27.2.13

SWEET LAND OF SUBSIDY.

A Wisconsin legislator discovers his state's roads are not self-sustaining.
A small gas tax increase would not likely produce severe consumer pain at the pump when you consider how every several days the price already fluctuates, sometimes by 10 cents to 15 cents a gallon. To go that route would require measures along the lines of the Governor's Transportation Commission that allocates needed money for transit and long overdue increases for local road maintenance, which both often get shoved off to the side by larger highway or new construction projects.

Another benefit of the gas tax is that a large percentage of those dollars come from non-Wisconsin taxpayers. A weight-based registration system makes sense as well. It's common sense that the larger and heavier the vehicle, whether an SUV or semitractor-trailer, there is more wear and tear on the road system - especially in cold weather with salt and ice taking their toll.
The state legislature is dealing with the opportunity costs of using fuel tax revenues as a piggy-bank for other state projects, or perhaps it's the other way around.

Is it too much to hope that Passenger Rail into Madison and Green Bay returns to the policy mix?

DEVELOP YOUR INTUITION.

David Henderson remembers Armen Alchian, starting with some recollections from heterodox economists.
[Friedrich] Hayek gave his characteristic wince, paused, and said, "There are two economists who deserve the Nobel prize because their work is important but won't get it because they didn't do a lot of work: Ronald Coase and Armen Alchian."

Sixteen years later, in 1991, Ronald Coase did win the Nobel Prize. When I got the news, I called Armen and told him the story. He got a kick out of it and seemed to have a new hope that he would win. He didn't, and now he can't. Armen Alchian died on Tuesday at the fine age of 98.
I consider myself fortunate to have learned intermediate price theory out of George Stigler's The Theory of Price and Alchian and William Allen's Exchange and Production, rather than out of the Henderson-and-Quandt-stripped-of-Lagrangians canonical texts of the day.  I'm not sure my students agree, as it is my penchant to ask questions that require them to develop their intuition in quirky ways, rather than scribble a figure or calculate an elasticity.

Somewhere in the stack of books to review is Alchian's Economic Forces at Work, and I really have to dig into it, particularly this paper.
Alchian first major article, "Uncertainty, Evolution and Economic Theory," was published in 1950. It was his response to a controversy about whether companies really do maximize profits. Alchian argued that even though all companies may not maximize profits, those that survive will be ones whose managers, by luck or design, came close to maximizing profits. Therefore, those that we observe will have maximized profits. So, for the long term at least, Alchian argued that economists don't need to show that all companies try to maximize profits in order to derive the standard conclusions from the profit-maximization assumption.
It gets hard to render that idea into mathematics: firms that are doing relatively poorly are receiving noisy signals that they've failed to reach the frontier in some way, but coming up with a compact strategy space and a dynamic that converges is messy.

I'm also intrigued by this observation from Professor Henderson.
My personal favorite of his published papers is "The Economic and Social Impact of Free Tuition" (1968). Alchian pointed out that government aid to higher education is a transfer to the relatively rich. That's because people who can make it through college, even though they may have a low current income, have a high wealth.

He compared subsidizing college to subsidizing drilling expenses for someone sitting on a large pool of oil. The untapped student's potential is the analogue of the untapped oil. Alchian argued that lack of current income might be a justification for loans to aspiring college students but not for outright subsidies. He cinched the argument with the following story:

One poor, "uneducated" resident of Watts, upon hearing Ralph Bunche [a well-known black educator and diplomat] say that he could not have had a college education unless tuition were free, opined, "Perhaps it's time to repay out of his higher income for that privilege granted him by taxes on us Negroes who never went to college."

I still make Alchian's point in my classes and, although it upsets my students, not a single one has been able to undercut the fundamental soundness of Alchian's argument.
I've been struggling for years with a pithy way to express similar sentiments.

25.2.13

THE WORK GETS DONE AT THE MID-MAJORS AND THE REGIONAL COMPREHENSIVES.

Historiann has a tough question for the faddists who hope online college can solve higher education's Wayne State problem.
[T]hey’re producing a product that’s intended for the state uni and community college crowd.  Here’s why  it’s important to talk to faculty who teach first generation students, working-class returning students, nonwhite students, and students who are financing their own educations through heavy student loan borrowing: we’re already teaching your target “customers,” and we know what they need and why online courses won’t fit the bill.
Let me refresh everybody's memory.




The first-generations and non-traditionals and commuters and anyone else who is not part of the U.S. News bubble but is in college will have no shot at competing with the better-connected or better-resourced supposed meritocrats without a faculty that recognizes the mid-majors and comprehensives are in the same business as the bubble schools, and work with their students accordingly.
[P]rofessors matter too.  We matter not just to the weaker students who appear to benefit more from f2f courses, but even to the strongest students as we have a decisive leadership role in our own classrooms as to what we talk about, how we discuss issues and problems, and in what we decide to do with “teaching moments” in f2f classes that might appear to be purely provocative and/or clueless student comments in an online discussion session.  I’m sure all of you faculty types can think back with pride on a moment in which you were challenged in class by a student, or a time when you took what seemed like a profoundly obvious comment and used it as an opportunity for deeper exploration of a subject or problem.
Indeed.

Keep in mind, also, that developing as a professor includes developing the ability to distinguish a clueless question from a badly phrased yet insightful question. Not always easy.

SEQUESTRATION.

Betsy's Newmark recommends a Washington Post analysis of the scale of the sequester.  The proportion the reduction in the rate of increase of federal spending bears to total federal spending, let alone to national income puts the mouse and the elephant, or Z Scale and O Scale, in the same size class.


Washington Post graphic via Betsy's Page.

Here, quoting from an electronic mail circulated last fall to Northern Illinois faculty, is what a real sequester looks like.
Earlier this year, the State of Illinois announced a reduction in state funding to NIU of approximately $6,000,000. This budget reduction was allocated to the various units of the university, including our college, with a reduction of $1,419,000 assigned to the College of Arts & Sciences. That represents a reduction of approximately 3% of our core operating budget. To respond to this cut, [deans, administrators, and faculty collaborated] to develop a budget reduction plan. [Headquarters] had hoped that we would be able to find enough savings that would allow us to accomplish the needed reductions without any visible impact on the college’s operations. It is now clear that this will not be possible, and that more aggressive action will be needed to balance our budget.

The budget reduction is only for our General Revenues (02) funding. None of the action steps described below apply to our other fund categories such as fee accounts, local funds, grant accounts or foundation accounts. No new restrictions are being placed on those accounts.

With nearly 90% of our budget associated with personnel, it is difficult to absorb budget reductions on short notice. We are therefore approaching this as a two-step process. First, we will use a combination of reserves and short-term spending reductions to balance our FY 13 budget. At the same time, we will look more strategically at steps we can take to bring our permanent budget into balance. Those steps will include efforts to increase revenue, diversify our resources, and make targeted reductions and reallocations. The 3% reduction in our budget is a permanent reduction, and we will need to find permanent sustainable reductions in our FY 14 budget. However, there is no assumption that the permanent reductions made in FY 14 may or may not be the same as the reductions made in FY 13.

To balance the budget for FY 13 and to help prepare for the FY 14 budget, [headquarters calls] for a variety of immediate action steps. The following steps are effective immediately, and will remain in place through June 30, 2013, the end of the current fiscal year.
  •  Faculty Hiring Freeze: Most faculty hiring authorized for Fall, 2013 will be cancelled. A small number of guaranteed positions, and positions tied to strategic planning initiatives, may be authorized to proceed, but all other searches will be canceled. Chairs and directors have been notified individually on the status of their searches.
  • Staff Hiring Freeze: All vacancies in operating staff and supportive professional staff positions will be carefully evaluated, and a determination for each will be made whether to fill the position, freeze it temporarily, or cancel it permanently.
  • Instructional Staffing: In deploying and staffing the Spring 2013 schedule, we will need to be more conservative than we have been in the recent past in meeting student instructional needs.
  • Graduate Assistant Vacancies: All existing commitments to graduate assistants for FY 13 will be honored. However, if any students resign their assistantships mid-year, those funds will be recovered. The position will only be refilled if there is a specific instructional need that will be filled by the assistantship.
  • Non-Personnel Budgets: I am asking each unit to reduce its non-personnel budget by 5%. This includes operating budgets, travel budgets and equipment budgets. Each unit will determine how and where to take its reduction. Details will be forthcoming from [an individual] in the college business office.
  • College Travel Supplements: The college will honor the commitments we have already made for travel supplements. However, for faculty and staff, the college will only authorize new travel supplements for untenured faculty, and will only do so if there is a 1-1 match of unit-level funds. The college will continue to provide awards for student travel (both graduate and undergraduate students) from our Foundation accounts, as long as funds permit.
In making long-term reductions, our priorities will be to protect our core missions of teaching and research, to protect our highest quality programs, and to make the most efficient use of our resources. This will not be simple, and it will take some time to develop and announce a permanent reduction plan. [The aforementioned collaborators will work with] the College Senate [the committee of department chairmen -- ed.] to develop and implement a thoughtful, sustainable budget plan.

Once we have absorbed these reductions in FY 13 on a one-time basis in FY 13 and make them permanent in FY 14, [The author of the memo hopes], but certainly can’t promise, that we will not have to make any further reductions. With pension reform still in the wind, economic recovery still sputtering and enrollments still lagging, we have some distance to go before we can be sure that our general revenue budget will remain stable. [The author knows] that this kind of continued uncertainty is unsettling and tiring. [The author appreciates] all that you have done as we have worked through the challenges of the last few years, and, with your help, ... will do my best to address these new challenges.
The "continued uncertainty" has been going on for 20 years, with several different deans having to retrench in some way or other.  When I hired out in 1986, my department was under strength compared to economics departments in universities with comparable enrollments and responsibilities.  Administrative burdens have increased for faculty, and my department is about half the size it was in 1986, despite total enrollments being similar.  That "lagging enrollments" is relative to strategic plan targets.

Despite the retrenchments, there is still money in the budget for the women of the fevered brow to commemorate fifty years of The Feminine Mystique, complete with retro-Sixties posters all over campus to promote the schedule of events, and at the university level, there are resources for a football preview and book debut even before spring camp opens.

At the federal level, the Washington Monument has been closed for over a year.  We'll survive the sequester.  Surviving administrative preferences, locally or nationally, is another matter.

24.2.13

NOTES ON AN OLD TIMETABLE.

It has been a Cold Spring Shops tradition to agitate for faster train timings by drawing invidious comparisons of Amtrak schedules with those maintained by Depression-era steam railroads.



The publisher of Harper's is inspired, upon riding Amtrak from New York to New Haven to view some art at Yale, to make a similar comparison.
I take the chronically mediocre, supposedly high-speed Acela fairly often to Boston, Providence and Washington; no one needs to tell me how much faster and better it could be. But to refresh my knowledge, I recently made a round trip to New Haven, just to remind myself of what we’ve lost and of the potential benefits if we took trains seriously again.

New York’s acoustic-tile-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit Penn Station remains what has to be among the worst, most dispiriting major transportation terminals in the world, though my latest visit, post-rush hour on a Thursday morning two weeks ago, was relatively painless. My ticket seller was cordial and patient in explaining the differences between a $76 round trip on the Northeast Regional and a $140 round trip on the Acela. Further, I learned from my ticket folder that May 12 is National Train Day.

Waiting under the train board for the track to be announced (there’s no space for benches), I was tempted to jump on the glamorous-sounding Silver Star to Miami, scheduled to leave at 11:02, two minutes after my Northeast Regional #172, but I stuck with my plan. Whatever the ugliness of Penn Station, I was happy to be spared the airport-security drill and even happier when my train lurched into motion exactly on time. The café car was staffed by a kindly soul, and my $4.75 fruit-and-granola yogurt parfait along with my $2 coffee made for an adequate meal. As we moved east, then north through Queens, over the spectacular Hell Gate Bridge, then across Randall’s Island and past the New York Post printing plant, I started to think that maybe “regular” Amtrak wasn’t so bad, even when it bumps along at 50 to 60 mph.

On the advice of my editor, I had invented an itinerary, including a quick tour of the Yale University Art Gallery, so I began to watch the clock very closely. Only if the train were on schedule could I see some paintings and catch the returning Acela to New York to make a 4 p.m. appointment. The train arrived right on time at the hollowed-out wreck known as Bridgeport, then four minutes early, at 12:34, at New Haven (Paris by comparison to Bridgeport), whose handsome beaux-arts, Cass Gilbert-designed Union Station puts New York City’s hideous 1960s Pennsylvania Station to shame. Ten minutes later I was admiring Thomas Eakins’s “Taking the Count,” after marveling at Van Gogh’s “Café de Nuit,” Trumbull’s “Washington at Trenton” and Bonnard’s “Place Pigalle at Night.”

A great university gets the art, the romance and the train station it deserves. Why not the trains and speed to match?

Returning to Amtrak blandness on the frigid westbound platform, I was pleased to observe a crew pre-emptively de-icing the eastbound platform with liquid calcium chloride, in anticipation of the coming blizzard. Still, what’s the point of the Acela and the extra $32? It couldn’t be my $8 “Tuscan Panini,” which turned into a soggy mess after microwaving. True, I skipped Bridgeport in a bit of class-conscious scheduling. But my front-end-of-the train coach car made a squeaking sound every time that we jerked a little and at 2:10 a last call was announced in the café because of a “scheduled break,” even though we weren’t due into New York for another half hour. Shabbiness, thy name is Amtrak.

My Acela did arrive on time (one of 85.4 percent such rides in the past 12 months), but so what? While the train briefly hits 150 mph north of New York, it averages somewhere in the 70s range between Manhattan and Bos-ton because the tracks can’t handle anything faster. The telling comparison is not with the Northeast Regional but with Metro North’s New Haven Line commuter train out of gorgeous Grand Central that takes the more direct route through upper Manhattan to New Haven. The 10:03 Acela takes 1 hour 27 minutes to reach New Haven, for $70. The off-peak 10:07 Metro North takes just 33 minutes longer and costs $22. Shocked? Not enough. In 1963, when New York’s magnificent old Penn Station was demolished, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad ran its fastest train from New York’s Grand Central to New Haven in 1 hour 20 minutes, seven minutes faster than the present-day Acela!
Yes, once upon a time a New Yorker could make a midday trip to New Haven and return on the Yankee Clipper, with a dining car that would put the Acela cuisine to shame.   Or one could return later in the evening on the Merchants Limited.

HITTING BOTTOM?

Three articles suggest there are limits to a business model based on cheap goods offered at low prices made possible by cheap and contingent labor.  The straight news angle is that retail stores require consumers to have disposable income out of which to consume.
American consumers might be preparing to downshift again, if only slightly, with low-income consumers hit the hardest. Sensing consumer trepidation, retailers are scrambling to adjust.

Retailers, restaurants, and consumer goods companies like Wal-Mart are lowering sales forecasts and adjusting marketing campaigns ahead of expectations that consumers will slash spending, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Peggy Noonan sees one Deeper Lesson in the aisles of Wal-Mart.
It was Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend but even accounting for that the mood and look of the place was different from what it was two and five years ago. Then, things seemed dynamic—what buys, what an array of products, what bustle in the aisles. This time it seemed tired, frayed, with fewer families and scarcer employees. It looked like a diorama of the Great Recession.

What effect do all the successive fiscal cliffs, ceilings and sequesters, have on public confidence? On the public's spirit? They only add to the sense that Washington is dysfunctional and cannot possibly help us out of the mire.

It shows the world we lurch from crisis to crisis by habit now. This makes us look incapable and beset.
The entropy isn't in Washington, suggests James Howard Kunstler.
WalMart managed to install itself in the pantheon of American Dream icons, along with apple pie, motherhood, and Coca Cola. In most of the country there is no other place to buy goods (and no other place to get a paycheck, scant and demeaning as it may be). America made itself hostage to bargain shopping and then committed suicide. Here we find another axiom of human affairs at work: People get what they deserve, not what they expect. Life is tragic.

The older generations responsible for all that may be done for, but the momentum has now turned in the opposite direction. Though the public hasn't groked it yet, WalMart and its kindred malignant organisms have entered their own yeast-overgrowth death spiral. In a now permanently contracting economy the big box model fails spectacularly. Every element of economic reality is now poised to squash them.
The economic reality that cost-conscious managers missed is that, yes, a worker's wages are a capitalist's cost.  But there's another part of the circular-flow model that will bite the managers every time.  A capitalist's sales are a worker's purchases.

SEEKING A CATHEDRAL DOOR

Higher education requires a Reformation.  Or perhaps a Counter-Reformation, from well-meaning but misguided people who have lowered expectations, and everything else.  The National Association of Scholars polled assorted observers of the academic scene to identify One Hundred Theses, not necessarily all aligned with any one doctrine or dogma.

NEVER MIND THOSE NAMED STORMS.

Nemo, Q, Rocky, whatever.  It's half-past February.  That means Ollie's is open.
People stand in line. The 18-degree day turns their breath into fog, yet the only thing on their minds is getting a fresh scoop of frozen custard.

Ollie’s Frozen Custard, 2290 Oakland Drive in Sycamore, opened for its 2013 season on Wednesday. Ollie’s has been serving the area with its frozen treats since 1985.

Becky Duda, a 7-year-old DeKalb resident, said it is never too cold for custard. She prefers chocolate custard with M&M toppings.
Come summertime, there are additional seasonal flavors, and pumpkin custard in October.  Strawberries and Oreos on vanilla custard?  A Huskie, of course.

19.2.13

FUN WITH SEMIOTICS.

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is a glossy provocation to the Perpetually Aggrieved.

What's the over-under that at least one participant in the semiotics workshop wishes she could be a swimsuit model?

YOU CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE.

Insta Pundit is not happy about having to drive across Dixie.
I drove home from Bentonville, Arkansas in 11 hours, 15 minutes today, courtesy of Hertz and not courtesy of US Air, who not only couldn’t honor my ticket today, but who couldn’t even promise to get me home by Tuesday. I rented a Mazda 6 — nice car, surefooted and easy to drive — and it wasn’t bad. But jeez, airlines really suck today. Perks and first-class upgrades are okay, but the bottom line is, can you rely on them to get you where you’re going? Not so much. . . .
We've noted, previously, the withdrawal of the air carriers from some of the less-heavily-trafficked routs, and the occasional usefulness of the passenger train as an option, even in some surprising places.

The passenger rail network that we have today, however, still has the structure of the late-1960s network, and trains withdrawn prior to the creation of Amtrak have only rarely been added to the system.  The retrenchment began even earlier in the Southwest.  The best rail itinerary from the summer of 1954 would make the current U.S. Air offering look good.  The nearest passenger service to Bentonville is the Frisco at Rogers, Ark.  Board the Meteor at 9.23 (sections and bedrooms available). Arrive St. Louis at 7.45 the next morning.  Board Baltimore and Ohio's National Limited at 9.45, arrive Cincinnati at 5.35.  Sections might be available for day use.  Get supper in Cincinnati, then board Southern's Carolina Special 9.50, arrive Knoxville 6.50.  Sections and compartments available.  Two nights out, though.  Driving, even on pre-Interstate Highway roads, looks appealing.

On the map, a Rogers - Fort Smith (Ark.) - Little Rock - Memphis - Knoxville routing looks more direct, but the connections involve either a long wait at Memphis or a change of trains at Chattanooga.

YOUR PRIVATE DRONE.

At the July 2011 Gettysburg re-enactment, site marshals asked spectators to ground their heli-camera for fear it would spook the horses.


You'll see the camera grounded to the left of the spectator in blue shirt and tan shorts.  It looks a lot like the robot camera that turns up in football coverage.  The one in the stadium travels on some overhead wires.  This one is a remote controlled helicopter.  It's not the only incarnation of a private drone (via Drudge).
The drones sell for as little as $350, making them increasingly popular with the general public, and worrying those who believe the technology has the potential to be a peeping Tom in the sky.

Associate Professor Kevin Heller from the Melbourne Law School says the idea that private citizens can buy drones and record footage directly onto smartphones had serious privacy implications.

He said that while ''not everybody who buys these drones is a closet criminal … there are infinite mischievous possibilities''.
As cheap and light as digital cameras have become, a clever hobbyist might be able to do some kitbashing.

The same site offers another remote-controlled helicopter that raises the possibility of being able to take out a neighbor someday.

17.2.13

COOL PLACES TO CATCH A TRAIN

From The Weather Channel.  Their focus appears to be on the aesthetic: no discussion of whether there is a coffee bar with a good view of the trains.  London's Kings Cross used to have one.  I recall a good one alongside Platform 1 at London Paddington, not a bad place to observe a commuter rush that is the antithesis of the south side of Chicago Union Station.  If there's not a coffee bar, a bratwurst kiosk will do, such as the one just beyond the bunters at Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof.  Sorry, Milwaukee, those vending machines just don't cut the mustard.

RENDERED STUPID BY UNTESTED THEORIES

Peter Lawler of Berry College talks smack about people who need smack to be talked about them.
There is, in truth, little confidence in administrator-driven educational assessment. As nearly everyone knows, "assessment mania" originated in schools of education, which are not known as centers of excellence or even effectiveness.  For another, assessment rarely presents itself as aiming to remedy "grade inflation," which is so often pointed to as evidence of higher education's declining rigor or basic quality control.  Assessment is usually tied to "competencies."  To be competent in this or that skill is be "good enough."  And those in the know realize that "competency-based grading" is behind the spectacularly high grades given to students in schools of education for decades now.  "Good enough" in a variety of skills equals an A.  A focus on measuring competence might mean that we can show no student has been left behind, but it might also be at the expense of cultivating or recognizing excellence.  That, of course, is the criticism so many high-school teachers have of the whole No Child Left Behind and similar standardized assessment initiatives.
Quite.

NOT GERRYMANDERED.

An assignment of electoral votes by Congressional district suggests that the Republicans are a closer approximation to a national party than are the Democrats.  Now comes Michael Barone, with a finer-grained analysis of the construction of Congressional districts.
Democratic voters, particularly in the two Obama elections, tend to be clustered in black, Hispanic and gentry liberal neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas and (this makes a difference in state legislative districting but not so much in congressional districting) university towns. Democrats win districts in such areas by huge margins, with upwards of 70% of the vote in many cases. Republican voters are pretty evenly dispersed outside these clusters.
Left for further research: whether the presence of the constraint in the voting rights laws that requires some fraction of the districts be majority-minority augments the concentration of Democrats. Absent that requirement, more Congressional districts might be contested, and the House and to some extent the Senate less fractious.

Mr Barone doesn't solve that problem, but a related problem offers food for thought.
Proof [c.q.] comes from this “Electoral Reform Map” which divides the United States into 50 equal-population states. The folks who did this want to reduce the power of small states in the Electoral College. They used algorithms in order to draw the states and then smoothed out the boundaries, keeping major metro areas together in one state (or more than one when they have enough population). It’s a pretty neat looking map. And each state would have the same number of electoral votes.
It's also a pretty politically infeasible map: imagine running the State Patrol in one of the Trans-Mountain states.  The simpler way out might be for Congressional districts to be drawn on an equal-area, equal-population basis wherever possible.

16.2.13

GIMMICKS.

Via Media uses the behavior of the Argentinian government to make a case for proper funding of pensions.
What’s needed is an actuarially sound, adequately financed, conservatively invested pension system. Anything else is a gimmick. Unfortunately, there are lots of gimmicks floating around these days.
Yes, and there's plenty of blame to go around. The U.S. government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation exists because capitalists invested too much of the pension money in too few stocks, or because bankruptcy offered an easy way out of those liabilities.  That same U.S. government made the annual "budget deficit" smaller by using current receipts to the "Social" "Security" "Trust" "Fund" in excess of current payments to cover other governmental expenses, writing the "trustees" an IOU.  Here in Illinois, a substantial part of the supposed shortfall in the various state pension funds is the absence of the return on absent investments that the state did not make, so as to be able to pay for other pet projects.  The state has been playing the same cash-flow games with other vendors.

UNLEASH THE RENT SEEKERS.

The Highway Trust Fund is the fiction by which the truckers seek to live at the expense of everybody else, and particularly the railroads.  The trucking lobby is pushing Congress to allow heavier trucks on the public roads.  The railroaders push back.
The [Assoociation of American Railroads] has commissioned a freight diversion study that should be completed by March 14. Initial reports indicate the [association] study is going to reaffirm substantial freight diversion from rail to truck and a large increase in the number of trucks on our nation’s highways. Products most vulnerable to diversion include steel, minerals, agricultural products, food products, autos, and chemicals and plastics.
Fine, let's make sure the heavier trucks bear the full cost of the road-strengthening programs, as well as the increased congestion costs those elephants will impose on everyone behind them.  We don't want to become China, with days-long traffic jams.

SYMBOLISM OVER SUBSTANCE.

The Minnesota Vikings, probably at great expense, give the team logo a makeover, to the glee of a scribe in Packer Nation.
Maybe the team should spend more time enhancing its on-field roster and less time trying to improve its logo. As everyone in Wisconsin knows, the Vikings joined the NFL in 1961 and are still looking for their first Super Bowl title.
Chortle.

BUSINESS AS USUAL.

Democrat ward-heeler politician cops a plea.
Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife Sandi intend to plead guilty to federal charges alleging the former congressman misused $750,000 in campaign funds while she understated their income on tax returns for six years, their lawyers say.

Jackson Jr., 47, a Democrat from Chicago, was charged in a criminal information Friday with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements. He faces up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and other penalties.

Sandi Jackson was charged with one count of filing false tax returns. She faces up to three years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and other penalties.

Jackson Jr. is accused of diverting $750,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

Federal authorities allege that Jackson Jr. used campaign funds to purchase a $43,350 men’s gold-plated Rolex watch, $5,150 worth of fur capes and parkas, and $9,588 in children’s furniture. The purchases were made between 2007 and 2009, according to the criminal information, which authorities noted is not evidence of guilt.
The editors at a local newspaper express dismay.
Ask yourself how an enormously gifted attorney, accustomed to the national limelight even before his eight terms in the U.S. House, could think his bold conduct involving staff members and other potential witnesses against him would remain secret.

Ask how he could squander a probable lifetime position in Congress. Squander all the good he might do there for the people he had sought to provide with better jobs and better futures.

Ask how he could humiliate not one but three generations of his globally known family — his famous father and his young children included.
The error the editors commit is one of thinking of a safely blue district as a mainstream Congressional district, rather than as a microcosm of a third world failed state. Here's that editorial's characterization of the boodling.
That's more money than many of the defrocked congressman's former constituents on the South Side of Chicago will earn in their lifetimes. And it doesn't include an additional $28,500 in allegedly undisclosed gifts and loans, and enough dishonest paperwork to earn hard time.
Those destitute constituents are simply a means to re-election for Democrat ward-heelers.  It's a whole lot easier to posture and call out the System for the persistence of poverty than it is to ask for an outbreak of bourgeois virtues among those constituents, or to end the policies that enable the helpless while buying votes.

Representative Jackson's seat is open.  It's a safely blue district, and there's a lot of Democrat interest in securing that potential lifetime job.  The Chicago television stations are already running the attack ads, a goodly number of which attempt to tie Democrat candidates to the National Rifle Association.  Nowhere is there a libertarian or Republican voice suggesting that private gun ownership might be the only recourse available to a citizen otherwise at the mercy of corrupt cops, gang turf wars, and of the young people rendered unemployable by the minimum wage, which Chicago Democrats state and national both seek to raise, and by the failure of the Chicago Public Schools to develop human capital.

14.2.13

FIVE YEARS.

Governor Quinn and President Peters spoke at the memorial service.


Northern Illinois University photograph.

An onlooker has Wisconsin present in spirit.


At a football game, watch the Northern Illinois bench closely at the change to the fourth quarter.  Many teams have the players raise four fingers, to signify ownership of the fourth quarter.  Northern Illinois players raise five.
Between the third and the fourth quarters of every football game, the team, support staff, band members and fans put up five fingers in memorial for the Feb. 14, 2008, victims.

The tradition, known by the team as “Five in the Sky,” was started by former NIU football coach Jerry Kill, according to Dan Stinson, technical assistant for athletics.

“It started after the school shooting,” said Alex Kube, a 2010 graduate and linebacker. “Coach Kill brought it up and all the captains agreed on it.”
Current players hope to continue the tradition.

13.2.13

OPPORTUNITY COSTS.

An Energy and Capital report reminds readers that in questions of resource allocation, what people choose not to do is as important as what they choose to do.
Although some find it convenient to target high-speed rail as a waste of taxpayer dollars, if you dive into the numbers, you'll find that the absence of high-speed rail in this country actually inhibits economic growth...

Recent studies conducted by the Government Accountability Office, the European Union, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials found that the actual cost of building and/or improving rail lines is significantly lessthan the cost per mile of alternatives.

In the area of high-speed rail, it was found that not building high-speed rail in California would cost the state $8.2 billion in foregone benefits over 40 years...

In the Midwest: $11.7 billion over 40 years; the Northeast Corridor: $5.5 billion over 40 years; and in the Pacific Northwest: $1.1 billion over 40 years.

Interestingly — and certainly not in line with what detractors argue — we are finding more and more evidence that maintaining the status quo and not investing appropriately in rail and high-speed rail infrastructure will actually be an increasingly expensive proposition for taxpayers.
Go. Read and understand. And contemplate the private losses implied by people spending more time at the airport than they do in the air, or more time stuck in traffic or waiting for the light to change than they do actually moving.

O-BA-BLA-BLA-BLA-BLA-MEH.

You'd expect the editors at National Review to characterize Our President's most recent policy address as "halting and graceless".  A similar characterization from Democrat operative Kirsten Powers is newsworthy.
If the State of the Union address Tuesday night is any indication, it appears President Obama's chief speechwriter has been replaced by a cliché-generator circa 1960. His erstwhile oratory was a melee of cringe-inducing lines ripped straight from a sit-in.
Perhaps that's what one would expect of a university lecturer in constitutional law. It's easy enough to provoke sophomores into a pointless but profound-sounding discussion by unleashing a few Democrat cliches, and there may be opportunities to induce some semblance of critical thinking among the One-Ls  in a similar manner.  Even Democrat hacks get it.
Obama is not a liberal visionary with deep desires to institute a progressive agenda. If he is, he's a miserable failure. You need look no further than his own record (starting with foreign policy) and then Tuesday night's speech for evidence. Banalities and tropes are not a governing philosophy or a plan. The immigration piece was good, but hardly a profile in courage. After all, even the GOP wants immigration reform now. There is also the small fact that Obama promised to deal with immigration in his first term.

The edict on climate change was despotic, not liberal. I believe climate change is a problem and humans contribute to it. However, 'either do what I say or I will just start issuing executive orders' that make green energy companies rich is not the kind of governing we should be lauding, regardless of party or ideological bent.

His plea on gun control was manipulative and empty. It worked thematically, but failed on substance. The only point was to make Republicans look bad, while simultaneously lecturing about compromise and the importance of working together.
The good news, though, is that the State of the Union show is ineffective.
It’s a worst-of-both-worlds form of political communication: All the pomp of a Speech from the Throne without any of the give-and-take of Question Period.
Compare and contrast:
“Speech from the throne” is the term used (with certain variations) in Westminister parliamentary systems. The head of state reads a statement about what “my government…” will do in the coming year. Then once it, and the dignity of the Queen (or her representative in Canada and other Commonwealth Realms) pretending that the government speaks for everyone, is over, things go back to normal. And that normal involves the head of government being hissed and booed and subjected to harsh questions in parliament.

In this respect, the State of the Union is really the worst of both worlds. The head of state stands before the people’s representatives (oh, and the senators, too) and delivers something allegedly about the nation as a whole. But then, as head of government–and therefore a partisan leader–he (i.e. the same person, unlike in Westminster systems) never sticks around to answer tough questions and subject himself to ridicule for the absurdities he has just mouthed. Instead, the opposition has to send someone to a TV/radio studio to give an equally absurd speech that hardly anyone listens to, and thus an opportunity for the sides to engage each other when people actually are paying attention is squandered.
Perhaps, under Question Time, a disgruntled Member of Congress would have the opportunity to demonstrate a lie, rather than yelling about it.

VENITE PEREGRINUS.

It's possible for the faithful to obtain their Ash Wednesday blessing at curbside. "Churches all over the country are making it easier for parishioners pressed for time to get their Ash Wednesday blessing... via the drive-thru."  At some churches, the wanderer's blessing is available in the morning, at others in the evening.  At least one commentator is unimpressed. "You could conceivably get the mark of the cross on your forehead while still gulping down the breakfast burrito and hash brown you picked up at the last drive-thru."

The whole point of Lent is sacrifice and reflection.  Obtaining the symbol at little effort strikes me as missing the point.

12.2.13

FASCHING IST.

DEMORALIZING THE FACULTY.

Jane Shaw of the Pope Center wrote a column for The Wall Street Journal suggesting that diminished expectations in higher education diminish outcomes.
For many students, college is a smorgasbord of easy courses chosen for their lack of academic rigor. There is no serious "core curriculum." Students spend limited time studying. Faculty and administrators make matters worse by allowing students to fill up their time with courses like UNC-Chapel Hill's "Dogs and People: From Prehistory to the Urbanized Future" and "Music in Motion: American Popular Music and Dance." When students can get a minor in "Social and Economic Justice" without ever taking a course in the economics department, it's hardly surprising that businesses aren't lining up to hire them.
The column prompted a number of letters to the editor, now lost somewhere in cyberspace, but Ms Shaw's colleague George Leef chose to highlight one of them.
As the demographics change and most second- and third-tier universities compete for those students (and their dollars) we will see an acceleration of the race to the bottom. Universities will soon start selling themselves by that they can help someone earn that coveted engineering degrees in three years (and soon it will become two).

U.S. universities used to be uniquely superb but the quality is deteriorating rapidly. We must ask why and fix the problem before it it too late.
That's from an engineering professor at Alabama-Huntsville, an institution that ought to be able to exploit the proximity to the Redstone Arsenal to develop rocket scientists to do rocket science, rather than value derivative securities.  Instead, though, it appears as though Huntsville sees its future as the degree-grantor of last resort, never mind that by so doing, it might be enhancing social stratification rather than overturning it.

GET 'EM OFF, GET 'EM ON, GET 'EM OUT OF TOWN.

The Shore Line Interurban Historical Society obtains a transcript of a WBBM Radio retrospective of the North Shore Line, 50 years after it quit running.
Decades before the Obama Administration began talking about speeding up Amtrak, the North Shore was a railroad without speed limits – just occasional restrictions.

“There was something in the air about the North Shore,” said Tom Jervan, who rode its streetcars in Waukegan as a child and later worked for the railroad. “There was a period in the existence of that railroad where it was the super-interurban in the country. It was the fastest. It had the facilities like nobody else had. It did everything in superlatives.”
Let the record show that the railroad coaxed 111 mph out of an Electroliner on a test run.  The smart guys said no electric railroad using trolley poles and simple catenary could do that.  It's all in good maintenance.
Even in its final months, the North Shore operated expresses that hit 80 miles an hour between stations on the main line, the Skokie Valley Route, to Waukegan and on a branch to Libertyville and Mundelein, in addition to the limiteds that ran hourly from 6 a.m. until midnight to and from Milwaukee. The two top-of-the-line Electroliners ran every three hours, back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee. Much of the line was served by four trains an hour, meticulously cleaned and cared for.

“There was an espirit d’corps,” Jervan said at a reunion of North Shore employees, the most recent of which took place in November. “We kept the darned thing running. Our on-time performance was usually around 95 or 96 percent. In your dreams, Amtrak. In your dreams, Metra.”

At its peak, the North Shore reported 99.26 percent on-time performance, and it did so with equipment that, except for the two 1941-vintage Electroliners, pre-dated the Great Depression.

“Our oldest rolling stock was built in 1915,” Jervan said. “They were all still running, racking up in many cases millions of miles each. The Highwood shop, if you were to look at that shop and compare it with a modern (railroad repair) shop, you’d say, ‘How did anybody get any work done in this prehistoric cave?’”
With the abandonment order subject to judicial review, rolling stock due for scheduled maintenance was disassembled on Friday awaiting part replacement that never came on Monday.
The North Shore used to boast in its advertisements that you could set your watch by its trains. Jervan said snow never stopped the North Shore for long. Neither did bitter cold. And he said its trains moved up and down the line with dispatch. Its trains never sat in stations.

“The dwell time (time stopped) at our stations was negligible,” he said. “The dwell time that Metra has at its stations is a total joke. In this time and age, in the 21st Century, they need to look back at an interurban line that ran with cars built in 1915 on how to run a railroad.”
In defense of Metra and Amtrak, those sailors on liberty weren't schlepping their sea-bags with them, intercity travellers weren't burdened with those roller bags, and commuters didn't have laptops and smart 'phones.  All the same, the North Shore assigned enough collectors (assistant conductors) to be able to load and unload through all the doors.  On the other hand, an Electroliner had seats for 150 passengers or so, about the same carrying capacity as one Metra gallery coach.
The [Skokie Swift] is the only operating remnant of the North Shore, but many of its historic interurban cars still can be found today in museums, including the Illinois Railway Museum, in Union, which has more than a half-dozen operating North Shore cars and one of the Electroliners. The Fox River Trolley Museum, in South Elgin, has two operable North Shore cars and Wisconsin’s East Troy Electric Railway Museum is restoring a North Shore “Limited” car. Other North Shore cars reside in museums as far away as Iowa, Connecticut and Maine.
We'll look at some of those preservation efforts in the near future.

11.2.13

BEFORE YOU MAKE TERRITORIAL DEMANDS, OBTAIN TACTICAL SUPREMACY.

In life, Red China is making territorial claims that aren't sitting well with neighboring countries.  In Threat Vector, the latest from the school of Tom Clancy, the Red Chinese first do all that is within their power to take down the secret, super-competent Counter Terrorism Unit that got its start in Red Rabbit,  passes a few field tests in The Teeth of the Tigermade its bones in  Dead or Alive, and got roughed up by the Soviets, er, Putinite elements in the Russian government in Locked On, and when the takedown seems to be going well enough, the Reds start enforcing their territorial claims out of the barrel of a gun, just as the Great Helmsman would have it.  It's Tom Clancy, and it's more about the action, and the good guys winning, than it is about character development.  All the same, it would help if the assistant authors were more careful about on the one hand referring to the Sino-Russian war of The Bear and the Dragon, while on the other hand having a principal character exfiltrated from China on a Russian freight aircraft returning from delivering a load of iron bombs.

I'm going to return to posting reviews of heavier stuff.

(Cross-posted to Fifty Book Challenge.)

NOT IN MY BACK FORTY.

There is still a Western frontier, and still it is closing.  Years ago, the coming of the railroad disrupted centuries-old hunting and migrating patterns of the aboriginal inhabitants of the plains.  Today, it's the centuries-old farming patterns of the Amish being disrupted.
Now that simple lifestyle is being threatened by a proposed railroad owned by a coal giant and two of the world's wealthiest men. The proposed line would bisect the Amish community's land and disrupt farm and ranching operations, [farmer Levi or David] Borntregers said.

The proposed Tongue River Railroad would open Montana's vast Otter Creek Coal Tracts — located some 15 miles to the south of the Borntregers' farm — to strip mining. According to the project's supporters, the railroad would haul an estimated 20 million tons of coal annually from Arch Coal's planned mine near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation to Midwest power plants.

The Tongue River Railroad is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett's BNSF Railway, Arch Coal and billionaire candy bar magnate Forrest Mars Jr. Mars, a landowner along one of the previous Tongue River routes, bought a third of the railroad in 2011 after fighting it for years. The proposed route that once crossed his land is now off the table.
The resistance of the landed gentry to the iron horse is also nothing new. There's at least one cosmetic tunnel in Britain's horse country so that some squire not be disturbed by smoke and steam.  I'd expect better of a Mars.  The candy once went to market in billboard refrigerator cars.

SLIPPING AND UNSLIPPING.

An inventor suggests that passenger trains be configured as rolling platforms so as to save time.
No matter how fast a high-speed train travels, it still has to slow down to 0 mph to pick up additional passengers. That problem has been solved by a designer who dreamed up a way for high-speed local trams to catch up to those speedster trains, picking up and dropping off passengers without requiring the express train to stop.
There's video.  Imagine track-level rendezvous, docking, opening the airlocks, albeit in the presence of atmospheric pressure and gravitational clues that the target and chase vehicles are in motion.
If you think about it, this is a problem that needed to be solved long ago. You've probably noticed that trains (and buses, too) waste a lot of time slowing down, pulling into stations, waiting to pick up and drop off passengers, and then speeding back up again. But with this idea, high-speed trains might be able to keep on rolling indefinitely, while those feeder "trams" do all the slowing down and speeding up.
Half the problem was solved long ago.
‘Through Carriage to London’ announced the proud notice at Stratford Old Town as the 7.45am train for Blisworth prepared to leave from the ‘Up’ platform sometime in the 1930s. Would be commuters were directed by station staff to a smartly maintained LNER ex-Great Central slip coach attached to the back of the train. It contrasted greatly with the two ancient now LMS owned coaches which formed the rest of the train. As the signal pulled off the train set off at a leisurely pace towards Byfield, stopping en route not only to pick up the occasional passenger but also milk churns bound for London via the Great Central route. At Byfield the slip coach would be met by a LNER loco probably an ex GCR N5 tank and whisked off around the curve to Woodford, along with the milk churns, where it would be quickly attached to the Mansfield-Marylebone express. Passengers in the slip coach would arrive at Marylebone at 10.48am after a 3hr 3mins journey. Not exactly express standard.

The return journey to Stratford would be more exciting and much quicker too by means of the crack 6.20pm Bradford express. The slip coach having been carefully checked over under cover at Marylebone, would be attached to the main train, with a further slip coach behind it which was destined for Brackley. This was to be slipped at Finmere and worked forward to Brackley tender first by a Woodford loco, often a B7 ‘Black Pig’. There was much competition for the perceived potential first class custom in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ country and the Finmere slip coach was in direct competition with GWR slips made at Bicester. Both slip coaches were protected at the rear by both white and red lamps and were manned by Marylebone based guards, while the main train guard would be a Leicester man. 
It's not the safest practice, and in the United States it is unlawful to move occupied passenger equipment without a locomotive attached.  In Britain, slipping might have originated by accident, but it became a way for a railroad to deliver passengers to intermediate stops more quickly.
If a carriage could be left behind by accident, and convey passengers safely to a station at which the train did not stop, why could it not be done deliberately and thus save delay ? In a short time the slip-hook coupling was evolved, and the slip-coach, as we know it to-day became a regular feature of railway operation.

The slip portion of a train is not limited to one coach only ; so long as the coach with the slipping apparatus is placed next the "fixed" part of the train, the slip portion may be made up to any required length within certain limits.
With fully-automatic couplers that make or unmake brake and communication line connections concurrently with the addition or deletion of cars, wouldn't the simpler solution be to do adds and drops on the fly? On the other hand, particularly with rapid-transit equipment, a drop or add can be made in a stop of about a minute.

10.2.13

UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER.

I ended last year's Fifty Book Challenge with a study of the run-up to World War II in the bloodlands, followed by a history of the first Christmas of U.S. involvement in that war.  Here it's half-past February, and the first entry in this year's Challenge will be Ian Kershaw's The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945.  Long ago, Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle told this story from the perspective of those soldiers, civilians, and government officials who were able and willing to comment for the record.  Mr Kershaw has been able to make use of records that were on the other side of the Iron Curtain from Mr Ryan, and he's accordingly able to provide a more accurate and detailed account of what went wrong.  It's not as simple as the existence of the Allied demand for unconditional surrender giving the German government no reason to lay down their arms, nor can the German resistance be laid off completely on the aftereffects of the 20 July 1944 coup attempt against the German dictator.  German fear of what the Soviet forces would do likely had an effect.  But a formulation Cornelius Ryan came up with in advance of the Market-Garden campaign might also have mattered: the Germans were losing the war more rapidly than the Allies, east or west, could win it.

Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.

THE REAL REGIONAL PARTY.

Court intellectuals for the Democratic Party have been peddling two narratives about the Republicans: first, that its evangelical and Tea Party factions are poisoning the party's appeal with mainstream Americans, relegating the party to southern or relatively unpopulated states.  The current presidential electoral map reinforces that perception.




Second, their reaction to Republican legislators in swing states implementing "as Maine goes, so goes the nation" allocation of electoral votes is typically that it's an attempt to reverse, or to steal, the presidential election.  The dorks and prissy women and near men on MSNBC were able to speak of little else, at least for one segment per hour, for much of the last few days of January.

Look closely, though, at the allocation of electoral votes by Congressional district.



That map allocates electoral votes using the Maine and Nebraska allocation formula, in which the winner of a plurality in a Congressional district receives one electoral vote, with the winner of the state plurality receiving the two electoral votes representing the state's two senators.  In the fever swamps of Democratic loyalists, though, as Maine goes should not go the nation.
Two little states — Maine and Nebraska — can theoretically divide their electoral votes, though that’s only happened once, in 2008, when Barack Obama won a vote from Nebraska.

But now the Republicans have a scheme to rig the system, and they are seriously pushing it. Thanks in part to their landslide victories in the 2010 midterm elections, they control a lot of legislatures in so-called “blue” states, which vote Democratic for president, like Pennsylvania and Michigan.  What’s more, they controlled congressional redistricting, and in all these states, they crammed as many Democrats into as few districts as possible.
That's not the most hysterical response to the Republican proposals.
Since those "rotten borough" districts are ridiculously gerrymandered in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida, such a plan would virtually guarantee the Republicans a stranglehold on the White House.
Reapportionment has long been an exercise in political power, and Fruits and Votes have given some thought to what can go wrong.
But, actually, the core problem derives from the electoral system itself. Or, more precisely, an electoral system designed to represent geography having to allocate a balance of power among organizations that transcend geography–national political parties.
That is, if there are national political parties. The maintained hypothesis among court intellectuals and media shills for the Democrats is that there is no such thing as a national Republican party, and what remains is busily marginalizing itself.
Fox and friends can still crush their own, as Obama noted. But that only drives the Republican Party further to the fringes. Virtually everything the broadcast bullies are against — sensible gun measures, immigration reform, raising taxes on the rich — are favored by a majority of Americans.

It makes sense, then, that the logical next step for these folks is to retreat into an actual bubble of brick and mortar — their own city. Glenn Beck has announced plans to build “Independence, U.S.A.,” a sort of new urbanism for paranoids. In that world, at least, all the fantasies of the far right are always true.
Back to Fruits and Votes for something more scientific.
However, the “norm” here refers to two (or more) national parties without too much geographic bias to where those parties’ voters reside. Only if the geographic distribution is relatively unbiased does the plurality system work for its supposed advantage in partisan systems: giving the largest party a clear edge in political power (here, the majority of the House). Add in a little bit of one big party being over-concent[r]ated, and you can get situations in which the largest party in votes is under-represented, and sometimes not even the largest party in seats.

As I have noted before, plurality reversals are inherent to the single-seat district, plurality, electoral system, and derive from inefficient geographic vote distributions of the plurality party, among other non-gerrymandering (as well as non-malap[p]ortionment) factors.
Further complicating the analysis: apportionment of House districts must respect the various civil rights laws that may or may not be among the "other factors".  Think about it this way: "Maximize Republican-leaning districts" might produce fewer Republican-leaning districts than "Maximize Republican-leaning districts subject to producing at least one or two majority-minority districts" does, particularly if the majority-minority districts tend to lean Democratic.  And thus the Outside the Beltway objection to allocating electoral votes by Congressional district.
For many years, and in many posts at my personal blog and here at OTB, I was a supporter of the District Method of allocating Electoral Votes. However, it’s become clear to me that, at least in our current political climate, this simply isn’t a viable or appropriate way to allocate votes in the Electoral College. The primary reason for that, of course, is the fact that so many of our Congressional Districts have been drawn in such a way that they are essentially noncompetitive for the opposition party.
Thus allocating votes by district has the potential to hang the Electoral College?
While there isn’t always a correlation between how a district votes for Congress and how it votes for President, it’s becoming increasing rare for ticket splitting of the type that made Ronald Reagan’s landslides in 1980 and 1984 possible to take place. As long as Congressional District lines are drawn in a manner that protects party interests, using those lines to allocate Electoral Votes strikes me as an incredibly bad idea.
Consider, though, some other adverse consequences of creating districts that protect party interests.  The plurality-by-district map suggests that the Republicans are the national party, while the Democrats are crowded into the coasts, with isolated connected regions in New England and the Driftless Area centered in southwestern Wisconsin.  And among the safe Democratic districts one finds exemplary public servants such as Gwen Moore and Bobby Rush and Maxine Waters and John Conyers,  each of whose re-election chances would diminish should there be an outbreak of bourgeois ambition among their constituents, although each representative has done well by hectoring what used to be mainstream America into providing Obama Phones and other palliatives for constituents rendered helpless by years of Democratic policies.

Thus, there might be some potential in future for reapportionments, as what looks like mainstream America continues to evolve, to create Congressional districts that can be contested by more than one major party.  Whether doing so, to return to the Outside the Beltway evaluation, is desirable, is subject to debate.
The 2000 Election, where Al Gore’s popular vote margin ended up being a relatively small 543,895 votes is one thing. An election where someone who lost by 5,000,000 votes and yet still went on to win the election is something that I think we can agree would simply be unacceptable. Under the Constitution, the states have the right to allocate Electoral Votes however they choose, but the path that Virginia is suggesting is not in the interests of the nation.
Perhaps not, but a large margin in the popular vote may not suffice to win the electoral vote. Contemplate President Dukakis. For that matter, some of the warning signs of what looks like irreconcilable sectional or partisan differences were present in the 1972 and 1984 Republican wipeouts of what looked like weak Democrats.

THE ACCUMULATION OF SMALL ADVANTAGES.

A reader will not find much cheerleading for gee-whiz bullet trains at Cold Spring Shops.  What some critics of improved Passenger Rail call "half-fast" is part of a more incremental approach.  It's all about the frequency, connectivity, and reliability.

A colleague at the University of Minnesota whose work on these things passes peer review makes the same case.
Actual [Amtrak] ridership is highest in the Northeast corridor, where the Acela service, along with other conventional passenger rail runs today. The other big Amtrak markets are between San Diego and Los Angeles, between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area, between Seattle and Portland, and between Chicago and a variety of midwestern cities, in particular St. Louis.

Corridors that get traffic now with relatively slow service are more likely to get higher levels of demand when upgraded (made faster and more frequent) than corridors that get almost no ridership now. This argues for (1) incremental upgrades where the benefits outweigh the costs, (2) focusing on specific proven markets rather than trying to connect random large cities.

We should be looking for routes where train is more cost-effective than either driving or taking an airplane. This distance is certainly less than 600 miles for most of the US, under current costs of travel. (Once we have proven we can connect large places closer than 100 miles, we should connect large places less than 200 miles, and then expand outward. We should not start with a grand vision which will simply collapse of its own weight). We should also be looking for routes with large trip generators at either end.
There are two problems, though. First, anybody with a serious case of Potomac Fever thinks almost exclusively in Grand Visions. Second, state governors and passenger rail authorities are quite happy to have Grand Visions paying for projects that ought more properly be financed locally.
This is not to say there are not segments which could productively be (and are) served by rail. The Northeast corridor is one. Chicago to Milwaukee is one. Los Angeles to San Diego is one. There are a few others. The key point is they are local serving, and should be locally supported. There is no need for US federal involvement. If the projects are worthwhile, the states and cities and private railroads should fund them. Almost all the benefits are local, the costs should be borne by those who benefit.
Local governments seem quite willing to appropriate funds for road salt and cold mix, but somehow buying railroad cars or multiple train paths from the local freight carrier is for somebody else to do.

PROFESSORS GET PAID TO SAY NO AND UPHOLD STANDARDS.

The Deep End of the Pool reopens, and the manager meditates on responsibility.
Our students are, in my view, starved for discipline, and I think we regularly disappoint them concerning it. Of course, as people grow up, most adjust their ideas about authority greatly. It’s a pretty safe bet that their hopes, fears, and expectations about their teachers do not correspond point for point with our own ideas about our roles as helpers and authorities. The child thinks of it in terms of power that might or might not be justified; we, I hope, put reasonableness and justification far forward, and, because it is not the reason we signed up for this teaching gig in the first place, we have to remind ourselves periodically (or rather, students do regularly point out) that we are in fact arbiters and have to exercise the power of our offices responsibly, fairly, and gently.
But we have to exercise them. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote of the space-travelers who salted the galaxy with sentinels, "sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed."

9.2.13

DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY.

The National Association of Scholars looks at course outlines from the flagship public institutions of Texas, and asks if Race, Class, and Gender are dominating U.S. History.

There are a number of dog-whistles being blown in the title of that report.  A right-handed dog might hear that Marxoids in the faculty are introducing their orthodoxies into the curriculum to the exclusion of other modes of analysis.  A left-handed dog might hear another attempt to purge the curriculum of excessively radical thought.  The reality is probably more complicated.

Texas historian Jeremi Suri notes, possibly on the basis of a prior about the organization, that to conclude any one mode of thought dominates the Texas history curriculum, is dumb.
No one cares more about teaching politics, foreign policy, and military affairs more than me. It is what I study. It is what I talk about all the time (so my wife and kids complain!). To teach the history of these subjects requires attention to slavery, American Indians, labor unions, women’s suffrage, and everything else I listed above. Politics do not occur in a vacuum. The outcomes of war are not decided only by a few smart men. Elections, like the one we just experienced, are driven by many factors that include race, class, and gender.
The comments section gets somewhat more heated.

Retired Texas historian Richard Pells offers a different perspective for readers of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Texas has an extremely conservative legislature, which has already intruded on how faculty teach and on defining "accountability," and has contemplated a host of other educational "reforms." At the same time, state support for the university has been severely reduced over the past several years.

I do not, nor do my former colleagues in the history department, think that the legislature or any other outside group should interfere with how to structure a curriculum, or apply financial pressure to force faculty members to teach certain courses in certain ways. Such interference would be a dangerous infringement on academic freedom.

Still, what University of Texas historians need to do is stop railing against the report and start re-examining their hiring practices. Historians, like all academics, tend to clone themselves when they employ new faculty members. They think that since my field is vital, we need more people teaching the same thing. But what American historians at UT really should do is expand their far-too-limited intellectual horizons.

That means abandoning their current political and intellectual biases, opening themselves up to new subjects and new ideas, and recruiting new sorts of faculty members. Only then will the history department fulfill the true mission of a great university by fostering debate and exploring alternative ways of understanding America's past and present.

I do not question that those faculty members who specialize only in the plight of women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are in any way ignoring legitimate problems in American history from which those groups have long suffered. Moreover, academic historians before the 1960s ignored the experiences of those groups for far too many decades.

But I am arguing that the National Association of Scholars' report is not a document that should be sneered at or ignored. Rather, what the history department at the University of Texas needs (and what history departments all over the country could benefit from) is a willingness—in fact, an eagerness—to hire people who are pursuing different interests. And who don't simply replow the same topics, teach the same types of courses, and reinforce the same (as Orwell said about the ideologues of the 1930s) "smelly" orthodoxies.
Put another way, where tenure committees were once upon a time excluding left academics, they're now excluding non-left academics?  At Minding the Campus, K. C. Johnson weighs in.  Not Even Past comments, with an index of follow-up links.  Historiann's response induced one of the authors of the Association report to comment on his methods, and the comment section includes quantitative hair-splitting of the most recondite kind.

WHAT'S MISSING FROM THIS PICTURE?

A Via Media post complains about the current political establishment speaking of government spending as "investment" without making any, well, investments.
Besides promising themselves fat pensions that they refused to save money or tax themselves to pay for, the boomers let the country’s infrastructure run down. The next generation is already staggering under a rising tax burden, student loan debt, and retirees’ massive health care bills. On top of all this, they now have to pay through the nose just to keep the roads, bridges, and tunnels in good repair after years of neglect and deferred maintenance.
Let us be grateful that railroads and some parts of the electric, gas, and oil transmission and distribution networks are owned by investors who, depredations by the short-termers at the corporate level notwithstanding, remain subject to market tests.

At Insta Pundit, there's a little laying of blame.
Reader Juan Paxety writes: “With regard to boomers letting the infrastructure decline, remember that neither Harry Reid nor Nancy Pelosi are boomers. I’d submit that their generation, The Silent Generation, still maintains a lot of political control and is at least equally culpable.”
Advantage, Cold Spring Shops.
[T]he Speaker of the House is a very early Baby Boomer and the Senate Majority Leader a member of the Silent Generation, quite possibly the most spoiled and indulged generation in U.S. history.
David Broder is no longer among us, and yet his cohort continues to do damage.
Perhaps it will be up to some future generation to say "enough."

The counterculture got all the ink. The rest of us had to grow up in the world they left us. And, Mr Broder, your Silent Generation cohort is complicit -- by its acquiescence -- in the mess.
I've been giving the process-worshippers grief for years, and don't intend to stop just yet.