August 29, 2018

Regulations are Herbicide for the Weeds of Innovation

Innovation is a weed, not a pampered flower. It grows in the cracks; it grows where it’s not wanted. It’s almost, but not quite, unstoppable. You should be very suspicious that Google and Facebook are suggesting “some” regulation as a way of stopping the behavior which empowered their growth. The herbicide of regulation will kill would-be competitors.  Competitors will be a much more effective brake on the power of these monopolies than any regulator will be.

To further stretch the metaphor, incumbent businesses monopolize the sunlight whenever they can. They cast a mighty shadow. They demand subsidies to prevent them from falling down and crushing everyone. They will only grow in your neighborhood if you pay them to (see Amazon searching for a new headquarters or Foxconn’s Michigan con).

New innovative businesses can bring down the mighty oaks of monopoly. I had the privilege of being part of that creative destruction when then-innovative Voice over IP (VoIP) deflated the bubble of the international telephone voice cartel, run for the benefit of all the giant telcos. The price of calls to India and China from the US went from over a $1/minute to pennies within a year. Guest workers, travelers, and soldiers could afford to call home. Also call centers could be located abroad, to be fair. You might even blame globalization on this success in reducing communications costs.

The carriers fought back, of course. Internationally they tried to give regulatory power over the Internet to the ITU, the UN body which administered the mechanisms of maintaining cartel pricing called international settlements, basically a penalty for any company that dared to lower rates paid to those which kept rates up. See Price – Splitting the Pie – Why Not Just Bill and Keep? for probably more detail than you want on how the cartel operated.

In some countries where huge payments to governments (or government officials) were made by the incumbent telco (which might also belong to the government), the incumbents were successful for a while in blocking VoIP. Even India and China blocked it initially. But the price of having a communication barrier between these countries and the developed world was too high. The regulations stayed on the books but were not enforced.

In the US regional carriers tried to get the FCC to regulate VoIP like a phone monopoly. They even wanted VoIP software in a box regulated because it could be used for voice. The FCC, however, first under Clinton and then under Bush, decided to forbear from such regulation. This forbearance was codified in the FCC’s “Pulver” decision in 2004. I lobbied for this and certainly had an interest in it as a VoIP provider; Google also supported this effort to leave the Internet free of the regulation which had stifled innovation in voice services.

Now we have Skype (old news) and Vonage (even older news). The price of domestic calling is part of an unlimited minutes bundle and only some continued cartel-like behavior among cellular carriers keeps the price of international cellphone calls up – although “free” VoIP is often an alternative.

VoIP, of course, is only one example of what has been possible on a largely unregulated Internet. There are some things which need to be stopped in my opinion. Law enforcement needs to be able to trace the use of the Internet in committing crimes just as it can, with a warrant, tap phones and open mail.

The massive invasions of privacy which we allow out of ignorance, or because we consider them a fair price to pay for “free” service like Google Search and Facebook, need to be fully revealed with at least the weapons of FTC enforcements and class-action suits to discourage misrepresentation.

It has just been publicized that Verizon’s Yahoo subsidiary reads mail in its customers’ inboxes so that it can bundle the customers into categories like “investor” or “traveler” and sell access to the categories to advertisers. To be fair, if they know about it customers CAN opt out. They can also switch from Yahoo Mail to gmail or Microsoft, both of which say they don’t do this (“anymore”, in the case of Google). In this example competition can act as an effective deterrent to this action. No regulation necessary.

But what if Facebook is engaging in a practice you don’t like. If your social life revolves around Facebook (mine doesn’t), you don’t have a practical alternative. I haven’t found a search engine whose results I like better than Google results even though I know my searches are being watched and monetized.

So do we need regulation to protect us from Facebook and Google? Whose lobbyists do you think will write that regulation? Whom do you suppose the regulators will be captured by?

We need innovation to give us alternatives to the giants: a better way to search or even a substitute for what we call searching today which will break the Google monopoly (which was earned in part by very good service). We need social media sites that our friends will flock to or ways to congregate online which don’t require an intermediary.

But revolutionary innovation never seems to fit old regulation. If the Internet giants can spread the herbicide of regulation on the grounds from which innovation would come (using their own current success as an excuse), we won’t get the new companies which can and would bring down the old trees which have grown too far to the sky.

Late breaking: Trump’s call to regulate Google et al because of bias (which all humans have) makes me even more convinced that regulation is more dangerous than helpful. The regulatory herbicide is hard to put back in the bottle. I hope my friends at Google et al will see the danger in their call for regulation “lite”.

August 15, 2018

Tweets from @realedontrusk themselves

[No twitterbots were used to create this post]

2 things u need 2 know: I am v rich & v smart. I am richer & smarter than u.

I make or unmake rules; I do not follow.

In old days I would’ve sucked up 2 press 2 get them 2 cover what I said (& they would’ve screwed it up). Now don’t need them; I tweet; u read. They have 2 reprint (altho doesn’t matter).

Press ppl don’t like me because I don’t suck up 2 them. Tough. Their business model is broken. Mine isn’t. If it was, would fix in a tweet.

Press ppl didn’t like FDR “fireside” chats on radio because direct to real ppl (I know that kind of stuff). Beginning of end for press but they didn’t know then. Don’t know now because they r clueless.

Crooked establishment wants 2 shut me up. Use FBI and SEC 2 investigate my tweets. 1st amendment?

Press whining because I call them liars. They called me liar 1st. Throw stones & hide behind 1st amendment when I throw back. They’re losers & whiners & biz model broke.

Ppl that don’t like me r stupid or crooked or worse. They call me names. I always hit back. They whine like press.

U can retweet me. If u say something good about me, I’ll retweet maybe. Minute of fame 4 u.

My lawyers don’t want me 2 tweet. They say gets me in trouble. Makes their job hard. I say do your job. If I took your advice would be poor & stupid.

Saudi Arabia is smart & rich. I like 2 deal with them. They have no press problems. No ex-wife problems either.

MAGA & buy $TSLA.

August 07, 2018

Discussing Primaries Live on WDEV Today at 11AM ET

I will be live on WDEVat 11am ET today discussing why primary system favors extremes and discord and the easy fix with Bill Sayre. (am 550, fm96. 1, 96.5 & 101.9, stream

Call in on 802-244-1777 or 877-291-8255 to add your opinion or ask a question.

See below for related opinions:

Primary Power

Why Almost Every Vermonter Should Vote for Phil Scott on Primary Day

Vermonters can vote now at your town clerk’s office, by absentee ballot, or at your town’s polling place on August 14th. Please don’t leave the choice of candidates to “them”; please vote!

August 06, 2018

Why Almost Every Vermonter Should Vote for Phil Scott on Primary Day

August 14th is Primary Day in Vermont, where we can freely vote in any party’s primary. This year there are three ballots: Republican, Democratic, and Progressive. The only hitch is that, once you choose a ballot, you can only vote for candidates on that ballot; you can’t split your primary vote (except with write-ins). Choosing a ballot doesn’t tie you to a party in any way in the future; it certainly doesn’t prevent you from splitting your vote across party lines in the general election as I often do.

This year I recommend that Vermonters, regardless of party affiliation or lack of affiliation, vote in the Republican Primary for Governor Phil Scott unless they are vitally interested in the outcome of the Democratic Gubernatorial Primary, which is the only seriously contested statewide race in that party. Scott has earned support both for the economic benefits of his policy and, IMO, for having the political courage to change his mind on the charged issue of gun control. It is also vitally important that there be a moderate Republican alternative to a legislature dominated by Democrats. One party rule is not good no matter which party exercises it.

It will be a shame if this election turns on the issue of gun control, even though people are passionate on either side. General election voters will consider a variety of issues. However, primaries in non-Presidential years traditionally have appallingly low turn-out; in 2014 only 7.7%, 36,100 people decided whom the candidates for Governor of Vermont would be. A small turn-out election is easily dominated by people who are committed to a single issue. That means, frankly, that Phil Scott could lose the primary to Keith Stern, who is running on the gun control issue. I have no personal beef with Stern and he is certainly entitled to run on his beliefs; but it would be a loss for Vermont if Scott is not the Republican nominee. We don’t want to reinforce the general political wisdom that politicians need to cater to the extremes of their party in order to survive primaries; we want to prove that thoughtful people actually bother to turn out and vote in primaries.

Were Keith Stern nominated, he almost certainly would not be elected. So, even if you are passionately opposed to any change in gun control laws, your best strategy to avoid a real draconian threat to second amendment rights is to have Phil Scott back in office and acting as a brake of a left-leaning legislature. A vote for Stern is a protest vote; a vote for Scott is a vote for a moderate candidate who can be reelected governor.

But let’s go beyond gun control. Scott’s policies have been good for Vermont. He assured that the tax laws were modified so that changes to the federal tax law did not result in a $30 million increase in Vermont state income tax; he stopped the legislature from raising residential property taxes although he could not stop them completely from raising the non-residential property tax, even in the face of much-higher than estimated tax revenues. It’s scary to think what might happen to taxes next year if Democrat and Populist domination of Montpelier is complete.

Only Scott’s veto threats are sufficient to get a legislature dominated with a majority which is apparently terrified by the teacher’s union to even consider the educational reform we need for the sake of children and taxpayers. A vote for Scott in the primary is a vote to keep education reform on the table.

Scott and Stern have been in three debates:

WCAX Primary Debate

VPR Primary Debate

Channel 17/ VT Digger Debate

I hope you’ll vote for Phil Scott on primary day; but, even if you don’t, it is still very important that you do vote. Our ballots in the primary actually make more difference than in the general election, since there are more choices and less people voting. In order to make sure we have good candidates to choose from in the general election, we have to vote in the primary.

You can vote now at your town clerk’s office, by absentee ballot, or at your town’s polling place onthe 14th. Please don’t leave the choice of candidates to “them”; please vote!

See also: Primary Power

August 02, 2018

Primary Power

Primary Voters Rule the US. General election voters just get to do damage control.

Did you like the final choice you had to make in the 2016 Presidential election? I didn’t. Who’s to blame for the choice we ended up with? Hints: it’s not the “fake media” or the Russians; it’s not even those who voted in primary elections who deserve the blame. Answer: those who don’t vote in primaries are leaving America, its states, and its localities with a poor choice of candidates, political polarization, and increasingly ineffectual and even corrupt government.

In 2014 (the last non-presidential primary year in Vermont), only 36,101 people voted in Vermont’s four gubernatorial primaries; that’s 7.7% of those eligible to vote. This 7.7% decided which of the six candidates running got to be in the finals for governor. These 36,101 people decided whom the 193,087 people who voted in the general election had to choose from. Whose votes counted for more? Obviously those who voted in the primaries! These primary voters had a wider selection to choose from and each of their individual votes had five times greater weight in the sparsely attended primary than each vote in the better attended general election.

It wouldn’t matter that primary voting turnout is so low if primary voters were representative of voters as a whole. But primary voters are anything but representative: they are the most committed, right or wrong, to various causes. They tend to be the extremes of their parties. You can see that when you look at the vote in the 2016 presidential primary in Vermont, where turnout, as usual, was better than in the non-presidential year. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary with 115,863 votes or 86.1% of votes cast in the Democratic primary. Donald Trump had 19,968 votes or 32.7% of the Republican votes to win that nomination. Where did the middle go? It was no-show in the primary. Notice also that when there are multiple candidates in a primary, each single vote becomes even more important – especially in a state like Vermont where a majority is not required for primary victory.

People who are committed to the extreme of a single issue are motivated to protect their views in primaries. Those of us who worry about nuance and need to know a candidate’s views on multiple issues have a lamentable tendency to say “I haven’t done enough homework so I’ll sit this primary out.” Frankly, there’s no excuse for us. The over-representation of zealots in primaries has made it impossible for politicians to deal reasonably with touchstone issues like abortion and gun control let alone the bread and butter issues of taxing, spending, and national defense.

Most Americans support reasonable limits on gun ownership. We realize that there already are gun control laws and that the second amendment hasn’t withered away yet. We don’t think any set of laws is beyond some improvement and are willing to debate what is improvement and what is not. But those who believe that any change to these laws is a slippery slope to a defenseless citizenry turn out in primaries.  A candidate with a reasoned approach to gun control can win a general election; but it is almost impossible for such a candidate to win a Republican primary. On the other hand, the most draconian approach possible to restrict gun ownership is a very good tactic to appeal to those who turn out for Democratic primaries. What do we (usually) get? two candidates with extreme views, neither of whom dares make any compromise lest she or he lose the next primary.

Similarly, most Americans support the right of a woman to obtain an abortion but also support reasonable limits on that right as the fetus matures, a ban on third trimester abortions, for example, unless the woman’s life is in danger. In the Democratic Party it is political suicide to suggest any limits, no matter how reasonable, because any limits are a slippery slope towards taking away women’s right to choose in the eyes of Democratic primary voters. And it is the rare Republican (except in Vermont), who can support any right to abortion and win that party’s primary. The candidates we get are the candidates the primary voters choose; they can’t afford to seek a reasonable middle.

Primaries are an experiment within the American experiment of federal democracy. Candidates used to be chosen by party insiders and the general elections were the only chance general voters got to weigh in. The party insiders, who wanted to obtain or cling to power, often tended to choose the candidate who would get most general election votes; that process favored centerists (and was also enormously open to corruption). Open primaries were a populist reform; they did help break the power of the party bosses. But, since the vast majority of people don’t vote in primaries, the reform is leading to bad government.

This problem is easy to fix; we don’t need to go back to bosses choosing candidates in what would now probably be smoke-free rooms. All we need to do is actually vote in the primaries.

Vermont’s primary this year is August 14th. You can vote in any one of the Democratic, Republican or Progressive primaries without having any permanent affiliation with any of these parties. You can vote now at your town clerk’s office, by absentee ballot, or at your town’s polling place on election day. Your vote will have more effect on primary day than in the general election. Please don’t leave the choice of candidates to “them”; please vote!

August 01, 2018

The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dominance of the Stubborn Minority

More wisdom from Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

This rule has been hiding in plain sight; but Taleb drags it out in the open as the most important asymmetry affecting our daily lives and perhaps the future of civilization. The title of this post is a chapter head from his latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, from which many of the examples below are taken.

We like to think that, in our democracy, the majority rules: usually that’s not the case. Many airlines don’t serve peanuts or any snack which has touched a peanut because some people (a small minority) are greatly allergic to peanuts. The non-allergic can survive without peanuts; the allergic can’t tolerate them. That’s an asymmetry and the “intolerant” minority rules. This particular outcome is beneficial on the whole.

Similarly, when Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday, the school lunches in my public school, in which Catholics were a minority, were always fish on Friday. Didn’t hurt the rest of us to eat fish once a week (except it was even more revolting than the other dishes on the school menu); but observing Catholics couldn’t eat anything else. Minority rule because of the asymmetry but no big deal.

Sometime the minority veto can be beneficial, according to Taleb. For reasons I won’t go into here, he is against genetically modified foods (GMOs). He knows that he is part of a minority which benefits from an asymmetry: they won’t eat GMOs but the majority has no aversion to non-GMOs. Hence the growing shelves of “organic” food in grocery stores which crowds out the non-organic food. I’m not at all convinced that I want to pay more for “organic” food without knowing a lot more about why; but that’s for a different post.

But now things get more sinister. Taleb, a Coptic Christian from Lebanon, says that Christians used to be a majority in Egypt. But there’s an asymmetry:

“First, under Islamic law, if a non-Muslim man marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam – and if either parent of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim. Second, becoming Muslim is irreversible, as apostasy [nb. in this case, converting away from Islam] is the heaviest crime under the religion, sanctioned by the death penalty….

“Under these two asymmetric rules, one can do simple simulations and see how a small Islamic group occupying Christian (Coptic) Egypt can lead over the centuries to the Copts becoming the minority. All one needs is a small rate of interfaith marriage….

“Egypt’s Copts suffered from an additional problem: the irreversibility of Islamic conversions. Many Copts during Islamic rule converted to the dominant religion when it was merely an administrative procedure, something that helps one land a job or handle a problem which requires Islamic jurisprudence.”

According to Taleb who is partial to the Shia Muslims he grew up with in Beirut and fiercely opposed to Sunni Salafism (and Saudi Arabia which is its main sponsor). He cites this asymmetry: Jews and Muslim minorities like Shiites, are content if they are allowed to follow their own laws; Salafis say everyone must follow their law and feel they have an obligation to Jihad against those who don’t.

Taleb asks: “Should a society which has elected to be tolerant be intolerant about intolerance?”

He answers his own question:

“Yes, an intolerant minority can control and destroy democracy. Actually, it will eventually destroy our world…

“So, we need to be more than intolerant with some intolerant minorities. It is not permissible to use ‘American values’ or ‘Western principles’ in treating intolerant Salafism (which denies other peoples’ right to have their own religion). The West is currently in the process of committing suicide.”

Although I agree with Taleb that Salafi extremism is an existential danger given both the asymmetries he cites and enormous funding and support for this extremism from Saudi Arabia and can even agree that we can’t tie our hands behind our backs with our own rules while fighting back, I don’t agree that we can deny free speech to anyone who denies free speech to us nor withhold Constitutional protections to anyone who disagrees with “American Values.” Who would get to decide when someone who wants to change a law – or even amend the Constitution – is actually attacking our values or just trying to make the country better? Should the student radicals who shout down speakers they are afraid to listen to be denied free speech themselves? I don’t think so (as much as I wish they’d shut up).

Taleb makes valid and interesting points on how and why decisions in a democracy are often made by minorities and about asymmetries. He raises the crucial question of how we can fight Salafi extremism given the asymmetries that advantage it. But he doesn’t answer the question of how we preserve our civilization both against those who would destroy it and the means we may have to use to defend it. There is certainly no pretty answer not can the question be avoided on at least a case by case basis.

For more on tolerating intolerance see:

Don’t Panic!

For more on the thoughts of Nassim Taleb see also:

The Wisdom of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A Turkey Connects the Wrong Dots and Finds a Black Swan

Causes of Global Warming – Are We Fooled By Hubris?

Lesson for Next Time: Small is Beautiful

July 24, 2018

The Wisdom of Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Ethics don’t scale, Taleb says in his latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.

People tend to be virtuous in small groups, he says; but, once the groups get large, ethical rules lose their force with respect to the group as a whole although not within the subgroups. This can and does lead to inter-subgroup hostility and bad behavior. People do things to members of other clans that they wouldn’t do to clanspeople. Because virtue doesn’t scale, you can’t just declare everybody to be one huge group and have a nirvana of good behavior and trust.

Putting Shiites, Christians, and Sunnis in one pot and asking them to sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire while holding hands in the name of unity and fraternity of mankind has failed (Interventionists aren’t yet aware that “should” is not a sufficiently empirically valid statement to “build nations.”) Blaming people for being “sectarian” – instead of making the best of such a natural tendency – is one of the stupidities of interventionistas. Separate tribes for administrative purpose (as the Ottomans did), or just put some markers somewhere, and they suddenly become friendly to one another.

Partition is certainly a very harsh prescription. A lot of what Taleb writes is harsh. But it’s obvious that the constituent states of what were once Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are happier individually and in total than they were when lashed together. BTW, Taleb does think the US federal model can be a viable way to deal with scale.

He quotes Geoff and Vince Graham (without saying who they are):

I am, at the Fed level, libertarian;

at the state level, Republican;

at the local level, Democrat;

and at the family and friends level, a socialist.

See also:

A Turkey Connects the Wrong Dots and Finds a Black Swan

Causes of Global Warming – Are We Fooled By Hubris?

Lesson for Next Time: Small is Beautiful

July 20, 2018

Internet Extortion Follow-up

The extortionary email I posted Tuesday has apparently been sent all over the country. KrebsonSecurity has a good post here; note the language is word-for-word what Mary got. This scam appears to be the descendant of a snail mail scam from January in which the hacker claims to know of an adulterous affair; the language in the snail mail is very similar to that in the email.

Krebs had a good suggestion to add to my list of how not be vulnerable: cover the camera on your PC when you’re not using it.

At least one reader of the email version of my blog unsubscribed because the post, which contained the extortion email, apparently triggered an ISP’s spam filter. The ISP notified my reader that I was sending bad stuff and suggested blocking me. Good news, I guess, that the spam filter was working. Maybe I should have posted a picture of the email rather than its text.

I notified the FBI, which has a form for such complaints at I also emailed the Vermont Attorney General’s office at and signed up for scam alerts at

See Attempted Internet Extortion for the text of the email and other security hints.

July 17, 2018

Attempted Internet Extortion

Mary received the threatening email below:      

I do know, xxxxx [redacted. a throwaway password Mary once used on sites that shouldn’t require a password], is your pass word [sic]. You may not know me and you're most likely thinking why you are getting this e-mail, correct?

Well, I setup a malware on the adult video clips (adult porn) web site and guess what, you visited this web site to experience fun (you know what I mean). While you were watching videos, your web browser initiated working as a RDP (Remote control Desktop) with a key logger which provided me access to your display and also web camera. Right after that, my software gathered all your contacts from your Messenger, Facebook, and email.

What did I do?

I created a double-screen video. First part shows the video you were viewing (you have a good taste rofl), and second part shows the recording of your web cam.

What should you do?

Well, in my opinion, $2900 is a fair price tag for our little secret. You will make the payment by Bitcoin (if you do not know this, search "how to buy bitcoin" in Google).

BTC Address: 1HNcrm3pBwD299it5SfcerzrFqVKzy2cBz

(It is cAsE sensitive, so copy and paste it)


You now have one day in order to make the payment. (I've a specific pixel within this e mail, and at this moment I know that you have read this e mail). If I don't get the BitCoins, I will, no doubt send your video to all of your contacts including members of your family, coworkers, and so on. Having said that, if I do get paid, I will destroy the video immediately [sic]. If you really want evidence, reply with "Yes!" and I will certainly send out your video to your 5 friends. It is a non-negotiable offer, thus please don't waste my time and yours by responding to this message.

Even if Mary were in the habit of browsing porn sites and was desperately afraid of being found out, we would not have coughed up the bitcoin both because giving in to this extortion would have led to nothing but further demands and because this would-be extortionist pretty clearly is blowing smoke.

If he or she really knew Mary was watching porn, he or she would have given the name of the site as proof. If she or he had access to Mary’s contacts, she or he would have listed one or two. Mary doesn’t use Messenger, so the claim to have her Messenger contacts is spurious. Facebook contacts are stored on Facebook and not user computers. Key loggers (malware which records all your keystrokes and can be used to steal passwords) doesn’t have access to either the display or the camera although the threat of a two-way video is probably what make this extortion frightening enough to work for some people, especially male people. The email does not appear to contain a tracking pixel to tell the sender when it has been read although, just to be sure, I’m working with only a copy of the text.

What does give this a hint of authenticity is that the password I redacted in the first paragraph is one that Mary has used. My suspicion is that the would-be extortionist has hacked some site to get passwords or just purchased a trove of them on the dark web.

If you are afraid you are vulnerable to a hack like the one the sender claims to have perpetrated but probably didn’t, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:

  1. Install antivirus software if you don’t already have it.
  2. Use your browser in Private mode when visiting any website which is unknown to you or faintly suspicious. Private mode prevents websites for leaving behind cookies. On Firefox you get a private window by selecting “New Private Window” on the File menu BEFORE going to a suspect website. On Google Chrome, select “New Incognito Window”. On Microsoft Edge, select “New InPrivate Window”.
  3. Unless you know a website well, never allow it to download anything to your computer. All mainstream browsers block downloads unless you give specific permission for them in a dialog box. Porn sites offer downloads to prevent tracking; this software is likely to be malware.
  4. Change passwords often.
  5. Don’t pay blackmail! There’s no reason to trust the blackmailer, and you both confirm your guilt by paying and open yourself to further demands.

See Internet Extortion Follow-up for some updates.

July 05, 2018

America the Restless

It’s the Fourth of July as I write this. I’m proud to be an American. I’m apprehensive but hopeful for my country.

We’re prosperous: more jobs than people willing and/or qualified to take them. That’s a high-class problem to have. This is a wonderful time to tackle the problem of multi-generational joblessness and poverty. Shame on us if we don’t.

Almost none of our armed men and women are in combat although many are still in harm’s way. With energy independence clearly in reach, we can be especially judicious in avoiding quagmires – at least in the Middle East. We can use our own vast energy supplies to help our friends (Europe) escape dependence on energy from our adversaries (Russia and Iran, for example).

Yet we are anything but complacent, which is a good thing IMO. “The establishment” is being thrown out of office worldwide, sometimes by the left, sometimes by the right, and even sometimes by a left-right coalition (Italy). Power has, as power will, become too concentrated. The new leaders are certainly not always better people than the old leaders; some are worse. Revolutions lead more often to chaos and then tyranny than to a democratic utopia, as Niall Ferguson brilliantly explains in The Square and the Tower; nevertheless entrenched power eventually sucks the wealth and hope from a society as it grows stronger and stronger.

The deplorable bank bailout in the great recession was a clear example that both traditional American political parties had become welded to wealth and committed to the protection of the wealthy even when they (the wealthy) have gambled and failed. Ruthless globalization (of which I was a proponent) disproportionately benefited the already successful. Employers always favor massive immigration to keep wages down; labor wants immigration restricted to keep wages high. Industrialized countries have generally struck a balance in which a lack of workers doesn’t stifle growth and a flood of immigrants doesn’t crush wages.  That balance was lost when “the center” in Europe especially and the US to a lesser extent allowed a flood of illegal immigrants. The center (aka establishment) has now seen the backlash; it isn’t pretty.

I’m uncomfortable writing the last few sentences; I’m a descendant of fairly recent immigrants (Jews) who weren’t very popular when they arrived but were allowed to stay and eventually prosper. The America I’m proud of was built mostly by immigrants. We can’t shut the door behind ourselves.  We also can’t be hypocrites who limit immigration by law but then criticize the enforcement of the law.

But I’m hopeful. We the people are at least facing the questions the establishment would just as soon have had left to them. We are questioning ourselves. We may force Congress to act rather than let policy be set by presidents and courts. While the President often tweets vitriol and falsehoods and certainly hasn’t drained the swamp (I’m making no excuse for him), he also breaks the stultifying bonds of political correctness and points out (rudely) that some emperors have no clothes. He speaks to those left behind by the elites (as does Bernie Sanders); he may even listen to them. “The resistance” mobilizes marches and conducts registration drives; that’s good, not bad. Democracy flourishes on dissent and debate. The last thing we need are safe zones where uncomfortable issues can’t be raised (that’s a hallmark of tyranny).

We are America the restless. Our success is certainly not guaranteed. But complacency would guarantee failure and prosperity gives us room to try and try again.

Happy Independence Day.

June 11, 2018

The Hillary Clinton Administration

After I outed myself as a Trump voter (which does not mean a Trump supporter right or wrong), friends and others less friendly have asked whether I now think that vote was a mistake. Fair question. There are certainly mornings when Trump’s first tweet gives me voter’s remorse. I can only answer the question by postulating what the country would look like 500 or so days into Hillary Clinton’s first term and comparing that to where we are.

I was surprised to see I listed so many things that would NOT have changed regardless of which one of them was elected. Obviously some of the things I listed as Trump or Clinton positives you may consider as negative and so switch them to the other list.

Things that would be same (although different in the details)

James Comey would be fired, would have written a book, and would be on a book tour.

There would be a special prosecutor investigating whether the Clinton campaign pressured the DNC to illegally discriminate against the Sanders campaign, whether there was illegal surveillance of the Trump campaign by the Obama White House, and whether firing James Comey was obstruction of justice. The FBI Inspector General would still be on the verge of releasing a damning report.

The President would say the special prosecutor is conducting a witch hunt and would claim executive privilege for White House communications leading up to Comey’s firing.

There would be a health care funding crisis. ObamaCare as passed wasn’t economically sustainable. Clinton would have had to deal with that and the inability of Congress to pass meaningful reform.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would each be preparing to run for President in 2020 with a platform far to the left of the President.

The school shootings would have happened and Congress would not have made any meaningful changes to federal gun law.

There would be no immigration reform.

The trend for increasing prosecution of leakers, which began in the Obama Administration, including the subpoenaing of reporters’ records would have continued in the Clinton Administration as it has under Trump.

The carried interest deduction for hedge fund managers would not have been repealed.

Banks would have relief from Dodd-Franks.

Ethanol would still be mandated and subsidized.

ISIS would be on the run.

The Supreme Court would have made the same decision in the wedding cake case.

There would still be an opioid crisis no one knows how to deal with.

There would be speculation about the whereabouts of the first spouse.

The swamp would still be the swamp.

Things that would have been better under Clinton IMO

Discussion between and about international leaders would still be civil.

Appointees would not be trash-talking world leaders.

There would not be an undertone of racism in the President’s remarks.

Clinton would be more suspicious of Putin than Trump appears to be (very important to me).

Clinton would not be supporting abstinence-only sex education as a substitute for contraceptives and information about their use.

Presidential appointees would have been better vetted and not had to be shuttled out of the door almost as fast as they came in.

The country would be on the verge of a Republican mid-term landslide given that Clinton is not as popular in her party as Trump is in his, the location of Senate races favors Republicans, and midterms traditionally go to the party which is not in the oval office. (I’m not sure this would really be a good thing: Republican performance in Congress doesn’t deserve a big reward.)

Things that are better under Trump IMO

The economy couldn’t be stronger in terms of employment and (finally) increasing wages. There’s a combination of reasons for this but Trump gets some credit.

The readjustment of corporate tax happened and is resulting in the repatriation of money and jobs. Major other tax reforms didn’t happen and probably wouldn’t have happened under President Clinton either.

Our energy production is being allowed to grow although there is a danger that under-regulation will replace over-regulation.

We are out of the feckless Iran deal.

We are not acknowledging North Korea as a long-term nuclear power as Clinton supporters like Susan Rice have urged. Too soon, of course, to chalk up an accomplishment for Trump, though.

We are using our buying power to pressure China on both unfair trade practices and support for North Korea.

Our support for Israel as the only democracy in its neighborhood has been strengthened and we’ve helped create an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and the many Arab countries.  Facing the reality of Palestinian corruption and misrule may lead towards peace; but that’s probably wishful thinking in the Middle East.

The FCC has reversed itself on so-called “Net Neutrality”, which I think was a dangerous grant of power to Google, Facebook, and Amazon who don’t need any help as well as an opening for government censorship.

Gorsuch (rather than Elizabeth Warren?) is on the Supreme Court. In a time when imperial Presidency is an increasing danger, I feel safest with a strict constructionist on the bench.

The Supreme Court will probably rule that compulsory agency payments by government employees to unions are unconstitutional. This will weaken the ability of teacher’s unions locally and nationally to thwart educational reform.

Charter schools have a fighting chance.

Things I think could be better

(the list is too long for this blog)

See I Voted for Donald Trump

June 07, 2018

An Antifragile Energy Supply

How do we make sure that all Americans have a secure source of energy in the future? The question is important even if the Trump Administration answer that we ought to be mandating the use of coal and nuclear plants has more to do with politics than energy.

Where’s the problem?

Our electrical grid is ancient in design and implementation. It is vulnerable to both physical and cyber attacks. The grid was located to deliver power from coal and nuclear plants which are aging out of service. It was designed to take advantage of the predicable baseload power such plants generated. The grid wasn’t designed for either the intermittency or locations of current wind and solar power sources. The failure of the obsolete and poorly maintained grid in Puerto Rico is extreme but should be a wakeup call.

Even though the electrical grid is increasingly insufficient for modern reality, we are increasing our dependence on it. More and more cars (still a very small number in absolute terms) are electrically powered. Currently we use the fossil fuel in our cars to take us away from areas where electricity has failed and even to power our cellphones during a blackout. We’re not ready for a time when an electrical failure also implies a transportation failure. Think how much worse the crisis in Puerto Rico would be if ambulances, trucks, and cars couldn’t move.

For good environmental and economic reasons, the use of electric heat pumps rather than oil or gas burning furnaces is being promoted (I have two). Again, though, we are increasing our reliance on an electrical grid which is not sufficient for its current tasks. The power fails (perhaps because of a long cloudy windless spell) and people are without heat, light, and transportation to get them out of Dodge. They can’t call for help and help can’t get to them. Not a pretty picture but not far-fetched either.

“Antifragility” is a concept developed by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. Wikipedia defines antifragility as “a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” Our energy distribution system in fragile by any definition; it should be antifragile. The Internet, as an example, is antifragile as a communication network because of its lack of a central point of failure, the diversity of resources which make it up and, most important, dynamic routing.

How do we make our energy distribution system antifragile?

  1. Allow the electrical grid to evolve. Our ludicrous permitting process makes it nearly impossible regulatorily and prohibitively expensive to build a new power line. We have electricity shortages in New England but can’t find a way to bring abundant, cheap, clean Canadian hydropower south without going through somebody’s backyard or constructing a transmission tower where someone might see it.
  2. Allow gas pipeline infrastructure to grow. We are retiring our nuclear plants in New England; we need more baseline electric power generating capacity. We don’t want to burn coal and, in the winter, natural gas generating plants run out of fuel. There is a surplus of natural gas in the Marcellus just to our west. It can’t get to New England because there isn’t enough pipeline between here and there and capacity expansions have been blocked politically. The gas distribution network is also a useful alternative to complete dependence on the electrical grid as a way to bring power to homes, factories, and vehicles.
  3. Allow distributed generation and energy storage to grow. Both renewable and non-renewable local energy projects are priced and delayed out of reach by the combined lobbying power of those who don’t want nearby development and those who’d prefer no economic growth.
  4. Don’t mandate one energy source over the other. Such mandates, as we’ve see now with the proposed coal and nuclear mandates and the ethanol mandate, are usually political inspired. They induce fragility by constraining choice. Obviously, environmental constraints on emissions and wastes are appropriate, however; so long as they’re not written for the explicit purpose of favoring a popular energy source (see Renewables Are a Means, Not an End ).
  5. Stop “incenting” electric cars. Electricity is not an energy source. Every watt that a Tesla runs on has to be generated. Nationwide, that means that Teslas are coal-powered a third of the time and fossil-fuel-powered most of the time. It is more energy efficient to burn natural gas directly in a car than to burn it in a power plant, run the electricity over lossy lines, charge a battery, and then use the electricity to turn the wheels. Less CO2 emissions as well. People may prefer electric cars and should be able to buy them; but distorting the economics with subsidies makes our entire energy infrastructure more fragile.
  6. Repeal the Jones Act, which prohibits carrying goods between US ports in foreign vessels. This winter LNG was shipped from Siberia to Massachusetts at the same time as LNG was being exported from Louisiana to Asia because there are no American LNG tankers, which would have been allowed to go directly between the two states.
  7. Do build a new electrical backbone which is distributed, cyber-attack resistant, and which can carry power with little loss from any region of the country to any other as supply and demand vary. All electricity sources become more economically viable with a more capable grid. Because of our huge size, the wind is usually blowing somewhere and the sun shining somewhere (during the day). The fact that the US started as a huge free trade zone (even when it was small) and that we now stretch from sea to shining makes us antifragile so long as we have the transmission and transportation networks to conquer distance.

See also Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

June 04, 2018

Bailout Coal and Nuclear Plants?

Civil war in the swamp

The US Energy Department is following orders from President Trump to find a way to keep economically failing coal and nuclear generating plants alive and on the grid.  Trump made a campaign promise to save coal jobs and received both votes and campaign contributions from those who benefit from coal. If the Energy Department finds a court-proof way to mandate that electric utilities buy over-priced power from these sources, Trump will be violating another campaign promise; he will be rehydrating instead of draining the swamp. Nevertheless, both the self-serving hypocrisy of the opponents of the proposed bailout and the very real issue of energy security (see An Antifragile Energy Supply) deserve attention.

Coal-fired and nuclear power plants have become uneconomical to operate largely because of competition from low-priced natural gas but also because of competition from wind and solar power. The draft Energy Department proposal is opposed by both the oil and gas industry and the renewable power industry.

Amy Farrell, vice president of the American Wind Energy Association , is quoted in the New York Times: "Orderly power plant retirements do not constitute an emergency for our electric grid… There's certainly no credible justification to force American taxpayers to bailout uneconomic power plants."

That statement, with which I agree, is not credible coming from an industry which would not exist in the US were it not for both government subsidies and mandates, like those Vermont has enacted, which force utilities to buy uneconomic wind and solar power and pass the cost on to ratepayers.

The rationale for mandates to support “renewables” is to avert a looming environmental catastrophe, which may occur if we continue to burn fossil fuels that add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.  Coal plants are a significant source of greenhouse gas so it is at least consistent to say their use should NOT be mandated. But nuclear plants don’t produce greenhouse gasses. If the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during the next decade is critical to maintain life as we know it, shouldn’t we want the nukes to keep operating?

This is not an academic question. Germany decided to shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima. Even though Germany has invested heavily in renewable power and has some of the highest electric rates in the developed world, German emission of greenhouse gasses is going up! Coal-fired plants replaced the nukes.

Wind and solar are not sources of baseline power; coal and nuclear are. If coal plants are shutting down, we need the nukes more. Here’s what Climatologist Jim Hansen, one of the scientists most alarmed by climate change, says:

“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability….

“… a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.”

The same logic that says we ought to subsidize and mandate renewables says that we ought to subsidize nuclear power. But somehow that doesn’t seem like a good idea to either Big Wind or Big Oil. All of a sudden they don’t want the government interfering in the marketplace.

Before we leap into one more subsidy, however, what if we try some swamp-draining? Let’s get rid of some subsidies and mandates instead. We can start with corny ethanol, which, by law, must be blended into our gasoline supply because of Iowa’s first-in-the nation presidential primary. Then we can remove the subsidies for wind and solar; surely they’ve been jump-started by now. The tax code is full of “incentives” for oil and gas producers; now that fracking has made US oil and gas production competitive with the sands of Saudi Arabia, we could repeal these subsidies. Todd Snitchler of the American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, calls the draft proposal to mandate coal and nuclear "unprecedented government intervention in the energy markets to support high-cost generation [which] will hurt customers by taking more money out of their pockets rather than letting people keep more of what they earn.” He should agree that other taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize oil and gas production. Any bets?

If we stop subsidizing competitors of nuclear energy and if we finally open Yucca Mountain so nuclear waste can be stored safely and economically, we may be able to have the environmental advantages of nuclear power without yet one more swampy subsidy or mandate.

See also:

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

An Antifragile Energy Supply

May 31, 2018

I Voted for Donald Trump

Didn’t want it to be that way. During the primary season Mary and I and some friends wrote and paid to run full page antiTrump local ads on the day of his campaign stop in Vermont. We criticized his protectionism, misogyny, apparent racism, praise for Putin, and his practice of leaving investors and suppliers clutching the empty cloak of bankruptcy while he slipped profitably off into the night.

We were astonished as it became apparent that he really could and then did win the primary. We were equally surprised at Bernie’s strength in the other primary. Like many members of the establishment, we underestimated and under-respected the rage of people who are suffering from miserable schools, stimulus programs aimed at saving bankers, and – from their point of view – diminishing opportunity.

But he did win his primary and Hillary won hers. Now what to do? At first I thought I’d vote for Hillary; I would’ve voted for her over Obama if I’d voted in a Democratic primary; I’m not constrained by party loyalty. I admire assertive people including women. But Bernie sucked her further and further to the left on one issue after another. She radiated insincerity. The day I decided I couldn’t vote for her was the day a reporter asked if she’d wiped her email server. “You mean with a dishrag?” she smirked. The intentionally ditsy reply was an insult to women. The smirk was more than I could stomach. It seemed to cover everything from Whitewater to the Clinton Foundation to the fortunes Bill Clinton got for speaking in Russia while the sale of American uranium assets to Russia was in the hands of Hillary’s State Department. Throw in Benghazi, too.

I looked at the platform of the Libertarians. Too naively pacificist for a dangerous world.

I thought about not voting for President. Mary convinced me that was a copout, not that my vote in Vermont was going to make a difference. I filed an absentee ballot, hesitated but voted for Trump, and headed to Houston on business. Didn’t think he had a chance. The rest, of course, is history.

Why am I writing this now? Because a very intelligent and principled friend said “no use arguing with Trump voters; they’ll never change their minds about their man.” That made me realize that many intelligent and principled people are making the intellectual and political mistake of assuming that the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump are a mindless monolith. Certainly some supported Trump from the beginning. Some are racists and white supremacists.  Others were Sanders supporters appalled at the treatment their candidate got from the Democratic establishment or just angry at the establishment in general. Most Republicans had originally supported some other candidate in the primaries until Trump wore them all out. I think many people were like me; they chose what they perceived to be the lesser of two evils. Except for Trump, Clinton had the highest negatives of any major party presidential candidate in modern polling history. Trump wouldn’t like this theory, but I’m not sure he could’ve beat anybody (well, almost anybody) else.

That brings us to the next election. Suppose you want Trump outta there. I agree – and I promise you many Trump voters agree – we should do better than a petulant bully with a twitter addiction. But, if you want Trump out, just attacking him won’t do it. Didn’t work for me or others. There needs to be a credible alternative. The ballot is set up to vote FOR somebody. Whom do you think should be the candidate? Whom are you working for? What are you doing to assure that the many legitimate grievances that became Sanders and Trump votes get the attention they deserve? How are you helping the establishment reform and regain the credibility it has squandered?

In today’s New York Times Thomas Friedman sounds a code red urging all and sundry to vote for any Democrat they can find to check Trump in Congress. That may happen; Obama had a disastrous midterm but still go reelected two years later.  Voting by party label is hardly a good idea in any circumstance.

But far down in the article Friedman makes much more sense:

“… Democrats can’t count on winning by just showing up. They still have to connect with some centrist and conservative voters — and that means understanding that some things are true even if Trump believes them: We do have a trade issue with China that needs addressing; we cannot accept every immigrant, because so many people today want to escape the world of disorder into our world of order; people want a president who is going to grow the pie, not just redivide it; political correctness on some college campuses is out of control; people want to be comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country in an age where globalization can wash out those identities.”

I’d add to the list that the Iran agreement was bad for America and that China needed to be threatened with the trade weapon to get it to pressure North Korea.

I’m not sorry The Donald is president instead of Hillary; I would like to see us do better. I’ll change my vote once I have an alternative.

May 25, 2018

An Old Dog, Scratch, and Python

As a programmer I’m a very old dog – been doing it since 1962. Lately I had to learn some new tricks: Scratch for my grandkids and Python to manipulate some astrophysical data with my son. These days communities grow up around computer languages. When you have a question, you Google it and usually find answers and examples galore. Since both Scratch and Python are popular, there is a great deal of help available for both of them and much contributed code to copy and build on.

This is what Scratch looks like:


You drag the little puzzle pieces around to construct a program. It is particularly good for graphic programs: this one controls a robot in a maze. Grandchildren from 7 up were able to use it quickly. Two out of three had already been exposed to Scratch in public schools. Two of these three budding programmers are girls. You can watch the robot here.

And this is some Python:


Looks much more like what I’m used to in a programming language and was much easier for me to learn than Scratch. In other computer languages this process would have had to loop through the values in the arrays radec and c; Python can process a whole array in a single statement. Very cool if you’re a math nerd. This snippet also shows how you build on other people’s code: numpy is an excellent library of math routines and astropy has special capabilities for astrophysics. They were built by volunteers.

As my graddkids and I create capabilities, we will share them as well. That’s part of the learning. Meanwhile feel free to use our code if you need to control a robot or convert radec coordinates of celestial objects to a cartesian grid.

May 17, 2018

The Farm Bill: Where Wealthfare Meets Welfare

The US Farm Bill is bipartisan swamp cultivation at its worst. Democrats and Republicans come together and eagerly and equally trade their “principles” for election support and campaign contributions. Most of the money in the bill is for food stamps (urban votes) but there is plenty of money, mandates, and market restriction to keep agribusiness lobbyists contributing and congresspeople from rural states happy. There is an opportunity in this year’s bill for a bipartisan compromise which makes small steps in reducing corporate wealthfare and reforming welfare.

Perhaps the most egregious example of wealthfare is the complex of import quotas and price supports which keep US domestic sugar prices 84% higher than the world price; big sugar has it sweet. There is even a provision which instructs the Agriculture Department to buy sugar at an inflated price and then sell it to ethanol producers at a LOWER price – talk about pushing all the campaign contributor buttons. Otherwise free-marketeer Marco Rubio from sugar-producing Florida goes through contortions supporting the sugar subsidies similar to those Bernie Sanders used to go through to support gun rights - until he didn’t have to anymore.

Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina has proposed an amendment which prunes the sugar support by undoing the joint subsidy to the sugar and ethanol industries and repealing anticompetitive ”market allotments”.  This will not pass without support from Democrats; too many Republicans (as well as Democrats) are in sugar’s pocket.  Read on; there’s a possible deal to be made.

Republicans would like to strengthen the work requirement for food stamps in the Farm Bill. Food stamp usage keeps going up despite a booming economy and low unemployment. Food stamps are part of a complex of welfare programs which make it more profitable for some to stay unemployed rather than take low wage jobs. Voluntary unemployment is bad for individuals and families and bad for an economy lacking even unskilled workers.

It’s only possible to strengthen the work requirement when there actually are jobs available. That time is now and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity. This measure can probably pass the House without support from Democrats but is likely to be blocked in the Senate where a supermajority of 60 votes is needed.

So here’s the deal: Republicans give up some of the wealthfare benefits for their sugar daddies; Democrats agree to a sensible strengthening of the existing work requirement. Republicans can point to welfare reform; Dems can boast about cutting corporate wealthfare. The Wall Street Journal puts it well: “Republicans would have more credibility on reforming welfare for people if they did the same for politically powerful agribusiness.”

May 14, 2018

Let the Market for Domestic Workers Raise the Minimum Wage in the USA

Ever since at least the time of Queen Elisabeth the First, workers have objected to open immigration on the rational economic grounds that “foreign” workers drive down wages. Employers, on the other hand, have always been for open immigration for exactly the same reason. Employees want the protection of a high minimum wage; employers object that, if wages are set by government rather than the marketplace, some of them will find themselves with costs which put them out of business and that a government-set high minimum wage will reduce employment.

We can solve part of both problems at once and call the bluff of both worker groups and employers. All we need is a tweak to the rules for H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (other temporary seasonal) workers. Currently an employer must demonstrate that it can’t hire American workers, usually by running an ad and not getting responses and prove that “Employing a worker on an H-2B (or H-2A) visa will not negatively affect the pay or conditions of US workers”. The second condition is usually met by saying that no Americans take these jobs so their wages can’t be harmed.

The Trump Administration has been reducing the number of such visas available. There are more applications than visas so would-be employers must enter a lottery. Famers say crops will rot in the fields; crab canners say they can’t can crab; resorts say they will be short-handed this summer.

  1. Let’s take the limits off the number of temporary visas PROVIDED THAT such jobs must pay at least 150% of minimum wage and must be advertised to Americans at that rate. If there are still no American applicants, bring in foreigners who are willing to work and pay them at least 150% of minimum wage. This assures that the “need” for visas is not created by offering the job at below-market rates. This forces these jobs, many of which are very hard work, to compete with fast food jobs. May lead to higher wages in many fields but that wage won’t be legislated – it’ll be market driven. We may have to pay more for crab and fresh vegetables; tough, that’s what it costs to get workers to can the crab and pick the veggies.

BTW, increasing the supply of jobs available at more than minimum wage helps make the case for strengthening the requirement that healthy adults must work to receive welfare benefits except in some cases where they are sole caregivers. The fact that it is often unprofitable to swap benefits for a minimum wage job has led to an increase in voluntary unemployment which is unhealthy both for the economy and the non-workers; we can and should increase job availability and decrease benefits for those who choose not to work.

May 08, 2018

Incels: Just Say No

The cult of victimhood has reached its reductio ad absurdum with the grievance of the incels, involuntary celibates in case you’ve missed the news. Last month Alek Minassian drove a rented van onto a sidewalk in Toronto and killed ten people in apparent retribution for women who are too mean to have sex with him. Turns out he’s part of a sex-deprived cult.

The Guardian describes the movement:

“…Basically, incels cannot get laid and they violently loathe anyone who can.

“Some of the fault, in their eyes, is with attractive men [nb. “Chads” in their vernacular] who have sex with too many women – “We need to do something about the polygamy problem,” said the Incelcast, an astonishing three-hour podcast about the Toronto attack – but, of course, the main problem is women themselves, who become foes as people, but also as a political entity. There is a lot of discussion about how best to punish them, with mass rape fantasies and threads on how to follow women without getting arrested, just for the thrill of having them notice you. Feminism is held responsible for a dude who can’t get laid, and birth control is said to have caused “women to date only Chads. It causes all sorts of negative social ramifications”.

Incredibly there’s been serious discussion about whether sex is a “human right” which society must provide for. So far I haven’t seen a recommendation except from incels that women have an obligation to help these guys. But Ross Douthot, writing in The New York Times, starts his article: “One lesson to be drawn from recent Western history might be this: Sometimes the extremists and radicals and weirdos see the world more clearly than the respectable and moderate and sane.” Really? The incels see the world clearly? Ross blames the Hugh Hefnerization of our culture for putting the incels in such a pickle.

Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, writes:

“One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met. As with income inequality, most folks concerned about sex inequality might explicitly reject violence as a method, at least for now, and yet still be encouraged privately when the possibility of violence helps move others to support their policies. (Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation.)”

The trouble is that one might “plausibly” make this argument if one accepts the premise that everyone is entitled to an equal share of everything. The cult of victimhood, which attributes every unequal outcome to some sort of discrimination and oppression, is based on this premise. By this logic, since I’m Jewish and not an NBA star and since there are very few (if any) Jewish pro basketball players, my lack of an NBA career must be due to some sort of pattern of discrimination and I’m entitled to compensation if not a starting position on the Cavs.  Otherwise I might have to get violent.

We are differently abled by both genes and environment. We have different wishes, different desires, and different vices and weaknesses. Some are lucky and some are not. Outcomes will differ when we want them to and when we don’t want them to. We are entitled to equality before the law (there’s work to be done there); we have “unalienable” rights to life, liberty and the pursuit (emphasis mine) of happiness. A humane society works to provide opportunity for what we used to call betterment and cares for the helpless.

But we don’t have a right to demand that anyone like us or do us any favors, sexual or otherwise. We have a right to whine about our fate, as unattractive as that whining is. We have no right to violence because we think we’re unfairly ignored.

May 03, 2018

A Good Use of One-Time Funds

Vermont Governor Phil Scott has proposed using one-time funds from various sources to fill a $58 million gap in the state education budget. Normally using one-time funds to paper over a problem in a spending program which has grown beyond affordability is a bad idea. However, Scott’s proposal is to trade the one-time money infusion for changes which will not only make such bailouts unnecessary in the future but will also both improve the quality of education and reduce its cost. Sound too good to be true? The devil’s in the details and the details depend on the legislature as well as the governor. This effort could easily fail but that’s no reason not to try.

The elephant on the school bus is too many schools for too few students. There has been a severe decline in the number of school age children in the state; but the number of schools, especially elementary schools, has stayed the same. Because education has gotten more complex and because schools are required to deal with more and more social issues, the minimum staff required in even the smallest school has gone up. Put these two trends together and it is no surprise that Vermont has the highest staff to student ratio in the country (4.25 to 1) and the third highest spending per pupil.

If we had the best schools in the country, that might be an acceptable cost. But we don’t. It is impossible for very small schools to provide the type of education which is needed today. A small school can’t have enough teachers to provide excellent education in the basics which all children need let alone a broad curriculum beyond the basics. A small school can’t have different tracks in different disciplines so that students can progress as fast as they’re capable of progressing while getting the help they need in subjects which are tough for them. A small school can’t have diversity.

So why do we keep all our small schools? Partly because the VEA (teachers’ union) doesn’t want to lose the jobs that would go away with school consolidation; partly because a local school is more convenient for children and parents than one further away; and partly because of the Vermont tradition of “local control”, which is now a myth as far as education is concerned. Local control is only meaningful when people are voting on whether to spend their own money. Put another way, if you are a property taxpayer in a “rich” town and have a high enough income to be required to pay educational taxes, is it local control when people in another town vote to spend your tax dollars to keep their tiny school open?

What we don’t have is parental control (except in those towns which support school choice through tuitioning). There is no escape from a local public school which is too small to do a good job except moving or private school. What we don’t have is a high-quality education for all Vermonters despite all the money we’re spending.

Even though the cost of education goes up each year while the number of students declines, the needed school consolidation can never happen fast enough to solve the current year’s budget problem. Therefor the hard choices which school consolidation requires get put off each year.

Governor Scott’s proposed uses of one-time funds coupled with a multi-year mandatory increase in the staff to student ratio is a way to use this year’s budget to start a process which can assure both lower cost and better schools. This approach will only work if there are real teeth in the legislation which “solves” this year’s problem with short term funding and solves the problem for future years with rapid school consolidation. Getting such legislation may be impossible but is a worthy – a necessary – goal.  

April 30, 2018

Trump is a Symptom; The “Resistance” Should Act on Causes

David Brooks wrote in The New York Times:

“Over the past year, those of us in the anti-Trump camp have churned out billions of words critiquing the president. The point of this work is to expose the harm President Trump is doing, weaken his support and prevent him from doing worse. And by that standard, the anti-Trump movement is a failure…”

The “resistance” is ignoring the problems in our country, which led so many of us to vote for obnoxious Trump. Many of these are the same problems which led Democrats to vote for socialist Bernie Sanders in the primaries. Eight years earlier many of the same people who voted for Sanders and Trump gave the Democratic nomination and the presidency to the extremely inexperienced Barack Obama because he represented “change”. Twice the country rejected Hillary Clinton (and John McCain and Mitch Romney) because they are all part of the establishment which is the cause of many of our problems.

Personally, I have little to complain about; America has been good to me and good for me. But I’ve come to realize that “the system” is corrupt in a very bipartisan way. The deck is stacked for certain people, so success for others is harder and harder to come by. No wonder people are angry and afraid.


Exhibit Number One: The outrageous bank bailout (TARP) at the end of the Bush administration and the beginning of Obama’s. It was Congress’ last major bipartisan act. In normal times the rich get richer; in recessions and depressions the rich get poorer faster, perhaps because they have more to lose. The economic cycle does a much better job of wealth redistribution than politicians. But not last time: the bankers’ gains, ill-gotten or not, were protected; workers lost. Certain unions like the United Auto Workers  (as much a part of the establishment as CitiBank) got bailed out by the “Stimulus Package”. The rest of the country hasn’t really recovered until now.

Exhibit Number Two: The political clout of the National Education Association (teacher’s union) has enabled it to prioritize job salvation for its members over an effective education system. It’s not wrong for a union to try to protect its members; it’s wrong for politicians to conspire with the union to the massive detriment of education for Americans.

Exhibit Number Three: Pensions. In both the public and private sector, employer executives and union executives have conspired to promise workers retirement benefits which will be impossible to deliver but for which the bill won’t come due until the co-conspirators have gone on to their own golf courses. We will bail out some of the private sector workers; there simply isn’t and won’t be enough money to keep the promises made to public sector workers.

Some smaller examples: The perpetual mandates and subsidies for corny ethanol for the good scientific reason that Iowa has the first primary in the nation. The tax loophole for hedge fund managers that neither Republican nor Democratic administrations can ever get around to closing. Government-by-grant: I get you a grant through legislation or influence and you give me a campaign contribution, often in the opposite order. The Export-Import bank whose purpose is to subsidize a few large corporations like GE and Boeing.

Although neither Trump nor Sanders agree that these are all problems, each of them has targeted more of this list than Hillary Clinton did or does. As long as outrages like these continue and as long as Americans are denied the opportunity for an excellent education, a fair shake at upwards mobility, and protection from corporate and union monopolies, people will be – and should be – angry.

As long as Americans are angry and feeling helpless, they will vote for those who seem to feel their pain and share their disdain for the establishment. Fear is a perfect opening for demagogues of both the left and the right. Choices made by fearful people will lead to an erosion of civil liberties. Neither Trump nor Sanders caused the problems which scare people; both know how to harness resentment; neither hesitates to fan the flames of division in their own interest. But they do hear what their supporters are saying.

Those who focus on blind resistance are missing the point that Trump is a symptom, not a cause. If we want to be effective in preventing the rise of demagogues, we must address the problems which give rise to them.

Brooks concludes:

“The main reason Trump won the presidency is that tens of millions of Americans rightly feel that their local economies are under attack, their communities are dissolving and their religious liberties are under threat. Trump understood the problems of large parts of America better than anyone else. He has been able to strengthen his grip on power over the past year because he has governed as he campaigned.

“Until somebody comes up with a better defense strategy, Trump and Trumpism will dominate. Voters are willing to put up with a lot of nonsense for a president they think is basically on their side.

“Just after the election, Luigi Zingales wrote a Times op-ed on how not to fight Trump, based on the Italian experience fighting Silvio Berlusconi. Don’t focus on personality or the man, Zingales advised. That will just make Trump the people’s hero against the Washington caste. Focus instead on the social problems that gave rise to Trumpism.

“That is the advice we anti-Trumpers still need to learn.”

Anti-Sanders people need to learn the same lesson. Think a socialist president is unthinkable? That’s what we thought about Trump when he announced his candidacy.

See also:

Election Analysis: It Was TARP that Boiled the Tea

Confessions of a Stimulator

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