Monday, April 28, 2014

City Council to adopt partial plastic bag ban this week?

This is the plastic bag recycling bin at the south entrance to the Jewel-Osco at Harlem and Foster on Chicago's Northwest Side.

The Chicago City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on an ordinance that would prohibit this Jewel store and other chain grocery stores in the City from giving out plastic bags to their customers after August 2015. A "compromise" worked out with the ordinance's sponsors will give smaller retailers (stores with under 10,000 square feet of space unless part of a chain of three or more stores) a reprieve from the ban until August 2016. The Chicago Sun-Times Politics Early & Often site provided the text of the proposed ordinance:

Plastic bag ordinance

Retailers subject to the ordinance would be required to provide paper, cloth or "compostable" plastic bags that meet specified standards of biodegradability.

This is touted as a great environmental victory instead of just another regressive tax. It might be beneficial to the environment if the use of plastic bags would really be eliminated, but the proposed ordinance is also a regressive tax.

Bags are not free. I had a post on Page One back in 2011 that looked at the differences between the costs of paper and plastic bags. Paper bags cost significantly more than plastic ones; that's why grocers started using plastic. If this new 'environmental' ordinance passes, the costs of switching back to paper or using "compostable" plastic bags will be passed along to consumers. More well-to-do consumers may already be using cloth or other reusable bags (that they pay for). But, under the proposed ordinance, everyone will have to buy them, or pay increased costs at check-out to cover the costs of new bags. This will raise prices for rich and poor alike. It is for this reason that this new tax, like the sales tax, is regressive.

And the plastic bags have their uses. For example, dog owners will still have to have something to dispose of what dogs do, only now they will have to pay for their doggie-doo bags. It would be best, of course, if the dog owners used "compostable" bags, but the ordinance won't guarantee that.

Plastic bags are also helpful when carrying meat home from the grocer, even in enviornmentally-sound cloth bags. If blood from fresh meat contaminates those cloth bags and the bag owners don't launder them properly, what sort of public health concerns will that create? The ordinance doesn't consider that either.

The environmental benefits of the ordinance were touted by Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who chairs the Health and Environmental Protection Committee. He was quoted in a recent post on the CBS2 Local site. Cardenas said said plastic bags by the hundreds and thousands litter city streets in many wards.
“You see litter, and you see plastic, and you see plastic bags. That’s what you see,” he said. “And we clean it up on a daily basis. Every week we have a task force from the Streets and Sanitation [Department] to go out and clean.”
But that's why they have bins like the one pictured above, at my local Jewel, so people can recycle the plastic bags, not let them blow away in the breeze. We just passed the 44th anniversary of Earth Day. Weren't we supposed to have eradicated litter bugs by now? Wouldn't the truly "green" solution be to encourage recycling?

And it's quite interesting to note that, despite the concerns of aldermen that plastic bags are winding up as litter, the City of Chicago does not even accept plastic bags for recycling. Chicago residents finally have their blue bins -- but plastic bags are not permitted in those bins (from the City of Chicago website, highlighting supplied):

Will my local Jewel still collect plastic bags when it can no longer issue them? Will anyone?

I don't know if the ordinance will really kill jobs, as some of the more strident critics charge. It will presumably give a price advantage to stores just outside the City limits -- bad news for my local Jewel, located just inside the City boundaries. The bag ordinance is a regressive tax, hurting poor people more than rich ones, and yet not contributing one thin dime to the City coffers for the benefit of either rich or poor. Instead of a ban, the environment might be a lot better served if people would just pick up after themselves and use the recycling bins already at their local groceries.

I hope the City Council will again reject this proposal. I'm not, however, holding my breath.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

One in four Illinoisans think ours is the worst state in which to live

This table is reproduced from a Gallup poll discussed in a post on page one. You may need to enlarge or clarify this table, depending on the device on which you are viewing this.

Illinois fares poorly in Gallup poll of state residents' trust in their home state governments

This table is reproduced from a Gallup poll discussed in a post on page one. You may need to enlarge or clarify this table, depending on the device on which you are viewing this.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Judicial blogger appears on this week's North Town News Magazine

I am a guest on this week's edition of North Town News Magazine, talking about the results of the March judicial primary with host and moderator Avy Meyers.

My thanks to Avy Meyers and his entire technical crew Sonny Hersh for allowing me to appear.

The program airs tonight at 7:30 on CAN-TV, Channel 19 on Chicago cable systems, with a rebroadcast tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. The show is also seen in Evanston on Channel 6 tonight at 5:00 and Sunday night at 10:30. NTNM is also broadcast on a number of other suburban cable systems on Mondays at 6:00 p.m. Check your local listings for air times in your area.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Definitely not a good sign

Non Sequitur comic, by Wiley Miller, obtained from Yahoo! Comics.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The burdens outweigh any benefit of MLB’s new ‘security’ procedure

At first, I thought it was an early April Fool’s joke.

I got off the Red Line a good 25 minutes before the scheduled first pitch yesterday, passing the usual Opening Day phalanx of police officers on my way to Gate 5 where I planned to get to my seat in plenty of time for the National Anthem.

The operative word in the preceding sentence is “planned.”

It soon became evident that the lines to get into U.S. Cellular Field were outrageously long – and not moving in any appreciable way.

My host suggested we try the Stadium Club (he’s a member), and we crossed 35th Street, passing many other peace officers en route. But the line for the Stadium Club was also extremely long, and it funnels into a small elevator (or maybe two – I don’t get out much), so we got in the adjacent line for Gate 2. Eventually, after the game was well underway, because we had 100-level tickets, we were allowed to go to Gate 1, where we were wanded and finally allowed to climb the stairs into the park – where, as usual, we still had to show our tickets to at least two other ushers before we could finally get to our seats. I didn’t see as many uniformed police officers after we got in line – we saw some – but mostly, at that point, we saw Sox Security personnel (many of whom are moonlighting police officers).

The long lines weren’t an early April Fool’s joke: According to the Sun-Times this morning, the debacle at the Cell yesterday is a manifestation of MLB’s new security program, which we are all encouraged to accept with stoic passivity.

I dissent.

Seriously, who came up with this brilliant plan for MLB – Jeffrey Loria?

It’s one thing to turn a trip to the airport into an excursion into one of the outer circles of Dante’s Inferno; it doesn’t matter, much, because at the end of the TSA ordeal is the soul-crushing tedium of modern airline travel. But now misguided security guidelines are messing with America’s Pastime. This is serious.

I suspect that the MLB plan is probably a reaction to the tragedy last April at the Boston Marathon. That was an unspeakably awful crime. According to Wikipedia, three people were killed, and 264 more were injured, many of them horribly. People in Boston and around the nation felt deeply for the victims and their families; Americans took the losses personally. The whole nation paused a few days later as we watched the unfolding news of the manhunt for the surviving bomber.

But there were roughly 500,000 people at the Boston Marathon last year. Necessarily, almost all of them got home safely that day. You may recall news reports about many runners or spectators who didn’t even learn of the tragedy until after they’d returned to their homes or hotels.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent most of my professional career dealing with insurance companies, but, for me, everything comes down to analyzing risks and burdens.

I am not a statistician or an actuary. Like almost everyone else (except, possibly, for professional statisticians and actuaries), my sense of risk is at least partially informed by my ‘gut feelings.’ Because of my background, though, my gut feelings are not unduly fueled by hysterical news outlets. And I have perhaps a greater appreciation for risk statistics than most, even if I lack the ability to calculate the odds myself.

I therefore find it significant when the odds of dying in a terrorist attack are calculated at 1 in 20,000,000, as Ronald Bailey calculated in this 2011 piece on (I tracked down that link after seeing it cited in an April 2013 Wonkblog post on the Washington Post website).

You can compare the relative risks of death by terrorism with death by other causes by following either of those links.

I also looked at the publication Injury Facts (2013 edition), published by the National Safety Council, for comparison purposes. The NSC did not provide a calculation for the risk of death at the hands of a terrorist. The NSC’s figures were based on 2009 mortality figures and there were no deaths in America caused by terrorism to use as a basis for calculation of the odds in that year. (According to the NSC methodology, unless at least 20 people die annually from a given risk, any calculation of odds would likely be “unstable from year to year” and the calculations were not included for that reason. The article on used cumulative figures from five years, from 2005-2010, and included Americans killed in terrorist attacks overseas, before taking an average.)

According to the NSC, over 36,000 Americans died in motor vehicle accidents in 2009, making the annual odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident 1 in 8,477. So the risk of death from traveling by motor vehicle is orders of magnitude greater than the risk of dying in a terrorist attack (1 in 20,000,000).

If safety is the real goal, we should perhaps prohibit people from driving to ballgames. But people can die using public transportation as well – again, using the 2013 edition of Injury Facts – Americans had a 1 in 13,954,843 chance of dying in a bus accident and (here’s a coincidence) the exact same chance of dying in a railroad accident. Not a lot of risk, admittedly – but the odds are still better that you might die in an accident on the way to the ballpark as opposed to dying in a terrorist attack at the ballpark.

You are at least twice as likely to die from a lightning strike (1 in 9,903,437) as be killed by terrorists.

But here’s where the ‘gut feelings’ come in: We know we can virtually eliminate the risk of getting struck by lightning if we stay inside during a storm. On the other hand, if we venture from our homes to go to the ballpark, we can’t avoid the risk of terrorism. Also, we can intuit that ‘soft targets’ like ballparks may be attractive to terrorists; therefore, however low the risk of terrorism generally, we find it easy to believe that the risk would be far greater when people are concentrated together at a ballgame or a concert or a shopping mall or a school or a movie theater or a railroad station or a church or.... Hey, wait a minute: There are so many ‘soft targets’ that maybe we shouldn’t consider the risk of being in this place any greater than the risk of being in any other place. There have been terrible tragedies in several of these types of places, of course – not caused by terrorists, actually, but by deranged lunatics with guns and opportunity who, sadly, were lucid enough to pick out targets where there weren’t a lot of armed police officers on the lookout for trouble. So the police presence yesterday at the Cell provided some real security.

On the other hand – back to those nervous gut feelings again – wouldn’t special occasions like the Super Bowl or Opening Day be more attractive targets for terrorists? Well, maybe so – except that these kinds of events present the least soft of any soft target you can imagine even without subjecting patrons to wanding at the entrance gates. Because once again there’s that problem (for the wannabe terrorist) of lugging his bombs or other weapons past all those police officers. What do you think those police officers were doing all along 35th Street and around the stadium? Do you think they were just soaking up atmosphere?

If a person is hellbent on committing some heinous act in the name of some cause, and if that odious person is truly prepared to die in the effort, he will find a place and time to commit his crime whether people are wanded at the entrance to sports arenas or not. But the terrorist or armed lunatic is not going to go anyplace where he must run a gauntlet of uniformed police in order to reach his ‘soft target.’ In my experience, there are always lots of police in attendance in the vicinity of U.S. Cellular Field when the White Sox have a home game. The extreme slowdowns caused by yesterday’s enhanced security wanding exercise, therefore, were a waste of time and effort and failed to make anyone safer.

The burden imposed (keeping thousands outside the stadium until the second or third inning) did not outweigh the benefit of reducing the already minuscule risk of terrorism. Besides, it must have cost the White Sox tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost concession sales.

I’m all in favor of staying safe. But I want real safety, not an illusion, and particularly not an illusion that takes 45 minutes to navigate.