government except where I say they should be” types – the ones who say they want the government to stay out of their Medicare (sic) pick up on the occasional gaffe and use those to try to discredit all the work the agency does.
During the tenure of John Singlaub and particularly under the tenure of the current Executive Director Joanne Marchetta, the TRPA staff and Governing Board have worked very hard to keep the agency focused on its primary mission of protecting the environment and the scenic quality of the Basin. Reasonable minds can differ on the interpretation of the scope of this mission, but most of the foolishness of past administrations has been stopped. The Agency has been particularly effective in holding the line against Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS), to the point where they have been able, through aggressive boat inspection and anti-AIS programs in the water, to keep Tahoe from being overrun by these  the way, for example, Lake Mead has been. A study by the Army Corps of Engineers put the potential economic impact of AIS in the region at $22 million a year in lost recreation, tourism, property values, and increased maintenance costs.
Now a group of these knee-jerk anti-regulation types are trying to get the Nevada Senate to pass a bill, SB 271, that would pull the state out of the TRPA compact, leaving the environment of the lake and the basin at the mercy of California and the Federal Government. Their rationale for this is that the agency has gone beyond its mandate and interferes with decisions people make on their property.
As I said, TRPA has, from time to time, gone overboard in its interpretation of its mission. Director Marchetta has been forthcoming in taking responsibility for past errors and has been clear about her intention to prevent what could be seen as abuses. At the same time, what about all the good the Agency does – who will inspect boats this summer if SB 271 passes? Predictably Tahoe will go the way of Lake Mead and we will all be hurt.
To the best of its ability, TRPA makes decisions and choices based on what will benefit the whole region. Inevitably these decisions will, from time to time, tread on the toes of what some individual wants to do. It looks to me like there are a couple of things the people advocating SB 271 don’t seem to get. First, no one’s home, property, or business is isolated from the rest of us – in any community, in any environmental system, decisions the good of the many may need to outweigh the wishes of a few. If you don’t like that, you should find someplace where you are can live apart from everyone else – and good luck with that. Secondly, there is such a thing as genuine scientific expertise that my conflict with what you think you know and with what you want. I'm told that, counter-intuitive as it might be, leaving a certain amount of pine needles on the ground, because they absorb and hold water, is a better fire preventive than getting rid of all of them. OK, assuming that there is some scientific authority behind that, that’s a better thing than what I would do.
We can’t afford to let a group of people who think their political ideology and short-sighted opinions and interests are more important than the good of the rest of us and the health of a lake that belongs to us all. Let your State Senator know.