We’ve seen Crashes

October 23, 2008

Please forgive the sports fans in Washington State if they are less shaken by recent Wall Street events than people elsewhere.  This is the epi-center of disaster as announced by Mount St. Helens twenty some years ago.  The only good news a sports fan has had in the men’s sport arena is that Clay Bennett left town with the Sonics.  (The Seattle Storm stands alone as local fun and exciting team.)

Sports fans here are familiar with the feeling of the bottom dropping out of things.  The way we look at it the stock market still has 60% of its former value, what’s to complain about? That’s not a crash, more like fender bender. Heck, the Huskies football team has not won a single game since mid season last year. If you combine all of the wins of the football teams of Washington, Washington State and the Seahawks you get two, both of which occurred it seems like months ago.  That and one of those wins was against an intramural team.

In some ways the Mariner season was a foreshadowing of the Market crash.  The ownership spent extravagantly on players with no intrinsic value.  Our general manager speculated that our single power hitter, Richie Sexon, was going to come back after a miserable season to the form he showed the first year of his contract. The general manager believed that Richie’s performance continue to improve, failing to recognize that all cycles must end and Richie was closer to receiving social security than a home run crown.

Some teams have a retro game where the players wear uniforms from a by-gone age.  The Mariners had a retro season where we got to relive the pleasures of watching the team during its expansion phase.

The Mariners announced there new general manager in the newspaper today.  The announcement began with the most dreaded words in the team’s forlorn history:  “Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong decided.”  I couldn’t read on.

There is a rule that a team may not make announcements during the world series.  This is viewed as a distraction from the game apparently.  There are two exceptions to the ban on announcements: (1) the league gives its approval; or (2) the announcement is not significant. It is not clear which of the two exceptions applied to the Mariner announcement. Maybe both.

This proclamation did not rate coverage by the New York Times, and you have to hunt for it on the sports web sites.  In terms of substance and understanding the reasons for the selection, these announcements are a lot like reading the transcript of a presidential debate.

Being as how this guy is from Milwaukee it’s a little like the Pilots or a small piece of them is returning to Seattle.  But who wanted the Pilots back?

Medical Malpractice Does not Apply to Vets in Washington

September 29, 2008

The case Sherman v. Kissinger was just published by the Court of Appeals today.  It represents a fairly good overview of a pet owner’s rights against a vet in Washington.  This case involved a dog which died after being left at a clinic for a urine sample.  A much more intrusive method of collecting the sample was taken than the one described to the pet owner, a method that led promptly to the dog’s death.

Suit was brought under several theories, including the medical malpractice statute, chapter 7.70 RCW, claiming lack of consent to the procedure.  The Court reversed the trial judge and held that the medical malpractice  statute could not be invoked against a vet.

The owners must treat a pet under Washington law like they would a television set that was taken in for repair.  Under the law a pet is just like any other personal property.  The informed consent statute therefore cannot apply to the treatment of pets.  (Claims that apply to appliance repair such as misrepresentation and negligence can apply to claims involving a pet taken to a vet.)

The reason that this sort of issue does not come before the Court of Appeals very ofter is that damages are only narrowly allowed.  The general rule is that the owner is entitled to the market vlaue of the dead pet.

Emotional distress and similar damages cannot typically be obtained for the loss of a pet.  There are no damages for loss of companionship with a pet.  Only if the cause of death was malicious injury can emotion distress damages be obtained.  This of course would not be available in a typical claim against a vet.

There is also something called “intrinsic value” of a pet that can be a measure of damages.  The idea here is to award the value of the pet to the owner, as opposed to the market value.  This is a very poorly developed concept in Washington and one of at least uncertain utility to an aggrieved pet owner.

Be Sure You Have not Been Taken off the List of Registered Voters

September 23, 2008

In Washington over 400,000 people has been taken off the list of registered voters since 2006 and  slightly more than a quarter of the eligible population is not registered to vote.

Washingtonians should promptly confirm that they can vote.  This can be done very easily by checking here.  If there is a problem, you must contact the county election department, which can be reached through this site.

There are many aspects to the problem of unregistered voters.  (The United States which bills itself as the paragon of global democracy actually is significantly less democratic than other Western democracies if percentage of people voting is used as the index.  Here the feeling of disenfranchisement, as well as actual hindrance to voting, is higher than other countries.)

One aspect of this problem is that some voters find on election day that the doors of the polls are closed to them.  In 2004 this was literally true in Ohio, a state that decided the presidential election.  But I’m writing about a different problem: those voters who arrive at the polls and find that they are not registered.

In Washington 15 percent of the population moves each year.  Most of these people do not update their voting records right away.  Voting-related material is sent out periodically and if any is returned because the person moved, that person is placed on the inactive voter list. If two federal elections go by without that person having voted he or she is removed from the registered voter list entirely.

In some states the Secretary of State has been aggressive about sending out mail to take people off the active voting list.  I at least am unaware that Washington has seen any such activity intended to reduce the number of registered voters for this upcoming election.

BIAW: the Voice of Deregulation and the Housing Industry

September 17, 2008

It was reported that nationally new home starts in August were at a 17 1/2 year low. The housing industry sector of the economy is in its worst slump since the Great Depression. By absolutely every credible account this is due to a failure of regulation in the financial industry, the same cause as the Great Depression.

Just as the new breed of Republicans wants to roll back the social safety nets of the New Deal, they also want to unfetter all of industry from regulation. This is why Bush appointed deregulation champions and incompetents to head federal agencies. Having failed to learn from the past we were doomed to repeat it. Once again the failure of regulation has led to economic crisis.

The loudest and most ardent — if not the rational — voice for deregulation in Washington is the Republican attack dog BIAW, which constantly shrieks about getting the government off its back. The BIAW complains bitterly about environmentalists who are likened to Nazis. Officials of local governments, who enforce building codes fare no better in their eyes. Evidence of the benefits to society from growth planning, safety standards and environmental regulation are dismissed as the toxic propaganda of evil doers.

The strength of this ideological fervor is such that it overrides even concern for the interests of the BIAW’s constituency, the building industry in Washington. It is the absence of meaningful regulation — a condition insisted upon by the BIAW and the Republican Party — that created the disastrous economic conditions that are ruining so many construction-related businesses in Washington.

Time and again we learn that unchecked greed is not a functional foundation for an enduring society. Certainly there can be over-regulation but that is not a justification for the utter abandonment of regulatory constraints on society-threatening institutional avarice.

Our society in its blind fervor to reduce government to a military subsidization function, has failed over the last several years in two respects relevant to this topic: First, our tax money, instead of being used for generally recognized governmental purposes is being used to subsidize huge corporations, the profit going to investors and executives, and losses to the government; Second, under slogans promoting self reliance we have repeatedly in the last several years spectacularly depleted retirement funds and the savings of individuals, undermining the end sought to be achieved.

The Constitution and Smoking and Marriage

September 14, 2008

On September 11th the Washington Supreme Court published a decision dealing with an attack on another citadel of American enterprise: the tobacco industry.  In this case, American Legion Post 149 vs. Department of Health, the vehicle of attack was legislation first adopted in 1985 by the State’s rather timid legislature, then amended by initiative from Washington’s impatient  citizenry in 2006.

The case involved the American Legion Post in Bremerton, which boasts 542 members, but which like so many cases seems to be weighted with more symbolic significance than practical effect.

The issue in the case was the fruit of an imperfect grafting of the initiative to the existing legislation.  The 1985 act exempted “private facilities” and the citizen’s amendment included “any place of employment.”  The vehemence of the smoking advocates was such that the case took on constitutional proportions. The Court in a split decision upheld the smoking ban because in the private lodge employees were affected by smoking.

This is the second recent case involving constitutional issues that seems to have attracted some measure of general interest.  The first case decided two years ago was Anderson v. King County in which it was decided that gay marriage was not constitutionally protected.  The Court upheld a ban on gay marriages.  That case was decided by Justices Madsen, Alexander,  Sanders, Charles Johnson and James M. Johnson.  Four Justices thought there were applicable constitutional protections for gays: Fairhurst, Bridge, Owens and Chambers.

On the question of whether smokers are constitutionally protected in this case  Sanders and James Johnson, and Charles Johnson seemed to have little problem finding fundamental protections to smokers being violated.   In the worst light these three see a Constitution solicitous of the fundamental right to smoke, but not marry.  In a more generous view these justices have warmed to the rights of gay smokers.  An ember of hope.

One justice saw the constitution protecting both groups, voting to reject both the ban on gay marriage and the smoking ban.  That was Justice Chambers, who deserves recognition for consistency.

The majority in the smoking ban case consisted of three justices who would have overturned the gay marriage ban: Fairhurst, Owens and Bridges (sitting pro tem on the smoking case).  These people discern a qualitative difference between the rights of marriage and smoking.  They were joined by two justices who would not overturn the gay marriage ban.  Alexander and Madsen, see the Constitution protecting neither smokers nor gays, again an apparently consistent view.  They voted to uphold the ban on gay marriage and could see no constitutional infirmity in the smoking ban.

What is most interesting to me is the three Justices, Sanders, C. Johnson and J.M. Johnson, who see in the privacy expectation of smoking in a private club as worthy of constitutional invocation and more compelling than the rights of the people who work there, but see no linkage between the right to marry and the Constitution.

Selling Short: What You Need to Know

September 10, 2008

A “short sale” in Washington State real estate agent parlance is selling during the pendency of a foreclosure. It involves convincing the foreclosing lender to accept less than the full amount owed.

One of the things to watch out for here is a fairly subtle manipulation by the real estate agent to profit by the situation. The case I’m familiar with involved a home owned by a very unsophisticated woman. The real estate agent disclosed that a relation was the buyer and that the sale was “a short sale.” The owner did not understand what this meant and signed the papers offered to her, again relying on her agent and not understanding the terminology of the contract.

She was next told to come down to sign the papers for closing and that there would be no money for her. When she objected, the agent gave her verbal promises that she would receive three thousand dollars after closing but declined to put it in writing.

It turns out that she would have received over ten thousand dollars except that the addenda to the contract provided that she would pay all the buyers’ costs of the loan and settlement charges. It also provided that almost $6000 would go to the Nehemiah Down Payment Assistance Program, which according to the closing agent is a program to refund the buyer’s down payment.

This lady had no understanding that, while she got the price she wanted, over ten thousand dollars of the money was going directly for the buyer’s benefit.

In this way the buyer gets the home for absolutely no money out of pocket and the owner gets nothing. The real estate agent gets the commission. The buyer though is left in the same position as if there had been a foreclosure, except that her credit report will contain reference to a “short sale” rather than foreclosure. What the seller has lost is time that might have been spent trying to make a sale that would give the buyer some money to at least move.

Building Green in King County, Washington

September 9, 2008

It is sometimes good to remind ourselves, while we listen to campaigning about the energy crisis, that things are in fact changing to better acomodate the energy difficulties that beset us. For example a town house development on Capital Hill boasts

The REM modeling shows the buildings will perform 30 to 40 percent better than 2004 International Energy Code and the tight envelopes will allow leakage of only 0.215 to 0.25 air changes per hour. Beyond the technical aspects of the project, gProjects paid great attention to the overall site layout and achieved high quality community design. By limiting parking to the exterior areas of the site and through detailed planning, the project has provided for several communal areas, including a pea patch, “the canyon”, and a shared bike shed.

This development is described in detail at the website BuiltGreen, which is run by the Master Builder’s Association of King County and Snohomish County. Check out the site to see news, past newsletters and information about building green. Hopefully the market will catch on to this more than it has, as only 786 new certified homes have been built this year.

At this time there is a conference in Minnesota. This one does not seem to be attracting the attention of recent activity in the state but will have a noticeable impact on new housing nonetheless. There is a conference to determine what changes will be recommended to the building code. One one side are reformists who want state of the art energy saving requirements and on the other are builders who argue that there has not been sufficient research to verify the energy savings or that the some of the changes would not be cost justified.

Environmentalism and the Nazis

June 22, 2008

In the 1950’s communists were said to be infiltrating the government and the entertainment industry, as well as operating under several fronts. The McCarthy era ended when the demagoguery was challenged and the true charlatans were identified. While it lasted, though, it was a ticket to political prominence.

In the last few years some people have taken to identifying environmentalists as Nazis. This is actually done on national television and similar venues; we have almost grown to expect it in political campaigns. Such fear and hate mongering seems to be efficacious. You would think that it would backfire, but there must be more people swayed by it than repulsed.

On national media in 2006 Al Gore was compared to Nazi propagandist Goebbels and to Hitler for his success in publicising global warming. (It is a bit ironic that the people who diminish the Holocaust in this way tend to be Israel’s most zealous supporters.) On CNN Senator Inhofe actually described Gore’s testimony to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Utilities in that manner with the concurrence of Glenn Beck, the host.

In 2007 Fox News Radio continued the Gore/Hitler diatribe. CNN continued to transmit unbelievable comparisons to Hitler and Nazis. Glenn Beck recently said that Gore’s global warming campaign is like Hitler’s use of eugenics to justify exterminating 6 million European Jews.

With the new report on global warming just out, a report subscribed to about a dozen scientific groups associated with our government, doesn’t this treatment of science remind you of earlier, more primitive, periods of history?  Imagine: A world wide scientific conspiracy.  Really?

The hate and fear mongering diatribes are uniformly nothing more than name calling. There is no real rebuttal. Scientists picked “An Inconvenient Truth” apart pretty thoroughly finding some questionable facts and theatrics that suggested an unsupported conclusion. A UK judge found nine factual errors in the film.

But scientists and the British judiciary (one member anyway) agree that the film is rooted in good science and its overall message is supported by sound scientific theory and belief. This was known in 2007 and then Gore got a Nobel Peace Prize along with a U.N. panel of scientists investigating global warming. This, if anything, seemed to fan the flames of hate mongers.

This very odd discourse about environmentalism is probably the progeny of a pseudo-intellectual eddy in revisionist history. People are actually positing that environmentalism is a Nazi program, sort of like “Boys from Brazil.” This theory has been debunked by legitimate historians and even the people who are credited with originating this view disclaim any association with it.

A couple of years ago Jonah Goldberg’s book “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning” appeared. This book seemed to revitalize the “environmentalism is fascism” diatribe, although Goldberg claimed to have written nothing that was intended to suggest such a thing. The book sold well to mixed reviews. It was celebrated by conservative reviewers and panned by others.

The book’s thesis, behind all the pseudo-intellectual blather, is essentially Libertarian: Fascism means governmental regulation and liberalism means governmental regulation; therefore liberalism is fascist. Environmentalists want governmental regulation therefore they are fascists too. For proof just look at Nazi Germany where environmentalism was born. Nazis called themselves the national socialist party therefore socialists are fascists. Socialists are liberals. Very simple-minded stuff hiding in a lot of jargon.

This silly word parsing though unhinges people like those at the Building Industry Association of Washington who have made a habit of labeling anyone opposing their views as Nazis. In March their newsletter, in addition to more conventional name calling, called the Washington State Department of Ecology Nazis and lumped all environmentalists under that moniker.

This set off a local firestorm culminating in and Anti Defamation League demand for a retraction or apology. The B.I.A.W. of course refuses claiming the article (written by its storm drain columnist) is academically grounded. The B.I.A.W. is widely regarded as the Washington State Republican Party’s attack dog and neither the party nor any of its candidates has attempted to separate from this absurd propaganda machine.

Selling Before Foreclosure

June 20, 2008

With the number of foreclosures still rising, and the peak  not expected until fall, more and more people will be  confronted with  the decision whether to sell before the foreclosure date.   Before deciding to sell the homeowner should be satisfied that selling is the best alternative.

Due diligence in this regard should include talking with a bankruptcy lawyer, consulting with a knowledgeable mortgage broker or other qualified consultant about the possibility of refinancing, negotiating with the foreclosing lender, contacting local governmental agencies to see about assistance programs, consulting with a foreclosure expert to see what price the property is likely to get if it were sold in foreclsoure and to understand the process, and speaking with a real estate agent with experience in foreclosures about the market.  I can’t over emphasize the importance of talking to people with expertise in foreclosures, as they are likely to be far more helpful than people with general experience.

Once it is determined that sale is the best option, the laws of the state should be ascertained.  Some states, such as Washington, have distressed property laws that are intended to assure that a home owner in this situation makes an informed decision before parting with title.

These laws generally speaking reduce the interest of investors in buying distressed property, creating great opportunity for investors who are willing to comply with the law.  The laws also dramatically reduce the number of “rescuers” who hound homeowners in financial crisis and often prove to bring only financial disaster to a home owner.

I recommend that you list the property with a real estate agent with knowledge and experience in the area.  If you try to sell without an agent, give yourself a deadline, then list it if the property has not sold.  An agent will give the property much more marketing exposure than the typical non-agent sale and the expertise in this situation is usually helpful.

In marketing the property,  emphasis should be placed on  assuring the prosepctive buyer that you have done your homework and that  the buyer need not fear running afoul of the depressed property laws of the state.  A lawyer can help with this.

There should be a backup plan.  Often people plan to file bankruptcy if the property is not sold by a specified date.  It is a good idea to have already consulted with a bankruptcy lawyer and have the papers ready to file before that date.

Washington’s Political Attack Machine

June 19, 2008

The Building Industry Association of Washington has said that it will not focus attention on the judicial race this fall, preferring to funnel its money into the governor’s race. The B.I.A.W.’s participation in the last judicial election caused it to be the most undignified and misleading judicial campaign in memory.

The B.I.A.W.’s support of Republican Rossi in the gubernatorial race promises to make this campaign the sleaziest governor’s race we’ve seen. (More than a trade organization, the B.I.A.W. is the Republican Party’s “hatchet man.”)This approach was announced in the B.I.A.W.’s newsletter which called Gregoire “a heartless, power-hungry she-wolf who would eat her own young to get ahead.” Rarely does a person have a chance to read such hysterical hate mongering as the article that appeared in the newsletter.

A good account of the B.I.A.W.’s contribution to the campaign appeared in Joel Connelly’s column on June 10.

The State Democratic Party has asked Rossi to denounce the B.I.A.W, as an attack machine. With the Times, P.I. and News Tribune all having called attention to the unwelcome tactics of the B.I.A.W., Rossi’s partnership with this organization could backfire.

It is hard to believe that such a vicious political machine can thrive here is Washington. Not only is it a dominant force in elections but it seems to have the state legislature and Democratic Speaker of the House, Frank Chopp, under its control.