Thursday, August 30, 2007

V Tech and Trains

August 30, 2007, 7:20, 9:40 a.m.

Campus Security

Given President Mason's and other UI administrators' obvious priority on campus security -- spurred on by their having received their third email regarding bomb threats [Kurtis Hiatt, "String of Bomb Threats Continues," The Daily Iowan, August 30, 2007, p. A1] -- I'm sure they are, or soon will be, all over the Virginia Tech report. But they won't find it in the local papers.

Here are links to the New York Times' story and the entire Review Panel's lengthy report, broken down into pdf files, including its 70 recommendations -- all presumably of at least interest, if not direct applicability, to all U.S. colleges and universities.

Ian Urbina, "Virginia Tech Criticized for Actions in Shooting,"
New York Times, August 30, 2007.

The full Report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel, August 29, 2007, is available from Virginia Governor Tim Kaine's Web page.

Note, as I've blogged here before, that Virginia Tech's campus police are armed and yet -- as would often (if not near always) be the case in an unanticipated random shooting -- that made no difference in their ability to prevent the tragedy and deaths. At least one UI student, in a letter to the editor, has expressed the view of many that she would feel very much safer if the UI campus police were not armed than if they were.
Thalia Sutton, "Arming Campus Won't Reassure Me," Des Moines Register, August 27, 2007.

Meanwhile, this morning's DI has a professionally balanced and well written review of campus opinion on the issue prior to the Regents' discussion at their regular meeting September 18 -- including what appears to be President Mason's leaning toward arming campus police while recognizing that "I'd feel safer if no one had guns" and "I'm not a fan of guns." Ben Fornell, "People Split on UI Police Guns," The Daily Iowan, August 30, 2007, p. A5.

Iowa's Back in Train - ing

I have a vague recollection of seeing railroad trolley car rails embedded in Iowa City's streets when I was a little boy. (No trolleys; just almost totally covered tracks). But that memory may come from another town. I certainly remember the CRANDIC ("Cedar Rapids and Iowa City") interurban line, with its depot down by the east side of the Burlington Street bridge, on the south side of the street, across from what was then Nagle's Lumber. The Rock Island Line was my usual means of getting to Des Moines or Chicago as a high school student when attending student organization meetings. I occasionally came home to Iowa City from Austin, Texas, during the 1950s on the "Katy" railroad. And I remember regularly commuting by trolley car in Washington, D.C., during what must have been the summer of 1957.

So it's not like passenger rail is new to me -- or to Iowa. But what's only been history may now be on the verge of coming back. (As Johnny Cash used to sing, "I hear that train a comin.'") A local group of railroad enthusiasts took the CRANDIC out of mothballs and rode it up and back to Cedar Rapids the other day. The local papers editorialized that it was a good idea.

Editorial, "If You Want Rail Service, Speak Up," The Gazette, August 28, 2007, p. A4.

Editorial, "Time to Jump on Board for Interurban Rail,"
Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 28, 2007, p. A11.

From a tiny village in Switzerland my wife and I discovered we had access to two passenger rail services, both of which seemed to run every 20 minutes or so. In fact, our former U-High school mates who live there don't even bother to own a car. It's like they were living in downtown Manhattan and relying on the subway. (I had similar experiences traveling in Japan years ago, with trains criss-crossing that entire country on regular schedules.)

The entire country of Switzerland is only 15,940 square miles. Iowa, by contrast, is is 3.5 times that size: 56,276 square miles (26th in size among the 50 states). And yet Switzerland has 3145 miles of railroad, mostly for passenger trains. If Iowa had the equivalent amount of rail per square mile we'd have 11103 miles of rail criss-crossing our little state. It may surprise you to know, but we had almost that much about 1910. With the popularity of the automobile -- encouraged by the lobbying pressure of the auto, oil, contracting and cement industries (General Motors bought up Los Angeles urban rail, destroyed it, and replaced it with auto dealerships) -- we permitted Iowa's rail to decline over the years to the point that 10 years ago (the latest figures I could quickly find) it was 38% of that, at 4275 miles (almost exclusively used for freight). (Prior to that -- and General Motors' efforts to kill off rail -- most cities of any size were served by electric rail systems.)

Would it be expensive for America to go back to passenger trains? Of course. Everything's expensive. It all comes back to benefit-cost. And "compared to what"?

1. It's never going to be any cheaper to do than it is now. As big a fan as I am of "rails to trails" (for hiking, jogging and biking), a few "rails to rails" might not be a bad idea either.

2. Have you ever taken a look at the total taxpayer support provided the auto industry with our multi-billion-dollar road system (Interstates, state, county and city roads)? Or the locks along the Mississippi for the barge business?

Or the airline industry -- runways and airports, air traffic control and TSA, the 9/11 bailout, and the defense contracts (originally producing war planes, but inventing technology that then finds its way for free into commercial aircraft) -- which ends up benefiting a relatively small proportion of the American people? (The "externalities" associated with the fact that jet planes are a major contributor to global warming and the hole in the ozone makes the industry's claim on subsidy dollars even weaker.)

I used to time those Swiss passenger trains (and their big clocks on the depots). I keep my watch set to the atomic clock time, accurate to the second. So, apparently, do they. It was a rare occurrence for a train to vary by more than 10 seconds either way from the very minute it was scheduled to arrive.

Our Amtrak passenger train (from San Francisco to Chicago, by way of Mt. Pleasant) may arrive as much as four or five hours late by the time it gets to eastern Iowa.

But note: That's not all Amtrack's fault. It's been deliberately set up be a rail fail. It has to travel on rails owned by railroads in the freight business. And with a policy that puts freight profits over passenger punctuality, Amtrack trains have to find and sit on a side track waiting for the freight trains to pass.

I'm reminded of a joke in a collection from the 1920s called "On a Slow Train Through Arkansas." "How come the train's stopped?" a passenger asks the conductor. "Guess we must have caught up with those cows again," he's told.

For rail -- or any other public transportation system -- to work there has to be lots of it.

If you're within a walk of a Metro station in Washington, you can enter that underground system there, transfer at Washington's Union Station, get off the train at Pennsylvania Station in New York City, and take a subway to your ultimate Manhattan destination without ever exiting this point-to-point rail transportation system.

You can't count on people driving to Mt. Pleasant to wait 4 hours for a train to Chicago when they could have driven in less time than that. The trains need to meet people's schedules rather than people having to meet the trains' schedules.

And all that goes for Corridor trains between Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and maybe Amana.

To do it right we'd need to start by putting rail between Iowa's major population centers, and out to the primary locations where the employees in those urban centers live. And we'd need to have additional transportation from depots to ultimate destinations. And the trains would have to run with sufficient regularity that people would be willing to accept their benefits in exchange for the additional flexibility offered by the automobile. (We might also want to take a second look at the Swiss roadbeds that produce the super-smooth rides, in part, by attaching the rails to the ties with six heavy nuts and bolts rather than a single spike.)

The benefits would be enormous in terms of economics, consumption of energy with its attendant seeming need for Middle East wars, global warming, and commuters' increased productivity and reduction of stress.

We did it once. Will we do it again? In my lifetime? I'm watching -- but I'm not going to be selling my primary form of transportation, my old bicycle, anytime soon.

# # #

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Two TIF Alternatives

August 28, 2007, 4:00 p.m.

Growing Iowa Business the Right Way

A month ago I wrote:

I've had it with the Iowa City City Council and TIFs. I'm going to do my best to see to it that anyone running for council who persists in continuing to take Iowa City taxpayers' money and give it to wealthy, supposedly "free private enterprise" for-profit corporations -- while denying it to their competitors, not to mention needed social programs -- is prevented from serving on the City Council.
Nicholas Johnson, "They're Back: The Terrible TIFs" in "The Terrible TIFs," July 26, 2007 (the entry contains links to prior TIF blog entries and 12 categories of arguments against TIFs).

To which State29 commented:

Nick Johnson . . . says he's going to campaign against every city council candidate there who supports TIFs . . .. Good luck with that uphill battle. Unless Ron Paul is planning to run for political office in Iowa City, I think Nick is going to be rather busy. TIF-supporting candidates (regardless of political affiliation) tend to be "connected" and "experienced", something which voters eat up, even if it takes money out of their own wallets.
State29, "Over in the People's Republic of Iowa City," August 15, 2007.

As is often the case, State29 is right.

The best I've been able to get out of them is that some recognize that Iowa City and Coralville have gone too far with TIFs, or an admission that, yes, some of them have not worked out. But all insist that there are some cases -- perhaps with start-up entrepreneurs -- where they make sense.

So, I hear you say, "We understand what you're against. But does that include any and everything that benefits business -- especially new entrepreneurial start-up businesses? And if not, what are you for?"

This entry is an effort to explain what I'm for: (1) "state-qualified community seed funds" and (2) micro-credit programs.

Community Seed Funds

At the end of "The Terrible TIFs" entry July 26, among my suggestions was: "The business community could create its own venture capital fund to invest in, or loan to, business developments they thought worthy."

Since I know that 90% of my ideas are going to be rejected out of hand (and that many of them deserve to be) I just spin them off and forget them until I'm reminded.

This morning I was reminded.

George C. Ford, "'Seed Fund' Raised to Back Iowa Entrepreneurs," The Gazette, August 28, 2007, p. B8.

It turns out that Iowa has something called community seed funds, and that Corridor banks and private investors have put together a $1.25 million one already.

The approach has many advantages over TIFs.

It's an investment, not a gift -- let alone a gift of the taxpayers' money without their permission.

"An investment committee of seasoned investors" makes the decisions -- rather than a bunch of public officials who have no financial stake in the project and, whatever their strengths may be, are for the most part not "seasoned investors."

Moreover, The Entrepreneurial Development Center President Curt Nelson also says, "We will continue to work closely with these entrepreneurs, monitoring the company and the fund's investment."

I need to find out more about this undertaking, and whether there are some downsides of which I am unaware. But it's always fun for me when it turns out that something that is spurred by my imagination and intuition, and comes out of the depths of my ignorance of a subject, turns out to have been proposed, and put in motion, by folks who really do know what they're talking about.

Micro-Credit Programs

You may know the name Muhammad Yunus. He and his Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006.

For what? For what's now called "micro-credit" -- small loans to the poor -- that began with Yunus' 46-cent loans to each of a group of poor craftspersons in Bangladesh in 1976 (for a total of $27).

For the world's truly poor a small loan can make a big difference.

The results were impressive -- both in terms of what the borrowers were able to do with the money and their honorable approach to repaying the loans.

The idea quickly spread. Among other things, this approach removes the opportunity for tempted government officials to take a slice of a multi-billion-dollar loan to their country and send it off to a personal Swiss bank account.

When I served on the board of Volunteers in Technical Assistance some years ago it was one of the categories of projects in which VITA was engaged.

Now, it turns out, you no longer need to own a bank, or be managing funds from USAID, to get into the micro-credit business. You, like Muhammad Yunus, can provide a $25 loan directly to a third world entrepreneur with a face and a name.

You can do it through an organization called Kiva, which you reach at

It humanizes and provides a personal story regarding the loan applicants. By joining with Kiva, their third-world "field partners" that administer the program locally (funded by the interest on the loans), and other Kiva members, your $25 (or more) contributions can quickly total the $450 or $1100 requested. As the loans are paid back (and they almost always are in full and on time) your philanthropy becomes a revolving fund that can go on helping more and more entrepreneurs.

There's no reason why micro-credit won't work for entrepreneurs here in Iowa as well as abroad -- even if the "micro" is going to have to be a little bigger.

"Community seed funds" and "micro-credit" are but two of the ways that Iowa can help business grow in the right way.

They draw upon the strengths of the free private enterprise market system -- rather than tax revenues.

Moreover, because an investor, or a creditor, has a personal financial stake in the venture it's more likely the business plan will be well thought through, and reviewed, by people with the incentive -- and skill -- to be of real help in avoiding preventable disasters.

They are more fair to the new venture's competitors -- all of whom have a shot at the funds; all of whom will be judged by the same standards -- than the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't, inexplicable, random allocation of TIF benefits.

They are devoid of the internal ideological inconsistency and hypocrisy of cutting the budgets of legitimate public projects and transferring taxpayers' money directly to a wealthy, for-profit owner's bottom line.

Want to know what I'm for? That's what I'm for. You already know what I'm against.

# # #

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Gangs and Gambling

August 25, 2007, 10:30, 11:30 a.m.; August 26, 2007, 6:45 a.m.

Cribbing from the Crips? -- Facebook and Gang Signs

Thursday (August 23) I commented about the UI athletes' Facebook saga. Nicholas Johnson, "What Do Abu Ghraib and Athletes' Facebooks Have in Common?" in "Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld, and Athletes' Facebook Photos," August 23, 2007.

Not only do athletes' Facebook entries include pictures with cash and alcohol, they also display their passion for good literature by presenting "favorite quotes," such as, "She can't say no if her mouth is taped shut."

But hand signs?

I'm pretty compulsive about reading the comments attached to these blog entries. They help to keep me honest, provide advice, and offer useful data and alternative points of view. From time to time I remind blog readers that some of the best stuff here is in the comments rather than the blog entries.

And this really turned out to be the case with that Facebook blog entry of mine -- though I didn't catch it myself. The comment read in its entirety,

Anonymous said...

Yeah, many of the college students drink. However, you have to examine the photos carefully to see what's going on.

Look at what the hands are doing. Look at the colors worn. You tell me if you see the same thing I see.

If the hand gestures and colors worn mean something, then this isn't normal student activity.
8/23/2007 03:58:00 PM
So, "colors"? "Hand gestures"? I was late with other obligations. I didn't follow up.

But a friend did, and here's what she referred me to:

New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, Juvenile Justice Commission, Gang Management Unit, Gang Awareness Guide: Recognize the Signs

Ask Images, "Crip Gang Hand Signs"

Harald Otto Schweizer, CSU-Fresno, Global Criminal Justice Links, "Gang Signs"
We're talking about what may be athletes' use of hand signals from the "Crips" gang. If you're not familiar with it, and its long-running battles with the "Bloods," here's what the New Jersey Attorney General's manual has to say:

Originally from Los Angeles, the Crips are an organization of aggressive and brutal gang members who are heavily involved in the drug trade. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s the Crips developed intricate networks and a respected reputation with other gangs across America. Crip gangs are well established across the United States.
Acknowledging that I know little to nothing about gangs, let alone their signs, let me reveal at the outset my uninformed guess that probably the UI football team does not have card-carrying members of the Crips gang on its roster. On the other hand, I am no more capable of proving that to be true than I am of proving the opposite; nor do I have the responsibility of a coach or athletic director for knowing it to be true.

Because I am personally aware of the consequences of the human capacity for rushing to, and expressing, defamatory conclusions on the basis of inadequate information, let me make sure to put the qualifiers on all this.

1. Gangs borrow colors and signs from other institutions. One gang, the Latin Kings, has black and gold as its colors, after all. If wearing black and gold was enough to make you a member of the Latin Kings there would be an awful lot of Iowa members on some Saturday fall afternoons in Iowa City. (Could that be why the Hawkeye athletic program is so popular in some quarters?) Another (not believed to have religious origins) uses a variation on the Star of David. One of the Crips' signs used by one of the athletes in a Facebook photo is a hand position also used in yoga. (Hey, how many friends do you have, like my source, who are experts in both gang signs and yoga postures?) Maybe our football coach is one of those coaches who are using yoga these days with various athletes, and that's where our football players got it.

2. Gangs change their signs from time to time -- usually just after adults have figured out what they are. This is, after all, a communications system designed to exclude us. Who knows if the Internet sources are accurate and up to date?

3. Non-gang members sometimes use gang signs to be cool, or funny. It's a matter of posing. Rappers use gang signs. The football players were probably just joking.

Following the uploading of this blog entry, there was another comment from Anonymous (my guess: probably the same Anonymous who put me on to this hand sign business in the first place) with sufficient additional detail -- and consistent with the online references linked above -- that I believe it warrants reproducing here:
Anonymous said...

Great of you to follow up the comments.

In those Hawkeye football pics, there are several gang signs.

The wrist watch may be gang related. The triangle on the face is a blood sign (dog).

The hand signs included 'E' (East Coast Bloods), the sign for Brim (a Blood gang), and and in the photo with all 3 players, Douglas is giving an obvious 'BL' (Bloods for Life).

The colors are significant too. Bowman wears red (not for NASCAR but for Blood). He wears a red bandana too.

Note the 'B' (Boston hat) B for Blood.

Further, the group called themselves the City Boys Inc. A drug dealing Detroit gang was called the Young Boys Inc. The Hawk players are from Detroit, probably a link there too.

Obviously these guys are not Bloods, but it is a bit disturbing.
8/25/2007 07:18:00 PM
My thanks to Anonymous for bringing all of this to my attention, that of other blog readers -- and any University administrators who might like to pursue this matter before a possible worst case scenario actually hits the mainstream media.

Betting on the Hawkeyes

When yesterday's Press-Citizen arrived it had stuck to the front of it one of those irritating advertising stickers. Why irritating? (1) Because page one ought to be reserved for news. There's no shortage of space for advertising inside. (2) Because it's not only a distraction, it also covers up whatever happens to be under the place it's arbitrarily affixed. (3) Once you remove it, with the underlying print stuck to its back it is, like a wad of chewing gum or pitch from a pine tree in the hand, not easy to dispose of.

Anyhow, yesterday's advertising sticker carried with it a bit of news. It read, in its entirety:

Park and Ride
Stop driving yourself crazy
with gameday parking!
Riverside Casino & Golf Resort to Kinnick Stadium!
Park & Ride starts the first home game of the season.
Round trip $10 for hotel guests, $20 for all others.
Call for time of departure - Toll Free 877.677.3456
So, the partnership -- between the UI athletic program and the organized gambling industry -- continues.

Last year it involved advertising the gambling casino on the scoreboard, and a real deal for high rollers: flying them to the casino, putting them up in the hotel, transportation to and from the games, football tickets, seats in the skybox the casino bought from the UI -- where, of course, alcohol can be served -- and a return trip to gamble away whatever money they have left after, presumably, gambling on the outcome of the game. Never mind that what they are expected to leave behind at the casino is multiples of the cost of any services they receive.

This year's offer is, apparently, a joint marketing effort to increase ticket sales while extending gambling's allure to those failing to qualify as high rollers -- so long as they'll pay for the bus ride. (Though why anyone who could park within a couple blocks of the stadium for $20 or less would think it a bargain to drive, and be driven, some 60 miles or more of round trips for the same price is not immediately apparent.)

Morality, Money and Enthusiasm for the "Gambling Tax"

Both The Gazette and the Press-Citizen have had major stories about the gambling casino's first year. Gregg Hennigan, "The House is Winning; Riverside Casino Exceeds Expectations in its First Year," The Gazette, August 24, 2007, p. A1; Rachel Gallegos, "Riverside Casino: One Year Later; Win, Loss or Draw?; Residents Undecided About Casino's Effect on Area," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 25, 2007, p. A1.

As regular readers of this blog have long since figured out, I'm not a big fan of gambling. Indeed, while I've often spent time observing the behavior of those in casinos (I was at Riverside last week) I've never left a nickel of my own behind.

My position would emphasize such things as that gambling (except, of course, for bingo) is opposed by most major religions. It was for years a federal crime, and outlawed in most of the 50 states including Iowa. Its externalities impose enormous social negatives on the communities where it is found. They include increases in domestic disturbances, alcoholism, crime, suicide, and bankruptcies. There are correlations between the number of casinos (how far a gambler needs to drive) and the numbers of problem, and addicted, gamblers; there's been a significant increase in gamblers seeking counseling since the Riverside Gambling Casino opened. There are also the direct economic costs of providing roads, water and sewer systems, and additional police (as in Riverside). I believe that position to be logically, internally consistent.

However, I will concede that the opposite is also logically, internally consistent. It would go something like this: archaeologists have demonstrated that humans have been gambling for thousands of years. While once illegal, it is no longer -- at least not for licensed casinos in Iowa. The law was changed by democratically elected representatives of a majority of the citizens who were no more subjected to campaign contributions and bribes than they are for any other legislation involving enormous economic stakes. While there are gambling addicts, they have treatment programs available. No one is compelled to enter a casino. Gambling, when engaged in for fun, with money one can afford to lose, is an individual citizen's voluntary marketplace decision regarding the expenditure of discretionary income spent for a form of entertainment. That kind of gambling does no (direct) harm to anyone. Why not permit it? (I may not hold this view, but it is at least internally logically consistent.)

Another often-overlooked advantage of gambling is its relation to prayer. As has been observed, "As long as there are algebra tests there will always be prayer in schools." It turns out that as the Powerball drawing for this evening has now reached $300 million, more and more potential players are turning to prayer as well as Powerball to assure their future. Adam Belz, "Millions of Reasons to Play -- and Pray," The Gazette, August 25, 2007, p. B1. I am sure that selecting the proper winner is a matter of great interest to God, whoever she may be, and that -- now that Mother Teresa has been revealed to have questioned her faith -- this will be the Lord's way of picking up a replacement adherent.

It is the third position that I find internally illogical and questionable. It is, "I am opposed to gambling because of all the harm it does to society and the costs it imposes. But because the casino makes little grants to various local projects and organizations I guess it's OK."

That's like saying, "Yes, I know that the sugared soft drinks in our high schools' vending machines contribute to our students obesity, diabetes, teeth and gum disease, but, gee, how else would we have been able to get the money to buy that wonderful scoreboard for the football field?" Or, "It would be disgraceful, and detract from the credibility of our professors' research, to name a college after a corporation. On the other hand, if the corporation would pay enough money, well, that would be different because, after all, 'revenue is needed.'"

In a society in which everything is for sale I guess I find it disturbing that ethics and morality are also on the auction block.

Another inconsistency I find is with those who fight "tax increases" tooth and nail and yet are even enthusiastic about what I call the "gambling tax." Why the "gambling tax"? Because citizens are bringing billions of dollars into Iowa's casinos, much of which stays there, and the community is getting back less than 10% of their losses in the form of these little community grants -- grants that contribute to the kinds of projects our tax dollars normally go to fund.

Whatever you may say about income, property, sales and FICA taxes, all of them (aside from what's paid out in corporate welfare and forfeited in TIFs) goes to government, its projects, and the employees necessary to carry them out. Most of the "gambling" tax goes to the organized gambling industry; only a little trickles down to the community.

It's kind of like "public financing of campaigns." We already have it. The public buys products at prices sufficiently inflated to cover the manufacturers' multi-million-dollar campaign "contributions," and then the corporation gets the credit for the money paid to the elected official. The pay back? Between 1000-to-one and 2000-to-one. Contribute a million dollars, you'll get back a billion dollars in the form of tax breaks, failure to enforce the antitrust laws, price supports, defense contracts, subsidies, access to public lands for oil or timber, earmarks, and in any other form the imagination of lobbyists can devise. Bottom line: We could have "public financing" because each of us contributes $2 into a campaign fund, or we could have "public financing" because each of us contributes an extra $2000 to the corporations we buy from -- following which they will pass along the $2 of our money and keep the rest. In either case it's "public financed campaigns."

Here again, there is another view about the "gambling tax" which I only came upon after writing this blog entry. I found it as a comment following the Press-Citizen's story about the Riverside casino this morning:

"Lotteries are how the poor people pay their share of the taxes." . . . At least you have a choice of paying a "volunteer tax." I have no choice in paying property tax, income tax, all the taxes on utilities and phone bills, and a host of other taxes imposed on citizens every day. . . . [A]t least when you gamble, you eventually see where some of that tax money is being spent, (Riverside) and you have fun while gambling.
So there you have it, as another blogger -- a very, very wealthy blogger -- puts it: "Fair and balanced. You decide."

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Public Money, Private Profits

August 24, 2007, 1:40 p.m.

"The Marketplace" vs. Public Money, Private Profits

It's no secret to any regular reader of this blog that I find it a little hypocritical, putting it mildly, for those who are ideologically committed to "the marketplace" and the "free private enterprise system" -- those who believe that "government is the problem, not the solution" and that "social programs" are repulsively "socialistic" if not worse -- and yet cannot see anything objectionable about taxing the public in order to further enrich the wealthy and their for-profit enterprises.

[As I wrote last month:

"I've had it with the Iowa City City Council and TIFs. I'm going to do my best to see to it that anyone running for council who persists in continuing to take Iowa City taxpayers' money and give it to wealthy, supposedly "free private enterprise" for-profit corporations -- while denying it to their competitors, not to mention needed social programs -- is prevented from serving on the City Council." Nicholas Johnson, "They're Back: The Terrible TIFs" in "The Terrible TIFs," July 26, 2007.]
The ways in which "corporate welfare" can be done -- TIFs, subsidies, tax breaks, government contracts, use of public property, among others -- are limited only by the imagination of the beneficiaries' lawyers and accountants.

All too often, the press ends up on the side of those beneficiaries who, if not advertisers, are at least "pillars of the community."

So that's why I want to award a "Hat's Off" to the Register for not only its position, but the analysis and rhetoric represented in its editorial yesterday (August 23). Editorial, "Let a Developer Pay for Convention Hotel; Marketplace Will Say When Hotel Needed," Des Moines Register, August 23, 2007. Here are some samples:
Polk County and Des Moines . . . are no closer to getting a convention hotel . . .. It's to the point where local leaders need to listen to the marketplace rather than consultants.

A study by a Chicago consultant released Monday concluded that market demand is growing for another hotel downtown, which would boost events and attendance at the Iowa Events Center . . . [and] throw off $39 million in economic benefits to the community.

The catch: For that to happen now, taxpayers would be expected to kick in a substantial subsidy. That is something city and county officials should firmly resist.

There is cause for optimism that downtown Des Moines will eventually support a new convention hotel. But that should happen when the market is ready for one without a public subsidy. . . .

Other local hotel owners, whose occupancy rates according to the study are below 60 percent, could be forgiven for wondering whether they, too, will be eligible for government handouts.

. . .

City and county officials will know the time is right when developers start lining up to build the hotel - without expecting government subsidies.
What would it take to get Iowa's legislators and city officials to start thinking that way? Enough of this "free private enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich."

I can give you as long a list as anyone of market failures, corporate abuses, the inequity and other evils of "the marketplace." And I have an equally long list of things I'd like to see government doing. Unlike many who oppose government programs, and want nothing more than to "cut taxes," I have less problem with paying my fair share for rational, efficient, and needed government programs.

But when it comes to setting priorities for the allocation of economic resources among all the potentially competing for-profit projects, the marketplace is like democracy. It's the worst possible way to do it -- except for all the other alternatives.

It's when we try to combine the two -- transfers of taxpayers' money to for-profit enterprises -- that we really get the worst of all possible worlds. (For example,
talk about "a level playing field," as marketplace advocates are wont to do! When we throw public money onto the bottom line of one business person, while denying it to all their competitors, we have really tilted our economy.)

This morning's Gazette editorialized along a consistent line this morning. Editorial, "Don't Focus on the Rankings," The Gazette, August 24, 2007, p. A4.
How does Iowa’s business climate compare to other states?

If you look for the answer among the numerous rankings compiled by various business magazines and think tanks, prepare to be more confused than enlightened. It’s best not to rely on these lists to judge our state, or others, for that matter.
. . .

Peter Fisher, University of Iowa professor and research director for the Iowa Policy Project, a non-profit public policy organization, determined the indexes were produced by ideological organizations that advocated mostly lower taxes and less government regulation. He concluded that their validity thus was diminished.

. . .

Peeling back the layers on taxes, for example, shows that Iowa’s overall business tax burden is lower than in border states Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Business climate isn’t easy to define. However, a favorable environment for long-term growth must be based on more than tax rates. A skilled work force attracted by good schools and other quality-of-life measures is certainly just as important. Access to markets and materials is another.
Much of Iowa, including the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor, can offer those things. But a looming worker shortage as the baby boomers retire poses a major challenge to this state.

Iowa’s focus should be on making sure our children are well-educated and well-informed about career opportunities here. That will do more to keep good companies here and help attract new business than a think tank’s lofty rating.
In short, the emphasis on "taxes," and the necessity of corporate welfare is often bogus.

In terms of the quality of life for those already living there, not all "development" and new or expanded businesses are a net plus.

Speaking of rankings, Iowa City, for example, is constantly being well ranked by those publications evaluating best places for college students, retired couples, entrepreneurs, and other categories. It's an attractive community -- attracting citizens and corporations alike. Additional growth is no longer our number one need, if it ever was.
That's not to say we should put a fence around the town and forbid any growth. It is to say that it makes it much more difficult to make a case for handing out taxpayers' money to for-profit enterprises to encourage even more and faster growth.

# # #

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld, and Athletes' Facebook Photos

August 23, 2007, 10:45 a.m.

What Do Abu Ghraib and Athletes' Facebooks Have in Common?

Shortly after the revelations of the shocking practices at the Abu Ghrahib prison in Iraq I wrote a column headlined, "Lessons from Abu Ghrahib." There was much to say and wonder about that bit of American military history. But one was,
Given that Red Cross spokesperson Antonella Notari has said, "The photos are certainly shocking, but our reports are worse," how can one account for the administration's failure to respond to those reports?
I continued:
As Secretary Rumsfeld testified before the Senate, "It is the photographs, the people running around with digital cameras."

The problem, in short, was the public relations impact on American citizens (and possibly the president's re-election), and on Iraqis' "hearts and minds." The problem was not our pre-interrogation techniques, the problem was the pictures of those techniques. No cameras, no problem.

Before we get too shocked about this administrative response we need to reflect. Just how unusual is it?

Think back over publicized scandals involving deaths in hospitals, unsafe products, journalists' fraudulent stories, tobacco companies' lies, sexual abuse in the church, manufacturers' toxic dumps, or universities' athletic programs. How often have they involved facts well known to top administrators for some time? Or, if not known, facts that would have been known with even rudimentary monitoring and management information systems?

Without media coverage, whistle blowers are often ignored, even when they propose solutions. Remember the repeated warnings that contractors' practices risked setting the Old Capitol dome on fire? Recall Ralph Nader's proposal, many years before 9/11, that terrorists' hijacking of airplanes could be prevented by strengthening cockpit doors?

There are lessons for all institutional administrators from Abu Ghraib. Don't think you get the big bucks just for favorable public relations. Substance matters. Ethics matter. Human dignity matters.
Nicholas Johnson, "Lessons from Abu Ghraib," Daily Iowan, May 11, 2004.

Before I went in search of that column this morning I had long since forgotten that I had included a reference to "athletic programs."

But isn't that what's going on now with UI athletic and other administrators' reactions to our athletes' (and other students') Facebook postings?

In short, the problem is not the behavior the photos reveal, it is the fact the photos reveal it. The problem is, to repeat Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's expressed concern: "the people running around with digital cameras."

As the UI's associate athletics director put it in this instance, "We're looking at them [the Facebook pages and photos] to see . . . Is it something that is an embarrassment to the institution? . . . [I]t could be [that is, the photo could depict] an action that brings on public embarrassment."

Andy Hamilton, "Athletes' Photographs Under Review; Expert Talked to Coaches About Sites' Dangers," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 22, 2007.

And just what is on those Facebook pages? As Brian Morelli reports this morning:

The Facebook pages of more than 20 underaged University of Iowa football players have photos appearing to show them engaging alcohol in various ways, from drinking to posing with liquor bottles or beer cans.

In addition, several UI football players have messages attached to their profiles that discuss alcohol consumption, racial slurs and other offensive subjects.

"She can't say no if her mouth is taped shut," is posted as a favorite quote on one player's page. Another's says, "If you send me back to jail, I'll rape your family."
Brian Morelli, "Alcohol Abundant on Players' Sites; Review Shows Questionable Material," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 23, 2007.

You see, the problem is not that athletes (and other students) might feel that way, think those things, or even say those things. The problem is that when they put them up on their Facebook page it risks embarrassing the University.

As for the UI administrators' and Iowa City City Council members' "see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil" stance when it comes to the highly profitable and politically powerful bar owner and liquor lobby, Stepping Up Project executive committee chairman put it best:

"What it becomes is an anecdotal confirmation of what research has shown is going on at this university for years," Clayton said. "The behavior that is depicted in Facebook pictures, or in tailgate lots, should come as no surprise. It is ingrained in our local cultures."
Two recent reports make his point.

1. The Harvard University School of Public Health did a UI campus study. The result? During the prior month 70 percent of the UI's students had been binge drinking.

2. The Princeton Review reports that the UI is now number five in the nation for hard liquor consumption by students.

Any athletic program or other university administrator who claims not to have known about the amount, and serious consequences, of our students' (including "student athletes'") alcohol abuse before seeing it depicted within Facebook is either dissembling or incompetent.

So which is it? Is it that we really care one way or the other whether our students are abusing alcohol, consider rape a matter of right, and credit cards free for the taking? Or is it just that we don't want to suffer the institutional "embarrassment" of having our students' behavior -- and our obvious attitudes about it, as reflected in our inaction -- reported by the media or otherwise widely known?

What say you, President Sally Mason?

# # #

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cost-Free Support for Arts Community

August 22, 2007, 7:00 a.m.

We are increasingly coming to recognize the contribution of the full range of the arts -- not only to our "quality of life" but also the economic growth and wellbeing that is increasingly dependent in this Information Age on the full range of human creativity.

Richard Florida, who has been here in Iowa City, is one of the better known spokespersons for this view with his "Creative Class Group."

It is much of what makes Iowa City the top rated place to live that it is. We are well blessed with theaters, art galleries, music venues, and of course our emphasis on writing.

Mary Blackwood, Director of the Landlocked Film Festival, recently put the case for developing a motion picture industry here in Iowa.
Mary Blackwood, "It's Time for Iowa's Close-Up; A Short Manifesto for How Iowa Can Grow a State Film Industry," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 21, 2007, p. A11. The paper joined her sentiments the same day. Editorial, "Smile, Iowa, the Cameras Are Rolling," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 21, 2007, p. A11.

Flashback, introduction and analogy.
Over 30 years ago, working with my own and other public interest organizations in Washington, D.C., fund raising was a challenge for us all -- as it remains to this day. The standard practice was for those foundations that were funding us to give cash grants to each organization separately. It was then up to each of us to spend it as efficiently as possible for rent, phone, copying, salaries, transportation, and such other costs as we might have.

One day it occurred to me how wasteful this was from the standpoint of the foundations. I proposed that they buy a building (which would go up in value anyway) and house us there -- at a radically reduced cost to them compared with what they were paying us to pay rent to for-profit landlords. I proposed that they include in the building a copy center, a travel agency, a business supplies store, and other commonly shared resources needed by all of us.

Some of these ideas were actually adopted. Others not.

Subsequently, other service organizations were created to serve the entire public interest community: computer services in the early years of mainframe computers and then desktops, mass mailing fund raising letters and service, media relations, and counsel regarding social change strategies.
Fast forward: Supporting the Arts in Eastern Iowa

Some years ago I was asked to teach a course in "Entertainment Law and Business" for some theater students. During that semester I ran into a couple (not in the class) in the music business. The wife was the musician -- song writer and performer. The husband (who agreed to talk to the students) handled the business side of the business. He made the CDs, distributed them to radio stations, and then followed up with phone calls to encourage their getting air play. He promoted and handled the bookings for concerts.

At the time, and since, I have extrapolated from that, and my prior Washington experience -- along with exposure to UI's entrepreneurial programs -- to a vision of a model for the arts generally, anywhere, but especially here in eastern Iowa.

We have a lot of talent in this part of the state -- actors, quilt makers, performing musicians, novelists, potters, graphic artists, poets, song writers, film and video makers, playwrights and virtually every other imaginable artist.

There's no question about their professional artistic talent. There is, often, some question about their business talent. That's not a criticism. No one (or at least only a statistically insignificant minority) is talented at everything. That's why we take our cars to mechanics, our bodies to doctors, and seek the advice of lawyers.

I recall a conversation with one of the "Charlie's Angels" when on location with them in Colorado for a film. She explained the disparity between what was reported she was paid and how much she ended up with. After paying percentage shares to managers, business managers, agents, publicists, lawyers, goodness knows who else -- and taxes -- her cut was about 10%.

The cuts taken by each of her "support staff" may or may not have been excessive. The point is, there are entertainment industry professionals in California's "creative community" who are supporting the artists (as well as being supported by them). And much, if not all, of what they are doing for their clients pays off in terms of their clients' total revenue and careers.

Few, if any, of our eastern Iowa artists can afford that kind of professional staff.

So what do they do? Most do without. Some try to master the business side of their business, but find it doesn't really suit their aptitudes or interests. At best it's draining time, creative and emotional energy away from their artistic productivity.

So you see where I'm going with this.

Indeed, others are already moving in that direction.

Matthew Krigbaum, a lawyer with Moyer & Bergman, is pushing a project that would provide free legal advice to artists and musicians. Fred Love, "Free Legal Help for Artists Awaiting OK," The Gazette, August 20, 2007, p. B1. At this point he's simply awaiting an Iowa Bar Association ruling that the organization,
Iowa Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, will comport with the bar's ethical obligations.

I think this is a great idea.

But it's only a beginning. (Of course, better a "beginning" that is accomplished than another one of my grandiose dreams and schemes that is ignored and withers.)

It would be great if others would pick up this baton.

Like a professional team taking responsibility for a K-12 student with special needs, or a team at Hospice, we need a team of professionals to advise and direct those artists who would welcome the support: lawyers, yes, but also accountants, bankers, and venture capitalists; business persons (like SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives), venue managers, agents, professors and students focused on marketing, and entrepreneurial enterprises; and others with relevant talents to contribute.

It's too early in the development of this idea to be talking about financing. Besides, Krigbaum and others are really talking about volunteer, pro bono efforts -- something many of us can do that may be even more valuable than the cash we pay for tickets or give as contributions.

But there also could be some arrangement whereby (as with a commercial agent) the artist would agree that some agreed upon percentage of any incremental increase in their income attributable to the efforts of the group would return to provide some of the basic budget for its operations, such as, perhaps, a paid office worker or rental of space.

Artists are already doing a lot for the quality of life, and economy, of eastern Iowa. Imagine what they could do if we'd lend a hand to the business side of their lives and free up even more time for them to pursue their craft.

# # #

We're Number 5! and Athletes Crowding Jails

August 21, 2007, 8:40 a.m.

Lots of news items inspiring commentary this morning:

Building Character (or is it "characters") Through Sports

Three Iowa football players are in trouble with the law; two for credit card theft and one for failing to make a court date regarding a prior offense based on an offense before that. Scott Dochterman, "2 Iowa Receivers Charged, Suspended," The Gazette, August 21, 2007, p. C1.

And pro ball players are also on the legal pages. The Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick pleaded guilty yesterday to animal abuse in a dogfighting operation, conspiracy charges, and bankrolling gambling -- crimes with a maximum term of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is now scheduled for August 27 (next Monday) -- at which time it's more likely to be one year than five. AP, "Vick to Plead Guilty," The Gazette, August 21, 2007, p. C4.

Very likely in the minds of these four the greatest penalty will be the interference the legal system is going to put in the way of their getting back on the field for awhile.

What ought to be on the minds of our UI and athletic program administrators is: What went wrong? We put enormous resources into the recruiting, guidance and academic assistance for these athletes.

Ironically, one of the credit cards was stolen from inside one of those very expensive resources: the University of Iowa's Gerdin Athletic Learning Center. Makes you wonder what they're learning inside that building.

No program, however tightly run, can prevent all conceivable legal violations and other misconduct. But does the story behind these sad and costly violations provide any insight into how our own program could do even better? Let's find out.

Party On!

Of course, every time the reputation of the University and its athletic program take a punch in the nose like that, fortunately there is always some good news to balance it out. And so it is this morning.

The UI may only rank 64th among America's universities according to U.S. News & World Report, but by golly we're 5th in the nation for students' consumption of hard liquor according to the Princeton Review (not to mention number of bars per student and "most profitable market in which to operate a bar with the least City Council and University oversight" according to me). Hey, at least we're known for something positive around here. Hieu Pham, "UI Again Ranks Among Party Schools; School Also Ranks 5th for Har Liquor Use, 18th for Beer Use," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 21, 2007, p. A1.

UI VP for Student Services, Phillip Jones, put it best: "We suffer from a reputation that has, unfortunately, been earned." Erin Jordan, "Less Partying Gives U of I a Real Reason to Celebrate,"
Des Moines Register, August 21, 2007. How earned? The University's own statistics reveal that "nearly 70 percent of U of I students surveyed last fall by Student Health Services said they had participated in binge drinking in the previous two weeks."

How is the United Way Like an Overcrowded Jail

I often write about governance models, and governance guru John Carver's notion of "ends policies." This approach requires the kind of hard thinking by board members that produces little beads of blood on your forehead. "What is it we're really, and most fundamentally, trying to accomplish?"

Once you think about it, it turns out that "We got 32% more news coverage for our organization than last year," or "We exceeded our fund raising goal by more than $25,000," or "We handed out more leaflets in high schools this year than in any prior year" don't qualify as "ends policies."

The Gazette, always a leader in "civic journalism," is this morning editorializing about -- regardless of what the United Way of East Central Iowa folks are calling their process -- amounts to this kind of tough thinking about "ends policies" (or "goals").

The whole editorial is worth reading, but here's an excerpt:
Some details on what’s changing in United Way’s transition from its traditional role to the new community impact model:

* Traditional: United Way is a fundraising organization. New: United Way is a community impact organization.

* Traditional: Funds agencies and programs. New: Invests in strategies for community change.

* Traditional: What do agencies need? New: What does the community need/want?

* Traditional: Emphasis is on money raised. New: Emphasis is on impact agenda results

* Traditional: Builds relationships with businesses. New: Builds relationships with businesses, individual donors and the entire community.
Editorial, "United Way's Expanded Role," The Gazette, August 21, 2007, p. A4.

So what on earth does this have to do with jails?

The Press-Citizen is editorializing this morning that we need a timeline for building a new Johnson County jail. Editorial, "Establish Clear Timeline for Overcrowded Jail," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 21, 2007, p. A11.

In fairness, the editorial does provide the balance that Press-Citizen editorials often do. It notes,
the question has long been whether the county is using the space it has most effectively. The Sheriffs' and other departments have to prove that they are working together to alleviate enough of that overcrowding through jail diversion programs and other alternatives. Only then will Johnson County voters be convinced that a new jail is not merely an expansion of the "incarceration industry." No one is interested in merely having the county lock more people up; we want the county to lock up the people who present a danger and to be providing alternatives and rehabilitation to those inmates for whom it would be beneficial.
When it comes to the final sentence, however, the paper advises, "It's past time to establish a clear timeline for how long the county expects the jail staff and other law enforcement officers to work in such an overcrowded facility."

How might we think about the "jail issue" if we were to apply the Cedar Rapids United Fund, and Gazette's, notion of "traditional" and "new" thinking -- or what John Carver calls "ends policies"?

What is it we're really trying to accomplish when we have conversations (and editorials and blog entries) about the number of Iowa City police officers, whether or not to arm the campus police, or whether to build the consultants' recommended 450-bed new jail?

Isn't the "end" we seek a community that minimizes the threats to its inhabitants' health, safety and (as the Declaration of Independence puts it) "pursuit of happiness"? That includes a focus on clean air, water and safe food; the need for affordable housing; plans for dealing with natural disasters, such as tornadoes and flooding; epidemics of new strains of flu -- and, of course, the adverse consequences of criminal behavior.

That is one (not the only) way of expressing our "ends policy." That's not to say we're unconcerned about criminals in crowded conditions, or county employees working there. It's only to say that it is but a relatively minor sub-set of what we're really trying to accomplish.

When we do get around to that subset issue, that "means" to our "end," we have another challenge. As the Press-Citizen puts it, "The Sheriffs' and other departments have to prove that they are working together to alleviate enough of that overcrowding through jail diversion programs and other alternatives."

And after we have put in hours of searching the Internet for what other counties -- and nations -- have done to most efficiently deal with this challenge, and after we have run the benefit-cost analyses for all conceivable alternatives to the way the current criminal justice system works, we are left with another question.

Like the issue of how many police officers the City of Iowa City should employ, the question of how many beds for criminals should be supplied by Johnson County in the form of a 450-bed, multi-million-dollar jail is a "peak load problem."

That is to say, it's highly unlikely we will ever have enough police -- or space in jail, or hospital emergency room personnel, beds and supplies -- to deal with worst case scenarios. We probably want to maintain something more than the average (whether mean, median or modal measures) need for all of these resources. But how much more is a judgment question -- and a judgment question that must balance the enormous cost of maintaining mostly unused facilities and resources against the costs of not having them on the rare occasions when they really are needed.

This further complicates the comparative benefit-cost analyses of, say, a 450-bed Johnson County jail vs. transportation to other State of Iowa or counties' facilities. (It's almost inconceivable that there would not be economic and other benefits to Iowa's 99 counties cooperating on this, as other, basic county obligations -- as has been advocated to little avail over the past half-century or more.) If, after exhausting all possible alternatives to putting persons in jail, we are transporting, every day between 20 and 30 prisoners elsewhere, and the most reasonable projections are that this will continue and possibly even increase, and the cost of doing so is greater than housing them in Johnson County, a case could be made for creating more jail beds here (although not necessarily 350 more).

There are others more wise than I about the criminal justice system, prisons, county government -- and benefit-cost analyses. But it does seem to me that our logic is a little simplistic when we say that (1) our jail is "overcrowded" (without providing answers to the "what do you mean? and how do you know?" questions), (2) the only way to solve an overcrowded jail problem is to build more and bigger jails and prisons, and, therefore, (3) we need a timeline regarding the planning and ultimate construction of a multi-million-dollar, 450-bed jail.

# # #

Sunday, August 19, 2007

"Preserve, Protect and Defend"

August 19, 2007, 7:40 a.m.

Our Constitutional Responsibility

There are three pieces in this morning's Des Moines Register, and reference to a fourth, that prompt me to belatedly speak out on the controversial issue of the "i word" -- impeachment.

Let me make clear that I think it's a perversion of the Constitution to encourage the impeachment of a president because you don't like him or her, or just because you want to hurt the opposing party. And I understand Speaker Nancy Pelosi's desire to avoid appearing petulant, and merely seeking revenge for the Republicans' effort to impeach President Bill Clinton, in her declaration that impeachment is "off the table." (I suspect it may also reflect a bit of vote counting on her part.)

Nor do I think a formal impeachment proceeding is absolutely necessary as the only way for American citizens and their representatives to "preserve, protect and defend" their Constitution (a part of the president's (and other officials') oath upon being sworn in). U.S. Constitution, Art. II, Sec. 1.

Although it may be relevant in this connection to note that the American Research Group's July 5 poll reports roughly 50% of Americans want Bush and Cheney impeached (45% Bush; 54% Cheney. Even registered Republicans support impeachment by 13% Bush, 17% Cheney.)

What I do think is that, at a minimum, the equivalent of articles of impeachment need to be drawn up with regard to what President George Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney have done, detailing each of the extensions of executive power and restrictions on citizens' constitutional protections. Our representatives owe us at least that much: a resolution detailing, opposing, rejecting and expressing their combined view that much of what the President and Vice President have been doing is, in the judgment of Congress, a violation of the civil rights of citizens and the separation of powers of the three branches of government.

Obviously, regardless of what Congress does it is too late to reverse much of what this Administration has already done. Therefore, the purpose of this bill of particulars is not so much to restrain a Republican president as to make sure the next president -- which has a good likelihood of being a Democrat -- and his or her successor presidents are not permitted to simply continue the practices that are now in place.

These concerns, and this analysis, is not original with me. It is gaining momentum throughout the country -- as is borne out by the fact that one newspaper, in one state, on one day contains three opinion pieces, with a reference to a fourth, on the theme:

Richard Doak, "Daok: Who will defend Constitution? That should be presidential litmus test," Des Moines Register, August 19, 2007, p. OP1.

William Stosine, "America's Biggest Threat Comes from Within," Des Moines Register, August 19, 2007, p. OP2 -- with reference to similar theme in writings of Republican Paul Craig Roberts. (Roberts formerly served as President Reagan's undersecretary of treasury and associate editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal.) Roberts contends "The American constitutional system is near to being overthrown."

For the full text of Roberts' remarks see, Paul Craig Roberts, "Impeach Bush and Cheney Now," Online Journal, August 17, 2007.

Although Bruce Fein is not represented in this morning's Register, he can also be added to the list of conservatives calling for impeachment. He was at the top of President Reagan's Department of Justice, has been affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and writes for the Washington Times. He recently laid out his own "articles of impeachment" on "Bill Moyers Journal," July 13, 2007 (includes links to background material, video, and transcript).

Lance Dickie, "Civil Liberties Assaulted," Des Moines Register, August 19, 2007, p. OP6; not available on the Register's Web site, but available as Lance Dickie, "A Scary Assault on Civil Liberties," Seattle Times, August 10, 2007. (Dickie is a Seattle Times editorial columnist. )

The Register Also Editorially Endorses Universal, Single Payer

As the health care debate rages on, it becomes ever clearer that the kind of universal, single-payer system advocated in Michael Moore's "Sicko" and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's proposed legislation, is the only real, long term solution to our capitalist, profit-maximizing, benefit-minimizing, world's number 1 (in costs) and 42nd (in life expectancy and infant mortality) "health insurance" (not "health care") system. This morning's editorial faults the candidates for their weak-kneed, fuzzy, insurance/pharma-capitulating proposals, and seems to advocate the universal, single-payer approach. Editorial, "In search of vision on health care; Presidential candidates talk about it, but their plans fall short," Des Moines Register, August 19, 2007, p. OP1.

# # #

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tudor Settlement

August 18, 2007, 9:20 a.m.

I have not written at length for the general public about the Tudor lawsuit previously, and I'm not about to start now.

(To make clear: my interest is only that of a family member. I had nothing to do with the Tudor study, and did not play a role as a party, lawyer, expert, or potential witness in the lawsuit -- only someone who followed the news reports and tried to find out as much about it as I could.)

Because some may be interested in my take on it, however, I will at least provide a reference to a book, and a link to a chapter in it which I wrote some time ago. The book is Robert Goldfarb, ed., Ethics: A Case Study from Fluency (Oxford and San Diego: Plural Publishing, 2005). It was an outgrowth of an academic conference on the subject at Fordham University in New York City.

I was asked to present a paper at that conference, which I did. A version of it was subsequently published in that book as chapter 9, "Retroactive Ethical Judgments and Human Subjects Research: The 1939 Tudor Study in Context" (the first four pages of which, pp. 139-143, provide a readable introduction, overview and summary).

As it turns out, the full story behind this lawsuit is as much or more about journalistic, administrative and legal ethics as about human subjects research ethics.

[Sidebar: Many professionals have criticized the design of the Tudor study, and the conclusions drawn from it -- precisely because it did not do harm to the subjects, was not designed to, and did not, "cause stuttering." But on the ethics issue here's what four independent, knowledgeable professionals (not involved in the study's design, execution -- or defense in this lawsuit) have had to say on the Tudor ethics issue (and therefore, by implication, the merits of the suit),

"It was fully within the norms of its time."

"Our assessment of the ethical issues suggests that . . . there is no evidence of intent to harm . . .."

"[N]o researcher has demonstrated that labeling someone a stutterer . . . leads to the development of stuttering."

"If harm was neither intended nor done, what's the problem? Where's the 'lack of ethics' . . .?"
(I don't want or need to drag their names into this blog entry, but all are quoted, footnoted and identified in the chapter linked above.)]

This lawsuit was created by an out-of-state newspaper. Ongoing stories about the lawsuit were reported by in-state newspapers without the benefit of full factual information from either the University of Iowa or the Iowa Attorney General's office -- both of which probably felt an ethical obligation not to try the case in the newspapers, or before television cameras on the courthouse steps, as the plaintiffs' attorneys were quite prepared to do.

Thus, the coverage focused on "orphans" and "monsters" (like the Loch Ness monster, none of which were ever sited) rather than the full factual story of what this study was and was not about.

I stayed out of it because I felt whatever I would say would be discounted, and simply used to divert attention away from the facts and on to me. This now appears to have been a mistake in judgment on my part. But my belief throughout, and this morning, is that it was an equally great mistake for the University and State to fail to explain to the media and the public the details as to why the most kindly characterization one could make of the plaintiffs' lawsuit was that it was frivolous.

I understand that, once we all permitted the case to be misrepresented by the plaintiffs and the media to the public -- along with Iowa's judges and potential jurors -- it may have become, like a "slip-and-fall" supermarket suit, one of those situations in which however abhorrent a "settlement" may be it is still the most cost-effective option. (The settlement was for less than 7% of what the plaintiffs were asking.)

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that the public relations mistakes on the part of all of us are now about to cost the taxpayers of Iowa an unnecessary $925,000 dollars.

If I can get permission to reveal some even more shocking information about this case I'll provide it here later in the week. Meanwhile, that's all I have to say about it.

# # #

Friday, August 17, 2007

Cable, Coralville, Coal and Consultants

August 17, 2007, 8:15, 10:40 a.m.; 9:20 p.m.

Stories Worth a Read, a Comment -- And Keeping an Eye On

All's Fair in Athletics and Cable Television

Negotiations continue between the "Big Ten Network" (BTN) and Mediacom. Andy Hamilton, "BTN Increases Pressure on Mediacom for Deal; UI Officials Urge Hawk Fans to Push for Network," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 17, 2007, p. A1.

At the outset, recognize that "there's no such thing as a 'free cable channel.'" When cable program suppliers raise their prices to cable distribution companies, or when a new channel is added the cable company must pay for, that additional cost is going to find its way into every cable subscriber's monthly bill -- unless it's a "pay channel" for which the cable company recoups its cost by charging those cable subscribers who choose to pay extra for it each month.

Also recognize -- as if it could have escaped anyone's attention -- that collegiate athletics are now a classic example of the corporatization of the academy. They are in the profit maximizing business as much as any Fortune 500 corporation. They're paying coaches multi-million-dollar salaries, undertaking $100 million refurbishing projects with their venues, selling off both skyboxes and advertising on scoreboards to the highest corporate bidders, and entering into partnerships with organized gambling. So that's the context in which this BTN was created and is engaging in negotiations with the cable industry -- over our money. They will continue to stick it to their fans with everything from compulsory "contributions" to their program as a requirement before one is entitled to buy tickets, to overpriced hot dogs as well as ticket prices, to raising our cable bills -- up to the point that their overreaching so irritates fans that it produces a decline in the athletics programs' revenue.

From my perspective the controversial choice -- make every cable subscriber pay for a channel many don't want (BTN) so those who do can have it for "free" (i.e., at a disproportionately small increased cost for expanded basic paid by all cable subscribers) ,or make those who want it pay the entire cost as a "pay channel" (like HBO) -- is but a sub-set of much larger issues.

If I had my way, cable would operate as a common carrier. That would still allow the cable company owners to continue to attain riches beyond their wildest dreams of avarice -- by sucking money out of both ends of the straw: charging both those who want the cable company to distribute their programming and those who wish to receive it. (Once you get a cable system built the money just keeps on rolling in every month and the primary capital investment is for the wheelbarrows to carry it all to the bank.)

Like the AT&T of old, cable companies would be required to run a cable past everyone's home, and to expand their cable carrying capacity as necessary so as to be able to handle the programming of every program suppliers who was willing to pay their carriage fees.

The cable customers would then pay on the basis of individual channels chosen. The cost per channel would vary, depending on the number of subscribers and what the cable company and program supplier wanted to charge -- in short, it would be set by the market (presumably to optimize profit, taking into account alternative sources of supply). (And I'm assuming, for purposes of this discussion, that the average, total monthly cost per subscriber would be the same, or less, than it is now; in other words, that the companies' total costs and profits would remain the same.)

This system would eliminate the self-dealing (cable companies that own cable programming suppliers tend to favor them) and censorship. It would create more opportunities and make for a more competitive economic marketplace for those in the program production business. It would create a much wider range of choice, a much more diverse "marketplace of ideas," for the audience. And it would also more fairly allocate costs with benefits and individuals' choice.

Sorry for the long introduction, but it helps put the BTN in perspective.

I short, in my ideal world there would be no need for negotiations. BTN, as a matter of legal right, could have its programming distributed by Mediacom. It would be available for anyone who wanted to pay the fixed price for it. But no one who did not think it worth the price would be required to subscribe.

An analogy? Go to Time, Inc.'s, magazine Web site. It provides links to 18 of Time's magazines. Requiring you to pay for the BTN -- which is what putting it on "expanded basic" does -- would be like Time saying in order to get Time, the news magazine, you have to subscribe to (and pay for) all 18.

Another? Imagine going to one of those cineplexes with 12 theaters and having to pay a flat fee based on the assumption you're going to watch all 12 movies when you only wanted to watch (and pay for) one.

Bottom line -- since we're not going to be re-organizing the cable industry and its regulation anytime soon? I think BTN should be a pay channel.

What is it About the UI and "24th"?

The reactions of colleges and universities to the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of all of them would be amusing if it weren't so serious.

Anyhow, in this morning's story (the rankings are online this morning and will be in the magazine Monday) we discover that the university Sally Mason recently left is tied for 24th (among public universities), the university to which Mike Hogan will soon be departing is tied for 24th, and the university to which President Mason came is also tied for 24th.

Iowa often works from a benchmark of 25th (among the 50 states) -- e.g., we want to bring our teachers' salaries up to "average." I'm reminded of the lyrics:

Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.
"Stuck in the Middle With You."

Brian Morelli, "UI Moves Up One Spot in Annual Rankings,"
Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 17, 2007, p. A1.

Desperately Trying to Put a Good Face on TIFs

One of Coralville's more prominent TIFs, the Coralville City Council-Marriott Hotel is celebrating its first birthday. It was cause enough for the Press-Citizen to devote an editorial and page-three story to the accomplishment. Editorial, "So Far, City's Gamble Seems to be Paying Off," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 17, 2007, p. A11; Kathryn Fiegen, "Coralville Marriott Celebrates 1 Year; Hotel Looks to Its Future Growth," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 17, 2007, p. A3.

In fairness, the editorial did acknowledge some of the downside of this venture:

Many local residents had -- and continue to have -- some ideological and pragmatic concerns about the venture. Some local hoteliers, arguing that city governments never should be involved in economic development projects that compete with other businesses already in the marketplace, brought a suit against the city to block the construction. . . . Others saw -- and continue to see -- the project as another example of Coralville officials overusing Tax Increment Financing districts as a means to boost economic development.

It's true that the hotel is not expected to hit full stride -- more than 70 percent occupancy and nearly $17 million in annual sales -- until 2010. And the project itself won't be paid off until sometime in the next 20 to 35 years.
Before this section of this blog entry was even written and uploaded there was a comment taking issue with what the author presumed I was going to write if ever I got around to it. Talk about prescience; he was right.

Here's the comment:
Ben Richards said...

I will defend the use of TIF. In many cases, TIF goes to build a specific piece of infrastructure such as a road with storm sewer. It does not "take away" funding from other entities because the tax base in question was not there to begin with. Not only that, cities are able to access the tax base right away for their debt service levy, which means lowering the cost of police and fire vehicles and any other projects using that levy. TIF was also used to revitalize the Sycamore Mall area. It is an indespensible tool for cities in economic development.

I see a lot of ignorance over what TIF is and the economic development scene in general.

8/17/2007 09:01:00 AM
Well, I've often acknowledged my own ignorance when it comes to TIFs. All I've had to draw and rely upon are common sense, intuition -- and the analysis by economists who do understand TIFs and other forms of corporate welfare. Because I've already written here at such length about TIFs, I'll just provide links to some of what has gone before, rather than just repeat it. I doubt that it will persuade Ben Richards and other advocates (and beneficiaries) of TIFs, but for any who are curious it will tell you probably more than you care to know about the basis for my own positions on the practice.

Nicholas Johnson, "TIF-ing My Toolshed," September 2, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "Supervisor Sullivan Says TIF, TIF, Tsk, Tsk," September 16, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "Press-Citizen Says 'Tough TIF,'"
September 22, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "Why Do They Hate America?"
October 2, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "Understanding TIFs (Revised 10/06/06)," October 5, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "Call the Cops: $3.755 Million Robbery in Progress,"
October 18, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "More on Corporate Welfare from 'Hat's Off' Winner," October 22, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "It's Not About 'Taxes,'" October 24, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "Riverside's Deeper Gambling Debt," November 11, 2006.

Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 490 - Search & Taxes," May 26, 2007.

Nicholas Johnson, "The Terrible TIFs,"
July 26, 2007.

- Continuing Saga of CEO Responsibility: Coal Mines, Shuttle Flights and Retirement Homes

- Johnson County's "Affordable Housing": Consultant Proposes 450-Bed Jail

. . . more to come

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

State29; CEOs, Toys and Trade

August 15, 2007, 10:10, 11:30 a.m.

Welcome Back State29!

You have no idea how lonesome it can get trying to protect the taxpayers from public officials' gifts of our money, ostensibly collected for public projects, being given away to the wealthy owners of for-profit private enterprises (or, like the rain forest, for contributors' pet projects). I've already announced my intention to campaign against the election or re-election of any Iowa City City Council candidates who have voted for such giveaways, or who indicate they intend to persist in this practice. Nicholas Johnson, "They're Back: The Terrible TIFs" in "The Terrible TIFs," July 26, 2007.

For the past month, while State29 was taking a well-deserved breather from this tough life we lead as bloggers, I was going it alone. Now he (or she?; "he's" still anonymous) is back at it. Check it out:

(You -- and he -- might also want to read, in this connection, Nicholas Johnson, "Copyright, Fair Use, and Blogging" in "Copyright, Fair Use, Blogging & Other Items," July 13, 2007.)

CEOs, Toys and Trade

Yesterday I suggested that one of the reasons for paying CEOs some 450 times what is paid their employees is that we are hiring their valuable ability to anticipate risks and rewards long before they arrive. Under the category of employee and customer "safety" comes the exploration, in advance, of the range of imaginable harms. It's not enough that they wait for the damage to occur first and then appoint a committee, or otherwise then decide to address the problem. When an institution is blindsided with unanticipated damage it is, in my judgment, a reflection of the CEO's failure to earn his or her pay. They haven't done what they were hired to do.

I contrasted this with a CEO's failure to act, to remove a safety hazard, once the damage has already once occurred. And I used as examples the Utah coal miners (in a stretch of the mine that had already once collapsed), the bridge in Minneapolis (identified as having problems over 10 years ago), and the broken tiles on the NASA shuttle (following a prior occurrence of similar damage that led to the death of seven astronauts). As a friend suggested to me after that blog entry, that's not just nonfeasance, that should be treated as criminal behavior.

Nicholas Johnson, "Failure to Learn from Our Mistakes" in "Mason's Home Run," August 14, 2007.

What I should have included in my list, but didn't (my only excuse is that the best story is in today's New York Times) is the Mattel toy story: 19 million toys recalled. Louise Story and David Barboza, "Mattel Recalls 19 Million Toys Sent from China," New York Times, August 15, 2007.

"Quality control" is not a new concept. Manufacturers use it in all their factories, wherever they are. It's especially important in the toy business -- for precisely the reasons the industry is now confronting: wary parents may be more reluctant to buy toys this coming holiday season. It's a double psychological whammy when you spend more than you should for a toy for your kid -- because you love and care for him or her and are hoping to increase their happiness (or education) -- and it ends up killing or injuring him or her.

You've got to hand it to Mattel. Their public relations firms are really doing a job for them -- up to and including pro-Mattel statements from the negligent, pro-business "Consumer Product Safety Commission." Few tell the story without adding what a wonderful company Mattel is and how confident parents can be when they continue to buy Mattel's toys. (Even the Times story quotes S. Prakash Sethi, a professor at Baruch College, “If Mattel, with all of its emphasis on quality and testing, found such a widespread problem, what do you think is happening in the rest of the toy industry. . .?")

Mattel's CEO, Robert A. Eckert, should have had procedures in place to check for such problems long before there were toy recalls on toys from China. At some point, it was a new source of supply. Any business, but especially a toy company, using a new source of supply would want to give special attention not only to costs, and consistency of quality, but also the safety of the products. Why did Mattel not do so?

Nor did the inspections need to rely on really creative brainstorming as to possible problems to look for (although that also should have been done). The dangers to children from lead, and the presence of lead in paints, has long been known. The dangers to children from small objects in toys (in this case small magnets, which are even worse -- especially when a child swallows two that hold together in the intestine) are also well known.

The publicists are pushing this as a "China" story -- clearly suggesting there is something immoral or unethical about their manufacturing processes. Mattel -- and other American corporations -- can't get off that easily.

1. As the Times also quotes Professor Sethi as saying, “there is something to be said about the pressure that American and European and multinational companies put on Chinese companies to supply cheap products. The operating margins are razor thin, so you really should not be surprised that there is pressure to cut corners.”

2. The Times reports that "About 65 percent of Mattel’s toys are made in China, some in five factories the company owns and operates there." Clearly, if Mattel "owns and operates" the factories -- regardless of where they are located -- it cannot blame "the Chinese" for defective and dangerous toys. I can't imagine Toyota excusing some defect in its cars because they were manufactured in an auto plant which, though owned by the Japanese firm, was located in the United States.

3. As for the hazardous little magnets, as the the Times reports, yes "The magnetized toys were also made in China, but they followed a Mattel design specification." The firm sure can't blame the Chinese for dangerous hazards to children from toys designed by Mattel and manufactured by a Chinese firm strictly complying with those designs and directions. That's one that Mattel sure should have caught -- right here in the good old U.S. of A.

Knowing that 80 percent or more of the world's toys are manufactured in China (65 percent of those sold by Mattel) American toy wholesalers and retailers should have taken, at a minimum, the same proactive, preventative steps they would have applied to a new American manufacturing plant. Given that this was a supply from another country, operating under a different culture, laws and regulations, those efforts should have been at least doubled.

But in fact this did not require any really creative thinking prior to any warnings.

We have already had case after case of problems with the safety of products imported from China: tires, pet food, human food and drugs. But that's not all. There were prior cases of unsafe toys as well.

And so it is that, alas, we must consider the possibility that the CEO's failure in this instance is not mere nonfeasance -- a failure to do the anticipation for which he is being paid the big bucks -- but a criminal malfeasance, a failure to act, knowing of the potential safety risks, after having been put on notice of the risk. It is, in short, another example to be listed along with the Minneapolis bridge, Utah coal mine, and NASA's defective heat shield tiles.

But there are bigger issues here as well involving foreign trade and offshore operations.

One of the objections raised to the WTO and NAFTA is that while they take very good care of American corporations' opportunities for ever-greater profits, they did so while ignoring the rights and needs of employees (e.g., low wages, long hours, abusive conditions, child labor, and so forth) -- abroad as well as here -- and the adverse impact on the environment in other countries (ultimately affecting us as well) of their use of practices that would have violated U.S. law.

Offshore corporations and banking enabled them to avoid U.S. taxes (not that corporate taxes amounted to much after their lobbyists had worked over Congress). Offshore manufacturing enabled them to avoid U.S. labor and environmental laws.

And now, it turns out, offshore manufacturing has also enabled them to avoid U.S. consumer protection standards (in this case for rather small and defenseless consumers).

In the case of the Mattel toys, many were manufactured in plants in China owned by Mattel. Clearly, the company should be responsible for the quality of the products manufactured in their own plants and then marketed to American children (fully capable of manipulating their parents into purchasing them).

But I think we should look behind mere ownership. Whether you call it "ownership," "outsourcing" or Tom Friedman's "in-sourcing," in practical effect these Chinese manufacturing firms -- of whatever product -- are essentially subsidiary corporations of American corporations and should be treated as such for purposes of complying with American law.

Talk all you want about "marketplace regulation" and "self-regulation," the responsibilities of parents, and caveat emptor, we are now talking about dangers to American children for which virtually no American parent, however much they apply a caveat, can test and prevent. There are some points at which ever-escalating profits must stop and public responsibility must start. This is one of them.

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