Thursday, March 30, 2006

Good Riddance Meathead

Rob Reiner resigned as the chair of First 5 - the group that spent public money promoting an initiative for more money for pre-school that will be on the June ballot. Good riddance. What I hope will not be lost is a continuing review of whether Mr. Reiner's use of public funds constituted an illegal act - if it did he should be required to repay the money.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

More on the Stumpjumper and College Costs

Yesterday saw a flurry of activity on the higher education bill. A bunch of independent colleges objected to HR 609 and Mr. McKeon did some last minute amendments and then issued a Dear Colleague letter that misrepresented their position against some key elements of the bill.

He offered an amendment that would PREVENT states from requiring institutions to use their accreditation services, should they choose to exercise the opportunity to create state based accrediting agencies. On the college cost issue he eliminated the role of the Inspector General in reviewing plans for colleges who exceed the College Affordability Index and reduced the number of institutions that would have to follow the guidelines and procedures from the top 25% to the top 10%. Both changes seem to have been in response to the criticism by opponents of the bill.

The change to prevent the states from requiring institutions to use their services is a welcome one. It reduces the opportunity for state bureaucrats to create a ministry of education in their state. The college cost changes seem to be a further indication that McKeon recognizes that the proposals may not be price controls but they are about as close to price controls as a proposal could be. They may even be a bit worse in that they will tend toward uniformity without offering consumers even the hope of changes in prices. (Which, by all experience price controls do not do anyway.)

The opponents of McKeon's measure have argued that it would be appropriate for the law to create a reliable and comparable disclosure mechanism. As the bill is presently drafted it requires colleges to follow a very specific set of procedures including setting up a special task force on campus and developing a plan to hold down costs. Conditions in the 3100+ institutions in the country vary. One independent college in California wrote McKeon of their efforts to build their program in new ways. This is a small faith based institution without a huge endowment. They have seen high single digit increases in their fees for the last couple of years and expect that trend to continue. Even with those increases they are still about in the middle of their comparison group. What have the fee increases bought? (In addition the institution has raised more money than at any time in their history - so all of this was not one fees.) Well, first, the program has become richer. They have added a new nursing program (there is a big shortage in nursing in the state) and some other offerings. Creating a high quality nursing program from scratch is not cheap. Second, they have grown their student body from about 800 to more than 3000 - that required new facilities. And like all independent colleges they added funding for student aid to assure that a wide range of students would have an opportunity to attend. The point is that their decisions about changes in pricing were not taken lightly or without a plan. But HR 609 assumes that the board and the administration took these decisions carelessly.

All of this suggests that there has been some movement on the issues important to independent colleges but that the sponsors of the bill still don't get the risks they are presenting. Bruce Bartlett in a recent book argued that a good part of the GOP majority seems to think that big government is OK as long as they control the levers of power. Big government is big government. In the area of higher education, the more the feds try to make us look like the European system of higher education where Ministries of Education control almost everything the more higher education in this country will lose the very distinctive flavor that has made it, according to the Economist and other international surveys, the best in the world.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Al Alquist

In the almost 40 years that I have worked around the political process there are perhaps twenty politicians who stand out. Some like Nixon, Senator Prouty and Congressman Esch and Robert Beverly stand out because I worked for them. Others, stand out because of how horribly mediocre or mendacious or petty they were - although most of those are downgraded to a funny story. Some, John Vasconcellos and Jess Unruh, stand out because of the quality of their minds. Vasco and Jess are/were unique characters rarely corrupted by the give and take of politics.

But then there was Al Alquist, who died today at the age of 97. I first became acquainted with Al late in his career. (That was about 15 or 20 years before he retired.) He ran for lieutenant governor in 1970 on a ticket headed by Jess Unruh - but that campaign was out of character. But by when I first came to know him he was an important figure in the state Senate.

Al started his career on the railroads and if you asked him about it he would regail you with why unions are important. He believed deeply in the best sense of policy - on education and a whole range of other things including energy (more on that later). He was at the center of about fifteen years of budget activity. I have forgotten when he became chair of the Senate Appropriations committee but he held the job through a bunch of interesting budget cycles. He was stern at times - but always fair - he believed in the dignity of the process.

In a business and a building where egos are monumental, Al did not seem to get caught in the trend. Bill Bagley, who was his seat mate when they both served in the Assembly said as much about him. He did abhored people who did not come prepared (in part bnecause of his respect for the process) and he could look stern - but it wasn't about him but about the process and making sure good policy got done.

In one of the last years he was in the Senate he vigorously opposed a bill by then Speaker Willie Brown who proposed to change the Cal Grant program - which aids students to attend colleges from a program based on need AND merit to one based almost exclusively on need. Al caught the fraud of that -as did Vasco. But in a key hearing Al went at it with the Speaker. Al would have been a gifted prosecutor - he knew how to elicit a response. Willie, for all of his alleged brilliance, let Al get under his skin. In the end Willie made an outrageous and fundamentally rascist statement about his intentions in the bill. In that committee the Speaker's juice prevailed but as I was walking out of the hearing room (a bit dejected because we lost the bill by one vote) Al came up to me and said "You should get the tape" - Here was a guy who was in his mid-80s telling someone almost 40 years his junior (who is also dedicated to technology) to remember to use the benefits of technology. The bill was vetoed in the Governor's office because we got the Gov to watch the tape of the hearing.

At one point he got into a fight with Steve Peace (the self proclaimed brightest guy in the legislature). They were arguing on a proposal to set up a waste dump in a remote part of California for low intensity nuclear waste - the dump had been mandated by the feds and Alquist believed that the after an expert review of the safest place to locate the thing - California should follow the law. Alquist and Peace almost came to blows. When he returned to his office Al wrote the younger member a letter which stated in remarkable clarity “You obviously have some very severe problems. I suggest you seek immediate psychiatric assistance.” Peace should have taken that advice.

One other mark of the man was the parking meter thing. At one point his wife (now Senator Alquist) and I and Al and my VP were having lunch mulling whether Elaine should run for office. He showed up a bit late and she chided him a bit - he had a habit of refilling parking meters for people who had overstayed their time a bit. It was his sense of the social compact. That was a small thing - but his commitment to good policy was a larger demonstration of the same principle.

In his post-retirement years Al became a bit deaf. He was dedicated to his wife - who is about my age - and she was dedicated to him. They had a genuine affection for each other. For a while he had an "office" in his wife's (who succeeded him sort of) office. But then he drifted away.

Al was the creator of the California Energy Commission - which was one of those ideas in the 1970s that sounded really good - to think about the long range policies of energy for the state. The CEC survived some very tough years because he was its champion. I'll bet there were a lot of things where he and I would have been on opposite sides. But what was unique about him and his type of the era - was that really did not matter. Ethics did matter. So did the long term interests of the state. Al was not a blow-dry kind of guy but he cared about the quality of his work. The state and the nation could benefit from a few more public servants like him.

The Stumpjumper and College Costs

I have refrained from writing about a current controversy in the reauthorization of the higher education act because it is both complex and at this point perhaps too close. But on Friday Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek gave me a good reason to change that - he wrote about the complexity of determining things like the real changes in the CPI. His point is an old one in economics - namely that products and goods and services change - so what might cost more today may also be much better.

Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon has tried to work on the issue of college costs for most of the last decade. In 1997 he created a National Commission on College Costs - and I was his appointee to that group. The Commission published a report on college costs that recomended, among other things greater transparency on college costs. But McKeon clearly wanted more. In this iteration of the reauthorization of the statute that governs federal policy on student aid he includes some provisions on college costs. In all of his statements on the issue he sees the proposal as a reporting mechanism but it is not. It is a crude implementation of price controls. And like all other price controls, it will produce a series of negative effects.

Here is what the McKeon proposal would do. It would divide up higher education into groups (public 4 year, independent, etc) then it would add any institution whose tuition and fee increases went up by more than twice the rate of inflation over a couple of years into a special group - if your institution were in the top 25% in your group you would have to develop a series of reports and actions that would be sent to the Secretary of Education and which the Inspector General of the USDE could then review and audit.

Here is where the Stumpjumper comes in. Over the last decade mountain biking has increased in popularity. Originally, a top quality bike could cost $750 - now some cost as much as $7000 or a growth rate in excess of four times the rate of inflation. (Considerably higher than the underlying rate of changes in college costs which consistently have grown by about 1-2% over the underlying change in the CPI) But if you look at the $750 bike and the $7000 bike there are considerable differences - shock absorbers, less weight (dropped by about a third), new kinds of suspension. All of those make even the least expensive model considerably more reliable and useful than its counterpart of many years ago.

In the last decade, what has higher education done with its money? A lot of it went to funding student aid and to salaries (two of the most important categories of spending). Some of it went to things that were not considered essential a few years ago - like broadband Internet coverage. Is that the only place where institutions have spent their money? Of course not. But the broad categories are representative of the kinds of things that colleges and universities spend their money on. Even with the changes in higher education prices over the last decade, no student ever pays the full cost of education. There is a major difference with most other commodities in the economy. Students get subsidized either in minor or major amounts as a result of fund raising and state subsidies and a whole host of other things. As the report explained there is a difference between cost, price, subsidy and net price. And those four factors work in very different ways.

Some in Congress think that higher education has a cavalier disregard for costs (although they think the way to attack that problem is through price controls). In my experience, college trustees, in either public or private institutions, take the decision for changes in tuition very seriously. Are the institutions organized in the best way to consider cost issues - probably not. But would McKeon's proposal assist in that pursuit? No. Ultimately, colleges will begin to think more carefully about costs when they begin to utilize mechanisms which will allow them to compare. That is with disclosure not the kinds of Rube Goldberg monstrosities like the "College Affordability Index."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Chaplin's - The Great Dictator

From Netflix we rented the Great Dictator, which many writers think is one of Chaplin's greatest and his most commercially successful movie. This was done in 1940 so before the US entry into WWII. Chaplin's schtick is pretty clear, he tumbles together some German sounding phrases and a short moustache. But after the germanospeak is done a couple of times it is not that funny. Chaplin plays the dictator Aedinoid Hynkel. He also plays a barber, who in the end becomes confused with the dictator. There are a series of somewhat funny scenes when Hynkel meets Benito Napaloni (who is played by Jack Oakie) but Oakie does Oakie and so it is more like a skit. The rest of the movie is a jumble.

There is one good scene in the movie where Chaplin (Hynkel) picks up a ballon globe and dances with it (and in the end the balloon breaks) but if you add up all the great stuff in this movie that is unrepeated, there is only about 10 minutes of great movie in something that is more than two hours.

At the end the barber - who has since been transformed into the Hynkel character gives a speech about peace and brotherhood which seems quite out of character. I am not sure how long Chaplin took to make this movie but there seems to be a lot of ego involved and not much thought to tying the plot together or even to getting off the one good joke which is the accented speech.

What amazes me is how W.C. Fields thought about not just this movie but Chaplin. One of the demons that Fields lived with was Chaplin - he was always worried about how Chaplin was perceived. Clearly, some of Chaplin's best work was in the silent movies. Both Fields and Chaplin made silent flicks and they understood the comedic elements of silent movies. But Fields was able to master that genre and then make the move into sound movies. During the 1930s and 1940s Fields did a series of classic comedies - My Little Chickadee, Its a Gift, the Bank Dick, the Great Broadcast of 1938, Poppy, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, If I Had a Million, and then his role as Micawber in David Copperfield - made him a real contributor to film excellence. In comparison, Chaplin's movies after the silent phase were this one and a couple more that were entirely forgettable. So why would Fields be worried about "the little tramp?" It is confusing.

In Field's best work in the sound movies he is able to bring along the silent comedic sense but he also was able to bring along his gift for turning a phrase or a sneer. Chaplin, at least in this movie, seems weak by comparison.

Fields had a drinking problem that eventually took his life. For the last decade of his life he was basically in and out of hospitals and sanitariums (He died on Christmas day in 1946, surprisingly Chaplin also died on Christmas day in 1977). Chaplin had a political problem - he either grew more to the left or spoke out more and thus was moved out of the country. He eventually came back to receive a special Oscar. Fields was about 10 years older than Chaplin. Both had a sense of comedy. Fields had a lot of aphorisms but one of his greatest lines (and least quoted) was "The funniest thing about comedy is that you never know why people laugh. I know what makes them laugh, but trying to get your hands on the why of it is like trying to pick an eel out of a tub of water."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Buck Owens

My dad was in the oil business and when I was about 12 we moved for a couple of years to Bakersfield. It was a great time to be in Bakersfield. The town was a bit country. I remember seeing the Bakersfield Bears, a California league team, and learning that a ball that rolls through the fence is a ground rule double. I remember exhibiting at the Kern County Fair and winning a prize for my coin display. And working in the boy scout baked potato booth where the most obese people would ask for a extra pats of butter.

It was a big change from the Bay Area, where I started life. Bakersfield in the late 1950s was not even a bit country, it was country. We could go a couple of blocks away from our house and get into the foothills with jack rabbits and snakes. Music was big in Bakersfield. A few years after we moved Spade Cooley was convicted of murdering his wife. (He eventually died backstage after a benefit concert where he had been momentarily released from prison - but that is another story.)

But there was also this musician named Buck Owens - who was then a local hero. The city was mixed between the oil people and the "oakies" - a lot of the families that came to California in the dustbowl settled in Kern County. Owens had a string of hits - although the Buckaroos actually were formed after we left Bakersfield. There were a lot of songs that anyone who grew up in California around that time would know - from Tiger by the Tail, Love's Gonna Live Here to Act Naturally (one of my personal favorites).

Owens went on to star in Hee Haw - which seemed to stay on the air almost forever. And he had Grandpa Jones and David Akeman (who was known as Stringbean) as partners as well as Minnie Pearl. But I remember his big songs, gaudy outfits (he was one of the guys that realy did wear rhinestones) and the recreation of a sound that will always bring me back to those two years I spent in Bakersfield.

He died yesterday at the age of 76. That is a part of California history and music history that should not be forgotten. The Bakersfield sound lives in my ears almost every day.


We saw Capote today and for my money it was excellent. The one rap I have heard about the movie is that Capote exploited the killers in the Clutter family killings. The movie does an excellent portrait of Capote during the time he was writing what turned out to be his last completed novel, In Cold Blood. In biographies of Capote there is always a recognition that Capote was a character within a character. In essence he became and created his own characture. One biographer explains that when Capote first went to the New Yorker he would wear a black opera cape. So even early in his career, he was trying to be the symbol.

There are some unstateds in the movie. For example, Harper Lee, who is a major character in the movie, was indeed a childhood friend from the south. The character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird is modeled after Capote. But Lee is simply presented as his research assistant. After Capote broke out, soon after WWII he became a literary figure. So the portrayals in the movie seem accurate. Other portrayals explain, which is reinforced in the movie, that Capote did not take notes in all of his interviews.

The book was a big deal at the time, it was a new form of writing. Capote spent a long time writing it, almost six years. The movie suggests that Capote wanted the two crimminals to be executed so he could finish his book. That may be a bit unfair - clearly Capote the New York literary figure seems to have gotten caught up in the small town goings on of Holcomb where the murders and trial took place. When the movie of the novel was done they used the actual court house and the actual jury in the scenes. He said this about his book - "This book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

There is also some other evidence of him being caught up in the events he was covering. He never wrote another book - although he did eventually publish some short stories. So while he seems to have been using the two killers - especially Perry Smith - he also seems to have become involved in the life of the two he was covering.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman seems to have captured the complexities of Capote - all of the ego, the genuine intelligence of the man and all of his quirks. In my mind he deserved the best actor Oscar. As noted earlier, I thought Good Night and Good Luck was a bit of a cardboard performance. It was a good imitation of Murrow but lacked the depth that Capote did. Joaquin Phoenix was also excellent in Walk the Line - but Hoffman had a much harder role.

At the end of his life he got caught in the caricature that he had constructed. He would write profiles of the people he came to know - with warts and all - and eventually people began to cut him off. All of this suggests that he was a complex figure who wrote one fun novella (Breakfast at Tiffany's) and one new kind of novel (In Cold Blood).

iChat Snapshot

iChat Snapshot, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

This is a snapshot from iChat the Apple program for video conferencing. It only takes a minute to set up. You can use either one of their .Mac accounts or an AIM account. If one of your other contacts is online - you click on them and a chat is opened. You can use this to chat with up to three people. Obviously, you need a high speed connection. It is pretty slick. The photo has an inset of you what others see and then the shot of the other party in the larger window. The image can be easily sized so that you can go from the size in the photo to a full screen mode. Because of the technology used the video does not degrade as you increase size.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Entrepreneurship in the US

Tortillas outsell Wonder Bread. The Census Department released a report showing the dynamic growth of business owned by Hispanics. Those businesses grew by 31% between 1997 and 2002 - they numbered 1.6 million and brought in $222 billion in revenue. California, Texas, Florida and New York are the states where those firms are growing at the fastest rate but behind them are Rhode Island, Georgia, Nevada and South Carolina.

A 1997 report in the same area by the Census Bureau found that on the whole Hispanic owned business were generally smaller (for example average receipts across all industries were $155,000 versus $891,000 for HOBs). At the same time the dispersion of business enterprises was pretty good. They amounted to 5.8% of all businesses in the US but about 1% of the total receipts. The metropolitan areas with the highest numbers of Hispanic owned businesses were in LA-Long Beach, Miami, New York, Houston, Riverside-San Bernardino, San Antonio, Orange County(CA), Chicago and Dallas. Seven of the top 20 regions in the country were in California. The largest concentration of owners were of Mexican heritage although the highest grossing firms in terms of receipts were Cuban. The differential on Mexican owned firms was closing rapidly.

The most recent report is available at the Census Bureau Site

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Higher Education research and its applications

I have a young researcher who is developing her research skills to understand the complex environment of higher education in the US. In the last several months she has begun a series of research reports which list some of the interesting facts she has discovered. In last week's update (she does this for the discipline of writing and thinking about numbers and also as a way to build a network of people who work on campuses) she presented data from a National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Unfortunately, it raised more questions than it answered. So I asked her a series of secondary questions. She responded in a good way and thought more about the implications. As one of my professors once commented to me - data without analysis is just a bunch of numbers.

NCES found in their report that the independent sector (private,non-profit) institutions enrolled about 19% of total enrollment in the country and that they spent about a third of their revenues on instruction. At the same time there was some data on graduation rates. So I asked for a lot of additional numbers that could give the raw statistics some perspective.

So what did she find out? The for profit sector now enrolls about 7% of the enrollment in higher education in the country. If you look at that the independents have moved from about 21% over the last decade to about 19% now. That means that the for profit institutions seem to be taking enrollments (to the extent this is a zero sum game and it is not) from the publics and the independents in about the same proportions as they held before the numbers were collected.

One of the arguments currently circulating in Washington is that there is no real difference between the publics and the independents and the for profit institutions. But here is where the numbers get interesting. A friend of mine from the San Francisco Bay Area who is also a president of an independent college has suggested that the for profits will eventually eliminate the non-profit sector because they do things better. But look for a minute at the numbers. One of the issues that any entity needs to think about is their dedication to their basic purpose. How much of their resources do they dedicate to their actual business purpose? The publics dedicate about a quarter of their dough to instruction. Non-profit institutions offer almost a third. The for profit sector provides just under 24% to instruction. Those numbers are interesting but not entirely dispositive. First, the non-profits and the publics do a lot of other things - so their percentages are right in proportions even if the raw numbers are not correct. But the for profits have a lot less non-educational activities (for example, for profits do not run dorms). So while the publics and the independents may be a bit higher (although the independents clearly offer a higher proportion of resources to their educational mission) the proprietary sector spends a lot less of its resources on the key educational purpose of the educational enterprise.

Now to the other issue of importance; graduation rates. In many higher education circles the four year graduation rate is considered "unrealistic" - but it remains the gold standard of how colleges do their jobs. NCES shows that almost half of the students in independent colleges graduate in four years. Just under 27% of the students in public institutions graduate in that time - but less than 20% of students in independent colleges graduate in four years. That is a markedly different level of performance beween the publics and the for profit sectors and the independents.

Ultimately, my friend who has argued about the ultimate decline in the non-profit sector to the benefit of the for profit sector - fails to see the mission related dedication that the non-profits offer to prospective students. Does that mean that the non-profit sector is exempt from competition? Of course not. And the publics have some slack form market competition because of their subsidy levels. My friend from the Bay Area argues that because non-profits are so focussed on donors they lose attention to their major clients - i.e. students. But the data suggests that the for profits seem to concentrate less on their clients and more on their stockholders (less money spent on instruction and lower graduation rates). The independents that care about ambience - how they serve their students - will be able to compete because they will be able to offer something valuable that prospective students and their families will recognize. Time will tell whether the numbers bear out the projections presented here.

War Casualties

Instapundit published the following figures today on war casualties among four presidents. This is not to diminish the real sacrifice of any loss in our military but to point out that the critics of the war in Iraq simply do not have their facts right.

Here are the numbers by president -

George W. Bush . . . . . 5187 (2001-2004)
Bill Clinton . . . . . . . . . 4302 (1993-1996)
George H.W. Bush . . . . 6223 (1989-1992)
Ronald Reagan . . . . . . 9163 (1981-1984)

Professor Luddite

A professor at the University of Memphis Law School banned laptops from her class. Her claim was that the laptops prevented her students from analyzing and thinking about the concepts she was trying to present - in essence she said the laptop users were trying to transcribe her course rather than interact with her ideas.

Ultimately, while her move may have been satisfying to some, it is shortsighted. There is an old joke in the academy that goes like this "How many university professors does it take to change a light bulb?" The reply is "Change?" Ultimately, this technology is what law students and all students have grown up with. It is what they will use in their courtroom activities. The professor should adapt rather than trying to stop the change.

A few years ago I realized that two kinds of things happen when I teach with students with laptops. The first is what I would call the "googleization" of lectures. When I say something outrageous, it gets checked out instantaneously on Google. When I realized that, it actually enriched the discusssion. We could mutually use the service to check facts. At the same time, some students used their wireless laptops to do all sorts of other things in class (in essence to electronically day dream). The way to solve that problem is to make sure that the course becomes more collaborative and interactive. This professor should take her summer and learn a bit more about how to use technology in the classroom and not try to hide from it. Afterall, the Luddites were not successful either.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

High School Dropouts

The Gates foundation released a report that suggests that common wisdom about dropouts is mostly wrong. For example, they find that 6 of 10 of the dropouts were earning C or better grades when they dropped out and that they might have stayed in had they had more challenges.

The entire report can be found at The Silent Epidemic

The World Baseball Classic II

So Japan won the whole thing from Cuba last night in a good game. The Classic had a series of entertaining games with some very good stars. I hope to be able to get to some of the games next year. The two I was able to see for the full game were fun contests. I came to a couple of conclusions. First, baseball is no longer an American game. Our team did not come to play and a whole bunch of others did. Second, this should bring into question the "World" series. Some of the teams in this could certainly be competitive with the winners of the National and American leagues. Let's hope the sponsors did well with this. It has a lot of interesting possibilities.

Patents in Conflict

The WSJ has an article this morning that needs to be read. ADAM JAFFE and JOSH LERNER, two professors from Harvard and Brandeis have written a reprise of their book on Patents and what is wrong with the current system. From the article- the book merits some serious attention.

The book can be found at Amazon

I have watched with a combination of amusement and horror as Research in Motion has worked its way through the problems it faced with a small company that claimed RIM was stealing their ideas. My amusement was with my colleagues who are hooked on their Blackberrys - a technology I have so far avoided (one of the few) - fearing that their information tether would be shut down. My horror was with the very technical arguments about the fight that I am not sure I understood completely. This seemed like something I thought should not have been settled in a common court.

By analogy, the claims by RIMs antogonist seemed a bit of an over-reach. We work with a company that provides college information to prospective students that has been hassled by a rival for supposed patent infringements. The complaining company does not seem to have a real case - but their ability to tie up our supplier with this legal proceeding seems to be fundamentally negative.

In recent years we have read about bizarre claims of patents on products that were already ubiquitious or on processes that simply should not receive a patent. This set of issues comes back to the same ones admirably advanced by Lawrence Lessig at Stanford on copyright law. Copyright law was turned from its original purpose to something much more curious with a series of enactments that ended with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA). My guess is that the evolution of patent law has taken a similar turn.

When Madison and Jefferson began the debate about intellectual property it was to aid in the creation of such goods. But the legallistic state of the current art goes well beyond what is desirable. I have read a lot about copyright law and am less well informed about patent law. But the picture looks very similar. Patent law, at least as it seems to be implemented seems to be mired in the twin perils of legal proceedings and bureaucratic response - neither is likely to assist in the development of a system which aids inventors and creators of ideas.

Jefferson had a great quote about the ownership of ideas - "If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it." - Madison clearly sought to provide some limited rights for those ideas that could encourage people to create both writings and technological innovations. With our current system it is unclear whether the founder's goals can be achieved.

Monday, March 20, 2006

French Law and other absurdities

A Reuters story this morning reveals that the French Parliament, that same wacky bunch that brought you the "fire em early" proposal is now considering legislation that would prevent companies like Apple and Microsoft from locking in their music technology through Digital Rights Management.(DRM)

I am a big fan of open source type activity but in this case I think as the market develops the DRM component of the players is probably a good idea. The pricing on iTunes is convenient and inexpensive. The availability of content is pretty wide ranging. What is more the iPods seem to encourage people to download music that is legal. This is a bit like Starbucks - once you begin to use Starbucks and you begin to like the Double Mocha Maciato No-Fat Percent Latte you choose that as opposed to something like straight coffee. In the end the iTunes phenom is good for the consumers and also good for the musicians. But the French don't have a piece of this game. So they try to pass a law to again repeal the market. One other thing, DVDs also have a DRM component - part of that is three or four different ways to read a DVD - of course the parliament is leaving that one alone.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Lost Expectations

On Netflix I just saw the 1998 remake of the novel by Dickens.

The netflix review says the following -
In this Americanized version of Charles Dickens's classic novel, set in modern-day New York, young Finn (Ethan Hawke) develops a lifelong crush on Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), the niece of the eccentric Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft). A mysterious benefactor makes it possible for Finn to attend art school in the city, where he runs into his now-engaged love. But when she agrees to pose for him, it unlocks the hope -- and fear -- in his heart.

In reality, this is an attempt to have Paltrow show off her figure and then misconstrue the character of Estella. Ultimately, this is a really poor remake of a very good novel. Better is the version by David Lean.

More on An Army of Davids

Yesterday, I got the chance to follow up on some more ideas presented in An Army of Davids. Glenn Reynolds has a couple of interesting points in addition to what I wrote about earlier.

#1 - The Role of Bureaucracy - One of the major themes in the book is the outdated role of bureaucracies. In any bureaucratic system, information and power are equated. Thus, responses like the odd effects of Katrina by the Mayor, the Gov and FEMA are fully expected. He does some interesting discussion of the spontaneous order that occured after 9/11 where lots of non-governmental resources were mobilized in the city and surrounding areas to assist in relief. He points out that the feds were able to get their act together at about day four after 9/11. But he also suggests that in less secure environments bureaucracies are ill equiped to monitor events. The terrorists are able to move their strategies while most bureaucracies will want to follow established patterns. Both points should point the way to changes in governmental organization that might be necessary in this new world. When information is ubiquitous the value increases only when it moves. That is something originally discussed by Kevin Kelly ( New Rules for the New Economy) but Reynolds expands on the idea in interesting ways.

#2 - The Role of Comfy Chair Stores - Reynolds makes a couple of points about the rash of new types of stores where you are expected to stay a while (Borders, Barnes and Noble, Starbucks). First, he suggests an interesting convergence - of WIFI, Coffee, books/CDs - etc. -those things bring the people into the store. Second, he suggests that the fight that some local merchants (especially independent sellers) had with the big bookstores was wrong on a couple of bases including allowing consumers a wider choice. He makes a classic comment that in some of the small bookstores the clerks liked books more than people. Part of the benefits of the big book stores is the ability to carry lots more titles. Ultimately that allows more authors to have a shot to be read. With the advent of alternative kinds of electronic publishing that diversity of ideas might even increase. Third, he sees these places (when you add in Kinkos and other places like that) as enablers to allow people to determine their own futures. People can now put together their own jobs based on their ingenuity - the possibilities in this environment are certainly higher than they were in earlier times.

#3 - The Grey Flannel People - He makes an important set of points about the initial division of labor (during the Industrial Revolution) which transitioned into the Grey Flannel period - when office and factory workers needed to be in the same place. That transition in turn created a situation where family structures were altered so that dads took less role with children and moms were ghettoed into home chores. (Very different from the pre-industrial period.) But now with the ability to bring economic value back to small units, families can get back to better organizational structures.

#4 - Wedia - He offers a smart turn of phrase that we are moving from Media to Wedia. He gives some great examples (beyond the common ones about the NYT and Dan Rather) where this new force in journalism is reshaping how we get our news. Part of his assumptions here are based on a clear notion that the big news entities are indeed bureaucracies and as I have commented before also financial units trying to make a buck (Why else would the networks employ people like Katie Couric?)

#5 - Political Transitions - He argues that the political figure who figures out the relationships described in the first four will begin a process of winning and changing the system. I think that is true. Both the Demublicans and the Remocrats seem to think we are in the 1930s with their massive solutions - neither Hillary Care nor No Child Left Behind evidences any idea about the changes being wrought in society by things like WIFI and Ebay.

I will have some more comments later when I have the chance to write about some other major points. As I said earlier - this book is worth reading.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Not Mr. Ford's Black Car

Front Top Down, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

I recently bought a new Honda S-2000. It is a wonder to behold. It has a nice responsive acceleration and corners like a dream (I am not sure what the rear end drift comes out to but it is considerably less than my Mustang which was pretty tight). It comes with only three options - a CD Changer, an iPod Hook-up and a Supercharger. For me two out of three of those were redundant. In essence the Honda people think they have thought of everything. For my part, they did.

When I was picking it up, one of the sales guys said this particular dealership does not sell a lot of them (probably compared to the Civic and the Pilot and the Odessy) but he compared it to a Swiss watch. That about sums it up for me. The precision on the car is wonderful. A much better feel than the other cars I looked at. It is a real pleasure to drive.

One of the interesting things about this is the compactness of the design. In the Mustang, I had a tendency to use the back seat as a storage compartment. In this car there is very little place to put anything you really do not need. It may make me a bit neater. (At least in the car.)

Friday, March 17, 2006

The World Baseball Classic

The US was knocked out of the World Baseball Classic last night. I have not been able to watch more than a couple of the games but the ones I have have been entertaining. I hope this inaugural event will happen again. The crowds look pretty good and even though the US is out of the game at this point, there should be a lot of interest in the finals. The Koreans looked pretty tough against Mexico - so I suspect they may be the ones to beat.

Maginot labor law

In the last few days that center for democratic action, France, has experienced protests from students over a new labor law that allows discretionary firing of any worker under 26 for any reason. One wonders how a place that runs on laws to protect workers and that at least initially was ready to adopt the proposed European constitution which had tons of idiotic ideas like a constitutional right to work could adopt such a proposal. The youth unemployment rate is already into the 20% range so this presumably will exacerbate the problem. Part of the reason for the excessive unemployment is the all measure of other protections offered workers who are slightly older. Perhaps a better solution would have been to think more carefully about the myriad of laws that make it almost impossible to fire a worker at any time. The European labor laws are a wealth of odd and curious provisions that make employment decisions not unlike blind mans bluff. In those types of situations, employing anyone is a hard decision - thus, what is meant to protect workers actually harms them.

The new proposal would allow, for all workers under 26, an employer to fire an employee for no reason in the first 24 months. But what is that likely to do to employment? In the theory of the French government it would make it easier to hire the employees of that age. But the more likely result would be continued high levels of unemployment for those people. There is little incentive for them to join the labor force - especially for those young people who are finishing their studies - perhaps between 24 and 26. Why not continue your education until you are over the age discriminatory limit? Why not live off the dole?

In a continent and a country where the next couple of decades will be tough because of a continuing low birth rate, making it harder for young people to get into the labor market seems especially short-sighted. The French pension system, like many of its counterparts in the rest of the world, is tottering because of unreal expectations in financing and because the Ponzi like financing that pays current retirees with current workers is, as it is in other places, broken. Without vigorous participation by young workers the problems will only get worse. Were the government concentrating on this set of issues they would look a bit more creatively at the range of laws that makes the labor force so constrained - they might well indeed do something to give more employers more discretion but not just with one group. Remember, that this is the area of the world that some of the liberal economists consider heaven on earth because of its "worker" friendly policies.

Don't be surprised if the French parliament next tries to repeal the market. Oh, I guess they already tried to do that.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Restaurant Kukiaio in Xalapa

Pictured here are a friend and the owner (also a friend) of a restaurant called Kukiaio in Xalapa, Mexico. This is on Sunday before the normal rush. Armando has been planning this for the last year - and his attention to detail shows in everything he does.

The menu is reasonably priced and an interesting collection of recipes. I tired the Shrimp Real which had shrimp wrapped in bacon with a delicious tomato compote in the center and avacado and lemon juice. On the evening before I tried the Arab Kebab - which was two large kibbe kabobs with a nice portion of rice. The desserts are also interesting - one has a baked bread and pears and carmelized onions with a balsamic vinegar over the top. A very good mix of flavors. I think he only has 65 seats but if you go to Xalapa - this is a place you must search out - it is on a side street just away from the town's cathedral.

A great car

1996 Ford Mustang GT
Originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.
I recently bought a new car and will post a photo of it when I get the chance. But I sold this, a 1996 Mustang GT. When I began to shop for the new one, I looked at a lot of cars. I like convertibles so I looked at the following - Chrysler Crossfire, Audi, BMW, and the new Mustang as well as the Pontiac.

A couple of things soon became apparent. First, the Crossfire and the Audi and the BMW were over-priced. From some discussions with current owners the Crossfire was not entirely reliable.

Then I took the Mustang out. Unfortunately compared to the 1996 they have extended the wheel base and tried to make it a bit retro. In my mind the larger size is a negative. At the same time the interior, which was supposed to look trendy/ retro IMHO looks tacky. A brushed chrome strip looks cheap. It also lumbered a bit. One of the attractions of the 1996 was that it's steering was very responsive - the new one is a bit more sloppy.

I sold my car on Craig's list - in four days for very close to the Kelly book value. A guy from Richmond wanted it for his daughter's first car. I hope she understands what a great car she is getting.

Xalapa in Spring

Spring Flower
Originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.
As noted in some earlier posts I was in Xalapa Mexico over the weekend and one of the diversions I did while there was visit the botanical garden there. It is a large open park with lots of orchids. But it also has some wonderful other examples of plants. You can see those on my Flickr site.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

An Army of Davids

Just got the Instapundit Book an exuberant book about technology. Its' fundamental notion is that technology is empowering. I think his premise fits nicely with one that I have used a lot recently about the decline in authority structures. Individuals have the opportunity, as never before, to take control of major portions of their lives both in a personal sense and as they relate to others.

What may be missing from the book is a sense of the moral hazards of technology. Indeed, the internet can empower but in the wrong hands it can also inhibit. As Lawrence Lessig has pointed out things like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act have a long term effect of limiting the possibilities.

I read this book quickly. But I think it is worth a more careful look. I tend to read a lot about the themes in the book but there were kernals that were worth savoring. His style in brisk and interesting. It is well worth the price. I will post something more where I can follow some of his points in more depth.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Professional Changes

A recent news report suggested that in the last several years professionals (especially lawyers) have become increasingly democrat in their orientation. I would argue that the change might have made economic sense but it helps to diminish the role of the two party system in the US. The professionals added a bit of moderation to the GOP - preventing the religionists from estabilishing dominance. But moving the lawyers to the democrats does not moderate their positions. Indeed, as the trial bar has found it useful to push all sorts of new claims on the legal system - their paychecks have increased but the level of political discourse has decreased. More and more the discussions become items of rent seeking - set asides and principles designed eventually to end up in court.

That certainly does not explain the decreasing civility in the American political system - but it may offer a part of a hint.

Robot Philosophers

I was surfing today and found the following brand new blog from a university that I have known before. Robot Philosopher is in Spanish and English and proposes to discuss the relationship of man and machine. In a post of several months ago I wrote about a new book by Ray Kurzweil - who wrote the Soul of the Machine and other books. Last fall he published something called The SIngularity In it he gave some impressive statistics about the speed with which we are integrating tasks formerly done by human beings with machines. He argues that the trends are inevitable. What concerned me at the time was whether Kurzweil had ever bothered to think about the ethical implications of these transitions. Indeed, there are some wonderful changes going on. We can do some things much better than we could without the use of machine intelligence. And the possibilities as these technologies continue to branch into new areas are daunting. At the same time however we also need to think about whether at some point we need to begin to think about the role of ethics in this area. We could do this with technology - but should we.

That should not lead us into the narrow alley of Luddite thinking like the anti-technologists that have tried to ban bio-engineering in food in Europe. Wasn't Gregor Mendel one of the first bio-engineers? But it should lead us to begin to go back to the basics in philosophy about the differences between intellect and intelligence. We may need to update Aquinas but then we may simply need to reacquaint ourselves with him and others who thought about these topics.

La Broma del Avion

This is the second time in a couple of weeks that I have been stuck in Mexico. This time it was a delayed flight from Veracruz on Mexicana. This prevents me from being at some important meetings but I believe my two vice presidents are up to handling the event.

But as I thought about it I constructed a joke (una broma) in Spanish. It is

Cual es la diferencia contra esperar y volar? (What is the difference between to wait and to fly?)
Niguna (Nothing)


This weekend I taught a short course on policy in Xalapa. One of the discussion points was on federalism. There is a contrast between the US and Mexico. Everything in our history suggests that we have a robust system that moves governmental functions according to the ennumerated powers in Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution and also is guided by the 10th Amendment (which is the least litigated part of the Bill of Rights). Everything in Mexico's history suggests that their commitment to a federal system is marginal at best. For example, the Mexican Navy is headquartered in Mexico City. The President has the authority to remove a governor.

But here is the contrast. The American system seems to be going more toward a national system that Madison warned about in the Federalist Papers (#39). In the last couple of years we have adopted things like No Child Left Behind which increases the federal role in education (a role which cannot be found in Article 1, Section 8 and which was specificially rejected in the Constitutional Convention. At the same time the Mexican system, for a lot of reasons, seems to be slowly evolving into a real federal system. In the last couple of months I have worked with governors or their staffs in three states (and with more to come) each is interested in improving the balance between the DF (like our DC) and their state. These leaders cross party lines. (all three of the major parties are represented). Some of this comes from a fear of the coming election (where the PRD candidate is favored to win) but a lot more comes from the simple pragmatism of politicians who want to be judged on their results. Were it so in the US.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Woody and Liberals

This morning I was awoken by Ramblin Jack Elliott who one of the best interpreters of Woody Guthrie songs. This album has a good selection of songs by Woody. What I was struck by was the mix of things in his songs - which I have known for a long time but was reminded of today. Guthrie had a strong sense of social justice - even in songs like Pretty Boy Floyd. But he also was a strong supporter of things that would produce growth - like Grand Coulee Dam. I wonder where he might fit on the environmentalist continuum today.


One of the best investments in software I have made in the last couple of years was for a product called iRooster – I think I learned about it as a result of one of the RSS feeds I read. Their tagline was worth buying on its own – turn your $3000 laptop into a $6 alarm clock. What it does is take your music files and allow you to use them as an alarm clock. The programmer who created it is named Aaron Brethorst. His company is Six Dollar Chimp Software

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Churchill Quote.

Churchill is quoted in the book I am reading as saying 

"The empires of the future are the empires of the mind."

Good quote - and spot on.

Dubai Ports

It seems to me that the Administration made some serious errors here.  There are two questions to be discussed and they only focussed (or allowed the opponents to) on one.   The two questions should be entirely severable.  The first, is who should administer the ports?  There we should be relatively agnostic about who does it.  The Dubai company, if as the Administration claimed, has experience.  So this would be a relatively simple procurement.  The second question is the one of security.  In that case NO private firm should be involved.  Is the government competent in figuring out how to make our ports more secure?  Based on a couple of years experience with the TSA - the answer is sort of with a lot of reservations.  But the President and his people could have abated this seeming slap at the Dubai by separating the questions.  What were they thinking?

Xalapa Thoughts

I am in Xalapa, Mexico for the next couple of days teaching a course on policy.  I have always thought of policy as a silly word.  Among some of the academics it is really a nice way to say politics.  So this course will be a challenge.  

I am reading a book  by a writer named Juan Enriquez (As the Future Catches You) which is written in an interesting style but has some very good facts in it.  Enriquez argues that without invention/patents your country will not prosper in this age.  Indeed, there is a lot of data that as technology has become more important - that nations have become divided more on incomes based on how much technology is present.  For a long while we imported a lot of people who now seem to be going back to their home countries.

We clearly have done a bad job in the last couple of decades in preparing our own on science and technology but the number of patents from American firms continues to be robust.  This is an issue that would separate politics and policy - what are the politics here and what are the policy issues?  That may be the way I start the class tomorrow.

I am always interested to hear what I will say when I start teaching a new class.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Logic of the Liberals

As noted earlier I am reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  There is a character in the book named Skimpole who reminds me of several modern day liberals.

He comments"It’s business, and I don’t know business. It is he who encourages me. He emerges from great feats of business, presents the brightest prospects before me as their result, and calls upon me to admire them. I do admire them — as bright prospects. But I know no more about them, and I tell him so< span>."  All of that but the italicized text sounds a lot like many liberals.  But later in the chapter he explains his philosophy of life

“My dears, it is true,” said Mr Skimpole, “is it not? So it is, and so it must be,because, like the dogs in the hymn, ‘it is our nature to.’ Now, here is Miss Summerson with a fine administrative capacity, and a knowledge of details perfectly surprising. It will sound very strange in Miss Summerson’s ears, I dare say, that we know nothing about chops in this house. But we don’t; not the least. We can’t cook anything whatever. A needle and thread we don’t know how to use. We admire the people who possess the practical wisdom we want; but we don’t quarrel with them. Then why should they quarrel with us? Live and let live, we say to them. Live upon your practical wisdom, and let us live upon you!

Or "We have sympathy, my roses,” said Mr Skimpole, “sympathy for everything. Have we not?”

GB Shaw had that great aphorism where he said - "He knows nothing and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career."  In this case Skimpole knows nothing but expects to live off the kindness of others.  It really does sound like the real thing. Perhaps this is not just liberals but surely Mr. Skimpole would be a member of the political class today.

The Road of Good Intentions

Over the weekend the president who brought us double digit inflation, an incompetent foreign policy, and more than a quarter century of pronouncements announced that he hoped that the UN would "out vote" the US and adopt the proposed Council on Human Rights to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, which by any reasonable account has been an embarassment to the UN.

The current Secretary General, who has a lot of his own problems, proposed creating the council to replace the commission. His original proposal had some merit. But then the UN process got ahold of it and it became the Commission II. The US is right to oppose the idea.

Carter should learn to keep his yap shut. Indeed, he has done some good social service projects since his presidency but he has also shown himself to be a buffoon, especially in the area of international affairs. He has stood up for elections around the world that were questionable at best. He has tried on several occasions to demonstrate his tiny understanding of geopolitics at the most inopportune times. Remember, this is the guy who brought us the hostage crisis. His speeches for human rights are admirable. But how many nations became more democratic under his watch? How many people in the world live better on rhetoric? Reagan was a bit more skillful at rhetoric but he was also steadfast in backing the words with actions. "Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall" was great rhetoric -but his actions led to the destruction of the wall and the eventual freeing of millions of people behind it.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Paul Krugman as analyst

One does not have to look hard to find a negative comment about George Bush in the writings of Paul Krugman. But as liCafe Hayekpointed out today Krugman is a bit inconsistent on his thoughts. In an essay in Slate in 1997 he said the following:

"my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness.They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty. " He had spent the article suggesting that the net benefits of globalization for the workers in the out sourced countries were undeniable - even if they did not meet US standards.

Yet, today Krugman thinks at least conflicted about globalization. Is it a coincidence that the administration has changed and he has changed his views or is this simply one of those unexplained events?

Economics One A - in two lessons

There are two stories that illustrate some basic economics in the news today.

Why didn't Brokeback Mountain win best picture? - As pointed out in Marginal Revolution - the uptick that the best picture usually gets could not be expected for Brokeback Mountain - which at its best is a marginal money film. The new audience was not there. Better give it to Crash for a couple of reasons - first, it is edgy so Hollywood can still make a statement. Second, the uptick - more people will go to look at the movie. Finally, they made their statement with the Director's award to Ang Lee.

Sugar Quotas - For the past several decades we have had a sugar quota which imposes high costs on US consumers, allegedly to save jobs in the sugar industry. The WSJ this morning had a couple of facts on why the policy is folly. For every job we have saved in the production of sugar we have lost at least two in the confectionary industries. Candy jobs are going where sugar is better priced. Can you guess which jobs pay higher - harvesting or making confections? At the same time we pay about two to three times the world price for sugar. That policy didn't make sense for its original purpose - to isolate Castro - it makes even less now.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Nano Revelations

I have recently been traveling more with my iPod Nano than my video model as my video model contains all of the books I want to listen and have used it in my car (with the Honda adapter which is slick). The Nano can be prone to scratches. But I found the perfect transport. I used a plastic fishing license holder - right size and does not take up any extra room - plus it can be clipped to anything you are wearing. All for about $2.

Will Jones

I got a response on my post on Jay Bennish. It was from a Will Jones but without a track back. It is worth seeing Mr. Jones comments. I had thought that Lyndon LaRouche had moved on. But I guess not.

When Steven Young was a senator from Ohio he would write back when he got comments like the one I got from Jones and say the following:

A deranged person has sent me a letter, using your name, I thought you would like to know about it. Unfortunately Mr. Jones did not give me his address back.

Raul Vargas

Last night my daughter Emily, her boyfriend Mike and I went to the Mexican American Alumni Association of USC Scholarship dinner. The M triple A was founded by a guy named Raul Vargas. Over the last 34 years he has been responsibile for building a program that has encouraged thousands of students to enter and graduate from USC. One of the highlights of the dinner was the presentation of the Hubbard award nominees. In the era of President John Hubbard, Vargas convinced the University to offer a 2:1 match for money he raised for students. To date that has resulted in about $12 million in resources raised by the MAAA for scholarships which has in turn been matched by USC. Each of the Hubbard nominees had an interesting story. One plans to return to Mexico upon graduation and build up high schools in her country. Another is going to Yale Law School. Just listening to the short bios of each was inspiring.

Vargas is going to retire this year. But I suspect the legacy he has built at USC will not disappear. HIs contributions to the University are important and lasting. But his contributions to the fabric of California are equally important. If you want to find more about the MAAA and all of its good work the website is USC MAAA

The "teacher" from Overland, Colorado

In a number of places on the web there has been a 20 minute rant from a geography teacher in Overland, Colorado. The guy's name is Jay Bennish. His school district put him on unpaid leave as a result of his remarks comparing Hitler and Bush and a raft of other outrageous comments. But if you listen to the whole tape it is troubling on a number of levels. First, his understanding of economics is below uniformed. His understanding of foreign policy is equally appalling. These are not questions of disagreements about policies but questions of basic facts. It is as if the only thing this guy read for the last twenty years was Mother Jones and the Nation with a bit of the Daily Worker thrown in. Second, his rant was not in any sense what one could call teaching. The tape has him getting wound up on a series of subjects that all ultimately lead back a consistent opinion that denigrates the American experience. We are consistently portrayed as the bad guys. There is plenty of room for disagreement on all of the issues that Bennish presented but in a high school class on geography there seems to have been little notion of teaching here. Third, immediately there were a group of students who protested Bennish's suspension (IMHO should eventually result in a dismissal) as a violation of "First Amendment rights" - those students were probably taught by Bennish. This is not about First Amendment issues. It is about whether any public school teacher has the obligation to engage students in a way that will get them to think. Bennish clearly was not trying to get the students to think - rather he was trying to indoctrinate them into submission.

Think of the learning opportunities in his subject - for example. He could have discussed the geo-historic implications of the partitioning of the Middle East after WWI. The British (by the way the evil Americans were not involved) decided that it would be a good idea to make things neat. He could have talked about the three groups in Iraq and how they might fit together differently. Or, he could have done an economic geography of the United States. Are the differences in wealth and income based on geography, the economic system or some other set of factors? As an alternative he could have done a historic geography of the US relationship to its neighbors to the south. But he chose to do none of these. Most likely there was no basis for this guy to do any of this. I would be willing to bet he could not identify any of the major geographic regions of Iraq and probably could not do it for places like the US or South America (where he said we are bombing cocoa plants). Anyone who does not know from where cocaine comes probably should not be teaching geography.

During the time of his suspension he might do a couple of things. First, someone should send him a book like the Federalist and he should read it and (if possible) ponder it. If that is too tough he might read the Constitution. Second, he should use his lawyer to sue where ever he went to college. If he got a degree (and he has been a teacher for five years so he must not be a temporary) he was a victim of the cruelist of hoaxes. Even an undergraduate degree should expose him to a range of ideas and thought. It should have allowed him to form carefully thought out positions. As I listened to the tape (twice) I found him a lot like a wind up doll - everytime he started to wind down he would renew himself. There could have been some excellent discussions about all of the issues he presented. What was the role of the settlers in coming to the American continent? (He contended bringing disease and pestillence only) What should be the role of the United States in dealing with drug issues (He contended that we were only bullies) Is there a difference between democracies and more totalitarian regimes (He contended that the Palestinians having elected a government might break a string of a couple of centuries where no democracy has attacked another). In each of these instances he could have taught some basic principles of geography (which was supposedly what he was "teaching."

I understand these comments to be harsh. But his complete denial of his responsibiity as a professional to teach and not indoctrinate should not be treated lightly. Perhaps the kid should not have taped him. But if the 20 minute tape is any example of the kind of nonsense he was expounding he should have been reviewed by the district and terminated a long time ago. Passion and intelligence are not the same thing. A good teacher should be passionate about teaching but should also take care not to beat his students with his own opinions.

There are a lot of blogs on this subject the best coverage I found on the issues is at Tim Owensby

Friday, March 03, 2006

Federal Wisdom

The US Department of Education announced in November that they had given out more than $55 million to help states establish longitudinal databases to study how well they do K-12 education.

Take two of the states - one has a population of 655,000 and a growth rate of 4.5% between 1990 and 2000. Based on census data they have roughly 199,000 school age children.

The other state, California has 35.8 million people, a growth rate three times the smaller state (13.6%) since 1990 and a school age population of 9.8 million. The first state, Alaska, got $3.5 million for this project or roughly $17.50 per kid. California got $3.3 million or about 34¢ per kid. I guess longitudinal data in Alaska is more expensive. What is unanswered is whether the $55 million is really going to help either state improve its educational system. But then that is a much tougher issue.

Is it something in the water there?

Daniel Henninger, the Wall Street Journal's excellent editorial page writer on politics has an interesting column today in his Wonderland column which appears on Fridays. (Subscription required) Henninger wonders why the Washington press is obsessed with the stories they are. He especially focuses on the Scooter Libby/Plame affair that seems to have caught up a good part of Washington for a long time. He quotes the National Review's Byron York in something that came out in a hearing on the case about a week ago -

"CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald argued . . . that as far as the perjury charges against former Cheney chief of staff Lewis Libby are concerned, it does not matter whether or not Valerie Wilson was a covert CIA agent . . . 'We're trying a perjury case', Fitzgerald told Judge Reggie Walton. Even if Plame had never worked for the CIA at all, Fitzgerald continued -- even if she had been simply mistaken for a CIA agent -- the charges against Libby would still stand. In addition, Fitzgerald said, he does not intend to offer 'any proof of actual damage' caused by the disclosure of Wilson's identity."

So the obsession about outing a covert agent, which the press chattered about for many months, is not the story? Does it matter that Mr. Libby and perhaps Ms. Wilson/Plame had their professional and personal reputations besmerched if not ruined?

The larger issue here is what should the press do for a living? Clearly in the last decade they have decided that their role is both to report the news in their own special way and to create controversey. I come back to the ideal that I grew up with of the journalist who was obsessed with getting the story right not getting the story dirty. In my youth we had this quaint notion about the role of the press - that was parodied with plays like Front Page. That remarkable play was seen as a comedy then. Today it might well be seen as an instruction manual.

One other comment. There are some very good reporters. In California, two that come to mind are Daniel Weintraub whose blog is a must read for anyone interested in California politics. Dan does not mask objectivity, he often states his opinion. But he also does some hard digging on a range of issues that no one else bothers to cover. His columns in the paper are first grounded in fact.

Then there is the LA TImes Stuart Silverstein. Stu has focussed on higher education in the last several years. In several stories where he talked to me he would call me back after an interview to be sure that he got my comments correctly. He seems to have a genuine interest in higher education issues and in finding out a lot and then telling it in a cogent way.

I am sure that there are others like that but the notion that someone who deals with the press has to think to find people who seem interested in conveying the substance and not the scandal of an issue - says something. Whether there is something especially pernicious in Washington that encourages the press to work toward the lowest common denominator or whether it is something more pervasive - the long term role of the press will be diminished. More importantly, the new press will be less a bulwark for informing our population.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Blind Pigs and Ratings

Every once in a while even some groups get it right. I am not a big fan of Public Citizen but in this case they hit the nail on the head. John Doolittle has been an embarassment first as a state senator and then as a congressman. Now Clean Up Washington has added him to their "Hall of Shame" for his shameless attraction to back room deals that would make most politicians blush a bit. Doolittle has made a career on cheap shot politics and back room deals. He parades as a straight up kind of guy but associated with all kinds of sleezes. For example he feathered his own nest on redistricting by cutting a deal in Sacramento with some of the lowest types of political types who are allied with liberal democrats at the expense of both other GOP members and also good government. His dealing with lobbyists is legendary - finally some of that has come to light with his highly questionable maneuvers with people like Jack Abramoff. He puffs and blusters but really does not get much stuff done. His substantive legislative record is lilliputian. When you compare his record over a long period of time with the efforts by his neighbor, Dan Lungren, it looks awfully pale. When the leadership battle in the House came down - Doolittle was defending current practice while Lungren said let's look at some better ways to do things. But Doolittle is in a very safe district so he can get away with these kinds of deals. Let's hope the voters wake up and finally look at this aptly named politician who certainly has done little except protect himself.

Economic Integration

On Saturday as I was leaving Aguascalientes, my friend gave me a 2006 datebook - beautifully bound in leather. Remember that Mexico has some of the finest leather work in the world. On the back, stamped was Hecho en Italia. That says a lot.