Mike Kueber's Blog

March 31, 2013

Means vs. ends

Filed under: Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 1:16 am
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After watching the cult-classic TV series “24” for the past few weeks, I am acutely aware of the conflict of between means and ends.  A column in today’s NY Times touched on the same issue.  The lead sentence in the column reads as follows:

  • Moral quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences.

The column reports that research reveals the following:

  • We like to believe that the principled side of the equation is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction. But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes. And such wavering has implications for both public policy and our personal lives.  Philosophers and psychologists often distinguish between two ethical frameworks. A utilitarian perspective evaluates an action purely by its consequences. If it does good, it’s good.  A deontological approach, meanwhile, also takes into account aspects of the action itself, like whether it adheres to certain rules. Do not kill, even if killing does good.  No one adheres strictly to either philosophy, and it turns out we can be nudged one way or the other for illogical reasons.

The conclusion is:

  • Regardless of whether you endorse following the rules or calculating benefits, knowing that our instincts are so sensitive to outside factors can prevent us from settling on our first response. Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.  But we can encourage consistency in moral reasoning by viewing issues from many angles, discussing them with other people and monitoring our emotions closely. In recognizing our psychological quirks, we just might find answers we can live with.

Good advice.

March 30, 2013

Even more on high-achieving, low-income kids

Filed under: Culture,Education — Mike Kueber @ 3:01 am
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A few hours after publishing an op-ed piece by an erstwhile high-achieving, low-income kid, the NY Times followed up with an opinion piece by its Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt reporting on a study that shows, “Basic information can substantially increase the number of low-income students who apply to, attend and graduate from top colleges.”  The study was a randomized experiment that involved sending useful information to high-achieving, low-income kids:

  • The packages arrived by mail in October of the students’ senior year of high school. They consisted of brightly colored accordion folders containing about 75 sheets of paper. The sheets were filed with information about colleges: their admissions standards, graduation rates and financial aid policies.”

And the result was:

  • Among a control group of low-income students with SAT scores good enough to attend top colleges — but who did not receive the information packets — only 30 percent gained admission to a college matching their academic qualifications. Among a similar group of students who did receive a packet, 54 percent gained admission.”

And the conclusion was:

  • The experiment is part of a new wave of attention on the lack of socioeconomic diversity at top colleges….  Another recent study, by Ms. Hoxby and Christopher Avery of Harvard, found that many low-income students had the high school grades and scores to thrive at the nation’s 238 most selective colleges, but never applied. And the Supreme Court may soon further restrict race-based affirmative action, putting pressure on colleges to try a class-based version instead….  Together, these developments are creating a test of whether colleges mean what they say about meritocracy and diversity….  University officials have long trumpeted economic diversity as a goal. A few colleges, including Harvard and especially Amherst, have in fact significantly increased their ranks of low-income students. But at most top colleges, the student body — while geographically, ethnically and religiously diverse — remains dominated by affluent students….  The new research shows that large numbers of talented, well-prepared low-income teenagers exist. And many of them want to attend selective colleges, once they understand their options.”

Socioeconomic diversity – that’s something worth working for.

March 29, 2013

More about high-achieving, low-income kids

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 10:00 pm
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A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the Harvard study that concluded it was rare when high-achieving, low-income kids crossed paths with elite colleges.   A NY Times column that discussed the study concluded, “The findings underscore that elite public and private colleges, despite a stated desire to recruit an economically diverse group of students, have largely failed to do so.”  The column went on to suggest that, in view of the possible demise of affirmative action, perhaps elite colleges will shift their diversity objectives towards the high-achieving, low-income kids.    

Well, today the NT Times kept the pressure up by publishing an op-ed piece from an erstwhile high-achieving, low-income kid from Nevada.  It’s always helpful to personalize these ideas, and Claire Vaye Watkins’s story is a good one. 

It feels good to be on the same page as the Times.


Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 9:23 pm
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The latest scandal in Washington, D.C. involves a congressman from Alaska recounting how his family ranch would regularly hire about 50 or 60 “wetbacks.”  The timing of this Republican’s slur on Hispanics is especially bad because the GOP is in the early stages of trying to revise its reputation as being inhospitable to Hispanics. 

So how bad is the slur?  I vaguely recall hearing the phrase back in North Dakota in the 60s.    Although my family’s land wasn’t fertile enough for sugar beets, the Red River Valley was only a few miles to the east, and the RRV farmers grew plenty of sugar beets.  Sugar beets are a row crop, and it thrived back then only if someone manually hoed for weeds between the plants, and migrant laborers performed that job every summer.

Because there were no migrant laborers in my part of North Dakota, they weren’t discussed often, but rather only in passing.  African-Americans were even more of an abstraction, and I don’t recall them being discussed at all.  Once again, however, I seem to recall my dad using the term “nigger.”  (He also talked about a money cheat trying to “jew” you, and I didn’t even realize he was referring to the Jewish religion.  I never met a Jew until law school in Austin.)

As a kid, I was oblivious to racial issues, and never discussed the subject with my dad.  But, despite my dad’s use of the terms “wetback” and “nigger,” he always treated everyone he encountered with dignity and respect, and I am confident he would have done the same thing with Hispanics and African-Americans.  But he probably also believed in the concept of “separate, but equal” even though the Supreme Court declared in 1954 that separate wasn’t equal, at least as applied to education.

The term “wetback” has been in use since at least 1920.  And when Eisenhower took office in 1953, the NY Times was still using it in a non-pejorative way:

  • The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican ‘wetbacks’ to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government.”

Based on Eisenhower’s concern about the negative effects of illegal immigrants, he initiated a program in June 1954 called “Operation Wetback” to crack-down on illegal immigrants in the southwest.  According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor, the program started in California and Arizona because there was less local resistance there (compared to Texas) and by the end of July 50,000 illegal immigrants had been caught and 488,000 self-deported to avoid being caught.  The program moved into Texas in mid-July and by the end of September 80,000 were in custody and 600,000-800,000 self-deported. 

So when did the term “wetback” become a slur?  Wikipedia provides an interesting paragraph regarding “wetback” as an ethnic slur:

  • Generally used as an ethnic slur, the term was originally coined and applied only to Mexicans who entered Texas by crossing the Rio Grande river, which is located at the Mexican border, presumably by swimming or wading across and getting wet in the process. The non-offensive Spanish term is ‘mojado’ which means ‘wet.’  It is often preferred by Mexican-Americans by blood or pure-blood Mexicans who have become U.S. Citizens, to be referred to as ‘Los Mojados’ which translates to ‘the wet ones’ or ‘wet people.’” 

Although I can’t find anything definitive on the subject, I suspect “wetback” became a slur when people started applying it indiscriminately to all Hispanics, not just illegal immigrants.  Then, as Americans have become more ethnically sensitive, the use of any informal descriptor for a group of people has become a symbol of bigotry.  This sensitivity is currently being applied to the term, “anchor babies,” which refers to children born in America to non-American parents.

I am a staunch opponent of political correctness, but as America works its way through the problems associated with diversity, I think it is a good idea to talk and think in ways that reflect sensitivity to the feelings of those in the minority and out of the mainstream.

March 28, 2013

The District 8 race gets dirty

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:07 pm
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With all of the money collected by my two opponents in the District 8 race, it was only a matter of time before the campaign got ugly.  But I am surprised at how quickly that time arrived.

A couple of weeks ago, Rolando Briones mailed a flyer pointing out the Ron Nirenberg wants city taxpayers to bail out financially troubled culture/arts groups.  When I brought this up at a forum, Nirenberg lamented, “Two months out [from the election] and the negative ads have already started.”  At about the same time, Nirenberg wrote the following on his campaign website:

  • It’s less than two months before Election Day, so rather than join my opponent on the low road of misleading attack ads, I believe you deserve honest discussion about issues facing our district and our city.”

That all sounds good.  A candidate under attack has two good options – (1) respond to the substance of the attack or (b) take the high road by ignoring the ad and pressing forward.  Because the attack ad was accurate, Nirenberg’s only good option was to take the high road.

But, according to an excellent Chasnoff column in today’s Express-News, Nirenberg apparently got spooked in the last two weeks and inexplicably decided to take the low road. 

In the column, Chasnoff reports that Nirenberg, because he was upset at being characterized as a Democrat, has published a list that showed Briones to be a prolific contributor to Democratic candidates.  (Nirenberg provided this explanation during the interview that he and I had yesterday with the Express-News editorial board.) 

This disclosure, which substantively appears to be accurate, becomes sleezy, however, because Nirenberg published it on a website with the domain name of RolandoBriones.com.  According to Chasnoff’s column, one of Nirenberg’s operators discovered that the domain name was unused and could be purchased for $50, and that was too big of an opportunity for them to pass up:

  • “Touting himself as a Republican probably was a mistake. Not registering his name online definitely was a mistake.  Take it from Kelton Morgan, who’s helping Nirenberg with his campaign.  ‘I just thought, I wonder what he’s got on rolandobriones.com?  And it was available. And I’m like, Are you kidding me?‘”

My response to Chasnoff and Morgan – Are you kidding me?  Do you think City Council candidates need to buy various domain names to prevent an opponent from misuing them.  Yes, I understand presidential candidates and big companies do this, but we should have to worry about things like that at this level.  You need to do a reality check.

As I read the Chasnoff column, I thought of three questions that I would have for Nirenberg – Why take such offense at being characterized as a Democrat? Why retaliate by accusing Briones of being a closet Democrat? But most troubling of all, why publicize the attack by buying a website called RolandoBriones.com

For a silver lining to this story, their shenanigans improve my chances.

Who is poor?

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 11:59 am
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While visiting with a friend in Austin last week, he suggested to me that the definition of poor in America should be revised to include the welfare benefits that poor people receive from the government.  I told him that, coincidentally, I had seen a NY Times article on the subject just the day before, but hadn’t had time to read it.  When I finally had a chance to read the article, I learned that it was directly responsive to my friend’s suggestion.    

According to the article, there are three ways of defining poverty in America:

  1. The current (official) calculation.  The official Census Bureau method, which uses a set of income thresholds that vary by family size and composition;
  2. My friend’s proposal.  An experimental income-based method called the Supplemental Poverty Measure that factors in government programs designed to help people with low incomes; and
  3. Another idea.  A consumption-based method that measures what households actually spend.

The NY Times article contains some interesting elaboration of each of these methods:

  • The official definition was established in 1963 by the Kennedy Administration and uses as a point of reference the average dollar value of all the food needed for a week, times three. Income is calculated on a pre-tax basis including earnings, unemployment benefits, Social Security, disability, welfare, pensions, alimony and child support. The poverty threshold is set at the point at which a family would have to spend more than a third of its income on food.
  • The second income-based method of calculating poverty, the Supplemental Poverty Measure, is also published by the Census. It was first released in 2011. The S.P.M. adds together cash income, tax credits (in particular, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the benefit most important to the working poor), plus the value of in-kind benefits used to pay for food  (food stamps), clothing, shelter and utilities, and then subtracts taxes paid, work expenses (including child care), out-of-pocket medical costs and child support paid to another household.

Depending on which method you use, you will come up with dramatically different conclusions about poverty in America.  For example, “according to the two income-based methods of calculation, poverty is increasing; according to the consumption-based method, it is decreasing, especially for the elderly.  The poverty rate for poor children, under the official measure, is 22.3 percent; under the S.P.M. it is only 18.1 percent. The rate of poverty for those 65 and older is 8.7 percent under the official measure, but it nearly doubles to 15.1 percent under the S.P.M.  If the S.P.M. were adopted as the official measure used by government agencies to define poverty, millions of poor children would either lose, or face reductions in, benefits from means-tested programs, while millions of those over the age of 65 would qualify for government assistance.”

As America attempts to resolve its deficit problem, means-testing will play an increasing role.  That makes selecting a definition for “poor” an important decision.  The current, official definition is outdated, and both of the alternatives (supplemental and consumption) have solid arguments in their favor.  My preference would be to keep both methods available and then to make a reasoned choice, depending on the situation in which it is applied.

March 27, 2013

Castro’s much ballyhooed seven-figure referral fee

Filed under: Issues,People,Politics,Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 3:17 am
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A recent Brian Chasnoff column in the Express-News reported that San Antonio mayor Julian Castro has decided to start collecting speaking fees to help meet personal expenses.  According to the column, this development was prompted by the low mayoral salary in San Antonio (about $4,000 a year) even though Castro’s wife makes $55,000 a year as a teacher and he recently signed a book deal for an undisclosed amount. 

Almost incidentally, Chasnoff mentioned that shortly before becoming mayor, Castro “earned a much-ballyhooed seven-figure referral fee in 2007.”  Much-ballyhooed?  I have been observing Castro for years and don’t recall any public conversation about this subject.  Informally, I had heard that he received a big legal settlement (not a referral, and not seven figures) and that it had been used to help fund his 2009 campaign for mayor, but nothing much more than that. 

Because my curiosity was piqued by Chasnoff’s column, I googled the subject of Castro and seven-figure referral and this is what I found in Current magazine, published during Castro’s successful mayoral campaign:   

  • Julián Castro, 34, is a Harvard Law School graduate, a civil-litigation attorney, and a former two-term Councilmember for District 7. This is his second mayoral bid, following a narrow defeat to Phil Hardberger in 2005.  He’s been criticized for earning a fat referral fee from super-trial lawyer and Dem power donor Mikal Watts. He’s married to Erica Lira Castro; they have one child.

Watts is not only a Dem power donor, he is currently the subject of a federal investigation for potentially illegal lawyering in connection with the BP oil spill in Louisiana.  Coincidentally, my Council opponent  Rolando Briones has already been sanctioned in Louisiana in connection with his engineering efforts to help people hurt by Hurricane Katrina.  Isn’t it ironic how doing God’s work seems to get some people in trouble?  As they say, no good deed will go unpunished.   

A recent article by Guillermo Contreras in the Express-News reported on Watts’ legal troubles and his connection to Castro.  The article included a tidbit about the referral fee:

  • Watts had relocated his family from Corpus to San Antonio, where he took up residence in The Dominion and began pouring more money into races here.  He held at least one major fundraiser for Castro in 2009 as the former councilman battled to become mayor.  During that campaign, Castro’s opponents tried to make political hay of his referral of a drunken-driving lawsuit to Watts’ law firm.  Castro and Watts’ law firm successfully settled the case in 2007, and although the terms of the settlement are confidential, it purportedly netted Castro a sizable fee.

Referral fees, a/k/a forwarding fees, have always been confusing and controversial in Texas because they potentially enable a lawyer to receive an extravagant amount of compensation for very little work, and in the preceding quote, there seems to be such confusion.  First it says that Castro referred the case and then it says Castro and Watts successfully settled the case.  Well, which is it – if Castro referred the case, he wouldn’t have helped to settle it.  And if he helped to settle it, he wouldn’t have referred it; rather, he would have brought in another lawyer to help with the case.

By doing a bit of internet research, I learned that Texas in 2005 modified its referral rule (Rule 1.04 in the DRPC) to create two types of referrals:

  1. The lawyer can refer a case to another lawyer to handle, and thereby receive a referral fee; or
  2. The lawyer can get another lawyer to co-counsel it, and then divide the fee proportionately.

Thus, although the term referral is sometimes loosely used in both contexts, it appears that Castro actually brought in Watts as co-counsel and thereby retained the right to a more generous sharing of the fee.  How generous? – according to reports it was “fat,” “sizable,” or “seven-figure.  Whatever, I don’t think it is much ballyhooed.

March 26, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #67 – “24.”

Filed under: Movie reviews,Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 9:20 pm
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OK, I understand that “24” is a TV drama, but after spending quite a few hours the past few weeks watching all 193 episodes, I decided to post a movie piece about “24” and Jack Bauer.

Jack Bauer, played by Keifer Sutherland, is the star of “24.  He is a field operator in America’s Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU).  His character is a modern-day John Wayne.  While President Reagan once said that he would sometimes ask himself, “What Would John Wayne Do?” I am now tempted to say, “What would Jack Bauer do?”  Bauer seems to act with the same sort of moral clarity possessed by the Duke even in situations that aren’t as black & white as those in the Duke’s movies.  (Incidentally, soon after coining the WWJBD expression, I learned that t-shirts with that expression have been sold on the internet for years.)    

Two common recurring issues in “24” are whether the end justifies the means and whether individuals can be sacrificed for the common/greater good.  In the end of each of the show’s dramatic situations, if you did what Bauer suggested, you were happy.  If you didn’t do what he suggested, you invariably regretted it.  And of course, if you ordered him to do the wrong thing, he almost always ignored your orders and did the right thing.

24” was televised on Fox for eight seasons (2001-2010), with a two-hour movie between seasons #6 and #7.  The movie, titled “Redemption” was prompted by a writers’ strike that resulted in no regular episodes in 2008. 

“24” was a prodigious winner of Emmys – 68 nominations and 20 wins.  The critics thought Season Five was the best, but I couldn’t stop watching Seasons Seven and Eight until they were over.  And the season finales, of which the first was generally considered to be the best, invariably prompted me to immediately start the next season.  I can’t imagine being forced to wait seven months for the next season, as the TV viewers had to do.

But the same thing can be said about each episode.  I would be watching late at night and planning to go to bed at the end of the episode, but the ending would be so riveting that I had to start the next episode immediately.  Several nights I watched past 2 a.m., and one night I went until 6 a.m. 

Jack Bauer appeared in all 193 episodes, and the next leading contributors were data analyst Chloe O’Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who appeared in 125 episodes, field operator Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) in 115, President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) in 80, and daughter Kim Bauer (Elisha Cuthbert) in 79.  Other memorable characters included Bauer’s wife Teri (Leslie Hope) in 24 episodes and his six girlfriends – Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke) in 36, Kate Warner (Sarah Winter) in 25, Claudia Hernandez (Vanessa Ferlito) in 11, Audrey Raines (Kim Raver) in 52, Marilyn Bauer (Rena Sofer) in 12, and Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) in 37 – plus Almeida’s girlfriend Michelle Dessler (Reiko Aylesworth) in 62, CTU director Bill Buchanan (James Morrison) in 64, and Presidents Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones is a Cathy Phillips look-a-like) in 43 and Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin is a Nixon look-a-like) in 44.   

There has been plenty planning for a new movie version of “24,” but just a couple weeks ago, things were put on hold because of budgetary issues and Sutherland’s scheduling problems.  My thoughts – Git-R-Done.

March 25, 2013

The Supreme Court takes on another affirmative-action case

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:41 pm
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The Supreme Court today agreed to hear another case on affirmative action – Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.  This case comes from Michigan, where 58% of the voters in 2006 decided to prohibit affirmative action in college admissions as well as government hiring and contracting.  Several states, including California and Florida, have similar laws. 

In a move that defies common sense, as a dissenting federal appellate judge has pointed out, proponents of affirmative action in Michigan are arguing that a state denies equal treatment by mandating it.  But the highly politicized federal appellate court in Michigan bought the argument 8-7, with all eight judges appointed by Democratic presidents and all seven judges appointed by Republican presidents.  (Elections have consequences!)

The case already pending with the Supreme Court is Fisher v. Univ. of Texas.  In that case, which was expected to be ruled on between now and the end of June, the Court will decide if UT can consider race among other factors in deciding who to admit.  According to Reuters

  • That the court agreed to hear the Michigan case before deciding the Texas case is unusual. The court’s normal practice is to wait until it has issued a ruling before agreeing to hear another case on a related issue. This may mean that the court is struggling to decide the Texas case, or that the ruling could be coming as soon as this week.”

I’m not a Court watcher, so I have no idea what this means with respect to Fisher.  I would be shocked, however, if the Court decides that a state cannot eliminate its affirmative-action program.  As Sandra Day O’Connor famously said in her 2003 Grutter decision, affirmative action was only a temporary fix that should not exist in 25 years.

But I suspect that not everyone will be want affirmative action to be temporary.  Just today in the Express-News, page-two columnist Elaine Ayala wrote about some college-prep students debating affirmative action.  At the end of the debate, the students had three choices regarding the future of affirmative action – accepted, waitlisted, or denied.  Ayala reports that, although the least popular choice was “accepted,” the most popular was “waitlisted.”  From that result, Ayala concluded her column by saying, “Perhaps it’s too optimistic to think it shows affirmative action has a future in the minds of these future leaders.  But I’ll take it.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who sees affirmative action as temporary

March 24, 2013

Single-member districts in San Antonio and District 2

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 11:20 pm
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Single-member districts are often mandated by the federal courts to ensure that minorities are able to have representation.  The constitutional remedy is based on the fact that, generally, Anglos vote for other Anglos, African-Americans vote for African-Americans, Hispanics vote for Hispanics, etc.  Single-member districts will often enable a redistricting commission to create districts that have a majority of minority residents/voters, and thereby secure minority representation.  San Antonio converted from at-large voting to single-member districts in 1977.

While visiting with a friend in Austin last week, I learned that Austin had only recently converted from at-large voting to single-member districts.  But my friend told me that, even with at-large voting in Austin, there was a gentlemen’s agreement that certain districts were reserved for certain minorities.  E.g., Austin’s District Two was reserved for African-American candidates.

My first reaction was disbelief that such a gentlemen’s agreement would survive in the dog-eat-dog world of politics.  But then I remembered a statistical tidbit from my analysis of San Antonio’s recent redistricting:

  • San Antonio’s District Two is almost always represented by an African-American, but according to census statistics, the District residents are 54% Hispanic, 18% Anglo, and only 24% African-American.  Apparently, District Two can’t be drawn with a higher percentage of African-Americans because, of the other nine council districts, the highest percentage of African-American is only 7%.  Of San Antonio’s 1,326,721 residents, only 83,330 (6.28%) are African-American.

Despite this lack of electoral strength for African-Americans generally in San Antonio and specifically in District Two, the District has, to my recollection, been continuously represented by African-Americans.  This year, the incumbent African-American, Ivy Taylor, is running against another African-American and two men with Hispanic surnames, yet she is the heavy favorite. 

Sounds to me like the voters of San Antonio’s District Two are aware of a gentlemen’s agreement, even though two Hispanic candidates aren’t.

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