Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Judging the Efficacy of Public Policies

What are the effects of public policies on housing? From my point of view federal housing policies have the combined effect of making current homeowners poorer and not substantially increasing the percentage of Americans who own houses.

Some of the largest subsidies in the tax code and in public policies are to increase homeownership in the US.   The release of the housing numbers today suggests that the housing market continues to have problems.  Prices are down significantly in some markets and less so in others over the last three years. The rate of homeownership is also dropping in the US.

There is not very strong evidence that the deduction encourages  more families to own houses.  The US is thirteenth in home ownership rate. Many below and above have no similar provision in their tax codes.   At the end of the Clinton Administration the tax code was amended to eliminate capital gains from home sales.   That probably encouraged homeowners to trade their houses a bit more and may have artificially inflated home prices.

At the same time, beginning with the Carter Administration, there have been policies to increase homeownership among low income buyers.  The US policy is the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) which was expanded significantly in the Clinton Administration.  The evidence on these policies is also mixed.  Lenders and guarantors were encouraged to loosen credit requirements and that may have made the market for houses more frothy.    The interaction between the CRA and the increased liberality on leverage in the government sponsored enterprises also moved to increase activity.

The most obvious payoff on public policies is seen in the Schiller-Case numbers that dropped to the lowest level since the index has been collected.  Huge amounts of equity have wiped out.  Homeownership is trending down.   And with all those policies in place the US is still in the middle of the pack in terms of homeownership.  If we were to eliminate the deduction, the CRA and the GSEs would the market be stabilized and would homeownership decline significantly?  Not likely.

Monday, May 30, 2011

First Day at the New St. John's Roseville

 About three years ago my wife and moved from a parish in Fair Oaks and joined a parish in Roseville.  At about that time the rector announced his retirement and we found out that the location was going to change from downtown Roseville to a new area on Pleasant Grove.   Yesterday, the new church was ready for occupancy and a large group came to celebrate this wonderful new location.   The video is from the first processional.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

One line of debate

Eric Cantor lays out the GOP plan on the deficit.  Besides raising taxes an demagoguing Medicare - what do the democrats offer?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Working Stiff's Game

The Cats played in Reno last night and we listened to the game as we were going to a play at B Street and then when the play was over.  The Aces scored first.  But the real action was delayed until the ninth.  Two walks and a single loaded the bases and then Anthony Recker hit a grand slam.   That tied the game at five.  But then Trystan Magnuson replaced Bailey and gave up three walks.    Cory Ransom came up and hit the second grand slam of the evening, which brought the final score to 9-5.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The President and the Prime Minister

The public interchange between the President and the Prime Minister of Israel last week was revealing.   I have included above the entire Obama speech because it should serve as a starting point on where we are on this important set of issues.  My initial impression of the President's speech was that it was poorly timed (being the day before Mr. Netanyahu was going to the US for a visit) and extremely ungracious.   At the same time I felt that it lacked an appreciation for the reality that Israel lives with each day, namely that a good part of the Arab world would like to see Israel disappear.

On the other hand I thought the Prime Minister's speech to Congress had many qualities that Obama's speech lacked - namely while the PM was firm against some of the wrong headed notions of the President's speech - he was gracious to a fault.

The Economist , on the whole, praised the approach in the President's speech by concluding that what he was actually saying is deal with security and territory first and then deal with Jerusalem and refugees at a later point.  I think that is a little off.  I think everyone has recognized that when a viable solution is developed for this set of issues there will very likely be changes in boundaries.  It seems unlikely that those changes will involve having Israel go back to the 1967 borders.   Some like former Congressman Robert Wexler have argued that the President's proposal was "misunderstood."   Others like Rush Limbaugh have suggested that not only was the President not misunderstood but his proposal would be closely akin to having the US agree to recede to its pre-1848 borders. The Hill parsed both the State Department speech (where he said “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are 
established for both states.” ) and the AIPAC Speech a few days later where he said "“By definition, it means that the parties themselves — Israelis and Palestinians — will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”   That is a pretty big switch in a couple of days so I believe the Administration realized their error in verbiage (and also in policy) and was trying to recover.

Extricating US policy from the quagmire will take some finesse.  Many in the US and around the world fail to recognize that even with its flaws Israel is the only legitimate democracy in the Middle East.  And that even after seven decades there are still forces in the Arab world who refuse to recognize the right of a Jewish state to exist in the region.   It is unfortunate that, whether he intended it or not, that Obama's State Department speech seemed to forget both of those facts.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Social Philanthropy

There are a couple of informal fund-raising sites on the Internet that help small startups gain angel funding. Kickstarter is one that I am most familiar with.   It allows a budding entrepreneur to propose a project and put it on the net.

For example, one of my favorite sites on Economics is called Visualizing Economics a project of Catherine Mulbrandon.  Mulbrandon has a knack for taking complex information and putting it into digestible bites.   This Spring she proposed to create a new E-zine on income information and did a Kickstarter request - which was over-funded by more than two to one.

Yesterday my daughter posted a Kickstarter request that asked support for a video project on alternative music. (Please help my friend Brad and his movie project!)  I would always like to support my kids.   So I wrote her the following note "When I see you as a contributor, I will contribute too."  She wrote back and said she had not yet contributed.   In my mind it is sort of hard for anyone to help in a plea like this without demonstration by the requester of "skin in the game."  

Mark Haines

 For those junkies on the financial markets we lost a very good interpreter when Mark Haines died yesterday.  Haines has a good sense of both humor and perspective.  He never seemed to be particularly excited about investment fashions or political rhetoric (as evidenced in this video clip).   He was unique.  Our loss is that there are very few who have that level of journalistic responsibility on the airwaves and the intelligence to interpret developments as well as he did.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Exceptional games

After Saturday's Cats game, which became the longest duration contest in Cats history, the team came back less than twelve hours later and defeated the Redbirds again in a close contest that became a fun game.  They walloped the Redbirds 11-2.

But then the New Orleans Zephyrs came to town last night.  Lennie DiNardo came back to the team and pitched one and a third inning and established what may be a new record ERA of over 40.  The Zephyrs scored 9 in the second and 5 in the third and won the game 14-1.   DiNardo had a rough night but I am glad to see him back in Sacramento.

One of our seatmates came up with the 9:30 rule that fans can leave if the team is down by more than 10 at 9:30.  

There are a couple of comments worth making about this game.  First, after DiNardo and Bateman the other four pitchers got in a credible performance.  Second, the mercifully game was brief - 2:36.

As exceptional games go I liked the ones on the weekend better than this one.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Understanding Global Debt Over Time

A very interesting site came to my attention on Global Debt - which is interactive.  It presents global debt by country from 1992 to present and it is interactive.   Global Debt is defined as money owed by the government to creditors as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.  The first screen shot is of 1992.  The US is highlighted.   There are a couple of things that are interesting here.  First, there are some huge debtors that are not on the radar screen in the first shot.  (The countries are presented in alphabetical order in the list to the right.)   Second, as you begin to look at the second shot you find there are some huge transitions.  Some of those transitions are surprising, some are not.  At the same time the 2011 snapshot shows tremendous growth in debt in places like Japan, Germany, Greece and Ireland (Japan is bright yellow; Germany, Greece and Ireland are green).  Total OECD is the orange bar third from the right.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Cats Get Their Bats Back

The Rivercats are hosting the Oklahoma Redbirds - whose manager is Tony DeFrancesco.   In the first two games of the series they did not have much of an offense, or at least offense at the right time.  On Thursday night, while they had nine hits, that produced but three runs.  Friday night had six hits for three runs.  But in each of those contests you got the feeling that their collective head was not in the game.

Last night things were different.   They started out with a home run by Anthony Recker in the second.   In the seventh the Redbirds tied it up.  And there it stayed until the thirteenth when each side scored one.  Finally, at 5 hours and 4 minutes in the bottom of the sixteenth the Cats scored one and the game was over.  In the end they had thirteen hits to the Redbirds' six.

I stayed through the tenth and then drove home.  But fortunately through the internet was able to hear the last four innings.   This is the longest game in Cats history.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Apocalyptic Arrogance

Faith is an important part of my life.   One of the key tenets of my faith revolves around the appropriate role for the unknown.   None of has an idea about when their life will end.   And likewise, none of us an idea about when or if the world will end.

That uncertainty forces individuals to consider that each moment is important.  Faith should not encourage complacency.  At the same time it should encourage some humility.  We have the appearance of being able to control events not the reality.   In my profession, a lot of politicians have a more robust belief in their ability to see for the rest of us.

The stories about a radio preacher who projected with precision the end of the world struck me in two ways.  First, while I am not able to quote scripture at will - I do know that the Bible is pretty clear on whether any human being can use their power of reason to know things like the date of the end of times.  Regardless of whether the scripture about the end of times is an allegory or an actual event - we are told pretty clearly that this is not something we can discern.

Second, I could not figure out whether this preacher was hyping his radio preaching or whether he fell into the pit of arrogance that we often see politicians fall into - I am smarter than the rest of you.   In one sense it did not matter to me.  The result is the same.  What all the hype actually did for me was to reinforce the absolute necessity that we understand the limits of human capacity and then try to work to improve our condition within those limits.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Two not fit for the Presidency

The Donald dropped out of the race for President today.  Actually he just confirmed what everyone already knew.  He was not serious.   His ego and absurd positions on issues showed that ego does not propel you to the Oval Office.

Yesterday, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, disqualified himself from serious consideration.  Gingrich called the plan by House Member Paul Ryan to reform medicare "right wing social engineering."  That is a load of nonsense.   The dems have already tried to demonize the budget proposal by the House GOP as "radical" (although I am amused that as gas costs have gone through the roof, energy foes like Pelosi and even the President who once decried any effort to develop our own resources now are gung ho for energy) so there is no need to have the GOP try to score points on each other.

Right now there are two contradictory trends going on.  The President's Osama bounce seems to have disappeared into a cloud of economic news.  At the same time there is no serious candidate on the GOP side that seems to have emerged.  Palin and Huckabee will not be in this race.  And none of the candidates that have announced have generated much enthusiasm.  But contrary to the punditocracy there is plenty of time for a serious opponent to the President to emerge.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


I spoke at the Jewish University of America's commencement exercises today.   I always love graduations. The enthusiasm of the graduates is  inspiring.   JUA is a place which conscientiously tries to encourage the development of values and community service.   Presented below is the Commencement Address I did for the event.  But after the actual graduation there was a small lunch where the award winners (I was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters) get a chance to speak.   The picture is of the alumni award winner - each of his kids was sitting in the front of the room with an iPhone taking pictures of their dad.   Also honored was a renowned Rabbi in the LA area who has national prominence.   At the luncheon he gave the best short explanation of the two clauses of the First Amendment that I have heard.  Very impressive.  The other honoree was a woman who has spent six or seven decades dedicated to community service, indeed her book is called Professional Volunteer.  It was an honor to be included in that group.

My commencement speech went like this:

First, congratulations on your commencement.  These things have two meanings  - completing your degree and taking up what is next.  I've always believed that a commencement Speaker's role should be brief.  But at least as a part time academic and certainly one connected to the academic community, I also believe that these things should be substantive.  I am not sure how many of you would be interested in hearing me talk about tax theory (which is what I wrote my dissertation on),so I usually try to stick to economics.   But your president and my colleague also asked me to do something a bit different today.
You see, I am commencing this year too.  For the past three and half decades I have worked for independent colleges in the state.  I am finishing a very rewarding period in my life in which I have been called to think about how to link colleges that come from differing inspirations and backgrounds with legislators, and public officials and even with their colleagues.  In the legislature that has focused on Cal Grants, a program that assures that bright students will be able to complete their educations.   The joy of my profession has been the opportunity to learn from great educators, some of whom are professors and some not; and to understand the diverse kinds of leadership which our sector has produced; and to encounter generations of students that our institutions serve.   I finish this period aware that what we have achieved together, and with our colleagues in the public universities. But those results are at risk from those who confuse expenditure and investment and apparently are more willing to spend on prisons than on education which could help empty them.
There are three ideas that can help summarize my professional life 1) Epiphenomenality; 2) The Knowledge of Time and Place; 3) The Wisdom of Crowds.  So I would like to discuss each briefly.
EPIPHENOMENALITY - In Economics this is an obscure term; but it is also applicable in many other fields.  Epiphenomenal events are unexpected. About twenty years ago I had a graduate student describe this tongue twister as “who’d a thunk it?”  That has always been about right to me.    
I went to the University of the Pacific as an undergraduate and I was about ready to finish when I was told in no uncertain terms that I was going to graduate school. A couple of professors thought I should go. That is the way independent colleges are - personalized.   I spent a year at George Washington University at the end of the 1960s pursuing a masters in International Relations on a fellowship.  At the end of the year, I was pretty sure I did not want to complete the degree and had secured a job with the Urban Teacher Corps.  I thought I would be a great seventh grade teacher.   
Before I started teaching, I went to a party in Georgetown.  I got into a conversation about the Vice President of the United States.   The guy I spoke with was interesting, we explored all the nuances of Spiro Agnew.  I was not a fan. At the end, the other guy said "I have enjoyed our talk ,if you ever need a job, give me a call."  I did the normal thing - took the card without looking and put it in my pocket.  When I got home I took the card and put it in my wallet, again without looking.   I went to work in the DC public schools for six months and discovered I did not have the patience to work with seventh graders.   At the end of the semester, I thought of the conversation I had had back in May and pulled out the card - its’ owner was a Deputy Director of the White House Office of Personnel.  I called him and in about a week I was working in the White House.   That led to positions in the White House twice, both sides of Congress and in the California Legislature before I began my Association with the independent colleges in 1975.
For epiphenomenality to have any effect you need to be aware that some things may not seem connected until later.  Constantly think about potential connections, at some point they will prove as valuable as that couple of hours I spent so long ago.
So, #2 - The Knowledge of Time and Place - One of my favorite economists was the first winner of the Nobel in Economics, the Austrian Frederich von Hayek.   In 1945 Hayek wrote an article which argued that centralized systems will always be imperfect.  He thought that each of us carries unique knowledge and that is often superior to the stuff that is collected centrally.
Independent colleges have are an examplar of Hayek’s notion.   One of the strengths of the sector is its variety.  AICCUs members range from 300 students to 30,000.  Almost any kind of educational institution that you can think of in American higher education has one represented in our membership.  What has been especially interesting to me is the strength of the sector when we work together.  Unexpected knowledge comes from unexpected places.  For example, the Association created a program to jointly purchase workers’ compensation insurance.  It was developed as a result of the collaborations between two unlikely partners - Azusa Pacific University, a university with a strong religious heritage and Caltech, whose special strength comes from cutting edge research.  One expert, from APU, brought an understanding of how smaller colleges treated their employees.   The other, from Caltech, brought an extensive knowledge of complex research institutions and also a couple of decades of industrial relations expertise.   The linking of those two sets of knowledge of time and place allowed a wide range of members to work together to save money but also to treat their employees better.
Knowledge of time and place is only useful if you are looking for how things fit together. If you look, you may well find someone, quite unexpected, who will bring something you have not considered, based on that person’s knowledge of time and place.  But the key here is an ability to listen.  Unfortunately, in the political process and in public forums, the willingness to understand the power of the knowledge of time and place has been diminished to a substantial degree.
Finally there is #3 -  The Wisdom of Crowds is the title of a book by a journalist named James Surowiecki.  It presents some convincing evidence that we make better collaborative decisions than individual ones.  To make this work you need to have access to information and a rich mix of players.  Experts may not be the best people to solve complex problems.  That does not discount the importance of knowledge but it does mock those who claim they have discovered the one best way.  
Here are two examples.  First, many of you know about the open source movement.   It has helped to define a number of things in society - from software to knowledge.  In each case, many individuals contribute to the result.  Each participant learns from other contributors.   When the open source model first came about many skeptics argued that it could not produce something which was either stable or long lasting.  But activities from Android to Wikipedia have disproven the initial assertions.
Suroweicki argues that experts are important but not essential in many activities of life and that they suffer from the same kinds of problems that lay persons do.   That does not mean I would be willing to seek out an guy who just read Operations for Dummies to do a complex medical procedure; but it should encourage each of us to try constantly to think about how things fit together.
About four years ago, I learned about the power of Suroweicki’s ideas first hand.  The US Secretary of Education was named Margaret Spellings. She went around the country saying that it was impossible to find key information about colleges.  She proposed to establish a big (and expensive) data system in the Department which would have all that information.  I thought that was silly.   So I set about to see if we could construct something similar to a term sheet used in the financial markets.  I started with three basic concepts.  The sheet had to be brief.   It had to be visual, sparse text and lots of graphs.  And, the data had to be reliable - auditable if you will.
I worked with all of our Association members and we came up with a conceptual draft.  Going into the discussion, I had some very definite ideas about how the thing should look.  But as we moved the idea to the national level, I encountered resistance.  It was not only to the small ideas about how the sheet should look but to the big idea of disclosure.  How could we reasonably compare a place like this one to USC?
But then I had a revelation.  Encouraging people around the country to use their own creativity but limiting the discussion to those three basic concepts would produce a better result, both for institutions and students.  Many of the initial opponents of the idea became supporters.  And more importantly, the end product, which is now called the University and College Accountability Network, presents a simple way for students and families to compare more than 800 colleges across the country.
Before I conclude I want to briefly discuss a dilemma which concerns me. Since the 1960s the state and the nation have benefitted from significant investments in higher education.  Much of the California’s economy is based on just five areas; Computers, Entertainment, Biotech, Professional Services and Foreign Trade. All of them can trace their roots to the investments we began to make here in public and independent universities.   But we are slipping.   The Public Policy Institute of California projects that by 2025 California will be short 1 million degrees to maintain the current economy.   College going rate in the state is declining.   We face real challenges in making sure that the next generation of students has opportunities.  If we ignore the challenges, the costs to California will be substantial.  We could easily evolve into Mississippi with earthquakes.
How do you sum up those three ideas - besides the title of this speech - Epiphenomenality Happens?  Earlier in the week I was in Mexico City, working with two rectors in AICCU affiliate universities.  I found a perfect quote from that famous philosopher, P.F. Chang - who publishes his thoughts in fortune cookies.  The fortune I got was “Hay muchas posibilidades a su disposición” - Many possibilities are open to you.   If you work hard but are alert to the possibilities you will go far.
Thank you.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A new definition of electoral integrity(actually not that new)

It is critical to our republic that elections have some integrity and yet the efforts by defeated Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Joanne Kloppenberg seem to be both inappropriate and mis-guided.   Ms. Kloppenberg outspent her opponent - when counting both direct and indirect expenditures by a lot - and yet in the end she lost the election by more than 7500 votes. Evidently she believes that all that extra dough that was spent in her behalf should have translated into votes.  But the recount process has discovered only a very small number of changes.  So now, taking a page from the Gore/Lopez-Obrador playbook she is challenging the integrity of the election process.   Clearly the result in this election was close but not anywhere near as close as the 2000 presidential election - yet Ms. Kloppenberg seems to think that if she just attacks the results she will win.

The voters of Wisconsin have spoken Ms. Kloppenberg, why don't you listen?  Go back to your lefty echo chambers until you raise you decide which post you want to run for.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Things I like about Mexico City

I am not normally a fan of big cities. But Mexico City is an exception.  I have lived there a couple of times for weeks at stretch - when I taught at Anáhuac Mexico Sur.   The city has lots of things to do and superb museums and parks including Chapultapec - which has a series of major attractions.

The photo to the right is where I ate dinner last night.  It is a former Hacienda in Tlalplan - which is called (surprisingly enough) Antigua Hacienda de Tlalplan.   The food is excellent and varied.  The service is non-intrusive but efficient. And the setting is wonderful.   The white peacock was next to our table - while their call is not musical, they certainly add to the ambience.  (Photo from an iPhone 4 - using natural light).


John Kerry is nothing if not resourceful.  The guy who served briefly in the military and then tried to parlay it into a successful presidential run opened his run for the presidency with "John Kerry reporting for duty" - even though for most of his political career, which began with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War - where he partied in Watergate while his comrades in arms froze their butts off on the National Mall and then continued in his time as an elected official supporting two bit dictators and trying to strip funding from the military - that John Kerry, wrote an OPED called Duty Calls at Home, which said in part - 

"At home, we have big decisions on energy, education, infrastructure, research, deficits and entitlements that will decide whether America will keep leading the world. These decisions can bolster our economic recovery and create jobs of the future, but only if Congress gets serious about doing what’s right for America.
The government was brought to the brink of shutdown because the budget debate devolved into partisan finger pointing. Republicans began criticizing the president’s budget ?— a detailed plan that reduces our deficit by $4 trillion in 12 years —before he had even announced it. We can do better, but only if politicians are willing to put aside the ideology and ask the wealthiest Americans and richest corporations to share in the responsibility, rather than just asking senior citizens to carry all the burden through radical changes to Medicare."
I guess Mr. Kerry is not bothered that in the last couple of years, we've escalated both spending and debt to monster proportions. Isn't the role of the GOP to propose alternatives to our reckless increases in spending and debt? The only way to respond to our needs is to try to yank even more from the highest income citizens (who now pay about 38% of the burden in income taxes or almost 60% of you go down to the top 5% of incomes).   Ultimately the fight on the debt ceiling needs to begin with the assumption that any agreement to increase it should start with an equal amount of cuts.  If Kerry and the President want to expand our debt ceiling - then let them propose how to reduce overall spending dollar for dollar.   But don't expect anything but hollow rhetoric from Mr. Kerry, it has served him well since the early 1970s.  Thankfully the American people recognized that he was not the best candidate for President.

Peace in the Drug Wars

Mexico has lived through some very tough times as a result of the decision by the current administration to combat the drug lords.    Thousands of people have been killed including both the prominent and the innocent bystanders.  As you move north in the country the violence increases so in state like Michoacan the violence is significant.  In many other places in Mexico there is no violence to speak of.   But the level of fear in the country has increased significantly.   In one visit more than a year ago - in a state that I have always considered safe - I was told by my hosts to be extra cautious.

On Sunday there was a march against violence in Mexico City.  Yesterday when I was there I asked the people I was meeting with how they might solve the drug/violence problem.   I heard a variety of answers.

Some suggested that the country form a truce with the drug lords and in essence give up.  Others argued that this was a phase that the country needed to live through and while it might take another decade of confrontations - there could be no retreat from the attack on the drug lords.   One suggested a middle ground which said concentrate resources in particular areas as they seem to have done in Colombia.

A couple of conclusions came from those discussions.  First, the problem is not just Mexican - the US role as a consumer and as a supplier of the arms that have fueled the wars cannot be underestimated.  Second, suggesting, as some in the rally did, that they simply wanted an end to the violence at whatever cost, is wrong headed.   Third, many good people are terrified by the level of violence and the lack of policies to solve the problem.  But finally, a couple of friends continued to think that despite the violence the ultimate path that Mexico began to advance its civil and educational systems will ultimately solve the problem.  Nothing here is very revelational except that as a friend of many in Mexico, I am concerned about this additional challenge to the country.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Now Seriously Mr. Krugman

In his NYT Column today Paul Krugman decries the people who go around lecturing the "rest of us" about how public policy should be formed.  Isn't that what Mr. Krugman has been doing for the last twenty or more years?  Or was that someone else?   He suggests that the recession and the war in Iraq and Bush's tax cuts caused our deficit.   Wasn't he the one that was arguing that our puny stimulus was too small and not effective (evidently he believes that if you make a small mistake larger it will get better).

What amused me about Mr. Krugman's rant was, besides his inability to understand that he is one of the people he does not like (or is he really only writing about people who make suggestions that he disagrees with).  At the same time he seems oblivious to writing like Hayek's The Use of Knowledge in Society - which suggests that the individual's knowledge of time and place will always be superior to the centralized knowledge that elites like Mr. Krugman would foist upon us.   Or James Suroweicki's The Wisdom of Crowds  which suggests that knowledge of the many will always be superior to knowledge of the few.

Krugman should be moved to a more proper place in his paper - the funnies.  But then how do you know in the NYT?

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The High and the Low - Both have a place in movies

When I work out I generally watch movies on my iPod.  For the past couple of weeks I have watched the complete series of Police Academy and the Godfather.  I watched them in order.  I am pretty sure I may the only person in the world to have watched Police Academy in order.  So what are my conclusions?  Both are entertaining but in different ways.

The Godfather (3 Parts) - from my perspective the trilogy seems to get better with age.  I am not sure that the third volume is equal to the other two.  The first one deal primarily with the rise of Marlon Brando's character and the second with the ascension of Al Pacino.   But the stories are intermixed.   The third movie builds a bit off the first and second but not completely.  Pacino tries to go legit and Andy Garcia ascends as the Godfather.  But the plot is a bit less believable.  It is tied in with DeNiro's son attempting to break away from the family and become an opera singer and ends when DeNiro's daughter is gunned down in front of the theater where he brother has just performed.   The daughter is not the target, Pacino's character is.  The film ends with Michael Correlone (Pacino) dying of old age in a courtyard somewhere in Italy - all of the finish is very operatic.   There is a lot of violence in the movie.  But none seems particularly out of place.   Puzo tried (and succeeded) in writing an entertaining novel.  Cuppola succeeded in bringing it to the screen.

Police Academy was a series of seven films made mostly in the 1980s.  It tells stories of a group that begins with Steve Gutenberg and some others training to become police officers in a metropolitan city.  There is no attempt at anything but slapstick.  In each there is a hard ass character who is the opponent of the wacky police officers.  They continually play tricks on him.   To say that none of these take any level of thought (and that is true) does not imply that they accomplish what they were trying to do.  There are lots of funny bits and some continuing jokes.  Some of the situations are absurd.  But it does not matter.  Unfortunately, as the series progressed the writers lost some of the original spontaneity.  The last couple became formula movies.   At one point I flew across the country with Marion Ramsey who was one of the mainstays in the series, and she said that the movies were fun to make.

These two sets are very different.  But I enjoyed each.  I expect at some point I will revisit the Godfather - there is a lot in the three movies to ponder - both in terms of story line and film.   At the same time, while I will probably see the Police Academy movies again, it is not likely that I will go through them in order.

The iPod I have can hold about 4-5 movies.  So conceivably I could rotate through actors (I like W.C. Fields and Clint Eastwood) or directors (Hitchcock) or variations (I have a good collection of versions of adaptations of Dickens' Christmas Carol).

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Vicente Fox at Pacific

The University of the Pacific hosted former Mexican President Vicente Fox for the Gerber Lecture last night.  I have always thought of him as a transformational leader.  While many of his supporters thought his administration did not do enough to change the country, just the fact that his successor was elected in a clean but close election and many of the things he put in place have continued with Calderon - are indicators of his effect on Mexico.  Mexico has weathered this downturn considerably better than the US and, as Fox pointed out there is a growing middle class - brought about by the opening of markets and the expansion of trade.

I met Fox twice before - both when he was Governor of Guanajuato.  I had never heard him speak in English.

I had several impressions.

#1 - His commitment to markets is strong.  He understands the power of trade.   He told two stories about that.  One he made the quip that the finance minister for Panama was Hugo Chavez - because Chavez's absurd policies for his own country have encouraged entrepreneurs in Venezuela to move their dough to places like Panama.   At the same time he criticized our President based on something which he discussed in his book.   Obama had a story about a Maytag employee who lost health care when the company moved its manufacturing to Mexico.  Fox argued that the story was incomplete.   The move accomplished two things.  First, it added jobs in Mexico and second the remaining jobs in the US were value added jobs.  Without the move, Maytag would have been gone altogether.   Obama's story was only part of the picture.

#2 - I had not remembered that his Grandfather emigrated to Mexico from the US.  He tied in that story to the long history of relationships between the US and Mexico.

#3 - Fox spoke passionately about the benefits of real immigration reform.   He pointed out that by solving that problem the US would actually enhance security.  His point was similar to one made by Arturo Sarukhan namely that 9/11 created some additional problems for Mexicans working in the US which limited their ability to flow back and forth between Mexico.   Obviously, while large migrations cause issues for both countries, the net for both is positive.

Amazing Baseball Facts

In Thursday night's Rivercats game the club took back their honor from Wednesday's sloppy play.  They beat Salt Lake - 7-1.  In the last two innings the Bees seemed just ready to get on the plane for their next series.  But as often happens in baseball there were some lulls.   Baseball fans seem to love statistics.  So I started to construct some facts which could help the novice understand the game.  I then asked my friends at the game to add a couple more.  Finally, when I was at the gym yesterday I got some more suggestions. But here are five -

1) In games where the Rivercats score first, and maintain the lead, they win.
2) If the a team scores more errors than runs, they lose a vast majority of the time.
3) In games where the opposing pitcher hits a batter with a pitch and then throws 12 straight balls, the Cats will score a run.  (Note there are numerous other combinations where this might happen, for example if we get a hit and then the pitcher throws 12 straight balls, we score a run.)
4) Hits longer than 403 feet, which are within the foul lines, are bound to score at least one run.
5) A pitcher who throws 9 strikes in a row, and allows no fouls, will always be able to rest for a half an inning after that.

What amused me about this exercise, is that a lot of baseball fans who are interested in trivia seem to construct similar (albeit a bit more substantive) rules of the game.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Evident Extreme Surplus in Pundits

In economics supply and demand are supposed to come into equilibrium.   In TV news we seem to have an extreme oversupply of "experts."   That has been in rich demonstration as the OBL story has played out.

For example - we've heard from the surplus of counter-terrorism experts who say definitively that they know "how the events in Pakistan went down" because they are a) a former SEAL or Airborne who participated in lots of these kinds of activities or b) once saw a real SEAL or Airborne on the street.   Then there is the expert on Islam who can say definitively what the single appropriate method of burial for devout Muslims is.   Then there are the foreign relations experts who argue that Pakistan either knew or it didn't (not often do they say both in the same interview) about the raid and that because of the a) close proximity of the Pakistani "West Point" or b) the configuration of the compound or c) the shoe size of OBL and that someone is withholding a vital piece of information.   Then there are the macabre photo experts who want a death photo or a video of the raid and can tell you why US foreign policy will either be helped or hurt because of the release or non release of the photo/video.  Then there is the "former State Department high level official" who can explain why a) the White House is inconsistent in its story or b) the release of information is part of a grand strategy or screw up (again not often in the same commentary).

For me the issues here are simple.   #1 - An evil person was found and killed. #2 - No American was killed or injured in the raid.  #3 - Evil in the world has not been vanquished.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Our bloated federal government

I just received my tax refund.  In the envelope was a cheaply printed solicitation to have something called the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, which is part of the SEC.  The card was quite amateurish.

If you then go to the SEC website you will find http://investor.gov/ (I am not going to hot link this because I hope this nonsense will not be utilized much.)

There are two things that annoy me here.  First, why in the world would anyone go to the federal government to learn about investing.  It kind of makes you wonder (what with the shortage of doctors which will be exacerbated by Obamacare) if the HHS people are preparing a site called http://doingyourownappendectomy.gov.   There are already a ton of well done free sites to help people learn about investing - with glossaries and informative pieces.   Why should the feds think it necessary to add to their stuff?   This is not the first time the feds have duplicated something which was already serving the need.   For example, under Margaret Spellings the US Department of Education created a site to help people find colleges and copied a form that colleges and universities had created on their own.

The second issue burns me even more.  In the White House site (and in the Third Way site that created the concept) there is a program called the Federal Tax Receipt - which purports to estimate, using your tax data, the cost of running the government by program.   For the SEC they estimate that the SEC actually pays for itself.  For example, the sites estimate that my tax bill was reduced by $9.29 as a result of all the good things the SEC does for me.   That estimate is complete BS - of course it does not estimate any of the excess burden that agencies like the SEC cause for investors and financial institutions.

From my perspective we should begin with Investor.gov and along with other nonsense like NPR and the National Endowments - begin to reduce the budget by eliminating these utter wastes of my resources. Nickels and dimes soon become $14 Trillion.

Reacting to the News On Bin Laden

The Washington Post did a story this morning on the level of agreement in Congress on the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  The illustration at the right is from that story and give you an idea about the compound where Bin Laden spent his last days.  But there are two side stories that bother me about this news.

The Hypocrisy of Nancy Pelosi and other politicians - In September 2006 she commented at a press conference - "[E]ven if [Osama bin Laden] is caught tomorrow, it is five years too late. He has done more damage the longer he has been out there. But, in fact, the damage that he has done ... is done. And even to capture him now I don't think makes us any safer."    But yesterday she yammered "The death of Osama bin Laden marks the most significant development in our fight against al-Qaida. ... I salute President Obama, his national security team, Director Panetta, our men and women in the intelligence community and military, and other nations who supported this effort for their leadership in achieving this major accomplishment. ... [T]he death of Osama bin Laden is historic...."   In this case it is the democrats who just a few years ago were criticizing the "Cheney Assassination Squads" and our "horrible" record in Guantanamo - yesterday it became clear that the initial intel on this came from a source at Guantanamo.   The sad thing is that Pelosi is not unique and as importantly, on other issues the GOP is just as bad.   The issues of how to deal with terrorists are serious, I just with politicians would recognize that.

How should Americans react to the news? - My sister in law posted a Facebook post from Ed Bacon who is the Rector of All Saints Pasadena which said "The book of Proverbs teaches, 'Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when your enemy stumbles.' (Proverbs 24:17) We must see the dangers and distractions of triumphalism in celebrations of another’s death. ..."   Contrary to his post, I think Rev. Bacon is at least partially wrong.   Bin Laden was an evil man responsible for the deaths of more than 3000 people.   There are plenty of Biblical references to confronting evil in the world.   While some in the Christian community believe it was wrong to even do the assault, I believe they are on shaky ground.  And yet Glen Beck's response (where he had a marching band, confetti and cookies) was inappropriate.   The WSJ (Subscription Required) has a series of editorial comments this morning which get the story about right.  Bin Laden had become less of a leader in recent days as unrest spread in the Middle East against the autocrats.   And yet, we had a duty to hunt him and his murderous crowd down.  Our response to our environment in the rest of the world will need to be complex.   I am bothered that a lot of the immediate jubilation and flagellation offered immediately is probably unproductive for the long term issues we face.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama and Obama

I have three comments on the final event of bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice.

#1 - The President is not Jimmy Carter - During the 2008 election a lot of the President's detractors argued that Obama and Carter had similar qualities.   While neither had legitimate foreign policy experience.  I believe that can probably be laid to rest.  There is still a legitimate concern that as the recent article in the New Yorker (the Consequentialist by Ryan Lizza) argued the President tends to lead from behind and his foreign policy is often confused.   But as Commander In Chief, the President should get the credit for capturing Bin Laden on his watch.

#2 -  While the President deserves credit the military deserves thanks - Almost immediately after the President's announcement a number of my democratic friends put posts up which said we should thank the President - almost as if he had flown to Pakistan to lead the raid.   The people we should thank here are the military.  I am sure that had Bin Laden been dispatched during the Bush years, those same people would have ignored the role of the president and perhaps even the military.

#3 - It is unclear what this event means to reducing the influence of terrorists in the world.  Some of the knowledge necessary to lead the raid may well have come from Guantanamo detainees.  Even with that the role of Obama in the terrorists may have already passed. (That does not mean he should not have been pursued.)    President Bush, in a gracious statement after he was informed of the raid commented “The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”   But the mutation that caused Bin Laden to become such an important figure in the world of terrorism remains.  The harder job is what to do next.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Fishing and catching

Yesterday was the opening day of trout season in California and as I have done in recent years I went up to the Truckee. There is lots of water and still a fair amount of snow up there, so there were not many people around. The water is fine- clear and a little high. But as often happens the fish were not biting. We fished in the morning in a space on the little Truckee and in the afternoon in a spot near town. No fish but a good time nonetheless.

I may have some pictures but my traditional fishing camera may be on its last legs. Tried a new reel.