Monday, April 27, 2009

An Interlude: Meat

Meat Cards

They are what you think they are.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Torture Does Not Work

Let me be sure I got this right.

We waterboarded someone 183 times.

All they needed to do to make it stop was to give us a link between al Quaida and Saddam Hussein.

And they did not give us that link?

Game over. Torture does not work. If you waterboarded me 183 times, I'd tell you my mom was the Pope with full conviction.

Oh, and incidentally, it might be worth noticing that our prior administration was willing to waterboard a guy 183 times to get justification to invade Iraq.

Or, the Bush administration was so incompetent, it couldn't even torture the right lie out of two guys.

There's humor, there's irony, there's black humor, and then there's the record of the Bush Administration.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Democrats Save Me $1,957

My taxes are $1,957 lower this year than they were last year.

Thanks to the Democrats on the Board of Supervisors (and the reduced Leesburg tax rate), my property taxes are $1,165 lower this year than they were last year. And thanks to President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, my Federal income tax is about $792 less this year than it was last year. That adds up to nearly $2,000 in tax savings - thanks to Democrats.

I would bet that the wide majority of people in Loudoun have a similar experience. After all, the President's plan gave 95% of Americans a tax cut.

Something to keep in mind.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cable Company Rates

There's a funny thing about companies with structural monopolies, they like to raise prices regardless of the reality of costs or market conditions. Just two months ago, Leesburg's Cable franchisees came before the Technology and Cable Commission (of which I am a member) to let us know that they would be raising rates. We on the TCC have no power or authority to change anything, but the franchisees are required to notify us. It gives people like me an opportunity to at least chastise them for doing so.

And so, in an awful economy in which people are losing their jobs and costs are going up everywhere, companies that have an effective monopoly (or, at least a duopoly) with attendant profitability are seeking to get even more money from consumers.

And lest you think this is a problem isolated to Leesburg, The New York Times has run an article on this national trend:
Faced with rising consumer protest and calls from members of Congress for new regulations, Time Warner Cable backed down last week from a plan to impose new fees on heavy users of its Road Runner Internet service.

The debate over the price of Internet use is far from over. Critics say cable and phone companies are already charging far more than Internet providers in other countries. Some also wonder whether the new price plans are meant to prevent online video sites from cutting into the lucrative revenue from cable TV service. - The New York Times
In my humble (but informed) opinion, this is exactly what is happening. Cable TV companies see high-speed Internet as a major threat to their core TV business, just like AT&T and the RBOCs saw it as a threat to their core telephone service. But like the phone companies, Cable TV companies are already addicted to the revenue stream from Internet connections. Thus Cable companies want consumers to buy just enough Internet to meet their needs, but not enough Internet to make subscribing to TV not worth the price. It is a tough balancing act, and one that requires increasing prices for increasing Internet usage, even though there is no relationship between higher Internet use and higher operating costs for the providers.

The argument that high-use subscribers cost more to serve is specious.
If all Time Warner customers decided one day not to check their e-mail or download a single movie, the company’s costs would be no different than on a day when every customer was glued to the screen watching one YouTube video after another.

That is because their networks are constantly being expanded to handle ever-greater peak periods. It is the modern equivalent of how the old AT&T was said to have built the long-distance network to handle the number of calls expected on Mother’s Day.

“All of our economics are based on engineering for the peak hour,” said Tony Werner, the chief technical officer of Comcast. “Just because someone consumes more data doesn’t mean they drive more cost.”

Yet even as the providers continually upgrade their networks, the cost of the equipment needed to do so is shrinking steadily, reflecting the well-worn economics of computing.

Indeed, the equipment needed to add capacity to any household costs a fraction of one month’s Internet service bill. Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, has told investors that doubling the Internet capacity of a neighborhood costs an average of $6.85 a home.

The cost of providing Internet service is about to fall even more, as cable companies install new technology, called Docsis 3, that will both increase their capacity and allow them to offer much faster download speeds. - The New York Times
There is no technical reason to charge separate prices for TV, Internet and Phone service, they're all the same bits, encoded a little differently, running over the same pipe. If we were to have truly cost-plus pricing in phone and TV service, prices would be remarkably lower than they are today - and they would fall regularly, not rise.

I do not believe we should have cost-plus pricing in Cable TV. I believe in the free market, and that includes the freedom to set prices. However, in markets which are not free, but which require public oversight (like, say, ones which have local government franchises, or involve the licensing of public goods), it is highly questionable - even deceptive - to raise prices in a down economy and claim that "costs" are higher. I'm not asking Comcast and Verizon to slash their rates, just refrain from raising them in the teeth of a recession.

(This opinion is my own and does not reflect the opinion of the Town of Leesburg or the Leesburg Technology and Communications Commission.)

Nice, But Wrong

If you look at the Republicans who remain of power and influence in Virginia, there is a recurring persona. These officials are nice, but wrong.

Over the past eight years or so, Virginia has done an excellent job of removing Republican officials who were ignorant, or mean or incompetent. The Republicans who remain in office in Virginia are generally personable, even friendly. Of course, they're still voting and acting against the best interests of the people. But hey, they're nice about it.

I can think of three prime examples of the "nice, but wrong" Republicans in Virginia:
  • Frank Wolf - Representative VA-10 - Frank Wolf is the epitome of the "nice, but wrong" Republican. He comes across as a kindly grandfather, and is always around for a photo op with babies and hardworking families. Of course, that did not prevent him from enabling the Bush administration's assault on the middle class for eight years. Nor did it help his constituents when they were blindsided by the near-cancellation of Rail-to-"Dulles." It seems that these-days, the only qualification that Frank Wolf has for office is that he is "nice."

  • Eric Cantor - Representative VA-07 - Eric Cantor is the "fresh, young face" of the Republicans in Congress. He is also the architect of their strategy to blockade the agenda that America has voted for twice in three years. He certainly seems "nice." Indeed, he is probably the image of the good grandson to many voters. Of course, he has stood in the way of helping out grandparents everywhere with his opposition to reasonable health care reform, and his opposition to President Obama's tax cut for the middle class. He is the man who smiles while sticking the knife in the back of working families. The smile does not make it any better.

  • Bob McDonnell - Attorney General of Virginia - The Republican presumptive nominee for Governor has a highly-polished ability to seem friendly and reasonable. But the real Bob McDonnell is someone very different. He is a doctrinare conservative, deeply affiliated with the most reactionary wing of the Republican party. He does not want the working people of Virginia to do better, or even have better options. He wants them to stay in their place, where they belong. But he will smile and shake their hand. He certainly seems nice.
So this is our new challenge. How do we take on Republicans who make themselves seem nice and reasonable to their constituents, even while voting - consistently! - to reduce opportunities, gut aid and generally do a disservice to the interests of those constituents?

The best answer is to reveal their records, and never let a week go by without reminding the public that someone can be nice, but very, very wrong. Our future depends on our officials doing right by us, serving our needs and interests, not on whether they are "nice."

In closing, I will reprise something I said a year ago:
But being a nice man is not a sufficient reason to give someone your vote! Being a nice person is what you want in your friends and neighbors. But a Congressperson is supposed to be our advocate, our representative, the one who defends our liberties and promotes our interests. - Leesburg Tomorrow, April 6, 2008
And the same is true of our Governors. Think before you vote.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Two To Go

I am a Democrat.

That's a big "D" Democrat. It means that I need a very good reason to vote for a Republican. It means I look at where I sit today and think, "pretty good, but I still have to two to go."

Which two? Well, here's the state of my representation:
So you can see, there are two to go: Joe May and Frank Wolf. I have lost my opportunity to take it down to one this November, with the withdrawl of Mike Turner earlier this week. However, other news this week gives me hope to take it down to one in 2010.

(Of course, this does not include the Leesburg Town Council, of which there are seven, elected at-large.)

So, I have two to go.

Some folks will raise an issue with the idea of having the same Party representing me all the way up. There's an argument for divided government, for a diversity of policy in representation. I leave it to others to make that case. For me, I believe in the policies and principles of my Democratic Party. I believe that America will be better off if I am represented by Democrats from the House of Delegates to the President.

And the reason I believe that is the fact that Democrats stand for a fair government, a government that seeks to deliver on its responsibilities, quite simply a government that is actually of, by, and for the people. That is not only a democratic government, in America today, that is a Democratic government.

And that means I have two to go.

Friday, April 17, 2009

If You Live In NoVA Today

Stop reading blogs, gather friends and loved ones (and pets), and go outside for a walk already!

There is more to life then the next [breaking] tag at 4pm on a Friday.

Tax Myths

There is a fantastic post by Robert Reich over at TPM explaining some of the misleading "truths" about taxes that get bandied about in public discussion. Here is a taste:
3. "The bottom 60 percent pay only 3.3 percent of the taxes!" Misleading again. Most Americans are paying more in sales taxes than they ever have. Property taxes have also been rising at a steady clip. And Social Security taxes have also risen (thanks to the Greenspan Commission), while earnings over about $100,000 aren't subject to Social Security taxes. So-called "sin" taxes (mostly beer and cigarettes) have also skyrocketed. All of these taxes take a bigger bite out of the paychecks of people with lower incomes than they do people with higher incomes. - Robert Reich
This is a critically important point to understand if you are to understand the idea behind a progressive tax system. Because every dollar of income is more valuable the less total income you have (because there is an absolute minimum to income - the "living wage" level of being able to pay for essentials like food and housing), taxes on sales and property disproportionately impact those at the lower end of the income scale, relative to those at the higher end. (Especially when property that is not taxed, like intellectual property, is largely held by the rich.) Thus, taxes are less affordable to low-income citizens, relative to high-income citizens. Therefore, taxes can (and ought to) be higher the higher in income you go, because you can better afford it.

The reason high-income people are high-income people is because of the benefits that accrue from good government, be it a stable currency, or the economic dominance of America that came from our government's actions over the past 100 years, or the fact that contracts are both enforceable and honored, or the simple ease with which employers can hire and fire people. All of these critical factors to increasing incomes come from the power and policies of our government. The wealthier you are, the more you benefit from government-derived freedoms and opportunities. It's only appropriate that wealth be held accountable through taxation.

If this sounds "unfair" to you, consider this - gas is priced by income and no one says a peep. There's a reason that gas costs more in Middleburg than Ashburn.

Robert Reich gets the last word.
6. "We have a patriotic duty to stand up against Washington taxes!" Just the opposite. We have a patriotic duty to pay taxes. As multi-billionaire Warren Buffett put it, "If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you'll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil. I will be struggling thirty years later." President Teddy Roosevelt made the case in 1906 when he argued in favor of continuing the inheritance tax. "The man of great wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government."

An acquaintance from law school, now a partner in one of Washington's biggest and wealthiest law firms, explained to me one day over lunch how he and his partners use tax rules to create offsetting taxable gains and losses, and then allocate the gains to the firm's foreign partners who don't pay taxes in the United States. That way, they keep the losses here and shelter their income abroad. I noticed he had an American flag lapel pin. "You're supporting our troops," I said, referring to his pin. "Yup," he replied, entirely missing my point.

True patriotism isn't cheap. It's about taking on a fair share of the burden of keeping America going. - Robert Reich
(With a tip-o-the-hat to DailyKos.)

Frank Wolf's 2010 Intentions

Well, leave it to Lowell to report the interesting. Frank Wolf's fundraising has been anemic at best, retirement-worthy even.
I was checking the FEC disclosure database and was utterly amazed at Rep. Frank Wolf's fundraising in the first quarter of 2009. Not "amazed" because it was so high, but "amazed" because it was so low. How low is low? We're talking just $5,203 in total receipts for 1Q09. With disbursements of $21,078 and a starting balance of $56,113, that leaves Rep. Wolf (R-10) with just $40,238 cash on hand - and falling fast. - Blue Virginia
Money is a good indicator of intentions. So are actions - or lack thereof. And Frank Wolf has not been very active lately.

Frank Wolf has never been an official to miss a photo op. When the stimulus bill passed Congress and was signed by the President, it was the perfect opportunity for Rep. Wolf to take some undeserved credit. In the bill (which Rep. Wolf voted against, along with every other Republican) was money for our own Loudoun Community Health Center. In previous years, you can bet Rep. Wolf would have set himself at the steps of Cornwall and taken some well set photos. This year, that didn't happen.

Another indicator of intentions is the intensity with which a Representative is doing their job. So far in the 111th Congress, Frank Wolf has sponsored only two bills. By this point of the 110th Congress, Frank Wolf had directly sponsored sixteen bills. It's important to note that the Republicans were also in the minority in the 110th, so we should limit that as a reason for his decline in bill sponsorship. Wolf has signed on to co-sponsor a number of bills, but that's a lot less work than introducing legislation himself.

There are good reasons to speculate that Frank Wolf is seriously considering retirement in his relative lack of activity and fundraising. He turns 70 this year, and has been in Congress since 1981. He saw his party retake the majority in the House, and served as an important committee Chairman during that period. Now that the Republicans are back in the minority, and Virginia is trending blue (though Frank Wolf himself won handily in 2008), he is not likely to regain the level of influence he once had anytime soon.

If Frank Wolf does retire, there are a number of potential (and great) Democrats who could step up to run for the seat.
If Wolf doesn't run, I'd expect a number of Democrats (Karen Schultz? Mark Herring? Mike Turner?) to throw their hats in the ring. I'd also expect a number of Republicans to do the same. This would be a fascinating race, considering that Frank Wolf has kept winning in a district that has gone to Tim Kaine, Jim Webb, Mark Warner and Barack Obama in recent years. - Blue Virginia
A possible Frank Wolf retirement puts Mike Turner's announcement yesterday in a very interesting light. Is he readying for another shot at Congress? We Democrats could do a lot worse.

Of course, all of this is pure, though informed, speculation. If I had to guess, I would put the chances of a Wolf retirement at about 50:50 right now. It would be very easy for Rep. Wolf to pick up his fundraising for 2010. There is no Virginia Senate seat at stake, freeing up a lot of Republican money for the now-fewer Republican Congressional incumbents in Virginia (thanks to Rep. Gerry Connolly, Rep. Tom Periello and Rep. Glenn Nye). As the most senior Virginia Republican in Congress, Frank Wolf could attract as much of that money as he could reasonably need. Furthermore, Eric Cantor's star in the Republican Party would not continue rising as fast as it has if his Virginia delegation in the House continues shrinking on his watch. He needs Frank Wolf to hold the 10th as he makes his play for Minority Leader (or Senate?) in the next few cycles.

As ever, Frank Wolf bears watching, as much for what he doesn't do as for what he does.

P.S. I gotta echo a few more words from Lowell.
I consider myself a Progressive in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, RFK, and Jim Webb. As such, I believe in expanding opportunities to all, utilizing government as a tool to promote the general welfare and the common good, protecting the environment for ourselves and for future generations, and expanding the rights promised in our Constitution and Bill of Rights to all Americans. - Blue Virginia

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lines on Belmont Ridge

Loudoun County Traffic explains the new zig-zag lines on Belmont Ridge Road by the WO&D trail.
VDOT installed the road markings at the Belmont Ridge location on Monday, April 13, and plans to install another set of markings at the Sterling Boulevard location on Thursday, April 23, weather permitting.

After the pavement markings are installed, VDOT will monitor traffic speeds and driver behavior for a full year. If the experiment is successful, VDOT may consider the zigzag markings as a more standard pedestrian safety measure. The zigzag pavement markings are a low cost alternative to other safety improvements at mid-block locations. - Loudoun County Traffic
So there you go. Another probably smart, low-cost idea to improve safety and traffic management in Loudoun county.

[Update] I drive Belmont Ridge every day to and from work. Just in the past couple days, it appears the zig-zag lines are doing their job. People are definitely slowing down and being more careful crossing the WO&D. Ironically, however, there haven't been any bikers or walkers waiting at the crosswalk yet.

Finishing College

It is a sad fact that an unreasonable percentage of students who enter colleges never graduate. These students often wind up burdened with loans for an education they never finished, and therefore without the income multiplier effect of the college degree that enables the capability to pay off those school loans. In light of this challenge, The Ohio State University has taken it upon itself to develop a course to help its most at-risk students successfully navigate the journey to a full degree.
Students in academic difficulty who took the “Learning and Motivation Strategies” course in their first quarter at Ohio State were about 45 percent more likely to graduate within six years than similar students who didn’t take the class.

Average-ability students who took the course were also six times more likely to stay in college for a second year and had higher grade point averages than those who didn’t take the class.

“We are taking the students who are least likely to succeed in college and teaching them the skills they need to stay in school and graduate,” said Bruce Tuckman, a professor of education at Ohio State, and creator of the course. - ScienceDaily
In large state university systems, there is a "sink or swim" environment for many students. Too many students find themselves over their heads in their first year of college, and give up the dream of a college degree. America needs more college graduates, and the majority of kids who start college can and should finish college. That's what's best for them, and what's best for our society.
Maybe there will come a day when we have more college grads than we need, and the smartest high schoolers will compete to get into the best trade schools. But at the moment only about a third of American adults have graduated from college, and the economy appears to have room for many more.

College graduates earn considerably more money over their careers than non-college graduates. They have more choices about what to do with their lives, and much more flexibility if they change their minds about what is best for them. If a Hamilton College graduate with a degree in English literature decides she would prefer to become a fry cook or a midwife or a farmer, she can develop those skills relatively quickly as a paid assistant or apprentice, and still enjoy writing poetry in her spare time. But if that same young woman is told in high school that she just isn't college material, and accepts a more menial job after graduation, a late-blooming desire to earn a degree in English literature from Hamilton is going to be much more difficult, expensive and time-consuming. - Jay Mathews, The Washington Post
Virginia is in the midst of a remarkable expansion of its higher education system. The number of students applying to and going to Virginia's state colleges and universities is growing. Our commonwealth will benefit if a majority of these student successfully complete their degrees, as the greater opportunities they will have as a result will benefit our tax base, our civic polity and family life state-wide.

Virginia would do well, as a state, to examine whether a similar course should be offered at schools like UVA, Tech, VCU, and ODU, for the benefit of our future.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mike Turner Bows Out

It is with sadness that I return from tonight's Loudoun County Democratic Committee meeting and report that at this evening's meeting Mike Turner, the Democrat running for Delegate in the 33rd District, withdrew from the race against Del. Joe May. He cited two reasons for ending his campaign. First, he cited the commitments he has made to the Wounded Warrior Project. Mike is leading the advocacy for wounded veterans of the past eight years before Congress. Our loss of a candidate is a win for our thousands of wounded warriors. I can think of no better advocate for our wounded soldiers, and if we are to lose Mike as a candidate, I can think of no better organization to receive his dedication and focus.

The second reason Mike withdrew his candidacy was money. As Mike pointed out, there are hundreds of Democratic candidates calling the same pool of donors, many of whom feel tapped out from 2008. In such an environment, it is very hard to sustain the funding necessary for his race and fulfill his promises to our wounded veterans.

If either one of these two reasons were mitigated, he would have stayed in the race, but he could not in good conscience stay in as a candidate when keeping up that candidacy would potentially shortchange the Wounded Veterans Project.

I must admit being stunned in the meeting tonight when Mike announced his withdrawl. I have known Mike since I started getting involved in Loudoun politics. Though I supported Judy Feder in the primary last year, I was glad he ran in the primary, as I believed that the primary made us stronger as a party.

I want to say thank you to Mike for running. I also want to encourage Loudoun's Democrats to support our other candidates, including Del. Dave Poisson, Supervisor Stevens Miller, Chuck Caputo and John Bell, all of whom will help make our House of Delegates a House of the people, not the house of "no" it is today.

Our loss today. Our veterans' gain for the future. Our party's challenge in 2009.

Leesburg 2009 Budget - Something for Everyone

In spite of a down economy, the Town of Leesburg's 2010 budget, which was passed last night, contains something for everyone. Here's the announcement from the Town:
Town Council Adopts FY2010 Budget and Capital Improvement Program

Leesburg Town Council votes to adopt the FY 2010 Budget and Capital Improvement Program totaling $94,249,443 and to set the real property tax at 19.5 cents for an overall tax bill reduction for Town residents of approximately 8.6% to 22.8% depending on housing type.

Leesburg, VA (April 15, 2009) –At yesterday’s Town Council meeting, the Council formally adopted a FY 2010 Budget and Capital Improvement Program. Demonstrating its commitment to public safety, Council budgetary amendments included the addition of two police officers. With respect to the Capital Improvement Program, the Town Council also committed to accelerating the Downtown improvement projects advocated by the Downtown Improvement Association (DIA), while maintaining its long-term commitment to completing roadway and drainage programs throughout the Town.

FY 2010 Adopted Fund Breakdown:
  • General Fund: $45,197,609

  • Capital Improvement Program: $19,116,239

  • Utility Fund: $23,733,964

  • Airport Fund: $6,201, 631
During the course of the Budget approval process, Town Council identified over $1,349,040 in funding reductions across all Town funds. $165,000 in additional revenue was also identified. The adopted real property tax rate of 19.5 cents provides an overall tax bill reduction for Leesburg residents. Residents in single family housing will receive on average 8.6% in savings. Residents living in townhouses will receive on average 21.6% in savings. Residents living in condominiums will receive on average 22.8% in savings.

Adopted FY 2010 Budget and Capital Improvement Program Amendment Breakdown:
  • Eliminated or froze 11.5 staff positions

  • 2 Additional Police Officers (cost of $160,000)

  • Downtown Improvement Projects Accelerated in Capital Improvement Program

  • Four Community Agencies (cost of $48,000) and Dodona Manor funded (cost of $16,000)

  • Roadway and Drainage projects maintained in Capital Improvement Program

  • Tavistock Traffic Light moved up one year in Capital Improvement Program (cost of $50,000)
- The Town of Leesburg
It is a remarkable testament to the quality of Town Management that Leesburg has been able to sustain its excellent services in a time of budgetary contraction, and take advantages of opportunities presented by the current economy to accelerate critical infrastructure investments.

We as a Town, however, must be careful to not see the success of fiscal management in the past few years as our right, but as a carefully crafted and maintained condition that must be conserved going forward. This year, it has meant the ability to reduce tax burdens, but that will not always be the case. In order to limit tax burdens this year, the Town has been cutting its operational safety margin by asking fewer staff to do more work. In coming years, we will need to re-establish that staffing safety margin as economic conditions improve. Overworking the excellent town staff that put us in a position to weather this economic storm will lead to a weakening of our town's administration. And that puts our prosperity at risk.

A growing and prospering Town has growing needs. This year we were able to hire two more police officers, in the future we will need to invest more in other staff and infrastructure. And we will all do well to remember the fact that the water rate lawsuit has as yet unforeseen consequences that could result in greater costs to the Town in the future.

Leesburg has done well, and we are benefiting. We owe it to our Town's future to be as thoughtful in the good times as we have been in the bad.