All posts by BklynGuy

Synthetic Economics: Directions for Government

The Synthetic Economy enables the Federal government to continue to run vast deficits every year without having to worry about the usual consequence of price inflation.  But as wonderful as that is for the government, it’s paradoxically even better for the banks.  For they have made trillions in loans to foreign countries and others that, as a practical matter, can never be repaid.  Some of these came up as an issue in the 1980s, but through the magic of ‘extend and pretend,’ and some ‘aid’ from the Federal government, the banks have managed to sweep them under the rug.  The banks would like to very much go on sweeping, as the politicians would very much like to go on spending.

Under the Synthetic Economy, the government and the banks (the Big People’s economy) work to balance the amount of money going into the Synthetic Economy that the vast majority of us live in.  Too little, and people get angry, and there are riots and other civil disturbances.  Too much, and there is widespread price inflation, which could ultimately lead to riots and other civil disturbances.  Meanwhile, in the Big People’s economy, inflation is, indeed, out of control.  But since the inflation manifests itself in the stock market and the price of real estate (at least in the places useful to the Big People’s economy), people think of it as prosperity, rather than runaway inflation.

So what does the government have to do as its part of the deal?

  • As I noted earlier, the first rule of the Synthetic Economy is that we do not speak of the Synthetic Economy. So no politician can say that this is how we solved the deficit problem.  (On the other hand, the former cliffhanger drama of the debt ceiling has become tiresome, so we can quietly ditch that.  Never mind that the debt ceiling was the practical implementation of the Constitutional requirement for Congress to authorize Federal borrowing.)
  • We also don’t want to tell the Little People that money isn’t finite anymore: first, because it is contrary to the experience of their lifetimes, and second, once they came to understand it, they would demand a piece of the action, and they vastly outnumber you. No politician will propose a vast new spending plan, to be paid for by borrowing.  Instead, the propose ‘taxing the rich.’  And their plan goes off to die, because nobody likes tax increases.  (And in any event, a 5% or 10% tax increase won’t change the overall situation.)
  • But perhaps the most important thing is that the government needs to maintain policies that discourage money from circulating in the Synthetic Economy. This isn’t to say that money doesn’t circulate at all: it does.  But we want the money paid into the Synthetic Economy (government spending, wages paid by Big Economy players, payments for exported goods and services) to come out (through taxes, payments to Big Economy players—like one’s mortgage payment—and the purchase of imported goods) as quickly as practicable.  When someone buys a domestic manufactured item, they pay the factory owner, who pays his employees, who go out and buy the things that they want and need.  This used to be the virtuous cycle of capitalism.  It’s now bad news, because it can’t be readily controlled.  We must stop it, as much as we can.
  • A corollary of discouraging circulation is that saving and investing need to be curtailed, as well. If the denizens of the Synthetic Economy have their own productive assets, they can function independently of the Big People’s direction, and that’s bad.  And if people do have assets, and can be encouraged to liquidate them, so much the better.  (Anyone for a home equity loan?)

What happens when the politicians carry out these tasks?  What about effects on the politicians themselves, or the political system?  Tune in next week….

Synthetic Economy: Interest Rates

For as long as mankind has known money, we’ve known that a dollar (or pound, or shekel, or whatever) in hand today is worth more than a dollar in hand next month, or next year.  And if we want to borrow someone else’s dollar so that we can use it today, then it’s appropriate to pay him something—interest—for the temporary use of his asset.

Historically, interest rates varied with the state of the economy, and served to regulate economic activity.  If an economy gets ahead of itself, interest rates rise, borrowing becomes difficult, and the economy brings itself back into balance.  At least, that’s what happened in the past.

For almost the last decade, the Federal Reserve and the banking system have worked to keep interest rates low.  For the Big People economy overrun by debt that can never be legitimately paid off, it’s a survival mechanism.  By keeping the cost of debt service low, debts can be kept current, and life goes on.  And if there were a way to make interest rates negative, debt could be unwound.

Of course, the Synthetic Economy doesn’t share in the benefit.  For the little people, money has to remain scarce, and interest rates—at least for debts—have to remain positive.  So we still pay 20% on our credit cards.  And while rates for mortgages have remained low, they’ve become more difficult to get since the 2008 implosion.  The banks, we’re told, want to stay away from risky investments.

So, what happens as a result?

  • The big banks get bigger, and the little banks get bought out. It is very difficult for a bank to exist as a creature within the Synthetic Economy, because it can’t compete with the big banks that can freely synthesize money out of nothing.
  • Saving becomes pointless. When I was growing up, in the 1960s and 1970s, banks paid 5% on ordinary savings accounts, and higher rates for time deposits.  While, in most cases, that didn’t keep up with inflation, at least, you felt you were accomplishing something as you watched your savings increase.  But if the bank is paying 0.1%—a dime for $100 for a year—why bother?
  • The stock market becomes the only game in town. If you want to do better than a fraction of a percent, and remain liquid, your most practical choice is the stock market, outside the Synthetic Economy.  This is true not only for individuals, but for pension funds entrusted with securing retirement for the little people.  Yes: if you watch the market and are careful, you might be able to secure a decent return.  But the days when you could pick a solid corporation, buy its stock, and come back twenty years later expecting a meaningful return are long gone.  And the market could always burp and take half your investment with it.

At this point, the Federal Reserve has hit the wall.  For now, interest rates can’t really go negative, because even if the banks charged rather than paid interest on savings, one could simply hold cash.  But even that may change.  Chase has told its safe-deposit customers that they may not store cash in their safe-deposit boxes.  And now, technology has gotten to the point where electronic transfers are cost-competitive with cash for all but the very smallest businesses.  (We may not think of it that way, but processing cash costs money for businesses: it has to be counted, tracked, transported to and from the bank, and secured.)  In 1969, the Treasury stopped issuing US currency in denominations larger than $100, to discourage drug trafficking.  (Alas, we know how that turned out.)  It wouldn’t be much of a stretch, particularly in response to some real or imagined crisis, to go further.

Synthetic Economics: Money is Crap Anyway

The raison d’être of the Synthetic Economy is to enable both the government and the banks to manage the condition under which the banks had lent trillions of dollars, not only to the Federal government, but states, localities, and even foreign countries, which, as a practical matter, cannot be repaid.

The traditional approach, for a national government, is to ‘monetize the debt’ by printing money to pay it.  Of course, new money, with nothing to back it, will simply lead to price inflation.  Many times in our history, governments and banking systems have collapsed as a result, as the money was quickly recognized as worthless by the public.  In the United States, and modern states with central banks, the process is a little more complicated: the government issues debt, which is bought by the central bank.  The bank creates money on the spot to buy the debt, which the government can then spend.  But the result is the same: money is effectively created out of nothing, with nothing to back it.

The Synthetic Economy addresses this concern by managing what most of us experience as ‘the economy’ (i.e. the Synthetic Economy) so that what most of us experience as ‘money’ maintains a relatively stable value.  This is done by balancing whatever new money is introduced into the Synthetic Economy by money taken out, either through taxes, repayment of ordinary people’s debts, or purchases of imported goods.  (Once a dollar goes to China, the Synthetic Economy will likely never see it again!)  As a consequence, very little of the new money migrates into the Synthetic Economy, so prices remain stable.  In fact, to combat price inflation, the Synthetic Economy is run in a slightly deflationary mode.  This further stabilizes prices, but also depresses wages.

For national governments, big banks, and multinational corporations (the players in the ‘Big People’ non-synthetic economy) this means that money is no longer a scarce good.  Spend all you want: we’ll make more!  But don’t spend it on higher wages for your employees, or new infrastructure or benefits for your citizens.  If too much of this money gets into the Synthetic Economy, it will wreck the balance.

For years, politicians have told us that they can ‘fix the economy’ through government spending.  Alas, it doesn’t work.  One of President Obama’s first efforts was ‘the stimulus:’ a package of some $787 billion in spending meant to get the economy restarted.  It accomplished almost precisely nothing.

Actually, that’s not quite true.  The dislocations of 2008 primarily hit the Big People economy, but did have an effect on the Synthetic Economy as well.  Many ordinary people lost their savings and pensions, or became unemployed.  It was a case where too much money had been bled out of the Synthetic Economy, and we had to put some back to maintain the balance.  However:

  • Much of the stimulus was aid to states and local governments to fund their ongoing operations. This did nothing but spare state and local politicians the necessity of making difficult choices.
  • Some of the stimulus went for infrastructure, but then again, the government is constantly spending on infrastructure (although perhaps not enough to overcome the ongoing decay). So at least some of the infrastructure spending in the stimulus was brought over from programs that would have been enacted in its stead.
  • The stimulus did nothing to help individuals who had lost out in the 2008 dislocations. The banks and other too-big-to-fail firms had previously received bailouts, but individuals were left out.  In fairness, that wasn’t its purpose, and it’s a fair question whether the government should be responsible for making good on individuals’ bad financial decisions.

So the stimulus served to reinforce the status quo, as well as the notion that it’s dangerous for Little People to play in the Big People’s economy.  It didn’t change the economy overall, and did not result in the fount of new jobs that its proponents claimed for it.

In fact, because of the need to maintain balance, we haven’t seen, and are unlikely to see:

  • Meaningful public or private investment in infrastructure. At best, there will be continuing public spending to keep things from falling down, but little more.  On the private-sector side, companies that earn their living through their infrastructure will spend to maintain it, but in the absence of new markets for their products and services, there’s little incentive to build more.
  • Private-sector mobilization to create jobs and do more. For a long time, I have believed that the private sector, rather than the government, has the keys to a real recovery.  The government can’t force businesses to expand or hire people, but if businesses did it for themselves, they could drive a new, real, recovery.  But they won’t, not only because consumers are pretty much spent out, but because introducing new spending into the Synthetic Economy will upset the balance.
  • Significant efforts to redistribute income through taxation. Paul Krugman is a big believer in deficit spending to increase demand, but doing so would be inflationary, and the Synthetic Economy is being run in a deflationary mode for price stability.
  • Meaningful tax cuts… or tax increases. The rates might be tweaked up or down because of political pressure, but the overall regime, and the role of taxation in keeping the Synthetic Economy in balance, will not change.

Years ago, one of my engineering-school professors remarked that ‘money is shit anyway.’  And now it has come true.  It’s certainly true in the Big People economy, where money can be synthesized at will, out of literally nothing.

For now, with the Synthetic Economy, the rest of us have been slow to catch on.

The Synthetic Economy

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I was aware of inflation.  My mother sent me to the supermarket since I was about eight, and I remember seeing the prices of things like milk tick up over the weeks and months.

In high school, and from the newspaper, I learned that inflation (in terms of rising prices for ordinary goods) was a consequence of deficit spending, primarily by the Federal government.  The money went into the economy, chasing after the same set of goods, so prices went up.  And in the late 1970s, under the Carter administration, the Federal government deficit per year was around $50 billion.  It seemed serious at the time.

And then came President Reagan, and deficits skyrocketed.  We were going to whip the Russians.  (Indeed, we did, but the USSR was on its last legs anyway.)  But curiously, the big deficits did not lead to very much consumer-price inflation.  Instead, the stock market and real estate went up.  Apparently, when the price of bread and milk go up, that’s inflation, and that’s bad, but when stocks and land go up, it’s prosperity.

For the last decade, we have been running deficits, under both Bush and Obama, that would have made the politicians of the 1980s run for cover.  And while the government has finagled the statistics to make things look better than they really are, price inflation (the kind I observed back in the supermarket in the 1970s) has really been moderate, considering the vast deficits we now run.

100 years ago, we all inhabited the same economy.  Some people were very, very rich, but they became that way by building vast productive enterprises that hired, collectively, millions of people, and brought forth products and services that an earlier generation could hardly have imagined.

Not any more.  I believe that the vast majority of us (‘the 99%’ is a fair approximation) have been transplanted into a ‘little people’s’ synthetic economy.  The economy that we used to all inhabit together has now been left to the ‘big people:’ the Federal government, the banks, the big corporations, and the very, very wealthy.

The ‘little people’ synthetic economy is run by the ‘big people’ economy, rather like a hothouse.  And within it, things work pretty much as they always have: money is a scarce good, so you either have to earn it, or subsist as a ward of the state.  And money has value, in that it can be readily traded for goods and services, and that value is relatively stable.

Meanwhile, in the ‘big people’ economy, money is not scarce.  After all, it can be created out of nothing, and it exists in such vast quantities that a $18 trillion national debt that can’t be paid off is actually of little consequence.

So almost all of the currency debasement that went everywhere in the 1970s is now very effectively constrained to the ‘big people’ economy.  The stock market continues to rise, even through there is no productive activity to support it.  And the very rich get richer, and the rest of us are hung out to dry.

There are three very basic rules:

  1. The first rule of the synthetic economy is that we do not speak of the synthetic economy.
  2. The synthetic economy is to be kept isolated from the ‘big people’ economy, and kept in balance, with stable prices, if nothing else.  (After all, nobody wants food riots!)
  3. A dollar in the synthetic economy is the same as a dollar in the ‘big people’ economy.  Individual dollars in the hands of individuals may freely cross between the two.  (However, collectively, the flow of money between the two economies is in fact effectively managed.)

When I look at the economy this way, many of the weirdnesses that seem to afflict us become simple and straightforward.  I’ll write about some of the applications of this theory in future posts.  But the synthetic economy (and the things the ‘big people’ to do maintain it) explains things like:

  • Why nobody fusses over the Federal budget deficit anymore.
  • Why party politics doesn’t matter.
  • Why all our politicians seem to favor open borders.
  • Why Islam is cool and Christianity isn’t.

More to follow in future posts.

Despairing for a President

Let’s start with the Democrats, because I’ve been a registered Democrat all my life, even though I’ve been disgusted with them for at least the last six years.

There’s Hillary Clinton.  I am well and truly Ready for Hillary… to just go away.  Between Benghazi, and running her own personal private e-mail server while Secretary of State, she is now officially a sneak.  I’ve gotten to the point where I simply can’t believe anything she says.

But let’s make the plausible assumption that, if elected, she would follow the same policy directions as the current President.  Would I want four more years of a listless economy, an airheaded foreign policy, and open borders?  No, thank you.

The other official candidate at this point is Bernie Sanders, who is somewhere to the left of Hillary: a fan of more government ‘investment…’ to do what?

Then there are the Republicans.  I’ve been disgusted with the Democrats for the past six years, and while I could change my party registration, what I’ve seen on that side of the fence hasn’t been compelling.

First, there’s Jeb Bush, who has the obvious name factor: is there no other family across our broad land capable of fielding plausible Republican candidates?

But beyond that, he and the newcomers Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all subscribe to the same basic platform: a more assertive America, meaning going to war against whomever makes us mad,  (And if there’s no obvious enemy, they’ll make one,  Where would W have been without 11 September as a pretext to go to war in Iraq?)  They also stand for ‘immigration reform,’ meaning, at best, another 1980s-style reset, in which the illegal immigrants already here are given a path to legal status, while the icky part of the job–securing the borders and enforcing the law against hiring illegal immigrants–goes quietly by the boards.

In fact, all of the candidates seem to stand for open borders, although some are more vocal about it than others.  Evidently, the Power Beyond wants open borders.  Perhaps they’re worried that we’re in demographic decline because of our low birth rate.  But what’s galling is that we, as real American citizens, don’t seem to matter.

And all of the candidates claim to be ready to fix the economy, when in fact, they can’t.  The economy will improve if and when the private sector returns to real productive activity instead of pluffage.  But while government can encourage productive activity, it can’t force businesses to expand and hire.

Finally, none of the candidates seem to want to do anything about the emerging police state.  One of the things that I realized from the muted overall response to Edward Snowden is that much of our leadership is OK with our government snorfing  up every phone call, e-mail, and blog post.

We became a superpower decades ago because we had the productive economic base to support it.  We didn’t become a superpower because we were ordained by God, or because there was something magical about our land: we earned it.  And if we want to remain a superpower, we have to maintain and expand that base, which we haven’t been doing.  So we need to take a few steps back and either rebuild our economic base (which is more in the hands of private enterprise than something the government can do), or face the reality that without that base, we can no longer be a superpower.

And none of the candidates running for President, nor even any of the not-quite-candidates who are still considering whether to run, seems to get this.

The Question I Can’t Ask

As a conscientious employer, mindful of the law, I know that I’m not to ask a female candidate for employment if she plans to have children.  (Indeed, I’m not to even recognize whether the candidate is male or female!)  I also am not to ask a candidate, of whatever gender, what his or her plans are five years hence, for various reasons, one of which is that it may be construed as a roundabout way of asking the forbidden question about children.

That’s the law, and I accept it.

But it has consequences, some of them unpleasant.

For some jobs, the employee already has 90% of the skills necessary to do the work when hired.  After some briefing, the employee can be immediately productive, and then can learn the other 10% through a few days’ experience.  For a job like that, the question of whether the employee plans to have children is thoroughly irrelevant.

But some jobs turn on skills and knowledge that aren’t common in the population. A company could hire someone out of college, and invest the time and money to develop his or her talent, including the cost of occasional do-overs occasioned by rookie mistakes.  But it’s senseless to make such an investment without having some sense that the employee is going to stay around long enough for the effort to pay off.

Which brings us back to the forbidden question about having children.  We’re not allowed to say this, but there are some inconvenient truths:

  • Women have babies, and men don’t.
  • As a consequence of having babies, women often leave the labor force, at least for a time.
  • It isn’t fair to hold a new mother to a commitment she made before she experienced the emergency of parenthood.

If employers were able to consider these factors openly, some women would likely not get hired for jobs they were qualified to do, because their potential employers would assess that they might not stay around long enough to make the effort worthwhile.

Since that’s an unacceptable outcome, the law forbids employers from considering whether female candidates might have children.  But the rules, more broadly, prevent employers from assessing the likelihood of a candidate remaining on the job for, say, two years (or whatever duration is relevant to the employer).

This represents a new risk foisted onto employers.  But the employers will not simply accept the risk.  They will adapt their procedures and processes to compensate.  And that’s where the consequences come in.

A big company can invest in ‘process:’ your job is not defined as whatever it takes to accomplish the mission, but what is contained in the four corners of the job specification.  And if you’re qualified under the specification, you’re qualified to do the job.  And anything you know that isn’t in the specification isn’t part of the job, even if you know that it’s been part of the job for eons.  The effect is to devalue experience over a very low minimum, and make employees replaceable.

But that can backfire: in too much of my work, I find myself dealing with the same people I dealt with 20-25 years ago, and we’re both doing the same things we did back then.  The older hands from another time end up doing the bits and pieces not contained in the four corners of the specification, but still needed to accomplish the mission.

A small company can foreswear the general employment market, and hire only people the owner knows, or perhaps a ‘friend of a friend.’  That addresses the owner’s immediate problem, but doesn’t do very much for the employment situation overall.  Or maybe the owner doesn’t hire anyone new at all, makes do with what staff he has, and toughs it out through the busy parts.

Do I mean, from all of this, that the woes in the job market are solely due to an inability of employers to ask a question that, in most cases, shouldn’t be asked?  Hardly.  But it’s one among a thousand rules that, while possibly well-intentioned, end up making life and the job market difficult for everyone.

I’m So Glad I Don’t Run a Restaurant

A pizzeria in Indiana was forced to close after its owner told the press that, in effect, they they would serve customers in their restaurant regardless of their religion or sexual orientation, but that if a gay couple wanted them to cater their wedding, they would refuse.

The owners were painted as evil practitioners of discrimination, cousins of Jim Crow.  Yet, at first, their position seems reasonable.

I wrote in these pages, back in 2012, that gay couples should be able to use civil marriage to secure their legal rights with respect to each other.  I was concerned, however, that the effect would be to redefine marriage into something other than what it has been for eons.

To me, refusing to participate in a wedding is not the same as refusing service to a customer.  A wedding is a celebration of a new marriage, and if the participants in the celebration are not in the spirit of the event, even if they’re contractors, then it won’t be the best sendoff for the new couple.  And it isn’t fair to the couple to have some of the participants there by force, especially when one could find another caterer, photographer, etc. who would be in the spirit of the event.

But then again:

  • Doesn’t being a professional mean executing your work with skill and grace, even if you’re not in the spirit?
  • How is telling a potential client ‘you can find another,’ or even, ‘I don’t really do these events, but here’s Mr. X, who will be able to serve you better than I can,’ different when addressing a gay couple as opposed to, say, a black couple?

The Indiana legislature passed a law last week affirming one’s right to one’s religious beliefs:

Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. (b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Sec. 9. A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding. If the relevant governmental entity is not a party to the proceeding, the governmental entity has an unconditional right to intervene in order to respond to the person’s invocation of this chapter.

I’ve read that five times and still can’t figure out what it’s practically useful for.  It seems to say that the government cannot infringe on one’s exercise of religion, except when they feel they have to.  And if one is sued, and uses as one’s defense that the law under which they are being sued infringes on their religion, they’ve invited the government to enter the case, presumably on the other side.

If I run a restaurant, and decide that I don’t want to cater gay weddings, this new law isn’t really helpful.

Nevertheless, the law unleashed a firestorm of opposition, even though there is a very similar Federal law on the books, so that this week, the Indiana legislature passed an update, explicitly declaring that ‘providers’ (i.e. any person or establishment other than an explicitly religious one) may not discriminate on the basis of ‘race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service,’ and may not use last week’s law (which otherwise remains in effect) as a defense.

I guess the message is: shut up and cater.

Riddle me this…

Some observations over the last few weeks:

  • El Paso, on Houston Street, was one of our favorite restaurants for many years.  It was where my wife and I had discussed various ideas that led to me going into business for myself, and of course, we really liked the food.  Last spring, we went there on a Friday afternoon to find the place closed up.  I imagined that perhaps the owner had died or something.  But then, earlier this month, my wife and I were eating in the Village, and one of the waiters at that restaurant had worked at El Paso.  He told us that the landlord had substantially raised the rent, and the restaurant closed.  After lunch, out of curiosity, we went back to the site.  It looked exactly the same as when it had suddenly closed.  There was no trace of a new tenant, and not even a ‘For Rent’ sign.
  • Figaro was a sports bar near my office.  It was a pleasant spot for a business lunch without going too far afield.  At the end of 2013, on New Year’s Eve, I went there for the last time for lunch.  “This is our last day,” the waiter told us.  Their lease was not being renewed.  There was a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window for a couple of months, and then, a while later, an announcement of a sushi restaurant opening last fall.  But fall came and went, with no new place (even though I’d have preferred a sports bar).  Last week, the door was left opened.  The place was a wreck.  The next day, new signs covered the plate glass windows, with the name of the building that the storefront belongs to.  But no ‘for rent,’ no telephone number, nothing.
  • Not far from my office, on Fifth Avenue, is a building that went up fairly recently.  The storefront on the corner is a Chase bank, and the space next to it has been mostly empty for several years.  It has held temporary stores for Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations, and was used for a week for some kind of new product event, but there has been no permanent tenant since the space was built.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the owners of commercial real estate seem to be sitting on their properties, holding out for top dollar.  It seems counterproductive: an empty space not only gathers no revenue, it’s inherently an eyesore.  Get enough of them in one place, and the area–even if it’s midtown Manhattan–starts to look as if it’s going down the tubes.

And then there’s the Radio Shack.  It was a stone’s throw from my office; it saved my ass more times than I care to count as a spot to pick up a cable or a toggle switch or a soldering iron.  It closed at the end of February.  In fairness, it’s too soon to moan about yet another empty space.  But even if the store doesn’t stay empty for very long, I’m sure that whatever replaces the Radio Shack will be nowhere near as useful.

The Power Beyond

One of last week’s crises was resolved this week, as the Republican Congress passed a ‘clean’ funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security and President Obama signed it, funding its operations for the remainder of the fiscal year, including Obama’s executive action to legalize some five million illegal immigrants.

In other words, the Republicans caved.

As I understand the logic behind the decision, since a Federal judge ruled against Obama’s executive action policies, the Republicans need do nothing further to stop the policies, as they can let the matter play out in the courts.

Well, maybe.

To my view, if Congress passes a bill allocating funding to an executive agency, knowing damn right well what they’re going to do with it, then they have effectively authorized the agency’s actions.   And I’m sure the Administration will make that point.

So why did the Republicans give up so easily?  And why has it been, throughout the Obama administration, that the Republicans have never been able to make headway while President Obama and his crew have been blundering about, making up rules as they go along, and taking a Roger Rabbit approach to the Constitution?

The Democrats have demonized House Speaker John Boehner as the locus of the opposition, but everything I’ve seen suggests that he is just another politician, whose high-sounding principles vanish the instant they become inconvenient.

My unfortunate hypothesis is that there is a Power Beyond Congress and the President, and that this Power Beyond is OK with open borders and OK with our blundering administration.

There are any number of conspiracy theories about the Council on Foreign Relations or the Bilderburg group or Skull and Bones or whomever.  They may be right that one or more of these may be the identity of the Power Beyond.  At this point, I don’t know.  But I’m pretty sure is isn’t God, and it isn’t the people (i.e. the government deriving its power from the consent of the governed).

The Power Beyond manifests itself in other ways besides government policy: it’s also why the mainstream media, now organized into six giant corporations, won’t actually tell us anything that we’d really need to know.  It manifests itself in our non-educating educational system, where young people learn… I’m still not sure myself.  It manifests itself in our fluoridated water, originally promoted as combating tooth decay, but having no practical positive effect, and yet we continue to do it.

There have always been people for whom the world has been a plaything.  The Russian revolutionaries who organized what became the USSR would not have been able to do so without financing from the capitalist West.  Perhaps the capitalists thought it a nifty experiment at the time.  And perhaps, for these people, the United States was fun while it lasted, and now it’s tired and broken-down, and it’s time to move on.

Fake News

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The front page of Thursday’s Daily News brought us the earth-shattering news that Beyoncé was having lunch earlier in the week in Los Angeles with a shirt tied around her midsection and (gasp!) no brassiere.

The next day brought us the burning question of whether some dress was either black and blue, or gold and white.  Now I’d like to believe that most of us past the age of, say, six or seven, know that an object can appear to be different colors depending on how it’s lighted.  Nevertheless, it was a matter for heated discussion, to the point where they spent almost as much time on the local and network TV news talking about ‘the dress’ as the weather.

Why, oh why, is this news?  As long as Beyoncé isn’t walking naked down Fifth Avenue, I really, really, really don’t care what she wears to lunch.  And if it’s now a revelation to the vast majority that one can change the appearance of an object by lighting it differently, perhaps the real news is that the vast majority has gotten really, really stupid.

Meanwhile, there is real news out there:

  • After weeks of tough rhetoric, the Syriza government in Greece began negotiations with the bankers, and promptly caved.  There was an agreement for another four months of bailouts, with ‘reforms’ to be named later.
  • Late Friday night, Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement to fund the Department of Homeland Security for another week.  The Republicans don’t want to fund the President’s executive actions to address illegal immigration; meanwhile, the Administration has acquired five million new residency cards to be issued to those who would be former illegals, and tied funding for this effort to funding for the rest of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to regulate Internet service providers in the name of ‘net neutrality.’  I’ve written about this subject before, and at the time, I thought there was some justification for regulation, although I wasn’t sure it was the right idea.  But now we’re told that there are 322 pages of rules, drafted in secret, that will be released for comment sometime in May, and these rules not only relate to Internet communication (processing and forwarding packets) but also content.  I guess if it’s posted on the Internet, it isn’t actually ‘speech,’ which involves the movement of air over someone’s vocal cords, and it isn’t actually the ‘press,’ as no ink or paper is involved.  We’ll find out.

But these items were only mentioned briefly in the news.  Clearly, Beyoncé’s lunch and the multicolored dress were more important.

The Creature from Jekyll Island

For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading The Creature from Jekyll Island, G. Edward Griffin’s book about the Federal Reserve System.  I knew, before I read the book, that the Federal Reserve is the US’s central bank, that its origins and operations were shrouded in mystery, and that people rail against it because the US dollar has lost 95% of its purchasing power in the century since the Federal Reserve Act was passed.  And I considered that, if we were as strong and prosperous a country now as we were a century ago, having a currency that rots by 3% per year as the price of that strength and prosperity wouldn’t really be such a bad deal after all.

Some of my other reading suggested that the Federal Reserve, in its original plan, was actually a good idea: since previous busts and panics had their origin in banks getting caught short: a lender of last resort that the banks could turn to would be useful.  Today, the Federal Reserve has taken on the task of pumping up asset bubbles to maintain the illusion of prosperity.  So somewhere along the line, perhaps it lost its way.

No, that wasn’t it at all.

Griffin asserts and documents that the many of the turning points of American history were organized and engineered by what we now call ‘the banksters.’  They had a hand in the Civil War, which in its origins wasn’t really about slavery at all.  (My mother used to tell me, as if reciting from her lessons years before, that the Civil War was primarily about economics, and secondarily about secession and slavery.)  They led us into both World Wars and the Great Depression,  And well before the events of 2008, they had scored multi-billion-dollar government bailouts of failed businesses.

And then I have to wonder:

  • I’ve been led all these years to believe that there was an America past in which free enterprise reigned and a man could succeed or fail on his own wits.  Was that ever really true, or was it all an illusion?
  • I’ve railed against our current President for what I believe are wrongheaded decisions.  And the Republicans rail against him, too.  But I don’t see that the Republicans are actually doing anything to try and stop him, although they have the ability.  And so I wonder: does it really matter who the President is?

Vaccines

The recent spate of measles cases traced to Disneyland (my sense of poetic justice is amused) has brought the issue of vaccination into the news.  When my son was little, I was totally OK with the vaccines that were recommended at the time.  Now I’m not so sure.  Let me explain….

One of my childhood memories is looking over my father’s shoulder at the records he kept of my vaccinations.  I apparently received a whole pile of them on the day I was born: I must have been a little pincushion.  I was glad that it happened when I was a baby, so that I didn’t remember it.

When my son was born in 1985, the vaccine regime hadn’t changed much.  The vaccines were the same as I had seen in my childhood records:

  • Oral polio vaccine
  • Diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT)
  • Measles/mumps/rubella (MMR)

I remember that there was an organization of parents whose children had not reacted well to the DPT shot, but the numbers of children affected overall were vanishingly small, so I had no objections to vaccinating my son.

A little later, a vaccine came out for:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) (interesting that it doesn’t have a simple name in English like the others)

and my son received it.

A vaccine for;

  • Varicella (chicken pox)

came out a little later, but my son had already had chicken pox, so he didn’t need it.

But time and Big Pharma have moved on, and the recommended vaccine lineup now includes, in addition to all of the previous:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Rotavirus
  • Pneumococcal disease
  • Infliuenza (‘flu shot’)
  • Meningococcal disease

I’m compelled to wonder if it’s all necessary.  Other than the flu, I’ve never heard of the diseases and viruses in the post-1980s group representing public health problems.  And I have to wonder if there is a point of diminishing returns where the side effects of the vaccines become worse than the diseases they are intended to prevent.

I had a case of the chicken pox when I was six; my son had it when he was eight.  I’ve considered it somewhat of a rite of passage: this is what a ‘real disease’ feels like.  A vaccine to prevent it seems more a convenience than a real public health necessity.

And then there is the specter of autism.  We’re told that there was one study relating vaccines to autism; it was debunked and retracted; so don’t consider the possibility anymore.  But one in 2000 children or so had something resembling autism in the 1970s, now it’s one in 68 in the US.  And maybe vaccines didn’t have anything to do with it, but there are too many reports of parents seeing the spark die in their children’s eyes immediately following vaccination.

On one level, I don’t have to worry about this personally anymore. But sometime in the next 5-10 years (I hope), my son will get married and have children.  I can’t advise him, as my parents might have advised me, not to worry and proceed with the usual series of vaccinations.  (Indeed, I hadn’t asked my parents at the time, as I didn’t consider the matter to be controversial.)

Telling him to exercise judgement over which vaccines his child should receive isn’t a practical option either.  The data he’d need for an informed decision aren’t readily available, and he’d likely get into arguments with his child’s doctor.  But beyond that, New York state law requires children to be immunized against almost all of the diseases and viruses listed above (the exceptions today are Hepatitis A, rotavirus, influenza, and meningococcal disease), in order to attend school.  One can assert a religious exemption, but it would have to apply to all vaccines, which isn’t prudent either.

I can’t get upset about parents who refuse vaccinations for their children.  I live in New York City, and people come here from all over the world, some vaccinated, some not, and life goes on.  Ultimately, access to clean water and proper sanitation is more important to public health than this or that vaccine.  And if an enemy wanted to conduct biological warfare using some exotic virus, all the childhood vaccinations in the world wouldn’t help.

What was a simple and noncontroversial decision in the 1980s has become a minefield.  And I don’t have any magic way out.

Snowjobbed

The spectacle of the Exploding Meteorologist has been a fixture of New York City winters for at least the last twenty years: the weather reporter breathlessly telling us about the monster snowstorm, which ends up yielding, perhaps, two inches.   Of course, every once in a while, a real snowstorm shows up, and the Exploding Meteorologists do their thing.

But this time, the Exploding Meteorologists were joined by an Exploding Mayor.  Yesterday’s morning news included this item:

Yeah, right, whatever.

I rearranged my schedule to get through my meetings earlier, and walked out of my last meeting at 12:20 pm.

Back in the office, I put on  WINS, the go-to radio station in New York City for bad weather.  I found that the Exploding Mayor had been joined by our Exploding Governor, Andrew Cuomo.  He admonished us, like little children, not to go out in the snow, and ordered all non-essential vehicles off the road at 11:00 pm.

I left the office about 5:00 pm, and had a pretty normal ride home, except that the trains were not as crowded because most people had left work earlier.  Back home, I learned that the ‘travel ban’ also included the subways.  Usually, the trains keep running when it snows, and during NYC’s worst snowstorm ever, in 2006, the subways kept running.  (I know, because I was travelling that day.)

At 11:00, ready to sleep, I looked out the window: there had been a substantial lull in the storm.  So much for the Exploding Meteorologists.

In the morning, my wife noted that the G train was running: we can see the viaduct from our windows.  Slowly it dawned on me: the subways could have kept running, and perhaps did to some extent. But we, as passengers, were not allowed to ride them, by order of the Governor.

The morning news reported that the storm had moved off to the east, and the travel ban had been lifted.  NYC got about a foot, although snow is continuing to fall, and New Jersey got 2-3 inches: hardly worth complaining about.  The subways are starting up and will run on a Sunday schedule for the rest of the day.

In another time, the Mayor and Governor would have declared states of emergency, ordered private vehicles off the roads, and left it at that.  Why did they feel the need to shut down mass transit?

Don’t tell me it was to protect the public: we’ve had many, many snowstorms, and this was the first time it was felt necessary to shut down the subways pre-emptively.  (Usually, in a really bad storm, lines that run outdoors are shut down on a case-by-case basis as conditions worsen.)

Is it a case of liability making cowards of us all?

Were they simply asserting their authority because they could?

Are they getting us in practice for martial law?

Whatever it was, I’m sure it wasn’t good.

Our Non-Fearless Non-Leader

It’s State of the Union time again.

The Constitution requires that the President ‘shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.’  This has now devolved into an annual address before a joint session of Congress, televised to the nation as a major event.  Instead of merely presenting ‘information,’ the President uses the address to put forward his agenda for the coming year. In recent years, the speech has been ‘enhanced’ with PowerPoint-style graphics delivered on a split screen.  (At least they don’t show the PowerPoints in the actual House chamber… yet.)

And this year, President Obama has already been test-marketing his proposals in recent weeks: we already know much of what he’s going to say.  So while on one level it’s kind of pointless, as an informed citizen I feel that I have to sit through it anyway.

But it’s a chance to yell back at the screen what I really think.  Times are from the video of the speech from the White House Web site.

02:46: “More people are insured than ever before.”  Yeah, at great personal cost to themselves, because you forced them to.  And it’s still unclear whether having insurance will actually provide access to good health care.

03:04: “And we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in 30 years.”  You didn’t build that, Obama.  Don’t take credit for it.  And your pals in Saudi Arabia are now trying to sweep it all away.

04:34: “The state of the Union is strong.”  Every State of the Union address includes this line somewhere in the first five minutes.  I was a little worried you weren’t going to make it.

06:30: “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist  of proposals….”  To be followed, of course, by the checklist of proposals.

06:43: Where’s Ben?  The President launches into the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler, married seven years and living in Minneapolis.  Rebekah is in the audience, sitting next to the First Lady.  But Ben is absent.  Was he really too busy to come to Washington?  Did he not have an adequate suit?  Could they not get a babysitter?  Or is it politically incorrect to show a normal heterosexual married couple except on America’s Funniest Home Videos?

09:10: “And over the past five years, our businesses have created over 11 million new jobs.”  The chamber erupts in applause, the Senators and Congressmen clapping like trained seals.  Guys: you didn’t build that, either.

09:50: “And thanks to lower gas prices, and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save about $750 at the pump.”  I can’t see that fuel economy has changed much over the past 10 years at least.  The recent drop in gas prices is not so much a consequence of our new exploration efforts as it is the Saudis lowering the price for their own ends.

10:34: “Today we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts….”  Actually, the only tool we need is for our leadership to stand up and say ‘no.’  But in 2008, we were told that a failure to enact bailouts would result in mass riots and martial law.

14:18: “Because families like Rebekah’s still need our help.  She and Ben are working as hard as ever, but they’ve had to forego vacations and a new car so that they can pay off student loans and save for retirement.  Friday night pizza, that’s a big splurge.  Basic childcare for Jack and Henry costs more than their mortgage, and almost as much as a year at the University of Minnesota.”  That’s called, well, the human condition.  Most of us, when bringing up small children, don’t have money for luxuries.  And proper child care is expensive, because it’s labor intensive, and not just anyone can do it.  (And having the government pay for it will make it cheaper?)

16:00: “First, middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change.  That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement.”  Mitt Romney’s campaign imploded in 2012 when when a video leaked to the public in which he stated the truth that about 47% of the population receives payments from the Federal government.  Obama apparently won’t be happy until it’s at least 77%.

18:31: “Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.  It’s the right thing to do.” Paid for by whom?

18:54:  “That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.” We often hear the figure that women get paid 77 cents to a man’s dollar.  But when one matches men against women at the same levels of experience and responsibility, the difference becomes much smaller.  And equal pay for equal work has been the law since… 1963!  (In fairness, women’s earnings still don’t quite equal men’s for the same work.  But I doubt that Yet Another Government Bureaucracy will help very much.)

22:14: “That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”   So now the community colleges will become wards of the Federal government.  And, like everywhere else touched by Federal funds, the colleges will be run to maintain their subsidies.  Whether anyone learns anything is, of course, besides the point.

25:48:  “…we need the new economy to keep churning out high-wage jobs for our workers to fill.”  All I’ve been reading about for the past few years is how people who were laid off from middle-class jobs in 2008-2009 are coming back as burger flippers.  Where are these high-wage jobs of which you speak?

27:13: “So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.  Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.”  But Keystone XL (the ‘single oil pipeline’) is to be built with private funds. It’s not the same thing.

30:45:  “Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a reenergized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars.”  Yes, but when?  In the 1960s, when JFK pressed us to go to the moon, we felt there was some urgency.

37:02:  ” Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group[ISIL]….  And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. ”  So we’re not getting into a ground war, but we need a resolution to authorize the use of force… for what, exactly?

38:07:  “… Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength.  That’s what I heard from some folks.  Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters.”  Well, maybe.  Russia isn’t doing so well right now, but they’re used to hardship.  We aren’t, and our vaunted prosperity is mostly pluffage.

41:00:  ” Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran….  There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.  But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; making it harder to maintain sanctions; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.  It doesn’t make sense.  And that’s why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”  So let me make sure I understand this.  Iran is our adversary.  We’re negotiating with them, but nothing seems to be coming of it.  So if Congress proposes to actually do something that would meaningfully impact Iran, you’re going to veto it.  Is that right?

41:35: ” No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.”  But if our own government invades the privacy of American families, that’s fine.

48:40: ” So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not.  As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.  And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.”  As long as the NSA is Hoovering up all our electronic communications, it will ultimately be used against us, regardless of what ‘safeguards’ the present administration decides to implement.  Someday, probably in the not-too-distant future, computer power will be abundant enough and cheap enough that it will be possible to sift through the vast pile of data: initially, to protect us against terrorists, but ultimately for God knows what.  The only protection, temporary though it might be, is to turn off the Hoover, and not to build more such facilities.

From there, the speech went on to the usual platitudes, the same as any President might say about how wonderful we are as a nation and a people.  Whatever.

Maybe I’d take it a little more seriously if the audience would stop clapping like trained seals.

Notre Président n’est pas Charlie

Last Sunday, three million people marched in the streets of Paris to stand up for the principle of free speech and a free press, after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo the week before.  Over 40 world leaders (including the Israeli Prime Minister and the President of the Palestinian Authority) showed up…

…but President Obama was conspicuous by  his absence.  Our leadership also did not see fit to send the Vice President, the Secretary of State, or even the Attorney General, who happened to be in Paris at the time.

Our leadership complained that they couldn’t have arranged security on such short notice.  But that’s, in a word, bullshit.

Let’s face it: behind the bluster, the real reason that the leadership of the United States, the alleged beacon of freedom for the entire world, didn’t believe this event was worthy of their presence is because they don’t believe in liberty, or free speech, anymore.

Our President said it himself:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.

(OK, I pointed out this in my last post on the subject.  It’s almost as bad as when Bush 41 told us ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’  But unlike Bush, who had to shamefully walk back his remarks–to the extent that it may have cost him re-election–Obama still stands by his words.)

Meanwhile, our leadership is also considering new legislation that would afford ‘freedom of the press’ protections only to professional journalists.  But most of them work for the six big media companies, and are already muzzled by their bosses.

So it wasn’t a mistake that nobody in our leadership was walking in Paris last Sunday.  It wasn’t a problem arranging security; it wasn’t a schedule conflict; it wasn’t an oversight.

Our leadership does not believe in our First Amendment freedoms anymore.

And they didn’t feel the need to fake it, either.

Je suis Charlie

It would have been very easy to put up a ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) graphic as my entire post in response to the assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last Wednesday.  But that’s almost the same as Twitter hashtag activism: the thought that by posting a hashtag, or a picture, one is changing the world.  (OK, writing a whole post about it isn’t much better.  But at least I’m putting out real thoughts, not just another Internet meme.)

Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) is a French satiric magazine known for publishing irreverent humor.  In 2011, their offices in Paris were firebombed, and last Wednesday, three men shot up the offices, killing twelve, including most of the staff, to avenge the magazine’s cartoon representations of the prophet Mohammed.

In the US, liability makes cowards of us all: Sony Pictures originally shelved the movie The Interview not because they were hacked, but in response to the large theater chains, who took seriously the notion that the North Koreans might wreak havoc on them for showing the movie, and refused to present it.  As far as I know, there is no American publication analogous to Charlie Hebdo:  there are humor magazines, but they suffer from political correctness.

But Charlie soldiered on.

The news the staff was massacred was initially saddening and shocking.  But on further thought, it shouldn’t be all that surprising: indeed, our President remarked that ‘The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.’  And the publication of images of Mohammed has been greeted with violence in some parts of the world.

But we must stand up for the right to publish such images.

Mario Cuomo

Yesterday, Mario Cuomo, former governor of the State of New York, passed away at the age of 82.

Even though I remember when Mario Cuomo was governor, and I even voted for him, I can’t remember anything that he did that was noteworthy.  He was a liberal with an expansive view of government, but he couldn’t follow through on it while he was governor because there was never quite enough money.  He delivered a rousing speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, in a year when the Democrats had consigned themselves to losing anyway.

I’m sure that they will rename the Queens Midtown Tunnel for him, or maybe the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  In recent years, the state has been renaming bridges and tunnels after dead politicians.  The Triborough Bridge (actually a complex of three bridges, as you might suspect, to connect three boroughs) was renamed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge; the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel became the Hugh Carey tunnel.

Mario Cuomo’s  son, Andrew, is governor now, having been re-elected last November.  He made a big splash when he first arrived in office, delivering an on-time state budget for the first time in eons.  But then, he turned into another New York State politician.  His chest-thumping achievement was a state income tax cut not large enough to pay for a daily newspaper.  (OK, maybe it would pay for El Diario, which is still fifty cents.)  Last year, with great fanfare, he named an ethics commission to investigate the state government, then shut it down before it could actually find anything.

But it’s not just the Cuomos: looking back through my lifetime, I can’t think of a single New York State governor who actually accomplished anything worthwhile.  Even if I cheat, and Google past governors to see what they did, I still come up mostly empty.  OK: Hugh Carey, back in the 1970s, helped save New York City from bankruptcy.  And Andrew Cuomo did sign gay marriage into law, although that seemed more a case of jumping in front of the parade and strutting, than actual leadership.

Worse, it seems true at every level of politics.  In 2013, we had Joe Lhota as the Republican candidate for mayor.  He seemed to go out of his way to be colorless, and he lost.  The 2016 Presidential election seems to be shaping up as a contest between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.  And which ever one is elected will probably do the same things.

A Conversation on Race?

We’ve been told, from time to time, that what we need is a ‘national conversation’ on race.  To be sure, even after fifty years of civil rights enshrined in Federal law, there are still issues and problems to be resolved.

But then I get the sense that I would be unwelcome at such a conversation because, well, I’m not black.  And the conversation would have certain ground rules, like:

  • Only white people can be racist.
  • In fact, all white people are racist, whether they care to admit it or not.
  • It is offensive, and therefore forbidden, to:
    • Cite statistics or other facts that are contrary to the narrative of racist discrimination;
    • Point out that many of the problems of the black community are in fact faced by all Americans;
    • Make light of the issues involved for rhetorical effect;
    • Challenge the ground rules.

To heck with that.

And I’m not black.

So let me start with what I know.

Michael Brown and Eric Garner confronted police over what were ultimately minor issues, and died at the hands of police as a result.  Two years ago, Trayvon Martin, while visiting another neighborhood, had a confrontation with a resident of that neighborhood, who shot and killed him.

I know, as a white person, from my own experience, that if I confronted police as Eric Garner or Michael Brown did, or a resident of a neighborhood where I was visiting, like Trayvon Martin did, I would not expect to remain unscathed.  I know that it would be extraordinarily dangerous, and I might even be putting my life at risk.

So I wouldn’t do that.

And I understood that concept from sometime when I was in elementary school.  I didn’t learn it in high school or college, or even from elementary school: it was something that seeped in from my observation of the world around me as I was growing up.

So why did these three men have these confrontations?

If I were to say that it was because they were black, that would be racist.  It would also be preposterous: I know many people, of all races and colors, who would agree that confronting the police, or a resident of a neighborhood where you didn’t live, is foolish at best and can be fatal at worst.

But if these men weren’t motivated to confrontation by race, what was it?

I tend to believe the reasons are cultural.  the three men were brought up in a different culture, with a different set of rules, that admitted confrontation for confrontation’s sake as useful and necessary.  But that’s my speculation at a distance, and may or may not be correct.

In any case, we need to understand, not so that we can flagellate our inner racist and throw money at the problem, but because it will get far worse, and not better, unless all of us strive to address it.

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

If we are the civilized people that we claim to be, the only appropriate policy direction on torture, or anything resembling it, is not to do it.  There are two essential reasons:

  1. If policies admit torture as acceptable in some circumstances, some of our people, perhaps being restless or bored, will do it for sport.  (See Abu Ghraib.)
  2. We like to believe that we face danger bravely, being appropriately apprehensive, but we don’t let it scare us.  A policy admitting torture is the mark of a scared people.

Last week, the public discourse included reheated discussions arising from the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.’  It was the same discussion that we had years ago, and the report (a Democratic partisan effort) revealed some of the gorier details of these interrogation methods, but otherwise revealed nothing of consequence we didn’t know before.

Was it torture?  I don’t know if there’s a formal definition, but as I think about it, torture would include any of the following:

  • Violating the subject’s body.
  • Causing permanent physical injury to the subject.
  • Offending the subject’s basic human decency.  This would include something like parading the subject naked in the town square; offending the subject’s personal beliefs is fair game.
  • Using drugs or poisons on the subject.

By that definition, yes, we tortured people.

Did it work?  This is the part where the debate has swirled for years.  But it was only a couple of days ago that I understood what we were really up to.

  • If you interrogate one person, the results will be hit or miss.  He might tell you the truth, and he might not.
  • If you interrogate a dozen people on the same question, you’ll get a dozen stories.  But by cross-checking them, you can usually reconstruct the truth, or a good approximation.

We weren’t just practicing enhanced interrogation on a handful of terrorist kingpins.  We were doing it on a broad scale, getting dozens of answers to the same question and reconstructing what happened from the result.

Once again: did it work?  The answer to that is probably–justifiably–secret.

In fairness, most of the enhanced interrogation techniques that have been discussed at length (waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions) don’t meet my earlier definition of torture.

But that doesn’t make them right.  They can still be abused for sport; they’re still the mark of a frightened people.  We’re saying that the ends justify the means: the first step on the road of evil.

And finally, to turn to the favorite argument of the defenders of enhanced interrogation: what if you had someone who knew the details of the atomic bomb that would destroy New York City tomorrow?  Would you play nice with him, or bash his face in?

Of course, you’d bash his face in.

But there’s a big difference between doing that, as an agent exercising his judgement in an extreme situation, and a policy admitting face-bashing as a normal interrogation technique.

Immigration Executive Action

Production Note:  This morning, I discovered the controls in WordPress that enable one to use one’s nickname to identify posts, etc.  So now my posts and comments are identified as belonging to ‘BklynGuy.’  But it’s still me.

*          *          *

Last Thursday, President Obama announced a plan to grant residency to those illegal immigrants who had been here for five years and had citizen or permanent resident children.  I missed his speech on Thursday night, but tuned in to some of the commentary on the Spanish television networks.  They all thought it was a really good idea, and were looking forward to more action in the same vein.

On the other hand, one of my conservative colleagues sent me the following:

Each and Every Illegal Alien Is a Criminal

Well, maybe.

Illegal immigration, as the name implies, is against the law.

So is murder.

And so is speeding.

And in the continuum of breaking the law, illegal immigration is closer to speeding than murder.  And an appropriate punishment is closer to speeding than murder: pay a fine, face an administrative penalty (points on one’s driver’s license for speeding; something similarly relevant for illegal immigration), and be done with it.  For the moment, I’m not addressing other crimes that one might commit on top of being an illegal alien: that’s a different kettle of fish, and one I’ll get back to at the end of this post.

Meanwhile, the President struck back with this item:

White House Immigration

On the surface, it seems a perfectly reasonable approach.  It is, indeed, such a reasonable approach that we tried it in the 1980s.  We provided a path to residence and citizenship for those already here, together with allegedly better border enforcement and penalties for employers who hired illegal aliens.  But we didn’t follow through on that last part, so instead of 4 million illegal aliens, we now have 12 million.

There’s nothing to suggest that this time wouldn’t be different.  From past events this year, it’s difficult to imagine the Obama administration actually working to secure the border.  It seems to be in their interest to keep the ‘humanitarian crisis’ going.  But, again from past experience, I don’t see that someone else would do much better.

Beyond that, Obama has incrementally used executive action to get around the  law in progressively larger steps.  Besides the scandals, there was the tweaking of Affordable Care Act requirements to make his administration politically palatable.  This move on immigration is the biggest and boldest yet, and if we let it stand, further usurpations of power are inevitable, not only by Obama, but future Presidents as well.

Should I write to my Congressman or Senator?  It seems pointless: they’re all total Democrats who worship the ground our President walks on.  I should save my breath to cool my porridge.

But the bottom line:

  • Our immigration system is broken.  Despite all the rhetoric, in fact, both parties like it that way and want to keep it.  The Democrats like it because immigrant families are part of their power base; the Republicans like it because illegal immigrants push wages down for everybody.
  • For that reason, it’s hard to believe that our leadership will enact real immigration reform.
  • And if they do, whether that reform will be actually implemented, without backfiring on itself, is even more doubtful.
  • I noted earlier that merely coming here illegally is closer to speeding than murder.  But if someone here illegally commits other crimes, we should throw the book at him.  But too often, our leadership seems to wink at it.  One of our ongoing scandals is that of illegal immigrant families claiming not only their own families as dependents on tax returns, but also their relatives back in their homeland, and our leadership doesn’t seem to care.  We have to start caring.
  • The Republicans will moan for a few months about Obama’s abuse of executive authority, but they’ll ultimately let it stand.  After all, they wouldn’t want the Democrats to come after a Republican President doing the same thing.

The illegal immigrants aren’t the problem.  It’s the bloody politicians.

 

Net Neutrality

Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech about what is popularly called ‘net neutrality.’  While I’m not sure that the solution he proposes (giving the matter to the FCC to regulate–partially) is a good answer, he is at least pointed in the right direction.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The essential thing that makes the Internet wonderful is that it is unregulated.  Put a properly formatted packet in at one end, and it comes out at the other.  And for the most part, other than satisfying the technical element of ‘a properly formatted packet,’ there is no other requirement.  The packet can contain anything at all.  Moreover, there are no ‘first-class packets’ or ‘second-class packets:’ they all get routed and forwarded the same.  This equality of packets is not established by government regulation: it’s configured into the Internet itself, as that was what they started with, and until now, there had been no compelling need to change it.

But some people would like their packets to have priority.  Should they be able to pay for the privilege?

Well, maybe.

If a company like Netflix wanted to build its own network alongside the Internet to distribute its videos, and interconnect with Internet service providers to distribute their content to people’s houses, that would be cool.  In this case, Netflix would be building infrastructure to better serve its customers, and they aren’t taking access away from anyone else.

But that’s not what the concept of ‘Internet fast lanes’ seems to be about.

Instead, the thought seems to be to maximize revenue from the infrastructure in place.  So the bandwidth that is allocated for an ‘Internet fast lane’ is necessarily taken away from someone else.

So a content provider could pay extra for ‘fast-lane access’ and provide (in theory) superior service to a competitor who didn’t.  Big content providers could roll the additional cost of ‘fast-lane access’ into their prices.

And smaller content providers who didn’t pay extra would be left at the mercy of Internet service providers and the bandwidth they cared to allocate for ‘non-premium access.’

The effect of this is very similar to government regulation: it favors the bigger firms, who can pay for priority access, while discouraging competitors.

And it might ultimately lead to a more difficult set of government regulations aimed at protecting some level of ‘non-premium access,’ and new criminal laws for the act of forging packet headers to secure priority access for packets without paying extra.

So net neutrality, where all packets are created equal, is the simplest approach.

This doesn’t mean that consumers can’t choose to pay more for faster Internet access.  That has always been the case, and will continue to be.  But that relates to the rate at which packets can be transferred from your home to the Internet, and not what happens beyond that.

Descent into Propaganda

NBC Nightly News - 2 Oct 2014

Last night’s NBC Nightly News began with a vaguely Mickey Mouse rendering of the Ebola virus behind Brian Williams as he told us about the Ebola case in Dallas, bad weather (since when do thunderstorms make the national news?), and deaths from high school football.

But then he began the report of the lead story:

The spread of Ebola is now a truly scary, very dangerous epidemic in Africa, made even scarier for Americans now with the first case diagnosed in this country….

I can accept that a live news reporter, witnessing something truly horrendous, might refer to the events around him as ‘scary.’  I can accept that, after having reported the facts, a news announcer might deliver an editorial summary and characterize something as ‘scary,’ although it’s not a word I’d use in a mass media report.

But when we’re told that something is ‘scary’ at the start of the story, we’re being told to how to feel about it before we’re presented with any evidence.

That isn’t news: it’s propaganda.

Evil or Stupid?

I’ve written in these pages that 11 September 2001 was the day we discovered our government was either stupid or evil, and to this day we’re afraid to find out which. Now we’re hearing that the terrorist group ISIS is already ensconced here in the US, just waiting for the right moment to strike.

Our leadership is trying hard to present themselves as ‘not stupid:’ if, indeed, there is a terrorist attack, we won’t be able to say they didn’t warn us.

But if they’re not stupid, then they would have to be….

Hold that thought for a moment.

We, the United States, built ISIS.

We built ISIS the same way we built al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. They served our purpose… until they didn’t.

In the particular case of ISIS, we wanted to go after the Syrian government, but the political will for a direct military response wasn’t there. So we enlisted the help of the ‘moderate Syrian rebels,’ only later coming to understand that there was no such thing.

There are two rational ways to deal with ISIS:

  • Acknowledge (even if only to ourselves) that we’ve made a mistake, and do our best to undo it. That means not only ‘boots on the ground,’ but whatever it takes to grind them into oblivion, followed by an extended occupation so they don’t get back up.
  • Acknowledge further that whatever efforts to undo the situation will only make matters worse: resist the urge to do something in the face of ISIS atrocities, stop supporting them, and let them burn themselves out.

Of course, we’re doing neither of those, outsourcing the dirty work to ‘carefully vetted moderate’ rebels, even though that approach got us into this mess in the first place.

Maybe I just don’t understand things. Maybe sleazy geopolitical gamesmanship is simply the way of the world.

I do understand, however, that if ISIS commits terrorism here, it will also be an event of our own making, because, besides building ISIS, we neglected the simple imperative of securing the border.

I also understand that responsible leadership means forestalling crises, not encouraging them. ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’ is the cry of fearmongers and despots.

Evil or stupid?

I’m still not sure, and I don’t think I want to find out.

Back into Iraq?

One of my conservative friends sent me an item reminding us that in 2007, when then-President Bush pushed for the ‘surge’ in Iraq, he warned us that if we left Iraq prematurely, the same problems would be back, only worse.  Now we have ISIS (or whatever they’re calling themselves this week) taking over the place, and the armchair generals in Washington saying that we need to go back and hit them hard.

Well, maybe.

In 2007, we owned the mess in Iraq, and there really was no way that we could duck out honorably.  But once something resembling peace had been achieved, the next step would have been to negotiate an agreement by which we could maintain some forces in place in Iraq, to help keep the peace if trouble should flare up in the future.  But we didn’t do that: as far as I can tell, both the Americans and the Iraqis wanted us to leave.  So there was no agreement to maintain forces, and we left.

And our hands are not clean in this affair: we built ISIS when we decided, instead of going to war in Syria ourselves last year, to arm the ‘Syrian rebels’ to fight on our behalf.  But the rebels realized that actually fighting the Syrian government would be work: extending their reach across lightly armed Syrian and Iraqi territory, where the locals would either be happy to receive them or ashamed to admit otherwise, would be far easier and more rewarding.

‘But don’t you see it?’ my conservative friend implored.  ‘They’re like the Terminator: they won’t stop until we’re all dead.’

But they get their strength… from us!

We congratulate ourselves that we haven’t had another terrorist attack on the US since 11 September, but we don’t realize that the terrorists didn’t have to do anything.  They can roll on the floor of their caves laughing as we turn ourselves into a police state and blow trillions of dollars fighting a war that kills people and destroys buildings, but leaves the movement pretty much unscathed.

‘Where would you rather confront them?  There, or here?’

Well, if confronting them ultimately serves to strengthen them, and weaken us, what’s the point?

What’s the Point?

It’s been a rotten week.

At work, I got into a pointless argument: pointless because I should have known that I couldn’t win, regardless of the merits of my position.  But I persevered anyway, and lost. And I wasted another week on a project that’s already horrendously late.

A few weeks ago, my office sent out a pile of drawings.  I spent a day and a half checking the technical details of the drawings, making sure everything was correct. This week, the client noted that half the drawings identified the wrong location in the drawing title.  It’s not a real problem: the drawings are a work in progress anyway, and everyone understood what the correct location was, but it’s still just stupid.

I’ve been so busy with real engineering issues that I haven’t had time for the more routine items, like… sending out invoices. But if I don’t do that, I won’t get paid.

The other night, I was watching the evening news when a commercial for Chase Private Client came on.  The happy couple invited their banker to their retirement party, and the banker said he’d be ‘honored’ to join them. I fought the urge to throw my remote control through the TV screen: I bank at Chase; they’re falling-all-over-themselves polite when I go there, but are practically useless; I fully expect to retire in a coffin.

And last night, I found myself watching the recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  One of the things that makes James Bond stories work is that Bond’s bosses are always on the side of rightness and justice.  But in Quantum, we learn that the corruption goes all the way to the top.  What is the point of serving Queen and country, when Queen and country are in bed with the villains?

It seems the entire country is becoming unglued.  We’re trying to make Ukraine and Syria safe for democracy while neglecting our own borders.  After fussing for years about the deficit, Congress has abdicated its Constitutional responsibility to manage the nation’s debt, by abandoning the debt ceiling and authorizing the Treasury to borrow whatever it needs for a set time period.

And someday soon, perhaps within the next two years, the hammer will drop, and my family and I will be trundled off to a FEMA camp, or be killed by marauding street gangs, or starve to death in our apartment.  Or maybe New York will be obliterated by an errant atomic bomb.  (Growing up in the 1960s, with the notion that the Russians could toast us with scarcely a moment’s warning, was nowhere near as bad: I had the sense that both the US and the USSR were run by responsible adults.  Today, I’m not so sure.)

Meanwhile, I’m running myself ragged, scrambling to meet deadlines, and having less and less to show for it.  Maybe I could prepare for the oncoming disaster, but I don’t have the time or the money or the energy.

A Dreary Start

One of my bad habits is grabbing my tablet first thing in the morning to check my e-mail, before I’ve quite gotten out of bed.  It’s usually advertising of various stripes: books or records or electronics.  Today Amazon was trying to tempt me with music.

They were selling  Lourde’s Pure Heroine at the low, low price of $3.99 (cheaper than vinyl records back in the day!).  I had heard reports that it was wonderful, and read about it in the newspaper, but never actually listened to Lourde herself.

Or maybe I did, but I just don’t remember it.

It’s that bad.  No, it’s worse.

Music is supposed to work by evoking an emotion in the listener.  But the songs of Pure Heroine evoke nothing, except a desire to change the channel.  I do not feel the earth move under my feet: I feel my neurons dying.

And Lourde is not a heroine, whatever she imagines herself to be.  She sings like a mouse.  The songs have too many words, and no space for a melody to take flight, or even work up a good waddle.

I don’t mean to be hard on Lourde.  She’s singing in the contemporary manner, and maybe it’s my fault that I don’t get it.  But it’s a disappointment.

Further wandering on Amazon brought me to the new Weird Al Yankovic album, Mandatory Fun, also well-reviewed in the newspaper.  I’ve always enjoyed Weird Al, but the input to the Weird Al process is the music of its time.  Would this be a case of ‘garbage in, garbage out’?

Sadly, it seems to be that way.  Some of the material seems worth another listen, but in general, it’s true to its title, ‘mandatory fun,’ which is to say that it’s no fun at all.

I got out of bed, went to the living room, and put on the Duran Duran song ‘Rio’ louder than I had a right to at 6:30 in the morning.

I had to clear the crap out of my head.

Learning Something New

b140705

It’s a beautiful clear morning. I’m out for a morning ride, the endorphins are flowing, and I pause at the former Grand Street ferry landing (now a charming little park) to write a few lines.

I recently started playing with, er, testing, Microsoft Office 365, which comes with an app for my phone with pocket versions of Word, Excel, etc. So let’s give it a shot, I thought.

I had tried opening a couple of files that I had stored on OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud service) with no problem, but couldn’t find out how to create a new document.

Some frantic Googling revealed the answer: from the very first Office screen, tap the symbol with the plus sign somewhere in it. If it had been a simple plus sign, I would have figured it out with no trouble.

It’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child can do it….

But typing on my phone actually works better than I expected. I’ve always found answering e-mails on my phone to be annoying and clunky, but Word on my phone just seems to work.

I only hope that I can retrieve this when I get back home to post it….

How Bad Is ‘Worst’?

The New York Post reported today that a plurality of respondents in a recent poll (33%) named President Obama as the worst President since World War II.  George W. Bush came in second with 28%, and Richard Nixon was a distant third at 13%.    So now I’m somewhat comforted to know that it’s not just me.

When I used to rail at Bush, I would call him derisively  ‘Our Fearless Leader.’  But I can’t call Obama that: he isn’t fearless, and I’ve never seen him actually lead.

People used to say that Jimmy Carter was our worst President.  B’ut his problem was that he was once a naval officer, and approached the Presidency the same way: address problems forthrightly, and take the necessary measures to deal with them, even though it may be difficult or painful.  Obama, in contrast, seems perfectly happy kicking the can down the road.

But if he’s that bad of a President, can we do something about it?  Some of the conservative Web sites that I read suggest that Obama should be impeached.  Its a charming thought, but, alas, I don’t see it happening.

We began the process of impeaching President Nixon because it appeared that he was using the power of his office to subvert our democratic system.  (Nixon resigned at that point, and we never got to the bottom of what actually happened.)  We impeached President Clinton (but failed to convict him) because of alleged personal crimes (he lied under oath).   While these crimes had no discernable impact on his ability to govern, they were nevertheless crimes.

We can reasonably say that President Obama is not respecting that part of the Constitution that requires him to ‘faithfully execute the laws.’  But the Constitution is deliberately vague on that point.  The Founders expected that a President might have to deal with conflicting constraints, and anticipated that he might have to use some professional judgement in executing the laws.  So the requirement is more of a guideline.

Moreover, impeachment was never meant as a remedy for policy decisions that one might disagree with, or alleged disrespect for the office, or lying to the American people (which for the typical politician comes almost as easily as breathing).  For those, the appropriate remedy is not to re-elect the man or his party.  But we did re-elect Obama in 2012, and by a substantial margin.

Some have suggested that the President could be charged with treason.  But that won’t work either.  In the absence of a declaration of war, the executive gets to decide who the enemy is.

In brief, our Constitution was never designed to deal with the case of a President who pursues his own agenda, with apparent disregard not only for the Constitution and the rule of law, but for common sense.  The Founders presumed that such a man would never become President.

But we elected him, not once but twice….

Never Say Never/Keeping the Old/Shouldn’t Be Surprised

OK, I changed my mind.  I’ll keep writing.

Whatever damage I may have done to myself from these posts is already done.  Beyond that, when the hammer drops, I’m sure the authorities will have far bigger fish to fry than me.

But it’s a beautiful summer morning here in NYC; I took an early-morning ride, so the endorphins are flowing; and my work has slacked off from its maniacally busy pace for the past few months, so that I have a few moments to write.

*          *          *

I got my current cell phone, a Samsung Galaxy Note, when they first came out in early 2012.  It was the first phone with a screen over 5″ diagonal; some suggested that it was too large to comfortably handle.  But my big complaint with my previous phone was that the screen was too small.  So it was great to be able to read e-mails and their attachments without having to scroll, and with a minimum of squinting.  The camera is also good enough to be comparable to a point-and-shoot film camera: good for pictures among friends, and most of the pictures I need to take for work.

Now, the two-year contract has run out, and I can go back to AT&T and get a new phone relatively cheap.  But looking at what’s available, the only phones I like are incrementally newer versions of the Samsung Note.  Casting about further, among unlocked phones, there’s the Lenovo K900, which was never offered for sale in the United States.  It looks really cool, but it’s from 2012, and is functionally not too different from my Note.  Not worth the $450 or so it would cost.  (Lenovo has a newer model, again not marketed in the US, which has a slightly bigger screen, but looks nowhere as cool as the K900.)

So I’m keeping the Note.  The battery was getting old, and wouldn’t hold a charge for a full day.  But a new battery fixed that.

Meanwhile, my 2009 laptop remains in service as my work computer.  I could probably upgrade it to Windows 7 or 8, but as long as everything works, I have no compelling reason to change from Windows XP.  (Yeah, I know, Microsoft stopped supporting it in April.  But in all the years I’ve had computers with Microsoft software, how many times have I contacted them for support?  In a word, zero.)

Part of me wants to get a new battery for my laptop, like the phone.  But the other day I learned about a new peripheral device that reads gestures, which requires Windows 7 or 8.  I’d like to be able to give presentations without a clicker, being able to make a little swoopy gesture over the machine to make it change slides.  (I was able to do this in the 1990s, when we had presentations as overheads or 35mm slides, and for a big enough group, someone else was working the presentation.)

So maybe I won’t be able to resist the temptation of a new toy.

*          *          *

At the beginning of 2013, I had to change health insurance.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the new Obamacare-compliant plan was a few ticks cheaper than the old insurance.  But then I wasn’t expecting a big change up or down because many of the features of Obamacare (no exclusion for pre-existing conditions, same rates for men and women, etc.) were already New York law.  The premium for my wife and me is currently about $1100/month.

Yesterday, I got a letter from the insurance company.  I received it in my office, as the employer, and at home, as the employee.  They’re petitioning the state for a 25% premium increase next year.  Part of the reason for the increase, they explained, was ‘the projected impact of the federal risk adjustment program that was put in place by the Affordable Care Act.’

So we in New York are still going to get whacked by Obamacare, it’s just taking a little longer.

My Last Post

I first kept a Web journal (we didn’t yet call them ‘blogs’) in 1999.   I kept it regularly for a couple of years, and then started to trail off: my new job included a real non-disclosure agreement, and the soap opera of the workplace was now off-limits.

I took out the domain name ‘harderworld.com’ in 2005, but didn’t start writing until 2008.  The premise of the blog–and the domain name–was that after decades of life getting easier, things were becoming more difficult.  Even then, I never wrote regularly, as I have been just too busy.  Nevertheless, I continued to write when I had a calm moment, and something genuinely interesting crossed my mind.  In fact, today’s paper brought a story that I would have liked to write about.

But I won’t, and I don’t expect to write any more posts in at least the near future.  I could simply slink away and let the site close, but I feel the need to put an explanation on the record, even if nobody will read it and even if I’m shooting myself in the foot by writing it.

Last year we learned, as a fact, what we long suspected: the National Security Agency has been collecting, among other things, everything transacted over the Internet in the name of protecting us against terrorists.

For now, I don’t expect our leadership to run around reading everyone’s blog posts and locking people up.  The leadership hasn’t gotten to that point, and the technology isn’t quite there yet.

But the trends are inexorable: computers are getting faster and cheaper, and in the name of protecting the nation’s health, now that we effectively have nationalized health insurance, it seems inevitable that the government will examine what people post on the Internet, and take action, all for their own good, of course.

So in brief, I don’t see that continuing to write here will do me any good.   I’m concerned that, at some time in the future, someone–or something–might review these posts and decide that I’m mentally unstable, or a racist, or God knows what.

Take care, and be well.

Tax Day

15 April is tax day in the US for individuals, but if you run a business, 15 March is the day for filing business tax returns.  This year, it’s a Saturday, which means that the returns are actually due on Monday, but yesterday was the day I gave over to getting them done and out the door.

Ever since I was a little kid, I had heard that income tax was this terrible, painful ordeal.  But when I was old enough to work and file tax returns, it didn’t seem terribly difficult.  Since the late 1980s, I’ve used tax software: it keeps track of the mechanics of the tax forms, and makes the math foolproof.  But I still have to do the donkey work of collecting and compiling the figures to type in the boxes, and if I had to do it the hard way, with pencil and paper, I could.

When I went into business for myself, I found that business tax software is not as polished as personal tax software.  No matter, it’s still the same basic process: income less deductions gives taxable income, apply the tax rate or table, subtract what you’ve paid already, as well as any tax credits, and pay what’s left over, or get a refund if you’ve paid too much.

When I was in school, in all my math classes, business math was never discussed.  From elementary school to college, there was arithmetic, fractions, decimals, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, differential equations.  But there was nothing about balancing a checkbook, keeping books, compound interest, or tax returns.  Some of my older math books had sections on these subjects, but the teacher didn’t get to them.  I’m sure it’s gotten worse since then with general educational rot.

But I don’t believe that’s the reason people think taxes are terribly difficult.

Despite the simplicity of the basic process, the US and state tax codes are inordinately complicated.  The government is always taxing this and giving credits for that in order to push the economy in one direction or the other.

And if you knew the magic formula, you could make your taxes disappear.  Or so people imagine.

I thought so too, at one time.  So I studied the books and the instructions from the government, and I concluded that there was no magic formula.  If you buy a house with a mortgage, you can deduct the interest.  You can also deduct some of your state and local taxes, charitable contributions, and a few other things.

And if you’re diligent, you can reduce your taxes that way.  But make them disappear?  No way.

But people imagine that there is a magic bullet, and are disappointed that neither they nor their tax professionals can find it.  And then they hear about someone who invested in oil wells or pincushions as a tax shelter, and feel cheated.

But let’s imagine that all of that was swept away.  From time to time, politicians have called for vastly simplifying the US tax code, with a tax return that would ‘fit on a postcard.’  Let’s imagine that it came to pass, and that, in fact for most taxpayers, the government could send the tax return to you, already filled in with data that the IRS is already acquiring under current law.  You could simply sign the return if the figures are correct, but you’d still have to fill in a much-simplified return if something was in error or you ran a business.  Let’s say, further, that this new income tax resulted in the same revenue for the government as the old tax.

It’s a charming thought, but it would be an economic disaster.  Half the IRS—or more—would no longer be necessary, and could be laid off.  Whole industries have been built around the complexities of the tax code, from H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt to the vendors of oil well and pincushion investment schemes.  They’d all be out of business, or reduced to shadows of their former selves.

And we’d lose one of the legends of American culture: the magic formula to make one’s income taxes disappear.  But then again, for more than half of our history, we didn’t have an income tax, so we can probably survive that part.

The Trouble with Ukraine

The story, according to the news media:

The good people of Ukraine, yearning for freedom and prosperity, seek a closer relationship with the European Union.  But the government of Ukraine, with it’s President supported by the Russians, wants a close relationship with Russia.  The matter came to a head during the last week of the Winter Olympics, and the government was thrown out.  The new provisional Ukraine government wants a new relationship with the European Union, which would also bring billions in aid.

Meanwhile, the Russians have moved into the Crimea, a peninsula in the southeast of Ukraine that is ethnically Russian and the site (for years and years) of a Russian/former Soviet naval base.  The troops don’t carry Russian insignia, and when pressed, Russia indicates that they’re merely protecting their interests and the Russian population.

So we’re led to believe that the provisional Ukraine government stands for freedom and constitutional democracy, and all good things.  It’s a good story.

And if I believed it, I might feel differently.  But I wonder:

  • Are our hands clean in this exercise?  Or did we put the Ukrainians up to it?
  • It appears that this provisional Ukraine government is made up of the worst kind of right-wing reactionaries–the spiritual if not physical descendants of the Ukrainians who stood with Nazi Germany in the 1940s.  Why are we supporting these people?
  • The government that was deposed had been validly and noncontroversially elected.  What is the justification for throwing them out?
  • If Ukraine joins the European Union, they will indeed get aid.  But most of the aid will be in the form of loans that will have to be paid back.  Ukraine will have to take austerity measures to be able to repay the loans, like Greece.
    • Is this a ploy to acquire for the Europeans (and deny to the Russians) Ukraine’s coal and natural gas?
    • If the people of Ukraine understood the dimensions of the issue, would those in favor of joining the European Union still be enthusiastic about it?

Once upon the time, we were the strongest and most productive nation on Earth.  We could and did go meddling in the affairs of other countries not only because we could do it, and we thought it was right, but because we could withstand the consequences of our actions.  The rest of the would couldn’t do very much to hurt us.  And we had enough common sense not to mess around in our adversary’s home turf, which, in fairness, might result in consequences that we couldn’t shuck off.

But we’re not the country we were fifty years ago, nor even during the Reagan administration.  The Russians can inflict far more severe consequences on us than we can on them, because we are hugely and catastrophically in debt to the rest of the world.

The best thing we can do in Ukraine is to leave it alone.

Finally, a Federal Jobs Program

Food Label Updates

The Food and Drug Administration announced this week that they were seeking to update the standard nutrition label found on most food products sold in the United States.  It is expected that this effort will cost the manufacturers of food products some $2 billion, as well as a couple of hundred million more for the government’s costs.

My first thought was, ‘what’s the point?’ The changes are incremental, although some of them (like using larger type for the number of calories) are obvious enhancements.  But why couldn’t manufacturers make tweaks like that for themselves?

Because it’s a Federally-required label, you idiot, and it has to fit the Federally-required format.  Tweaks are illegal, resulting in fines, and maybe criminal prosecution.

And why is the Federal government formatting food labels?

I don’t specifically recall.  The news reports on this noted that the standard nutrition label has been around for about 20 years.  What did we have before then?

Well… we had nutrition labels that generally provided the same information, perhaps not to the same detail, but covered the basics.  Formats varied from one manufacturer to another, but were generally consistent (how many ways can you list calories and nutrients?).

Somehow, we survived: I don’t recall any sort of crisis that led to the FDA mandating formats for food labels.  They just sort of appeared, quietly, in the 1990s.

But maybe I shouldn’t rail at this latest bureaucratic exercise.  $2 billion will provide tens of thousands of jobs, and most of the cost will be covered by the private sector.  And those people will spend on goods and services, creating still more jobs and stimulating growth.

Yeah, right.

*          *          *

Some of the reports on the new nutrition labels noted that for a cost of $2 billion, a benefit of $20 billion will accrue to consumers, or about $65 per capita.

OK: where do I go to collect my $65?  Because I can’t see how a reformatted label is going to actually save me anything.

Stuck Overnight

Yesterday at noon, I was racing to finish the task I was working on at an out-of-town job site.  I had a flight that would leave at 2:40, and a party back in NYC that I wanted to attend.

After some finagling, I had it.  I had achieved a milestone in the task I had before me, but still had more to do.  I told my colleague at the site that it was a wrap for me for the day, and that I should be able to finish the task in my office, but I might return next week.

A muffled boom of thunder sounded overhead.

Two minutes later, my phone rang: a recorded announcement that my flight had been cancelled.

The machine gave me the option to connect to an airline agent.  The agent helpfully informed me that there would be no other flights that day, and that the next available non-stop would be at about the same time the next day.  I rebooked.

I had stayed at a local hotel up the road from the job site.  I called them up and reserved a room for another night.  It was quick and painless.

The rental car was another matter.  I rummaged around my e-mails and found the telephone number for the airport office.  I was forwarded into the rental company’s monster voice-recognition computer, and what would have been a thirty-second conversation with a person: ‘My rental number is “xxx” … I need the car for one more day, at the same time….  Got it?  Thanks!’ turned into five minutes of automated hell.

I’ve learned to roll with the punches when things go wrong on a business trip: sometimes I believe that God is looking out for me.  If I had finished my task at noon, as I had planned, I would have gotten the call while I was en route to the airport.  I would have been really angry, would have booked into a hotel near the airport, and probably have ended up accomplishing nothing.  As it was, I invited my colleague to lunch, went back to my task afterward, and got most of it done.  There’s still some clean-up and tweakage, but the heavy lifting is done.

*          *          *

We finished late, and I headed to a Wal-Mart after dinner to find something to wear the next day.  (OK, I could rinse out my socks and underwear and use them again, but it had been a long day.)  I got:

  • Wrangler shirt from Bangladesh;
  • Fruit of the Loom colored T-shirt from El Salvador;
  • Russell briefs from Vietnam (didn’t they used to be the enemy?);
  • Dickies work socks from Pakistan (I had to look around on the package to find this).

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Sad Decisions

I used to enjoy baseball games.

In the 1990s, when life was calmer, I went to perhaps a half-dozen Mets games a year.  (Not the Yankees: rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Apple.)  One year, I had bought a Sunday ticket package, and went to see a World Series game.

For all its shortcomings, I remember Shea Stadium fondly.  More recently, I went to Citi Field, and was not impressed.  OK: the seats were nicer, and I had maybe an inch more legroom.  But it’s still a baseball game.

Alas, this may be my last year.

Major League Baseball has determined that, effective 2015, all attendees at baseball games will have to submit to metal detector screening.  I’ve put up with the bag checks that started after 2001, but one can avoid those by simply not carrying a bag.  I’m also OK with getting frisked: it takes only a few seconds, and I don’t have to empty my pockets.

But I draw the line at the full airport treatment to watch a baseball game.  I accept it at airports because there are many things that one might carry on an airplane that can  be dangerous: the practical need for airport security is broader than just looking out for terrorists.  And I don’t just jump on a plane and fly somewhere without a good reason.

But baseball is supposed to be an entertainment.  It’s supposed to be fun.  It’s supposed to be a respite from many of the other annoyances of life.  It’s not supposed to be an empty-your-pockets moment (except perhaps at the concession stand).

For much the same reason, I’ve given up on the Monday night summer movies at Bryant Park.  They don’t have metal detectors, but your bags are subject to inspection.  The inspection seems pointless: the mind boggles at the things that I could stuff into my briefcase and sneak through.

But a real inspection isn’t the point: it’s to cover the organizers of the event if anything goes wrong.  Beyond that, it’s yet another instance of security theatre so that we all get accustomed to having our stuff searched.

*          *          *

Next week, I’ll have been married for 13 years.  My wife is not a citizen, but has been a permanent resident for most of that time, and would be eligible to be a citizen now if we filed the papers.

The subject came up at lunch today.

If we had met each other, say, ten years earlier, it wouldn’t have gotten a second thought: of course she would become a citizen.  And if she felt strongly about it now, and wanted to become a citizen, I wouldn’t be writing about it now: it would simply get done.

But, now, neither of us can see any point in it.

I used to be proud of my country.  But now, I’m just waiting for the hammer to drop.

Obama’s Right

It was a pathetic bit of a pathetic State of the Union address: a call to American business to raise wages so that Americans would have more disposable income.  But for once, President Obama was actually right.

When I entered the working world, my first jobs paid a little more than the minimum wage when I started.  But after a few months’ experience, the pay went up.  At least in the New York metropolitan area, even basic jobs paid more than the minimum wage.  The notion that minimum-wage jobs were for teenagers just starting out in the work world was really true.

And if you earned twice the minimum wage, you could find a modest apartment that you wouldn’t have to share with roommates.  With a little more than that, company-paid health insurance, and a like-minded spouse, you could even start a family.  (OK, now you’re back to having a roommate,  but it really isn’t the same thing.)

All of this was accessible to pretty much everyone, or at least it seemed that way at the time.

In the past weeks, the Daily News has reported on people working for large employers, receiving the minimum wage (or very close) and no benefits.  One woman had worked for McDonald’s for 10 years and was still earning $8.25/hour.  She must be a rotten employee, I thought at first: how do you work for the same place for 10 years without a raise or a promotion?

But she was hardly alone.

There are many other workers, hardly teenagers, toiling year after year for the minimum wage.  Some of them work for contractors to the Port Authority at the airports, cleaning toilets or hauling baggage.  Once upon a time, these jobs might have been unionized, with benefits and a living wage.  But not anymore.

And the employers can do this because there are hordes of unemployed who’ll be happy to clean toilets if you won’t.

Beyond that, employees who aren’t paid a living wage are often eligible for food stamps.  So part of an employee’s food bill is a cost that the business can now externalize onto the government.

If businesses paid their employees more, such that the employees would be able to pay their own food bills, it would indeed help the economy and break the cycle of government dependence.  In this respect, the President, for once, is right.

Unfortunately, the business that does that will find that its competitors–who didn’t raise the wages they pay–are eating its lunch.

Sharing is Scary

Edward Snowden, the man who made public and overt what we long tacitly understood about the government’s surveillance activities, issued a video last Christmas in which he remarked:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only a very little one.  What’s worse is that we seem to be willing to do it for ourselves.

The other day, I noticed that a small Facebook logo had appeared on an update to the media player on my tablet.  I selected it to find a control to publish what I was currently listening to on my Facebook account.

I hit ‘cancel’ and shuddered:  I was glad, in that moment, that I do not have a Facebook account.  The thought of someone, outside my home, tracking my personal choices in music, gave me the creeps.  (Not that it might not happen anyway, given the state of government surveillance, but why would I volunteer what is intensely private for me?)

But there are doubtless people who are happy to post their current selections to the world.

The latest trend in managing education seems to be to give ‘high-stakes’ tests to children as young as 5.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of giving standardized tests to kindergarteners, but I had them from about the second grade, and nobody thought they were anything other than a part of the school experience.  (I actually liked test day better than the regular school day, as it was quiet and I could focus.)

But some of the reports of teachers who have to administer standardized tests to young children are telling: this is apparently the first time the children are asked to perform as individuals, and for the children, it’s not a comfortable experience.  Some of them, brought up with the notion that ‘sharing is caring,’ tried to help their classmates; some of them, realizing that they would have to work alone, got physically ill.

When I was a kid in school, there were things that we did collectively, and things we did as individuals, and that seemed the natural order of things.  There were things to share, and things not to share.  But now, the individual doesn’t matter, it seems.  Everything is to be shared.  The trend was there when I was growing up: the school’s biggest complaint about me as a youngster was that I ‘didn’t get along with the group.’  But the notion has apparently come to full fruition now.

To be sure, indiscriminate, overreaching government surveillance is evil.  But if the young are brought up to believe that the collective is everything, and their individuality is only relevant as it relates to the collective, then it doesn’t matter what the government does.

We will have surrendered our privacy ourselves, as much as the government took it from us.

The Age of the Skyscraper Is Past….

When I was in middle school, CBS was broadcasting Bicentennnial Minutes in the runup to 1976.  For a Friday assembly one week, the teachers had us make up our own Bicentennial Minutes, imagining what we would say in 2175 about events 200 years earlier.

One of my classmates spoke about the World Trade Center towers, imagining that they would be demolished 200 years hence, as they would then be among the shortest buildings in New York City.

At the time, it seemed totally noncontroversial: we would go on putting up ever-taller buildings until the mighty Twin Towers were dwarfed by their neighbors.

*          *          *

Of course, the Towers met an untimely end, but that isn’t my point today.

One WTC

The other day, my wife and I were walking around Chinatown, and I saw the new One World Trade Center tower rising into the clouds.  And I wondered: since the construction of the original World Trade Center, and the Sears Tower in Chicago (now called the Willis Tower as Sears has pretty much imploded), how many buildings taller than the Empire State Building (the quintessential skyscraper when I was growing up) have been built in the US?

There have been two:

  • The new World Trade Center tower;
  • The Trump International Hotel in Chicago.

But then again, there are so many practical reasons not to build really tall buildings: they’re too expensive to build, horribly expensive to insure, difficult to evacuate in an emergency, and what happens if one gets hit by an airplane?

So much for our middle-school imaginings….

This is not…

Magritte-Treachery of Images

My wife and I were visiting the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago, and we encountered The Treachery of Images at the Magritte exhibit.  The words in French read, ‘This is not a pipe.’

The painting is an iconic image; I had seen it before.  I had thought of it as somewhat of a joke.  But Magritte’s reason for painting a beautiful illustration of a pipe with the legend ‘This is not a pipe’ was to remind us that it is a picture of a pipe, and not a pipe itself.  You can’t fill it or smoke it.  It is a simple yet profound truth.

The thought came back to me yesterday when I heard on the news that the Dow Jones Industrials closed at 16,479.88, a new record.  We like to believe that a surging stock market is a sign of prosperity.

But it isn’t.  The economy is still doing rotten for most of us; the official unemployment level has dropped to around 7% only because people are giving up on working in droves.

And price inflation is still very much with us: one of my little pleasures is Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies.  A year ago, there were 28 cookies in a package; the most recent package I opened, a couple of days ago, had 23.  The price, of course, has remained unchanged.

If I eat five cookies for an evening snack (belated dessert?) instead of six, it’s probably better for my waistline.  But does that count as a hedonic adjustment?  In other words, it’s still an evening snack, even though it’s smaller, so the effective price of the cookies hasn’t changed: I still get about 4.5 evening snacks out of a package.

But then again, if I had six kids, the difference between 23 and 28 cookies would be glaringly obvious.

The Dow at 16,479 is a datum of prosperity.  A picture, perhaps.

But it isn’t the real thing.

Just like the pipe….

Music for 2013

The year is almost over: time to consider my Song of the Year for 2013.  So that everyone’s clear, my first two entries are counterexamples: they are not good music, at least not for me.  Anyway, here goes:

Extra Specially Bad: Merry Christmas Exclamation Point

This is a very late entry: the video appeared only a couple of days ago.  Yet it is so extraordinarily bad that it made this post after listening for 20 seconds.  The music was thrown together, and doesn’t properly fit the words.  And if you want to send your not-quite-friends a text message for Christmas, I really don’t want to hear about it.  Do whatever melts your butter.

Not even close: Wrecking Ball

My son was enthusiastic about this song, and recommended I give it a listen.  On one level, it isn’t too bad: I don’t find myself wanting to turn it off while listening to it.  But five minutes later, the tune has completely slipped my mind, except for the first line of the refrain: “I came in like a wrecking ball….”  OK, then what?

And I remember when music videos told a story, or at least had some continuity.  We see alternating visions of Miley riding a wrecking ball while naked, and then, no longer naked, kissing a sledgehammer.  And this is supposed to evoke… what?  My fantasy life on a construction site?

Honorable mention: The Fox

Yes, the first few lines are mind-blowingly juvenile (“Dog goes woof / Cat goes meow / Bird goes tweet / And mouse goes squeek…”).    But the music is propulsive, and unlike Miley, stays in my head.  It’s music that goes with doing something, rather than moaning about how rotten the world is.

And the winner: Levitate

The YouTube video for this song is titled ‘People Are Awesome,’ a series of clips of people demonstrating feats of athleticism.  My wife had found the video last winter, and I was more interested in the music than the visuals.  The music suggests energetic striving and achievement.

*          *          *

And a final thought.  This song came out when I was in high school.  I associated it with, among other things, a part of New York City that I had to visit this past week for a project.  In its time, it was one good song among many.  If it came out this year, it would have swept the competition.  Is it just that music, like everything else, is more exciting when you’re a teenager?  Or are there some darker forces at work?

Meanwhile, Beyond These Borders….

Earlier this month, I went to a professional conference in London.  One of my immediate observations is that while the US has been in the economic doldrums for the last few years, much of the world has dusted itself off and gotten back to work.  The presentations at the conference are about new and bigger infrastructure improvements going on in cities all over the world… except in the US.

What happened?

On the first day, one of the presenters told the story of the Docklands Light Rail, which was built to revive the disused Docklands to the east of London.  The system opened in 1987 as a two lines that ran single cars.  It was enormously successful: today there are seven lines that run 2- and 3-car trains.

Meanwhile, Detroit has been puttering about with the idea of a Woodward Avenue light rail line.  They were going to build it, and then they decided to run buses, and now construction has begun on a line expected to carry about 1 million passengers/year when it opens in 2016.  (The Docklands, in its first year, carried 17 million, and now carries five times that.)

To be sure, there’s an obvious difference: the Docklands are just east of central London, a dynamic business district that is thirsting for more space.  The Woodward Avenue line is in… Detroit.

But the Docklands story was one among many.  What are we doing wrong?

One easy answer is: Obamacare.  All across the US, employers have been cutting staff and hours in an effort to escape the law’s mandates.  Meanwhile, people all over the country are getting sticker shock over the insurance premiums they now have to pay themselves.  Not exactly a recipe for a booming economy.

But the problem is broader than that….

Who Killed JFK?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Last Friday was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and last night, my wife and I watched a History Channel presentation about the assassination.  While they did a good job of presenting the facts of the events, the program was driven by statistics of what people thought about the assassination.

In the process, one of the most significant events of the 20th Century is turned into a parlor game: CIA operative X did it from the grassy knoll with a sledgehammer.  At the end of the presentation, we were back where we started: another demonstration of the impotence of facts and reason.  (There’s a reason for this that goes beyond the JFK assassination, but it’s a subject for another day.)

I was two years old when JFK was assassinated, so I don’t remember what happened.   But there is an event of similar dimensions that occurred in my adult life: 11 September.  There are many similarities in the two events, particularly in how the government acted to get its official version of the story out and suppress alternatives.

But there are essential differences:

  • The official story of the JFK assassination is at least plausible.  Some years ago, I watched a documentary of an effort to reconstruct the trajectory of the ‘magic bullet’ that struck both JFK and Texas governor John Connally.  The effort succeeded.  On the other hand, while I can believe that the Twin Towers would collapse from being struck by airliners, it strains the imagination that they would fall into neat little piles.  Moreover, 7 World Trade Center was not struck by airplanes.  It sustained damage that should have left it standing.  But it, too, collapsed into a neat little pile.
  • The Warren Commission that investigated the JFK assassination believed they had gotten to the truth of the matter.  I don’t know what the 9/11 Commission thought they were doing, but it wasn’t the same.
  • From the official explanation, it follows that the assassination of JFK could not have been avoided.  The President was protected with the normal security measures of the time, and it seemed implausible that someone could accurately shoot and kill the President in a moving vehicle.  But the coming events of 11 September cast their shadows beforehand, and yet we did nothing to forestall the events.
  • The assassination of JFK led to some changes of policy direction, but all of these were within the realm of normal politics.  11 September led to the unfolding police state.

Cavalcade of Stupidity

Thursday night, I was watching NBC Nightly News:

  • Federal regulators are contemplating changing the rules to enable passengers on airlines to use their cell phones during the flight.  The practical answer is that as long as cell phone use doesn’t affect the safety of the flight, and doesn’t interfere with the operation of the cell networks on the ground, it should be OK.  But the news report was full of angst over the possibility of having to listen to one’s seat mate yakking nonstop from coast to coast.  Get over it: Amtrak and the commuter railroads have successfully dealt with this for years.  We used to have smoking and non-smoking sections on planes; it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to have yakking and non-yakking sections.  It’s a problem for the airlines to solve, not the government.
  • A 747 Dreamlifter landed at the wrong airport in Kansas.  The Dreamlifter is an oversized aircraft used to transport components of the Boeing Dreamliner 787 and other large airplanes.  You’d think that the pilots of the Dreamliner would be able to tell which airport is which.
  • The Senate Democrats changed the rules to allow nominations for most judges and other Presidential nominees to pass on a simple majority vote: the Republicans were denied the ability to filibuster the nomination.  While this may not be a big deal in itself, it upsets the balance of the Senate, and opens the door to bolder rule changes in the future.
  • The Administration was pushing back against reports that American troops could remain in Afghanistan for another ten years.  The Afghan government held debates on this arrangement.  The Afghan President assured the assembly that the Americans wouldn’t be involved in combat missions anymore.  (How would he know that?)  OK, we had bases in Europe after World War II (and indeed still do).  But is a presence in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, really necessary?  And then our President promised that the Americans would:

…make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes… just as we do for our own citizens.

You mean like the NSA?

  • An elderly veteran of the Korean War fulfilled his lifelong dream of revisiting North Korea.  He went there for a 9-day tour, and was arrested on the plane that would have taken him homeward.  The last time I checked, the Korean War had not yet ended.  For a Korean War soldier to go back to North Korea would seem most unwise.
  • The Dow Jones Industrials closed over 16,000 for the first time ever, an all-time high.  The pluffing of the stock market continues, without any real productivity underneath.
  • The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce ran a full page ad encouraging Washington state legislators to pass a transportation package (presumably more tax breaks) to that Boeing would build their latest aircraft in Washington state.  Unfortunately, the ad featured a picture of an Airbus jetliner, made by Boeing’s strongest competitor.

 

A Foul Mood

I was in a foul mood last week.  I think I was on the edge of coming down with a cold, and I was teaching a class, so I had to be bright and chipper through the workday, only to come home and want to just drop into bed.

But beyond that:

  • It seems inevitable that Bill deBlasio will be our next Mayor: so inevitable, in fact, that I didn’t bother to cast an absentee ballot (more on that later).  He promises ‘a break from the Bloomberg years.’  I take that to mean a break from low crime and competent city administration (except for the snowstorm a couple of years ago).  Meanwhile, he promises to fight the good fight to reinstate the ban on large sodas.  I remember the ‘bad old days’ of the 1980s.  It didn’t bother me so much back then, as I was in my 20s and felt pretty much indestructible, but now I’m worried.  Moreover, deBlasio is a community activist, with no experience running either public or private enterprises, other than his own office as Public Advocate.  And we all know what happened the last time we elected a community activist to executive power….
  • Across the nation, the reality of Obamacare is seeping in: that if you’re not covered by your employer, you’re required to pay out of your own pocket for health insurance.  In NY, many of the requirements of Obamacare were already state law, so premiums in fact may be going down a few ticks.  But elsewhere, premiums are skyrocketing.  And then there’s the thought that, if you live in one of the states without a state insurance exchange, you’ll have to go to healthcare.gov, and tell it all your personal secrets.
  • One of the items on the ballot this year is a state Constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling.  I used to think that casinos were cool, until my wife and I went to Las Vegas and got bored with it after about an hour.  (I also can’t bring myself to wager more than about $10 at a clip on a game I know is rigged in favor of the house.)  The modern casino is a factory performing the industrial process of separating patrons from their money.  The particularly galling thing, though, is that the state wrote up the description to play up the benefits of casino gaming (more money for schools! whoopee!), rather than a more neutral description, as that way people would be more likely to vote ‘yes.’

I attend a professional conference the first week of November.  For the last couple of years, I made it a point to cast an absentee ballot, but was just too busy over the past few weeks.  But the election seems a lost cause anyway.  Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the first day of the conference.  I was going to be a tourist today with my wife, but we’re both feeling rotten.  At least I can catch up on some paperwork.

Positive Train Control

I normally don’t write about topics in my profession: I think of blogging as a relief from work.  But I can’t resist commenting on a news item this week.

First, a little background.  For years, legislating requiring railroads in the US to install a positive train control system had been kicking around Congress.  Public interest groups supported it; the railroads hated it.  The stalemate persisted until 2008, when a head-on collision between a freight train and a commuter train occurred in California, killing about 20.  At that point, Congress was galvanized into action: the Rail Safety Improvement Act was passed, and signed by President Bush, less than two weeks afterward.  It requires certain mainline railroads in the US to implement positive train control systems over some 60,000 miles of track by the end of 2015.  (The territory where the California accident took place had a signal system, but no method of enforcement if a train should overrun a stop signal.)

Like any other human endeavor, railroads are imperfect: accidents happen, sometimes spectacular ones.  But on balance, railroads are safer than most other forms of transport.  The Positive Train Control system will incrementally improve safety, but at a cost of some $13 billion dollars to build, plus ongoing maintenance.  Meanwhile, from fewer accidents and improved operating efficiencies, the railroads will gain about 5% of that for their efforts.  And the system will not prevent all accidents: Positive Train Control would not have prevented the accident in Quebec last July, when a runaway train of crude oil derailed at the bottom of a hill, destroying 30 buildings and killing 42.

In any case, as of 2008, the railroads had a little over seven years to implement this system.  The first year could only be spent on general planning, because the regulations still had to be written.  But the railroads set to work on it, making progress, although the 2015 deadline was still a difficult target.

Earlier this year, there was talk about extending the 2015 deadline, which on balance seems reasonable.  But this week, a news item crossed my desk:  the sites for 22,000 radio towers, required to make the system work, would have to be approved by Native American tribes across the country, to ensure that the sites did not cover sacred burial grounds.

Where did such madness come from?  I thought of the times I have driven cross-country and the innumerable radio towers to support cell phone service.  But it turns out that those towers were subject to the same approvals.  The phone companies presumably set up a process for getting the sites approved with minimal delay, and built out their networks like they planned.

So now, I’m disappointed: either the consultants and engineers involved in Positive Train Control implementation don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re overstating the dimensions of the problem to cadge for more time.

The weasels….

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

No, that isn’t true.

I’m still worried, just as much as I ever was, if not more.

What made last week’s default debacle particularly scary was that, unlike August 2011, we now know that President Obama will handle the situation like a petulant child.  Rather than encouraging the people to be calm and face the problems together, he would happily incite nationwide riots because, after all, a good crisis should never go to waste.

I was hoping that the Republicans would be able to do something about Obamacare, the worst public policy decision since Prohibition.  But other than one little nibble (that we would explore the possibility of verifying one’s income before granting a subsidy), Obamacare stands.

And what is this business of ‘raising the debt ceiling until February’?  The debt ceiling is a number.  You raise it by a trillion dollars, or a billion dollars, or 75 cents.  But thus time it’s different: Congress has abdicated its authority under the Constitution and enabled the Treasury to borrow however much it needs for the next four months.

The movement to defund Obamacare was led by the Tea Party Republicans, who believe in a constitutional republic with a limited government.  (How quaint!)  The Republicans in general got hosed, even though most Republicans, from what I can tell, are as much big-government statists as the Democrats.  (Indeed, in last year’s Presidential election, it was hard to tell the difference between Romney and Obama, except that Romney would work to undo Obamacare… maybe.)

In the end, it worked out spectacularly well for the President: no substantial changes to Obamacare, no restrictions on spending, debt ceiling increases by time rather than money, the Tea Party excoriated as lunatics, the Republicans weakened, and the chance to repeat the lesson three months from now if anyone should dare to challenge these issues again.

Maybe it’s time to give up.

Maybe deficits don’t matter after all.  Maybe debt is a badge of honor.  It’s contrary to what I was brought up with, but maybe the world has changed, and what I was brought up with is now wrong.

I can’t imagine how this would work out, other than a totalitarian socialist utopia in which everyone is equally shabby, or else chaos, destruction, and death.  But the problem may be my lack of vision.

It may be time to learn to stop worrying and love the debt.

But I’m not ready to admit that.

Default, Again

For my part, there appears to be an eminently reasonable approach to the stalemate that has resulted in the Federal government shutdown: postpone the Obamacare penalty for not carrying insurance for one year.  People would still have the option to buy the insurance, and receive subsidies (perhaps reducing them a few ticks to balance the penalties that won’t be collected).  It would balance the Administration’s unilaterally postponing the Obamacare employer obligation for one year.  In fact, I believe that House Republicans proposed such an approach, but Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, rejected it out of hand.

Meanwhile, on top of the government shutdown (which has in fact left about two-thirds of the government up and spending), we now face a deadlock over the debt ceiling.  We went through this a couple of years ago, and if we had adults in charge, I wouldn’t be particularly worried.  If the government cannot borrow money, the 14th Amendment means that its debts are sacrosanct.  The government must pay its debts, which includes paying interest and principal on its bonds, and paying contractors and employees for services rendered.

Everything else is fair game.

If adults were in charge, they would follow the 14th Amendment, pay the debts, then prioritize the other expenses (aid for states and localities, ongoing procurements and government services that can be shut down, foreign aid, and–the elephant in the room–entitlements) and pay what they can from the remaining funds.  It’s what the rest of us do when we have a case of the shorts.  In fairness, the immediate effects would not be good for the economy.  But we would be facing reality, which is the first step to actually fixing things.

Alas, we don’t have adults in the room anymore.  One of the disconcerting parts of the Syria debacle a month ago is that the only person who seemed to have his head on straight was Vladimir Putin.  Our President and Secretary of State came across as damned fools.

That’s the real scary part.

Shutdown

I burst out laughing when I saw today’s Daily News headline:

House of Turds

But I’m not sure that House Speaker Boehner deserves the honor he is accorded here.  As far as I can tell, he’s an establishment politician who is somewhat embarrassed by his colleagues who are standing up for their principles and exercising their authority to actually change something.  (After all, it wouldn’t be good for angry Democrats to stand up for their constituencies and work to undo bad Republican policy.)

In any case, the House, driven by Republicans, and the Senate failed to come to agreement last night, and as a result, the Federal government is now ‘shut down.’  Well, not really: the mail will still be delivered, the politicians will still get paid, and essential services are still running.  But the national parks are closed across the country, and some 800,000 Federal employees are temporarily unemployed.

Whom do you blame for the government shutdown?

The direct answer is obvious: the House Republicans, of course.  They could have gotten with the program and kicked the can down the road, as has been done a hundred times before.  But the pollster’s question is loaded: it implies that the Federal government shutdown is a something to be blamed for.

To be sure, it’s not ideal, and not a desirable outcome.  But it’s the first break in our time from the pattern of yowling and wailing about some problem or another and then resolving to change nothing.  At least they’re trying.

Meanwhile, my mailbox is stuffed with missives from the Obamoids about the rotten Republicans who ‘want to prevent 40 million people from gaining affordable, accessible health care.’

No, that isn’t it at all.  It’s that Obamacare insurance is not ‘affordable;’ it’s unclear, given shortages of doctors and the rotten medical care in this country (unless you’re in the 1%, going to a hospital is only marginally nicer than going to jail), how ‘accessible’ care will be; and maybe a third of ’40 million’ will benefit, while the rest of us are bankrupted in the process.  Meanwhile, as a weekend bonus, employers all over the country are cutting their staffs and their hours so as not to have to pay for it.

And for those who say that Obamacare is ‘the law of the land,’ settled and beyond debate, I have three words:

So was Prohibition.

Obamacare: For Real?

Next week, the Obamacare health care exchanges will open up, enabling Americans to buy health insurance at allegedly reduced premiums.  An op-ed piece in the Daily News urged people to look up how much health insurance would cost before complaining.

OK, I’m game.

For comparison, the health insurance I buy for my company has a premium of $575/month for a single person.

Under Obamacare, there are four grades of coverage: ‘platinum,’ ‘gold,’ ‘silver,’ and ‘bronze.’  The grades are defined in terms of what fraction of the aggregate medical costs of the covered population they will pay: ‘bronze’ pays 60%, up to ‘platinum,’ which pays 90%.  I don’t have any information about how this resolves into practical details like co-payments, or how much one will have to pay for a hospital visit, and I don’t have a real basis for comparison with my current insurance.  (I asked my insurance agent  for a figure for comparison, but didn’t get an answer.  I suspect, though, that my current insurance is somewhere between ‘gold’ and ‘platinum.’)  There’s also a ‘catastrophic’ level, which is only available to people under 30.

There are nine insurance providers offering Obamacare policies in Brooklyn; for the purposes of this table I took the median premium as a middle-of-the-road value.

Level Full Premium/month (median) Net cost after subsidy/month
$40k/year income $25k/year income
Platinum 577 529 356
Gold 486 438 265
Silver 419 371 198
Bronze 340 291 118
Catastrophic 218 218 218

In fairness, many of the provisions of Obamacare that will drive up premiums in other places (no exclusion for pre-existing conditions, equal premiums for men and women) were already law in New York State.  So I wasn’t expecting much change from the status quo, and I was right.

What about not carrying insurance?  In 2014, the penalty will be $95 or 1% of income, whichever is greater.  For an individual with an income of $40,000/year, that works out to $33/month, well below even the ‘catastrophic’ plan.  In 2016, the penalty will be $695 or 2.5% of income, or $83/month for a $40,000/year income: still cheaper than real insurance.

The one good thing that I can see, for where I live, is that an individual can buy comprehensive health insurance for a premium that is comparable to an employer’s group plan.  (A while back, when I was between policies, I asked about the premium for an individual health insurance plan for myself and my wife.  The agent was ashamed to tell me.  “Be brave,” I told her.  Her shame was justified: the premium was $2500/month.)

But even with subsidies, it’s still God-awful expensive.  And I still don’t understand how making everyone pay for it–mobilizing more dollars to pay for the same finite resource–will not raise costs through simple supply and demand.

Getting Gigged

Yesterday, I came across…

Fiverr.com

It’s a marketplace where people offer services for a base price of $5.  Of the $5 the client pays, the Web site keeps a buck, and the seller gets $4.   At first, I thought it was rather cool: it’s a way for someone to go into business and tap a worldwide market without upfront costs.

The site included a link to an article from a Wired blog about ‘the Gig Economy’ and how it is the wave of the future:

Slowly but surely, a revolution is taking shape –– an entirely different kind of economy. The labor force of new entrepreneurs, which we call the Gig Economy, is growing rapidly around the world and could soon represent as much as 50 percent of the U.S. workforce.

It almost sounds like fun.  But what sort of work can one get done for $5?  Flipping through the site, some samples…

  • I will make your PDF into a flash flipbook for $5
  • I will do a book cover or a movie poster for you for $5
  • I will record your voice over message in the awesome voice of Sean Connery for $5 [presumably a close approximation….]
  • I will write a high quality, 300 word article in 24hours for $5
  • I will type up to 2000 words/6 to 7 pages or audio transcript any video max 10 mins for $5
  • I will translate 1000 words from English to Spanish for $5

Ouch.  At the Federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, $5 buys a little over 40 minutes of effort.  The $1.60 Federal minimum wage of the 1960s, adjusted for inflation, is about $10 in today’s dollars: $5 would buy a half-hour.  But Fiverr keeps a dollar for itself, so one would get less time: a little over a half-hour at $7.25/hour, or 24 minutes at $10/hour.

Most of the services described on Fiverr would seem to require between 15-30 minutes to complete, given someone with the expertise and the necessary tools.  So $4 for a task works out to an hourly rate of $8-16 hour… if one has a steady stream of tasks.

But then again, there are some parts of the world where $8-16/hour is actually pretty good.  And global labor arbitrage is clearly at work: while a plurality of the sellers on Fiverr identify themselves as being in the US, there are many sellers from elsewhere.

So this is what the Gig Economy means: the chance to compete with hungry people from all around the world, doing dreary tasks that barely pay enough to keep the lights on.  (And any task becomes dreary if you have to do it over and over again to survive.)  Unlike normal employment, where your boss is responsible for assigning you tasks, and accepting that you might still be on the clock even if you don’t have a task (and even if you have to go to the bathroom!), in the Gig Economy, if you don’t have a task, the meter stops immediately.

Heaven help us….