Friday, May 30, 2003

Who Said Irony Is Dead?

The Note got there first, but this has got to be the quote of the decade:

"Is nothing private?"--Kenneth Starr.

From the New York Post.

UPDATE: As Charles Pierce said on NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me this weekend, finally, after seven years, we get the punch line. Ken Starr--the man is an absolute master of comedic timing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003


Political writer Matt Bai profiles former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in this week's New York Times Magazine, summarized by Slate here. ABC News's The Note quotes a key passage of the article about Dean's anger as key to his appeal among Democrats:

"Dean is a gifted orator. Self-righteousness surges like a current from his feet up through his 5-foot-8 frame, energizing a hard voice that strikes a listener in the chest. At a dinner held by local Democrats in little Lee County, Iowa, I watch as he ignites a room full of voters with a broad indictment of Democrats for letting Bush have his way on war, tax cuts and education. 'The sad thing is that the Democratic Party has helped the president do this,' Dean says, although he doesn't sound sad at all. He sounds as if he wants to throw the lectern through a wall."

The Note previously coined an acronym for a typical speech by either Sen. Joe Lieberman or Sen. John McCain, where they speak "more in sorrow than in anger" or MISTIA. I've used that formulation with my children ("I note, more in sorrow than in anger, that nobody has picked up their rooms as we asked you to do this morning") and while they may not see the humor in it now, they will eventually. But Dean may have developed a better formulation for the primary season: More In Anger Than In Sorrow. MIATIS just may plug into what Democrats participating in the primary and caucus process want to see against that guy who's president now and who's screwing up the economy, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan.

Monday, May 26, 2003

Root Cause Analysis

My Devereux friends may see in this column something that we quote from the late Weaver Falberg each year at the annual leadership award dinner, about avoiding the comfortable seat of success. (It's not available on the website, so I guess I'll have to wait until next May to put it into my Palm Pilot for future use.)

Anyway, my right-wing analog on the Tribune op-ed page of course blamed the Jayson Blair episode on affirmative action and liberal muddle-headedness, without recognizing that the issue is really organizational and structural, not political and ideological. Of course, she's the business school professor and I'm the ex-politician, so go figure.

East Valley Tribune, May 25, 2003

The Jayson Blair debacle at The New York Times isn’t really about affirmative action or political bias. The best analysis has come from Prof. Sydney Finkelstein of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, writing in The Wall Street Journal. While a local business professor crams all facts into her pre-existing ideology, some Ivy Leaguer explains the actual organizations lessons.

Finkelstein contends that the Blair scandal matches what happened at Barings Bank and Motorola. Key executives at both companies were both very smart and were aware of what was happening -- but didn’t recognize the significance of facts that called their widely-acknowledged expertise into question. What they were hearing was so contrary to their internal assumptions that they proved incapable of understanding and acting. It’s less hubris than cognitive dissonance.

Nicholas Leeson, Finkelstein wrote, wasn’t some “rogue” trader covering up huge losses on speculative trades with a dummy account. His superiors in London approved his trading, so long as he kept winning (or didn’t report his losses). Even low-level clerks knew of Leeson’s large and risky bets. But the losses grew too big to ignore, and the loss of reputation, not the monetary loss, brought down the bank.

Motorola dominated the analog cell phone market, but did little about Nokia’s increasing success with digital phones. Motorola knew what was happening, because it licensed some key patents to Nokia, which reported back its sales results. Motorola resisted shifting resources away from its (then) highly profitable analog lines into the (then) unproven digital market, which proved disastrous.

We’ve seen additional examples of “reputational blindness” recently. Being a rocket scientist offers no protection, either. Congressional hearings last week into the Columbia disaster revealed NASA managers rejected pleas from lower-level engineers to request satellite photographs to check for damage to the shuttle’s wing. Maybe no useful photographs existed, but nobody with authority ever bothered to ask. Senior NASA managers apparently believed they and their top contractors knew more than anybody else about the shuttle program’s risks -- and thus saw no need to ask lesser mortals for help.

Ernst & Young was tipped to accounting fraud at HealthSouth, specifying accounts where expenses were classified as capital expenditures to reduce costs and boost profits -- but senior accountants didn’t believe their huge client would engage in a billion-dollar scam.

With hindsight, senior Times managers had evidence of Blair’s plagiarism and deceit. But according to Prof. Finkelstein, top editors didn’t act because of their institutional prestige and self-image.

Not only did outsiders consider Barings, Motorola, NASA, E&Y, and the Times tops in their industries, filled with really, really smart people -- but so did people inside each organization. Nobody questioned a young reporter who “scooped” everyone else on national stories; that’s what Times reporters are supposed to do.

Nobody questioned CEOs who had led Motorola back from near-bankruptcy to great success when they chose not to make and market digital phones; gutsy strategic decisions is what Motorola CEOs are supposed to do. And nobody who mattered questioned not seeking some outside help about the shuttle; staying focused on core mission tasks is what NASA managers are supposed to do.

As Finkelstein notes, it’s easy for people to fail to understand “evidence that challenges their deepest self-image.” Success is very comfortable. It’s extraordinarily hard for a successful manager to keep running scared. Smarts aren’t enough; too often, successful smart people stop challenging their beliefs and start thinking they’re smarter than they really are.

Successful business run perpetually scared, and their managers keep challenging their assumptions -- especially assuming that success today means success tomorrow. In other words, thinking that Jayson Blair proves you were right all along could be your big mistake.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Sticking Up for Nick and Slade

This week's column is kind of local--in fact, the first piece I'm responding to didn't run in the entire paper, but only the Scottsdale edition--but I came up with two punch lines and then worked backwards to set up the jokes. The Tribune has been extraordinarily negative on the fire department propositions, and the last piece, by Mark Scarp, contained an unnecessary dig at Nick Barbisan, one of the "yes" campaigners. It really wasn't necessary for Mark's argument, and was not only based on total surmise without any reporting, but also was absurd on its face. Another Tribune columnist, Becky Fenger, has gone after state Sen. Slade Mead a couple of times, and somebody needed to come to the guy's defense, even if I hadn't come up with the Kool-Aid line.

East Valley Tribune, May 18, 2003

I gotta defend Nick and Slade.

In arguing in Scottsdale edition of last Thursday’s Tribune against the Scottsdale fire service propositions, Mark Scarp laid into Nick Barbisan, whose young son died in a tragic accident and who now publicly supports replacing Rural/Metro Corp. with a municipal fire department.

Here’s the little rhetorical trick Mark played on Nick:

Nick Barbisan of McDowell Mountain Ranch, whose small son died last July, was recruited by the union to try to shame Rural/Metro, but as Barbisan, in this litigious age, never filed suit against the company over the death, voters have been rightfully skeptical whether the company had anything to do with it compared to the city, which for five years dawdled with its sole authority to build new fire stations in growing areas.

First, Dan Ables of the “Yes” campaign says they didn’t recruit Barbisan, he volunteered. You can believe the “Yes” campaigners or Mark Scarp, editorial writer -- just not Mark Scarp, objective reporter, who isn’t part of this discussion. Each version comes from somebody arguing passionately about the election. You decide who to believe (probably based on how you already decided to vote).

But the real irony is that the Tribune, which holds greedy trial lawyers responsible for halitosis, reality TV, and Third World debt, attacks poor Nick’s credibility because he didn’t sue. The Tribune wants to limit damages and block access to the courts -- but because Barbisan didn’t sue, we’re asked to dismiss his views.

Naturally, if Barbisan had sued, that would become an equally powerful reason for skepticism. There’s a word to describe reaching the exact same conclusion on exactly opposite facts, and it ain’t logic.

It’s “The World According to Scarp”: Damned if you sue, damned if you don’t.

The other guy getting “the treatment” in the Tribune is state Sen. Slade Mead, a personal piƱata for Becky Fenger and the Generalissimo Franco wing of the East Valley GOP.

Now, Becky’s idea of fact-checking is to put something negative about a Democrat in a GOP newsletter, and if nobody complains, then it must be true. I’m still waiting for any evidence that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg ever uttered remarks Becky attributed to her.

There’s something truly odd about these anonymous sources claiming Sen. Mead is bellicose or has popping veins being unearthed by Becky, who just loves J. D. Hayworth, who is to polite decorum what Bill Bidwell is to winning football.

Slade’s real problem is that he reads (and understands) the ingredients on the packages of Kool-Aid that the Republican legislative leadership demands he drink. The GOP leadership plays these little games, where they pack boatloads of unstated assumptions into a question (revenue projections, economic mumbo-jumbo, and their pet alt-fuels-style programs), then claim that if you don’t support their wacko proposals, you must want to raise taxes, by gazillions.

Of course, you could always eliminate handouts to hobby ranchers, or hobby horses like ineffective abstinence-only sex education, instead of slashing funding for autistic kids, but no! Those aren’t part of the GOP leadership’s unchallengeable secret plans.

Sen. Mead figured out that Becky’s favorite education statistic, that Arizona teacher pay ranks near the national median, is misleading because we kept increasing class size to compensate. You easily can pay teachers more if they each must “teach” 35 or 40 kids. (Heck, you have to pay teachers more to deal with 40-plus kids.) That’s why we rank 50th in the nation in teacher salaries per pupil -- a far more accurate statistic, more reflective of educational quality.

So when you read about Nick Barbisan or Slade Mead on these pages, better take it with a grain of salt -- or maybe the whole shaker.

Monday, May 12, 2003

It's Moo-ey That Matters

I'm back to the regular stuff after last week's effort at channeling my "Inner Shecky."

Here's a brief guide to what you can get in the newspaper and what you can't. I get to refer to autistic kids and juvenile probation officers getting screwed or shafted. No problem with offensive language there. However, I can't mention the name and newspaper of the reporter who uncovered the Open Space Reserve Program, Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic. If you want to read her article that disclosed this dubious little piece of pork-on-the-hoof, it's here.

The Budget Battle

East Valley Tribune, May 11, 2003

The GOP legislative leadership recently announced their revised budget plan, and once again premature babies, kids, and working parents got screwed. Families with autistic kids still get whacked, and juvenile probation officers would have already-outrageous caseloads increase even more.

We got the usual Republican rigmarole about tough times and tough choices, but once again, the Legislature showed its rather unique set of priorities. Health care and education might seem important to some people, but to GOP legislators, it’s far more important to help hobby ranchers.

What really counts with these guys is cows, not kids.

The latest proof is the Open Space Reserve Program. It’s alt-fuels for cows; call it “alt-fools.” It’s yet more evidence that when Arizona Republicans talk environmental, it’s just cover for giving their buddies public money.

Under this sweetheart deal, the Legislature grabbed 10 percent of the funds to preserve state trust lands voters approved in the Growing Smarter initiative. The money goes to ranchers required to reduce the cattle they graze on leased federal land.

This little boondoggle has several obvious conceptual problems. First, the 1998 initiative got sold to voters as a way to protect state trust land from development. Nobody ever mentioned cash grants to ranchers or preserving federal land. Even if the Legislature’s bait-and-switch is somehow legal (it probably violates the Voter Protection Act), it still stinks.

Second, the only ranchers eligible are those whose leased land is in such bad shape that the feds required herd reductions. If a rancher wants to set an example or voluntarily retire land from grazing, that doesn’t count. The program rewards -- with cash on the barrelhead -- bad land management.

Third, Arizona doesn’t have any program to reduce the number of cattle on state trust land. That’s way too forward-thinking for a hide-bound Legislature that still treats ACGA (the Arizona Cattle Growers Association) as more important than ASU. So paying ranchers this way does nothing for state trust land.

Arizona is groaning under the cost of uncompensated and unfulfilled federal responsibilities. Our hospitals and municipalities are bearing huge costs from the federal government shirking its obligations along the border. So what does the Arizona Legislature do about that? Use state tax money to help preserve federal land. That’ll sure show ‘em in Washington.

But the real outrage lies in the list of recipients of this money. Several dazzlingly wealthy hobby ranchers got state checks to help “preserve” their vacation spreads. Shopping center developers and cosmetics manufacturers pocketed grants of $50,000 or more. Auto dealer Hal Earnhardt corralled some $90,000 for his ranch -- and friends, that ain’t no bull!

Wait, there’s more! GOP House Speaker Jake Flake’s cousin also got $90,000. Was Speaker Flake embarrassed about a relative going on the ranching dole? “Boy, I’d be surprised if it was only one cousin,” Flake said. I guess that means he wasn’t embarrassed.

Aren’t you glad our tax dollars are helping the Earnhardt family preserve their way of (vacation) life? And no wonder Rep. Jeff Flake wants to cut federal spending. His family gets state pork.

Worse, the Growing Smarter money comes from the General Fund, to protect the education trust fund. If we weren’t paying these “ranchers,” that money would stay in the Permanent Fund and be available for school funding. We’re laying off teachers so we can pay hobby ranchers.

Ranching -- it’s how real Americans enjoy guilt-free welfare!

The Legislature could fix this outrage easily -- by ending it. Instead, they’ll mutter about expectations and stewardship, and do little. If only they would apply the same "creativity" they brought to shafting autistic kids.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Department of Self-Congratulation

Photos from my day yesterday at the Tempe Multi-Sport Challenge (why keep a self-explanatory name like last year's Tempe International Triathlon when you can invent a more self-important and confusing one?) are available here and here. Times aren't available yet. The event organizers emailed in response to my question that the swim course was measured by GPS at 2000 meters, so it was a third longer than planned (certainly by me, anyway). We wound up swimming the US Rowing course by mistake, so the next time some crew jock (and you know who you are) talks about rowing, I can say I swam that course. So my time will be considerably worse than last year, but there's a very good reason for it.
UPDATE: 3:19:55, 20th out of 28 in my age group.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The WMD

This week's column is hopefully a bit different; reviews have been mixed. So far the email voting from East Valley Tribune readers is funny, 1; not funny, 1; want to go on at length about renaming Piestewa Peak, 1. Yet another close election for the Supreme Court to decide. We'll see if I have a future in WMD one-liners.

But Seriously, Folks…

East Valley Tribune, May 4, 2003

I only went to law school because vaudeville died, so with apologies to Bill Scheft, the head monologue writer for the "Late Show with David Letterman" who does this shtick weekly in Sports Illustrated, here’s “The Arizona Show”:

Glad to be here. The Arizona Cardinals considered giving up a draft choice for my column. The trade would have hurt both teams, but it would have made about as much sense as what they did do.

Piestewa Peak You wouldn’t believe the controversy over renaming Squaw Peak. It was as heated as if the Mayor of Phoenix had proposed changing the name of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to honor Barry Goldwater.

Most Republicans took a “balanced” position, claiming that they certainly agreed with the general idea of honoring Lori Piestewa but sadly disapproved of the manner in which it was done. Just like what the Democrats said about having to go to war with Iraq.

You might not have known that “Piestewa” is Hopi for “staffer behaving badly.” But there’s no truth to the rumor that punishment for Mr. Diaz’s excessive exuberance is having to change his name to “Not-So-Super Mario.”

Still No WMD Found in Iraq What if all the weapons of mass destruction are hidden in the same place as the quagmire?

We’ve had plenty of initial unconfirmed reports of potential quagmires, but after further testing, they turned out to be dual-use predicaments, nonmilitary swamps, or civilian bogs.

So maybe the Bush administration wasn’t telling the truth about why we had to go to war. At least we know the President isn’t fooling around with an intern, and that’s certainly worth losing 2 million jobs over.

You may be worried about Iraq, but I’m more worried about the economy. What if the 1.4 million jobs that’ll supposedly be created by the $550 billion tax plan are as hard to find as Iraq’s WMD?

Maybe that’s the secret of the Bush economic plan -- the rich get their dividends tax-free, and 1.4 million unemployed people could go to Iraq to try to find the stuff.

Which will be more difficult to track down -- Iraqi WMD or enough votes for the GOP leadership state budget?

Tribune Series on Forests The Tribune’s three-part series on forest management tried to portray Sen. Jon Kyl as moderate working hard to find a balance between environmental extremists on one hand and on the other hand -- well, there really wasn’t anybody else on the other hand.

There’s nobody in public office who wants to cut more trees than Jon Kyl. So how can he define one extreme of the debate and still be a “moderate”? That’s like calling Charles Barkley “svelte.” Or Fox News “fair and balanced.”

Rick Santorum Talks Dirty The third-ranking member of the GOP Senate leadership says that government absolutely needs the power to make adultery and homosexual acts a crime, or Western Civilization could tumble into anarchy. Anarchy -- isn’t that a gay bar in Scottsdale?

Santorum, like many Republicans, frets that the government someday might stop you from owning guns -- but wants the government to stop you from having sex.

I guess if sex is more important to you than guns, you’re a Democrat. If guns are more important than sex, then you’re a GOP Member of Congress. There’s something Freudian in that, but this being a family newspaper, I’ll let it pass.

Will some gay guy now rename his dog “Santorum”?

I gotta go. Don’t forget to tip your waitress, and enjoy Hub Kapp and The Wheels.