March 11, 2014

Paul Rapp is a local lawyer who writes a column on intellectual property in an “alternative” newspaper, Metroland. One of his 2013 columns started with a vicious tirade against free market economics (or, typically, a caricature thereof) — and its defenders (encompassing virtually 100% of serious economists). Prominent in Rapp’s rant were words like “obscene,” “racist,” “bullshit,” “cretins,” and “freetards.”Unknown

But his main point was to argue that internet service should be a public utility — like telephone and electric service, which society has decided should be universal. And in furtherance of that goal,  some people’s service gets subsidized by others.

However, what Rapp was really concerned about was his own internet service. Massachusetts, he said, “has some public/private thing going on” to run fast connection wires along main roads. But who, he asked, will run the cable (quite expensively) two and a half miles from the main road up to his house — and how will it be paid for? (Not by him, God forbid.)

Unknown-1Paul Rapp is an attorney (who charges for his services) and is presumably not economically disadvantaged. Choosing to live miles from a main road, why does he think he’s somehow entitled to have his costly internet connection paid for by anyone but himself? What would you call someone who wants service provided to him for free?

A freetard?

21st Century Socialism and the War on (Small) Business

March 8, 2014

UnknownWhen I wrote about the “war on business,” some commenters dismissed this, saying profits have been strong, while it’s middle class jobholders who are hurting. True, up to a point. Big, established corporations, that can work the political system, and get government subsidies and protection against competitors, are indeed doing well. But smaller, newer firms face ever mounting obstacles. They’re tied in knots by complex regulatory schemes like Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank (which big firms can cope with). And we get roughly all our net job growth from small businesses. If they’re struggling, and big firms needn’t compete with them for labor, no wonder worker pay is anemic.

California is a poster-boy for the war on (small) business. While the Silicon Valley scene is humming, because those firms gotta be there, many other companies are fleeing (or not starting). Exemplifying California’s business landscape is CEQA, an environmental review law that allows anybody to sue to stall any project. So if you want to open a new gas station, one nearby can sue to block you. Anybody with a financial motive can hold any project hostage by threatening to sue under CEQA, to extract concessions. Unknown-1Labor unions do this all the time. A recent issue of The Economist quoted a California observer about the state’s attitude toward business: “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you.”

But California is a business paradise compared to Venezuela, which the late President Hugo Chavez brayingly set on a path to “Twenty-first Century Socialism.” Among Venezuela’s “worker’s protection” laws is one effectively making it impossible for a business to fire anybody. There’s always the law of unintended consequences, but here the consequences are entirely predictable: workers who can’t be fired don’t work very hard. Or, for that matter, at all; absenteeism is rampant. Firms have to bribe employees to leave. And meantime the government laments sagging productivity!

Unknown-2You might think such “worker protections” applicable to the private sector would also cover government workers. Don’t be silly. Typical of authoritarian “socialist” regimes, in the Venezuelan worker’s paradise government workers have almost no rights at all, can be fired peremptorily (better stay politically correct), and don’t even think about organizing a strike or protest because they’ll throw your ass in jail.

Venezuela’s disaster may be approaching a climax, as the dysfunction of its “Twenty-first Century Socialism” wrecks the country. The regime, blinded by its twisted ideology, responds with even more counterproductive policies. I’m almost sorry Hugo Chavez didn’t live to see the denouement.

Socialism might be benign if people were angels. But they are not, power corrupts, and giving government so much economic and social power is a very bad idea. Twenty-first Century socialism isn’t any upgrade on the Twentieth Century version.

Yet lefties enjoy making mock of righties for throwing around the word “socialism,” as though it’s a bogeyman either imaginary or harmless. imagesI recently heard a re-broadcast interview with the late Pete Seeger, the folk singer who never really repented his Communist past, nor ever let a cross word pass his lips about any “socialist” regime (like Castro’s). The word “socialism” came up, with the usual sniggers, and Seeger said (paraphrasing), You know, the Post Office is a totally socialist thing, it’s textbook socialism, entirely owned and run by government; and of course everybody loves it.

Unknown-3Then Seeger surprised me by adding: But you know, no government-run post office in the world ever thought up anything like Federal Express; it took the private sector to come up with it; such innovation just isn’t in the DNA of a stodgy government bureaucracy.

World in Tumult: Tufts EPIIC Symposium

March 3, 2014

MENA Postcard aOn Sunday we attended this annual event at Tufts University. This year’s topic was the Middle East and North Africa. The six-day symposium hosted around fifty international visitors. (Our daughter Elizabeth made a presentation, see below).

The morning speaker was Nicholas Burns, former U.S. diplomat and high State Department official, currently at the Kennedy School.

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

He invoked America’s tradition of supporting people struggling for democracy, but also acknowledged a tension between such ideals and security interests. The Mid East is not a single entity, and policy must be individually tailored to each Arab country. Thus we did support democracy in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt; but in Bahrain, not so much. A concern there was buffering Iranian power.

Egypt is a dismaying case – right back under an authoritarian military regime (maybe even more repressive than Mubarak’s), outlawing the nation’s largest political group. Not smart, Burns said, if you’re trying to unite the country. (Egypt’s regime is actually not trying to do that.) Burns thinks America should do more to nudge Egypt’s regime toward democratization.

I consider overdone the notion of security concerns conflicting with democratic advancement. In the longer, larger view, U.S. security interests are best served by a more democratic world (a democratic Russia wouldn’t do what it’s doing today; nor, indeed, would a democratic Syria); and by our being perceived as a true supporter of people’s democratic aspirations.

Regarding Syria, Burns thinks America missed a big opportunity a couple of years ago in failing to materially support the revolution (see my 2/5/12 post); and another when President Obama failed to punish Assad for crossing his “red line” on chemical weapons (see my 9/11/13 post).  Burns was scathing about an international community that thinks it can do nothing about Syria; and about America’s too long trying to work with the Russians who’ve given us nothing. Russia and China have used their Security Council vetoes to block even humanitarian aid to Syrian victims. When, he queried, will there come Syria’s “Srebrenica moment” – recalling when atrocities in Bosnia finally shamed the international community – led by the U.S. – into forceful action, including a bombing campaign, to finally resolve the situation in 1995 (with a 1999 Kosovo repeat) – sidestepping the UN where similarly Russia’s veto protected Serbian aggression. Burns said that in Syria we should likewise go around the UN and intervene, at least to create humanitarian corridors, with a coalition that many Arab states would join.

UnknownBurns acknowledged the familiar refrain, “We can’t be the world’s policeman.” But he said Syria is everyone’s concern, and likened America’s role to that of the world’s system operator. Since WWII, and especially since 1991, America has indeed fulfilled this vital role. If we don’t, the world could go to Hell.

And so, Ukraine — whose “profound crisis” Burns felt compelled to address despite the conference focus on the Arab world. He ruled out direct military engagement against Russia, as far too dangerous, but otherwise called for the assertion of confident American leadership, using every possible means to “dishonor” Putin, including expelling Russia from the G-8.

During the question session, an attendee from Russia bridled at the negative characterization of Putin; actually denied that Russian troops had entered Ukraine’s territory; and said Burns was wrong about Russia blocking humanitarian aid in Syria. She cited a Security Council resolution ten days earlier, authorizing such aid, with both Russia and China voting in favor.

Burns responded that, yes, such a resolution had passed; but so watered down by Russia and China that it was toothless and meaningless. He called this one of the most cynical actions in UN history.

I wonder, had Obama manned up on Syria, would Putin now have been emboldened to invade Ukraine? This is why projection of weakness is so dangerous – more dangerous, in fact, than resolute action. Wimping out on Syria may well have bought us an even nastier problem. So often in such matters, avoidance of costs today only means greater costs tomorrow.

Russia claims it’s only acting to protect its people — against nonexistent threats. Then there’s all the hysterical rhetoric about “Nazis” in control in Kiev put there by a Western conspiracy. Even if these ludicrous lies were true, Russia’s military aggression would make no sense. The Russians are drunk on military testosterone.

Curt Rhodes

Curt Rhodes

In the afternoon session, Curt Rhodes, founder and leader of Questscope (an NGO helping vulnerable young people in the Mid East) gave a truly eloquent description of what it means to be a refugee. And Elizabeth Robinson discussed her summer visit to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, holding 85,000 displaced Syrians, where she researched the camp’s economic life.

Elizabeth Robinson

Elizabeth Robinson

She had interviewed the camp’s head, Kilian Kleinschmidt, working for the UN, which has taken over responsibility from Jordanian authorities. Kleinschmidt is trying to make Za’atari a different kind of refugee camp, where the inhabitants themselves are empowered by having more say about what goes on.

It may be noted that the 85,000 in Za’atari actually comprise less than 1% of all those made refugees by Syria’s conflict – a number now approaching half the country’s population. These are real people, no different from you or me. Imagine what it means, what it feels like, to lose every aspect of normal life. And to the 9+ million refugees, of course, must be added the 140,000+ killed; at least 11,000 of them starved and tortured to death in the regime’s dungeons. Srebrenica moment? I guess the world now has a greater capacity for shame than in the ’90s.

Assad continues to insist he’s fighting terrorists. Syria must be populated almost entirely by terrorists to necessitate air-dropping barrel-bombs in crowded urban centers. Reportedly, Assad was recently asked, by his children, why all the violence? He replied, “Because there are bad people in the world.”

Inger Andersen

Inger Andersen

Happily, the afternoon ended on a hopeful note, with a talk by Inger Andersen, a World Bank Vice President. Talking about the Arab Spring, she stressed that revolutions take time, and we should not lose heart over setbacks. Andersen saw real progress happening in some of the countries, notably Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen. But, while there’s been a political awakening, economic awakening is a tougher thing. In any major transition, growth can be expected to slump, and the Arabs face a double crisis: the original economic dysfunction, compounded by the uncertainty and other fallout of abrupt change. However, Anderson saw opportunities for big benefits just from opening up and simplifying the business climate, though entrenched “rentier interests” will resist. And ultimately, political reform that cements citizen rights and pluralism will promote economic growth. Andersen said that a spirit of freedom has been released in many Arab hearts and minds, and she sees a region transformed, with a newfound optimism for the possible.

The President’s Ukraine Speech

March 2, 2014

imagesGood evening, my fellow Americans, listen up, and the rest of the world too. That includes you, Mr. Putin.

I know I was a complete wuss on Syria, and let Putin and Assad make fools of us. But I learned my lesson.

Now, about Ukraine: this is serious.  You know, it’s always guys like Putin (and the Chinese) who are always yammering about how nations should not interfere in other nations’ internal affairs. Translation: don’t nobody stick their noses into the atrocious way we Russians and Chinese treat our own citizens.  But those guys sure don’t practice what they preach, as we’re seeing now with Russia’s blatant intervention into the internal affairs of Ukraine.

All this nonsense about protecting the interests of Russian people in Ukraine. Am I the only one, or does this remind anybody of, like, 1938, when Hitler was all “Gotta protect the poor oppressed Germans in the Sudetenland” ? We know how that turned out.

But listen, Vladimir, I’ve got some news for you: Ain’t no Russians in Ukraine. Maybe some people with Russian ancestry; but they’re not Russians now, they’re Ukrainians. You got that? They’re not “your” people. They’re Ukrainians. So get your fucking nose out of Ukraine’s internal affairs.

UnknownWe know the history. That in 1954, Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine on a whim, never thinking it would ever make any difference because it was all part of the USSR (which was called the “Dungeon of Nations”). But then in 1991 Ukraine became an independent country, with Crimea of course being part of it, as it has been ever since. Crimea is no longer up for grabs. We simply cannot tolerate a world where territories remain up for grabs like Russia now seems to think applies to Crimea. That principle was settled way back in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, and it’s a fundamental underpinning of the modern world, and the peace among major powers that has existed since 1945. We cannot allow that to unravel.

Now, I’m not saying that all borders are inviolable. We recently had the case of Sudan dividing into two nations based on a negotiated settlement among the Sudanese. That’s fine. And maybe in Ukraine, the people in Crimea and some other parts might prefer to join up with Russia – batshit crazy, you might think, but never mind. The point is that the whole question is an internal issue for Ukrainians to decide among themselves. It’s not to be settled by military intervention from outside.

So let me be absolutely clear. If there is any threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, we, the United States, will do whatever it takes – whatever it takes – to protect and defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That most definitely includes military assistance to the government of Ukraine.  So, Mr. Putin, if you’re going to be messing with Ukraine, you’re going to be messing with us.

And don’t give me any of this UN shit. Everybody knows the UN is irrelevant in a case like this simply because Russia has a veto in the Security Council. images-1We cannot allow a blatant violation of crucial international norms to go down because of Russia’s self-serving veto. If Ukraine asks for our help to defend it against Russian military aggression, that request would be all the legal legitimacy we’d need to act, with no need to even talk about the UN. I am sure that most of the nations of the world — the responsible grown-up nations — will back us on this. I will ask for not only their moral support, but their material support, to join us in doing whatever it takes to secure Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

We are taking this forceful stance because we deem it absolutely essential to preserve the peace of the world. If Russia is allowed to get away with this crap in Ukraine, then the whole world suddenly becomes a whole lot less secure. And if I did not say what I have just said, I should certainly go down in history as the most feckless president we’ve ever had.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Film Review

February 27, 2014

imagesOK, so we’re a little behind in reviewing flicks, and this one dates from the eighties. But we thought we had to see it because it’s such an iconic classic (also, I’d used a line from it in a prior blog post; though it turns out the line wasn’t exactly in the movie).

For similar reasons we also recently viewed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That was quite lame and we bailed long before the end. But Bill and Ted was, well, excellent, dudes.

If you’ve ever wanted to catch Socrates and Sigmund Freud images-5trying to pick up chicks in a mall, this film’s for you.

So Bill and Ted are these loser high school dudes, into playing music, though without proper instruments (or talent), about to flunk history, which is majorly a bummer because Ted’s dad will then pack him off to military school, in Alaska. What they need is a classic deus ex machina, which indeed is exactly what turns up, in the form of one Rufus (played by George Carlin) from the 27th century, by time machine, to save their asses, because their music-to-be is, like, the foundation of the whole future civilization; but that requires acing their final history report and thus staying together.

Napoleon Bowling

Napoleon — Dynamite Bowler

So Rufus sends them in another time machine (in the form of a telephone booth – showing how archaic this movie is) to round up a gang of historical biggies – Billy the Kid, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Beethoven, Napoleon, Freud, Joan of Arc (not Noah’s wife), and Lincoln – to jazz up the lads’ history report.

If this sounds pretty idiotic, it is. A highbrow cinematic experience Bill and Ted is not. But the film, and its makers, to their credit, were not trying to be something they weren’t. Yet it displays considerable panache and is genuinely funny.

Of course, the adventures through history are hokey to the max, and include some obligatory close shaves with various murderous baddies. Socrates, Lincoln, et al, seem only mildly nonplussed at being whisked into this mayhem; they cheerfully get with the program and even do their bits in Bill and Ted’s eventual history report, presented on stage in the school auditorium. The peroration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg-like address is the immortal line, “Party on, Dudes!” images-1

Plausibility is somewhat lacking. At least they didn’t have Socrates and Genghis speaking English.

With which Bill and Ted themselves are none too fluent. The film has some fun with their ignorant mispronunciations, like “Frood” for Freud and “So-craits” for Socrates. images-4But the joke is on us when the latter corrects them and says his name not as “SOCK-ra-teez” but “So-CRAH-tess” – probably more authentic.

The movie also has fun with the paradoxes of time travel. Early on, Bill and Ted meet their time-traveling selves of a few hours hence. But later, when they duly do arrive back at that scene, they don’t seem to remember it; yet of course they deliver the same lines they’d already heard.

Better yet, at a critical juncture, the lads need Ted’s father’s keys. But he’d lost them. Well, no problem – they can just go, in the time machine, back to get the keys before they went missing. However, they’re running late, and realize they can do it afterwards – go back later, get the keys, and hide them behind a signboard where they can find them now. And sure enough, they look behind the signboard, and there are the keys.

But they’d better remember to go back later and put them there. The film ends without telling us whether they did. But, of course, they must have.

We give this film four stars. images-6

Ukraine’s Revolution: It’s 1989 Again

February 23, 2014

        “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

                      — Martin Luther King

imagesMy favorite year was 1989. Today, in Ukraine, it’s 1989 again – complete with toppling Lenin statues. (Yes, inexplicably, they still had them.)

I’m thrilled, but I won’t get carried away.  These stories don’t always play out well. Egypt is certainly a sobering case in point. Russia had a revolution in 1991 and wound up Putinized. And Ukraine itself had its “Orange Revolution” that turned out poorly. But this one looks much more like the real thing.

Though it’s a volatile situation. While Yanukovych’s support in the country as a whole is shredded, he still has a base in the Russified east and could still continue or even escalate the bloodshed. If those easterners actually want to be ruled by a thoroughly corrupt murderous thug, subservient to another thoroughly corrupt murderous thug in the Kremlin, maybe they should be allowed to enjoy it. images-1But a preferable outcome would be Yanukovych put on a trial for his crimes and swiftly executed, a-la-Ceausescu 1989. Let him be the final victim of the violence he unleashed.

Meantime, there are some lessons. One is that this is the Twenty-first Century. And in this century, bad guys can’t get away with what they used to. Or at least they sure can’t count on it. Time was, if you just shot enough people, you’d be home free. It worked in Tiananmen Square. It may be working in Syria. But it didn’t work in Ukraine’s Maidan Square. This is progress. The world is improving.  Though it’s a darn shame a lot of Ukrainians had to get shot before the shooting was seen to fail.

It failed because Ukrainians — enough of them at least — understand that they needn’t tolerate it any more. They’ve read Fukuyama’s The End of History and The Last Man. They insist on having a normal modern free country, not some sorry-ass replica of Putin’s Russia. (Maybe someday enough Russians will too.)

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Tymoshenko, speaking yesterday from wheelchair

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister whom Yanukovych beat in the last presidential election, has been released from 2-1/2 years imprisonment on bogus corruption charges, and says she will run for president again. Perhaps her election platform should be a simple one: “No shooting.”

Another lesson is this: nonviolence is all well and good, but sometimes there are things worth fighting for, and sometimes you do have to fight. Otherwise you hand the world over to thugs like Yanukovych with no scruples about using violence to gain their ends. It’s a tragic reality that passive nonviolence may not cut it in such cases.

Ukraine has had its revolution thanks to courageous people willing to put their lives on the line to achieve it. I melt in reverence toward such heroic people. UnknownI’m a big talker when it comes to issues of freedom and democracy, but would I have been willing to go into Maidan Square in freezing cold to face hard men with clubs and guns? I don’t think so.

Obamacare, Jobs, and La-La Land

February 19, 2014

So you’ve heard that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) now estimates 2.3 million fewer people working by 2021, due to Obamacare.

imagesRepublicans gleefully said, “See? It’s a job-killer.” Wrong, retorted Democrats, the jobs are not going away – rather, it’s people being able to leave those jobs, and still get health insurance.

In fact, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and White House spokesman Jay Carney positively rhapsodized about this, as a wonderful liberation. No longer would folks be shackled to their jobs (to have health insurance), they’d gain the freedom to quit and pursue their hearts’ desires, like poetry and art; or, indeed, to retire early and do nothing at all. Economist Paul Krugman says people making this choice are to be congratulated. After all, aren’t conservatives always prattling about freedom of choice? Welcome to Nirvana!

images-1Or is it La-La Land? Sorry to be the skunk at this party – and I’m all for poetry and art – but who is going to support these 2.3 million new poets and artists? UnknownAssuming it won’t likely be consumers of their oeuvre, it will have to be – guess who – people still actually working dreary old jobs.

Think about it. Ultimately all the people getting pensions and Social Security and Medicare (no, you did not pay for it throughout your working life; not much of it anyway) and Disability and welfare and food stamps and child support and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and now subsidized health insurance and poets-and-artists-benefit and so on and so forth – all that must be paid for by people still creating wealth to be taxed, by doing productive work. If any are left.

This is what the Pelosis and Carneys and Krugmans, et al, living in their liberal La-La Land, don’t get. images-2Their recent absurd spin on the CBO report shows how mixed up they are. The self-styled party of working people actually thinks people not working is a good thing. The more the better.

I have shouted myself hoarse about America’s key economic problem: a decreasing percentage of people in productive employment supporting a growing percentage not working. This imbalance can only worsen as Baby Boomers retire and longevity continues rising. This will mean government shelling out ever more and collecting less in taxes, with borrowings hence rising to unsustainably ruinous levels.

Unknown-1We cross our fingers that somehow, economic growth will rev up to get us out of this mess. But where will economic growth come from with an ever smaller population segment that’s working? (You may say we lack the jobs. Not exactly true. What we increasingly lack is the skills needed to work productively in today’s world. That’s why “Disability” rolls keep growing, as I’ve discussed.)

Willfully ignoring the true predicament makes President Obama’s reign disastrous. Indeed, his “signature” policy achievement worsens the problem. Obamacare will raise government spending (increasingly, as the young and healthy refuse to overpay to subsidize the old and sick); while incentivizing businesses to limit payrolls (in order to avoid some onerous requirements that kick in at 50 full-time employees) – and disincentivizing work, by tying more government benefits to income, and also (per the CBO report), by giving folks cheap government-subsidized health insurance without having a job at all. If it pays less to work, people will do less of it. (And raising minimum wages isn’t the answer, as I’ve explained. Where’s the money for that to come from, if not other working people’s pockets?)

Incidentally, what would help is immigration reform. Ironically, many Americans hate immigration because they think it’s bad for jobs, when in fact we desperately need more young workers. I’m not talking about Mexican lawn-mowers; it’s much more about technology hot-shots from India, kept out by our suicidally restrictive immigration regime.

images-4I’m still an optimist – about humanity as a whole. About America – not so much. I love this wonderful country deeply, and weep at how we’re sleepwalking to its destruction.

Women, Bad Boys, and Contingency in Life

February 14, 2014

images-2My Valentine’s Day post–

I’ve written before of my difficulties getting it on with women. Being such a rationalist, I thought the way to go about it was to treat them nicely. Silly clueless me. I didn’t grasp the attraction of bad boys. Excitement. Danger. Trouble. It can be like catnip to women. But I was constitutionally incapable of acting the bad boy. Except for one time . . . .

In April 1975, I had a dental appointment. The usual receptionist was away; the dentist’s young daughter was filling in. UnknownShe seemed pleasant. So after the novocain wore off, I phoned and asked her out. Her name was Pam.

Now, what I mean by “contingency” is how our lives hang by slender threads of probability – or, rather, improbability. Of course it was chance that the receptionist was out that day. And I was seeing that dentist only because, years before, I’d happened to date a girl named Noreen, and somehow the subject came up, and she’d recommended him.

Unknown-1More contingency: on the First of that April in ’75 (“hardly a man is now alive”), while out walking, I had seen a girl shlepping stuff. Maybe fifteen seconds, either way, and our paths wouldn’t have crossed. But they did, she looked hot, so I offered to help her, moving into a big apartment building on my block, that was full of single girls. Its official name was “The Willett.” I called it the Cockteaser Building.

So I pestered this chick, Donna, for a date, she was indifferent, but eventually let me take her to a party she wanted to go to. images-3Soon after our arrival, Donna was draped in the lap of another guy. Soon after that, I told her I’d called a cab. Our ride back was silent.

I am deeply ashamed to say I nevertheless continued to pursue Donna. (She was a looker.) I took her out to dinner. She brought a book along. I said, “You must be expecting a dull evening.” And indeed, at the restaurant, she opened the book. I told her to put it away, and she complied; but again silence descended. Back at the Cockteaser Building, I finally gave Donna my candid evaluation. She just shrugged and walked away.

Contingency: this whole Donna debacle was significant only because at that party, the host, seeing the situation, had taken me aside, and said, “This girl’s no good. I know someone better for you.”

Unknown-3Her name was Christina, and she was a whirlwind entering my life. Our relationship seemed to go off like fireworks.

Now, remember Pam, the dentist’s daughter? My date with her hadn’t yet happened. But so bedazzled by Christina was I, that I decided to just blow off Pam. I called her and cancelled – and gave the reason with insouciant, brutal candor. “You’ll survive,” I may even have said. Totally out of character.

Well, needless to say, the Christina thing, having gone off like a firecracker, quickly fizzled out like one. Unknown-6Leaving me, a month later, sitting glumly and very much alone in my room.

The phone rings. “Hi, it’s Pam,” the cheery voice says. Why on Earth would  she be calling me? But, after some meaningless chit-chat, she asks me out.

No girl had ever done that. And none had I ever treated so callously. Christina’s mind-warping effect had turned me, momentarily at least, into a bad boy – and that made me (in contrast to my normal milquetoast persona) intriguing and attractive to Pam. She’d apparently spent the ensuing month obsessing about me and psyching herself up for her wildly gutsy phone call.

So my relationship with Pam started on a completely different footing from any preceding one. And, unlike all those others, it lasted – twelve years.

Not all of those years were wonderful. Ten were not. Two were excruciating. But they got me to the place where, on May 2, 1988, I found the girl of my dreams and the love of my life, Therese.

imagesContingency: Noreen, Donna, Christina, Pam, Therese. Every link in the chain was necessary. No Noreen, no dentist; no Donna, no Christina; no Christina, no bad boy; no bad boy, no 12 years of Pam; no 12 years, no Therese.* Thank you, Donna!

Oh; and yes, Therese lived in the Cockteaser Building. And no, I didn’t act the bad boy with her.

* There was actually a further contingency: after Pam left, I came within a half inch of marrying someone else; only a fluke intervened. But that’s another story.

More New York Legislative Slime: Senator Jeff Klein

February 11, 2014

I’ve written before about corruption and cringeworthy behavior in our New York legislature.

Despite a heavy Democratic enrollment edge, Republicans have managed to cling to control of the State Senate by grace of extreme gerrymandering. Well, at least it has kept New York from being a one-party state.

As of 2012, Republicans had a bare 32 of 62 Senate seats. But fearing loss of a seat, they created a sixty-third one (of dubious constitutionality) tailored for their hand-picked candidate to win. But then Democrats outside the district threw in a ton of money, and pulled out an 18-vote squeaker for their candidate, Cecilia Tkaczyk (pronounced “Gotcha”).

Giving the Democrats a clear 32-31 Senate majority. You would think. But this is New York.

Senator Klein

Senator Klein

So Bronx Democratic Senator Jeff Klein organizes an “independent Democratic caucus” group of a few colleagues (one of whom he’s sleeping with) and makes a deal with the Republicans to share power and shut out all the other Democrats. In normal politics this would be considered utterly treasonous to both his party and the voters who seemingly elected a Democrat majority. But this is New York, and they get away with this slimy maneuver.

Klein claims this has nothing to do with personal ambition or power; it’s only to advance his policy concerns. Sure. And that money under your pillow was left by the Tooth Fairy.images-1

So now Klein has sponsored a bill that would require all wine sold in the state to have been warehoused in New York for at least 24 hours. Just another idiotic regulation that pointlessly hobbles commerce, you might think; just part of government’s never-ending war against (small) business. But such legislation never comes out of the blue. There is always some interest to be served.

Klein’s office insists the bill is aimed at job creation. There’s that Tooth Fairy again. The truth: most wine distributors happen to have their warehouses in New Jersey, near the port where much wine arrives. They’ll be screwed. But one big distributor – Empire Merchants – already has warehouses in New York. Thus the bill would handicap Empire’s smaller competitors, maybe drive them out of business, which would limit the wine choices available to New York consumers, and raise prices. All to Empire’s benefit, and the public’s detriment. (And as if you do “job creation” by forcing businesses to add unneeded warehouses.)

"I'm shocked, shocked..."

“I’m shocked, shocked…”

And guess what? Since 2009, Empire has handed Jeff Klein $53,000 in campaign contributions;  and given to a wide range of other elected officials, including $259,850 to Governor Cuomo (who’d have to sign the bill).

When a contributor gives money to an official whose stances the contributor likes, that’s called politics. When there’s a specific bill created to benefit that contributor, against the public good, it’s called BRIBERY. I’m shocked, shocked, that corruption is taking place in this legislature.

I credit the Albany Times-Union’s Chris Churchill for exposing this cesspool.

“Inequality For All”

February 6, 2014

Unknown-2Robert Reich’s film, Inequality For All, spotlights a problem that’s real. But it’s very complex, with no simple answers (“tax the rich;” raise minimum wages).

I’ll start with some points of agreement. Moneyed interests, because their money inevitably confers political power, corruptly milk the government teat to extract still more wealth from the economy. But the answer is not to restrict political participation (via campaign money). That would be incompatible with our free democratic society. Instead we must broaden participation, with a campaign finance reform like a tax credit for small political contributions, so they’ll proliferate and counter the impact of big donors.

imagesI also agree with Reich that CEO pay is out of whack. It’s set by the corporate board of directors – which tends to be packed with fellow CEOs. What’s wrong with that system?

And I agree that the rich should pay their fair share of taxes — though it’s far from clear they don’t already. The top 5% of taxpayers pay half of all income tax; the top 1% pay over 30% of it. UnknownStill, too many rich folks do get off too lightly; and tax rates in general must rise if we want  to continue funding Social Security and Medicare (which should be curbed for the rich).

Now, Reich maintains (like several recent books, e.g., The Spirit Level) that rising inequality is bad not just for the losers but for everyone. An oft-heard theme is that it tears society apart; however, in America at least, resentment against the rich is uncommon. Most still believe the American dream of upward mobility, and (rightly) don’t buy the left’s idea that the rich get wealth at others’ expense. Reich does make a fair point that the rich spend less of their income on consumer goods (you only need one car, even if a Porsche), so wealth concentrated in fewer hands means less consumer spending, hurting the economy. However, the rich do invest their money (economically beneficial; though not necessarily in the U.S.), and ultimately give away gobs of it. And it’s a dubious assumption that if the rich had less money, others would have more.

This is important. The left thinks there is a lump of wealth to be (more fairly) divided up. Not so; wealth is created by productive effort. Steve Jobs’s wealth essentially represented the difference between what his products cost to make and the prices people gladly paid for them. That added value made everyone richer. Had Jobs never existed, his wealth would not have been spread among the rest of us; it would never have existed either!

images-1A centerpiece of Reich’s case is a graph showing that until the 1970s, productivity and wages rose in tandem, but since then wages have stagnated even while productivity continued upward. Thus working people stopped benefiting from new productivity gains.

It’s not exactly true. One problem is that wages are only part of employee compensation. “Fringe” benefits are ignored, the biggie being health care. What’s happened is that a major part of earnings has taken the form of increasingly costly and valuable health benefits. If those are counted, incomes have not stagnated.

Secondly, the graph shows inflation-adjusted wages. As it should – except that economists know standard government indices tend to overstate the true inflation rate. (This is behind current battles over how to calculate cost-of-living adjustments.) Those indices don’t keep up with the changing mix of what people buy and, importantly, ignore changing quality. For example, the inflation rate might reflect rising car prices, but not improved safety, fuel efficiency, and durability, over the decades. A truer (and smaller) inflation adjustment would show real-dollar wages rising more than on Reich’s chart.

Another way to see it is even if wages haven’t risen, average living standards have: all that health care translates into a better quality (and length!) of life; cars are better as noted; and just look at the explosion in what people do with rising computer power and other communications and technological advances. All this amounts to a very real wealth gain, missed by a simple graph of wages.

A further element missing from Reich’s picture is pensions and related benefits. He suggests that in the postwar decades, strong labor unions were able to capture for workers a fair share of productivity gains; but then union power waned. However, during that period of labor strength, not only fat pay packets were negotiated, but fat pensions too. With rising longevity, we’re still paying for them. images-2I’ve written before about our growing imbalance between working and non-working people. In fact we’re seeing a massive wealth transfer from the former to the latter, in the form of pensions, Social Security, Disability, Medicare, and so forth. If Reich is right that workers are capturing a smaller slice of the economic pie, one key factor is non-working people capturing a larger slice!

This is relevant to a further aspect of Reich’s presentation. He stresses that in the halcyon period, government invested heavily in infrastructure and, particularly, education; with positive economic benefits, raising incomes, and hence tax takes, to be used for more investment: a virtuous circle. Now he sees a vicious circle of declining investments of that kind. But a huge reason why governments at all levels can’t do what they used to is pensions and health benefits and so forth soaking up all the available money (in fact, more than that). It’s exemplified by Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Reich thinks the problem is working people not earning enough. I think it’s not enough people working.

But he’s right about this: education is crucial. A major factor (if not the major factor) in rising inequality is that the rewards for high education and skill levels are growing, as are the penalties for low levels. While the rap is that corporations fatten profits by keeping pay down, they can’t be expected to pay anyone more than they have to. Hot-shots with valuable skills command high pay, but for low-skilled work it’s a buyer’s market. There are more such workers than are needed; they bring nothing to the table to make businesses compete for their labor. Raising minimum wages is not some magic wand that will change this economic reality. Making low-skill labor more costly would only hasten the trend to substitute technology for it.

Unknown-1Thus our society is increasingly divided between a highly educated, skilled, affluent elite, and a less educated, unskilled proletariat that cannot be productive in today’s increasingly technological and globalized world. That’s the inequality we must combat.


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