Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reichert said no to the bail-out

Mercer Island’s congressman, Dave Reichert, voted against the $700B bail-out of the financial industry.  A bunch of my friends are getting ready to jump out windows over this and I just can’t figure out why. Am I the only one who thinks a spending package this big deserves a lot more debate?  By all accounts, the economy is still growing; inflation and unemployment are relatively low, historically.  What exactly is the government “rescuing” here in such a hurry?

It’s especially strange to me that many of the same people who opposed the Iraq invasion because it was too rushed (“give the inspectors more time”) are now supporting a hugely expensive bill that was thrown together in a few days, with no time for serious public discussion.

Incidentally, Reichert’s opponent in the election, Darcy Burner, talks against the bail-out as well, though it’s hard to say if she would have bucked her own party leadership to oppose it.

Help me out here.  Commentators on both the left and the right are absolutely convinced that Reichert’s refusal to spend $700B is going to lead to another Great Depression, but I just don’t get it.  What am I missing?

Updates:  Reichert voted against the second version as well, but this time it passed and appears headed into law.  I still don’t understand the arguments in favor, but note that many people I respect think it was urgently needed.  (See Warren Buffett, Jeremy Siegel, Robert Schiller). 

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Battles of Tim Eyman

Although I first heard about this documentary film back in February, when the director Paul Fraser came to a Global Warming lecture at the Mercer Island library, I didn’t get around to watching it until yesterday, after seeing it mentioned in the paper last week.  As you know, I’m a fan of all things local:  I think everyone in Washington state, at least anyone interested in state/local politics should watch it too.

Tim Eyman is an activist famous for leading numerous state-wide ballot initiatives (referendums), mostly in the name of lowering taxes and limiting the power of government.  His claims to fame are various initiatives over the past ten years that ended up lowering car licensing fees and requiring a 2/3rds majority in state legislature to raise taxes.  He says his initiatives have reduced taxes over $11B, but he doesn’t just fight taxes. He also successfully led an effort to reduce the size of the King County City Council, and his organization, Permanent Offense, has fought for various issues related to transportation, including the I-985 (“reduce traffic congestion”) bill that will be on the November 4th ballot.

Although it’s clear the director thinks Eyman is an intriguing, newsworthy guy, this is not a propaganda film, and I find it hard to tell which side he’s on. There are interviews with Eyman himself and supporters like Mercer Island’s Michael Medved who portray him as a “man of the people” trying to “take back the government”.  But these are nicely balanced with persuasive arguments for how citizen-led mass referendums can lead to a lack of accountability.  The film includes lengthy personal interviews with opponents like State Senator Ken Jacobson (D), radio personality BJ Shea, and even David Goldstein, whose popular far-left blog is actually named after an initiative started expressly to have Tim Eyman declared a Horse’s ass.

The film’s not perfect.  I wish there had been more biography for example; I kept hoping there’d be a segment explaining Eyman’s non-activist background (where does he get his money?  what’s his day job?)  At nearly two hours, I found it a bit long; a tougher editor could have turned this into a shorter made-for-TV film that would be more widely watched – as it deserves.

It’s on Netflix, so put it in your queue right now.  Don’t vote in November until you’ve seen it.


Konga at Trabant Coffee

Mike at Trabant Coffee and Chai saw that I was looking for more Ethiopia Yergcheffe Konga coffee (it’s sooo good!), and let me know that a new batch is now available from 49th Parallel Roasters and it’s in stock now in Seattle.  So I rushed over to their Pioneer Square store and picked up a fresh 12-oz bag and this morning I enjoyed another, heavenly-wonderful, handmade raw milk latte with those excellent beans.

49th parallel konga coffee

I even gave a cup to the piano teacher at our house this afternoon.  She’ll be back, I assure you.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Robert Shiller and the Subprime Solution

With an endorsement from Nassim Taleb on the cover of his new book , and a mention in an excellent Econtalk podcast last week, I just had to go see Robert Shiller talk today about the Subprime Solution.

Robert Schiller

After running through a list of astonishing events that occurred since publication just one month ago, he spoke about the huge, unusual runup in housing prices over the past decade, how that was completely out of line with historical norms, and why the future doesn’t look good for housing prices (ha!). By the way, did you know that all the home price information for various cities is available as a simple Excel sheet on the Standard and Poor’s web site? (Here’s the info for Seattle)


He has an interesting idea for how to prevent future housing meltdowns. Why do millions of people have such a huge amount of their personal wealth invested in a single asset (their home). Why not create a security that lets homeowners spread or hedge that risk across more diverse assets? He suggests creating mortgage products where the price fluctuates on the underlying value of the home. Presumably this would lower the return on investment, but protect you much better in the case of falling prices.

Interesting ideas…too bad the finance people are too busy to think about this right now.

[update: oops, I spelled Shiller incorrectly with a 'c' in the first version of this post]

Taleb thoughts on the financial crisis

I already told you that The Black Swan is among the best idea books I have ever read, and I find it even more interesting when I look at the current high-stakes news from the finance industry.  Do we need more regulation or less?  No bail-out, or one with strings attached—and what kind of strings?  Obama or McCain?

All these questions are easier to consider when you understand that too much decision-making is made based on a faulty use of statistics.

Well, the Black Swan author, Nassim Taleb has just written a lengthy, must-read essay “The Fourth Quadrant”, where he argues about the limits of knowledge and how dangerous it is for policymakers (and the rest of us) to think that complex computer models are useful tools for the kinds of large-scale super-complicated decisions that have resulted in today’s mess.

Here’s the chart that explains it best:

This is the life of a turkey, who like many of today’s leaders, uses indisputable statistics and the best and brightest advisors to “prove” that he knows which policies will provide continued growth and happiness for the flock.  After all, numbers don’t lie, right?   Unfortunately, numbers don’t tell him the most important fact of all, that he is a turkey before Thanksgiving.

This is not an argument for nihilism, that we should just sit around and do nothing. Read Taleb’s essay and understand, on the contrary, that there are things we should do and that we’re much better off when we know what we don’t know.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Comparing teacher experience between Mercer Island and Bellevue

Good teachers deserve to be paid a lot more than they are, and if it were up to me there’d be a huge bonus pool, with big fat raises for some of the underpaid but outstanding teachers I know.  It’s no fair that the bottom 10% get to dictate how the top 10% are paid.  In competitive industries (like small business, real estate, restaurants, any international company), your income is based on performance, not years of experience, which is why I I don’t think you should evaluate teachers strictly based on their number of years of experience either. But if you’re curious how school districts compare, this chart should help:



I calculated the number of teachers in Bellevue and Mercer Island who have various numbers of years of experience.   In my rush I couldn’t think of a better way to label the graph, but basically each column represents the percentage of teachers whose years of teaching experience are somewhere between the previous column and this one.

For example, 27% of Mercer Island teachers have between 0 and 5 years of experience, while 38% of Bellevue teachers fit that category; 23% of Mercer Island teachers have been on the job between 20 and 30 years while only 11% of Bellevue teachers have.

Generally speaking, Bellevue has fresher teachers than Mercer Island.  Since the union-mandated payscale cares only how long somebody has been on the job, no matter what their competency or fitness for teaching, this explains why Mercer Island salaries are slightly higher.

[9/23: I updated this post a bit to explain better what I think]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Salaries for Bellevue and Mercer Island Teachers

Public employee salary information is public record -- as it should be, since you and I pay for it through our taxes.  Bellevue public school teachers went on strike over their low pay, so I was curious exactly what the pay scale there is, and how it compares to Mercer Island.  Here's the answer:



# Teachers

Total Salaries Paid

Average Per Hr 46 week equiv
F 990  $ 53,746,505  $ 54,289  $ 39.56  $72,781
M 302  $ 18,741,895  $ 62,059  $  45.22  $83,198
total 1292  $ 72,488,400  $ 56,106  $  40.88  $75,216

Mercer Island


# Teachers

Total Salaries Paid

Average Per Hr 46 week equiv


$ 11,495,884

$ 56,910

$ 41.46




$ 4,720,192

$ 62,936

$ 45.85




$ 16,216,076

$ 58,542

$ 42.65



Since annual salaries for teachers are based on a 1300 hour year, versus the 1800+ hours that you or I work, the extra column shows what the annualized salaries would be if teachers worked a more "traditional" schedule.

I also think it's interesting to break the salaries down by gender because it shows how silly it is to compare aggregates like this.  Are Bellevue teachers underpaid or overpaid?  the followup question that must always be asked is "compared to what?" Clearly, if you look at the raw numbers, women overall are paid less than men overall, just as teachers overall are paid less than many other occupations, and Bellevue overall is paid less than Mercer Island.  But unless you know something about the hours worked, the level of productivity and experience, and other work conditions such as quality of the students, total take home pay of a teacher's household, and the other zillion factors that go into any decision for whether one individual takes a particular job or another -- unless you know all that, it's impossible to say.

Well, almost impossible.  At free-market companies we know exactly what the correct salaries should be because they are based on competition.  A small business that pays its employees too little will soon find itself without employees, and employees who are paid too much relative to what they produce will soon find themselves without jobs.  Why don't we use the same, simple idea -- the one that works in every other successful vibrant industry -- for schools?

Am I wrong?  Do you have a better way to figure out the "correct" salaries for teachers?

[update: still trying to fix the formatting of those tables.  Also updated the MI salary data because apparently I messed up the number of teachers in the pool]

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Education voters: Litzow or Maxwell?

Continuing my slow, on-going look at the results of the August primary for the Washington State 41st Legislative district, this week I've been trying  to answer the question of which candidate has greater support among "education voters", those who rate a candidate primarily on how strong he/she is on education issues.

Bear with me, because I'm making a lot of assumptions, so the following analysis is murky and prone to all kinds of noise. But I'm interested at the high level if there is a strong correlation between certain types of voters and those who go for either Marcie Maxwell or Steve Litzow. Of course, it's very hard to tell without doing an actual poll of voters, but there is one rough measure that I thought would be interesting to compare: those who voted in favor of Simple Majority during the last election.

Short answer: at least on Mercer Island the correlation is very weak and it's hard to read much into them.  Here's the data by neighborhood:

  Litzow % in Primary L-(SM) M-(SM)
Island Park School 52% 57% 52%
Islander Middle School 54% 63% 53%
Lakeridge School 52% 55% 51%
Mercer Is Boys and Girls Club 54% 69% 59%
Mercer Island City Hall 59% 83% 56%
Mercer Island Fire Station 43% 61% 82%
Mercer Island High School 52% 66% 62%
West Mercer School 50% 58% 58%

The column L-(SM) represents voters who backed Steve in the August Primary as a percentage of those who voted yes on Simple Majority last Fall.  M-(SM) is the percentage relative to Simple Majority of Marcie voters.  No, the data aren't adjusted to account for different levels of turnout, and of course issues were completely different in the two elections, but for this first, rough look, I'm assuming both candidates are equally affected by any differences, so that any net biases cancel each other out.

Although the results are too weak to say there is any advantage to Steve Litzow, this is not good news for Marcie Maxwell.  Many people would have expected that, given her strong activities on behalf of Simple Majority in the last election, she would have an advantage among these voters, however slight, but that appears not to be the case, and arguably the data shows the opposite.

Assumptions and caveats

  • To many people, Simple Majority is about taxes and whether it should be hard or easy to raise them. But I'll argue that the campaign promoting Simple Majority did a good job of promoting it as a simple referendum on public schools, period. If you think schools are important enough to raise taxes if necessary, then you probably felt bad voting against Simple Majority so that's the sense why in this analysis I'm using it as a proxy for "education voter".  Very weak assumption, but it's the best I've got.
  • Although neighborhoods tend to have similar voting patterns, many other factors have far more influence on voting behavior at this level. A candidate who did lots of doorbelling, for example, would trump other opinions, if all else were equal.
  • I have no idea how likely it is that a Simple Majority supporter turns up in the primary.  If Simple Majority voters were underrepresented in the primary's low turnout, then this analysis is meaningless.

After the Simple Majority vote last Fall, I demonstrated that there were some patterns consistent among the SM voters, so aside from these huge caveats I'll argue that the fact there aren't more significant patterns tells you at minimum whatever drove Simple Majority results is not driving results for this election.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Shy teachers

I think the Bellevue teachers strike is horrible. I don't care what the issues are in this dispute, the real competition is global, with kids in other countries and districts where the teachers and administrators are hard at work today. 

So as I was driving down 148th SE in Bellevue this morning, and I saw teams of strikers waving at those of us doing our part to help (not hurt) global competition, I came prepared with a sign, hand-written by my 6-year-old: "Teachers go back to work!!!".  I also had my camera ready, because I wanted to see how they respond.

Then a funny thing happened: they immediately covered their faces with signs!

Does anybody know why?  In repressive countries the authorities like to send cameramen into crowds of protesters as a way to intimidate them, but this is America. If you are publicly exercising your right to free speech, why would you be afraid to have your photo taken?

I'm assuming that they don't mind photos taken by journalists or TV crews.  (Or maybe with "real news media" the strike leaders are able to arrange that only certain photos are taken).

I have a theory: many (most?) of the strikers find the picket line a little demeaning. They think of themselves as professionals just like me. They think striking is for unskilled coal miners, or for those who have no other job options.  They also know personally the students and parents they are hurting with this strike, and they are, well, a little ashamed.

Bellevue teachers picket

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My Vitamin D shortage

We don't get nearly enough sun in the Northwest, but we continue to read and believe advice from the rest of the country about the dangers of too much sun exposure, even though that advice may not apply to us.

Doctors say most people get too little Vitamin D, and here in Seattle at the University of Washington, Dr. Donald Miller says it may be worse:  of the local patients he tested, 78% had low levels, and 10% were "severely deficient".  He says deficient levels are correlated with all kinds of nasty things, from cancer to multiple sclerosis. (Washington's rate of MS is one of the highest in the country).

Looks like I'm one of the deficient ones too.  I had my blood tested and today found out that my Vitamin D level is 16.8 L ng/mL, far below the minimum 32 that many doctors recommend as minimal for good health. 

Note: for years I've been taking a multivitamin that has 100% of the US RDA for Vitamin D (400 IU), but obviously that hasn't helped.  So now I've upped that to 2400 IU/day of Vitamin D3 (the effective kind), and I'll test myself again in a few months to see what happens.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Finally, sun at the farmers market

My 6-year-old and I biked this afternoon to the Mercer Island Farmers Market, taking advantage of today's unusual sunny weather to stock up on fresh fruit and more.  My favorite stand is this one from Tiny's Organic, with their nice assortment of different fruits: mix and match what you want for $4/pound.

The Farmers Market organizers were doing a survey of attendees.  Looks like the vast majority of shoppers are locals, which explains why we kept bumping into people we know.


I love what they have here already, but you know what I hope they do next?  More places selling hot meals.  The one pizza place is yummy, but too much of a line.  I bet there are more people like me who would have stayed longer if we could have easily grabbed some lunch.

District 41 Primary Results for Litzow and Maxwell by city

Washington state's mail-in based election system unfortunately means that in a close race you can't get a good read until several weeks after the election, when every ballot has been counted and the results certified.  That finally happened on September 3rd, but the details weren't posted on the internet until a few days ago when I got my first peek at the e-Canvass, a 160MB file with exact counts in each race, organized by precinct.  It's a long-running theme of this blog that local is the most important grouping for just about anything, especially politics, so I spent a little time analyzing one of the races, Steve Litzow vs. Marcie Maxwell to see what insights I'd get beyond what is written by the "mainstream press".

The headline, Marcie beat Steve by 52 to 47%, of course doesn't tell much for several reasons.  First, this is a primary with very low turnout so the top-level results don't necessarily matter when it counts, which is the real election in November.  Of the 80,000 registered voters in Legislative District 41 (my local district), only 30,000 bothered to show up.  Incidentally, I'm one of the no-shows: I was busy and realized there were no races where my vote would affect the outcome, since each choice I cared about was between candidates who'll be on the ballot in November anyway.  The primary result is further deceptive unless you understand the drivers of the turnout: was this a vote for something else (e.g. governor) that happened to trickle down into the legislator choice too?

   Litzow   Maxwell 
 Bellevue             6,140            6,543
 Mercer Island             3,407            3,167
 Renton             1,174            2,073
 Other             3,028            3,557
 total           13,749          15,340

I hope to get time later this week to write this up in more detail, especially if I can finally get my precinct map to work.  But meanwhile here are some interesting high-level observations:

  • Marcie's margin of victory was broad (113 out of 186 precincts), but very shallow except in one place:  her home territory of Renton, which gave her about 900 of her 1500 point win.  Renton's much smaller than other cities, so this could be a weakness if Steve finds a way to appeal to the undecideds and those who didn't vote in the primary.  (My guess is that a lopsided victory in home territory indicates close friendships are carrying the day more than the other factors like name recognition or party affiliation that matter more in November).
  • Steve earned fewer votes than Dino Rossi (another Republican) in most precincts outside Steve's home territory of Mercer Island.  Even Bob Baker, another Republican who lost by a 40-60 margin to Democrat Fred Jarrett, had more votes than Steve did in Renton -- more evidence that Steve has plenty of upside.
  • Steve's biggest margin in a single precinct is 44%; Marcie's is 42%. 

I placed my raw data on Facebook; if you want to see it and play with it yourself, please add me as your friend.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Bellevue Teachers Strike

While my kids are busy packing for their first day of class here in Mercer Island public schools, their friends in nearby Bellevue get to take the day off now that the union representing Bellevue teachers voted to go on strike.  I'm not from Bellevue, so I can't claim to understand the issues  (something about a 6% raise and flexibility in easier curriculum), but I'm pretty sure that the teachers in India and China are going to work today.  If this were Mercer Island public schools I would be pretty irate, so I'm a little curious why the Seattle Times this morning only had quotes from parents and students who support the strike. 

But who cares what I think?  This is a perfect opportunity to find out more about the candidates for the Washington state 41st legislative district.  Both Marcie Maxwell (who is endorsed by the teachers unions)   and Steve Litzow are running on strong pro-education platforms.  What do they think about the strike, and what if anything would they do as legislators? 

A typical politician will just say, ambiguously:  "I urge both sides to show restraint and focus on our children".  I want a legislator who says something more meaningful.  As of this morning, neither candidate has anything on their web site discussing Bellevue schools explicitly, so I sent email to both campaigns to see what, if anything they have to say.

What do you think?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Bad year for blackberries

The empty lot near my house is always chock full of invasive Himalayan blackberry bushes, and each August my kids and I enjoy picking bucketful after bucketful without really trying.  But for some reason, this year doesn't seem nearly as bountiful, with smaller berries and long thorny branches.  We went to Luther Burbank park this afternoon and even there, the bushes didn't seem as loaded as the last few years. It's late in the season, so I expect the crop to have dwindled, but earlier in August wasn't all that much better.  

Blackberries in Luther Burbank Park

I'm not sure what to blame:  global warming, George Bush, the unseasonably cool summer, my imagination?