Monday, August 30, 2010

Praxis Personified

Bob Biller, who served as dean of USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development and provided inspiration to a raft of students over his time as a professor and dean, died over the weekend.  I have the distinction, I think, of being the only person to ever dump him from a dissertation committee, but that is a story best told later.  Bob was a beacon of energy - he thought, read, reflected, inspired, sometimes enraged.    He was a member of the National Academy of Public Administration and had a host of other awards and recognitions too numerous to mention.  After retiring from USC he worked on the development of the Skirbal Center in LA. There are three stories worth retelling.

#1 - The Role of a Scholar - When I was doing my doctoral work SC had a qualification course called PA 600 - four months, 60 required textbooks, 8 short papers and one major research paper.  It was designed to see whether you were really serious about doctoral work.  Bob taught the section on Administrative Theory.   One day in class he said that one of the roles of a scholar was to communicate your findings.  He urged us, if we wrote about someone who was still alive, to send our papers to the scholar.  I did that twice in that course.  The first time was to Aaron Wildavsky, who was a very creative thinker at Berkeley.  Wildavsky scribbled back some responses to me on my paper and thereafter I became one of his reading list recipients - when he ventured into a new area (which he did several times while I was a student) he would send out his new thoughts and ask for comments.  It was a real thrill to be on his list.  In a later course that Bob also taught I did a paper on James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock (Buchanan went on to win the Nobel in Economics in 1986). After an initial paper being sent to them I got the benefit of their thoughts and guidance.  For about two years both scholars were very generous in offering comments about Public Choice Economics (the field they developed).

There is a footnote to the story.   Alice Huffman, who started the doctoral program about the time that I did, wrote about a writer named Vincent Ostrom, who had written an influential book The Intellectual Crises in American Public Administration - the main thesis of the book was that the field of PA in the US had forgotten its roots and instead adopted the thoughts of Max Weber as its base. Huffman's political career in California has been with the CTA and the NAACP. Her paper argued that theory in Ostrom's book was somehow "racist."  She sent her paper to Ostrom and he in turn sent her back a ten page single spaced refutation of her thoughts.  We bound the papers and the responses together.  In today's environment we probably would have put them up on the net.  I still have the two bound volumes.

#2 - The Role of a Practitioner - After Bob left the deanship we talked him into serving on the California Student Aid Commission.  At the time he was chair, there were large conflicts on a couple of issues and Bob tried hard to resolve them.  He was never afraid of thinking big ideas.  Ultimately, he proposed a series of changes in the structure of the Commission and in the way that Cal Grants would be delivered which would have aided students but been less certain for segments of higher education.  He produced a proposal and asked the commission members to discuss and refine it.  The fight on the issue soon became personal.  One member of the Commission began to attack Bob.  He chose to resign from the Commission rather than engage in the petty theatrics that his antagonist had adopted.

#3 - Kicking Bob off my Dissertation Committee - As I got into thinking about my dissertation I moved from a couple of other topics to one on the tax system.  I went down to SC and talked to Bob about it and he did what he always did - give me three or four or five new sources or approaches which could help think about the topic.  But as I got into the process, I soon realized that tax theory was not something that he cared much about. I finally went down to him and said I was making a change in my committee.  He did not argue with me. (Which I thought he would.)  Not surprisingly, after my dissertation came up for its defense, I ran into him on campus and he asked me a couple of questions about how it had gone.  It was clear to me that he had read the paper, and although he was not interested in the area, he wanted to see how my efforts came out.

For me Bob was the perfect blend of theory and practice - the ideal called Praxis.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A superb series

The Rivercats ended their five game series with Fresno today.  There were three significant stats from the game - in addition to our movement into first place - the first time since July.  (Remember that at the end of June we were 12 games back).   First, we scored 33 runs to their 16.   But second, three of those games, including the one that Fresno won, were one run games.   Finally, on Friday and Saturday we blew them out (11-3 and 12-4).

The Cats seemed up for this series.  Anthony Recker came into the series with 5 homers - he ended the series with 9.   Our new kid (Jermaine Mitchell, who is so new he does not have his name on his uniform) who had had a rough couple of ups since he was brought up got his first hit and RBI in the same game in AAA ball.

Sacramento is batting four from the bottom in the league (at .269) while Fresno is fourth from the top (.280).  Vegas and Colorado are batting two and three - but Colorado is 9 games out in their division and Vegas is 12 1/5 out.  We're third in pitching at this point and would probably be higher were it not for our record on errors.  Vegas has had 240 more runs scored against it than we have; Colorado 160.    Fresno, by the way is 17 ahead of us - amazingly that is the margin we beat them by in this series.  Tacoma is even more tight with runs than we are - 20 fewer than we've had scored against us.

We finish the season with four against Las Vegas (here) and then four against Colorado.   The Grizzlies go to Salt Lake and then end at home against Tacoma.  Regardless of how the season ends, it was great to see the Cats play up to their potential.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Grading Think Tanks and Public Policy Institutes

The New Yorker article described in an earlier post set me off a bit.  Throughout the article every conservative entity described in the article has an adjective attached to it to help the reader understand the bias of the author.   So "conservative" is used to help guide the reader.  Those entities from the left are characterized differently - most common is "public interest" or "watchdog."

That gets me to a distinction which should apply to journalists and other habitants of the public policy world.   There are two kinds of public policy research.  The first group might be called traditional public policy research.  There are a lot of contributors to the public policy debate that start with a world view. Groups as widely disparate as the "public interest" Center for the Study of American Progress or the "conservative" Cato Institute have something to contribute.   I realize that the Brookings Institution has some pretty good information about a lot of subjects - but it rarely varies from a world view with which I disagree.  At the same time the Heritage Foundation produces some good research on a variety of topics.  I tend to agree with their initial premises more often.  But with both ranges of groups, I try to look for the underlying assumptions to make sure that the interpretations are not clouded.

The second type of research in public policy comes from what might be called advocacy research.  Here the conclusions are drawn before the research is begun.  A lot of those groups want to advance their particular pet notion and use policy papers, research reports and other devices as a tool in that quest.  But as you look at their evidence, it is pretty flimsy.   Ideally, journalists would use the first groups a lot more than the second.  But because many are lazy they weight the output of both types of groups equally.  That degrades the public discourse.

The New Yorker and Vast Right Wing Conspriracies

The New Yorker has a curious article about the Koch brothers.  It starts out describing the hundreds of millions of dollars that this wealthy family has contributed to charitable and philanthropic causes.  But the author has another intent, she wants to tie the Koch brothers to a plot not to give money to restore New York's cultural institutions (which they have certainly done) but to be engaged in a clandestine plot to destroy Barrack Obama.

The Koch brothers are supporters of libertarian causes. According to the article they have helped to fund the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.  Mercatus does some first rate policy research. The Center grew out of a first rate economics department - led by Nobel prize winner James Buchanan (I guess his Nobel in 1986 was a conspiracy) and a host of committed free market economists.   The plot to undermine the president includes such activities as maintaining a first rate resource of key economic documents and podcasts on all sorts of topics from all points of view at The Library of Economics and Liberty.

Since a lot of what the New Yorker has is humor one could conclude that Mayer was writing this tongue in cheek.  She frets that among the economists that the Koch brothers like is Frederick Hayek.  Evidently she either does not know or does not care that Hayek was the first winner of the Nobel in Economics.  She presents as evidence that Hayek's 1940s book against socialism  (The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents--The Definitive Edition (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Volume 2) moved up to number one on the Amazon lists after it was touted by conservative commentators.  She might have checked, Hayek's  books have moved in and out of popularity a number of times.

She seems to think that because Koch Industries is in the energy business that the Koch support of all sorts of libertarian causes is tied completely to self interest.  It is hard to make that connection except in paranoid fantasies.  I suspect that the Koch brothers genuinely believe that the recent expansions of government have been bad for the country.  Amazingly, if you look at the immediate evidence (sustained unemployment, pathetic economic activity, foreclosures at the highest levels since the great depression, a crappy capital goods market, out of control deficits that are four times the highest under Obama's predecessor, etc.) you can make a pretty good case that view of the world is correct.

By the way, in the spirit of disclosure, my own libertarian leanings (I do believe, as you might have guessed that less government is better) have not been funded in any way by the Koch brothers although I will admit that I find the Library of Economics and Liberty to be a wonderful resource.  Perhaps I value it even more than the restoration of Lincoln Center.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque and "Islamophobia"

We're now hearing that the country has"Islamophobia?"  John Esposito says "The history of our great country has been plagued from colonial days by religious and racial discrimination and exploitation: slavery and centuries of racial discrimination, the demonization and marginalization of Native Americans, the denial of the right to build synagogues in New York and anti-Semitism in America, discrimination against ethnic Catholic immigrants, and the collective punishment of Japanese Americans during WW II. "  There are stains on our history that relate to tolerance but opposition to the mosque is not based on tolerance.

The country did have periods where we did not operate to the highest standards of tolerance.  We are a better place than we were a hundred years ago or even a decade ago.  Opposition to the building of the mosque so near to a sacred site is based on at least two principles.  First, the people who perpetuated the horror on 9/11 were Islamic fundamentalists.  That is not to suggest that all Muslims are of the same persuasion but the attack on the US came from people on a single set of beliefs.   In other countries that would have meant a pogrom or a jihad against people of those beliefs.  Not here.  But there is a sensibility that the supporters of the mosque should recognize.  The 9/11 attacks were a cowardly set of acts.  No measure of geopolitics or discrimination can be used to justify 9/11. Yet many in the Islamic community have failed to acknowledge that simple fact.   

Second, no Islamic county has been supportive of inclusion for Christians in their country.  You cannot carry a bible into Saudi Arabia.  All over the Middle East Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.  So while one behavior does not condone a like response until Islamic countries are respectful of other religious beliefs we owe them no similar treatment here.

Islamophobia is one of those terms that comes from the therapeutic and secular left.  It is a way to ignore the underlying issues.    We are not against Moslems exercising their religious beliefs, so long as they abide by a fundamental principle of the American system that is acceptance of diversity of beliefs.  The mosque should not be built near Ground Zero because it is in bad taste not because of some fear of different beliefs.  All the politically correct nonsense that liberals want to lay down is simply that - Nonsense.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Tax Foundation released a chart with the 25 areas with the highest rate of sales tax.  Not surprising was the fact that California had 8 of the top 25 in the list.  But there were two surprises.  First,  Alabama and Arizona each had several cities on the list.   Second, of the California cities with high rates, two in the Central Valley with high levels of unemployment and other sorts of problems (Stockton and Fresno) have among the highest rates in the country.  So much for those two areas growing any time soon.  Both also have a huge overhang of unsold houses.

The Evolution of Book Stores

When I was writing my dissertation I frequented a small bookstore around the corner from my office called Levinson's.  Academics have an odd relationship to books.  They seem to consume a lot of them.  The manager of Levinson's was my supplier.  His name was Norman Olson.   He did not know economics - but he did know books.  Very rarely would I be able to stump him.  The hardest were books of economists who wrote in the early part of the twentieth century.  He often had editions of 18th or 19th century economists - often only one but it was there.  I was always amazed like the time I came in and had just discovered Frederic Bastiat and he had a copy of Economic Sophisms.  Knut Wicksell was a bit tougher.

What was most interesting about Levinson's was that it seemed to carry the right set of books.  Ask for a classic novel and he would have it.  Ditto for any contemporary fiction.   But the bookstore also had a superb range of other books on a wide range of subjects.   There were larger versions of Levinson's in other cities but they were much larger - the Tattered Cover in Denver (where my parents loved to take my kids when they visited); Powell's in Portland and Vroman's in Pasadena were all much larger but staffed with people who knew books.

About the time I was finishing my degree the first chain stores came into the business.  They were stocked with cheaper editions of classics and a lot of books for people who do not like to read. It was there I first encountered the "coffee table" book designed more as an artifact than as something to inform.  I never could understand those chains' economic model.  They were almost selling seconds in the business.  They were staffed by people who knew little about books.

The third iteration of bookstores came with Barnes and Noble and Borders - chains that mostly get it right.   I remember an argument with one of my aunts when I visited them in Winston Salem.  There had been a good bookstore there which was being chased out of business because Barnes and Noble was coming to town.   My aunts grumped about the competitor but soon began to shop there and the smaller place went out of business.   The small shop was owned by the brother of CBS news guy Charles Osgood but it failed because it could not compete.  But when that failed they soon began to appreciate the local B&N.

The fourth iteration came with Amazon and eventually Barnes and Noble and now iBooks.  The original of this model combined electronic searching with millions of books (and now like the third generation physical stores CDs and DVDs).   It lost some of the personality of Levinson's but gained in efficiency.  And because the Amazon model understood the intrinsic nature of connection - it added a series of recommendations from all sorts of sources to take the place of Mr. Olson.   For the last couple of years, after the invention of the Kindle - I have consumed almost all of my books electronically.  That means two things.  First, the wait I had to experience in the Levinson's era is gone.  Second, I am not forced to build an addition on to my house for all the books I've added.  My wife is a consumer of novels - so she more than competes with my attraction to books.

There are two points here - besides the history.  First, markets do move toward demand.  Second, the Long Tail (first explained by Chris Anderson) which argued that as things become digitized there soon becomes a market for less sold content - was manifested in earlier times by places like Levinson's and the Tattered Cover.  But Anderson's insight about the potential power of the digital market continues to evolve.

My suspicion is that although I do not think Norman Olson ever encountered digital books I think he would have appreciated the extra benefit that they offered to those of us who read.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

AB 2079 - Why California has a $19 billion deficit - Part 2

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson has moved from Senate to Assembly and would like to be California's next Superintendent of Public Instruction.  For the most part he is a decent guy. He has a bill this year which started out by trying to establish a new set of regulatory standards on how colleges and universities deal with student athletes in recruiting.  Some colleges do treat their athletes terribly. Most try to do well by their athletes.  Torlakson's original measure would have set California apart from the National Collegiate Athletic Association rules - which are very specific about how contact can be made between athletes and colleges.

The sponsor for this bill is a former UCLA football player who believes that college athletics should be a business.  He is heavily funded by organized labor.  He believes athletes should be treated as employees, with benefits and a salary.  The point of student athletes is that they should get a degree.  Too many student athletes are lured out of college in professional football and basketball before they finish their degrees.  They play for a couple of years and then are left without a degree.   That is wrong.  Making those student athletes look more like employees is not a way to improve the situation.   The risks of going the way of the UCLA guy and Torlakson comes from Major League baseball.  For a lot of reasons baseball players are recruited before they reach college or early in their college careers.   So how many degree holders among the 1200 or so players are there?  Just 42.   Sounds like a great long term career option.

The bill has been amended several times.  It has now been reduced to requiring colleges and universities to post on their website their recruiting practices.  One could easily say - what is wrong with that?  It won't cost the colleges and universities much.   But the answer is much more subtle.   The NCAA has a set of rules, which are constantly being updated.  The NCAA sets those standards and then enforces them.  There is no tax money supporting the NCAA and more importantly, the group seems to be responsive to trying to balance the needs of student athletes and institutions.   So if that is already in place what is the need to set up a new law which would codify what most institutions do already?   I can't figure it out either.

The Goldwater Institute released a study this week that suggested in the last decade and a half administrators on college campuses have grown at a faster rate than students.   A good part of the reason is from bills like AB 2079.   AB 2079 is not a bad idea, it is just unnecessary, duplicative, cost adding - let me reconsider, yes it is a bad bill.

Why California has a $19 billion deficit.

This evening at the Rivercats game there was a display table from the Office of Problem Gambling.   The office was handing out chotskies which were a combination light and whistle.   I am not sure how much those little things cost.   I am also not sure how much this office costs to run.  I am sure that its sponsors suggest that it a) is a very small expenditure, or b) is partially funded from federal money or c) is funded from "user fees" from casinos or other points of gambling in the state.  That is not the point.

The point is that someone in the state believes it is appropriate to spend any state time or funding (whether it is user fees or not) in working on this problem.  They pass an annual resolution supporting gambling addiction week.  They some number of state employees,  They give them underfunded pensions.  Indeed, some people have problems with gambling (or as the site explains all sorts of other addictions).   One could make the point that by reducing the number of problem gamblers that crime would be reduced, or sorrow, or something else.

If this is a serious problem why can't the casinos get together and provide a fund to help on this (without government intervention) or the churches or even a group of public minded citizens.  The point is that as government grows the individual is diminished.

River Boy

This morning I saw an ad on Facebook for bluegrass.  I clicked through it and found a group called River Boy.  Their site includes links to iTunes, CD Baby, and Amazon MP3.

The trio includes a banjo, mandolin and guitar - and some assorted adds of outside musicians (including fiddle, dobro and possibly a couple of others).  The first song (Caroline) on the album is also done as a video.

Their music includes some great close harmonies and superb musicianship.   The group recorded in South Carolina (according to their liner notes).  The recording is first rate also - great separations so that you can appreciate the individual contributions of each of the musicians.  A decade ago I might not have encountered them.  If you are a fan of bluegrass - check out the album (the link is at the top).   If you just a fan of technology, I suspect you may get hooked by their music.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In search of a solution

John Podesta, who was a pretty bright light in the Clinton era is quoted in the NYT today arguing that the president has failed because he has become a "legislative" president.  He concentrated too much on getting bills passed (Stimulus, Health Care, Financial Reform) and not enough on rallying the American people.  If that is the best that democrat thinkers can come up with they are in real trouble.

Podesta argues that by concentrating on Congress he missed opportunities to engage groups like GOP governors.  That allowed the congressional republicans to concentrate on his program proposals.  At the same time he argues that this narrowed the playing field too much.  It also established that if his set of proposals did not solve the problems that he could be looked at as ineffective.

With all due respect, that is utter nonsense.   There are two reasons why the President's standing is where it is - besides the normal decline that any president faces two years into a term.  First and foremost has been his agenda.  The President's budgets have, despite protestations by lap dogs like Paul Krugman, been monumental in their deficits.  At the same time, a good part of the President's agenda looks like a saved up wish list from the left that a good portion of the American people fundamentally disagree with.
Healthcare is an issue that concerns most every American but the fundamentally conflicting goals of reducing cost increases and extending coverage to all probably could not be solved in one bill.  What the American people perceive is that the president wants to significantly expand the role of government.

But second, despite protestations, the President did almost nothing in trying to attract GOP support.   Speaker Pelosi and Majority Reid seemed intent on excluding GOP ideas and the president and his people went along with that strategy.   Roosevelt could exercise that kind of leadership, at least early in his presidency, because there were no alternative media in those days.  But this president, for all of his seeming knowledge of social media, seems to not understand that communication involves something larger than speaking to his own crowd.  In order to lead you cannot simply preach.

The danger of being a powerful speaker, as many believe Obama is, is that sooner or later you begin to believe that your rhetoric is all powerful.  Ultimately, the power of rhetoric is backed up by actions and in this case the president has failed to back up his "change" rhetoric with any tangible efforts to engage anyone but his own supporters.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Mosque in Manhattan and Polls

According to the best available evidence 68% of Americans oppose the plan to build a huge new Islamic cultural center near where the World Trade Center once stood.  Yesterday, Harry Reid, said through an aide that he opposed the construction on the site.   The President has fumbled the issue significantly prompting Roger Simon to suggest that Obama, whose tin ear on this and other issues has been profound, might be a one term president.

Simon argues that a first term president, to be a second term president, needs to follow the polls.   I think that is wrong.   There are time when a president needs to follow what's right - regardless of the polls.  In this case the issue is wrong for the President in both ways - the polls are against him and common sense would suggest that it might be a time for a bit of leadership.

The President's dinner statement (Moslems have freedom of religion here too) was correct.  Indeed, the law and the Constitution guarantee the free exercise of religion.  (Although many in the President's party deny that clause in the First Amendment and rely only on the "establishment" clause.)   But the law is not the only variable here.   "Ground Zero" is there because of the terrorist act of 19 extreme Moslems.
In good taste and good sense the supporters could have recognized that the context here is wrong.   They might have recognized that until a Christian could be safe in Islamic republics (could a church be built in places like Mecca) there is not much of a case for freedom of religion in all places and at all times.  The right here is conditioned by context.   The Imam who is leading this attempt to build a mosque and cultural center could also have aided his cause by being a bit more open on sources of funds.  There is a good deal of speculation that funding for this project is coming from some extremist sources.  If that is not true, he could have disclosed the sources of funds.

New York's so called political leaders have been pictures of idiocy here.  They have argued the narrow legal issue rather than the larger contextual issue.   The mosque in this location at this time (and perhaps forever) is simply in bad taste.   The President stumbled from being a supporter at the dinner (in the narrow legal sense) to raising questions about the issue.  There are times when a President can say "damn the polls" I am the leader and I need to lead.  Simon is wrong.  But when a leader does that he needs to understand the dynamics of the issue and be willing to take a few hits in the early stages.  In this case the President threw out a position to encourage one constituency never realizing that the other side might weigh in.  When they did he quickly retreated. He looked as feckless as Jimmy Carter.  

Monday, August 16, 2010

One place where the US is behind

There are a new series of devices available that allow up to five users connect to the Internet from anywhere using a WIFI signal.  The most common device in the US is called a MIFI.   The device is about half the thickness of a deck of cards.   On Friday night, a friend in Mexico pulled his out, which is offered by USA Cell.   We used it to surf the web on my iPad and to look up a video of him practicing law.

From that one test the device could be very helpful.  It would, for example, allow a person to have a laptop and an iPad with WIFI only capabilities and still be able to surf the web from almost anywhere.  

In Mexico the device costs about $40 per month.  But in the US, where Verizon is the dealer (this is a Novatel device) the subscription is $60 per month.   Most users are probably under the maximum usage that is allowed under the new AT&T limits (which is 2 Gigs per month) - but $60 per month is outrageous.   I wonder why some other cellular carrier has not tried to get business away.

AT&T offers a tethering option where you can connect another device to your iPhone or iPad using WIFI but the cost of the change is an additional $20 per month (in my mind a reasonable add) - at the same time you then lose your unlimited 3G usage.  I suspect that as the technology continues to develop that there were be more competition and more pricing options.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Some reflections on Mexico

I've spent most of the week traveling.  On Sunday in Boston, then Raleigh, then Sacramento, then Mexico for the last two days.  For most of the last two decades I have been a frequent visitor to Mexico and its universities.   Yesterday I had a lunch with two senior officials in higher education.   We were discussing how to get more universities in our two countries to connect.  One said they have great relationships with universities in many parts of the world including Brazil, Israel, Japan, Cuba - some of those have large Spanish speaking populations others do not.  Getting universities to recognize opportunities is not always easy.  But we will try again.

They lamented the dropped initiatives that the Bush Administration did with Mexico after 9/11.  I believe one of the failings of that Administration was their diminished attention to Mexico.  A week before 9/11 the US and Mexico (including one of my lunch companions) was negotiating how to deal with immigration issues - but that all ended.

In the evening I had dinner with one of my Mexican "sons."  Over the years my wife and I have established close relations with a lot of young Mexican students who have now grown into great professionals.  This one struggled through a doctorate but actually did a good dissertation.   He is also a lawyer and is defending a priest in a high profile case.   His big news last night was his engagement.  I had met the girl before.  She is wonderful.  He is a very fortunate guy.  

Finally there is the impression of the economy.  A couple of notions. First, the economic havoc of the US right now is not evident in Mexico.  It was once said that if the US got a cold, Mexico got influenza - that does not seem to be true.   Second, the exchange rates for the dollar are pretty widely varied.   The buy rates vary by more than 30 pesos.  That means a couple of things - there is pretty good uncertainty about the US economy.  News Flash - even the casa de cambios can recognize that.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Geraldine as a Member of Congress

Representative Maxine Waters is in a heap of trouble over ethics charges.   This morning one paper aired part of her defense.  It reminded me of Flip Wilson's characters - Geraldine who explained a lot of her life from the notion of "The devil made me do it."   Waters was quoted as defending her intervention with the Secretary of the Treasury in behalf of a bank in which her husband owned a fairly substantial position of stock by saying "The question at this point should not be why I called Secretary Paulson, but why I had to," she said. "The question at this point should be why a trade association representing over 100 minority banks could not get a meeting at the height of the crisis."

Flip Wilson was a comic genius.  Unfortunately, Representative Waters may actually believe that her defense is credible.  Seems to me that Geraldine's "The Devil made me do it" would be more credible.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Understanding "Holy Kadelka"

Tonight as I was driving home from the office, I caught the Rivercats game. and by the time I was home, Round Rock had racked up 6 runs. By the end of the first they had added another three.  Then two in the second.

The Cats announcer, Johnny Doskow, has a phrase that comes out every once in a while "Holy Kadelka."  It is one of those phrases that is hard to put in context.  After the first the Cats were not done.  They added 5 in the 4th, 2 in the 6th and then one in the 7th.  But they were still 5 down.  But then they got to the ninth, Baisley did a three run homer, Sogard picked up an RBI,  then a wild pitch to Buck and that was all that Corey Wimberly needed to score a final run.

The Fresno Grizzlies were ahead of the Isotopes and we split with the bottom hugging Round Rock. The last series between  the Grizzlies and Round Rock, had the Grizzlies dropping 3 out of 4.

Final score in this game 13-11 - Holy Kadelka!!!

Four photos to explain Lassen Peak

Here are four examples of what intrigue and renew me  every time I go to Lassen.   There are parts of the mountain that are barren.  The fury of the volcano is in evidence even though it last erupted more than 95 years ago.  The weather conditions at the top in the winter are fierce - they claim that it can have 50 feet of snow.   The trial is often not clear of snow until later in the summer.   And you still see the sharper side of nature. As you drive on Route 36 you can see some of the evidence of the eruption more than an hour away from the park.

Then there are the stark contrasts.  Lake Helen, in the second picture, is a constant reminder as you go up and down the trail of the beauty of the place.   One of my favorite shots is the one presented in the earlier post - where the mountain is reflected in this pristine lake.

The third shot shows a chipmunk consuming a peanut butter cracker.  As you get to the top of the mountain you surpass the timberline but as you get to the top there are still splotches of color in flowers and evidence of life.   One of my surprises yesterday was as I was reviewing my couple of hundred photos from this trip to find a bird captured in flight taken at the top of the mountain.  The area can be a constant surprise, if you look.  

The final shot shows a group of flowers growing out of stone.   There are numerous examples of this kind of contrast all over the mountain.  

So there you are.   These and other things have kept bringing me back to this place for almost 50 years.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Spiritual Renewal and Mount Lassen

Yesterday, my oldest grandson and I hiked up Mount Lassen in Northeastern California.   The hike is a five mile round trip that starts at about 8500' and goes to 10500'.   The Parks Service calls it "strenuous" but if you take your time it is actually very doable.  There are no technical parts to the climb and some spectacular heights and views, when it is clear.  Yesterday was hazy - so the thrill that is often there in August when you can often see Mount Shasta (which is about 100 miles away) and the coast mountains.

I remember when I was small going up the mountain for the first time.  It gave me a sense of accomplishment.  But I also remember the views.  As you climb there are constant views of the lake at the base (called Lake Helen).   The photo is from last year because the 200 photos I took this year, when we could not climb because the trail was closed, did not download properly to my home computer. Part of the attraction of this for me is the physical challenge but part is also the stark scenery.  The destructive power of a volcano has been softened in the last 95 years but it is still there.  The altitude also makes for some of the scenery.  You go above the timberline and the trees and flowers that are near the top have to be hearty.

As I started this time up the mountain (I am not sure how many times I have been up this particular mountain) I thought about three things;  the thrill of going up the first time (I think my grandson who is 8 had the same experience); the coming opportunity to try this again with my other grandchildren as they get a little older (I think 8 is about the minimum for a stress free hike); and the true grandeur of this part of the country.

The first time I climbed I was awed by the volcanic activity in the area and the photos and movies of the last time Lassen blew its stack (1915).  Last year, when the trail was closed, we did the Bumpus Hell (of Mark Twain fame) hike - which is shorter and very easy.   If you decide to go - you should check to see if the trail is open - it often closes early in the year and can have 50' of snow on it in the winter.

I will post some more pictures of the spectacular scenery we saw yesterday - which seems eternal - when I figure out how to solve the problem of downloads.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The President's Rhetoric at the Chicago Ford Plant

The president spoke today at a Ford plant in Chicago.  He said at about 6 minutes into the clip - "If we build and sacrifice in the short term, it would be a new beginning for a great American industry."   There are two issues I have with the entire speech.  First, if he really believes in "sacrifice" to build something for the future, why would he be so supportive of expanding the long term debt of the country?  Where is the sacrifice for government when he adds a couple of trillion to the debt in the country?   Second, although he is now trying to buy Ford's loyalty by doing the ex-im payments, which American car maker is in better shape - GM with $38 billion in support and still huge losses or Ford which did not take the government support and has had a great couple of quarters?

Estimates for the Culprits

David Wessel presents some estimates of the cost of various bailouts in an article for the WSJ called "Emerging Lessons from Fighting the Financial Crisis."  Wessel presents a lot of estimates of the cost of governmental intervention in the crisis (which are lower than originally projected) - that is the good news.  But here is the bad (some of the estimates are from the Blinder-Zandi paper previously mentioned):

Costs by FDIC to bailout failing banks - $71 billion
Costs to bailout AIG - $38 billion
Costs to bailout GM - $29 billion (contrary to the assertion of their CEO, GM has not paid us back)
Total for those three - $138 billion

Current costs to bailout Fannie and Freddie - $145 billion (which Zandi and Blinder estimate to grow to $305 billion before we are done).  An inexorable conclusion here is that even without assessing the long term costs of foolish behavior in the private sector at our expense ($138 billion) the cost of government folly is higher ($145 billion).  A second conclusion is that while the private sector may be momentary and declining, the long term government cost of bad decisions is only going to grow.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Hit and Run Candidate - Mr. Soundbite - Moonbeam III

Tom Wolfe wrote humorous books on many things in life and was able to catch the sounds of life in unique ways. For example, in one treatment of slot machines, he used the repeated phrase "hernia, hernia" to capture the sounds of seniors using slot machines.

Wolfe could have written about Jerry Brown. He did a press conference when the democrats released their budget proposal this week in which he said their process was too opaque. He compared it to the problems facing the City of Bell that has been in the headlines the past few weeks for its outrageous salaries for City Manager, Police Chief and Council Members. I suspect that if you look up cheap shot in Wikipedia soon, it will include a copy or a reference to Brown's blatant attempt to grab some press.

What is most interesting about Brown's constant ploys was how he dealt with the democrat's proposal. There are things in the proposal that everyone could disagree with - but it is indeed a serious attempt to think about how to dig the state out of its perpetual budget hole. But Brown, spineless publicity hound that he is declined to offer opinions about the proposal. Is it too large; does it raise taxes too much or not enough: are the priorities right? We can't tell from Brown's response. If that is not opacity then I am not sure what the term means.

At lunch today I was asked whether I thought the former Governor was smart. He promoted that reputation by all sorts of new age babble in his last administration. But I am not so sure. Is he cunning? Indeed. But is he smart? If he won't offer anything but soundbites - how could you tell?

Representative Waters and Ethics

Maxine Waters has always talked a good game about ethics.  Here is one short C-SPAN clip of the representative yabbering on Newt Gingrich.

Funny how perceptions can change over time.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Structural Deficits

The Bureau of Economic Analysis posted Personal Income numbers this morning - it was flat for June.   Personal saving was at 6.4%.  That suggests that a) people are saving more than they once did or b) that people are uncertain about taxes and their own economic situation and thus putting money away as a hedge.   I wonder if the Administration will describe this trend as Personal Income "created or saved."

One of the remaining cheerleaders for the Administration, Fareed Zakaria, in his column for Newsweek on Sunday asked for the President to promptly raise taxes.  Zakaria must have been giddy about the sale of the magazine from the Washington Post to Sidney Harman the chairman emeritus of Harman Industries.  The sale went through when WAPO agreed to take up the pension obligations of the news weekly (could easily be a news weakly but that is just too easy!)  

Zakaria, previously not well known as an economic thinker argued in his column "The Bush tax cuts remain the single largest cause of America’s structural deficit—that is, the deficit not caused by the collapse in tax revenues when the economy goes into recession."  On many levels his assertion is absurd.  I'm not sure what a "structural" deficit is.  I suppose it is one of those Alice in Wonderland type definitions, common in DC, that works like this "A structural deficit, as opposed to a deficit, is the amount of money that people should be paying in taxes but are not because of some conservative tax policy which gave to the rich."  

The deficit is the creature of one thing, too much spending based on the amount of tax revenue raised.   The structure of the budget comes from a number of sources - tax revenues but also things like stimulus spending and all other sorts of spending.  The last Bush deficit, even after the economic calamity that was caused in large part by government policies, was about one quarter of the current one. One of Zakaria's whoppers is his claim that Clinton was able to raise taxes and not slow economic growth.   When you include the stimulative effects of the end of the cold war and the residual from the Reagan tax changes in 1981 (lowered rates) and 1986 (simplified system), it is easy to argue that Clinton's tax cuts came at a time when we could afford to raise taxes.  Add to that the growth effects of advances in technology and there is plenty of reason why the effects of the increases then did not seem to hamper growth (we cannot see what growth would have been had the taxes not been imposed).

But then you get back to the BEA numbers released this morning, coupled with the numbers released last week which showed durable goods orders down and inventories rising and it does not take a rocket scientist to understand that Zakaria's rant is just nonsense.

The Audacity of Bravado

As a follow up to my post yesterday on Representative Maxine Waters, her  response to the Ethics Committee was strong -  "I have not violated any House rules. Therefore, I simply will not be forced to admit to something I did not do and instead have chosen to respond to charges made by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in a public hearing," Waters said in a lengthy written rebuttal to the OCE document. "Starting with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) report released today, the record will clearly show that in advocating on behalf of minority banks neither my office nor I benefited in any way, engaged in improper action or influenced anyone. ... In sum, the case against me has no merit."

Waters portrays herself as the queen of the set-aside.  A good deal of what she has done in Congress and in the California legislature has been to create special categories for bidding for all sorts of government projects or business enterprises.  So, for example, she supported the creation of bidding categories in state bonds for minority and women owned firms.  Some would contend that enhances business.  But one could easily argue that such programs actually impede the advancement of the very people she wants to aid while gumming up the markets.   Smaller set aside firms are less efficient players in the market.  At the same time, by creating the category there is no incentive to advance talented minority and female professionals in the bigger firms.   But in Waters' mind that is OK, government is just a big slot machine to pay off her special people.  From my perspective, that in itself should be an ethics violation.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Don Cafe has retired

Facebook has a number of games, including something called Mafia Wars.  Mafia Wars has a number of venues - from New York, the Cuba, the Bangkok, to Las Vegas (I never quite got the idea of Cuba being the only country in the list.)  The game, like other Facebook simulations involves tasks and loot.  You can get all sorts of goodies by doing things.  If you score a certain number of points you advance levels.  At the current time I have the following loot - New York $204,750,521,603;  Cuba (Pesos) $37,252,446; Bangkok (Bhat) $3,711,736; Moscow (Rubles) $9,652,310,561.  In addition, I have lots of real estate which produces income and could be sold off. You can also get collections of things like cars and guns and art.  I have tons of those.   Because I have accumulated wealth I am able to own lots of properties and they generate income.  Unfortunately, the game also allows you to be robbed and killed.  During my career as Don Cafe I have "iced" 330 opponents.  But fights can happen even when you are off line.   I completed almost 6000 jobs, lost more fights than that, and picked up a strange array of goodies.  The game, to keep interest, offers a bunch of special opportunities - for example they gave you a chance to steal the world cup - but those seem mostly diversions.

The real intent of the game is to get you to buy points from Zynga which allow you to get through the levels quicker.  I just could not do that.

Unlike the real mob - you cannot transfer funds between states.  You have a fixed rate of cut for the banks to deposit money and you cannot convert money from your criminal empire into the grey economy or even better into the regular economy (no Don Corleone here).  From my perspective, there is another problem with the game, it takes longer and longer to play.  You need to find special things and then to monitor each of the areas you are operating in - when I quit I also had Las Vegas starting up.  As Betty White said about Facebook in general - it just seems like a waste of time.

There is one other problem with the game - it is Flash based and so every once in a while it slows down or crashes.  I just do not have the time to be that annoyed.  Now- bejeweled blitz - ok I am staying with that.

The Evolving E-Book Market

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced that he was beginning an investigation on whether the current model for selling e-books is somehow anti-competitive.  Blumenthal, you might remember, stretched the truth a scootch about his military service and is also a candidate for US Senator to replace the corrupt Christopher (financial reform with special rates for US Senators) Dodd.

The agreement that Amazon and Apple have put together is called an Agency Model.  It clips about a third of the purchase price from the sales price, and then let's the publisher divvy up the rest in any way they want.  A couple of things are clear about the current state of the market.  First,  prices for e-books are well below what hard cover and paperbacks are priced at.  Second, prices seem to be converging between the two biggest sellers (Apple claimed 22% of the total market in e-books last week and Amazon claimed that their e-books now outsell hardbacks - so this is a robust market).  That could suggest either collusion or a simple reality that this is a dynamic market.   I have not seen, as of yet, an aggregator which would work like Kayak does for travel, which allows you to see all the providers and their pricing on a book.   When someone figures out how to do that, I suspect there will be some more bounce in the market.  The last two books I bought as e-books I looked at both sites and prices were very close - in one case, exactly the same.  But I did not immediately think, wow this is some kind of a conspiracy.   Finally, it seems to me that one of the benefits of the e-book market is a developing "long tail" there are tons of odd and curious books now in e-format.  Some are Gutenberg editions.  I recently looked for one Dickens novel and found prices ranging from free to more than $12.50.  All of those prices were below the deluxe printed edition.

I mentioned that Blumenthal is not entirely truthful about his own record and running for the US Senate. One could argue that this "investigation" is politically motivated.  Indeed, that is the conclusion I would come to.   In a market where things are moving as quickly as they seem to be in the e-book market, it seems prudent to spend a bit more time observing before trying to impose a regulatory regime.  From my perspective if there is collusion, the instantaneous nature of e-purchases will force natural competitors to actually compete.

Mark Zandi, Alan Blinder and John Taylor

The PBS News Hour last week did an excellent segment on the effects of all the stimulus money we have poured into the economy.  It came after a paper issued by Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi on the effects of the stimulus where those two distinguished economists argued that at a minimum all the money the government has spent has stopped the serious decline in the financial sector and in the economy generally.

Taylor argues that the stimulus had in determinant positive effects and probably some negative ones.  He argues that government policy increased uncertainty in the financial markets and thus reduced long term growth and that the way we financed all those uncertain effects portends long term problems for the US economy.

I tend to agree with Taylor's assessment.  The oddity of picking financial winners (Bear versus Lehman for example) or areas (housing and financial services for example) and the indiscriminate assistance to government sponsored entities (Fannie and Freddie and to an extent Chrysler and GM) is likely to produce more negative effects than the momentary positive effects of providing aid.  In addition, the monstrous levels of debt added in this situation (by both Bush and Obama but more by Obama) will produce long term negative effects that are under-estimated by Zandi and Blinder.

The Administration has made a bizarre argument that turns Frederic Bastiat on his head.  Bastiat had the great idea called the "seen and the unseen" where he argued that many governmental policies produce the seen (what we can observe as an immediate effect) but ignore the unseen (what is often not visible on first glance).   Obama and his Administration have argued that their policies have produced jobs "created or saved" - the created notion seems to be completely outside the bounds of rationality as real employment has gone down.  But the "saved" notion produces something which no one can possibly count and yet should be accepted.   Zandi and Blinder argue that had all of the policy levers not been pulled something worse would have happened.    Regardless of your perspective, the discussion between Zandi and Taylor lays out the two perspectives very well.

Marie Antoinette (Rousseau) and Maxine Waters

The phrase "let them eat cake" is often attributed to the French royal who was executed in 1793 for her activities against the French republic.  Some historians actually suggest the phrase comes from the writings of Jean Jaques Rousseau.  Rousseau wrote several treatises which ultimately justified something called the General Will.  Rousseau's concept of General Will has been used to justify excesses like the extremes in the French Revolution. Ultimately, Waters extends the principle to the tyranny of one.  Her career has been marked by letting her buddies eat cake.

Waters has been a political fixtures of Los Angeles for several decades, first serving in the Assembly. Her district is in an area of LA where she has virtually no opponent - so elections are more like coronations.  That lack of political challenge has allowed her to become an extreme liberal without any real appreciation for any other point of view.

In her first year in the legislature, I opposed one of her bills and in the next to the last committee hearing got the committee to add what is called a committee amendment to solve our problem with the issue. Technically the author of a bill is required to add the amendment to the bill. Three days later when the issue was to be heard in front of the Appropriations Committee, I discovered that the committee amendment had not been included.  I went to her and said what happened, and she said "I changed my mind."  I rounded up the chair of the prior committee and brought him to the Appropriations Committee, and when her double-cross was explained, the chair of the Appropriations Committee said "Ms. Waters you bill is now dead."  Even then Waters thought the legislative process could be adjusted to her own predilections.   Waters' career has been marked by histrionics on issues she cares about and a willingness to grant favors to friends.

Waters is on the Financial Services Committee in the House.  Her husband SIdney WIlliams was a professional football player and associated with a series of business activities including Mercedes and OneUnited Bank.  At one point he held at least $250,000 in stock with the bank and also served on the board (although she claims he was no longer there when the lobbied the Treasury).  Waters is accused of setting up a meeting with officials from the Treasury Department to secure bailout funds for the bank.  The bank ended up with $12 million in funds. Waters defends herself by saying that she was really lobbying for the National Bankers Association who supports women and minority owned banks.  According to an Office of Congressional Ethics Report, Waters recognized the potential conflict and went ahead with the request to Treasury anyway.

The case, and indeed Waters' career, brings up two other political figures of note.  Edmund Burke, the Irish political philosopher who wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke can be seen as an antagonist to Rousseau.  Burke decried the excesses of the French Revolution because its extreme rationality could be extended to ignore the complexities of society.  Burke argued subsuming individual rights to the general would eventually lead to tyranny.     Lord Acton who followed Burke by about a century summarized the thought in the pithy "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

While we should await the conclusion of the ethics investigation to discover whether Representative Waters actually violated House rules, the allegation is certainly within the patterns of her prior behavior.   If you give too much power to government, it does not take long for people like Waters to seize a piece of power to advance their personal interests.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Iron Law of Baseball's Theory of Relativity

Last night the Rivercats played the Las Vegas 51s and played well.   But as you get to the last month of the season you begin to hear about "magic numbers."  Sacramento is currently one game down behind the Fresno Grizzlies.  In order to change that situation we've got to continue to play like we did in July.  Last night we did.  At the same time, so does Fresno.   In other words they cannot play like they did early in the season, where they seemed to ease through games for most of the first two months. Last night, against the Colorado Sky Sox, the Grizzlies looked pretty good,too.  So we stayed in the same relative position.   Travis Buck's home run was great.  But all night we kept checking the score to see where Fresno was.