Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Iowa Subsidizes the Movie Industry -- A Good Idea?

September 30, 2009, 8:20 a.m.

Movies Are Getting More Expensive
And It's Not Just the Ticket and Popcorn Prices

(brought to you by*)

Now I don't mean to minimize the outrageous prices we're charged for popcorn at the movies. And if you're curious as to how much profit a movie theater can make from 11 cents worth of popcorn see my earlier analysis in Nicholas Johnson, "From Politics to Popcorn," January 1, 2007.

But it turns out we're spending millions of dollars of our own money making those movies. And since it now turns out some of those millions are going to private cars for the movie makers and iPhones for their kids, questions are being asked about the wisdom and generosity of Iowans paying 50% of the cost of movies made in this state -- by far the most generous program of any U.S. state, even if it all went into movie costs.

See, Donnelle Eller, "State weighs film credits' cost vs. return," Des Moines Register, September 27, 2009; Jason Clayworth, "State routinely withholds tax credit data from public," Des Moines Register, September 28, 2009; Jason Clayworth, "Director denies abusing tax-credit system," Des Moines Register, September 29, 2009.

Frankly, I think that focus is too narrow.

Transferring taxpayers' money to the bottom line of for-profit corporations, and the pet projects of wealthy campaign contributors, has never made a lot of sense to me.

My writing on the subject was originally prompted by the ill-fated proposal, widely supported by Iowa's politicians and newspapers alike, that was originally the $300 million "Iowa Child" indoor rain forest and ultimately went through many name and purpose changes, a failure to raise a dime of construction money, a rejection by virtually every Iowa town along I-80, and ended as a proposed $150 million "Earthpark" for a tulip bed somewhere in Pella that has yet to be funded and built. See the lengthy, entire Web site, Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark."

Along the way I came to question everything from "TIFs" to mislabeled "jobs programs" to the bailouts of banks and auto manufacturers, that seemed to me an ill-considered waste of taxpayers' money and a total distortion of the separation between "socialist" programs and "marketplace, free private enterprise."

Here's a sample excerpt from one of the early entries in this blog three years ago, representative of the dozens of op ed columns and blog entries since:

What they [governments] spend tends to fall into three categories (with subsets):

(1) clear government functions (e.g., the military and and public schools, libraries and parks) primarily performed by government employees;
(2) outsourcing related governmental functions to private contractors, performed by employees of for-profit firms (e.g., defense contractors and road building firms); and
(3) simple transfers of public tax revenues to for-profit firms (and individuals).

The latter is problematical for a number of reasons.

(a) Ideologically, how does it square with "capitalism," "free private enterprise," etc.?
(b) With one-third of the 800,000 new start-up firms each year out of business four years later, these aren't very good odds for our tax dollars -- especially given that the recipients we choose to enrich are those who couldn't convince investors, venture capitalists or bankers to pick up the tab.
(c) The data is somewhere between fuzzy and totally non-persuasive that the public receives anything like fair value for its money.
(d) How can we possibly know that a grant of public funds (or tax forgiveness) is actually tipping the scales and making a difference in any given business decision? How do we know the recipient wouldn't have gone ahead anyway with the investment, or that the decisive factors in the decision involved matters other than how much public money they could worm out of the state (e.g., quality of the work force, schools, outdoor recreation, crime control, water supply, transportation networks)?
(e) How do we justify providing cash to one business person while denying it to his or her competitors?
(f) And isn't a system like this just asking for something between good-old-boy-ism and outright bribery in terms of how the goodies are distributed?
Nicholas Johnson, "Neutral Principles, Anyone? Justifying Corporate Welfare," July 12, 2006.

For a Des Moines Register op ed column from three months earlier that expanded on this theme, complete with supporting sources in footnotes in this online version, see Nicholas Johnson, Values Fund May Not Be So Valuable for Taxpayers," Des Moines Register, April 13, 2006.

The practice of transferring the taxpayers' money to the bottom line of for-profit corporations becomes especially insidious when it involves "tax credits." "Transparency" or not, it becomes somewhere between very, very difficult and impossible for the public or media to track just who is getting how much from where and for what when the funds transfer takes the form of reduced taxes.

It would be no more consistent with the desirable separation of socialism from capitalism, but at least everyone would know what's going on, if the published tax rates applied to every individual and business, and the subsidies took the form of appropriations, cash transfers, above the table, to identified beneficiaries in itemized amounts.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen has long been a champion of open government, public meetings, public records, and transparency, and I admire them for that. Indeed, it is the absence of transparency in some of Iowa's tax credit programs that is the focus of the paper's editorial on the abuses in Iowa's efforts to encourage the making of movies here. Editorial, "Public Has a Right to Know About Tax Credits," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 29, 2009.

I just think the problem of taxpayer grants to for-profit ventures is much bigger, and more destructive of the state's economy, than some tax credits to a movie company. They are just a tiny sub-set of what needs fixing.

State Support of the Arts

In a recent five-part series on the relocation of the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium I addressed "Hancher and the University's Academic Mission," a sub-heading in Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part IV," September 17, 2009. Is it consistent with the mission of an academic institution to provide what amounts to public entertainment events -- such as collegiate football, and Broadway shows on tour?

Similar questions need be asked about the use of taxpayers' money to support the arts generally, especially for-profit artistic ventures. But similar answers are also available.

1. "Everybody's doing it." Normally I don't find this a very persuasive argument for transferring my money, against my will, to for profit corporations. But the fact is that most states do exactly what Iowa does for the movie industry. Our 50% may be a little on the generous side compared with their 25% to 30%, but that's kind of a detail. And then there's always the line, "If we don't attract them to Iowa some other state will just attract them elsewhere."

2. "Why not the movie business." Another argument might be that, as long as we're giving away taxpayers' money to for-profit enterprises, why have a bias against the movie business. Clearly my arguments have not been persuasive to those legislators who want to continue favoring some businesses over others in the distribution of my money. That being the case, they might as well include movie makers.

3. "State public relations." Movies made in Iowa, like any other product or service in Iowa, involves local purchases, and employment, benefiting Iowa's economy. But that's the least of their potential benefit to the state. Whether made in Iowa, or merely about Iowa, a film a positive presentation of our state in film or television, or merely a reminder to the public that we exist, can have a positive impact in attracting businesses, professionals, students, and tourists. We can't buy that kind of publicity with print or Internet ads, state magazines and maps, even if we had the money to try. Amazon has a Web page called, "Iowa Connections -- Movies Made in and/or Featuring Iowa" that lists some 20 feature films. And its list doesn't even include "State Fair," "The Music Man," "Cold Turkey" -- a Norman Lear film that paid Iowans in 1969, rather than asking for handouts, as John Carlson reminds us [Photo/poster credit: Des Moines Register] -- or make any mention of the role of Riverside, Iowa, in "Star Trek" or the mention "West Wing" made of Iowa City's Hamburg Inn # 2 (or, alas, Senator Grassley's offer of $50 million of our money for his friends' indoor rain forest).

4. "Legitimate state expenditure." Even if movies were not one of the best public relations bargains going, government support of the arts is more in the tradition of legitimate state expenditures, including those for public schools, parks, libraries and museums. Historically it was kings, and the very wealthiest, who thought it important to support the arts with what was then the equivalent of tax money. Many school boards think it is quite appropriate to provide budgets for student instruction, and extra curricular activities, in the graphic or visual arts, theater, choral groups, dance, bands and orchestras. The state of Iowa is about to invest something on the order of $300 million in the replacement of the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp buildings. Many cities use public money to build local auditoriums and venues. Congress, which seemingly can agree on little else, has over the years agreed to the wisdom of federal support of the arts through such agencies as the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities (now headed by our own Jim Leach), and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among others.

5. "The Creative Community and Economic Growth." Richard Florida and others make a persuasive case that emphasizing creative communities, with the amenities creative professionals are looking for, can do more for economic growth than handing out taxpayers' money to conventional businesses -- businesses that might have come there anyway, or that came only because of the subsidy and will leave as soon as some other community offers them more.

Have you ever stayed to watch all the credits roll after the movie? It's a listing of an incredible number of professions and skills, most of which we've never before heard of and remain something of a mystery as to what they might involve, and often hundreds of people. When a movie is made in Iowa, a number of those jobs come here -- not just the jobs for a few lucky actors and dozens of paid or unpaid "extras." But again, the greatest significance for our state is not that movie making is some great employment program. It is that it enables us to nurture more of the creative class here in Iowa on a permanent basis, and attract those from the creative class in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere that come here for the duration of the project.

That's not to say the state's program for subsidizing the movie industry shouldn't be subjected to the same analysis as any other subsidy program. [Jennifer Jacobs, "Gronstal: I may regret creating film incentives program," Des Moines Register, October 2, 2009 (“'If it’s all just a great big give-away with no long-term job creation or economic growth in this state or people having full-time employment, then this isn’t a very good deal for the state of Iowa,'” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs").] But it is to say that it may well be able to make a case for taxpayer assistance that other businesses cannot.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Fat People, Fat Profits

September 28, 2009, 5:30 a.m.

Need to Shed a Few Pounds?
Target the Right Enemy

(brought to you by*)

This morning's blog entry about nutrition and weight loss (and gain) is a blend of public policy and personal anecdote.

I've never seen the fascination in the details of others' hour-by-hour lives, and therefore assumed no one would find fascination in mine. Tweets, text messages, instant messages, blogs and journals detailing when the writer awoke, what they ate, and their frustration at having missed their bus and lost their true love (again) not only suffer as what general semanticists call "dead-level abstracting" but tell me more than what I really want to know. So you won't find much, if any, of that in what are now some 700 public policy entries in this blog -- except for today.

I've been interested in nutrition issues for nearly 40 years. As an FCC commissioner I sought to learn more about the impact of television on our society for good and for ill -- though I tended to find, and emphasize in my writing, more of the ill than of the good. In the course of doing so I couldn't help but notice the contrast between the advice from dietitians and nutritionists, on the one hand, and the foods promoted by TV commercials, product placement, and programs on the other.

Some of that interest found its way into Test Pattern for Living, a Bantam paperback now available for free download from my Web site. And on some occasion I delivered a speech titled, "Sweet Grease, Salty Grease: Television's All-American Diet" -- though I can't now find it either online or in hard copy.

For years, running miles every week meant that weight gain was not a problem. Although a few pounds over the height-weight charts' ideal, friends (including doctors) would respond to my concern with, "Oh, you look fine; you're a big guy, you can carry it."

As a knee deteriorated, and bicycle coasting downhill was substituted for running uphill, the pounds crept up a little more. Research on various diet plans indicated they pretty much all produce weight loss, but that for most dieters the weight soon returns with a few more pounds as a bonus. The Weight Watchers program seemed to be the most successful at keeping participants' weight off over time. So I tried that. It worked. But ultimately even the Weight Watchers' weight loss was regained.

What prompted a new approach a couple months ago is not clear. Here are some possibilities:

(1) Following his first heart attack my father -- although athletic and never "fat" -- was advised, and chose, to take off some weight. He did so, and also gave up smoking. But it was too late, and he ultimately died of a heart attack at 59 -- probably more from the cigarettes than the weight. So that may have been a part of the motivation; as I recently mentioned to someone, "As long as doctors will someday require that I shed a few pounds I might as well do it now, before my heart attack rather than after."

(2) In July the New York Times reported that the reduced-calorie diet that was found to extend the life of mice also had similar effects on rhesus monkeys and presumably could do the same for humans as well. Nicholas Wade, "Dieting Monkeys Offer Hope for Living Longer," New York Times, July 10, 2009, p. A1("Mice kept on such a diet from birth have long been known to live up to 40 percent longer than comparison mice fed normally"). As the years pass by such research becomes of ever-greater interest.

(3) And then there was David Kessler's book, "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite" (New York: Rodale, 2009). Dr. Kessler was formerly the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Here's a four-minute video with Kessler that pretty well sums up his thesis:

It turns out that Kessler's point is very similar to mine 40 years ago in Test Pattern for Living and the speech, "Sweet Grease, Salty Grease: Television's All-American Diet."

He begins by noting that "For thousands of years human body weight stayed remarkably stable. . . . Then, in the 1980s, something changed." (p. 3) He goes on to report the work of Katherine Flegal, senior research scientist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She observed that in 1960 women between the ages of 20 and 29 averaged about 128 pounds; and that by the year 2000 their average weight was 157. Between the ages of 40 and 49 the increase during the same years was from 142 to 169. Moreover, there was an increasing spread in the difference between the weight gain of low-weight and higher-weight people. "Weight gain was primarily about overweight people becoming more overweight."

All of which prompts Kessler to ask, "What's been driving us to overeat?" (p. 5)

He answers his question with the title to chapter 3: "Sugar, Fat, and Salt Make Us Eat More Sugar, Fat, and Salt."

Obviously, the restaurant and processed food industries know this, and utilize this brain-altering formula to manipulate us into increasing our consumption, our nation's obesity epidemic -- and their profits and stock prices. The easiest way to boost a food's popularity, Kessler says, is to keep layering on more sugar, salt and fat -- sometimes all of them, as with sugar in the bun, and bacon and cheese topping off the prior ingredients.

Dr. Kessler draws an analogy to the tobacco industry's knowingly drawing young, "replacement smokers" (a "replacement" for the older smokers they kill off every year) into a lifetime of nicotine addiction -- thereby increasing the tobacco industry's profits. It is a story in which he also finds hope, insofar as a nation's view of tobacco ultimately shifted from cigarette smoking as "sexy and cool" to "a disgusting, anti-social, addictive habit that kills people." He suggests that similar progress in reducing obesity could follow a widespread realization that what I call "sweet grease, salty grease" is as disgusting and undesirable as cigarette smoke.

At the end of long and often frustrating days of dealing with a university bureaucracy, Dad used to stay up late at night writing, smoking and drinking coffee. As he told the story, he woke up one morning after such a night and realized he just didn't want another cigarette. That was it. And he never smoked again.

That's kind of what happened to me in altering my eating habits. Nothing dramatic. No doctor's warning. I kind of like to do scientific experiments on myself anyway, and it seemed worthwhile to test Kessler's theory to see what would happen if "sweet grease, salty grease" were eliminated from my diet.

What happened was that, over time, the weight slowly declined. There were no precise goals of weight to be lost per week, some ultimate ideal weight, or anything like that.

As a kid I used to actually make the sound of a kitchen sink disposal as I cleaned up everyone's plate after a meal. The notion of taking part of a restaurant meal home in a plastic box was an alien concept. People who did it were probably just showing off, I thought; going home to not only eat that food immediately but probably topping it off with a quart of ice cream as well. In spite of this capacity for consumption I didn't seem to gain much weight, probably because of sports and other the exercise.

So it was a unique experience to discover recently that following the elimination of the sweet and salty grease came a significant reduction in appetite. For the first time in my life I was unable or unwilling to finish a restaurant meal, got one of those plastic boxes, and actually made two additional meals out of it. What a concept!

In the world in which we live we are surrounded with cookies, cake, chips, french fries, ice cream, sugared drinks, and pizza. That's how we celebrate. It's how we "treat" our friends. It's in the advertising that flows over us. It's the "food" most readily at hand. And so long as our brains have been reprogrammed, and our bodies addicted, to require their sweet and salty grease it's a real problem.

Formerly, the solutions to that problem had been but two: (1) Give in to desire, and continue upward toward the BMI ("body mass index") of "30" that is the lower edge of obesity. (2) Keep a stiff, and closed, upper lip; feel the desire to consume the sweet and salty grease, but resist it with enormous powers of will and the resentment produced by a sense of deprivation. (Usually this approach only lasts for the duration of the "diet," following which the old consumption habits return.)

Now it turns out there is a third option. (3) By eliminating the sweet and salty grease from one's diet, and its impact on our brain, there is only a relatively short period of perceived deprivation; for some three or four days, for others a week or two. But following that, the very desire to consume those ingredients slowly disappears and is finally, seemingly, gone -- at least for me. Three meals a day of single, moderate servings, seem adequate, without the constant munching on something throughout the day. Without any sense of deprivation, the new eating habits seem natural, fully adequate and rewarding.

Twenty pounds lighter, there's more energy, sounder sleep, seemingly less stress, and no desire to revert to the old eating habits. There will probably be more weight loss, not because that's a goal but because it seems to happen naturally -- until and unless a former high school football weight is reached and to lose any more would be unhealthy.

Do you know the country song with the line, "that's my story and I'm sticking to it"? Well, this is my story, and I hope I'm sticking to it. But whether I do so or not I thought this might be one blog entry about "what I ate for breakfast" that just might be of actual use to others.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Why Afghanistan? Think Oil & Gas

September 25, 2009, 8:00 a.m.

Trying to Make Sense of Why We're in Afghanistan
(brought to you by*)

Are we at war, once again, because of our need to control sources of oil, gas, pipeline and oil tanker routes and ports?

I don't know. How could I? I'm just a morning blogger. But as I try to think through what we're doing in Afghanistan, and why, it makes a lot more sense than anything else I can come up with.

Frankly, I think there might be more popular support for the Afghanistan war than there is now, a willingness to accept the loss of life and hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, if Presidents Bush and Obama had candidly sold the effort to the American people on that basis. But I can understand their reluctance to take the risk that explanation would be spun by their political opponents into "going to war for oil company profits."

Consider what they have been telling us.

"Mission shift and creep" is usually not the military's creation. The Powell Doctrine calls for a very precise articulation of what the problem is, why a military presence is appropriate to its solution, exactly what the military is being asked to do, what resources that requires, the metrics for knowing whether it has ever been "successful," and an exit strategy. When that process is not followed, when the explanations for a war continue to shift over time, I have to assume it's the result of something done by the civilians in the chain of command.

Wrong Country. At the outset, however irrational, Americans were told we were bombing Afghanistan because of the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 -- something done with Saudi personnel and financial resources -- rather than going to war with Saudi Arabia. For awhile we were there to get Osama bin Laden. As the years went by less and less was said of that goal. At one time we were driving al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. If that's our purpose we can declare victory and come home, because both bin Laden and such al Qaeda as there may be in the region appear to be in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Safe Havens. More recently we're said to be there because we want to deny al Qaeda the "safe haven" of Afghanistan. There are at least three things wrong with this rationale. (1) To the extent al Qaeda has a safe haven in the region, it's in Pakistan not Afghanistan. (2) All al Qaeda needs to plan the next terrorist attack is a rented apartment in any city in the world. (3) Aside from Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda never has been a single nation's effort; the "war on terrorism" has never been a conventional war between "nations." al Qaeda is, or can be, everywhere and anywhere at any time. To the extent it wants or needs a territory to train terrorists there are a lot of countries available besides Afghanistan. So even if we could keep every last actual and potential member of al Qaeda out of Afghanistan we would not have denied them "safe havens." See, Michael Evans, "Al-Qaeda finds three safe havens for terror training," The Times (of London), July 2, 2008 ("Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organisation, driven out of Afghanistan and defeated in Iraq, is re-emerging in strength in three alternative safe havens for training, operational planning and recruiting – Pakistan, Somalia and Algeria – according to Western intelligence and defence sources").

Drug War. There was a time when the military effort was said to be a part of our "war on drugs," as Afghanistan is the world's major source of the poppy that becomes heroin -- including America's supply. If that's our goal we should turn it over to the Taliban, because when they were in charge they pretty successfully dried up the drug trade; what we've doing has caused it to flourish.

Nation Building. We've sometimes said we are there to build a thriving economy and democracy for Afghanistan. But this is less a "country" than it is a collection of largely uneducated members of regional tribes and clans held together by war lords, riddled with corruption, with virtually no economy (aside from drugs), lacking basic infrastructure, and with a history of repression of women -- united in little more than their (understandable) opposition to invaders and occupying forces (formerly the Russians, and now us).

So how is that mission working for us? Not well -- as knowledgeable folks were predicting from the outset. Our most recent big effort at democracy-building, a national election, has resulted in revelations of corruption, thousands of apparently fraudulent votes, intimidation of voters, and war lords "delivering" votes based on deals -- thereby creating greater divisiveness than existed before, and greater American dissatisfaction with "our guy in Kabul," Hamid Karzai.

I could go on, but you get the point.

(Little) Benefit-(Enormous) Cost Analysis. None of the explanations for this "war effort" make much sense. And even if they did, the benefit-cost analysis fails. That is to say, given America's priorities at the moment -- or any other moment for that matter -- is whatever good we might get out of Afghanistan (and what might that be?) worth the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of coalition and Afghan lives it has, is and will cost us over the additional decades of what is already America's longest war? I don't think so, and I can't imagine anyone else honestly thinking so. See, "Safe Havens," Yglesias Think Progress, September 23, 2009 ("what I really haven’t seen is anyone attempt to seriously lay out some kind of cost-benefit analysis of how important this whole Afghanistan situation really is relative to what I’m being told it would take to 'win.'").

Which brings me to oil and gas.

Let me acknowledge at the outset, in case you haven't noticed, that this is a blog entry not a doctoral dissertation. Some of what I've picked up and refer to below -- especially when it involves generalized assertions -- may be untrue. On the other hand, when it involves specific historical or geological facts and appears in a number of sources much of it seems credible.

Let's start with some excerpts from "Pipelineistan," written in 2005. You may want to read the whole article; the source is linked below these passages.

War against terrorism? Not really. . . .

A quick look at the map is all it takes. It's no coincidence that the map of terror in the Middle East and Central Asia is practically interchangeable with the map of oil. . . .

Pipelineistan is the golden future: a paradise of opportunity in the form of US$5 trillion of oil and gas in the Caspian basin and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In Washington's global petrostrategy, this is supposed to be the end of America's oil dependence on [OPEC]. . . .

Afghanistan itself has some natural gas in the north of the country, near Turkmenistan. But above all it is ultra-strategic: positioned between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, between Turkmenistan and the avid markets of the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan. Afghanistan is at the core of Pipelineistan.

The Caspian states hold at least 200 billion barrels of oil, and Central Asia has 6.6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas . . .. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two major producers . . ..

The only export routes, for the moment, are through Russia. So most of the game consists of building alternative pipelines to Turkey and Western Europe, and to the east toward the Asian markets. India will be a key player. . . .

It's enlightening to note that all countries or regions which happen to be an impediment to Pipelineistan routes towards the West have been subjected either to a direct interference or to all-out war: Chechnya, Georgia, Kurdistan, Yugoslavia and Macedonia. To the east, the key problems are the Uighurs of China's far-western Xinjiang and, until recently, Afghanistan. . . .

In this geostrategic grand design, the Taliban were the proverbial fly in the ointment. The Afghan War was decided long before September 11. September 11 merely precipitated events. Plans to destroy the Taliban had been the subject of . . . discussions for months before September 11. There was a crucial meeting in Geneva in May 2001 . . .. The topic was raised again in full force at the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001 when India - an observer at the summit - also contributed its own plans.

Nor concidentally, Pipelineistan was the central topic in secret negotiations in a Berlin hotel a few days after the G-8 summit, between American, Russian, German and Pakistani officials. And Pakistani high officials, on condition of anonymity, have extensively described a plan set up by the end of July 2001 by American advisers, consisting of military strikes against the Taliban from bases in Tajikistan, to be launched before mid-October.

[O]nly nine days after Hamid Karzai's interim government took power in Kabul, Bush II appointed his special envoy to Afghanistan . . . Afghan-American Zalmay Khalilzad - a former aide to the Californian energy giant UNOCAL. . . . The so-called brand-new American "Afghan policy" is being conducted by people intimately connected to oil industry interests in Central Asia.

In 1997, UNOCAL led an international consortium - Centgas - that reached a memorandum of understanding to build a $2 billion, 1,275-kilometer-long, 1.5-meter-wide natural-gas pipeline from Dauletabad in southern Turkmenistan to Karachi in Pakistan, via the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, crossing into Pakistan near Quetta. A $600 million extension to India was also being considered. The dealings with the Taliban were facilitated by the Clinton administration and the
Pakistani Inter Services Agency (ISI). But the civil war in Afghanistan would simply not go away. UNOCAL had to pull out.

American energy conglomerates, through the American Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC), are now resuscitating this and other projects. Already last October, the UNOCAL-led project was discussed in Islamabad between Pakistani Petroleum Minister Usman Aminuddin and American Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain. The exuberant official statement reads: "The pipeline opens up new avenues of multi-dimensional regional cooperation, particularly in view of the recent geopolitical developments in the region." . . .

UNOCAL also has a project to build the so-called Central Asian Oil Pipeline, almost 1,700km long, linking Chardzhou in Turkmenistan to Russian's existing Siberian oil pipelines and also to the Pakistani Arabian Sea coast. This pipeline will carry 1 million barrels of oil a day from different areas of former Soviet republics, and it will run parallel to the gas pipeline route through Afghanistan.

Khalilzad . . . was always a huge Taliban supporter [and] only abandoned the Taliban after Bill Clinton fired 58 cruise missiles into Afghanistan in August 1998 . . .. [O]ne day after the attack, UNOCAL put Centgas on hold - and two months later abandoned plans for the trans-Afghan pipeline.

A little more than a year ago, Khalilzad was reincarnated in print in The Washington Quarterly, now stressing his four main reason to get rid of the Taliban regime as soon as possible: Osama bin Laden, opium trafficking, oppression of the Afghan people and, last but not least, oil. . . .

He was a strident lobbyist for more US military aid to the mujahedeen during the anti-USSR jihad - campaigning for widespread distribution of Stinger missiles. . . .

But he was not rewarded with any promotions. The required Senate confirmation would raise extremely uncomfortable questions about his role as UNOCAL adviser and staunch Taliban defender. He was assigned instead to the National Security Council - no Senate confirmation required - where he reports to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Rice herself is a former oil-company consultant. During Bush I, from 1989-92, she was on the board of directors of Chevron, and was its main expert on Kazakhstan. Chevron has invested more than $20 billion in Kazakhstan alone. . . .

All American secretaries of state since World War II have been connected with the oil industry - except two: one of them is Colin Powell, but in his case the president, vice president and national security adviser are all part of the oil industry anyway.

So everybody in the ruling plutocracy knows the rules of the ruthless game: Central Asia is crucial to Washington's worldwide petro-strategy. So is a "friendly" government in Afghanistan - now led by . . . Hamid Karzai. . . .

As for US . . . media - from TV networks to daily newspapers - they just exercise self-censorship and remain mute about all of these connections.
Pepe Escobar, "The War for Pipelineistan," Asia Times, January 26, 2005.

Here are excerpts from another account, unfortunately equally devoid of footnotes or other citations to sources:

As soon as the Soviets discovered the vast Caspian Sea oilfields in the late 1970's, they attempted to take control of Afghanistan to build a massive north-south pipeline system to allow the Soviets to send their oil directly through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean seaport. The result was the decades long Soviet-Afghan war. The . . . U.S. government saw the danger of a Russian north-south pipeline and the CIA trained and funded armed terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden, who defeated the Soviets in the late 1980's.

The Russians then tried to control the flow of oil and gas through its monopoly on pipelines. The Southern Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union--Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan--saw through this Russian monopolistic ploy and began to consult with Western companies.

The . . . U.S. government now plans to thrust further along the 40th parallel from the Balkans through these Southern Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union. The U.S. military has already set up a permanent operations base in Uzbekistan. The so-called anti-terrorist strategy is clearly designed to simultaneously consolidate control over Middle Eastern and South Asian oil, and contain and neutralize the former Soviet Union. With that strategy, Afghanistan is exactly where they need to be. . . .

Afghanistan will now become the base of operations in destabilizing, isolating, and establishing control over the South Asian Republics and the Middle-East. After the conquest of this area is complete and the permanent military posts are set up, they will begin construction of a pipeline through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to deliver petroleum to the Asian market.

UNOCAL, the spearhead for Standard Oil interests, has been trying to build the north-south pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian Ocean for several decades. . . . The pipeline was to stretch 1,271 km from Turkmenistan's Dauletabad fields to Multan in Pakistan at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion. An additional $600 million would have brought the pipeline to energy-hungry India. . . .

UNOCAL cut off its earlier agreement with the Taliban in 1998 when it became clear that the Taliban could not control all of Afghanistan and provide a stable political environment for a north-south pipeline construction project. It was likely at this juncture that a new "war against terrorism" ploy was conceived by the . . . U.S. government. The "war against terrorism" in Afghanistan has come to a hiatus, with war-lords once again ruling the country, and the Bush administration has put their own man, Karzai, in power to control Afghanistan.

Karzai was a top adviser to UNOCAL during the negotiations with the Taliban to construct a Central Asia Gas (CentGas) pipeline from Turkmenistan through western Afghanistan to Pakistan. Karzai is the leader of the southern Afghan Pashtun Durrani tribe. A member of the mujaheddin that fought the Soviets during the 1980s, Karzai was a top contact for the CIA, maintaining close relations with CIA Director William Casey, Vice President George Bush, and their Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) Service go-between. After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, the CIA sponsored the relocation of Karzai and a number of his brothers to the U.S.

The real motives for the Bush administration's war in Afghanistan are clear for all to see. The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, met with Pakistan's oil minister, Usman Aminuddin, in January, 2002 to continue plans for the north-south pipeline, encouraging the construction of Pakistan's Arabian Sea oil terminus for the pipeline.

President Bush says our military will continue its presence in Afghanistan, which means that while the U.N. forces serve as a paramilitary police force, U.S. soldiers will be guarding the construction of the north-south pipeline.

To assure that the pipeline project will proceed apace, the Afghani-American Zalmay Khalilzad, a previous member of the CentGas project, became President Bush's Special National Security Assistant. Khalilzad has recently been named presidential Special Envoy for Afghanistan. Khalilzad is a Pashtun and the son of a former government official under King Mohammed Zahir Shah. [H]e was a special liaison between UNOCAL and the Taliban government. Khalilzad also worked on various risk analyses for the project under the direction of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a former member of the board of Chevron.
Norman D. Livergood, "The New U.S.-British Oil Imperialism," Part I.

And for what it's worth, here's a brief and somewhat updated entry from Wikipedia:

The Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAP or TAPI) is a proposed natural gas pipeline being developed by the Asian Development Bank. The pipeline will transport Caspian Sea natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India. Proponents of the project see it as a modern continuation of the Silk Road. The Afghan government is expected to receive 8% of the project's revenue.

The original project started in March 1995 when an inaugural memorandum of understanding between the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan for a pipeline project was signed. In August 1996, the Central Asia Gas Pipeline, Ltd. (CentGas) consortium for construction of a pipeline, led by Unocal was formed. On 27 October 1997, CentGas was incorporated in formal signing ceremonies in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan by several international oil companies along with the Government of Turkmenistan. In January 1998, the Taliban, selecting CentGas over Argentinian competitor Bridas Corporation, signed an agreement that allowed the proposed project to proceed. In June 1998, Russian Gazprom relinquished its 10% stake in the project. Unocal withdrew from the consortium on 8 December 1998.

The new deal on the pipeline was signed on 27 December 2002 by the leaders of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.[1] In 2005, the Asian Development Bank submitted the final version of a feasibility study designed by British company Penspen. Since the United States military overthrew the Taliban government, the project has essentially stalled; construction of the Turkmen part was supposed to start in 2006, but the overall feasibility is questionable since the southern part of the Afghan section runs through territory which continues to be under de facto Taliban control.

On 24 April 2008, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan signed a framework agreement to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan.[2]

The 1,680 kilometres (1,040 mi) pipeline will run from the Dauletabad gas field to Afghanistan. From there TAPI will be constructed alongside the highway running from Herat to Kandahar, and then via Quetta and Multan in Pakistan. The final destination of the pipeline will be the Indian town of Fazilka, near the border between Pakistan and India.[3]
"Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline," Wikipedia.

I don't know that I'm any happier about the war in Afghanistan now that I have some idea of what may be our real purpose for being there. But it's at least better than thinking we're taking all those lives, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars, for vague, shifting, unarticulated, irrational reasons designed to cover up what's really going on.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Healthcare: It's Broken, We're Broke -- and # 37

September 23, 2009, 7:55 a.m.

Healthcare Executive: "System's Broken"
"We're Number 37!" Set to Song

(brought to you by*)

It's so sad. So disgusting. Not just our profiteering sickness industry, but the "business . . . as usual" performance of those in Washington whom we elect to bring our people up to the level of the civilized nations of this world -- and big business pays to keep them from doing it.

The nations that provide all their people health care -- at a price considerably less than what we're paying to provide care to a select few -- do so with a creative array of variations on "universal, single payer" systems. The longer the debate goes on in this country the more convinced I become that's the only solution for us as well.

And what is this from President Obama: "I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits -- either now or in the future"? This from Washington, where our two most recent administrations have contributed trillions of dollars to both deficits and debt by handing over our taxpayers' money to corporations, so that they can pay their executives multi-million-dollar bonuses (for decidedly sub-par performances at that)? These administrations have added additional trillions to our great-grandchildren's debt -- and are continuing to do so -- with unaccounted payments for unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have made us less safe, while enriching the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater executives.

So let me get this straight, Congress and presidents are willing to add trillions to the national debt for the benefit of their largest campaign contributors, but when it comes to providing improved healthcare to the people who now rank 37th in the world, nearly 50 million of whom have no coverage at all, we can only make the improvements that won't add "one dime" to what we're now spending?

Have you been following the debate? Do you know how far we've fallen from the universal, single-payer ideal?

Do you know what the current plans consider a solution for those who are too poor to have health insurance? It's easy. Just pass a law requiring them to go out and buy health insurance. Then they'll have it -- and the insurance companies will have even more profits than they do now.

This is like providing housing for the homeless poor by passing a law requiring everyone to make mortgage payments to bankers -- a proposal as popular with Wall Street bankers as this "health care" proposal is with insurance executives, and just as unlikely to solve the problem.

It's a "win-win" -- at least for the elected officials who will continue to receive ever-more generous campaign contributions, and the insurance company executives who will continue to receive even bigger bonuses.

For us? It's a "lose-lose." We'll continue to pay more and get less than any other people on earth.

Oh, and they may not even have the votes to get that passed, since the Republican play book says defeating any healthcare reform is the best way to "crush" Obama and return the Republicans to power -- a goal that partisans of both parties all too often put ahead of the public welfare.

So that's where we are this morning.

I know there's a limit to the utility of anecdotal evidence in public policy debates. But I want to share the following with you anyway. It's a statement by a healthcare executive who thinks our present system is "broken" -- as indeed it is.

Original Blog Post: First, I am a registered Republican. Secondly, I am a healthcare executive and feel that I have an insider's view on our BROKEN healthcare system. It is my opinion that President Obama hit the nail on the head tonight [September 9, 2009, address to joint session of Congress on health care]. I was moved to tears by the reality and brilliancy of his speech. If you do nothing else, PLEASE take the time to educate yourself on the proposed reforms. Don't rely on the media or propaganda.

Comment from blog reader: I can't begin to argue with someone of your pedigree but I did not hear anything different tonight than what he has been saying. What is it that is so appealing to you?

Blogger's response to comment:

1. We have no option but to do SOMETHING.

2. Health insurance companies must be called to judgment. (Pre-existing conditions, cancellation without cause, arbitrary denials.)

3. There is huge waste in practicing defensive medicine, and pilot projects to reform this are a great start.

4. Accountability of providers by reporting outcomes is long overdue.

5. Options to provide catastrophic coverage to prevent bankruptcy are a necessity.

6. Get people out of the ERs for accessing primary care.

7. The lies and propaganda must stop. There is no proposal for a death panel, but merely a proposal to pay physicians for the time and effort it takes to counsel a patient on their options for end of life care. EVERYONE should have a plan. It is the right thing to do for one's family.

8. He is right. We CANNOT put this discussion and reform off any longer. We must act now for our own children and for the character of our country. I also believe we can do great things. . . . Unfortunately, I think most people get hung up in the politics (including the politicians) and so no significant change can occur.
The blog entry comes from the wife of a friend of mine, so I can vouch for her credentials as a healthcare executive -- and am willing to honor her desire for anonymity on my blog.

The point is, simply, that there are a goodly number of folks who do understand our present system, work within it, consider themselves conservatives, and yet when it comes to candid descriptions of the reality they know so well and the solutions we so desperately need, are if anything even more progressive than those hated "liberals."

After losing the presidential election in 1952, Adlai Stevenson said, "it hurts too much to laugh, but I'm too old to cry."

Those are our only options.

What can you say when it turns out "We're number 37" in the world in terms of the health care provided our people, we leave nearly 50 million with no insurance coverage at all, and we still end up paying more for the inadequate care we get as other countries?

You can make a song out of it:

Of course, to keep this blog entry balanced, under the spirit of the repealed Fairness Doctrine, I herewith present's case for the abused health insurance executives:


* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

Monday, September 21, 2009

Externalities: Hawkeyes' Football, Obama's Safety

September 21, 2009, 5:50 a.m.

Externalities: Football; Murdoch and Obama's Safety
(brought to you by*)
externality -- an external effect, often unforeseen or unintended, accompanying a process or activity: to eliminate externalities such as air pollution through government regulation.
Football's Externalities

If you live near the Kinnick Stadium you know that leaves are not the only things that fall on your yard in the fall.

(1) When I was a lad I was trained by my parents and other adults to deposit trash in receptacles -- and not just when they were close at hand. On wilderness hiking trips, the rule was "if you carry it in, you pack out the trash." I've never grasped the "drop-it-anywhere" philosophy, especially when trash cans are only seconds or minutes away. (The philosophy also applies, apparently, to dropping one's pants anywhere, notwithstanding the availability of port-a-johns within a block or two walk, as urination on private lawns continues to be a problem.)

(2) But that's not my complaint. Thank goodness for the bottle and can deposit law, and those who believe it's worth a nickel to bend over and pick up cans, put them in large trash bags, and bike or carry them to redemption centers. Those folks clean up much of my lawn between the sidewalk and the street.

At 3:00 a.m. I feel like the father in the Cheerios ad
whose kid is concerned about the father's heart condition and brings him a bowl of Cheerios at 6:00 a.m. The father responds, "That was very thoughtful of you. Very early, but very thoughtful." For I know I'll always start the day early on the Sunday mornings following the Saturday football afternoons when the street sweepers come rumbling down the street and back again at 3:00 a.m. That someone would be willing to get up even earlier than I in order to clean my street before dawn is also, "Very thoughtful. Very early, but very thoughtful." Besides, I've been fascinated with street sweeping equipment for most of my life.

(3) Indeed, if the bumblebees and their offspring would just drop their trash, I wouldn't like having to pick it up rather than their doing so, but it would at least be a relatively easy task and things would soon be back to normal. But they don't. They throw it in and under bushes. Maybe they think they're doing me a favor, so their trash won't be so visible on my yard. But they're not. They are necessitating my crawling under some rather uncomfortable growth to drag out goodness knows what.

This is a picture of what I found under one bush following one football game (yesterday). Because not even the can and bottle redeemers consider a nickel a worthwhile reward for such effort, it's left to me. Beer cans and bottles, cups, snack sacks, a condom -- thankfully unused, presumably by someone who doesn't yet know where they need to go to prevent pregnancy and STDs. (Research data and best practices advise that merely putting them on the ground, unopened, before you put down the blanket and lie down provides virtually no protection.) Also note that Budweiser's effort to sell even more beer to college students by using schools' colors on the beer cans is successfully proceeding apace, notwithstanding the UI's professed objections, if my sample of black and gold Bud is representative. [Photo credit: Me.]

Needless to say, I don't go around taking pictures at every football game, but if you're interested in more here are some on Picasa from a Kinnick neighborhood from a couple years ago. See -- and especially read the comments on -- Nicholas Johnson, "Hawkeye Football's Externalities," September 9, 2007.

And for a participant-observer's more detailed, but consistent and candid descriptions of football Saturdays in the Melrose neighborhood, see Michael Dale-Stein, "Quintessential Iowa Tradition," The Daily Iowan, September 21, 2009, p. 4A. For a blogger's comment about (disgust with) that DI column, see Dawn, "Growing Up Sober," For the Love of . . . Eloquence," September 21, 2009.

Rupert Murdoch's Externalities: President Obama's Safety

"Congress shall make . . . no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; . . .." So reads the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

"What part of 'no' do our judges not understand?" Justice Hugo Black, for whom I clerked, took the view that because the drafters knew how to use qualifiers, such as "unreasonable searches and seizures" in the Fourth Amendment, we should assume when they said "no law" they meant "no law."

When the FCC exacts substantial fines for relatively trivial "indecency" (which, unlike "obscenity," is constitutionally protected speech), when the post office sets postal rates for newspapers on the basis of the quantity of advertising they contain, when the airport security rules forbid humor near the metal detector machines, when corporations are required to put revelations in a stock prospectus they would rather keep to themselves, when the FTC finds advertising "false and misleading," when cigarette makers are required to tell potential customers that their product will kill them -- each constitutes an "abridgment" of speech the judges say is consistent with the "no law" prohibition.

Sometimes the judges just say the speech in question isn't "speech." Obscenity, defamation (until the Sullivan case), "fighting words," speech that might lead to "imminent lawless action," commercial speech (for the first half of the 20th Century), military secrets in time of war, and child pornography are simply defined as "non-speech" outside of the First Amendment's protection.

(To remove any possible ambiguity, I am not voicing objection to the ultimate result in these cases. I'm certainly not making the case for the social benefits of child pornography or, as in the next paragraph, visual depictions of animal cruelty. All I'm saying is that coming to these results as an interpretation of a constitutional provision that there shall be "no law" abridging free speech really does require three years in a law school.)

On October 6th the Supreme Court will consider adding another category of speech to this long list of exemptions: dog fight videos (under a 1999 federal law that forbids trafficking in “depictions of animal cruelty”). Adam Liptak, "A Free Speech Battle Arises From Videos of Fighting Dogs," New York Times, September 19, 2009, p. A1.

I recently came upon a letter from a citizen to Rupert Murdoch [Photo credit:], owner of the Fox broadcasting enterprise, in which she expresses her concern about the impact of Fox's programming on our nation, including the potential physical risk to our President from those
who actually believe President Obama is the equivalent of Adolph Hitler . . . someone to be feared. They get these ideas from your media organizations.

And it makes them dangerous and sick . . ..

[Y]ou are hurting people in our country, and I would like you and your stations to start showing some restraint before one of these individuals thinks they are doing the right thing by actually committing an act of violence.
For a more detailed documentation of similar serious concerns and their connection to the media, see Larry Keller, "The Second Wave; Evidence Grows of Far-Right Militia Resurgence," Intellegence Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, Issue 135, Fall 2009, p. 30.

A part of what I omitted (the entire letter is reproduced below) is, "Maybe you have the right to do whatever you want . . .."

And indeed Murdoch does. Because hate speech -- especially political hate speech -- including that which reflects inaccurate sources of information, is protected speech under our courts' interpretations of the First Amendment. The Court may find that "animal cruelty" is outside the protection of the First Amendment. But depictions of, and incitement to, human cruelty are protected. Unless the "lawless action" from speech is "imminent" it's OK.

It was not always thus. In 1932 a court upheld the old Radio Commission (predecessor to the FCC in 1934) in its denial of a license renewal to Reverend Dr. Shuler of the Trinty Church in Los Angeles, licensee of station KGEF. Based on the record in the case it would seem that his speech was no more inaccurate, mean spirited and hateful than what passes for talk shows on Fox. The court, while upholding Shuler's First Amendment rights to hold and speak his views elsewhere, drew a distinction in terms of his right to use a station licensed to serve "the public interest" for such purposes. Judge Groner wrote:

[If broadcasters are permitted to] use these facilities, reaching out, as they do, from one corner of the country to the other, to obstruct the administration of justice, offend the religious susceptibilities of thousands, inspire political distrust and civic discord . . . and be answerable for slander only at the instance of the one offended, then this great science [of radio broadcasting], instead of a boon, will become a scourge, and the nation a theater for the display of individual passions and the collision of personal interests. This [restriction on a broadcaster's speech, in this case resulting in the Commission's refusal to renew Shuler's license] is neither censorship nor previous restraint, nor is it a whittling away of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, or an impairment of their free exercise.

Appellant may continue to indulge his strictures upon the characters of men in public office. He may just as freely as ever criticize religious practices of which he does not approve [which were Roman Catholicism].

He may even indulge private malice or personal slander -- subject, of course, to be required to answer for the abuse thereof -- but he may not, as we think, demand, of right, the continued use of an instrumentality of commerce for such purposes, or any other, except in subordination to all reasonable rules and regulations Congress, acting through the Commission, may prescribe.
Trinity Methodist Church, South v. Federal Radio Commission, 62 F.2d 850, 852-53 (C.A.D.C. 1932).

Suffice it to say, Trinity is no longer the law either at the FCC or among the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit.

Rupert Murdoch, this Australian-born, 78-year-old media mogul, and 132nd richest person in the world, controls the News Corporation, which owns Fox. And today, unlike 1932, he can legally use his media to spew forth hatred-for-ratings of a sort that would have resulted in the loss of his licenses in the Commission's early days.

When I was an FCC commissioner, major media operations were owned and controlled by, and identified with, individual human beings. Bill Paley was the one to give the credit, or blame, for CBS' programming; as was David Sarnoff for NBC. Today, all too often, media corporations are run by hired hands (albeit very well compensated hired hands) and controlled by Wall Street.

But in the case of Fox we still have a person, Rupert Murdoch.

So in the absence of any prospect for action from Congress, the FCC, or the courts, Ms. Trish Nelson wrote directly to Rupert Murdoch:

Rupert Murdoch
Chairman and Chief Executive
News Corporation
1211 Avenue of Americas
8th Floor
New York NY 10036-8701

Dear Mr. Murdoch:

I am writing to you because I understand you own and control a large number of newspapers, television stations and other kinds of media outlets.

I have been sickened and saddened by the choices your news organizations have made to show, over and over, on TV, horrible, hate inspired images against President Obama, and people carrying signs with messages of violence.

You are taking advantage of a few sad, ignorant people, who don't know any better, because they believe Fox and people like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly care about them and are telling them the truth. They don't understand that these people are just doing what they do because they are TV and radio personalities. The people in those crowds don't understand that they are being used, and that the ideas they are supporting are actually harmful to them. This is not right.

Do you do this for the money? How much money do you and yours need? Are you trying to start full-blown civil unrest so that you can make even more money?

Do you have any idea what it is like out here, having to live and work alongside people who are so horribly misinformed about how the world works? Who actually believe Obama was not born in this country, who actually believe in death panels, who actually believe President Obama is the equivalent of Adolph Hitler, and is someone to be feared? They get these ideas from your media organizations.

And it makes them dangerous and sick on an individual level.

Maybe you have the right to do whatever you want, but you are hurting people in our country, and I would like you and your stations to start showing some restraint before one of these individuals thinks they are doing the right thing by actually committing an act of violence.

Trish Nelson
Iowa City, Iowa
Murdoch's address is at the top of the letter. You might want to consider writing him, as I will -- making reference to Ms. Nelson's letter, or not, as you choose. Given our Constitution and courts -- and corporate control of Congress -- Murdoch is these days about the only power to which you can appeal.

Blog Entry Makes "Saturday Night Live"

A week ago I had a blog entry suggesting that Congressman Joe Wilson's shout out at President Obama during a Joint Session of Congress was the result of a prior plan among Republicans that they would all shout "You lie!" in chorus -- a chorus in which Wilson would ultimately become the only member. Nicholas Johnson, "Republicans' Practical Joke . . .; 'You lie!'" September 11, 2009.

Imagine my surprise when "Saturday Night Live" developed the idea into one of the show's openings.

["Update Thursday, Part I," Saturday Night Live Web site.]

You're welcome, SNL. Great job with the video! And special thanks to Jason Grubbe.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hancher - Part V

September 18, 2009, 8:10 a.m. -- now with update on October 12 Forum

Some Suggestions for Thinking About the Location of
the University of Iowa's New Performance Venue
Part V

(brought to you by*)

[Blog Entries in Hancher Series (and see, "Hancher Relocation Process and Site," July 18, 2009):

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part I," September 14, 2009 (Downtown).

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part II,"
September 15, 2009 (Natural Settings).

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part III," September 16, 2009 (The Costs).

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part IV," September 17, 2009 (UI's Mission and Mobility).

Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part V," September 18, 2009 (Greenways, NIMBY, and Conclusion).]
Update: October 12 Forum; "Third Option"

The October 12 Forum unveiled a "third option" (the prior two involving rebuilding Hancher-Voxman-Clapp as a unit either near where they are now, or downtown): leaving Hancher in the general area of the present site, while splitting off Voxman-Clapp (the music buildings) and putting them downtown. B.A. Morelli, "UI adds another Hancher option; New plan would split auditorium, Voxman-Clapp," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 13, 2009.

For streaming video of the evening, and the Power Point slides used in the opening presentation, see the UI Facilities Management Web site,

Based on the percentage of speakers from the audience (after the presentation) from the music faculty, and the applause they received, that seemed to be the focus of the evening.

I came away from the event thinking that, although they did succeed in making arguments for putting what are essentially undergraduates' "classrooms" nearer the Pentacrest, that most of the analysis in this five-part series remains valid -- the disadvantages of shoe-horning Hancher into an 1839 platted downtown Iowa City, while losing the advantages of its current natural setting (if Hancher would also go downtown), and the discounted-to-present-value future loss of property tax revenue from the downtown businesses that would be demolished (two banks, businesses, two apartment complexes -- at least one of which built only this year), and so forth.

(1) The University of Iowa has never had all of its buildings on a single, continuous area of land, separate and apart from the city -- at least since the 1920s, if not before. The University's buildings are integrated into the downtown, residential and other areas of the city.

(2) We have a number of law students taking joint degrees who take classes on both sides of the River. I am sure the Medical, Pharmaceutical, Nursing, Dental, and Athletic colleges and departments have the same. It would be more convenient for all of them I suppose if we could put all of those buildings downtown. Perhaps Marc Moen could build us a skyscraper for the purpose. And just think of what Kinnick Stadium could do for the local restaurant and bar business if it could also be located downtown!

(3) Walking and biking are good preventive medicine for heart, cancer, diabetes and other diseases -- not to mention our national obesity epidemic. There was talk last evening of music students having to walk a half-mile. A half-mile! When I was in junior high and high school I carried a tuba from home to school and back again, over a mile each way -- a kind of one-man marching band. I never considered it a problem then, and probably would have found it even easier once I had the stamina of a college student. Carrying piccolos and clarinets should be even less of a burden for today's college students. For those who can't, or don't want to, walk, bike or skateboard around campus there are actually too many bus systems for a town this size, plus taxis, and far more student-owned automobiles than are necessary.

Frankly, if I were still studying music I'd love a setting on an "arts campus" with a beautiful view of the River, rather than a parking garage. But I'm not, so my personal preference is irrelevant.

But I do think the music faculty and students ought to reflect upon the old adage "be careful what you wish for, because you may get it." However, the bottom line for me is that if they want to be downtown, and the Regents and FEMA are willing to pay for what they may later discover turns out to be folly, why not let them make the move?

From the standpoint of Hancher, splitting the two (Hancher from Voxman-Clapp) just makes the Hancher reconstruction cheaper, easier and more spacious and scenic.

As for the comparative costs of the three options, they are not sufficiently different to be grounds for selecting one over another at this point. Moreover, they are all pretty fuzzy right now -- everything from construction costs, to parking facilities, to property acquisition (downtown), to demolition and disposal costs, to property tax loss, to the firmness of FEMA's commitment, to sources for $100 million plus of State money (at a time of 10% cuts across the board, and Regents' moratorium on construction).

I do think that the other new proposal the last couple days (and also presented last evening), that Hancher remain exactly where it is and be physically raised to a level above the 500-year flood plain, deserves more analysis than "it's not feasible." "Hancher Idea Could Save $250 Million," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 12, 2009. Of course those putting comments on this story have had great fun with the idea, and I'm certainly not advocating it. But when major moves, and enormous (for us) expenditures are involved, I think any suggestion deserves to be seriously considered and analyzed before being rejected (along with the reasons for that rejection). That even includes the suggestion, at the July Forum, that we consider rebuilding Hancher over the River, with a view up and down stream.

The Original "Hancher - Part V," September 18, 2009, Blog Entry: This is the fifth, and final, blog entry in this five-part series addressing some of the issues I see in the decisions confronting the University of Iowa with regard to what to do, and where to do it, with regard to the replacement of the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp buildings essentially destroyed by the 2008 Iowa River flood.

Monday's essay explored the possible location in downtown Iowa City. Tuesday's addressed the role of natural settings for entertainment venues. Wednesday's looked at a number of categories of direct and indirect costs. And yesterday's questioned the propriety of an academic institution's involvement in the public entertainment business, and complaints about the "distances" in what I characterized as our charming "toy town" (compared with America's largest urban centers). Today's wraps it up with some comments about greenways in flood control, the positions taken by residents close to the old site and businesses that would benefit from a downtown site, and some conclusions. All are linked, above.

(Yesterday's blog entry received two very solid, civil, substantive suggestions. I revised the entry to make reference to the first, which provided some needed data about the academic uses of Hancher Auditorium.

The second took issue with my "overly simplistic . . . dismissal of the handicapped" from an "Anonymous" who has difficulty walking, even with a cane. That was certainly not my intention.Indeed, I commented in that blog entry on my own difficulty in walking. My father was working with Washington agencies regarding those with various disabilities over 50 years ago, and made sensitivity to such issues a part of my very being. As the saying has it, making accommodations for the disabled "is not just a good idea, it's the law" -- thanks in part to some of his early efforts. Obviously, I think the University should make every effort to comply with the law and otherwise address the needs of the disabled with sensitivity. My primary point was that our young, able bodied undergraduates really ought to be able to walk a half-mile or mile, that Iowa City is sufficiently small that it is relatively easy to get from one place on campus to another (certainly when compared with large urban areas), and that therefore it shouldn't be a major factor in choosing a campus location for Hancher. As for the disabled, I was simply intending to make the point that they, too, will have roughly similar difficulties -- or accommodations -- regardless of which of the two locations is chosen.]
Greenways and Flood Control

My understanding is that the original (ultimately flooded in 2008) location of Hancher-Voxman-Clapp was the triumph of "an arts campus" over warnings from some that, however unlikely, to locate the buildings in the Iowa River's flood plain risked those new buildings someday being flooded. Hindsight suggests the location was a mistake. At the time, however, the area had never been flooded in anyone's memory, and the relatively new creation upstream of the Corps of Engineers' Coralville Dam and Reservoir -- created, in part, precisely for the purpose of reducing the severity of downstream flooding -- made that prospect even less likely.

Both before and after the 2008 flood I did some study of and writing about flood control. I created a Web site devoted to the subject (however, one I have not kept updated over time), "GO Iowa! The Great Outdoors of Iowa,", and a PowerPoint presentation (viewable online in Internet Explorer only) I was asked to give to the Johnson County Council of Governments and subsequently other local organizations. I was active with the group that succeeded in passing a $20 million bond issue for the County's acquisition of additional land. Here are some examples of a a number of op ed columns for local papers and blog entries: Nicholas Johnson, "Preserving for Our Grandchildren," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 20, 2008; Nicholas Johnson, "Greenbelts, Greenways and Flood Prevention," June 16, 2008 (with links to additional writing); Nicholas Johnson, "Gazette's Flood Plan, Flood Plains & Greenbelts," June 21, 2008; Nicholas Johnson, "A $2.20 Gift to Our Great-Grandchildren," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 30, 2008.

You will be relieved to know that I will not be repeating all of that here this morning, though I will provide my three-point plan for reducing-to-eliminating the economic damage from floods:

1. Don't put homes and businesses in flood plains.

2. Don't put homes and businesses in flood plains.

3. Don't put homes and businesses in flood plains.

The simplicity of these suggestions is exceeded only by the extent to which they are so widely ignored.

By reversing the land use -- taking the parks and forests and grasslands from the hills and putting them down by the rivers, and taking the homes and businesses that line the river bank and putting them up in the hills (or simply having done it right the first time) -- you achieve two major benefits. (a) You eliminate the flood damage to buildings. This is not insignificant, as the University of Iowa's near $1 billion flood damage/rebuilding bill bears witness. (b) You reduce the severity of the flooding -- both at that location and on downstream. "Greenways" along rivers -- forests, parks, grasses, pastures, and other appropriate planting (along with wetlands) -- can absorb, and prevent (or at least slow) the runoff into rivers, of enormous amounts of water. (I've heard estimates of as much as a five-inch rain.)

Conventional buildings, roads and parking lots not only suffer flood damage, they also increase and speed the runoff of water directly into rivers, thereby increasing the severity of the flooding, not only where they are located but also downstream.

Superficially, from a purist perspective, this would suggest that Hancher ("H-V-C") should not only be located downtown, it should be located well east of the location currently contemplated. The land where the buildings now stand should be converted to some form of greenway.

The reason I say "superficially," and refer to "conventional buildings, roads and parking lots," is because there are now construction techniques that can make such structures much more water-absorbent and, shall we say, "flood friendly" than usual.

Indeed, the new P. Sue Beckwith, M.D., Boathouse, built right on the Iowa River bank, was designed with flooding in mind. Rachel Gallegos, "Tour of boathouse shows off building's 'floodable' features," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 17, 2009 ("Associate Director of UI Athletics Jane Meyer said . . . 'We built this building to flood.' . . . [C]oncrete block walls . . . can easily be power washed and sanitized if the building floods . . .. The shell bays have flood vents to easily release water.").

More precisely, roads and parking lots can be made permeable to water, so that at least much of it seeps through to the soil rather than rapidly running off into a river or stream. Strips of soil as a part of a parking lot, planted with grasses or other growth can not only slow and absorb runoff but can be an aesthetic plus as well.

Hopefully, techniques such as these will be used if Hancher is relocated up the slope from where it's now located.

"NIMBY" -- "Not In My Back Yard" and "Oh, Please DO Put it In My Back Yard"

There are two groups of Iowa City residents more directly affected than the rest of us by the decision on where to locate Hancher. One is the Manville Heights residents who live nearby. The other is the downtown business people.

As the resident of a neighborhood that bears a disproportionate share of the impact of the 70,000 visitors who drop in on football Saturdays, I'm sympathetic to the comments of Iowa City residents affected by the University's unilateral decisions.

As near as I can tell, however, the Manville Heights residents' comments seem to cut both ways. Some like the personal convenience of having it close by, an easier walk than if it were downtown. Others are concerned that, by moving it up the hill, out of the flood plain, it will be closer to their homes and create more traffic, noise and possible safety considerations.

Downtown merchants, I gather, are also split to some degree. Those in the restaurant business see the prospect of additional customers before and after Hancher performances if the building is located two or three blocks from their establishments. But many whose businesses are such that they will not benefit financially from the Hancher crowds are concerned about taking so much property off the property tax rolls, thereby increasing their own property taxes. See Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part III," September 16, 2009 (The Costs).

Let me say at the outset that I tend to agree with what I gather is the vision of downtown business persons such as Mark Moen and restaurant genius Jim Mondanaro. That is, Iowa City as laid out in 1839 cannot be turned into a 21st Century Coral Ridge Mall and it's self-defeating to try. See
Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part I," September 14, 2009 (Downtown). What it should aspire to be is a small, very livable, quasi-residential, quaint, walkable, center of entertainment and restaurants (along with the minimal number of banks, grocery stores, and other businesses to sustain that resident population). We may differ about the value of the number of scofflaw bar owners encouraging undergraduates' illegal binge drinking, I don't know. Frankly, I think that phenomenon detracts from, rather than supports, their vision. But we basically agree about the rest of it. And putting Hancher downtown is consistent with that vision -- it's just 170 years too late.

Aesthetically I prefer natural settings for entertainment venues. See Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher - Part II," September 15, 2009 (Natural Settings). But it would be a much closer case for me if it were 170 years ago, and we were just now laying out Iowa City.

I can imagine something more like the area of 10 city blocks than two being devoted to an entertainment complex of movie theaters, a Hancher-sized auditorium, plus a range of theaters and auditoriums such as those we now have in the Englert, Riverside Theater, Mabie, McBride, and others -- plus a large, open, free parking area.

But that's on no one's radar today, and not likely to be, and the current downtown proposal carries with it too many problems.

Bottom line, I do think that those most directly impacted by University or City proposals, whether for good or for ill, deserve to be heard and responded to. That someone has a "special interest" may make their insight and analysis more relevant and useful -- as well as the possibility it makes it simply less well considered and more biased and self-oriented, to the exclusion of the "greater good."

I just don't think public decisions -- whether it's the location of Hancher or the boundary lines around our K-12 schools -- should be dictated by those with special interests in the outcome.

Virgil Hancher

Although I don't think it has any impact on my analysis of where the Hancher replacement is located, I should probably declare my interest in the replacement of the building and its continuing to bear the Hancher name.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt was the only U.S. president there was for most of my youth, similarly Virgil Hancher was the only president of the University of Iowa so far as I was concerned. My impression was that my father liked him and found him supportive of my father's work. I spent some time with Hancher myself as a boy, and found him friendly, as I did his wife, Susan. I attended school for 13 years with his daughter, and knew her older brother. My wife actually lived with the Hanchers in the president's home for some time while a student at Iowa.

As I have written before, I find it troubling that the university colleges and buildings (here and elsewhere) that used to be named for former academics, researchers, and university presidents are now increasingly, during this age of the corporatization of the academy, being named for individual and corporate donors. I think it would be a real travesty, given Hancher's role in the history of the University of Iowa if we were to lose the "Hancher Auditorium" only to replace it with the ExxonMobil Entertainorama, the Coca Cola Center (see, Editorial, "UI's Hypocrisy Clear in Recent Acceptance of ExxonMobil Donation," The Daily Iowan, September 18, 2009), or the "ADM Auditorium." (Want to know more about ADM? "The Informant!" is now showing in Iowa City.)

But this, and undoubtedly other opinions and ideas expressed throughout this five-blog-entry series are undoubtedly influenced with my personal feelings about Virgil Hancher, his family, and his memory, and sufficiently so that I thought I should include this explanation.


This five-part series has been an effort to raise and address issues I see with the decision to rebuild, and relocate, either the Hancher Auditorium or the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp complex.

So in a sense there is no single "answer," or "conclusion," that I think you're obliged to recognize as superior to all others. You may see issues I failed to even see, let alone address. You may differ radically with my analysis of the ones I did identify and address.

But where I come out, to the extent anyone cares, is that relocating the Hancher-Voxman-Clapp complex up the hill from its present location is probably the best option.

Logistically, it just doesn't fit in the available space downtown.

There's a "value added" to having it in a more natural setting.

It's cheaper to have it there.

Aside from those with disabilities, the difficulties imposed on most students in getting to that location are trivial and should not be given decisional significance.

Although it is not the ideal solution from the perspective of greenways and flood control, properly handled it could be and it is, in any event, an improvement over what it was.

The wishes of Manville Heights residents, and downtown merchants, while a relevant part of the mix of community opinion, should not be treated as decisive.

So I guess that's where I come out at the end of this week of blogging on the subject.

What do you think?

The Press-Citizen's Series

[See also the University of Iowa Facilities Management Web page regarding its July 9, 2009, presentation to the community about these issues. It includes links to a streaming video of the evening, the Power Point slides used on that occasion, and the Flood Mitigation Task Force Recommendations. "Facilities Managment/Projects." My own evaluation of that evening is found in Nicholas Johnson, "Hancher Relocation Process and Site; University Offers Useful Model for Major Decisions," July 10, 2009.]

Jim Lewers, "Hancher Series Begins Today," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Editorial, "Choose Between Two Good Options for Hancher," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Chuck Swanson, "Either Site Will Work for Hancher," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Wallace Chappell, "Time to Divorce Hancher and the River," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Bob Hibbs, "Performance Spaces on the UI Campus," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli and Josh O'Leary, "What To Do About Hancher Auditorium," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli and Josh O'Leary, "Is Moving Hancher Downtown a Game Changer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "Regents to Have Final Say in Hancher's Location," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

"UI Flood Recovery Mostly Covered By FEMA Money," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "UI, Hancher May Get More FEMA Money," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "Officials Didn't See Flooding to Be Potential Problem," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Deanna Howard, "A man for the arts; Virgil Hancher envisioned an arts campus on the river," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

Rob Daniel, "New Stores Help Fill Coralridge Mall," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2009.

September 13

Josh O'Leary and Brian Morelli, "UI Weighs Options for Hancher Flooded Site," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009.

Josh O'Leary, "Yarrow Ready for Hancher Rebuilding," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009.

Josh O'Leary, "Proximity Key to Hancher's Neighbors," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009.

"Learn More About Coralville Arts Center," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 13, 2009 ("This 500-seat community venue . . . will be available for use beginning in the spring of 2011 . . . by community groups for recitals, concerts, lectures, theater and other performances").

September 14

Bruce Wheaton, "The 'H,' 'V' and 'C' in 'HVC,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

Marc Moen, "Benefits of Urban Auditoriums," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009 (with link to Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, "The Benefits and Qualities of Cultural Districts") .

Brian Morelli and Deanna Howard, "As Venue's Revenue Losses Mount, Public Split; One Site's Weaknesses Are the Other's Strengths, Official Says," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

Brian Morelli, "Who Will Make Site Selection?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

"Culver Hopeful UI Will Get more Federal Funds; FEMA Head to Tour Campus' Flood Sites in Next Two Months," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 14, 2009.

September 18, 2009

Daryl Granner, "University Shouldn't Bail Out Iowa City Downtown," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 18, 2009.

Sharon McDonald, "UI Should Relocate Hancher Downtown," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 18, 2009.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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