Commentary From the Mile High City

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Joshua Sharf

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January 31, 2009

"Worker Retention" - II

President Obama has paid his first installment to the unions, instituting a "Worker Retention" policy for federal contractors, of the kind Denver is considering at the local level. You can read the text here, via Mickey Kaus (HT: Powerline) gets at least one of the problems with it.

I wrote about this disaster of a public policy proposal the other day, but more has occurred to me since them. This, of course, is aside from the bizarre act of giving the employee an overt property right in a contract he had no hand in winning, and in fact, may have in fact helped cost his current employer.

As part of that patronage extension, there's the virtual elimination of any incentive to actually perform the work involved.

If the Denver City Council is so convinced that this policy would save the city money, they must be equally convinced that, had it been in place, it would have saved the city money over the last decade or so. So why don't they go back, dig up all the contract rebids over that period, see which ones changed hands, and see how much of the savings was attributable to labor costs.

Better yet, how about some enterprising reporter who actual job it is to cover these things goes over the last year's worth of contract re-competes and makes that calculation?

Dennis Spindle for Bonus Member

Party organization is a weird thing. We have precinct committeepeople, who used to be called precinct captains, but the name was changed in accordance with the Syllable Maximization Act of 2004. We have District Captains, but there's District 6 for organizational purposes within the county, and District 6 which is used to nominate candidates for the house. There's the Executive Committee, which is different from the Central Committee, and the national Committeepeople, who just elected Michael Steele RNC Chair.

Then, we have something called "Bonus Members." Basically, these are members allocated to a county based on its turnout for the party, and their main role is to vote for state officers. This year, Denver got extra bonus members for three disricts, 1, 6, and 9. Dennis Spindle is running for one of these slots, and he's earned it. He's served in party office, and run for office himself.

Now, he's spent an ungodly amount of time setting up district maps for all 107 legislative districts in the state: 65 State House, 35 State Senate, and 7 Congressional districts. For the moment, only Districts 3, 6, and 9 are up, but more are to follow. Sooner than later, he'll be adding the precinct information as well. It's unbelievable that this hasn't been available before now.

I've spoken with Dennis, and frankly, he's more committed than most would-be Bonus Babies to working for the party after the state elections. If we're looking for people to reward and encourage, we could do a lot worse than to start with him.

January 29, 2009

Democrats for Vote Fraud

But I repeat myself.

Thus far, the Democrats in the State House have voted to kill proposals for requiring a picture ID to vote, and requiring proof of citizenship to register. They actually voted not to outlaw the possibility of bribing or intimidating initiative sponsors to withdraw their petitions.

Vince Carroll reports in todays Rocky column that the Democrat-dominated City Council voted not to outlaw the practice of third parties gathering a delivering (or not) absentee ballots. (All of a sudden, look who's crying caveat emptor about our most precious and basic and fundamental right...)

And finally, our own Lois Court has proposed a measure to issue driver's licenses to non-citizens here on work permits. (Non-citizens, and I work with many of them, seem to have no trouble that I can discern driving to the office.) There's absolutely no reason for this bill that I can see, except to provide entry documents to people who aren't entitled to them, documents that can be used to do things like...oh, I don't know, vote, for instance.

So far, this monstrosity of sovereignty-evisceration hasn't garnered any Senate sponsorship, but give them time. If that happens, it will mean that our own State Representative will have voted, not only not to limit the possibility of vote fraud, but to actually enable it.

"Worker Retention"

That's the term for a recession-induced, recession-prolonging piece of extended patronage being considered by the power-conscious but economically illiterate Denver City Council.

According to the Denver Post, the City Council is considering enacting so-called "worker retention" laws for city contracts:

Now Nevitt and eight other members of the 13-member City Council say they want to extend "worker retention" for all service contracts for the city and airport.

Firing workers just because a new contractor comes on the scene is "both inefficient from an operational perspective, expensive from a budget perspective and cruel from a personnel perspective," Nevitt said.

Oh-for-three. There's no particular reason to think it's inefficient operationally: if the duties performed are routine, the new, winning bid may in fact derive from operational efficiencies. It's less expensive by definition, as the winning bid by a new company must be, by definition, lower than the incumbent's bid. As while nobody wants to see anyone else lose his job, where's the kindness in leaving the winner's employees on unemployment?

It's perfect reasonable for people to seek security in this economy. You think I'm not worried about my job, too? But pressure to keep wages high was one of the chief factors in the New Deal's prolonging of the Depression, and this bill would do nothing if not keep wages artificially high.

Finally, this basically extends permanent job security from direct city employees to city contractors, in effect creating an entirely new patronage class dependent on the largess of city budgets.

Blog Talk Radio

Tuesday night we chatted with Jan Tyler, who blogs on election integrity at her own site, and at Jan had something to say not only about her own work, but also about the trend towards paper ballots and the risks inherent therein. We also touched on the Democrats' blocking of registration and voter reform here in Colorado.

Our second guest was State Senator Greg Brophy, Assistant Minority Leader and scourge of coyotes everywhere. We talked about his efforts to forestall the hammer coming down on Colorado's energy industries, and proposed protections against eminent domain abuse. We also asked him, as we ask all Republicans who come on the show, what three core principles should the Republican party place front-and -center?

Listen here, or subscribe on iTunes.

Join us next week as we talk to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies about the upcoming elections in Iraq, and where we stand in the fight against Islamist Supremacy.

In the second half, we talk with reporter Mike Saccone of the Grand Junction Sentinel about the Western Slope, the state legislature, and the state of newspapers not named "Rocky."

Listen live at Blog Talk Radio

January 22, 2009

Freedom of Movement

Colorado Democrats are getting ready to spend more money we don't have on a proposal to study ways of extracting more from you. And to watch where you're driving, to boot.

Nestled in the details of a major transportation proposal this year is an idea that could revolutionize how Colorado pays for its road and bridge projects.

The proposal, from statehouse Democrats, calls for pilot projects to study whether the state should do away with its gas tax and adopt a system in which drivers are charged based on how many miles they drive.

"What policymakers are looking at is a sustainable revenue source that they can count on," said Jim Whitty, an Oregon Department of Transportation official who has become a guru of mileage-based fees.

Glenn Reynolds has already made the privacy and efficiency arguments against this idea.

But I particularly like this part:

Whitty said one of the chief benefits of a mileage-based system is its malleability. It can be customized to charge people more for driving at rush hour or less for driving in rural areas. It can tax Hummers at a higher rate than Priuses.

Which means that the real goal here isn't the money, or even taxing in proportion to road wear and tear, it's more government-as-behavior-modification. The reason they're being "forced" to such extreme measures is that high gas prices have pushed people into conserving. In other words, they're already doing what the gas taxes are designed to make them do. So the obvious answer is to find substitutes.

In the future, people will eventually catch onto this game and just keep doing whatever it is they want to do in the first place, as not doing so isn't going to save them any money, anyway.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges!

On a straight party-line vote, the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee, just voted down a bill that would have required a photo ID for voting in Colorado.

The arguments opposed were presented by the usual suspects, arguing an undue burden on those who might not be able to obtain a photo id. The fact is, this problem affects a vanishingly small portion of the population, in large part because of the wide variety of supplemental documents that can be used to obtain a driver's license or a state ID.

In part because of the forgone nature of the vote, the Republicans on the committee did a fairly poor job of going after the opponents of the bill, with the exception of Kent Lambert, who had the legal arguments well in hand. He forced the ACLU into the ridiculous position that Crawford - which permitted photo IDs for voting in Indiana - was a "completely different circumstance" because that was a law being challenged, while this was a similar law being proposed. They would claim that we need to wait until elections are actually stolen - preferably electing legislators ill-disposed to voter ID - before we enact legislation to prevent it. In fact, as Lambert pointed out, the Court made it quite clear that there was no undue burden, and the ACLU in Indiana had used similar "solution in search of a problem" arguments.

A pro-immigrants group made the claim that rural immigrants would have to travel long distances to get their IDs. Nobody asked how many immigrants would be in this position.

Lois Court asked why, if the documents being excised were good enough to get a photo ID, they weren't good enough to vote with. Rep. Summers, the bill's sponsor, essentially conceded the point, arguing for "simplification." Fine enough, but the fact is that utility bills aren't IDs at all, while others would be well beyond the ability of an election judge, with a line out the door, to judge the authenticity of.

The arguments in favor were presented by several county Clerks and Recorders, focusing on their responsibility to ensure clean elections and the validity of the franchise. Court, again, made the point that these Clerks were representing themselves, not the Clerks' association, which has not taken a position on the bill. Using that logic, it should have been fairly easy to dig up a few to oppose the bill, something the Democrats couldn't be bothered with.

In fact, requiring a photo ID would be the first step towards dealing with emergency registration abuse, and would make a powerful argument against the growing vote-by-mail movement, literally a written invitation to vote fraud.

To paraphrase Mark Steyn on another subject, with them, it's always the wrong ID in the wrong state for the wrong election.

"Core Functions of Government"

Yesterday, Senator Moe Keller, who has been working with the Department of Revenue in dealing with Colorado's $600 million budget shortfall for this year, actually said that they were being "forced to examine the core functions of government."

Nonsense. So far, nothing has been considered non-core enough to be cut to zero. In fact, as she pointed out later on in her testimony, 17 or 18 departments receive under 2% of their overall funding from discretionary spending, so cutting their money from the general fund entirely wouldn't barely affect their operations. Clearly, those departments are not subject to this committee's appraisal of the "functions of government."

On the other hand, this kind of rhetoric coming from a Democrat is a gift to Republicans, who ought to be talking this way.

January 20, 2009

Dogs Are On Our Side...

...but coyotes are not.

Coyotes, once the scorn of the West and a widespread target for eradication, are thriving along the Front Range and raising concerns about their place in cities and suburbs.

On Thursday, a pair of coyotes attacked a woman in Broomfield who was playing Frisbee with her dog. In Centennial and other metro areas, increasing numbers of residents are complaining about pets being killed and coyotes being overly aggressive.

"We are seeing an increase in coyotes going after pets and increased sightings," said Jennifer Churchill, a Colorado Division of Wildlife spokeswoman.

The division does not track population numbers of coyotes, Churchill said, but based on increased sightings, officials believe their numbers are way up.

"They're pretty much everywhere in the metro area right now," Churchill said.

Now, I'm as fond of Wild Kingdom as the next guy, but this is a classic example of people not taking wild animals seriously enough until they start behaving like, well, wild animals. I mean, not everyone has an Old Yeller hanging around to even the odds, although I like to think Sage would still be up to the task.

Fortunately, our newly minted State Senator, the rebbitzen Joyce Foster, was there to help out, with a bill imploring the Division of Wildlife to, well, do something.

Sage and the Ur-Cujo out there may share a common ancestor, but coyotes have no business living in a populated area. If they really are moving into my district, I guess that Ted Harvey's right, and maybe it is time to start packing while walking.

January 19, 2009

Blog Talk Radio

Tomorrow night, Inauguration Night, in-between all the red carpet photos and gushing newscasts about the young, glamorous couple, join us for our take on the Inaugural Address. We'll also be interviewing the Independence Institute's newest investigative reporter, Todd Shepherd, and with Republican National Committeeman, Mark Hillman, about the doings at the state capital, and the RNC Chairman's race.

January 15, 2009

Shoe, Meet Other Foot

So Monday, after the rally on Sunday (yes, that's usually how the days are ordered...), a friend of mine calls me to complain about media coverage of the event, and how equal press was given to both sides, even though we had about 5 times as many demonstrators on our side.

I had to walk him through how you deal with those situations, how you work the press even though they're clearly hostile, and how you get your message out, even though they'll ask 10 minutes' worth of questions and print one sentence.

This reliably liberal (although not insanely leftist) Democrat was completely flummoxed at being treated unfairly by the press.

Shoe, meet other foot.

Borrow In Haste, Repay At Leisure

Colorado Republicans have proposed mortgaging government property to pay for transportation projects, up to $500 million.

The Democrats, naturally, want to raise your taxes permanently instead, and would net only half the amount the first year.

Right now, Colorado general revenue bonds, which are basically secured only by the moral obligation of the state to pay its debts, are paying about 1.5% yield to maturity. Paid back over 15 years, that's about $35 million a year in payments, or about $6 a person per year, for $500 million.

The Democrats want to secure a permanent funding stream out of your pockets, at about 4 times that rate, in the middle of what they've consistently called the worst economy since the Great Depression.

The Republicans want to borrow at a ridiculously low interest rate, heading into what will likely be an inflationary environment sometime in the next two years. That inflation will only increase borrowing costs.

The Democrats want to build in more structural spending, and then, when inflation eats away at the value of the taxes they're collecting, complain about shortfalls and raise rates again.

And this is without ditching TABOR.

January 14, 2009

Blog Talk Radio

We had a fun time last night, chewing over cell cell phone restrictions and other, more weighty matters in front of the state Judiciary Committee, and getting into fistfights over water, with State Rep. Ellen Roberts from Durango. And State Sen. Mike Kopp joined us for a cameo appearance for his take on the legislature from the Senate side.

You can listen here, or download the show from iTunes.

January 12, 2009

Do You See a Theme Here?

More fine pictures at PPC and at Denver Stuff.

There's us:

And, then there's them:

The PPC is gonna be pissed about them stealing their logo like that:

Did we do this? No, they did:

At least they (and we) know who their friends are:

January 9, 2009

When All 8.5%'s Aren't The Same

PERA likes to claims that there's no immediate threat to the long-term health of its retirement fund, despite the fact that as of October, it counted its liabilities as 60% funded. Part of this claim rests on the assumption of long-term 8,5% returns, and that there's plenty of time to make up the difference.

While 8.5% return isn't unreasonable, this ignores two factors that in isolation don't make much difference, but in combination can lead to wildly varying results.

First, many different distributions of returns can, over time, lead to the same average annual return:

The blue curve is a simple, constant 8.5% return. The other curves represent different annual returns over time, resulting in the same ending balance, and thus the same average annual return of 8.5%.

Second, PERA has obligations, and it has to pay those obligations every year, drawing down the principal. Let's now add on a constant annual payment:

The blue line returns to $0, meaning that an 8.5% return funds the 20-year obligations 100%. But look at the other curves. The more the returns are delayed, the more the principal has been drawn down beforehand.

These are highly simplified assumptions, of course. The incoming administration is likely to pursue policies that will depress markets for years by increasing uncertainty, making it harder to make up the deficit at the end. So I'd discount PERA's assertions of long-term solvency fairly steeply.

January 7, 2009

Back Into the Fray

I am announcing my candidacy for a Vice Chairmanship of the Denver County Republican Party. The party plans to alter its by-;aws to create up to three co-equal Vice Chairmanships, with the intent of increasing participation.

I am eager to be a part of rebuilding our party in Denvr and across the state. What follows is part agenda and part platform, developed in consultation with current Vice Chairman Ryan Call. Ryan is running for the chairmanship of the Denver Republicans; he is immensely qualified for that role, and I look forward to serving with him on the Executive Committee.

Our job is to help elect Republicans. It is not to dictate the ideology or the platform of the party to the membership. It is to help develop candidates, and to provide the tools for those candidates.

That will begin with presenting core Republican, Constitutional values to the Denver electorate, in a way that is appealing to them. Denver is a challenging electoral environment for Republicans, but our ideas actually deliver the goods that liberals say they want to. We can and must let Denverites know that their true interests lie with the freeing of their own talents, energy, and abilities.

Much of the buzz from the last campaign came from the use of technology and social networking to organiza Obama's supporters. In addition, alternative media - especially with the likely imminent demise of the Rocky - will become even more important in getting out message out. My own experience as a candidate, using blogs, online radio, Facebook, and other social networking devices, as well as my professional career as a web developer, will enable me to help the party into this arena.

We need to be able to run candidates in all districts, at all levels. The party can also be involved in building that farm system. Running for office is a large, complex job, and it gets moreso the higher the position. It can encourage candidates to run for local, non-partisan offices, to get their feet wet and to learn what's involved. In can be involved in identifying energetic candidates who are willing to sacrifice for the unknown.

It also means providing

  • Visibility: Lists of neighborhood and community organizations, along with meeting schedules, where prospective candidates can begin to make themselves known, and to listen to community concerns
  • Money: Denver will always be on its own, but we can improve our internal fundraising
  • Help for self-organizing grass-roots groups; the party can serve as a traffic cop, directing interested activists to grass-roots groups on like-minded activists; it should not and cannot control those groups; it can and should encourage them
  • Guidance: Replicating the national Party's book on compaign structure and deadlines, allowing for what is now Election Month, rather than Election Day
  • Support: Connecting candidates with existing legislators to help them better connect with their prospective electorate

Developing a farm team means making the most use of your talent. We need to reach out to a voter base of many ethnicities, and multiple ideologies. The party leadership should be able to work with - and respect - all elements of the party who are willing to work within the party.

All of this means hard work by the Executive Committee. It means a presence at every monthly District meeting, constant communication, and direct communication with precinct officers, candidates, and office-holders. It means planning, But it's the only way we'll be able to rebuild our party here in Denver.

I look forward to being a part of that, and I hope that the party will see fit to grant me that responsibility.

The Post's "Moral Obligations"

These apaprently include paying for everyone else's college education.

These don't include examining how colleges are spending that portion of your taxes they end up with.

They do include raising your taxes.

State legislators must stand together on the steps of the state Capitol and make a compelling case to voters for a fix to the nonsensical budgetary constraints that Colorado government lives by.

Remember, Referendum C brought in far more money than expected, which the Democrats in charge of the legislature since 2004 plowed into long-term spending. The state government has been able to keep every dime it's brought in since 2006.

Some of that money is dedicated to certain uses. If the Post and its Democratic allies want to defund certain programs, they should name them.

Barring that, there are no budgetary constraints, only revenue constraints. Even last year's mercifully-dead Amendment 59 would have retained a taxpayer veto on tax increases, at least until they could persuade us to forgo those. How inconvenient for them to have to make the case for unlimited taxation power all at once, their surrender-by-degrees strategy having failed.

January 5, 2009

Free Us To Spend More

Tucked away in Friday's Denver Post was this little plea for flexibility from the state college presidents:

Several prominent college leaders want lawmakers to step aside and allow them to raise the price of tuition as they see fit -- especially with severe state budget cuts looming.

University of Colorado president Bruce Benson -- with presidents at other schools lining up behind him -- is urging the legislature to loosen regulations that public colleges and universities have to abide by in doing business every day.

Benson believes the schools could save money and time if they could make decisions for themselves and not have to run everything through the loop of the legislature and the state Department of Higher Education.

I'm sure they could save time, but saving money doesn't seem to be much on their minds. In fact, the one thing you almost never see is any questioning or examination of how colleges are spending their money.

Note that this is the same set of college presidents who ran as from the plague from a suggestion that they get exactly that flexibility in return for forgoing state support altogether. Translation: keep funding us, but relinquish any control or right to question how we spend or what we charge.

Yeah, that's going to go over well in a recession.

The single best description of the big business that colleges have become is still, "Higher Ed, Inc.," by James B. Twitchell, published almost four years ago.

We'll be interviewing CU Regent Tom Lucero, who's already announced he's running for CD-4 in two years, tomorrow evening on our Blog Talk Radio show, and you can bet that funding and spending at our state's universities will feature prominently.

Rally Planned For Sunday

A large rally, in support of Israel's war with the terror group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, has been announced for this Sunday. It will take place at 2PM on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol Building. The theme will be: "Support Israel's right of self-defense in Gaza."

The full press release is available here.

The Good Guys Gather

Inside the Hebrew Educational Alliance, the pro-Israel speakers and community members met to promote moral clarity. I had been afraid that it would be heavy on the peace and light on the moral distinctions between the two sides, but I was pleasantly surprised. Below, Rabbi Bruce Dollin gives a strong defense of Israel (I missed the first 30 seconds or so). Gil Artzyeli, the Deputy Consul from LA, also addressed the group, and his video is at my YouTube channel.

Towards the end, the assembled recited the prayers for the IDF and for the State of Israel. I think it's important to reprint the IDF prayer here, so you can see what a Jewish prayer for the military looks like:

Bless the soldiers of Israel's Defense Forces, and every one who stands guard in order to protect our people. May the Holy One, Blessed be He, protect them and save them from all troubles and afflictions, from all sickness and injury, and send blessing to all their endeavors. May the words of the Prophets come to fruition through them, "and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. And each shall sit under the vine and under the fig tree and none shall be afraid," and let us say, Amen.

That's slightly different from the sentiments expressed by the pro-Hamas demonstrators outside the synagogue:

Note the one sign that says, "Live by the sword, Die by the sword," featuring a mushroom cloud. Can anyone find me any interpretation other than a naked threat of annihilation?

I also like the claim that "750,000 were murdered by the 'Israelites.'" Unless they're out there representing the Canaanites, Amalekites, and Moabites, I have no idea what they could be talking about.

And of course, for some reason, the chants of "Allahu Akhbar" went unremarked by the media.

Does The AP Realize That North Korea Is a Dictatorship?

Evidently, not until the 10th paragraph of this puff piece about a pro-government rally (is there any other kind in Pyongyang?) that attracted conscripted 100,000 hapless souls. Here's how it starts:

Tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied in Pyongyang in a display of might and loyalty underscoring their government's guiding "military first" principal amid tensions with rival South Korea.

The government mobilized 100,000 North Koreans for Monday's annual New Year's rally, which honors leader Kim Jong Il and reaffirms full public support for his rule in the year ahead.

Pumping their right fists in unison, they marched through Pyongyang's main Kim Il Sung plaza pledging their loyalty, some waving huge red flags as top officials watched from a viewing stand.

Gee, do you think maybe their participation was...coerced? Eventually, in paragraph 10, we find out that North Korea is a "totalitarian state."

Who knew?

January 4, 2009

Avoiding Making Enemies

Sometimes, it's best to avoid making enemies. Out of nowhere, Gov. Ritter has appointed Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennett to succeed Ken Salazar in the Senate.

People are perplexed.

I have no reason to doubt that Gov. Ritter really believes that Mr. Bennett will make a good senator, and he may. But he's not a former legislator at any level, and has never held elective office. In fact, he's never run for anything. (Neither, you know, has, you know, Caroline Kennedy, you know, but at least, you know, from a political family, don't ya know.)

There's general agreement that he'll be a weaker re-election candidate than just about any of the other headline choices. I'm not sure that's true, given CoDA's ability to raise and distribute non-candidate money, and they may well feel that he'll fit right in with their "educate the idiots" agenda. But let's assume for the moment that that's correct.

Gov. Ritter hasn't just avoided picking the winner in this sweepstakes. As importantly, he's avoided picking the losers. Any of them may perceive a primary worth running and worth winning. None of them feels locked out. All of them can proceed with whatever career plans they had just after the election, so nobody's worse off. They call plausibly claim to be disappointed, but not excluded. Down, but not out.

Plus, he may well have created a second target of opportunity for Republicans looking for statewide office in two years.

What's The Deal With the Czechs?

Among the central European countries to have regained their freedom after 1989, the Czechs have enjoyed the greatest run of success. Starting with the Velvet Revolution, that managed a peaceful transition of power, the country has consistently made wise choices. (Look, throwing Ceacescu and his wife up against the wall and machine-gunning them was one of the great moments in human liberty, but best viewed from a distance.)

But more than that, they've made common sense and moral choices, not easy when you're in an EU dominated by Germany and France.

  • They elected Vaclav Havel, one of the few poets with enough common sense and political smarts to guide the transition to democracy, and establish apparently enduring institutions.
  • They're one of only two European countries (along with the Poles) not resigned to living under Iranian nuclear blackmail, having signed onto hosting pieces of an anti-missile system.
  • Their current president, Vaclav Klaus, has penned a book defending economic liberty against the new religion of environmentalism
  • The current foreign minister has supported both for Israel's preliminary air attacks and its current ground offensive, no small matter as the Czechs current hold the EU's rotating presidency.

While other Europeans indulge their latent anti-Semitism, the Czechs, "enjoy the luxury of telling the truth."

Whence this island of common sense in the middle of Europe? I don't know enough Czech history to say for certain, but it would appear that whatever it is manifested itself early on, in the decision to try for a peaceful Soviet exit and de-Communification.

Whatever the reason, a nice email or note to a local consulate general or honorary consulate would seem to be in order.

Gathering For Israel

Tomorrow evening at 5:30 PM at the Hebrew Education Alliance, at 3600 S. Ivanhoe St. in Denver, the Jewish community is sponsoring a "Gathering for Israel." It has three sponsoring and 20 co-sponsoring organizations, including synagogues of every denomination and Faith Bible Chapel.

I don't have any more information at the moment about the program, but to paraphrase the old ad, you don't have to be Jewish to come.

January 1, 2009

How Not To Invest In Real Estate

Colorado will receive $34 million to buy up distressed properties. Of that, Denver will get about $6 million.

This isn't right, This isn't even wrong.

Look at the path the money follows to get here:

The state of Colorado will allocate the HUD funds, and community development groups, with the help of elected officials, will use the money. NSP money can be combined with HUD's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program funds as well as other funding resources.

This doesn't even include all the administrative costs; some of the $6 million will go to those, as well. The fingers in the pie include: the IRS, HUD, the state of Colorado, community development groups, local elected officials, who will rely on local bureaucrats, all of whom have incentives to maximize their respective cuts, none of whom have incentives to actually improve neighborhoods. I'd love to see the cost accounting at the federal, state, and local levels for this cash, but none will be forthcoming, I'm sure.

Worse still, $6 million isn't even worth the effort. According to the City Assessor's Office, we can roughly value all the residential real estate, both real property and condos, at about $40 billion. Six million isn't enough to arrest a trend of declining home prices; it is, however, enough to pick favorites and reward allies.

If there are distressed properties for improvement at a profit, there are plenty of investors willing to risk their own money, without having to make the round trip through three different bureaucracies.

Maybe they could even hire some of those paper-pushers to do the framing.

Rationalizing Costs & Revenue

The Governor of Oregon has come under fire for wanting to replace the gas tax with a mileage tax. He wants to use GPS to track residents' mileage, and then assess the tax at the pump.

At first glance, this might seem like the right way to assess the tax. Wear and tear on roads is more closely related to miles driven than to gallons of gas consumed. In practice, it's a terrible mis-assessment of taxes, raising questions of jurisdiction, cost-to-revenue matching, government-sponsored behavior modification, and CAFE standards. And that's without the intrusiveness of the government watching where you drive your car.

If gas tax revenues are down, it results from some combination of better mileage and less driving. Better mileage undermines the argument for higher CAFE standards, as it happened without them.

Less driving - supposedly the behavior we all want - shows the dangers of using the government as a massive behavior-modification program. Governments do a terrible job of matching revenue structure to cost structure; if successful, the programs that were dependent on sinful excess suffer.

I've written about Denver Water's experience (and now neighboring Aurora's experience) a couple of times. Almost all of their costs are fixed, so higher charges result in lower usage, and less revenue, but does little to lower costs. They raise rates even further, enraging consumers who are already watching their yards turn brown in years of plentiful snowpack.

We've seen this with smoking. Smoking in the US is down, and yields on tobacco-backed revenue bonds are up. Long-term bonds paying 5% coupon are routinely priced at 9% yield-to-maturity. This in a declining interest-rate environment, with a tax-free coupon. Often, these bonds are now rated at just over junk level.

Ideally, fees would allocate taxes to the roads being driven and their maintenance costs, from the drivers using them. But it isn't necessary to tax each driver preicsely; it's only necessary to make sure that aggregate collections match aggregate costs.

A mileage tax would tax only Oregonians. But they drive in neighboring states, and Washingtonians and Californians use Oregon's roads. All things being equal, I'm most likely to fill up in a jurisdiction where I do most of my driving. And under such conditions, a point-of-sale system would ensure that every jurisdiction would collect its fair share of road use taxes over time.

All things being equal. Of course, they're not. I no longer drive out of my way to get better gas prices. But I will try to nurse a tank to get to the cheapest gas near my regular route. Bureaucrats argue that this leads to competition. As though there were something wrong with that.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud