La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to michelledion.com/blog. Visit my other website.

Sunday, July 31, 2005




Mexicans prefer bribes to obeying the law

According to a study mentioned in a short news article, Mexicans prefer to "arreglar" or fix things rather than follow the law. Thirty-nine percent prefer extra-legal resolutions to problems.

This attitude is rational. When you can pay a US$5 bribe in 5 minutes with no chance of penalties for the bribe to avoid paying a $25 fine that will take 4 hours, you choose the bribe. Indeed, the best advice to get out of paying a bribe for a traffic violation is often to demand to go pay the fine. The argument is that the officer will not want to lose valuable bribe-time by waiting around the station for you to pay. It's a perfect example of poor institutional design leading individuals to find work-arounds. Explaining how such poor institutions lead to economic inefficiency and underdevelopment is, in part, how Douglass North earned a Nobel prize. And it makes sense.

Troubling, but not surprising, is the attitude Mexicans have about politicians.

38% agreed with the statement, "Un político pobre es un pobre político" [A politician's that's poor is a poor politician].

24% believed that honesty was the key to success in politics, compared to 43% who believed politicians had to be corrupt or very corrupt to succeed.

Such little trust in politicians and government is bound to have all sorts of negative effects on long-term democracy.


posted by Michelle @ 12:58 PM, 4 comments

Saturday, July 30, 2005




It costs a lot to look this good, or does it?

In many ways, Mexican politics can be just as mundane as politics in the U.S. Remember the controvery over Clinton's furniture? And then I seem to recall people getting riled up about how much the First Lady spent on a haircut.

In the last few weeks, the amount spent by Fox's First Lady on gowns has been a topic of debate in the press. The President gets an annual budget for galas, clothing, and related expenses (budget line item 3825). Over the last several years, it has increased, reaching $955,000 pesos (US$87,000) in 2003.

I'm thinking that $87K isn't really that much for a First Lady, especially when a pair of Nine West shoes that cost $65 in the U.S. cost $125 in Mexico.

Since the First Lady is such a well-dressed woman, critics have claimed that the First Lady has spent much more than her allowance on clothing, and they want to know where the money is coming from. The Congress has decided to elminate or reduce her allowance, and one legislator said "Versace will miss her."

Martha's response to all of this attention? "I buy my clothes with money my husband gives me." This, of course, is the only appropriate explanation a Mexican woman could give for her spending habits, even if she was a successful woman before her marriage.

This isn't the first time the Foxes have been criticized for their spending. Shortly after taking office, legislators criticized how much they spent on bath towels for the Mexican equivalent of the White House. Maybe this is the greatest accomplishment of Mexican democracy. The opposition can demand transparency in Los Pinos expenditures on things like towels, gowns, and dress shoes.

Of course, in a country with wide disparities in wealth and crushing poverty in the countryside, it does seem in bad taste to spend so lavishly.

Recently, the Martha Sahagun donated about US$30K of her cast-offs to a charity for children with cancer.


posted by Michelle @ 7:22 PM, 0 comments




Absentee voting for Mexicans

For those that follow Mexican politics closely, this will be stale news. Last month, President Fox signed into law a bill that will legalize absentee voting for Mexicans abroad via the postal service. The bill was hotly debated by all of the political parties and the postal service claimed it would not be able to handle the millions of ballots arriving from the U.S. About 98% of Mexicans living abroad live in the United States. It is estimated that half of the 4 million Mexicans living illegally AND legally in the United States will cast ballots in the Presidential election last year. In 2000, Mexicans had to travel back to their home district to cast ballots, and I have at least one friend who travelled from Austin to the D.F. to do so.

While some are concerned about keeping the vote free and fair while using the post, the PAN has been busy opening party offices in U.S. cities.

The implications are interesting. In markets with large populations of Mexican nationals, will parties run campaign ads? Eventually (e.g., 2012), will Mexican candidates make campaign stops in Chicago? How could Mexican officials possibly monitor such campaign spending?


posted by Michelle @ 7:13 PM, 0 comments




U.S. closes consulate in Nuevo Laredo

According to this story, the U.S. Dept of State has closed its Nuevo Laredo offices for the coming week in response to increased violence in the border town. The most recent shoot-out invloved bazookas and other big guns.

I've posted links to and summaries of news about border violence before.

Recent violence only reiterates a sentiment expressed by a police officer in Laredo, north of the border. In August, about 100 feet north of the bridge, either the local or state police had a roadblock checking drivers' licenses, etc. We asked the officer if he knew where we went on the other side to process our immigration paperwork.

His response: "Oh, I don't go over there. They kill for free over there."

He was right.


posted by Michelle @ 6:46 PM, 0 comments

Tuesday, July 26, 2005




Positive externalities

I've spent over 12 hours in the car since yesterday morning driving around Atlanta, looking at properties to rent. This means that posting will continue to be light, both in quantity and quality until I find a new home.

In the meantime, I offer the following for your consideration: a positive externality of being a professor is that most people believe professors are smart, honest, and responsible people. The reputation associated with professors is a positive externality of the profession.

I have two anecdotes to support this assertion. First, in a recent dispute with a VW service department in Texas, I believe my profession lent credibility to my claim that the dealership misrepresented its service record for my car to the corporate VW customer care office. The details are tedious and uninteresting.

Second, while looking for a property to rent these last 2 days, I sense that landlords are excited by the prospect of renting to a professor. Landlords usually ask what a potential renter does, and they get very eager to rent me their property when I tell them that I work at Tech. Is it because they assume that I am quiet and studious? Or because they are glad my employment is stable? Chris, did you have a similar experience during your trip to Durham?

What is driving that response among landlords? Will it work for speeding tickets? Will the positive externalities have lower marginal returns as I age and become more likely to have the reputation of an absent-minded professor?

Can anyone offer other examples of instances where the reputation associated with being a professor netted some unexpected benefit?


posted by Michelle @ 9:17 PM, 5 comments

Monday, July 25, 2005




Waiting in traffic

As I mentioned before, I spent three hours on the interstate to travel five miles on Saturday night. Inspired by a Beastie Boys song from Licensed to Ill on the radio, I began compiling a list of the concerts or national tour shows that I have attended. Below is that list. Excluded from the list are the numerous shows that I've seen because Brian knew someone in the band and that were small bands that Brian liked that no one but 5 hipsters in Austin would recognize.

In chronological order: (edits from Brian)

1983 Alabama, with Mom (Frank Erwin Center, Austin)
1983 Rick Springfield, with daughter of mom's friend (first show without adult) (Frank Erwin Center, Austin)
1984 Culture Club, with dad and his wife (I was HUGE fan; I think Dad was freaked out by all the cross-dressing Boy George impersonators) (Frank Erwin Center, Austin)
1986 Stryper (Don't ask about this one; you don't want to know)
[BEGIN JUNIOR HIGH]
1987 Beastie Boys (Fishbone opening), first with friends (Civic Center, Austin)
[BEGIN HIGH SCHOOL]
1989 R.E.M., first where friends drove (Frank Erwin Center, Austin)
1989 Depeche Mode
1989 New Order (Civic Center, Austin)
1990 Love and Rockets (some Amphitheatre, Berkeley)
1990? Billy Joel, with Mom (Frank Erwin Center, Austin)
1991 The Cure (Frank Erwin Center, Austin)
1991 10,000 Maniacs (Liberty Lunch, Austin)
1991 Violent Femmes (Liberty Lunch, Austin)
[BEGIN COLLEGE]
1992 Morrissey (Limelight, NYC)
1993 KRS-One (some tiny club, NYC)
1993 House of Pain, Cypress Hill, etc. (some big venue, NYC)
1994 NIN (Marilyn Manson opening) (Frank Erwin Center, Austin)
1994 The Cramps (Liberty Lunch, Austin)
1995 Melvins with L7 Halloween night (Liberty Lunch, Austin)
1996 R.E.M. (I think Radiohead opened) (The Backyard, Austin)
[BEGIN GRAD SCHOOL]
1996 Medeski, Martin and Wood (Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill)
1996 Melvins (L7 opening) (Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill)
1997 The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill)
1998 Junior Brown (Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill)
1998 Los Von Von (Maraka, Mexico City)
1999 Omara Portuondo (small cultural center, Mexico City)
1999 The Cramps (Cat's Cradle, Chapel Hill)
2000 Omara Portunondo (Performing Arts Center, Austin)
2000 Gran Silencio (Aterciopelados opening) (some club, San Antonio)
2001-2002 series of local shows in Austin
[END GRAD SCHOOL; BEGIN FACULTY]
2004 Very good blues guy whose name I can't remember Paul Jones and T Model Ford (SXSW Antone's , Austin)
2005 Cafe Tacuba (Stubb's, Austin)

Shows that I've missed that would have liked to have seen:
The Smiths (broke up as I became a fan), Public Enemy (broke up before I became a fan), Prince, 3rd Bass, Johnny Cash (had 3rd row tix, but had final next day; Brian took his brother)

Shows that I would like to see:
Peter Gabriel and Los Tigres del Norte (obviously, not on the same bill...though that could be interesting)

I'm sure Brian will have had lots of corrections. As it was, over the course of the hour in traffic, I kept remembering new shows that I had forgotten.


posted by Michelle @ 11:10 AM, 2 comments

Sunday, July 24, 2005




Academic mail

Below is a picture of the mail that an Assistant Professor is likely to receive in one year. This mail excludes random fliers and junk mail that our administrative assistant so deftly edited out of the pile.

IMG_3191

And this is the mail after it has been opened or sorted.

IMG_3193

Clockwise from the top, the piles represent:
journals, newsletters, and other subscriptions (excluding GT newsletters);
box of reprints of a published article;
fliers and catalogues from book publishers;
(mostly) unsolicited textbook samples; and
real mail (1/2 of which are official copies of grant proposals I submitted during the last year).


posted by Michelle @ 2:01 PM, 2 comments




It's nice to feel loved

Tonight, I arrived in Atlanta, only three hours behind schedule due to a fatal accident on I-75 just 20 minutes South of Atlanta. [The accident happened sometime during daylight hours, but it took me from 8pm to 11pm to clear the 5 miles before the accident.] In situations like that, while you are merely inconvenienced, you can't help but think that's minor compared to the effect whatever is causing the delay will have on those directly involved.

Arriving back to my office at midnight, I found that it had been turned into a storage area and that a computer was attached to my monitor for someone (else) to use. Nice. Makes it feel like home. So much for getting to work tomorrow. Does that mean I am excused from work? Can I go play?

IMG_3192 IMG_3190 IMG_3189


posted by Michelle @ 2:27 AM, 0 comments

Thursday, July 21, 2005




Austin Harry Potter party

Last Friday, I went at midnight to get my copy of HP and the Half Blood Prince at BookPeople, an independent bookstore (which means I paid full price for the book, much to the amusement of my mom who saw it at Sam's the next day for $17).

Brian has a set of some pics. Richard Linklater (of Slackers, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and Bad News Bears fame) was there filming. I almost asked him to sign my HP book. I don't know what he was filming for, but he had quite a crew.



Brian has a Flickr set with some dark (literally) pictures.

I finished HP6 last night. I won't spoil it for you, but I did almost cry during the last two chapters.

Also recently added to Brian's Flickr are pictures of Cafe Tacuba live. Did I mention that they rocked?


posted by Michelle @ 10:31 PM, 0 comments

Tuesday, July 19, 2005




Brief hiatus

Posting will be minimal to non-existent for the rest of the week. Over the weekend, we had an unexpected, but pleasant, visit from my mother's parents. Tomorrow, I leave for Tallahassee for the Methods meeting. By Sunday, I should be back in Atlanta to look for a place to live.


posted by Michelle @ 3:16 PM, 0 comments

Thursday, July 14, 2005




Freakonomics

Yesterday, I finished reading Freakonomics. Before I comment on the book, I should admit that I found myself continually telling Brian about different stories and data from the book. As promised in the introduction, the book does provide a good deal of cocktail party fodder. Beyond that, it provides some dumbed-down summaries of economic research done by Levitt and other economists. It's a light and very short read; it's interesting and entertaining. Rather than write a full book review, I will offer some general comments and observations.

I'm sure it's a marketing ploy by the publisher, but I question labeling Levitt a "rogue" economist. Other economists, even those cited in the book, research off-beat topics. See also.

It's not like Levitt is challenging or questioning economics fundamentals or work by esteemed economists. [In this regard, I'd say Krugman is more of a rogue; rogues make enemies.] I'd bet almost any economist could outsmart the conventional wisdom.

The clever part of Levitt's approach is bucking the academic system to turn economics on everyday or non-economic questions. The fact that he has good economics establishment credentials gives him the freedom to ask and answer those questions. Levitt is clearly very much part of the economics establishment. He went from undergrad to full professor in an elite department in less than a decade. That's certainly impressive, but not roguish. (I suspect if an untenured econ prof at a mid-range state school tried to study similar questions it would be considered a waste of time rather than clever.)

Levitt and Dubner really do try to explain economic principles and research in a way that non-economists and non-social scientists can understand. I think they succeed at doing that. I'm thinking the book would make a good gift for my dad, and I plan to recommend the 3-4 page description of regression analysis to my graduate (master's) methods class in the fall.

They also try to cover a variety of topics that many non-academics would find interesting: cheating, real estate, the KKK, gangs, crime, child car seats, guns, swimming pools, and baby names. Each topic is presented in a similar fashion: a couple of anecdotes followed by summaries of economic research by Levitt or others.

Sometimes the anecdotes are interesting. Sometimes not. Sometimes they help demonstrate the point. Sometimes not. For instance, the authors want to demonstrate that one of the principle goals of the Klan as an organization was to generate income through dues and robe sales. They present surprising data that lynchings declined in the U.S. at the same time that Klan membership began to rise. This is used to support the claim that the KKK served other purposes.

Then, the authors digress into an interesting, but not relevant, discussion of how Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Klan and provided the producers of the Superman radio program with the code words and secret handshakes of the Klan in an effort to discredit the organization. Interesting, but not directly related to their argument. [Listen to the interview on This American Life about this part of the book and Stetson Kennedy.] Stetson Kennedy is certainly important because he provided information on the dues of the Klan and hurt the organization's ability to recruit, but I'm not sure the digression really supports their argument.

Returning to the data, the authors present annual lynching data (page 61) and indicate that there is no correlation between growing Klan membership and declining lynching rates. Initially, I was surprised by the lynching numbers. My general impression was that lynching was still a problem into the 1950s, and I found it problematic that the definition of lynching for their data was not clearly defined. Lynchings drastically declined dramatically after the 1940s. Research on lynchings suggests that the decline in the 1940s was in part a result of the national debates and federal anti-lynching laws proposed in 1938/1939 in the national Congress. An interesting NPR segment interviews an Af-Am scholar on this topic. (As an aside, the data mentioned by the interviewed scholar differs from that presented in Freakonomics.) Freakonomics does not discuss or mention the research explaining the decline in lynchings. Nor do the authors acknowledge that perhaps the Klan (in addition to dues-generating) was more about intimidation and fear, which was quite possible without lynching. By using the drastic decline in lynching numbers to support their claim that the Klan was about making money, they underestimate the extent to which the Klan engaged in other reprehensible activities. In some ways, it seems that using the lynching data to make their argument about the other organizational goals of the KKK is misleading. (Dr. History does a better job explaining this lynching data problem.)

In other parts of the book, the presentation of the data is ambiguous. For authors who are trying to explain or discount the conventional wisdom using hard data, it seems unlikely that such ambiguities are accidental. Take, for instance, the following section where the authors discuss crack and crime rates:
The violence associated with crack began to ebb in about 1991. This had led many people to think that crack itself went away. It didn't. Smoking crack remains much more popular today than most people realize. Nearly 5 percent of all arrests in the United States are still related to cocaine (as against 6 percent at crack's peak); nor have emergency room visits for crack users diminished all that much. (134)
Now, the authors have just spent several pages explaining how crack is different from powder cocaine. Crack is a rock created from baking powder cocaine with other ingredients. Crack is cheaper than powder cocaine. Crack had a different clientele than powder cocaine. Then, why do the authors use data regarding overall cocaine arrests to suggest that crack cocaine is still popular? What they need to present is data on crack arrests. It could be that overall cocaine-related arrests have not declined, but the composition of those arrests (i.e., powder vs. crack) could have changed in the 1990s. How we know that crack use didn't decline while powder use (and arrests) among dot-com millionaires or others enjoying rising incomes in the 1990s increased? A plausible hypothesis could be that economic growth and rising incomes in the 1990s led to an increase in powder cocaine use and crack decline, while the overall cocaine arrest rate changed very little. In any event, the data do not necessarily support the argument. Such statements are why we try to teach our students not to lie with statistics and how to spot such lies in the press.

Here's another example of data presented to support their argument that left me asking many questions about the data:
In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn't even close.(149-150)
In a country with 6 million residential pools? Who knows? One child killed for every million-plus guns? Are those only privately-owned guns? Does it include legal or illegal? And the 200 million gun estimate? Are those legal or illegal? Are those privately-owned? I'm not sure these data can be used to support this conclusion. You need to compare the likelihood of accidental drowning to accidental shooting in the home. To do that, you need to have data on those deaths and residential pools. You need to have data on accidental shooting deaths (excluding those of intentional homicide) and guns in the home. Maybe that's what these data are, but it's certainly not clear from the presentation.

These are just two examples from the book that left the scratching my head. They seem symptomatic of the way journalists (mis)use data to justify an argument. It wouldn't have hurt readability of the book that much to be a little more careful with data presentation, especially since the point of the book is to use data to question conventional wisdom.

These criticisms aside, I liked the book. It was interesting. I found myself telling Brian about most of the main points in the book. I'm sure Levitt is really smart. I'm sure Dubner is a good journalist. It had a nice beat that I could dance to. I'd give it a 8 out of 10. Krugman, however, is still my favorite economist to read for pleasure.

[I'd like to know what Bitch, Ph.D. thinks of the abortion-crime rate argument. A search for Freakonomics and Levitt didn't turn up a hit on her site.]

See also this interesting discussion on Crooked Timber. Should have read it before I wrote my post, but "oh well."


posted by Michelle @ 1:35 PM, 6 comments




Shame on you

You should know better.

Professor Nokes notes:
I notice I'm in last place for linked academic blogs in The Truth Laid Bear Academy Community. Just one question -- what's the deal with all the law and politics academic bloggers? Given just how much more we read and write in any given day, you'd think there'd be more good literary academic bloggers. Of course, there are some, but the field seems dominated by law and politics guys.
Uh-hummmm. "Guys"? Really, now. You were speaking figuratively, right?

In the meantime, maybe this link will give you a small boost. (smile)

Thanks, Paul, for bringing Nokes to our attention; we might not have noticed this post since he was in last place. You are a generous blogger to take note of lesser beings. (smile) [Note: This post should also help keep the politics 'guys' like Paul nearer the top of the list]


posted by Michelle @ 1:02 PM, 5 comments

Wednesday, July 13, 2005




Advertising and women in Mexico

A recent study by a Mexican professor at UNAM suggests that advertising in Mexico reinforces the subordinate position of women by including them only as adornments to men and not in productive or paid employment.

I commented on this problem with particular reference to the large department store, Palacio de Hierro.


posted by Michelle @ 2:35 PM, 0 comments




Divisions within the PRI continue

The divisions within the formerly ruling party of Mexico, the PRI, continue, which will delay the President of the Party (Madrazo) from stepping down to run for the party's nomination for President of Mexico. The delay is related to on-going discussions with La Maestra, Gordillo, and her supporters within the party.

For a little background, read my earlier post.


posted by Michelle @ 2:30 PM, 0 comments




Mexico City Gay Pride Parade

The parade was June 25, but I have finally gotten around to uploading the 100+ pictures that I took. (Beware: Some nudity.)



The first gay march in Mexico City was in 1979. Initially, the march was a political protest, where demands for rights and respect were paramount. In the last few years, the march has become more of a parade (which is evident in the pictures), and many of the trucks are sponsored by gay nightclubs, websites, or magazines. Most activist groups still march in the parade as well, including some that would have it regain some of its solemnity and protest-flavor.



In particular, some carried banners singling out Coke Mexico and the Bimbo bread company for discrimination. The Bimbo claim is based on the company's decision to pull advertising from radio stations that aired government public service announcements aimed as promoting open dialogue about homosexuality. The PSAs were an effort of the health ministry to fight the spread of AIDS. The government publicity campaign was also aimed at increasing public acceptance of homosexuality in general. Studies suggested that the spread of AIDS was due in part to an unwillingness of some people with homosexual practices to acknowledge such practices and the risks involved. Others hide their sexuality for fear of discrimination and hate crimes.


posted by Michelle @ 1:58 PM, 1 comments




(Avoiding) Crime in Mexico City

Or "Surviving Mexico City as a short, blonde gringa."

This article in La Jornada makes two important points regarding kidnappings in Mexico City. First, the overall number of kidnappings is in decline. Second, kidnappers are now more likely to kidnap students without much research into their family's ability to pay. No longer do kidnappers research families and kidnap the wealthiest victims. Kidnapping has become a crime against middle-class and even some working-class families. Kidnappers have been known to demand as little as US$1000, though for a working class family it could represent several months wages.

I now have the good fortune of having lived in Mexico City on three separate ocasions for a total of over three years. I have also had the good fortune to have never been a victim of violent crime (and I knock on wood as I say this). The U.S. State Department maintains a page with information for those travelling to Mexico, including a special announcement regarding violence along the border. They also have tips for travellers to Mexico, updated May 2005.

To this information, I thought I would add my own suggestions for a safe trip to Mexico City, or "How I survived Mexico City as a short blonde gringa without being assulted":

1. Never, ever, ever take a cab off the street. Especially, never, ever, ever take a street cab in a touristy area or one waiting outside a mall or movie theatre that is not part of a taxi stand. Always use a site cab or call a cab. These cost more, but your safety is worth it. (Some Taximex cabbies speak English, and when my mom left her jacket in a Taximex cab, we were able to get it back.)

2. Only use ATMs inside Sanborn's or large grocery stores.

3. If you must do business at a bank or use a bank ATM, go to the bank before 10AM and immediately take your cash home with you.

4. If you must carry large sums of cash between the ATM and your home, stick it in your bra; this is what middle-aged Mexican women do. (Sorry, men, I don't know where you would put it.)

5. Whenever possible, do not carry your ATM card (or credit cards) with you.

6. Keep less than $250 in the checking account that you access with your ATM card. Ask your bank to disconnect your savings account from your ATM, and use internet or phone banking to transfer funds to your checking account when you need to withdraw them. (The logic of this? If you get express kidnapped with your ATM card, your balance will not justify keeping you overnight to make a second day withdrawal. Most ATMs will allow up to US$300 withdrawal per day.)

7. On public transit, carry two wallets or a wallet and a change purse. Keep about $US10 in the change purse and make it easy to give up in a hold-up of the bus. Keep large sums of cash at home or in your bra. (Merchants don't blink twice when a woman removes money from her bra.)

8. Look grumpy and mean at all times, especially if you're short, blonde, and perky.

9. Carry pepper spray if you walk alone at night. If you can't bring it with you (given airline restrictions), buy a personal can at Wal-Mart or other large chain store in Mexico. It is usually in the automotive or hardware department.

10. Take buses instead of the Metro. In the Metro, people always stared and assumed I was a tourist. On buses, no one ever paid any attention to me. The bus system is so crazy and confusing that only a local would know how to use it. Having said that, the bus system is suprising logical. If there is a very large avenue with buses going up and down it, then the buses probably don't turn off the avenue and just go up and down it. If you need to go somewhere beyond the Metro system, you take the Metro to the nearest endpoint, and then ask for the bus that goes where you need to go.

11. Do not carry your passport and visa, but carry a copy of both.


posted by Michelle @ 12:43 PM, 2 comments




Cafe Tacuba rocks

Really. They rock live. See them live whenever possible.



posted by Michelle @ 12:39 PM, 0 comments

Tuesday, July 12, 2005




More on the PRI

According to stories in todays La Jornada, tensions over Gordillo assuming the Presidency of the party when Madrazo leaves to become its presidential candidate have delayed Madrazo's departure, while Madrazo claims no group is trying to block Gordillo within the PRI.


Archive photo of Gordillo from La Jornada


posted by Michelle @ 2:48 PM, 0 comments




Now they're catching on

Last week, I discussed the social security conflict in Mexico. I suggested that the administration was pursuing a strategy designed to hurt the union's public image to create pressures to revise the union's collective contract pension benefits. I also suggested that the IMSS was de facto privatizing more services as part of the conflict and that ultimately the goal seemed to be a threat to privatize social security (including health care services) entirely. When I mentioned these possibilities several weeks ago during an interview with one of the union's leaders, he suggested that I was exagerating a bit.

Today, however, the Secretary General of the union made just these claims against the IMSS administration.

[I don't claim union leaders in my readership because 1. I saw nearly no computers in the union offices and 2. I have had no unexplained visitors from the D.F. lately.]

In any event, the closer I follow day-to-day Mexican politics, the simpler it seems. Like the desafuero conflict, most political conflicts follow fairly simple scripts with straightforward outcomes.


posted by Michelle @ 2:16 PM, 0 comments

Monday, July 11, 2005




Upcoming Mexican elections

From the title of the post, you might think they are upcoming this month or this year. But, no. I'm referring to the July 2006 presidential elections, and all the interested actors are well into their pre-campaign campaigns. Formal conventions will be at the end of this summer, and political parties must legally turn in their candidate lists in December.

In the meantime, the two parties with the greatest chance of winning in 2006 are struggling to keep themselves together.

Tensions have been high in the PRI for a while since the statutes state that if the President of the Party steps down, the Secretary General takes his/her place. Madrazo is going to step down to try to become the PRI's candidate in 2006, which means that Elba Esther would become President, and that's not acceptable for many PRIistas. (Liks to articles from last March.) Apparently, some sort of deal has been worked out to allow Gordillo to become President of the PRI when Madrazo steps down, and her supporters are threatening to leave the party if others do not respect the agreement. Gordillo is the head of the powerful teacher's union and has a considerable political following. At the same time, however, she's a bit like feta cheese, you either really like her or you really don't.

The PRD is having problems, too. Since AMLO is likely to become the official PRD candidate for 2006, Cardenas and his supporters have been saying things that dismay other party officials. Cardenas plans to build an alliance with or without the PRD and other parties have mentioned nominating him as their candidate, which has several groups worried.

And why have I singled out these two parties as those with the best chances in 2006? Because the PRI has a reputation of getting things done, even if not always in the most democratic way, and people in Mexico have become obsessed with "governability." Many think the PRI is the only party pragmatic and powerful enough to produce results. On the other hand, the PRD has a charismatic leader in Lopez Obrador who has a number of supporters and has been good at building new support within and without the party.

The PAN, for better or worse, has to live with Fox's (lack of) record; his government just hasn't been able to negotiate many of the reforms that he promised in 2000. The PAN's frontrunner for the nomination, former Secretary of State Creel, has been criticized bitterly for the gambling permits and other issues he handled during his tenure. The PAN is a longshot for 2006.


posted by Michelle @ 3:18 PM, 0 comments




Against my better judgment

Several blogs have responded to the Chronicle article about academic bloggers.

The reactions run from indignation to an acceptance that this is how academia works. In my own case, I find that I am in that vulnerable position of being an untenured faculty member with a non-anonymous blog, the most dangerous of all blog types. Maybe, but maybe not. It all depends on how you use your blog, I think. (Of course, since I'm not on the market, I don't know this for sure.)

In any event, the flurry of discussion on blogs and the academic job market has got me wondering what potential employers might think about my blog. If they dug through my archives, would they find out that I'm not worth hiring? I'm not so sure.

They'd definitely get a better sense of me as a person. As it is, I find it really interesting that most visitors from university IPs to my homepage go first to the "About me" page, and then after looking at all the pics of my dog, they finally make their way to my "research" page. At least with my blog, they get a more complete sense of "me." Maybe only those that need to hide their true selves should be worried about their blog "outing" their nasty personalities.

On the other hand, I, probably like many other non-pseudonymous academic bloggers, don't post every random thought or idea on my blog. My rants are confined to the Mexican bureaucracy and ugly eyebrow piercings, never my colleagues or other academics.

[...which leads me to another observation I've thought about lately. There seem to be two (maybe three) types of academic blogs:

1. Non-anonymous blogs that usually focus on public issues with only occasional mention of personal events (the birth of a baby, maybe a movie). Would any of these really hurt an academic on the job market? According to Ivan Tribble, yes. But it shouldn't be so.

2. Anonymous blogs by academics that usually focus on personal rants, pets, and strange goings-ons, but that have little academic content. There's a reason these are anonymous.

3. Anonymous blogs that blend #2 with #1, and here, I'm thinking specifically of Bitch, PhD.

What I think is more interesting is that blogs of the #1 type tend to be by men, while blogs of the #2 and #3 type tend to be by women. In part, this is why I decided to try the #1 route, though the academic commentary has been lite of late, given our move back to the states.]

I think Dan was right when he said that non-bloggers over estimate the amount of time a blog takes. Once you get it up and running, it becomes much easier. In my case, the blog hasn't taken time away from my article writing mainly because it has taken the place of TV watching or novel reading. I blog when I can no longer work and seldom instead of work. It's also been a useful way for me to keep up with Mexican politics for my research and comment on what was happening in Mexico while I was there. It's even suggested new areas of research (non-blog research) for the future.

In my case, I don't think the blog will affect tenure at Tech. Whether it would hurt me on the market, I can only guess. I know I have googled our job candidates, but I don't think my colleagues do. I'll let you know in a few years, though.


posted by Michelle @ 2:28 PM, 5 comments




Mexican field work

No, I don't mean work in the real fields. I mean doing research on the ground in Mexico. Since I'm at the end of my Fulbright time, I thought I would post some advice regarding doing research, mainly elite interviews, in Mexico. Most would probably apply to research in other Latin American countries.

In no particular order:

1. Plan on everything taking twice as long as it would in the U.S., and then add another 20% for good measure. Seriously.

2. Bring lots of business cards, preferably with your Mexican cell phone number. You will be giving them away to anyone who will take one.

3. Buy a cell phone, so potential interviewees can cancel at the last minute and you don't find yourself in the middle of Tlalpan at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning with nothing to do.

4. Use your title, even if it's only Licenciada/o or Maestra/o because if you don't, the Mexicans will assume you don't have a title. And therefore, you are not important. Put your title on your business cards.

5. Hire a (Mexican) research assistant to make all your appointments, even if it's just your roommate. All important people have assistants, and if you have to make your own phone calls, you are obviously not important and not worth granting an interview.

6. Always have your assistant confirm your interview the day before. Have your assistant give them your cell phone number for any cancellations.

7. Arrive early for interviews, and plan to wait. Bring your pocketPC with downloaded news or newspaper to read while you wait. Legislators and bureaucrats tend to be on time; labor leaders are notoriously late and poorly organized.

8. Be nice (but formal) to the secretaries; they are important gate-keepers.

9. Understand that hierarchy matters in Mexico. A contact will suggest you interview subordinates or equals, but will rarely suggest you interview their boss. It is best to try for interviews as high as possible in the hierarchy you are trying to penetrate. If they reject you at the very top, give them a convenient out by offering to meet with one of their subordinates.

10. Despite #9, it is often a waste of time to interview the very highest person in an organization. They will rarely tell you the truth. Instead, try for the group of leaders just below the top person, e.g., the CEN of a political party or union or subdirectors in a bureaucracy.

11. In addition to #s 9 and 10, try to interview retired politicians, bureaucrats, etc. They have little to lose if they are really retired, and more time to tell you the real dirt. Besides, it's nice to hear about old times and you get to see their fancy houses and cool art collections.

12. Read the newspaper everyday, especially if you are interested in current events in addition to things that happened 5-60 years ago. This will enable you to politely correct people when they try to lie to you by saying you read a different version in the paper. If you're interviewing the left or union leaders, refer to La Jornada. If you're interviewing the right or business leaders, refer to what you read in Reforma.

13. Smile. A lot. Be nice and friendly. If you are a man, shave. If you are a woman, wear lipstick. Practice your handshake. (Feminists need not be offended....if you are trying to work in a macho society, you have to play along.) I have had several interviews that began by the person telling me that had another commitment and could only spare 15 minutes and that ended over an hour or two later. If interviewees like you, they will be more likely to talk to you longer. (I think being short and non-threatening may help in this one instance, too.)

14. Be prepared to chat about Mexican politics in general, how you like Mexico ("It's great" "The people are wonderful"), and U.S. politics. In my case, since I study social security, many Mexicans wanted to know whether I thought Bush would be able to privatize pensions in the U.S. Most of my interviews ended with cocktail party chatter.

15. Realize that your interviewees may talk to each other about you, even if you think that they are too important to care or bother. You must always may a good impression and seem well-informed, discreet, and prepared.

16. Don't believe everything they tell you in interviews. Remember, these are political people who will always have their own agenda. Have a healthy dose of skepticism. It helps if you know enough about who you are interviewing (and their political connections) to be able to know where their allegiances lie.

That's all I can think of for now.


posted by Michelle @ 1:08 PM, 0 comments

Friday, July 08, 2005




Books I bought today

In anticipation of being back home, today I bought (in no particular order):

Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby (because I've wanted it for a while)

A long way down, Nick Hornby (because I like his other books and enjoyed the Fresh Air interview)

Freakonomics (because I felt like I should see what all the fuss is about)

Southtown, Riordan (because I like mysteries based in places I know, like San Antonio)

Texas Hold 'Em, Kinky Friedman (because I want to read it, but could pretend I was buying it for Brian instead of myself)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (because Hermione is my hero!)


posted by Michelle @ 9:39 PM, 1 comments

Thursday, July 07, 2005




I tried to warn them

Social security tensions are heating up again in Mexico. Over the last two months, I have been interviewing folks to update my book manuscript on social security policy in Mexico. Those interviews have been with IMSS (the equivalent of the U.S. SSA) representatives, leaders of the IMSS union and other unions, and business representatives. (Here are earlier posts on the issue.)

A central point of contention during the last three years has been the labor contract between the IMSS and its unionized workers (including doctors and nurses). Because the union failed to approve a revision to its pension scheme, the IMSS administration (with the support of other unions and employer organizations) sought a reform in 2004 to the social security law to modify the pension system for new workers and enable the IMSS administration to freeze hiring, if deemed necessary. Since the reform, the union sought an injunction against the law and the IMSS has stopped hiring new personnel until the dispute is resolved.

What was my warning? Well, based upon what I had learned from interviews, reading the news, and the history of privatizations in Mexico, I suggested to several of my interviewees that the August 2004 laid the ground work for the IMSS to harden its negotiations with the union and threaten bankruptcy of the IMSS if the union did not concede reforms to its labor contract. Social security union leaders suggested that I was exaggerating. We'll see.

Essentially, the IMSS administration with the support of unions and employers organizations have frozen hiring. This creates hardships for beneficiaries that have to wait longer for service, and the IMSS can blame the union for such delays. They point to delays in service and ask beneficiaries why the union should have such good benefits for such poor service. It's a campaign to move public opinion against the union.

Then, as part of its annual report to the Executive, last week the IMSS issued a report detailing the financial woes of the Institute. The major culprit, according to the report? The retirement scheme of the IMSS labor contract. The labor contract threatens the entire financial viability of social security, according to the report. [Nevermind decades of fiscal mismanagement under the PRI and a reform in 1995 that further weakened the financial resources of the IMSS.]

This fall, the labor contract between the Institute and its workers is set to be revised again. The union leadership is trying to convince its rank-and-file to accept a revision to their pensions, but the rank-and-file is fairly radicalized. In the press, the union leadership is criticizing the new financial report and the threats that IMSS will be bankrupt. Other unions have voiced their criticisms as well.

If we think about what Francisco Zapata has taught us about the process of privatization in Mexico, the IMSS case seems to share many characteristics with the government strategy to privatize state-owned enterprises during the Salinas regime. First, you try to reduce costs by negotiating new labor contracts. If the union resists, you threaten them with bankruptcy. In the end, the union often gives in. And if not, you bankrupt the enterprise, fire all the workers, and then sell the assets.


posted by Michelle @ 3:02 PM, 0 comments




Courts getting involved in pensions, too

Remember when I mentioned the increasing importance of the Mexican court system?

Well, in a small article, it's mentioned that the Supreme Court has also recently intervened to help decide which benefits constitute part of a worker's salary for the calculation of pension benefits.


posted by Michelle @ 2:55 PM, 0 comments




How to eat fried worms

How to eat fried worms was one of my favorite books as a kid. These days, kids watch the same video over and over. When I was little, I must have read How to eat fried worms about 20 times. Another favorite was Chocolate Fever.

I've just found out that they are making How to eat fried worms into a movie, and they are filming it in my hometown, Austin.

It's a story about a 5th grade boy who bets that he can eat a worm a day for (I don't remember how) many days. He tries ketchup and mustard, and all other sorts of methods.


posted by Michelle @ 2:46 PM, 0 comments

Tuesday, July 05, 2005




Sex shops in the D.F.

I always find Spanglish interesting. I've mentioned the Spanglish in Mexican baseball before. In this case, I find it interesting that when Mexicans discuss stores that sell pornography and related sex toys, they call them (in English) "sex shops." Strip bars are called "table dance," again in English.

Why, exactly, are the names of these places of vice left in their English? Why are they not translated? If I were in a border town, I would think that it is because most of the sex shops and table dances cater to foreigners. In Mexico City, however, most tourists aren't here for sex shops or table dances. Are the names of these places left in English in an effort to distance them from Mexican culture? Somehow, if we leave the name in English, it will imply that these stores and bars are not for us, but for them? I'm not sure, but I'd guess linguists would have an interesting interpretation.

This topic occurred to me because the leftist paper here has an article on the growing number of sex shops in the D.F. and their ambiguous legal status.

I thought I also might relate my own inadvertent visit to a sex shop in the D.F. Inadvertent, because I didn't know that's where I was going when I went there.

Last fall, when we moved to the D.F., I decided to try to buy a used couch. I called various people in the want-ads and talked to a nice woman who had a futon for sale. She gave me her address, which was nearby and not in a shady part of town at all. She mentioned that she lived above her store. That, also, did not seem unusual.

One Saturday morning, I walked to go look at the couch. The address turned out to be a sex shop. The first floor was movies and toys. The second floor was small numbered cabins. I could only imagine their use. She lived on the third floor in a small apartment with two pit bulls. She then mentioned that her futon had only been used as a bed, never as a couch. It did not have sheets when I saw it. I thanked her for her time and said I would have to discuss it with my husband. And quickly left.

My Mexican friends always find this story really funny. I'm not sure why. Maybe because they can't imagine me in a place like that, and they like to embarrass me by having me tell the story to new friends.

In any event, this woman who owns the sex shop that I visited is apparently a rarity. According to the news article, most of those shops are owned by men.


posted by Michelle @ 9:22 PM, 0 comments

Friday, July 01, 2005




Even lighter posting

Posting has been light due to a heavy amount of informant interviewing and general mayhem here in Mexico City.

When I get back to posting on Tuesday, expect photos from Mexico's gay pride parade (last weekend) and comments on academic life in Mexico vs. the U.S., graduation ceremonies in Mexico, and some reflection on the interviews I've done lately.

This photo is from the Mexican artisan market.


posted by Michelle @ 8:47 AM, 2 comments

Mexico City slideshow

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