Saturday, April 30, 2005

We *Said* No Food Allowed In Class....

CrimProfBlog brings our attention to an unusual story from the world of Jr. High:
A call about a possible weapon at a middle school prompted police to put armed officers on rooftops, close nearby streets and lock down the school. All over a giant burrito.
(Perhaps I should have said "A story from the unusual world of Jr. High.")

Friday, April 29, 2005

Your Law Firm URL

Something that many firms forget when creating a website is that somebody owns the URL for the website - and that ownership may be a difficult issue if the firm breaks up or changes its name. Switching a website from one URL to another can significantly affect the site's traffic, and abandoning a former URL can cause problems where clients are relying on outdated materials to find a firm, or are relying upon email addresses they have used in the past to contact a firm or its clients.

In my opinion, beyond ensuring that they (and not their website designer or hosting company) own their URL, firms should attempt to secure URL's which won't have to be changed in the event of personnel changes. If you're never going to change the first name in a firm named after a list of partners, consider it for your URL - be a or a But if there may be change, think about using a URL that doens't need to change along with the personnel. No matter what else you choose, draft a partnership agreement which holds that the former URL stays with the firm even if for the limited purpose of maintaining website and email redirects to a new site.

And, with all due respect to the firms which create a website from the first letters of their partners' surnames followed by "law" or "lawyers", think about what you are spelling out. If your firm is Bryan, Allen & Davis, PC, it probably isn't a good idea to post your site under the URL "" - even if it is memorable.


The President said,
We also have a responsibility to improve Social Security by directing extra help to those most in need and by making it a better deal for younger workers. ...

First, millions of Americans depend on Social Security checks as a primary source of retirement income, so we must keep this promise to future retirees as well. As a matter of fairness, I propose that future generations receive benefits equal to or greater than the benefits today's seniors get.

So, out of "fairness" Social Security benefits will increase in absolute dollars, even as they decrease as adjusted for inflation?
Secondly, I believe a reformed system should protect those who depend on Social Security the most. So I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off.
Does this mean a future in which benefits for low-income workers will eventually exceed benefits for middle- and high-income workers? Or is this a proposal for flattening Social Security into a single amount paid regardless of income? If it is the former, it's a phase-out. Once you reach a certain tipping point, the working masses will object to paying a special tax for a program that no longer benefits them.

I have repeatedly said that I don't have a problem with transforming Social Security into a needs-based system, provided it is maintained at a sufficient level to actually keep retirees out of poverty. (GW's own father probably collects Social Security, as he tools around Nantucket by the family's multi-million dollar estate in his Cigarette boat - he doesn't need it, and he wouldn't miss it.) However, if you do that, you should also be willing to shift the "social welfare" component of the Social Security system to the general fund. Also, any such transformation should not simply be a pretext to undercut popular support for the system, such that it can be eliminated at a later date - but that should follow from my prior statement about preventing poverty.
Third, any reform of Social Security must replace the empty promises being made to younger workers with real assets, real money.
Whatever I am to make of Bush's insistence that he is a liar, out to defraud the working masses, treasury notes are "real assets".
I believe the best way to achieve this goal is to give younger workers the option - the opportunity - if they so choose, of putting a portion of their payroll taxes into a voluntary personal retirement account.
Younger workers can already put money into IRA's, or similar retirement investment vehicles. Heck - they can even invest in treasury notes, despite Bush's insistence that those notes are fake assets, fake money.
Because this money is saved and invested, younger workers would have the opportunity to receive a higher rate of return on their money than the current Social Security system can provide.
... And, of course, to receive a lower rate of return.

Whoah - and check this out:
I know some Americans have reservations about investing in the stock market, so I propose that one investment option consist entirely of treasury bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government.
So the Social Security Trust Fund is a fiction, becasuse it is composed of treasury notes which aren't real assets or real money - and "there is no trust". So why would the same investment vehicle be "backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government" when in a "private account" as opposed to the Social Security trust fund?
Options like this will make voluntary personal retirement accounts a safer investment that will allow an American to build a nest egg that he or she can pass on to whomever he or she chooses.
Every time the Bush Administration has been pressed for specifics on private accounts, they have suggested that, upon retirement, people will be forced to purchase annuities with the balance in their accounts. There is absolutely no indication that these annuities will be payable to an heir in the event that they are not wholly depleted before a retiree dies. It is long past time when Bush provided absolute specifics about his plan, such that his promises that the accounts may be left to one's heirs are not being repeatedly and consistently contradicted by everybody else in the Administration.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Your Law Firm Website

LLRX presents an article about law firm websites which starts with, well, the painful truth:
For those of you lawyers and firms with websites, though, I’m going to make a broad, sweeping generalization – they stink. I know you’d like to think I’m talking about everybody’s site except yours, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that yours does, too.
For the most part, I agree with the article. I am indifferent to some of the points - I don't think it's a big deal, for example, if a firm posts attorney pictures in B&W and have seen it done well and tastefully on a number of sites (with tasteless garish pictures on some sites that prefer color). I do, however, take issue with a couple of the author's assertions.
How often should your content change? At least once a week. And by that I mean that everything on your home page should be brand new at least once a week. So you can do a whole turn-and-burn every Monday, or you can rotate out 1/5th of your stuff every weekday. Is that a lot of work? Sure. But nobody said being relevant and attracting clients to your firm would be easy. Your alternative is to keep being boring and stuffy. It’s entirely your call.
A law firm should strive to continuously add new content to a site, but it's a bit much to insist that the whole site should change on a weekly basis. Part of the calculus should be why you expect clients to come to your site. If you are expecting the same group of clients and potential clients to come, over and over again, change can be very good. If you are anticipating that your firm's site will primarily be recruiting new clients who haven't seen the site before, "change for the sake of change" can be unduly burdensome, and if it also involves reorganizing your site or changing the content of pages key to your search engine traffic, it can harm your search engine ranking. A static, encyclopedic site can do a lot more to generate business (and, should you choose, other forms of revenue) than an ever-changing site. (And I've seen quite a few high-content, frequelty updated sites suddenly become neglected, as the sponsoring lawyer or firm realizes that it isn't generating clients or is simply taking too much time to maintain.)
So you need to put as much interactivity into your site as possible. Studies have shown that websites with games are the most “sticky” of any on the Internet. And while I don’t suggest that you put a Vegas-style gambling panel on every page of your firm’s site, I do suggest that you think about your site as a chance for interaction, rather than just a table to lay brochures on.
Certainly, some of the author's suggested interactivity, such as online calculators or (secure) intake forms, can be helpful to a firm's client recruitment and practice. Again, though, it is important to consider the type of client you are targeting with the site when deciding which forms of interactivity are likely to work for you. If you don't have a lot of time to devote to your site, but have a lot of clients who are interested in results that might be determinable through an online calculator or similar automatic feature, such a feature can be a good addition - in fact, if it is appealing to potential clients, given that the time investment is in creation and not maintenance it would be a good idea to add such features even in the unlikely event that you have tons of spare time. But if the interactivity requires a time commitment from your side, don't bite off more than you can chew. It is better to have a boring site than to have your first interaction with certain clients be a disappointment to them.
If your firm isn’t blogging, it needs to be. Blogs are to PR what email was to letters and desktop publishing was to the print industry. Blogging is public relations on steroids and a sugar high at the same time. And I mean that in a good way. And blogs are perfect for law firms.
Well, not necessarily. Blogs can be a good way to get effective ownership of certain keywords in search engines - name a blog after your desired legal keyword or phrase, update regularly, and there's a good chance you'll do well under those keywords in search engine results. Blogs can also be sufficiently interesting or authoritative that they are read by a number of clients and potential clients on a regular basis, informing or reminding them of your expertise. But blogs are something of a "here today, gone tomorrow" form of publishing - archived pages on blogs tend to fall out of favor with search engines, even as the new content may continue to get good search engine results. Also there is no guarantee that, just because you blog about a legal subject and do it well, that your blog will be read or that it will garner return visits.

If you are posting quality articles to your law firm blog, it is probably a good idea to post articles to a static, well-indexed article archive on your site, and quote a few paragraphs to your blog with a link to the article.

Remember this - the biggest advocates of law firm sites were the people selling those sites, and for the most part those sites stink. Now, with that market relatively saturated, many of the same people acknowledge that legal websites mostly stink and are pitching "blawgs."

And *That* Makes All The Difference

In suggesting that we should emulate Chile's system of private pensions to replace Social Security, John Tierney states:
You may suspect that Pablo has prospered only because he's a sophisticated investor, but he simply put his money into one of the most popular mutual funds. He has more money in it than most Chileans because his salary is above average, but lower-paid workers who contributed to that fund for the same period of time would be in relatively good shape, too, because their projected pension would amount to more than 90 percent of their salaries.

By contrast, Social Security replaces less than 60 percent of your salary - and that's only if you were a low-income worker. Typical recipients get back less than half of their salaries.
Okay... all well and good. But what if the stock market underperforms? Tierney explains that "But if you contribute for at least 20 years, Chile guarantees you a minimum pension that, relative to the median salary, is actually more generous than the median Social Security check."

You know what, John? If President Bush were to propose private accounts with an accompanying guarantee that nobody's Social Security benefits would be reduced as a result, we wouldn't even be having a debate. If he guaranteed benefits more generous than those which would be paid under the current system, as you assert is the case under the Chilean system you wish for us to emulate, the nation would stampede to support him. When can we expect your column explaining why Bush doesn't offer such a guarantee?

Monday, April 25, 2005

Purple Ink

One of the stranger gripes I have been hearing lately is that some teachers, somewhere in the country, have supposedly switched from grading papers in red ink to grading them in purple ink. This, according to the critics, is supposedly to spare the feelings of children who might be jarred by seeing exactly the same criticisms written in red as opposed to purple.

First, what difference does it make if the teacher uses red ink or a different color? I recall having teachers who preferred green ink or black felt tip marker. The grade is the same, the comments are the same, so if the teacher prefers not to use red for any reason whatsoever, who cares? (And why do they waste their time caring about something so petty?)

Second, if it truly does help some kids learn if their corrections are in a less jarring color than red, what's wrong with helping them learn? Personally, I don't recall seeing red corrections as any more stigmatizing than those written in other colors, but if some kids do... why should I object to a teacher doing something to help them learn?

I do recall one teacher I had, who had a habit of writing a large, red grade on each paper, enclosed by a red circle, using a rather thick felt tip marker. As she returned papers to students, she would flash the grades to the class in what I think she hoped would be regarded as an accidental manner. If she were somehow forced to use purple, and believed that interfered with her attempts at stigmatization, I think she would have simply made her grades and circles even larger.

A woman after George Will's heart?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Internal Consistency?

I recall a few months ago, reading Nicholas Kristof insist that Blue America had to refrain from condescending to Red America. This article summarizes his stance:
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued in favour of an implicit split in America, saying that the Democrats had "lost touch" with blue-collar voters who were once the backbone of the party.

"One-third of Americans are evangelical Christians and many of them perceive Democrats as often contemptuous of their faith," Kristof wrote. "Frankly, they're often right."
Today, in arguing for more depictions of interracial couples on TV, Kristof argues:
Popular entertainment shapes our culture as well as reflects it, and one breakthrough might come late next year with the possible release of "Emma's War." That's a movie that 20th Century Fox is considering, in which a white woman - Nicole Kidman is being discussed - marries an African. It's great that Hollywood is close to catching up to Shakespeare's "Othello."

Let's hope that Hollywood will finally dare to be as iconoclastic as its audiences. It's been half a century since Brown v. Board of Education led to the integration of American schools, but the breakdown of the barriers of love will be a far more consequential and transformative kind of integration - not least because it's spontaneous and hormonal rather than imposed and legal.
Now, it's not that Kristof doesn't have a point that interracial relationships make TV and movie producers nervous. But isn't this an argument for Hollywood to finish a process of social transformation, and implicit within that argument that it is blue-collar America and the Bob Jones-type evangelicals who need to be brought into the 21st century? Does he really think those segments of society which still get hung up on interracial dating and marriage are going to have an epiphany after seeing a Nicole Kidman movie?

Pet Peeve

Global warming and the thinning of the ozone layer are separate environmental issues.

(I know everybody reading this already knows that, but sheesh... the illiterati have taken over your television set.)

Friday, April 22, 2005

Dear K-Mart Customer....

I received a reply from K-Mart, in relation to February's incident with a security guard. The manager of the store called to express that the guard, who worked for a security company they had hired on contract, had been terminated within days of the incident due to a number of similar "interactions" with other customers.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Madison County Freakin' Plagiarists

You may or may not have heard of the "Madison County Record", which was created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce "as a weapon in its multimillion-dollar campaign against lawyers who file" questionable lawsuits:
Neither Anderson nor Timpone see any need for the paper to disclose in its pages that the chamber is an owner. Timpone said the chamber doesn't dictate the paper's news content and he defends the stories he runs as genuine news. He said he chose not to divulge the Record's connection to the chamber in print because "I was afraid we'd be prejudged. I thought, 'Let people judge us by our actions.'"
Well, gee... You would think that with a $million dollar budget, they could have managed to draft a few original paragraphs for this page, rather than plagiarizing Jones Act material from my website.

Remember - they want us to judge them by their actions....

[Update: They responded quite promptly to an email, and have added a link to my site consistent with what I asked them to do if they wished to continue to use the material. Given that the principals of the organization probably had no idea that somebody had been "borrowing" passages from around the Internet on their behalf, I will give them credit for quickly taking both responsibility and remedial action.]

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

What A Maroon

Apparently, Tom Delay has taken to attacking Justice Kennedy for using electronic research services?
We've got Justice Kennedy writing decisions based upon international law, not the Constitution of the United States? That's just outrageous," DeLay told Fox News Radio on Tuesday. "And not only that, but he said in session that he does his own research on the Internet? That is just incredibly outrageous."
Sure... Absolutely outrageous....

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

An Alternative Hypothesis....

Authors of a study published by the American Heart Association reportedly suggest that weight gain during the first few weeks of life may program an individual for future weight problems.
"Our main finding was that rapid weight gain during the first week of life in this population of healthy, European-American, formula-fed infants was associated with being overweight two to three decades later," said lead author Nicolas Stettler, M.D., M.S.C.E., a pediatric nutrition specialist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

"It suggests that there may be a critical period in that first week during which the body's physiology may be programmed to develop chronic disease throughout life," Dr. Stettler added.

"Our findings also point toward new potential targets for preventing obesity," he said. "If these results are confirmed by other studies, they may lead to interventions in newborns to help prevent long-term development of obesity."
How's this for an alternative hypothesis: Babies who gain weight more easily grow up to be adults who gain weight more easily. Or is that too obvious?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

What A Deal....

A producer calls to inform you that his company is interested in featuring you on an educational program for PBS, hosted by a well-known celebrity. Intriguing.

You call back. The producer can't recall what subject he had in mind when he called you, explaining that he had called a lot of people. After fishing around a bit, he still can't quite pinpoint the subject, and starts asking questions about your areas of expertise.

After further discussion, the producer shifts from talking about the educational programming to your marketing strategy - have you ever considered making a documentary about your business?

The deal boils down to this: The company produces "documentary" material of varying lengths, for use as "interstitial programming" by PBS stations. It is building a "library" of material, and if it deems a segment suitable it pays the celebrity to record a brief introduction, and distributes the video to PBS stations. Not all of the videos it produces will be considered for such segments - many will simply go into its "library" for possible future productions. But if you participate, they will produce a video approximately eight minutes long featuring your material, and will give you a copy of that video. Also, they will produce a two minute video that highlights your business. (They promise to air that video clip on various cable channels, approximately fifty times, whether or not they do anything with the actual educational material you provide.)

All this for an "underwriting fee" of only $22,900.00. (And, the producer claims, they need an answer within days, because their production schedule is so busy.)

Curiously, there is no mention of either this company or its programming anywhere on the PBS website.

Now where did I put my checkbook....

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Mistaken Impressions

I have no real objection to the color portraits that the New York Times places alongside its opinion pieces. But every now and then I find myself wondering why Regis Philbin is writing a guest editorial. (Separated at birth?) (Illustration)

... Just Like Magic

Looking for an update on yesterday's unexpected discovery of cash, I find....
A man who robbed an Ann Arbor bank Friday afternoon lost most of the cash due to exploding dye packs, police said. ... A dye pack in the bag exploded before he could escape, staining the money and dispersing a tearing agent into the lobby.

The man, who wore a plastic mask that covered his mouth and nose, along with clear goggles, then demanded access to the vault while pointing his gun at the manager's head, said Senior Special Agent Greg Stejskal of the Ann Arbor FBI office.

He fled with another bag of cash also containing a dye pack that activated in the parking lot. Witnesses said he then got into a waiting car described as a silver four-door sedan that was last seen heading south on Pittsfield Boulevard. ...

[Detective Sgt. Rich] Kinsey said contaminated cash was found by a resident several blocks south of the bank late Friday afternoon, and Pittsfield Township police officers located more contaminated bills in the Showcase Cinemas parking lot along Carpenter road.
They found it all by themselves? Why do I feel like Rodney Dangerfield? ;-)

Friday, April 15, 2005

It's Dead, Jim

Justice Scalia on the Constitution:
"The Constitution is not a living organism," Scalia said.
And, I'm quite sure, he would insist that anybody who disagrees is being highly illogical. It's too bad that there aren't any Star Trek shows presently being produced, because Scalia would be an interesting guest star - something of an odd cross between Spock and Bones.

"Excuse me - did you drop, um, $10,000.00 in the parking lot?

While parking at Showcase Cinemas for a matinee of... well, "Grandma's babysitting, so anything's good" (and that does seem to be how we pick movies now that we have a baby)... I noticed something a bit unusual in the next space over. It looked a bit like play money, being the size of regular currency but a pink and red color. And a bit charred.... And, for that matter, banded with five "$2,000" paper bands, representing $10,000.00 in $20 bills. (Or, more correctly, an ink bomb disguised as $10,000.00 in $20 bills.)

We notified the police. We hope that they catch the crooks... dare I say, red-handed?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


In this post, Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy not only brings us news of the new SAT, he unmasks himself as a Spinal Tap fan.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

So What Is The *Right* Solution?

In the vein of many bloggers, the Washington Post recently took Maryland to task for passing a tax - which was in essense a tax on Walmart - to coerce the retail giant to offer more insurance benefits to its workers. The Post's assessment? "Right problem, wrong solution. In acknowledging the problem, the Post writes:
Wal-Mart, an unlovable colossus, has more than 15,300 full- and part-time employees at its 52 stores in Maryland, many of them paid a good deal less than $10 an hour. Partly as a result of those modest wages, about half the workers opt out of a company health plan that requires them to contribute premiums and deductibles, reducing their take-home pay. When they get sick or hurt, the cost is borne by emergency rooms or by the state's taxpayers (including Wal-Mart's own unionized competitor, Giant Food Inc. ) in the form of Medicaid.
And sure, if the Post were a blogger, it might be reasonable for it to stop there. But the Post is supposedly something more significant than a weblog, and thus it seems that it should have offered both a better analysis, and possibly even its thoughts on what might constitute the right solution.

Many people look at "big box" retailers like Walmart and recognize that they receive enormous indirect subsidies from the state, including road expansions to help ferry the massive customer traffic they require to support their floor space and inventory. Such retailers also often get tax incentives and subsidies for locating their stores in certain areas. But that's peripheral to the health care issue. The Walmart employees at issue do not receive sufficient wages to purchase meaningful health care coverage for themselves and their families, apart from any group plan offered by Walmart. If Walmart fails to offer health care coverage, or makes the worker's contribution unaffordable, it follows that the workers will be without coverage. It also follows that an uninsured worker making $8-$10 per hour will have great difficulty paying a significant medical bill. Thus, the question becomes, who should pay the bill?

The State of Maryland has, through this legislation, suggested that it is more fair for the employer to pay the bill - whether through payments to the state which help offset the cost of providing that care, or through greater health care coverage for its employees - than it is for other taxpayers, or for businesses which already do provide reasonable health care coverage to their employees. The Post disagrees, but has no further answer.

The Post's rationale - that if you force a Walmart-type retailer to make adequate health insurance available to its employees, you will encourage it to set up shop elsewhere - also applies to any other means of paying for the uninsured health care. A general business tax, affecting those businesses which already do provide adequate health care, would be a disincentive to locating in the state and would also place an unfair burden on responsible businesses. Continuing to ask the people of Maryland to subsidize the health care of Walmart's workers seems unfair, and higher sales or income taxes can also serve as a disincentive to businesses considering locating within a particular state. What's left - deficit spending?

Yes, the Maryland bill is ungainly, and focuses unduly on Walmart as opposed to the many other employers in the state which also fail to provide sufficient medical coverage to their employees. But it would be nice if the Post would propose something more in the way of a possible solution, or even a possible step forward, instead of its declaration of "wrong solution".

G.W. Bush a Fieger Fan?

Judging from this, perhaps so....

No, not that Fieger. His younger brother, Doug.

You May Be A Redneck If....

With the help of family, I am now rid of two infested, dying Ash trees which formerly shaded my front lawn. Without a wood chipper, I spent an extensive amount of time cutting up branches, and bundling and bagging them. Coming out of a long and miserable winter, it didn't occur to me that I might need sunscreen on the back of my neck. Oops.

So if you need a redneck lawyer, give me a call. ;-)

Junk Prosecution Expert Testimony

Over on The Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein addresses a Georgia law which creates substantially higher standards for the admission of expert testimony in civil cases than in criminal. Some people might have the knee-jerk reaction that this somehow favors the defense, but in fact it is about permitting prosecutors to present junk "expert" testimony at trial - whether from unqualified lab techs they can present as "experts" or from people like the anthropologist Bernstein describes - "who claimed the unique ability to determine all sorts of specific information about a suspect from a shoeprint - who just "make stuff up."

In terms of the imbalance between the prosecution and defense, Bernstein writes,
Indeed, it seems that in many cases involving egregious expert testimony, overburdened and under-resourced public defenders don't even bother (or know enough) to challenge prosecution experts.
The problem, though, is both different and worse than that. I recall trying a criminal case and objecting to a prosecution "expert", who had no real qualification on the subject matter of his supposed area of expertise. The trial judge had no patience for my objection - the expert had been permitted to testify as an expert in other cases, and that was good enough for the judge. How do you overcome that type of judicial incompetence? (And believe me, the prosecutor very much took advantage of the judge's "once an expert, always an expert" standard for admitting expert testimony.)

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Post on Social Security

Today's Washington Post announces that solving the Social Security "crisis" is not easy, because it hasn't been fixed yet. Even when giving a nod to the ideological aspects of the debate, the editorial glosses over the fact that it is in fact easy to solve the problem on paper. The conflict is not actually about fixing the system.
But if there's a lesson to be learned from the tone and trajectory of the Social Security debate this year, it is how difficult, and how fraught with political peril, it is to fix even this "comparatively minor" problem. Does anyone who's watched the Social Security debate this year imagine that figuring out what to do about health care or Medicare would go just swimmingly? If so, think back to the Clinton health care plan.
Again, the problem is not that we don't know of superior options to our current health care mess. We simply have a clash of ideology over who should pay for it. Historically, Republicans have pressed the position that health care coverage should come through employment (or not at all). Now that employers are complaining about the price, Republicans are are pressing the position that health care should be entirely self-funded - except, that is, for themselves. The Republican position on Social Security is essentially the same - retirement should be self-funded, except for themselves. Their leading proposals on Social Security involved (a) benefits cuts, (b) "private accounts", and (c) setting cost of living adjustments by the price index and not the wage index, are incremental steps toward their acknowledged goal of winning a war against Social Security:
The debate about Social Security is going to be a monumental clash of ideas -- and it's important for the conservative movement that we win both the battle of ideas and the legislation that will give those ideas life.
That's pretty clear, isn't it? This isn't about taking steps to fix the current system - it's ideological warfare against the existing system. And it is that which takes Social Security out of the sphere of what can be easily fixed, and transforms it into an endless battle for its elimination - acknowledged to have been fought by the GOP from the day of its inception:
For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country. We have it within our grasp to move away from dependency on government and toward giving greater power and responsibility to individuals.
The Post piece, whether out of a sense of false balance or as a result of its own prejudices, states,
For the most part, Republicans won't consider any Social Security reform that lacks personal accounts -- or any that includes tax increases. On their side, Democrats won't talk unless personal accounts are off-limits -- and they dare not indicate any willingness to accept cuts in benefits. This is irresponsible, on both sides.
It's also not accurate. I have not heard any Democrat say "no private accounts" provided there is no associated cut in benefits - that is, as an add-on as opposed to a full or partial replacement. And if there is such a person, somewhere, that does not appear to the the position of the party.

Let's see.... There are three ways we can "fix" Social Security. The Republicans favor slashing benefits, demand that at least part of Social Security revenues be shifted into untested "personal accounts" (apparently subject to significant restrictions, which would be very costly to the "owner"), and oppose any tax increase, however modest. The Democrats wish to maintain benefits, oppose transferring Social Security funds into untested private accounts, and suggest that a modest tax increase (perhaps only on the rich) could fix the balance for the indefinite future. The Republican response to the Democratic alternative has not just been "no taxes (even if only slight) - it has been the jaw-dropping implication that they intend to default on the IOU's in the Social Security trust fund. (Which, of course, means that they have transformed Social Security taxes into income taxes, even as they pretend otherwise for the sake of giving larger tax cuts to the rich.)

So, to the extent that the Post is trying to throw up a false equivalence between the conduct of the parties, there simply isn't any equivalence. Being stubborn in efforts to preserve a system that has lifted countless seniors out of poverty is not morally reprehensible - even if you think it is the wrong approach to the problem of poverty. Insisting upon a radical transformation of that system with the goal of destroying its foundation and the diversion of its multi-trillion dollar trust fund? That's something else.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

If Only We All Were Smarter....

If I may paraphrase David Brooks:
Darn conservative America for not embracing radical change in government.

Darn conservative America for being too stupid to realize when Congress was boldly charging forth to preserve an innocent life.

Darn conservative America for being too cautious to realize that Social Security reform is about giving them control of their futures.

Darn conservative America for being too anxious to realize that "ethics" rules only get in the way of good government.

But at least we can still sneer at liberal America.

Bought You Once, Shame On You... Bought You Twice....

The Republican nutters who detest the fact that their party still contains conservatives are, apparently, holding conventions. Among the whiners, "Michael P. Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association":
Farris then told the crowd he is "sick and tired of having to lobby people I helped get elected."
Darn it all, why won't those pesky politicians just stay bought.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Even Celebrities Have Rights

A California prosecutor, unable to put together a compelling case in relation to the offenses charged, obtained the court's permission to present a "where there's smoke, there's fire" case against Michael Jackson. And today, this. Okay so we know that Macauley Culkin is an adult, we know that he has publicly denied that Jackson ever acted inappropriately toward him, and we know that the prosecution is not going to present Culkin as a witness. Whatever sympathy I have for the difficulty of proving a molestation charge, given those facts I think Culkin's right to privacy should trump the Prosecutor's desire to blow more smoke Jackson's way. And this?
Jackson's lawyer attacked the credibility of some of the other witnesses by pointing out that they had been involved in a failed lawsuit against him, and that they had sold stories about Jackson to the tabloids.

The witness today, however, hadn't sold any stories. He also hadn't been involved in the failed lawsuit - but had successfully sued for unpaid overtime.
Well, I doubt it is the cross-examination that the defense would choose, but I would really like to ask this noble character, "Isn't it true that you personally watched an adult molest a small child, and you did absolutely nothing?" I am inclined to sarcastically note that somebody being paid so well that they did nothing after witnessing such an event probably doesn't need overtime pay. But then, some people are happy to sell their soul for a few pieces of silver.

Heroes and Sacrifice

My wife brought to my attention a trend in American culture, to confuse "survival" with heroism. That is, if somebody survives an ordeal, they are often branded as a "hero" even if they did not perform any act which was even slightly heroic. Now, I'm fine with survival stories, and Readers Digest used to make them a staple of pretty much every edition. ("Drama in Real Life" - do they still run those stories?) And it can take a great deal of fortitude to pull yourself through a horrendous ordeal. But I guess I would like to see a more restrained use of the word "hero" by those who would bestow it without regard to whether the beneficiaries of that label demonstrated any concern for others, let alone whether they engaged in any form of noble sacrifice.

It strikes me as odd that our culture also works so hard to tear down heroes. We celebrate our heroes, real or false, but then seem to hope that they stumble or fall. Perhaps we are more comfortable with false heroes - victims of circumstance who do only what they need to do to survive - because that's the type of "hero" we can most easily imagine becoming. And perhaps we're quick to magnify any stumble, or grab on to any salacious rumor, associated with a bona fide hero because deep down we can't stand that some people truly are braver than us, and even better than us.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Border Policy

In the name of greater security, we're apparently going to soon be demanding passports at the Canadian and Mexican borders. Which, in my opinion, will do all of nothing to improve security.

I had a thought, while consulting on a recent trial, that for all of our lip service about "homeland security", the continued failure of the "war on drugs" highlights its futility. The case involved thirty kilograms of pure cocaine, and an even larger quantity of piperonyl (a precursor for ecstasy), which was being shipped from California to Quebec in the back of a semi. (Drug smugglers can be very clever in disguising drugs, but in the case at hand they just put the undisguised bundles into a carboard box, and loaded it at the back of the truck behind the palates being shipped across the country.) Obviously, this shipment didn't originate in the United States. Why was it intercepted, only a few miles from the border? The truck driver crossed the fog line a couple of times while being observed by State Police Motor Carrier Officers, and they decided to perform a safety check.

So about 150 pounds of undisguised contraband can make its way into the United States, and almost across the country. It was detected by chance. Had even cursory disguise been used, it might not have been detected at all. So why is it that I don't think more stringent ID checks at the border will have a significant impact on national security, if we can't keep tens of thousands of pounds of similar contraband from entering our porous borders every year?

"Read My Lips...."

Bruce Bartlett takes on George Bush I, insisting that what our nation need is a new tax - specifically a national sales tax, which he prefers to deem a "value added tax". Bartlett concedes that this is a regressive tax, which burdens business and industry:
There are many arguments against a value-added tax, which is essentially a sales tax that applies at each stage of production. It is costly to put into effect, and it hits the poor and the elderly hardest because they spend a higher percentage of their income
After observing that today's Republican leaders are so fiscally irresponsible, Bartlett argues,
This behavior has led me and other conservatives to conclude that starving the beast simply doesn't work anymore. Deficits are no longer a barrier to greater government spending. And with the baby-boom generation aging, spending is set to explode in coming years even if no new government programs are enacted.
Ah... So he's not into starving the beast any more - just into making somebody else pay for its food. He anticipates a fiscal day of reckoning:
When that day comes, huge tax increases are inevitable because no one has the guts to seriously cut health spending. Therefore, the only question is how will the revenue be raised: in a smart way that preserves incentives and reduces growth as little as possible, or stupidly by raising marginal tax rates and making everything bad in our tax code worse?
Well, if Bartlett has his way, in a stupid way that will place yet another immense burden on working America, while leaving the rich pretty much exempt. Last I checked, taxes were higher under Clinton, our last fiscally responsible President, and yet our economy grew quite nicely. I recognize that cutting taxes for the rich is a cornerstone of Republican fiscal policy, but how stupid do they expect Americans to, um, continue to be?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Republican Philosophers

Okay... so I've been leaving David Brooks alone for a while. But perhaps somebody can explain this one to me:
A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did.

Liberals are less conscious of public philosophy because modern liberalism was formed in government, not away from it. In addition, liberal theorists are more influenced by post-modernism, multiculturalism, relativism, value pluralism and all the other influences that dissuade one from relying heavily on dead white guys.

As a result, liberals are good at talking about rights, but not as good at talking about a universal order.
Now, I'm not saying that Brooks' prior claims aren't nonsense, but this seems particularly bizarre. Should I now expect, upon visiting a random university, that I will find its philosophy department dominated by right-wing political thinkers, or that the college Republicans will dominate the class rolls?

As I understand it, Brooks is arguing:

  • He called one "prominent liberal think tank" which he will not name;

  • He spoke briefly with the head of the think tank, whom he also will not name;

  • The sole purpose of his call was to ask "Who is your favorite philosopher";

  • The (unnamed) person with whom Brooks spoke declined to answer

  • The (unnamed) person with whom Brooks spoke did not call Brooks at a later date to provide an answer.

Now granted, if Brooks had called me under similar circumstances, I would have thought him to be wasting my time with a childish act of ambush journalism. I would have inferred that he was trying to score a counter-point to the response President Bush gave when asked to name his favorite political philosopher. And I probably wouldn't have had much patience with him, either. And I think it is reasonable to infer from the manner in which Brooks insulates himself from any verifiable detail that, were he more honest about this incident, the target of his comments would eat him for lunch.

But even overlooking that, what is the significance of this anecdote. Brooks doesn't claim to have performed any type of survey of the heads of think tanks - he doesn't tell us if he called every liberal think tank in his Blackberry, or if he just called the one. He doesn't claim to have called even a single conservative think tank for purposes of comparison. And it is possible to infer from the limited description that the target of Brooks' ambush was hesitant to name, on the spur of the moment, a single favorite - something Brooks didn't even do within the context of his own column.

And his notion that liberals want "message discipline", while conservatives have been engaged in a robust debate of public philosophy? Amazing.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Common Law Firm Mistakes

There appear to be a growing number of law firms which are making some rather colossal mistakes in relation to their websites. (This goes beyond the fact that most legal websites are ugly, poorly designed, and of little value to potential clients.) Among the bigger errors:

Unethical SEO Tricks

Most law firms have no idea what the term "SEO" ("search engine optimization") means - they just hire a designer and say "make my site popular". And their design firm engages in such conduct as cloaking, the use of "hidden div's", and other techniques which are at best frowned upon by search engines. If the firm is lucky, the tricks don't result in a long-term penalty. If the firm is unlucky, their next web designer may have to plead with search engines to forgive a penalty that excludes their site from search results or relegates it to the 100th page.

Not Owning Your URL

Some services which market law firm sites to lawyers maintain ownership of the URL assigned to the site. As a consequence, if the law firm decides to change to a different designer or hosting service, the law firm may have to abandon the URL. Law firms should always be sure that they own their own URL. (A related error: not owning your site content. When you purchase web design services, make sure that should you change designers or hosts you will be able to claim ownership of your existing site.)

Obtaining an Expired URL

It is difficult in this age to find a URL which has not previously been owned by another company. Granted, if you pick a name that is sufficiently unique that might not affect you, but if you are seeking a name that is catchy or memorable it is likely that somebody else has owned the name before you. If you aren't careful, you may find that the prior owner abused the URL, committing violations of search engine submission rules, and that the URL has been downgraded within search results - or even completely excluded from them.

Using Boilerplate Content

One of the biggest keys to producing good traffic through search engines is to present informational content - articles, FAQ's, etc. Some legal web designers offer boilerplate content for websites. Search engines favor unique content, and sites which rely on boilerplate will have a difficult time getting good placement in search engine results pages.

Using Plagiarized Content

Even worse than boilerplate content, some law firms use web designers who "shortcut" the design process by stealing content from other sites. Not only does this implicate the same sort of "duplicate content" penalty as boilerplate material, it can be quite embarrassing for a law firm to be caught presenting plagiarized material as its own. (I am not aware of any litigation against law firms, or any ethics complaints, on the basis of plagiarism - but those possibilities exist as well.) Law firms should ensure that their contracts with their web designers require original content (text and graphics) and should exercise some level of due diligence (e.g., searching for phrases in Google) to try to confirm that the content is not simply lifted from other websites.

Friday, April 01, 2005

False Accusations

Although this article comes from England, save perhaps within the confines of prosecution expert testimony in the Michael Jackson trial, we seem to have moved past the day when a child's accusation of abuse was followed by the flat assertion that "kids don't lie about abuse". The article at issue recites,
Children who maliciously claim to have been assaulted or abused by a teacher should be removed from their school and prosecuted, union leaders said last night.

Official figures show that fewer than one in 200 allegations made by children end with teachers being convicted of an offence. But yesterday delegates at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers conference in Brighton heard how false claims were putting huge pressure on teachers and their families.
It is fair, though, to observe why we don't prosecute kids when their abuse allegations are determined to be unfounded. First, in a "he said, she said" situation, while a claim of abuse may be deemed unprovable it does not inexorably follow that the accusation is false. Second, and far more importantly, strong punishments and prosecutions would put a great deal of power into the hands of the abuser. Third, not without valid reason but with sometimes harmful effect, we have determined that we should all-but-immunize those who report suspected abuse of children, on the basis that it is better to put an innocent adult through an unnecessary (and perhaps maliciously inspired) investigation than to let abuse go undetected.

Within the context of family law, malicious spouses sometimes play the "false allegations" game. The clever ones never make a direct accusation - they collude with others, or manipulate circumstances, such that a report is made while reserving to them an aura of plausible deniability. One case that comes to mind involves a mother who voiced certain suspicions about her husband in a counseling session, which inspired the counselor to make a report to protective services. The counselor was trapped by mandatory reporting laws. The protective services investigation found the allegations to be unsubstantiated. And the mother, in the custody proceedings, was able to deny asking for the investigation and also that she ever made any actual accusations about the father.

I'm not sure that we will ever find a good balance between protecting kids from abuse and protecting the innocent from false accusation. However, where we must choose one or the other, despite the potential for abuse I believe most would still side with protecting kids.

What's To Like?

When I take on an idiotorial, it is not necessarily to suggest that the author is an idiot, nor that the author is necessarily wrong. It's more of a reaction to the really bad reasoning, or blatant factual error, presented within the editorial itself. For example, I think David Brooks has the capacity to write a well-reasoned column - it's not always clear to me whether his tendency to do otherwise results from laziness or from his ideological blinkers. With George Will, save for the period that the mention of Bill Clinton would leave him frothing at the mouth, there is no such ambiguity - my firm impression is that he knows the facts, understands the issues, and will betray both the facts and a fair understanding in order to advance an ideology. Case in point, yesterday's editorial on taxation.Which of these positions does George Will actually believe?

  • A "23 percent national sales tax on personal consumption ... would not only sensitize consumers to the cost of government with every purchase, it would destroy K Street." The first claim is a matter of opinion - I did not sense that consumers have responded as described to state sales taxes, or to the substantial taxes on cigarettes, liquor, and gasoline, but perhaps a national sales tax would somehow trigger the national consciousness. But destroy K Street? C'mon. I'll concede that taxes play a big role in lobbying, but big business will unquestionably continue to lobby for other purposes, including for new or expanded subsidies and protectionist trade barriers, even if all corporate taxes are eliminated as part of this "reform".

  • "And his bill untaxes the poor by including an advance monthly rebate for every household equal to the sales tax on consumption of essential goods and services, as calculated by the government, up to the annually adjusted poverty level." Hm. So the bill "untaxes corporations" by eliminating corporate taxes. It "untaxes the rich" by removing any taxes from their wealth and inheritance. It "untaxes the poor" by giving them a tax credit. So who, dare I ask, is Will expecting to pick up the tax burden those other groups leave behind?

  • "Corporations do not pay payroll and income taxes and compliance costs; they collect them from consumers through prices." If "payroll taxes" are viewed as a tax on corporations, shouldn't we regard all taxes on wages as a form of corporate income tax? Isn't it fair to assert, under such a model, that unless you're self-employed you don't pay a cent in taxes, as your "income" and "payroll" taxes are really part of your employer's overhead? And with all due respect to Will's notion that corporations consider taxes along with all other expenses of doing business when setting prices or forming policy, does he truly think that the impact of a federal sales tax will be overlooked in the nation's boardrooms? And by recognizing that corporations consider their tax burdens in such acts as setting prices, does Will sincerely believe that free market principles are best served by taking that calculus out of the hands of the market and replacing it with a "one size fits all" national sales tax?

  • Will continues, "Linder says the director of the Congressional Budget Office told him it costs individuals and businesses about $500 billion to remit $2 trillion to Washington. And studies show that it costs the average small business $724 to collect and remit $100." I'm not sure what those statistics mean - perhaps intentionally, Will doesn't provide enough context. But if Will is asserting that the collection of a new, national sales tax will reduce the tax burden on small businesses, he has no clue what he is talking about - this represents a very burdensome type of tax to be collected at the cash register, and imposes an entirely new burden on service providers. (As for the overall cost of tax compliance, in 2002 the Heritage Foundation asserted that the cost of compliance with the Tax Code was about $194 billion each year. Is Will seriously claiming that under Bush's watch that number has almost tripled?)

  • "With no taxes on capital and labor, multinationals would, Linder thinks, stampede to locate here, which would be an incentive for other nations to emulate America." Um... Lindner himself details this proposal as tax on goods and services. How do you tax services without taxing labor?

  • "Linder had better repeal the 16th Amendment, to make sure the income tax stays gone"... But George, why would anybody try to bring back an income tax when this utopia you describe, with businesses clamoring to set up shop in the United States, lobbyists gone from Washington, trillions of dollars sheltered in overseas accounts pouring into our nation's banks, and "freedom [unleashed] around the globe", will result from this tax proposal? Or is your real concern that, if you don't foreclose an income tax, the middle class will insist upon relief when the true burdens of such a tax policy become manifest?

Will's piece also suffers from deliberate omission. For example, he overlooks the impact that would result where services, presently provided without tax, jump in cost by 28%. He overlooks the fact that, while Lindner proposes that the 28% rate would be "revenue neutral", even accepting that claim you would also have to assume that there will be no tax avoidance under the new scheme. Which is unlikely, given how many cash transactions go unreported under the current system.

Here's an idea for a shelter: Create a seller's club - sort of an "Amway on steroids" - which sells pretty much everything, including electronics, furniture, household products, tools, and dry goods. Members would operate from their own homes, and would purchase "demo items" from the club. Guests in their homes could view the items, and if they chose could order them through the club member. Of course, this end customer would pay taxes, but the "demo items" themselves would be tax-free. (And if the would-be customer instead joins the club, and sets up his or her own tax-free home demo, the member gets a commission.) Does it sound like a plan?

And what of the history of the "luxury tax"? Recall the 1990 tax on luxury yachts, a mere 10% tax, which devastated the domestic yacht industry (a tax that, I would venture, Will opposed)? We are to assume that there will be no similar impact from a 28% tax on high end items? That the rich won't find other ways to buy their yachts, without paying a high sales tax? Sure, George. Sure.

Individual Responsibility

A few weeks ago, a friend who is wrestling with his allegiance to the Republican Party expressed to me that he did not believe that the growing number of Republican initiatives which place new burdens on the working classes were driven by an actual "conservative" ideology. He expressed that he believed the initiatives came out of a form of selfishness which did not involve much thought of other people - instead, their focus is on "what's good for me". Whether or not "what's good for me" is good for anyone or anything else is considered irrelevant. Don't get me wrong - my friend isn't against selfishness. He just prefers to be honest with others - and with himself - as to his motives.

By way of contrast, others attempt to find a pureness of ideology in the Bush Administration's policies. Efforts to privatize Social Security, and destroy its foundations, are about creating an "owernship society" and demonstrating to workers the value of saving. Never mind that workers won't have any meaningful control over "their money" in the savings accounts, and that benefits as a whole will be significantly reduced. Tax cuts which fall disproportionately on the rich are about rewarding hard work and productivity. Never mind that most of our society's hardest workers see no significant benefit, even as they experience a decline in the real dollar value of their wages, while enormous benefit falls upon the profligate heir who has never worked a day in his life.

This conservative charity to the Bush Administration, of course, continues in analysis of the new bankruptcy bill:
Behind the Bankruptcy Reform Act, as behind the President’s proposal for social security reform, is an ideology of giving nonwealthy people greater responsibility for their own economic welfare, which entails subjecting them to additional financial risk. Under the present system, the prudent and the imprudent consumer pay the same high interest rates, assuming creditors can’t readily determine which consumers are prudent and which are imprudent. By lowering interest rates on credit-card and other consumer debt while at the same time discouraging default, the Bankruptcy Reform Act will encourage consumers to exercise greater care in borrowing—yet at the same time, because interest rates will be lower, the Act will enable prudent consumers (who do not face a high risk of bankruptcy) to borrow more and by doing so will increase their consumption options. The Act will not redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich, but from the imprudent borrower to the prudent borrower.
Where to begin....
  • The notion of "giving nonwealthy people greater responsibility for their own economic welfare"... Geez, while it is awfully nice of the rich to share the non-wealth, why don't the rich themselves get a share of this "greater responsibility"? Surely we're not going to pretend that all wealth is earned. Are heirs and trust fund babies so responsible in the manner in which they accept their fortunes that no further lessons or burdens should be imposed?

  • And this.... "Under the present system, the prudent and the imprudent consumer pay the same high interest rates, assuming creditors can’t readily determine which consumers are prudent and which are imprudent." - has he never heard of a "credit report"? Now, while I can't speak for those who don't pay their bills on time, I can't go to the mailbox without finding offers for low interest loans and credit cards. So unless the argument is that banks and credit cards companies are erring on the side of offering everybody cheap credit....

  • And this.... "the Act will enable prudent consumers (who do not face a high risk of bankruptcy) to borrow more and by doing so will increase their consumption options" How do I say... beyond the fact that prudent consumers already have available credit, one of the key distinctions between being a "prudent consumer" and an "imprudent consumer" is not taking on more debt than you can handle. I somehow doubt that, even if credit card companies started to offer lower interest rates, prudent consumers would suddenly decide to increase their debt loads - particularly given that prudent consumers understand that their "cheap credit" will only last until they are late on a couple of credit card payments, at which point their rates will be increased to a level just shy of usury.

  • And this.... "The Act will not redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich, but from the imprudent borrower to the prudent borrower." So I can expect Citibank to be issuing me a check sometime soon?

  • And this.... "Bankruptcy legislation being debated by the U.S. Senate is designed to make it harder for people to walk away from their credit card and other debts. But legal experts say the proposed law leaves open an increasingly popular loophole that lets wealthy people protect substantial assets from creditors even after filing for bankruptcy.". No mention? Well, I guess it isn't a problem for Posner that the imprudent wealthy get massive loopholes when they declare bankruptcy, as long as the working poor are taught a lesson in "responsibility".
Several years ago, following his own bankruptcy, M.C. Hammer was asked what it was like to be bankrupt. He smiled patiently at the reporter, and explained that there is a huge difference between bankruptcy for the poor and for the rich, that he continued to be extremely comfortable, and had no right to complain about anything. Bush is happy to keep it that way, and it seems that ivory tower conservatives are happy to give him cover.