Sunday, July 30, 2017

Should You Buy an Electric Car?

Random Thoughts on Electric Cars
"Tesla unveiled its new Model 3 sedans, starting at $35,000, in a ceremony on Friday night [July 28] on the grounds of its sprawling assembly plant and research facility outside San Francisco.

-- Bill Vlasic, "In Pivotal Moment, Tesla Unveils Its First Mass-Market Sedan," New York Times, July 30, 2017, p. A1
Reading the Times story about Tesla's ceremony and first "sale" (to employees) of 30 Tesla Model 3 electric cars, my thoughts accelerated back to my first experience driving an electric car a couple years ago. [Photo credit: Tesla Motors.]

It wasn't a Tesla. It was a Nissan Leaf. I wanted to experience driving an electric car more than I wanted to buy one -- although that was both a possibility and the dealer's wish.

It was a very nice driving experience. There was no reason not to have one because of that drive.

Ultimately, analysis led me to conclude that although it might make no sense for my wife and me, I could imagine people for whom an electric car could be a wise purchase.

Meanwhile, here are some other random thoughts as well.

Environmental impact. Face it, the only forms of transportation that come close to environmental purity would be: walking, bicycling, horseback riding, moving through the air in a glider, or over water with a sailboat.

The operation of an all-electric vehicle may have substantially less adverse environmental impact than operating an internal combustion engine. But if the electricity came from a coal-fired power plant, and a lot of electricity was lost while in transit to your community, the difference is less dramatic.

Then there's the batteries -- a lot of batteries -- the China-controlled rare earth elements it takes to make them, and what happens to them in landfills when they need be replaced. ("Most electric car batteries use lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) cathodes and graphite anodes. 'Rare earth' metals dysprosium, neodymium and terbium, chiefly mined in China . . . are used in some electronic components of the motor." The Electric Car Revolution Is Making These Investors Very Optimistic," Reuters/Fortune, October 4, 2016.)

Convenience. However wonderful the act of driving an electric car may be, there are limits to how far and where you can drive one.

Gasoline filing stations are everywhere -- except in the dead of night in sparsely populated areas of the country. Charging stations for electric cars are not (yet) as available.

At this time, few would want to set off on a cross-country trip in an electric. Even with a probable range "up to" (as the cable companies say about megabits per second) 100 to 200 miles (depending on the make/model), to avoid being stranded without a sufficient charge you would want to allow margins of error when starting out on more than short trips around town.

And instead of filling your tank with gas every week or so, building a home charging station, and going through the routine of starting the charging process every night, would approximate the ever-present obligation of a dairy farmer to milk the cows every evening.

Buy or lease? For me, cars are just transportation, not collectors' items or bragging rights. As long as a car is reliable and safe, I've never cared how old it was or what it looked like. So I've never before calculated the comparative benefits of buying or leasing new cars.

But when considering the Leaf, my initial analysis was that leasing would make the most sense.

Why? Internal combustion engines, properly maintained and worked on, can operate for 250,000 miles or more. There are ways to extend (or curtail) the life of batteries, but they will need to be replaced at some point -- life and price data are not yet definitive, but five years and $5000 might be examples. "[B]attery replacement costs is one of three key considerations why 57 percent of Americans cited in a USA Today/Gallup Poll say they wouldn’t buy an EV." Jim Motavalli, "Replacing EV Batterries: Your Costs Will Vary,", June 19, 2012.

Of course, that was five years ago. The technology, and pricing, are still evolving.

It's hard to compare the cost of buying with leasing because there are so many variables. But the financial differences are usually not wildly dramatic.

Bottom line: leasing means you'll always have the latest of the rapidly evolving technology, have some additional guarantees and servicing from the dealer, and never need to spend thousands of dollars on a fresh set of batteries.

Borrowing from the TV pharmaceutical commercials,"Ask your doctor if an electric car might be right for you." So what made me decide to forgo the fun of leasing an electric car?

(1) Little or no need for any car. My wife and I are retired and live in Iowa City, Iowa -- which I sometimes refer to as a "toy town." The law school is a three-or-four-block walk from home. One of the nation's largest research hospitals is closer still. The Big-10 football in Kinnick Stadium is one block further. The dental school maybe three blocks beyond that. Going "to town" is almost exactly one mile, a 15 or 20-minute walk (often quicker than the total time, including parking, to use a car). I mostly get around by bicycle and walking. We already have one car each that mostly sit in the driveway, both old and purchased used.

(2) Need for internal combustion car. We would still need a car capable of distances beyond the range of an electric -- not only for cross-country trips, but for much of our travel within the state, or for two-day trips to places without charging stations.

(3) In order for the lease to make any kind of economic sense for us it would need to be driven distances as close as possible to the maximum permitted under the lease agreement (before there are additional per-mile charges). I was not sure that even using it for all of our around-town driving would come anywhere close to that.

"You began by saying, 'I could imagine people for whom an electric car could be a wise purchase.' So, whom might they be?"

I'm not thinking of those who say, "If you have to ask the price you can't afford it;" the people for whom "money is no object." They can buy any electric they want, regardless of how much they use it, run around in it for six weeks or six months, or until their name comes up on Tesla's backlog list of 500,000 potential buyers who've paid $1000 each to stand in line -- at which point they can give the first electric car to one of their kids.

No, here's who I had in mind. A young couple, with or without kids, both of whom have steady jobs that require daily commutes. They are wealthy enough to buy new cars, but not wealthy enough to consider a $100,000 Tesla.

One of those commutes is, say, 60 miles a day (round trip), or other distance well within the car's range on a full charge (so as to avoid any risk of being stranded). If that was not enough to approach the maximum allowed mileage under the lease, the electric could also be the car of choice for any running around town.

The closer the leased electric could get to that maximum mileage the more economic sense it would make to have the car. (Of course, like most electrics owners, they would need to build a charging station in their garage and remember to charge the car every evening.)

Their other car, new or used, could be a fuel efficient gasoline car. It would be used for the other partner's daily commute, any cross-country (or local) trips beyond the range of the electric, and for local errands once the electric had reached its budgeted monthly mileage.

And that's what I think about electric cars.

# # #

Friday, July 28, 2017

GOP Healthcare: Just 'Tell 'em I lied'

An aide to Louisiana Governor "Uncle" Earl Long (1939-40; 1948-52; 1956-60), having faced a group of constituents demanding to meet with the Governor, and angry over his failure to deliver them a promised road, asked Long what the aide should tell the crowd. Governor Long replied,

"Tell 'em I lied."

-- Louisiana Governor Earl Long [full story in Endnote, below]
Why do the Republican members of the House and Senate seemingly feel compelled, like those who self-flagellate their backs with knives and chains, to march on to ever greater self-inflicted wounds, in order to make good on their promise to "repeal Obamacare"? [Photo credit: Gov. Earl K. Long speaking to the Legislature in June 1956; New Orleans Times-Picayune archive.]

Surely they are aware that the titular head of their party -- the President of the United States, Donald Trump -- with all of his lies and broken promises to supporters, has nonetheless enjoyed a successful political career. After all, as he's said of the media, "I'm president and they're not." [Michael D. Shear, "'I'm President and They're Not': Trump Attacks Media at Faith Rally," New York Times, July 2, 2017, p. A18.] As the Times has reported, "There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths."
"[H]ere are the numbers for the president’s first 100 days.
492: The number of false or misleading claims made by the president. That’s an average of 4.9 claims a day.
10: Number of days without a single false claim. (On six of those days, the president golfed at a Trump property.)
5: Number of days with 20 or more false claims. (Feb. 16, Feb. 28, March 20, April 21 and April 29, his 100th day in office.)" Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee, "President Trump’s First 100 days: The Fact Check Tally," Washington Post, May 1, 2017.

And see, David Leonhardt and Stuart A. Thompson, "Trump's Lies," New York Times, Updated July 21, 2017 (with chronological itemized list; "There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. Every president has shaded the truth or told occasional whoppers. No other president — of either party — has behaved as Trump is behaving. He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.")
As much as we may admire the congressional Republicans' ethical desire to keep commitments to constituents, why can't they, with regard to this healthcare business, follow their President's example, and that of Governor Earl Long, and simply say, "We lied"?

In fact, they even have a much more acceptable explanation than "we lied." I would suggest they consider something like this:
When Obamacare became law we did not like it. You did not like it. We did not like the process the Democrats used to get it enacted. During the years since, our efforts to repeal it have been frustrated by President Obama's threat to veto any repeal. As you've probably noticed, we've had our difficulties repealing it this year as well.

This is, in large part, a function of the passage of time.

There are things that even the Democrat Obamacare enthusiasts agree are wrong with the law. Whatever else happens, those defects must be fixed.

But after seven years of Americans living with Obamacare, getting access to insurance and healthcare, many of you have come to depend upon it. Few if any of our proposals to repeal it have had the support of more than 15 percent of the American people -- including Republicans. Changes that would continue, or increase, the tens of millions of Americans with no realistic access to Medicaid, Medicare or other adequate health insurance and healthcare, are neither good medicine nor politics.

We have not abandoned our quest, your quest, to improve on Obamacare. What we have come to recognize is that an outright repeal, with or without a replacement, is not politically possible. What is possible is to do better than the Democrats did in fashioning Obamacare while essentially locking us out. What we can do is to start over with the traditional legislative process of staff research, committee hearings with the nation's experts, and full floor debate regarding amendments -- a process that will enable Democrats and Republicans to work together. What we can do is create a process in which facts replace ideological arguments, a process in which every member of the House and Senate has some skin in the game, a process from which can come the best healthcare for all Americans that our representative democracy is capable of creating for the American people.
There's something to the old saying that when you find yourself at the bottom of a deep hole, the first step to getting out is to stop digging. The Republicans continued digging. It hasn't worked. Perhaps it's time to call on Winston Churchill. As Churchill once observed of our democracy, "The Americans will always do the right thing -- after they've exhausted all the alternatives." Now that Congress has pretty well exhausted all the alternatives, perhaps the next step is to do the right thing.

# # #

The full story is told by Michael Kurtz and Morgan Peoples:
"During one of his campaigns for governor, Earl Long made a stump appearance before a crowd of farmers in rural St. Tammany Parish. In typical fashion, he promised that if elected, he would have a local road, heavily traveled and full of potholes, widened and paved. Long won the election abnd carried the rural district, but when the legislature convened, he failed to include the promised road work in his agenda of bills. Astonished and furious at this display of gubernatorial duplicity, a large contingent of irate citizens journeyed to Baton Rouge to see Governor Long. Earl would not see them, and they subjected his administrative aide to a barrage of threats and insults. Refusing to leave, they stood their ground and demanded that Long see them. Equally adamant, Earl turned down the impassioned pleas by his aid. The fist-shaking mob gave the aid one last chance, and out of sheer exasperation, he said to Long, "After all, governor, you did promise to have their road paved. What should I tell those people?" With a shrug, Earl replied, "Tell 'em I lied!"
Michael L. Kurtz, Morgan D. Peoples, Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl and Louisiana Politics, (LSU Press, 1990), Preface

I will leave to others the search for other possible indicia of similarities between President Trump and the Governors Long, such as, "[Huey] Long became a dictator, disdaining the ordinary processes of constitutional government and flouting the principles of separation of powers. . . . [H]is successors engaged in outrageous acts of personal enrichment, stealing an estimated $100 million from the state [roughly $2 billion today]. . . . [Earl Long] openly practic[ed] spoils politics. He wrecked the state civil service system, fired civil servants for 'political halitosis,' and openly accepted 'campaign contributions' from gamblers and mobsters." Id., p. 9.

# # #

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Acceptable, Available, Affordable Housing

Note: An edited excerpt from this blog post (primarily the "Is there a right to housing?" section) was published by The Gazette on August 1, 2017 ("Health Care, Housing Rights?") and reproduced below.

And see, Addendum: "Why Do So Many Christians Believe Lack of Effort is Cause of Poverty, or Jesus Would Oppose Government Social Programs?"

And, for a little good news on this subject, Lee Hermiston, "Shelter House Gets $2.7 Million for 'Housing First' Project in Iowa City; Construction Could Begin in October," The Gazette, August 4, 2017, p. A1.

Excellent and data-loaded: Editorial, "Locked Out: All Counties in Creative Corridor Lack Affordable Homes," The Gazette, August 6, 2017, p. D1 (not yet available online; link will be added when available; excellent data for 7 Iowa counties: population, persons in poverty, percentage who earn less than 30% of median income, number of affordable units for that population, percentages spending more than 30% of income on housing, increase since 2007 in rent for two-bedroom unit compared with percentage increase in median household income, number in 2016 who were homeless and sought emergency services.)


Is there a right to housing?
Whom are we talking about?
What are their needs; what are the solutions?
Housing in context
What's "affordable"?

Housing policy is, as President Trump once said of healthcare policy, "an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that [it] could be so complicated." [Michael A. Memoli, "Trump: 'Nobody Knew that Healthcare Could be so Complicated,'" Los Angeles Times, February 27, 2017.]
[For details on polling results and trends regarding the number of Americans who support universal single-payer health care, see Kristen Bialik, "More Americans Say Government Should Ensure Health Care Coverage," Pew Research Center, January 13, 2017 (e.g.: "Currently, 60% of Americans say the government should be responsible for ensuring health care coverage for all Americans, compared with 38% who say this should not be the government’s responsibility.").]
Is there a "right" to housing?

At the outset of discussions of any social program is the threshold issue of "rights": to what extent do we have (legally) or feel (morally) an obligation to care for those beyond our own family, community or "tribes" (variously defined)? To what extent do others have a "right" to expect such care from us?

Obviously, if a majority of us believe, and act as if, others have no "rights," and we have no "obligations," that's pretty much a conversation stopper. So let's first try to figure out what we believe about "rights" in general, by considering some comments from others before returning to the matter of "rights" to housing.
"Right. That which is consonant with equity or the light of nature; that which is morally just or due."
-- Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Ed., vol. II, 1971), p. 669, Right, 3.

"Health care is not a right. Housing is not a right. A job is not a right. College is not a right."
-- Joe Walsh, May 4, 2017 (syndicated radio host; former member of Congress)

"Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." . . .
"Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
-- Jesus, Matthew 22:39, 25:40 (KJ)

"[W]e can see the TRUTH of the true religion of God woven like a GOLDEN THREAD throughout all faiths whose origin is from Him in the form of the GOLDEN RULE."
-- Bahai, Universal House of Justice (with quotes and citations from 16 major religions; emphasis supplied)

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
-- Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for . . . health and well-being . . ., including food, clothing, housing and medical care . . .."
-- United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, December 10, 1948
There remain differences among us as to whether our obligations to others should be fulfilled through governmental programs or non-governmental organizations' efforts. But as we see, virtually all the world's great religions, and nations (UN), are agreed that we do have at least some obligations to fellow members of our species. (Indeed, some would extend this to other animal (and even plant) species as well. Why? For answers see, Frans De Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" (W.W. Norton, 2016), and Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (Greystone Books, 2016).)

And yet, among Americans, Joe Walsh (above, "Housing is not a right") speaks for the majority.

This is somewhere between ironic and inexplicable, given that over 50% of Americans say "religion is very important in their lives" (the highest of any wealthy nation). How can we square "I've got mine, Jack," shouts of "Get a job," and denying healthcare to tens of millions of Americans, with the Golden Rule and caring for "the least of these"? How can we explain that "57% of Americans disagreed with the statement 'Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,' a higher percentage than in any of the European nations polled. . . . [Or that] 73% said hard work is very important for getting ahead in life compared to a European median of 35%. . . . [And that] nearly six-in-ten in the U.S. (58%) believe allowing everyone to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the state is [most] important [, whereas] majorities in all European nations polled in 2011 said guaranteeing that nobody is in need is more important." [Richard Wike, "5 ways Americans and Europeans are Different," Pew Research Center, April 19, 2016.]

In a nation in which a majority holds such beliefs, a nation willing to trust its democracy to a political process fueled (and therefore largely controlled) by the largest campaign donors, it can't be shocking that many elected officials share some donors' belief that "my right to a tax cut trumps (so to speak) your right to come in out of the cold."

Thankfully, there are also thousands of knowledgeable, caring individuals in Iowa and throughout our nation who are trying to do something about insuring every American has decent housing. This blog post is dedicated to them, and addresses the challenges they face.

Whom are we talking about?

Many of us are relatively well housed. Of America's 135 million dwelling units, about 60% (in Iowa and the nation) are single family, detached houses. Others live in condo units or rented apartments. When it comes to housing, these are among the most fortunate, notwithstanding their occasional difficulty paying mortgages, rent, taxes, and utility bills. Thus, with rare exception, housing is not much of an issue for those in the top 20% (annual income $111,000 or more).
["Stats for Stories: American Housing Month," Housing, U.S. Census Bureau, June 2017 ("The 2015 American Community Survey counts almost 135 million housing units in the U.S.: 61.4% are detached single-family homes and 6.3% are mobile homes.") "Most Americans Make It To The Top 20 Percent (At Least For A While)," Planet Money, National Public Radio, May 5, 2014.]
It's a little different story for the homeless -- those roughly 500,000 Americans with no place to call home on any given day. Some have shelter, others are on the streets, or otherwise unsheltered. Some are individuals, including children on their own; some are part of homeless families. They may be chronically homeless or only temporarily so. [Photo credit: unknown.]

Of course, some of those "sheltered" may be couch surfing, or otherwise living in overcrowded conditions shared with other families or friends.

Others may be in a shelter considered unhealthy or otherwise dangerous substandard housing. ("About six million homes in the United States are substandard by American Housing Survey (AHS) standards, a statistic that has seen little change over the last two decades." Dwellings considered substandard have "interior and exterior leaks, signs of pests, and other factors collected by local public health and code enforcement agencies." ["Substandard Housing," National Center for Healthy Housing.
And see, "What Is Substandard Housing?", ("Substandard housing . . . , often in severe disrepair, [is] housing that poses a risk to the health, safety or physical well-being of its occupants . . . associated with increased risk of disease, crime, social isolation and decreased mental health. . . . Some cases of substandard housing are not so visible. Outdated or dangerous electrical systems, rusting or loose pipes and gas leaks . . . might go unnoticed until an accident happens.")]
Housing can be unsafe for other reasons, such as spousal abuse, or neighborhoods with relatively high levels of violent crime.

The remnants of Americans' prejudice can make it more difficult for some to find housing -- those of a given race, religion, country of origin, new immigrants, or former convicts who've served their time and are trying to reenter society -- regardless of their ability to pay.

But some of those most at risk for becoming homeless are living in "poverty" (defined as an individual with $12,060 annual income or less; $24,600 for a family of four). [Kimberly Amadeo, "Federal Poverty Level: Definition, Guidelines, Chart,"The Balance, February 2, 2017.] Note that "poverty" can result not only from steady employment at a low wage, but also from unsteady, seasonal, or otherwise occasional income (regardless of hourly rate) that doesn't reach an annual total in excess of poverty levels.

The unemployed are an at risk group for housing. "The share of prime-age [American] men (ages 25-54) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s. . . . [One] in six prime-age men in America are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether -- about 10 million men" -- one of the highest rates in the world. [Derek Thompson, "The Missing Men," The Atlantic, June 27, 2017.]

Another category are those paying over 50 percent of their income for housing. "When more than 50 percent of a poor household’s income goes to paying rent, that household is experiencing what is known as severe housing cost burden. [These are] households . . . more likely to have an unexpected event -- such as loss of employment or unexpected medical costs -- result in . . . homelessness." [The State of Homelessness in America (2016), pp. 48-49,]
[For one of the best collections of data regarding the financial challenges confronting nearly all Americans regardless of income and net worth, presented in 24 pages of graphics and very readable text, see "On Track or Left Behind? Findings from the 2017 Prosperity Now Scorecard, July 2017 Prosperity, released July 25, 2017.]
What are their needs; what are the solutions?

Although "categories" are listed above, most of those with housing needs have stories that are somewhat unique -- as are the solutions, to the extent possible.

An abused spouse or children may not be lacking shelter; their problem is not a leaky roof, it's the violence to which they're subjected. They need an alternative shelter, or safe house -- along with some legal assistance -- until they can relocate (or the abuser is imprisoned). There may be other reasons why temporary, rather than permanent, housing is the solution.

For those with a "severe housing cost burden," or without the resources even if they used all their earnings for rent, there may be public housing, "affordable housing" required of landlords, or subsidies such as "Section 8." [Housing Act of 1937, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §1437f.]

Housing in context

As with medical specialists who are less aware of a patient's related conditions, so it is with housing. By contrast, some doctors actually make "house calls" -- not to see the patient, but to see the house, and how it might be contributing to the patient's condition.

For example, in addition to the occasional relationship between housing and healthcare, there is often a relationship between housing, educational level and unemployment.

There can be a relationship between housing, poverty and public transportation (or access to a reliable vehicle). If businesses would build housing close enough to their stores or factories that their employees could walk or bike to work -- with rent they could afford on the hourly wages they were paid -- it would solve both the housing challenge and eliminate employees' costs of commuting from the distances necessary to find affordable housing (as well as improving workers' health and the environment). Public buses or trains that run every 10 or 15 minutes (rather than half-hour or hour), and don't require two or three changes from home to work, would help.

Child care, on the job site or nearby, could sometimes make the difference.

Of course, social workers and others are aware of these interrelated needs and solutions -- as they are aware of not having the necessary resources to do what they know needs to be done. Just as there are IEP's (individual education plans) for K-12 students with disabilities, it would help when addressing individuals' "housing in context" challenges to create a plan for every individual who comes into the system that addresses housing, healthcare, nutrition, transportation, training, childcare and whatever other needs and services are relevant.

What's "affordable"?

There is much reference in discussions of housing to so-called "affordable housing," defined as housing that one can obtain for 30% or less of one's income.
"Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States." ["Affordable Housing," Department of Housing and Urban Development.]
"Affordability" is not a very precise concept at best, and is certainly subject to, among other things, almost unlimited potential multiple variables.

Income. Thirty percent of what? What do we count? What do we deduct? Is it what's left after taxes? Which taxes (i.e., federal and state income tax; FICA; sales tax)? What about essential fixed expenses?

Fixed expenses. The minimal, essential expenses for a family of four (or more) will be both different, and far exceed, those for a young, childless single person. Childcare expenses can be significant if there's no grandmother to volunteer. A family paying for grandparents' nursing home costs, or services for a person with a disability, or a mortgage, will have far less for food and other expenses than someone who does not.

Absolute dollars. No one can eat a percentage. Someone in the top 20%, earning $200,000 a year, has $140,000 left over after paying 30% ($60,000; $5,000 a month) for housing. Someone earning the minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) and lucky enough to work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year ($14,500 a year) has $10,150 ($846 a month) left over after paying 30% ($4,350, or $362.50 a month -- if such apartments even exist) for housing.


Like a bull in a china shop, or a pig in the parlor, there's nothing inherently wrong with capitalism -- so long as it's kept in its proper place. To protect competitors, employees and consumers some government regulation is often necessary, but "free private enterprise" and "marketplace competition" can produce greater incentives for innovation, productivity and efficiency by business, along with greater choice and lower prices for consumers.

But just as there are some sectors of the economy in which government ownership and operation may not be the optimum approach, there are also other sectors of the economy that seem inappropriate for capitalism.

There are some who seemingly want to privatize everything. But there appears to be at least a significant minority, if not majority, of Americans who recognize the advantages of public ownership and operation of K-12 schools; libraries; national, state, and local parks; and the Interstate Highway system.

Profit-maximizing businesses can have conflicts of interest when providing public goods. Experiments with private ownership of prisons, for example, show that there is an inherent conflict of interest between public policy goals of shorter sentences and alternatives to incarceration and the prison owners' goals of profit maximization: the more people convicted and incarcerated, and the longer their sentences, the greater their profits.

There are doctors and dentists who volunteer in free clinics and elsewhere to provide healthcare to those who otherwise would have to do without. But for the most part healthcare is a private, profit-maximizing industry. As those urging a form of universal, single-payer healthcare say -- a form of healthcare available to citizens in most industrialized countries -- there is a big difference between "health insurance" and "health care." The statistics on such measures as years of life expectancy, or rates of infant mortality, suggest that we are paying more while getting less and serving fewer than those countries. We joke about medical students who want their specialty to be "diseases of the rich," but the fact is that in a capitalist healthcare system everyone from medical professionals, to Big Pharma, to hospitals, to insurance company shareholders and executives would like to be paid more.

Admittedly, there is no more agreement regarding public housing than there is about healthcare. The UN may say, as quoted above, that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for . . . health and well-being" (including housing and healthcare), but there are still individuals who believe that even those without shoes should simply "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." [United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, December 10, 1948.]

Home builders and realtors will, when necessary, build, remodel, sell, or rent homes and condos to those scarcely able to pay. But when their income is calculated as a percentage of the price of their sold homes, or the square footage of those they've built, large, expensive homes for the wealthy are clearly to be preferred over those for the poor. Segregation in our communities is largely perpetuated by housing policies, which are often driven in part by what the upper 20 percent believe to be "the best schools."

A builder of a city center high rise full of condos, who can sell them for a half-million to a million dollars or more, has zero economic incentive to include units that college students, or minimum wage workers, could afford. Of course, a city government that is gifting the builder a portion of construction costs (say, a TIF that reduces the owner's property taxes) has a lot of leverage -- if it will use it -- to insist on some cheaper units. But that's little more than a tiny one-off contribution to the community's housing needs for the poor and working poor.

Which brings us to "data."


Schools don't just open their doors, let children wander in, and go to whatever room they please. Enrollment is limited by the numbers of classrooms, teachers, and desks. And there are precise records of each child, with information about parents or guardians, address, and perhaps special needs.

Successful businesses startups have business plans. The owners have at least some sense of traffic flow as well as revenue flow, the potential population from which they will draw, the competitors who will be offering the same or similar services.

It's not that those giving their lives to providing housing for the poor aren't aware of the value of comparable information about housing, or that they aren't making efforts to try to create it -- sometimes creative, impressive efforts. It's that they are simply not provided the resources they need to gather all the necessary data. They know, better than I, what they need. But here's how it looks from here.

Take Johnson County, Iowa, as an example. It's helpful to have another Habitat for Humanity house here, a shelter house there, a TIF requiring some below-market units in a condo project. But if we really want to get everyone housed, it's not enough to just "do something." We need some basic data about "supply" -- an inventory of what housing we have (whether occupied or not), such as, how many one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments there are, with their locations and rent.

The Census Bureau does a pretty good job of counting and reporting housing units. But apparently the landlords and developers are sometimes reluctant to reveal their rental rates and the number of vacancies.

Equally important, is information about "demand" -- especially regarding persons who can't afford any housing available in the county, and those who are suffering from "severe housing cost burden" (rent exceeding half of their income).

It is the demand side that is the most problematical. Ideally there would be enough social workers that every individual in the county in need of one or another form of assistance would be identified, regularly visited, and assisted in finding, or improving, their housing. Unfortunately, in today's political climate that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

However, gathering one county's housing supply and demand is not a "big data" project -- like the recent White House effort to create a database record of every person registered to vote in America, along with their personal data.

There are only 62,000 housing units in Johnson County, and 59 percent of them are owner-occupied -- presumably most of them by owners who are not in need of housing assistance. The remaining 40 percent would be a number that could fit in a single Excel spreadsheet on anyone's laptop computer.


Meanwhile, four things might help. (1) Think about a county's housing challenges as a whole, rather than one dwelling unit, and occupant, at a time. (2) Prioritize the need to gather as much detailed data as possible about the county's housing supply and demand. (3) Recognize that housing is but one of many interconnected challenges for those in need that can most effectively, and efficiently, be met by recognizing how they are connected. (4) Manage the undertaking with measurable goals, timelines, and public accountability in the form of management information reporting systems.

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Here is The Gazette's edited excerpt from this blog post (primarily the "Is there a right to housing?" section):

"Health Care, Housing Rights?"
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, Insight Guest Opinion, August 1, 2017, p. A5

There’s been discussion recently about housing (locally) and healthcare policy (nationally). Unlike government-funded programs used by all, these are programs for those most in need.

Developing public policy for social programs seems to be, as President Trump famously said, “an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that [it] could be so complicated.”

That’s not precisely accurate. We are blessed with thousands of knowledgeable, caring individuals who do know how complicated it is.

Do you and I have (legally) or feel (morally) obligations to care for those beyond our family or community? To what extent do others have a "right" to expect such care?

Former Congressman Joe Walsh unambiguously put in his answer: "Health care is not a right. Housing is not a right. A job is not a right. College is not a right."

If healthcare is a product and housing is a privilege; if a majority believe, and act as if, the needy have no "rights," and we have no "obligations," that pretty much ends the discussion.

Where to find insight?

Religion? Jesus said, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" and "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." The Bahai Universal House of Justice cites 16 major religions espousing the Golden Rule.

Founding documents? "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Virtually all the world's great religions, and nations, agree we have some obligations to fellow members of our species. And yet, Walsh speaks for many Americans.

That's somewhere between ironic and inexplicable, given more U.S. citizens say "religion is very important in their lives" than people elsewhere. How can we square denying healthcare with caring for "the least of these"?

Could it be our “representatives” have adopted their major donors’ belief that "my right to even bigger tax cuts trumps (so to speak) your right to come in out of the cold"?
Nicholas Johnson is a former FCC commissioner and law professor who maintains the blog, Contact:


Addendum: "Why Do So Many Christians Believe Lack of Effort is Cause of Poverty, or Jesus Would Oppose Government Social Programs?"

Since the publication of this column in the Gazette two categories of responses to my genuine puzzlement (how can our country be both the world's most religious, and so many believe that social programs are "not a right") have come to my attention. One is the disparity between the religious and non-religious regarding the cause of poverty (circumstances vs. lack of effort): Julie Zauzmer, "Christians Are more Than Twice as Likely to Blame a Person's Poverty on Lack of Effort," Washington Post, August 4, 2017 ("53 percent of white evangelical Protestants blamed lack of effort while 41 percent blamed circumstances, . . .. In contrast, . . . Americans who are atheist, agnostic or have no particular affiliation [31 percent blamed lack of effort while 65 percent] said difficult circumstances are more to blame when a person is poor . . ..")

The other came in the form of emails insisting I had misinterpreted Jesus' teachings. Advocating from a WWJD ("what would Jesus do") position, they seemed to be arguing that, (1) were Jesus around to state his case today, he would oppose, or at a minimum not encourage, government programs to help the poor. (2) All Jesus ever said was that individuals should care for "the least of these" -- something that many individuals and churches are doing.

I view this difference of interpretation as analogous to the "original intent" arguments around the "meaning" of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution refers to an "army" and "navy" but makes no mention of an "air force." Yet no one I know of argues that the Air Force is unconstitutional. To the best of my memory the New Testament has little to say about governmental social programs for the needy -- the existence of such programs during Jesus' years, or even their proposal and rejection. If this was something beyond anyone's imagining at the time (even Jesus' imagining), one can't really fault him for a failure to advocate it.

Were Jesus around today he would probably be denied immigration status, and thus the issue would never arise. But if he was permitted to enter the U.S., it's not unreasonable to suspect -- given what he is credited with saying about caring for others, and the problems flowing from great wealth -- that he would adapt his role of activist to our culture, likely be a Bernie supporter, only be televised on Democracy Now!, and probably advocate for more (rather than less) taxpayer-funded programs for the poor.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Unfit To Be The Ruler

A Long Train of Abuses

"A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

-- Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

"Whenever the Vice President and a majority of [congressionally designated individuals] transmit to the [President of the Senate and Speaker of the House] their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President."

-- U.S. Constitution, Amendment 25, Section 4, February 10, 1967

With the long holiday weekend, family gatherings, and fireworks displays, few know, and pause to remember, that it is our independence from Britain that we celebrate. Fewer still will give a thought to King George III, let alone acknowledge that Americans were far from unanimous in their desire to escape his rule. Estimates are that 20 to 35% of the colonists opposed independence (with another third undecided).

So it is again today, 241 years later. Americans are once again divided -- and by about the same percentages -- regarding their current King George III replacement: President Donald Trump. A hard core of 29% to 40% support him and 50% to 60% oppose or are undecided (depending on questions asked and events at time of poll). [Rough figures: There are 250 million Americans over 18 (eligible to register), 200 million registered (80% of the 250 M); November 2016 results: Trump 62 million, Clinton 64 million (126 million total about half of those 18+; 60% of those registered.]

It is not the purpose of this piece to put the arguments for or against America's independence from Britain, or arguments for or against the re-election (or impeachment) of President Trump. The purpose is somewhat analogous to the purpose of the prior blog post, "Not All Criticism is Defamation," July 4, 2017 [embedded: "Is Superintendent Criticism 'Defamation'?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 28, 2017, p. 7A] (without taking a position on whether the local school superintendent was deserving of criticism, it simply set forth the basics of defamation law for those arguing the issue).

In other words, for purposes of this blog essay, what were the concerns expressed in the Declaration of Independence regarding the removal of King George III's rule over the colonies, to what extent are they applicable to President Trump, and what are the provisions of the U.S. Constitution regarding the removal of a U.S. president when there are concerns about his or her performance in office?

We begin with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.

"[Americans] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted . . ..

"[W]when a long train of abuses and usurpations . . . evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government . . .. He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good . . . unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. . . . He has obstructed the Administration of Justice . . .. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power. He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws . . .. For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world . . ..

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. . . . He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us . . .. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people." [Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons; Sir William Beechey's oil painting of King George III, c. 1800/]

-- Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

There are a number of provisions in the U.S. Constitution that relate to the president's powers, obligations, and the standards for public (and congressional) evaluation of his or her fitness for (or removal from) office.

The offenses justifying consideration of impeachment are relatively specific: treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors. It is a two-step process -- kind of like the (1) indictment, and (2) trial/conviction of a criminal defendant -- with the "indictment" (impeachment) in the House and trial and "conviction" in the Senate.
"The President . . . shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

-- U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 4

"The House of Representatives . . . shall have the sole power of impeachment."

-- U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2, Clause 5

"The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments. . . . Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from office . . .."

-- U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2, Clauses 6, 7
President Trump has refused to (1) make public the last few years of his tax returns, (2) sell off his assets and put the proceeds in a legitimate "blind trust," -- both customary political norms for presidents -- and (3) continues to benefit financially from foreign governments' payment for use of his properties, special privileges regarding his family's business proposals in other countries, and foreigners' purchases of Trump condo units and other properties in the U.S. This behavior has raised questions about his possible violation of the Constitutional prohibition of presidents' receipt of "emoluments."
"[N]o no person holding any office of [the U.S. government] shall . . . accept of any present, emolument . . . of any kind whatever, from any . . . foreign state."

-- U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8

"The President shall . . . receive for his services, a compensation . . . and he shall not receive . . . any other emolument from the United States, or any of them."

-- U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 7
We know that the most consequential function of a vice president is the possibility of his or her ascension to the presidency. The Constitution refers to this happening because of, for example, the death or resignation of a president. It might also occur following an impeachment and conviction, as discussed above.

But there is additional language in Article II, Section 1, that has recently come into the media and public dialogue, namely the president's "inability to discharge" the responsibilities of the presidency. Without going into detail here, Google searches will reveal that some of the president's critics argue this language does, or should, cover a range of President Trump's offensive behavior, actions, inaction, seeming lack interest in the details of policy and norms of the presidency, failure to nominate persons for essential positions, inability to build bi-partisan coalitions, lack of basic knowledge, and possible mental health issues. (His supporters dismiss such concerns, assert he's entitled to tweet personal attacks on what he perceives as his critics, and that the media is "the enemy of the people.")

Go back and re-read paragraphs seven and eight of this blog post, above, excerpting language from the Declaration of Independence. Notice how many of the colonists' complaints about King George III have their analogous equivalent in critics' complaints about President Trump.
"In case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of the said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President . . .."

-- U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 6

"Whenever the Vice President and a majority of [congressionally-designated individuals] transmit to the [President of the Senate and Speaker of the House] their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President."*

-- U.S. Constitution, Amendment 25, Section 4
Forgive me this serious interruption of your holiday weekend, but whether you are a Trump supporter or critic, I thought you might find it useful -- today and throughout the months to come -- to have access to the actual language relevant to an evaluation of President Trump's performance.

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* "But the seemingly most insoluble problem was that of presidential inability—Garfield lying in a coma for eighty days before succumbing to the effects of an assassin’s bullet, Wilson an invalid for the last eighteen months of his term, the result of a stroke—with its unanswered questions: who was to determine the existence of an inability, how was the matter to be handled if the President sought to continue, in what manner should the Vice President act, would he be acting President or President, what was to happen if the President recovered." -- Congressional Reference Service.

Not All Criticism is 'Defamation'

Note: To put this piece in context, it is a response to an article in the Iowa City Press-Citizen: Holly Hines, "School Officials' Emails Raise Free Speech Concerns; First Amendment Experts Say Legal Threats May Amount to Intimidation," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 24, 2017, p. A1. The story reported and discussed, among other things, that citizens were concerned that they might be sued if they criticized the Iowa City Community School District superintendent. (And see also, Holly Hines, "External Reviewer Sought for School District; Culture Concerning Whistleblowers is Under Investigation," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 1, 2016, p. A1.)

Without expressing a view regarding the justification for the criticism, I thought a brief statement of the law of defamation might be useful -- as set forth below. Following Holly Hines story, and my explanation of defamation, the Press-Citizen editorial board published the following editorial: "Alter Culture of Fear in School District," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 1, 2017, p. 7A (the Press-Citizen only publishes an opinion page on Wednesdays and Saturdays.) Here is my brief explanation on June 28th:

Is Superintendent Criticism 'Defamation'?
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 28, 2017, p. 7A

There’s a local issue regarding limits on citizens’ criticism of school superintendents. Can the critics be sued for defamation?

I won’t take sides on whether the criticism is warranted. Moreover, social norms may be more relevant than “the law.” In either case, one’s reputation is a thing of value. [Citizen Julie VanDyke speaking to ICCSD School Board members; photo credit: Sandhya Dirks/Iowa Public Radio]

Not all criticism is defamatory. There must be an unambiguous, clearly false, factual statement (not just opinion), that causes measurable harm to one’s reputation among a relevant group (such as potential employers or customers).

The false assertion that a superintendent stole $97,000 from the schools’ playground fund could be defamation. Saying, “I think he’s doing a lousy job” would not be.

Moreover, the Supreme Court has ruled that while citizens need only show falsity, public officials must prove “that the statement was made ... with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Why? Because protection of political speech lies at the heart of First Amendment guarantees.

As Justice Brenan wrote in New York Times v. Sullivan, “[we have] a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

This is for newspaper readers only, not legal advice. If you’re involved in a defamation case, get a lawyer.

Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City
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