November 2007

The great roads of … China

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

doyle.jpgI wonder what MnDOT commissioner Carol Molnau thought about Chinese highways when she visited China for government business shortly before the 35W bridge collapsed.

I recently spent a couple of weeks in that country and was surprised to china_roads.jpgfind an urban highway system in better shape than the stretch of 35W and I-94 in much of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

(At right is the Zhanxi bridge highway, a soundproof four lane expressway under construction above Beijing Zoo)

The patchwork and indentations that mark the Twin Cities expressways were largely non-existent on highways in four major Chinese cities; their thoroughfares are new and well maintained.

One might expect this in Shanghai, a modern business capital, and in Beijing, which is putting on a good face for the 2008 Olympics. But even Wuhan, an interior city of more than 5 million that few westerners visit, had highways in better shape than those in the Twin Cities.

All of this in a developing nation where per capita GDP is $7,800.

Thoughts?

The latest on the Ritchie story

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Staff writer Mark Brunswick’s excellent reporting on the controversy swirling around Minnesota Secretary of State Markritchie.jpg Ritchie continues with this news that Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles is launching a full investigation of the matter, including sworn testimony.

The story Brunswick’s work has helped bring to light has been amply acknowledged and commented upon on other Minnesota blogs and editorial pages.

But Nobles’ response is especially notable. Nobles is one of the most widely respected figures in Minnesota state government. When he calls someone’s responses “unreliable” and “belated” that someone may have some explaining to do.

Here is the text of his letter today to the Legislative Audit Commission:

November 26, 2007

Members of the Legislative Audit Commission:

I informed you at the commission meeting on October 31 that I had received an allegation concerning Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. The allegation accused Mr. Ritchie of using individual contact information gathered during civic education events organized by the Secretary of State’s office to solicit contributions for the Mark Ritchie campaign fund. Recently, the issue has been in the news, and I thought commission members would appreciate an update on my review of the allegation.

On November 2, I sent a letter to Mr. Ritchie asking him for information about his office’s civic education program. I specifically asked Mr. Ritchie to explain how contact information gathered at a civic education event was obtained from the Secretary of State’s office and used to solicit contributions for the Mark Ritchie campaign fund. I asked for a response by November 12.

On November 9, I received a letter and attachments from Bert Black, Legal Advisor and Data Practices Compliance Officer for the Office of the Secretary of State, indicating that he had been directed to respond to my request to Mr. Ritchie. The following is Mr. Black’s explanation of how contact information from the Secretary of State’s office was obtained and used to solicit contributions for the Mark Ritchie campaign fund:

A printed copy of the directory/contact list of organizations and individuals involved in civic education and engagement, a public document, was provided to everyone who attended the [civic education and engagement] meeting on June 22 as they registered. It was also e-mailed to over 400 people after that meeting and handed out at the Minnesota State Fair. It is my understanding that this is how the directory/contact list was obtained.

On November 20, I was asked by a reporter to comment on the fact that Mr. Ritchie had recently acknowledged to the StarTribune that he personally transferred contact information from the Secretary of State’s office to his campaign organization. I told the reporter I could only confirm that my office had an open investigation concerning Mr. Ritchie, and we were assessing the information submitted to us by the Secretary of State’s office. Later that day, I received an e-mail from Mr. Ritchie, which said in part: “I provided this directory [containing contact information] to my campaign and requested that listed groups get a copy of the campaign’s civic engagement newsletter.” He went on to note that his campaign’s civic engagement newsletter contained a solicitation for a contribution to his campaign fund.

Mr. Ritchie’s belated acknowledgment of personal involvement renders the information I received from his office on November 9 unreliable. Therefore, I have informed Mr. Ritchie that I intend to conduct an investigation into the allegation concerning the Secretary of State’s office by interviewing Mr. Ritchie and his staff under oath.

As you know, the Legislative Auditor’s office is currently working on many other audits, evaluations, and investigations. Therefore, it will undoubtedly take several weeks to complete a report on the allegation concerning the Secretary of State’s office. However, my staff and I will proceed as quickly as possible to complete a thorough investigation and report our finding to you.

Sincerely,

Jim Nobles
Legislative Auditor

What do you make of it?

Death penalty debate comes back to life

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

tice.jpgThis fascinating story from the New York Times earlier this month describes the resurrection of a debate that had once seemed dead and buried — whether the death penalty deters gavel.jpgmurder.

A flurry of recent studies, it seems, argue that capital punishment prevents murders — between 3 and 18 murders for each execution, depending on the study.

Here, on the Death Penalty Information Center website, you’ll find links to some of those studies, and to criticisms of them.

This is the kind of unsettling but useful rebellion in scientific ranks that can remind one to reserve a bit of healthy skepticism about any and all claims that a scientific point is settled. It’s the essence of science that its conclusions are always subject to revision, no matter how thunderous the voice of authority and consensus in which a given theory speaks.

For all of my career as a journalist, it has stood as a settled question in social science that the death penalty has little or no significant deterrent effect. Now, “for the first time in a generation” (as the Times story puts it), that consensus view is coming under serious attack.

An intriguing feature of the new debate is that it largely pits economists against researchers in law, criminology and other social science fields. For economists, it is a matter of first principles that people respond to incentives and therefore that when the “cost” of an action rises, that action will become less common.

But this is an alien and difficult concept for great numbers of people.

To be sure, it’s only the first of many complexities, where murder is concerned, that a would-be murderer is by definition in an unusual frame of mind. He may not very rationally compare the costs and benefits of eliminating his romantic rival or turf-war enemy.

Then again, no one supposes, do they, that everyone who considers murder goes through with it? Or that moral scruples are the only reason they ever decide against it? If not, then, by defintion, we are assuming that would-be murderers in some fashion weigh the personal pros and cons of their choice.

Similarly, almost everyone can see the wisdom of the widespread modern legal practice of imposing a penalty for murder that is more severe than the penalty for any other crime. Doing otherwise would give robbers or rapists a dangerous incentive to kill their victims, because they could then eliminate witnesses without risking any stiffer punishment.

But to see this is to assume that criminals do respond to incentives.

Here’s a thought experiment: What if tomorrow was declared “Get Away with Murder Day”? What if, for one day, anybody could kill anybody and risk no worldly consequence?

Think Get Away with Murder Day might bring a higher than normal murder rate? If so, you think homicidal sentiments are affected by incentives.

Anyway, here are two questions:

1) Even under the old consensus assumption that the death penalty had no important statistical effect on crime rates, it stood to reason that the threat of execution deterred some murderers.

How many would have to be deterred to justify capital punishment as policy?

2) Perhaps the strongest argument against the death penalty is the danger of executing the innocent. While a wrongly imprisoned defendant may eventually be freed, nothing can be restored to one who is mistakenly killed.

How substantial does the risk of executing the innocent need to be to make capital punishment unacceptable no matter how strong its deterrent effect?

Paulose departs: What’s your verdict ?

Monday, November 19th, 2007

U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose has announced her resignation, saying she is taking a Justice Department position in Washington.paulose

Paulose has been under fire for months, particularly since a number of high-ranking lieutenants resigned their supervisory posts last April.

She has been accused of a heavy handed, vindictive management style, of mishandling classified material and retaliating against a subordinate who reported it, and of using a racial slur to denigrate another employee.

Paulose’s defenders have accused her critics of politically motivated attacks, and even of racial and religious bigotry. They have insisted that normal office frictions were elevated to newsworthiness by the fact that Paulose is the conservative Republican nominee of a conservative Republican president.

Scott Johnson of the Power Line blog spoke for Paulose defenders in this National Review OnLine article

He wrote:

“If my friend Rachel Paulose were a liberal Democrat, she would be a celebrity…. She’s not a liberal Democrat, however, she is a conservative Republican, and she has been the subject of an old-fashioned, low-tech media lynching…”

Eric Black, late of The Big Question, voiced many of the critics’ complaints, as here in a post earlier today.

He wrote:

“On Friday, Paulose, in a single 48-word sentence, played the race card, the gender card, the religion card, the age card, the ideology card, the Federalist Society card, and the Joe McCarthy card. That’s a large percentage of the cards available in the victimology deck.”

What do you think? Was Paulose the victim of a witchhunt? Or was she an unqualified and ill-prepared political operative placed where she didn’t belong?

Chip off an old, quirky Minnesota block

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

lopez.jpgThe newest hire on the governor’s communications staff has political chops that reach back to the state’s earliest days.

McLean Donnelly, a communications assistant, is the great, great, great, great grandson of Ignatius Donnelly, Minnesota’s donnelly.jpgsecond lieutenant governor. He’s also the son of Stan Donnelly, big-time businessman and fervent unicameralist, who has spent much free time extolling the virtues of a one-house Legislature.

That could be what earned him his other political distinction: Stan Donnelly was, for a brief time, chief of staff to Minnesota’s shortest-serving U.S. Senator _ political maverick and former car wash operator Dean Barkley.

Political passions ran hot in the Donnelly family.

Ignatius cut a distinct figure in Minnesota politics, advocating for the Freedman’s Bureau and women’s suffrage when those were not popular causes. A die-hard populist, he ran for governor on a platform that would abolish national banks, create a graduated income tax, abandon the gold standard and push for an eight-hour workday.

Ignatius also wrote popular and somewhat eccentric books on such topics as the lost civlization of Atlantis and the real authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.

At 23 and fresh out of college, McLean has memories of being hauled around on his dad’s unicameral quest, but said he does not yet know whether he will follow in the storied footsteps of his forerunners.

“I just started swimming,” he said as performed the lowliest of political tasks _ passing out press releases in the dungeon of the Capitol Press Corps. “I might get beached before I even get started.”

But McLean also might see a hint of his future in his predecessor’s path. Tom Erickson, who held the job before Donnelly, just stepped up to communications director for what promises to be a bare-knuckled brawl _ the reelection campaign for U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.

Polls suggest a move to the middle

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

lopez.jpgYesterday we hit the one-year-out mark in the Longest Senate Race and the occasion was marked by head-to-head poll matchups from Rasmussen and SurveyUSA, both of which show DFL challengers Al Franken and Mike Ciresi pullingcoleman.jpg even with incumbent Norm Coleman.

franken.jpg

But that’s not all the polls have to offer for political junkies who study cross-tabs the way fortune-tellers read tea leaves.

The Survey poll of registered voters shows that the 2008 race is going to be a battle for the middle. Coleman hangs onto nearly 90 percent of his base and does fairly well with independents and moderates, pulling in the mid to high 40s, demonstrating some crossover appeal.ciresi

But the one-time Democrat can only scrounge up about 10 percent of Democrats in a year when self-identified Dems are running high.

Ciresi and Franken nail down most Dems and more than 90 percent of liberals, but also are able to attract 40 to 49 percent indies and moderates. Once endorsements are nailed down, watch for them to creep to the center.

The feds bridge the gap for Pawlenty

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

The day after Halloween, the Pawlenty tim_pawlenty.jpgadministration has brought home a tasty treat from the federal government — $123 million in immediate and additional funding for the I-35W replacement bridge.

Here’s the story as it stands.

The grant takes enormous pressure off Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who until today faced the prospect of a showdown with the Legislature next February over scarce transportation funding.

For Pawlenty, it’s such a welcome decision by Washington that one almost wonders whether there could be a political ingredient involved.

Thoughts?


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