Wednesday, August 3, 2022

 Crystal Radios and Vin Scully

From about age 10 I was intrigued by technology.   One of the first devices I purchased was a Heathkit Crystal Radio.  It was a very simple device that you put together in about 3 minutes.  It used radio waves to get a signal and required no batteries.  It was underpowered and had no amplifier so it used earphones. I built that in Bakersfield and soon found that clear channels (those stations with a lot of wattage) were the only ones that came in.  I found two stations that were almost always available - one in LA and one in San Francisco.   On summer nights I could listen to the Dodgers and Vin Scully in bed.  That reinforced my interest in baseball.  I started to like the team in the 50s when the Dodgers went to the World Series in '52, '53. They finally won in 1955.   They came back in '56  to lose to the Yankees and then in '59 they did it again. That was the first series with a west coast team.   But I learned the phrase "wait until next year"even though the Dodgers won twice in the decade.

That crystal radio also informed me about the Our Lady of the Angels fire in 1958 in Chicago and the death of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens in 1959.  But the Dodger games were most important.

Scully was a fan of baseball but never was a "homer" announcer.  His call was always balanced and it often involved tons of baseball history that seemed to well up at the drop of a hat.  His call of Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series is one that I have replayed many times.

Come forward several decades and I was offered the opportunity to meet Scully in his broadcast booth.  I had a friend who was doing some consulting for the O'Malley family and he invited me for a game and a chance to meet the voice I had first heard on the crystal radio.

As I entered the booth, I noticed a three ring binder with lots of notes.  As I watched his work, he would flip through what looked like unorganized pages and then come up with a classic story or quote.   When they got to a commercial break, I got to say hello and I told him about listening to him since the 50s but said I was a bit disappointed.   He asked why and I said I had always admired his skilled weaving of baseball facts and history into his game coverage.   He joked back - "Look I am over 70 years old, I can't remember everything!"  He was truly gracious.

Fast forward about another decade and I was at a dinner held by an underwriter at a national conference of University Chief Financial Officers.   I was sitting next to the CFO of one of the institutions I represented who had his 10 year old son with him.  We started talking about famous people we had met and when it came to be my turn I listed a bunch of politicians and other famous people and then I said and I had met Vin Scully.   The kid looked at me, ignoring the Presidents, Governors and other celebs and asked "You met Vin Scully?"  That really put the American fascination with celebrities in its proper place.   The book has a chapter "Fleeting Encounters with Fleeting Fame" which discusses my chances to meet some very famous people.

TWO DEVELOPMENTS ON "OF COURSE ITS TRUE EXCEPT FOR A COUPLE OF LIES.." - Last week I was approached by a representative of Archway Publishing, which is a division of Simon and Schuster.  They offered to help publish and distribute the book.   We had a couple of discussions but in the end I did not choose to use them.  I also had the chance to speak with the authors of a wonderful book - Mitka's Secret which is an inspiring story of a child who was forced into slavery by the Nazis - who are friends. The child emigrated to the US and became a successful person in spite of not being able to read and write.   (Buy the book it is an inspiring read!).  I learned a lot about promoting a book. 

Finally, my ACE Design Editor is about ready to have a draft of the completed and designed manuscript. There are a lot of unappreciated details in preparing a manuscript and I seem to have added complexity but adding asides and lots of pictures.  She commented that she has enjoyed the stories in the book - and that has slowed her down a bit.   As we say in Mexico - "Better right than fast."   The final steps are for me to review the manuscript and then to send it to my publisher. (Ingram Spark - which is a major printer and distributor of books on many platforms.)   I assume that the book will now be available on Amazon and Apple Books and through a couple of other sources in October.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

 Charles Tiebout's Chickens

When I first started my doctoral work I discovered an economic geographer named Charles Tiebout.  In 1956 he wrote an article called the "Pure Theory of Local Expenditures" which argued for an economic consideration in where people live based on ambience.   If I want good schools for my kids. I will search out an area based on price of housing and how good the schools are.   It was one of those little gems that got me to think about many things differently.   

But this week brought two issues where I rethought about Tiebout's brilliance.   The Internal Revenue Service published data on the migration by AGI (adjusted gross income) of taxpayers among the various states.  It turns out that Tiebout was right.   In the 2017 Tax Act one provision to find revenue and to make the tax system more equitable (so the rich would actually pay more taxes than middle and lower income taxpayers) the State and Local Tax Deduction was limited to $10,000.   That means that a huge subsidy which formerly went from middle and lower income taxpayers in low tax states to very high income taxpayers in high tax states was limited.   It should have been long ago.

SO after the limit was adopted, what happened?  As the chart above clearly shows lots of high income taxpayers migrated from high tax to low tax states.   California alone lost almost $18 billion in AGI.  And as I have discussed before the California revenue system is heavily dependent on having lots of very high income taxpayers.   If those high income taxpayers disappear, there will be less revenue for the state to spend on all the public services a state offers.   

The argument for reinstating the unlimited deduction for state and local taxes is a bit odd.  Some wizards claim that the SLOT prevents "double taxation" (yup they actually make that claim!).   But the distributional effects of the deduction are clear - almost 90% of the value of the deduction (either before it was capped or after) go to very high income taxpayers who live in high tax states.   SLOT is like asking a truck driver in Idaho to help subsidize a venture capitalist in California.

The disappearance of wealthy taxpayers from the California tax roles is explained by Tiebout's hypothesis.  What is a mystery is another disappearance, no less cataclysmic.  We live in the village of Fair Oaks.  It is an odd community - mixes of incomes and backgrounds.   Our honorary mayor attains office by who can raise the most money for some civic activity.   Most importantly, the village is famous for its feral chickens.  Often when I am walking Indiana in the morning, and on a phone call, the chickens will be squawking and one of the people on the call will wonder where I am.   The village has numerous chicken memorabilia on shop walls.   We even have an annual chicken festival (along with the St. Patrick's Dinner in the Community Clubhouse and the Fair Oaks Theater Festival in the summer (where the plays are occasionally interrupted by chicken accompaniment) which helps to define our community.  Those might be called our "Tiebout amenities" and for us that is pretty good.

But about two months ago the chicken population around the square (across from the Stockman's Bar - a classic saloon) our birds began disappearing.  I've asked around and no one seems to know why the chickens  disappeared.  When I walk in the morning some people have argued that they vanished because of a) attacks of coyotes (yes you do occasionally see coyotes and deer, but not in the square); b) the homeless population down by the river, or c) or some rare form of avian influenza.  But no one believes any of that.  The two Guinea Hens, which were interlopers into the brood, still are in the park and seem to be fine.

What has not been discussed to this point is whether their disappearance can be explained by Tiebout.   Were our chickens very high income and did they move to Florida?   Did some other locality offer better amenities than a free place to roam and plenty of chicken feed?

The book is with one final editor who is called a design editor.  I searched for someone who had good experience in getting the design elements right. Those are things like the cover photo and the internal organization of the book.  A friend, who has published three books, recommended an editor in Arizona and   I spoke to her.  I  also looked at her website and thought it was a good match.   She will produce a final manuscript which will be print ready for both an ebook and a paperback.   There is one unresolved issue - one of my editors suggested that we divide the book into three volumes (each of about 150 pages) - one on family, one on life and one on ideas/beliefs.   In the end my design editor may recommend to put it all in one volume.  That would make marketing simpler and at the same time it could increase the utility of the volume especially for pressing flowers!

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

 The Arrogance of the Chattering Class

In the last few weeks I've been amazed at how the chattering class has reacted to two stories; the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk and the actions taken in response to a woke corporation's scolding of Florida, especially their governor.  At the same time the CEO of one of the major investment firms proposed that he should decide, in behalf of his investors, how the money we put in trust for him should vote the underlying shares for corporate governance.  All three stories suggest that the hegemony of cultural elites is under pressure.  From my perspective that is a very good thing.

SO let's start with Elon Musk and Twitter.  This morning David Leonhardt had a column about the Twitter transaction and brought up Thomas Piketty (again).  The author of a flawed book on economic inequality is a go to source for issues like Musk's use of his own resources to takeover Twitter.  Obviously if Musk gets control of Twitter, that is a bad thing.  And, although I have some serious reservations about the methodology (Piketty's book Capital in the Twentyfirst Century seemed to me when I read it to have written a series of conclusions before amassing the data) we do have some very rich people in society.  

Leonhardt's colleague at the NYT Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote a supplemental column called "Friends and Foes" which created all sorts of hobgoblins relating to Musk's actions - completely ignoring the manifold bias of the "fact" checkers who have governed social media (and indeed the main stream media) for a very long time.   Sorkin's argument seemed to characterize Twitter and the other social media platforms as almost public utilities.   That could be true, (and one might consider whether that would be a good idea) but it is not.

Sorkin seems to assume that Musk's ownership will result in "More bullying? More lewd commentary and images? More misinformation?"   Well, Mr. Sorkin - the answer is yes.   But the virtue of free speech is that it is inherently messy.   As James Suroweicki pointed out in The Wisdom of Crowds - give crowds the chance and they will sort out the bad stuff.   Arguing that "the science is settled" (to prevent discussion of alternative thinking about scientific questions) or that any one of a number of other issues in dispute have definable limits  is antithetical to the limits of free speech.    Trump did not win the election.  There were some alternative strategies for dealing with the pandemic.  Free speech is better when the limits of moderation are done by the crowd not some self satisfied group of elites.  The crowd has the ability to sort out the crazies.  The WSJ this morning sorted out (in my opinion) what might happen with Musk's acquisition - "If Mr. Musk can strike a more satisfying balance on content moderation, maybe he’s right about Twitter’s hidden value. Current management is correct that most regular social-media users don’t want a daily bath of Russian bots, jihadist propaganda, noxious harassment and so forth. "

Simultaneously we've seen grumpiness and misrepresentation on the stance of Florida on teaching sex education in the early grades.   Disney's woke CEO Robert Chapek claimed that Florida's recently passed legislation which limits the teaching of sex issues before grade 3 was somehow an abridgment of free speech.  The left has also has come up with some marvelous fictions about the actions by the legislature to eliminate a special district created in behalf of the company to help them build Disneyworld. 

OK - so was it a good idea to eliminate the district and has the legislature considered the consequences of eliminating this special privilege for a wealthy California corporation that employs a lot of Floridians and adds a lot to the state's GDP?   Having worked with legislators for more than 4 decades I can affirmatively answer that the answer is NO.   But are the issues appropriate for a legislature to consider?   ABSOLUTELY   Should a legislature consider constraining the public education establishment from determining curriculum without seeking parental input or consent?   The answer is YES.  But the whining of the cognoscenti is just plain silly.   Free speech is messy, so are democratic systems - but the chattering class believes that their point of view should control.   Not in our system.  

Is part of this story the presumed candidacy in 2024 of Governor DeSantis?  Of course there may be political motives attached to the Governor's and the Legislature's actions. But then of course all the criticism on each side of the issue has some political grounding.   The chattering class tries to hide that their political motives are above judgment.  NO MORE!!!

Finally we come to Larry Fink of Blackrock Capital.   In recent years an increasing number of financial professionals have begun to talk about ESG (Sustainable Investing) where somehow the owners of the company (those who hold shares in the company) are somehow equated with the suppliers of capital.  Corporations become servants of some broader social purpose.   For the most part this new range of investment theory has been relegated to funds created for those purposes.  If you invest your funds in their investment vehicles you assume that your returns will be better. (Based on a reasonable set of criteria).  But then comes the CEO of Blackrock (FINK) who has raised the bar a bit - he now claims that he will vote the shares he owns using his personal predilections. This is ESG investing on steroids.  When he made his statement I divested the funds I had from Blackrock as his principles and mine do not coincide.   I don't want to boycott him as some want to do with Florida.  The answer for people like me who disagree with philosophies like Fink's is to not invest with the guy.   On the left, California official boycotts working with a of majority of states because those states have established positions which contradict the orthodoxy of "woke" California.  So much for tolerance.

In recent years a good portion of the cultural elite have tried to impose their values while disregarding alternative points of view.  All three of these stories suggest that attempt at dominance will be under increasing challenge.  From my perspective that is just fine.   We need, as a society, to work on two things.   First, we need to understand that in a diverse society the cultural commons will include diverse points of view.  Second, and as importantly we need to think about how to talk about issues which divide us.   My grandmother used to say "there is a good reason why God gave us two ears and only one mouth."   Not a bad place from which to start.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Didn't you always hate those Supply/Demand graph

I've just  finished reading a pretty good book on the Fed called The Lords of Easy Money by John Leonard which describes the role of the Fed especially as it relates to that recent invention called Quantitative Easing (for those of you not schooled in this arcane idea the Australian comedy-news team of Clark and Dawe did a very short explanation of the policy which is right on point. - click on it - Clark and Dawe were a brilliant team of satirists whose weekly political spoofs on a variety of topics were cut short when John Clarke died in 2017).

The numbers around QE were astounding.  At one point the total QE injected into the system was larger than the total monetary expansions in 300 years!   All of that seems pretty arcane until you begin to realize that, at least according to the author there were several other consequences of QE.  To understand those, one needs to be reminded of two types of inflation - PRICE inflation and ASSET inflation.  The easiest way to understand price inflation is to go to any gas station in the US, or make a trip to the grocery store.  The cost of all sorts of things have increased rapidly over the last year.   Chair Powell commented that he expects if all the things they talked about yesterday are successful that at the end of the year price inflation will be down to just under 5% or two and a half times the Fed policy rate.  

Asset inflation is harder to detect and often its effects make us want to proclaim how smart we are.  When you buy a house that increases quickly in price - many people simply judge that they were good "students of the market."   Asset inflation can also be a bit harder to assess because one is not always to establish an accurate price for an asset easily. Many assets are intangible.    When I worked in a securities firm for two summers in college there was an obligatory read called Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay written in 1841 which described a series of market bubbles where assets were absurdly valued because of the "madness of crowds". (Note it was a good yarn although several of his tales were not quite accurate).  Don't blame a 19th Century Scottish poet for not getting the facts right on financial blunders - economists have done their best to build fallible models since then.  When I started investing in securities about a decade later the founder of Fidelity Magellan offered some very sound advice to avoid bubbles - Peter Lynch commented that if you cannot define a financial transaction on a single sheet of paper with a crayon - you probably should avoid it.

Price inflation makes all of us poorer (we pay more for less) but the effects are harder on those who spend most of their resources on things. (The poor really do get whacked when we have 7% inflation!). Asset inflation affects only those who own assets (except for some indirect effects - like possible increases in rent for dwellings which might go up as the perceived price of the asset increases).  And an increasingly smaller percentage of society owns real assets.

While I am not a fan of the nonsensical wails of "social justice" advocates who decry income and wealth inequality and attribute the changes to conspiratorial effects, it is worth considering that as QE grew, the American economy slowed the opportunity for making moves between income quintiles.

Leonard argues that as all that fluffle money was pumped into the system it produced tons of asset inflation causing a couple of stock and housing bubbles - with the inevitable crash. That is because as you add money to the system it reduces the price of money (in essence it keeps rates low) so investors are forced to search for yield.   But here is where his analysis is most interesting.  First, as QE money sloshed the rich got richer, exacerbating the wealth inequality in society.  The most prominent discussions of income  and wealth inequality seem to ignore that major factor.  It is easier to point to some sinister force like the "1%. "  Second, federal policy makers decided that when asset markets crashed that the losers (owners of those inflated assets) should be bailed out.  SO the richest in society were given a chance to make odd economic decisions and still get bailed out.  Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

The Fed announced on the 16th (the day I finished Leonard's book) that they would begin doing rate hikes in the federal funds rate - the first in about 4 years.  Powell said there would be seven before the end of the year (with the possibility that they might do another four soon after).   That sounds like pretty stiff stuff until you realize as the WSJ pointed out - all of those jumps would still leave negative interest rates (inflation would be higher than the borrowing rate).   He also said there would be an indeterminate reduction in the $9 trillion in QE still floating in the markets.

So with all these increases in rate - how will life change?  If you maintain either a variable rate mortgage (which was a lousy bet during this low rate environment) or any credit card debt - you are going to see rates increase.  Ditto for car loans and student loans.   You might get a slight jump in the rates you receive for money market and savings accounts.  But if you don't have any of those types of debts or plan to add some you might not feel anything.  The real question for everyone is whether all these rate hikes will tame inflation.  For me the Fed's actions are a step in the right direction but I remain to be convinced that price and asset inflation will moderate (assets are more likely to be slowed than prices).   Obviously, if the Fed moves too quickly we could be moved into a recession.

Leonard argues that the Fed stepped into a breach created by our other dysfunctional government institutions.  It is ill equipped to make policies which the Congress and the Administration and the interplay of interests would be better able to deal with.  I will admit that during the Greenspan era I was bothered by the rock star treatment that he was accorded by members of Congress.  When you compare Greenspan to Volker - the latter comes out as much more of a hero.   I think the same can be said of Bernanke and Powell.  (With a nod to Powell and not Bernanke)  But I must admit that I have always been a fan of the approach that Stanford professor John Taylor suggested where monetary levers are set and forgotten - fine tuning seems to be a contradiction in terms.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

 Where we are is not based on Geography

Our two kids are not alike in many ways including their approach to political questions,  Our daughter is in the mold of "progressive" LA politics. And to her credit she has not been a passive bystander.  She worked tirelessly in trying to make the public school where her daughters attended better.  Our son is on the other side.  But he too has been involved in trying to change his community.  He took an active role in the "let them play" movement which urged lifting the restrictions on kids playing sports outdoors.   He also participated in rallies urging the re-opening of the schools.

Our daughter and I have had a continuing set of discussions (mostly civil) about how to fix the big problems of our society.  Often I have been reminded of P.J. O'Rourke's quip about the the vibrations between liberals and conservatives - "In a democracy it's always vibrating back and forth. People want the government to do everything for them, then when they see that it sucks, they want the government to let them take charge, and when that doesn't work, they want the government to come back and fix all the problems that they themselves caused when they took charge."  O'Rourke died this week of lung cancer.  He wrote a series of books that were of the quality of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.   He even did a superb book on Adam Smith's two books.  His last book was called a "A Cry from the Far Middle" which mostly echoed my concerns about our current state of political discourse.    

Many of the discussions Emily and I have come down to issues where she thinks things should be "affordable" - most of those are what political philosophers call "positive rights" - the Constitution was built on "negative" rights - preventing government from intervening in our lives. There are two problems with positive rights - first many of the things people ask for are unattainable. Since the goal is not attainable (for example an absolute definition of "affordable" housing")  we spend a ton of money find out it is not going to happen and ultimately get into rationing.  In the first election after WWII in Britain  Churchill ran a campaign against  suggested Clement Attlee's promises of positive rights he had a great speech where he warned that if Attlee were elected the UK would become a nation of "queues."   He was right, of course, but he still lost the election.

As I have said most of our dialogues are civil.  That does not mean that Emily's naturally combative father does not occasionally throw a hand grenade.  In recent months the news about the progressive side of the ledger has not been positive.   When the NYT has an editorial titled "Can the Democrats Dodge Doomsday" and we find every state poll showing the president's approval at less than 50%, it suggests that the country is trying to re-center away from the left.  There were several indicators that something is up.   For example, this week I wrote Emily about the recall of three looney members of the SF school board - who had such great ideas as transforming Lowell High School (where admittance is based on merit) into a lottery and changing the names of a number of schools including ones honoring our first and sixteenth presidents.  All three were not just defeated - they were (as I believe they should have been) humiliated - 70% of the voters rejected them.  She wrote back that she did not need to read the article I sent.  We've had good talks about the terrors of LAUSD and how bureaucracy trumps sound educational policy.  She and I have spent a lot of time exchanging articles about COVID politics including a recent article from the NYT's David Leonhardt about what differentiates liberal and conservative approaches to the pandemic. Since the start I have seen the policies of COVID based more on perceived political advantage (and an over-weighting of perceived security over individual choice).  I don't think I have expressed an opinion about PM Trudeau's rather clumsy handling of the trucker convoy disrupting traffic into Canada.

But then the New Yorker published a fawning interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   One wonders why the Congresswoman has not changed her political designation from Democrat to Demagogue.   Her unwillingness to engage in the fundamental process of governing by working to understand the substance of ideas of people who disagree with her is profound.  If she cannot get something through Congress her alternative seems to be use presidential power or any other means to achieve her objective.   Never mind that people like Senator Manchin may have some substance behind their opinions.   Admittedly I did not start out admiring AOC but her comments in this article give me even greater pause.

Finally there was one more story about the limits of political correctness.   The President, announced in the 2020 election that he would nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.  Don't get me wrong, I think it is just dandy to identify and promote people with different backgrounds to the Supreme Court - but I do object to reducing the qualifications to gender and race.  Nominations to the court have come from an exceptionally small number of law schools and that standard should be broadened. But from my perspective his artificial limit is absurd.

Over the last 50 years - some presidents, who were guided by narrow characteristics were (or should have been chagrined) at their choices for the court.   Does anyone remember G. Harold Carswell the Florida judge nominated by Nixon who was defended by a Nebraska senator (Roman Hruska) with the following logic - "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all BrandeisesFrankfurters and Cardozos."   Just as Biden was not interested in supporting a well qualified Black Woman (He led the fight to stop Janice Rogers Brown from being on the court but based on ideology not gender or race) I think the most important characteristic for a Supreme Court Judge is talent and philosophy.  Clearly, I am not going to agree with a nominee from this president based on judicial philosophy.   But his lens is far too narrow.

This week I read a speech by a Federal Judge that I knew before he became a judge.   Ilya Shapiro, headed the Cato Institute's Constitutional Studies, and  was chosen to head a similar project at Georgetown, but he was suspended from his position for raising a question about whether the  sole qualifying characteristic for Justice Breyer's replacement should be a combination of gender and race.  Shapiro was simply arguing that Biden's vision was too narrow.  Immediately the Black Students Association at Georgetown demanded Shapiro be removed.   

James Ho, who I met when he worked in the California Legislature became a staffer for Texas Senator John Croyn.  He was later appointed to the Fifth Circuit.   Jim had been slated to speak to the Federalist Society at the Georgetown Law Center on some other topic.  But he chose the occasion to defend Shapiro's right to express his opinion.  Jim is a naturalized citizen from Taiwan.   He understands the evils of racism because he has experienced them.  He commented "Racism is a scourge that America has not yet fully extinguished—and the first step in fighting racial discrimination is to stop practicing it. That's all Ilya is trying to say.  That's all he has ever tried to say. And so, if Ilya Shapiro is deserving of cancellation, then you should go ahead and cancel me too."   He went on to comment "Cancel culture is not just antithetical to our constitutional culture and our American culture.  It's completely antithetical to the very legal system that each of you seeks to join. . . .If you disagree with Ilya Shapiro—if you think his understanding of the law is absurd—if you think his vision for our country is awful—here's what I say:  Bring him onto campus—and beat him!"

Those stories and many more give me pause about the future of the country's political system.  Even though I continue to disagree with Emily on a wide range of policies I am heartened by our ability to communicate and even try to convince the other of our point of view - I am not sure either of us has moved the other closer but that is not the point - we keep trying.   It is a shame that many simply don't believe in the key arguments that Madison offered in Federalist #10 (on the inherent power of having factions and the need to get those factions to work on common purpose) and #37 (where Madison argued that governmental systems need to pursue the seemingly contradictory goals of energy and stability).   OAC openly mentioned that we might be moving toward an irreparable breach in our Constitutional system. One wonders whether she has ever considered that her dogmatism is contributing to that risk in huge ways. There are many on the right who make the same point as OAC, and yet they won't even listen to the other side.  Neither of the extremes has any interest in doing what the founders thought was critical for our system - listening to our fellow citizens.  That was the point of O'Rourke's final book.  It is a shame it was not wider read.

(IS THERE) Progress on Of Course It's True Except for a Couple of Lies - One thing the last few months have taught me is that getting the last details done on getting a book into print is not simple and not often logical.  So far I have had both a developmental editor and a copy editor.  They were superb in getting better focus and prose.  The first two parts (STAVES) of the book are now with a proof reader.  When he is done the book will go to a design guy who will take the well worked prose and make it look better visually - he will also help me place the 75 photos in the book. (NOTE - The paperback version photos will be in Black and White; the electronic edition will use color.). If everything continues to progress I am shooting for getting this into print in late June.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Don't Cry for Me California

 The Atlantic, in my mind, has partially taken over from The New Yorker as a source of long form journalism.  While their political tendencies are almost always to the left of where I am - many of their writers post articles which make me think.   Conor Friedersdorf serves as a "California" correspondent.  In a July 21,2021 he wrote a piece called The California Dream is Dying which argues that California has become an ungovernable, unlivable mess.  He makes a strong case.  When I sent the article to my daughter , Emily, she commented that the analogy offered actually might well apply to the US.   (The picture by the way is was taken at a friend's house in Monterey - he is one of those Californians who has been marvelously successful in the tech industry - he worked very hard to be able to get that place AND he provided a real benefit to tech users in the area in which he worked.  But Monterey is often used as the image for California in part because of its beauty and the ruggedness of its coast.)

The first chapter of the book I am writing (Of Course It's True Except for a Couple of Lies) has a first chapter about an ancestor who came to California in 1849.   But it also reflects many things about the California I grew up in. (In the 50s and 60s).   It was a state that was cocky.  In California the Great Exception, Carey McWilliams gave a mostly optimistic view of the state but was also credited with identifying some of the warts.    In 1973, Kevin Starr, who later became a friend, began a series of books about California's intellectual history.  In the initial volume, Americans and the California Dream, covered some important figures between 1850-1915.   Many of the key figures Starr covered are now often forgotten and many others had lives that were more important than other places - take Jack London for instance who is probably more famous for his Klondike exploits but who lived in Sonoma county and helped to shape that area.

After the WWII the state exploited some key resources including several great universities  - a dean at one (Stanford) who understood the dynamics of linking industry to an engineering school; a research institute (CalTech) which worked in a number of areas at the frontiers of knowledge and technology; a public university (UC) that was constitutionally protected and thus able to develop world class programs in a number of other areas; and a university which was one of the founders of the field of public administration (USC).  Californians were, as opposed to their counterparts on the east coast more prone to accepting risk and less fearful of losing it all and then recovering.   The mythology around all this infused the air.

When I was about 14 our family went to Edwards Air Force Base for Armed Forces Day and watched a series of demonstrations including one I remember still where a rose was dipped in liquid nitrogen and then broken like glass.

But then came the 8s.   In 1958, the senior senator from California forced the Governor to switch their re-election bids (Knowland wanted to be governor so he forced his GOP colleague to run for the senate and both lost) and the employer community over-reached with a "right to work" initiative which was defeated by pretty stiff margins.  The new governor was from San Francisco and established a political dynasty - during his time he expanded the University system, built the California Water project, and initiated a long series of other public projects.  By the end of his second term, he tried to run for a third (only done once by Earl Warren) and lost to Ronald Reagan.  The late 50s also brought a series of new legislators including the ascension of one Jesse Marvin Unruh who transformed the work of the legislature.  One of the odd things was that Unruh and Pat Brown fought a lot.

The next 8 was 1968 - the middle of the "summer of love" in San Francisco - which was emblematic of all sorts of societal disruptions going on in society - much of that started in California.  "Peace, love, dope" became a mantra for many - but there were also a series of bizarre events some of horrific proportions.  By 1968 California was more balanced in its politics but the state also had a series of real nuts (one wit said it had become the "Granola" state because after you sorted out the fruits and nuts you were left with the flakes.)

In the middle period between 1968 and 1978 the state suffered through a "mystical" governor (Pat Brown's son).  During that period that state began to move quickly.  Several laws were passed which changed things deeply - the most important one was the ability of public employees to bargain and (now at least somewhat diminished) the ability of those same unions to force employees to fund political action committees run by the unions.  

But then came 1978 and the passage of a landmark initiative which limited property taxes.  The legislature fiddled with rising property taxes for about a decade and with Proposition 13 - the voters took charge.  We went through a series of initiative campaigns which attempted to reset policies about taxes and a host of other issues, some failed; some didn't. Some made sense (for example indexing the income tax and eliminating the estate tax) some did not.   While the GOP established a majority in the Assembly for a short period, they became increasingly irrelevant.  The state benefitted from several GOP governors (Deukmejian and Wilson in particular) but the conservative side of the ledger diminished.

Beginning in the second decade of this century people began to flee the state.  That resulted in two things.  First, California's ranking of residents with BA and higher declined; the state is ranked 34th among the states.  But as importantly 38% of the outmigrants from the state in the last decade have come from individuals earning more than $100,000 (the rate is even higher as you go further up the income scale).  Los Angeles was only behind New York in the number of residents leaving the area.  San Francisco, which from 1850 to 2000 had a pretty steady rise in population began to decline.  With a series of odd laws the city began to experience leakage.   Little wonder.  With the leaders concentrating on things like eliminating the legal penalties for defecating in the street, and at least passively tolerating homeless camps, and having prosecutors fail to prosecute shop lifting for items under $900 - the civility of the place deteriorated.  

California has always been a place of income and wealth divergencies.  (think the Hearst Castle built in the depths of the depression).  But in recent years those differences have become more stark.   A good way to get an idea of these trends is to a) Drive from the Bay Area down the center of the state.  Or drive in many large cities in California and travel from high income to the homeless encampments.  

The trend in California, seems to have been replicated in other cities in the country.  But there are some slight signs of hope.  Recent statements by the mayors of San Francisco and Chicago made movement in the right direction by suggesting that some of the looney laws were about to change and that prosecutors who wanted to change laws by ignoring them would be less supported.   What has not changed especially for California is the dogmatic adherence to legal structures like our NIMBY planning rules which impede construction of new housing and allow groups like the LA teacher's union to over-rule common sense on educating kids.

OF COURSE ITS TRUE - My editor has just sent me the final chapters in the book.  The next steps will require some new skills.  I want to have about 75 photos in the text and I will need to make sure the photos have enough pixels to be printed.  I will also engage a design guy to take the text file and format it correctly.  Because the book is divided into three staves (volumes) I will need to collect ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) so that each of the staves and the digital and paperback books will have one of those unique identifiers.   There is (finally) light at the end of the tunnel; and I am relatively convinced it is not a train coming from the other end.

Friday, November 19, 2021

 Perception is 9/10 of the law....

I rediscovered a book which I first read in graduate school about the use of numbers in public policy debates called Damn Lies and Statistics by Josh Best, a University of Delaware Sociologist.   Best's book argues that statistics are essential to discuss things we want to solve in the public 
arena AND that because so many people accept, often without question, numbers offered by public figures, newspeople and social media gurus - we live with a lot of bunk.

Let me offer one example that he offers at the start of the volume.  Some unnamed PhD candidate who had the good fortune to have Best on his guidance committee. The candidate made the absurd argument that the number of child murders had doubled every year since 1950.  Think for a moment about the power of numbers.   1 becomes 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 and so on. (at 10 days the number is 512, per day)  In a very short period the number of annual childhood murders would be will beyond the number of children and perhaps very soon larger than the world population.   The student's gaffe was not caught until a scholarly journal had published part of his research.

The problem we face with numbers is that some people are either careless or malevolent with numbers.  All of us who have practiced in the public arena have been guilty of a bit of balderdash with numbers.  In the early 1970s I worked for a Michigan congressman who was a moderate environmentalist.   (That was when such things were possible.).  He had a constituent from Ann Arbor who had a summer home in Minnesota near Silver Bay on Lake Superior.   A company called Reserve Mining extracted low grade iron ore by crushing the ore into a slurry and then extracting out the iron.  The company offered jobs to people in the area but the remaining gunk, without the ore, was held in some holding ponds and then simply washing into the lake.   The pictures of the spillway were dramatic.

We were sitting around one night and wondered how much effluent was being dumped into the lake.  I was tasked to figure that out.  We knew the depth of the sluice and its width and the approximate speed of the water.   We made some assumptions about the carrying capacity of the water and Voila a statistic was created.  The other Voila was how quickly people of authority began to quote the number.  The basis had no real justification except a (poorly) educated guess.  Eventually Reserve Mining was closed down, in part because of that bogus number.   Lake Superior is exquisite and had Reserve gone on for (a very long time) while it would have become less beautiful.

Made up statistics are frequent.  For example, Mitch Snyder once claimed that the number of homeless in the US exceeded 3 million people - the Reagan Administration did the numbers and suggested that it was closer to 300,000 and Snyder immediately claimed that the number was reduced because the Administration wanted to deny the problem.   For me that was one of the first examples of "fact" shaming.   Similar outlandish numbers came up in all sorts of other policy debates - at one point the estimated number of deaths from anorexia in young women was claimed to be 150,000 annually - that number is highly dubious but the advocates were trying to push a point.

The good point about rediscovering this book is the clear way that Professor Best describes the terrors of statistics.  He has several "hazards" for stats - they can, like my effluent stat (yes indeed it was effluent!) be made up.   Others may consider apples and oranges.   And still others can be intentional distortions.   The book was written before there was much cable news and before social media were here - but he points out that even when the book was written many reporters are simply too lazy to chase down wild claims and many may be too innumerate to understand the implications of what they bandy about.   The problem is that many people listen to the "experts" babble on about some number and believe it may have some basis in fact - and indeed, sometimes it does.   But often a number is just a close cousin to luncheon meat.

We've heard all sorts of numbers behind the Administration's Build Better America plan which has a cost of several trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000 - a trillion is 12 zeros!) and even those estimates are bogus because of the bizarre way costs are estimated. Don't believe the number used in the House debate - it has so many tricks and dodges it might even be called slight of hand.  I was amused a few days ago when Senator Sanders grumped that journalists have not done a good enough job selling this boondoggle.   Perhaps another explanation is that a good number of us are skeptical of a massive expansion of both the deficit and mucking around even more deeply in our lives.  Last time I checked the Press is not supposed to be a mouth piece for any administration - but Sanders thought because he was for it, the forces of political correctness must defend the point - no matter how bogus.

SO what about the picture?  One fraternity brother was driving through a small town in Mono county and saw the Chevron prices for gas. (IN the Eastern side of the state - think REMOTE).  Another fraternity brother commented "Incredible gouge. Way over prices here in Oakland."   My immediate response was to question whether the huge increases in Federal debt and the Biden Administration's attacks on all forms of fossil fuels might have created this pricing spike.

But as you think about both of our reactions - they involved a lot of jerky knees.   Here are some other things one should think about.   First, Mono county is remote - their gas prices are always way higher than in other parts of the state which are closer to refineries.   Second, as we have come out of COVID lockdowns more people are driving thus putting more demand pressure on gas prices. California especially has artificially curtailed supply.  Third, the Year to Year increases between urban Oakland and rural Mono County are not the same - Oakland's gas prices have jumped 60+% over the last year while Mono's have grown only about 11%.

Understanding how things interact is tough.  This gas thing made me think a bit about being  more cautious in responding to images or posts.   Not a bad lesson.

UPDATE ON Of Course It's True, Except for a Couple of Lies - The book is now tripartite; the first on Family; the second on Life; and the third on Beliefs.  They will be published simultaneously - and will be roughly the same size.   The first "Stave" has been done in final edit and the next two are progressing.   Based on the amount of work left to do it will probably be available in Q1 2022.