Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

The Dalai Lama: Ethics for the New Millennium

March 14, 2022

This 1999 book says nothing remarkable. That’s what’s remarkable about it.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is known as a religious or spiritual leader. But he is Buddhist, which is more a philosophy than a religion, and there’s practically no religion in his book. No mention of reincarnation (even though it’s central to his own life story — he was deemed the reincarnation of his predecessor). No mention of any afterlife, or God, or references to scripture.

Leaving all that out makes for a book that can speak to everyone, giving us a take on ethics that’s universal. Unlike efforts messed up by dicey religious notions, this book doesn’t ask the reader to suspend disbelief, with propositions not readily accepted by our rational minds, which must be forcibly overridden by “faith.” In contrast, there’s very little here that doesn’t strike a reader as perfectly reasonable and indeed obviously true.

That might be a formula for anodyne platitudes. But not for nothing has this man spent his life thinking about the issues here addressed. Furthermore, in contrast to so much that’s written under the rubric of “philosophy,” here there’s nothing abstruse, difficult, esoteric, convoluted, or subtle. He tells it straight and clear.

But enough of characterizing the book. What does it actually say?

Everyone desires happiness and avoidance of suffering. So much a part of our nature is this (and it would be strange if it weren’t) that it requires no further philosophical justification. “Suffering” is self-explanatory but “happiness” is a much trickier concept (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill suggesting it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a satisfied pig). The key dichotomy is between transitory sensations and feelings about one’s life as as whole. Gyatso doesn’t deny the pleasures of the former; but beware the “hedonic treadmill,” when satisfying a desire merely sets up the next desire.

In his view, the key to happiness — and to ethics — is avoidance of harm to others. Or, more broadly, promoting their happiness. (Recalling the golden rule.) This actually may not seem so obvious a proposition. I get there by positing that the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings able to feel. Gyatso doesn’t put it that way, but the conclusion is equivalent.

It’s also the essence of ethics — harm avoidance and happiness promotion. But how this figures into one’s own happiness is again tricky. While Gyatso argues that it’s served by promoting the happiness of others, Garrison Keillor queried if one’s purpose is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? It’s not actually a supercilious question. Is “pay it forward” a sort of Ponzi scheme? (But the existence of feeling beings needs no justification. They just are.)

A related issue is whether there’s truly any such thing as altruism. If doing something for another makes me happy, per the Dalai Lama, isn’t that actually self-serving? My daughter and I have had this conversation endlessly about my philanthropy.

I answer this way. My feeling good about philanthropy is not a bad thing that negates the happiness in others it produces. It augments it. If both donor and recipient benefit, that adds to the global quantity of happiness. Which is what it’s all about. And though Gyatso suggests there is a difference between self-serving and selfless altruism, I believe our egos and self-regard are so powerful that the latter cannot truly exist.

Notably, a chapter is titled “The Ethic of Restraint.” I read it shortly after writing about how restraint and its lack creates a power imbalance between good and evil. Moral action concerns not just one’s good impulses, but restraining the negative ones we all experience. Gyatso dilates upon how negative thoughts and feelings — anger, jealousy, resentment, etc. — undermine one’s ability to be happy. While positive ones — kindness, compassion, love — serve it. Thus giving us the lifelong task of controlling the former in favor of the latter. Taming a wild elephant, the book says.

This promotes inner peace, deemed the sine qua non of happiness. And inner peace helps us to restrain our negative feelings.

All fine and dandy. But how does one know when one is doing that? Self-justification is also a powerful force. Even from the standpoint of promoting the well-being of others, fallible humans can get it wrong. Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot believed they were working for human betterment. Gyatso would say they lacked inner peace. I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Interestingly, he rejects the idea of “karma” as commonly understood, some sort of cosmic force for giving people their just deserts. Gyatso sees that as powerlessness. Instead, he says, what happens to us does depend on our actions, but as direct consequences, not due to some mystical force. (Which of course does not exist.)

I did not agree with every word. He impugns “the culture of perpetual growth” as leading to “discontents.” He seems to mean inequality, then bizarrely says that if Europe were the whole world, the “endless growth” ideology might be justified; but elsewhere people are starving. In fact he takes for granted that globally, poverty is worsening.

A common mistake. Actually, poverty has been plummeting for decades (apart from the recent pandemic effect) — and it’s thanks to economic growth. Not the cause of poverty and inequality, but their remedy. The world will never be equal, but human life can be made better for more people if there’s more wealth available.

That’s an ethical proposition.

The Tyranny of Merit — And Trumpist Revolt of the Losers

March 1, 2022

What is justice? People getting what they deserve — for good or ill. Thus talents and efforts being rewarded. That’s meritocracy.

But meritocracy has a downside, argues Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit. In a society where rewards are unconnected to merit, such as a hereditary aristocracy, non-aristocrats don’t feel shamed by their deprivation. However, in a meritocracy, where winners are reckoned deserving, loserhood is compounded by the sting of feeling personal inadequacy.

That, Sandel posits, drives the populist political upsurge — the Brexit vote, the Trump vote, and so forth. A revolt by meritocracy’s losers, against the winning elites. Feeling disrespected, and resenting it. He says idealistic rhetoric about “going as far as your talents and efforts can take you” creates that resentment, in people whose talents and efforts just don’t take them very far.

Aggravated by disappearance of the 1950s kinds of jobs enabling masses to join the middle class. But rather than jobs “shipped overseas,” the far bigger factor is technology and automation. We’re manufacturing as much as ever — just doing it with much less labor. That frees up people to be productive differently, making us collectively richer. Indeed, the middle class is not disappearing; and more people are rising rather than falling out of it. It’s poverty that’s been shrinking; moreover, Americans classed as “poor” today would, in terms of the life amenities they enjoy, have been rated “middle class” not many decades ago. So the problem Sandel sees is not just economic.

He challenges the very idea of deservingness. I myself have flourished, thanks to traits like intelligence, conscientiousness, etc. Thus deserving? But did I deserve to have those winning traits? Was there some innate, pre-existing deservingness in me, entitling me to be so endowed? Or was it just the luck of the draw?*

The Bible’s Job experienced a blitz of misfortunes, and protested to God this was undeserved. But that’s not how it works, God replied, in Sandel’s reading. “Not everything that happens is a reward or punishment for human behavior.” And this Sandel deems “a radical departure from the theology of merit” infusing the rest of the Old Testament. Going on to discuss how Christianity forever wrestled with the deservingness problem, that is, whether you get into Heaven by being good or because you’re so predestined. (A philosophical black hole.)

Sandel extensively discusses what “luck” really means in the context of inequality. He doesn’t even think intelligence has much to do with it. A football star earns more than a ditch digger because society just happens to be set up in a way that rewards the former more than the latter. Should we try to undo that? By bailing out losers? Hobbling winners? They’re not morally equivalent.

And even if we recognize that success is ultimately a matter of luck, which should be somewhat rectified, to negate such luck entirely would seem, well, crazy. If, for example, everyone is equalized no matter their talents and efforts, then why develop skills or work hard? That was the fatal flaw in the communist idea (which no nation ever truly implemented).

The book extensively discusses “credentialism” — how degrees, especially from elite institutions, serve to divide society between winners and losers. That’s meritocracy if you suppose well-educated graduates contribute more to society. Actually a problematic proposition. And the division is perpetuated because student bodies skew heavily to children of the better off. A more egalitarian society would give the rest better college opportunities. (Rather than compounding deprivation via crappy public schools in disadvantaged places.)

As suggested, Sandel bemoans meritocracy because its losers feel bad about themselves. He wants a society where nobody does. But what, you might ask, is really the alternative to what we’ve got? If rewards don’t go to merit, to talents, to efforts, then what kind of bizarre society is that? Is that just? Is it even conceivable?

That’s not what Sandel is proposing. In his eyes, meritocratic equality of opportunity is a good thing, but it’s not enough. It “does little to cultivate the social bonds and civic attachments that democracy requires.”

And, he says, “a sterile, oppressive equality of results” is not the only alternative to equality of opportunity. Another is “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity — developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs.”

A nice utopian vision. But the harsh reality is that many people aren’t equipped for the kinds of jobs that “win social esteem” today, or to hold up their end of Sandel’s civic participation ideal.

I’ve long considered the inequality obsession misdirected. It usually comes down to resentment of wealth (the word “obscene” often deployed as a moral judgment). Very different from seeing poverty as morally repugnant. If there were no poverty — no absolute want — with everyone being able to live at least decently — then the very rich are simply not a problem.

Still, just relieving deprivation does not produce the kinds of civic paragons Sandel hopes for. He himself argues that welfare recipients often resent the relationship this puts them in vis-a-vis the rest of society. Part of the overall resentment fueling the populist revolt. Sandel is right that it’s a problem when large population segments feel such alienation. But he doesn’t really have an answer for it.

His concluding paragraphs argue that the problem lies with different societal echelons leading largely separate lives. This recalls Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart (see my commentary, very relevant here).** Murray basically suggested (naively, I thought) that the upper classes should interact more with the rest. And what Sandel finally calls for is humility on the part of the rich and successful as “the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.”

And how to get from here to there? Sandel offers no clue.

The book does, again, attempt to explain Trumpist populism in terms of class resentment. Murray was right that social segregation has grown; Robert Putnam began Our Kids by similarly lamenting that rising barrier. But meantime, increasing egalitarian thinking means people no longer feel deferential toward their “betters.”

Who in past times were indeed widely seen as better, their elevated status accepted as right and natural. A social ethos epitomized by FDR, elite in every bone of his body, yet his leadership was totally embraced by the masses. In a society quite different from ours today. Trumpism is an antithesis of such FDRism.

As such it’s comprehensible. But FDR was a virtuous leader in many key respects, making the political support he inspired appropriate. Whereas Trump, like FDR very elite himself, is the opposite in character. Perhaps his fans latched on to him simply for lack of other alternatives filling the anti-elitist leader role. But it’s still tragically baffling to see unswerving cultist loyalty to a stinking piece of shit.

* Considering it the latter, philosopher John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, argued for (in theory) setting up a society under a “veil of ignorance” where you don’t know what your status will be. He thought that would suggest an egalitarian system.


Fake vaccination cards

February 1, 2022

Two Long Island nurses have been charged with scamming over $1.5 million selling forged vaccination cards. Reading about this, a few things struck me.

They charged $220 for adults, and only $85 for children. Why such a big discount for kids? How about seniors?

Doing the math, they must have sold at least 7000 cards to net $1.5 million. Now, I do mail order business myself, but have never managed to sell 7000 of anything (except cheap bulk coins). How did they succeed in connecting with so many buyers? Especially given that sales promotion obviously couldn’t be public. They must have been much savvier businesspeople than me. Imagine putting such talents to legitimate enterprise!

However, my wife remarked that they couldn’t have been so smart because they got caught. I’ve written about how often small time crooks do get busted; many bookkeepers embezzling from businesses through phony checks. It’s surprisingly common.

The nurse case reminded me about a local business genius who, at the pandemic’s start, imported 100,000 masks costing $1 each, and tried to sell them for $10. He was criminally charged with price gouging. Didn’t sit well with me; if buyers were willing to pay $10 for something wanted and needed, where’s the crime?

But anyway, the story was weird, because this guy operated a little pizza place, and it was a mystery how he imagined moving so many masks. In the event, he apparently sold almost none, getting stuck with the rest — losing most of his investment. So his crime’s chief victim was himself.

But back to the fake vax cards —

What really puzzles me is the mindset of someone paying $220 for a fake card when you can get a real one for free. Of course that requires vaccination, which some people oppose. For that foolishness many thousands have paid with their lives. But put even that aside. While it’s true that cards are occasionally required for some venues, if you’re anti-vax, where’s the logic in falsely posing as a vaccinated person — which you’re against being?

And for those calling this a “freedom” issue, engaging in such fraud surely undercuts any notion of a principled stance. The freedom claims are anyhow rubbish — nobody has freedom to endanger others. And those nurses, by aiding people faking vaccination status, are likely culpable for resulting Covid infections and deaths.

But maybe using a fake vax card is really just about giving a middle finger to the vaccine-promoting establishment.

A final note: looking at my own vax card, it’s not much to forge. Dates of jabs just handwritten, with no sort of certification. My daughter, in Jordan, got a card there with a QR code on it, now widely required internationally. Who’s in the third world country?

El Exigente at the NY International Coin Show

January 22, 2022

The New York International Coin Show is the premier event. It used to be each December; until 2001 when there was a little problem with the location — the World Trade Center. Organizers managed to scramble a new venue for January, so it’s been January ever since. It started in 1972, was cancelled in 2021 due to Covid, but went ahead this year — the fiftieth. I’ve attended every one.

It’s truly international, many dealers from overseas, which is what makes it great. Though fewer than usual this time, with Covid still inhibiting travel.

The show goes several days; Thursday is “Early Bird” day, with $125 admission. I do that on the theory that “the early bird catches the worm” — some good buy that would soon have been snapped up. Also, “Early Bird” day is less crowded, making things more efficient. And more prudent this time with omicron peaking (January 13). Entrance required vaccination proof, and masking, which everyone scrupulously observed. It worked; I eluded infection.

Setting out, it felt as though the previous show (pre-pandemic) had been a century ago. But once immersed in the familiar ambiance, it was like yesterday. The cast of characters doesn’t change much year to year; many old friends to nod to. Like BCD, the greatest Greek coin collector ever (whom I visited in Athens in 1992). It’s sobering to see the aging, once young guys morphing into old guys. (It’s nearly all guys.) Reminding me of the party in the final chapter of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

And of course there’s another step after the progression from young to old. One I missed seeing there was Lucien Birkler. Still living, but over 80 I think, long in poor health, having lost both legs to diabetes. Yet he’d nevertheless work coin show after coin show. A tribute to human indomitability. But nothing goes on forever.

I go to buy; wasn’t expecting to find much. Several dealers were remarking on how, in particular, it’s getting impossible to buy from auctions, someone will always outbid you. Yet I came away with a good haul of worthwhile material. Even surprisingly a coin from one of the auctions connected with the show, a lovely Lucius Verus sestertius, for $480.* Looking much better in hand than the catalog photo; from the “New York Sale” run by a consortium of dealers. And Goldberg’s cheerful Glenn Onishi delivered it to me personally, saving the shipping fee.

I spent a couple of hours with Robin Danziger of Educational Coin Company. Another guy I’ve known forever. I once visited their amazing Ulster County premises — imagine a Home Depot but filled with coins. Robin is someone who really loves them and their history. He had bags and bags I searched through, typically picking out a coin here and a coin there. Yes, I’m a careful, fussy buyer, very quality conscious.

Robin remarked that it was like selling to “El Exigente.” Referring to an old TV coffee commercial. White-hatted, El Exigente (“the demanding one”) is the buying agent, coming to a Colombian village. Frowning, he carefully inspects their coffee beans. Finally, a smile — and the villagers are joyful their harvest meets his exacting approval.

Examining some of my picks, Robin also commented, “You have terrific taste in coins.” Well, flattering the customer never hurts. One bag was all posthumous small bronzes of Constantine I. Common — but not at all if well centered and struck, with complete legends.

When I chose just one, Robin picked out another, saying surely it too should qualify. I agreed it was lovely in all respects — save the mintmark being missing. But then he did point out one other I accepted.

I wound up with a goodly pile of purchases that pleased both of us.

Afterwards, another tradition, dinner with an old friend (a woman I’d dated in the early ’70s). Then caught the train back to Albany, picked up at the station by my wife — my best acquisition ever — and once again was in bed by midnight. Life is good.

* Really a bargain. The catalog notes it was bought in 1989 from Claude Amsellem — a dealer I remember from the New York show’s old days. And it originated in the Mazzini collection — the most famous ever for Roman bronzes. A nice bonus!

Noise: Noisier Than We Think

January 15, 2022

The word “noise” has a special meaning in fields like statistics. Referring to all the reasons why some result deviates from the ideal; like an incorrect prediction. It’s the concept of distinguishing noise from signal.

When people are convicted of identical crimes, with similar backgrounds and circumstances, etc., we nevertheless expect sentences to differ. That too is “noise.” But we don’t expect sentences to vary from thirty days to five years. Nor expect medical diagnoses to be very noisy, differing greatly from one doctor to another.

Such expectations are often wrong, with noise being a bigger problem than we realize. So says the 2021 book Noise – A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein.

The book refers to “stable pattern noise,” encompassing characteristics about you, different from other people’s, that make your judgments differ; and “occasion noise,” referring to extraneous factors — like your mood at a given moment — that also affect them. Perhaps confusingly, both “stable pattern” and “occasion” noise are subsets of overall “pattern noise.

And the book also differentiates “level noise” — for example, different judges being generally tougher or more lenient — from (again) “pattern noise” when they differ in how they apply that in specific cases. The authors further speak of “system noise” as encompassing the last two together. You got all that? There’s also bias. And plain old error. All told, a whole lotta noise.

Early on, the book talks about insurance underwriters — professionals tasked with setting premiums to be charged corporate customers. Too high and the insurer will lose business. Too low and it loses money. When asked to guesstimate the variance among quotes by experienced underwriters (that is, the noise quotient), insurance executives typically say 10% or 15%. In reality it’s more like ten times greater. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The authors quote one veteran underwriter: “When I was new I would discuss 75% of cases with my supervisor . . . After a few years, I didn’t need to — I am now regarded as an expert . . . Over time I became more and more confident in my judgment.”

Now here’s the key point: her confidence grew as she “learned to agree with her past self.” Not from any objective confirmation that those past judgements were, in any sense, correct.

This describes a vast range of human psychology and behavior. It is, quite simply, doing what one’s always done. With no deep consideration of that behavior’s optimality. But — if we actually tried subjecting ourselves to such examination, comprehensively, we couldn’t function. Probably couldn’t get ourselves out of bed in the morning. That has to be recognized — even while we must recognize the suboptimality.

This applies to Kahneman’s entire well-known oeuvre — Thinking Fast and Slow, etc. Showing how evolution has saddled us with many non-rational biases in our thinking. Like putting more weight on potential losses than on equal potential gains. Because, for our distant ancestors, “loss” could very well mean loss of life. So a loss avoidance bias made sense.

But even if many of our cognitive biases are not rational, in a narrow sense, the whole system of cognition they comprise is deeply rational. Because, again, we couldn’t function if we had to subject every daily decision or choice to conscious examination. To avoid that, evolution has given us a system of cognitive shortcuts and quick decision heuristics. (The fast thinking of Kahneman’s book title.) And it must be a terrific system because it does enable most humans to function extremely well from moment to moment — and from year to year.

One concept that has grown in my thinking is the role of contingency in human affairs — ranging from individuals to groups to whole societies and their history. I have long been mindful of this effect in my own life, with tiny causes altering its whole course. The Noise book presents much evidence for how individual and group decisions can be affected by such small contingencies. Like something so simple, and seemingly unimportant, as who speaks first in a meeting. Jury deliberations a particular focus of concern. The authors write about cascades, describing how even just one expressed opinion can trigger a succession of responses by other people, not realizing how they’d been unconsciously influenced.

A striking finding is that in making various kinds of judgments or predictions, based on various bits of information, mechanical formulas almost always do better than human analysts, even supposed experts. The key reason — humans are just too plagued by noise. And so we see growing recourse to artificial intelligence to make evaluations, like medical diagnoses.

More: when a human evaluates a set of variables to come up with a judgment, it’s not a formulaic process, yet it’s as if a formula is being applied, albeit a complex one. Studies have found that when such an actual human’s judgments are made the basis for a computer model, which is then applied to the same variables, the model outperforms the human. We may think we bring complexity and richness and insight into our judgments. But what we really bring is noise.

And more: not only do such models outperform the humans they model, studies have found that any mechanistic formula, even randomly weighted, applied to the set of variables in play, will do better than “expert” human judgments.

But supplanting human judgments with mechanistic decision methods provokes backlash. When noisiness in criminal sentencing became evident, the consequently enacted federal sentencing guidelines led to objections that this interfered with judges, well, judging. People do still value the idea of human judgment, bringing a “holistic” perspective to any decision. “This has deep intuitive appeal,” the authors acknowledge.

But, they say, their recommended “decision hygiene” strategies mostly aren’t mechanistic, not jettisoning human judgment. Instead, they mainly urge noise reduction by breaking problems down into component parts. And recognize that while reducing noise is broadly desirable, excessive fixation on it can conflict with other values. Noise is like dirt in your home — its optimal amount is not zero, because attaining zero costs more than it’s worth.

Intelligence also helps combat noise. Yes, “intelligence” is a fraught concept. But the book argues that in fact, tests of “General Mental Ability” are highly predictive of performance. High achievers overwhelmingly tend to have higher GMAs. Even within the top 1%, gradations actually make a big difference. Someone in the 99.8% GMA percentile will likely significantly outperform the 99.0% person. (My own example bears this out. I think I’m at least close to 99%, but not higher. And I feel that difference, compared to really smart people.)

Conversely, lower GMA scores are predictive of people believing in bunk like astrology and falling for fake news. Here’s a GMA test question: in a race, you pass the runner in second place. What place are you in now? Your instinctive answer is likely wrong.

But on the other hand, I’ve long believed that carefully agonizing over a decision doesn’t necessarily improve upon your initial gut response. One chapter began by asking what percentage of the world’s airports are in the United States? “Thirty percent” immediately popped into my head. Then I said to myself, “Wait, let’s think methodically about this.” America has less than 5% of global population. But some big countries are much less developed. And we have a lot of little airports. Mulling over it all, I revised my answer to 15%.

The question introduced a discussion of how one’s first instinctive response is often actually better than a carefully considered one (because the latter is corrupted by noise). The correct answer: 32%!

Baltimore Coin Show Fun

November 22, 2021

Last week I went to the Baltimore coin show. Normally thrice yearly, it hadn’t been held for two years, due to Covid. Southwest has a one-hour early flight, then light rail (very cheap) got me to my first appointment before 8 AM — with dealer Nick Economopoulos in his hotel room.

He’s a good guy whom I’ve bought from for over thirty years. We go through his entire stock, and he shoots me his best rock-bottom price on every coin. Occasionally I might deliberate for a few seconds; usually not. No song-and-dance. And I buy enough to make it worthwhile for us both.

Then on to another dealer in his hotel room, before the show itself opens, a bourse with many tables. Mostly I seek ancient coins to sell in my online auctions. (The current one closes Dec. 7; here’s a link: But I do still buy an occasional item destined for my own collection.

One in the latter category, from Nick, was a dollar-sized Byzantine bronze of Emperor Tiberius Constantine (578-82 AD). The big M signifies the denomination (follis); the “u” the regnal year (fifth). CON is the mint, Constantinople; the Gamma after it, the “officina” or division in the mint. It was $200, actually the most I ever paid for a Byzantine bronze; but the quality is great. I was very glad to get it.

Quality is the name of the game. The U.S. coin market has gone nuts on that, with 11 hairsplitting grades of uncirculated. The “slabbing” companies, who evaluate coins and encapsulate them, for a fee, came up with something diabolical — “registry sets,” recording who owns the highest grade coins. With associated bragging rights (it’s a man thing). So, recently a 1957 Lincoln — cent, not car — sold at auction for $13,800. An extremely common coin, but uncommonly graded “67+.” Okay — but a 66 would go for about $35. As if the one is hundreds of times better than the other. Actually they’re virtually indistinguishable.

Fortunately the ancient coin market is more sane, but quality is still crucial; and it’s a more complex issue, with a lot of variables to consider. While value is a more open question too, absent price guides. All making this a challenging game. And the pandemic seems to have turbocharged demand, so it’s ever harder to buy at reasonable prices. I’ve always considered myself a “bottom feeder,” looking for “bargains.” Yet it’s remarkable what great coins I’ve been able to acquire — albeit with a lot of effort. But that effort is the fun. There’d be no sport in it if I wasn’t so price conscious. However, now rather than a “bargain,” my criterion for buying is a price at least making some sense to me.

That Byzantine coin is a case in point. Not so long ago $200 would have seemed unthinkable; now it feels cheap. (I’ve seen ones not as good selling for twice as much in auctions.)

I worked the show, going from table to table, until the 6 PM closing. And after a long productive fun day, buying many goodies, and a nice dinner, I got home before midnight, picked up at the airport by the best wife in the world. What a life.

The Donut King

October 27, 2021

Ted Ngoy came to America, a refugee from Cambodia’s genocide, with nothing but some family members — and great drive. Worked hard at various jobs, one in a donut shop, where he learned the business. Then he started his own. Leading the way for fellow Cambodian refugees to make the donut trade their specialty. Eventually Ted built an empire of around 65 stores, and bought a gorgeous California mansion, which he loved.

The story is told in a fascinating 2020 film, The Donut King, aired on PBS.

I was struck by what a positive, welcoming attitude America had then, in the 1970s, toward refugees and immigrants. True to our fundamental ideals. And their rightness was exemplified by the story of Ted and his fellow Cambodian refugees, contributing greatly to this country. Latterly, of course, we’ve lost our way on this, succumbing to a nasty xenophobic irrationalism, poisoning American minds. I’d hoped President Biden would undo Trump’s damage (he promised me), and he’s done some, but not nearly enough. Even some wall construction continues.

Ted’s story included a fairy tale romance. Back in Cambodia, he was a young nobody, smitten by a girl from an elite family. By pluck and grit he won her.

But as the whole beautiful story unfolded in the film, I remembered being told at the outset that Ted would lose everything. I kept wondering how.

Then he discovers Las Vegas.

We visited there when our daughter was little. Walking through a casino, I suggested she think about the cost of building that sumptuous edifice. The electricity cost for all the dazzling lights. And wages for all the employees. Et cetera. Where does all that money come from — with the owners making profits besides? From the pockets, obviously, of people gambling there. Most have to be losers.

B.F. Skinner posited that gamblers keep at it because they’re conditioned by the periodic psychic rewards of wins. Such reward/punishment conditioning was Skinner’s theory of everything. He was wrong. Wins are not gambling’s rewards. (Anyhow they’d be outweighed by more frequent losses; and human psychology hates losses more than it loves gains.) Gambling’s reward is instead the spritz of adrenaline thrill with every roll of the dice and turn of a card. A fix to which some gamblers become addicted.

Ted did. That’s how he lost everything. Blowing his whole donut fortune and mortgaging his stores to the point of bankruptcy. He lost his cherished mansion. And his fairy tale marriage, with his wife powerless to stop his self-destruction. The last straw was his having “a little affair,” as he put it with a sheepish grin.

Indeed, the film showed him to be still a cheerful upbeat fellow, despite his catastrophe.

One can understand addiction to the rush each time one bets. How that could have kept Ted coming back again and again. But squandering his entire wealth? Not even holding back a fraction? Didn’t he grasp that by blowing everything, he destroyed his capability to continue gambling? The one one thing he came to crave above all else.

The human story was what was really so compelling in this film. Ted’s donut empire was a monument to rationality. His heedless self-destruction a monument to irrationality.

Human beings: you gotta love them.

The Phony Environmental Rights Amendment

October 23, 2021

This election day, New Yorkers have the opportunity to vote for a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing us the right to clean air and water and to enjoy a healthy environment. All that in just 15 simple words!

And after we’ve passed this amendment, the Tooth Fairy will leave money under our pillows.

Dominick Calsolaro’s Oct. 22 Albany Times-Union commentary rhapsodizes about the amendment. Saying it will prevent “government agencies and departments approving corporate projects over the health and safety of citizens.” They’d be “obligated to minimize pollution, degradation, and environmental harms . . . to put people first.”

So “no more Hoosick Falls, where residents have used water contaminated for decades.” No more public housing complexes, like Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes, built in an industrial-zoned area. No more landfills, like the one in Rensselaer, next to a school. No more incinerators like Norlite’s operating within city limits.

It sounds like passing this simple amendment will be like waving a magic wand, all our environmental problems will be solved, and we can march forward into the bright sunshine of a new day.

If only it were that easy. But this is just a feel-good measure, nothing more. Its fifteen simple words are so general they mean nothing, requiring nothing of anyone. Applying its lofty language to nitty-gritty situations like those Calsolaro enumerates would be very arguable. There are always trade-offs. Indeed, if his expansive reading were actually correct, the amendment would be a strait-jacket, barring sensible consideration of such trade-offs. “Putting people first” can conflict with environmental concerns.

Meantime, state agencies will likely spend extra time and money giving lip service to the amendment. Needing more state workers to crank out more empty verbiage.

And, as Calsolaro himself points out, the amendment will invite more litigation, giving people more legal tools for nimbyism and obstructionism. As if we don’t already have enough of that. As if New York’s economy is not already hamstrung by a welter of business-stifling measures. The amendment could actually be exploited to stymie clean-energy projects like wind farms.

Then of course there’s the law of unintended consequences. It’s hard to say what those unintended consequences will be. But unintended consequences don’t tend to be good.

I’m all in favor of clean air and water and a healthy environment. But that requires hard work, facing painful trade-offs. This amendment is a cynical excuse for not actually doing anything. It sounds high-minded to say we have a “human right” to a healthy environment, but it has to be paid for.

There’s no free lunch. Dressing up a nothingburger as a free lunch is a bad thing.

I’m voting no.

Crazies Rule: The State of Play in Congress

October 1, 2021

Republicans have repeatedly cynically harmed America by playing the government shutdown card. Democrats, with narrow Congressional majorities, managed to head off the latest.

But still looming is the debt ceiling. If not raised by mid-October, we’ll default on our financial obligations, an unthinkable economic apocalypse. This too has been cynically exploited continually by Republicans. In the past, they’ve always blinked, if only at the last minute. But now they insist Democrats must do it solely with their own votes. Even threatening to block them with a filibuster.

As ever, the ploy is to paint Democrats as spendthrifts. When in fact raising the debt limit entails no new spending, it pays for past spending. And Republicans under Trump ran up huge deficits. Their hypocritical debt ceiling brinksmanship makes me puke.

But they’re not the only irresponsible Congressional crazies.

Amazingly — amazingly — President Biden had successfully negotiated a desperately needed infrastructure bill (a ball Trump repeatedly dropped, in his standard feckless bullshitfull way.) Biden got enough Republicans on board to win Senate passage (overcoming the filibuster hurdle). Now it only needs passage in the Democrat-controlled House, where Republicans can’t block it.

But “progressive” Democrats can — they’re holding it hostage, refusing to vote for it unless the Senate also passes their giant $3.5 trillion bill for other spending. Which cannot happen. The votes just aren’t there, with several Democratic Senators (and all 50 Republicans) adamantly opposed.

Will House “progressives” (like AOC) really kill the infrastructure bill for the sake of the impossible? Is this what you’d call “progressive?”

Those holdout Democratic Senators seem open to compromise on something less than $3.5 trillion. “Progressives” must also compromise. Otherwise they get nothing. The perfect as the enemy of the good.

Meantime, for all the political jockeying, there has been almost no real public debate about the immense economic and social ramifications of the $3.5 trillion plan. This is sadly typical of today’s America, so full of political intensity, but void of actually coming to grips with actual issues.

And if “progressives” wind up with no infrastructure bill and no omnibus spending bill passed, Biden might seem a failed president. Helping Republicans regain Congressional control, if not also the White House.

Then you fools can kiss goodbye all “progressive” dreams. And America too.

Trump versus Biden versus China

September 21, 2021

His first day in office, Trump handed China a giant victory by nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal we’d expressly created to blunt China’s clout. Yet Republicans call President Biden “soft on China.” The truth is the opposite.

We have two main global antagonists. Russia has been called a Third World country with missiles (which it cannot use). It’s a mischief maker, including its election subversion, but is no existential threat.

China is far more powerful and, in ways, more threatening. China does want to take us down a notch, to swagger as the world’s kingpin. That doesn’t require destroying America; and unlike in the Cold War, it’s not an ideological triumph China seeks. While Biden is right to see a contest between authoritarianism and democracy, it’s more like a popularity contest. Our aim being to showcase a better model. Shouldn’t be hard — while a collectivist mentality makes most Chinese accept a repressive surveillance society, that’s not real attractive elsewhere.

China’s real challenge is not ideological but economic competition. But all nations compete with one another. Just as all businesses, globally and within a nation, compete. And because competition drives prices down to the costs of production, the lion’s share of the wealth that’s created benefits not businesses but consumers. This is not merely theoretical, it’s why average living standards worldwide rose dramatically in recent decades and poverty (contrary to what many imagine) plummeted.

Of course this requires true, fair, unfettered competition, hard to attain because so many interests vie against it. But we’ve succeeded to a degree perhaps surprising. And that battle must be waged with China.

Trump’s tariffs, instead of promoting fair open competition, impeded it, making it harder and costlier for goods to get to market. This may have “protected” some U.S. businesses and jobs from Chinese competition, but damaged the U.S. economy as a whole — the costs borne by American consumers, who pay more for their purchases. Reducing their ability to buy other things, which would have stimulated our economy and created jobs, offsetting those lost to foreign competition. And while both sides suffer thusly from the tariff war, most economists reckon America’s damage exceeds China’s.

Exemplified by his assault on Huawei, Trump also sought to decouple from China, severing the global economy into two ghettoes, ours and theirs. China is doing likewise. Unwinding the globalized supply chains that integrate commerce and maximize efficiency by enabling businesses to obtain the best and least costly inputs. That economic vandalism can only hurt everyone.

Sadly, instead of casting us as the champion of an open global economy, Biden too is trying to wall off ours from theirs. And he’s sticking with Trump’s tariffs. Biden does understand Trump’s stupidity in picking fights with allies, rather than building a common front vis-a-vis China. But that’s undermined by a narrow fixation on American jobs — signaling our friends that they’re actually on their own. Yet seemingly giving them a “with us or against us” choice. Though joining our decoupling from China is self-harming.

Biden seems to frame this as a battle only one side can win. But we cannot “defeat” China. We should instead aim for win-win. That wouldn’t mean not fighting China on intellectual property, human rights, territorial aggression, cyber-hacking, and so forth. We can have those arguments while still expanding mutually beneficial trade and without actually being enemies. You have fights with your spouse but still have intercourse.