Monday, July 30, 2007

Rumor has it they were looking for a series of tubes and a big truck

Federal agents search the home of Mr. Good Government, Ted Stevens.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Long odds

Wharton Business Professor Justin Wolfers has an idea for ending sports betting scandals: legalize sports gambling, but only on the outcome of the game, not on the point spread or the over/under.

Wolfers notes that with few exceptions--the Chicago Black Sox Scandal being the most notable--attempts to fix the outcome of a sporting event involve point shaving, rather than trying to throw the game to one side or another. It is easier for the underworld to recruit players and refs to shave points--affecting bets tied to the point spread and the over/under--than to throw games, because the former seems like a victimless crime:

Legalizing wagering on which team wins or loses a particular game, while banning all bets on immaterial outcomes like point spreads, would destroy the market for illegal bookmakers and make sporting events less corruptible by gamblers. ...

Bettors value regulation: They get paid, their legs don’t get broken, and they can talk about their wagers around the water cooler with no legal risk. The rise of government-run gambling on horse racing in Australia paralleled the demise of the country’s illegal bookmakers in second half of the 20th century.

I'm no fan of prohibition of any sort, whether it is drugs or gambling, so Wolfers' argument has great appeal to me. I'd have no problem with legalized sports gambling. However, I'm not sure there wouldn't still be a flourishing underground market for betting on point spreads and the over/under, because legally operating bookies would have a tough time ensuring a profit on games in which payoffs only go to gamblers who pick the winner.

Without the point spread, few bettors would want to risk money on the underdog, particularly when the two teams are unevenly matched. As it is now, when too many people start laying their money on one team over another, bookies can manipulate the point spread to encourage bets on the other team. If wagers are evenly distributed among the two teams, the bookie is sure to make money off the vigorish that losers have to pay in addition to their bet.

Now, I suppose a substitute for the point spread would be for bookies to give odds, as is done in horse racing, so that the payout on the underdog would be higher than on the favorite. Still, it seems to me that bookies could lose a lot of money in games in which a longshot wins, because they money they pay out to winners could be significantly higher than the money coming in from losers (in horse racing, of course, there are more than two competitors, and thus more losing bets get placed) unless they significantly boosted the vigorish. In any case, manipulating the odds to ensure a profit would seem to be more challenging than doing the same with the point spread.


Friday, July 27, 2007

You had to ask

Over at the Pittsburgh Comet, Bram asks what I think of school vouchers and charter schools as the cure for what ails the Duquesne School District. Here was what I said, in answer to his question and in response to someone else who posted a comment at his blog:

I'm not opposed to charter schools, and I'm not opposed to school vouchers that are targeted at low-income families, or families who live in distressed communities. But let's remind our libertarian friends that those are government solutions. Money for vouchers would come from public coffers, and charter schools are public schools--they just happen to be freed from some state regulations and can choose to specialize in certain areas.

In other words, even if government wouldn't be providing education to these students, it would be paying for it. And that's as it should be, because education is a public good. We rely not only on our own education, but on the education of others to allow society to function.

Now, plenty of people think that education is one of many things that the private sector could do better than the public sector. Never mind that privatization of a school in Wilkinsburg several years ago failed, nor that, to me knowledge, the nation's for-profit K-12 education firms have yet to actually make a profit. (I could be wrong on that.)

We can talk all we want about government bureaucracy, or union rules, but at the end of the day, one of the biggest determinants of education success is socio-economic status, and the big challenge is to help schools overcome the disadvantages that poverty brings.

Certainly, many public schools have found ways to do this, and some private schools as well. In Pittsburgh, we have the Extra Mile Education Foundation, which funds four K-8 Catholic schools that primarily serve low-income, African-American students. (And mostly non-Catholic, if I'm not mistaken.) These are great schools, and many of their students continue their success through high school and attend college.

But this brings us back to what Bram is talking about. I don't think the Extra Mile schools go out recruiting students. Perhaps they get referrals. I'm guessing that most children end up there because their parents found out about the schools, or were told about the schools, and made the decision to send their children there. They took all the necessary steps to enroll them. These kids may be poor, but they have parents who care about their education and are motivated to do something about it.

So the question is, how we can help those parents do even more for their children, and what can we do for the children who maybe aren't so blessed? Government can not do everything, you are correct, am in bp, but we have to acknowledge that if we just write off these children, than our most ugly predictions and fears about them will come to pass, and the problems the result will not confine themselves to Duquesne.

Here are some other thoughts I have on privatization of public services.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Boy Who Lived

I discuss the final Harry Potter book over at my other blog. (Warning: There are spoilers there.)

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking note

Pittsblog and The Pittsburgh Comet pick up the torch.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Conventionally bad thinking

Some bad ideas just won't die:

Downtown Pittsburgh can finally move ahead with plans for a headquarters hotel, with 400 to 500 rooms, adjacent to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

That's because the state Legislature this week included a $34 million subsidy for the $103 million project when it approved projects paid for from the slots development fund. The fund, based on 5 percent of taxes paid by slots casinos, also is helping to pay for a replacement for Mellon Arena. (From the Post-Gazette.)

I wrote this article for the Pittsburgh Business Times last year. I don't think much has changed since then:

Most of the time, Downtown hotels have only about a 60 percent occupancy rate, which to Strunk means that the city doesn't need any more hotels -- least of all a publicly subsidized one adjacent to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. ...

Pittsburgh's real problem is that it is competing for conventioneers in an overcrowded market, said Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Sanders has studied the proliferation of convention centers nationwide and has closely followed the situation in Pittsburgh.

"What has gone on in Pittsburgh is what has gone on in lots of other cities, which are often faced with convention centers that don't perform as their proponents had hoped or promised, and so it is argued that what you need is an adjacent hotel," Sanders said.

As in Pittsburgh, officials in several other cities have failed to lure a private investor to take on the cost of building a convention center hotel, and so local governments either finance the hotels and assume ownership, or give subsidies to private developers.

Strunk sees that as evidence that the hotels won't be profitable, and he believes that even the most optimistic convention center projections will leave Pittsburgh with a glut of hotel space most of the year. ...

Sanders said convention center hotels in several cities, including Houston, St. Louis and Philadelphia, have failed to perform as expected.

"You're dealing with a pretty unforgiving market environment when it comes to running a hotel. If people aren't staying there, you can't pay the bills, and if you have to lower your rates to do it, then you put downward pressure on everyone else in the market," Sanders said.

We should never have expanded the convention center. Spending public funds to build a hotel there will only compound the error. How far would $34 million go toward shoring up public transportation in Pittsburgh? Fixing our sewers?

Nah, much better to spend it on a hotel that will sit empty half the year.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

What's in a name?

Well, that was quick:

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt announced this afternoon that he's going to continue using "public" as part of the school district's commonly used name.

At a school board Education Committee meeting last week, Mr. Roosevelt's staff proposed using "Pittsburgh Schools" as the commonly used term for the district.

That prompted an outcry from parents and other residents who said the district should be proud of the word "public." (from the Post-Gazette)

Look, marketing and public relations are important. But there are limits to what they can accomplish for an organization. The problem here is that the district has substantive problems (which, in fairness, it is trying to address), but it appeared to be wasting time and money on a branding campaign that people correctly believed would do nothing to improve the district's image. Quite the contrary, by dropping the word "public" from its name, the school district seemed to tacitly admit there is something wrong with public schools.

Backtracking is the right thing to do in this instance. But it makes district officials look doubly foolish nonetheless.

In other education matters, Chris Briem takes up the good fight.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hope springs eternal

There's a Democrats for DeSantis blog. (Hat tip to Pittsblog.) Meanwhile, Chris Briem runs the numbers and finds the odds are not in the challenger's favor. Read the comments; Chris has some things to say that a lot of Ravenstahl critics (like me) may not want to hear, but which are hard to counter.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

A Pennsylvania tragedy

Jason throws down the gauntlet, and I'll pick it up. What is happening now with the Duquesne School District--and with the children whose very futures are at stake--is downright criminal. It represents a perfect storm of problems with how Pennsylvania is governed. One is the multiplicity of local governments, many of which--in the face of declining populations and shrinking tax bases--can no longer adequately provide government services, including education. Another is the over-reliance on locally generated revenues to fund public education, which should be a right of any child, regardless of their station in life, and regardless of where they had the good or bad fortune to be born.

Yes, I'm aware that low-income districts like Duquense often get more state and federal money than many affluent districts, but they also need more. The educational deficits caused by poverty are real, they start early, and their effects are cumulative. And if wealthy districts want to spend more money on schools, they have that option--poor districts do not. That doesn't mean that poor children can't learn, or that poverty should excuse failure--but it is willfully ignorant to deny that affluent children have advantages that make their schools' job easier.

I would certainly agree that throwing more money at the problem is not the best answer. Meaningful, effective education reform is a goal that has eluded this nation for more than a generation, and I could be more forgiving if the crisis in Duquense had touched off a genuine debate over how to address the problems faced by underachieving school districts.

But as far as Duquesne is concerned, no one cares. There is no substantive discussion occurring because no one, save for their own parents, seems to give a rat's ass what happens to these kids. Certainly not the governor or state legislators, who have been too busy trying to keep open casinos and find money for hockey arenas. Not the good folks in West Mifflin, who don't want those children in their schools. Regardless of their motives, West Mifflin residents are horribly mistaken if they think the fate of Duquesne's students is not their concern. Do they really think that crime, proverty and economic stagnation respect arbitrarily drawn municipal boundaries?

Education is a right, and a social good. It is not a privilege conferred solely on the affluent, or those who live in the right zip codes. We all suffer if our neighbors' children don't get as good an education as our own. One day, the people in West Mifflin and our "leaders" in Harrisburg will understand that. But by then it will be too late.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

End of the line

I discuss endings at my other blog.


Signs, signs, everywhere signs

I agree with my fellow bloggers that it was wrong for the city Planning Commission to have reversed its decision on the UPMC sign in response to pressure from the mayor's office that, it appears, may be the result of a cozy relationship the mayor has with the medical giant.

However, I don't understand what the fuss is about over that sign. The USX building is a big ugly slab of a building whose appearance can only be improved with the addition of the large sign. And buildings aren't just to look at--they serve a function, and in this case, one of those functions is commerce. Cities don't exist merely to look pretty on a postcard. (Mike Madison has some good thoughts on this here, here and here.)

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Friday, July 06, 2007

What he said

About the highest compliment one writer can pay another is to say of their work, "I wish I had written that." That's how I feel about this thoughtful, eloquent defense of public transportation in Allegheny County by my friend and former co-worker Jason Togyer. Jason, however, is not an apologist for the Port Authority, and he does a good job laying out what is wrong with the current system.

Remember, public transportation does not merely benefit the people who use it; it also benefits those whose commute by private automobile would be much more unpleasant if all those people riding the bus and the T had to drive themselves to work everyday. I discussed this previously here. It is a public good and should be treated as such.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

A Grand Old Party

Boy, the Republicans sure have a bumper crop of presidential candidates. Mitt Romney thinks pardons and commutations are bad--unless you are Vice President Cheney's chief of staff. And Fred Thompson, while serving as the Senate Watergate Committee minority counsel, leaked to the White House that the committee knew about President Nixon's taping system. (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for both items.)

Meanwhile, John McCain has secured the endorsement of former Homeland Security Secretary and Pa. Governor Tom Ridge. New Republic blogger Jason Zengerle can't understand why the McCain campaign is making such a big deal out of this in New Hampshire:

Are there a substantial number of Pittsburgh ex-pats now living in Concord?--I don't really know how this sort of thing helps McCain. Of course, it probably doesn't hurt McCain, either, which is maybe the best his campaign can hope for at this point.

Hell, there are Pittsburgh ex-pats everywhere. But I hardly think Tom Ridge is the way to their hearts.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007


We now know where the mayor was during the City Council hearing on the promotion of three controversial police officers--he was playing golf:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl played at a celebrity golf tournament rather than face more than 100 women angered by the promotions of three police officers linked to accusations of domestic violence or disturbances in their pasts.

"I can confirm that he was there both days," said Nancy Angus, director of the Mario Lemieux Foundation, which organizes the annual Mario Lemieux Celebrity Tournament.

"He played as an amateur. He didn't play as a celebrity," Angus said Tuesday. ...

"Some are attempting to unfairly criticize me for attending a charitable event while a public hearing was being held on the 28th. This smacks of crass politics and yellow journalism and disappoints me greatly," Ravenstahl said in a statement last night.

"What's astonishing is that if he was really trying to raise money for charity, he was trying to hide it from people by not answering the question," said Jeanne Clark, a member of the Squirrel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women, which petitioned to have City Council hold the hearing.

Why did the mayor refuse to reveal his whereabouts? Clearly, he knew that it would be embarrassing, particularly since he was recently outed as a hard-core Tiger Woods groupie. (Exactly how much time does this guy spend at work, anyway?)

Leave aside what this incident says about the mayor's character or maturity. It was just plain dumb to stonewall the media about why he skipped the hearing. This town has two daily newspapers, an alternative weekly, three television stations and numerous bloggers. Did he really think no one was going to find out what he was doing? This story might have died a week ago, even if bad feelings had lingered over the promotions of three officers with histories of domestic disturbances. But the mayor's dissembling kept it alive.

The mayor is an amateur in more ways than one, it appears.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Perjury, smerjury

This blogger remembers when conservatives thought perjury was a bad thing:

"Lying under oath strikes at the heart of our system of justice and the rule of law. It does not matter in the least what the perjury is about," - Robert Bork and James Rosen, National Review.

"And we know that when a person testifies under oath that he doesn't remember something when in fact he does, he has committed perjury," - Bill Bennett, Wall Street Journal.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, who sums things up nicely:

Rarely has an intellectual movement been exposed so brutally as a power-grubbing scam.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Where was Luke?

It's an axiom of politics that the cover-up of a crime is just as likely to bring down an office holder as the crime itself. Which makes me wonder just what it is that Luke Ravenstahl is trying to hide by not revealing where he was while City Council held a hearing on the promotion of three police officers with a history of domestic disturbances.

Granted, there was nothing criminal in failing to attend the hearing. It merely demonstrated an embarrassing lack of sensitivity and political acumen. Yet, the mayor would rather endure further embarrassment than say what was more worthy of his time that day. So I can only assume that wherever he was, it would prove even more damaging to his already battered reputation than his failure to show up at the hearing.

I'm waiting to be proven wrong.

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