Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I guess because they did so well with oil for food we should give them the internet

The following was the opening statement of the declaration of the First UN Summit on the information society that was held in Geneva in 2003 - "We, the representatives of the peoples of the world, assembled in Geneva from 10-12 December 2003 for the first phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their sustainable development and improving their quality of life, premised on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and respecting fully and upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

So then the second meeting of this august group was held in a country that routinely censors internet traffic. In that meeting the Secretary General that brought us graft from oil for food in Iraq said - "The United States deserves our thanks for having developed the Internet and making it available to the world. It has exercised its oversight responsibilities fairly and honourably. I believe all of you agree that day-to-day management of the Internet must be left to technical institutions, not least to shield it from the heat of day-to-day politics. But I think you also all acknowledge the need for more international participation in discussions of Internet governance issues. The question is how to achieve this. So let those discussions continue."

Well thanks a lot Kofi, but no thanks. To suggest that there is not current international participation in the governance of the internet is absurd. To suggest that the UN is the place to convene those discussions is even more absurd.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Zero Sum Politics

What do the Governor's recent defeat on four initiatives and the federal transportation bill have in common? They represent a move toward zero sum politics. Here is how they work. A fundamental assumption in this new mode is that anything I win is something that someone else will lose. In recent years our political system has been infected with that as a base - regardless of who was in charge. The demublicans and the repulicrats do it the same way. Politics becomes a part of a tribal exercise where the benevolent official drops a bit of largesse on the grateful constituents. At the federal level that means that set asides are king - no longer is legislation thought about in broader policies but more about what how many goodies like "bridges to nowhere" can be cobbled together to get 50%+1.

So how does the failure of the Governor's initiatives work into that framework? As I see it, in two ways. First, one of the major reasons why the Governor failed was because of his political advisors, who spent a lot of time talking their boss into doing the fight, even more time in collecting outrageous fees, and not so much time in thinking about how to advance the issues that seem to have been deemed important by the populace - at least according to a couple of polls. The consultants looked at the political landscape as first an opportunity to enrich themselves and second as a landscape where the evil portions of the other side could be paid back for the alleged or assumed indiscretions. That second condition, looking at the world as a series of permanent enemies, is also important to this new condition.

Public Choice economics taught us a long time ago that there are not many places in the society where zero sum conditions actually prevail. Ultimately the gains from interactions are mostly positive some. If we structure the economy correctly, that is certainly true. But if we look at the world as a set of instances where the only way to win is for someone else to lose, we will make poorer choices. Plus we will destroy whatever semblance of broader public purposes that should be at the base of public decisions. Thus, the more we use this lens the less able we will be to find those positive synergies that benefit us all.

What are the causes? There are probably many - the increasing rise of political consultants who look at the world in terms of their next client. But so too is the role of the new media - who believes that every story should be covered 24/7. The increasing insulation of political figures is also a factor in producing these result. Politicians live in a cocoon - they hear from consultants and speak only to safe groups -all the time with an eye toward how the world will look on the news (even though fewer and fewer people get their information from the news).

The trend is self-reinforcing. The more we do it, the more both sides react in kind. We care less about the process and more about the short term results. In the long term, and maybe not that long, that is a surefire prescription for destroying the political system in this country. It is a scary thought.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Illegal Shots

IMG_6377.JPG, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

When we first started going to Mexico, we found that most museums had two kinds of admissions. The first was for people without cameras. The second was for people with cameras. Usually the entry fee was increased by something in the range of 30 to 50 pesos for entry if you wanted to photograph the inside. You were always urged to not use flash in the inside to protect many of the antiquities.

In the last year or so that seems to have changed. Many museums run by the history commission are now prohibiting inside photos. In the Secret Convent of Santa Monica (in Puebla), for example, you are allowed to take photos in the garden, which is quite pleasant, but not anywhere else. I walked in and took a bunch of photos in the garden and then was followed closely for the rest of the visit to make sure I did not snap any illegal shots. It was almost Chaplanesque, the guard following me at about six paces back. I would move into a room the guard would follow. At one point I moved into a room and then out - almost in a dance with the guard. The photo above is one of the areas where photos were prohibited. (although at this point I had not been informed of the prohibition).

What nonsense. The museums do not have enough revenue to publish slide sets or books on the subjects. Those are common in Europe. So you are left with the option of following the requirements or breaking them. There are plenty of better alternatives - assuming that one of the reasons for these changes is the recognition that too many flash photos will deteriorate especially the paintings.

Museums could lead photo safaris with a guide for an extra fee a couple of times a day. People who wanted to photograph the interiors could go through the museum with a guide who would begin the tour with an explanation of how to use your camera without a flash. Or they could hire a photographer to go through and catch the key sites and then post them to a secure website with a fee attached. But the alternative now seems to deprive the museums of extra income and to encourage photographers to steal a couple of shots.

Interestingly, the policy does not seem to be operational in Mexican church sites. There are some magnificent sites in each city and when visiting a new place, the first place we tend to go is to the churches. It is sad that a bureaucratic approach like this ruins the experience of visiting a museum and deprives the museum of key income to maintain their treasures. Such is the way of bureaucracies.

The Delights of Travel

IMG_6616.JPG, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

For the last week or so (longer for me) my wife and I have been away from home. First, to Puebla to see some friends in Mexico and then to Prescott to see my wife's family. The variations were remarkable. This is but one of the shots I took of the high desert sunset. In the space of about 30 minutes the sky did a show for us that was absolutely wonderful. As we drove back to Phoenix on Saturday we saw the Alpha of the process and caught a few shots of that.

My sister in law seems well established in Prescott - she has a good group of friends - including a guy who makes custom boots (of course - in about a year my pair will be done) and contributes to the music and arts scene in the small city. She is contemplating moving further to Snowflake - for the life of me I cannot understand why one would move out of a supportive environment as she has now.

As discussed in a previous post, we also had a great time in Puebla. One of the people we visited is in the process of starting a new business (a Restaurant) in the city of Xalapa. When we were down we saw the proofs of his menus. The fare will be varied. The design is elegant. Every detail has been planned down to the last item. We hope it will be very successful.

Ultimately, the trip was made better not by what we went to see but by who.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Fraud of George Regas versus the IRS

The Internal Revenue service recently created controversy by threatening All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena with loss of exempt status as a result of a sermon given by the rector emeritus a few days before the 2004 election titled "If Jesus debated Senator Kerry and President Bush" You should read the sermon before you judge whether the IRS is justified in its actions. It seems that most people who have come to the parish's support have not. The sermon can be found at this address. The premise of the address is a good one. What would Jesus say about some of the key issues in the election? Regas began the discussion with a seeming joke, where he quipped that it was not his intention to tell people how to vote - he quoted himself saying that sometimes his thoughts were perceived as "You go your way and I'll go God's way." As you read his remarks it is impossible to take his joke as anything but a sorry double entendre.

I would ask, as did Regas, what is the appropriate Christain response on the war in Iraq? Regas also asked about the issue of abortion, which seems both appropriate and useful. In both cases, Christian doctrine offers some interesting challenges. There is a good case to be made that the war in Iraq is not a "just war." In that case Bush, and to a lesser extent Kerry (because who knew where he stood on that issue) would not reflect the teachings of Jesus. There is certainly also a Christian case for the war, although the vast majority of practicing Christians would not be on that side. On the issue of abortion he could have raised whether support for abortion is appropriate to the teachings of Jesus. Again there may be a case for abortion in Christian doctrine and he could have made that case. Were this a fair discussion, Jesus might also ask both men whether their adherence to Christian principles was real. Clearly, Kerry is prohibited from receiving the sacraments of his church as a result of his actions in the political realm. But Christian teachings present a high standard for political players. Regas gave both men a pass by saying they were both dedicated Christians.

That example and others suggests that Regas' intent was not to offer an exploration of Christian doctrine as a focus for thinking about the election but rather a clear statement against Bush. One could have little doubt that Regas is advocating a particular point of view in the election that oversteps the bounds in holding exempt status. Regas clearly was attempting to skirt the requirements for exempt status.

Even with that assumption, there are several questions that I have about the threat of the IRS. First, on that same Sunday in many historically Black churches around the country, so called Black leaders were urging parishioners to vote for Kerry. The IRS has not done anything about that. In some evangelical parishes the case was being made for Bush. But in both cases the IRS seems to have ignored those actions, which seem similar to the ones by Regas. Why? Second, as you read the vast majority of sermons in the website there a plenty that many Christians would disagree with, but the consistent messages in those sermons are about Christian doctrine. Does one infraction represent a valid pattern to revoke exempt status? Finally, is this kind of playing with the requirements of exempt status going to lead to a lessening of support for the the principle of exempt status? A recent report by the Tax Foundation poses some serious questions about the public goods created by the charitable deduction. The kind of advocacy that Regas engaged in is something that could reduce support for the deduction itself - which has been a basic part of the tax code since its inception.

Christians should be involved in the electoral process, and a serious discussion of the teachings of Jesus as they relate to election issues of the day would be a welcome message a couple of days before the election. But Regas' polemic did not come close to meeting that standard. Had I the power, I would not revoke a parish's exempt status for the ravings of one preacher but I would hope that the parish and the one preacher would recognize their responsibilities to help protect exempt status.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


I have a big pet peeve on a couple of lists I am on. One person sends out a message that is for something like scheduling a meeting. Then everyone responds to all readers. If there are 20 people to be scheduled on the meeting, I probably get sixty emails clogging my mailbox. What I am interested in is the final outcome not all the other baloney. AARGH!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Who tells the story - The Role of Ideology in History

For the last couple of days I have been in Puebla, Mexico with my wife and some friends. We spent a good deal of time planning two events that will take place in 2006 but we also had the chance to see the African Safari in Puebla (AFRICAM) and to see Fort Loreto which is a national historical museum of the battle of Cinco de Mayo. The battle is one of important myth in Mexican society. The young general who won against a larger but probably less organized force from European nations is a hero in the country, although not as well known as some later figures. The Europeans were trying to collect a debt of about $70 million. General Zaragoza won the fight with cunning and superior tactics. Unfortunately, about four months after the victory he died visiting his troops (and also some fallen French troops) from the inevitable cholera that was omnipresent in battlefields of the time.

In the history of Mexico there are a couple of periods where the government attempted to starve off religious expression. I had heard and read about the Christero movement – where overt religious practice was absolutely outlawed. Several years ago I was in a small town called Naolinco where there is a memorial to a priest who was murdered during the movement for celebrating a baptism in public.

Before we went to the fort we went to a place in the city of Puebla called the secret convent, which during the Christero period was hidden from view for a very long time. When the convent was discovered by the government (in 1934) its assets were “donated” to the state. Before that however, for a period of about 70 years the nuns lived in secrecy. The official existence of the community was never acknowledged. The description of how the convent became a state museum was not entirely satisfying. We then went to the fort.

What was most striking about the fort was a painting at the end of the museum – not for what it includes (it is a fairly ordinary piece of Mexican heroic muralismIt is an image of the periods in Mexican history that threw off the chains – of 1521, and 1862, and 1910. But what was missing the portrayal was 1810. The first Mexican revolution was led by a priest, Miguel Hildago, who took over a granary (the Aldondiga) in GUanajuato, held it for a while. When the Spaniards took it back they beheaded the four major figures in the insurrection and placed their heads on posts at the four corners. In the city of Guadajara there is another piece of heroic muralism that depicts Hildago.

I was struck in the commentary at both the secret convent and the fort, how easily the history could be modified to reflect on prevailing opinion. Perceptions are important in history. Dick Gregory once said "We used to root for the Indians against the cavalry, because we didn't think it was fair in the history books that when the cavalry won it was a great victory, and when the Indians won it was a massacre. " In this case the tellers of the story in Puebla leave out some important details.

Wise Choices

On the way to the airport for our trip we had our grandson Mason in the car with us. We saw a Santa image on a billboard and both his parents and grandparents reminded him about Santa’s impending visit and how Christmas ultimately is about “wise choices” - kids who make wise choices get visited by Santa and those that do not , do not. After this didactic exercise, I began to sing in a funny voice (at least in my opinion). From his chair in the back, Mason commented, “Grampa, that was not a wise choice!”

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Biological versus Mechanistic determinism

In the last two weeks I have been traveling a lot. On the east coast a couple of times and then in LA. For two Saturdays in a row I was able to come home, change clothes and then go right back out on the Sunday morning - this morning to Puebla and then back on Wednesday to Prescott Arizona. One of the ways I keep myself sane on this type of travel is my iPod but the other is with reading. In the last two weeks I have polished off four books. I am currently in the middle of one by Ray Kurzweil - who has written a lot about technology. The new one is called the Singularity. It suggests that the convergence of biological and computing technologies will soon sweep us up in some profound changes - in all things that we do.

Concidentially, last weekend I was thinking about Peter Drucker. I met him in 2001 at a symposium we created for the new staff of President Vicente Fox. We did the seminar at Claremont and Drucker agreed to be the opening presentation. I introduced him (briefly - what can you say about someone who has had such a profound effect on people's thinking) and then he began to speak. Our focus was making the office of the president and therefore Mexican government better so he had a wide area to talk about. I was at once captured by his seemingly ponderous speech. He spoke very deliberately. But as I listened I thought about the points he was making. In the hour he was with us he offered at least a dozen insights. Like that, in an article in the Atlantic several years before, he wrote about how the (then) coming internet bubble was just like a series of other technological jumps in history. He described in detail, in that article how each succeeding technology had followed a fairly predictable path of innovation, excitement, over-promise, but then integration. Drucker showed his understanding of both the trends in innovation and their ability to build on each other.

When he wrote about economics he had the same kind of sensitivity. He understood, as I think Keynes and many macroeconomists did not, that the economy is not a set of mechanistic processes.

When he wrote about organizations he did so without blandishment. I thought he was looney about the future of universities - he argued that they would not survive. But he looked critically at all sorts of things - from matrix organizations, to corporate pay (he thought it was often outrageous), to the effects of trade. In the same way I saw him at Claremont, he offered a long career of written insights.

Kurzweil argues that the convergence of biology and technology goes through a series of steps each building on the other and that ultimately these trends will begin to work together to change the way we do things. In the beginning of the book he offers a series of charts that explains the pace of change. He also argues that our basic tendency is to work from an assumption that change is linear rather than logrithmic. Kurzweil argues in the early part of the book that the rate of change in these two areas will be so profound that it will soon outrun our ability to comprehend them. That could be either nirvana or some hell on earth postulated by innumerable science fiction writers.

There is a lot to think about in his book. His description of how things change and how they interact sounds a lot to me like an idea I discussed in February (19) on a cycle of innovation first proposed by David Kessler. Regardless of whether Kurzweil has both the direction and the magnitude of the changes there is tons of interesting materials and charts in the book that would be worth the price - even without the provoking theory.

The Singularity can be found at Amazon.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Balancing the Budget Redux(Reflux)

Quick quiz -
What is the most important legislative priority near the end of the 2005 Congress? Extension of the Patriot Act? Tax Reform? Reducing the deficit?
Trade Policy? Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act? Establishing a rational policy or policy rationale for drilling for oil in the Alaska wilderness? Reducing agricultural subsidies? Setting up a more reasonable procedure to limit set asides in appropriations bills? Confirming Judge Alito? Raising member's salaries by $3100? The war on terror? Thinking about infrastructure? K-12 educational standards/policy? Environmental policies? Transportation policy? Social security reform? Making changes in charitable regulations (to respond to the American University problems and others)? Medicare reform? Establishing a better health care system? Copyright reform?

Admittedly many of those would generate a healthy debate about the right course to take. Some probably should not even be on the federal agenda. But the one issue that generates universal support in Congress is patently obvious. Or should that be painfully obvious?

Friday, November 18, 2005

Federalist #10 as a Guide for Today

In Federalist #10 Madison argues to avoid the "passions of the people" - ultimately a representative system is designed to assure that only the best ideas make it through the public policy funnel. But in today's political environment - Madison's suggestion is largely forgotten. Consider the following examples -

#1 - The Congress says it is serious about reducing the deficit - yet the debate in Congress is not about actual reductions but about the contrast between social programs and tax cuts for the "rich". When the Congress does eliminate the bridge to nowhere - which is simply the most visible and blatant example of pork barrel politics - it does not even eliminate the spending merely eliminates the couple of hundred million for the bridge but continues the money dedicated to Alaska. So from a bridge to nowhere we have evolved to simply throwing money down an unobligated rathole. Were we thinking rationally we would work first on those things where we have some level of consensus. Set asides which is a growing problem at the federal level - a more sophisticated way for politicians to extract rent - should be one area where in tight times we should be willing to reign in. But that does not seem to be possible.

#2 - The current debates in academe on creationism versus environmentalism evidence a lot of extreme thought. While some of the creationists have argued positions in the absurd - on some campuses to even raise questions about evolution. I am bothered by the people who want to teach a theory as gospel whether it is biblical or biological. A good part of the process in higher education should be to get people to listen a bit better - a point made in the inaugural address by the new president of Whittier last Saturday. In areas where proof is not possible - we should be taking some time to consider alternative explanations. What I understand about the most reasonable sides of evolution theory does not prevent one from believing in a supreme being - but why the level of passion here?

#3 - Abortion has become an absolute right. Any deviation from that principle is considered terrible. Why should it be harder for a young woman to get an aspirin at school than an abortion? If the law is going to intrude into an area with this kind of sensitivity - would it not be better to set some reasonable limits that are close to where the majority of people think the issues should be resolved?

#4 - The Bush lied, people died and its variations - The administration's foray into implementing the Bush doctrine clearly has some alternative points of view. But the real question that anyone should answer is not whether Bush misrepresented the truth of getting us into the position we are in but what is the appropriate exit strategy - how do we complete the task or withdraw without making the situation worse? The key people in the administration did not get into this position lightly we should not allow our political system to keep the debate at fevered pitch where no light shines on the key things we need to think about.

There are many other areas where we are stuck in unproductive debates on areas where we get mired into the all heads talk at once motif of tragedy TV. But our system will soon lose favor if we keep the level of discussions in these (and other) areas at the yada, yada, yell, yell stage.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Ponies and AOL

I am reading There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere which is writer Kara Swisher's take on the AOL-Time Warner Merger (Debacle). It is a remarkable book. She has a keen understanding of the hype of the tech bubble, the hubris of Case and Levin and others, the lack of touch with the Main Street Media, and the interactions of some remarkably improbable personalities. What's more she puts it in an entertaining fashion that makes a great story. Had I not been one of the shareholders that was screwed by the deal (I hate big mergers) it would be even better.

You can find it at Amazon (also in paperback) - it would make a great Christmas gift for anyone in your life who is interested in technology or mergers or life!

Budget Nonsense Redux

The leading minds of Congress have come up with a way to reduce the budget. Eliminate the funding for the bridge to nowhere - only that idiotic expenditure that would cost the equivalent of buying a lear jet for every citizen who would benefit from it. So far so good. But remember this is Congress. The next step is to keep the funding in and direct it to Alaska. The net result - appropriations keep the same. The problem of "projects" (what members are calling set asides because they think we are wise to the negative sides of the set asides term) is not helped in even a little sense. Only Congress could think this was a solution.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Fighting Back

Sometimes it takes a long time to respond. Beginning about a decade ago a group of Members of Congress began to bash higher education for their "runaway costs" - never mind that Congressional spending makes higher education seem like a piker here - but they began to natter a lot. They asked a group of higher education experts, including me, to do a National Commission and the Commission spent three months (the time alloted) and came up with a pretty good report. The conclusions said - a) Colleges are not well organized to think about costs but b) they have done some stuff on controlling costs and c) they should do more. Soon after that the National Association of Business Officers (NACUBO) convened a group which tried to develop a methodology to count college costs. With more than 3000 institutions that is not a small task but they worked hard for a couple of years and devised a pretty good methodology to explain college costs. What you are able to explain you are better able to control. Colleges and universities then began a two stage effort in this area- first, many began to think differently about costs -and the multiple causes of increasing costs. But second, states began to lower their level of subsidy to state supported universities (in the same way that universities in Europe were being treated) and so the price of higher education (which most people confuse with cost) began to rise.

But the Members of Congress continued to press on. In the bill which reauthorizes the Higher Education Act, they inserted a set of price controls - not that is what they called them but that is what they are. They also responded by adding some new bureaucratic requirements on things like transfer of credit among institutions - which again is complicated as a result of the diversity of institutions.

Last week at my Association's retreat we had a discussion of the current state of the reuthorization bill. One of my presidents drafted an op ed over the weekend which summarizes in a forceful way - why the idea of price controls by any structure - is a bad one. Let's hope that Members of Congress begin to think more carefully about how things should work.
Fat chance for that.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Thinking about the Special Election

OK So the Terminator lost a big one. The voters pretty clearly said no to governing by intiative. So how did this happen - how did Arnold reverse his numbers in such a short time (73->37) and what should he do about it?

Jack Pitney, the astute professor at Claremont McKenna College, argued in a speech yesterday that the roots of the Governor's problem came from some missed signals. The public employee unions realized after the 2004 elections that not a single legislative seat changed hands and therefore the Governor was not as all powerful as he was once thought to be. The Governor's staff then compounded the problem by proposing poorly written intiatives especially in public pension reforms (the state attorney's unit just agreed to a change that is very close to what the Governor was seeking).

How does the Governor get out of this? I think his initial strategy is pretty good -admit your mistake and try to govern. Pitney suggested that offers him a pretty good set of options - if the dems stonewall him he can run against that next year. If they adopt the reforms he can claim credit.

Dan Weintraub suggested in his blog earlier in the week that the dems would be smart to propose solutions in all of the areas that the Governor sought reform - pensions, spending, employee political contributions (probably expand it to corporate checkoffs), teacher tenure, and redistricting (limited to the next census). From the initial responses by them Perata seems to get that. Nunez does not.

This seems to offer a pretty clear way for the political establishment to move forward. The ratings for the legislature are even lower than the Governor's so their apparent and real movement would probably bring cheers from all around. What a novel idea - the political players actually trying to craft not a position but a solution. Would it be too much to hope for?

Balancing the budget

One Seattle paper posed the current mess in Washington as between a $54 billion reconciliation - that falls heavily on students and $70 billion in tax cuts. What a crock. With that kind of question you will always get the wrong answer. There are a couple of things going on here. First, revenue growth is exceeding expense growth at the federal level by healthy margins - in part that is a result of the tax cuts - especially as they relate to capital issues. But wouldn't the questions be better posed by asking Congress to cut back a lot on setasides - pick out the money that was put into projects like bridges to nowhere and we could easily accomplish the revenue goals of reconciliation without cutting into necessary programs or deteriorating our tax structure in relation to the rest of the world.

The url for the cartoon is - I did not hot link it because I think the tradeoff posed in it is what is wrong with the choices we are making at the federal level.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

OK, so who was right?

In an earlier post, I wrote about the potential differences in polling practices. The risks of variant polls is misinformation in the political system. In theory, widely disparate polls could also influence who comes to the polls. One of the major pollsters had the integrity to publish a temperature assessment of how well each of them did. Survey USA did a compilation of the accuracy of the polls in the Special Election. Their totals were as follows -

For the big 4 propositions (73-77) the margin of error was was pretty different.

Field 3.36
SurveyUSA 5.32
PPIC 5.76
Stanford/KN 5.96
Polimetrix 6.24
LA Times 7.44

The numbers varied a bit when comparing the average margin of error by the number of propositions polled.
POLLSTER ERROR (Number of propositions polled)
SurveyUSA 5.32 (5)
Field 6.05 (8)
Polimetrix 7.20 (7)
LA Times 7.85 (8)
Stanford/KN 8.80 (8)
PPIC 9.57 (7)

When one looks at the 3 outlyer propositions (78-80) one would think that accuracy would be improved. If you look at the Secretary of State's election maps (the red/blue splits) you find that the bottom three had a pretty resounding thumping. Also, the real interest and financing came to the first five (73-77). But that assumption is not necessarily true.

The results raise two additional questions - which are fundamentally more interesting than the level of error (although that is pretty interesting). First, we do not know the directions of the error (although with the newcomer Stanford poll there was a relatively consistent error on the side of overestimating support). My suspicion is that two of the leading pollsters were pretty consistently off in estimating the conservative vote. That could be a function of two things either sample error or turnout - there is considerable evidence that conservatives in Southern California did not vote in normal numbers. The second issue is more important. With more than 40% of the voters casting absentee ballots we do not know whether the polls in the last two weeks had any influence on the final results. Both issues could be a good topic for a student of politics to write on in a dissertation or for someone with a little time and a calculator to work through.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Special Election - decline in democracy

This morning I voted early in the California Special Election. The Field Poll suggested that a 43% turnout was expected. But what is unexpected is that 40% of that turnout will be absentee. About a decade ago, I had a dinner with some friends and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It was a remarkable event. The good Senator came a bit late, proceeded to consume an enormous amount of libations and keep everyone at the table in rapture. The purpose of the dinner was to discuss tax issues as they related to higher education. But DPM started out with an absolutely fascinating discussion, with a winsome look in his eye, about the history of the franchise in the US. Somewhat tongue in cheek, he lamented the change that happened when America adopted the Australian (secret) ballot. Prior to its adoption in the mid-19th century voters were required to go to their town square or hall and cast their vote in the open. DPM suggested that the secret ballot somehow reduced the real benefits of expressing one's preference in public - of standing for one's beliefs. In the last several years states have made it easier to exercise the franchise in a number of ways - first by allowing citizens to register much later in the process and then by allowing people to claim the need for an absentee ballot for any reason. One wonders whether those small changes have even in a minor way reduced the genuine impact of voting.

In my household, without evidence of voting on an election day all 18 and older residents do not eat. In this election three of the four voters in the household chose to cast their ballot absentee.

On another topic - Dan Weintraub (the Sacramento Bee Political Columnist extraordinary) yesterday posted something on an issue first raised in the literature of Public Choice Economics. Some in the field argue that it is irrational to vote for a number of reasons. First, if you take the time to learn the issues - and lots of people do not - your potential effect on the election is so small that the investment of time has an exceedingly marginal payoff. Second, few elections are close so the investment you make in elections seems to be time wasted - ultimately your ability to influence the course of events is small. As I have thought about those arguments over the years - I have come to reject them. Here is why. Sure there are uninformed voters and sure most elections are not close. But, here is why the assumption is flawed. Take my example. I am known among a group of voters as someone who is pretty well informed. People actually seek me out on elections. My best guess is that among that group I have between 15 and 20 people who ask my advice. Assuming that at least the repeat customers are influenced by my suggestions (why would they come back if they were not?) then my fraction of the voting population is significantly higher than one vote.

The first post in this blog was about the Iraqui elections in January, 2005. It is important to remember that in spite of the "tsunami of lies and distortions" that was piled on California voters in this election, exercising the franchise, whether in the public square, with a purple thumb or in an absentee ballot is a critical function that differentiates us from many other societies.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The state of veracity in Senator Sot's view.

Meet the press had the following exchange on Sunday.

MR. RUSSERT: You talked about Iraq. There's a big debate now about whether or not the data, the intelligence data, was misleading and manipulated in order to encourage public opinion support for the war. Let me give you a statement that was talked about during the war. "We know [Iraq is] developing unmanned vehicles capable of delivering chemical and biological warfare agents...all U.S. intelligence experts agree they are seek nuclear weapons. There's little question that Saddam Hussein wants to develop them. ... In the wake of September 11th, who among us can say with any certainty to anybody that those weapons might not be used against our troops, against allies in the region? Who can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction even greater--a nuclear weapon. ..."

Are those the statements that you're concerned about?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I am concerned about it, and that's why I believe that the actions that were taken by Harry Reid in the Senate last week when effectively he said that we are going to get to the bottom of this investigation, this had been kicked along by the Intelligence Committee, by Pat Roberts for over two years. And Harry Reid did more in two hours than that Intelligence Committee has done in two years. And the American people are going get this information.

And it's important that they get this information about how intelligence was misused because of the current situation. It's important to know where we've been, but it's important to know where we are today, because we're facing serious challenges over in Iran. We're facing serious challenges in North Korea. And we cannot have a government which is going to manipulate intelligence information. We've got to get to the bottom of it, and that is what the Democrats stood for on the floor of the United States Senate last week. That was a bold stroke, one that has the overwhelming support of the American people. It's about time they get the facts on it. They haven't got the facts to date. They deserve them, and they'll get them.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, what the Democrats stood for on the floor of the Senate in 2002--let me show you who said what I just read: John Kerry, your candidate for president. He was talking about a nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein. Hillary Clinton voted for the war. John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry. Democrats said the same things about Saddam Hussein. You, yourself, said, "Saddam is dangerous. He's got dangerous weapons." It wasn't just the Bush White House.

Hypocrisy lives, but then why are we not surprised?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

An insight about the issue of college costs

In 1997 I served on the National Commission on College Costs. It is an issue that has generated a lot of political discussion and not a lot of solutions. Part of the problem is the confusion (either actual or intentional) that politicians seem to have between price and cost. Price is what families see when they apply to college - which is often discounted for various purposes including financial need. Cost is the amount that all of the resource inputs added together comes to. In higher education cost and price are always different AND no student in the country ever pays the cost of education. Thus, as economist Gordon Winston (from Williams) pointed out about a decade ago - colleges do not set their prices based on cost (a business person sets the price based on cost plus an expected profit) rather they set their price add a subsidy (including a need based component and a non-need based component) and the sum of price and subsidy equals cost. That is a result of the way higher education has formed itself but it makes solutions to this problem a bit more complex.

Yesterday, I was at a Lumina Foundation invited conference on College Costs. Pat Callan, who has had a long career in a number of positions on higher education policy pointed out that the issue is really not subject to technical solutions but rather the issue is a political problem. The problem with political solutions is there is an inevitable move toward standardization - political solutions look to one best way to solve an issue. But as a recent survey in the Economist pointed out the strength of the American system of higher education - which according to them has 17 of the top 20 research universities in the world - is that it is not a system - it has a diverse set of alternatives to serve a variety of student needs.

John Engler, the former governor of Michigan, suggested that one beginning solution would be a disclosure system similar to Sarbanes Oxley which would provide a greater level of clarity for consumers of higher education. That is a pretty good idea. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) spent a couple of years after the National Commission's report constructing a method to assess the cost (not price) of an undergraduate education. More universities should use the methodology. It won't solve the problem - but in this era of accountability it might lessen the chatter about costs. Colleges and universities need to think more proactively about how their costs work - in the current equation (described above) there is not a chance to make those kinds of evaluations in a consistent manner. Many college and universities boards and administrations have done some good work on figuring out how to hold down costs but more needs to be done. Disclosures in a consistent manner may be the first step.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

So who has it right

On Tuesday California will vote on four propositions that are supported by the Governor - I have discussed them previously but basically - Proposition 74 would extend the time for attaining teacher tenure, 75 would prohibit public employee unions from collecting money for political activity without the express consent of members, 76 would adopt a new way to deal with budget shortfalls and would smooth revenues, 77 would change the way districts are drawn. Two (75 and 77) have been on the ballot previously and lost.

But here is how four different polls project votes

LA Times 74: 45-47 75: 40-51 76: 31-60 77: 34-56
Field 74: 44-50 75: 40-50 76: 32-60 77: 35-51
PPIC 74: 46-48 75: 46-46 76: 30-62 77: 36-50
SurveyUSA 74: 49-50 75: 50-49 76: 49-49 77: 44-53
Stanford/Knowledge Networks 74: 53-47 75: 64-36 76: 45-55 77: 55-45

The first three use a standard polling method with slight variations in sample. The last two use differing methodologies - one an electronic phone survey and one a web based response mechanism.

The question is who will be closest and why the wide variations? Assuming that each poll was taken with integrity - the differences might be explained by a) sample, b) methodology or c) some changes in society which make the first three general methods a bit less reliable than the last two (or vice versa).

One wonders if the first three are on the mark whether the Governor will be damaged goods in the coming year. The conventional wisdom says yes - but a lot of that depends on who is 2006 opponent will be. This will be interesting to see.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Joseph Wilson lied

This morning, before I left on a trip I read yet another statement by Joseph Wilson the former ambassador where he reasserts that the Bush White House lied on the Niger connection to Iraq. What is most troubling about this, besides the impression that he is passionately dedicated to opposing the Iraq policy, is that his continued lying in public goes unchallenged. Doesn't anyone read how the former Niger prime minister has said that the Iraqui trade mission where they asked to get closer relations was in his mind only related to the purchase of uranium - doesn't seem like oil would be a big buy for Iraq.
The media coverage of all sides of this story seems lax (at best) or malevolent.

There are several things that the media seems to conviently forget. First, beginning in 1999 the intelligence communities of several nations seemed to believe that Iraq was moving to WMDs - that turned out to be a bluff - but it was one that almost every nation fell for. Second, Wilson came back from the trip partially set up by his wife (he did have some credentials to be in Africa and did know something about the Middle East so it wasn't a complete fraud) and the Senate Intelligence Committee report seems to say that the CIA thought his report reinforced the notion that the Iraquis were going after WMDs. Third, if the Wilson's neighbors knew what Valerie Plame Wilson did for a living it is hard to believe that the administration's efforts to discredit a critic were outing an agent. Fourth, the rationale for going to war with Iraq included the possibility of WMDs but it also included a lot of other notions (read Ws second inaugural which was preceeded by several policy speeches where he laid out the broader purposes of the war).

But what bothers me the most about this story is not that a White House official is accused of lying to a grand jury - I am confident that the legal system will be able to sort out the issues there. Why in the world would a person like Wilson - with such obvious and unrelenting passion on one side be quoted as a reliable source?