10 June 2016

Please visit authorscottmacdonald.com

I have been posting essays on a variety of topics at my new website:   www.authorscottmacdonald.com. Please check out the essays as well as recent essays on small town life by Molly MacDonald, my sister-in-law, under her column "Inkspots."

04 April 2016

The Trump Phenomenon

            On a recent trip to Australia, many of my former colleagues and friends asked about current election year politics in the U.S. and how specifically Donald Trump could be the leading contender for the Republican Party nomination.  They were generally incredulous that Trump could be nominated and possibly become the United State’s President and future leader of the democratic free world.

            In discussions with others from Europe, the inquiries and disbelief followed similar themes. How could someone who advocates banning Muslims be America’s next President?

            The explanation to Donald Trump’s election primary success should not be that surprising. It follows similar election themes that are sweeping the world.

            First, there is a recent anti incumbent theme that is clearly evident in recent elections. Polls have suggested people everywhere are tired of politicians who say one thing and do something else.  They are critical of politicians who do not solve their nation’s problems, apparently benefit from or at least tolerate graft and corruption, and are unable to move the economy forward creating jobs and economic opportunity.

            This anti incumbent trend seems pervasive. In Europe, recent elections in Poland, Ireland, Portugal. Spain, Slovakia and elsewhere have resulted in a change in government or diminished majorities. In Latin America, popular will has turned against incumbent governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, and elsewhere. Current Presidents who sought additional years in office are stepping down when terms end in Bolivia and Ecuador because they lack public support to continue.

            In Africa, Nigeria recently voted out of office President Jonathan Goodluck.  Elsewhere, current leaders often retain their position through force and corruption. In Asia, Myanmar has a new government.

            In North America, the conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, lost his post when the Liberal Party lead by Justin Treudeau won by a wide margin.  In Australia, the Prime Minister was replaced by his Liberal Party and their coalition partner because of lagging popularity.

            It is not surprising that U.S. incumbent politicians are also encountering resistance. President Obama cannot run for reelection, but his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has had difficulty securing the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination despite facing what appeared to be token opposition. She is the closest candidate to being considered an incumbent.

            The contest for the Republican nomination began with seventeen formal candidates.  The more mainstream, traditional politicians like Jeb Bush fared poorly and dropped out of the race. The remaining top candidates are anti incumbent candidates, namely Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump is the most outspoken, high profile anti incumbent, but Ted Cruz seems to be as anti establishment as Trump.

            A second theme that seems to cut across geography is an anti immigrant theme. Trump blames Mexican immigrants on many of the nation’s problems and advocates rounding up 11 to 12 million undocumented residents and pushing them out of the country, which is completely impractical and would devastate the economy but gets headline attention.  Cruz, like Trump, sees benefit in building more walls and hiring more border guards on the border with Mexico despite recent data that indicates more Mexicans are going south than north across the Border.

            In Europe, anti immigrant parties have been steadily increasing their presence and influence, even before the Syrian refugee crisis. The National Front Party in France is expected to challenge for the Presidency in the next election and has won local elections more recently.  The UK Independence Party seems to be supported by 10% to 15% of the UK voting populace. Anti immigrant parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Danish People’s Party, Norway’s Progress Party, Sweden Democrats, and Netherlands’ Party of Freedom all are gaining increased attention and likely support for their anti immigrant philosophy.

            Donald Trump’s anti immigrant rant fits the international theme of blaming immigrants for perceived national economic weakness. In the U.S., Senator Cruz mirrors Trump’s positions.

            Trump’s progress is also encouraged by the unique American primary nominating process. On average, Trump receives between 30% and 40% of the Republican vote. He had not received the actual majority vote in any primary. Because of multiple candidates, 35% is enough for a plurality. He seems to have a loyal base of disgruntled white, conservative male voters, which gives him a plurality in divided contests. Self-identified Republicans only constitute about 25% of the American electorate suggesting Trump’s attraction to the general American electorate would be comparably small. There is nothing to suggest he can ever realize a majority vote, especially when Democratic Party and independent voters are included.

            Donald Trump’s progress should be no surprise. His anti incumbent and anti immigrant themes attract a minority group of voters that is sufficient to win a plurality within conservative Republican primaries.  If nominated, he will almost certainly lose a general election in a landslide, unless the Democrats nominate a professed Socialist.

22 June 2015

San Diego's Best Alternative to Replace the Chargers

It is becoming increasingly clear the NFL San Diego Chargers intend to move to Los Angeles and no longer want to remain in San Diego. When the Mayor and the larger community realize this, they can refocus their attention on an alternative plan.

Plan B for the City should be developing a soccer stadium downtown and working with investors to secure an MLS franchise.  In 2011, the City of Houston developed BBA Compass Stadium primarily for the Houston Dynamo of the MLS.  The 22,000 seat outdoor stadium is located downtown and cost less than $100 million to build. Of the total cost, the public taxpayer was responsible for about $35 million.  This compares with over $300 million taxpayer support suggested for an NFL Stadium but regarded as inadequate by the Chargers.

The MLS plays 34 regular season games compared to 16 for the NFL, and the top 12 teams make it to the playoffs. With more home games, the soccer team should generate more economic benefit than an underutilized NFL stadium. In Houston, the new NFL Stadium (2002) has generated little economic benefit to surrounding neighborhoods while Houston’s downtown is booming supported by baseball and soccer stadiums.

Soccer is popular in San Diego as evidenced by the extensive youth soccer program, the successful staging of games between the US national team and others including Mexico, the large and soccer focused Hispanic population, and historical support for the indoor professional soccer team.

Tickets for soccer would be much more affordable. In Houston, good seats for the Dynamo sell for $30 while similar seats for the NFL Texans typically cost patrons $250. Why should the San Diego taxpayer support a venue that is unaffordable to the average resident when an affordable sports and entertainment venue is available?

The MLS now has 20 teams and is expanding with 4 new teams announced.  They clearly want to expand further, building a national platform. San Diego would be an excellent candidate to secure a new franchise if the community can deliver a new stadium.

It is time to say “good bye” to the Chargers and “welcome” to a less expensive MLS alternative.

24 September 2014

Paying for Public Education: A Serious Proposal

America, we have a problem.  A democracy depends on an educated voting public, but obtaining a university education is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Over the last decade, tuition at four-year public institutions has increased at about 7.5% per year. This translates to a doubling of tuition in a decade. Tuition is twice as expensive as it was 10 years ago.

In addition to tuition increases, many universities have increased room and board charges and added an array of student fees, which mask total cost increases of attending college.  It appears that more affordable 2-year programs and community colleges may have had even larger increases.

Against rising costs of education, minimum wages, which many students earn while working part time, have not increased at all. Average annual wage increases for all workers have risen about 3% during the same period.

With higher costs and lower relative wages, it is not a surprise that students are accumulating higher levels of debt. There appears to be about $1 trillion in outstanding student debt in the U.S., and student loan defaults are reportedly about $146 billion.

A second problem relates to cutbacks in social services at the same time social needs are increasing. The recent financial crisis reduced revenues to Government, resulting in spending cutbacks in many state and local governments. Cutbacks were typically widespread including support for public education and social services. At the same time unemployment and underemployment were increasing, community services were decreasing.

These two issues may have a common solution. I have a proposal that will not eliminate these problems but could help mitigate them. The proposal is more fully explained on my new website (macdonaldscholars.com).

The proposal does not require any more Government funding; it is a private initiative, funded by private sources.  If implemented broadly, students will graduate with less debt, and community services will be increased, Stay tuned.

06 September 2014

A Dog's L:ife

A Dog’s Life
By Sadie MacDonald, a 2-½ year old Lab mix

The path of life takes so many unexpected turns. Take my life, for example.

I was born in Beaumont Texas in 2011. I think my mom was a yellow lab; I never met my father but he must have had floppy ears because I have little floppy ears and labs do not. I think my dad was really fast too; I can run faster than anyone. If I am not on a leash, no one can catch me.

I did not have a home as a pup and was rescued when mom and I were sitting on the side of a road. Ross adopted me and I moved to Austin. Ross raised me and I love Ross very much. I miss him.

I lived in Austin with Ross, his roommate Matt, and Matt’s dog Duke. It was a good life, but things always change and Ross had to move to an apartment in Houston, so we flew to California, and I moved in with Scott, Ross’s Dad. I now live in Del Mar, which is not bad.

I really like the new neighborhood. Coach lives down at the bottom of my street and Otis lives right behind me. I hope to go to Otis’s house next week to play.

Jake, a big Bernese Mountain dog, lives down the street and stops by every day. He was the first to welcome me to the neighborhood. And Bella, a German Shepherd, lives across from Jake. Bella is okay but has an attitude problem she needs to work on. She wants to be the dominant dog, which is fine with me so she needs to get over it and move on.

Bavie and Bodie live next door. They are little guys and bark a lot. I don’t know if we will be friends but I like walking past their house and causing them to go crazy each time I pass.

There are lots of good places to go to the bathroom. I am especially fond of a patch of dirt and bushes just up the street. No dogs live in the house and the humans are never around so many of the neighborhood dogs use this place. We like to smell each other’s scent.

There are so many new smells here. Sometimes I just put my nose in the air and take in the fresh breeze. It smells so different than Texas. When I take Scott or Patti for a walk, I like to smell everything; sometimes they are impatient and I have to move on.

Humans here like in Texas are nice but not that smart. Scott told me I am not allowed to lie on his nice soft coach in the living room, so I wait until he is gone before I hop on it and take a nap. I am really quick and can change places as soon as I hear a key in the door.

Sometimes Scott asks me if I was on the bed or couch. I guess he notices lots of dog hair. I pretend I do not know what he is talking about. Humans are pretty gullible.

I am not allowed in his bed either. Sometimes I wait until he and Patti go to sleep and then hop on the bed. Usually they wake up and push me off but yesterday I managed to sneak on and they did not notice until morning. If they push me out, I often go in the guest bedroom and hop on that bed. Human beds are far better than dog beds or the floor.

I take Scott and Patti for lots of walks. I just pretend I need to go to the bathroom, and out we go. If they are asleep, I just press my cold nose against Patti, and that usually works. I also know how to whine if I need to resort to that. Humans need exercise so they should thank me.

So life in Del Mar is pretty good. I have been to the beach, had treats at lunchtime at the local human restaurants, walked all over, been to a resort for dogs and spent the day playing with some great dogs. I miss Ross and don’t like car rides, but otherwise no complaints.

If you ever want to come visit, bring your dog or at least some treats. I like treats.

Del Mar CA

20 October 2013

Eliminating the US House of Representatives

The US Government was shut down because the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives does not like the Affordable Care Act that was passed and became law in 2010, and the President does not want to withdraw his signature legislative accomplishment. The shutdown and dysfunctional Government raises questions about whether the form of Government that was devised in the Constitutional Convention needs to be reviewed after 225 years, Times and conditions change, and reviewing decisions with the advantage of time and hindsight are generally useful

The original governing body of the country was guided by the Articles of Confederation, which was adopted by the States in 1781 and had one legislative body. There was no Senate and House of Representatives.

The Randolph Plan, proposed by Edmund Randolph in the Constitutional Convention in 1787, established the concept of a bicameral legislature consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. He argued that the House would be “of the people” and would represent public opinion. The Constitution with the two legislative bodies became part of the US Constitution that was ratified in 1789.

It did not take long for politicians to begin subverting the idea “of the people.” Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts drew odd shaped Congressional districts in 1812 to maximize his political party’s advantage in future elections. The concept of “gerrymandering” has been widely practiced by both parties since that time.

In the most recent election, Republicans received about 48% of the congressional vote across all states but won the majority of House seats largely because of gerrymandered districts. Generally, incumbents win about 95% of all Congressional elections in part due to gerrymandered and uncompetitive districts where one party is virtually guaranteed election. What is the difference between foreign dictators stuffing ballot boxes and stealing elections and US politicians rigging election outcomes through gerrymandering? Not much.

All of the public opinion polls suggest “the people” oppose the Government shutdown strategy of the House Republicans but the Government remained closed for almost 2 weeks. Clearly the House of Representatives has become “of the politicians” and not “of the people.”

What would the consequences be of eliminating the House of Representatives and all of the politicians employed by the House? I do not know all of the implications, but the budget implications would be enormous. Faced with outsized Federal budget deficits and House proposals to cut spending for food stamps, day care, and medical services, why not consider cutting the Congressional budget to zero?

Each elected representative receives about $174,000 per year and lots of expenses. The typical Congressional office has an annual budget of about $1.5 million, not counting salaries.

Our elected representatives have voted themselves very favorable retirement benefits, so even if the House were eliminated, the public would still be responsible for paying the politicians. Depending on how long he or she was in office (at least 5 years), a Congressman who loses a re-election or otherwise leaves the House can receive full retirement benefits beginning as early as age 50.

In addition to Congressional staffs, there are lots of free spending House committees. There are 20 standing committees, plus permanent committees, plus select or special committees. All of these committees have staff, hire consultants, and incur big expenses. Many add foreign junkets for Congressmen and women and their aides at taxpayer expense. US Government spending does seem “out of control” but it starts with Congress.

So how much could we save if we eliminated the unrepresentative House of Representatives? Billions. Unfortunately it would take the Congressional Budget Office to figure out exactly how much and they have been recently furloughed due to the Government shutdown.

If asked whether the Government should continue to fund Head Start or the House of Representatives, I think the children would win easily.

09 July 2012

Politicians: Here, There and Everywhere

I have met many politicians in my life both in the U.S. and in Australia. In the U.S., I regularly dealt with local and state officials and met often with U.S. Representatives and Senators as part of an industry leadership group. In Australia, I have met many of the leaders of both parties through private meetings, lunches, and industry sponsored functions. Let me share a few observations.

Politicians everywhere seem to be generally gregarious, friendly, smiling, and often with a quip or funny story. They seem earnest and caring. They’re the kind of people everyone would like as next door neighbors.

However, politicians often do not seem to have much substantive knowledge. Ask as U.S. Representative a question, and he or she will give you a response. Ask a follow up question, and chances are you will receive the same response. Ask a third question, and, you guessed it, you get the same answer. It seems to me, U.S. politicians too often memorize one answer to each topical question without any substantive knowledge or understanding.

I was at a meeting one time with a prominent U.S. Senator, who is a leader of his party. He was asked a question and gave the first answer. He struggled to answer a follow up question and for the next 10 minutes referred every question on the topic to his 25 year old aide. This was depressing for any believers in free world democracy.

Australian politicians seem a bit less clever than their American cousins. They often don’t appear concerned about learning an answer to various question topics. Instead, they rant about the other party. I once asked the deputy leader in the Parliament a question about a widely reported proposed change in the tax rate for investment trusts. Her reply, “that’s the Labor party’s fault.” I guess it is easier to complain about the other party than have to learn stuff. Or maybe Australian elected officials just specialize more in one area of government because of ministerial responsibilities and are less concerned about broader issue topics.

One night I had dinner with a leader of one of the Federal parties and someone frequently discussed as a future PM candidate. I asked about the key role Australia was positioned to play in managing the transition in world power from U.S. dominance to the emergence of China. Australia is uniquely positioned to help facilitate a peaceful change, I suggested. His response, “So what do you think of our Superannuation system?” World transformation was not part of his portfolio.

I think there are ways to improve the quality level of our political leaders. In Australia (and in the U.S,), most professions require proof of competency before practitioners can obtain a license to work. Lawyers and accountants are certified. Tradesmen such as plumbers go through apprenticeship or training programs before they can fix your clogged sink. Even service workers like hairdressers must be trained before they can show up and cut your hair. So why are there no qualifications and certifications for a politician? Why is it more important to make sure a hairdresser or plumber is competent than our political leadership who are responsible for spending billions of taxpayer dollars?

Clearly we need a program to certify politicians as competent before they should be allowed to practice. Maybe they should take a test like students applying for University slots. Reach a certain score, you win a permit to run for office in NSW. If you’re not accepted in NSW and you want to be a politician, apply to Tassie. Have a bad test day, be a politician in The Northern Territory (which has 1 Parliament member for every 9,000 residents).

The other issue with politicians that seems universal, unfortunately, is the polarization of the parties. Whether it is Labor vs. Coalition in Australia or the Republicans vs. the Democrats in the U.S., politicians seem more focused on scoring media points than solving problems. Perhaps we need mandatory counseling or mediation when elected officials do not get along. At minimum, politicians should not be seated by party but should be mixed so they sit with the opposition and possibly make friends. If that does not work, we could try drugs like Ritalin to control and moderate errant political behavior.

Australia has lots of politicians for a country of only 22 million people. They have the same layers of government as the U.S.: Federal, State, and Local; but each layer serves relatively few people. California, for example, has 38 million residents compared to about 7 million in New South Wales. CA has 120 elected members in their legislature compared to 135 in the NSW parliament.

My favorite Government is the State of Texas in the U.S. Texas was admitted to the U.S. union in 1845, long after many other states had joined and now has about 26 million people. – more than all of Australia The founding fathers in Texas evidently learned from the states that preceded them and made some interesting provisions in the Texas State Constitution.

First, the Texas legislature is only permitted to meet for about 4 months every other year. The founders evidently felt when politicians meet, usually bad things happen. The best way to make sure the State functioned well was to make it illegal for politicians to meet. They did not seem to think which Party was in power mattered. All politicians were perceived to be the problem. This is a novel idea.

As a consequence, it is difficult to pass more laws or spend more money in Texas. It makes political lobbying more challenging; and politicians generally have to have gainful jobs outside of being professional politicians because they cannot survive on 4 months wages every other year.

If there is truly an emergency, the elected Governor can convene a special session of the Legislature to deal with the crisis. This is typically not a popular thing to do, however.

How is Texas faring under their restrictive politician laws? Texas enjoys the lowest taxes of any major U.S. State, the highest level of employment and job creation, and probably the most heterogeneous population mix. It offers superb universities, one of the biggest medical centers in the world, amongst the best cultural and art facilities, and one of the largest concentrations of technology companies outside the Silicon Valley.

All of this happened in spite of having virtually no natural amenities (mountains or oceans) and typically awful weather with high levels of heat and humidity in much of the State. Mossies are so common, one community (Clute) even erected a giant statute of a mosquito welcoming visitors.

In Australia, we spend considerable time debating which Party would be better in power. Maybe this is not the right question. Perhaps the issue is that the politicians are guaranteed to win regardless of party affiliation, and when politicians come together, we are all at risk. If the Texas experience is applicable, just think of how productive and prosperous Australia would be if there were fewer politicians from all parties.