30.7.11

DO NOT BRING ON A GENERAL ENGAGEMENT.  The Army of Northern Virginia sought to spare its home state from fighting during the growing season, and the Army of the Potomac sought to shield Washington City and Baltimore from direct attack.  Neither commander wished to blunder into a battle without knowing where the other army was, and both commanding generals attempted to issue orders to the various corps commanders to that effect.

George Gordon Meade, only recently appointed to replace Joseph Hooker, envisioned concentrating his army on the south bank of Pipe Creek in Maryland, the better to be able to cover both of the big cities and to compel the invaders either to give battle or to worry about foraging as an occupying army, an enterprise that had already yielded substantial supplies of shoes and food.


But not all commanders received the order, and a skirmish on the northwest side of Gettysburg became a general engagement as units on both sides rushed to the sound of the guns.


Stephen Sears's Gettysburg, tonight's Book Review No. 24, went with me to Gettysburg, in part to provide me with background information.  I recommend the book to any reader seeking one readable analysis of the events.  It explains a number of the decisions the commanders made, many of which have been second-guessed (or changed so as to create counterfactuals), by which the general engagement did take place at Gettysburg by default.


Mr Sears argues that both commanders made the best possible decisions given the information they had.  The Union position on Cemetery Ridge, although not as dominating as one on the south bank of Pipe Creek, was still defensible, and Genl Meade's choice of Winfield Scott Hancock as overall commander of the center of the line worked out well for him.


Although Pickett's Charge on the third day failed, the failure was as much of logistics and communication as of force.  Genl Lee's plan was to attack with Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble from the west, Ewell from the north, and Stuart and the cavalry from the east, acting as hammer to Pickett's anvil.


But there was insufficient ammunition to weaken the Union center, insufficient ammunition and manpower in Ewell's corps, and Stuart (guarding a long supply train that almost bogged the rebel army down north of the Potomac River) never got in position in time.  Thus did the accidental encounter become the turning point of the war in the eastern theater.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
A FOURTH TURNING MANIFESTO.  George Will.
A generation that has grown up with the Internet “has essentially been raised libertarian,” swimming in markets, which are choices among competing alternatives.

And the left weeps. Preaching what has been called nostalgianomics, liberals mourn the passing of the days when there was one phone company, three car companies, three television networks, and an airline cartel, and big labor and big business were cozy with big government.

The America of one universally known list of Top 40 records is as gone as records. When the Census offered people the choice of checking the “multiracial” category, Maxine Waters, then chairing the Congressional Black Caucus, was indignant: “Letting individuals opt out of the current categories just blurs everything.” This is the voice of reactionary liberalism: No blurring, no changes, no escape from old categories, spin the world back to the 1950s.

Declaration of Independents” is suitable reading for this summer of debt-ceiling debate, which has been a proxy for a bigger debate, which is about nothing less than this: What should be the nature of the American regime? America is moving in the libertarians’ direction not because they have won an argument but because government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous. This has, however, opened minds to the libertarians’ argument.

The essence of which is the common-sensical principle that before government interferes with the freedom of the individual and of individuals making consensual transactions in markets, it ought to have a defensible reason for doing so. It usually does not.
I'll never lack for work. The regulated industries class starts in three weeks, and I'm still not sure which topic areas I should focus on (there being more topic areas to choose among than a three-credit semester course allows me to offer for study).
WHY INCOME ACCOUNTING MATTERS.  Kansas City Star columnist James Rosen looks at the strange mathematics of deficit spending.
Alex Brill, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center in Washington, said that counting external and internal debt together didn't make economic sense and blurred the real fiscal situation the U.S. faces.

"Not all of the debt is the same, and it doesn't all matter the same," Brill said. "What really matters is debt held by the public."

Those are the outside bondholders, and they take up about two-thirds of the total U.S. debt. As of Monday, the most recent date for which the Treasury Department provided figures, the U.S. owed $9.75 trillion to them.

Almost one-third of the U.S. debt — $4.59 trillion — is in the form of IOUs dedicated to programs such as Social Security, Medicare and the pension plans for federal workers and military personnel. That's what the United States owes its citizens.

As an analogy, Brill suggests thinking of a family that's facing medical bills now and college bills in the future. Say the family has set aside $3,000 for college costs, encounters a $13,000 medical bill, pays $10,000 of it with a credit card and uses the college savings to pay the rest.

That family's real debt is $10,000, but the Treasury Department's method of calculation would place it at $13,000.

While the family does need to replenish the college savings, the movement of money within its personal accounts doesn't affect its credit score.

"When you blend this real debt with the kind of accounting debt where the left hand borrows from the right hand, you end up with something that's completely meaningless in economic terms," Brill said.

This practice enables some lawmakers to exaggerate the severity of the problem that underlies the debt-limit impasse.

For example, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, told Fox News earlier this month: "The debt as it exists today — 95 percent of GDP — is so high, economists tell us it's dragging down (economic) growth at least 1 percent."

But considering only the $9.75 trillion that's owed to bondholders, the U.S. debt is 65 percent of the GDP; still worrisome, but nowhere near the 140 percent level that's fueling the Greek debt crisis or the 100 percent-plus levels of other troubled European governments.

This kind of distinction, though, provides little solace in the face of the coming entitlement crisis just a few years down the road.

President Barack Obama and lawmakers are struggling to agree on a debt-ceiling hike before next Tuesday, which would allow the government to borrow more money in order to fund a more than $1 trillion budget deficit.

As they wrangle, they're only tenuously offering solutions to entitlement obligations that are many orders of magnitudes more. Those obligations eventually will total at least $60 trillion.

"This huge debt burden won't bankrupt the country on Aug. 3, but it does demonstrate that there is an enormous and growing problem that gets much harder to deal with the longer it is left unaddressed," said Christopher Frenze, a former staff director of the American Action Forum, a conservative policy institute in Washington.

That coming threat stems from another issue, the IOUs to ourselves.

For years, increased spending has forced the government to raid federal trust funds. It takes payroll tax revenues earmarked for Social Security or Medicare, for instance, and uses them to cover unrelated expenses. But it doesn't have a way to pay back the money.

It would be as if a family kept a budget on paper that put aside set sums each month for defined needs, but it spent all that money and more in its daily activities.

Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economist who's advised U.S. government leaders, views the debt-limit crisis as concealing a deeper dilemma: Americans expect federal benefits they're not willing to pay for.

"We're on a completely unsustainable path," Rogoff said. "People are just convinced the government doesn't need any money. They're mad at all the borrowing, but they get even madder when taxes go up or they don't get the programs they like."
To pull all the pieces together, think of that $3,000 college fund as accumulated receipts in the Social Security Trust Fund or the Highway Trust Fund, and the $10,000 as emergency expenditures on hurricane recovery or regime change in an annoying government.  The difference is that in the family scenario, if Mother or Dad takes sick and Junior's college fund goes to medical expenses, Junior might be in the work force or the military or working his way through a cheaper college after high school.  When the government is unable to make good on all its promises, the people who made decisions in the expectation that those promises were good are in rougher straits than Junior.

Confounding the issue is any reasonable evaluation of the federal balance sheet.  This intriguing article suggests that some outstanding debt will never be paid off, including obligations from the War for Independence and the Civil War (the reason for the public debt section of the Fourteenth Amendment.)  But where there are liabilities, there are also assets (and, in a business, stockholders' equity).  Although the Treasury issues statements purporting to show such things, I was not able, with my Sprecher-relaxed efforts, to locate an analysis that included such things as the depreciated value of Amtrak's locomotives and the National Parks and the Interstate Highways and the aircraft carriers and the Western dams that Rachel Maddow finds so sexy and all the other stuff that the government has borrowed money to build.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING?  Steve Chapman deconstructs the so-called debt ceiling crisis.
It's not a solution. It's a promise to come up with a solution, somehow, someday.

Why not just devise a remedy now? Because lots of voters will lose interest in fiscal discipline once they realize it means tangible sacrifice on their part. They might even exact vengeance at the polls. Getting voters to endorse frugality is easy. Taking money out of their hands is not.

Nor are our elected leaders addressing the real source of the problem, which lies in three federal entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Even ostensible hardliners evade this reality. Judson Phillips, founder of
Tea Party Nation, writes in The Washington Post that "Americans are tired of 'bridges to nowhere,' ferries to nowhere, neon light museums, cowboy poetry readings and cow flatulence studies."

But items like these make up a microscopic share of the budget. The big three entitlements, which Judson never mentions, account for 40 percent.However the debt ceiling turns out, the essential decisions are off in the future. If the past is any guide, that's where they will stay.
I recall President Clinton getting angry when he discovered that bond traders might be able to undo some of his -- or was it Hillary!'s -- tax and spend ambitions.  If the government will not commit itself to a sustainable fiscal policy, there will be consequences.
TWO CAN PLAY AT THIS GAME.   Pajamas Media commentator Jazz Shaw suggests the Democrats are in a good position to mau-mau the Republicans should nonrenewal of the debt ceiling require the Treasury to delay checks.
As I recently wrote in piece titled “Plan Nine from the DNC,” there are political opportunities aplenty waiting in all of those bookkeeping nooks and crannies, assuming the Democrats are willing to play politics with something like this. (Not that I’m insinuating Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s crew would ever stoop so low, mind you.) But if you stop and think about it, it’s a fairly simple matter to fail to send out a check or two to some medical supply companies. And when that happens, the Democrats find a young boy named Timmy in a wheelchair that didn’t get his replacement oxygen bottle this week, and suddenly he and his bedraggled, single working mom are instant television stars in political advertisements which run non-stop until the Republicans finally cave in.

But the Democrats would never actually do that… right?
Perhaps the major parties understand the problem of mutual assured destruction. Illinois, solidly under Democratic control, has been playing cash-flow games with clinics and other vendors for years.  Their antics have induced Northern Illinois University president John Peters to publicly object to University employees being asked to prepay medical expenses that are covered by the state-endorsed insurance plans.    To the best of my knowledge, no Republican has produced an advertisement showing the consequences of Democratic austerity measures, which have affected first responders and snowplow drivers, as well as university employees.
POUR A SPRECHER DOPPLE BOCK.  Professor Munger and some colleagues go to beautiful downtown Shorewood and watch the Brewers sweep the Cubs.  Looks like they found some good County Stadium grub and you have to keep score at the ballpark with a souvenir Brewer pencil.  No mention of any Sprecher.  I now have sources of that in Illinois.

At the end of June, the Brewers were three games up in the Central, then hit a rough patch before the All Star break, but returned from eleven games in the West in a three way tie for the lead.  The home stand has gone well thus far.
THE CASE FOR COMPROMISE.  A PJ Tatler analysis of a New York Times online poll (the site may have been deactivated) suggests the electorate will accept some mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, but the major parties' bases will not.
The up-and-down axis is about spending: dots near the top of the chart represent people who want to cut spending, while those at the bottom don’t want to cut spending. The left-right axis represents tax revenue — those who clicked near the right edge of the screen want to raise revenue through higher taxes, and those on the left don’t (more on this later).

Thus the cluster of dots at the upper left corner represent hardcore libertarians and Tea Partiers — people who want a lot less spending and no new taxes. The cluster at the lower right are the socialists and welfare-staters — people who want more spending and more taxes to pay for it.

The tiny cluster at the lower left are the crazy people — people who want more spending, but don’t want to pay for it in any way. We can safely ignore them.

But as the chart instantly reveals, the vast majority of respondents are in the upper right — people who want less spending and more revenue. In other words, the mid-point between the two extremes: the Tea Party position of cutting runaway spending is now the mainstream position; but the liberal Democrat call for higher taxes is also now the mainstream position.

This is why no one can figure out who’s “winning” the debt battle. Both political factions have a monopoly on only one of the two favored positions, while their opponents lay claim to the other.
The harder project is working out the tax rate elasticity of labor supply, and a few other wonkish things  (go and read this or this, both as .pdf, if you dare).  The Democrats and their court intellectuals suggest that higher marginal tax rates mean more tax revenue for the government, while the Republicans and their court intellectuals suggest otherwise.
WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS.  This contraption from Renew DeKalb performed in Friday evening's Kishwaukee Fest parade.



It illustrates, better than any quip can, the folly of a steering committee.

29.7.11

CHASING TWO HARES, CATCHING NONE.  Book Review No. 23 is Kay Hymowitz's Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, which promised to be interesting, and developed from a prequel that sparked a lot of commentary,  turns out so unimpressive as to not provoke any pencilled scribblings on pages or flyleaves (yes, these reviews often rely on marginal notes). Take Surf City College, dating anarchy, a dash of second-wave feminism, and the evolution of new coming-of-age challenges in a labor market wherein the rewards to human capital appear to be high (although it would take the book too far afield to ask whether all those master's degrees in knowledge-economy industries and in government are truly evidence of increased demand for education or diminished expectations in high school) in an environment where people are old enough to breed at ten but incapable of supporting themselves, let alone a family, until 26 (when the parents' insurance no longer covers) or 30 (because the MBA programs want some entry-level experience first) and you have a lot of aimless, sexually frustrated men and overscheduled, perplexed women.  Or something.   But when an illustration of an upscale marriage that goes right (something rare in the world Ms Hymowitz appears to be studying) includes an observation that the union wasn't upscale enough to be covered by the New York Times ... whether such a book has anything to do with that part of the knowledge economy involved in retail and logistics (the store managers and truck drivers and train dispatchers and airplane technicians) or government services (first responders and teachers and family court workers) is left to the reader as an exercise.   There's a lot gone wrong in the country, and a lot that's changed, but a snapshot of a small slice of the population of young adults does not a definitive study make.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
TOO MUCH GOOD INFRASTRUCTURE.  One rationale for China's dedicated passenger lines is to free up capacity for freight trains in a country that moves most of its coal by truck, never mind the traffic jams, and the Mongolian Railroads considering a connection to the Russian network.

In the United States, with relatively little public subsidy, a coal railroad looks like this.



You're not looking at a Photoshop of The Pennsylvania Railroad's Allegheny crossing onto stock footage of the High Plains.  The Powder River Basin line is four main tracks in places, moving enough coal to give the environmental advocates fits.
This week [of March 2011], in the heart of one of the nation's best potential wind energy-producing regions, the Powder River Basin, the Obama administration handed away thousands of acres of federal land -- land owned by you and me -- to the coal industry.

Coal companies have been pushing to expand mining in the West, and they are no doubt uncorking champagne right now in celebration of this enormous gift. But for those of us who aren't coal executives, the giveaway comes at a high cost.
A Treehugger post lamenting the development of Western coal fields also shows that first-class rail infrastructure.  It's probably no consolation that one possible solution to the problem of transmitting electricity from the wind belt of the Empty Quarter to the power grids of the populated areas is to electrify the coal lines, thus reducing the railroads' use of diesel fuel to move the coal.  Everybody got that?
BEWARE OF TRAINS.  If it's a tie at the railroad crossing, you lose.  It doesn't matter whether you're tangling with Dead Freight at 35 mph or coal empties at 50 or a scoot at 70 or Traditional Passenger Rail at 110.
High-speed trains are on the fast track in Illinois, and state officials are expecting development of these swift new trains will create hundreds of new jobs.

But critics fear that allowing the 110 mph trains on the flat prairie rails of Illinois is just too dangerous, CBS2’s Mike Parker reports.
Have we lost so much of our collective intelligence that a return to the train speeds of The Abraham Lincoln and The Hiawatha and the Twin Zephyrs is a new menace to our health?   Complaining aside, the use of capital budgets to grade-separate the rails from the roads makes good sense.  Our old friends at Burma Shave had a public service announcement in those days.

HE SAW THE TRAIN
TRIED TO DUCK IT
KICKED FIRST THE GAS
AND THEN
THE BUCKET.
BURMA SHAVE
THE DEBT CEILING AS CREDIBLE COMMITMENT.  Donald Boudreaux likes the idea of concentrating Official Washington's mind.
An un-raised debt ceiling, therefore, will oblige Washington politicians to do what they’ve refused to do for generations: make tough choices instead of shifting the costs of today’s spending onto tomorrow’s taxpayers and continuing to spend wildly.

Of course, politicians could choose to default in order to keep more cash on hand in order to shovel subsidies to recipients who have often wheedled these pots of money through political pressure and influence. Such a move would indeed call Uncle Sam’s creditworthiness into question.

But if Washington pays all of its creditors and then — obliged by an un-raised debt ceiling — cuts spending, investors will know that the U.S. government is, for the first time in living memory, serious about keeping its fiscal affairs in good order.
Although the signalling value of a Congress respecting the government's budget constraint has some appeal, my experience with the State of Illinois delaying payments and commingling funds despite having several years to prepare for revenue shortfalls leaves me wary of any last-minute economy measures before the financial markets open next week.  That's despite any short-term gain my positions in government bonds might bring me.
KIDS RIDE FREE.  The Chicago Tribune covers an Amtrak Hiawatha promotion.
The offer is good Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 28.

Tested: I'm not seeing a big downside to a free train ride with the kiddies, especially if they're young and easily entertained. I found availability for free tickets on Saturday for an 8:25 a.m. departure from Chicago's Union Station and returning from Milwaukee's downtown station at 7:35 p.m. The adult ticket I found costs $46 round trip, which saves $46 in free round-trip tickets for two children (kid fares are usually half off).

Once there, you could hop a downtown trolley for $1 each (more train fun), check out the Harley-Davidson Museum or mosey along RiverWalk--all without breaking the bank.
There are three distinct river walks near downtown Milwaukee. The one called "Beer Line" is a rails-to-trails conversion, using the right of way of The Milwaukee Road's Chestnut Street Line, otherwise known, because it served Schlitz directly and the Blatz and Pabst loading docks, as the Beer Line.
THE BUBBLE BEGINS TO DEFLATE?  Rutgers University's splurge on big time sports is not paying off.
It seems as though we are finally beginning to see the big dollar college athletic model begin to crumble, as Rutgers surely will not be the last college to over-extend their athletic budget to the point where it puts serious cramps on the funding of academics.  Colleges nationwide must seriously consider the place of athletics within a university, as it has become clear that while schools still say its about academics, clearly the priorities are athletics if you follow the money.
It's not showing up at the gate, or in the ratings, but when Big Ten representatives lament the violations at "two storied programs" (Michigan and Ohio State) rather than talk about the conference's aspirations, perhaps someone in authority is listening.

28.7.11

WHY IT MATTERS.  Jason Fertig responds to yet another lament about uninterested and disengaged students.
Complaining about students is fun; yet with every speculation as to why millennials hate reading, solutions must be put forth if anything is to change. One of the first steps that helped me increase rigor is convincing myself that my students are academically motivated. Contrary to popular belief, many students do want to be challenged. If they have “to read more than they are used to” in order to pass a course, many of them will jump over that bar.

Pessimistically teaching to the lowest common denominator is a recipe for misery.
Exactly, and using first-generation-non-traditional-working-diverse as a mandate for diminished expectations is patronizing.
QUESTION OF THE DAY.  Geoffrey Norman of Vermont Tiger sees the outlines of the Fourth Turning.
The untutored and unsophisticated might wonder if the fingerprints of experts are not all over the corpse of what was once called “The Great Society.” Weren’t those government undertakings that are now so rapaciously devouring our wealth the creations of experts in the first place?
Go, read and understand.

GETTING THE HARDWARE AND THE SOFTWARE RIGHT.

It has long been a position of Cold Spring Shops that unsynchronized traffic lights waste fuel and illustrate the folly of technocratic solutions.  An Isthmus interview with Madison traffic engineer Brian Smith suggests the technocrats might be taking the easy way out.
There are centralized, computer-controlled, coordinated systems that are set up so lights "cascade" in sequence, occasionally allowing us to drive for several miles without encountering a single red light. (There's a system on Johnson Street that frustratingly uses this concept to prevent anyone from driving over 25 mph, but that's another story.)
That "frustratingly" highlights a tradeoff that will come to light subsequently. Timing traffic lights to reinforce the speed limit is on balance desirable.  What reader cannot identify a road along which the only way to make all the lights is to speed.  I remember getting angry on a stretch of a New Jersey highway that was posted 55, which I was obeying in my rental car, and getting held at each light, while the locals were maintaining 65 and making all of them.
There are systems in place, in a few cities abroad, where a computer senses circumstances on the ground and changes stoplight patterns and timing accordingly. That's the next step in traffic engineering. And the reason for all the gadgetry? It's not to mess you up. It has, well, a higher purpose.

"We want to minimize the number of stops and starts the vehicles have to do, which creates more pollution, more burning of gas and more crashes if cars are having to come to a stop when they're not expecting to," Smith says. "We try to set the lights to facilitate movements that we know will be coming."

Efficiency in a traffic system is unbelievably difficult to achieve. One car pulling to a stop at a detector loop somewhere on your trip to the mall can throw a wrench into your cascading green lights. Heavier traffic in one direction can mess up people going the other way. Pedestrians can push the walk light, offsetting any carefully constructed timeline engineers have programmed. A freight train passes through town. Accidents happen, or lightning strikes. Or Rhythm & Booms.
That detector loop problem is probably solvable. The loops are in use in DeKalb, and there are crossings where I wait for a very long time with no cross traffic coming for the detector to override the cycle.  Can it be that costly to concatenate the detector with the cascade so as to protect the sequencing?

Traffic engineers are public servants, and not all members of the public see things the same way.
Engineers adjust the timing of pedestrian lights to match the width of the road. They keep track of vehicle capacity, so when construction sends cars to a different road, they're ready for the increased flow. They figure out whether taking 10 seconds from a column of traffic's green light will wreck the commute of another column of traffic half a mile away. If a butterfly flaps its wings on Doty Street, the wind is felt on Old Sauk — or worse, on the other side of the Beltline, where in some parts of the city, intersections under the state's purview use a different kind of traffic signal controller. ("I've heard rumors they might switch to ours," Smith says.)

Engineers' carefully calibrated programs are sometimes scuttled by residents who want cars to stop at their lights even when intersections are empty — frustrating! — or by downtown business groups who want lights to favor pedestrians. If you enter the system from a side street in those areas, chances are you're going to hit the first signal and have to wait, even when there's nobody there, Smith says.

"There are times people call us yelling, using four-letter words and stuff, about how we should change it, but there's been some pressure by some neighborhood groups to have certain signals operate that way."
Perhaps those residents are bothered by speeding cars ... here lights timed to the speed limit will prove useful.  But giving pedestrians proper priority may be beyond any technocratic fix.
SUNK COSTS.  Bank of America decides that bulldozing foreclosed houses loses less money than attempting to sell them.
The biggest U.S. mortgage servicer will donate 100 foreclosed houses in the Cleveland area and in some cases contribute to their demolition in partnership with a local agency that manages blighted property. The bank has similar plans in Detroit and Chicago, with more cities to come, and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), Citigroup Inc. (C), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and Fannie Mae are conducting or considering their own programs.

Disposing of repossessed homes is one of the biggest headaches for lenders in the U.S., where 1,679,125 houses, or one in every 77, were in some stage of foreclosure as of June, according to research firm RealtyTrac Inc. of Irvine, California. The prospect of those properties flooding the market has depressed prices and driven off buyers concerned that housing values will keep dropping.

“There is way too much supply,” said Gus Frangos, president of the Cleveland-based Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp., which works with lenders, government officials and homeowners to salvage vacant homes. “The best thing we can do to stabilize the market is to get the garbage off.”
These are not recent McMansions in sport-ute dependent exurbs, and a little-known government program offers the bankers some relief from bearing the full costs.  But getting something is better than getting nothing.
“No one needs these homes, no one is going to buy them,” said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner at the Los Angeles office of Beacon Economics LLC, a forecasting firm. “Bank of America is not going to be able to cover its losses, so it might as well give them away and get a little write-off and some nice public relations.”
The article notes, on the other hand, that clearing out these foreclosed properties might free up bank resources to initiate additional foreclosures pending elsewhere.
WHY SOME PEOPLE QUESTION THE RESEARCH IMPERATIVE.  Via Laura at 11-D, the cultural-studies machine deconstructs Thomas the Tank Engine.
I'm overeducated and understimulated, with shelves full of long-ignored critical-theory books, trained in the reading of "texts" through Marxist, feminist, and postmodern perspectives. It's no wonder that the dormant critical theorist within me awakens when faced with the coded wonderland of children's programming. Hitchcock is well-covered territory, but Thomas and Friends presents a minefield of untapped deconstructing opportunities!

It may be a few years before I lay out the particularities of British imperialism to my son (I think 5 is probably about right for Kipling criticism), but it's still important to instill basic skepticism in your young media consumer. Otherwise, you face the very real possibility that your toddler, raised in an environment full of labor abuses and pro-toadying propaganda, might one day look at you and earnestly promise to be "very useful"—the show's highest compliment for an engine. In our home, Thomas and Friends must rule Brittania no more, and some ugly truths about unjust train society must be told.
It's Slate, and it might be partially tongue-in-cheek (although the story contains references to skirmishes elsewhere in the culture wars).  But it might be Thomas and Friends's E-T-T-S moment: the show has new producers, new animation, and new characters. (Spencer, the private toy of minor royalty, is a Gresley Streak, and I've seen passing references to a character called Melanie the Long Engine, supposedly based on a Hiawatha 4-4-2, although this engine has not yet been released.  Is that part of the patriarchal conspiracy?  Couldn't have the fastest and biggest engine on the Island of Sodor be a girl.)
THE VOICE OF REASON.  Nation TV and Democrat shill Lawrence O'Donnell has a civilized interview with longtime Setting National Priorities co-author Alice Rivlin.  Her message: fiscal policy during a recession or its aftermath ought to be different from fiscal policy during an expansion, and the current level of public borrowing by the national government is a "longer-run deficit problem" that requires slower growth in pensioners' entitlements in the future.

What intrigues about the interview is that Ms Rivlin does not explicitly condemn the Republican caucus for bringing those longer-run problems to the public's attention, and Mr O'Donnell doesn't engage in his usual blustering.   Perhaps he'll rethink his assertion that the Tea Party Caucus's tough stance on the debt ceiling and the (absence of a) budget is politics, rather than governing.  The budget ceiling is a recognition, admittedly honored more in the breach than in the observance, that G - TΔM + ΔB isn't just for the economics journals, and that financial markets can discount the value of a public debt even if that debt is issued under a valid ceiling approved by the two houses and autographed by the President.

A POTEMKIN UNIVERSITY.

Chicago State University, the perfect case study of what happens when retention for its own sake meets ward-heeler politics, stakes its claim as the paradigm of excess capacity in the subprime sector.
Chicago State University, which was at risk of losing its accreditation because of troubling enrollment and retention figures, intentionally let failing students stay on the rolls to boost its numbers, a Tribune investigation found.

Chicago State has a policy that students with a grade-point average below 1.8 will be dismissed "for poor scholarship," but records obtained by the newspaper show students were allowed to continue registering for classes with GPAs as low as 0.0.
University Diaries has been following the story, wherein the investigation has come to the deplore-but-do-nothing stage, that only after the Chicago Tribune started asking questions, and she's got the perfect summation.
Chicago State is what UD calls a Potemkin university. It exists almost entirely as a group of administrators collecting state and federal government money. As a kind of bonus, it ruins its students’ lives.
As a special bonus, it ruins the lives of the most vulnerable students, claiming to offer second chances to all the underserved populations supposedly most in need of special care.
NYEKULTURNY.  Silicon Valley is home to another real estate boom, according to a thesis nailed to Newmark's Door.

It should come as no surprise that the tackiest displays of New Money are in Los Altos Heights.
TRENCHANT OBSERVATION OF THE DAY.  Political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg understands division of labor.
Controlled by its faculty, the university is capable of producing new knowledge, new visions of politics, policy and society. The university can be a subversive institution in the best sense of that word, showing by its teaching and scholarship that new ways of thinking and acting are possible. Controlled by administrators, on the other hand, the university can never be more than what Stanley Aronowitz aptly termed a knowledge factory, offering some vocational training but never imparting to students the most important training of all-–the ability to think.
That observation comes at the end of a case that administrators use diversity as a wedge issue that plays to the faculty's liberalitas while reducing the faculty's role as custodian of institutional goals.  Left unmade are the cases that power accreting to administrators -- particularly serial administrators, careerists, and failed scholars -- in the service of strategic planning, potted educational theories, and slick marketing -- turns the product of the factory into something other than knowledge.
STATUS MARKERS OF THE LOWER ORDERS.  The trailer hitch scrotum is not yet illegal in Florida but it might be public indecency in the Cradle of Secession.
CRACK DOWN ON YOUR ZOO FRATERNITY.  A DeKalb government survey of Northern Illinois University students discovers a perception that the Greek Row area is not safe, that despite evidence of higher crime rates elsewhere in the city.

The report might be no big deal if headquarters were prepared to crack down on the backward ballcap set, but one of the reports of the oh-so-imaginatively named Vision 2020 working groups proposes to enhance the student experience by inter alia working with the Greek-letter organizations.
To that end, the group was charged with benchmarking the current outof-class student experience. After early discussions with committee members, five subgroups were identified to examine those experiences: (1) intercollegiate athletics, (2) career services, (3) on-campus living, (4) recreation services, (5) and student activities. (Though technology was initially considered to be a critical part of the working group’s goals, it was dropped due to the Facilities and Environment Working Group’s consideration of technology.)

Each of the five subgroups was specifically advised to work on inspirational and aspirational goals. The inspirational goals were those that could be accomplished by optimizing and utilizing human, fiscal, and intellectual resources at the current funding level. The aspirational goals were those that could be accomplished in the future through investments, resource allocations, and a change of priorities.
Leaving aside the problem that resources cannot be optimized, although resources can be optimally allocated given an objective function and a feasible set.  The point of the exercise appears to be to identify things that can be counted and compared so as to better be able to recruit against other institutions that are presumably counting and comparing the same things.
This subgroup benchmarked student involvement in fraternities and sororities, student government, and residence hall government. Additionally, the number of service and volunteer activities performed by students was benchmarked.

In terms of student and residence hall government, NIU appears to be a leader and the goal was to maintain the current involvement. However, the subgroup believed that increased student involvement in fraternities and sororities and volunteer/service opportunities would be beneficial to both the university and its students. In particular, the subgroup recommended the development of and use for a cross-institutional database/clearinghouse to track student involvement and engagement at NIU.
From this perspective, an unsafe Greek Row becomes a source of bad numbers that other institutions can point to.  Left unsaid is whether potential students are comparing the university and its perceived competitors on the basis of big-time sports and the social scene and service learning.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST.  The Chicago Tribune evaluates the roller coaster war between Six Flags Magic Mountain and Cedar Point.  The parks have comparable numbers of comparable coasters, which makes for an intriguing horse race.  The comparisons are unweighted, thus Cedar Point gets neither extra points for having a classic wooden out-and-backer, Blue Streak, nor for having the background of Lake Erie under clear northern skies rather than the High Desert under that warm Californian smog.

25.7.11

MANIFEST DESTINY AT ALL HAZARDS.  Tax attorney Charles Adams, an occasional columnist for the Rockwell Institute, weighs in on the Southern Rebellion with When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession.  Book Review No. 22 suggests that he's more interested in indicting President Lincoln and Gens Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman for war crimes than in weighing the evidence that something other than abolition compelled the Cotton South to leave the Union.  You'd think a specialist in taxation might be able to make a stronger case that Northern industrialists' reliance on protective tariffs clashed with the planters' preference for relatively free trade, the better to be able to swap cotton for European manufactured goods, and elaborate on the magnitude of the giant sucking sound when the states in rebellion nullified all Northern tariffs.  The book offers little beyond what's recited here (the reader need only understand that Fort Sumter was a revenue fort, not an early Strategic Defense Initiative, and that the sea blockade part of the Anaconda Plan was partially to enforce the customs office) before it gets into President Lincoln's abuses of power, the war crimes of the Union armies, and the consequences of occupation that go by the rubric of Reconstruction (where the author at least credits President Lincoln's "malice toward none" as something good), all of which are not unlike the Indian Wars and the Mexican War in execution and follow-up, and perhaps Canada's Confederation in 1867 might have been motivated by the presence of large standing armies to their south.

All of those topics are worthy of further research, and seven score and ten years on, it is (as Chou En-lai said of the French Revolution) too soon to tell what their historic import is.  It intrigues, though, to find right-libertarian writers having something nice to say about Charles Dickens and Karl Marx (whose analyses of the conflict focus on Washington's cash flow problems) and something critical about John Stuart Mill.  The tariff was probably neither a benefit to northern manufacturers (that doesn't stop people from claiming so to this day) nor a dependable source of federal revenues.  Relatively few Northerners might have been staunch abolitionists, and yet there are clear references to ending slavery in two of the most popular Northern marching songs, Battle Cry of Freedom and Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Mr Adams might deplore what the Klan and the Stars and Bars became in latter years, and yet the refusal of a Charleston centennial commission to seat an integrated Illinois delegation contributed to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

I might have bought the book for the logic, but I'll hang onto it for the pictures.  It's lavishly illustrated with period cartoons from Punch and other sources.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
AVERAGING ONE HORSE AND ONE RABBIT.  Charlotte Allen of Minding the Campus attempts to make sense of Texas's faculty productivity measures, already crunched rather imprecisely by Richard Vedder.  (Tellingly, Professor Vedder is seeking funding to crunch the somewhat more precise figures the state is now releasing more precisely).  The Minding the Campus column focuses on interpreting the numbers, but the market tests probably matter more.
According to UT-Austin’s own website, UT-Austin’s annual budget has increased nearly fivefold during the past 25 years, from $503 million in 1985 to $2.26 billion in 2010, far outstripping the effects of inflation. It has also become more tuition-dependent. In 1985 tuition and student fees ($27 million) accounted for only 5 percent of UT-Austin’s total revenues, but by 2010 that number had jumped to 24 percent, or $544 million. It is common to blame UT-Austin’s increased tuition-dependency on a stingy legislature that has gradually withdrawn state support — except that state allocations to support the Austin campus have actually increased by about 40 percent over the years, from $237 million in 1985 to $318 million in 2010 — and it may be unfair to ask Texas taxpayers to cover every new budget-boosting expense that the university chooses to incur.
That's the tension between private benefits and appropriable externalities at the heart of state funding for higher education: done properly, it equips graduates to live more productive lives and get richer, but that's a regressive transfer.  Read on, though, and contemplate the various market tests.
In Texas’s sprawling system of public universities and community colleges, only UT-Austin and Texas A&M possess the prestigious "R1" ("Research University 1") classification conferred by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (the Carnegie Foundation has recently revised its classification system, but the "R1" nomenclature persists). And both belong to the 111-year-old Association of American Universities (AAU), whose 60-odd members include the crème de la crème of elite, massively endowed private universities, such as Harvard and Stanford, and also such highly regarded, academically selective public institutions as the University of Michigan and the University of California-Berkeley. The AAU, whose criteria for membership include an emphasis on scholarly research and a large number of doctoral degrees awarded annually, operates as the unofficial keeper of R1 status, and it appears willing to eject members who no longer meet its standards, one of which is the attraction of a certain level of federal research dollars, which usually fund scientific projects. (Syracuse University voluntarily withdrew from the AAU in May in the face of certain ejection because its federal research funding had fallen off.)

Virtually all R1 universities afford tenured and tenure-track professors relatively light teaching loads — two classes per semester (one of which may be a small graduate seminar) is the norm to allow them ample time for scholarly pursuits. That means, however, that someone must pay those professors not to teach. The maintenance of R1 status (and AAU membership) is highly competitive. R1 status is roughly coterminous with the "Tier One" designation in the U.S. News annual ranking of national universities. A Tier One classification virtually guarantees an institution’s "selectivity’ (the ratio of number of acceptances to number of applicants), which in turn helps secure its Tier One ranking in the future.

Perhaps even more significantly, university administrators insist that offering a light teaching load of one or two classes per semester is a non-negotiable precondition for wooing accomplished scholars away from other prestigious universities that also offer light teaching loads. Many scholars with distinguished reputations in their fields are also skilled teachers who love to teach--but it is safe to say that most of them would rather not have to demonstrate their love by presiding over four packed undergraduate classrooms per semester as their colleagues at lower-ranked public universities often do. "We view ourselves as competing for the top talent, the top Ph.D.s that Harvard and Berkeley are also competing for," said Randy Diehl, dean of UT-Austin’s College of Liberal Arts, in a telephone interview. Diehl added that the top academic names also tend to attract the best students, who in turn become prominent scholars: "Nobel laureates, for example, tend to form chains. They produce faculty who are also Nobel laureates." Although the 2,500 or so tenured and tenure-track professors at UT-Austin are theoretically supposed to have "3-3" teaching loads (three classes per semester), the standard load at smaller colleges where research is not such a high priority, tenure-line professors who are "engaged in research" at UT-Austin — which effectively means nearly all of them — get a release from that third course, Diehl explained. A small number of faculty members at UT-Austin are designated as "research professors" and do no teaching at all, but their research is funded by outside grants, so they essentially pay for themselves.
Let me see if I understand this. Good students pay attention to the academic standing of the institutions they apply to.  Good students follow good professors.  Good professors can prepare the next cohort of researchers.  And good universities compete for good professors.

Sounds to me like a game any university could play, if it wanted to be good.
WHAT RAILROAD INFRASTRUCTURE LOOKS LIKE.  Chinese railroads build crumply bullet trains and disregard fundamental safety procedures.  The elevated sections those trains run on might be built out of tofu, as the railroad-building project may have exceeded the capability of the industrial base to provide high-strength concrete and reinforcing bar.

The Union Pacific might be hostile to passenger trains, but they know how to build infrastructure for freight trains.
Union Pacific in these parts impressed me even more than those farms and towns: Concrete ties on both main tracks, 50-mph crossovers on switches with movable-point frogs, track good for 70 (79 if it’s a business-car train). The railroad was busy this day, too. I met 10 westbound freights in the 30 miles between Missouri Valley and Denison, Iowa. Say what you will about Union Pacific, but it is not afraid to spend money on its infrastructure. And speaking of infrastructure. . .


Trains weblog photograph

That business car train can take the new bridge, at left, at 79 mph, and the bridge is probably capable of handling that train at 110, although Union Pacific prudently won't do that, if only to forestall some Iowa Member of Congress from asking for fast corridor service between Chicago and Omaha by way of Ames, Cedar Rapids, and DeKalb.
The Kate Shelley bridges, one of them 109 years old, the other two months new, soar into the sky above the Des Moines River about four miles west of Boone, Iowa. I’ll give you directions: In Boone, cross the UP tracks heading north on Marion Street, take your first left and stay on that road. You will cross the Des Moines on a long, one-lane wood-plank bridge that makes your heart stand still. Good luck.
Private investment. No transportation bill or stimulus money involved. The railroad recycled some spans from a redundant Milwaukee Road high bridge further south.
PAYING FOR HIGH SCHOOL TWICE?  An Inside Higher Ed column proposes Five Myths of Remedial Ed.  The heart of the remediation problem, however, is buried in the conclusion.
Remedial education is the 800-pound gorilla that stands squarely in the path of our national objective to increase the number of adults with a college degree. If we dispel these myths, the solutions become clear: get higher education to articulate what it means to be college-ready, implement those college-ready standards in high school, fund remedial education programs in ways that reward student success, and customize coursework to meet students’ needs. With a dynamic high school population and more than 42 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 earning below a livable wage and in need of basic skills support, these are myths our nation can no longer afford.
Call for a rewrite.  Let's take "implement those college-ready standards in high school" seriously.  Does it not follow that students who meet college-ready standards out of high school will require less, or no remediation?  The solution, then, is more likely to be an end to social promotion, in order that eleventh-grade classes aren't being conducted at a seventh-grade level.  Then consider that "42 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 earning below a livable wage and in need of basic skills support".  Sounds like a call to introduce the habits of the middle class into kindergarten and elementary school, the way things used to be.

24.7.11

FINDING HIS VOICE?  Playwright David Mamet discovered enough discrepancies between the commonplaces of the chattering classes to question his worldview, beginning with "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'" for the benefit of Village Voice readers and following up with The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture.  I can keep Book Review No. 21 short.  Everything a reader needs to understand is on the cover, under the subtitle.  "The struggle of the Left to rationalize its positions is an intolerable, Sisyphean burden.  I speak as a reformed Liberal."  Straightforward enough: a stimulus that doesn't stimulate and a failed war on poverty and a Third-World-ophilia that rationalizes Islamic anger and makes of Israel a monster has been the discovery of many a recovering leftist, perhaps most notably the so-called neoconservatives.

Writing is hard work, and Mr Mamet may have had his share of flops before he earned that Pulitzer for drama.  Political writing is a different kind of hard work, and Secret Knowledge has a lot of the markers of a beginning writer ... he's discovered the logic in Hayek and von Mises and Friedman, and the folly of uncritically celebrating the Third World, but his arguments (and too often there are jarring changes of focus therein) are more likely to reinforce the partially converted and the waverers than to strengthen the main line of libertarian and conservative argument, let alone to tellingly rebut the claims of the true believers in Franklin and Lyndon and the Croly Ghost.  On the other hand, if he can work his new-found politics into his plays in a subtle way ...

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)
THE SUBSTITUTION EFFECT OF TAX RATE CHANGES.  The wrangle over the federal debt ceiling (a useful bit of policy fiction, recognizing as it does that there are limits to a central government's ability to borrow, Last Best Hope of Mankind notwithstanding) that has turned into a wrangle over future commitments of the United States government (something that will have to be seen through, whether the current divided government seeks to do so or not) has brought out the usual suspects nostalgic for the tax codes of the Eisenhower era, in which the rich paid their fair share, or something.

Reason's Nick Gillespie has an instructive contribution to that wrangle, The Remarkably Stable Amount [c.q.] of Federal Revenue.



Mr Gillespie's policy conclusion: "Any budget plan based on revenue being better than 19 percent of GDP is just blowing smoke." He elaborates here.

Total revenues to governments of all levels are a greater share of national output in other industrial countries, which suggests two research puzzles.  First, within a country, what substitutions take place to produce stable revenue shares even as marginal tax rates change?  Second, what factors lead to different revenue shares in different countries?
THE INQUEST WILL BE INSTRUCTIVE.  A Chinese bullet train stopped, ostensibly because a lightning strike knocked out its power car, to be rammed by its follower.  News reports give 43 dead and 211 injured.
The first four cars of the moving train fell about 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) off the viaduct onto the ground below. One carriage ended up in a vertical position, leaning against the viaduct.

The Ministry of Railways said in a statement that the first four cars of the moving train and the last two of the stalled train derailed.
The circumstances suggest an episode of routine kills, with the follower accustomed to seeing approach signals clearing up as his train nears the signal, which works well as long as the leading train maintains track speed.  The Communist propensity to purge, however, waits for no report from the division superintendent.
Three railway officials were fired after the crash and would be subject to investigation, Xinhua quoted the ministry as saying. They were identified as Long Jing, head of the Shanghai Railway Bureau; Li Jia, head of the Shanghai railway bureau's committee of the Communist Party of China; and deputy chief of the bureau, He Shengli.
The track record of these bullet trains does not suggest the discipline of The Milwaukee Road, or The Pennsylvania Railroad.
It was the first derailment on China's high-speed rail network since the country launched bullet trains with a top speed of 155 miles (250 kilometers) per hour in 2007, the China Daily reported.

It is an embarrassment for China, which plans to massively expand its bullet train network to link its far-flung regions and show off its rising wealth and technological prowess. It is also trying to sell its trains to Latin America and the Middle East.

Last month, it launched to great fanfare the Beijing-to-Shanghai high-speed line, where trains travel at a maximum speed of 186 miles (300 kilometers) per hour. The speed was cut from the originally planned 217 mph (350 kph) after questions were raised about safety.

In less than four weeks of operation, power outages and other malfunctions have plagued the showcase 820-mile (1,318-kilometer) line. The Railways Ministry has apologized for the problems and said that summer thunderstorms and winds were the cause in some cases.

The second train involved in the crash came from Beijing and both trains were destined for Fuzhou in eastern Fujian province. Wang, who only gave his surname, as is common with Chinese officials, said it was unclear how long the first train had sat on the track before being struck. State broadcaster CCTV said there were more than 900 passengers on the train that stalled, and more than 500 passengers on the train that hit it.
There's something amiss in the dispatching and signalling, if rear-end collisions occur and nobody knows how long the train in advance has been stopped.

SECOND SECTION.  Rules written in blood.
An executive at one of the biggest foreign suppliers of high-speed train technology to China said it is unusual, though not unprecedented, for lightning to halt high-speed trains.

He also said the accident suggested a serious deficiency in the rail network's "automatic train stop" or ATS system, a critical backup measure that is supposed to halt trains under certain situations such as when a rail line is obstructed.

"Obviously, ATS was not functioning properly," said the executive. "It makes me not want to ride high-speed trains in China—not until they get to the bottom of what happened in Wenzhou," he said.
Automatic train stop is an early twentieth-century technology, it can be as simple as a mechanical trip that activates a brake valve under the car (look closely at the pilot of a North Shore or Roarin' Elgin car on your next visit to a trolley museum) or it can reduce the train speed if the engineer doesn't do so on his own (worked well enough for The Milwaukee Road when the Hiawathas were the fastest thing on rails) or it can allow the engineer to acknowledge the restrictive aspect without actually reducing speed, which might be the routine thing to do if one's train routinely follows another train yellow for yellow ... safely until the train in advance makes an unexpected stop.
GOVERNMENT IS FORCE.  Equal protection under the law means Jamba Juice and the neighborhood lemonade stand are equally subject to licensing and safety regulation.
 All you folks who constantly want more rules, more laws, more government intrusion in our lives are the first say, "Awwww, that's not right!" when the police actually try to enforce the law. In fact, the reporter actually says, "So the law wins..." Um...that's what the law DOES, ma'am. The political law of the U.S. is a set of arbitrary, intrusive rules backed by overwhelming, irresistible physical force. It is the unavoidable implication of the corrupt bargain made by those who think the alternative to coercive law is the Hobbesian state of nature. Letting people make their own choices is just not an option to you folks. So enjoy your police state, and STFU.

Look, as I have written before, Chief Morningstar is right: she can't just suspend the law. The thing, the thing itself is the abuse. People who try, like this goofball, to blame the police are just mistaken. Police do not have, and should not have, discretion. It's a violation of equal protection, and in fact a violation of the very idea of rule of law, for the police to say "The law applies to you, but not to you over there."

Then what IS the solution? Get rid of about 3/4 of the stupid rules on the books. These licenses, fees, and paperwork are an important cause of extended unemployment problems.
The comment section is also worth your attention.
PAROVOZY V MOSKVE.  The 21st century tonnage record for a steam-powered freight train is back in the United States.


Moscow, Iowa, 20 July 2011
Trains Magazine photo by Jim Wrinn

Chinese-built locomotives, derived from the Soviet FD (as in Felix Dzherzhinsky) series of mudsuckers, and from the looks of the consist, either cornstarch cars, or perhaps (note the idler car) a load of ethanol on the head pin.
Iowa Interstate, which bought two Chinese built 2-10-2s in 2006 and previously set a world record for steam-hauled freight tonnage in the 21st century, broke its own record yesterday. The pair of engines hauled 55 loads weighing 7,078 tons from Iowa City, Iowa, to Rock Island. 
Powder River coal trains, which scale out at over 10,000 tons, tend to be in the capable hands of multiple diesels. Thus far, Union Pacific, which has entrusted the circus train and a stack train to its Challenger 3985, has not booked steam on a coal train.
COLLEGE IS SUPPOSED TO BE WORK.  Daily Cardinal columnist Heather Heggemeir (cached) tells the truth in the orientation issue.
For the vast majority of UW students, academic success is why we're here. The actual number varies for each person, but the recommendation I've heard most often is 4 hours of study outside of class for every hours in class. They are not kidding. You actually have to study here, ask anyone. Filling your time with extracurricular activities will prevent you from succeeding in your classes, and that's why you're here.
That's student writing for student, and that's a stiffer work norm than the faculty (with a ratio of two or three to one) recommends.  Thus it matters that an entering class has more than a few high achievers in it.
OUCH.  Peggy Noonan was once an Obama Republican.  She's having second thoughts.
 It is time for the president to get out of the way.

For the longest time he wouldn't engage, and now he's engaged. For the longest time he didn't care about spending, and now he cares about spending. Good, both in terms of policy and for him. But his decision to become engaged has become a decision to dominate, to have his face in front of the television cameras with his news conferences, pronouncements, and what his communications people are probably calling his "ownership" of any final agreement. He's trying to come across as the boss, the indispensable man, the leader. And, of course, the reasonable one.

That's all very nice and part of Political Positioning 101, but at this point it's not helping. He's becoming box-office poison. His numbers are falling.
Perhaps she is coming to understand, which might be painful for a one-time presidential speechwriter, that the President of the United States is less effective than his devotees or his enemies claim, and that electing a particular individual or enacting a particular set of policies is unlikely to make things better.  (This morning, the Talking Heads on Meet the Press were all about Washington is Broken and People Should Go Into Government to Solve Problems.  As if.  Problem Solving begins when a Sunday talk show deliberately chooses something other than the Capitol Dome as its background.)  Back to Ms Noonan on Our President.
In two and a half years he has reached the point that took George W. Bush five years to reach: People aren't listening anymore.
Her conclusion, while accurate from a descriptive perspective, is wrong from a policy perspective, at least as currently understood.
For now, for his sake and the sake of an ultimate plan, he should choose Strategic Silence. Really, recent presidents forget to shut up. They lose sight of how grating they are.
To practice strategic silence, or to shut up, is contrary to the dynamic of Becoming President.  Nobody runs for Commander in Chief and Protector of the Constitution anymore, it's all about Leader of the Free World and Healer of the Planet, and One Stroke of the Pen delivers Earthly Paradise.  No wonder people get disillusioned.

20.7.11

PENNY-WISE, POUND-FOOLISH.  The Wisconsin legislature appropriates money for upgrades to the Hiawatha service.
Wisconsin taxpayers could wind up paying more to keep existing passenger train service from Milwaukee to Chicago than they would have paid to run new high-speed rail service from Milwaukee to Madison, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis of state figures.

The Legislature's budget committee voted 12-2 Tuesday to spend $31.6 million in mostly borrowed state money on Amtrak's Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha line, costs that could have been paid largely by an $810 million federal grant that would have extended the Hiawatha to Madison.

But Tuesday's vote doesn't cover all the spending that will be needed to keep running the Hiawatha, a growing service that carried nearly 800,000 passengers last year.

State transportation officials have estimated they would need millions more for locomotives, signals and a new maintenance base, even without expanding service beyond the current seven daily round trips.

And, like the spending approved Tuesday, all or most of those new costs would have been covered by the federal grant spurned by Gov. Scott Walker last year. That's because the Milwaukee-to-Madison service would have operated as an extension of the Hiawatha, as part of a larger plan to connect Chicago to the Twin Cities and other Midwestern destinations with fast, frequent trains.

Taken together, state taxpayers' share of the Hiawatha capital costs that would have been covered by the federal grant could total as much as $99 million, significantly more than the $30 million they would have paid for 20 years of operating costs on the Milwaukee-to-Madison segment, as estimated by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration.

Walker had cited those operating costs as his main reason for opposing the 110-mph extension. Federal money would have paid all of its capital costs. And that doesn't count the other potential benefits that high-speed rail supporters have cited from the Milwaukee-to-Madison line, such as jobs, economic development, expanded tax base and improved freight rail tracks.

Conversely, high-speed rail opponents contend the Milwaukee-to-Madison extension could have cost taxpayers more than budgeted, even though the $810 million grant included a cushion of more than $150 million to cover inflation and unexpected cost overruns. They have questioned estimates on ridership, revenue and operating costs, as well as projections for economic development and job creation.

That debate played out Tuesday in the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, as Democrats backed the passenger rail measure but said it showed that the Republican governor's decision to cancel the high-speed rail line had cost the state thousands of construction jobs, lower service levels and - in the short term, at least - money. They pointed to an estimate from the Legislature's nonpartisan budget office that found that the federal funds would have covered at least $22.4 million of the additional costs approved by the panel Tuesday.
The legislature is on the hook for more money for a number of reasons, some political, some self-inflicted. In anticipation of the stimulus money for the Madison extension, the state department of transportation previously committed money for four fixed-formation Talgo trains that will replace the existing variable-formation Horizon and Amfleet consists on the line.  The maintenance base and train upkeep will therefore be for orphan trains, the nearest copies of which are in the Pacific Northwest.  Those trains are still under construction, although there are cost overruns and logistical difficulties.
Train cars: Under Doyle, the state borrowed $47.5 million for its no-bid contract with Spanish train manufacturer Talgo Inc. to build two 14-car train sets to replace aging Amtrak-owned passenger cars on the Hiawatha line. Spare parts and design changes - such as adding wireless Internet service for passengers and improving sight lines for the crew - could boost the cost by $3.6 million, plus another $6.9 million to pay a British consulting company to oversee manufacturing.

After using $800,000 from lower-than-expected fuel costs, the committee agreed to borrow the remaining $9.7 million. Doyle's former transportation secretary, Frank Busalacchi, has said the $810 million federal grant would have covered those costs. Current state and federal transportation officials disagree with Busalacchi, although the Legislative Fiscal Bureau found the federal aid might have covered some of the consulting contract with British-owned Interfleet Technology Inc.

Maintenance bases: The state's contract with Talgo requires it to provide a maintenance base for the company to service the trains it builds. State officials have already spent $3.2 million to retrofit Talgo's plant in the Century City complex as a temporary maintenance base, and equipping that base will cost another $8.5 million. All sides agree the federal grant would have paid that $11.7 million, which the panel agreed to borrow.

But the north side plant, formerly home to Tower Automotive, can only be used as a maintenance base for three years, because of restrictions imposed by the freight railroad that owns the tracks connecting it to the downtown Amtrak-Greyhound station, the fiscal bureau said. Earlier this year, state officials asked the federal government to cover $48.1 million of the $60.1 million cost of turning the Talgo plant into a permanent base, plus $27.6 million for track upgrades.

With that request rejected, state officials now seek to build a permanent base closer to the station, Newson said. He said the new base would cost "much less than $60 million" but declined to predict a new price range.
It's probably asking too much to propose a maintenance base at Oconomowoc or Brookfield, where the trains could load passengers for Glenview and Chicago with a minimum of deadheading. Some faster running times west of Milwaukee and through Milwaukee would be required, though, otherwise Waukesha County residents have a shorter travel time driving to the airport station.

It's probably asking too much to make transportation funding decisions on the basis of benefits and costs rather than out of political pique.
There's plenty of blame to go around for the fact that Wisconsin taxpayers - and not the feds - will be paying $31.6 million on the Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha rail line. But in the end, it's the political games played by both sides that are to blame - games that should take a back seat when it comes to such issues.

Gov. Scott Walker started this mess when he unwisely shot down a federal grant for passenger rail service from Milwaukee to Madison that also would have covered a hefty chunk of the money for the Hiawatha work.

In fact, a Journal Sentinel analysis found that Wisconsin taxpayers could end up paying more to keep existing passenger train service from Milwaukee to Chicago than they would have paid to run new high-speed rail service from Milwaukee to Madison.

Turning down the grant was a big mistake - the funding could have paid for upgrading fast rail from Chicago to Madison as part of a Midwest rail network to keep the region more economically competitive with other parts of the country - and could have brought more jobs to Wisconsin.

On its face, rail transportation is not a conservative or liberal issue. Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, for example, was a huge rail backer. It's an issue that should be decided by objective factors involving need, cost and technology.
Objective factors? That takes all the fun out of it.