Sunday, June 08, 2014

Suspension

You will note that Rambles has not published much in 2014.   In the next few months I will make a decision about whether to a) go back to publishing on this blog, b) take it down, c) reestablish a slightly different blog on an alternative site.

For the first several years this blog was a chance for me to think out loud about a range of issues in economics, politics and baseball.  Since 2005 I have done more than 2700 posts.   But at some point in 2013, I went on to other things.   If this blog or a variation does start up again - I will post a notice here.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Diplomat Buyers Club

The other day Jon Stewart did a very funny episode on several new ambassadors who had seem to have been appointed without reference to any qualifications relating to knowledge about the country where they would serve.    He pointed out that the new ambassadors to Iceland, Argentina and Norway had never been there.   He also explained that  the new ambassador to China (former Senator Max Baucus) stepped down from his senate seat early to try to assure that the dems hold on to the Senate in 2014. Baucus admitted in his confirmation hearing that he did not know much about China.  Like much of Stewart's episodes his wry telling of the story was great.

But let me make a slightly different point.   What are the real qualifications of an ambassador?  There is a delicate balance between having a strong understanding of the current administration's positions and knowing the country where the ambassador will serve.  It might well be easier to learn about the country than to understand an administration's propensities.   Remember that in each of the embassies there are always country or region experts on the staff.

A case in point is Dwight Morrow who was ambassador to Mexico from 1927-1930. Morrow was a JP Morgan banker before entering public life.  Morrow's major qualification, when President Coolidge appointed him, was that he had been a classmate in college and he was part of Coolidge's inner circle.    But he ranks as one of the best US ambassadors to Mexico by any standard.   He immersed himself in the country and is credited with giving sound financial advice to the Mexican government.   The beautiful mural in the Palace of Cortez in Cuernavaca by Diego Rivera was commissioned by Morrow, who had a weekend home there.    Morrow helped to mediate the conflict between the Church and the Mexican government through a series of informal discussions between him and the president.  

A second example was Shirley Temple Black - who had been a fringe politician before she was appointed an ambassador, but was credited in stories about her passing this week as being a first rate ambassador.

So while Stewart's point is funny, I am not sure it is right.


Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Consumer Reports of Boycotts

One of the outcomes of the Superbowl was a controversy about an Israeli company called SodaStream.   SodaStream sells a device which injects CO2 into water and with syrups they sell so that you can produce home made soda.   I am not much of a soda drinker so I have never used the product - but it seems like a good idea.    

Oxfam produced a silly ad suggesting that this company, which offers employment to Palestinians, is exploiting the workers.  That is  nonsense.   In an area of the world where poverty is high - this little company is offering good jobs.   Despite the overblown rhetoric of Palestinian spokesmen - that is the reality.  The company's spokesperson quit her role with Oxfam.  In recent months the Palestinians have used terms like "apartheid" to describe Israeli policies in what they believe to be Palestinian territory.   That is so off the mark it is laughable - but some in the world have begun to believe the claim.

But the real story comes from a fringe group  I found  called Global Exchange - whose mantra is that they are   "an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world"  (Please note I have not put in their URL as I usually would because I find their campaign despicable.)

On their website they sneer - The simplest alternative to buying a SodaStream machine is to drink plain water or other non-carbonated beverages - no one actually needs to drink bubbly water. And even if you like to do so on occasion, remember that you’ll have to consume quite a bit before you’ll realize any economic or environmental benefits from owning your own machine, compared to simply buying bottles at the grocery store. (Yes, plastic bottles are wasteful, but plenty of plastic, plus metal and other resources used for manufacturing and shipping, goes into each home machine, too.)  Can you imagine the internal fights with these nutballs.   "If we can't get people to not buy products from this company that is operating in what we believe to be Palestinian territory then should we actually ask them to use (shudder!!!!) plastic bottles?"   Which orthodoxy prevailed is a matter of some interest - evidently environmental and nanny state principles get thrown out when you have a chance to rail against a for profit company.

But then the site goes on to offer consumer recommendations on competitors to the SodaStream.    Their first alternative has the following advice "XXX (the first company recommended)  isn’t selling its own syrups or powder to flavor your soda, but its customer service department says a full line will be available soon. In the meantime, both Cuisinart customer service and at least some Bed Bath & Beyond retail staffers are recommending SodaStream’s flavorings, but you don’t have to you follow their advice - you can just add fruit juice, brew your own flavorings (start with these recipes), or try the flavor packs offered by two other recent entrants in the make-your-own-soda market."  (Note on the original site the words "these recipes" were hot linked to nothing - evidently the nanny state faction in this group prevailed and prevented GE from being a full fledged consumer advocate.)

It seems odd that a group which claims to support human rights and "economic" justice would spend so much time trying to assail a small company that is offering good jobs in a place where people really need them.  But then again when you live by orthodoxy, even the cross conflicted notions of this group, what you say and what you actually do may be quite different.

Monday, February 03, 2014

How do we deal with the new McCarthy-ists?

The picture is from a website called "Stop Telling Lies about Liberals and We'll Stop Telling the Truth About You."    I have a sister in law who seems to like it a lot.   Their righteous indignation mantra is -

The truth always stands up for itself. we fight fire with fire and always tell the truth. If you disagree, or do not like with anything posted here, tough!

A few days ago she linked this on Facebook and with the same kind of civil discourse standard that the website promotes commented that it is "amazing that 'these people' can figure out how to vote."   She immediately got a lot of likes and statements of agreement - mostly focused on how ignorant they guy in the photo was.

I am not sure when this photo was taken.   I do not really care.   The guy holding the sign, even if the spelling errors were not there - does not represent even a small sliver of political opinion in the country.  Yet it is presented like it is a mainstream view of conservatives.

The Website also spends a lot of time on the usual suspects like Fox news and criticisms of policies by the Obama Administration (the IRS seeming abuse of power and issues surrounding our response in Benghazi are dismissed as "pseudo-scandals"   I am sure the Department of Justice's gun running to Mexico - which on its face seems like an absurd project for the government to undertake - got similar treatment when it was being discussed).   I realize that the same level of vitriol is available for conservatives.

From my perspective every American should be concerned about politicians in Washington and their constant interest in accumulating power in all sorts of areas.    Sure I am concerned about many things going on in the last five years, including getting better answers than we have been given about the conduct of public officials in the IRS, the Department of State and the Justice Department.   Public officials should be held accountable for their actions and at least in my view all three of those problems represent significant mal-or-misfeasance.    But I was also concerned about many things that happened in the preceding eight and the eight before that.  In my own professional area I was concerned when the Secretary of Education began assuming that she could run colleges better than colleges could (a trend that continues in the current Administration).  What concerns me here is the level of vitriol offered against the other side.   There is no room for civil discourse because one's opponents not only disagree with your thoughts but are evil in their disagreements.

The politics of self-righteousness  did not work well for Joe McCarthy (although there were indeed some problems that he helped to uncover) and they do not work for either side now.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The State of the Union

I realize that many of my partisan friends will find this to be a partisan comment - but it is not meant that way.   I listened to the President tonight and to the response given by the GOP and found both statements at best banal.   The list of priorities that the President outlined and that came in the GOP response seemed like what one good friend describes as "legislative kabuki" - not much of the list is likely to be adopted.   And more importantly a lot of the rhetorical points seem more bound in beginning to score points for November 2014 than to improve the chances that we would actually move forward on some key agenda items.

This tradition has a checkered history.   It began because of a constitutional requirement - Article II section 3 requires the President to periodically report to Congress on the state of the union - but beginning with Jefferson - many of our greatest presidents chose to offer only written comments.  Wilson brought the speech process back and almost every president since then has seen it as a chance to make a big speech.   But as John Walker argued it has become a "tedious relic."   John Walker was not the first to make this call - during Bush II several commentators made the same suggestion.

I think what bothers me most is that it has become an opportunity for Washington to demonstrate its arrogance that what happens there actually is critical to the rest of us.  In reality there seems to be a pattern which is too utterly predictable - the President (who ever is in office) claims responsibility for everything that is good (even though the claim is absurd) and then tries to blame everything that is bad against his opponents; he then lays out a laundry list of proposals and makes some rhetorical points that can be picked up later; he then makes one or more attempts to show how connected he is by introducing props who support his underlying points (I think Reagan began this practice) and then he "blesses America" and signs off.

Soon after the opposition gets the chance to make a statement - which is often not actually responsive to what the President has said.   In good years the SOTU gets forgotten quickly.  The President may or may not be successful in advancing an agenda and in rallying the troops in even numbered years.  But the whole things seems horribly self congratulatory.  The President, and for that matter most members of Congress, remain in a bubble.   They have little understanding or appreciation of what it actually takes to make the economy grow.

One issue of theory here is important and it comes from the architecture of the Congress versus the House of Commons.   In Commons the opposing groups are actually arrayed so as to confront each other at least visually on a daily basis.   Our Congress has none of that - and so much of what passes for discussion and debate is stylized drivel.   The point I am making is that I think the SOTU and its response is more of the same.   We all realize that neither statement is likely to be helpful in improving the public understanding of possibilities for changes in policy and that (perhaps more importantly) even with the bones thrown out in tonight's speech - that the partisan divide will be diminished in the least.

What interests me is what might happen if a president in the future were to have a bit more humility and started from the premise that his job was to get things done rather than score points.  He might draft a statement which proposed some ideas for policies and then actually engage with some real people about those ideas.   Most of the political operatives would think that would be immensely risky - but I think the American people who have to vote for these people might actually find it refreshing.   Both sides then might spend some time doing two things - first, they might actually try to engage the American people not in sound bites but in a substantive discussion about policy alternatives and (as importantly) they might actually begin to work on figuring out what they had in common.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger died yesterday at 94.   The New York Times did a great article summarizing his very long career.  But I wanted to add this footnote.  I've played bluegrass/old time music on the 5 string banjo since the early 1960s.   Like many of my generation a good part of the reason I started to play was based on several people/groups - the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte and most especially Pete Seeger.

Seeger had an instruction book called "How to play a 5 string banjo" which in the original version was quite good.  It had a folkways record that went along with it which had a number of tunes, including "Ode to Joy" that were fun to learn. A few years ago I found a copy of a later version of the book which became a lot more political.   That is too bad because the original was a good way to learn how to play the banjo.   One of the strengths of the manual was its lack of purity.   He taught you a number of styles and the whole point was to learn how to play the instrument not in a particular style.   One of his odd riffs in the book and the record was to suggest that music should come from many sources and should be traded pretty freely.  A lot of his instructional style came from many venues including classical.

Pete Seeger, unlike the other two artists, was never a raging commercial success - although he had more than 100 albums and with the Weavers and the Almanac Singers sold a lot of records.   One of Pete's favorite banjos was a long neck Vega - one of my first banjos was a Vega (although I never liked playing a long neck - which has some extra frets to allow different keys without retuning.   Now one of my favorite instruments  is a Deering Parlor Banjo which has fewer frets.).

Pete Seeger introduced me to a lot of music including a lot of the labor organizing songs which in turn led me to learning a lot about Appalachian music and ultimately to old time string band music.  When my kids were little a lot of their lullabies were coal mining songs - which were often overtly political.   I became more of a frailer than a three finger picker (Scruggs style) as a result of the Appalachian influences.  But  Pete became a jumping off point rather than a constant place to refresh.

My family was pretty musical - my mother had a Master's in Music.  Both parents loved Opera.  I took piano lessons for a short time when I was young.   But I think both my parents thought my attraction to folk music was a bit strange.   I had two aunts in North Carolina who encouraged my interest and even sent me some albums from local groups.

By the time I began to play somewhat professionally (I played in a couple of bands and actually received some fees for it) I had migrated to the work of his brother Mike and the New Lost City Ramblers.   Although a lot of their music certainly included lots of political topics it was less overtly political than Pete's.  Mike died in 2009.   I then went off to a number of other old time musicians including somewhat obscure people like Charlie Poole.

In the 1960s in LA there were two places to hear a lot of folk music - the Ashgrove on Melrose and the UCLA folk festival (ultimately there was also McCabes which had a music shop in Long Beach).  In the 1963 UCLA event I actually played with the Rev. Gary Davis and was photographed for the Saturday Evening Post.   We were jamming between the regularly scheduled concerts and he walked up with his handler (he was blind) and asked if he could play with us.  That was a thrill.  I spent a lot of time at McCabes and the Ashgrove - although I am pretty sure I never heard Pete play at either venue.   McCabes had an odd assortment of musicians including an old Wobblie organizer who taught me a lot of the songs from the IWW song book.

Pete became an icon of the left, including the far left.   As I grew up I became disenchanted with his constant harangues for left of center causes. I also realized that like a lot of the left of the 1940s he never acknowledged that his support for Stalinist causes created a lot of harm in the world.  A lot of the things he espoused for I partially agreed with for example- I thought the Vietnam war was wrong - not because all wars are wrong but because that particular exercise in policy was confused.    I understand that music can often be political but I thought many other musicians were able to separate their politics from their music.

So in the end Pete Seeger was an important influence on me in two ways.  First, he introduced me to some music that has become a deep part of me.   But second, I parted from his politics - a lot of what he talked about between songs - turned me off.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Redundant Nanny Statism at its worst?

The penetration of Smartphones and Tablets into our everyday lives has been very quick.   Yesterday the Federal Trade Commission announced a "settlement" with Apple regarding unauthorized purchases from their APP store that were supposedly done by children.  That will cost the rest of us about $32 million.
Cartoon from the Onion

“This settlement is a victory for consumers harmed by Apple’s unfair billing and a signal to the business community,” said FTC Chairwoman( and chief nanny in charge) Edith Ramirez. “You cannot charge consumers for charges they did not authorize.”   The FTC pounced after a class action suit was settled a couple of months ago.  I disagreed with the settlement at the time.

So what happened here.   A bunch of kids got ahold of their parent's iPhones or iPads and
ordered a bunch of stuff, including in APP purchases that amounted to a lot of dough.

So what is wrong with this?  From my perspective a lot.   When you buy a mobile device one of the reasons you do it is to be connected.  Take some comparable examples.   If a child in a household found a friend in a far away place and began making phone calls to the friend - who should be responsible for the purchases?  The parents.  Parents or other adults should teach the kids to exercise self restraint.

The same principle should apply here - even though Apple already forces consumers to enter a password to purchase APPs or other stuff.   If parents are worried that their little darlings will be buying "smurf points" then they can take a couple of parental actions.  They can password protect their device and keep the password away from the kid.   When they give the kid the device they can turn off cellular and wifi.   They could keep an eye on their bills.  Or even more amazing they could tell their children to take some personal responsibility and understand that actions are not without consequences.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Is everybody as tired of Sebastian Thrun as I am?

For those of you who have not heard of Thrun, he is a Stanford professor who helped to develop the idea of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  By any measure I should be attracted to Thrun's thinking - his interests in technology issues is well developed in a number of areas including driverless cars. By his own description he loves to work on big problems.  Fast Company gushed about him and his course in Artificial Intelligence that he taught with a colleague from Google -

Some 160,000 people sign up: young men dodging mortar attacks in Afghanistan, single mothers struggling to support their children in the United States, students in more than 190 countries. The youngest kid in the class is 10; the oldest is 70. Most struggle with the material, but a good number thrive. When the Professor ranks the scores from the final exam, he sees something shocking: None of the top 400 students goes to Stanford. They all took the class on the Internet. The experiment starts to look like something more.

I do not know how many times I have heard the 160,000 number bandied about.  But the number is meaningless unless you know the results of those signups (for a free course) - Udacity's normal completion rate is 3% (according to an All Things Digital interview with Thrun last July).    They did a minor experiment at San Jose State where the pass rate for three courses was between 20% and 44%.

Thrun claimed to be a leading edge educator based on his AI course - "It was this catalytic moment," Thrun says. "I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined."   Yeah, right, even if you believe the numbers that he released about the course - where only one in eight students completed the course - that looks like a profound overstatement. 

At the end of 2013 Forbes did a long form interview where Thrun's ego showed through.  What bothers me most is how well he seems to get covered on a set of issues where he has very little actual experience or expertise.   Ultimately, there is a lot of opportunity for higher education to revise how it does stuff - including working on alternative ways to finance its operations and how to deliver content - what is a student or a course or even a degree are good questions.   But for even an idea guy like Thrun who has lived off the subsidies of Stanford to offer his AI course, it seems odd that so many outside of higher education have given this experiment so much credibility and seemingly ignored other more substantive thinkers on what needs to be done to change higher education.