Archive for June, 2015

The Great Mutilated Coin Scam

June 27, 2015

“Waste, fraud and abuse.” How often we hear that from politicians promising to clean up government. I just roll my eyes, because if it were that simple, it would already have been done, right?

imagesBut government never seems able to stay one step ahead of con artists devising ways to rip it off. It isn’t rocket science. One major, common scam is filing phony income tax returns claiming refunds. And government, robotically, just mails out the checks. In one case over 500 separate tax refund checks went to a single mailbox . . . in Lithuania. You might think the government would have noticed something amiss, around, oh, the hundredth check. Nope.

All told, the U.S. government sent out an estimated $125 billion in improper payments last year.

As a numismatist, I read Coin World, and a recent issue headlined “Recyclers Target Mint With Fakes.” UnknownThe story began by noting “an elaborate scheme to bilk the U.S. Mint out of more than $5.4 million.” Doesn’t sound like that big a deal? But wait.

You see, the Mint has a program for reimbursement for mutilated coins turned in.

The Chinese version

The Chinese version

In this particular case, the coins proved to be counterfeits, originating in China where, of course, counterfeiting of everything is a major industry.

Coin World went on to report that “the purported mutilated U.S. coins [were found] to have been uniformly mutilated by mechanical means.” So first you manufacture the fake coins; then you mutilate them; then send them to the Mint for “reimbursement.” A nice business, getting 50 cents for a fake half dollar costing only a few cents to make. (Much easier than trying to pass all those coins in commerce.)

How could they possibly, with straight faces, explain the great quantities of mutilated U.S. coins turned in? The claim is that they’re found in junk cars being scrapped. It’s been calculated that every such car would have to yield $900 in mutilated coins to account for the totals submitted. Yeah, sure.

Still, $5.4 million may sound almost like chump change. But that was only one case. Coin World noted that as early as 2009, investigators with U.S. Customs and Border Protection were alerted to possible problems “based on the increased shipments of mutilated coins passing through the Port of Los Angeles.” images-1Yet the Mint continued to send out the checks – no questions asked.

Now here is the quote that really got my attention (from the complaint in the recent case filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lakshmi Srinavasan Herman): “Interestingly, United States Mint personnel also believe that more half dollars have been redeemed by China-sourced vendors in the last 10 years than the United States Mint has ever manufactured in its history.” (My emphasis)

Unknown-2God bless Uncle Sam – what a soft touch. This is what we pay taxes for.

 

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The End of (Working Class) Men*

June 23, 2015

UnknownAmerican women earn only 78% of what men do. We’ve all heard this cause celebre. It’s utterly bogus. Women’s pay averages less than men’s because they do different jobs. But for comparable jobs, women who work as long as men earn virtually the same. And women tend to have different careers not because of discrimination but mainly because they’re different from men, with different temperaments, proclivities, talents, and goals. (If businesses really could hire equally qualified women cheaper than men, why would they employ any men?)

Meantime, all the nonsense about underpaid women misses something very important happening to men: their elimination from working class families.

imagesAnother cause celebre is inequality. But resentment against the 1% similarly misses the real problem, the growing societal divide between the well educated and the less educated. The former group tends to be affluent, and married, with stable families whose children repeat this. The less educated do not.** There’s your real inequality.

This story is complex. The pill, and entering the workforce, freed women from a lot of social and economic constraints toward getting and staying married. Unwed motherhood lost its stigma. Divorce got easier. And, while among the educated affluent, men remained attractive marriage partners, working class men did not. Indeed, lower income women can lose government benefits if they marry.

Unknown-1More: with educational opportunities equalized, females are proving better than males at school. That difference of temperament again. And a recent piece in The Economist showed how misleading is the idea of a pro-male pay gap, when it comes to the blue collar world. It profiled a Louisiana town where a lot of conventional “man jobs” have disappeared, leaving many males as unemployed layabouts. Yet, The Economist observes, plenty of the town’s women are working (and getting by, with no help from men): in motels, restaurants, shops, clinics, hair salons, government offices, etc. Unskilled, poorly educated men are unlikely to get, or even seek, many such jobs; less apt to be punctual, or pleasant to customers.

images-2This drains the pool of marriageable blue collar men. Jail drains it further (especially among blacks). And that marriage market imbalance between the sexes gets magnified because “when women outnumber men, men become cads” (according to a study quoted by The Economist). That is, men in this social milieu, in a seller’s market, sensing they have the upper hand and access to sex, tend to treat women more abusively and less faithfully.

Further, whereas educated affluent males have gotten with the program of gender equality, helping with housework and child care, typical blue collar guys haven’t received this memo.

images-3All this makes working class women get fed up with them (recalling Gloria Steinem’s line, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”). Even when they do marry, they report significantly less marital happiness than better educated and affluent couples, hence they’re more likely to split.

So it becomes a vicious circle in which mothers without husbands raise sons to predictably repeat the syndrome: no education, no job, no wife, no family, no nothin’. A much bigger societal problem than that phony 78% pay gap.

What can be done? The Economist suggests making school more boy-friendly. Certainly it’s criminal how many don’t even finish high school. For those, all other public policy ideas are probably futile. I’ve noted, too, how kids can be educated to pass the marshmallow test – imbuing a personality trait shown to be critical for life success. And, of course, we could at least correct the daft welfare and tax policies that, to this day, still penalize marriage.

But in the long run, men are probably doomed, with science enabling women to procreate without them.

Unknown-2* Hanna Rosin has authored a book called The End of Men. This recalls a riff in David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, chronicling the rise of an imagined public intellectual, whose first book is always titled “The End of” something. It’s indeed remarkable how many there are: The End of History; Faith; Blackness; Plenty; College; Poverty; Self-Help; Stress; America; Nature; Fashion; Socialism; The Suburbs; Normal; Science; War; Dieting; Illness; Everything. That’s just a sampling.

** A recent news story reported data showing marriage raises incomes, with married men earning much more than bachelors. Surely this has causation backwards: higher earning men are the more likely to be married.

Charleston

June 23, 2015

The irony of such blows for “white supremacy” is their demonstrating its fallacy — showing what better people the blacks are than the shooter. (Also, he might have finally succeeded in getting his beloved Confederate flag removed from the state capitol.)

America’s Political Decay

June 19, 2015

UnknownA favorite book of mine is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992). He argued that centuries of ideological conflict had essentially ended with the triumph of liberal democracy and free markets — because they fulfill deeply felt needs for self-realization and dignity. A beautiful story.

Unknown-1Not so fast, says . . . Francis Fukuyama, in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay. Not that we’re going back to tyranny or socialism. But there’s trouble in paradise, and it’s right here in River City (America), poster boy for the political decay of the title.

Our political divide is between government lovers and haters – big government “progressives” versus small government conservatives. Yet the size and scope of government is not the whole story; quality matters. Big government wouldn’t be so bad if it were good government. imagesBut what gets lost between the two camps is that, as Fukuyama explicates, America’s quality of government has deteriorated steadily and markedly over the last half century.

Why? Ironically, a big factor is the distrust of government built into America’s DNA, which actually makes it hard for government to function well (thus fueling more distrust). Born of revolt against an imperious king, we created a cat’s cradle of checks and balances. That was fine as long as government didn’t do very much. But as its remits proliferated in the modern era, so have the societal interests wanting a say and making demands. The result is what Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy” – a system with so many points where one force can block others that meaningful action becomes impossible.Unknown-2

A related problem is that, by way of example, the relatively few farmers who gain greatly from farm subsidies will fight hard for them, while the mass of consumers and taxpayers, each harmed only a little, do nothing. Bad programs become impervious to change because someone always benefits.

Unknown-3Also, things weren’t too bad when one party had clear dominance and could, within limits, work its will. But now America is closely riven between two parties, each more ideologically cohesive than ever and ruled by activists seeing the other as satanic. Forget about conciliation and compromise.

Distrust of government furthermore leads us to circumscribe the actions of bureaucrats by a welter of rules, curbing their discretion. This produces exactly what we hate – a bureaucratic bureaucracy so tangled in overly complex red tape that common sense is lost.

images-1The U.S. Forest Service illustrates the syndrome. Fukuyama discusses how it began as a model for effective government during the Progressive era, led by the great reformer Gifford Pinchot. But gradually its mission got confused by layers of congressional mandates (often contradicting each other) and submerged under increasingly inflexible administrative procedures; all worsened by pressures from disparate interest groups with conflicting agendas. Our guide on our recent Yosemite tour remarked that the Forest Service doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing anymore. (See also my post about the TSA, whose mission quickly degenerated into one of following dumb procedures rather than actually targeting threats.)

Unknown-4Then there’s something unique to America. Our separation of powers gives a bigger role to courts than in any other country. This has made us peculiarly a nation of lawyers and litigation; exacerbated by legislation that often effectively delegates policy initiatives to implementation through litigation by private parties. (A good example, not mentioned by Fukuyama, is the Americans With Disabilities Act. Lawyers are a major interest group.) This is cumbersome, costly, and opaque, not very efficacious, and lacking in democratic accountability. No other country operates like this. They think it’s bonkers.

All these factors lead Fukuyama to deem America an outlier on the spectrum of difficulty of decision making. We have the most rigid, ineffectual, and reform-proof governmental model of any advanced democracy. This is why so many problems cry out for action – crumbling infrastructure, the immigration mess, and our glide path toward fiscal ruin, to name a few – but nothing can get done. (See my review of That Used to Be Us.)

Is there any hope of fixing this? No. (Sorry – I am an optimist, but a rational one.) Fukuyama pretty much agrees. Americans revere our constitution but frankly, while it worked great for most of our history, now it’s broken. But given that reverence, radical change (like switching to a parliamentary type system where government is much more able to accomplish things*) is inconceivable. (Yet a conceivable and important reform would be to eliminate the Senate filibuster rule and consequent need for 60 votes, not in the Constitution.)

For all I’ve written here, America’s saving grace is that government isn’t everything. Thank God for the private sector. Unknown-5This country’s dynamism is rooted in the energies and imaginations of its people, finding ways of getting on with things, regardless of bad government. Fukuyama, in the end, recognizes this; and moreover concludes by saying that despite the problems of democratic government, it still feeds the basic human hunger for agency – control over our lives. If government transmogrifies into controlling too much**, the remedy isn’t authoritarian rule, which controls even more; and those countries retaining it are still on the wrong side of history.

I can only sadly shake my head when people blithely talk of turning over yet more responsibilities, like health care, to government. “Progressives” never seem to learn from how often government tramples their professed values. There’s a wide gap between their lofty ideal of government and its reality.

* It does work well with a strong two-party system like Britain’s; but with fractured politics like Israel’s, not so much.

** I recently attended a talk about negotiating the bureaucratic gauntlet to move a patient from hospital to long term care. I asked, when and how did this stop being the exclusive province of family members? “I don’t know,” the speaker said, “but it isn’t right.”

Yosemite Rocks

June 15, 2015

IMG_5255California is full of exceptionally cheerful people – judging from our recent trip there. Store clerks, flight attendants, passers-by, etc., all over.

We visited my mom, a Costco fan, so we made the obligatory expedition. It’s fun because of all the free samples given out. One big promotion was for a line of health drinks. The colors looked like you might want to paint military vehicles with, but not put in your mouth. However, an attractive young black gal was so upbeat about it, assuring me the drinks are “really really good,” that I agreed to a sip. “’Really really good’ is not the phrase that comes to mind,” I said. “Maybe ‘barely palatable.’”

IMG_5212Even the woman behind us in line with children seemed cheery in saying, “Don’t ask about my troubles.”

So of course I asked, “What are your troubles?”

“Too many kids.”

“How many is that?”

“Five.”

“I agree, too many. How old are you?”

“That’s an inappropriate question!”

“Well, seems relevant to having five kids.”

“Thirty six.”

IMG_4949Maybe it’s the weather out there that makes people extra cheerful (despite all the problems, like a major drought, or five kids). But one reason I love America is that a positive attitude is a part of our culture. This includes black people who we’re told are (or should be) full of resentment against whites. Not in my experience; to the contrary, blacks (like that Costco gal) seem perfectly cordial and often smile at me. Maybe it’s my fuzzy beard.

IMG_5159Then we went to Yosemite; my wife made all the arrangements, booking a suite at the lodge so our daughter (this was our last trip with her before she goes up over Jordan) could have her own room. At check-in we were given a map to find our unit. Perusing it, I remarked, “This seems to show we have a private pool.” And we did – a beautiful full-size resort pool, with patio, deck chairs, umbrellas, hot tub, and even a barbecue installation. The house – our “suite” was a house – was as big as our home – and much nicer.

IMG_5040After oohing and aahing, I finally said to my wife, “Um – how much are we paying for this?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess I forgot to ask.”

Uh-oh.

Back at the front desk, I said, “Ahem, there seems to have been a wee misunderstanding . . . . ” Naturally, no other rooms were available just then. However, our luxury suite turned out to cost much less than I’d guessed, so we agreed to stay two nights there before switching to more plebeian digs.

Yosemite is basically just a valley that was reamed out by a giant glacier. But what a valley. And what an artistic glacier.

IMG_4913We didn’t see the companion park, Antisemite. Actually, the continuation is Hetch Hetchy which, controversially, was flooded a century ago to create a reservoir. John Muir fought it. Yet life is all about trade-offs. People need Yosemites; but also reservoirs. Now California has both, and I think Yosemite is big enough. In four days we didn’t nearly see it all.

IMG_4905We started with an excellent one-day van tour with Close-Up Tours. The guide, Ira Estin, was yet another cheerful fellow, and we liked him enough to hire him for two more days as our private guide. Ira was very knowledgeable about the best spots, especially for photography. (Check out his own beautiful work at his website.)

IMG_5071Yosemite has a lot of rocks. Big ones. Truly big, tossed about by that glacier. Gives you a real respect for glaciers. If you like rocks, this is the place for you.

There are also a lot of trees, and some of those are pretty humongous too. But as Ronald Reagan said (quoted by Ira, though I assured him Reagan was being facetious), “If you’ve seen one tree you’ve seen them all.” However, one spot Ira took us to was a recently burned forest, which was different, and very cool. (Cooled, at least.)

bearWe also saw waterfalls, deer, bears, a coyote, daredevil climbers (through Ira’s telescope), whitewater, squirrels, ducks, lots of Chinese tourists, and so forth.

I recently reviewed Sam Harris’s Waking Up; “mindfulness” and losing the self feature prominently. In Yosemite I overheard a woman tell her little boy, “ . . . I meant losing yourself in the scenery – not getting lost literally.” (She enjoyed my laughter.) But the scenic surroundings were indeed so awesome that it was just about possible at times to lose myself and just be “in the moment.” Our Vernal Fall hike was like that. But even while being “in the moment” there, I was still conscious of anticipating the cold coke I’d have afterwards.

IMG_5134Anyhow, it’s a spectacular place. We give Yosemite five stars.

(The Yosemite photos here were all by Elizabeth Robinson, except those with her in them, taken by Ira.)

Human Hubris and Skyscrapers

June 11, 2015

Unknown“Hubris” is a favorite word of misanthropic cynics. For the Greeks it meant overweening pride – that presages a fall. For many moderns it means humans too uppity, too full of themselves, foolishly imagining they can overcome nature. (Here’s an example.)

The Wright Brothers had this hubris.

Recently my wife and I watched a PBS documentary about the 2011-13 construction of London’s Leadenhall Building, nicknamed “The Cheese Grater” for its unusual shape. (How great to have a wife who, while totally feminine, enjoys a show about building construction.) Those builders too had hubris.

imagesIsn’t “skyscraper” a splendid word? The first was the Tower of Babel, an attempt to build up to the sky – whose hubris God knocked down. But that was mythical, and didn’t daunt future builders from trying again – and reaching the destination. Thumbing their noses at that God and the hubris-mongers.

The Leadenhall Building was an extraordinary project. It exemplifies my own watchword for humanity, rejecting the hubris canard – “the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer.” That building overcame a lot of seeming impossibilities, yet went up in record time to boot.

The problem was the site: hemmed in by existing buildings, thus far too cramped to allow construction of a new one by normal methods. So they had to do something different: building it off-site.

images-1That’s right: much of the construction work that would conventionally be done in situ was indeed performed hundreds of miles away, creating pieces of a monumental jigsaw puzzle that was shipped in and assembled within the site’s space constraints. That was only the beginning of the innovation. The unusual tapered shape was necessitated by the requirement to preserve views of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This limited upper floor space. To compensate for that, whereas a standard skyscraper is built around a supporting core, this one instead employed an outer exoskeleton, to maximize useable interior floor space. Also, whereas normally a building’s “works” of air conditioning and heating equipment, and so forth, goes in the basement, this one put it on top – requiring quite a tricky ballet to hoist it all up and then insert it through just-large-enough roof apertures.

A similar maneuver in New York recently saw a massive air conditioning unit fall 28 stories; 10 people were hurt. Accidents happen. This doesn’t deter us. Crashes don’t stop aviation either. We learn from them and go forward. Hubris? No, perseverance.

images-2After completion, the Leadenhall Building settled a bit out of alignment. But this in fact had been planned for too. They jacked up the building – yes, the entire edifice – in order to remove some structural components and thereby correct the one-inch misalignment. The guy in charge of this little operation was quite matter-of-fact about it. No problem.

It was mind-boggling to contemplate the project’s immensity – the amount of insanely complex pre-engineering and planning required to make this construction go off like clockwork, all the problems and challenges and inevitable glitches that had to be overcome, and the coordinated efforts of so many disparate workmen, both at the site and in the factories that created the colossal prefabricated modules for assembly. What an impressive illustration of what is really, evolutionarily, humanity’s great “killer app” – social cooperation.

If this be hubris, take pride in it.

P.S. I can’t resist noting, this was not a government project.

 

The Middle East: The Case for Not Doing

June 1, 2015

A previous post critiqued Andrew Bacevich’s “limits of power” take on world affairs. He derided what he saw as vain attempts to control history, which can’t be done – so don’t even try. It’s true that do-gooder efforts may, for numerous reasons, fail. But I prefer a proactive approach to life rather than a passive fatalism, hence trying to make the world better. And people, throughout the ages, have succeeded at it.

UnknownYet regarding today’s Middle East – I throw up my hands (and my lunch).

The conventional wisdom now is that America’s 2003 Iraq venture upended a hornets’ nest, causing today’s tsuris, and we should have left well enough alone. A seeming vindication of Bacevich. Well, maybe; but I’m reminded of when Chou En-lai was asked to evaluate the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied.

(We did not invade Iraq based on “lies” or manipulated intelligence. All major intelligence services believed Saddam likely had weapons of mass destruction – he was trying hard to make it seem so. The true issue was: did we dare risk that he had them? Yet, to the “knowing what you know now” question, I’d say don’t invade – knowing now how botched it would be, particularly in disbanding the Iraqi army.)

Cartoon by Danziger

Cartoon by Danziger

Bush 43’s real Iraq sin was willing the ends but not the means – imagining it could be done cheaply and easily. I still think Bacevich is wrong, and we could have succeeded; but if you do aim to alter history, please be prepared for some heavy lifting.

images-1Of course, President Obama, who forswore repeating Bush’s Iraq mistake, is now doing exactly that – willing the ends but not the means – declaring that we will destroy ISIS (or is it now just containment?) but without actually going to war. As if some cheap airstrikes will do the trick. The results so far add yet more color to the picture of feckless American impotence Obama has painted.

My instincts are hawkish. However, the problem with Obama’s ISIS strategy is not just that it’s ineffectual but it isn’t a strategy at all, more like striking out blindly. ISIS is horrible, yes, but we must weigh the ramifications of battling it. images-3We’re relying on Shiite militias, almost as nasty (at least one is actually on our official list of terrorist organizations), and likely to exacerbate sectarian hostilities. And this war puts us in bed with the Iranians, and even with Bashar Assad*, not to mention Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorists also fighting ISIS for Assad’s sake. Be careful what you wish for — is the triumph of all those forces really desirable?

Maybe we don’t have a dog in this fight, and should just let all these bad guys beat each other to exhaustion, which probably now has to happen, before some halfway sane alternative can possibly, eventually emerge in that afflicted terrain. As columnist Thomas Friedman suggests, we cannot impose a resolution absent a stupendous commitment that isn’t going to happen; Middle Easterners must work this out for themselves, bloody though that may be. Meantime, Iraq’s nationhood is now a lost cause; the Kurds deserve their own state anyway. We should fight only for something that is really worthy of defending, and is defensible – e.g., Kurdistan, or Jordan, if threatened. It was different at the start of Syria’s conflict when we could have gained real strategic advantage by backing the good guys. But Obama funked it, and now there aren’t any good guys.

images-2Let’s understand what’s really going on with ISIS. This is not mainly about religion or theology (nor some sort of arguably legitimate “grievances”). The violence itself attracts certain people; while the normal well-adjusted human being is decidedly not violent (contrary to cynical stereotypes), some alas don’t meet that description. There are always enough young men to staff the ranks of storm troopers or beheaders or whatever. But – more broadly – for its recruits and loyalists, ISIS is mainly about personal identity. The transition to modernity can leave people unmoored from traditional cultural sources of identity and personal meaning (“who am I?”) – the “loneliness of the crowd.” Today’s Middle East is so messed up that it’s natural to cling desperately to whatever sources of seeming identity (and security) people can. In some societies this hunger for identity and meaning may manifest itself in nationalism; but the Middle East lacks nation states to which intense feelings can attach. So, instead, that hook is provided by tribalism, Islam, and jihad. This also attracts young people from outside the region with similar personal voids and cravings.

A recent PBS Frontline program showed that ISIS really started flourishing to fill the vacuum in Syria, defending civilians against Assad, once it became clear that America would not. Local people who support it aren’t crazy. For all these reasons ISIS is a powerful force that won’t melt away with some aerial bombardment. If anything, being under attack by their fetishized enemy feeds their narrative and intensifies loyalty – another reason why our half-baked military campaign seems worse than useless.

Unknown-1Then we have the Iran nuclear negotiations. Getting whatever promises we can out of Iran might sound good, inasmuch as the military option, no matter how much Obama pretends otherwise, is unthinkable. Delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability also may seem desirable, hoping the landscape might change in a decade. However, the very fact of a deal with America would be a big boost to Iran’s international stature, and sanctions relief would be a big economic boost, all of which would serve to further entrench Iran’s mullahs in power, and to strengthen a country that will still fundamentally be our geopolitical competitor and enemy. On the other hand, if Iran did get the bomb, what could they do with it that wouldn’t be suicidal? So here too I lean more and more to the desirability of doing nothing. I’d rather see Iran with unusable nukes left stewing in its shit-hole than an Iran without nukes but empowered in ways that really matter.

* Remember when Obama sought Congressional authorization to bomb Assad’s forces for chemical weapons use? We are now finally bombing in Syria — without Congressional authorization — striking Assad’s enemies. Does this make sense?