It’s A Train Wreck?

Amtrack wreck Reno The cable news networks are off on their usual “Who’s To Blame?” penchant in reporting tragic news, and in the midst of the palaver over the Pennsylvania Amtrack wreck there’s the usual lack of context.

For example, has the media told us there were 220 derailments in 2012, 191 in 2013, and 228 in 2014? [FRA]  Or, when looking at accident or incident causation we have the following information at hand? [FRA]

Cause 2012 2013 2014 2015
Track 112 91 87 101
Human 98 96 132 112
Equipment 39 33 47 44
Signal 12 9 8 6

What is interesting about this abbreviated table is the the track and human failure seems to predominate, while equipment and signal failures account for substantially less than the  first two factors.  (Miscellaneous factors are not included in this summation.)

There’s another way to observe train accidents, by state, and we find the following among the states with the highest number of accidents:

State 2012 2013 2014 2015
California 17 20 13 18
Illinois 24 33 50 38
Minnesota 10 9 4 3
North Dakota 5 4 6 4
Nebraska 13 7 8 11
Ohio 14 10 15 14
Texas 35 22 31 37

*This summary doesn’t include crossing accidents.

The Federal Railroad Administration also keeps records of fatalities and injuries, and this is what garners most attention from the news media. Again, we can look at the record over the last four years, noting that those numbers for 2015 are preliminary.

Fatalities 2012 2013 2014 2015
California 19 12 18 25
Florida 4 8 7 4
Georgia 6 4 5 3
Louisiana 3 2 1 6
New York 4 7 1 12
N. Carolina 4 8 5 5
Ohio 7 3 5 4
Pennsylvania 3 4 3 3
Massachusetts 3 1 0 0
Texas 11 7 4 18

*PA will add 8, those fatalities in the Amtrak accident near Philadelphia, May, 2015.

What we might expect to find are a higher number of fatalities in the Northeast Corridor, where ridership includes commuting,  but the reports indicate higher numbers generally in California and Texas.  If the accident numbers (in terms of passenger travel) appear to be increasing, so is the ridership, as shown from BTS (interactive) figures from 2000 to 2015.  The light blue line doesn’t include seasonal adjustment.

Rail passenger miles

The general trend shown by the unadjusted and adjusted numbers indicates more people using rail transportation since 2000. In calendar year 2006 the FRA reported 602,280,892 passengers transported; the number of passengers transported as of the end of calendar year 2014 was 694,507,965.

FRA regions map And, where is the ridership?  Where we would expect it.  Region 1 reported 369,467,363 transported, Region 2 reported another  83,444,579.  Region 7 reported 99,512,195; Region 6 reported 56,260,844.  Region 4 reported 41,748,653. Region 5 reported 32,943,327.  Region 3 reported 5,938, 814; and, Region 8 reported the lowest passenger traffic at 5,149,686.

What Use Can We Make Of The Numbers?

First, if we take a look at the ridership numbers (which don’t include local transit services) and the reported fatalities,  it’s reasonably clear that passenger travel is remarkably safe. Certainly safer than travel by private automobile.

Secondly, we can question the popular opinion offered to explain the political inaction on public transportation funding – like for Amtrack – that low funding is because most of the country isn’t using passenger rail service.  Granted that Regions One and Two (Northeast Corridor) are reporting the highest usage, but quite obviously Region Seven (California) and Region Four (the upper Mid West) are contributing significant ridership numbers.  The assertion that low ridership may equate to low support could only true for the Southeast and the Northwest.

Third, if we look at accident causation, it’s worth repeating that track issues and human error are the most common.  Therefore, while it’s useful to speak of new and better gadgets for passenger train safety – and we should be applying the best technology we can devise for passenger safety – it’s also true that suggestions like putting a second person in the cab, or promoting better track maintenance should be part of the larger conversation.

Fourth, if we focus down on the human error factor, we should note the 2006 FRA study of the fatigue factor:

“As part of the study, researchers analyzed the 30-day work-schedule histories of locomotive crews preceding approximately 1,400 train accidents and found a strong statistical correlation between the crew’s estimated level of alertness and the likelihood that they would be involved in an accident caused by human factors, FRA said.”

We can delve into the details to substantiate this conclusion:

The risk of human factors accidents was elevated at any effectiveness score below 90 and increased progressively with reduced effectiveness. At an effectiveness score ≤ 50, human factors accidents were 65 percent more likely than chance. Human factors accident risk increases reliably when effectiveness goes below 70, a value that is the rough equivalent of a 0.08 blood alcohol level or being awake for 21 hour following an 8-hour sleep period the previous night. Below an effectiveness score of 70, accident cause codes indicated the kinds of operator errors consistent with fatigue, confirming that the relationship between accident risk and effectiveness was meaningful. [FRA]

If preventing the next accident is our major concern then addressing the fatigue factor is crucial, and yet we have a situation in which railroad employees and management are at odds over the safety rules. For example, SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) wanted to relax fatigue abatement rules in 2014:

“Regional Rail engineers have asked federal regulators to require SEPTA to follow a safety rule designed to limit fatigue. SEPTA wants the Federal Railroad Administration to renew a waiver that the transit agency has had from the work rule for two years. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen asked the federal agency to deny SEPTA’s request and hold a public hearing on the issue, citing accidents at other railroads caused by fatigued engineers.” [Phl.com]

And the reason for the waiver request?  That can be safely predicted:

“SEPTA said the waiver was “in the best interests of the riding public from both a service (more employees available for duty to address service demands) and economic standpoint (reduced labor costs by eliminating a potential need to hire additional employees).”

“Maintaining tight controls on labor expenses and operating expenses is one way SEPTA manages to fulfill that obligation [to operate efficiently],” SEPTA said in its request for the waiver extension.

“SEPTA estimates one additional crew costs approximately $150,000 annually, so even one new employee could cost SEPTA hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor expenses in a relatively short period of time.”[Phl.com]

In short, to address demands for service it was deemed better (from an economic standpoint) to have fewer workers working longer hours, in spite of the FRA report eight years before demonstrating the decline in the probability of passenger safety.  Is the “mission” of SEPTA to function “efficiently” or “safely?”

Fifth, returning to the gadget fixation there’s an abiding American proclivity to believe that we can apply tools to fix human problems.  It’s one of our basic strengths – we have a problem, we invent a tool to mitigate or solve it.  The news media has been abuzz about the Positive Control Train System, but while we have this tool in the box it’s not been applied universally.  The recent wreck provides a case to the point:

“In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.

Officials said Amtrak had made installation of the congressionally mandated safety system a priority and was ahead of most other railroads around the country. But the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.” [NYT]

This junction of private vs. public concerns was literally a wreck waiting to happen? Could Congress have made the wireless frequencies immediately available to the railroads? Probably yes. Would they buck the powerful lobbying interests of the mobile broadband providers? It doesn’t look as if they did.

Sixth, in the interests of not perpetually “fighting the last war,” or focusing too narrowly on factors associated with one instance of a rail system problem, we need to be cognizant of the other common factor in derailments and related accidents – the track inspections.  Perhaps it’s time for a report along the lines of the Deep Dive study conducted on the Metro North system, which called for Metro North to “create a plan for the use of advanced (track) inspection technology, ensure track is maintained to Metro North Track Standards, collaborate with labor unions to increase the availability of off hours maintenance time, improve training programs for track inspection and maintenance, and to analyze train schedules to determine whether there is sufficient time for inspection and maintenance of track.”

It’s not reassuring to find out that Minnesota has only one track inspector for its 4,500 mile of track. [MST]  Pennsylvania has 5,600 miles of track and “There are currently six PUC railroad inspectors who each focus on a specific discipline (track, operating practices, hazardous materials, grade crossing and motive power and equipment). PUC inspectors work in close coordination with FRA inspectors to ensure safe train movements throughout the entire state.” [PPUC]  Please tell me there are more than 6 people working on inspections!  The recent controversy over the Oil Trains moved New York to conduct an examination:

“Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced completion of the latest round of targeted crude oil tank car and rail inspections, which uncovered 100 defects, including eight critical safety defects that require immediate action. The inspections were the latest part of the Governor’s push to protect New Yorkers from the potential dangers associated with the transport of crude oil by freight rail companies. State and federal teams examined 704 crude oil tank cars and approximately 95 miles of track in these inspections.”  [Gov.NY]

Perhaps the Amtrack accident might move the states to engage in comprehensive reviews of track safety?

Finally, we need to address some philosophical and political problems.  What is the “mission” of our transportation system, especially with regard to our railroads?  As usual, there are more questions than answers.

Is the mission, to replicate the focus as illustrated by SEPTA  on “management efficiency,” or is the mission to provide safe, reliable, and modernized transportation for passengers and freight?  Have we down-sized employment levels of engineers and track inspectors to a point where we are being penny wise and pound foolish?  Are we requiring adherence to the best safety standards or simply accepting what is “economical” at the moment?

Have we placed impediments to modernization such as the implementation of Positive Control systems? Have we also jeopardized other safety considerations and systems by emphasizing privatization at the expense of public safety and the economic benefits of infrastructure improvement?

Are we perceiving our transportation system and infrastructure as essential to the economic well being and growth, or are we limiting our vision to the quotidian arguments between labor and management?

The national conversation about railway infrastructure and its management needs to be far broader than the current fixation on how to prevent wrecks.  That train left the station long ago.

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Filed under Economy, Infrastructure, labor

Zombie Guns Blazing in NV Legislature

zombie guns 2

This is the kind of news Nevada can do without:

“A “campus carry” bill believed to be dead in the Senate will be amended into another Second Amendment measure on Friday, Assembly Judiciary Chairman Ira Hansen said Wednesday.

Hansen said that because the Senate Judiciary Committee won’t hear Assembly Bill 148 that would allow those with concealed weapons permits to carry their weapons on college campuses, it will be amended into a Senate bill on the deadline day for committee action on most bills.” [LVRJ]

The bills in question is SB 175 and SB 240.  The Guns Galore crowd, championed by Michele Fiore (R-NRA) and Ira Hansen (R-Ammostan), wants those with concealed carry permits to be able to pack “heat” on college campuses.  Little matter that others may find this uncomfortable or downright dangerous.  Happily, there are some restrictions in place on concealed carry permitting in this state – not that the Ammosexuals wouldn’t like to eliminate those eventually.

The Current Requirements

In Clark County those wanting a permit must the a Nevada resident of Clark County, or an out of state resident who has received firearms training in Clark County; 21 years of age, not prohibited from firearms ownership by state or federal law; and must successfully complete an approved firearms course in Clark County.  [LVMPD]

The requirements in Washoe County are essentially the same. A person must be at least 21, provide documentation of competence with a firearm, meet the standards set forth in NRS 202, have no DUIs in the preceding five years or record of “substance abuse.”  [Washoe pdf]

Campus Numbers

The University of Nevada campus in Reno as of the Fall of 2013 had 15,694 undergraduates, of whom 47%, or 7,454 were male, 8,240 were female.  The average age of a UNR undergraduate was — 21 years of age. [CP]  There were 23,090 undergraduates enrolled in UNLV, 12,824 female, 10,275 male.  The average undergraduate age at UNLV was reported as 18 years. 23% were aged 25 or older. [CP]

One obvious feature of these figures is that there are a significant number of young males on both major college campuses in this state.  We do know from the CDC* and other sources  that firearms and young men aren’t a particularly good mixture.  Pew Social Trends reported:

“Men (and boys) make up the vast majority (84% in 2010) of gun homicide victims. The gun homicide rates for both genders have declined by similar amounts since the mid-1990s, though the male rate is much higher—6.2 gun homicides per 100,000 people in 2010, compared with 1.1 for females.”

… and …

“Males are the vast majority of gun suicides (87% in 2010), and the suicide rate for males (11.2 deaths per 100,000 people) is more than seven times the female rate (1.5 deaths). The highest firearm suicide rate by age is among those ages 65 and older (10.6 per 100,000 people).”

Thus, what the ammosexual alliance is proposing is to place more firearms in a setting in which there are significant numbers of already vulnerable individuals in the setting.

Individual Tragedy and Economic Costs

Aside from the human tragedy there are economic factors to consider before advocating any further proliferation of firearms and the situations in which those guns can be allowed.

In December 2012, Bloomberg Business news reported that gun violence was costing the American economy some $174 billion.  Forbes magazine reported in 2013 that gun violence was costing each American about $564.

And, then there is the “market” argument, which the Minneapolis Post analyzed as follows:

“Treating gun violence as an externality assumes that weapons markets are legitimate and that we must live with the consequences.  However, certain aspects of this market may not be legitimate. Markets do not exist in a vacuum.  They are created and designed by people, and societies can decide to modify or restrict markets depending on its values and goals.

Debra Satz, a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, addresses this in her book “Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Limits of Markets.” At the heart of her analysis is the concept of noxious markets, i.e. “markets that people find especially objectionable” and which should be curtailed or eliminated.

One important reason why societies deem some markets as noxious is that trade in these goods causes extreme harm to individuals and/or society.  Markets in assault rifles, large-capacity ammunition magazines and related items could be thought of this way. The damage caused by guns used to commit crimes is so great that we must regulate them and, in some cases, eliminate them.”

We know, for example that alcohol and tobacco products are often classified as “noxious markets.”  There are spill-over effects in society, in terms of public health costs, and other related expenses or losses.  Therefore, we regulate and use tax policy to curb the consumption and use of these items.  State legislatures are quick to add “sin taxes” to diminish the ‘noxious’ markets for some products, especially in the tobacco categories. However, they’re remarkably slow to consider taxing/regulating the use of guns and ammunition.  An amended SB 175 merely serves to advance a ‘noxious’ market, rather than curbing firearms proliferation which endangers young people – especially young men.

U.S. News and World Report was more blunt on this subject, when speaking of the economic costs of firearms and school security in America:

“However, the firearms industry has managed to avoid picking up the tab for its externalities. A recent proposal by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association shows the size of the problem. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, the NRA proposed that the best solution to gun violence in school is to have more guns in school. They argued that every school should post an armed guard (or several) to stop would-be shooters. Let’s set aside the constitutional and practical considerations and just consider the economics of this for a moment: It would cost nearly $5 billion per year to put a trained, equipped, armed guard in each of America’s 132,000 K-12 schools. That calls for a fee—let’s call it the “Schools Security Fee”—of $500 to $750 for every new and used handgun purchased in the United States. The fee is roughly the cost of a typical good-quality new pistol! If imposed, it would double the price of handguns and cripple the firearm industry. Yet it’s ironic that many of the folks who claim to hate taxes and government see no problem in proposing a $5 billion expansion in government, which necessitates taxes to pay for it.”

Whether viewed in macro-terms such as in the classification of firearms as a ‘noxious’ market, or in micro-terms as in a discussion of school safety officers, the message is essentially similar.  The manufacturers of firearms and their Ammosexual Allies are arguing that lethal weapons do not constitute a ‘noxious’ market and therefore should not be taxed or regulated even if the economic costs run into the $174 billion range.

Hostage Taking

While we can have socially oriented or economically based arguments over firearms regulations it must be admitted that there is an emotional factor to consider.  The positions taken by the Nevada Firearms Coalition which calls for legislation to “enhance personal liberty,” perceives proliferation as a ‘beneficial’ market, and a positive social good.**  “Armed” with this emotional attachment to firearms and their retail sales, the Guns Anywhere advocates are perfectly willing to hold other, and better, legislation hostage in order to advance their cause. Witness:

“As I reported earlier this week, Assembly Members Michele Fiore (R-Las Vegas) & Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) are retaliating against Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson (R-Henderson) & Senate Judiciary Chair Greg Brower (R-Reno) for shelving their “Guns Everywhere” bill (AB 148) in Senate Judiciary. So they just amended SB 240, Roberson’s mental health & “voluntary background checks” bill, to include elimination of Clark County’s “Blue Card” handgun registry…”  [LTN]

Winston Churchill was right: “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

—————————————-

* Warning: Depending, of course, on your download speed this file can be very slow loading. (94.3 mb .zip format)

** See also: The 50 Caliber Institute.

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Filed under Economy, Gun Issues, Nevada economy, Nevada legislature, Nevada politics, public safety

Heck’s Jolting Idea: H.R. 1401

Heck photo Nothing illustrates the tenuous GOP grasp on the concept of job creation quite so well as Representative Joe Heck’s JOLT Act of 2015.  H.R. 1401:

“Amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to authorize the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to admit into the United States a qualifying Canadian citizen over 50 years old and spouse for a period not to exceed 240 days (in a single 365-day period) if the person maintains a Canadian residence and owns a U.S. residence or has rented a U.S. accommodation for the duration of such stay.”

By the Numbers

There are 35.16 million people living in Canada. 4.7 million of them are between the ages of 55 and 64. [StateCan]  The 2011 Canadian census counted 4,945,060 individuals over the age of 65. [CanCensus] Of these numbers, approximately 500,000 can be classified as Snowbirds – those owning property in the United States. [FinancialPost] To apply some context, 500,000 is about 0.00157 of the U.S. population estimated at 317 million.

Some Canadians did take advantage of the housing bust in the U.S. to purchase retirement properties in California, Arizona, and in Mexico, but even in 2012 this was described in the Canadian press as a “small but growing group.”  It would be small considering the travel related expenses, and the tax liabilities incurred. [GlobeMail] Not to mention the affluence required to maintain two residences.

Now comes the part wherein Nevada’s representative from the 3rd Congressional District tries to explain how wonderful this bill would be.

Representative Heck wrote:

“Boosting our economy and improving national security are two of the most critical challenges we face as a nation and the JOLT Act addresses them both,” Heck said in a statement.

“Expediting the visa interview process and expanding the Visa Waiver Program will bring more international travelers and tourists to destinations around our country and creates jobs,” he continued. “Making discretionary visa waiver security programs mandatory will improve our security at home and aid our intelligence community in the fight against global terrorism.”  [The Hill]

Notice the attempt to tie the 500,000 Snowbirds to a booming tourism economy; “Expediting the visa interview process and expanding the Visa Waiver Program will bring more international travelers and tourists to destinations around our country and creates jobs.”  We might venture to ask how increasing the temporary population of the U.S. by 0.00157 or 0.157%  is exactly a big “job creator?”

Who Wants This?

The U.S. Travel Association wants it, as does the Canadian Snowbird Organization.  And, from the Snowbirds we learn that Canadians purchased $2.2 billion in Florida real estate, making the National Association of Realtors very happy. [CSB]  Representative Heck’s interest in this bill may be peaked by the $92,449 in contributions he received (2013-2014) from real estate interests, including $60,559 from individuals and another $31,890 from PACs. [OpenSec]

To sum up the situation: This bill isn’t about jobs.  It really isn’t all that much about tourism.  It is about serving the interests of a relatively few wealthy Canadians who want to retire to Sun States – anything has to be sunnier than Newfoundland – and the real estate interests who want to serve them.

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Filed under Economy, Heck, House of Representatives, Nevada politics

You Aren’t Seeing Double, House GOP tries again to block DoD predatory lending rules

Pay Day Lending Shark We don’t really pay members of our Armed Forces all that much.  A quick visit to the Defense Department’s finance section shows that a recent enlisted person (2 years or less) gets $1,546.83 in basic pay. A person at E5 status can expect $2,202.90 per month.  Twenty years of service topping out at the E9 category yields $5,730.41 in basic pay.  Those rare souls who last 40 years are looking at $7584.60. There are some added bonuses – not exactly extraordinary – for clothing allowances,  there are also allowances for hardship duty pay, assignment incentive pay, and hazardous duty incentive pay (as if the whole idea of being in the military weren’t intrinsically hazardous).  There are retention bonuses for medical, dental, and veterinary personnel.  Proficiency in foreign languages will also merit some extra pay.  But, no matter how many times the figures are totaled the pay still doesn’t place any member of the services in the lap of luxury; not anywhere close.

This is why the following bit of news is especially disturbing:

“The military has been grappling with the financial impact of predatory lending on service members for years. In 2006, Congress passed legislation cracking down on some forms of high-interest credit, particularly payday lending. Lenders responded by exploiting loopholes in the law, and late last year, the Department of Defense proposed a new set of regulations designed to curb these creative workarounds that target troops.”  [HuffPo]

Worse still, this is the second time the House Republicans have tried to block the Department of Defense efforts to control predatory lending to military members and their immediate families.

“Republicans have been working to kill those regulations before they can take effect. This week, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) will offer legislation that would block DOD from finalizing its rules until a host of unrealistic technical certifications could be made for a database of active-duty military members. The House will vote on Stivers’ plan as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a major bill that establishes military funding.” [HuffPo]

Why all this effort to block Defense Department rules meant to contain the scourge of predatory lending to members of our Armed Forces?  And, why all the GOP fussing about the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau?  One example unearthed by the CFPB in its report on predatory loans to military personnel may serve to illustrate the issue:

“A lender licensed under the Illinois Consumer Installment Loan Act extended an auto title loan to the spouse of a servicemember at an APR of 300 percent. For the 12-month contract term, the $2,575 loan, including a $95 lien fee, carried a finance charge of $5,720.24. The loan agreement provided the lender with a security interest in the borrower’s vehicle and contained a binding arbitration agreement. Although the Military Lending Act prohibits lenders from taking a non-purchase money security interest in the vehicle of a borrower covered by the law, charging a rate of interest in excess of 36 percent, and requiring covered borrowers to submit to arbitration, the auto title loan in Illinois was not subject to the protections of the Military Lending Act because it had a duration longer than 181 days.” [CFPB pdf]

And there’s another loop hole for the predatory lenders demonstrated by this example:

“An internet-based lender located offshore that targets military borrowers through their marketing extended to a servicemember a line of credit with an APR of 584 percent. In addition to the stated finance charge, the lender charged a “credit access fee” and a “transfer fee” for each draw on the $1,447 credit line. The contract provided the lender with authorization to debit the borrower’s bank account for the minimum payment due each payment period. This loan made to a borrower in Delaware was not subject to the protections of the Military Lending Act because it was structured as an open-end line of credit.”  [CFPB pdf]

There were more, equally egregious, examples provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report.

Representative Stivers has been the beneficiary of $42,500 in campaign contributions from pay day and predatory lenders.  Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) took in $65,500; Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) received $53,257; Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) received $41,200; and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) received $32,500. [OPSecrets]  Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) received $6,700 in donations from pay day and predatory lenders. [OPSecrets] Predatory lending accounted for $190,150 in contributions to Democrats, and $748,585 in donations to Republicans in Congress. [OPSecrets]

However, no matter how generous the donation, there is no ethical or moral way to justify blocking protections for members of the U.S. Armed Forces from the practices mentioned above on the part of predatory lenders.  The White House was quick to respond:

“On Monday, in response to reporters’ questions, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the potential addition to the annual authorization bill a significant concern for President Obama.

“It’s almost too difficult to believe that you’d have a member of Congress looking to carry water for the payday loan industry, and allow them to continue to target in a predatory fashion military families who in many cases are already in a vulnerable financial state,” he said.

Earnest said he “can’t imagine (the amendment) earning the majority support in the United States Congress.” [MilitaryTimes] [The Hill]

Representative Joe Heck (R-NV3) didn’t cover himself in glory the last time this subject emerged [Desert Beacon] one can only hope he’s seen the light since and will oppose the Stiver’s Amendment.  At best he can avoid some of the more lame excuses offered by the proponents of this amendment.

Stivers is anxious to tell everyone that he was a member of the military for 30 years – so he cares!  And that the Obama Administration doesn’t have a good track record of getting systems going on  ‘day one’ noting the computer problems with the health insurance rollout. [TheHill]  The “I care” argument is specious if not associated with legislation the intent of which is to protect those about whom one “cares.”  Secondly, it is a rare policy indeed which works perfectly the first day – in the public or private sector. in this instance the Representative is making the Perfect the enemy of the Good.

There’s another excuse which needs rehabilitation: “Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) added, “I would quickly point that there are always unintended consequences,” citing concerns of “drying up sources of credit for folks at  the bottom end of the economic scale.” [TheHill] “Concerned” is getting to be one of the words commonly connected to opposition to any policy or legislation which might help someone.  The question is: Are you more concerned about payday lenders being forced to shave a bit from their profits than about enlisted personnel and young officers being shaved by the pay day lenders?

As for pay day lending drying up any time soon, probably not.  In March 2013 the Washington Post reported on some big banks who were treading into the shark pool of pay day lending.  By April 2013 the FDIC and the Comptroller of the Currency were looking at the banks’ payday lending practices. [NYT]  The spotlight must have been a bit too bright because by January 2014 the larger banks were dropping the pay day loans and trying to find options which “fit within current regulatory expectations.” [CNNMoney]  However, the banks were still selling account data to pay day lenders until January 21, 2015. [Bloomberg]  And, nothing prevents the major banks from financing the operations of “independent” pay day lenders. [ConsAffairs]

While the big banks may have scurried back out of the light, the payday lending industry continues along,

“Currently, there are about 22,000 storefront payday loan stores nationwide, according to the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C. On average, the industry makes $40 billion in loans and collects $6 billion in finance charges from borrowers each year.” [Bankrate]

There are alternatives.  For example: (1) Credit Union loans; (2) Small bank loans; (3) Credit Counseling assistance; and (4) options like credit card advances and credit negotiations. [Bankrate]   Representatives Heck, Stivers, and Conway would be better advised to promote the efforts of the Services to provide credit counseling and information to members of the military and their families.  The Army Community Service offers a Financial Readiness Program for those who need basic financial information and education.  The U.S. Navy offers training in Personal Financial Management.  The Air Force has its own Financial Readiness Program, and the Navy and Marine Corps oversees a Relief Fund for urgent financial needs along with caseworkers to assist personnel.

Promoting financial education, and providing services for urgent and emergency needs is a far better way of assisting our service members than protecting the pay day lenders who extend usurious loans to those who are at the “bottom end of the economic scale.”

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Filed under Defense Department, Military pay, Republicans, troop pay

Pie in the Sky Thinking

Pie in the Sky

There’s no intellectual exercise quite so ethereal as listening to members of the Something For Nothing Crowd pontificate on the glories of Self Reliance, by which they often mean that what is their’s is theirs and what is yours is negotiable.  What they really don’t want to do is pay taxes, having been convinced that they are already burdened with excessive liability for the care and consideration of others.

Basic Numbers

Someone hasn’t told them the average annual federal income tax rate for 2011 was about 8.4% [TaxFound] Or, that the average payroll tax rate for the same year was 6.7% nationally. [TaxFound]  But, let’s assume that a working person earning about $50,000 is liable for about 15.4% in taxes, and 7% in payroll taxes.  We’ll not assume, as some have, that a working person is liable for both employer and employee taxes.  Let’s also assume that the family has two children – that would be about average.  What we don’t want to do is to be misled by the brackets because we haven’t considered the standard deductions.

If our “average” family in Nevada with a median household income of $52,800 has a standard deduction of $11,400 and four personal exemptions of $3,650 each.  (If the kids are under 17 years of age then there’s a another $1,000 exemption for each.) That leaves a total of $26,800 in taxable income for the Feds.  So, the family isn’t going to pay that 15.4% rate, instead they’ll probably pay something like 7.51%. [TaxCalc]

Nevada property tax rates range from 1.77 in Eureka County to 3.66 in Mineral and White Pine counties.  Remember that the tax rate is applied to the taxable value times 0.35 to get the assessed value, and the tax is that assessed value times the tax rate. [NVenergy]

If we take the Nevada average median household income ($52,800) and break out the taxation, the family isn’t paying any 15.4% it’s more like $12.6%. There’s no state income tax, and the “average” take home pay is approximately $42,342.05. [TaxCalc]  This assumes that the median household income is the adjusted gross income of $42,500.  Now we can start playing with our food – the pie in the sky.

The average interest rate on the average home mortgage in the western states is about 3.86% for a thirty year fixed rate home loan.  The median home value is $197,600 in Nevada. [Zillow]  Using a standard mortgage calculator this yields a monthly payment of $927.

The subtraction begins. Take home pay of $42,342 means a monthly income of $3,528.50; and if we subtract $927 in mortgage payments there’s $2,601 left for other household expenses.

For the sake of the argument let’s propose that the family has one car, which means  ownership costs of $517.00, and operating costs in the western region of $236.00 per month. [IRS] Subtract another $753 from the monthly budget. Now we have $1,848 left for the remaining expenses.

Basic utilities in Las Vegas run about $175.56, and in Reno about $130.00; let’s call it in the middle and estimate monthly utility bills of $150.00; now we have $1,698 in the check book.

Now for the groceries.  A family of four can just get by on about $146 per week and eat healthier on about $289 on the higher end. [USDA pdf] Let’s settle for the “moderate” plan which will cost our average family of four about $1,062 per month if the kids are over 6 years of age.  Now there’s $636.00 left.

There’s the health insurance costs, and we’ll assume that our average family is also among those for whom the employer sponsors the health insurance plan.  Employers sponsored insurance for some 149 million people in the U.S. and the average employee annual contribution was an annual $4823, or about $401. [Kaiser]  There’s $235 left over.  (Clothing, entertainment, restaurant meals, appliances, home insurance, books, toys, etc.) The average U.S. family spends about $1,604 for clothing or about $133 per month; and $2482 for “entertainment” which encompasses sporting events, recreation, television, radio, sound equipment, rentals, pets, toys, hobby and play equipment, … [BLS] for about $206.00 per month.  Our average family is now in the hole, to the tune of $104.00.

Here’s where the PIE IN THE SKY begins.

“People should pay for their own kids to go to college!” There should be College Savings Accounts. There are.  And the proceeds must cover:

“According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014–2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2014–2015 ranged from $9,804 at four-year public schools to $11,188 at private schools. Colleges also provide room and board estimates for living off campus based on typical student costs.”

So, the two children of our average family are to attend a public college, as in-state residents, and the bill will probably be $18,943 for one of them.  We’ll look at a “529 Plan.”  If our average parents started a savings account for a child aged 1, at a rate of $100.00 per month then the parent would be able to cover $37,087 out of a predicted $40,687 in expenses. [Putnam]  Our average family already has to be below average in the entertainment category in order to break even, and now the critics want the family to (a) go into more debt, or (b) shave the meals, the insurance, and other expenses to the minimum in order to save an amount per month necessary to pay for college (IF the interest on the savings account stays around 6%) for one child.

“And they should pay for their own retirement!..”  With these numbers there is nothing but Social Security into which the average person has already paid as a part of the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes.  There certainly isn’t anything left over for “extras.”  Nor is there any comfort in letting any portion of the contributions fall into the hands of the operators of the Wall Street Casino – who have an interesting way of securing the profits from their Free Enterprise, and ditching their losses on the American public.

“And they should pay if they want to use the roads, a few toll roads would keep the taxes down…”

and we should add this to the transportation expenses

And they don’t need that big screen TV and cable…”  it’s looking like all those entertainment expenses are down to basic cable already.  As for the size of the screen, that depends on the family capacity to incur debt or whether they were able to find a big screen on which someone else couldn’t make the payments?

“And,  Health Savings Accounts?”  Great, if you happen to be unmarried, well to do, and very healthy.  Not so good if you happen to be our average married couple with two children, two children who are as good as the kids next door at getting sick from the latest pestilence they are shareing in the neighborhood. Not to mention their dental bills.

Not to put too fine a point to it, but all that Self Reliance, Rugged Individualism, Pure American Can Do Drivel, is just that Drivel. It sounds good over the loud speaker, sounds auspicious from the television pundits, and makes good high flying rhetoric from the politicians. There’s just one problem. IT DOESN’T WORK IN THE REAL WORLD.  Only in Pie In The Sky Place.

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Filed under conservatism, Republicans

Sausage Grinding Nevada Style: The Legislature Scrambles to Sine Die

sausage Ah, the sausage is in the grinder for this session of the Nevada Assembled Wisdom:

“However in order to finally secure the votes to pass the full Uber deal, Roberson may be considering resuscitating a couple other bills previously thought to be dead. Democrats have made it clear they won’t play ball with Republican leaders if they move any further on AB 148(“Guns Everywhere“, including colleges & airports) and/or any of the voter ID/voter suppression bills (such as SB 169 and AB 266). There’s a new rumor swirling in the Building that Senate Republican leaders are considering scheduling hearings on these #Crazytown bills to scare the Democrats into supporting the Uber deal. I’m not sure yet how much force is actually behind it, but I can confirm it’s from a very reliable source.” [LTN]

Just what we need.  There are some tax and revenue issues to deal with, and some important issues concerning education which need attention… thus we’re hearing about Guns Galore! Vote Suppression! and, perhaps one more shot at privatizing (read: raiding) the Public Employees Retirement System, see AB 190. [bill text]

There’s something unseemly about using such egregious bits of Tea Party inanity as the Guns Galore legislation as a bargaining chip.  Some chips are counterfeit and this one is particularly untoward.  How many people are truly enamored of the idea of 18 and 19 year olds stashing guns in dorm rooms?  Of having some 18 or 19 year old “coming to the rescue” gun blazing and most likely untrained in police tactics?  Combine this with the Ammosexual propensity to call for background check repeals and we have a lovely recipe for a slaughter?  Once more with some feeling:

EVERY right comes with some responsibilities. And, truly responsible gun owners aren’t bellowing for proliferation, and are supportive of background checks to weed out the insane, the criminal, and the felonious from gun ownership.

Another counterfeit bit of coinage is the Vote Suppression legislation desired only by those who are afraid they won’t win the next election – or any election in which lower income, possibly people of color, maybe elderly, are allowed to express their options at the voting station.

There are some things that aren’t even allowed in a hot dog. Stuff that’s too toxic to add to an already questionable mixture of ingredients – and Tea Party idealizations about “liberty” and “free markets” (for the top 0.1%) are definitely in that category.

Sine die can’t come fast enough for this assemblage.

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Filed under Nevada economy, Nevada legislature, Nevada politics, Vote Suppression, Voting

Unleaded Truth Part II: Nevada’s Lead Contamination Issue

lead paint As noted yesterday, there are three jurisdictions in Nevada which have county health departments.  Health departments in the two metropolitan areas (Clark and Washoe counties) have addressed the issue of lead contamination in their areas.  In the remaining jurisdictions it appears to be a matter of state regulations, and the interest of county commissioners, as to whether particular attention is paid to toxic contamination in homes and businesses; and, it’s a matter of reliance on EPA regulations to protect renters and buyers.

All jurisdictions are required to uphold the provisions of the “federal Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act enacted in 1992. This law is commonly known as Title X (ten). Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations implementing Title X apply to rental property built before 1978.” [Openjurist]

“Before ratification of a contract for housing sale or lease, sellers and landlords must disclose any known information concerning potential lead-based paint hazards and available records, must provide purchasers and lessees with a lead hazard information pamphlet, and must include specific language in the lease or contract related to lead. In addition, sellers must give buyers time to conduct a lead inspection. Most private housing, public housing, federally-owned housing, and housing receiving federal assistance built prior to 1978 are affected by this rule.” [EPA]

One issue raises up when we look at the forms for renters and prospective buyers.  The rental agents and sellers may check off a box on the forms indicating they have no knowledge of real, potential, or unsuspected lead contamination in housing constructed prior to 1978.  The form does not require the renter or seller to conduct any inspection to determine if lead contamination exists on the premises.  That’s left to the renter or buyer.

“Before ratification of a contract for housing sale or lease, sellers and landlords must disclose any known information concerning potential lead-based paint hazards and available records, must provide purchasers and lessees with a lead hazard information pamphlet, and must include specific language in the lease or contract related to lead. In addition, sellers must give buyers time to conduct a lead inspection. Most private housing, public housing, federally-owned housing, and housing receiving federal assistance built prior to 1978 are affected by this rule.” [EPA]  (emphasis added)

The current provisions require those renting property or selling property to give their renters information about the dangers of lead contamination, any known information about lead in the housing or common areas, and an attachment to the lease about the proper issuance of a lead contamination warning.   The expression caveat emptor comes to mind.

And, this can be a problem for residents of rural Nevada counties because the EPA list of certified lead contamination inspectors,  and those firms which are certified for lead contamination abatement projects are based in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Reno, and Sparks.  As we’d suspect, state law (NRS 439.4797) puts those counties having more than 700,000 residents in charge (read: Washoe and Clark) and those with less than 700,000 (every other jurisdiction) under the auspices of the State Board of Health.

Advice from the state board of health might be cold comfort to those seeking affordable rental housing in those outlying jurisdictions, it begins with:

“Tenants and landlords should work cooperatively to investigate and correct lead based paint or other hazards. Nevada law requires that a landlord must provide a habitable condition inside of the dwelling (NRS 118A.290). Check your rental or lease agreement to determine your responsibility to address daily maintenance issues or repairs.”  [health.nv.gov pdf]

Indeed, NRS 118A.290 requires a residence be suitable for human habitation, the operative phrase may be: “A dwelling unit is not habitable if it violates provisions of housing or health codes concerning the health, safety, sanitation or fitness for habitation of the dwelling unit…” and, no, there is no specific mention of lead contamination.

Let’s focus in on rental property for the moment and the problems which may be faced by middle or lower income level inhabitants of these properties when it comes to coping with the state guidelines for lead contamination issues.  A tenant is advised to document instances of lead contamination with letters, photos, “evidence of health problems,” and work orders from private inspectors or contractors. This raises a reasonable hypothetical question.

A landlord in a jurisdiction outside of the two major metropolitan areas has signed off on a statement indicating he or she has no prior knowledge of any lead based paid issues in the building.  A tenant later notices peeling and chipping paint on window sills. The landlord again explains that he or she has no knowledge that lead based paint was ever used in the building, and doesn’t know if the underlying coat(s) of paint were lead based.  It would appear that the landlord has done all that is required at this point. After this point in the process it’s up to the tenant to provide certified mail notification to the landlord; allow the landlord 14 days to respond; and, then if nothing happens (like a certified inspection) launch the legal process. The question becomes: Who is responsible for paying for the certified inspection? For the cost of the “work orders, and private inspections?”  Return with us now to the real world – the one in which a lower or middle income family may not have the monetary resources, or the time required, to get an inspection, and launch into the legal processes required to get an intransigent landlord to move on the issue.

Yes, it would be nice if the tenant and the landlord worked cooperatively to resolve lead contamination issues – and, again in the real world, if this cooperation is going to bite into the landlord’s bottom line how realistic is it to believe that the tenant isn’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to bring the issue to the landlord’s attention, the attention of local authorities, and the attention of those who may assist in the resolution (and abatement) process.  It’s not like legal aid services aren’t already backed up with indigent defense cases, immigration issues, and other legal matters.

There are two elements of the situation in Nevada generally, and the rural areas in particular.  First, the onus moves very quickly to the buyer or renter when it comes to the inspection or abatement of lead contamination problems. A buyer has ten days to “check for lead,” in rural areas this means the buyer has ten days to find the list of certified inspectors (an easy enough task), then find one in the local region (not so easy outside the metropolitan areas), then find one who has time and resources to do the work within the ten days (now things are getting more complicated), and have the certified inspector perform the inspection and file the results —

Secondly, those tenants and buyers outside the metropolitan areas do not have much local support in terms of specific housing regulations other than building codes, state guidelines and statutes, and the federal lead contamination statute with EPA regulations. Again, caveat emptor is alive and well when it comes to the inspection for, and abatement of, lead contamination in local housing.

Surely, some future session of the state Legislature might offer consideration to (1) enacting statutes requiring the creation of a local board of health in areas with over 50,000 residents instead of the current 700,000; (2) empowering the local boards to enact ordinances regarding the inspection for and abatement of lead contamination; (3) requiring that sellers or landlords of property constructed before 1978  conduct an inspection of any properties offered for rent or sale – it not being enough to check off a box saying, “I just didn’t know…” or to have such an inspection record from a previous owner documenting that an inspection was indeed  conducted since 1978; (4) giving prospective buyers more than ten days to have such an inspection conducted before finalizing a sale. 14 would seem more reasonable, and 21 might be better.

The kind of contamination we’re discussing here isn’t an “inconvenience,” or some “tree hugger’s burst of imagination,” it’s a cause of damage to the brain and nervous system, behavioral problems, anemia, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, hyperactivity, developmental delays, and in extreme cases, death in children. [EPA]  Additionally, in adults it can also cause abdominal pain, fatigue, headaches and irritability, loss of appetite, muscular weakness, and memory loss. [CDC]

There’s really no level of lead contamination that is acceptable, and there should be no question that in some instances caveat emptor isn’t really an appropriate civic response to the problem.

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Filed under EPA, health, nevada health, Nevada legislature, Nevada politics, public health