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Random Fragments

July - September 2010

Friedman Birthday Party

The LCD Bumper Sticker

Biased "Inside NAU"

Friday, July 30, 2010

   Friedman Birthday Party - After Milton Friedman died in 2006, Tom Jenney decided to host a casual meeting of folks on the anniversary of Friedman's birthday - July 31.  Jenney is the State Director of the Americans for Prosperity - Arizona organization, which had been the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers.  I first met Tom back in the late 1990s, when he was working at the Goldwater Institute and they were publishing a monograph I wrote on transportation issues at the Grand Canyon.

     I had been thinking of emulating Tom's annual celebration.  Maybe next year.  This year, I decided to trek down to Phoenix to help mark this day.  Well, actually, a day early.  The meeting was held at Mama Java's on Friday night (the 30th) even though Friedman was born on the 31st.  Well, it's not a perfect world!   It was a nice small, intimate, venue and we pretty much took over the place for a couple of hours.  I had some kind of iced dark chocolate mocha something-or-other, with whipped cream, and it was fabulous.

     The night started off with an hour long video on Friedman's life.  Cara Lynn and I sat with Claire, a summer intern at Goldwater, and Robert Teegarden, a consultant/advocate of school choice.  [You can see a little bio on Robert, who is a board member of the ASTOA.]  Then, Tom turned it over to Clint Bolick, also from Goldwater, and Robert to talk about school choice issues, about which Friedman was heavily invested.

     We wrapped up the festivities with an old video that Tom dusted off.  He was doing a sound check on an upcoming interview of Friedman, and was operating the camera (at the Cato Institute).  Consequently, he decided to quiz Friedman on some economic issues, primarily economist Steven N. S. Cheung's take on the famous "Fable of the Bees."  Perhaps it will land on YouTube someday??

     Being an economics student as an undergraduate, I know I was exposed to Friedman's ideas, but I can't say that anything in particular stuck with me.  In graduate school, at the University of Hawaii, there were some strong Friedman supporters and, indeed, he had made a visit to the campus sometime in the years before I attended (so, before 1977).  But, I mostly fell in with the Keynesian types here, and didn't pay much attention to Friedman, beyond what was required in my coursework.

     In 1984, while on a year-long leave of absence from my Ph.D. program, I found myself in Flagstaff, teaching an introductory course in microeconomics at the local community college.  [Actually, it was an extension of a CC from another county - we didn't have a CC in our county at the time.]  The class was being taught by a local banker who got transferred off to another state barely a week into the class.  I happened to be around and got tapped to replace her.  She had scheduled video showings of Friedman's Free To Choose series.  She got the bank to pay for the loan of these videos, so I decided to keep them on the schedule.  I was mesmerized by them.  I would say that this was the beginning of my shift in philosophy, away from the Statist viewpoint and toward the individualist viewpoint.

     Later, I would say it was in the late 1980s, when I was finishing up my Ph.D. and teaching at the UH, I read Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom.  From the very beginning, I was bowled over.  I soon made it required reading in some of my classes.  I haven't continued to use this book, although I still have a high regard for it.  [These days, in my principles classes, I use Anthem and How Capitalism Saved America.]

     A great time had by all.  For some more on Milton Friedman, consider these links:

Friedman's autobiography, written for the Nobel foundation, upon the receipt of his Nobel Prize, but updated in 2005.

Rose and Milton Friedman started the Foundation for Educational Choice, to carry on his vision in this area.

An example of Friedman's clear-headed thinking doesn't get any better than in his famous essay, "The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits."  Use it to tweak the noses of your liberal friends!

Go to BrainyQuote to find a boatload of cool things Friedman said.

And, finally, catch this short video on Milton Friedman's life:



Sunday, August 29, 2010

   The LCD Bumper Sticker - I have this feeling like I am the inventor of a few items over my life.  I don't know if it is some kind of evolutionary survival tool - that I have this feeling - or, if it is real.  When I was working the graveyard shift at the Colorado National Bank in 1976, I wore a set of headphones that tuned in radio stations.  I dreamed up an alternative, where you could play tapes.  And, according to Wikipedia, Sony developed their famous Walkman just a couple years later.  So, I am probably due huge amounts of money.

     At the same time, I also invented (in a virtual sense) the moped.  There had always been motorized scooters, but my vision seemed to presage the huge jump in demand in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  Well, at least I think so.

     And, in an earlier blog, I commented on the idea of self-orienting maps.  Since we now have a nice way to time stamp our ideas, I am pretty sure that when this comes into being, I will be credited as a co-creator.  Of course, I won't have been responsible for any of the real work, but, hey, it's still my idea.

     So, in that vein, I have recently invented the LCD bumper sticker.  Not a bumper sticker that has lousy looking LCD script, like they sell over at Zazzle.  Yeech.  [Although, I have bought some cool stuff from them.]  And, not the lame looking LCD license plate holders that apparently exist somewhere.  No, I am thinking about a device that would attach to your bumper, or car trunk, that would be an LCD screen.  It would be bright and clear, like cell phone displays are.  You can plug it into your trailer hitch connection to power it on when you drive, so it can be off (or removed for storage) while you are parked.  What is doubly cool about this is that you can program in new bumper stickers all the time!  I think it would sell like hot cakes.  Feel like a jerk for putting on that Obama/Biden sticker a couple of years ago?  Well, now you can remove it, or change it to something more appropriate, like "Don't build the Ground Zero Mosque."  Is your favorite team playing a tough game this weekend?  Then, change out your sticker to read, "Broncos Rule! Raiders Suck!"  [That was just an example.]    Maybe you'd like to display a cool scenic photo you took of the Grand Canyon.  The possibilities are endless.  And, you can download new stickers from the web and send them to your device wirelessly.  Or, hook them up to your computer to download new images.

     I suspect they'll be a bit pricey at first, which is why you won't see Ron Popeil pitching them.  But, I am sure that people will really snatch them up.  I did some web searching and found that VW had plans for a similar thing back in 2006.  But, it seems that it was built into the bumper, and I have never seen them.  I'll take two when they come out.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

   Biased "Inside NAU" - Senior Research Fellow Jay Greene just published a study through the Goldwater Institute titled, "Administrative Bloat at American Universities."  Using a government database, he finds that per pupil administrative employment/cost has been rising over the time frame studied, 1993-2007.  He argues (persuasively), that universities should be experiencing economies of scale so that these "overhead" costs should be declining.  [Not in an absolute sense, but in a proportional sense - that is, while student enrollment is rising, one would expect administrative costs to rise as well, but at a slower rate.]  Indeed, if they experience diseconomies of scale, then that means the university system is too big.  You can see his full presentation (45 minutes) at the Goldwater Institute home page as of now, or the copy posted up at YouTube.  It is well worth watching - he fills in some of the back story here as well as some of the controversy this study has generated.  His basic argument is that the subsidization of universities, by the state and federal governments, provides administrators the distorted incentive to grow their own budgets and salaries.  In a market economy, where students are paying the entire cost of these services, that wouldn't happen (because students wouldn't see any benefit and would go elsewhere).

     So, how do you think university administrators will react to this study?  Well, no surprise, they don't like it.  A short article on this study appeared on the front page of the Daily Sun.  Most of the comments indicate that the writer didn't understand the argument, nor took the time to actually read the report.  The story also got comments from Tom Bauer, who is the director of the university's Public Affairs Office.  The next week, this office, which e-publishes a weekly newsletter called InsideNAU, had their lead story blasting the Goldwater study.  That surprised me because this newsletter is generally the model of boring cheerleading for the university.  The newsletter characterized the GI as a "politically motivated think tank" and as "a special interest similar to those they are quick to criticize."  Instead of acknowledging that this can be a problem, and one that the university has to monitor, they have taken an aggressive stance of attacking the messenger to distract us from the message.

     Indeed, the justification for their disdain for the study, as it may relate to NAU, was stated in five bullets:  NAU's tuition is lower than peers, enrollment has grown quite a lot, NAU has a lot of residential students, it has extensive "distance learning programs," and that more research is being done.  The first three are irrelevant to the arguments of this study.  The last two seem relevant, but if the university isn't going to quantify their impact, all they do is lead to the false impression that administrative costs have risen faster than enrollment because of an ever faster growing distance program and research agenda.  If that were true, they would trumpet this result and say, "See, we are the good guys that have actually reduced administrative bloat."  But, sadly, they didn't.

     So, I got into this when a colleague sent me a note asking, "Why are conservative or libertarian think tanks the only institutions that are politically motivated?"  Exactly.  They would never characterize any other group this way, and it just goes to show you the inbred bias that permeates the university culture.  I penned an e-mail to Bauer and copied a contact of mine at the GI:

It may be that the purpose of the e-publication “Inside NAU” is to be a crass propaganda organ for the administration of the university, but I hadn’t previously suspected that such was the case.  The recent item criticizing the Goldwater Institute was both dismaying and embarrassing.  To characterize this non-profit think tank as “politically motivated” and as some kind of “special interest” is really nothing more than an ad hominem attack, and, I would think, unworthy of our institution.

I might note, by way of contrast, that Van Jones spoke on the NAU campus last semester.  The Inside NAU story on his appearance was nothing short of glowing, extolling him as a “pioneer in human rights and the clean-energy economy.”  [3/10/2010]  I didn’t read anything in that “story” about his association with Marxism, his support of a convicted cop killer, nor his obscene characterization of Congressional Republicans.  So, one must wonder, exactly what is the political motivation of the staff at Inside NAU?

Perhaps a better path to follow here would be to show some tolerance for differing opinions and engage in some open and honest debate on this issue.  Certainly, we can all agree that administrative costs are easy to inflate.  Are they too high?  Or, are they too low?  It would seem a worthwhile topic of further inquiry, rather than one that calls for us to circle the wagons.  Such an inquiry would seem to  be well within our mandate.

I know people at the Goldwater Institute.  I have given a presentation at the Goldwater Institute and I have published a policy paper through them.  Among their Senior Fellows is Vernon Smith, a Nobel Prize winning economist, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting at the Goldwater Institute.  As I look around the campus of NAU, I don’t see any Nobel Prize winners.

I would ask that the next edition of Inside NAU contain an apology to the people associated with the Goldwater Institute for the biased and unseemly characterization contained in this story.

The response by Bauer was disappointing to say the least, but not exactly unexpected:


Inside NAU normally avoids running institutional statements, but occasionally there is no other recourse.

The report released by the Goldwater Institute was not intended for honest and open debate. The report—hidden from  universities but provided to the media well in advance of a late afternoon program—was intended for headlines.

We welcome different opinions and honest discourse, but it’s difficult when a study is so obviously biased.


     Maybe he just doesn't get it.  Which tells me the bias is pretty deeply ingrained.  And, if you think an apology is coming, don't hold your breath!

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