Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tawdry Tell Alls Never Do - Three possible explanations(Plus a bonus) about the career of Scott McClellan

So another White House flack put out his version of history in a tell all. I am not sure why anyone takes these things seriously. For the flack who was still in good graces with an administration - the gloss on the coverage is always too glowing. For the flack who left, as Mr. McClellan seemed to, who wants to "set the record straight" the coverage is always too negative. Each of these books has some elements of truth. But would anyone but a partisan against the current administration believe in one of the most centralized of all administrations that this guy actually had a real policy function?

McClellan says he wrote the book as a warning to future administrations. Yeah right, and we should believe this because he was so truthful when he worked for the administration? Mark Twain had it about right in Pudd'nhead Wilson he had the following quote "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man."

The reports and published excerpts of the book suggest three possible explanations of his conduct then and now. They could be "I had moral reservations about the job I served but did not have the moral fiber to point them out while I was employed there." If he really had any depth he would have resigned. Perhaps this could be called the lack of moral fiber explanation. An alternative could be "I fully supported the actions I told the press when I was there but now recant." That suggests he was a dunce who was used by the puppet master - either Rove of Cheney. Could this be called the Fagin explanation - I think I better think it out again? Or he might be saying "I was so stupid that I really was led around by the evil people in the administration." Is this the "I was a lackey to power" explanation? A final (and fourth one) which is a blend of the prior three is "I am trying to get you to buy my book and in the same way I lied for the Administration, I am now hyping my book. This could be called the side show hawker explanation. None of those offer much reason for me to read the book. It like most White House memoirs should reach the publisher's clearance table in record time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In search of a working conclusion

The OECD published a table on how much people in the developed countries work on an annual basis (hours per year). A couple of things struck me about the table. First, a number of countries are ahead of the US. Some of that can be explained by the presence of the informal economy. But I suspect some of it could also be explained by other factors. For example, how much does the presence of information technology increase or decrease employment hours? Second, there must be a correlation between tax systems and hours worked. Make the system either complex or with high rates and people will work less. Obviously the number of public holidays has something to do with these numbers but the correlation is not exact. South Korea has 10, the US 8 and Mexico 14.

The data suggests that Americans are working less than they did (by about three days). The OECD data also suggests that countries move toward the median in things like this. What interests me about this is that there are plenty of possible explanations which is why these kinds of things happen. The best news is that information like this allows plenty of work hours for economists!

Monday, May 26, 2008


Subway, the sandwich shop, has a contest going right now to encourage kids to write creatively. Sure there is a linkage to a product. And in an ideal world the company would broaden the theme. Sure it requires a purchase - so presumably they thought that by doing good they would also do well. But getting kids to write a 500 word essay - with a beginning, middle and a conclusion should be applauded.

But not this promotion, it should be met with loud boos. Subway explicitly excludes home schooled children. Why in the world would they do that? They've been mum so far. But let me offer some suggestions.

#1 - The grand prize is $5000 of sports equipment for the kid's school -so we could not let this prize drift into someone's home - we are trying to help schools too. Someone with even a soupcon of sense would have added a requirement that for a home schooler that part of the prize could only be contributed to a local park or Boys or Girls club - or similar civic resource.
#2 - We simply do not like home schoolers. Even a company like Subway could not be that stupid - although as you look at the What You Could Win box (and the spelling of Bastket in the Grand Prize description ) you might not believe that.
#3 (Most likely) Some numbskull in corporate thought this was a good idea. That is the most credible explanation.

All this proves two things. First, many PR ideas could be better thought out. Second, Subway will now learn something about the intensity of home schooler parents. (I am not one but understand the reasoning why some parents choose to take their kids out of public schools.)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Latest Indiana Jones Movie

We saw it yesterday with a full crowd. The movie is a disappointment. Not that there are not any action stunts. The movie like the previous ones is packed with them. Not that there are not engaging characters. There are a couple although some are disappointing. The villain is a bit unidimensional - Irina Spalko is a bit like her hair - straight and black. I would have liked a bit more character development - but this after all is an action movie - that's what you come to see. On that count the movie fails.

What concerned me most was the special effects. There is a long and complicated chase scene where Indy and his group are trying to wrest away the Crystal skull from the bad guys, a good deal of it looked like early Chroma-key work. The characters were in the scene but not really. As they are going to the inevitable treasure, they traverse down a river and make three drops. None of those scenes is remotely credible.

From what I have seen most of the real critics have given the new movie mixed reviews. Harrison Ford is fine in his older state. So is the new kid and Karin Allen. When I first heard about this movie there was a lot of talk about whether Harrison Ford could carry off the role of swashbuckler, he can. But without a credible script or special effects, the movie fails.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Hardlinks and Soft

For the past several months I have been exploring Plaxo and Linkedin. Plaxo is a social networking tool which offers some interesting linkages - from Flickr images, to blogposts, to a series of other tools which I am not sure I want or need. What intrigues me about both services is the potential for community links. I like Plaxo better because it ties more things together. I am not sure what happens when Comcast begins to exploit the technology.

A few years ago Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone which argued that civic institutions were falling by the wayside - things like bowling leagues and Elks clubs. Putnam's argument reminded me a lot of Malthus - who for save a few changes like the invention of the steel plow might have been a bit more on target. In Putnam's case he was struck on the notion of geographic proximity. In this world that is increasingly unimportant. As the communities of the last century begin to falter - the new ones are taking their place. Plaxo and LinkedIn are but two examples.

I would like Plaxo to do a bit better at linking - for example, if a member of your network reads your blog from Plaxo and comments - the comments don't get mediated back to the original blog post. I think that is a defect. But it could be structured like that to allow people to have both private (Plaxo) and public (the blog) personas.

The potential for these things could be important in many ways. Plaxo allows you to link your address book with others. I have found as I have used both systems that some of my contacts have linked up with others in my network. In the old days that would have been done by a phone call but now using the net that is not necessary. With the declining price in online storage and the increasing dispersion of broadband - people genuinely could keep major portions of their interests, lives and backgrounds on the net. At my point in life the job search function and professional contact options are less important to me than the linkages to family and friends. At this point I have been surprised by the diversity of people (in terms of age and backgrounds) that are using these new kinds of electronic communities - destroying the weak thread that Putnam tried to create but offering lots of possibilities yet to come.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Liveblogging the Cats

I am at a Rivercats game. In the top of the third the K-man was called out on strikes.

From our vantage point the third strike was way high. It was a lousy call. But the ump stuck by his call. The manager and the batter beefed the call and were eventually tossed. One fan in front of us came up with the line of the night- he said "The ump wanted free food from Hooters." (The K-Man certificate gives you a free appetizer.)

This struck me as funny

From a headline in the Washington Post

FTC Wants to Know What Big Brother Knows About You
'Behavioral Targeting' on Web Is Debated

I wonder if the Post understands this as a joke

OK quick who said the following?

“[H]aving a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran. . . . And I hope it doesn’t get to that point. But realistically, as I watch how this thing has evolved, I’d be surprised if Iran blinked at this point.” .

“With the Soviet Union, you did get the sense that they were operating on a model that we could comprehend in terms of, they don’t want to be blown up, we don’t want to be blown up, so you do game theory and calculate ways to contain, I think there are certain elements within the Islamic world right now that don’t make those same calculations.”

If you guessed Senator Obama, you are right. I am not sure how to handle that, he said it in 2004.

Why Heather Fargo does not deserve to be mayor

The mayor asked the Chief of Police of Sacramento to re-open an investigation on her major opponent. She lamely said "I haven't discussed these allegations at forums or campaign events, and I don't plan to. But, as mayor of Sacramento, the 2007 investigation happened on my watch, and I think these questions need to be addressed."

Any public official should understand that part of the job comes with a standard not to abuse the public trust. This blatant abuse of power is another demonstration why Fargo does not deserve re-election. She claims that she asked for the re-opening because of a news story about the case. Has she ever asked the police chief to re-open any other case? Of course not. Fargo has not been a worthy successor to her predecessor, Joe Serna, who possessed two qualities that she lacks - a vision for the city and a working set of ethics.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Actuaries and Actualities

The New York Times opened a story this morning with a truism.

"By firing its actuarial consultant last week, the New York State Legislature shone a light on one of the public sector’s deepest secrets: All across the country, states and local governments are promising benefits to public workers on the basis of numbers that make little economic sense." The story goes on to say that either the benefits have to be reduced or programs funded from tax dollars will have to be reduced.

But is anyone but the public employee unions (who want to exacerbate the problems or sweep them under the table) listening? The Times (BTW) does a good job at explaining this complex issue which could develop into an even bigger problem. The cause, GASB (the Government Accounting Standards Board) required public agencies to use the same rules on accounting for future liabilities that private firms have had to use.

Surveys and Reality

I've been a regular listener to the Slate Political Gabfest - it is a great way to understand reality in the realm of Washington liberals. The three discussants have very little knowledge of conservatives, except as museum pieces. One, Emily Bazelon (who is a daughter of David Bazelon the judge), who is a former Mother Jones reporter, has been since the start a complete wonk for Obama.

I was struck in their May 9 Podcast about her reportage on a survey from two NYU researchers which argued that conservatives are happier. A lot of surveys like that are silly. What defines happiness? Do you use an index? Is the index viable across groups? But the survey which was released in late April, has gotten a lot of coverage.

Bazelon, commented, the indicator was basically correct but the reasoning was that conservatives care less about equity/fairness and thus the striving liberal is unhappy simply because the liberal takes on the burden of trying to solve equity. Bazelon wore that mantel as a badge of honor.

I think the survey was pretty silly, simply because it would be hard to understand how a definition of happiness could be normed (that is the economist in me, Utilities cannot be summed). But were it right there is another and much more compelling argument which contradicts Bazelon's notion. Bazelon's definition of equity/fairness comes through the lens of governmental action. Most conservatives would reject the notion that government can actually improve equity significantly, if at all.

What is also interesting, however, is living on one's actions. According to a lot of research conservatives tend to be more generous on charitable causes than liberals do. One could easily argue that is a demonstration of their commitment to equity - just not governmentally imposed equity.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Apple Share

As I write this on my Mac Air, waiting for a phone call on my iPhone, I see the numbers from Eweek.

Apple has 14% of the US market in PCs. More importantly it has two thirds (Yes, two thirds) of the market for PCs above $1000. That is 70% of the desktops in that market and 64% of the laptops. Windows notebooks had a 0% year over year growth rate - Apple's was at 50-60%.

Those numbers are pretty awesome. But for someone who likes the Mac (An original Mac Evangelista) they are not surprising.

Taxing Harvard

Like many other states, Massachusetts has a long term budget problem. That encouraged one legislator to argue that a way to solve the state's budget problem is to tax higher education endowments that exceed a billion dollars. Representative Paul Kujawski said "When is a nonprofit not a nonprofit because of the wealth they are acquiring? It's mind boggling that one entity not paying taxes has $34 billion. How do you justify that? When people can't afford to live. How do you justify not taxing them?"

The initial estimates of the revenues from this proposal are pretty large. The best estimate I have seen is that if implemented the tax would raise $1.4 billion, or about 5% of the state budget.

Inside Higher Education, had an article from a Associate Economics Professor at Smith who agreed with Representative Kujawski. But he went one step further, suggesting that while the tax would hurt the non-profit entities proposed to be taxed that a better way to do it would be by taxing tuitions. Piling on to this free-for-all is Wick Sloane, a former CFO at University of Hawaii and now at Bunker Hill Community College who said "These schools have generated huge cash flows but are not doing their civic duty."

The idea is bad tax theory and even worse social theory. On tax theory, there are two justifications for creating this new tax - the first is simple, the state needs the money and following the Willie Sutton theory of public finance the proposal comes out because it is perceived as an easy source of revenue. I can see a rationale for some Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) which are collected by local agencies as an assessment of the cost of providing services to non-profits. But in the case of these universities using the logic of who provides what to whom, the state should owe them some of their tax revenues based on the contributions that these colleges and universities offer to the state. Is there any doubt that Massachusetts would be a lesser state economically if those colleges and universities were not there. The second tax theory notion in this proposal is some perverted theory of equity, we can allow non-profits to operate but they should always be below some theoretical level of resources, regardless of their scope or mission.

The social theory defect is even more compelling. Sloane's comment is absurd. How do you measure the civic contribution of a major university? Certainly not with an arbitrary scale based on total resources. Beginning with DeTocqueville our heritage recognized a vibrant non-profit sector as a way to provide public services from non-governmental sources. That offered the governmental sector competition, which is good. But it also allowed a variety of approaches to an area like education which offered benefits consumers of education and research. Indeed, places like Harvard generate huge cash flows. But they also offer huge public benefits. Who should measure that? If you think about it the managers and board of each civic institution should. These boards are charged with something that is hard to imagine in many public agencies, their role is to protect the financial and programmatic integrity in PERPETUITY. That is an order that the trustees of governmental programs, like Social Security, have not lived up to.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Spring in the Desert

Originally photo by CandyPix
My sister in law uses an Olympus camera and did a hike up in the granite near her home in Arizona. She caught this shot which is a great contrast between the seeming hard and gray surface of the granite and the vibrant color of the desert flowers.

A few years ago we visited her for Thanksgiving and spent one afternoon out in an area away from town. I am constantly amazed at the subtlety of the desert. There is a remarkable sameness in a lot of the landscape and then all of a sudden if you are careful you discover a scene like this. Here is her photo stream on Flickr.

Millennial Skips

Last night I had the opportunity to speak with two young people who are supporting Senator Obama. I was interested in their justifications for that support. They disagree passionately about the war in Iraq. But they also are concerned about our continued expansions into international trade. What concerned me most about our discussion was they seem to have skipped some basic understandings about economic issues that are fundamental to our future.

I remain undecided about this election, although I am likely to be motivated as a voter on three issues - Trade, Immigration and Taxes. While I am impressed with Senator Obama's rhetorical skills I am less sanguine about his positions on these three issues. On immigration, the differences between Obama and McCain and Clinton are minimal. (Although McCain has taken a leadership position on it.) And Obama and Clinton seem to neglect the long term implications of moving the American tax system back by increasing rates, when most of the rest of the world is coming to the conclusion that flat simple taxes make more sense. But since Ohio, both democrats have moved away, in my opinion in a pandering manner, from the position that the Clinton administration took on trade. Both want to re-negotiate NAFTA and forestall any further expansions of trade. I believe that it would be a huge short and long term tactical error for us to withdraw from the regime we have supported since Bretton Woods.

What struck me about my conversation with these two people was the depth of their feelings and their denial of the benefits of trade. They expressed no particular concern for attempts to roll back NAFTA. They both seemed to think that Walmart, because of its market power, was somehow evil. One of the two was particularly concerned about Rubbermaid and their problems with negotiating with Walmart. The person argued that Walmart had forced what one business magazine called "one of America's best companies" into a negative position and a merger. That is an argument that was first raised on a Frontline documentary which claimed that part of the reason for the merger was based on the market power of Walmart. Based on a review of the financial documents of Rubbermaid at the time, the Frontline story is inaccurate at best.

Rubbermaid started life as a curtain rod manufacturer. When it began to grow it did so by acquisitions. It made a couple of good moves and then did a merger with Newell (Newell acquired Rubbermaid) and the merger, as many mega-mergers are was a disaster. The Company's 10-Q report at the time of the merger suggests that as with many other companies who try to grow by acquiring new lines, the process of bringing diverse units together can be daunting. But they argue, not altogether convincingly that the merger would improve the ability of the company to compete. For example the 10-Q stated "Due to the diversity of its product lines, the Company does not have material sensitivity to any one commodity. The Company manages commodity price exposures primarily through the duration and terms of its vendor contracts." Translated out of corporate speak, "we can compete in the global marketplace because of our size." Not all observers bought this logic. An article in the Management Accounting Quarterly at about the time of the merger was skeptical of the benefits that would come from this kind of pooling. It commented in part such transactions "Understate(s) the assets of the merged companies; Understate(s) the stockholders’ equity of the merged companies; and Overstate(s) net income by avoiding amortization of goodwill and calculating depreciation expense based on book value rather than current value." From the MAQ article, there is some reason to believe that the challenges for Rubbermaid came not with Walmart but with the very idea of merging these consumer product lines. Bigness was a problem, but not the size of Walmart but the simple idea that by adding assets in the company complicated its operations.

The case for continued improvements in trade is strong. Despite the protestations of trade unions the manufacturing share of the economy actually increased in recent years, although total manufacturing employment declined. (The argument for maintaining the share would be similar to an 19th century argument that we should keep people on the farms because the percentage of workers employed in the agricultural sector was declining.) Ultimately, the benefits from trade relate to comparative advantage or market specialization. The US economy has been able to move from high, but declining compensation, manufacturing jobs to high value jobs in new parts of the economy. Thus, we do not manufacture iPods but our ideas propel them to be made.

But there are costs attached for all this vibrancy. As Gordon Moore said about a year ago, if American employers cannot find workers who come up to the standards of international trade, then they will look elsewhere. Moore said in a speech to Achieve (which is an organization dedicated to improving American education) that Intel never needed to hire another American engineer. That is true, and we should celebrate it. Having more developed economies around the world will benefit us all. But it also means that the American economy which was in a dominant position in the last half century cannot afford to sit on its laurels.

The certain path to a withdrawal of the US from its leadership in global trade is a lower standard of growth. It bothers me that these two very smart young people do not seem to get that simple fact. We can compete, and understand that the assumptions of the past will not always guide us well. Or we can opt out and become a large and not prosperous side street in the economy of the world.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rule Number One

The Salt Lake Bees came to town on Thursday. They may be glad to leave tomorrow. Until last night the Bees had held opponents in their games to under three runs. In Saturday's game the real action began in the fifth inning with what should have been a simple play. It developed like this Conrad walked and then stole second while Rogowski was up. But then the catcher misjudged a throw which allowed Conrad another base. Rogowski hit a single and moved Conrad home. Knoedler walked and moved Rogowski to second. Chris Denofria, who is new to the Cats, came up and the Bees pitcher threw a wild pitch. That allowed Rogowski to move to third and Knoedler to second. Denofria then hit something to the pitcher who bobbled the ball but eventually threw it to the third baseman. Sandoval, the Bee's thirdbaseman, tried to run Rogowski down. Casey froze then ran and Sandoval rather than throwing ahead of the runner tried to do a diving tag. He missed. From our vantage point it was an easy call. Travis Buck then hit a single which allowed Knoedler to score which moved Denofria to third. Then Mellilo hit a sacrifice fly which allowed Denofria to score.

The Bee's manager came out an beefed the umpire on the Sandoval dive but he stood by his (correct) call. Sandoval forgot the first rule of fielding - always keep the ball ahead of the runner. Sandoval will wake up tomorrow wondering why he made such a bush league play.

In the sixth the Bees scored two and then we did two off the strength of a close ball down first by Carlos Gonzalez. That gave us a run and got Gonzalez to third. He eventually scored and that allowed the Cats to maintain their lead.

The Rivercats Luncheon 2008

Two things were different about this year's team luncheon. First, it was very hot. The crowd was down, I suspect in part because of the temperature. Second, more of the players brought their families to the event. The shot is of Ryan Wing and his son and Todd Steverson, the new Cats manager. The trivia contest was unbelievable. (HARD) Each year they do a raffle for all sorts of stuff and we put all our tickets in for a ball that had been signed by four players (including Dallas Braden,Christopher Gissell, and Danny Putnam) Braden went to Stagg High School in Stockton and has pitched a bit more than 80 innings in the bigs. Gissell has spent 10 seasons in the minors including two in Japan and made a brief appearance in the bigs for Colorado. Putnam, it turns out, grew up in the San Diego area and speaks very passable Spanish. After Stanford he has spent five seasons in the minors and one partial season in the bigs. (11 games - 28 at bats)

We sat at Brad Knox's table. Our table mates were well versed both on the team and on baseball. Knox is looking forward to free agency next year. At that point he can make a move to get some realistic cash. Many AAA baseball players earn something in the range of $1500-2000 per month. You've got to love the game to play for those rates or think you've got a good chance at getting to the bigs where the minimum is over $315,000 per season.

We also got a chance to meet both the new Manager and the owner of the team. Art Savage does not come to this event every year.

Circus Economics (a division of panem et circenses)

This is a very exciting new program that I will explain using the Q and A format:

Q. What is an Economic Stimulus Payment? A. It is money that the federal government will send to taxpayers.

Q. Where will the government get this money? A. From taxpayers.

Q. So the government is giving me back my own money? A. Only a smidgen.

Q. What is the purpose of this payment? A. The plan is that you will use the money to purchase a high-definition TV set,
thus stimulating the economy.

Q. But isn't that stimulating the economy of China? A. Shut up....!

Frederic Bastiat was an eighteenth century economist who started with a wonderful sense of humor. There is a joke going around on the internet that Bastiat would be proud of. The current approval ratings for our elected officials are at historic lows - the President has been stuck in the low 30s and Congress is below 20%. They cannot seem to understand why that is. Anyone with a modicum of sense should be able to explain it. The stimulus package, whose checks began arriving recently, is a great example. Our elected officials rush in this even numbered years (Did you ever wonder why there are no economic stimulus packages in odd numbered years?) to pass bills for which they think we will remember them fondly. And their attempts get increasingly pathetic. For example this year, we all got postcards, which cost something to produce, that said expect your stimulus payment soon. (As if we waited on their every pronouncement) But like many things they sent this out to every taxpayer - so even those who made too much money to be stimulated received the card.

Bastiat has a couple of great examples of this nonsense in his book Economic Sophisms - which is still an enjoyable read today. For example, he presents the story of the candlemakers petition -where the candlemakers present a petition on unfair competition that they face from the sun. They argue that if window makers were forced to offer opaque windows that citizens would use more candles -even in the daytime. He also had a wonderful idea about the "seen" and the "unseen" - he gives an example of a kid who breaks a window which the homeowner is forced to purchase a repair. Some would look at that as a net gain for society - but Bastiat correctly points out that the benefit to the glazier (the guy who fixed the window) is offset by the losses to the other providers in society who don't get the trade from the homeowner.

The Roman poet Juvenal wrote about the tendency of rulers to offer "bread and circuses" in exchange for political loyalty. In essence political leaders thought they could rule in his time by offering the trappings of benefits but not the real benefits of an effectively run government. Juvenal and Bastiat would be amused at the continuous demonstration of their insights.

The Bees are back in Town

Last night's Rivercats game was a fun one although it felt like we were in the deep south - it was hot and humid. The Salt Lake Bees have been on a tear since opening day- they currently stand at 31-9 (although their last 10 games are a more realistic 6-4). For the past couple of seasons the Cats have had a problem with Salt Lake - which always manages to pull games out. On Thursday night the lead bounced back and forth until the Bees came up with two runs in the middle which held.

But last night was a different story. The picture is of Eric Chavez, who is on an extended rehab assignment. Last night he went three innings and got two very credible doubles - 2-2. Jeff Baisley added a home run in the third (his sixth) and that about iced it. Wing and Ziegler looked especially good on the mound. At this point Ziegler has a .047 ERA in his role as closer. But Gray was pretty good too - with three strikeouts in his inning. This looked a lot like a summer game with the grass seats completely filled - the attendance was a bit over 12,000.

The new manager said that this year's team would be "explosive" - when they are on they certainly are. But you learn in minor league baseball that a team jells about a month from now, and possibly even later. Playing and coaching styles take some time to get into place. There are a lot of highlights in this year's team that could make it look a lot like last year's but we will have to wait and see how things begin to fit together. For now the Cats are four games up and seven over .500.

This morning the team luncheon happens for season ticket holders. That is always a fun event - low key and a great chance to meet the players.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I realize there are both deeply held environmental beliefs and possibly some good reasons to oppose the creation of a new university in our region. What strikes me about both the vote of the one supervisor who opposed this measure and of the environmentalists who opposed it, is their lack of balance. Their cause, regardless of the consequences should take pre-eminence. Ultimately true environmentalists make a place for human behavior. The position against the university here lacks balance of competing long term goals. I know something about vernal pools because I live next to one of the most spectacular versions of them in the area - and amazingly enough my tax dollars, based on a parcel tax, help to protect those pools in perpetuity. Yesterday, the Sacramento Board of Supervisors took an action to open the possibility of opening a piece of land for development south of the city of Rancho Cordova and to create a new private university in the tract. The discussion pitted the Sacramento Environmental Council against supporters of the creation of the university (which is called the University of Sacramento and is a part of a network of universities originally founded in Mexico by the Legionnaires of Christ, a Mexican Catholic order). The Board made the right decision.

Opponents of the plan suggested, according to the Bee, "The land for which Cordova Hills has been proposed is at the heart of the remaining irreplaceable vernal pools and grasslands within Sac County," the Environmental Council of Sacramento wrote to supporters. "This area contains numerous threatened and endangered species." The issue of vernal pools is an interesting one - vernal pools are a quite interesting thing in nature. They are caused when underlying hard pan prevents the proper drainage of water. Because of forces in the spring, as the collected rain or snow water evaporates they show off some magnificent flowers. (as in the picture above) But the definition of what constitutes a vernal pool is mushy (unlike the hard pan). Some extremists claim that almost all of the Sacramento region, because of the soil formations of hardpan is a giant vernal pool. The question should be then what is it of significance that the land in Cordova Hills represents? On a 4-1 vote the Supervisors wisely rejected that "logic" (of preventing development of a university merely to protect a piece of land which looks remarkably like any other piece of land in the area). One wonders whether the environmental community uses mimeographed talking points on things like this. (Oh, wait, mimeograph chemicals are not environmentally friendly, perhaps they use vellum manuscripts. Oh, wait, that uses animal skins. I guess they use recycled paper, carried on foot.)

California's economy is dependent on a highly educated workforce. As the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy suggested a few years ago our five leading sectors include computers, biotechnology, trade, entertainment and professional services. Each require a workforce with strong educational backgrounds. And for a number of years the state prospered as a result of the investments it made in public and private higher education. But as the Public Policy Institute of California argued recently, that trend changed and for the last decade or more we have imported college educated workers either from within the US or from outside it. The PPIC projected that by 2020 we will have a 6% deficit in the numbers of workers with BAs and advanced degrees. So building more capacity is critical to the state's economic health. If we do not build more universities, those five sectors, which are very mobile, are likely to move to more educationally friendly climates.

But the enviros don't see it that way. What is troubling is that they use the same logic on each case. A similar proposal was held up in Placer County - again where a university site was part of a larger undeveloped tract of land. In that case the developers did not even tie the university to their own economic interests but still the greenies wanted nothing to do with the project.

The logic of allowing universities to grow outside of current limits is incontrovertible. In California, starting with Stanford (1891), University of the Pacific (1921 - in Stockton),Saint Mary's, UC Davis, Sacramento State, Pepperdine and a host of others - built campuses in relatively undeveloped areas and then gradually the urban areas grew out to the university. That is a pattern that works best for universities. It allows a university to develop its own culture and identity. It is also a pattern that dates back to the first millennium when some universities that are still around began to develop. The project that will move the University of Sacramento out to Cordova Hills will be there for a very long time.

The second gambit that the enviros have taken has been to suggest that the university relocate to another site. As if land grew on trees. If the premise about universities needing open space to develop properly is correct- and there is a lot of evidence pointing in that direction, then the balance here should fall toward the project in relatively open space. In the University of Sacramento's situation that meant an abandoned Air Force base (Mather) or to keep it downtown (it currently offers classes in downtown Sacramento). Neither Mather or downtown make long term sense for a learning community that will eventually grow to 7000 students. In the case of the Placer project even the Sacramento Bee has proposed to move the project downtown. The problems with the approach of substitution is that it is unrealistic for at least two reasons. First, is the notion that there are not large enough tracts of land in urban areas to accommodate a full blown university. A good part of the allure of universities is their open space. In numerous cities around the country university campuses are situated in parklike atmospheres. In both cases (University of Sacramento and the Placer project) the developers have offered a portion of their land to a university. The environmentalists claim this is somehow sinister - but in reality both developers see a much larger public purpose. The opportunity for development of a long lasting resource should be seized not quibbled with. The second problem is that idea that universities need space to develop their cultures. (Discussed above)

The Placer project was first proposed several years ago and is likely to be approved in concept in the next few months (one of its biggest supporters on the Placer board was Bill Santucci, who died recently). To develop a university to its full capacity takes decades. The shortsightedness of the environmentalists is predictable but disappointing. Thankfully, yesterday, the Sacramento board left the door open to capture this resource for the region. Let's hope it moves forward.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Limits of Tolerance

In January of this year the Bishop of Rochester, of the Church of England, Michael Nazir-Ali, wrote an op-ed for the Daily Telegraph which argued that the notions of multiculturalism had the potential for degrading the very things that made English society so compelling. In his editorial he argued that this push would lead to more extremism.

Nazir-Ali has been a thorn in the side of the prevailing Episcopal leadership, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan WIlliams. Williams deserves to have a lot of challenges. He has been typical of softheaded leadership that pervades much of church leadership worldwide include the Episcopal American Church.

Williams is part of a generation of leaders who believe that all cultures are fundamentally the same. He argued in February that British society should accept some elements of Shari'a to improve social cohesion. He seems to ignore the benefits of the market and sees it as fundamentally a zero sum game. He also seems not to understand that fundamental societal principles like equality under the law, if cast aside would create significant cascading changes in our society.

There is a balance here that needs to be respected. But there are also key issues where we should not capitulate. Some of the extremist factions in Islam argue that their rules should supercede even those rules that have been fundamental to Western society. Should equality under law be sacrificed for some who would require forced marriages? Should Western values of respect for dissent be perverted to allow imams to advocate violence against those who do not adhere to their brand of faith? Williams would argue that we need to accomodate some of these beliefs. He believes that terrorists can have "serious moral goals." In my opinion that is not a religious leader.

The issue of balance has also cropped up in the US but so far we have not been as accommodating as Williams would be. For example, last year the Minnesota Airport Commission was confronted with claims by some Islamic cab drivers who refused to carry fares who had alcohol. The Commission rightly concluded that the cab drivers were operating a public accommodation. If they did not want to carry all passengers they would lose their hackers license. Some checkers in food markets around the country have argued that they should not be forced to handle pork or alcohol products. Again, if they want to serve the public they should treat all customers with respect.

Williams and his ilk are poor students of history. A fundamental tenet of Western culture is the respect for individual rights but not to the point that society is wrecked. Three cheers for Nazir-Ali. But it is a sad thing that he should be lauded for pointing out the obvious.

Should We Care About the Demise of a Lousy Radio Station?

In this morning's Sacramento Bee, a (former NPR person and) writer named Sue Wilson whines about the end of what once was the Air America station in Sacramento, she writes "There's a mournful hush in Sacramento these days, the empty sound of an entire political viewpoint quieted. More than 32,000 weekly listeners who once tuned to KSAC (1240 AM) to hear partisan Democrats beat up on President George W. Bush, now hear only Christian hip-hop." KSAC failed because it did not meet the demands of the marketplace, despite Wilson's claims to the contrary. The author does not comment on the demise of the FM version of a conservative radio station in the area, probably because it helps to disprove her point. Wilson then writes that we should go back to the failed policies that governed radio in the past. What nonsense.

In an era when the breadth and depth of opinion outlets is exploding she argues for returning to the "fairness doctrine" The idea originally came up during the 1950s when we were scared about the communist "menace" but we wisely moved away from this simple minded notion. Indeed, in a 1974 Supreme Court opinion on the fairness doctrine its ability to achieve its stated goal was questioned. ""Government-enforced right of access inescapably dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate.", said the Chief Justice in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U.S. 241. Even William Brennan argued in another decision that the fairness doctrine would have an effect of "chilling speech" when in FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364 he suggested that the doctrine was actually inhibiting the breadth of public debate. The legal decisions against the fairness doctrine were fairly one sided.

Wilson whines that "The radio business model is simple: Start a show, grow an audience and advertisers will follow. But that model doesn't work for progressive talk radio." She argues, without much evidence, that advertisers don't want to be selling their wares on stations which bash corporations. Numerous examples in other broadcast media suggest how wrong she is. It isn't that advertisers are afraid of using the medium, it is more that most of what is on "progressive" radio is not entertaining. Bill Maher bashes corporations constantly, so does Larry King - yet for cable TV their ratings are at least positive. When KSAC was on the air as Air America I would occasionally turn to it. It was mostly a set of rants about how terrible things were. It was a constant diet switching between downers and moral hectoring. The repetitive nature of the rants also made it less likely to turn back the next day. You could hear a week's dose in a half an hour. If one were forced to listen to Al Franken or Christine Craft day after day, you could soon repeat the mantras almost like liberal scripture. That is not to say that all conservative radio does not also have some repetitive rants - but the variety is a bit larger than "progressive" radio.

Wilson's argument that there is no left on the radio dial is also bunk. There is plenty of representation of the "progressive" point of view on the radio. The immediate response ignores a lot of research about the biases in networks like National Public Radio. I realize there are a lot of "studies" that suggest NPR is even-handed in its coverage. But the reality is it supports left of center points of view more than conservative ones. What is particularly galling to conservatives is that NPR lives in part off governmental funding (about 15%) no conservative outlet can make that claim. 81% of the NPR sources are current and former governmental officials or academicians or think tank officials or from other places that are likely to be supportive of a growth in government. About 6% are from the corporate sector. So much for balance.

Wilson seems to want to go back to filters, just at a time when we are outgrowing them. Outlets like CSPAN perform a wonderful service of offering the breadth of opinion, unfiltered. When NPR was created in the early 1970s it was supposed to do that, but of course it did not. Want to hear the breadth of opinion on the presidential election - listen to POTUS 08 (on XM or the Web)
Were NPR fulfilling its original role, these outlets would not be necessary. Neither CSPAN nor POTUS 08 receive a penny of governmental support. Is it logical to look only at radio? Is that the only avenue for discussion of opinion?

FInally, Wilson suggests that part of the problem has been the consolidation of networks. After a series of changes at the federal level media companies can build larger networks and own a number of outlets. Nevermind that since the change was established that there is more variation in the ranges of options that we can listen to, her logic might make some sense if at the same time we recognized that governmental funding of radio is simply wrong. That is not something she is likely to embrace.

Wilson is like many on the left, she ignores the facts that disprove her case. Indeed, KSAC is no more as an outlet of left of center opinion - but that is not the fault of "media bias" nor of the lack of a Fairness Doctrine nor the result of changes in ownership rules, KSAC failed despite some growth in audience the market because its economic model was not sustainable. Magazines, podcasts and other media of expression have figured out that notion, it is too bad that no one on the left is prepared to make create a radio outlet that follows the same rules. Governmental policy should not be brought back to failed doctrines simply because those who want left of center opinion to predominate.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Rt. Reverend Bob Cornelison

During my first twelve years I lived in Berkeley. One of our family traditions was to invite seminarians from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific to Sunday dinner. We had several who visited but the one who stuck was Bob Cornelison. Bob was a Californian who had been in the service and then went to seminary. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He was also a big influence on one of my brothers.

Bob graduated from seminary just before we moved to Bakersfield. His first parish was at the large Episcopal cathedral in downtown LA. My dad was successful in getting this new associate rector a credit card for the oil company he worked for but that soon got Bob into trouble. A family from Oklahoma came in an gave him a hard luck story, about how they wanted to go back home. Bob said, "I can help- use this card only for gas to get you back. Then mail it back to me." Of course they ripped him off. It took my dad a long time to clear Bob's record. That did not cause Bob to lose his charitable spirit.

When my siblings and I decided to get married, we each had Bob as our officiant. My future bride met him a couple of years before we were married at his house, when he had taken over a parish in Altadena. She encountered him, pretty well blitzed lying on a tree stump in his front yard looking up at the stars. He approached each of our weddings slightly differently - but always with warmth. On the night before one of the four we were talking about the situation in Southeast Asia. The crowd was divided like the rest of the country. But one person insisted on making a point that was to be the definitive one of the evening. Evidently this person thought that they could stop all the dissension. Bob looked at her, with all seriousness and said "What makes you think you are so powerful." It was a wonderful putdown. But more to the point, it made all of us reflect that our discussions were not simply cocktail chatter. He was an approachable priest who lived his faith.

But then we lost touch with him. Right after my wife and I were married we moved to Washington, DC and did not return for about six years. Soon after I took the job I have held for the last 30+ years we re-encountered Bob. We were visiting Laguna Beach and remembered that he had moved to there. We looked him up and spent an afternoon with him. His first wife, Nancy, had just divorced him. He made the quip "The divorce was painful, but she also became a Jeohovah's Witness, and that was really painful!" He had a wonderful sense of humor. Some mistook that for a lighter sense, but those who did simply did not understand him.

Bob's parish in Laguna Beach was an odd mix of street people and well healed Episcopalians. He stayed there for more than 30 years.(20 years as rector) He took all of the biblical injunctions about serving all of God's people quite seriously. So that meant he opened the parish to the homeless and took on other projects which accentuated the separations in the community - ultimately his goal was to bring the disparate communities together. Some of this actions caused him some problems but when he thought he was on the right track he persevered. Many priests of his generation saw their work as less evangelical - not Bob. He was responsible for a number of ministries in the Laguna area - to serve the diverse needs of the community.

We saw Bob only twice after we got married in 1969, that does not mean he was not in our thoughts and prayers. Both times were at Saint Mary's in Laguna. Both times he was the person we remembered; giving and with a wide and deep sense of humor but with a strong underlying sense of purpose. I thought about asking him to officiate at our daughter's wedding, but that was simply not practical. I regret that I did not have a chance to talk to him about the splits that have racked the Episcopalians in recent years. I suspect he would have offered me new insight. The Rev. died this week at the age of 80. (He was born on New Year's day in 1928.) Even though I had not seen him in a long time, I have a real sense of loss for this person who offered me some important steps in my formation.


This one is hard to believe but it is true. 57 states without Alaska or Hawaii?

Addendum - A friend pointed out to me that after Bush's verbal abilities we might cut this guy some slack. My point was slightly different. First, this YouTube clip points out that our candidates for president are human. Second, when I first heard this I wondered whether he was doing the math that many democrats do - adding DC, Guam, the VI, Puerto Rico, etc. to come up to the number. Actually, when you listen to his statement he simply made an error of 10 (I have one more state PLUS Alaska and Hawaii.)

The most important gaff of this type was made by Carter. In his first campaign he made a speech where he demanded that we increase taxes for all people "above the median income" - standard democratic mantra. When someone pointed out that the median income at the time was about $36,000, he replied "That is not the median I was talking about." I had been considering him as a candidate before then but when this supposedly brilliant Annapolis graduate (who presumably had some understanding of basic math) demonstrated his lack of candor, I went back to Ford.

The Obama clip is not as big a deal, indeed, it is minor. So the real point here is that every candidate can be shown to be human. That should be a good caution to those on the left who argue that POTUS 43 lacks brains. The press can and does use minor problems to attack candidates. This short clip shows that not just Jerry Ford or W are guilty of lapses.

The Four Minute Mile

I have just finished The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb. Bascomb is an American author with no seeming link to track but he sure understands this story well. He weaves a great story about the attempts in the late forties and early fifties to break the four minute mile barrier. (The photos are of Roger Bannister, Wes Santee and John Landy who each have a part in the story).

By now there have been more than 1000 sub-four minute miles but in 1954, and slightly before there were three most likely runners to dip under a minute a quarter - Wes Santee who ran for Kansas, Roger Bannister a medical student from England and John Landy a student from Australia. Bascomb has a wonderful skill in interposing the three stories. All three, despite what the AAU eventually said about Santee, were true amateurs. The story goes back a long way. In 1934, American runner Glen Cunningham ran a 4:06 - so it took 20 years to shave off those final six seconds.

Each of the three had different challenges. Santee came from a very tough background. He left his home right before coming to the University of Kansas and got his education fundamentally because of his skill on the track. In the 1952 Olympics, in a series of bizarre rulings the committee that controlled spots on the team prohibited Santee from qualifying in both the mile and the 5000 meters. They seem to have made the ruling up for an inexplicable reason. Santee eventually ran a 4:00.5 but could never break the barrier. The AAU also seems to have had a grudge against Santee. They barred him from amateur competition right before the 1956 olympics because of appearance fees, even though many of those fees came from AAU officials who wanted to get Santee to appear in their meets to build the gate.

Landy, fell under the influence of a number of track stars including the legendary Percy Cerutti. He seems to have gotten inspiration and advice from both Emil Zatopek and Paavo Nurmi. He took Cerutti's intense training theories and added to them. He successfully wiped out Bannister's first four minute mile about six weeks after Bannister broke the barrier. But then in an ironic twist when Bannister and Landy were matched up in the Empire games in Vancouver in August (in something billed as the Miracle Mile), Landy cut his foot badly and ran the race with four stitches in his foot, after stepping on a flashbulb. Bannister out kicked him and won the race - but it was the first time that two runners broke four minutes.

Bannister was the most interesting of the three. When he was making his attempt he was also a medical student. So his time for training was restricted. It was said that he would use his lunch hour to go out and do ten interval quarters 400s (at a 60 second pace) and still have 14 minutes to eat his lunch.

Each of the three competitors had a lousy time in the Helsinki Olympics and each went on to have successful careers after they retired from competitive running. The sports bureaucrats don't come off well in this book. They should not. It is shameful what the AAU did to Santee.

The current record for the mile is 3:43 - meaning that in the last 54 years the record has been reduced by 16 seconds. It took about the same time to go from 4:16 to below four minutes (a runner in 1913 ran a 4:13).

Bascomb has a great skill in building the excitement of the races he writes about but also in explaining how these three very different people attempted to conquer the four minute standard. You get a good understanding of the characteristics of these three but you also get a good understanding of how the attempts to break this "barrier" influence issues in society that a greater than simply sports. This is a good book, regardless of whether you care about how tough it is to run the distance.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A great choice

It was announced today that Jack Scott will become the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges in January when he is termed out of the the state senate. Jack is an increasingly rare commodity in the legislature. He is principled. He is also smart. Over his time in the Assembly and the Senate he has held a variety of leadership positions including chairing both budget subcommittees on education. Before he ran for the legislature, Jack was a professor at Pepperdine and then President of Pasadena City College. In each case he performed with distinction. He has a great ability to bring people together.

Two out of three of the leaders of the public sectors of higher education will be new beginning in the new year. California could benefit from leaders like Jack who want to improve performance. We graduate people from high school at about 20% lower than the best states in the country. And as you look at the statistics above high school (number of AA degrees produced, time to a BA degree) our numbers are well below where they should be. In the next couple of years, all of education needs to get better at working together. Jack has helped some efforts to progress in that direction.

Before today's announcement we would have lost his contributions (That is not a comment on term limits) - now he will continue to offer California some additional service. We can use the help.


One of the persistent problems of legislative bodies, indeed many political arenas, is to play a bit too much inside baseball. A good demonstration of that has been going on for the last few months when the Pro Tem of the California Senate tried to recall a Central Valley senator who did not help him solve last year's budget mess. Yesterday he dropped his bid to oust the other senator. Even after his announcement the recall will remain on the June 3 ballot, which presumably will have some small effect on the counties who have to count the ballots (although admittedly there are other items on the June 3 ballot).

Perata offered the following quotes (thanks to the Chronicle, both Bees, the Merc and the LAT) "You get to the point where . . . you've got to see what matters most," Perata said on the steps of the Capitol. "And I don't want to go through what we went through last year. The state can't afford it. You know how things are at the end of a campaign. They get uglier and uglier, tenser and tenser, and it made no sense." Perata said, noting this is his last year as senator. "I don't want to go out in Chapter 7" bankruptcy. Gee, thanks Don, wouldn't it have made a bit more sense to think like this before you started the campaign?

"It would seem to me to be destructive to continue the recall while at the same time he and I were going to sit down with our counterparts in the Assembly and in seven weeks try to put together a budget that may well have to eliminate a $14-billion deficit," Perata said. Well, duh!

"We are in one of the largest economies in the world and we are teetering on bankruptcy. And if we can't get our act together we're going to look like a bunch of clowns," Perata said, noting this is his last year as senator. "I don't want to go out in Chapter 7" bankruptcy. The Pro Tem may have already exceeded the standard he was trying to avoid.

"You get to the point where . . . you've got to see what matters most," Perata said on the steps of the Capitol. "And I don't want to go through what we went through last year. The state can't afford it. You know how things are at the end of a campaign. They get uglier and uglier, tenser and tenser, and it made no sense."

"I wouldn't have gotten into this if I didn't think it could have," he said. "I didn't use a lot of people's money for an ego trip." There was another take on the success of the effort by a Merced democrat and elected official named Larry Morse, who said "It did not seem to have any legs and clearly did not have support in the district, which is where these things really must originate,"

In a zen like conclusion to the press conference, Perata described the effect of pulling the plug on the campaign "It's like a tree falling in the forest and nobody's there," he said.

From all the stories on this effort, the State Treasurer, Bill Lockyer, who is a former Pro Tem, seems to have had some effect on Perata. Lockyer argued that the state needs to construct a budget settlement sooner rather than later simply because of potential cash flow problems. That would make sense in a normal year, but it makes even more sense in this one.

The most recent PPIC poll summed voter thinking up about how well the Capitol is functioning. Since December the positive feelings about the collective work of the California legislature, never in high numbers, has dropped 16%. Ultimately the Pro Tem made the right call here. I do not have any strong feelings for the senator who Perata was trying to recall, but a lot could have been avoided by thinking about this outcome before this whole farce was begun.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

It is always darkest before the Times

As covered in a couple of earlier posts, the NYTs seemed last week to be rationalizing that the Wright story did not matter to the Obama campaign. Based on results in Indiana and North Carolina that is baloney. About half the voters yesterday thought the Wright matter was important - and for those who did between 57%(North Carolina) and 70%(Indiana) went for Clinton. Those who thought it not important went for Obama.

Ultimately, in spite of the gyrations that the NYT has gone through on this story, Wright is likely to be a continuing issue. But McCain would be wise not to wedge this issue. The concerns of voters on Obama's linkages to Wright will work their way through without the necessity of festering them. Roveesque strategies are not going to be helpful here.

I spoke this morning with a fellow political junkie who has recently begun working in higher education. During his career, this guy has worked for democrats. He expressed a couple of very cogent thoughts. First, he thought that the mood of the country is not positive for the republicans. I think that is fundamentally sound, and what McCain needs to do is to convince enough of the country that he is not one of them - at least on the issues that they don't like about the current incumbent. With his strong support for the war - many democrats think that is a circle that cannot be squared. I am not so sure.

But my colleague also offered the idea that Obama has to be able to prove to non-democrats that he is not a Dukakis (McGovern, Mondale). That also sounds right to me.

November will come down to which candidate makes the least errors. Both could sink themselves on their choice of VP, or a host of other issues. But neither should assume that conventional wisdom, such as that offered in much of the NYT coverage, is going to be helpful.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Equity Issues in Propositions 98 and 99

The common perception about eminent domain issues is that government needs the power to force wealthy land owners to give up their selfish use for more public purposes. Public use doctrine is big in California where public access to beach land was mandated with the creation of the Coastal Commission. It is likely that proponents of broad interpretations of eminent domain, as evidenced in 99 and in the Kelo decision, will try to use an equity argument - that this power is necessary for the greater good. But as many have pointed out the issue cuts both ways.

Marginal Revolution , the excellent economics blog of Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarrok cited a Kansas City Star editorial which discusses an Alabama Advisory Commission of the US Commission on Civil Rights meeting to be held this week - the editorial begins with "Few policies have done more to destroy community and opportunity for minorities than eminent domain. Some 3 to 4 million Americans, most of them ethnic minorities, have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of urban renewal takings since World War II."

The Kelo decision set off a raft of state action to redefine the limits of permitted eminent domain actions. 42 states adopted new laws but 19 of those new laws allow states to take land under the loose definition of "blight." In the Kelo case the "public purpose" was ostensibly to enhance New London's tax base. By taking the houses of middle class taxpayers the city could encourage a major employer to maintain a presence in New London.

Interestingly, in his dissent on Kelo, Justice Thomas made the point that the broader definitions for eminent domain would be a slippery slope that would affect low income citizens more significantly. He first distinguishes between public purpose and public use - and suggests that only the latter is permitted under the Fifth Amendment. "Though one component of the protection provided by the Takings Clause is that the government can take private property only if it provides “just compensation” for the taking, the Takings Clause also prohibits the government from taking property except “for public use.” Were it otherwise, the Takings Clause would either be meaningless or empty." And later he comments "The most natural reading of the Clause is that it allows the government to take property only if the government owns, or the public has a legal right to use, the property, as opposed to taking it for any public purpose or necessity whatsoever."

Justice Thomas was passionate in his dissent arguing that the expansion of the definition of what is appropriate to take in eminent domain will fall on those with the least power. " Allowing the government to take property solely for public purposes is bad enough, but extending the concept of public purpose to encompass any economically beneficial goal guarantees that these losses will fall disproportionately on poor communities. Those communities are not only systematically less likely to put their lands to the highest and best social use, but are also the least politically powerful. If ever there were justification for intrusive judicial review of constitutional provisions that protect “discrete and insular minorities,” United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152, n. 4 (1938), surely that principle would apply with great force to the powerless groups and individuals the Public Use Clause protects. The deferential standard this Court has adopted for the Public Use Clause is therefore deeply perverse. It encourages “those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” to victimize the weak."

Monday, May 05, 2008

A record versus innuendo

The current mayor of Sacramento succeeded Joe Serna, who was one of the best in the city's history. But by any account, even being charitable, she has not been up to the task. Her opponent is a former basketball player named Kevin Johnson. Over the last couple of days the Bee has posed a series of questions to each of the candidates. Johnson's answers seem prepared and safe. So do the current mayor's (Heather Fargo). I was struck in reading Fargo's responses in the paper at how little substance she offered.

But there seems to be a cloud of charges against Johnson. Some have argued that his self help project, called St. Hope Academy is a sham. From all that I have seen, that is nonsense. Some have argued that he is a "slumlord." But when you looked behind the charges, they were also nonsense. Now a series of charges have been made against Johnson that he "groped" a student in his charter school. The Bee's editor argued, and I believe correctly, that the charges were serious enough that they merited investigation. If the charges are true, Johnson should not be in the race. But I wonder whether the charges will turn out to be as true as the rest of the nonsense that Fargo's rather disreputable campaign manager has tried to put out there. Her campaign manager has a long record of spinning innuendo upon innuendo.

The rap against Fargo is more clear cut. The mayor fancies herself as a policy wonk. But her record as a leader leaves a lot to be desired. IT is clear that the Fargo camp would rather not compare her six years to her predecessor's. While Joe did some outlandish things, he also did some important ones. Fargo's record has let the city drift. She's done a lousy job of encouraging downtown development. Large blocks of the K-Street mall are decrepit. The city forced out producing businesses in places on the mall to get a grand plan going. That left part of the core looking like it was abandoned. Fargo also did a horrible job of trying to negotiate a deal to develop a large parcel of downtown land which once was a railroad yard.

I no longer live in the city of Sacramento. But if I did, and if the charges against Johnson turn out to be as specious as the previous ones, I would vote enthusiastically for Johnson.

Tosca in Sacramento

The Sacramento Opera Company finished a very good season with Tosca - guaranteed to fill the house but also an opera that is hard to do well. Tosca is performed so often that it is easy to get into the cliche of Puccini rather than getting to the substance of the story. When I was on the Opera Board many years ago we were doing another production and my then young son went to a dress rehearsal of the performance. We finally had to leave, before the third act, and as we were driving home he asked about how it came out. I explained the rest of the story to which he concluded "That is a dumb story." In many ways I agree - it can easily come out sappy - like so many productions of Boheme. I am not by nature a Puccini fan. My parents had a long discussion about who was better - Verdi or Puccini and I sided with my father (Verdi) over my mother.

Cornell McNeil argued that Tosca should only be two acts. He did, IMHO, the definitive Scarpia. And when Scarpia is laid out at the end of the second act, the opera might well end. In this production Rod Nelman is an excellent Scarpia and you could have made the McNeil case. He was menacing but cunning at the same time. And more importantly his voice could carry the role. In the second act Scarpia shows himself as a lecher when he boasts "The violent conquest has a stronger flavor. " Nelman had a subtle mix that was wonderful.

The other main characters in the opera are Tosca (Marie Plette) and Cavaradossi (Dinyar Vania). Both were excellent. Tosca's jealousy, which sets up the opportunity for Scarpia to make his move, was well expressed. Cavaradossi was ever the artist but with a strong reaction to the evil of Scarpia.

One other character deserves mention (although all of the lead voices were wonderful). A young student plays Spoletta - the aide to Scarpia. In this production Jonathan Hansen plays him almost as an Igor - a devoted abetter of Scarpia. It is a characterization that I had never thought of but I think the young Hansen carries it off.

I have never enjoyed the third act of this opera before. There are some great arias there, some reprises of earlier themes. The Sacramento production begins with the garroting of Marchessa Attavanti (Rebecca Plack). It adds a bit of horror to the production but also heightens the drama in the prison. In this production the interaction between Tosca and Cavaradossi is wonderful. Even the seemingly trite jump from Castle St. Angelo was well done.

The company only has one more performance (Tuesday) but if there are tickets available they should be snapped up.

An Addendum to Whistling in the Dark

As the campaign progresses it becomes even more silly. On This Week (ABC) George Stephanopoulos asked Senator Clinton if she could name a single economist who supported the gas tax amnesty. She replied “I’m not going to put in my lot with economists.” Thereby losing any hope of gaining votes from this block of voters - Economist Vote! Later she added “Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.” One would assume that she would not include the New York Times, which endorsed her in her state's primary. But then this statement really follows her husband's tradition of assuming that none of us remember what she said in other places. Ah well, some of us do.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

An interesting documentary that could have evolved a bit better with a bit more intelligent design (puns intended)

On Saturday we saw Expelled; No Intelligence Allowed the new Ben Stein documentary on the perils of supporting the Intelligent Design theory. I think the basic points of the documentary are fundamentally sound. First, Stein argues that a good deal of the scientific community is in a Pre-Kuhnesque state of denial about the potential for alternative explanations to the full theory of Darwinism. He shows a couple of cases where a seemingly distinguished scholar was dismissed for even mentioning the ideas of Intelligent Design. Kuhn's classic (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) argued that as science elaborates theories, the practitioners also build defense systems to contrary ideas, until at some point, the weight of evidence against prevailing logic is over-turned. From what I have read and heard about the issue, I think that is an accurate reflection.

Stein's second point is that a good deal of the forebearers of Darwinism, including Darwin himself, have a less than savory past. He makes a big point of arguing that Darwin's theories influenced Nazism in its worst dimensions.

Where I had a problem with the movie was in its storyline. Stein decided that people who were going to see the movie needed no introduction to the issue, but for some in the theater, including my wife, that was wrong. There are a couple of very good interviews in the movie including one with Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist, who is evidently suing Stein about the use of the footage of his interview in the movie. IMHO, Dawkins looks like an ideological fool. But for those who have read his books on religion, I think he is quoted accurately, if not entirely in a positive way. At the same time, former media groupie Yoko Ono, has tried to argue that Stein's use of a short piece of John Lennon's Imagine is violative of copyright - what nonsense - but then what would you expect from her?

The second quibble I had with the movie was Stein's interviewing technique. He could do a lot to build that skill. I understand, that in interviews like the Dawkins one, he was trying to build a record. But in many cases his style does little to get the issues he is trying to cover exposed.

After you get through both of those defects, I thought the movie was both interesting and informative. I just think with a bit less of Stein's interview style and a bit more work on doing a script which had a bit more coherence, it could have been even better.

Whistling in the Dark

The NYT carried a story this morning about results of a CBS/NYT poll which IMHO is suspect. It concludes that a) voters are unaffected by the stories about the increasingly bizarre behavior of Senator Obama's former pastor and b) that they understand that the gas tax holiday proposed by Senators Clinton and McCain is a gimmick.

But as you look at the poll, here is some data which seems to contradict the substance of the story. For example, in February, the same poll found that 59% of projected democrat voters thought Mr. Obama was the stronger candidate, but according to the poll results now the results are about even. If the Wright story is not hurting Mr. Obama's position then what is? On the toughness scale Obama comes in behind both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain. According to the poll only 24% of the voters thought the Wright issue would affect their vote. But in any recent election putting 24% of the electorate in play should be worrisome. What's more the poll respondents think almost half of the voters will be affected by the story.

On the gas tax - the poll seems to say that the voters understand they are being pandered to by Senators McCain and Clinton. But that understanding does not seem to diminish their support for the policy nor does it increase support for Obama. Don't get me wrong, I think Senator Obama is correct on the issue. That notwithstanding I believe he is wrong on the politics.

We do way too much polling in any election cycle but these results suggest that the media should also be a bit more careful in analyzing results.

UPDATE - in an update the Times changed the lead for the story to say that "In Poll, Obama Survives Furor, but Fall Is the Test" - that is a much more reasonable introduction to the poll results

Friday, May 02, 2008

Clara Peller would be proud

Disputing a Call
Original photo by drtaxsacto
At last night's Rivercats game the manager of the Royals disputed a claim of a fair ball which eventually became the game winning run. Landon Powell had two homers but his second one caused the dispute. He hit a long high ball toward the foul pole in left field. From our perspective it cleared the pole easily. The poles at Raley field have a flag which extends into fair territory. The ball was well in the middle of that flag (although above it) as it sailed out. Powell's homer also brought in Joe Gaetti. That sealed the deal. The Umpire should have thrown the manager out. He started yammering at the Ump at home plate and then took it down the first base line.

It reminded me a one of Bob Geren's tactics in one of the first seasons. It was late in the game and the Cats got a bad call (in the case last night the Ump made the right call) and Geren went out to beef it. He got increasingly agitated and when blue finally threw him out, he began his walk out to the clubhouse. It must have taken him 5 minutes to walk across the field. The Cats eventually won the game and it was pretty clear that Geren's slow walk had fired them up.

Last night, the Royal's manager was not thrown out and they did not win.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Proposition 98 and 99

A friend asked me about two items on the June California ballot - Proposition 98 and 99. They purport to respond to the Kelo decision. The Kelo decision (Kelo v. the City of New London) was the Rhenquist court at its worst. It involved a group of homeowners in middle class homes who wanted to stay in their neighborhood. The city of New London wanted to condemn their properties under the shoddy rationale that tax revenues were declining. They proposed to take that land and transfer it to a large local employer, Pfizer, for the development of a company conference center. The court, in a split decision, affirmed the right of the city to take the land. The swing vote in this travesty was Justice Kennedy. Justice O'Conner wrote the majority opinion.

Eminent domain is always a touchy issue. Traditionally it applied only to transfers for public purposes - roads and schools were most often. But in recent years jurisdictions have tried to use the power to cure what they perceive as "blight." The City of Sacramento had tried to use the power in seeking to revitalize the K Street Mall. Their manifest incompetence in managing this asset can be seen by simply walking down the mall. One shop owner, who I dealt with, was moved out of his place of business almost five years ago and the spot remains vacant. In this case the California Constitution sets a pretty high standard when land is taken for a public purpose “Private property may be taken or damaged for public use only when just compensation. . . has first been paid to. . .the owner.”

Proposition 98 is the more restrictive of the two. Like many propositions it could have benefitted from a public airing - but the legislature punted on the issue. It would set some very high standards for condemnations. Not only would it require stricter adherence to the state's constitutional standards but it would also allow property owners to begin to claim damages for governmental policies which have the effect of diminishing value. For example, most observers believe that it would allow property owners to reclaim value when environmental land use restrictions are adopted. It would also phase out rent controls in the state. The real question before the voters on Proposition 98 is whether these restrictions are too stringent.

Proposition 99 is a sham. It was written to confuse the voters. It does two things. First, it would establish the very limited restriction that governments could not transfer a private residence and transfer it to another private entity. Second, it creates a poison pill that if both propositions pass and 99 gets a higher vote, 98 is null and void.

My inclination is to vote against 99. I will do some more thinking about 98 but at this point I could be convinced.