Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Planning, Placer and Shenanigans

Placer county, which is the county adjacent to Sacramento, is having lots of fun this year. It is the most republican of counties in the state and it is in disarray. There is the fight for the congressional seat of John Doolittle, the sanctimonious little snot who reeks of sleeze. Doolittle's record is trivial - he is an insider in Congress but his legislative accomplishments are few while his pronouncements are many. He has a war chest of more than $1 million. Doolittle's biggest marks in his career have been his donors. His wife serves as a consultant for his campaigns and pockets 15% of the campaign contributions as a "managment fee" - in any other profession that would be called a mild form of extortion.

Then there is the fight in the supervisor's race. Robert Weygandt is the current supervisor. He is being challenged by a guy named Jerry Simmons, who is a local attorney. Weygandt is being targeted, in part, because of his opposition to a proposed university in the area. About 5 years ago a major developer in the area proposed to create a new university in the area on 1100 acres of land - which was technically outside of the current limits of development. Placer is a fast growing region - so the development into that area is inevitable. Putting a new university outside of existing areas is probably a good idea - it allows the university to develop before other things grow up around it. The proposed structure of the university was unique. The donors proposed to give the land to the university in two parcels - the first would be for the university - that would be a big footprint for a university (about four times the size of the land in my alma mater University of the Pacific) but the second parcel would be sold off and developed to help finance the construction of the new campus. Thus, with no use of taxpayer funds the region would gain a project that could add luster to the area.

Weygandt asked why the donors simply could not offer a different parcel of land. It was an odd suggestion. There are good reasons to locate a campus where it was proposed to be located that will help the campus grow as there were good reasons to locate Sacramento State University on the edge of town when it was first being built. But Weygandt seems to think that the financial structure (which in my experience is unique) could be replicated to some other parcel of land in the county. That is absurd.

Weygandt used every tactic he could to delay or frustrate the project - even though he said he supported it. He was abetted by the local planning staff who seems to think of these things in pristine terms. The process to develop a new university proceeded a bit. A local committee of community volunteers and civic leaders was formed. They went on a national search to find the right group. They found the Christian Brothers and began to proceed. But then the Christian Brothers closest campus ran into some problems. They had accepted a large donation from a donor who proved to be unreliable. The brothers pulled out. The opponents of the new campus claimed they pulled because of the problems on the Moraga campus. Supporters of the new campus claimed they left because of the extended period of review. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the failed donation did cause some real problems on the Moraga campus - but the delays in the process certainly frustrated the Christian Brothers. People like Weygandt seem to have no conception about a reasonable process for planning a gift that would pay the region back for the next couple of centuries. The Christian Brothers staff (from the province and from the college in Moraga) were stretched thin and the inordinate delays were simply becoming unreasonable. Weygandt keeps claiming that he has met with supporters of the new campus 40 times in trying to resolve the issues. A logical interpretation of his actions could see that those 40 meetings were actually attempts to delay and frustrate the process of figuring out how to accept this generous donation.

In the middle of this process, the university committee formed an effort to do an advisory vote on the proposed campus. That measure passed by a 60%+ vote. The advisory vote was done in part because Weygandt dismissed the results of a poll which showed that a high majority of the voters in the region wanted the campus plan to proceed with all deliberate speed. Weygandt simply said, the advisory vote has no effect on me, we will continue to talk this thing to death. Simmons, by the way, was the chair of the advisory measure campaign.

Weygandt is a registered republican. In Placer this may be like the old time social democrats in the south. The Placer County GOP endorsed Simmons in the supervisor's race. Weygandt is also an odd member of the GOP - he contributed to the re-election campaign of Diane Feinstein.

Then there is the Sierra College controversy. Sierra was a pleasant little community college campus in Rocklin. It is rural. It has a moderately good record of getting its students to transfer - but then it also has a lot of kids who might have the propensity to transfer. It had a president named Kevin Ramirez, who by most accounts had been a pretty good leader, although there is some evidence that he was growing a bit tired in his job. His budgets were unbalanced (caused in part by state revenues) and his educational vision was limited. Like most community colleges in the state, this one had some good elements but it also had some developing problems. For some good and bad reasons, a new group of trustees got on the board and forced Ramirez out. That cost the district several hundred thousand dollars in severance payments. That seemed like a silly move at the time. Now some supporters of Weygandt, a week before the election, have signed a petiton to recall Simmons and a couple of other trustees from the Sierra board. Prominent in the fight are politicians who are friends and supporters of Weygandt's - of course Weygandt denies any knowledge of the effort and its timing (one wonders whether this recall effort will really go forward after the primary election or whether it was designed to simply throw some smoke up right before the election). The new trustees seem to have done some positive things during their tenure. And indeed, the change in leadership might well have moved the college along to new things like a new nursing program.

The county is a great place but its politics are unsettled. The Sacramento Bee supported Weygandt so of course gave the recall effort prominence. One would hope that the county will eventually settle down. The Placer University project is an important initiative that should be moved forward. Sierra needs to continue to move forward. With leaders like Wyegandt and Doolittle that does not seem likely.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The new heights of politics

At the Daily Kos - there was an expression of revulsion with the current state of democrat candidates for Governor in California. He commented "I quit. I hate them both. Someday, California Democrats will have the option to choose from candidates who inspire, not the Gray Davises, Cruz Bustamantes, and the two candidates currently stinking up the Democratic side of the ticket." For the last couple of days Californians have had the opportunity to listen to attack ads from a bunch of candidates. John Garamendi - a perennial politician of the magnitude of Jerry Brown (candidate for Attorney General and a with a possible emotional maturity of a 9 year old) attacks Jackie Spier because she has accepted contributions from insurance companies (Garamendi who is arguably the worst insurance commissioner in the nation) has not taken contributions. Then we have the Phil Angelides attacks on Westly and Westly's attacks on Angelides development activities - comparing Sacramento to New Orleans. All in all this has been a dismal campaign. There are some real issues to be covered in this election but no candidate thinks voters need to think about them. And then there is the delusional activity of the public employee unions. They classify themselves in the most bizarre terms - they are greedy and short sighted. Public employee bargaining - as California has been working with it since the passage of the Berman and Rodda acts - has fleeced the taxpayers and not improved the performance of public employees. There is a lot of rhetoric about union activity and the worker's rights but very little about performance. But clearly the situation is not where it should be.

There are actually a couple of good candidates on the primary ballot - Bruce McPherson (the current secretary of state) is a great guy with a good commitment to public service. Abel Maldnado could be a good controller. Chuck Poochigian could be a great AG. But then there are the rest of the candidates. I am not where Kos is - I plan to vote for a candidate for Governor. The choice on the democrat side is pretty simple - it is a choice between someone who is in the pocket of the public employee unions and wants to raise taxes on the "rich" versus a guy who looks a lot like Robert (McKay the better way) Redford. At least with the McKay candidate there is chance he would do the right thing. Then there is the Governator. When he is good, he is pretty good, when he is bad he is horrible. Schwarzenegger and Westly could be a pretty good match up. It might even bring Kos back into the fold of electors.

What is a fella to do? News item

From the Guardian -

One of France's most popular rappers will appear in court today charged with offending public decency with a song in which he referred to France as a "slut" and vowed to "piss" on Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. Monsieur R, whose real name is Richard Makela, could face three years in prison or a €75,000 (£51,000) fine after an MP from the ruling UMP party launched legal action against him over his album Politikment Incorrekt.

In the US, were this "musician" speaking about the US in the same terms he would have probably gotten a Grammy and be praised for his bold music.

Campaign Attacks Parading as News

In yesterday's Sacramento Bee there was a story titled "Campaign 2006: 2003 bank deal raises questions of possible conflict for Westly" It related a series of charges that in the process of securing financing for the bonds which helped to get California out of its Davis related deficit, that the controller received some personal windfall by personally owning bonds in Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. As one read the story, although it was front page news, it had less and less substance. It was clearly a campaign attack. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that the Bee has endorsed Westly's opponent.

At the time the bonds were being negotiated, because of the fiscal condition of the state, the bonds needed to be enhanced. That helped to lower the amount of money we would pay to bail out the fiscal irresponsibility that the Davis Administration and the decline in the fortunes of internet businesses had gotten us into. The amount of borrowing was huge. In order to be credible the credit enhancements needed to be done by major banks. Thus, the choices of banks was important but very limited. There is no credible information in the story that Westly did anything improper here, at least in the sense that he personally benefitted from the transaction or that he steered the business to a firm improperly.

Westly's opponent has a history of breaking last minute attacks. When he first ran for treasurer he attacked the abortion views of his opponent (a real important issue for the Treasurer's office) in a last minute hit. Westly has also gone negative in this campaign - explaining that his opponent was a land developer and created a housing community in an area subject to flooding (most of the Sacramento valley).

Today (on page 3) there is a followup which explains a couple of key details including the fact that most of what Westly did in the transaction was ministerial and that the total amount of investment in all of the firms was miniscule. This kind of reporting stinks. One wonders why both newspapers and politicians are at such a low ebb.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Atlas Shrugged - Allegorical Philosophy

I am currently reading Atlas Shrugged, one of two major novels by Ayn Rand.(She wrote a couple of more – We the Living and Anthem are less read). I first encountered Rand at the University of the Pacific. I think I first read the Fountainhead. Both of her major novels (this and the Fountainhead) are long and involved. That is a lot like her philosophy – which meant it was perfect for an 18 year old looking for ideas. I had read Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and this was a natural next step. It was the year of Goldwater so there was a lot of that going around. I was the San Joaquin youth chair for Goldwater – so my first year in college was filled with a lot of philosophical debates and explorations. A lot of people first read Rand in college.

Rand endorsed Goldwater in the campaign - she said in part "If a candidate evades, equivocates and hides his stand under a junk-heap of random concretes, we must add up those concretes and judge him accordingly. If his stand is mixed, we must evaluate it by asking: Will he protect freedom or destroy the last of it? Will he accelerate, delay or stop the march toward statism?" and "If, between now and nomination or election time, Senator Goldwater should change his stand, or adopt some major form of "me-too'ing" compromise, or tie his candidacy to some doctrine of a mystical nature -- we will, of course, be free not to vote for him. At present, he is the best candidate in the field." The comments were like a lot of Rand's writing. She took herself almost too seriously. Later in the campaign she criticized Goldwater as a waffler "I must mention, parenthetically and regretfully, that Sen. Goldwater is helping his enemies whenever he softens his stand. Vagueness lends plausibility to smears. While nothing can justify the misrepresentations on the part of the press, it is unfortunate that Sen. Goldwater has made their job easier by occasional lapses in the precision and consistency of his own statements -- as, for instance, in his speech at Madison Square Garden on May 12. Let us hope that the pressure of his enemies will not tempt him to compromise (in regard to the party platform, for instance) and thus to commit political suicide." Or later she commented
"As of this writing, Senator Goldwater's campaign has been conducted so badly that unless he changes his methods, he is moving toward defeat. Those who are active in the campaign should urge him to raise some essential issues, instead of the secondary matters and vague generalities he has been discussing. He has not presented a case for capitalism; he has not demonstrated the statist-socialist trend of his opponents."

After the election she expressed disappointment that Goldwater was not pure enough - "There was no discussion of capitalism. There was no discussion of statism. There was no discussion of the blatantly vulnerable record of the government's policies in the last thirty years. There was no discussion. There were no issues. In psychological, if not existential, fact, the campaign ended in mid-October, when Senator Goldwater chose to concede his defeat in one of the least attractive forms possible. It was the form of a truly shameful switch: the attempt to substitute the question of personal "morals" for all the crucial questions of our age, and offer it as the cardinal issue of the campaign." Rand in this instance represented a lot of the ideologues that populated the campaign. But she seemed almost incapable of understanding the mix of American politics - that is reflected in her writings too.

The book is an interesting mix. On the one hand it is dated, although the timing of the novel (when it takes place) is uncertain. The story concerns, in part, a family of the largest railroad in the country – so it seems to be before the advent of major air transportation. But it still works as an allegory. Like the Fountainhead – it is a long exposition of ideas done in a tense writing style.

Rand was an odd combination of intellectual energy and base instincts. She created something called Objectivism – which is akin to libertarianism but which when the two were compared she disavowed the latter (libertarianism). She finished university in Russia majoring in philosophy and history although she went on to a stint learning script writing in another school. She emigrated from Russia (by saying she was going to visit relatives in the US) and quickly became a script writer in Hollywood. She worked for both Cecil B. DeMille (including surprisingly on King of Kings) and Hal Wallis. None of that would likely happen in today’s studio culture. Her novels have an element of Fritz Lang in them. They have the feel of that kind of thirties modernism. The Fountainhead, which was made into a movie, looks like that. They also have very clearly defined characters.

In Atlas Shrugged there are basically three types of characters – the corrupt mercantilists (James Taggart is a good example), the independent capitalists (Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon and in a strange sense Francisco d’Anconia) and the poseurs (basically all of the hangers on in the novel which includes most of the writers, professors and others). Each of the character types is both dated and contemporary.

For example, the mercantilists are constantly getting together to ask for favors from the government to accept limitations to improve competition. There is a strong bias against what Adam Smith called the “bull headed brewer” or individual determination in these characters. James Taggart, unlike his sister, wants to be a part of the group so he fails to think about the long term interests of his company. He is living off the accumulated energy of the generations before him that built the company. Rand makes a point of giving that history to illustrate the trend. He accepts his buddies delaying shipments of vital materials which are causing him to destroy his business and agrees to an anti-competitive measure by the railroad association that will put one of his competitors out of business. Surprisingly, the competitor agrees to submit to this restraint of trade. At one point Taggart comments, in Sam Rayburn-esque style - "When everybody agrees, when people are unanimous, how does one man dare to dissent?" For this group of business people – business is about being in the club. They do not understand or care why business is less vigorous than in the past. A lot of what is written about these characters roles in the political process could have been written this year.

The poseurs are also quite current. The professors and writers have no interest, indeed are opposed, to anything which involves competition. Indeed, at the extended party scene at Hank Reardon’s anniversary party professors and writers go on in a way that could be contemporary on many campuses today. For example, a philosophy professor comments - "I am in favor of a free economy. A free economy cannot exist without competition. Therefore, men must be forced to compete. Therefore, we must control men in order to force them to be free." Competition, at least unfettered competition, is inherently evil. There is a humorous reference by another author (whose books have never sold more than 3000 copies) that it would be a good idea to limit publication of books to 10,000 – to assure that writers would not be able to publish trashy novels and books that are “popular.” They are also quite nihilistic. They also reflect the current fashion of the day – their philosophy is built on immediacy and personal interest rather than any objective standard.

The capitalists are the most interesting to me. Dagny Taggart, unlike her brother, is immersed in the details of running her family’s railroad. Rand may have produced this character as a woman because she could assume a role her brother could not. She is obsessed about making her family railroad better. Hank Reardon is consumed with making metals better – and is so excited when he concocts a new metal he forges it into a bracelet for his wife. At one point, Hank’s brother asks for a contribution to his current “civic” effort but asks for it in cash because money from Reardon would be looked down upon. Francisco d’Aconia is a swindler but one who preys on the people like James Taggart. He encourages Taggart and his friends to invest in a mine in Mexico which is worthless (that comes out when the government of Mexico expropriates the mine and the railroad only to find it has no copper reserves in it). Taggart relies on friendship rather than analysis, which d’Anconia relies on, and thus never investigates the potential value of the investment.

Rand always had strong roles for women and yet at the same time she was not a feminist. Her female leads seem to submit to their male counterparts, especially in the sexual understory, in ways that today seem dated.

The philosophical part of Rand is explained in stark terms. She resisted the idea of being a libertarian – yet a good deal of her underpinnings are libertarian. She believed in an objective reality ("there exists an objective reality that is independent of mind and that is capable of being known.") and yet eschewed a lot of conventional moral standards. She disliked charity, especially compulsory charity. She also disputed the idea of scarcity – she had an inherent faith that human ingenuity, rightly applied, could eliminate problems of scarcity. i.e. If people were given the chance to create new things they would. Reason trumps problems. In this sense an economist like Julian Simon would be a successor to her ideas.

The relationship of Alan Greenspan to Rand has been written about a lot – many liberals have clucked about the relationship, which began when a friend introduced them. Greenspan was then a graduate student at Columbia but maintained a relationship with Rand or with her projects for quite a long time. Ralph Nader, for example, yabbered that Greenspan and Rand were two peas in a pod. Other prominent liberals like Robert Kuttner have also written about the supposed insidious influence of Greenspan/Rand. I am not sure whether that is an important or unimportant footnote. Greenspan, during his tenure at the Fed, talked a lot about individual responsibility and the risks of going with the crowd. But was that Randian? Who knows?

Atlas Shrugged is a massive work.(Almost 500 pages) In many senses it is a mix of philosophy and novel – and in that sense it does not work. At times Rand is too preachy and too obvious. But like many other novels of its type (As I was reading it I immediately thought of McTeague by Frank Norris which uses similar stylized characters) the message is an important one. I like a lot of what Rand espouses in this book - the role of business in relation to government - which was first written about by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations - is an important concept. The inwardly pointed roles of the intelligensia is also an important idea. But the self importance of her writing style is a bit off putting (most writers in this genre suffer the same malady). On the whole, reading this 40 years after I first encountered Rand, suggests that she still has something to say. On the other hand, some social critics, like Dickens, say it a whole lot more elegantly.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sacre Bleu - has them seeing red.

If a failing economy and having to live with an idiotic government were not enough now the French have been dissed by California wines. The French have claimed that they have the best wines especially their reds. Well not so according to an international panel of experts who rated California wines 1-5 and 10 - so the French got 6-9. Oh, by the way, the French sucked wind on their whites too.

The results were as follows 1) 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains , 2)1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon; 3/4) 1970 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon; and 5) 1972 Clos du Val Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

6-9) 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, 1970 Chateau Montrose, 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion and 1971 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases. 10) 1969 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was 10th.

Tough luck froggie! Would it be kicking them while they were down to remind them that all of their vines are from California stock? When the French industry was hit with a blight - they imported California stock to refurbish their vines. But that would just be piling on.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

An Enron footnote

OK, so now the three crooks in Enron have been convicted. The decisions seem about right to me. The next step is to try to get back some of the dough from them - even though that will be tough.

But, there is a footnote which I had with the company. In the middle of the power crisis in California (we have not built enough power plants and the main switches in the state are outdated) we convened a working group to look at joint purchase of electricity. That is complicated because the independent colleges are disbursed among all of the MOU (municipally owned utilities) and IOU (Investor Owned Utilities) operaters in the state. The rise in prices, especially in the Southern California Edison service region were going through the roof. One AICCU member saw a $400,000 rise in the last quarter of the year because of high demand rates. Our purchase agreements were not serving our institutions well. Demand pricing had a special penalty for institutions that was especially tough on institutions whose students went into their finals modes (and electricity spiked at odd times in the night).

As a result of the discussions I began to have talks with the companies who might be able to develop a joint agreement. I went to San Ramon where Enron was located. We went out to a lunch and the two young VPs. I work with a lot of financial types and they seem to fall into at least two varieties. Some are thoughtful and others are impressed with their status. The second group are generally young and brash. You can work with those folks but you need to be a bit wary.

We started to talk about the current situation and a waitress came up to take our drink orders. VP #1 said he wanted a special kind of carbonated water. The waitress had three different kinds fizzy waters but not the kind this guy wanted. He threw a hissy fit about not having his kind of water. He must have gone on for 5 minutes about how terrible it was that they did not have his special brand.

We went through the UC and CSU contracts, and I raised some questions about the upside and downside protections in the agreement (Enron basically wrote hedge contracts on prices). It seemed to me that their deal was not what we were looking for. The contract had minimal upside protections (in other words you saved money for only some of a rise in prices) and serious downside benefits (if prices went down they only got minimal benefits). So in the end, as I analyzed the deal they were offering it was not a very good one for them - it was a good deal for Enron and not the universities.

But what really got me was the hissy fit. As I was going home I called my wife and said, "I can't do a deal with these guys if their head guy concentrates on the type of water with CO2." In the end, we worked hard with the MOUs and got some mitigation of our cost increases and the crisis passed. But we avoided getting involved with the company because of fizzy water.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Commencement Speech

This morning I was the commencement speaker at Samuel Merritt's ceremonies for its graduates in the DPM (Doctor of Podiatric Medicine) and DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy). Samuel Merritt began as a small nursing program but has grown into an impressive specialized member of the Association. What had about 150 students a couple of decades ago now has more than 1100.

Here is what I said -

The Wisdom of Professional Crowds

As you might expect I get offered the opportunity to speak to a graduating class an independent college relatively frequently. That does not diminish my appreciation for the role nor should it diminish the appreciation I have of your accomplishment. With that said, I also understand the role of a commencement speaker. I have learned that the best commencement speeches have some humor and are short. And even if the first condition is not met, the second one is an absolute.

I want to talk to you about your future roles, after all this is a commencement. But before I do, I want to give you a brief story of my own commencement from my doctoral studies. Soon after I graduated from USC, my family and I were on a vacation and we wanted to change our reservations for one of the hotels. We called the reservations number and a pleasant voice answered, “Dr. Brown, how can I help?” My administrative assistant had changed all my records to reflect my new status. After we had completed the reservation change, the reservations person asked what kind of medicine I practiced, I told her I was an academic. She replied “Oh, my sister is a PHD also.” I asked her, “which field?” She replied “She is a professional hair dresser.”

You are entering your respective professions at a time when the appreciation of professional expertise is at a low point. Survey after survey shows a high level of skepticism about all professions – some like politicians are lower than others but all have suffered. I believe the level of trust is not likely to recover. But I want to offer two comments, and only two, about how well trained and caring professionals can work in this era.

About two years ago, James Surowiecki, did a book called the Wisdom of Crowds – subtitled “Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics Societies and Nations.” Suroweicki argues that in many instances individuals, even those with expertise, make lousy judges of reality. I can attest that in my own field of economics, my brethren have successfully projected 11 of the last 3 recessions. The author cites a number of examples and then relays a conclusion first found by Francis Galton near the turn of the 20th Century. Galton noticed that judges at a county fair were poor judges of both mundane and important things. For example, he found that at a county fair, even the experts were not very good at judging the weight of an ox. What amazed him was that if the total guesses were aggregated, the average of all those guesses was remarkably correct in coming very close to the exact right answer. That should put some trust in our collective intelligence.

Surowiecki believes that under certain conditions that crowds actually do make great decisions. They include 1) the crowd must be diverse, 2) decentralized, 3) it needs a way of summarizing the collective verdict, 4) the people in the crowd need to be independent. That sounds a lot like California in 2006 – diverse, decentralized and independent – so if we can figure out how to register our preferences, we should do pretty well.

The second idea I would like to present is one from Frederich von Hayek , the first winner of the Nobel in Economics. Hayek was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. In an article he wrote about the uses of knowledge in society. He argued that centralized systems would inevitably fail because they ignored the importance of “the knowledge of time and place.” The macro thinkers will often miss important details. I first discovered an application of Hayek’s principle when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico. The vendors of small coin purses, which are very useful to carry for 5 and 10 peso coins, seemed to mirror the broader fluctuations of the currency markets, often almost instantaneously. I wondered when I first observed the trend, how this group of relatively unsophisticated dealers in inexpensive goods could keep so well informed about changes in value. Hayek argued that the failure of centralized economic and planning systems were always based on this thing called the knowledge of time and place. Each of us brings together a unique set of skills and backgrounds that allow us to understand a part of our world better than anyone else. We should be able to apply that principle too – to professional practice.

OK, so I have now exposed two ideas briefly from the field of economics, how in the world would I possibly relate that to your eventual practice or in either teaching and research in your fields?

In both instances – the Wisdom of Crowds and the knowledge of time and place – the value of traditional kinds of expertise is discounted or at least valued differently than most professionals would traditionally expect. So does this mean that the last several years when you have acquired the deep knowledge of Podiatry and Physical Therapy have been a waste of time? NO, not at all.

The best professionals in this era have learned to listen to the people they are working with and to use their knowledge of time and place to help in their diagnosis and therapy. For those of you who go into practice, I remember one podiatrist who I worked with when I was a runner. Podiatrists and runners have a natural bond. When I was running marathons my podiatrist was a graduate of this institution. Randy had a real ability to listen and learn from his patients. He was successful because he treated his patients not as parts of his day but as thoughtful and responsive individuals who he could assist only after learning about their individual situations.

For those of you who will go into teaching, the lesson should not be lost on you. If you are not part of this generation you should understand something called the Googleization of higher education. I teach once a year at USC and once a year at a university in Mexico. In both cases students now expect to use their laptops in class. When I say something outrageous, up go the laptops and my reference gets googled. Some professors see that as a challenge to their authority. I see it as an opportunity, a chance to collaborate with students in learning. I am a guide not a font of wisdom.

In both of these instances, there is some need to attack your profession with a level of humility, that some professions simply have no propensity toward. One of the strong ethics in Samuel Merritt which I believe is imbedded in the curriculum, is that strong commitment to involving the patient in their therapies – so you may be one up on others in the system who are also starting out.

So go out. Celebrate today. But as you go on to practice your professions remember Suroweicki and Hayek. Thank your patients for their diversity, and independence and different ways of looking at the world. If you do you will be successful in the greatest sense of the word.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Thaddeus Wojcik - Bright Man

A lawyer in New York tried to auction off his future Social Security benefits on Ebay but the spoilsports in the Social Security Administration stopped him. Thaddeus Wojcik, aruged that he could invest his money better than the government. He needed the $200 K for a downpayment on a condo in New York. If Social Security were a real pension system - why couldn't a citizen make a contract to sign over his checks to a willing buyer for an amount agreed to by both buyer and seller? In essence he is making a futures contract. He could do that with any other asset. But of course the SSA commented you cannot do that except for members of his family. A better alternative would have been to privitize the system and allow people to hold actual property rights to all the tax money they are throwing into the Ponzi scheme called Social Security - but of course between the AARP and our elected members of congress, no one thought that was a good idea.

Novel Law or Bay Area Idiocy?

Last night the town of Hercules voted to use its eminent domain powers to buy a 17 acre parcel from Walmart who had planned to build a shopping center there. For those of you not from California, you need to know that Hercules was founded in the 1880s as a place make black powder. My grandfather worked there briefly - he was an expert on explosives. When the powder business became ended the city switched to be a center for making fertilizer. Until that company folded Hercules was a fertilizer center. Evidently there is still some residue of the former business in the council chambers.

This would be a unique use of eminent domain. Generally, with the exception of the Kelo decision, the power is used to acquire land for a public purpose. Kelo, which was arguably one of the worst Supreme Court decisions of the last decade, allowed the power to be used for private purposes using the power of the state to enforce their desires against owners of property. This does not seem like a good use of taxpayer money. In the end, the city should be forced to compensate Walmart at the fair market value of the property - which should include the incurred costs of the company in the development process. Thus, the taxpayers in this small city will be forced to buy back a piece of property at above market value. The land is now vacant. A city the size of Hercules is not likely to be a very sophisticated developer of the property.

The Hercules council argued that a Walmart did not fit the designs of the city. The city is about 20,000 residents with a good mix of people. Average income in the city is a bit below the rest of the Bay Area. The arguments against Walmart were familiar. The big center (which was downsized from the original plan) would chase smaller merchants out of business and would create "traffic problems" - a good number of cities have used the same arguments in stopping Walmart developments. From my perspective Walmart is a pretty good employer. The council wanted to hold out for a "higher end" shopping center - so evidently the traffic beefs were really a smoke screen.

One local resident commented "We are setting an example for the rest of the country," - indeed they are. I am not sure whether being the fertilizer and buffoon capital of the country is one I would seek to be an example for.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Confronting Immigration - some thoughts on what we should do

Over much of the last decade I have worked in Mexico on a variety of projects which have been centered in various parts of the country. I have listened to the debates about immigration and become increasingly dissatisfied with any political discussion about it because the myths of the debate – whether from the point of view of the left or the right - are filled with odd or inappropriate conclusions. But I have hesitated in writing about the issue because I wanted to see my own thoughts clarified before I went forward. This is the first attempt on this issue, there may be more.

The heated rhetoric on both sides is annoying and not productive. Whether the xenophobes wish to admit it or not, there are huge number of people here who did not come through the normal processes and we will not (nor should we) deport them all back. On the left, the accomodationists seem to want us to think that this infusion of people has not affected either social services, governmental expenses or our culture. Few people in this discussion want to think about the current situation to come away from it with a realistic set of responses.

I started with four fundamental assumptions, that do date have not been shaken. The US benefits from our immigrants although there are some associated costs and wrong headed policies can decrease the benefits and increase the costs. Wrong headed policies are not the province of one party or ideology. A second assumption about this debate is that both sides (or all sides) tend to throw around statistics which are either wrong or wrongly used. That is true of the xenophobes on the right as well as the accomodationists on the left. A third assumption is that while there are always risks with immigration (including the introduction of gangs and criminal activity) the vast majority of immigrants add something to the mix of society – if for nothing else than they lower the average age in states with high proportions of immigrants and in the long term partially defuse the ticking time bomb of a graying society. A final assumption is that we would benefit from some more clear headed thinking about these issues.

About a decade ago Julian Simon did a wonderful book on the economics of immigration. Simon did, what he often did, which was to look at an issue and confront the data. He found that the net cost, after social service costs were added in, of immigration had a payback of something less than three years. In other words, add all the costs of immigration between enforcement and services and the net gain to society from these people comes relatively quickly. Simon’s work predated some changes in public policy including increased reliance on health services, but I believe the general direction of his trend is still right.

Last year the USC Center on Demographics published a paper that suggested that despite what the public press seems to yammer that this generation of immigrants is being assimilated rapidly. Their language acquisition, intermarriage and other characteristics is faster than previous generations. The numbers in the report are stunning. After about one generation for Hispanics, it is hard to tell the native born from the immigrants.

So what facts do we know with relative certainty. Well we know that about a third of the “illegals” are actually only short term mistakes on visa stays who have no intention of staying. We know that the transmittals to Mexico may amount to $20 billion (the estimated GDP of the country is somewhere north of $1 trillion which makes it less than 1/12 of the US or about half the French economy or at a bit more than $10,000 per capita – about 25% higher than Brazil) and some suggest that the second largest contributor to the economy in many states comes from these sources. I know this because of discussions with two of the smartest governors in Mexican states – who recently told me about their dilemma in figuring out how to re-attract their citizens but worrying about the economic effects of an immediate cutoff of remittances. We also know that a lot of the remittances have been a back door and largely silent way of funding small ventures that the mercantilists in the Mexican economy would not have been able or willing to do. We know that in LA county alone 11 emergency rooms have been closed because of the inability to fund them, caused in part by utilization by immigrants. We know that the problems confronting the country are primarily in the governmental sector and likewise the remittances back to Mexico are an aid in building a more vibrant economy (more on that later). Café Hayek commented recently (and I think quite intelligently) “The goods and services that people complain immigrants cause to be overused are either government-supplied goods and services (for example, government schools) or goods and services that are heavily subsidized by government (for example, medical care). No one complains that immigrants are over-using supermarkets, movie theaters, auto dealerships, or clothing stores. That is, private enterprise seems quite able to 'absorb' immigrants and prevent overcrowding and free-riding. Problems arise almost exclusively with goods and services supplied or subsidized by government.”

While California has had a lot of types of immigrants, the primary discussion in the US has been about immigrants from Mexico. That immigration is different from earlier generations of immigrants in at least one way. In this generation of immigrants persons who come to this country have the opportunity to keep contact with their initial country. Thus, as you see on flights between the US and Mexico, a good number of people, even those who have made the decision for citizenship, have the opportunity to get back to Mexico frequently. That leads the xenophobes to the conclusion that this generation of immigrants is not being integrated but the data from USC suggests that the perception is simply wrong.

Here are some random thoughts –

#1 – The changes in immigration laws have produced some unintended consequences. It is clear that the costs of using coyotes has increased since the last immigration reform. That has not seemed to have reduced the volume of immigration significantly (although the data for California suggests that beginning about five years ago, the influx of Mexican immigrants has been slowed significantly). Tim Cavanaugh of the Reason Foundation suggests that open borders might offer greater security than all of the silliness about fences and troops. The one clear thing about fences and troops is that they offer a significantly higher possibility for unfortunate incidents and they increase the cost of movement for those who want to come across the border. So in the end, as in many other areas of policy we should look out for unintended consequences. The proposed fence and the proposed criminalization of immigrants are two proposed policies that are likely to be both unsuccessful and produce huge unintended effects. The blather about deporting all of the illegal workers in the US is pure nonsense. (Think about deporting the state of Illinois.)
#2 – The best available research says the impact of Mexican immigrants on jobs in the US seems to be minor. The argument made by the President – i.e. that most of the jobs taken by immigrants are not ones that would be done by our domestic population is correct. Some have suggested that if we simply raised the wages for these jobs American workers would take them. That is probably not true. The people most affected by the influx of immigrants – both legal and illegal – has been predominantly to workers with the least education. Not to be callous but those workers (all around the world) have seen their average wage drop for the last 30 years. The tradeoff, if there is one, between lost wages for unskilled workers and increased productivity should not be underestimated. The President’s call for a guest worker program seems like a good idea. At the same time we should get out of the 19th century techniques of identification. In my home area false identities – be they green cards or social security cards seem to be pretty available. Technology could be a help here – but the INS has not had a good record in this area. The INS created a program using biometrics for re-entry of frequent travelers which would have been great but they could not get the computers to work. The guest worker program would regularize the relationships and at the same time it would allow the INS to begin to think about industries that hire a lot of illegal workers. Both of those seem like benefits.
#3 – However, I also believe that the demands of citizenship should be rigorous enough to assure that individuals have an understanding of the foundations of the country. There is a good reason why the US is as attractive as it is to immigrants and it is not entirely based on money. I am skeptical of all of the efforts to offer continuous bilingual services. In Mexico, where I work a lot, while many people speak English, the expectation is that people will communicate in Spanish. If it is good there, why should it not be here. But I would repeat that the best research on this issue suggests that this generation of immigrants is acquiring language at a pretty rapid clip – so the people on the right who argue that this generation of immigrants is not becoming a part of our society is simply wrong. But language is not enough – our unique political history including the rationales for why our system works in the way that it does – should not be missed on new Americans. There is an American tradition and citizens should understand it – the tradition is not immutable but even those who seek to change it should first understand why the founders created what they did. Each generation of immigrants has added something to the American experience –so it should not be surprising that we are adding words and foods we did not know before. Pete Wilson once quipped that the standard California lunch was becoming a fish taco with a side of Kim chi – in my mind that is not all bad.
#4 – The Mexican economy could benefit from some further economic liberalizations. There are still too many mercantilists in major sectors of the economy (phones and oil are only the most prominent). There is some hopeful movement there in that some areas seem to be moving rapidly into the next stage. But the tax system still has a lot of leaks. The GNP growth is officially listed at something well below what it is – that is partially because of the tax system. Micro business development and mid-business development could help change the economy – the next president (to be elected on July 2) needs to commit some real attention to these issues. Mexican securities laws(the development of the Mexican equivalent of Sarbanes-Oxley has been thoughtful and in many ways better than our own) and the introduction of international banking standards will also help. There are some very helpful signs in several states where governors have decided to try to implement federalism for real. All of these things will help over time.
5 - The issue of dealing with the influx of people from Mexico should not be limited to that border. Indeed the most visible border crossers are from Mexico but remember that at least one of the hijackers came across the Canadian border. The debates in this area should think more carefully about a comprehensive approach to immigration not a response to a perceived problem in Mexico. At the end of the discussion we should have a good idea about how many people we want to admit each year, what are the consequences for breaking the law and what rights or benefits should be offered to people who enter this country either legally or illegally. In my mind, if for no other reason than NAFTA, we should be significantly more accommodating to our neighbors to the north and south than the rest of the world.

Is leadership in Congress an oxymoron?

There was an odd hubbub in Congress yesterday as the FBI executed a search warrant against William Jefferson, a congressman from Louisiana. Mr. Jefferson is accused of taking bribes. There seems to be some pretty strong evidence that he did what he is accused of based on a search of his house and video and audio tapes. Yet, the Speaker spoke out against concluding the investigation of this scumbag with the lame excuse that it might interfere with the immunity that members enjoy based on speech and debate. Is accepting a bribe in line with the intent of that section of the clause? Is it really a part of Mr. Jefferson's official duties to take bribes? If that is the best the GOP can put up maybe there is a good reason to change the leadership. One wonders what Hastert was thinking - or more on point whether he knows how to think.

Monday, May 22, 2006

End Runs of the Constitution

In 2000, Al Gore argued that he had won the presidency because he received the majority of the popular vote. It was an odd claim, the rules of election for the president are well established in the Constitution. If you read the commentaries of the debates on the Constitution and specifically Madison's notes on the convention, you understand why the founders developed a somewhat convoluted process of electing the president. Now a California assemblyman would like to create a compact among the states to subvert the process called for in the Constitution. He would pass a state law which would require the electors from California to pledge to vote for the person who got the most votes in the national election. The notion of this is wrong on several levels.

First, if the electoral college is out of date then change the Constitution. Indeed, it is hard to change the Constitution - that was intentional. The process of amendment was designed to ultimately test ideas. While there are occasionally issues which fall off the national agenda because of the complexity of amendment - a lot of really bad ideas (what Madison called "passions of the people") have also been stopped.

At the time of the 2000 election there was a lot of scholarly discussion about whether in the age of universal franchise and instantaneous communication the filter of the electoral college was still appropriate. I believe the initial vision of the founders was a correct one. I can understand the arguments on the other side but I disagree with them. But if the necessity for change is some compelling, the normal process for amendment should be possible.

Second, is the question of the value of a contract. The Constitution is not whatever we want it to be, it is a set of principles that should guide us. The founders wisely included a way to amend the document. And, if we value our instiutions we should not take the cheap shot way of amending outside the normal procedures. There is a large portion of society that believes in the expediency of the moment. In the long term such disrespect for our organized institutions will lead to anarchy. Edmund Burke explored two ways to organize change in society. His comments on the excesses of the French revolution were on point when they were written and they are still applicable now. The utter bankruptcy of French political institutions is, in part, a result of their rather casual attention to constitutional principles.

One wonders why Assemblyman Umberg proposed this change at this time. The liklihood of a) the bill become law in California and b) a majority of states adopting the procedure is small. Is this to remind democrats of the fiction that they actually won the 2000 election? (under the rules of the contest at the time they did not) Will this help pump up turnout in November? Or does Mr. Umberg think so little of the Constitution that he would trash it by proxy?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Our son got married yesterday

Peter and Jessica, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

Our son Peter got married yesterday to a young woman named Jessica Rimack.

Weddings are about optimism. They are a start celebrated with friends and family. But this new couple has a lot going for it. So while the trend is for optimism - there are good reasons for it in this case. Peter and Jessica work well together - they complement each other's qualities in very good ways. We took about a gazillion pictures - which will be posted on the flickr site over the next, as his sister used to say - few whiles. We also did something which was interesting - near the end of the reception we set up a laptop and asked anyone who had a digital camera to download them into my laptop - I ended up with about 1000 photos from the rehersal and the wedding and reception. We had two serious photographers but a lot of others who simply wanted to catch some of the memories - and interestingly enough they did. They caught things or people that the two serious photographers failed to catch. When I get around to making up their wedding album - we will have a whole lot more to work with - talk about a new type of Army of Davids!

Looking for Relevance - Noam Chomsky's inevitably failed quest

The MIT professor wrote an op-ed this morning called Making the Case for Self Examination. I thought it a bit ironic. Chomsky, has spent a good deal of his career propounding self referenced theories on language and on the state of America and yet he calls on the rest of us to engage in "self examination."

His argument, which brings the term ad nauseum to a new level, has been repeated by him over the last thirty years. He suggests that the world needs to think about three issues - nuclear war, environmental disaster and "the fact that the government of the world's leading power is acting in ways that increase the likelihood of these catastrophes." He goes on to pontificate "One of the hardest tasks that anyone can undertake, and among the most important, is to look honestly in the mirror." One wonders whether Mr. Chomsky has ever taken his own advice.

Chomsky makes some outlandish claims in the article. For example, he seems to imply that there was not really a communist "menace" that all those repressions were simply misunderstandings. I guess he did not get the time to read any of the millions of documents attesting to the horrors of communism. He then suggests that when the communist problem/threat was ended (he somehow argues that communism was really ended before we recognized it) we substituted the issues of terrorism.

In Chomsky's ideal world the US would 1) accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the World Court, 2) sign the Kyoto protocol, 3) let the UN lead in international crises, 4) rely on diplomatic means rather than military ones in confronting terror and 5) (and this one should be quoted directly) "Keep to the traditional interpretation of the UN Charter: The use of force is legitimate only when ordered by the Security Council or when the country is under imminent threat of attack, in accord with Article 51" and then 6) give up the Security Council veto (I guess he does not think all of the UN charter should be adhered to) and finally 7) reduce military spending and "sharply" increase social spending - health, education, renewable energy and "so on." (i.e. throw a whole lot more money on lame brained schemes that he and his leftist buddies think will work - in spite of several decades of evidence to the contrary.) In essence what Chomsky would ask us to accept is significantly higher taxes to support the whims of nitwits like him. It is interesting that the attribution at end of the article suggests that he is a do as I say guy - the copyright is for "Harry Chomsky, as Trustee of the Chomsky Grandchildren Nominee Trust" presumably the money he received (which is diverted into a trust for his grandchildren) could have been better received and taxed had it come directly to him. But never mind Mr. Chomsky lives on the highest clouds above us poor mortals and thus while we should pay more taxes he has other things to worry about.

Anyone with a willingness to think about major policies of our country should be prepared to examine the current ones in terms of alternative views of the world. The policies to fight terror adopted by our government are costly both in monetary terms but also in terms of opportunity costs (failing to be able to do other things). But Chomsky seems to ignore the last decade of "world" decision making where nations high on degrading basic human rights command respect in the councils of the UN on the issues of human rights. He also seems to ignore the scandals in the UN that make it one of the least responsive institutions in the world today - bent more on isolating and enriching their officials than in making substantive progress on key issues. Has he not thought, even a bit, about the long term success of the vast array of projects of governmental spending in the US since the great society to evaluate whether any of them offer progress?

Self examination is a good thing. We should do it periodically. We should look at how we spend our money in the governmental sector. We should listen to what the rest of the world is thinking - but listening does not mean blind acceptance. Thinking about alternatives does not mean a mad rush back to the failed policies of the past.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Impeach John Murtha

John Murtha made a claim today about some alleged atrocities by US marines in Iraq last November 19 in Haditha. One wonders why he made the charge. There are several possible explanations. The facts as we know them are as follows. A group of soldiers (Kilo Company 3d Battalian from Camp Pendleton) was either attacked (as told by the military) or not (as described by at least one Iraqui rights group) and the soldiers responded to the attack. In the course of the attack several civilians were killed. According to several sources the incident is under investigation by the Naval Crimminal Investigative Service (which is the appropriate agency for this) and joint force command. Murtha claims that the original reports significantly understated the casualties and that the soldiers were not responding to a hot situation. Murtha claims “There was no firefight. There was no [bomb] that killed those innocent people,” He also claims that there were twice as many civilians claimed as the military report suggests. Those are all very serious charges. So what would motivate Murtha to conclude that he should make public allegations at this time when he knows the military is investigating the allegations?

#1 - He believes the charges to be true. With his military experience he should know how the UCMJ works. Making these kinds of charges public with the big splash that he gave it in a number of venues including Hardball - he knows that this press will compromise any legitimate investigation by the military. The best way to proceed in this case, if he believes the charges to be true would be to go to a command officer and inquire discreetly about the charges. That does not mean the Secretary of Defense - if indeed he thinks terribly of Mr. Rumsfeld. But he is supposedly well connected to the military so he must have some contacts. That method would not compromise the investigation and at the same time it would afford the accused their due rights. After a reasonable amount of time, if the Army were completely unresponsive, then he would have the opportunity to make his case more publically. But there is no evidence that he considered this course. This allegation stems from an article in Time - so it seems that his sources are the public press. As we found in the Koran in the toilet episode the media has been remarkably unreliable in this kind of reporting. Army Times and a number of the military blog sites have covered the facts about this issue in great detail.

By the way, under the UCMJ, if an officer fails to follow up on something like that, the officer is also eligible for prosecution under the UCMJ. Murtha should know that. I am sure he does.

#2 - The only other possible explanation is that he sees this as a way to undermine the president/Secretary of Defense. One would hope that would not be an explanation but the increasing stridency by Representative Murtha argues that the baser political motive is more realistic.

In either case Murtha has undermined the US efforts in the Middle East in the middle of a war. That is a gross dereliction of his responsibility as a congressman. If the charges are true, the Navy should proceed with finding and prosecuting those that commited the crimes (and indeed that seems to be exactly what the Navy is doing - investigating whether the charges are true) - but with Murtha's outburst the investigation could well be compromised. The end result there is again to undermine the efforts of the US. A couple of the military bloggers have suggested that he be censured. That is the wrong punishment for his act. He should be impeached.

Where is Mexico?

Election Poll as of May 15, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

The Mexican election seems to be heading in a direction that is not unexpected. The picture above is from Angus Reid Consultants and suggests a couple of things. First, in the last 60 days the then apparent front runner (Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador) has started to falter.

Lopez Obrador dissed the poll and commented "This is part of a strategy, I can say no more, people do not believe in tricky polls, it’s that simple." But Obrador has shown to be a less adept campaigner than the early polls thought. He missed the first debate and tried to explain it away - but at least with the people I spoke with in Mexico - no one was buying it.

There is a worry that if AMLO is close in this election he will try to disrupt it but I am not sure that will happen. Three things seem to be happening. First, Calderon seems to be moving in the right direction. Second, AMLO seems to be moving in the wrong direction and at the same time Madrazo seems to be falling like a stone. There is a third factor that I think will be interesting in the final total - another left of center candidate has begun to emerge - Patricia Mercado has begun to show at least somewhat in the polls. Some who I have spoken with have thought that would come at the expense of AMLO - my impression is that she will garner at least some of the women's vote regardless of ideology.

Another interesting thing happening is there is an increased level of concern being expressed about the potential or actual involvement of Hugo Chavez - that has also surfaced in the upcoming election in Peru. The Venezuelan leader seems to want to have an effect on the world scene. But there is a lot of grumpiness about his potential invovlement in Mexico where he is alleged to be working for AMLO.

The election is on July 2. As we get closer the level of discussion among people I met there has increased. Last week the two topics that I was asked about most were immigration and the election.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Anthroporobotic Response to Marketing

I am currently reading a book on the history of coffee - a town near Xalapa grows some of the finest coffee in the world and I wanted to find out more about the product. A lot of it discusses various fads to market coffee. In one place in the book, the author writes about the efforts to tie the budding field of psychology and marketing. He quotes Hugo Muensternerg, a Harvard Psychology professor who boasted "Business men will eventually realize that customers are merely bundles of mental states and that the mind is a mechanism that we can affect with the same exactitude with which we control a machine in a factory."

That same kind of nonsensical thinking seems to have affected economics at times - much of Galbraith's screed in the Affluent Society discusses market transactions as almost robotic in nature. What amuses me about the robotic position of this discussion is how little faith the side of the debate has in the ability of humans to reason. As Adam Smith commented in the Theory of Moral Sentiments - those who think they can manipulate the decisions of individuals make a fundamental error.

"The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder." (Theory of Moral Sentiments VI.II.42)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

France's Dirty Little Secret

In an article in the NYT on Friday, the current problems of universities in France was explored. At one point the article concluded that French universities are “overcrowded, underfinanced, disorganized and resistant to the changes demanded by the outside world.” One observer concluded that the reason American higher education is among the most admired in the world and our K-12 system is among the most criticized is that higher education in this country thrives because of competition.

One can look at US higher education and think of a thousand ways to improve it but the description of a typical campus in France in the NYT article does not sound like an American university. “Only 30 of the 100 computers in the library have internet access. The campus cafeterias close after lunch. Professors often do not have office hours; many have no office. Some classrooms are so overcrowded that at exam time many students have to find seats elsewhere. By late afternoon every day the campus is largely empty.” Doesn't sound to me like a center of enlightenment.

Discoveries in Naolinco

Naolinco Street, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

Yesterday Fr. Dermot and I went to Naolinco. It is a small town I first encountered in 2001. It is a leather center. I bought a couple of pair of boots there which were custom made but not very good - at least for me. They must have a thousand leather shops which sell a lot of stuff that is created there and then shipped from Leon - which is another leather center. It is a religious town. A couple of major churches and then some memorials to victims of the Cristero movement. When I first went to Naolinco I spoke with a priest in one of the churches who described the cristero movement.

A significant element of the Mexican revolution involved a negative response to the Church which some saw as simply enforcers of the existing order. But until the mid-1920s and the reign of Plutarco Calles the restrictions on religion were only partially enforced. But Calles began to impose the laws harshly. The Constitution forbade religious schools and public displays of religion. Clerics were restricted severely in their civil rights - including prohibitions of the right to vote. But under Calles the repression of the church reached new heights for example, one priest was murdered for performing a baptism in Naolinco. The issues were felt especially in Jalisco (Guadalajara) and in places like Naolinco where religion is a part of life. Ultimately, some Catholics began armed resistance to the laws and it was quieted. The American ambassador at the time helped to negotiate a partial ceasefire but the laws stayed on the books until the late 1980s. There is a convent that we visited in Puebla (Convent of Santa Monica) which was also a secret to the city for many years because of the same religious intolerance. This is a footnote in Mexican history that is very interesting to me. Mexico, for me, is often a place of contrast and the landscape that faced religious orders and religious practice in a country that is heavily religious - is always interesting.

After spending a couple of hours walking around we went into a small restaurant off the square. It serves simple food - mole and Chili relenos are its specialities. The Chili Relenos were made with red chili not Poblanos and contained meat. But they were very good. We had a relaxed lunch and about the time we were going to leave a woman and her two daughters came up to us and began to speak. The woman had been a primary teacher and had a soft visage. She talked about her marriage (her husband died when she was young and with 3 children) and one daughter's bout with depression.
She soon discovered that Fr. Dermot was a priest - I constantly wonder about how Mexicans can figure him out - but I have repeatedly seen people come up to him and ask for a blessing. We talked with her and her daughters for probably 45 minutes. I think I got most of the conversation although did not contribute much to it. What I was struck with was her gentle but strong faith. I see it often in Mexico.

In the evening we came back to Xalapa and walked around a middle class shopping center. It was interesting to see a couple of things - in one of the regional equivalents of Wal Mart. They have the same selection as Wal Mart (which is actually up on the hill above the center we were in). I was impressed as I have been in the past how well the families seem to get on. The kids treat their siblings with a gentleness that is similar to the gentleness that I described in the woman in Naolinco.

I am impressed with the people of this region. They seem to have a balance in their lives and have a true commitment to their children.

It was a relaxed afternoon with a good friend.

The Orchestra in Xalapa

This is a photo from the earlier post on the orchestra in Xalapa. What interested me was the diversity of the crowd. Classical music in Mexico is not just for the snooty. As noted earlier, I was not especially fond of any of the selections - although the conductor - Carlos Miguel Prieto is pretty good.

The Revueltas piece comes from a composer who lived from 1899 to 1940 - Mozart lived about the same time (1756-92) but I think Mozart was less a product of his time. Reveultas life was described as tormented, passionate and caught up with imagination. I think that also describes Mozart. Revueltas is compared to Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring. His work was done in 1932 as a symphonic poem.

Strauss on the other hand lived a long time (1864-1949) as noted in the earlier post I thought this was a difficult piece both for the listeners and the audience. The Alpine symphony, according to my friend is rarely performed first because of the musical requirements (it has pieces for an organ and a wind machine) and it requires a lot of musicians.

The Taco Stand from 2001

This is a photo of the taco stand where I had the conversation that night in 2001. It is a small place but was an important revelation about the interconnectedness of the world.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Xalapa has a symphony

Last night I went to the symphony in Xalapa - they have a wonderful group. We heard three performances. The first was from Silvestre Revueltas(something called Alcancias) - pretty modern for my tastes. The second was Mozart (the Linz symphony Kirckle 427). The third was the Alpine Symphony from Richard Strauss. The orchestra is very good - made up primarily of people from the public university. They do a lot of performances each year. The hall has great acostics. So for a city about the size of Sacramento - this is was a real find. They also have an active opera and theater community - another demonstration of the benefits of having a university (in this case many) in your town.

I went with a friend who I first met in Mexico and is involved in the arts - I first met him because he was saving and recording music from the Mexican Baroque period - he had a flair both to find the music (with the help of a guy named Thomas Stanford) and then to record it. It is a period of Mexican history that should receive more notice. But he is currently working in the gulf region on a series of arts related projects. He is thinking about doing a cultural festival of the arts for the Gulf - from Texas down to Vera Cruz - with all the different kinds of art represented there it would be an ambitious project but one that could contribute to the region.

Taco Stands and World Events

I last stayed at the Howard Johnson's in Xalapa in September 2001, a few days after 9/11 and during Mexican Independence Day. I was with a friend who was then with Universidad Anáhuac del Sur. We spent the day going to a bunch of places in the state of Vera Cruz (Santa Ana's house was one highlight) but ended up on that night in an Asadero which serves great food (meat) and then to a disco. I remembered that evening as we were leaving why I thought discos should have died. We left the place about 5:30 in the morning and could not find our way back. My young friend said let's pick up some guys who could show us the way. In Mexico City that would be dangerous but I was then convinced by my friend and his cousin that it was safe in the country. We picked up three guys who were obviously not well off. We offered them something like 20 pesos to guide us back to our hotel. The guy in the middle had a bottle of Johnny Walker Red stuck in his pants.

We got to the hotel and one of the three (I am not sure with the 20 pesos we gave them that they had more than about 100 pesos between them) said to me in Spanish - Are you an American? I replied yes. He said - and I remember this phrase - even when my Spanish was less polished than it is today - Tengo un obligacion del mi corazon (I have an obligation of the heart) - he then went on to say "The loss you think you suffered on Tuesday, you did not suffer - the whole world suffered." He then said as his obligation he had to buy us breakfast. In the end we sat down at a Taco stand in front of the hotel and spent about an hour talking philosophy (in my limited Spanish and his non-English). It was a memory I will keep with me always.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Anthroporobotics, Cryptophilosophy and Vochongos

I've spent the last two days attending a preconference in Xalapa Mexico at Universidad Anáhuac de Xalapa. The subject was the convergence of technology (robotic) and humanity (anthropos). Some would argue today that the convergence of these two is ultimately and continuously positive. Some would go a bit further, like John Kurzweil in the Singularity, and argue that it is invevitable. But this conference delved into the more interesting question of how do you reconcile the role of humanity with technology. This was not a Luddite assemblage in any sense. However, it was also not, as some of the supporters of the Singularity suggest, a naive cheerleading session for the inevitable melding of man and machine. Some of these questions are as old as philosophy itself. And the claims in this generation are often as grandiose as generations before them.

The preconference was designed to give the students and faculty a dry run in thinking about the issues and in working with the logistics of running an international conference. So there were a limited number of outside speakers from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, and economics. IF you would like to read the paper that got the issue started it can be seen at Universidad Anáhuac de Xalapa If the preconference is any indication of the quality of the discussions that included faculty, some outsiders and students - then the conference in October will be a very interesting event. The odd thing I was struck with in listening to two days of talk and discussion was how involved the students were in this issue - they probably understand the ubiquity of technology better than my generation simply because most of it has been around since they were born - but they also began to explore the consequences of technology in many venues.

Vochongos are an interesting word. At one point the current rector of UAX was looking for a word that was common in many disciplines where everyone knows the word but no one can give you a precise definition. Some academics spend a good part of their lives creating vochongos (vonchongero) and living off the results. Others consume and perpetuate these new words that sometimes catch on and then spend their lives analyzing this semisense (vonchogistas) For someone who lives around academics for any part of their lives this is a very interesting and useful word. Please feel free to pass it on. A vocho in Spanish is a bug - often a VW bug - No tengo un coche tengo un Vocho (I do not have a car I have a bug). hongo is a mushroom. (Which often induces a haze) - Thus a vochongo is a word that is created with the quality of a bug but often leaves you in a haze. Vochongos are useful but limited vehicles of transport which the vonchongero disguises as a Lambringini but which is really only a Trabant. The best part of this exercise is the the best vochongeros produce this matter with OPM (other people's money - often from places like the Ford Foundation). The mushroom suggests the rapidity which these things reproduce themselves especially in the organic substrate of stables of professorial offices. Many students have been avochongated (filled with vochongos).

The discussion of Anthroporobotics is not a vochongo - the substance of the debate has not yet been joined on both sides and at this point the technologically exuberant side has done a lot of the talking.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Worst President of the 20th Century Yaps again

Jmmy Carter, who has spent his retirement years pontificating, came forward with another doozie on Sunday, this time in the International Herald Tribune. Carter fancies himself a senior statesman. Remember it was he who brought us a foreign policy that was incoherent, Bert Lance, interest rates and unemployment rates which finally disproved for good the Phillips curve (both rose to monumental levels), spent part of his time as president approving who would be able to play on the White House tennis courts, his brother Billy - the list is almost endless. Had he any sense of proportion he would have built thousands of houses as a penance for his incompetence.

And it is he that has done great PR in working with Habitat for Humanity but has participated as an observer on several important elections as an observer and certified that the thug in Venezuela was elected in a reasonable way. But because we give our former presidents a pretty nice stipend he has been given the luxury to yap on command.

So it is not surprising that he would express himself on the "morality" of whether the United States has a responsibility to fund the new government of the Palestinians. Carter comments "Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life." How bizarre. Do we have an obligation to fund regimes which are run by terrorist organizations? Should we supply the general public of any country with the "necessities of life?"

Indeed, part of the reason that the Palestinians voted to oust the Fatah in the winter was because of the manifest corruption of the prior government. So in one sense the decision to elect the alternative in Hamas could have been a rational decision. But that does not mitigate that the Hamas leaders are part of an organization that refuses to recognize Israel and has been responsible for a series of terrorist incidents where innocents have been killed in both Israel and other places in the world.

Carter claims that one reason for selecting Hamas was the frustration of the people in making progress on peace. He blames the Israelis for the delays. In reality, the last years of Arafat were marked by his reluctance to move forward. The Israelis have offered to revert a substantial portion of the land they took in the six day war - yet Hamas has refused to even recognize the right of the Israelis to exist. Does that sound balanced?

The real questions come down to which strategy will move the Palestinians closer to figuring out how to live with their neighbors. We could assume that funding the new government will assure quicker steps. Carter certainly does, in addition to his idiotic assumption about moral obligations. But there is clearly a case to be made that one can and should separate the funding of the authority from the broader issues of how to you get the Palestinians to the table in a responsible way.

Carter suggests that we should ignore the Palestinian's refusal to recognize the existence of Israel. We have used every method possible to bring about change in the Middle East. Some strategies have been more effective than others. But for good and practical reasons, we should have not only the right but the obligation to withhold our charitable support when a regime does not fit our needs. In the immediate and the long term, Carter would serve himself better by going back to buidling houses and quit trying to run the backbench foreign policy. When he was in the real job he did, at best, an incompetent job so why should we continue to have to listen to his pronouncements after he was bounced after one term?

All you need is love.... and a little boodle.

The Beatles record company lost its' suit against Apple Computer today for trademark infringement. They should have. The Beatles record label claimed that iTunes infringed on the ability of the record lable to make money. In typical British crispness the judge dismissed the suit with the following comments -

"The 1991 out-of-court settlement, which included a US$26 million payment by Apple Computer, set out areas in which each party would have exclusive use of their respective fruit-shaped logos. 'I find no breach of the trademark agreement has been demonstrated,' Mr Justice Mann said in his judgment. 'The action therefore fails.'"

There is little chance that Apple Corps the record label would be confused with Apple Computer's iTunes. No claim was made by Apple the computer company that it was trying to be a Beatles site - because of the shortsightedness of Apple Corps none of their music is up on the iTunes site. But some group of lawyers wanted to argue there was a problem. Unfortunately, for Beatles fans the iTunes site contains only a very few of the Beatles songs. George Harrison has nothing on the site, McCartney has a couple that come from other albums, Lennon also has a couple and Ringo has a ton. The Beatles as a group has a small number of songs that were published on non-Apple Corps labels. That is their loss. (Twice)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

California Episcopalians select two bishops

On Saturday the Episcopal Church selected two bishops. Surprisingly, in the more liberal of the two areas, the voters seem to have done the right thing. In the other, voters chose a safe, but, I believe, wrong choice. In the diocese of California (which was the original diocese) they selected Mark Andrus from Alabama. There were three homosexual candidates that were added to the list that totaled seven but Andrus was selected quickly and sexual orientation seems to have been little part of the discussion. The Rev. Katherine M. Lehman of St. Bede's Episcopal Church in Menlo Park. commented "If we are called to elect a qualified nominee who happens to be gay, we will do that based on our discernment of the process and the Holy Spirit." In the end that was not an issue.

This morning our priest, who I think is pretty good, commented that she was thankful that they had not selected a gay candidate. I told her I thought that was odd. If the Episcopal convention that affirmed Gene Robinson (the first gay bishop who helped to cause something less than a schism in the denomination) had done the right thing then sexual orientation should not have been a part of the discussion for that diocese. But, of course, the decision on Robinson was different. At the very least the decision should have taken more effort to come to discernment. (Which is how Episcopalians are supposed to come to a decision.) The Robinson decision was a political and not a theological one. In the end the voters in the California diocese seem to have truly sought what the prayers for selecting a new priest or bishop (to find "a good and faithful pastor"). That seems to have been a good result.

In the diocese of Northern California, the current bishop's assistant was selected. His name is Barry Beisner. During the search process for our new rector, I had a discussion with the Canon during a vestry meeting and was not impressed. From what I heard about the three candidates there was a much stronger candidate which the convention did not choose. I am disappointed in the decision. The current bishop, Jerry Lamb, has been horrible in many ways. His actions were often arbitrary and capricious.

But as an older friend in the congregation said to me this morning - this is really just a continuation of Bishop Lamb - we know how to deal with that. A search should be more than that but what my friend said, makes a lot of sense. The American Episcopal church, when it decided to accept Bishop Robinson, made a pretty radical statement. It said, "Ignore the thoughts and wishes of our sister churches in most of the rest of the world and go forward without regard to the way the denomination is supposed to do things. Forget about the tradition of build concensus when it is something that we think is important." The Americans acted like petulant children. Lamb claimed that he was inspired by the convention to change his vote after he had been about the diocese the year before proclaiming he would vote the other way. Today's lessons were about the good shepherd. Lamb was not a good shepherd. Let's hope that Beisner will learn from his predecessor's errors.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Terrorist Therapy

The Zacarias Moussaoui trial has ended in controversy. Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison. The judge responded to his outburst by telling him that he had not "won." But that really should not be the point.

If Moussaoui was indeed a participant in the 9/11 events in any significant way, the Nuremberg principles should apply. As a war combatant he should be eligible for rhe death penalty. All of the psychological mumbo jumbo should have been irrelvant. His tough treatment in his family and his mistreatment by the French when he was a whipper snapper should not have been used to explain his behavior or to mitigate it. We need to develop a system to deal with these kinds of issues and soon. It should not have taken almost five years to deal with the legal issues.

But in my mind there still might be a reason why his sentence was appropriate. First, we prevented him from being a martyr. Second, the lead up to his execution would have been prolonged and would have allowed a lot of opportunities for all sorts of pleaders to yack about the issue - from all points of view. Third, by putting him into the supermax prison he becomes invisible. How many times have you heard of Ted Kaczynski since he went there? Perhaps, although I was bothered by all of the people who talked about our humane treatment of this person, we came to the right decision. Even if we did we should do something to deal with the future iterations of how we will deal with terrorists when they are captured. It would be absurd to use the same logic for Osama.

Symbols in Presidential Searches

The post on the search issues at Gaullaudet University has generated a lot of interest by readers. The University is an important part of both the deaf community in this country and the university community in the country. One reader who met Fernandes commented that her paper is better than her presence. As you read the other blogs on this issue there is indeed a lot of commentary for and against the administrative style of Dr. Fernandes. I cannot comment on that because I have not met any of the candidates. Often, as I have commented before, news reports are not always accurate.

In part this is an issue which is larger than this search at Gaullaudet. Presidential searches in universities have a lot of the defects of shared governance - they require the involvement of an enormous group of people, they may reflect either the strengths or the prejudices of the communities involved in the search. When they work well - a leader is found that reflects the diverse interests of the community and a president has at least some time to move the institution forward. The very nature of shared governance suggests that at some point the diverse communities will begin to split apart and the president either chooses to or is forced to leave. Some religious orders require that their presidents/rectors serve for a fixed term at a university (often in six year increments) - the intent of that is to assure that the community is made to reaffirm the common goals of the leader periodically.

Some presidencies are mandated to one group. For example, most women's colleges would find it hard to hire a male president. Prior to the accession of the current president, that seems to be the way that Gaullaudet was moving - i.e. the university would not be able to hire a president who was not hearing impaired. In the long term that model - whether it is for a women's college or for a specialized one like Gaullaudet diminishes the pool. Indeed, the president of a university is (and should be) a symbol of the community - but today's process in many university presidential searches seems to ignore the real possibilities of looking in a broader sense. The skill set for a college president varies with the institution - one needs to be able to communicate among the constituencies in the university and also needs to translate the community into the larger bases of society - in this case both the donor community and the policy community need to be able to have trust in the president.

A lesson I learned a long time ago about searches is that there is often not a need to make a decision as quickly as it seems - perhaps the board should have vetted this one a bit more and perhaps Dr. Fernandes is being unfairly maligned - but the board should have taken a bit more care in thinking about this issue.

Friday, May 05, 2006

It's 3 AM do you know where your Kennedy is?

So another Kennedy has been found to be driving impaired late at night. Thankfully this one did not kill anyone. One wonders why a) the Capitol police supervisors did not require Patrick Kennedy to take a field sobriety test after the arresting officer in his report suggested that Kennedy "smelled of alcohol", had bloodshot eyes and was unsteady and unable to perform simple dexterity tests and b) why the media has not tried to get to the bottom of this situation by rigorously questioning all of the people who were involved. It is outrageous that the Congressman got a pass to go to Mayo for yet another chance to dry out. Does the Kennedy family have the pseudo qualified medical authorities like the goomba who said this is definately a case of Ambien interaction on permanent retainer?

One wonders which is the more rational choice - driving with a Kennedy or hunting with the Vice President - I would definately choose the hunting.

Political Correctness at Gaullaudet University

The national university for the deaf is located in Washington, D.C. Over the years it has been the locus of a lot of controversey. Recently a new president was named. She is deaf, but grew up learning to speak rather than to sign. She did not learn to sign until she was an adult. Her name is Jane Fernandes. She had served as the provost before being selected. By all accounts she is well qualified to serve as president. She has experience in the field, a strong academic background and a good knowledge of the university. But for some in the deaf community that may not be enough.

Accoding to some the search was flawed. The current president, who has been there since 1988, interviewed all three candidates for the job. That may be the wrong term because in every search I have known the outgoing president has an opportunity to talk with finalists about the campus at some point in the search. The current president also served as a reference for Fernandes - but since she served as his provost that seems appropriate. Some on the campus have charged that the board was not really engaged in this search or that somehow the current president manipulated the process. If you just look at the "paper" on the Gallaudet website Fernandes is clearly the superior candidate. One of the other two candidates has a doctorate in progress. All three have long careers in working with the deaf but the mix of education and experience shows Fernandes as the best. Fednandes has a pretty good academic pedigree - her dissertation (University of Iowa) was on writing by deaf Iowans. In the world that the university has defined as being acceptable - a candidate who is deaf - the available choices are limited. Based on the resumes of each of the three candidates, Fernandes is the only one who might be considered as a candidate for a presidency outside of Gallaudet.

There is also the concern that Fernandes was late in learning to sign. In the encounters I have had with the deaf community there are a group who support signing and a group who support vocalization. The bridge between the two is immense. Fernandes served as Chair of the signing department at the university so she seems to have some facility in the area. Ultimately, the goal of education for the deaf should be to encourage students to enter the mainstream - but in today's politically correct atmosphere it must also be in the "right" stream.

There protesters also argue that somehow Fernandes is not representative of the community. Increasingly, the problems of the deaf are recognized to cross racial lines. In this case both of her competitors were white males.

Then there is the rap that the board simply rubber stamped the current president's choice for a successor. One current student,sophomore Kevin Fletcher said, "We felt we hadn't been heard." (Is that ironic or what?) But with a president who has served the university for almost twenty years it is not surprising that he might have some influence in the selection of a successor. Ideally, a president, besides the obligatory visit during the final visits, should stay out of the search. But that principle is honored in the breach. What the protesters don't seem to get is that the pool as they have defined it is a limited one.

Gallaudet is a place that has seen this kind of controversey before. When the I. King Jordan was named president in 1988, his predecessor was the last non-deaf president. That presidency lasted a very short time because members of the deaf community hounded him out. California benefitted from this in that the current president of National University, Jerry Lee, came after three years at Gallaudet. Jerry took National from virtual bankruptcy into a place that is among the finest universities in the nation for adult learners. After a short interim presidency Jordan was selected and the campus cooled down. While the emotional situation for having a deaf president was satisfied, Gallaudet probably lost by losing Lee. His entrepreneurial record at National could have been applied to Gallaudet. But that is often what the blinders of political correctness create.