Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Ban the box?

September 20, 2016

unknown-1Since 2007, eleven states have enacted bans on checking a job applicant’s credit score. The aim is equality and fair hiring – since someone with low credit would more likely be black, poor, and/or young. Yet when two economists (Robert Clifford and Daniel Shoag) studied these bans, they found hiring more racially biased.

Why so? Another well-intentioned liberal utopian idea whacked by the law of unintended consequences. It seems that when employers cannot see applicants’ credit scores (often a good predictor of reliability on the job), they give added weight to factors like educational attainment and experience – on which young, poor, and black people do even worse.

imagesThe Americans with Disabilities Act similarly aimed to help a disadvantaged class, by giving them a litany of on the-job-protections — enforceable through litigation. Thusly turning disabled workers into lawsuit bombs, making employers wary of employing them at all.

Well, you may say, what’s wrong with requiring employers to treat disabled staff fairly, and penalizing them if they don’t? But even an employer with all the goodwill in the world would realize that what she considers fair, someone else might not, and in today’s litigious culture, that’s a big risk. unknown-2Some lawyer sharks make their livings by cooking up dubious ADA cases and shaking down businesses for settlements. (The ADA was a bigger boon for lawyers than for disabled people.)

It’s all part of a trend to see businesses as enemies of society. As if people should provide you with goods and services with no profit, selflessly, as a public service. A friend of mine constantly whines about supermarkets making profits, asking why they can’t just give up some profit and cut prices. But she likes being able choose among thousands of products in one store. Supermarket profit margins average around 1%.

Now we have the “ban the box” movement – referring to the job application checkbox, “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” As though it’s somehow unfair for an employer to know this about a job seeker. Applicants do have rights; but don’t businesses have some rights too? Isn’t it, indeed, unfair to require a business to hire someone without knowing their credit rating, or criminal record? Those tell something about the person. And while people with bad credit or jail time deserve some consideration, are they entitled to be treated as though those facts about them aren’t facts?

unknown-3And I’m dubious anyway that “ban the box” would actually help the intended beneficiaries – let’s face it, mainly young black men. Who, percentagewise, have a greater likelihood of criminal justice encounters. Businesses know that. If barred from learning whether a black applicant has a clean record, a common response would be wariness about hiring him – making it harder for black men to get jobs. Just like with credit scores.

Sometimes the “unintended consequences” are not even a surprise. Sometimes they stare you in the face. But that never seems to daunt liberal do-gooders in their effort to repeal reality.

After I wrote this up, an article in The Economist reported on another study, showing states with “ban the box” laws, sure enough, do experience lower black hiring.

unknown-4And now Massachusetts has banned employers from asking job applicants what their present salary is. Fairness to women is the stated aim.

Why not just go for total fairness and require businesses to hire workers knowing nothing about them at all?

Donald Ainslie Henderson: hero

September 13, 2016

One who saves another’s life is reckoned a hero. Donald Ainslie Henderson is a hero you never heard of, but he saved around 100 million (so far, and counting). He died August 19.

Unknown-1Henderson was responsible for eradicating smallpox, an extremely nasty disease. (If you believe in God, ask him some time why creation included such features.) When Henderson got this assignment from the World Health Organization in 1966, smallpox was still killing two million annually, and no one thought it could actually be eliminated. Except Henderson.

In fact, the WHO put an American in charge so the U.S. would be blamed for failure. They forgot our motto: “The difficult we do at once, the impossible takes a little longer.” In this case it took till 1977. That year the world’s last smallpox case was registered.

Henderson succeeded by doing what humans do: indefatigable hard work, research, figuring out the best methods, and a lot of cooperation. Hundreds of thousands of people ultimately pitched in to this massive effort.

Those who romanticize the natural world should remember that things like smallpox are part of it. Nature is not our friend. Our entire history is our battle against it. Our victories should be celebrated. This was a great one.

I am so proud to be a member of the human race.

Colombia’s peace deal: how to end wars

September 10, 2016

There are important lessons to be learned from Colombia’s recent peace deal with its FARC insurgency, ending a 52-year civil war.

Uribe

Uribe

The FARC may have started as an ideological “revolutionary” movement but degenerated into murderous drugs-and-kidnapping criminality. Its atrocities prompted the rise of anti-FARC paramilitaries which behaved just about as brutally. Colombia seemed headed for failed-statehood until President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) got serious about combating the FARC militarily and also cracked down on the paramilitaries. He was a hero.

Santos

Santos

His chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, capitalized on that progress with painstaking four-year negotiations, culminating in the peace settlement.

The “No-more-war” crowd sacralizes the word “negotiations,” fantasizing that all conflicts can be solved that way. Historically, the vast majority of wars have instead been solved militarily, by one side simply winning. A combatant who sees a chance to win through arms won’t likely make the concessions necessary for a negotiated settlement.

Colombia shows this. Repeated negotiation efforts failed until the FARC was first brought to its knees militarily. Yet the government couldn’t wipe it out entirely, hence both sides now had incentives for concessions to get a deal. The government had to swallow some bitter pills, including a degree of leniency toward people with blood on their hands.

Unknown-1But it was wise to do so. All normal human beings have a powerful inborn justice drive, an instinct that crimes should be punished. And punishment for crimes is indeed just. However, retributive justice is all about the past, while a peace deal like Colombia’s is all about the future, and we mustn’t sacrifice the latter for the former. If leniency is what it takes to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and lay a foundation for a brighter future, then so be it.

images-3In this, Colombia’s peace deal conforms to what is becoming the modern model for such settlements. We’ve seen broadly similar ones in Northern Ireland, South Africa, El Salvador, and elsewhere, with magnanimous “truth and reconciliation” processes, so that losers aren’t just stamped on, but accommodated back into society. Colombia’s pact enables the FARC to turn into a normal political party.

All this is, quite simply, the way it’s done now, and it’s a very good thing. We may not have “outlawed war” as pacifists dream (though in fact, in history’s broad sweep, war is very much on the decline). But we have gotten a lot better at resolving conflicts, and in ways that are beneficial for the societies involved. This is a very important form of progress, bad news for cynics, and a big point scored for those with an optimistic outlook upon humankind and our world.

Still, conspicuously absent from the growing list of conflicts resolved in this intelligent, foresighted way are any involving Muslims (and a disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims). Regrettably, this seems to reflect a cultural difference: most Muslim societies are still locked in a bloody-minded “winner-take-all” mindset regarding conflicts. They have failed to grow to greater maturity in the way so many others (like Colombia) have done. As an optimist, I expect they one day will, but in the meantime it’s frustrating. (However, let me note Tunisia’s progress, the one nation with (so far) a good outcome from the “Arab Spring,” thanks to the kind of modernist mentality I’m talking about.)

imagesColombia is still fighting a smaller but stroppier rebel group, the ELN, and its FARC deal must be approved in a referendum. The vote may be close: the lack of prison time for miscreants is indeed hard to swallow, and Uribe, to his discredit, is campaigning against it. One might think the desire for retributive justice would be strongest in the rural areas that suffered most at FARC’s hands; but because they’ve suffered the most, they are keenest to approve the deal and draw a line under all the suffering. Let’s hope Colombia follows their lead.

Banning the burkini

September 7, 2016
Banned in France

Banned in France

The “burkini” is Muslim swimwear; more burqa than bikini, it enables gals to get wet while still covered. Some French jurisdictions have banned it.

Allowed in France

Allowed in France

French women on beaches go practically naked. Bare skin has long been permitted; but now it is compulsory. Am I alone in finding this bizarro?

The burkini bans follow France’s ban on the burqa. They claimed police need the ability to identify people in public. That’s disingenuous; a reasonable law could simply require face-baring if requested by an officer. Why not be honest about the real reason for the burqa ban: they see it as reflecting a culture that regards women differently.

True, women wearing burqas often do so in subjugation to men, and that’s bad. However, some wear them out of choice, however misguided that might seem, and in any case, this is a matter between women and their husbands or fathers, in which this libertarian doesn’t think government should interfere. Except to protect women from violence if they go against their menfolk.

Everyone should be free to wear what they choose. This includes religious garb; indeed, in this first-amendment country, it especially includes that. We don’t ban people from wearing crosses or yarmulkas; nor should we ban burqas.

images-4Or burkinis. It does seem perverse that France allows immodesty on beaches but won’t allow modesty. This is discriminatory and mean-spirited toward Muslim women, effectively banning them from beaches. France also bans even headscarves in schools.

America seems to do better than Europe at integrating Muslims into society. Don’t be misled by a certain sulphurous presidential candidate and his fans. They are really outside the U.S. mainstream, which is fundamentally open and tolerant, genuinely believing in our founding ideal of personal liberty, and seeing strength and richness in diversity. Read George Washington’s letter embracing as part of America a Rhode Island Jewish congregation (which must then have appeared more foreign and exotic than do Muslims today).

Maybe France, facing repeated acts of violence by disaffected Muslims, should rethink its attitude toward its own Muslim citizens. France’s president says it’s at war. Take care it’s not a civil war.

UPDATE: Since I got this ready to post, news has come that a French court has overturned the burkini bans.

The animal that came in from the cold (My Labor Day tribute to work)

September 5, 2016

There’s a cynical misanthropic mentality seeing humanity as a curse upon the planet, and modern life as a snakepit of psychic malaise. I don’t buy it.

imagesRecently I traveled from Albany to New York and all along the way was struck not just by how humankind has thoroughly transformed the landscape, but by the stupendous amount of work it took. Whether it was the roads with all their vehicles, all the buildings and other infrastructure, the farmlands with endless rows of cultivation – how many man-hours of toil!

Unknown-2And did you ever stop to ponder how much metal we use, everywhere? And where it comes from – all the mining and milling and processing and fabrication? And don’t forget what it took for people to figure out how to do all this. Likewise all the buildings – every brick had to be manufactured, transported, cemented. Again, the colossal amount of sheer effort boggles the mind.

And what’s it all for? Quite simply, so we can live with less pain and more comfort and reward. We’re the animal that came in from the cold. Unknown-1We arrived on this planet with nothing, literally naked. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done ourselves. It wasn’t easy. To me it’s a veritable miracle.

This is Man’s fundamental nature. Believing (despite all religion) not that things are up to some God, or fate, but up to us. Not to accept, but to strive. Not to submit, but to prevail.

Faster: the pace of modern life

August 27, 2016

imagesI picked up James Gleick’s book Faster and read it slowly – something it says people rarely do anymore.

The subtitle is The Acceleration of Just About Everything. I was hoping for some insight into the human condition as affected by modernity; our lives are radically different from what we evolved for. But the book reads more like a Seinfeld monologue than a sociology essay – a string of quickie observations, never connected into some over-arching theory or viewpoint. Unknown-1I was reminded of Churchill saying of a dessert: “This pudding has no theme.”

Yes, in many ways, life has gotten faster. We all know that. But what does it really mean for us? Gleick seems unsure, ambivalent – the book’s tone is bemusement.

He even contradicts himself at times. One chapter (“Short Term Memory”) starts, “As the flow of information accelerates, we may have trouble keeping track of it all.” Gleick explains that the media on which information is recorded quickly becomes obsolete. Tons of data are on floppy disks and microfilms – but can you find the machines today to read them? Et cetera. This is indeed a real problem. Yet then Gleick says: “amnesia doesn’t seem to be [our] worst problem. This new being just can’t throw anything away . . . It has forgotten that some baggage is better left behind. Homo Sapiens has become a packrat.”

But perhaps such contradictoriness really is the essence of this book, in exploring our modern relationship with time. Gleick returns repeatedly to the concept of “saving time,” and how slippery it is. Talking about the genre of self-help books on time-saving, he says this (his emphasis):

Unknown-3“[The authors] reveal confusion about what it means to save time. They flip back and forth between advertising a faster and a slower life. They offer more time, in their titles and blurbs, but they are surely not proposing to extend the 1,440-minute day, so by ‘more’ do they mean fuller or freer time? Is time saved when we manage to leave it empty, or when we stuff it with multiple activities, useful or pleasant? . . . when we seize it away from a low-satisfaction activity, like ironing clothes, and turn it over to a high-satisfaction activity, like listening to music? What if we do both at once? If you can choose between a thirty minute train ride, during which you can read, and a twenty minute drive, during which you cannot, does the drive save ten minutes? . . . What if you can listen to [an] audiotape . . . ? Are you saving time, or employing time that you have saved elsewhere . . . ?”

But Gleick doesn’t really philosophize about the nature of time. In physics, it is indeed a tricky and elusive concept. There seem to be fundamental particles of matter, and maybe of space, but not of time; no unit is the limit of smallness in measuring time. Unknown-5And while we all think we know what time’s passage is, we actually don’t experience it as a sequence of moments; “living in the moment” is impossible because as soon as a moment occurs it’s already in the past. The “now” sandwiched between anticipation and retrospect never actually exists as something we can experience.

Time is the one thing which, once lost, can never be replaced. That might not matter much once we achieve immortality (or near-immortality); but as long as we know our allotment is limited, we value every minute. While people may have a lot of mis-judged values, the quest to save time is not one of them.

In my coin business, I used to mail out price lists (very laborious); then take down all the orders on the phone (even more laborious). Now I post the list on the web, and print out the orders. The time savings is great.

One point the book makes is that time has become a commodity, and a lot of our economy concerns its allocation. A business often tries to get customers to pay not just with money but with their time – “some assembly required” – thereby relieving the business of some costs. images-2Buffet restaurants are another example, the customer doing some of the work theretofore done by restaurant staff. There’s a new buffet concept in Japan – instead of “all you can eat” for a fixed price, or charging by the ounce, this eatery charges by the minute. Diners punch a time clock, then rush to the buffet, and wolf down their food as fast as they can. Conversation among dining companions is a casualty (though they can eat with eyes glued to phones). The advantage to the restaurant is obvious – without gourmands lingering over their repasts, many more of them can be serviced. Yet the scheme is quite popular, Gleick reports; Tokyo residents wait in line for the opening gun.

Speaking of eyes glued to phones, Gleick quotes economist Herbert Stein: “It is the way of keeping contact with someone, anyone, who will reassure you that you are not alone . . . deep down you are checking on your existence. I rarely see people using cellphones on the sidewalk when they are in the company of other people.”Unknown-7

Reading this made me check the book’s publication date: 1999. Seems like ancient history now. Today many folks are fixated on their phones 24/7 – oblivious to people around them.

This is, again, a mode of existence radically different from our evolutionary antecedents. Some see it as dystopian; yet its extreme popularity tells us that it satisfies human needs in a very deep way. People always had a profound yearning for what their phones provide – but until recently, they just didn’t know it.

This is my America

August 11, 2016

UnknownIlhan Omar spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, fleeing from the turmoil in her native Somalia.

On Tuesday, now 33, she won a Democratic primary for Minnesota state representative. Somali refugees have been drawn to Minnesota by welcoming programs, and are now estimated to exceed 40,000 there. Omar defeated the incumbent, who was the longest serving Minnesota legislator. She is favored to win the November election over her Republican opponent, who is also a Somali immigrant; and would be the first Somali-American state legislator.

In an interview, Omar explained she had sought the support of a broad coalition, not just people of African origin. “I hope our story is an inspirational story to many people,” she said.

Payday lending and lawyer extortionists

August 8, 2016

imagesPayday lending has been in the news again, with do-gooders seeking a crack-down. These are businesses making small short-term loans, to mostly poorer people in a fix for cash. Their charges, if calculated as annualized interest rates, might seem exorbitant. What would be reasonable? An 18% limit? On a one week $100 loan at 18%, the business would clear . . . thirty-five cents. Would you make such loans? With all the costs and overheads, rent, wages, etc., all the risks of running a business, handling a lot of cash, in what may be a crime-ridden neighborhood? Plus the risk of non-payment and all the hassles of trying to collect? Do these businesses actually make excessive profits? That we’re never told.

But well-intentioned liberals want to protect the poor from victimization by payday lenders. Put them out of business. So poor people needing quick cash will have no way to get it. Isn’t it great that affluent “progressives” stand up for the disadvantaged?

UnknownHowever, some businesses are predatory. Like Trump University. A total rip-off. And prominent among the predators are lawyers – whose predation mostly targets legitimate businesses. I’ve written about the class action lawsuit scam. You find some business that has done something maybe, arguably, a little bit wrong, no matter how trivial, and you sue their butt off, forcing them to settle to avoid ruinous litigation costs. The lawyers typically get six or seven figures, while the consumers they’re supposedly fighting for get peanuts.

Unknown-1One such case involved a restaurant’s alleged failure to honor a free meal coupon. A consumer, to get anything, would have to produce that old $3.99 coupon (good luck). The lawyers got $515,000. Who’s more guilty, them or the restaurant?

The Economist recently highlighted another such scam – lawsuits charging businesses with violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA rulebook is hundreds of pages, so no business, however well-intentioned, can be in 100% compliance. And Congress, in its wisdom, instead of having a government agency police this, opened it up for private litigation. Maybe the lawyers’ lobbies had something to do with that.

UnknownAnd if you’re a business that’s sued — perhaps because a sign is not properly positioned – I’m not kidding – you might suppose you could simply fix it. Nope. No fun for lawyers in that. They get their pound of flesh just by showing a violation ever existed. And you have to pay their attorney fees too.

Not surprisingly, some lawyers have gone whole-hog into this ADA extortion racket – filing suits against every business in sight, shaking them down to settle rather than face even costlier litigation. Settlements typically run $3500-7500. But California has special rules even more skewed against businesses, so settlements there run $15,000-20,000. A California judge has ordered a Colorado retailer to pay legal fees likely to exceed $100,000 because its website didn’t accommodate screen-reading software for the blind. (There’s always something.) The Economist says some lawyers file dozens of these cases weekly.

So we target payday lenders, who provide a real service to needy people, but stack the deck in favor of predatory lawyers and against the legitimate businesses they victimize. And we wonder why small business growth in America is way down. Unknown-2All the yammering about “jobs, jobs, jobs” in political discourse seems disconnected from the fact that jobs come from businesses.

Hillary’s convention speech – draft

July 28, 2016

To: HRC

From: FSR

Re: Tonight’s speech

You didn’t use my last speech draft – but I’ll bet you now wish you had. So here’s what I think you should say tonight:

imagesMy fellow Democrats – my fellow Americans –

First, a salute to my honorable opponent, Bernie Sanders, and all his supporters whose great enthusiasm has been inspirational, and good for our democracy.

OK, enough of that.

Now, I want to tell you what this speech will not be about. I could go on and on about all sorts of programs, day care, pre-K, health care, family leave, minimum wage, trade, college debt, tax credits for this and that . . . Those kinds of policy things are important, and in the campaign to come, we’ll be talking about them. But tonight I want to talk about the bigger picture – the country we love, where it stands, and where it’s going.

images-1However, the Republicans, at their convention, spent a lot of time talking about me, saying some pretty horrible things. Well, let me tell you something. I am an imperfect person. I am human. Like most people, I have made mistakes. I try to learn from them and do better. But at least I never created a phony so-called “university” whose real aim was to cheat people out of their hard-earned savings. At least I never abused the bankruptcy laws over and over to cause financial ruin for investors who believed in me. I never refused, over and over, to pay contractors and others who worked for me, causing them too financial ruin. I never insisted I saw people in New Jersey celebrating 9/11. I never expressed admiration for bad guys like Putin and Saddam Hussein.

How can anyone with self-respect even consider voting for such a creep?

OK, enough of that.

Now, the horrible things Mr. Trump says about me — I can take it. But what I cannot take is the horrible things he’s said about the country I love so dearly. And that’s what this campaign is about – not about me, not about Mr. Trump, but about this wonderful nation and its future.

He made it sound like the country is in terrible shape, going to the dogs, falling to pieces, and if we don’t make him president, we’ll have nothing left. He actually said this.

Well, look. We do have problems. We do have challenges. Heaven knows that’s true. Some of the things the Republicans talked about – a few, at least – really are problems. We do need to make some changes, and do better. Business as usual cannot continue. That’s why I’m running for president.

UnknownBut telling us America is totally on the skids is just ridiculous. And here’s why: it’s why America is indeed such a wonderful nation. Because it’s a nation full of wonderful people: optimistic, positive-thinking people, people with can-do spirit, brimming with energy and ideas. A nation of good people, generous people. Who have always risen to our challenges, always met them, and always made the nation even better than ever.

And we are better than ever. Is everything better today? Of course not. Life never works that way. But more things are better than are worse. Crime and violence, for example, are way down. Our standard of living today is the highest that human beings have ever experienced anywhere on Earth. Nobody on Earth has more freedom than we do – freedom to do what we like, live how we like, say what we like. Today’s America is the most open society the world has ever known. In all these ways we continue to make progress.

With such a great nation of wonderful people, must we really elect a slimeball like Donald Trump in order to tackle our problems? His speech was an insult to America, and an insult to intelligence.

It placed great emphasis on violence and terrorism. Nobody should be blasé about those things. But ask yourself: when was the last time you personally actually experienced violence, by a stranger? Is that the biggest problem confronting you in your life? I don’t think so. Yes, radical Islamist terrorism is a problem we have to deal with, forcefully and comprehensively. But for God’s sake, get a grip. This is not our biggest problem and not something we can’t handle.

Unknown-1We’ve handled a lot worse. In 1814, Washington was occupied by enemy troops who burned down the White House! We had a civil war in which 600,000 Americans were killed! And a Great Depression where a quarter of our people were unemployed! Not to mention a world war or two! And you know what? Not only did we get through all that, we came out an even better, greater nation than ever.

So now two nut-jobs in San Bernardino kill fourteen people, and Donald Trump says America is going down? Seriously? Compared to all the past things I mentioned?

America dealt with them. America will deal with radical Islamic terrorism. Calmly, rationally, but energetically.

That is the America I love so dearly, and the America of which I am so proud to be a citizen. Unknown-2Why do you think so many people, all over the world, are so powerfully motivated to get to this country? Surely if America were really the dark, doomed nation that Donald Trump portrayed, people would not be struggling so hard to get here. They know what a wonderful country this is – with a wonderful future. How sad if some Americans can’t see what they see.

They see an America that is great. I do too. Not an America that somehow needs to be made “great again.”

God bless America.

Turkey’s phony “coup” plot

July 17, 2016

Turks are out in the streets, celebrating the supposed triumph of democracy over a supposed military coup attempt. President Obama has naively congratulated them.

UnknownTheir President Erdogan once said, “Democracy is like a train. When you reach your destination, you get off.” For him, it’s been apparent that the destination is personal dictatorship. Can’t those Turks cheering in the streets see that’s where the train’s going?

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. But when I first heard the news, the idea of a military coup in today’s Turkey seemed rather implausible. Far more plausible that the whole thing was orchestrated by Erdogan himself, as a pretext for grabbing more power and ramping up repression of political foes. He’d already gone far toward crushing them, silencing dissent and press freedom. Now this “coup attempt” has prompted a ferocious response, with the immediate arrest of thousands. Could so many have really been so transparently implicated in a huge coup plot?

Hundreds have been killed too. And, reportedly, 2,745 judges unseated, some arrested. Pretty fast work. Tell me the hit list wasn’t prepared beforehand. I’d call this a coup by Erdogan.

Gulen

Gulen

All the alleged “coup plotters” are being linked to the Gulenist movement, headed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate cleric, democracy advocate, and one-time Erdogan supporter, now in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has sought his extradition. God forbid.

I’m reminded of Turkey’s “Ergenekon” affair, a few years back, in which again large numbers of soldiers and others were prosecuted for alleged involvement in a vast underground anti-government conspiracy. The details were murky; and a lot of those charges eventually proved bogus.

Erdogan

Erdogan

In more halcyon times, Erdogan seemed to be doing the right thing, in moving toward a peaceful settlement regarding Turkey’s restive Kurdish regions. But then he threw all that progress away and turned back to violence, exacerbating the conflict as a way to get the country to rally behind him. Faking a coup plot would be another move in this cynical, criminal game.

Democracy is not a train, and not merely a political system either, but a culture; as John Dewey said, a way of life. At its heart is acceptance that other people are equally entitled to a role in society. Given our evolutionary tribalism, that concept is difficult for many folks, and hence it’s constantly under assault. For a long time, it seemed to be nevertheless winning, but lately the war against it has intensified, and too few people grasp what’s at stake.

images-1Democracy can be one bad man from the abyss. We’ve seen this too many times. Putin in Russia. Chavez in Venezuela. Erdogan in Turkey.

Let’s not add “Trump in America.”