31 March 2008

good st wall


What the hell?

Insurance and banking are generally regulated on state levels. The idea that a federal mandate was necessary or would have averted the present mortgage crisis is ridiculous. What might have helped the mortgage crisis was a simple piece of paper describing the loan terms in English, but that isn’t listed as a prospective change here anyway. I’m not sure what insurance companies were doing wrong that they need federal oversight. Maybe health insurance. They already got bail-outs from the fed after Katrina and other disasters. There again the same crime of not offering a simple explanation of terms probably is the key issue (anyone ever read their policies?)

The primary problems with the financial industry as a whole is similar to the crisis of doctor malpractice suits. Explain things in English (or whichever plain language we’re referring to). End the insistence on mystical and arcane language and focus .. and critical elements that any client would have to deal with. None of that is something that can be reasonably fixed by federal activity and is in fact more likely to be impeded because federal mandates will impose importance on issues that may be irrelevant or insignificant in particular cases, destroying the ability of advisers to offer flexible and actionable advice (look what HMOs have done to medical care, same concept only the government instead of the insurance companies). The only good news of these proposals is that they will likely remain delayed in committees and there to die by the hand of the financial lobbyists. It’s possible the Democrats will try to pass some elements, but they’ll undoubtedly wait until November unless they’re up for a contested re-election (likely considering Congressional approval ratings). The language of the key Dems in the story suggests even this is unlikely (if only because they want STRONGER regulation, idiots).

On reflection, it does appear to consolidate what are now inter-agency tasks into more powerful agencies. I’m not sure if this is necessarily good or bad yet, it’s less confusing, but it’s unclear if whatever regulation is offered will be effective or meaningful. My initial read is that this is probably ultimately good for business and investment (by removing overlapping regulatory agencies) by essentially regulating de-regulation. That’s the good part.. the bad part is that it creates new regulation over industries that aren’t directly involved in the ’mortgage crisis’, which I don’t understand the point of doing so (unless it’s a measure to streamline competition by destroying vast intrastate barriers, especially in health insurance. Property insurance or car insurance seem best left to state authorities). Most of the agencies that are being gutted are banking or investing related (SEC/OTS/CFTC). It is true that some sort of oversight is needed for these industries, but most states already possess some sort of sentry duty for this purpose. Expressing pressure for states to move in certain directions would be sufficient, expanding the power of federal government does not seem like the appropriate response to the problem. The problem is caused by inappropriate actions taken by both lenders and lendees, etc. Communication between these groups must improve, which regulation does not guarantee will happen.

Other note. The stock crash in 29 didn’t cause the Great Depression. I wish people could figure this out. What caused the Depression was in fact the banking crash in 32. This was related to the stock crash because of the money banks and margin buyers through banks investing.. but until confidence in the stability of banks and loans collapsed, the economy was still reasonably vibrant. Why the media somehow imposes this magical power on the ups and downs of the market upon the economy as a whole makes no sense. Probably because they don’t understand the economy anymore than anyone else does and figure these numbers must mean something so they’ll report on them. In fact the market going down caused more Americans to become rich than had ever been true before in America (stocks became so undervalued that people could purchase huge amounts when they went back up). But without stable banks to entrust the money to, that’s a real problem. Stock is an intangible asset, it’s supposed to rise and fall as people decide whether it’s more or less valuable. Money is basically an intangible agreement.. once that agreement is set aside economies stall (or fail to expand, looking at some developing countries).

Curiously, CNN didn’t even have this as a story anywhere on the front page.
I found this an intriguing political point: "It’s probably a bad idea to spend too much time debating the organization of the fire department while the fire is still burning and no independent investigation of the cause of the fire has yet been completed" The basic problem and reason this won’t really get much play is that Democrats have already ’established’ the ’cause’ as big bad business and will insist on regulation to ’control’ those businesses (even though such regulations inevitably favor those businesses against new blood and are eaten away at the margins by back-scratching tax breaks or other methods). But the central point is that the re-organization of federal and state agencies who should be attempting to work with banks and other institutions to come up with appropriate responses to consumer complaints is a waste of time and a diversion of resources. I disagree.. because I’m not convinced that the regulatory agencies can really do much of anything to avert the ’crisis’ anyway, but that’s a different story.

29 March 2008

how min wages really work


I’m rather underwhelmed by the premise of a minimum wage to begin with, but here is basically another example of how regulation, supposedly intended to impose costs on large conglomerates, is actually a war against the little guy, small businesses.

Wal-Mart (I’m picking on them because everyone else does, not because they’re the only ones doing this) or other large businesses can afford to absorb the somewhat higher costs of employing workers at higher rates than they might otherwise. They often usually offer a rate higher than min-wage anyway to compete for the large quantity of unskilled workers, making the legal wage scale something of a misnomer as few people are employed at this rate. Small businesses run by private individuals instead of corporate boardrooms on the other hand often cannot. The result: small businesses, which still account for over half of American jobs, have to fire workers or have to raise prices to levels above that of the large conglomerate and thus risk being priced out of the market. Now as far as the retail game, this has basically already happened. Small companies have migrated to other more specialized services or small scale manufacturing operations with higher pay scales than min wage anyway. Obviously this isn’t the case in Germany yet.

As with unions, the purpose of min wage laws has long since evaporated. If people cannot earn a ’living wage’ at their employ, then they need to rise to a position that does earn that wage or they need to accept reduced lifestyles (plasma TVs and nice shoes are not necessities of life). I could easily live on the meager salary a part-time minimum wage job offered what with all the tax credits and other economic transfers made available to people at that income. Maybe that makes me weird, and I’d certainly take a higher lifestyle from greater income.. but I’m not on minimum wage either. Unions certainly like the wage hikes.. but again.. the artificial increases where there are not accompanying increases in productivity leads to a lack of new jobs where unions are concerned (part of the plan to begin with, reducing the job market increases the value of the workers in that market). And again, unions are out-of-date. They need to be focused on international trade and labor agreements, not wringing more money out of American corporations and feeding American political war chests.

I wish people could keep this in mind when the politicos float the idea of min wage hikes. Anyone else wondering why we’re having job creation slowdowns and a hint of recession less than a year after the passage of a number of state minimum wage hikes?

20 March 2008

Drug policy reform, total analysis

Controversial subjects often seem much simpler as they are resolved and examined through the advantage of hindsight. During the height of the debate however, there are divisive points of view that demand attention on either extreme without acknowledging the validity or importance of other arguments and even factual data. The long history of prohibition movements has the advantage of hindsight available. This history is often overlooked or contorted to fit the particular deliberations of each side's campaigns. It is necessary for the general public to acknowledge the damages that both illegal drugs and their legal counterparts inflict on society. It is equally necessary to understand that the tactics, methods and means used to reduce, remove, or otherwise control these effects can inflict considerable damages and create unintended consequences capable of their own destructive energy.

Both advocates for prohibition and the opposing legalization or decriminalization advocates are hardly defending monolithic positions incapable of compromises reaching toward an effective local or national policy. Both sides have used appeals to emotion or ideology to demagogue and defame their opposite. This has the effect of taking the general public in useless and divisive circles over how best to combat these social damages and injustices with which we find ourselves afflicted. In order to effectively wage the so-called war on drugs, a serious attempt must be made to strip away the fallacies and talking points that have prevailed upon the general public and find relevant data. Armed with the variety of state level attempts at controls, historical examples of our national attempts at prohibition of alcohol along with the methods of other nations, it is possible to find through this tangled web a clear path toward an enlightened state.

The most strident of foes in form, the each sides actual goal is actually quite similar. It is easy to acknowledge that consumption of alcohol or narcotics have potential risks and consequences. Often these consequences are borne by the individual consumers, in the form of mild to severe health problems. Very often these consumers can and will affect others; usually at cost to society at large, through the necessity of police or medical involvement. If the society at large has a large number of such consumers, it would be reasonable to presume a larger social impact. Prohibition supporters argue that banning the substances of abuse has the effect of making them harder to obtain, and then making the number of abusers lower. Making the number of users lower to lower social ills is a laudable goal. It is however an incomplete goal. American law is founded upon a basis of liberty. Individuals are free to make choices, however stupid, risky, or harmful they may be to themselves, provided those choices do not impose undue harm on others. It is noteworthy that many criminals take drugs or drink alcohol. But conversely, not all alcohol consumers are criminals, and in some countries or states, even drug users are not. These would be people who have made no greater quarrel and have otherwise given us no immediate need to hinder their behavior. Therefore it is also necessary to recognize both that substances can be used with a modicum of responsibility, and that the measures undertaken to restrain use must be careful to cause a minimal level of interference in individual lives. These twin goals must be kept in mind as the possibilities are pondered. They are not as diametric as they appear.

While the ultimate goals may in fact be similar, the methods and arguments of each side manage to sow great confusion. Real and imagined arguments are used. Emotional and reasonable appeals are made. Prohibition advocates use empirical data in the form of crime statistics, pharmacological effects of drugs and alcohol, and drug use statistics by teenagers or other specific groups. Social or public costs borne by the effects of drug users and the drug trade are useful arguments. Unfortunately these acolytes also use false or misleading information regarding other methods of drug controls or the effectiveness of their chosen means, even elected state officials who encourage enforcement are prone to propaganda. Repeating lies does not make them truths. And the strongest and most compelling reason for drug control is a purely emotional appeal: the protection of children. Attaching their argument as the only effective means of ensuring childhood safety is both fallacious and intellectually stifling.

Their opponents, either legalization or decriminalization, feature the same flaws of data mixed with belief. Violent crime statistics owing to systemic causes and the international impact of American policies are legitimate issues. The effectiveness of alternative means such as excise taxes or appropriate public and private campaigns to reduce use raises interesting questions. The prospect of reducing inner-city violence as an impetus for economic growth can be tied into these arguments. Even an understanding that it is not necessary for government controls to create an moratorium on a substance finds a home in these camps. But again, broad paint strokes showing implications of racism and ideological appeals to libertarian politics make little headway in public discourse. All of these arguments on both sides combine to drown debate into a quagmire of futility with the economic and social costs continuing to mount upon the American landscape and in other countries. How did it get to this point and how can we extricate ourselves from political distortions to actively resolve this problem? It is best to begin at the beginning.

The history of Prohibition is a frequently quoted point of both arsenals. Officially Prohibition did not begin until the passage of the Volstead Acts in 1919 and the ratification of the 18th Amendment. Over the preceding half century, America had a series of state level bans or restrictions on alcohol or other substances, namely heroin and cocaine, officially starting in 1851 in Maine's ban of alcohol. The prohibitive ban on the sale, manufacture and distribution of alcohol was not born of a random event. There was a long and progressive temperance movement to which it must be attributed, and from which considerable opposition to the levels of public use of alcohol must be assumed at the time of the law's adoption. This movement's development was directed principally at the effects of alcoholic consumption and a moral crusade against the saloons and taverns which often partnered alcohol with gambling or other perceived vice. In practical terms, the effectiveness of this movement can be measured by noting declining alcohol consumption rates prior to the official federal ban. Before the adoption of Prohibition, alcohol was already on the run as a social ill. To be sure the great swelling urban centers of the day had plenty of bars and saloons, complete with drinks and drunks. Today there remain rural counties in America where alcohol cannot be served or purchased; a testament to the strength of message temperance carries and its success in the once very rural America of the early 20th century.

The effective portion of Prohibition was to shutter every then legally operating brewery and distillery. A great many people who would drink on occasion were suddenly cut off from their supply. Many probably stopped; but how many and for how long is uncertain. There are figures of rough approximation of alcoholic consumption, largely of beer or ale, prior to Prohibition, which show a decline, but these are merely very rough estimates. It appears that initially there was a considerable disruption owing to a major economic void where the large and organized brewers or distillers had operated and into which few people had stepped. The law made no effort to prevent consumption, relying instead on the notion that if the sale or manufacture was illegal that people would not make or purchase alcohol and then that they would presume not to consume it without a legal way to acquire it or a legal place to do so. Advocates pointed to steep declines in minor crimes, such as disorderly conduct or public swearing, as evidence of success. In theory, it was working. In practice, Americans who wanted to drink would find a way and the real trouble was about to begin.

Aside from the potential for hording alcoholic beverages prior to the passage of the bill, smaller private distilleries or breweries popped up around the country. It is unclear how many of these could ever be shut down or even noticed in a country as vast as this and with some areas or demographics of the population not in favor of the ban on alcohol, and thus supportive of these illegal manufacturers. The quality and ingredients of these new private beverages was not standardized or monitored by any regulatory body. Incidences of alcoholic poisoning, which initially declined, steadily rose especially among underage drinkers. The cause could be attributed to the poor quality of bathtub gin or moonshine, but also to the much higher percentage of liquor relative to beer being consumed. Where alcohol was illegal it made the most economic sense for the illegal manufacturers to use higher proof substances which were more compact, more easily concealed, and easily distributed on the smaller scale. Alcohol content being more important, beer and ale were discarded in favor of stronger spirits.

More disturbing, agents such as medicinal alcohol or sacramental wine, which were exempted from the ban, began circulating illegally to consume. Medicinal alcohol is hardly good quality for consumption, particularly once it is mixed with other chemicals. Thousands of people became ordained priests, often purely for the ability to sell wine, and corruption began to spread. From pay-offs to medical facilities or churches, it is a small step to pay off law enforcement or government officials.

Despite the ingenuity of private American producers, there was no way that small scale manufacture and distribution could replace the demand for alcohol. Black market prices were soaring, making the intended legal purpose of alcohol as hard to find or purchase an achievement. This was no major victory for temperance workers. Alcohol was instead imported from any country which made it available. As no other Western country has ever imposed a large scale alcohol ban, the supply from foreign sources was extensive. Importation is normally expensive. Illegal smuggling is still expensive, because of the potential for arrest and confiscation of goods. Many were willing to risk it with lucrative and untaxed profits to be had. Some of the most organized, successful, and famous of these were Captain McCoy, running Caribbean gin, and Al Capone's Chicago cartel, often importing Canadian whiskey. The concept of organized crime had up until Prohibition been a very limited object in American history. As Prohibition went on, the power and corruptive influence of organized crime or mafia grew considerably, with pay-offs going to legal officials and other influential people. Violence went with it.

While Prohibition had succeeded in suppressing the much broader base of misdemeanor offenses contributing to “moral decay”, violent crime was on the rise. The murder rate was escalating rapidly. A lucrative trade in an illegal substance made it virtually required for these criminals both to fight amongst themselves for market shares and rather than call for police support, as a legal citizen may have done, to settle crimes and misdeeds themselves. As such, being armed, long an American right, was taken to one of its first extremes. The prevalence of the Tommy gun, a small machine gun capable of rapid fire, is exaggerated by its use in several more infamous murders during the height of Chicago's violent mob wars. It is no exaggeration to say there was an arms race brought on by millions of illegal dollars coming in and no limits to the levels of violence necessary to control it.

Billy Sunday, an advocate for Prohibition, at first had claimed that “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and children will laugh.” These tears were replaced with rivers of blood money. Prohibition's modern supporters point to a lack of appropriate enforcement efforts. But with so much money at stake, thousands of Americans were willing to try to tackle a piece of the seemingly endless market for alcoholic beverages. Many thousands more, as sympathetic consumers, were willing to look the other way rather than help the crackdown. Corruption further hampered the ability of law enforcement: “In a famous trial in Indiana in 1923, it was revealed that protection monies were paid to: "the mayor, the sheriff, a judge of the city court, the prosecuting attorney for the county, a former sheriff, a former prosecuting attorney, a deputy sergeant, a justice of the peace, an influential lawyer, and former deputy sheriffs, detectives, policemen, petty lawyers, bartenders, cabaret singers and notorious women.””. If corruption was as rampant as this in Indiana, one could hardly expect grand cooperation countrywide. The staunchest supporters had at first decided that a legal barrier would stop the evil specter of alcohol and its power for vice and mischief. Then they were qualifying themselves by writing off the older generation of alcoholics, hoping to win this war with the younger generation. Eventually it became clear that Prohibition was ineffectually enforced, perhaps never could be, and was not going to prevent or deter America from alcohol. Temperance workers, who had celebrated the passage as the culmination of their views, still hoped for a dryer America, but were re-directing their main efforts to educating young people on the dangers of alcohol or to treating alcoholics.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the government at all levels was pressed for money to continue to prosecute the war on alcohol. It was decided to see how much instead could be raised by ending it. Hundreds of millions of dollars for President Roosevelt's New Deal projects could be had by re-opening the large breweries and distilleries, employing thousands of unemployed workers, and taxing their production on a now legal and open market. The repeal of Prohibition did not end restrictions on alcohol on local and state levels. Liquor usually became a state monopoly with licensing. Sunday was often reserved for no sales of beer or spirits. Some rural areas still cannot sell alcohol today. A legal drinking age was established ostensibly to restrict young people from drinking. These restrictions were minimal in comparison to a near total ban however.

Whatever can be learned from perhaps the largest social engineering experiment in history is unclear. Despite a number of metrics and studies conducted at the time or more recently, no reliable data can be had to determine conclusively if fewer Americans were drinking or that they were drinking less. While it is possible that fewer people bought alcohol, some people could have simply hoarded it prior to the ban. Many small towns were operating distilleries or breweries, and with all sales under the table, it is impossible to quantify how much was really sold and consumed in the first place. More perplexing still, it is impossible to determine that the ban was the impetus for a decline in alcoholic consumption if one truly existed. It is equally possible that a pervasive social attitude which encouraged temperance and spread considerable fear on the actual or imagined negative effects of alcohol had significant impact. It is also possible that the ban on alcohol imposed a directive toward other illegal goods to satisfy the needs and wants that were previously sated by booze. Narcotic consumption and average availability could be expected to increase if alcohol is either removed, or more commonly, found in illegal places. It did. In the absence of clear data, both sides claim victories. For example, Prohibition advocates point to a decline in crime rates, careful to mention this and not violent crime rates. Legalization advocates point to the sharp decline in murder rates immediately following the 21st amendment repealing Prohibition.

Temperance workers did not stop there. There are many more studies on their subsequent targets: narcotics. Legalization advocates are quick to point out the relationship between drug prohibition and it's associates with black markets, violent crime, and alcohol prohibition. It is common to refer to the considerable social impacts that alcohol, or tobacco, had and still has in contrast to the much smaller number of drug users and costs associated with them. Alcohol abuse is estimated to cost America roughly $100 billion dollars per year in health costs and lost production. Tobacco is associated with similar numbers. More startling however are the numbers of deaths associated with these products. Hundreds of thousands of cancerous or respiratory ailments resulting in deaths each year are linked to smokers. Tens of thousands of traffic incidents caused by drunk driving each year occur, many result in death or severe injuries. Meanwhile the number of drug overdoses from cocaine or heroin is in a paltry few thousand each year, with a few thousand more resulting from disease from sharing needles. There are no reported overdoses from marijuana. Figures like these indicate a troubling relationship between the potential danger posed by a substance and the actual reality that society pays for. It is further speculated that varying programs such as needle exchanges or a standard quality of unadulterated drugs to consume would further reduce these drug related deaths. While campaigns against drunk driving have driven down the number of traffic deaths, there are no efforts remaining that can make alcohol any safer to consume other than moderation by actual users. We are right to demand methods that increase the safety and quality of risky but legal products which are linked to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. But why has it been so difficult to see a similar means of reducing a few thousand deaths? Prohibition supporters have looked at measures like needle exchanges and legal medicinal use as “death by a thousand cuts”. It appears to their mindset that any attempt to create alternatives to a fully enforced ban is communicating a message that drug use and abuse is tolerable. Cursory examinations of the history of narcotic bans demonstrate that the bans themselves, like that of alcohol, emerge from pervasive negative social attitudes which already constrict the amount of use, and again the ban merely reflects this popular view.

As for the history of narcotic bans, opium was first restricted by British interests trying to make more profitable trade with China by importing their own to China from India. The first international opium conference was held at the behest of Americans however who had no such trade interest but a growing number of opium users. Aside from laws specifically targeting Chinese immigrants on the West coast, Americans had little experience with opium for decades. These laws were passed among a fearful, and racist, message that Chinese men, who had largely immigrated alone, were seducing white women in opium dens. It was an activity which undoubtedly occurred anecdotally, though certainly not to any great measure. The blatant racism of these restrictions was not targeted at the drug itself, yet. As opium's products of cocaine and heroin spread throughout American life, even being sold in Coca-Cola for a time, the danger of addiction became more pronounced. Patent medicines using opium as a cure-all for everything from headaches to home remedies for severe ailments came along. The viability of opium based painkillers was well known, but eventually doctors stopped using the most addictive substances of heroin and cocaine as studies showed how much easier patients were becoming hooked. Safer alternatives such as morphine are still addictive, though in small controlled doses it is much more unlikely. The restriction of actual prescriptions however did not end the legal cocaine business. Advertisements of the supposed safety, purity, and potential utility of opium continued for several more years until the passage of the Harrison Narcotic Acts in 1914 restricting the non-licensed distribution of opium. In practice this law was often used to target doctors who prescribed opium to maintenance of addicts as addiction was not considered an actual medical condition. Opium consumption however began to level off after several decades of growth. It also became a lucrative black market trade for the first time. In a now familiar series of escalating tides, prohibitionists banned heroin all together, then cocaine. Addicts and drug smugglers were imprisoned or otherwise detained. Some police officials began to recognize the folly of trying to treat the now medical condition of addiction with police power. They were largely ignored in favor of stronger and tougher laws. Black market profits soared. Drug addictions were again on the rise. Bans on marijuana and even industrial hemp followed with the implication that marijuana was a “gateway drug”, leading to heroin or cocaine use. There was at the time, no evidence to support this, and there are still only tenuous links. Today there are roughly half a million American citizens imprisoned solely on drug related charges. Twenty years ago this number was only around fifty thousand.

Prohibition's advocates claim these are people dangerous enough to incarcerate. They make claims that the drugs themselves were responsible for violence and crime. Demonstrating high correlations with criminal populations with the use of alcohol and narcotics appears to satisfy this claim. It does not; correlation is not causation. Criminals, who break laws as severe as murder, theft, or rape, would easily break lesser crimes such as drug use. To be sure the inhibition level made prevalent by social order is reduced by consuming these substances and many people do things they would not ordinarily do. Domestic abuse or violent crimes that are committed under the influence are a fair point to raise. The violence caused by black market enterprises is still an unaccounted foe by this theory. Many of the people engaged in illicit drug trafficking are prime candidates for drug use. It is therefore no stretch to see a correlation in violent acts with drug abuse and distribution. It is however a reversed correlation. The state of the trade and the potential user is the likely cause, not necessarily the drug abuse itself.

Prohibition relies on the theory that many Americans will not know that a substance is harmful or bad for them unless it is illegal. This theory flies in the face of reality. Many people did not use cocaine or heroin while they were legal. Some people do not use alcohol or quit smoking tobacco today despite these being legal for the same reasons. Conversely the use of crack cocaine in the 1980s skyrocketed despite it being illegal. People interested in risky behaviors are apparently not dissuaded by laws designed to prevent them from engaging in that behavior. Very few others are dissuaded because of laws, but instead other factors such as social status. The relative number of addicts and alcoholics who are homeless and unemployed is by itself a fact that causes considerable dismay and gives pause to potential new users who may have promising careers and families to support. Social stigmas attached to regular use also deter some users, as it is rather unbecoming to be labeled a 'drunk' or 'pothead' in many circles. Harnessing effects such as these should be commonplace in the attempts to reduce substance abuse. They are instead harnessed to pass tougher drug laws.

Prohibition advocates changed tactics when it became clear that a ban on alcohol was generally unpopular and was having unintended adverse side effects. They began instead to campaign with prevention, and in some cases treatment. These are not prohibitive tactics any longer, and are then of note how effective and ineffective they have been. There are essentially three classes of people who engage in substance use or abuse. The addicts or abusers of a substance, who require treatment to resolve their problems and are generally a most disheveled people. The potential user who has not started yet, but could be dissuaded with appropriate information and other persuasive techniques. And finally recreational users who do not become addicts and generally attempt responsibility in their use. Only the first group of people could not easily hold jobs consistently and be otherwise productive members of society. This makes them the most central group to target with effective policies to reduce whatever costs they impose through crime or unemployment. Prohibitive bans however totally fail to deter addicts. It is possible that the illegal and unsavory nature of alcohol during its day and narcotics today deters some potential users. This is borne out statistically by noting increases of users when and where a substance is legalized or nominally decriminalized. It is not however clear that the higher incidence of use leads to higher social damages. Former drug czar Barry McCaffrey made a number of spurious claims regarding the Dutch program of 'coffee shop' sales for marijuana: “Dutch teenagers used marijuana at three times the rate of American teens. The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States. The per capita crime rates are much higher than [in] the United States—that's drugs.” This is in fact a bald-faced lie. America has far higher rates of murder and violent crime than almost any other developed country, including Holland, despite the strict prohibition of substances that are supposedly causing violent behavior. The level of teenage use was relatively higher than it had been, but still much lower than it was in America. It is plausible that if a substance is legally available and is marketable that incidence of use will increase to some higher level than is present. This theory is perhaps the thorniest political issue for advocates of decriminalization or legalization. In any event, understanding that a ban by itself is ineffective, often woefully so, is perhaps the first victory for these advocates.

Legalization advocates generally operate from the perspective that the present approaches are not working, or have the same unintended consequences that the alcohol ban had. Full legalization would entail the available sale of hard drugs, like cocaine, and soft drugs, like marijuana, at retail stores who wished to carry them; maybe even Super Bowl commercials. This scenario is unlikely. Alcohol sale is often a well-regulated affair, and we as a society could expect similar restrictions on the sale, licensing, and advertisement of narcotics along with a total restriction on the sale to minors. This last point raises a curious distinction as it is often said that a teenager can more easily buy marijuana today than beer. The former is illegal to distribute to anyone, while the second is a regulated object only illegal to minors. It is useful to wonder if the same level playing field would make it equally hard, or easy depending on other factors. While this carrot is politically appealing to deal with the protection of children, it is not the most viable complaint that legalization offers toward prohibition.

Instead, legalization advocates measure the billions of dollars spent each year on drug interdiction, detainment of users, and seizures of property used in drug crimes, and consider whether this is money well spent. While there are sizable costs to the actual use in the form of unemployment or non-productivity among some workers and occasionally destructive social behaviors that would need to be dealt with, these costs exist today even with illegal bans. It is possible that this is not even the most efficient and economical way to reduce the number of drug users. Instead, when the RAND study group was posed the question of how best to reduce the amount of drugs consumed by a mere 1%, the most efficient and fiscally responsible method found was treatment and prevention programs. It is necessary to understand why this might be.

Alcohol prohibition went into a treatment and prevention mode following the ban's failure. It is obvious today that alcoholic consumption is much, much higher than it was in the 1930s. The mass marketing methods available to beer companies have overwhelmed the social stigma of drunken behavior. There are very few prevention programs for the use of alcohol available and these largely focus on high risk groups for alcoholism or people who have committed crimes, such as car accidents, while under the influence of alcohol. Aside from statistical correlations with homelessness and the dangers of binge drinking or drunk driving, there are few public campaigns concerned with alcohol. These few campaigns have had positive influences however. Traffic fatalities are down, in part due to widespread concern over drinking and driving. Despite more people consuming alcohol, often in larger quantities, many are still able to responsibly do so.

There are also growing campaigns against tobacco use and public programs concerned with narcotics. Tobacco use was at its height as nearly common as alcohol consumption in America. The current smoking population is now down to roughly 25%, and dropping. Information linking cigarettes to cancer and other ailments has prompted many to quit, or at least try to. What is disconcerting to anti-tobacco advocates is that the percentage of new young smokers has remained reasonably level, around 20%, despite advertising restrictions and large fines imposed on cigarette companies. Internal documents and press releases from the cigarette companies themselves indicate that the most effective campaign was not information showing cigarettes as a cancerous agent, though they did go to great lengths to prevent even that much. It was rather the imposition of federal or state excise taxes. Oregon levied a 15% tax and used the monies to subsidize its nicotine addiction treatment programs. Taking a population which now has increasing, but preventable costs and providing them a cheap alternative to reduce or even eliminate those costs is sound policy. It actually worked. After each state adoption of a new tobacco excise tax, large numbers of people call hot lines to quit or buy products attempting to quit. Many even succeed. The high prices have several useful effects. First, the most pervasive use of tobacco and other substances is among people of low incomes. Higher prices will tend to impose some decisions. True addicts will not be concerned. People aware of the costs and willing to do something about them will reduce their use, or even seek to eliminate it completely. Secondly, and more to the point of prevention, teenagers, a group of people with usually low disposable incomes, also stop smoking or do not start in large numbers. There are practicable limits to the size of the tax before it drives a product completely underground and tobacco companies have managed to combat some legislation by lobbying or partnering with other anti-tax platforms. Still, in comparison to low or even non-existent taxes on alcoholic beverages; there is clearly an effective method to dissuade use.

Legalization advocates can point to this successful campaign as a means to compromise. Narcotic drugs could be provided a legal but controlled market. In addition, licensing fees and excise taxes would be levied and collected, with the money being siphoned into funds for prevention and treatment in an attempt to minimize the overall number of users. While ideally a society would like to see itself clean and clear of substance abuse, in practice this has shown itself to be impossible. Even societies with severely strict social and legal controls, such as those with Islamic law, alcohol or narcotics still have small levels of underground consumption. It is reasonable to be concerned with how to deal with the effects of this consumption. Sensible policies would focus on limiting the amount of users while recognizing that some people will continue to use anyway, whether from addiction or curiosity. The points raised earlier concerning the offenses of people under the influence for example can be dealt with by adding an additional charge of irresponsible intoxication to the case and additional time to be served while undergoing some attempt at treatment. This recognizes that in general the correlation between drug use and criminality begins with the criminal and their decision to use a drug, not necessarily the drug itself. Regular drug or alcohol use on the other hand, without any other immediate external effects, should not be a social concern.

There are difficulties with this arrangement, often raised by prohibition supporters. The population of drug users would rise, perhaps dramatically, under a legalized atmosphere. This should not be in dispute, but does warrant some examination. There is little evidence that there is currently a large population which is waiting for legal barriers to be removed so they can partake of some illegal substance. A more likely culprit for this effect is the nature of drug distribution. Distributing illicit products would tend to demand some discretion on the part of both consumers and sellers. As a result, many people who would tend to purchase or sell would directly know each one another in other social contexts. Without this necessary contact, a person cannot purchase illegal drugs. Few people today could name the grocery employees from whom they purchase milk and other legal goods. It would play out similarly with a legal market for narcotics, with virtually anyone able to walk into a store and purchase the paraphernalia and substance of their choice.

The side effects of this in Holland have been useful. Providing a legal market for small scale distribution of marijuana has disconnected a larger portion of that drug's users from people who distribute harder drugs like heroin. While marijuana use went up considerably, heroin remained relatively level. This would tend to defeat the supposed 'gateway' drug theory of prohibitionists. It also gives credence to decriminalization methods, rather than full legalization however. It may be best to provide legal and controlled markets for soft substances, which are not as addictive or destructive to their consumers, in order to separate these from more dangerous substances. This sounds plausible and many European nations have begun moving in this direction politically on the heels of Holland's relative success. It does little to address the actual social damages of black markets for those harder substances, which are significant. As that is a principal reason for decriminalization or legalization in the first place, it must be addressed by some measure.

Despite this dilemma, some legalization advocates seem perfectly content instead to simply assault the flaws of the current situation rather than offer politically viable alternatives. It is easy to find the side effects of the prescribed treatment in crime statistics or crowding prisons. What we need as a country is a more effective treatment, with less drastic side effects. We are left with a detailed history of the racism inherent of drug policies or an ideological appeal to a free state and economy. Neither of these has the capacity to attack the actual root problem of what to do about drug use and its greater social ramifications. In fact the stronger political message has generally been to protect children; forgetting that the current policies endanger many children in crime-ridden areas and potentially make it easier for children to experiment with mind-altering and often dangerous substances than other more intelligent policies might. By ignoring this blind spot and not offering a clear means of exploiting it, legalization is doomed to a sort of political exile.

Charges of racist basis ignore that people, and their children, of all races use and sell drugs in modern times. While it is useful to understand that opium or marijuana were initially banned because of xenophobia toward Chinese then Mexican immigrants, these bans now affect everyone; whether through the taxes used to prosecute the drug war, or through the social costs inflicted by crime, disease, and general disorder created by drug abuse.

Ideology works only where there is a population who complies with that ideological view. Libertarians have always had a strong undercurrent in American politics. But regardless of the other causes of the waning strength of their message, this undercurrent does not tug on the hearts and minds of the public and its appointed agents in policy. Particularly as it applies to this issue. Complete and total legalization advocates often seem to cavalierly state that is not the state's business to control the behavior of its citizenry, even when citizens choose to engage in risky behaviors. There is philosophical merit to this discussion, appealing to John Stuart Mill's Harm principles, but it discards a good deal of actual side effects that are not so limited to the users themselves. Mill's theory boiled down means that the state can and should attempt to control behavior that directly impacts the safety and well-being of others. It is however not the moral function of the state to impose a set of standards for behavior where it applies only to the individuals themselves. Reasonably speaking, both the imposition of a total ban and the total abolition would have social costs that can cause damage to others. It is necessary instead to understand which path may have the opportunity to capture methods of reducing that damage to tolerable levels, and which one merely trades it for other forms of damage. What is often left out entirely from the argument libertarians make is that it is also possible, necessary even, to harness powers in society other than government to impose methods of reducing that harm.

Quite simply, there are now and always have been other forces at work doing what is currently seen as the government's role in reducing the pervasive level of drug use in society. Some of these forces are used to great effect, and others are glossed over. The myopic view that only a harsh ban on the production and sale of narcotics can remove the impact of these drugs is not surprising, but has had considerably poor consequences. Put differently, if it is useful to remove the drugs from society, why is that? Prohibitionists point to crime, but crime can flow from illegal trade and smuggling just as easily as it could be amplified or produced by substance abuse. Practically speaking the reason is economic. Businesses and business owners who wish to have productive employees cannot have most, or in some cases any, of these workers in altered states. There may be some creative applications, but these are marginal to a large scale economy and few people seriously propose drug testing a musician or author as a precondition for sale of their works. However, many employers have taken up drug screening tests as a condition for employment for regular workers, ranging from cashiers to educated professionals. These tests were generally not imposed by government mandates but result from increases in profit or safety that can be realized by having clear headed employees doing whatever it is they need to be doing instead. It is conceivable that this deterrent effect might continue to suppress drug use in the general society. It would not even be necessary for a company to fire employees who fail, or to report the test failure to any government agency. Companies have taken a longer view of costs with rises in health insurance. Some more enterprising companies have begun to offer small bounties of money for employees who start dieting or take up efforts to quit smoking. They are surprisingly effective even at ridiculously low amounts; the tidy sum of 7 dollars can suffice. The intention is twofold, both to reduce the escalation of costs, and to improve the general productivity of their workforce. Drug users who were otherwise able to obtain a job could likewise receive some fiscal bounty for entering a treatment or rehabilitation program, just as alcoholics are often required after some criminal actions. Larger bounties could be then offered to people who stayed 'clean' for a period of some months as further incentive.

Positive approaches to the problem are much more attractive arguments to make to the current general public than waxing poetic about the importance of personal liberty or making claims of historical racism. Still, they do not encompass the argument. Prohibition supporters tend to assume, wrongly, that the violence and mayhem induced by drugs is caused by drugs. Drug use is diverse in the scale and type of users. Ranging from large numbers of users in the case of marijuana, to much reduced numbers of hallucinogens or opiates, and providing members from all walks of society, though disproportionately more poor people. The violence associated with it is, by contrast, concentrated. It is either on borders used by smugglers or in dense urban locations used to distribute drugs. Were we to assume that violent activity accompanies drug use, violence would form a much more complex picture. To be fair, there is violence throughout America, but the random or senseless slaughter portrayed as caused by drugs is not the most commonplace event. Few people each year are murdered, raped, or otherwise victimized by people they do not know for example. In the case of drugs, without a legal manner of distribution, only illicit dealers emerge. These low-level dealers do not in fact make a considerable amount of money. Some economists, prominently Steven Levitt, have judged the prevailing wage at little more than minimum wage. It makes the most sense to place dealers here with the most common people likely to use drugs being poor. And concurrently, it makes for easier opportunities to recruit other dealers or future users in areas with few other economic opportunities.

The systemic decay of many of America's inner cities is blamed on many things, but there is a vicious cycle that works in conjunction with the prohibitive ban. Violence which accompanies densely packed and competing drug traders, and a higher percentage of addicted users, raises the cost of operating legal businesses in that area. Many businesses will move out as fewer mobile customers will continue to do business in an violent area, further depressing the economic situation. Those that remain must recover their costs of additional security or increased theft by raising prices; adding to the frustration and cost of living for residents. To deal with the rising cost, some will turn to the violent purveyor of drugs as either a frustrated user coping with a meaningless situation or what remains as the only possible means of employment. Many who have examined legalization options have pointed to tremendous gains that would be made in crime and opportunity for poor urban areas plagued by violence and substance abuse.

Amazingly, this microcosm view expands and shares some common points with international relations. While different countries have taken different approaches to resolving the drug demand side, the countries that supply illicit drugs have their own set of nuisances and difficulties. These can range from annoyance to full civil chaos and war. Historically, many of the drugs imported to America come from Columbia. Columbia has had not only a protracted campaign against corruption and narco-terrorism to deal with but is now engaged in a civil war between government forces and an organization funded by drug profits, FARC. Money sent by America's apparent obsession with drug supply interdiction is spent on weapons or extradition of drug lords, but is matched and even exceeded by corruption. Mexico, despite a growing and developing economy realized from favorable American trade and immigration policies, has a number of violent and powerful cartels smuggling drugs across our borders. Were the drugs to be legalized, the transshipment of drugs could still be evaded by smugglers but would not have to be. Violent intimidation tactics would be unnecessary to control the industry itself. Principally this the same situation we face in urban areas ourselves. Police or other forces of order cannot impose order upon a chaotic situation and can do little to oppose it so long as the desire for a chaotic, boisterous, and profitable industry continues to grow. One of the more pressing security concerns for Americans should be understanding that the corruption and violence that accompanies the drug trade can be used for international scandal and terror. Afghanistan for example has long been one of the world's largest producers of opium poppies. All of these nations' corruption, terrorism or violence problems can be attributed in part to American, or American-backed international, efforts to interdict drug manufacture and distribution.

Current policies have taken only the penalty side incentive of imprisonment, fines, or excise taxes as a means to deterrence. These have shown themselves to have at best practical limits, and at worst, ill-conceived side effects. Still, it is not only politically suicidal but also socially unacceptable to risk large increases in the volume of substance use or abuse and their related social effects. Complete legalization using only market influences is not sufficient to control or reduce these impacts to tolerable levels anymore than the draconian method of prohibition has been. Adopting only these myopic views ignores the point that drug controls are raising in the first place, namely that drugs and alcohol can have wider ranging effects than mere personal indulgences and that these effects are intolerable to society as a whole. It also stifles sensible debate over measured compromises that have shown promise in other countries or over research looking into ways to prevent and restrain citizens from undue personal and social risks. Practical and well-meaning debate requires accountability to facts by public parties involved, including elected or appointed officials and media. The simple solution to this problem is in small steps to bring an orderly transition into a legal, regulated, and taxable, market while at the same time funding efforts to maintain and eventually reduce a population of abusing and addicted users. Legalization approaches, by callously ignoring social costs that many feel are quite real, fail to gain sufficient acceptance among a general public that is consistently misinformed about both the dangers of the substances themselves and the root causes of the violence surrounding them. Outside of carefully educated perspectives, few Americans are willing to trust an orderly behavior in the marketing, distribution and use of drugs and alcohol to materialize without some external pressures. These external pressures however need not be solely negative and need not be solely imposed as though the people of a nation will behave accordingly without some attempts to understand why they are imposed. Drug users and moderate drinkers are prone to wonder what all the fuss over their habits is about. This is perhaps because we as a society have simply refused to debate the subject sensibly and instead tried to pressure through fear and punishment to create a just society devoid of such abuses. In the wake of considerable historical and contrary evidence as to the unintended and harmful effects this has, it remains only to conclude that other methods will work and have worked better to foster a more equitable justice.

For issues of clarity this is what I would propose. First the decriminalization of drug possession, sale, and use of 'soft drugs'. Strong regulations should prevent wide-scale marketing, restrict the sale to adults, and govern the maximum amount of sale. Additionally, licensing fees for the legal operation of storefronts would be collected with fines levied against non-proprietary sellers. Some level of excise tax should also be levied and collected, with the funds going into preventive advertisement campaigns and drug or alcohol treatment programs. Second, the release of all inmates whose criminal records entail only possession of these drugs or small scale distribution, on the condition of good prison behavior. This would be expedited for people with families and shorter sentences. As there would be ready and legal markets waiting for the distributors, they should have little trouble establishing their former profession should they wish to do so. Third, funding for drug screening tests could continue for businesses that wish to use them. I would argue that such screenings are most effective when done prior to employment or if there is a probable cause for concern, such as excessive absenteeism or safety concerns at the place of work and should not be made mandatory or required by employers. Blanket use of such tests may deter some use, but generally establishes poor trust between management and labor and does not allow for responsible use which separates work and recreation. Businesses would be free to impose whatever methods and penalties they wish to use, including terminating employment. To encourage businesses to make use of positive methods of dealing with failed tests, I would create some form of tax credit for employers if they offer bounties for entering rehabilitation or treatment programs, or other such progressive methods rather than simply dismissing otherwise productive workers. These would be the first steps toward legalization reforms. Eventually all drugs would be permissible and legally available but with a restricted marketplace, further limited by significant taxes funding continuous preventive campaigns. These approaches have not been used to limit alcoholic consumption but have shown considerable promise by drastically reducing tobacco use. Risks that are entailed by consuming different substances should be understood, but accepted as distinct choices that some are willing to run so long as they can do so privately. I would also recommend that a few measures be retained for prohibition. Obviously sale to minors would be unpopular and illegal. More on point, criminal acts committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs should have an additional penalty. Two distinct and negligent acts were committed, one abuse of a substance, and two, commission of a crime. If a person is able to use substances without subsequent violent or criminal behavior affecting others, then I see no reason that we as a society should be intimately concerned. Much like the saying, “guns don't kill people, people kill people”, the same is true with drugs. Criminals commit crimes, not drugs. Deal with the people. Our current path offers mandatory sentencing guidelines and chaotic black markets. This proposed path is decidedly less conventional, and thus still unpopular, but offers considerable flexibility on how we as a society manage the social costs of substance abuses of any kind and retains individual liberties. There are even some economic and international boons to boot. I call that a successful approach.

19 March 2008

weighing in

I have some thoughts on the whole ’reverend’ thing.

First off, how exactly do we still apply ’reverend’ to people who don’t even preach a religion. I’m not sure what that was, but it’s mostly annoying if not insulting. Big Al has the same process of doublespeak. So does Jesse. Neither supports Obama. Weird. Maybe now they will.

His speech, what snippets I caught of it, was typically good. The man can definitely fire up the rhetoric. It was an appeal to a reasoned debate on the realities of race and its current impact on society. People are fed up on either side with the continued importance of race to begin with. I’m not sure I can accept that this is necessarily his view (because I don’t know that he writes his own copy). But the acknowledgments and reasoned message that he delivered was perfectly acceptable. There are issues with how we have attempted to deal with racism. By placing importance on race, even for ’reverse’ discrimination, we utterly fail to get past it as a useful criteria for assessing personal character and potential. There are real and potential divisions that must be assessed and dealt with. They will change. They won’t change as long as an impulse and political appeal to blame ’white’ people for often self-inflicted problems persists. Asians don’t have these problems. Muslims don’t have these problems (in America). Other immigrant groups have historically assimilated and achieved. Blacks did as well at different points in our history. Slavery was over 140 years ago, and ended much more recently in other parts of the world which have much less racial tension than here.
Obama’s speech describes the immaturity of our attempts to resolve our own. We’re pretty stupid. There are ’white people’ (I use the quotes because like ’black people’ it’s a bland and useless generalization) who commit acts of overt and implicit racism or bigotry. And as the reverend(s) show, the same is true of blacks. Eventually these people will have less and less influence and less to show for it. There’s always some hesitation with obvious differences (humans are wired that way from our tribal days), but I think that can be overridden over time.

Next problem. People saying ’he didn’t go far enough’ to denounce this man. I actually would have taken a different tack than distancing myself. I would have attached myself. Not to what the man said, but to the person himself. It is not necessary that people have friends and associates that have the same thoughts and opinions as I do. Its a helluva lot easier (mostly because I’m fairly convincing I suspect), but it’s certainly not essential. Intellectuals tend to collect weird opinions around them in some manner, whether by accident or on purpose. The reason people say he doesn’t go far enough really relates to the lack of understanding that faith may play in his life. It probably does not. Not nearly so much as it does to these religious news dolts who call themselves conservatives (they are only on economics). It is not necessary to have a pastor, reverend, imam or whatever who plays an essential role. He did appoint him to some spiritual/moral role on his campaign. I would suppose that’s both to give the appearance of its importance but also to recognize a long standing relationship in some way. Their argument that he should have changed churches or whatever based on disagreements does not hold water on a personal level. It does have some validity for politics, because these are not messages that people should be communicating and validating publicly. Ok, well we already know he has some poor judgment (he admitted being a doper growing up) and he tends toward a more Marxist interpretation both in his record and rhetoric. But I’m not going to complain about this silly issue.

That is a failing that he can be faulted for. Not what the reverend said. But how he dealt with him publicly up until this past week. Ok, whatever. Move on to something else more pressing please. And would somebody start the Libertarian primary or cover it somewhere.

18 March 2008

actual picks

Here’s what I actually picked
Weakest 1: I have UCLA losing first, usually to either Duke (unconventional) or UConn (still odd). But that’s only about half the time. Memphis clearly has the worst draw with Texas in Houston. I don’t see any 8-9s knocking off a 1 this year either and none of the 4s look promising either. It relies on a 2/3, which means Wisconsin v Kansas (maybe), Texas, and maybe Duke to win. No sleeper final four teams outside of this list exist in my mind: Kansas, Carolina, UCLA, Memphis, Texas, Duke, Wisconsin, and maybe Georgetown (I did not like the MW bracket, ouch). If a George Mason comes along and someone picks it, good for you. You’re an orange.
UCLA looks weakest because their D isn’t as good as advertised inside. They focus too much on that hedgehog crap which really doesn’t matter.

Weakest 2: Tennessee is clearly the weakest 2. Again. Why the committee or RPI likes this team so much I don’t know. I stuck with either Butler or Oklahoma beating them. Georgetown will have trouble with Wisconsin. Duke will have some matchup problems with West Va or Arizona or UCLA and UConn, but they cause matchup problems too so it’s a wash.

Weakest 3 seed: Louisville - losing to Oklahoma. Stanford doesn’t look great against Marquette (strongest 6 seed). Xavier is fairly weak but has the easiest draw. Wisconsin has a tough draw, but it’s beatable.

weakest 4 seed: Vandy and Pitt. Vandy is weaker. Much weaker. Either Clemson or Nova beating them every time, if not Siena. Vandy I complain about every year and except for last year they sneak up on me. I watched them more carefully though. They look terrible away from home. Pitt I have losing to either ORU or MSU. Wash St is merely decent, but I have some reservations about Notre Dame because of the weak road record. Really only UConn looked good.

weakest 5: Drake, sort of. None of them look particularly weak. Notre Dame and Clemson have the biggest ’problems’ because of their reliance on big guys. Temple is the only 12 in a position to exploit this though. Western Kentucky on further reflection looks like they will be crushed and has the worst chance at an upset. Michigan St could go on a deep run or could lose in the first round. They’re weird like Arizona.

weakest 6: Purdue. Baylor looks like the best chance at an upset. Not Kansas St.
Marquette is really strong (and Kentucky isn’t). Oklahoma just got a favorable draw for upsets, but a reasonably tough first round game.

7-10: Lots of people picked Butler (but the game is in Alabama, weird). St. Mary’s looks like the obvious upset, with Davidson looking pretty solid as well.
8-9: UNLV looks toast, Oregon is weak (especially on D). BYU-AM game was the toughest 8-9 call. Really none of these games mattered though besides the one point, first round.

The bad news, much like last year. There doesn’t seem to be really any double digit Cinderella teams laying in wait to win a couple games. Best options: Kansas St, Arizona and Villanova. Last year: Winthrop was obvious first round. VCU was obvious. And Wisconsin losing was obvious (in retrospect UNLV was obvious too, but I was silly and went with the bad road team).

Random things to watch out for: Teams that won 6 of last 10: USC, Duke, Stanford, Indiana. They may do poorly. Arizona has to go across country to play in DC and Gonzaga in Raleigh. Going East is usually the hard one if I remember correctly.

Best ’pot odds’ in gamblers speak on ESPN -- pick anyone other than Carolina to win it all. 33% seems a way too high, people get suckered by the pro-ACC message. Picking Oklahoma over Louisville (9%?). Picking South Alabama (USA 17%, looks like a Congress approval rating?) to beat Butler. Not picking Pitt deep, and Michigan St instead (thanks Bobby Knight, you’re still reliable to pick against even when you’re not coaching). Washington St over ND looks ok, but there’s not as much of advantage as picking against Vanderbilt has. Even 40% to the Sweet 16 is too high.

Oh, and don’t count on West Virginia over Duke. Bob Huggins has never coached an upset over a higher seeded team ever in his tournament resume.

Crazier bet wise: pick Texas to lose early.

My Final Four: Carolina, Kansas, Duke, Memphis.
Final Eight: Texas, UCLA, Wisconsin, Oklahoma. (yes 3 from Big 12, I’m weird).

17 March 2008

march madness

Looked back over my tip sheets for last year. They did reasonably well until some minor upsets occurred in the Elite Eight. (Georgetown over Carolina was the main one).

Several major points. Pittsburgh is squarely in the wheel house of picking against this team early. Oral Roberts fits the small profile of a winning 13 seed (there is such a thing, but it’s no lock), Pitt isn’t great on the road, everybody loves them for winning a conference tournament. Teams that win those conference tournaments unexpectedly and get higher seeds because of it generally flame out earlier. Pitt was 6th in the Big East and got a 4 because of their run. Clemson is also potentially suspect despite not winning the tournament. Even if Pitt wins against ORU, they then have Michigan St. I’m not seeing much help there. Villanova presents some interesting matchups but I don’t think Clemson will sleep on them as they might have with a mid-major as a 12 (say W. Kentucky).

Bad road teams fared poorly again last year. The list of Sweet Sixteen subpar road teams -- USC 7-8 (who beat fellow poor Texas), Vanderbilt 5-8 (who beat Washington St in a semi-surprising but easily forecast occasion), Tennessee 6-10 (who beat fellow poor Virginia) and that’s it. Here’s the list of poor road teams who lost quickly:
first round: Stanford 5-7, Duke 7-6, Notre Dame 6-7, Georgia Tech 3-10
second round: Virginia 3-9,, Texas AM (16 still, but many had them as a final 4 team) 7-5, , Kentucky 7-9, Indiana 5-10, Virginia Tech 8-9, Maryland 7-6, Purdue 5-10, Texas 9-8, Michigan St 3-10, BC 6-7
The only one of the advancing teams who had a toss-up with a good road team and won was Michigan St over Marquette.

So the list this year reads like this:
Notre Dame 7-7, Oklahoma 7-8, Arkansas 7-9, Kansas St 5-9, Vanderbilt 7-7, UNLV 6-5, Mich St 7-8, Pitt (prior to Big East run) 6-7, Oregon 5-10, Marq 8-7, UConn 8-7, Purdue 7-7. Outside of K St and Oregon there aren’t as many that scream bad road team.

Title contenders in order then: Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis, with Tennessee and Texas being more marginal. Duke fits number wise but they have serious vulnerabilities inside. A matchup with UConn, Arizona or UCLA would probably crush them.

My upsets. Oral Roberts over Pitt. Siena has a shot against Vandy. Boise even has a shot against Louisville, though I’d rather not be bothered with 14 seeds. West Kentucky is the best and only 12 with a shot, and it’s a weak one. Temple could be trouble for Michigan St, but I’m not yet worried about it. Baylor over Purdue. St. Joseph’s looks good over Oklahoma perhaps as well. Butler and Miami look like the weak 7 seeds, but got more favorable draws. Arizona can beat West Virginia though either looks potentially useful vs Duke. This may be the same paradox as the UNLV/Ga Tech game last year, the winner going to the 16 by virtue of Wisconsin’s injury woes.