Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Procreation Question

When you talk to traditional marriage advocates, there is always the procreation question.  That is, allowing gays or lesbians to get married cannot lead to naturally conceived children.  If the only purpose of marriage in this scenario is to procreate, then under that rhubric, only heterosexual couples who can reproduce should be allowed to marry.  So if a couple can't have kids should be forced to get divorced?

As Ann Althouse pointed out, Justice Breyer went after this concept?

In this view, marriage is about children and not adult desire because it is a device to rein in male desire, to keep men from fathering children they aren't going to raise. It's not that marriage can keep that bad thing from happening. It just makes it less likely, because the marriage norm is fidelity.
Obviously, fornication and adultery go on despite this marriage norm, and it's hard to see why letting gay people marry would mess up the norm. I'm trying to picture this man at the heart of Cooper's vision of society: He's true to his wife, because he's gotten the message that's the norm, but if some gay people can marry, then he's going to start cheating, knocking up some other woman, and it's because of this guy that gay people can be excluded from marriage?
What a nutty set of things we're asked to believe! Who the hell is this stereotypical married man, constrained by what other people are forbidden to do? And why should his ridiculous, tenuous connection to norms carry the day? And how can obsessing over what makes him tick work to keep marriage focused on the raising of children and not on the emotional needs and desires of adults? It seems to be all about the needs and desires of adults — really ridiculous heterosexual male adults.
Who are these people?!

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"America’s problem isn’t gay marriage; it’s marriage."

Roger Simon argues that those among the gay/lesbian community who seek to get married are just as bourgeois as those middle class heterosexuals who want to get married.  These are people who are committed to what Simon rightfully calls a struggle to remain committed.  But when so many heterosexuals are calling it quits on marriage (and there are lots of them), conservatives should embrace those gays who want to keep the institution alive.  After all, with some many problems with the institution of marriage in this country, allowing a minority who WANTS the institution in their lives would seem a much wiser course, after all, allowing two gays/lesbians to get married has not impacted at all the ability of two heterosexuals to get married at all.  As Simon notes:

"And guess what — nothing has happened to the institution of marriage, except, sadly, from those heterosexuals deserting it.  And that is clearly not the homosexuals’ fault.....I would remind them to concentrate on the real problem.  Marriage is in serious jeopardy.  Pay more attention to that, not to a tiny minority who seek what you already have."

Important thoughts.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

More on Gay Marriage

I have posted a few pieces on gay marriage on this site and including one before the election on the parade of horribles that a fair number of social conservatives raise when it comes to the issue.  If you are looking for one guy's thoughts on the matter, check that out there.  My thoughts on the legal and moral underpinnings of the "gay marriage debate" have not changed, indeed they have probably become firmer if anything.

But today and tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on two cases regarding the gay marriage debate.  Today's case deals with Proposition 8 in California.  Tomorrow's case deals with the Defense of Marriage Act, that rather poorly thought out piece of legislation (the norm for most legislation in the past 20 years out of Congress).  the Prop 8 case is not going to satisfy very many people, other than us geeky Supreme Court watchers because its resolution is likely to turn on procedural matters, such as whether the petitioners have the right to actually bring the case.  Check out this summary from noted Supreme Court practitioner and watcher Tom Goldstein.

The DOMA case maybe different, but even there, I could see the Supreme Court looking for an easy way out, some procedural quirk or some substantive matter that would allow them to dispose of the case without reaching the merits or a ruling on whether gay marriage is constitutionally protected or not.

The fact of the matter is, I don't think that many gays in this country are going to be particularly happy with the rulings on these cases when the opinions come out in June (most likely June).  The fundamental truth is that we are still having a debate in this country.  While my opinions are pretty clear, let me restate them,

I do not believe that the government of any level should have a role in defining marriage other than certain proscriptions--i.e. you have to be at least 18 and matters of consanguinity.  Outside of that, government should get out of the business of saying who can be married and who can't.

But do I expect the Supreme Court to say that this year?  Nope.

And to my dear friends who are hoping for such a ruling, I say this, it must be nice to live in that rosy place.

We should be honest, while I believe the gay/lesbian community is making great strides in making a solid moral and legal case for themselves, I do not believe that these two cases are going to provide any sort of "home run" ruling.  But what must be made clear is my admonition from many years ago.  Whining like a six year old who is denied their favorite ice cream is not going to win any friends.  Take the opinions and then continue your work, because it is not over.

For opponents of gay marriage out there, you too have much to examine.  You too cannot whine about the "decay" of our society if you think two people getting married is worse than two people living together.  If you have a moral and legal foundation, you need to explain it in those terms, do NOT talk about homosexuality as some sort of abomination before God since that comes across as hyocritical--perhaps not to the extent of Christians who kill abortion doctors, but in the same ballpark.

The fact is, I just don't see any sort of "victory" for either side.  In the end, the Supreme Court is a poor arena for this fight.  It needs to be fought in the legislatures, in the neighborhoods and in our own minds and hearts.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"So as we talk about "marriage equality" between gays and straights, give a little thought to the problem of marriage inequality between rich and poor. It matters, too."

So says Glenn Reynolds in USA Today.

It probably matters far more than whether gays can marry or not.  After all, there are also rich gay people and poor gay people.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

"[A] democracy should not be dependent for its major decisions on what nine unelected people -- from a fairly narrow background, a legal background -- have to say."

Said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a man who sits on the fulcrum of a relatively ideologically divided Supreme Court.

I have an idea.  Maybe the Supreme Court should start kicking cases on the ground of  a "textual committment to a co-equal branch" of government as the political question doctrine stated in Baker v. Carr 369 U.S. 186 (1964).

Seems like the Supreme Court, which has the power to control its docket, could start pushing back on Congress and the Executive Branch to start doing their job instead of punting to the Court.  These are smart people on the Court, surely they could find a reason to return these political cases back to the elected branches and say, "you guys have to figure this out."

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shooting Women in L.A.

L.A. cops looking for former cop and suspected cop killer Christopher Horner shot 3 bystanders according to this report.

3 bystanders reportedly shot by police during hunt for murder suspect | Fox News

Two of the bystanders were Women!!!! Women delivering newspapers.  Like Horner would driving a paper route on his escape from the cops.

Pictures of Horner show a pretty hefty MAN.  Not women delivering newspapers.

Are the cops just shooting on sight of a pickup matching the one Horner supposedly happens

You could not pay me enough to do the LAPD's PR.  I could not stand up in front of the media and not say "Why did those officers shoot those two WOMEN instead of the MAN we are looking for?  Because they are FRAKING IDIOTS!!"

Thursday, February 07, 2013

University to Offer Commercial Space Flight Degree

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University plans to offer a Bachelor's Degree is Commercial Spaceflight beginning in the fall of 2013, pending approval by the Board of Trustees.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has announced plans to launch the nation's first ever bachelor's degree in Commercial Space Operations. 
The announcement was made Wednesday at the 16th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington. 
The new degree program would be offered at Embry-Riddle's campus in Volusia County [Daytona Beach]. The school said the program will supply the commercial spaceflight industry with skilled graduates in the areas of space policy, operations, regulation and certification, as well as space flight safety, and space program training, management and planning.

When I was a kid, I wanted to attend Embry-Riddle--but two things stopped me---money (it is expensive) and the fact that Calculus II and I simply did not get along so well.

Still, in a period of time in which commercial spaceflight is growing by leaps and bounds, the offering of a commercial spaceflight degree is probably a good step for the small school.  I suspect that many other leading technical universities will soon follow.

I wonder if and when they will offer a graduate degree in commercial spaceflight?  Hmmmmmmmm.......

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Three to Read: Crime and Punishment Edition

A  couple of weeks ago, Prof. Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. the Instapundit) posted a short paper on SSRN called  Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime in which he discusses the problem of prosecutorial discretion.  Reynolds notes that our criminal justice system is not really one in which the accused is realistically afforded a trial by a jury of his peers, rather "What we really have is a plea bargain system with a thin froth of showy trials floating on top."  While the plea bargain system is clearly an issue in the judicial system, complaints about the system mask a larger problem--the elimination of the average citizen from yet another governmental function.

Although Reynolds is not the first to note that our criminal justice system is largely one based on plea bargains, his paper and the death of Reddit creator Aaron Swartz by suicide days after he rejected a plea bargain on a series of charges that could have (but most likely would not have) sent him to prison for 35 years, have created something of a dialogue.

As this Boston Globe story by Leon Neyfakh attempts to discuss, increasing the role of the citizen might be one way in which to limit the overcharging that happens with prosecutors.  Noting first that we have a criminal justice system and a political system that rewards tough on crime behavior by our law enforcement branches, Neyfakh also notes that
While the police who investigate and arrest us are bound by strict limits on what they can do, and courts must abide by procedures designed to treat defendants fairly, there are hardly any guidelines in place to protect us during the charging phase. The result—as any “Law & Order” fan knows—is a system where the prosecutor loads up as many charges as possible to force a guilty plea, and moves on to the next case.
Thus, at one key phase of the criminal prosecution phase, there is almost no limit, practical or legal, that can be a check on the power of the government.  Why?   A plea bargain system of justice is the most efficient way to appear "tough on crime" and to address the thousands of laws that create criminals out of all of us.  See, Harvey Silvergate's Three Felonies A Day:  How the Feds Target The Innocent.  Neyfakh discusses a number of ideas to change the jury system, to increase the role of the grand jury or to change the manner in which the grand juries operate.  Today, in those states with a grand jury process, it is said that a good prosecutor can get a ham sandwich indicted if he so wanted.  Changes in the grand jury system, so that average citizens have more of a say in who gets charged and what they get charged with, might be one means to reaffirming the role of the citizen in the judicial system as well as serving as a check on the prosecutor gone wild.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with a plea bargain, particularly for those who are truly guilty, there is an incentive created in a system in which plea bargains are the primary means of obtaining a conviction.  For a prosecutor with political ambitions and/or prejudices, her discretion allows for her to make decisions which can all but guarantee a plea from an alleged criminal without the trouble and expense of a trial for the state.  The prosecutor simply loads up the charges, listing lesser offenses along with some offenses which, if the matter actually went to trial would get tossed pretty easily, all in an effort to say to a defendant, "if I convict you on all these charges you will get 50 years in prison.  But here is a deal where you can plead guilty to this charge and get little or not jail time."  Of course, in such a situation, particularly for those people (most people) who cannot afford a costly legal defense, taking the deal is preferable.  As little more that state-sanctioned blackmail (the term for this should not be plea bargain but rather it should be "prison-mail").

But is the deal being offered truly fair?  We are not always talking about some drug dealer who may have killed a rival, so the prosecutor, in the face of little or no evidence of the murder charge, offers a felony drug conviction.  In that case, everyone knows the dealer is guilty of a least the drug crimes.  But what about the case of Aaron Swartz?*  Could Swartz have committed a crime?  Probably--at least trespassing by breaking into a switching room to which he was not allowed. He was also probably guilty of illegal downloading and/or hacking. But 35 years on 13 charges seems excessive.  Given that Swartz was embarking on a plan to regularly hack networks to publicly reveal data, a mindset that Orin Kerr discusses at length, some sort of punishment was certainly warranted.  Kerr also warns of turning Swartz into a cause celebre or thinking his case is an outlier.  Swartz had set out on a plan to challenge, among other laws, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  Swartz was almost certainly guilty of one or more crimes under that act (which Kerr does argue is in need of some serious reworking).
But the broader point is that if we think agressive prosecution tactics such as this are improper, we shouldn’t be focused just on the Aaron Swartz case. Rather, we should be shining a light on the federal criminal system in its entirety. These sorts of tactics have been going on for years, without many people paying attention. If we don’t want a world in which prosecutors have these powers, we shouldn’t just object when the defendant in the crosshairs is a genius who went to Stanford, hangs out with Larry Lessig, and is represented by the extremely expensive lawyers at Keker & Van Nest. We should object just as much — or even more — when the defendant is poor, unknown, and unconnected to the powerful. To do otherwise sends an extremely troubling message to prosecutors that they need to be extra sensitive when considering charges against defendants with connections. We have too much of a two-tiered justice system already, I think. So blame the system and aim to reform the system; don’t think that this was just two or three prosecutors that were doing something unusual. It wasn’t.
Kerr's solution is pretty simple--eliminate duplicative charges.
[m]ultiple overlapping crimes gives prosecutors an unfair advantage at trial that in turn pressures defendants unfairly to take a guilty plea. That’s the case because the jury is easily misled. When the jury sees a multi-count indictment involving many different crimes, the jurors have two natural reactions. First, they think they can “split the difference” and convict on some but not all. This is just wrong, as it turns out; at sentencing, a conviction as to only one crime is treated just as severely as a conviction as to all crimes. But the jury doesn’t know that, giving the prosecution an advantage. And relatedly, the jury likely thinks that the defendant’s conduct is extra serious if it is charged under lots of criminal offenses instead of one. The existence of multiple overlapping crimes therefore gives the prosecutors an unfair advantage; the answer is to narrow that advantage by eliminating entirely duplicative crimes.
Reynold suggested two things that are simple and quite easy to implement:

  • Juries could be informed of plea bargains that were rejected so that they might ask the question of why a prosecutor is seeking 20 years at trail but was willing to accept five in a plea bargain.  
  • Implement a type of loser pays systems so that if a prosecutor is unable to get a guilty verdict at trial, the state would be obligated to pay some or all of the legal fees of the defendant.

But as this post from Grits for Breakfast dealing with Texas criminal justice system points out, the fix probably won't come from the courts, but has to come from the legislature.

Which felons go to prison, which ones get probation and who is even charged are all local decisions.... The Legislature can't control elected DAs and judges, but it does have both direct and indirect means to set the parameters of local decisions. 

Sure, there are budgetary decision, but what is necessary is systemic change.  Thus the legislature needs to be pressured to make these changes.

The Larger Issue
While depending on who you ask, you might get different answers about how to address the problem be it legislative or populist, legal or libertarian, the fact is that the plea bargain system does produce incentives that eliminate the role of the citizen.

However, while these questions of incentives and checks on the power of the prosecutor are important, they point to a deeper problem we have in this country.  The effort by so called experts, elites and/or self-important government "servants" to take the reins of power out of the hands of the citizen and keep if for themselves.

The jury system in the United States is not just about having a "jury of your peers" to prevent overreach by the government.  The jury is the democratic aspect of judicial system.  If you look at our three branches of government, the legislative, the executive and the judicial, there is and must be a role for the citizen in all three, be it by direct election, indirect election or direct participation in the process, the Constitution enshrines in each branch a role for the citizen.  The jury system is how the average citizen can ensure that the law is fairly and justly applied since the jury has a pretty strong tendency (and incentive) to be fair and just, far more than a prosecutor (who has different motives) or even a judge (who may be prone to his/her own biases and just plain human error)

Everywhere you look in our government, we see the distancing of the core government functions away from the citizen.  The expansion of the regulatory state (in addition to the problems highlighted by Reynolds, Silvergate in the justice system and many, many others in all arenas  means that the average citizen has no way of knowing the law as well as removing from the purview of the common man the ability to act as a check on the power of government, in what ever form that the "government" takes--legislator, bureaucrat or prosecutor.  When the legislature delegates lawmaking power to un-elected, faceless bureaucrats, there is no method by which a voter can hold his representatives accountable or easily know the law under which he lives.  Similarly, when there is no check on judicial and prosecutorial discretion  the plea bargain system eliminates the common man from the judicial process.

More and more, we have a government by the elites--the lawmakers, the rule makers, and the law enforcers.  Where is the citizen?  Is the jury system complicated and slow?  Probably, but that is hardly a justification to circumvent democratic institutions.  While complaints about the plea bargain system are well-founded, the real complaint should be more about how the average citizen is being eliminated more and more from the public role he/she was granted by the Constitution.

* There is no hard evidence of Swartz's suicide being the consequence of the charges against him.  Reportedly Swartz had a history of depression.  It is possible that his criminal case may have exacerbated his despressive symptoms or it maybe completely unrelated.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Boys Being Graded Less for Behavioral Matters?

Do you have boys?  You may want to read this little story and start challenging the basis for their grades. According to an upcoming study highlight by Christina Hoff Sommers:

Boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college. Why? A study coming out this week in The Journal of Human Resources gives an important answer. Teachers of classes as early as kindergarten factor good behavior into grades — and girls, as a rule, comport themselves far better than boys. 
The study’s authors analyzed data from more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade and found that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted. 
The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys. 
No previous study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated that the well-known gender gap in school grades begins so early and is almost entirely attributable to differences in behavior. The researchers found that teachers rated boys as less proficient even when the boys did just as well as the girls on tests of reading, math and science. (The teachers did not know the test scores in advance.) If the teachers had not accounted for classroom behavior, the boys’ grades, like the girls’, would have matched their test scores.

An interesting read to say the least.  If greade differentials begin at such an early age and in no relation to actual academic work, what does it mean.  Well for some nothing.  As Sommers writes further:
There are some who say, well, too bad for the boys. If they are inattentive, obstreperous and distracting to their teachers and peers, that’s their problem. After all, the ability to regulate one’s impulses, delay gratification, sit still and pay close attention are the cornerstones of success in school and in the work force. It’s long past time for women to claim their rightful share of the economic rewards that redound to those who do well in school. 
As one critic told me recently, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy and unfocused workers. But unproductive workers are adults — not 5-year-olds. If boys are restless and unfocused, why not look for ways to help them do better? As a nation, can we afford not to? 
A few decades ago, when we realized that girls languished behind boys in math and science, we mounted a concerted effort to give them more support, with significant success. Shouldn’t we do the same for boys? 
When I made this argument in my book “The War Against Boys,” almost no one was talking about boys’ academic, social and vocational problems. Now, 12 years later, the press, books and academic journals are teeming with such accounts. Witness the crop of books in recent years: Leonard Sax’s “Boys Adrift,” Liza Mundy’s “The Richer Sex,” Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men.”

In a world in which there are now far more women graduating from college than men (and women valuing that degree both for themselves and their future spouses) can we afford to tolerate an assessment scheme in kindergarten and elementary school that burdens young men because they have not developed the necessary self-control yet?  Or when that development of self-control has nothing to do with an individual boy as it is to simply being a boy?

There have been numerous studies and theories abound about what will happen to society in general if we keep demeaning boys and men, or denying their maleness.
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Prince George's Maryland Wants to Assert A Copyright on Student and Staff work

Yeah, pretty sure this is a dumb idea and I would line up to represent someone on this stupid proposal.
A proposal by the Prince George’s County Board of Education to copyright work created by staff and students for school could mean that a picture drawn by a first-grader, a lesson plan developed by a teacher or an app created by a teen would belong to the school system, not the individual. 
The measure has some worried that by the system claiming ownership to the work of others, creativity could be stifled and there would be little incentive to come up with innovative ways to educate students. Some have questioned the legality of the proposal as it relates to students.
It’s not unusual for a company to hold the rights to an employee’s work, copyright policy experts said. But the Prince George’s policy goes a step further by saying that work created for the school by employees during their own time and using their own materials is the school system’s property. 
Kevin Welner, a professor and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said the proposal appears to be revenue-driven. There is a growing secondary online market for teacher lesson plans, he said. 
“I think it’s just the district saying, ‘If there is some brilliant idea that one of our teachers comes up with, we want be in on that. Not only be in on that, but to have it all,’ ” he said.

So it seems we have the real incentive there, don't we.

Here is the policy:
“Works created by employees and/or students specifically for use by the Prince George’s County Public Schools or a specific school or department within PGCPS, are properties of the Board of Education even if created on the employee’s or student’s time and with the use of their materials,” the policy reads. “Further, works created during school/work hours, with the use of school system materials, and within the scope of an employee’s position or student’s classroom work assignment(s) are the properties of the Board of Education.”
Now, as noted above, often when an employee produced copyright-able material in the course of their employment it is usually the property of the employer (unless it is contracted otherwise).  So as far as staff creations, that is one issue.  But the broad sweep of the policy applies to student work as well.  That is a problem.  First of all, most students don't have a choice but to be in school (it is the law for students under 16 to be in school).  Second, the policy creates a kind of exclusive use for the school even though it is totally of the student's own creation--regardless of the materials provided.  Third, most students are minors thus they are not in a position to effectively bargain on this matter and it does not appear on the surface to be rationally related to the schools' mission of providing education and securing the safety of students.

This one goes too far I believe.  If the Board of Education wants to limit it to teacher/staff creations--I am probably okay with that (with some limitations).  But extending it to student work?  Complete over reach.

What do you think?  I would love to hear from you.

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Friday, February 01, 2013

Spaceflight Is Risky

Today we pay honor to 17 astronauts.

  • On January 27, 1967, Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chafee died in the Apollo 1 spacecraft fire. 
  • On January 28, 1986, Astronauts Michael J. Smith, Richard Scobee, Ronald McNair, Christine McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnick died in the Space Shuttle Challenger.
  • On February 1, 2003, Astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla,  David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Roman died in the Space Shuttle Columbia.

These men and women were pushing the envelope of human capability.  Space flight, they knew, was and is risky.  NASA and the nation will honor these men and women, the risk takers, with various ceremonies today.  It is only natural to wonder, how do we honor their legacy?

It sounds dumb, it sounds cheesy, but make sure their effort is not the end of manned spaceflight.  We have to continue to push the boundaries.  Pushing the boundaries of any human endeavor is risky, it may involve death.  But human progress does not occur without human pain.

As Rand Simburg points out, NASA's mission is not safety, it is space exploration and scientific discovery in space:

It has been a century since the Panama Canal was completed. It was the greatest transportation project of its time, made possible only by new technologies such as dynamite. After Americans took over its construction, more than 5,000 died building the canal. That's more fatalities than we had in the Iraq War. 
Why was the project deemed worthy of expending so many lives? It is not because we didn't value them. Casualties under American leadership of the project were a fraction of the deaths in previous efforts. It is because monumental achievements are at the edge of our human abilities and our best technologies. Nevertheless, such efforts are worth the cost. 
In Panama, the sacrifice paid off, as travel distance (and time) for freight between the East and West Coasts fell from 14,000 to 6,000 miles. It also slashed the cost of shipping to Europe and Asia, resulting in rising economic growth and helping usher in a new age of globalization. 
It's just one example of the benefits of opening up new frontiers and trade routes; thousands died exploring and settling the New World half a millennium ago. Even at the time of the Panama Canal's completion, crossing the Atlantic from Europe to America wasn't yet "safe." Fifteen hundred people died on the Titanic just the year before the Pacific and Atlantic oceans mingled in Panama in 1913. 
At times, we seem to have forgotten. In the 21st century, do we still see exploring and opening up new territory as worth the expenditure of, or even the risk to, human life?

for me the answer has to be yes.  We have to push the envelope, we have to reach for new discovery.  While not everyone has the knowledge, skill, training and yes courage, to be an astronaut, it does not mean that we should stop reaching for the stars.  I suspect that there will never be a shortage of people willing to take the risks of going to space, of doing new things and we, as a nation, we as a human race, should be embracing that spirit of adventure.
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$20,000 for a Minimal Health Plan Under ObamaCare

Wait, What????  How the frak is that gonna work?

In a final regulation issued Wednesday, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) assumed that under Obamacare the cheapest health insurance plan available in 2016 for a family will cost $20,000 for the year. 
Under Obamacare, Americans will be required to buy health insurance or pay a penalty to the IRS. 
The IRS's assumption that the cheapest plan for a family will cost $20,000 per year is found in examples the IRS gives to help people understand how to calculate the penalty they will need to pay the government if they do not buy a mandated health plan.

Lest anyone thing that the IRS's numbers are totally without merit, take a look at this report by the Commonwealth Fund shows that average health insurance premiums for a family of four rose from $9,249 in 2003 to $15,022 in 2011.  That is an increase of $5,773 or 62% in just 8 years. (Ironically, the Commonwealth Fund believes that Obamacare will "moderate" costs--apparently they are not reading their own research).

Bear in mind that announcements are already rolling in of double digit premium increases for this year alone.  Do you really think that Obamacare is actually going to lower costs with all those extra mandates?  Think about that.

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Three to Read: Space Mining Edition

The past couple of weeks have seen two private companies (Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources) announce that they will be launching exploratory vehicles to explore mining possibilities on near earth asteroids.  While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, these two companies are looking to launch in the next three (3) years.

True, the concept sounds far fetched, but it is not when you think about our capabilities.

NASA is testing mining robots (a fact which doesn't seem that unusual-after all it is NASA). But NASA's effort is far more focused on scientific research rather than the commercial applications (and profit derived therefrom) of asteroid mining.

Researchers at NASA recently tested out a worker robot deemed RASSOR, for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (and pronounced “razor”). 
RASSOR is very different from most other robots NASA has churned out. The agency is calling it a “blue collar robot.” Unlike the lab equipment-laden Curiosity, RASSOR leaves the delicate instruments at home. 
Like WALL-E, its purpose is utilitarian, not scientific. It isn’t meant to explore, it’s meant to dig. 
While RASSOR is far from space ready, the initial tests are promising. Built like a miniature tank, the prototype certainly looks hardworking. 
"We were surprised at what we could do with it," said engineer Rachel Cox of the Kennedy Space Center. 
Of course, NASA's effort is much more focused on the scientific discovery--but that scientific discovery (and the drive for discovery) can be commercialized.  Just as all NASA programs, even from the early days of Mercury, were intended to be in part science based, the resulting technology and knowledge is open to use for commercial purposes.

But these two companies have definitive plans to make the leap from fiction to fact and to make money off their leaps..  The concept is surprisingly simple (although the details clearly not):

DSI’s approach is similar to Planetary Resources, making use of small satellites to prospect NEOs. An initial class of spacecraft, 25-kilogram vehicles called Fireflies, would launch starting as soon as 2015 to fly past asteroids, collecting data on the structure and composition of these bodies. Following these short-duration (two to six months) missions, DSI would fly Dragonfly spacecraft to targeted asteroids. These slightly larger spacecraft, weighing a little over 30 kilograms, would rendezvous with asteroids and collect samples for return to Earth on round-trip missions lasting two to four years. Later Harvester missions would bring back a few hundred tons of asteroid material for commercial utilization.

Both companies appear to be planning to have a cluster launch of their craft.  Each launch vehicle would carry 5-7 of the smaller craft into space, the number being calculated to account for potential failure among the craft.

Of course, there are skeptics, there always are, in an well titled post, Professor Chris Rhodes makes the case for why space mining will not work.

This is very much a case of playing the longer game, and it might be decades before investors get their money back, if they ever do, e.g. platinum now costs around $1,600 an ounce, and in comparison, a planned mission by NASA to bring back 60 g of material from an asteroid to Earth is expected to cost about $1bn Since this represents the price of 18 tonnes of pure platinum, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) is very far into the red, given the likely quantity of asteroid material to be recovered. Hence, the case for a viable industry on this basis is not compelling. 

Energy Returned on Energy Invested--sounds pretty scientific or at least financial. Based on the example Rhodes provides, the effort does sound cost prohibitive.  But one thing Rhodes fails to understand is that both DSI and Planetary Resources are in this for the long haul.  Unlike Earth based investments, which might pay off in a couple of years of R&D, asteroid mining has to be a minimum of a seven or either year investment just to get early mining returns.  To start collecting large hauls, the companies are no doubt looking to a 15-20 year event horizon.

The length of time to realization of space mining requires two things--patience and faith.  But we are not a very patient people and that is what has made efforts like space mining or broader manned exploration of space so difficult--we as a society have limited capacity to understand the long term.  On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced an audacious goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth--to be done within eight and one half years (by 1970).  The United States did it in just over 8 years.  True, the full effort of more than 300,000 people were invovled and now Planetary Resources and DSI have far fewer people working toward the goal, but technology and capability have increased 1000 fold since 1961.  There is no reason to believe that technological advances in the next few years won't drastically alter the EROEI that seems so unfavorable now.

We must have patience to see the endeavor through and we have to have faith that the genius of humanity will find a solution to current day obstacles.  After all, in 1940, no one really thought a man would stand on the Moon.  Heck, in 1968 people wondered if a man would stand on the Moon.  By August 1969, we no longer had that question.  All it took was Patience, Faith and a whole lot of work.

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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chicago: A War Zone?

42 people in 30 days.  

Seriously, that is how many people have died in Chicago of gun violence.  42 People in the incomplete month of January.  

The most recent of the 42 homicides was the Tuesday murder of a 15-year old girl who took part in Obama's second inauguration. The girl, Hadiya Pendleton, was standing with a group of friends in Vivian Gordon Harsh Park when a gunman ran up, opened fire, then fled the scene. 

A gunman ran into the park, opened fire and ran out.  Why?  Because he knew for certain that, in the absence of visible police, he was the only person armed in the entire place.  

Chicago is the gun-control capital of America, yet NBC News accurately describes it as "bullet-scarred."  

If NBC said it, it must be bad, right?

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Three to Read: Self-Improvement Edition

Yes, the New Year is well underway and right now, most of the world has taken a New Year's Resolution or two and without any sort of scientific measure, my guess is that a fair number of people are approaching the two-three week mark and that commitment that was felt at the start of the month is beginning to wane.

Now, don't feel bad.  Part of the problem with New Year's resolutions, whether they are a matter of losing weight, or working out, or cleaning you house, budget or what ever, is that doing anything new over the long term takes a while to build the habit.  So here are some tips for helping you do that:

First, Make your Commitment Public
First from Stever Robbins, the Get It Done Guy on Quick and Dirty Tips.  The first thing to do is don't call them resolutions, call them commitments.  Next, this tip I love:
Now it's your turn. Once you've found your driving passions, find someone you trust and respect. Make them a promise about the steps you'll take to reach your passions more directly than you're doing now. You needn’t make a total life change, just promise to take the first few steps with limits in place to keep you safe. Then put your promise in writing and sign it. You'll feel your entire being start to gear up to make it happen.
It is the publicness of the commitment that may be the key to making the "resolution" stick.  You are free to put down below to put one of your New Year's Commitment, but it doesn't have to be put on the interwebs, maybe making the commitment to your significant other or a good friend.  

Make Steady Consistent Progress to Achieve Your Goal
Most of the resolutions people make have no mechanism of measurement, i.e. lose weight, or work out more, don't cut it.  so I am going to assume that you are smart enough to know that you have to be able to measure your progress at the end.  So what is next?  Well, Brett and Kate McKay of the Art of Manliness (if you are a man or know a man, this is a fraking BRILLIANT website that you should check out), have a question:  What is your 20 Mile March?  In other words, what is your daily task that you will do to achieve your goal, no matter what is happening, whether you are having a good day or a bad day.

The McKays talk about a book called Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen (I have not read the book myself, but I have read Good to Great by Collins and thought it a brilliant read, so Great by Choice is high on my "to read" list).  Collins and Hansen and the McKays discuss the race between Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole.  Amundsen succeeded where Scott did not because Amundsen developed a plan and methodically stuck to the plan, no matter what the conditions were.  This is not to say that Scott didn't haave a plan, only that Amundsen's success was, according to Collins and Hansen, the product of methodical adherence to the plan, even with the days were good.  

Collins and Hansen took the phrase 20 Mile March from a man who methodically walked 20 miles a day in an effort to walk across the United States.  The man walked 20 miles no matter what the weather conditions, rather than walking 40-50 miles a day in good weather and only a few miles or no miles when the weather was bad.  Similarly, Amundsen's team went 15 miles a day, no more on the good days, and no less on bad days.  

The lesson from the cross-country walker and Roald Amundsen is clear, stead progress will achieve the goal faster than spurts of huge success followed by no progress.  So develop a plan, with clear interim goals and every day make progress toward that goal.  For help, here is a list of seven attributes of a good plan that you should consider:

  1. Clear performance markers
  2. Self-imposed constraints
  3. Appropriate to the individual
  4. Largely within your control
  5. A proper time frame -- long enough to manage, yet short enough to have teeth
  6. Designed and self-imposed by the individual
  7. Achieved with high consistency

Of course none of these attributes is "magical" but a plan built around these principles will yield success far more often than failure, consideration of all seven attributes is key to success.

Resolutions Crash on the Shores of Failed Habit Formation
The most fundamental reason why resolutions fail has little to do with the actual resolution (in most cases--a resolution to build a rocket to the moon in the next year is not practical).  Rather most New Year's Resolutions fail because we do not allow enough time or make enough of an effort to build the new habit.  

If you Google how long it takes to form a new habit, you will get an answer of anywhere between 21 days and 28 days.  Well, that may be possible, if the habit is something simple, but in reality, our New Year's resolutions are rarely simple and the require the creation of new neural pathways so that the effort to achieve a resolution becomes a habit (a good habit obviously).  Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits, in 2009 briefly highlighted a study out of England which suggested that habits can take as few as 18 days to form and as many as 254 days.  However, the key finding is that it takes on average 66 days for a new habit to become ingrained in our neural pathways and become automatic behavior.  

So now that we are at about the three week stage (21 days), on average you will need another 45 days (or over six weeks) to keep building that habit until it become a truly automatic habit.  The study found that early repetition is key to forming the habit.

So whether your habit to lose weight (the most common among New Year's Resolution) takes the form of eating healthier foods, eating less or working out (second most common resolution), the fact is it could take almost 8 months to form that habit.  Which is why the development of a plan, and a consistent, measurable effort every day is key to making your Resolutions Come true.

I don't mean to be a downer, truly I don't.  So for all of you out there who made a resolution, feel free to share it below.  I would love to hear about it.  Tell me your goal and your deadline.  

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Three to Read--Lower Education Edition

Well, yesterday I did the Higher Education Edition of what I am trying to make a daily feature here.  Today, I thought lower, i.e. K-12, education would be a good topic.

It's Those Darn Kids....
The engagement level of students drops precipitously as Daniel Pink notes in what is called the School Cliff, according to Gallup:

“[Our] research strongly suggests that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become.” Primary school kids begin their educations deeply engaged — but by the time they get to high school, more than half are checked out. And the problem is even worse for our most entrepreneurial students.

Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education, points to several factors for the decline. An “overzealous focus on standardized testing.” Not enough project-based or experiential learning. Too few pathways for students who won’t, or don’t want to, attend college.

Teenagers who aren't engaged?  I am shocked, shocked I tell you!!!  Seriously, it is hard to stay motivated as a teenager to begin with, but with "modern" education, it is well nigh on impossible.  Teenagers have a pretty sharp B.S. detector and well, as a group they detect a lot of B.S. in schools.

What to Do, What to Do?  How about More Than One Option?
Back when  I was a middle schooler--oh so many years ago, i.e. more than 25 years--most students went through a school year long cycle of four vocational/trade classes, including shop class, home economics, automotive and I can't remember the other (it has been a long time since middle school).  In those classes students learned practicalities of running a household (cooking, budgeting, etc), basics of fixing a car (changing a flat, the oil, basic maintenance) and simple repairs on the house.  These were not only valuable personal skills but exposed students to other options other than college.  My high schools (I moved after my sophomore year) had year long vocational programs where students who liked to work with their hands had a chance to learn not only valuable skills, but MARKETABLE skills that would lead to an often lucrative career or at least a solidly middle class one.

You mean pathways, like vocational or trade education?  Remember yesterday's Three to Read, which noted that 92% of high school students say they are going to college but only 68% actually enroll?  What to do with those other 32%?  Well, as this story from Wisconsin notes, there are not a lot of options because of politics.

Some observers say the nation and schools have overemphasized college as a postsecondary option. 
“There are no young people going into the trades,” Hall said. “The push for college prep is so prevalent in the high schools that the talented young people who are good working with their hands are being told, ‘You have to go to college to get good jobs,’ and that’s just not the case anymore.” 
The shortage of technically prepared employees “goes back to (President Ronald) Reagan,” said Richard Meeusen, chairman, president and CEO of Racine Federated’s parent company, Badger Meter. “We have presidents and leaders who say every child should have the opportunity to go to college.
“Unfortunately, it sends the message to parents that if they don’t send their kids to college, they’re failing.” 
“Now we’re saying, ‘Where are our electricians, auto mechanics, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) workers and CNC (computer numeric control) operators?’” Meeusen said. 
He added, “We’ve ripped out all the shop classes and replace them with calculus.”

So you say it is a budgetary thing, well try a little creative thinking, like this person:

State Rep. Thomas Weatherston, R-Caledonia, said he’s working with other legislators to address the shortages in technical careers.
“Our high schools, they don’t have good technical education programs mainly because of the price,” said Weatherston, an adjunct professor in motorcycle safety at Gateway Technical College. “But technical colleges do have that equipment. 
“So I would like to see us find a path that would allow high school students to spend part of the day at a technical school, so they can learn a skill while still in high school.”

Such arrangments are not new.  As a youth (again many years ago) my school district had a dual enrollment program where some seniors would take some courses at the high school and some at the local community college where they would earn college credit.  Usually these were the top kids in the class academically.  But, given that community colleges excell at providing technical and vocational training, there is no reason why such a program can't also be used for those students looking to learn a trade.  

And the Others?
One of my biggest complaints about the local school that my daughters attend ( and most public schools for that matter) is that because of legal mandates, the schools do a good job with the kids on the lower level of the academic achievement and intelligence spectrum and a decent job for those kids in the middle.  But any kid on the upper end of the curve in any subject, most elementary and middle schools do not offer anything to enrich their education at all.  For example, my oldest daughter (the Peanut) excels in history and loves history, but the school does almost nothing to help foster that interest or provide her with a means of exploring more on her own.  While we can supplement at home, she probably needs more than we can provide.

The consequence of this feeling that public education is "notoriously inadequate" has lots of people and not just "scary religious people" considering homeschooling.  Glenn Reynolds in USA Today writes:

New York's public school system is indeed notoriously inadequate. And, like most public school systems (or public systems of any kind), it's run more for the convenience of the staff and bureaucrats than for the benefit of parents or kids. Some kids do fine anyway, of course, and some parents aren't in a position to pursue alternatives. But for many parents, traditional schooling is no longer the automatic default choice. 
That makes sense. Traditional public schools haven't changed much for decades (and to the extent they have, they've mostly gotten worse). But the rest of the world has changed a lot. The public who eagerly purchased Henry Ford's Model T (available in any color you want, so long as it's black!) now lives in a world where almost everything is infinitely customized and customizable. That makes one-size-fits-all education, run on a Fordist model itself, look like a bad deal.
Reynolds argues that with so many choices in so many other areas of life, there is no reason why parents can't customize the education of their children.  And when needs are being met, parents with choices vote with their feet.  Reynolds then describes the death spiral that is likely to follow:
As kids (often the best students) leave because schools are "notoriously inadequate," the schools become even more notoriously inadequate, and funding -- which is computed on a per-pupil basis -- dries up. This, of course, encourages more parents to move their kids elsewhere, in a vicious cycle.
Does this mean the end of public education? No. But it does mean that the old model -- which dates to the 19th Century, when schools were explicitly compared to factories -- is at risk. Smarter educators will start thinking about how to update a 19th Century product to suit 21st Century realities. Less-smart educators will hunker down and fight change tooth and nail. 
Who will win out in the end? Well, how many 19th Century business models do you see flourishing, here in the 21st?

Yep, change is coming and like most changes, the old guard never likes it and at least as far as education is concerned, it is truly the kids that suffer when adult beneficiaries of an inefficient and ineffective system hold on to that antiquated system.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Three to Read--Higher Education Edition

Last month, my oldest child turned 11, that means in seven years she will be making a decision about going to college and which college to attend.  Considering that eight years ago, just after her birthday, we were in London and that seems like just yesterday, higher education is starting to creep in to my mind (not to mention the difficulty of paying for said higher education--scholarships anyone?).  So, here are a few higher education related stories:

The Cost Driver Behind that Big Tuition Bill--Administrators!
Tuition continues to rise, outstripping inflation in most cases, despite efforts by some states to institute tuition freezes and the like.  What is driving those costs--administrative bloat perhaps?  Benjamin Ginsburg at Minding the Campus talks about wasteful administrators.  First the history:

Today's great universities were created by faculty who-contrary to the myth of the impractical professor-often turned out to be excellent entrepreneurs and managers.  Over the last several decades, however, America's universities have been taken over by a burgeoning class of administrators and staffers determined to transform colleges into top-heavy organizations run by inept bureaucrats. 
To professors, the purpose of the university is education and research, and the institution is a means of accomplishing these ends.  To the professional deanlets and deanlings, though, the means has become the end.  Teaching and research have been relegated to vehicles for generating revenue by attracting customers to what administrators view as a business-an emporium that under the management of the deanlets may be peddling increasingly shoddy goods. 

Next, an example of the problem:

One typical example of administrative bloat and its consequences was illustrated by the American Association of University Professors and featured in a 2012 report by John Hechinger of Bloomberg News.  Between 2001 and 2010, the number of tenure and tenure-track faculty at Purdue, of one of America's great land grant universities, increased 12 percent while the number of graduate teaching assistants actually declined by 26 percent.  Student enrollments in this decade increased by about 5 percent. 
During the same period, though, the number of administrators employed by the university increased by an astonishing 58 percent and resident tuition rose from just under $1400 to nearly $9000 per year in a pattern that appears highly correlated with administrative growth.  One $172,000 per year associate vice provost had been hired to oversee the work of committees charged with considering a change in the academic calendar-a change that had not yet even been approved.  Since the average Purdue graduate leaves school with about $27,000 in debt, the salary of this functionary is equivalent to the education loans of six students.
This new administrator blithely told the Bloomberg reporter, "My job is to make sure these seven or eight committees are aware of what's going on in the other committees."  At the same school, the chief marketing officer earns $253,000 and the chief diversity officer $198,000 per year.  The marketing officer spent $500,000 to "rebrand" the university, developing the slogan, "We are Purdue. Makers, all. What we make moves the world forward."  Very catchy, indeed!  Perhaps the marketing department could develop a slogan that would help explain to parents and students why they must take on more and more debt to pay the salaries of ever-growing hordes of administrative parasites. 

A statistical model and a solution:
A recent paper by two respected economists, Robert Martin and R. Carter Hill, shows that the fiscally optimal ratio of administrators to faculty at research universities is one full-time administrator for every three faculty.    Deviations from this ratio produced significantly higher costs per student.  The unfortunate reality as Martin and Hill found is that the ratio has almost been reversed--2 administrators to one faculty.  Martin and Hill's findings suggest, moreover, that about two-thirds of the growth in higher education costs between 1987 and 2008 can be attributed to the rise of administrative power during this period.


I would suggest-and I fully recognize the mischievous nature of this suggestion--that university, and perhaps other non-profit boards as well, should be subject to the requirements of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act from which they are currently exempt.  For most schools, this would entail enhanced Board accountability for administrative actions, the creation of an independent audit committee, an organizational procedure for the protection of whistle blowers, a formal process for the identification and selection of new board members and a strengthening of conflict of interest rules.          
I believe that if Board members were legally more accountable for administrative conduct they would be more cautious about whom they hired to manage the university and would also pay closer attention to what those individuals did once appointed. Perhaps if they were held to account, Boards would be careful not to turn over their campuses to the high-handed and profligate presidents who seem all too common in the world of higher education.  Indeed, in order to avoid trouble, Boards might even find it useful to fully consult the faculty on matters of administrative hiring and retention.

Read the whole thing.

Social Education for Professionals
I do not find it surprising that too many of our recent college graduates have no idea how to navigate even the most basic challenges of the work world.  I have seen for myself some of the most basic failings, such as recent graduates and near graduates coming to interviews in wholly inappropriate attire, inability to talk about even the most recent news in a small talk environment, or new hires who consider office hours to be an "optional" concern.  Part of the problem is that these young people never learned them at home (a fact of life that will be addressed in my household).  So colleges are offering optional "etiquette" courses:

More than a third of managers think their youngest hires act less professionally than their predecessors, according to a national survey by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College in Pennsylvania. 
“A good resume and a degree only gets you to the table,” says Matthew Randall, the center’s director. “Professional behaviors are what gets you a job. And what colleges are trying to do is help these students develop the behaviors that employers want.”


And it’s not just communicating that appears to challenge this latest group of college students. It’s mingling, networking, handling conflict, eating—even dressing.
“Students don’t really know what’s meant by professional dress, whether it’s a young lady wearing a skirt that’s way too short or a young man whose pants aren’t really tailored,” says MIT’s Hamlett. “Most students just roll out of bed in whatever it is they want to wear. There’s this ‘come as you are’ about being a college student.”

Colleges blame in part an entitlement mentality of the millennial generation raised by helicopter parents hovering so much, but certainly the art of face to face communication and social aptitude are disappearing.  

College Preparation Gap?
Of greater concern to many college professors and education thinkers is the lack of preparation among high school students for college.  Check out the infographic about preparation conducted by Hobson's.

Some key take-aways:

  • 92% of high school students say they are going to college, but only 68% actually enroll and fewer still graduate within 6 years of matriculation.
  • More than 2 out of 3 students (69%) were very concerned or extremely concerned about their academic preparation for college.  Which is not surprising since....
  • 1 out of every 2 new students in two year colleges are placed in remedial classes.  Among new enrollees of four year colleges, 1 in 5 find themselves in remedial classes.  Student concerns about preparedness are not unfounded.

So there is room for criticism in our secondary education system as well.
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Friday, January 04, 2013

Three to Read--December Jobs Report Edition

the Bureau of Labor Statistics has issued its December jobs report.  A wealth of news, good and bad can be found in these reports.  Given the massaging of formula and statistics, the redefinitions of "unemployed" and "underemployed" the BLS report, from a statistical standpoint is something to be taken with a grain of salt.  Of course, the big number 7.8% unemployment continues to haunt the Obama Administration and I suspect that lots of massaging is taking place to keep that number under 8.0 percent, but that is a rant for another day.

Hinting at Good News?
Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute (not one of President Obama's biggest fans by any stretch, does find some good news in the report.
Bottom line: As reflected in today’s employment report, three of the strongest sectors of the U.S. economy continue to be manufacturing (including motor vehicles), housing (construction) and energy (oil and gas drilling).  Looking forward, we can expect ongoing expansion in output and jobs from those three engines of U.S. economic growth in 2013.
Good news indeed.  These sectors tend to produce significant upstream and downstream employment.  The largest question remaining for me is how much of this growth is private sector versus public sector driven?

The More Things Stay the Same
Of course, most commentators from the right are not happy with the report.  As Rick Moran noted:
The best that can be said is that the jobs outlook isn't getting any worse. Of course, it's not getting any better either so there you have it; the perfect encapsulation of the Obama presidency.
Moran has pretty good reason to be less than thrilled.  From the BLS report itself:

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult women (7.3 percent) and blacks (14.0 percent) edged up in December, while the rates for adult men (7.2 percent), teenagers (23.5 percent), whites (6.9 percent), and Hispanics (9.6 percent) showed little or no change. The jobless rate for Asians was 6.6 percent (not seasonally adjusted), little changed from a year earlier. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.) 
In December, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was essentially unchanged at 4.8 million and accounted for 39.1 percent of the unemployed. (See table A-12.)
I love that phrase, "essentially unchanged."  The adverb, being redundant, does not help the President in anyway.  Those numbers are quite painful to look at, particularly among blacks and young people.

Still the Unknown
Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway has probably the best summary of all:
At this point, it’s difficult to know what’s going to prime the jobs engine. At the very least, continued business uncertainty over what the heck Washington is going to do on issues ranging from the debt ceiling to the budget isn’t helping the situation, but there seem to be other issues at play here. Despite the Obama Administration’s promises, health care costs, and most importantly the cost of health care insurance for employers, continue to rise across the board. If that continues to occur, the marginal cost of each new employee rises and it becomes less advantageous for an employer to engage in new hiring than to use their existing work force to meet existing needs. It also appears that many employers are cutting back on full-time employment in favor of part-time labor. Again, motivated in no small part to the requirements of the new health care laws. Unless these and other incentives change, I don’t see employers revving up the jobs engine any time soon.
This may be the the most clear cut example of what is really happening.  The fact is that some sectors are recovering, but across the board there are lots of unknowns and frankly unknowables.  I believe a great deal of uncertainty stems from the fact that Congress keeps kicking the can down the road, first with the "fiscal cliff" and now with spending cuts.  The truth is, the lack of resolution of major political problems is what may very well be holding this country back.

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Three to Read-Football and Throwball Edition

Number 1 Overall Pick, Prof. Andrew Wenger
In the world of United States sports, we are used to some crazy rules, and Major League Soccer is no different, with things like Designated Players, Generation Adidas contracts, homegrown player contracts all having some or all of their salary exempt from the salary cap (or team budget as MLS calls its).  But by comparison, I suppose MLS rules are easy--I still don't get the salary cap economics of the NFL.

Well, in Europe there are not a lot of regulations on club spending for players.  But UEFA (the governing body of European football) is imposing Financial Fair Play rules.  Andrew Wenger has an excellent post about FFP rules.  Wenger certainly shows the quality of his Duke University education, shows his analytical skills that earned him a history major.  Oh, yeah, Wenger was also the #1 overall pick in MLS for 2012, being selected by the Montreal Impact.  How many #1 draft picks in other sports can put together such a cogent and relevant article?

In European soccer, [financial] regulations are largely non-existent.  Thus it is a utopia for any ambitious owner to attempt to lead their club to the apex of European soccer, the UEFA Champions League.  Many clubs have attempted to attain this goal by building a team full of talent.  Clubs have used modern financial instruments such as leveraged buyouts and excessive amounts of debt.  They have given their plans fancy names such as the “Galacticos Project.”  This sometimes-dangerous process of building a talented team is where regulation is lacking in protecting European club soccer.  In 2009, UEFA did a study of the 655 European soccer clubs and learned that half of them ran a deficit the previous year.[2]   The lack of financial regulation has recently allowed several soccer clubs to go into bankruptcy because they could not pay their creditors.  In response to such occurrences, there is increasing pressure to implement some financial regulations to help protect the solvency of the world’s game.

It is a good, well written historical account of UEFA trying to make sure that clubs don't spend themselves and their competitors into bankruptcy.

Throwball Follies
Leaving the world of Football and entering the world of Throwball (what I call American football), Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett announced the the State of Pennsylvania is suing the NCAA in order to have to the sanctions imposed by the NCAA against Penn State University's disgraced throwball program for its systematic cover-up of years of sexual abuse of boys by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.  It should be noted that Penn State accepted the sanctions and is not a party to this suit. Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis has a pithy summary: "Corbett’s attempt to undo those sanctions is effectively an argument that the PSU football program should not be punished at all for what it did, and I don’t see how that can be a morally defensible position."

Christine Brennan, writing for USA today, shreds Governor Corbett:

It’s not a coincidence at all that the announcement was made Wednesday, right after the New Year’s Day bowl games. Corbett said he “didn’t want to file during football season to take away from the team’s momentum.” 
He actually said those words. Something this vitally important had to wait for the football season to end? If this weren’t such a serious topic, if this weren’t so pathetic and appalling, it would be laughable. Who is running this state, Barney Fife?
Indeed, both Brennan and Mataconis note that the timing of the suit may be a last ditch effort to keep head throwball coach Bill O'Brien at Penn State rather than take a lucrative job in the NFL or at least not at Penn State.  Mataconis also notes that Corbett is up for re-election in 2014.  Being a friend to Penn State may help.

Back (to the Future of) American Soccer (or real Football)
As I noted above, Major League Soccer has a whole bunch of rules regarding player salaries and the salary cap.  One of the exemptions from the salary cap is the homegrown player, that is players that have developed in a teams Academy and affiliated clubs.  These players can be signed by the club and have their entire salary be exempt from the salary cap and if the player is sold or transferred abroad the team gets the lion's share of the transfer fee.  Over the past several years, most MLS clubs have signed multiple homegrown players to contracts, but there is an interesting demographic trend that is beginning to develop--the true homegrown and hometown player--epitomized by Columbus Crew's Will Trapp.

On December 13th 2012, Trapp signed a homegrown player contract with Columbus Crew after two years at the University of Akron and four as a pupil in the Columbus Crew academy. The Lincoln High School product heads into the 2013 season a professional soccer player, fulfilling a dream of his in more than one category. Not only does he get paid to play sports, but as well…. Wil signed a contract for the team that he has watched and loved growing up.

This year, Major League Soccer would be old enough to vote.  That means for young players like the 19 year old Trapp, he is growing up and playing in a time when he cannot remember there not being MLS as part of the sporting landscape.  As I have noted in other places, the growth of the American soccer community is dependent upon the aging of the millennial generation, of Will Trapp's generation.

There is a whole generation of boys and girls who not only play soccer, but also are fans who have had the opportunity to see live professional soccer in their own country.  They have their own heroes now.  Sure Messi, Ronaldo, and other famous players can be seen regularly on TV and occaisionally here in the United States, but they can also see Beckham, Dononvan, and others right here in the states.  That is where MLS has made significant inroads.  MLS' slow steady progression, coupled with an very public effort by NBC/Universal family of networks to boost the game has built a community the only way it can be done, slowly.  
But the game is also building an even broader fan base outside of MLS.  A good idea of the growth of the game from a fan and supporter viewpoint is found at lower levels of the game.  Even at the college level, some schools are drawing significant crowds to games.  Just this year, the University of California Santa Barbara drew over 13,000 fan for a single game.  UCSB averages well over 3000 fans a game, as do other title contenders such as Maryland and Akron.  For college games. 
Even at the high school level, while nothing beats the social draw of the Friday night football game, soccer games are drawing more fans than just the parents and family of the players.  Sure, crowds are measured in the low 100 fans, it is the fact that students are coming to support their team that makes a difference.  It is the student fans that matter. 
These students, aged 14-17, are the generation that will alter the soccer community in America.  These teenagers have grown up in a country with its own developing league, with access to world soccer unmatched in previous years.  Whether it is the fact that they are fans of DC United or Manchester United or Inter Milan, the access to the favorite teams means they learn more about the game.  They have role models to emulate on the field.  They learn the rules, the tactics, the style of play of their game and the come to follow their team.  Just like the baby boomer generation followed the Yankees, the Dodgers or the Red Sox, modern teenagers no longer abandon the sport of soccer when they enter high school.  Indeed many are embracing it because their non-playing schoolmates embrace it.  The fact that these young men and women no longer feel the stigma of playing soccer as opposed to football or baseball, they are seen as true athletes and supported as such.  
The Millennial Generation is the first in the United Statess that cannot remember a sports landscape without MLS.  they will pass on their love of the game to the next generation, so that in 20-30 years, 40,000 fans at an MLS game will not be restricted to Seattle.

The MLS draft will take place later this month, all of the players being drafted this month will be similar to Trapp, they will have grown up in America (for the most part) in which they cannot remember not having a soccer league in the United States.  That is how the game will grow.

Check out my soccer blog at Nutmegs and Stepovers

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Three to Read

Three items that I suggest people read:

Victor Davis Hanson

These are the most foreboding times in my 59 years. The reelection of Barack Obama has released a surge of rare honesty among the Left about its intentions, coupled with a sense of triumphalism that the country is now on board for still greater redistributionist change. 
There is no historical appreciation among the new progressive technocracy that central state planning, whether the toxic communist brand or supposedly benevolent socialism, has only left millions of corpses in its wake, or abject poverty and misery. Add up the Soviet Union and Mao’s China and the sum is 80 million murdered or starved to death. Add up North Korea, Cuba, and the former Eastern Europe, and the tally is egalitarian poverty and hopelessness. The EU sacrificed democratic institutions for coerced utopianism and still failed, leaving its Mediterranean shore bankrupt and despondent. 
Nor is there much philosophical worry that giving people massive subsidies destroys individualism, the work ethic, and the personal sense of accomplishment. There is rarely worry expressed that a profligate nation that borrows from others abroad and those not born has no moral compass. There is scant political appreciation that the materialist Marxist argument — that justice is found only through making sure that everyone has the same slice of stuff from the zero-sum pie — was supposed to end up on the ash heap of history.

Read the whole thing.  Seriously, take 15 minutes and read the whole thing.

Commercial Space Flight
Private Space Flight Companies are looking toward a big year in 2013 and that is good news.
Private companies building new spaceships to soar through orbital and suborbital space are looking forward to an action-packed year in 2013, with new flight tests, launches, wind tunnel tests and rocket technology trials all planned during the new year.
Companies like SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp are among the companies competing for a commercial crew contract from NASA to ferry crew up to the International Space Station, which contract is expected to be awarded in 2014.

Civil Asset Forfeiture
Civil Asset Forfeiture is on the rise.  In one case out of Philadelphia, one woman was able to beat a system that seems decidedly stacked against innocent people who get caught up in the government's taking of private property without conviction of a crime, or in the case of Tammy McClurg, not even being charged of a crime.

Should you lose your business if a handful of your customers break the law without your knowledge or consent? The Philadelphia District Attorney says yes. In 2008, the DA filed a civil asset forfeiture action against Danny Boy’s II, a corner bar in the Holmesburg neighborhood of northeast Philly suspected of being a “nexus” for drug activity. 
Civil forfeiture, a practice recently labeled “state-sanctioned theft” by a Pennsylvania judge, allows the government to seize assets—cars, cash, homes—without first, or ever, proving that the property’s owner committed a crime. Danny Boy’s II owner Tammy McClurg was never even charged with one. 
But the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ordered her to shut down for nearly two years while she fought the taking. In addition to paying legal fees, McClurg, a single mother of three, had to keep up on mortgage payments, utility bills, and taxes for the bar, her sole source of income.


According to a recent Philadelphia City Paper investigation, the DA brings hundreds of forfeiture cases against real estate each year, and it splits the proceeds with the Philadelphia Police Department. Combined with seizures of cash and other property, the DA and police rake in around $6 million annually from forfeitures. Few cases ever reach a neutral arbiter—owners must attend multiple rounds of hearings run by assistant district attorneys before they see a judge—and even when they do the deck is stacked against them. 
From the City Paper:
…Having one’s day in court is no guarantee of success, either: The burden of “preponderance of evidence,” unlike that of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, means that the DA doesn’t have to present an airtight case—just one that strikes a judge (or, in rare cases, a jury) as even slightly more believable than that of the respondent. 
The government’s case against Danny Boy’s II was apparently not convincing. Last year, a trial judge found that McClurg had proven she was an innocent owner, ending what she called a “nightmare.” That outcome is vanishingly rare. According to the City Paper, a judge rejected forfeiture in only 48 of the 8,000 cases filed in 2010—0.6 percent.

Note that McClurg "had proven she was an innocent owner."  The problem with civil asset forfeiture is that it allows the state to trump up pretty much any charge it wants, and then does not have to actually prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the property should be forfeited.  Reason has done a fantastic job of covering civil asset forfeiture abuse.
Check out my soccer blog at Nutmegs and Stepovers