Thursday, January 22, 2009


Barack Obama in his inaugural address observed that “the time has come to set aside childish things”—that the time “of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions…has surely passed.”

That rhetoric is sound advice for Californians who just last November, in the midst of an economic recession and rising budget deficits, voted to approve a 10 billion dollar high-speed rail program designed to get folks from Escondido to San Francisco in three-and-a-half hours--for only $67.

The childish aspect of this proposal was right there in the proposition voter guide, which declared IN CAPS that the 10 billion dollar project (20 billion according to opponents) would be funded “without raising taxes.” Well, if billions in bond indebtedness is a tax-neutral event, why not fund the state government with bonds—in perpetuity?

As the proposition’s “adult” opponents pointed out in the voter guide, the “full faith and credit of the state of California” is pledged for the payment of these bonds—a pledge with profound fiscal implications for a state sporting a budget deficit projected to reach forty billion dollars by June, 2010.

The city of San Diego was only recently able to float infrastructure bonds after starting to get its pension-happy finances in order. And North County residents should be familiar with the huge cost overruns associated with construction of the Sprinter.

Those children who believe there’s “free money” available to build a really fast choo-choo probably also believe that governments can (as candidate Obama frequently promised) create “five million green jobs” with the stroke of a pen.

As for the state’s yawning budget gap, the Governator has no good options. Higher taxes are sure to depress an already bad economy and send even more residents scurrying out of state. (During the last fiscal year 135,173 more people moved out of California than moved in from other states.)

On the other hand, cutting business taxes isn’t going to stimulate growth soon enough to balance the books—which is mandated by law.The only realistic solution is to muddle through with smoke and mirrors--tactics (like fees and accounting gimmicks) that represent the legislative equivalent of bonds unrelated to taxes.

For the long run, “adult” solutions might include undoing the auto-pilot budgeting that’s been put in place for education and other items by California voters, developing the state’s energy reserves (including offshore drilling), providing tax incentives for businesses, and implementing policies aimed at reducing costs associated with illegal immigration.

Based on passage of the high-speed rail proposition, however, I’m not optimistic that California voters and legislators will be adopting the aforementioned suggestions in the near future. Instead, I anticipate more “green” taxes and fees that are magically expected to generate thousands of “green jobs” as opposed to creating an even longer wagon train of U-Hauls headed out of state.

I also expect the kids in Sacramento to throw tantrums to get their hands on bailout funds dispensed by the teenagers in Washington D.C.


A popular aphorism identifies three types of lies—lies, darn lies, and statistics. A variation on that theme declares that figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

Both observations apply to the widely publicized study by Northeastern criminologist James Fox that touted an “alarming” increase in murders by and of black teenagers and attributed the spike to (what else) cuts in federal programs during the Bush years.

Fox’s spin on his numbers was released in late December and was reproduced without critical scrutiny by newspapers throughout the country. (See Dec. 29, North County Times: “Study: Murders among black youths on rise”)

A few weeks earlier Southern Californians had the rare privilege of hearing Mayors Jerry Sanders and Antonio Villaraigosa announce that crime in their cities had been reduced to levels not seen since the 1960s. Then came Fox’s black cloud standing ominously within those silver linings.

According to news accounts of Fox’s study the “rate” of black teenage murders had increased precipitously (40%) from 2000 to 2007. This “rate” of increase, however, was illustrated by providing absolute numbers, not ratios. As anyone of modest intellectual ability knows, official crime statistics are always translated into ratios (usually per 100,000) in order to take into account population shifts. (A numerical increase of 20% in a population that increases 20% produces a statistical straight line, not a 20% increase.)

I found the omission of ratios odd and was pleased to see that “Freakonomics” author and University of Chicago economist, Steven Leavitt, felt the same way. Indeed, Leavitt isolated for analysis the same ratio chart within Fox’s data that I found revealing of a publicity ruse.

That chart, taking demographic changes into account (a 15% increase in the 14-17 year old black population), showed only a modest increase in black teenage murders during the last seven years—a virtual straight line that remained near the bottom of the precipitous statistical slide that began in the mid-1990s. As Leavitt notes, this statistical “blip…doesn’t seem so frightening.” The ratio chart, of course, was absent from Fox’s publicity spin or any newspaper accounts that I saw.

While no increases in murder figures are welcome news, it would be nice to see some skepticism on the part of journalists vis-à-vis academic reports that are funded by government grants and whose bottom line focuses on the need to devote more public money to their area of concern.

The problem of gang violence, which ticked up in San Diego during the first 9 months of 2008 (but declined in L.A.) is a continuing source of concern. But according to County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, the feds last year targeted $1.3 million for the San Diego region to help address this problem.

What’s sure to boost crime rates among blacks, whites, teenagers, and adults is a policy of early release of criminals that’s been proposed by California lawmakers and may be required by a panel of jurists intent on capping the state’s prison population. That story line, however, doesn’t warm the cockles of most journalistic hearts.