Friday, November 30, 2007

A troubling development

When the Mexican Election took place in 2006 a key reason that the right result was not over-turned was the head of the Independent Election Commission, Luis Carlos Ulgalde. Ulgalde was one of those rare public officials who stood true to his responsibilities in a very difficult situation. But over the last several months the political parties in Mexico have mounted an effort to reduce the independence of the agency. Ulgalde resigned from his position this week and made an impassioned speech which worried that the process that the parties put in place would destroy the hard won democratic gains that have been happening in Mexico over the last two administrations.

In El Financiero he was quoted as saying "Las sillas de las burocracias no son las que miden las congruencias de los hombres" (The chairs of the bureaucracies are not those that show the measure of men). All three of the major parties played in this scheme for various reasons. But the clear winner here seems to be the PRD - the party that lost the close election in 2006.

This "reform" of the IFE will substitute positional representatives for a legal structure that has served Mexico well. It is troubling that some would try to undermine the system which has worked. In these situations I am always reminded of Roscoe Conkling's comments about reform (quoted previously but worth quoting again) "Those who fear the attraction that patriotism has for scalawags and scofflaws, have not noticed the clarion call of reform." I wonder if Mr. Ulgalde (who did a PdD at Columbia) ever encountered the work of Senator Conkling (who held the seat now held by Mrs. Clinton and who resigned when he lost the patronage power of his office as a result of the adoption of the Pendleton Act).

Senior Citizens Homes and Resorts

For most of this week I was in Huatulco at the Quinta Real. It is a stunning resort. Very relaxing. The rooms are wonderful. The beach is as good as I remember it. The food is well done. And on Monday through Thursday at this time of the year it was relatively uncrowded.

I was there to collaborate on a book I am doing with a friend from Mexico. We got a lot done. But I was struck with one thing. Each night they leave you a card with a couple of chocolates on it which has a phrase of the day - something witty. But it also presents the day of the week in three languages. On Wednesday morning I remembered that I had seen a similar set of notifications, without the chocolates, in two other places - preschools and senior citizens homes. Both of those are trying to get their students/residents to get into thinking about time. In a place like the Quinta Real - that is also a problem - but a great one to have.

I was last in Huatulco about a decade ago. At that time there was only one major hotel in the bay. It was a good hotel and we thought it was worth coming back to but for a lot of reasons we never came back. Now there are several good hotels in the area - the Quinta Real is clearly the best - but there is a Spanish chain and then a couple of others. One night we went to a restaurant in the old part of the city which was pretty good. One night we also went to dinner at a place that I remembered with different owners but is now called Don Porfirio. Service and food were very good.

I have never bothered to travel to the major Mexican beach locations because I can see Americans in the US. When I met with the then governor of Oaxaca the first time I went he said it was his plan to have a resort which was typically Mexican - not another Cancun. From my couple of days there this week I think that dream was realized.

The Quinta Real is far from a senior citizens place in spite of the daily reminders about where you are in the week. It has 28 rooms - so service is personal. Each of the rooms is appointed with some interesting chairs and other furnishing. The pools and the beach are relaxing. The two major pools cascade into each other and give you a good view of the bay.


Yesterday while waiting for a plane in Mexico City I had lunch with two friends. One had a baked potato which was very large and said this is a "papa grande." I observed, no it is an "abuelo" (Grandfather).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Homeric Myths and You

I was having breakfast with a friend in Huatulco this morning and discussing my thoughts about No Country for Old Men and my friend reminded me that the outlines of the story of the movie are indeed one of the tales from Homer's Odyssey. Those who know the other work of the Cohen Brothers understand that O Brother also had links to the classic tale including some clever recreations of key characters. The gift in the Homer tale is also dual edged and looks good but brings with it evil.

I am not sure that the Cohen Brothers used this as a theme but it sure seemed to fit.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

CGS and Prop 93

The Center for Governmental Studies released a report on the proposed change in the California Term Limits Law - "Termed Out: Reforming California's Legislative Term Limits" takes a very balanced perspective.

For example, it suggests that it would improve legislative expertise and practice to allow members to serve their entire term in one house. Although the report also notes that only a few people have served out the whole cycle of 14 years under the current standard.

On the other hand it discovers the loophole which will allow more than a third of current members to continue to serve beyond their original limit.

Perhaps the most important finding is that the report did not consider the current law "significantly dysfunctional" although it did suggest that allowing members to serve a longer time in one house would be beneficial.

Not surprisingly both sides spun the report to their advantage - but the report itself is worth reading - it is a careful balanced study.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Movies and the National Psyche

Last night we saw No Country for Old Men, the new Cohen Brothers movie based on a Cormac McCarthy novel. It is a very compelling story, although very violent. The performances by Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin are exceptional. The story is of a Vietnam veteran who is out hunting in west Texas and encounters a scene of a bloody shootout but also finds a suitcase with lots of dough in it. Brolin (the vet) and Bardem then spend the rest of the film trying to catch each other. Bardem's character is a sociopath and seems to kill people for random reasons. Tommy Lee Jones reprises his lawman role but with some interesting new wrinkles. The whole movie turns on a device that Bardem's character uses twice in the film - "flip a coin, pick the side and if you pick the wrong side I kill you." In the end Bardem's character gets away only to be caught in his own bad luck.

Earlier in the week I had rented Bedtime for Bonzo on Netflix. Bedtime for Bonzo has no deep psychological underpinning. It is the story of a college professor who attempts, in order to put himself in better with the college dean - who is also the father of his fiance - by raising a chimpanzee as a child. It is an entertaining movie in the same way that Leave it to Beaver was entertaining. In the end the professor falls for the Nanny, the college is saved and he and the nanny go off in their Ford convertible with the chimp in the back seat.

But last night at dinner I wondered a bit about the two messages in the movies. No Country for Old Men seems to suggest that life is simply based on luck. Bonzo has an underlying theme of hard work pays off. I wonder how much movies of the day are metaphors for the then current national psyche. Clearly a lot of people in society today believe in the overwhelming power of luck. And just as clearly, a lot of people in the 1950s and 1960s thought hard work would pay off.

That does not mean that every movie should be the light fluff of Bonzo. But the message of No Country is at least in my opinion a negative long term message - if people are told that life is all about luck - why bother to strive?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Different conclusions

The Bee has a couple of columnists that write on politics. Those include Dan Weintraub who is consistently one of the most thoughtful writers on California politics in the state. But it also includes a guy named Steve Wiegand who fancies himself a humorist. This morning's column took seven Novembers and compared population, minimum wage, state problems and deficits. This was one of Wiegand's best columns. But I am not sure I took the same conclusion he offered. (Actually he seemed to ofer two - first, the state has lived through a series of problems over the last 60 years but second the minimum wage has not kept pace with a normal economic deflator during the same period. But as seen from the chart above there is one other inescapable conclusion.

In 1947 the state had slightly under 10 million residents (beginning the post WWII population boom), a minimum wage of $.65 (which he estimates to be equivalent of $6.01 in 2007 dollars), a budget of $772 million (Equivalent of $7.1 billion today) and an awakening awareness of air pollution. Wiegand then goes through Goodwin Knight ($14 billion budget equivalent for 14 million people); Ronald Reagan ($31.5 billion equivalent budget for 19.5 million people); Jerry Brown ($39.5 billion equivalent budget for 22 million people); George Deukmejian ($59.6 billion equivalent budget for 27.8 million people), Pete Wilson ($68 billion budget for 32.3 million people) and Arnold Schwarzenegger ($102.8 billion budget for 37.8 million people).

The chart translates Wiegand's numbers and arrays them as to per capita expenditures and held constant by an economic deflator. Over the sixty years per capita expenditures for state government have increased almost four fold at the same time that the perceptions about government have declined by similar proportions. Remember that the California of the 1950s and 1960s was considered to have one of the best education systems in the country. We were credited as being one of the best places in the country to live. That time also saw significant growth in public support for infrastructure. Our higher education system was unmatched and our growth in college attendance was about to pay massive dividends in terms of economic growth. The problems in 2007 suggest a lot less self confidence, lower college attendance rates and a perception of a deteriorating infrastructure. It is clear from the numbers above that we have not starved the public sector.

Things I don't get

This morning we are flying to LA to visit my wife's mother and our daughter and her new husband. We actually believed the news reports so got to the airport early. It was a joke - no lines.

But recently the A terminal in Sacramento has been sporting charging stations for electronic devices. These dandy little stations allow you to charge your cellphone, iPod, laptop or other battery powered device for 30 minutes for $3. It is supposedly a quick charger. The Chargecarte has stations for different types of devices.

I am sure franchises are available. In many airports it is harder and harder to find an outlet. But I just don't think this "innovation" will catch on. What do you do - connect your device and then sit there for half an hour while it is charging? Or do you walk away and hope your iPod will be there when you get back?

Also in the airport the bookstore was selling a dictionary. Is that for people who want to improve their vocabulary before they get to San Diego or for the person learning the language who wants 22 new words before getting to Portland?

As I said at the start, I don't get it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Athletic Innumeracy

As I was driving home this evening I was listening to Mike Gallagher. He discussed a new program for the Dallas Cowboys. They have conned Arlington Texas into building them a new stadium. But they are now foisting a new program to sell 30 year leases to season ticket holders for prices between $16,000 and $50,000 per seat. Gallagher estimated that the net yield for that would be a couple of billion dollars ($33,000 times 80,000). This publicly funded turkey is now estimated to cost more than $1 billion in support. Arlington voters approved the increase of the city's sales tax by one-half of a percent, the hotel occupancy tax by 2 percent, and car rental tax by 5 percent. The owner of the Cowboys has said he will pay for anything over the $325 million that the voters approved with all those new taxes. But then come the ticket fees. Yielding $2.6 billion, those fees would then help to line the pockets of the owners. Gallagher also claimed that the cost of season tickets would double.

The voters should have said no. So should the current season ticket holders.

PIRGing free speech on campus

A federal appeals court struck a blow for sanity in a decision yesterday which rejects a financing mechanism for something on campus called the Public Interest Research Groups. (PIRGs) The PIRGS were an offshoot of the Nader organization and began in the 1970s with a left wing agenda that included a phony survey of members of congress. I was working for a member from Michigan who decided, not knowing their agenda, to answer their survey honestly only to find the results distorted in favor of his opponent. PIRGs soon figured out that the way to fund their agenda was to sponsor student referenda where only a small minority voted and then claim mandatory student fees to run their left of center campaigns.

But in a case decided on about those facts at SUNY Albany, the court rejected the notion of this kind of tax for the left. In 2000 the Supreme Court said that at least for public colleges and universities mandatory fees had to be available to represent a variety of points of view - exactly what a university should represent. If the public colleges levied mandatory fees for speech those fees had to respect the First Amendment.

The universities could still adopt programs for PIRG or any other fringe group and make them voluntary but it is unlikely that those fees would generate a lot of support. A representative of NY PIRG said the ruling was an "unfortunate one for the freedom of student governments to hear from their students." She also claimed that PIRG's real purpose was job experience. “What we bring to campus is an opportunity for students to get real life experience, things that put them in a better position to get better jobs because they have already participated in a news conference, or done field study, or bringing to life the stuff they are learning in their campuses,” Yeah, right. Perhaps this "student" should go back to class and do a bit more booking on the First Amendment.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Life of Blogs

In May of 2006 I wrote a post about a fight at Gaulludet University. I made the comment that I thought the histrionics about the choice of a president were mired in political correctness. That set of posts generated a lot of commentary and page views. Now, almost a year and a half later I got an anonymous post (I really do wish people would be willing to post with an identity). It argues that the issue is really about self determination and not political correctness. I am posting the response separately, because, while I disagree with the conclusion, I think it is well stated.

The anonymous poster says - "I know this is already a dated issue but I wanted to chime in. You've cleverly crafted this issue as one of 'political correctness' above all else. The core of the issue for the Gaulaudet community is very different. For the Deaf, this is an issue of culture and self-determination. Unlike other disabled people who are hearing and therefore *naturally* integrated into mainstream society, the Deaf are separated lingusistically from mainstream society. It would take an entire book on cognitive psychology and linguistics to explain all the ramifications but the short version is that the Deaf are uniquely situated to both form and require their own culture and language - which they have done in the USA. When 90% of pre-lingually deaf children are born to hearing families, they are usually cut off from their cultural heritage unless unusual circumstances intervene. Surrounded by hearing people most of their lives, deaf children are given subtle and non-too-subtle messages that they are intellectually defective from a young age. What is happening is that the hearing culture around them says, essentially "we are too inconvenienced by YOUR linguistics needs that we will force you to bend to our way. We won't even meet you half way. Sucks to be you!" Lucky children so situated find their way to deaf residential schools where they are quite literally set free from this constant stream of negative messages. Finally they see Deaf adults who are educated and professionally active. Finally they meet other Deaf children and the sense of isolation and 'defectiveness' begins to subside. Gaulaudet university is the only university in the world where the entire format is (mostly) by the Deaf and for the Deaf on their terms. This not to say that Deaf folks are universally unwelcoming to hearing people, hard-of-hearing people, late-deafened people, etc. It's just that they want leaders, policy-makers and role-models to 'get it' in their gut the way only born-deaf and early-deaf persons can. Late deafened people will sometimes learn ASL (American Sign Language) as an adaptive strategy and, much less commonly, make the culturaly shift into Deaf society. More often than not such persons persist in viewing themselves as someone who has become defective, has a lack and the lack of self-esteem and accomplishment that follows. It's exactly those persons that the Deaf do NOT want in leadership positions. So yes, this is a political issue but NOT in the way you have chosen to frame it. "

The gulf which anonymous explains is one which I have experienced. I have had deaf students in classes that I teach and it takes some additional effort to be able to assure that they can make a contribution to the class. I also have a friend at the gym I work out at who is deaf. He is an SC alum and an ardent Trojan. We are able to communicate because both of us work at it - although I will admit I am not very good at it. Ultimately, I am in full agreement with the idea of self determination. But I also believe that any group needs to be viewed in the larger society not as a separate group but integrated into the normal flow of life. That is an idea should always be worked on and which cannot always be assured.

My concern about the fights in this community is similar to the ones which divide other communities. But as a result of the comments from Anon I also realize that there are still people in society who want to separate the deaf in negative ways. This is not an easy issue. But I believe that it is also not one which is limited to the fight in choosing a president at Gaulludet or in a wide range of other institutions.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Uses of the iPhone

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution had a wonderful gift set of suggestions about Christmas gifts. The best was for a gadget - "I still use my iPhone almost every day and I can no longer imagine not having one. Mostly I surf web sites and blogs while waiting in lines, or read email. I've yet to make a phone call with it. "

As another iPhone user, I do that too but I also use it to make a lot of calls. The conference calling feature and visual voice mail are worth the price alone.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Understanding the issue of costs from a politician's perspective

As I was traveling back from the east today I thought for a while about the parallels between the discussions in the current House debates about college costs and the broader discussions in California and the nation about health care costs. In both instances the politicians are confusing cost and price - but in reality they are a bit different in each instance.

There are four key terms in relation to the college cost issue, as pointed out by the National Commission on College Costs in 1997 (on which I served). They are Cost (the actual expenditures made to keep the college open), Price (what parents and students see as the sticker price), Subsidy (money that goes to every student, some of it based on financial need and some not based on financial need) and Net Price (the difference between Price and Subsidy - different for almost every student). Over almost any period of time the cost of college has gone up at a rate that is higher than the underlying rate of inflation. There are lots of reasons for that (and some of them are good). But if you look at the net price for needy students that has remained relatively constant. There is one other issue going on that is related to state governments. In recent years, almost across the board, legislatures have decided that the level of subsidy going to all students should be diminished. That changes the price that students pay but it has nothing to do with college costs. As noted above in California the net price for students with financial need has been held constant.

In health care issues there is a constant chatter about the rising cost of health care. And if you look at the data - at least as a percentage of GDP - we are paying a greater percentage of our GDP to health care than we did a few decades ago. That has lead many politicians to decry the increasing costs of health care. But we are not buying the same market basket of goods and services that we once did.

In both higher education and health care consumers are insulated from the true costs. When you buy a car, or a loaf of bread you can get a pretty good idea of the costs (Costs + Profit = Price) but in the case of health care and higher education that is much harder to do. In health care a high percentage of workers have some kind of insurance coverage which blunts the price effect in two ways - first, their premiums are deducted from their paychecks so they may miss how much their coverage costs. And second, there is little relationship between the co-pays they are asked to bear and the actual cost of delivery. The stories of $100 aspirin on a bill in a hospital are legendary.

In higher education it is even more complex. As the National Cost Commission found, no student pays the full price of higher education. All students receive a generalized subsidy either paid for by the taxpayer or by endowments or both. Some students also receive a grant based on need or talent. Clearly, higher education could do better on its cost structures. The decision process in universities is complex and not prone to much care about costs. Parents and students demand amenities (gyms and internet to name two) which add to the problem.

But even with the complexity the politician's role here is not to think about costs. There is a uniformly negative response in the economics literature to price controls (which despite that politicians seem to often embrace). Ultimately what politicians seem to want to do is one of two responses. (Both of them negative to the long term sanity on either issue.) The first is to try to allow one group to bear a smaller percentage of the prices in the market. Some of that may be based on a theory of equity. The second response is to simply make a political calculation about shifting the costs borne by consumers to another group. In the California debates about health care the prices borne by some consumers would have been shifted to the doctors and hospitals through a tax (called a fee but it was a tax).

A recent ad in California on the health care issue is a good example of the level of discussion - the seemingly middle class speaker says "I cannot afford to get full health care coverage" - one wonders why the car makers have not done a similar ad with him asking to drive a Lexus rather than a Ford.

So how do you solve the problems here? I think there are three basic responses that need to be tried a lot more. The first is transparency. We should figure ways to allow consumers to understand the true cost of health and higher education in an easier way. That might require some basic changes. For example, one could see some significant changes in whether the cost of health insurance is included in the base of income (now it is not). Second, we should have an explicit discussion about equity in the system. One function of government is to improve the setting for the least well off in society. The third is to quit yammering about costs. Ultimately with better transparency and a clearer definition of who should receive an equity compensation paid for by taxpayers, costs will begin to sort out relatively quickly.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Imperial Nonsense

The LA Times carried a story today about a member of the California Board of Equalization today and his relationship to a foundation which his wife serves as an employee. The Pacific Policy Research Foundation collected a lot of dough from a series of corporations which have issues before the board. The PPRF seems to have had one function for those donations - that is to organize a conference in Maui (afterall that is in the Pacific) which the Board Member (Bill Leonard) attended. Were the corporate contributions to have come as campaign money there would be a limit - but because these are "charitable" there is not a limit. The organization seems to have had two employees - a former member of the State Assembly (who quipped "I do not know where the conflict is." and Leonard's wife. Almost anyone who looks at this would have the same reaction to this activity as to the revelations that a member of congress (John Doolittle) used his wife as a fund-raiser who then pocketed 15% of all that was raised for his campaign. Doolittle made the same outrageous claim about that conflict. In either case it would be good for the elected official to think a bit about the appearance here. But beyond the appearance here someone else should think about the substance.

Quick Thoughts on the Coming Election

We are a bit less than a year from the 2008 election and I am struck with a couple of things.

First, the Hillary inevitability syndrome. In recent weeks we have seen all of the following - (besides the Stiglitz article discussed previously): 1) An attack piece from the New Republic on the Bush presidency which makes a series of charges but fails to call him the devil incarnate. 2) A series of rants from Paul Krugman which sound a lot like he has been taking mind-altering drugs. His most amusing one came in a NYT piece today where he said (in part) "But the “everyone” who knows that Social Security is doomed doesn’t include anyone who actually understands the numbers. In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided.", 3) A major misstep by Hillary in the 3856th debate in which she said she was both for and against immigrant driver licenses followed quickly by a plunge by NY Gov. Elliott Spitzer from high numbers to Bushlike ones. Followed by a couple of articles ranging from Peter Brown (assistant director of the Quinnipac poll) to Dan Walters (a Sacramento Bee Political Corrrespondent) who compared immigration to affirmative action. 5) A revelation that last night's debate was done with CNN pre-planned questions and a bizarre after debate where Clintonista James Carville was introduced in a way that would make one wonder whether he had made an endorsement in this election and then allowing a series of comments he made about the other democrat candidates to go unchallenged.

Second, on the GOP side quick endorsements of Paul Weyrich and Pat Robertson that at least some people thought were a bit strange. A slew of stories about this our that peccadillo from this or that GOP candidate.

What struck me was that a) the election is not at all decided and that b) if Hillary is nominated (and I believe she will be) she could slip up (even though all of the commentators suggest how "disciplined" she is (talk about discipline and then listening to the prattle she handed out on driver's licenses is a bit of a disconnect) but c) the GOP is also a rocky place to be (it seems that no one likes anyone) and d) that the voters are likely to be even grumpier when the actual election comes to pass.

Finally, the consultants who foisted this long campaign on us may get more fees by extending their role - but that will not make for a happy or engaged electorate. I grew immediately tired of OJ and Anna Nicole Smith - but I can see the same thing happening from the discussion of this campaign.

The Role of POA

I have been in North Carolina today working on my Aunt's estate. It meant meeting with attorneys, bankers, accountants and brokers and then thinking about how to find a bunch of records to make sure that things can work for my remaining Aunt but also so that we can assure a minimum of hassle. The real truth about holding a power of attorney is the ability to create and use paper (paper over almighty) - the forms that I have had to execute with each of the providers I am working with are mind-boggling.

There were two highlights today. The first was in the bank. I emptied both lock boxes for my Aunts and found in them the following - copies of their birth certificates (both were born in New York - one Aunt's birth was recorded 7 days after her birth the other's only four - although she was the one who was deemed less healthy. No height and weight on the certificate.), a deed to the house they have lived in since 1922 and a bunch of other insurance papers - most of which are no longer in force.

The second was when I visited with my remaining Aunt. One of the visits scheduled later in the day was with a guy who I have had conflicts with - I am not sure he is the best professional in the world. My Aunt cautioned me to be pleasant as "he was born stupid and that is not his fault." We had a good visit but her advice was well said - and was taken.

More on this later.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Learning at the University of Delaware

U Duh has just withdrawn a training manual for student life assistants which included the following definitions(with these it is a wonder that they would have ever used this idiotic pap):

A RACIST: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture, or sexuality. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists . . .

A NON-RACIST: A non-term. The term was created by whites to deny responsibility for systemic racism, to maintain an aura of innocence in the face of racial oppression, and to shift responsibility for that oppression from whites to people of color (called “blaming the victim”) . . .

This was based on an earlier manual 1995 defined Race as "a specious classification of human beings created by Europeans(Whites) which assigns human worth and social status using "white" as the model of humanity and the height of human achievement for the purpose of establishing privilege and power." Indeed, in the scientific literature there is a lot of discussion about what race actually means. But if the developer of this curriculum thinks it is a "specious classification" then presumably she would also argue that the provisions in the Federal Civil Rights Act are also specious. I doubt that would be the case.

The "curriculum" was developed by one Shakti Butler whose PhD is from Ph.D. the California Institute of Integral Studies San Francisco, CA ( School of Transformative Learning and Integral Studies) (and one wonders why California has such renown around the country). From her own website Dr. Butler is described thusly "Dr. Butler is the producer and director of the groundbreaking documentary, THE WAY HOME . The video serves as a model for dialogue that sets the context for constructive conversations on oppression through the lens of race. Her work moves conversations beyond black and white and speaks to the interconnectedness of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia."

One wonders how Butler indoctrination. It might be like this: INDOCTRINATION: Only applicable when European ideas are being presented.

Vanity Fair's Contribution to the Political Monologue

Joe Stiglitz starts out his harangue on the Bush Administration thusly "When we look back someday at the catastrophe that was the Bush administration..." He then goes on to argue that the Bush administration would somehow be worse than Hoover's in its economic policies. All of that nonsense can be refuted (easily) somewhere else. But one comment in his article caught my attention. He comments "But the other side of the ledger groans with distress: a tax code that has become hideously biased in favor of the rich."

I am not sure what Stiglitz uses for data here but I would be interested in seeing what he did use to come to that conclusion. During the Bush Administration the burden borne by the top half percent of taxpayers has gone up. Ditto for the top five percent. I am not sure how you bias a tax code in favor of the rich in Stiglitz's notions but increasing their net overall contribution would not be one of them.

But then Stiglitz is also a bit hazy on other facts too. For example he comments that "Once Franklin Roosevelt assumed office and reversed Hoover’s policies, the country began to recover. " That is true only if you waited more than a decade. As discussed earlier, most economists who have looked at the data understand that many of Roosevelt's policies were counterproductive to recovery. There is a good case to be made that the policy which took us out of the depression was not the New Deal but WWII. That was hardly a New Deal initiative.

Remember that Stiglitz served as an economics guru for the Clinton administration. He mentions in passsing the failures of the Clinton administration but throws them off to the influence of special interests - "We fell short because of politics and lack of money—and also, frankly, because special interests sometimes shaped the agenda more than they should have. " Perhaps the role of the special interests is in direct proportion to the level of governmental activity (reduce special interests by reducing the size of government)- but that would not be a conclusion which Stiglitz would buy.

Stiglitz's analysis is stunning for its oddity. For example "The soaring price of oil is clearly related to the Iraq war." I guess then the increasing price of steel and cement is also "clearly related to the Iraq war." What nonsense. Commodity prices are related to a lot of things including uncertainty in the world but a good deal of the changes have come about from the growth in demand in China and other developing areas.

This piece will be red meat (if that is not politically incorrect for the crowd that reads Vanity Fair) for partisans against Mr. Bush. But in my mind it falls short for a wider audience. Clearly, even for conservatives, there have been failings in this administration. Bush's inability to dampen spending and his inability to effectively build coalitions for many of his projects are two of the most important. But Stiglitz is unable to conceive some of the positives of this administration. From most observers the situation in Iraq seems to be improving. The deficit is dropping quickly. We have weathered some mighty economic storms in pretty good fashion. A more balanced look at Bush would have discussed some of those things. But that clearly was not the purpose of the article.

Vanity Fair seems to be a great place for Stiglitz to bloviate. The vanity is certainly right and while Stiglitz's discussion is not fair in the sense of balanced, even as a polemicist he is only fair. With the sputtering that the left has been doing recently I wonder whether they are trying to convince themselves that they are invincible or simply to add to the level of political discussion. On the latter, I think they are falling short. At the end of his rant he credits two people for their assistance in "research" for the article. Perhaps, Stiglitz, who is currently a professor at Columbia, should take a bit more care with his research. But then the purpose of this article was not to think about policy issues or even the current setting but to create a campaign piece. Even there he falls short, but then who actually reads Vanity Fair?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Remembering Paul Reese

The Sacramento Bee had a great article this morning on an icon of the Sacramento running community named Paul Reese. In the early 1970s I first met Paul at the founding of the largest club in the area - the Buffalo Chips (I was the second president or "high dunger" of the group.) The Bee quoted Paul's idea of a flat race (one which had equal up and down components) and indeed one of the first races I met him at was in Lake Wildwood. I was conned into running it because it only had a couple of hills - turned out that the net was not large but the increments of up and down were.

What has struck me several times about my memories of Paul was how low key he was. At the time that I started running (which was well after him) it was still pretty primative. Gatorade had not been invented. Shoes were not "engineered." I remember in one 50 miler having a long discussion with Paul about the appropriate food and drink to consume along the way. I favored a concoction which had lemon juice, tomato juice, honey and aspirin in it. But we would trade tips. There was an almost pioneer spirit in the process.

When Paul turned 65 he wanted to run the Western States 100 under 24 hours. So a group of us agreed to pace him through the race. The picture above is of the finish line with Paul the one listing to the left. He carried a fanny pack to run between the mandatory rest stations which carried his false teeth - they were just too "damned much trouble" to have in between the stations.

Paul started a race called the Pepsi 20 - it was before the days of marathons and was normally run around the time of Thanksgiving Weekend. He had a strict rule - a T-shirt to anyone who broke 2 hours. That was about it. There was some free soda but no big prizes. The shirt was among the proudest parts of my running attire (I think I eventually got 2). The Pepsi had all the characteristics of a local race. The first one was to go from Burbank High School (where Paul taught) to Woodland and was won by a guy who had the good sense to run about a mile out of his way. When the lead pack got to the crossing of the river, the bridge they were supposed to use was up - one guy figured out that he could go up the road a bit to another bridge cross and then get back on the course. He did that and beat everyone else. When I was running the Pepsi it was held out in the country roads near Clarksburg. Pepsi offered some prizes but this was not a fancy event - it was for runners. When Paul eventually turned the management of the race over to another person, that person went out and got sponsors and other things and the race lost its character.

Paul also planned the inaugural Lake Tahoe Run in 1976. That race started in Tahoe City and did one lap around the lake. (72 1/2 miles) Paul had a devilish sense of humor so right at the start (at 6 AM) he said to all of us, be sure not to look to your left (to see the lake). I remember at about mid-day on the Nevada side looking back across the lake to see Tahoe City almost a marathon away and starting a hill of immense proportions (another flat course) and thinking - how swell. Only Paul would have called that event a "run."

He did some other stunts - at one point almost Forest Gump like running across the country in 124 days. He did some of the other big races around the world including the South African Comrades Marathon (actually about two marathons) and he also mapped a couple of the big 50 mile races in the Sacramento area. My first 50 miler was from Jackson to Sacramento. (Paul would have called that one a downhill race.) He organized that course. At about 30 miles into the race (I had never gone more than a marathon at that point) my wife thought I was looking a bit gray and she asked my brother who was pacing me - we should get him to quit - to which my brother said - "I've never seen him quit but you could try." There were two keys to all of Paul's races - first there was the challenge and then there was the community. Even after I dropped out of competitive running he enticed me into a couple of his events planned in the foothills - inevitably these courses were laid out with one or two of his buddies. (often George Billingsley and Hal Stainbrook)

Paul died in 2004 at age 87. In April of the next year we held a memorial for him which I think he would have liked. It was a low key potluck where a couple of us had the chance to talk but where all of us got together one more time. The Pepsi is now named in his honor. I hope when the runners start this weekend, with all their sophisticated heart monitors and replacement drinks and interval clocks, they will at least think back a bit to the founder of the tradition.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Should the future president be an expert in epidemiology?

The Washington Post ran a story today on Mr. Guiliani's claim that survival rates in the US for Prostate Cancer are higher than in Britain. In a post article titled "Guiliani is Still Standing by Questionable Figures" the claim is made that his ad contains erroneous figures. Fact is that survival rates in the US are marginally higher than in the UK. No one disputes that. The official number from the UK health secretary is "70% and rising" which is lower than the US rate of 82%. An OECD study showed a gap of 20 points (98-74%) The London Independent puts the numbers in clear focus "Comparisons between the UK and the US show a significantly better outlook for American patients, irrespective of what cancer they have. For some cancers the difference in survival rates can be enormous. The figures appear to show, for instance, that American men are twice as likely to survive for five years or more with prostate cancer than their British counterparts." The Boston Globe says, using the American Cancer Society as a source "Five-year survival rates were 95 percent in the U.S. and 60 percent in the United Kingdom, which includes Britain, in 1993-1995, the most recent time period with data to compare, the group said." One other source quotes the mortality rates - 15 per 100,000 in the UK and 12 in the US. So even among the experts there seem to be a lot of number floating around. One of the reasons for the higher cure rate in the US is a higher level of screening in the US, earlier detection means more cures.

But the purpose of the Post's article is not to get at the facts but rather to show up some more opinion. Guiliani's point about prostate cancer is his opposition to Hillarycare - single payer government run health care. An article in Medical News Today suggests that "At the moment, in the USA, as presidential elections loom there is a war of ideals(sic), with the Democrats pushing for universal health care and the Republicans wanting to keep healthcare cover in the private sector. " Ultimately political claims should be able to stand up to reasonable statistical review - and the way Guiliani used numbers here is questionable - but the point (that the US health system is better at diagnosing and treating his kind of cancer is correct.) That should be the real point here.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Warren Buffett on Tax Reform

NBC recently aired an interview with Warren Buffett about his feelings on tax reform. (this clip is from U-Tube) He makes the point that because of payroll taxes that his receptionist pays a higher percentage of her income in taxes than he does. That is true. Buffett then goes on to suggest that taxes should be raised on him.

The Oracle of Omaha has made a good part of his fortune by adroitly using current tax law, relating to estates in the case of family owned business, to build his economic empire. When the effort was being made to eliminate estate taxes he argued against it. One could make the case that at least some of his motivation was to protect the source of his ability to acquire family owned businesses. Excuse me if I am a bit skeptical about his tax perspectives.

But in this case, some of what he says makes sense. For example, he argues that the carried interest exclusion which allows a lower capital gains treatment in some parts of hedge fund transactions makes no sense. That may well be true.

In other cases there are some considerations that should be reviewed before we jump at Mr. Buffett's suggestions. For example, I would argue, and Mr. Buffett would disagree, that the capital gains rate has a positive effect on revenues (lower means more, at least in current and proposed). But one could also make the point that looking at the largest part of taxes that many taxpayers bear (FICA "contributions") should be part of any intelligent discussion. Prior to the 1983 Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) the contributions by most Americans to Social Security were a small part of their base - but the 1983 reform, allegedly to make the system more secure, raised both the total rates and the total amount covered from wage income. There were and are certainly alternative ways to finance social security. When TEFRA was adopted we gave those alternatives scant attention. Most of the democrat proposals for changing the tax system start with some significant adjustment of the FICA base. Most of Buffett's income is not from wages and thus not covered by FICA taxes. I would be surprised to see him advocate that the FICA base be extended to all wage and non-wage income. If we are to have sound policy we should have a broader discussion that does not simply extend the existing logic that we once adopted.

Our history is replete with examples of changes in thinking about taxes brought about by changes in the economy. Beginning in the late 19th Century there was a recognition that the existing tax bases that funded both federal and state budgets did not allocate burdens fairly. I would argue that the current mix of income and wage based taxes does not do that now. But it would be a long stretch to then suggest, as Buffett seems to do that increasing capital gains rates would necessarily be a good thing for either tax revenues or for economic growth.

More on Anglican/Episcopal Breaks

One of the concerns that has bothered me since the start of the controversy about the ordination of Gene Robinson has been the arrogant way that many in the American church have responded to legitimate concerns about the action. I will state at the outset that I am unsure about what the church should do in relation to gays and lesbians. The balance between the demands in theology to be inclusive and the proscriptions in parts of the Bible on behaviors is not clear in my mind. I have listened with care to each side of the debate and remain resolutely uncommitted to a final answer. The church has established ways of thinking about issues that are of importance to one part of the communion. The process is called discernment. But the leaders of the American part of the denomination believe that the issue is of such over-riding importance that the process of discernment be damned.

When the American church began to think about the ordination of women it went through a careful and prayerful process of thinking about the issue. What does scripture say about the role of women in the church. The process took a long time. In the eyes of some too long. But in the end the decision was established in a thoughtful way. While there are still elements in the Anglican communion who do not recognize the right of women to be ordained the vast majority of the church has recognized that the change was an appropriate one.

After the ECUSA decided to affirm the ordination of Bishop Robinson at its annual convention, the Archbishop of Canterbury convened a group of Anglican theologians to study the issue. That is a very Episcopal way to do things. The resulting report (the Windsor Report) concluded in part "at present it would be true to say that very many people within the Communion fail to see how the authorisation of such a rite is compatible with the teaching of scripture, tradition and reason. In such circumstances, it should not be surprising that such developments are seen by some as surrendering to the spirit of the age rather than an authentic development of the gospel." But the report also seemed to urge the American church to make its case on this issue. Ultimately, the report was an optimistic one which argued that if we cared about our community we would work our way through this set of issues. The report urged the American church to act with some humility,

The Anglicans urged the American church in a formal statement to refrain from additional ordinations until the issues could be sorted out. The rest of our "communion" said if you don't want to play by the rules we may have to expel you. But the response to all of these efforts to get the American church to think more carefully about its actions was confrontational.

The Anglican communion is a lot like a family. It is made up of parts that are similar in theology but different in outlook. But the leadership of the American church has acted like a petulant child - demanding that their way of looking at the world is the only way to go forward. It is sad to me that the so-called leaders of the American church are so tied to political correctness that they cannot take the time to bring their fellow communicants into a serious dialogue.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Understanding the Decline in Membership of the Episcopal Church of America

Since 1960 the Episcopal Church has lost about a third of its membership. In 2004 the church reported membership of about 2.2 million people, down from 3.4 million in 1960. It is not a wonder why the church is declining in membership. A discussion after our morning service offers some reason why the denomination is in trouble. Next weekend our diocese meets for its convention in Redding. Of the five major issues on the agenda for discussion - there are a mix of politically correct sentiments and attempts to affirm some things where there is a lot of disagreement. The organizers seems to think that sentiment is the driving force of leadership.

The five agenda items are marked by their banality. One is reminded of Hannah Arendt's phrase the "banality of evil" where ordinary people accepted the premises of their state (could also be the church) and thus participated in actions which were ultimately evil (in this case perhaps not evil in the traditional sense but evil in the sense of affirming important traditions of the church). Three are statements of political correctness - not offensive on their own right but perhaps not at the highest level of importance for the church to pray about. For example, the delegates to the convention will be asked to condemn slavery and to express regret at the church's "complicity" in slavery. Slavery still does exist outside the developed world and Christians should condemn the practice. But the wording of the resolution ignores completely the role of the church in abolishing slavery. William Wilberforce (who was British) was a Methodist, but the Anglicans played a role in helping to build consciousness of the need for abolishing slavery. The same was true in the US where all of the protestant denominations played a role in helping to build the forces against the institution. Harriet Beecher Stowe was afterall a Congregationalist minister's daughter and the wife of a professor at Lane Theological Seminary. A second resolution commits the diocese to paying out 0.7% of its resources in support of the Millennium Development Goals of the UN. (That would amount to a whopping $13,000 annually.) A third would encourage all of the congregations to enhance dialogue and reconciliation with "indigenous" people in the region. (One expect that means what others would call "Native Americans" although the term is not defined.) As noted above, none are especially troublesome but one wonders why these three issues are at the top of the business of the diocese in this year. If we had a real commitment to ending poverty, for example, we might contribute a bit more than $13,000 from the budget of the diocese. Each of these will make the delegates feel good but will they actually do anything of importance?

The last two resolutions are more troubling. The first would ask parishes to reaffirm that their property is "held in trust" by the denomination. All of the mainline protestant denominations have made the claim that like the Catholic Church, the national organization is the holder of the property of the parishes. In the Catholic Church that claim can be demonstrated fairly simply - but in churches less modeled on hierarchy that claim is dubious. Most parishes are build with local investment - in essence the congregation digs deep to put up a church building. In each case in the last couple of years where the Episcopal church has asserted the full and complete right of ownership, it has lost. A recent Pennsylvania ruling suggested that while the property of a Philadelphia church was held in trust for the Episcopal Church, the Bishop did not retain management power over the actual church. Clearly the relationship between the National Church and the Diocese is an evolving area of the law. My suspicion is that the courts will be ultimately unwilling to grant full ownership of church properties absent some real demonstration of actual financial ties. In the case of the parish I attend the diocese did absolutely nothing in helping our parish construct a new sanctuary.

The fifth one would ask churches in the diocese to bless same sex unions. This is an outgrowth of a resolution passed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Minneapolis a few years ago. The Episcopal Church has a wonderful way of deciding major issues called discernment. Discernment is the "intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations." When the Church went through the sometimes painful decision to ordain women it went through this process. But when it decided to confirm the ordination of a gay bishop in New Hampshire and at the same time to begin a process of recognizing same sex unions, it did not take the time to allow the membership of the church to work through the issue.

The Anglican Communion has spent a lot of time in the recent years trying to deal with the decision made by the ECUSA. They asked the ECUSA to take a breath and to allow the rest of the church to join in the process of discerning what, if anything, should be done in relation to same sex unions. But in the last year, the leadership of the ECUSA has simply ignored its historic ties to the Anglican Communion and has forged full scale ahead regardless of the thoughts of the other parts of the communion.

So what is the leadership of the diocese being asked to express opinions on? From my view it is being asked to affirm three politically correct but meaningless statements and then to ratify the the willful and prideful leadership of the ECUSA is reasonable. From my perspective, I would wish that the church spend a bit more time in thinking carefully about its mission and a lot less time on its politics.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


As a part of employee training for the university that I teach for as an adjunct, I have been asked to take a two hour course on harassment issues. Note, for the last 30 years I have worked around the legislative process on these issues. Indeed, I have been responsible for a couple of clarifications that are in the current code. I was also the founding chair of the largest insurance company which offers coverage for liability for colleges and universities. I spent six years on that board developing policies for us to deal with claims but also in developing an innovative curriculum like the one I am taking.

The meter is a part of this course and suggests that the course should take the average person about 2 hours to complete. As you can see from the display I am a bit ahead of the timer (which lists the expected time to complete the segments). So far at least one of the issues covered was IMHO not a case of harassment. (You are given scenarios and asked to judge whether they constitute harassment under California and Federal Law. ) Thusfar the course has not bothered to discuss the conflicts between federal and California standards. The oddest thing about this exercise is the meter - IF I know a lot about this subject and IF I am a relatively fast reader - then I would probably be expected to go through the material faster. I guess the smart thing to do is to hang on one or two screens to allow the time clock to catch up to the suggested timer. How absurd.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


This afternoon we lost our 20 1/2 year old cat Teddy. Old age had caught up to him. In cat age he was 87-100. (depends on the calculators you use) In the last few months he seemed to age more quickly. He began to lose weight so that recently he was simply skin and bones. When we got home from the trip to Winston Salem he could not use his hind legs. So this afternoon after a lot of thought and a little prayer we decided to let him go.

When he was healthy he was an affectionate and aloof cat. Those of you who do not own cats will not understand - those that do will. He would seek out people who hated cats when we had visitors, almost instinctively.

His sister, a year younger, seems to be doing quite well - except for the weight problem she has gained in the last six months. She seems to have eaten all of their food for most days. As we tried to maintain Ted with a raft of medicines, she gulped down his food and hers. She probably needs a bit of a diet. In the last few months as he became increasingly unable to feed himself, Little helped to wash him.

The shot was taken yesterday. I had put a food dish down for him so that he could eat. He seemed genuinely appreciative. We will miss him.