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Archive for August, 2009

Steven Brill has a fantastic article in the New Yorker about the New York City Public Schools.  As will not surprise anyone who has ever been in a big city public school, the workforce has all the responsiveness of a late-70s auto assembly plant:

The document that dictates how Daysi Garcia can—and cannot—govern P.S. 65 is the U.F.T. contract, a hundred and sixty-six single-spaced pages. It not only keeps the Rubber Roomers on the payroll and Garcia writing notes to personnel files all day but dictates every minute of the six hours, fifty-seven and a half minutes of a teacher’s work day, including a thirty-seven-and-a-half-minute tutorial/preparation session and a fifty-minute “duty free” lunch period. It also inserts a union representative into every meaningful teacher-supervisor conversation. The contract includes a provision that, this fall, will allow an additional seven hundred to eight hundred teachers to get paid for doing essentially no teaching…the number of teachers staying on reserve for more than nine months is likely to exceed eleven hundred by next calendar year and cost the city more than a hundred million dollars annually. Added to the six hundred Rubber Roomers, that’s seventeen hundred idle teachers—more than enough to staff all the schools in New Haven.

The only way to fix the New York City public schools is to break the United Federation of Teachers.  Unfortunately, doing so would require political abilities almost certainly beyond the capacity of any mayor or governor.

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Theology

My knowledge of theology is rather limited, but I was quite surprised to see this comment from a Catholic bishop:

The Catholic Church does not teach that government should directly provide health care,” Bishop Nickless of Sioux City wrote, adding, “Any legislation that undermines the vitality of the private sector is suspect.

Suspect?  Really?  Where did I read this:

Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

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Cuckoo

From wiscoDude at Pension Bubble, a great article about the behavior that has created California’s public employee pension nightmare:

The poster boy for those calling to revamp California public pensions is Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., who for 32 years was city administrator, clerk, finance director, treasurer and redevelopment agency secretary for the city of Vernon — California’s smallest city (with a population of just 95, according to the latest state Department of Finance estimates) — and chief executive of the city’s utility, Vernon Light and Power.

Vernon — a 5-square-mile industrial area with only a few homes and apartments and no schools, clinics or grocery stores — paid Malkenhorst $600,000 a year, about twice that of Los Angeles’ mayor, according to a 2007 Forbes magazine article.

While Malkenhorst awaits trial on an indictment claiming he charged $60,000 to Vernon for golf trips, massages and political contributions, he collects a $499,674 annual pension, the highest of anybody on CFFR’s lists.

If you are going to steal, I suppose you might as well not be shy.

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The Times Op-Ed page is not typically given to investment topics – so much easier to let Maureen Dowd mail in fluff pieces about her friends – so I was a bit surprised to see Michael Lynch’s piece on peak oil.  He doesn’t pull the typical eight-hundred-words-of-hedging bit either:

Like many Malthusian beliefs, peak oil theory has been promoted by a motivated group of scientists and laymen who base their conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material…

Oil remains abundant, and the price will likely come down closer to the historical level of $30 a barrel as new supplies come forward in the deep waters off West Africa and Latin America, in East Africa, and perhaps in the Bakken oil shale fields of Montana and North Dakota.

I have my doubts, but I like the contrarian position and the conviction.  I might start from an even more contrarian position: in general, I would expect commodities to decline in real value.

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Edward Kennedy, dead at 77.

We will see plenty of reverential soft-focus pieces on the news over the next few days, stories about the “Lion of the Senate,” about his advocacy for the downtrodden, about the long-lost era when Democrats were not the party of Wall Street.  I’d like to see something a bit more like this:

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Bryan Caplan has a thought-provoking post that the reason Americans and Europeans misunderstand each other stems from the difference between experiencing another country as a tourist and as a resident.

Where American tourists go wrong:
1. In European countries, historic downtowns of the premiere cities like Paris or Stockholm are
by far the best places to live.  Most people in Europe don’t live in these areas, and can’t afford to…

Where European tourists go wrong:
1. They usually visit the most European places in the U.S. – especially New York City and San Francisco.  Since NYC and SF are basically uglier, scarier versions of the premiere European cities, it’s natural for tourists to go home with a negative impression.

It’s a nice way to look at the world, and a good reminder to assess assumptions.  I’m just not sure it’s terribly accurate.

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I just saw the response of Blake Hurst, a Missouri corn farmer, to Michael Pollan’s long article.  Blake’s perspective:

I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.

[My seatmate on a flight] was a businessman, and I’m sure spends his days with spreadsheets, projections, and marketing studies…He does not blame witchcraft for a bad quarter, or expect the factory that makes his product to use steam power instead of electricity, or horses and wagons to deliver his products instead of trucks and trains. But he expects me to farm like my grandfather, and not incidentally, I suppose, to live like him as well. He thinks farmers are too stupid to farm sustainably, too cruel to treat their animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health, and their families.

I wasn’t on the flight with Blake, so I don’t know what his neighbor thought, but I can answer for myself: I don’t think it is stupidity, or cruelty, or carelessness.  I think it is greed.

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