Monday, July 31, 2006

The Story Tells Itself - Mexico Election Post #17

MALO held another rally this weekend in the Zocalo in Mexico City, he asked his supporters to raise the stakes a bit. He suggested that his supporters stage a series of civil disobedience protests to get their point. He said “Mexico does not deserve to be governed by an illegitimate president,” not even bothering to reflect on how that looked in relation to someone who lost an election by 244,000 votes.

Lopez Obrador argues that even though each polling place had representatives from each of the parties review the count of the ballots that somehow there were errors in the count. Election officials argue that the review process that they went through on each of the polling places cleaned up all of those problems. The New York Times comments that "Fraud is also highly unlikely, they say. One would have to bribe four polling officials, all chosen at random from lists of registered voters, to falsify results at a polling place."

Lopez Obrador is a classic demagogue. Yesterday he commented “I am not a vulgar opportunist. Money does not motivate me nor interest me. Power only makes sense when it is put at the service of others.” This campaign is clearly not about the right result it is about vulgar opportunity taken by MALO.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Karl Rove's Comments on Consultants versus Journalists - food for thought

Yesterday, the bete noir of the left Karl Rove gave a commencement address to the George Washington University class graduating to become political operatives. GW has had a program for a number of years to train political managers. By all accounts the program is a strong one. Rove commented that journalists constantly harp on the corrosive role that political consultants have on the system but ignore their own role which seems to concentrate more on process than substance. He commented "There are some in politics who hold that voters are dumb, ill-informed and easily misled, that voters can be manipulated by a clever ad or a smart line." The problem that Rove raised is not a left or right problem - no side is better or worse at this than the other - indeed, both seem to be drawn into the kind of meaningless fights that betray the responsibility necessary for public service.

Like many political ads that consultants like Rove is responsible for, I think Rove is about half right. I started in political campaigns (at least where I was paid) at the dawning of the political consultant. The history of American politics is replete with a wide range of political operatives well before that time - but the real growth of political operatives came about a bit before or concurrently with Watergate. We added these consultants to guide political campaigns through the new environment.

Rove commented that it is"wrong to underestimate the intelligence of the American voter but easy to overestimate their interest." Although the public has a seemingly endless appetite for celebrity news (which is also mostly process not substance) the consequences of that coverage is not as dramatic. But the coverage we get for most political campaigns is about polls and he said/she said rather than the analytical questions that we should all be looking at. For the most part, I think voters are able to sift through this noise and make relatively intelligent choices. I suspect they would be even better if the media did a better job at covering the issues. That is part of the reason for the rise of the blogs.

So if all that is true where is Rove half wrong? I believe that the rise of the political consultant has in part been responsible for the journalistic miscoverage. Many consultants want to summarize their candidate into a soundbite. That is not the journalists although it may be a result of the configuration of news. The consultants have also been responsible for a good part of the increase in the cost of campaigns. (Again that is partially a result of the pricing that the media - especially the electronic media offers candidates.) Campaign consultants are a classic case of principal agent theory - they have increased the cost of their campaigns in part to cover some pretty expensive fees. The example we heard this spring about Congressman Doolittle's wife collecting a 15% commission from fund raising and then depositing it into their family account is only the most outrageous demonstration of that fact.

The first campaign I was paid to work on was a US Senate campaign in Vermont. I was working for a Senator named Winston Prouty. The cost of the campaign was about $250,000 - for both sides - in 1970 that was a lot of money for a state with fewer than 400,000 residents. We used a lot of media and so did our opponent. But we also did a lot of position statements and hand to hand campaigning. In October of that year I was driving with the Senator to the Burlington Rotary, we had scheduled a visit to some small hamlet which he had never lost (he had served in the Congress since 1950) - we talked him out of stopping and never got back to the campaign because the Rotary group had about 20 times to total members than the town. On election night we were in Newport, at his house. We had a teletype set up to review results. The results from the town came in and he lost it - he thought because he had not stopped by. We won the election but I never forgot that example. Some Vermonters wanted the free potholder that he handed out - but most wanted to see the cut of his jib.

On the other side, one of my tasks was writing "beepers." A beeper was a 30 second ad used on the radio that had a cutting edge. We changed them frequently. So me and his chief speech writer and our political consultant would sit in a bar in Montpelier and write these things with a good deal of scotch and a stopwatch. By the end of the campaign I was able to package a message to exactly 30 seconds - not 29 or 31.

With the advent of Watergate, every young journalist wanted to uncover the next scandal. I think that changed the way that political news was covered. At the same time we enacted rules and regulations to stop the supposed abuses that the Nixonians had committed (I say supposed because while there were some real abuses by the end of the cycle the media whipped up a frenzy that created an atmosphere that suggested that everything Nixon did was corrupt.) Nixon was a perfect candidate for this treatment. Many of his campaigns had been hard edged.

In California we got Proposition 9 - which supposedly required politicians and lobbyists to act honorably. In the end that law created a new bureaucracy and a lot of new reporting requirements but did not stop the potential for unhonorable people to act unhonorably (in the early 1990s the capitol was rocked with a series of petty scandals of bribes and influence peddling that sent a series of elected officials to jail.) Jerry Brown rode into the Governorship in part because of his championing the proposition.

In earlier times, including that first election I worked on, the substantive issues took precedent over the process. One of my tasks was to go visit the senior senator from Vermont, George Aiken, who spent a couple of hours explaining milk price supports when our opponent called for 100% parity. Aiken patiently explained to me that 100% would actually reduce the payments to Vermont farmers. We took that information back and then sent out a position paper which explained Hoff's folly. But what happened then seems for the most part to be no longer true.

So how do we get back to substance over process? There are a couple of common suggestions including public financing of campaigns and shortening the campaign season - which I believe are fundamentally unsound. Public financing would be designed to allow incumbents to rent seek - to design the requirements to their advantage. It seems impossible to shorten the campaign - based on the history in this country of exploratory committees and other devices that candidates would use to begin the process before the official date. Reducing the size of districts - to allow more people to know their representative would probably make the Congress even more unmanagable. Limiting the number of polls is also an unrealistic proposal - the limit were it possible would reduce the ability of the media to cover the horserace. In Mexico, polls are prohibited in the last week of the campaign - and that is not a bad idea. You could encourage more reporters to have a higher level of expertise and a bit less hairspray - and there are the occasional examples of that. Dan Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee seems to be constantly interested in covering the substance of politics and he does a very good job at that.

Sometimes ideas do win. The coordinated campaign called the the Contract for America was an example of an issue based campaign which was partially responsible for the GOP victory in 1994 - but I suspect there were other factors involved.

The blogosphere may well be a counterbalance to the process coverage of the news. There are all sorts of flavors of blogs and all levels of substance. As the change did after Watergate, the change toward more substance from the blog influence on politics may take some time to show up. One would hope it would be sooner than later.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Crater Lake

Crater Lake, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

When I was a kid, my family took a lot of vacations in the regions of the Sierra. For example, in 1954 when Bannister broke the 4 minute mile we were on vacation and talked a lot about the feat. In 1957 we all went to a movie somewhere and saw Witness for the Prosecution.

One of the highlights of those vacations was to Crater Lake. I am not sure which year we went to the lake but I remember it clearly. I was struck by the lake that was unlike a lake - this is a place you cannot swim in. But I had a very clear memory of the blue color of the lake.

Today we spent most of the day (after a breakfast of Oregon Blueberry pancakes at the Lottery Lounge) driving around the lake. I took more than 140 photos with both cameras.

When we first arrived at the visitors center we saw the video that the National Park Service presented on the lake. Crater Lake is the blown out crater of a magnificent mountain called Mount Mazama. When the magma under the mountain poured out, the underlying superstructure of the mountain fell back into itself and over a period of time the hole filled with water. The video was a bit too PC for my taste. This is an area of Oregon with a lot of Indian history but the video does not spend enough time to deal with the geologic history and spends an inordinate amount of time on the indian legends.

The trip to Crater is worth the effort. It is as good as I remember it. The blues in the lake are impressive. It was a wonderful day. We drove the whole lake. The perspectives around the lake are beautiful. It gives you a real sense of the wonder of God and nature.

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

Here is a shot with the EOS of Shasta. As we were driving toward Weed the mountain was locked in fog. But as we neared sunset the fog burned off. For a few minutes you could see the mountain in all its magnificence.

Tree through the sunset

Tree through the sunset, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

This is with the SD700 - to give you an idea of the qualities that you can get with the small camera. The sun is not exactly the color it was but it is close.

Manzanita at Sunset

Manzanita at Sunset, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

Last night we drove to Klamath Falls. I have always liked the Northern part of the state above Redding. When you get near Weed you begin to see Mt. Shasta. But as you pass Weed you actually see Shasta in better light. We were on that road at about sunset. I have a couple of impressions. First, because it was a bit hazy, the colors all around were magnificent. You can go to my Flickr site to see the rest of the photos. Second, as I am trying out my new small camera I did a bunch of side by sides. My EOS (the Single Lens Reflex) actually does take a better picture - no sun coronas for example, but the smaller one does some very good stuff.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Alexander Haig Redux - Mexican Election Post #16

When Ronald Reagan was shot, soon after he took over as President, Alexander Haig made the outrageous claim that he was "in charge" supposedly to calm the country. Haig was an odd figure in American history. He was a general who ventured into politics but who simply did not understand either the Constitutional or political implications of his new role. I am not sure how good a general he was but he was a lousy politician. I was reminded of Haig by MALO this week. MALO and Haig have a lot in common - although one was a victim of his background and the other is a victim of his ego. Neither serves the political system well.

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary MALO declared himself to be president this week. This was a close election. But there is not a lot of doubt that a) the election was clean and b) that MALO lost. But that does not seem to matter to the Messianic Master of Mexican Politics. He tought he should win - so he declares he did. MALO does not listen to anyone and is very skilled like other demagogues in defining the issue in his terms and ignoring all the evidence to the contrary.

Haig may simply have been a bumbling idiot in the situation in 1981. He thought he understood an opportunity and thought that an assertion of authority would "calm" the country. That is the kindest explanation of his behavior. MALOs motivation is a bit different. When you start from a messianic notion you have the same kind of misjudgments that Haig did. Unfortunately, some portion of the Mexican people are falling for MALOs activities.

Haig tried to backstep after his gaffe. After his announcement he commented he wasn't really trying to steal power. He said "I wasn’t talking about transition. I was talking about the executive branch, who is running the government. That was the question asked. It was not, ‘who is in line should the President die?’" Nonsense. He was trying to sieze the moment.

In many democracies today there are groups on the left and the right who believe all sorts of conspiracy theories. The explanations you still hear about the 2000 election in the US are a good example. The conspiracists think that somehow, Jeb Bush and the Supreme Court of the US conspired to steal the election from Al Gore. In Mexican history, partly because of the events surrounding the 1988 election, there is a slightly stronger base for this kind of thinking. But what MALOs supporters (and MALO himself) fail to recognize is that 2006 is not 1988. In this election, there was a real primary system - Fox actually did not get his first choice for the PAN. There was also an electoral commission that ran a clean election. MALO does not want to see that evidence.

Haig eventually faded into the sunset after trying to recover his political career. He was part of a Simpsons episode (with Bart wearing a Haig for President sweatshirt) and was part of a Pink Floyd lyric. Agnew actually claimed that Haig was prepared to knock him off if he did not resign. Let's hope that sometime soon MALO and Haig can get together and wonder why people like them should not lead.

The Canon Powershot SD 700 IS

No, this is not going to become consumer reports but last week I also purchased a Canon point and shoot camera to replace my old Powershot. I love my EOS (which is a single lens reflex camera) but there are lots of times when I want to take along a tiny camera that I can shoot with.

On last Sunday, I dropped my older Powershot and its function door chipped making the switch unreliable. I can fix that with some tape and will now use that camera (which is 4 megapixels) for my fishing camera. But I decided to replace that with a newer model.

A word on brands. Photographers are like many other hobbyists. They fall into at least two categories - Canon or Nikon. I happen to be a Canon person but Nikons also have a lot of features. In the early days of digital photography I had a Nikon which had terrible battery life and was relatively slow. I bought a Canon and was satisfied and thus switched. My SLR (Single Lens Reflex) is a older model EOS (the original 10D) but it is fine for the kind of photography I do. At some point I might buy a newer model - but the current features of my SLR are fine. Once you get into a brand you are often stuck - with lenses and other accessories - which work on the other brand but not as well. So if you are getting into a new and expensive camera check out both brands (and then buy the Canon!)

The Canon has a lot of nice features that my older Powershot did not. It has a faster chip - which means a lot of good things - faster image processing and a much better acceptance of light. On my blog there is a post about our trip to the Napa wine country which could not have been taken with my old camera. A second good feature is related to the flash. On the old Powershots when you turned the camera off it went back to its default - which meant if you were shooting in a place where flash is prohibited - you needed to reset the camera every time you took a shot. That problem has been fixed. A second new feature is an oversized LCD. One of the benefits of digital cameras is the instant gratification - but a small LCD requires you to pull out your glasses to see the image - on this camera that is no longer true. A third feature is image stabilization - that means when you do a slight movement during shooting the camera figures that out and stops it in the image. My old Powershot did a good job with Macros (close up shooting) but this one is even better. The criticism of it has been its price (about $500 for full retail). There is a full review of it at Digital Photo Review.

The comparison between Nokia and Canon could not be more stark. The Canon documentation is excellent and clear. It answers the questions you need to have answered. The Canon site is also much better. I have also used their phone assistance and when I last used it they were very helpful. At one point when the EOS was new I spent about 40 minutes with a technical support person resolving a problem. Instead in infinite hold, I was able to get through to a person in a relatively short wait. On a second instance, where I had dropped a lens, the tech worked me through some tests to assure it needed to go to service and only then did he set me up for service. Both of those instances convinced me that Canon cared about their products and their customers. Thus, when I bought this new camera, I looked only at Canon alternatives.

This is ultimately a consumer society, and we have choices. Nokia, at least in the instance with the 770 did not seem to get that, Canon does.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Nokia 770 - a real bust

This afternoon I purchased a Nokia 770 - which is a small internet device to browse the web. It is supposed to work on WLANs (which are commonly called WIFI networks). I am not sure I will keep the thing. It looks good but the performance and the underlying operating system and the support offered by Nokia is terrible.

The underlying documentation is very brief but not informative enough to allow a person with a reasonable level of experience in working with these kinds of things to figure out how to make the thing work. After charging the battery and setting the device up I had to call the support line - which is 1-888-Nokia-2U (and not easily found on the website). I waited on the line for more than 45 minutes - which seems like an inordinate time - I kept getting interrupted by an increasingly annoying voice which said "I had moved forward in the queue" - not giving me any indication of when I would get with a live person (a customer service representative).

When I finally got to the person he recommended that I first download the new software - that only works on a Windows computer although one of the features of this device is its supposed compatability and underlying software written in Linux - which is what the Macintosh operating system is also written in. I found a Windows computer in the office - they always seem to have a series of problems in doing things like installing new software.

But even with the new operating system I found that I still could not connect. The next call to Nokia started with another more than 20 minute queue. Again the "thanks for waiting - but no indication of when they would get to me" message and again I was asked to "continue to hold" - the whole process seems designed to encourage people not to use the customer support.

All of this leads me to two conclusions. First, the Nokia 770 has a lot of promise - it is elegant in design. But second, Nokia really does not give a crap about either customer support or designing either manuals or web support which answers one's initial questions. A lot of these things seem to become solved after an initial period. Alternative providers of tech equipment offer site rich with substance. It seems that most phone users don't need a lot of support. But this device requires better documentation. Without that it is unlikely that the device will sell very well - I plan to take this back to the store where I bought it and demand a refund.

Winery Tours Then and Now

Stacked Bottles at Schramsberg, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

On Tuesday we went to Napa for a wine tour with my counterpart from New York and his wife and Quinlan. It was a fun day. We went first to the Rutherford Grill - which is a Napa Valley landmark - the food is excellent. I had a sandwich which was good but they also did a cornbread that was a lot like traditional southern spoon bread - that was excellent. And they did a Pea Soup with mint. The combination was wonderful. Our friends had the ribs - which looked excellent.

We then went to Schramsberg Cellars - which, according to our guide, is the oldest producing winery in Napa (Buena Vista is actually older but that is in Sonoma). They make sparkling wines. Wine tours today are a bit of hype and a bit of substance - the hype talks about the herculean struggles that the original winery had and how it was dormant for more than 50 years. (Many of the wineries in the valley figured out a way to stay open during prohibition). Or the complete lack of history about the antecedents to Schramsberg - obviously any wine person worth his salt would remember Hans Kornell who made excellent champagnes until his winery failed as a result of a disastrous bank loan. The tour there was also expensive - they pour their best (which are $90 per bottle) but the tour is $25.

We then went to Freemark Abbey - which is $10 and you get to keep the glass. Freemark has a killer Viognier - which is a light white with a fruity taste - would be excellent with a tart fruit desert. And a couple of bodacious reds (their Pinot Noir and Zinfandels are wonderful as is their Merlot). No tour just tasting in a very homey room.

Then we went back to our hotel for a short nap and then to dinner at a place recommended by a friend in Napa. The place is called Celadon and has a wonderful mix of food and spirits. I had a lamb sirloin with swiss chard and mushrooms. It was done with a burgandy reduction sauce that was wonderful. The combination was excellent. Quinlan had a grilled polenta with a lot of great flavors.

So what are my conclusions. Napa 30 years ago was a great place to go an meet vintners. Today it is Disneyland for gourmands. 30 years ago we met people like Louis Martini and Joe Heitz and Hans Kornell. Heitz, as I remember him, was fairly soft spoken but had a passion for blending wines. At one point his place was right next to Martini's and we had an afternoon where Heitz and Martini regailed us with stories about how good wine is made - not in the snobby sense but in the very practical sense of good quality. Kornell had a Japanese tour guide (who was also the guy who riddled the bottles -turning to get the yeast down to the top of the bottle during aging) who was great in explaining how their champagne (they did not fall into the trap that the French want us to about using the name) was made. At the end of one tour we met Mr. Kornell who was a very formal German but he also spoke lovingly about his wine.

But I am not critical of the change. I loved being there when it was a bit more personal but it is still a great day to spend going between good food and wine. It is fun to listen to the wine snobs (who often do not know their ass from a hole in the ground) spout off. But it is even more fun to find something that is new in taste. And on Tuesday that happened a couple of times.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Michael Dukakis does comedy (with a UCLA professor)

The former presidential candidate has an OPED in the NYT today which comments that the Senate and the House bills on immigration are flawed. They then go on to suggest a - "simpler alternative. If we are really serious about turning back the tide of illegal immigration, we should start by raising the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to something closer to $8. The Massachusetts legislature recently voted to raise the state minimum to $8 and California may soon set its minimum even higher. Once the minimum wage has been significantly increased, we can begin vigorously enforcing the wage law and other basic labor standards."

Hmmm, let's see. Raise the minimum wage and increase enforcement. Who gets hurt? First, those in the minimum wage stream - mostly American youth - fewer jobs available. No question. The evidence is not even sketchy here. Second, those employers who get nailed by the wage and hour nazis who will be every bit as efficient as the Department of Homeland Security. Notice, I did not suggest that illegals working here would face a particular burden. A lot of those workers are in day jobs where the ability of normal governmental enforcement mechanisms are limited. So what a great idea, increase the burden on current employers, a small percentage of whom employ illegals and youth workers in exchange for hiring more wage and hour enforcers.

Seems like Dukakis is every bit the policy analyst that he was a tank driver.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

An arena is a special purpose, not a general one

In this morning's Bee it came out that at least one of the county supervisors will vote against the proposal, she happens to be our supervisor and I think she will represent the feelings of her constituents. Her name is Roberta McGlashan. She should be thanked for her position.

The Rubes of Hazard, the supporters of this turkey, disclosed in this morning's Bee one other feature of the measure they will propose. Funding the arena is not a special purpose and thus not requiring of a 2/3 vote. That fandango is likely to be thrown out if someone has the sense to question it in court. The Rubes have tried to get this through by separating the votes on the measure. The first vote, which they would like to be a simple majority, is should the citizens in Sacramento vote a 1/4¢ increase in their sales taxes for 15 years? Then they add an "advisory" vote - should some of that money be used for building the King's new Taj Mahal? What a crock!

If this project is designed primarily to build this sports arena, and in spite of the Rube's attempt to obfuscate that clearly is what the intent is, then this is a special tax and under the Constitution a 2/3 vote is required. Getting that would be very tough if not downright impossible. But the Rube's hope that we will forget an earlier measure, where for a lot of reasons the voters we hornswaggled into adopting a bonding proposal for a sports complex only to have the deal fall through and the money subsequently disappeared into the political ether.

There is an interesting preliminary discussion over at Tom Sullivan's forum. Sullivan is the afternoon talk show host on KFBK and he has a series of forums on all sorts of things. He is a genial host that sometimes subs for Rush Limbaugh. He is not very ideological and seems to be well connected into civic activities. The overwhelming response from his listeners seems to be the whole deal is a scam. I read the first several pages of posts and found only one mild supporter of the project. There was one especially good comment from a person who called himself Cyberbob - that explained in about two paragraphs the complete idiocy of the financial structure of the deal.

One other site that is worth looking at is Field of Schemes - which has some pretty good posts on the long term problem of sports franchise owners attempts to turn public money into private profit. The book is on Amazon and also on their own website. This is a good example of the long tail phenomenom but a good example. The long tail is an idea from Chris Anderson of Wired that suggests that with the Internet, and electronic copies of media (books, music, video) that as new versions of issues or ideas come up people go back to previous versions in the same area. Thus, even though this book was written in 1998 - it still has lots of current information which people opposed to the proposal would find useful (an old scam never dies!).

Hopefully, the voters, whether or not the majority vote fraud is successful, will see through this and vote the tax down.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

La Ley de Herodes (Herod's Law) - Election Post #15

On my recent trip I was given a copy of the Luis Estrada movie .

It is a funny movie - Estrada has a great eye for both irony and comedy. It concerns a minor PRI official who is sent to become mayor of a god forsaken small city. He begins, during the time of Aleman, to bring social justice and modernity to the small city and in the end becomes as corrupt as the person he replaced. The story goes through a number of very funny twists where he fights against and then becomes an ally of the brothel owner in town. He has similar mixed relations with the parish priest.

In the end he kills a couple of people and instead of losing his head he gets his dream of being a member of the Congress.

Evidently, this movie when it came out caused quite a stir. Some have claimed that the PRI tried to supress it and others have claimed that it helped to elect Vicente Fox. Regardless of the hype - it is well worth seeing. It is funny - but like the Cohen Bros. movies, it also has a point. Herod's law refers to a phrase that says you are either screwed or you are F******. In the end the movie makes some great points about the pursuit of power. It ends when the "hero" is making a speech before the Congress about "protecting the revolution." One could easily see the transparent attempts by MALO fitting into this movie in a very specific way. If you have not seen the movie - you should - for both the entertainment and for the not always subtle message about the uses and abuses of power. This movie is not just about Mexico in the time of Aleman, it has a much broader message. It deserves a much wider audience!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Portland is not a cowtown

The city of Portland, Oregon - where I am right now is an interesting place. It has a basketball team - whose arena has the following written about it - "The financing of the Rose Garden construction was widely hailed at the time of a good example of public-private partnership: most of the costs were borne by Allen rather than by taxpayers. The primary public contribution to the project was the transfer of the underlying land." Also " Its construction was funded in part by a $155 million loan from a consortium of lenders who included TIAA-CREF, Prudential Insurance, and Farmers Insurance."

Like Sacramento - it has free wireless at the airport. I haven't noticed any cows here even though the city contributed very little to the arena.

The call in Sacramento to keep us from being a cowtown (as opposed to being a rube town by agreeing to this kind of sports related rent seeking by a sports team) needs to be resisted. The voters should reject the 1/4¢ sales tax and avoid being rubes.

One is reminded of the call during our campaign against the Barbary pirates - Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute. Our call might be "Possibly some land but not 1/4¢ for tribute." Not quite as catchy but a lot more sensible than the current deal.

Friday, July 21, 2006

One view of the conflict in the Middle East

israel_palestine_cartoon, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

This was on the RCP site and I think puts in proportion the current conflict in Lebanon.

The commentators in the US who are condemming Israel and who suggest that the Israeli response is somehow out of proportion to the acts of Hezbollah are silly. The Hezbollah and Hamas fighters use the population as a shield. They really do not care much about anything but advancing their agenda. Many in the American press seem to ignore that a good number of people in the Middle East, including the Hezbollah and Hamas and the Iranians start with the premise that Israel should be wiped off the earth. Proportionality needs to be seen in that light. A proportional response would obviously be different if you cowardly opponent did not start with the premise of wiping you off the earth.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Picking our Pockets

The Sacramento Bee is reporting a deal to increase the local sales tax to fund a new sports arena. Here is the "deal", and its supporters are telling us about this with a straight face. The proposal would raise the sales tax by a 1/4¢ - which yields $1.12 billion over the next "several years" Half the dough goes to the arena and half to "other projects" (Perhaps Mayor Fargo's driver?)The Maloofs contribute $20 million to build the arena (which amounts to about a 5% involvement) - but they agree to increase their total participation in the deal to "25-30%" (hmm, wonder why the 1/4¢ is so specific and this is not?) The Maloofs give us a 30 year lease on the facility. (Which of course when the team starts to falter in the next couple of years they will reneg on.)
And in the end the city owns this white elephant of the arena.

First, let's start with the positive case. If all of this goes as planned - for about $450 million we will have a new sports arena and a development of a key piece of real estate.(Don't bother to compute the per square foot cost of this turkey, it would make the highlights of the Golden Fleece awards.) Possibly we would also have some civic improvement projects. (Although the history in this area is not good - remember when we did a bond deal several years ago for a new sports complex and when it did not materialize the money went into the ether.) The rail yards is a natural place for a grand development. In reality the cost of this is much larger and it is only borne by residents of Sacramento County. What is unclear is whether this prime piece of real estate would naturally develop over time without the increase in the sales tax. The current levels of downtown development - like the towers which had ground broken for today - seem like a much more likely lever to get the area in the rail yards developed and without cost of raising sales taxes and giving the council and the board a blank check.

The real contribution by the Maloofs should be put in present value and that would discount the real contribution of what they have offered.

The supporters on the Bee comment site suggested that if we do not do this Sacramento will be a "cowtown." But why would Sacramento be any more of a cowtown if our second rate basketball team were to run away to Las Vegas? Why should we try to hold this private enterprise which is showing a declining fan support? This seems a lot like trying to hold on to a buggy whip manufacturing plant in the dawn of the automobile age. If you don't believe the Kings are declining in popularity why would they be actively soliciting season ticket holders (and they are)? It seems to me that the bigger rubes would be the people who agree to construct a Taj Mahal at their expense for the benefit of someone else.

If the Kings need a new arena, let them build it.

Gee, I wonder if the voters of Sacramento are as stupid as the supporters of the project think we are.

Headlines and Motives - next part

President Bush vetoed a stem cell bill yesterday. I am not sure what the right response should have been. On the one hand, I am generally in favor of all things which would advance scientific knowledge. On the other, I am also pretty clear that our efforts to normalize abortion are wrong. Ultimately, I think many moral decisions should not be controlled by government. But there are and should be some limits. Roe has been interpreted too far, IMHO. There should not be an absolute right to abortion - for example, I think parental consent for minors is a sensible idea. I am generally offended by some of the advocates for abortion who claim that there is an absolute right to abortion and that fathers should not be involved. I am concerned when, with all the other technologies available to prevent conception that some women use abortion as a birth control method. Yet, the risks of non-standard medical procedures is substantial. The specter of back alley abortions was both real and troubling. As I have thought about the broader issue of abortion - I tend to want to come back to a decision between a woman and her doctor (with an overlay of responsibility or involvement of the father) - that is admittedly a jumbled response - but I think it mirrors where a good part of society is - commited to allowing a considerable amount of flexibility in this matter but not allowing this issue full and free reign.

So the message on stem cells, in my mind, is that we should allow science to proceed with caution on figuring out whether this branch of research is going to help out our search to end some diseases. This issue is obviously tied up with the abortion issue. But I also see the other side on stem cells - we should not be encouraging the creation of these research tools without a recognition of the very real moral dangers we face. This is one of those issues, I think like abortion, where our moral guides and our political ones are not entirely reconciled. But I also believe that the ultimate decision by the President was based on first a set of principles (which I think I may disagree with in part) and then a set of politics. That is a rather long explanation of why I watched the coverage of the story in the papers I read this morning to understand whether they were conveying news or politics.

In this story the NYT seems to have played it straight - their headline was Bush Veto Maintains Limits on Stem Cell Use. The LA Times included the fact that an over-ride was unsuccessful. I think that is where the news on this story was - the first Bush veto was made and sustained. Leave it to the editorialists to opine on whether Bush's decision made sense either politically or on a policy basis. But the Sacramento Bee used the following headline - "Stem cell veto has risks" The story was actually covered in the politics not the national news section. The Washington Post had a similar headline to the NYT. I think the NYT and the Post were about right - the story here is that Bush used his first veto on this issue.

There was a second story this morning about Bush's speech to the NAACP. Here again there were some interesting perspectives on how major papers covered the story in their headline. The Sacramento Bee covered the speech in the following headline - Bush acknowledges racism still exists. The New York Times covered it thusly - Bush Seeks to Strengthen Ties to Black Voters. Is the substance of his speech to this important national group the substance of his speech or his political effort?

Headline writing is not a science. The appearance on these two stories suggests that headline writers believe that some of their work is to convey a picture even for those who will not read the story. That is unfortunate. The news business should be about news.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A metaphor for the election - #14

“Danza de los Voladores”, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

Yesterday, my friend Fr. Dermot and I took another friend from the US through the Museum of Archeology. The trip to the museum is always an interesting one. Fr. Dermot believes that the museum is more ideological than historical - with an over-emphasis on Aztec culture because it fits with the prevailing myth when the museum was built. It is organized to have an emphasis on the other end from the entrance on Aztec culture. Regardless the museum has some wonderful rooms with a lot of interesting artifacts and as I have watched it over the years, the presentation in each of the major salons has evolved a bit.

When you enter the museum there is an architectural feature which is quite interesting. The architect constructed a huge water fountain in the center of the main courtyard. Yesterday, it was not necessary but when you are there on a very hot day - the temperature in the area is a good 20º below the prevailing one in the park.

This is contrasted with the place I stayed on this trip which had a problem with hot water (it lacked it).

The picture is of the dance of the flyers which is performed on a poll near the museum. This is an ancient dance which has alot of ritual surrounding it. I had not seen it performed for more than a decade and its elegance is quite wonderful. The dancers climb a poll and then jump off attached to ropes and glide down to the ground.

So how does all this fit with the on going election saga? I was surprised, as I commented in an earlier post at how recalcitrant MALO has been on this. Mark In Mexico continues to provide some of the best commentary on the election. He pointed out yesterday that at one point before the election to show he was a man of the people (not those people!!!) MALO commented that he would stand by the IFE even if there was but one vote difference. Of course he does not remember that promise. El Universal has switched their myths - most of my friends think MALO forced them by threatening their advertising budgets. There is a lot of symbolism here - but I think that good sense will prevail.

There are still lots of contrasts. Yesterday I saw a lot of posters and bumper stickers that were MALO inspired. The amount of money spent on these campaigns is awe inspiring. At the same time the IFE (according to Mark in Mexico) is planning to figure out a way to publish the tally sheets. MALO has tried to defame the polling officials by alleging fraud. Publishing the names will show the country how widespread the participation by key officials from all parties the process was. That would be a good counter punch. Mark In Mexico also points out that in the limited recount going on right now MALO has lost a total of about 2000 votes. Those recounts are limited to tally sheets where there is a question. This, as pointed out before, is not a full recount.

There is a lot of concern among the people I spoke with while there that the cold shower will come soon - but as I said to a friend last night - solving the problem is not the same as it was under the PRI. In the late stages of the PRI, paying the gas bill did not solve the problem. Now, with some wrinkles, if you do that, the problem gets solved. MALO wants to go back to the old ways. At this state in the Mexican political system there are discontinuities. MALO thinks he can exploit those - I believe he will ultimately be unsuccessful.

One other item of interest. The vision of the 2000 election was a landslide for Fox. That really was not the case. Fox received 42.52% of the vote, while Labastida received 36% and Cardenas received about 17%. In this election - Calderon won with 35.89%, while MALO received 35.31%. Madrazo, the PRI candidate received about 22%. That shows the divisions of this election are not new in Mexican politics. Obviously, this situation is much more pronounced. There were about 6 million more votes than in 2000. 58% of the voters from the US voted for the PAN.

One footnote, the loser in the 2000 election (Francisco Labistida) has re-emerged as a Senator from Sinaloa.

My guess is that the Mexican election is about where the Voladores are in this picture. It is still a bit upside down but will resolve itself sooner than later.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

P.T. Barnum and MALO - Mexico Election Comment 13

I am in Mexico and am a bit concerned about the direction of things. MALO (according to some press reports his real name is Manual Andres and thus MALO) was on the radio this afternoon after press reports that the President Elect's car was stoned, saying the following - "I do not support this kind of action but I understand it." Of course MALO is behind the attack. The concern is that regardless of what the Tribunal does - unless he wins, Lopez Obrador will deny the legitimacy of anything that does not declare him a winner. He seems to have no regard for established points of order or law and little concern for the 65% of the voters who did not support him. There is a lot of evidence of a large amount of outside money propelling some of this activity - lots of posters about clean hands and votes. But it is like PT Barnum said - you can fool some of the people all of the time. The question now is how many and for how long?

As I have noted previously, I think the Mexican system has performed quite well so far. Nothing in this visit - and I spoke with a lot of people - denies that assumption. The election, by all independent accounts, was run fairly - as was the count. The IFE worked hard to make sure that things were done right. But Lopez Obrador does not seem to care.

At lunch today, in a place I have been before which has some of the investment types in the city, the chatter at the next table with a bunch of money runners or IBs was "how do we get along if LO steals the election?" In one sense that is rational behavior in another it is quite absurd. In the end I hope reason will prevail and that the duly elected president will be confirmed by the Tribunal and inaugurated in December. But at this point it is not entirely clear that he will be.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Last night's Rivercats game was a good one. Hiram Bocachica was the star of the evening. In his first at bat, we were seated out of the sun and so a bit closer to the field and I yelled to him - "se puede" (you can) - my wife chided me. But right after I yelled he hit a home run. The Salt Lake Bees then caught up. We had a chance to go back ahead in the eighth but in two of the worst calls in history - the blind home plate umpire called two clear balls as strikes and the innning ended. Those calls were so bad that even though I was way in the outfield with our grandson - who needed some run around time - you could see those pitches were outside the normal strike zone. But then came the ninth - we go down two outs with two men on and up comes Bocachica. He then pops off a game winning home run and we win 6-3.

This has been a tough season - we are still 2 games under .500. But every once in a while a game like last night comes along and we have a couple of thrills. Bocachica by the way means "small mouth" in Spanish.

Mexico Election 12 - The Tape does lie

Today AMLO presented a video which supposedly showed a poll worker stuffing the ballot box. But one of AMLOs own supporters said he was full of hot air.

Juliana Barrón Vallejo represented the PRD at the polling place where the video was recorded. Ms. Barrón commented “There was no fraud,Everything was clean.” She also commented “I think he is angry because he lost, and so he is inventing things.” Doesn't that about sum it up?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A reader's list

At the baseball game this evening I was asked to compile a reading list. So here goes (with an explanation)

On Globalization - The Lexus and the Olive Tree and The World is Flat - both by Tom Friedman. The Lexus presents the clash of civilizations thesis that Samuel Huntington is famous for in a much more readable format. The World is Flat presents a series of trends which are breaking down barriers between countries. Friedman links trade liberalization and technology in a way that is fundamentally sound. I heard him speak while we were in Hawaii and one of the best lines he had in that speech was "don't cede a century to a country that censures Google." There is some reason to think that Friedman may be a bit optimistic. Lord Keynes wrote in the early part of the 20th Century that liberalized trade was a good thing and likely to continue while there are primative forces at work in today's world, I believe in the power of technology. If you are really interested in the technology part of the equation look also to Kevin Kelly's New Rules for the New Economy - although it is a bit dated it is still excellent. If you are interested in the long term trends of globalization read almost anything by Kenichi Ohmae - the Japanese management consultant - The End of the Nation State was a real eye opener when I read it many years ago.

Terrorism - Unfortunately, in my opinion there is a lot of baloney in the field. I think the best I have seen, to give you an idea about what we are really up against is Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong - Lewis is the foremost American scholar of the Middle East. His books are well researched and written.

Governmental Structure - The Federalist Papers - every American should read these 85 essays written to convince the people of New York to adopt the proposed Constitution about once a year. James Buchanan (the 1986 winner of the Nobel in Economics) has a bunch of great writing - his original exposition of public choice theory is in the Calculus of Consent. The Limits of Liberty is a bit more dense but well worth the effort. I would also recommend Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand - Rand was not a very good novelist - this is about 400 pages too long - the John Galt speech alone is way to verbose and she seems to lapse into these kinds of perorations all through the book. But the substance of the novel is excellent (soon to be a major motion picture). Mancur Olson also had a couple of good books about governmental structure. The Rise and Decline of Nations was a really wonderful treatment of the role of interest groups in hamstringing creative activity.

Social Thinking - James Suroweicki's The Wisdom of Crowds explains a novel theory about why groups make better decisions that individuals under the right conditions. I tend to agree with that conclusion and Suroweicki has an entertaining way of explaining the theory. Lawrence Lessig's either The Future of Ideas or Free Culture presents some interesting thought on the risks of the new copyright policy in the US which could stifle our economic growth. Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies was a wonderful book about negative trends in progress. Her Substance of Style is an all out attack (effective at that) in favor of the consumer economy. Julian Simon (with Olson also a member of the U or Maryland department of economics and like Olson also died too young) did a couple of books worth reading, Simon had the annoying (to liberals) habit of looking at actual data to understand whether the loons on the left knew what they were talking about. He made the famous wager with chief loon Paul Ehrlich on the scarcity of materials in the world and won. He wrote two books - one about the Ultimate Resource- which is a series of essays of first rate statistical work on the abundance of our globe and the second on the economics of immigration - that should be read by any serious social theorist.

Economics - I have two favorites here - the long and the short. Henry Hazlett wrote Economics in One Lesson - which explains the market in wonderfully simple terms (If you want the argument reduced to a pamphlett hunt up - I Pencil which Leonard Read did). The longer stuff is almost anything by Frederich von Hayek - who was the first Nobel in Economics. I think Hayek was the intellectual of the 20th Century. The Constitution of Liberty is a very tough read but worth the effort. I would also recommend Adam Smith - The Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Unfortunately, Smith is quoted more than he is read. (Both by the right and the left).

Tax Policy - Buchanan again with the Power to Tax is good but a bit obtuse. George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty is a pretty good explanation of supply side theory. Jude Wanninski's The Way the World Works is a bit of an overstatement but I found it entertaining. Showdown at Gucci Gulch is a wonderful story - written like a novel by two WSJ reporters - which explains how the 1986 Tax Reform Act came to be.

Novels - I like Dickens and Twain - both have a wonderful command of the language and a great eye for absurdity. They actually both worked hard in the US to extend copyright laws.

Those are seven categories and admittedly an incomplete list of things which have influenced my thinking.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Mexico Election 11 - Messianic Politicians and Reality

Picture from one AMLO site, originally uploaded by drtaxsacto.

I found this picture taken at the rally which Andres Manual Lopez Obrador held in the Xocalo in Mexico City last week. AMLO has made all sorts of claims which, to this point, no serious observer of Mexican politics seems to support. As I have read about this process, as I have noted in a previous post, this looks a lot like the Gore effort in 2000 - although the Gore people may have had a bit more to beef about (I think their claims were ultimately wrong but Florida politics are afterall Florida politics).

What possible explanations can one have for this seemingly irrational behavior? I can think of at least three. First, AMLO could genuinely believe that he was robbed of the election. That is the least credible, in my mind. Second, he could be driven by the messianic notion of leadership that seems to have been present in his mayorship of Mexico City. He had a lot of odd quirks - calling press conferences early in the morning was the most prominent - which suggest that he has a great deal of personal energy in this - more than is normal. A lot of his behavior is like a petulant child. When you make the comparison to Gore - there are a lot of similarities. Both believe in the absolute rectitude of their positions. They are on a mission. In this case even the facts are not likely to dissuade AMLO. A third explanation could be that AMLO does not believe in his own populist rhetoric - he is ultimately contemptuous of people who do not agree with him and thus, a minor thing like a clean election that did not go in his favor is an inconvenience. This is about power and implementation of his correct vision of the world. Leaders like that are not often successful - although they may achieve some electoral success - politics - even the evolving processes in Mexico involve give and take - but when you know the absolute truth - that give and take is an annoyance.

I am relatively convinced that AMLO will be unsuccessful - but as we have seen in other movements like this - if the last explanation is the correct one - he will continue to try to disrupt the Constitutional processes. A mark of where any democracy is - is whether that democracy will ultimately deny this kind of behavior a forum. In the end, in 2000, the Supreme Court rejected the arguments of Mr. Gore and he went away - although a lot of people still have the woulda, coulda, shouldas. But I believe the threat of AMLO is larger. I also believe that the Mexican voting public will ultimately reject these kinds of attempts to drive the system away from democratic expressions. That was a variation of the old system in Mexico. Although President Fox was not as revolutionary as many expected him to be, I believe what was started in 2000 in Mexico, continues. One could argue that electoral politics in Mexico are a lot like the crash. In that instance many of the artifacts of the "revolution" in technology fell by the wayside, but the implementation of technology in many areas continued. In this instance, although Fox did not move the country as far as some expected, the underlying changes remained and continue to grow.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The World is Flat but not Bleak

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear Thomas Friedman again. For the most part his presentation was similar to the one I heard him give a year ago. The world has become a flat place because of the integration of technologies that allow individuals not countries or companies to control their destinies. That is an interesting argument. But in the original book Friedman ended on a pessimistic note - he had this great quote that when he was growing up it was better to be a B student in the US than an honors student somewhere else. But in the book he argued that because the world is becoming (or already) flat - that is no longer true. In his speech a year ago - he commented that there was a lot of data that the American system of education was not training the right kinds of skills - not enough math and science, for example, compared to other nations.

But yesterday he was a bit more positive. He defined a series of what he called middle jobs - those tasks in this new world that would produce good incomes and would be hard to reduce to automation. Those categories (which were pretty much self explanatory) are Collaborators, Leveragers,Synthesizers,Explainers,Localizers, Green (people who understand the environmental imperative),Passionate Personalizers (people who add a personal touch to a vanilla task) and Great adapters. But then he asked what should educational institutions do to assure that people can get into those skills? He suggested that the most important skills (in addition to the basic ones) were creating an Ability to learn how to learn (Learn from great teachers) and a focus on how to stimulate passion and personal touch. He had a wonderful equation
CQ+PQ is always greater than IQ
Curiosity and Passion is better than IQ

Obviously a lot of these skills are the right brained skills that some institutions completely ignore.

What was also interesting was Friedman, who in the Lexus and the Olive Tree seemed to have gotten this issue but understated it in The World is Flat, commented that markets and market like activity do offer the US an advantage. We do not have a lock but we do have a leg up because of the commitment to the market. His one great line yesterday was never cede a century to a country that censures google.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Seeing what is not there - Mexico Election 11

On Saturday, AMLO raised the specter of computer fraud in his lose to Felipe Calderon in the July 2 election. Although virtually all of the outside observers of the election commented on how well the election was run - AMLO claimed he had evidence of fraud. The rally on Saturday had the theme of the hit song "Love is in the Air" with Spanish lyrics - but in reality, his supporters should have used something like "Magical Mystery Tour." In AMLOs mind this is not about a fair election, it is about getting him elected.

Pearl Harbor Memorial - some impressions

Yesterday, as a part of our trip to Hawaii, we went to the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. I had several impressions. First, I had forgotten that all of the casualties on December 7 were less than the total number of casualties on 9/11. Before you can travel to the memorial you are required to see a 23 minute movie about December 7 - it is very well done. The impact of Pearl Harbor on the American psyche should not be underestimated - but the magnitude of 9/11 should also not be underestimated. I believe the proportions of the current fight are similar to WWII. I am not sure we have recognized that as a people.

Second, the first impression one gets at the memorial is one of dignity. You are asked to turn off all cell phones and to keep chatter to a minimum and when you get to the memorial (by Navy launch) that seemed to be observed. The memorial is elegant in its simplicity. In the picture you can see in the lower right corner a part of the Arizona's superstructure, which is submerged. The white pilon is for the USS Vestal and the ship in the left upper corner is the Missouri. We had the chance to be there on a pretty day with a brisk wind but lots of sun. But the place almost commanded dignity. One would hope that the memorial for the victims of 9/11 is a well done.

Third, the movie that you see before going to the memorial touches on the issues relating to Admiral Kimmel and General Short - the commanding officers in Hawaii in December,1941. It made me want to go back and think about the history. Kimmel and Short were stripped of their ranks soon after December 7. There is plenty of evidence that neither was prepared for the change in the way the world worked. There is also some evidence, which was claimed by Kimmel, that he was the victim of political machinations. Any leader needs to be much better than either of the senior military officers in Hawaii were, or for that matter FDR and his team were, in thinking about possibilities outside the existing logic of the time. What was true then is certainly true now. Kimmel actually did a book (called Admiral Kimmel's Story) which argued that he and General Short were part of a political plot the Roosevelt administration was involved in to move us into war. That is not a satisfying argument - but the political role here should not be underestimated. As senior officers both should have understood the potential for political manipulation. Regardless of the role of politics, there is plenty of evidence that both officers could have been better prepared for the attack.

Fourth, the common logic of the hotel people seemed to be wrong. We checked with our hotel and were told to get there very early, we got there about 7:45 AM and there was a long but fast moving line. We had to wait inside the enclosure for a couple of hours before we got into the theater and then on the launch. It was worth the wait. At my Flickr site I have posted the photos I took on our visit. As you can see from one there was a long line to get in. By the time we got out later in the morning, there was no line. I am not sure whether that is true all the time but we could have come a bit later in the day with no wait. Regardless of the wait, the memorial is well worth the visit.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mexico Election 10 - Demagogues and Democracy

Today, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador held a rally in the center of Mexico. AMLO was in his best form. He called the election a fraud. He made threats - "If there is not democracy, there will be instability" He contended that, despite all of the other reporting on the election by independent and outside observers that the election was somehow stolen from him. "We are aware we are confronting a powerful group, economically and politically, that are accustomed to winning at all costs, without moral scruples." Is he not be talking about himself? Is the powerful group the voters? Clearly this was a close election, but elections are about votes and he seems to have lost by several hundred thousand of them. If you look at the electoral map of Mexico it really does look like a north-south split(for the most part).

One political commentator suggested the following "What marks López Obrador's attitude is not the construction of democracy, nor the consolidation of his own political force, but an evident ambition for personal power,If it was said that López Obrador was messianic, he is confirming it with each one of his acts since Sunday." That was Jorge Fernández Menéndez. It sums up what a good number of people are thinking.

Calderon, on the other hand, seems to be prepared for these tantrums. He spent some time talking about the futility of creating a border wall but also of the need to think more carefully about some elements of trade and Mexico's trade with the US that should be re-examined - especially as it relates to agriculture.

The language among AMLO's supporters is pretty heated. For example at Milante
there is a lot of talk about fraud. What is disturbing about this is the way it seems to have been organized. One could make the case (although I would not) that Gore deserved a full recount in Florida in 2000. But every external report of the election, from all but partisan observers, has commented on the excellent way in which the election on Sunday was carried out. But in this case AMLO and his supporters are not really concerned about anything but their own political ambitions - the voters be damned. We will watch over the next couple of days to see how this tactic is accepted in Mexico.

The PRD got its most significant share of the Congress in history, that could be a force for raising the issues that the left would like to raise in this new government. But AMLO is not a part of that - he figures if not now, then he (personally) will not be president. My suspicion is that some members of the PRD will be turned off by AMLOs responses. Calderon has already met with some of the other leaders of the PRD. So I continue to hope that the Mexican people will see through this naked grab for power and will reject it.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Mexico Election - 9 - Why Americans Hate E.J. Dionne

Several years ago Washington columnist E.J. Dionne did a book called "Why Americans Hate Politics" - it basically argued that people hate the divisions of politics. Since the publication of the book Dionne has shown himself to be a traditional Washington liberal.

In this morning's Bee he did some coverage of the Mexican election arguing that he hoped that the Mexican democracy would not fall into the trap of US politics of 2000. He said that he hoped the final arbitration of the election through the courts would not construct so narrow a decision as to apply only to one election at one time. What is wrong with that logic?

Well, to begin with, the Mexican system is not subject to hanging chads or any other fanciful imperfections that the Florida of 2000 had. The rules, even more than Florida in 2000, are clearly laid out and seem to have been followed with rigor. But the loser in the election is now trying to throw up anything to try to get it to stick. Dionne seems inclined at least to listen to the arguments if not buy them.

Why do Americans hate politics - Dionne was fundamentally correct in his macro analysis - Americans wish that those we elect would get down to business and do the work that we have hired them to do. But Americans, and I suspect Mexicans, also don't like political whiners. Set the rules, follow them and then accept the results. Dionne does not seem inclined to follow that simple precept.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Mexico Election - 8

This afternoon Felipe Calderon commented to the press about his victory.

"I'm asking those who didn't vote for me to give me the opportunity to gain their confidence," Calderón said Thursday. "I know that I should make mine the desires and the hopes of those who didn't vote for me."

He also said - "I assume as my personal responsibility the hopes of the people who have voted for other candidates,"

Sounds about right to me.

Luis Ulgalde commented about his role the IFE "complied with the law and guaranteed that the votes of Mexicans have been counted with absolute transparency."

Again, sounds about right to me.

An AMLO (MALO) advisor said "Building a democracy has cost a lot in this country, and we are not going to give it up easily,there is no reason for López Obrador to back out or defend a system that he doesn't belong to." It seems pretty clear that this advisor would have said something different had they actually won the vote.

Nature's wonder

This morning as I was driving to work there was a pidgeon flying at about car height. All of a sudden a Red Tailed Hawk dove on the pidgeon and took it to the ground. As we drove past the hawk took the pidgeon to the ground and sat with tallons holding the pidgeon in its grasp. It looked like the pidgeon was a) finished, and b) the hawk was not going to let it go - regardless. It was impressive. Two other cars stopped and looked - fortunately no one looked at trying to free the pidgeon.

Economic knowledge in the news business

There is a blog I have read for a while called Beat the Press that attempts to dispell myths about economics in the media. As I have noted previously, a good many of the posts start there with a liberal point of view. His defense of Social Security was stunningly mind-numbing. But I found one that should be added. In a semi-serious column for the LA Times, Patt Morrison, wrote today that some major American icons would be out of luck with current gas prices. Mentioned were Bonnie and Clyde who terrorized a couple of states for a couple of years before being ambushed near the Texas-Louisana border in May of 1934. So I went back to indicators to look at what gas cost when Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down. Gas was 19¢. The CPI has gone up by 1422.56% - thus gas would seem to be higher than the CPI growth rate in current terms. But that may not tell the story.

In 1934 a loaf of bread was 8¢, milk was 45¢ a gallon, a new car was $575, a house $5972, and the average income was $1506. That would put gas (had it risen at the increase in the CPI) at $2.70 (remember in California a good percentage of the price of gas is taxes - nationally about a quarter of the price you pay at the pump is federal and state taxes),bread would be $1.14, a new car would be $8179, a house would be just under $85,000 and median income would be under $21,500. Obviously, a lot of things are different between the two times. There are a wider array of consumer goods, the average workweek is shorter, the average house and car have more bells and whistles and probably size and durability.

I am not trying to rain on Morrison's funny story only to point out that comparisons are not always easy. In this case the seeming high price of gas may not be as bad as it seems.

Joe Biden - Diplomat

This does not seem to need an explanation. What is interesting about this quote is that it is not his first. Can you imagine him being president? Can you imagine him being senator? Can you imagine him working at a car wash?(without disrespect to car wash workers) Which one sounds most real?

Mexico Election - 7

The official tally came out today and Felipe Calderon was elected President by a narrow 243,000 votes. That amounted to six tenths of a percent difference with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. But even after a careful verification process, as we thought AMLO (or MALO) says he does not like the result so he will contest it. In earlier posts I have commented about the process. I expect, if the courts are reasonable, they will uphold Mr. Calderon's victory. But AMLO counts on his ability to mount street demonstrations and that those will transform public opinion. I am relatively confident that the vast majority of the Mexican people will not stand for this showmanship.

Obviously the President-elect may want to think about strategies and programs which get to the crux of the issue raised in the sixth post on the election - namely how to broaden his appeal. Calderon has a long history in politics and a good set of ethics. So I think he is likely to be a good mix of practicality and values. At this point in Mexican history, that is exactly what the country needs, IMHO.

Calderon is not going to roll over the NYT quoted him this afternoon as saying "We are going to defend the votes, and I ask you all to be alert, because we are going to call on all of you to make sure these votes are not canceled, that they are not thrown the trash, and that no one tries to negate for caprice or for ambition what 41 million Mexicans have decided"

Mexican Election - 6

The verification process on the election seems to be close to completed. This process was not a recount. In each of the electoral districts the votes were counted and then a tally sheet was created. The tally sheets are the things being verified and only under some very limited circumstances can the actual vote counts be reopened. That structure in the Mexican law was done to prevent the kinds of things which Gore tried to do in Florida in 2000. With almost all of the votes counted Calderon seems to have come back into a very narrow lead. (.11%)

As I have read the blogs (great coverage at Mexico Voices) there are a couple of things going on. First, some have speculated that AMLO may lose because of the late entry of Patricia Mercado - who was a leftist entry from the Socialdemocrats and Farmers party. She may have drained left votes away from him. She got just under 3% of the vote. It could be argued that Roberto Campa offset some of Calderon's votes but his total was much lower. So his effect, even if he did drain votes, was much less. Madrazo's votes could also have been seen as anti-AMLO votes - although that is much less certain. Second, it seems likely that when the certified tally is announced that AMLO (if he loses) will bring this election to the courts. As noted previously, all of the indications on this election are that it was conducted with the highest international standards. There are some AMLO supporters who are claiming they might go to the streets if the courts do not seem to be going in the right direction - so for at least a while, the uncertainty will remain. The 2000 electoral map was pretty simple - the divisions between the PAN and the PRI and one PT state winner - were pretty clear. This time, when the IFE publishes the map - it is likely to be a bit more jumbled. Whoever, wins this election will have to remember what one person in the newspaper said - "He got 14 million votes but there are 106 million who did not vote for him, he should remember that."

There was a long article last night about Calderon and how he should govern (assuming Calderon wins in the end). It suggested that because of the tightness of the vote, he has the opportunity to attempt some reforms that would reduce the power of the interest groups who still have a major power in Mexico - the concentrations that link economic and political power in oil and telephones are two. That may be a very good idea.

The American papers seem to have evidenced their underlying preferences in a lot of their coverage. For a short time AMLO stepped into the lead but, at least according to the bloggers, a lot of that came from where the verifications were coming from - AMLO strongholds. It is too bad that they don't do what the IFE has tried to do, simply report the facts.

Finally, I come back to the head of the IFE. Throughout these last three days, he seems a perfect example of where Mexico is going. Several times he has told both of the major candidates to cool their jets. He has done a good job in trying to sort out the results fairly.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mexico Election #5

Tomorrow's WSJ has an column titled "Democracy Lives" from MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY who writes the Americas column for the paper. She comments

"The big victory in this race goes to the IFE in carrying out a spectacularly clean, transparent and well-organized election. If institutions matter to development, as Nobel laureate Douglass North contends, then Mexico is well on the way to progress. Mr. Calderón echoed the sentiments of millions of Mexicans when he told me yesterday that watching the electoral process made him "proud to be a Mexican." Mexico's next test will be how it stands up to Mr. López Obrador's threat to call street protests if the IFE decision goes against him."

She rated the election a 10 and then goes on to describe the precision with which the voting took place. It looks increasingly like the AMLO forces will try to pull a Gore here. Mr. Lopez Obrador seems to be practicing the cynical politics of division. Luckily, the Caldreon people are prepared for this. I think the Mexicans have fought to hard for a good electoral system. I think they will not allow it to happen. But we will see in the coming days whether the optimism is rewarded. If AMLO wins the final tally, I expect the Calderon forces will not throw up procedural roadblocks and will accept the results. But the AMLO people do not seem prepared to accept what the Mexican people and the IFE have worked so hard to create. But the Mexico of Salinas and Cardenas is not the Mexico of today.

On this Independence Day in the US, those of us that care about Mexico's continued development will be watching and praying for a good result. The Mexican people seem to have done their part quite well.

A funny interpretation

This morning a friend wrote me a note about the election and referred to the candidate for the PRD as MALO - a reorganization of the name Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. In Spanish MALO is bad. Lopez Obrador's plans for getting out of NAFTA and massive governmental interventions would indeed be MALO for Mexico.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Mexico Election 4

Some more developments on the election happened this afternoon. First, AMLO raised the specter of vote miscounts. He asserted that there were 3 million miscounted votes - it is unclear how he came to that number but in this kind of contest that may not be necessary. As I suggested in an earlier post, the Algores seem to be advising the former mayor. Mark in Mexico suggests that is a Kerry tactic - it may simply be the tactic of losers. Second, Calderon again reasserted his victory - which remains in the 400,000 range with less than 2% of the votes to be counted.

Some leftist analysts have suggested that this looks like the 1988 election where Cardenas (the PRD candidate of the time) lost to Salinas in a very questionable election. Some Mexicans refer to that election as the one with the disappearing computers - Cardenas was well ahead of Salinas but then the computers turned off - when they restarted Salinas was in the lead. Salinas was then succeeded by Ernesto Zedillo. Some believe that while Salinas followed the mold of PRI presidents since the 1920s, his successor set up the conditions for the reforms that ultimately made possible the Fox victory. That includes the establishment of the IFE which is the body which will validate this election. But with the threats, implied and express, that AMLO has raised, the IFE may not be successful in making the system work. The new president has to be certified by September 6. Some of AMLOs supporters could be planning to disrupt the system until he wins by default.

As one who has watched Mexico for more than a decade, I am hopeful that if the IFE does make the certification that seems to be there, that the radical's tactics will not be successful. The divisions, that were noted in an earlier post, are a bit more complex than I suggested. Mexico has a growing middle class which seems to have been divided between the people who want a nanny state and those who do not. Among my friends and acquaintances this election generated a lot of interest but not the same kind that 2000 did. In 2000 the people I spoke with were excited to participate in a change. But in this year, the traditional skepticism about all politics - which I first encountered when I started to speak to friends in Mexico - seemed to reassert itself. In 1997 I was living in Oaxaca and driving back from Mitla in a cab - we passed the road that leads to Benito Juarez's home. I asked about it and the taxista commented that he did not care much for politics. He then said we have a saying in Mexico - how can you tell when a politician is lying? Look to see whether his lips are moving. - I started to laugh and he said - it is really not that funny - to which I replied - I know but we say the same thing in the US. A lot of Mexicans I have come to know, rich and poor, have little faith in the political system. In this year, that may actually be a plus. While AMLO may try to mobilize the mobs in the same way he did when the PAN was trying to do the Mexican equivalent of impeachment - the one consistent comment I have heard in the last year has been a realization that Mexico's democracy is an increasingly important thing to protect. If the IFE continues to act with integrity, there is a good chance that the average citizen will not stand for shenanigans.

Earlier in the year I was in Aguascalientes at a friend's birthday party and spoke with most of the people there. While there was no one there in support of AMLO - these were middle class people in a PAN state - the support for Calderon was tepid. In that trip, I met with a key PRD official in Zacatecas who told me in confidence that he would not support AMLO. At the same time some members of the business community in Mexico have supported AMLO in the hope that they would get a piece of the massive projects that he has suggested. At the same time, I know some not very rich people who are deeply religious who could not have possibly supported AMLO. What that says is that Mexico has matured into a more complex democracy than most observers give it credit for.

The next steps for certifying the election are a bit complicated. There are further possible steps if either candidate disputes the results certified by the IFE. Mark in Mexico has a clear presentation of the next steps. In 2000 the movement was all in the excitement was in the thing to move the PRI out. But in this election that feeling is not there. I think there is a good chance that if AMLO tries to demagogue this, there is a good chance that a good part of the electorate will not accept such tactics.

Al Gore in Mexico

"If in the count we conduct, it turns out the final result does not favor us, I am going to abide by the result....We are going to defend the will of the people if it favors us."

Who said that? One of the worries about the PRD candidate for President was that he might take to the streets in a close result and disrupt the election, taking from the Gore 2000 playbook. It looks from the press reports that Lopez Obrador will lose by something in the range of half a million votes. Let's see what he ends up doing with those results.

The Mexican Election - Part III

The election seems to have gone to a cliff hanger. The result between the two major candidates (Lopez Obrador of the PRD and Calderon of the PAN) seems to be within one or two points. Last night both candidates declared victory but with almost 60% of the vote Calderon seems to be ahead. I have a couple of very preliminary conclusions about this. First. the Federal Elections Commission (IFE) seems to have done what it was created to do - create a process that is fair. The IFE has a voter verification process which requires voters to show an ID card to get a ballot. So unlike the US, which is pretty sloppy, the votes seem to be real. Luis Ulgalde, the Director of the Institute, deserves our prayers and respect. My impression of his work on this election is that he will not be swayed by demogogues. His job is to make this election result real. I do not know enough about Ulgalde - but what I do know I admire.

Second, while both candidates have declared victory - AMLO seems prepared to be disruptive if the result does not go his way. Both candidates have said in various ways that they will respect the results but also that they have won. Ulgalde asked the candidates to shut up until the count was done but both disrespected his suggestion.

Third, if Calderon wins he may not be the friend that the US would expect. The division in the Congress and Senate will be about a third a third a third. A narrow margin may compromise his natural direction. What's more the Bush Administration's lack of attention to our neighbor since 9/11 means NO Mexican president would be smart to work hard on excellent relations. If AMLO wins the problems between our two countries could be enlarged.

There were two excellent resources on the election which Liveblogged the election - the first was MarkinMexico- which is an American guy in Oaxaca. His posts last night presented a clear picture of the election as it was developing.

The second came from Real Clear Politics - Michael Barone at Real Clear Politics - who is pretty good on American politics also seems to understand what is happening in Mexico. He was in Mexico City and did a long series of posts which were posted to RCP this morning. Barone had some good analysis as well as simply the results. Barone pointed out that there was a heavy rain in Mexico City (which is an AMLO strong hold) which may have held down turnout for AMLO. By Wednesday, this should be sorted out. Let's hope that whatever the results that both of the major sides will respect the final count.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

More comments on the election

In a response to my post last night, I got a comment from someone who said two things. First, the comment was that the Fox promise was not as strong as it had been at the start. Fox clearly had a large job to do in transforming the economy of the PRI state that had been there for more than 70 years. He did not realize the promise that everyone felt in the joys of 2000. As noted in my previous post, economic growth in the official statistics has been pitiful. But if you look behind the numbers, there is plenty of evidence that the economy of the country is progressing more rapidly than the numbers suggest. Part of the question that I see for the election today is whether the voters will discern that progress or whether they will fall into the patrimony that AMLO wants to offer.

AMLO wants to get Mexico out of NAFTA. That would set the country back. In the last dozen years, the country has grown and improved in many areas as a result of a robust trade policy that includes trade agreements beyond NAFTA. Stopping that would reduce the growth in the country, the actual growth.

The writer also criticized my comments about Lopez Obrador by suggesting that I said only what others said about AMLO not what he has said. I have been around politicians for a long time. My point in quoting the four speakers from the NYT was to suggest that I believed that the election will be decided by the middle class and that there is a clear division between some who believe the future for Mexico will be in a protective state and those who do not.

My reading of both Lopez Obrador's speeches and his actions as Mayor of Mexico City is that he believes deeply in the protective state. Lopez Obrador has been charactured by his opponents but I believe that elements of the characture are accurate. AMLO proposes to spend his way out of the problems that Mexico faces. That is a similar proposition to the one offered by FDR when the US faced the great depression. There is little credible evidence that any program of massive public works or subsidy ever helped grow the economy. In the long term the things begun by Fox's predecessor but grown by Fox seem to be the most likely way for Mexico to continue to progress.

Refections on our time in Idaho

The picture is of an International Workers of the World membership card. Next to it in the case is a little red book - the song book of the IWW. On Saturday, after the fishing camp we spent the day looking at local sights around Coeur d'Alene. It was an interesting day. We started in the N. Idaho Museum - which is in the city. This is a small museum but has some interesting parts. Idaho is a relatively young state - the oldest building in the state is from 1853. For a good part of its history it was an extractive state relying on mining and timber.

So the history of the IWW in Idaho should be prominent. Senator Borah was the chief prosecutor in the trial of Big Bill Haywood (pitted against Clarence Darrow). The importance of logging and mining was great in the early history of the state. Coeur d'Alene lake was used to move logs to the mill - which was off the lake. A lot of the work in the extractive industries was very dangerous - from cutting timber to moving logs to the mill, to mill work, to mining. This was a pretty good venue for the IWW. Borah, of course, went on to a long career in the US Senate.

The museum does not highlight the IWW role in the state - and it probably should. It does mention the strike the IWW staged in the whole area which tried to band together a good part of the lumber industry. That stretched to Bellingham in Washington and for a period of about 20 years the organizing in the area was a pretty important part of the history – pretty violent also. The main strike started around 1912.

There is a tradition in the state of some pretty left of center politics - Frank Church was one of the leading Senate opponents of the Vietnam War. Church was one of the losers in the 1980 landslide that caught a lot of democrats. Church was last re-elected in 1974 (which was not exactly a GOP year) and the last dem in the house in Idaho was in 1992.

But for the most part Idaho is a pretty conservative state. For example, as you can find in bordering states, there does not seem to be a motorcycle helmet law. Fireworks are legal. The waiting period for purchase of a firearm is the time it takes to make the transaction. In my mind all of those things are about individual responsibility. Its' current two senators are both conservative.

The Wikipedia entry on the state suggests that Idaho is areligious - although only about 20% of its citizens identify themselves in that way. About equal numbers of the population are Mormon and Catholic - although in some parts of the state the concentration of Mormons is pronounced. The entry also suggests that the name may be a hoax. The guy who is credited in finding the name said first it was from the Shoshone language meaning "sun comes from the mountains or the gem of the mountains" but near when he died he suggested that he had created the name.

The other place we visited yesterday is the first mission in the state. The Old Mission is about 30 miles away from the city. It was founded by the Jesuits. It is at the end of the river that feeds into the lake on a high promintory. The local indians invited the Jesuits to come to the area in part because they had heard about the men in the black coats who could help save them from all sorts of perils. The church was built by a Father Ravalli. He used some ingenious techniques to build the church. All of it was put together without nails. The altar is fashioned out of white pine. Since the availability of seasonal vestments was probably limited he constructed panels with painted wood which could be interchanged to signify the seasons of the church. The walls were constructed using a technique which binds together mud and straw in layers over saplings - which seems to be a good technique for insulation. We were in the church yesterday and it was a good fifteen degrees cooler than outside.

Last night we went to a local pub which had been recommended to us by one of our fishing coaches. The place was low key. The food was excellent. I had the lamb burger with goat cheese, which was excellent. While we have been here we also went to the signature restaurant in the Couer d’Alene resort. The food there was excellent and so was the wine list. This has been a good couple of days.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Election tomorrow in Mexico

The Mexican electorate will vote tomorrow on three candidates for president (there are more but the three leaders are the most likely to win). The New York Times, in a divergence from their usual reporting techniques did a very balanced article on the eve of the election which quoted several people from the State of Mexico. They cast the election as a division not between rich and poor but within the middle class.

They presented four quotes from people. The four give a good division of what I have heard in the country over the last year as the election was forming.

"The lesson we learned from Nafta is that our farmers cannot compete with the United States," (an AMLO supporter)

"López Obrador says he is going to take away money from the rich and give it to the poor, but the rich don't keep their money in this country," she said. "So where is he going to get all the money for the poor? From taxes. And who pays the most taxes? The middle class." (A Calderon supporter)

"He is a vengeful person, not a fair one," Mr. Suárez said of Mr. López Obrador. "He's the kind of person who will do away with the economy and with social peace." (A Calderon supporter)

"a little more conscientious of the needs of the majority of the people who are poor, and focused more on the local market than the foreign one." (A Lopez Obrador supporter)

The country has clearly made significant progress in the last six years - although economic growth (at least according to the official statistics) has been pretty slow. But as the first quote suggests there are a lot of people in the country who believe that Mexico will always be a second class state unable to compete in the world market. At the same time there is a good part of the country that is proud and hard working and increasingly confident. Tomorrow's election will decide which view will prevail.

My prayers are for the Mexican people. In my opinion the country has a very good chance to continue to move forward or to fall back in the traditions of the PRI - even though the candidate most likely to help the country fall back is not in the PRI. Let's hope they make a good choice.