May 22, 2017

Comey Proved Himself Unfit to be FBI Director

What Trump did TBD.

Anonymous sources (natch) have leaked that former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo after a meeting in February with the President quoting Trump as saying “I hope you can let this [an investigation of just-fired National Security Advisor Flynn] go”. Assuming that the leak is accurate and the memo exists, which seems likely since the sources are described as Comey’s friends and the ex-director hasn’t repudiated it, this tells us more about Comey than it does about Trump.

We don’t know if the President is accurately quoted  or not. We may never know. And, if he did say it, we don’t know without more context whether it constituted obstruction of justice.

If Comey just made this up, he is clearly not fit to be FBI Director.

But let’s assume Trump said what Comey says he said and Comey took it to be an attempt to obstruct justice. In that case Comey had a duty to report the statement immediately. But he didn’t. He just created a memo to be part of a file to be used if he ever had a dispute with the President. He got fired; out came the memo. It didn’t come out when he told Congress that the investigation hadn’t been interfered with. It came out a day or so after Comey’s former colleague and temporary replacement Andrew McCabe also testified that there had been no political interference with the probe. He must not’ve gotten the memo. That’s not a joke; shouldn’t Comey have left a copy of this memo for his successor?

J. Edgar Hoover was infamous for the files he kept on friends and enemies alike. The files arguably kept Hoover in power through the terms of six US presidents until he finally died in office. His name is on the FBI HQ; his practice of political blackmail should not be kept alive in the building.

The bipartisan hypocrisy around Comey has been incredible. Back in the Obama days, he fell out of favor with the White House for confirming that there is a “Ferguson” effect – an increase in murder rate attributable to police reluctance to police in a climate of extreme political hostility. Then Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton in the case of her email server, strangely taking on the role of a prosecutor, and he was back in favor with Democrats and out of favor with Republicans. Trump accused him of whitewash. Then he announced he was reopening the Hillary investigation because of documents found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Trump said Comey redeemed himself. Democrats excoriated him and called for his resignation. Then he quickly announced no new evidence. Trump accused him of whitewash again. In the end  Clinton accused Comey of costing her the election which, she said, she was on track to win before the grand reopening. Finally, Trump fired him and some Democrats hope that the firing and what’s in Comey’s memo file will be enough evidence for impeachment. Enough to make your head spin.

Comey and Trump can’t both be right but they can both be wrong. Comey’s unfitness for office doesn’t imply anything one way or the other about Trump. Unless the conversation was recorded, we’ll probably never know what the President actually said. None of this tells us anything about relations between the Trump campaign and Russia or, even more broadly, about Russian interference and attempted interference in our election. These are the most important issues and are what we have a special prosecutor for. Obstruction of justice is important as well; it brought Nixon down when he tried to cover up Watergate – it can also be an excuse for prosecutorial overreach. However these issues work out, the country is better off without James Comey as FBI Director.

May 16, 2017

Vermont Teachers Should Send Their Union to Detention

As most Vermonters know by now, the legislature is in extended session trying to deal with the issue of teacher healthcare. The position the Vermont NEA, the teachers’ union, has taken puts job protection for union staff ahead of the interest of the teachers, the students, and the taxpayers. Teachers should tell their union to back off.

All involved agree that, because of provisions in the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), the current health plans the teachers have all must be changed or they will be classified as “Cadillac Coverage” and penalized. The need to change to health care plans means that every Vermont school district is negotiating health care with its employees at the same time. This synchronization creates a unique opportunity to combine all health care coverage for teachers in Vermont public schools into a single large contract which the state will negotiate both with the NEA and with the insurance carriers rather than individual districts, of which we have hundreds, negotiating separately with the union and the insurance carriers. Since there are only two insurance carriers in Vermont, leverage in this negotiation is important.

Governor Phil Scott, who proposed the plan being debated, has estimated that savings will be over $76 million/year, partially because the new plan – to avoid being a Cadillac plan – will have higher deductibles and copays. Scott has proposed that roughly $50 million of that savings be used to fund Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) for teachers, who will be able to use these HSAs to cover the higher deductibles and copays. In this way the teachers are held harmless even though they are losing their Cadillac plans. “Held harmless” is pretty good; Blue Cross, the biggest of the two health insurers left in the state is asking for a 12.7% increase. Most private sector employers will have to pass most of whatever Blue Cross is eventually allowed onto their employees.

The remaining $65 million of ANNUAL savings will relieve pressure on the education fund, which is mostly funded by property tax revenue from sky-high property taxes. TBD whether this savings is used to take pressure off other education programs which might have to be cut without this savings or is used for property tax relief (or some degree of both).

So the education fund benefits. The taxpayers benefit. And the teachers keep very generous health benefits without having to pay more. What’s more both teachers and students benefit from having local school boards concentrate on local educational issues rather than the esoterica of healthcare What’s the problem?

The teacher’s union apparently isn’t focused on the very real benefit to its members or the taxpayers. It is incensed that they will no longer get to spend expensive staff hours negotiating with every school district in the state over healthcare; they will only get to negotiate healthcare once with the state. BTW, all other negotiations stay local. So the NEA is adamantly against this plan. And the NEA is a big campaign contributor.

To its credit, the Vermont Legislature despite its overwhelming majority of Democrats and Progressives, has not given the NEA the support it probably thought it would get. There were enough Progressive and Democrat votes in the Vermont House to give the plan a one vote victory until the House Speaker cast an unusual vote to create a tie and kill the bill. The Governor has threatened to veto a budget which does not accomplish the goals of the plan he proposed. It’s clear that there are not enough votes to override a veto; the legislature is still looking for a compromise.

Linda Joy Sullivan, a former public school teacher and one of the Democrats in the Vermont House who voted for the savings, wrote the following on vtdigger.com:

“What Gov. Scott recently asked my colleagues in the Legislature was simply to allow the state, with its superior bargaining power, to negotiate a better deal. I was a bit skeptical about whether we will achieve $26 million in savings, and I knew that any tax savings would not have directly reduced property taxes, but I could not see how it wouldn’t have improved our ability to secure quality health care – full health care benefits for our teachers – at a far better cost.

“From a business perspective, it’s a no-brainer. If the plan was to downsize health care coverage for teachers, that would be one thing. I was not hearing that – I heard instead that the proposals under consideration had the support of Vermont’s school superintendent association and are supported by actuarial analyses that seek to better match our spending to experience.”

All of us Vermonters, teachers included, need to be in contact with our legislators this week to make sure union staff cannot put their interests before the interests of teachers, students, and taxpayers.

May 12, 2017

Perpetrator of Fraudulent Vaccine Scare Speaking in Stowe

Should he be allowed to speak?

The most prominent speaker at a “Hope and Healing” event to be held next week in Stowe, VT is a despicable charlatan. Andrew Wakefield’s manipulation of test results to indicate a non-existent link between vaccines and autism made Time’s list of five great science frauds. More importantly, the hysteria he started and cynically exploits is partially responsible for a rise in preventable diseases. According to Time:

“…the General Medical Council in the U.K. revoked Wakefield’s medical license, citing ethical concerns over how he recruited the patients in the study as well as his failure to disclose that he was a paid consultant to attorneys representing parents who believed their children had been harmed by vaccines.[emphasis mine]”

Should he be allowed to speak? Yes; people who want to hear him have the right to do so. Free speech is not just for popular ideas.

Should he be speaking at Stowe High School, which, incidentally, does require its students to be vaccinated? That’s a tougher question but the answer is still Yes. The School is available for rent and this makes its auditorium an asset to the town outside of school hours. The school board should not be put in the position of deciding which opinions are allowed. Every opinion has opponents.

But what can we do to counter this harmful narrative?

  1. Don’t pay to go to the event. According to organizer Chiropractor Bradley Rauch as quoted in The Stowe Reporter the money earned from the conference will go first to speaker fees and expenses. In other words, if you buy a ticket, you are helping to fund Wakefield’s campaign of misinformation. The website for the conference “All profits will go to charity…” However, one of the organizations in the list of charities, Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice does not appear to be a charity. Its website does not say it is a 501(c)3 or that donation are tax deductibles. The coalition IS a cosponsor of the event. So actually at least part of the profits are going to the sponsors despite the claim that “All profits will go to charity…”.
  2. Be informed and help inform others. Bad ideas need to be countered with good ideas. I started this post with an ad hominem attack on Wakefield even though I generally deplore such attacks. However, it is relevant that his contribution to the study of autism (the subject he is speaking on) was a deliberate harmful fraud. The last part of this post is the argument for mandatory vaccination.
  3. Don’t go to Bradley Rauch for medical services. According to The Stowe Reporter story, he is planning to open a clinic in Stowe to treat autism. I’m not suggesting a boycott to punish him for his ideas. I am saying that he has demonstrated terrible medical and ethical judgment in his choice of speakers so I wouldn’t want him treating anyone I care about.

The argument for mandatory vaccination which you won’t hear at the conference.

We used to have periodic epidemics of polio, smallpox, rubella and other diseases. Huge numbers of people were either killed outright or left badly damaged. When I went to grammar school a long time ago, there was usually at least one classmate in permanent braces as a result of polio. Not true anymore. Because of vaccines, smallpox has been eradicated and we no longer have to vaccinate against it; polio is almost there.

So why can’t people just decide for themselves whether their children should be vaccinated? Two obvious reasons are that parents don’t have an inherent right to risk the life and health of their children and that, especially in a society where many health costs are socialized, everyone else will have to pay for the disease that could have been prevented. But let’s put those two arguments aside.

There are always some people who cannot be given a particular vaccine, either because of a general medical condition or because they’re allergic to the ingredients of the vaccine. So long as everyone who can get vaccinated does, the risk to those who can’t get vaccinated is very low

According to the Wrold Health Organization paper Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide (which is also the well-documented source for other assertions in this post):

“’Herd protection’ of the unvaccinated occurs when a sufficient proportion of the group is immune. The decline of disease incidence is greater than the proportion of individuals immunized because vaccination reduces the spread of an infectious agent by reducing the amount and/or duration of pathogen shedding by vaccinees, retarding transmission.” [footnotes deleted but available via the link]

Those who can’t be vaccinated need herd protection. Those who diminish the herd effect by refusing vaccination for themselves and their children are putting those who can’t be vaccinated at deadly risk.

Most vaccines are not 100% effective, even if they are always administered properly, which, of course, can’t be the case. However, so long as there is sufficient herd protection, there is very little risk for those few whose shots didn’t take for one reason or another. However, if there is a large enough group who just don’t get vaccinated, then those individuals for whom the vaccine didn’t work are at great risk.

California used to have very liberal laws on refusing vaccination. NOT vaccinating became a fad among the nominally well-educated health-food-eating citizens in affluent Marin County. In 2015, only 84% of that County’s students entering kindergarten were fully vaccinated according to the San Francisco Chronicle in a story about the ensuing measles outbreak. “Last year there were 61 measles cases in California — the highest since the disease was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. The state beat that number in the first month of this year.” California, seeing that there could easily be epidemics of more deadly diseases, has sensibly made it more difficult to avoid vaccination except for those who have a specific medical condition which would make a particular vaccination unsafe.

Part of the anti-vaccination hysteria comes from the falsified study by Wakefield. Because of the scare the article engendered, huge followup studies were done. That was easy because there is lots of vaccination. Absolutely no statistical or causal link has been found between any vaccination and autism. Nonetheless, the myth lives on.

The truth is that every vaccination does have some small risk. If it’s by injection, there’s a tiny chance of infection. There’s a very small chance that the vaccine, like anything else, can be contaminated. There’s an equally tiny risk that the recipient will have an undiagnosed allergy to the infection. Obviously new vaccines like the one for Zika have to be thoroughly tested and procedures can always be improved. We always must be aware new data can surface.

Ironically, as long as almost everyone else gets vaccinated, those who opt their families out of the very small risk of a tested vaccine get a free ride on the very herd protection they are compromising. Society can’t afford to let that happen. We can’t leave those who can’t get vaccinated or whose vaccine doesn’t work at risk. We can’t give preventable epidemics room to blossom. Some vaccinations must be mandatory. This is an example of a case where the needs of the society come before the needs of the individual and state compulsion is justified.

May 07, 2017

Why Government Subsidies Never Make Anything More Affordable

And why we can never get rid of them.

The chart from American Enterprise Institute could almost be this whole post. Costs

As you can see college costs have increased almost four times as fast as general inflation over the last twenty years. Four-year college has gone from being a stretch for middle income families to being affordable (at list price) by only the very rich. How can a product get priced out of reach of its customers? It takes government help.

Now It’s a laudable goal to make sure that everyone who wants to do the work can get a college education and prepare for better paying jobs than he or she would be able to get without a degree. So the US government provides grants and subsidized loans, both with a means test, and “unsubsidized” loans without a means test. I put “unsubsidized” in quotes because the interest payments on these loans don’t begin to cover the default rates and because no commercial lender would make these loans at these rates.

If this aid were available only to the most needy, it would not have had this distorting effect. But it’s hard to get votes for a program just for the needy, so aid for the middle class was added as well. Student debt has gone up about 400% after accounting for inflation in roughly same period according to Pew Research Center. To the young, loans on which they don’t have to make payments until after graduation are close to being grants. Colleges have no need to be frugal since parents no longer have to come up with the payments. In fact, in order to attract the students and the federal money that comes with them, college are in an arms race building fancier and more elegant dorms and rec centers as fast as they can. College costs have soared. Graduates are burdened with onerous debt. The extra money has made college LESS afforfable

How do we break this cycle of increasing subsidies pushing costs higher? Socialists say “make college free”. Of course that doesn’t reduce the cost, it only shifts it. And recipients of free tuition have even less reason to care about the actual cost of their education than those who must pay for it someday.

We will have to cut back on loans to the middle class; there will be not only cries of anguish but also real pain since college costs have ratcheted up to unaffordable.  College costs will come down in response to customer pressure; but this will also be painful. Colleges bonded to fund their luxury offers to students; a decrease in revenue will put some out of business.

It’s a lot easier to start an entitlement than to stop it. Does that sound like health care whose cost increase are also much above inflation? Stay tuned.

May 01, 2017

Internet Fast Lanes

You may be surprised at who has them.

The Internet Association - lobbying organization for Internet giants like Google, Amazon and Netflix – is adamant that it is necessary to apply of 1935 phone regulation (Title 2) to the Internet to assure that there are no premium “fast lanes”, that all bits are treated equally, that Internet access providers (ISPs) do not prioritize their own content over content from competitors.

Internet Association members sometimes say that they could actually afford to pay more for fast lanes but they are worried about the little guys, the startup, who may not be able to pay more and whose websites therefore won’t be as zippy as they need to be.  They’re worried about innovation. They’re worried about you.

In fact, however, the web giants like Google and Amazon have private networks which connect to the Internet in many locations. They have data caches (think of them as content warehouses) around the world. Their websites DO pop up faster than yours because their bits travel mostly on their private networks and avoid Internet backbone and interchange congestion. In other words, they have private fast lanes. You can't achieve this speed for your website unless you A) build a private network of your own (unlikely); B) host your website on Amazon or Google in which case they MAY share some of their private access network. I have hosted services on Amazon; they charge me more depending on how many locations I want my data served from. In other words, faster is more expensive on their network.

Conveniently these private fast lanes are specifically exempt from the 2015 FCC regulations which reclassified Basic Internet Access Service (BIAS) in a way which lets the FCC micromanage it and prohibit public “fast lanes”. The members of the Internet Association are “edge services” so unregulated.

From a technology PoV the ISPs could offer small customers premium transport which allows your site to compete better with Amazon. The 2015 regulations make that illegal. They protect Amazon and Google from competition both by you and by the ISPs – all in the name of “Net Neutrality”. Do you think this had anything to do with the fact that Google made a 180 degree switch? It lobbied for years to assure that the Internet was not treated like a telephone network. That was when telcos wanted regulation to protect themselves from competition. Now it’s the members of The Internet Association who would rather compete in the regulatory arena than in the marketplace.

It is true that Internet speeds are not what they could be, especially in rural areas. Part of that problem is that there relatively few Internet access providers.  But is there more concentration in Internet access than in search? I don’t think so. Should Google be regulated? No. But neither should they be able to use regulation to protect themselves from competition. Google correctly sees the ISPs as potential threats. They were once going to compete with them by offering Google Fiber. That would be good for all of us. But Google isn’t going to string fiber if it is cheaper to use regulation to protect themselves from competition.

The current regulations, which I think should be repealed, protect the members of the Internet Association from ISPs. Even more importantly, they protect the big Internet content providers, who own their own fast lanes, from the competition you might provide if you could rent a fast lane from an ISP when you’re still too small to have your own private network.

See also:

An Open Letter to My Friends at Google

Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies

Net Neutrality. What’s It All About?

Do you Want Comcast to Know Your Underwear Size?

April 28, 2017

An Open Letter to My Friends at Google

You run a fantastically successful business. You deliver search results so valuable that we willingly trade the history of our search requests for free access. Your private network of data centers, content caches and Internet connections assure that Google data pops quickly off our screen. Your free Chrome browser, Android operating system, and gmail see our communication before it gets to the Internet and gets a last look at what comes back from the Internet before passing it on to us. You make billions by monetizing this information with at least our implied consent. I mean all this as genuine praise.

But I think you’ve made a mistake by inviting the regulatory genie on to the Internet. Have you considered that Google is likely to be the next regulatory target?

The Internet and its many business have flourished for the last twenty years under the light regulatory touch that Google used to espouse in the early days of the Internet. It is just as true now as it was at the end of the 20th century that imposing regulations designed for monopoly telcos on the Internet will decrease competition, stifle innovation, and certainly not achieve “Net Neutrality”.

Twenty years ago it was the telcos who wanted regulation to protect them from innovative Internet competitors. With Google’s help, innovation was preserved. But in 2015 Google was a leader among companies which successfully lobbied the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to end twenty years of bipartisan regulatory forbearance and declare that Internet access providers (ISPs) are common carriers under the telecommunications act of 1934 and should be regulated as such. Do you think Google needs regulatory help to fight off the ISPs as potential competitors? Once you meant to compete with them by building Google Fiber. We do need competition. Neither Google nor the telcos should be shielded from it.

When Congress cancelled a pending “privacy” regulation from the FCC earlier this year, which was based on this new regulatory authority, a misinformed congressman complained that he didn’t want Comcast knowing his underwear size. He apparently searched for underwear online and was then deluged with underwear ads. But you know that he got those ads because of his search history, not because his ISP was disassembling his packets. How long do you think it will before there is significant pressure in the US to stop the abuse the congressman claims to have suffered by regulating search providers? I think that would be a terrible idea and I’m sure you do as well.

How long do you think it will be before protestor signs says that a neutral Internet requires neutral search engines? Even if you protest that Google search IS neutral – just as the ISPs say they don’t favor their own packets – the protestors will say that Google is a profit-making enterprise so proactive regulation is needed. And shouldn’t a neutral Internet require neutral browsers? There are already stories that Google is planning to put code in Chrome which blocks some ads. Do browsers need to be regulated? What about email services which have all our private communications? What about mobile phone operating systems which see all our bits before they even get to the “evil” ISPs.

You at Google have shown your ability to learn and adapt. It’s probably too much to ask that you reverse your lobbying efforts again and support efforts to undo the unwise Internet regulation promulgated in 2015. But it might be a good idea to concentrate more on actually competing with ISPs in the marketplace rather than in in the regulatorium where you won’t be able to innovate either. We’ll all be losers if Google innovation is shutdown.

See excellent Boston Globe article Trump’s FCC can save the Internet — by doing nothing by Hiawatha Bray.

See also Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies, Net Neutrality. What’s It All About? and Do you Want Comcast to Know Your Underwear Size?

April 23, 2017

Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies

This week I’m going to Washington to argue against regulating Internet access as if it were phone service. Twenty years ago I was there for the same reason. My concern now as it was then is that such regulation will damage the economy and reduce opportunity by stifling innovation and protecting the current dominant players from the startups which would otherwise threaten them.

At that time the proponents of Internet regulation were most regional monopoly telephone companies, who were regulated themselves (and very comfortable living in a regulated environment). The then small Internet industry (including me) argued that startups were not monopolies and could not afford the batteries of lobbyists and regulatory compliance lawyers needed to survive in a regulated world. “Imagine,” we said, “if each new Internet app had to be approved by some commission or another”.

Fortunately Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Reed Hundt, a Democrat appointed by Bill Clinton, and a majority of commissioners agreed with us. The Commission policy on Internet regulation became one of forbearance. The monopolists were right to worry. The Internet was disruptive. If they had won, there would be no such thing as Skype or Vonage; calls to China would still be $3.00 minute; and 800 numbers might still be more important than websites for shopping. Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon wouldn’t be the companies they are today.

Hundt’s successor William Kennard, also appointed by Clinton, listened carefully to all arguments and continued the policy of benign forbearance. Innovation flourished. When Bush was elected,  Internet folk were afraid that his FCC appointees would be more responsive to telco lobbying. We could no longer argue that the Internet was a fledgling industry but could and did argue the public benefits of innovation and rapidly evolving business models. Michael Powell, Bush’s first appointee as FCC Chair, and the Commission debated and then issued the “Pulver Order” declaring that Voice over IP was not a telecommunications service. That meant in practice that the FCC, whose mandate only extends to telephony services, would have no reason to regulate the Internet.

The FCC did NOT regulate the Internet from then until now. However, in the waning days of the Obama administration, the FCC promulgated a regulation saying that Internet access is a telecommunications service (regardless of whether voice over IP is involved.). Therefor the FCC has the right to regulate Internet access as it used to regulate monopoly phone service. Big reversal.

Those who now want regulation are Google, Facebook, and other major Internet players. They are good marketers so this regulation is called “Net Neutrality”. Who could be against a neutral Internet where all bits are equal? Ironically it is the telcos and cable companies (ISPs) who are on the other side and against reregulation; they are the ones who will be regulated.

There are four major things wrong with the “Net Neutrality” regulations as promulgated (they are not yet in effect):

  1. All users of the Internet as well as the economy itself will suffer if regulation is used to throttle innovation – that’s as true now as it ever was.
  2. This regulation protects the powerhouse incumbents – Google, Facebook et al – from effective and needed competition. It protects them on one side from rich ISPs (why?) and on the other side from would be new providers of Internet access (think mesh networks, access from drones, whatever) who won’t be able to satisfy the regulations made for the technologies they are obsoleting.
  3. There is probably no legal justification for the FCC regulating the Internet. FCC has jurisdiction over basic telecommunications service. They said the Internet isn’t such a service for years; just saying it is all of a sudden a basic telecommunications service doesn’t make it so.

Google may yet regret its call for regulation of any part of the Internet value chain. A Wall Street Journal story last week says that Google is working on an ad-blocking filter for its Chrome browser. Will the FCC next declare browsers a telecommunication service and require browser neutrality?  

With all due respect to many people I respect who support the “Net Neutrality” regulations, I’m as much against regulating the Internet now as I was 20 years ago although I no longer have any direct financial interest except as a consumer. I hope both that the legal challenge to this extension of the FCC’s reach will continue and that the current FCC will undo the harm that its immediate predecessors did and return to the policy which has so successfully supported economic growth and innovation for the last twenty years.

See https://www.bna.com/pai-engages-silicon-n57982087000/ for a Bloomberg story on this issue.

April 20, 2017

Net Neutrality. What’s It All About?

The fear is that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be able to determine what Internet content you get to access or at least make it more expensive or less convenient to access some content than other content. Most Americans get their fixed line Internet access from either a phone company or a cable company. Former phone companies like AT&T (owns DirecTV)  and Verizon (buying Yahoo) are increasingly in the content business, and cable companies like Comcast have always owned and controlled content.  Why wouldn’t an ISP favor their own content over that from Netflix or Amazon or YouTube? They could, for example, prioritize the packets which carry their own shows over packets from others; you would have a good experience watching content from the ISP and a lousy experience with content from others – constant freezes and stutters. Yuk!

So is this a credible threat? Do we need a law or regulation to protect us? Google and Amazon and Netflix think we do; they lobbied successfully at the end of the Obama administration to have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promulgate a regulation protecting “net neutrality” which essentially mandates that at least wireline ISPs treat all traffic equally and that the FCC gets to decide exactly what this neutrality means. Obviously these companies have a commercial interest in protecting themselves against “ discrimination” by ISPs who have ambitions to sell search and content. But an argument motivated by commercial interest doesn’t have to be wrong in terms of the public interest.

Not surprisingly the ISPs argue that their Internet access business, which has been unregulated so far, should remain unregulated. They say that there have not been proven instances of any such discrimination, that consumers would simply switch away from them if they interfered with customers’ content choices, and (somewhat contradictorily)  that they invested in their networks so they should be able to use them profitably. If they are regulated, they say, they won’t invest an Internet access will not improve. These arguments are also profit-motivated; but that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong from a public interest PoV. The now Republican FCC agrees with the ISPs and is getting ready to reverse the net neutrality regulation.

History tells us that regulation is the enemy of innovation (and usually the friend of monopolists). In the last fifty years of regulated telecommunication, the only innovations we saw were the dial tone and 800 numbers. Just compare the capabilities of your smartphone connected to a largely unregulated data network and your desk phone attached to the regulated phone network which can’t even text.

Internet pioneers lobbied AGAINST attempts to bring the Internet under common carrier regulation; the FCC under Democrats and Republicans agreed; the result was the tidal wave of innovation which brought us to where we are today. Interestingly it was then many of the telcos that wanted to regulate the Internet to prevent it from becoming competition. Good thing they lost or you wouldn’t be Skyping today.

The regulations promulgated last year do exactly what Internet companies, until recently, were against: they impose “common carrier” regulation on ISPs. The common carrier regulations were devised when phone companies were granted monopolies. They gave us some degree of protection (not much) against monopoly pricing and they gave the monopolies protection against competition.

So, if regulation isn’t the answer to potential predatory behavior by ISPs, what is? And what about the danger that ISPs will sell a history of everything we browse which I blogged about last week? Stay tuned.

April 17, 2017

A For-Profit Surgical Center is a Good Idea for Vermont

A group of local investors want to build a $1.8m surgical center in Colchester, VT for surgeons who prefer not to operate in a hospital setting, according to a story in VTDigger last week. Opening such a center, even when no public money is involved, requires a certificate of need from the Green Mountain Care Board. Vermont’s non-profit hospitals (there are currently no “for-profit” hospitals in the state) are urging the Board not to grant the certificate saying that it would result in an increase in health costs.

From the VTDigger article:

“The investors argue such centers save patients and insurance companies money because both Medicare and private insurers pay them less than hospitals for the same procedures. These types of facilities are called ambulatory surgical centers and are both licensed and regulated by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

“Christina Oliver, the vice president of clinical services at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, said the proposed facility is not needed because the hospital’s operating rooms and procedure rooms are working far below capacity. ‘We have open time available every day that is staffed but unused,’ she said.”

I am an admirer of and contributor to UVM Medical Center; but I think that the for-profit surgical center hospital should be allowed to open. The quality of care I've gotten at UVMMC has been excellent; once the hospital saved my life. But that doesn't mean that Vermont won't benefit from competition to keep medical costs down.

We will attract more doctors to the state if they have a choice of being in a wonderful research and teaching hospital like UVMMC or providing care in a smaller, more flexible organization.

There may be plenty of surgical operating rooms in Vermont, as Ms. Oliver said; but I know from experience that does not mean that minor non-emergency operations can be scheduled expeditiously. If a for-profit operation can provide faster care in these cases, that will be a help to many Vermonters.

We are not cost conscious medical consumers in Vermont because we have neither enough choice of providers nor transparent pricing to compare. The proposed center will offer both choice and transparency.

Finally, "for-profit" is not an epithet. A for-profit provider will fold if it does not offer something better than its non-profit competitors. There will be, and should be, quality regulations to assure that efficiencies are not achieved by cutting corners which shouldn't be cut.

It would take a lot to convince me to choose some other provider over UVMMC or Copley; they have set a high bar for quality. Nevertheless, prices are anything but transparent and waits for non-critical care do exist. Competition should be allowed.

The Green Mountain Care Board has a website for public comment. If you have an opinion on this issue – pro or con, please post it at http://gmcboard.vermont.gov/board/comment. Of course your comments are welcome here as well.

April 13, 2017

Do you Want Comcast to Know Your Underwear Size?

Congressman Michael Capuano (D, MA) complained on the House floor that he bought some underwear online and that he thinks that Comcast, his internet service provider (ISP), is selling information about his purchase. He was testifying against Republican legislation which prevents a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation promulgated in the waning days of the Obama administration ostensibly to protect Internet privacy from going into effect. Trouble is the congressman doesn’t understand who is selling his undergarment preferences. It’s highly unlikely that it’s Comcast.

We’ve all had the same experience. You break your ballpeen hammer; you google ballpeen hammers; your search leads you to Amazon where you make a purchase. Immediately your online experience is framed by a flock of ballpeen hammers. You look at weatherunderground: rain tomorrow and ballpeen hammers. Check the local news: headline is arson under a banner ad for ballpeen hammers.

How does that happen, you ask?  Did my ISP spy on my search or my transaction with Amazon and then sell my information to the makers of ballpeen hammers? Is that what happened to the congressman and his underwear order? Nope. It was either Google or Amazon (or both) who “monetized” the information you gave them about your purchase intentions. Here’s how it works:

When you did your search, Google put a “cookie” – a snippet of information only Google and you can read – on your computer. Amazon put an Amazon cookie on as well. The cookies either contain the specifics of what you were searching for or an identifier which lets Google or Amazon retrieve information about searches done from your computer or by you if you happen to be signed on to Google or Amazon at the time.  

Now you go weatherunderground, Google or Amazon or both have bought ad space on the weatherunderground webpage. Their ads run in a “frame” on the webpage which means they have code in them which actually communicates with Google or Amazon and not with weatherunderground. This frame looks to your browser like it is running at Google or Amazon so it has access to the cookies which Google and or Amazon left behind. Aha. As fast as speeding electrons, Google or Amazon “know” that you will be interested in a chance to buy a ballpeen hammer so they give you that chance (I don’t know why Amazon apparently doesn’t know you already bought one). Up pops the hammer. The process is slightly more complex if you are on a different device, but the ballpeen ads can get to your smart phone as well as your computer.

As far as I know Google and Amazon don’t sell the information directly to purveyors of ballpeen hammers; but that’s only because this is not the best way for Google or Amazon to make money from the information. Amazon obviously gains if they can sell you something you want. Google makes most of its money by selling ads. In general they get paid when the ad is clicked on; so they make the most money by serving you an ad you’re likely to respond to. They’ve used the information to make you a source of profit. That’s not a sin, just a fact. You get free searches from Google in return for the information you give them. You pay low prices and get great choices and maybe free shipping at Amazon because they are so good at getting you to buy.

So why does the FCC want to regulate ISPs rather than Google and Amazon? Is that regulation a good idea? How should privacy be protected online? How can you protect yourself? Stay tuned to this blog (it doesn’t put cookies on your computer).

April 10, 2017

Motives Are for Mysteries

Is it more heinous to kill someone for their ethnicity than for their money? Is it worse to beat someone up because of their sexual orientation than because you “just” hate them personally? Yes and yes according to multiple US laws. For example, according to Wikipedia, “The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, enacted in 28 U.S.C. § 994 note Sec. 280003, requires the United States Sentencing Commission to increase the penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender of any person. In 1995, the Sentencing Commission implemented these guidelines, which only apply to federal crimes.” There are numerous other state and federal laws which make the same distinction.

Without making the slightest excuse for crimes motivated by hatred, I think this is absurd. “No, your honor, I didn’t kill him because of his religion; I killed him because he didn’t open the cash register fast enough when I was robbing his store. I should get a lesser sentence.”

Motive is often important in the detective work that leads to an arrest. After arrest and conviction, the punishment should depend on the crime that was committed, not what led the person to commit the crime. A murder should be punished for murder, not for what he said while committing the act.

Over-emphasis on motivation rather than action is not confined to criminal prosecution.

According to NPR, The Hawaii court which issued an injunction against Trump’s second immigration order  "…concluded, based on the historical context of the travel ban and public statements made by the president, that 'a reasonable, objective observer ... would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion[.]' " Does that mean that the same executive order would pass legal muster if it were issued by someone else? The order is either constitutional or not; the Supreme Court will decide. It’s either good policy or not; you can decide that on your own and probably have. But whether the court can overturn a law or an order should depend on the language of the law or order, not on the intent of the person who promulgated it. Should we undo the First Amendment if we find out that James Madison was trying to protect himself from a libel suit?

Intelligent friends and relatives have told me that they think our missile attack on the Syrian nerve gas base was a good thing to do and in the interest of both humanity and the United States. “But,” some of them have said, “I don’t trust his motives.” How will we ever know his motives? He probably was aware that sticking a thumb in Putin’s eye would help dispel the allegation that he is Moscow’s man in DC. He probably knew that this action would get the bipartisan support he has not gotten for anything else in his presidency. And no reason to think he wasn’t horrified by the gassing.  You can have more than one motive at a time. But none of that matters. What matters is whether the use of force was right or wrong.

Obama’s extreme detractors say he didn’t act when Assad crossed the chemical red line because he (Obama) wanted to weaken the United States. This is the motive argument backward. If you do something I don’t agree with, you must have a bad motive. In my opinion Obama made a very serious mistake, probably did it with the best of intentions. Doesn’t matter. Actions matter; motives are for mysteries.

April 07, 2017

The World is a Tiny Bit Safer This Morning

The long-overdue attack on Assad’s forces finally came together at unheard of speed – almost faster than leaks about its planning could escape from the Pentagon. That’s only one of the good things about the action President Trump ordered against the Syrian airbase.

Most important, it may deter other horrible chemical attacks against civilians in Syria or elsewhere. It won’t end other atrocities, of course; and it won’t end the complex war in Syria. But it’s still crucial in humanitarian terms that one red line is back.

There was constructive collateral damage to any hopes Russia may have had that Trump would be their man in Washington. According to the NY Times:

Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, told reporters Friday morning that the strike “deals a significant blow to relations between Russia and America, which are already in a poor state,” …

Although the Pentagon says that it warned Russian forces and tried to avoid killing them at the airbase, we also made clear that we do not regard the Russian presence in Syria as a shield for Assad. That’s important. The Russian troops were inserted after President Obama made the worst mistake of his presidency by setting and then ignoring a red line at the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Putin likes the checkers tactic of occupying vulnerable squares first so that action by the Us and its allies is frozen by fear of Russian casualties and wider consequences (see Ukraine).

President Xi of China is at Mar-a-Lago for his first visit with President Trump. The attack on Syria adds credibility to Trump’s message that China must constrain North Korea or the US will.

Two quibbles:

Before the latest chemical weapons atrocity, the Trump administration did signal that there might be a role for Assad in post-war Syria. We’ll probably never know if that emboldened Assad (if you can use the word “embolden” to describe a cowardly attack). But this signal may have had two fortunate results: 1) the aftermath shows that acts have consequences; 2) there is no appearance that the administration was “out to get Assad”. He was offered an olive branch; he committed a barbarous act; his ability to act was diminished.

My second quibble is that we didn’t do more. “Proportional response” has not proven an effective deterrent. It leaves the enemy contemplating a tit-for-tat and the short patience we Americans have. I think we should have totally destroyed Assad’s air force. I certainly don’t think we should have made the public statement, which we did, that this is all that we’re doing. Too much useful information for the enemy. Why not let them worry?

I’m overjoyed to see that Trump can change his mind as facts evolve. This is a strength and not a weakness. Too often American politicians are trapped by not being able to admit they were wrong.

April 04, 2017

Were You Communists?

Mary and I visited North and South Vietnam on two separate trips in the last couple of years. Couple of weeks as a tourist makes you an expert on exactly nothing but we did learn a lot.

In Hanoi there’s a war museum. The Vietnamese have been in lots of wars. Usually they win; sometimes they lose. When they lose, they keep fighting anyway. That‘s what happened to the French at Dien Bien Phu, a battle they lost after they’d “won” the war in Vietnam a couple of times. That defeat led to the French withdrawal and the partition along the 17th parallel and eventually American involvement.

Ho Chi Minh is the hero of the War Museum. However, there are gaps in the coverage of him. No mention, of course, of his Viet Minh forces cooperating with the French in 1945-46 to massacre other factions from the Vietnamese nationalist movement.  “The American War” is the last war in the long progression. It’s painful for Americans to see the Vietnamese view of it, even with the understanding that there’s no “good” view of what a war does to people. There’s plenty of propaganda and real anger in the exhibit; but no more than there is in the coverage of other former enemies, especially the French and the Japanese.

The North Vietnamese were friendly. They would’ve slightly preferred that we were Brits. But Americans are OK. Lots of countries have lost wars in Vietnam; can’t hate them all. And everyone does have a cousin in the US.

South Vietnam doesn’t talk as much about the “American War”. They still call their old capital by its colonial name, Saigon, and avoid the official name, Ho Chi Minh City. When necessary for administrative reasons, it’s “HCMC”. Many don’t like the North Vietnamese. The only angerI heard towards Americans was bitterness that we abandoned them. Remember the shameful picture of the last American’s leaving Saigon in a helicopter from the roof of a building near the US Embassy? They haven’t forgotten.

We met another American couple (Mary talks to people when we travel). From my PoV the man was stridently liberal and opinionated. But he did respond to (although not agree with) spirited but respectful disagreement. One day they had just come back from talking to some Vietnamese.

“We heard,” said the Vietnamese, “that there were huge protests in your country which led to the US pulling out of Vietnam”

“Yes, our acquaintances told us they said proudly. “We were part of those protests.”

“Were you communists?” the Vietnamese asked.

March 31, 2017

Constructive Compromises for a New Center Coalition

Until recently, a center coalition ruled Washington civilly. Trouble is that the coalition agreed mainly on mutual back scratching and became the creature of lobbyists and interest groups. It tried to appear to do something for everyone but we ended up with crumbling infrastructure, feckless foreign wars, increasingly expensive college tuition and health care costs, bank bailouts, and burgeoning wealthfare and welfare rolls. We elected whomever seemed to offer the most prospective for “change” – without being very fussy about what is going to be changed. Many Americans lost the hope of improvement which has been our distinguishing force. The wrath of both the Tea Parties and The Occupy Movements was kindled.

 Suddenly both parties have become captives of their radical wings, neither of which I think offers much hope. The radical wings can be left flapping in the breeze if there’s a new center coalition and Republicans and Democrats vote for the same bills after some reasonable compromise. Here’s my suggestion for constructive compromises which IMO address the legitimate grievances of voters.

“I’ll vote to end the subsidies and tax loopholes for my contributors (oil and gas drillers , for example) if you’ll vote to end the subsidies and tax loopholes for your contributors (‘renewable energy’, for example).”

Upside: Much less burden to taxpayers. The market rather than government determines business winners and losers.

Downside: Campaign contributors don’t contribute. Congress people have less chance to claim bacon brought back to their districts. The market won’t take into account hidden costs (like pollution) so it is necessary that these are accurately assessed on producers.  

“I’ll vote authorization for US troops in combat if their mission is defined and they are given 150% of what they need to accomplish it in six months.”

Upside: We defend ourselves effectively when we need to; we go less often to places where lives (and money) will be squandered.

Downside: We might be penny-wise and pound foolish and leave ourselves vulnerable. Presidents would need to specify costs and objectives (which we might not want to tell the enemy). Congresspeople would have to take responsibility for the costs of what they approve

“I’ll vote for massive public works if the regulations are changed so all new projects – public or private - must be approved or disapproved within two years, preparing for approval takes no more than six months after design is complete, and those seeking to halt a project after approval need to post a bond for the cost of delay to be refunded only if they prevail in their appeal.” (more here)

Upside: Infrastructure gets built and upgraded as it didn’t under the last stimulus bill. Private dollars pour into projects like pipelines with speedy and firm approval possible. As pipelines are built, gas will displace more coal and oil (lower CO2 AND virtual elimination of SOx and NOx and other bad stuff). Oil will travel by pipeline rather than by train which is not only cheaper but much safer. Better infrastructure helps the regrowth of American manufacturing.

Downside: A project might get built in your backyard and, although you’ll be able to testify against its approval, if it is approved you won’t be able to stop it for 20 years with after- approval litigation. Doesn’t bring back coal miner jobs. Hurts the railroads who lose coal and oil transport business (tough on Warren Buffet).

“I’ll vote for deregulation so banks can lend to new and small business again so long as we also assure that no bank (or other institution) will be bailed out if it fails. This means assuring that no institution can grow to the size that it poses a systemic threat and can blackmail the government for a bailout.” (more here)

Upside: Making loans available to small and new businesses means that the best job-creators are back in business in force. Tired old companies which don’t innovate lose the protection they have now because they get can get credit and nimbler would-be competitors can’t. Local and regional banks grow at the expense of money center banks.

Downside: More banks will fail. Regulating bank size is not easy and could be abused.

“I’ll vote for strict work requirements for all public assistance programs including Medicare if you’ll vote for a higher minimum wage.” (more here)

Upside: It’s bad for both donors and recipients if needed public assistance becomes a disincentive to work. More resources can be focused on those who can’t work if those who can work do and if pay for work covers necessities.

Downside: Determining who can and can’t work and who really needs assistance for how long is difficult and intrusive. Increasing the minimum wage will eliminate some entry level jobs entirely.

“Let’s write legislation which is so clear and concise that regulators don’t make important policy decisions and endless court cases aren’t needed to figure out what we meant.”

Upside: Policy control is in Congress where we can see it rather than in vast bureaucracies where we can’t. We won’t need endless court cases to know what a law means.

Downside: Compromise is more difficult when vague language doesn’t leave it possible for both sides to claim victory. Hard to strike a balance between precision and too much detail in legislation.

March 29, 2017

The Failure of the Center

In The Ship of State is Taking on Water, I warned that increased rocking means we’re in danger of floundering from water coming over both rails as we lunge from side to side. Reader comments have shown both that my metaphor suffers from assuming there’s a strict left-right dichotomy and that failures of the center have much to do with our current instability. Interestingly the two commenters I’ve extracted from below probably don’t agree on much except the failure of the center.

Daniel Berninger wrote (in response to a later post):

The usual left - center - right decomposition misses the more powerful vertical dynamic driving politics across the planet today - elite (up) versus the people (down) aka globalism versus populism/patriotism responsible for a President Trump, Brexit, et al.

The populist energy reflects two things:

  1. Incompetent (actual competently self-serving) stewardship of government by a uni-party power elite. The $48 trillion burned across two R terms and two D terms since 2000 in the US produced a dramatic decay of prospects for the common man (and via similar numbers in the EU) across every category of government activity.
  2. Massive expansion of Internet enabled communication options after 1995 makes it extremely difficult for elites to control the usual narrative - aka everything is fine and we are doing a great job. The government apologist forces control 100% of traditional media channels (and 90% of top 100 news websites), but the existence of direct public to public channels (like this comment) make it impossible (for the moment) to hide reality of utter and complete government failure.

The comprehensive vilification of Trump by punditry can not[sic] dissuade the people of things directly experienced in daily life. The various polls point to pessimism about the prospects for the next generation for the first time.

I defy anyone to name a single aspect of government intervention since 2000 improving daily life. The list of degradations is endless - cost of healthcare & associated insurance, accomplishments of military interventions, median income, labor force participation rate, cost of college and student debt, home ownership and equity, along with an explosion of public and private debt and on and on without end…

John Fairbanks wrote:

…While I would agree - this is the easy part - with the idea we need more thoughtful, evidence-based comity in our public policy discussions, I take exception to other points. While, from your point-of-view, Obama went too far left, he was and is a moderate-to-liberal Dem with a strong sense of social justice. His foreign policy was a mess, but it wasn't coming from the left. The ACA/Obamacare, which you deride as a "Ponzi scheme" (which seems to have become the favored term-of-art on the right for any tax-payer-funded social program), was born at the Heritage Foundation and field-tested by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Had Obama been a leftist, he would have pushed for single-payer, if not national health insurance, or at least added the public option to his program. He did none of those things, perhaps out of political utility, but also perhaps because he doesn't see things from the left perspective. (I might add that deriding the ACA as you do, while not snarling and shouting, is neither an example of civil discourse.) Similarly, Obama did not send the Justice Department after the bankers, who not only wrecked the economy and cost millions of Americans, me included, our jobs, savings, and retirements. Anyone from the left would have, at least, done that. The largely-tax-deductible settlements the banks made with the federal government and other plaintiffs scarcely made a dent in the costs of repairing that damage…

Both of their points are well-taken. The anger of both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party originated in the massive bank bailout called TARP (see It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea and The Occupiers and Tea Partiers are Both Right). Bernie Sanders got the Occupy votes; Trump got the Tea Party votes (grossly generalizing). Had it not been for the (pretty realistic) public perception that Hillary Clinton represented a continuation of non-partisan wealthfare, she’d probably be President today.

TARP originated in the Bush administration and got even worse under Obama; last outbreak of bipartisanship we’ve had. Not what we want to go back to. The coalition in the middle used to be more civil – but it hasn’t recently been constructive. Compromise has meant I’ll give a handout to your contributors (let’s say oil drillers) if you give one to mine (say “green” energy investors); and let’s both not forget our bankers. Compromise has meant massive funding for public works so tied up in regulation that practically nothing gets built (see We Need Infrastructure, Not Another Stimulus Bill). Compromise has meant fighting undeclared wars while not actually giving our troops the means to win.

My suggestions for a new center are here.

March 23, 2017

The Fantasy Tweet

Trump’s Great Chance.

As of tonight, Republicans in the House of Representatives can’t agree on a healthcare bill that enough of them will vote for given unanimous Democrat opposition to any Republican bill. The President, who really doesn’t belong to either party, could just call a halt to the partisan charade. The tweet would look like this:

Fantasytweet

The truth is that ObamaCare added coverage for people who weren’t covered before in a way which has resulted in ruinously rising premiums and diminishing choices in coverage for almost everyone, even those not covered by ObamaCare. On the other hand, the bill was addressing a real problem and many people now depend on its provisions. Fixing it is as hard as fixing a bridge which must remain in service during repairs. Thoughtful, constructive legislation needs to be passed.

What we don’t need is a semantic debate over whether we’re repairing or replacing ObamaCare. Who really cares except politicians?

The extreme right wants no government involvement; the extreme left wants no private involvement.  Both are willing to block any compromise by their respective parties if they can’t have all they want. Best way to disempower them is from the middle. If reasonable Dems and Reps vote together for a compromise, the extreme wings of both parties will be flapping in thin air. Great opportunity for a President who is a deal maker and wasn’t the choice of either party.

The Ship of State Hanging by a Thread

We Gotta Talk to Each Other.

Wednesday I blogged The Ship of State is Taking on Water. This morning vtdigger.org was kind enough to run the post. The mainly civil thread of comments it attracted makes me very hopeful that we can steady the ship by talking to rather than past or at each other. Here's the best example:

commenter robby porter wrote:

Yeah, the rocking boat is a nice metaphor, and the story well told, but to imply that Trump's lunatic administration is just the other side of Obama, who ran a scandal-free, competent administration for eight years--eight years of slow but steady growth, declining crime, gradual disentanglement from the wars--is so ridiculous that it pretty much discredits the rest of the essay. Worse, it makes a false comparison between Obama's rational policies which you don't like, and Trump's irrational behavior.

And I replied:

robby,

I'm glad you liked the metaphor. It does imply that each rock is worse than the last roll. So the next lurch (presumably to the left) scares me even more than our present unbalance.

Although, as far as I know, no Obama officials were caught with their hands in the cookie jar, there was plenty to react to in his (very rational) administration including:

redlines set and ignored. the world a more dangerous place than it was eight years ago.
entering into significant international agreements without Senate approval (makes them nonbinding which isn't good either)
abuse of executive authority (doesn't matter whether it was in a good cause. precedent now very dangerous)
much more significant hunting down of press leak than his predecessors of either party did
vilifying police while ignoring the terrible violence they are coping with (yes, there are bad cops). BTW, crime now growing again altho I certainly don't blame Obama for the opioid crisis
a health care act whose funding mechanism seemed to have been designed to fail (perhaps to force single-payer)
continued wealth protection, especially for bankers
abuse of the IRS to harass conservative organizations.

This is not to defend the irrational twitter blasts or unforced errors of the Trump administration. It is a partial catalog of what sane but alarmed people reacted to, not just in the election of Trump but in the election of Republicans at the state and congressional level.

My hope is that we can work on the very real problems our state and country have with civility instead of ad hominem attacks (yes, I know who is the ad hominem attacker in chief), without panic, and certainly without dictatorship of the left or right.

To which robby replied:

Thanks for replying, Tom. Look, rational people can disagree about rational choices, but Obama is mostly in the past, so we should let that go. I agree with your sense that the country is lurching and the boat was a good image and I liked the story.

Solutions, as we both know, are much harder than criticism.

It seems to me that the core problem, is that things are getting worse for a majority of people in this country. I think worse is defined by material well-being, not in the narrow sense of a computer that is twice as fast as last year's or a $500 phone in everyone's hand, but in the sense of material and financial security-- whether someone feels that their job is secure, fears that an unexpected illness might bankrupt them, suspects, with statistical justification, that their children's lives will be less secure than their own, and so on.

America, the American Dream, and, frankly, capitalism, is predicated on things gradually improving. Capitalism needs growth, money lent at a rate needs a return, otherwise the system doesn't work. Over the past thirty or so years, most of the value of economic growth in this country has gone, increasingly, to a minority of the people. Naturally the majority, rightly or worngly, feels as though they don't have much to lose, nor do they have much reason to believe in the traditional values of the country, honesty, hard work, democracy, capitalism, and all the rest.

So yes, maybe the next lurch will be hard to the left. I remember a college professor telling us that, in the height of the Great Depression, communism was considered, by many people, be a reasonale alternative to capitalism which didn't seem to be working very well. Personally I consider that an unrealistic and discredited system, but I don't think you can be surprised that people are upset with the status quo.

This increasingly uneven division of the economic pie seems, to me, to be the core problem. You're a smart guy and a guy who has done well in this system, do you agree? If not, what do you think is the core problem? And at any rate, whatever you see as the problem, what do you think is the best way to solve it? That's an essay I'd love to read.

And I had the last word (so far): 

I absolutely agree with you. wish I wrote what you wrote.

my parents were communists during the depression (and their youth). Capitalism - and democracy itself - must deliver at least a chance of improvement - just as you say. If the perception is that the system is rigged, the system will fail.

The "system" is never completely fair, of course; but today it is too close to rigged. I think that is much of the source of anger.

The bipartisan bank-bailout called TARP was the eye-opener for me. It started in the Bush administration and got worse under Obama (as it might have under a Republican). Those who got the big bucks because they took risks got to keep the big bucks even when they failed. On a symbolic level the carried interest tax deduction for hedge fund managers has survived both Republican and Democratic administrations. Hedge fund managers are big campaign contributors.

I do think that repression by political correctness and identity politics with its set asides and quotas also lend to the perception of unfairness.

But it's easier to diagnose the problem than fix it. I do propose improvements from time-to-time. Today I'm encouraged by the tone of the comments on this piece. we can't fix anything if we can't talk to each other.

 

 

March 21, 2017

The Ship of State is Taking on Water

A million years ago when I was in college, my friends and I drove to Cornell for a party. Friends there had arranged blind dates and even a boat for an evening on Cayuga Lake. The boat was basically a raft with floatation provided by barrels underneath (I don’t think Styrofoam had been invented yet). There was a cabin on the raft and the flat roof on top of the cabin was the main location for drinking, socializing and attempted seduction. I, unfortunately, was running the outboard and steering us around the lake – my blind date didn’t like me.

For some reason too many people were on one side of the boat. The boat tipped that way. Everyone rushed to the high side. The boat tipped even further in the other direction. The next tip was so extreme that there was water on the low side of the deck. Now the panicking people were reinforcing the rocking motion. The top of the outboard was getting wet and I worried that it would stall and also that the barrels would come loose from under the raft. Drunks would drown and it would be all my fault.

Fortunately, a friend on the boat exercised his voice of authority and got everyone to stop in the middle. The rocking subsided; the drinking, socializing and attempted seduction resumed; and eventually I took us safely back to shore.

I’m afraid that America is currently a rocking boat. We wanted “change”; we elected Obama. From my PoV, the ship of state tipped too far to the left: foreign policy was abysmally weak; more people were covered by health insurance than had been previously covered but the funding mechanism was (is) a Ponzi-scheme; the rich got richer; banks got bailed out; and the poor remained at least as dependent on government largess as they had been. Political correctness reached new lows, especially on campuses.

So we elected Trump. The ship of state rocked far in the other direction.

Xenophobia became policy. Incivility became the norm in political discourse. There are indications that hate crimes are up. The political promises of Republicans are as hard to keep as the promises of the Democrats were. The left is up in arms and would like to lead a “resistance” stampede back to the other side of the boat. After all, water is now coming over the right rail.

History is full of countries which rocked themselves into authoritarian leadership either of the left or the right – frightened people vote for stability. Frightened people vote for authoritarian captains.

Neither Obama or Trump or their “movements” were all right or all wrong. But somehow we have to stand in the middle of the boat and stop the mindless rocking. Then we can get somewhere. Civility and tolerance might be a good start.

March 15, 2017

Free Speech Isn’t Granted by the First Amendment

It’s an “unalienable” right.

Nevertheless it’s a right which is endangered by the intolerance of both the right and the left. Lately and near home some have thought to excuse the disgraceful assault on free speech and free debate, not to mention the physical assault on a professor, at Middlebury College on the grounds that, since the college isn’t the government, free speech (and apparently professors) aren’t protected there.

True enough, the first amendment in The Bill of Rights “only” says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;…”. Congress could only abridge a right if it already existed. This amendment protects the right of free speech; it doesn’t grant it.

The Declaration of Independence makes clear where these rights come from: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,…” In other words, no one gets to take rights like free speech away; not government at the federal level; not government at the state level or the local level; and not a mob like the one at Middlebury.

In fact the protections against certain acts of congress in The Constitution have been extended by a series of court decisions to apply to the states and their subdivisions. Congress has extended the obligation to protect these rights to many recipients of federal aid – including colleges. Would those who argue that free speech protection doesn’t apply at Middlebury also argue that Middlebury isn’t obliged to offer equal-opportunity admission or equal funding for men and women’s sports?

Another specious argument used to defend the mob is that Charles Murray had no inherent right to speak at Middlebury. That’s true but irrelevant. It’s not his right that was abridged; it’s the right of the students who invited him and wanted to listen to him or debate with him that was denied by those who wouldn’t let him speak. Free speech means the right to listen to whomever you want as well as the right to say what you want.

Free speech needs lots of defense, partly because it obliges those of who treasure it to protect the rights of those who say obnoxious things – including attacks on free speech itself. We must extend them the right to be heard that they would deny us.

Lately there have been endless parallels proposed between the election of Donald Trump and the rise of Nazis in Germany. We should never forget these lessons. But I’ve just returned from France with its horrible memories of the tyranny of the self-righteous left after the French Revolution. The mob at Middlebury is a reminder that liberty is most at threat from those who are convinced they have a monopoly on truth, whether they are on the left or the right. Our unalienable rights are always endangered and always need defense.

March 13, 2017

Fair Warning in the Desert

A racket overloaded my hearing aids. It sounded mechanical at first but I was in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve reslinging my pack after a snack and getting ready for the last long uphill of the day; nothing mechanical there. Then atavism overcame analysis and instinct recognized the sound. The rattlesnake sunning on the rock next to the one I sat on for lunch was much thicker than I would've expected. Most of it was coiled except for its head and tail. I didn't stop to get my phone out of my pack to take its picture. Later I wrote to my grandson Jack who shares my appreciation of Shel Silverstein and Ogden Nash.

I saw a snake;

The snake saw me.

"Skedaddle," he said with his rattle,

Causing me to flee.

 

Jack responded with illustrations.

Papersnake Snake

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