Archive for the ‘Jon’s Posts’ category

Its what we call the news!

June 23, 2010

Yesterday was my day off, and I spent most of it inside the recently opened Newseum.  Located right down Pennsylvania Avenue from the US Capitol, this museum is one of Washington DC’s newest and most technologically advanced attractions.  Despite the numerous smithsonians and art galleries dotting the city, I can say with all seriousness that this is hands down my favorite museum in Washington DC.  This from a guy who swoons when he sees a painting by Claude Monnet or Henri Mattise.  (note: the national gallery is right across the street from the newseum).

The price is steep ($20) but completely worth every penny.  One of my favorite features of the Newseum is that they allow you to buy the ticket one day and return the next if you didn’t get to see the entire place.  You enter and are immediately confronted with a gigantic projector screen TV about three stories tall.  From there you can proceed through exhibits including 9/11, the origins of the news, reflections on the first amendment (quick: can you name the five rights enumerated in the first amendment?), and even play interactive games with other patrons.

My favorite section of the entire museum is a collection of over a hundred front page articles from important days in our nation’s history.  You can see the NY times page the day the stock market crashed or the front page the day after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.  These are not reproductions: they are the real thing.  While I have no personal recollection of many of the events, my uncle assured me that it is quite moving to say the least to be able to relive those moments of our history that were the most important, such as the moon landing.

Overall, what makes the Newseum a wonderful place to visit is the mixture of communication mediums.  On each floor, the visitor is offered theaters, constantly running TV’s in the main exhibits, brief summaries of important events and more substantive sections containing news papers.  It is very easy to flow from one medium to the next and creates a very engaging and ever changing environment.

And in case I don’t have you convinced, hear now Stephen Colbert

Roadblock

June 22, 2010

I was at a round table yesterday where the speaker stated their view on congress in the following fashion.

congress was not created to pass good laws.  congress was created to stop bad laws from becoming law

On the one hand, if you believe that the framers created the United States with the idea that states should reign supreme, then the notion that congress exists essentially as a road block to potential expansion of federal power makes perfect sense.  However, I would like to believe that congressmen care more about passing positive legislation than killing bills that they do not agree with.  Do individual congressmen attempt to kill bills that they don’t agree with?  Of course.  But when you look at the facts of how much legislation goes into congress each year and how much comes out, you get about 10,000 bills going in and around 400 coming out the other end of the funnel, a 4% success rate.

Despite all the outcry about the federal government’s encroachment on states rights, this seems to suggest that the best block on the expansion of federal power is congress itself.  When you start to get into the ins and outs of congressional committees and house rules, you find that passing a bill is a highly complicated and intricate process that dwarfs anything that schoolhouse rock ever taught us as kids.  However, it’s still a good basic summary of the process.

This American Life and the News

June 19, 2010

Good week this week.  I’ve become more involved in the office, now am trained to give tours of the US Capitol (yes, I am again a tour guide) and have actually gotten to do some writing around the office.

One of the things I’ve come to enjoy the most is the numerous news sources available to a student like me.  In Madison, we have the two city papers, wispolitics, a few blogs and two campus news papers (not counting the onion).  Here in DC, we have several national news papers available each day in the office, news sources that specifically cover what is going on at the hill, and more magazines and national publications than I know what to do with.

It’s wonderful to have access to so many learned people and to get so many insights into life on this hill.  Especially this week when law makers are discussing measures such as a comprehensive climate change bill and what amounts to a $50 billion bail out for state and local governments to avoid cutting social services such as firemen and policemen.  You quickly gain an understanding of who knows what’s going on and who’s just making partisan noise to get some good soundbites for their campaigns.

I’ve also come to understand that the magic number up here on the hill and in DC as a whole is 60.  60 votes in the senate are needed to avoid a minority filibuster.  For those of you that don’t follow the hill’s proceedings, a senate rule states that any member may hold the floor “as long as he or she is able,” which amounts to letting them speak until they literally collapse from exhaustion.  This unfettered speaking right is called the filibuster.  The longest on record is Senator Strom Thurmond’s filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, which took up 24 and 1/2 hours all on his own.  And when the minority gains the floor, they can yield to each other and perpetually hold up all other actions in the senate.  Therefore all legislation in DC is measured by its ability to get 60 votes in the Senate, which is what really matters in the end.  I personally feel that there are enough other mechanisms put into the legislative system to kill any legislation that doesn’t have strong support that the filibuster is not necessary, but it’s a very cherished part of the Senate tradition.

As I write this, I’m listening to Ira Glass on “This American Life” talk about the State of New York’s budget crisis.  One quote by David Patterson, the Democratic Governor of New York, summarizes my feelings about government during the recession:

we’ve asked government to take on too many tasks that cost too much money, and we find ourselves in this quagmire

This isn’t to say that government has failed in its goals.  Instead, I believe it says that we’ve taken on too many projects and now find ourselves in a recession where we are unable to finance these projects, despite their good intentions.  We need to have a very frank discussion in this country about the limits we face and how best to use our resources, which are NOT infinite.  To bring it full circle, this is a conversation that legislators in Washington DC don’t seem to want to have.  Right now, they instead seem content to pay lip service to the idea of cutting spending, but their actions indicate that they really don’t believe that this is a conversation that must be had.

Lockheed Martin Part I

June 16, 2010

Hey all.  Today several of us Madison alumni visited Lockheed Martin, one of the military’s big 5 military contractors.  Military spending makes up approximately 4% of the United State’s GDP.  The VP of Lockheed Martin, Bob Trice (pictured below) is a UW Madison alumni who graciously offered us dinner and some time in their flight simulators.  While I had some issues with the content of Mr. Trice’s presentation, such as his labeling of military/industrial spending as “small potatoes” when compared to overall economic spending, more on that topic will be written tomorrow by my roommate Paco.

While it wasn’t a Badger sighting, tonight I also had the pleasure of meeting a former Drum Major of the Michigan Marching band (2002-2004) named Matt Cavanaugh.  He has been working for Lockheed Martin as an engineer for a number of years.  We had a long conversation about the differences in band culture, performance styles, and Drum Major philosophies (for those that don’t know, I was the Drum Major at UW-Madison from 2008-2009).  He’s also the guy who claims to have invented the Maize out at Michigan, and I have no reason to doubt him.  We also talked a lot about leadership and how no course can prepare you for the things you’ll learn about leading an organization like being in Marching Band.

One of my favorite aspects about Washington DC is that it is a small world, and that you can make connections with just about everyone if only you’re willing to take the initiative and talk with them.  Chances are that if you open up and have the courage to interact with those around you on the subway or at the lunch counter, you’ll find something that the two of you have in common!

Tune in tomorrow for Paco’s take on the Lockheed Martin and a report from my tour of the White House!

The Public Beating Has Not Gone Out of Style

June 16, 2010

Though it was my day off, I spent most of my time on the hill watching the Senate in session and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Not much to talk about on the Senate front.  The room was completely empty except for three Senators who made speeches supporting or detracting President Obama’s handling of the BP oil crisis and his speech tonight.  However, on the house side…

Let me start by saying that I didn’t attend the whole hearing.  It was extremely crowded and I was only able to spend an hour watching it.  However, I came in right as the BP Executive in America started his Q & A, so I think I picked the right time.

About half of the hearing was legitimate questions about BP and other oil companies operations (see my previous post for a complete list of who attended).  A good summary of the entire hearing can be found via the NY Times here.  Rep. Dingle (Michigan) asked several questions about BP’s working with the Dept. of Interior staff, technical questions about equipment, etc.  It was also established through a question from Rep. Burgess (TX) that there is no new idea for stopping the spill, and that it will continue for the foreseeable future in its present fashion until relief wells are completed (est. August).  It should also be noted that each of these executives were there voluntarily and were not brought before the committee via subpoena.  But the other half…

Lets just say that it was a highly entertaining hearing at some points, because it seemed that some of the Congressmen were simply out to embarrass the oil Execs.   You can watch the entire thing yourself here (though it’s 4 hours long).  Rep. Markey (Mass) started his questioning by noting that each of the five oil companies had the exact same plan for cleaning up a spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but had simply changed the colors of the front page (all the reports were almost completely identical to each other). There was also a contact listed for a Professor who, though an expert in oil policy, has been deceased for 4 years, and references to handling cleanup involving walruses, which Rep. Markey noted have not inhabited the gulf for 3 million years.  He, Rep. Upton (Mich), Rep. Waxman (Cal), and Rep. Stupak (Mich) all proceeded to pile on, hammering BP and the oil execs on everything from their underestimating of the spill total to accusing the oil execs of all quoting from the same script (which I don’t doubt). It served as a chance for the Congressmen to get out some of their frustration on the people who have put us in this situation, for better or for worse.  In other words, a good old fashioned public beating.

From what I saw, it seems that one of the main goals of the hearing wasn’t necessarily to figure out what to do now that the spill has occured, although that was discussed.  It was in part to let the Reps. rake the oil execs over the coals for things that quite honestly, they could not prevent.  One exec was pushed so far by Rep. Stupak to say, and I quote:

when these things happen, we are not well equipped to handle them

There are risks that go along with drilling for oil and although safe when the proper safety measures are instituted, it is difficult to respond to a crisis of this magnitude simply because we don’t have the resources available.  A point was made that contingency clean up plans were done for spills as large as 200,000 barrels a day, but these same plans were unable to effectively cope with 40,000 barrels a day (the current estimated rate of the leak).  The point is that even with the best planning in the world, the reality is that there is only so much that can be done in a situation like this. Is it a good idea for oil companies to have the resources and materials on hand to deal effectively with a spill like this? Yes.  Is the statistical likelihood of such a spill occurring enough to warrant that kind of investment?  Probably not.  Hence the situation we are in.  So I leave off the question: knowing now what happens when the deep water drilling goes wrong, knowing our capabilities, despite all the safety precautions, is it worth it to continue drilling?

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention.  Of the 7 Congressmen I saw testify, I counted 4 that specifically referenced the oil-soaked pelicans in the Gulf.  Nothing like a little provocative imagery to try and get the crowd (or nation in this case) on your side.

Faith and Financial Reform

June 11, 2010

Congress is working on passing financial reform right now, in an attempt to ensure that the conditions that brought the economy to a screeching halt will not occur again.  The House and Senate have both passed bills, and the conference committee members were just named.  President Obama would like to have a bill by the time he heads to Europe for an important economic meeting, so we’re looking at June 24th for a final vote.

I was just reading the Senate Financial Reform bill summary (it’s long and boring, but here it is) and happened across these words:

The Economic melt down was driven by an across-the-board failure to protect consumers.

This struck me as interesting because it’s arguable that a failure to protect consumers was what caused this failure.  While it might be easy to point fingers at people that purchased houses with loans they could never hope to pay off, the reality is that the system is much more complicated than that, and thus a failure to protect consumers is not the sole reason for the melt down.  Rather, this melt down was caused by the greed of traders and corporate executives working a system that they did not fully understand in order to make a quick profit.  That’s one reason for regulating derivatives (disclaimer: I do not profess to be an expert of financial instruments), which the current structure allowed to be traded between agents that cared only about profit and not whether or not the derivative was quality or not.  In simple terms, this melt down was caused by people acting like people within a complicated system with big consequences for failure and misunderstanding.

This led me to reflect on the societal institutions that have failed Americans of late.  Our energy companies are destroying the environment.  The captains of industry and finance don’t really know what they’re doing.  This may be the first generation of American’s that will not live as well off as did their parents, leading to the decline and perhaps destruction of the American dream.  Government must certainly play a role in regulation of the economy, which contrary to some will not work out all of its problems with its invisible hand in a manner conducive to living a planet of 6 billion people without wide spread social chaos, but it cannot solve every problem we face, as we see from its failure to fully prevent oil spills, financial melt down and international conflict.  In essence, our faith in many of the civic and economic institutions of society is being systematically destroyed.  This begs the question, what is left for society to have faith in?

Strasburg’s Debut

June 9, 2010

Paco and I were bought a couple of standing room only tickets for Strasburg’s debut, and it did not disappoint.  He was everything he was billed to be, Pitching seven innings, striking out 14 batters and all in only 94 pitches! As Paco put it, we just saw the birth of a hall of fame pitcher.  Below are a couple of videos of his first out and him fanning a batter in the 6th (the quality didn’t come out as well as I’d have liked, but oh well).  I flash to the score board to try and show that he’s still pitching 98 mph in the 6th.  Amazing!

Its an exciting town, to say the least!