Monday, August 31, 2009

More on Detocqueville's California - the Sierra/Siskiyou Mentality

Yesterday, I wrote about three articles in the Bee which reminded me of DeTocqueville's famous warning about the perils of democracies. There is a second issue, especially present in California policy making. Let me discuss an area I know well, the California Master Plan for Higher Education to give you an idea of this problem in very practical terms.

In 1960 California adopted a framework for higher education. At the time it was hailed as an important policy initiative. It differentiated how the three public sectors of higher education would work - both in terms of what they did and who they could admit as undergraduates. It also suggested some differences in what students would be charged - although no student would ever be charged "tuition."

Many Californians cling to parts of that plan with almost religious fervor. As noted yesterday, Larry Levine, a political consultant calls the increase in fees that students in community colleges pay ($26 per unit) "intolerable." But since the plan was originally adopted many things have changed. Our definition of who goes to college (or more importantly, who should go) has been widened. That is not intolerable - but our record of preparing students is. The economy has expanded several times - so the value of a $26 per unit fee is a lot less burdensome than it would have been in 1960 (the CPI has grown by more than seven fold since 1960). Technology has changed and so have work requirements - so what you got in a degree in 1960 should be considerably different than today.

But Californians are infected with an insularity that limits their vision outside our borders. You could call it the Sierra-Siskiyou mentality. Our geography has offered some benefits - on the north and east we are bordered by mountains, on the west by an ocean and on the south by a desert. Perhaps those barriers make those of us that got here feel special but whatever it is our vision of where to go next has been limited.

Other states have taken bold steps forward in higher education - in pricing, in who is admitted and in how college degrees are offered. But we seem to want to cling to the past. Californians are among the most diverse people in the country - but if we are ever to advance we are going to have to be cured of the Sierra-Sikiyou mentality - we need to look at places where innovation has taken place and see what we can apply to our state. If it is true for higher education, it is also true for all the other potholes of public policy we can't seem to think about.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Detocqueville on California

In 1835 Alexis DeTocqueville came to the America to write about the new republic. That produced Democracy in America, which has some amazing insights on the American character that are true today. He was a classic liberal political thinker. In the book he commented "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money." The same could be said for any legislative assembly - including the one in Sacramento.

The Sacramento Bee got me thinking about Democracy in America today. There were three articles in the forum section which focused that thought. The first by a political consultant named Larry Levine asked for a return of the California that Mr. Levine saw in his childhood. Mr. Levine argues that California has replaced its traditional optimistic sprit with a mean one - "A mean spirit has replaced the resolve of our past." Among his examples are community college fees which have gone to "intolerable" levels. Although California's community college fees are actually among the lowest in the nation, he argues that "At every turn, we are telling the weakest among us that we no longer are the kind and gentle people who will extend a helping hand." Note - the numbers Mr. Levine argues are actually even less credible. Here are some facts Mr. Levine. At $26 per unit a student can attend full time for less than $800 a year in fees, that is one third the AVERAGE fees in community college across the country. What is more, fee waiver program offers NO Fees to anyone who claims financial need. How he thinks this is intolerable is beyond me. But California has recently reduced its level of support for a lot of programs that it once spent money on. Whether these changes are heartless, indeed some of them are, should be a matter of public discussion.

A second article was from Pat Nolan, former Minority Leader of the California Assembly who was convicted in the Shrimpscam investigation and spent some time in prison. Nolan, who was a strong supporter of increased sentencing when he was a member, argued that all the laws we passed to lock up criminals are not cost effective. I posted his article to my facebook page and a friend said "What's amazing is that it's taken him 20 years and a prison term to realize what almost everyone in Sacto except CCPOA and the Republican caucus were saying at the time. Long sentences for non-violent offenders just represented more workload (read jobs/union dues/campaign contributions) for the CCPOA, and damn the direct costs." The fight for the Governor's proposal to change the way we incarcerate people in the Assembly, is reflective of the unreconstructed people who still support Nolan's old position. I was impressed with Nolan's change in thinking - my friend was less so. The supporters of more incarceration never tell you that their "scholarships" to San Quentin cost the taxpayers $60,000 or more per year per person. Like Levine, those who oppose even looking at changing our current prison system are convinced that any change will somehow be "intolerable." Both sides claim certitude but have a tin ear a listening to alternatives, much less thinking about them. When legislatures do not work the DeTocqueville warning becomes even more important.

Both articles seemed to remind me of DeTocqueville - whether you are a liberal or conservative in California you expect that either side can bribe the public with its own money. Neither side bothers to look at the big picture but looks at how they can apply rents to their pet projects.

The third article, which was an editorial in the Forum section argues that the state is still a place of opportunity., That is in spite of thousands of Californians leaving the state, higher levels of unemployment (than the national average), and a seemingly intractable set of problems that the legislature seems inclined to ignore. The editorial suggests that California still attracts 46% of the venture funding in the country. Blah, blah, blah. Weather will not overcome an inability of the legislature to intelligently discuss what we want to accomplish in the public sector. Neither the right nor the left cares much about the package of things that we need to spend money on- without that the state will drift to a new status - Mississippi with earthquakes.

The final home game

The Rivercats won their last home game of the regular season in the bottom of the ninth. We had taken an upgrade which is the upper photo. I really do not like to sit in those seats. I really feel out of the action. In about the fourth inning we moved back down to our regular seats. The problem with day games at this time of year is that they are very hot. In the eighth we finally moved up into the high rows and the shade. They ended the regular season 33 games over .500. But the win was not without some drama.

In the seventh the Cats took over the lead. In the top of the ninth the Cats loaded the bases by pitching through a batter and then bobbled a ball and allowed a runner to steal home to re-tie the game. That was with 2 outs and 2 strikes and the very next pitch was a strike. But in the bottom of the ninth, the Cats got one back to win the game. We next see them for the playoffs on the 11th.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Do anything, say anything

Our attorney general (left) has stuck his finger in the wind and agreed to launch a special investigation into the death of Michael Jackson. (right) Can you guess which one is running for governor?

Brown whose ability to sniff out a headline is legendary is up to his old tactics. In 1978, before the passage of Proposition 13 - he was its most vehement opponent. When the voters adopted it by an over-whelming margin - he was "born again." That created a lot of frustration in the legislature. Brown had hoarded state funds to assure that he would not have the kind of deficit that cost his father the 1966 election. He then let the legislature figure out how to use some of those funds to bail out local government which had had a huge reduction in funding - owing to the reduction in property tax revenues.

In the middle of that long summer John Paul 1 died after only 33 days as Pope. Members were grousing on the floor about Brown's apparent conversion as a tax cutter. One said "Why don't we run Junior (his nickname at the time) for Pope." Another replied "He could not get the job, he really is not a Catholic." To which a third member who had fought Brown on his bonehead appointment of a Adriana GIanturco as head of Caltrans - "Oh that's OK, we have a couple of days, he could convert."

The only question anyone in California should have about our AG is why in the world would anyone consider him seriously to re-take the job he did so poorly three decades ago.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bob Reich's Ideas - Revisited

Robert Reich is that glib voice you hear on the public radio proclaiming he knows public policy best. He was Clinton's labor secretary and has had a bunch of academic posts at some pretty good places. I had the opportunity to clean out a briefcase today and found a WSJ editorial that Reich penned in March. In "Obamanomics Isn't About Big Government" he made the fanciful argument that Mr. Obama's administration was not a "return to big government." Hmmm. I wonder what it should be called.

Reich asserted that "The real distinction between Obamanomics and Reaganomics involves government's role in achieving growth and broad based prosperity." Indeed, that is true. But then Reich tried to turn reality on its head. "The animating idea of Reaganomics was that the economy grows best from the top down." Reich admits that Reagan's administration "marked the beginning of one of the longest bull markets in American history" (that is true) - he then goes on to claim that all those gains went to the wealthy.(that is not true) I guess Mr. Reich didn't bother to look at the rapid increase in the percentage of Americans owing stock over the last several decades. After Reagan Americans had more control over their own destinies. That involves risk. But that risk offers a real opportunity for people to pursue what the founders called "happiness."

Reich then went on to claim that under Obamanomics an economy grows best from "the bottom up." Not sure how to interpret that Bob - in less than one year the current administration has burdened every American with tons of new debt. That certainly will bring all of us closer to the bottom but I am not sure that is what Reich was trying to argue. The current administration has raised deficit spending (which Reich criticized under the last administration) to levels unheard of except in banana republics.

I am sure Reich is off making some other absurd argument about how all those new levels of deficits (to get an idea of how large a trillion dollars is imagine a stack of $1000 bills that would be 67 miles high - for each $1 trillion) are really good for us all. But it was fun to read his arguments again. I am sure he has forgotten them - but we should not.

15 Favorite Books

Facebook has a quiz to ask for your 15 favorite books. I simply cannot do that. There are some staples that I always come back to like A Christmas Carol (Dickens - I seem to read it every year) and the Federalist (parts of it are memorized). Then there are books that have been influential for me - The Wealth of Nations (I am one of the few who actually has read Smith's work) and Atlas Shrugged (As I commented a few days ago Rand could have benefited from an editor but her thoughts are challenging) - but neither of those are books I want to pile through again. Then there are authors I could not live without - Dickens (and I would add Great Expectations and a Tale of Two Cities - but most all of his writing is worth working through), Hesse (especially Magister Ludi and Steppenwolf - most of the hippies did not get the latter) and then there is Twain (I would always debate between the Gilded Age and Innocents Abroad and Roughing it and even possibly Pudd'nhead Wilson). Walter Brooks is also an important author in my history - he wrote the Freddy the Pig books which I adored as a child. His books got me interested in reading and had a good sense of fun in them. Then there are the economics books - Economics in One Lesson is a great short treatment of economic principles. The Long Tail (Chris Anderson) and Ten Rules for the New Economy (Kevin Kelly) taught me a lot about the new economy (Free - Anderson's new book is certain to be a classic). James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock are important in my thinking about economics as is Mancur Olson - but it is not one book but their collected works over time. There are more than 15 but that gives you an idea why this request is so impossible.

A question for supporters of the Single Payer or Public Option

We're told constantly that the US spends more on health care than any other nation (save East TImor). In recent years the percentage of coverage by governmental program has risen - from improvements in VA care to the Medicare prescription drug benefit. We also know that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, that the costs of Medicare and Medicaid spending are projected to grow at three times the rate of projected growth in GDP over the next couple of decades - those are two of the three current public options. CBO also estimated that for the past several decades about half the growth in medical costs comes from advances in technology.

Here is the question - if the public option will actually save money, how come it has not demonstrated reductions as the percentage of the health budget has increasingly been applied to the public option of Medicare, Medicaid and the VA?

A great idea

Yesterday I was walking back from a discussion with a staffer in the capitol and we were approached by a guy who hit us up for money. The young staffer said politely, "I don't give money but I do have something else." She then pulled out a packet of McDonald's gift cards ($5 each) and said "you can buy a meal with this." I was impressed with that both the idea and the way she handled the request.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Woody Guthrie, Upton Sinclair, Ayn Rand and John Steinbeck

For the past couple of weeks my wife and I have been listening to an unabridged version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's polemic about Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century. As I have listened to the endless hardship that Jurgis Rudkus endures in the packing yards and the political system I have grown increasingly tired of Sinclair's one sided view of the world, even the world of the working man - which the original version was quick to tell us that Sinclair did some "original" research to write the book (undercover of course). The book is unrelenting in the same way the Rand's Atlas Shrugged or Steinbeck's
The Grapes of Wrath are unrelenting. In Sinclair's version the main character has flaws but the wolrd he encounters is populated by people without heart or soul - until of course he encounters the socialists.

Rand's Atlas Shrugged has an excessively long peroration in the middle which in about forty pages unfolds her unique brand of individualism. Steinbeck is also the same kind of grinding writer in the Grapes of Wrath. Two of the three (the Jungle and the Grapes of Wrath) were written not as novels but as media events. There is plenty of evidence that the Jungle eventually resulted in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Steinbeck wrote his screed in 1939 and it was immediately put into a movie which I have always thought was designed to justify a good deal of what FDR had tried during the thirties.

So how does the dust bowl singer fit into this grouping? In my sense he does not. Woody Guthrie, whose estate just issued a great compilation set of CDs of remastered classic Woody, was no less political than Steinbeck, Rand or Sinclair. He believed very deeply in a number of causes that were certainly more in concert with the thinking of Sinclair and Steinbeck. But his work had a depth that neither Steinbeck (at least in the Grapes) nor Sinclair ever seemed to achieve. First, although there are some Woody ballads that I think have lost their punch, many are still very timely. Second, and more importantly Woody had the ability to stir on political issues and yet comment on the very human side of life. In some ways the voice that Dylan tried to emulate was not the most musical but like a lot of Dylan's early work, it was evocative of both the times in which he lived and the broader human condition.

It is in part a bit unfair to include Steinbeck in this grouping. He has a large body of other writing that is first rate. But the Grapes of Wrath fits very neatly into the model established by the other two authors.

What I like best about the new Woody set called My Dusty Road is that the songs show that broad range of commentary that Woody did so well - from political songs to life songs. I've listened to Woody for more than forty years and this is the best collection I have ever heard.

When you read Sinclair (or listen to someone reading him) you realize how dated his references and style is. When you listen to this collection of lots of previously unreleased Woody - it is current for this time.

Common Sense

State Senator Abel Maldanado commented that the Republican's refusal to allow independent voters to vote in the GOP primary was "suicidal." The senator said "I believe our party is at a defining moment in our history and your decision to exclude 20 percent of voters from our primary will send us down a dangerous path from which there might be no return or recovery,'' Maldonado told Nehring in his letter released today. "The path of irrelevance.'' He's right.

Some of the leading "conservatives" in the state like Jon Fleischman want purity in their primary. They'll get that too but Maldanado is still right.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why we like Coach Pete

One of the great things the Pete Carroll has done for USC football is to establish a sense of fun and camaraderie. I found this video of Bill Withers visiting the team. It shows the kinds of fun that the team has in between its very serious work.

Do Stimulus Packages ever Stimulate anything but Deficits?

Here are four charts that project GDP growth in the US, UK,Germany and Brazil (note the Brazilian estimates for q2 and q3 show a slight rate of growth). Quick which of these countries had massive stimulus packages to get their economies restarted after the economic downturn that hit the world economy in 2008? If you get this one wrong you are not paying attention.

Wizards like Paul Krugman would have us believe that we just did not spend enough to create a real stimulus. But wasn't he the guy who projected recessions during almost the entire presidency of W?

Nancy Pelosi and the Post Office

In its Saturday Edition the WS J has an editorial on the post office and why we should end the monopoly that has kept the USPS in (manifestly inefficient) operation. While the case for ending the monopoly is pretty simple and should be listened to - the comparison to our current discussions on health care is even more on point.

Pelosi has criticized the protests at town hall meetings during the recess by arguing that "Many of these opponents who are shutting down civil discussion are organized by out-of-district, extremist political groups, and industry-supported lobbying firms." She has also referred to the protests as "astroturf" - a derogatory term to suggest that the grass roots reaction is somehow manufactured. But look again at the cost curve on delivering mail - growing as a far faster rate than the underlying consumer price index. Does the Speaker actually believe that if we move a lot more of the health care system into the public system that the same kinds of cost curves would happen?

The extremist political groups (like Acorn) and industry supported lobbying firms (like the trial attorneys) that prop the Speaker up are the real manufacturers of astroturf.

Friday, August 21, 2009


This is perfect:

Obama's health care plan will be:

Written by a committee whose head says he doesn't understand it,

Passed by a Congress that hasn't read it,

Signed by a President who smokes,

Funded by a treasury chief who did not pay his taxes,

Overseen by a surgeon general who is obese, and

Financed by a country that is nearly broke.

What could possibly go wrong?

Wired's Got the Picture

Wired's Digital Edition has 10 pet peeves about digital photography. All of them are good. Two struck me as particularly useful. The first was called Rock Concert Strobage - their peeve - most people don't realize that their flashes will not reach the stage unless they are within about 10 feet of it (and then of course you don't need it). So they wish that the people would simply turn off their flashes. They also don't like digital watermarking.

But their real pet peeve is called Cameras. It is really a couple of things. They suggest that all the discussion about megapixels is baloney. So is most of the discussion about cameras. The ultimate test of a camera and a photographer is whether they can capture a compelling image. The rest is just chatter. Sounds about right to me.

The NYT demonstrates the Economics of Bureaucracy

A standard part of the literature in Public Choice economics is that bureaucracies act differently than private firms in economic downturns. In 1978, the opponents of Proposition 13 argued that if the proposition was adopted that public employment would be decimated. In reality, the number of public employees at the state level actually went up by a fairly significant margin.
Evidently the stimulus package seems to have worked quite well for public employees.

Legislative Kabuki

I've been annoyed at the discussion on health care. First, I am convinced that moving more of our health care system under direct governmental control (we currently between the VA and Medicare and Medicaid have about 46% there) is not the right way to solve the problem that some people do not have insurance and costs are escalating. Second, while I believe that the town hall meeting format used by politicians is not actually an attempt by our elected officials to understand public opinion, I believe that the grumpiness that members of congress have encountered this August is real. A friend coined the phrase Legislative Kabuki to describe that condition when politicians go through stylized debates without any real attempt at having a discussion. I think that is where we are on health care.

Over last weekend two administration officials seemed to say that the Administration would back off on the "public option" only to be slapped back into liberal orthodoxy by Speaker Pelosi (Chief Kabuki player in Washington). Clearly our elected officials are not listening to legitimate dissent and concern. That in turn frustrates more Americans. Which seems to in turn move our elected officials into more stylized debate. We've heard more than one "leader" imply that we, their bosses, are just too dumb to understand how to solve this problem. It is odd when we have elected officials yammering about the superiority of their knowledge on an issue when the vast majority have not even bothered to read the legislative proposals they are trying to force us to accept.

So it was especially refreshing to read a David Ignatious Column in the Washington Post which presented the ideas of the Chief of the Mayo Clinic. He makes two very simple suggestions. First, he suggests that having a discussion about health insurance is the wrong one to have. We should be thinking about ways to improve the health system for Americans - that may or may not involve insurance questions. Some in the majority in congress want a bogeyman and insurance is an easy target. Second, he suggests that rather than expanding the public option that supporters think up creative ways to make the existing public options in the VA and Medicare and Medicaid more efficient and cost effective. Both ideas are worthy of serious consideration if only our politicians would be willing to take off their stage make-up.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ideas whose time has probably not come back

Three German auto makers have announced a new version of the Trabant. Remember that emblem of Soviet engineering - gas guzzling and horrible. The joke in Eastern Europe was "How do you double the value of a Trabi(the nickname for the car)?" Answer - "Add a gallon of gas."

Well these brilliant entrepreneurs have announced that they will produce a new Trabi which is electric. Based on the earlier engineering designs and this picture, it is unclear how long the extension cord will be. Actually the device at the back could be a trailer which would carry along the generator to run the thing. Even with that I still wonder how long the optional extension cord will be.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Changing the argument

Over the weekend the Administration first caved on the "death panels" - that evidence of nanny statism that made absolutely no sense except to a bean counting bureaucrat. The idea of counseling for people in the last few years of life was put forward without a lot of hard evidence that those people do not already know a lot about options they have available. Next the Administration seems to have backed off the "public" option - which most rational observers thought was an attempt to move an even larger portion of our healthcare system under direct government control. One wonders what they will come up with next.

They could think a lot more creatively about alternative organizational frameworks that might actually lower costs. Senator Conrad's idea about co-ops might offer some options although I personally would prefer to have a lot more conscientious thought about taking this away from an employer mandate and giving consumers a lot more control of the system. A co-op might come out to be an option like charter schools which offer a wider range of possibilities without taking away the role of the government in at least being a mediator. If it is a good idea why not extend it to Medicare and the VA and really save some money?

How Long Does a Memory Last

Stars from the Ports
Originally uploaded by drtaxsacto
At Saturday's concert in the Ports new stadium, the booth lists a bunch of Ports who made it to the bigs. Curiously absent in the list is John Jaha. He played four seasons for the Ports including 1989 where he hit 25 home runs and played in 140 games. We last saw him in the second year of the Rivercats in 2001 where he played in 23 games. In all he played 13 seasons.

Jaha was a star in all three areas we saw him in - the Bigs (with Oakland and the Twins), AAA (the RIvercats) and A (the Ports). He was fun to watch and announcers had a good time saying his name - two syllable names are great because you can vary the emphasis. During Jaha's time with the Ports they were among the winningest professional sports franchises, so he must have been doing something right. Are the jerseys only those from recent memory?

Sunday, August 16, 2009


This photo is from a rally that the President held last week. It sums up a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of government. Change, by itself, is not necessarily always positive. In the Bee's section on comments one writer argued that the health care system needs to be tweaked, she is correct. We can always find a way to make health care more efficient and a bit less expensive. But as the American people have demonstrated over this interim - they understand that change for change sake will not always offer positive results.

In the last several decades health care has changed a lot. We've improved survival rates for a number of diseases. We've improved the quality of life for persons with several other diseases. But based on records from the Veteran's Administration health care system and Medicare - the government has not been at the forefront of making positive change. Medicare is expected to grow in costs by about three times the expected rate of GDP growth over the next couple of decades. Is that the change we cannot afford not to do?

The Willie, John Mellencamp and Dylan show

Last night we went to the concert of Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Bob Dylan in Stockton. It was uneven. I last saw Willie Nelson in the late 1970s - he is now 76. In this performance he did a lot of the standards and some new stuff. He did a couple of Hank Williams songs. His performance lacked the impact of thirty years ago - but he clearly is still a dedicated performer.

I saw Mellencamp last at the Concert for New York after 9/11 - he added a mix of some of his old stuff and examples of his new songs. He brought out his 14 year old son at the end to play a song. Mellancamp has evolved in many good ways. From my perspective he was the best of the three.

Dylan was announced with something to the effect that he influenced a generation. I think that is a bit much. Of the three performers he was the most disappointing. What was edgy in the 1960s has turned arrogant in this time. Dylan was never much of a vocalist but last night he seemed to growl his way through numbers. The other impression was that all of his stuff sounded the same - rhythm and pitch were all pretty much equivalent. One of the attractions of Dylan early was his willingness to experiment - from last night's performance he seemed to have lost that inspiration and relied on a presentation style which relied too much on our ability to pay homage to his past glories.

This concert was at the new baseball stadium for the Stockton Ports - Banner Island. Whoever set up the venue for the concert did not think much about how to do it. The sound booth was set up right in the middle of the field so for most of the crowd in the seats immediately behind homeplate could not possibly see the stage from their $68 seats. As I was coming in I was told that no cameras were allowed. I find that offensive. There were tons of cameras taken in - many of the small digital ones (my G-10 was easy to carry in) - but I would have preferred to be able to shoot some shots with my SLR. We were back far enough so you really could not distinguish who was on stage. Had they said no video, I would have complied, as it was I did a lot of video from the G-10 and my iPhone.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Generational Emblems

Two events were marked this weekend that may well be symbols of my generation. The first was the release of Lynette Squeaky Fromme from a life sentence in federal prison. Fromme was the nutcase Manson follower (but there I am redundant) who tried to shoot President Ford. Technically, Fromme is not out of the 1960s - she attempted to shoot the President in the 1970s. But Manson's beginnings happened when he formed a commune in the late 1960s in San Francisco. The Manson family was an example of the wretched excess of the sixties. The summer of love was transformed into maniacal deviance.

The second was the coverage of the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock. We've always held Woodstock in high regard because it is also the weekend that my wife and I were married. (Not at Woodstock) Although there was a lot of discussion at the time and since that Woodstock was an important cultural event - I am not sure that the reality and the hype are tied. There were some great performers at the concert. Jimmie Hendrix's performance of the Star Spangled Banner - was an emotional reconfiguration of a standard piece of music. And for a couple of years large concerts seemed to be important events. Yet only a few months after Woodstock was held the Stones' concert at Altamont seemed to change the tone in a dramatic fashion.

Woodstock had a lot of people proclaiming that it was a cultural sea change. Many of the hangers on from Waavy Gravy to even some of the performers made those claims. The period was also a time when old barriers began to break down. So about the time of all this Norman Mailer's wife held a party for the Black Panthers. (Tom Wolfe did a wonderful service to us all when in Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers, he lampooned Mrs. Mailer's lack of knowledge about the Panthers - "I wonder if the Panthers have cheese balls with nuts at their cocktail parties.")

Ultimately, I am skeptical of any generalization about a generation. At the time of Woodstock there were plenty who were supportive of the war effort in Vietnam (although the opponents got better press). A lot of the new freedom of the generation extended into libertine excess. But a lot of it also made fundamental changes in the way Americans thought about key issues.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Start of a Trend?

The University of Southern Mississippi, according to Inside Higher Education, has proposed to eliminate its economics department in response to the economic downturn in the state. The University has been forced to reduce its budget by $11-12 million and economics is one of the departments that is being considered for elimination. The university is planning to eliminate 12 tenured or tenure track positions - three quarters of the reductions are in the department of economics.

The head of the local American Association of University Professors chapter commented “I’m just sort of baffled. It seems to me similar to not having an English Department or a biology department. Here we are in the worst economic mess in 70 years, and to not give our students a chance to understand their own personal economic situation -- their finances -- and understand what some of the remedies are that are being talked about by the president and Congress and state legislators, I think is a shame." That assumes of course that the economics faculty serves the role that the professor claims it does.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Babin's take on town hall meetings

Yesterday, the Bee's editorial cartoonist published this cartoon. I am not sure what his point was. While I think Babin meant to impugn the motives of opponents there are at least three interpretations of the cartoon. They include:
1) The opposition to the Administration's healthcare proposal is actually a bunch of lackeys who jump at the behest of their right ring leaders. While the White House has made a big thing about the conspiracy of the opposition against its massive takeover of our healthcare system - the opposition is real. There is plenty of manipulation going on in this fight from both the supporters and opponents of the plan.
2) The use of the town hall format is increasingly fraudulent because of the politician's unmitigated manipulation of who can get into them. All politicians use their town hall meetings to orchestrate their desired results. Some of this manipulation is done in the name of security. That is a tradeoff that we should be very careful of. When politicians, including the president, are allowed to speak only to controlled crowds, they become out of touch with the people they are hired to serve. Those who are not galavanting around the world during the recess are back in their districts going to controlled events. That is the current state of leadership in congress.
3) The clown hall is actually the halls of congress. Few, if any, members of congress have bothered to do the job they are hired to do. The current proposal is a massive volume. Shouldn't the clowns in congress take a bit more care before they make changes to a seventh of the economy?

For me #2 and #3 are more compelling than #1. But then I am one of those people who remains very much concerned about the proposal (and no I have not read the whole bill).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What Passes for Intelligence in the Political Class

Gavin Newsome, candidate for Governor, spoke to about 300 students at Santa Ana college and laid out a set of plans that will play well only in small parts of the state. He a) touted support for services to illegal immigrants, b) supported universal health care with a public option, c) advocated a split roll on property taxes (although press reports suggest he stepped back from this precipice somewhat) , d) supported eliminating the two thirds requirement for budget approval.

Newsome commented "I'm not a poster child for playing along, for playing it safe." Evidently the San Francisco mayor is also not a student of geography. All four of those positions receive wide support only in a small portion of the state. It is refreshing to see a politician speak his mind and not nuance his political positions. But if that is the direction of his campaign two things are pretty sure to happen. First, the chameleon we have known as Former Governor Moonbeam will be able to nuance his position and look more like a center candidate - at least in the democratic primary. But second, Newsome will find that the voters, to use a phrase he used in an earlier campaign, will reject him (to paraphrase) "whether he likes it or not."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Paul Krugman,Pogo Redux

Paul Krugman, who spent most of this decade predicting a great depression wrote in the morning's Bee - "For avoiding a new Great Depression, thank government." He trumpets "seems like we're not going to have a second Great Depression afterall. What saved us, ? The answer, basically, is big government." Yeah, right.

Krugman compares our situation in the 1930s with today. He suggests that prices and the markets did not fall as far as they did in the 1930s and that "trend lines" then just kept falling. His history here is a bit off. First, contrary to the narrative of many historians of the 1930s, even during the time of Hoover, government did not do nothing. Indeed a lot of the changes that FDR used to confront the downturn were in place before FDR came into office. More importantly, the evidence of the 1930s suggests that despite a massive infusion of governmental activity as a result of the New Deal, the economy sputtered throughout the 1930s and did not begin to recover until WWII (or in a more realistic scenario after WWII). Stimulus packages never seem to come out the way supporters suggest they will.

Krugman estimates that the stimulus package has created a million jobs or at least saved that many. How does he come up with that number? Has he bothered to look at the statistics on economic growth in the states. There is a direct and negative correlation between state's tax rates and their rate of economic growth. Why has California lost manufacturing jobs to states like Arizona and Nevada - and what consequences does that have for the long term economic well being of residents? I guess Mr. Krugman doesn't bother to look at such things.

Krugman argues that the results of the massive infusion of cash (which some estimate in multiples of our GDP) was not enough. If some infusion is good, then lots more must be better. Evidently he does not believe that the trillions of adjustment monies started under W will have any adverse effects. Is there a realistic possibility that a) the injection of all this liquidity will cause some significant inflation down the line? Evidently Krugman is unconcerned. Most other economists suggest that will be the result we should expect. But Krugman continues to believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch, as long as it is government subsidized. Has he ever wondered where all those government dollars come from. As Pogo said, "I have met the enemy and he is us."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Saved by Henry Rodriguez

Last night the Cats opened their local series against the New Orleans Zephyrs. The story was not that the team with the best record in baseball (the Cats) beat a team with one of the worst records at 49-65 the Zephyrs are not the strongest team in the league. The story was also not on the offensive side of the ledger, although our 4-3 victory came about because we outscored them. The story of the night was Henry Rodriguez. He came in a tough situation in the eighth with bases loaded and no outs. Shawn Chacon, who did not have much of an outing - left Henry with a real tough situation. He proceeded to strike out the next three batters. In the ninth he struck out another two and the third batter popped out. In the two innings he pitched he looked exceptional. Chacon threw junk most of the night and after a while even the Zephyrs could figure it out. But Henry came in and took care of business.

Rodriguez had some time with the Ports in 2008 before going to Midland. He may well get yanked up to the A's again but while he is here he is a joy to watch.

Mike Seeger

Mike Seeger, a younger brother to Pete Seeger who just turned 90, died over the weekend. In my opinion Mike was more influential as a musician than Pete. He started out in the 1950s as one of the three founders of the New Lost City Ramblers. The NLCR was an ensemble that brought a lot of us into the string band music of the 1920s and 1930s. When Tom Paley left the group they added Tracy Schwartz and continued for a couple of more years. (The picture with Mike in the middle has Tracy Schwartz in it.) Mike then went into a very creative period that lasted more than 30 years. MIke went on to explore the bounds of old time music in a number of collaborations and solo albums.

Pete Seeger certainly has had an influence in music and politics. Mike stuck to music. Pete seems to have stuck his performance in the 1960s. Certainly his support for civil rights music was important but the recent concert he did for his 90th seemed to me a lot like one more continuous retrospective. Mike continued to experiment. For example in 1999 David Grishman, John Hartford and Mike Seeger produced Retrograss which took some old time music and some modern stuff (for example Chuck Berry's Memphis) and recast the tunes. The album has a sense of fun for people who know this genre of music well and for those who have never heard it. Some of his later albums had music which I could never wrap my arms around - but each had a couple of classic reinterpretations of music that would blow me away.

Pete Seeger did a book and record called How to Play a Five String Banjo - Mike did a series of great DVDs that show different styles of banjo. (He also did DVDs for other instruments including the Autoharp but I was interested in the banjo DVDs). So again Mike continued to grow in his music. I am reasonably sure that Pete has sold more albums than Mike did - but Mike remained true to his creative spirit. For me Pete is a fixed point in time and Mike continued to move and invent. He was a musician's musician.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Emotional Attraction of Mount Lassen

I've been attracted to Lassen since I was younger than ten. It might have come about because of a family vacation we had to the area. I was able to climb to the top. That offered a sense of accomplishment. Then there was the awesome power of the explosion in 1915. When I was young the interpretive center had a bunch of pictures, mostly from B.F. Loomis. They showed in black and white the impressive force of the eruption in May 1915. There is also the Mark Twain connection. Twain describes a trip he made to Lassen in Roughing it. I think I read his description about the time I first climbed the mountain. Whatever the cause - the area holds a high attraction for me.

When my son was about seven or eight I tried to take him up to the top but did not take enough water so we failed to make it to the summit. A few years later he and I went back again and had a wonderful hike to the top.

A few years after that a good friend from Mexico was going through a rough time and I picked him up in SFO and we went straight to Lassen and hiked and talked for two days. It was a wonderful experience - but we did not make it to the top. So my experience over time has been mixed. Lassen is an easy climb - all trails, no scrambling - but in the times I have been into the park I've only gotten to the top about half the time.

For the last year, my oldest grandson and I have had a plan about climbing Lassen Peak this summer. We got there today and found that the trail was closed because of a slide - and it will be closed for the rest of the season. So we went to Bumpass Hell. The hike is a bit shorter than the peak. The temperature was wonderful - although because of a fire in the general area it is not as clear as it usually is in August.

The area is remote enough so while there are always tourists in the summer - it is never very crowded. It is also a more pristine part of the Sierra (actually Mt. Lassen is at the bottom part of the Cascades).

I hope I conveyed the mystery and the majesty of the area to my grandson. We had a good hike - even if it was not to the top of the mountain and there is always next year.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Driving to Lassen and the Rivercats

Tonight my grandson and I were driving to Lassen Park for a hike tomorrow. We listened to the Rivercats versus Oklahoma. We went ahead only to have them tie it up in top of the ninth. The game went to the twelfth and we won it when Eric Patterson scooted across home plate. What was most fortunate about the time 92.1 was going out of our range - Patterson came across. Johnny Doskow confirmed we had won 4-3 and then we lost signal.

The game kept me awake as I was driving north on Route 5 after a very long day (which had started at about 4:30 to catch a 6:30 flight to Orange County). What a great way to end the day. Soon after we lost signal we got to Red Bluff and to our hotel. It made the drive a lot easier - albeit until the bottom of the twelfth a bit frustrating.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Confirmation of Judge Sotomayor

Let's get a couple of things straight. I agree with Senator Lindsey Graham. As he voted for the President's nominee today he said that the judge was not someone who he would have chosen for the court. But the judge is qualified to be a member of the court both in terms of intellect and experience. She certainly will be an improvement over the man she replaced.

In recent days Senator Graham commented that the Senate is no longer a place to do confirmations but rather it has become a place to have partisan fights. Ultimately, by electing Obama as president, one would expect that nominees are different than would be nominated had McCain been nominated.

McCain tried to make a point about the horrible treatment that Miguel Estrada got at the hands of democrats in the Senate. But their absurd behavior should not be justification for getting back at Judge Sotomayor.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Kathleen Sebelius - Meaningless Statistics and Rhetoric

The Health Secretary was on NPR last night and very combative about the Administration's health plan. She suggested that all of the outrage that Members of Congress have experienced in the summer break is "organized." I'm not so sure that is true. Members in a variety of districts have found some pretty grumpy voters. Some are hiding behind Townhall Teleconferences.

The Secretary was also citing that 12,000 Americans a day lose health insurance. That amounts to almost 4.4 million people a year. Are those only the people who lost their jobs as a result of the recession (and what about COBRA)? Evidently she believes that by scaring the voters she can help propel a bad idea forward.

The opportunity for the President is significant. According to every poll there is a large majority of voters who would like to make a change in the way that health insurance works. At the same time an increasing majority of Americans is rejecting the President's complex plan. If the President is indeed as ideological as his critics suggest he is - then he will not take this opportunity. Sebelius' responses on NPR suggest that the Administration still thinks they can power this one through. I think they are wrong.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Oh Now I Understand....

The President's health plan seems to be sinking in the polls. It is likely during the August recess that many Members of Congress will hear an earful. Andrea Mitchell , the NBC "reporter"could have at least four possible explanations of why that is happening. The explanations might include:

1) Voters think it is too complicated to be able to work.
2) Or they believe the proposal is too expensive.
3) Maybe the people are not sure that the government should be running a sixth of our GDP.
4) Or Voters may not know what's good for them.

The first three are the most likely answers but Mitchell, in a continuing show of arrogance that comes from years of talking to others like her in Washington, picks #4. Mitchell is one of those Washington news bimbos who think their background and experience is superior to the notions of people outside of Washington. If she likes it so much let her have a go at government health care.