Saturday, November 14, 2009

What's Smarts Got To Do With It?

America's favorite hockey mom, Sarah Palin, re-emerged onto the national political scene this week. She'll be out and about flogging her book "Going Rogue" in which she straightens the world out on what really happened during her run for vice president. Her plans include visiting as many Fox News interviewers as possible while otherwise staying out of big cities that may have actual high school and college graduates lurking about. You can bet she'll also steer clear of Katie Couric this time around.

There's speculation that all this PR may be a prelude to a run for president. This leads me to question just what attributes are important for a successful presidency. It isn't obvious that sheer intelligence ranks very high on the list.

In Palin's case, good looks and a snappy demeanor seem to be her chief positives. She also appeals to the far right wing with her social stances. No one is pushing her to run based upon her demonstrated intelligence. But is high intelligence really needed for the job?

Reflecting on some recent presidents, George W. Bush seemed to flaunt his lack of intellectual curiosity; yet he got re-elected. Ronald Reagan was a nice enough old guy who didn't exhibit much depth intellectually, but he's regarded as one of the most effective presidents.

Bill Clinton was a very smart guy who couldn't control his personal life. His presidency will forever be remembered more for his peccadilloes than his administration's accomplishments. Jimmy Carter was also thought of as a deep thinker, but his is generally regarded as a failed presidency.

It's obvious that Barack Obama has the intelligence and depth to impress, but it's way too early to say how his term in office will be evaluated.

While it's not clear that smarts are the most important facet of being a good president, you must have other talents to get elected. Most important are political skills. This includes: (1) being able to raise lots of money, (2) answer questions with well-rehearsed sound bites which appear to be spontaneous and (3), most importantly, make people on opposite sides of tough issues think you agree with each of them when, in fact, this is an absolute impossibility.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Learning Can Be Fun

I'm taking a course at Harvard. It's called "Justice: what's the right thing to do?"

Thanks to the wonders of the Net and some generous sponsors, you can take it too by clicking here.

Suddenly, after decades away from formal schooling, I'm rethinking whether cannibalism is kosher. How about the idea that taxation is the same as slavery? These and other weighty topics are part of the course presented by one heck of a fantastic lecturer: Michael Sandel.

But rather than get into the specifics of this particular course, which is worth doing at length, what I wanted to talk about is how important the teacher is in the learning experience. This course reminded me of those occasions in college when I actually learned something that stayed with me longer than the time to the next exam. These experiences happened very, very infrequently, but universally they occurred in courses where I had an inspiring professor. In fact, I remember choosing courses strictly on the basis of who was teaching it (although sometimes the time and day of week entered into the decision as well; clearly, it couldn't be scheduled before 10am or after 3 PM, or on Friday...but I digress).

This reinforces my opinion that if we are serious about improving the U.S. education system, we need to attract the best and brightest to the profession. Right now, we're doing a lousy job of that. People like Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C. are leading the charge to shake up the system. She's offered the teachers' union a reasonable deal: give up tenure and receive a salary and bonus based upon student performance. The teachers can get triple digit salaries if they meet specified goals.

Well, as you might expect, she's meeting a lot of resistance. If she succeeds, things could really change for the better. In those cases where new (typically young and enthusiastic) teachers have this plan, the student achievements are impressive.

The bottom line for me is that incentives work. They work in the private sector and there's no inherent reason they can't succeed in the public sector as well. The tricky part is getting the goals and the measurement of those goals right.

By the way, returning to the subject of re-experiencing college, it would be really neat if there was a way to have Friday night beer parties on-line.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dollars Well Spent

It seems to me that we're not learning much from our failed wars. In Vietnam, we slogged on and on, increasing troop strength time and time again in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the peasants. In the end, aside from dramatically increasing war casualties on both sides, it did little to change the outcome. The war finally ended when we told the propped up local government and military to take over the battle. As soon as we left, the local government and military were quickly overrun.

In Iraq, we've built up our troops and expenditures in concert with the bleaker and bleaker situation. It was only after we changed strategy last year that things are now looking somewhat better. What was the change? It was a decision to pay off the very groups that had been attacking us. They agreed it was more profitable to support us than fight us. The result, called the "Sunni Awakening", should have been called the "Sunni Bribe".

Now the focus has shifted to Afghanistan. We've heard this story before. The military is asking for an increasing number of troops on the ground as the situation worsens. If President Obama agrees to this, he will be repeating errors previously made in Vietnam and Iraq.

Instead, he should change the strategy to overwhelm the population with dollars not troops. There are approximately 30 million people in Afghanistan . The average Afghan makes under $200 per year. If we simply paid each person $1000 in cash, it's likely that they would rapidly decide that they no longer were supporters of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or whomever we think we're fighting in Afghanistan. Instead, I'd bet that they will gladly say that they're Westerners, Capitalists, Yankee Fans or whatever else we want them to be called. This would cost about $30 billion. Yes, this is a huge amount; but it's peanuts compared to the $440 billion we've spent there so far, and even less when compared to the estimates of over $1 trillion most analysts are predicting we'll spend before declaring we're leaving.

If this doesn't work in ending the Afghan war, then we should reinstate the military draft. Within months, the war would be over as the potential draftees and their supporters mimic the demonstrations that led to our departure from Vietnam.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What's in a Name?

What's happened to all the left wing Liberals in the U.S.of A? It seems that they've recently morphed into Progressives. Does this mean that we should start calling right wing Conservatives "Regressives"? Does this move suddenly render the "L-word" obsolete?

This shift in nomenclature reminds me of the situation several years ago when it became unclear how white people were to refer to their non-white American brethren. Starting with Negro, the appellation shifted from "Colored People" to "Blacks" to "People of Color" and then settled into the new politically correct name "African-Americans". The NAACP apparently said the heck with this. They have remained the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If they want to be taken seriously, shouldn't they have to get on the bandwagon and become NAAAAP? Besides, all those"A"s look pretty impressive.

The hyphenation trend has opened up the opportunity for a veritable plethora of newly hyphenated Americans, including "Asian-Americans", "Italian-Americans", "Irish-Americans", "Plump-Americans", "Kinda Skinny-Americans", ad nauseum. By the way, why exactly did "Orientals" become "Asians"? The Orient sounds far more exotic than Asia.

Using hyphens is probably less confusing than the color codes that were becoming the norm. For example, left wingers were called "Commie Pinkos" when I was a kid. This political bloc instead now comes from "Blue" states. The right wingers now emanate from "Red" states. This is really mind boggling since the Communists used to be called "Reds". Blue Dogs are a new group that has emerged from the political womb. They are called "Blue" because they come from Blue states. Why they are called "Dogs" is beyond me.

Right wing and left wing politics seem to be ingrained in our nomenclature. According to "Ask Yahoo",..."these terms come from pre-revolutionary France... Inside the chamber where the National Assembly met, members of the Third Estate sat on the left side and members of the First Estate sat on the right. The Third Estate consisted of revolutionaries, while the First Estate were nobles. Thus, the left wing of the room was more liberal, and the right wing was more conservative."

All this leaves me pretty unsettled. For example, does our goverment expect me to see red if the level of risk of terror attack is orange?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Clunker of a Program

Have you gotten your $4500 Cash for Clunkers rebate from the government yet? I bet you haven't.


Because you probably didn't buy a gas guzzler that qualifies. So how does it make you feel to know that you and the rest of your fellow taxpayers are subsidizing people who made the bad decision to buy one of those Clunkers. If you're like me, you think it's a blatant rip off.

Some of the defenders of this program tout the improved national fleet mileage and resulting reduction in gasoline and green house gas emissions. But even under the most optimistic assumptions, the impact is truly negligible, about the same as what the U.S. burns every 22 seconds. And this is at a cost to the taxpayers that is about seven times what "Cap and Trade" carbon permits trade for in Europe.

Proponents of this giveaway also cite the great public response to the program which is jump-starting the sales of new cars.

Sure. People will gladly accept a $4500 gift.

Auto sales that were postponed while this program was being debated and those which were planned for the future are being consummated now, making it pretty likely that sales will drop once the program expires. Additionally, there are a bunch of negative effects. One, for example, is the impact it's having on the car repair and aftermarket parts industries, which are being badly hurt by the decision to scrap the clunker cars instead of repairing them.

This program is just one more example of the government picking winners and losers. While advocates of more government intervention tout how programs like this and other "stimulants" are enhancing the economy, to me it's just the government distorting the free enterprise system.

Whether it's Cash for Clunkers, subsidies for underwater mortgage holders or any of the other government interventions implemented recently, the negative impacts often outweigh the positives.

Also, let's be real. There's no free lunch. Somebody has to pay for all this massive spending. That somebody is us, our grandchildren, or even better, now that I think about it, China.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Races I Don't Get

Are you all caught up in the excitement of the Tour de France? I've tried to follow the action, but I must be missing something really important.

Half the world seems enthralled with the Tour de France. All I see when I watch snippets of it on the tube is a group of guys riding bikes for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Nothing much seems to happen. Once in a while they have some bikes crash just to keep everyone awake, but beyond that, it's just the boys out for a cycle.

Today, for the third day in a row, the guy in first place was ahead of the second place rider by two seconds and the third place rider by six seconds. How could it be that there was absolutely no change over several hundred miles? I could gain or lose a second just riding down my driveway.

The roads they ride are frequently lined with screaming fans. I assume the spectators have been there for hours just to get a fleeting glimpse of the bikers as they peddle on. At the end of each day's event, the day's leader is chosen to come up on a platform. He gets kisses from two attractive ladies and he is allowed to wear a very special yellow jersey for a day.

I have the same lost feeling when I've watched NASCAR races. I've read it's now the most popular spectator sport in America. All I see is cars racing around and around, with huge, screaming, crowds on hand, just waiting, I assume, for a crash to occur. I think the winner sometimes drinks a cup of milk to celebrate.

America's Cup is another event that the rest of the world takes pretty seriously. All I see is several very expensive boats sailing around for days on end. I've never seen them crash. Maybe they do it at night when it's dark.

I'd probably appreciate these sports more if I were a betting man.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Healthy Debate

Lately, President Obama has been traveling around the country proclaiming that he has the solution to the nation's health care crisis. This may or may not be true. What is certainly true is that we have a health care crisis.

We pay the most per capita of any country on earth for medical services. Yet, our system was ranked 37th best by the World Health Organization . While the results of this survey have been challenged, no matter whether we're number 37 or somewhere higher, it's clear that we're not exactly getting our money's worth when it comes to health care.

The people who have insurance have no idea what health care really costs as they are sheltered from the actual charges. The poor who have no health insurance are protected by laws that demand they be taken care of independent of their ability to pay (as long as they wait long enough before seeking care in a hospital emergency room to get really, really sick). The ones who are really shafted in our system are those who have no health insurance, but do have the ability to pay (or file for bankruptcy). They are charged outlandish fees for every procedure.

I can share one example from my own personal experience. I had an out-patient procedure to break up kidney stones. I was in the hospital for a grand total of four hours. The procedure itself took about 30 minutes. The bill was more than $56,000. Because I had insurance, I paid about $1000 and the insurance company paid about $1000. But if I didn't have insurance, I would have been on the hook for the full amount. This is insane.

I'm sure you've heard similar stories. The bottom line is that things are seriously out of whack.

I have no clue if a government run health system would be better. I suspect it would not. What is clear is that the present system which focuses on pay for services provided has exactly the wrong incentives. Instead of encouraging expensive procedures after we get sick, the system should reward doctors who keep you healthy in the first place. But if your doctor tries to provide preventive care, Medicare, today's model of a government-run health system, will not pay for it.

What a mess!