Monday, November 30, 2009

It's the Story That's Important

This Politico article by John F. Harris paints a worrisome picture for President Obama. (Digging up — or even creating — controversy sells news.) It outlines seven “stories” or narratives that are presenting a challenge to the official storyline from the administration/campaign.

The Politico’s Ben Smith blogs that the effectiveness of the alternate narratives is hampered because they “contradict one another, and that, as far as Democrats are concerned, Obama retains a [sic] enormous power to shape his own story.” Smith goes on in this subsequent post to highlight another narrative coming from a Democrat perspective that the President is “a worryingly indistinct figure. One whose pragmatic sensibility is crystal clear but bedrock convictions are still blurry.”

While it might make interesting fodder to get into the nitty-gritty of the various competing narratives surrounding the President, I want to explore the whole concept of politics as an implementation of the art of storytelling. Harris begins his article by saying:
“Presidential politics is about storytelling. Presented with a vivid storyline, voters naturally tend to fit every new event or piece of information into a picture that is already neatly framed in their minds.”
Harris goes on to say that the President won the election last year “in part because [he and his team] were better storytellers than the opposition.” He writes:
“The pro-Obama narrative featured an almost mystically talented young idealist who stood for change in a disciplined and thoughtful way. This easily outpowered the anti-Obama narrative, featuring an opportunistic Chicago pol with dubious relationships who was more liberal than he was letting on.”
It seems that our nation has a deep tradition of giving significant weight to storied caricatures of presidential candidates in formulating voting decisions. More accurate knowledge of a candidate’s character and policies (the real ones, not the stated ones) is harder to come by. So most of us satisfy ourselves with settling on the narrative that seems most convincing to us.

We do this in hindsight as well. While there are volumes of scholarly works dedicated to the complex nature of each of our nation’s presidents, most Americans know only what has become the mainstream storyline about a small number of these men. They know little or nothing about the rest.

Harris cites the storytelling concept as if everyone knows that this is what really goes on. It’s not about reality; it’s about which storyline can win in the marketplace of public sentiment. Perhaps political wonks know this. Maybe average Americans even think it somewhere in the backs of their minds. But they act otherwise.

Is this narrative game unique to presidential politics, or does it pervade other political spheres as well? I think it pretty much covers the whole political spectrum, from the closest local official to the highest levels of international politics.

The broader the audience, the greater the variation in narratives. It seems obvious that different narratives can be deeply held by different target groups, so that various people can have sharply divergent views about a given politician or political matter.

Of course, the narratives about a politician are not the only things that govern public support. Other narratives may completely overshadow a given individual in a way that may be either beneficial or detrimental to that person’s political career. For example, in light of the Watergate scandal, even a Republican with the most compelling narrative probably could not have won the 1976 election.

Since we are not omniscient, we necessarily approach political matters with imperfect and limited information. Since we all have other priorities in life, most approach politics in a relatively less informed manner. We rely heavily upon more or less deliberately skewed narratives. The more enlightened among us perhaps hope that the narrative that wins in the public marketplace of ideas will end up being the least detrimental.

Is this the way it should be? If not, what truly realistic alternative is there?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Action

I saw a marquee in front of a business the other day that read, “Thanksgiving is an action.” I got to thinking about tomorrow, which is Thanksgiving Day, and what it really means. After watching this video titled In the Spirit of Thanksgiving, I started thinking about how grateful I am.

My first thoughts turned to my wife, my children, and my extended family members. My wife is truly one of the finest people I know. She is certainly my superior in everything that is really important. My children are wonderful individuals.

Both my wife and I count ourselves very blessed with excellent in-laws. My Mom and my Mom-in-law are both fantastic people. Although my Dad and my Father-in-law both passed away in recent years, I will forever be grateful for each of these great men and what they have meant in my life.

Next my thoughts turned to all of the non-family people that have had a positive impact on my life. I will always have a special place in my heart for my Scoutmaster. I had no clue at the time what he was sacrificing so that he could serve us boys. I likewise owe a permanent debt of gratitude to the Boy Scout camp director that hired me to work at Camp Loll years ago.

There is the lady that I barely knew that went out of her way to give me a career changing opportunity. I had friends that helped me make good choices during my youth. There are those have worked to give me educational opportunities. It is impossible to count the people that have actually cared about me enough to make a difference in my life.

I have been blessed with countless opportunities. I live in a beautiful area surrounded by mountains that I love. A short bike ride from my home brings me to spectacular back country adventure. It sometimes amazes me to think that people pay money to vacation in places half as beautiful. I live in a great neighborhood with good neighbors.

Though I have Multiple Sclerosis, my health has been reasonably good. I have been able to live a fairly active life. I live in a time when advances in nutrition and health knowledge and capabilities have permitted this.

In the current economic climate, I am grateful to have a decent job. (Although it is impossible to say how long that will last.) I have a decent home. We have plenty of everything we really need, and plenty of non-necessities that improve life.

I almost didn’t mention what to me is the greatest blessing of all — my relationship with God — because it is very personal and is almost too sacred to share in this type of venue.

Like the one fellow in the video, it would take hours and hours to list all of the things for which I am grateful. I hope that as I celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I will do so by actively giving thanks.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Next Real Estate Bubble Prepares to Burst

Not all real estate is created equally. We all felt the pain when the housing mortgage bubble burst last year. Lately the chatter in certain financial circles about the situation in the commercial real estate market has been heating up.

The word is that the commercial real estate market today is “eerily similar to the subprime crisis” (see 10/22/09 IBD article) before the bubble burst. Regulators are trying to prevent the inevitable (see 11/2/09 Minyanville article) by “encouraging banks to modify loans, rather than foreclose and repossess property, even if the value of the building has fallen below the amount of the loan.”

Regulators are also allowing big banks to put off recognizing commercial real estate loan losses. This strategy only pushes the pain into the future. The only way this could diminish the problem would be if real estate prices rebounded to their previous unrealistic levels before the write downs were to become unavoidable. Nobody thinks that’s going to happen.

SmartMoney author James B. Stewart paints a bleak picture of the affair. He refutes claims by optimists that “the sector’s problems are likely to be contained because they’re valuation-driven, a result of easy credit and the inflated prices it encouraged.”

When it comes to “apartments, retail and industrial space,” vacancies are “rising sharply” and rents are falling at the highest rate ever recorded. “Goldman Sachs now predicts that asset prices will fall 40 to 42 percent on average. Private-equity firm Blackstone has marked down its commercial real estate portfolios by 45 percent.” The number of commercial real estate loans with a debt-service-coverage ratio of less than one (meaning the loan is technically in default), “will rise from a negligible level as of 2008 to 49 percent of all loans by mid-2010.” Forty-nine percent!

From his analysis of this year’s market rally, Stewart believes that most investors have failed to adequately factor in the risk in the commercial real estate market. In other words, he is saying that the market, similar to its condition before the subprime crisis took hold, has not yet considered the developing crisis, although, the information is available for anyone to see. Drawing parallels between the two crises, he writes:
“Stocks in general, and bank stocks in particular, kept hitting new highs in 2007 even after rising default rates in subprime mortgages were the subject of widespread press coverage. Only when banks started taking multibillion-dollar write-downs did investors finally wake up to the scope of the problem, and then they overreacted.”
So as we giddily watch the Dow press past 10,400, we are apparently oblivious to the fact that another crisis as severe as the last is coming. It is close to impossible to accurately predict the timing of the bursting of this next bubble. But I think it is safe to make some forecasts regarding it.
  • Politicians will use the crisis to increase the grasp of the federal government as well as to increase their own political stock.
  • Financial firms will successfully apply to the federal government for hundreds of billions (or even trillions) of dollars in aid.
  • The Fed will seek to expand its power while continuing to insist that it is doing a fine job of stabilizing the money supply and that it needs ‘independence’ to do so.
  • Regular American investors will lose a lot of money again.
While investors may be ignoring the impending calamity, I guarantee that politicians are not. Even as I write this, some politicians are scheming about ways to use the crisis to achieve their desired goals. Will we allow ourselves to be taken in again?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Time to Fight

“Evil rarely comes upon us all at once, and liberty is rarely lost in one stroke.”

Our federal government is out of control. The sprawling government we have today is markedly different from the one bequeathed to us by our Founders, which “was strictly limited in its scope, guaranteed individual liberty, preserved the free market, and on matters that pertain to our private behavior was supposed to leave us alone.” Now is the time to halt the unbridled growth of government power.

Judge Andrew Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge that is senior judicial analyst for Fox News, issues a call to action in this article. He begins the article by saying:
“Congress recognizes no limits on its power. It doesn't care about the Constitution, it doesn't care about your inalienable rights. If this health care bill becomes law, America, life as you have known it, freedom as you have exercised it, and privacy as you have enjoyed it will cease to be.”
Before you accuse me of being an evil Fox News ideologue, please note that I still live in the dark ages. I still rely on regular broadcast signals for the rare occasions that I watch TV, having never had cable TV in my home. I’ve never seen Napolitano on TV, although, I once heard him briefly on the radio.

I know that Napolitano is libertarian and I know what his detractors say about him. But the passionate concern for a properly constitutional federal government on display in his article speaks to concerns that I have long had. While the article is mainly focused on the current health care power grab by government, it addresses larger issues as well. Napolitano writes:
“When I recently asked Congressman James Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House, to tell me "Where in the Constitution the federal government is authorized to regulate everyone's healthcare," he replied that most of what Congress does is not authorized by the Constitution, but they do it anyway. There you have it. Congress recognizes no limits on its power. It doesn't care about the Constitution, it doesn't care about your inalienable rights, it doesn't care about the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights, it doesn't even read the laws it writes.”
That, my friends, is the definition of tyranny. Our tyrannical federal government is out of control.

The quote at the top of this post comes from Napolitano’s article. Over time, our federal government has morphed from its original design to become “one big monster government that recognizes no restraint on its ability to tell us how to live. It claims the power to regulate any activity, tax any behavior, and demand conformity to any standard it chooses.”

The current health care bill is a special case because for the first time, the federal government will assume that it has power under the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause (Article 1, Section 8, clause 3) to force you to purchase a personal product “you might not want, or may not need, or cannot afford.”

For those that believe that this would not be too onerous of a price to pay, consider the fact that “If you don’t purchase what the government tells you to buy, if you don’t do so when they tell you to do it, and if you don’t buy just what they say is right for you, the government may fine you, prosecute you, and even put you in jail. Freedom of choice and control over your own body will be lost. The privacy of your communications and medical decision making with your physician will be gone.”

This kind of thing smacks of King George III's actions outlined in the grievances noted in the Declaration of Independence. Now is the time to fight back. We must not tolerate this theft of our freedom. But what can we do? Napolitano urges:
“For starters, we can vote the bums out of their cushy federal offices! We can persuade our state governments to defy the Feds in areas like health care—where the Constitution gives the Feds zero authority. We can petition our state legislatures to threaten to amend the Constitution to abolish the income tax, return the selection of U.S. senators to state legislatures, and nullify all the laws the Congress has written that are not based in the Constitution.”
These sound like drastic measures that have little chance of success. But it may be possible to key into that spark of liberty that lives somewhere in the hearts of many Americans in a way that will set the political class on its heel. This is a fight for the soul of America, for your individual liberty, and for the freedom of your children.

This is not a particularly partisan fight. I agree with Napolitano when he says:
“We do not have two political parties in this country, America. We have one party; called the Big Government Party. The Republican wing likes deficits, war, and assaults on civil liberties. The Democratic wing likes wealth transfer, taxes, and assaults on commercial liberties. Both parties like power; and neither is interested in your freedoms.”
The American system of government was designed to protect our liberties, not to take them away in the name of some collective good. Not to have them meted out by some oligarchy and its army of faceless, unaccountable bureaucratic minions.

This is America. The time has come to fight for our freedoms.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Coming Battle Over Tax Increases/Spending Cuts In Utah

They ain’t taxes if we call ‘em fees, right? At least, that’s how many members of the political class see it.

As the St-Ex reports, the State of Utah is facing a budget shortfall of somewhere around $650-$850 million. Politicians must be longing for the heady days of ’05-’07, when figuring out how to spend multimillion- and billion-dollar budget surpluses were among their biggest headaches.

Here’s how economic cycles work in government. When times are good, you grow government as much as possible. It’s easy and gratifying for politicians to do so. Times are good for taxpayers, so they don’t pay much attention to government growth.

Politicians get to play hero by doling out money to as many of the perpetually outstretched hands as possible. The willing media plays this up (i.e. spending someone else’s money to make yourself look good) as altruism. Some of this bread cast upon the water comes back buttered in the form of campaign contributions and other perks. During these times, politicians are even known to occasionally throw out the bone of a small tax cut from time to time.

When lean times hit, as they inevitably must, politicians find themselves in the unenviable position of cutting spending. State politicians, that is. Federal politicians increase spending instead. They call this “stimulus,” which is similar to what my farmer neighbor says about the stuff he spreads on his fields in the spring. It smells similar too. Only his, uh, fertilizer actually helps grow a productive crop.

During austere times, some politicians inevitably argue, as does state Sen. Stuart Adams as quoted in the St-Ex article, that “There is only so much you can cut” from the budget. You see, increasing spending brings the politician a lot of friends. These fair-weather friends (and their lobbying dollars) dry up when spending is cut.

The natural alternative is creatively increasing taxes. It’s so much easier to look longingly at the pocketbooks of people you will never know than to tell people with whom you’ve developed a relationship that their funding is being reduced.

But ‘tax increase’ is the phrase that must not be uttered by politicians, because it tends to anger constituents. That can mean popularity challenges, perhaps even to the point of having to worry about being re-elected.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, which has proven itself to be a reliable supporter of big government, has “offered its budget plan, outlining what it called “targeted” fees.” SLCoC President (and former Utah Senate President) Lane Beattie says the plan includes a 10-cent/gallon fuel tax increase and yet another tobacco tax increase. Others also want to roll back the 2006/7 sales tax decrease on unprepared foods.

Gov. Gary Herbert is talking tough against tax increases at present. He says, “With the down economy right now, raising taxes would have a dampening effect on economic growth.”

Herbert has more incentive to not raise taxes than many members of the state legislature. Although he served as lieutenant governor for over four years before assuming the governor position when Jon Huntsman, Jr. left to become ambassador to China, Utah voters don’t know Herbert very well yet. He will face voters to keep his assumed office in a special election just under 12 months from now.

This next legislative session will be a major factor — perhaps THE major factor — in determining how voters feel about Herbert. While legislators in ‘safe’ districts can get by with raising taxes, Gov. Herbert knows that he probably can’t. At least, not this session. And probably not in 2011 or 2012 either, if he hopes to be re-elected in the 2012 regular election.

This may pit the governor against the legislature. The budget shortfall has to be made up somewhere. If cutting spending becomes too painful to endure and tax cuts are too politically unpopular, be on the lookout for California style book cooking on a smaller scale.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that the dependent class will be on full parade during the legislative session decrying the evils of ‘heartless’ and ‘severe’ budget cuts. The competition between members of this class in the halls may resemble a roller derby. But most players will be competing with the real giant — the UEA-PTA team.

For Utah political hacks, the 2010 legislative session will likely be a great spectator event.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Medical Care Follows Basic Economic Principles

Economic scholar Thomas Sowell published a book last December called Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One. He has allowed Investor’s Business Daily to publish the chapter on the economics of medical care. IBD broke it into a nine-part series (see lead page). The parts are:Sowell’s treatise is reasonably well written and lucid. It is geared at a level that could be understood by a moderately informed adult. I am quite disappointed that no bibliography or references were provided. Without this, it can appear that some references and examples were cherry picked and/or skewed. The article series includes many useful tidbits, including this conclusion:
“[M]isconceptions of the economic function of prices lead not only to price controls, with all their counterproductive consequences, but also to organized attempts by various institutions, laws and policies to get most of the costs reflected in prices paid by somebody else. For society as a whole, there is no somebody else.”
I must add that the attempt to obfuscate medical costs plays directly into the hands of the powerful. Both our current system and Washington’s proposed system destroy transparency in favor of obfuscation. If you’ve ever tried to make heads or tails of all of the billing and insurance paperwork that flows from a single hospital stay, you’ll know what I mean.

Those that benefit from such obfuscation include politicians, employers, insurance companies, and the medical industrial complex. When costs are hidden — when it looks like someone else is paying the bill or that you have to make sure you get your slice of the pie — you are more likely to see something as a ‘need’ that would simply be a desire (or even unwanted) otherwise.

Multiply that by all of the people in the system and you have a lot of people getting a lot of care that has diminished real value. But each extra procedure done brings money into the coffers of providers as well as the army of paperwork pushers in both private and public organizations.

Employers look like heroes because they appear to be generously giving employees benefits, when it has been demonstrated that all such benefits are merely in lieu of actual salary. Employees feel more tied to an employer for fear of losing medical insurance coverage.

Politicians get to look like heroes for saving the poor and the sick from horrible fates. Never mind the fact that most of these could be helped without skewing an entire sector of the economy. Moreover, when politicians look like heroes they ensure a continuing flow of calls for political salvation — a self-perpetuating stream of business. Perverse incentives, indeed.

We live in an age where many imagine that they can design methods that exceed the laws of economics. This differs from those that use airplanes, parachutes, and rockets to do things that can appear to defy the law of gravity. They are actually working within the constraints of the law. Rather, there are plenty around today that ignore the very existence of economic laws. They do so at the peril of those that willhave to live with the results of their experiments.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Creating Incresed Risk by Trying to Limit Risk

Yes, there are a lot of “greed merchants” on Wall Street, agrees high rolling economic forecaster Ted Forstmann in an interview with CNBC’s Charles Gasparino reported in this WSJ op-ed. But these greed mongers don’t act alone, says Forstmann, who has “been calling them on the carpet for years….”

Gasparino writes, “The greed merchants needed a co-conspirator, Mr. Forstmann argues, and that co-conspirator is and was the United States government.” He quotes Forstmann as saying, “They're always there waiting to hand out free money. They just throw money at the problem every time Wall Street gets in trouble. It starts out when they have a cold and it builds until the risk-taking leads to cancer.”

Right now the Fed and the Treasury are engaging in shockingly unprecedented activities that are presented as necessary “to ameliorate a once-in-a-lifetime financial "perfect storm."” Gasparino argues that the only thing that makes these actions unique is their size. He documents how the federal government has been subsidizing risk for three decades “on the taxpayer dime.”

Pricing down risk
One of the ways the government has done this is through easy money — a policy to which the Fed has repeatedly turned since the 1980s to lessen “the pain of the risk-taking gone awry.” They did this with the junk bond crisis, the 1980s mortgage meltdown, the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy, when LTCM “blew up” in 1998, and again in the current crisis.

This easy money policy “opened the door for increased risk down the line.” The use of this tool, which essentially subsidizes improper risk on the backs of savers, is now so common that its effectiveness is diminishing.

In addition to this, “policy makers transformed home ownership into something that must be earned into something close to a civil right.” They made this work by creating the mortgage bond, “which allowed banks to offload the increasingly risky mortgages to Wall Street, which in turn securitized them into triple-A rated bonds thanks to compliant ratings agencies.” Gasparino asserts:
“This is where the real sin of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac comes into play. Both were created by Congress to make housing affordable to the middle class. But when they began guaranteeing subprime loans, they actually began pricing out the working class from the market until the banking business responded with ways to make repayment of mortgages allegedly easier through adjustable rates loans that start off with low payments. But these loans, fully sanctioned by the government, were a ticking time bomb, as we're all now so painfully aware.”
The bailout of LTCM in 1998 cemented understanding among investment bankers that the government would step in to stanch the pain anytime big time risk produced big time pain. It just had to appear to be “too big to fail.” This created tremendously perverse incentives for excessive risk taking. Gasparino opines that had LTCM been allowed to fail, the resultant pain would have imposed sufficiently severe costs to prevent the kind of risk taking that led to the recent crisis.

When the picture of the most recent financial market meltdown is considered as part of a collage that includes financial crises throughout the past three decades, there is no question that the big investment firms are as guilty as sin. But they could not have brought the market to its knees on their own. They are like druggies yearning for their next hit. They needed a pusher. And that pusher — the greedy bankers’ willing partner — is our federal government.

In essence, successive financial crises became increasingly severe because the clear message was sent that improper risk would be rewarded. Finally we reached the 2008-9 crisis. The pain has been heavy. But true to its form, government has come to the rescue, ensuring that there will yet be another even more severe bubble in the future.

Why would government do this?
We understand the incentives of the investment bankers. But what incentives does government have to engage in this kind of destructive co-dependency? Campaign contributions, lobbying dollars, and special perks no doubt play a large role here. But that alone is not enough. Among the other factors are the elitist mindset that pervades politics, maintenance of what I will call “the club,” and the rise of the investor class.

Almost all politicians today see their role as saving people from themselves. They play the hero; we play the victim. They see themselves as uniquely qualified to rule. Many of us feed this ideology. Sometimes we are pleased to erect windmills for our elected and appointed Don Quixotes to battle.

Many in the political class also buy into the view of economist John Maynard Keynes, who famously said, “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Thus, the compulsion to “do something” right now, regardless of long-term consequences is somehow justified in their minds.

“The club” refers to the society that exists among those involved in high finance. Some of these people are in the private sector. Some are in the public sector. Some move back and forth between these sectors. Even if these people don’t personally know each other, they enjoy a relationship that is akin to that of belonging to an exclusive club. They share a similar view and are quick to come to the aid of another club member, as it were, even if that aid involves taxpayer funds.

Nowadays most Americans have assets tied up in various investment instruments. If the financial market is hurting, so are they. When they feel negative consequences from taking financial risks, many are quick to appeal to government for relief. As mentioned above, government officials sit astride their white stallions ready to play the role of hero and eager to quell earned consequences in apparent righteous indignation.

Please understand that this is not a partisan thing. Both parties have a deep history of turning government into the pusher for the high finance community.

Slow learners
I believe it is abundantly clear that the most important players in this game have not yet learned their lesson. Everyone will be happy as soon as the current pain passes. Government officials, investment bankers, and investors will all breathe a sigh of relief and be happy to have things ‘back to normal.’

But that state will necessarily be temporary. When the bubble that is currently being constructed bursts (as it must), it will be a much larger deal than our recent crisis. Perhaps the pain will be sufficient to teach us that subsidizing risk creates a faux vision of limited risk that ultimately causes more pain that simply accepting the natural workings of the risk mechanism.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Hands-On Method of Teaching Utah History

Like every other kid in Utah, I had Utah history in fourth and seventh grades. I remember some of that. But we never did anything like the stuff my son's charter school class does.

I spent the day volunteering to hike with my son's class on a 4-mile stretch of the Mormon Trail, up Little Emigration Canyon to Big Mountain. The class had already discussed how this stretch of trail had been used by the Donner Party, the first companies of Mormon Pioneers, and the Pony Express.

For many that came from the east, cresting Big Mountain afforded their first view of the Salt Lake Valley. Learning about this in the classroom is one thing, but actually standing there at the end of a hike looking at the valley provides an entirely different level of learning.

As the students sat there on Big Mountain eating their lunches, they pulled out their class journals and recorded what they imagined their feelings would be had they been among the Mormon Pioneers looking down into the valley. They thought about the great sense of relief at being near their journey's end. But they also thought about the hardships of settling the sparse valley.

Then the students were tasked with doing the same, imagining that they were members of the Donner Party. That group had taken this route as a supposed shortcut. But they ended up using precious time to build the road through the route. From Big Mountain they could see the flat valley that they would have to cross. But it had to be terribly disheartening to see the high and seemingly impenetrable mountains on the other side of the valley, given that their destination was California.

It was chilly this morning when we started hiking. The trail was muddy in many places. The closer we got to the monument at Big Mountain, the more snow there was. We walked past beaver ponds that were iced over enough that rocks tossed onto the surface bounced off.

The entire four-mile stretch runs uphill. This time of year it is quiet and it appears quite desolate, since most leaves are gone from the trees. I was surprised that we passed no other users of the trail on our hike.

Some of the students had no problem on the hike. Some lagged or struggled. But we reminded them that pioneer children younger than them walked that stretch in bare feet. Yeah, I know that's probably as effective as when your mother told you to eat your broccoli because kids in Africa were starving.

It was kind of overcast, but the weather was very good for hiking. There was little wind. It was windier atop Big Mountain, but it was sunny while we were up there.

We had shuttled the kids to the trail head in volunteer's vehicles. A bus was coming to pick the crew up at Big Mountain and haul them back to the school. I was among a few of the volunteers that both drove and hiked. Those of us that did that knew at the outset that we'd be making a round-trip hike.

While the kids were finishing up lunch and their writing assignments, I packed up and headed back down the trail with the other volunteers. We made the trip in about a third the time it had taken to hike up. It's all downhill and we had no students to slow us down. I'm a pretty experienced hiker. One of the other hikers is a high school volleyball coach that runs marathons.

This event was just a sampling of the kinds of things that students at my son's charter school do every week. It is pretty common for them to get out of the classroom and do something hands-on.

I explained how this works to a friend of mine that teaches in an inner city school. He said that he would love to do that kind of thing with his students. Red tape is one of the things that stops this. Getting everything worked out with the school district's legal department is a nightmare. Getting adequate volunteer support is problematic. Making sure that students have proper equipment is an issue.

This friend told me how he taught his students about the trails in the mountains east of Ogden. (Check Weber Pathways.) When he suggested that they get their families to explore the trails, one of his students incredulously asked, "You mean that people like us are allowed to go up there?" He was stunned. Students that have lived for years only a couple of miles from spectacular outdoor opportunities know nothing about such things.

I'm grateful that my kids have expanded opportunities for learning. I'm grateful to have opportunities to support them in these pursuits. I wish everyone could enjoy such blessings.

Friday, November 06, 2009

A Doubly Wrong School Assembly

It’s sometimes difficult to be appropriately critical of someone you know and respect. But it is important to speak out when you see something wrong.

The St-Ex reports that last Friday Roy High School held a special assembly “to which only minority students were invited to listen to Dave Tafoya, a Hispanic member of the city council and candidate for mayor.” School principle Dale Pfister and Mr. Tafoya are portrayed in the article as essentially dismissing criticism of their actions.

I know Mr. Pfister. He was a great principle when he was at a school that some of my children attended. My wife had many opportunities to work with him and members of his administration. She holds him in very high regard. But in this case, Mr. Pfister did the wrong thing, even if he meant well by it.

Error #1
The first thing wrong about this assembly was that it implied official endorsement of a political candidate, even if such was not intended. It does not matter that Mr. Tafoya helps with the driver education program at the school and is known by the students.

Public institutions supported by taxpayer dollars must studiously avoid anything that smacks of political endorsement. If you are going to invite a current political candidate or someone supporting a ballot item to speak, you must also invite their opponents, so as to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

At the time of the event, Mr. Tafoya was a candidate for Roy City Mayor. (He lost on Tuesday.) The election was only a few days away. Some of the students at the assembly were old enough to vote. Even if political matters were not discussed, Mr. Tafoya’s appearance cannot be separated from campaigning.

Error #2
The second problem with this assembly is that there simply is no way to justify the racial separation that occurred. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that racial separation by design could never be considered equal treatment in our public institutions. An entire body of law has been built on this basis. Separating a group of students for different treatment based on their race violates these accepted principles.

Mr. Pfister talks about “subgroups” using phrases like “this subgroup” and “these subgroups.” How is this different than the divisive racial overtones of the use of phrases like “those people” when referring to those of different races than our own?

In his defense, Mr. Pfister says that we have programs aimed at specific racial categories because we have evidence of different levels of performance among such categories. He reasons that having students from a “subgroup” attend an assembly intended to inspire them to better performance isn’t much different than the programs he mentions.

Actually, race based programs have to be carefully designed to comport with fairly sticky legal requirements. Many school programs manage to exceed these requirements without being challenged. Still, an arbitrary decision by a local administrator to call students of certain races to a separate meeting very likely violates the law.

Beyond the legal ramifications of such a meeting is the message sent by a public institution. There is no way to get past the implication that the message to students of certain racial “subgroups” was that the institution believes these students to be basically inferior to students of “subgroups” that were not invited to the assembly.

The larger message sent is one of divisiveness rather than inclusiveness. Mr. Pfister is old enough to remember the civil rights battles of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. How is it possible that this could be lost on him?

I respect Mr. Pfister and know him to be a fine school principle in many ways. But in this case he messed up big time on two levels. He should admit his mistake. If he still believes that he did nothing wrong, he needs some help from his superiors to correct his understanding.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Vainly Trying to Fill the Leadership Vacuum

“What was learned Tuesday is that the American voter is absolutely, totally, unremittingly disgusted with both political parties. More than anything, the American voter is desperate for political leadership.” —Daniel Henninger

Studies suggesting that independent voters are essentially Republicans or Democrats that feign non-affiliation may need to be retooled when the 2008 and 2009 back-to-back elections are considered. While Democrats undeniably won the day in 2008, the 2009 elections look like a feather in the cap of Republicans.

The GOP win on Tuesday cannot be chalked up to voters suddenly falling in love with Republicans, says the WSJ’s Daniel Henninger in this column. Both the 2008 and 2009 elections, he claims, demonstrate an extreme hunger for real leadership on issues that really matter.

Noting that this rapid thrashing from party to party is way outside the realm of normal political events, Henninger likens today’s growing herd of independent voters to a cattle stampede.
“Independent voters across the U.S. have become like the massive cattle herd John Wayne drove from Texas to Kansas in "Red River." These voters are spooked and on the run, a political stampede that veered left in November 2008 and now right a mere year later. They will keep running—crushing incumbents, candidates and political models of the left and right—through November 2010 and onto 2012 until they find a person or party capable of leadership appropriate to our unsettled times. And yes, Virginia, the possibility of a man on a white horse in 2012 is not out of the question.”
The way Henninger tells it, John McCain flushed his chances of winning last year when he “suspended” his campaign to rush back to Washington to tackle the fresh financial crisis. Henninger writes:
“Within 48 hours, his candidacy stood naked. Mr. McCain's instincts were right; The American people wanted leadership. But he didn't have a clue how to provide it. The restless herd ran toward Barack Obama.”
President Obama and the Democratic establishment thought that they had been elected with a mandate for implementing their progressive plans. The mandate was actually smaller than they imagined. But the entire landscape of priorities shifted dramatically in the minds of average Americans between Election Day and Inauguration Day.

By the time the President took office, some of his top campaign issues had dropped dramatically in importance for most Americans. They want the economy fixed. They want jobs. They want America’s pre-eminence in the world restored. Reeling with sticker shock from the mind boggling deficit, they want some semblance of fiscal responsibility brought back to government.

Barging ahead with cherished programs such as health care reform and Cap’N Trade looks an awful lot like a pack of politicians with such a political tin ear that they care nothing for Americans’ immediate concerns. This is not the kind of leadership Americans want right now.

Although Republicans were able to make hay of this on Tuesday, Henninger derides the apparent GOP strategy of letting “Democratic failure dump states like New Jersey and Virginia into their control.” He believes that “most voters, no matter their party registration, know that in the past 12 months the stakes for them have suddenly become larger than political "control."”

Henninger forecasts, “Unless leadership emerges equal to the new world voters see they have fallen into, volatility in America's election returns is going to be the norm for a long time.”

Some may see this kind of thrashing as the evidence of vibrancy in a free society, much as Thomas Jefferson initially viewed the French Revolution. It seems, however, that such circumstances lend themselves well to exploitation by a strong man ruler that appears (or makes himself to appear) as a savior on a white horse. Alas, throughout history, such political saviors inevitably act the role of the despot rather than the role of the fictional John Galt.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Little Local Politics: Election Outcomes

Back in September my city held a primary election to narrow the race for mayor from three candidates to two, and to reduce to four the field of five candidates for two city council seats. The incumbent two-term mayor was ousted in a tight three-way split. The remaining candidates were a sitting two-term council member (who is also a former planning commission member) and a well known libertarian retired dentist that publishes his own monthly newspaper.

There were no incumbents in the city council races. The primary election eliminated a candidate that did very little campaigning, leaving two men that ran vigorous campaigns based on fiscal responsibility and two that ran lackluster campaigns based on good growth management.

I asserted at the time that in the November election voters would opt for the sitting council member as mayor and would give the nod to the two council candidates that received the most votes in the primary election. I reasoned that most of the voters that had chosen the sitting mayor in the primary election would default over to the sitting council member, since this fellow was closest of the two remaining candidates in philosophy and temperament to the current mayor.

I also figured that the city council candidates would continue to campaign much as they had done during the primary season, so that the top vote getters in the primary would win the general election. Another clue that led me to this conclusion is that it is common for voters in local elections to be strongly influenced by larger political trends.

The vast majority of voters in my town are registered as Republicans. Only the most politically attentive citizens bother to vote in local elections. About 17% of registered voters went to the polls in the primary election and just under 26% turned out in the general. That’s about average for primary elections, but below average for local general elections.

Based on these factors, I assume that most that voted in yesterday’s election are strong Republicans that are informed enough to be quite worried about our nation’s current fiscal condition. In this kind of climate, planning for growth isn’t going to hold a candle to fiscal discipline.

Predicting the future is always an iffy business because unforeseen factors can always influence events in ways that could not have been anticipated. I felt pretty confident that nothing like that was going to happen in these races. But you never know for sure until it happens.

The results are in and my predictions turned out to be correct. The sitting council member is now the mayor elect, having garnered 59% of the vote. In the council race, the two fiscal hawks beat the growth planners by margins as large as 3-1. Given the way he campaigned, I have to wonder whether my friend that came in last place had much desire to win.

My biggest surprise is that the libertarian candidate for mayor pulled in 41% of the vote. I had expected something closer to 35% based on some of the outcomes of past efforts he has supported and on the idea that he would have difficulty expanding his base much beyond his percentage in the primary election.

On the other hand, the libertarian did campaign hard. He also made a big issue about the city’s recent tax increases in the last two editions of his newspaper, which each home in the city received for free. It may be that voters aren’t as upset about the tax increases as he thought they would be or that he failed to successfully pin on his opponent the fact that he voted in favor of the increases as a council member.

Or perhaps tax concerns were overcome by the trust factor. This fellow’s libertarian views are well known. And frankly, many voters are scared or put off by these views and some of the approaches that have been used to promote them over the years.

My city also voted for members of the fire district board. My town has partnered with two neighboring towns in providing a fire department for decades. Recently the fire agency was spun off as its own governmental unit. Each city elects two board members and all cities vote for one at-large seat.

Among the three that ran for the two fire board seats from my city was a current city council member. I have nothing against this member, but I felt that her sitting on both the city council and the fire district board would violate principles of good government. Most other voters voted as I did.

My city’s local elections are done for two years. Then three city council seats and one fire board seat will be up for election. By then we will see how the new mayor is doing and we will have some idea as to whether the two new city council members remain true to their ideals of fiscal discipline or not. I appreciate all that participated in these civic contests. Now it’s time for the winners to do the jobs for which they campaigned.

Monday, November 02, 2009

A Child's View of a Surgery

I grew up during that golden era when doctors insisted on subjecting nearly all children to a tonsillectomy. At the ripe old age of nine, most of my friends had already been tonsil free for some time.

Times had changed since my oldest brother had been de-tonsilized in an outpatient procedure in a doctor’s office. My next older brother’s surgery had been in the ancient Dee Hospital on 24th and Harrison in Ogden, Utah. My younger brother and I were to have our surgeries in the new state of the art McKay Hospital across from Weber State. (That hospital was torn down a few years ago after the new McKay-Dee Hospital was opened.)

I can still remember questioning my Mom about the signs at the entrance of the hospital forbidding children under 12 from entering the facility. Mom explained that this didn’t apply to people receiving treatment. My brother and I sat in a nicely furnished waiting area while Mom and Dad were in an adjacent office with a hospital representative and a lot of papers doing whatever it was adults needed to do in there. That seemed to take forever.

Then we rode the elevator up a few floors. We were taken to a room with four beds in it and were told to change into our pajamas. That entire wing of that floor, we were told, was the children’s ward.

The other two beds were soon occupied by a set of brothers, ages 12 and nine. I thought I was pretty old for the procedure. The 12-year-old seemed ancient to me. We four boys quickly formed a friendship that was to last only a few hours, born of shared experience.

It was a hot August day. It was all very new and exciting at first. My brother and I were given a new toy and a book to entertain ourselves. Our parents left us to go get some dinner. I started looking longingly outside at the sunny summer evening. Mom and Dad later returned and stayed with us until it started to get dusky outside. The hospital workers eventually shooed all visitors away.

Once my parents were gone, I saw it as my duty to watch over my little brother. It was odd being in a strange place overnight without my parents. We were told that this was necessary to control our dietary intake and to provide adequate observation to ensure proper conditions for the surgery. (I’m sure that maintaining the hospital’s revenue stream had nothing to do with it.) We could only have clear fluids. But that included soda pop and Jell-O until a certain time of the evening.

We were all forced to take a sleeping pill. I hated that. But apparently the 12-year-old and I took in so many fluids that we peed out the medication’s effectiveness. Long after our brothers were dead asleep, we sat up laughing about, well, what boys that age laugh about. Eventually a new nurse came on shift. This lady could have passed for a prison guard at Alcatraz. Her, uh, methods succeeded in quieting us down.

My parents returned in the morning. I was hungry, but we couldn’t eat anything. I was bored and anxious after my younger brother was taken to surgery. I wandered down the hall to a play area that had children’s books and Fisher-Price toys. The wait was interminable. Then they took me back to my room and made me change into a hospital gown. They gave me a shot in the butt. I tensed up so much that it left a bruise.

I was brave as they wheeled my gurney into the operating room. I was told that they had four flavors of sleeping gas. They said that everyone that day had opted for orange. When they asked which flavor I wanted, my mind went blank, just like the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie in sits on Santa’s lap. I said that I wanted orange, although I really wanted spearmint. Once they put the mask on me, there was no turning back. I was soon infused with gas that was the same flavor as orange soda pop, which I despised.

The next thing I remembered was awakening in an unfamiliar place. There was a nurse there that lived in our neighborhood. My throat hurt like crazy. I could tell that my awakening surprised and upset this lady. I tried to ask for my parents, but it was hard to make any sound. The nurse tried to talk soothingly while making me lie back down. The next thing I knew she had jammed a syringe into my thigh. I have no idea what was in that thing, but it was only a short time before I no longer cared about my condition.

After a while, I was vaguely aware of being wheeled from a room into a corridor. I knew nothing else until I awoke in the same bed where I had spent the night. I was wearing my pajamas instead of a hospital gown. My parents were there, as were the parents of our roommates.

My little brother was sitting up and drinking something. The younger brother of our roommates was eating Jell-O and bouncing around like nothing had happened. I had a lot of pain in my throat. I felt like crap. I tried to drink something, but found it very difficult to swallow.

The next little while is kind of blurry in my mind. I can remember wanting to go home, but not being allowed to leave until I had drunk enough. I am told that Dad brought the car up to the front of the hospital while my brother and I were wheeled out in wheelchairs.

The last couple of weeks of the summer before school started were spent recovering at home. I don’t have a lot of strong memories about it. But it can’t have been very fun. Oh well. It was probably better than the weeks of August a few years earlier that I spent with the chicken pox.