Thursday, July 25, 2013


I've seen a lot of columns on the failure of Detroit but none of them really discuss the real problems. I'm not an expert on the subject but there are a lot of obvious holes in the current analysis.

Something that is almost never mentions is that the population of the Greater Detroit Metro Area is stable. People are leaving Detroit proper but not the area. Paul Krugman refers to Detroit as a market failure without explanation but this is what he means.

Detroit is in trouble because its population and tax base have been shrinking while its liabilities stay the same. One of its biggest liabilities is its retirement system. A proper retirement system invests workers funds during their tenure and pays the retirement out of the profits from those investments. That means that retired workers would continue to receive their checks, even if Detroit were to go bankrupt. Detroit didn't do that. It opted for a pay-as-you-go system where today's retirement checks are paid for from today's taxes. This is manageable as long as the tax base is stable or growing. With a shrinking tax base, it becomes untenable. This is the same problem that the Detroit automakers face.

Since the retirement checks and other fixed expenses have to be paid, cuts have to be made in services. That is why the streetlights dont' work and it takes an hour for the police to arrive in an emergency.

Detroit could have survived the bad pension plan if it had a stable tax base but it does not. It has been hemorrhaging residents. Liberals chalk this up to White Flight. If whites had only stayed put after the race riots in the 1960s, Detroit would be fine.

This is simplistic. There were many factors that led to the population loss. Ironically, the automobile and the rise of the suburbs are a big factor in Detroit. Unlike many cities, Detroit is on flat land which encourages urban sprawl. As the metro area expands, it drains people from the center. This has been a problem for most US cities to some degree or another. Decades of corruption and mismanagement are another factor. The process was also self-sustaining. As the population left Detroit proper, city services were reduced and crime increased. This encouraged more people to leave which fed the cycle. Even black families gave up on their old neighborhoods as crime rose. Businesses followed the population or took advantage of undeveloped land on the outskirts of the metro area.

This is the market failure that Krugman referred to. When given a choice between Detroit proper and other cities in the metro area, the population overwhelmingly chose to leave Detroit.

What can we learn from this? One lesson is the one Krugman wants to downplay - that underfunded pension systems can drag down cities. Another is that you can't mismanage a city indefinitely. Detroit may be unique but many of the factors that brought it down exist in other cities.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Race Relations and President Obama

The most remarkable thing about President Obama's "I could have been Trevon" press conference was what it revealed about his own views on race. Specifically, it shows that, as far as he is concerned, any time someone thinks that a black person is acting suspiciously, the only possible reason is his skin color. He outright said this when he speculated that things would have been different if Martin was white.

What was his basis for saying this? He didn't say and the evedence is against him. Investigations into Zimmerman's past showed that he had a long, positive history with blacks. He had black friends and business partners. He mentored black children. What is more, seeing a black face in his neighborhood was nothing new. One out of every five people on his street was black. Regardless of this, the President is positive that Martin was under suspicion because he is black. This says far more about Obama than about George Zimmerman.

Obama went on to give a personal history of suspicion. It is undeniable that racial tension exists in America but it is very possible that some of the incidents he describes had other factors besides race.

When he was in high school, he smokes a lot of pot. He must have reeked of it The potheads in my high school did.

As for being followed in stores - it happened to me, mainly when I was with a girlfriend in women's stores.

I have a personal story of my own, In the 1990 we had two employees who violated written work rules about absences without leave. One was a white man and the other a black woman. Both had similar number of violations and the personnel actions taken were identical. Despite this, the black woman insisted that the actions were racially motivated.

My point here is that not everything is about race. As long as the President and other people of color insist that it is they will have a racial divide with whites. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Zimmerman verdict and America

It was heartening that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin. As the trial made clear, there was never much question about Zimmerman defending himself at the time of the shooting (although both men made mistakes leading up to the confrontation). The charges were filed for political purposes after reports got out that a white man was able to kill a black boy then get off because of Florida's Stand Your Ground laws.

What is disheartening is the reaction to the verdict. Stand Your Ground was never an issue because Martin surprised him, knocked him to the ground, then began pummeling him. That hasn't stopped a national call for repealing the law. Stevie Wonder announced that he will boycott Florida and any other state with similar laws.

President Obama managed to slip in a mention about stopping gun violence in his reaction speech. Presumably he would be happy if Martin had beaten Zimmerman to death.

Many can't get past their initial impression. Eugene Robinson insists that Martin was no threat to Zimmerman.

And we know that a skinny boy armed only with candy, no matter how big and bad he tries to seem, does not pose a mortal threat to a healthy adult man who outweighs him by 50 pounds and has had martial arts training (even if the lessons were mostly a waste of money). We know that the boy may well have threatened the man's pride but likely not his life. How many murders-by-sidewalk have you heard of recently? Or ever?

While it is true that Zimmerman outweighed Martin, it must be kept in mind that Martin was a shade under 6 feet, ideal weight and a football player. Zimmerman was three inches shorter and overweight. Martin had no trouble breaking Zimmerman's nose and pinning him to the ground. Having your head pounded against the pavement goes beyond having your pride threatened. (And that discounts Zimmerman's testimony that Martin was trying to get his gun.)

The worst reactions are from people who just want an excuse to protest. The Occupy movement manged to include an anti-capitalism message in their protest. Protestors in Oakland robbed stores.

None of these protestors care what happened. They don't even want to know. They want an excuse to protest or simply wreck havoc.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Zimmerman/Martin myths

There are a number of misconceptions about the Zimmerman/Martin case. The case is in the hands of the jury. While we're waiting for the verdict, I'll go over a few:

Zimmerman racially profiled Martin.
Zimmerman thought that Martin looked like he was up to no good but did not say why. An early version of the 911 tape seemed to indicate that he was racially profiling Martin but this turned out to have been altered by NBC. In the full tape, Zimmerman only gave Martin's race when asked by the police dispatcher. There is no reason to think that racial profiling was involved. Zimmerman is mixed race and has many close black friends. The neighborhood is mixed race so a black face would not stand out. On the 911 tape, it was Martin's behavior, not his race, that made Zimmerman specious.

Zimmerman shot an unarmed boy
This is a major sticking point for many people - that Zimmerman had a gun and Martin did not. This is a major oversimplification. According to Zimmerman, witnesses, and forensics evidence, at the time of the shooting Martin was sitting on Zimmerman, hitting him in the face and pounding his head into the cement sidewalk. It doesn't matter that Zimmerman's injuries at that point were minor. What matters is that he had reasonable cause to think that he would be seriously injured or killed if Martin continued beating him. I challenge anyone who thinks that Zimmerman was overreacting to put himself in that position and see if it changes his mind.

The defense summed it up saying that Martin was armed with a cement sidewalk.

Martin's character should not be questioned - it is Zimmerman who is on trial.
A big question in the trial is if Martin was the sort of person who would decide to teach a crazy-ass cracker a lesson by beating him up?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The President's Speeches

Barack Obama was elected on the basis of his speeches but since then his rhetorical skills have failed him. What happened?

I think it is a simple example of expectations. When he was a candidate he could promise anything he wanted. He had no real power. Instead, he was asking for it.

Now he is in office. People don't want to hear promises or excuses. They aren't impressed by blaming others. They expect results.

At the same time, Obama now knows the limits of what he can do and what he must do.

For most of his presidency, Obama's response to problems has been to make a speech. This never succeeds which creates even lesser expectations for his next major speech.

This was not a problem that Reagan had. He was a master at manipulating Congress and when that didn't work, he knew how to make a persuasive case to the American people. Obama has no idea how to work with Congress and tends to lecture rather than persuade.

Reagan is ranked among the greatest presidents. Even his detractors (including Obama) concede this. Obama is proving himself to be one of the lessor presidents, sinking with each speech.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Zimmerman Trial

The longer the trail of George Zimmerman goes on the weaker the case looks. This isn't surprising. From the beginning it was a show trial of sorts.

The first most people heard of George Zimmerman and Trevon Martin was a distorted version of the actual events. According to this, Zimmerman profiled Martin because of his race and his hoodie, tracked him down, and shot him then got off because of Florida's Stand Your Ground law. To make matters even more extreme, old photos of martin were released showing him as being fairly small while Zimmerman was described as being twice Martin's size.

On top of all that, NBC edited a tape of the 911 call to make it appear that Zimmerman did indeed profile Martin based on race.

Suddenly the incident became a national cause. Opponents of the Stand Your Ground law publicized it while black activists insisted that it was a proxy for all race relations. The authorities who failed to file charges against Zimmerman were fired and a special prosecutor was brought in who files 2nd degree murder charges.

Eventually the real story came out. Zimmerman may sound like a white name but this one is a mixed-race Hispanic (although he is still being referred to as a "white Hispanic). Zimmerman is short and doughy while Martin was tall and in good condition (in one picture taken just before his death he towers over his family).

The Stand Your Ground defense is meaningless here because Zimmerman claimed that Martin knocked him to the ground and sat on him while hitting him and banging his head against the sidewalk.

So far the prosecution has totally failed to prove otherwise. The two most reliable witnesses insisted that Martin had Zimmerman pinned. Another witness assumed that Zimmerman was on top because all of the pictures in the media showed Martin as being smaller. Once she found out that Martin was a good deal taller than Zimmerman she changed her story. The one witness who said that Zimmerman was on top also claimed that he shot Martin three times in the back (he was shot once in the front).

The physical evidence supports Zimmerman. He was cut and bruised while Martin was unharmed except for his knuckles and the shot that killed him.

You would think that all of this would be enough to convince a fair-minded observer that Zimmerman acted in self-defense. Not so. There is still a crowd who clings to minor details - Zimmerman says that they struggled for the gun but there is no evidence that Martin touched it and Zimmerman says that he spread Martin's arms wide but they were together when the police found them.

These people have been watching too many police shows where a tiny inconsistency eventually points to the real killer. That makes for good fiction but poor training for reality.

Unfortunately, if Zimmerman is found innocent then we will probably have nationwide race riots.