Politics

Fixing Proposition 13

Even people outside of California have heard about proposition 13, the tax-revolt referendum which, exactly 29 years ago, changed the property tax law so that one's property taxes only go up marginally while you own a property. Your tax base remains fixed at the price you paid for your house, with minor increments. If you sell and buy a house of similar value (or inherit in many cases) your tax basis and tax bill can jump alarmingly.

The goal of Prop 13 was that people would not find themselves with a tax bill they couldn't handle just because soaring real estate values doubled or tripled the price of their home, as has often taken place in California. (Yes, I can hear your tears of sympathy.) In particular older people living off savings were sometimes forced to leave, always unpopular.

However, there have been negative consequences. One, it has stopped tax revenues from rising as fast as the counties like, resulting in underfunding of schools and other public programs. (This could be fixed by jacking up the rates even more on more recent buyers of homes but that has its own problems.)

Two, it generates a highly inequitable situation. Two identical families living in two identical houses -- but one has a tax bill of $4,000 per year and the other has a tax bill of $15,000 per year, based entirely on when they bought or inherited their house. I would think this is unconstitutional but the courts said it is not.

Three it's an impediment to moving (as if the realtor monopoly's 6% scam were not enough.) There are exemptions in most counties for moves within California by seniors.

Here's my fix: Each house would, as in most jurisdictions, be fairly appraised, and receive a tax bill based on that. Two identical houses -- same tax bill. However, those who had a low basis value in their home could elect to defer some of that bill (ie. the difference between the real bill and their base bill derived from the price they paid for their home) until they sold the home. There would be interest on this unpaid amount, in effect they would be borrowing against the future equity of the home in order to have a lower tax bill.

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Anti-gerrymandering formulae

A well known curse of many representative democracies is gerrymandering. People in power draw the districts to assure they will stay in power. There are some particularly ridiculous cases in the USA.

I was recently pointed to a paper on a simple, linear system which tries to divide up a state into districts using the shortest straight line that properly divides the population. I have been doing some thinking of my own in this area so I thought I would share it. The short-line algorithm has the important attribute that it's fixed and fairly deterministic. It chooses one solution, regardless of politics. It can't be gamed. That is good, but it has flaws. Its district boundaries pay no attention to any geopolitical features except state borders. Lakes, rivers, mountains, highways, cities are all irrelevant to it. That's not a bad feature in my book, though it does mean, as they recognize, that sometimes people may have a slightly unusual trek to their polling station.

Darfur movie, with white actors

There's a great tragedy going on in the Sudan, and not much is being done about it. Among the people trying to get out the message are hollywood celebrities. I am not faulting them for doing that, but I have a suggestion that is right up their alley.

Which is to make a movie to tell the story, a true movie that is, hopefully a moving as a Schinder's List or the Pianist. Put the story in front of the first world audience.

Voter turnout in contested races is the real statistic

It's always reported how low US voter turnout is in midterm elections. 2006, at about 40%, seems pretty poor, though it was higher than 2002.

However the statistic I would like to see is "Voter turnout in districts where there is an important, hotly contested race." This is the number we might want to monitor from year to year.

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Switching to popular vote from electoral college

A proposal by a Stanford CS Prof for a means to switch the U.S. Presidential race from electoral college to popular vote is gaining some momentum. In short, the proposal calls for some group of states representing a majority of the electoral college to agree to an inter-state compact that they will vote their electoral votes according to the result of the popular vote.

Judge allows EFF's AT&T lawsuit to go forward

Big news today. Judge Walker has denied the motions -- particularly the one by the federal government -- to dismiss our case against AT&T for cooperative with the NSA on warrantless surveillance of phone traffic and records.

The federal government, including the heads of the major spy agencies, had filed a brief demanding the case be dismissed on "state secrets" grounds. This common law doctrine, which is often frighteningly successful, allows cases to be dismissed, even if they are of great merit, if following through would reveal state secrets.

One son policy

Watching 60 minutes last night on the fact that in China's new generation, there are 120 boys for every 100 women, due to the one-child-policy and the abortion of girls by those who insist on a son, an obvious answer came to me.

Instead of a one-child policy, have a one-son policy. Ie. after you have your first boy, you must stop. (China actually forces sterilization or insertion of an IUD under surveillance, which I obviously don't think is a great way to do things.)

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4th Amendment Shipping Tape

Looking at printed wedding gift ribbon some time ago, Kathryn thought it would be amusing to put the 4th amendment on the ribbon, and tie it around our suitcases.

That turned out to be hard to make, but I did make a design for shipping tape which you can see below. The printed shipping tape has the text slant so that as the pattern repeats, the 4th amendment appears as a long continuous string, as well as a block.

How much must we keep the obvious from stupid criminals

One particularly interesting argument seen in the Underwatergate scandal is the one that the NYT, by revealing the existence of warrantless wiretaps on international communications lines, compromised national security.

Reporters asked how that can be. After all, surely the bad guys knew the U.S. had the ability to perform surveillance on them, and has a secret intelligence court, and was presumably getting lots of secret warrants to watch them, and was furthermore watching them overseas without being subject to the 4th amendment.

How to deal with illegal, classified operations?

The AP reports that the DoJ is going to investigate the Underwatergate "leak" to the New York Times. Many of course wish they would investigate the program instead, but since the AG was involved in it, that's difficult.

But this puts forward the complex problem of how to deal with, and stop, illegal classified programs. Because they are classified, they lack many of the checks and balances that exist for other government operations. Indeed, it is suspected that many programs get classified entirely or in part in order to avoid scrutiny.

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Underwatergate: How many E-mails tapped?

A lot of new developments in the warrantless wiretap scandal. A FISA judge has resigned in disgust. A Reagan-appointed former DoJ official calls the President a clear and present danger. And the NSA admits they have on rare occasions tapped entirely domestic phone calls, because sometimes people calling to or from international cell phones while those phones are in the USA would see the traffic go overseas and come back again. I have made such calls to Europeans and Australians visiting the USA.

What the NSA is doing with warrantless searches

It's long, but I can strongly recommend the transcript of today's press briefing on the NSA warrentless wiretaps. It's rare to see the NSA speak about this topic.

One can read a fair bit between the lines. The reporters were really on the ball here, far more than one usually sees.

Particularly interesting notes include:

Major chains agree to end "war on white people"

Major retail chains Target, Wal-Mart and others announced today they will end the so-called war on white people that had resulted in most stores posting signs welcoming "shoppers" or "customers" instead of "white patrons", even though white people represented a considerable majority of their business.

How Prius drivers are gross polluters and other lessons of carbon credits

I've been thinking more about environmental economics since I blogged about retail carbon credits. I was surprised about how cheap (some would say unrealisticly cheap) wholesale credits are -- about $2.20 per tonne of CO2. (Update: This price keeps changing. The U.S. price is clearly out of whack down to just 25 cents per tonne in 2009. The European price has declined too, from $20/tonne when I wrote this to $14/tonne in fall 2009.)

Today, many of my friends have bought a car like the Toyota Prius, feeling they are doing their bit to help the environment by burning less gas. The Prius costs around $3,000-$6,000 more than a comparable old-style engine car (in part because high demand keeps the price high), and the savings on gasoline don't justify it on a financial basis unless you do nothing but drive all day. So the main reason to buy it is to help the environment and to make a statement before your peer group. The Camry Hybrid, which gets 32mpg instead of 23mpg costs about $5,000 more than the regular Camry.)

Problem is, there's an argument that you're hurting the environment, counterintuitive as that sounds. And no, it's not just the unanswered questions about recycling the fancy batteries in the Prius when they fade, where fairly positive results have been returned so far. Read on...

AAAS issues warning to Pat Robertson -- You have turned away from science

Washington, DC: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a stern warning today to Televangelist Pat Robertson. Robertson had recently condemned the citizens of Dover, PA to the wrath of God for not voting in a school board that would teach Intelligent Design in classes.

"We'd like to say to the good Reverend Robertson: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to Science, you just rejected it from your life," AAAS said on its daily television show broadcast from Washington, the 3.14159 Club.

"And don't wonder why it hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. We're not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just pushed science out of your life. And if that's the case, don't ask for its help because it might not be there," they said. "In particular, you won't have a phone to call the ambulance, and it won't exist even if you could call it. And even if the doctor lived next door and you could call her, she would only bleed you and put smelly poultices on your forehead to balance your humours. And she would be a guy."

"Actually, we're just kidding," the AAAS later corrected. "Science works whether you believe in it or not. That's what's really cool about it," they said.

"What they said," indicated Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in an independent statement.

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