Thursday, December 31, 2009

John Coleman

John Coleman was for the last 55 years a practicing meteorologist. He is also the founder of the weather channel. He thinks all the paranoia about global warming is bunk. He does not dismiss the idea that we should manage our resources carefully or that it is a good idea that we should look for alternative sources of energy. What he rejects is the nonsense that people like Gore spew out more as theology than science. This is worth seeing.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Up In the Air and Sherlock Holmes

We saw two of the Christmas movies this week - Sherlock Holmes and Up in the Air. I expected a lot out of both but was satisfied with only one - Sherlock Holmes.

I must admit I came to Holmes with a bit of trepidation. I think of Holmes in the Conan Doyle motif or with the picture of Basil Rathbone. Robert Downey and Jude Law are not Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. But the movie is very engaging. It has an interesting story, interesting characters and great visual effects. Downey and Law work well together and the other characters are great supplements to the plot and the tone of the film.

Up in the Air is about an outplacement consultant who has constructed a life flying tons of miles. His greatest goal in life seems to be getting to 10 million miles on American airlines. His company hires a young MBA who decides that the way to do outplacement counseling is to use video chat. She is cold and precise. It sets up a good contrast between the distant Clooney and the young MBA. The plot gets more interesting when he encounters a sexy fellow traveler who has about the same number of gold cards. It gets even more interesting when Clooney's sister is about to get married and he helps solve a problem for a reluctant groom. But the movie is ultimately disappointing. The MBA's project fails and Clooney who finally has decided that 10 million miles on American is not all there is to life - finds that he cannot get back into the concept of relating to people. As we talked about the movie after we saw it we constructed about half a dozen alternative plots which could have made the movie more satisfying. But what we were left with was a good initial idea for a plot with some interesting characters who were left without much substance to work from.

I hope Downey comes back in this role - a sequel would be wonderful. Clooney should get back to what he does well, act in well developed stories.

The Absurd State of the Modern Language Association

if you want to worry about the state of political correctness in higher education today you need only look at the recent confab of the Modern Language Association.

Higher education in the US and around the world is going through one of the toughest times in the last several decades to what did the MLA discuss? They adopted a resolution which called for tenure for all professors - “and expressing the view that “[a]ll higher education employees should have appropriate forms of job security, due process, a living wage and access to health care benefits” Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, spoke on the resolution with the following expertise on the current state of the language “It ain’t a high bar, but many are below it,”- Gee professor Nelson - I are really impressed. At a time when many universities in the country have tenure rates of seventy to eighty percent, John Franklin Crawford (a retired professor) worried about “the prospect of real catastrophe” if academics of all stripes don’t band together to fight against the "adjunctification" of higher education.

They avoided even a mild resolution on Ward Churchill the fraud from the University of Colorado who was dismissed for cause. Grover Furr, a professor at the distinguished Montclair State,offered the following defense of Churchill's antics “He is allowed to say disgusting and horrible things … and not be penalized by a governmental institution” Oh wait,Churchill was the employee of a governmental institution (the University of Colorado) and he seems to have obtained his position using fraudulent credentials.

This kind of thing would be humorous if it were not an indication of the oddities in a good part of the academic community.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What is the Difference between Michael Brown and Janet Napolitano?

There are two that come to mind which are obvious - first, neither seems qualified to their job. Brown was head of the Arabian Horse Association and Napolitano served as a counsel to Anita Hill. Second, both were in positions of critical responsibility for their fellow citizens. Napolitano seems to have the same kind of denial that Brown did. She first commented on how well her department functioned (the system worked) and then a day or so later - when the obvious flaws in their performance were pointed out - she changed her tune.

Oh there is one more difference. Brown eventually was forced out. It is not clear whether Napolitano will be granted the same treatment.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Posada de los Gringos

When my wife and I first moved back to California, we started a tradition called Posada de los Gringos. Traditionally a Posada (which means an inn) is celebrated in Mexico and symbolizes the travels of Mary and Joseph. The last night is the 24th. of December.

We had just bought a house and my wife and I did not want to cook on Christmas Eve. We went to a church service and then wanted to have dinner out. But on Christmas Eve in the area near Curtis Park in Sacramento there were no restaurants open - except a little place called Caballo Blanco. They were famous for the potato tacos. We began to eat there every Christmas Eve after church. That tradition continues today. Last night we went to a place close to where we now live and had our son and one of our grandsons with us. As you can see he took the tradition very seriously. It is good to have family traditions.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This is your brain on crack

US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in a speech on the Senate floor (what once was the greatest deliberative body in the world) seems to believe that the ONLY reason to oppose a bill that no one has read is to defeat the President in his goals. That is so absurd it is laughable. But Senator Whitehouse seems to believe it.

Dear Senator Whitehouse in the spirit of Christmas let me list just 10 of the reasons for opposing either the Senate or the House bill:

1) Show me any other area of the economy where government control has improved it.
2) Look at the lines and care lapses in single payor countries.
3) I am not a fan of British teeth (thanks to the national health care system).
4) You did nothing to curtail the costs of your buddies the trial lawyers in either bill - wouldn't that help to reduce costs.
5) Have you actually read the bill?
6) Military music is to music as military justice is to justice as national health care is to health care. (Thanks to Robert Sherrill)
7) The tax increases in the bill will continue to delay full recovery in the economy.
8) The design of the Medicare panels seems to violate basic principles of separation of powers.
9) I do not want to deprive the Speaker of the House of her botox treatments.
10) According to a number of distinguished legal scholars, the bill is unconstitutional - requiring Americans to buy something for which there is no enumerated power in the Constitution. Evidently, Senator Whitehouse has also not read that document either.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Sarah Palin Interview

I admit this is not exactly timely. But last night I saw the Oprah interview with Sarah Palin. I had several impressions:

1) Palin is a lot more intelligent than she was portrayed in the media when she was a candidate for VP. During the campaign I got the impression that the media thought it was there job to play gotcha with Palin - and for the most part they succeeded. But based on her comments last night and what she had to say during the campaign I believe she was at least as qualified as our current VP - whose gaffes are legendary but not covered much by the media.
2) With the book, she has better handlers Whether we like it or not all politicians have handlers - people who brief them on what might happen and what the issues might be. That is also true on book tours and all sorts of other media events. It is clear that her publishers have a much better idea than the McCain staff about how to market Palin. McCain's staff was inept on many fronts - but I think they under-estimated Palin's appeal. I also think the egos of the handlers that she worked with in the campaign were very much in the way of trying to achieve their objective which presumably was to help McCain/Palin to get elected.
3)I like a lot of her values. She has some good firm notions of right and wrong and forgiveness and a whole bunch of other things that are important. I thought her comments on the father of her grandchild were right on target.
4) My vote in the last election (I chose not to vote for either major candidate) was a correct one. In 2008 I decided not to vote because I thought McCain was simply not wired right to be president (and the wires may be fraying a bit); Obama was an ideologue who would be considerably farther left than where he campaigned and was too inexperienced to accomplish what needed to be done (that one seems to have rung true also); Biden was simply silly - what at one point in our history was called a political fop (again the last year has reinforced that view - a fop in the 19th century was one who was too concerned with appearances - Biden simply takes that trend and applies it to politics. In the original use of the term a fop was harmless - with a political fop a lot of harm can happen; and Palin did not have a broad enough world view to handle the next job up. Last night a lot of her views were well informed but they also reflected a small town view of the world which would not serve any president well.
5) Oprah was a bit too respectful. I have not seen a lot of Oprah but I suspect that may be her interview style. She asked good questions but a lot of them sounded like something I would expect out of People Magazine - that short breathless kind of journalism which assumes some level of common insider knowledge. That's not journalism but I thought she covered a lot of topics in an hour. Katie Couric gets paid to be a "serious" journalist - I think Oprah (who comes from the same side of the political fence) is much more skilled. Neither should be called an investigative journalist - but then Oprah never claimed she was.
6) My feeling about Palin has not changed. I choose not to vote for Palin and I still think that was a right judgment. But my guess is that she will not choose to exercise her role from a position in politics and that if she chooses to be a media person (aka Huffington or O'Reilly) she is likely to be very successful. I am not sure we need more of those people (although that may seem off for someone who does a blog that is partially on politics).

The Best Congress Taxpayers can Rent

CBS calls out the graft in the health bill - the lubricant that was "necessary" to get the bill past. Katie Couric says it will help the two Nelsons and Dodd and Landrieu in their re-elections. Are we that dumb?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Great news for the country

Personally, I am hoping for a couple of days of this. It sounds about right after the snow job they have been giving us the last few weeks.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Your Congress at Work

On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives gave final passage to a spending bill which added $9000 for in new national debt for each US citizen. It was intended to "stimulate" the economy. But like most things in this Congress the details do not conform to the reality.

Included among the 5000 earmarks was $100,000 for the Jamestown library. Unfortunately, the city of Jamestown, S.C., which asked for the dough (actually only half of that) did not get it. (Jamestown, S.C. is a dandy little town of 97 people - so the beneficence of Congress was offering the equivalent of one computer for each person in town. But the great wonders of drunken Congressmen (they must have been drunk to do something like this) offered the boodle to Jamestown, California. (population 2100). The one in South Carolina is the one near Winona.

Aren't you proud of these bozos. I say vote the rascals out and let the residents of both Jamestowns buy their own computers.

The Exceptional Leadership of the California Congressional Delegation

The democrats on the California congressional delegation have issued a joint letter to the Senate regarding a provision in the Senate health care bill which would increase competitive forces in the health insurance markets. They make the case that the bill, which would allow consumers to buy insurance across state lines, is a bad thing. What nonsense.

But then you go on to read their real justification - keeping state regulation and the complex system which increases costs.

After reading their letter in full it kind of makes you wonder whether their real intent is to improve the healthcare system or to increase the role of government in our lives. Actually, knowing what I do about the California delegation, it does not make me wonder it simply confirms something I already understood.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Al Gore on Drugs

This is Al Gore's idea of poetry.

I do not want the Earth to warm
I do not want to do it harm
I do not want the Earth to heat
I fear the flames will hurt my feet
The time has come for me to rhyme
To save the Earth, I’m just in time

To save the planet from this flame
Aloft I, in my private plane
Hysterically my warnings shriek
Sounding not unlike some goofy freak
Fake data backs my warming shtick
The temp curve is a hockey stick

I can help relieve your guilt
Because you see, my fortune’s built
On carbon offsets that I sell
Before the world turns to hell
You’d best send money, for a tree
That I will plant in Zimbabwe

To Paraphrase Robert Sherril's famous quote about military justice (military justice is to justice as military music is to music)
Al Gore's poetry is to poetry as Al Gore's documentaries are to accuracy. (Note the photo is not after he read his "poetry."

Monday, December 14, 2009

The More on Federal Salaries

The earlier post on federal salary increases did not include two elements. First, there has been a huge jump in federal employees making more than $170,000 salaries. For example, there was but one U.S. Department of Transportation when the current recession began. Today, 18 months later, there are more than 1,600 career employees making that much at Transportation. That is a pretty big jump by any measure. At the same time in the original story one justification made for the differential in salaries was the higher percentage of federal employees who are professionals/scientists/engineers.

What amused me about the second comment was the notion about where employees are clustered. The differential between $41,000 in the private sector and $71,000 in the public sector would require that the feds employ almost twice the number of high income employees to get that differential. To suggest that government employs technical and highly educated people at a rate twice that of the private sector is simply nonsense.

The four maps in this post are from a site called JobBait which does some mapping on employment. It shows some interesting data. The four maps show, from left to right, changes in employment in healthcare, education,manufacturing and government. Notice a couple of things about the maps. Growth in the last 12 months has been primarily in sectors which use as a primary resource - government funding. Green means growth, red decline and black decline by more than 8%. Second, although the government numbers are red for California, when you look at particular numbers for state government that is one of the sectors of growth for the California economy. That long term trend for the state suggests problems ahead. (Big problems.)

Understanding default rates in student loans

The feds have suggested that accounting for student loans now be based on a three year rather than a two year average. While the better count would be for the life of the loan - the longer standard makes sense. All of the rates of default, among the sectors of higher education increased. In the traditional four year institutions (public and private) the new data raises defaults to around 7%. But for the for profit sector the increase is a bit more dramatic. The rate increases from 11% to 21%. Even for some of the flagship proprietaries the rate increases significantly.

The new data made me want to explore one claim which many in the proprietary sector make - that they are the taxpaying sector. Here is the data from the Apollo Corporation - which is Phoenix's parent. The data is from the financial filings of Apollo Corporation and from their federal student aid data. It does not include the amount of money that students took out in federal loans (about $3.8 billion) or the cost to the federal government for defaults on those loans, which in the case of Phoenix amount to 15.9%.

The chart is not meant to pick on one institution. (Indeed, Phoenix's default rate is significantly below the proprietary sector as a whole and less than a third of what many proprietaries have.) But it does point up two issues. First, all of higher education could improve their record on getting students to repay their loans. Second, the claim by the proprietary sector as the "taxpaying" sector is bunk.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Simple rules of Net Manners

This afternoon we were in a Starbucks and sat next to a person who had a bluetooth headset and was evidently talking on Skype. She yabbered on about all sorts of things at a relatively high volume. What was odd about the experience was that unless you stared you could not see the little ear bud from which she was talking. So you had this impression that she was actually in a place talking to herself.

I guess I think those kinds of conversations should be moderated a lot more than this nimrod thought she should. I was not really interested in hearing her gossip at lots of decibels. I began to take a picture of her and found she was shy - I thought that was odd after she had spent the last fifteen minutes assaulting us with all of her banalities.

The Leviathan Congress

Everyone agrees that the way the national championships in football is decided is silly. This year there are three teams who are not playing for the national championship that are undefeated. The system grew up as a result of coaches and athletic directors in the NCAA devised the method ultimately to share the wealth in bowl games and to choose a national champion. Since it was first developed in the late 1990s there have been a series of decisions - based on polls and computer ranking system - that have been questionable.

Rep. Joe Barton from Texas, who is a republican(with a 96% ACA rating), has proposed that Congress regulate the BCS system. At a hearing earlier in the year he described the system thusly "It's like communism. You can't fix it."

I'm confused. I agree that the BCS rating system is horrible, but since when should Congress regulate the operations of this kind of private entity? Can Rep. Barton find any place in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution that says Congress shall have the power to regulate college football or even sports?

A lot of conservatives rail against the efforts by the left to control our lives. From my perspective the disease seems to be in the institution not based simply on political philosophy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Don't do as I do

USA today had a front page story about compensation changes in the federal government. At a time when the federal government is bleeding deficits and the nation's economy is in the worst state since the great depression what do you think is going on with pay for federal employees. The number of employees making more than six figures jumped from 14% to 19% of the federal workforce. The increases do not include data for bonuses and overtime.

Last year when many public employees in the country were either facing furloughs or pay reductions or both, federal employees enjoyed a 3% pay increase in 2008 and a 3.9% increase in 2009. That is in addition to the step increases that are built into the pay system. According to the story, the highest paid employees are getting the largest share of the booty.

One might argue that federal employees should enjoy these increases because they are paid less than employees in the private sector. The Office of Personnel Management which keeps data on these things excludes the White House, postal service, uniformed military personnel and employees from the intelligence agencies. The average federal worker gets paid $71,206 compared to the average in the private sector of $40,331.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The New Socialism

Charles Krauthammer often has an interesting take on things - this morning he argues that the Administration's use of EPA regulation over carbon emissions is a naked assertion of executive power. He says "If you want to revolutionize society -- as will drastic carbon regulation and taxation in an energy economy that is 85 percent carbon-based -- you do it through Congress reflecting popular will. Not by administrative fiat of EPA bureaucrats." The proposed EPA regulation will reach into every aspect of American life allowing the substitution of bureaucratic judgment for popular will That sounds about right and he argues that the Congress should reign in the EPA on this. That is unlikely with the way Congress works today.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Thomas Malthus and Sociologists

A new article in Wired interviews a sociology professor from Whitman College on why people in America are increasingly less supportive of initiatives to combat global warming (or as it has been altered "climate change"). The webpage for the professor describes her work in the following way - "At Whitman, I am a member of both Sociology and Environmental Studies. Within the field of Environmental Sociology, I am particularly interested in the intersection of social inequality (e.g. gender, race, class) and environmental problems. This area is also known as environmental justice. "

She comments "In addition to being a major environmental problem, global climate change is a highly significant global environmental justice issue (Athanasiou & Baer, 2002; Baer et al., 2000; Agarwal & Narain, 1991; Donohoe, 2003; Pettit, 2004; Roberts, 2001)." So almost regardless of the science, this is about justice or (not to put words in the professor's mouth) equity.

In the lead article which Wired seems to have found interest the professor argues "Existing research assumes that a lack of information about the causes of global warming is the primary reason for the public’s failure to respond—an orientation that Harriet Bulkeley (2000) calls the “information-deficit model.” In essence the information deficit model assumes that skeptics about the vast array of global warming theories are simply uninformed. Certainly professors like Richard Lindzen, who is an MIT climatologist, would not be included in that group. But in the Wired article the professor goes on to suggest that a lot of the change in opinion has been caused by conspiracy - we're being duped by Exxon Mobil and others.

The professor then goes on to demonstrate her "research" with a series of interviews. My favorite exchange was "Researcher: I want to ask you about some different things that have happened here in Bygdaby(a city in Norway) that I have noticed since I arrived in November, and one of them is that there hasn’t been any snow. What do you think of that? Hilde: Yes we think it’s a bit odd, you know. The way I remember winters, or winters before, you know there was always lots of snow, and it was cold the entire winter, you know." Now that is compelling research.

Then the article gets to the crux of this issue, the author's initial premise has been shattered - people know about the problem (they are not in information deficit) - but she is concerned that even with the knowledge they are not prone to act with the same level of alarm that she is "As I became increasingly convinced that the people I spoke with were well informed about global climate change, my research questions shifted. I began asking myself a different set of questions: How did people manage to produce an everyday reality in which this critically serious problem remained invisible? What difference did it make that people who knew about global warming failed to take action?" No value laden words in those statements.

When Malthus penned his essay on population he had some pretty convincing data - that Britain would run out of food unless it controlled population. His motives were not clear - he was appealing to parliament to not extend the equivalent of welfare. And his data, which came from Benjamin Franklin, had a number of flaws. Finally, he did not anticipate the power of ingenuity. The invention of the steel plow pre-dates Malthus' work by five years. And with the steel plow yield per acre increased significantly.

Each generation is blessed with one or more Malthusian projections. And each generation has found that the linear absolutist logic of these scenarios is always wrong. Dressing it up in pseudo-scientific language does not make it any more compelling. Perhaps that might not be as satisfying an explanation as some high sounding term but based on the experience since 1798, it seems a lot more reliable than listening to sociologists with a pre-conceived picture of the world.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Shape of Taxes - What's Right?

Mark Perry at AEI took some recent Tax Foundation data and converted it to a graph.

Perry argues that the increasing number of people who file zero balance returns is a good thing. I am not so sure. Ultimately, any tax system needs to be broad enough so that most people participate in it. There should be equity considerations in any tax system but if half the people don't pay a tax - then it is very easy for the half that don't to be convinced that the half that do can accept even greater burdens. That same thing may be true when the number is slightly higher than a third as it is today. At the beginning of the Reagan administration that number was about half of what it is today for the top 1%. It is not clear where the right number should be - it should probably have some relationship to the percentage of income earned. According to the CIA Factbook the highest 10% of earners garner about 30% of the income, while the lowest 10% hold 2%. If you convert that to the calculation for income according to the IRS, the top 1% earned 23% of the AGI.

The second chart should also be troubling. As the graph points out, the top one percent of taxpayers pay a bit more than 40% of the total burden under the income tax. And the bottom 95% pay slightly less than 40%. Thus, the remaining 4% pay an additional 20% - or 5% of the taxpayers pay 60% of the income tax.

Monday, December 07, 2009

What animates some people

Snow on Tarmac
Originally uploaded by drtaxsacto
Last night we were supposed to get a heavy and cold storm in our neighborhood. About 2:30 in the morning we awoke and saw snow coming down - not sticking - but coming down. In the morning we rushed out to view what we had not seen in more than 20 years. While it was interesting and exciting, I would be just as glad if we did not see the white stuff this close again for another two decades.

Changing Fortunes

I am not especially a fan of either of these politicians but I was struck with how close their numbers are in two polls that were released this week. Things can change for both. If the President continues to ignore the deficit, his numbers are likely to decline further (which for a first year president have been pretty fast indeed.) If Palin makes some more outrageous statements her numbers could head south too. I suspect that the dueling 46% disapproves do not include many crossovers Obama to Palin.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

How a Tablet Would Work

There has been a lot of chatter around the expected Apple Tablet. But Sports Illustrated demonstrated on You-Tube how such a device might be used to enhance their magazine. Their video has a dozen features which would re-vitalize how people use the media. The video is well worth watching. And then the wait begins.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Cute ad that makes a point

This is an ad at the start of the Senate debate on Obamacare which is a takeoff on the Mac-PC ads but its point is important.