Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ward Churchill and Academic Freedom

The depth of absurdity in academia seems to be playing out in Colorado.

Take one "professor" who seems to have the following characteristics -

1. An absurd "scholarly" record where a faculty panel found that much of his work has been "intentionally plagarized" and fabricated in other ways. Before his fabrications this professor had a mediocre preparation to become a professor and mis-stated his qualifications when he was originally hired.
2. A manufactured identity - claiming to be a Native American but with little or no legitimate evidence of that claim. Evidence that the University where he works hired him for some bizarre affirmative action goal rather than for any long term academic need.
3. A long record of making outrageous and unsubstantiated comments in areas where his perceived scholarly expertise is lacking. His most outrageous remarks, made soon after 9/11 were that the victims were "little Eichmans" - arguing that those killed in the twin towers were somehow similar to the WWII Nazi officer who actively developed and led an effort to deport and exterminate millions of people in Europe."

By any reasonable standard, this professor would never have been hired at a legitimate university. But he was.

His defenders make comments comparing his firing to “an opening wedge in the concerted effort to curb academic freedom and tenure.” (Margaret Le Compte, professor of Education at UC Boulder). The faculty committee, after an extended review of his record decided this professor should be disciplined but the president decided that his actions and record recommended removal.

So what is academic freedom?

In 1994, at the height of speech codes the American Association of University Professors opined against speech codes with the following comment "Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. Universitiesand colleges exist not only to transmit knowledge. Equally, they interpret, explore, and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new."

Academic freedom, at least from what I have learned over my career, encourages professors to pursue ideas without threat of retribution. During the McCarthy period that allowed many on the left to pursue their ideas. But in this era, at least according to Ward Churchill's defenders - academic freedom allows a professor to make absurd and unsubstantiated comments. Academic freedom requires some reasonable level of responsibility and preparation. Mr. Churchill seems to have neither.

In 2000 I was lucky enough to attend a symposium with the Pope, John Paul II. He was speaking to a bunch of academics. He said what is the job of the university? It is to pursue truth. Then he asked what are the potential perils for a university? The first was that it would not pursue truth. The second was that it would pursue "endless meanderings in erudition."

Churchill clearly does not try to pursue truth in any form but his own twisted creation of it. If you take the AAUP definitions of academic freedom or the Holy Father's - either suggests that Mr. Churchill should be dismissed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An interesting twist

The Acton Institute published an excerpt of a monograph by Corinne and Robert Sauer which caught my attention this morning. It is titled "Judaism, Markets, and Capitalism: Separating Myths from Reality." The monograph suggests there are five foundations of what they call Jewish economic theory. I am not Jewish but am interested in markets. The Sauers are professors and founded the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, which is a non-profit ecomonic think tank.

Their five principles are -

1. Work, creative activity, and innovation are the avenues through which the divine image is expressed.
2. Private property rights are essential and must be protected.
3. The accumulation of wealth is a virtue not a vice.
4. Man has an obligation to care for the needy through charitable giving.
5. Government is inefficient and concentrated power is dangerous.

What interested me about the principles - which I believe are a key part of the fabric that writers like Waldemar Neilsen covered in broader works about the nature of the non-profit sector or of other writers who examined why the west developed in the way that it did - is their inter-connectedness. Private property rights are key to the accumulation of wealth. Wealth is related in part to the ability to hold it (private property). But, as Smith reminded us, wealth is not an avenue in itself but rather should be seen as a two edged sword - with both the opportunity and the obligation. Finally, the relationship of charitable giving and the inability of government to accomplish many public functions is also tied together.

The original article can be found at The Acton Institute. Ultimately the five principles influence not only Jewish thought but the broader ranges of Judeo-Christian thought. Obviously, in one strain of Christian thinking the accumulation of wealth was seen in negative terms. But the article articulated some principles that I believe should have much broader application.

Finally, if you look at some of the documents that many economists call their founding ones (Smith, Hume, Bastiat, etc.) the linkage of these five principles pervades a lot of that work. Too bad that many foundational courses in economics do not start from these ideas.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Election Excitement

On Saturday night we were at a birthday dinner celebrating the 60th birthday of two friends. Before we went into dinner, which was lots of fun, we had the chance to speak with a woman who is very excited about the election. She commented that for the first time in a long time there should be reason for hope. The country has a lot of long term problems many of which have been created and perpetuated by the political system. She worried that for too long the country's leaders came from the same elite part of society and were burdened, regardless of party, with the same tired "solutions." But she thought that this election offered exceptional promise to change all that.

Was she supporting Guiliani or Clinton or Obama or Romney? No she is a French national, married to a friend who is an attorney in San Francisco and she was talking about recently elected French president,Nicolas Szarkozy. Our friend discussed with great knowledge the tired ideas that came out of all of Szarkozy's predecessors all of whom, back to almost to DeGaulle, came from the Ecole nationale d'administration.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to have that kind of excitement about the upcoming election?

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Worldly Philospher

"I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history." - That was a BBC interview that started the flap for former President Jimmy Carter.

Here is how he tried to cover his tracks - He said his remarks might have been "careless or misinterpreted." He further tried to cover his tracks by claiming he was not comparing the overall administration and was certainly not talking personally about any president. It is hard to misinterpret Mr. Carter's remarks. But then it is also hard to forget Mr. Carter's record for gaffes of similar dimensions.

In February, Joshua Muravchik, writing for Commentary, described Mr. Carter as our "worst ex-president." Remember this was the guy who ran for governor with the owner of the Pickrick, racist Lester Maddox. He called himself (with his running mate) "basically a redneck." You may also remember that in 1976 Mr. Carter called for raising taxes on every person "above the median income." When some wag pointed out what the median income in the country actually was, he quickly covered with the memorable quip "That is not the median I meant." And this guy was an engineer who allegedly did some work in basic math while studying in the Academy.

His judgment on the quality of leaders is a bit speckled. Yugoslav Dictator Tito was “a man who believes in human rights” but also commented that the "corageous leader" had protected the freedom of the people for 40 years." Among his admired people were Edmund Gierek (Poland's Stalinist - deposed by the Solidarity movement after Carter had been run out of office. ) He also thought highly of Nicolae Ceausescu and Slobodan Milosevic. Muravchik also spends a good deal of time talking about the Georgia peanut farmer's penchant for trying to negotiate deals with dictators like Kim Il Sung. His article did not go into detail of Carter's bizarre quest to certify rigged elections like the one which put Hugo Chavez into absolute control of Venezuela.

So pardon me but I am led to believe a) Mr. Carter has no sense of judgment and b) his assessment on the qualities of world or national leaders is not entirely up to reasonable standards. That does not explain my own feelings about our current president but it does suggest that Mr. Carter should have learned something in the Naval Academy - especially that loose lips sink ships. But then when you are on a mission, those details don't mean much.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rumors and Techland

Last week's gaff by Endgadet caused a stir in the financial markets. For a few hours the blog had posted a note that internal memos showed that Apple had decided to delay introduction of the iPhone. That caused Apple stock to do a slight tumble - which quickly recovered when the rumor proved false.

There seem to be a couple of things going on here. First, the level of excitement for a product which is still about a month out (end of June is the announced date for introduction) is absolutely mind-boggling. That may be caused because there is not much else happening - Vista proved a disappointment and there is simply not a lot of whiz-bang in the pipeline now. But second, it may also set some very unrealistic expectations about the product. From what I saw of the device in January (which is very atypical for Apple to announce a device which at that time had not even received its final approvals - by the way last week it received its FCC approval) it has some very good features. I am not as interested in the iPod integration as I am about the other parts including legitimate web browsing.

By the way, of course I am on the list and have been since the day it was announced. SO I guess you could say I am also part of the frenzy. I used the Newton (that is the picture) and was enthusiastic about that device. The new features of the iPhone seem to have taken up some of the best parts of the Newton and of other devices. I have looked closely at the rest of the market of Smartphones and found all of them wanting. But I may keep my Razr as a back-up phone.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reasons for Optimism

This afternoon was the Rivercats luncheon with the team. We had the opportunity to sit by Lloyd Turner, who is new to the team. Last night he made a dazzling catch and since he came up to AAA ball he has been pretty impressive, at least in the field. Turner was drafted twice (he was first drafted by the Dodgers but decided to pass it up and go to college - Kennesaw State in Georgia) but then was part of the Michael Lewis class which Moneyball is written about. Since then he has played in Midland and in Stockton and Modesto. Since coming up he is 5 for 33 (.152) but has gotten 3 RBIs.

This guy is a thoughtful young man. He is soft spoken - not prone to boast but very committed to his craft. We talked about his desire to get to the bigs and he seems to understand that at this level the difference between one player and the next is heart (he has a lot of it - as he showed in his magnificent catch last night). He also talked about life after baseball - he wants to help kids but obviously that will wait until he gets to the show. It was a fun couple of hours speaking with this fairly new player for the Rivercats - but it was also inspiring.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Fallwell

He died today but his stage had already moved on. The biggots of the right are as bad as the biggots of the left. In the 1980s he and Pat Robertson were the anthesis of Jackson and Sharpton on the left -both groups were prone to make grandious statements in support of their narrow positions. Unfortunately, the main stream media still seems to think Jackson and Sharpton actually represent someone.

Lord Acton was right, Power does corrupt. and Absolutely.

Miguel Cervantes - Feminist

A friend of mine urged me to read Don Quixote in the original Spanish. I am not up to that but I started the book a few days ago - it is well worth the investment. One of the adventures that Quixote and Sancho get involved with is in the burial of a victim of unrequited love. The guy who died of the broken heart was named Chrysostom and the object of his affection was named Marcela. Marcela, we are told, came from a wealthy family and her father said he would allow her to make her choice on whether and who she would marry. And she chose not to marry but to become a goatherd. But Chrysostom pursued her none-the-less. At the start of the chapter we hear a poem from Chrysostom which talks about the horror of his pain in wonderful detail. But then Marcela shows up and asks why should I be blamed because this guy died because I rejected him. She has a great statement which describes the problems she faced for her choices and clearly helps us understand why it is inappropriate for one to blame her for Chrysostom's actions. She says in part " He was persistent in spite of warning, he despaired without being hated. Bethink you now if it be reasonable that his suffering should be laid to my charge. Let him who has been deceived complain, let him give way to despair whose encouraged hopes have proved vain, let him flatter himself whom I shall entice, let him boast whom I shall receive; but let not him call me cruel or homicide to whom I make no promise, upon whom I practise no deception, whom I neither entice nor receive. It has not been so far the will of Heaven that I should love by fate, and to expect me to love by choice is idle. Let this general declaration serve for each of my suitors on his own account, and let it be understood from this time forth that if anyone dies for me it is not of jealousy or misery he dies, for she who loves no one can give no cause for jealousy to any, and candour is not to be confounded with scorn. Let him who calls me wild beast and basilisk, leave me alone as something noxious and evil; let him who calls me ungrateful, withhold his service; who calls me wayward, seek not my acquaintance; who calls me cruel, pursue me not; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, cruel, wayward being has no kind of desire to seek, serve, know, or follow them. If Chrysostom's impatience and violent passion killed him, why should my modest behaviour and circumspection be blamed? If I preserve my purity in the society of the trees, why should he who would have me preserve it among men, seek to rob me of it?"

Quixote mixes the absurd and the substantive in wonderful ways. I am really enjoying the book.

Digital Photo Review goes to Amazon

On Monday it was announced that the the best site on the net for reviews of digital photos has been sold to Amazon. Some intrepid webizens have worried that the Dpreview standards will be compromised.

From my point of view, we should take a breath and look forward to this new era. Digital Photo Review was started as a hobby site. I have used it almost from the beginning and find its reviews to be consistently excellent. I cannot tell how many people I have sent to the site for their primers on digital photography. But why would Amazon want to compromise that record in any way? Do their book reviews lead people to only a small set of books? Ultimately Amazon is about selling products, the better they get at consumer services the more products they will sell. The founder of Dpreview viewed the acquisition in this way -
"We've worked very hard over the last eight years to deliver consistently high quality content to our readers", founder Phil Askey said. "It will be fantastic to be able to expand and build on that without compromising our quality or independence. With the support and resources of Amazon we can achieve this."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Problem Solved

One of the problems for many audio listeners is the conversion of vinyl to MP3. We have tons of records that are wonderful and out of print. I would love to have them in MP3. Last week when I was down visiting the new president of Caltech I had lunch with a couple of friends, right before the meeting, and one told me about something called the ION USB turntable.

Walt Mossberg reviewed this a year or so ago and was not entirely satisfied. I am not sure whether they have upgraded the software or whether he was too harsh - but I spent about an hour installing the software and tweaking the settings and then was able to record a bunch of songs I had not heard before. The turntable can be used with any standard audio system (with RCA inputs) or directly into the computer. For $100 bucks (a special price at Costco online last week with shipping) it sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Bubbles Burst

During the last two years of my undergraduate degree I worked for a stock brokerage. One of the requirements for young potential traders then was to read a "classic" called Extraordinary Popular Delusions on the Madness of Crowds. One of the delusions in the book was about tulipmania when the 17th Century Dutch supposedly went gaga over tulip bulbs and destroyed or at least maimed their economy in this wild speculation.

In today's Financial Times a book is reviewed ,Tulipmania, which debunks at least part of the story. It turns out that the speculative bubble was nowhere as pervasive as the Delusions book had argued and thus the eventual crash had only a minor effect on the Dutch economy.

There are two questions here. First, what should we say about speculative bubbles from learning that one of the most prominent is inaccurate? The story of how the bubble developed, regardless of its total impact, seems to be about right. So the cautions offered by Delusions are a good guide for anyone interested in investments. Benjamin Graham in his legendary book on security analysis suggested that any investment should be viewed with careful analytical eyes.

The second question is equally important. How do we protect ourselves against "intellectual bubbles?" In the literature on public goods (how things get put into the public sector) there are a heap of comments about things that cannot be priced. The leading example of that is the constant reference to lighthouses. The argument went like this - it is impossible to stop a ship passing a lighthouse and so this is obviously a good which cannot be priced and therefore a good example of something which needs to be provided by government. The argument went back to John Stuart Mill, if not before. The only problem was it was wrong. Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase thought about that line of logic at one point and so did the research on the subject. Coase published an article in the Journal of Law and Economics (Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Oct., 1974), pp. 357-376) actually did the research and found that contrary to simple logic, indeed, there are plenty of examples of pricing the services of lighthouses by following ship records. If a ship in some venues were expected to pass a point, based on its trade route, it could be assessed a fee. That seems like a small point but when you begin to think about pricing goods like lighthouses, it becomes less convincing to move all sorts of other things into the public sector. That is a simple but important point and Mr. Coase was smart enough to help all of us think a bit more clearly.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Whistling in the Dark

The post yesterday about AOL's CEO Parsons comments about the old and new media seems to have generated, either directly or indirectly, a couple of articles that follow up on the issue raised by Parsons. The first is in today's LA Times and is a debate between a professor of communications at University of Illinois and Glenn Reynolds, who is a law professor at UT (Tennessee) but more importantly the motive force behind Instapundit and a whole bunch of other blogging enterprises. The Times article was titled "Where's the paper; What will be the first major American city without a daily newspaper?"

Professor McChesney mentions a book publisher who argued that all print stuff would go digital by 2002. His premise is that "all media are gravitating toward digital standards, but it will not happen evenly across all media sectors or overnight." Well, duh! Professor McChesney also argues that papers will survive when they do a better job at publishing local news. (In this case, one would presume that he means an expanded notion of local that might include news specific to a community - so the WSJ does a pretty good job.) Indeed, if you look at the market area for the LA Times, the LAT has been losing circulation while a chain of local papers (called the Surburban papers) has been picking up steam - their skill is covering local areas like the South Bay of LA through what used to be a throw away paper called the Daily Breeze.

Professor McChesney also makes an analogy to Shaq - while not the superstar of yesterday he is still pretty important. Reynolds makes the comment that he wished that anybody in the MSM could "play the game." I do not think that any responsible person (and Reynolds is very responsible) have argued (and he does not in his counterpoint) that the MSM is going away immediately nor does Reynolds dispute McChesney's contention that the effects will not be the same in all areas. But both writers recognize a significant and continuing decline of the news business.

On today there is an article about declining TV ratings. About 2.5 million fewer people are watching the big four (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox - and one should also include CNN) than last year. People are shudder making up their own schedules. CNN suggests that some observers have blamed this on Daylight Savings Time. I think it is a bit more simple. When people have choices, they make them. When TIVO first came into the marketplace I was at a party for a friend of my aunt in North Carolina. When I went up to wish her a happy 95 birthday she said "You're from California, that is a place where that TIVO is made and that allows you to "watch TV the way YOU want to" - if she could get it why can't the MSM?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I wonder what Mr. Parsons has been smoking

In a Reuters article today, Richard Parsons, the head of Time Warner and arguably one of the "brains" behind the Time Warner takeover of AOL (remember the original deal was the other way round but Parsons then worked for AOL) said the new media better not take on the old media. Coverage of a panel at the 56th annual National Cable & Telecommunications Association conference had Parsons caliming that "The Googles of the world, they are the Custer of the modern world. We are the Sioux nation," Oh, really now. What happened to AOL's market share when Mr. Parsons was running that shop? More importantly what has happened to Time and some of the other "rich" franchises of the Time-Warner enterprise under his watch? In case Mr. Parsons has forgotten his history (as he seems to have in the Custer example) I have reprinted the stock chart for AOL-Time Warner since the merger in 2000. Does the hill at the mark of the merger look at all like Little Big Horn? Mr. Parsons should be a bit more careful about his history both about his own stewardship of Time Warner (which has been less than examplary) and also of the history of the Sioux nation. One thing for sure, the Battle of Little Big Horn was of immense immediate importance and of lesser importance as time went on.

A fundamental issue facing the old media is their inability to respond in a reasonable manner to all of the new challenges produced by the new media. Has the new media found an economic model that will work in all situations? Not yet. But are they further along than companies stuck in the last century? Absolutely. The top chart in the post is Google's from its initial public offering, it gives a better picture than Mr. Parsons of what has been happening since Parsons helped AOL jump into the old media business.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Opening Day in California

Trout season opened in California last weekend and we chose to look around for fish on the lower truckee. The day was wonderful. The weather was fine. There was very little snow. But then the fish were also exceptionally cagey. The only people who were catching anything where we were fishing were the spin casters who were using bait. Even with that disappointment, it was worth the trip.

What passes for common sense....

An AP story about former president Clinton's appearance at Harvard said the following: "disasters such as worldwide famine and an obesity epidemic threaten the country's stability unless politicians begin to look ahead and cooperate." How the former president tied together obesity and famine is beyond me but there is a larger story.

The story went on to say that the Kennedy School, which is Harvard's school of government/public administration - is "spending $1.5 million over two years to study why governments across the world have failed to act on threats such as heat waves and hurricanes, even when they know they are coming." They might want to look to the literature of Public Choice Economics and not do all that research.

For example, Gordon Tullock, one of the two founders of the field, wrote an article some time ago called the Theory of Public Bads. In 1954 Richard Musgrave wrote a paper which is considered seminal in the field which tried to define something called public goods. Musgrave was a renowned scholar on public finance. When I was doing my doctorate that paper and his text on public were required reading. Unfortunately, Musgrave's theory was prone to expansionism. While the orginal paper limited the class, his other writings were a bit more excited about ways to extend the provision of activities through the public sector. Most of his writings made a, what seems to me somewhat naive assumption, that when something moves into government the risks of negative externalities (or consequences) was somewhat reduced. Tullock argued that a lot of the literature on public goods assumed no negative consequences from governmental actions - and thus we should besides looking at the good that could be created from governmental action that we should also look at the potential problems.

I would suggest that Harvard could profitably spend some of its time looking at the role of self-interested behavior in governmental decisions. Many of what seem to be odd or negligent decisions in government come about because self interest is not parked at the door - as writers like Musgrave seemed to implicitly believe.