Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The impact of an Edifice Complex

I was in Washington DC for the last few days at a meeting of the Secretary of Education. I was struck by two things. First, the meeting today, to discuss accreditation, was actually much better than I thought it would be. The discussions about how do you relate the elements of the TRIAD (federal government, state government and accrediting agencies) who each have some role in licensure of institutions, encouraging consumer information and assuring that public money is reasonably well spent - were thought provoking. I have been concerned about some of Secretary Spellings' comments about accountability and transparency in the academy but as we concentrated on how to think about these issues - a much less homogenizing vision came to be. Was I won over? No. But do I think the discussions started today were and are important? Yes.

But the second image was one from being in SW DC, which is where my meetings were. My wife and I lived in SW DC in the early 1970s. And quite frankly, although I have been a frequent visitor to the city, I had not been in the back reaches of Southwest for 30 years. There has been a lot of building in that area since I lived there. Much of it is government edifices. Across from the meeting hall I was in, was the FCC. The picture above is the Department of Agriculture.

There is an old joke about a guy coming through Agriculture and seeing one of the bureaucrats crying pitiously. The visitor asks his host why the guy is crying so hard to which his host replied, "He just found out that his farmer died." The problem with building out all those buildings is that once built people beleive somewhat logically that they need to fill them. The Department of Education was a creation of the Carter Administration. It was part of the inexorable logic of that administration that we "needed" a federal department to give education "dignity." When the Department was created it was part of an office near the mall which also included Health and Welfare. But now the department occupies several impressive office buildings. The danger is that when you fill up all those buildings you need to have the people at the desks do something. Has education materially improved by any standard measure since the department was created? It is hard to find anyone who thinks it has. Of course there are some loons who believe that by increasing the size of the department, better things will come. But that is, by now, an article of faith not one of empircal belief.

In the previous post I offered a number of Friedman quips/quotes which have some relation to this issue - "The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or in literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government." "Nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own."
"The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem."

After walking around the area where I once lived, I was struck with how hard it would be to reduce the size of the federal establishment, without some building razing.

Mark Skouson's Take on Friedman

Economist Mark Skouson has a post about Milton Friedman which has some classic quotes. The best line the the inscription on the picture which comments "All great economists are tall. There are two exceptions: John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman." --George J. Stigler

Skouson also lists some other great Friedman quips -

"Competition is a tough weed, but freedom is a rare and delicate flower." -- (with George J. Stigler)

"If a tax cut increases government revenues, you haven't cut taxes enough."

"I favor tax reductions under any circumstances, for any excuse, for any reason, at any time."

"A society that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality or freedom."

"Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program."

"Inflation is taxation without legislation."

"The economy and the stock market are two different things."

"If government is to exercise power, better in the county than in the state, better in the state than in Washington."

"The great advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science or in literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government."

"The minimum wage law is one of the most, if not the most, anti-black laws on the statute books."

"Nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own."

"The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Part II on the Civil War and its consequences

Professor Robert O'Neill gave a lecture to the Lowy Institute in Australia about making the right choices in Iraq. Professor O'Neill is no slouch in this area. O'Neill is described as one of Australia’s most respected international strategic thinkers and international security experts. He has been a soldier, scholar and advisor. The full text of his lecture can be seen on the Lowy Institute Website. In part he said -

"Given the result of the recent US elections, we need to think hard about the consequences of possible defeat in Iraq. To elaborate on what I said earlier, that conflict can be won only by a much more effective coalition effort, requiring a major increase in US and allied troop numbers in Iraq, substantial improvements in training and operational methods, and a much stronger civil reconstruction effort. This is not likely to happen. The probable outcomes are either a sudden descent into chaos as coalition forces are withdrawn, or a protracted civil war, overlain with an insurgency against remaining coalition forces. In the event of chaos, effective government in Iraq will cease for at least some years, during which terrorist groups will be able to concentrate, rebuild, flourish and reach out to other targets outside Iraq. Enemy forces will be heartened; recruiting will rise; funds and weapons will pour in; pressure will be exerted on regional governments friendly to the West; more young men and women who are willing to commit suicide to harm Western and Israeli interests will become available; and the oil price will rise to new heights.

Defeat in Iraq will be a serious blow to the public standing of the US and will invite other challenges to its authority. US citizens will have to be more careful of their own security both outside and inside their own country. US business abroad will feel more under threat of terrorist action.

Iran will read a message of encouragement for its intransigence in dealing with the West. It will almost certainly go ahead to produce nuclear weapons. It will exercise an overshadowing influence in Iraq, Syria, the Arab Gulf states and Israel. The lesson of US failure in Iraq will be read (perhaps wrongly) as US unwillingness to attempt regime-change in Iran. The North Koreans will probably draw similar conclusions, although with less justification than in the case of Iran because North Korea is nowhere near as strong a state. Nuclear weapons proliferation will become more difficult to control with the threat of intervention against the proliferators dismissed."

Wired is NUTS

In a post on toy cars WIRED laments the fact that toy cars do not represent the cars that families drive - like minivans and hybrids. What a bunch of PC nonsense! Toy cars, at least when I played with them (they were called Dinky Toys then) were aspirational in nature. We did not have Ford Station wagons then. If a kid plays with a 'vette is he less likely to think responsibily when he buys his first or second car?

I like WIRED but this is crazy.

What is the definition of a Civil War and why does it matter?

The networks are agog about whether Iraq has lapsed into a civil war. Presumably, this is a part of the continued effort by many in the media to oppose the Administration's policy there. The data suggests that something has changed in the last few months - civilian deaths and evidence of ethnic cleansing are increasing. But there are larger questions that should be asked. Afterall, we have interposed ourselves into places with civil wars before.

The questions I would ask include:

1) What is the best way to confront the Islamofascists? Was Samuel Huntington right in that we are engaged in a clash of civilizations? If so, how do we respond to that clash? Now.
2) What would be the effects of pulling out versus staying in the immediate and long term for US foreign policy? Clearly the withdrawal from Vietnam has had long term negative implications for our foreign policy. But one wonders whether had we stayed and lost more Americans in the commitment in Vietnam whether that would have been more disastrous. Foreign policy is a set of tradeoffs but from the clear comments made by our opponents in Iraq, especially Osama, the Vietnam experience and our experience in other venues like Somalia and Yemen suggest that our opponents believe if pressure is applied we will cut and run.
3) If we decide this is a civil war, what should we do about it? Can the country (US) potentially agree to more troops if they are needed? And equally important, if we decide it is a civil war and decide to cut our losses, what happens next?
4) Finally, if we decide that our policy should be to stay, how do we enlarge our circle of friends?

I am not sure why all of a sudden the talk of civil war has risen to the height that it has. Clearly, we are in an unstable region. But also clearly the Iraqui people have three times asserted that they want to figure out how to make this new system work. We've got to decide whether this is the place we need to make a stand against the fanatics who are precipitating the "civil" part of the much larger war.

The talk of a civil war is really a red herring in my mind. The broader questions of how we effectively negate the efforts the the Islamic fundamentalists is more central to our long term interests.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Final Comments on War and Peace

Like much of the rest of the novel the final epilogue is long. But Tolstoy takes great pains to explain his final thoughts. The last section, as noted before, is about two issues. First, what are the causes of historical events? But second, what is the relationship between free will and as he refers to it as necessity?

In an earlier post I covered much of what he said on the first issue so this one is about the second question. If all things come because of some pre-ordained events or systems then there is no free will. At the same time, if free will is modified a bit by events then it is a bit less free. Tolstoy argues that there needs to be a balance. What I found most interesting is his linkages to the scientists of the day. Tolstoy clearly grappled with the issues of religion. And in this conclusion he argues that some of the laws being propounded by the scientists of the day might or might not influence the bigger issues of religion.

He also seems to have anticipated Hayek. In the mid-1950s Hayek wrote a book called the "Counter Revolution of Science" where Hayek argued that the use of numbers in economics would potentially create confusion in that numbers may imply a precision that is not real. Tolstoy argues that the seeming precision of the rules that the sciences create may not be as precise at they claim to be. In Econlog yesterday Bryan Caplan commented on the seemingly higher respect that Physicists get over Economists - based on the seeming higher level of precision in the former's theories. Ultimately what is the difference in accuracy between the effects of global warming and changes in the minimum wage. Tolstoy would argue, not much.

The book is a very long read - having started it in the summer. If you attempt it, I would recommend doing what I did and taking it in pieces. Sure there is a lot of swooning and reticules. And sure there is a lot of redundant prose. But after all that there is still a good story with a lot of insights about the human character.

Football Lunacy

Dan Weintraub, the ACE political columnist for the Sacramento Bee got an email over the weekend that claimed that Boise State was being robbed of being in second place in the polls because of liberal media bias. Here is the post from Dan's Blog (California Insider)

"According to this person, unbeaten Boise State is more deserving, and others might be as well, but the sports reporters who vote in one of the polls favor USC because it is from left-leaning California, is close to Hollywood and has well known film and journalism schools. As a native Californian, I've certainly heard of the East Coast media bias in the football polls. But never the liberal media bias. Learn something new every day."

The guy who wrote this seems to have been off his meds. Boise State did defeat perennial powerhouses like New Mexico and Sacramento State.

The Clotfelter Model - Charitable motives

A long while ago, charities began to rely on a model which suggested a pretty strong relationship between tax incentives and charitable giving. The model came from an economist named Charles Clotfelter, who was at Duke. The model found that the charitable incentives in the tax code encouraged people to give to charities in higher levels than without those incentives. Unfortunately, some representatives of the charitable community argued a one to one relationship and then extended the logic to suggest two things which were not true. First, lowering tax rates would reduce charitable giving. That encouraged some representatives of the charitable community to oppose things like the 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act and subsequent efforts to lower tax rates because they argued that lowering rates would lower donations. The evidence from several tax acts since 1981 suggests that was not true. But second, and in my opinion more importantly, the emphasis on incentives made some advocates forget the nature of the charitable deduction. The deduction was put in the code to encourage charitable gifts, and indeed, Clotfelter's research suggests that for many taxpayers it does. Not that every taxpayer makes a concerted calculation that their gift of X will lower their tax by Y - but the deduction does encourage people to do the right thing. Perhaps this incentive is like the fine for littering, which is rarely imposed but which encourages greater awareness of correct behavior.

The long term benefit of having a vibrant charitable sector comes in many areas including creating two things which the advocates of incentives seem to forget. A vibrant charitable sector encourages people to think about their society in broader terms than what is in it for me. At the same time a vibrant charitable sector creates competition for many social services that were there not a charitable sector would be provided only by government - with all the attendant risks of monopolies.

The Christian Science Monitor published an article on charities which includes some interesting facts. Donations amount to $260 billion annually and there is some evidence that as incomes rise so do charitable activities (although the poor give a higher percentage of their income to charities than the wealthy). Perhaps the most interesting date is presented above (which is from the CSM article) - the notion that elimination of the estate tax or the charitable deduction would not have a catastrophic effect on giving.

One of the footnotes to Clotfelter's research, which I think many have under-rated, is whether their is differential effects of giving based on commitment. It has always seemed clear to me that charities can be divided into at least two types. The first are where the donor has some emotional tie - a college or university or a church are two examples. The second would be places that have developed in part as a result of the charitable incentive - perhaps some cause related charities are here. In my mind, elimination of the incentive would have a smaller effect on those charities which have a strong level of personal or emotional ties.

Does that mean I am indifferent to the maintenance of the deduction? Of course not. I have always been skeptical of the linear relationship that some charitable advocates have painted between the deduction and the level of giving. But even with that concern it seems to me that the encouragement of alternatives to governmental provision are always advised. The argument is much more normative than empirical but no less important.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Mark Steyn on Logic

In today's Chicago Sun Times Mark Steyn does an interesting object lesson about where we are headed by comparing the thoughts of what he calls Four Jills in a Jeep. Two are of particular interest to me. He contrasts the first elderly female to blow herself up in the cause of Jihad (Fatma An-Najar) who was until she blew herself to pieces in Jebaliya was a 64 year old grandmother with 41 grandchildren and the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of America,Katharine Jefferts Schori, who sniffed to a national interviewer that Episcopalians are too well educated to have children. Her interviewer asked, somewhat incredulously whether, in Steyn's characterization whether they wanted to become like the Shakers, to which she replied "We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion." Evidently, she has bought into the idea that human beings in God's creation are a problem. She also seems to have missed the parts in the bible that discuss God's bounty. In the long term that is both lousy theology and lousy stewardship.

It is an interesting contrast from my parent's generation who thought it part of their social responsibility to produce children. (I had three sibings). I am not sure what would possess the new bishop to jump on the side of political correctness. It does not seem like much of a way to enlarge her denomination.

The other two are some performing bimbo, named Scarlett Johansson, who in the name of current social theory has herself tested for HIV every six months and Condoleezza Rice, who makes an argument for democratic aspirations in the middle east. Steyn's point is to contrast the long term effects of especially the first three Jills. Steyn's article is worth a read. It seems in her first few months that Bishop Schori's comments are not.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

James Suroweicki on Sugar

The New Yorker has an article from the author of the Wisdom of Crowds on sugar subsidies in the 11/27 edition. Suroweicki makes the case that our current subsidies which favor corn producers over cane producers is both inefficient and uneconomic. The Bush administration has not had a very admirable record on tariffs and subsidies, at least for an administration that is supposedly committed to free trade. Add to our policy on sugar, a couple of tariffs like the ones on steel and timber, imposed in the first term - and you have a pretty sad set of policies.

As Suroweicki points out the sugar subsidy is particularly egregious. Corn is a lousy product to produce energy. In this case rising star Barack Obama is a part of the festivities on this one - representing his farm state constituents. Long term energy independence would be facilitated by a more intelligent set of policies. But so would long term relations in the Western Hemisphere.

Bond, James Bond

Yesterday we saw Casino Royale, the "new" James Bond movie. We went even though to get to the theater we had to go into the center of the shopping district in Pasadena. A spokesman for the National Retail Federation commented "It is a huge day for traffic," NRF President Tracy Mullin said in a statement today. Retailers are "encouraged by the amount of excitement and traffic that their Black Friday promotions have generated." I expect that at some point the tragedy TV people will have the obligatory story about how this "good" news about the economy (i.e. that people are doing a lot of Christmas shopping) is not really that good. Between the stock market and the shopping season the doom and gloomers do not have much to talk about - although that really never stops them, does it?

The Bond genre seems to have been revived a bit with this new person (Daniel Craig) playing 007. He mixes some of the elements that made the original Sean Connery character so interesting without trying to copy that original style. The plot has a lot of action (which all good Bond movies have) although I must admit that I was not into the characters as much as I thought I would be. The movie has an interactive game and a bunch of other neat stuff on the web. The movie's use of animation is pretty intense and there are some pretty good special effects. Not surprisingly it revolves around a Poker game instead of the old Bond favorite of Chemin de fer.

An interesting side note is that the Producer - Barbara Broccoli is a Loyola Marymount University graduate - from their film school. I have worked a bit with LMUs film program and their dean. This is certain to continue to advance the young school's reputation. Not surprisingly the LA area has the top film program in the country (USC) and a couple of others that are either nationally ranked or up and coming (UCLA and Chapman in addition to LMU).

Friday, November 24, 2006

And some reason to hope

As we drove to LA we listened to the unabridged version of The Looming Tower Lawrence Wright's massive and informative book on the development of Al Quaida. It is a chilling tale. Bin Laden and the other characters in the plot become loonier and loonier, but as that conversion occured they also became more dangerous.

But in this morning's Chron there is an article on someone who should offer hope. As noted in my earlier posts on the threats we face from "Commies and Islamofascists" the threat we face from the Islamofascists is not a monolith. The Islamic Society of North America elected a Canadian, convert from Catholicism, Ingrid Mattson, as its president. Mattson explained her conversion to Islam thusly "Religion wasn't ever to me about dogma," she said. "It was more about how I felt, my own spiritual connection. How much my inability to grasp Catholic theology had to do with my fading spiritual connection, I don't know."

It seems hard for me to believe that any society today would support the ultimate exclusion of a large group from itself. That does not mean that there are not appropriate roles for men and women that may be different in society - but the primatives want to subjegate. The example of the Islamic Society of North America - presents a much different reality and one that I believe is ultimately more sustainable.

A sad way to live

This morning as I was going down to the workout room at our hotel I chatted up a guy who was from Phoenix. He commented about how cold it was. He then went on to say he was glad to be out of LA because it was a terrible place. I said "Oh, yeah the traffic." He said, his father had helped to plan the freeways but what he was concerned about was not the traffic but the immigrants. The city has 19 nationalities where LA holds the second largest population out of the home country. I made some comment like - "Well, Phoenix is likely to see an influx soon." He said he would simply move to more and more remote parts of Nevada.

The immigration wave in the country, which California seemed to have had the first wave, has changed our state. There are more people. They have different ways of looking at the world and of eating and a whole bunch of other customs. But in the end, the society is richer for it. I am not sure I could stand always runnning from something instead of looking to what we can build on as a people. Unfortunately, there are some in LA who harbor the same kind of thoughts. On KFI radio there are the Pot and Pan bangers John and Ken who, as mentioned in one of my previous posts, seem to delight in saying the outrageous and offensive. They seem aggressively ignorant - not unlike the former talk show host in Sacramento, Mark Williams.

Luckily, I think most Californians would rather think about how to deal with the challenges than run away from them. It is awful cold back there in the shadows.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


As we were driving to visit my mother in law yesterday we went down Route 5. As we passed through the area that was formerly the district represented by Richard Pombo, I was struck by two things. First, the area is growing rapidly. When I was in my undergraduate studies at the University of the Pacific in the 1960s this land was basically empty. Now housing developments are popping up all over. Second, there were signs from the Pombo land company that were offering even more spaces to build new houses. Pombo lost his re-election bid in part because of perceptions about his environmental record and because a lot of the new voters in his district did not share his "agricultural" values. A lot of those new voters were there because the Pombo land company saw the opportunity to offer houses to people who were being priced out of the Bay Area market. So these voters, who could not afford the houses on the other side of the hill moved to Pombo's district, decried the desecration of the pristine land and then voted against Pombo.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Allen Funt Culture

The Michael Richards tirade is up on the net, no surprise. But as I watched it, I wondered about two things. First, at what point do celebrities or even common people begin to change in their speech when there is the constant threat that in Mirandaesque terms "anything you say can and will be used against you." The rant is not funny. But it reminds one of a lot of what one might see on HBOs Deff Comedy Jam - except done by a white guy. Clearly, we need to redefine the limits of propriety. But I am not sure how.

Second, even with the technology, at what point do all these U-Tube and other spot videos become inappropriate? Shouldn't some cultural norms be self enforcing rather than ruled by gotcha? Funt had a long running show called Candid Camera which got people into absurd - and mostly tasteful situations - "sometime, somewhere, when you least expect it" - but it can be virtually guaranteed that someone will be there with a video when some second tier celebrity jerk makes a fool of himself as Richards did. But the change of always being on the record has some troubling implications.

Would George Allen have lost even without the "maccaca" video? I think probably so. Should he have lost? Let's see how Mr. Webb performs. Did we benefit from the manufactured discussion on tragedy TV about the meaning and reference of the "word" Allen used? I think not. Did we benefit from hearing Mel Gibson's drunken tirade? Again, I am not so sure. So we have a technology that can aid us but can also vulgarize our culture. We need to think about balance here.

By the way, I was struck by two things in the video. First, the Black guy who responded seems to have gotten the better of Richards. Second, as you watch the video, there were at least some in the crowd who commented that Richard's rant was "inappropriate" - he should have been called on it and at least some in the crowd thought his mix of swearing and racial epithets was neither funny nor appropriate. I was not surprised that a comic like him would make an ass of himself - but I was pleased to see that an LA audience would immediately get what a jerk he was being and call him on it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Near the end in War and Peace

In the end, Pierre gets the girl, Natasha. Nicolai does too - Princess Maria. But Tolstoy, thinking that his readers would not get enough of the story of the Rostoffs and the Bulkonskis, publishes an epilogue which ties the stories together. The domestic life of the two couples (mentioned above) gets discussed in pretty good detail and with some philosophical thoughts about wedded bliss.

But there is a second epilogue that IMHO is the more important one. Tolstoy has teased us continuously with the question of why things happen in history and in this final set of chapters he goes about trying to answer the question. This is not exactly an easy question. Is it culture, events, power/leaders or ideas? He writes a fairly biting critique of each of the factors as the determinative issue. He wonders why at one point a leader is a hero and at another soon after a goat. I suspect that any political science professor could rip the second epilogue - reprint it and generate some very interesting and thoughtful discussions in a beginning political science class or even an advanced one. His answer, by the way, is that history is created by the interactions of individuals - sort of a want of a nail the shoe was lost motif - but his conclusions are well thought out and well demonstrated.

There are several passages in the novel where Tolstoy gets to these kind of major questions - but this second epilogue is among the best part of his writing. It is the dollop of wisdom at the end of very long trek. But I found the section to be wonderful. I hope to finish the book before Thanksgiving.

There is one other issue that has run through my mind while I have been reading this. A lot of the novel is interior commentary. The asides here are critical. So I wondered whether the novel could be put to film. There were two attempts. The first, is a King Vidor version in the mid-fifties. I saw that one and thought that some of the characters (Audrey Hepburn as Natasha) were perfect but others (Henry Fonda as Pierre) were lacking. Fonda is a bit a shucks for this kind of role - he was clearly miscast or thought he was in another role. He is naive but not the kind of naive that Pierre is in the early part of the novel. The movie is a lot like classics illustrated. While many of the important scenes are recreated, others are not. It lacks the intensity of the book and at the same time misses the fundamental transformation of Pierre. Thus, Vidor's decision, which I believe was a wrong one, was to avoid as much as possible the interiors of the novel. You will remember that in the Woody Allen parody of the novel the interiors are done by Diane Keaton and Woody always going back to references to "wheat" - that actually worked as a comedic device but it is also a way to present the psychological factors which help to define the novel. The second version was done by a Russian in 1968. It is seven hours long. I have ordered it from Netflix and will see how it comes out. The reviews of it seem to be pretty good. As I thought about how this might go to the screen, someone like George Lucas might be able to bring it off. What I think it would need is someone who could take the story and divide it into three segments- all inter-related but which take the time and effort to assure that the key elements in the book are covered.

This has been a long project, started in the summer. I have had friends who read this pretty quickly, but I think it is better read in bursts. The friend who urged me to tackle it, said it is the greatest novel ever written. I am not sure about that - but I am sure that it is well worth the investment of time and thought. If you decide to tackle this novel you will invest both.

Commies and Islamofascists - in 3 parts (Part 3)

So what do you do about the errors of the left and the right? Here, although I think I understand the errors of both sides, I am not sure what the appropriate next steps should be. Clearly, a formally established timetable for withdrawal seems like a bad idea. Joe Lieberman, who seems pretty sensible on this set of issues, said as much tonight on Fox. But at the same time, the odd and curious claims made since the declaration of victory by the administration have left us without a clear path forward. Staying the course seems unwise. Yet, I believe that we should recognize the potential for appropriate responses which would break up the efforts by the islamofacsists to move the world away from the trends of globalization that have helped many countries over the past couple of decades.

I am skeptical that the Baker Commission will come up with anything useful. If we had wanted him as president, we could have chosen him. We did not. I think his and his colleagues prescrptions may be a bit off the mark. I also am sure that the firebrands in the Congress who want to play to the crowd are not going to help us resolve a new strategy. Kerry is at best a poseur. Ditto for most of the members of the Congressional leadership - their wartime strategy is determined by a finger in the wind.

What bothers me most about the Bush policies is its inability to deal with the range of issues we face. The world is not unidimensional. Hugo Chavez is an evil force, close to our door. Evo Morales less so, but still negative. Chavez might not have been as successful (even though even he overshot the bounds of propriety in his tirade at the UN) had Bush not been so engaged in Iraq. I am genuinely not sure what would have happened had we decided to stay the course in Afghanistan and allowed that conflict to be more settled.

What also bothers me is the intransigence of our intelligence establishment. It is pretty clear to me that while our intelligence people were clear on the projects they needed to accomplish in the last era - and I think by the end they produced at least reasonable data - in this era, regardless of left of right, they are not prepared to offer us the information we need. The conflict here is global but not governmental.

When the left thinks that Kim Il Jong will act honorably - they are wrong. Albright's (what an oxymoron her name is) attempt to appease the N. Korean's during the Clinton administration was absurd. That she would be surprised when the two bit tyrant went back on his work is surprising. That Madeline Albright still gets airtime anywhere except the comedy channel is also amazing. But if the left is too accomodating the right is often too intransigent. We need to constantly look for nuances - and not just in governments. One of the errors of our intelligence apparatus today is that too much of it thinks that policy is made in government offices.

What we need to think about is how we can develop an intelligence function that can give us the information we need to give us a clear understanding of the world. At least as clear as it is possible to produce. Better intelligence might give us some better notions about how to avoid the errors of the right and the left.

Commies and Islamofascists - in 3 parts (Part 2)

The errors of the right and the left cost us something in the last conflict. The left's underestimations of communist intentions undermined a united position in our efforts to respond. But at the same time the right's overestimation may have had us spend way to much to repel the threat.

Part of that may have been that many on both sides were fighting the last war. In this case, it was WWII.

I believe that RWR took the right stance - he knew the Soviets were a paper tiger and thus played a high stakes game which we ultimately won. Sometimes it is right to make a high stakes bet. As RWR said so eloquently "Trust and Verify." I also believe that some of the left, including Johnson and his cabinet including McNamara and his general including Westmorland, were stuck in an unreasonable position of wanting to repel the commies yet not offend the far left. Thus, in Vietnam we were faced with the worst possible situation - buying the ideas of commiting to the battle with little long term thought of how to be successful.

The Vietnam war was also a defining period of my life. Johnson thought he could run the war from the White House. He did not trust his generals (in my mind with good reason) but he kept inching into a position that ultimately killed 50,000 of my generation for a war we were not prepared to win. McNamara and the other "brilliant" strategists were filled with the hubris of Washington (and possibly Detroit) and their constant reliance on numbers games served us poorly.

A second reality of that experience suggests that democracies are not very good at prosecuting a war - so when you get into a war you need to be clear on objectives and goals. I am not sure that the administration actually thought carefully about that before they went into Iraq. (Although I will admit that the goal of democratizing one country in the Middle East is one concept that I think makes some sense.)

Commies and Islamofascists - in 3 parts (Part 1)

I grew up in the era of of the communist menace. Obviously, as much as I would like to reject that as an influence in my life - it has affected the way I look at the world. It seems to me that there are a number of parallels between the quest to wipe out the Commies and the Islamofascists.

Here are some parallels that I see.

#1 - Both the left and the right misjudge the threats of our enemies. During the period when Communism was the enemy, the left consistently underestimated the threat of communist plots. There really were people who wanted to subvert our governmental system. Despite all of the romanticism of the left, the Rosenbergs were guilty. There is pretty good evidence that some of all of the Hollywood Ten were actively engaged in trying to subvert the American political system. No doubt about it. But if the left under-estimated the threat, the right often over estimated it. J. Edgar Hoover's worry that everyone who did not agree with his odd and curious view of the world was a commie was silly. The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright's excellent book on Al Quaida said that Hoover thought the ratio of Commies to normal citizens was something like 1:1800. Silly. Martin Luther King was not a subversive. One of my most distinct memories in my work in the House of Representatives was two representatives James B. Utt (I always wanted to eliminate the period in his name) and H.R. Gross - for both of these members, there was a commie under every bed. By the time I began to work in Congress, in 1970, those guys were characatures of real issues.

In today's conflict the right assumes too much about the inter-workings of the Islamofascists and thus potentially ignore the potential for splitting a series of movements where there may be nuanced differences that could be exploited. The left on the other hand dismisses the possibility that there are evil people in the world who may want to work together. There is plenty of evidence that Saadam and Syria and Iran have at times worked together - the notion of the Axis of Evil is not silly. But over commitment in one region by this administration may preclude options we need to consider.

#2 - The Europeans for some good and bad reasons underestimated the threat of communism. In part, because many of the postwar regimes were variants of socialism they thought that socialism and communism were related. Indeed, the common cold and cancer are both diseases - but the naive notion that they were the same is nonsense. In this era the Europeans have striven toward political correctness and thus again have underestimated the perniciousness of the threat. Nuance is helpful but when driven to extremes is nonsense.

#3 - The long term interests of the US needed to include some recognition of the potential monolithic nature of the "communist menace" at the same time, intelligent foreign policy would look at inherent differences. I studied International Relations as an undergraduate. But the left consistently did lousy intelligence on the capabilities of the Communist block. Until right before the eastern block broke up, many on the left argued that a) the soviet block an economic and social powerhouse (witness the still odd responses we hear about Cuba being an island paradise) and b) that the block was not a block. In this era there was a lot of yammering about the capabilities of the groups which are not a single group but which often work in concert.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Aida in Sacramento

The Sacramento Opera company, for its second opera, did Aida over the weekend (also on Tuesday). It was a superb production from staging to voices to the orchestra.

Aida is one of my favorite operas. It was originally written by Verdi to be performed in Egypt (not to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal). But it was delayed in its opening because of the Franco-Prussian war. Like many of Verdi's other works it has a dozen or so great tunes and a set of recurring themes that keep coming back.

The standout of the evening was Oksana Sitnitska who made her US opera debut with this company. She has a stunning Mezzo voice and wonderful stage presence. She is originally from the Ukraine but I expect her to soon be at the top of the international ranks of singers. But the rest of the cast matched Sitnitska's performance. Hope Briggs was Aida, Drew Slaton played Radames, Ralph Cato was Amonasro and Donald Sherrill was Ramfis, Gregory Stapp was the King.

The sets were from the Met production and are pretty simple but very useful.

Aida is a hard production to mount. I was on the Sacramento board when the company last presented it. We used Llamas for the grand march because it would have cost $100,000 to reinforce the stage to use elephants. To do the opera right requires a pretty big group of lead singers and a large chorus. But this production was masterful.

John Kerry Electoral Genius

Kerry commented over the weekend on how his non-involvement in the last couple of weeks of the election produced a democrat win.

He said "Since we had very close races, I made the decision to make certain that I didn't distract. The results speak for themselves." I guess that is a demonstration of his leadership capabilities, as if we needed another one.

How to lose the majority

Yesterday, the incoming chair of the House Ways and Means Committee renewed his call for reinstitution of the draft. It is odd that Mr. Rangel would renew his call during the week that Milton Friedman died. But such is politics.

Rangel and others argue that the draft is a democratizing force. That is nonsense. Those of us who supported to creation of the All Voluntary Military(I worked for a Senator who was a key supporter of the concept) found that all of the promises of the volunteer force have been realized and none of the risks raised by the supporters of this form of involuntary servitude threw out have come true.

The draft at it was last practiced was called the Selective Service System whose leader was a general named Lewis B. Hershey. It accomplished none of that - it was not selective, it did not perform a service and it was certainly not a system. It was run, as these kinds of bureaucracies are often run, with an indifference to anything but maintaining its own operations. Hershey was blind in one eye (somehow appropriate for his bureaucratic role) and the only person named a general who never served in a combat role - although he served in the military for 62 years. How about that for a role model?

One of the canards raised about the draft is that a president would be loathe to enter a war knowing that he would be sending people who were involuntarily there. The evidence from Johnson's wanton efforts in Vietnam belie that "logic" but Rangel continues to press it.

Rangel's proposal would cost plenty. One estimate is in the range of $800,000,000,000. That assumes that all 18-21 year old males would participate in the process at some point and that some range of young women would also avail themselves of this "opportunity" and that the government would not reduce the pay offered to enlisted soldiers. Even if it is a quarter of that estimate, that is still a chunk of change.

If the democrats begin to push this notion, their majority will be short lived. There is no support for the position in the populace and there are a lot of people in my generation who remember the genuinely bizarre policies that the SSS created. There are few issues that would mobilize me as much as a serious attempt to reinstitute the draft.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Transformations according to Dickens and Tolstoy

One of the traditions in our household around Thanksgiving is to watch Miracle on 34th Street. But then as we drift to Christmas we begin to watch the different versions of "A Christmas Carol" - I do not know how many times or versions I have seen it - but I like it every time. It is an inane story - but one with redeeming qualities. Scrooge is a bit too miserly. His redemption is a bit too complete. But I still like it every time I see it. My favorite is still the Alistair Sim version.

But after Pierre is rescued in War and Peace he goes through a similar transformation. Both characters, Pierre and Scrooge, are narrow in their orientation before their transformation. Scrooge is focused on money/business and Pierre flits from one fad to another. Both go through an experience - Scrooge the three spirits and Pierre the experience of being captured in the war and then going through the privations of captivity. Both emerge from the experience able to understand the small wonders of life and able to judge life from a much more balanced perspective. The parallels are interesting.

College Football Rankings

(Game Photo from USC)
Last night the USC Trojans beat the Cal Bears. It was an exciting game. I am not a big fan of the BCS system or other college rankings. Those things put too much of an emphasis on things which should not be critical to the mission of colleges or universities. Both Cal and USC care a lot about both the integrity of their schedules. Both, unlike AP third ranked Florida, have played real schedules.

While number 4 and 17 were playing Florida was playing Western Carolina. This came on top of their very rough schedule this year that included such powerhouses as Southern Mississippi and Central Florida.

All of the experts thought this would be a high scoring game - most predicted numbers for both sides in the 35 range and yet it ultimately became a contest of defense. So much for the experts. The best college football games, unlike the NFL, are a bit unpredictable. They are fun because they really do depend in part on emotion and execution.

Cal was again disappointed in their quest (since 1959) for the Rose Bowl. USC will, depending on what happens against Notre Dame and UCLA (both games are always emotional and important), either go to the Rose Bowl or to the National Championship. My son and I have been to the last two National Championship games. The two pictures of us are at the Orange Bowl and the Rose Bowl National Championship games. I would prefer to go back to the era when the Rose Bowl was the Pac 10 against the Big 10(12). That was often an interesting game between teams that played real schedules.

Sascha Baron Cohen(Bruno) and Pastor Quinn

You tube has a Sascha Cohen video of a character named Bruno who is a "gay" news guy interviewing a conservative pastor from Little Rock. Cohen as he does with a lot of his "interviews" designed them to make fun of this guy. But as you watch it the video says a lot more. Cohen's attempt at ridicule falls flat to all but the most narrow minded bigots of the left. The pastor presents his views on Christian doctrine relating to homosexuality. They are views that I would not agree with. But they are sincerely held beliefs. Cohen attempts to camp this guy in all sorts of ways. With off the wall questions designed to make Cohen look good rather than to elicit the substance of his beliefs. Some of Cohen's bits a mildly funny but a lot of them are simply pathetic attempts to show how cool he is.

A good deal of TV today starts with that premise. Rather than trying to build a dialogue between people of differing beliefs there is a conscientious attempt to run the other side down. That is where narrow minded bigots, of all shapes and types, come from.

Brad de Long on Friedman

In Salon today UC economist Brad DeLong wrote an interesting tribute to Milton Friedman. He commented in part -

Friedman's thought is, I believe, best seen as the fusion of two strong and very American currents: libertarianism and pragmatism. Friedman was a pragmatic libertarian. He believed that -- as an empirical matter -- giving individuals freedom and letting them coordinate their actions by buying and selling on markets would produce the best results. It was not that he thought this was a natural law. He didn't believe that markets always worked best. It was, rather, that he believed that places where markets failed were atypical; that where markets failed there were almost always enormous profit opportunities from entrepreneurial redesign of institutions; and that the market system would create new opportunities for trade that would route around market failures. Most important, his distrust of government told him that government failure was pervasive, and that any expansion of government beyond the classical liberal state would be highly likely to cause more trouble than it could solve.

The entire article is a good read.

Friday, November 17, 2006

John McCain Makes Sense

John McCain is not a politician I agree with a lot of the time. But I believe in a speech he made to GOPAC, he spoke the truth. In it he said "We increased the size of government in the false hope that we could bribe the public into keeping us in office. And the people punished us. We lost our principles and our majority. And there is no way to recover our majority without recovering our principles first." His speech can be found on his website.

Milton Friedman - Some additional thoughts

I only met Friedman once - at a dinner for an institute at Santa Clara University. He and his wife were there celebrating the creation of an institute designed to give students some background in free market thought. He seemed gracious - he was the star of the evening but seemed to move around the room, always with Rose at his side, talking with almost every guest.

As I was thinking about Friedman I read most of the obits in places like the NYT and the WP. His contributions to advancing the free market were continuous. Yet, at several times he intervened in issues where I was directly working.

For example, he was a passionate supporter of the volunteer army. He had a great comment to General WIlliam Westmorland who had said he was reluctant to lead a band of mercenaries. Friedman encountered him and told of the encounter. "I stopped him and said, 'General, would you rather command an army of slaves. . . . If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general, and we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.' "

He also was willing to confront cliches. He responded in 1962 to Kennedy's famous soundbite that is was wrong headed. Rather than "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" he argued, in an introduction to Capitalism and Freedom that You should ask neither. “What your country can do for you, implies that the government is the patron, the citizen the ward; and “what you can do for your country” assumes that the government is the master, the citizen the servant." Rather, he said, you should ask, “What I and my compatriots can do through government to help discharge our individual responsibilities, to achieve our several goals and purposes, and above all protect our freedom.” Not as good a soundbite but a clear understanding of how the world should work.

Friedman worked for the government during WWII in the Department of the Treasury. He commented that it was something his wife never forgave him for. He commented “There is no doubt that it would not have been possible to collect the amount of taxes imposed during World War II without withholding taxes at the source. But it is also true, that the existence of withholding has made it possible for taxes to be higher after the war than they otherwise could have been. So I have a good deal of sympathy for the view that, however necessary withholding may have been for wartime purposes, its existence has had some negative effects in the postwar period.”

The Nobel laureate understood the free market is a real democratizing force. “The free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovered for achieving participatory democracy.”

My favorite quote from Friedman was one that was reprinted in the WSJ today. "Given our monstrous, overgrown government structure, any three letters chosen at random would probably designate an agency or part of a department that could profitably be abolished." I was reminded of what happened when a friend during the Nixon administration who went to an interagency meeting (he was representing Elliott Richardson at HEW) signed in as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aircraft and Sewage and began getting meeting notices for interagency meetings on transportation and solid waste issues.

There were two reflections that were especially important. The first came from a small minded biographer of John Kenneth Galbraith. Richard Parker commented in the Boston Globe last year (and requoted in the WP story) that Friedman's calls for market deregulation had negative consequences. Friedman's "passionate calls for financial and securities market deregulation played no small role in ushering in the half-trillion dollar S&L fiasco of the 1980s and the deeply corrupt Wall Street stock market boom of the 1990s. His tax-reduction-at-all-costs policies helped lead to the nation's yawning budget deficits." Obviously, both conclusions are nonsense. As I remember the S&L crisis came about in part because of democrat leaders like St. Germain who wanted to socialize risk but dramatically increasing the insurance of these accounts while simultaneously attempting to broader their charters. Those were not adherence to free market principles but the opposite. The tax policies advocated by Friedman did not increase the deficit rather increases in spending (which Friedman continuously argued for) did. One should not be surprised that a fan of Galbraith would be so misinformed.

But then there was a more balanced comment from a colleague at Chicago. As noted yesterday, one of the things which impressed me most was Friedman's passionate commitment to reasoned debate. (Something that the political system could benefit from today.) W. Allen Wallis who was both a classmate and faculty colleague said “What was really so important about him,” was his tremendous basic intelligence, his ingenuity, perseverance — his way of getting to the bottom of things, of looking at them in a new way.”

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman died today at the age of 94. Friedman was a continuous supporter of liberty and for several generations of students of all types he helped introduce to basic concepts o freedom. I cannot explain how important his ideas were to me personally. I recently was able to download from Google video the episodes of Free To Choose - the PBS series he did about the time of the Reagan Administration. While some of the images are dated, the concepts are not. His understanding of the causes of the depression (in his monumental work on Monetary History) was ground breaking at the time. But I think his major contribution, from my perspective, was his unstinting willingness to engage with others who differed from him on ideas that mattered, always with a polite demeanor and absolute demands of intellectual honesty.

A constant in politics

As I think I have commented earlier, one of my friends who is an astute political analyst (although he is the guy who argued that the democrats would automatically nominate Jane Harman to the Governorship because she is a woman) has recently argued to me that the democrats will be in control of congress - for "the rest of our lives." I have argued that all political parties have the inherent quality to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Witness the fight about John (pork is my middle name) Murtha as the majority leader.

But in the NYT today, there is a great story about the problems that the democrats are causing for themselves. Contrary to the common notion (Victory has many fathers, defeat is an orphan) a lot in the democrat party are arguing about who actually won the congress for them. James Carville, never one to be slow on the gab uptake, commented a couple of days ago that Howard Dean was ineffective. Two of his quotes stand out. “There was a missed opportunity here,I’ve sat down with Republican pollsters to discuss this race: They believe we left 10 to 20 seats on the table." and " I would describe his (Dean's) leadership as Rumsfeldian in its incompetence.” Carville has never been cautious about his own ego, so his comments are not surprising. But there seems to be a legitimate discussion about whether Dean or the state leaders were the lynchpin in making things happen for the dems in this election.

A democrat leader from South Carolina commented in the same article “Asking Dean to step down now, after last week, is equivalent to asking Eisenhower to resign after the Normandy invasion,” Donald Fowler of the South Carolina democrats said. “It’s just nonsense."

Elections are about mobilizing one's base and encouraging those close to your base to believe they are also a part of that. Undeniably, despite the almost reverential homage paid to Karl Rove by some, the dems did a better job in accomplishing that. What encourages me is that at this time in American politics all coalitions are fragile and unstable. The American people seem to be turned off by both parties writ large. But in this election they were less turned off by the dems - and that is fine. Those who were applauded for their brilliance in 2004 are now being looked at with differing eyes. One would only hope that self promoters like Carville would be less visible in the future. But then that is too much to hope for.

The long term values of the American people are somewhere in between the big government left and the big government right. Whoever realizes that will have the chance to capture the majority for a very long time. At this point, I am not ready to concede that either side has found that fairly simple Rosetta stone of politics.

Auspicious Beginnings (?)

The leadership contests in Congress are notable for what they are not saying as much as for what they are saying.

Former Abscam figure (an unindicted co-conspirator) and demi-prince of pork John Murtha has been annointed by Speaker designate Nancy Pelosi - it is unclear whether his caucus will elect him. By the way, thanks to U-tube - you can see the grainy video of this "leader" dancing around what the FBI considered a bribe on YouTube. Whether Mr. Murtha broke the law here, and the prosecutors thought it was a judgment call, he certainly skirted the bounds of propriety. Not exactly what I would call a paragon of leadership. Trent Lott, former "leader" in the GOP senate caucus was elected back as a whip in that caucus. Lott was bounced from leadership for some inappropriate remarks about Strom Thurmond. But before he was bounced he was not exactly what anyone would call a visionary leader. Maybe the inside job of Whip is something appropriate to his energies.

The Congressional Research Service produced a report that estimates that earmarks (16,500 in 2005) cost the American taxpayer $50 BILLION last year. The provisions offered to reduce this practice look amazingly like something the GOP offered in this congress which the dems labeled a sham. One of the key provisions requires authors of these measures to be named - which some members of congress point out might be considered a badge of honor. Others would ban last minute adds to bills and would prohibit family members from personally benefitting from earmarks (Murtha's brother is an earmark lobbyist in DC of pretty legendary proportions).

Not surprisingly, the netroots (nutter) crowd is supporting Murtha (30 years) over Steny Hoyer (26 years) for the position as a way to show the new direction of the Congress. The next two years should be even more fun than the last two! The caucus voted for Hoyer this morning - one wonders about the long term implications for that - but I personally think that was the right choice.

Commitment in Higher Education

The interim CEO in a publicy traded company said yesterday "(as our company) positions itself for the future, we will be better targeting our business strategy and concentrating our resources on those areas where we have the greatest competitive advantage, the highest levels of expertise, and proven success." With that the CEO announced that they would sell off thirteen campuses in Career Education's system that had underperformed financially or had other types of problems. Some of these sites were featured on 60 Minutes for their shoddy practices.

There is a continuing debate in many quarters about the superiority of the propreitary sector in higher education. It is claimed that the proprietaries operate more efficiently, meet the needs of students better and succeed in meeting the needs of their local communities more productively than non-profit or public universities. Indeed, some proprietaries do a pretty good job in some areas. But if the cut and run strategy at Career Education is an example of these higher practices, I guess I cannot see it.

One of the continuing parts of the discussion about higher education is whether it is a commodity. Indeed, despite all of the intangibles there is a commodity aspect to it. But the evidence of commitment from the non-profit institutions is quite different than the one that seems to be evidenced by places like Career Education. The company calls itself "leaders in education" but their track record both with these institutions and with the broader context of what they provide suggests that a better title might be exploiters of education. Their commitment is to the bottom line and not to students. While some of the non-profit sector could also be defamed for the same time of lack of focus - many in the non-profit sector have a clear and conscientious commitment to broader goals than seem to be evidenced in this example.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dan Lungren and Leadership

Does Dan Lungren deserve a leadership post in the new congress? According to Adam Probolsky an Orange County pollster the answer is no. But that kind of logic will keep the GOP in the minority for a long time. Dan recognized that earmarks were poison. His neighboring GOP member who was in the leadership - wisely decided to avoid running for leadership again (the little leadership that he did provide). Dan would be a great senior leader.

Dan is not perfect (and then of course who is) and some of the criticisms of Dan's past roles are somewhat valid. But in this case leadership in the Congress depends on judgment. His next door neighbor did not exercise any. Dan did. He deserves to be in the leadership team. He is experienced both in the ways of California politics and in the ways of Congress. He would add something significant to the leadership mix.

Tolstoy on Happiness

I am finally in the home stretch of War and Peace. In an earlier part of the book Prince Andrei and Pierre muse about happiness and Andrei makes the wry comment that Happiness is seen as a negative reflection - i.e. you know when it is not there. Pierre, by this time in the book has been put in prison and almost executed for a foolish attempt on Napoleon. He begins to reflect on his friend's comments and starts to understand them - but in a different manner than Andrei intended them. Pierre, reflecting the best of Hayek or any other Austrian economist (subtle irony here) suggests that happiness is derived from the struggle for it. That people derive satisfaction not from material goods (which Pierre had plenty of) but from the pursuit of happiness. You can notice a change in Pierre here that is subtle but interesting. He drops his foppish attractions to all sorts of causes and begins to understand the true nature of happiness.

This section in the book returns to Tolstoy's discussion of authority. He expressly, in a long passage about Napoleon's orders and intentions in occupying Moscow, explains the concept of epephenominality (one of my students once described this obscure term as "Who'd a thunk it?"). All of the intentions of Napoleon both in terms of his own army and in terms of the occupation of Moscow seem to result in the opposite of the intended effects. He recounts, not unlike the contrasts he presented earlier about Pierre's lame efforts with his serfs, about how all of the things Napoleon intended do not happen.

This part of the book seems to be a way for Tolstoy to reinforce some of the best parts of his messages while concluding the story.

Pigs, Lipstick and Polling

One of the favorite past-times of political junkies is following polls. I, for one, believe that we have reached a polling saturation point. This year one could almost garner a poll to say anything about the election. They moved up and down akin to a vibrant stock market. But, again, I think polling is over-rated as a predictive device. The technicians have some technical explanations of the decreasing utility of polling. For example, a good many in the generation under 30 have cell phones as their primary phones - they are left off the polling rolls. A second concern is that some polls over-rate one group or another in their samples. A third criticism is that polls seem to purport more certainty than they actually have - the wild swings in results before an election probably do not happen but are more accurate representations of the sentiments of the polled groups which are afterall a sample of the electorate.

Jon Cohen of the Washington Post did an excellent article this morning on the foibles of the polls. But there are two things I used in this cycle which I think, for me, made a bit more sense of their seeming gyrations. The first is one of the systems which aggregated polling results. I like Real Clear Politics, whose editorial content is decidedly conservative, but whose polling averages were just about right in most of the important races. In some cases, for example the North Dakota senate race, where the GOP failed to recruit a strong candidate, there was no polling, but the RCP averages helped to smooth the data. Second, the futures markets, originally developed by an Iowa scholar, which allow political junkies to buy and sell futures were pretty efficient predictors of what would happen in individual elections and in the general trends. I think they were much more accurate than the "generic poll" which seems to be governed by some many variations in interpretation as to be almost useless.

Cohen concludes his article with the old southern saying about trying to put lipstick on a pig. (In my region of the country the saying dealt with teaching a pig to sing - but you get the idea.) Polling is something, like any other market, that will continue to proliferate with all of the consequences of that kind of competition. But those two smoothing devices will help to make sense out of the Babel of pollsters.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Does the NBA have a clue on reality?

Last week as part of the election, Seattle voters rejected an extortion demand from the owner of the Seattle Supersonics to give them yet another shot at public subsidies. Clayton Bennett, the Sonics' Chairman commented "Seattle turned its' back on the NBA.' He went on to say that "I'm not saying it's the most important thing or the only thing, but I think professional sports are an important component to the overall economy and quality of life in any marketplace."

Seattle you may remember was the place that got badgered into building a new sports arena about four years ago. But now there is a group called Citizens for More Important Things got something called I-91 on the ballot. It required that the city would receive a return "at or above fair market value" for any taxpayer investment in KeyArena or another facility leased to "for-profit professional sports organizations. Fair market value" is defined by I-91 as "no less than the rate of return on a 30-year U.S. Treasury Bond." The measure passed by 75%. Key Arena was constructed in the mid-1990s for $92 million with about $72 million in bonded indebtedness. The team payroll for the Sonics grew by almost 50% last year. What was most interesting about the story is that Mr. Bennett is from Oklahoma City. So he was asking for a subsidy in a place he did not even live. An independent analysis of the Seattle deal concluded "Questions remain about the long-term sustainability of the NBA model for host cities/venues."

Sacramento had the same kind of situation. Absentee owners demanded an unreasonable deal where they would end up spending about 9% of the arena cost for the hypothetical benefits of having a mediocre sports team in the town. The voters made the same sane decision that the citizens of Seattle made.

As Ailene Voisin, the Sacramento Bee Sports Columnist pointed out before our election, the NBA owners are not the picture of health. The Sonics previous owner bailed after five seasons. The Memphis team's owner is also bailing after a few years. Ditto for Portland and Milwaukee's owners.

In the last 10 years the NBA has seen the price of having a team or attending a game escalate even faster than the price of college or health care. Finally the voters are realizing that all the hype is just that, hype. I suspect that if the NBA teams continue to demand outrageous subsidies to compensate these private businesses they will find it increasingly less possible to find cities stupid enough to take their offers. Sacramento could benefit from a group with the same purpose.

Economic Projections

Greg Mankiw, who is a young Harvard economist posted something today that should give all economists pause. The chart above explains why the US budget shifted from "surplus" (In the way that the government accounts for its dough it does not have to follow the rules on unfunded liabilities that other economic entities do) to deficit.

The largest factor in making the change is changes in assumptions and technical adjustments by the economists. That amounts to almost half of the originally projected surplus. Mankiw has some interesting stuff on his blog in case you want to check it out.


Senator Russ Feingold announced today that he would not be running for President in 2008. Here is what he said -

"I believe I can best advance that progressive agenda as a senator with significant seniority in the new Senate serving on the Foreign Relations, Intelligence, Judiciary and Budget Committees."

Here is the same sentence translated into English -

I have decided not to run for President in 2008 because I don't have a snowball's chance in hell of being nominated much less elected, in the US Senate with us in the majority I can pursue my narrow political beliefs."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Queen

We saw the Queen this afternoon. It is a wonderful movie. The story surrounds Elizabeth II's reaction to the death of Princess Diana and of the ascencion of Tony Blair to the PM, all in 1997. Helen Mirren, who plays the queen, has the distinction of being the only actress who has played both Elizabeths.

The movie is, if anything, understated. The genuine tensions of a monarch that has served for more than 50 years are evident when she learns that Diana has died. The Queen is skeptical of the new PM. But indeed in the end she accepts good political advice from the new PM about how to get out of the perceptual problem the royal family encountered when trying to balance political/public responsibilities with those private functions associated with the death of a family member who had been divorced from Prince Charles.

The interactions of the characters are wonderful. Blair and Prince Phillip and Prince Charles are masterfully played. Their interactions are also well presented. Oddly, Prince Phillip is portrayed by a guy named Cromwell. Mirren should be a contender for the Oscar this year - she plays the role with almost perfect detachment.

Moderate Republicanism, a footnote

In the 1970s I was the Chapter President of a group of "moderate" republicans called the Ripon Society. Ripon was made up of a strange mix of people. I would say the thing that bound us together was a strong commitment to ideas. We spent a lot of time working on new policy approaches to various public areas. When I was chapter president we had some very interesting discussions about major ideas - we were very committed to a volunteer army and some interesting ideas about tax policy (many of which were ultimately reflected in the 1981 and 1986 tax acts). We also believed in incentives rather than mandates. Finally, there was a strong blend of social justice in our thoughts.

Some of Ripon's leadership became prominent. George Gilder, who I remember as a bit daft, went on to be a successful policy writer and then a techno-prophet. In one of our national board meetings, George was supposed to be there but kept missing the airport all weekend. We kept getting phone calls that he had flown to New York (where the board meeting was) only to have gotten lost in thought when the plane landed and then carried off to some other place (Hartford or Cleveland were two places that I remember). All weekend we had a picture of a guy who kept getting so caught up in his ideas that he forgot to get off the plane. Patricia Goldman became a member of the National Transportation Safety Board and has stayed in Washington for a variety of public policy activities.

In October of 1973, we held a fund raising auction almost immediately after the Saturday night massacre. We raised a lot of money because we had secured a doodle from Elliot Richardson, who had been axed the weekend before as attorney general. It was at that time that I began to think that Robert Bork was a lot less than he portrayed himself to be. (When he was nominated for the Supreme Court I thought he would have been a lousy justice, but that is another story.)

Ripon's members began to drift apart about the time that I left Washington. They drifted into three distinct groups. One hand drifted toward libertarian philosophy. As the 1970s and 1980s progressed some of us saw increasing evidence that massive government programs are prone to rent seeking and other failures that economists like James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock began to point out in the literature of public choice. A second group drifted toward the democrats. Charles Goodell, who was a senator from New York, would have probably moved there had he lived. Certainly, his wife seemed to move toward that direction. Although one wonders how comfortable some of those people were in their new roles - the democrats increasingly moved away from a support for some conservative principles. Finally, there was the group like Jim Leach, who was defeated on Tuesday, who stayed in the republican party. That branch seems to have been pretty much obliterated in Tuesday's election. But then some of us thought it was many years before this one.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Borat the Philosopher

My son and I went to Borat the Movie today. The movie has some funny bits, but I was impressed how quickly I concluded that I got his joke. It seems to try to offend a large number of groups in society, often without a seeming purpose. This is not satire, it is a series of jokes that seem designed to shock the audience. It soon became predictable.

What was most interesting to me was my son's reactions to the movie. As we were walking out of the movie, I asked him what he thought. He compared it to an entertainment vehicle when he was about 14 - Beavis and Butthead. He reminded me of when we went to their movie, which had many of the same qualities. Devices designed to shock but not a lot of thought about the long term structure of the movie or the message. In many ways he believed that Beavis and Butthead or South Park was a bit more carefully constructed. I think he is right.

Comedy can often offend out sensibilities. Lenny Bruce would be pretty tame stuff today. But unlike Bruce, Sascha Cohen does not seem to be thinking about anything than the next tasteless joke. There is a lot of controversy about both whether the script was in fact the creation of Cohen and also whether some of the candid scenes were actually obtained with the consent of the people in the scenes. Cohen used former Congressman Bob Barr and former Senate Candidate Alan Keyes. I am not sure why either of those guys agreed to be in the movie.

In the end this movie is a disappointment. What was interesting to me was my son's thoughtful response to what the movie offered. I was impressed at his thinking.

Borat, the politician

Over the last couple of days I have been exchanging views with an old friend who is convinced that the election told a story that I simply do not see. This afternoon, my son and I saw Borat the movie, and I began to think about my friend's views. Borat is a fairly shoddy characture of a foreign visitor. I believe my friend has made a fairly shoddy characture of what happened on Tuesday. He believes that the change which suggested in part.

"As to the GOP moderates you dislike, well, they were the linchpin for the GOP majority in Congress, and those seats will not come back. So there is no way the GOP wins back the House in 2008 or anytime in our lifetime. They have maxed out in the south and will continue losing in CA (Dreier is next) and in the moutnain west and mid-west. So I don't really care about the GOPers in the House, they don't matter anymore. They will be as irrelevant as the legislative GOPers."

This guy calls himself a Republican, which I do not. But he is absolutely apoplectic about the war in Iraq. (He is a Vietnam vet and draws some kind of parallel to the conflicts, which I at least do not find.) Thus, he revelled at the loss of the GOP and is absolutely ecstatic about the prospect that the democrats like Waxman will begin a process of investigating the administration. He was giddy about an effort by some minor politician in Germany to try to go after Rumsfeld under some bizarre theory of universal law. He actually compares Rumsfeld to Pinochet.

Both congressional parties are a lot like the reality that is created in the movie. Borat is a mildly offensive reality (sometimes more than mild). The American people clearly said on Tuesday that they disliked the reality of the GOP leadership. But as I have thought about it, where I differ from my friend is where that dissent manifests itself. I believe that the election was about corruption both personal (like Foley - although I think his personal situation changed very little in the election and institutional - Congress' standing is even lower than the President's). The problem for the republicans was in part based on their leadership style. They don't have that any more. We knew how Hastert and Frist would react to questions. We are not so sure about how the presumptive leader in the house (Boehner) and the Senate will react to the events of the day. We do know how the Administration will react, but in the last two years of a term many presidents become less relevant. What we do not know is how the new leadership in the House (Pelosi) will react. Pelosi is not a pragmatic leader. She has a cast of senior people who will chair committees who are significantly more liberal than the country. But she also has a large addition to her caucus who are a lot less committed to her point of view. On the GOP side, especially in the house, there are a lot fewer "moderates" and even some of the firebrand conservatives. (Don't underestimate the effects of the Hayworth loss.) In the Senate we know about Harry Reid. He, like the GOP leadership in the last congress, has the ability to operate on the brink of legitimacy.

So what happens in 2007 or more importantly what would my friend suggest? On the war. What specific would my friend do NOW to change - would he move us out immediately. Would he reinforce the notion across our enemies that when the tough gets going that we cut and run? There are indeed ideas that could be presented as alternatives to the existing policy in Iraq - but our realistic alternatives are quite limited. A lot depends on whether you believe that the primative Islamic forces are a long term threat to our way of life. But ultimately, while the American people are uneasy about the current strategy, I think they will also be uneasy about a disengagement that seems to cut and run. This is not an easy issue for either party.

On taxes, my friend has constantly nattered that the tax cuts of 2001 were wrong. But exactly what would he do differently? Would he raise the rates on capital gains and thus lower capital investment in the economy? Would he revert to the 2000 levels of inheritance taxes? Indeed, the last Congress, the realistic alternative to inheritance taxes was a significant increase in the exclusion (perhaps $5-10 million) and a retention of step up basis for remaining estates. If the dems forget that potential - they are likely to pay a heavy price in 2008.

Does he support, what seems to be the majority position in the democrats, the idea that free trade is a negative for the economy? If he does has he bothered to look at the long term economic effects of free trade on our economy?

Politics is ultimately the art of the possible (according to Bismarck). In this case a couple of things are clear about the results of the election. First, the GOP moderates, who have been a dying breed for the last two decades (I was actually a Washington Chapter President of the Ripon Society in the 1970s so I know something about "moderate" republicans), are dead. Second, that means the GOP is a bit more conservative than the last session. Third, the democrat caucus in the House is a bit more conservative than they were in the last Congress. There is clearly an issue for the democrat leadership between the liberals in the leadership and the new members who are a bit more conservative.

My friend is blinded to see that only one policy determined the outcome of the election. I also believe that much of the media also have that problem. Does that mean the GOP will recover these losses? I am not sure at this point. A lot depends on whether Pelosi and Reid are smart enough to listen to the new members of their respective houses. A clear message of Tuesday's vote was that the American people are very grumpy about the work of the Congress. If there is a perception that either side is obstructionist the penalty will be levied in 2008. At this point, both sides have an opportunity to define their field of play. Bush also has the opportunity to think more creatively about what will work in his last two years.

Borat is a disappointing movie because it intends to offend without worrying about its long term message. Unfortunately, the simplistic notions that this was a ground changing election has yet to be proven. The next several months will determine whether the simplistic notions raised by my good friend will come true. At this point, I believe they will not. But if the GOP believes they can continue what they did last year, they will be vanquished. If the dems assume that a minor victory is a long term mandate they will also be rejected just two years hence.

The Iraq War as a motivator in the election

The Bush administration's rapid dropping of Secretary Rumsfeld the day after the election suggests an administration in disarray that misread the election results.

Clearly, the pundits and the pollsters and the loon left believe that the prime motivator in the electoral loss that the GOP suffered on Tuesday was caused by concern about the war in Iraq. I think that is incorrect. When you start out with a 43% approval rating as president you are pretty sure that the GOP will not be a strong force in an election. 61% of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq (according to the Newsweek poll). But here is the rub. The pollsters believe that the 61% is monolithic. I do not think it is. Any democracy has little stomach for any war. Look at polling during even WWII and as the war continued support for the war began to fall - not to the levels of the Bush era but it fell none-the-less. I would argue that the 61% can be divided into at least two groups - some percentage of the voters disagree with the tactics of the war but agree with the notion of confronting the terrorists. A tiny percentage of voters might even suggest that we should pursue the war objectives more aggressively. But the notion that the war was THE motivator for the election is simply false. If one looks at the GOP members who lost on Tuesday and were the most aggressive in opposing the war, almost two thirds of them lost. Clearly, if you were GOP and against the war, you fared worse than the rest of the party. So in my mind there was something else going on. In several cases a GOP opponent to the war lost to a slightly more supportive democrat.

I believe the motivator of this electorate was Congress. In the most poisonus atmosphere in the US (Rhode Island) Bush had a 22% approval rating while the Congress had 15%. The national numbers were not much better. National polling was similar - in one poll 74% of Americans thought Congress was out of touch. That made Bushs' 43% positively stratospheric.

What caused that change? In my opinion, the factors I listed the day of the election caused it, namely a perception (which I believe was correct) that Congress was burdened by corruption (Abramhoff and earmarks) and a tin ear (the silly efforts this summer to bring up hot button issues rather than to pass legislation). The Public Choice analysis of politicians seeking rents from the voters, was especially pronounced in this cycle. The voters believed, and in this case I think correctly, that Congress was not in it for improvements in the country but for narrow and personal motives. That caused some perceptual changes which are significant. For example, according to the Rasmussen poll "Americans today still hold views similar to those that brought Reagan to the White House—61% believe that tax hikes are bad for the economy. Just 16% believe they help the economy." But surprisingly in this cycle the advantage that the GOP had on this issue, dating to the Reagan era has faded pretty significantly. That was an area where the GOP fought hard to support an area which the voters overwhelmingly favor, but because of the perception on corruption and dilly-dallying they lost a clear advantage.

Here is a good example in my own area. Two congressmen next to each other Dan Lungren and John Doolittle come from similar districts in terms of registration. (If anything, Doolittle's district is a bit more heavily GOP.) Lungren went back to Congress and one of the first campaigns he fought for was to end earmarks. Doolittle was right in the middle of the defects of Congress - he was tied to Abramhoff, his wife was (is) collecting a commission for all of the money raised in his behalf, etc. Both candidates were equally supportive of the war and both candidates had an opponent who was against the war and used the war as a major issue. On Tuesday, Doolittle squeaked by with about 49% of the vote. Lungren received almost 60%. Clearly, the difference was not the war but the perceptions about Congress.

That brings me to the Bush action to oust his Secretary of Defense. Bush acted quickly, after the election, to throw Rummy under the train. In my opinion his move made no political sense. I am not a fan of Mr. Rumsfeld. But if the President thought Rumsfeld was a liability, what would the effect of a change in the position had on the election had he done it before rather than after? Doing the job after the election makes the President look like he is panicking. In this case I think he is responding to the wrong stimuli.

The California governor faced a similar problem a year ago and yet won re-election by almost 60%. (Even with that percentage he seemingly had no coattails - the one GOP candidate who won statewide had an opponent who was damaged goods. California is still a pretty blue state, in most ways.) The Governor learned that the voters kind of liked his willingness to get the legislature to go along with him. Although I have not seen polls on it, I suspect the California legislature's perceptions have improved along with the Governor's.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What does competence have to do with it?

My predecessor in the Association that I work for joined us for our annual meeting over the last two days. I asked him to help us think about accountability measures for higher education - to listen to our discussions and then offer a slightly distant sage's perspective. He did a superb job. Colleges and universities are entering a new era where they need to be more transparent. Many in higher education do not understand that perspective - but our discussions helped my members begin to think about how we can resist those calls for more information that are silly and at the same time be proactive in living in this new world.

But as I was driving him back to the airport he told me that he is one of those people on the TSA watch list. Mind you this guy is 75 years old, has a PhD, was a college administrator for a good part of his career. But the TSA has him on the list - that means more hassle when he wants to fly. But to get off the list is even more trouble. So he puts up with this minor inconvenience because it is not worth the trouble to correct it.

But here is the rub. He is a vehement opponent of the President's policies in Iraq. He has been quite vocal to me and others about his position. None of this is any the bit outside of normal bounds of reasonable discourse. I think the President has been a lousy protector of budget integrity - domestic spending has been rising at a much faster rate than college costs. So I am critical too of this president. But this guy is profiled. So the TSA for whatever reason takes this 75 year old, highly educated, retired moderate and labels him a terrorist. My lord he is a regular reader of The New Republic.

He speculated that he might be in the group because he has a "daughter" who is Turkish; he had a student from Turkey live with his family and they have remained close. He has been critical in emails to his family including his former exchange student "daughter" - he thinks that might have been the thing. I think the explanation is more simple. His name is Moore and I am sure that the explanation is that the TSA morons believe that he is a moslem from Spain. (Moor)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Chocolate Election

George WIll pointed out something I did not know about the election -

About $2.6 billion was spent on the 468 House and Senate races. (Scandalized? Don't be. Americans spend that much on chocolate every two months).

Grading myself

Last night I posted something about how the pundits did on projecting the election returns. But how well did I do in analyzing the events of Tuesday in advance? I have always been careful not to put much stock in elections projections before they have formed - for me that means anything more than two weeks before an election is mostly speculation. Second, I was a bit more forgiving for the GOP than the rest of the populace. When I did get around to thinking about who would win and who would lose I thought the GOP would hold the Senate. (And for a few thousand votes, they would have) But I thought it would be by a bit higher number than even that - perhaps in the 52 range.

One of my friends who is much more into the daily drama of elections was also off. He thought there would be a massive wave that would swamp the GOP. He is a Vietnam vet and seems to be very animated about the President's war policy. He thought that, coupled with the scandals in the GOP, would produce some pretty dramatic results. In the end, I do not think that happened. This was not 1974, or for that matter 1964 or 1966. I would argue that although the American people are very concerned about Iraq, the influence issue on the election was minimal. Indeed, one can argue that in several cases (Chaffee for example in Rhode Island) the voters chose the more hawkish position. Even in the Virginia senate race I think the final result was less about war policy than it was about Allen's inept campaign. If you look at the most dovish members of the GOP - only two of them survived.

So what moved the voters? I also do not believe, that with the exception of his own district, that the Foley affair moved voters much. I think the equation for this election was a mix of the perception that a good deal of Washington is for sale (pay to play, Abramhoff, Hastert's response to Jefferson, etc.) and a concern by many voters who had supported GOP members that they were not really supportive of limited government.