Sunday, August 31, 2008

Several Times a Season

As a season ticket holder you get four passes to go to the Solon Club if you are not in the category. We've never taken advantage of that benefit. It is not that I am an egalitarian. But as the first two pictures attest, the Solon Club is out of the action. The first photo is in the Solon Club, the second is from our regular seats. I prefer being able to get into the game. I've never been a fan of Skyboxes either. The last time I went to a Giants game in a sky box I was bored. Sure you could see the game on TV but why bother to go to a game to be able to see it on the Tele? The food in the Solon Club is supposed to be better - although I think the food at Raley Field is pretty good. So I remain committed to sitting outside the Solon Club.

The last photo is of Brooks Conrad, the current second baseman for the Cats. My wife has liked his play all season. He has played 115 games with 457 at bats and 112 hits, 28 doubles, 28 home runs and 91 RBIs and 5 triples (Leads the team on all three). He went up to the bigs for 6 games this season and scored 2 RBIs off 19 at bats. The switch hitter went to ASU. My wife was excited to meet him - and it helps a good cause - the Rivercats foundation.

Change We Can Believe In

When Kathleen Blanco was governor of Louisiana it was if the Keystone Cops were running the state. True, Governor Blanco had a rough relationship with the Mayor of Louisiana. But her preparedness for hurricane Katrina ranked among the worst displays of public leadership of any in memory. That was an exceptionally high standard as she had Mayor Nagin and the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)(Michael Brown) rivaled her incompetency or exceeded it - but she was pretty bad herself. At the end of the disaster (both the weather problem and her administration) Governor Blanco said "At the state level, we must take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again. The buck stops here, and as your governor, I take full responsibility." And she correctly declined to run for re-election.

This afternoon, as hurricane Gustav approached, there was another vision. The new Governor, seemed to be on the spot and prepared with a definitive list of priorities both before the hurricane hits and afterword. Jindal seemed well organized. He also seemed to understand that this was not, as Blanco seemed to consider the events around Katrina, a chance to do dueling press conferences but a chance to lead. I am not sure what will happen when Gustav hits land. I hope the storm is not as bad as Katrina was, but I was really impressed with Jindal's organization. He truly seemed to be a different kind of governor, prepared to use the resources of government creatively in response to a pending problem. It would be refreshing to see more of our political leaders start from the premise that the job we hire them for is to govern not to engage in endless public feuds.

Let's get this one out of the system

Last night was not a game to remember. The Cats did not seem to have much interest in playing up to their normal game. Leonard DiNardo pitched a total of 81 pitches but that produced 15 runs. The several Cats pitchers who followed him - did a good job of relieving but by then the damage was done. We speculated that Todd Steverson may have decided to let the thing play out to rest the other pitchers on the staff - but I wonder whether such a drubbing for one pitcher is good for the rest.

The Cats have two games left with Fresno (tonight and then a day game tomorrow) and then a day off and on the third the playoffs begin. Because this is an even numbered year - they need to win at least one away - in both the Pacific Conference series (against the Salt Lake Bees) and in the PCL finals (against the winners of the American Conference) the Cats would play their first two games at home and the final three on the road. Their streak on their last 9 has been - 3 for 9. BUt let's hope they are really just getting ready for the post season.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Preliminary Thoughts on Governor Palin

McCain's nomination of the Alaska Governor looks pretty good at first blush for a couple of reasons. First, she has more executive experience (as Mayor, Governor and leader of an Association of Mayors) than either Obama, McCain or Biden. Second, from her introductory speech - she seems pretty well spoken. I could see her tying Biden in knots - he is used to the rhythms of the Senate. Third, neither party will be much divided. There has been a lot of talk about crossovers. I suspect, while she may have some chance to get Hillary voters (although who knows - Obama and Clinton did a good job in doing the preliminary heal of that breach) McCain has locked in all but the looniest of conservatives. Fourth, the Alaska problems actually work in her favor - she ran against the machine. When compared to Biden she also looks like a legitimate outsider. The ability of Obama to claim the mantle of change will be in serious question with a 35 year veteran senator on his ticket. Conversely, McCain is still an outsider and he reinforced it. McCain was smart enough to think outside the box (Obama's choice did not accomplish that and IMHO made him look more like a Washington insider - that is not space he wants to occupy.) Finally, she helps to reinforce in some areas where Obama has fewer cards (Colorado and most of the West including New Mexico) - I can see her talking to small town America. I am also not convinced that Biden is indeed the proxy for Joe Sixpack. His Washington demeanor - in spite of all his train rides - may simply not convince many about his roots.

But then the question comes does she seal the deal? My answer here is more equivocal. The last female on a ticket proved to be a disaster when she was fully vetted. It is unclear whether Mondale would have won in any event but Ferraro did nothing to help. Ultimately, this election will come down to how people feel about Senator Obama. That was reinforced by McCain's choice. Based on his speech on Thursday evening, I think he began a process of helping to build an image that might work - but there is a long time between now and election day. Worst case for the GOP - Palin could prove an unknown quantity. Or the dems could be successful in tying McCain to Bush - they sure tried during this week. Worst case for the Dems - Obama does not build his ratings on leadership abilities. Right now the American people are unsure about him. If he does not overcome that he loses. But at this time - it is an interesting choice.

Obama's Acceptance Speech

The Senator proved again that he is pretty good on rhetoric - and indeed, some of the speech was a significant change from standard democratic lines. I thought the best line was "Change does not come from Washington, we bring change to Washington." Unfortunately, the rhetoric and the reality of Mr. Obama's proposals significantly diverge. Two examples, among many, should illustrate the point. Every expert who has looked at it argues that the Social Security system is unsound from an actuarial perspective but Obama's proposal is to add to the tax burden of the system by creating a new level of taxes for people who make (by most descriptions of his plan) more than $250,000 in wages. There are two problems with that approach. First, it further complicates an already complicated tax system. Second, despite the rhetoric of his economic advisors, it raises rates significantly for this group of taxpayers.

A second example comes in student loans. Since the Clinton administration there have been two types of student loans. The first are called the Family Federal Education Loans (FFEL). FFELs are offered through banks with a federal subsidy. The second type is called the Direct Student Loan Program (DSLP). Direct loans are funded and administered directly (as the name implies) from the federal government to institutions. The federal government, as has been amply demonstrated in other activities like this (think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) has not proven especially adept at managing these kinds of transactions. But Senator Obama proposes to rely exclusively on the DSLP.

I did not get to see the speech, I was at Stanford's opening football game (quite a good game where the Cardinal thrashed Oregon State) and the reports of the speech were that the camera angles were well done so that the "temple Obama" images were not a factor and that most of the imaging was like Obama was in a soft window - that is probably good. Mrs. Mikey tried to defend Temple Obama by pointing out that a) GWB had similar backdrops for his acceptance speech and b) that the set was attempting to recreate the back drop of Dr. King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Pardon me but from my relatively untrained eye the set from which Senator Obama spoke looks a lot more like the 2005 Inaugural Platform than the Lincoln Memorial.

Ultimately, all of this imaging stuff looks a lot to me like what Lennie Riefenstahl tried to create in Triumph des Willens and in her work on the 1936 Olympics. Riefenstahl was a master at imaging who claimed to be apolitical. Since she first created those images, every politician (not just Obama) has tried to build a heroic image visually. In my opinion that helps to create a separation in American politics which is troubling. Part of the "rock star" criticism that the McCain people have leveled against Senator Obama is valid (although let's wait until next week to see if Senator McCain falls into the same trap). The danger of all this heroic stuff is that it establishes a distance between the elected official and the constituents. That ultimately creates an "us against them" feeling which I believe is unhealthy in the long term. For me the strongest part of Obama's speech were the passages that recognized those splits - I was especially impressed with his comments about the divides on abortion and gay rights - both issues have been painted in stylized yammering which is divisive (by both sides by the way). But as I noted at the start, the set from which he worked and the substance of Senator Obama's speech/proposals did not confirm his elegant discussions of a number of policies where the American people are clearly ahead of the politicians.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Backup with a difference

This morning our accountants asked me for a document I prepare annually for our board. It is done in two forms. Part includes an evaluation of accomplishments and challenges from the last year - that is a public document that goes to the board and to anyone else who expresses interest. The second version also includes some sensitive information including salary comparisons. For obvious reasons, that part of the document is treated as confidential. But the board needs it to comply with something in the tax code called intermediate sanctions (§4958 of the Internal Revenue Code). They take that requirement seriously, as they should, but even if they did not were they not to be able to present evidence that they considered comparable salaries when setting mine they could be personally liable for any potential "excess" benefit. For some reason I had inadvertently saved the version without the comparison on my laptop and we could not find a version of the full file.

When Apple announced TIme Capsule, I bought it because I thought it might someday be useful. It wirelessly (more importantly) and effortlessly backs up your hard disk - so you can go back to a specific date and retrieve earlier versions of a document. I did that tonight - effortlessly. In one search, I found the value of the device. All I can say is WOW!


The photo is supposedly of the platform that Senator Obama will use tomorrow to deliver his acceptance speech. IMHO it invites parody. Political conventions,like the Olympics, may have outlived their usefulness. But it seems odd and off putting to offer up this kind of regal platform - that copies the inaugural platform before the guy has actually been elected. I am less inclined to vote for a candidate who does not get that. But let's see how the GOP does their outdated show.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The first night of the convention

I understand why Teddy Kennedy excites democrats - although I was bothered by how diminished he is. He spoke to a group I work with a couple of years ago and did a good job of presenting his views. But tonight I kept thinking the presentation was more for him than for the audience. He certainly is a symbol for the party.

Michelle Obama showed herself to be intelligent but I wonder whether these kinds of speeches are more than a future set of soundbites. I do not believe that these kinds of biographical pieces are sufficiently informative to actually offer something outside of the well packaged model that we have seen in the last year and a half. As an undecided voter, I had no more reason to vote for Senator Obama than before the speech.

But the odd duck tonight was Jim Leach. Leach was never a very good member of his own party, which he at least still claimed in the speech. In 2006 he was defeated by a college professor.. At that time he was an anomaly to the prevailing story by the media of the election. Indeed, although the Republicans had a bad election year in 2006, the "moderates" in the party who opposed the war, had an even worse year. They lost in larger percentages than other candidates.

About two weeks ago he came out for Senator Obama. That is certainly his right. But I doubt whether his rhetoric will move anyone. He gave a lame speech. I understand why parties want to put up someone from the other party. But like Zell Miller's over the top speech to the Republicans, I am unconvinced that they make a whit of difference. The commentators tried to make the case that a lot of GOP faithful are considering Obama - the polls say different - that a lot of Hillary supporters are considering McCain. I suspect that crossovers will not determine this election. When Zell Miller gave his speech at the GOP convention, I kept thinking, this is a guy who wants one more day in the spotlight. That could be true for Leach also. He's gotten an interim gig at Harvard's Institute for Politics but in this performance he looked like a RINO out of water. The crowd response was underwhelming, and it should have been.

NPR does one right

As I was driving to Apple this morning for a meeting I listened (uncharacteristically I might add) to NPR and Linda Wertheimer talk about the Democrat's nominations process. It was a very good piece. Wertheimer explained that the party, starting in 1972, decided to try to involve more "people" in their process. She argued that Obama understood the game in this election this year better than his opponents because he understood that the way that the process is structured that the loser in big states actually wins. In smaller states, the benefits of winning are heightened. Wertheimer then argued that Obama created a strategy which recognized that and then instead of Clinton's approach (concentrate on the big states) he pursued a lot of individual races in congressional districts and a lot of the caucus states. Note: Roger SImon at Politico had a similar conclusion in a long piece (this is part 2) on how Obama won the nomination.

There is one problem with that which may come back to bite him however. The participants in the democratic primaries are not the general electorate. So his focus and base is left of where the electorate is in most elections. Whether this hurts Obama in this election remains to be seen. But it is a long term problem for those who would like to elect presidents from the Democrat party. Wertheimer's report pointed out the obvious tradeoffs of involving too many people on one side of the political spectrum.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Biden Choice

There is lots being written about the choice of Senator Joe Biden by Senator Obama.

I have three comments.

First, this is a very conventional choice. Obama clearly has a weak spot on experience and another, as he demonstrated in the Georgia crisis, on foreign policy. Biden could help to shore those weaknesses up. The splash on the Obama website may have a tendency to up the level of parody about Obama as the Messiah - Barrack has Chosen?

Second, this is a very conventional choice. For a candidate who claims to be an agent of change - this looks like a denial of that theme. Biden is in his sixth term as a senator so he is a quintessential insider in Washington. BIden also ran for president twice - neither time particularly successfully. Richard Cohen, the WP columnist, argued that one of Biden's failings was "manic-obsessive running of the mouth." In October of 2007 one observer commented about Biden's responses an experienced candidate, he "stumbled through a discourse on race and education, leaving the impression that he believes one reason that so many District of Columbia schools fail is the city's high minority population." In October 2007 BIden said to a presumed Indian supporter "In Delaware, you cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin' Donuts, unless you have a slight Indian accent." The Video of that event can be seen by clicking the link. The choice is unconventional in one sense. It is unclear what he will add to the ticket in terms of electoral heft. It is not as if Delaware or the mid-atlantic region was ever in play.

There is one contrary indicator for the choice. One could make a case that Joe Biden is the Democrat's Strom Thurmond. Thurmond was a senator for almost 60 years. But when you look at his record of leadership he was an insider's insider. None of the positions that Thurmond held came to him except by seniority. That is also true of Biden. His roles on Foreign Relations and Judiciary came about because of time in seat. To my knowledge he has never sought or been considered for leadership positions in the Senate like Whip, or Majority Leader.

Third, this choice puts a lot more emphasis on Obama. Early in this campaign I believed that the choice of VP for both candidates would be very important. While Biden is not a negative choice (except for his tendency to make gaffes) he also does not offer much of a boost. If McCain is able to pull off a truly unconventional choice, the Biden choice will be a mistake. McCain has an opportunity he did not have yesterday, if he chooses someone who is not a Washington insider but has some executive experience. I don't think that describes Romney but he has a couple of other interesting choices. If McCain sticks with a conventional choice, then the focus will be on whether the American people trust an inexperienced guy over, in Paris Hilton's words, an old guy. With the perceptions of Bush and the economy, that might be enough. But as I move around the country, I am increasingly convinced that the American people are growing skeptical of mantras that don't actually represent change.

Playoffs in the Future

The Cats won the Southern Division title tonight over the Fresno Grizzlies. Colorado also beat the Las Vegas 51s so they actually won it outright. Gregorio Petit hit his first homer of the year. Wes Bankston also hit one.

The shot is of Gregorio earlier in the season. He's had some rough times this season but for the last couple of weeks he has begun to hit pretty well - he is now at .288.

The playoffs begin soon after Labor Day - with our first two games at home on the 3rd and 4th. The other divisions have not yet been decided so we will have to wait a bit to see who we will play. If we make it through the divisional championships the league championships are the next week. In that series our home games would be on the 9th and 10th.

Our last home series starts against Fresno next Friday. Saturday night is McCain/Obama bobblehead night although they will have only 1500 of each bobblehead - so it is unclear whether they will be taking an informal poll.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Short History of Student Loans

In 1971, I was working for a US Senator from Vermont(Winston Prouty - first picture), who was the ranking member on the subcommittee that would rewrite the Higher Education Act. Federal higher education policy had gone through two previous revisions in recent years. In the mid-1950s Congress had adopted the National Defense Education Act that was designed to encourage more people to go compete against the commies by being better educated. Then less than a decade later, as a part of LBJs Great Society, Congress adopted the Higher Education Act which created some new forms of student assistance and other programs for aiding college students. In the early 1970s the Congress began a process, now familiar, called reauthorization. The Act, eventually adopted in 1972 (called the Education Amendments of 1972) began with a philosophical debate between Edith Green (second picture) and Claiborne Pell(third picture).

Green, who chaired the higher education subcommittee in the House thought any new programs should go through institutions. Pell, on the other hand, thought aid should go through students. The republicans who were in the minority in both houses, decided to side with the Pell view of the world. In those days it was possible to do some bipartisan work and in part because Pell was from Rhode Island and Prouty from Vermont (and the third major player in those discussions - Jacob Javits from New York) they figured out how to get along. Ultimately the 1972 Act took Pell's notion not Green's.

Prouty had a major role on the bill on student loans. A problem facing student loans at that time was liquidity. The assets were hard to move. Sure they were guaranteed by the federal government. But many banks did not like them as an asset class because they were illiquid and because each loan was pretty small compared to mortgages. So Congress created, with my boss' leadership, a secondary market mechanism to allow banks to make the loan and then sell it off. That mechanism was called the Student Loan Marketing Association or Sallie Mae. Sallie Mae was one of those public-private partnerships. It soon became apparent that like others of its ilk, the balance did not work. Sallie Mae was a lot more entrepreneurial than its founders had thought it would be. It was not all that surprising. Very soon into its future, Sallie Mae was reconstituted as a private entity.

Loans soon became a big business. That happened for a lot of reasons. First, the original premise of the 1972 Higher Education Act was altered - and the value of grant assistance in relation to loans began to change. Second, higher education's prices continued to rise - so the real cost to students grew. Beginning in the 1990s banks began to be very interested in student loans. Unlike the conditions which spawned Sallie Mae, they were now guaranteed assets that could be sold off very easily. When the banks held them they had a guaranteed return. How about an asset class that had a guaranteed return and could be sold off easily? Competition for loans began to heat up. That accelerated when a new class of loans began to appear.

The original maximum limit for loans did not expand quickly enough and so a new class of loans was created that were called Alternative or Private Loans. Banks were pretty creative in the way these loans were structured. They had all sorts of rates and repayment terms. And some began pretty aggressive sales programs with institutions. Beginning a few years ago student aid officer conventions began to have some pretty lavish perks. That induced some ambitious politicians to begin to nose around a bit. The NY AG began a series of highly publicized intrusions into institutions and rooted out some financial aid officers who had some serious conflicts of interest - but like most politicians he also tarred some very good people who had simply been doing their job.

There was one other thread here. Congress had two factions on student loans. One thought the private markets should operate - albeit with federal guarantees and subsidies. The other thought the federal government should run loans (because they would take the profit out of the program). One of the major initiatives of the Clinton administration was the creation of a competitor to the traditional federal student loan called the Direct Loan Program. It was really a return to the original structure of the student loan program. Rather than having banks issue loans which were guaranteed by the federal government, the DLP had institutions issue the loan using federal funds. The original program had been called the Federally Insured Student Loan Program(the acronym was an apt one). In the 1972 and 1978 reauthorizations the private sector was given a larger role because the feds had proved incompetent at collecting loans - defaults were sky-high. The two programs (DLP and FFEL) ran as competing models for a couple of years.

But the supporters of the DLP and budget hawks thought the FFEL (the Family Federal Education Loan) would be an easy target for budget savings. Last year margins for the FFEL loans were reduced substantially and then in a pretty quick turnaround they were partially restored because the banks began dropping out of the program in huge numbers.

That is a pretty confusing story - and a long one. On the one hand you have a group who believe that the private sector will be more efficient than the government. On the other you have a group that believes that these kinds of things are best done as government enterprises because there is greater surety that the public nature of the programs will be protected. These arguments have been replicated in many areas of government activity. But there are two conclusions I take from all the history. First, the tradeoff of increased government support has been a lot more regulation. The recent reauthorization of the Higher Education Act contained precious little new authorizations for spending and tons of new regulations - reporting requirements and other new rules that simply increase costs for colleges. The balance of benefits to costs has clearly been destroyed. Second, the ingenuity of the market seems to be reasserting itself. Version 1.0 of alternative loans were opaque and confusing for borrowers (some lenders refused to disclose the terms of the loan until it had been executed). This year I have spent a lot of time looking at alternatives to the current programs - and there are some interesting variations that will offer borrowers some real refinements and options with a significant increase in transparency.

There is one other conclusion here. In the 1972 process democrats and republicans were able to work together to think about competing visions of how federal policy should work. That is simply no longer true. Prouty, Javits and Pell had significant philosophical differences about a lot of things - but they found a way to work with each other. The 1972 Act (which also included some huge contributions from House members) was unique for accomplishing a fundamental discussion about policy. The whole process took about two years to accomplish. In this iteration, it took almost a decade and the result was unsatisfying for both members of congress and colleges.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rankings with Sense

In the realm of higher education the US News annual college ranking edition has been quite controversial. Many administrators have argued that the ranking is flawed because of a number of variations in the process. The US News edition that includes the college rankings is the biggest seller for the magazine. So they certainly have a strong economic interest in the project. But US News has been remarkably opaque about their ranking system - they have changed the ranking system almost annually.

The most troubling part of the process of ranking is the survey on reputations. That survey amounts to 25% of the total ranking and looks an awful lot like a glorified gossip source. For the past couple of years, the percentage responses has been declining rather precipitously. This year 46% of the surveys were returned. That is good news for the magazine but it is great news for the rest of us.

In the last couple of years some very prestigious colleges and universities have decided not to participate in the survey. For example, the Annapolis Group, a group of selective liberal arts colleges have been the most vociferous critics of the US News process and substance. The college rankings are tweaked a bit each year by altering the variables - but the attitudes survey is always a major part.

This is not to say that students and families should not have transparent information to understand the breadth of college and university opportunities in the country. They should. But the US News project is more about selling magazines than providing transparent information. So bravo to the colleges and universities who just said no to US News.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sometimes being ignored is just dandy

In the last eight years there has been a lot of discussion about "faith based initiatives" by the Bush White House and others. Both presidential campaigns have spent at least some time in making proposals to link the non-profit community closer to government. Today's Washington Post has an article which quotes one Robert Egger from something called the Capitol Kitchen. Egger urges government to become more involved with the non-profit world by saying "We're the only industry of this size and scope that doesn't have a real voice in this process. At best, we're humored. At worst, we're ignored."

The Post article also recognizes a group called America Forward which claims to be "a coalition of more than 60 results-oriented, entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations that are working in communities across the country to solve some of the most pressing problems facing our nation." Kim Syman who is a co-founder says "Philanthropy can fail in a way that government can't. But we can catalyze government investment in growing what works." All that is true but it may be a strong argument for reducing rather than enhancing the direct relationships between government and the non-profit sector.

As one who has worked at the intersection of government and the non-profit sector for more than thirty years, I agree with Congressman John Lewis, who is no slouch in the world of non-profits but also in the world of politics. Lewis is quoted in the article as suggesting that "Sometimes we (Congress) can get in the way."

The relationship between higher education and federal largess is a prime example. Aid to colleges and universities (after the GI bill) began to flow in the late 1950s with the National Defense Education Act. It expanded greatly in 1965 and 1972 with two major expansions of federal policy. However, as I have noted in an earlier post, the most recent iteration of the law federal law on higher education is very short on support and very long on regulation (by one count more than 140 new reporting requirements). For the last several years we've had a secretary of education who believes it is her job to manage colleges and universities into a disgusting uniformity.

On Saturday night, at the Saddleback Civic Forum, Senator Obama stumbled over an answer on faith based initiatives (this is not a criticism of his answer) because he seems to be genuinely struggling over how much of a relationship is appropriate between faith based organizations and the government. That was in no way a sign of the Senator's evasion of the issue but rather a reflection of the very deep issues that face deeper involvement between government and the non-profit sector. One person in the Post article suggests that we need a Nonprofit Administration to match the structure of the Small Business Administration. Excuse me but that would be a horrid idea.

Olympics Curmudgeon

I am not sure why I think this but I am not really all that excited about the Olympics. Here are the reasons. #1 - I am impressed with some of the physical abilities of many of the athletes but the range of events is a bit of an overload for me, especially near the end of the AAA baseball season. I honestly don't care whether some Russian woman who can bench press a million pounds but looks like a fattened hog wins over her equally absurd competitor. #2 - Some of the sports don't seem real - how about synchronized diving? Who thought that one up? #3 - The judging in many of the events is bizarre. Last night we watched the individual events on the women's gymnastics - on the uneven parallel bars there was a dispute for the Gold and the Silver between a Chinese athlete and an American one. The decision on awarding the Gold to the Chinese athlete involved a procedure for breaking a tie that no one - not the officials nor the coaches nor the expert commentators could explain. It looked a lot to me that the award was almost given at random. #4 - With the Internet you know the results before they are telecast. #5 - I am not sure that the Olympic ideal is still there. Indeed, the best athletes in the world in basketball are there but how can one say that NBA stars have any relation to the notion of an amateur. #5 - The IOC voted baseball and softball out of the 2012 games. #6 - The expert commentary is odd. I am not sure where the networks get many of the commentators or what those people do between the games - it is hard to believe that many are gamefully employed. #6 - Especially in the children's sports the performers seem like caged birds. I wonder what kind of childhood many of those kids have. I wonder what it would be like to be 40 and a former also ran in an Olympic event.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Gridlock Nation

Dell Computer, who you may remember was at one time a forward looking company, was turned down by the Patents and Trademark office for a trademark of "cloud computing." Chutzpah computer company (or maybe even better simple exchange their E for a U) might be their better name. I have a distinct memory of using the term of the cloud in relation to computing a few years ago - when it became apparent that WEB 2.0 was going to change the way we do a lot of things. I am hardly at the cutting edge. I guess when you cannot innovate you go to cheap regulatory tricks like trying to trademark the cloud.

The WSJ catches up

In this morning's WSJ - they editorialize about Obama's comment on Clarence Thomas' qualifications. That follows my post of yesterday. But then they don't publish on Sunday.

Drilling off the California Coast

George Skelton, the veteran political reporter for the LA TImes has an interesting column this morning advocating offshore drilling. His column makes a lot of sense. When we adopted the ban on offshore drilling we imported only about a quarter of our oil now we import close to 70%. He goes on to point out that we produce only 39% of the crude oil we use, in part because of the offshore ban, and we are the biggest consumer of gasoline and diesel. He characterizes us as "slackers not pulling our weight." We will, according to Skelton, if we drop the ban Anyway, "not be shaping our foreign policy to assure a steady supply from shifty overseas sellers."

I think Mr. Skelton is right but for the wrong reasons. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization we (and Europe) account for about 32% each of banana imports in the world. We do that because they don't grow very well in most parts of the US and because other countries can grow them more efficiently and cheaply. We are very banana dependent. Indeed, Edgar E. Blanco, a research scientist at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, is working with Chiquita Brands to reduce our "carbon footprint" caused by transporting all those bananas to our markets.

If we choose not to produce something it can be for one of two reasons. First, we can make the choice, as we seem to do for bananas, that someone else can produce them better than we can - a classic division of labor. Second, we can choose to not produce something for aesthetics, as Californians seem to have done with offshore drilling. The aesthetic argument is, for me, much less compelling.

When California adopted the offshore ban on drilling they did so as a result of two arguments. They stopped drilling because some coastal residents did not like the looks of the oil derricks off our shores. At the same time we did it because some feared that the oil companies would be reckless in their pursuit of oil and would soil our beaches. Skelton says that with $4 oil we can no longer afford to make those kinds of choices. The alternative view is a bit less dependent on price and more on geopolitics.

The critics say it would take about a decade to get this capacity online - and that is probably true. But with $4 oil, the drive to explore would be pretty strong. The mere fact of our proposing to exploit an asset that we seem to have plenty of would have an immediate and beneficial effect on many of our geopolitical problem children. Think of what would happen to the tinhorns in the Middle East and Russia if the world price of oil dropped by say $50 a barrel as a result of new oil capacity being brought online.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fun Baseball

The Cats played their second game against the Tacoma Raniers tonight and in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs, Brooks Conrad belted a 2 run homer just inside the foul line to win the game. That puts the Cats 12 1/2 games up on the 51s while the Salt Lake Bees are up 5 on the Raniers. We have two more games at home against the Raniers and then a long road trip to finish up over Labor Day weekend against the Grizzlies. That resets the magic number for the Southern Division at 4 (wins by the Cats or losses by Las Vegas).

Gregorio Petit finally had a good night at home - going 4 for 4. In eight innings Brad Knox had 74 strikes on 104 pitches and allowed only 4 hits. The Raniers got 5 hits to our 13 but until Conrad bopped that one out - they were the more efficient team. We left 10 on base to their 2. But you cannot beat that finish!


In last night's exchanges with Rick Warren, Senator Obama came up with an ironic comment (I am not sure he got his own irony). He comments that Thomas was not qualified based on experience to be nominated to the Supreme Court. Let's look at the comparative resumes --

Clarence Thomas - 1974-77 - Assistant Attorney General, Missouri; 1979-1981 Staff for Senator Danforth; 1981-82 USDE Assistant Secretary; 1982-1990 - Chair of the US Civil Rights Commission (an administrative and legal function); 1990 US District Court of Appeals; 1991 - Nominated to the Supreme Court.

Barrack Obama - Illinois Senate - 1997-2004; US Senator since 2004 (for about the same amount of time that Thomas worked for Danforth). Presidential Candidate 2006-Present.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Live blogging the Cats

We're at the Cats game - where they just tied it up at 4 in the fourth.
The T-shirt cannon came out and the bullpen doused them with a water bucket.
That was a way to break up a slow game. Way cool.

The Conversation in the Cloud Continues

My blogger daughter responded to my response today and a third person (CMG) joined in the fray on our discussion about the current election. I, at least, (and probably CMG) think it is a pretty interesting exchange.

I decided to include her Google masthead to recognize her good qualities as a writer.

Betraying a Legacy

One of the best examples of understanding the power of the free was the Grateful Dead. In their concerts they encouraged fans to make tapes of the performance. The Dead understood that the lower quality tapes would help to sell the brand which would in turn move people who really wanted to hear the band at its best purchase the tapes and records (much of their stuff was before CDs).

Iowa Blogger Mike Chaser points out that the Dead's "Protectors" have tried to stop a young novelist named J.T. Dutton who wanted to offer a brief quote from Dead lyrics at the start of each chapter in her book Freaked, which is set for release in March 2009.

Is this another example of what Michael Heller called The Gridlock Economy?

Ultimately the job of the defenders of the copyrights owned by the Grateful Dead should be to enhance the value of that right. It seems that Ice 9 doesn't understand either the legacy of the band nor their responsibility. Ice 9 - by the way, is a reference to Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle. I wonder if they pay a royalty to Vonnegut's estate?

A race where we don't want to be at the top

The OECD released information (which was covered in as diverse a set of places as Tax Prof Blog or the WSJ or the
Tax Foundation) - the simple fact here is that the US is increasingly an outlier here among the developed nations of the world - our corporate tax rates are among the highest. In a global economy, this is not a place we need to be.

The problem has developed from inattention. Most other developed nations, and a lot of the developing ones, have recognized the inherent issues with corporate taxes and have moved to simplify and lower rates. To date, no one in the political spectrum has recognized this as something we should do, at least among the political class.

The OECD suggests that countries who want to have robust growth move away from income taxes - which long ago Adam Smith warned were distortive - and more to consumption based tax systems.

A third of a game in one inning

Last night was the third in a four game series with the Salt Lake Bees. The Bees have had a very strong season, until Wednesday they led the league with their record. The Cats

Kirk Saarloos pitched a strong eight innings with only 92 pitches and Jeff Gray came in in the ninth but ended up offering 28 pitches(18 of them strikes) to get the three outs. Gray had to face five batters. We got our runs early with two in the first, one in the second and one in the third. But then as one of our seatmates calls them "Those darn Bees" came back with two in the fifth and one in the seventh. In the ninth, Gray got the first two out easily, but the next three were a bit tougher. His last batter took a lot of foul cuts before being called out on strikes.

There are seventeen game days left, but there are a couple of make up games in that schedule. We are currently 9 1/2 games up on Las Vegas which leaves us with a magic number of 10. We have one more game against Salt Lake, tonight and then a series against the Tacoma Raniers. We then go on a nine day road trip (Grizzlies and Raniers) to finish up at home with the Grizzlies.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The FT 500

The Financial TImes of London does a Ranking of companies worldwide based on shareholder value (number of shares outstanding times price). At June 30 the rankings were as follows:

#1 - Exxon Mobil (of the first five - three are Oil and Gas companies including Petro China which was not on the list in 2007 and Gazprom)
#7 - Microsoft (which dropped from #3)
#8 - AT&T (China Mobile is #5 - where AT&T was in 2007, Telefonica - whose focus is fixed line is at #35) (Verizon is way down the list)
#10 & 11 - Procter and Gamble and WalMart
#13 - Berkshire Hathaway (Up from 20 and the first insurance company)
#23- Bank of America (The first bank is Chinese at #6 and then another at #20) B 0f A dropped from #8 in 2007
#24 - Roche - (the first American pharmaceutical - is Johnson and Johnson at #17 or for a pure play Pfizer at #33)
#27 - IBM (Up from #31)
#39 - Apple (Up from #85 in 2007)
#42 - Intel (up from #46 in 2007)
#48 - HP (Same in 2007)
#53 - Citigroup (Down from #4)
#56 - Google (down from #51)
#500 is Henkel - the household goodies company.

This sort of gives you a picture of who is moving and who is not. But I suspect that if oil continues its decline in price that next year Exxon will not be in the number one spot.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An exchange in the cloud

My daughter is a fine blogger. No I do not have a picture of her on a pony. In a post today, she made the following comments (NOTE: she writes about fashion and feelings from the classic LA neighborhood of Los Feliz.)

She made some interesting reflections in a post called the California Bubble on the state of the 2008 election and how living in LA might not be a good place to understand what is actually going on -- She said - It happens all the time, people in California forget about the rest of these united states. My friends and I are guilty of assuming that everyone else thinks like we do. And it's an easy assumption you make. I remember in my vegetarian years 10 years ago, travelling to New Orleans and being so shocked and dismayed at the "fresh" produce offered. Everything was so small; there were no fruits but apples and bananas; a cashier did not know what an artichoke was when I asked for one.

Politics are no different than produce selections in that you are comfortable with what you are used to.

Activists, campaign volunteers, haters, political enthusiasts, undecideds, unregistereds and celebrities alike are all talking about Obama. On my way to work, car's bumpers are peppered with stickers announcing the driver's support of the Obama campaign and it seems like every 5th window has a HOPE & PROGRESS posters.

If you don't actually look at what is going on, it is easy to think that Obama is going to sweep the elections this fall.

I am skeptical but active in politics. I know everyone suffers from ennui, but not everyone registers to vote and then actually votes. I understand that.

I get so overwhelmed when I feel like I am being sold. The media coverage of the caucasus and the speeches and the dirt-uncovered and the candidate's responses makes me feel bewildered and lied to most of the time. It is all so confusing that I find myself disengaging.

MJC seems to keep abreast of daily changes so I get most of my news from him. But MJC is also an unrelenting optimist...and possibly a Communist and certainly a bleeding-heart, so I find him an unreliable yet very lovable source. This is the man who took me out for our first date after losing a bet with me that Bush would not be elected into a second term.

My dad has suggested that McCain will win our next presidential election. I did my best to ignore him fearing another 4 years like the last. However, my heart sank and I lost some hope today when reminded me about that whole damn dark RED middle of the US. CNN has an electoral map posted- It's dismaying to see how close the race may actually be in an image. CNN Electoral Map

So what to do? There are a few months left before our very LAME duck president leaves office and a bright shiny new one is sworn into office. Right now, CNN reports a narrow margin between the candidates with Obama at 47% and McCain at 41%. What does everyone's dinner party conversation, and bumper stickers and posters mean if the guy doesn't win? Will voters who claim they are so desperate for change actually do what they can to effect change themselves? Or will Obama be nothing more than today's new US weekly story, or Jonas Brothers CD or Crocs that everyone just had to have?

Obama's message is "Yes WE can."

But, as my mother always likes to say, "God helps those who help themselves".

I replied ---A couple of comments. It is wrong to think that McCain and Bush are the same candidates or to think that Obama is some kind of different candidate than a normal left of center politician. Unlike Bush - McCain does not want massive expansions of government. But in many cases Obama was the more conservative choice in the democratic primary. I am bothered by Obama's tax choices (see my blog to see an interesting chart) and his rhetoric on trade - which is nonsense. But there are also things that I think McCain has said that are silly - as I commented a few days ago- Paris Hilton has made the most sense on energy of any of the candidates.

Second, the CNN polling system is fundamentally biased. (Ergo some conservatives call it the Commie News Network) The best place to find out what is happening in any election is Real Clear Politics - they do a running average of all the polling. Third, California is not in play in this election and LA is especially not in play. Look to some other states to see if your candidate is going to win. Remember, electoral vote is really 50 contests and there are only about 10 states that are really in play.

I am bothered that both candidates in this election are being packaged and sold. I am perplexed by Obama's popularity - his real accomplishments are very thin. Yet he has felt it necessary to write two autobiographies (I am bothered by one of the two a great deal.) But then look at McCain's history - the S&L debacle, his seeming temper. I suspect that both candidates are better than they are being allowed to be portrayed. Handlers get in the way.

Ultimately, I am convinced in spite of your "darling" MJC (who I hope is not a communist) (Remember Berkeley's notion - "a man who is 20 and isn't a socialist has no heart and one who is 40 and not a conservative has no brain.) that the American people across the country have not made up their minds yet. McCain looks old - Obama seems remarkably underprepared for the job (look at his stuttering response on the Georgia crisis) - a lot will depend in the next few weeks on choices like who they choose for VP and whether either can make a compelling case for their point of view.

As I think I said several months ago - this could be the most interesting election in a generation.

August 13, 2008 11:28 PM

Last but not least I should have included the following graph--- Two AEI economists have done an analysis of the Obama tax plans - here is a graphic representation of their effects. That really gives me pause about the Senator - but that is for another conversation.

It was fun replying to my daughter's thoughts - almost as much fun as I had when we would take Sunday morning walks when she was a teenager.

Amazing Things in Dentistry

Yesterday I went to my dentist. About two weeks ago I had one of my crowns fall apart and had to have the thing replaced. My dentist, who studied at Loma Linda University,has a new piece of technology that I found to be quite impressive.

Normally, when you need this kind of procedure, the dentist cleans up the tooth and then creates a temporary crown, which is fitted into your tooth. There is a lot of messy stuff to make an impression. The dentist then takes the impression and sends it out to a dental lab - who from the form creates a thing that can be glued on to your teeth. Many of these are made out of gold because it is durable. A couple of weeks later you come back and have the new crown fitted and installed.

This new procedure, which is illustrated in the video, allows you to go to the dentist once. My dentist cleaned the tooth out a bit, took some electronic pictures and used software to model a something to fill the void. After that was done, he sent the image to what looks like a small cad-cam cutter, which, with two high speed drills, shapes a piece of porcelain into the replacement. The cutters are high speed, water cooled drills to machine the piece down to very close tolerances. It takes only a few minutes to create this. You then get back into the dental chair and the thing is fitted and adjusted. All in all the procedure is simpler for the patient and probably creates a replacement part that is more durable than the old type.

The new product is made by a company called Sirona and I think the actual system is called CEREC. Whatever, I think this is a wonderful advancement and am pleased that my dentist is one of the ground-breakers.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Understanding Light

On Saturday, after a drive that took us from Coloma to the Kit Carson Pass and then back to Sacramento I stopped on Scott Road and found a tree at sunset that intrigued me. Along that road there are a number of old stock trees that have given up the ghost, either because of their age or because of the drought we have suffered or for some unknown reason. But they present a stark image against the horizon. With a little post processing in separating out the spectrum (using Aperture - which I like better than Photoshop) I produced a number of different effects. The rest of the set is at my Flickr Site, As we drove along there were a dozen trees that were interesting. The challenge here is to catch the sunset but also to find an interesting shape to contrast it to. In this case, this one tree was the one I liked the best.

Sunrises are a bit more tricky to shoot, in part because your light is increasing not failing. The first shot is the one closest to the image I saw through the lens.

Updates on the 3G and Sales

Two short notes. Yesterday, I was in an Apple store in Sacramento and asked the sales guy about volume. Their resupply of product, according to him, is daily and each day, depending on a lot of things, they sell out by midday or late afternoon.
That confirms that a month after the launch of the new phone interest remains high.

Second, Apple released sales numbers from the application store for its first month in operation. Total downloads - 60 million. Total sales - just over $30 million. (Which means a lot of free applications are being downloaded.) Total take for developers - $21 million. And the top ten developers earned 43% of that. Loopt, the new social networking tool, had more than 100,000 people in its database without much advertising.

The biggest winner here seems to have been Sega (with Super Monkey Ball - 300,000 downloads) but I suspect over time that the number of downloads will continue to go apace and that income will start to go to a larger number of developers. The Washington Post describes one other strategy in this market. They describe Illusion Labs, which created a free version of the old game called Labyrinth. Illusion Labs was started a year ago by Carl Loodberg and Andreas Alptun two Swedish programmers who formed their company to build iPhone applications.

Labyrinth was a childhood favorite of mine. Illusion Labs also released a $6.99 version which has more features. I actually saw both versions on the ap store and bought the full one without trying the free one. The paid version has tons of levels with all sorts of challenges. It is also reasonably priced so that many will take the next step. It uses a lot of the capabilities of the phone to great advantage.

Like iTunes, the application store may be changing the way people look at a product, in this case not music but things to make their phones more useful.

How much of a problem is this?

You'll see a lot of this kind of discussion in the liberal press. For example, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, claimed with great anguish at the end of July that the concentration of income is the highest it has been since 1928. The picture is from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy a left of center policy group. Fair taxes in their vision means steeply progressive. (Although the group claims to be a non-profit, non-partisan research and education organization that works on government taxation and spending policy issues." Their vision is that we live in a static society and we need government redistribution to help solve the "problem." That is not a vision I share.

Look closely at the states that are in this group. What do they have in common? First, some of them have the problem of small populations and an extractive economy. Concentration in those states is based on the enormous wealth that comes from prospecting in all sorts. One way to solve the problem would be to lower the cost of what is being extracted. Second, the rest are states with a high number of entrepreneurs. California's budget deficits are caused in part by the way we structure our tax system - some of these people make immense rewards periodically. For example, our state budget benefitted from tax payments from ONE company to the tune of $400 million a few years ago. Some people in those states make large amounts of dough but as the cycle of innovation extends the wealth payoff begins to disperse through society. Third, many of the states in the list contain a high percentage of immigrants. Presumably people come into the economy and work their way through the economic ladder.

Look at the states which are not highlighted. Is there anything you can say about the variations in their economies? Two things come to mind. First, their economic development departments spend a lot of tax money trying to attract the entrepreneurial class - which would raise the variations in incomes. Second, many of the states have a fairly uniform population which means not much chance for variability.

I am also struck by the number of states in blue which have highly progressive tax systems. Many of the states at the top of the list have some of the highest tax burdens and are ones where the take of taxes far outpaces economic growth.

The point here is not that there are wide discrepancies in income in some states. The point is whether the difference is temporal or permanent. In other words, if the differences lock people into their situations over generations then these maps are important. If these differences are temporal, then they are not.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Slate's (Worthless) Gabfest

A couple of weeks ago I commented that Slate's podcast called the Political Gabfest has become less useful now that the general campaign is on. In the first Podcast in August,David Plotz made the following statement, in a discussion about McCain's attacks on Obama - "If the campaign is about the issues, McCain has no chance." Slate is not alone in this logic - E.J Dionne argued that the "one contest that McCain can win is about Obama."

That kind of savvy wisdom is what makes the rest of us, who do not live in the rarified air of Washington cringe. Ultimately this race comes down to Obama and whether the American people can trust him. But part of that will come from whether they think his policy proposals make any sense. The evidence in the last couple of weeks is that as Obama becomes better known, people are beginning to have questions. The democrats have the eternal dilemma that many of their supporters have positions which are far outside of the mainstream.

For example, 60% (in a recent poll) of Americans support expansions of drilling for oil in US territory. AND, a good percentage of the American people are grumpy about high gas prices. Obama, seemed to move away from his party in the last couple of weeks about drilling, but was his move credible?

McCain's potential strength in issues can come from a couple of areas - Trade (Obama seems to be a protectionist - at least he was in the rustbelt primaries and if he is a good deal of the rest of the country will not be supportive), Immigration (while the two candidate's positions are nearly identical - McCain has taken a real leadership position on these issues - which put him at odds with the majority of republicans) Obama has done little but mouthed the party line (no evidence of leadership) and Taxes Obama seems to be oblivious on the risks of raising our rates well above other economies in the world.

There is one other underlying issue which Obama seems to be falling into - it might be called the "Tough Talk" dilemma. For a number of presidential elections, democrats have been lured into offering tough talk. Remember, Walter Mondale's tax talk, or Jimmy Carter's sweater? There is an undercurrent among some liberal policy wonks that the American voters are mislead and even stupid. The more that Obama's rhetoric leads down that path, the less likely he is to be elected. Voters don't like being compared to rubes.

This looks to be a very tough year for republican candidates - but that in no way implies that issues will not count. Plotz, and the entire Slate crew, could benefit from getting outside the beltway.

Desecrating our Heritage

As I often do when I have friends from out of state, I brought a friend from Mexico to the site of Gold Discovery at Coloma. I know all of the politically correct arguments about Coloma - Sutter was a business failure. The miners exploited Native Americans and Chinese. Most people were not successful in the gold rush. Mining is not a very clean industry and the miners wreaked havoc on our pristine eco-structure. There are even probably more. But those issues not-withstanding (and a lot of them are covered in the interpretive displays) Coloma is an important part of the state's history.

Our motto is Eureka! (I have found it - allegedly from the incident where Archimedes stepped into his bath and discovered that his body displaced an equal amount of water - and then he ran through the streets naked to inform his fellow citizens of Syracuse.) But a fundamental principle of the state has always been that risk taking is rewarded. A diverse group of writers - most notably Kevin Starr in his Americans and the California Dream series - have described in great detail this characteristic. There is a reason why a significant portion of the venture capital that is raised in the world goes to California. So preserving a symbol of that risk taking spirit should be important.

In the last few years, through a couple of Governors, the parks system has been allowed to falter. Coloma looks a bitt seedy these days. The replica of the original lumber mill where James Marshall discovered the nugget that brought my namesake to California looks a little rough for the wear.

Does that mean I support tax increases to solve that and a host of other problems? NO. But it does suggest to me that as Californians, if we are not prepared to increase our tax burden even higher (and there are very good reasons why we should be very cautious about raising tax rates in the state)- we should be getting creative about how to fund the things that are important to us as a state. That might mean privatizing some of the functions that previously were done by the state. Indeed, it seems time to revitalize E. Clampus Vitus (the Clampers)- a band of people who have helped to preserve and commemorate California history. Or if they are not the right group, to establish a more vibrant support group for those parts of our history that help to define us.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Mary Poppins Visits My Blog

One of the fun things about writing a blog is how things come around. In June I did a number of posts on a continuing problem with a financial institution. (I've since moved my account.) Ms. Poppins, who evidently now lives in Kiev and in my memory, was a person of incredible sagacity, made the following comment (in part) -

How do you like financial institutions? Do you like that there is such an incredible amount of these companies? On the one hand it is great that you have a choice, but on the other hand it makes you feel lost in this large number of companies.

One of the benefits of blogs is that they are searchable. Ms. Poppins found my comments read them and responded. I thought it would be good to respond back.

Mary, if I could be so forward, Financial institutions are like any other consumer business, there are some bad and some good. I classify my feelings about them into three distinct phases. Phase #1 (Before Financial Deregulation) - I found them mostly offensive. A lot of people who went into the profession of banking were there because they could not have given a care on serving their consumers. They thought that their job was to take a fee. Most of them had a "trust" mentality - which really meant "Don't ask questions - I know better." Phase #2 - (Immediately after Deregulation) - I found them to be pretty offensive, but less so. In the words of Mao (an odd combination to deal with any economic issue) we let 100 flowers bloom. All sorts of new ideas came into the system. But so did a lot of complication. All of a sudden I could get real returns on the money I deposited with my bank (they were first called Negotiated Orders of Withdrawal (NOW accounts) but are now known simply as interest checking or money market accounts). I could get all sorts of new financial instruments including new kinds of ways to borrow. But it was complex. I needed a lot of help in getting even a good deal. Phase #3 (The Age of the Internet) I found them to be more responsive because we took the initiative to "out" the bad guys. The internet has proven to be a wonderful tool. Lots of consumer information comparing all sorts of things. Sure some of it can be misleading - but on the whole the bulk of it helps me be a better consumer. Ms. Poppins mentioned one rating service for financial institutions and those can be great. More importantly there are sites which give you a chance to run real comparisons. (E-Loan is an example but there are lots of others.) Now those who decide to be the greedy deceptive banker (think Lionel Barrymore in Its a Wonderful Life or Charlie Sheen in Wall Street) will get exposed. We have more choices and a lever on bad actors.

Thanks Mary Poppins for reminding me!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Fear and Loathing in the Making of a President

For the last several months I have had a series of somewhat peckish arguments with a friend who is also interested in politics. He has a pathological dislike of the current incumbent and about a month and a half ago argued that Senator Obama would win in a landslide. I told him I thought the American people are still in the deciding mode (maybe because that is where I am). He kept bringing up this or that poll. And I kept arguing that the polls at this point are noise.

It came to me this afternoon that he is a lot like Theordore White. In the 1960 campaign for President White meticulously detailed the ins and outs of the campaign. If JFK or Nixon burped, White covered it and analyzed it. That campaign became the first to cover the race like a horse race. His book and that campaign was a breakthrough. White did followups with the 1964 and 1968 elections, although neither sold very well.

But then came the 1972 campaign. That was the year of White's last presidential chronicle. He was replaced in large part by another writer named Hunter S. Thompson. If White was a meticulous researcher, Thompson's main quality was as a braggart. White was Harvard educated. Thompson had little formal education. White cared about the facts, Thompson did not. Rather than starting out as a post election analysis Thompson's eventual book first appeared as a serialized set of articles in Rolling Stone. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail made a point of making personal attacks on candidates. Thompson made up a yarn about the early front runner, Edmund S. Muskie, that he was addicted to a exotic Brazilian drug which all but confirmed his decline from front runner status. No one believed the story, but it did not matter - it ridiculed the candidate and Muskie was done.

Thompson's gift was not White's which was an attention to detail but rather he seemed to understand the ebbs and flows of campaigns. Rather than treating the candidates with respect and the campaign as a solemn event - he looked at this as a chance to hang out with the guys and spin a yarn - he became the story. But he was uncanny in that year in calling trends before they became apparent. He called his trade "gonzo journalism."

My friend is a disciple of Theodore White, yet he wants to recreate White's style in real time. White's books were published soon after the election but he had the benefit of (even slight) distance. With the 24/7 news cycle it is possible to get too involved in the day to day machinations of the campaign.

Thompson's one big race was 1972 - he tried some later efforts but he did not catch the moment. Thompson's gift, at least in that first book on a presidential election, was the ability of insight. This could be a critical election. I have not discovered Thompson's successor in this election. There are a lot of people trying to pick up the mantel.

The iPhone Application Store - more thoughts

Right after the 3G phone came out I did a short post on the Application store. I've now had a couple of more weeks of experience with it and continue to be pleased. The applications range from silly (a reimplementation of Jared - El Carnicero del Cancion - the butcher of song - which was a wonderful little app written for the main Mac platform several years ago) to the very useful (the image here is a networking tool called Loopt - which I use almost daily). I have probably spent about $25 on applications thus far. All are reasonably priced.

Apple now has about 75 pages of applications on its site (I am not sure how many files that is). Many of those are free. One that I discovered in this review is called Files which allows you to drag and drop files on to the phone. ($7.99).

Some other smart phone users have claimed that the Application store is nothing new. For example, the Windows Mobile platform has a lot of applications. But the claims ring a bit false. I have downloaded 21 applications to my phone at this point. There are a couple of those that I will probably drop at some point - which were either funny or simple and I have not found useful. I expect that of the three networking tools I have found I will probably not keep all three.

But to get your Windows Mobile phone to have full functionality might cost several times what it has cost me to add things to my iPhone. One writer claimed that many of the Windows Mobile applications which cost something are unnecessary on the iPhone.

Among the clear hits I have found that I really like are:
G-Park - which allows you to refind your car after you park it by using the GPS. It also allows you to leave notes. For someone who travels - this is a must.
There are a couple of restaurant guides for specific cities (The Washington Post's DC guide) and others. They look pretty good.
Ibeer - this is a totally useless, sophomoric toy - but loads of fun.
Labyrinth- Don't buy the light version the full one has loads of levels and is very challenging
Google - this is a simple mobile implementation of Google's various tools - well done.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A (short) break in the action

Last night's Rivercats game was a bit of a change-up. The Cats were on a four game winning streak, with two very exciting one run games on Saturday and Sunday. Last night's 7-1 loss the fire in the team seem to have left it. Our hitting, with the exception of Monday's game, has been a bit light but the determination to win the game came through for those four games but last night, not so much. We got to see Ron Flores, who was a good middle reliever for the Cats for a couple of seasons (and deserves to spend more time in the bigs), but is now in the St. Louis organization. He pitched two innings. Vincent Mazzaro, who came up from Midland, seemed to have an OK first outing until he ran into trouble. Compared to the previous four games this one was a yawner. The team did not seem into it and neither were the fans.

The crunch time in the season awaits - a day game against the Redbirds to finish out the series today and then a day off and a four game stand in Las Vegas, then an eight game homestand (Salt Lake then Tacoma). They then do a nine game road trip against the Grizzlies and Tacoma to finish the season at home against the Grizzlies. Thirteen of those are away games. Nine of the remaining games are against the Grizzlies. Salt Lake still has the winningest record in the league and Las Vegas is currently four and a half games back. If they hold the kind of spirit they had in the four previous games we could get into the playoffs.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Highlighting an Anonymous Comment

I don't usually cotton to anonymous commenters. But one today struck me as particularly cogent (and funny) - my commenter said (in case you don't read the comments)

I've been saying this for a long time as it is already the case in California. It seems every time you turn around some politician has a new proposal to "invest" our money in some new project to buy votes from a select few.

John Edwards (the philanderer) was correct that there are two Americas, only he got the categories mixed up. There are the those who give to government and those who take from government. Unfortunately, I somehow ended up in the former.

The State of the Campaign

I worry about some of my friends getting too caught up in the campaign. A few months ago Senator McCain proposed (the absurd notion) that we offer a gas tax holiday to make gasoline more affordable. Then yesterday Senator Obama offered (an equally absurd alternative) to tax the "windfall" (why only limit this to oil companies - if you extend Obama's notion logically, all profits are windfalls) profits of oil companies to offer a new tax credit.

So now Paris Hilton, who was named in a parody ad by Senator McCain, produced her own response. Oddly, it is the most sensible thing that any candidate for president has said about energy policy during this increasingly long campaign. Who'd a thunk it?

Two quotes on the budget dilemma

The dilemma faced in the California budget (and the Federal one too) was summarized by a French economist of the 18th Century. "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury." But then Will Rogers also cautioned "Alexander Hamilton started the U.S. Treasury with nothing, and that was the closest our country has ever been to being even. "

Silliness in Campaigns for President

For a little more than a month both of the presidential campaigns have been trying to get the other on their mode of transportation. On the one hand one Donna Vasey, an Obamiac, wrote on July 1 It is unbelievable to me that John McFeelyourpain...just can't touch you!! would have the nerve to fly around the country in such a showy manner when people are looking for health care.. pay less at the pump(here we have someone riding around at $20,000. a crack if the number on the news is correct....,where's the conservation...oh that's right..that is for us to do. This man doesn't have a clue...oh yes..drill off shore so in 2017 you 'll feel better and be paying less at the pump...remember it's our mind set...some of us just need help I've been a die hard Rpublican my whole life and I am embarrasssssssed by this man.
It's Obama for me ...and that haircut over the weekend I"m sure was no $200-400 deal either. Go Obama

McCain is flying on a converted 737. On the other hand Obama has just spent a half a million bucks to upgrade his plane to a 757. His chair includes what any sane person would call a bit of an over-stretch.

The point of this is not to criticize, as Ms. Vasey has, the way that candidates get from here to there. As one who flies a lot even in the best of circumstances flying is not fun nor easy. The differences between a 757 and a 737 may be based on relative budget. But the logo on the back of Senator Obama's chair is yet another sign that he may not be a part of the common touch that he tries to portray. There may be a lot more important issues facing the nation than what kind of plane the candidate flies on - but perceptions can destroy a candidate. If you think not just remember the other presidential campaign transportation story - Michael Dukakis in a tank.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Was Phil Gramm Right?

Gallup released a poll on August 3, on American's thinking on the economy. 77% of our fellow citizens hold a negative opinion on the economy while only 7% hold a positive view. The constant nattering of the MSM seems to have had a real effect. GDP, last time we checked, was still growing. As noted in an earlier post, consumption, while moderating, is still pretty good. The housing sector is hurting more than it has in recent years but other parts of the economy are strong. In some sectors, besides gas, prices have begun to rise (in part because of a pretty loose fed policy). But the picture is far from bleak.

Compare, if you will, the unemployment, interest rate, and inflation rate of the late 1970s (when Jimmy Carter was president) with now if you want to understand what a negative view of the economy really is.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Rivercats and Fun

In the last two nights the Rivercats have played 22 innings. In both nights they won the game in the bottom of the last inning. Tonight Richie Robnet hit a line drive shot which scored Justin Knoedler (who had been substituted for Powell). In the bottom of the eighth the Cats almost had the game stolen from then when Cliff Pennington was called out for stealing third. Unfortunately, from where we were sitting he should have been safe. Tod Steverson beefed the call, as he should have, and that got him thrown out of the game. Saarloos threw 107 pitches and 77 strikes. But he left the game with us behind. We've had only 10 hits in the last two games - but that has been enough. We've won the last three games which brings us from 2-8 on Thursday to 5-5 tonight.

Last night, in the 13th (in what was a four hour game) Casey Rogowski hit a ground rule double which scored Knoedler. On Friday night we had a six run fiesta in the fourth inning. That was after a pretty dismal prior 10 days.

Knoedler has not had an ideal season. He's played in a bit more than half the games that Landon Powell has played in and his batting average has been a slim .178. In 157 at bats he has had 17 extra base hits including six homers. Powell has had about 120 more at bats but 35 more hits. But for the last two nights, he has been the guy to run in the winning run. And that should count for more than a little.

This is the time in the season when games begin to count. We are currently 4 1/2 games ahead of Las Vegas in the division. But among the division leaders we have the weakest record. That doesn't mean much when you get into the playoffs. In AAA ball it is all about peaking with enthusiasm. If the last three games are a temperature of the team - it looks pretty good.

Citizens for Tax Justice and Moral Outrage

(Note the first chart is from the Heritage Foundation, the second is from Citizens for Tax Justice)

The Wall Street Journal loves to claim that the richest in the country pay more than their fair share of taxes. But the Citizens for Tax Justice (you can guess where their sentiments rest just by reading their name - i.e. they have no understanding of the negative effects of making a system too progressive.) claim the WSJ does not play fair because they neglect payroll taxes - which for lower income taxpayers are their largest tax payments. So the issue is often not apples to apples.

On Thursday CTJ did a press release claiming that our system was not progressive enough - titled "Right-Wing Spin Machine Uses Misleading Figures to Argue that the Tax Code Is More Progressive Under Bush" They then ask "Do the rich pay too much in taxes? Has the tax code become even more progressive as a result of the Bush tax cuts?" And the answer, if you look at the data, is that the rich are paying a higher percentage of income taxes than they did before the Bush tax cuts were adopted. Even the CTJ recalculation shows that pretty clearly.

In order to understand the real situation here one must understand two things which the CTJ materials fail to explain. First, as the top chart shows personal income taxes account for about 45% of the total federal revenues while social insurance accounts for a third. But second, the way taxes are collected between the two sources is also a function of what the receipts are used for. In personal income taxes there is no connection between benefits and tax receipts but in social insurance taxes there is at least a remote one. Whether this is a good idea or not, that is a key assumption. You cannot easily figure out what percentage of a battleship you own by paying income taxes but you can figure out, based on your contributions, what level of benefits you can expect for paying FICA. In the personal income tax, the richest 1% received about 14% of the income and paid 25% of the taxes in 1990 and now they receive 21% of the income and pay almost 40% of the tax. The burden on the richest 5% is even more dramatic. They pay about 60% of the total income tax burden with 36% of the income. What that actually shows is that the Alternative Minimum Tax has extracted the most from the people below the most wealthy.

CTJ sets up a hypothetical where one "Big Jim" makes $1 million and 100 "Little Jims" (seems awfully sexist for a lefty front group) They try to make the case by saying that if income taxes are reduced, and social insurance taxes are not, that the less well off will end up with more burden. Their conclusion is that we should eliminate the income caps on social insurance taxes and thus make the system more progressive. Almost anyone but CTJ recognizes that a better solution than that would be to change the way social insurance taxes are collected. (Need I say that CTJ was one of the most vocal opponents of any consideration of thinking about privatizing social security?)