Thursday, October 20, 2005

Reminisces on the White Sox

Blogs are all about self-indulgence, right? So it is OK to use it to reminisce.....

With the Chicago White Sox in the World Series for the first time since 1959, I can't help but think about my days in Chicago and how fortunate I was to get to know a man who arguably had the most significant impact on the sport of major league baseball than any other person - former White Sox owner Bill Veeck.

Bill Veeck was a giant of a man. He was larger than life in every respect. Most people have a passing familiarity with him, because he will forever be remembered for his most famous stunt - putting a midget to bat in a major league baseball game. That was indeed a fabulous story, but Bill Veeck the man was so much more than a showman with a genius for marketing stunts.

He was the most learned person I have ever had the blessing of spending time around.

I got to know him in the early 1980's. I was just out of school, working at a large bank in Chicago and attending business school in the evenings. I lived in Hyde Park, where University of Chicago (my alma mater) is located.

Bill Veeck had sold the White Sox about a year earlier to Jerry Reinsdorf. He correctly saw that the game of Major League Baseball was quickly becoming all about money, and he never had the resources to fund bidding wars for free agents.

The story of how he acquired the White Sox in the first place is a story in itself. It was actually the second time he owned the team - he bought and sold it a decade or so prior to when he reacquired it in the mid 1970's. It was typical Bill Veeck dealmaking. He never actually was all that rich - he would convince well-heeled friends to back him, create a consortium of owners, and he would be the public figure in the front.

Anyway, as I stomped around Hyde Park I'd see Bill here and there. He loved to while away Saturday afternoons in local bars drinking beer and holding court with whoever wanted to sit at his table and listen to his stories. In my senior year in college I worked at a fancy Hyde Park restaurant as a waiter, and Bill's daugher Marya worked there also.

She was a dear, and we became friends. Through her I met her sister, Lisa, and Lisa and I dated for the better part of a year.

During my time hanging around Lisa was when I got to know Bill and his lovely wife Mary Frances quite well. I spent many weekend days with him, and also many nights eating and drinking at restaurants all over town.

Going out to eat at a restaurant with Bill Veeck in Chicago meant that your table was a constant bustle of activity: people would stop by and chat, take pictures, and buy rounds of drinks for the table. It was not uncommon to have three drinks stacked behind each other as people would order our waitress to buy another round for the table - they'd just stack em up.

Bill would talk with anyone who came by. He loved people. He didn't care who they were. Everyone felt welcome to stop by, shake Bill's hand, and listen and laugh with everyone.

The best memories, however, are from the long Saturdays I spent with Lisa, Bill and Mary Frances in his condo, making Old Style empties and listening to Bill talk about his career.

His condo was on about the 30th floor of a building across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry. It had a great view of the museum grounds and Lake Michigan. Bill would sit on his couch, smoke cigarettes and drink beer. I fetched many a can from his fridge - the guy could drink, In fact he was a pretty famous alcoholic.

He was in awful physical shape from injuries he got in WWII. One leg was amputated, and he hobbled everywhere on his trademark peg leg. His eyes were bad, his hearing was bad, his other leg was shot up in the war also, and he had various and sundry other ailments about which he never complained.

On side of his wooden peg leg he carved out a little ashtray, and he would flick his cigarette ashes and stub out the butts in it. He was quite a sight.

He took a liking to me, as did Mary Frances. They told me all about his father, who was the GM of several baseball teams in the early part of the century. When Bill was a kid his dad was GM of the Cubs, right at the time Wrigley was built. As a youngster, Bill Veeck actually built the famous Cubs scoreboard that still stands today. He also planted the ivy that still covers the brick outfield wall that is the trademark of that wonderful stadium.

Mary Frances once broke out the family scrapbook. The whole family was on the cover of Life Magazine in the early 1960's. They showed me the newspaper stories they had saved when he put the midget up to bat, and told me all about how outraged the other team owners were about the stunt. He just laughed. It's a game, he would say.

He was guy who started all the promotions at baseball games. Bat night, poster night, kids night, ladies night, etc. He knew how to fill the stands. During games he never sat cloistered in an owners suite - no way. He sat in the stands. Actually, he would roam the stadium and talk to the fans, drink beer with them. He was a man of the people, and absolutley hated pretense.

There was nothing at all pretentious about Bill Veeck, even though he was the smartest man I ever met.

All his accomplishments, his storied career, all the stories he would tell about the people he knew in baseball - were only a small part of the man. He was also an historian. He knew more things about more things than anybody I have ever met. He read voraciously. He could cite chapter and verse about the battles and generals of the Mexican American war, the civil war, the history of Russia, and dozens of other historical events.

He was also an amateur etyomolgist. His vocabulary was unbelieveable and he knew the origins and roots of all sorts of obscure words. One of his prize possession was his dictionary. It was proudly displayed right in his foyer, on a table against the wall. It was a complete editon of the Webster, I think it was 12 volumes each about two inches thick, leather bound. He showed it to me once - opened it up to a page, and some common word (I forget what it was) had about a page and a half of definition, derivation, history, etc. He got a kick out of reading that kind of stuff.

I remember one of our long afternoons in his condo, watching a football game and drinking beers, listening to Bill and Mary Frances talk about the White Sox, and Mary Fraces said: "You know, Bill, Rob is the kind of guy you really wish you still owned the ballclub for."

I took that as the highest compliment.

The last time I saw Bill Veeck was a couple years after Lisa and I stopped dating. I went to a fall afternoon Cubs game, and after the game ended, exiting Wrigley, I saw Bill. Hobbling out of the bleacher gate exit, in a crowd of people, waving and talking to well wishers as he slowly made his way to the el station. His health had clearly deteriorated and his leg was obviously hurting him. Each step was pained.

But the larger than life smile was still on his face when I waved hi.

A few months later he died.

He was as great a showman who ever lived. But as a man he was about much, much more than a sports promoter. I will forever consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to understand why.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

NAEP scores just out; Oregon about average

The NAEP scores were released today. For the uninitiated, NAEP stands for National Assessment of Educational Progress. They are snapshots of average achievement levels in each state. Every student doesn't take the NAEP - it is only given to samples of students, and only to 4th, 8th and 12th graders every few years. The results are, however, statistically significant indicators of a state's achievement, and can be compared state to state.

Of course comparing states is still tricky, because of differing demographics. Affluent states with fewer minorities will tend to score higher than poor states with large minority populations. Oregon has an advantage on the demographic scale. We have a mostly white population, relatively high income, and higher than average education level.

But despite our demographic advantages, we score just about average on the NAEP. In some areas, slightly above average.

Scores were released for 4th grade reading, 8th grade reading, 4th grade math and 8th grade math . In general, all the scores were slightly down from the last time the NAEP came out, 2003. Compared to the first years Oregon participated, in the 1990s, most of the scores are up.

The exception is 8th grade reading, which for some reason has pretty much steadily declined since 1998.

I've already seen some press releases on the scores touting the fact that Oregon's scores are higher than the mid-1990's scores. That is all well and good, but it glosses over the troubling fact that there is an apparent contradiction between NAEP and Oregon's statewide test results over the last couple years on the math test. That is, the math scores on Oregon's test have gone up significantly, while the scores on NAEP have not.

NAEP tests in grades 4 and 8, while Oregon tests in grades 3, 5 and 8. The results are expressed in terms of the percentage of students who are "below basic," "Basic," "Proficient," and "Advanced" in achievement. Oregon's tests have three categories - "Does not Meet," "Meets," and "Exceeds" benchmark. To compare the two tests, let's look at each test's results for the percentage of students who are at or above the "Basic," and "Meets Standard" levels.

Between 2003 and 2005, 8th graders on the Oregon's math test did better by 2.5%, but on NAEP, they did worse by 2.5%. Fourth graders on the NAEP math test did better by 1%, but on Oregon's test the third graders grew by a whopping 7.2% and fifth graders by 5.0%.

What is going on? I've argued for years that Oregon's assessment system is not reliable and valid. In 2003 we released a study by an OSU economist that had compelling evidence that Oregon's math tests in particular had gotten easier over the years. This gives us one more piece of evidence that it has.

The Oregon Department of Education has consistently ignored the mounting evidence that something is wrong with its tests. The mainstream media rarely asks penetrating questions about their claims of validity. How long can there be such a stark divergence between Oregon's scores and the NAEP scores before they have to actually admit that something just might be wrong?

Don't underestimate the ability of bureaucrats to stonewall and obfuscate. In Oregon, it is an art form.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Robed Hypocrites

Section 8. Freedom of speech and press. No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right.—

Section 18. Private property or services taken for public use. Private property shall not be taken for public use, nor the particular services of any man be demanded, without just compensation…

Section 20. Equality of privileges and immunities of citizens. No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.—

Read the above three clauses in Oregon’s constitution. The courts in Oregon are so inconsistent in how they treat these clauses that it would be funny if it weren’t doing so much damage to our state.

The recent Supreme Court decision that said live sex shows are protected speech had to somehow make the argument that a paid sex act constitutes “expression of opinion.” Just what opinion might that be? Any reasonable person who reads Section 8 must conclude that the framers were referring to written and spoken opinion, not lewd acts. Yet the courts are so in love with the free speech rights that they expansively interpret it.

Not so with our property rights. If they can do the mental contortion necessary to convince themselves that a live sex act is an expression of opinion, then certainly they could be equally protective of our right to property, say, by acknowledging that regulating the entire productive use of your land away in order to achieve some public purpose just might be a “taking.”

But no, the courts care not a whit about property rights, so they narrowly construe the definition so as to allow government to steal property value again and again.

Then look at the privileges and immunities clause – this is the main argument Judge James had when throwing out Measure 37. Imagine if she applied the same criteria she used to throw out M37 to the very land use laws she was trying to protect?

Having an urban growth boundary that restricts development outside – doesn’t that inherently grant some citizens (those who own the land inside the boundaries) privileges that are denied to others (those with land outside)? Of course.

Would the courts in Oregon EVER make this argument? Of course not! They don’t believe in property rights, at least they don’t believe in them when the “community” wants to steal them. So they won’t protect them.

They aren’t really judges – they are politicians with political viewpoints and are perfectly willing to use their offices to further their political ideology, regardless of what the constitution actually says.

We are in a sorry state with judges like these.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Oregon courts are a mess

Four recent decisions by Oregon courts have me shaking my head. Live sex acts are protected speech. Fraternal clubs have to accept women. Portland School District can't sub out its janitors. Measure 37 is thrown out.

Have we had enough? Getting Jack Roberts on the supreme court will be a start. But it's about a one-yard run on third down and 75.

When some piss-ant district court judge can toss out M37 (which 61% of Oregonians voted for) on the most ridiculous of legal pretenses, we are in trouble.

I love the part about M37 violating the "equal protection" clause of Oregon's constitution. It is unfair to the "group" of people who are more recent property purchasers, since they have the restrictive rules the other "group" (who bought their land earlier) don't suffer from.

First, this is a pretty expansive definition of "group." I'm guessing you could find thousands of Oregon laws that treat different people differently if this loose definition of class or group is allowed to stand. Second, if M37 is disallowed on this basis, wouldn't that invalidate ANY law that created a grandfather clause exempting a "group" of citizens to whom the law doesn't apply because they acted before the law was passed?

So the decision it seems to me, puts the court in an impossible dilemma between this new legal principle and an age old one - that of disallowing retroactive laws.

M37 is basically a grandfathering law. It says they can't change the land use rules on the land you already own. This decision basically says grandfather laws are unconstitutional because they always create two classes of citizens - one who is exempt from the law and one who is not.

So, this decision basically says all laws HAVE TO BE RETROACTIVE! Which of course violates what I always thought was another pretty established legal principle.

This is what happens when you have judges who are nothing but politicians in robes. This judge knew where she wanted to get, and so she concocted a legal basis to get there. But the lame-brain that she is, she failed to think it through and realize that her basis for the decision would invalidate a huge body of other laws.

Can we get Jack Roberts on the Supreme Court before this stupid decision gets up there?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Office of Unsustainable Economics

I chuckled when I read the story in today's Oregonian that five city bureaus are leasing office space in the private market while city-owned owned offices remain vacant.

Just another run-of-the-mill example of incompetence and perverse incentives we so often find in government budget management.

But I laughed out loud when I read the comments by the head of the "Office of Sustainable Development" when she justified the fact that her office is spending $25+ per square foot to lease swanky offices in the Pearl instead of occupying the vacant city-owned offices.

So all the greenies in the office go to work in the "uber-green Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center building, commonly known as the Ecotrust building."

Why do they need to spend all this money to be in the upscale office buiding: As the article says: "City employees can walk downstairs for a slice of organic pizza or pick up a new fleece from the Earth-friendly Patagonia store. "

from the article, Susan Anderson, head of the office says the expensive space is

"core to our mission" because it shows the office is committed to the environment. That's helped attract more private money to beef up the budget, Anderson said.

"If you dig even an inch deep, you can see the economic sense of it," Anderson said. "Could we do our work from someplace else? Sure. Could we do it as well? Probably not. That I'm pretty sure of."

Ok, let's analyze this just a little bit.

Greenies like Anderson don't understand a central tenet of economics, which is that a dollar represents a claim on resources. Spending dollars unnecessarily is the anithesis of "sustainability."

For her to say that she attracts more private money to the office because they show their commitment to sustainabilty by wasting taxpayer dollars is just, well, laughable on its face.

She says if we dig an inch deep we would see the sense of it? Reminds me of another saying about so-called environmentalists. Scratch a greenie and you'll find red underneath.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Solving school overcrowding

Lots of stories lately about the struggles growing school districts face building enough schools.

Districts like Beaverton are adding the equivalent of a school building worth of students each year. But land and construction costs are hugely expensive, and few districts have current bond issues sufficient to build the needed schools.

The only solution they can conceive is to ask the voters for a bond to build more brick and mortar.

This is the wrong answer for a couple reasons. First - school districts are demonstrably incompetent at building schools. The going rate for a 600 student elementary school is about $12 million. That is $20,000 per student-seat, or, if annualized comes to about $1,000 per student per year. High schools are even more costly. Plus, huge cost overruns are the rule in school construction. Projects almost never come in on budget. Prevailing wage regulations balloon the cost, and land prices are outta sight.

So you would think that school districts would be looking for any alternative they could find to building more school buildings. But they aren't.

What possible alternatives, you ask? Here are a couple:

1) Encourage parents to enroll their kids in a virtual charter school. The Oregon Connections Academy is off and running fast. If a school district wanted to take pressure off its facilities capacity, why not assist parents in taking advantage of this new and innovative program? The best part is that the district still gets 5% of the state funds allocated to the district for the student! In other words, for every student from the district they enroll in the virtual school, they get $250, and they do not have to educate him!

2) Did you know that there are several national charter school management organizations waiting to be invited into a district to start a school, and the companies will build the school building at no taxpayer expense? So a district like Beaverton, who is just about to ask voters for $200 million plus to build a bunch of schools, could simply contract with one of these companies to build the schools instead. They would have new schools without new taxes. Why is this not even on the table? Why doesnt' the Oregonian EVER ask this question in their stories about school bonds?

A case in point is Portland Public Schools, who are looking for ways to pay for the new school they want to build in the Columbia Villa housing project. They want to borrow about $8 million and patch the rest together from donations. This of course is at the same time they are contemplating which schools they will be closing in the next year because of enrollment declines!

Months ago I approached the District and the Housing Authority of Portland with an idea: Instead of spending public money to build the school, why not contract with an already approved but not yet opened charter school to build and run the school? Mosaica Education, which is the school management company behind the "Portland Arts and Sciences Academy" which the district approved back in 2001 has expressed its willingness to build the school at no taxpayer expense and run it as a charter.

No interest. I got the runaround for a couple months before I finally got a response, something on the order of : "Director Wynde says they want to pursue other options for the school."

Which I can only take to mean that the district would rather spend $12 million in public money to get something that they could get for no taxpayer dollars.

And they wonder why the public has a decreasing appetite for tax hikes?

Dr. John performs castration surgery

You gotta love it.

Democrats meet in their pow-wow this weekend in Bend in a desperate search for their soul, and have to listen to a scathing critique by the guy who is chiefly responsible for the sorry state of their party - former guv Kitzhaber.

If that wasn't bad enough, a few Stockholm Syndrome sufferers actually are pushing Kitzhaber to run for governor again, apparently thinking that if you want to solve big problems, who better to turn to than the person who caused them?

And the best part: Kitzhaber wouldn't say no. He gave the usual politicians' "no-plans-at-this-time" non-denial. You could almost hear him enjoying being wooed again.

This is funny on so many levels. First - it shows how bad off the D's really are. At a time when the Republicans have severe electoral liabilities both nationally and locally, if they had their act together and had some idea about what they stood for and how to solve some of our biggest problems they could rout the R's in the next election.

But instead of looking forward, they look backward to the failed leadership upon whose watch most of the current problems came to roost.

Second: Kitzhaber's refusal to put speculation to rest about running again completely neuters Governor Ted. It was Kitz who recruited Ted to run in the first place. Now his non-denial implicitly encourages speculation that he will run against him. Talk about castration! Does Kitz have any idea how weak that makes Kulongoski look? Does he care?

I am none-too-optimistic about the state of the Republican party these days and its chances at achieving an electoral majority any time soon. But with an opponent like the Oregon D's, well, things may not look so hopeless after all!

What, that's not business?

I loved it. What a perfect illustration of the problem.

Sunday Oregonian, Business Section. This is the Sunday newspaper, mind you. The issue where the most comprehensive and in-depth articles generally run, because people have far more time to read than the typical weekday.

Grand total of ONE real news story in yesterday's issue. One. And what's it about? Local business trying to expand struggles with the added expense of land use requirements? Nope. Local business develops new niche market for its product? Nope. Local business tries to deal with increasing traffic congestion, making it more expensive to deliver their goods? Nope.

No indeed, the only news story in yesterday's Sunday edition was about how low income homeowners are struggling to fill the gap between the cost of heating their homes and what is available from the government subsidies.

In other words: "We need more government."

What a wonderful example of the malaise that has gripped Oregon's business culture.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

States don't have rights.

I hear it all the time, especially when the Supreme Court is looking at issues such as Oregon's Doctor Assisted Suicide law. Discussions of "states rights." Does Oregon have the "right" to allow this practice, or, conversely, does the federal government have the "right" to stop us?

I cringe when I hear the question posed this way - and I think that conservatives are more guilty of it than liberals (probably only because conservatives tend to care more about the issue than liberals, the latter being far more comfortable with a vigorous federal government.)

But here's the problem:

States don't have rights. They have powers. Individuals have rights.

Ok, maybe this is just semantics. But I think semantics are important, because words should mean something. When we allow misstatements like "states rights" to become accepted in the media, courts and political culture, we allow the denigration of what rights actually are in the first place - something that government cannot restrict you from doing. If the body politic doesn't properly understand what rights are in the first place, how will it know if and when the government is violating them?

God knows we see plenty of politicians totally mis-use the term "rights." Hillary Clinton thinks that health care is a "right." Others think you have a "right" to a living wage. References to these bogus rights are everywhere - "patient's bill of rights," "taxpayer bill of rights," etc.

I understand why liberals don't mind if the popular political culture completely destroys the original meaning of what rights really are. The more they can sell the idea that rights are something the government must do for you (rather than what it cannot do TO you) then the more they can create the welfare state they have pushed for all these many years.

But conservatives should correct them at every turn. We cannot allow them to change the meaning of the very concept that is at the core of our Republic.

Rights are things that the government can't restrict you from doing. They come from our creator, and the government's role is to secure them.

All those other things - education, health care, welfare, - those are societal privileges.

So when you hear conservatives utter the words "states rights," make sure you don't let it go uncorrected. Just tell them:

"States don't have rights. They have powers. Only individuals have rights."

(Heck, do it to liberals too. They won't understand what you are saying, but you will get to enjoy the puzzled look on their faces.)

Monday, October 03, 2005

TalkFest - the real reason you must go

Yes it's TalkFest time again - the annual gathering where KXL brings in its nationally syndicated hosts and they take stage for an evening of political chit chat. It's this Friday at the Rose Garden.

This year Lars will be joined by both Bill O'Reilly and Tony Snow. That's a pretty high powered line up.

But there's an even better reason to go to the show:

My 17 year old daughter Jessica will sing "God Bless America" to open the festivities.

She's got a beautiful voice, and the song brings it out wonderfully. So, if Tony and Bill don't float your boat, come for the REAL star of the show!