An example . . .

July 31, 2020

of the second type of one-sided thinking I recently wrote about appeared recently on WAMC in a story about racial disparities in arrest rates in Burlington, VT.  As I read the story, I kept asking myself, “what are the respective crime rates of blacks and whites in Burlington?” And, if they are equal, ” is this story about how racial discrimination is responsible for a greater crime rate among Blacks, as opposed their own free will?”

The first of my questions was affirmatively not answered, at least to the extent that crime rates are reflected in conviction rates, as the story stated that information was not available.  The story did mention that the disparity in juvenile arrest rates was the lowest among identifiable subgroups – almost negligible – but it also stated that police basically had stopped making arrests for those types of offenses, which were handled in other ways.

So, what’s the point of this story? It’s not that Backs are arrested disproportionately to the numbers of crimes they commit, as those rates are stated not to be known.  And if it is that the disparity in arrests, if it does reflect respective crime rates, must be due to some other type of or effect of discrimination, the story does not offer that hypothesis, let alone any proof to support it.

Yes, a disparity in arrest rates between Blacks and whites is a cause of concern that should be investigated.  Any confirmed bias on the part of police should then be addressed.  But this story does nothing more than raise the initial question, without providing further enlightenment.


Progress on bike paths

July 8, 2020

A recent Time Union article highlights the opening of a bike path connector between the Corning and Helderberg Hudson paths.  I rode the connector a few times before it officially opened, and it’s a big improvement for people going from one path to the other (or, in my case, from Rensselaer over the Dunn Memorial Bridge to Delmar, a trip I often take).  I am sure at least some of the anticipated economic improvement for the South End will result from this project, and I hope that residents of the area as well as others support it and, most important, use it.


One-sided thinking

July 3, 2020

Much of our public and private decision making appears to be based upon incomplete consideration of the problems presented,  or upon incomplete information. Two illustrations:

First, Governor Cuomo’s recent declaration of Juneteenth as a paid day off for State workers (and other public workers whose employers were quick to jump on board the train, such as the City of Albany), in the absence of a considered legislative judgment that such a holiday was affordable and the best way to further the goals of the Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements appears to have been made with little concern for the State’s precarious financial situation (which the Governor appears to believe will be solved by a benevolent federal government, two of whose three branches appear utterly indifferent – at best – to New York’s plight) and to the other public and private costs to those affected, such as how parents who don’t have the day off will secure child care if teachers get the day off. When I raised my objections to friends, I was universally chastised for not being sensitive to the needs of workers for additional leisure time and for my insensitivity to the cause the Governor’s action represented. In my subjective view, I am guilty of neither. These are both things I value, but not at any cost. As a firm believer in the adage that what the large print gives, the small print takes away, I simply cannot believe that the Governor’s ukase is a win for everyone, without costs that should have been considered (and apparently will be considered) by our representative legislative body. If that body finds the declaration of a holiday appropriate, as I’m sure it will, I will be on board.

In politics, as in life, if someone offers something as an unqualified benefit, beware. There usually is a cost, and you should attempt to identify, quantify and consider that cost before accepting or endorsing the offer, especially if you are the who is going to pay for it.

The second example of one-sided thinking often is encountered in debates about equality, in which it is declared that any difference in outcome between majority and minority groups is the result of discrimination. For example, let’s assume a majority group (the purples) and a minority group (the grays). As a percentage of their total population, twice as many grays (20%) are incarcerated as are purples (10%). Does the criminal justice system discriminate against grays?

If your answer is yes, would it change your mind if I told you that grays committed five times more felonies than purples? In that situation, arguably, grays would be under-represented in the prison population. If your answer is no, would it change your mind if I told you that purples actually committed more felonies per capita, but were able to avoid prison in many cases due to higher income which allowed retention of more powerful criminal defense counsel? A raw disparity, without explanation, often is not enough to establish discrimination, yet it often is asserted, without more, as the basis for such a claim.

Assertions of discrimination based on incomplete information divert resources and attention from real acts of discrimination that should be addressed promptly and efficiently. We all would be better off addressing real problems established by complete and relevant data.


Leadership

June 22, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic, recently compounded by the unrest following the George Floyd killing, has placed our public leaders front and center. Our President, placing self-interest above national interest, as always, has failed dismally. Much ink has been spilled on his self-dealing, mendacity and overall poor leadership, and I agree with almost all of it. If I had to pick what I find most distasteful about Trunp, though, it would be easy — at a time when we all need to work with, and show respect to, each other to contain the virus, he has politicized the issues and worked to divide us.

Trump has thrown a bone to the Black Lives Matter movement by calling (weakly) for police reforms and and by ordering an investigation, though I don’t think anyone in or sympathetic to the movement feels he is really taking their concerns seriously. Where he has utterly failed, at a cost of tens of thousands of lives, is in his handling of the corona virus crisis. As a person vulnerable to Covid-19, I view Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, and encouraging those who don’t in the name of freedom, a direct threat to my health and well-being. His holding a rally (aside from the offenses of originally scheduling it on Juneteenth and holding it at a site of anti-Black violence) at which masks and social distancing will not be required is beyond irresponsible – it is a taking advantage of his followers, who no doubt readily will click on the liability waiver they are required to accept in order to attend.

Our Governor, by contrast, has shown good leadership, though he has made mistakes and has resisted taking responsibility for them. Instead of shouting down reports whose questions he doesn’t like (and, when tired of that, discontinuing briefings altogether), he has faced the public every day and has answered questions from the press. His forthrightness and vulnerability (contrary to his former style, which was more authoritarian, leading a character in an editorial cartoon to ask “when can I start hating Cuomo again?) have earned him the trust of many (and the hearts of some) of his constituents. He has resisted the pressure of those desiring to “open up” the economy too soon, and what is happening in other states suggests he is right, though the negative effects on the economy and our mental and physical health of going slow are undeniable, and he does acknowledge them. In my view, he is walking the fine line appropriately.

On Black Lives Matter, he has shown a more genuine concern while responding in a more politically savvy way, kicking the can down to local police departments rather than undertaking any major reforms at the State level.

Another response has been his executive order declaring Juneteenth a paid day off for State workers (at the expense of a public fisc that is teetering on the edge of disaster) which I see as a political giveaway to State employees rather than a serious effort to memorialize Juneteenth and what it stands for (to his credit, the Governor also has asked the Legislature to declare Juneteenth a State holiday, which is the right way to go about it).

Instead of abdicating his role as the counter party to the public employee unions, representing the taxpayers with respect to the collective bargaining agreements that govern the terms and conditions of most State employment, what the Governor should have done, while waiting for the Legislature to act, was to order training and education on racial bias and Black history for all State employees for part of the day.

 


Misplaced pride

February 2, 2020

Recently, I heard on the radio an audio clip of New York’s Governor Cuomo remarking that he was proud that New York spends the most on education of any state in the union.  I was a bit taken aback, being under the impression that New York’s national educational standing has been somewhere in the middle of the 50 states, which to me represents a very poor return on our educational investment.  This Politico story covered Cuomo’s announcement, and the dramatic change in his position it represented.

A recent opinion piece in the New York Post appears to support my view, and not just in the area of education.  While some its conclusions are a bit suspect — for example, I’m not sure the poverty spending figures and results account for the far better Medicaid benefits New York provides, which may represent a good return on investment — the general thrust of the article, that Texas and Florida spend far less than New York and California, and do not do appreciably worse on many metrics, especially those of interest to the average citizen, seems valid.

If New York’s greater spending does not result in superior programmatic results, how can it be explained or justified?  One answer may be that New York’s inherent costs are higher due to, for example in the education sphere, harder to educate students.  While there certainly are large concentrations of high need students in New York, I suspect there also are in Florida and Texas.  Teacher and administrator pay are probably higher in New York than in lower spending states, but excessive salaries are wasted money, especially in the absence of superior results, and it is hard to conclude that Texas and Florida teachers are grossly underpaid (especially when working hours, tenure security and health and retirement benefits are considered).  According to this site, teacher salaries average about $80,000 in New York and $50,000 in Florida.  That is a significant difference, but New York’s highest in the nation tax burden accounts for over a fifth of the difference.  For example, for 2012, the Tax Foundation ranks New York as having the highest state and local tax burden in the nation, at 12.7% (a little over $10,000 off that $80,000).  Florida, by contrast, has a burden of 8.9% (a little less than $4500 off $50.000).  Other cost of living differences, harder to ascertain, further narrow (but do not close) the gap.  I am not saying New York teachers are overpaid in an absolute sense — their jobs are important, their work often stressful, and the value of the service they provide is, especially when performed well, invaluable.  But are they worth spending 50-100% more to maintain for similar results?

Based on anecdotal evidence of superintendent compensation in New York, no doubt the disparities in administrators’ salaries are similar or greater, and other excess spending may go toward consultants, contractors and other things (such as waste and corruption) that don’t necessarily improve results.

If the Post’s conclusions are to be believed, the spending difference in New York does not directly benefit the primary beneficiaries of the system — the students — though it does appear to benefit the largest group secondary beneficiaries — the teachers, and the administrators above them.  In New York, teachers, through their unions, have been effective at getting ever-increasing pieces of the educational spending pie, and in spinning their gains as investments in the “children.”  The latter appears, as explained above, not to be true; how you feel about the former depends on what you feel the appropriate level of teacher compensation and other spending should be in a system that produces the results seen in New York.


Museums made affordable

October 10, 2019

The northeast is awash with interesting and educational museums of all kinds. Unfortunately, many, especially in major cities, have become unaffordable.

Realizing this, many museums offer free admissions at certain times, which may or may not be convenient for prospective visitors.  But I’ve used two other ways to get free museum admissions:

Bank of America’s Museums on US program offers its credit or debit card holders free admission to museums throughout the country on the first full weekend of each month. I have used this program at the Cloisters and the Intrepid Air/Space Museum in New York, the Hartford Atheneum, the Albany Institute and Mass MoCa.  Participating museums change regularly, so consult the web page before you plan your trip.

More recently, I used free passes borrowed from local Upper Hudson Libraries to visit the Clark Art Museum. The passes, available for many museums, may be borrowed for up to to a week. The down side is that, at least for the Clark passes, each branch has only one – if you and a companion want to go together, you each will have to borrow a pass from a different branch, but that’s a minor inconvenience for a savings of $20 each.  To find out what branches have passes available, search for the museum in which you are interested in the UHLS catalog search page.

As a taxpayer who uses few other government services, I can’t say enough about the superb value UHLS libraries provide.  Engines of social mobility, these institutions provide services to those who can’t afford private alternatives, and to those who can.  All who benefit from them – in other words, all of us – should support our local libraries.  In addition to the books, other media and programs and services available at local branches, UHLS libraries offer an extensive collection of on-line resources for borrowing and downloading.  Even if you can’t travel to a branch, you can benefit form library services.


S*#!-hole country

August 7, 2019

I recently returned from a trip that took me by air to three Latin American countries – Panama, Argentina and Costa Rica (I also visited Uruguay, but by boat). At one airport on my trip, after 12 wearying hours of traveling, including seven straight hours in a coach seat, I was directed to a huge, dingy arrivals hall without air conditioning (and it was hot), where I waited over 40 minutes with hundreds of other tired, hot travelers to have a disinterested bureaucrat stamp my passport without asking me a single question. After another wait of 40 minutes (in a room also without air conditioning) for my luggage, I finally was able to go outside to look for a cab. One nowhere near the front of a long line of licensed cabs called out to me, so I got in. When I told him where I was going (a hotel near the airport, not the urban center) he cursed me and tried to hold me up for an exorbitant fixed fare, though local law requires cabs to use meters. When I threatened to report him if he didn’t turn on the meter, he acquiesced, muttering “it’ll be the same.” Of course, it wasn’t – it was just over half what he initially had asked for.

Can you guess the airport at which this scene took place?  If you guessed JFK in New York upon my return, you’d be right.  The three international airports in Latin America that I experienced were all modern, air conditioned, and the entry procedures were efficient and quick.

Smart governments know that good airports are huge economic drivers, and can shape visitors’ attitudes toward a place by the initial impressions they instill.  The local leaders who pushed through the renovation of the Albany International Airport a few decades ago knew this, and I believe their good work has paid off.  The Port Authority of NY and NJ, which runs the JFK airport, has promised a new JFK.  It can’t come soon enough.

 

 


Another Long Island Railroad scandal

July 10, 2019

I was shocked when the New York Times exposed the abuses by Long Island Railroad employees of their disability benefits, as well as provisions of its labor contracts that no sane company would accept .  Now, perhaps less surprisingly, the New York Post reveals egregious time and leave abuse, allowing some individual employees to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime for hours they didn’t work.  While some of the workers were able to retire before facing disciplinary action and recoupment of the stolen funds, the taxpayers who subsidize the railroad — already victimized by the railroad’s paying the crooked employees for hours not worked — will continue to pay their crookedly inflated pensions.  If the abuse can’t be stopped (I give Governor Cuomo credit for trying to stop it, albeit belatedly), a big step toward curbing it would be to disallow overtime hours to be part of pension calculations.


O, Canada

June 5, 2019

I just returned from a visit to Vancouver, BC, in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, one of my favorite parts of the world.  The city, which is known for its great Asian food, its waterfront and the beauty of its surroundings, among many other things, did not disappoint.

But I want to talk about two very little things I was reminded of that are done in Canada, but not in the US, that make life there easier for everyone, and in particular for gamblers.

The first is that pennies no longer are used.  All cash sales are rounded to the nearest nickel, which is the smallest unit of currency generally in circulation.  Given that the penny costs more to produce than it is worth, and that storing and accounting for pennies also is costly, this common-sense approach, with roundings up and roundings down canceling each other out, makes a lot of cents (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

I was reminded of the second when, in the local casino, I hit a jackpot that required a hand pay.  In the States, along with the hand pay would come a W-2G form reporting the gross proceeds of the jackpot to the IRS.  To avoid liability for the tax, it would be up to the player to record his or her offsetting losses, which almost always exist.  In Canada, they realize that fact, and even apply it to lottery winnings, whose large jackpots are the exceptions, presumably treating lottery losses and wins by the aggregate of all players as a wash or a net loss.  After I signed a form for the casino, I was paid in cash and not given any other paper work (US citizens should be aware that, as in the US, net gambling wins, like any income earned anywhere, even if not accompanied by a reporting form, are taxable income, no matter where in the world they are won).

 


Planning for the inevitable

April 8, 2019

As a result of the problems I encountered administering the estates of my parents, I learned a few things that might be helpful in planning for the end of your life, especially if you have dependents.

Many people designate trusted relatives or friends as attorneys in fact (through a document called a power of attorney) to act in case they become disabled and cannot handle their own financial and business affairs.  The important thing to remember about such a designation is that it only exists during the lifetime of the grantor — as soon as the person designating another as attorney dies, the attorney’s authority to act on behalf of the grantor stops.

If you have a spouse, and you were the bigger earner, it is true that your surviving spouse will, in many cases, be able to receive your higher monthly social security payments after your death; however, your spouse’s own existing payments will cease, thus resulting in an immediate loss of income.  What’s worse, after Social Security finds out about your death (usually from your funeral provider), if you have received any excess payments via direct deposit, it will claw them back from the account in which they were deposited.

If you were lucky enough to have a pension, you more than likely opted for benefits to your spouse to continue after your death, but at a reduced rate.  The survivor in such situation may likely suffer a large, immediate loss in monthly income (from social security and the pension) that may not be offset by the reduced expenses of living alone.

The issue is not just whether there will be enough money for the survivor to live on long-term.  The issue also is providing for the immediate needs of the survivor when income may be reduced and accounts frozen. Life insurance pays quickly, and can be a lifesaver if the policy beneficiary is the surviving spouse. Don’t make the mistake of using a life insurance policy to provide for those who don’t need the proceeds immediately; provide for them elsewhere in your estate plan.