Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Grief and Remembrance for a Good Friend's Father

This morning my good friend Mark (we've known each other since college days, over two decades now) called to say that his father had been killed in an accident. I am filled with grief, and my heart and prayers go out to their whole family. I have been thinking about Ben (Mark's father) all day.

Ben was a warm-hearted, gregarious, very generous and very decent man. When I was first getting to know Mark, it quickly became clear that family values ran strong in his family, as they did in mine. When Mark told me he couldn't go out on Sunday nights because that was "family dinner night", I knew exactly what he meant, because my family does the same. And when my parents were out of town, I had a standing invitation from Ben and Marie to join their Sunday night family dinner, where I was always made to feel right at home. You didn't have to spend many dinners with their family to see that Ben had an agenda for his four sons. It was his most heartfelt goal to see them well-educated, successful, happily married, and having families of their own. It was tradition (as well as the source of some joking) that Sunday night dinners would always include the usual interrogations round the table: "dating anybody? is she a nice girl?". In later years, as the boys got married, he immediately shifted gears to "so when are you going to have kids?". Jewish mothers had nothing on Ben. I always felt touched when I would get drilled as if I were another son. "You gotta get out there and date. We want you to find someone to settle down and be happy with." When I confessed to Ben that it was going to be a guy and not a girl that I wanted to settle down with, it took him little time to change gears: "So, dating any guys lately? You want to meet a nice boy and settle down, don't you?" And four years ago, when I finally got married, I was pleased to have Ben play a part in it. He was a notary public, and he notarized the various legal-marriage-approximating documents that we signed on our wedding day. A short time later, when I finally came to a family gathering as a married man with my husband, Ben didn't miss a beat: "So, are you and George thinking about kids? You can adopt, you know. You should really think about it. It's the greatest joy in life." I am consoled to know that Ben lived a long good life, and was able to attend weddings for all four sons (plus me), to see them all become very successful in their careers, and to enjoy becoming a grandfather a half-dozen times over the last 15 years. His 80+ years were abundantly blessed with what he knew to be the greatest joy, a happy family.

I remember years ago, when Mark and I would stop in at his parents house, when it was time to leave, his father would always see us out. You always got a good seeing off from Ben. He would walk out the door with you to the car, and then walk to the end of the (long) driveway, and sometimes even a few steps down the street, waving and watching to make sure we got off safely. It was very sweet, and (given the strong sense of humor in their family) the inevitable source of some joking. Sometimes Mark would call from his cellphone as we rounded the corner, "Mom, go outside and tell Dad we're okay, he can come back in the house now." I think that will be my enduring image of Ben: the benevolent and watchful father walking as far as he can to see his sons safely off to a good start in life, waving and watching after them. Your sons are all happy and successful in their lives. You can go back inside now, Ben, and rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Spirit and the Letter

Most people would agree that justice is thwarted when someone technically complies with the letter of the law while flouting the spirit of the law. Those in a position of leadership should be especially sensitive to this distinction, and should stick to the high road. We've all been hearing the rumors that Karl Rove is the one who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. President Bush had originally said that the leaker would be found out and fired (and President Bush père speaking years ago had especially harsh words for those who expose an undercover operative). Now it appears that the President is backtracking, saying that Rove would only be fired if he is proved to have committed a crime. Sorry, but I for one demand higher standards from the leadership of our country. We should of course wait for the facts to come out before making judgments. But if it turns out that Rove was indeed the leaker -- regardless of whether he can be convicted of a specific crime (which turns out to have a number of technical loopholes to it, and is very difficult to prove) -- the President needs to let him go, rather than hiding behind the figleaf of a legal technicality. Our nation deserves better.

In a similar spirit versus letter situation in California, it came out the other week that our Governor Schwarzenegger has been collecting $1 million annually for services as a strategy consultant to a fitness magazine publisher. Somehow, it failed to occur to the Governor that this might be a conflict of interest, despite the fact that the governor's consulting fees get paid in part by ad revenues for fitness supplements, and the Governor last year vetoed legislation that would have regulated supplements. It turns out that the laws of California governing conflicts of interest for government officials cover passive income (e.g., government officials must divest of active investments including stock holdings in companies who may be interested in California legislation) but do not cover active income. It doesn't take a cyborg to figure out that the Governor's active income is a conflict of interest, even if not illegal. Probably the reason the conflict law didn't cover active income is that no one ever anticipated that a Governor would have the audacity to be moonlighting while serving the people of California. Any good leader will not only avoid conflicts of interest, but will even avoid the appearance of a conflict. In this case, the Governor's conflict goes well beyond appearances. Schwarzenegger initially denied any conflict, demonstrating an obliviousness to this issue worthy of Silvio Berlusconi. I am pleased to see that he quickly did an about face and agreed to quit his sideline.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Harry Potter and the Penultimate Wrap

(Warning: Spoilers! If you haven't read the book yet and don't want to know what happens, stop reading now...)

So I finished the book on the flight home from Washington. Actually, I wasn't quite done when we landed at LAX, so I had to grab a seat at the arrival gate and finish the last few pages. Rowling has turned out another great page-turner, with delicious prose throughout. (She has a great ear for language, and the books are wonderful to read aloud.) Now of course we have to wait probably another couple years for the grand finale.

As to my predictions, I was wrong about some, though gladly so. I'm glad that Ginny wasn't using love potion after all, but was instead just being a teenage girl, and Harry a teenage boy. (Nice "Spiderman moment" there at the end.) I'm also glad that Tonks was herself and is back to herself, though I was carrying my polyjuice impostor theory up to the end. (When Tonks showed up in the hallway at Hogwarts, I began to think that Malfoy was polyjuicing into Tonks.)

My big hunch was correct, although I certainly wasn't expecting the way that Dumbledore meets his end. However, even though Snape is looking pretty dark, I'm standing by my assertion (which will remain unproven until the final book) that Snape will ultimately come down against Voldemort. Dumbledore will not have been wrong about trusting Snape, and in fact in the end I think he wanted Snape to kill him. It was clear from Dumbledore's conversation with Harry before their last quest that he was fully prepared to be killed. And given the way he was slowly slumping down the wall at the very end, I'm wondering whether the potion he drank wasn't going to kill him anyway, and Snape was just putting him out of his misery. Notice that even though he had every opportunity, Snape managed to completely avoid harming Harry. While he reminded the other Death-Eaters that Voldemort's orders were to not kill Harry, it certainly would have been Death-Eater-like to bruise Harry up a bit, but Snape did no such thing, and even prevented the others from harming him. Also remember that Snape could have easily killed Dumbledore earlier if he had wanted to, when Dumbledore fried his hand on the first horcrux. Instead, Snape (as Dumbledore himself reports) saved his life.

Indeed, I think redemption will be a major theme of the final book. Snape is a triple agent, but he's lost the only person on the good side who really trusted him. Somehow, Harry will have to learn to forgive Snape. In the previous book, Harry had got a glimpse of Snape as a schoolboy being cruelly teased by Harry's father and his friends, and had a pang of sympathy for the guy. And Harry developed some attachment to the Half-Blood Prince before realizing who he was. Somehow Harry will need to overcome his hatred of Snape. (Will we get an explanation from Dumbledore himself, whose ghost now lives in the portrait gallery in the headmaster's office?) The other remarkable thing is the seeds of sympathy being sown for Draco Malfoy. We get a glimpse of a frightened young boy alone in the bathroom crying about a horrible task he feels extorted to perform, and then we learn that his motivation is to save his mother's life. Draco loves his mother, and his mother loves him, and both will do anything to save the other. That's not exactly the makings of a good Death-Eater there, and Voldemort ought to know that (just as the totalitarian government in Orwell's 1984 knew that it could not allow two people to love each other), but as the prophecy suggests, that just may be his ultimate blind spot. Look for some Death-Eater defections to play a role in Voldemort's undoing. As Harry has grown in the last two books by learning that the guys in the white hats aren't always perfectly good nor perfectly invincible, in the next book he will learn that the guys in the black hats aren't always perfectly evil. You heard it here first.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Harry Potter and my Half-way Predictions

Well, I'm now near exactly halfway through the book. Got a good start into it on the flight back east for a business trip, but I've been working long days this week, so it's only another chapter or two each night. I'll finish it off on the plane ride home tomorrow night. I've got a number of hunches and predictions going at this point. I figured I'd share them all here, so that right or wrong, I'm on the record for all to admire or snicker at, depending how it turns out. Obviously I have no spoilers in this post for anyone, since I don't know anything about my claims yet, but beware if there are any comments they may well have spoilers in them. Here goes...

I've had one big hunch before I even started the book. We've all heard that this is the darkest book yet, and that makes sense that it gets darkest before the final book. I figure that Dumbledore dies in this one. It just makes sense that the big D has to die for Harry to fully come into his own (just like Obi-Wan Kenobe did for Luke Skywalker to face Darth Vader).

As to hunches developed as I've started reading, a few are obvious. It's clear that that ring Dumbledore was wearing will turn out to have some significance. It's also pretty clear that while Harry's teenage hormones are raging, there is also some Amortentia potion being used by Ginny.

It's too bad that Tonks is not herself since the battle at the Ministry. While it's probably true that such an experience may explain her change in mood and partial loss of powers. However, I think there's more there. I think she's not herself because, well, she's not herself. We've been warned to guard against impostors using polyjuice potion. I think that's what's up with Tonks. It's very suspicious that her Patronus has changed. And was it just coincidence that Snape got her Patronus message instead of Hagrid? And she was on the spot when the cursed necklace appeared. It may all be explainable, but it may also be a great cover story.

Speaking of Snape, he's being painted as a double-agent, but I think that's a red herring. I think he's a great triple-agent, ultimately working for the good guys. There was that fishy hand twitch during the Unbreakable Vow, you know something is up with that. In fact -- I don't have string feelings about this one -- but it wouldn't surprise me if Snape turned out to be the half-blood prince. Harry has had snippets of sympathy for Snape in the last book, but I think he's due to develop more.

Finally, just because I've learned from experience that nearly no minor detail is gratuitous in these books, I'm wondering why there were spiders crawling on Dumbledore's hat early on in the shed outside the Burrow.

Well, that's it for now. The next day or so will reveal whether I'm right or wrong...

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Harry Potter and the Resolve of the British

I have been inspired to read about the uniquely British reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in London. Here in America, our nature is to respond to such things by being publicly emotional and patriotic. In Britain, their national character (the famed stiff upper lip) responds with a pointed attention to ordinary routine. Andrew Sullivan has described this well, noting a scene in a pub where the TV screen is showing news stories about the terrorist attacks, and the patrons are staring intently at their newspapers turned to the sports page studying the latest football match scores. As he explains, this might easily be mistaken for indifference, but it is really an intentional making of a point, a refusal to allow the terrorists to win by giving in to fear or by allowing their ordinary lives to be disrupted. In a similar observation, an emailer described how in London they had more people show up at work than ever would even on a normal workday. People even crawled out of sickbeds to go into the office because, by God, the terrorists are not going to stop the British from carrying on their British lives. This resolve is admirable.

Most who have cracked open the new Harry Potter book this weekend can't help but notice the uncanny timeliness of JK Rowling's latest installment, in which the civilized world (i.e., England) is under an all-out attack by the magical forces of the Dark Lord Voldemort. Bridges are being blown up, and people hurry through King's Cross train station under a shadow of fear. But in a classically British moment, Dumbledore (the most powerful wizard on the side of goodness), who must certainly be preoccupied with fighting the forces of evil, notices and takes time to comment on someone's garden. My favorite bit so far (in a passage that comes early in the book and gives away nothing, in case you haven't finished it yourself):
"It is a long time since my last visit," said Dumbledore, peering down his crooked nose at Uncle Vernon. "I must say, your agapanthus are flourishing."
This just goes to show that the warnings of the benighted Pope about the Harry Potter book are completely ridiculous. These books will inspire children with examples of courage and resolve in the face of fearful evil, and are to be commended.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Opening Weekend Bookstore

I was one of the estimated 5 million people who bought a copy of the new Harry Potter book yesterday. This latest (sixth) installment in the series has been a publishing phenomenon. There are reportedly 1.4 million pre-orders from and another 1 million from Barnes & Noble (both online sellers discounting the book to $17.99), and there will be at least as many people who will buy the book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore this weekend, starting with those who stood in lines to be the first ones at midnight on Friday (with many stores having special extended hours just to accommodate the eager fans). (I bought the book on Saturday evening at Virgin Records, when many of the large bookstores had already sold out their initial allocations, and I paid $19.99.) The fifth Harry Potter book (released June 2003) sold 5 million copies in its first day, so it's not at all unreasonable to expect to at least match that this year. The pre-orders for book 6 are about 7% greater than the 1.3 million they had for book 5, and Scholastic (the US publisher) is printing a record-setting 10.8 million copy print run, based on its consensus estimates from booksellers, compared to the 6.8 million copy print run it did for book 5. So the evidence predicts that the Harry Potter magic is still growing even 6 books into the series. (As far as total US book sales for the franchise, it appears to be past its peak of $200 million in 2001, and is representing a diminishing share of Scholastic's business, but that's another story.)

While movies are often measured by their opening weekend box office take, these may be the only books that have "opening weekend bookstore" takes that rival that of movies (including their own). Given the 2.4 million pre-orders at $17.99, and guessing that the other 2.6 million sales estimated this weekend might be at a slightly higher price (the $19.99 I paid is still a good discount), one can safely predict that Harry Potter's "opening weekend bookstore" should be in the $90 to 100 million range. That would mean that it grossed more than all but the top three opening weekend box office record holders (Spiderman at $114.8M, and the latest Star Wars and Shrek 2 both at $108M). That also means that the book could conceiveably have a better opening weekend than the movie (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was #4 on the box office opening weekend chart at $93.6M, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was #6 at $90.3M, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was #7 at $88.4M). Has a book ever beat its own movie in opening weekend receipts? Harry Potter revenues are also more movie-like than book-like, in that the opening weekend may represent more than 50% of the book's lifetime revenue. (The fifth Harry Potter book sold 5 million on the first day two years ago, and has sold 8.3 million hardcovers and another 550,000 soft covers in total.)

By the way, expecting blogging to be spotty this coming week or so until I finish the book.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

BOOKS: Pirates, Privateers, and Profit

Doing some genealogy research in the downtown library, I came across Pirates, Privateers, and Profits, by James Lydon, an interesting history book looking at the history and economics of privateering in colonial New York. While this is a scholarly work full of facts, figures, and footnotes -- not exactly light reading -- I nonetheless found it quite interesting. The book is peppered with colorful stories of adventures at sea, but what is even more interesting is the economist's perspective on the business venture of privateering, and the interplay between government policy and human economic behavior. It was also fascinating to learn how New York was the capital (pun intended) of the entrepeneurial spirit, even three centuries ago. The history of privateering and policy is explored, from the 16th century (the time of Sir Francis Drake and Queen Elizabeth) when privateers were celebrated and the government saw them as a no-cost way to harrass their enemies (while taking a share of the loot), to the 17th century, when the importance of trade was realized and the rising merchant class demanded regulation and control of piracy and privateering, and finally to the 18th century, when the government started to figure out more effective policies for regulating privateering as privateers become less criminal and more entrepeneurial. It's clear that men will follow profit like water flowing downhill, following the path of least resistance. When the taxes and other costs of "legitimate" privateering were near 60% of the gross, it should be no surprise that many opted for piracy instead. And when colonial governors were paid meagerly and judges were paid based on a percentage of privateer prizes, it should be no surprise that letters of marque (what authorized a privateer) were given out indiscriminately and judges turned a blind eye to all sorts of improprieties. It was only when the government radically cut down on the taxes at the same time as more strictly enforcing the regulation, that the regulation had much effect. Men generally preferred to be honest privateers over outlaw pirates risking the noose, if the net profits were at least competitive. And it was the New Yorkers who first realized that by encouraging privateers to come to their port, the whole city thrived. Thus during Queen Anne's War (1702-1713), New York agreed to waive admirality court fees in addition to the waiving of the royal tax, and successfully lured privateers from other colonies. By the time of King George's War (1739-1748), privateering was a full-on business venture, with most of New York's leading citizens investing shares in privateer expeditions. By the French and Indian War (1756-1763), the privateering market was nearly as sophisticated as today's stock or commodity markets. New York was full of privateer fever. Shares and futures in privateer expeditions were traded, as rumors came back from the Carribean about the various prizes and losses of each privateer vessel. Merchants and inn-keepers would sell provisions and services to sailors on credit, in exchange for a 25% share of their "take" at the end of their voyage. And when a returning privateer got stuck in a long drawn-out court case in clearing their prizes, enterprising bankers would buy sailor's shares for cash up front, but at a steep discount. (The whole scene reminded me of San Francisco during the dot-com boom, when startup fever was so pervasive that even landlords and suppliers sought stock options or warrants in the startups as a form of payment.) Though my 5x-great-grandfather (a privateer during the French and Indian War) was barely a footnote in an appendix, I really enjoyed reading about the milieu he lived in, as well as the lessons on economic and trade policy that are still relevant today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Legal Facsimile of Marriage

A comment on a recent post about my (same-sex) marriage inquired what sort of legal gymnastics we had to go through. When we married, we prepared wills, health care powers of attorney, and comprehensive durable financial powers of attorney, and we had a little signing ceremony on our wedding day. One of our wedding guests was a notary, and we pulled aside a few key people during the reception and did some witnessing and signing, with family members and close friends serving as witnesses to the documents (paying careful attention to the legal witness requirements, which disqualified certain people from witnessing certain documents). I prepared the documents myself, with the help of some Nolo Press "do-it-yourself" legal books, and some Internet research on California law. (California has a standard-form health care directive, for instance, which is fairly straightforward.) The documents have been distributed to the appropriate parties, including a copy of the wills to the executors, a copy of the health care directives to our doctors, and the financial power of attorney with the County Recorder.

We're fortunate to live in California, a fairly benevolent state as far as same-sex legalities are concerned. At the time we married (four years ago), there were domestic partnership registries maintained by the State of California, the County of Los Angeles, and I believe also the City of Los Angeles. And at that time, the County registry was the only one that had any benefits beyond the symbolic, as it provided for hospital visitation rights, so we opted for that one. However, since that time, the State registry has changed from being purely symbolic to replicating nearly every legal aspect of marriage that the state can convey. So on Valentine's Day a couple years ago, we signed in to the State registry as well. (The beefed-up benefits -- and obligations -- of a State domestic partnership had a delayed implementation, and everyone who had been registered on the initially symbolic registry was sent a notice explaining the significant changes to the meaning of being registered, and basically saying that you've got till the end of 2004 to "opt out" for the cost of a postage stamp, but starting in 2005 it will be like getting a divorce.)

The house, car, bank, and brokerage accounts are jointly titled (with right of survivorship), and other accounts (such as 401K's) have each other as named beneficiaries. The titling of assets and naming of beneficiaries is negligably different for us than for legally married couples. We probably ought to consider a living trust at some point, but we haven't done that yet. (Thanks for the reminder.) Again, that's nothing unique to "extra-legal" marriages.

The commenter also asked if we had any extra legal expenses to replicate a legal-status marriage. Since we took a mostly do-it-yourself approach, our only extra legal expenses were incidental -- a few books and a few filing fees. (On the other hand, there were significant expenses to "replicate" a wedding. But then anyone who's ever put on a wedding -- same-sex or opposite-sex -- can tell you all about that.)

So, on paper, we have reconstructed many of the attributes of legal marriage (e.g., ability to make medical and financial decisions in each other's stead) and for only a nominal expense and modest expenditure of effort. What concerns me more is the practical effectiveness of this paper facsimile should the rubber ever have to meet the road. I've never attempted to wield our financial power of attorney to accomplish anything, nor had any cause for our health care powers of attorney to come into play. But anecdotal evidence suggests that even with papers in legal order, these may be dishonored in practice. The recent testimonies of couples in Maryland whose medical powers of attorney were disregarded just when they were most needed are horrifying to me. While I expect that we would generally find better treatment at home in California, the random doctor who may treat one of us in an emergency may be arbitrarily willful in disregarding our legal partnership and power-of-attorney rights. And God forbid anything should happen to one of us while on vacation in another state, or on one of my business trips to Virginia (a virulently antagonistic jurisdiction). Having a legal facsimile of marriage, it seems, may or may not be enough when it counts.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The "In-Laws" Parsing Us

A few more thoughts on parsing "husband", "marriage", and "in-laws" (or "in-loves"). I talked about how my husband and I refer to each other, and how we refer to our "in-laws". It's also interesting to look at how our in-loves refer to us. The occasion doesn't often arise in our presence, but every once in a while we get a glimpse. I can remember one time visiting our niece and nephew. That is, my husband's niece and nephew. Since our marriage, I like to think of them as my niece and nephew too, but at the same time, it always felt a bit presumptuous, since they've grown up their whole lives with my husband as their uncle, and I didn't show up on the scene until they were in college. Our niece was on the porch as we walked up to her house, talking on the phone to a friend. As we drew closer, we could hear her say "Oh, I have to go now, my uncles are here." I was very touched to hear her refer to us as "my uncles". Yet that's exactly as it should be, isn't it?

There was another occasion when my husband and I were out with my parents, and they had occasion to introduce us to someone. I remember thinking to myself, "oh, I'm really curious to hear what Dad says here. Will he say 'husband'? Or 'partner'? Or just 'friend'?" We've certainly wrestled with the "how do I introduce my husband" issue, but we'd never seen my parents deal with it before. But Dad introduced us in a way we hadn't expected. He simply said, "These are my sons." And he deeply means that. He's said on a number of occasions of my husband, "he is my son too." We were very touched when he said that. But again, that's exactly as it should be.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Parsing Marriage, Husband, and In-Laws

Nearly four years ago, my husband and I stood up before God, family, and friends, and exchanged mutual vows of lifelong loving commitment. To my mind, that was a wedding, we are married, and he is my husband. Whether or not the State recognizes our marriage does not change these facts. Unfortunately, in our society, the concept of marriage is deeply muddled together with getting a license from the State. This gives some people hesitation to call our wedding a "wedding", our marriage a "marriage", and to call my husband my "husband". Even I, who am completely clear on the fact that I'm married, have to carefully parse the question "are you married?" according to the context of who is asking and why. Because of the conceptual muddle, in some contexts, the question may have specific legal implications, in which case the most honest answer may be "no, but...", "yes, but...", or "it depends". For instance, on financial or real estate documents, there is often a question about marital status on the form, and the proper answer must be "not married", because they are specifically wanting to know about legal marriage, and whether there is someone else who has automatic legal claims and obligations along with me. (And even then, it may be appropriate to write in "domestic partner", since that status in California has all of the same legal implications, e.g., for joint responsibility of debts and obligations.) I also remember one time when I was on jury duty, and had been empaneled, and each of the prospective jurors were to answer a standard litany of basic questions, including occupation, marital status, and if married, spouse's occupation. So when my turn came, under penalty of perjury, I stated "... I am a software engineer, I consider myself married although the state does not, and my husband is an X-ray technician." (The judge grinned.)

When it comes to social situations, I find it's much simpler to stick with "husband" and "married". I simply talk about my husband and my married life just the way anyone else would, and nobody is ever confused by that. Even if they hadn't known my marital status or orientation, they readily understand exactly what I mean, and these days they seldom even blink. On the other hand, my husband is not quite as comfortable with the term "husband", and he will often use "partner", especially around his extended family (who are mostly of a conservative religious background). Recently, there have been a couple of events (a graduation and a wedding) where I've had occasion to meet more of his extended family, and out of deference to him I used "partner" a few times in explaining our relationship to folks I met. Ironically, I found this caused much more confusion. I'd get questions like, "so what sort of practice are you two in?" I'd then have to explain, no, not that kind of partner. "He's my husband." There'd be an embarassed laugh because of the confusion, but that would be it. I've never had a bad reaction from anyone yet. So I'm sticking to "husband", just because it is the most straightforward and least confusing.

The term that I do have some trouble with, though, is "in-law". One of the great things about being married, is that I now have a bigger family because I have a mother-in-law, a father-in-law, and sisters- and brothers-in-law (wonderful people, all of them). But the problem is that it's not in law. To call them "in-all-but-laws" would be closer to the truth, but that's way too unwieldy. A better solution I came up with is to talk about "in-loves" instead of "in-laws". I have not just one sister-in-love, but three. (That accounts for not only my husband's two sisters, but also the woman my brother is all-but-married to.) I like that, because it succinctly conveys the idea, while underscoring the point that it's not in law for us (yet). Unfortunately, while I like the "in-love" idea in theory, it's never felt natural to me in practice. There's always that confusion and having to explain it. So I've tended to just talk about my "in-laws", because it's the most straightforward and least confusing. Everyone gets it. And more importantly, I think my very casual (never pointed or in-your-face) use of "husband" and "in-laws" helps people to get that my marriage is no different than anyone else's. Isn't that ultimately the point?

(Now that I've cleared all that up, faithful readers note that my husband and I are going up north for a long weekend with the in-laws, and I probably won't be back to blogging before Tuesday.)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Six Sigma Training for the G-8?

Those who have worked for a government contractor, telecom company, or large software company in the last decade are probably familiar with the Six Sigma quality improvement program. (Actually, if you've worked for a government contractor, you've probably lived through a number of quality management trends, but this is the most respectable one I've encountered.) Six Sigma is a very pragmatic approach to management, focused on objectives and measurement. You start by identifying the results you'd like to achieve, and how those results are measured. Measurement is crucial. Managing any kind of a program without the right metrics is not unlike flying an airplane without any cockpit instruments. (Yet it's appalling how many corporate projects and government programs are run that way.) One of the common mistakes made is to confuse process metrics with result metrics. For example, a manager might measure how many hours people are actually working (a "process" metric), but that may or may not have a strong correlation to how much and how well work-product is being produced. It's important to measure the results metrics, and also to discover the process metrics that really count, the ones that do strongly correlate to results.

While Six Sigma has been successfully employed at companies such as Motorola and GE, there's no reason the methodology can't be applied to government. (In fact, the City of Fort Wayne, Indiana took Six Sigma to heart, apparently to good effect.) One project definitely in need of Six Sigma is that of aid to Africa being discussed at the G-8 Summit this week. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be commended for raising the priority on African aid, but with all due respect, his "targeting" of 0.7% GDP could benefit from Six Sigma training. That's a classic mistake of focusing on a "process metric" with a weak correlation to the actual objectives. The objectives are already agreed upon: the UN's Millenium Development Goals include reducing the proportion of people suffering from hunger and living in extreme poverty by half by 2015. Those are specific measurable target results. The good Prime Minister is proceding as if there were a demonstrable direct correlation between the percentage of GDP contributed by G-8 nations in foreign aid, and the achievement of reduced poverty and hunger. Unfortunately, no such correlation has been demonstrated (and in fact, some have asserted that there is a negative correlation). Before we go throwing bigger buckets of money into a seemingly bottomless pit, we should do some measurement and analysis to get an understanding about what works and what doesn't work in achieving our objectives. It's noble for the G-8 nations to be upping their charitable contributions, but such contributions should not be given outright. Rather, they should be put into a trust fund, and released only to demonstrably successful programs, and only insofar as measurable improvement is shown. (Actually, I thought we already had a trust fund like that. Isn't that what the World Bank is?)

My blogging colleague KipEsquire is often pointing out the "Politics of the Warm Fuzzy Feeling", in which politicians want to be seen taking action, with little regard to whether it is actually effective. Sometimes they do this because they make the common and honest mistake of confusing a process metric for a result when it has little correlation. Other times they may do this cynically, because perceptions are more important to them than results. (The latter suggests the need for a Six Sigma re-engineering of what incentivizes politicians.) While I believe his motives are honest, Prime Minister Blair's call for a 0.7% GDP contribution target is definitely a misguided process metric, merely the Politics of the Warm Fuzzy Feeling. If the 0.7% GDP contribution target were achieved, you can be sure Blair will be declaring victory, and lots of people will feel good about it, while forgetting to notice whether poverty and hunger are actually reduced. I'd like to see a small portion of the aid money earmarked for sending all of the G-8 leaders to a Six Sigma training session, so that we can cultivate the Politics of Results.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Do Agricultural Subsidies Hurt Africa?

Yesterday, I wrote about the issue of graft and corruption in inhibiting Africa's economic development, despite bushels of aid money being showered on the continent. (When the president of Senegal was recently asked "How much aid money will be enough?", he replied, "There will never be enough aid.") The other issue most often cited as a hindrance to African development is the huge subsidies and trade barriers employed by the US and EU for their agricultural industries. The thinking is that by subsidizing agriculture in "first world" nations, this depresses the price of agricultural commodities on the global market, harming farmers in poor countries. According to a 2002 UN report on African Recovery, it is noted that agriculture accounts for 70% of the labor force in sub-Saharan Africa, and is the main generator of export revenue. Given that, one can see how a world agriculture market "flooded" by subsidized first-world goods could be devastating to the struggling African economy. Thus, some of the activists outside the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland are calling for the ending of first-world agricultural subsidies.

It is not just the UN and left-wing activists who are espousing this theory. Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute agrees. In a paper prepared for last year's G-8 summit, Griswold outlined the libertarian argument for why eliminating subsidies are good for the poor nations and for the rich ones. He cites an IMF study that estimated abolishing agricultural subsidies and trade barriers would raise global income by $100 billion, with 90% of that increase going to the rich nations. (It would be interesting to do the homework to figure it out, but I would suspect that even 10% of that increase going to the poorer nations would be a bigger increase to their economies as a percentage of GDP.) He also cites the positive example of New Zealand, which has weaned itself from agriculture subsidies and protections since the 1980s. Subsidies and protections now represent only 1% of New Zealand's farm income, as compared to 21% for the US, and 35% for Western Europe. As most (except the Hayekians) would be surprised to find, New Zealand's farm output as a share of GDP has actually increased. Cato's libertarian line is that "by embracing the liberalization of farm markets, the rich countries would score a triple play by enhancing their own economic growth, spreading wealth to some of the world's poorest nations, and reducing the stagnation and frustration abroad that fuels global instability."

One can also add new World Bank leader Paul Wolfowitz to those embracing this idea. Wolfowitz, who recently visited Africa, stated "the key to tackling the problem of cotton subsidies, which obviously hurts farmers here in Burkina Faso and in other poor countries ... is to tackle agricultural subsidies across the board ." The World Bank estimates that US cotton subsidies alone (which total $4 billion / year, larger than the entire economy of Burkina Faso), costs 7 African cotton producing nations a quarter billion dollars a year.

In the face of all this, Trent McBride of Catallarchy challenges this "conventional libertarian wisdom". He notes that while eliminating subsidies will help poor farmers, "most inhabitants of the poorest nations are poor non-farmers who could use some cheap food." He reasons that subsidies benefit producers in the rich nations and consumers in the poor ones (and that conversely, eliminating them would help poor farmers while hurting consumers in poor nations). The logic seems sound, and he cites similar arguments being made in a Financial Times article, and by fellow blogger Tyler Cohen at Marginal Revolution.

After reading all that, I'm not sure who is right. And I need to admit that I'm way out of my own water here, so any opinions I express should be taken cautiously. That being said, my uninformed hunch is that McBride is wrong, based on my admittedly superficial understanding of a couple of basic economic ideas. The first is the notion that subsidies and trade barriers distort the market, making it less efficient than it otherwise would be. In a free market, American farmers would be incentivized to make the most efficient use of the land to meet the market, but subsidies distort this process (e.g., incentivizing them to grow corn when they might otherwise have grown something else). And sometimes we even pay farmers not to grow things. Wringing inefficiency out of the market, other things being equal, would cause prices to fall, an effect that may counterbalance the halting of subsidies. (Look at the New Zealand case cited by Cato as an example of the power of letting the market be efficient.) In general, both importers and exporters benefit from the increased efficiency when everyone is allowed to produce to their comparative advantage.

The second idea is that if forced to a choice between aiding third-world producers or aiding third-world consumers, I suspect it's best to go for the producers. As noted in the UN report, the bulk of the African workforce are in agriculture. When the agriculture market fails, the African economy lacks the industrial capacity to pick up the displaced workers, so you just end up with more desperate out-of-work people. Cheaper food is still out of reach of those with no income, and only helps those with a small income on a day-to-day basis with no long term hope for improvement. On the other hand, if we help the African agricultural market, we enable poor nations to become more productive. We start the engine of economic development, as it were. The apparent "Hobson's choice" between helping poor producers or poor consumers, I think, comes down to teaching them to fish versus giving them fish.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The African Money Pit

Much excitement surrounds the G-8 Summit taking place in Scotland this week, what with Tony Blair's heavy lobbying for the top industrialized nations to substantially increase their aid to Africa, and with the star-studded Live-8 rock concert backing him up. Unfortunately, an objective analysis may suggest that the well-intentioned initiative is misguided. (Or, as KipEsquire would put it, the initiative is the "politics of the warm fuzzy feeling", where it's more important to be perceived as "doing something", with too little attention paid to the effectiveness of the actions taken.) Saturday's Washington Post had an interesting article about how the G-8 is perceived by ordinary Africans. By their report, a typical perception is that of Kenyan coffee farmer Peter Kanans:
"Even if they cancel the debt, even if they give our governments aid money, ordinary Africans will not benefit," he said. "That money will only make the corrupt people richer and Africans international beggars for decades to come."
As Robert Guest noted, "Africa is not just the poorest continent in the world. It is the only continent that has gotten poorer in the last quarter of a century." Guest (who spent 7 years covering Africa for The Economist) reports that the problem in Africa is often blamed on the legacy of colonialism, but he asserts that this is a misdiagnosis. Rather, he agrees with the Kenyan coffee farmer that the problem is corruption. He cites the comparative examples of Botswana (which had virtually nothing when it became independent) and Zimbabwe (which had one of the most prosperous economies on the continent). Botswana has been governed prudently and honestly for the most part, investing in education, health care, and infrastructure. In the 35 years of independence, its economy has grown nine-fold. Zimbabwe has suffered under the infamously corrupt and counterproductive leadership of Robert Mugabe, and its economy has shrunk three-fold in the same time period. Colonial legacy would seem to have little to account for this 27-fold difference in success between these two countries.

In an essay in his textbook Learning Economics entitled "What Causes Prosperity?", Arnold Kling discusses the difficulty of finding the right combination of factors to achieve prosperity out of poverty. He notes that in addition to the right economic policy choices, there are fundamental elements of the underlying culture that must be present, which he identifies as three "ethics": a work ethic, a public service ethic, and a learning ethic. The first and arguably most fundamental is the work ethic. As Kling describes it, "the work ethic will exist if and only if people feel that work is fairly rewarded. If instead it becomes evident that rewards accrue to those who steal, deal in black markets, or serve a warlord or clan leader, then those behaviors will be more widespread than work." He does not offer any specific examples, but his description of what happens in the absence of a work ethic might have been written with parts of Africa in mind. (Robert Guest provides some colorful examples, such as police shake-downs road-blocks, where the people with the guns get to make up the rules.) Only when the first ethic is present can you move onto a public service ethic, such as investing in the roads, making it easy to buy and sell property with confidence, and so on.

Tom G. Palmer of the Cato Institute also identifies "institutions" as what Africa needs, drawing on his ideas about the importance of good institutions in enabling economic development, ideas which were informed by his experience in studying the adoption of liberal ideas in former Soviet bloc states. Russia too has suffered from a culture of corruption and graft in government, and the differences between North and South Korea can hardly be more stark.

Sending piles of money, along with good intentions, are not going to solve Africa's problems. Let's hope the G-8 will strive to actually do something effective, rather than just something warm and fuzzy.

Monday, July 04, 2005

My Litmus Test

For reasons comprehensible only to Washington politicians, it seems that it is unreasonable to question a judicial nominee as to how he or she would rule on some of the hot issues of the day. Seems to me that's like saying when I interview a prospective software developer, it would be unreasonable for me to ask them any computer-related questions. If it's not appropriate to ask a candidate for a position on the Supreme Court about their opinions on issues concerning constitutional law, then just what is appropriate? It's also clear that in Washington, having a "litmus test" is considered bad form, even though everyone has their own well-defined notions of what is and isn't acceptable in a judicial nominee. I guess depending on where you're sitting, the criteria on your side of the aisle are valid qualifications, while the criteria on the other side of the aisle are "litmus tests". Well, just in case the Judiciary Committee would like to know what I think, here is my litmus test.

A Supreme Court Justice should hold as fundamental that our Constitution is one of limited enumerated powers vested in the government to be balanced against fundamental rights vested in individuals (including but not limited to those enumerated in the Bill of Rights). Candidates should be queried on their views of the extent of the Commerce clause, and should be asked to provide specific examples of actual or hypothetical situations that would exceed its reach. (Growing your own marijuana for your own medical use should be one such example.) The ideal candidate will have a healthy suspicion of government's tendency to overreach. This should apply not just to the federal government, but to state government as well. Wherever fundamental rights are concerned, a Justice should not be squeamish about the Supreme Court's duty to protect them against encroachment by state governments as well as federal, with a robust reliance on the Fourteenth Amendment. A lame attitude such as that expressed in Justice Thomas' dissent in Lawrence v. Texas ("If I were a legislator, I would not vote for a sodomy law, but this court has no basis for overriding the state law") is not acceptable.

A Supreme Court Justice should know that the Ninth Amendment was included for a reason, and that it should be understood in the light (not penumbras, mind you, but bright light) of natural inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as intended by its authors. Jefferson and Madison would not have hesitated to think that a right to privacy, to choose how one pursues one's own ideal of the good life, is tantamount to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and is clearly a fundamental right. A candidate for Justice should not hesitate to think so either, nor to view it as a "fundamental right" in the meaning of Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence. Anyone who has any second thoughts about Griswold or even Lawrence should get the boot.

A Supreme Court Justice's view of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses should be well-grounded in the historical understanding of the Constitution's authors that the church and the state must remain separated for the benefit of both the church and the state. Historical misprisions about alleged Christian foundations of our nation, such as those espoused in the benighted neo-antidisestablishmentarian dissent of Justice Scalia in McCreary, should be an outright disqualification for the job. However, a Justice should be sensible enough to realize that there needn't be an absolute firewall between church and state in cases where the government can implement legitimate policy in a way that is neutral among religious beliefs (or lack of them), such as school vouchers, some of which may go to religious schools.

In this post-911 era, a Justice must be extra vigilant of the Bill of Rights, insuring that freedom of speech and of the press is not curtailed, especially in the name of patriotism, and that the rights of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments are not compromised, especially in the name of national security.

A Justice should conscientiously protect the property of individuals, as required by the Due Process clauses and the Takings clause. A qualified candidate should demonstrate an understanding that the Takings clause has some substantive meaning (and the ideal candidate would concur with Justice Thomas' dissent in the recent Kelo travesty).

If it were up to me, I'd nominate Richard Posner, or KipEsquire, or Jon Rowe. But they don't seem to be on the table. Any of the suspected Bush nominees come close to this litmus test?

Sunday, July 03, 2005

FILM: Heights

Chris Terrio's Heights (adapted by Amy Fox from her stage play) tells an intriguing story of various people in Manhattan whose lives and relationships intersect in unexpected ways. The opening scene is a Julliard acting master class, with star actress Diana Lee (played by Glenn Close) interrupting two students needing improvement on their MacBeth scene, and giving an impassioned speech about how passion is missing from their performance, and from everybody's lives these days. "We put up bold fronts and a gracious face in response to seeing our husbands with other women, and then when no one is looking we cry into our soy latte," she bemoans. This set piece is of course the leitmotif for the film, as the teacher can act great Shakespeare but can't bring the advice to bear on her own life. We soon meet Diana's daughter, Isabel, a photographer, and her fiance Jonathan, a handsome Jewish professional, as well as Alec, an actor wanting to break out of the Fringe Festival, and Peter, the latest lover of the famous photographer Benjamin Stone, who has been given a tortuously cruel assignment by Vanity Fair. These characters are all going through the motions of their lives, strong gritty New Yorkers on the surface, but without passion, without really knowing themselves or those they love, and all with something eating them out from the inside. As their paths cross and their lives unravel all in one evening, it is like watching a windshield crack. One crack leads to the next, and the jagged patterns formed can fragment the light to a beautiful effect, but you can never look through the windshield the same way as before.

This film explores some of the same themes as Sideways. In Sideways, we had an actor and a poseur-writer representing the superficiality of Los Angeles culture. In Heights, we have an actress and a photographer symbolizing the contrast between appearances (or performances) and "real life" in New York City artsy circles. (The metaphor is artfully deployed, both in Glenn Close's master class scene, and later in a scene with Elizabeth Banks photographing a mother and daughter on the subway. The latter called to mind a line from Rent, "Hey artist, get your own life!", as well as other echoes from that play in which the filmmaker cannot see and the songwriter cannot hear.) The difference between Heights and Sideways is that in Heights, the characters have inner lives that we eventually get glimpses into, and can develop some sympathy for. These people are more real. Like Sideways, the setting in Heights is an essential part of the texture of the film. While the Santa Ynez wine country scenery in Sideways added a camp note to the underlying cynicism, the rooftop, skyline, and street scenes of Manhattan enhance the sense of disconnectedness-despite-proximity in Heights. Often, we only started to get inside the characters when they stepped outside onto the roof. The use of cell phones added a subtle ironic underscore to the same theme, especially between the engaged couple who carried "direct-connect" phones, while their emotional connections fall short of their technological ones. Ultimately, both Sideways and Heights end on a note of hope, but the hope at the end of Heights seems more genuinely promising, because the characters are more real.

The performances in the film were are top-notch, starting with Glenn Close brilliant as the diva who can express Shakespeare better than herself, with a strong exterior but vulnerable inside. Elizabeth Banks is flawless as Isabel, strong but lost and later shattered, and James Marsden is wonderful as Jonathan, who thinks he knows what he wants and has it, while Jesse Bradford is great as Alec, who knows what he wants but not how to get it. A number of good performances in other parts pull together a strong ensemble, beautifully woven together in Amy Fox's story and Chris Terrio's direction. It is beautifully filmed, and there are a number of great shots where looks and expressions convey volumes without words.

Friday, July 01, 2005

War of the Worlds Opens This Weekend

We knew that the new Tom Cruise film War of the Worlds was opening this weekend, but who would have expected the bombshell that was dropped this morning by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, that will lead to all-out war in the Senate. We can expect the rhetoric to superheat as if the fate of the world were under dire threat.

As has been well-noted, Justice O'Connor has generally been the fulcrum in the balance of the court. And while President Bush has clearly stated that he would like to see another Justice in the mold of Justices Thomas or Scalia, I think that Justice O'Connor has been my choice for Justice I'd most like to see cloned. At times, she sided with the liberals on the court (most memorably for me, in the just majorities in Lawrence and in Romer v. Evans), and at other times, she sided with the conservatives (for recent examples, in the just dissents in Kelo and Raich). But whether tipping "left" or "right", whether in the majority or the dissent, by my lights, she was most often on the side of justice, principles, and faithfully defending the Constitution. (A true "upward" justice, if I may.) She has been a tremendous credit to the prestige of the Court, and she will be sorely missed. While selfishly I would desire her continued service, after 24 years on the Court and many many years prior to that in public service, I cannot begrudge her wishing to spend the years and health that remain to her tending to her personal life. Ave atque vale!