Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Welcome to Belize

Time to break from politics to put on my other hat - travel writer. I'll be writing some columns for the Washington Times Communities, but here I'll be recording my day-by-day impressions of Belize.

Belize City is just under three hours from DFW. It really is in our back yard, closer to Dallas than Seattle and Boston are. It's also definitely another country.

On stepping out of the airplane I was hit with a hot, humid blast that made me wilt. The terminal building was cooler, but the cooling system definitely felt over-worked. A young woman from the Belize Travel Bureau escorted me through immigration and customs, then took me to the Tropic Air desk to get me squared away for the next leg of my trip, to Punta Gorda in the Toledo district.

The flight from Belize City was on a "puddle jumper," a small aircraft with room for about 15, if they're all slender. I practically had to crawl to my seat, so meager was the head-room and so narrow the aisle. The staff, however, were all pleasant and professional. The flight to Punta Gorda, which included two stops, took an hour.

I was met in Punta Gorda by a driver from the Machaca Hill Rainforest Canopy Lodge - let's just call it the Machaca Lodge. He took me to the lodge in an open canopied vehicle that looked like it was meant for taking tourists on safari, and that's probably not far off from its usual use. We left Punta Gorda and zoomed through the countryside, the wind making my hair look like it had been through a weed whacker. My kids would have had a blast. I enjoyed it myself.

At the lodge I was met by a charming young woman (so far everyone I've dealt with here has been charming and young - I'm really liking the Belizians) holding a tray with a cool damp towel on it. After I wiped my face, she handed me a ginger infusion drink - refreshing and delicious. The standard hotel form filled out, we left the main building to go to my cabin.

The Machaca Lodge is comprised of a main building which houses a lounge and check-in area on the first floor, a restaurant and bar on the second. The building is wide open, and the restaurant serves dinner on the balcony that wraps around the building. There's a swimming pool, a sauna and spa, and then 12 individual cabins set on the side of a hill and overlooking the rainforest canopy.

The cabins are casual, comfortable and welcoming. The bedroom opens to a screened in balcony with a table and chairs. The tile floor gleams like it's been highly polished. The bathroom has a stone pebble shower built so that you can enjoy it with four or five very good friends. It has a large window overlooking the rainforest. The young woman who showed it to me assured me that it's completely private, only the monkeys will look in to see you shower. And they've signed non-disclosure agreements. It's a bit open-to-the-world for my taste, but there's no denying that it's a lovely shower, and it sure felt good after a day of travel.

After my shower I made my way to the restaurant and was reminded by the large, many-legged creature on the path in front of me that I am indeed in the tropics. It was dark enough that I couldn't see it clearly, and I'm really glad I couldn't. I thought of turning back to my cabin to go to bed hungry, then reminded myself that I was a thousand times bigger than my fellow traveler (which would put it at a bit over three ounces). It scuttled to one side and I trotted past it.

I'm glad I did. Dinner was excellent. I had shrimp ceviche, served with a couple of wedges of watermelon and perfectly seasoned. The dish had a fiery sparkle that had me wanting more. Next came grouper with hollandaise, served over rice and fresh vegetables. It didn't sparkle quite the way the ceviche did, but the fish was nicely grilled and the vegetables were perfectly cooked. I think the hollandaise was more unctuous than the dish called for - a beurre blanc might have been better.

Dessert was called "chocolate pate." It was a scoop of something very much like ganache, with some nuts and roasted coconut sprinkled on top. It was chocolate heaven. If other diners hadn't joined me on the balcony by that time, I'd have licked my plate. I'll be attending a chocolate festival this weekend, and if that pate was any indication, I'm going to enjoy it far more than is decent.

I chatted with one of the senior staff during dinner. She told me that almost all the produce used in my dinner was organically grown on the grounds of the lodge. Being from Louisiana, I'm not really that keen on "organic" (I'm just happy when my water doesn't contain benzine), but there was no denying that the lodge's produce is superior. She admitted that there are times when their gardens don't produce enough for every meal (the organic gardening project is still relatively new and will be expanded), but on those occasions they buy from other farmers near the lodge who also grow their produce organically.

At $65 (exclusive of taxes and service), dinner at the Machaca Lodge isn't cheap. But neither is it a bad deal. The dining experience was altogether satisfying, an entirely reasonable splurge.

The couple at the table next to mine told me that they're here for birding. The balcony where we had dinner is apparently an excellent place to watch birds. They told me they watched toucans this morning, and a lodge guide has took them out yesterday on an expedition that she thought was wonderful. I don't know what kinds of birds they saw, but the Machaca Lodge has won highest praise from two Texas birders.

Tomorrow I'll head out for two days with the "Maya home-stay" program, which lodges tourists with Mayan families. Then I'll be back at the Machaca Lodge for three nights to experience the Toledo chocolate festival.

Friday, May 6, 2011

How he did it

The White House is understandably pleased that Osama bin Laden was brought to justice. After taking a victory lap around the Mall, President Obama donned his SEAL uniform to describe his planning and execution of the mission. "Basically," he said, "I had to fly my chopper in low over the Himalaya mountains to avoid Pakistani air defenses. It was some touchy flying, but the maps I'd made were flawless and I'd forecast all the weather problems, so when I gave myself the go-ahead, I had high confidence that I'd succeed."

Asked how intelligence had found bin Laden's hiding place, Obama said, "I had a feeling that one of our Gitmo detainees was an al Qaeda operative, so I put him between Michelle and a tamale and in no time he was begging to tell me all he could. I talked to him in Pashto, and he spilled everything about bin Laden's favorite sushi place in Islamabad. I wrote a quick program to analyze data on fish deliveries in Central Asia, and in no time I had him located."

Obama's description of his fire fight with al Qaeda operatives was gripping. He admitted that the operation wasn't perfect. "I'd talked him into surrendering, but I mistook 'I'll come peacefully' in Saudi Arabic for "screw you" in classical Arabic. So I shot him. But I should point out that I did read him his Miranda rights and I followed all the procedures of peaceful confrontation listed on the back of my Nobel Peace Prize certificate. It was just an unfortunate mistake."

After running a careful field DNA test and confirming that it was indeed bin Laden he'd killed, Obama recalled his education in world religions to provide him with a proper Muslim burial at sea. He then piloted Air Force One back to Washington for a press conference, then on to New York, where he humbly thanked all the little people who made his mission possible.

"I'd also like to thank the families of the 9/11 victims for supporting me through this very difficult and challenging time in my life," he added. "They'll all receive autographed copies of my new book, 'Magical Me,' as well as my complete speeches on commemorative iPods."

Friday, March 18, 2011

A comment on race and looting

I've been accused by a number of readers of trying to ignore race altogether, to pretend that it's irrelevant that the looters in New Orleans were black, the non-looters of Japan Japanese.

I don't think that race is irrelevant to the discussion. I think it's highly relevant. What I don't buy is that race is the answer. That is, I don't think that black people are intrinsically more likely to loot that white people, all else constant. The thing is, all else is not constant.

Decades of federal policy have made black people more and more dependent on the government. Black educational levels and economic achievement were both rising faster than in the white population back in the 50s. Black families were mostly married father-mother nuclear families. Black civic institutions were strong.

Then came welfare, the Great Society, benefits for mothers without husbands (better benefits than they could get with husbands at home), benefits for doing exactly what you shouldn't do to have a stable family life or to get a good job. Because blacks were the poorest group in America, they were hit first by these programs.

White people haven't been immune. We're just 20 years behind blacks on the curve. The same family disintegration that's devastated black communities has come home to white America. The same lack of responsibility that hit black America is now part of white America. It just isn't as wide spread yet. Small communities are more resistant, as are communities in areas with strong religious and family ties. We probably wouldn't see much looting in Bismark or Fargo or Salt Lake after a Katrina-type disaster.

I submit that race is a factor, but it's not a cause. The problem as I identify it is social irresponsibility and family disintegration due to pervasive and perverse government policies. But before I write an article with my answers, I like for people to think about the problem themselves. I'm a teacher, not a prophet or an oracle. I prefer to make people think about answers rather than give them mine. I'm not convinced that I'm entirely right about this, but I've yet to see anything convincing to the contrary.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Public sector pay

I've been hearing over and over again that public workers are not overpaid. Yes, they make more than private-sector workers, but when you look at their educational levels, they're really underpaid.

It would take some serious econometric analysis to answer the question definitively, but my knee-jerk reaction is "nonsense." If comparing college-educated public workers to uneducated private workers is apples and oranges, then comparing college educated teachers to college educated engineers is apples and kumquats.

About half the public workers at the state and local level are teachers. Teaching requires a college degree, most private jobs don't, and so it's clear that public workers will be better educated on average than private workers.

Unfortunately, a college degree isn't by itself a good measure of education. Different majors attract students with different academic abilities. People who can do chemical engineering don't typically get education degrees. They know that chemical engineers make more, and the discipline is more intellectually challenging. The best students go into engineering, medicine, finance and the like, not education and sociology.

I've known many fine teachers, some of them with fine minds and able to do well in any discipline they choose. The performance of teachers on tests like Texas' TExES/ExCET don't create confidence that the fine teachers are the norm, though. There are way too many tenured time servers in our school systems who have the intellectual skills of a hamster and much less intellectual curiosity. They aren't underpaid.

Educational administration is another place where there are too many people making too much money. The ranks of administrators should be ruthlessly culled, the money saved put into the pockets of classroom teachers (after we've done a bit of culling there, too).

The Last Ringbearer

For you Lord of the Rings fans, there's a Russian novel written from the perspective of the losers in the War of the Rings. It's been translated into English and made available for free download. Apparently it must be free in order to avoid the wrath of the Tolkien estate, which guards its copyrights much more zealously and effectively than Sauron guarded Orodruin. Sauron as proto-scientific enlightened despot, Mordor as emerging technological state, elves as alien and backwards guardians of a feudal way of life - interesting. I haven't read it yet so won't endorse it, but I plan to download it to my Kindle if I can. Download it here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What happens in Vegas...

I heard that advertising slogan again the other day, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." I attended a conference several years ago in Yalta. One evening a game of "truth or dare" broke out in my hotel suite (I managed to luck into a suite with a living room) while I wasn't there, and when I got back I found a young Slavic scholar seated on the stomach of a sleeping attorney as she sang "on the good ship lollypop." I ordered the party out of my room, and learned the next day that the game went considerably down-hill from there, with a now well-known political scientist wandering the halls naked with his glasses perched a couple of feel lower than is customary. On the train back to Kiyiv, a normally prim and mature sociologist commented, "I guess we took a vacation from our morals."

You can't take a vacation from your morals, and what happens in Vegas doesn't stay there. It goes home with you. That's because our morals aren't a coat we can wear or take off at will, but a distillation of who we are. I'm not talking morals in the narrow sexual sense, but in the broader sense of our code of right and wrong. I don't care what you believe about premarital sex or treating sleeping attorneys like pleasure boats, but rather what you believe is the right way to behave. If you don't behave that way, it changes you. The man who abandons his morals in Vegas goes home a man who's abandoned his morals, period. If you can slip out of them, they aren't yours.

Taking a vacation from your morals is like taking a vacation from yourself, an impossibility. Leaving your indiscretions in Vegas is only sneaky and covert, not a free pass on life. The person you are in Vegas is the person you brought with you, and the person you are in Vegas is the person you take home to Iowa or Maine or Mississippi. As I think about it, that advertising campaign is a vile lie.

Las Vegas is like old age; it just lets you be who you really are.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

50 Neoclassicists and a Keynesian

The problems in Wisconsin illustrate a rather difficult point for economic stimulators in Washington: They're surrounded by 50 governments that have to balance the books. There you are trying to goose the economy with Keynesian medicine, and the states are running in the opposite direction. They have to. They have balanced budget requirements in their constitutions and on the books. Spending has to be cut, and you can't make up for it with the electorate by giving everyone a tax cut.

The Federal government doesn't know whether to pursue expansionary fiscal policy or not. On the one hand they cut taxes (expansionary) and on the other hand are newly converted deficit hawks. At least by Washington standards. If I ever cut the projected growth of our household budget and tried to sell it to my wife as a budget cut, she'd laugh at me and take away my TV watching privileges. Or at least she'd block MSNBC.

Whichever policies the states are pursuing, they're emphatically not the policy Obama would like.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A couple of Valentine's Day thoughts

220 284

"All that I am is you and me; all that you are is me and you."

The numbers are perfect numbers, and better yet, they're an amicable pair. And so:

s(a) = a+b = s(b)

Okay, that one was sort of nerdy. I like the way my grandmother was "proposed to" by my grandfather. Her sister showed up at the store where she was working and said, "Nita, come home and take a bath. You're getting married."

And on that note, here's my Valentine's Day column at The Washington Times Communities.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Democracy and economic stability

I heard a commentator on NPR claim yesterday that Egypt needs democracy now in order to produce greater economic growth. That assertion - democracy now, growth later - has been gaining volume, and it's problematic.

I think it much more likely that the true state of affairs is that prosperity is a prerequisite for stable democratic institutions to take root. When people are relatively poor, when they don't have jobs, and when they see prosperity around them that they can't touch, they're not going to be in a mood to support their government, whatever form that government might take. If you drop democracy into Egypt and it doesn't produce change right now, it will get brushed aside.

Russia is an example of that, twice over. The Kerensky government didn't get Russia out of WWI, it didn't produce immediate positive change, and it was swept aside. The organizational skill of the Bolsheviks make that a weaker example than the more recent democratization of Russia in 1992-5. That also failed to improve living standards and people started talking very fondly about "strong leaders" (Stalin, for example) and "forceful measures" to right the economy.

The Egyptian economy was growing at a decent clip over the last few years, but the growth was lop-sided, the poor stayed poor and the jobless stayed jobless. I don't think that democracy is a bad idea in Egyp (I think it a very good one, actually), but if it isn't accompanied by real market reform and improving living standards, it won't last. What's needed are strong institutions to protect economic liberty - property rights and courts willing to protect them, transparent government and vigorous prosecution of corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, and so on. Egypt has a relatively strong civil society (something the Russians didnt') and is in a better situation than many other countries to grow democracy now, but if people think that democracy will fix anything and flourish on its own, they're badly mistaken.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Glass Ceiling

Much of the hand-wringing over the debt ceiling misses a rather important point (or sometimes counts on it): We don't raise the debt ceiling so that we can pay back what we've borrowed; we raise the debt ceiling so that we can borrow more. When Treasury Secretary Geithner says that failure to raise the ceiling will result in U.S. Government default and global economic catastrophe, he's spreading an untruth.

What would happen? The Treasury can come up with ways to keep federal spending going until next fall. After that, tax revenues are still many times greater than needed to finance the debt. What they aren't great enough to do is finance the debt and pay for everything the government is obliged to pay for. That means that Social Security payments might be deferred, the oft-threatened cuts to Medicare payments to physicians might actually happen, or the government would have to shut down some services. The courts would have to decide who is owed what first, but my guess is that the repayment of debt would be near the top of the list.

The bottom line is that failure to raise the debt ceiling almost certainly won't cause default. What it will cause is a lot of Americans not getting government checks - pay checks, reimbursements, Social Security, transfers - and political Hell of the highest order. Hence I think Tea Partiers, the GOP and Geithner are all bluffing. It makes for interesting drama, though.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hating "Skins"

The commotion over MTV’s Skins generally misses the sad truth of that show. Our youth won’t be corrupted by MTV. “Kiddie porn” isn’t a well-defined category. Making Viacom scream “uncle” over this show won’t be a victory for decency and good taste.

Skins is a symptom, not the disease. Lance that boil and the infection remains.

Economists use “revealed preferences” to study human desire. We know better than to ask what you like; people lie. If we really want to know what you value, we’ll look at what you buy.

The sad truth of Skins is that we asked for it. Perhaps you didn’t, but your neighbors did. They started asking years ago, even before they expressed shock but were still titillated that Brook Shields let nothing come between her and her Calvins, nothing at all.

Teens and children are sexualized all the time. The parents of the pouting little sex-pots of Toddlers and Tiaras might deny it, but they make of their children objects and extensions of their own desires. Cheerleaders perform for the titillation of the boys and men in the stands. Movies and TV shows that focus on teens are full of sexuality, much of it more explicit than was in the first episode of Skins. The difference is that they have adult actors rather than minors playing those sexually charged roles.

If our concern with Skins is that the actors are minors, we deceive ourselves with legalisms. If our concern is that it’s aimed at minors (and it clearly is; MTV’s claim that the show is for adults is laughable), we forget about the other shows and games we direct at minors. If we hate it for its moral and intellectual vacuity, we forget that it’s barely a step away from Ferris Bueller and Risky Business.

We’ve bought and paid for Skins. It’s ours.

Cultures and societies usually get what they deserve. We claim to hate toxic political speech, but a quick glance at the comments to news stories and political commentary shows that many of us prefer cutting come-backs to reflective discussion. Snide and snark are all the rage on TV. We don’t like our politicians, but who voted for them? We say we like Masterpiece Theater, but Snookies dominate the airwaves.

Skins might be toned down or forced from the airwaves, but it’s what our culture deserves. If we want it to be otherwise, we should demand better and buy better.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Human rights hypocrisy

The visit of China's President Hu has raised some awkward questions about human rights. As just about everyone with a computer has pointed out, last year's Nobel peace laureate got to host the man who's imprisoned this years laureate. And as has also been pointed out, Nobel peace prizes aren't what they used to be (and they never really were), so maybe it's no big deal.

Still, what should our government do about human rights? Stand up for them all the time, or only when it's easy? Punish nations that violate them (is that why we've inflicted on ourself the penance of the Obama Administration?) or trade with them? While Tunisia was useful as a secular Arab state and enemy of Al Qaeda, we ignored the brutality of its government. Egypt is a strategic partner, so don't get excited about Mubarak breaking a few fingers. If a central Asian country helps us out in Afghanistan, it must be just like Oregon but with yurts and mutton-kebabs.

We have to understand that national human rights efforts will always be hypcritical. As America moves throughtout the world, it can always punish the weak and the useless but must always engage the powerful, the dangerous and the useful. I suppose we should just be glad the French aren't torturing Algerians anymore; we're never quite certain whether we want to engage them or start eating "freedom fries."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Heated rhetoric

Well, my TWTC comments on Palin and Giffords seem to have struck some nerves. I don't get many comments on my columns, but that one so far has generated 73. The annoying thing to me is that so many of them reflect either a failure to read carefully or a complete misunderstanding of my intent. And here I always thought that my writing was quite clear.

A number of people assume I'm saying there's no link between Palin's rhetoric (and that graphic with the crosshairs that's been so widely discussed) and political violence. I make no such assumption. I merely point out that no link has been established in this case. The assault on Palin is therefor a matter of politics, not justice or genuine outrage over what happened in Tucson. If a friend is killed by a drunk driver and I respond by attacking my neighbor the known drinker and shrieking that he has blood on his hands, I'm reacting emotionally or politically, not out of desire to bring justice to whomever killed my friend. It may be that alcohol advertising is to blame for some drunk driving, but if the particular driver was an illiterate who never saw a beer commercial, then a campaign against alcohol advertising is dishonest if it uses him as the poster-boy.

If people want to end the vitriol in political speech, they might try being less hate-driven in their speech about Palin.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A hate crime

The shooting in Arizona, the deaths and the wounding of Rep. Giffords are sad, and the political vitriol so common in America is disgusting, but to say that there's a connection between the two without demonstrating a connection between them is intellectual and moral laziness of the first degree. So many commentators just know that the two are linked via Sarah Palin, even if we can't show that Jaren Loughner followed, liked or even listened to Palin.

I don't care for Ms Palin and her rhetoric; I think she's playing with a loaded gun. It makes more sense to me, though, to blame the Giffords' shooting on the abbysmal state of mental health care in our country than on political hate. A lot of hate is being directed at Sarah Palin. I wish her a long and healthy life, but if anyone were to take a shot at her, I'd be fascinated to see whether the press would don sack-cloth and begin a round of mea culpas.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The problem with tenure

I've been giving some thought to the tenure system in academia, and I've come to the conclusion that it's a bad idea. One of the reasons for tenure is that it allows the faculty member to teach and research ideas that the administration and community might find disagreeable without fear of job-loss. It should encourage creativity and intellectual independence and open up the marketplace of ideas.

It fails. Academia is notoriously inhospitable to some political philosophies (Keith Olbermann isn't likely to incite the passionate opposition that a visit from Anne Coulter will often ignite), and it's prone to intellectual fads. Why?

Well, first you spend four years as an undergrad regurgitating ideas back to your professors. In graduate school you apprentice yourself to a faculty member and explore ideas that he or she approves of in an approved-of way. You take your comps and qualifiers, defend your dissertation, and after eight or more years of combined undergraduate and graduate study, you get a job. In that job you spend six years not upsetting any of your colleagues or the people who review your articles. In other words, to get along you go along with prevailing wisdom and dogmas.

Sixteen years after you started at the university, you're tenured and ready to speak your mind and follow your research path. If you need funding, don't follow a path or say anything that's too controversial; even a Harvard President can lose his job for suggesting that there are differences between male and femal academics. That's no likely to be a problem - you've spent so long not rocking the boat that you're not likely to start now.

I think that the actual chase for tenure is the best way to destroy all those positive traits that it's supposed to encourage. I think that senior academics should have a little uncertainty in their lives, and junior academics should have less reason to not rock the boat. It's when you're young that you need protection for having wild ideas, not when you're old.

I don't think I'd like to patronize a business where some employees can't be fired and hold the power to grant that same security to other employees. I don't think that sort of business is likely to produce innovative products, good customer service or carefull attention to much but the wants of the permanent employees. If those employees value good service and innovation, then the enterprise might do well, but anyone who's worked in a real business understands that that isn't often the case. Self-interest will ruin a business run like a university.

Of course, now that I have tenure I'd really prefer to keep it. Seeing the solution to the problem, I'm sadly forced to conclude that I'm also part of the problem. We need a revolution, but only after I'm gone.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ezra Klein and understanding the Constitution

MSNBC contributor and Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein has an interesting take on the Constitution. After declaring the proposed reading of the Constitution in Congress a stunt, he suggested that, because the document is old, it's hard to understand. He noted that the Constitution can be interpreted in different ways, the obvious inference being that Republicans will interpret it their way (while Democrats will, presumably, interpret it the correct way), hence reading it serves no useful purpose.

With that last comment I'm putting words in Klein's mouth, interpreting his comments in a way he may not have intended. In so doing I illustrate a legitimate point on his part: If it's sometimes hard for a fluent speaker of English to interpret the precise intent of another contemporaneous fluent speaker, it may be as hard or harder to interpret the precise intent of a speaker who lived in a very different age ... (read more)


Welcome to my new blog. I write a couple of columns at the Washington Times Communities, one on politics and one on travel in Louisiana. This blog is a place to put the stuff I write that doesn't fit easily into my columns, either because it isn't long enough or because I haven't decided what my position is.