Sunday, May 31, 2009

We feel better already

We were told that the stimulus money would have absolutely necessary to effectuate a recovery. We were also told the money would get out quickly. Well here is a chart from The lower line suggests that only about $35 billion has gone out. Wowie, zowie. For those of us who do not believe that this kind of spending is efficacious - the point could not be made better.

An Amazing Game

Last night was the second in a four game series between the Cats and the Las Vegas 51s. Las Vegas tied it up in the top of the ninth and the Rivercats failed to score in the bottom of the ninth. So for the sixth time in the last thirteen games this one went into extra innings. The first game of the series on Friday had gone sixteen innings which the Cats won 2-1.

In the bottom of the tenth the Rivercats filled the bases on bunts - three in a row. I am not sure about the second one which was scored a "sacrifice" bunt although at the end of the play both players were safe. The fourth batter was Jeff Baisley and Las Vegas' pitcher walked him - advancing Derek Barton to win the game.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I-5 as a metaphor

We came back today from Pasadena and Eagle Rock where we had delivered furniture to our daughter and her husband at their new house. As we drove back up I-5 there were a number of signs along the road talking about a congressionally induced dustbowl. Water policy is not an area I know much about but the images along the way were none-the-less compelling. When I was about 12 we moved from the Bay Area to Bakersfield. That was before the California water project and the higher education master plan and even before Jess Unruh took over as Speaker of the Assembly. But the California of that time was a place of possibilities. Over the next decade the state grew in a number of ways. It created a large aqueduct from northern to southern California. All of the magic of the state was not government - but the state was often mentioned as a place where things worked.

When I lived in Bakersfield the main route between north and south was I-99. To the west side of the valley was flat, ugly land. I knew about the area because there were some important oil fields in that area but the rest was flat and unproductive. With the California Aqueduct, that west side became a big deal. I-5 was constructed on the west side of the valley and as you drove down it there were a couple of landmarks. There was Santa Nella - which grew up to serve motorists right above the Guadalupe pass. There was a big cattle station - which often gives you an idea of how the cattle futures market is going. Then as you got past Fresno county you saw about 60 miles of big agriculture - stone fruits, nuts and cotton. With the drought this year - there is a lot of open land and also a lot of Almond trees which have been cut down because they do not have enough water allotment.

So how is the state doing now? We have the worst credit rating in the country; the highest income tax and sales tax rates; many of our schools are low performing. The legislature, which once was the envy of the nation - now has an 11% positive rating. We've also got a major budget problem and we seem to be losing taxpaying Californians in large numbers. i'm not expressing an opinion on the water issue but the empty fields present a picture which is mirrored in other parts of our civic life.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Random Airlines

On Monday I took another flight with United Express - the second part of their title is an oxymoron. Their real name could be "approximate airlines." That flight was five hours late. This morning I went to GSO to get on a flight to Chicago only to find out that the plane would be a couple of hours late. I had to reroute and now will get back home six hours later than planned. That is both annoying and unacceptable.

Bastiat Demonstrated

The recent discussions between the Obama Administration and Government Motors Corporation (the car company formerly know as General Motors) raise some interesting questions about corporate finance. Fundamentally, there are three interest groups in the discussions about how to "save" the company - the UAW, the bondholders and the stockholders. From my perspective it looks like the deal that has been cut has simply abrogated the rights of bond-holders.

Bastiat was one of the first economists to discuss the "seen" and the "unseen" - what some modern economists would call externalities. The way this "bailout" has been structured could have longer term implications for all corporate bondholders. Why would anyone lend money to an American company with even a chance of going under government control? If they did lend money why would they not demand a tremendous risk premium. Either way this "fix" is likely to tighten up the markets for corporate finance. The immediate claim is that the company has been saved. That looks increasingly doubtful. At the same time the unseen effects which will be much larger than whether GM disappears or not could be huge.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


One of the joys of working with students is that every once in a while you hear a new insight from one of them. This morning I was in my gym and one of the guys at the desk who is a student at the local community college said "Whether a glass is half full or half empty, depends on whether your are pouring or drinking." He then went on to say that as he has thought about economics - some people always want to drink.

Sign of the Times in California

This morning my inbox had three emails from friends in California. They do not know each other. Each was a variation of an old joke about politicians - where various reconstructive surgeons were describing their hardest cases. The final surgeon argues that politicians are the easiest to reconstruct because they have "no brain, no heart, no guts, no spine and the head and butt are interchangeable." What was interesting is that among these three Californians - the order of the parts was different and they are of fairly widely distinct political philosophies. I wonder how many times that joke was emailed in California in the last ten days.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A New Rasmussen Poll as a Reflection of Tuesday's Vote

California faces an imminent cash flow crisis and some in the state's political class, including the Governor, have suggested that the feds should treat us like TARP banks or auto companies and become our guarantor of loans. Rasmussen finds that a majority of Californians support the idea of loan guarantees. Yesterday, that option came off the table because the feds, noticeably the treasury secretary raised questions about whether and how to do it.

But the poll provides some interesting numbers on how voters look at thing like the California budget problem and the US economic situation. By a margin of 2:1 the responders believe that government spending hurts not helps the economy. By just under 3:1 (66% to 24%) the responses believe that California should solve its own problem. In the most interesting question - Which is better for the economy--to let the state of California go bankrupt or for the federal government to provide subsidies so that California can continue to pay its bills and provide services? 48% say let the state go bankrupt (38% offer up federal subsidies). Then finally "Which is a bigger problem in the United States today—that voters are unwilling to pay enough in taxes or that the politicians are unwilling to control government spending?" 77% blame the politicians.

There is also a huge division between the political class and the rest of us. 84% of the political class and only 7% of the rest favor subsidies over bankruptcy. In relation to loan guarantees 67% of the political class favor them and only 21% of the rest do. There are many reasons why that gulf exists between us and them. Some of it comes from our recognition that the political class, through manipulations like redistricting nonsense, have created a chasm. More comes from the protected environment that many politicians live in - they spend a lot of time talking to themselves while riding around in a protective shell paid for by us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Yesterday's election

As I was awaiting the inevitable results of yesterday's election I was taken back to 1978 and the passage of Proposition 13, which some observers suggest was the start of the downhill road of California. Back then housing prices were escalating quickly, we were a growing state then. And the effects of the late 1970's round of inflation was ripping through the country. Inventive county assessors were just discovering the real possibilities of computers in aiding them in their jobs of keeping assessment roles up to date. Property taxes were rising even faster than inflation - we began to understand the tangible meaning of tax elasticity, painfully.

The political leaders at the time warned that a $6 billion reduction in taxes would have consequences. There is a branch of Public Choice Economics which suggests that bureaucracies will cut services first, while entrepreneurial firms will cut them last - that based on the differing incentives that each type of organization faces. Public officials suggested that with the cut in property unemployment would increase (it actually dropped) and all sorts of vital services would be slashed and burned. Actually, public employment over the near term increased - exactly as the public choice models suggested it would. Services were cut but staff increased.

Prop 13 was caused in part because of the then Governor (and now future candidate for Governor) Jerry Brown. He was terrified of running a deficit(because he thought his father's defeat by Reagan in 1966 had been caused by Pat's deficit) and so hoarded revenues to the tune of about $6 billion. In the end local governments were partially compensated for their tax loss from the reduction in property taxes (by using the surplus) and the state extracted a significant new level of control over local agencies.

At the end of the campaign for the five initiatives that failed yesterday - public officials were again making the claim that all sorts of drastic reductions would take place if the tax increases and shifts were not adopted. I think the voters were immune from the claims. A lot of them had two responses. First, they said "You've said this before, it did not happen then and we don't believe you now." Second, they said "We hired you to make intelligent decisions - so do what we hired you to do." Budgets are about choices. If the leadership in Sacramento makes broad brush across the board reductions on programs - voters (who hold the Legislature and the Governor in very low esteem) will be even grumpier than they are today.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tomorrow's election

The special election tomorrow will show a voter population that is grumpy, very grumpy. I will end up voting for many of the measures on the ballot but on Saturday, at a birthday party for my younger grandson, I heard the other side from a pretty diverse group. Almost everyone there, who was voting, was going to just vote no. They weren't confused, as the Economist claimed in their recent article on California. They just wonder why the people we pay to make decisions cannot do their job.

Perhaps this will be a chance to move forward. The legislative leadership will begin a process a few days after the election that will try to reconcile the gulf in the budget. That should be a hopeful sign. I've been through about a half dozen of these tumults in the last several decades. None ever seems to take the time to consider longer term issues - they deal with arithmetic rather than policy math; choosing to go through the budget without much sense of priorities. Perhaps this time will be different.

The Economist on California

The Economist, in its May 14 edition, did a story on California. Their tagline stated "As California ceases to function like a sensible state, a new constitution looks both necessary and likely." They try to make the case for a movement that may or may not be gaining steam which would ask voters to authorize a constitutional convention to reform structures, which many think are out-dated. Among the villains that the Economist mentions most prominently are the two thirds vote requirement for adopting a budget and for adopting new taxes, our brand of term limits and the number of special districts in the state.

I've watched my native state decline rather precipitously in the last couple of decades. Our economic growth has slowed. Government has come to a standstill. Ditto for creative thought. But as I read the article I thought - how out of touch can one magazine be? Are the economic problems facing the state, including the record deficit that we supposedly eliminated in February, the result of the two thirds vote? It is hard to make that case.

The article makes a bunch of assertions which are curious at best. For example, they seem to suggest that the voters of today are somehow less responsible than the voters when the Initiative was adopted. They argue that voters have "self sorted" themselves into highly partisan districts. Did the voters create the redistricting maps? They argue against the two thirds vote and the number of special districts and yet seem to ignore that those features have been around even when the state was held as a model. They yammer about the problems with term limits (presumably because of the lack of experience that the policy brings to the process yet support the idea of a constitutional convention chosen by a random selection method.

The article brings us back to two movements in the state - California Forward and the Bay Area Council - which are pressing for some fundamental reforms of our system. One is supportive of calling a constitutional convention to fix the ills in one fell swoop. The other approach is a more moderate one, relying on incrementalism. The leader of the state senate gets it. Daryl Steinberg comments for the article that the system was designed "to ensure that change occurs slowly."

The article points out that we've already made incremental steps toward reform - adopting a reform of redistricting and the possibility that the state would go back to an open primary mode are two important steps to bring more moderates into the process. Without those changes, even a constitutional convention would have little success in getting California back to governability.

Real and Memorex Politicians

California is in a horrible mess. This should not come as a newsflash. Their deficit, by one count earlier in the year, was greater than the GDP of the Dominican Republic. We've also got an election for governor in 2010 with candidates lining up to try to get our votes.

The GOP has three candidates, at least exploratory candidates; Steve Poizner, who is currently the Insurance Commissioner; former state senator and congressman Tom Campbell and Meg Whitman, who was the CEO of E-Bay. The democrats also have a gaggle of possible candidates. But over the last couple of days the GOP candidates had a series of exchanges which I hope most GOP voters will look at closely.

Tomorrow's special election presents voters with six alternatives to help bring us out of the budget mess. Someone proposed that the candidates debate these issues. Today, before the Sacramento Press Club - Poizner and Campbell debated. From the reports it was a pretty good exchange. Meg Whitman decided not to show up. In my mind, Ms. Whitman will need to demonstrate a lot more capabilities than her performance for this event. Poizner said he was voting against the propositions but refused to offer any idea of how he would balance the budget. In my mind, that performance is as bad as Whitman's. A duck is not the kind of leader we need at this point. One can disagree with Campbell's approach, but at least he is taking the job of being a candidate for office seriously.

The democrats in the race probably have less diversity of opinion on the measures, so it is not surprising to not see a similar exchange. But I think voters in the upcoming cycle will be looking for a lot less stage management than we have had in recent years. If you want to pretend to be governor you could be a talk show host or an actor. If you want to be governor you should be willing to have your ideas tested.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What is the difference between Carrie Prejean and Nancy Pelosi?

I wondered that today. Pelosi finds herself caught in a web of lies. She claims that the Bush Administration did not inform her that they were going to waterboard terror suspects in Gitmo. That is nonsense. The current head of the CIA came as close as he possibly could in calling the Speaker not entirely forthcoming in her attempts to cover her butt.

Carrie Prejean finds in a similar problem about coverups - in this case there are some semi-salacious photos. Ms. Prejean claims she did not know when a photographer caught her in these pictures. The pictures might be called "art" photos. But they are far from obscene. Her story lacks credibility.

Prejean is a beauty queen. That role is often described as a bimbo. Pelosi seems to be a policy bimbo.

The only difference I can discover is that Ms. Pelosi's lies can influence public policy. That seems a lot more dangerous than posing half naked.

The Soloist

We saw the Soloist this afternoon. We've had friends who thought it was a wonderful movie and others who thought it was not much. For those who have not read the book (I did not) or heard about the movie it is a story about an LA Times reporter and his relationship with a schizophrenic street musician in LA. It does not paint the realities up like a movie in the 1930s might but it also takes some cinematic license with the story, which I think detracted from the power of the story.

Ken Turan, of the LA Times commented "by consistently and relentlessly overplaying everything, by settling for standard easy emotions when singular and heartfelt was called for, by pushing forward when they should have pulled back, director Joe Wright and screenwriter Susannah Grant have made the story mean less, not more." I had the strong feeling in the middle of the movie I was watching "Batman on Mental Illness." He may have been to close to the story. He argues that details were altered for no apparent purpose. "Over and over again, small details are added or subtracted from the story, tiny things, really, like who donated a cello for Ayers to play (the movie says a kindly arthritic lady, the book a corporate chief executive) and whether Ayers and Lopez dramatically pushed Ayers' cart all the way to Disney Hall on a crucial day or realistically stashed it in a convenient garage. None of these things make a difference individually, but in sum they point to a weakness for the obvious and the simplistic that undermine any attempt to do justice to the complexities of the real story."

The odd thing about this movie for me was that I really liked the portrayals of both lead characters. Jamie Foxx is superb and so is Robert Downey, Jr. Even with that I did not get caught up with the characters. It was almost as if I was watching the movie from 30,000 feet. Variety's critic said "Brit director Joe Wright's first American feature has moments of power and imagination, but the overworked style and heavy socially conscious bent exude an off-putting sense of self-importance, making for a picture that's more of a chore than a pleasure to sit through." That is about where I came out.

At the end - for no apparent reason except to show some kind of social conscience - in one of the side comments taking the movie out the fact comes up that there are 90,000 homeless in the "Greater LA Area" - on its face that sounds like a very large number. But it is always good to look at the denominator on the figure - which based on 2006 population is in the range of 17.5 million (which is a bit less more than one half of one percent - assuming the 90,000 number is accurate - which is questionable).

One last comment. The use of music in the movie was wonderful and compelling. I thought the light show in the middle - when the two leads go to a concert - was a bit much - but the classical music comes in and out at just the right times. Whoever, did the score for this, has an appreciation for classical music.

The President and Notre Dame

I wonder about the controversy about the President's Commencement Address to Notre Dame. Indeed, the President has disagreements in his public policy positions with Catholic theology. The last president did too (remember that the church is against the death penalty).

It is a distinct honor to have the President speak at a graduation. He is, after all, the President. The two key issues which protestors are raising about this president's political positions are key in Catholic thinking, relating to the sanctity of life.

But it is absurd to think that any commencement speaker is fully in concert with every doctrine at a university. In 2000 I had the honor to speak at one of the events in the Vatican around the Jubileum. Pope John Paul II said the role of a university is first about a search for truth. Fr. Jenkins in his welcome could certainly raise issues of disagreement while welcoming the President who clearly has fidelity with other Catholic values. The acceptance of a variety of ideas should be central to any university's central role.

Friday, May 15, 2009


For the past 85 years a house in North Carolina has been in my family. My grandfather moved his family from New York City to Winston Salem in the 1920s to start a southern branch of a construction company his father had founded. He built the company in North Carolina to a pretty prominent enterprise. He raised three daughters in the house and lived there for about 30 years. My mother was married from the house in the late 1930s and then moved to California. My grandmother died about 20 years ago and so for the last two decades my two aunts, both of whom never married, lived in the house.

When the younger of the two aunts died suddenly in 2007, the older one was already in a nursing home. So since that time, almost two years, the house has been unoccupied. My older aunt died in September and we began to think about what to do with this property. Quite frankly, it was maintained but not kept up for a good part of the last several decades. It is likely that the final owner (the person who is buying it does not want the house) will either have to spend a lot on renovations or will simply knock it down.

In January my siblings and I spent a couple of days over a weekend cleaning out the house. We took several tons of life's junk to the dump. We took another quantity to the Goodwill. We sent some of the furniture in the house to each of us and to our kids and sold a lot of it. My older aunt was a celebrity in town - so some of her stuff seems to have fetched a good price.

But on Tuesday next, assuming that everything goes as planned, the house will sell. My sister called it a safe haven. In one sense that is right. Even though my family moved around a lot, there was always the house in Winston Salem. When my family moved into the area, it was rural. The back of the property has a stable. Now the area is completely built out. The new owner wants only the back part of the lot.

I assume that the new owners will subdivide the lot and then sell the house off as is. I hope the new owners of the house, understand its history. At one point my siblings and I came back there to distribute some of our family's stuff. As we were rummaging through the attic, we found a bottle of Cuban Rum that evidently came into the country probably in the 1930s - although since there was no tax stamp it is hard to figure when it was actually bottled. I am pretty sure my grandparents never went to Cuba - although one of the legacies I got from our housecleaning in January was the typed summary of a trip my great-grandfather took through the Panama canal in the 1920s. The rum could have come from that trip.

One of the realizations I've come to from this transition is that things are not as important as people. The meaning of the house for me was always who was there, not what.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Commencement in a time of economic uncertainty

Today I was the commencement speaker for Woodbury University. Woodbury has a lot of first generation students, that always makes for a wonderful commencement. In more staid universities. graduation exercises are a bit more predictable. But in places like this university, families come to celebrate the first in their families to graduate from college. The events become a real celebration.

Woodbury is a niche university. They have a short list of specialized programs. When their current leadership came they changed one important detail - many universities exist by saying who they are not. "We're not quite as good as XXXXX." But Woodbury began to try to define who they are. BY doing that they came up with a set of programs that fit a group of students quite well. It is an interesting place that serves a group of students pretty well.

Here is what I said for my commencement address -

David and Fred

First, congratulations on commencing your new life after completing a Woodbury degree. I realize that the job of a commencement speaker is pretty well defined, and limited. Commencement speakers stand as a resolute and possibly superflous gate that keeps you from celebrating the completion of one of life’s major tasks. So I have always thought that any commencement address should have two qualities – brevity and humor. Even if one cannot achieve the latter, the former is an imperative.

There is a second quality for commencement addresses. Some want to use this occasion to explain the meaning of life. It is probably better to stick with what you know. Since my doctoral work was in finance, I want to tie two relatively obscure economists with the value of your degree. Those two are David Ricardo, a British member of Parliament in the 19th Century and Frederic Bastiat, a French member of the Assembly who lived about the same time as Ricardo.
I should start with a story about Woodbury. About twenty years ago I began to work with universities in Mexico. At one conference, a major speaker discussed one of the finest architectural programs he knew about. He slyly did not mention the name of the place until near the end of his talk but described the qualities that the University had which made it so good. Right before he mentioned the name, I realized he was talking about Woodbury.

As I thought about this speech, I thought it would be a good idea to review what makes this university special. It’s described in the mission statement “Woodbury University is committed to providing the highest level of professional and liberal arts education. The integrated nature of our educational environment cultivates successful students with a strong and enduring sense of personal and social responsibility. We prepare innovative learners who are adept at communicating and willing to cross the boundaries of knowledge in a rapidly changing and complex world.” If you take advantage of those skills – communication across boundaries and integration of concepts your future will be bright. David and Frederic offer some ideas about that.

Ricardo’s most famous work is the Principles of Political Economy, in that book he introduced the concept of comparative advantage. Economists have spent the last couple of hundred years debating the idea. But let me give you the short definition of what it is. He suggests that countries and individuals benefit by specializing in what they do best – even if they do lots of things well. Ricardo argues against the idea that individuals or countries should try to do all things. Even if you are better than your neighbor at everything you want to produce, it is always a good idea to concentrate on what you do best. For example, if I grow oranges and my neighbor grows apples – and I am more adept at growing both – I still should encourage my neighbor to produce whichever I am less good at producing.

Over the 1980s and 1990s California’s largest import was human beings. Our population growth during that period just from immigration was larger than all of the countries of Europe. Some people worry about the complexities that all these people produce. This very diversity gives us opportunities. But only if we educate this generation of students. One of my most important tasks is to advocate for funding the Cal Grant, which offers students with financial need who have worked hard in high school, the opportunity to grow to their potential.

There is a second part of Ricardo’s theory, that relates to the value of networks. Comparative advantage works when we think about networks. If you think of your classmates and your degree as something to be checked off, you will be shorting yourselves. Each of you has a career ahead of you, but remember your university. Come back to consult with your professors. Stay in touch with your classmates. Comparative advantage is first about connectedness.

The second economist was a person who inherited wealth about the time he would have gone to work, so he was able to become a politician and a public intellectual. That is nice work, if you can get it. Even if you don’t like economics (and in this environment, that is not a small group) you might like Bastiat’s most famous book – Economic Sophisms – which lays out some very important ideas in economics in a humorous way.

Bastiat was a master at pointing out the odd ways that self interest can be converted into public interest. For example, one of his essays discussed a fictitious legislative petition by the candlemakers against the sun. In their petition they argued that the sun was unfair and that if the legislature would only outlaw windows,they could sell more candles. Bastiat created the distinction between that which is seen and that which is unseen. Economists call the effects of actions externalities. There are positive and negative externalities.

The state of California is in a serious budget situation and has been for the better part of a decade. In about a week Californians will vote on six propositions that are complex. Four of those could help to stabilize the budget. There are lots of causes for the budget problems but we know that funding for education in the state has suffered.

During the last big growth cycle in higher education California invested heavily by building more public campuses and by funding grants to promising students who wanted to attend an independent college. The “seen” for those investments was obvious. The state spent some more money on students. But the “unseen” is almost more important.

During the decade of the 1990s California lost more military bases than any other state. But our economy did not even hiccup from those changes. Indeed, we transformed ourselves in wonderful ways. The five new growth sectors of our economy center are computers, biotech, professional services, foreign trade and entertainment. I’ll give you two examples of the transformation. Twenty five years ago California’s portion of the fashion industry was just over 5%. Today it is more than a 25%. Twenty five years ago California’s entertainment industry was strong – but even with changes in the industry we continue to dominate, even in new fields like digital animation. Without those investments in education, most of which were not connected to either fashion or entertainment directly, those transformations would not have happened. All those people who came here may have added complexity, the “seen”, but they also made us a powerhouse in international markets – the “unseen.”

For the last eight years, the maximum award available to students who want to attend an independent college has been flat. That looks like budget savings – the “seen.” But in reality the “seen” is allowing fewer Californians to realize the full breadth of their educational objectives. Thus, a recent Public Policy Institute of California report suggested that in the next two decades the state will be short of its needs for college graduates by almost a million degrees. If we allow that to happen, California will go from being the eighth largest economy in the world and will look less like an economic powerhouse and more like Mississippi with earthquakes. That is not a future I would like to see.

As you commence on this new phase in your life and careers, remember David and Frederic. Think about comparative advantage and connectedness. Remember the benefits of understanding the seen and the unseen. Before you take on those new responsibilities, take some time to celebrate. Congratulations!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Kindle DX

Amazon released a new Kindle yesterday, allegedly to make it easier to read newspapers. While I love my Kindle 2 - I am pretty sure I will not purchase a DX. There are a couple of reasons for this. #1 - I like the size of the 2 and am not looking for a single purpose larger screen. While I would probably be a buyer of an Apple multi-function device (i.e. a big iPod touch) I am not sure why I would only want to read books and newspapers on the larger device. The 2 is easy to pack in my briefcase. #2 - All of the Kindle devices lack Wi-Fi and in an increasingly 802.11 world, that seems like an oversight. #3 - I would love to have a more robust device to do some document creation, with the larger screen - all of the Kindle devices are fundamentally passive.

Shotgun Marriage Made in Heaven

The proposed merger between the multi-bankrupt Chrysler and Fiat is getting rave reviews. For example, on NPR this morning an Italian insurance executive described the Fiat brand as "safe." He said "no one steals them so it is a safe risk."

At the same time the president of the UAW, whose inflated health plan is being required to take some of the Chrysler stock, said that the union had so much confidence in the company that they would dump the stock as soon as they could.

As I said, this seems like a shotgun marriage made in heaven.

The Right Stuff

The Bee this morning had a obit on a man from Clarksburg named "Shorty" Lopez. Mr. Lopez ran a small restaurant in the city but more importantly sent 8 kids to college (7 plus on one granddaughter). His philosophy of life was truly American - it was described as "haga la lucha" - give it a try. From the obit it seems like Mr. Lopez not only lived his philosophy but passed it on to others.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Rigoberta Menchú Tum

As a part of celebration of Cinco de Mayo the Latino Caucus invited an activist from Guatemalan activist named Rigoberta Menchú Tum to speak.

Menchú was awarded the Nobel Prize(1992 - the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing) with a very compelling story about significant atrocities directed toward the Mayans in her country. Since the award was announced several people have come forward and suggested that Menchú's story is not accurate - that she stretched the truth a bit. The New York TImes, in a story trying to verify the claims made in her autobiography commented that the book “cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be.”

I went to listen to her knowing the controversy. And whether all of her story is completely true or not, she is a compelling individual. She grew up in a native environment and actually had to learn Spanish to be able to be successful in her chosen pursuit. Her native language is one of the Mayan dialects - Quiché. Her success in developing a political movement and even a nascent political party demonstrates her underlying abilities. There is even controversy about how she learned Spanish. She says she learned it later in life about the time she wrote her autobiography - others suggest she learned it as a scholarship student in middle school.

Her Spanish was deliberate (in part because of the need for translators) (I appreciated that because it made her much easier to understand). Her charisma was compelling - even for my colleague who went with me and does not speak Spanish. What was interesting about her presentation was the pure power of her personality. Take away the political commentary - which in my mind was pretty predictable - and she still was a compelling person.

It reminded me a lot of the point made by Madison in Federalist #10 on the power of factions (in part driven by charisma). The risk to any political system caused by factions can be diminished by either keeping things small or by various forms of oppression. That may be why Menchú's story is so marvelous for persons of the left - it fits their perception of the role of elites.

My associate was unnerved by two brutes in the front who seemed to be Menchú's bodyguards. They were pretty large guys with dark glasses and pretty fearsome. It all added to the mystique of the event.

I'm a PC

Consumer Reports rated notebook computers in their June issue from the tiny to desktop replacements. They also rated technical support for these devices. Sorry, Microsoft, Apple swept the ratings. Not much of a surprise. I wonder how Microsoft will include that in their new ad campaign.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Non rain rain delays

Tonight's game - the first against the Reno Aces-was rain delayed - even though there was no rain.

The only greater irony was the A's decision to send Gio Gonzalez back to the Cats after pitching 108 pitches yesterday as a reliever only to lose the game. The A's had a 3 run lead in the 13th but could not hold on to it.

When the game got underway the Cats won 5-3. They did that on just 7 hits. We have three new players whose names all start with C. (Chen, Copeland and Cardenas). If Karma started with a "C" it would be so cosmic.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Jack Kemp

Jack Kemp,who became a symbol of two movements in American politics, died yesterday. I knew Jack slightly, early in his career as a member of Congress. His political career began after his career in the NFL. He was a champion of supply side economics. During the latter part of his NFL career, according to his team-mates he studied assiduously in a wide range of economics and philosophy. While he was riding on flights he would read. There is a parallel to James Madison - who spent a good deal of time before the Constitutional Convention studying philosophy at Monticello.

Kemp had two great passions - tax reform and racial reconciliation. He was a "big tent" republican - but unlike Arlen Specter, who has gotten a lot of press in the last few days, he held to a consistent set of principles (besides re-election which seems to be Specter's guiding philosophical commitment). Before the adoption of the Economic Recovery Tax Act (1981) he described the tax code in the following manner - it rewards "consumption, leisure, debt and borrowing, and punishes savings, investment, work and production." He was out of congress when the 1986 Tax Act passed - which went a long way toward simplifying the tax code. Since then the code has become a horrible jumble of provisions that closely mirror Kemp's original description. His second commitment was to assuring that the GOP had a large tent - he embraced racial reconciliation in numerous ways. When Obama was facing problems during the 2008 campaign on Rev. Wright - Kemp argued that the country should not accept the idea of guilt by association - he said "I cut some slack here, because I think he is in a very tough spot politically and I don't want to see him lose because of a pastor in Chicago who is way over the top accusing the United States of jailing Nelson Mandela. I mean, give me a break."

He stayed in Congress for nine terms and then served the country in other ways including as Secretary of HUD under Reagan and as a VP Nominee with Bob Dole. But in or out of office he kept pushing ideas. His energy and thoughtfulness will be missed.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Mr. Justice Zelig

I have a strange take on Justice Souter. Unlike some other conservatives, I do not find he betrayed his appointers. I am not sure that Potus 41 vetted him as closely as he should have. Souter turned out to be a pedestrian liberal. There is not much in his tenure on the Supreme Court which distinguishes him. He was simply there like Zelig, the mythical character in the Woody Allen movie.

The President is likely to appoint another liberal, but what we might get is someone who will show some flair. I do not agree with Justice Ginsburg on much but I think you can point to instances where her opinions or concurrences add insight to the work of the court. I think that is what you can expect from the President's first appointment. In my view that will be an improvement over the retiring justice.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Dinner in Tampa

Last night I had dinner at a historic restaurant in Tampa called Columbia. All day long I had heard the guy saying we were going to a "Flamingo" restaurant. I saw the Godfather. This restaurant is Cuban so I though some kind of risque stage show with fans and all - but the food was supposed to be good. Well we got there and found that our host had mispronounced a bit - Columbia is a Flamenco restaurant and we were seated near the stage.

I am not an especial fan of Flamenco. Interestingly I like Clogging which is its Appalachian counterpart. But the food and service were excellent. Their Gazpacho was divine. I had the Cuban pork but there were 20 other dishes on the menu that looked great. The motif is Spanish - with lots of enameled tile.

If you are in Tampa this is one place to be, for sure.