Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bonaparte's Retreat

OK, it wasn't Bonaparte. It was really the Board's retreat, but that doesn't have quite the same ring.

Liz and I spent the past two days as members of the public attending the Oriental Town Board's retreat at River Dunes. The big news was disclosed early on the first day, when we learned the details of Mr. Chris Fulcher's proposal to exchange the end of South Avenue with a nearby site already dredged, with pilings for a pier already installed, and the site bulkheaded. It is a very interesting proposal, which merits careful study.

More importantly, it soon became clear that the town manager, Mr. Bob Maxbauer,  has initiated an ambitious program of identifying, prioritizing and planning projects for improving the Town. The purpose of the retreat was principally for the manager to brief the town board and seek policy guidance before proceeding further. It appears likely that the Town will schedule more detailed workshops to flesh out specific plans.

We have a manager! Details to follow.

Town Of Oriental Sale Of Property?

I've been puzzling over the mayor's special message of two weeks ago:

"The Town of Oriental is exploring the possibilities of sale or exchange of property in the vicinity of the west end terminus of South Avenue and Avenue A.  No action was taken by the Town Board of Commissioners at the special meeting held on Friday, January 13, 2012.  In the event the Town receives an offer, such offer will be a public record available for inspection.  Such offer would be taken up at a subsequent public meeting."

As of Friday, the mystery has been removed.

What had been puzzling is that the town owns no property in the vicinity of the west end terminus of South Avenue and Avenue A. The town only owns, on behalf of the public, the public rights of way in that vicinity.

Furthermore, a town can't sell such a public right of way, because some other party owns the underlying property rights. The only option available to the town if it no longer wishes to maintain custody of a dedicated and accepted right of way is to abandon it. If the town abandons a right of way, ownership reverts to the party that owns the underlying "dirt." Determining the party who owns the underlying "dirt" can be complicated in the older part of town.

We now know that Mr. Chris Fulcher wants to trade some of his existing property leading to Oriental Harbor for the terminus of South Avenue and for Avenue A. The proposal might or might not be a good deal for the town.

There are two questions for the board to examine:
1. Will the property to be "donated" to the town equal or exceed the value to the town and to the public of the existing right of way providing public access to the harbor?;
2. Can the proposed exchange be negotiated in a way that avoids at least one and probably two or more legal obstacles?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Politics And Leadership

Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is watchword of the wise.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A Grounding At Sea Can Ruin Your Whole Day

I just received a link to a video and narration of the Costa Concordia's track as she ran aground in Italy. I don't think the captain will be able to get out of this one. The track is derived from the ship's AIS transmissions, which include GPS coordinates.

Did he run aground on an uncharted rock? Not exactly.

Worth watching, but not for the faint of heart.

The iPhone and America's Discontents

Yesterday's New York Times had a very informative article focused on why iPhones are made in China, not in America. And the answer is, it isn't just about price.

The article explains: "It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products."

In short, at least in Apple's case, it is about quality. And continuous improvement.

For the past two decades, Americans have been misled by a chorus of triumphalist pronouncements about the decline and fall of the Soviet Union. "See," we are told,"communism failed. It can't work. Only capitalism can work, everyone knows that."

Is that so? The last time I checked, the People's Republic of China had a communist government.

So how come they are taking over production of our goods from our industries?

I think they have been paying attention not to the thoughts of Mao, but to the thoughts of W. Edwards Deming.

Read the New York Times article.

I'll share more thoughts later.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Poor Rich People (And Those Who Do Their Whining)

Ari Fleischer has put out some tweets about how the tax burden on the wealthy has grown. Here are some examples:
@AriFleischer The share of total federal tax paid by bottom 60% dropped from 22.5% in '79 to 14.4% today. Source: CBO     
@AriFleischer   The share of total federal tax paid by middle income dropped from 21% in '79 to 16.5% in '07.
@AriFleischer The share of total federal taxes paid by top 10% rose from 40.7% in '79 to 55% in '07.          
The share of total federal taxes paid by top 1% rose from 15.4% in '79 to 28.1% in '07        
What Ari Fleischer omits is that in the same period (1979 to 2007), according to the Congressional Budget Office,  income growth in the US has been distributed as follows:

  • 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households,
  • 65 percent for the next 19 percent,
  • Just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, and
  • 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. 
Bottom line: The share of all income going to high income households increased, the share going to lower-income households decreased. The truth is, taxes on the wealthy have not gone up in proportion to their wealth or income. The actual numbers are pretty disheartening, but the economist Mark Thoma has helpfully laid them out for us here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Oriental Town Property Question

"Special Message from the Mayor Concerning the Recent Meeting to Discuss Possible Land Acquisition
Friday, January 13, 2012 at 2:50 PM
Statement of Mayor Bill Sage
Town of Oriental

The Town of Oriental is exploring the possibilities of sale or exchange of property in the vicinity of the west end terminus of South Avenue and Avenue A.  No action was taken by the Town Board of Commissioners at the special meeting held on Friday, January 13, 2012.  In the event the Town receives an offer, such offer will be a public record available for inspection.  Such offer would be taken up at a subsequent public meeting."
This becomes curioser and curioser.

More later.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Property Acquisition

Following posted on

"Subject:  Special Meeting Called

I am calling a special meeting for Friday, January 13, 2012 at 1:00 PM for the purpose of discussing property acquisition and negotiation.  I anticipate that the majority of the meeting will be held in closed session.

Signed,  Mayor Bill Sage"

For information, here is the relevant provision concerning real property acquisition and closed sessions:

"§ 143‑318.11.  Closed sessions.

(a)        Permitted Purposes. – It is the policy of this State that closed sessions shall be held only when required to permit a public body to act in the public interest as permitted in this section. A public body may hold a closed session and exclude the public only when a closed session is required:
(1)        To prevent the disclosure of information that is privileged or confidential pursuant to the law of this State or of the United States, or not considered a public record within the meaning of Chapter 132 of the General Statutes.
(2)        To prevent the premature disclosure of an honorary degree, scholarship, prize, or similar award.
(3)        To consult with an attorney employed or retained by the public body in order to preserve the attorney‑client privilege between the attorney and the public body, which privilege is hereby acknowledged. General policy matters may not be discussed in a closed session and nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant. The public body may consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration, or administrative procedure. If the public body has approved or considered a settlement, other than a malpractice settlement by or on behalf of a hospital, in closed session, the terms of that settlement shall be reported to the public body and entered into its minutes as soon as possible within a reasonable time after the settlement is concluded.
(4)        To discuss matters relating to the location or expansion of industries or other businesses in the area served by the public body, including agreement on a tentative list of economic development incentives that may be offered by the public body in negotiations. The action approving the signing of an economic development contract or commitment, or the action authorizing the payment of economic development expenditures, shall be taken in an open session.
(5)        To establish, or to instruct the public body's staff or negotiating agents concerning the position to be taken by or on behalf of the public body in negotiating (i) the price and other material terms of a contract or proposed contract for the acquisition of real property by purchase, option, exchange, or lease; or (ii) the amount of compensation and other material terms of an employment contract or proposed employment contract.
(6)        To consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, conditions of appointment, or conditions of initial employment of an individual public officer or employee or prospective public officer or employee; or to hear or investigate a complaint, charge, or grievance by or against an individual public officer or employee. General personnel policy issues may not be considered in a closed session. A public body may not consider the qualifications, competence, performance, character, fitness, appointment, or removal of a member of the public body or another body and may not consider or fill a vacancy among its own membership except in an open meeting. Final action making an appointment or discharge or removal by a public body having final authority for the appointment or discharge or removal shall be taken in an open meeting.
(7)        To plan, conduct, or hear reports concerning investigations of alleged criminal misconduct.
(8)        To formulate plans by a local board of education relating to emergency response to incidents of school violence.
(9)        To discuss and take action regarding plans to protect public safety as it relates to existing or potential terrorist activity and to receive briefings by staff members, legal counsel, or law enforcement or emergency service officials concerning actions taken or to be taken to respond to such activity.
(b)        Repealed by Session Laws 1991, c. 694, s. 4.
(c)        Calling a Closed Session. – A public body may hold a closed session only upon a motion duly made and adopted at an open meeting. Every motion to close a meeting shall cite one or more of the permissible purposes listed in subsection (a) of this section. A motion based on subdivision (a)(1) of this section shall also state the name or citation of the law that renders the information to be discussed privileged or confidential. A motion based on subdivision (a)(3) of this section shall identify the parties in each existing lawsuit concerning which the public body expects to receive advice during the closed session."

No, I don't know what property is going to be under discussion. For what it's worth, my interpretation of NCGS 143-318.11 is that, while negotiation specifics may be discussed in closed session, identifying the property or indeed discussing the desirability of town acquisition of property are not permitted for discussion in closed session. 

Hungary Update

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seems well on his way to turning Hungary into an authoritarian dictatorship. In an earlier post, I suggested Hungary was beginning to resemble the authoritarian regime of Admiral Horthy, who led Hungary from 1922 to 1944.

That was a good guess. Viktor Orban himself has called attention to Horthy as a model. The latest report from Hungary by Professor Scheppele is not good. The most hopeful sign is that the EU is calling Hungary to task. Whether the EU's measures will work any better than the timid measures taken by the League of Nations in the 1920's and 1930's is anybody's guess.

What seems clear is that the events in Hungary are a serious threat to democracy in Europe.

The Scientific Method

"First you guess. Don't laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn't matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it's wrong. That's all there is to it."
-- Richard Feynman, on how to discover a new law of physics

I would call it a "conjecture" rather than a guess, but Feynman is right that it is the most important step in discovery. Some inaccurately call the conjecture a "theory." For a theory, there needs to be some data. I think that's what Feynman means by "experience."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More On Why Congress Doesn't Get It

On New Years' Day, the New York Times printed a very thought provoking article on "The Distorted View From Capitol Hill." It's worth reading for yourself, but I offer a brief summary:

The median net worth of members of congress approaches a million dollars and is growing.

The median net worth of all Americans is declining.

Members of congress consort with each other and with other millionaires. Not to mention their staffs.

Representatives can hire up to eighteen personal staffers who answer their beck and call.

Senators have anywhere from twenty-six to sixty personal staffers.

Most don't drive themselves anywhere and never use public transportation. At Washington National Airport, they are treated like royalty.

White residents of Washington DC are better off than those who live in the members' own districts.

Poverty in DC is overwhelmingly a part of the African American experience, not that of whites. As is crime.

Joblessness overwhelmingly affects DC blacks.

None of the perquisites of office would be a problem except the view from Capitol Hill distorts the reality of America.

In the real America, nearly twice as many white Americans are in poverty as black Americans.

In the real America, about the same number of white Americans are in prison as black Americans.

The Times article suggests that isolation in DC is one reason some members of Congress find it so easy to believe that the unemployed are all black folks taking a vacation at public expense; lazy, unambitious freeloaders.

This false picture is not only believed by the millionaires' club that Congress has become - it is seldom contradicted by those in the profession of journalism. If there is such a profession these days.

Who benefits from this false picture and the policies it engenders? Mostly the 1%. Actually the .1%. Those who acquired their wealth the old-fashioned way - inherited it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

How To Fix Congress - And Why It Won't Happen

According to polls, public approval of Congress is at an all time low - about 12% and disapproval at an all time high - about 84%. How to fix this? I have some ideas, but before suggesting a cure, there must first be a diagnosis.

So. What's wrong with the congress?

Some of the ills of congress are built into our constitution. The US Senate, for example, which likes to characterize itself as "the world's greatest deliberative body" is arguably the "free world's" least democratic body. That is, first of all, a consequence of the constitutional arrangement that each state, regardless of size or economic output, have an equal number of senators. This is compounded by the increasingly inexplicable commitment of the senate to the requirement of a supermajority of senators to pass any legislation at all. My solution to that: get rid of paper filibusters imposed by the cloture rule. Let's go back to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" style of filibuster. Filibusters would become more rare because voters could see what was happening and better understand what it was about.

By the way, some republicans want to fix the senate by repealing the seventeenth amendment that provided direct popular election of senators. What, we have too much democracy?

A common complaint about the House of Representatives is "My representative doesn't listen to people like me."

Some advocate term limits to fix this. I say, we already have term limits. Elections. What we don't have is enough representatives.

We are going through redistricting right now. This is the process after every decenniel census (except for the 1920 census - there was not a reapportionment after that census). First congress reapportions seats in the House of Representatives to the states according to population. District boundaries are then redrawn by state legislatures and in some cases by courts.

Contrary to popular opinion, the number of seats in the House of Representatives is not in the constitution. But the number has not changed since it was set at 435 in 1911. At that time, each member of the House represented about 216,000 citizens. Since then, our population has more than tripled, but the number remains the same. Now each member represents about 708,000 constituents.

My suggestion: enlarge the House so that each member represents about 216,000 citizens. With modern communications systems, that would allow the members closer communication with constituents. It would also lower the financial and organizational barriers to running for office. It might reduce the influence of money in politics and even create opportunities for more political parties to become competitive.

How many representatives would we have? About 1,426. Admittedly, that might make the body even more unwieldy, but it might force more cooperation. It would certainly induce representatives to be more responsive to constituents.

How could we accommodate so many representatives? We could replace the desks on the floor of the House with benches. We could also reduce representatives' personal staffs. Currently, members are allowed to hire as many as eighteen personal staffers. Reduce that to five per member. Representatives might have to study bills themselves, possibly answer phones and write some of their own correspondence. Where would they get the time to do this? By going to fewer fund raising events.

Something else worth trying is proportional representation, but that's a really wonky subject I'll save for later.

None of this will happen, because all of these measures would reduce the present power of incumbents and wealthy patrons.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rescue at Sea

Earlier this week, TV news reports showed footage of an Iranian fishing vessel and crew rescued from pirates near the Straits of Hormuz by US Navy sailors.

The TV report mentioned that the operation was supported by the nearby aircraft carrier Stennis. Not mentioned, but of more interest to me is that the fishing vessel had been intercepted by USS Kidd (DDG-100) and the rescue was effected by sailors from Kidd. Kidd is an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer with the Aegis combat system. After I retired from the navy, I worked for a few years as a senior member of the engineering staff and engineering project manager on the Aegis combat system at RCA.

Also of interest is that Kidd's commanding officer is Cdr. Jennifer L. Ellinger, a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. That calls to mind a couple of other personal memories:

1. It was about 40 years ago that the navy first authorized assignment of women to ships at sea. At the time, I was Operations Officer of USS Albany, a Talos guided missile cruiser built during WWII as a heavy cruiser. When the decision was announced, there was a lot of grumbling and assertions that women couldn't work at sea. When my officers joined in the grumbling, I suggested that there was not a single job in the operations department that couldn't be performed as well by a qualified woman. I didn't mean it as a put-down, but in hopes it would open their eyes. I also knew that the policy against assigning women to ships had created some irrational situations. For example, the Fleet Programming Center, Pacific, the organization supporting Albany's tactical data system, had civilian and military computer programmers, both male and female. The programmers were often sent to ride the ships at sea when the center received computer program problem reports, in order to see for themselves what the problem was. Some of the computer programs were on aircraft carriers. The computer programmer for the carrier programs was a female Lieutenant Commander. She was not allowed to ride the carrier at sea. Instead, the center sent a female civilian to ride the carrier. The 1972 change in policy opened these doors.

2. During my subsequent tour in the Pentagon (1972-1975), my wife Elizabeth worked for the National Organization for Women and took part in a coalition effort to open up the service academies to women. This effort was successful, and Congress opened the academies to women in 1976. Four years later I was on a NATO tour and was very impressed by one of the early Naval Academy women graduates performing a job on the staff of the Commander, US Naval Forces Europe. She was doing a job normally assigned to an officer two grades senior to her, and was doing it very well. Now about 22% of entering Naval Academy plebes are women.

By the way, USS Kidd's second in command, Cdr. Gabriel Varela, of Phoenix, Arizona, enlisted in the Navy in 1987, achieved the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and was commissioned at Officer's Candidate School in 1995.

The navy assigns only its best and brightest officers to serve in Aegis destroyers and cruisers.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Much of today's vicious political discourse reflects a conflict between those who believe in YOYO (you're on your own) against those who favor concerted action for the common good (WITT - we're in this together). This is an ancient struggle, but the twentieth century saw great strides in the ability of American society to work together for the "general welfare," as our constitution puts it. We came out of the great depression and defeated the Axis powers by following the policies of WITT. We created general prosperity for two and a half decades after WWII by extending the policies and attitudes of WITT.

The efforts of government at both the federal and the state level to act in the public good has been under constant attack for about four decades now. Last night's attack by North Carolina Republican legislators on public school teachers is a recent example of the YOYO philosophy.

This Wednesday, Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, posted a very thought-provoking article entitled "The Decline of the Public Good." I recommend it.

Reich makes it clear that the decline in spending on public assets that everyone uses is a consequence of relentless attacks. Not only public schools, but parks, roads, playgrounds and transit systems have been victims. His most striking statistic: "Outside of defense, domestic discretionary spending is down sharply as a percent of the economy. Add in declines in state and local spending, and total public spending on education, infrastructure, and basic research has dropped from 12 percent of GDP in the 1970s to less than 3 percent by 2011."

Anyone who uses those public assets knows about the decline.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Our New National Strategy

I have just read through the Secretary of Defense Report: "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense." I wish it were more inspiring.

It has been a long time since I have read through any of the documents generated in the Pentagon and purporting to be a "strategy." The problem I always have with such documents is that it is almost always impossible to ascertain the overall design. It reminds me of Winston Churchill's remark at a dinner party: "madame, this pudding has no theme."

If this were a management challenge (and it is), it should follow W. Edwards Deming's advice and first address the aim. "A system must have an aim," he wrote in The New Economics. "Without an aim," he emphasized, "there is no system." He goes on in his writings to explain that the system must have a method for achieving the aim.

I keep hoping for a new American strategy that truly identifies the aim of our policy and the method by which it can be attained. The best example of what I keep hoping for can be found in George F. Kennan's famous "X" article, published in Foreign Affairs  in 1947. The article addressed the problem of Soviet attempts to expand their power and influence. After a detailed rundown of Soviet history, Kennan observed, "In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness.'"

Here it is in one eloquent sentence. The aim: prevent Soviet expansive tendencies. The method: patient, firm and vigilant containment.

I see nothing that clear in today's document. Can't blame me for wishing.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How To Buy A State Law

Ever hear of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)? Sounds pretty harmless.

In fact, ALEC is a powerful and influential lobbying organization, able to influence its members (predominately Republican state legislators) to pass legislation (which ALEC drafts) favorable to wealthy corporate interests (who fund ALEC). A large percentage of the legislation passed by the Republican legislature of North Carolina this year was drafted by ALEC, including legislation affecting elections.

Business Week has a very informative article on ALEC entitled "Pssst... Wanna Buy a Law?" Makes interesting reading for anyone who wants to learn how corporate interests distort the legislative process.

Civilian Control Of The Military

I have to tell you, I am very uncomfortable with a sight I saw tonight in Iowa.

At Congressman Ron Paul's celebration of his impressive showing tonight in Iowa, he introduced a soldier in uniform who proceeded to give a speech supporting Ron Paul for president.

I'm not uncomfortable because he was supporting Ron Paul - I think those who have gone into harm's way for this country have every right to support their choices for political office. But not while wearing their uniform.

The soldier in question wasn't an officer, but that still doesn't make it right.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, military and naval officers and their supporters in civilian organizations like the Navy League worked tirelessly to establish the military calling as a profession. As individuals, they often retained strong party loyalties. As military professionals, though, there was no such thing as a Democratic general or a Republican general; only competent and less competent generals.

During my time in service, I gave the same professional advice to my civilian superiors no matter who was in the White House. I would have had little respect for any senior officer who tailored his advice to what he thought the boss wanted to hear. Such advice is worthless.

We had not only the legal prohibitions of the Hatch Act, we had a strong professional ethic.

Make no mistake about it. I did not keep my political sentiments a secret from my colleagues and friends. But I never would have thought of appearing in uniform at a political event.

The most extreme case of a firm dividing line between partisan politics and military professionalism was that of George Catlett Marshall. General Marshall never voted. Ever. He thought the act of voting would have compromised his professional objectivity. Nor did he vote even after being appointed Secretary of State under President Truman. During all his years of service, General Eisenhower never disclosed his own choice of party. In fact, both parties tried to recruit him as a presidential candidate in 1952.

This all began to change after the creation of the "all volunteer force," when military reservists and members of the national guard became a more integral part of the armed forces than during the Cold War.

Now reservists and national guard members move back and forth between active duty and civilian life many times in the course of a career. The lines have become confused and the rules are apparently less clear than they once were. I think General Marshall wouldn't be pleased.

Nor am I.

Monday, January 2, 2012

On The Tiger's Back

The problem with riding a tiger is that it is hard to dismount without peril.

I have often wondered if our insistence on continuous, significant economic growth isn't a case of riding the tiger. It reminds me a bit of Lake Wobegon, where "the children are all above average." Clearly, we all can't be above average.

More to the point, we measure economic activity by "gross national product," which correlates very closely to how many resources we expend. Some of those resources are finite. Logically, we can't increase our use of finite resources forever. Malthus figured that out two centuries ago.

Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard economics professor and former chief economist of the IMF, raises the question today in an article entitled "Rethinking the Growth Imperative."

"Modern macroeconomics," Rogoff points out, "often seems to treat rapid and stable economic growth as the be-all and end-all of policy. That message is echoed in political debates, central-bank boardrooms, and front-page headlines." And then he asks: "But does it really make sense to take growth as the main social objective in perpetuity, as economics textbooks implicitly assume?"

After examining a number of possible explanations for the emphasis on growth as well as statistical examples of the effect of growth, Rogoff closes by observing: "In a period of great economic uncertainty, it may seem inappropriate to question the growth imperative. But, then again, perhaps a crisis is exactly the occasion to rethink the longer-term goals of global economic policy."

Good point. Can we figure out a way to get off of the tiger without doing too much damage to ourselves.

More On Hungary - News Isn't Good

Paul Krugman has posted another update on Hungary by his colleague, Kim Lane Scheppele. The news is really not good. Hungary is on the cusp of becoming a despotism.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Years Objectives

I don't do New Years Resolutions.

As Popeye used to say, "I yam what I yam." If there is anything I have learned in more than seven decades, it is that I am unlikely to become a better person, wiser, more handsome, faster, thinner, healthier, more skillful, funnier, or more expressive. Popeye got it about right.

But that doesn't mean one shouldn't set more or less achievable goals for the near future. Some of mine:

1. Finish repairing our house from Irene's destruction;
2. Finish my novel;
3. Organize my photographs;
4. Read War and Peace;
5. Keep blogging.