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July 2016

Legislative Power Hour at the Regional Chamber of Commerce

The Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted an insightful Legislative Hour with State Senator Kelly Hancock and State Representative Eric Johnson. I found Rep. Johnson's advocacy for full-day pre-K for qualifying families particularly compelling. (This is not the same thing as universal pre-K, which would mean any family gets free pre-K for their children independently of means - a nice thing in a perfect world, but unrealistic at this time).

Rep. Johnson spoke with great passion and poise about the critical time of third grade, where the transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn" occurs, which makes the current statistics of 82% of African American and over 70% of Hispanic third-graders reading below proficiency level particularly worrisome. (I'm not sure which survey he was specifically referring to, but this U.S. News article has similar numbers.) If students aren't able to read correctly by the time the transition occurs, it will become so much more difficult to bring them up tos speed. Rep. Johnson repeatedly emphasized his determination to use data-driven practices, i.e., practices that have been demonstrated to work elsewhere (maybe out of state), in driving policy.

State Rep. Johnson and State Sen. Hancock also talked about many related issues, such as how to fund education and the controversial rainy day fund (apparently not getting used for that, which has been dividing legislators - read here for details), General Revenue and Biennial Appropriations, the importance of oil and gas to the state revenues and the problems related to the low price of the barrel as well as two lawsuits of importance to the state, one concluded (Southwest Royalties) and one pending (AMC).

As the granddaughter of a survivor of the Armenian genocide on my mother's side and of a single mother who raised two children on minimum wage in the French-occupied part of Berlin after the war on my father's side (which meant that some days my dad only had one slice of bread to eat), I have no doubt that education is what helped my parents get out of poverty. I'm not sure if people in the U.S. today would be able to do what my parents did in Europe because of the heavy price of higher education, but giving every kid a chance is a step in the right direction. The first step is, of course, to help every kid read proficiently so that he can take his chance later on if he wants, when he reaches an age where he can decide those things for himself. 

Rep. Johnson was quick-witted, engaging and friendly toward State Senator Kelly Hancock in spite of their ideological differences. A Harvard grad with graduates degrees from Penn and Princeton, he came across as a highly personable and articulate politician who could think fast and make his point across clearly and concisely while allowing himself a touch of humor here and there. I'm sure he'll continue to represent District 100 well and fully expect him to have a nationally prominent career. He certainly deserves it. 

The speakers also mentioned the arrivals of new companies in the state and the need to evaluate whether the exemptions they are receiving are working and having the intended effect. For instance Toyota is moving its headquarters to Plano and Facebook is building a new data center in North Fort Worth. The New York Times i ran an article about the state tax incentives about four years ago and that article continues to raise timely questions. It is a rather long but thought-provoking article that asks about the trade-off between companies gaining and schools losing in those tax package deals aiming at attracting businesses. More general information about state tax incentives is available here.  

@JohnsonForTexas @DRChamber


Amazon's new strategies +WaPo

The New York Times had an article today on how Amazon.com is quietly eliminating list prices. That might be true, but I've noticed something else: it offers different shipping options depending on where you ship, even when location is not a limiting factor. Put it another way, you may have fewer options if you're shipping to a big city because Amazon.com is trying to push you toward the options it wants you to pick and is making the "middle-of-the-road" options either less attractive or unavailable.

For instance, if you want to ship an item to a mid-size town in Pennsylvania, you have the option of two-day shipping for a fee, in addition to one-day shipping, Amazon Prime, standard shipping (which used to be a 3-day wait and now has turned into a 4 or 5 day wait) and free shipping (where you wait 5 to 8 days for your item). If you ship to a big city in Texas, on the other hand, you don't have the option of two-day shipping for a fee. You can do a trial of Amazon Prime/Amazon Student to receive two-day shipping or schedule a delivery to an Amazon Locker, but besides that your choices are either to pay for one-day/same-day shipping or wait longer than you wanted, if your usual willingness to wait is in the 2 to 3 day range. (Obviously if you don't mind waiting 5 days or more, you should bundle your orders to exceed the threshold for free shipping, which used to be $25 and is now $35.)

Interestingly, the one-day shipping fee (order by early afternoon [1pm?] and receive it the same day, otherwise receive it the next day) is - for many things - only a couple dollars more than the standard shipping fee, from what I've seen, which suggests that Amazon is trying to get customers used to quick delivery: find an item you like, add it to cart, get it delivered fast. A new source of revenue is then not volume as in the early days of Amazon but the added shipping fee. Because one-day delivery relies on courier services such as UPS, this also means that the next phase of Amazon's success may rely on partnerships with other companies. 

I also enjoyed reading a New York Magazine article on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's impact on the Washington Post. He seems to have an interesting business model, where first-person essays, lifestyle coverage, provocative headlines (in other words, everything that makes you worry that substantial journalism is going down the drain but creates web traffic) as well as his own money have funded investigative journalism. Under his leadership, WaPo has received two Pulitzer Prizes, one for national reporting and one for general nonfiction. While the credit goes first to the journalists who relentlessly pursued those stories, Bezos seems to have played an important role in changing the way the paper was perceived by moving its headquarters to new offices that resemble those of a tech startup and experimenting with software companies to, for instance, create a new web app. 

I think the strength of newspapers like WaPo is to provide context to current events. Too often, even online, it is a struggle to find related articles from the same publication unless the writer includes a link. The links at the bottom are often click-baits and everything about the next click after a story is finished is geared toward providing ad revenue. But a better use of web archives could help illuminate an article. Instead of scrolling down to read more inane comments, one could scroll down to read more related articles. A computer program could detect the keywords in the article or the key people interviewed and provide links to, say, the causes this politician has advocated for or previous headlines involving that company. Even if you want to read other coverage of similar topics by the same reporter, you often have to sift through many unrelated headlines.

I like the idea of new web apps, though. The Economist has something called Espresso, launched in November 2014, which delivers key news - "a concise morning briefing", as The Economist calls it - to the user's app every day so that it is easy to remain events of the big events, but when I've used it I've found it interesting for general culture yet not specific enough (because not allowing customization) to make itself indispensable. If WaPo could create such an app that would allow the user to  focus on specific areas, and deliver content suitable for quick reading yet accurate and giving the full picture of a situation, it could really emerge as the "newspaper of record" it dreams it'll become.