The Texas Tribune’s Prison Inmate Database

Once again, the Texas Tribune has put together a great database for us to play in. The database allows the user to look at who commits what kind of crime and where they get sent.

Incarceration rate by county

To me, this looks like a great foundation for a research assignment. Easily available data means that we can ask our students to look at who are those 12,957 people convicted of driving under the influence three or more times. It turns out there are many more men (12,334) than women (623) while almost half (6,356) are white, 43% 5632 are Hispanic, and only 7% (922) are Black.

You can look at each criminal offense who was in prison for that offense and for how long. For example, 100% of the offenders incarcerated for carrying a prohibited weapon were men (Texas women never carry prohibited weapons?) and sentences for that offense ranged from 276 inmates serving 5 years or less to 51 inmates serving more than 40 years. You can also look at each prison (at least a satellite view) and what kind of crimes their prisoners have committed.

My favorite finding so far? Check out the incarceration rate by county. I still haven’t figured out what’s going on with Marion County.

The battleship on the battlefield

For generations the visitors to the battlefield at San Jacinto have found the Battleship Texas parked on the edge of the water. Recently, the Friends of the San Jacinto Battleground have led the charge to ship the Battleship Texas off to a new location. According to a story in the Dallas Morning News (“Lines are drawn over plans for Battleship Texas at San Jacinto state historic park“) argue that this is needed because the Battleship Texas Foundation has a plan for dry-berthing the battleship so that it can be protected from further damage by the water. The plan also calls for a new visitors center and a replica 1940s-era wharf around the ship. While the champions of the battlefield believe that the battleship should be towed to another location, state park officials say there’s no suitable location nearby.

The question is whether sharing the space conflicts or complements the history of the battlefield and the battleship. One can hardly blame advocates of the battlefield for reservations about the arrangement. It is hard to overlook a battleship. Clearly, the presence of the battleship transforms the feel of the battlefield. However, the same can be said for the San Jacinto monument itself. The monument (built by the Public Works Administration project and dedicated in 1939) towers 570 feet  above the battlefield and has a museum (complete with gift shop) at its base.

Aboard the Battleship Texas

My first visit to the Battleship Texas in 1970

The Battleship Texas was decommissioned and made a museum in 1948. Visitors have been roaming the battleship and share one of the few opportunities to get a real feel for living and serving on a battleship.

Like many Texans that visited over the last six decades, I’ve taken the pairing of these two monuments to Texas for granted. Could the San Jacinto battlefield be restored to something like its state at the time of the battle? Perhaps. However, the chemical plants that surround the park will never allow visitors to escape to the days of the Texas Revolution. In fact, few Texans walk the battlefield today as most prefer to rely on the view of the battlefield from the observation deck of the monument.

Texas history is never as well-preserved as we might like. Today, what remains of Alamo is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. The visitor gets almost no feel for that battle. Still, visitors stream to the Alamo and don’t seem to need the full battlefield to appreciate the sacrifice made there.

Texas electric rates

Is Reddy Kilowatt running wild in Texas?

The Fort Worth Star Telegraph has a long article that looks at electric rates in Texas and why our rates are different from other states. The Public Utility Commission provides Texans with the Power to Choose web site that shows the different rate plans available.

There are (at least) two interesting issues reflected in the article.

One issue is the value of deregulation. Certainly, Texans have not fully realized great savings from the deregulation of electricity in Texas. However, some of that failure may result from the failure of consumers to shop around for electrical rates. In consumers’ defense, the plan offered present a number of dilemmas for Texans as they weigh the implication of fixed rate plans with large ($150 seems typical) cancellation fees with variable rate plans that leave them subject to the dramatic shifts that can occur when demand increases in heat of the Texas summer. Enough consumers have probably wandered into problems with complex cell phone plans and don’t relish additional risks.

Another issue is Texas’ resistance to tying into the national power grid. On one hand, remaining out of the national power grid allows Texas energy produces to avoid some federal regulations. At the same time, tying into the grid would allow Texas providers to sell surplus electricity when they have surplus capacity and buy electricity when there are shortages. Maintaining excess capacity can be expensive and the bill for maintaining excess capacity is passed on to consumers.

The problem with politics

One of the problems in politics is that people feel free to say whatever is politically expedient at the moment.

Tom Pauken is a good example. In a series of articles (promoting his new book) in the Texas Tribune, Pauken takes aim at George W. Bush. Pauken whines that “George W. Bush Was No Ronald Reagan,” complains about being “Bamboozled by the Establishment,” and rails against “Big Government Conservatism.”

Arrogance is easy. I cut back on exercising it so generously from behind the classroom podium over a decade ago. I accepted that it’s easy to pretend to be smarter than the president if you are sniping from the wings. A little modesty doesn’t hurt and it’s easy to rail against a president when you know that you’re of so little consequence that you’ll never see you ideas turn into action. There’s always room in America for criticism. However, some is so self serving and pitiful that it shouldn’t pass without comment.

Like many Americans, I’ve grown weary of those people who loudly proclaim that it’s completely unacceptable when the president’s agreement with them is anything less than complete and enthusiastic. Most us have outgrown throwing a tantrum if we don’t get exactly what we want. Quit the constant crying. Our constitutional arrangement requires compromises. If anything, the fact that Pauken doesn’t understand that Reagan made compromises is telling.

The fact of the matter is the approval for George W. Bush was high among Republicans until the economy started down.  Approval for Bush among Republicans generally stayed above 80% into his second term. Anyone interested in looking at this data can Gallup’s Presidential Job Approval Center. Most Republicans were happy–then. The complaints are more common now that it’s politically convenient.

Anyone wanting to see an intelligent comparison of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan can read an excellent book, Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy, by Lou and Carl Cannon. Lou Cannon is author of Governor Reagan His Rise To Power and President Reagan The Role Of A Lifetime. Lou Cannon was a reporter in California who followed Reagan to DC. His son Carl also went into journalism and has done some excellent writing for National Journal, Readers Digest, and a variety of other newspapers and magazines. Carl has authored or co-authored several books including Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Architect of George W. Bush’s Remarkable Political Triumphs and The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War. Together, these two authors bring together decades of research and experience.

Or, you could read the self-serving crap dished up by Pauken.

Personally, I think Bush deserves better (his father deserves even better).

Universities as parks and rec

One of the challenges to higher education is reflected in a Texas Tribune story (“Burned Orange”). Some people are concerned that the Cactus Cafe on the UT campus will be lost. The Cafe has long been a gathering place for people from on and off campus and some residents see it as a tradition. In “Would UT sell it soul?” one opinion writer for the Austin American Statesman writes why UT can’t afford $66,000 a year to subsidize the Cactus Cafe without once referencing education in his plea to protect the “soul” of the university.

I spent my share of time in the Cactus Cafe. Unlike some, I’ve come to accept that enjoying someplace did not make a sacred ground that future generations must forever honor and preserve. Sure, some talented people sung on that stage. However, you can find many places like that in Austin.  I witnessed the disappearance of (to name a few) Raul’s, Club Foot, Liberty Lunch, Armadillo World Headquarters, and more iterations of Soap Creek Saloon than I can recall. All of the venues hosted acts every bit as important as those who passed through the Cactus Cafe. Why is it the university’s job to rescue a slice of Austin’s music history when no one else has bothered?

Mize Azalea Garden Entrance

The entrance to the Mize Azalea Garden on SFA's campus

The problem is that many citizens regard universities as a source of subsidized entertainment, a parks and recreation department, or tool for economic development. Nacogdoches citizens complained about the possibility of my school (Stephen F. Austin State University) removing trees along University Drive because it would impact the beauty of the area. That’s certainly a valid concern. However, every business along that street had already bulldozed almost every single tree on their property to maximize their use of the space. SFA was expected to retain undeveloped property and maintain its appearance to beautify the city in a way that most local business never considered. (SFA did its part. SFA’s Mast Arboretum is now flanked by an elaborate system of hike and bike trails on university property.)

Universities already place a huge value on their contribution to the community. Fine arts departments relish the opportunity to bring arts and entertainment to their community. Many campuses (like SFA) provide some of the most beautiful spots in their town. More and more universities are emphasizing community service and integrating it into curriculum. Athletic events draw large crowds to town and help fill hotel rooms and restaurants. None of these things are free and school’s ability to provide them is limited.

The mission of a university is education. People need to quit demanding more from universities in at time when the state’s contribution to higher education is declining. Much of the funding for all the landscaping, theatrical productions, and music venues increasingly ends up coming out of the pockets of students. People need to look at their own efforts before demanding that universities do more.

Slavery in Texas

Texans usually think about slavery as something long-lost in our history or far across some ocean. However, Mimi Swartz at Texas Monthly has detailed the problem of the sex trade in Texas in “The Lost Girls.”  I’ve seen stories like this for years and I’m wondering how people keep getting away with this. Some people say we need to crack down harder on these “massage parlors.” Others say that we’ve spent 2,000 years trying to outlaw prostitution and it’s time to consider legalization. It makes for a good classroom debate.

Regents as Donors

Texans for Public Justice has released a new report on the giving habits of regents at the state’s institution of higher learning. Many of those on the boards of the state’s largest universities are also among the state’s biggest political donors. Leading the pack was the University of Texas where 81% of the regents gave to Perry’s campaign. Members of the the UT Board of Regents (and their spouses) have given almost $1.6 million to Perry’s campaigns with an average contribution of almost $100,000. Full results are in the report.

Contributions to Perry campaigns by university board of regents

Please note that Stephen F. Austin State University is not on this chart. I’ve enjoyed working with our Board of Regents. However, I have to say I wouldn’t mind seeing some more six-figure donors sitting around the table. However, I’d like to see those kind of big gifts flowing into SFA’s accounts to fund student scholarships (rather than going into gubernatorial campaigns that fund political ads that we’re all rather forget).

By the way, Perry has had the rare occurrence of formally acting to remove a regent. In April 2007, Perry acted to impeach the chair of the Board of Regents at Texas Southern University. The authors of the Texas Constitution doesn’t give our governor the power to unilaterally remove his own appointees.