Monday, March 29, 2010

Healthcare, hyperbole and hypocrisy

Over the past week or so, we've been subjected to considerable sound and fury regarding Congress narrowly passing, and the President signing into law, the Affordable Care Act.

I have mixed feelings about health care reform. On one hand, I'm not particularly enamored with the health insurance industry as it currently operates and I think that prohibitions barring insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions is generally a good thing. On the other hand, I'm not sure that this new legislation will address the biggest problem facing American health care - ever-spiralling costs - and I can understand the objection people might have to the concept of the individual mandate.

That being said, I am disgusted by all the politically-charged hypocrisy and hyperbole that has been slung around by both parties over this process.

Democrats cannot complain about the Republicans attempting to use the same tactics, such as the Senate filibuster, that they used to obstruct things like Social Security privatization that the Republicans attempted while they were in control. Republicans cannot complain about the Democrats using the same type of strong-armed tactics that they used to get Medicare Part D (which, according to most objective analyses, will have a more damaging impact on the national debt than the Affordable Care Act) passed when Bush was in office. Mitt Romney cannot make stupid comments about President Obama "betraying his oath" for pushing a bill that is very similar to the state health care reform law that was passed when he was Governor of Massachusetts. These hysterical "Tea Partiers" need to understand that our nation's debt problems did not magically begin when that dark-skinned guy with a foreign name took office on January 20, 2009. And don't even get me started on the inflammatory, hyperbolic rhetoric coming from either side: that opponents of health care reform are "insurance industry shills" who "want poor people to die" or that proponents of health care reform are "communists" who are going to "bankrupt America." (News flash: we were already there long before health care reform.)

The fact is, there are far too many people on both sides of the political divide who have based their opinions solely on what they've heard shouted by their favorite talk show hosts, bloggers or ├╝ber-partisan politicians. Our nation is drowning in a swamp of cynical, toxic, hyper-partisanism, and, regardless of whether health care form is a good idea or not, this polarized, mean-spirited political environment is not good for the United States.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Monarchs might be scarce this year

Bummer. Chronicle science blogger Eric Berger reports that our orange-and-black insect friends might be in short supply this year:
In fact the [monarch] butterfly population, which normally numbers in the 10s of millions, may be down by as much as 50 percent this year, [Texas A&M researcher Dr. Craig] Wilson said. That's because of a cold and harsh winter in Mexico -- butterflies are especially vulnerable to the cold after getting wet -- as well as illegal logging near their nesting grounds.

Unfortunately the butterflies may not find much hospitality on the Texas leg of their northward trek.

Butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, and the plant has been slow to grow this year in Texas because of the near-record cold. Wilson said the milkweed in his butterfly garden on A&M's campus has yet to emerge.

Monarchs suffered a harsh one-two punch this past winter. A severe storm in late January and early February brought heavy rains and mudslides to to the monarch's overwintering grounds in Mexico. These storms and their effects, which have been extensively documented on the monarchwatch.com blog, utterly decimated the already smaller-than-normal hibernating population. A colder-than-normal winter here in Texas, meanwhile, killed the local overwintering monarch population (there is generally a percentage of monarchs that do not complete the entire journey to Mexico) and wiped out the host milkweed plants. That, in turn, means that there are very few plants for whatever migrating population that remains to lay eggs upon as they pass through Texas on their way up north. It's a bad situation all around.

However, as was noted in the comments of Eric's blog, insect populations can be remarkably resilient, so it's a bit early worry about the monarch being put on the endangered species list. Secondly, now that the spring planting season is underway we can do our part to help: start planting that milkweed, folks!

Made in America

We hear a lot of rhetoric about the erosion of the American manufacturing base, that the United States "doesn't build things" anymore:
Walk into any big-box store in the country and you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing is made in America anymore.

So many of our everyday purchases — the clothes we wear, the toys our children play with and the electronic devices we rely on for work and entertainment — are manufactured abroad.

Nearly everyone knows someone who lost a job in manufacturing in recent years. The recession that began in December 2007 has been devastating for the sector, leading to a steep drop in production and eliminating more than 2 million manufacturing jobs, about one out of every seven positions, exacerbating a long-term trend.

But that's not the whole story. The problem isn't manufacturing goods. The problem is manufacturing employment. Thanks to advances in productivity and a domestic shift towards higher-value goods, we just don't employ as many people to make things as we used to.

“There’s been a loss of manufacturing jobs, but that’s not the same as a loss of manufacturing,” said Ken Mayland, an economist with ClearView Economics who works with several manufacturing trade associations.

The U.S. manufacturing sector gradually has been transformed to focus primarily on sophisticated items that require fewer skilled workers to produce but create far greater value than the T-shirts, tennis balls and other consumer products that are mainly made overseas. Some U.S. factories also have been able to continue producing lower cost items, such as housecleaners or toothpaste, using highly automated machinery and few people.

In fact, the dollar value of the manufacturing sector's output generally rose between 1987 and 2007, according the Bureau of Economic Analysis, even as its importance as an employer fell.

As a series of graphs on fivethirtyeight.com discussion of the topic explain:

Note that since 1960, the index of industrial production has risen from a little below 30 to its current level of about 100. And note the increase is continual -- meaning the number didn't just hover around 30 for most of that time only to spike up in one big move. The index has continually risen over that entire period. This situation is also obvious on a logarithmic chart.

Instead, what people are commenting on is the drop in manufacturing employment. Consider these two charts.

Durable Goods Employment remained fairly steady at 10 million to 11.5 million employees between the mid-1960s to the early 2000s. Then total employment dropped like a stone, losing three million people over the last 10 years. These are levels last seen in 1950.

Non-durable goods manufacturing is even worse. From the mid-1960s to the early 200s, total employment in this area hovered around a 6.8 million. However, starting in 2000, the number fell off a cliff, losing almost 2 million people. This is the lowest the number has been in over 60 years.

However, over the last 15 years we've seen an increase in manufacturing productivity. Consider the following:

Manufacturing Output per hour has increased continually since records have been kept, as has
Multi-factor productivity.

What does all this information tell us?

US Manufacturing is alive and well. The real issue is manufacturing employment, which is dropping like a stone. And the reason for the drop is an increase in productivity.

In other words, we build a lot of stuff here in the USA. More than we've ever built before, in fact, in terms of value. It's just that, unlike before, we're using higher-skilled workers and more automation to build higher-value products. And while that's not good for lower-skilled workers or for manufacturing employment in general, it's a long way from saying "we don't build things in America anymore."

Where so much political rhetoric has been generated regarding this loss of manufacturing jobs - one side says that overly-demanding labor unions and protectionist tariffs have made American-made goods too expensive to be competitive, while the other side claims that corporate greed, enabled by free-trade agreements such as NAFTA, have caused American jobs to be outsourced to other countries where wages are meager and worker protections non-existent - the simple fact is this: it is productivity, not politics, that have caused an erosion in American manufacturing jobs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Penders out as UH basketball coach

Claiming that he succeeded in what he came to the University of Houston to do - get the Cougars back in the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament after an 18-year absence - head coach Tom Penders announced his resignation yesterday. The 64-year-old coach, whose Cougars lost to Maryland in the first round of the Big Dance on Friday, leaves after six years and a 121-77 record at Houston.

It's a bit surprising in that the conventional wisdom among many UH faithful, myself included, was that his team's amazing run through the Conference USA Tournament and its first appearance in March Madness since 1992 would result in Penders' return as head coach for at least one more season. And, while Penders insists that the decision to resign was his alone, there's plenty of speculation that he was actually asked to resign by UH Athletics Director Mark Rhoades, either because Rhoades had already made up his mind during the team's mediocre and inconsistent 15-15 regular season or because he took offense to Penders' participation in a rather unflattering (and in many cases completely inaccurate) depiction of the UH basketball program and its facilities in the New York Times.

At any rate, it doesn't really matter why Tom Penders left. All that matters is that he took the program as far as he could take it: from "completely miserable" under the Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude to "fair-to-middlin'" today. As the Chronicle's Richard Justice explains:

Few Division I coaches had less to work with than Penders in terms of facilities, budget and attendance. Penders pushed that part of his story in recent weeks, probably as he felt the walls closing in on him.

He left out the part about him doing a terrible job recruiting local high school talent and not winning enough games, but who wants to spoil a nice going-away party with facts?

Beating UTEP should not qualify as a signature victory at the University of Houston, but who knows anymore?

Guess how long it has been since UH won an NCAA Tournament game. If you answered 26 years, you’d be right.

For a bonus question, guess how many weeks UH has been in the Associated Press Top 25 these last 26 years? Two.

For a fanbase as fair-weather as Houston's and an alumni base as apathetic as UH's, that's just not going to get it done. Maybe it's asking too much, but it is what it is. I do believe Penders left the basketball program in better condition than he found it, and I hope he does well in his next endeavor. But now it is time for somebody else to pick up where "Turnaround Tom" left off, and take the program to the next level. With more on-campus housing being built and a facilities improvement study underway, it might just be possible.

Late word this evening is that UH womens' basketball coach Joe Curl is also retiring. Curl, who notched a 193-167 record in 12 seasons at UH, had been battling heart issues over the last few years and is stepping down for health reasons. Having met Curl in person on a few occasions, I can say that he is a great guy. I wish him the best.

Congrats to Christof

Although I'm a few days late to the party, I'd just like to echo what Kuff and Andrew have said regarding Mayor Annise Parker's decision to name local engineer and Citizens' Transportation Coalition blogger Christof Spieler to the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Board of Directors.

Christof's knowledge of local transportation issues is solid and his desire for high-quality, user-friendly, multi-modal transportation in Houston is passionate and clear. I think he is an excellent addition to METRO's Board of Directors and I have faith that he, along with the other four new Board member the Mayor has appointed, will do what it takes to get the beleaguered agency "back on track," so to speak.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What I did on my trip to Washington, DC late last month

I spent a lot of time at the National Air and Space Museum, Looking at old planes...
...and I spent a lot of time at the National Museum of American History, looking at old trains.

Because I'm a transportation geek and that's how I roll.

Here's an obligatory shot of the Capitol:
All in all, a good, if short, trip. Thanks Laura for the hospitality!

Monday, March 15, 2010

For the first time in eighteen years...

...the University of Houston Cougars are headed to the NCAA Basketball Tournament (also known as March Madness, the Big Dance, Bracketville, etc...).

The Coogs, in spite of having a rather mediocre season - they entered the Conference USA Tournament with a 15-15 record - managed to pull off the improbable, notching four straight victories and upsetting heavily-favored and nationally-ranked UTEP, 81-73, to claim the Conference USA Championship and secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tourney.

For me, it was literally half a lifetime ago when the Cougars last punched their ticket to the Big Dance: eighteen years ago today, on March 15, 1992, with a victory over Texas in the final of the Southwest Conference tournament. I was an eighteen-year-old freshman in college, George H. W. Bush was President of the United States, Johnny Carson was host of the Tonight Show, the #1 single in the country that week was "To Be With You" By Mr. Big ("I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred was #2), and Wayne's World had edged out My Cousin Vinny as the weekend's top-grossing movie. There was no such thing as Google, flat screen television or iPods; while walking to and from class I listened to music via cassette tapes in my Walkman. Cell phones, laptop computers and digital cameras did exist, but they were bulky, expensive and rare. My computer didn't have a modem, I didn't even know what e-mail was, and my brother and I played video games on a 16-bit Sega Genesis.

It was, indeed, a long time ago. Which makes it both amazing and depressing that a college basketball program as historically notable as Houston's, with a total of 19 NCAA tournament appearances and five Final Fours under their belt, has suffered such a long drought on the national stage. The Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude has been an absolutely dreadful period in Cougar sports history, and I'll admit that as recently as a week ago I was fed up with current head coach Tom Penders as well. But now that Penders has finally done what he was brought here to do - break the drought and get the Coogs back to the tournament - criticism of his coaching abilities is, for the time being, unwarranted.

The Cougars have not won a game in the Big Dance since the Phi Slama Jama era of the mid-80s; their last appearance in the tournament was brought to a quick, first-round end by Georgia Tech on March 19, 1992. The 13th-seeded Coogs will have their hands full again this time, as they face the 4th-seeded Maryland Terrapins in the first round this Friday. Expecting them to win their first tournament victory in 25 years might be a bit much. But hey, nobody expected this team to get to the tournament in the first place.

For the first time since I started filling out my annual bracket, "Houston" is one of the 65 names listed on the page. And that's good enough for me.