Friday, June 5, 2009

Apocalypse How?

The other day, Tom Still warned us that a group of Milwaukeeans who seemed to be just opposing the siting of a building were actually attempting to permanently demolish the economic future of southeastern Wisconsin.

Today we hear from Eric Schmidt at the Badger Herald about state senator Judy Robson. Robson probably thought she was addressing Wisconsin's nursing shortage when she added unrequested funding for a school of nursing building at the UW - Madison to the state budget. She probably thought it might be a tough sell with the state in such a tight budget situation but little did Robson know: She was DESTROYING DEMOCRACY!!!!!!!

If, by some bizarre miracle, these hyper-hysterical snits actually end up availing conservatives somehow, there's still a real danger for them here. If they say that President Obama's intent to return the top tax rate to something even approaching where it was during the Reagan Administration is socialism and that his attempts to address even some of the lawless abuses of the Bush Administration are akin to "surrender" to the terrorists. . . and if they say that State Democrats' little budget deals have instantaneously shredded, heaped and burned the fabric of Wisconsin democracy: What are they going to have left to say when someone does something actually progressive?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My Way . . .

I was reading this article by Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council earlier today and I couldn't stop thinking about how much it illustrates one of the ways that the relationship between business and the community can break down.

Still is exorcised about public opposition to a plan to locate the UW - Milwaukee's new School of Freshwater Sciences facility on a parcel of land on Lake Michigan between the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Discovery World museum. The now-defunct Pieces of Eight restaurant formerly occupied the site and it does seem logical to locate a school of freshwater sciences on the shores of the largest freshwater system in the world. Add to that the largess of Milwaukee philanthropist Michael Cudahy, who has proposed to personally acquire the leasehold interest in the land, thus allowing the university to use it free and clear for the foreseeable future.

The difficulty comes from the fact that the art museum, with its new pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava, has become Milwaukee's architectural signature. The new Discovery World facility, on a pier stretching into the lake, serves as refreshing proof that it's possible to compliment an architectural icon without an iconic budget. Residents are understandably underwhelmed by the idea of messing with this graceful pair of landmarks by plopping an office building between them.

My issue with Still is his characterization of these individuals. After belittling the possibility of public use of the land, he chides them for second-guessing Cudahy when they have "no financial stake in the deal" and proceeds to extol the virtues of the "freshwater silicon valley" Milwaukee could be if only they would stand aside.

This is disingenuous. First of all, whatever financial assistance Cudahy might be willing to provide the university, generous though it may be, is likely a pittance compared to the value to the City of Milwaukee (as represented by its citizens) of its signature view. Yes, there is the far greater value of Milwaukee's potential status as the world's moistened mecca but how exactly has that entire vision been so inextricably linked to this site?

Still doesn't really do anything to support his contention that Milwaukee's preeminance in the field of freshwater science will be rendered impossible if the school's office building isn't located on one particular stretch of Milwaukee's miles and miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. This may indeed be the best place for the building but to paint citizens opposed to this particular development as enemies of Milwaukee's economic future is hyperbolic at best.

You may find, in the annals of this very blog, a post I made deriding a group of Lake Kegonsa NIMBYists who helped torpedo (federal cronyism is probably what really did it in) a UW - Madison proposal for a $300 million national biothreat lab and think me a hypocrite. Allow me to point out the difference.

No matter what happens, the UW - Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences will get a new building. It will probably be a nice one and it will probably even be on the lake. The Governor has already promised the money. As much as Tom Still would like to portray public opposition to the Pieces of Eight site as jeopardizing a glorious technological future, the only things at stake here are the location of an office building and Milwaukee's signature view and those can be discussed. The shame is that they won't be.

People opposing the development will see Cudahy and company as hell-bent on carving up Milwaukee's lake shore. The development's proponents will see the opposition as a bunch of myopic yokels chaining themselves to bulldozers. A process that should have been a communal investment in the future of southeast Wisconsin will probably leave a lot of people with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Legal *Philosophy*

Hurray for Iowa!  The national conservative reaction to the decision by Iowa's Supreme Court to strike down a gay marriage ban was predictable.  Never mind that it's a ruling on a matter that doesn't concern them at all in a state with whose constitution they're almost certainly entirely unfamiliar, they're outraged!

Illusory Tenant linked to this little tidbit by one of National Review's legal eagles, Ed Whelan.

The tone reminds me of remark Paul Krugman made, christening the Republican Party the "party of Beavis and Butthead. . ." The name refers to the Republican penchant for picking line-items they didn't understand out of bills and preceding to snicker at them.  No explanation of their position, really, just sneering derision.

In this case, I'm especially intrigued by the crack about "the deceptive rhetoric of living-constitutionalist judges."

I would imagine Whelan considers himself to be that most noble of legal philosophers, the originalist.  It is a philosophy so sound, its proponents seem to spend most of their time describing what they're not (e.g. Randy Koshnick who'll tell you as many times as you can stand to hear it that he's not an "activist").

In any case, originalists, as nearly as I can tell, claim to focus on the "plain language of the law."   That falls a little short in this case as it's very difficult to read "except for the gays" into a constitutional clause that simply says "equal protection."  

In these cases, originalists attempt a procedure of divination whereby they determine the "intent" of the framers of the law.  Clearly, when the Iowa constitution was ratified, nobody wanted to grant equal rights of any kind to same-sex couples.  Homosexuality was widely viewed as a morally-degenerate aberration and nobody would've considered a homosexual relationship equal to a heterosexual one.

Most Iowans, in fact, remain similarly (though likely less virulently) bigoted to this very day.  So why would the Iowa Supreme Court overrule a bunch of modern bigots based on a law written by a bunch of victorian bigots?  It seems odd when you think about it but only if you don't think about it much.

The difficulty with the originalist position in this case is that it requires the jurist to favor the framers' prejudices over their ideals.  

Their ideals were equally clear.  If they had intended to allow simple majority rule on matters of civil rights there would have been no need for an equal-protection clause in Iowa's constitution. The fact that equal protection was included suggests that they were enshrining Iowa's progressive social tradition into its founding document.

But they probably hadn't quite gotten there on the gays so why wouldn't we freeze their meaning at the moment the ink touched the page.  Personally, I think it's because that would be ridiculous.

A constitution is a piece of paper but a law is a rule.  Courts exist because those rules are constantly being applied to new and unique situations.  It's the court's job to consider the implications of that rule in light of current circumstances, not simply read it back.

In the case of homosexuality, it's been decades since the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association both declared the belief that same-sex attraction is aberrant to be tragically inaccurate.

Faced with a mounting body of credible evidence that same-sex relationships are every bit the equal of their heterosexual counterparts, the Iowa Supreme Court was going to overrule the framers either way.  The choice was how.

They could overrule archaic prejudices and interpret the clear meaning of a law meant to ensure equal protection to all of Iowa's citizens in light of the clear intrinsic equality of same-sex relationships. Or they could overrule those progressive values, subjugate the spirit of equality and pretend that the set of circumstances before them did not actually exist; that it was the 19th century and they knew nothing more than their great-great grandparents did when they drafted the constitution. 

I'm very glad the Iowa Supreme Court ruled as they did.  It's probably wiser to rule for present and future generations.  Past ones tend not to take as much notice.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rick Esenberg is a Freakin Moron

The title of his post was practically a dare.  The good professor took it upon himself to respond to the President's hybridized stimulus package.  What followed was a really amusing combination of his garbled interpretation of John Maynard Keynes (as through a conservative ideology darkly)  and a mess of other disjunct observations.

Ideally, an expert on Keynesian economics would set Esenberg straight but, since Paul Krugman doesn't seem to be paying attention, I'll have to do.  I lack Krugman's Nobel Prize but my economic qualifications probably roughly match Esenberg's.

Esenberg's first paragraph reflects the sudden Republican preoccupation with the budget deficit. Right-wing concern over fiscal responsibility lapsed for a a few years there (roughly 8) but no matter.  Professor Esenberg asks "What does classical Keynesianism tell us about debt financed responses to a recession which was brought on by, at least in the administration's view, too much borrowing? Really, who knows?"

No one's arguing that we wouldn't be better off if the previous 8 years had seen a little more fiscal responsibility but the borrowing required to pay for the stimulus bill will amount to under 6% of annual GDP.   The projected shortfall in output from an unabated recession is much larger. Critics worry, for the first time I've ever heard of, about some more prosaic effects of large-scale government borrowing.  Professor Krugman has a  more thorough treatment of that issue.

Esenberg goes on to fret again about the role borrowing played in the lead up to the current financial crisis asking,"Does it make sense to say, if people have borrowed too much and are now hunkered down, that the answer is to let the government borrow for them?"

I've talked about this before.  It's the belief that times were so good and so lavish during the Bush administration due to over-borrowing.  The recession is seen as the return to a reality where we all just have to learn to live within narrower means from now on.  It's B.S.  

During the "Bush Boom" economic output only ever scraped the bottom of the Congressional Budget Office's estimated potential GDP once, in 2006.  The rest of the time the economy was running under capacity even with the housing bubble.  The CBO predicts that, without intervention, we would fall below potential GDP by $3 trillion over the next two years.  The stimulus package isn't large enough to fill that gap but the people whose lost livelihoods that $3 trillion represents might just appreciate the lifeline.

Next, the fear of the impending "entitlement crisis" and the horror of exploding our debt to the foreigns.  Here, James Galbraith explains why blowing problems with future entitlements out of proportion isn't any excuse for failing to deal with the very current, very real economic crisis. Here, Professor Krugman explains to George Will why government borrowing, rather than putting us in hock to China (which has problems of its own), actually provides a safe haven for private investors looking for a place to put their money while the banks implode.

In the next paragraph, Esenberg invokes, consciously or not,  Ricardian Equivalence, an economic theory so sound it was rejected by its own creator.  The argument is that people will be wise to government borrowing and the stimulus will have no net effect as the populace will save an equivalent amount of money in anticipation of future taxes to pay off the debt.

If people actually responded to debt by saving the equivalent of the borrowed money as quickly as it was spent, we wouldn't have any sort of crisis right now because there would be no such thing as lending.  What could possibly be the point?  

For a more concrete example, let's look at an object lesson in how the U.S. populace reacts to government borrowing. In the first years of this decade the federal budget went from surplus to deficit.  As public borrowing resumed we'd expect to see a commensurate increase in the private savings rate.  Again, if we had, we wouldn't be talking about any of this.

The rest of Esenberg's article is standard right-wing nonsense:

- "The Stimulus is loaded with pork:"  Mostly, conservatives are just cranky the whole damned thing isn't made up of expensive, ineffective tax cuts.  The most I've ever seen someone pull out of the bill as "pork" is about a tenth of a percent and, like volcano monitoring, it usually depends on your point of view.

- "The Stimulus is too Slow:"  For this Esenberg cites the payroll-tax-elimination part of the Republicans' quickly assembled, outrageously expensive permanent-tax-cut alternative plan (that should totally help with the "entitlement crisis") then cites a Washington Post article lamenting that $200 billion of the stimulus will likely be spent after 2010, which means that $587 billion won't.  I'll be shocked if the economy's out of the woods by 2011 but, if it is, I'll enjoy the high-speed rail even more.

Before this, the only thing people like me knew about John Maynard Keynes was the line, "In the long run we are all dead."

In Keynes' full context, it  reads, "... this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

Keynes was saying that it isn't enough to sit back and let things work themselves out when people are dying.  Today, millions of people are losing their livelihoods and their homes.  The stimulus package at least does something for them.

Friday, January 16, 2009

When Nerds Attack!

WKOW didn't know what it was in for when it posted this story on its website.   A young woman(I'm not going to use her name.) bought a laptop from Dell to take online classes from MATC.  Somehow, she managed to unwittingly purchase a laptop preloaded with Ubuntu Linux instead of Windows.  She was assured of compatability by Dell but, when the computer arrived, she was unable to install the software provided by her internet service provider and could not figure out how she was supposed to submit classwork in Microsoft Word format without Microsoft Word. Thoroughly frustrated, she contacted WKOW who eventually got her straightened out.

End of story?  NO!

The young lady, and WKOW, had inadvertently managed to embody everything the Linux/IT community hates about people who don't understand technology. Then WKOW advertised it on the Internet

The Dell rep that told her the computer was compatible with her needs was telling the truth (whether the rep realized it or not).  The software your ISP sends you is generally useless. Ubuntu works with just about any router out of the box.  The suite can save files in almost any format you want.  Our intrepid student had thrown up her hands and dropped out of school over issues a determined person with a little knowledge could've resolved in a few minutes.

Happily, WKOW managed to set her on that path but, in the process demonstrated that they also didn't have a clue what they were talking about.  They called Ubuntu ". . .an operating system for your computer similar to Windows that contains Linux."

That's the equivalent of calling a Honda Civic a conveyance similar to a Chevy Suburban that contains car.  And thank heaven they got Verizon to send a technician to her house to make sure some of that adware gets installed.

The flame war commenced.  WKOW got ten times its normal web traffic and a heaping portion of scorn from angry Linux users, some of whom actually started harassing the poor girl herself on her Facebook page.

As a semi-proficient Linux user myself (I run two flavors of Ubuntu in addition to three versions of Windows) I understand the frustration with people who want to treat computers like appliances and the media outlets who coddle them.  

Ubuntu is an amazing achievement.  It's not just some quirky tech fad, it's a social experiment. It's a fully functional, highly sophisticated operating system developed and supported by an open community of developers committed to keeping computing free.  There's no large corporation and no leverage to force hardware manufacturers to make sure their products are compatible. Yet Ubuntu is a remarkably feature-rich and user friendly operating system.

To people who've watched the Free Software Foundation fight endless court battles with corporate hegemons to keep open source alive, it's a little insulting to have someone refer to Linux like it's some sort of chemical additive.

A little realism would help, though.   As crushing as it is to watch someone casually shrug off something you're passionate about, it's bound to happen.  Not everyone wants the kind of control and flexibility from their computers that Linux users demand. Lots of people . . .  most people are always just going to want to turn the thing on and have it do as much for them as possible without their having to think about it.

Microsoft and Apple (especially Apple) have created a heavily packaged, tightly controlled world for those people and their discomfort upon straying from it is understandable.  Yes, it would be nice if they took a little more interest in just what that thing they use to check their email really is or at least took the time to rationally troubleshoot simple problems but, if they did that, who would nerds make fun of?

This doesn't totally absolve Channel 27.  It would've been nice if, instead of making a few phone calls on the girl's behalf, then airing a navel-gazing puff piece patting themselves on the back, they'd bothered to look into what Ubuntu actually is.  

In any case, they're probably less likely to do this having now generalized to the Ubuntu community the bile spewed by a few disgruntled trolls.  If nerds had been meant to be understood, they'd have better social skills.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Economic Penance

I'm a big fan of Paul Krugman (hence my second post in a row about him).  The Princeton economics professor, New York Times columnist and recent Nobel laureate is a bit of a lefty folk hero which, of course, makes him a big target of the right.

I was reminded of this the other day when I noticed a post by George Lightbourn at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, attacking Krugman's advocacy of a super-massive federal stimulus package to stem the incoming tide of economic disaster.  While Professor Krugman doesn't have the time to respond to every conservative's misconceptions, a post on his blog a few days later provides a neat contrast between Krugman's broad-based number crunching and Lightbourn's blind adherence to conservative ideology.

Lightbourn's argument is based on the supposition that the current recession is the result of an over-lavish lifestyle over the past few years.  During the days of wine and roses we over-spent and over-borrowed.  The recession is the inevitable fall back to earth after the housing bubble burst under our feet.  If the government were to take out still more debt in the people's name to prop up federal and state spending based on unrealistic economic growth, we'd simply find ourselves further in the hole. 

It's a compelling argument but thankfully (the last few years were hardly lavish), it isn't true. Krugman's post is based, among other things, on this figure from the Congressional Budget Office.

The small type underneath the image explains that the horizontal line in the middle is an estimation of the country's potential gross domestic product, what our economic output would be if we effectively used our resources, labor and capital.  The plot line is the actual level of GDP and that vertical dotted line indicates where we are now, with real GDP projected to keep falling well into this year.

The difference between projected GDP and actual potential GDP indicates that, without stimulus, economic output over the next couple of years is going to fall well below capacity. Krugman is suggesting that the Federal Government take the necessary steps to bring economic output back up to where it ought to be.

The significance of this is that stimulus advocates are not, as Lightbourn claims, trying to use government spending to continue an unsustainable level of economic output.  They're trying to nudge output back up toward its natural level.  The spending shouldn't have to continue as a recovering economy should start to return to capacity on its own.  

It's also worth noting that this graph discredits the notion that the previous few years were somehow unsustainably extravagant.  The housing bubble was unsustainable but rampant speculation in real-estate only ever pushed GDP to just at potential in 2006, the height of sub-prime.  Otherwise, the economy was somewhat abysmal by historical standards. A real boom looks like the late 1990s where economic output soared well beyond projected capacity then crashed down to . . . well, the Bush era.

Hopefully, with solid stimulus and needed reforms of our regulatory and tax structures, we can create a balanced economy that keeps output at or near capacity based on the production of actual goods, ideas and services, not speculative bubbles.  In the meantime, there are trillions of dollars in needed infrastructure repairs to keep us busy. 

Or we could could follow conservatives like George Lightbourn who want to boldly stay where we are.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Medical Mishap

I suspect that this is a hoax, or John Conyers needs to fire his staff.   Apart from the typos mentioned in Tapper's post and the subsequent smarmy comments, there's also the fact that the link to Conyers' website doesn't work as posted (the redirect works when the 'C' isn't capitalized but it's actually . 

In any case, the Krugman post it links to makes a valid point.  One of the primary priorities of the Obama administration should be reforming the healthcare system.  A functional health care system would save lives and bolster the economy.  The Surgeon General might well play a roll in shaping and selling needed reforms.

In Sanjay Gupta's highest profile appearance on the overall state of the U.S. health care system, he made an ass of himself trying to discredit a man calling for reform.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Overture to the University?

It's official.  The Overture Center is for sale. . . for a buck.  The Overture Development Corporation can't handle the center's remaining $28 million debt and wants to give the center away in exchange for financial security.  Unfortunately, the intended recipient, the City of Madison, isn't very keen on handling the debt.  The offer to sell doesn't appear to be exclusive, however, and other potential buyers are bound to come up.  Apart from some yet-to-be-formed rescue entity, the obvious alternative would be the UW - Madison.  It's unlikely, but interesting.

There's certainly precedent.  The UW - Green Bay has owned the Weidner Center for over 15 years.  While the UW - Madison was tossing together the Humanities Building, forty years ago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built the Krannert Center, a performing arts center almost the size of Overture in a metropolitan area that's still less than half the size of Madison.  But these were centers built by universities on their own initiative.  There are plenty of reasons a university purchase of Overture might not work.

The UW - Madison's operating budget is ten times the size of the city's but that doesn't mean it's any better able to absorb that much new debt.  Even if the UW System weren't in line for another round of budget cuts, it's doubtful the legislature would acquiesce to the Madison campus putting $28 million on the state tab. 

The debt would have to be retired with private funds and, though the university's donor pool is larger than the city's, it isn't untapped.  The UW is already working on overhauling its own arts facilities.  Replacement is still the most practical option for the crumbling Mosse Humanities Building and Overture's part-time concert hall couldn't come close to absorbing the School of Music's 300-plus annual performances.  Yet the fund for a new concert structure stands at $20 million and, with $18 million to go, the music school doesn't need the competition.  This goes for the Art Department's new building project as well.

Add to that the necessary operating subsidy for a center of Overture's size when the university's existing arts programs are already underfunded and there's a substantial, probably insurmountable financial hurdle. 

Still, the possibilities are intriguing.  Plans for the new concert halls are modest and there are no plans at all to address the shortcomings of the theatres in Vilas Hall.  For $28 million (and one)  the University could secure occasional use of much larger venues than it would build for its own programs.  Ownership of a massive world-class facility could also go a long way toward raising the profile of the University's arts programs at a time when they need to reach out to the community.

The ODC's timeframe is cramped.  They want an answer by the first quarter of this year.  In the short term, the corporation is burning through 200 grand a month in interest payments and faces forclosure if the buyers balk.  It's important to remember that, in the long-term, the Overture Center will be fine.  It's larger than the old Civic Center but the city's a lot bigger than it was 30 years ago, too.  It's still growing.  If Madison's government lags behind that growth a bit, maybe it's time for the University to step in and take a larger role in the city's cultural life, if it can.

Update 1/8/09:  So it turns out I was off-base fretting over the debt.  Apparently the ODC is planning on taking care of that themselves.