The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Fafblog! The Funniest Damn Blog in America

Fafblog! has the scoop on the Bush Energy plan and the Democratic counter proposal.:

"Under the Bush Plan:

We will research alternatives to oil such as coal, nuclear power, a real big fat guy runnin in a hamster wheel to get to a piece a cake, and more oil.

Congress will triple the research dollars currently being devoted to discover a way to split the corn atom.

New drivers will be encouraged to sign pledges to abstain from drivin big gas-guzzlin cars and commit to drivin clean new experimental cars powered by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Drivers of big gas-guzzlin cars will be classified slutty and hellbound by the Department of Energy but will still receive lucrative tax breaks.

Six hundred endearingly British gentlemen in pith helmets will be dispatched around the globe to explore for oil. Where will they find it? In the jungles of Africa? On the moon? Inside a buncha endangered animals? Who knows, it is all part of the adventure of exploring!

Also Presented: The Democratic Counterplan

1. 'Reduce'.
2. Crack open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and party like it's the low, low gas prices of 1999!
3. Burn out on week-long oil bender, wake up in own feces, abort drunkenly-conceived oil baby
4. Shame.
5. Rehab
6. 'Reuse'.
7. Recycle!
8. Oil can't be recycled. Please go back and start again.

1. Sit up, Harrington! And spit out that gum! Your uniform is a mess incidentally and I am writing of it to your mother.
2. Gafford that is utterly disgraceful. Report to the headmaster's at once."

Makes you proud to be an American. Fafblog also has an interesting commentary by the newly elected Pope (I think)

Friday, April 29, 2005

Freedom of Speech is for the Weak

In what has to be one of the more curious examples of judicial reasoning, a judge today refused to issue an injunction to the city of Longmont to stop them from investigating an employee, Glenn Spagnuolo for using a city cell phone to call an on-air radio talk show. Spagnuolo claims the investigation launched against him is retaliation for the fact that he phoned a conservative talk show to defend CU professor and l'enfant terrible (with l'enfant being the operative word) Ward Churchill. Spagnuolo has not endeared himself to city officials because he often attends left wing rallies and demonstrations including a speech by Churchill and proclaimed on the air that he had no sympathy for police officers who are shot in the line of duty.

Spagnuolo argued that the investigation would have a chilling affect on his free speech rights, to say nothing of the rights of other employees who might feel that they too would be investigated merely for the positions they took in public. However reprehensible Spagnuolo's views, the Supreme Court has ruled that a locality could not fire an employee merely for his or her public utterances. A woman who worked in a Texas sheriffs office had filed suit to reclaim her job after she was fired for praising the Hinckley assassination attempt on President Reagan. Although Spagnuolo used his city provided cell phone, he was allowed to use it for personal calls as long as he reimbursed the city and he phoned the radio show when he was not working. The city manager claims that Spagnuolo's comments have hurt the city's relationship with the police department but the chief of police has assured her that they have not. So what's left as grounds for the investigation? That Spagnuolo may have attended a Churchill speech on city time. Meanwhile the city claims none of this is relates to Spagnuolo's beliefs. So Spagnuolo asked a judge to halt the investigation. But the judge said no, Spagnuolo didn't need protection because he was a strong willed individual.

"Spagnuolo's steely demeanor regarding an investigation of him by his employer, the city of Longmont, was cited Friday as a final factor in a federal district judge's decision to allow the investigation to continue. While elements of the investigation are "arguably unreasonable," Figa said, Spagnuolo was not challenging its scope. Testimony in the hearing included details of Longmont's questioning of Spagnuolo's co-workers about his use of vacation time to travel to national protests. Also, the judge noted, the city has not yet taken any disciplinary actions against the plaintiff.

"It's sad," Spagnuolo said of his reaction to the decision. "I was hoping my government would protect me. Instead, my government told me I have the courage to protect myself.

"Finally, plaintiff is not intimidated by the city and therefore his free speech is not chilled," said U.S. District Judge Phillip Figa. "It is unclear whether the average person - or someone perhaps not as brave - would be so uninhibited."

So let's see if we can straighten this out. If Spagnuolo were a more timid person than the judge might have considered issuing an injunction to stop the investigation. But because Spagnuolo is not, there is no need for the Court to protect his speech rights against governmental monitoring and investigation. That's intersting since I don't recall there being language in the first amendment about it applying only in cases where individuals seemed particularly timid and vulnerable to state influence. Is this what we mean by judges who make up the rules as they go along without resorting to the Constitution? Somehow I doubt Tom Delay will be at the forefront of Spagnuolo's case railing that Judge Figa will one day have to answer for his actions.

The Mamonites and the Pork Barrel

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "a group representing atheists and agnostics has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education over federal funds that were earmarked for Alaska Christian College. The Freedom From Religion Foundation says the Congressionally directed, noncompetitive grants violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The college, which is unaccredited and does not offer degrees, is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska.

'This is tantamount to religious pork,' Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based foundation, said on Wednesday. 'It's the kind of thing you would expect in a theocracy.'

Since 2003, Alaska Christian College, a five-year-old institution with 37 students, has received more than $1-million in federal earmarks. That includes $835,000 in Education Department money for student scholarships, student recruitment, and faculty salaries, and $350,000 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for a residential substance-abuse program for teenagers.

Alaska's three members of Congress -- Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, all Republicans -- were responsible for the earmarks. "

Never mind religion. What in the world is an unaccredited college of 37 students doing with over $1 million in taxpayer money? Isn't this called theft? Or bribery? With the bribe going from Washington to Alaska?

While earmarks are controversial in higher education, one would like to think that at least in the most egregious cases there is still some level of competency and minimum standards on the receiving end. The Department of Education recently announced it was ending the FIPSE program - the Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education - a grant programs for institutions pursuing novel advances in teaching -- because so much of the money for the program was already earmarked in appropriations bills. Instead of the Department of Education choosing the novel education ideas, Hill staffers have taken over the job. And the most important feature in a proposal is the Congressional District of the proposer. A recent review of earmarks in health research indicates that the third largest recipient of Federal largesse in this area was that bastion of advanced scientific research -- Mississippi.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Yeah. All Democrats Really Want is the Chance to Talk for a Long Time

Republican Leader Offers Compromise on Judges - Yahoo! News:

Not to be outdone by the Democrats attempt at a compromise over the judicial appointment impasse, Senator Frist today suggested what he called a compromise.

"Frist, the Senate majority leader, said he would 'guarantee' up to 100 hours to debate any nominee to the appeals courts or U.S. Supreme Court. But Frist also said he would require that they all get a confirmation vote, meaning filibusters against these candidates would be banned.
'It may not be a perfect proposal for either side, but it's the right proposal for America,' said Frist as he stood in the Senate."

Well that should just about settle it. Because Democrats aren't trying to block anyone. They just want a chance to talk for a REALLY long time and those nasty Republicans want them to keep it brief.

My question is, "do Frist and his staff think that the people are really that dumb that they think this is about the length of discussion rather than who actually gets appointed to the bench?" With polls indicating people are opposed to a change in Senate rules, the only explanation for why this would be presented as a compromise is that some think this might confuse the issue enough to cut Republicans some political slack. Arlen Specter, Mike DeWine, Susan Collins can all go home and say, "Well gee, we offered to let the Democrats talk for 100 hours but they said no, they wanted to talk forever."

Although Americans' level of civic education is low, thankfully, enough people have seen Mr Smith goes to Washington and are aware of the filibuster that they understand it is a tactic used to stop legislation rather than to merely discuss it for a REALLY long time. How this represents a compromise is anyone's guess. But I guess that's Frist's story and he's stickin' to it.

Are Teaching and Research Complements?

One debate you often hear among academics and non academics concerns whether too much time is spent in research and whether this detracts from teaching. In an important article about the emergence of major research universities, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz argue that paucity of major research universities founded after the 19th Century is indicative of the strong relationship between teaching and research.

Now, two business school faculty have taken up the question, albeit in an indirect way -- challenging whether business schools are too research focused and as a result are failing to give students the right skills they need in business. The Chronicle of Higher Education describes their argument:, published today in the Harvard Business Review.

"Business schools are 'institutionalizing their own irrelevance' by focusing on scientific research rather than real-life business practices, according to a blistering critique of M.B.A. programs that will be published today in the May issue of the Harvard Business Review. The article, 'How Business Schools Lost Their Way,' was written by Warren G. Bennis and James O'Toole, both prominent professors at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. Mr. Bennis is also the founding chairman of the university's Leadership Institute, and Mr. O'Toole is a research professor at Southern Cal's Center for Effective Organizations.

"Mr. Bennis and Mr. O'Toole conclude that business schools are too focused on theory and quantitative approaches, and that, as a result, they are graduating students who lack useful business skills and sound ethical judgment. The authors call on business schools to become more like medical and law schools, which treat their disciplines as professions rather than academic departments, and to expect faculty members to be practicing members of their professions.

"'We cannot imagine a professor of surgery who has never seen a patient or a piano teacher who doesn't play the instrument, and yet today's business schools are packed with intelligent, highly skilled faculty with little or no managerial experience,' the two professors write. 'As a result, they can't identify the most important problems facing executives and don't know how to analyze the indirect and long-term implications of complex business decisions.'
While business deans pay lip service to making their courses more relevant, particularly when they are trying to raise money, their institutions continue to promote and award tenure to faculty members with narrow, scientific specialties, the authors contend.

""By allowing the scientific-research model to drive out all others, business schools are institutionalizing their own irrelevance," the authors write."

"....Mr. Bennis and Mr. O'Toole....say that business schools, which in the early 20th century had the reputation of being little more than glorified trade schools, have swung too far in the other direction by focusing too heavily on research. The shift began in 1959, they say, when the Ford and Carnegie Foundations issued scathing reports about the state of business-school research.

While the Southern Cal professors say they do not favor a return to the trade-school days, they think business schools, and business professors, have grown too comfortable with an approach that serves their own needs but hurts students.

"This model gives scientific respectability to the research they enjoy doing and eliminates the vocational stigma that business-school professors once bore," the article concludes. "In short, the model advances the careers and satisfies the egos of the professoriate."

I think much the same can be said about schools of Public Policy and Public Affairs. The dominance of the disciplines and the institutionalization of this dominance by the teaching, hiring and promotion process in academia reduce the likelihood that schools will favor experience over research technique, insight over publishability. There is nothing wrong with discipline based research. My hunch (informed by some experience) is that it forms a poor basis with which to inform teaching and most students are uninterested nor able to follow the interesting theoretical and empirical challenges that occupy academics. So perhaps the best of both can be preserved in professional schools by making sure faculty can do both high level research and practice their trade at a high level. I suppose you see more of this in the public policy/affairs realm than in business. But professors in either who have never plied the trade? They certainly are not disqualified from being good and useful teachers. However, the probability that the group will perform at a lower level on the dimension of professional utility is probably elevated.

It Flies! It Flies!!!!!

Airbus successfully conducted a test flight of its new Megaliner the A 380. So we know it gets off the ground. The bigger question proves to be, will it be a boon or bust for Airbus? Lately, things have certainly been going Airbus's way in the airplane wars. Boeing has been reeling as they watch sales plummet and Airbus surge ahead in global market share of new planes sold. The contest is interesting on so many levels. Here is a market dominated by just two players. One is privately held, the other is a government subsidiary. Americans claim that Airbus represents a violation of fair trade while Europeans point to the heavy support Boeing receives from US defense spending. And each has crafted very different visions of the future.

"The European Airbus consortium is counting on the A380 to help it keep its edge over Boeing, while the U.S. company says it believes the future lies in smaller long-range airliners....The A380, as long as eight London buses and with enough room on its wings to park 70 cars, heralds a new era in passenger travel, just as the supersonic Concorde jet set new standards by breaking the sound barrier in 1969.But Airbus faces a tough battle with Boeing and is still short of selling 250 of the A380s, which it says is the break-even point. Some experts say it will have to sell almost three times as many to make a profit."

Boeing thinks the future lies in mid range airplanes that will shuttle people directly between their destinations (hmmm, how easy is it to get direct flights rather than passing through hubs these days?) Airbus is betting that companies will want to run fewer long range flights and pack people in one plane. But they will have to sell 750 of those planes to start making money. That's a lot of Mega-liners and the project is already 1.45 billion in cost over-runs. Nevertheless, Airbus has out sold Boeing every year since 2001. What's interesting about this story to me is that while some argue government run organizations allow politics to cloud good business judgement, others argue that privately held companies with bad governance are likely to underperform when in the grip of bad management. In this case, both sides appear to be right and both organizational models appear to be failing investors and taxpayers. Another interesting question concerns how these planes will be configured by airlines.

"The double-decker A380, designed to carry 555 passengers but with room for more than 800, touched down smoothly almost four hours after soaring into sunny skies on its maiden flight above Airbus headquarters near Toulouse in southern France."

How many seats do you think American airlines will pack into those babies? My hunch is slightly more than 800.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

E-Mail vs. Intellect

The Chronicle of Higher Education's Weblog - Wired Campus Blog (and our own Rocky Mountain News - notes a recent English study about the effects of E-Mail on IQ. One of their findings?

The average computer user's IQ drops an average of 10 points during testing when he or she is interrupted regularly by incoming e-mail messages, the study found. It also concluded that women are better at such multitasking than men are. (Bloomberg News)

I can vouch for that. Although I am not sure that is my IQ that is falling or my concentration levels. Summers critics please note: the study found women are better at multi-tasking than men.

Fans of Rob Becker already knew this. Find out about Defending the Caveman and this incredibly valuable show. It literally can save your marriage. Becker argues that men evolved to hunt -- hence they have great focus. Ever try to interrupt a man while he is channel surfing? He's hunting according to Becker. Woman evolved to gatherer. Hence, their ability to do twenty things at once. And their inability to comprehend how a man watching TV can't hear them when they ask a question.

Dan Carol has Some ideas about "What We Are For"

Dan Carol, always talking good sense, does it again with a posting about Democrats, Bush and energy policy.

So Bush is pushing a new framework in recent speeches and in his radio address which is simply: "I am a problem-solver and I am trying to tackle the pressing challenges."
He is road-testing this around energy right now and then will take it to Social Security and other issues. He'll try and paint Democrats as obstructionist-whiners -- unless what we are offering is more than "Not Bush."
On energy, there is a ton we can say. Start with supporting the bi-partisan
Set America Free plan for flexible fuel plug-in hybrid cars to bring us oil independence. Add in weatherizing 12 million eligible homes and lots more end user efficiency efforts that create jobs and save energy. Top it off with growing our own gasoline with new bio-based fuels.
On nuclear power, always remember that taxpayers currently subsidize the industry for the billions of dollars it would cost if there was a plant accident -- it's a 1950s era law called Price-Anderson. Personally, if the nuclear power industry thinks that the new generation of plants are so safe and supported a repeal of that law, plus would pay the full freight on waste disposal, then I'd say have at it. I doubt they would, but that's a set of conditions I could live with. And I think politically it's better than just saying "no".

Monday, April 25, 2005

What About a Mid Term Convention?

Dan Carol posts about a letter written by Democratic strategist Tom Cosgrove to DNC Chair Howard Dean.

Tom Cosgrove (reach him at is a super smart strategist person who has sent a suggestion to the DNC Chair. The concept: invoke an old Party provision to hold a midterm convention and therefore display how the Dems are actually a party of new ideas. Here is the text.

April 8, 2005

Chairman Howard Dean
Democratic National Committee
Washington, DC

Dear Chairman Dean,
Congratulations on your election as Chairman of the Democratic Party. While your acceptance speech discussed your goals for rebuilding the party, it did not address the biggest problem we face. Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe Republicans know what they stand for, but only 47% of Americans can say the same for the Democratic Party (Democracy Corp Survey March 15-21, 2005).
The American public has it right – it is not clear what Democrats stand for. Americans may know what group we stand against – Republicans – but they do not know what ideas we have for change or what principles and moral values we share as a party.
They don’t know because we Democrats have not, in fact, agreed on these things for years. Our party has nothing comparable to the big ideas and value themes Republicans have been running on. The Republican ideas may be bad, however they are big and bold and driving the debate in America. Not just in Washington, D.C. but in State Capitols as well.
Americans give Republicans a ten point advantage for their ability to “think long term, not just short term” leaving them suspicious that Democrats stand for the political defense of the status quo. Similarly, our party lags behind in the public’s estimation of our strength (nine point deficit) and moral values (13 point deficit). Part of being strong and having moral values is “having the courage of your convictions” to stand up and say, this is what we believe needs to be done and we are going to fight for it.
The ideas, big ideas, I am confident are there. They exist in Congress, State Houses, City Halls and County Commissions. They exist in think tanks, progressive organizations, labor unions, academia, the business world, on blogs, and perhaps most importantly, among loyal Democratic supporters. What the Democratic Party needs is a process to identify, choose and commit to the ideas for progressive change in the 21st Century.
Our practice, for decades, has been to leave issues and ideas alone until the Presidential election cycle starts. By then it is too late to shape the public’s image of our party. In the last cycle we nominated a man based on the perception that his resume made him the strongest “horse” against President Bush. Now less than six months after the election who can name the big ideas of the Kerry campaign?
We need to start now. You can make it happen now. Specifically, I urge you to convene a Democratic National Committee mid-term convention, next year, as a Convention for America’s Future.
Define the agenda of this convention, now, as having a debate about ideas – for the United States, at home and abroad. Set up a process focused on getting ideas, collecting data that determine whether these ideas are good or bad, and invite people from all ranks of the Party, to debate those ideas as participants.
Next summer the DNC should host this convention of ideas in a city in the center of America, away from the “blue coasts.” Let Denver and St. Louis compete to host this event as both are located in what certainly will be battleground states in 2008.
The conventional “inside the Beltway” wisdom is that Democrats are now an “opposition party” and that we need to be uniform and “stick together” in our fights against the Republicans. When it comes to legislative tactics Congressional Democrats must be united in opposition to bad Republican ideas. But as Democrats strive to reach agreement on core ideas for change, ideas that we are willing to stand up and fight for, we need to debate not in backrooms among ourselves, but in the open.
An open process will allow us to reach agreement on big ideas for change that will stand up to informed and motivated criticism. This is how we will show America we have what it takes to be the party of the future.
A mid-term convention will create an opportunity for the media to report on Democratic ideas in addition to the horse race for the Party’s nomination. This event will also showcase leaders who are not candidates for President, and big ideas for change that require state, not federal, legislation.
Finally, a Convention For America’s Future is tailor-made to the world you have helped create in cyberspace dedicated to political ideas. The Internet and blogs are a good place to start this debate and to follow it post-convention.
You can make this happen. I look forward to your leadership.
Tom Cosgrove
Cc: Senator Harry Reid, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Governor Bill Richardson, Senator Charles Schumer, Congressman Rahm Emmanuel and Democratic Activists

This seems like an interesting idea. I just don't think the main players in the Democratic Party are prepared to go to a convention with stunning ideas that capture anyone's imagination or even suggest that the Democrats have ideas. And I don't know that I would want these folks trying to do this just now. But certainly someone has to convene some kind of process where by the definition of what Democrats stand for get articulated in a clear and compelling way. Quick - describe one policy proposal Kerry had last year. See what I mean? My hunch is it would take a village of people to get Hilary Clinton to come up with something that suggest a bold comprehenisve vision for the future. I am kind of surprised at Dan since his shtick is that this kind of thing needs to happen at the grassroots. And if ever there were an example of just how emasculated Democrats make the position of Party Chair - this is it. Dean wouldn't be able to get the who-hahs to agree to this nor would they let him go off and do this on his own without screaming that he was getting off the reservation and showing why Party leadership doesn't trust him. Pity. Because if the convention were truly a grassroots affair with elections of state delegates who would run on ideas they would push at the national convention and agree to vote on, then I could see gettin excited about this. But do we expect the same Party that Dean rightly called corrupt and bereft to allow the people to define what being a Democrat means?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

You Can't Make this Stuff Up

My university (the University of Colorado) has been in the news lately for some unsavory reasons. Coming out of the controversy over how Ward Churchill was awarded tenure has been the proposal to form a university committee to study tenure. This placates the community somewhat because everyone thinks that tenure is being reconsidered. But the agenda set by administators and the Regents is to look at the process by which tenure is awarded. So far so good from the perspective of those within the academy.

Then comes this news from Denver Post:

A committee charged with reviewing the University of Colorado's systems for awarding tenure picked a retired U.S. Air Force general to lead the probe into whether to reform the process. Gen. Howell Estes III will become a member of the Advisory Committee on Tenure Review Processes. He will work with consultants to learn about the tenure process and how it's granted at other schools. The committee was formed after questions surfaced about why controversial professor Ward Churchill was given tenure without a seven-year review and without a Ph.D.

"We wanted a person who was absolutely beyond reproach," said Mark Alan Heckler, chairman of the review committee.

I think my favorite part of the story is "He will work with consultants to learn about the tenure process and how it's granted at other schools." Not quite sure how to interpret that. Does this mean he needs to learn about tenure? That's an interesting choice for someone to head the probe. The best way to seem above reproach is to know nothing at all about the issue that is central to the discussion.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

GM - Foresight or Healthcare

Brad DeLong writes that he thinks GM might go bankrupt in 3 years.

Ezra Klein argues: Reasons This Country is Going to Need to Fix Its Health Care System and Fast.

From the LA Times:

General Motors Corp. on Tuesday posted a first-quarter net loss of $1.1 billion, its worst quarter in 13 years, due to disappointing sales in the crucial North American automotive market and soaring healthcare costs....Other analysts, though, said GM could be holding back as part of its negotiations on healthcare costs with the United Auto Workers. Last week, the union said it had no intention of revising its current labor contract to help the automaker lower medical expenses but would do what it could within the agreement to help lower costs. GM has warned that its U.S. healthcare costs could grow to $5.8 billion this year. Making things look as bleak as possible would help GM persuade the union to pass on some of the company's healthcare costs to its hourly workers, analysts said.... Although healthcare costs are the company's principal long-term concern, getting its product mix right for the competitive U.S. market is the more immediate concern, he said.

Sounds like some corporations are chafing under the weight of health care costs. Now what to do, what to do... "

You'll be hearing a lot about GM and the costs of health care and defined benefit pensions over the next few months. Don't get me wrong. Health care is THE MAJOR CRISIS that we need to deal with because it is inextricably linked with our current account deficit and the looming 'hard landing." (See Bruce Bartlett & Brad DeLong)

But let's face it. GM and Ford have problems that are largely of their own making. A few years ago I saw a statistics that over 50% of American car makers sales were in SUVs and pick-up trucks. Living in Denver I look around and swear it seems like more. The only American cars I see on the road are 10 years old or Hondas and Toyotas (which often have more US content than their 'American' rivals. That was fine for the go-go 90s. But with gas prices soaring the appetite for such vehicles is quickly diminishing and the American manufacturers have done nothing to position themselves for what was an obvious inevitablity. Did everyone truly believe that after the early 1990s we had nipped all future oil crises in the bud? DId everyone truly believe that the day would never come when our estimates of global petroleum reserves would peak? The American car companies (can we include Chrysler in this or not?) have done little to prepare for this day and are poorly positioned for a situation in which the market for over 50% of their cars dries up once people decide they don't want to pay $50 to fill their tank of gas. They make poorly designed cars. They make poorly manufactured cars. For 25 years they have been committed to a car making philosophy of built in obsolescence. Build a car to last 5 years because Americans will be more likely to buy a new one every three years. But the changing economic circumstances of American families mean there are more and more families like mine where we drive one car that is 18 years old (the reliable '87 Honda Accord) and another Japanese car that was bought so we could still be driving our boys (2 now) when they are teenagers. The net present value of holdong onto a car for 10 years rather than 5 over your lifetime (see the Armchair Millionaire) runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. For families such as these reliability is key and the reputation of American cars - to say nothing of their styling -- is abysmal. Ten years (maybe it was more) ago there were some articles about the Chevy Impala. That car was designed not by the designers but by the senior executives who overrode their design team at every turn. In the end the main buyers turned out to be taxi companies and police departments. If they hadn't been interested almost no one would have bought the car. I have no doubt that GMs problems are serious and the health care issue is a major component of them. But the problems of American car manufacturers are largely of their own making.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

NPR : Celebrating Stoner's Day

From NPR's Morning Edition: Celebrating Stoner's Day

Morning Edition, April 20, 2005

Every April 20, groups of teens gather to smoke marijuana to mark Four-Twenty, or Stoner's Day. But author and commentator David Marcus says parents shouldn't get mad. Rather, they should use this day as a reason to talk to their kids about what's going on in their lives. Marcus is author of What It Takes To Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble and How Four of Them Got Out."

You can listen to David Marcus's excellent commentary here.

Marcus speaks more sense about our youth today and what we as a society are doing to fail them than you will hear in 10 hours of useless TV punditry. We need folks like him to brief political candidates, so that rather than speaking in dry policy prescriptions (anyone hear John Kerry droning on?), they can connect with voters in a way that resonates with them and captures the reality of their lives. If the economy wasn't making it difficult for families to make ends meet without both parents working full time, often more than 40 hours a week, then perhaps they might have more of a sense about what their teenagers are doing when adults aren't around. Marcus refers to teen culture as a youth tribe -- and given the absence of adults in this world it's an apt description.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

How Distrust of Government Grows

One of the great tensions in Democracy that gets a lot of study by political scientists is the problem of regulatory capture. Government intervenes with the stated intention of protecting a vulnerable class of citizens and quickly becomes captured by the intersts of the entity it is supposed to regulate. We see this in energy regulation, work place regulation, and other places.

I recently received a notice from the state of Colorado that I needed to obtain workman's compensation for my employees. My business? I run a booming day care center for my three kids and have a nanny come in several times a week to help out. Dutifully observing the trials and tribulations of Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird, I filed Social Security taxes for my various baby sitters and paid the required unemployment compensation taxes. To do this you need to register with the state to get an employee ID number. Having become registered as an employer, I became subject to the state law that I obtain workmens' compensation insurance for all employees. Wisely thinking that such coverage might be under my homeowners policy I called the insurance agent to find out. Here is what I found out. If the state did not require me to have workman's compensation, my employees would have been covered under my homeowner's policy. But since the state requires the coverage, they are not covered by the homeowners policy. Hence, I have to go out and by the insurance myself. If I didn't know better, I would think that this law serves more to help insurance companies make sales than to protect my household employees.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Thoroughly Unconvincing

Kevin Hench of Fox Sports Net tries to convince readers that Steve Nash is not worthy of being MVP this season. But watch how he does it:

When the NBA season started and the Phoenix Suns got off to hot start, a lot of very smart basketball people pronounced that Steve Nash was the early-season MVP. I was fine with that. Heck, it even kind of tickled me, the idea that this skinny Canadian with the great stroke and bad hair might be the most valuable player in the league. The Suns kept on winning, except for a little hiccup when Nash was out of the lineup, which further enhanced his standing as the league's most indispensable player. So across the spectrum of the hoop cognoscenti Nash was declared the first-half MVP.
He goes on to argue:

While his arrival has coincided with a spike in the Suns' success, one could argue that Nash is not even the most valuable player on his team. Yes, he's having a great offensive season, averaging 16 points a game on over 50 percent shooting and leading the league with 11.5 assists per game. But is his offensive performance so superior to that of Stoudemire (25.8 ppg, 56 FG%) and Marion (19.7 ppg) that he is more valuable despite his defensive inadequacies?
Hench makes the case that LeBron James, Dirk Nowitski, and Shaquille O'Neal are more deserving because they are 1) having better years or b) just basically better players. We had this debate every year when Jordan was playing. Who deserved the MVP? Karl Malone who led the Jazz to the best record? Charles Barkley who led the Suns to the best record? Or Jordan, the king. There is this strange idea among spoortswriters that the MVP award should go to the player who has the best season, however you define that. Or it should go to the best player. But what every happened to the idea of most valuable?

Hasn't Nash shown his value by making a winner of every team he has been on? During the warm up to the Summer Olympics he made the NBA all stars on US Men's basketball team look like they were standing still or standing in molasses. But most importantly, look who has the best record in the NBA this year. Who is the top seed in the West? And who is the new player on this team from last year? The Suns didn't even make the playoffs last year. They were a lottery team. Clearly, Nash is the reason for this year's turnaround and is the player who is most respsnible for his team's improvement. Shaq is second for what he has done at Miami, but the change is the Suns is so pronounced that not awarding him the MVP would be an injustice.

Corruption as a form of professional specialization

Considering the frequency with which some people get into legal troubles or flirt with it (see Tom DeLay) my hunch is that the economy requires a certain breed of person who can specialize in corruption. How else to explain the masterful ability of those who manage to get into the newspapers for shady dealings? It's either habit or a form of specialization.

WASHINGTON, April 14 - Back then the commodity in play was rice and this time, a criminal complaint alleges, it was oil. But nearly 30 years after Tongsun Park, a South Korean businessman, stood at the center of the Koreagate influence-peddling scandal that rocked official Washington, he has emerged at the center of the United Nations' Iraqi oil-for-food scandal - accused in a strikingly similar scheme.

Why this man never became President

I actually liked Bob Kerrey as a Presidential candidate 13 years ago. A war hero. A genuine person. I had worked with him and trusted him and thought he would be great for the Party and the country. Of course he imploded as a candidate and then went on to mystify national Party leaders by repeatedly berating Clinton throughout his Presidency without expressing a consistent grievance.

Well now his tempermental, unpresidential nature rears its ugly head again. This time he has proclaimed himself "disillusioned with Mr. Bloomberg and [indicated he] was considering getting into the race himself. Since he is a Democrat, that's not too surprising. But then, consider the following from the New York Times:

The aides, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified so as to avoid a public fight with Mr. Kerrey, said the former senator from Nebraska did not hesitate to accept Mr. Bloomberg's personal request about two weeks ago that he become chairman of Democrats for Bloomberg. That followed a meeting with William T. Cunningham, the mayor's communications director, and Robert B. Tierney, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman, where, the aides said, Mr. Kerrey spoke highly of the mayor and indicated that he would be willing to assist the re-election campaign.

Two weeks after beoming head of Democrats for Bloomberg? It's not as though Bloomberg suddenly transformed himself into Tom DeLay either. He is a lifelong Democrat who became a Republican merely to get on the ballot and avoid the Democratic Primary - a wise move to say the least. He endorsed both Senators Clinton and Schumer in their races. He probably would have endorsed Kerry if the convention wasn't going to be held in New York. He is a Republican in name only. So what exactlu is Kerrey's grievance? Bloomberg hasn't done enough to protect New York taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax. Well the list of those who have is about, hmmmm, gee, how long? Oh yeah, it's non-existent.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Another Great Strategy Posting by Dan Carol

Dan Carol offers some advice to some wealthy millionaires meeting to discuss ways to improve the Democratic message. His advice?

Act local, think local, and later go global

He urges them to
1) remember that states are where the action is
2) nurture the grass roots Party structure
3) stop trying to find the perfect bumper sticker

Dan is great because he knows something most people do not. Most progressive social change in this country has emanted from the grass roots and the local level. He knows that where the people lead, the leaders will follow. The forty hour week, over time pay, the minimum wage, workplace protection & safety, civil rights, voting rights, these all were ideas that came from and were built at the grass roots. Washington had to catch up to the people. If you really care about progressive social change, about Democratic values you will focus your energies building up support for social change and commitment to progressive policies close to home.

If instead you think that Washington politics is merely about who is in power - us or them - and that the only difference is in the names of the groups that get the rewards, then spending your time trying to craft the perfect message, the perfect pitch is where you will focus your energies. This top down approach sees politics as a marketing campaign, an advertising challenge for Madison Avenue sloganeers.

But in the end, what gets people is the product you have to offer. VW, Apple iPod, Target all have great ad campaigns, but its the fundamentals of the product that ultimately define their success. Walk into any Target and compare it to KMart and you instantly know this is true.

If Democrats are going to win, getting the message right doesn't mean finding a slogan as catchy as 'The Contract with America.' It means getting Democrats to agree that what we offer voters is greater social justice, a genuine commitment to equal opportunity rather than lip service, fiscal responsibility, preserving our environment for our children and grandchildren, and solving the real crisis that faces us - the health care crisis.

But you can't just say these things. Ultimately you have to prove to people that you mean it by commiting yourself, despite political risks, to taking positions on legislation and walking the walk when the time comes - a la the estate tax and the 42 Democrats who voted for its repeal. Forty freakin two.

The Left Coaster has details on the enlightened 31 who voted for both the Bankruptcy Bill and the Inheritance tax repeal. For information on the Democrats who voted for the latter and the median income of their districts, click here (if the bandwidth problem has been solved).

When Professors Steal

The Chronicle of Higher Education report on the latest plagiarism scandal at Harvard.:

"A Harvard University investigation has concluded that Laurence H. Tribe's failure to cite the source for several passages in a 1985 book was 'a significant lapse in proper academic practice' but was unintentional, according to the Associated Press.

Several sentences in God Save This Honorable Court by Mr. Tribe, who is a law professor at Harvard, mirror ones in a 1974 book by Henry J. Abraham, a professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. Mr. Tribe mentions Mr. Abraham's book in the index but does not place the borrowed passages within quotation marks.

What is it with these 'noted scholars?'

Last year another Harvard law professor, Charles J. Ogletree Jr., was found to have copied about six paragraphs in a recent book from a book by a Yale University scholar. A Harvard investigation found that Mr. Ogletree had committed a 'serious scholarly transgression.' Mr. Ogletree apologized for the lack of proper credit but blamed it on others involved in the editing of the book. "

Add to this roster Doris Kearns Goodwin and you have a growing little industry of plagiarists. Ironic since Harvard has typically dealth severely with students caught plagiarizing - in general suspending them for several semesters and occasionally expelling them (I think they use the word expunge actually since they like to brag no one has ever been expelled from Harvard. When you are expunged, all records of your presence at Harvard are removed.)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

What Are These Folks Doing?

From today's National Journal Briefing.

The House voted 272-162 Tuesday to "permanently repeal the estate tax as Republicans and Democrats in the Senate intensified work on a compromise that could clear that chamber," the Wall Street Journal reports. "Before approving the estate-tax repeal, the House voted 194-238 to reject a measure offered by" Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., "that would have raised the exemption to $3 million per person."

Meanwhile, Brad DeLong reports quotes from a recent IMF report on the industrialized nations (or should I say industrialised?)

The [IMF] forecasts that the US current account deficit will grow slightly to 5.8 per cent of gross domestic product this year, with little improvement thereafter. Germany and Japan are both forecast to have surpluses close to 3½ per cent of GDP. “The US external deficit has so far been financed relatively easily, aided by continued financial globalisation,” the report said. “However, the demand for US assets is not unlimited... a continuing sharp rise in US net external liabilities will carry increasing risks.” As well as the possibility of a disorderly decline in the dollar, the fund identifed the possibility that inflation pressures lead to a spike in US interest rates, and the high and volatile oil price as key risks to the global outlook. The Bush administration's pledge to halve the US fiscal deficit is not credible, (my emphasis -GK) owing to a number of items left out of the budget arithmetic, and “insufficiently ambitious” in any case, the report said....
DeLong goes on to excoriate the WaPo editorial board for being critical of Baker and Rosnick and standing by the punditry's shibboleth that Social Security is our major crisis that has to be dealt with now. DeLong writes:
Dean Baker and David Rosnick have been making the completely obvious and unexceptionable point that Social Security ranks, at best, third in urgency and severity among America's fiscal problems. The most urgent and severe problem is the fallout from Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that once again destabilized the financing of the American government. The second most urgent and most severe problem is the medium- and long-run financing of the government's health-care programs: Medicare and Medicaid.

Dean and David make the obvious and unexceptionable point that a government that cared at all about making good fiscal policy would be tacking the big and urgent problems that threaten to cause significant economic damage in the next two decades. It makes no sense to focus on Social Security when there are bigger and more urgent fish to fry. They point out that one aim of the Bush focus on Social Security is to keep there from being serious discussion of--or attempts at solutions to--the bigger and more urgent problems.

Now everybody who is even half-informed knows that this is the case: their points are obvious and unexceptionable. When Treasury Secretary John Snow goes to Wall Street, people there ask him why the government isn't tackling the important stuff: the current deficit and health care. Snow has no answer: his only response is that Social Security is Bush's priority, and so that is what the government is going to focus on.

Don't forget tax deferments Brad!. The Senate is working on an estate tax compromise? Only 194 people could be found to vote for Pomeroy's amendment? How many Democrats are in the House? Clearly the answer is - whatever their Party registration, less than 194 Democrats are in the House. In fact, I'd venture a guess that less than 162 Democrats are in the House.

It's not simply that eliminating the estate tax is back economic policy - ideally you want to have a broad tax base with low rates since the inefficiencies of taxation grow geometrically. Narrowing the tax base means we need to have higher overall rates on what we do tax.

It's not simply that eliminating the estate tax is bad ethical policy - by what measure can we come to understand how a Democrat, who should be inclined to support equal opportunity and to oppose inherited wealth, privilege and social advantage, would instead think that wealth in amounts over $3 million can be passed from generation to generation as income not subject to taxation? Meanwhile workers are subject to payroll taxes above what the government needs and Republicans indicate absolutely no willingness to pay these people back for this? Don't tell me this income has already been taxed. The dollars that comprise the wages I earn from my employers were also taxed before they went into the central university pot that pays my salary. They were the income dollars of my students.

But it is also that no one has suggested how we are going to pay for the extension of these tax cuts. Not one dime. The least the GOP could do is propose some way of paying for these tax deferments - because that is what they are. We already have deficits are far as the eye can see. The budget deficit and the current account deficit are the number one pressing (yes crisis even) policy issue we face. And existing financial projections don't even take into account the extenstion of these tax cuts (deferments - excuse me).

So, while the President parades around the country talking about the Social Security crisis, his Party back in Washington continues to pilfer the general funds of the government and hasten not just the coming crisis in Social Security but also the financial crisis that will result when the dollar collapses and interest rates go through the roof.

Democrats won't win the White House until they can at minimum come to an understanding that unanimity on the issues of inheritance taxes and PAYGO rules are obligatory. It's no wonder people don't know what Democrats stand for since the Party rarely stands united for anything that broad numbers of people might care about. Standing united on Senate rules, filibustering anti-abortion judges, and affirmative action don't quite cut it Peoria.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Middle East as America's Maginot Line

Serious foreign policy troubles are brewing for the US in the Far East. Meanwhile, most of our army is hunkered down in Iraq and few reassurances exist that we are preparing for the most realistic threats.

Aside from terrorism, the greatest threat to our security lies with North Korea and China. North Korea's threat is obvious. But China gets less attention. Last week, an article in the New York Times gave further reason for worry.

At a time when the American military is consumed with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, global terrorism and the threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, China is presenting a new and strategically different security concern to America, as well as to Japan and Taiwan, in the western Pacific, Pentagon and military officials say.

China, these officials say, has smartly analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the American military and has focused its growing defense spending on weapons systems that could exploit the perceived American weaknesses in case the United States ever needs to respond to fighting in Taiwan.

Since China is such an important trading partner you don't hear a lot of discussion about the threat from this country. The State Department has long held sway over the US public line on China and whenever Presidential candidates succeed in becoming President, they quickly tone down any rhetoric on issues like the rmb/dollar peg, trade issues, human rights abuses, and China's aggressive and expansionist eye on territories like Taiwan and the disputed islands off China's coast. Clinton and Bush out did themselves in the speed with which they both back-pedaled on campaign rhetoric.

The Times article makes clear that China's aggressive efforts to build up the military pose serious long term threats to US interests in the region. But there are also other signs that should concern an interested observer. At a briefing at the Aspen Institute two summers ago, intelligence experts told attendees that China conducts all its war games with the US as the opponent in mind. Of even greater concern is the growing imbalance between the proportion of males in that society and the proportion of females. Due to birth restrictions and the social preference for males, by some estimates, "110.51 male infants were born for every 100 female infants." In the 1990s, the ratio rose to 120 males for every 100 female births. Two MIT political scientists have published a book which argues that such imbalances threaten world peace since countries with skewed proportions of males have an increased likelihood of going to war.

1) too much testosterone flowing in society can be destabilizing
2) war provides a corrective mechanism
In a new book, Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population (MIT Press), Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer warn that the spread of sex selection is giving rise to a generation of restless young men who will not find mates. History, biology, and sociology all suggest that these "surplus males" will generate high levels of crime and social disorder, the authors say. Even worse, they continue, is the possibility that the governments of India and China will build up huge armies in order to provide a safety valve for the young men's aggressive energies.

"In 2020 it may seem to China that it would be worth it to have a very bloody battle in which a lot of their young men could die in some glorious cause," says Ms. Hudson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.
Futurepundit has a more extensive discussion of demographic issues related to China and their implications.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

To Whom It May Concern: I am writing to apply for the position of....

Brad Delong points to Bruce Bartlett at RealClear Politics who expresses concern about the number of unfilled positions at the Treasury Department.

Now, most of the key sub-Cabinet positions are vacant, and it appears that the administration is having great difficulty filling these positions. Among those currently vacant are the deputy secretary, two of the three under secretaries, five assistant secretaries and a number of other key positions.... This is really quite amazing, because normally Treasury has no trouble attracting very high quality people for its senior positions.

So, George, please accept this posting as an application for a minor position as Assistant Secretary of Something at Treasury. A minor complication is the fact that I am a Democrat and slightly to the Left of everyone in your administration and in your Party but I see no reason to hold this as a compelling reason against my appointment. Here's why you should consider me.

1) I can do the job which is to essentially do nothing since all power (and economic policy) seems to emanate from the White House.

2) I agree with some previous Treasury appointees you named on several aspects of your tenure.

3) It doesn't look like you will be naming anyone for these positions anyway.

4) I promise to wear a navy blue suit and red tie with a blue shirt.

5) I can say prime rate and Social Security in the same sentence without trippping over my tongue.

6) I could use the fancy addition of the title to my resume.

7) I am dying to write a kiss and tell all book.

8) I always wanted to drive around DC in a black town car.

9) I desire to make financial markets quake at my utterances.

10) Someone needs to be there to pick up the pieces when yet another of your economic teams implodes.

John Cornyn Finds Company

Ah those law abiding Republicans. Dana Milbank of the WaPo reports on a recent conference in Washington of conservatives concerned about the leftward tilt of America's Judiciary. Among the choicest moments? Perhaps when legal scholar Edwin Viera invoked his idol Josef Stalin to curb the judiciary -

The full Stalin quote, for those who don't recognize it, is "Death solves all problems: no man, no problem." Presumably, Vieira had in mind something less extreme than Stalin did and was not actually advocating violence. But then, these are scary times for the judiciary. An anti-judge furor may help confirm President Bush's judicial nominees, but it also has the potential to turn ugly.

A judge in Atlanta and the husband and mother of a judge in Chicago were murdered in recent weeks. After federal courts spurned a request from Congress to revisit the Terri Schiavo case, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said that "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior." Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) mused about how a perception that judges are making political decisions could lead people to "engage in violence."

"The people who have been speaking out on this, like Tom DeLay and Senator Cornyn, need to be backed up," Schlafly said to applause yesterday. One worker at the event wore a sticker declaring "Hooray for DeLay."

I guess that's one way for Constitutional originalists to abide by the notion of a judiciary with lifetime appointments that responds to their wishes.

Monday, April 11, 2005

I Believe in a Small Town

With apologies to John Mellancamp.

This interesting story from our local paper made headlines worldwide.

Two girls from a small town decided one evening, after choosing to not attend the local dance since there was likely to be 'rock music and cursing,' (shock horror) to stay home and bake cookies for their neighbors. They delivered their wares around 10:30 pm at the homes of those whose lights were still on. Unfortunately, they dropped off cookies at the home of a neighbor who was terrified by their insistent knocking and who suffered an anxiety attack the next day which led her to go to the emergency room thinking she was having a heart attack. Their neurotic neighbor sued (not very small town if you ask me) for the hospital bills (small town folks tending to not have good health insurance) and won a settlement of $900 (a small town judgment). The magistrate ruled they showed poor judgment being out so late (also very small town). Outraged readers of the local papers began making harassing phone calls (not very small town), the plaintiffs having shown sufficient lack of foresight to realize how a successful outcome in court would look to most people (public relations apparently are not a small town skill). Perhaps this lack of neighborly judgment helps explain why the poor woman was so terrified when someone knocked on her door at 10:30 pm -- she and her husband must be adored by their neighbors.

Ahhh life in the small town. It has all the values of the cherished American heritage that those liberals in the big cities pooh-pooh and disparage.

Note: Blogger was down at the end of last week so I am sorry for the lack of postings.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Dumber than Dumb

Matthew Yglesias points our attention to the latest silliness from National review Online. Maya MacGuineas, a former classmate for whom I had some respect when she worked for the Concord Coalition and argued for deficit reduction, writes -- in response to those of us who have been critical of SSA actuarial projections of an 11 trillion Social Security Trust Fund deficit -- that it is appropriate to use an infinite time horizon when looking at Social Security.
"Social Security faces an unfunded liability of $4 trillion over the next 75 years. The liability is $11.1 trillion in perpetuity. Some dismiss infinite timeliness as absurd. The concept is an easy target: It's difficult enough to get people to care about the fiscal situation over the next 75 years; why should they care about Social Security benefits in the year to 2500? But that's not the point. The infinite horizon is necessary to ensure that any Social Security fix is a permanent one as opposed to the many temporary patches that are floated -- patches that would leave the system out of balance beyond the truncated window."

Actually I think the 75 year figure is 3.5 trillion. But never mind. Yglesias makes a great counter-point when asking why Social Security should always find itself in positive balance at every point in time from here to eternity?
"Well, yes, if you want to try and craft a policy in 2005 that will ensure Social Security receipts and outlays add up to zero in 2505 and beyond you do, indeed, need to use an infinite horizon projection. The relevant issue is, what kind of goal is this? Social Security is not just some kind of complicated math problem; it's an actual government program. It's important to recall that we don't actually have the ability to make binding decisions about what Social Security will look like in the distant future. The program has only just recently reached the end of its very first 75 years and it's already been drastically changed several times. How would it be advisable for us to try and make such decisions?"

Exactly. If we were simply arguing whether the formula to use were a 75 year discounting formula or a perpetuity that might be one thing. If we were arguing about the right discount rate to use, that would be another. But to argue for an actuarial model that stretches into infinity requires assumptions about economic growth into infinity, demographic change into infinity, changes in life expectancy into infinity, changes in productivity into infinity. In fact it requires so many assumptions as to be essentially worthless.

In fact, it makes more economic sense for Social Security, rather than to always find itself in positive balance, to function as an income smoothing model -- building surpluses when demographics allow, and borrowing from general operating funds of the US government when demographics require net drawdowns. This is not entirely unprecedented. As I wrote several weeks ago, Social Security has on several occasions needed to borrow money from the general budget. You cannot project multiple parameters of a model into infinity with any degree of accuracy or intellectual honesty. It is an intellectual exercise in fantasy building. It's an idea that is dumber than dumb. And I am disappointed in her.

Hassert and MacGuineas call Social Security a mishmash of IOUs. This is much the same point that George Bush tried, embarrassingly, to make yesterday next to a filing cabinet in West Virginia.

If I buy Treasury bonds from the US government through my brokerage company, I can also ask them to send me the bond notes so I can put them in my filing cabinet. And then I can say "Gee, look how silly I am. I traded a pile of money for a few sheets of worthless paper held in this filing cabinet." But this is how the entire economic system is built -- on faith and credit. That's why we say that bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the US. Any financial obligation or security represents the commitment of the seller to pay you back at a future point in time. These obligations are always going to be IOUs unless someone hold a huge pile of material assets somewhere -- but, and this is the point, doing so makes no economic sense. The reason we have bonds and stock and paper money is so that goods can flow freely through society and people don't have to pile large amounts of material assets that have 'real' value. Because of IOUs like paper money and Treasuries, these material goods can flow through the economy and be consumed.

Imagine I sit on a few thousand barrels of oil. Perhaps they are under my yard. If I wanted to trade this for something that was not ultimately an IOU, I would need to make sure someone could pay me in the things I do want like apples, wheat, pork bellies, whatever. And then I would need to store all these things somewhere. What a waste. Maybe I could hoard gold you suggest? Well even the value of something supposedly tangible like gold is only worth what people are willing to ascribe to it. It has no intrinsic economic worth in itself. It cannot be made into many useful things. The value of gold, as James Surowiecki wrote in the New Yorker recently, like the value of paper money, is merely what others are willing to believe it is worth, what others are wiling to exchange for it. Calling Social Security a pile of IOUs and worthless fictions may make political sense by ginning up the anxiety people feel about ultimately being paid back, but it is dangerous economic policy. For the leader of the US to adopt this line is to suggest that all government IOUs are merely dependent on the willingness of the US government at some future point in time to honor them. Ultimately this is true, but if you aren't committed to paying back your IOUs than investors are not likely to trust you. If any investor has a reasonable sense that this willingness is in any doubt, they will drive up interest rates, jump out of such assets, and hinder the economic function of the broader economy. Bush's statement, a crude adoption of this causistry by folks like Hassert and MacGuineas, is worse than irresponsible, it is almost impeachable.

As Josh Marshall says, Bush is threatening to default on obligations to millions of working men and women who have paid into the Trust Fund only to see their money go towards tax cuts for the wealthy and general operating expenses of the US government. In fact, without the Social Security funds, the deficit this year is over $700 billion dollars. If Bush means to imply that he and other Republicans have no intention of repaying the money in 2018 when Social Security recipients need to draw down the money, well, there's a word for this - it's called theft.

Holy Sh%#!

Josh Marshall at TPM posts this in response to Sen Cornyn's outrageous claim that recent violence against judges could be explained as the outraged reaction of a public justifiably upset with a judiciary that is aloof, arrogant and out of touch with mainstream values. Next thing we'll hear from Sen Cornyn is that all those Jews who died in the Holocaust might have been spared if they hadn't been such... You get the point.

Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall: April 03, 2005 - April 09, 2005 Archives:

"Sen. John Cornyn's hometown is San Antonio, Texas. And San Antonio is a city with some tragic experience with violence against judges.

On May 29th, 1979, a killer-for-hire, Charles Voyde Harrelson murdered Federal District Judge John Wood Jr.

In the words of a New York Times article (11/20/1982) that appeared three years later during Harrelson's trial, he hid 'in ambush outside the judge's apartment [and] used a high-powered rifle to shoot Judge Wood in return for a $250,000 payment from a drug dealer [Jamiel Chagra] who was facing trial before the judge.'

(ed.note: Note of thanks to TPM Reader JW. And for those of you who are addicted to trivia, yes, Harrelson is the father of actor Woody Harrelson.)
-- Josh Marshall "

Woody Harrelson's Dad was a contract killer?! You learn a new thing everyday.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Whoa Nelly! - Social Security Trust Fund a Fiction, Bush Says

Until now, bloggers have contented themselves with skewering Bush spokespeople such as the Treasury public affairs Secretary and associated hacks who parrot this line. But today, Bush, either because he read a newspaper or a briefing paper or overheard someone say it, finally adopted the line too. I can't tell if this is a calculated tact now adopted by the White House or a gaff. But I don't see how this helps their cause.

1) If Bush is correct, than I and millions of other workers want our money back because for the last two decades we have funded the general operations of this government and tax cuts for the wealthy through regressive payroll taxes that reduce our earned income up to $90,000 by 15%. I'll take that as a check thank you and you can finance it by restoring the capital gains tax to prior levels, the top tax rates, and eliminating the cap on social security wages subject to tax. You might as well cut my current social security tax to the proper rate which should be about 10% (5% for me, 5 for the employer) about now.

2) If Bush is correct then China and Japan should get out now and dump bonds because the billions of dollars of our debt they hold are also fictions.

3) If Bush is correct than paper money is worthless and we should all start bartering again.

4) If Bush is wrong then he is a dangerously ill informed leader jeopardizing our fiscal future and economic stability.

Gee -- which could it be?

The Friendship between Great Men

This paragraph in a Boston Globe article caught my eye for the volumes it speaks about life 60 years ago, life today, and how the ruling elites mix and mingle.

IN THE SUMMER of 1943, George Kennan and Paul Nitze met on a train going from New York to Washington. Neither knew who the other was, nor was there any reason they should have. Kennan was a 39-year-old diplomat, just returned from Portugal. A Wall Street man four years Kennan's junior, Nitze was a second-level official at the Board of Economic Warfare. But Nitze found something compelling about Kennan and sat down across from the distinguished-looking gentleman in the dining car. The pair started talking and began a friendship that would last throughout the Cold War, a war that both men did much to define but about which they would almost never agree.

I can't imagine any interesting young leader today approaching another person on a train, plane, or where ever because the other just looked compelling. It speaks volumes about what life was like in the 1940s -- no doubt an outgrowth of the social structure and the quality of life. It also holds up a mirror to our own age -- perhaps more egalitarian, but also more insular and less communitarian.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Academic Milestone

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:
"The lowly wedgie is finally getting some respect. Webster's New World College Dictionary, the primary dictionary of The Chronicle and The New York Times, is adding this definition in the edition that hits bookstores in May:

wedgie (wej'e) n. a prank in which the victim's undershorts are jerked upward so as to become wedged between the buttocks

The new definition of wedgie will join the existing one, a type of shoe."

Well, all I can say is it's about time.

Baseball Season

Well the Yankees clipped the Red Sox on opening night -- that's a silly concept -- and Randy Johnson looked good. All signs point to an improved Yankees team this year from the team that came 3 outs from getting to the World Series, and then 6 outs, and then....

But, my word of caution goes to their pitching. Last year's pitching staff limped into the playoffs. They weren't helped by Kevin Brown's tirade which left him with a broken hand. This proved fateful in Game 3. Although they won 19-8, Ken Rosenthal at Sporting News makes the great point that Brown's early exit put more stress on the bull pen than was necessary and weakened them for games 4 & 5, the games they should have won. A more important point that I saw mentioned only once last year is the remaining right-handed tilt of the pitching staff. Johnson was the most important addition of the off-season because he throws lefty. The only other lefty is Mike Stanton - no spring chicken. Everyone else throws right-handed. Against the likes of Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Trot Nixon and Yankees killer David Ortiz, the pitching staff is likely to struggle over a 7 game series. I mark this down as a big concern heading into the season.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Ethnic Mascot Stories Get a New Twist

Michael Berube discusses the controversy over Chief Illiniwek and the Fighting Illini on his blog this week. It's an interesting post and subsequent discussion.

Here's an excerpt:

"I saw the Chief in action precisely once. I attended a number of football and basketball games during my time at Illinois, but for one reason and another I did not see the halftime show until 1997. It was during a basketball game against Minnesota, and I was sitting with when pre-adolescent Nick and one of his friends, when suddenly a bunch of white folks in bright orange sweaters and T-shirts ran onto the court and took up positions on the perimeter, ringing the court in orange. As they clapped and smiled and bounced, on came the Chief himself. It was a profoundly cringe-inducing experience. The Chief’s supporters insist that his routine his “loosely patterned after Native American fancy dance”; now, I know even less about Native dance than I know about smooth jazz, but I am not aware of any indigenous dance forms that involve lots of splits and jumping and touching your toes in mid-air. I turned to Nick and said, “never mind the debate about whether the Chief is racist– this stuff should be banned for sheer cheesiness alone.” But I said it sotto voce.

"For as I watched and cringed and cringed some more, I noticed that sure enough, people around me were cheering and tearing up. And I began to think, this is as much a cultural divide as a political one, a divide between those with a liberal cringe reflex and those without. Surely, for my fellow Illinois fans, my visceral reaction to the Chief was just the mirror image of their visceral reaction to the Chief – except that mine was defined by what they would see as an elitist, nose-pinching, PC rectitude that symbolizes everything wrong with liberal college professors. I don’t have any problem with the name “Illini,” actually—or, for that matter, with the name “Illinois.” But the Chief and his halftime dance are another order of thing altogether. Please, I thought, let this hopping-and-skipping minstrel show end, and let’s get back to basketball. I didn’t come here to meditate on town and gown – or on what we’d now call blue and red America. I just came here to watch Illinois defeat the culturally innocuous, inoffensively-named Golden Rodents Of Some Kind.

I left a comment which I excerpt here:

I, like you, have never found myself roused to include the ethnic representation of school mascots among my list of ten thousand major injustices in the world. And I never thought much of the comparisons that the anti-chief forces would make when they asked, how would you like it if there were a team named the New York Jews? Well, low and behold, this week the New York Times told us about the Ajax soccer team in Amsterdam that for some reason is known as the Jews and whose fans think that they are honoring Jews. Hard to maintain that with a straight face though when you learn that opposing fans hiss like gas to chant against Ajax and Ajax fans hold up banners that read - Revenge for 1940-1945 at a match against a German team (me-thinks they seem to have a hard time comprehending the scale and duration of the Holocaust). Insisting that teams be named after animals is unlikely to soothe PETA. So maybe Harvard and Stanford are onto something and in the future all teams should be named after colors. At least until the anti-color defamation lobby galvanizes opposition to color stereotyping. But the economist in me wants to suggest that you are free to have any name and symbol you like, as long as you are willing to pay for it. If Sears, Kmart and Harvard can own their names, why can’t a tribe own it’s name and insist on being paid for the use of the name and associated logos and mascots? At least they could then name the price and the name certainly belongs more to actual descendants of the Illini than to alumni of the institution. Until then, Go BLUE. Go Red. Go Crimson!