Monday, May 24, 2010

Would A Change In Government Favor Arlingtonians?

Some political activists in Arlington are out collecting signatures in the hope of putting an initiative on the November ballot to change the form of Arlington's government. Is this a good idea?

Currently, Arlington has the "County Manager" form of government. Under this form, an appointed (i.e., unelected) county manager is basically in charge of running the day-to-day business of the County. The manager is appointed by the County Board and is accountable to the County Board. As a practical matter, the County Board can override just about any decision of the manager.

Under the County Manager form, Arlington's five County Board members are all elected countywide on an "at-large" basis.

Proponents of a change in government form want to switch to the "County Board" form. Under this form (at least as being proposed in Arlington), there would be five County supervisers, four of whom would be elected in separate districts, and one at-large. The County Manager would be eliminated, but there would be a county administrator.

In considering whether this change in government form is good for Arlington, it's important to ask who is favoring the change and why. The initiative started with Arlington's public service employees unions, who have expressed frustration at having to deal with the County Manager, rather than directly with individual elected supervisors.

Well, that's strike one against a change--the unions are in this for their own selfish reasons, not for the good of the rest of us Arlingtonians. What the unions want to do is politicize personnel decisions in the County. Want to know what that's like. Just drive over to D.C.

After the unions got the ball rolling, two other significant groups jumped on the bandwagon: the Republican party and the Green party. Why? Both are hoping that with separate individual districts, instead of at-large elections, they can crack the complete Democratic stranglehold on the current County Board.

We've been looking to see if any of these proponents--unions, GOP, Greens (an unlikely alliance if ever there was one) can articulate strong reasons in favor of the change that have to do with the good governance of Arlington, as opposed to their selfish interests. So far, we've found none.

(Mind you, it's not like the Republicans or Greens are strong in certain parts of the County, but still shut out of office. In the past few election cycles, NO candidate from either party has as much as carried a precinct in Arlington.)

While we haven't yet heard a good argument in favor of the change, we can definitely think of some downsides.

First, the County Board form of government is more likely to pit different parts of the County against each other, and result in "pet" projects for Supervisors in their individual districts. Again, want to see this in action, cross the river to D.C.

Second, the County Board form means that the Supervisors are involved in day-to-day executive affairs. This is a bad formula anywhere. Corporations don't let their Boards perform executive functions; nor do non-profit organizations. Nor does the federal government. Not the state, either. Almost any organization functions better with a chief executive in place, so that routine decisions do not get lost in some form of gridlock or decision-making vacuum.

Having served on the Board of a non-profit during periods of executive transition, the Curmudgeon can say that boards are poorly organized to make executive decisions. It's very inefficient.

At least in D.C. there's a mayor to exercise executive authority. But in the County Board form, no one is in charge. Or, more precisely, every department head is in charge of his or her own fiefdom. In the County Manager form, department heads are hired by the Manager for their expertise; in the County Board form, many such department heads are political hacks, hired for patronage.

Indeed, it is precisely because of these inefficiencies in running a county government that the County Manager form was invented.

Finally, what's wrong with Arlington's government as it is? Sure, there are some problems, but Arlington has one of the best managed governments around. We have an AAA/aaa bond rating that saves taxpayers millions of dollars in interest on capital projects. We have had decades of smart, planned growth. By and large, we have a government that works and provides reasonable services to residents at a reasonable price.

It is true that the Democratic stranglehold on the County Board results in probably less diversity of views than would otherwise be the case. But, as we pointed out above, it's not like the GOP and Greens are winning some parts of the County. Democrats have fielded strong, conscientious candidates and have generally taken a moderate approach consistent with the vast majority of voters' views in Arlington.

As for the employee unions, thank goodness they're held in check!

So, we're always open to persuasion, but we'd need someone to tell us why a change in government form would be good for us--not good for their political interests.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How Cheap Computing Power Promises To Change The World

A few months ago we posted a series of pieces on the future after reading Raymond Kurzweil's "Singularity" book. One of the trends that Kurzweil, a self-appointed "futurist," has pointed to as having a major impact on accelerating technological change in the coming years is the continued decline in the price of computing power.

While we raised some questions about some of Kurzweil's projections (and others have raised bigger ones), we saw recent evidence that he's on point with respect to computing power.

In our most recent edition of Popular Science--the annual "Inventions of the Year" edition--two former invention award winners singled out the low cost of computing as driving ever more sophisticated inventions by garage and backyard tinkerers. One, Taber MacCullum (there's a good first name to appropriate for your next kid), in discussing the need for a better computer-human interface than the keyboard, said he was sure it would be invented soon: "[W]hat we're calling garage stuff now is what we were calling Bechtel Labs 10 years ago. Think of what can be done now--it's staggering."

The other inventor, Mike Howe, in predicting a practical vehicle that gets 200 mpg, said, "[r]ight now, there is the capability as a one- or two-man team to do the kind of innovation that has never been seen before. Five to 10 years ago, if you wanted computing power to do what the big boys did, you had to work for them, which meant you were constrained by inside-the-box thinking. Now we have the computing power, for a thousand or two thousand bucks, that they have."

Now, if one of these guys can just figure out how to cap a gushing oil pipe at 12,000 feet under the sea!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

McDonnell Streamlines Restoration of Right Procedure

We'll join NLS in saluting Gov. McDonnell for streamlining the restoration of rights procedures in Virginia, whereby convicted felons can restore their voting rights. Here's scoop from NLS.

The contrast between McDonnell--who gets things done in a fairly low-key way, even if you don't always agree with him, and AG Ken Cuccinelli, who is a bloviating blast of hot political air, wasting taxpayer money on his personal political jihads, illustrates the difference between a "good government" conservative and a divisive conservative a-hole.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Everything But The Right Thing On Childhood Obesity

A lot of people, most notably First Lady Michelle Obama, are out there "doing something" about childhood obesity.

Or at least trying.

Most of it won't work, because it doesn't get at the root of our obesity epidemic. The First Lady's plan, called "Let's Move," has all kinds of ideas, many focused on getting kids off their butts and into healthy physical activity.

There's nothing wrong with getting kids to be physically active, as it will make them healthier. But it won't do much on the obesity front.

Obesity is a food problem, not an exercise problem. Some studies have even shown that more exercise simply makes people hungrier (but still healthier) and causes them to eat more.

As for the food problem, a lot of the suggestions you hear, including from Ms. Obama, are focused on "less sugar," or "more vegetables," or "less processed food," and "more natural food."

Those won't necessarily do the trick either.
For example, replacing those "bad" "sugary" sodas with "healthy" "natural" juice and milk may be counterproductive. Here's a quick quiz: which has more calories, an 8 ounce Coke Classic, glass of whole milk or glass of orange juice? Surprise! The milk has the most, with 150 calories, followed by the OJ at 110. The Coke: 97 calories.
The key to fighting obesity is LESS FOOD (or most accurately, fewer calories)! Today's portions--of EVERYTHING--are far too large for most people, especially children. Portions of practically every food--including "healthy" foods like salads (many of which are killers because they're so large) and even fruits (which have gotten bigger over the years thanks to selective breeding)--have grown over the past 40 years. Yet, there's no engineering change to the human body over that span that would allow humans to ingest considerably more calories without getting fat.

So, if you want to do something about obesity in children, you need to give them, and their parents, and educators in schools, some very clear guidance about how MUCH food they should be eating in any given meal or day. The advice has to be practical. The federal food pyramid suggests so many servings of fruits, veggies, grains and dairy, but you'd be hard pressed to figure out what is an appropriate SERVING SIZE for all those servings.
So, telling a kid to lay off the soda and drink milk or juice instead is probably only going to hurt. It would be much better to tell the child "you can have soda, but only this much [8 oz.--not a freaking Big Gulp!].

There's nothing wrong with a single patty hamburger accompanied by a small bag of fries and an 8 ounce drink for lunch or dinner for many kids. The problem is that you can't get that size meal at most of the places where you might reasonably go. The "small" "value" meal at Wendy's has a drink size and box of fries that would have been UNHEARD of at a fast food restaurant when the Curmudgeon was a kid. The large portion in the 1960's was smaller than today's "small" portion.

In contrast, get your child a salad at most sandwich shops and you'll get a lot more calories than the burger, fries and drink outlined above.

So, what about some programs aimed at portion control? Some commercials showing what a complete meal should be for kids of various ages; some governmental guidelines on what would constitute an appropriate portion of various popular kid's foods (french fries, drinks, hamburgers, pizza, chips, chicken nuggets, etc.); and some clear definitions of a serving size for all those servings on the government's pyramid (our bet, for example, is that most of today's giganto oranges in the supermarket are two serving sizes on the pyramid).

Virginia's Dumbass Government

During the past legislative term, Virginia's general assembly nearly unanimously passed legislation, sponsored by a Democrat, to exempt veterans charitable organizations from registration and disclosure requirements that apply to all other charities doing work in the Commonwealth. The Governor duly signed the bill and it became law.

Now, it turns out, the bill was proposed by lobbyists for a group called the U.S Navy Veterans Association, which is under investigation in several states, and whose mysterious director gave thousands of dollars to various Virginia candidates, including a whopping $55,000 to now Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Today's Washington Post has a story critical of the Cooch for keeping the money, while other candidates have given their contributions to legit vet charities.

But the Democrats critical of the Cooch ought to be criticizing themselves too. It was Democratic state senator Patsy Ticer who sponsored the bill, and apparently NO ONE thought this bill was a bad idea.

The fact is that the bill--now law--was a terrible idea, regardless of the bona fides of the lobbyists who proposed it. Why would anyone assume that just because someone is a veteran--or purports to represent the interests of veterans--they are more honest than the purveyors of other charities?

History is replete with charitable scams operated by and aimed at Vets. Yes, MOST veteran charities are legitimate and do great work. That's the whole point of requiring registration and disclosure--legit charities don't mind; the law deters scammers, and the public has a chance at separating out the good from the bad.

Meanwhile, the Cooch--who is busy persecuting climate scientists--has a huge conflict of interest. He ought to be investigating this U.S. Navy Veterans Association. But he's sitting on $55 Grand in campaign cash from the head of the group, and the Cooch's spokesperson says the Cooch would only give the money back (or give it away) if the guy who made the contribution "committed a crime."

Who's going to determine if he committed a crime? The Cooch!!

So, we're going to give a DUMBASS award to everyone in Virginia's government--the House, the Senate, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Governor and especially the Cooch.

We hope the general assembly will unanimously repeal this bad law next term.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

McDonnell's Really Bad Toll Booth Idea

Bob McDonnell's latest idea for raising revenue while pretending not to "raise" "taxes": a toll plaza on I-95 just above the North Carolina border.

McDonnell has asked the federal government for permission to erect toll booths as far north as Fredericksburg on I-95, but for now Virginia's transportation secretary says "we're just contemplating one toll facility at the North Carolina border."

The state estimates it could raise $30-$60 million annually for roads--which really isn't that much--with a $2-$4 toll at the border. The obvious appeal is that many of the vehicles crossing the border are non-Virginians, so it's a way to tax out of staters.

We remember when I-95 had toll booths from Richmond (where there used to be four of them) to Boston. They are an enormous nuisance, costing drivers tens of thousands of lost hours sitting in toll lines. Today, between Richmond and New York (and maybe all the way up to Boston--we haven't been in awhile) there's only one toll--at the Delaware border. It causes huge traffic delays. There isn't a regular driver between Washington and NYC who hasn't wanted to blow the darn thing up many a time.

(Delaware could do a lot to make it's toll plaza more efficient, but they evidently don't give a damn.)

If Virginia gets permission to put a toll at the border, you can bet that NC, SC and GA will all want to follow suit. And you can bet that once one toll plaza goes up on I-95 in Virginia, the temptation to add more--all the way up to Fredericksburg--will grow. The federal government should just say no.

Tolls are an inefficient way to collect road taxes. (Make no mistake about it, tolls are taxes.) Not only do tolls booths interfere with traffic, especially on peak holiday weekends, but it costs money to build, maintain and staff them. So, a significant portion of toll revenue is wasted in the collection effort.

We already have an efficient system in place to collect taxes dedicated to road construction and maintenance: the gas tax. Raising that tax would impose minimal additional costs of collection because the system is already in place.

Of course, McDonnell and all the other Republicans have pledged not to raise "taxes," so they don't dare propose a hike that would simply keep that tax in line, as a proportion of gas prices, with where it started.

We have an easy solution to that problem, however, Mr. Governor: simply impose a gas toll.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Could Britain Inspire Our Congress?

The Brits have a hung Parliament. With European debt woes threatening a new round of economic chaos, the English left and right are seeing if they can find some common ground to form a governing coalition. It won't be easy, but at least they're talking about it.

Maybe we could do the same here. Recently, the Washington Post noted a rare outbreak of working bipartisanship in the Senate to get something done on financial regulatory reform.

Perhaps we could extend that spirit to true work on the deficit. In the U.S., both sides bear plenty of blame for the bulging, and ultimately unsustainable flood of red ink.

During the Clinton administration--with a Republican Congress--we made real progress on the deficit. By the time Clinton left office, we had had three consecutive years of balanced or surplus budgets. When W. Bush took office, the ten-year projected surplus was $5 trillion.

It didn't take Bush--and a mostly Republican Congress--long to squander those gains. By the time Bush left office, the cumulative deficit had instead ballooned by $5 trillion--a swing of $10 trillion from the surplus he inherited.

Faced with a potential economic catastrophe, Pres. Obama further expanded the deficit to unheard of record amounts.

Now, it's up to BOTH parties to show that they can govern the nation, not just snipe at each other about who is worse.

The ONLY WAY to seriously tackle the deficit the is to engage in true reform of the major entitlement programs--particularly social security and medicare. Pentagon spending needs to be reigned in as well, and the tax system needs a major overhaul. All these things could get done if the men and women in Congress would show a little maturity, put aside their bickering and figure out how to ignore the lobbyists and spread the pain around.

On the entitlements side, we need consensus that unrealistic retirement ages need to be raised, and some benefits trimmed.

On the tax side, if we erased most of the inequitable tax goodies won by business lobbyists over the years, we could actually lower overall tax rates and increase productivity. We would also, inadvertently, address the climate change issue--if we simply eliminated all the government subsidies for oil, gas and coal we would make a huge stride in having these fuels reflect their true costs.

Many other parts of the economy--notably housing and agriculture--are distorted by tax subsidies as well. Cleaning up the tax code would generate billions in new revenue, while actually lowering taxes for most Americans.

Sadly, we're not counting on any such breakout of maturity. It's much easier to point fingers than to take leadership on tough choices.

Kagan Pick For Supreme Court

Pres. Obama's nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court was pretty much expected.

Kagan is highly qualified, having served as Harvard Law School dean before becoming Solicitor General. She is undeniably whip smart, and politically keen.

The right will no doubt attack her as being too liberal (or just "liberal"). Yet, Kagan is no more liberal than Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito are conservative.

Rest assured, there's no one Pres. Obama could reasonably appoint who wouldn't draw the right's scorn. They will attack the fact that she hasn't previously served as a judge, but if she had, they'd find some other reason to go after her. Some of our greatest Justices never served as judges, and many a judge has been a mediocre justice.

In any event, the highly politicized (on both sides) battle over confirmation will now begin, largely focused on everything but her true qualifications.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Cooch's Political Jihad

Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli is at it again, using his office to further a right wing political jihad reminiscent of McCarthyism. His target now: former U. Va. professor Michael Mann, now at Penn State, long a nemesis to global warming deniers.

The Cooch is disgusting. His many politically motivated actions since taking office just months ago make him an embarrassment to the Commonwealth. Contrast his activity to that of former AG Bob McDonnell--we thought McDonnell was pretty right wing, but as AG his office was largely (not entirely, but largely) apolitical and professional.

Not so with the Cooch. He ought to be investigating himself under the same law he's using to go after Mann--the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. The Cooch surely misled the state's voters when he ran for office, although to those in the know the course he's taken has been entirely predictable.

So what's next for the Cooch? Will he sue other professors for teaching evolution? Will he try to get the National Weather Service to alter records showing it's getting warmer? Will he bring a lawsuit to prove that the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is really God's wrath for homosexuality? And what about bringing the Birthers' claims to court, while we're at it.

McDonnell had--and has--the good sense to recognize that Virginia voters don't like extremists. The Cooch is the darling of the right wing for now, well positioned to kick Lt. Gov. Bolling's butt in any contest within the GOP for the nomination to succeed McDonnell, but he won't get any further than that, as Virginia's independent voters don't like the Cooch's sleazebag brand of playing politics with their state offices.