Thursday, April 30, 2009

The hawks of Israel want a war with Iran ....

First the bad news was that Netanyahu became the prime minister. Even before the elections, back in September, I was rooting for Tzipi Livni, who I thought would then become the world's second most powerful woman. Alas, that never came to pass, and now we have to deal with an ultra-hawk.
Obama will have a tougher time with Netanyahu than with most Arab leaders. Israel is at some serious crossroads.

Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from a commentary in Haaretz (note that the commentary is written from the future, from November 2012):
Obama had no chance in the snows of Iowa in 2012. So with Oprah Winfrey wiping a tear at his side, the most promising president ever announced he would not run for a second term.

What went wrong? Where did Obama go astray? In retrospect, the answer is clear and simple. In the summer of 2009, the president had to make the most courageous decision of his life: to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Granted, opting for confrontation would have been incompatible with the DNA of the liberal Democrat from Chicago. Ironically, however, only such a decision could have saved his legacy and advanced the noble values he believed in. Only that decision could have led to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. If Obama had decided three years ago to impose a political-economic siege on Tehran, he would have changed the course of history. The Roosevelt of the 21st century would have prevented regional chaos, a worldwide nuclear arms race and an American decline.
The war chant in Israel seems to be getting louder and louder. This is simply nuts! Imagine if Amedinajad gets re-elected. He will get bolder. Netanyahu then aims all his ammo at Tehran and the nuke-specific locations. Hezbollah starts lobbing whatever it can at Israel. Israel then blinks.

I suppose there is no point worrying about the swine flu virus now!

Want a real nightmare? Imagine if John "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" McCain had been elected prez ...... aaaaahhhhh!

Collegiality and work in higher education

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Das war schön!

This entire month I have been following the NYRB's poem of the day, in celebration of the National Poetry Month--in April, which is ironical when viewed against TS Eliot's "April is the cruelest month" :-)

I liked the poem that NYRB has for today:

K. 453

By Karl Kirchwey

On May 27, 1784,
as he followed Vienna's back streets home,
Mozart paused, startled, by a pet shop door
and listened to the allegretto theme

from his own piano concerto in G-Major
repeated by a starling in a cage.
He'd written it only five weeks before—
had God given them both the same message?

He counted out thirty-four copper Kreutzer.
Pleasure was like the iridescent sheen
in the dark plumage: an imagination livelier,
perhaps, more fecund and ready than his own!

He entered this in his new quarto accounts ledger,
but where the price should go, he wrote the tune
instead—transcribed it a second time, rather—
and then, in his small hand, wrote Das war schön.

Economy DID NOT shrink by 6.1%

I was getting rather ticked off with media reports that the US economy shrank by 6.1 percent.
The 6.1 number is correct--but that is an annualized rate. It is a good thing I came across David Leonhardt's blog post, which means I don't have to re-create a post, but can copy/paste from his:
the official numbers describe the annualized rate of decline. The economy didn’t actually shrink 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter, despite what the government reported. It shrank at a rate that, were it to continue for a full year, would cause the economy to be 6.1 percent smaller at the end of that year.
Leonhardt does point out why this economic contraction is worrisome:

Here are the worst six-month declines in economic activity since 1947:

3rd quarter, 1957 - 1st quarter, 1958: -3.7 percent
3rd quarter, 2008 - 1st quarter, 2009: -3.2 percent
3rd quarter, 1981 - 1st quarter, 1982: -2.9 percent
1st quarter, 1980 - 3rd quarter, 1980: -2.2 percent
2nd quarter, 1953 - 4th quarter, 1953: -2.2 percent
The irony? Despite this news, and all the hoopla over the swine flu pandemic, the stock market was up.

According to Bloomberg:
“Most people are saying we could bottom out in the second half of the year, maybe in the third quarter, and then see positive growth again,” Christina Romer, the White House’s chief economist, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “We’re certainly looking for some positive news towards the end of the year.”
The Economist notes on the other news item about a rise in consumer confidence:
confidence is a fragile thing and can be undermined by random events (such as swine flu). It is also worth remembering that consumers have had two tremendous boosts to their pocket books in the form of lower oil prices and lower mortgage rates. Even those aids to sentiment have only lifted the confidence index by 14 points compared with the 86 point decline it previously suffered (according to Capital Economics).

I would like to see consumer confidence survive the test of some really bad news (like a major corporate bankruptcy) before I was confident that the bottom had been reached. After all, from here, rates can't be cut any further, wages won't go up much, unemployment has further to rise and taxes will eventually have to go up. Not the sort of environment to make most people rush out and buy a flat sceen TV.

Corruption, and the government NOT at work :-)

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

Some science writers are just awesome when it comes to explaining a fine science point to a lay audience like me. First, consider this sentence; isn't this a wonderful piece of writing?
It takes a special type of psychological scientist to tell the little old lady sitting next to him on a flight to Denver that he studies how people use their penises when she asks what he does for a living.
That sentence came from this essay on "secrets of the phallus" in the Scientific American.
according to evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany, the human penis is actually an impressive “tool” in the truest sense of the word, one manufactured by nature over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. You may be surprised to discover just how highly specialized a tool it is. Furthermore, you’d be amazed at what its appearance can tell us about the nature of our sexuality.
It is fascinating that some of the minor anatomical detail about something I see and use everyday was a result of the system adapting to various situations, and then evolving to the tool that it now is. Apparently, "in the case of the human penis, it appears there’s a genuine adaptive reason that it looks the way it does."

In addition to the human penis outsizing that of any other primate,
It turns out that one of the most significant features of the human penis isn’t so much the glans per se, but rather the coronal ridge it forms underneath. The diameter of the glans where it meets the shaft is wider than the shaft itself. This results in the coronal ridge that runs around the circumference of the shaft—something Gallup, by using the logic of reverse-engineering, believed might be an important evolutionary clue to the origins of the strange sight of the human penis.
So, what is the reverse-engineered evolutionary psychological explanation for this? Hey, don't be lazy; read the essay yourself :-)

The Democratic Supermajority

With Arlen Specter switching sides from the GOP to the Dems, and with Al Franken sure to be seated as Minnesota's junior senator, the Dems will have that magical 60.
One hell of a majority in the Congress, and with the President's approval rating at 68 percent, we have a possibility for real reform in the balance between market and state. Let us see how Obama, Reid, and Pelosi play the game. How the GOP plays is quite irrelevant--it is the Dems' game to lose.

It is interesting that even in this country politicians switch parties when it is convenient for their political future. In India, of course, it is quite common. These are referred to as "aya ram, gaya ram"
The Senate has a listing, and lots of details, of senators who switched parties while holding the elected position.

Torture timeline

Foreign Policy has a chronological listing, with all kinds of hyperlinks, starting from September 11, 2001.

Monday, April 27, 2009

From the President's speech: April 28, 2003

I thought it might be interesting to visit the White House archives web site, and scan through President Bush's speeches from six years ago--after the Iraqi invasion. I hope to do this often. Why? Simple: we should never have gone to Iraq.

Today's excerpt is from April 28, 2003:
Remarks by the President on Operation Iraqi Freedom
Ford Community and Performing Arts Center
Dearborn, Michigan

.... Already, we are seeing important progress in Iraq. It wasn't all that long ago that the statue fell, and now we're seeing progress. (Applause.)

Rail lines are reopening, and fire stations are responding to calls. Oil -- Iraqi oil, owned by the Iraqi people -- is flowing again to fuel Iraq's power plants. In Hillah, more than 80 percent of the city has now running water. City residents can buy meats and grains and fruits and vegetables at local shops. The mayor's office, the city council have been reestablished.

In Basra, where more than half of the water treatment facilities were not working before the conflict -- more than half weren't functioning -- water supplies are now reaching 90 percent of the city. The opulent presidential palace in Basra will now serve a new and noble purpose. We've established a water purification unit there, to make hundreds of thousands of liters of clean water available to the residents of the city of Basra. (Applause.)

Day by day, hour by hour, life in Iraq is getting better for the citizens. (Applause.) Yet, much work remains to be done. I have directed Jay Garner and his team to help Iraq achieve specific long-term goals. And they're doing a superb job. Congress recently allocated $2.5 -- nearly $2.5 billion for Iraq's relief and reconstruction. With that money, we are renewing Iraq with the help of experts from inside our government, from private industry, from the international community and, most importantly, from within Iraq. (Applause.)

Does this even need any editorial comment from me?

Iceland. Bankers. Photos. Urinals.

Yes, that is the plot outline. (click here if you want some background on Iceland's problems). And, the result? (thanks to Krugman's blog for this link; looks like he had way too much fun with the title of his post!!!)

Photographs of bankers who left Iceland after the financial crisis have a new use in the restroom of a bar in Reykjavik, the capital.

Republicans. Public interest. Volcanoes and pandemics.

Outsourced to Paul Krugman:

So Bobby Jindal makes fun of “volcano monitoring”, and soon afterwards Mt. Redoubt erupts. Susan Collins makes sure that funds for pandemic protection are stripped from the stimulus bill, and the swine quickly attack.

What else did the right oppose recently? I just want enough information to take cover.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Watch out for "False dawn".... "green shoots" not to celebrate

It is one thing to talk up the economy in order to build up consumer and producer confidence. It is another to start celebrating the end of the Great Recession.

Krugman wrote about it. And so did a couple of others; I blogged about it a week-plus ago.

The Economist expands on this warning, and provides an assessment that is less rah-rah, and more pragmatic:
The worst is over only in the narrowest sense that the pace of global decline has peaked. Thanks to massive—and unsustainable—fiscal and monetary transfusions, output will eventually stabilise. But in many ways, darker days lie ahead. Despite the scale of the slump, no conventional recovery is in sight. Growth, when it comes, will be too feeble to stop unemployment rising and idle capacity swelling. And for years most of the world’s economies will depend on their governments.

Consider what that means. Much of the rich world will see jobless rates that reach double-digits, and then stay there. Deflation—a devastating disease in debt-laden economies—could set in as record economic slack pushes down prices and wages, particularly since headline inflation has already plunged thanks to sinking fuel costs. Public debt will soar because of weak growth, prolonged stimulus spending and the growing costs of cleaning up the financial mess. The OECD’s member countries began the crisis with debt stocks, on average, at 75% of GDP; by 2010 they will reach 100%. One analysis suggests persistent weakness could push the biggest economies’ debt ratios to 140% by 2014. Continuing joblessness, years of weak investment and higher public-debt burdens, in turn, will dent economies’ underlying potential. Although there is no sign that the world economy will return to its trend rate of growth any time soon, it is already clear that this speed limit will be lower than before the crisis hit.

Google's multinational work force

Tomorrow, my intro class will turn in their papers on immigration, in response to an essay titled "The international mobility of talent." Next academic year, I think I should include in the readings this report from the NY Times; here is an excerpt:

Immigrants like Mr. Mavinkurve are the lifeblood of Google and Silicon Valley, where half the engineers were born overseas, up from 10 percent in 1970. Google and other big companies say the Chinese, Indian, Russian and other immigrant technologists have transformed the industry, creating wealth and jobs.

Just over half the companies founded in Silicon Valley from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s had founders born abroad, according to Vivek Wadhwa, an immigration scholar working at Duke and Harvard.

The foreign-born elite dating back even further includes Andrew S. Grove of Hungary, who helped found Intel; Jerry Yang, the Taiwanese-born co-founder of Yahoo; Vinod Khosla of India and Andreas von Bechtolsheim of Germany, the co-founders of Sun Microsystems; and Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin.

But technology executives say that byzantine and increasingly restrictive visa and immigration rules have imperiled their ability to hire more of the world’s best engineers.
Click here for a slideshow

Facebook and world's leaders

Very funny; check it out

Nature re-models the landscape

Remember the nasty tsunami as a result of the Indonesian earthquake back in December 2004?
The Hindu has this photo-report

A beach, post-tsunami
— Photo: Vipin Chandran

POSITIVE FALLOUT: A beach that has formed at Puthype in Vypeen near Kochi after the December 2004 tsunami. Prior to the tsunami this area was under water.

Of course, a similar thing happened at Mahabalipuram too

Saturday, April 25, 2009

One less Golden Girl :-(

Bea Arthur, star of 'Golden Girls' and 'Maude,' dies at 86

"Thank you for being a friend ...."

Understanding the Great Recession

A special session at the annual meeting of the AAG was devoted to Paul Krugman's Nobel, and what that meant for economic geography. There one of the panelists recalled his encounter with Krugman years ago. The panelist finished his talk at a seminar when he was a visiting professor somewhere in Europe (I forget the name exact location.) It turned out that Krugman was also there at the same time. When it opened up for Q/A, apparently Krugman mocked that the research that the panelist presented was nothing but simple anecdotes for the edification of undergraduates.
That reminded me of the time when I was in graduate school--I came across an essay where the economist Robert Solow had written a damning critique of my adviser's essay. True to my nature, I brought this up with my adviser, who said something like, "oh, where he knocked me on my head?"

I suppose it is rare for a super-genious to be gracious to others. Many others, like Larry Summers, are also notorious for such behaviors. But then, hey, it takes all types of people to make up this planet :-)

In the NYRB, Solow has a critique of Richard Posner's latest book, A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression. An interesting review for many reasons. In wrapping up the essay, Solow writes:
The problem is rather that Panglossian ideas about "free markets" encouraged, on one hand, lax regulation, or no regulation, of a potentially unstable financial apparatus and, on the other, the elaboration of compensation mechanisms that positively encouraged risk-taking and short-term opportunism. When the environment was right, as it eventually would be, the disaster hit.
Like I am going to disagree with Solow and get knocked on my head! :-) Seriously, there is nothing to disagree here. In reaching this ending, Solow has lots of wonderful explanations for the crisis, and dissects Posner for sloppiness. It was interesting to note how Solow threaded in Posner's book on Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.
In his book on public intellectuals, Posner blames the decline of the species on the universities and their encouragement of specialization. I may be acting out that conflict. Remember that even hairsplitting is not so bad if what is inside the hair turns out to be important.
Ouch! That is the Solow knock on Posner's bald head! Oh, the sentence just before that quote? "his grasp of economic ideas is precarious" . Hilllaaarious .... :-)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Run! Now! Pak says nukes are safe!!!

It is way past time to worry when the prime minister has to go around trying to convince everybody that the nukes are safe! The good thing for us in America: we are far away from the chaos. The bad news: that is what we used to think until September 11, 2001!
The following excerpt is from The Hindu
Nuclear weapons in safe hands: Gilani
General Kayani vows to defeat terrorism at all costs
— Photo: AP

Tactical retreat?: Taliban members leaving Buner on Friday.

Islamabad: Pakistan Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani on Friday addressed growing international concerns on the Taliban’s advance towards Islamabad, saying the country’s defence is in “safe hands” and its nuclear programme completely secure.

“If anyone casts an evil eye on Pakistan, it will be over our dead bodies,” said Mr. Gilani while participating in a debate in the National Assembly or Lower House of Parliament.

I am not sure whether Gilani understands that the Taliban and al Qaeda does not care about the "dead bodies" :-(

Obama and the "Establishment"

Reihan Salam maybe on to something here:
The Establishment—the academic and policy elite, Wall Street, famous sexy people—are more invested in Obama than they’ve been in any president in decades. If Obama fails, a whole system will go down with him.
It seems quite an irony that the "Establishment" depends on this administration to succeed in its ventures. Which is also the reason the anti-Establishment left is trying hard to contain its disappointment with Obama (like this one).

Salam has forgotten to include the military in his list. Obama's Iraq policies, and the escalation in AfPak, are definitely way more in sync with the "Establishment" than otherwise.
The academics .... well, we are a bunch of people with highly inflated opinions of our importance in society!

Salam notes that:
You might say that President Obama has the distinct misfortune of having taken office a few years too early.

When FDR took office in 1933, the economy had already been in a spiral of decline for years, and his first term saw a fairly dramatic fall in the unemployment rate. There’s no doubt that Roosevelt’s New Deal policies helped generate jobs, yet it’s not clear that his policies would have worked as well right after the Crash. And Obama isn’t taking office in 1933. Rather, he’s taking office in 1929, right after another massive financial collapse. Chances are that the sharp increase in unemployment has just begun.

In January, when Obama took office, the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent and it has increased in the two months since. Few observers doubt that the unemployment rate will soon reach double digits, and there’s reason to believe that it won’t stop there.
Here, I think I have very little to disagree with Salam.

The carbon economies

I rarely walk around with ideological lenses. One result is, I suppose, most faculty colleagues who are way more ideological than me prefer not to interact with me. I am the "infidel" to them. To quite an extent that at least one faculty colleague openly asked me what I think most others think within: whether I am a Republican.

I thank Camille Paglia for helping me out; well, not personally, but through one of her essays. I liked the phrase "libertarian Democrat" that she uses to describe her political leanings. Which is what I am. Paglia, of course, ticks off people, even within the same Democratic fold, when she does not adopt an ideological framework and instead talks as an honest intellectual, and an honest individual.

Life can get difficult for a "libertarian Democrat" in a world of ultra-left Democrats. And more so when every once in a while I include ideas from Cato, or the Manhattan Institute. But, of course, "they" conveniently forget that I gather ideas from The Nation, too. And for the most part, I am straddling somewhere in the middle--the Brookings Institution, for instance, is one of my favorite policy research source.

A specific example to illustrate these dynamics? Take the case of the global use of carbon. The rare occasions I am asked for my opinion, I think I might tick some off with my concerns that the billions in India and China do not have inexpensive options that can replace the use of coal. And that we can, therefore, expect them to increase coal consumption even as we change light bulbs here in the US. And, given the sheer number of poor people there, merely forcing a carbon limit on those countries might be equivalent to trying to keep them poor. A new form of imperialism cloaked by a honorable idea of environmental concerns. Yes, it does not win me friends!

So, imagine if I were to distribute the following excerpt from an essay in the City Journal:

The oil-coal economics come down to this. Per unit of energy delivered, coal costs about one-fifth as much as oil—but contains one-third more carbon. High carbon taxes (or tradable permits, or any other economic equivalent) sharply narrow the price gap between oil and the one fuel that can displace it worldwide, here and now. The oil nasties will celebrate the green war on carbon as enthusiastically as the coal industry celebrated the green war on uranium 30 years ago.

The other 5 billion are too poor to deny these economic realities. For them, the price to beat is 3-cent coal-fired electricity. China and India won’t trade 3-cent coal for 15-cent wind or 30-cent solar. As for us, if we embrace those economically frivolous alternatives on our own, we will certainly end up doing more harm than good.

By pouring money into anything-but-carbon fuels, we will lower demand for carbon, making it even cheaper for the rest of the world to buy and burn. The rest will use cheaper energy to accelerate their own economic growth. Jobs will go where energy is cheap, just as they go where labor is cheap. Manufacturing and heavy industry require a great deal of energy, and in a global economy, no competitor can survive while paying substantially more for an essential input.
In the first place, I will be asking for excommunication given the (ill)reputation that the Manhattan Institute and the City Journal have among most academic social scientists who are generally way left of the Manhattan Institute. And then the content itself--about coal and carbon.

Sometimes I wonder whether many of the hard-core academics who are committed to a rapid elimination of carbon from our energy lives have ever been to India. Or China. It is one thing to talk about these things from the comforts of our own living rooms in the US, and is another to see and experience the remarkably poor lives that hundreds of millions lead all over the planet. Those hundreds of millions would love to get out of poverty, and telling them that they cannot burn coal simply won't work.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

College degree has a use, after all!

A geography lesson from Stephen Colbert :-)

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Obama, Chavez, and "the gift"

So, Hugo Chavez created quite a story by gifting Obama the "Latin Leftist's Bible" as the LA Times described the book.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa refers to this same book as the "Idiot's Bible" and recommends that Obama regift the book. Llosa, who is the son of the novelist/intellectal Mario Vargas Llosa, has always been highly critical of the Latin American left--here is an example of his commentaries.

The book shot up in Amazon's best seller lists. The Guardian notes that:
It is not the first time that Chávez has influenced the readers of the world. Three years ago he publicly praised a Noam Chomsky tome, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, at the United Nations. The book surged to the top of Amazon's bestseller list.
It looks like Oprah has a competitor in Chavez :-)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Joke of the day

Just in time for Earth day (from the always hilarious Craig Ferguson):
Scientists are now blaming global warming on fat people. That’s quite an “inconvenient truth” for Al Gore.
BTW, the global warming/fat people news item is not the joke here. Here is an excerpt from the soon-going-bankrupt-NY Times:

Looking for inspiration to lose weight?

It may be worth taking a look at the results of a report in latest issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The study concludes that being overweight or obese “should be recognized as an environmental problem” because of its contribution to climate change from additional food and transport emissions.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The US and the Great Recession: wins in the long run

Michael Lind has a number of wonderful, and debatable, observations in his essays in Foreign Policy. His conclusion is pretty neat:
Otto von Bismarck observed that God favors fools, drunkards, and the United
States of America. The U.S.A. has been a lucky country, and despite its present
suffering it is unlikely that America’s luck has run out. Relying on the import
of money, workers, and brains for more than three centuries, North America has
been a Ponzi scheme that works. The present crisis notwithstanding, it still

83% of all the work outsourced to one man in Afghanistan

More American Workers Outsourcing Own Jobs Overseas

China's industrial revolution

Gas taxes, road maintenance — debate rages on

I was reminded of Johnny Carson's quip, "I did not know that," when I read that 90 years ago, on Feb. 25, 1919, Oregon became the first state in the union to implement a tax on gasoline sold at the pump.

The tax of 1 cent per gallon was based on a simple and straightforward idea that construction and maintenance of roadways ought to be paid for by their users. Oregonians intentionally chose this, and not a general tax on the population.

What a novel idea for that time period, when automobiles were still being thought of as horseless carriages by many in this country and elsewhere! As automobile usage increased, other states and the federal government also followed up with gas taxes.

Now, when we purchase gas in Oregon, the price for every gallon at the pump includes state and federal taxes, which have gone up over the years, to keep up with inflation and the phenomenal increase in automobile and truck traffic. Local governments have the authority to charge additional taxes as well. Of course, there is a comparable tax on other types of fuel too.

That same year, in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower participated in the army's exercise to study the logistical issues in moving military vehicles and equipment from coast to coast. It was this, together with his war-time experiences in Europe, which later led Eisenhower to call for a national system of highways when he was elected to the presidency.

The two unrelated events of 1919 continue their influence on us even today, through gas taxes and a complex network of federal and state highways.

At the same time, we are also in the middle of intense public policy discussions related to gas taxes and the conditions of the roadways that seem to be rapidly deteriorating. According to the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, America's transportation infrastructure is falling apart — sometimes literally.

In its report to Congress, the commission recommended implementing a mileage-based fee system by 2020, with modest increases in federal fuel taxes in the meanwhile in order to get out of "the hole we have dug for ourselves."

Well, the forward-thinking public policy pioneers that Oregonians are, we have engaged in an interesting discussion over the last couple of years on precisely this same idea of charging road users not by the gallons of gas bought but by the miles traveled in the state. However, to a large extent, such discussions are not entirely new.

Almost 15 years ago, I was a junior participant in similar policy discussions in my earlier career as a transportation planner in Southern California. Even then, there was very little disagreement on the state of roads and bridges — this was well before the catastrophic bridge collapse in Minneapolis in the summer of 2007, which served as a tragic reminder to those who were in denial about the state of the transport infrastructure.

Thus, after years of deliberations, I am ready for action, once we climb out of these depressed economic conditions. At least before the centennial of the gas tax?

published in the Statesman Journal, April 21, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Recession. Need inflation. Onion to the rescue.

In his column in the NY Times, Harvard's Greg Mankiw argues that inflation can help us out. He writes:
Suppose that, looking ahead, the Fed commits itself to producing significant inflation. In this case, while nominal interest rates could remain at zero, real interest rates — interest rates measured in purchasing power — could become negative. If people were confident that they could repay their zero-interest loans in devalued dollars, they would have significant incentive to borrow and spend.
Having the central bank embrace inflation would shock economists and Fed watchers who view price stability as the foremost goal of monetary policy. But there are worse things than inflation. And guess what? We have them today. A little more inflation might be preferable to rising unemployment or a series of fiscal measures that pile on debt bequeathed to future generations.
Krugman says that he provided such an argument in the Japanese context a decade ago. In other words, he tells Makiw, "hey, I have a Nobel!" And then Krugman writes that:
Since that was the answer I arrived at for Japan more than a decade ago, I have to say that it makes sense in principle.
But here’s why it won’t work now, at least not yet: we’re talking about making a credible commitment to fairly high inflation over the medium term, yet you still have distinguished central bankers appalled at the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target.
But, you know who has the best answer of all? The Onion. These people have a brilliant idea to add value to the pieces of paper that we refer to as American currency:

Treasury Department Issues Emergency Recall Of All US Dollars

Elementary school. Torture. Girl dies :-(

Torture--no, not the "enhanced interrogation" and other techniques used by Cheney, et al.
This is from a different part of the world. Not of a terrorist. An eleven year old girl tortured to death because she could not recite the English alphabet :-( The following is an editorial from The Hindu:
Teaching without torture

It is now widely accepted round the world that the deliberate humiliation of children, either through corporal punishment or otherwise, is antithetical to learning as well as the well-being of children. The heart-rending death of 11-year-old Delhi schoolgirl Shanno Khan following brutal punishment by her teacher for failing to recite the full English alphabet string is a stark reminder of the torture that sometimes goes on in the name of pedagogy in several Indian schools. Shanno, according to her older sister, was made to stand in a murga position [a common form of punishment where the victim is forced to hold her or his ears with hands passed under the legs] for over two hours in the hot sun and even placed seven bricks on her back. When the girl asked for water, the teacher kicked her and her head hit a wall and she began to bleed from the nose. Shanno lost consciousness on returning home, and died two days later in hospital after slipping into a coma. This may seem an extreme case of punishment gone horribly wrong but it does highlight a fairly widespread practice in Indian schools.

In 2000 the Supreme Court of India banned corporal punishment for children and directed the state to ensure that they received education in an environment of freedom and dignity, free from fear. In the same year, the Delhi High Court struck down the provision for corporal punishment in the Delhi School Education Rules, noting that such punishment went against a child’s dignity and was not in tune with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which India was a signatory. The National Policy on Education states that corporal punishment would be firmly excluded from the educational systems. Following incidents of suicide by students terrorised by teachers, States such as Goa and Tamil Nadu outlawed corporal punishment. The rule providing for such punishment in Tamil Nadu was replaced by a section that recommended that children should be given an opportunity to learn from their errors through corrective measures such as imposition and suspension from class. However, enforcement is weak and instances of corporal punishment continue to be reported from across India. In fact, many schools practise a variety of methods of physical and emotional punishment. Occasionally, when teachers find mild forms of punishment ineffective, they resort to third degree methods of the kind that caused Shanno’s death. It is time authorities as well as parents and the public mobilised to make it absolutely clear that corporal punishment or any form of deliberate infliction of pain and humiliation on schoolchildren, supposedly for their own good, would not be tolerated any longer.

Wondering what "murga" punishment is? Here is an explanation from Wikipedia.

Slumdog Millionaire. Poverty porn. Child star for sale.

Nothing ever surprises me anymore about life in this world.
More so when the news is from India, which everyday offers more plot twists and turns than any soap opera can.
Here is another example. A child actor from Slumdog Millionaire is (or was potentially) up for sale! I have excerpted the following from a news item in the Times of India, which investigates about the reports of the potential sale:
‘We expect
Rubina More Pics

Slumdog Millionaire child actress Rubina Ali’s father has, reportedly, decided to put her on sale. In a bid to cash in on Rubina’s international stardom, her father Rafiq Qureshi has put her up for adoption, demanding nearly 200,000 pounds (Rs 1.8 crore approx). He offered the deal to an undercover fake sheikh from the international tabloid News of the World. “Yes, we’re considering Rubina’s future,” Rafiq told the undercover reporter. “I have to consider what’s best for me, my family and Rubina’s future,” he added.

Rafiq blamed Hollywood bosses for forcing him to put his daughter up for sale and claims, “We’ve got nothing out of this film.” News of the World’s undercover reporter approached Rafiq acting as the representative of a wealthy Arab sheikh, who wanted to adopt the girl. “Yes, we’re considering Rubina’s future,” Rafiq replied, and asked him to talk to his brother-in-law.

Rubina’s uncle Rajan More confirmed, “Yes, we’re interested in securing our girl’s future. Rubina’s life is miserable and she lives with her stepmother. Most of the time she stays with me because she’s not happy at her parents’ home. Obviously, if you wanted to adopt, we could discuss this, but her parents would also expect some proper compensation. We’re talking of around 50,000 pounds for this to happen.”
Just awful. But, in a way it also exposes the reality of life in the slums.

Was, therefore, reminded of the stinging criticism of the movie a couple of months ago--that the movie is nothing but "poverty porn". A quick google search, and here is an excerpt from that Times column:
Like the bestselling novel by the Americanised Afghan Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Slumdog Millionaire is not a million miles away from a form of pornographic voyeurism. A Thousand Splendid Suns is obsessed with rape and violence against women, the reader asked to pore over every last horrible detail. Slumdog Millionaire is poverty porn.
The columnist then noted:
When we are suckered into enjoying scenes of absolute horror among children in slums on the other side of the world, even dubbing them comedy, we ought to question where our moral compass is pointing.
And, this observation in Huffington Post certainly makes us wonder about "poverty porn":
Apparently, tours of Mumbai slums are experiencing a boon since Slumdog Millionaire won eight Academy Awards -- more evidence that this film created an emotional connection between Western audiences and the characters it depicts.
A report in USA Today certainly adds credibility to the notion that the movie has triggered a touristy interest in poverty:

The movie's recent premiere in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) sparked complaints among some of Dharavi's estimated 1 million residents, who live and work in an area smaller than New York's Central Park. But it also has boosted business for Reality Tours and Travel, which leads eight to 15 tourists a day on guided tours of the slum.

Reality Tours co-founder Chris Way estimates that sales are up by about 25% since Slumdog Millionaire's release. Though he credits some of the increase to a gradual rebound in tourism after terrorist attacks in Mumbai killed more than 170 people in November, publicity surrounding the film has played a big role.

Oh well ....

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Oversell college. Waste. Unemployment

It increasingly looks like I was more correct than otherwise in my arguments that maybe we are overselling college. Here is an excerpt from the editorial in the Register Guard, which quotes a report from Skills2Compete-Oregon.
[In] 2007 only 29 percent of Oregonians were employed in jobs that required four or more years of college. Another 19 percent worked in jobs that required only a high school education or less. The majority — 52 percent — held middle-skill jobs. What’s more, nearly half of all job openings until the middle of the next decade will be in middle-skill fields.

The report surveyed current and projected demand in 30 middle-skill occupations, and found that employment in all of them is expected to grow. The median income — half earn more, half earn less — of electricians was $56,800 in 2006, and Oregon will need 12 percent more of them by 2016. Radiology technicians’ median income was $53,500, and the number of jobs in that field will grow by 28 percent. Firefighters’ median pay was $46,400, and their number will grow by 12 percent. Paralegals had a median salary of $39,400 in 2006, and over a 10-year period the number of jobs is projected to grow by 15 percent.

Oregon is not preparing its labor force to fill these jobs.
I suppose it is really easy for me to say, "I told you so!" But, I do remember how my opinion was not quite well-received.

Anyway, watch the group's testimony at a House Committee hearing:

Law. Business. Politicians. Problem.

As one with a background in academia and engineering, with a dabbling of economics and journalism, I can not but think that the problem with politics is that it is dominated by people from the "wrong" professions :-) Here is the Economist:

Politicians' previous professions vary greatly by country

WHEN Barack Obama met Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, it was an encounter not just between two presidents, but also between two professions. A lawyer, trained to argue from first principles and haggle over words, was speaking to an engineer, who knew how to build physical structures and keep them intact. To find out why some professions are prevalent among politicians The Economist trawled through a sample of almost 5,000 politicians in “International Who’s Who”, a reference book, to examine their backgrounds. Some findings are predictable. Africa is full of military men, while lawyers dominate in democracies such as Germany, France and, of course, America. China has a fondness for engineers. But other countries have their own peculiarities. Egypt likes academics; South Korea, civil servants; Brazil, doctors.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Those were the days, my friend

Once upon a time there was a tavern,
Where we used to raise a glass or two.
Remember how we laughed away the hours,
And dreamed of all the great things we would do.

Those were the days my friend,
We'd thought they'd never end,
We'd sing and dance for-ever and a day,
We'd live the life we choose,
We'd fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.
Lalala lah lala, lalala lah lala
Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.

Then the busy years when rushing by us.
We lost our starry notions on the way.
If by chance I'd see you in the tavern,
We'd smile at one another and we'd say:

Just tonight I stood before the tavern,
Nothing seemed the way it used to be.
In the glass I saw a strange reflection,
Was that lonely person really me.

Through the door there came familiar laughter.
I saw your face and heard you call my name.
Oh, my friend, we're older but no wiser,
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same.

Tax protests. Fox News. Bizarro world!

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Economic crisis. Stay the course. False Dawns.

A couple of days ago, the official state economist of my wonderful state--Oregon--came out with the depressing news that unemployment had reached 12.1 percent. It simply is beyond awful that one in eight Oregonians interested in being productive has not been able to find work :-(
I told my students that we would find out on Friday whether Oregon is the worst in the country, in terms of unemployment rate. Turns out that Michigan beat us, not by much though. With 12.6 percent unemployment rate, Michigan is in quite a slump. The question for Michigan is whether the state would end up matching its 1982 record of 16.9 percent unemployment.

Chris Wilson at Slate has put together a really neat animated graphic where he shows, by county, that:
As early as August 2007, for example—several months before the recession officially began—jobs were already on the decline in southwest Florida; Orange County, Calif.; much of New Jersey; and Detroit, while other areas of the country remained on the uptick.
Too bad that the interactive map that Wilson has done is not available with an embedding option.

Given that employment is still at an awful stage, I am beginning to get ticked off when media reports focus only on the ups and downs in the stock market indices. All the more the reason why I appreciated Krugman's column, where he notes:
The 2001 recession officially lasted only eight months, ending in November of that year. But unemployment kept rising for another year and a half. The same thing happened after the 1990-91 recession. And there’s every reason to believe that it will happen this time too. Don’t be surprised if unemployment keeps rising right through 2010.
How much ever we might be upset and frustrated with everything from TARP, AIG, foreclosures, GM, ...., we have no option but to keep up with trying everything possible to prevent a global depression. We simply have no choice in this. Again, way better to channel Krugman's words:

History shows that one of the great policy dangers, in the face of a severe economic slump, is premature optimism. F.D.R. responded to signs of recovery by cutting the Works Progress Administration in half and raising taxes; the Great Depression promptly returned in full force. Japan slackened its efforts halfway through its lost decade, ensuring another five years of stagnation.

The Obama administration’s economists understand this. They say all the right things about staying the course. But there’s a real risk that all the talk of green shoots and glimmers will breed a dangerous complacency.

So here’s my advice, to the public and policy makers alike: Don’t count your recoveries before they’re hatched.

Schwarzenegger: California's wasted years

I was one of the many who could not believe that an actor with no political track record whatsoever could be elected as the governor of the largest economy in the US--California. Has the Governator been any better for California? Read this from Reason:

When Gray Davis, a Democrat, became California’s governor in 1999, the state’s budget was $75 billion. Tempted by dot-com windfalls and beholden to public-sector unions, Davis bumped that number to $104 billion in four short years of boom and bust, after which he was bounced out of office for his fiscal irresponsibility and replaced by a Milton Friedman–quoting action hero who promised to bring “fiscal sanity” back to Sacramento. Five years later, after facing another boom, another bust, and a series of bruising political defeats at the hands of public-sector unions, Schwarzenegger had hiked the budget to an astonishing $145 billion. In 10 years, state spending in nominal terms increased 92 percent.

One good way to measure fiscal stewardship is to see whether state spending growth exceeds the rate of population growth plus inflation. Under Davis, budgets rose an average of 6.7 percent a year, as opposed to a population/California price index growth rate of 4.8 percent. Under Schwarzenegger, spending has increased 6.8 percent annually, compared to a population/inflation rate of just under 5 percent. A governor who was swept into office by damning Davis’ $38 billion budget deficit, vowing not to raise taxes, and mocking his predecessor’s vehicle license fee hikes announced on February 20 that he would address his own $42 billion budget deficit by raising taxes and doubling those same fees.

Sometimes I wonder if politics and politicians here in the US are any better than what I experienced in India. Maybe it goes with the territory?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bye bye to liberal arts colleges :-(

Back in 1990, David W. Breneman, an education economist then at the Brookings Institution, stirred debate in higher education by publishing an article titled “Are We Losing Our Liberal Arts Colleges?”

A paper being presented here today at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association looks back at his study and answers his question with an emphatic yes.

It is interesting that Breneman examined this question that long ago. Anyway, the Chronicle report adds:

Mr. Breneman was concerned at the time that many historic liberal-arts colleges were shifting away from their emphasis on the arts and sciences and were instead becoming “professional colleges,” which train a large share of their students to enter fields like business or nursing. He worried that such transformations were diverting the colleges from their traditional missions and undermining the intellectual coherence of their offerings.

In their paper, "Where Are They Now? Revisiting Breneman's Study of Liberal Arts Colleges," the researchers updated Mr. Breneman’s analyses using federal data from the 2006-7 academic year on the degrees that colleges awarded, by discipline. They could not find data on nine institutions that he listed. Of the remaining 203 colleges, 67 were found to offer too many graduate degrees or too many degrees in professional fields to be classified as liberal-arts colleges under his terms. Of those, 37 had drastically changed their missions, with 19 now being classified as comprehensive colleges and 18 as master’s universities. A few others had been subsumed by larger institutions.

BTW, I work at a university that promotes itself as "Providing an academically challenging and unique comprehensive public liberal arts education." The majors with largest enrolments are business, criminal justice, ....

Taxes: quote of the day

"True patriotism isn't cheap. It's about taking on a fair share of the burden of keeping America going."
I agree with Robert Reich's comment there. Reich clears a lot of misconceptions about taxes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Did you know about these ten things?

From the BBC. Some more hilarious than others!

1. Breaking wind is a bookable offence in football.
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2. Black soldiers fighting for the Free French Forces were removed from the unit which led the liberation of Paris to ensure a "whites only" victory.
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3. Many of the mosques in Islam's holiest city, Mecca, point the wrong way.
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4. Britain pays an annual sum to Ireland to cover healthcare costs of Irish workers who have returned home.
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5. Jellied hoof meat from horses is a delicacy in Siberia.
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6. Potholes are aggravated by cold weather.
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7. Car ownership in India is about nine per thousand people.
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8. Mexico City was once a floating city.
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9. Six percent of England's streets are littered with rubber bands.
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10. More than 97% of all e-mail traffic is spam.
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Thursday, April 09, 2009

narcissism run amok

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Asian Immigrants should "Americanize" names? WTF?

As the LA Times correspondent notes, speechless we are:
Republican Betty Brown said this week she thinks Americans of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent should change their names to make it easier for poll workers to identify them.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the comment came late Tuesday as the House Elections Committee heard testimony from Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans.

Ko told the committee that people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent often have problems voting because they may have a legal trans-literated name and then a common English name used on driver’s licenses or school registrations.

Brown, who with her husband Ron operates a ranch near Terrell on land that has been in her family for four generations, suggested that Asian Americans should find a way to make their names more accessible. She said:

Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here? ... Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?

No word on how Ko responded. Perhaps, like us, he was speechless.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Very depressing: Bush/Cheney era lives on

People laughed Ralph Nader off when he often compared the two major parties as tweedledum and tweedledee. Watch this video and think about Nader's remarks:

Via Glenn Greenwald, who writes:

Several weeks ago, I noted that unlike the Right -- which turned itself into a virtual cult of uncritical reverence for George W. Bush especially during the first several years of his administration -- large numbers of Bush critics have been admirably willing to criticize Obama when he embraces the very policies that prompted so much anger and controversy during the Bush years. Last night, Keith Olbermann -- who has undoubtedly been one of the most swooning and often-uncritical admirers of Barack Obama of anyone in the country (behavior for which I rather harshly criticized him in the past) -- devoted the first two segments of his show to emphatically lambasting Obama and Eric Holder's DOJ for the story I wrote about on Monday: namely, the Obama administration's use of the radical Bush/Cheney state secrets doctrine and -- worse still -- a brand new claim of "sovereign immunity" to insist that courts lack the authority to decide whether the Bush administration broke the law in illegally spying on Americans.

The fact that Keith Olbermann, an intense Obama supporter, spent the first ten minutes of his show attacking Obama for replicating (and, in this instance, actually surpassing) some of the worst Bush/Cheney abuses of executive power and secrecy claims reflects just how extreme is the conduct of the Obama DOJ here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Liberalization, privatization, and bailouts. Déjà vu all over again

Today countries around the world view with cynicism the economic ideas we were trying to export. They came to believe that our push for liberalization and privatization was guided in no small measure by our own corporate and financial interests. Our bailout plans, which provided billions of dollars to help repay banks but denied millions of dollars in food and fuel subsidies for the very poor, only confirmed this impression.
You know what is really interesting about this excerpt? The "today" mentioned here is not in the context of the current economic crisis and the trillion-dollar bailout plans. No sir. This is from an essay that the Nobel-prize-winner Joesph Stiglitz wrote in the Atlantic in October 2002! In this essay, Stiglitz was reflecting on the "roaring nineties" during which he was at various times the chief economist for the World Bank, and chaired Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers.

Well, here he is explaining the current global economic crisis:

We are not "in a war of reason against faith"

So, there I was reading David Brooks' rather strange column, and all of a sudden I run into the following sentences:
The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.
I got ticked off.
As an atheist, I have never felt that I was involved in a war of reason against faith. On the contrary, I am sick and tired of the "faith" people's attempts--on a regular basis--to push science and reason to the remotest possible corner. If at all there is a war, there is only one warring faction and that is the "believers".

Second, I do not see myself as having "unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning" .... oh, please .... I walk around with doubts all the time. I just plainly refuse to accept through "blind faith" ideas that religions and religious people want me to believe. Brooks does not seem to understand that in reason and science we always leave room for possibilities. As long as the evidence we have leads us to certain conclusions, well, we can't adopt a position that will contradict that data, can we? On the other hand, as Keynes remarked, when the facts change we correspondingly change our minds.

Heather Mac Donald has a similar point:
As for non-believers’ purported faith “in the purity of their own reasoning,” I have no idea what Brooks is talking about. The new atheists are not on an intellectual purity crusade; they see the whole of human thought as evidence of the richness of the human mind. They embrace the gorgeousness and grandeur of music, art, and literature as a source of meaning and wisdom.
She adds a lot more. I liked this:

With all respect to David Brooks, this claim strikes me as nonsensical. The new atheists are arguing not against the view that morality is innate, but that it is the product of formal religious teaching. It is the theistic and theocon worldview that is challenged by what Brooks calls the “evolutionary approach to morality,” not the skeptical one. It is the theocons who assert that unless society and individuals are immersed in purported Holy Books, anarchy and depredation will rule the world.

Skeptics respond that moral behavior is instinctual, that parents build on a child’s initial impulses of empathy and fairness and reinforce those impulses with habit and authority. Religious ethical codes are an epiphenomenon of our moral sense, not vice versa. The religionists say that morality is handed down from a deity above; secularists think that it, and indeed the very attributes of that deity himself, bubble up from below. Children raised without belief in divine revelation can be as faithful to a society’s values as those who think that the Ten Commandments (at least those not concerned with religious prostration) originated with God.

I think that Brooks should restrict himself to writing about politics and economics, and not wade into philosophy, reason, and faith.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

We give them Obama, they don't hate us anymore

If Barack Obama wasn't an off-beat enough name, how about Wyatt Cenac? He is, of course, one of the "correspondents" in the Daily Show. Watch this hilarious "report":
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Gas tax, roads, and low-bids in contracts

While searching for the lowest and best price has its merits, consider this:
The dilemma of modern construction is summed up in an anecdote that Wernher von Braun, the scientist who developed the U.S. space program, used to tell about John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth: “Seconds before ­lift­off, with Glenn strapped into that rocket we built for him and man’s best efforts all focused on that moment, you know what he said to himself? ‘My God! I’m sitting on a pile of low bids!’
I wish I had read the essay from where I have excerpted the quote, before I submitted the following op-ed to the Statesman Journal:
I was reminded of Johnny Carson’s quip, “I did not know that,” when I read that 90 years ago, on February 25, 1919, became the first state in the union to implement a tax on gasoline sold at the pump.

The tax of one cent per gallon was based on a simple and straightforward idea that construction and maintenance of roadways ought to be paid for by their users. Oregonians intentionally chose this, and not a general tax on the population. What a novel idea for that time period, when automobiles were still being thought of as horseless carriages by many in this country and elsewhere!

As automobile usage increased, other states and the federal government also followed up with gas taxes. Now, when we purchase gas in Oregon, the price for every gallon at the pump includes state and federal taxes, which have gone up over the years, to keep up with inflation and the phenomenal increase in automobile and truck traffic. Local governments have the authority to charge additional taxes as well. Of course, there is a comparable tax on other types of fuel too.

That same year, in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower participated in the army’s exercise to study the logistical issues in moving military vehicles and equipment from coast to coast. It was this, together with his war-time experiences in Europe, which later led Eisenhower to call for a national system of highways when he was elected to the presidency.

The two unrelated events of 1919 continue their influence on us even today, through gas taxes and a complex network of federal and state highways. At the same time, we are also in the middle of intense public policy discussions related to gas taxes, and the conditions of the roadways that seem to be rapidly deteriorating.

According to the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, America’s transportation infrastructure is falling apart—sometimes literally. In its report to Congress, the Commission recommended implementing a mileage-based fee system by 2020, with modest increases in federal fuel taxes in the meanwhile in order to get out of “the hole we have dug for ourselves.”

Well, the forward thinking public policy pioneers that Oregonians are, we have engaged in an interesting discussion over the last couple of years on precisely this same idea of charging road users not by the gallons of gas bought but by the miles travelled in the state.

However, to a large extent, such discussions are not entirely new. Almost 15 years ago, I was a junior participant in similar policy discussions in my earlier career as a transportation planner in Southern California. Even then, there was very little disagreement on the state of roads and bridges—this was well before the catastrophic bridge collapse in Minneapolis in the summer of 2007, which served as a tragic reminder to those who were in denial about the state of the transport infrastructure.

Thus, after years of deliberations, I am ready for action, once we climb out of these depressed economic conditions. At least before the centennial of the gas tax?

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