Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thomas Dewey, John Kerry and Propositions Q&R

Question of the day - which is John Kerry?

For the past six months or more the Mainstream Media has been touting the tidal wave that would come home on November 7 and swamp any GOP candidate around - or at least enough to take care of those evil GOP Bush supporters. But John Kerry never could keep his mouth shut. Kerry was speaking at Pasadena City College and said "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." It is hard in one sentence to impugn the motives of volunteers and the military but Kerry did it. The White House attack dogs moved into place and Kerry took the bait and only dug himself in deeper.

There is a lot of chatter about whether the dems have blown their chances in the Senate. In some key races this kind of comment could move the election from D>>>>R. In 1948 the papers all told the story of President Dewey, who was named president by the papers not the voters. So one wonders whether the certainty of a democrat victory in retaking Congress. Dewey was not a very good candidate - some compared him to a wedding cake figure. But he was caught up in the inside nature of politics - the real lesson from 1948 was not the bad media but the fact that Dewey acted in a way that was not appropriate for a serious political figure. President Truman made the race a real one by taking the process seriously. Kerry seems not to have learned that lesson. In 1948 such a remark could have been lost in confusion. But in 2006, no way.

But then we get to Propositions Q&R. Again for the last few months we have heard a lot about how the propositions which would authorize a quarter cent sales tax increase should be adopted or we would be a (shudder) "cow town." In this morning's Bee there was a good story about the negotiations - which the supporters of this measure wanted to keep secret. The story gives a good rationale why the supporters wanted to be so secretive. The deal, even before the disclosures, looked like a dressed turkey - but with the way that our civic "leaders" bent over for the owners - it looks even worse now.

The election will be over in about a week. California looks like it will not follow the national trend. Mr. Kerry seems to have helped the GOP put up a slightly stronger front in a couple of key races across the country. There was a joke on the internet recently which (wrongly) compared the murders per thousand in DC and Iraq - the tagline on the thing was "Perhaps we should pull out of Washington, DC" - with leaders like Kerry - perhaps we should. With leaders like the ones who negotiated the arena deal, perhaps we should not stop at DC.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Netroots should grow up

When Senator Lieberman was defeated in the Connecticut senate primary, the advocates like Daily Kos claimed "victory" for allowing Ned Lamont to win. They reasoned that the voters of the state would follow them off the cliff to their pristine extremism. But they did not. Now some of them are beginning to assign blame as to why Lamont, who seems to be mostly an empty suit, will lose on November 7.

For example, one Matt Stoller comments (about the American people) " They know that Democratic Senators are moral lepers, weaklings, and that is the only reason we aren't further ahead when the Republicans screw everything up. The Democratic Senate leaders will sell us out at every opportunity, be it torture, Iraq, Alito, Lieberman, the Bankruptcy Bill, or stopping war with Iran. They aren't poll-driven, they aren't fear-driven, and they aren't driven by strategic differences. They are simply driven to beat us down, their voters, by any means necessary. That's why they cheered Joe. . . . We can win this fight, as the polls are tightening. But it would be a whole lot easier without that knife in our back."

One could argue that part of the reason for Lieberman's resurgence has been the lack of support that the GOP offered to Mr. Schlesinger (remember there are three candidates in the race?). But for the netroots crowd they only see their side.

I believe the reason that Mr. Lieberman is ahead in the polls is based on his performance as a senator. Like all other politicians, and even advocates for netocracy, he is human. He is a complex mix of issues and beliefs. The problem with the netroots crowd is their stridency. The benefit of the net is its ability to open up all of us to varied points of view. The reasons for its success have been tied closely to its ability to independently judge events away from the things that drive the mainstream media. But that is also a defect. A good many of these new players in politics listen to themselves a bit too much. They would benefit from the same thing the mainstream media would - a bit wider perspective.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Tragedy in Oaxaca

The Top Two Photos are from Mark In Mexico

In the summer of 1997 I lived in Oaxaca for about six weeks. It was a chance to begin to learn Spanish and to do some R&R. It was a wonderful experience. The city and the state are a great resource. The city has some wonderful colonial architecture. It has a cathedral that was restored by Don Alfredo Harp which parallels in many ways the history of Mexico. It has a couple of major archeological sites including Monte Alban - discovered by Don Alfonso Caso - who worked for decades in figuring out how this city's history progressed. The city has one of the most interesting hotels in Mexico. It has great food. It has a civic ambience that is wonderful.

For the last several months, the city has been closed down, ostensibly from a strike by teachers - but there are other things going on. The strike has been aided or impeded by some outside organizers. In the last week or so, violence has increased. An American activist was murdered in the city. Last night the federal police were airlifted into the city to quell the increasing violence.

Earlier in the year I discovered a literate blogger who lives in Oaxaca. His commentary on the election was right on point. For the past several weeks he also has been writing some very personal observations on the strike and the disorder in his adopted city. A few days ago he had to send his family out of the city for their safety.

Since I am not on the scene, there is little I can add to Mark in Mexico's excellent commentary. But I can make two more personal comments. My experience in Oaxaca that summer was the first time I had ever lived abroad for an extended period of time. For a good part of it I was alone - my wife and son were with me the first week, and my daughter and a friend of hers in the last - but that was a good time to reflect. Oaxaca is a great place to do that. It was also a place where I was forced to use what little Spanish I had then. Oaxaca has a lot of tourists - so English is always a possibility. But I really did try to build my Spanish.

In two instances my Spanish failed me. One morning I was out to get breakfast - hot chocolate and bread. I was wearing a golf shirt I had earned as an original Macintosh Evangelista - it was black. In the shop, the young girl behind the counter asked me "De que es su iglesia?" (Where is your church?) I responded I did not have a church merely that I liked computers. She smiled and said "I know churches need computers." I then said I did not have a church - Apple was not a church nor was Macintosh a saint - merely I liked computers. She smiled and said "Entiendo, pero de que?" (I understand but where is it?) My skill at Spanish was not as good as I thought. But later that day I was able to drop my laundry off and request it back three days later. I found that negotiating the things of daily life were increasingly easy - not as easy as now - when my Spanish is much better - but I could actually see progress.

The second memory relates to the Zocalo. The Zocalo is a Mexican town square. It came about because, according to some, President Santa Ana wanted a statue built in the town square in Mexico City to commemorate independence and although the taxes were collected the statue was never built - Zocalo actually means the base of a statue. But on the Zocalo there were two fine restaurants - one which you can see in one of the shots. The other (called Del Vitral) right off the square. For the last five or six months, as the protestors have held siege in the Zocalo - local businesses have lost substantial amounts of business. Both places had great food and enormous hospitality. I worry about both places and more to the point about all of the wonderful people I met while living there.

A final memory relates to my daughter. When she arrived we hired a cab to visit the sites. We were in Mitla (which is an archeological site about 20 miles out of town) and I was telling them about the site and its history when a group of French tourists came by. All three of us were wearing ball caps - the sun can be intense there. The tourists, conversing in French, were making rude comments about the Americans and the ball caps. My daughter turned to one of them and said (in French) "Just because the world is smaller does not mean it is not a good idea to be polite, if you are so smart why do you need a guide in French?" The color in the guy's face who had been making rude comments vanished. I was proud of her.

The teachers have, supposedly, agreed to return to work. But the outside "organizers" continue to rant as if the original focus of the strike did not matter to them. They have cooked up a lot of charges - whether the Governor was elected fairly, whether there are unresolved issues in other areas - but their real purpose seems to have been to disrupt a city whose major sources of income comes from tourists.

The city has two high periods of touristic activity. The first is around a summer folkloric festival. I believe it was cancelled this summer. The second is around Christmas. Oaxaca is famous for its posadas - I hope that by the time tourists usually journey back to the town - that it will again be an inviting place.

Clean hands in politics

There is a story in the NYT today about the use of hand sanitizers (that gel that you cannot carry on airplanes - at least commercial ones to make your hands clean without water) by politicians. The story focusses on the Vice President but then also points out that some politicians use it, some don't (Gore does, Dean and Bill Richardson do not).

What I was struck with is not the obvious public health questions (if you have to shake so many hands is your chance of getting colds higher? Or the second question, how did politicians in earlier days protect themselves from colds?) but rather just who should be protected in the transaction of pressing the flesh. With all the baloney going on in politics today one could make a credible case the the pre-use of hand sanitizers for people meeting politicians is offered as a public service to the constituents.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Politics in 2006: Is there something besides the Donkey and the Elephant?

I have a friend who I served on a board with for several years. She is a liberal (or at least moderate democrat). We have talked about a mutual acquaintance who is running for Congress in another part of the state - both of us hope he loses. He should and it looks like he will. His ethics would put him about in the middle of the pack in Congress - but that is not a very good standard - his opponent (who is an incumbent) is actually pretty good for the district. But what is interesting about this friend is that for several key races she voted for the Green party candidate. She could not see herself voting for the GOP candidate but instead of voting for the inferior candidate for the dems she voted against.

This is the equivalent of voting for none-of-the above. In each of the races (they were Governor, AG, Insurance Commissioner) the democrat has shown himself to be a terrible candidate. In one case the guy has chosen not to connect with voters; in another he has run so many times and gone through so many transformations one would see him like an aging diva who goes in for one more facelift (in this case they are more like philosophical or image lifts - but the principle is the same); in the third the only plausible reason for the candidate to be pursuing this office is that he needs another eight years of public employment. But in each case she chose not to vote for the candidate of her party. She has one candidate for a statewide office who she has mentored politically since he first entered politics - I think he would be pretty good for the job he is seeking and so I will cross over and vote for him.

The point is that a number of Californians are presented with these kinds of choices and an increasing number of them are choosing to vote the equivalent of "none of the above" One wonders what would happen if states actually offered that choice - would voter turnout rise?

An old joke Googlized

Yes indeed although the people at Google want their name to only be a noun - I cannot resist. There is an old joke about lawyers that a man in a hot air balloon is lost and comes down over a golf course and asks the party below "Where am I?" - one in the party replies "You are above the 16th hole about 50 feet above us" - to which the traveller replies - "Oh you must be a lawyer/" To which the person on the ground says "how did you know", to which the balloonist says "Your response was factually correct, but totally useless to me."

A new service called "How many of me" makes and estimate of all the people in the US with your name. It is called How Many of ME? It makes an estimate of how many people in the US have your first and last name. For example I found that 2915 people have my name - based on their estimating techniques. Interestingly enough for my wife - who has an Irish first name - the service produces the result of ZERO. So I guess the woman I married does not exist - and all along for these last 37 years, I thought she did.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tolstoy on Causality

In the latter part of War and Peace Tolstoy begins to explain his philosophy. In one sense he anticipates Nietzsche. The German had a wonderful metaphor about lenses. Tolstoy, as discussed in an earlier post, is skeptical of normal assumptions about authority, including his suggestions that Generals and Kings do not actually influence the course of history any more than doctors influence the course of disease. In the early part of the end of the novel Tolstoy comments that in order to understand any history one needs to look through different lenses. Thus as he says in a different place “History is nothing other than a collection of fables and useless trifles messed up with a mass of unnecessary dates and proper names....Why should any one have to know that the second marriage of Ivan the Terrible to the daughter of Temryuk took place on August 21, 1562, or that the fourth to Ann Alekseyevna Koltovski happened in 1572? Yet they demand that I learn all this by heart, and if I do not know it, they give me a ‘one.’” That is an interesting concept and one that merits a lot more thought.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Taking it to the limit

In a post on his blog Joshua Michael Marshall makes the comment that an RNC ad against Harold Ford is racist. Give me a break.

The ad has some people on the street with the following comments -

A Black woman says "Harold Ford looks nice, isn't that enough?" Ford has been a politician for a long time even though he is only 36 but his record is not exactly filled with gravitas.
A White woman says "Terrorists need their privacy" -Ford did not support key areas of the Administration's anti-terrorist proposals.
A White Couple says "When I die Harold Ford will let me pay taxes again." Ford was against the repeal of the death tax.
A White hunter says "Ford's right I do have too many guns." Ford has been more supportive of gun control than many Tennesseans think he should be.
A White Playboy bunny says "I met Harold at the Playboy party" Ford attended a Playboy party at a Superbowl. Most people in the state would wonder why their elected officials would do that based both on the reputation of Playboy and on the simple notion about how much "entertaining" members of congress are treated to.
A White woman says "I would love to pay higher marriage taxes" Ford, like most liberal democrats has opposed measures to reduce the marriage penalty and the alternative minimum tax.
A White farmer sasy "Canada can take care of N. Korea, they're not busy." He rejects the Bush doctrine.
A White man in dark glasses says "So he took money from porn movie producers, I mean who hasn't" If he took money from producers of porn that is a legitimate issue.
A display ad then comes on that says Harold Ford just is not right and then the Playboy bunny comes on and says lavaciously, "Harold, Call me!"

Marshall argues the following - "But then you see that one 'man on the street interview' isn't quite like the rest. It's almost like those old Sesame Street segments, one of these things is not like the other. It's the one spot with the platimum blonde with no visible clothes on, vamping "I met Harold at the Playboy Party." What policy issue is she talking about? It's not connected to anything. It's just, 'I'm a loose white woman. I hooked up with Harold at the Playboy mansion. And I can't wait for him to do me again.'" He argues that the ad is designed to give voters in the state the impression that Harold is having sex with White women. What nonsense. The two people in the ad who do not talk about policy are a White woman and a Black woman. I suspect that many in Tennessee, regardless of race, would be bothered by their legislator going to any party sponsored by Playboy. I think the ad is fair game, it is a mix of personal and issue based attacks that should be open. Had the Playboy bunny been Black and the other non issue person been White - I am sure that Marshall would have still had a problem with the ad.

The news coverage of the ad has been pretty one-sided. For example, one Vanderbuilt professor is quoted as saying that he has surveyed some people (perhaps 2?) and everyone immediately sees the race card. Chris Matthews argued that this was typical of hit ads and that the GOP was the only side doing these kinds of things. What nonsense! The real issue here is whether there is a legitimate issue about how much politicians get entertained by people seeking favors from them. In Tennessee, where Playboy is not held in high esteem by many quarters, the issue of receiving favors from a company like that should be a legitimate issue.

Many Tennesseans remember Jim Sasser, who was elected as a conservative republican and got to Washington and became a good buddy of many things left. Sasser was the yokel who kept yammering about the "dafasit" when he served as chair of the Budget Committee. The veracity of a politician's beliefs should always be in question.

The Failure of Air America

So Air America failed. It is not hard to discern why. The picture above, which is from Pentoon, is part of the reason. The network's flagship person is what the picture says he is. The few times I listened to him, I heard a bitter man wailing about how unjust the current administration is. Each time it sounded the same.

One of the area's local hosts was about the same. In the case of Christine Craft one heard a bitter person ranting. She might have been the left wing variation of Mark WIlliams, the guy written about earlier in this place who was bounced off a larger local station. Outside of the major media markets, there may not be a large enough share to produce revenue. Even in the major markets, the programming did not offer enough to make the system work. The conservative radio hosts are in every market because they offer commentary in an entertaining fashion.

Radio is about entertainment. Air America did not offer that. Limbaugh and Medved and Prager and even Laura Ingraham have the great possibility of being funny or thought provoking. And while I think in recent years the medium has declined in its attraction, that possibility still exists. A second reason conservative radio continues to make money is that they offer something which is harder to find in other media. CNN, the NYT, the WP and most of the rest of the "mainstream" media (that is an odd term because mainstream would imply some buy in and I think that is questionable) are all pretty much on the same side and with the same point of view as Air America. We know what that establishment has to say most of the time. But starting with Rush and the updates - there was a compelling reason to turn in. Ditto for each of the other talk show hosts. Medved has a certain charm. Prager has a certain intellect. And Ingraham has almost a frat girl quality. Each of them also has flaws (often an extreme stretching of an issue)- which is why I wrote earlier that I have increasingly turned to podcasts.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The College Board Report on Prices in Higher Education

In 1997 I served as a congressionally appointed member of the National Commission on College Costs. A good part of our discussion was trying to develop a lexicon which explained how college pricing works. No student in American universities pays the full cost of education - subsidies are provided through a number of venues - including endowments, public subsidy (either through discounted prices in public institutions or financial aid in the privates) and grants from other sources. We tried to establish a clear understanding of COST (what resource inputs are applied to providing a college education), PRICE (what students generally call tuition), SUBSIDY (the money used to reduce the price - which can be granted on the basis of ability to pay or need and without reference to need), and NET PRICE (the actual amount that students pay after subsidy is applied).

Here are some things that the Washington Post said about a report from the College Board which talks about college prices - (I have put my comments about their coverage in RED) The College Board said the increase in tuition and fees at public four-year colleges, although still higher than the national inflation rate, slowed for the third year in a row. Increases at private four-year colleges have also cooled off in recent years, although the average yearly price of attending a private college is $22,218, far more than the state school average of $5,836. That is actually a function of the amount of subsidy given to students in the public sector. That subsidy is given primarily to students regardless of financial need - thus a lot of it goes to very wealthy students.

At least two Washington area institutions are emblematic of the trend. At the University of Maryland, in-state tuition and fees for undergraduates were unchanged this year. At George Washington University, the increase was only 3.9 percent, about equal to national inflation. GW spokeswoman Tracy Schario said it was "our lowest increase in more than two decades." State budgets were fat this year and thus politicians rather than thinking about the appropriate long term price of a college education were quick to grant goodies to non-need based students. In California the chair of the Assembly Education Budget Committee - forced a reduction in price of $6 per unit - that resulted in a reduction of costs for very wealthy students and an increase for very poor students (because the cut also reduced the student's eligibility for other forms of need based aid). When the chair was told about that he said (even though he is a liberal democrat and supposedly a champion of the poor - "so what!"

But the smaller increases this year at many colleges were made possible by major price increases earlier in the decade. They were also made possible by a pretty robust rate of growth in state revenues so that prices at public institutions could be held constant.Middle-class parents have discovered, to the pain of their wallets, that the general inflation rate and the college inflation rate are out of sync. Why would anyone but a moron expect that the market basket of things which colleges and universities buy - which ultimately affect price - have any direct relationship with the general consumer price index. Is the price of cabbage supposed to move in tandem with the price of either professors or technology - two items that make up the cost structure in higher education? Overall, the College Board reported, state school prices are up 35 percent from five years ago, even after adjusting for inflation. More importantly than the 35% is how does this relate to the ability of an average family to manage costs. An odd thing about this is the comparison to housing. In the last five years in California the price of housing has risen by considerably more than 35% - but most politicians are gleeful about that rise. People have more money in their pockets as a result of that - because of all that new home equity (although there are substantial issues about how affordable housing is in the country - especially in California).

The question these types of stories do not deal with is either NET PRICE or long term policies which would allocate the components of prices that families pay for higher education among current, past and future spending. The real question that these kinds of reports chould address is not what the nominal price that students face in public and independent institutions but rather what the net price has been over time. There both public and independent institutions have made a determined effort to assure that a broad range of students has an opportunity to attend college. When state budgets are fat -there is a natural inclination by politicians to spend like drunken sailors and to artificially hold down prices in the public sector. A lot of the "buy" in a college education is just like a house purchase - where the net future value of the purchase is not fully recognized at time of purchase - thus some of the price for higher education might best be borne by prior income (how do we encourage families to save before their children get to college), current income (how much of these costs should or can be borne out of current income - the differences among income classes helps to define equity in society), and future income (how much of the current costs should be shifted forward to students who will gain from the increased value of their skills which a higher education provides - you would not buy your house for cash - so how much of your education should be amrotized and how should it be amortized? ) Were I able to influence the debate - that is where I would take it. A lot of the discussions about higher education come to the simple minded conclusions of the college board study - released today. In the long term only looking at current raw prices - does not assist either families to plan for their education nor educational institutions to have a better understanding of how to control or at least moderate changes in their prices.

Tolstoy on War II

I am slowly going through War and Peace. In the coming battle of Moscow Tolstoy makes some wonderful comments about war through Prince Andrei. Before the battle of Moscow Andrei loses his father. He is visited by the eternal hippie - Pierre on the eve of the battle and they get into a discussion about the next day's battle. Pierre, who never seems to get it, makes some inane comments about the honor and glory of war. Andrei responds in a way that explains that battles are not about glory. He comments "A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it! Why did we lose the battle at Austerlitz? The French losses were almost equal to ours, but very early we said to ourselves that we were losing the battle, and we did lose it. And we said so because we had nothing to fight for there, we wanted to get away from the battlefield as soon as we could. 'We've lost, so let us run,' and we ran. If we had not said that till the evening, heaven knows what might not have happened. But tomorrow we shan't say it! You talk about our position, the left flank weak and the right flank too extended," he went on. "That's all nonsense, there's nothing of the kind. But what awaits us tomorrow? A hundred million most diverse chances which will be decided on the instant by the fact that our men or theirs run or do not run, and that this man or that man is killed, but all that is being done at present is only play. The fact is that those men with whom you have ridden round the position not only do not help matters, but hinder. They are only concerned with their own petty interests."

But Andrei, who uses the night before the battle to reflect on his life comments further - battles to Tolstoy are not about heroics or tactics - "To them it is only a moment affording opportunities to undermine a rival and obtain an extra cross or ribbon. For me tomorrow means this: a Russian army of a hundred thousand and a French army of a hundred thousand have met to fight, and the thing is that these two hundred thousand men will fight and the side that fights more fiercely and spares itself least will win. And if you like I will tell you that whatever happens and whatever muddles those at the top may make, we shall win tomorrow's battle. Tomorrow, happen what may, we shall win!" Motives in battles are simplified.

Andrei is not convinced that all the niceties of war are justified. "Not take prisoners," Prince Andrew continued: "That by itself would quite change the whole war and make it less cruel. As it is we have played at war- that's what's vile! We play at magnanimity and all that stuff. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of a lady who faints when she sees a calf being killed: she is so kind-hearted that she can't look at blood, but enjoys eating the calf served up with sauce. They talk to us of the rules of war, of chivalry, of flags of truce, of mercy to the unfortunate and so on. It's all rubbish! I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805; they humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder other people's houses, issue false paper money, and worst of all they kill my children and my father, and then talk of rules of war and magnanimity to foes! Take no prisoners, but kill and be killed! He who has come to this as I have through the same sufferings..."

Andrei is also not convinced about noble motives "If there was none of this magnanimity in war, we should go to war only when it was worth while going to certain death, as now. Then there would not be war because Paul Ivanovich had offended Michael Ivanovich. And when there was a war, like this one, it would be war! And then the determination of the troops would be quite different. Then all these Westphalians and Hessians whom Napoleon is leading would not follow him into Russia, and we should not go to fight in Austria and Prussia without knowing why. War is not courtesy but the most horrible thing in life; and we ought to understand that and not play at war. We ought to accept this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. It all lies in that: get rid of falsehood and let war be war and not a game. As it is now, war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous. The military calling is the most highly honored."

He then concludes with an elegant set of prose about war. "But what is war? What is needed for success in warfare? What are the habits of the military? The aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country's inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery, and drunkenness. And in spite of all this it is the highest class, respected by everyone. All the kings, except the Chinese, wear military uniforms, and he who kills most people receives the highest rewards.

"They meet, as we shall meet tomorrow, to murder one another; they kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people (they even exaggerate the number), and they announce a victory, supposing that the more people they have killed the greater their achievement. How does God above look at them and hear them?" exclaimed Prince Andrew in a shrill, piercing voice. "Ah, my friend, it has of late become hard for me to live. I see that I have begun to understand too much. And it doesn't do for man to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.... Ah, well, it's not for long!" he added.

A good deal of the discussion about Iraq and indeed any engagement that Americans have at this time in our history attempts to make war somehow prettier than it is. But Andrei's soliloquies make clear that getting into a war should not be a casual thing and that completing a war is not about making compromises. His words particularly touched me today. Throughout this campaign season the democrats have equivocated first about their initial commitment to the war in Iraq and then with some absurd alternatives designed to make narrow political advantage. What Tolstoy's comments made me think about is how imporant it is to make sure that democratic systems actually take the time to think out these campaigns carefully and then to be willing to commit the energy to win them.

National Commissions and Hammers

In a post for Inside Higher Education)this morning a professor at Hamilton argues that national commissions are not as effective as they could be. He suggests a change in approach.

Professor Paris argues "Higher education would have been better served by the Commission disseminating information about what really works and emphasizing the broader purposes of education. Certainly higher education is becoming a necessity for access to many jobs, and the economic premium attached to having a degree is well documented."

National Commissions are often formed when politicians lack the resolve to study a question thoroughly enough. Often it comes with an issue where they think they can score short term points. Increasingly they are used as a pressure valve in the political system. Unfortunately, most if not all also start with the proverbial attention that is paid by the person with a hammer in his hand - everything looks like a nail. In this case, the nail is almost always increased governmental intervention. In most cases increased governmental interventions are likely to produce contrary results.

A good example was the National Commission on College Costs, on which I served in 1997. For most of the last 70 years the rate of increase in the price of higher education has exceeeded the change in the consumer price index by something greater than 1.5% compounded. There are a lot of good reasons why that has happened. There are also some less compelling reasons. In the last decade that problem has been seen as more acute. That has been in part as a result of the increasing complexity of the financial transaction that students and families are being asked to make, as well as some organizational questions that colleges need to address (the organization of colleges and universities is less like an efficient organization than it should be). One of the vexing things about this issue is that no college student ever pays the full cost of the education they receive - so there is a difference between price and cost. That is a hard concept to get but it is critical to understanding what the appropriate pricing mechanism should be. The College Cost Commission was formed and was asked to come to some conclusions about why these trends were happening and how to solve the question in 120 days. We had some pretty bright people on the Commission and they worked pretty hard for those four months. The report concluded that costs were indeed rising and pointed out some interesting examples of some institutions who were doing some things to reduce costs or prices. It also created a taxonomy (Cost, Price, Net Price (price less aid), and Subsidy) which are helpful in thinking about the college cost issue. The sponsors of the Commission were for the most part grumpy with the conclusions. Our commission refused to come up with the pre-ordained conclusions that our political sponsors were expecting.

During the time that we have had a series of national reports on education - from A Nation at Risk (1983) to the Spellings Commission this year - we have been presented with a series of reports bewailing the state of education. During that same time the costs of Congress have grown dramatically while the deliberative nature of the body has diminished. The quality of public discourse has diminished significantly. There are plenty of explanations - from our gerrymandered congressional districts, to the constant rent seeking of politicians (their first role is to get re-elected), to a number of other factors. The esteem that politicians are held in has continued to diminish, for good reason.

Secretary Spellings Commission seemed to start with some preordained conclusions. Higher education seemed to respond to those preordained conclusions in predictable ways. Paris' idea about providing incentives to get higher education to think more creatively about how to improve those things that need to be improved is a good one. Any institution in society can improve, but politicians seem to think the best way to achieve that improvement is with a hammer. Perhaps, they could use the same values and methodology to think about how to improve the legislative processs, or would that be too much to ask?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A couple of days in the state of Veracruz

For the last few days I have been in Veracruz and Xalapa. It was an interesting couple of days. I had a chance to see an old friend who is the minister of education for the state - when we did a press conference on an agreement that we have worked out to cooperate with a university in Xalapa (most people would say that this is THE private university in Xalapa).

Then I did a couple of days work on the campus. The rector has just reorganized the functions of the campus and also moved some personnel around. In the time that he has been rector it has grown rather well - but it needs to grow more. I think his reorganization is a good one. He seems to have the right people in the right place.

On Friday, I went with the rector to a have lunch with a family in Xalapa. They have six kids. We had some of the best tabbouli I have ever had (the family is Lebanese). That night we went to Xalapa's Greek restaurant which is actually pretty good - albeit very small.

Yesterday, I had the chance to join in the celebration of a 3rd birthday for one of the staff members of the university. It was a fun party - typically Mexican - lots of family - kind attention to all the kids that were there. Before the party the family celebrated mass. After the mass we saw an amazing grasshopper.

The university is working on two interesting projects. The first would allow the cities in the state to assess how well they are using development funds. Developing an index is not an easy task but I was impressed with the energy that the staff talked about the project. On Friday night we had a couple of hours of good discussion that ended at about 9:30 PM - I am not sure I would see that kind of commitment in a US university. This index will be a challenge to construct. Fundamentally, it will measure things like conflict in society and other factors which either encourage or inhibit economic growth. There are a couple of similar measures but this one will combine some factors which have not been done before. As an initial offer to the municipalities the university will also produce a calculation on the efficiency of prior investments in the area. What was most interesting to me on this effort was that the university has no worries about who has done this kind of thing before. Many US universities would be intimidated by the established institutions but UAX, while they have paid careful attention to other examples of similar work and have utilized the internet quite efficiently, they will go ahead with their project based on pretty thorough research and adapting the methods they have discovered to the unique setting for Mexico. Hayek wrote about "knowledge of time and place" and the special attributes that came from localized/specialized knowledge. He particularly aimed his barbs at those who at the time were constructing macro indicators for economies, many of which have offered significantly false indicators. The UAX project is a good example of an implementation of Hayek's ideas - adapted to their environment. I am also hopeful that once the indexes are developed that they can be adapted by others in their own region.

The second project is to develop some alternative financing mechanisms for a couple of buildings on the campus. Yesterday afternoon the rector and I spent some time with the CFO of the campus to think about alternative ways to build these structures with a mix of gifts and loans. It was interesting to attempt a discussion about things like amoritzation schedules and donation rules in Spanish with the bright CFO who speaks very little English. I think we were able to process each other's ideas but at the end he said he would send me a spreadsheet - there the translation is not as tough!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Humbling Experience

Last night I was honored by Universidad Anáhuac Mexico Sur as "A la Amistad Universal de Todos los Pueblos." I was the first recipient of the award which was designed to recognize individuals have worked to build relationships among people.

For about a dozen years I have worked with the University in a number of projects. I actually taught in the Business School for several years. UAS, like a lot of Mexican private universities, is young. But the energy of the place is infectious. Over the years the projects I have worked on have given the University more international recognition. Indeed, what I think my role has been is two things. First, I think I helped them realize how good they actually are. Second, I think I helped them exploit some of the new technologies to build their own networks. A good deal of the academic world in the US is mired in old ways of communicating - UAS and many of its counterparts are not bound by those conventions in part because they are new but also because some of those academic networks are very expensive to maintain.

For the last year the University has had a new president who seems to be building on the strengths of the place in interesting ways. As I think I noted, I was a part of their 25th Anniversary symposium on business in Mexico that was exceptional for the people it attracted and for the quality of the discussions.

My friends in the University said a lot of nice things about me last night, which I appreciated. But what I also recognized was that the benefits to these kinds of collaborations are far from one-sided. In the bargain of the last dozen years, I have met a lot of interesting people, heard a lot of alternative ways of thinking about how to run universities and other issues and have learned a lot about myself. That sounds like a great deal to me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The San Diego Tribune has lost its mind

The San Diego Union Tribune has endorsed Jerry Brown for AG. It seems like a reach. After a rather tendentious explanation that Poochigian has been an "ok" legislator (which I would disagree with) they comment "Still, we admit it is an act of faith to believe that upon election as attorney general, Brown would be the thoughtful pragmatist seen of late and not “Gov. Moonbeam.” But he has persuaded us, which is why we endorse Jerry Brown for attorney general." Based on 30 years of experience, including his run in Oakland (which has been a mixed bag), they are betting on the come. That is odd.

I wonder how long it will take for Jerry, if he is elected, to disappoint them. I am pretty sure, based on his prior flights of fancy, that it will not be long.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tolstoy on Authority

War and Peace continues. In a recent chapter, Tolstoy handled his thoughts about physicians, generals, and historians. In an interesting sense he thinks about all three in the same manner. He has a well developed suspicion of authority structures. In the case of the role of the physician treating Natasha he argues that the physician is not actually responsible for the continued health of his patient. The pills and treatments are there to spend the time, rather than to cure her from her despondency resulting from rejecting Prince Andrei. So the physician becomes an observer. The generals are not directing the battles but merely syncophants who have a range of opinions which are not based on any long term substantive understanding of battle tactics. His comments, mentioned previously about the interest of generals in "decorations, promotions or rubles" is in part like a principal agent problem or at least an understanding of rent seeking that anticipates the formal theories in economics by a couple of hundred years.

But his most impressive comments rest for historians. In Tolstoy's view historians write history with a lot of local reference that imputes a lot more logic and thought into unfolding events than the participants have at the time that events are unfolding. He analyzes why the Russians allowed the French to come into Russia for the cold winter of 1812 and argues that the French and Russian interpretations are quite different - ascribing a higher level of insight to what would happen to their side than he (Tolstoy) believes is present. Orwell commented in the same area a couple of hundred years later (The history of the war will consist quite largely of 'facts' which millions of people now living know to be lies.) but Tolstoy's explanation addresses the alternative explanations of the facts of the battles of 1812 with a clarity that is refreshing.

Friday, October 13, 2006

India House in Folsom

The first time I was in graduate school I had an Indian roommate from Kerala state (the only place in history that voted for a Communist government). In that year I learned to love Indian food. As noted in an earlier post we had a couple of good restaurants in DC - we tried Taj Majal and also liked Gaylord - which was run by two punjabi brothers. Over the years we have been disappointed in Indian restaurants in Sacramento. Most are a bit grungy and the food is not very authentic. But tonight we discovered a place that is actually pretty good. It is called India House and is off the Bidwell exit in an area of a new shopping center called Broadstone - there is a BJ brewery and a Marconi Grille.

India house has an extensive dinner menu and the food is great. One of my favorite dishes has lamb and spinach - often it is called Lamb Saag. Very good. We also had some spinach pakoras and samoosas. The service was excellent and the ambience was very well done. Service was unhurried but attentive. It is well worth getting there. There is a luncheon buffet and a menu at dinner.

Tolstoy on War

I continue to progress in War and Peace and am drifting into the battles in 1812. (Book 10) Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of this very long book was something I was reading last night. Tolstoy, as I think I have stated before, is a bit too detailed in my taste in his penchant for describing every person who is in a room and every language that they use. But he is an apt observer when it comes to describing the behavior of people. In the chapter I read last night, he gives a long description of the various approaches that Tsar Alexander's generals took to making war - some on theory, some on instinct, some on trying to curry favor either with other generals or with the Tsar. In the end he makes a wry comment that the real motivation of the largest group of generals and advisors in helping on the war was for one of three things "rubles, crosses (decorations) and promotions."


The Bee had a story this morning about a student at McClatchy who was briefly questioned by the Secret Service about a comment she made on a My Space website to Kill Bush. The tenor of the story was that this intrusion was somehow inappropriate. Perhaps, it was.

But here is the contrast. This young student thought it appropriate to post on a public site pictures of the president being stabbed. Her parents both thought the depiction was inappropriate. But one said, "I think they should have had the parents present when she was questioned."

I will guarantee you that both parents oppose the measure on the ballot which would require parental notification before a minor child seeks an abortion.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A re-look at Gallaudet

Last Spring, when she was named president, I wrote a couple of posts about the newly named president, Jane Fernandes. It turned out to be the two most read posts of this blog. The spike was amazing. Emotions then were running very high. That seems to have escalated.

In the time that I have been a professor I have had the opportunity to teach a couple of deaf students. There were a couple of things that amazed me about that experience. First, as with all other translators, at first it is a bit disconcerting to work with a signer. After a while you get to ignore it. But it takes some practice. Second, the speed with which both students used their IM capabilities was amazing. They both used a Sidekick and their ability to type out stuff, like questions was amazing. In one course, the student participated in a debate on an issue we were discussing and I soon forgot that she was typing her answers. That was an eye opening experience for me.

In the last few weeks the problem with the President Elect has increased. News reports in the NYT suggest that a group of students closed the campus down. The retiring president, in a statement from the website commented "We have shown extraordinary restraint in the face of extreme provocation over the past several weeks." He goes on to say “Civility, integrity, and truth are victims today, held hostage as much as our beloved campus is. I have been asked why I haven’t used police to end the stand off. It is because I care about the safety of all of our students more than the protestors care about anything but getting their way. This illegal and unlawful behavior must stop. The faculty members who are instigating and manipulating the students have simply gone too far in pursuit of their own agendas. If there is a confrontation, the dissenters will have caused it. They must take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions, including possible suspension and arrest.”

The president elect has used similar language in her statements. Perhaps, both could benefit from some reading about how colleges and universities have successfully dealt with student protests. Both statements seem almost patronizing to the demands of the students. When I wrote about this earlier, the protesters responded that one of their concerns was the way that the administration dealt with them during the search.

The most telling statement in the NYT article is from a student who is one of the protesters. He commented that the president elect had previously served as provost - the chief academic leader of the University. He raised a question about the 40% graduation rate. If those numbers are true, then the board should be concerned about affirming a leader who has not been able to move that percentage up. The chair of the board of trustees expressed concern in a statement about the safety of the students - I would have been more impressed with her if she had also expressed some concern about the 40% graduation rate.

The Washington Post in an editorial yesterday commented "Students at Gallaudet University are entitled to protest the school's choice of president if they so choose. They're entitled to protest how that choice was made. They're not entitled to hold hostage the educational hopes of their classmates. Doing so undermines the legitimacy of their campaign and strikes at the heart of the nation's leading institution of higher education for the deaf." I am not a fan of protests but I am not sure I agree with the Post's conclusion. In the end this kind of disruption does as the Post suggested, disturbs the educational dreams of students. But the board needs to consider the consequences of how to resolve this - it also needs to assist whoever is the next president with raising graduation rates at the University. All of the sources that I have read on this suggest that Fernandes is well qualified and yet there is that nagging notion that a 40% graduation rate is totally unacceptable. Students at the university should have a reasonable expectation that once enrolled they will graduate. So in this case I understand the tactics of the students. At one point the administration and the protesters explored whether it would be a good idea to do an independent review of the search process. That sounds like a good idea to me.

The politics in the deaf community are intense. I hope this is resolved soon. Gallaudet is an internationally recognized resource. It deserves a leader who can meet the needs of students.

A footnote to the loss of a Sacramento Icon

Tower Records was sold, culminating a long process of failure. Tower was an icon for Sacramento, it was started here before spreading around the world. At its height Tower was in many cities, including Tokyo and Mexico City and sold books and records and dvds in huge numbers. It got beaten down in two ways. First, the market for what it sold changed (read Amazon and iTunes) but second it had some lousy management after Russ Solomon stepped down. At its height it was an impressive brand. Normally, and in the founding location, it had a bookstore with thousands of titles (well arranged) and a music store. Most locations also had a ticketmaster location. When VHS came in they started a video rental business which also sold VHS and eventually DVDs. Each of its core businesses were transformed both by changes in the physical markets (think Barnes and Noble or Borders) and virtual ones (Amazon and iTunes). For whatever reason, Tower could not evolve as each of their businesses were evolving.

But here is the footnote. About 25 years ago, Tower tried a product which was quite innovative. It allowed you to access a computer terminal and build your own cassette (that gives you the age right there) of songs from a pretty large catalogue of a wide range of music. You had the ability to sample the records and then transfer them to a tape. The pricing, if I remember it correctly, was in the range of 99¢ per cut and you could transfer up to about 20 songs per tape. It stayed in the stores for about six months and then disappeared.

At the time I thought it was a great idea - being able to select your own music. This was before CDs and so as the technology changed, it would have had to migrate a bit. But for whatever reason, this predecessor to iTunes, with a similar pricing scheme, did not catch on.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Idiotic Games

In April of this year, I did a post on talk radio which discussed why I had quit listening. I made a comment about a (now) former local talk show host named Mark Williams which argued that Williams and some others like him tended to rant. That post also discussed some interesting podcast alternatives which made my drivetime better. Yesterday, that post got a hit and a comment which, like all other hits on my blogsite, included some metadata as to where it was from. The comment was signed as anonymous. But the hit was from Lincoln, California with the net host that Williams uses.

When Williams was on the air in Sacramento he seemed to attempt to annoy his listeners. His comments were often eclectic but uninformed. That radio station finally dismissed him.

I don't mind critical comments. I do not like anonymous posts. Williams makes a lot of his ratings in the Sacramento News and Review, a throwaway paper in the local area where he was rated high on a couple of lists. I do not want to camp on his little "empire" but his tactic proves my point, even better than I did in April.

Six Faces of Disneyland

As noted earlier, we spent the weekend with our grandson at Disneyland. It was wonderful to watch through his eyes. But as you can see from these photos there are a lot of differing emotions and responses to the experiences of his visit. There is pensive, silly, thoughtful, fun and probably some other things going on in his head.

The pensive came from a couple of places. We took him to Space Mountain and he rode it but made it clear that he did not want to go through that noisy ride again. Surprisingly, he loved the small coaster in Toontown - we even rode it twice. In the second one I filmed the whole thing and there were screams of delight. When we took him on the night jungle cruise he did not like the animals and the noise of the boat we were on. We talked to him about it but he really did not like the experience - one wonders whether he would have liked it better in the day. In line on the second day, at Toontown, he wanted to climb everything. He is a bundle of energy. On the first day, we did not get him a stroller, so he walked several miles. But until the latter part of the afternoon he did not seem to be tired.

He took in a lot of things on this weekend. The picture of expectation from him watching the parade on Main Street was clearly beyond the things that young kids get from a parade. Mason is a thoughtful kid. So this parade was going to be something he wanted to see - but it was something he did not know about. He has an inquisitive mind. When we went to California Adventure and the Bear Camp - he rushed around looking that the animal footprints in the cement. He wanted to (and did) find all of the different kinds of prints. That was exciting to see him doing more than just experiencing the park.

But then there are a couple of silly pictures. Mason has a good sense of humor and enjoys people. His picture at breakfast shows his clear fun. The swing picture is of him riding something in Bear Camp. As we went up through the line he was a bit tentative, but when he got up there the first time - he was excited. As you can see from the picture, on the second ride he was positively joyful. It was something he could do and he liked that.

Finally, there are a couple of pictures of him with his family. Mason, like his dad, is a bit over shot with pictures. So he can become blasé about them. He will grimace if there are too many pictures taken. But he seems to enjoy looking at them after the fact.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Three quotes about "Tough Choices"

In WIRED this morning there is an article about Carly Fiorina's new apoliga which has three prime quotes. They are -

1- "Carly Fiorina's career has followed an uncannily cinematic arc. A restless law school dropout becomes a master sales rep for Ma Bell, then rises higher in business than any other woman, running Hewlett-Packard for six years. She wrestles that stodgy Silicon Valley institution into the internet age, needing every ounce of her charm to win a huge merger contest. But her style inflames critics. After her financial results fall short, she is unceremoniously canned."

2 - But Carly had a lot of promises over results - here are some letdowns - "Among the most famous letdowns: Fiorina told Wall Street HP could produce 15 percent revenue growth in 2001. It fell 7 percent. In August 2004, when sales fell way short of forecasts, Fiorina blamed embarrassing problems with an internal computer system and surprisingly weak customer demand, then fired three top executives."

Here is how a Senior Dean at the Yale School of Management would grade her - Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at Yale's School of Management, saw Fiorina's globe-trotting in the spotlight as a reflection of the fact that she had "never been outside of backslapping in industrial sales" and was "thrown in over her head" as CEO of a sprawling organization. His verdict on her tenure: "A reign of terror and poor performance. You've got to lay at the feet of the board the fault for picking her," said Sonnenfeld, who has recently advised some of those same directors on how to handle HP's spying scandal."

That about sums it up.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The defects of Watergate journalism

In a story in the WP this morning the following comment is made about the story about the misadventures of former congressman Foley.

"Despite countless hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting on the House's handling of the Mark Foley page scandal, numerous fundamental questions remain unanswered as the FBI and the House ethics committee begin their first full week of inquiries."

This is a complex story. The outlines of it were pretty clear when it broke. A congressman tried to enlist some pages in lacivious chat and emails. Unlike the Gerry Studds story, there seems to have been no overt acts. But like Studds and Clinton and lots of the rest - there seems to have been a significant moral lapse and possibly some inattention by the leadership of the House.

But in this case the "countless hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting" will not get to the bottom of the issues that the House and the country need to face on this issue. That is in part because of the nature of the issue and in part because of the motives of the press in this - which seems to be not to get to the substance of the issue but to sensationalize the issue for a lot more than it was either to defeat the GOP or to sell more airtime and newspapers. Either motive is not conducive to discovering whether current policies to protect the pages are adequate nor in even finding out the depth of the misjudgments of Mr. Foley (no one is charging crimminal behavior here, yet) or of the House leadership.

Disneyland - at 50

We took the family to Disneyland over this weekend. At 50 and counting the place is a bit different than I remember it. First, it is not as clean as it once was. Second, for some reason, they celebrated the 50th birthday of the place for more than 20 months. I thought that was a bit odd. But third, there are still lots of things to do there.

We only went on a few rides yesterday. But Disneyland, one of the unique notions that Walt Disney had, is not about the rides. We took Mason on Small World - which is a floating tour of the world with a mind-numbingly repetitive song. But it is safe and nice for a first ride. Then we went on the Toon Town Coaster. This is a mad mouse which runs only about 39 seconds - but like rides of its genre whips and turns all sorts of ways. Mason loved that more than any other ride. I was able to get a small video clip of him - shrieking with delight.

Then we checked in for Space Mountain, using something called a fast pass - which allows you to bypass lines if you agree to come back at a specified time. Then we left the park to give Mason a nap.

In the intervening time we went to a pretty good Vietnamese restaurant in Anaheim for lunch/dinner.

When we returned for the evening, we went back to Space Mountain. They seem to have upgraded the ride a bit. It is also a mad mouse except this one is mostly in the dark - with a star theme. Mason was a bit scared of that ride - I think because he could not see where he was going. We bought the pictures of the end of the ride and Mason (and Quinlan) have their head ducked.

Emily, Quinlan and Michael and I then went on Pirates of the Carribean. We went into that line when one of the shows was going and thus zipped through the line. I thought that the ride seemed about the same except for a few images of Johnny Depp. But Quinlan and Emily thought it had also been refurbished. The park is showing its age a bit. I have never noticed that before yesterday.

Then we took Mason on the Jungle Cruise, which he thought was a bit scary. It is noisy and I think he was not sure whether all of the animals were real or not. That was the day. The Jungle Cruise is almost the quinessential Disney ride. It meanders through all of the jungles of the world - in a boat that reminds one of the African Queen. But that is not the point. The pilot of the boat has a set of really bad puns - which last night's person delivered poorly - but the ride is about stepping back away from reality and enjoying the experience. I think that is what Disney's original conception of the park would be. This was not meant to be an amusement park - but something different. It has some great rides (although the Matterhorn is closed for maintenance) but the experience is more important than the rides.

It was especially delightful to experience this through our grandson's eyes. His unbridled delight was an inspiration.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Carly's "Tough Choices"

So Carly Fiorina finally published her memoir of her time at HP. She commented that "Some board members' behavior was amateurish and immature;some didn't do their homework; some had fixed opinions on certain topics and no opinion at all on others." She describes her board as dysfunctional. Isn't that part of the job of the CEO to help mold the board into an efficient working group?

Evidently she also comments that while the board members who were leaking on her were not as smart as they thought they were - "It turns out I wasn't as smart as I needed to be." Well,duh! When Carly took over HP there was a generational change, any leader worth her salary (and bonuses) would have recognized that and worked on the problem.

She tells us that Michael Capellas, the then CEO of Compaq was actually an SOB and a greedy one at that. Gee, what a surprise. Evidently, she does not bother to second guess the rich valuation of Compaq that she foisted on shareholders. She also does not discuss the genuine alternatives to the Compaq gift purchase (at those valuations it was clearly not a strategic purchase).

I am not sure why anyone would want to buy this book unless they wanted to add it to their library of failed tech execs like former Apple CEO Gilbert Amelio. It is either that or a key addition to fairy tales like memoirs of failed political figures like Madeline Albright. If you put a shelf or a bookcase of these types of books together, the wisdom therein would be teaspoon size although I do like Fiorina's admission that "It turns out I wasn't as smart as I needed to be." But then those of us who had to suffer through her tenure as shareholders already got that one.

Who has a claim on the economics numbers?

The traditional model on election years is that good economic numbers benefit the party in power. We have certainly had some good economic news. Gas prices are significantly down from their previous highs. Unemployment dipped to 4.6%. Job creation, when you adjust the numbers for July and August, as the BLS just did, are pretty good. What's more the growth has been significantly higher than projected last year.

But there are a lot of things weighing on the majority party. Scandals - both real and created. The unpopularity of the Administration's policy in Iraq. The appearance of congress not only being do nothing but actually being a do nothing good congress - a lot of what passed for activity this year was complete BS.

In this year, there seems to be more negative news, again some of it created, which will bring down the majority in both houses.

Did the Administration's policies have an effect on improving the stock market? Indeed, the tax act which Chair Apparent Rangel wants to rescind, and the reduction in capital gains, had a significant effect on the financial markets. Our (mostly) acceptance of free trade and being a real part of the globalized market has offered us significant benefits. Yet there is the increasing perception that the GOP majority has fallen into "sin" not just the Foley pecadillos but a rash of other odd and curious acts which suggest that the party of small government may be "none of the above." Unfortunately, we do not have that choice in November.

War and Peace - Nuances - Marriage and Opera

One of the interesting things about War and Peace is the serial notions of human behavior. For example, there are at least three examples of how people get engaged. Tolstoy offers up examples with Pierre, and Andrei, Boris and even Anatole Kuragin. Each has a halting approach. But the style among the characters is a bit different. Pierre seems almost forced into his proposal (and that eventually evolves into his fractured marriage). Andrei is a bit more restrained - in part because of the potential of his father's opposition. Boris is excited. And Anatole is scheming. Tolstoy uses the character type for each to express how they carry out an important life task.

The second impression I have is the opera in the book. It is unclear which opera Tolstoy is using - Faust came to mind. But the point of his description of what happens during the opera is fascinating. The interchanges, both verbal and non, continue through the playout of the opera. I got the distinct impression that most of the attendees were not as interested in the presentation on the stage as they were in the dynamics in the audience.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Dazed and Confused

Some of thought that the creation of a federal department of education was a bad idea. Our current secretary of education keeps reinforcing that view. Secretary Spellings commented on a recent NPR Program that the search she did on higher education for her daughter was confusing. Boo hoo. The wealth of information about college choices is almost too much. Evocative of Barry Schwartz's idiotic book on the Paradox of Choice, the secretary of education seems to think that varieties of information is somehow troubling. Any family that wants a wealth of information about the range of choices that are available for a student - based on almost any variable - can find it on the net. Families can easily make the distinctions that they want to make and then search a full range of college opportunities.

Spellings makes the specious claim that the feds provide one third of the total support for higher education in the country. The only way one can get to that level is to assume that the total cash flow of all things that go from the federal government - including all of the research dollars and loan volumes - go to benefit higher education directly. To use the same logic, the price that the feds pay for every pencil would be included in the level of support for the pencil business. A truer number is considerably below the claim made by Spellings. If she can't get her data right, how should we assume that if the feds begin to collect tons of more information, that she will be able to use it intelligently?

The Secretary has the naive notion that all numbers will provide greater clarity. Thus, she would create an intrusive and expensive Student Unit Record Database (so called SURD, but we should actually add the AB - to explain how silly the idea is) for higher education. The federal government's record with maintaining confidentiality of records is poor at best. But at least she is consistent in her approach, increase federal intrusions and watch the long term decline of the system.

Spellings argues that the best way to increase understanding and performance in higher education is to apply the dubious standards of the federal No Child Left Behind act which has had the effect of homogenizing education to what is called the best system in the world (see the Economist Higher Education Survey last year). What most objective observers have seen from the implementation of NCLB is that the law has increasingly encouraged school systems to teach to the test. Performance indicators in K-12 are not where they should be - but skeptics suggest that NCLB has not improved the situation.

Spellings argues that all of education should have clearer information. And that is not a bad idea on its own. Higher education should be prompted to create some more standardized forms of disclosure especially on admissions and financial issues. But the radical increase in the requests for information from the feds is not the way to accomplish that. A couple of national organizations, including the Association of Land Grant Universities, has begun to explore ways to improve disclosures. The National Association of College and Business Officers did a great model to explain college costs, which colleges and universities should use as a model. But the idea that the federal department of education can actually be a force for positive change is absurd.

Double Standards

The recent news about former congressman Foley is disturbing. I think he should have been thrown out. His behavior with pages was a violation of his public trust. All of that is very clear. But here is what confuses me. The news accounts of Mr. Foley's chat sessions with young boys seem to have been just that - chat sessions. According to the Sacramento Bee, my hometown paper, Foley seems not to have acted directly on his comments.

Many of the same people who are "outraged" at Foley's actions argued that when Clinton violated his office and actually engaged in overt behavior, that this was a private matter. The difference in tone and direction of commentary by some for the two acts - both of which involved an intern like position and where a public official violated a basic precept of office - seems odd.

The democrats who are arguing the loudest here, were the ones arguing for restraint just a couple of years ago. In both cases, an elected official misused his position. In the case of Foley, at least with the evidence to date, he seems to have not engaged in anything more than chat and emails. It is depressing and annoying that some cannot see the similarities here between the two events.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The WHO meets the Riveside Press Enterprise

In an editorial today the Riverside Press Enterprise commented in part, in an endorsement for Jerry Brown for Attorney General -

"Let's stipulate that Brown was a poor governor when he served from 1975 until 1983. In particular, Brown's anti-growth policies left a lasting negative legacy on California's roads and highways. But that was 25 years ago. "Gov. Moonbeam" went to Oakland and discovered that idealism does not work. Success in local government requires pragmatism and consensus-building."

Brown was indeed a lousy governor. And what has he done since then? He has paraded as an intellectual. But what he seems to have made a career as is as a dilettante. Even his best of friends suggest that his record as Mayor of Oakland has been mixed. But in rejecting the WHO's rock ballad, the RPE has gotten fooled again.

Brown's opponent is praised as a good legislator by the RPE. He has been a pretty good vote on crime issues and has even sponsored some important legislation. But his name recognition is zip, outside of his home region in the Central Valley. So he has run a negative campaign on Brown. The ads have not told lies but merely have reiterated the record that Brown has amassed over the last 30 years as an elected public official.

In an ideal world Charles Poochigian would be able to explain how he would work as an Attorney General. But in the real world, police unions declare not for the best potential law enforcement official but for the one who supports higher pensions. And papers like the RPE get fooled again.

Happy Birthday James Buchanan

Don Boudreaux at Marginal Revolution reminded me that today is James Buchanan's birthday, his 87th. Buchanan was the 1986 winner of the Nobel in economics for his contribution to the development of the field of public choice economics.

When I was finishing my doctoral studies at USC in the early 1980s I had a theory professor who argued that it was a professional responsibility to send a copy of a paper you wrote about a living scholar to that scholar. I remember thinking a lot about that suggestion - but I followed it. I wrote a paper in that course about public choice theory and dutifully sent it off to Buchanan and his colleague Gordon Tullock, who were then at Virginia Polytechnic University. I was surprised a few weeks later when both professors wrote back to me with comments and suggestions about my work. They were under no obligation to me, except that I was then a developing scholar. I always appreciated their response. For a period of a bit more than a year, we carried on a correspondence about the field of public choice.

Buchanan also tells the story of his post doctoral work at the University of Chicago. He was doing a postdoctoral fellowship where he was given free run at the library of economics and seemingly by chance discovered a work by Knut Wicksell (whose picture Buchanan is holding, above). In 1987 Buchanan gave a speech at the University of San Diego where he talked about his rediscovery of Wicksell's work. The excitement which Professor Buchanan still had some thirty years later for that event was contagious.

Buchanan has written extensively on a branch of economics that has redefined how we think about the world, especially how we think about decisions made in the public sector. When he started his work, there was a naive belief that decisions in the public sector somehow did not exhibit the same self interested characteristics as those taken in the private sector. Through several decades of careful scholarship, he and a growing list of colleagues, built a literature which helped to redefine both the normative and positivist (value laden and empirical) bounds of thinking about how decisions are made in the public sector.

His contribution to the field of economics was recognized in his Nobel in 1986. His contribution to the development of scholars in a number of ways can be seen in his willingness almost 25 years ago to respond to someone still working on his degree.

Shoveling Free Speech

The Washington Post today has an article on the effect of the §527 committees on the race for control of Congress this fall. You will remember that the §527 committees were a creation of the campaign finance atrocity called McCain Feingold. In the 2004 election, George Soros an Swift Boat Veterans were two of the most prominent of these groups. Most thoughtful observers have understood that this creation, which was offered in part to reconcile the expected demands of First Amendment political rights that showed up in the Vallejo case (which limited an earlier proposal to limit campaign spending as an inappropriate fetter on political speech), has been a disaster.

What §527 has done is aptly described in the Post this morning which describes the process of "shoveling" cash into tight races. What is troubling is the effect of this "reform." McCain Feingold was written to limit the negative effects of cash in the political process. In reality what it seems to have done is only to make it a bit more confusing to understand who is funding a campaign. The Post cites several §527 efforts where the influence of outside money has been the predominant force. In California this year, public employee unions will shovel more than $10 million into outside expenditures to try to defeat the Governor. At this point those funds seem to be mainly a waste of time (Angelides is far down in the polls - the San Jose State poll has suggested him down by more than 20 points and the Field poll says he is behind by 17). But that is not the point.

In the 1880s New York had a senator named Roscoe Conkling, who actually resigned from the Senate because of a "reform" that limited his patronage abilities. Conkling said at one point "Those that fear the attraction that patriotism holds for scalawags and scofflaws, have failed to notice the clarion call that reform has for these same scoundrels." Perhaps he was anticipating §527.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

5 Things I liked and 5 Things I disliked about War and Peace

As noted earlier, I was encouraged by a friend to read War and Peace. That is a mighty request, but I think a lot of this person so I did.

Here are five things I disliked about the novel.

#1 - The Rampant Generalizations. Tolstoy makes a number of conclusions where he says that or this behavior was typical of "a young woman" or a "girl" or an "officer" or "person hunting" or whatever. I thought many of the conclusions wrong and that the tone was also wrong.
#2 - The Swooning and Reticules - there was a lot of very dated language. That should be expected for a novel written when this one was. But those things created a tone which like the first objection was a bit strange.
#3 - The Characters - What is the right number of characters for a novel of this dimensions? Probably about the number which Tolstoy used. But in many cases he seems to have chosen to expand on definitions of minor characters in odd ways. For even a person who appears only once - in several places Tolstoy adds a comment to explain their background. It led to some confusion A good way to read this book is with a characters guide.
#4 - The Language Switches I understand that the Russians at the time thought that culture of their nation was based on French. OK, I learned that in Russian Civ. At the same time, I am not sure why it was necessary to constantly explain that this or that character made a point in Russian or French. Droll but annoying.
#5 - Tolstoy's acceptance of the organizational structure of Russia - This is a tough one because a good deal of the novel, and in my mind the best parts are his inherent skepticism of bureaucracy, and yet there is a certain acceptance of the idiocy of the Russian system.

Here is what I liked most about the novel.

#1 - The Bs and Ds - For me the story was a set of contrasts between the two Bs - Andrei Bulkonski and Pierre Bezukhov and the two Ds - Dolkohov and Densihov. Prince Andrei is a complex character who goes through several stages. So does the silly Pierre. But Andrei is the better character - even though Pierre gets the better billing. Ditto for lesser characters Dolkohov and Densihov. They seem to have been written in the theory of contrasts. Tolstoy brings back some major themes in subtle ways with these four. They are important in the novel and you get a good idea about Tolstoy's thoughts about major human behaviors.
#2 - The Battle Scenes - Tolstoy knew how military courage worked. He also was able to portray several of the most important battles of the early part of the 19th century in magnificent ways. His description of Napoleon is stunning. Later, his description of a wolf hunt has the same kind of vivid description. He is a master of painting a word picture that brings the action alive. At the same time, he does a great job of exploring the interiors of his characters in these situations. The contrasts are excellent.
#3 - Economy of Irony - There are several wry comments that he throws in without remorse. For example, at one point he comments "At such moments Princess Mary would think how intellectual work dries men up."
#4 -The majesty of the issues raised The novel is long and complicated with a lot of investment to get to the meat. But his themes about the interaction of human beings in society, and royalty and battle is exceptional. I found it useful to have electronic searchable version of the book.. That sounds strange. But to get a sense of the book one needs to read it in chunks - but I found it useful to be able to go back without underlining.
#5 - The parodies - A lot of Russian literature has been captured in other devices including movies and books. But it starts with the model of the large piece that Tolstoy created here. Not many of us know much about the period of history that he wrote about. I knew the general outlines about Napoleon. But his coverage of social Russia, battles and moves was wonderful. Pierre is a 1960s flower child who begins and ends as sort of a buffoon moving from one social movement to another. Andrei on the other hand does similar moves but with much more interest and finesse. But the grand is always subject to the witty. Tolstoy, for the most part is not witty, but his scale and scope has allowed others to be.

This is a very long, very dated book, but it is also worth slogging through.


On Friday night I had the chance to go to Safeco stadium and sit in the section off center field to watch Ichiro Suzuki play for the Mariners. Suzuki is a great fielder and a good hitter - he is hitting .321.

The Mariners are a crappy team. No doubt about it. Friday's game was a yawner. They lost, but then when you are near the bottom of the league, who cares? Safeco Field is a pretty good place to see a game. We were in far center field on the field level and had a pretty good view of what action their was. Two homes came near us. (Which was at about 400 feet). Part of that section is reserved for families who do not want to drink beer - but the section we were in (immediately next to it) allowed people to have drinks. Those sections have always seemed a bit nanny statish to me, but if that is what the ball club thinks will bring fans in, then so be it. Lord knows the playing of the Mariners will not bring in fans. But there is one exception. Ichiro.

What was most interesting was the path of Japanese tourists who came down the stairs to snap a picture of them behind the Japanese star. All evening the tourists, many who were quite well dressed, would venture down the steps and then get a picture of their star. When he came to the US as the first position player from Japan to start on a US team, he had a great first year. He was voted on to the all star team and rookie of the year. He was a joy to watch - he made two pretty spectacular catches and one home run on Friday.