Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The State of the Union

I realize that many of my partisan friends will find this to be a partisan comment - but it is not meant that way.   I listened to the President tonight and to the response given by the GOP and found both statements at best banal.   The list of priorities that the President outlined and that came in the GOP response seemed like what one good friend describes as "legislative kabuki" - not much of the list is likely to be adopted.   And more importantly a lot of the rhetorical points seem more bound in beginning to score points for November 2014 than to improve the chances that we would actually move forward on some key agenda items.

This tradition has a checkered history.   It began because of a constitutional requirement - Article II section 3 requires the President to periodically report to Congress on the state of the union - but beginning with Jefferson - many of our greatest presidents chose to offer only written comments.  Wilson brought the speech process back and almost every president since then has seen it as a chance to make a big speech.   But as John Walker argued it has become a "tedious relic."   John Walker was not the first to make this call - during Bush II several commentators made the same suggestion.

I think what bothers me most is that it has become an opportunity for Washington to demonstrate its arrogance that what happens there actually is critical to the rest of us.  In reality there seems to be a pattern which is too utterly predictable - the President (who ever is in office) claims responsibility for everything that is good (even though the claim is absurd) and then tries to blame everything that is bad against his opponents; he then lays out a laundry list of proposals and makes some rhetorical points that can be picked up later; he then makes one or more attempts to show how connected he is by introducing props who support his underlying points (I think Reagan began this practice) and then he "blesses America" and signs off.

Soon after the opposition gets the chance to make a statement - which is often not actually responsive to what the President has said.   In good years the SOTU gets forgotten quickly.  The President may or may not be successful in advancing an agenda and in rallying the troops in even numbered years.  But the whole things seems horribly self congratulatory.  The President, and for that matter most members of Congress, remain in a bubble.   They have little understanding or appreciation of what it actually takes to make the economy grow.

One issue of theory here is important and it comes from the architecture of the Congress versus the House of Commons.   In Commons the opposing groups are actually arrayed so as to confront each other at least visually on a daily basis.   Our Congress has none of that - and so much of what passes for discussion and debate is stylized drivel.   The point I am making is that I think the SOTU and its response is more of the same.   We all realize that neither statement is likely to be helpful in improving the public understanding of possibilities for changes in policy and that (perhaps more importantly) even with the bones thrown out in tonight's speech - that the partisan divide will be diminished in the least.

What interests me is what might happen if a president in the future were to have a bit more humility and started from the premise that his job was to get things done rather than score points.  He might draft a statement which proposed some ideas for policies and then actually engage with some real people about those ideas.   Most of the political operatives would think that would be immensely risky - but I think the American people who have to vote for these people might actually find it refreshing.   Both sides then might spend some time doing two things - first, they might actually try to engage the American people not in sound bites but in a substantive discussion about policy alternatives and (as importantly) they might actually begin to work on figuring out what they had in common.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger died yesterday at 94.   The New York Times did a great article summarizing his very long career.  But I wanted to add this footnote.  I've played bluegrass/old time music on the 5 string banjo since the early 1960s.   Like many of my generation a good part of the reason I started to play was based on several people/groups - the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte and most especially Pete Seeger.

Seeger had an instruction book called "How to play a 5 string banjo" which in the original version was quite good.  It had a folkways record that went along with it which had a number of tunes, including "Ode to Joy" that were fun to learn. A few years ago I found a copy of a later version of the book which became a lot more political.   That is too bad because the original was a good way to learn how to play the banjo.   One of the strengths of the manual was its lack of purity.   He taught you a number of styles and the whole point was to learn how to play the instrument not in a particular style.   One of his odd riffs in the book and the record was to suggest that music should come from many sources and should be traded pretty freely.  A lot of his instructional style came from many venues including classical.

Pete Seeger, unlike the other two artists, was never a raging commercial success - although he had more than 100 albums and with the Weavers and the Almanac Singers sold a lot of records.   One of Pete's favorite banjos was a long neck Vega - one of my first banjos was a Vega (although I never liked playing a long neck - which has some extra frets to allow different keys without retuning.   Now one of my favorite instruments  is a Deering Parlor Banjo which has fewer frets.).

Pete Seeger introduced me to a lot of music including a lot of the labor organizing songs which in turn led me to learning a lot about Appalachian music and ultimately to old time string band music.  When my kids were little a lot of their lullabies were coal mining songs - which were often overtly political.   I became more of a frailer than a three finger picker (Scruggs style) as a result of the Appalachian influences.  But  Pete became a jumping off point rather than a constant place to refresh.

My family was pretty musical - my mother had a Master's in Music.  Both parents loved Opera.  I took piano lessons for a short time when I was young.   But I think both my parents thought my attraction to folk music was a bit strange.   I had two aunts in North Carolina who encouraged my interest and even sent me some albums from local groups.

By the time I began to play somewhat professionally (I played in a couple of bands and actually received some fees for it) I had migrated to the work of his brother Mike and the New Lost City Ramblers.   Although a lot of their music certainly included lots of political topics it was less overtly political than Pete's.  Mike died in 2009.   I then went off to a number of other old time musicians including somewhat obscure people like Charlie Poole.

In the 1960s in LA there were two places to hear a lot of folk music - the Ashgrove on Melrose and the UCLA folk festival (ultimately there was also McCabes which had a music shop in Long Beach).  In the 1963 UCLA event I actually played with the Rev. Gary Davis and was photographed for the Saturday Evening Post.   We were jamming between the regularly scheduled concerts and he walked up with his handler (he was blind) and asked if he could play with us.  That was a thrill.  I spent a lot of time at McCabes and the Ashgrove - although I am pretty sure I never heard Pete play at either venue.   McCabes had an odd assortment of musicians including an old Wobblie organizer who taught me a lot of the songs from the IWW song book.

Pete became an icon of the left, including the far left.   As I grew up I became disenchanted with his constant harangues for left of center causes. I also realized that like a lot of the left of the 1940s he never acknowledged that his support for Stalinist causes created a lot of harm in the world.  A lot of the things he espoused for I partially agreed with for example- I thought the Vietnam war was wrong - not because all wars are wrong but because that particular exercise in policy was confused.    I understand that music can often be political but I thought many other musicians were able to separate their politics from their music.

So in the end Pete Seeger was an important influence on me in two ways.  First, he introduced me to some music that has become a deep part of me.   But second, I parted from his politics - a lot of what he talked about between songs - turned me off.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Redundant Nanny Statism at its worst?

The penetration of Smartphones and Tablets into our everyday lives has been very quick.   Yesterday the Federal Trade Commission announced a "settlement" with Apple regarding unauthorized purchases from their APP store that were supposedly done by children.  That will cost the rest of us about $32 million.
Cartoon from the Onion

“This settlement is a victory for consumers harmed by Apple’s unfair billing and a signal to the business community,” said FTC Chairwoman( and chief nanny in charge) Edith Ramirez. “You cannot charge consumers for charges they did not authorize.”   The FTC pounced after a class action suit was settled a couple of months ago.  I disagreed with the settlement at the time.

So what happened here.   A bunch of kids got ahold of their parent's iPhones or iPads and
ordered a bunch of stuff, including in APP purchases that amounted to a lot of dough.

So what is wrong with this?  From my perspective a lot.   When you buy a mobile device one of the reasons you do it is to be connected.  Take some comparable examples.   If a child in a household found a friend in a far away place and began making phone calls to the friend - who should be responsible for the purchases?  The parents.  Parents or other adults should teach the kids to exercise self restraint.

The same principle should apply here - even though Apple already forces consumers to enter a password to purchase APPs or other stuff.   If parents are worried that their little darlings will be buying "smurf points" then they can take a couple of parental actions.  They can password protect their device and keep the password away from the kid.   When they give the kid the device they can turn off cellular and wifi.   They could keep an eye on their bills.  Or even more amazing they could tell their children to take some personal responsibility and understand that actions are not without consequences.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Is everybody as tired of Sebastian Thrun as I am?

For those of you who have not heard of Thrun, he is a Stanford professor who helped to develop the idea of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  By any measure I should be attracted to Thrun's thinking - his interests in technology issues is well developed in a number of areas including driverless cars. By his own description he loves to work on big problems.  Fast Company gushed about him and his course in Artificial Intelligence that he taught with a colleague from Google -

Some 160,000 people sign up: young men dodging mortar attacks in Afghanistan, single mothers struggling to support their children in the United States, students in more than 190 countries. The youngest kid in the class is 10; the oldest is 70. Most struggle with the material, but a good number thrive. When the Professor ranks the scores from the final exam, he sees something shocking: None of the top 400 students goes to Stanford. They all took the class on the Internet. The experiment starts to look like something more.

I do not know how many times I have heard the 160,000 number bandied about.  But the number is meaningless unless you know the results of those signups (for a free course) - Udacity's normal completion rate is 3% (according to an All Things Digital interview with Thrun last July).    They did a minor experiment at San Jose State where the pass rate for three courses was between 20% and 44%.

Thrun claimed to be a leading edge educator based on his AI course - "It was this catalytic moment," Thrun says. "I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined."   Yeah, right, even if you believe the numbers that he released about the course - where only one in eight students completed the course - that looks like a profound overstatement. 

At the end of 2013 Forbes did a long form interview where Thrun's ego showed through.  What bothers me most is how well he seems to get covered on a set of issues where he has very little actual experience or expertise.   Ultimately, there is a lot of opportunity for higher education to revise how it does stuff - including working on alternative ways to finance its operations and how to deliver content - what is a student or a course or even a degree are good questions.   But for even an idea guy like Thrun who has lived off the subsidies of Stanford to offer his AI course, it seems odd that so many outside of higher education have given this experiment so much credibility and seemingly ignored other more substantive thinkers on what needs to be done to change higher education.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A slight redefinition for Economics

When I walk our dog Indy, I often listen to books on tape or podcasts.  Econtalk is a favorite of mine - last year the host interviewed Ronald Coase.   Coase is one of those seminal figures in Economics and the interview was wonderful.   The current book I am listening to is Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell.

Sowell begins the book with a common flaw.   He argues that Economics is the study of scarcity.  That is not an uncommon opinion.  Check out 100 textbooks and I will bet you will find all of them starting in the same manner.

But here is where I think the starting point is wrong.   Many commodities in society are approaching the status of limitlessness.   And yet even if we were to achieve that for all the necessities of life we would still need to think about economics.   Stefan Linder, a Swedish economist, in a book that is sadly out of print, argued that as commodities become more ubiquitous we still have to make choices - time becomes the issue to solve not products.

So for me, rather than beginning with the idea of scarcity and going through a series of supply and demand curves we should begin the discussion of the subject about choices.  This offers a lot of improvements in results.   First, we begin to understand that life is about making the right choices among alternatives, many of which are easy to obtain.   Second, as we think about those choices we might be less inclined to substitute feelings for judgment.   Many of our political choices are based on feelings - "everyone should get healthcare" (without any explicit understanding about what healthcare is or what it will cost) or we have a "right" to this or that.    A third benefit, and perhaps the most important, is that one does not naturally devolve many decisions to a governmental solution.   Many in society ask us to believe that by producing something on the government side of the ledger that we inherently defeat the problem of scarcity.   But as the deficits in public pensions and entitlement programs suggest - that is pure nonsense.

As James Buchanan pointed out many years ago - if you begin with the benefits of trade (people establish relationships for mutual benefit) rather than the concept of scarcity - you ultimately have a sounder basis to discuss economics.  The same could be said for starting with the idea of choices and their consequences.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Joe Biden Public Policy Wonk

Sometimes you do not need to say much - for example -

#1 - Nearly 32 million riders prove what I’ve known my whole career – passenger rail is one of the best bargains available to the American people. We need to continue investing in our nation’s infrastructure, including passenger rail service, to keep our economy moving.  - Joe Biden is Vice President of the United States of America.

#2 -  A graph produced by the Vice President to prove his point.  (Ridership is UP)

#3 - A graph from the Chair of Amtrak's Board to the Congress for more subsidy.

#4 - 




So Biden argues that something which requires an almost $44 per ride subsidy is one of the "best bargains to the American people" - if that is true I would hate to see some of the lesser bargains.

Justice revealed

On our way back from San Miguel we got to the Leon airport early and as these things happen we faced a flight delay; the plane that was supposed to take us back to Houston had mechanical troubles and had to turn back.   United began calling me (because I was in their highest category of fliers for the last 20 years - called 1K) with updates.    And after about 3 hours they offered us a spot on a flight that had originally been scheduled for three hours after our original flight - which had been rescheduled to a half an hour later than that flight.

When I originally went through the original check-in I saw a young man who seemed attached to his computer - it was open even while he was standing in line.  Eventually United got a plane there - indeed two and the gate agent came into the waiting area and announced that two flights would be leaving in sequence - our original flight would leave within a half an hour of the scheduled flight which was leaving on time.   The young man started to rant at the gate agent - yelling all sorts of things including that he had "taken away a day of my life that I will never get back."   He petulantly declared that he "had to get back to Chicago."  (As if the rest of us did not want to get back home.)

In the wait time we had met a couple of interesting people - a retired pipe fitter whose son and daughter in law were living in Guanajuato and an investment banker whose family had been visiting San Miguel.   All but the jerk understood that it was probably better to fly on a plane without mechanical problems.   We got on to the (now) earlier flight and were seated when we found that the jerk had been given the last seat on the plane.

When we landed in Houston, the jerk got off the plane and my wife said, "I hope you are feeling better."  He ignored her.   We went to the Global Entry line and took the usual 90 seconds to get through customs.   For all of his "sophistication" he went to the regular customs line which had more than 700 people waiting (several flights in addition to ours had disembarked at the same time).

If this guy had any brains he would understand that in air travel things happen.   While airlines try to treat their heavy frequent fliers a bit better - they cannot cater to them exclusively.  But he probably went home thinking he was a tough SOB and only his strong negotiating skills had enabled him to get into Houston a half an hour earlier.

A long time coming

I spent a lot of time in Mexico in December - the first couple of days in Xalapa and Veracruz and then the last two weeks in San Miguel.   We had never been in Mexico for Christmas and it was fun.

As I said in the last post, I took a break from commenting on public policy issues because most of what I felt strongly about was the disaster they call Obamacare and I think all of my readers have a pretty good idea of what I think about that program.  The arrogance of the legislators who foisted this mess on the American people is monumental, matched only by their incompetence.

Like our month in San Miguel in November 2011 this time of year is pretty special.   The night before Christmas Eve a posada passed directly by our house.  The posada tradition runs for many of the nights before Christmas and in some places through 12th night.   The intent here is to symbolically search for the Christ child.
The Posada out our door in Centro
 The city began to fill up about a week before Christmas and stayed so for the full time we were there.

The Jardin (a Centro or Zocalo in other towns) is the meeting place in the city and it was full of vendors and people for all of the time we were there.    For a couple of nights there were street performers including a superb group of break dancers and a couple of clowns.  The one pictured above is very funny.  His act includes a couple of costume changes and a lot of audience participation.

We had three days of pretty intense rain for the last days we were there.   That confined us mostly to our house although we discovered a good steak restaurant in the town - which came from the mind of a serial restauranteur in San Miguel.   He only serves Certified Black Angus and ages his own meat. The place is called Hansen's.   We also had a chance to read a lot and to practice Spanish (I am using

Duolingo to sharpen my skills in Spanish (Estoy utilizando Duolingo para afilar mis habilidades españolas). The APP offers an interesting set of challenges.

Special items in Costco
The first week we were there we had my sister visit the place we rented.   We had the opportunity to take her to Querétaro.   I had not been there in about a decade - it is now a big city. (more than 2 million) but still has a charming downtown.   My wife had not been there either.    We also went to Costco - which for people from San Miguel is either in Celaya or Querétaro.

Costco is Costco - we also frequented Starbucks which is on the corner of the Jardin in San Miguel.    I am sure some of my readers will natter about both those visits.   But Mexicans like both outlets.   Costco has a couple of Mexican competitors including Chedarauri and there are obviously alternatives to Starbucks in every Mexican town.   But as a friend said to us a couple of years ago - she thought Starbucks was wonderful because she knew that both of her daughters had a place to hang out when they were teenagers which was safe and without alcohol.  It has become a place to meet people and relax - lots of internet use - just like in the US.

One day we also took my sister to Guanajuato.  I like the town although it is a bit big.   It has lots of history (The Aldondiga, the Quixote Museum and the Diego Museum - go back to the posts of November 2011 to hear about those - except the Diego Museum which I did not see in 2011).   All of them are worth the visit.   The Quixote Museum is a collection of Quixote paintings, books and other memorabilia.   It was started by a Spanish Expat who had been put in one of General Franco's concentration camps - he came in with a carton of cigarettes and traded it for a copy of Cervantes.   He then was let go and moved to Mexico and became a successful entrepreneur.   He said that he had been saved by the novel and so pursued all sorts of images of Quixote.    This is the second time we have been there and I would go again.  It has seventeen rooms which include a rotating collection of Quixote in all sorts of media as well as some painting from a range of artists.

The San Miguel Siquerios Mural
One of the highlights of this trip was the chance to see the Siquerios mural in San Miguel.   It is one he did not finish.  And several of the last times we had tried to go to the museum where it was designed and it was closed.    Thankfully on this trip it was restored.   I have a friend who had seen it before and she was not overly impressed. She is an artist but she must know something I do not.  Although the mural was not finished it has the power of some of his other works and more importantly you can see what he was trying to achieve.   Siquerios was an interesting person in that even more than Rivera he was a committed Stalinist.  He actually participated in the planning (and I believe execution) of the first attempt to murder Leon Trotsky.   The mural in San Miguel has some of the same elements as his big one in Guadalajara.   His use of color was amazing and this gives you an idea before he added the inevitable ideological wrap.

A preliminary form of a Diego in the museum
We had not been to the museum which was Diego Rivera's house as a child.   Rivera, whose full name was, Diego Maria de la Concepcion Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez, born in the house.   It has some of the furniture which was in the place when he was there as well as some of the sketches he used in constructing some of his murals.    Perhaps most haunting was a series of new artists who used light extremely well in a photo exhibit at the back of the museum.   I got some pictures but have not yet downloaded them from my camera.

In the second week we switched guests and my brother and his wife came.   It was a lucky break - we had been looking for a house in San Miguel and my brother's wife is a realtor.   Unfortunately, it rained relatively steadily for most of three days that they were here.   We got to take them around the city, my brother and I would walk a couple of times a day, and to Atotonilco which is a pretty church with a lot of political significance about 10 miles out of San Miguel.  I've now been there a half dozen times and am inspired by it each time I go.

We ended up buying a house in the Balcones section of town - which as it sounds is above the city.   We look forward to spending time there after it closes.