Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"Naming Rights" and Universities Without Buildings

October 31, 2007, 9:00 a.m.

Thinking Outside the Box-y Classroom Building

A couple of "distance education" stories in this morning's Press-Citizen reminded me of some ideas I've been playing around with for nearly a half-century.

Is it possible to envision a day when Big "E" Education might be provided, and recognized (credentialed), without the participation of institutions like high schools and universities (and law schools) or the necessity for all of the buildings we go on constructing at a cost of millions if not billions of dollars nationally?

A half-century is a long time to be "playing" with ideas like that without ever formulating them into a (pardon the expression) "concrete proposal." But this stuff is outside my normal line of work, far from my highest priority, I've never done the solid research necessary to bring the ideas home, and they're not within my areas of expertise -- not that lack of knowledge or credentials have ever held me back before, especially in this blog.

So let's start with this morning's stories, add some others, and then step back and decide whether we're looking at a trend or merely individual, disconnected, possibly interesting, anecdotes.

"Online" courses and degrees.

A local Horace Mann Elementary teacher, Emily Dvorak, is pictured on p. A1 at her laptop with a caption explaining that she is about to get a masters in education from her efforts online. Brian Morelli, "Giving It the (Online) College Try; More Students Turning to Classes on the Web," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 31, 2007, p. A1.

The story goes on to note that the number of UI students taking online courses has increased from 280 in 2003 to 2,578 this year. The University offers a number of courses online, as well as a number of undergraduate and graduate degree programs: Nursing, Liberal Studies, and Applied Studies; Educational Administration; and certificate programs in Public Health, Entrepreneurship, and Nonprofit Management.

(For reasons not fully explained, given this trend, and his recognition of the full-bore efforts of Penn State and the University of Illinois, Associate Provost Chet Rzonca "said . . . UI's roots are in being a residential university. 'I don't think we will go into the online business.'"

Although I would have to say that his position is consistent with what I found 10 or 15 years ago when I came back from southeast Asia with a multi-billion-dollar distance education proposal for the University, or returned from Washington with an offer of a multi-million-dollar grant for a telemedicine program, and could find no local interest, let alone support, for either. A proposal for aiding Iowa's economy with "Information Age" industries got a comparable reaction from the Governor's office in the early 1980s -- following which the businesses I had in mind settled in states where they were understood and welcomed, although with no more advantages than Iowa could have provided.)

And of course there are probably thousands of examples of training and certification that are currently being done online, from the required training of IRB members and researchers in the standards for human subjects research, to Microsoft's certification programs, to the online tutorials, help screens and FAQ resources provided for most software packages.

In fact, there is now enough computer-based instructional material available that one can imagine the actual creation of something once suggested by one of my sons for a K-16 software package -- something that could be used by students both in school, and accessed from home. As a kid goes through various "When I grow up I want to be a . . ." phases, by entering "fire fighter," "astronaut," or "rock musician" the program could lay out what he or she would need to learn, year by year, through four years of college, in order to be well prepared for that career.

Although online instruction was a very small part of it, the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year including a lot of out-of-building activity -- indeed, enough that, had the school board members been willing to read and discuss the document we could have saved much of the $40 million bond issue focused on putting more high school students in the present buildings, as well as much of the current discussion about who gets to go to which high school.

Finally, there is the related, and growing, "home schooling" movement for K-12 education.

Online and computer-based teaching and research materials.

The headline on the second story is a little misleading, Brian Morelli, "Student Group Spreads Internet; Developing Nations Receive Web Support," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 31, 2007, p. A3. For some years now, UI School of Library and Information Science Associate Director Clifford Missen (who is not mentioned in the article) has been short-circuiting the Internet. The technological and economic costs of providing Internet connections to educational institutions in many third world countries are often prohibitive. Rather than abandon the effort, Cliff developed a work-around: put content from the Internet on a really big hard drive and provide the drive, or computers with such a drive, to the schools. This gives students access to the content as fast, or faster, than we can get it with our broadband connections.

What else is going on that I think somehow relevant to this overall story?

For those who can more easily get reasonable access to the Internet, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the world's top institutions of higher education, has created an "open courseware" Web site. It explains, "OCW shares free lecture notes, exams, and other resources from more than 1700 courses spanning MIT's entire curriculum." Why are they doing this? As MIT President Susan Hockfield explains, "OCW expresses in an immediate and far-reaching way MIT's goal of advancing education around the world." MITOpenCourseware.

Increasingly, professors everywhere are doing something similar. For example, I not only post a syllabus for my classes to the Web, I "publish" student seminar papers there as well (the response to which sometimes helps in their job search). And while I still assign conventional textbooks, to the extent possible I use original source, up-to-date, Web-published material as assigned reading that saves the students money, the hassle of carrying more weight in their backpacks -- and a goodly number of trees over the years.

Online "national universities."

That research and scholarship are global is not a new phenomenon. It has often been the case that an academic's best friends and colleagues don't live down the street or work down the hall. They may be individuals who live and work in Tokyo, Moscow, or London, who only get together once a year, if that, at international conferences.

Email, listservs, Web sites and blogs have only accelerated the interactions among such colleagues.

I offer a seminar called the "Cyberspace Law Seminar." Others around the country and the world who are teaching similar or related courses regularly interact with one another by means of a "cyberprof" listserv. Of course, it's not the same as having all of us in a single building on one university's campus -- anymore than talking to someone on the phone "is the same as" talking face-to-face over coffee. But clearly the cyberprof listserv creates some of the qualities of a geographically based faculty, a kind of preliminary phase of what could grow into a "national university."

A related contribution of the Internet is something called the Social Science Research Network, and within it the "Legal Scholarship Network" which offers, among many other subject matter areas, an online publication called "LSN Cyberspace Law" -- which contains abstracts of the articles being published by, among others, the "cyberprofs."

Online publications.

Increasingly, publication of all kinds is done on the Internet. This has had a variety of impacts, not the least of which is economic, on publishers of everything from newspapers to academic journals.

This is not to say that all persons, for all purposes, no longer need access to any hard-copy printed material.

But for our purposes at the moment, the point is that from commercial services such as Westlaw and Lexis (and hundreds of others) to the literally billions of Web sites, such as MIT's, where very valuable material is made available for free, for most persons, most purposes, most of the time, whether teaching (or self-study), researching, or writing, the Internet can provide the bulk of what is needed -- and can often do it better than the available hard-copy materials.

Friedman's Flat World and Tapscott's Wiki-Everything.

One of Tom Friedman's catchy titles is The World is Flat. Among other things, his point is that the Internet radically reduces, by orders of magnitude, what economists call "barriers to entry." The costs of creating and displaying a Web page to the world are as nothing compared with building industrial plants or even retail stores. With a Web site, and an ability to outsource many business functions, it's possible for many individuals to create a profitable business. It costs no more to send an email from Iowa to India than from Iowa City to Independence. (Moreover, both are essentially "incremental cost free.")

We've all had the experience of making a call for technical support, or customer relations, that ended up producing a conversation with someone in Manila or Bangalore. Friedman tells of a person in India who is preparing roughly a half-million IRS tax returns for Americans each year.

The education connection? MIT's teaching materials are instantaneously accessible around the world -- as are mine. And The Gazette recently highlighted the extent to which this is really coming home. Kristina Andino, "My Tutor Lives Overseas; Outsourcing Gives Many U.S. Students the Boost They Need," The Gazette, October 22, 2007, p. A1.

The story's lead tells of a 17-year-old woman in Sioux City North High School who was able to go from Algebra II to Calculus without first earning credit for Trigonometry, who went directly to Advanced Physics without taking Introductory Physics. How does she do it? She has a tutor.

The tutor, however, lives in India. "The two connect in cyberspace through a California-based company called Growing Stars," reports Andino.

There are a number of lessons here for our purposes.

1. Just as you can get high quality surgery in Thailand for a fraction of what it would cost in the U.S., similarly a student in Iowa can also get high quality tutoring from India for a fraction of what it would cost in Sioux City -- and, unlike the operation in Bangkok, she doesn't even have to go to India. The schoolhouse, like the world, is flat.

2. Of even greater significance for our purposes, note that she received no "credit" for her efforts, in the conventional sense, either from this "school she was attending in India" nor the one in Sioux City. And yet she received a meaningful benefit from this education in the sense that matters most: she knows the material, moreover she knows how to use it, to apply it. That's the substantive benefit. But she also gets the somewhat more superficial, administrative benefit that she is able to advance to subsequent subjects the same as if she had earned the academic credit at her Iowa school.

Another consequence of a flat world is what Don Tapscott calls, by way of the title of his book, Wikinomics -- "wiki" as in "Wikipedia," the online, collaborative encyclopedia. Tapscott provides dozens of examples that go well beyond online encylopedias, including but not limited to business applications, all the product of online collaborative efforts made possible by the Internet.

There are numerous opportunities for collaborative efforts in education -- among teachers, students and professionals. There have long been tiny steps in this direction, of course, but we are only on the threshold, limited only by our own lack of imagination, with regard to what this could become.

I see all of the examples and trends set forth above as in some ways related. Where they might lead is in part up to us and in part the consequence of technological innovations over which we have little or no control -- or even the ability to imagine.

This is much bigger than "laptops in the classroom" -- as significant a first step as that might be.

I see the possibility of getting more education to more of the world's 6 or 7 billion people than is now possible -- especially women and young girls.

I see the possibility of a testing and credentialing process, or institution -- not unlike the NAEP testing program (National Assessment of Educational Progress; "The Nation's Report Card") -- that could take the place of, and come to be recognized by employers as the equivalent of, a high school diploma or B.A. degree from a reputable institution.

Because I believe that something in the nature of K-12 teachers and college professors are somewhere between useful and essential, I can imagine their providing home visits (as is now done by some school districts for home schooled K-12 students), or their availability to college students on campus for, say, a once-a-month visit, or seminar session.

Change comes slowly in Education. As someone has observed, it took us 30 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom. I have been frustrated with my own efforts here at the UI over the past quarter century.

But, like IBM's rejection of the desktop computer, it may well be that it's not going to make a lot of difference what the UI chooses to do, or fails to do. Those businesses I wanted to bring to Iowa simply went elsewhere, as did the proposals for university-provided distance education. (The UI, years later, did finally accept money for telemedicine.) The UI's "market," its competition, is no longer just its "peer institutions," the Big Ten, or even all of American higher education. The campuses, like the schoolhouses, like the world itself, are flat. Alternatives to skyrocketing student tuition are already here, and more are coming, fast, right behind them.

My earlier objection to the approach to the "naming controversy" being debated by the Board of Regents today (as spelled out at length in earlier blog entries) was that we needed to look well beyond the naming of colleges and buildings and other things at the University to the much broader question of our conception of our mission in an increasingly corporatized society. Are we to be an oasis of learning in a sea of commerce, or are we a ship sailing upon that sea -- like all the other for-profit merchants? Until we address that question, I said, we have little to guide us with regard to the corporate naming of buildings and colleges.

Now I see that earlier suggestion as much too narrow.

It's not what we are going to name the buildings into which we proudly pour millions of federal and state taxpayers' dollars, and the contributions of corporate and private donors. What the Regents ought to be researching, thinking and talking about is where buildings, regardless of name, will continue to fit in their vision of the future of something formerly tethered to Iowa City and called "The University of Iowa."

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Saturday, October 27, 2007


October 29, 2007, 7:00 a.m., 12:15 p.m.

"It's a Possible Maybe"

[Prelude disclaimer: To remove any possible ambiguity, this blog entry is not "about" any given individual. Every adult who has lived in the Iowa City area over the past 30 years -- including myself -- bears some responsibility for the circumstance in which we now find ourselves, whether because of apathy, sense of powerlessness, fear of bar owners' political and economic power, failure to act when they had the power and responsibility to do so, other priorities, support of City Council members who have refused to act (or affirmatively supported bar owners), and so forth.]

I think the supporters of the "10:00 p.m. drinking break" ordinance are using the wrong strategy.

You can't win the votes of underage binge drinkers with an argument as to why underage drinkers should comply with the law. After all, their ability to outsmart the Iowa Legislature and Iowa City Police is as much of the appeal of binge drinking as the joy of passing out in your own vomit.

So I've published in this morning's (October 29) Daily Iowan a Letter to the Editor setting forth the argument as to why a dedicated binge drinker should vote for the ordinance.

It recognizes, as I must, that an ability to violate the law only 20/7 instead of 24/7 is indeed a restriction on one's consumption of alcohol.

But I point out that underage binge drinkers' alcohol consumption is only possible because of the "cowardice, irresponsibility and stupidity" of the adults who support, or refuse to do anything meaningful about, underage students binge drinking: "powerful bar owners, a UI administration on both sides of the issue, a self-censored faculty, and a City Council that refuses to vote."

The point is that underage binge drinkers can't count on those supportive adults always being there -- especially now that the University of Iowa is beginning to get the kind of "disdain and ridicule associated with the indoor rain forest" -- adverse publicity being the primary driving force in administrative decision making.

Have you noted the hypocrisy?

(1) When it comes to the issue of bringing weapons onto the campus in the form of arming campus police with handguns it is suggested that this is desirable because (a) the police advise it would be a good thing to do, and (b) "everybody's doing it" on other Big Ten campuses.

(2) But when it comes to taking a position on binge drinking, while there is rhetoric (as there has been for decades) there is absolutely no meaningful action proposed or taken, notwithstanding that (a) the police advise it would be good to support this proposed ordinance, and (b) what "everybody's doing" -- virtually all Big Ten campuses, as well as our own sister Regents' university in Ames, Iowa State -- is to go well beyond our "10:00 p.m. drinking break" ordinance, and use the common sense, no-brainer approach of banning the entry into bars of those who cannot legally engage in the activity that profits the owners of those establishments.
This kind of all-too-typical administrative behavior always reminds me of a wonderful scene from the feature film, "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," loosely based on an establishment outside of Austin, Texas, many years ago called "The Chicken Ranch." The Texas Governor is under great political pressure from both sides, as you might imagine. Is he going to do anything about it? As one reporter sizes up the Governor's statement: "It's a possible 'maybe.'" Following which the Governor . . . oh, but wait. I don't want to spoil it.

Read the Letter to the Editor, below, and then, below that, you'll find a one-minute, fair use clip from the movie you can watch for yourself. Finally, later there will be references to some of the additional stories about Iowa City's forthcoming (November 6) election and referendum on the ordinance.

Binge Drinkers for the Ordinance
Nicholas Johnson
October 29, 2007

Binge drinker? Your smartest strategy may be to vote for the 10:00 p.m. ordinance.

This isn’t the “21-only” advertised. Actually, it’s one sweet deal for underage drinkers.

Want to see 21-only? Visit Ames. That’s the way to prevent underage drinking in bars. Keep underage patrons out of bars. Binge drinking’s down. House parties? Sure, but Ames’ common sense controls work for all – including underage drinkers -- as they would here.

That’s “21-only.”

If you were negotiating with some real 21-only folks and they offered you a compromise – “drink ‘til ten, wait, start again” -- you’d be a fool not to take it.

Binge drinking students are blessed with powerful bar owners, a UI administration on both sides of the issue, a self-censored faculty, and a City Council that refuses to vote. But you can’t count on the continuation of such cowardice, irresponsibility and stupidity.

The Iowa City and campus police chiefs, given the impossible task of enforcing the law, support the ordinance. But as everyone knows, given clever students and irresponsible bar owners, anyone smart enough to be admitted to the University can figure out how to drink in bars.

Ultimately, even administrators willing to ignore problems will respond to publicity. The consequences of Iowa City’s serious binge drinking are increasingly bringing the University the kind of national disdain and ridicule associated with the indoor rain forest.

Reject this ordinance and even Iowa City could respond like sensible communities with a real “21-only.” Illegal drinking only 20/7 instead of 24/7 is a restriction. But unless you’re not macho enough to get blotto by 10, isn’t it a whole lot better than not drinking at all?

Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City
Nicholas Johnson, "Binge Drinkers for 21-Ordinance," The Daily Iowan, October 29, 2007.

The following one-minute fair use clip is from the delightful 1982 R-rated full-length musical comedy, "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," staring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, among a great many other accomplished and well-known actors, and still available for rental and sale. It's based on a true story of a brothel outside LaGrange, Texas, that was ultimately closed down in 1973, following the work of investigative reporter Marvin Zindler of KTRK-TV, Houston. The writing was done by Larry King (whom I remember from Austin in the 1950s), the Governor was played by Charles Durning, and the studio was RKO Pictures. The film is copyright by, presumably, RKO. The use of this very brief clip is for non-commercial, educational and commentary fair use purposes only. Any other use may require the permission of the copyright owner.

Additional stories and commentary from others regarding Iowa City's proposed "10:00 p.m. drinking break" ordinance:

[As a concession to the shortness of life, I have not provided individual links for each story. They can be found at the publications' Web sites, by way of a Google search, or in hard copy from libraries or the newspapers in question.]

Starting with the Press-Citizen (not everything, but a reasonable sample from the past week).

October 29: Hieu Pham, "Police Arrest 4 for Assaulting Officers"; Opinion: Duncan Stewart, "Time to Fight for Our Right to Vomit"; Letters: Lane Plugge, "21 Ordinance is the Right Thing to Do"; Louise From, "21 Ordinance Would Not be Effective."

Special Supplement. "Is 21-Only the Answer? On Nov. 6, the Longstanding Controversy Comes to a Vote," October 27, 2007.

p. C2: "Ins and Outs of Iowa City's 21-only Issue"; "Do You Support or Oppose Iowa City's Proposed 21-Only Measure, and Why?"; Key Players in the 21-only Debate [continued on p. C10]"; "Iowa City 21-Only Issue Timeline [continuing on pp. C3, C6, C7 and C10]."

p. C3: Hieu Pham, "Future of 21 Issue 'In the Hands of the Public."

pp. C4-5: "Downtown Iowa City Then . . . & Now" (maps and statistics regarding number of bars and alcohol-related arrests)

p. C6: Lee Hermiston, "Sides Divided on Impact of 21-Only Ordinance; One Thing's Certain: Few Will Go Unaffected"; Lee Hermiston, "Other Iowa City Bars Mostly Indifferent to 21-Only Issue."

p. C7: Rachel Gallegos, "Ames 21-Only Ordinance 'Piece of a Larger Strategy.'"

p. C8: Editorial, "It's Time for City to Vote 'Yes' on 21 After 10 p.m."; Rick Dobyns, "Bar Scene Has Quadrupled"; Jim Clayton, "A Tipping Point on the Iowa City Horizon"; Jay Christensen-Szalanski, "Considering Economic Impact of 21-Only."

p. C9: Tam Bryk, "Not Enough Options Downtown"; Bob Thompson, "21-Only Won't Decrease Drinking"; Andrew Thomas, "Students Must Get Out and Vote"; Letters: Noah Keck, "Ordinance Would Just Move Problem"; Adam Altman, "University Should be Doing More"; Matthew Theobald, "Ordinance Would Improve Downtown"; plus 5 editorial cartoons from "Patton's Pad," all supporting a "No" vote on the ordinance.
October 25: Rachel Gallegos, "Absentee Ballots Up Over 2005," p. A1.

Letters: Brenda M. Cruikshank, "High-Risk Drinking Not Just for Fun"; Saul Lubaroff, "Support Music and Vote No"; Carrie Z. Norton, "Make Iowa City Better, Vote Yes"; Paul Werger, "Article Show Need for 21-Only."

October 24: Kathryn Fiegen, "Professor: What You Put on Your Sign Matters; Campaigns Show Electability with Number of Yard Signs," p. A1.

October 23: Brian Morelli, "With the 21-Only Proposal on the Ballot, Musicians and Music Lovers Ask, 'Is Nov. 6 the Day Live Music Here Dies? Plan's Critics: Music Caught in Crossfire," p. A1; Hieu Pham, "Anti-21-Only Campaign Spending Big," p. A1.

October 22; Letters, p. A9: Kathie Belgum, "Vote Yes to Save, Improve Lives,"; Amy Fletcher, "Critic Worried About Revenues."

October 20. Lee Hermiston, "21-Only to Affect Police; Pass or Fail, Proposal Will Change Law Enforcement; Most Reported Offense in Downtown is Underage Possession of Alcohol," p. A1.

Letters: Sarah Hansen, "21-Only Will Make Iowa City Better"; Christine Allen, "Iowa City Has a Drinking Problem."

[More sources to come later.]

Friday, October 26, 2007

What Teens Can Teach Us

October 26, 2007, 6:45 a.m.

Out of the Mouths of High School Student Editors

On occasion, the very fact that two related stories pass like ships in the night, each with no reference to the other, is really bigger news than what each reports.

So it was this week.

On October 24 the Press-Citizen Editorial Board published its take on race relations, Editorial, "All Johnson County should read 'Blood Done Sign My Name,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 24, 2007.

(Not incidentally, the author, Timothy Tyson, is speaking this evening (Friday, October 26) at 7 p.m. in Room C20 of the Pomerantz Center on the University of Iowa campus.)

And just how does the Editorial Board support its rather grand suggestion that everyone in the county should read a book? It says,

"events described in this book are not fictional and are not part of some distant past. The One Community-One Book committee chose Tyson's book for all Johnson County to read precisely because the retelling of this story raises so many still relevant questions about race and identity, about law enforcement and justice, about historical memory and willful amnesia.
And it goes on to quote Washington Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley who tells us that the author's "chief aim is to persuade us that Americans are blind to their own history -- or, even worse, determined to falsify it -- and that they cannot hope to resolve the deepest and most intractable of all the country's problems, race, until they are willing to look history directly in the eye."

Fortunately, this issue of the paper made it onto the newsstands and porch steps of Iowa City.

Because, as a news story in that very same issue of the paper reported, another community paper, with a history of national awards that would be the envy of any commercial publication, was not so lucky. Rob Daniel, "Survey Prompts Pulling of School Newspaper," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 24, 2007.

You see, it turns out that the Iowa City City High Little Hawk newspaper Executive Editor, Adam Sullivan, and his staff decided that rather than just urge their readers to read a book about "the deepest and most intractable of all the country's problems" they would gather some actual data about that portion of the problem that exists within their own high school in an effort to promote some discussion and solutions.

Rather than praising these teenagers' commendable and constructive efforts -- going well beyond those of the county's well-meaning, book-reading adults, focused on problems far from Iowa City 30 years ago -- City High Principal Mark Hanson decided the better course of action would be to seize all the copies of that issue of the paper (without telling Sullivan or others on the staff) in an effort to prevent this recognition of the school's very real racial challenges.

Why? Well, you see, apparently in Hanson's view, the problem in the school was not the pre-existing tension and prejudice between the races at City High, the problem was writing about it. (The story, in fact, reported a survey of student option -- you know, "data gathering" -- that revealed to no one's surprise that 13% of the white students are responding with prejudice to their characterization of an entire race, in short, to a label rather than individual persons with unique personalities.)

Here are my reactions:

1. Principal Hanson's reaction to a newspaper story reminds me of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's reaction to the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

As Secretary Rumsfeld characterized the problem in his testimony before the U.S. 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.

Did Principal Hanson really think it was the newspaper report that caused what this morning's Gazette on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand editorial characterized as "three separate verbal confrontations" -- Hanson's offered explanation for seizing the newspapers? Did he really, like Rumsfeld, think if only there was no newspaper there would be no problem? It sure looks that way.

Had he made any prior effort to gather this data on his own? If not, why not? Was he aware of a race relations problem in his school? Had he done anything proactive to address it, or even to promote discussion? We now know what he is against, but what is he for?

"Just because you can get away with it doesn't mean you should do it."

2. As a lawyer, it is with sadness that I note the extent to which the existence of legal standards can contribute to the absence of moral and ethical restraints -- as well as common sense.

Want a couple examples?

Because alcohol is "legal" and "drugs" are not, we send users of the latter to fill our prisons, and wink at the use and abuse of what is, by any measure, our nation's number one hard drug: alcohol (in terms of numbers of persons impacted, the seriousness of that impact, economic loss, relation to crime, and seriousness of medical consequences).

The UI's athletic program argues there's nothing wrong with its profiting from partnerships with organized gambling. Why? Because gambling casinos are legal in Iowa.
Did Hanson have the legal right to do what he did? Notwithstanding Iowa's legal protections for the free speech of high school journalists, he may have -- though I don't think it's as clear a case as has been represented.

The law says a principal can intervene in the case of a high school newspaper containing material that is obscene, defamatory, or that encourages students to engage in behavior that is unlawful or violative of school regulations.

Clearly, the survey and story violated none of these standards -- indeed, quite the contrary.

It is the final category on which Hanson relied: newspaper content that will cause the "material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

There are three arguments one might make as to why he was wrong.

1. As a matter of fact finding, a common sense, colloquial interpretation of the standard would suggest that "three separate verbal confrontations" -- something that probably occurs on occasion among faculty, as well as among students in the hallways, and is sometimes but a prelude to constructive discussion and problem solving -- scarcely constitutes a "material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

2. Legally, while I doubt one would win the argument (for a variety of reasons) I think there's a question as to whether this provision is constitutionally "void for vagueness." Under Hanson's interpretation a principal might very well conclude that criticism of the principal, or his or her unpopular policies, would cause "disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

3. Moreover, given the context of the other named standards, one could also argue that conventional principles of statutory interpretation should rule out the possibility this provision provides a carte blanche grant of justification for principals to act on their every whim, or otherwise render meaningless the statutory purpose of providing protection for student editors.
Even assuming what he did was legal, the far greater wisdom is to be found in what Rob Daniel quotes Adam Sullivan as saying: "Legally, he may have been able to do that, [but] just because you can get away with it doesn't mean you should do it."

The Press-Citizen is right. It would be good for all of us to read Blood Done Sign My Name. It might be even better if we were also to read that survey and story in the Little Hawk and reflect on racial prejudice in Iowa City in 2007 as well as in Mississippi in the 1970s.

Additional stories:

As always, see State29 -- on this topic: "Da Principal is Yo Pal," October 24, 2007.

Erin Jordan, "School paper editor defends survey; The Iowa City High student says he sought to stir discussion about racism - and ran into censorship," Des Moines Register, October 25, 2007.

Gregg Hennigan, "Confronting Discrimination; Despite Confiscation, City High Newspaper Pursues Race Issue," The Gazette, October 26, 2007, p. B1.

Editorial, "Censorship Not Always Black and White," The Gazette, October 26, 2007, p. A4.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Case for Bleeping Expletives

October 20, 2007, 7:40 a.m.

"Indecency" in Broadcasting

The Press-Citizen devoted most of its op ed page this morning (Oct. 20) to the subject of "indecency" in broadcasting. It asked that I respond to a column on that page by Dr. Loren Glass. My column is reproduced below -- with a link to an earlier dissenting opinion on the subject that I wrote when an FCC commissioner.

As will be seen from today's column, and the earlier dissenting opinion, there are two distinct subjects here.

One involves literary and artistic freedom generally in our country; the other relates to the FCC's responsibility to enforce laws regarding "indecency" in broadcasting. The differences between Dr. Glass and myself involve the second. What he is attacking, as his title suggests, are actions by the FCC; but what he argues by way of support are reasons for literary freedom generally (as to which we are in more agreement than disagreement).

I knew and supported Allen Ginsberg as well as George Carlin, and Pacifica's New York City station WBSI (a true "fair and balanced" practitioner of the First Amendment, often under attack at the FCC, and virtually never defended by the commercial broadcasting industry, even when Pacifica's Houston station was bombed off the air, twice). But since the Press-Citizen asked that I, like a good law professor, put together the best case I could for the FCC's position, that's what I've endeavored to do.

My column is an effort to bring to Dr. Glass' attack on the FCC the acts of Congress and Supreme Court decisions that impose on the FCC, and broadcasters, standards regarding the unacceptability of "indecency" in over-the-air radio and television broadcasts that virtually all (including members of the Supreme Court) would acknowledge to be unconstitutional if applied to other media.

In the course of doing so, I also raise the matter of what Justice William Brennan characterized in the Pacifica ["George Carlin"] case [FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978)] as the "acute, ethnocentric myopia" of his colleagues -- though I don't, here, use his phrase. (Justice Brennan wrote in dissent, "in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court . . .. It is only an acute ethnocentric myopia that enables the Court to [disapprove] . . . communications solely because of the words they contain." 438 U.S. at 725.) That is to say, in a democracy we have at least some obligation to respect -- that's "respect" not "capitulate to" -- the different values of our neighbors, regardless of whether they be freer, or more restrictive, than our own.

Dr. Glass' column, and his additional comment in today's Press-Citizen replying to mine, on the same page today, are linked from this blog entry just below my column.

The Case for Deleting Expletives
Nicholas Johnson
October 16, 2007

What are we to make of Dr. Loren Glass’ “@#$% the FCC”?

Not the content. The title.

By deleting the expletive (ironically, one approved by the Supreme Court for public display in Cohen v. California [403 U.S. 15 (1971)] he refutes his very thesis. It is an example of his “pandering to a very small group with a very loud voice” -- his characterization -- for which he criticizes the FCC.

Don’t get me wrong. Among the 400 dissenting opinions I wrote as an FCC commissioner are a goodly number poking fun at a variety of FCC silliness. One dealing with the FCC’s punishment of little college station WUHY-FM for its “indecency” will be linked from the blog version of this column for your entertainment. [Here is that link.]

But the issues are a little more complicated than I then, or he now, reveal.

For starters, the “small group” forbidding indecency in broadcasting is called “Congress.” “Indecency” has been illegal since the FCC’s earliest days -– ironically in the very same section of the Act that forbids FCC “censorship.” In 1948 Congress moved it out of the Communications Act and into the Criminal Code, where it still resides as a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment [18 U.S.C. Sec. 1464 (2004)].

That doesn’t make “indecency” any less vague as guidance for broadcasters, but it does make the agency’s attention to the issue something more than mere “pandering” to “the core constituency of the Republican Party.”

Moreover, however well qualified Dr. Glass may be regarding the tastes and values of the Democrats of his personal acquaintance in Johnson County, I suspect there are a goodly number of registered Democrats in America among the Republicans in that “very small group” offended by indecency.

And therein lies the dilemma for which the discipline of anthropology provides more insightful guidance than either my training in law or Dr. Glass’ field of American literature.

Dr. Glass points out the availability of pornography on some cable channels and the Internet. He’s right. But the Supreme Court says he’s wrong to argue broadcasting should be as free.

For 70% of us TV comes by cable -– whether the Cedar Rapids stations or cable programming sources like Comedy Central. But there’s a difference -– one more easily explored in my Senior College class this month than this brief column. There’s a scarcity of over-the-air frequencies that doesn’t exist for cable. That’s one reason our local stations are licensed by the FCC to serve “the public interest” and Comedy Central is not (but bleeps expletives anyway).

Anyone who pays an extra premium to the cable company for a soft or hardcore pornography channel can’t reasonably complain when they get what they paid for. The same is true for cable generally to a lesser degree -– “lesser” because we can’t yet pick individual “basic cable” channels.

Rabbit ears and rooftop antennas still provide, for free, a wide range of public and commercial stations. We have a choice.

Personally, I prefer individuals’ “censorship” for themselves to FCC censorship for all. Don’t like the cable channel? Don’t pay for it. Worried about the Internet? Get a filter. TV? Get a “v-chip.”

But what of those who’ve done those things and must still live, and raise children, amidst societal values of which they disapprove? Aren’t they entitled to ask the FCC and Justice Department to enforce the criminal law? In a democracy, with an anthropologist’s sensitivity, we can’t simply offer them a poke in the eye with a sharp stick and a dismissive expletive, deleted or not.

We need not permit them to determine what the rest of us can read and watch. But we must honor the different values of their religious communities, their choice of home over public schooling, or their decision, like that of the Amish, to create entertainment from home rather than merely watch entertainment from Hollywood.

I suspect Dr. Loren Glass, like Comedy Central, chose to delete his expletive because he thought it a good idea to respect others’ values -- even though not legally obliged to do so. For broadcasters, respect for others’ values is not just a good idea, it’s the law.
Former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law, blogs at, authored the just published book, Your Second Priority, and is teaching a Senior College course on the media.

# # #

This op ed column was published as Nicholas Johnson, "'@#$%& the FCC' and the case for deleting expletives," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 20, 2007, p. A17.

It was written as a response to another column on that same page, Loren Glass, "The Only Proper Response is to Say '@#$% the FCC,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 20, 2007, p. A17.

The paper also published a response to my column by Dr. Glass, Loren Glass, "Glass Responds to Johnson," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 20, 2007, p. A17 -- the introductory comments at the top of this blog entry are, in effect, my response to his response.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Why "21-Only" Isn't

October 19, 2007, 12:45 p.m.; October 20, 2007, 8:30 a.m.

"21-Only"? Nonsense!

There's lots of action -- or at least discussion -- about the so-called "21-Only" proposal. Why "so-called"? Because it's not about "21-only" at all -- notwithstanding that characterization by supporters and opponents alike.

The Daily Iowan editorializes this morning, with a headline reference to "21-Only," "As most people are well-aware, this election will decide the fate of a proposed ordinance banning anyone under the age of 21 from the Iowa City bars" -- a brazenly inaccurate characterization. Editorial, "21-Only Voting Might Spur Increased Student Engagement," The Daily Iowan, October 19, 2007, p. A6.
Under this proposal the Iowa law would continue to be openly violated in Iowa City's bars up until 10:00 p.m. You may think that's a good idea, you may think it's a bad idea, but it is clearly not "banning anyone under the age of 21 from the Iowa City bars."

A columnist in this morning's Press-Citizen spreads this mischaracterization further by calling it "a proposal that would prevent anyone younger than 21 from entering a bar." Jesse Tangkhpanya, "When Political Opposites Join Forces," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 19, 2007, p. A11.

Most newspaper stories about the proposal ultimately get around to a factually accurate description, but not before headlines and leads speak of "a 21-only ordinance," Rob Daniel, "Sides Clash on 21-Only Proposal; Few Students Attend Forum," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 19, 2007, p. A1; "the 21-and-older bar issue," Gregg Hennigan, "Supporters, Opponents Air Views on Bar Law at Forum," The Gazette, October 19, 2007, p. A1; or "21-ordinance," Abby Harvey, "Group Targets 21-Only; The UI Student Health Initiative Task Force Rallies Students, Encourages Voters in Hopes of Defeating the 21-Ordinance, Which is on the Nov. 6 Ballot," The Daily Iowan, October 12, 2007, p. A1.

Bob Patton's editorial cartoon of October 13, 2007, depicts a deteriorating "downtown Iowa City" going down a sewer designated "21-only." Patton's Pad, Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 13, 2007, p. A15.

Even supporters of the proposal have it wrong, as evidenced by one author's assertion that "the 21-ordinance . . . raises the bar-admission age to 21." Christine Allen, "Don't Get Scared by Anti-21-Only Rhetoric," The Daily Iowan, October 16, 2007, p. A6.
So, what are the facts?

Under the present "restrictions" of the City Council, from the time bars open -- 6:30 a.m. on football game days for "breakfast" -- until 10:00 p.m. there are essentially no restrictions on who can enter.

And if the so-called "21-only" proposal passes? That will still be the law!

Think about that for a moment. Calling this a "21-only" proposal is a gross distortion of what it's about, designed to frighten with this characterization those voters who wish to perpetuate the bar owners' profits from operating businesses at which the law is routinely violated.

All the proposition involves is what happens between 10:00 p.m. and closing time. Under the present "restrictions" the illegal provision of alcohol to those who are under the age of 19 can only continue up until 10:00 p.m.

If the so-called "21-only" proposal passes, the illegal provision of alcohol can still continue up until 10:00 p.m., but from 10:00 p.m. until closing time the Iowa law will be enforced.

Iowa law prohibits the sale of alcohol products to anyone under the age of 21.

I'm perfectly willing to consider any independent, reliable data regarding the advantages and disadvantages of lowering the drinking age to 18. (Among other things, setting the age at 18 would eliminate what may be for some students the appealing notion of getting away with something illegal.)

But I don't think arguments that "those old enough to fight for their country ought to be able to buy a beer" have any relevance whatsoever as to why it should be OK to violate the present law -- which very clearly is "21-only." In order to avoid disrespect for law generally, I believe whatever the law may be should be enforced -- until, if desirable, it is changed.

Given that what bars do is sell alcohol, it would not be unreasonable for Iowa City, like a great many sensible cities around the country, to provide that no one under the age of 21 could enter establishments the sole purpose of which is to prosper from the consumption of alcohol by those who enter. Actually, that's kind of a no-brainer if you think about it.

Iowa City's City Council, however, proud of this university community's reputation as one of the underage binge drinking capitals of the nation, with a wink and a nod has been able to expand students' access to alcohol from a mere 7 bars not long ago to 51 today. Think of the profits. Think of the "economic development." Think of the "vibrancy" of the downtown. Wow!

Now those are City Council members worth voting for, aren't they? (The only reason we need the referendum is because the Council members thought it too much of a burden on wealthy bar owners to have to comply with the law after 10:00 p.m.)

It is apparently relatively easy for underage students to obtain alcohol in bars, what with fake IDs, reimbursing legal-aged friends who buy them drinks, and undoubtedly other methods of which I am unaware. Once they have entered the bars it is virtually impossible, with or without the assistance of the police, to comply with the Iowa law.

In fact, if illegal sales were not being made, if bar owners' underage patrons were not consuming alcohol illegally, why would bar owners care if the additional (19- and 20-year-old) underage students had to leave at 10:00 p.m.? Why would the 10:00 p.m. expulsion of those who shouldn't really be there at any time of day have an adverse impact on the economy or "vibrancy" of the downtown? The only reason it might have an economic impact is because bar owners have been flagrantly violating the law all along and would like to be able to continue to do so 24/7.

If this were truly a "21-only" proposal I could understand the bar owners' objections to the loss of such a substantial portion of their total, ill-gotten gain. I wouldn't agree with them, but I would understand.

But the ordinance is not a "21-only" law.

It is rather, it seems to me, an excessively modest compromise.

We have a very serious problem of binge drinking by young students that leads to sexual assaults and other violence, adverse impacts on health including the possibility of more alcoholism than might otherwise exist in their lives, and a devastating impact on their educations -- up to and including more dropouts than would otherwise occur -- not to mention the adverse impact on the community generally and its residents. Critics of Iowa City's lax approach to the law note two student deaths -- one from a student inhaling his own vomit, another from a drunken student falling off a balcony -- plus "drunken driving deaths, countless drunken assaults and attacks and a 2005 Harvard School of Public Health study that states UI has a binge drinking rate of nearly 70 percent." Lee Hermiston, "Iowa's Drinking Called Epidemic; Experts Say Bingi9ng Affects Health Later," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 13, 2007, p. A1.

As UI Public Safety Director Chuck Green said, "alcohol consumption does exacerbate the problem of assaults and sexual assaults in the community. 'We know there's a whole host of other issues that accompany intoxication. Sexual assaults go up, criminal mischief goes up, assaults go up. Anything we can do to reduce those crimes would be beneficial." And Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine reports, "'After 10 o'clock at night [Iowa City's downtown] has a different personality. And most of it is due to alcohol. Alcohol affects everything we do after 10 p.m.' . . . Hargadine said the downtown area becomes more violent, disruptive and unsafe. There's fighting, littering, uprooting trees and all kinds of mischief-related activities that have alcohol as the common denominator." (The foregoing is from the October 20 piece in Lee Hermiston's four-part series about the proposed ordinance. Lee Hermiston, "21-Only to Affect Police; Pass or Fail, Proposal Will Change Law Enforcement; Most Reported Offense in Downtown is Underage Possession of alcohol," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 20, 2007, p. A1.)

Here are the two most relevant administrators of law enforcement in the community supporting this ordinance, and providing graphic data and reasons why, and some of the same folks who are willing to support whatever the police want -- from arming campus police to providing more city police officers -- are unwilling to listen to them when it comes to the criminal and otherwise costly consequences of underage drinkers in bars after 10:00 p.m.

(And see also the October 20 letters to the editor: Sarah Hansen, "21-Only Will Make Iowa City Better," and Christine Allen, "Iowa City Has a Drinking Problem," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 20, 2007, p. A16.)

Iowa City's drinking establishments have, among other things, deliberately set fire to a bar where customers were sitting, staged fights inside the bar, and more recently staged an event described as a "party" at the Union Bar with a "mandate of matching lingerie for cocktail waitresses [that] endangered the young women's welfare [creating] a haven for the objectification of women, an environment in which lewdness is an encouraged standard." Patrick Bigsby, "'Sex Sells' Excuse Sold Out," The Daily Iowan, October 10, 2007, p. A6

A true "21-only" would produce a significant reduction in binge drinking, notwithstanding opponents' canard about it "just going elsewhere" (something that is going on now anyway).

This ordinance will not have such a substantial impact. But it should result in an improvement -- without a significant adverse impact on the legitimate, legal profits of any bar owner. A requirement that bar owners obey the law a couple of hours a day cannot seriously be argued to be a very onerous imposition.

Let's give the proposal a chance. As Iowa City Police Chief Hargadine says, "There's only one way to know for sure [how much it will help] and that's to do it." (From Lee Hermiston's October 20 story.)

But to do that, the media, and the voters they inform, need to know precisely what it is this ordinance does, and does not, provide. And the fact is that no one is going to be voting on "21-only." Not in this town.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Blog Entry for Your Thoughts

From October 10 through October 17 and Beyond

October 17, 2007, 7:00 a.m.: Here's an "add-item" for this blog entry and its comments on this, the big day of the Lecture Committee's efforts:

I'm searching for comments to this blog entry either confirming, or disputing, the following story:

Do you use plastic products? It's hard not to in this economy, even after you've made an effort to cut back: liquid containers, plastic bags from stores, throw-away dishes and cups. Do you make an effort to recycle those you do use? If so, do you have any idea what happens to your contributions to plastic recycling?

One of my sons passed along the assertion that 80% of our "recycled" plastic is actually sent to China and burned -- something that's permissible under China's lax environmental laws, but would be banned here.

If true, it means we're (1) being lied to by those businesses ostensibly "recycling" our plastic as an environmentally-friendly effort, (2) poisoning the Chinese, (3) throwing away what I've assumed is a potential source of (or substitute for) the petroleum that goes into plastic, and (4) contributing to pollution and global warming in the name of "recycling."

My wife, Mary Vasey, went looking. She couldn't find anything on to confirm or refute this story. What she did find elsewhere was a report from the Independent and Guardian on the Web site -- "Transnational Trash," January 26, 2007 -- that is consistent (though not identical) with regard to practices in Great Britain.
Help me out. "Enquiring minds want to know." Do you know what happens to Americans' "recycled plastic"? And, if so, what is your source?

The Lecture Committee Wants Your Thoughts

For the next week we're going to try an experiment here in collaboration with the UI Lecture Committee -- a group of the finest undergraduates you could ever find at any major university.

The Lecture Committee is putting on a great event October 17 and would like to have a bit of pre-event discussion here in this blog in the form of "comments" attached to this blog entry.

Here's their announcement:

The University Lecture Committee, the Brookings Institution and the UI Office of the Vice President for Research, are hosting a forum on October 17th entitled "Energy and National Security: The Role of Biofuels in America's Policy Debate." Focusing on the future of renewable fuels as well as the role that energy plays in American policy, the event will include prominent thinkers of the Brookings Institution and notable professors from Iowa's Universities. The forum is one of the Brookings Institution's Opportunity '08 series ( centering on major political issues in states with early primaries or caucuses.

What: Energy and National Security: The Role of Biofuels in America's Energy Economy.
When: October 17, 2007 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Main Lounge, Iowa Memorial Union, Iowa City, Iowa
More information about the forum and panelists can be found at Questions? Just email them to:

The Lecture Committee continues:

The forum will center on two major topics: energy security and alternative energy sources, with a specific focus on biofuels, and the role that energy plays in America’s domestic and foreign policy. Iowa’s agricultural economy and heavy investments in ethanol have made it the crucible of America’s biofuel experiment, stimulating research and discussion on the many possible impacts of biofuels. Furthermore, Iowans, as residents of an early caucus state, have the unique opportunity to engage politicians and get issues that are important to them on presidential candidates’ national agendas. Ethanol is a national issue in large part because of Iowa.

And energy is a national issue in large part because of our economy’s dependence on it. Access to energy has shaped our domestic economic policies as well as our foreign policy for generations. But it is now that the issue of energy is coming to a head. Americans are recognizing that we can no longer ignore the increasing instability and hostility to American policies in the Middle East, the threat of peak oil, and the rise of demand from China and India. Furthermore, the popular upsurge of concern over worldwide oil dependence recognizes not only the impacts on our own lives, but also on the lives of the generations that will follow us. Climate change, political stability, and prosperity are all inextricably linked with energy.
I am familiar with Brookings from my time in Washington. The Institution continues to house some of the best minds in America regarding economic and public policy issues. The individuals from the Brookings Institution who will be involved in these panels are especially knowledgeable on the subject at hand: David Sandalow, Michael O'Hanlon and William Antholis. Each has a paper on the subject available from Brookings' "Opportunity '08" series (www.opportunity08.orgon ) under the section "Our World," subsections "Climate Change," "Energy," and "Nuclear Proliferation."

This is an opportunity to participate in an event before it occurs.

So scroll to the bottom of this blog entry, click on "Post a Comment," and let the Committee, the Brookings experts, and the world hear from you!

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

"Oh, Never Mind . . ."

October 7, 2007, 9:10 a.m., October 9, 2007, 6:30 a.m. (addition of Register editorials)

Thank You, Des Moines Register

The Register did the University of Iowa a big favor this morning.

You see, the UIHC has run into a bit of bad luck with regard to its public relations recently.

First, a patient was permitted to wander off and was later found 800 miles away. I always thought that was a bit of a bad rap. We can't be expected to keep an eye on all of these patients all the time. And besides, it's not like she was lost. She did turn up, after all. Think of all those folks who disappear and are never heard from again.

But some overzealous bureaucrats made a big deal out of it. One was heard to say, "Wha' the ****!" Following which he ordered a general investigation to see what else might be going on at the nation's largest hospital-owned university.

Needless to say, they couldn't find anything. Well, there were those nine dead bodies. But at least they hadn't escaped from the hospital. Call it "locking the barn door after the horses are stolen" if you must, but we do learn. We are, after all, an institution of higher learning. And what we've learned is that if you keep the patients restrained to their beds they can't wander off. Good point. They may die, but hey, you can't have everything. And you can even minimize that public relations damage if you'll just not report the deaths.

Then there was the matter of storing clean and soiled items in the same room. But that's really petty. At least we have clean patient-care items -- which is more than you can say for some hospitals in impoverished third-world countries.

Anyhow, there's been a little confusion regarding the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services report.

As is so often the case, the real problems with something like this are not so much about the substance as they are about the institution's response to the substance.

The Register asked for and was given a copy. It has now made the inspection report available online. Much to everyone's surprise, when the paper was asked to give it back they refused to do so, and decided to publish a big expose about it instead.

The paper claims the report contains "dozens" of alleged health and safety violations. I doubt that. After all, it's only 132 pages long. How could "dozens" of violations fit in such a tiny report?

From here on it gets a little confusing. The day the Register's story appeared the hospital held a news conference to defend itself -- but for some reason failed to notify the Register of that fact. The feds (CMS) want the report of its July and August findings to be withheld. But it turns out the inspection was actually conducted for the the CMS by the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.

Having been reminded that the hospital is, after all, subject to the Iowa public records law, it is now making the CMS report available to those who request it.

But the CMS and State of Iowa officials are continuing to treat the public document as "confidential" and refusing to make it available.

So why do I say the Register has done the UI a favor?

Because they've kindly placed this embarrassing saga -- not on page one, not even in the first section of the paper, but on page B2. Clark Kauffman, "Some Officials Withhold U of I Hospitals Report," Des Moines Register, October 7, 2007, p. B2. [The story is available online as Clark Kauffman, "Some officials withhold U of I Hospitals report," Des Moines Register, October 6, 2007; and see, Editorial, "Make Public Any Problems at Hospitals Now, Not Later," Des Moines Register, October 5, 2007.]

"Oh, never mind . . ."

(. . . with credit to Emily Litella.)

Well, I guess I was wrong.

I guess the reason the Clark Kauffman story about the UIHC fiasco didn't make page one was only because the Clark Kauffman story about the UI credit card fiasco did. Clark Kauffman, "U of I, UNI refuse Regents' request on credit cards; They do disclose, along with ISU, that students' balances on the Bank of America cards average more than $1,000," Des Moines Register, October 7, 2007, p. A1. [And see, Nicholas Johnson, "The Bad News" in "UI Rips-Off Students Because . . . 'Revenue is Needed,'" September 25, 2007.]

There just wasn't room for a hospital story on page one this morning.

The UI finds itself in a credit card scandal and refuses to show the Board of Regents the contracts??!! You've got to be kidding. [See, Nicholas Johnson, "Stonewalling Not a Winning Strategy . . ." in "Regents Examine Credit Card Scam," September 28, 2007, and Editorial, "Regents should get credit-card contracts; Absurd that universities rejected request," Des Moines Register, October 9, 2007.]

Oh, my. This is not good.

Perhaps you'd like to talk about our athletic program and this fall's football team?

Oh, you don't want to talk about that either? OK. I guess that's all for now then.

# # #

Friday, October 05, 2007

Music Management Revenue Alcohol -- and Good News

October 6, 2007, 3:30 p.m.

From the Department of How Not to Run a Business: "This is what happens when you sell twenty dollar CDs with one good track and sue your customers for [file-sharing]."

The recording industry still bears a remarkable similarity to what it was in the days of hand-crank Victrolas and 78 rpm vinyl "records" -- the song writers and musicians make the music and the companies make the money from doing all the rest: provide the recording studios and mixing, the physical manufacturing process, shipping, promotion, and accounting. It is a financial arrangement that has given rise to the song lyric, "All the gold in California/Is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name." Larry Gatlin, "All the Gold in California."

It's also given rise to widespread "file sharing" of what is now but bits and bytes that can (and do) move at the speed of light through a global Internet. The current response of the industry is to sue its customers for this practice -- most notoriously, recently, resulting in a $222,000 judgment against a 30-year-old woman in Duluth, Minnesota. Jeff Leeds, "Labels Win Suit Against Song Sharer," New York Times, October 5, 2007.

This morning's Gazette reports the industry is also pressuring for ever-higher fees from those who are already paying the industry to play songs for listeners over the Internet (at little or no profit to themselves). George C. Ford, "Endangered Radio; Higher Royalties Could End C.R. Man's International Hobby," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. B14.

Many think this is not the most productive way to treat one's customer base, or most creative response to changing technology and potential business models. Jeff Leeds, "As for Music, Gates’s Taste May Not Be Adventurous but His Strategies Are," New York Times, October 4, 2007 ("In an interview here this week, Mr. [Bill] Gates hinted at his strategies for taking potential customers from Apple and expressed bewilderment that the recording industry had failed to turn digital music into a big moneymaker.")

One creative response comes from a group called Radioheads. Given that the musicians may only make a couple of bucks from a CD sale, the Radioheads have decided that, with a $1 processing fee, they can afford to "give away" their music, asking fans to contribute whatever they think is fair. It's similar to a model used 20 years ago in the software business, then called "shareware." Users were encouraged to copy and give the computer programs to friends with the understanding that, if they found it useful they would make a voluntary contribution to the creator. It's a model also used by start-up music groups today -- some of whom don't even ask for contributions in an effort just to get their music heard. But Radioheads are not a start-up.

Bob Lefsetz, the author of a well-read and curse-addled newsletter on the music industry, celebrated (in so many words) Radiohead’s scheme because it cuts out the middle man — the music labels that control distribution to music stores — and connects the band directly with the listener:

"This is the industry’s worst nightmare. Superstar band, THE superstar band, forging ahead by its own wits. Proving that others can too. And they will.

This is what happens when you sell twenty dollar CDs with one good track and sue your customers for [file-sharing]. This is what happens when you believe you’re ENTITLED to your business. This is what happens when music is a second-class citizen only interested in the bottom line.
Mike Nizza, "Radiohead Album Price Tag: 'It's Up to You,'" New York Times, October 1, 2007.

From the Department of Management by Disaster

Now it turns out we have some 180,000 private contractors ("mercenaries") fighting alongside our 160,000 military in Iraq -- while being paid some five times as much as our soldiers. Many of them are from an outfit called "Blackwater."

One would think you'd notice 180,000 Americans walking around in Iraq without military uniforms. But apparently not. They've just been discovered. Why? Because they've been slaughtering civilians and getting off free because they're covered by neither Iraq nor U.S. law.
Alissa J. Rubin, "Accounts Differ on U.S. Attack That Killed 25 Iraqis," New York Times, October 6, 2007

That's the disaster. So here's the management: Associated Press, "Rice Says Agents Will Accompany Security Guards," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. A3 ("The moves are aimed at 'putting in place more robust assets to make sure that the management, reporting and accountability function works as best as it possibly can,' State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.") And no, there was no effort to explain why this wasn't done before the Blackwater boys were sent to Iraq. David M. Herszenhorn and John M. Broder, "U.S. Issues New Rules for Iraq Security Firm," New York Times, October 5, 2007.

The most basic questions, of course, involve conduct of war generally -- and the role of mercenaries in that context -- starting with, when and why (if ever) should we engage in "pre-emptive" wars, unprovoked invasions of other countries?

How should we pay for our wars? When the economy is relatively strong, why not "pay as you go" -- as we did in WWII, increasing taxes and selling "war bonds" to everybody from grade school children on up?

Where should we get our military personnel? Our "all volunteer" approach isn't working, for a variety of reasons. Tours are too long, time at home too short. The military we have is stretched too thin. Using mercenaries is not only extraordinarily expensive -- they're paid some five times what we pay our military personnel -- but bad for the morale of those paid so much less.

War on the cheap, with no sacrifices for those at home, also interferes with the political process. What did the President advise his fellow Americans to do after 9/11? "Go shopping." That, plus tax cuts for the wealthy, putting the projected $2 trillion cost of this war on a credit card for our grandchildren, radically reduces the focus of citizens and their elected representatives on the wisdom of a war policy.

A draft, increased taxes, pay-as-you-go, rationing, and other sacrifices at home might be a wiser way to proceed with decisions about war -- especially unnecessary wars.

The least of the problems is that mercenaries are bound to create the kinds of problems that ours have.

And that's why the Blackwater scandal is today's example of "Management by Disaster."

Today's Department of "Revenue is Needed"

"Revenue is needed" is a reference to decisions by institutions' administrators that violate some standard of law or ethics, a decision of which they can't really be proud and for which they have to come up with some defensive explanation, that often as not ends up as some variation of "revenue is needed."

We get a clue of what the Regents and their universities' presidents may do as a result of the Regents' revelation from their investigation that as much as a $1 or $2 million a year may turn on the universities' and their alumni associations ability to sell the private, personal information about alums, students and their parents to credit card companies -- while permitting exorbitant interest rates to be charged students. Diane Heldt, "Millions at Stake; Credit Card Deals Bring Alumni Groups Big Money," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. B1.

Meanwhile, with another example from the academy, we look to Randolph College. It seems the administrators there have decided to sell off some very valuable paintings that students and alums view as central to the school's history and symbolism. Knowing how unpopular this decision would be they apparently pulled it off by cutting the phone and computer lines of the art museum's director, having the police announce that they were investigating a bomb threat, cover the paintings, and carry them off in an unmarked van. The museum director has since resigned in protest. Law suits may follow.

And what was the explanation? You guessed it: "revenue is needed."Neely Tucker, "Randolph College to Sell Paintings; Controversial Multimillion-Dollar Auction Tied to Finances," Washington Post, October 3, 2007, p. C5

Alcohol and "A Tale of Two Cities"

Bar owners in Iowa City are appalled, devastated, that the citizens might actually vote to restrict their illegal sales to underage college students.

And what is this horrible restriction, called "21-only"? It would limit bar owners' illegal sales after 10 p.m.!! After 10 p.m. the law would be enforced. What a sacrifice. Imagine.

Besides, what's the harm? Here's one example of the "boys will be boys" harm from this morning's paper:

A 19-yearold man was hospitalized after being knocked unconscious during an early morning fight Friday, Iowa City police said.

At 2:07 a.m., police received a report of a person on the ground and not moving after a fight at Clinton and Jefferson streets, according to a press release. Responding officers found the man on the ground and unconscious.
"Man Knocked Out in I.C. Fight," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. B3.

And, of course, there are the seemingly never ending assaults on women on their way home after the bars close. This latest one occurred within one block of the police station -- but was still beyond the ability of the local police.
Gregg Hennigan, "Latest Assault 'Differs;' I.C. Police Say Details of Friday Incident Unlike Recent Series," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. B6.

As evidence that it doesn't have to be this way, that other cities take a different approach, consider what Marion, Iowa, has just done. It doesn't wink at illegal sales of alcohol to underage patrons of bars. It doesn't try to represent that kicking them out of the bars at 10 p.m. is a meaningful restriction on binge drinking. Its idea of a real loosening of restrictions on a meaningful "21-only" restriction is to permit underage patrons to enter bars (a) that do "a majority of their business in food sales," not prior to 10 p.m., but (b) between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. for those who want to buy lunch! "Underage Patrons OK in Bars During Midday," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. B1.

And for the good economic news . . .

A new marketing firm looks like a useful addition to the resources needed by entrepreneurs new and established. Let's hope it's willing to give a little pro bono time and advice to some of our local non-profits as well. George C. Ford, "Corridor Execs Form Marketing Firm," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. B14.

A very impressive editorial in The Gazette illustrates what can be done when a paper combines data, analysis, and solid suggestions for economic growth -- albeit in this instance with regard to a farmers' market. Editorial, "Downtown Market Earns Blue Ribbon," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. A6.

Editorial, "Writing Program Needs Financial Anchor," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. A4, is a nice editorial about the UI International Writers Program and its need for an endowment to insure the continuation of this very important program throughout good times and bad.

And, finally, the Iowa City Community School District folks have some good news as a result of their taking a tough stand with regard to which schools students will attend. Given that this is a free to parents, public school system it's not an unreasonable way of trying to better balance the enrollments of the two conventional high schools in the District. Gregg Hennigan, "Enrollment Policy Showing Results," The Gazette, October 6, 2007, p. B3

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Management by Disaster

October 4, 2007, 10:30 a.m.

Management by Disaster

Yesterday and the day before I was handing out awards for creative innovations in management. Nicholas Johnson, "Rational Economic Thought," October 2, 2007, 6:30, 10:00 a.m.; October 3, 2007, 7:15 a.m. (addition of Fire Chief Rocca's proposal).

Today's Gazette happens to contain four stories that illustrate the opposite. All share a common failing among administrators. It's what I call "management by disaster":

Cindy Hadish, "UI: Hospital Deficiencies Corrected," The Gazette, October 4, 2007, p. A1 (the original source was Clark Kauffman, "Violations found at U of I Hospitals; Inspectors: Errors imperiled patients; 9 deaths were not reported," Des Moines Register, October 3, 2007)

Erica Binegar, "Joensy's Owner Says Inspection Exaggerated; Solon Restaurant Ordered Closed by Health Department," The Gazette, October 4, 2007, p. B1

Rick Smith, "C.R. Police Morale 'Extremely Low,'" The Gazette, October 4, 2007, p. B1

"Airlines Mishandling Most Baggage in 20 Years," The Gazette, October 4, 2007, p. B9 (reprinted from the Washington Post; see Jonathan Mummolo and Del Quentin Wilber, "Now Arriving At Carousel 1, Far Fewer Of Your Bags," Washington Post, October 1, 2007, p. A1)
Now it is not my purpose to target any given individual for judgment with words or phrases such as incompetent, should be fired, ignorant, nobody cares, lazy, etc. To the extent possible I won't even mention anyone by name. Not only is it not very effective to engage in such criticism, but to draw such judgmental conclusions from the scattered information that can fit in a newspaper story is not likely to be well informed, fair or accurate.

Besides, it would run directly counter to the larger point I'm trying to make. I don't think the subjects dealt with in these stories are insignificant. But my focus is on the lessons they teach for everyone with administrative and managerial responsibilities, not the details of these four stories.

And those lessons are that "management by disaster" is (a) all too common, and (b) guaranteed to produce a continuing stream of disasters.

Management by disaster is waiting for 9/11 to occur before taking Ralph Nader's advice from decades earlier that airline cockpit doors should be strengthened.

Management by disaster is waiting to be overwhelmed with calls from angry parents about kids not being picked up by the school bus before putting procedures in place that require bus companies to demonstrate, before school opens, that they can run the routes in an accurate and timely fashion.

Management by disaster is responding -- after a Virginia Tech slaughter -- with improved communication on the nation's campuses. (And, at Iowa's universities, with the emotional enthusiasm for bringing more weapons onto campuses -- a "solution" at best totally irrelevant and at worst counter productive.)
Management by disaster is being more concerned about adverse public relations than what it is you're getting the adverse public relations about.

Do you remember the shocking revelations -- including pictures -- from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq? Here's what I wrote about it at the time:

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?

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?
Nicholas Johnson, "Lessons from Abu Ghraib," The Daily Iowan, May 11, 2004.

One of this morning's stories, as it happens, does involve "deaths in hospitals."

Bear in mind, I'm not talking about disasters that would have taken the best-trained MBA by surprise. That can happen to anyone. I'm talking about pretty basic stuff that could have been, and should have been, anticipated.

Apparently the regulations involving the reporting of deaths of patients in restraints or in seclusion have been in place since January of 2007. (Does one really need a "regulation" before feeling a responsibility to report such a death?) Nine patients covered by this regulation have died; apparently none of the deaths were reported.

Somewhere between 25% and 40% of the patients in hospitals are suffering from what is called "iatrogenic" disease. And what is that? My dictionary says an iatrogenic disease is a disease "induced in a patient by a physician's activity, manner, or therapy. Used especially of an infection or other complication of treatment." In other words it's a condition caused by doctors and hospitals -- the roughly one-third of medical professionals who don't wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom; prescribing or dispensing the wrong medicine, or quantity; rooms that haven't been adequately cleaned; amputating the wrong limb, or from the wrong patient. These causes are well known and have been for years. But so are the cures. This is not rocket science -- though it is medical science -- and dramatic improvements have been reported in hospitals that have taken the matter seriously -- before their negligence made the front pages of local papers.

Keeping track of everything going on in one of the nation's largest hospital complexes is one thing. (The UIHC represents a major share of the UI's 16.4 million square feet of building space.)

Keeping track of the sanitary conditions in one's modest-sized restaurant is another. Once again, the motivation ought not be concern about the adverse public relations -- not to mention loss of business as a result of being closed down by the Department of Public Health. A restaurant owner should want to maintain healthy conditions when handling and preparing food as a matter of quality control and avoidance of harm to customers -- as well as just having a more pleasant environment for owners and employees in which to work.

I don't have time, space or inclination to report everything a consultant uncovered and reported about the Cedar Rapids Police Department. Read the story. Once again, the point is that most of the problems that were uncovered could have been dealt with long before they were spread across the pages of the local paper.

And, not incidentally, the Iowa City City Council ought to want to review very carefully this experience and report from Cedar Rapids -- as well as the information about cities elsewhere that's available on the Internet -- before willy-nilly just increasing the number of Iowa City's police officers. There are loads of things that can and should be done first -- whether we add additional officers or not.

The airline baggage story is similar. In 2002 there were 3.84 reports of mishandled bags for every 1000 passengers. In July of 2007 there were twice that: 7.93 per 1000 passengers. This is another case in which management can't claim to be surprised. Lost luggage has been the subject of both furor and humor for years. And as the statistics indicate, things are apparently not getting better. Why would management want to wait for the embarrassment of the publicity surrounding this report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics before taking action?

A CEO's participation in conferences, dinners, travel, speeches, and golf matches may or may not make a contribution to an institution's success. But they are not the CEO's primary responsibility.

There's a reason why CEOs are paid the big bucks -- some 450 times what they agree to pay their employees. They may believe in MBWA (management by walking around) or they may have MIS (management information reporting systems) in place -- or both. But whatever systems they employ they are responsible for being proactive, for anticipating problems (and opportunities), for putting procedures in place and then monitoring to make sure they're being followed.

You don't need an MBA and a multi-million-dollar salary to react to disasters on the fly, trying to make the best of a public relations black eye, and then locking all the doors on the barns that used to hold the horses.

Management by disaster may be widely practiced, but it's still "one hell of a way to run a railroad" -- a hospital, restaurant, police department, or airline.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Courage, Councilors

October 3, 2007, 6:00 a.m.

Courage, Councilors

Nicholas Johnson
Guest Opinion

Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 3, 2007
p. A12

Corporate welfare. Subsidies. Tax breaks. TIFs.

All, in effect, transfer taxpayers’ dollars to a business’s bottom line.

Do they make sense for Iowa City?

Our present and potentially future City Council members think so.

My thought? We need more community dialogue, and consensus, before perpetuating this path to public poverty.

I’m not advocating “tax cuts.” I get more from a local park or library for my tax dollar than from Exxon or General Motors for my personal dollar.

“Socialism” isn’t a nine-letter swear word for me. I like public schools, roads and police.

I also think a competitive private marketplace can be the consumer’s best friend.

It’s combining them that produces problems.
Full length books better document our Council’s folly than a column can summarize. But here are some highlights.

Corporate subsidies make no sense for Iowa City both because of the multiple categories of reasons they’re foolish for any community, and the additional reasons they’re especially silly for Iowa City.

The "opportunity costs" are enormous. County Supervisor Rod Sullivan estimates nearly $700 million of property value has been diverted from normal taxation – resulting in either more taxes for the rest of us or cuts in needed programs.

They reek of hypocrisy. How can a business simultaneously say, “Get the government off my back,” while holding out a tin cup?

Corporate welfare tilts the playing field. It’s fundamentally unfair to ask businesses to compete against a favored few funded by government. It upsets a smoothly working free market to no one’s benefit – except the lucky recipient.

If the market won’t back a project, why should the public? If private sector money isn’t forthcoming that’s a pretty persuasive indication it’s not appropriate for the public's money either.

It doesn’t work. Governor Tom Vilsack offered Maytag $100 million not to leave Newton. It left anyway. Should he have offered $200 million? I don't think so.

“Money can’t buy love.” It may buy sex – but we have another word for that. Why compete for businesses that won’t come without bribes? Let ‘em go elsewhere. Besides, a firm that likes San Diego's climate and needs port access to the Pacific probably isn't going to come here for any amount of money.

The subsidy-grantors' record’s not great. Public officials are skilled at keeping constituents and contributors happy, getting re-elected, and moving to higher office. They’re less skilled at evaluating taxpayer-funded business proposals – a lot of which go belly up, miss construction deadlines, or new job goals even with our money.

Alternative approaches do work. Businesses look for more than taxpayers’ bribes; things like an educated and skilled workforce, transportation and communication infrastructure, and quality of life – schools, parks, theaters, neighborhoods, restaurants and natural settings. Those investments will both attract business and benefit the public.

Try “seed funds.” There’s nothing to keep the business community from creating group venture capital efforts called community seed funds – as it has. Those are investments of private money, not gifts of public money.

“Need” is impossible to know. Many projects will go ahead without subsidy. If tax breaks are available, of course entrepreneurs will say they won’t act without them. But how can we know when that’s just blackmail?

Lack of transparency. It’s virtually impossible for the public and media to follow the shell-and-pea game of cheap land, tax abatements, cash grants, and other transfers of their money. Few projects would be funded if all benefits were translated into public cash on the table for voters to approve.

That’s why business subsidies don’t make sense for any city.

Why are they especially inappropriate for Iowa City? We don’t need them. We’re not in a 1930s depression with boarded-up store fronts and 40% unemployment. Our economic growth is satisfactorily driven by entrepreneurs, investors, venture capitalists and banks – plus the University.

We’re one of America’s top ranked cities by virtually any measure.

Have a little self-confidence, City Council candidates. It makes us less attractive, not more, to tell the world we, too, have to offer bribes.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and tackles TIFs and other controversial issues at

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Note: This column appeared on a two-page spread containing the Press-Citizen's endorsements, and statements by the candidates, in an Iowa City City Council primary, October 9, 2007. For links to the 12 items on those two pages today, October 3, check out the Press-Citizen's index to its opinion pages.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Rational Economic Thought

October 2, 2007, 6:30, 10:00 a.m.; October 3, 2007, 7:15 a.m. (addition of Fire Chief Rocca's proposal)

Three reassuring stories this morning from the Department of Rational Governmental Analysis.

Women Bite Dog -- of a TIF Proposal. The Gazette reports that the Iowa City City Council members of the City's Economic Development Committee voted down the Mercy Hospital doctors' request for a $600,000 TIF. See Nicholas Johnson, "A TIF-kit's a Basket, With Money for the Askin'" in "TIFing Your Doctor," September 12, 2007. The "No" votes came from Council Members Regenia Bailey and Connie Champion (hence the "women bite dog" headline). The story reports, "Wendy Ford, the city's economic development coordinator, said she was not aware of a previous TIF application being denied at the committee level." Let's hope this is the beginning of a trend -- and not just a pre-election conversion. Gregg Hennigan, "TIF for I.C. Surgical Center Gets Thumbs Down," The Gazette, October 2, 2007, p. B7.

Thinking Outside the Firehouse. As Iowa City fire fighter Eric Nurnberg has detailed, "Fire Department" is a misnomer in the 21st Century world of responsibilities that fall to our "fire fighters." Eric Nurnberg, "This election, make sure that the Iowa City Council prioritizes firefighter safety," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 30, 2007.

I don't pretend to have the answer to how many firehouses and fire fighters we need, or the basis for calculating response time. In large measure, it seems to me, these are, like the issue of expansion of the Iowa City Police force, a matter of "peak-load analysis" -- along with a lot of Internet research that looks at much more than population figures and crime (and fire) statistics. Nor do I know anything like all of the innovative responses other communities have brought to these issues.

But what I do know is that our Fire Chief, Andy Rocca, has come up with one of them.

There are a lot more sirens these days than when I was a kid growing up in Iowa City. In part, that's because the population has expanded and more tasks fall to the police, fire, and paramedic personnel. But at least a part of it is duplication, when much of what all three are doing is paramedic work.

So, at a time when the City is trying to figure out how to pay for, and staff, a fourth fire station, the Fire Chief has done the unbelievable: Instead of fighting to preserve his bureaucratic turf he's doing a little thinking outside the firehouse and proposing a merger of sorts of the Johnson County Ambulance service with the Iowa City Fire Department.

The details have to be worked out, and I don't know what kind of hurdles will be found when they are. That's not the point. The point is that it's the kind of thinking we need a lot more of around here.

Face it, all of the "cities" in this metropolitan area -- Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, University Heights, Tiffin, you name 'em (including the University, a "city" in its own right) -- don't have a combined population any greater than a large apartment area in one of the world's larger cities.

We have an unbelievable duplication of governmental units, bus and other transportation systems, school districts, police and fire departments, and so forth.

As the Frenchman said when asked why he kissed women on the hand: "Well, you have to start somewhere." Andy Rocca has shown us how to "start somewhere" with this kind of thinking. And that's why he gets one of the "Rational Economic Thought" awards of the day. Lee Hermiston, "Iowa City Fire Chief proposes consolidating fire and ambulance services," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 27, 2007; Gregg Hennigan, "Iowa City Chief Suggests Fire-Ambulance Service," Gazette Online, September 27, 2007.

Digging the Dirt. It sounds like a no-brainer, more a bit of dust blowing in the wind than digging dirt, but you'd be surprised how often the obvious is overlooked. The Cedar Rapids Airport Commission is building a $5 million public safety facility at the Eastern Iowa Airport. The project requires a supply of dirt for fill. Normally that would be an added cost. Someone noticed that a runway project required that contractor to haul away large quantities of dirt. "How about we keep it here?" they asked. "We won't have to pay to have it hauled away. We won't have to pay to have more hauled in. We can just use what we have." Bingo -- and $80,000 in savings.

It's just one more in a long history of examples that creative thought, often just a child's common sense, can create approaches that simultaneously reduce cost while improving quality of goods or services. (I recall an example from 40 years ago when GE got a Commerce Department award for efficiency and energy conservation at one of its manufacturing plants. What did they do to deserve that? Someone suggested they close an enormous sliding door in the winter time -- resulting in a 30% savings in heating bills.) George C. Ford, "Airport Hits Pay Dirt; C.R. Commission Approves Contract That Saves $80,000," The Gazette, October 2, 2007, p. B8.

And speaking of moving dirt and defining a mission. The Press-Citizen editorializes this morning in support of the $120 million, 200,000 square-foot Institute for Biomedical Discovery and $20 million Bioventures Center in the UI's Oakdale Research Park. Editorial, "Groundbreaking More Than Just Moving Dirt," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 2, 2007, p. A11. These projects are both consistent -- or at least appear to be -- with what I wrote about as President Sally Mason's clear articulation of a major role for the University. Nicholas Johnson, "Stonewalling Not a Winning Strategy . . . but President Sally's Mason's May Well Be" in "Regents Examine Credit Card Scam," September 28, 2007.

The challenge, from my perspective, is to "follow the money." (See, "Memorable Lines," Deep Throat to Woodward, in Matt Slovick, "All the President's Men," Washington Post (1996).)

Potential positives: genuine collaboration between UI researchers and for-profit professionals, working on projects UI researchers would be working on anyway, that provide a payback to the University and benefits to all Americans and all corporations wishing to profit from the advances.

Potential negatives: the use of the UI as little more than a money laundering intermediary for a transfer of Iowa taxpayers' money to the bottom line of a single for-profit enterprise with little meaningful involvement of UI faculty, staff or students; or, the use of UI researchers to create products or services that inure to the benefit of one lucky firm to the exclusion of all others and the resulting monopoly prices for consumers.
And the latest from the Department of Revenue is Needed. At the end of a persuasive editorial yesterday regarding the benefits of the fraudulently-named "21-only" proposal (fraudulent because bars can still sell liquor illegally to those under 21, just not after 10:00 p.m. when those patrons ought to be heading for home anyway), the Press-Citizen spoils it all by back-tracking, "But even we are concerned with how this decision might affect the Iowa City downtown economy" -- what it refers to as "unintended consequences." Editorial, "Spell Out the Unintended Economic Risks for Going 21-Only," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 1, 2007, p. A11.

At a minimum, if one is to consider the "unintended consequences," or "externalities," of alcohol policies one is obliged to include the unexpected savings as well as the unexpected lost revenue. The savings (or reduced pressure for increased costs) include reduced demands for expansion of the local police force, and paramedics, City employees cleaning the vomit off the streets Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings (rather than billing the bars for the cost), the impact on local jails and justice system, the need for early morning hours transportation, lights and escorts. See, e.g., Kelsey Beltramea and Ben Fornell, "Alcohol Tickets Pour In," The Daily Iowan, October 1, 2007, p. A1, and Kathleen Olp, "Nite Ride Starts Well; The Safe-Ride Option Draws 55 Students on Its First Night of Operation," The Daily Iowan, October 1, 2007, p. 5A.

Gazette Should Give Itself "Gomer." Monday is "Homers and Gomers" day at The Gazette. But the Gomer it presented to Earthpark October 1 concluded, "This bold, decade-old proposal that would include a 4-acre indoor rain forest, 600,000-gallon aquarium and prairie and wetland exhibits has potentially great benefits for Iowa as a tourism attraction and educational venue." Editorial, "Earthpark/Gomers: What's Going Wrong," The Gazette, October 1, 2007, p. A4.

"Bold?" What's bold is the gall of Senator Chuck Grassley to earmark and offer up $50 million of the federal taxpayers' money for this boondoggle.

"Decade-old?" The reason it's a decade old is that nobody, I mean nobody, besides Grassley and project founder Ted Townsend, has been willing to part with a dime for this project in spite of the promoters' hard-sell trying with some of America's largest corporations and wealthiest philanthropists.

"Benefits for Iowa as a tourism attraction?" When the proposed scope was a $300 million structure the project's own consultants counseled against cutting it below $225 million (because being "the world's largest" is essential to tourism). And that was when it was to be located along one (or more) major Interstate highways. It has subsequently been cut to $225, then $180, then $150, and now $140 million -- and located in little Pella, Iowa, with the tulips, well out of easy driving distance, let alone sight, of Interstate 80. No independent economist I know believes this project has a prayer of making it as a tourist attraction.
The project has been considered and rejected by virtually all the communities up and down I-80 in Eastern Iowa -- some more than once -- including Cedar Rapids. There's a reason for that. There's much more that can be (and has been) questioned about this project. See, Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark/Iowa Environmental Project/Iowa Child Project," at Bottom line: The Gazette does no one a favor with its indiscriminate endorsement of all proposed projects -- regardless of their lack of reasonable business plan, inability to raise funds over ten years, shifting mission, and mismanagement -- including, perhaps especially, those whose proposals do make sense. The "Gomer" should go to any perpetuation of this earmarked folly -- not the refusal of sane people to fund it -- and to The Gazette itself.

Credit Press-Citizen on Credit Cards. The Press-Citizen had a tough, thorough and informed editorial analysis of the credit card scandal September 29, Editorial, "Openness Helps Ensure UI Deals are Aboveboard," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 29, 2007, p. A16. And Iowa Senator Joe Bolkcom provided an analysis from his perspective of the adverse impact on the state and what the Legislature has been doing to try to improve the situation. Joe Bolkcom, "Financial Controversy Doesn't Help Young People Make Iowa Their Home," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 29, 2007, p. A16.

Nicholas Johnson, "Stonewalling Not an Effective Strategy" in "Regents Examine Credit Card Scam," September 28, 2007, produced the following comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonder if any 'lunches with the team' have occurred? Considering the NCAA regulation qouted below, a 'lunch with the team' could be an NCAA violation.

"Promotional activity restrictions: NCAA rules strictly prohibit a student-athlete from promoting or endorsing a business, commercial product or service and/or receiving any type of compensation for promoting or endorsing. This restriction includes but is not limited to the use of a student-athlete's name, photograph, likeness, spoken words or appearance in any type of promotion or advertise from a business, product or service.

Student-athletes may participate in promotions for institutional, charitable, educational or nonprofit organizations but only after receiving prior written approval and verification that the promotion will meet certain criteria set forth by the NCAA. Prior written approval must be received through the Office of Athletics Compliance. Failure to receive such approve could impact the student-athlete's eligibility to participate in intercollegiate competition. "
9/30/2007 12:44:00 AM
It seems to me important enough to repeat here and to suggest that someone in authority ought to be thinking and doing something about it.

Iowa Boys Can Jump. I earlier asked, "But in the 'Iowa boys can't jump' department, just how Iowa is the 'Iowa Hawkeyes' basketball team going to be next year?" Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 503 - "Pretty please," June 8, 2007. Well, it turns out after traveling to all of Iowa's 99 counties Coach Todd Lickliter has finally found a genuine Iowan who can jump sufficiently high to have attracted the Coach's attention. He's 6-foot-9-inch, 260 pounds, Brennan Cougill, a 16-year-old from Sioux City -- just barely inside the State line -- who did pretty well as a high school sophomore last year. As Pat Harty reported, "recruiting analyst Van Coleman said of Cougill 'He's only 16 years old, so he's just coming out of that baby-fat stage.'" Pat Harty, "Lickliter Lands First In-State Recruit," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 30, 2007, p. B1.

Isn't it amazing the amount of collegiate and professional team fan enthusiasm that can be whipped up over a chant like, "Our guys from out of state can beat your guys from out of state?" Well, in case the NCAA ever requires that there be at least one player from the state that names a football or basketball team -- such as "the Iowa Hawkeyes" -- we can at least claim that in two or three years we'll have a real Iowan -- sans baby-fat no less -- to give some credibility to the "Iowa" in our name. However, it may be a challenge for our out-of-state coach and basketball team players to make Cougill feel at home. The players will have to use their best out-of-state hospitality to welcome him to the team.

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