June 2003 Archives

In the previous entry, I brought up the notion of the "opportunity cost" -- "the advantage forgone as the result of the acceptance of an alternative" -- and I applied it to the impact of the proposed sales tax increase on a typical Tulsa County family.

The same concept applies to the Dialog / Visioning Leadership Team as they consider their options later today. There are a lot of voices saying that we must do something, anything right now, or risk falling further behind competing cities. But there is an alternative worse than doing nothing right now.

Let's suppose that the County Commissioners put the current package to a vote of the people and it is approved in all its parts, imposing a one-percent tax on all sales in Tulsa County for the next 13 years.

Now think ahead five years. It is likely that the County would pledge this new tax stream to obtain revenue bonds, so that most of the money could be spent within the first few years to build the promised projects. So by five years, most of the money will have been spent, although we'll still have eight years left of collecting the tax.

If we get five years into this tax and it is apparent that this $877 million package has failed to ignite our economy, attract high-tech jobs, revitalize downtown, and make Tulsa The Place To Be, what options will we have? It will be politically impossible to raise taxes again to fund new projects that might be more effective.

This puts a huge burden on our elected leaders to get this package right, because if it passes, we have locked into this course for the next 13 years. Would it not be better to take another month or two, to invite some number crunchers and urban analysts to apply some healthy skepticism, to find out if the package can really deliver what we are all hoping for? I am prepared to nominate an international review panel who will provide us with some honest feedback. But I will do that in a later entry.

Opportunity Cost: The Concept


I was going to use that title to write about an issue related to Tulsa's Dialog / Visioning process, but when I was googlechecking the definition of the term, I found this fascinating article by Michael T. Killian on opportunity cost as applied to personal finances. The definition given for the phrase is:

the advantage forgone as the result of the acceptance of an alternative

Killian goes on to say that a dollar spent today represents an opportunity cost of $6.70 measured against investing that dollar for 20 years. He suggests that we should think about the opportunity cost when we go to make a purchase -- consider it in terms of dollars, and in terms of hours labored to earn those dollars.

The article has some links to other useful personal finance concepts, including a plan to pay off all your debts in seven years.

In a later entry, I'll apply the concept of opportunity cost at the macro level, to our elected leaders as they consider the proposal before them. But for now, consider the opportunity cost of the Dialog / Visioning tax in the context of family finances. At a price tag of $877 million, it comes to an average $1500 per Tulsa County resident, or $6000 per family of four. That's about $39 / month over 13 years. If that money were invested at, say 6%, adding that $39 each month for 13 years, then letting it sit for the next 7, at the end of 20 years, that family would have over $20,000.

These sorts of tax increases are frequently referred to as an "investment", and if we take that sort of language seriously, it's reasonable to ask what is the return on investment. Would an average family stand to gain more than $20,000 as a result of the items purchased with these new tax dollars?

It's the weekend, and Andrew Stuttaford is doing his usual fine job of keeping NRO's The Corner group-blog full of interesting material while all the Yanks take the weekend off.

He links to "Footnotes to History", which features the stories of short-lived and little known nations. Some are exotic:

Redonda- The island of Redonda is currently within the nation of Antigua, but it was briefly an independent kingdom. In 1865, Matthew Dowdy Shiell, who resided on the nearby island of Montserrat, proclaimed himself King of Redonda, as no nation had bothered to extend a claim yet. Four years later, the British Empire annexed Redonda, but allowed Shiell to retain the title of King. The kingship was passed on to his son, and from there things get fuzzy. There are currently several claimants to the throne, who maintain a barrage of mutual invective.

Some are right here in the USA:

North Dakota- In 1933, William "Fighting Bill" Langer took office as Governor of North Dakota. Although he was hugely popular, he soon exhausted his support when he demanded that state employees contribute to the state Republican party. As some of these salaries were paid with federal money, he was convicted of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government in June of 1934. Langer refused to accept the verdict or to resign from office. Ole Olsen, the lieutenant governor, asked the state's Supreme Court to order Langer to resign. On July 17, 1934, the Supreme Court of North Dakota declared Olsen the legitimate governor. Langer's reaction was not what the Supreme Court expected- before the Court's order was filed on the 18th, Langer met with ten of his friends and declared North Dakota's independence. He then barricaded the governor's mansion and declared martial law. Not until the Supreme Court met personally with Langer did he relent, revoking his declaration and bringing North Dakota back into the Union.

Incredibly, Langer was later re-elected. From all accounts, he served out his second term in a much quieter fashion.

There is a nice collection of links to related sites, including official sites of some of these micronations.

Tulsa has a connection to one such ephemeral nation. David Arnett of Tulsa Today recites the story of New Utopia and its founders. Nearly five years after that story was written, New Utopia's web site is still up and running.

This week's Friday Five -- vacations


Every Friday, a set of five personal questions are posted at the Friday Five website, as a sort of conversation starter for bloggers. I'll give it a try -- maybe I'll do it most weeks.

1. How are you planning to spend the summer [winter]?

Working on a couple of high-priority projects at my job. Playing with the kids. Swimming with the family at the neighborhood pool. Keeping nature from utterly reclaiming our yard. And for the next week or so, trying to influence Tulsa's Dialog / Visioning leadership team to come up with a plan that I won't feel compelled to oppose.

2. What was your first summer job?

A programmer for Valuation Systems Company, writing depreciation software in BASIC for Wang and TRS-80 computers. The office was on the 30th floor of University Club Tower, south of downtown Tulsa, with great views of the entire city. I was making $6 an hour without having to sweat, and the fridge had all the free pop I could drink. That job spoiled me for life. It certainly spoiled the expectations I had of life in the software business.

3. If you could go anywhere this summer [winter], where would you go?

Paris, not withstanding the French. My son, nearly 7, has been hearing about Paris from his art teacher, and he wants to see the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and most of all, the Louvre, to see all the art works he's been studying at school. It would be a thrill to take him there and to see it for myself for the first time.

4. What was your worst vacation ever?

Hard to say, because any vacation that involved traveling to new places had something to commend it to me.

5. What was your best vacation ever?

Another tough one.

The "Rest and Be Thankful Tour" -- our June 1994 trip to Scotland and Ulster -- has to be near the top of the list, along with our return to Ulster in September 1995. We stayed at this B&B on both trips, hosted by some of the nicest people we've ever met.

Those were both before kids. A favorite family vacation was our trip to Florida last fall, which included Sea World, Kennedy Space Center, a week on the beach at Siesta Key, and a visit to friends in Fort Lauderdale.

Becoming a BlogSnob


You'll notice a new item at the right. I've joined the BlogSnob text-based ad exchange. The ad is a randomly selected BlogSnob member. BlogSnob assures users that it scans sites for family friendliness:

First, when a site signs up, the blogsnob system automatically goes out, and checks it. It tries to see if the site is a blog, is clean, if it contains any objectionable language or pictures. If it finds no problem with the site, or the ad, it approves the site.

All applicant sites that have objectionable words, pictures, etc. are politely rejected.

Secondly, if any user of blogsnob finds any site that is not a personal or a blog site, or it is offensive, or improper, he/she reports it using the contact page. The site is then immediately checked out by first the BlogSnob system itself, and also by the Admins. [That's me, arnab and my friends :) ]
The site is then dealt with accordingly.

Overall, this system has worked fine, so if little Harriet asks "mommy can I please click on the blogsnob ad?" , let her.

Try it out, you may discover a great undiscovered talent.

The Next American City


Got word today that Tulsa Now was mentioned in the the second issue of The Next American City, which describes itself as

a new national magazine that explores the transformation of America's cities and suburbs, asking tough questions about how and why our economy, society and culture are changing. ["Our Mission"]

Unfortunately, the article that refers to Tulsa Now, entitled "Tulsa Time Blues", is not yet online; only selected articles from the current issue are available. There are plenty of interesting articles online, however:

The description of that book review is a fair characterization of the approach that The Next American City is taking: Sympathetic to "smart growth", New Urbanism, and related concepts, but willing to examine honestly their theoretical contradictions and practical problems.

One complaint: The website is not Mozilla-friendly. You can only get to the drop down menus and therefore to many pages on their site if you are using IE.

Can't wait to find out what they said about Tulsa Now, but until then, there's plenty of stimulating material to ponder.

A hopeful sign


I got an encouraging call from the Mayor's Office Thursday. The Mayor, with the support of most of the City Councilors, will ask the Dialog / Visioning 2025 Leadership Team to separate the American Airlines incentives package to stand on its own on the ballot, rather than being wrapped up in a single ballot item including Convention Center expansion and a new downtown sports arena.

At the Leadership Team meeting yesterday, during public comments, I objected to linking the American Airlines package to these same projects that had been on the ballot and been defeated in 1997 and 2000. I urged that the sports arena and Convention Center proposals each stand on their own as separate ballot items. (It can be done, see my previous item.) Separating the American issue is a step in the right direction, and my appreciation to the Mayor and Council. I am hoping for yet more progress.

To finish a thought from yesterday: Here's how you expand and improve the Convention Center, as recommended by the consultants, without also building a brand new downtown sports arena.

Conventions, Sports, and Leisure (CSL), a consulting firm, was hired by the City and the Metro Tulsa Chamber to study the feasibility of several major downtown projects. Regarding the downtown Convention Center they recommended improvements in technology and aesthetics and the addition of a 25,000 square foot ballroom and 10,000 square feet of meeting space. It has been asserted that we need to put the additional space where the existing sports arena is, and therefore it wouldn't make sense to do the Convention Center improvements without building a new sports arena.

(The CSL report did not indicate that a bigger sports arena was needed to accommodate conventions, and in fact it noted that over the last three years, only 14 arena events used more than 7,000 seats, and only 3 of those used more than 7,500 of the 8,900 available. The median event drew less than 3,500 people. Perhaps proponents of a new and bigger sports arena would like two seats between them and the next person, instead of just one.)

Here's an alternative that leaves the existing sports arena in place: There is a vacant city block north of the existing Convention Center exhibit hall and west of the parking garage. As a full block, it has an area of 90,000 square feet more or less, not counting the stub of 4th Street between the exhibit hall and the lot of which I speak. That's plenty of space for a recommended 35,000 square foot expansion, plus corridors and service areas.

Whether we need a new taxpayer-funded arena or not, whether or not we need to expand the Convention Center are separate issues. The point I wish to make is that the two issues can be separated, and they should be separated on this ballot. In 1997 and 2000 , many Tulsans were frustrated that they could not support Convention Center improvements without having to buy (for twice the price) a new sports arena. This time, Tulsans deserve a full, fair, and flexible choice. I'm hoping our County Commissioners will give us that choice.

Well, it's out there -- unveiled at a meeting of the Dialog / Visioning Leadership Team this afternoon at the Central Library. Tulsa Today has the details.

KTUL and KOTV both have stories posted as well. KTUL's story has this surprising detail:

Even the chairman of the Aerospace Alliance of Tulsa has doubts about the Boeing price tag.

"Spending 350-million dollars on 12-hundred jobs, I'd like to see the economics on it," says Dick Clark. "That's over 300-thousand dollars per job."

You suppose local businesses might feel a bit jealous of that kind of treatment? And that $350 million doesn't include a much larger amount that the State of Oklahoma reportedly included in the offer.

Biggest pleasant surprise: The three packages will run concurrently -- 4/10 of a cent, 4/10, and 2/10 -- so voters can choose to impose a lower tax increase on themselves by rejecting one or more of the packages. The rumored plan had the taxes running concurrently, so rejecting one or more package would cut the number of years, but we'd be stuck with an additional 1% regardless.

Biggest disappointment: They are tying incentives for American Airlines to a new Sports Arena and expansion and improvement of the convention center -- the proposals will be part of a single ballot item, and voters won't have the chance to pick and choose among them. The incentives are designed to encourage AA to move jobs from their other maintenance bases to Tulsa, jobs we have a good shot at getting. But the AA package is only $22 million, while the arena and convention center will cost $183 million.

Suppose I went to the supermarket to buy a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk, and they told me, "We won't sell you the milk and bread separately. You have to buy a package that includes milk, bread, and a big-screen TV." My response would be "no sale". Essentially that is what they are asking Tulsans to do by lumping AA, higher ed money, and the old Tulsa Project projects into one ballot item.

The convention center and arena have been on the ballot twice, grouped together with other proposals. Many people think we would have had convention center improvements in 2000 if the voters would not have had to swallow a new arena as well. The right thing to do is to let the items stand on their own merits as separate ballot items.

(There is a way to expand the convention center as needed without demolishing the existing arena, but I'll take that up at a later time.)

Trying on a new style


Changed the style sheet. I think this is more readable, and it fixes a problem with Internet Explorer and horizontal scrolling. Let me know what you think -- drop me a line at blog(at)batesline.com. (E-mail address disguised to fool spambots. Replace (at) with an @.)

Bob and Ray on urban renewal


Someone sent me this -- a Bob and Ray bit with Ray as Hubert C. Waxford, chairman of the "Far Sighted Planners for Urban Renewal":

Bob: I understand you put forth a number of new theories on urban renewal from your office in Washington.

Waxford: I did have an office in Washington, but it was torn down on the recommendation of another urban renewal planner.

Bob: Well, in any event....

Waxford: I'll get him for that, too, if it's the last thing I ever do. Yeah, he turned my office into a parking lot for his office....

Later, Waxford demonstrates more far-sighted urban renewal ideas:

Waxford: Now for instance, I recently calculated that Tucson, Arizona, could become a city of one million if it had a good harbor on the Pacific Ocean. But we'd have to tear down San Diego and replace it with Tucson to do that. However, I'm hoping that some of the people who had to move away when we tore all the buildings down may eventually come back. If they do, they'll find that it's much better planned than it used to be.

Bob: Well, I'm sure that's true, and you've given us all a better understanding of how you improve communities by destroying them, Mr. Waxford....

They really nail the urban renewal ethos. You can hear it on Bob and Ray: The Lost Episodes, Volume Three.

"But not the downtown arena!" whined the Tulsa Whirled editorial board, in Saturday's lead editorial. I was encouraged by the news that a $100 million sports arena (alias "events center", alias "coliseum", alias "multipurpose facility") did not appear in a draft of the first Dialog / Visioning package prepared by Tulsa County's mayors and managers, but this development seems to have shaken the sensitive souls who labor in the Bunker on Main Street.

Sadly, the Whirled's thinking on downtown revitalization is still stuck on a now-discredited mid-20th-century fad dubbed "Project Planning" by urbanist and journalist Roberta Brandes Gratz. The basic concept of Project Planning is to take a lot of public money, clear a lot of land (usually through urban renewal condemnation), build something big in the middle of downtown, and expect revitalization to result. The actual project may have been a mall, an arena, a stadium, a pedestrian mall, or some combination, but the result was rarely as anticipated. St. Louis, for example, has three major league sports facilities, a large national monument, and a shopping mall downtown, but downtown St. Louis is still very, very dead.

Let's do a paragraph by paragraph dissection of the Whirled's editorial:

The yearlong Dialog/Visioning 2025 process got off to a good start. There was considerable enthusiasm for developing a plan for revitalizing the Tulsa area and citizens and civic leaders participated by the hundreds in helping to craft a plan.

They actually get a couple of things right here. The purpose of Dialog/Visioning 2025 is to develop a plan for the Tulsa area. Enough people were hopeful that their ideas would be heeded that 1100 came to the Mayor's Vision Summit, and many more submitted ideas by e-mail. Hundreds of formal proposals were submitted to the Dialog / Visioning process this spring.

But now, a year later, the economy has taken a nosedive and new issues have arisen. What once was to be a $750 million plan is being pared down to something in the neighborhood of $500 million, with the aim of adding several million dollars for aviation industry proposals.

Revising the plan to entice or maintain aviation jobs is a justifiable and reasonable objective. Cutting out some projects to achieve that end obviously is necessary.

OK. Still fairly bland and reasonable at this point. But now their little faces turn red, they shake their little fists, and they throw themselves on the floor and begin to kick:

But not the downtown arena! Rebuilding downtown Tulsa to bring in more business and tourism was one of the main objectives of the original “visioning” process; in fact, originally, that was the whole point. Adding an arena and improvements to the convention center are central to saving downtown.

Rebuilding downtown Tulsa to bring in more business and tourism was not one of the main objectives, much less "the whole point," of the original visioning process. The point, as articulated by Bill LaFortune during his campaign for Mayor, was to develop a "shared regional vision" -- a concept of Tulsa's future built from the grass roots up, not imposed from the top down, and including the entire region in the decision-making process, rather than having downtown Tulsa dictate to the rest of the region. As it was sold to the public, the vision process was a chance for residents of the Tulsa area to define what we wanted our region to become, not a PR campaign to get residents to sign on to the vision of Tulsa's elite. Here's what the Mayor said at the Vision Summit: “As mayor of the City of Tulsa, I believe there are three critical areas that I must excel in,” Mayor Bill LaFortune said as he opened his Vision Summit. “First, minding the store; that is, delivering the basic services. Second, growing the Tulsa economy by retaining and expanding our existing businesses, and bringing new ones to Tulsa. And third, bringing together business leaders, political leaders and all interested citizens for the purpose creating a shared vision for our future. Then, communicating that vision with enthusiasm and clarity and implementing it. This vision summit is about the beginning of the creation of a vision for the future of Tulsa and our metropolitan area.”

Perhaps the Whirled and the other arena pushers thought they had an "understanding" with the Mayor that the vision process would just be a ruse to get the same old "Tulsa Project" back on the ballot for a third time.

Next, we come to this assertion: "Adding an arena and improvements to the convention center are central to saving downtown."

Saving downtown from what? For what? We have to define the problem before we can determine the appropriate solution. For the Whirled writers and their pals the Chamber Pots, the problem seems to be, "We don't have a big arena and a fancy convention center like they do in Oklahoma City." If this is how you define the problem, then the solution is obvious.

For those of us who want to see downtown Tulsa become a vital, bustling urban place once again, the problem is that most of downtown Tulsa's streets are devoid of human life apart from brief bursts around starting and quitting time. The question to ask is, "How do we re-create Downtown as an exciting place to be, as it once was?" The strategic answer is to get people living downtown once again, and to make visiting downtown a pleasant and inviting experience. To get to that goal, you look for positive trends and opportunities and find ways to encourage and facilitate those trends -- fan the sparks into a flame. It is an incremental approach employing a variety of tactics. Roberta Brandes Gratz calls it "Urban Husbandry" because it's like tending a garden -- you work with the uniqueness of the material you have on hand and help it to flourish. (Read the intro to her book Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown to get a better feel for this concept. Better yet, buy and read the whole book!)

Arenas don't put people on the streets, they put people in seats for a couple of hours. Except for brief periods before and after games, as people dash between their cars and the arena, arena-goers don't interact with their surroundings.

But residents, shoppers, club-hoppers, and diners move in and out of buildings at their own paces, coming and going at all hours. With more people moving about, and with interesting storefronts around them, visitors to the area feel more comfortable, safer.

The $200 million they want for a sports arena and convention center improvements could pay for dozens of improvements, each one small in itself, but with a far greater cumulative impact to make downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods livelier, safer, and more interesting places to be.

And if the Whirled thinks the arena is so essential to our city, why don't the Whirled's owners set out to build it themselves? The Lortons are a wealthy family -- check out Bobby's new 12,000 square foot fortress across the street from Philbrook -- and while I don't know that they could build it all on their own dime, I'm sure they could put together an investment team, if they really believe it is a financially sound project.

What I don't understand is the Whirled's fixation on the arena. Is it a matter of being unable to shake off the conventional wisdom about downtown projects, no matter how thoroughly it's been disproven? Or do the Whirled publishers or their friends and allies have some financial interests that would be served by the building of a taxpayer-funded arena, but wouldn't be served by a true revival of downtown?

Back to the Whirled editorial:

Early in the process, Mayor Bill LaFortune concluded that an areawide plan would benefit the entire region, so Tulsa County and area municipalities were invited to join the process.

Not so. The County Commission had launched its own process (Dialog 2025), in addition to the process tied to Bill LaFortune's campaign pledge, and it made sense to combine the two efforts. The awkward name, about which they complain at the end of their editorial, is a product of the merger of the two processes. And the idea of including the entire region was an explicit part of his "shared regional vision" platform plank. What part of "shared" and "regional" don't you understand?

The result has been scores of proposals and extensive review of them, leading to the draft $750 million plan announced a few weeks ago. Then it became necessary to consider making a bid for the Boeing Co. 7E7 plant and to also find a way to help our own local aviation giant, American Airlines. So the two teams charged with finalizing a project package went to work with the paring knife. One team called for deleting the downtown arena.

If their own report is to be believed, that team consists of the Mayors and City Managers of Tulsa County's cities and towns.

Someone is going to be unhappy with the final list, regardless of what’s on it. But there are some things that absolutely have to be on it or the whole exercise will have been futile. They include improvements to downtown Tulsa, including a new arena; substantial sums for the two local campuses of Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma; major development on the Arkansas River; and of course the aviation proposals.

Yes, someone is going to be unhappy with the proposal. Why shouldn't we let the Whirled and the Chamber Pots be disappointed in the proposal this time around? It's their turn. They have had their proposal on the ballot twice now. They lost twice, thanks to the tens of thousands of Tulsans who were disappointed with the Whirled/Chamber proposals. I think it's my turn to be delighted by a proposal.

Now to the suggestion that a certain collection of projects have to come out of the process, or the process was an exercise in futility. The way the Whirled puts this seems to suggest, once again, that they assumed their old favorites would get a third chance at the ballot box, that the whole Vision process was just a ruse to get more people to buy into a predetermined final outcome. Could it be that our elected leaders have fooled the Whirled by honoring their stated commitments to an open, grassroots-driven process?

My understanding of the process is that it was to develop a 25-year vision that reflects the dreams of Tulsa area residents for their community. We were told that there was no short-list, no preconceived notions. If that long-term vision process isn't brought to completion, if that process is preempted by plopping the same old stale package of projects on the ballot, then it will have been truly futile, and the hundreds of hours I have put into it over the last two years (through Tulsa Now and the Dialog / Visioning Downtowns and Neighborhoods Task Force) will have been wasted.

There is a possibility, or at least a growing perception, that the process is spinning out of control. Now is the time to seize it back and re-emphasize the original objectives: projects that will enhance the entire region. The downtown Tulsa, university and river projects are without question among the most significant in that regard.

"Out of control" is a telling phrase. Time and again, the Whirled editorial writers have demonstrated that they don't really care for government by the consent of the governed. Autocracy and Latin American crony capitalism is more their style. So who was supposed to have control of the vision process? They were, I suppose.

To whom are they talking to when they say, "Now is the time to seize it back"? Not to ordinary Tulsans. This is a warning to Bill LaFortune and the County Commissioners to toe the Whirled line: "Make it come out our way, or face our wrath!"

If the process is out of control, it's only that the rush to get an initial package on the ballot has put the cart before the horse. First we ought to nail down the long term plan, then we select the projects that make the most sense as first steps toward the long-term vision.

And since it looks like retooling is necessary, could someone please come up with a better name than that infernal Dialog/Visioning?

Yes, it's an awkward name, and it's an awkward process. But an open process to develop a long-term vision that reflects the shared aspirations of nearly a million souls who live in this region is bound to be complicated and messy. The Whirled would love a little "smoke-filled room" action right about now. Let's hope and pray they don't get it.

I wasn't the only one amused by the Whirled's panicky reaction to the news that their beloved sports arena (alias "events center", "multipurpose facility") might not be in the initial package to be put before Tulsa County voters this fall.

I'm going to post my own reaction to the Whirled's panicky Saturday editorial tonight. For now, here's another take. Dan Wilson read the same editorial and thinks the Whirled has let the cat out of the bag -- it was a set up from the beginning.

The Tulsa World’s Saturday editorial June 21 laid any doubts aside on the Dialog/Visioning 2025 process (Tulsa Project 3) and clearly stated, “Rebuilding downtown Tulsa to bring in more business and tourism was one of the main objectives of the original visioning process; in fact, originally, THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT.” [All caps not in original -- ed.]

Now we know, everything else has been subterfuge and camouflage. This is Tulsa Project 3. The same people (Tulsa World and Chamber of Commerce) are using the more reasonable hopes and dreams of the broader community to push the narrow small-minded special interest package again. The only difference, this time it is a BILLION dollar tax increase.

Begun as an open inclusive process, now secret meetings by Chamber whores apparently control the final decision. Get ready Tulsa. The people have voted twice not to build a downtown arena. Taxpayers want the nuts and bolts of area infrastructure repaired before monuments to self-aggrandizement are built.

Now with a crashing economy, it is employment blackmail as cover for the same damn downtown sports arena. So much for changing the political leadership in Tulsa and the end of any hope that this Mayor’s vision is different from the loathed Savage Administration it followed. Raise taxes during a depression? Sure! You bet! Why did anyone ever think Mayor LaTaxes was a Republican? This mayor is certainly not interested in the fortune of average people.

I think the writer lays too much of this at the Mayor's feet, when the process has been set up to diffuse the decision-making authority. But more about that later.

I think I'm going to take a weekend off from blogging and this comes up: After months of piddling around by the attorney for Bell's Amusement Park, Roy Johnsen, Bell's has finally filed an appeal in their zoning case to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. In October 2001, the Tulsa County Board of Adjustment voted 3-2 to approve a special exception to allow Bell's to build a new 88' tall roller coaster to the west of Zingo, much closer to a nearby and long-established neighborhood. The neighborhood appealed, and in August 2002, District Judge David Peterson rejected the zoning change, which was contrary to the Comprehensive Plan, which requires low-intensity development for that portion of the Fairgrounds.

I'll later update this entry with more detail, but for now I'll say that Peterson was right, with law and precedent to back him up. The Comprehensive Plan, which is approved by the City and County governments, prescribes what zoning changes are permissible for a given parcel of land, by means of an intensity designation. In 1984, the Fairgrounds was divided into three bands of intensities -- the westernmost section as low intensity, the easternmost as high intensity, and in between a medium intensity section. The low and medium intensity sections directly border neighborhoods, while the high intensity section abuts retail development.

The Tulsa County Board of Adjustment exceeded its authority in granting a special exception for a high intensity use in an area designated low intensity. Here's a quote from an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling relevant to this case.

The board of adjustment cannot have unconfined and unrestrained freedom of action. It is not at liberty to depart from the comprehensive plan embodied in the ordinance and it cannot, under the guise of exceptions and variances, modify, amend, repeal, or nullify the ordinance by establishing new zone lines and creating different areas for the drilling of oil and gas wells and thereby essentially change and substantially derogate the fundamental character, intent, and true purpose of the zoning law. Its power of review in granting variations and exceptions is limited to adjusting practical difficulties and unusual emergencies which may arise in a particular case when the strict enforcement of the provisions of the ordinance would constitute an unnecessary hardship.

The BoA isn't free to do whatever it wants, and property owners should be grateful. Well-written zoning and planning regulations help to remove uncertainty that might prevent investment.

Okie bloggers


There don't seem to be many out there yet, but I have found a few others blogging from Oklahoma.

Okie Pundit focuses on Oklahoma state government. Here's an archive page from the end of the legislative session, covering the impact of cuts and pork-barrel "pass throughs" on state departments, and critcizing Governor Henry for destroying our state's ability to build our economy, by replacing professionals with hacks. Here's a sample:

In what seems to be a trend with the Henry Administration, old George Nigh and David Walters political functionaries are replacing career professionals. Kathryn Taylor brought in Delmas Ford, formerly Secretary of Transportation under Walters, to take the place of former Department of Commerce Executive Director Ron Bussert - a true professional. Mr. Ford, not known for business or economic development acumen, is seen as Ms. Taylor's link to the state's good ol' boy network. Ms. Taylor, one of the richest people in Oklahoma, has been busy in her first two months destroying the careers of numerous long-serving and low-wage civil servants.

The irony is that when Brad Henry came into office he promised that during these challenging times he would focus on economic development and existing business and globalization. Instead, he and Ms. Taylor are busy destroying one of the premier economic development agencies in the United States. For almost 15 years the Oklahoma Department of Commerce has been remarkably free from political cronyism. While agencies in neighboring Texas, Arkansas and Missouri have floundered under rampant cronyism and political micromanagement at their economic development agencies, Oklahoma had invested in non-political career professionals. Those days seem to be gone under Brad Henry and Kathryn Taylor. This is turning out to be one of the worst administrations in memory.

Okie Pundit may sound like a conservative Republican here, but I don't get that impression from other posts on the site. There's much more of interest -- have a look back through the archives.

Cam Edwards is a talk show host on KTOK in Oklahoma City, and his blog style is short, punchy, and frequent. The blog covers a wide range of topics. Here's an excerpt from a post I particularly liked -- rules to live by for talk-radio hosts:

1-Yelling doesn't make you smarter. I can't stand listening to people getting themselves worked up in a lather, to the point that they're yelling at me. You can be passionate without shouting.

2-Don't lie. Don't lie about your beliefs. You'll get caught, sooner or later. You have to be yourself or you'll have no credibility.

A minor quibble: He misuses the term "dittoheads" later in the post. Now that we have conservative talk shows covering the dial 24 hours a day, and myriad conservative opinion outlets on the web, it's easy to forget what it was like in 1988. Rush was a breath of fresh air to conservatives, and callers wanted to express their appreciation for his presence on the airwaves. One listener decided to skip the long litany of thanks and appreciation and just said "ditto to what that guy said". "Dittos, Rush" became shorthand for appreciative remarks, allowing the caller to get to the point more quickly. It was never meant to indicate total agreement with everything he stood for.

Speaking of Rush, does anyone else feel that Internet news and commentary has made his radio show dispensible?

More Okie blog profiles to come.

Tulsa's high-tech brain drain


Susan Hylton of the Tulsa World called Wednesday about Tulsa Now's letter to the Dialog / Visioning 2025 leadership team. My comments made her front-page article in this morning's World. (Starts here, my quote is here.) I don't remember saying (as she summarizes my 10 minute conversation with her) that the pursuit of Boeing "pushes aside" the vision process, but I did identify it as one of three factors that could derail the vision process, and that was the reason for the letter.

She did correctly reflect one of my key concerns: Aerospace manufacturing jobs won't create high-tech jobs for the WorldCom and Williams workers who lost their jobs last year. New manufacturing jobs are not to be despised -- they would help a lot of Tulsans, and the new jobs should make life better for retailers and for people trying to sell their homes. But software engineers and electrical engineers won't get jobs at the Boeing plant because they aren't qualified for that kind of work. Perhaps these laid-off engineers will be able to get jobs at Radio Shack or Best Buy, selling computers and DVD players to newly employed mechanics. Perhaps they will get a better price on their homes when they move to Plano where their new engineering jobs are.

Woo Boeing and encourage American to stay, but let's not spend so much in that pursuit that we have nothing left to make our city more attractive to high-tech employers, nothing left to encourage local entrepreneurs to stay and grow their businesses. Is it right to lay a heavy tax burden on these engineers who have been unemployed or underemployed for months, so that we can pursue jobs that they can't have?

When Joel Kotkin came to Tulsa last May, he told us that the telecom layoffs could leave us stronger than ever, if we act boldly. Here he is quoted in a column by Janet Pearson of the Tulsa World:

Tulsa has demonstrated its adaptability by rebounding from the energy bust, Kotkin noted, but its heavy reliance on telecom creates new challenges. But Tulsa can emerge from the Williams Communication Group Inc. bankruptcy crisis stronger than ever by coming up with a plan.

"You should react by saying not that the end is near, but how do we overcome it," Kotkin said. "Those in the telecom industry still have knowledge and skills. Find a way to redeploy them, either in existing companies or by starting new ones."

Tulsa should refine its ability to attract and retain well-educated and highly skilled workers or lose out to other communities with that edge, he said.

"That is the real key issue for Tulsa. . . . All the traditional ideas of economic development, particularly those used here in the Midwest, have failed. I really believe human capital will be much more important in the future, and Tulsa has much to offer in that regard."

The whole article is worth reading, and I hope our Dialog / Visioning leadership reviews its options in light of his wise words.

As far as I am aware, Tulsa's leadership has done nothing to try to stop the brain drain, to create opportunities so that we keep these talented people here in Tulsa. While local government probably can't do much directly to help, government and business leaders could work to develop venture capital funds and to set up business incubators to help people with talent and ideas create jobs. There are people in this city with a lot of money -- the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of oil patch wildcatters -- couldn't our leaders encourage them to take some of their money out of conservative investments and use it to back a high-tech "wildcatter"?

Over at Tulsa Today, David Arnett has posted a wide-ranging analysis of the vision process. He says the risk-takers have left Tulsa.

Historically, Tulsa’s entrepreneurs have stepped forward with private money to jumpstart public facilities from bridges to airports to exhibition centers. By definition, entrepreneurs are those that assume risk of an enterprise and sadly from Tulsa many major players are gone. Those in charge of our corporations today are managers, accountants, and bureaucrats who view risk with distain. Even the Board of Directors of the Tulsa Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) is now mostly populated by people who must plead for checks to be written rather than pull out the checkbook to write one on the spot.

The Boeing pursuit is a classic case of the traditional approach to economic development -- bribe an big company to build a plant and hope they stay around. It may be a useful stop-gap. It would be a confidence builder if it came to pass, but it is no substitute for making Oklahoma a better place to start and build a business.

The Tulsa Now! coordinating committee, of which I am one member of about 20, sent a bluntly-worded open letter to the Dialog/Visioning 2025 Leadership Team. The letter was released to the media and received some immediate reaction. Here's how it begins:

Dear Regional Leaders,

Tulsa faces a defining moment. We are about to make decisions that determine our regional prosperity for a long time. The stakes are high.

Please don’t blow it.

Last July, an unprecedented 1,100 citizens gave a resounding thumbs-up to a ‘Visioning’ process. City and County leaders collaborated — and listened — as 287 project proposals were submitted, many from the grass roots. That process now seems in jeopardy....

What prompted the letter was the concern that the Leadership Team would abandon or jeopardize the vision process in focusing on luring Boeing's 7E7 final assembly plant to Tulsa. There have been rumors that everything else may be put on hold while this proposal is being pursued.

KOTV phoned Jamie Jamieson and asked him to come down for an interview. Jamie is a fellow Tulsa Now! coordinating committee member and a proponent and practitioner of the New Urbanist approach to urban revitalization. Jamie phoned me, and I joined him down at the station. I used the drive downtown to condense and organize my thoughts into soundbites.

They interviewed us up on the station roof, with the downtown skyline looming in the background. We made different but complimentary points. I said that I had been active in the vision process, and that I was also involved in the process leading up to "Tulsa Time", the arena sales tax defeated in 2000. As in 2000, it appears to me that a good process is about to be derailed by the Leadership Team, breaking faith with the 1100 who turned out for the Mayor's vision summit last summer, and the many more who submitted ideas to the process this spring.

The Leadership Team seems to be jeopardizing the process in three different ways: (1) By focusing on the potential of aerospace manufacturing jobs from Boeing and American Airlines, the Leadership Team may fail to give due attention to retaining and adding high-tech jobs, which are key to our city's future. Aerospace manufacturing jobs are good things, but we can't afford to put all our eggs into one basket. (2) The Leadership Team is ignoring grassroots concerns about increasing the regressive sales tax when so many are unemployed and underemployed. (3) Some on the Leadership Team are pushing for the same old project, like an arena, when there are other projects, not as ostentatious, but which can have a greater impact on our city's livability and attractiveness at a much lower price. An arena might be a great thing down the road, but it is not the highest priority right now. All these things jeopardize public confidence in the vision process and jeopardize a positive outcome.

They used a sound bite from Jamie at 6 o'clock, and one of me at 10. They didn't display my name over my picture, and after my sound bite, anchor Scott Thompson referred to me as "Jamieson", amalgamating my comments and Jamie's and blaming (or crediting) him with all of them. Thompson credited "Tulsa Now" as an organization with the notion that including the arena in the package was a problem. I know that not all Tulsa Nowers share my perspective on an arena -- some consider it to be poison to the vision process, some think it would be a good thing -- that it isn't the most important item on the list of projects, but it wouldn't be a deal-killer.

It is the way of the TV news -- you have no control over how they edit you, and while I'm always happy for the opportunity to speak to the vast audience, it seems some key detail always gets mangled in the process. Print media does the same thing. I cast no blame -- but that's why I have a blog. I get to be my own editor.

The Tulsa World reported last Friday morning that Tulsa may attempt to lure Boeing to locate its 7E7 final assembly plant in Tulsa. There is speculation that incentive packages for Boeing and American Airlines could be a major component of the "Vision" package to be put before Tulsa County voters this fall.

A story in the San Bernadino Sun reports that the legislature of State of Washington voted to authorize $3 billion in incentives to keep Boeing's new facility in state. Tulsa County sales tax revenues amount to about $70 million per year per penny of tax, so I assume that if Tulsa is to compete at this level, we'll need the state government to help. It remains to be seen whether the state government can get its act together to help, with our governor MIA and our de facto ruler in rehab.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, United Airlines' maintenance hub has closed after 10 years. Indy used $300 million in incentives to woo UAL, beating out OKC in the process. Indianapolis did have the sense to get UAL to sign a "pre-nup" of sorts, with UAL agreeing to pay penalties if they failed to live up to their promises of jobs and investments. UAL never provided more than 3000 of the 7000 jobs promised, but they aren't in a position to pay penalties, and now Indianapolis is asking a bankruptcy judge for the $117 million UAL owes. I expect the judge's ruling will be, "Get in line, pal."

The Wichita Eagle has a good analysis piece looking at the competition for the Boeing facility and recounting some of the hazards in this approach to economic development.

Will Tulsa's leadership fall in this pit just as other cities are wising up?

Another World story reported that Tulsa continues to suffer a huge year-over-year job decline -- at 4.5% (18,300 jobs), it's second only to San Jose of all the metro areas in the country. I suspect that a large number of these lost jobs were from our high-tech companies, or the secondary economic impact of high-tech layoffs. More manufacturing jobs would be great, but we really need act now to retain our high-tech knowledge workers before they all move to Texas to find jobs.

I keep thinking back to Joel Kotkin's speech in Tulsa last May, and the importance of attracting and retaining "knowledge workers". (Here's what he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, and a Tulsa World column about his visit.) The Boeing and American initiatives represent skilled manufacturing jobs. It's important that we have those kinds of jobs, but such jobs do not help the high-tech knowledge workers who lost their jobs at WorldCom and Williams and who are now crossing the Red River in search of work. More blue-collar jobs will help local service businesses and retail, but will not generate the high-tech jobs we need for Tulsa's future.

Instead of dumping a pot of money in some company's lap, let the Legislature reconvene and reform the laws that interfere with capital formation and deter entrepreneurs. It's about time we made Oklahoma friendly to wealth creation and investment.

It's graduation time, and our thoughts turn to the commencement ceremony. Three weeks ago I was at my cousin's high school graduation, where we listened to the superintendent urge the graduates to register to vote and elect legislators who would shovel more money into the schools. 17 years ago, at my college graduation, we all sat in heavy rain for an hour while we listened to the World's Most Boring Commencement Speaker (William R. Hewlett) read, in monotone, a speech that he was apparently seeing for the first time as he stood at the podium. It was a litany of his company's engineering achievements, recited in excruciating technical detail. I have a photo of me, looking like a drowned rat, taking my diploma from Paul Gray, MIT's last good president, and not coincidentally, its last alumnus to serve as president. Gray's charge to the class (continued on this page) was actually pretty good, although we were all too wet to notice. Gray delivered the only funny line of the day, which came from a parent:

"After the soaking I've take from this place for the past four years, what's a little rain?"

Here is a much shorter, much funnier, and much more inspirational commencement speech. It's three years old, but I just came across it, thanks to a link today from Jonah Goldberg on The Corner. Conan O'Brien addressed the Harvard class of 2000, on the 15th anniversary of his own graduation from the red brick schoolhouse up Chuck River from MIT. In an inspirational speech, he prepared the students for a lifetime failure and ridicule:

So what can you expect out there in the real world? Let me tell you. As you leave these gates and re-enter society, one thing is certain: Everyone out there is going to hate you. Never tell anyone in a roadside diner that you went to Harvard. In most situations the correct response to where did you go to school is, "School? Why, I never had much in the way of book larnin' and such." Then, get in your BMW and get the hell out of there.

You see, you're in for a lifetime of "And you went to Harvard?" Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction and it's, "And you went to Harvard?" Ask the guy at the hardware store how these jumper cables work and hear, "And you went to Harvard?" Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants and it's "and you went to Harvard." Get your head stuck in your niece's dollhouse because you wanted to see what it was like to be a giant and it's "Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard!?"

He went on to tell the story of his post-Harvard career, marked by low-paying jobs and bad career moves, like leaving SNL to write a sitcom that never made it to air. Even taking the Late Night post looked like a bad move at first, as he suffered a barrage of negative reviews. He winds up by telling the graduates not to fear failure:

Needless to say, I took a lot of criticism, some of it deserved, some of it excessive. And it hurt like you wouldn't believe. But I'm telling you all this for a reason. I've had a lot of success and I've had a lot of failure. I've looked good and I've looked bad. I've been praised and I've been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary. Except for Wilson's House of Suede and Leather. That was just stupid.

I've dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you're desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.

I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I'm as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.

So, that's what I wish for all of you: the bad as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.

That's a gem -- buried in the laugh lines, something these graduates really needed to hear. If you've gone to a school like Harvard or MIT, you either succeed big or you never get over the sense that you could have done more with your opportunities. And a fear of big failure can keep you from taking the risks that could lead to big success, so you settle instead for middling security.

Conan and I started college the same year. I could have been his classmate, as I had an offer from Harvard, but declined it for MIT's offer because I figured an engineering degree would give me a better chance at a job after graduation. (Yes, there is a difference between being smart and being savvy.) Some night, when I'm feeling especially rueful, I'll tell the story of what went into that decision. Don't get me wrong -- I made wonderful friends at MIT, I got a solid education, and I have many happy memories. And MIT is a great choice if you are in love with science or engineering. I chose MIT because it promised a career that would provide a secure future in comfortable surroundings, not necessarily a career that I would love.

Looking at my job history and Conan's circa 1990, my choice of MIT and engineering looked pretty sound -- I had been continuously employed, my salary had gone up every year, and I had received job offers from competing companies. Since 1990, I've stayed on a linear track. Conan took risks, was doing something he loved, and after a slow and bumpy start his rise was exponential. Of course, his career track may just as easily have followed a spectacular downward curve, but at least he'd be failing while doing something he loved.

The Bible reminds us that neither earthly success or earthly failure are permanent:

So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.

In light of this reality:

A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

My advice to my graduating cousin? Understand and delight in your God-given abilities and inclinations. Find a job you will love. Use college to help you get there. Don't play it safe.

UPDATE: Steve Young has written a graduation address with a similar theme, which begins, "THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR TO SUCCESS IS FAILURE!" Citing the examples of Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and Walter Cronkite, Young writes:

All these people share one thing in common. They ignored the "experts." They refused to let hardships stop them on the road to victory. They learned that every triumphant discovery resulted from many unsuccessful experiments; that every home run has been tempered by a multitude of missed swings; that every great script was built on the back of endless rewrites; that every top performer has been humiliated by more than one performance; that failure is part of the process that breeds success.

Sorry for the slow pace the last few days. Life has been busy.

I received a couple of interesting responses to my report on Atlanta's downtown and why nothing seems to have worked, and also to my item about the proposed downtown Tulsa sports arena, redubbed the "regional events center". The writers have consented to be quoted here. Here's one comment:

Why the Bricktowns of the world (also the Buckhead area of Atlanta and the Dallas West End) are doing so well is simply that people crave Authenticity.

Tulsa, too had a Bricktown, which was north of the Williams Center to Archer between Cheyenne and Detroit area. Unfortunately, aggressive urban renewal razed those old buildings to make mostly parking lots in the late '60's/early 70's. OKC and Dallas just were not as aggressive as Tulsa in the Demolition Derby, and managed to save a critical core of the older brick office buildings and warehouses. I remember when ALL the Dallas West End had going for it was a Spaghetti Warehouse, and an undistinguished hamburger stand, circa 1980, plus many, many old vacant cotton warehouses. It did have a slight advantage in being 4 blocks from Dealey Plaza, though.

I fully expect to see a new Tulsa Project III additional one-cent Tax Blitzkrieg to be launched on us about 60 days before a scheduled special election. The proponents will be well-organized, well-financed, and speak with a well-honed message from Turnbo and Snakey. They will blitz the airwaves with the message to just spend one more itty-bitty penny and HALLELUJAH -- Salvation will come to Tulsa. The 60-day blitzkrieg is to prevent an opposition groups from a) getting organized, and b) getting a different message to the voters.

Tulsa's core problems are lack of new high paying jobs, and holding on to the ones we've still got.

In a later comment, the same writer adds:

Finally the idea about people craving authenticity is not truly an original idea of mine. Michael Crichton introduced me to this idea in his fine book Timeline. I think this craving has something to do with the success of E-Bay, where people can buy tiny bits of Americana or memorabilia, stamps, coins, collectables, hoola-hoops, Davy Crockett Caps, etc. Or, witness the popularity of antique stores, frequently in small town America. Guthrie comes to mind. It's a living Bricktown!

Then there's this from a well-traveled young entrepreneur -- the kind of person everyone says we need to attract to Tulsa:

...when I read the draft of projects being considered the other day, my primary reaction was: "Tulsa Regional Events Center---What in the World and Why?!?" Why would something suddenly appear "out of the blue" and warrant almost 100 million dollars of tax money? What is the purpose for it? We already have an event center going up west of downtown. And where would it be?

Your comments answered my question of "What is it" (leading to a subsequent feeling of depression and nausea...and confirming my worst suspicions), but what I don't understand is why the new administration (who is supposedly more enlightened and concerned about the vitality of Tulsa) refuses to take into account proof of research and the similar mistakes of other cities? When plans were announced for the music pavillion, I thought this issue of the arena was taken care of....

I appreciate the article about Atlanta. In fact, I have visited Atlanta a number of times, and although I drove through downtown for the first couple of times looking for SOMETHING to do (unsuccessfully--I might add), I always spent my time in Buckhead--quite disappointed that a city of such size would have only a very small area of vitality and interest. So I quit visiting Atlanta. The one time I did anything in downtown Atlanta was go to a Braves game, then immediately left downtown when the game was over to drive back to Nashville where things were more interesting. And when I spent a few years in Nashville, it was prior to the building of their arena. And I can tell you...that city was ALIVE downtown...years before the building of an arena. People flocked to the restaurants, clubs, eclectic shops, and entertainment in the downtown district. (I still miss my old hangout--the jazz club.) And I had friends who lived in loft homes above the downtown retail shops.

Thus, even my own limited travel experience disproves the theory that an arena revitalizes anything! So why in the world are they ignoring research and the mistakes of other cities to still consider an arena of primary importance for tax money? I have always thought that if it's such a great idea, a savvy private investor will take advantage of the opportunity and do it him/herself. (Oops! Someone just did that...or something very like.)

That last parenthetical comment is a reference to the Oklahoma Music Pavillion, a privately funded venture for a 20,000 seat concert venue scheduled to break ground this month.

In case someone just happens to be checking the site at this moment, a talk by Adam Nicholson, author of God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, is being broadcast by C-SPAN 2 -- 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. If this talk ends up on their website, I'll post a link to it later from this entry.

UPDATE: C-SPAN 2 has posted the video of the talk on its BookTV website. It should be there for a couple of weeks.

Nicolson spoke of the predecessors to the KJV: the anti-monarchical Geneva Bible of the Puritans ("king" is always translated "tyrant" in the Old Testament) and the Bishop's Bible, which Nicolson describes as "pompous, obscure, and often laughable." He lays out the spirit of the age as King James takes the throne of England. He describes the committee structure that produced the translation and tells us some personal anecdotes about the translators. These were men of the world, not cloistered monks, and Nicolson believes that made the King James version a better translation than many that followed. Nicolson compares Psalm 8 in the KJV, Milton's metrical translation, written nearly half a century later.

I didn't get to see the whole thing -- I'll try to watch it all tonight. Here's an article written by Nicolson for The Age last year prior to publication of his book.

An interesting fact about Nicolson -- he owns three small islands in the Hebrides, a gift from his father on his 21st birthday.

I first saw this silly animation last fall, when Jonah Goldberg linked to it in NRO's The Corner. It's no longer (for some reason) on its original site, rathergood.com, but this brilliant piece, wherein Luciano Pavarotti declares his appreciation for pachyderms, is still there and worth a look. (You will need Macromedia Flash installed to view the files.) Likewise you might want to see the Gerbiloons dancing to "Shiny, Happy People", and some fun with misheard Beatle lyrics.

A cautionary note: While everything on rathergood.com is strange, some of it is also rather crude, so you may not want to browse the site randomly. The selections I've linked, however, are offensive only to those who object to marauding Danish felines singing Led Zep and breeding giant rodents for use as airships. And the Pavarotti thing really is a must-see for you opera buffs. (And yes, that's really him singing and those are really the words he's singing. Or at least what they sound like in English.)

Scientia omnia vincit


From the MIT Class of 1987 class news. (Thanks again to Dave Russ.)

Carrie and Ryan Fong* thought that many like-minded MIT classmates might
get a kick out of the following story pertaining to a number of contests
they entered late last year. I know I did:

76 (gas stations) had a promotion for customers to try to guess the number
of 76 antenna balls that would fit into a Chevy Trailblazer. The contest ran
for 8 weeks with the person with the closest guess (without going over) in
each of the 8 weeks winning a new Trailblazer. I didn't find out about the
contest until it was well into the 3rd week. The primary rules of the
contest were that you could enter as many times as you would like, but that
only one winner per household would be allowed. Each entry had to be on an
official form obtainable only from 76 stations, and filled out by hand. The
winner each week was not announced until all 8 weeks had passed (that would
be too easy if they didn't have that rule).

I rented out a Chevy Trailblazer and filled it with packing peanuts to help
determine the interior volume. Using a little math & science related to
sphere packing densities, I estimated the number of antenna balls that might
fit into the space. While there is math for sphere packing in an ordered
manner, and even experimental results for random packing of spheres, there
are factors unique to this contest that had to be considered, including how
the spheres contact the irregularly-shaped container (vehicle walls), as
well as the effects of surface friction and mass of the antenna balls. After
making some educated guesses about the ranges of variation that were
probable, I came up with a distribution of guesses.

Meanwhile, I gathered up in excess of 6,000 entry blanks from 76 stations
throughout the area (picture a stack of entry blanks almost 3 feet tall),
and with the assistance of friends and family (none living in the same
household), proceeded to complete and submit the entries We submitted
approximately 1200 entries a week for the final 5 weeks of the contest, with
slight shifts in the guess distribution to more thoroughly cover the guess

Because of the relatively tight range of my required guess distribution, we
actually hit most numbers very close to the central guess twice. In deciding
how to distribute the guesses, I had to decide how confident I was of my
calculations (tighten the distribution), and whether I wanted to maximize my
chances of winning at least one vehicle (spread out the distribution), or of
winning multiple vehicle (tighten the distribution). Well, I'm happy to say
that we won 4 out of the last 5 Trailblazers - we had the correct number
one week and were low by 1, 2 & 4 on the other weeks that we won. The week
we lost, we were actually low by 5 antenna balls. I was bummed to have
missed my clean sweep, but I spoke with a couple of other MIT classmates and
discovered that the same contest was going on in another state. I was able
to provide one classmate with my guess distributions in time for him to win
the last Trailblazer in his region!

Which presidential administration first raised the alarm that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to America? The Clinton Administration. Rich Lowry has them warning of the danger in their own words. (Thanks again to Dave Russ for the link.)

A jobless recovery?


Dave Russ sends along a fascinating analysis of our national economic situation, by Gary D. Halbert of InvestorsInsight.com. He points out that GDP has been growing since the 4th quarter of 2001 -- following three straight quarters of GDP shrinkage. The US is, in formal terms, in a recovery.

So why does it still feel like a recession? Unemployment is rising as many industries are in the midst of a massive restructuring in response to rising worker productivity, slow growth at home, and increasing competition from abroad. Technology advances have made it possible to do more with fewer people, foreign competition and slow growth have made it mandatory.

The bottom line is, worker productivity has been growing faster than the overall economy. That has allowed corporate executives to meet increases in demand while still eliminating jobs. This is very unusual.

Worker productivity historically increases in the early stages of a recovery, but this time the mismatch between productivity and overall economic growth is unprecedented. There have been 10 recessions since 1949, including the recession in 2001. In the recoveries following eight of those 10 recessions, demand grew faster than the increase in worker productivity. Usually, demand far outpaced worker productivity. The result: Unemployment actually declined, and more people went back to work following the eight recessions from 1949 to 1982.

However, following the 1991 recession, which was also relatively mild, demand and worker productivity increased at about the same rate. But as noted above, worker productivity has exploded since then. Here are the numbers for the latest recession:

GDP (demand) has expanded at an average annual rate of 2.7% since the 4Q of 2001. Yet during the same period, the productivity of the nation's work force (defined as output per hour of work) has expanded at a much faster rate of 4.2%. End result: higher unemployment.

The unemployment rate isn't anywhere near the peaks reached in the recessions of 1982 and 1992 -- at 6% it's just a bit higher than the 55 year average, according to Halbert. But the profile of the unemployed is changing -- more educated and highly-skilled people are finding themselves out of work.

Educated workers seem especially prone to bouts of long-term unemployment in this downturn. Hilsenrath found that of the 1.9 million workers who have been unemployed for six months or more, one in five is a former executive, professional or manager, according to a study by the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for the unemployed. Because these workers have specific, often technical skills, it is often harder for them to find a job that matches those skills.

Halbert says the way out is for demand to grow faster than productivity, and he seems to think that 3% growth will start to turn the unemployment numbers around.

Sunday's Tulsa World has what appears to be the shortlist for the Dialog / Visioning package to be put before the voters this fall.

Here, in PDF format, is the first part of the story, and here is the jump page.

There's a lot of variety in the list, and it totals nearly $800 million. (I'm gratified to see that my proposal for a Neighborhood Assessment Process, modeled after Kansas City's successful program is on the list, although at a modest price tag of $2 million, I think it could be funded without being part of a tax increase package.)

Then there is this thing called the "Tulsa Regional Events Center", estimated to cost nearly $100 million. I don't recall seeing it on the list of proposals submitted to the Dialog / Visioning process, but there was an item called "Multipurpose Coliseum", submitted for consideration by the City of Tulsa. I think it's safe to assume that this is the twice-rejected sports arena under an assumed name. The CSL feasibility study calls it an arena -- the study makes no reference to an "Events Center".

I have heard that there is market research that says that if people think of this sports arena as a sports arena, it will fail a third time. Thus, apparently, the reason for the name change. The move is an insult to the intelligence of Tulsans, who will have no difficulty in seeing the arena for what it is and evaluating it accordingly.

If the Leadership Team members try to lump this arena in as part of a tax package this fall, it will sink the whole Dialog / Visioning Process. This would be a sad thing for the whole region, but especially for those of us who have participated in the process, trying to come up with a vision for the future that all Tulsa area residents can embrace. There are no shortage of arguments that can be marshalled against building a large arena with tax dollars, and the CSL study provides plenty of ammunition.

$100 million is a high price to pay in a time of layoffs and bankruptcies at Tulsa's largest employers, but even in prosperous times it would be redundant to build another arena in a city with four currently in use (one nearly new, another recently renovated) and one more about to open.

To make a new arena even more pointless, later this month ground will be broken on the Oklahoma Music Pavillion, a 20,000 seat state-of-the-art amphitheatre to be built five miles west of downtown. This amphitheatre will once again make Tulsa a stop for the top touring acts, and it's going to be built entirely with private money. The CSL feasibility study warns that this privately-built amphitheatre will endanger the feasibility of an arena, and encourages the government to offer a "public-private partnership" -- entangle government with the private project just enough so as to be able to dictate terms and ensure that the amphitheatre isn't big enough or nice enough to compete with the arena for major concerts. Such an offer of help would be about as sincere as when King Herod asked the Magi to report back on the whereabouts of the newly-born King of the Jews, so that Herod could come and "worship" him.

Ponder that for a minute: The government is advised to sabotage a private enterprise to ensure that it can't compete with a publicly-funded facility.

Opposition -- particularly to the arena -- is already lining up across the political spectrum -- grassroots Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, and Independents. A number of people have told me that civic leaders are wondering if I will once again be a leader of the opposition, as I was in 2000. Instead of worrying about me, or any other potential opposition leader, the elected officials ought to think carefully about what they put on the ballot for this fall. I could sit on my hands or even come out in support, but if the arena is part of the package, someone will rise up -- some citizen who just wants to see her tax money used wisely -- and will make the convincing case against the arena. The arena will sink and take the whole Dialog / Visioning process down with it, along with the careers of several politicians.

It doesn't have to be this way, if our leaders have the courage to do the right thing and leave the arena off the ballot.

Last week ground was broken on a new downtown destination for Atlanta, the $200 million Georgia Aquarium, to be funded entirely by a donation by Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used the occasion to take a sober look at the likely impact on downtown Atlanta's vitality:

Construction cranes will raise hopes along with girders. Finally, boosters exhort, Atlanta's urban core will have the last major draw it needs to turn back 35 years of downtown resembling a ghost town at dusk....

Gov. Sonny Perdue adds his voice to the chorus. "This area can be a dramatic destination for people to stay longer in Atlanta," he said this week.

If the hyperbole sounds familiar, it is. Downtown Atlanta's recent past is checkered with the "next big thing" that was to save it.

The renovation of Underground Atlanta was the buzz in the 1980s. The 1990s were a whirlwind with the opening of the World of Coca-Cola museum near Underground and the decision of the Atlanta Falcons football team to stay downtown rather than move to the suburbs, not to mention the 1996 Summer Olympics, which were to make everyone want to live in the city center.

Each event was a step forward. But collectively the projects have remade downtown into the home of no more than 2,500 residents. It is not a destination that keeps suburban residents returning to events such as $3 summer concerts at Centennial Olympic Park and free ones at Woodruff Park, or packing Underground's restaurants on the way to a Braves game.

This year alone, Macy's closed its historic department store and the prominent King & Spalding law firm announced it would move out to Midtown. Last year, Georgia-Pacific scrapped plans for an office building once slated to rise more than 20 stories above Peachtree Street.

Note that Atlanta's downtown population is pretty close to Tulsa's. (2,487 was the population within Tulsa's Inner Dispersal Loop in the 2000 census.) If billions of dollars of public and private investment in large edifices haven't made the difference for downtown, will one more tourist-oriented facility bring it back to life? The article goes on to give hints as to what is holding downtown Atlanta back:

This is a break from traditional planning in Atlanta, where attractions are plunked down with little effort to link them. Atlanta's hotel district is not within easy walking distance of the football and baseball stadiums, the convention center or Underground....

These days, walking the streets is not a pleasant experience, in part because sidewalks are broken and filthy and homeless loiterers use shrubs as toilets and aggressively hit up pedestrians for cash. Few of downtown's narrow streets beckon tourists to stroll along them in hopes of finding that funky gift for friends back home....

The lack of restaurants downtown could become a bigger issue once the aquarium and Coke museum open. Several fancy places already exist near the park and downtown hotels. But they are priced for diners on expense accounts, beyond the reach of families on a budget....

There's also a clue as to what might help the most:

Meanwhile, Georgia State University's downtown expansion is helping to make streets feel safer.

Thousands of students trek daily to and from the main campus, classrooms and studios in the historic Fairlie-Poplar district, which lies between Peachtree Street and Centennial Olympic Park. GSU President Carl Patton believes the students and faculty are boosting the area's vibrancy. Still, the college crowds have not prompted many new restaurants to open.

Maybe there's a clue here -- people, not big buildings, make a downtown more vibrant. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin summarized the problem, as quoted in a sidebar to the other article:

"We see a thriving Buckhead. We see a Midtown with a great plan and a revitalization under way," she said. "But in downtown -- while we have assets like the Georgia World Congress Center, the hotels, Philips Arena, the Georgia Dome, Centennial Olympic Park -- it still doesn't seem to come together. You don't have a sense of place. And you don't know you are in Atlanta."

I've not spent much time in Atlanta, but I read that Buckhead is a district of historic residential neighborhoods and walkable shopping districts, while Midtown Atlanta also offers historic neighborhoods and landmarks like the fabulous Fox Theatre. Downtown has big sports/convention facilities, but the areas that are thriving have history, local character, and, most of all, people living there.

I note that the AJC's article was picked up by the Tulsa World over the weekend. Let's hope that the members of the Dialog / Visioning leadership team read the article and take Atlanta's lessons to heart as they choose a package to put before the voters.

As the New York Times continues its credibility meltdown, we learn of a remarkable memo written by Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll to his section editors, criticizing the bias evident in a story by LA Times reporter Scott Gold on the "Women's Right to Know Act" recently passed in Texas. (A similar bill in Oklahoma, requiring information about the development of the fetus and potential health risks to be presented to a woman prior to an abortion, was killed when pro-life Senate Democrats cast party line votes to avoid putting a controversial issue on Gov. Brad Henry's desk.)

Here's the whole thing, for posterity.

I'm concerned about the perception---and the occasional reality---that the Times is a liberal, "politically correct" newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.

Let me know if you'd like to discuss this.


Because it's likely to disappear soon, I've put the original LA Times article on the extended part of this entry. You will notice that the version on the Baltimore Sun website omits both the sneering reference to Corte's profession and any reference at all to Baruch College endocrinology professor Joel Brind, who affirms the link between abortion and breast cancer.

George Neumayr of the American Spectator has more to say about the Carroll memo and media bias, pointing out another trick often used by reporters to express an opinion while pretending to report:

Scott Gold's article contained other tricks of bias that Carroll didn't mention. Take a look at this one: "…critics say the law is a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate, frighten and shame women who are seeking an abortion." Who are these "critics"? Do they include by chance the Times reporters huddled around Gold's desk?

The "critics say" trick is a familiar one in the Times. In a story questioning the Pentagon's embedded reporters policy, they trotted out the phrase to advance their own assertion: "Some critics say these policies raise questions about the balance and sensitivity of wartime media coverage…"

"Some critics say" is the Times's euphemism for "Our opinion is…"

Readers of the Tulsa World will be familiar with this technique. In today's edition, Randy Krehbiel uses a related phrase in an article about welfare reform reauthorization:

Most observers seem to agree that whatever the details of the new rules, the effect will be tougher eligibility and less benefits.

Who qualifies as an observer, and how many are included in this universe? How many observers constitute "most"? This seems to be shorthand for "I think this is true, but I'm on deadline and I don't have a quote that makes this point as directly as I would like."

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