Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One Thought about the Seeming Change in Income Distribution

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about the seeming growth in income inequality.   That first came from a pair of unlikely names called Thomas Piketty (who is an economist at the University of California) and Emmanuel Saez (so called Pikkety Saez paper) who have argued in a number of papers that income inequality is getting larger and that the middle class is disappearing.  The PS data sets are both from IRS and Census Current Population Survey (CPS) data - supposedly unimpeachable.   Unfortunately, according to Richard Burkhauser, who is a Cornell economist, their use of data is flawed.   In essence, if you make minor changes in the way data is counted and depending on which data set you choose to use, the data varies widely from that reported by PS.   Burkhauser wrote a paper for the NBER (which is gated but pretty inexpensive) which disputes the PS conclusions.    Most of the left has taken the PS data a gospel, and indeed, will vilify people who question the PS conclusions.

From my read of Burkhauser's paper, his conclusions are sound.  A lot of interpretation depends on how you count income.  For example do you use household or taxpaying unit data?   Do you include AGI or gross income?   Each of those variables can vary the data considerably.   And if you use the Burkhauser methodology you come out with very different results than PS.

But as I have watched us come out of this recession,  I have been more concerned with labor market participation, which has (even before Obama) been declining.   It turns out that at least a partial explanation of that change in behavior is related to the explosive growth in Americans claiming Social Security Disability payments.   SSDI - now equals 5% of the people between 25 and 64.   That is double what it was in the 1990s.   What is more the recipients differ from earlier times in three significant aspects.  First, the rapid growth in SSDI recipients must be part of the explanation on why labor market participation is declining.   Second, current recipients are generally younger than in previous generations.  Thus, they will be on SSDI for a longer period of time than they might have been before the program started to expand.   Third, a significant portion of the new SSDI recipients are claiming SSDI with soft injuries (mental and tissue related disabilities - which are significantly harder to observe and congruently easier to fake).   Here is the kicker - all those younger people who are on SSDI have consigned themselves to an income structure which is not as lucrative as many other employment possibilities but they are willing to accept the lower incomes in part because SSDI also comes with a medical program that is similar to Medicare.

There are two possible explanations of what this might do to income distributions.  First, that people would choose to live on a modest annuity at an earlier age than in the past might show how truly dreadful employment prospects for the undereducated in society are.   Second, increased utilization of SSDI may in fact have changed the income distribution not based on available wages but on the perverse incentives established by SSDI.   I am not sure which of these explanations is correct; indeed both may be.   But it does suggest that even if the PS data is accurate, as far as it goes, the change in distribution of income has come about as a result of the negative effects of governmental policy.

Cuba and Apartheid

Berta Soler Fernandez is an interesting figure.  She is the current leader of a group in Cuba called Ladies in White (Damas en Blanca) which was formed to protest the repression of the Cuban regime.   The members are wives and girl friends of jailed dissidents.   The movement began as a Sunday march from St. Rita's church to places in Havana.   It is a non violent movement although supporters of Castro at times have attacked the marches.

Soler was granted an exit visa from Cuba and was allowed to receive Europe's highest award for human rights.   She then went to Florida to build support for her movement.   She was quoted in the Huff Post as saying "We want a Cuba in which liberty exists. Where there is democracy. And where there is respect for human rights. And also, we are fighting pacifically for a Cuba without the Castros."

What the Huff Post and much of the other coverage of Soler's visit did not cover was her very specific opposition to lifting the US economic blockade of Cuba.   Soler was very specific and is quoted as saying "I respect the opinions of everyone in the world, but mine [and] that of the Ladies in White is don't lift the embargo."

My default opinion on the embargo is just the opposite, which is consistent with my thoughts when the South African regime was maintaining Apartheid.  I thought then that the regime would falter if companies like HP (which had several shareholder resolutions to get out of South Africa) were allowed to work in the country and create their own employment policies.   In Cuba, without the blockade, I have always thought that if all sorts of American products began to come into the country that the regime's repression would be overturned because technology has a particularly disruptive effect on tyrants.

Castro has been a disaster for Cuba - when he took power the per capita income of Cubans was about the same as Puerto Rico or Mexico both countries have far surpassed Cuba, now the Mexican PCI is 50% higher than Cuba.   So despite the propaganda from the left, it is not the paradise that they say it is.  

In the end the best way to get rid of the Castros is made a bit unclear by Sra. Soler's comments.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Opening Day

For the past several years I have fished opening day for Trout season with a bunch of guys somewhere in Northern California or Southern Oregon.  Fishing during this time of the year is often spotty.   For many years we went to the Truckee river, in part because it was close and one of the people had a cabin near there.

But this year we found a location that was almost ideal.  While the water is not as wide or deep as some of the places I like to fish, and the fish are generally smaller, the location offers a lot of opportunities. The fish are plentiful.  The water is mostly pretty clear so you have to begin behind where the fish are and let the fly come back to them.  These are wild fish so they can be very spooky.   Five of our group were able to fish all day without bumping into each other or, indeed, without seeing other fly fishermen.   We did see some locals who use spin cast set ups.   But even those were few and far between.

I fished most of the day with a variety of dry flies - which means that part of the fun is watching the fish come up and grab the fly.  Yesterday was unseasonably warm and so two in our party actually wet waded - which means they did not wear normal waders.

One of the benefits of living where I do is that one can find a broad range of excellent fishing opportunities within a few hours of home.   But when you find a spot like this you tend to want to keep it to a small, select group of individuals.  You may be asking OK Drtaxsacto where is this spot?  What I did not mention was that we found the spot with two guides who we have fished with before.   The are superb guides so if you want to find it, and it is worth the find, you might want to send a note to the guides we worked with - Confluence Outfitters.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Let's get some numbers straight

The W. Bush library is opening this week and Ezra Klein thought it would be a good idea to present the legacy of the Administration in 24 charts.    There is much to view in the charts - some of it is even useful.  Mind you I am not a big fan of our immediate former president.   For me "Compassionate Conservatism" was a phrase without much substance.   When Gore was not elected, American voters chose one kind of activist government over another.

The concern that I have about this exercise is the selectivity of the data.   The numbers presented in the graphs and charts are accurate although they may not give us an real understanding of the legacy that the most recent Bush gave to the US.

The charts delve into a lot of things.   They point out that Afghanistan and Iraq are not rated as democracies by Freedom House.   I think that is accurate, although I am not sure anyone realistically thought that either country would evolve that quickly.   And Klein concedes that there has been some slippage since Obama was elected.

A second chart catalogues the $4 trillion spent on our wars in the Middle East, and the numbers are close enough, although I would question whether $455 billion increase in homeland security costs can be attributed to the wars, unless of course you agree to the crackpot theories of some loons on the left and the right that the government was somehow involved in creating 9/11.     Were the policies efficacious in the long term?   I think it may be too early to tell.   Did the Obama administration improve the situation and lower costs(both immediate and long term)?  The answer to that one is probably no.

But where it gets interesting is in his charts on poverty.   The chart at the left is of poverty during the Bush administration.   Even before the economic problems in 2007-08 poverty as measured by the Census Bureau was rising.    But as the Huffington Post reminded us when the numbers came out last fall during this Administration poverty in the country is the highest it has ever been.   Under the current administration food stamp participation has ballooned.   Currently 15% of the US population receives food stamps.   Here is a chart on that.

A lot of economists are skeptical of the government definition of poverty.  The Census Bureau makes an estimate of cash income for a family of four.  It is a pretty crude measure which does not take into account regional variations (the $23,000 may go a bit farther in some places than in others) or in the intangibles of life.   So it is a pretty rough measure.   But the measure of food stamps is not.   If there has been a significant increase in the number of people receiving food stamps that is a pretty good measure of one of two things.   Either the economic situation of the population has declined or those in power believe it is better to have more people receiving benefits.    From my perspective neither is a good result.

Here is one other chart from the Census Bureau data.   This shows both the long term trend on number in poverty as well as the poverty rate.   When you look at the long term trend the rate has declined although there are periodic variations of the number of households classified as living in poverty.

I am not trying to make a case that the Bush administration was wonderful nor that the Obama administration has been a complete disaster.   But I do believe that Klein's claim that he can present the Bush record in 24 highly selected charts is pure partisan bunk.

One footnote to the post - as part of the celebration of the opening of his library the former president (W) thought Jeb Bush should run.   His mom, commented "We've had enough Bushes."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Housekeeping in Baseball (live blogged with some later additions)

One of the key traditions in Baseball is the rule of housekeeping in the stands. While a lot of stadiums, including Raley Field, try to get fans to pick up they are only partially successful. Here is my seat in the bottom of the fourth.

We won the game (3-1) but as the game progressed we began to look at some stats for this young season.   At the end of the game last night the team had scored 127 runs in the first 19 games of the season.   The closest team to us is Tuscon with 115.   But our win/loss record is 9-10.   So why?  Well, almost half of those runs were scored in the recently completed away set at Reno - where we scored 60.   Indeed, we have scored 77 of those runs just against Reno.

There are some other stats that are not so nice.  We have averaged more than 1 error per game including the 4 last night - 23 in total.   But 14 of those come from just four players (Green, Montz and Horton with 4-4-3 and Parino with 3 but only 6 game appearances).   The good thing about that stat is that some of those were concentrated in the first couple of games.  The bad thing is that the numbers are continuing to grow.   With those lopsided numbers we still have a couple of things to solve (I did not mention Team ERA (which at 5.61 puts us pretty high up in the league) but which is improving).

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Surface Marketing and Technology

I have been interested in the Surface, Microsoft's newish tablet, both because the new version of Windows has some interesting features but also because the company seems to be trying to recapture the cool.  (Actually, I am not sure whether MSFT ever had cool.   A good deal of their rationale in software has been everyone is has it. And even that justification has been devalued as Word and Excel continue to beef up.

From my perspective the Surface commercials are daffy.  They revolve around a series of break dancers acting in almost robot like precision.  In one sense that reinforces a common criticism of Microsoft's corporateness.   Were I Microsoft I would not want to present the image of a robot.   I am not the only one who thinks this earlier in the week there was a long post which described the marketing campaign as "bafflingly bad."   Ken Segall who writes about technology and marketing compared the ads for Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung and Microsoft - and concluded that Microsoft that the company failed on the basic spirit of the ads.

Microsoft has introduced two models thus far - an RT and a Pro.  The reviews have been lukewarm at best.  The RT seems to have adequate, but not exceptional, battery life.   On all of my iPad models, I have rarely, if ever, run out of battery life in a day.    But the RT seems to get about 8 hours and the Pro only about 4.   That is tiny for a device that you are expected to have with you all the time.   The Surface Pro is also a bit of a heavyweight.  The full sized iPad weighs 1.44 pounds; the M
ini less than .7 pounds.   The Google tablet (which is in the size of a mini) weighs .75 pounds.   The Kindle Fire is the heftiest of the small form tablets at a bit less than a pound. (.9)   But the Surface Pro weighs in at a bit more than 2 pounds.

Obviously, this space is evolving.   Apple is expected to bring out new models in Q2; the other brands have either had a refresh recently or are in the process of updating.  But Microsoft continues to look like a left behind both in design, engineering and ads.   That is not a great place to be.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dealing with Giants (Yes I realize the Pun)

We saw 42 yesterday.   I enjoyed the movie immensely.   The two main characters in the movie (Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey) are heroic figures.   This kind of movie must be hard to make because so much has already been written about both.   The earlier biopic (as I noted in a post anticipating 42) is not great except for the extended scenes with Robinson in them.

Rickey's baseball career ran almost 60 years.  His playing and managing career was nothing to write home about.   He had a fight with Judge Landis while in St. Louis on the the development of what would later be one of his hallmarks - the farm system.  

But he showed his real talent when he moved up to the Dodger organization in 1942.  He developed the Dodger farm system. (By then Landis could not beef.)  And then started to think about desegregating baseball.    From a discussion in the Ken Burns documentary on Baseball, Red Barber Rickey came to the decision both on idealism and business sense.

What annoyed me most about the most recent owners of the Dodgers (the McCourts) is that they had no sense of the history of the Dodger franchise.   Indeed, baseball is a business (which McCourt did not understand either) but it is also more than that.   Rickey and owners like the Walter O'Malley.   A good idea for another baseball picture would be about the relationship between O'Malley and Rickey - which was not a bed of roses.

Robinson was a first, but he was also a pretty good ball player.  In his year with the Montreal Royals he hit .349.   Over the 10 years he played for the Dodgers he hit .311 with a .409 on base percentage.  He averaged 86 RBIs a season.    I became a Dodger fan during Robinson's career.  They won several pennants and then in 1955 won the World Series against the Yankees.

The story of Robinson is one that should be repeated.   It represents some of the best characteristics of the American character.   The two
main characters understood the importance of what they were doing.   Many of the supporting characters, like Pee Wee Reese, understood the importance of the moment.

One side note which made the movie even better, John McGinley does a superb role as Red Barber.   Barber preceded Vin Scully in the broadcast booth of the Dodgers.   A lot of the phrases of baseball ("can of corn", "rhubarb") came from his fertile mind.   McGinley catches Barber almost perfectly.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Two excursions in rational thinking

Yesterday as I was driving to an appointment I heard an interview with a "food economist" and professor who has just written a book called the Food Police which begins to poke holes in attempts to heavily regulate what we are allowed to consume.   The professor, Jason Lusk, argues that many of the distinctions which some people in society hold as almost religious tenets are mostly nonsense.  At the same time he argues that some of the policy ideas that are advanced are downright silly (for example the 16 oz soda ban sought by the NYC mayor - which might induce consumers to either buy more of smaller sizes or substitute even higher sugared beverages).

In the interview he took on things like "organic" food and produce.   My daughter and I have had a long running discussion about whether organic food is better.   As Professor Lusk argues we literally choose our poisons - many organic products are controlled with bug inhibitors like sulfur or copper which may be as toxic as some of the phosphates.   As I have thought about it, these issues should come down to personal tastes.  My daughter and her husband choose to pay a premium for the type of food they purchase (they use a chain called Whole Foods which has all sorts of products that may be less available in a regular grocery but are also slightly more expensive).  

About the only concession my wife and I  have made to this movement is to purchase some vegetables from a co-op which produces organic groceries and delivers (called Farm Fresh to You).   We pay a slight premium for this bundle of fruits and vegetables we get every other week and I have three responses to the service.   First, the produce we get is often the babies of the litter - a lot of the fruit is undersized and it is a bit more perishable than we would get in a local grocery.   Second, the variety of vegetables we get is interesting - we've gotten some great things like radishes or fennel that we would not normally include in our diet.   Third, many of the vegetables we get are far superior to what we could get at our local grocery - the carrots are very tasty, for example.   On the whole this service is worthwhile.   But from my perspective, it is a matter of personal choice.  Like in any other consumer choices, it is a matter of preference.   We should not inhibit the ability of consumers to make choices but we also should not invoke food theology just because we think our choices are better.

Then we get to a second topic, divestment.   A couple of small lefty colleges in the Northeast and one in the west, have chosen to divest their endowments of companies that produce fossil fuels.   But now larger places like Brown are considering joining the movement.   The colleges that have voted to divest have so far had puny endowments.   The president of one of the places to divest (fewer than 600 students) called the divestment movement "a continuing freight train" -what bunk.  Hopefully, this college president will assure that the "freight train" is run using environmentally friendly fuels.   I do not think he got his own joke - but then zealots never do.   Divestment movements have had a mixed bag.   TIAA has a "socially responsible" fund for those people who want their retirement portfolios to be politically correct and the best evidence is that those funds have done modestly poorer than a more diversified set of investments.   The most recent divestment movements - to eliminate investments in places like the Sudan - have had little effect because not many US companies invest in the Sudan.   But the elimination of fossil fuel companies from allowable endowment opportunities could produce profound consequences.

Colleges are easy targets for the politically correct.  Some have spent inordinate amounts of money getting to what are called LEED standards.   Others have tried to construct buildings in a cost effective (that recognizes immediate and long term costs) manner and have refused to follow the dictates of the ideologues.   Some colleges have chosen to restrict their endowments based on sound investment policy while others have chosen to bracket their investment options based on the cause of the moment.   The job of a college trustee is to make sound long term decisions for their institutions.   This "freight train" is not one of those.

What do you do about a problem like this?

In a column in the New York Times Thomas Edsall presents some interesting data on what is happening to employment based on level of education.   The two charts show a couple of trends.   First, there is an increase in the number of jobs requiring low skills and producing low wages and as importantly the compensation levels for people with moderate skills is diminishing.

Edsall worries that the government should somehow intervene.   He quotes a bunch of economists who agree.   But I come to a slightly different set of conclusions.   First,  one of the critical things that government can do in this situation (and this is more state government than the feds) is to improve the level of education.   The payoff to having more education seems to be continuing, at least in these graphs.   Yesterday, I went to a USC forum on higher education in California and heard some statistics from a professor at UCLA which were troubling - California enrolls the lowest of students in 4 year institutions of all states (26%); the state is 49th in the nation in the percent of underrepresented minority students enrolled in 4 year institutions; and California is 45th in the nation in respect to BA completion among minorities.  For California's 25-34 year old population (in 2010) the percentage of students with a BA is widely variant by race.   So states like California should be spending a lot of effort in assuring that all students who can benefit from education get it.   For a Californian those numbers should be scary.  When you understand that California's economy is driven by industries that require a BA AND that we will be about about 100,000 degrees short (for the next 10 years) of producing the number of degree holders necessary just to maintain our current workforce the numbers get even scarier.
Source: Professor Patricia Gandara

At the same time however efforts like raising the minimum wage to cover improve equity may actually be counter productive.   Notice that the middle jobs are the ones that are disappearing.   Those might have been auto workers a generation ago.  Many of those jobs have been disappearing simply based in differences in production methods.   Toll takers at bridges are being replaced with automated machines.   We should not try to hold on to those jobs but assure that the ones who held them find other employment.  

Then you worry about the number of lower skilled jobs that are both increasing and declining in relative compensation.  One would expect that over time the relative value of those jobs would increase at demands increase faster than supply.   We should be encouraging as many people as we can to get the education they need which will change the shape of the compensation curve(s) over time; that is a much better set of strategies than worrying about the dynamic nature of the composition of the workforce.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Taxes and Happiness

A source of continuing amusement for me is the way some in academia attempt to reinforce their beliefs.  Witness something in the Wonkblog this morning.   I am not sure why this 2011 study (using 2007 data)  is especially timely (it was released by the Association of Psychological Science in September 2011) except that it is the day before we are all required to send in our tax forms to the IRS.   The lead author of the study commented "The more progressive the tax policy is, the happier the citizens are."   Pardon me but that result is just BS.  The research is based on a study of 54 nations using data on perceptions of "well being" on a scale of 1-10. Those perceptions are defined as whether the 54,000+ respondents thought they enjoyed positive daily experiences (like people smiling at you or having a nice restaurant meal) (I am not making this up!).   The definition of the progressive nature of the tax system was simply the difference between highest and lowest rates controlled for family size and other factors.

The US ranks with Ireland with pretty happy people but a not very progressive tax system. (At least according to the "study").  But the author also finds that more government spending does not correlate to happiness and the lead author who is from the University of Virginia comments that result is "kind of weird."   This was published in a journal of the Association of Psychological Science.  I wonder what the definition of scientific rigor is to get into this journal.   I am sure chi-squares are involved but not much careful thought.

So let's start with the simple on this "study" - Are there cultural differences between and among the 54 nations surveyed in the definition of happiness?   Do those definitions change over time?  If I were really unkind and more politically correct, I might comment that  the definition of "happy" seems to be based on "Euro-centric" values - look at who is on top and who is on bottom.   But, of course, I am not politically correct.  

Even if we could construct a reliable indicator of happiness over all the countries in the study also look the definition of  the other variable,progressivity, is nonsense.    The major variable in the study is based on the difference between the highest and lowest rates but I wonder how things like tariffs or consumption taxes are included.    Many of the nations at the top use a VAT (value added tax) which may or may not have progressive elements in it.    As important the study does not seem to account for compliance/leakage in the system.   Many of the countries on the list have tremendous levels of non-compliance in their systems.   Finally there is the element of whether the study would change over time as nations (and a lot of the ones at the top have restructured their tax systems over the last decade) - would nations that reduced the level of differences between the highest and lowest rates (to improve efficiency of their tax system and reduce compliance costs) be less happy as a result?

Adam Smith, lacking the benefit of the Gallup Survey or the chase of modern academics (publish or perish), postulated that a good tax system has four elements - ability to pay; timeliness; certain not arbitrary; and efficient.   Without all this psychobabble that might make people a lot more happy.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Cats Come Back

Raley Field in 2010 (Photo by Drtaxsacto)
I know I have used this before but here it should be used again.   After a lousy home opening against Las Vegas and Tacoma the Cats went to Reno for a weekend series.     In their first four season games they scored 17 runs.   In their second series they added merely a run.   (So 35 for the first 8 games).   Reno has been a different story - for the first three games they scored 53 runs including their bust out game today (22-6).  Admittedly Reno is a poppy ballpark.   But today's run bonanza
fell only one run short of the club's record number of hits in a single game.   The Cats go on to Las Vegas and then come back to Raley Field on the 20th against Reno.    As I said in one of the first posts of the season - it takes a while for minor league teams to jell.  But the last three games had it all over the first eight.

A different kind of wedding

A couple waiting for the Ceremony (neither is our nephew)
On Friday we went to the wedding of our oldest nephew to a woman he first met in college.  He and his new wife were married at the New York City Hall in a civil ceremony.   I have never participated in one so did not know what to expect.

I had a couple of impressions.   City Hall in New York must have celebrated at least 100 ceremonies on Friday.  The city does civil ceremonies like it does the rest of life.  The range of participants represented the broad complexity of the city - so all types of backgrounds, genders and couples.   Some very traditional, some not.   Each however all were full of the anticipation that is evident in more traditional surroundings.

In the last forty years my perspective on New York has not changed.  From my perspective, while there are lots of amenities (things to do, a variety of good restaurants) navigating the place takes a lot of energy.   Like a lot of the East Coast, I am not a fan of the weather - a bit too cold in the winter and not entirely pleasant in the summer.   It is also bloody expensive.   So from my point of view it is not worth the effort.   But a lot of people are captivated by it.   Oddly, I like LA, which has many of the same qualities as New York but much better weather.

Here is the process for the civil ceremony.  A couple first gets a license and then picks a date.   One the day of the ceremony, the couple  registers with a clerk and then waits.  In our case after about an hour delay they are called with their wedding party into one of two small chapels.   Each ceremony takes about 5 minutes.   The clerk who conducted the ceremony was a bit theatrical but as our nephew commented that probably allows him some sanity.   You get use of the room for an extra five minutes to take pictures - while the other chapel is in use.  Then you are done.

The process is a bit bureaucratic but that does not diminish the sentiment among the participants.    We got there about 10:30 and left by 12:30 including the short ceremony.  They actually have an electronic tote board which keeps track of the couples and their progress (our nephew's number was C693).   Obviously, one of the tradeoffs you get with this process is a bit less personalization.   Some people came dressed up to the nines others were more casual.

After the ceremony we went to an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn for a lunch and then to a reception at a bar close to the couple's house (with an Indian buffet) and a dynamite Black Forest wedding cake.   It was a fun day.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A first (and probably last) comment on gun control

It is hard to make an intelligent comment on the gun control issue.   I am one of those people who is not bothered by some reasonable restrictions on possession of firearms of immense power.    But when you get to the brass tacks of exactly how that would work, it gets a bit more complicated.  Ultimately the goal should be to make sure that guns don't go to people who would use them wrongly - simple idea but almost impossible policy.

As I understand the compromise bill going through Congress it begins to require background checks (to figure out whether the potential purchaser is a felon or a loon) and extends those checks to gun shows and internet purchases.   But there are some holes in the notion.   According to a 2004 survey (re-published in a lot of  places) of people who were in prison for gun crimes - 39.5% of the responders said they got their guns from family or friends AND 37.5% said they got it from black market or street sources.   Thus, more than three quarters of the people in prisons got the equipment to commit their crimes from sources which would not be covered (and arguably the policy could not be extended to these sources) by the proposal.   The WP article on this claimed that the proposal would go "a long way" toward curbing gun violence.    One researcher found that the Colorado law which does checks in a way similar to the proposal before Congress, has not found any clear effect on crime or illegal transfers.

So what should we do?   Nothing does not seem like a good alternative.   The problem I have is that a lot of the somethings proposed (after you get rid of the emotional definitions like "assault" weapons - which have no basis in defining threatening weapons) would either be counterproductive or ineffective in reducing the possibility that there will be no more incidents like Sandy Hook.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fires and Memorials

We are still in New York and today we went to two different memorials.   The first is an odd bit of history.   One of my ancestors was a fire buff.  He trained as a physician but early in his career  became a medical officer the for City of New York.  He became the second deputy fire commissioner for the City of New York  and actually went to an estimated 200,000 fires over a 60 year career.  (That works out to about 9 a day but those numbers come from an article about him.)  When he died he left part of his estate to become a fire station on W. 83.    There is actually a medal named in his honor given every three years to a NY Fire Fighter.
Engine Company No 74 has a strange covenant for the gift of the land.  Should the City of New York ever propose to get rid of the fire station, the land would revert to his heirs.    We went to the station today.   I had never been there and it was interesting, even inspirational.  A distant part of my heritage.

The company lost one member to 9/11.  Ruben Correa is memorialized in the firehouse.  When we first got there we found the place empty - they were out on a call.  So we went around the corner for a quick lunch (Good Enough to Eat) - which actually exceeded its name  - great simple food.  When we got back we brought the fire house some pastries and thanked them for their service.  It was a quick visit but interesting for me to connect with a relative I never actually met.

We then went further downtown to the site of the 9/11 memorial.  I spent a good deal of my career working with some financial institutions and so when 9/11 happened I felt personally involved.  I actually had a good friend with Morgan Stanley who chose to leave Tower 2 after the first plane hit and thus saved his life.   I was not prepared for the memorial.   As the design was being discussed I heard all these arty farty types talking about the "negative space" and the "descending energy" - the descriptions made me almost froth at the mouth.  (Not an entirely uncommon experience).   But like the Vietnam memorial this one is an artistic achievement.  It is simple and dignified. The process to get into the site is a bit annoying - not surprisingly you need to go through a security check.   But once inside the exhibit you are struck with a similar feeling to the one I experienced in Pearl Harbor.   There are two pools, representing the two towers that drain from a top relief, to a second level and then down into a third.  For a large site it is remarkably peaceful.    When you enter the space (after the inevitable three stage security check common today in public displays) you are struck with three sensations.  

First, I am always annoyed by the transformation that 9/11 had on our psyche.    The security checks are not as intrusive as those offered by the TSA but they are none-the-less a lot more than what we experienced prior to 2001.  It is a contrast with what you might experience to get into other places designed to give one peace.  Second, even with that you are struck with the tranquility of the site.   It is a reverential memorial of the quality of Pearl Harbor but without the requirement that you get there by watercraft.   I think it offers something to all who attend a chance to reflect.   Third, reflecting at least some recovery,  around the site at the present time are a series of construction projects around where the Twin Towers once stood.   I was struck with both the tranquility of the artistic project and the vibrancy of a city that can remember but not forget what it is there for - the growth of human and financial capital.     In a few years, the site will again be a bustling part of a vibrant city that annoys and enhances life simultaneously.    But both of those qualities are representative of the city itself.  

I am not a big fan of New York but like the vibrancy and diversity in the city.   Yesterday we went to a market for Italian Foods (Eatily) which is wonderful and would not be possible in many other places.     We also went for dinner to the original Palm - which is one of the best steak houses in the country.  But today's two visits were at once inspiring and humbling.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Institutional Metaphor

My undergraduate major (and indeed the first program I pursued in graduate school) was International Relations.   As an undergraduate I participated in Model UN; representing the newly freed Botswana in one year and being the only representative of the Republic of South Africa in another.

In one set of projects in my first year in graduate school in the late 1960s I spent a fair amount of time at the UN.   This afternoon I was going to a dinner and drove by Turtle Bay (which is the site of the UN)   (PICTURE ON THE LEFT)

The UN looks absolutely seedy, which is as I imagine the institution to be.   The dome looks like it is in serious need of repairing a lot of deferred maintenance.  The front walls, which were once impressive, now look water damaged.

I suspect that supporters of the UN would say that the institution looks neglected because it has been by the great powers.   I think the disrepair evidenced in the building is an indication of a greater institutional rot based on the ascendency of the General Assembly - having bigoted nations preside on the Human Rights Committee is but one example of this rot.   At the same time the rapid growth in trade agreements between and among nations has encouraged more direct relationships that these great forums once tried to promote.

The UN let a contract to renovate the structures in 2007 for $1 billion.   In less than a year that cost had ballooned by 20%.  A year later the cost rose by another third and some estimates peg the full restoration at $3 billion.   The whole thing might be a great metaphor for the failure of big ideas.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher has died at 87.   She was a remarkable person.  How do you say anything about her that has not been said.   She was able to get into a "boys club" and lead it.   She lasted as PM for eleven years but then she got bounced.

But as with any person of her stature she was not without controversy.   As I noted in an earlier post an attempt at a movie of her life was horrible.  It glossed over her huge accomplishments and highlighted her health challenges of her last few years.   Donna Brazile (she the former Gore campaign manager) twitted (that is the kind of commentary that Brazile often provides on twitter) "Okay, what did the #ironlady do to advance Great Britain and the world? Did she leave lasting footprints for women in politics?"   The WSJ Political Diary told the story of a young girl that encountered Lady Thatcher a few years ago at a performance of the ballet.   Thatcher asked the young lady "What would you like to be when you grow up?"   To which the youngster replied "I'd like to be a Prime Minister, just like you." 

In my opinion, one of Thatcher's greatest contributions was her strident opposition to joining the EU in a common currency.    Thatcher understood that the currency regime that the Eurocrats wanted to establish was unworkable.   She refused to cede much to the EU and as a result Britain is stronger for it.  She took a lot of heat for her position but in the end her judgment proved correct.

Charles Krauthammer commented that she had the tendency to anger people from all sides of the British political spectrum - from the "communist labor bosses to the upperclass twits in her own party." Condoleezza Rice commented in a recent speech I attended that "headlines and history are rarely the same."   I suspect that Lady Thatcher will go down as a very important figure in British and world history.

She was adept at quips 5 of my favorites are - with some annotations - 
1) Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.   
(That fits for nations too)
2) I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job.
(The essential role of a good politician is to listen when debating)3) It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.
(A great reading of the Smith and classical economists)
4) The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people's money."        (A truth which many politicians have never discovered)
5) "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." (It does not take a village.)

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The two Michaels (Live Blogged) and one more...

The Cats started slow in their first three games. They were in danger of being swept in their first series since August 2011.

But the fourth game renewed hopes.  We took a lead by single runs in the third and the sixth but Las Vegas caught it up in the seventh. In the bottom of the seventh we loaded the bases with one out - Michael Choice came up with a LND grand slam ( leave no doubt). Michael Taylor then immediately followed up with a solo homer. One more out then Stephen Vogt added another homer. So 8-2.

The Cats ended up winning 8-4 - besides the hitting there was an impressive performance for 6 innings by Sonny Gray and a great close by Dan Otero.

Early in the season we have four homers (2 from Taylor) and five pitchers with ERAs over 10.   But then we also have three pitchers with 13 total innings of no hit pitching.  

Friday, April 05, 2013

A (we would hope) rare treat LIVE BLOGGED AT THE GAME

Sometimes you have a bad night. If you don't believe it just ask Luke Montz. Montz is normally one of three catchers but with Barton being reassigned back to the Cats - he has gotten the joy of playing the hot corner at first.

In the third inning he got two lousy throws from Parrino (the shortstop) but failed to do what great first basemen are able to do.  Later in the game the Cats added a third error, as if that were not enough.   Montz did not look good at first; but then his play mirrored the rest of the team.   The first two outings have been lackluster.

Chavez lasted 5 innings with 5 hits - but those errors cost us.

Early in the season requires patience - for fans and temporarily reassigned catchers.

Opening Night

On Monday we went to a scrimmage between the Stockton Ports and the Rivercats.   It was a pretty entertaining set of innings although the crowd was tiny (perhaps 1000 fans).   The Cats showed off a couple of new pitchers who looked pretty good.

Last night was the season opener.   About the only entertainment for the evening was hearing the stories about the Las Vegas 51s manager, who has a couple of videos up on You Tube with his potty mouth.

The Cats lost 10-5 to the Las Vegas 51s.   For most of the game they just did not seem together until Grant Green hit a 3 run homer in the bottom of the ninth.   In the end the Cats ended up with a respectable 9 hits (the 51s had 11).   Andrew Werner, who is a new Cats pitcher, starts the season with an unimpressive 4 innings and an ERA of 16.62.

Minor league ball is interesting because it often takes a while to get the team to jell.  The opening homestand includes three more games with the 51s and then four with Tacoma.

Monday, April 01, 2013

The Curious World of Newspapers

I have been a WSJ subscriber for several decades. Last year when I re- subscribed I asked whether they offered an educators rate for the E-edition. They don't.

I think the EJournal is the best of breed - it is timely and really uses the new medium of technology very well. But their subscription department is not as good. I wrote when I renewed about that.

Lets get some facts on the table. My subscription is inexpensive. But I found from a friend at Journal that it costs them 35 cents to bring my paper to the house each day. I am willing to have them forgo that cost.

But if you want E only delivery you have 3 options. #1 - the e only option is $21 per month. A lot more than my rate. #2 - I can suspend delivery, but only for 60 days at time. #3 - I can choose to send my subscription to another address. I immediately called my son in law who said ( he is after all a smart guy) "I don't want any more paper in my house, I haven't bought a book or paper in a couple of years...."

So I will end up moving my delivery address to my old office. That seems odd and silly. But as this post says it is a curious world for newspapers.

What is the Job of a Biography reviewer?

When the new biography of Calvin Coolidge by Amity Shlaes came out I did a post  criticizing the two most prominent reviews of what I thought was an excellent book.  The NYT and the New Yorker's reviewers put out reviews which showed very little evidence that either had read the book.   They both seem to have written the review with conclusions already written.    Commentary Magazine includes a review of the book in the April issue by historian John Steele Gordon.  Unlike the two mentioned in my March 14 post - Gordon took his responsibility seriously.   He dealt with the substance of the book.   Coolidge was indeed a person of his time but his career offers some insights that current politicians could learn from.   Had I read the Gordon review before reading the book, I would have been encouraged to learn more about Mr. Coolidge.   Isn't that the job of a reviewer?  Yes, it is.