Sunday, September 30, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

Last night we saw Clint Eastwood's new movie called Trouble with the Curve.  It is about an aging baseball scout for the Braves who is losing his sight.   His estranged daughter joins him in something akin to the rookie leagues of North Carolina to evaluate a hot hitting prospect.  You've seen this Clint role before - the old timer a bit out of touch with his environment who is coping with an estranged family member (take for example Grand Torino where he plays a retired auto worker whose neighborhood is changing and Absolute Power where he plays a thief who gets caught up in a murder done by the President and covered up by his staff.   In both cases Clint is distant from his family.

In this movie his daughter is played by Amy Adams who is a law associate on the brink of making partner in a major firm.  Clint moved her out when his wife died - so they do not communicate about anything but baseball.   Amy has a love interest, who is a scout and former pitching prospect that Clint's character had signed, who works for the Red Sox.

Between Clint and Amy they notice a flaw in the prospect - and Clint talks the Red Sox guy out of choosing him.  There is some treachery in the Braves organization so a part of the management team sends a second person to this small club to see the guy hit - and the decision is made (when the Sox pass on him) to take the guy from Carolina.   Trouble is he can't hit a curve ball - that comes about because of Clint's ears and Amy's eyes.   So all of that is twisted into a budding romance.

This is not a deep film.   But it was written with a deep sense of respect or at least understanding of the work that coaches do to find new ballplayers.  It is an art and a skill.   If for nothing else it is also pretty good on some baseball trivia.

This is not a deep movie - it won't make you think.  But the characters are well drawn.  The plot is engaging and it is a good way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A very compelling story

 I've just finished the book Double Cross by Ben Macintyre which is a history of the British efforts at counter espionage in WWII - particularly how they misdirected understanding of the invasion coming on D-Day. (Called Operation Fortitude) The book's name comes from the British propensity for puns - the efforts to disrupt German intelligence involved a committee of 20 (the Roman Numeral for 20 is XX).  The efforts involved an unlikely group of people.   Early in the war, with the help of some pretty sophisticated math and a machine called Enigma, the allies were able to break the codes used by the Germans (they also were able to do it with the Japanese).   But this story is about how MI-5 was able to plant a group of individuals who became the German spy network in Britain.   Thus, throughout the war leading up to D-Day they could spin stories that the Germans thought were true intelligence.  

What was most amazing about the book was the audacity of the MI-5 agents.   The leader of the counter espionage group thought at one point that they controlled the entire German network in the UK.   MacIntyre weaves a fascinating tale - each of the five most important counter spies had odd characteristics and a tremendous amount of ego.  Not all took money from MI5 for their work.  One was a Polish patriot.   One (pictured on the right) was a Spaniard who created an entire network of agents all from fantasy and then was able to sell it.  He was so successful that near the end of the war, Adolph Hitler awarded him the Iron Cross. There were a couple of agents with questionable morals.

The book also deals with the lead up to D-Day and how one Lieutenant Clifton James (who had been an actor in civilian life) agreed to pose as Montgomery to throw the Germans off the place of the real invasion.   The British were smart enough to understand that a Spanish diplomat with Nazi leanings would be good to see the fake Montgomery - so they arranged he was invited to an embassy, allegedly for a talk, but was able to see the fake Montgomery and then relay his impressions to the German high command.  The conclusion about the Monty deception was that it may not have produced very much, except the amusement of the participants. The Brits were full of these kinds of deceptions.

This reads like a spy novel - but it is true.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

All dichotomies are false, including this one....

I like David Brooks, he is often thoughtful and insightful.   But in a column this morning in the NYT he makes a point that I think is wrong.   He argues that conservatism has traditionally been divided between the economic conservatives (who worry about intrusions into economic liberty) and the heirs of Edmund Burke who are less concerned with economic liberties and more concerned with creating an "harmonious ecosystem."   According to Brooks, those conservatives understood the principle of subsidiarity(devolving power down to the closest level to be effective).  Brooks argues that economic conservatives have taken control of the conservative movement.

It is an interesting comment, but I believe it is fundamentally wrong.  Interestingly, were it ever true, it might have been more true during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Here are a couple of thoughts on why I think Brooks is mistaken.   First, the structural conservatives (or whatever name they are given) are in clear evidence.  For example, one of the prime conservative books of 2012 was Charles Murray's Coming Apart which argues that social policy has helped to destroy a good part of what was once the middle class.    Second, Brooks argues that to understand the structural conservatives one needs to go back to Russell Kirk's Ten Conservative Principles.  That is always a good place to start but it is not clear that Brooks actually went back to those principles.  Two of the most important are #7 - conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked and #8 - conservatives uphold voluntary community quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.   If you look at the criticisms of the current administration's policies in health care and a number of other areas - they harken back to both principles.   Third, when one thinks about the key elements of the Ryan plan they deal with both the economic principles and the structural ideas present in Kirk's Ten Principles.   Brooks argues that George W. Bush tried to embody both sides with "compassionate conservatism" but I think that is wrong.   Bush's notions of the role of the state from ideas like the Medicare prescription plan to the signature enactment of the domestic side ("No Child Left Behind") had an exuberant notion of the role of centralized government - clearly violating principle #8.

There is one other side that the column does not address.  Even if the loss of structural conservative thought were true, and it is not, the other side has also lost key elements of what was once the democrat coalition.  Think a bit about Scoop Jackson, who supported a strong national defense and who is not represented in the current democratic coalition.  And then think a bit about Sandra Fluke, the idiot Georgetown law student who believes it is the responsibility of the federal government to fund almost anything that her heart desires.

What is concerning about Brooks' column is his vision which seems to be driven by a view from the Washington establishment.   Where GOP candidates have been successful, they have avoided being run by the dictat of DC.   If Romney wants to win this election, he will follow that trend or he will become the Bob Dole of 2012.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pots, Kettles and Dipshits

Bill Maher is one of those personalities on television that parades himself as an intellectual social critic but seems to have missed the essential elements of intellectual integrity when he was a student at Cornell.   At times he has described himself as a "libertarian" and a "progressive" - so I guess that makes him a progressive libertarian.  He has thrived in that genre of television called "gotcha" broadcasting.   He seems to love to hear himself speak.   He sees himself as an iconoclast - I see him as a lazy bully.

Over his career on television he has had two shows - Politically Incorrect and Real Time (with Bill Maher).  In the first, which was cancelled in 2002, he brought together groups of talkers - often with one conservative in the set, to discuss issues of the day(Sort of a male version of The View and with about the same level of thought).   But somehow the discussion was always set up to present only one side - the left.  Real Time is more one on one - him doing a Tonight show format without the jokes.   He has appeared on such insightful programs as Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Countdown with Keith Olberman, and Joy Behar.   His credits do not yet seem to have included the Home Shopping Network.  He is a big supporter of marijuana legalization and PETA (where he serves on the board).  His movie credits include Pizza Man and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.   Larry King, another of this type of personality, called Real Time, one of the best shows on TV.  Maher is one of those ubiquitous liberal commentators that have enriched all of our lives so much.   For a record with such wonderful accomplishments and shows with such a tiny market share, one wonders why he is so omnipresent in the media.

What set me off on Maher at this point was a comment he made this week about the undecided voters in this election.  He called them "dipshits"   He said

'If you’re one of the 5 percent of American voters who are still undecided on who to vote for, it’s ok to admit you just don’t give a shit,” Maher said. “Really, if at this point you still can’t figure out who you like more, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama — stay home, because you probably couldn’t find your polling place anyway. I mean, what more information does someone need to make this choice? Obama has been president for nearly four years, and Mitt Romney has been running for president since 1971, when his space egg incubated, and he burst out of an astronaut’s chest.”
“And they’re really not that much alike. If you can’t tell this man, from this man, you’re not a swing voter. You’re a lesbian. It’s ok that there’s a tiny fraction of uncommitted voters in a few swing states who will decide this election, but can we all please stop treating them like they’re somehow more noble and discerning than the rest of us?”

There may be very good reasons for not having decided who to vote for in this election.  One study from the University of California Press argued that people retain voting propensities even if they are independent.   It is reasonable to assume that some voters also have other things going on in their lives, so that they do not think about politics 24/7 - which sounds like a pretty good way to live.  

From my point of view, voters should always have the opportunity to make up their minds at any time before they vote.   That is frustrating to the political players but as in any other market, quite appropriate.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is the Leiftungsbuch next?

During Hitler's reign in Germany he organized a group called the Hitler Youth which were a bunch of young people who pledged their allegiance to Hitler and to the Third Reich.  These young people were indoctrinated.   The had a book, called the Leiftungsbuch - which was like a cross between a diary and a national ID card.   They had ones for youth and for young girls (not sure there was a separate one for young boys).
I thought of them when I heard that three Hollywood bimbos (Jessica Alba, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson )had started something called "for all" to "pledge allegiance to Obama."  Jessica Alba is quoted as saying   “Growing up, my classmates and I (evidently she did not have time to take grammar in the schools she went to) started every day with a ritual: We’d stand up, put our right hand over our hearts, and say the Pledge of Allegiance,” explains Alba. “To me, that gesture was a promise. A promise to be involved and engaged in this country’s future. A promise to work for liberty and justice — and for affordable education, health care, and equality — for all.”   The President's reelection site has photos of a bunch of Obamayouth posed with their hands upon their hearts with some wish penciled in on their hand.
This comes on top of the President's efforts to persuade young couples to put Obama on their gift registry when they are getting married.  Here is a photo of Alba taking the "pledge."

Most people that know any Constitutional history would find this offensive.  Leaders come and go but the nation remains.  But the illiterate Ms. Alba thinks we need to pledge to the President.

All this would be funny if it were what it seems to be, satire, but these people are serious.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The state of the campaign

For the last couple of days the Romney campaign has had to deal with a controversy that is much ado about nothing.  At a private dinner with supporters he argued that the election was really about a small percentage of the electorate.   He said "47% of the people will vote for the President, no matter what."  He then went on to conflate that number with the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax.   The statement also argues that Obama supporters rely on government and feel they are victims.   The substance of his remarks have elements of truth but are inarticulately stated.  The entire transcript (Romney spoke for a bit more than an hour) is available here. Before you form your opinion about what he said in this setting - which was several months ago - you should read the entire transcript or watch the video.  The Videos are posted here.  (Note the recorder hides his cellphone so it cannot be seen.  Although I think this kind of thing is certainly fair game.  Also note also that at the key point in the discussion the context of Romney's remarks is interrupted.)   Romney has been dogged by the press on a number of issues - they have shown their lack of objectivity consistently since he became the nominee.

In contrast the press has given Obama almost a free pass.  Last night the President presented to David Letterman who claimed he was not political and then served up a series of softballs to Obama.  According to ABC news Obama has been unique in refusing to engage with the press - fewer news conferences and many fewer questions taken. "A Towson professor studied Obama’s aversion to his press corps in February and found that he had held only 17 solo press conferences by then, fewer at that point than Bill Clinton (31), George H.W. Bush (56) and Ronald Reagan (21), though more than George W. Bush (11).  And at impromptu encounters with the press pool, Obama took questions just 94 times — a puny number compared with Bush Jr. (307), Clinton (493), Bush Sr. (263) and Reagan (120)."   

This election should come down to the two visions being presented by the candidates - one that would expand the size and scope of government in our lives and the other which would reduce it.  As David Brooks has pointed out in the last fifty years entitlement payments to individuals have increased by 700% after accounting for inflation.  By any measure that is a huge increase.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Price of War

For the last couple of years I have had an application on my iPad called The Civil War Today - which chronicles the events of the Civil War and is a project of the History Channel.   On each day one can see a short summary of the events of the day - told from several perspectives - from 15 individuals including Lincoln; from news stories of the day that are reproduced and from a short summary of the day's events; it also has a series of other things including pictures and games to give you an idea of what it was like in (in this case) 1862.

Yesterday, was the anniversary of one of the bloodiest days in American history - the Battle of Antietam.  One of the highlights of the App is a running total of casualties - and as you moved from September 16 to September 17 - the number of casualties increased by 32,000 - in one day.  The Union troops, at this point in the war had suffered 80,000 casualties and the Confederates 105,000. Getting an idea of the immensity of the Civil War figure that the casualties at this point in the war equaled .5 of the total population (which was about 31 million at the time) of the country.   If you were injured in a battle the medical care was not much help.

Several years ago my son and I visited Antietam on a school trip.  It was inspiring as our guide described the events of the day.    The Civil War APP is well worth the cost.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fishing Alone

Once a year I have the opportunity to fish on some private water in Wyoming.  The deal is simple - we get invited to come to this place and to fish for a couple of days with some of the best fishing guides in the US and with a cook who is first rate in a house near the Green River.  (No I am not going to be more direct about location.)

But the trip is set up in such a way so that once during the trip you need to go out and fish by yourself.  When I started fishing I did not like that time.  It still takes me an inordinate period of time to change a fly and I, while I am getting better at it, I am not perfect at finding fish.  So you go out for a period of about two and a half hours where you may not see another human being.  Today, I saw a blue heron and a dog and a couple of horseback riders.  But what I really got to concentrate on was fishing.

The benefits of a guide a obvious - the best figure out how to find fish in almost any location but more importantly they also help in the mundane tasks that can be frustrating - like changing rigs from one fly to another and the like.  They can do it in a few seconds where it takes me, at my best, about fifteen minutes.  Today was my lone day.  I fished in three locations and caught a couple of fish including the one in the picture.   When you are alone you also have to be able to take a picture and get the fish back into the water.  That is no easy feat.

At the end of the period I had my line fouled up so simply waited for one of my friends who was fishing upstream to pick me up.  There is something in fishing called the five minute rule - if you can't untangle in less than five minutes - you cut the lines and start over.  With my rigging skills the better rule would be a fifteen minute rule, but you get the idea. Before I went in for lunch,  I got to figure out the challenges of the stream without the able assistance of someone more proficient than me.  

I need to work on my casting (a lot) but I am pretty good at landing fish once I hook them.  So I got to practice technique under a number of conditions.   While I like working with a guide, I have not gotten to the place that I also like fishing by myself.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Dogs, Frisbees and Presidential Campaigns

This morning Kimberly Strassel, who writes a perceptive column in the WSJ called Potomac Watch, penned an article that Governor Romney is being too cautious.  It was called Mr. Romney, Trust Your Pants.  It contains some very sound advice for a presidential candidate who is not exploiting his natural advantage in this season.

Strassel's argument is that Romney cannot afford to sit back just because the President's policies are unpopular.   She makes the analogy that Romney is wearing a belt, suspenders and even an elastic waistband - he is unwilling to trust that the voters have enough sense to understand the clarity of his positions on major issues or that by providing detail on his ideas that he will expose himself to the Obama attack machine.   She's right, they will attack.   But he is wrong that the voters cannot handle an honest explanation of how to solve our malaise.  She is also right that Romney should be a lot bolder.

Clearly, the most exciting point in Romney's campaign was when he nominated Paul Ryan.  The Obama campaign immediately went into high gear calling him all sorts of names.   And not surprisingly, the attacks had little effect.   Ryan is still one of the most positive forces in American politics.   Two pieces of research should give Romney a bit more backbone.  

The first is a superb paper done for the Jackson Hole economics meetings and called the Dog and the Frisbee which makes a persuasive argument that complexity in financial regulations increase the likelihood that errors will happen - Black Swans if you will.   Dodd Frank is a clear example of monstrous regulations that will increase costs without decreasing risks of failing banks.  Romney could and should explain in a clear way how his health care plan, his tax plan and his financial regulatory plan avoid the nonsensical level of regulation that Obama's plans have done.  

The second is a book that was written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (yes, the former Harvard Professor who now works for Obama's White House).  It is called Nudge.   Thaler and Sunstein make a strong case for regulatory schemes that encourage people to make the right decisions rather than directing their every behavior.   It relies a lot on principles of subsidiarity but also a lot of common sense.  Clearly, by making the strong case that the Obama Administration has engaged in regulatory excess, Romney could present a clear vision of where he would like to lead the country.  

The Romney campaign's leadership has seemingly erred on the side of caution, perhaps believing that if they tell too much to voters the other side will be able to exploit the "third rail" characteristics of proposals.   That is what kept any serious discussion of reform of Social Security.  Yet, Ryan has proven that if you take substance to voters they will be able to grasp it.   He has not been cautious in hiding the details of his budget plan - indeed, he has been bold.   Conventional campaign wisdom says you can't take the risk.   But without a bit more explanation - the other side has the opportunity to poke all sorts of holes in their opponents.   So the Obama campaign claimed that Romney's proposal on Medicare will cost seniors $6400 more per year (without a shred of evidence except a thoroughly discredited paper from some lefty policy wonks).

By huge margins the American people believe that the country is going in the wrong direction - but Mr. Obama is still a positive figure.  So to be successful Romney is going to have to go after those wrong directions, but not with timidity.   My suspicion is that were Romney to begin to make those thrusts, the President's campaign would begin to reflect the genuine angst that Americans hold for Hope and Change as they have understood it to unfold.

Part of the Crowd

So this morning at about 6 AM I got online to order my new phone.  Evidently the preorder activity was pretty healthy.  Business Insider suggested that preorders might be as high as 1.3 million initially - which is a 30% pop from the 4S phone.  A projection on the first couple of days might be as high as 5 million phones.   An analyst for Asymco thinks the number might be as high as 6 million.  (220,000 per day per country) The Chicago Tribune estimated that the first quarter sales could be 33 million.  At 11:30 last night, when I got done walking the dog, I checked the Apple site and it said we are updating our site (normal procedure).  At 6 AM this morning I got on again and found that the wait time for delivery is now 2 weeks.   That means the original pre-orders sold out some time before I got on.   CNET says the preorder numbers got done in less than an hour.   Both Sprint and AT&T's site went down for a period of time when they were jammed.  European sites (Deutsche Telcom's Tmobile and Orange) also crashed.

Interestingly, again according to CNET, buyers who used their phones or iPads to purchase were able to get through immediately at midnight Pacific Time.   That may be a statement about the web versus the mobile web or it may simply be a wry comment from the Apple people about how much importance one should attach to the IOS. (Which by the way comes available next Wednesday).

Even former Enron consultant Paul Krugman wants to get into the fray.  Krugman tries to argue that  this is a Keynesian stimulus.   How pathetic.   He suggests that the increased demand for the phone will pump up the GDP a bit (some estimates suggest it might be as much as half a point).  OK that is right but it was not done because of QE3 or any other government inducement.   Second, he suggests that Keynes argued for the importance "use, decay and obsolescence" helps to contribute to growth.  Demand comes when people decide they want or need a new phone.   Keynes did say that but he was channeling Joseph Schumpeter who argued for the forces of "creative destruction."   The problem with Krugman's idiotic argument is that a) Apple has grown because it makes products that people want to buy not because of some government inducement or subsidy and b) he ignores the effects of the fiscal cliff (the uncertainty caused by the end of year changes in the tax code that need to be corrected) and wants us to rush forward with tax and regulatory policies and profligate spending that will ultimately diminish the ability of smart entrepreneurs to encourage us to upgrade our phones.   In Krugman's world we'd have a lot more Chevy Volts  (Note in 2012 the number of Volts sold = 12,000) the overpriced and subsidized Trabant of our time.  (Second note - the total sales of the Volt were exceeded by the iPhone 5 less than 30 seconds after it went on sale.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The violence in Libya and Egypt

On the anniversary of 9/11 two embassies in the Middle East (Libya and Egypt) were attacked by mobs angered by a movie created in the US called the Innocence of Muslims (you can find trailers on You Tube - I have not provided a link because it as offensive as PissChrist was when Andres Serrano created what was described as art in the late 1980s.)   When Serrano produced his monstrosity there were calls for reducing federal funding (this was funded from a federal grant) but there were no acts of violence against either Serrano or the government.  One of the risks of a free society is that these kinds of nonsense are allowed to exist.   Smart people ignore them.

There are two issues here.   First, should we accept the irrational behavior of devout fanatics like the ones in Cairo and Benghazi?  In many Muslim countries Christians are routinely persecuted.   The response of Christians to that treatment is to pray for both the Christians in those lands and indeed for the people who are persecuting them.  In this instance the new President of Libya issued an immediate and strong condemnation of the mobs.  Ultimately, leaders in muslim nations need to begin to isolate the fanatics.   Part of the changes brought about by the Arab spring is the installation of new leaders, some of whom are likely to be much better than the autocrats that were thrown out.  So this is a delicate situation for the leaders of these nations.   But we, as Americans, needed to issue an immediate condemnation of the senseless killing of our embassy personnel.   At some point other measures may be necessary.

Ultimately, loons like the people who created this movie have the ability in a free society to be fools.  (If you look at the trailers of the movie - it is horrible in production values - however than is not the point).   All that being understood that should not give opponents the ability to rampage.   It is not clear whether the video clips were indeed a cause or simply a justification for the violence.

The second issue is how should the US react to the killing of four embassy personnel?  After the ambassador was killed in Bengazi the Embassy in Cairo issued the following statement:

"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

 From my perspective that was a mistake.  Governor Romney issued a statement which said in part -

I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values. That instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. An apology for America’s values is never the right course."

From my perspective that statement was appropriate.  Some of the so called fact checkers including Politi-Fact argued that Romney was not accurate in his criticism.  (A so-called Pants on Fire fact check)   But I am not sure how one can interpret the statement from the Embassy as anything less than an apology.

The President after some time, issued a statement condemning the role of the mobs and through his press spokesman tried to distance himself from the embassy statement.  The press spokesman said the statement was not a policy of the US Government - if not then what is the word of the embassy issued as a formal statement?  In any event the President looked a lot less than presidential when he soon found his way to Las Vegas for some campaigning.   This is an important issue that the President should have addressed strongly and quickly.

Ultimately, leaders of these countries need to identify the moderates who will be willing to reign in the nutters.  At the same time we need to respond indignantly to these acts of violence.   As Lawrence Wright's excellent book argued, when we do not respond strongly, it encourages the next act of violence.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Kickstarter Banjos

 One of the benefits of social media is a platform called KickStarter which describes itself as a way to fund creative projects.   I have chosen to put my dough in a couple of projects over the last couple of years.

The one I am most excited about at this point is the one above that you see called the Porchlight Sessions - which will be a new movie about the evolution of Bluegrass.  This morning I got an update from Anna Schwabber - who is the brains behind the project - that the movie is now being put together.  Her co-producer is Chris Cloyd.  Anna was a USC Global Scholar and Chris did an MFA at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.   You can keep up with the film at their website.   What is most interesting about this project is that (as you can see by the poster on the side) the two film makers have enlisted the collaboration of a wide range of musicians.   But as you look at the site they have also enlisted a lot of other friends of the project including companies like Deering Banjos.   Before Kickstarter these kinds of projects - which have a focused audience (although if you look at the preview it should be popular with a lot more than just fans of bluegrass)  - might not see the light of day because raising money was always a problem.  

Not all Kickstarter projects are successful - even the ones that are funded.   This one seems to have been well organized and the director and editor did a lot of prep work - but the Kickstarter funding helped get them over the top.  The two leads on the project also seem to have thought carefully about when a critical funding point was coming up.  They were able to get 654 backers with about $70,000 in funding.

If you have not heard of Kickstarter check it out.  Or better yet, see the results of this kind of swarming when the Porchlight Sessions video is released.  

Sunday, September 09, 2012

UPA at 10

In 2002 a good friend in Mexico, Dr. Guillermo Hernandez, asked me to come to Aguascalientes to help him think about a project he was beginning.  I first came to know Guillermo when he was working at Universidad del Mayab in the Yucatan. When he asked me to come to Aguascalientes he was in the early stages of forming a new university that eventually became Universidad Polit├ęchnia de Aguascalientes.   Guillermo is an engineer who has held research and teaching positions in a number of countries around the world so he was an ideal person to help form this new university.  It would be one of a group of polytechnic universities established in Mexico.

The original design of this polytechnic was unique.  True, it would focus on technical areas including many areas of engineering.   But unlike many other universities of its type, UPA (as it became known) would also focus on building the values and character of its graduates.   That is not common, especially in a public university.

At the same time - after a very short trial period when the University was occupying space near the train museum - it moved out of town.  The idea was to put the thing on land which would eventually grow into a community by adding housing after UPA had gotten a foothold.   On this trip you can now see that residential units are being built close to the campus.   In another decade or so, the University will have continued to grow but the community will also develop.  That is a very sound model.  It is also one that many communities in the US are trying to emulate.

Aguascalientes is a great place for a polytechnic.  It is in the center of the country and has always been a logistical center.   Like Sacramento, the city has a history with Railroads.  But it also has a number of manufacturing plants from Nissan to Texas Instruments.   UPA also faced challenges, the Autonomous University in the State is among the finest in the country.  Yet, the two universities learned how to complement each other.   UPA also has some unique issues, for example about 80% of its students are male.  (Compared with most universities in the US where the student population is 55-60% female.)  I learned on Friday that they are working on the issue to attract more females into their programs.   Like many other polytechnics they have built a great relationship with the local business community so that students can build experience before they graduate and local plants can have the benefit of opportunities for research.

On Friday, UPA celebrated its first ten years.   They did so in both a normal and unique way.  On Friday morning they held an educational symposium where they discussed issues related to their unique educational programs but also the larger questions of how universities around the world relate to each other.   They heard from a project leader of a program that attempts to build entrepreneurs across borders (TechBa).  Then they discussed the issues facing an institution that knows the challenges of competing on the international stage.   UPA started with 300 students but is now more than 2000 - so the challenges of providing a quality education from the center of Mexico are significant.   Finally, they had a discussion with officials from the Johnson Space Center.   What interested me about the three programs was their recognition about the wider world around.   Many universities simply look at their local environment - but from the start UPA has looked outside its comfort zones.

In the evening the University had a formal commemoration of the first decade.  The presented the first three rectors (two more served briefly after Guillermo left to go into private enterprise and eventually back to the Mayab).   They also showed that the polytechnic focus has not lost attention to the arts presenting both some musical selections and some Folklorico.  The current rector (Eulogio Monreal Avila) is not a traditional academic but from my view looks like a superb leader.

I will admit that when my friend left the University, I had some worries that the broader vision for a polytechnic would be continued.   But from my visit at the end of the week, the vision continues and the small university is becoming an increasing presence in the region, the country and beyond.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Returning to the Air

For more than 20 years I spent a lot of time in one of these.    United Airlines has classes of flyers and I was what was called a 1K - meaning I flew at least 100,000 miles a year with them - not counting the time I spent on Southwest and other assorted airlines.

For all that time I gained some skills - I can still pack in a relatively small bag.   (I prefer carry on and no roller bags - they slow down experienced travelers down in airports.) When I achieved my 2 millionth mile with United they commemorated it with three gifts.   I got an iPod, a lifetime membership in the United Club (then called the Red Carpet Room - now called simply the Club) and I got to be Premier Executive Status for life(which is the second level on their Mileage Plus program).  I also developed a habit of leaving for very early flights - so developed a set of mechanisms (including being able to often wake myself without an alarm clock and being able to pack almost from memory) to cope.

But when I retired from my prior position, I began to scale back my flying.   This year, I am about 30,000 miles with United and will probably end up something under 50,000 miles.   Indeed, for a period of about 240 months there was not a period where I went more than 28 days where I did not fly on United.   My last flight with the airline, until the last couple of days, was in April.  (Although that will pick up in the fall.)

So I approached a trip to Aguascalientes with some trepidation.  I no longer get the absolute first choice on meals when flying first class.   Not a big deal, I often said I will take what is left - because many people grump about not getting their first choice.    I also wondered if I would be able to stand the pace I had done for so many years (YES!).   I still like the challenge of working my way through crowds of people - and I am still pretty good at it.

I found during my regular career that I would often travel to meet people in distant places because a face to face meeting was much better than a phone conversation.   And I believe that is still true.  The meeting I was going to was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a university in Mexico where I was present at the creation.  And as part of the celebration (which I will describe in another post) they had a series of symposiums using video conferencing.   Two of the sessions involved minor glitches which made them a bit hard to understand.   But the technology is advancing very fast.

So do I miss all those miles in the air?  No.  But did I enjoy getting back to a wonderful city in Mexico? Absolutely!

Romney for President

With the kind of commentary in the last post it is not hard to discover where I would come down in this election.  But there are some caveats.

First and foremost, I am not altogether happy with his stand on immigration issues.  Ultimately, I believe if we are to live up to ideals of this nation we need to deal with a better long lasting solution to immigration.   From my perspective many of the proposals that the President tried to implement in his executive order could form the beginning of a long term solution.  But this is, after all, a country of immigrants and we should respect and appreciate their potential contributions.

Second, while I am appalled by the current president's record on deficits I recognize that the problem of deficits did not spring up during the last four years.  Indeed, almost a third of our $16 trillion problem came about during the eight years proceeding Obama's tenure.   That being said, what worries me most about the current setting is that the President has created in three and a half years about what the last president created in eight - and it should be said that all of their predecessors created in a bit more than 200 years.  Nonsense out of sources as diverse as Forbes and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have tried to make the case that Obama, after a first year of whee has been tightfisted.   That is baloney.

Why then would I support Romney?  First, as opposed to his opponent he has deep and wide experience as a chief executive in both the private and public sectors.   His work at Bain, no matter how much the opponent's campaigns try to run it down was strong.   He did create jobs and in many cases save jobs that would have been lost.  From all accounts he was an ethical manager of private equity.   Obama lacks that background and more importantly has not shown a propensity to learn about how to do the job he was hired for in 2008.  Being a president is not about grand statements; it is about making choices.

Second, the Romney-Ryan plan, although lacking in some important specifics, is far superior to anything that the Administration has proposed.  The Obama people talk about deficit reduction but have little to show us in terms of concrete results.

Third, the candidate's proposals for tax reform are substantive and despite some doubts by those who engage in static revenue analysis - where it is supposed that taxpayers will react in only one direction - offers the best hope for reducing the complexity of the tax code while protecting equity.    The President has used high income taxpayers as a whipping boy - both to whip up his crowd and score points just outside of his groupies.  But ultimately, there are two facts that President Obama fails to grasp.  The highest income taxpayers have the widest range of discretion in when to bear tax burden and how much to pay.   At the same the President seems to believe that the highest income taxpayers are a permanent class - when most of the data suggests that that top 1% are highly volatile.

Fourth, Obama has overreached in a number of areas - he seems to either misunderstand or ignore that our government is intentionally based on the principles of division and separation of powers.  It amuses me that some of the most ardent yammerers about the "imperial presidency" in other eras are so silent now.   The video above parodies the ugly truth that this guy actually does not believe in the give and take of politics.  He claims that the GOP did not play nicely with him, or that Senator McConnell or several other GOP leaders vowed to try to make him a one term president.   Well, duh.   That is what the opposition does.   Did Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi try to help out George W. Bush?    Ultimately the best presidents know how to work in the give and take of politics.  But even if the other side is not playing nicely, it does not excuse the President in trying to figure out how to work with the opposition. This president did nothing in that direction.

Fifth, there is the continuing problem on the employment front.  Yesterday's jobs numbers were disappointing - no terrible.   Ultimately, job creation will begin when we back away from the current regulatory over-reach and when the tax system has some greater certainty.  Romney has a plan for both areas.  The President's plan to this point seems to want to simply tax the rich.  Employers are not creating new jobs because there is no incentive to do so.   Government should get out of the way - and with Obama, they will not.   Furthermore, we will continue to see government bureaucrats trying to pick winners (Cash for Clunkers, the many non-traditional energy producers - to name just two).   As Larry Summers once said (one of the few places where I agree with this windbag) "government is a lousy venture capitalist."

Finally, there is the over-reach of the administrative state.  The Bush administration people were not pikers in creating new and silly regulatory schemes.  But they look like amateurs when compared to the current administration.   There is an almost universal assumption that government is better than the private sector and that the federal government is better than the states.

As I suggested in the earlier post - did the President come in in tough times - sure.   But an incomplete is simply not enough.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Upcoming Election

Every election is about two sets of issues - who the incumbent is and who the challenger is.  In the last election I decided against voting.   I thought that Senator McCain was a bit past his "sell date."   At the same time I was concerned that Senator Obama was lacking in any relevant experience.   Four years later, I will not make that same mistake.   Obama continues to show a lack of experience, a certain unwillingness to learn from mistakes and I believe that Governor Romney has both the experience and temperament to be a fine chief executive.

Before I discuss the President's performance, I think it is essential to point out one area where I think the President is superb.  He seems from a distance to be a dedicated father and husband.  The last democratic president had seemed to have zero moral compass. Beginning in the Clinton administration the democrats began to adopt the theory of "it takes a village" - for the first time in my memory they seemed to argue that government created everything in society.  It was the organizing principle.   Just as Vincent Ostrom argued more than three decades ago- that view fails to take into account the genius of America.

This president has consistently started with the meme that he was dealt a tough hand.   But as anyone who has studied politics will argue - that is not a unique situation.   During the first Reagan term - unemployment was higher.   A few days ago the President argued that he should get an incomplete for his first term - that may be an accurate assessment but it does not argue that he has done a good enough job to continue in it.

The last four years of Senator Obama have been a colossal disappointment.  The health care bill which was passed, on the legislative skills of Speaker Pelosi and Protem Reid is an unmitigated disaster in a time when most of the country is waking to the dangers of entitlements.  Dodd-Frank is a classic example of things left undone that ought to have been done and things done poorly.  The regulatory over reach of his appointees has been troubling.   His use of executive orders has shown a complete disdain for the Constitutional system he was sworn to uphold.   I am appalled by his attacks on fundamental Constitutional principles like the First Amendment guarantees; if his position is merely a political ploy (as some have argued), his stance is even more disgraceful.  His economic policies have been a hodgepodge of rent seeking payoffs like Solyndra; short sighted policy choices like Cash for Clunkers and just downright nonsense.   His tax proposals have done nothing if not inhibit economic growth.   His promises of getting both the deficit and unemployment down have been fairy dust.  Even the signal achievement of his first term, getting Osama Bin Laden, shows a lack of graciousness.   Much of the intelligence that allowed him to act, came from techniques that were developed during the Bush Administration. His complete inability to work with Members of Congress, has been a key reason why the tone of DC is so negative.  While he claims the GOP was out to get him - that standard is not a reasonable bar.  Do you think Tip O'Neill was not out to get President Reagan - yet Reagan worked very hard to find areas of compromise.   Do you think the GOP after 1994 was not as hostile to Clinton - yet he figured out a way to work with them to craft to superb legislation.    Finally, his constant refrains about how hard the job has been because of the failings of his predecessor have been juvenile.

In the last month I have encountered two pieces of writing about the President which are interesting.  One, the movie 2016, argues that the President is an unreconstructed anti-colonialist who wants to bring the country down to size.  I am not much on these kinds of psychological profiles - but with intellectual heroes like Frantz Fanon, it is hard to not consider at least part of d'Souza's speculation.  I read Fanon about the same time the President did - but I recognized the inherent flaws in his rants.  The second, Leading from Behind, an investigative journalist's superb book on the President's leadership style, is troubling but accurate.  Richard Miniter asserts that Obama is the most reclusive president we have ever had and is fundamentally unable to get into the give and take that makes successful presidents successful.  Unlike some of his public antagonists, I do not believe the President is malevolent - but I do believe he, like Jimmy Carter before him, is singularly unsuited to lead the country.  Some presidents learn from events, this one has shown a tendency to double down when he loses something.  I am genuinely worried about the future of the country if he is re-elected.

From these facts and others I believe the President has not earned a second chance.   Incomplete or C- does not matter - we hire presidents to be exceptional and this one has not made the grade.

But as I said at the beginning, elections are about both candidates and in my next post I will discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of Obama's opponent.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Reflections on Labor Day

Labor Day as a national holiday has been around for a bit more than 100 years.   And indeed, although it is designed to celebrate the contributions of American workers, it was first proposed by a member of the Central Labor Union - which was a relatively Marxist predecessor of the AFL-CIO.  Organized labor will tell you that unions helped to usher in the middle class.  And they present some interesting statistics.   The middle class grew when big labor (in the private sector) was large. Today, private sector unionized workers are a bit south of 7% of the workforce - a bit more than a third of the public sector is unionized.  (Which makes the total unionized workforce about 12.4%.)   More importantly the respect for unions has diminished significantly in the last few decades.  

The claims made by some on the left is that a middle class was created by unions.  Indeed, as the wages of industrial companies advanced average hourly wages increased.   But making the strict correlation between union membership and the middle class is speculative at best.   Unions helped to bring together a lot of the immigrants that came to this country in the second wave of immigration.  If you want to read a stylized version of the immigrant story read McTeague by Frank Norris.   Unions also engaged in organizing the powerless.   If you want to read about the trials of the powerless and their role in being organized try The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.   Unfortunately, neither is what one might call literature.   Both are unrelenting, one sided depictions of the plight of working people.  

As I was growing up in the LA area and playing a lot of folk and bluegrass, I learned a lot about the labor movement.   I met one old time IWW worker, who hung out in a guitar shop in Long Beach that I used to frequent called McCabes.  That got me to reading a lot about labor related causes and listening to songs from the labor movement.   Some were just crap - but many were compelling - born out of an incident related to a particular situation.  One of my favorites is called the Coal Creek March - which is related to the troubles in Coal Creek Tennessee - Pete Steele recorded the most famous version of the tune but here is a good rendition of it.  

I had two short engagements in union jobs.   In both cases I was exploited.   In both, I actually lowered my hourly wage by joining the union and paying the representation fee.   Unions rewarded regular members and I was just a temporary - in one case for the summer and in the other as an occasional worker.   (Hotel and Restaurant Employees and American Federation of Musicians)  In the AFM relationship our bluegrass band was required in addition to paying the representation fee, to hire a "drumstick man" who job was to pick up our drumsticks when they were dropped (yes bluegrass bands don't use drums).  His real job was to sit around and drink out of a paper sack and collect a fifth of our scale for the evening.

The extension of the industrial model of organizing into the public sector, has been destructive.  I've written before about the differences between public and private unions - the assumptions are different and in the case of public unions they have the ability to pick who they will negotiate with - establishing an unbalanced table.  The outrageous deficits in many cities and other public entities are a direct result of the growth of unions for public employees.  That is beginning to change.

The decline in the private sector came about not because of any special efforts by "evil" employers but because of two factors - a shift in how jobs are created (fewer large scale industrial jobs) and a general understanding by many workers that unions were not an aid in getting or keeping work.   It is also likely that the way union leaders have performed (both in terms of corruption and a relatively lavish lifestyle) turned younger workers off.   I believe a third factor has been the dogmatic ties of unions to one party.   That is especially true for public sector unions.  The rank and file is often at odds with what the union leaders are pursuing politically.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Jr Spartan Football

For the past three seasons, my now 10 year old grandson has played football.  In our area this is a well organized program.   His first year was what you might expect - he showed some interest but also some lethargy.   Last year was shortened when he and his dad were horsing around and he fell to the ground and messed up his arm enough to require a cast.

His dad, my son, is a football aficionado. He has volunteered for a small local high school called Christo Rey to help in coaching duties for several years.   This year their interests came together and now my son is coaching his son on a team called the Jr. Spartans.

In the first game of the season he scored a running PAT, had a marvelous sack and also scored a first down.   His team eventually lost in this exhibition game but the team played pretty well.   Near the end our grandson was involved in a collision which gave us a scare.  He collided with another kid and went down like a bag of clothes.   I was up in the stands keeping an eye on his younger brother and so saw the play clearly.   The other kid got an ankle sprain and our grandson got a groin pull.  But there were a tense couple of minutes.

I've watched my son in many coaching situations - he seems to care about the kids he is coaching and is often able to get the kids to focus. (No small task for even high school kids)  - so I guess you know what I will be doing in the fall on Saturdays.