Thursday, October 30, 2014

An Old-Fashioned Mayor

Quotes from Pope Francis

  • "When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so."
  • “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment."
  • “The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it."
  • “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”
From a talk at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Baby turtles

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Red Cross: PR or Charity

In the past several years, I've written a number of posts about the Red Cross. They have not been favorable: the lack of transparency, problems with its handling of blood, fines, rapid turnover of presidents, etc.  ProPublica has a scathing indictment of the Red Cross handling of the storms Isaac and Sandy. The essential point is that the organization is more focused on public relations than helping people.

The report uses a number of documents internal to the Red Cross to make its point. One internal document admits that the organization “diverted assets for public relations purposes,” and that distribution of relief supplies was “politically driven.”

One of the assets most commonly used for PR was emergency vehicles, which were often used as backdrops for press conferences rather than ferrying supplies. The whole matter of supplies was another issue. According to interviews and documents, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms. Sometimes, even when supplies were plentiful, they went to waste. In one case, the Red Cross had to throw out tens of thousands of meals because it couldn’t find the people who needed them.

They probably also lost a lot of volunteers. Some were ordered to stay in Tampa long after it became clear that Isaac would bypass the city. After Sandy, volunteers wandered the streets of New York in search of stricken neighborhoods, lost because they had not been given GPS equipment to guide them. Some volunteers were too old or not well prepared for disaster relief. The “ biggest challenge,” one top Red Cross official said in the December 2012 meeting, is the “skillset that is possessed by our workforce.” Another was even more stark: The “ caliber of the people is a major issue (this is not a training issue),” according to the meeting minutes. The Red Cross acknowledges that nearly two-thirds of the volunteers responding to Sandy had never before provided relief after a large disaster.

They made conditions more unsafe. Red Cross officials are supposed to track sex offenders who come to shelters and confer with law enforcement. But staff “didn’t know/follow procedures,” the presentation notes. There was an additional problem with “ unrelated adults showering with children.”

The PR campaign did pay off. Last year the Red Cross received more than $1 billion in donations. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Auditing the Postal Service

A recent audit by the Inspector General of the Postal Service revealed that there were nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and the Postal Services' internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations. When a request is approved, postal workers record names, return addresses and any other information from the outside of letters and packages before they are delivered to a person’s home.

In many cases the Postal Service approved requests to monitor an individual’s mail without adequately describing the reason or having proper written authorization. Furthermore, the audit revealed that many requests were not processed in time and computer errors caused the same tracking number to be assigned to different surveillance requests.

Orwell's 1984 is here once more this year.

Electing Judges

In Massachusetts where I grew up all judges are appointed. I have never voted for a judge; however in 38 states judges are elected. And some judges do raise campaign funds. It used to be that not much money needed to be raised. But that was in the old days. In 2010 the money spent on judicial elections nationwide had increased to $38.7 million. In 2012 this number had increased by almost 50% to $56.4 million.

Is this a good thing? Don't we expect judges to be impartial? What would they do if a large contributor had a case before the judge?

There is even an organization that tracks this money. It's called Justice at Stake. In the eyes of its executive director, “We are seeing money records broken all over the country. Right now, we are watching big money being spent in Michigan. We are seeing the same thing in Montana and Ohio. There is even money going into a district court race in Missouri. This is the new normal.”

It is a non-profit, after all

Many non-profits need volunteers in order to meet their goals. Naturally, the NFL is looking for volunteers for this year's Super Bowl in Arizona. They only need a few - like 10,000.

The league drives a hard bargain with cities that host the Super Bowl. Here's what its getting from Minneapolis, site of the 2018 Super Bowl:

    every cent of ticket revenue 
 · 35,000 free parking spaces 
 · Free ads in local newspapers and on radio stations, and lots of free billboards 
· All ATMs at the stadium must be those with NFL-approved credit cards 
 · Free presidential suites in the top hotels 
 · If cellphone reception isn't quite good enough around and about, then Minneapolis has to build the NFL sufficient new cellphone towers 
 · The NFL even unsuccessfully tried to demand the right to select the only vendors at the airport — the public airport — who could sell NFL merchandise.

That's the kind of support most non-profits get. Right?

Monday, October 27, 2014

He's 88

When do you let go?

A year or so ago a young Israeli moved to Berlin primarily because of the high cost of living in Israel. He took advantage of a German practice that makes passports available to any Jews whose parents or grandparents were German. 

Recently, he decided that other Israelis should come to Berlin and used his Facebook page to make his case. His post featured a shopping receipt and asked Israelis to compare what they would have spent on a similar shopping outing. The page was a big hit, attracting 1,000,000 views in just four days. 

Some Israelis were upset. A former Israeli Finance Ministry director general, Doron Cohen, said “Those who want to leave Israel, and pick Berlin of all places, descend to the lowest possible moral level. This website wants to ruin the reputation of our country. I don’t think there is anything more abominable than that.” There were many other negative reactions as some see the idea as appearing to cast relocating to Berlin as moving to the promised land.

Granted the Holocaust was evil and inhuman. But WWII has been over for 69 years. It's a different Germany. Should this posting be the most abominable thing in today's world?

Boston and the Sea

Boston was lucky that Hurricane Sandy did not do much damage. In fact, there was a good side to Sandy for Boston. It got them thinking about the predicted rise in sea level of up to 6 feet by 2100. 

One of their thoughts is to build a network of canals, ala Venice or Amsterdam. The canals would criss-cross the streets of the Back Bay - a neighborhood which was actually a tidal bay before it began to be filled in and built on 150 years ago. The hope is that the network would make the historic district even more attractive, if it works. 

The planners do not have their heads in a barrel. They know that Boston has a much larger range in tides that Venice or Amsterdam. Thus, "the canals would be either high part of the time or low part of the time. So we would have to decide whether they would be really deep or tidal." They are also looking at a more conventional solution by shoring up the foundations of Back Bay houses and make sure important infrastructure, such as electrical and mechanical equipment, was lifted up above the likely level of any flooding.

A vision of Clarendon Street

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Truly A Gilded Age

New York City is a special place. You can pay tens of millions for an apartment but still have to pay for such 'amenities' as a storage space ($75,000 for a 35-square-foot storage space), wine cellars (more than $100 a bottle), a maid's room (almost $3,000,000), and an underground parking spot for $1 million. In most of these cases you are licensing the amenity, not buying it. The license is for 100 years, but terminates if you sell your apartment.

Delaware, the corporation's state

Most major corporations incorporate in Delaware. Now the Delaware Supreme Court has given them another reason to do so. Now, a company can adopt, without shareholder approval, bylaws requiring investors who file lawsuits against it to pay the company’s legal fees if the suit is unsuccessful. Many legal experts say that this fee-shifting will result in fewer shareholder actions and less accountability.

Although the Court ruled in May, already more than two dozen companies have added fee-shifting language to their governing documents. Some have adopted new bylaws requiring that shareholders pay legal costs; others have simply disclosed the fee-shifting requirement in initial public offering statements.

The IRS and Civil Forfeiture

Earlier this month I posted a John Oliver segment on civil forfeiture; it focused on local police efforts to seize money from innocent people. Today the NY Times has an article about the IRS work in this area. Here, the focus is on deposits you make in your bank.

If you deposit $10,000 or more in your account, the government must be informed as it is possible these funds have been obtained illegally via drugs, terrorist financings or other criminal means. But our ever-vigilant government is also on the alert for some deposits under $10,000. The deposit might have been kept under $10,000 so that an official report need not be filed. However, the government is still interested. In fact, they took these deposits in 639 cases in 2012 (this is up from 114 in 2005). The money can be taken without the government filing a criminal complaint; the depositors are left to prove their innocence. Most of the takings do not reach the courts; in only 20% of the cases does the government bring the depositor to court.

Declining Education

Nicholas Kristof devotes today's column to an analysis of an OECD study of education around the world. While the title of the report is Education at a Glance 2014, the report is over 500 pages long. Nonetheless it has some interesting charts. Unlike years ago, we are not at the top of any chart.

One of the most interesting charts to me is A1.2. It categorizes secondary school education into general orientation, vocational orientation and no distinction by orientation. We rate twelfth but have no distinction by orientation. A good deal of our problem is the inequality that has become a definition of the U.S. today. Rich areas have better schools.

We are also weak in the number of 3-year-olds being educated. Other OECD countries educate an average of 70 percent of their 3-year-olds; we educate 38 percent. Our teachers work longer hours than most but make less money compared to other college-educated workers.

2 Interesting Charts

By Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman via the Washington Post

Friday, October 24, 2014

Does the IRS need a shake-up?

That's what some of its employees and ex-employees say. They say that, despite their being an IRS Whistleblower Office, the IRS bosses "intentionally undermined the authority" of it. Furthermore, the bosses are accused of "deliberately" facilitating multibillion-dollar tax giveaways avoid taking action "in cases involving billions in corporate taxes due." As a result, they claim that the large corporate taxpayers are favored over everybody else.

They are asking Congress to audit the IRS.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

UNC comes clean

Over the past few years, there have been more than a few claims that athletes at UNC received favorable treatment. In fact, the treatment was so favorable, that the athletes did not have to go to class. An administrator created a paper world which showed athletes attending and passing courses. Surprisingly, this went on for 18 years and at least 3,100 students benefited from these paper classes.

Thus far, four employees have been fired and five more disciplined because of their roles. 

This is another indication of the primacy given to college athletics rather than to college education.

Another Secret Service Faux Pas

It looks as though that some members of the  Secret Service feel a strong pull to defend a fellow employee, so strong that they have to leave the White House. Sometime in 2011 an agency employee was in a dispute with a neighbor. The neighbor was arrested and the employee took out a protective order. She also told one of the higher-ups in the agency about her problem. The higher-up did help her by sending two agents to her home. Unfortunately, these agents were at work protecting the President and/or the White House. These agents visited the neighbor on at least five days, one of these visits lasted eight hours. The neighbor did not live next door to the White House. Her home was "a 50-minute drive (without traffic) from the White House".