Death South Of The Border

Rodolfo Torre Cantu

The brazenness and bloodiness of the continuing Mexican drug wars is astonishing.  On Monday, a drug gang gunned down Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the leading candidate for governor of the state of Tamaulipas, one of the Mexican states along the border with Texas.  The candidate was out campaigning when his motorcade was stopped by a truck blocking the road and the cars in the motorcade were riddled with bullets, in an incident that sounds like the Sonny Corleone death scene in The Godfather.  Rival Mexican drug gangs have apparently begun to increasingly target governmental and political figures, and Cantu was their most high profile victim yet.

The overall death toll from the Mexican drug wars is even more amazing.  Experts estimate that 22,000 people have been killed by drug-related violence in the last four years.  Consider that slightly more than 5500 Americans have died in the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq since those conflicts began in 2001 and 2003, respectively.  Four times as many Mexicans have been killed, and in a shorter time frame!

This is bad news for America on multiple levels.  No country wants to have lawlessness on its border, and if Mexican drug gangs are bold enough to ambush leading politicians on public streets in Mexico, they likely are bold enough to try to cross over into American territory if they think it would benefit them.  Moreover, law-abiding Mexicans will not long tolerate living in a country where criminal violence reaches such levels and gangland killings go unpunished.  Those who are concerned about illegal immigration into America should be especially concerned that Mexico does not devolve into a state of criminal anarchy and chaos, because the flood of illegal immigrants that will result will dwarf what has happened to date.

Ian Malcolm Was (And Is) Right

We all remember Dr. Ian Malcolm, the annoyingly egotistical mathematician and chaos theorist from the Jurassic Park books and movies.  Malcolm confidently predicted that, for all of its technology, Jurassic Park was a fundamentally unstable creation that would inevitably fail because “life finds a way.” He was right, of course.

His statement has proven to be equally true as it applies to the relentless advance of the dreaded Asian carp.  An “electric barrier” was created to keep the carp from moving up the Mississippi River and into the Great Lakes.  Now the carp have been caught past the barrier, only six miles from Lake Michigan.  The Great Lakes communities are tremendously concerned that the destructive fish will ruin the sports fishing and recreational boating industries on the Great Lakes, and Members of Congress from the surrounding states have now proposed legislation to permanently separate the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes in order to keep invasive species out.

Let’s hope that any action gets taken in time, but I think Ian Malcolm would point out that six miles is not a very long distance.  He might predict that if a fish was caught only six miles away, there is a good chance that other members of that species have already traversed the six-mile distance — and if they haven’t, they could jump, crawl, sprint, or be carried past whatever barrier is erected in their path.  Asian carp, he might suggest, will somehow find a way.

A Disturbing Crisis Of Confidence

The data on consumer confidence in the United States is very discouraging indeed.  Americans are, by nature, optimists.  In past recessions American consumers have spent and borrowed with complete confidence that things were going to get better and have thereby helped to pull the economy into recovery.  That doesn’t seem to be happening in this latest recession.

The statistics reported today are amazing.  For example, the percentage of people who said they were going to buy a car dropped to the lowest level since records began being kept in 1967.  Imagine — Americans not buying cars, or even thinking about buying cars!  What could be more compelling evidence of significant changes in the outlook of American consumers?

In addition, the linked article notes that one of the groups that experienced the biggest drop in consumer confidence was Americans under age 35.  That result, at least, is not hard to understand.  We have seen several years of college students and masters’ candidates unable to find or keep work after graduation.  If you were an unemployed college graduate who was being strangled by enormous student loan debt, your outlook probably would be bleak, too.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (II)

The next stop on our tour of public art on the Statehouse grounds is the Peace statue, which is on the north side of the Statehouse grounds, directly across Broad Street from the Rhodes Tower.  The Peace statute was erected by the Womans Relief Corps, Department of Ohio, in 1923.  It commemorates the “heroic sacrifices of Ohio’s soldiers of the Civil War 19861-1865 and the loyal women of that period.”

The women's plaque on the rear of the Peace statue

The figure of Peace takes the traditional form.  It was the work of Bruce Wilder Saville, who happened to be a faculty member at Ohio State.  The rear of the statue is somewhat less traditional, and a bit more interesting.  It features two metal plaques — one commemorating the sacrifices of the more than 300,000 men of Ohio who fought valiantly in the Civil War, and the other recognizing, in heartfelt terms, the glory of the women who supported the war effort.  To my mind, the plaque describing the crucial role of women in the Civil War is especially powerful and moving.

Equally poignant, in the middle of the rear of the Peace statute is the simple statement:  “Let us have Peace.”

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Off To Phu Quoc

Russell has been on the move and has left the friendly, if sweaty, environs of Ho Chi Minh City.  Rather than heading east to Mui Ne, however, he has gone south to Phu Quoc.

Phu Quoc is an island in the Gulf of Siam that is south and east of mainland Vietnam, near the coast of Cambodia.  The island features wooded mountains to the north and fine, unspoiled beaches to the south.  It is remote, largely undeveloped, and largely unknown. From the pictures on the internet it looks like a fabulous spot.

Russell plans on staying their for a few days, then taking a boat back to the mainland to explore the Mekong Delta region.

R.I.P., Professor Ginsburg

I was very saddened to learn today of the death of Professor Martin Ginsburg, an extraordinary teacher and intellect.  For many years Professor Ginsburg taught Tax Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and I was privileged to learn from him.  I took my first tax law course from him not because I had any interest at all in tax law, but because other students said his course was not to be missed — and they were right.  Having Professor Ginsburg teach you tax law was like having Michelangelo teach you painting.

Professor Ginsburg’s standard question to his students began “If you were king . . . .”  He emphasized that the federal tax code simply represented a series of policy judgments.  He taught us the existing laws on things like the “hobby loss” and “like kind exchange” provisions of the Code, of course, but also urged us to go beyond the bare language of the federal tax laws to consider the broader social engineering issues lurking underneath.  At some point in the past, Members of Congress had made the policy judgments that led to the Code in its current form — but were they wise judgments?  If we were king, would we have done it differently, or at all?

Professor Ginsburg’s keen sense of humor, enthusiasm, and obvious love for the subject matter made what could have been a dusty or rote learning exercise into something that was enormously stimulating and satisfying.  Although he was a giant intellect in the field, he was neither arrogant nor aloof, and he seemed genuinely interested in what his students had to say.  He was one of those rare teachers who could have taught anything and made it a memorable experience.  He will be sorely missed.

The (Comparative) Rise Of Public Employee Unions

When I grew up in Akron, Ohio in the ’60s — at that time a classic blue-collar, Democratic city — unions were a big part of the landscape.  People paid attention to what the head of the United Rubber Workers had to say.  The men who headed the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, and the Teamsters Union were all familiar names.  People wondered about whether there would be a strike and what kind of impact it might have on our community.

In those days, of course, union membership in private sector jobs was much more common. (I was a union member twice — when I worked as a bag boy at Big Bear and was, I think, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and when I worked at the Toledo Blade and was a member of the Newspaper Guild.)  In 1945, 36 percent of all wage and salary workers in the United States were union workers.  By 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the percentage had fallen to 12.3 percent.

Moreover, the kind of workers who are union members has changed.  According to the U.S Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 more public sector employees (7.9 million) belonged to unions than did private sector employees (7.4 million), even though the private sector job force is about five times larger.  The Hoover Institution notes that the rise of public employee unions isn’t due so much to increasing the percentages of union members in public employee jobs, because those percentages have remained relatively constant at around 40 percent for the past 30 years.  The comparative “rise” of public employee unions therefore is the result of an increase in the number of public sector jobs and a decrease in the number of private sector workers who belong to unions.

Why is this so?  The AFL-CIO says it is because corporations block unionization drives.  I think the reasons are probably more complex.  One of the significant impetuses for unionization early in the 20th century was workplace safety.  These days, in most industries, workplace safety is heavily regulated by the federal government and there is correspondingly less need for organized worker efforts in that area.  In addition, many workers don’t like the idea of paying mandatory dues to unions, particularly when they see stories of union leaders who have engaged in corrupt activities with union funds.  Finally, many unions have not been particularly successful in securing long-term jobs for their members.  The highly unionized industries of my youth — the rubber industry, the auto industry, and the steel industry, to name just three — have seen significant job losses as plants in America have closed in the face of overseas competition.  We can argue about whether the unions’ success in collectively bargaining for higher wages and richer benefits in those industries contributed materially to the loss of those jobs, but there is no argument that fewer workers are employed in those industries.  Finally, employers seem to show much less fear of unions and strikes these days, and particularly in this economy it would not be difficult to find workers to replace those who had gone out on strike.

If I am right on the reasons for a decline in private sector union membership, why haven’t those same forces operated to affect public employee membership?  I think there are three reasons.  First, public employee jobs cannot move overseas.  Second, public employee unions can directly influence the decisions of those who are going to decide their wages and benefits by lobbying and contributions to political campaigns.  Third, the legislators and administrators who are making decisions about public employee wages and benefits are spending taxpayer money; they don’t need to sell more widgets or achieve greater worker productivity to justify increased wages and they don’t have to worry about competition.