June 08, 2007

Amongst the reasons Texas needs annual legislative sessions

First is so the Lege could resubmit bills such as this passel vetoed by Gov. Helmethair, Rick Perry. (From the 2005 79th regular session; we do not have a full list of vetoes from this year yet.)

Second is as I mentioned in a newspaper column last summer, during the education funding crisis and multiple special sessions — you wouldn’t have monster craps like that being left on a special-session plate.

Third is so that well-meaning but somewhat badly written laws, under the press of time, wouldn’t get sent to the gov for likely veto.

Fourth and related is so that well-meaning but really badly designed bills wouldn’t get lost in a black hole for two years.

Fifth, and related to three and four, is that knowing a bill could come up again in a year, would allow more thought to be placed into it.

Sixth is knowing that someone like the Monarch of Midland, Tom Craddick, would be more accountable to the House with a session every year.

Seventh is that Texas, were it an independent country, would have one of the world’s 20 largest economies. Would you run a country like this?

Now, I know Texans will never sign off on a full-time legislature, though. But, take a lesson from the neighbors to the west, at least.

Be like New Mexico. Have a long-term session in odd-numbered years, and a shorter session, with a narrower focus, in even-numbered years. Say a 110-day session and a 40-day session, at minimum. That would be two more weeks than now, plus a slower pace over two sessions.

Governance would surely be more productive.

I don’t think treating Texas colleges like businesses is the answer to skyrocketing tuition

Texas state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst spoke in Navasota yesterday. Among her topics was the spiraling cost of college tuition.

She said she thinks more and more future college and university presidents will NOT be faculty working their way up administrative ranks, but rather, business professionals. She didn’t say whether they would necessarily have previous college administrative experience, let alone with the college or university that hired them as president or chancellor, just that they would be business people.

And, she said she thought it was a good idea.

As for the idea of treating universities more like businesses, it might have its high points, but could easily be taken too far. Will a academic program of study, or major, be deleted not just from one college but across most or all of the University of Texas, Texas A&M or Texas State University systems if it doesn’t perform well enough financially? If so, how tough will the criteria be? What will that do for learning for learning’s sake? Will private businesses be invited to be “sponsors” of college academic programs? What would that do for learning? Would, or will, businesses attach more strings to their donations in the future? Instead of “teaching to the test,” as primary and secondary public schools here do with the TAKS, will colleges and universities “teach to the business”? Wouldn’t that make them the white-collar equivalent of vo-tech institutions? (There’s a snarky slam for you!)

No, colleges and universities shouldn’t be financial black holes. But, the university as business institution idea should be approached carefully.

Let’s ask a couple more rhetorical questions, first, now that the 80th regular session of the Texas Legislature is now on the books.

How did we jump from the original version of the Texas Tomorrow Fund, to diminishing state support for public universities, to deregulated tuition with its attending quashing of reopening the TTF or the possibility of any successor version of it?

What will members of the 81st Legislature do instead of making our state colleges and universities even more capitalistic? Will they even discuss some form or degree of re-regulation? Will they consider increasing non-loan state financial aid or other things?

June 07, 2007

Déjà vu explained, no spirits or souls needed

Not that I have thought that a non-materialist explanation was needed, but now we know it isn’t. Memory parallelisms in the hippocampus, a structure deep within our brains, explains the issue.

Most neuroscientists and neuropsychologists have thought for some time that some brain mechanism was the cause of déjà vu, but their explanatory accounts failed. Some said it was a slight difference in firing, or signals recognition, between one eye and another.

But now, we know what’s actually happening.
U.S. researchers have identified the part of the brain responsible for this sensation, and they think it may lead to new treatments for memory-related problems.

They said neurons in a memory center of the brain called the hippocampus make a mental map of new places and experiences, then store them away for future use.

But when two experiences begin to seem very much alike, these mental maps overlap and start to blur.

“Deja vu occurs when this ability is challenged,” said Susumu Tonegawa, a professor of biology and neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, whose work appears in the journal Science.

The scientists tested mice with mutant genes that affected one part of the hippocampus, and saw them unable to distinguish between two similar but not identical cages. They noticed differences in brain activity from healthy mice and worked from there.

It makes more sense to me than some older explanations. The hippocampus is involved with the consolidation of episodic memory into long-term memory. Given the great variety of human memories, the malleability of memory, and the emotional overtones of many memories, it’s a wonder that déjà vu episodes don’t happen more in normal, everyday people’s lives.

Some talking points for how national healthcare might rein in costs

Via Washington Monthly, Ezra Klein’s “It’s not about age” post on the rising cost of healthcare got me to thinking about possible ways a national healthcare system done right could generate some real savings. That’s whether it’s a straight-up single-payer system or we allow some room for private insurance companies.
Several thoughts on savings:

First, national healthcare would mean, or should mean, standardized paperwork, whether we have a single-payer system, or let insurance companies be part of the game, or whatever. Big administrative savings right there, I think.

Second, if it means the government regulating the amount of fMRI machines in a certain area, or saying that it's only going to be a payer to 12 out of 17 hospitals in a major metropolitan area that have fMRI equipment, so be it.

Let's go further and think of this in terms of medical market care pooling in broader ways.

Third, that in turn may drive some doctors away from some specialties. But, many doctors go down that road in the first place to recoup the high U.S. cost of medical school. This backdoor pressure itself wouldn't be enough to drive down med school costs, perhaps. Maybe other things would, such as higher student loan rates for specialization, or to flip that, lower student loan rates for non-specialization. Expansion of programs, such as working in Indian Health Service hospitals, to ameliorate loans, could be part of this.

Fourth, national healthcare, to me, implies at least some degree of national regulatory standards superceding state ones, such as state insurance boards (at least the health insurance regulatory part; a national insurance regulatory system in general might be a good idea but that's neither here nor there).

Yes, I know big-business conservatives, and the AMA, will both call this “rationing.” On the other hand, people who aren’t knee-jerk worshipers of the myth of Adam Smith, including a fair amount of doctors, surely would buy off on the reduction in paperwork hassles, overhead, etc.

Things like this are why any Ron Wyden-type proposal doesn't well meet my smell test. It’s not so much the issue of single-payer or not, it’s the incrementalism. And, with Fortune 500 companies begging for relief, progressives who really want to do something different on healthcare have them by the short hairs.

That said, this is an area where a presidential bully pulpit can be a big help. So, rather than a Wyden-type proposal being brought to the current Congress, it would be much better, in terms of the big picture, to wait until 2009, assuming the election of a non-Republican, non-Libertarian president.

Ras-Putin outthinks Shrub on missile defense

Russian President Vladimir Putin, aka Vlad the Incarcerator (or Vlad the Polonium Poisoner, take your pick) today countered President Bush’s proposal to site a U.S. missile system in Eastern Europe with an almost grand-slam almost grand-slam bridge play:
Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush Thursday that he would drop his objections to a U.S. missile defense system if Washington substantially altered current plans to base it entirely in Europe and instead involved Russia through a Soviet-era radar system in the central Asian nation of Azerbaijan.

....Putin said he spoke yesterday with the president of Azerbaijan, who agreed to host elements of a missile defense system there to protect all of Europe. If this is accepted, he said, he would have no need to carry out his threat to retarget Russian missiles or place offensive units along the country's European borders.

Why do I characterize this as “almost grand slam”?

Basically, because Putin shows he's got more smarts and mojo in working the PR angles on this issue.

Bush has to either put up or shut up as to the actual targets of this system AND as to whether he really wants to be a multilateralist in the so-called “global war on terror.”

Plus, if Shrub WOULD bite on this, building it in Azerbaijan lets Ras-Putin outflank Chechnya, Georgia, et al on the southern flank and expand Russian hegemony.

Thank doorknobs Ras-Putin is not OUR president; he would run fricking circles around both parties in Congress.

June 06, 2007

The naiveté of an AP economics writer

Thinking that should means either “ought” or “will” on employers hiking wages when productivity rises.
Rising productivity means that employers can boost salaries because of workers' increased efficiency. It is the single most important factor supporting rising living standards.

If not naiveté, it’s stupidity.

Existing-home sales expected to drop 4 percent this year

The National Association of Realtors has moved a previous forecast of a 3 percent drop downward.
In a new economic forecast, the National Association of Realtors on Wednesday predicted that sales of existing homes will fall by 4.18 percent this year, lowering a previous forecast which had called for a 2.9 percent decline this year.

Frankly, I don’t think they dropped it enough. I will guess 5 percent or more.

Bush’s poodle gets more delusional as his tenure nears end

How else to explain British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s claim that he can persuade Bush on climate change, and claiming that Bush’s plan to have something vague on the table by the end of next year was more substantial than it actually is.

Tony, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Where’s the skepticism on corporate “green” claims?

The alleged “green” vision of more and more business, exemplified by things such as Kohlberg Kravis Roberts agreeing not to build a bunch of previously-planned coal-fired power plants when it agreed to take over Texas electric utility TXU and getting Environmental Defense to broker the deal sounded great, right?

Maybe, like 15 years ago, some of this really is too good to be true and needs the same degree of skepticism business claims about “going green” got back then.

Here's a few other reasons big businesses might want to look green, whether they truly are or not.
Defeat. Some companies did not embrace green principles on their own - they were forced to do so after being successfully targeted by aggressive environmental campaigns. Home Depot abandoned the sale of lumber harvested in old-growth forests several years ago after being pummeled by groups such as Rainforest Action Network. … Dell started taking computer recycling seriously only after it was pressed to do so by groups such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. …

Diversion. It is apparent that Wal-Mart is using its newfound green consciousness as a means of diverting public attention away from its dismal record in other areas, especially the treatment of workers. In doing so, it hopes to peel environmentalists away from the broad anti-Wal-Mart movement. BP's emphasis on the environment was no doubt made more urgent by the need to repair an image damaged by allegations that a 2005 refinery fire in Texas that killed 15 people was the fault of management. …

Opportunism. There is so much hype these days about protecting the environment that many companies are going green simply to earn more green. There are some market moves, such as Toyota's push on hybrids, that also appear to have some environmental legitimacy. Yet there are also instances of sheer opportunism, such as the effort by Nuclear Energy Institute to depict nukes as an environmentally desirable alternative to fossil fuels. Not to mention surreal cases such as the decision by Britain's BAE Systems to develop environmentally friendly munitions, including low-toxin rockets and lead-free bullets.

I'll admit that I initially bit on the KKR/TXU deal. But, after further reading, including from Jim Jubak, one of MSN's top stock prognosticators, I realized KKR knew that fewer new power plants meant tighter electric supplies, which meant higher electric costs, which meant paying off the TXU purchase more quickly.

Bottom line: Environmentalist claims are going to be, in some way, shape or form, part of corporate marketing. Don't give away a cheap warm fuzzy.

Coming up: One Iraqi parliament binding resolution to get us out

Prime Minister Maliki could be a dead man - literally, not figuratively - if he vetoes this.
While most observers are focused on the U.S. Congress as it continues to issue new rubber stamps to legitimize Bush's permanent designs on Iraq, nationalists in the Iraqi parliament - now representing a majority of the body - continue to make progress toward bringing an end to their country's occupation.

The parliament today [June 5] passed a binding resolution that will guarantee lawmakers an opportunity to block the extension of the U.N. mandate under which coalition troops now remain in Iraq when it comes up for renewal in December. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose cabinet is dominated by Iraqi separatists, may veto the measure.

The law requires the parliament's approval of any future extensions of the mandate, which have previously been made by Iraq's prime minister. It is an enormous development; lawmakers reached in Baghdad today said that they do in fact plan on blocking the extension of the coalition's mandate when it comes up for renewal six months from now.

Reached today by phone in Baghdad, Nassar al Rubaie, the head of Al-Sadr bloc in Iraq's Council of Representatives, said, “This new binding resolution will prevent the government from renewing the U.N. mandate without the parliament's permission. They'll need to come back to us by the end of the year, and we will definitely refuse to extend the U.N. mandate without conditions.” Rubaie added: “There will be no such a thing as a blank check for renewing the U.N. mandate anymore, any renewal will be attached to a timetable for a complete withdrawal.”

Without the cover of the U.N. mandate, the continued presence of coalition troops in Iraq would become, in law as in fact, an armed occupation, at which point it would no longer be politically tenable to support it. While polls show that most Iraqis consider U.S. forces to be occupiers rather than liberators or peacekeepers - 92 percent of respondents said as much in a 2004 survey by the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies - the U.N. mandate confers an aura of legitimacy on the continuing presence of foreign troops on Iraq's streets, even four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

It's more than about time. Now, how will Bush react? What lies and even self-deceptions will he spin?

I'm sure we'll see plenty of something.

And, what about Maliki? The article notes that parliament feels compelled to do this because the last time it came up for renewal, he sidestepped parliament and directly called the UN for reauthorization.

Climate change could exacerbate rich-poor issues

Biofuels are the main reason why rich and poor countries are making strange bedfellows.
A tequila shortage is perhaps one of the least-expected results of planting lucrative, “climate-friendly” biofuels — as Mexican farmers set ablaze their fields of cactus-like agave to make way for corn, a feedstock for ethanol. Biofuels are also blamed for raising food prices and destroying forests.

The result of misguided climate policies could be to undermine public support for action and discourage businesses from buying in.

“Definitely there’ll be tradeoffs between climate change and the local environment, and with energy security,” said Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises rich countries.

“We are not in the luxury of being able to choose from hundreds of energy types.”

Urgency has been spurred by a series of U.N. climate reports this year confirming threats like desertification, droughts and rising seas and calling for action now to cut the long-term cost.

But evidence is emerging of the repercussions. British charity Christian Aid says Colombian rebel groups are forcing poor people off their land to grow lucrative palm oil for biodiesel, likening it to diamonds financing African wars.

Oops. As if Indonesia’s deforestation for palm oil weren’t bad enough.

June 05, 2007

Bernanke: Just smile

Even if the housing bubble will take 18 months to deflate, don’t worry. the Fed chairman says.

Geez, is he going to be even worse than Greenspan? Of course, he probably can’t find any other inflatable investment area to bail out housing, like the Green Weenie let housing do for tech stocks. And, Wall Street is trying to do, dumbly, do that on its own anyway.
Even with the expectation of more problems in this area, Bernanke repeated his belief that troubles in the subprime mortgage market are “unlikely to seriously spill over to the broader economy or the financial system.”

Bernanke acknowledged that problems in the subprime market can be traced in part to loose standards, which in some cases allowed people to get mortgages with little documentation.

Facing criticism from Congress about lax regulation in the subprime arena, Bernanke again said the Fed will consider tougher rules to crack down on abusive practices and improve disclosure.

“In deciding, we must walk a fine line: We have an obligation to prevent fraud and abusive lending; at the same time, we must tread carefully so as not to suppress responsible lending or eliminate refunding opportunities for subprime borrowers,” Bernanke said.

In other words, the Fed ain’t gonna do nothing, while playing pacifier for investors and taking credit for anything positive Big Ben can dig up.

June 04, 2007

The world’s Top 10 spots of need

As per reports Doctors Without Borders.

I didn’t know Columbia had more internally displaced people than any country other than Sudan.

Anyway, if you have some charitable donation money floating in our bank account, give them a little love after you read all about the Top 10 need spots.